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

Home is where the heart is

20160821_130213Home. A word we all have some sort of relationship with. Home conjures up a place of safety, a sensation of belonging, of having roots. For those obliged to flee their home, the word is intimately connected with grief, with fear for the future, with not belonging. For those who’ve never had a home, it expresses a dream, a hope of one day having a place to call one’s own.

I grew up all over the place, my parents being of the generation that had grown up with home but little adventure. They knew where they came from, drew strength from their roots, safely planted at home, and set out to explore the world. For me and my sister, this resulted in us not having a place to call home. Don’t get me wrong, we most definitely had a home but it wasn’t Home with a capital H.

We returned to Sweden when I was a teenager. My mother was ecstatic – she was coming Home. Me, not so much. Sweden is VERY different from South America, and I stuck out like a sore thumb. Definitely not home for me – but neither was there anywhere else I could label that way.
“So where are you from?” my new classmates would ask.
“A bit all over the place,” I’d reply, and they looked at me as I was crazy.
“What? You don’t know where you’re FROM? Seriously?”
Well, no, I didn’t. As per my passport I was Swedish, as per where I’d spent my first years I was Peruvian or Colombian or Venezuelan, as per how I’d been schooled I was English or American. A nice, multinational cocktail that left me without any distinctive cultural traits.

While I was struggling with defining who – or rather what – I was from a nationality perspective, my mother had crashed at full speed into the realisation that Home had changed. The country she’d left behind had changed fundamentally during the years she’d been gone, and she wasn’t entirely sure it was for the better. My mother had painted a picture of paradise for us: Sweden as she presented it was defined by her nostalgia, not by what it truly was, and the reality of a grey and freezing November in Malmö had little to do with the images she’d given us of rosy-cheeked children playing in the snow.

I grew up. I met a young man, and I loved him for a variety of reasons (starting with his intriguing family history and the fact that he had a coat of arms with beaver heads on them) but very much because he knew exactly where he came from and who he was. When he said “home”, it was one specific place, populated by a fixed cast of people. He had friends he’d known all his life, he could tour the graveyards round his hometown and pick out his ancestors, and I yearned for that stability, that sense of belonging.

We married, we had children, and I built a home – for them, more than for me. I pride myself on the fact that all of our four kids have the same robust sense of home as their father does, and I guess some of it is due to the smell of baking cinnamon buns, to the routines and rituals hubby and I put in place. Plus it helps that we never moved between countries…

I still had problems with the word “home”. Truth be told, I was still looking for Home, hoping that one day I would see a house, a drive, a picket fence, a rose garden – something that would call out to me and tell me this was it, this was my place.
And then, some years ago, I did. Our daughter was down in Malmö over the summer, and halfway through June she announced we needed a country home, a place for the family to assemble.
“Umm,” I said, “what’s wrong with our house?”
“You’ll not keep it once we’ve all moved out – it’s way too big.”
True. But not something that was about to happen anytime soon.
Daughter was adamant, and one day she showed us a set of pictures. “It’s for sale,” she said. “Just look at it!” Her eyes were bright with excitement. The house lay flanked by two huge barns and surrounded by woods.
“Hmm,” I said, but agreed we could at least go and see it.

I was grumpy all the way up. It was too far, it was too hot, I needed to pee, and who in their right mind wanted to live here, surrounded by miles and miles of dark forest. Except the forest wasn’t dark, it was a vibrant rustling green, beeches with silvered trunks raising their branches to the sky. But still: very many trees…

20160821_124157We bumped down a lane, and hubby turned off the ignition. It was quiet. I got out, and a swallow swooped by. To my right, an expanse of rustling grass fell away towards the lake, rippling like waves in the wind. To my left, a huge dog rose spilled flowers over the ancient stone wall. I took a step. I took two. I looked at hubby. He looked at me. He smiled. I did too, as all of me filled with the fizzy certainty that this was it. This was Home. It called to me, the stone walls whispered my name, the ancient foundations of the barn seemed to lean towards me. Wild, overgrown roses begged for some TLC, the chestnut tree soughed and sang, and in that moment I knew I had to have it. Now.

Since then, a couple of years have gone by. I’ve tamed some of the roses – but not all – I’ve added peonies and buddleias, columbines and lavender. We’ve rebuilt the old deck, painted the house, added wood-chimes and a flagpole. I’ve discovered the old hops plant – as per an inventory conducted in 1840, a hops plant grew in the exact same spot back then as well – and I often wonder if it is the same plant. I’ve discovered the lilies-of-the-valley that grow in a shaded slope, I’ve filled my arms with bright blue lupines.

The house creaks and shifts around me, and it is a warm and welcoming place. Our adult children love it as much as we do, and my daughter has been proved right: we needed a place like this – all of us.

20160821_123951But what is a home full of joy for us has not necessarily always been that. This self-same place, these buildings that I love, once housed other people, and at times I see their shadows, hear faint echoes of their voices. The two boys look tired and pale, their hands dirty after yet another day clearing the field of stone. Those stone walls that I adore are the result of back-breaking work, a must to ensure the field could be tilled and planted.

A girl calls out to the cows, and she is as dirty as her brothers, young shoulders bowed under the yoke of full milk buckets she is carrying. A harsh land for a farmer, with meagre soil and far too much forest that was constantly attempting to reclaim what the farmer had wrested from it. I see him too, in his homemade heavy wooden clogs, his un-collared shirt, grey with age. Rye-coloured hair, blue eyes surrounded by the wrinkles of a permanent frown. He is around thirty or so, already worn out after days battling trees and stones, and there are far too many nights when he lies awake, wondering just how he is to keep his little family alive. Should he do like the neighbours have done? Should he pack up and leave? But this is home, has been home to his ancestors for generations. Home as a fetter, a mill-stone round his neck.

I see this unknown farmer sitting side by side with his wife. A moment of drowsy peace, the air scented with honeysuckle and dog-roses, and she leans her head against his shoulder and whispers that she is with child. Again. He takes her hand and squeezes it, because every time she swells with child he fears she may die. And yet neither of them can do without those moments when he lies beside her, on top of her, inside her – little sparks of happiness in an existence so defined by drudgery.
“It will be fine,” she whispers, and he nods and counts their brood – five in all, from the eldest Kajsa to the little one still in smocks. And now one more mouth to feed, and no matter how hard he and his sons work, they’ll never clear another field before spring. So he inhales, and all of him fills with the scents of his home. Home. His hand smooths over the worn wood of the bench they’re sitting on. Home.
“We must leave,” he tells her. Before this home of his breaks him, takes more children from them.

And so they do. A final image of a man in his Sunday best, standing beside the cart on which he has loaded his family and their precious chests. The farm – his home – has been sold, and for the last time ever he turns the heavy key in the lock. It breaks his heart. It also breaks the weight that has been suffocating him for so long. But wherever he goes, wherever he ends up, he will now and then whisper “Home”, and it will be this place, these raspberry brambles, these stone walls, that he will see.

20160821_124341Over time, that long gone farmer hopefully learnt the same lesson I did, namely that what ultimately makes a home is not necessarily the place, but the people. This beloved country house of ours would not be Home had it not been for our children filling the place with their voices and laughter. No matter how many cardamom buns I bake, a home without the people you love is never a home, it’s merely a house. But even if I know this, I can’t help but rest my cheek against the sunwarmed wood of the red barns, so happy to be here, to be Home. At last.

A Conquering Saint – meet Fernando

Okay, so some days ago, I gave you a post about Henry III and St Louis – two royal gents in head-to-head competition as to who was the most pious king around. St Louis, of course, would argue he was – and that the pope agreed – discreetly pointing at the ‘saint’ preceding his name. But there was another contemporary king who would scoff at both his cousins (what can I say? A lot of intermarriage going on among the European royals) and point out that while they were off building chapels and squabbling as to the merit of a sliver from the True Cross versus a vial of Holy Blood, he, Fernando, he was fighting for his faith. Constantly. More or less all the time. And, as a further plus point, he mostly won.



So today we’ll be spending time with Fernando. “Mejor asi,” he tells me in a barely comprehensible Spanish – sorry, Castillian. “Me merezco más interés que esos dos, sean o no sean mis primos.
Well yes, you’ve already made that clear, that you feel somehow left out. Truth be told, while most Spanish people have a grasp of who San Fernando was, he is somewhat eclipsed by his son, Alfonso X “el sabio” (the wise) and by his impressive mother, Queen Berenguela – of whom I’ve written in a previous post. Unfair, one might think, given just how much of Moorish Spain Fernando managed to reconquer.

Prior to digging into Fernando’s life, maybe we should start by a very, very brief overview of what the Spanish label “La Reconquista.” In the beginning of the 8th century, the Moors invaded the Iberian Peninsula, leaping over from North Africa to work themselves determinedly north. The Moors were on a holy mission – spreading the word of God as per Muhammed and the Koran – but I dare say there was a substantial amount of covetousness as well, the rich lands of southern Iberia offering a good life to whoever ruled it.

In 732, the Moorish expansion north came to an abrupt stop after their defeat by Charlemagne at the battle of Tours. By then, they’d subjugated large chunks of the Iberian Peninsula, and so they retired to construct their own little kingdoms or caliphates. Did not go down well with the remnant Catholic kingdoms in present day Spain. Rather the reverse, actually.

Already in 722, a gentleman by the name of Pelayo had roundly defeated the Moors attempting to conquer Asturias at the battle of Covadonga. In effect, the Reconquista – i.e. the reconquering of previously Christian land now held by the Muslim Moors – began at Covadonga, although for many, many years it was not exactly hugely successful, rather more a determined effort to ensure the survival of the few Christian strongholds left. Asturias, Navarra, Galicia, León and Castilla – small kingdoms that hung on, expanding slowly but safely.

Fernando 800px-Batalla_del_Puig_por_Marzal_de_Sas_(1410-20)And then, in the 11th century, along came Rodrigo Díaz, El Campeador – more commonly known as El Cid, the dude who had his dead body strapped to his horse so as to instil courage in his men at the Siege of Valencia. With their dead lord astride his horse, Babieca, the starving and desperate defenders of Valencia rode forth in one last desperate attempt to lift the siege. All very beautiful and tragic, with the Christians carrying the day but losing the siege… Prior to riding about as a corpse, Díaz had spent most of his life in battle. He was Castillian and started out serving king Sancho II as battle commander. Part of his duty involved defeating Sancho’s brothers (who both wanted a piece of the pie), so when Sancho died (some say murdered by orders of his brother Alfonso VI) Rodrigo had to flee Castilla and ended up fighting for the Moors – at least for a while. All very complicated and quite exciting, but the end result was that in El Cid, the Christians in Spain had found their national hero, someone to inspire them when hope failed.

The Reconquista went on. There were some set-backs, such as the disastrous Battle of Alarcos in 1195, where yet another Alfonso, this time nr VIII, saw his entire army more or less crushed by the Moors. Castile was in shock, but Alfonso was not about to give up, and in 1212, he decisively defeated the Moors at the Battle of Las Naves de Tolosa, thereby securing the borders of his Castile, no matter that most of southern Spain remained under Moorish control.

