ANNA BELFRAGE

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In great ambition lies destruction

On the subject of men who carry the seeds of their own destruction within, today I’d like to introduce you to Roger Mortimer. Seems apt, given that it is 686 years today since he was executed. This is a man who epitomises the consequences of too much ambition, too much greed. He was also an extremely capable person, an experienced leader of men and a man with impressive strategical skills. Not that it helped him…

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Roger and his lady queen

Had I been able to travel back in time (yes, please!) I would actually consider dropping in on Roger and giving him the friendly advice to retire from the public eye gracefully – although that could have been difficult to do, given that he was sleeping with the Queen Isabella, mother to the very young King Edward III. Clearly, bedding with queens carries the risk of untimely and gruesome death (see my post on the Earl of Bothwell) making me conclude that maybe we as a race have more in common with spiders than I am entirely comfortable with.

Roger Mortimer was born in 1287 as the eldest son and heir of Edmind Mortimer. Of mixed Norman and Welsh descent, the Mortimers were a power to be reckoned with on the Welsh Marches, and Roger was raised to shoulder this responsibility. He seems to have spent much of his childhood with his uncle, another Roger Mortimer (Roger senior is perhaps most (in)famous for having delivered Llewellyn ap Gruffyds head to Edward I) and was by all accounts a well-educated and handsome young man, who had as many friends among the aspiring clergy as he did amongst his peers.

No sooner had Roger survived infancy but his parents began checking out potential brides. After some scouting, they decided on Joan de Geneville, a well-dowered little Irish Heiress (well, French blood figured prominently). The happy couple were wed when Roger was only fourteen, but apparently the lad knew what to do, and a year later Joan gave birth to a son, the first of the thirteen children she was to give her husband. Thirteen!  Clearly, the young couple were very affectionate, and Joan quite often accompanied her husband as he went about his massive estates.

edward_i__ii_prince_of_wales_1301In 1306, Roger was knighted by Edward I in a massive ceremony which included Edward, Prince of Wales. More or less of an age, the two young men seemed to enjoy each other’s company, even if Roger had the distinct advantage of being in control of his own purse strings (his father was dead since some years back) while the prince depended on his father. The Edward-Edward relationship was not an easy one; Edward I was a tough old man, and there were times when his son probably felt that no matter what he did, it wasn’t good enough. In retrospect, it is easy to agree with that opinion; Edward II may have been a nice man, unjustly maligned by history, but he was not much of a king.

Anyway; the old king died, the new king took over, Joan had babies as regularly as clockwork, and Roger nurtured his career, serving the king in one capacity after the other. He was handed the rather nasty job of pacifying Ireland – and specifically of routing Edmund Bruce, Robert Bruce’s younger brother who had claimed the title of King of Ireland – and set off across the Irish Sea to do his best. Roger’s first tour in Ireland was not all that successful – the Irish did not take kindly to being pacified, one could say – but when he returned for a second tour as Lieutenant Governor, Roger managed to establish control over the Emerald Isle. Edmund Bruce was killed, Roger organised the administration, filled vacant offices, inspected his own (well, his wife’s) extensive holdings, and while he was at it he founded Trinity College in Dublin.

In 1318, Roger Mortimer returned from Ireland victorious. The king was duly grateful, but also somewhat disturbed; Roger Mortimer was a tad too capable, and Edward II was getting rather sick and tired of competent – and powerful – barons who were telling him how to run his kingdom. At the time of Roger’s return, Edward was at loggerheads with his cousin, Thomas of Lancaster, the single most powerful man in England, arguably more powerful than the king himself.

Thomas of Lancaster does not come across as a particularly nice man – nor a wise one. He constantly antagonised his royal cousin, he was more than active in separating the king from his favourites (Lancaster was personally involved in the execution of Piers Gaveston, Edward II’s boon companion) and he seems to have been quite convinced the sun shone out of his own backside. Always a man to insist on his prerogatives, he constantly needled the king, causing conflicts about almost everything. At times, Lancaster’s grievances were legitimate, as in the case of the Despensers (father and son – both favourites of the king, both named Hugh) and in 1318 a stale mate had arisen between the king and his not so loyal subject.

It may be worthwhile to take the time here to point out that Roger Mortimer hated Hugh Despenser (both of them). Hugh Despenser (both of them) hated Roger Mortimer. The families’ bad blood went back a couple of generations – it was Roger’s grandfather who had killed Hugh Despenser the younger’s grandfather at Evesham. That Despenser had sided with Simon de Montfort against the king. So when Lancaster demanded that the king be counselled by a group of barons that excluded the Despensers, Roger was all for it. The king was not, but felt forced to agree.

For some years, an uneasy truce existed between the king and his barons. While there was a council of barons to officially counsel the king, he seems to have preferred to take his counsel behind locked doors from Hugh Despenser (both of them, but mostly the younger). The barons seethed. The king was in flagrant breach of his coronation oath, and people muttered about Magna Charta and faithless kings. Roger Mortimer had so far done his best to remain a loyal servant to the king, but when the king repeatedly went against law and custom to give Hugh Despenser (both of them) whatever their little hearts desired, be it another man’s land or not, something snapped in Roger. He knew the Despensers were his mortal enemies, and Mortimer had no intention of sitting around as a sitting duck for the Despensers to shoot at.

mortimer-c5b24c86e4c809e755d803f8adbe1aebIn 1321, incensed by yet another case of unlawful behaviour by Despenser that the king chose to ignore (as I said; a bad king), Mortimer allied himself with Lancaster and began a full-scale attack on Despenser land. Mortimer was a military professional with years of experience on the field – specifically on Irish bogs. He and his men squashed whatever resistance they encountered, and by the end of the summer Mortimer had his men encamped around London. His only demand was that the king exile the Despensers – and he wasn’t alone in demanding this, as a number of English barons, including Lancaster, agreed with him. The king wailed. The king gnashed his teeth. The king acquiesced, weeping as he signed the order that effectively exiled the Despensers. He must have wept even more when he signed the pardons for his rebellious barons, seeing as they’d only acted “in the interest of the realm”.

Mortimer now had TWO (Three) powerful enemies; Hugh Despenser (both of them) and the king. Not that our baron seems to have been unduly worried – or maybe he truly believed the Despenser issue had been sorted once and for all. If so, he seriously underestimated the king. Edward showed an impressive amount of ingenuity and drive, going from baron to baron to mutter about Roger Mortimer and Thomas of Lancaster. These men, the king whispered, threatened his royal rule – and not only that, but also the power of any minor baron. However, the king went on, should these minor barons ally themselves with the king, well then…

Not only were there a number of minor lords in the king’s camp. He had a number of earls who felt more than bound by their oaths to the king, albeit that they might secretly have agreed with Roger’s objections to Despenser. One such earl was Aymer de Valence, Earl of Pembroke. This particular earl was a veteran of political intrigue, as respected by Roger Mortimer as he was by the king. Had Aymer been around to smooth things over a few months earlier, things might never have become quite as polarised. As it was, Aymer had no success in attempting a rapprochement between the king and his stubborn baron.

Things came to a head over an incident at Leeds Castle (which, just to confuse things is in Kent, nowhere close to Leeds). The castle belonged to Lord Badlesmere, and when he wasn’t around it was his lady wife who did the running of things. This lady had the temerity to refuse the queen entry to the castle, and this insult was just the excuse King Edward needed. In a matter of weeks, he had the castle besieged. The garrison surrendered on the promise of their lives, but were summarily hanged anyway. Poor Lady Badlesmere was dragged off to the Tower with her children – one of which was Roger Mortimer’s little daughter-in-law.

Shit, one could say. Mortimer decided to do some pow-wowing with Lancaster and trotted off up to Pontrefact Castle. In the south, the king continued raising an army, and suddenly the tables were turned, with Mortimer having to flee the advancing might of the king. Had Thomas of Lancaster held true to his vow to Mortimer and joined forces with him, chances are the king would have been defeated. As it was, Lancaster chose to sit in the north and sulk, muttering that he had never liked Badlesmere.

Mortimer retired beyond the Severn, but he was a pragmatic man – and a realist – and knew his chances of holding out in the long run were extremely slim. Which was when the Earl of Pembroke approached him and suggested he submit to the king, who, Pembroke said, would be merciful. Pissed off as hell, yes, but merciful.

It is testament to Pembroke’s reputation that Mortimer took him at his word, but what happened next would for ever sully Pembroke’s honour. Mortimer rode to Shrewsbury and submitted to the king, only to be brusquely informed that whatever Pembroke may have promised was no longer valid, and Mortimer should prepare himslef to die – and die gruesomly. In chains, Mortimer was dragged off to the Tower, there to await his final date with the executioner.

That date never happened. Despenser must have begged the king on his bare knees to rid the world of Mortimer, but whatever bursts of initiative had inflamed Edward in 1321 now petered out. Plus, he had an angry country on his hands, given the number of barons he had summarily executed in the aftermath of Mortimer’s rebellion – starting with his own cousin, Thomas of Lancaster, who was first defeated by the royal forces at the Battle of Boroughbridge, then convicted of treason and summarily beheaded.

Mortimer was therefore allowed to languish in captivity – alive, but deprived. However, hawks like Mortimer don’t like being cooped up, and in August of 1323, Mortimer escaped from the Tower, having first ensured the guards had been served drugged wine at their annual celebration of St Peter. The king’s Greatest Traitor was free – and hot-footed it to France, while back home his wife and children remained prisoners of the king.

mortimer-isabella2In France, Mortimer was to join forces with Queen Isabella, King Edward’s disgruntled wife (read more here) Actually, they did more than join forces – they sort of joined everything together, indulging in a passionate affair. I imagine Edward choked on his wine at the thought of his wife in the arms of his rebellious baron. He must have choked even more when he realised just what a threat those two were to his throne – in particular as Isabella had her eldest son, the future Edward III, with her.

Well, we all know how that ended, don’t we? Isabella returned to England in 1326, accompanied by Mortimer and her son. Edward and Hugh Despenser  fled westwards but were captured. Edward was imprisoned at Kenilworth and subsequently forced to abdicate. Hugh was subjected to a mock trial and a gruesome execution. Mortimer, dear peeps, had arrived. Together with Isabella, he controlled the young king and through him, the kingdom. Let’s just say that not everyone cheered at this development.

eduard3Mortimer turned his impressive organisational skills to ordering the kingdom, hiring competent officers throughout the realm. Good men, to be sure, these officers were officially the king’s men, but most of them were loyal to Mortimer first, the king second. As it should be, Mortimer probably felt. Not so much, the young Edward III thought. For now, the young king was not in a position to strike back, and initially he seems to have respected and even liked Mortimer. But as the years passed, Edward began choimping at the bit, increasingly concerned when it seemed neither of his regents (his Mama was as involved as Mortimer in running things on his behalf) had any intention of stepping down.

Late in 1328, various of the barons rebelled, led by Henry of Lancaster (brother to the dead Thomas) Lancaster demanded that he be regent, seeing as he was closer kin to the king and also a much more important baron than the upstart Mortimer. This did not go down well with Mortimer – or Isabella. And as to being a more important baron, well that was easily solved: in October 1328, Mortimer became the 1st Earl of March. Lancaster likely choked. So, more importantly, did Edward III, who felt strongarmed into giving Mortimer the title.

Anyway: in early 1329 the rebels were crushed, and Mortimer and Isabella were magnanimous in defeat, exacting fines rather than lives. Things, it seemed, had settled down, except that the kingdom was constantly plagued by rumors that the old king was alive, rumours that could potentially escalate into rebellion as men flocked to the standards of Edward II, preferring him to being ruled by an upstart marcher lord and an adulterous queen.

Officially, Edward II died already back in September of 1327. He was interred in Gloucester in December of that same year, but there are a lot of oddities re this death – like the fact that no one actually saw the dead king prior to him already having been covered by cerecloths (part of the conservation process). Also, there were murmurs as to whether the king had died or been murdered, with fingers pointing not so discreetly at Mortimer. In truth, a very infected situation, even more so when more and more people started circulating teh theory that the king was alive but imprisoned.

