ANNA BELFRAGE

Step inside and steal some moments in another place, another time

From French monk to Supreme Commander – a rather unusual career

There must be something about the Swedish air that attracts ambitious Frenchmen to our shores. Or maybe it’s the beautiful Swedish women. Or the fact that there’s so much space up here. After all, there must be a reason why Jean Baptiste Bernadotte, French marshal in Napoleon’s army, left the cultured life of Paris to become king of Sweden. Not that I intend to tell you more about this upstart from Pau who was “adopted” by Charles XIII of Sweden when, in fact, there was a perfectly good little heir named Prince Gustav who should have inherited the throne.  No, today I’m going to tell you about another Frenchman, a certain Ponce d’Escouperie. Never heard of him? Well, neither have most Swedes. They might, however, have heard of him under the name of Pontus de la Gardie. Chances are they haven’t…

8184_1318551636_4Anyway, today’s protagonist saw the light of the day back in 1520. In La Belle France, more precisely in Chaunes, Languedoc. At the time, no one had any reason to believe little Ponce was destined for anything but a relatively ordinary life. His father was a well-to-do merchant named Jacques Scorperier. In the little town of Chaunes Jacques owned two houses, a mill, a vineyard, an olive orchard and a couple of meadows and fields. Plus he had a manor called La Gardie in the neighbouring county. All in all, Jacques was comfortably off, and further to this he’d been blessed with three sons, one of whom was our Ponce.

Ponce was not the eldest. Instead, brother Etienne stood to inherit what Jacques owned. As with so many younger sons, Ponce was therefore destined for the church. Did he want to become a monk? We don’t know. Judging from his future career, I’d say he never had the temperament to really be happy as a religious man. Ponce was a man of action, not of contemplation.

Anyway: Jacques was rich enough to afford to educate his youngest son, so Ponce was sent to the university of Bologna to study. Some years later, he was accepted as a monk at a French monastery. It didn’t take long for our young man to regret his choice of career. Rather radically, he left the calm and orderly life in the monastery and became a soldier instead. I wonder what Jacques would have thought of that, but Ponce was likely more interested in how to get ahead in the world than in pleasing cher Papa.

 

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A young Charles V

The 16th century was (unsurprisingly) full of conflict. Spain under Charles V (or I, depending if you’re counting in Spain or in the Hapsburg domains) was flexing its muscles and rapidly growing into a superpower. France was none too happy with this development, which resulted in a series of wars between France, Spain and Austria. Plus the Reformation caused new conflicts, this time between Catholics and Protestants. Ergo, an eager young mercenary had no problems finding employment.

 

Ponce took to fighting as a fish to the water. He rose steadily through the ranks, serving Henri II of France. In 1559, he was sent over by Henri to Scotland, there to offer his services to Marie de Guise, Mary Queen of Scots’ somewhat beleaguered (and very French & Catholic) regent and mother. By then, the Protestant movement headed by men like John Knox was racing like wildfire across the Lowlands and in 1560 Scotland officially became a Protestant country. Not exactly good news for our Catholic mercenary leader.

For some reason, Ponce took his men and went to Denmark instead of returning to France. As always in this neck of the world, the Danes and the Swedes were at loggerheads in the so-called Nordic Seven Years’ War. Perfect for an innovative and experienced mercenary captain. Fredrik II of Denmark agreed and welcomed Ponce with open arms. Fortunately for Sweden, they won this particular war. Bad news for Ponce, who was leading the defence of Varberg’s Castle. While impressive, the castle wall stood no chance against the insistent cannon fire from the Swedish artillery, and in August of 1565, Ponce saw no option but to capitulate.

 

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Ponce in armour

Mercenaries are rarely popular. Men who fight for money rather than loyalty have always been viewed with a certain level of distrust. Besides, a captured mercenary rarely had a weeping family willing to pauper themselves to pay his ransom. The options for a captured mercenary were therefore limited: change your allegiance or lose your head. Ponce preferred to keep his head attached to his neck, which is how he ended up serving the Swedish king, Erik XIV instead.

 

Not everyone was delighted at the presence of this battle-hardened man among the king’s closest advisors, but Erik took a liking to Ponce. Unwise—but then Erik had moments when he was not all there. You see, Erik had two younger half-brothers and these two dukes were of the opinion that they would be far better kings than big brother. To some extent I agree with them: Erik’s bouts of mental instability came with dire consequences, like when he participated in the murder of the Sture family.

Anyway: Ponce and the eldest of Erik’s brothers, Johan, hit it off. Big time. Soon enough, Ponce had shrugged off any debt of gratitude he owed Erik and was happily aiding and abetting Johan as he planned his palace coup. In Johan’s defence, he probably felt he had no choice: there was little love lost between him and big brother Erik, especially after Johan had married Katarina Jagellonica, daughter of the Polish king, in direct contradiction of Erik’s wishes. So Johan had spent the better part of four years behind lock and key and once he was released, he was determined to ensure that never happened to him again.

 

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Johan III

By late 1568, Johan and baby brother Karl (with Ponce’s help) had turned the tables on Erik. The crowned and anointed king was locked up—in far less comfort than Johan’s imprisonment—and some months later Johan had himself proclaimed king by the assembled Riksdag (Swedish for parliament) which also deposed Erik. Well, I guess they began by deposing Erik and then handed over the crown to Johan.

 

Johan was grateful for Ponce’s help. So grateful, in fact, that the mercenary not only received lands and manors but was also given a title. The youngest son of  French merchant was now a member of the Swedish nobility, taking the surname de La Gardie  in honour of the manor his father had once owned. Not that all that many Frenchmen would have been impressed: Sweden was (correctly) considered a backwater. But Ponce—now renamed Pontus as this is much easier for a Swede to pronounce—was a happy man. He was also a very trusted man, representing Sweden on a number of missions to Spain, France, the Holy Roman Empire and so on. As Johan III was married to a Catholic princess, he wanted to mend the fences with the Catholic church, and who better to do that than a born and bred Catholic like Pontus? After all, the man had once been a monk. Very briefly, but still…

 

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Sofia Johansdotter

Johan had to tread carefully round the issue of religion. Most Swedes had embraced their new Lutheran faith with fervour and were wary of Johan’s relaxed approach to evil papists—and highly suspicious of their Polish born queen. Pontus proved he was not only good at war, but also at diplomacy plus he was wise enough to rarely flout his faith while in Sweden. A good man, King Johan III thought, so good the old warhorse deserved a bride. By now, Pontus was approaching sixty. Still hale and vigorous, but definitely old. Much, much older than Johan’s illegitimate daughter Sofia, who was in her early twenties. I wonder what she thought when her father decided she was to marry Pontus. I guess no one really asked her opinion…

 

In 1580, Pontus and Sofia were wed according to Catholic rites in the huge abbey church of Vadstena. Johan threw the happy couple a huge wedding and the church was filled to the brim, people standing in every available space, crammed together on the floor or on the wooden galleries above. In the midst of the ceremony, one of the galleries collapsed, injuring several of the guests and killing one of them.
“Aha!” said the righteous Swedes, “God punishes the papists.”
”See?” said the Catholics, “That’s how God treats evil heretics.”

Whatever the case, the accident dampened the joyous mood at the wedding, but the newlyweds still managed to party before retiring to consummate their marriage. Less than a year later, their first child, a daughter, was born. By then, Pontus and Sofia were living in Reval, Pontus having been promoted to Supreme Commander and entrusted with the task of defending Sweden’s Baltic and Finnish holdings. This he did with his usual panache, and also found the time to visit his wife often enough to keep her more or less constantly pregnant between their marriage and her death, three years later, in childbirth.

 

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Arent’s engraving

How Pontus reacted to losing his wife, I don’t know. He was suddenly left a widower with three small children but seems to have sorted out the babysitting issues with ease, which was why he could leave his little daughter and his two very young sons in 1585 to negotiate with the Russians. Unfortunately, on the way back his boat capsized. Pontus de La Gardie died of drowning and was buried in Tallinn’s Cathedral, side by side with his young wife. So distraught was Johan III by this, that he commissioned a beautiful tomb chest from the (then) famous Dutch sculptor Arent Passar.

 

As to the three little orphans, they were neither destitute nor totally alone. The two sons would grow up to become well-respected members of the Swedish nobility, and many, many years later, Pontus’ grandson Magnus Gabriel de la Gardie would also marry royalty and become the richest and most ostentatious man in Sweden. And probably the best educated and most well-travelled. Plus Magnus Gabriel had a sweet-tooth so large he installed an entire room in one of his castles to hold all the various sweets he (and his equally sugar-addicted wife) regularly consumed. I’m not sure our battle-hardened Ponce would have approved, but my personal opinion is that there can be little wrong with a man whose eyes light up at the thought of candy. Well, except for his teeth. Especially back then…

John of Gaunt’s Castilian matter

JohnofgauntSometimes I find myself considering the impact of John of Gaunt on medieval Europe—as one does, right? I’m going to come clean right at the start and say I rather admire this gent, whom I perceive as educated, intelligent, brave, loyal and very ambitious. Extremely ambitious, even. But not so ambitious as to want to replace his young nephew, Richard II on the throne of England (although I suspect he must have toyed with the idea, at least occasionally). No, John set his sight on another throne—that of Castile.

Obviously, John had no personal claim on the Castilian throne. But his second wife, Constanza, most definitely did. Constanza was the daughter of Pedro I of Castile, the not-so-nice man who locked up his French wife, murdered various relatives and who in1369 ended up murdered himself by his half-brother Enrique Trastámara, bastard son to Pedro´s father, Alfonso XI.

Enrique claimed the Castilian throne by conquest, and for some years Constanza, at the time of her father’s death all of fifteen, was kept under lock and key. But in 1371 Enrique felt safe enough on his throne to let her go—as long as she left Castile. Besides, from Enrique’s perspective Constanza was no major threat—she was as much as a bastard as he was. Erm…There was a difference: Pedro had formally legitimised his children by Maria de Padilla his long-term mistress. Alfonso XI had never legitimised Enrique and his siblings. After all, why should he? Alfonso already had a legitimate heir in Pedro.

Anyway: At the time, John of Gaunt had just lost his first wife. The English had actively supported Pedro in the civil war that had devastated Castile—the Black Prince himself had led the combined Anglo-Castilian troops to victory at Nájera—and it was as clear as the day was bright to the English that Enrique was a usurper. The rightful heir to Pedro’s throne was Constanza, his eldest surviving daughter. Which was why John of Gaunt was all for marrying the Castilian infanta, with Edward III’s blessing.

John and Constanza were wed in 1371. In 1372, Edward III proclaimed them to be the rightful King and Queen of Castile. Obviously, Enrique was none too thrilled. His kingdom was anything but pacified, supporters of Pedro’s daughter crawling out of the woodwork at regular intervals. John, however, was delighted with his new title. As to his new wife, one gets the feeling there was not much more than cordial affection between John and Constanza, but John did his duty in bed and in 1373 Constanza was delivered of a little girl, Catalina (or Catherine).

A year later a little son was born, but he died while still a baby. There would be no more children. John’s carnal desires leaned towards Katherine Swynford rather than his Castilian wife. With Constanza, he shared ambition rather than passion, as determined as his wife to somehow reclaim her rightful throne.

At the time, England was in the midst of the Hundred Years’ War against France. The French had supported Enrique of Trastámara which per definition meant the English supported whoever was against Enrique. By 1379 Enrique was dead and the throne passed to his son, Juan I. This did not please either John or Constanza.

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John and Joao planning their attack on Juan

When Juan tried to claim the Portuguese throne through the rights of his wife, he alienated this neighbouring realm and its new king, Joao I. Our Portuguese monarch was well aware of Castile’s superior strength which was why in 1386 Portugal entered into an alliance with England, further reinforced by the marriage of John of Gaunt’s eldest daughter, Philippa, to Joao. (As an aside: John, Joao and Juan – same name, different languages…) The plan was for Portugal and England to join forces and oust Juan and in 1386 John, Constanza and Catalina therefore travelled to La Coruña in Galicia, from there to triumphantly ride south and crush Juan with the help of Joao.

