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Unmourned and unloved – poor Johnny boy


John, riding to the hounds

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

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

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


Eleanor and Henry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Henry II and his children

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


John – king at last

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Bouvines – where the French whipped the English…

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

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

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


John’s tomb in Worcester Cathedral

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

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

Tea for two – or at least for me


De Fassin: Woman drinking coffee

I live in a country of coffee drinkers. No sooner did this bean land on Swedish soil, but the Swedes fell in love with it. Okay, so originally coffee was far too expensive to be enjoyed by the lower classes, but soon enough it became an affordable luxury, to be sipped out of saucers with a lump of sugar (yet another luxury) under your upper lip.

When I was a child, the older generation still preferred to drink “koke-kaffe”, which essentially meant the ground coffee was dumped into the kettle, water was added, and the whole thing was boiled. The resulting coffee was strong – and full of gourds, which was why pouring it in saucers to let the gourds settle made sense.

My parents’ generation snickered at the “old folk” and preferred Nescafé, or the more modern approach to brewing coffee that involved filters.

However it was made, Swedes wanted their coffee strong – especially after World War II, when they’d been forced to use chicory as a coffee substitute. Swedes still want their coffee strong – and mostly black, milk being added mostly to preserve the stomach lining.
I don’t drink coffee – well, except for when I’m pregnant, which isn’t about to happen ever again. I drink tea.


Tea by George Dunlop Leslie

“Tea?” The coffee pot hovers uncertainly over my mug.
“Yes.” I smile. “But I’m okay with tea bags if you don’t have loose leaf tea.”
“Loose leaf tea,” my host echoes, carefully setting down the coffee pot. “Err, no. I don’t think we have stuff like that.”
He hurries off. Moments later, he returns with half a mug of tepid water and an Earl Grey tea bag. Seeing as I was brought up to be polite, I thank him, dip the bag into the water and watched it turn a mild yellowish hue. Tea needs hot water – even more so when it’s in tea bags – to develop its aroma. But hey; this is a lucky day. He could have returned offering me a selection of “fruit teas” – artificially flavoured stuff with names like “Blue Fruit”. Ugh.

Only once during all my professional years have I been pleasantly surprised when asking for tea. I was in a meeting with a Private Equity firm in Stockholm, and when asked, I hesitantly put forward that I would love a cuppa. It was cold and windy outside, and I’d been up at the crack of dawn to make it to the meeting, so I was in serious need of something hot – but feared it would be as lukewarm and uninspiring as always. I was wrong. Some minutes later, I was presented with a small teapot, loose leaf tea of the highest quality, and a thin porcelain mug in which to drink my tea. Heaven. Even more so when two biscuits accompanied the beverage. That particular tea mix is now a staple in my household. That particular PE firm has its name engraved on my tea-loving heart…

carl-linnaeusweddingportraitCarl Linnaeus, the famous Swedish botanist, was no big fan of tea. By the early 18th century, he was complaining about just how expensive tea was and therefore recommended growing it in Sweden so as to avoid “exporting money” for something as useless as this beverage. As per Linnaeus, it was a well-known fact that excessive tea-drinking led to a weakening mind and heart, which was why regular tea drinkers suffered from shaking hands. Hasn’t happened to me yet…He did, however, admit that tea had its uses – like after some serious drinking, when tea could help the body get rid of the noxious substances polluting the blood and organs.

By the time Linnaeus was writing, tea was an established product in Europe. Marco Polo encountered it in China – well, he would, wouldn’t he? – and the odd sample made its way back to Europe during the following centuries. But the honour of bringing tea to Europe on a larger scale belongs to the 17th century Dutch and for this major contribution to humanity – coupled with chocolate sprinkles on bread, Gouda cheese and delft porcelain – I will be forever grateful. In difference to Linnaeus, some medical “authorities” in the United Provinces lauded tea for its fantastic curative powers, recommending at least 8-10 cups a day. Seeing as the authorities in question were in cahoots with the Dutch East India Company, we must, I fear, take these statements with a pinch of salt.