So, was Edward II dead? Well, I am of the opinion that he probably wasn’t – several historians agree with me, but just as many are convinced Edward II did die in 1327. Even if he was dead, I have problems believeing Isabella and Mortimer would have ordered his death – an anointed king was an anointed king, however much deposed he was. But what I believe is neither here nor ther – if nothing else because the barons back in the 14th century wouldn’t give a rat’s arse about what I might think. After all, they were living these turbulent times, not reading about them with a nice cuppa close at hand.

One of the barons who genuinely seems to have believed Edward II was still alive was the drop-dead gorgeous Edmund, Earl of Kent, much younger half-brother of Edward II. Edmund even went as far as to consider how to break Edward out of captivity, and some of his missives ended up in Mortimer’s hand. What followed is one of the blacker stains on Mortimer, because at parliament in Winchester in march 130, he effectively manipulated teh procedings in such a way that he gave the young king no option but to condemn his uncle to death.

Edmund was terrified. He pleaded and begged for his life, but there was nothing to do – Edward had his hands tied and couldn’t pardon him without showing weakness. And so Kent was hauled out to die in his shirt on a cold March day. Except that the executioner had fled, not wanting any part in this. Hours of waiting ensued, the condemned man shivering in his shirt unrtil someone was found willing to cut his head off. Not pretty. At all. Edwrad would never forgive Mortimer for this – an intelligent young man, he realised just how elegantly Mortimer had played his cards to assure himself of this grisly outcome.

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Mortimer being seized

From that moment on, the clock was ticking for Mortimer. And, as described in this post, in October of 1330, the young king and his companions acted, entering the castle of Nottingham through a secret passage to take Mortimer captive and haul him off to London where he was to stand trial on a number of charges – including murdering the former king. (Elegantly played by Edward III. By accusing Mortimer of this crime, he effectively killed off any speculation that his father might still be alive. Clearly, Edward had learnt a thing or two from his regents)

Mortimer was not accorded a fair trial. Bound and gagged, he was not given the opportunity to speak in his defence. Just like at Hugh Despenser’s trial, four years before, the outcome was given. Mortimer was condemned to die, but was spared the horrors of being hanged, drawn and quartered, He was “just” to be drawn and hanged.

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The fall of Icarus – Blondell

On the cold morning of November 29, 1330, he was led out to the waiting horses, dressed in the black velvet tunic he’d worn to Edward II’s funeral. He was tied to the horses, dragged through the streets of London all the way to Tyburn. By then his tunic was in tatters, and what remained was torn of him, so that he stood naked while the noose was tightened round his neck. Some final words, a prayer, and up he went, life being strangled out of him as the noose tightened. And so, dear peeps, died Roger Mortimer, a man so driven by ambition he did not realise just how close he was flying to the sun until it was too late.

Personally, I have a fondness for Mortimer, which is probably why I’ve built my entire 14th century series round his rise and fall. It is also why I’ll be raising a glass in honour of his memory today. A man larger than life deserves as much, methinks.

In the head of a medieval knight

knights_templar“In my head?” Adam de Guirande sounds amused. “You?”
“Honey, I hate to break it to you: I am in your head all the time. Or rather, if we’re going to be correct, you’re in my head all the time.”
Adam just looks at me. Sheesh! Some of these invented characters are sensitive souls, and Adam de Guirande most definitely doesn’t like to be reminded of the fact that he doesn’t exist – well, beyond his very tangible presence in my books about him. In those, if I may say so myself, Adam is a “walking, talking, living doll” – err – I mean knight. No doll. Absolutely not. A man’s man is Adam, which does not mean he walks about in absolute silence while internalising all his emotions. Few men do, no matter that Hollywood has tried to push the image of the silent, suffering hero for decades.

Anyway: writing a protagonist born in 1296 comes with its challenges – even more so when it’s a he and not a she. Mind you, I am of the firm opinion that the human condition as such has not changed all that much in the intervening seven centuries or so. Yes, human life and conceptual thinking took a HUGE leap when Homo Sapiens began decorating their caves with art, when they began spending their evenings sitting round the fire and telling each other stories.

Yes, it took another gigantic leap when the human race decided to eschew nomadic life and become farmers, rooted to the ground. At that moment, concepts such as private property saw the light of the day, as did the concept of patriarchial families. After all, Ancient Farmer who’d broken his back clearing ground to feed his family had a vested interest in ensuring it was his family & genes that would inherit the fruits of his labour.

I am not so sure landing on the moon was quite as climactic from the perspective of the human condition.
“Landing on the moon?” Adam cranes his head back to peer at the moon, which most obligingly appears in all its yellowish glory. “Truly?”
“Yup. And a cold and barren place it is,” I tell him. “No water, no air…”
“Man is intended for life here,” Adam says, sweeping his arm out to encompass the meadows with rippling grasses, the seas, the forests, the moors that offer endless skies and stunted gorse, the tilled fields, the burbling brooks (Okay, so we’re doing a 360 in my head), the walled cities that dot his world. He points upwards. “Those are God’s domains.”

knight-davidisquireAh. And here we have a fundamental difference between Adam’s take on the world and that of modern man. For Adam, God’s existence is never in doubt. He has grown up in a world where God is a constant presence, His will often referred to, His displeasure something best avoided, His grace something to strive for. There is no point in asking Adam (or his wife, Kit) if they believe in God. They wouldn’t comprehend the question. To them, God IS. Full stop.

I can, however, ask him if he believes in everything the Church teaches. Adam raises his brows. (Fair brows, as are his long lashes, fringing grey eyes) “Dangerous question,” he says.
“You’re among friends,” I assure him, and this medieval knight who knows much more about tweeting and blogging than a medieval knight should know – a consequence of all that time he spends hovering in my subconscious while I dedicate myself to such things – gives me a fleeting smile.
“The Churh has its share of ambitious and greedy men,” he says. “Not necessarily good – or godly – men. So no, I do not believe everything the Church teaches.” He squints at the sun (what can I say? night shifts into day rapidly in my head). “Ultimately, it is all very simple, isn’t it? A man must live out his life as well as he can, striving to uphold God’s laws and be good. You don’t need a priest to interpret that for you – you just need a conscience.”

Which he has – in spades. Sometimes, though, the conscience must come in conflict with his duty and loyalty to his lord. I ask as much, reminding him of the autumn 1321 when his then lord, Roger Mortimer rose in rebellion against the king. “Was that the right thing to do?”
“For me, there was no choice.” Adam sits back, extends his legs and spends a long time studying his hose, here and there expertly darned. “Lord Roger made me into the man I am. When he decided there was no choice but to rebel, I could do nothing but follow him.”
“To death and ruin, almost,” I remind him.
“Aye. Almost.” He sighs. “A knight without loyalty, without honour – he is no knight.”
“A bit like this?” I hand him a picture.

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Dürer: The Knight, Death & the Devil

He studies it silence, a finger tracing the exquisite outlines of Albrecht Dürer’s engraving. “Nice horse,” he says after a while. His lips twitch. “And aye, at times it’s like this. A man doing his duty, despite Death’s rank breath tickling his neck, despite the Devil’s whispering.” He crosses himself. “A good knight perseveres and does his duty as best as he can.”
“And would you say all your contemporaries agree with that?”
“I would. Which is not the same thing as saying all knights are honourable and loyal. Many are as afflicted by ambition and greed as certain servants of the Church, and so…” He shrugs.
“And you? Aren’t you ambitious?”
“Not that ambitious.” He looks away. “Besides, I have already achieved my dreams. The abused gutter-rat is now a belted knight, owner of a few manors, and how else to repay the debt of gratitude I owe my master for rising me so high than by serving him diligently?”
“Which him?” I ask as gently as I can. Adam’s face clouds, his cleanshaven jaw clenching and unclenching. In difference to most of the men of his generation, he has never worn a beard. In this, he takes after Roger Mortimer – and it makes them stick out among the otherwise hirsute men who populate the court of the very young (and as yet beardless) Edward III.
“I have but one lord,” he replies. He nods in the direction of Edward, presently engaged in a mock-fight with his younger brother, Prince John.
“Not in here, you don’t,” I say, placing a hand on his chest.
Adam gives me a rueful smile. “No.” His gaze shifts, to where Roger Mortimer is presently walking side by side with Queen Isabella. For now, those two rule on behalf of Edward, but soon enough the pup will be a full-grown hound and then…I suppress the desire to whisper a prayer. Adam gives me a long look. “You know what will happen.”
“I do.” Duh. Apart from the fact that most of it is historical fact, I am also the person penning the novels in which Adam features. And what is to come will tear Adam apart.

medieval-love“So,” I say to change the subject, “God, loyalty and honour. What else is important to you?”
He grins. “Love – that’s what you want me to say, isn’t it?”
“Maybe. Is it?”
“Important? Aye, but it is not something I ever hoped for. I’d have settled for duty and some affection, a wife who was a friend, not a soulmate.” He slides me a look. “You modern people have such high expectations on your relationships, don’t you? Unless the earth moves, unless your heart double-thuds at the sight of your partner, it’s not worth it, and off you go searching for that elusive love elsewhere.” He takes my hands, callused fingers rubbing over my skin. “A marriage built on loyalty and trust may not set the bed on fire, but love comes in many shapes and forms.”
“Why are you holding her hand?” The dark female voice has Adam dropping my hand as if it were red-hot.
“We were talking about love,” I tell Kit, and she moves over to sit beside Adam – almost on Adam, as the bench he’s sitting on is narrow. “Adam was saying it was not something he’d expected to find.”
Kit nods. “Me neither. But then I wasn’t expecting to be coerced into marrying a stranger either.”
“Didn’t turn out too bad, did it?” I ask, watching their fingers braid together.
“Not too bad,” Kit agrees. She stands, reminds Adam the bath is being filled as we speak, and drifts through the hall towards the stairs leading to the solar. I can see Adam is itching to follow her, but instead he courteously enquires if I want some cider. I don’t.

medeltiden_tornering“Does it surprise you, that your wife is such a strong woman?” I ask. For an instant or two, he just stares at me, his cup frozen halfway to his mouth. And then he begins to laugh.
“Strong? All women are strong, ” he says once he has calmed down. “Only a fool of a man would ever underestimate a woman. I dare say that is as valid in your time as it is in mine.”
Too right. I smile at him and wave him off, watching as he hurries towards his waiting bath and wife. My very own medieval knight, burdened with too much loyalty and honour, fortunate in the love he shares with his wife and helpmeet. A man to hold your back when darkness threatens – and it does at times, both in his time and in ours. No wonder I love him to bits!

(And should you want to know more about Adam and his adventures, why not pop over here?)

The king, his mistress, and his wife – A Castilian 14th century soap opera

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Alfonso surrounded by his knights

Once upon a time, there was a king. A Castilian king, called Alfonso. By now, regular readers of my blog will know there are an uncountable number of Spanish kings called Alfonso – ok, not uncountable, but still, we’re talking far more than a dozen. This particular Alfonso was number XI and king of Castile from the age of one or so. During his minority, various greedy relatives did their best to amass as much land and wealth as they could, and accordingly Alfonso had his work cut out for him once he was declared capable of ruling in his own name.

A skilled and ruthless ruler, Alfonso quickly brought his kingdom back under control, albeit that at times the methods he employed were brutal and borderline illegal, with potential rebels dispatched without a trial. In 1325, at the age of 14, Alfonso married a certain Constanza, two years later he had the marriage annulled, and in 1328 he married Maria of Portugal, a good dynastic marriage that came with the benefit of strenthening relationships between Castile and Portugal. Maria was considered very beautiful, but unfortunately for her, Alfonso was to lose his heart to another woman, Leonor de Guzmán.