Things didn’t quite work out like that. Juan was not about to give up without a fight, and it soon became apparent that the sides were well-matched, i.e. this could become a very long war. So when Juan proposed a peaceful solution, all the involved parties were inclined to listen.

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Juan I

Juan suggested that John of Gaunt and his wife renounce their claims to the Castilian throne. In return, Juan would agree to a marriage between Catalina and his own son and offer financial compensation to Constanza. Such a marriage came with many benefits, principally that of joining the legitimate descendants of Alfonso XI with the illegitimate branch. Plus, from John’s perspective, it meant his grandson would one day be a ruling king.

Said and done: in 1388, Catalina wed Prince Enrique, a sickly child six years her junior known to history as Enrique el Doliente, or Enrique the Sufferer, this due to his frailty. John of Gaunt and his wife sailed off back home, and Catalina was left behind to adequately prepare for her future role as queen of Castile.

In the event, she didn’t get that much time to prepare as her father-in-law died in 1390. An eleven-year-old boy was now king of Castile, and his seventeen-year-old wife was of little support, seeing as Catalina had not been educated to become a ruler—she’d been raised to become a good consort and had apparently not inherited any of her parents’ ambitious genes. Catalina was uninterested in power and wanted only to be a good wife.

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Enrique

Despite his physical frailty, Enrique was made of quite some stern stuff. In 1393 he assumed personal control of his reign, and then he spent the following years fortifying his hold on Castile. He reformed the administration, reduced the influence of the nobility, supported the expansion of Castile overseas by funding the conquest of the Canary Islands and built a strong naval presence—strong enough to defeat the English. He also embarked on a campaign to conquer the kingdom of Granada, the last remaining Moorish kingdom, and in general seems to have been a very competent king.

Where Enrique dedicated himself to policy, Catalina was of a pious nature, expending her time and efforts on founding religious houses. Catalina accompanied her hubby as much as she could, but it took some time before Catalina gave birth to their first child, maybe because of Enrique’s health. However, by 1406 there were three children—two daughters and a baby prince. Unfortunately, in 1406 Enrique died on Christmas Day. Castile had a new king, the one-year-old Juan II.

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Catalina

Enrique had named Catalina and his brother, Fernando, as co-regents. Catalina was obliged to step out of her comfort zone and assume a more active role to protect her son’s interests. Problem was, she and her brother-in-law rarely saw eye-to-eye on things which was why they eventually agreed to split Castile into two regions, one governed by her, the other by him. It was Fernando who wielded most of the power but it was also Fernando who ensured Catalina was allowed to keep her little son with her rather than turn him over to the men Enrique had appointed as his guardians. Still, their relationship was fraught and I suspect Catalina felt quite some relief when Fernando was elected king of Aragon, thereby diverting his attention from the governance of Castile.

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Catalina as depicted by a contemporary artist

There is a surviving description of Catalina, in which she is said to be tall and fat, of an extremely fair complexion and with a tendency to blush. She was blonde, walked like a man rather than like a lady, and she’d inherited the strong features of her Plantagenet forebears. She was also more prone to negotiations than to warfare, and when her brother-in-law died in 1416, Catalina made it her mission in life to shore up the boundaries of her son’s kingdom by various treaties.

Due to her family ties with England she encouraged trade between the countries, which benefited both nations. She also advocated new legislation that forced the Mudéjares (Muslims living Castile) and Jews to wear some sort of emblem and obliged them to stay in their home towns, forbidden to travel or to work with good Christians. This was not well-received everywhere, and some Castilian cities just refused to implement these laws. Still, the writing was on the wall, and some generations further down the line Catalina’s granddaughter, Queen Isabel, would throw all non-Christians out of Castile. After all, Isabel and her hubby were not for nothing nick-named their Most Catholic Majesties…

All of Catalina’s three children married first cousins, children of their uncle Fernando. This would over time become something of a tradition within the Trastámara family, with Queen Isabel marrying her first cousin Fernando II of Aragón. An unfortunate tradition that was embraced by the Hapsburgs as well and which would, in the fullness of time, result in a degenerated royal gene pool.

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Catalina’s tomb. (Photo by borjaanimal, Creative Commons)

In 1418, Catalina died and was buried in Toledo, close to her husband. Her young son, Juan II, was thirteen at the time. One year later, he began his personal rule.

In 1501, Catalina’s great-granddaughter would return to the land of her great-great-grandfather as the bride of the Tudor prince, Arthur. Ironically, this prince was also descended from John of Gaunt via the legitimised bastards he sired with Katherine Swynford. In fact, John of Gaunt’s blood was all over the place: In the Yorkist kings, in the Lancastrian kings and even in the Tudor kings. In retrospect one could therefore say John of Gaunt was more than successful in his dynastic ambitions. Somehow, I suspect he wouldn’t have been entirely thrilled by the intervening years of civil war and bloodshed. Just as he’d have been horrified at the thought of his own son dethroning an anointed king and murdering him…

The spurned princess

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A medieval betrothal

In 1311, a very young Castilian princess was betrothed to Jaime, heir to the Aragonese throne. Jaime did not want a wife. His father, however, was adamant. Aragon would benefit from a Castilian marriage. I guess Jaime would have sneered at that, reminding his father of his Castilian bride, little Isabel, whom he returned to sender, very much untouched after four years of marriage.
“Bygones,” Jaime senior likely replied. (And yes, Jaime is a much recurring name among the Aragonese. This Jaime Sr was Jaime II.) “Besides, this time we really need an alliance with Castile. The Moors are regrouping and if we don’t unite we’re…” At which point Jaime Sr theatrically drew his index finger over his throat.

The princess in question was called Leonor. She was the niece of the Isabel so humiliated by Jaime Sr, and one could have thought Maria de Molina would have been a bit hesitant to yet again enter into an alliance with Aragon. (María was Leonor´s paternal grandmother, and while her son, Fernando IV, was the king, this wise lady did a lot of the work behind the scenes)

Leonor was four when she was betrothed to the fifteen-year-old Jaime. The intended groom was a confused soul, a devout young man who by various historians (and some contemporaries) has been labelled as either depraved, homosexual or mentally unstable. Or maybe all three. In brief, Jaime was a complicated young man, and I suspect his father was less than pleased that his heir should be such a difficult person.

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Jaime II, Leonor’s father-in-law

Due to Leonor’s age, the actual wedding was postponed for several years. In the meantime, Jaime was constantly afflicted by doubts—and a desire to take holy orders.
“What?” Jaime Sr exclaimed, holding up the monk’s habit he’d found hidden in his son’s room. “You can’t do that! You’re my heir—and contracted to marry a Castilian princess.”
Jaime Jr refused to back down, so his father roped in the pope who told the young man to forget about being a monk—he had obligations to fulfil, principally those of honouring the betrothal with Leonor.

More arguments followed. Jaime was convinced to go through with the wedding but refused to consummate the marriage—the act was repugnant to him. Jaime Sr scratched his head and groaned, but the wording of the contract did not specifically call for consummation, so maybe the Aragon-Castile relationship would not be too damaged by Jaime Jr remaining chaste.

In the event, things did not go quite as planned. As the wedding day approached, Jaime got more and more upset, increasingly uncomfortable with entering the married state. This was not what he wanted – he wanted to live a religious life. Jaime Sr turned a deaf ear to all this nonsense. The wedding went ahead in October of 1319. At the time, Leonor was twelve, her groom twenty-three. There was no exchange of kisses, no holding hands at the high table, because after a heated discussion with his father, Jaime abandoned his bride during the wedding festivities and rode off into the night, declaring he would happily renounce his rights to both throne and wife so as to be able to pursue his religious vocation.

Very embarrassing all this, both for the little bride and her father-in-law.  Some months later, Jaime formally renounced his rights to the throne and joined a convent. This left Leonor in something of a limbo. Was she married or wasn’t she? Contractually she was, but a marriage without consummation was usually not considered valid. After a bit of back and forth, during which Jaime II apologised profusely for his son’s behaviour, Leonor was returned to Castile—unmarried—where she took up residence in the Abbey of Santa María la Real de las Huelgas. In the abbey she was surrounded by the tombs of her ancestors, but while Leonor chose to retire from the world, she never took the veil. I guess she just needed some peace and quiet to get over the humiliating experience…

In 1325, Leonor was jolted out of her comfortable existence in the convent when Edward II of England sent envoys to Castile, hoping to contract his young son (the future Edward III) to Leonor. For a while there, hopes of an English marriage buzzed about, but by 1326 those plans fell through as Prince Edward was betrothed to Philippa of Hainault instead (this at the behest of his mother and contrary to his father’s wishes)

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Alfonso IV

In late 1327 Jaime II of Aragon died and the throne passed to Alfonso IV, our Jaime’s younger brother. (Some years previously, our Jaime had second thoughts about renouncing his throne and all that, but by now his father and his brother had had enough of him so they nipped that particular plan in the bud) In difference to his big brother, Alfonso had married several years earlier and had a full nursery when he became king, despite being only twenty-eight. Unfortunately, he was also a widower, his wife having died shortly before Jaime II. Clearly, Alfonso was in need of a new wife to help him raise his children. Being of a pragmatic disposition—and also rather eager to keep Castile happy—Alfonso therefore suggested he marry Leonor, thereby making her his queen.

Leonor d765a016d04c7fe1ea3e5deccde3aaa2So in February of 1329, Leonor yet again travelled to Aragon as a bride-to-be. This time, the groom was anything but reluctant and little Fernando saw the light of the day in December of 1329. One would have thought Leonor would have cradled her newborn son and exclaimed “my cup runneth over” while gazing lovingly at her husband. Not so much. Instead, Leonor held her baby boy and resented the fact that her hubby had older sons. Where Alfonso’s eldest, Pedro, was destined to inherit the Aragonese crown, Leonor’s little son was entirely at the mercy of his father’s generosity. Leonor made it her mission in life to ensure her children (she would give Alfonso one more son) were adequately set up. She was ruthless and manipulative in her efforts and her eldest stepson was less than thrilled when King Alfonso signed over lands and castles that traditionally belonged to the Aragonese crown to Leonor’s sons. Soon enough, the nobles of Aragon were taking sides: those that held to their king and those who supported Pedro when he protested at having his patrimony frittered away.

In 1336 Alfonso IV of Aragon sickened. It soon became apparent that he would not recover, and Leonor decided to prepare the castles she controlled along the Castilian/Aragonese border so as to maintain an open route for her brother to come to her aid against her stepson. She was under no illusions when it came to Pedro’s feelings for her—to a large extent she had herself and her rapaciousness to blame.

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Pedro IV

Pedro might be young (he was still in his teens) but he was no fool, sending his own men racing towards the castles in question to take control of them. Pedro won that particular race. So when Alfonso died, Leonor found it wise to flee Aragon. With Leonor went not only her boys but also as much gold and silver she could lay hands on, which didn’t exactly endear her to Pedro. He retaliated by seizing land settled on Leonor and his half-brothers by his father. For a couple of years, things were a bit tense but in the long run Pedro had no choice but to confirm Leonor’s and her sons’ lands –he needed peace with Castile.

Leonor chose to remain in Castile with her sons. I guess she felt safer there. In 1350 her brother, Alfonso XI, died and the crown of Castile passed to his legitimate son, also (just to keep things nice and simple) called Pedro. Things were a bit messy: Pedro had a bevy of illegitimate half-brothers and not everyone in Castile felt Pedro was the best choice as king. Obviously, Pedro disagreed, but he had a tendency to act rashly and when he abandoned his young French wife, Blanche, three days after the wedding to hurry back to his beloved mistress, Maria de Padilla, this did not go down well with his nobles. Even less so when he incarcerated poor Blanche.