Alfonso VIII is a good starting point for Fernando, seeing as he’s Fernando’s grandfather. He married Eleanor of England in 1174, and this was a successful and happy marriage, except for one thing: there were to be no surviving sons. Daughters, however, there were aplenty.

One of them, Blanche of Castile, was married to the French king and became the mother of St Louis of France. The eldest, Berenguela, suffered an unhappy and very, very complicated marriage and became the mother of Fernando. Unfortunately for Fernando, his parents’ union was not approved by the pope, so our young prince was actually an illegitimate prince, and therefore not entirely sure of his place in the world.

Berenguela had no such qualms. When in 1217 her baby brother, Enrique, died after an unfortunate accident at the age of thirteen, she became queen of Castile by right. Yes, there had been other ruling queens in castile before Berenguela, but in general the Castilian noblemen preferred a real man at the helm. So Berenguela smiled sweetly, said “Si, mis estimados caballeros,” and abdicated – on behalf of her seventeen-year-old son, Fernando. And while Fernando might have been formally illegitimate this was considered mostly a technicality by his noblemen, a silly attempt by the pope to pull rank on them, the fiercest defenders of the faith around.

One person was very miffed by Berenguela’s speedy actions: Fernando’s father, Alfonso of León. Why? Because Alfonso had a legitimate claim on the Castilian throne (his father was Alfonso VIIIs uncle) Instead of congratulating his son, Alfonso therefore made war on him, but thanks to the diplomatic efforts of Berenguela, some sort of peace was quickly brokered.

Fernando MoorsinIberia Cantigas de Santa MariaBy 1224, Fernando III was safe on his throne in Burgos, twiddling his thumbs. Well, maybe not precisely, but undoubtedly he shone up like a sun when news reached him of the bloody infighting among the Almohad rulers of Moorish Spain. Here at last a chance to carve a name for himself, and seeing as daddy Alfonso was an experienced and extremely capable battle commander, son and father rode out together.

What followed was a twenty-year campaign. Fernando left the administrative duties to his capable mother, the raising of his children to his equally capable (and beloved) wife, Beatriz, strapped on armour, gripped his sword and rode forth to once and for all cleanse Spain of the infidel – hence his status as a saintly Christian king defending the faith. It helped that the infidel were caught up in bloody internal strife, but undoubtedly Fernando was a skilled general, leading his troops to one victory after the other.

In 1230 Alfonso of León died. To judge from his will, he’d not quite forgiven Berenguela and Fernando for cheating him out of Castile, which was why he willed his kingdom to his daughters by his first wife. Fernando was having none of it. He wanted León, desired to add it to Castile permanently. With the help of his formidable mother, an agreement was drawn up whereby Fernando became king and his half-sisters were compensated with money. The kingdoms of León and Castile were thereby united, never again to be split apart.

Fernando CastilliaIn between all this fighting and feuding, Fernando found the time to remarry when his first wife died in 1235 after having given him ten children. Actually, it was Berenguela who acted very quickly to ensure her virile son had new welcoming arms in the marital bed – the Castilian kings had a reputation for lechery, and she wasn’t about to have her Fernandito succumb to such vices. Much better he find relief for his carnal desires with a wife – which he did, his second wife giving him a further five children.

Now and then, he had his numerous family come and stay with him in his camps. Eleanor of Castile, future wife to Edward I, likely spent a lot of her childhood in one tent or the other, and was no stranger to strenuous travelling, to battle wounds, blood and gore. Eleanor’s eldest brother, the future Alfonso X, was often at his father’s side, a trusted commander in the victorious Castilian army that, bit by bit, ate its way into formerly Moorish lands.

Granada La_Rendición_de_Granada_-_Pradilla

Pradilla – Boabdil surrendering Granada to Isabel and Fernando of Aragón (much later than the events in this post, but the painting is so gorgeous…)

One by one, the Moorish strongholds fell: Jaén, Córdoba, Murcia… Castile was growing at an impressive rate, and soon enough there were only two major Moorish strongholds left: Granada and Seville. With Granada, Fernando reached an agreement whereby the rulers of Granda would recognise him as their overlord and pay him a huge annual tribute. Thereby, the Moors of Granada bought themselves a further two centuries on Spanish land – the last Moorish king, Boabdil, was expelled by The Catholic Kings, Isabel and Fernando, in 1492 , formally concluding the Reconquista.

With Sevilla, things were a bit different. This huge sprawling city had support from their Muslim brethren in North Africa, and the Gudalquivir river which runs through Seville was deep enough to allow ships to sail all the way into it, bringing troops and food and weapons and whatnot. So Fernando decided he needed a little navy to stop the Moorish ships and ordered a certain Ramón de Bonifaz to get this navy thing going. Ramón found 13 ships of relevant size, and a naval battle ensued on the Guadalquivir. The Christians were victorious, and Fernando settled down to besiege Seville into submission, arranging his troops along the land side, seeing as his navy patrolled the entry to the Guadalquivir.

The Sevillanos were not yet beaten. Since centuries back, there was an old floating bridge (present day Puente de Triana) over the Guadalquivir, and while Boniface’s ships ensured no help came via the sea, the emir of a nearby city smuggled goods over the floating bridge, all the way to the water gate of the besieged city. Once Fernando found out, he ordered his navy to destroy the bridge, which involved breaking the massive chains that held the bridge and its various components in place. Seville was thereby lost, and in November of 1248 its emir prostrated himself before Fernando and presented him with the keys to the city.

I dare say it grieved Fernando that by then his mother was no longer around to rejoice with him. Berenguela had died in 1246, and as to Fernando, all those years of constant fighting had taken their toll, no matter that his efforts had essentially rid Spain of all Moors but those in Granada – and more than doubled the size of his kingdom. Far more importantly (at least from the perspective of these medieval knights), wherever Fernando and his men rode forth, they re-established the Holy Church, thereby reclaiming Spain to the Christian faith. God, they said, had given Fernando the gifts required to reconquer Spain – Fernando was but God’s instrument. He seems to have agreed, and so as to spread the word and bring his infidel subjects to the “right” faith, he founded friaries throughout the conquered territories – Fernando was a big fan of the mendicant orders.

To be fair to Fernando, he wasn’t all about war and religion. He was a fan of music and poetry, was more than happy to arrange and participate in tournaments and feasts. An eager proponent of learning (just like his father), he ensured his children were all excellently educated, and was more than happy to employ troubadors and painters, architects and masons. Just like his son, Fernando was quick to appreciate the beauty of Moorish culture, and it is said that during the siege of Seville, the inhabitants were warned that they would all have their throats cut should they damage as much as one tile on the magnificent mosque. Obviously, this was because he intended to convert the mosque to a church, but his interest in Moorish culture went beyond appropiation- he genuinely admired their technological advances in agriculture, enjoyed their lifestyle and their food.

In 1252, Fernando felt death approaching. It is said he immediately sent for his children and wife, wanting to speak to them one last time. His sons, his daughters, his weeping wife – they all assembled as requested, as did various monks and priests. It was time to divest himself of earthly goods and glory, prepare himself for his meeting with God, and Fernando asked for a crucifix and a rope.

Fernando Las_postrimerías_de_Fernando_III,_el_Santo._Virgilio_Mattoni._1887

The prostration of San Fernando (Mattoni) I guess it’s his wife in the veil to the right

He placed the rope around his neck and repeatedly beat his chest with the crucifix. He took Holy Communion, divested himself of his clothes until he was only in shirt and rope – a humble penitent, no more, prostrate before the greatness of God. He was fading fast, shared some words of final advice with his son and heir, and then, after having expressed his gratitude to God who had given him so much, he died. He was not much more than fifty-two years old, had spent more than half his life on the battlefield, left behind a strengthened and united realm, and a bevy of children.

Fernando was buried in Seville, in the former mosque turned cathedral. He lies beneath the statue of the virgin he was supposedly given by his cousin St Louis, and despite expressing a wish for a simple memorial, Fernando’s tomb is a magnificent piece of work – Alfonso X believed in pomp and circumstance. In 1671, the Conquering King was canonised, but by then he was already San Fernando to many, many Spanish people, many of whom had set out to do their own Conquista – that of the New World.

Ti volio bene – an Italian lesson

IMG_0201I grew up with a singing mother. Not so that she was constantly warbling, flitting hither and dither, but she liked to sing, and in particular she liked to listen to and sing along with Italian artists – more specifically San Remo winners.

Why this love affair with Italy, one wonders, and I suppose the answer to that lies precisely in a love affair – with an Italian. But that was long, long ago by the time I came around – more or less ancient history when my mother sat in the candlelight and hummed along to one song after the other.

At the time, I was already trilingual – this as a consequence of an itinerant childhood. Other than Swedish and English, I was also fluent in Spanish, which meant that all these Italian songs were not all that difficult to decipher. One word here, another there, and soon enough I had a pretty good take on what the song was all about – which was generally love of the sadder kind.

Lontano dagli occhi, lontano dal cuore, e tu sei lontana, lontana da me, Sergios Endrigo crooned, and I learnt that if you’re out of sight you’re also out of mind (or in this case out of heart, as cuore is Italian for heart) Or Tu sei quello, che s’incontra una volta e mai piú – i.e. you only get one chance to find the love of your life (and if you squander it, well tough) I had a thing about il cuore e uno zingaro – my heart is a gypsy – probably because it existed in a Spanish version which I knew – aptly – by heart: gitano es mi corazón. (Very much about committing issues) But my absolute favourite was Canzone per te with dear Sergio. A very, very sad farewell to the woman he still wishes well, now that she’s walking out of his life forever. *sniffs*

Valentine dicksee-romeo-and-juliet-on-the-balconyOther than a good grounding in emotional responses to broken hearts, broken promises, false lovers and what not, years and years of listening to all these Italian dated love songs, I had quite the impressive Italian vocabulary – albeit somewhat restricted in subject matter. Not that I ever said I spoke Italian – that would be lying – but I did understand quite a lot. Enough, as per my boss, to almost qualify as fluent in Italian, which was how I was sent off to Milano to work as an auditor for a couple of months.

Let me tell you, heart and love and longing and wishing your former lover well are not words or expressions that are in any way useful when auditing the books of a chemical company – or any other company. But the fact that I knew all these Italian songs served as something of an ice-breaker, and the various employees of the book-keeping department would cheer and yell for an encore or two, before handing over whatever financial records I had requested.

My vocabulary grew in leaps and bounds. Now that I was spending all my time in Italy, with people who spoke little of anything but Italian, all that passive vocabulary I’d picked up came to life, and soon enough I was declining verbs, discussing the correct way of accruing for Italian social costs, and in general moving away from the soft crooning of the San Remo winners to the real life language spoken by my temporary colleagues.