Leonor was a year or so older than Alfonso, and had been married young to a man called Juan Velasco. By all accounts a happy marriage, it all ended too soon when Juan died, leaving Leonor a devastated, if pretty, teenaged widow. Leonor lived in Seville, and it was there that she first met the king (some say before his marriage to Maria, some say after. Given various dates, I’d say after). Alfonso was beguiled by this pretty, vivacious woman, and she, in turn, must have found him attractive, how else to explain that a high-born lady initiated an adulterous relationship with  a married man?

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Maria

Whatever the case, Alfonso made no secret of the fact that he much preferred Leonor to Maria. Where he hastened to spend as much time as he could with his mistress, his wife had to make do with the odd conjugal visit, moments in which the king closed his eyes and thought of Leonor while fulfilling his marital duties. Not much fun for poor Maria, one imagines. Even less fun when the king insisted Leonor be present at court, while Maria was shunted off to live in a convent – albeit in luxury.

Already in 1330, Leonor gave birth to the first of the ten children she would give Alfonso. He was estatic  and promptly showered both babe and mother with land. In 1331, yet another son was born, and I imagine this twisted the knife even deeper in Maria’s heart. However, the king continued to visit his wife, eager to sire a legitimate heir. Maybe this is a good time to stop for a moment and consider just how Maria would feel about all this, her husband’s interest in her reduced to her role as brood mare no more, his conjugal visits an obvious onerous duty that he discharged before hurrying off to love and adore Leonor. No wonder the woman became bitter and harsh.

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Alfonso, about to mount

In 1333, Maria was delivered of a son. Unfortunately, little Fernando died a year later, just as Leonor gave birth to twin sons, thereby having given Alfonso four healthy sons in three years. By now, Leonor was a major landowner, the king’s largesse making her a power unto her own – which did not exactly endear her either to poor Maria or to the Spanish nobles, who were more than worried by Leonor’s influence over their king. Alfonso couldn’t care less what his nobles might think – or anyone else, for that matter. People who had the temerity of criticising the fact that the royal mistress spent her time at court, always side by side with the king, while the queen was nowhere in sight, ended up punished.

In 1334, Queen Maria gave birth to yet another son – this time a healthy and squalling lad that would grow up to become Pedro el Cruel (Pedro the Cruel) or Pedro el Justiciero (Pedro the Just) depending on what chronicle you choose to read. The king was satisfied with this lusty heir, and apparently he never saw any reason to return to his wife’s bed again. Poor Maria’s life narrowed even further. Leonor’s, on the other hand, did not. She and her children were always at court, while little Pedro spent his childhood with his isolated and increasingly vitriolic mother. Did not lead to the best father-son relationship, I imagine.

Leonor was not only pretty and fertile. She was also ambitious and politically astute, working always towards the goal of ensuring her children’s future. The king was more than happy to give her what she wanted, and so her sons were given lands aplenty, and raised to various important positions, despite their youth. One of their sons, Fadrique Alfonso, was made Master of the Order of Santiago at the tender age of eight. Being an intelligent woman, Leonor was also aware of the resentment she and her huge brood elicited – which had her redoubling her efforts to see her babies safe and secure.

Leonor’s position at court was recognised far beyond the borders of her lover’s kingdom. As an example, Edward III wrote to her when he was trying to arrange a marriage between his daughter Joan and Alfonso’s legitimate son, Pedro. She, apparently, was happy to help out, and the contracts were duly signed. (The marriage was not to be. Joan died on her way to Castile of the plague)

Alfonso was very happy with Leonor, and other than the initial excursions to do what he had to do with his wife, seems to have been faithful to his mistress. He was also constantly quelling various insurrections, and in 1340 he had a minor crisis on his hands when the pope, his father-in-law and several influential nobles banded together, insisting he lock Leonor up in a convent and bring back Maria to court, or else…

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Alfonso fighting Moors

At the time, Alfonso was fighting on several fronts: against the Moors, against the Aragonese, against his unhappy nobles. Being a pragmatic man, he therefore sent Maria off to negotiate an agreement with her father, promising to treat her  as his queen going forward. Leonor was taken to a convent, but given future events, I imagine Alfonso had assured her the stay among the nuns would be short. After all, Alfonso had no intention of keeping his promise to Maria. No sooner were his enemies vanquished but he brought Leonor back to court, while Maria was yet again banished to live out her life alone with her son.

No one lives for ever, and in 1350, Alfonso was in Gibraltar when he contracted the plague. Some days later, he was dead, and all of Castile was in a turmoil. The new king was a sixteen-year-old who’d spent very little time at court, and soon enough various factions were vying for control over the new king.

Leonor, I imagine, was devastated by the death of her lover. For over twenty years, they’d shared a life, and further to this she was left with little protection against the enemies that now started to come out of the woodworks, principally among them Maria, the Queen Mother, who was determined to exact her revenge for all those years of humiliation.

Things see-sawed. An initial reconciliation proved short-lived when Leonor made one final bid to secure the future of her children. In 1350, she pushed through the marriage of her eldest surviving son, Enrique of Trastámara with a certain Juana Manuel. Now this young girl was a great-granddaughter of the great and saintly Fernando III, and as such a marriage to her gave Enrique a legitimate claim on the throne of Castile. Not good, as per Pedro and his protective mama. Leonor, who was fully aware of just how unpalatable this union was to the new king, went one step further: she had the newly-weds ushered into her bedchamber to consummate the marriage ASAP.

As a result of all this, Leonor was imprisoned.  Whether Maria was already toying with the idea of assasinating her, we don’t know. I’m guessing she was very, very tempted. But for now, Leonor was “just” a prisoner, and when the court moved south in early 1351, she was obliged to accompany them. The ambulating court paid a visit to the Master of the Order of Santiago at Llerena, and I imagine Leonor was delighted to see her son, Fadrique Alfonso. Did she know she’d never see him again? Probably not, but she may have suspected as much.

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Antonio Amorós de Botella: The last farewell – Leonor bidding Fadrique Alfonos goodbye under Maria’s supervision. At the time, her son was seventeen, so he’d have been a tad taller, methinks.

A little while later, Leonor was put to death at a castle belonging to Maria, Talario de la Reina. Some say she was tied to a post under the punishing sun and left to die, a cord pulled tight around her neck…If so, I hope she had her eyes affixed on the endless blue of an Andalucian sky as she died, murdered for the sin of having been loved too much. Okay, okay: and for being somewhat avaricious and ambitious.

As per the chronicler Pedro Lopez de Ayala, Leonor died as a consequence of a direct order from Maria of Portugal. “..and much evil, and much war, would afflict Castile because of this,” he writes. Too right. Leonor’s sons did not like it when they heard their mother had been murdered. Suddenly, the new young king had a major civil war on his hands – a conflict that wouldn’t end until the day in 1369 when Enrique avenged his mother by murdering his half-brother, Pedro.

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Enrique de Trastámera

One could say that ultimately, Leonor won. With her son, the House of Trastámara ascended the Castilian throne and would remain safely parked there until, in 1518, the very young Charles V of Hapsburg was acclaimed as joint ruler of Castile, together with the last Trastámara queen, his mother Juana. But that is another story – one you can read more about here!

Sleeping with the enemy – a royal duty

Throughout history, Denmark and Sweden have mostly been at war. Sometimes, Denmark has had the upper hand – mostly, in fact – but now and then Sweden has stomped their southern neighbours into the dust, like they did in the 17th century. Along the way, Sweden took over substantial lands previously belonging to Denmark, and this did not go down well with the Danes.

In 1658, Denmark was forced into a humiliating treaty whereby they gave up the entire province of Scania (which is the southern-most tip of present day Sweden). Why the treaty? Well, it all had to do with the very intrepid Swedish king Karl X Gustav, nephew of Gustav II Adolf, who surprised the Danes by leading his army across the ice to the south of Denmark, thereby attacking them in the back while they were expecting the Swedes to come across the seas to the north.

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Little Karl

Fortunately, as per the Danes, Karl X Gustav was not long for this world. He died in 1660 and suddenly the mighty Sweden had a five-year-old child as king, the as yet very puny and un-martial Karl XI. Hmm, thought the Danes, maybe now would be a good time to reclaim some of that lost territory? Not. The little king had an impressive mother and good men around him to keep him and his reign safe, so for now the Danes had to hold their peace. Besides, Fredrik III of Denmark had learnt at his own expense not to bait the Swedish wolf, and preferred to live out his last few years in peace.

Karl XI was not the most socially gifted of people. He was interested in facts, in war and in numbers. He was also determined not to let that French pompous king by the name of Louis XIV hog all the limelight – which didn’t work out all that well. After all Louis was king of France, while Karl XI was king of Sweden. And while Sweden in the second half of the 17th century was big – much, much bigger than France – it wasn’t exactly the centre of the world. Rather the reverse, actually.

From the day of Karl XI’s birth, his potential wedding was a hot topic of discussion – as it was for any prince or princess of the blood. In little Karl’s case, a suitable bride was found very close to home: he had a cousin, Juliana, who was brought to court to be raised with her future husband. Now Juliana came with something of a blemish – or rather her mother did, having admitted to her husband that she’d had an affair with a French Lute player. Obviously, expectations were that nurture would beat any adulterous genes little Juliana might possess, and things were ticking along quite nicely – until Juliana gave birth to a child while out riding in a carriage with her prospective mother-in-law. The Queen Mother was not amused. Juliana, of course was disgraced and discarded as a bride-to-be. Karl himself seems not to have cared overmuch. (More about Juliana – and her mother – can be found here)

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Ulrika Eleonora as a child

Instead, Karl decided to follow his council’s advice and do what most young princes did: he was going to wed where it suited his political interests best, which is why, in 1675, he sent off an embassy to Copenhagen to request the hand in marriage of Ulrika Eleonora, youngest sister to the new Danish king, Christian V. At the time, Christian V was already planning war on Sweden. The lands his father had lost called to him, so to say, and Christian considered himself a far better general and leader than his father – and superior in all things to the young Swedish king, at the time a slight youth of twenty who had not begun shaving regularly.

Being of a devious inclination (but that may be the Swede in me), Christian V chose to pretend he was all for this match. In fact, to really lull the Swedes into a sensation of false security he encouraged his sister to accept the proposal – without telling her of his double-dealing. Ulrika Eleonora is one of those people in history who mostly impress by being good and kind, and in this case she innocently agreed to the match, being more than mortified by the fact that her stiff skirts did not allow her to curtsey properly to the Swedish ambassador.

Some months later, war exploded. Christian immediately rescinded on his promise to wed his sister to the soon-to-be Swedish loser, but his sister insisted she had given her word – and her heart (which seems strange as she’d never clapped eyes on Karl) – to the Swedish king.
“He’s the enemy!” the somewhat upset Danish Dowager Queen said. “You can’t go to bed with him.”
“Of course, I can. It’s my duty to do so – as his wife,” Ulrika Eleonora said, her eyes acquiring a somewhat misty look.
Difficult situation, one could say, even more so when the Danish princess made a point of taking a personal interest in the Swedish prisoners of war that soon began streaming into Copenhagen. You see, initially Christian seemed to be winning. Rephrase: he was winning, big time, with the very young Karl pushed further and further north. Until, in December of 1676, the Swedish army pulverised the Danish forces at the battle of Lund, with over 10 000 men killed in one day.

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The victorious Karl

The war continued – and not only in Scandinavia. France allied itself with Sweden against Holland who were allied with Denmark, more nations joined in, and it was all quite the mess – until the French defeated the forces of present day Netherlands in 1678. Louis XIV, who considered himself the senior member in the Swedish-French coalition (duh!) pushed through a treaty in 1678 without consulting Sweden, and so, according to Louis, things were neatly concluded.

The Swedes were miffed at having the French treat on their behalf without consulting with them. Never mind that the Swedes got everything they wanted from the treaty, this was a matter of national pride. Who did the French think they were, lording it over everyone, hey? Too right, the Danes agreed, after all they were perfectly capable of negotiating their own treaty with Sweden, weren’t they? And so the Swedes and Danes met in Lund where they did just that: negotiate a treaty that was already signed (!)