Pedro’s mother, María of Portugal was seriously displeased by her son’s treatment of his wife. So was Leonor, and these two formidable ladies took it upon themselves to lure Pedro to visit, after which they tried to browbeat the young and temperamental king into returning to his wife. At the bottom of all this was not only a concern for Blanche, but also for the increasing influence of María’s relatives. The hoity-toity of Castile weren’t about to let the Padilla family hog all the good offices and benefices plus Leonor had her sons to look out for.

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As per some, a pic of Maria, Pedro’s beloved woman

Pedro did not like being admonished. He was also madly in love with María and would rather amputate a leg than let her go. Besides, he had his suspicions regarding his dear Aunt Leonor’s motivations—her two sons could, through her, claim the Castilian throne. And as to all the other nobles who’d joined the chorus requesting Pedro return to his wife, they made Pedro see red. (He was a rather unstable character) In Pedro’s mind, the solution was easy: get rid of those who could potentially harm him and his woman.

Pedro was not without cunning. He bided his time, all the while using the various factions to destabilise each other. Leonor’s son, Juan, was one of the people he used, arranging a grand marriage for his cousin that put him in very close proximity to Tello of Castile, one of Pedro’s hated half-brothers. The idea was for Juan to instigate a revolt and kill Tello, but that didn’t work out too well. Tello escaped, Juan did not, which is why in 1358 Juan was beaten to death in the royal bedroom in Bilbao, his battered body thrown out of the window. (Pedro was a strong—and very tall—man)

By then, Leonor was already locked up as was Juan’s young wife and Juan’s sister-in-law (who was Tello’s wife). In Leonor’s case, Pedro was further provoked by the fact that her eldest son, Fernando, had suddenly changed his allegiances. From having made it his vocation to be a burr up his half-brother’s arse—he led several serious rebellions against Pedro IV of Aragon—Fernando suddenly saw the light and joined forced with his Aragonese half-brother against his cousin Pedro of Castile. Fernando probably did this in reaction to the surprising hike in assassinations, including that of his brother—and because he too disliked the influence of the Padilla family.

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Castle of Castrojeriz – (Wikipedia Creative Commons)

I imagine Leonor was devastated by Juan’s death. And furious. Didn’t help her much. As the months went by, Leonor likely came to understand that she’d never leave the castle of Castrojeriz alive. Her nephew was systematically murdering those he considered potential rivals and in 1359 the bell tolled for Leonor—as it did for her daughter-in-law.

To this day we don’t know where Leonor ended up buried. Some say her mortal remains lie with those of her husband and eldest son in Lérida. Others say she was buried among her ancestors in the convent of Las Huelgas. Others yet point at the grave discovered in 1970 in a church in Castrojeriz, a beautiful grave decorated with a female effigy.  I’m not entirely sure it matters where she lies—not for us, and definitely not for her.

With his mother dead, Fernando decided to go one step further and threw his lot in with Enrique of Trastámara, Pedro’s half-brother. So did many others of the Castilian nobles, and soon enough the kingdom succumbed to civil war, with Pedro being supported by the English while the French and Aragonese supported Enrique. In one of those many skirmishes, Fernando fell into the hands of his half-brother. Turns out Pedro IV of Aragon was not quite as forgiving as he’d made out to be, and soon enough Fernando too was dead. So ended Leonor’s dynastic hopes, both her sons dead before they had sired a male heir.

And as to our two Pedros, well Pedro of Aragon was a successful king who passed on an expanded kingdom to his son, while Pedro of Castile was murdered by his half-brother Enrique who then became king of Castile. Pedro had no sons, but in the fullness of time his granddaughter, Catalina of Lancaster, was to marry Enrique’s grandson. But that, dear peeps, is a story for another day.

The White Queen of France

In medieval times, the Castilian royals had a preference for naming their daughters Urraca or Berenguela, now and then adding a Sancha or a Leonor to the mix. Alfonso VIII was no different, which is why he named his eldest daughter Berenguela and his second Urraca. A third daughter was given the name Blanca after which followed a Mafalda, a Leonor and then a Constanza. Yes, he had a Sancha too, but this little girl died in infancy before Urraca was born.

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Eleanor

All these girls were destined for great things. Not only was their father a forceful and competent king, but their mother was Eleanor of England, daughter to Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, the medieval equivalent of the Kardashians—although in difference to this soap family, Henry II and his queen actually achieved stuff, prior to tearing each other to pieces during years of conflict. Neither here nor there, as this post is not about these two fascinating peeps.

Back to our Castilian princesses: Berenguela, as the eldest daughter, was kept relatively close to home, seeing as her various brothers had a tendency to die young, thereby making Berenguela a potential heiress to the Castilian crown. (In the fullness of time she did inherit it, but that’s another story). The other sisters were to make grand marriages and in spring of 1200 Urraca was informed she was to wed the dauphin of France ASAP.

This Castilian-French marriage was part of the Treaty of Le Goulet, whereby Philippe Augustus of France and John of England made peace with each other, exchanged a lot of air-kisses and promised to be friends forever while crossing their fingers behind their back.  One of the movers and shakers behind this treaty was Eleanor of Aquitaine who was determined to salvage what was left of the Angevin empire for John’s future heirs.

At the time, Eleanor was pushing eighty. Despite her age, she undertook the strenuous journey to Burgos in Castile, there to collect the future French queen. What Urraca may have looked like I don’t know, but based on descriptions of other members of the Castilian royal family I believe she was pleasing to the eye, definitely as pretty as any of her sisters. And yet Eleanor of Aquitaine decided to swap brides. Urraca was left behind and her younger sister, Blanca, rode off in her stead. Why? Because Eleanor believed Blanca’s personality would be a better fit with that of Louis of France. Plus, Blanca in French became the rather pleasing Blanche, while Urraca…No, such an odd name would not work in France.

Did Urraca resent her younger sister? Had she already started dreaming of a rosy future with Prince Louis? No idea. As a consolation prize, Urraca would some years later marry the future Portuguese king, have a number of babies and die young. Okay: not much of a consolation prize…

Blanca—oops, Blanche—was married to Louis in May of 1200. She was twelve, he was thirteen, and as was customary when the bride was so young consummation was postponed for a couple of years. Instead, the young couple lived together, studied together and in general got to know each other.

In 1205, Blanche gave birth to her first child. A little girl who did not live long. Four years later, a son named Philippe was born. He would die aged seven. Twins were born and died in 1213. By now, I imagine Blanche was beginning to feel substantial pressure to produce a healthy spare (little Philippe was still alive). Fortunately, in 1214 baby Louis was born—and he thrived! Phew! Even better, in 1216 Blanche had yet another healthy son, Robert, to be followed by six sons and one daughter. Only five of all these children would survive to adulthood of which four would outlive their mother.

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Blanche

Blanche’s life was not all about having babies. Some of you will know that the treaty between John and Philippe Augustus was broken already back in 1202, and by 1204 John had lost almost all his French lands, retreating to England there to lick his wounds. As most of you also know, John wasn’t exactly the most successful of kings, and come 1214 or so, civil war raged with John determined to hold on to his crown while his disgruntled barons were just as determined to oust him and replace him with Louis of France. Louis had no right to the English crown, but Blanche was descended from Henry II and this was all the excuse the anti-John party needed to proclaim Louis their king.

Initially, Philippe Augustus supported his son’s bid for the English crown. After all, John was an excommunicated king, and any Christian monarch could thereby insist he was just doing his duty by invading John’s realm. However, John was not a fool and when he offered to make England a vassal state to the Pope, his excommunication was no more. In fact, any Christian monarch who now attempted to conquer England would likely end up excommunicated instead.

Philippe Augustus had no desire to end up an enemy of the Church—he’d had his quarrels with this powerful institution over his terrible treatment of his Danish queen Ingeborg. After the French lost at Lincoln in 1217 and had to flee south, Philippe Augustus withdrew his support of his son’s venture. The dauphin and his men were now hounded by the English who, after John’s death, rallied round their boy-king, Henry III. All those power-hungry, disgruntled English barons saw a major opportunity to feather their own nests with a child on the throne, and so any support for Louis melted away as fast as a snowdrift in the Sahara.

Blanche, however, had taken to the idea of being queen of England, and was determined to stand by her husband. When Philippe Augustus refused assistance, she threatened to use her children as hostages to raise the money required to help hubby Louis out. Apparently Philippe Augustus was too fond of his little grandchildren to countenance such a scheme, and with the means he handed over to Blanche, our forceful young lady pulled together an army and vessels to transport them over to England and her waiting main.

The weather conspired against her. Plus, the English now presented a strong united front. Louis was far too experienced a leader of men to not read the writing on the wall, and so he returned home to his wife (and somewhat disgruntled daddy, I imagine)

Blanche Coronation_of_Louis_VIII_and_Blanche_of_Castille_1223In 1223, Philippe Augustus died. Louis became king of France with Blanche as his queen. Some years later, Louis died. It is said Blanche was so devastated she tried to kill herself to follow her beloved husband into the hereafter, but either her suicidal attempt was not in serious or someone managed to stop her. Truth be told, Blanche did not have the luxury to wallow in grief. With a twelve-year-old son to protect against the ambitious French nobles, she was soon fighting tooth and nail to preserve his kingdom. Plus, further to the south the count of Toulouse was still holding his own against the French, proudly refusing to kneel before the Capet king. (As an aside, Blanche’s hubby, Louis, had on purpose stirred the dying embers of the Albigensian crusade into flames again so as to give him an excuse to trounce the southern counts and demand their homage)

Well-educated and as competent and forceful as her grandmother, Blanche wasn’t about to sit around passively and allow her son’s (her) powers to be usurped. Nope. To the surprise of her rebellious nobles, Blanche assembled an army and rode out to fight them. And then she turned her attention south, hammering out a treaty with the cornered Count of Toulouse whereby his only daughter was married to Blanche’s third surviving son. By 1229, she had managed to secure her hold on the entire French kingdom—and hold off dear cousin Henry III who had hoped to capitalise on the fact that a mere woman was ruling France to regain some of the territories lost by King John.

Henry III quickly realised that he’d never gain a foothold in France through use of armed men. Instead, he decided to marry into lands, and in 1226 he negotiated a betrothal with little Yolande of Brittany, at the time seven years old. Well, Blanche was having none of that. She forced Yolande’s father to break off the engagement and instead little Yolande was betrothed to another of Blanche’s sons.

Henry III was not so easily discouraged. Soon enough, he’d found a new potential bride, Joan de Dammartin. With this lady came a lot of strategically important land, and once again Blanche had to step in and forbid the marriage. This did not please the bride’s family—after all, through Blanche’s meddling, little Joan was deprived of a crown. Blanche promised to compensate them and an opportunity to do arose when Blanche’s nephew, Fernando III of Castile, became a widower. Berenguela was anxious to see her son wed ASAP—the Castilian kings were a virile lot and she preferred it if her son did not spill his seed right, left and centre. The two sisters hatched a plan and Joan was dispatched to Castile, married Fernando and went on to have several children, one of whom was destined to become the queen of England.

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Margaret

Meanwhile in France, Louis IX was now old enough to rule on his own and by his side stood his wife, Margaret of Provence. It was Blanche who’d negotiated the marriage—Margaret and her three sisters came with impeccable bloodlines—but she wasn’t exactly fond of her daughter-in-law. In fact, she resented her, and did her best to keep Louis and Margaret apart. Margaret was too popular, too pretty, and where previously troubadours had written songs lauding Blanche’s beauty, now they sang about the fair Margaret.