I was helped by the fact that I spoke Spanish – to a point. I was also made lazy by this – after all, if nothing else I could always speak Spanish, and whoever I was talking to would understand me. Which meant I wasn’t really learning Italian – I was aping it, picking up enough to get by without making the effort required to really master it. At the time, I had other things on my mind, like the fact that I was pregnant with our first child and so sick the only thing I could eat were bananas (which I have never, ever eaten since)

Due to future baby, my stay in Milan was cut back from planned six months to three. I went home, had my girl, had some more kids, continued working as an auditor for some years before moving to a new position.

One day, my new boss came in to my office. “We need to check out this company,” he grumbled. “You’re right, there’s something very off with their reporting.”
Yup. This little Italian company was one my company presently owned 51% in, with a plan to acquire more. Every month, the strangest numbers came in, and any questions we asked were met with a blanket “we don’t understand”. My boss looked at me. “You speak Italian, don’t you?”
“Umm.” Well, more than he did, at any rate. Which was how I was sent off to the north of Italy, very close to Turin. I prepared by doing some serious re-listening to my old favourites – after all, I’d forgotten a lot of what I’d learnt in Milan.

The company was housed in modern buildings on the outskirts of a very old Italian village. From a culinary perspective, I had the best risotto in my life there, plus a surfeit of goat meat, seeing as the locals were very keen on mountain goat. But I wasn’t there to eat, however relieved I was to find not a banana in sight, and I swept into the reception with my brightest smile.
“Hi, I’m from the head office,” I said in English. It is always amusing to say those words. It’s not as if the company you visit are delighted to have the head office pop by in any form – there’s a saying that head office visitors are like corporate sea gulls: they fly in, shit all over the place, and fly back home. Not me, obviously.

The Italian receptionist did a perfect balancing act between a welcoming smile and an ice-berg – a sort of glacial “how-do-you-do”. I was escorted upstairs to the Financial Manager who took one look at me and grinned. Not because he was happy to see me, but because he discarded me as being easy to fool. That’s what happens when you’ve got a head of blonde curls and a generous bosom. Huh.

We chit-chatted for a while in English, him trying to impress on me just how difficult it was for them to understand what numbers we required from them on a monthly basis. Seeing as the Italians invented double bookkeeping, I wasn’t buying it. After all, no matter what language you speak, accountants all over the world can communicate through debits and credits, balance sheets and P&L Statements. But I smiled and nodded, assured him we understood – and yes, it was so difficult to reconcile inventory accounts, wasn’t it?

After some minutes, he pressed the intercom button and ordered someone to fetch the books – in Italian. He also added that the person on the opposite end had best make sure he brought the right version of the books, the ones they wanted me to see. I pretended not to understand.

I spent two days reviewing the cooked books. Seeing as I do have a brain – despite the curls and curves – it wasn’t all that difficult to work out what was going on, further reinforced by how cagey everyone became when I insisted I wanted to see the goods in inventory. But I played along, worked out just how much the present management was keeping for themselves, and called a meeting.

The Financial Manager was looking his dapper best, legs neatly crossed, one polished brown shoe bobbing in time with his swinging leg.
I smiled – and I imagine it was a wolfish grin. “I think it is time I see the correct books,” I said in Italian. Well, after that it was curtains down for the dear Financial Manager. I could have sung “ma oggi devo dire che ti volio bene” as I left, but I didn’t. After all, I didn’t wish him well – I wished him behind bars.

Other than making me very appreciative for all those hours I spent listening to Italian love songs as I grew up, this entire incident brought home a much more important lesson: never presume the person sitting opposite you, or behind you in the bus, or beside you at the airport doesn’t understand. Now and then, they actually do. Might be good to remember – especially for all those people who seem incapable of keeping their voices down while speaking on their ubiquitous mobile phones.

Two kings and their ostentatious piety

EHFA HenryIIII’m going to come clean right at the start and say I am not a fan of Henry III. Through the centuries that separate us, he comes across as petty and ineffectual, and yes, I realise he has the misfortune of being stuck between the exciting (?) turmoil that defined the reign of his father, King John, and the rather impressive persona of his son, Edward I, but still, Henry was in many ways a most inept king – as demonstrated by the rebellion of men like Simon de Montfort.

To be fair to Henry, he did not have an easy start in life. Becoming king at the tender age of nine, with your kingdom invaded by French mercenaries, your barons at each other’s throat, and your father vilified by every man around, cannot have been easy. Things were probably not made better when his mother, the famously beautiful Isabella, Countess of Angouleme, decided she was not cut out to play the part of grieving widow. In 1217, a year after Henry had lost his father, Isabella chose to return to her native Angouleme where she subsequently married Hugh de Lusignan and went on to present Henry with nine half-siblings. It is testament to how much Henry desired to be loved that he would make his Lusignan half-brothers more than welcome in England, despite the protesting grumbling of his barons.

So: our little Henry must have been lonely. A dead father, a mother who abandoned him. Yes, he had a brother he loved dearly, and yes, he definitely had older men who acted as regents in his name, but ultimately he was still a child, however much a king he was expected to act. In such an atmosphere, it is not surprising if Henry grew up to be reserved, turning inwards rather than outwards. Neither is it a surprise that he found solace in his faith – Henry is described as being a most pious king. And here, dear readers, lies the seed to the magnificent legacy Henry III did leave us: Westminster Abbey.

EHFA Westminster_Abbey_2015 by Bede 735

Westminster abbey, photo Bede 735

Westminster Abbey qualifies as one of my favourite places. I don’t go there to gawk at the headstones and effigies of the famous, I go there to imbue the atmosphere, to sit in the Chapter House, peek at the cloister gardens. I go there to rest my head against the stone and listen to the sounds of all those who’ve walked here before me, a silent shuffling and rustling as shadowy monks, richly dressed magnates, the odd veiled woman pass by. Yes, yes: of course I know I’m imagining things – or am I?

Westminster Abbey is first and foremost a church, built in testimony of deep faith. Two English kings were to spend the equivalent of a major fortune on this their favourite church – one of whom is today’s protagonist, Henry III – but the origins are far older than that. In fact, we probably have the Romans to thank for the original settlement on what was then known as Thorn Ey (Island of the brambles), a small patch of solid land in the marsh that abutted the northern shore of the Thames. You see, the Romans had a logistic problem: somehow they wanted to join up Watling Street with Dover Street, and the self-evident intersection was round Thorn Ey, where the Thames was fordable at low tide.

As to the abbey, its roots are lost in antiquity. As per one legend, the Romans built a temple to Apollo on the present day site of the abbey. Out went the Romans, in came the barbarous Saxons, and the temple was razed to the ground, a forgotten ruin, no more, until King Sebert of Essex (a gentleman who lived in the 7th century) saw the light and decided to build a church on top of the Roman ruins to celebrate his conversion to Christianity.

Unfortunately, there is little proof of this ancient church. The Westminster monks went a bit wild and crazy in the 11th century, producing a number of skillful forgeries in their attempts to substantiate Westminster Abbey’s claim to be the oldest Christian abbey in England. In the event, Glastonbury won that particular fight after having produced their own legend, that of  Joseph of Arimathea, come to England in the aftermath of Jesus’ death with the Holy Grail and a staff that was to take root and become the Glastonbury thorn. Whether true or not, I leave to you, dear reader, to decide for yourself.

The 11th century ushered in a Danish dynasty and Knut (Canute), son of Sven Tveskägg became king of all of England in 1016. He rather liked Westminster, despite having issues with the temperamental tides of the Thames, so he decided to build a royal palace next door to the monastery. In doing so, Knut indirectly forged the first of several links that would forever tie the future abbey to the English royals.

By then, Westminster had grown into one of the more important monasteries in England. Several years of royal patronage had resulted in a wealthy monastery, and an impressive collection of relics ensured a steady stream of eager pilgrims.

EHFA Westminster abbey BayeuxTapestryScene26

Westminster Abbey as per the Bayeux Tapestry

The Danish dynasty was to be one of the more short-lived in England, and in 1043, Edward the Confessor (of Wessex royal blood) became king. He expended a fortune on Westminster Abbey, as per tradition because he’d promised to make a pilgrimage to St Peter’s grave in Rome should he ever regain his crown from the Danes. Once crowned, he was reluctant to leave his kingdom, and he instead promised to build  – or enlarge and restore – a monastery dedicated to St Peter. Somewhat coincidental, all this, seeing as just opposite the royal palace in Westminster was a monastery dedicated to…taa-daa…St Peter.

The church Edward built was,by all accounts, magnificent, and people gawked and exclaimed as stone by stone, the building rose towards the heavens, testament to Edward’s faith and unswerving determination to build one of the finest churches in Christendom. Unfortunately for Edward, he never got to enjoy his finished church. He sickened some days after Christmas of 1065, was incapable of attending the consecration and instead was buried in Westminster Abbey – in front of the altar in early January 1066. A not so auspicious start to that particular year, one could say…

Anyway: as we all know, William the Conqueror defeated Harold in October of 1066, had himself crowned in Westminster Abbey, and as of that day the kings of England were Norman. Henry III was the great-great-great-grandson of William but shared few characteristics with his bellicose and determined ancestor. Where William was more into world dominion, Henry was more into the arty stuff in life, which to some extent explains why he chose to invest such immense amounts in rebuilding the old and dark Westminster Abbey church into what it is today. Plus, of course, Henry was determined not to be outdone by Louis IX of France.

The two young kings were of an age – Henry was born in 1207, Louis in 1214. They were also brothers-in-law, both of them married to daughters of the Count of Provence. Both were pious – very pious. If Henry went to mass every day – so did Louis. Louis fed hundreds of orphans – so did Henry. One gave alms – so did the other. If Henry went on pilgrimages, chances are Louis would also go. When Louis washed the feet of lepers to show his humility, very soon after, Henry was also washing leprous feet. A competition in being the most Christian king, one could say, a determination to show the world just who was the most pious, devoted and Christian king around. So when Louis paraded the True Cross through Paris, Henry did not rest until he’d acquired the Relic of the Holy Blood to proudly carry the vial with its priceless content to Westminster Abbey.

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Sainte-Chapelle, photo Michael D Hill

Then, of course, Louis went ahead and started building Sainte-Chapelle – he needed an adequately beautiful church to store all those precious relics of his. Sainte-Chapelle was (is) a work of art and light. The upper part of the chapel was given fifteen huge stained glass windows, allowing light to stream in and illuminate the magnificently painted walls, the resplendent fabrics, the life-size statues of the apostles, and, of course, the huge silver chest in which Louis stored his precious relics.

What did Henry have that could match this? Nothing. Nada. Yes, Westminster Abbey was steeped in history, but did it have a lofty nave, did it invite the heavens to come within? Nope. So Henry rolled up his sleeves – figuratively speaking – and decided to rebuild, to create something as magnificent and imposing as Louis had done. (Okay, so it wasn’t only because of Louis – after all, Henry had always had a major interest for art and architecture…)

Henry had a trump card: within the abbey was the shrine to St Edward the Confessor – Henry’s patron saint – and Sainte-Chapelle had no such shrine, no such saint. (Although, to be honest, I find it difficult to understand why Edward was ever canonised. Neither here nor there…)

The shrine was remodelled. It was decked out with paint and gold-leaf, it was so adorned it immediately drew the eyes of any visitor, rising huge beyond the altar. The nave was rebuilt, rising to new heights. Light streamed in – not, perhaps, as much as in Louis’ chapel, but substantially more than before. And then Henry turned to the decoration within.