As part of that treaty, the matter of the royal marriage was yet again raised by the Swedish representatives. At the time, Karl lived under the assumption that his match with Ulrika Eleonora was as dead as any of the poor frozen corpses that had recently decorated the field in Lund. No one thought to inform him that this particular corpse was now back to living and breathing again – in fact, the king was presented with a fait accompli – his Danish princess would soon be his wife.

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Ulrika Eleonora

Karl took this pretty much in stride, albeit that he was heard to grumble a bit about Ulrika Eleonora’s purported plainness (they had still not seen each other). And yes, to judge from her portraits, Ulrika Eleonora was not a major looker, having been gifted by an oversized nose that sort of dwarfed all her other features, but Karl was not exactly prince Charming either.

In the spring of 1680, the Swedish nobleman Johan Gyllenstierna was dispatched to Copenhagen to fetch the bride-to-be. Now Johan had quite the ostentatious streak in him – in contrast, Karl XI was anything but, being somewhat miserly when it came to spending money – so Johan arrived in Copenhagen in style travelling with an entourage of 130 people and close to seventy horses.

In Wonderful, Wonderful Copenhagen, there were balls and dinners and more balls and more dinners, and everyone was waiting for Karl to ask Johan to bring Ulrika Eleonora over to Sweden. Instead, Karl prevaricated. Twice, Johan was forced to delay their departure on the king’s orders, but when Karl tried to delay things a third time, Johan refused to comply.

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Karl striking a pose

One doesn’t exactly get the picture of an eager bridegroom, even less so when Johan had to remind his king that maybe he should send his fiancée some gifts – she’d sent him plenty. At long last Karl sent over a pearl necklace and some matching earrings, and then managed to really irritate Johan by absolutely refusing to take apart in a huge, public wedding. Nope, the king said, he wanted something small and private, with no family present except for Ulrika Eleonora’s two brothers. Johan scratched his hair in despair. The French ambassador was insisting he be invited! Tough, Karl said.
“You’re not stopping me,” the French ambassador, a gentleman by the name of Feuquières said. “I’m coming whether you like it or not.”

Karl couldn’t very well stop the stubborn Frenchman – but he could make it uncomfortable for him, by ordering his noblemen not to offer him lodgings. Feuquières , however, was a man of the world and found lodgings on his own in the insignificant town of Halmstad where the wedding was to be held.

Karl sniffed. He was adamant that the wedding ceremony be private, and so he rode out to meet his bride in the late afternoon, suggested they travel over to the nearby manor of Skottorp, and then more or less surprised everyone by insisting the wedding go ahead just before midnight. A blushing bride, her not quite as enthusiastic groom, the groom’s mother, an assortment of noblemen and that was it. No fuss, no major expense – just like Karl liked it.

After the wedding ceremony, Karl retired to eat dinner with two of his officers. Ulrika was served a light dinner in her mother-in-law’s rooms. At one o’clock in the morning, she was escorted to the bridal chamber and her waiting husband. Whatever transpired between them, we don’t know, but come four in the morning Karl was already up and about. I imagine he looked quite smug when Feuquières popped up to offer his congratulations.

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The happy family

Whether these congratulations were also extended to the new queen of Sweden, I don’t know. In fact, I don’t think there was all that much to congratulate her about, as in Karl’s life other things would always be far more important and interesting than his wife. He did, however, perform his marital duties regularly if with little passion, and over the coming years Ulrika Eleonora would be brought to bed of five sons and two daughters. All but one of the sons died very young, their deaths having the single upside of bringing the grieving king and his wife closer together.

In 1693, Ulrika Eleonora died. By then, the shy, dutiful and kind Danish princess had won the hearts of her subjects – even that of her husband. In an uncharacteristically emotional entry in his diary he writes “I have lost a Godfearing, virtuous and very dear wife, leaving me in despair and grief.” She was 36 years old. Four years later, Karl also died, leaving behind yet another very young king, the fifteen-year-old Karl XII.

When it snows, it snows – meet Christoph Fischer and his hidden body

christoph-14958177_10153777270967132_571098312_oHi Christoph, and welcome back to Stolen Moments! Last time you were here, it was to do a guest post related to your book In Search of a Revolution. Today, you are here because I’ve recently read your book “The Body in the Snow”. These are two very different books – one is set against the grim history of war in Finland in the 1940s, the other is a cosy mystery. What are your thoughts about writing in two such different genres?
It may be a little self-defeating to switch genres and make my loyal readers wait longer for a new historical novel, but I enjoy writing in different genres. I need it so that everything stays fresh and original. If I wrote the same genre back to back I fear the outcome might become formulaic and repetitive.

Is the writing process different when writing a historical versus a contemporary?
You have to do a lot more research for a historical novel, more ground and preparation work, although it is essential for all books to check your facts. On the other hand, I don’t plot too much in advance and keep the emphasis on the characters, who often challenge me by changing their minds, so, for me, the process itself remains similarly dynamic and flexible.

christoph-14962826_10153777270952132_988519440_nAnd speaking of the writing process, you are an extremely productive author – how long does it take you to write a book?
The impression of my productivity stems from the fact that I wrote seven novels before I published the first one, so I’m off to a head start compared to others.
From the first word to being published, so far the minimum time needed has been seven months. I can write a first draft within about three weeks, with several re-writes then needed before I feel confident to send it off to beta-readers. Including their feedback more re-writes follow, then two back and forth with my editor, then formatting and a last edit. I started “Ludwika” in May 2015 and published it in December the same year.
In contrast, my next novel, “African August” was written in 2010 and has been re-written, dismissed, brought back to life and re-edited several times. It’s an adventure story and doesn’t quite fit into my portfolio, but I believe in the story, so it will be published as part of a charity box set – hopefully by the end of the year, which makes it almost 6 years from first word to being published.

I must say I was quite surprised when I read the blurb for The Body in the Snow. How long have you known you wanted to write a whodunit?
I’ve been reading a lot of crime fiction when I was young, from Enid Blyton to Agatha Christie. When I met my partner, who is a complete fan of mysteries, I was introduced to the Martin Beck series and was (initially) forced to watch “Midsummer Murders” and “Death in Paradise”. My partner is annoyingly brilliant at spotting who did it and that got me into the mind-set of the writer rather than consumer of whodunits. In 2012 I had the idea for the setting and I’ve been working on the book ever since, with changing confidence that I could pull it off.

gabriel-metsu-writingI imagine that when writing a mystery, plotting becomes crucial. Would you agree?
Plotting is more important in a mystery, that is true, but I’m not a great plotter during the first draft. I had four or five ideas of who should have done it and started writing the novel with all possibilities open until the story demanded that I closed one avenue off after the other, until I was left with the last two. I went back to re-write the book, ironing out the now inconsistent parts of the story and around the 90% mark decided on the culprit. I went back to the beginning again and finished.
Writing while not knowing for sure whodunit, helped to keep the mystery for me and avoid a “writing-by-numbers”. If I didn’t know, then it would be more difficult for readers to figure it out, I reckoned. In any case, writing cosy mysteries allows for more colourful characters and more emphasis on their backgrounds.

Your main character is Bebe Bollinger, a self-centred, vain, has-been diva who desperately wants to make a come-back. It could have been very tragic, but instead Bebe is a vibrant (if at times enervating) woman with no intention of giving up on life. Is she purely a figment of your imagination, or have you been inspired by people you know?
Some mannerisms and characteristics are stolen from real life people or celebrities, but these individuals then all didn’t fit the specific idea that evolved in my head. Having worked for an airline and the British Film Institute, I’ve come across enough Diva behaviour to write a village hall full of such characters.

I must admit to laughing out loud at the notion of re-igniting your career by partnering with dear Engelbert in the Eurovision contest. Seriously, what did you think of “Love will set you free”? (As a Swede, I am tempted to holler “Euphoria” instead)
I thought the song was sweet, although not a hit, probably disadvantaged by the positioning at the start of the competition. It’s more an album filler than a chart topper and would never win the “Melodiefestivalen” the way “Euphoria” did.
But I’m admittedly never one to pick the winner. I had “Euphoria” nowhere near my Top Ten that year, whereas I regarded “Hero”, “Popular” and “La Voix” as top contenders…

I happen to know you’re one of those nice people who openly admit to being a Eurovision fan. So which are your top three favourite Eurovision songs?
Amongst the massive amount of music classics that the contest produced I have to go with “Waterloo”, “A little Peace” and “Save Your Kisses for Me”. (Anna: And I just have to add that Ein Bisschen Frieden is a big favourite of mine. )
However, as I’m always one for the underdog, of the non-winning songs I would like to mention songs that I in fact listen to far more often: “Karleken Ar” by Jill Johnson, “Sata Salamaa” by Vicky (Virve) Rosti and “Amsterdam” by Maggie MacNeal.

Back to your book: The Body in the Snow has three strong female characters living as uncomfortable neighbours in a little hamlet – and a somewhat hen-pecked man, Ian. How do you feel about him?
I think he is the classic decent Welsh bloke who aims to do the right thing, has a big, community-driven heart and unfortunately is married to a difficult woman. I have a lot of sympathy for him and his predicament. In an environment of three head-strong women he finds it difficult to create an atmosphere of harmony and peace which is all he really wants.

Will Bebe Bollinger be back in a future book?
Definitely. I have a lot of ideas, just not enough time to produce the next title as quickly as I would like. Bebe has a career to chase, maybe Eurovision 2013, maybe as singer on a cruise ship, maybe solving another mystery in her hamlet in Wales?
Other than Bebe, what are you working on at present?
I’m organising a series of local Book Fairs and Literary Festivals at the moment, so I’m glad I wrote the forthcoming “African August” before all of this started. It’s an adventure story about a lawyer who quits society to seek adventure and cheap living in Africa, without quite knowing what he let himself in for. It is based on some experiences I had when travelling the continent as cabin crew and the naïve ideas I had when first setting foot into the jungle.
I’m also about to finish the sequel to my psychological thriller “The Healer”, working title “The Sanctuary on Cayman Brac”. Arpan, the healer, now lives in the Caribbean, where the story is set. Some unfinished business and lose ends from the first book are set to disturb his peace. The book also features some characters from my other thriller, “The Gamblers” to give them a sort of sequel as well.

Thank you for stopping by, Christoph, and good luck with all your projects. Personally, I feel somewhat exhausted just reading about all this so I will now curl up in my sofa with a  cup of tea. And for those curious to hear what I thought about The Body in the Snow, read on!

About the book:

Fading celebrity Bebe Bollinger is on the wrong side of fifty and dreaming of a return to the limelight. When a TV show offers the chance of a comeback, Bebe grabs it with both hands – not even a lazy agent, her embarrassing daughter, irritating neighbours or a catastrophic snowfall will derail her moment of glory. But when a body is found in her sleepy Welsh hamlet, scandal threatens.

My thoughts
Snow is a bummer. At least, that is something Bebe Bollinger and her neighbours Dora, Ian & Christine agree on. That’s pretty much the only thing they agree on, seeing as Bebe considers Dora somewhat vulgar and Christine an OCD maniac who is a royal pain in the nether parts. Ian, however, she likes – plus it is handy to be on good terms with the single man in the remote Welsh hamlet in which they all live.

Why Bebe Bollinger, famous ex-artist who desperately wants to revive her career, is living out in the back of beyond is a bit unclear. Maybe it is easier to be not-so-famous when living in a place where no one cares if you’re famous. After all, Christine mostly cares about parking and will go to great lengths to ensure her undisciplined neighbours don’t park on the road. And Dora is an odd fish (as per Bebe) who seems to genuinely enjoy living close to nature and is far more interested in birds than in Bebe.

And there, dear peeps, you have the central cast in Christoph Fischer’s latest book, The Body in the Snow. Further colourful additions include Bebe’s VERY loud and demanding daughter, said daughter’s boyfriend, and the future murder victim. While not wanting to give too much away, let’s just say that the obvious reasons for offing the victim turn out to be not so obvious, and suddenly Bebe herself is involved in the murder investigation centred round the corpse found in the snow.