Elsewhere in Europe, tea was viewed with suspicion. Grumpy doctors warned that it would leave you “as wrinkled as the Chinese” (?), or hasten your death if you were over forty. While tea in the United Provinces quickly became a household staple, all this caution in other countries left tea somewhat marginalised, a novelty that was tasted and evaluated before being set aside in favour of other beverages, principally wine, beer and coffee (preferences varied from country to country).


Samovar – courtesy of Ivorymammoth at English language Wikipedia

There were two exceptions: England, where the Portuguese-born and tea-drinking Queen Catherine of Braganza helped establish tea as a must-drink, and Russia, where for some reason they very quickly went so wild and crazy over this new drink they even invented the samovar. I’m guessing those icy winters made our Russian friends pre-disposed to appreciate a hot drink or two…

In Sweden, tea was no big thing – despite Linnaeus’ concerns that the entire national wealth was being dispatched abroad to pay for this addiction to dried leaves. No, in Sweden, it was all about the coffee.

Where tea was an ancient Eastern beverage – the Chinese had been sipping it for like eons before the Europeans caught on – coffee comes from Africa, more specifically Ethiopia. By the 15th century, coffee houses existed throughout the Middle East, vibrant meeting places at which men enjoyed this bitter strong brew and discussed everything from Sufism to the general state of the world. This worried the authorities, and in the early 16th century, Muslim leaders made an attempt to ban coffee – or at least the coffee houses. Didn’t work. By then, coffee had reached some parts of Europe. Yet again, coffee houses popped up all over the place. Yet again, these early cafés became meeting places for the intellectuals and the radicals, causing the authorities to break out in hives.


Coffee, anyone?

In England, Charles II made attempts to close down the coffee houses, concerned by the loud and subversive elements that met in these establishments. With over 3 000 coffee houses up and running, his efforts were bound to fail, and so the Englishmen could continue meeting over a cup or two of Java. Not so English women, who were banned from coffee houses. In fact, in most countries women were not allowed to accompany their men for a drink of coffee. This led to a lot of grumbling – in England the women even petitioned against coffee, complaining the beverage unmanned their men, laving them quite useless in bed.

Up here in the north, coffee was introduced late in the 17th century. At the time, it could only be bought in pharmacies, and was sold as a medicinal drink, with warnings as to the unpleasant and bitter taste. However, in the early 18th century, the then Swedish king Karl XII spent a number of years in captivity in Turkey (not exactly a model prisoner, our humiliated king created quite some havoc) and developed a fondness for coffee. Once back home, he insisted on serving (and drinking) coffee, and soon enough Stockholm had like 50 coffee houses or so. By the mid 18th century, the yeomanry (which was one of the four estates in Swedish Parliament) pushed through a prohibition of coffee. Not because of any concerns as to health issues or addiction, but more to get their own back – those hoity-toity Stockholmers had forced through a decision prohibiting farmers from distilling their own schnaps. If the farmers had to do without akvavit, the damned townspeople were going to have to do without that black brew of theirs…

Some years of subversive coffee-drinking followed: should you be caught indulging in your favourite mocca latte, you’d be slapped by huge fines. The prohibition was lifted. People sighed in relief. It came back. Was lifted. Came back. Was lifted. Why all these prohibitions? Because while Linnaeus’ concerns regarding tea were far-fetched, in the case of coffee, they were valid. The costs of importing coffee were high, and this lead to a substantial drain on the restricted Swedish financial resources. (At the time, Sweden was pretty much dirt-poor)

Maybe it was all those prohibitions that made coffee so popular. After all, nothing is quite as alluring as forbidden fruit. Or maybe it was the fact that soon enough both the farmers and the townies discovered coffee went very well with schnaps. Adding a tot or two of potent alcohol to your coffee had a marked impact on its enlivening effect. The recipe was easy: put a coin in the bottom of your cup. Pour enough coffee that you can no longer see the coin. Now add enough akvavit that the coin becomes faintly visible again. There you go, a perfectly mixed “Kaffe-kask”. Just don’t go driving afterwards…


William Henry Margetson, lady drinking tea

Tea does not lend itself to mixing with alcohol. Besides, I don’t want it mixed with anything. I want my tea black and fragrant, the steam uncurling from the mug to tickle my face.
”Tea?” The man beside me leans forward to inhale. “Seriously? Give me coffee any day.”
He can have his coffee. I shall remain a happy minority among my coffee-drinking countrymen, always with a teabag or two tucked away in my purse.