We may be excused for believing medieval churches were austere, mostly whitewash and wood – modern man has a tendency to equate starkness with piety. In truth, entering a medieval church was an assault on the senses, and especially that of sight. The walls were painted with scenes from the bible, statues glowed in blues and reds and golds, pillars rose towards the ceiling decorated with stonework and colour. Candles cast further light on gold decorations, glimmered off priceless church silver. Sunlight streamed through stained glass windows, dappling the floor with coloured reflections. A bit, I imagine, like entering a full-size kaleidoscope, with so much to see, so much to gawk at.

This was the reaction Henry strived for. He wanted people to enter and stop, amazed at what they saw within. So not only did he lift the nave, order the walls to be painted and decorated, St Edward’s shrine to be adequately highlighted and gilded, he also added a magnificent floor just before the shrine, and to top it all off, the high altar was adorned with a magnificent retable.

Amazingly, the Westminster Retable is still with us. Close to eight centuries old, badly damaged and scuffed, it is still there, still retains sufficient traces of the images that must at one time have had people going ‘ooooo’ and ‘aaaa’. To be frank, it is difficult not to do the ‘ooo’ and ‘aaa’ thing now as well – assuming you’ve taken the time to find the retable, which relatively few visitors to the abbey do, seeing as they never feel sufficiently motivated to visit the museum.

EHFA Westminster retableI, of course, have found my way to the museum – and will gladly admit that I’m somewhat in love with the retable. Specifically, I am intrigued by one image, that of Christ holding the whole world in his hand. Because you see, dear readers, the world Christ is holding is round. It’s a sphere. On a work of art from the 13th century. I shall leave you to mull that one over…

As an aside, it is somewhat of a miracle that the retable is still around. When the Reformation happened, churches were stripped of what was considered as excessively popish decorations, wall paintings were hidden under whitewash, statues of saints and the Virgin destroyed. And then, during the English Civil War, the Puritans had a tendency to go wild and crazy when it came to what they perceived as idolatry. The retable was not destroyed. It was just bundled off into storage somewhere, and in the 18th century someone came up with the bright idea to use the ancient thing – newly painted – as a cask for William Pitt the elder’s wax effigy.

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St Louis and the pope, Bibliotheque Nacionale de France

It is, I suppose, an open question which king succeeded in best demonstrating his piety to the world. In their constant competition, they left the world two marvels, the pure gothic beauty of Sainte-Chapelle and the somewhat more grounded Westminster Abbey, its ancient roots still visible. And as to which one of them was the most devout, that too must remain an open question, although Louis would probably sniff and tell me not to be an idiot: after all, there is no St Henry while there most definitely is a St Louis – and by all accounts, deservedly so.


What if? A speculative exercise

What if Henry_II_of_France.

Henri II – died of a lance in his eye. But what if…

One of the more enjoyable pastimes a history buff can indulge in, is the “what if” game. What if Francisco Pizarro had been murdered by the Incas? What if Henri II of France had not had his eye penetrated by a lance? What if Julius Caesar had survived the plot to kill him? Or if Judas had said “nope, not interested,” and turned his back on those thirty silver pieces? What if Troy hadn’t fallen, laughing their heads off at the idiotic Greeks who thought they were stupid enough to pull that wooden horse through their gates? Or, to open the door on one of the more heated debates within the historic community, what if Richard III had won at Bosworth?

This year, one of the more recurring what if’s will relate to the year 1066. If Harold had won, if William had hit the dust, then what?

Obviously, none of us know. But many of us enjoy to speculate, becoming more and more animated as the waves of discussion rise and crash around us. The only thing we do know is that if events in the past had not happened, things would have been different. Not necessarily worse. Not necessarily better. Just different.

What if 51Vntz2MXOLOne of my favourite “what if” books is Making History by Stephen Fry. In this book, a certain young man travels back in time to ensure Adolf Hitler is never born. How? He poisons the water source that serves Hitler’s parent’s home, and wham, just like that, little Adolf never sees the light of the day. Our hero congratulates himself: he has rewritten history to the better. But has he? Without revealing too much of the plot, let’s just say that no, he hasn’t. Hitler rose to power as a consequence of the political winds blowing at the time. He managed to hit the right time, the right place to spout his racist, ultra-nationalistic nonsense. Had Hitler not been around, someone else would have filled the gap, and what if this person was smarter than dear old Adolf? Same agenda, same ultimate goal, but totally different tactics. Maybe very successful tactics…

medieval william-the-conqueror-manuscript-illustration

William, as per a medieval depiction

Fortunately, we will never know just what such a person could have accomplished, but it’s important to keep in mind that most of the historical people who’ve left such a huge imprint on history have done so due to having been there at a certain point in time. Yes, obviously certain qualities are required – in William the Conqueror’s case, it helped that he was determined and ruthless, that he lived with the conviction (or pretended to) that the English crown was his by right. He must also have been very capable and innovative. I know the people in the Harold camp don’t like to hear this, because in history, Harold is the tragic hero who died on the battlefield after having had the terribly bad luck of first having to fend off Harald Hardrada and treacherous brother Tostig, then turn right around to rush down and fight William.

Except, of course, that the successful among us rarely blame bad luck for anything. They rely on meticulous planning, on a careful assessment of the situation, and a capacity to act quickly and forcefully. Maybe Harold should have handled Tostig differently. Maybe he was inept at building the alliances required to hold both Hardrada and William at bay. Because seriously, a king cannot rely on luck, can he?

It is my personal opinion that William has been somewhat unjustly treated by those of us who love our history. Not that he necessarily was a person I’d invite for tea and cake, but the man is quite often represented as evil incarnate, caring nothing for the people he subjugated. Yes, he committed various heinous deeds, but it seems to me that what we cannot forgive him for – ever – is that he won over our golden-haired hero, the affable, easy-going, handsome, upright Harold. Where William is depicted as dour and cold, little given to casual endearments or jollification, Harold comes across as the life and soul of the party, a man as loved by men as by women. Except that he wasn’t, was he? Not all Anglo-Saxon nobles felt Harold Godwinson was the best thing since sliced bread.

EHFA Bayeux_Tapestry_scene57_Harold_deathHad William lost the battle of Hastings, he’d have been no more than a footnote in history. England would have developed down a different path, a path without Henry II, Thomas Becket, Edward III, without Simon de Montfort and Henry III’s magnificent Westminster Abbey. No War of the Roses, no Henry VIII (no major loss, IMO). Would English as we speak it have existed? Would Shakespeare’s works ever have seen the light of the day? We will never know. After all, William did win, and all we can do is speculate. But when we do, we should keep in mind that there is no guarantee that a future forged by Harold Godwinson would have been better. It would just have been different. Very different.


1066-TUD-OutNowI have the honour of being one participant in a collaborative effort dedicated to highlighting the potential “what if’s” in the momentous year 1066. Our book, 1066 Turned Upside Down, has just hit the “etailers” and offers nine different perspectives on William, Harold and all the rest. We have played at being nornes, snipping fate’s threads and retying them as we see fit🙂 Have we had fun? Oh, yes! And all of this for less than £2 – seriously that’s not even one family-sized muffins at Starbucks and comes with the benefit of zero calories.

The authors are:

Helen Hollick, author of multiple historical and pirate novels, including Harold the King
Joanna Courtney, author of the Queens of the Conquest series
Anna Belfrage, Historical Novel Society Indie Award Winner 2015, author of the Graham Saga
Richard Dee, fantasy author of Ribbonworld 
G K Holloway, author of 1066: What Fates Impose
Carol McGrath, author of The Daughters of Hastings trilogy
Alison Morton, author of the Roma Nova thrillers
Eliza Redgold, author of Naked, a novel of Lady Godiva
Annie Whitehead, who writes about Mercia and Saxon England
with an impressive foreword by writer and actor, C.C. Humphreys

The fabulous cover art is by Cathy Helms of Avalon Graphics

An arranged love-match – of Philippa and her Edward

medieval loveIn 1326, a not yet fourteen-year-old boy was betrothed to a girl two years or so his junior. He was Edward, soon-to-be Edward III of England. She was Philippa, one of Guillaume of Hainaut’s four daughters. The betrothal cemented the alliance between Isabella of France and Count Guillaume, whereby the count placed ships and men at Isabella’s disposal for the upcoming conquest of England. It is said that the bride-to-be took an immediate liking to her prospective groom, weeping bitterly when he left.

In setting his name to the contracts, Edward openly defied his father’s will – King Edward II had repeatedly written to his son and told him that under no circumstances was he to enter into a marriage contract without his, the king’s, agreement – but what choice did the adolescent boy have? His mother would have him sign, and he was with her, under her daily influence.

Edward II opposed the marriage precisely because it gave Isabella access to the fighting men – and the ships required to transport them – she required to invade England. Not that Isabella would be captaining these men, that job fell to her partner and lover, Roger Mortimer.


Edward II trying out his crown

However, prior to the events that led to Isabella openly challenging her husband, Edward II had also toyed with marrying his eldest to one of Count Guillaume’s daughters, had even gone so far so as to have his trusted man, Walter Stapledon, Bishop of Exeter, travel over to inspect the goods, so to say. A description still survives, but it is unclear whether it refers to Philippa or to one of her sisters. Whatever the case, the bishop describes a dark-haired girl with dark eyes, a full mouth, good teeth – well, at least some of them. All in all, the bishop found her pleasant enough to look like, and one hopes young Edward agreed, that distant June day when he first clapped eyes on the girl who was to become his wife.

To be quite honest, we have no idea what Philippa may have looked like, but seeing as she lived in the fourteenth century, poor Philippa was burdened with a hairdo that is decidedly unflattering. If you look at her effigy in Westminster abbey, what you mostly see are those heavy arrangements of braids framing her face. Mind you, that effigy depicts Philippa as an adult woman, so maybe she was a bit more daring in her youth – maybe there were days when she wore her hair loose and covered by a sheer veil. Probably not – and definitely not after she’d married Edward. Married women were supposed to keep their hair firmly under control – i.e. covered, as it was a well-known fact men went all gaga at the sight of curls billowing in the wind.

We know little of Philippa’s youth. Her father married Jeanne of Valois, a cousin to Isabella of France, and assuming Jeanne’s father, Charles Valois, was as great a believer in education as Isabella’s father (and Charles’ brother), Philippe IV, was, Jeanne was literate and well-educated, something she surely passed on to her many daughters. Whatever the case, the Hainaut children spent most of their time in Valenciennes, Guillaume’s principal city, but would also have been regular visitors at Le Quesnoy – of WWI fame for ANZAC soldiers – where Guillaume and his family enjoyed such noble pastimes as hunting and hawking.

Due to Edward and Philippa being related – they were second cousins through their mothers – no wedding could take place without a papal dispensation. Not that Count Guillaume had any hurry in securing the dispensation. After all, should the invasion backfire, chances were Edward II would punish his eldest son by having him imprisoned or even executed.