Bebe is a vibrant person whose main interest in life is herself – and her flagging career. Not exactly the most introspective of people, she is blind to her own pushiness and endearingly vulnerable beneath her diva façade. Burdened with the daughter from hell, an ineffectual agent and the insight that she is getting old, Bebe is determined not to give up on life or her ambition to yet again become a household name. The author has done a great job in creating a character who is potentially dislikeable and still making her likeable – precisely because she is so human, warts and all.

The mystery as such trundles along, but is rather secondary, IMO, to the story surrounding Bebe. As a classic crime story, The Body in the Snow could have done with some more pace. As a cosy read on a rainy Sunday afternoon, this is a book that makes you feel just that: cosy. And as to Bebe – well, I for one hope to have the pleasure of her company in future books. After all, ladies like her don’t grow on trees, neither in the real world nor in the fictional one!

And, obviously, by now you’ll be jumping up and down in your eagerness to buy The Body in the Snow – which you can do by following this link.

About the author
Christoph Fischer was born in Germany, near the Austrian border, as the son of a Sudeten-German father and a Bavarian mother. Not a full local in the eyes and ears of his peers, he developed an ambiguous sense of belonging and moved to Hamburg in pursuit of his studies and to lead a life of literary indulgence. In 1993 he moved to the UK and now lives in Llandeilo in West Wales. He and his partner have several Labradoodles to complete their family.

For more info about Christoph and his many books – both historical and contemporary – drop by on his various “social media” homes.
Website: http://www.christophfischerbooks.com/
Blog: http://writerchristophfischer.wordpress.com/
Amazon: http://ow.ly/BtveY
Twitter: https://twitter.com/CFFBooks
Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/WriterChristophFischer?ref=hl

The female touch – of a renaissance king and his wives

Gustav Eriksson Vasa is something of a national hero in Sweden. Okay, so we don’t do national heroes all that well, so while we credit him with freeing Sweden from the unbearable Danish yoke as represented by Christian II, we also consider Gustav Vasa as something of a grasping bastard.

christianiibIf we start with the Danish angle, Christian II (nicknamed “The Tyrant” in Sweden, which shows just how much we love him) trod Sweden underfoot in the early decades of the 16th century, and is also responsible for one of the bloodier massacres in Early Swedish History, the Stockholm Bloodbath. Christian’s intention was to murder all leading Swedish male nobles. Luckily for Gustav Vasa, he wasn’t in Stockholm on that particular November day in 1520. Instead, he swore to avenge his father, his uncles, his cousins, his…long list.

By 1523, Vasa had achieved his goal. Christian II and his acolytes were on the run, and our Gustav, supported by the brave Swedish yeomanry, re-established Sweden as an independent kingdom, with, unsurprisingly, Gustav Vasa as its king. At the time, Gustav was around 28 or so, and, unusually for the times, unmarried. I suppose having spent the last three years on the run and fighting for his life and his country had made him less than inclined to burden himself with a wife, but once seated on the Swedish throne, Vasa turned his attention to finding a woman and begetting an heir.

Gustav Vasa had grown up surrounded by formidable women. His aunt, Kristina Gyllenstierna, had led the defence of Stockholm against the Danes, often to be found on the ramparts with her men. His mother, Cecilia, had been hauled off to captivity by Christian II in the aftermath of Stockholm’s Bloodbath, together with her younger daughters. Christian promised Cecilia her freedom if she would convince her son to submit, and supposedly Cecilia tried. Hmm. Having seen her husband, her brothers, her uncles, die in Stockholm, I’m not entirely sure Cecilia trusted Christian’s intentions. Neither did Kristina, imprisoned with Cecilia.

Whatever the case, upon hearing Gustav Vasa had been crowned Swedish king, Christian supposedly had Cecilia sew a sack out of burlap, tied her up in it, and threw her in the sea to drown. The somewhat more pragmatic truth is that Cecilia succumbed to the plague – conditions in the prison she shared with all the other Swedish ladies were rather nasty. Not only Cecilia died: her two young daughters also died in Denmark.

gustav_vasaGustav liked women. Not in the sense of involving himself in numerous carnal relationships, but rather from the perspective of enjoying their company. So when he set out to choose a wife, he wasn’t looking for a pretty little thing to impregnate and ignore, no, he wanted a companion. He also needed to build alliances – Sweden was still a weak and shaky country, and no matter that Denmark was struggling with its own internal affairs (Christian II was subsequently deposed, forced to flee into exile with his family) it still posed a threat.

Gustav’s first wife was therefore a foreign lady, Catherine of Saxe-Lauenburg. This young woman came with the benefit of having a sister who was already married to the new Danish king, Christian III. Gustav Vasa hoped that familial ties would smooth the way to a permanent peace with his southern, somewhat bellicose, neighbour.

Catherine was unhappy in Sweden. Eighteen years old to Gustav’s thirty-six, she considered her husband old, Stockholm depressingly rustic, and the Swedes lacking in anything resembling polish. Probably quite true, but her open criticism resulted in an unhappy and rocky marriage, which ended when Catherine died after a fall at the age of twenty-two (Lurid legend has it that Gustav beat her to death with an axe. Seeing as her bones show no sign of such brutality, we can put this down to Danish propaganda…) She left behind a little son, the future king Erik XIV.

In 1536, Gustav married again. Now a robust forty, the king needed to fill his nursey – one puny little boy was not enough to ensure the survival of his bloodline. As per contemporary descriptions, Gustav Vasa was quite an attractive man, sporting an impressive beard, tightly cropped blond hair and an excellent physique. Something of a slave under fashion, Gustav was a flamboyant dresser, and seemingly carried off revealing hose with panache. So despite his advanced age, he attracted his fair share of female looks, and his second wife, Margareta Leijonhuvud, seems to have been quite taken with her husband, even if he was twice her age.

Mind you, things didn’t get off to a brilliant start, seeing as Margareta was promised elsewhere – and supposedly was very infatuated with young Svante Sture, her original intended. It is said that when Gustav came to press his suit, Magareta was so distraught she scurried up to hide in the attic. Gustav, however, was a determined man, and followed her up there. Somehow, he convinced her to say yes, and once she’d done so, she never looked back.

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Margareta

Margareta was twenty years old when she and Gustav married in September of 1536. Of impeccable bloodlines, she too had lost male relatives en masse at the Stockholm Bloodbath and had been raised in a household where politics were discussed openly at the dinner table. In difference to the unfortunate Catherine, Margareta had the skills and knowledge required to offer her husband relevant advice – and to judge from their correspondence, he gladly took it.

Theirs was a happy marriage. Gustav was devoted to his wife (nowhere is there as much as an insinuation that Gustav ever strayed from the marital bed) and she to him, presenting him with ten children of which eight would survive to adulthood. His letters to her often began “To Margareta, my dearest heart”, and she would usually direct herself to “my most beloved lord”. He trusted her to manage their various homes, to hire staff, arrange their financial affairs, administer justice when he wasn’t around, and in general act as his second-in-command. In return, her various siblings made advantageous marriages – but Margareta was made responsible of ensuring they did not mistreat their tenant farmers. (Gustav had the utmost respect for the Swedish farmers: he knew first hand that these doughty men made formidable fighters when riled – after all, these were the men who’d helped him oust the Danes)

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“Honey, maybe you should…”

Like all wise consorts in this day and age, Margareta rarely challenged her husband in public. Should her opinions differ from his, she saved any discussion for when they were alone, and even then, she would abstain from open criticism. Men like Gustav responded better to murmured cajoling than ultimatums. Margareta, as all medieval queens, was also expected to intercede with the king for those who begged her to do so. Like all successful consorts, Margareta was selective in who she chose to plead for. She seems to have done a lot of manoeuvring on behalf of her youngest sister Märta who had ended up married with dashing Svante Sture. Maybe Margareta still retained a soft spot for the young man she once hoped to wed.

Margareta also oversaw the schooling of the royal children. Gustav Vasa was a great believer in education, and especially his sons were given tutors that would help expand their knowledge of the world. That Margareta was allowed to take control over the education of her children is interesting seeing as she was a devout Catholic. Gustav Vasa reformed the Swedish Church early on in his reign – he needed the money the dissolution of the various monasteries would bring – but he was relatively lenient when it came to the question of faith as such. As long as people toed the line when it came to his laws, as long as they paid their taxes, he left it up to them to worship God as they pleased. Accordingly, his children had Catholic tutors, Protestant tutors, Calvinist tutors. Simply put, Margareta and Gustav wanted the best tutors, no matter what their religious beliefs might be.

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Gustav with his eldest son, Erik, receiving a copy of the first-ever Bible in Swedish

Just how much Gustav trusted his wife was made evident in 1544, when Sweden was formally converted to a hereditary kingdom. By then, Gustav had three sons to secure the hold of the Vasa dynasty on the Swedish throne, Erik, Johan and Magnus. There would be one more before Margareta and Gustav were done, the future Karl IX. There were also a couple of daughters – valuable pawns in Gustav’s search for alliances – and I imagine Gustav smiled into his beard as he studied his growing family.

Anyway, in 1544 Gustav also decided that should he die before his sons were of an age to rule, Margareta was to act as regent. To reinforce her power, he granted her several of Sweden’s more important castles to hold in her own name until the heir of the throne came of age. Suddenly, Margareta was in a position to wield substantial power should she want to. She didn’t, expressing fervently that she hoped she would never live to see the day when she had to make her way through life without her beloved husband. Went down well with hubby, I imagine…

Margareta was granted her wish. In 1551, she sickened and died, leaving behind a distraught husband and eight children, the youngest no more than a year old. It is said there was a solar eclipse on the day she died, the heavens as affected by her death as was her husband and her family. She was buried with adequate pomp and circumstance in Uppsala Cathedral, sharing a tomb with Gustav’s first wife. When Gustav Vasa died nine years later, he was buried between them.

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Gustav, pushing sixty

Gustav was very affected by Margareta’s death. Now well into his fifties, he’d grown accustomed to having her see to his physical comfort, to having her always at his side. The king decided to marry again – something everyone expected him to do, as he needed someone to help him raise all those children. After some scouting about, his eye fell on Katarina Stenbock, a pretty blonde girl who was forty years his junior. She was also Margareta’s niece, which caused some problems – the church was not happy with what they considered to be a marriage within the prohibited degree.

Katarina herself was not thrilled. Yet again, the chosen bride was already promised elsewhere, and I imagine exchanging the vision of sleeping with a man her own age to that of sleeping with a man old enough to be her grandfather must have been…err…difficult. But no one asked Katarina’s opinion – her family was eager to see her wed to the king, thereby ensuring a future of preferences. So in 1552, Katarina married Gustav in a splendid ceremony where her new step-daughters (and cousins) in red silk surrounded the bride in pink.

Katarina and Gustav never achieved the relationship Gustav had had with Margareta. Hers were big shoes to fill, and besides the age difference must have made it difficult for them to find all that much to chit-chat about. Being of an age with her step-children, Katarina was probably prone to take their part in any conflict with their father – and there were conflicts, as the ageing Gustav grew increasingly short of temper while his children chafed under his control.

Plus, of course, there was the major, major scandal when one of Gustav’s daughters, Cecilia, was caught in the very compromising situation of having a half-naked man in her bedroom. Gustav blamed Katarina for not having exercised sufficient control over Cecilia. Reputedly, Katarina told him Cecilia wasn’t her daughter, but his.

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Katarina

Katarina never gave Gustav any children, although to judge from some oblique comments in various documents she was probably pregnant on some occasions. Neither was she put in the same position of trust as Margareta, Gustav mostly using her as his housekeeper and step-mother to his children. He never corresponded with her as he did with Margareta, preferring to write directly to his elder daughters instead.