Crusading in Finland – or how to use God as an excuse


Henry II and Thomas

Back in the good old days, any Christian king worth his name would at least consider going on a Crusade. For some, it was mostly lip-service. As an example, I seriously doubt Henry II of England had any desire to gallop off to the Holy Land, given just how much he had on his plate back home: rebellious sons and a disgruntled wife required his immediate attention, and if we’re going to be quite honest, he probably only agreed to take the cross so as to keep the Pope happy after the whole Thomas Becket scandal.



For others, riding off on a crusade was an endeavour undertaken to
a) spread the word of God
b) cover themselves with glory
c) become rich. Quite often, b and c were sort of mutually exclusive, as demonstrated by the tragedy that went by the name of the Fourth Crusade. The “valiant and pious” Crusaders chose to pillage Constantinople rather than to ride to the rescue of the Holy Land, and while this may have resulted in nice piles of booty, it definitely did their reputation no favours.

Others saw it as a military adventure – crusaders such as Richard Lionheart would fall in that category.

Most Crusaders made for the Holy Land, albeit that they were now and then distracted elsewhere (like in the Fourth Crusade, and we can blame the Venetians for that. They wanted to gain control over the trade in the Mediterranean, and the best way to do so was to crush Constantinople). In Spain, there was no need to ride off all the way to Palestine to do the crusading thing: with the infidel Moors camped in their backyard, generations of Spanish kings did their crusading at home.

And then, of course, we have the Swedish Crusaders, who felt the Holy land was very, very far away, and so decided it was time to bring the Christian faith to the wild and savage Finns. Not that the Finns at the time were all that much more savage and wild than the Swedes. Nor were they heathen – but in difference to the Swedes, the Finnish early contact with the Christian religion came from the east, so their take on Christianity was influenced by Greek Orthodox beliefs. Not good, as per the Pope, which was probably why he gave his blessing to the various Swedish crusades into Finland.

From a Swedish perspective. Finland offered two things: a buffer versus the growing powers further to the east (the future Russia was still a long way off, but Novgorod was a pain in the butt), and ample opportunity to increase its wealth. But for a crowned king to just ride off on a general pillaging expedition was not the done thing, which was why it was convenient to label the activity as being a crusade. The Finns, of course, never quite agreed with this description.


St Henry

The first Swedish Crusade was headed by St Erik. Truth be told, we don’t know if this expedition ever took place. Instead, one can suspect the future generations created the story of St Erik riding to baptise the heathen Finns so as to motivate the next Crusade, and the first complete description of this adventure first appears in the early 14th century. However, as per the chronicles, in the 1150s St Erik set of to save Finland from itself. He was supposedly accompanied by a future fellow saint, St Henry. This Henry was an English clergyman who accompanied Cardinal Nicholas Breakspeare to the far north. I imagine just how delighted he was by all this, because at the time, Sweden was only rudimentarily Christian, Henry’s countryman St Sigfrid having done his best to baptise as many as he could.

Things didn’t exactly get better when Henry was asked to accompany the Swedish king east there to salvage Finnish souls. The Finnish souls in question had been safely within the fold of a Christian church for like two centuries, but as it was the wrong Christian church, that didn’t count – or at least that was St Erik’s argument, and Henry agreed, being a loyal subject not only to the king, but also to the pope.