Edward III being crowned

In the event, the invasion was a success. Capably led by Mortimer, Isabella’s forces soon had England under control. Edward II was imprisoned at Kenilworth Castle, his hated favourite Despenser was executed, and next on the agenda was to make Prince Edward King Edward, which was achieved by forcing Edward II to abdicate. So in February of 1327, Edward III was crowned, and on the other side of the English Channel, preparations began for Philippa’s wedding.

As many other young ladies of the time, she was actually married twice: the first time by proxy, i.e. Edward sent over a man to stand in his stead, the second time in January of 1328 in York – this time the real thing in the half-finished cathedral with her young and handsome husband at her side.

Without any surviving diaries or letters, it is of course difficult to assess just how successful this marriage was, but by all accounts Edward III was faithful to his wife, and the regular appearance of more babies indicate they enjoyed each other’s company behind the bed hangings. Mind you, it took some time for baby number one to arrive – but this may have been due to consideration. Philippa was not quite fourteen when they wed, and in general consummation with such young brides was not encouraged.

At the time of their wedding, Edward must have been in the grip of conflicting emotions: he’d recently seen his father buried after his death back in September (some people say Edward II didn’t die, but let us bypass that for now), his mother had awarded herself a huge income which seriously depleted the royal coffers, Roger Mortimer was effectively in charge of running the country (albeit together Isabella), and Edward was beginning to suspect neither Isabella nor Roger would be all that keen on stepping down from their position of power. So what did that make him? A leashed lion? For a young man determined to become a perfect king, that was not an option.

I imagine he found a confidante in Philippa, someone as firmly in his own corner as he himself was. Philippa might initially have been unfamiliar with the power games at court, and I guess she was quite intimidated by her mother-in-law, who still went by Queen Isabella, when in fact she should have been the Queen Mother Isabella. Thing is, Philippa was as yet uncrowned, and Isabella showed little interest in ensuring she was. From where Isabella was standing, England was better off with one crowned king – her son – and one crowned queen – herself.

Philippa_of_Hainault-miniIn 1330, Edward pushed through the coronation of his wife, by then pregnant with their first child. In an act of defiance, he swept his arms wide and told Philippa to go wild and crazy when it came to her coronation outfits, and she definitely did, changing from one precious combo to the other during the festivities. Mama Isabella was probably not entirely pleased at being upstaged, but public opinion was moving in the direction of Edward and Philippa, and after the little queen proudly presented her husband with a son and heir in June of 1330, Isabella should have realised power was slipping through her fingers. Edward III now had every reason to act – and act quickly – so as to retake control of his country. Which he did – or rather his friends did, which is how Mortimer ended up dead and Isabella ended up marginalised.

Philippa was now queen not only in name but also in fact – and she did a good job of it, the perfect medieval consort who advised her husband in private, interceded on behalf of the weak and needy, and oversaw the raising of their large and mostly happy family. She was his pillar of strength, the companion from his youth that became his companion through life, the person he could always trust to have his, Edward’s, interests at heart.

Philippa was also a patron of the arts, was held in high regard by men such as Jean Froissart, and owned and commissioned several illustrated manuscripts, some of which are still around. Over a period of 25 years, she gave birth at least thirteen times, which means she was just sixteen when the first baby was born, over forty when the baby of the family, Thomas of Woodstock, saw the light of the day. Edward clearly enjoyed her company – and vice-versa – which explains why she accompanied her bellicose husband on various of his campaigns – both to Scotland but also to France, where she forever earned the reputation of being a gentle and good queen when she begged Edward to spare the burghers of Calais.


Battle of Sluys – from Jean Froissart’s Chronicle

I remember the first time I heard this story. My teacher, Mrs Miller, had a stochastic approach to the Hundred Years’ War, so that we went from Sluys to Agincourt and then back to Crecy, mainly because she had all these lovely Jean Froissart posters that she used for inspiration and tended to get them mixed up. At the time, I was seriously confused: one moment, we’re talking about Edward III and his naval victory over the French (Sluys, 1340), the next we’re at Agincourt (and yes, Shakespeare was quoted) with Edward III’s great-grandson Henry V, then we’re back to Edward III at Crecy, now accompanied by his young, just as bellicose, son Edward (whom Mrs Miller never called anything but The Black Prince, which really had me wondering if he was a bad guy. I was ten, okay?)

Anyway, after more or less annihilating the French at Crecy in 1346, in September of that same year Edward turned north – to Calais. At the time, this town was protected by impressive walls, and no matter how many men Edward threw at the town, the defences held. Months of this did not improve Edward’s temper, but he was determined to win Calais, so in February of 1347, he effectively closed off all lines of supply into the town. The siege of Calais had begun.

The_French_defeated_before_Calais_by_Edward_IIIThe stubborn townspeople refused to give up, hoping their king would come to their aid. Philippe of France did show up, but he was still smarting after the loss at Crecy, and he was severely outnumbered and “outstrategised” by Edward, which made Philippe decide it was best to retreat and fight another day. Abandoned by their king, in August, Calais gave up.

By then, Edward was seriously pissed off with the town for holding out for so long – it sort of put a dent in his calendar. Plus, he had hoped to force the French king into a decisive battle outside Calais, but Philippe had evaded that trap. So when Calais finally surrendered, I reckon Edward was seriously tempted to do unleash his men on the town. But as Edward was in France claiming the French crown, he realised this was probably not a good way of endearing himself to his French subjects, so instead he offered the people of Calais a way out: if six of them would come before him and offer him the keys of the city, give themselves up unconditionally, he would spare the rest.

Death. Those six Calais burghers had no illusions as to what fate awaited them – especially as Edward ordered that they wear nothing but their shirts and a noose round their neck – ready to hang, if you will. They prostrated themselves before the smouldering Edward and begged for their lives. He ordered their heads to be cut off – ASAP.

Queen_Plippia_intercending_for_the_Burghers_of_Calais_byJ.D_PenroseThis is when Philippa stepped forth from the shadows of history to hog the limelight. Heavily pregnant, she kneeled before her husband and begged him to show mercy. Mrs Miller tended to embroider this bit: the queen, all in white, sank to her knees before her seated husband and approached him on her knees, repeatedly asking that he spare the burghers as otherwise she feared God would rob them of the child presently in her womb. Mrs Miller tended to get emotional here, a hand drifting down to her very flat abdomen (Mrs Miller was well past childbearing at the time).

Edward was very fond of his wife, and, according to Mrs Miller, never had she looked more beautiful to him than she did as she kneeled abjectly before him. Hmm. I hope she had. Whatever the case, he was so touched he spared the six burghers and everyone lived happily ever after. Except that they didn’t – at least not the citizens of Calais who were evicted out of their town by Edward and replaced by his men. Neither did Philippa’s baby. A son, Thomas of Windsor, was born in 1347 but died within a year.

Anyway, after the events at Calais, Philippa went back to being the mild wife she’d always been, never questioning her husband in public, however much she may have argued with him in private. Not that I think they did argue. I think they had a happy and fulfilling marriage, one in which they enjoyed spending time together, sharing their thoughts with each other. Edward found in Philippa and their children the family he’d lost as a child when his mother and father ended up on opposite sides of a battlefield. In her, he had a loyal and devoted spouse. In him, she found a man who cherished her and honoured her.

In the 1360s, Philippa fell ill. A wasting disease that had her growing weak and him somewhat desperate. Yes, this is when Edward also began his association with Alice Perrers, his only known mistress, but his devotion for his wife and his distress at her continued illness was evident.

In July of 1369, Philippa sent for her husband, presently preparing for yet another campaign. He rushed to her side at Windsor and found her wan and pale in her bed. They held hands as she had him promise that once he died, he’d be buried beside her. Edward wept and gave her his word, gripping the hand of the woman who’d been his mainstay through life.

Philippa was all of fifty-five when she died, and had lived through the misfortune of seeing nine of her children die before her. Her husband was devastated and never quite recovered from her death. Soon enough, he would fall under the spell of Alice Perrers, even more so as his mind deteriorated, but in his heart Philippa ruled uncontested. Of that I am sure.

In my latest release, Days of Sun and Glory, I have included a first meeting between the adolescent Edward and a girl who still climbs trees and wears her hair in braids.

9789198324518After supper, the count and Lord Mortimer retired to discuss military matters with the men. Prince Edward scowled as the men left, but when Countess Jeanne invited him and the queen to her apartments, generously including most of Queen Isabella’s retinue as well, he bowed politely and accepted, throwing smouldering looks at his mother.
Entertainment came in the shape of a troubadour, who sang them a selection of verses from the Roman de la Rose, which made Prince Edward shift on his seat while the three unwed Hainaut daughters blushed and tittered.
Fortunately, the troubadour had an ear not only for music, but also for his audience, and he changed to livelier tunes, accompanied by a man on a vielle and an old lady on a guimbarde, and Philippa rose to her feet and danced, graceful and lively. Her sisters followed suit, but it was Philippa the prince followed with his eyes, and when the young girl approached him, he took her hand and allowed her to lead him out to dance.
Afterwards, a flushed prince retired to sit on the window seat.
“Does she please you, my lord?” Kit joined him. The potential future Queen of England was standing on the opposite side of the vaulted room, dark braids framing her face. The child had the most remarkable eyes: large and somewhat almond-shaped, they were the colour of ripe hazelnuts and seemed to glow from within when she looked at the prince.
“What does it matter what I think?” Prince Edward said morosely.
“Your mother is bartering your future for weapons and men,” Kit said with asperity. “It seems only fair that you should end up with a bride you feel some affection for.”
Edward shrugged. “I am a prince. Princes do not marry for love.” He gave her a pained look. “My father never loved my mother. She was a child and he was a man.”
“But you and Lady Philippa are of an age – a far better foundation for a good marriage, don’t you think?” Kit nudged him in the ribs. “She’s quite pretty.”
Prince Edward went the colour of a boiled lobster, while muttering that aye, he thought she was. “She is so…uncomplicated, so sunny,” he continued. “I could do with a sun in my life.”
Kit was tempted to hug him. Poor lad; not quite fourteen and already so disillusioned.
“Well, we all need someone to brighten up our days, don’t we? Tell your mother you want Philippa. Let her sort out the practicalities with the count.”

As you can see – and surely it is not much of a surprise by now – I do believe in love at first sight, even if in this case it was probably more of a puppy love🙂

Digging up the Tudor roots

Okay, I’m going to come clean: I am NOT a major Tudor fan. I’ve had it up to here (waves hand around eye level) with novels featuring Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. Likewise with Elizabeth I – undoubtedly an intriguing lady – maybe not so much with Mary Tudor. Which is why I surprised myself when I bought a book about Owen Tudor – but hey, all I knew about this particular Tudor was that he’d seduced Henry V’s widow  and that this happened like 100 years before Henry VIII’s heyday. Turns out I enjoyed the book, which is why I’ve invited the author, Tony Riches, to pop by.