In the end, Katarina was relegated to being his nurse. Gustav took his time dying and hated being bedridden – something he took out on poor Katarina, blaming her for the fact that his children rarely came to visit. Truth was, they avoided their father and his foul temper during his last months on earth…

When Gustav died in 1560, Katarina was left to the mercy of her step-sons. Gustav had left instructions that she be given an income and lands in keeping with her status as dowager queen, but he had never specified either amounts or lands. Fortunately for Katarina, her step-sons were fond of her, so she wasn’t exactly left destitute.

Katarina survived her husband for well over six decades. She never married again, never wore anything but widow’s weeds, and when she finally died, at the very advanced age of 86 years, she too was buried with her husband in Uppsala Cathedral. And there, to this day, they lie: the king, his first dynastic wife, his beloved second wife, and his housekeeper third wife. And let me tell you, if skeletons can hold hands, then Gustav’s finger bones are tightly interlinked with those of Margareta, the wife he adored.

Twinkle, twinke, little star

light-800px-petrus_van_schendel_lekture_bei_kerzenlichtThe dark has come upon us. With the resetting of the clocks – away from what we call “summer time” to “winter time” – the days become that much shorter, daylight fading already around four thirty or so in the afternoon. That’s what you get for living up here in the north – dark, dark winters are the price we pay for light, light summers.

Usually, the clocks are reset at the end of October, around All Hallows. Until relatively recently, All Hallows and its modern version Halloween was not really celebrated in our neck of the woods. We did not drown in false spiderwebs, orange lanterns and various other spooky ingredients. Pumpkins were more or less unknown, and as to donning a masquerade costume and going partying, nope, not done.

All Hallows was a serious affair – had been for thousands of years, long before it was even known as All Hallows. The Christian Church was smart enough to adopt existing holidays, and in this particular case, those ancient Christian missionaries appropiated the Celtic celebration of Samhain, originally a day to mark the midway point between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice.

light-mary-magdalene-800px-georges_de_la_tour_007Mind you, Samhain was more than that: our long-gone ancestors believed that Samhain was when the veil  between the living and the dead was at its sheerest, a day in which the restless souls of those who were dead and not at peace could come back to haunt the living. It was also a day in which fairies and other non-human spirits could travel between their realm and ours – and reasonably, this meant that the unsuspecting among the humans could be lured to step across the great divide into the unknown, from which they might not return.

The early Christian missionaries likely felt a frisson or two of fear. Maybe they also believed that the souls of the dead were abroad on this dark day – how else to explain that just on this date the Christian Church decided to celebrate All Hallows (or All Saints), which included not only all saints and known martyrs, but also dead relatives and friends. Smart move by the church, IMO.

In some countries, the celebration of the dead takes on rather impressive proportions. In Mexico, the holiday Día de Muertos (or Día de los Muertos), the day of the dead, has roots in Aztec culture but has somehow merged with the Catholic feasts brought to Mexico by the Spanish Conqistadores. In Spain, All Saints was something of a fiesta – one has to applaud the Spanish for making fiestas of everything, even the celebration of the dead – and these days the Mexican holiday is a chaotic mix of indigenous traditions and Spanish partying, often culminating in the families having major picnics in the cemetaries, close to their dead.

light-femme-a-la-chandelle-godfried-schalckenNot so here in Sweden. The Protestant Church has always been much more austere than the Catholic Church – not so much fiesta, far more fidgeting on worn pews while listening to loooong sermons about the innate wickedness of humanity. All Hallows, accordingly, was not defined by relaxed family get-togethers at which one commemorated the dead by toasting them and having a party. Nope, here All Hallows was all about ensuring the graves were neat and tidy, faded flowers tidied away and replaced by evergreen wreaths.

The older generation still do this: the last weekend of October, off they go, driving from grave to grave to ensure they are tidy before the winter. The younger generation doesn’t – to some extent because most of us don’t have any graves to visit – our parents have been cremated and rarely rest beneath a stone marker. (As an aside, I find it a bit sad that so many don’t have a headstone anymore – no solid evidence reminding the generations to come that once they lived and breathed)

As a final touch, the graves are adorned with a candle. A little fluttering flame, an offering of light to those permanently trapped in the dark. Come evening, our cemetaries are dotted with these little flames, miniature earthbound stars that burn through the coming nights and days.

Soon enough, Sweden will see such miniature lights everywhere: we combat the December dark by lighting our candles, by draping our evergreens with fairy lights. But for now, the candles are for those that went before, those that we sometimes imagine (or hope) sit way up high and gaze down on us. Twinklings stars above, gasping flickers of lights below – a remembrance of our dead, those that gave us life and live on in memories and mannerisms, in how we bake our family recipes, in the traditions we uphold.

A vast sea of anonymous ancestors precede us – an equally vast sea of unknown descendants will hopefully come after us. In the greater context, our time on Earth is very short, an inhalation, no more, when measured against the infinity of time. But for the little while we live, we are a spark of light, a little burst of energy that shouts to Cosmos that we are here – for now.

light-st-josephthecarpenterbygeorgesdelatourThe dark is here. It swoops down and envelops the Northern countries, several months in which light becomes precious. And on All Hallows, we light our candles for those that no longer are among us, a fluttering flame to tell them we still think of them, we still remember them. And as long as we remember, they’re still around, somehow. As long as we mention their names, laugh at the memories we have of them – or cry – as long as they still touch our lives, they remain, to some extent, alive.

 

Weep, Ingeborg, weep

In 1237, Ingeborg, Dowager Queen of France, died. At the time of her death, she was approximately sixty years old, and had lived more than forty years in France, having arrived as a young and pretty bride-to be in 1193. Her intended was Philip II, King of France, a.k.a. Philip Augustus. At the time, he was pushing thirty, ten years or so older than his Danish wife. The fact that Ingeborg is described as being “sweet, wise and pretty” was not enough to endear her to him – but we have no idea why the groom exited the bridal chamber so distraught he never touched his wife again.

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Valdemar with best buddy Archbishop Absalon, toppling the heathen god of the Wends

If we start at the beginning, Ingeborg was the youngest of the eight surviving children born to Valdemar the Great of Denmark and his wife, Sofia of Minsk. Seeing as Valdemar’s mother was a princess from Kiev, I suspect he was now and then called Vladimir both by her and by his wife. Valdemar had not had the easiest of lives, born the posthumous son of Knut Lavard, who was one of Sven Estridsen’s grandsons. Valdemar is famous as the Danish king who crushed the Wends, a ferocious race who plagued the Danes with continuous raids, but before he got to that point, Valdemar had to fight for his throne. By 1157 he was safe on the Danish throne which was when he married Sofia.

Sofia of Minsk was reputedly very beautiful, but as per the legends, she was also cruel and vindictive. Supposedly, she rid herself of the competition for her future husband by burning the poor woman alive. At a distance of 900 years, we’ll never know the truth in the matter, so maybe we should give the woman the benefit of the doubt. After all, she was a foreigner in Denmark, and maybe a jilted Danish lady with her eye on Valdemar chose to get her own back by spreading these lurid rumours.

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Philip at his coronation

Ingeborg was born around 1176, and six years or so later, her father died. Instead, her eldest brother, Knut, became king, and it was Knut who was involved in arranging her marriage – with the French king! Paris beckoned, but I imagine Ingeborg was somewhat torn: at the time, it was a long ride from Denmark to Paris, and chances were she’d never see her homeland again. Plus, she didn’t speak French.

Philip had political reasons for pursuing an alliance with Denmark. First of all, the Danish fleet was feared throughout Europe, and Philip wanted to make sure the fleet would not attack his lands or his budding navy. Secondly, since the time of Knut the Great (a.k.a. Canute), the Danish kings insisted they had a claim on the English throne. A tenuous claim, but still: Philip must have chortled at the thought of presenting the English with an alternative to those Angevin bastards who presently wore the English crown – and controlled a sizeable chunk of Philip’s France.

Thirdly, both Denmark and France were eager to thumb their nose at the Holy Roman Empire. By entering into an alliance, they sent a not-so-subtle message to the Holy Roman Emperor that they didn’t like him much – and would like it even less if he tried to expand his empire at their expense.

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Isabella of Hainault

Philip also had personal reasons for finding a new wife: his first wife, Isabella of Hainault, had died in childbed in 1190. As her twin boys died with her, this left Philip with only one child, little Louis. Not enough, as per Philip, and Ingeborg came with the benefit of having a fertile mother. By alla ccounts, Philip was not particularly nice to his first wife, even going as far as threatening to divorce her because she hadn’t given him a son. The poor bride was fifteen or so…

On August 14, 1193, Ingeborg was wed to Philip. After the usual celebrations, the couple retired to their chamber. And there, dear peeps, something happened. Whatever it was, we don’t know, but already the next day, Philip was insisting Ingeborg be sent home – far, far away from him. He wanted the marriage annulled, no matter if it cost him the Dano-French alliance.

All of seventeen, this must have been terribly humiliating for the recently married and crowned Ingeborg – who, to add further injury, had been stripped of her own name and re-named Isambour. I imagine her lonely and frightened – unless, of course, she did have a streak of black magic in her, inherited from her mama. Philip would later claim that she’d put a spell on him, making it impossible for him to consummate the marriage. Ingeborg vigorously denied both the spell and the non-consummation.

One can’t help but wonder what transpired between the two on that long-gone August night. Did she giggle at the size of his member? Was she somehow malformed? (although there is nothing on record to indicate that was the case) Did she smell? Or was she so shocked by her new husband’s attempt at making l’amour she kneed him where it really, really hurts? After all, she didn’t even speak the language, so maybe she misunderstood what he was trying to say.

Philip immediately demanded an annulation. He seems to have assumed Ingeborg – oops, Isambour – would go along with this, but she refused. As per Ingeborg, she was now a happily (hmm) married woman, and, even better, the queen of France. No way was she letting that go without a fight. Given just how stubbornly she refused to give into Philip’s demands that they part ways, I get the feeling that whatever transpired between them had left her hurting badly. So maybe it was him who laughed…

Anyway: Philip decided to force Ingeborg’s hand by placing her under house arrest. In distant Denmark, Ingeborg’s brother raised his voice in loud protest, and when Philip tried to argue the marriage was invalid due to consanguinity, this was repudiated by the Danish diplomats, who produced a genealogy chart that showed the Capet king had very little blood in common with his fair wife.

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A page from Ingeborg’s psalter

The pope became involved. Philip refused to reconcile. Ingeborg refused to accept an annulment. The pope ruled in favour of Ingeborg, and in retaliation, Philip ensured Ingeborg’s captivity was made even more uncomfortable. She found solace in her faith – there’s a beautiful psalter still in existence she commissioned in 1200 – and in the firm belief she was in the right. Even more so, when Philip did a one-sided annulment and married Agnes of Merain.
“Bigamy!” yelled Ingeborg and her supporters.
“Get a life,” Philip growled. “Just sign the documents and get over it.”
“No way.” Ingeborg set her jaw. “You may sleep with your whore, but you’re married to me.”

The pope totally agreed with Ingeborg. He urged Philip to set Agnes aside and return to his loyal wife. Philip wasn’t having it. In fact, it seems that he was genuinely in love with Agnes – like for the first and last time in his life – and he stubbornly insisted his marriage to Ingeborg was invalid – or annulled, depending on how he had to argue the case.

The pope had had it. Either Philip set aside Agnes, or he’d place France under interdict. Still Philip refused to give up on Agnes, whom he treated as if she were his crowned queen. Where Ingeborg had never shown her face at court, never sat side by side with her husband, Agnes was a fixture in Philip’s court, and delighted him further by presenting him with two children. Illegitimate children as per the Church.

While Agnes was enjoying the good life, Ingeborg languished in captivity, deprived of sufficient food, of companionship. She toyed with the idea of suicide, and wrote as much to the pope, who was horrified and made good on his threat of placing France under interdict. This time, he also excommunicated Philip.