Fortunately (at least from Blanche’s point of view) her son continued to turn to dear mama for counsel rather than to his wife. In fact, for as long as Blanche lived, she was her son’s go-to person so when he set off on a crusade in 1248 he named Blanche his regent. (He took his wife with him, and Margaret would prove herself to be much more than a pretty face during the years that followed)

Blanche wholly supported her son’s desire to go on a crusade. She was extremely devout and passed this on to her children, saying things like “I love you, my dear son, as much as a mother can love her child; but I would rather see you dead at my feet than that you should ever commit a mortal sin.” To her—and her son—the duty to God came first and involved such things as helping the sick and the weak, doing severe penance for any sins and combating heresy wherever it arose.

Louis’ crusade was a disaster. He ended up a prisoner and it fell to Blanche to somehow collect the means required to buy her son’s freedom. As always, formidable Blanche came through, and soon enough Louis was a free man again. By now, Blanche was some years over sixty and late in 1252 she fell ill. Some days later, she was dead. It is said that when Louis heard the news, he was struck mute for two days.

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St Louis

In the fullness of time, Louis would be canonised (as would his surviving sister) I dare say Blanche would have been thrilled at having birthed two saints. Even more so as big sister Berenguela “only” gave birth to one, namely San Fernando (Yes, the virile king Berenguela was so anxious to see wed again).

In conclusion, I’d say Eleanor of Aquitaine made a wise choice that day in 1200 when she decided to take Blanca, not Urraca, with her to France. Blanca—Blanche—would live up to all her grandmother’s expectations and become not only a fertile queen consort but also a wise and pragmatic ruler, a lady who did not hesitate to use force when so required but who also excelled at playing the political game.

When a Spanish señorita set an English princely heart aflutter

There are many things one can say about Charles, James I’s second son, the rather uninteresting and sickly spare that was destined to live forever in the shadow of his beloved and admired older brother Henry Fredrick.
One could call him lucky, seeing as big brother died in typhoid fever, thereby making Charles the heir.
One could call him unlucky, in that his reign was to end with his own beheading – to a large extent caused by Charles’ obdurate take on the divine right of kings.
One could call him elegant, a good father and a loving husband. Some would say he was priggish and small-minded. Rarely would one call him flamboyant or daring. And yet, there is one incident in Charles’ early life that speaks of a desire for adventure, a streak of recklessness. I am, of course, talking about the infamous Spanish affair.

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Frederick

Long before there was a Spanish affair, there was the Bohemian debacle. In 1613, Charles’ older sister, Elizabeth Stuart, had married Frederick, Count of the Palatinate Rhine – or Elector Palatinate for short. A wedding mainly contracted for political reasons quickly blossomed into a passionate love-affair, and Elizabeth was head-over-heels with her staunch Protestant German prince. Frederick was of impeccable bloodlines, related with more or less every single royal house in Europe, and the young couple seemed destined for a happy, fruitful union, bringing squalling sons into the world at very regular intervals.

So what does this have to do with Spain? Well, at the time, Europe was a patchwork quilt of loyalties, and ever since the Reformation a century or so before, these loyalties had been realigned, redesigned and generally moved around, creating a political instability equivalent to that of a grumbling volcano.

In 1619, the Holy Roman Emperor Matthias II died. A man who tempered his own Catholic beliefs with a sizeable dose of pragmatism, Matthias had promoted a tolerant approach to the Protestants living within his empire. His successor and cousin, Ferdinand II, was much more hard-core and had every intention of eradicating Protestant influence in his empire. Out with those dastardly heretics ASAP, ensuring the Holy Roman Empire lived up to its name and reputation as the staunchest of staunch Catholic strongholds. Obviously, this did not go down well with his Protestant subjects. It definitely raised the hackles of the Bohemian nobles – not only were many of them Protestants, but Ferdinand II was a great believer in absolute monarchy, thereby over-riding the hereditary rights of the Bohemian nobles to have a substantial say in their government.

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Elizabeth, queen of Bohemia

Being creative, the Bohemian nobles decided to fall back on their right to choose their own monarch (a right that had not been much exercised over the last few centuries seeing as the Holy Roman Emperors tended to dislike such open displays of rebelliousness) and invited Frederick to take the crown. Frederick was hesitant. His wife wasn’t. Elizabeth wanted a crown, and besides, this was an opportunity for her beloved Freddy to show his prowess and defend his co-religionists. After some hemming and hawing, Frederick accepted the crown and was formally installed as King of Bohemia in November of 1619.

Ferdinand II was not about to tolerate such disobedience from his Bohemian subjects. Who did they think they were, hey? So in November of 1620, the Holy Roman Emperor’s forces (including a large number of Spanish soldiers) trounced those of Frederick at the Battle of White Mountain. The first pitched battle of the Thirty Years’ War had thereby been fought, and Ferdinand and his armies would go on to aggravate most of Protestant Europe for (taa-daa) thirty more years, give or take. For Frederick and Elizabeth, the effects were far more immediate: after one year, they’d been ousted from their thrones and forced into exile.

This is where Spain comes into play. Ferdinand II was a Hapsburg. The Spanish royals were also Hapsburgs. The two branches of the Hapsburg family were very close, as testified by their preference for marrying each other. They were also undoubtedly the most powerful royals in Europe (for a little while longer) and James I had long nurtured the hope of uniting his family with the Hapsburgs, thereby creating an impressive alliance between England and Spain that would effectively crush France between them. Clearly, once James added the English crown to his Scottish one he set little store on the “Auld Alliance”, that very old pact between France and Scotland against England.

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Henry Frederick

Originally, James’ intention had been to wed Henry Frederick to a Spanish Infanta. Given just how fervently Protestant Henry Frederick was, and how fiercely Catholic the Spanish royals were, that would probably have been a rather unhappy match. In actual fact, it is rather odd that the Spanish Ambassador to England even suggested the match. After all, he – and his royal master, Felipe III of Spain – would have known the pope would never give the dispensation required for a princess of such august Catholic blood to wed an upstart heretic. Unless said heretic converted, of course. “When hell freezes over,” would likely have been dear Henry Frederick’s reply to that suggestion.

Henry Frederick died, the formerly so disregarded Charles was installed as Prince of Wales in 1616, and the hope of a Spanish alliance still lived. Ambassador Gondomar sweetened the deal by offering a huge dowry – large enough that James could do without that pesky Parliament, at least for a while. All the Spanish wanted in return was for England to throw out all that anti-Catholic legislation, such as Test Acts and the like, and stay well away from the turbulent situation in the Spanish Netherlands.

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James in all his glory

James considered himself a great statesman, and was probably more than flattered by the Spanish interest. Being possessed of the ability to ignore that which did not please him, he didn’t pay much regard to the heated protests from various subjects, along the lines that England had not defeated the Spanish Armada in 1588 only to hop into bed with that popish whore of a nation four decades later.

After the Bohemia debacle, James had hopes that a Spanish match could lead to the Spanish Hapsburgs putting pressure on their Austrian cousins so as to reinstate Frederick and Elizabeth. In the aftermath of the Battle of White Mountain, James saw no option but to call a Parliament, hoping thereby to raise the funds required to help Frederick and Elizabeth retake what was rightfully theirs. Parliament was all over itself in its anti-Catholic furore, but saw no reason to expend any larger amounts of English tax money on the Elector and his wife. James was miffed. Even more so when Parliament argued for war with Spain, thereby threatening the potential Spanish match.

After months of arguing with Parliament, James dissolved it. He still had his heart set on the Spanish alliance, but we were now in 1621, Spain had a new king, there was a new pope, and James was also astute enough to realise that Parliament was, in effect, expressing the view of the English people when they opposed a marriage alliance with Spain. Besides, even James must have realised the religious differences between the Spanish and the English were too much of an obstacle.

King_Charles_I_by_Gerrit_van_Honthorst_smJames’s son, however, did not share his father’s defeatist view on the Spanish match. Neither did Prince Charles’ new bosom friend, George Villiers, the soon-to-be Duke of Buckingham. These two gentlemen decided to take matters in their own hands, and what better way to woo the reluctant Spanish Infanta than by popping in on a surprise visit?

At the time, royal courts worked to defined protocols. Compared to the formal Spanish court, James’s court was like a laid back two-week inclusive in the Caribbean. In Spain, one DID NOT pop by on a surprise visit, even less travelling under an alias. Such minor details did not deter our amorous prince. Charles and George chose (rather unimaginatively) to travel as Thomas and John Smith and set off in February of 1623, Charles determined to win his Spanish bride and return home a married (and richer) man.

Off they went, George and Charles, failing miserably at keeping the low profile required to even slip out of England unnoticed. At some point, Villiers had to reveal himself as the Lord Admiral he was, and only then were our two Mr Smiths allowed to step aboard the ship that was to take them to France. In Paris, they donned periwigs to disguise themselves, which worked surprisingly well, and so after some days of enjoying La belle France incognito, they set off south, riding hard for Madrid and the waiting Doña María Ana, Infanta of Spain and as Catholic as they came.

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Infanta María Ana

It seems no one had thought to investigate whether the purported bride had any interest in marrying the gallant English prince. María Ana was very devout, and would no more wed a heretic than she would one of the multiple flea-ridden urchins that prowled the streets of Madrid. Unless, of course, the young man in question were to convert, thereby ensuring María Ana a permanent place in heaven.

Early in March, Charles and George arrived in Madrid. As a matter of course, they went directly to the residence of the Earl of Bristol, England’s ambassador in Spain. The poor ambassador was shocked. Incensed. Aghast. Gobsmacked. All of these. Charles, however, was quite pleased with himself. From his perspective, all the needed to do was to meet his intended, charm her petticoats off, and that was it.

Spanish Infantas did not meet men outside their immediate family just like that. María Ana was no exception to the rule, and Charles’ request that he may be allowed to pay court in person was met with a polite but firm no. Disappointment must have etched deep lines in Charles’ face, because Felipe IV came up with a little plan whereby Charles would be able to see his intended without any breach of protocol.

In Spain, at the time there was a tradition called “hacer la rúa”, or “el paseo”. In essence, it meant people took to the outdoors, whether astride a horse, in a carriage or on foot, and made a pre-defined circuit, thereby upping the chances of running into someone you really wanted to meet. In Madrid, the route circled the Plaza Mayor, detoured round San Gerónimo, and ambled through El Prado (at the time a park, not an art museum). Buckingham and Charles were bundled into a carriage. María Ana was placed in another, accompanied by her brother’s queen, the pretty Isabel of Bourbon. By chance, as it were, these vehicles passed one another a couple of times. Enough for Charles to see bright blue eyes and a stray lock or two of golden hair. Not enough to exchange as much as a word.

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Felipe IV

For five months, Felipe IV kept Charles hanging. James dispatched a retinue from England, Charles met frequently with Felipe IV and his closest advisor the Count of Olivares. He was feted in grand style, was acclaimed by the Spanish people who were rather taken by the English prince – even more so given that his mere presence in Spain reasonably indicated his intention to return to the True Faith.

There were banquets and balls, there were bull runs and afternoons at the Madrid playhouses, and not once was Charles allowed to spend as much as a moment alone with María Ana, the precious Infanta always impressively chaperoned, never more than an enticing promise.

In a grand gesture, Felipe IV released hundreds of English prisoners from his galleys, but smiled blandly whenever Charles pressed his suit, reminding the eager prince that he needed reassurances, promises that the English anti-Catholic legislation would be repealed, that María Ana would be allowed to worship in accordance with her conscience.

Charles (or his father) had no authority to agree to the Spanish terms – but they did, off the record, like. And still Felipe IV procrastinated. Even after James had signed the contract, Felipe hemmed and hawed, saying he couldn’t be parted from his dear sister until the promised changes had been made.

Truth was, Felipe never had the slightest intention of forcing his sister into marriage with Charles – but he negotiated with Charles as if he did, and all the while Spain was carefully jockeying for a more favourable position in the European conflicts, keeping England docile by waving the carrot of a potential marriage under Charles’ nose. As to the Elector, Felipe was not about to support a Protestant upstart against his Austrian uncle. Besides, Ferdinand II had a son, yet another Ferdinand, and María Ana would make an excellent Holy Roman Empress, wouldn’t she?