TR Owen and Jasper BooksWelcome to my blog, Tony! By now, I have read quite a few of your books, and I recently enjoyed (yes, to my surprise – see above) both Owen and Jasper, the first two books in your Tudor trilogy. Why this fascination with the early Tudors?

Hi Anna – and thank you for inviting me to your blog. I was born within sight of Pembroke Castle, birthplace of Henry Tudor, so was naturally intrigued by how Henry became King of England. Surprised to find there were no books about Owen Tudor, the Welsh servant who married the widow of King Henry V, I began researching his life and discovered the fascinating story of how the Tudor dynasty began. I soon had more than enough material for a book and decided to write the trilogy, with Henry being born in the first book, coming of age in the second and becoming king in the third.

In Owen, you present Catherine of Valois as being prone to depression, if not full-blown mental instability. Tell us a bit about this – did your research lead you to conclude she was somewhat frail, or is this a case of “filling in the blanks”?

Although there is no direct evidence of Catherine’s ‘instability’ it’s recorded that her father, Charles VI of France, suffered from delusions, such as the belief he was made of glass. He began violently attacking his servants and had to be locked up for his own safety. Catherine’s son Henry VI also suffered from ’lapses’ and is reported as falling into some form of depressive catatonic state. Importantly, both her father and her son sometimes failed to recognise their own family and, as the link between them, Queen Catherine must have feared for her own mental health. She became a recluse at Bermondsey Abbey after Owen was arrested and her sons taken from her, so it was easy to imagine how this might have caused tension in her relationship with Owen Tudor.

In Jasper, Henry VI is already showing clear signs of retiring mentally from the world, leaving his forceful wife to cope on her own. Do you think there were ever discussions among the Lancastrians to depose him?

Yes – he was definitely unfit to rule, so if it had not been for the protection of Queen Margaret of Anjou I’m sure he would have been ‘retired’ through ill health much earlier. It’s fascinating to wonder how history might have changed if he’d not remained on the throne…

There has been speculation regarding the paternity of Prince Edward, Henry VI’s son. What is your take on it?

The only person who knows for certain is Queen Margaret, although providing the king with a male heir transformed her status in the country. By all accounts she was an attractive and lonely young woman, so given her husband’s mental and physical state at the time the temptation to take matters into her own hands must have been overwhelming.  (Ha! A true diplomat, Mr Riches…)

You paint a very engaging picture of Jasper Tudor – a man loyal to a fault, both to his brother and his nephew. Was this your starting point when you decided to write about him?

I wanted to show Jasper as a man with plenty of weaknesses. He always seemed to run from battles to save himself, he wasn’t a great military tactician, often failed to listen to good advice and didn’t settle down and marry until he was fifty-five.  At the same time, Jasper was an easy man to like, as he always put others first. There is no question of his loyalty to Henry Tudor or his diplomatic skills, qualities which were vital for the future of the Tudor dynasty.


In Jasper, the Welsh are talked into supporting Henry Tudor because he’s Welsh and rides under the Welsh dragon. Were there benefits to the Welsh during Henry VII’s reign?

The Welsh had been subjugated, second-class citizens for centuries, not allowed to own land or even carry a sword, so it must have been compelling to believe Henry was their prophesised saviour, ‘Y Mab Darogan’, the ‘son of destiny’. There is scant evidence that Henry VII ever returned to Wales once he was king, however, although he generously rewarded those who supported him at Bosworth.

As a writer, I found it interesting to note that Owen is written in first person, present tense, while Jasper is third person, past tense. Why have you used two such different approaches?

I started writing Owen in the third person, then read Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and was impressed by the sense of immediacy she achieves. I enjoyed the challenge of re-writing Owen in the first person and present tense – but Jasper was always third person in book one and I decided to continue this. I understand some readers struggle to get in to first person, present tense, although the feedback and reviews (and international sales) suggest it wasn’t an issue.

Your trilogy is to be concluded with a third book (obviously) named Henry. It seems to me the world of historical fiction readers is very polarised when it comes to Henry Tudor – what is your take on this enigmatic man?

I respected Richard III’s courage at the end of my book Jasper – and now I’m keen to present a fresh perspective on the man Henry was. He inherited a bankrupt throne and left it richer than it had ever been. He oversaw the longest period of peace for centuries, uniting families and establishing a new style of monarchy. (I’m attending the Bosworth anniversary re-enactment next month, however, and am sure the ‘Ricardians’ will take some convincing!)

What I found very interesting in Jasper was how distant you depicted the relationship between Margaret Beaufort and her son, Henry. Not so strange, really, seeing as he was raised by others than her, but somewhat at odds with the notion that she was the “power behind the throne” once he became king. What are your thoughts on Margaret and her relationship with Henry?

Margaret Beaufort was a fascinating woman, and I relied on numerous sources but was particularly impressed by Elizabeth Norton’s Margaret Beaufort: Mother of the Tudor Dynasty. The price of Henry’s long exile was that his mother would have been a complete stranger, as for many years they couldn’t exchange letters, yet she never stopped working for his return and became his most trusted advisor once he was king.

Finally, when will we be able to read Henry?

I am now working on the first draft and plan to launch Henry, Book Three of The Tudor Trilogy by Easter next year.

Thank you so much for dropping by, Tony – and for giving me a new perspective on the Tudors!


TR Tony Riches 2016Tony Riches lives with his wife in Pembrokeshire, West Wales and is a specialist in the history of the fifteenth century, with a particular interest in the Wars of the Roses and the lives of the early Tudors. For more information about Tony’s books please visit his popular blog, The Writing Desk and his WordPress website and find him on Facebook and Twitter @tonyriches.

No, no, no! Please don’t die! – of the constraints imposed by reality

I write historical fiction, and as such I am a big fan of knowing my period and the important players of the time. However, my first series featured a time-traveller and her 17th century husband, a couple affected by what was happening round them – Matthew Graham is obliged to uproot himself and his family and leave Scotland due to the religious persecution in the aftermath of the Restoration in 1660 – but they were never anywhere close to the centre of things. This allowed me a lot of freedom when plotting their lives and adventures – albeit that I do have real-life characters flitting in and out.

EHFA Isabella_and_Roger_Mortimer

Isabella and Roger – IRL (hmm, like a century after the fact)

My new series also features fictional characters. But this time round, I’ve tied their fate to that of the movers and shakers of the time, and suddenly my writing is populated by far more characters who did exist than did not.
“I should hope so.” Roger Mortimer pours himself a goblet of wine and reclines on one of the window seats that have, just by magic, popped up in my head. “It is us that are truly interesting.”
Well, excuse me for not agreeing 100%, Lord Mortimer! Well, okay: I am fascinated by Roger Mortimer – have been, since a certain Mr Wilmshurst (one of my first history teachers) summarised the story of Queen Isabella and Roger.

At the time, Queen Isabella came as a fresh air, proving to everyone in the class room that not all medieval ladies were meek and submissive. In actual fact, I think very few were: it suffices to look around at the women that surround us to realise submissiveness is not necessarily an ingrained female trait. But you see, no matter how tough as boots Isabella was, I never really warmed to her. I did, however, warm to Mortimer.
“He would not have given you as much as a glance,” Isabella says from where she has joined Mortimer by the window. She twirls, showing off her perfect figure. Everything is perfect about her – but there’s something hard and calculating about her, and I’ve always felt she could have done more to save her lover from his fate.
“My fate?” Mortimer stands up, and beside him, Isabella is as dainty as a foal beside a stallion.
“Well, you know,” I say, squirming a bit. “You die.”
He gives me a humourless smile. “I know. I was there, remember?” His hand rubs at his neck. “I was hoping you’d apply an alternate history approach.” .
Ah. But I already do – sort of – and one can only play with the facts so far, unless I aim to recreate an entirely new historical setting, which I don’t. So I clear my throat and shake my head. “Sorry. Facts are facts.”
“Are they?” His brows shoot up. “So you know everything about me and Isabella?”
“Umm…” Obviously not. It’s not as if these two were kind enough to leave me huge diaries to read. And even if they had, who’s to say that would be the truth. The truth is never much more than a perception – unless we talk of the hard facts, such as “he was born then, died then.” Died. Gone. An irrefutable fact.

I’m going to come clean here and say I have a major, major problem when my characters – invented or not invented – die on me.


Dead – very dead (Ophelia by Millais)

Now, when it comes to invented characters, the savvy writer can keep a careful eye on the character’s development and the plotline so as to ensure death is not the only option. Close shaves at times, but not death. Not yet. Preferably not ever – or at least not in any of the books I intend to write about this character. Some characters take matters out of your hands by being quite contrary and end up dead anyway, but such misfortunes can be avoided when dealing with imaginary peeps.

The problem is compounded when dealing with people who did live – and die. Unless you’re aiming for alternative history – as my pal Roger so helpfully suggested – in which you could, f.ex., keep Harold alive at Hastings while having William eating dust, writing about real-life people is constraining.

“Harold?” Roger snorts softly. “He was a Saxon savage. With William came order and structure. No William, no Henry II, no Eleanor of Aquitaine, no Edward I, no Edward II.” His brow furrows. “Not that Edward II would have been a major loss to mankind.”
“Whatever,” I tell him, wanting to clap him over the head for his disparging comment about Harold. “My point is rather that real life characters such as you were born, and then you DIED.”
And once these historical people reach their best by date, no tweaking of the plotline will help – there they lie, as still as a rock and with as much animation. Truth be told, they were just as inert prior to being included in the ongoing Work-in-progress, but once you start breathing life into a person, they become your baby, sort of, and we don’t like it when our babies die.
Roger Mortimer gives me an amused look. “Your baby?”
“Figuratively speaking.”
“Ah.” He glances at Isabella, who has moved off to study her reflection in a pool of water. (My head is very roomy, okay?) “Not baby in the more modern sense?” He winks.
Sheesh! My cheeks heat, and darkly handsome Roger Mortimer throws back his head and laughs. Well: I’ll get my revenge – sort of – by sticking to the actual dates, so come December 1330, this vibrant, forceful and extremely ambitious man will be lying in an anonymous grave somewhere. Right: I need to take a little break and fortify myself with a gulp or two of tea. Roger – who is quite the gentlemen when he wants to be – pats me on the back and tells me not to feel too bad about killing him off. After all, most of his contemporaries were of the opinion he deserved it. This he says with a crooked smile, and I know his ignominious death still rankles.

My conversation with Mortimer is interrupted by the sudden appearance of Adam de Guirande, my very invented hero who loves Mortimer as a father – even if at times he doesn’t like him or his methods much. If I am upset by the thought of Mortimer’s death, it will eviscerate Adam.
“It will.” Mortimer’s dark gaze follows Adam’s progress towards him. “So we don’t tell him. Not yet.”
“Not yet,” I promise.
Mortimer moves off with Adam, doing one of those elegant fade aways my characters often do when they desire some moments of privacy. I revert to my morbid musings regarding the demise of characters.