Late in 1200, Philip relented, officially sending Agnes away from court. Not that anything changed for Ingeborg, still locked up in her tower. Agnes, however, was heartbroken at being sent off, stripped of her status as wife. In 1201, she died. I can’t imagine this evoked any pity from Ingeborg.

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Love and affection – not to be, in the Philip and Ingeborg union

One would have thought that with Agnes dead, Philip might have given things a go with Ingeborg. Nope. Instead he appealed yet again to the pope for annulment, stating he’d been subjected to witchcraft on his wedding night with Ingeborg. Pope Innocent snorted – loudly, I imagine.

For the coming decade or so, Philip went on with his life, while poor Ingeborg remained locked up. Her life was slipping through her fingers, any dreams she may have had of babies and a position in court denied her. Maybe she should have agreed to an annulment and attempted to find contentment elsewhere, but by now she’d gone down the road of obstinate refusal for too long to change her mind.

In 1213, Philip had a change of heart. With his eyes very firmly set on England and the potentials offered by the turmoil there, he needed peace with Denmark – an assurance the Danish fleet would not sneak up and demolish the French ships should France attempt an invasion. So, out of nowhere, more or less, he decided to reconcile with Ingeborg – Isambour.

After twenty years of captivity, Ingeborg was at last accorded the respect she deserved, recognised as Philip’s queen at court. Suddenly, her food was rich and plentiful, she was swathed in precious fabrics and adorned with glittering jewels. But her husband never touched her – he didn’t have to, seeing as his eldest son had recently fathered a son, thereby ensuring the Capet dynasty would thrive.

In 1223, Philip died. Supposedly, he asked his son, the future Louis VIII to treat Ingeborg well – a volte-face versus how he himself had treated this once so young Danish princess. Louis VIII would, in fact, always show Ingeborg the respect she deserved as his father’s widow. This was probably politically motivated, as by recognising that Ingeborg had been queen since 1193, Louis was also indirectly reminding everyone that his young half-brother, Philip, was nothing but a royal bastard, no matter that the pope had legitimised him after Agnes’ death.

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Ingeborg

Ingeborg paid for various masses to be said for Philip’s soul. She took to the role as a pious widow as a fish takes to water, and maybe all those masses were her way of letting the world know she’d forgiven Philip. Maybe she had. Maybe she was just playing to the audience.

After Philip’s death, Ingeborg retired to live out the remainder of her life mostly at the priory of Saint Jean de l’Ile, which she had founded. Fourteen years after Philip, Ingeborg departed this world and was buried in a church in Corbeil. A sad life, in many ways, twenty years spent in solitude as the prisoner of the man who’d married you. And as to what really happened on their wedding night, well only two people know – and they’re both very, very dead. I guess we can safely conclude that whatever it was, it sure didn’t make the earth move for them – at least not in a good way.

Of royal oaks and sinking ships

oaks-20161008_100237Behold a baby oak. Well, baby and baby – as per my reckoning, this thin little thing is at least 7 years old, but from the perspective of an oak, I suppose that means it is an infant.

Hubby has recently scythed the meadows, but whenever he comes across an oak sapling, he detours, saying we have a responsibility to ensure a new generation of quercus robur. It’s not as if there is a scarcity of oaks in our neck of the woods, but as hubby reminds me, they take a loooong time to grow.

oaks-20161008_100510This oak is reckoned to be 300 years old. No way can I reach round the trunk. All I can do is gawk at it in awe. And climb it. This oak stands sentinel over our yard, and one day I’m going to put a rope swing in it. Well, maybe, seeing as there is this huge stone wall behind it, and I don’t want people falling off to land with a splat on the stones.

It used to be that all Swedish oaks belonged to the king. No matter where they grew, on whose land, every single oak had an invisible “for royal use only” stamp on it. Those not of royal blood were forbidden to as much as break off a twig, and any oak sapling found growing on your land had to be left alone to grow into maturity. Only with royal dispensation could an oak be taken down, and many are the writs where the king graciously has allowed yeoman this or that to take down an oak to use as posts in a new build or for a new door. Armed with such a writ, the happy recipient could essentially take down any oak that took his fancy in the neighbourhood – e.g., the tree did not have to grow on his land.

Should someone be foolish enough to poach an oak (and I imagine this would be an endeavour which is very, very difficult. It’s not as if you stuff an oak into your rucksack and skip off, humming Waltzing Matilda) the consequences were severe: for the first offence, the penalty was 40 Swedish Daler, roughly the equivalent of 1-2 full year’s wages. The second offense cost you 80 Daler, and third time round, you lost your life.

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Sweden’s oldest oak, estimated to be 1000 years old

So why all this hullabaloo re an oak? Ah. The answer to that lies in Sweden’s ambitions to expand beyond its natural borders. Sweden wanted more. Sweden wanted recognition as a force to reckon with. Sweden needed a navy, and at the time, ships were built of oaks. On average, 2 000 oaks were required to build one ship. If you wanted a navy, that meant a lot of oaks. Very, very many oaks.

Obviously, things didn’t always go according to plan. Take the proud ship Vasa, for example, built in the early 17th century. The then king, Gustav II Adolf, was a bellicose sort – he was also a self-proclaimed defender of the Protestant faith in the Thirty Years’ War. Over time, Gustav II Adolf became the figurehead of the various Protestant armies fighting the might of the Holy Roman Empire. While I have no intention to dig myself into the complexities of the Thirty Years’ War, suffice it to say that what began as a religious conflict (The Holy Roman Emperor wanting to impose Catholicism on his unruly Bavarian subjects) quickly escalated into a political conflict in which various European countries saw an opportunity to once and for all curb the power of the Hapsburg Emperors.

Neither here nor there in this post. Let us instead get back to the proud ship Vasa. This, our most famous Swedish ship ever, was built by a Dutchman named Henrik Hybertsson, and if we’re going to be picky, it wasn’t even named Vasa, it was actually named Vasen, which is Swedish for sheaf. Why a sheaf? Because it figured prominently on the Vasa dynasty’s coat of arms. Now, of course, everyone knows it as Vasa, so insisting on using its correct name will probably be a useless exercise.

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Battle of Oliwa, in which the Swedish navy suffered severe losses

Work on the Vasa began in 1625. Gustav II Adolf commissioned four ships at the same time – he was desperate for more ships to transport his troops across to the continent and also do some harrying when so needed, like when keeping the Danish king Christian IV firmly on his mat. Besides, his ongoing war with Poland had cost him quite some ships in various naval battles, and he needed them replaced. Like ASAP.

Our Dutchman Henrik was delighted at receiving an order for four ships – two larger, two smaller – and soon enough the shipyard rang with the sound of axes and hammers. Not that Henrik did much chopping, sawing or hammering himself: he was the designer, responsible for constructing a ship that would handle the seas and whatever storms may come her way.

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Gustav II Adolf

Now Henrik was no novice – he’d been building ships since ages. But the king wanted more than your average ship with 12 cannon on one gun deck. Gustav II Adolf wanted TWO gun decks, and he wanted all of 72 cannons. Plus, he wanted the standard superstructures, which allowed for firing platforms from which to shoot down at your enemies. A (not so) lean, mean killing machine powered by sails. Gustav II Adolf likely salivated at the thought.

At the time, ships with two gun decks were still very rare. The technology was unproven, and the trade-off between more guns and less stability was as yet not fully understood. Not that it mattered: what the king wanted, the king would get, and so Henrik began working on the initial design sometime in 1625. These were presented to the king who reviewed and approved them. With the project having been given a royal go-ahead, oaks were ordered to be cut down en masse. Sails were ordered from France, rigging and hemp rope from Holland.

In 1627, Henrik died, and the responsibility for the half-finished ship passed to yet another Dutch Henrik, this time with the patronym Jacobson. Things progressed more or less as planned, and in 1628, it was time for the first stability test. Thirty soldiers in full kit were to run back and forth over the deck under the eagle eye of Klas Fleming, the Vice Admiral. The purpose of the test was to set the ship rolling, and see how she handled the motion. After only three test runs, Fleming aborted the tests, fearing she was about to capsize. I imagine him groping for a huge handkerchief and mopping his sweaty brow, all the while debating just how – or if – to tell the king this ship of his was dangerously unstable.

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Vasa, prior to sailing

There is nothing to indicate Fleming ever informed his king about the result of the stability tests. Instead,  Gustav II Adolf kept on sending letter after letter asking about his ship. He ordered it to be lavishly decorated, he asked about the cannon, of which 64 had now been delivered. Despite certain misgivings, the work went ahead, and in August of 1628, the ship was ready. Crowds assembled to watch this huge construction set off on its first journey. The crew was allowed to take their family with them on the first short leg of the journey, and in general it was all very festive. Flags snapped in the wind, there was beer, there was food, it was sunny if windy, and at long last the ship glided away from the pier.

For the first few hundred metres, the ship was towed, but once on open water, she unfurled her sails. The cannon ports were opened, and a massive salute was fired, causing people to cheer and clap their hands over their ears. Behold the might of Sweden, this huge impressive warship decorated in gold and red and blue, with three masts and all those cannon snouts poking from the open ports.

oaks-bok20A sudden gust of wind had the ship heeling to port. She righted herself ponderously. Yet another gust of wind, and she tilted heavily to the left – so heavily that water gushed in through the open cannon ports. In a matter of minutes, the ship sank, settling on the seabed 32 metres below. Thirty or so people died, most of them trapped inside. The top of the masts stuck up over the surface, with survivors holding on for dear life, and from all over, small craft came to the rescue, dragging half-drowned sailors out of the water. And so, dear readers, ended the glorious career of the Vasa – like ten minutes after it started.

ekskogen-visingsoWell, there you have it: She sailed, she sank, and thanks to that disaster, we have an almost perfectly preserved 17th century ship to gawk at in the Vasa museum – a ship made of oak (as is the museum itself). With Vasa, an equivalent of 2000 royal oaks or so sank into the deep. Fortunately, those Swedish kings of the past were wise enough to plant new oaks to replace those they’d used, ensuring a continuous supply of oaks well into our times. Not that we use oaks for warships anymore – we use steel. Instead, those oaks planted by our kings as late as in the early 19th century or so, have now grown into magnificent forests, like this one on Visingsö. A sea of oaks, where the wind rustles through leaves that are vivid light green in spring, shifting through dark green to a faded, yellowing hue in autumn.

“A beautiful tree,” hubby says, patting the bark of our biggest oak. Yes, because these days it is ours. The king no longer owns every single oak in Sweden – a sure sign of progress, right?  The oaks, of course, couldn’t care less who owns them. They live out their long, long lives, from acorn to rotting trunk, in one place, their branches spreading protectively over the ground beneath them.  But hubby is right: it’s a beautiful, beautiful tree.

Unmourned and unloved – poor Johnny boy

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John, riding to the hounds

It’s not easy to be misunderstood. Or the youngest – and possibly unwanted – child. Ask John, a.k.a. John Lackland. He would know all about growing up in a dysfunctional family with an anything but warm and fuzzy relationship to his parents and siblings. Mind you, having a tough childhood is an explanation, not an excuse. But still…

Today marks the 800th anniversary of John’s death. Eight hundred years, and still the man is a household name. Not in the most complimentary of terms – John is the bad dude, the man who betrayed his older brother Richard and had his nephew murdered. John is the somewhat unbalanced individual who alienated his nobles by his outrageous and grasping behaviour, and then there’s the matter of the hostages he hanged in Nottingham. No, all in all, John was not the kind of person you’d want to hang out with. Assuming, of course, that the black legend that surrounds him is true. Some of it most definitely is. But is any man entirely black?

Let us start at the beginning. Henry FitzEmpress made the marriage of a generation the day he swept Eleanor of Aquitaine, recently divorced from King Louis of France, into his arms and married her. Two larger-than-life personalities, these two were well-suited, possessing drive and determination – and quite the dollop of ambition. Did they love each other? I think that if you’d asked them, they would have given you an amused look in return. When did love come into the equation of building a European powerhouse?