Eventually, Felipe came clean and admitted that his sister would not consider marrying Charles – unless he converted. To convert was not on the books as far as Charles was concerned. Humiliated and furious, Charles embarked on the long trip home, and his previously so warm feelings for fair María Ana, for Spain, were replaced by the conviction that nothing good could come from interacting with the accursed Hapsburgs – no matter how blue their Spanish eyes might be.

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Charles w Henrietta Maria

In 1625, James died, and Charles wasted little time in finding a new bride. This time, his eye fell on Henrietta Maria, French princess and just as fervent a Catholic as María Ana. And yet the English heaved a sigh of relief: at least their future queen wasn’t Spanish!

And as to that pretty Infanta, María Ana went on to marry her cousin Ferdinand III. One of her daughters, Mariana, would subsequently marry Felipe IV, María Ana’s brother. Not at all unusual among the Hapsburgs, to marry close relatives, but this time round all that inbreeding was to result in a number of short-lived babies and a seriously impaired heir – both mentally and physically.

As we all know, Charles I was not destined to live a long and happy life (very much due to his own incompetence), but he was fortunate in his wife, a loyal spouse who stood by him through thick and thin. To Charles, it mattered little that Henrietta Maria was Catholic. Sadly, to his subjects it most certainly did, and the little queen who was so warmly welcomed in 1625 would be viewed with suspicion as the English succumbed to an ever-growing hatred of all things papist. But that, as they say, is an entirely different story.

P.S. For those that, like me, are major Alatriste fans, Arturo Pérez-Reverte’s first book about this Spanish gent is centred round Charles’ spontaneous visit to Madrid. Great read!

The curious case of Karolina – a real Sleeping Beauty

Karolina 800px-DornröschenOnce upon a time there was a curious little girl who cut her finger on a spindle and fell into a deep, deep sleep—until prince Charming rode by and kissed her back to life again. A fairy tale we’re all familiar with, right?

How about Once upon a time there was a little girl who was skipping across the frozen lake when she slipped and fell, banging her head on the ice. Some time later, she went to bed and fell into a deep, deep sleep lasting several decades. Haven’t heard that one? Well, first of all it isn’t a fairy tale—as demonstrated by the total lack of a Prince Charming—secondly, the ice thing is only one version of what might have happened that day back in 1876 when Karolina Olsson returned home complaining of a ferocious headache.

Allow me to take you back to the late nineteenth century and the little island of Oknö, situated just off Sweden’s eastern coast in the Baltic Sea. The Olsson family were simple folk, deeply religious but also prone to believing in witches and spells, in things that go bump in the night. Come to think of it, at the time they weren’t alone in doing so – education was still rudimentary for most Swedes and where there’s no education there is superstition. The family consisted of eight people—Karolina had five brothers and was the second eldest.

As the only girl, Karolina was kept at home to help her mother with the household. When her brothers went to school, she learnt to read and write in between doing the laundry and cleaning and cooking and mending that was required for such a large family. But somewhere in 1875 Karolina was finally enrolled in the nearby school—probably so as to comply with the requirement that Karolina learn her catechism, a must in the very Lutheran (and rather intolerant) Sweden of the time.

On a February day of 1876, fourteen-year-old Karolina slipped on the ice—or so she said. She was alone at the time, but came home sporting bruises and an injured head. Some days later, the headache was augmented with a splitting toothache. Mama Olsson decided this was all the work of witches and sent her daughter to bed. Karolina was not to rise from it until 1908…

At the time, the story was that Karolina slept. Her mother washed her and cared for her, ensured she drank at least two glasses of milk a day, but other than that, Karolina just slept and slept. She was a local phenomenon, a real-life Sleeping Beauty, lying so well-tended in her bed while year after year slipped away.

These days, such behaviour would have led to some sort of intervention. After all, it isn’t normal for a young woman to lie in bed while life passes her by. At the time, the local doctors came and visited and in 1892 they diagnosed Karolina with a severe case of hysteria so the poor girl was transported to a nearby hospital where she was treated with electrical shock treatment.  This had no effect whatsoever, neither did all the pricking tests with a sharp needle, where the hospital staff hoped to at least elicit a reaction to pain. Nada. Karolina was returned home to her bed and her loving mother, having been incorrectly diagnosed with dementia paralytica which is a late stage symptom of syphilis.  Other doctors came and went, but in general no one could explain her comatose condition.

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During all this time, Karolina never spoke—at least not when accompanied by anyone but her mother. Yes, at times she would moan and toss in her sleep, sometimes she whimpered and wept, but there were no words, no communication. According to her brothers, they had no recollection of her doing anything but sleeping, impervious to all the life that surrounded her in the one-room cottage the Olssson family called home. She slept, safe in her own little world of dreams.

Now, there are a lot of strange aspects to all this—beyond the basic problem of believing a human being can hibernate for thirty-odd years. First of all, two glasses of milk is not enough sustenance to keep a growing teenager or an adult woman alive. Secondly, wouldn’t her muscles totally have atrophied had she lain in bed all that time? According to descriptions, other than her being fast asleep, Karolina was in remarkably good shape when she was examined at the hospital in 1892. Assuming she wasn’t hibernating, maybe the real reason for all this pretence was that Karolina Olsson was hiding from the world at large, and that her mother helped her do so. We will come back to this a bit later…

In 1905, Mama Olsson passed. In her sleep, Karolina wept copiously. Her aging father took over the care of her, but he was too old to cope and so a housekeeper was installed to watch over our sleeping beauty. The housekeeper found some things that surprised her, such as the fact that Karolina’s hair was always clean and her nails and hands always well-tended. The housekeeper also claimed that whenever she brought candy with her to the cottage, pieces would go missing when she stepped outside for a moment. But despite the housekeeper’s suspicions, despite the family’s efforts to wake her, Karolina still seemed to spend her days in a deep sleep.

For obvious reasons the housekeeper was not quite as devoted to Karolina as her mother had been. The TLC which Mama Olsson had expended on Karolina was a thing of the past. Where Mama Olsson had made it something of an artform to keep Karolina looking her best, a true sleeping beauty, her new caretakers did what had to be done, no more. I imagine that after thirty years of watching her sleep, the novelty had sort of worn off, making Karolina more of an imposition than a loved family member.

Karolina_OlssonIn 1908, Karolina woke up.  Early in April that year, the housekeeper heard strange sounds from her room and rushed up the stairs to find her staggering about, crying. Karolina was forty-six years old and had no memories whatsoever of her last thirty-two years. She didn’t recognise her brothers, she was totally bamboozled by the Bright New World to which she’d woken.

Obviously, all sorts descended upon her to test her. She was remarkably unaffected by all those years of inertia, albeit that she had lost an awful amount of weight the last few years of her hibernation (which sort of corroborates the theories that when they were alone, Mama Olsson and Karolina ate and talked like normal people, only for Karolina to scurry back to bed at the sound of approaching people) As days became weeks she regained her strength and her speech, even if she was a hesitant speaker. Tests showed her to be above average intelligent and she could still read and write, even if she had no knowledge of such basics as geography.

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Karolina, the local attraction adorning a post card

The press had a field day, enchanted by this innocent woman who rather liked all the attention. One of the more famous Swedish psychiatrists of the day, Harald Fröderström, visited her in 1910 and spent a lot of time trying to understand what had really happened to her. He was quite charmed by this woman who behaved as much, much younger than her actual age and who shyly flirted with him whenever they met. Fröderström quickly ruled out total hibernation, saying it would have been impossible for her to sleep through such a long period of time without starving to death. Instead, he thought Karolina had suffered some sort of psychosis, brought on by a harrowing event. Her loving mother permanented the situation by supporting her daughter in her need to escape the world. Maybe the mother enjoyed the attention too.

The big question then is what really happened to Karolina that long-gone day in 1876 when she came home bruised and injured? Well, obviously that is something we’ll never know, but many believe she was the victim of severe abuse, maybe by many perpetrators. So traumatic was this event that it destroyed her mental equilibrium and caused her to pull the blankets over her head to shut out all the bad stuff in the world.

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One of Mr Vallien’s heads

One person who does believe Karolina experienced a truly terrifying experience is the Swedish glass artist Bertil Vallien. Mr Vallien uses a sand casting technique to create his work, and initially he did mostly amorphous shapes and colours. Someone asked him why he didn’t cast faces or humans, but Mr Vallien wasn’t interested. Until he heard the story about Karolina from Oknö. For some reason, this story hooked him, and at his next exposition he revealed a set of human faces. Male, harsh faces, cold and unemotional. The faces of the perpetrators, Mr Vallien explained, the faces of the monsters within. These days, these aloof representations of human faces have become emblematic for his work—and he no longer perceives all of them as potential perpetrators, which is a major relief.

Whatever dark events triggered Karolina’s retreat from the world in 1876, once she woke up she embraced life to the full, living another forty-two years before dying in 1950.  people who met her described her as a hard worker who seemed content with her life. An odd life, in many ways a stunted life, permanently distorted by those unknown events in her distant youth.

A gift fit for a queen

In a feudal society, the first-born son generally hit the jackpot. His was the future title, his were his father’s lands, and not very much was left for his younger brothers – unless, of course, the mother had her own lands and titles that could be settled on a younger son. Alternatively, the younger son entered holy orders. The church, you see, offered an interesting and lucrative career path to the ambitious younger son. Not that the younger son was always given a choice: your medieval ambitious daddy saw the benefits in having a son or two high up the ecclesiastic hierarchy.

Obviously, not all bishops in medieval England were younger sons of noblemen. Take, for example, today’s protagonist, Walter Stapledon, Bishop of Exeter and loyal servant of Edward II. Not as much as a drop of noble blood, but our Walter was a younger brother. Big brother Richard was to inherit some minor landholdings from their father, and little Walter was therefore destined for the church.

The Stapledon family was not without means, seeing as both Richard and Walter were educated at Oxford. Richard would go on to become a lawyer and local judge, on top of his day-to-day management of his lands. Walter, on the other hand, made his way to Exeter, where he became a cathedral canon in 1301. By then, Walter was in his mid-thirties, a well-educated man who in 1305 became a doctor of canon and civil law, which qualified him for royal employment.

EHFA medieval-bishopIn 1307, the bishop of Exeter died, and Walter was chosen as his replacement. Not a unanimous vote, and there was a lot of quibbling back and forth before Walter’s backside was firmly welded to the bishop’s chair. But once there, Walter had arrived: as a bishop, not only did he have access to substantial means, but he was also a member of Parliament. And somewhere along the line, Bishop Walter found favour with the king, Edward II.

During his first decade as bishop, Walter not only organised his diocese and founded Stapledon Hall in Oxford (present day Exeter College). He also served Edward as an envoy to Gascony on several occasions. Things weren’t all that good in Gascony, the French encroaching regularly on English land. From a French perspective, the land was French. From an English perspective, Gascony was what remained of the magnificent Angevin empire that had been built by Henry II and his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, and which started crumbling the moment Henry II died – albeit that his son Richard held it together for some more years. Gascony therefore had immense emotional value for the English – and Edward II was not about to let this last toe-hold on the continent slip away.

Edward had problems closer to home. Due to his blatant favouritism of the Despensers, father and son, he had alienated most of his powerful barons, who felt he was in breach of his coronation oaths, whereby he was supposed to take counsel from a larger group of barons, not only the Despensers. When Edward II repeatedly turned a blind eye on the Despensers’ rapacious appropriation of land belonging to others, the barons were further enraged. When Hugh Despenser the younger took it upon himself to hang, draw and quarter a man without a trial, the barons had had enough. In 1321, the barons, led by Roger Mortimer and Thomas of Lancaster, rebelled, and Walter Stapledon was one of ten bishops who had their work more than cut out for them as they hastened back and forth between the king and the barons in an attempt to broker a peace.