Off they went. After a relatively short stay, Erik returned home, there to meet his untimely death and become a saint. As per legend, Henry stayed on in Finland, aspiring to be a good shepherd to this very new flock. The flock wasn’t entirely thrilled…

Come winter, Henry was obliged to travel by horse and sleigh, using the ice-covered lakes as convenient highways between the few populated places that existed. One night, he came to a farm and asked the farmer’s wife to give him room and board for the night. She did as asked, but she was no big fan of this new bishop or his new faith, and when her husband returned the next day, she told him the bishop had forced himself inside and stolen victuals and beer. Enraged, her husband Lalli set of in pursuit of the bishop, who, I imagine, was whistling a chirpy little tune as his horse made good progress across the ice.


Lalli killing Henry

Once Lalli caught up with Henry, he killed him. Earlier versions say he used a sword. Later versions go with an axe, but this is probably because Finnish people fell in love with St Olof – and he died by axe. Once the bishop was dead, Lalli helped himself to his belongings, among them his cap (some would say it was a mitre. Seems unpractical to me, to travel about with one of those stuck on your head). He put on the cap, returned home, but when he took off the cap his scalp tore off and he subsequently died a terrible (and justified) death. Finland had its first martyr. (Henry, not Lalli, in case you were confused)

It took some time for the Swedes to come back. Internal turmoil and civil war kept them busy at home, and I dare say no one in Finland missed them. But in the 13th century, Birger Jarl, ruler (if not king) of Sweden, decided it was time to drop by for a new visit. Birger Jarl is a pivotal figure in Swedish history, one of the first to start forging a national identity. For him, controlling Finland was a way of controlling the Baltic Sea, and whoever controlled the Baltic Sea sat on potentially enormous wealth, as any trade conducted this far north relied on travelling by the sea. Also, bringing Finland under Swedish control would make it easier to handle the Hanseatic League – not that those wily German merchants were ever easy to handle.

Royal 19 B.XV, f.37Yet again, a bellicose intention was shrouded in the banners of faith. (Has happened repeatedly, hasn’t it?) The stories of St Erik and St Henry were dusted off and presented as gospel truth, and to further increase the enthusiasm of those willing to join the crusade, Birger Jarl promised generous grants of land – in Finland. As per the legends, Birger Jarl was in Finland when the Swedish king died, which means he was in the late 1240s. As per the odd comment in surviving records, he went to Finland in the 1230s, to quell a rebellion. Whatever the case, there is very little recorded from the Crusade as such. This is because most of the time, it was all pretty boring, our crusading Swedes riding through unpopulated wilderness, and only rarely coming upon villages to forcibly convert to the Catholic faith. Those who refused to convert ended up dead. Those who agreed, ended up baptised – and much poorer, as the Swedes helped themselves to booty as they went.

From a strategic perspective, Birger Jarl’s intrusion into Finland was a success. He pushed the border of Swedish-controlled land even further east, lay the foundations for a defensive fort at Tavastehus, and rewarded his eager companions with large estates in Finland, thereby ensuring they’d be interested in defending what was now theirs. To the east, the rulers of Novgorod and Kiev were less than pleased. Birger Jarl now controlled all of the Baltic Sea down to the Gulf of Finland, albeit that the eastern and southern shores of the gulf remained outside of Swedish control.


One of Birger’s sons, Magnus. He locked up big brother and took the crown for himself

Anyway: Birger Jarl did his conquering thing and then, as per those legends mentioned above, he hurried back to Sweden as the king had died without an heir, and Birger had every intention of seeing his own son, Valdemar, crowned king. In this the wily old fox succeeded – a capable and determined man, Birger mostly succeeded at everything he set out to do. In fact, his most obvious failure only became apparent after his death, when his sons plunged Sweden back into civil war and general unrest, a situation that would continue well into the 14th century.

Not that the people in Finland gave a rat’s arse as to what happened in Sweden. I’m guessing they were delighted by the fact that political events in Ruotsi (Finnish for Swedish. Please note just how similar this word is to Russia) kept the Swedes busy at home. Another delighted party were the rulers in Novgorod. With Sweden busy elsewhere, they quietly moved their positions forward, aiming to retake the land Birger Jarl had conquered some decades earlier.