One of my main gripes with George R. R. Martin’s Game of Throne series is that he keeps on killing people off. No sooner have I developed a relationship with one of his main characters, and he offs them. I have still not recuperated from Ned Stark’s beheading, let me tell you. Now, if I feel so bereaved, I can only imagine how bereaved he feels. Or maybe he doesn’t. Maybe he maintains a professional distance to all his imaginary creations – but I don’t believe that, as anyone with half a brain cell can see how much of himself he has invested in his books and characters.

Still, Martin has the option of keeping them all alive. Had he wanted to, the entire Stark family could still be sitting in Winterfell, expressing that “winter is coming” in between bickering about whether to worship the Seven, the old goods, or the fire god. Not necessarily the most riveting of stories, but he could have aimed for a Happily Ever After seeing as he invented the Starks.

Had George R.R. Martin been writing about William Wallace, Happily Ever After would not even be an option. After all, we all know how Wallace died, and there was nothing happy about it. (And while I break out in hives every time I see Mel Gibson depict Wallace wearing a kilt, I must give him plus points for that awesome death scene.)


A very dead Arthur (Edward Burne-Jones)

It’s very frustrating to know from the beginning you’re going to have to kill off some of your protagonists – just because they happen to have a fixed death date. Alternatively, you end the story before they die, but sometimes that isn’t an option. In the example of William Wallace, there really is no point at which we can have him riding off into a rosy sunset, leaving his future fate to be determined by the reader.

No, William Wallace had no Happily Ever After, and neither did my Roger Mortimer. I sigh and press the heels of my hands against my eyes. Shit: Adam de Guirande will never forgive me for this, for allowing him to develop such strong bonds with a man I knew from the beginning wouldn’t be around to grow old. But that, dear readers, is one of those things us writers have to deal with. Still: I wish…

Tough times, tough lady- meet Mahaut!

Those who regularly read my blog will know I have a fascination with strong historical characters – and especially women. I suppose this reflects on my belief that I am a strong woman – and would have made a great ruling queen back when ruling queens and kings wielded real power. Of course, had I been around back then, chances are I’d have been a very strong woman stuck in some sort of menial role. My genes do not include much of the royal or noble blue – as far as I know, I am descended from hard-working farmers and miners.

Neither here nor there – but I do daydream about being a medieval mover and shaker. Seeing as daydreams rarely come true, I indulge myself by writing about women who did leave a mark on the world, despite living in times when gender equality was an unknown concept and women (in general) had a weaker legal status than men.

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Handsome Philippe with his handsome kids

Today, I’d like us to spend some time with Mahaut d’Artois, a contemporary to Philippe IV of France, usually nicknamed le Bel because he was such a handsome dude. If we’re to believe Maurice Druon (and Mr Druon is a compelling writer, so it is difficult to fully wipe his description of Mahaut out of my head) this was a lady who would stop at nothing to get her genes on the French throne. Murder was not an issue, blackmail was a walk in the park. Calumny and false accusations – pah! – a mother does what she has to do to ensure her daughters get ahead. Ultimately, it didn’t help, but one cannot fault Mahaut’s determination for trying – and trying really hard – to make her unborn grandchild a king. Assuming we believe Maurice Druon, of course…

If we start at the beginning, we must conclude we’re not quite sure when things began. Some sources cite Mahaut was born in 1268. Some offer a date closer to 1275. So let us compromise and say she was born in 1270 or thereabouts. Her father, Robert II, Count of Artois, was a nephew of St Louis, and accordingly Mahaut could claim close kinship to the ruling Capet dynasty, albeit that her great-uncle’s saintliness seems to have passed her by.

Mahaut Ota4Burgundy


I assume Mahaut was educated in accordance with her status – i.e. she was taught to administer substantial landholdings, to read and write and manage her accounts. We have no idea what she looked like, but the Capets in general were a handsome lot, so reasonably Mahaut was pleasing enough on the eye. In 1291, she married Otto of Burgundy, a man at least two decades her senior. Otto had been married before but had no children, something which was quickly remedied as Mahaut presented him with two girls in the first few years of their marriage. I’d guess there were other, unrecorded, babies, before the birth of a precious son in 1300.

Maybe more sons would have followed, but in 1302 Otto died, and Mahaut was suddenly the rich – and powerful – dowager Countess of Burgundy. Some months later, she would also become the countess of Artois.

Mahaut was not the only child of Robert, Count of Artois. In fact, she had two brothers, one of whom died very young, but the other grew up to be a healthy man. This Philippe married and had a son, named Robert after his grandfather. It would seem the succession to the County of Artois through the male line was assured (at the time, male heirs took precedence over female heirs). Phew. Except that in 1298, Philippe died of his wounds after the battle of Furnes. At the time, his son was eleven.

Whether Robert Sr raged and tore his hair at the loss of his only son, we don’t know – but it seems a fair bet to assume he did, finding some comfort in his young namesake. And had Robert Sr lived until his grandson was an adult, things might have gone very differently. Instead, Robert Sr followed his son into the afterlife in 1302 – killed on the battlefield. And this is when Mahaut surged forward and claimed Artois for herself, citing local customs. Effectively, she claimed she was closer by blood to the deceased count than her nephew, ergo she had the right to inherit.

Mahaut Seance_solennelle_terminant_le_proces_de_Robert_d'Artois_le_6_aout_1332.BNF-fr18437-fol2

Philippe IV ruling in Mahaut’s favour

Even from a distance of 700 years, Mahaut comes across as a grasping and callous lady, coolly using archaic customs to disinherit her nephew. It wasn’t as if she was destitute – rather the reverse. Robert Jr was too young to forcibly push his own claim, and besides, King Philippe le Bel had an interest in keeping Mahaut happy – Burgundy was important to France. And so, to the surprise of many of their contemporaries, Philippe upheld Mahaut’s claim.

I imagine our lady of the day rubbed her hands together in glee. Even more so, when some years later she ensured that both her daughters married royalty: Jean, the oldest, became the wife of Philippe, second son of Philippe le Bel, and Blanche married Philippe’s baby brother Charles. Suddenly, she could start dreaming of seeing her grandsons on the French throne – well, assuming Philippe’s and Charles’ older brother Louis did not leave any heirs.

This is where the story about the manipulative poisoner Mahaut starts to take shape: undoubtedly, she had a vested interest in clearing the path for her son-in-law(s). Seeing as she’d already proven herself to be singularly ruthless – poor Robert made sure no one forgot how his detested tante had cheated him of his patrimony – such rumours found fertile ground. But such things were as yet in the future, and instead Mahaut had a number of years in which she could bask in the reflected glory of her daughters.

But not all good things last for ever – not even if you’re named Mahaut. In 1314, France was rocked by the biggest scandal in French medieval history – the Tour de Nesle affair. Through the testimony of Isabella of France, Queen of England, it came to light that her three sisters-in-law were slipping off to enjoy carnal intimacies with men other than their husbands, thereby cuckolding the Capetian princes. Did not go down well, putting it mildly. Mahaut’s precious daughters were revealed as simple adulteresses, the two young men who’d had the temerity of dallying with the princesses were cruelly executed, and everyone assumed the three princesses would be locked up for life in Chateau de Gaillard or in a similar nasty environment.

“Ahem,” said Jeanne, Mahaut’s eldest daughter. “I didn’t do anything wrong! I never cheated on my husband, my dear, handsome Philippe.”
To his everlasting credit, Philippe not only believed her, he defended her, insisting he had no doubts as to his wife’s fidelity or the paternity of their various daughters. So instead of being judged an adulteress, Jeanne got off with the somewhat milder “complicit to adultery”, in that she hadn’t stopped her sister Blanche and her cousin Marguerite from fornicating with their handsome lovers. While Marguerite and Blanche suffered the ignominy of having their heads shorn before the parliament before being cast in prison, Jeanne was exiled from court, spending a number of months begging to be allowed to return to her husband’s side.

Behind her back, the entire court laughed at Mahaut. Her youngest daughter a whore, her eldest selectively blind – no, it did not reflect well on the haughty countess. Things went from bad to worse when her son died in 1315. The riches and lands Mahaut had amassed would not pass to her precious boy (yet another Robert). I dare say nephew Robert felt this was God doing some adequate punishment – he definitely took the opportunity of attempting to wrest Artois by force from Mahaut, fanning the flames of a rebellion that roared into life before spluttering and dying just as quickly. The people of Artois were happy with their countess, who was an able and fair administrator, a generous benefactress of religious orders, and in general much respected – even loved.

In the aftermath of the Tour de Nesle, Philippe le Bel died. His eldest, Louis, became king. Unfortunately for Louis, his wife was sitting in a dark and damp dungeon in Chateau de Gaillard, the daughter he had with her was tainted with the suspicion of bastardy, and there was no pope around to grant him an annulment (the papacy was living through its own little crisis).

Mahaut Clemence

Clemence (?)

Mahaut perked up. If Louis remained fettered to Marguerite, chances were his little daughter would be passed over in the succession, the crown thereby ending up with Mahaut’s dear son-in-law Philippe. So when Marguerite died in captivity, we can safely assume this was not Mahaut’s doing. Nope. Instead, we must point the finger very firmly at Louis, but truth be told, no one seemed all that eager to investigate the disgraced Marguerite’s death, and soon enough Louis had a new bride by his side, Clemence of Hungary.

This Hungarian princess (except she wasn’t all that Hungarian: she was as French as they came) was a major, major monkey-wrench in Mahaut’s plans. Even more so when she became pregnant. Louis was ecstatic – soon he’d have a precious heir, a child untainted by the scandal of Tour de Nesle. And then Louis upped and died – supposedly because he’d drunk too much cold water after a singularly heated and extended tennis game. (Yes: Louis was an avid tennis player – an early adopter of the sport). Or maybe he’d been poisoned…A young and healthy king to drop dead like that? Hmm. More than one glanced at Mahaut – and Philippe.

Poor Clemence was now the equivalent of a defenceless lamb, surrounded by wolves. Philippe was named regent, and took the opportunity to re-affirm the Salic Laws whereby the throne of France could not be passed down through the female line. Should Clemence be delivered of a girl, the crown would pass to Philippe. Should she present the joyous French with a son, Philippe – and I dare say he bared his teeth in a singularly icy smile – would act as regent for his dear nephew.

Mahaut Jean_Ier_Bier

Baby Jean’s burial

Clemence gave birth to a boy. Shouts of joy quickly transformed into hiccups of grief when the little baby, Jean I, died after five days. Yet again, there were rumours of poison. Yet again, the main beneficiary was Philippe, with impressive kick-ass mother-in-law Mahaut holding his back.

Leaving aside Maurice Druon’s elegantly woven tale of intrigue and dark mischief (and seriously, if you haven’t read his books about the Capet kings, The Accursed Kings, do so. Now!) one could still argue that Mahaut could have poisoned Louis – and little Jean. On the other hand, so could very many others. Or maybe both Louis and Jean did die natural deaths – albeit this was a novel situation in France, where for four centuries every Capet king had been succeeded by a Capet son.