Ultimately, the king was given no choice: The Despensers were exiled and Edward retreated to lick his wounds and plan vengeance. Stapledon retired to his diocese, resigning from the role of Treasurer he’d been given by Edward a year or so earlier (this appointment was one of the issues of contention with the barons; such appointments should be discussed with the baronial council). Maybe Walter felt an element of relief at this development, hoping to expend his considerable energy on his diocese. Alternatively, he was disappointed, seeing as he’d earned the reputation of increasing his own wealth due to his position, not above applying extortion when so required.

EHFA E IIIn the event, Edward II rose like a phoenix from the ashes. Clearly, the risk of never seeing Hugh Despenser again sufficed to have the king act swiftly and resolutely, and by 1322 the tables had been turned on the barons, with Mortimer languishing in the Tower and Lancaster very dead. The Despensers were recalled, Stapledon was reinstated, and things were, in Edward’s opinion, good. Well: except for Gascony, where things had taken a turn for the worse.

Stapledon had his work cut out for him as Treasurer. The hostilities in Gascony, the skirmishes with Scotland – it all cost money. And when Mortimer escaped the Tower in August of 1323, money had to be expended on increased security for the king and his favourites. Stapledon was an efficient administrator, but money was scarce – the king was not given to parsimony, neither was dear Hugh – and in 1324 the king seized Queen Isabella’s dower lands to supplement his income. Some say this was Stapledon’s idea, but whether it was or not, the bulk of Isabella’s holdings lay in his diocese, so Stapledon was put in charge of doing the actual seizing. This did not go down well with Isabella, who was reduced to an allowance and blamed Stapledon for her humiliation.

The political situation in England became increasingly volatile. Spurred on by Hugh Despenser, Edward turned England upside down in his search for potential allies to his rebellious barons – first and foremost Mortimer. Suspects were hauled before the assizes, in some cases deprived of their lands, in others imprisoned or executed. Tensions rode high, putting it mildly. In Gascony, the French under Charles de Valois routed the English. If Edward wanted to retain his Gascon lands, he had to act – which he did, by sending his queen to negotiate with her brother, the French king Charles IV. Isabella was successful, Charles IV was willing to be magnanimous, and all that remained was the thorny issue of homage.

Charles IV wanted Edward II to do homage – in Paris – for Gascony. This would mean leaving England in Hugh Despenser’s hands, and while Edward himself had no problem with this, Despenser most certainly did, convinced that the moment the king was gone, he’d be attacked and murdered by the disgruntled barons. Probably a legitimate fear, and so in September of 1325 Edward II despatched his son, Edward of Windsor, to do homage in his stead. The young prince was accompanied by Walter Stapledon who was charged with one further task: bring Queen Isabella home.

By then, Isabella had been in France for six months or so, and she showed no inclination whatsoever to return to her husband. Seeing as Roger Mortimer was at large on the continent, this made Edward decidedly uncomfortable – he was intelligent enough to realise that his disaffected and humiliated wife might entertain the notion of supporting the traitorous (as per Edward) baron. He had repeatedly ordered Isabella to return, and at her non-compliance had cut off her funds, hoping this would bring his wife to heel. The only thing that happened was that Isabella moved in with her brother, still stubbornly refusing to return to England.

Stapledon oversaw the homage ceremony, tried to corner Isabella into having a private conversation, and when that didn’t work he chose to stand up before the entire French court and tell her she had no option but to return home immediately, her husband would not tolerate any more excuses from his disobedient wife. Isabella stood and told Stapledon she would not go home – not as long as Hugh Despenser the younger was the third wheel in her marriage. Stapledon turned to the French king – a man-to-man demand that the king send his sister back to her husband. Charles, unsurprisingly, refused. Stapledon had no choice but to retire, utterly humiliated. Some days later, he chose to flee the court in disguise, convinced there was a plot afoot to assassinate him. Left behind in France was Prince Edward, now firmly under his mother’s control. The rebellion against Edward II had just acquired its figurehead – the heir to the throne.

Stapledon returned to an England in turmoil. Over the coming months, it became apparent that Isabella and Roger had joined forces, even embarked on a passionate relationship. In England, all those suffering under the double yoke of Despenser and Edward II organised themselves, while the king and his advisors concentrated on defence strategies. Stapledon was made responsible for defending his part of the country, and as the winter of 1325 became the spring of 1326, people waited. And waited. And waited.

EHFA Retour_d_Isabelle_de_France_en_AngleterreIn September of 1326, Isabella and her son, accompanied by Roger, landed in England. In a series of rousing speeches, Isabella declared that they were here only to safeguard England from the tyranny of the Despensers and the other evil counsellors of the king (I am convinced she included Stapledon in this little club), and to ensure the rule of law was restored within the land. At every opportunity, she presented her handsome fourteen-year-old son, ensuring everyone got an eyeful of the heir – the future king.

Despenser urged the king to flee. Edward II did not lack personal courage, and with the funds in his treasury he could easily have fielded an army substantially larger than that of Isabella and Roger. But in view of Hugh’s abject terror, he did as his favourite asked him to and rode west, making for the relative safety of Ireland. London was left in control of Stapledon – a dangerous task, seeing as the Londoners were major Mortimer and Isabella fans.

On October 15, 1326, London exploded. Angry citizens decided to take justice in their own hands and the mayor (who, incidentally, was one of the men who condemned Roger Mortimer to death in 1321) was forced to sign the death sentences of two men: one was a purported Despenser spy, the other was none other than the hated Treasurer, Walter Stapledon. Now, Walter was a bishop, and as such could only be tried by an ecclesiastic court, but the mob had gone beyond trials – they wanted blood, and they wanted it now. The Despenser spy was hunted down and dragged to Cheapside where he was beheaded. And then they went in search of the bishop.

Stapledon was not at home when the mob burnt down his doors, ransacked his house and carried off his precious belongings. But upon hearing that his house was being looted, the bishop donned armour and rode into the city, ignoring the advice to stay away. By the time he’d realised his error, it was too late, the mob baying for his blood as they chased Stapledon and his squires through the London streets.

Bishop beheading-650x387Desperately, Stapledon made for St Paul’s, hoping to claim sanctuary. At the north door, the crowd caught up with him, and he was pulled off his horse, screaming in fear as he was hauled towards Cheapside. Once there he was forced to his knees and his head was sawed off with a breadknife. I can only imagine just how much time that took…

The ecstatic Londoners sent Stapledon’s head as a gift to Isabella, throwing the rest of the bishop’s mauled remains in a dungheap to be eaten by dogs. It is to her credit that Isabella was horrified – mostly because one should not saw off the head of bishops. Isabella needed the church on her (and her son’s) side, and no matter what her feelings for Bishop Stapledon might have been, she had to express her disgust at the horrible way in which he’d been put to death. The Londoners who’d been dispatched to present their queen with the grisly gift were curtly thanked and on Isabella’s orders, the battered body (and head, one assumes) of Walter Stapledon were returned to Exeter. There the poor man was buried before the high altar as befitted a bishop, and a good bishop at that. Whatever his other faults, Stapledon had been a good administrator of the diocese, a man with a passion for learning so strong he founded Stapledon Hall at Oxford University to offer young men of little means the opportunity to study. These days, Stapledon Hall is known as Exeter College.

Walter Stapledon does not lie alone in Exeter Cathedral. Close by is the grave of his brother, Richard, who tried to defend Walter from the London mob and in so doing lost his life too. An older brother defending a younger, a knight defending a priest. Two men caught up in a power struggle which ended with a deposed king and a new, very young, king. I wonder if now and then they rise from their graves to chat about that distant past, two ghostly outlines gliding through the dark interior of the cathedral. Likely, they don’t. Likely they lie silent and still, have done so for close to 700 years.

An English hawk on an Italian mural – of a mercenary made good

John Hawkwood 800px-Paolo_Uccello_044Should you ever make it to Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence, you should of course gawk at the beautiful cupola, but don’t miss the gigantic mural depicting a ma in armour astride a magnificent horse. Move close enough to read the inscription, and you may also begin to wonder what on earth an English mercenary named John Hawkwood could possibly have done to deserve being honoured in this way.

John Hawkwood is not a name much bandied about these days, but back in 14th century Italy he was a force to be reckoned with, a man everyone wanted on their side. (Not that the medieval Italians ever could get his name right, which is why Machiavelli calls him Giovanni Acuto) Being gifted with an ample conscience and a constant hunger for gold, John took the opportunity to sell himself to the highest bidder – and this man, as per his inscription “the most skilled and cautious of generals”, did not come cheap.

To provide some background for our John, we need to start at the beginning. As always, this tends to be a bit murky when going this far back in history, but it seems that John was born in Essex, somewhere round 1320. His father was a well-to-do minor landowner, which ensured John survived the rampant starvation that characterised England during his early years. Upon his father’s death, John as a younger son was not left much of an inheritance, but it helped that his family had close ties to the de Vere family, and it was as an archer under de Vere’s command that Hawkwood first bursts into the annals of history.

John Hawkwood Battle-of-CrecyIn 1342, John was a simple archer. At the battle of Crécy, four years later, he was in command of 250 archers, a crucial component in the strategy that led to victory for the English. Obviously, John must have been a gifted leader of men – and an able archer, one would assume. He was also, as would be proven throughout his long and colourful career, a naturally gifted strategist. It was John’s fortune that he was born into the tumultuous times of the Hundred Years’ War, thereby finding ample use for his somewhat bellicose talents.

The Hundred Year’s War was not a chivalric little outing in which noble knights jousted, parlayed and did some more jousting. No, this was a long, extended rape of France, perpetrated by the English aggressors, but, just as often, by the bands of mercenaries hired by the desperate French to defend themselves. Problem with mercenaries is that if you don’t pay them – and pay them well – they will take their payment where they can find it. Or join the other side…

While using mercenaries was nothing new, it was during this extended conflict that the commercial community discovered just what a commodity a group of fighting men could be. The mercenary went from being badly paid cannon fodder to highly salaried experts, and the resulting profit was evenly shared between the mercenaries themselves and the middle-hand, the ever more powerful merchants.

We tend to forget that war – even today – always has an economic aspect to it, making rich men out of those who supply the fighting parties with food, armour and weapons. English and Hanseatic merchants made fortunes during Edward III’s stubborn attempt to claim the French crown. Bankers invested (and lost) huge amounts in this venture, and most of those bankers were Italian, and so Edward III’s ambition became a multinational venture, involving Italian money, Hanseatic merchants, Breton mercenaries – well, mercenaries from almost everywhere – and, of course, the stalwart English and Welsh soldiers who bled and died en masse on fields very distant from their homes.

John Hawkwood Crécy_-_Grandes_Chroniques_de_FranceDespite being labelled as a war that extended over a century, in actual fact this war was fought in innings, with long periods of fighting ending in an uneasy truce, thereby giving both sides the opportunity to get their breaths back. Now, these little breaks were excellent if you were a nobleman needing to trot back home to inspect your lands, make your wife pregnant, and generally lie about for some time. If, however, you happened to be a common soldier, chances are these extended pauses were quite the headache, starting with the fact that soldiers weren’t paid if there was no fighting going on.

In essence, this is what happened to our John. After the glory of Crecy, he did go back home for some years, but when he and a friend severely mistreated another man, he found it best to flee the country of his birth, uncomfortable with being labelled a “miscreant” and potentially risking the noose. So John kicked his heels on the Continent, rode to more glory at Poitiers in 1356 where he finally won his spurs, and then in 1360 it seemed the war was over, leaving Hawkwood an impoverished knight with nothing to return to.