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Eleanor and Henry

The Henry-Eleanor match was just that: a powerhouse. Together, they controlled a massive empire, all the way from the foggy north of England to the sun-drenched lands of Aquitaine. As we all know, the previously not so fecund Eleanor (with “only” two daughters to her name after 15 years of marriage to Louis) presented her new, vigorous husband with several sons and daughters. These children inherited a lot of characteristics from their strong, driven and ambitious parents, making them – and especially the elder sons – just as strong, driven and ambitious. And hungry for power. Ultimately, this would lead to bloody conflict between the sons and the father, and when Eleanor sided with her sons, the Henry-Eleanor union sort of crashed and burned.

Eleanor was locked away in 1173. Okay, so now and then she emerged from her prison to participate in courtly life and assist her husband in managing certain issues, but she was always accompanied by a guard, a silent reminder that she was a prisoner.

At the time of his mother’s incarceration, John was seven. Until then, he hadn’t exactly seen much of either parent, having instead been raised in his own household. But the bitter feud between Henry II and his older sons had him turning to his younger son, with John accompanying his father as he rode to quell his upstart sons.

Over the coming years, John became his father’s favourite child. Not favourite enough to load with land, though. John’s oldest brother, also as Henry, was designated heir to England and Normany, his second eldest brother, Richard was already the Duke of Aquitaine, brother Geoffrey was lording it in Brittany, and in comparison, John had…Nada. Niente. Nothing.

The easy solution was to find John an heiress. After some scouting, Henry decided on Isabella, daughter of the dead Earl of Gloucester. To make the match even better, Henry disinherited Isabella’s two sisters, making her the sole heiress to her father’s lands. There was, however, a teeny, weensy problem: John and Isabella were third cousins, so the union required a papal dispensation. A matter to be handled later, Henry decided, settling for a betrothal in 1176 instead. John was all of ten, the bride-to-be around three.

A year or so later, Henry made John Lord of Ireland. John Lackland was no longer lacking in land, one could say, albeit that the territory the eleven-year-old was to rule was considered a savage place. Plus, Ireland already had a number of powerful local lords, both of Norman and Gaelic extraction.

In 1183, John’s eldest brother died of dysentery, this after a campaign against the joint forces of Henry II and brother Richard. With that, Richard took a giant step towards the throne of England, but showed no inclination of wanting to part with Aquitaine. Rather, Richard seems to have reasoned Aquitaine was his, full stop, and anything on top of that was also his, with no need to share with baby brother John – or Geoffrey.

In 1186, Geoffrey died from injuries incurred during a tournament. He left behind a young son, and as Richard had neither wife nor legitimate son, little Arthur was now second in line to the English throne. In John’s opinion, he should be second in line: given the choice between a puling child and a well-grown young man, only a fool would choose the child.

Not everyone agreed. By now, some of John’s more dislikeable traits were causing concern. While on the one side John was intelligent, well-educated, courageous and charming when he so wanted, there was that other side to him, the one that flew into tantrums, that was spiteful and petty, that had him taking what he wanted with little thought to the consequences.

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Henry II and his children

John comes across a spoiled brat, a young man who considers himself entitled, and who would have benefited from a good thrashing. Papa Henry, however, spent more times making excuses for his temperamental son than in lecturing him. Henry was paying the price of having led a life constantly on the move, always entangled in one conflict of the other. He was tired, somewhat careworn after losing two of his sons, and had no desire whatsoever to alienate his favourite.

In looks, John was very much his father’s son – short and powerfully built, with a fondness for opulent clothes and jewels. (In this, he does not seem to have taken after daddy, who comes across as relatively uninterested in fashion) An avid reader, John always travelled with an extensive library, and was extremely fond of hunting. He was a skilled horseman, was appreciative of good music (from his mother’s side, no doubt) and enjoyed board games. He was also capable and hard-working, traits that somehow get lost in the overall descriptions of him.

Anyway: in 1189, Richard allied himself with Philip Augustus and made war on his father. Why? Because he was worried Henry might be considering naming John as his heir. Henry was sick, he was old, and everything pointed at him losing – which was when John abandoned him, riding like the devil to join brother Richard and ingratiate himself with him. Henry died, alone. Richard was less than impressed by his brother’s behaviour – plus I imagine Richard suffered some pangs of guilt due to having indirectly caused his father’s death.

john-richardsaladinRichard was now king – a restless king, eager to ride off and heap himself with glory in the Third Crusade. Richard was savvy enough to realise John could very well become a problem during his absence, and so he set about buying John’s favour. John was made Count of Mortain, his marriage with Isabella of Gloucester was pushed through, and he was heaped with honours and riches, the king’s most beloved brother.

This didn’t help. No sooner was Richard off, but John began his scheming. Now, what is important to remember is that not everyone in England was all that thrilled by the idea of having a crusading king. Crusades were expensive things, and financing was acquired by increasing taxes, which did not exactly endear Richard to his English subjects. In difference to Richard, John had spent a lot of time in England, knew the people and the country. He could therefore play on their ambivalence, thereby securing quite some support. To further strengthen his position, he allied himself with Philip Augustus of France.

When Richard was captured on his way home from the Holy Land, John likely did a few capers of joy. Those in England remaining true to Richard must have been torn between their loyalties to the king and the need to curry favour with the heir – because in the eyes of the English, John was the heir, Arthur or no Arthur. This is when formidable mama Eleanor waded into the fray, ensuring everyone knew what was what – i.e. the English nobility were taxed with amassing the huge ransom required to buy Richard free. To do so, the taxed nobles taxed the people – not, I imagine, a popular move.

We all know Richard came back. Robin Hood and his Merry Men made even merrier, the Sheriff of Nottingham gnashed his teeth – even more so, one presumes, after Richard besieged and took the castle – and John fled to Normandy. Some months later, Richard found him, and although he forgave his brother, he stripped him of all his lands but Ireland. Humiliated and substantially poorer, John had no choice but to bend knee to paragon brother Richard. For the following years, John served his king loyally and capably – so capably that Richard restored his lands to him.

And then Richard died. A crossbow quarrel to the armpit, and England’s most famous warrior king (well, bar Henry V. And maybe Edward III) died. His mama cried. His brother, not so much. John had finally come into his own, the only potential fly in his ointment being nephew Arthur, no longer a baby but a handsome twelve-year-old, backed by his overlord Philip Augustus of France. (As an aside, Philip Augustus does not come across as the nicest of men, switching his support this way and that, depending on what suited him best. Probably needs his own post…)

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John – king at last

John was acclaimed by his nobles in England and Normandy, was crowned in Westminster, and crossed the Channel to address the issue of Arthur. He did so by signing a treaty with Philip, who promptly abandoned Arthur. Some years later, Arthur raised his banners in rebellion against his uncle. This time, John captured him. In 1203, Arthur disappeared into the bowels of the Castle of Rouen. He was never seen again…

Obviously, John was the party who most benefited from Arthur’s disappearance. Early on, accusations of murder were made, and much later in the reign, Maude de Braose was to publicly accuse John of having killed his own nephew. That didn’t end well for Maude, who by all accounts died in an oubliette, having first attempted to still her hunger by gnawing on her dead son’s body.

By 1204, John had acquired quite the lurid legend: a number of bastards with various women, some very high-born, the whole thing with Arthur, his repeated betrayal of his brother, his last-minute abandonment of his father, and the dismal treatment of the prisoners he took in the wake of Arthur’s rebellion, resulting in several deaths. And then there was the whole thing with his second wife, where he claimed the supposedly gorgeous Isabella of Angouleme, ignoring the fact that the girl was betrothed to Hugh de Lusignan. (Before this, he’d annulled his first marriage – but kept the lands)

Some say John was immediately besotted by little Isabella. Others say Isabella came with lands that would strengthen John’s position in France. Whatever the case, she was spoken for, but John convinced Isabella’s father to ignore his previous promises, and Isabella became a very young and pretty queen. Hugh de Lusignan became an angry rebel, and ultimately the marriage cost John huge chunks of his French lands. In the fullness of time, Isabella would return to France and the arms of a Hugh de Lusignan, in this case the eldest son of her former fiancé. In the in between, however, she was to present John with five children whom he seems to have doted on.

By 1204, John had also lost most of his French patrimony, with the exception of Aquitaine. This obliged him to concentrate his efforts in England. John was no sloth: he worked hard, with a special interest in reforming the legal system. Upsides of the new system was that free men were no longer at the mercy of the barons’ administration of justice. Through the introduction of legal experts, coroners and judges, John revamped the entire system, motivated no doubt by a desire to reform, but also by the financial rewards the system brought – legal fees increased, filling the king’s coffers.

The king’s coffers needed refilling. John was determined to retake Normandy, and to do so, he needed money – lots of money. So he increased taxes, charged his nobles huge amounts to allow them to succeed to properties and castles they had inherited. Widows wanting to remain widows were charged substantial fees to be allowed to do so, warships were sold as were appointments, fines were increased, fees were increased, and all in all, John made himself very unpopular – especially among the wealthy.

And then there was the matter with the pope. When the Archbishop of Canterbury died, John wanted to replace him with his candidate. The pope instead ordained Stephen Langton, and John threw a hissy fit. After all, he was within his rights to have a say in who became archbishop. Nope, the pope retorted. Stephen was it, take it or leave it. John chose to leave it, closing his harbours to Stephen and seizing the lands of the archbishopric. What followed was a long period of spiritual war. In the end, John caved – an excommunicated king was in some ways a powerless king – but he did so with style and cunning, gaining a stalwart supporter in the pope.

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Bouvines – where the French whipped the English…

War, interdiction, taxes, fees, fines…John’s barons had had it. The final straw came when John lost to the French in the Battle of Bouvines, thereby permanently losing Normandy. Not that John’s northern barons gave a fig about Normandy, but they were sick and tired of levied scutage, of taxes and fees, that had left them all severely indebted to the king. The Barons’ revolt was therefore far more motivated by personal interests than any desire to better the cause of the Englishman in general. Truth be told, the barons probably didn’t give a fig about the ordinary Englishman either…

No matter all those personal interests, the Magna Charta went beyond these, and presented a new framework for government, with a council of barons to guide the king, rules regarding a free man’s right to justice, to protection from illegal imprisonment. Taxes were no longer to be a royal prerogative, but required approval from the barons. The Magna Charta defined and contained the rights and obligations of the king, a charter designed to curb the royal excesses by empowering the nobles. A first, if small, step towards representative government, if you will…

In 1215, John signed the Magna Charta – with his fingers crossed. The moment he could, he appealed to the pope for support, and the Holy Father responded by excommunicating the rebel barons. And just like that, England was plunged into civil war. The French invaded, invited by some of the rebel barons. This actually played into John’s hands – the English were no fans of the French. John was a skilled commander, and had the money on hand to pay for substantial mercenaries, but then his entire treasure was lost crossing the Wash close to King’s Lynn. Even worse, he’d contracted dysentery. A sick king, making his way towards the west. An impoverished king, what with all that treasure lost in the sea.

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John’s tomb in Worcester Cathedral

He arrived in Newark and took to bed. In the night between 18-19 of October, John died. He was all of fifty years old, leaving an embattled throne to his nine-year-old son, Henry. Some sources insinuate he was poisoned. Others that he splurged on peaches. I’m guessing it was the dysentery that killed him – just as it had once killed his older brother. Like his father, John died without the comfort of his family around him. Unlike his father, he has constantly been vilified since.

I remain ambivalent to John. Through the centuries he comes across as highly intelligent, sardonic and somewhat twisted. Was he rapacious? Oh, yes. Immoral? On various occasions. But he was also a hard-working king, a man who drove through reforms to the legal system, a caring father, and a man who counted among his friends the future saint, Hugh of Lincoln. He inspired the loyalty of people like Nicolaa de la Haye and her husband, Gerard de Camville. Surely, he wasn’t all bad. In fact, I’m quite sure he wasn’t. After all, no one is. I hope.

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