Whatever the case, Philippe was now king. Only problem was, he had no sons. None. A boy was born and died in 1316 – the year Philippe became king – and after that there were no more babies. At most, his daughters could aspire to inherit grandma Mahaut’s combined title Countess of Burgundy and Artois – and marry well. Unless Philippe had sons, his crown would pass to brother Charles, also Mahaut’s son-in-law. The problem in this case was that Charles had no desire to reconcile with his wife, Blanche. Mahaut’s youngest daughter had been locked away in 1314, had given birth while imprisoned (with serious doubts cast on the child’s paternity), and Charles wanted nothing to do with her – he wanted an annulment and a new wife.

Mahaut John XXII annulling C & B

Pope John XXII annulling the marriage between Charles and Blanche

In 1322, Philippe died. Charles became king and wasted no time in forcing through an annulment. The children he’d had by Blanche were both dead, and Charles needed heirs – fast! For the first time in remembered history, the Capet dynasty had no male heirs. None. By now, Blanche was in a bad way – her eight years locked away had marked her for life. Once her marriage had been declared null and void, she was allowed to take the veil and was to die in a convent some years later. With her died Mahaut’s hopes of seeing a grandchild ascend France’s throne. By then, the pragmatic and hard-nosed Mahaut had probably given up on that particular dream. After years at the centre of things, she chose to pass her last years with her eldest daughter, widowed Queen Jeanne, and capably managing her estates.

So, who was Mahaut? A cold-hearted and manipulative bitch who stopped at nothing – not even murder – to reach her goals? A capable, if greedy, woman maligned by her contemporaries for being just that – competent? Well, Mahaut isn’t telling – ladies who’ve been buried for close to seven centuries rarely do. I suspect the truth lies somewhere in between: ambition and power does  strange things to people, and Mahaut comes across as being somewhat addicted to this particular drug combo. But from there to murder it’s a loooong step!

In 1329, Mahaut fell ill. Some days later, she died. Ironically, some say she was poisoned…

A pirate and his “wench” drop by

HH 2 Helen MediumSometimes, one is in luck: like when, just by chance, one gets hold of a recently conducted interview with Jesamiah Acorne. Now, for those of you not in the know, Jesamiah is an endearing rogue of a pirate, with lethal blue ribbons decorating his hair, a golden acorn in his ear. Unfortunately, our handsome Jesamiah is already taken – he is very devoted to his wife Tiola and (mostly) faithful. Plus, of course, Jesamiah’s creator Helen Hollick is not all that willing to share – in fact, she blushes quite prettily whenever Jesamiah refers to her as “his wench”.

HH OnTheAccount-2016-promo-OutNow-WEBRecently, Helen has published On the Account, the fifth book in her Sea Witch series featuring Jesamiah. I’ve read it, enjoyed it, and right at the bottom of today’s post is my review.  Helen writes piratical deering-do for adults, spiced with some fantasy. Nice combo, IMO.

Anyway: Donna Gossip is going to kill me for stealing her interview, but that’s what you get when you leave your stuff lying about. So, before she comes back from the loo, allow me to share her interview with Captain Jesamiah Acorne – a man as much in love with his boat (oops! ship!) as his wife. Almost.

Donna Gossip, Journalist (DG) (standing on a jetty looking up at the deck of a ship) Hello there! Permission to come aboard?
Jesamiah Acorne, Captain (JA) (Peering over the rail at the woman on the jetty) Certainly Ma’am; mind your step across the gangplank, it’s a bit rickety.

A moment later, Donna is safely on board…

DG : (laughs) Goodness Captain, you were not joking! I nearly fell in. Could you not get something safer instead of a plank of old wood?
JA : Nothing wrong with my plank. Maybe its them daft high heels you’re wearing that cause the tottering?
DG : (looking at her new, bright red six-inch-heel stilettos and smoothing her somewhat short just-as-red mini-skirt) But these are the latest fashion! Still, enough about me; I’ve been sent to interview you for an article for the Daily G.
JA : Is that so?
DG : (looking round for somewhere to sit, arranges herself on a barrel and gets out a pen and writing pad.) My editor contacted your steward, a Mr Finch? He said you would be available.
JA : Did he now?
DG : We are interested in your adventures, Captain, you seem to have gained a reputation these last few years as a bit of a handsome rogue.
JA : Is that so?
DG : (realising this is going to be hard work, looks around the deck) Tell me about your boat.
JA : She’s a ship. Ships have more than two masts. (points to the nearest main mast, with the sails all neatly furled) Sea Witch has three. See?
DG : Can she go fast?
JA : depends on the wind and whether I want her to or not. If I’m chasing a Prize or wantin’ to show my arse to the Navy, then aye, she can go fast.
DG : You really are a pirate then? In your fictional world of stories, where you come from, that is?
JA : You mean in the stories my wench writes? (rubs at his slightly whiskered chin) I guess so.
DG : (laughs) Well I mean you are not from the present twenty-first century are you? We don’t have sailing ships and men dressed as pirates.
JA : I guess you don’t, but then in my time, the early 1700s, we don’t have women tottering around on neck-breaker shoes or showing their legs right up to their backsides. (grins) Nor revealing their ample assets up-top quite as much as that somewhat low-cut see-through lace chemise of yours.
DG : Women wore corsets and tight-laced ankle-length gowns in your era. Were they not cumbersome aboard ship?
JA : Probably, but most ships didn’t have women aboard. Those that were usually dressed in simple calico or cambric, woollen stockings, simple shoes. Long sleeves too, it can be cold at sea at night.
DG : Is it dangerous being a pirate?
JA : Depends on whether you’re a good one or not. There’s always the threat of the noose if you get caught. (leans forward and grins) the trick is – don’t get caught.
DG : In the latest book of your adventures On The Account, the story starts with you  arrested for smuggling. Were you at all worried that you would be found guilty and hanged?
JA : (laughs) if that was the case it would have been a short novel wouldn’t it? (shrugs) No, I was relying on my wench to write me a way out of the predicament. As it happens, someone I knew got me off the hook.
DG : Rumour has it that you are not just a pirate but also a spy for King George’s government.
JA : You don’t want to believe everything you hear, Miss.
DG : Tell me about the one they call Maha’dun. I’ve heard he’s a bit of a peculiar chap?
JA : Maha’dun? I hardly know him. He came aboard Sea Witch, spent a short while with us.
DG : He can’t go out in the sunlight. Is that right?
JA : Apparently. The Nightm’n’s got some sort of skin condition that blisters in sunshine. We didn’t have Factor Ten sun cream back in our day.
DG : Some people are saying that he is a vampire.
JA (laughs) Some people are dim-witted clodpolls then. Not all night creatures are blood-sucking monsters you know. Owls and bats come out at night, you don’t think ill of them, do you? You’ve been readin’ too many of them Dracula Twilighty type stories, darlin’! Maha’dun is an oddity, I grant, drove me mad and I’m not certain I trusted him, but he’s good in a fight. He ain’t no vampire, though. He don’t ‘ave fangs for a start.
DG : Who else is in your latest adventure?
JA : Well, m’wife, Tiola of course, she manages to get herself kidnapped by Barbary pirates – vicious lot of thugs, they are. Young Thomas Benson from Appledore sails with us – he grew up to be one of Devon’s most famous smugglers, did you know that?
DG : Yes I did. Was it you who taught him the trade?
JA : (ignoring the question) There’s several of m’crew who were in the previous four Sea Witch Voyages and a couple of the Doones, you know, the descendants of that lot who were involved with Lorna Doone on Exmoor.
DG : Can you give me any more idea of what this next story is about?
JA : Once this little misunderstanding about smuggling and treason is cleared up there’s a couple of murders. I meet up with m’wife’s old friend, Maha’dun, the Nightm’n. I get coerced into finding a valuable casket that has gone missing, and a boy who has also vanished – probably with the box. Then there’s those Barbary pirates to deal with. Beyond that, I’m sayin nothing more. You’ll have to read the book. And I’d suggest getting’ yourself ashore ma’am, here comes Finch with coffee. I seriously warn you, you do not want to drink his coffee. It usually has everything in it except coffee.
DG : (putting her notebook away and heading back across the dangerous-looking gangplank.) Well thank you, Captain, I think I can write something useful from all that.
Finch : Who was that then?
JA : Someone from the twenty-first century. The one who sent you a fat fee for permitting her to come aboard.
Finch : (ignoring the bit about a fee) Oh, ‘er. Why’s she walkin’ on stilts, and cain’t they afford dressmakers in that there future? Blimey, she must ‘ave one ‘eck of a cold bum!
Donna Gossip : (thinks as she gets into her car and heads back to her own century) He was very handsome, but goodness I don’t think I’ll step back into the past that often… Have any of them heard of soap and deodorant I wonder?

HH SW SpreadWell, that’s where we leave Jesamiah for now, sipping Finch’s lethal brew. Should you want to know more about Jesamiah and Sea Witch, I suggest dropping by on the Sea Witch FB page. Or on Helen’s website. Or her blog. Or her Amazon page. Choices, choices…



And as to that review

Okay, so I’ve been waiting for this book for quite a while. Waiting. Waiting. Wondering what’s keeping the author so long. Waiting…You see, at the end of the previous book, poor Jesamiah had barely survived a short visit to Spain before returning home only to end up in gaol, and I’ve been walking around with an imaginary rope burn round my neck as I’ve wondered if Ms Hollick could possibly be so cruel so as to hang her charming, leading man.

Anyway: at last On the Account was in my hands, and soon enough the potential risk of hanging had been averted and I could concentrate on keeping up with this sweeping, fast-paced story that has us travelling cross-country in south-west England before departing for further adventures further from home.

Ms Hollick spins a yarn – replete with nasty villains, buxom ladies, creeps, spies, self-serving bastards and pirates. The pages teem with witty dialogue, with casual historical details that have us firmly in the 18th century, in a day and age where the Jacobites still hold on to the hope of reclaiming the throne that was lost. Being a fan of this period, I enjoy just how lightly Ms Hollick inserts the historical setting – enough to create context, never so much so as to drown her narrative.

Both Jesamiah and Tiola are well-developed characters, and in this book we also have the pleasure of meeting Maha’dun, an enigmatic creature that exists in a twilight zone of dark and shadow. A good man to have at your side, it turns out – especially when you are desperately chasing abducted boys, mysterious boxes and an evil criminal who will stop at nothing to achieve his heart’s desire. Nothing at all…

In conclusion, On the Account is an entertaining roller-coaster of a read, and I am already looking forward to the next book in this wonderful series!


HH OtA 4Captain Jesamiah Acorne is in trouble. Again. Arrested for treason and smuggling, believing his beloved ship, Sea Witch, lies wrecked on England’s North Devon coast, his only hope of escaping the noose is for someone to quash the charges. That someone turns out to be his ex-lover – but there’s a price to pay.

He needs to find a boy who has disappeared, and a valuable casket that more than one person wants to get their hands on. When people start getting murdered and Barbary pirates kidnap his wife, Tiola, his priorities rapidly change – but who is lying about what? Is returning to piracy a wise idea? Is Tiola having an affair with her mysterious Night-Walker ‘friend’?

Meanwhile, Tiola has her own battle to fight – keeping herself and Jesamiah alive!

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