This is when he joined the Free Companies, at first riding with the tard-venues (the latecomers) but relatively quickly transferring to the White Company, a well-organised mercenary venture headed by a German called Albert Stertz who had made it his task in life to enrich himself – and his men – by selling his company to whoever bid the highest. And when there were no takers for his services, our German captain decided to go creative, which is why he – together with several other mercenary captains who banded together to form the Great Company – attacked the papal seat in Avignon, ultimately wresting a huge ransom from the pope.

Eventually, France had been so thoroughly robbed there were no pickings left. And so the mercenary armies lifted their eyes from the previously so fertile French soil and looked about for new horizons, eagerly urged on by the impoverished Pope who wanted nothing more than to see these Free Companies ride off into the sunset never to return. And what did they find? La Bella Italia!

At the time, La Bella Italia did not exist – at least not as more than a geographical region. Europe’s favourite boot was a collection of fiercely independent and competitive city states constantly at war with each other. And where there are miniature wars brewing, there one needs a mercenary army or two, right?

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Innocent VI: Pope and warmonger

The pope, Innocent VI, actively participated in brokering the contract that finally rid Avignon of the mercenaries. He convinced the Marquis of Monferrato to hire the White Company and use them to smite the hated Visconti, rulers of Milan, hard. As the pay was good, the White company gladly went, stopping only to set half of Marseilles on fire as one final coda to their long, unwelcome stay in France.

I suspect the White company was lured by more than the pay: at the time, the Italian city states were the Promised Land to many of their fellow Europeans. Lands of plenty, of culture, of a benign climate, the Italian city states beckoned with the promise of a delightful place to retire – supposing you were rich enough. Not that much different from today, come to think of it, given how many of the truly well-off acquire a villa in Tuscany in which to spend the sunset years of their lives…

By the early 1360’s, Hawkwood had assumed control over the White Company, despite being illiterate. Not that being incapable of reading was much of an issue for the captain-general, as the White Company boasted an excellent administrative system, complete with own lawyers, clerks and purchasers. Other than the fighting men, the company also had its fair share of priests, prostitutes and physicians – plus a minor army of servants.

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(Photo by Giorces)

The White Company was not named for the innocence of its members, but rather for the uniform worn by the soldiers. In white (most impractical one would think) and with selected pieces armour polished until they glittered like mirrors, these mercenaries exuded a certain style. (Mercenaries depended on speed, so very few of them wore full body armour, choosing instead whatever piece they felt suited their needs best) Accompanied by a bevy of pages, the mercenaries rode from battlefield to battlefield, but often dismounted to fight on foot, assuming a hedgehog formation that bristled with lances. Pitted against the mostly civilian militia of the various city states, the White Company’s hardened soldiers generally came out the victors, leaving a trail of blood and suffering in their wake.

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A dashing Condottiero

The English mercenaries quickly acquired a reputation for ruthlessness and efficiency. Spawn of the devil, some of their reluctant hosts would mutter, Son of Belsebub they whispered behind Hawkwood’s back. Not that he cared: after having spent some years fighting the Milanese Visconti on behalf of the pope, the company then spent the coming decade shifting allegiances depending on who dangled the biggest purse before Hawkwood’s nose. From having fought for Monferrato, the company ended up fighting against him at the Visconti’s side, and they were sometimes on the papal side of the constant conflicts, at others on the side of one city state or another. With time, Hawkwood acquired the reputation of being a mercenary one could trust (well…) which put him in the agreeable position of being able to pick and choose.

After close to two decades in Italy, most of that time spent fighting for one side or the other, Hawkwood decided it was time to settle down. By now, he was well into his fifties, and when he was offered one of the illegitimate Visconti daughters as a bride he gladly accepted before resigning from his mercenary gig and moving to Florence – a mortal enemy of the Milanese – in 1377, assuming command of this city’s defences. One suspects that must have put something of a strain on his marital relations.

There may have been another reason for Hawkwood’s decision to leave the hire-a-fighting man business, and that reason is spelled Cesena. Hawkwood lived by his sword and his skill as a soldier, and it is difficult for a man to spend his whole life fighting and come out untarnished. In Hawkwood’s case, his huge blemish is the massacre of Cesena in 1377. At the time, Hawkwood was serving the pope, and it was Robert, Cardinal of Genoa, who insisted all the inhabitants of this little town be put to the sword. Approximately 5 000 civilians lost their lives in that blood bath, and it would seem Hawkwood was quite disgusted by the entire matter. Whatever the case, he never actively fought for the pope again…

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Medieval Florence from the Nuremberg Chronicle  (courtesy of Bas van Hout, Creative Commons)

Anyway, from 1377 and onwards, Hawkwood was the effective commander-in-chief of the Florentine forces. And in 1390 he defended Florence against the expansive ambition of the Visconti by defeating the Milanese forces, thereby saving the fiercely independent Florence from the fate worse than death of becoming a Milanese vassal state.

John Hawkwood Portrait_de_Dante

Dante: OK, so no mural but at least a nice portrait by Botticelli…

That, of course, is why John Hawkwood ended up commemorated in the Basilica, while Dante wasn’t. Not that strange, when one considers the fact that whatever great literary masterpieces he created, that Aligheri dude never lifted a finger in defence of his city. Why should he? That’s what mercenaries were for, right?

In actual fact, John had no intention of being buried in Florence. He wanted to return home, and spent his last few years planning his move. Unfortunately for him, he died before he could realise his dream of going home. As some sort of compensation, he got a magnificent funeral in Florence, although likely he was entirely unaware of the honours heaped upon his dead body.

At the time of his death, Hawkwood was a major celebrity which was why, in 1395, Richard II requested that his body be returned to England. The Florentine authorities acquiesced. Whether this happened or not remains an open question, but by now John Hawkwood probably no longer cares where his mortal remains lie buried.

As to his spirit, I dare say it hovers over the rolling hills of Tuscany, but now and then his restless soul probably dives down to inspect that seven metre high mural of himself and howls with laughter. After all, whatever else he was, John Hawkwood was not a man who deserved to be commemorated in a church!

The princess and the beast

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Gustav – a proud papa

In 1547, Gustav Vasa, King of Sweden, and his extremely fertile second wife Margareta Leijonhufvud welcomed their fourth daughter to the world. The little baby was christened Sofia, and as Gustav already had plenty of sons I imagine he was more than delighted with the new addition to his nursery. After all, a princess was a major asset to a king determined to build alliances with his neighbours, and in Gustav Vasa’s case, such alliances were extremely important as he had conquered rather than inherited the Swedish throne.

King Gustav was more than aware that in the eyes of the more established European kingdoms, he (and his country) was something of a parvenu. Until recently, Sweden had been part of the Danish kingdom – had been so since the 14th century. Now, thanks to Gustav, Sweden was rid of the Danish yoke, and to cement his dynasty’s grip on the throne Gustav had also pushed through legislation converting Sweden into a hereditary kingdom. Prior to this (and the inclusion in the Danish kingdom via the Kalmar Union under that medieval kick-ass lady Queen Margareta) the kings of Sweden had been elected—at least formally.

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Sofia Vasa

To ensure he and his family were treated with adequate respect, Gustav Vasa splurged on educating his children—all of them. He also spent minor fortunes on clothes and furnishings and to really make his daughters tempting, he gave them all substantial dowries. To cap it all off, in 1556 Gustav Vasa had their portraits painted and sent off to tempt some nice young man to ask for their hand. Obviously, many an impoverished prince came sniffing, but in general Gustav Vasa was reluctant to hand over his precious daughters to men who needed their dowry—he preferred seeing them wed to men who already had nice steady incomes.

While Gustav was around to arrange the marriages of his older daughters, when he died in 1560 the thirteen-year-old Sofia was still unwed. Instead, the job of finding her an adequate husband fell to her eldest brother, Erik XIV.

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Karin soothing Erik

On the surface, Erik’s candidate Magnus of Saxe-Lauenburg ticked a lot of boxes. He was the heir to a principality and he’d been raised at the Swedish court. From Erik’s perspective, he came with the added advantage of being one hundred percent loyal to Erik, even to the extent of supporting Erik in his determination to wed Karin Månsdotter, a young illiterate girl who was the daughter of one of the royal guards. No one else supported Erik in this infatuation. After all, a king was supposed to marry so as to benefit his nation, and what possible advantage was there in marrying little Karin? To that, Erik would likely have replied that only Karin could soothe his pounding headaches, only her soft voice could lull him to sleep. (More about all that here)

Anyway: Sofia was not as taken with the wannabe groom as her brother. The story goes that when Erik first raised the issue, she blankly refused. Given future events maybe she’d witnessed Magnus pulling legs off flies or kicking little dogs, but unfortunately for Sofia, her brother was dead set on this union. Two days after her initial refusal, she gave in, probably after a lot of pressure had been brought to bear. At the time, Erik and Sofia were not on the best of terms, and this king of ours had a tendency to dangerous rages that probably scared the daylights out of his little sister.

Erik’s idea was that he would marry Karin on the same day as Magnus married Sofia. His sister stalled. Repeatedly. Erik sent her an incensed letter and ordered others to arrange the wedding on her behalf. Still, all this stalling resulted in the wedding being postponed. Instead of tying the knot in 1567 when Erik first married Karin, Sofia gained a respite until 1568, when Erik married Karin for the second time (like more officially). This time, Sofia had no choice. In carmine coloured velvet she followed Karin (soon to be Queen Karin, if only for a little while) into the church, emerging as Mrs Magnus Saxe-Lauenberg.

Sofia Francis II

Francis, Magnus’ younger brother. I guess Magnus would have looked like this

History has nothing positive to say about Magnus beyond his marital skills. He was a violent and brutal man, and soon enough poor Sofia was the recipient of his fists and boots—especially once his father had ruled Magnus unfit to rule the duchy of Saxe-Lauenberg and replaced him with his younger brother. Magnus seethed at the injustice—and took it out on his wife. Poor Sofia had nowhere to go, and initially, her family (or rather her brothers) turned a blind eye. Domestic violence was a matter best handled between man and wife.

But as the years passed, as Sofia gave birth to child after child that died, her family began to get worried. Magnus had by now been dispatched to Ösel, an island recently conquered from the Danes. There, he went as wild and crazy as always, leaving a wake of blood and pain behind him. In fact, by now Magnus was little more than a brutal highwayman, and Johan (Sofia’s second eldest brother, King of Sweden after Erik had been deposed due to insanity. Those headaches that required soothing were not your normal headaches…) wanted little to do with him. Also, all that violence had affected Sofia more than physically. The records state that she was so cruelly used by her husband it affected her mental capacity.

Sofia was weak, her husband was harsh, and soon enough he’d wasted all the money she brought to their marriage. He didn’t like that, and once he’d pawned or sold Sofia’s jewellery he obliged his wife to beg and wheedle for more funds. Initially, Johan and Karl (Sofia’s third brother) gave her money, but as the situation grew more and more out of control, her brothers realised handing over money was no way to help their sister.

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King Johan

Finally, in 1578, King Johan had had enough. The abuser had to be stopped, ASAP. Magnus was arrested, all the land he’d received upon wedding Sofia was transferred to her, in her own right, and then Magnus was exiled from Sweden. Left behind was a badly scarred wife and one surviving child, a boy of eight.  Interestingly enough, over the coming years Sofia would now and then beg her brother to allow her husband to return. Johan refused, saying she did not know what was best for her. (Duh! An early sufferer of an extreme Stockholm syndrome?)

Meanwhile, Magnus continued his bitter feud with his father and brothers. It was his right to inherit Saxe-Lauenberg  (it was) and no way was he going to let his younger brother, Francis, oust him. But so unpopular was Magnus, so unappetising his reputation for violence and brutality, that the Holy Roman Emperor decided to ignore the rights of primogeniture and support baby brother Francis. This did not please Sofia. After all, she had a young son whose patrimony now was being squandered by his evil papa. King Johan was unmoved by her pleas that he help Magnus. As far as he was concerned, Magnus deserved everything he had coming and then more.

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Ratzeburg in 1590. I hope it had a dungeon…

In 1588 Magnus was captured by his brother and locked up in Ratzeburg Castle where he would remain until his death in 1603. Somehow, I hope his captivity was very harsh and uncomfortable.

With Magnus out of her life, Sofia concentrated on raising her son, Gustav. Truth be told, she mollycoddled the boy, and when he was sent off to his uncle’s household to be raised as befitted a noble young boy, she begged and begged that he be returned to her. So Gustav grew up spoiled and rather unbearable, at times behaving as violently as his father. Once in his teens he was taken in hand by his uncles who sent him off abroad to toughen him up and teach him some basic decency. Seems it worked, albeit that any benefits were short-lived as this young man managed to kill himself by shooting himself in the knee in 1597.

Sofia lived out the rest of her life alone. She concentrated on managing her estates (which she did dismally) and preferred to live away from the busy life at court. In letters to her, her large family urge her not to “sink too deep into her sorrows and thereby cause yourself a serious accident or fall into permanent illness” which indicates she may have been severely depressed—or maybe she’d inherited the Vasa gene for mental instability that led to Erik XIV’s deposition and her fourth brother’s totally secluded life. Ironically, that brother was named Magnus—just like the monster of a husband who “treated his princess with all unkindness, disdain and shameful slander, that she of the sorrow was caused great weakness of the head.”

Sofia died in 1611. Her life was no fairy tale despite her being a princess. In fact, it was rather the reverse…

Sweet Elizabeth – the life of a child bride

Today I thought we’d spend some time with a young lady who, I suspect, preferred living well below the radar, albeit she had no notion of what a radar is , seeing as she was born in 1313. Still, Elizabeth is one of those medieval ladies who sort of steps out the pages mostly because of the misfortunes that befell her and her family – at least for the first two decades of her life.

elizabeth c28e93e431c5aa13a9bc65f020fa1696--births-medievalWhen Elizabeth was born, things looked relatively rosy. Her father, Bartholomew de Badlesmere, was a respected baron, a loyal servant of the king, Edward II. As yet, there’d been no Bannockburn, no years of failing crops, no royal favourite named Hugh Despenser whose actions drove Elizabeth’s father into opposition.

Elizabeth was the third child, the third girl. I imagine both her parents had hoped for a boy, but a girl was a valuable asset when it came to building alliances, and in Elizabeth’s case she was married off at the tender age of three. Three. Now, medieval noble brides were married young, but the Church demanded that there be consent from both parties. As proven by Margaret, Countess of Norfolk, a woman claiming NOT to have consented could have her marriage annulled, but as far as we know, Elizabeth never put forth any such claims. Maybe this was due to her being happy with hubby. Maybe this was due to her not being a forceful personality (in difference to the delightfully forceful Margaret mentioned above).

elizabeth banquetElizabeth was only three, her groom was at most fifteen. Edmund Mortimer was Baron Roger Mortimer’s eldest son and quite the catch – so much of a catch Elizabeth’s father paid Roger Mortimer 2 000 pounds for the right to marry his daughter to the precious son. In return, Roger settled dower properties on little Elizabeth.

Before we go on, now might be a good time to explain the difference between dowry and dower. Dowry was the property the bride brought to her groom. It became part of the groom’s estate and once turned over, the bride had no right to any income from the dowry (which often was in land). Dower was the land set aside to provide for the bride. In most cases, the income from the dower lands belonged to the bride from day one. In some cases, such incomes ended up with hubby (for management, one imagines). But should the husband die or the marriage be annulled or some other calamity occur, the dower lands belonged to the bride. Should the husband be attainted, the wife could demand that her dower lands be exempted from the attaintment as they belonged to her, not him. (This is the argument Joan de Geneville used with success when her considerable dower lands were taken from her after her husband, Roger Mortimer had been found guilty of treason and attainted.)

In most cases, a young bride would grow up with her in-laws, educated by them in the managing of her husband’s future estates. In Elizabeth’s case, she was so young everyone agreed it was best she remained with her mother.

leeds-castle-facebook_imageThis is why Elizabeth, together with her siblings, was with her mother at Leeds Castle in 1321. By then, Bartholomew de Badlesmer was nowhere close to being King Edward II’s favourite flavour—rather the reverse. Bartholomew had joined the baronial opposition headed by Roger Mortimer and Thomas, Earl of Lancaster. The barons had won a major victory in the late summer of 1321, obliging Edward II to exile his favourites, Hugh Despenser Jr & Sr. But since then, the king had been biding his time, and unwittingly Lady Badlesmere was to provide King Edward with the reason he needed to go to war.

In October of 1321, Queen Isabella was on her way to Canterbury. At the time, Queen Isabella and her hubby were rubbing along just fine. They’d recently welcomed their fourth child, Joan, in to the world, and if Isabella resented Hugh Despenser’s growing influence—which I am sure she did—it had as yet not become intolerable to her. (It would, though: especially when her royal husband decided to deprive her of her dower income, some say at Hugh’s suggestion)

Anyway, Isabella decided to stop by at Leeds Castle (which was a royal castle held by Badlesmere and which also was part of Isabella’s dower) Some weeks previous to this, Bartholomew de Badlesmere has transferred most of his valuables to Leeds Castle, so maybe that’s why his wife acted as she did. Or maybe Lady Badlesmere was a belligerent sort and the king was counting on it.

Lady Badlesmere was no major fan of Queen Isabella—or her king. Her dislike for Isabella went some years back and was due to Isabella refusing to speak up for someone Lady Badlesmere was hoping to see employed at court. So when Isabella came riding, I imagine Lady Badlesmere rather enjoyed refusing her entrance, saying she couldn’t do so without express orders from her lord, i.e. her husband.

At the time, Lord Badlesmere was in Oxford together with Mortimer and the other rebellious barons. I imagine King Edward knew that. And when Lady Badlesmere was foolish enough to order her archers to fire on the queen’s advancing party—Isabella was no way going to accept being turned away from her own castle—the king was more than delighted to send troops to demand the surrender of the castle and all its contents.

Elizabeth siege_of_acreLady Badlesmere refused. She was, however, outnumbered. After five days of constant bombardments, and with no sign of her husband coming to the rescue, she had no choice but to surrender, having first received the king’s promise of mercy. No sooner had the king entered the castle and seized the treasure but he had the garrison hanged (not a man of his word, our King Edward) and Lady Badlesmere and her children – including Elizabeth, who at the time was around eight—were transported to the Tower where Lady Badlesmere had the dubious honour of becoming its first ever female prisoner.

This did not go down well with the king’s barons. Making war on women was not acceptable, although in this case one could argue Lady Badlesmere had provoked the king.

I don’t imagine the coming year was any fun for Elizabeth. One whole year in the Tower, and to add further salt to the wound in April of 1322 her father, Bartholomew de Badlesmere was hanged drawn and quartered just outside Canterbury, this as part of King Edward’s display of power after having crushed the rebellious barons in March of 1322.

In November of 1322, Lady Badlesmere was released from the Tower, was allowed to keep some of her dower lands and did her best to keep her head down for the coming years. It is assumed her children were released with her. Little Elizabeth had nowhere to go: her father-in-law was locked up in the Tower, her husband was locked up at Windsor, and of the huge Mortimer lands nothing remained, all of it having been attainted as a consequence of Roger Mortimer’s rebellion.

In 1326, things changed for the better. By then, Queen Isabella had since some years back headed up the opposition against her husband—or rather his hated favourite, Hugh Despenser—and at some point she and Roger Mortimer (who’d managed to escape from the Tower) had met up and joined forces. I’d say they joined more than forces, two passionate and forceful people who recognised in each other a common desire for power. Anyway: by the end of 1326, Hugh Despenser was history. King Edward II was held as a prisoner at Kenilworth and Queen Isabella and Mortimer ruled the roost—even more so once Edward had been forced to abdicate in favour of his young son, Edward III.

Elizabeth was reunited with her husband. By now, Elizabeth was 13 years old and it was time for her to assume her wifely duties—or at least some of them. She’d probably still have been considered too young to bed, at least for a further year or so. But in late 1328 she gave birth to her first child, a son named Roger. (They’re sadly unimaginative when it comes to names, the Mortimers: it is Roger, Edmund, Roger, Edmund with the odd John and Ralph thrown in…)

I imagine our Elizabeth was relieved: on her first try she’d done her duty and given her husband a male heir. And whether she loved her husband or not, I bet she was also relieved to be married to the son of the most powerful man in England. Not for her the fears of ending up a prisoner in the Tower again, not when she was part of the powerful Mortimer family, her father-in-law wielding more power in the realm than the young king himself.

elizabeth 885862cfe3cee32c69f14e155c2d8f24--medieval-life-medieval-artTherein, of course, lay the problem. As he grew older, Edward III began to resent his regents—and also fear that they might never be willing to turn over the power to him, the rightful ruler. So in late 1330,our young king, spurred on by a band of young valiant companions including a young man named William de Bohun, acted with swift determination. Queen Isabella ended up in house arrest for well over a year, Roger Mortimer ended up dead, his estates attainted, and poor Elizabeth was yet again to experience the turmoil of losing any sense of security she might have had. Plus she also had to live through the pain of losing her second son, a little John who died very young.

Once safely in control of his realm, Edward III was not without mercy. Edmund Mortimer had some of his hereditary lands returned to him, but as he died in 1331 he never really got a chance to enjoy them. Instead, Elizabeth’s three-year-old son was now the heir to whatever remained of the once so vast Mortimer landholdings. Elizabeth herself was not yet twenty and I imagine she felt she’d lived through enough excitement to last her a lifetime. Maybe she hoped to live out her days in peaceful quiet in a convent, or maybe she really did want to marry a new man, but whatever her wishes were mattered little: Elizabeth was an heiress in her own right and her dower lands were situated in the ever restless Welsh Marches. Plus, Edward III had men to reward, and that William de Bohun mentioned earlier was a younger brother with little but his own prowess (and the king’s love for his first cousin) to his name.

elizabeth Brabantsche Yeesten bIn 1335, Elizabeth was therefore married to William de Bohun. He was more or less her age, and by all accounts he was a good stepfather to little Roger Mortimer. After all, the de Bohuns and the Mortimers went a long way back, so long a papal dispensation was required for Will to be able to wed Elizabeth due to him being a relative of her first husband. Besides, William’s father and Roger Mortimer Sr had fought on the same side in the rebellion of 1321-22. Where Mortimer had ended up thrown into the Tower, Humphrey de Bohun lost his life at the Battle of Boroughbridge, supposedly by being impaled on a pike. Ugh.

Elizabeth gave her new husband two surviving children: a son named Humphrey was born in 1342, a daughter named Elizabeth in 1350. In the fullness of time, Elizabeth’s second son would sire two little girls, two very wealthy heiresses who would both marry very young: Eleanor de Bohun was ten when she wed Thomas of Gloucester, Edward IIII’s youngest son. Her sister, Mary de Bohun was twelve when she wed Henry Bolingbroke in 1380, eldest son of John of Gaunt and Edward III’s grandson.

Elizabeth’s eldest son, Roger Mortimer Jr, would go on to restore the family fortunes, marry well, sire one surviving legitimate son and die young. A repetitive pattern that, with subsequent Mortimers all dying well before their prime. But one day, a descendant of the Mortimers would claim the English throne as Edward IV. I bet old Roger Mortimer would have loved that…

Elizabeth de Badlesmere died in 1356, having enjoyed two decades of relative peace with her second husband, albeit that William was often out fighting for his king. Would she be pleased at knowing her descendants would one day sit on the throne of England? I’m not entirely sure: after all, Elizabeth had experienced first hand just how bloody the game of thrones can get—and so would her descendants, ending up fighting on opposite sides in the War of the Roses.

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