After like three decades of unrest, Sweden had an underage king named Birger. He, in turn, had a regent named Torkel Knutsson. He also had two brothers, Valdemar and Erik, who would over time give Birger substantial grief – but at this point in time, this was in the future. Let’s just say that these three brothers developed a very infected relationship, ending with the two younger being locked up and left to starve to death. Nice.

Torkel had his finger in every royal pie around, including the raising of the three princes. So when Novgorod attacked Finland, it fell on Torkel to prepare and lead the retaliating expedition, which he did with immense success – at least from a narrow Swedish perspective. The Novgorodians were beaten back, the border of Swedish-controlled Finland was moved even further east, into Karelia, and just to really make it clear who was in control, Torkel founded the city (and castle) of Viborg, situated deep in the Gulf of Finland. Viborg would remain Swedish until 1710, when Tsar Peter crushed the Swedes in the Great Nordic War.



While successful in Finland, Torkel wasn’t as lucky back home. Those three brothers were already locking horns with each other, and repeatedly Torkel had to mediate. Throughout, Torkel was unfailingly loyal to King Birger, but I guess he had a tendency to preach – and to rule Sweden as if he was king, not Birger. Did not go down well with the young, hot-tempered king. So, at some point the three royal brothers decided it would serve them best to get rid of Torkel, and in a surprising show of unity, they arranged for him to be captured and struck in chains. In 1306, Torkel was executed on trumped of charges of treachery.

So where does all this leave us regarding those crusades to bring the light of God to the heathen Finns? Other than fragmentary evidence of Swedish knights making for Finland in the 13th century, the first cohesive description of these crusades is to be found in the Erik Chronicle (Sweden’s oldest surviving Chronicle, estimated to have been written in 1320 or thereabouts.) By then, these purported crusades had become building blocks in a complicated political story, that had as its purpose to strengthen royal authority in Sweden. Therefore, I think it is wise to take the notion of “Crusades” with a huge pinch of salt, and instead recognise these marauding expeditions for what they were, namely an invasion of Finland.

Finland would remain Swedish until the beginning of the 19th century, when instead it became a Grand-Duchy in Tsarist Russia. Not necessarily a better thing for the Finns, who would have to wait until the early 20th century before they finally became independent. But to this day, a large minority in Finland has Swedish as its mother tongue, descendants of those ancient Swedes who came, saw, conquered – and settled in the land of a thousand lakes and endless forests.

Of uncommon heat, eels, fairies, and trolls

20160908_142937September (and by now we’re in October) in Sweden should not be like this: week after week of glorious sunshine, temperatures that call for shorts and t-shirts, for sandals and sunglasses. Global warming, some say, and there are days when I am prone to agree, because seriously, a five-week heatwave in Sweden is MOST unusual. It is also beginning to have certain unfamiliar effects. We live in a country where access to water is never an issue. If we can’t turn the tap, we can pull put a bucket or two from the nearest lake, and while I wouldn’t recommend drinking it directly from the lake, it is clean enough to wash in – or boil, prior to consuming.

But now the water levels are falling, and our well has at most 35 centimetres of water in it – which leads to several issues, the first one being that none of us want to drink water with a muddy taste to it. It also has me peering down into the darkness while holding on to one of the thick boards that usually cover it, wondering if maybe I will see an eel.


An eel. Creative Commons License – photo by Ron Offermans


An eel? I can almost see the question marks on your faces, people. Who, you think, would want an eel in their well? Turns out us Swedes – and Danes – do. Other than eating eels – and until recently there was a lot of eel-eating going on in our neck of the woods, not so much now that we know it’s an endangered species – we also used these fascinating creatures as “well-guardians”. A young, healthy eel would be thrown into the well and left to grow big and fat in the dark. Fat, because all sort of stuff falls into wells – like mice and moles and toads and fat worms and what have you – big, because eels can become very, very old, and they tend to keep on growing. The purpose was to ensure the eel kept the well-water clean. While its presence would reasonably ensure there were no rotting carcasses to poison the water, all that eating must have resulted in quite a lot of eel poo…


John Bauer – Mama Troll, her three handsome troll sons and a very picky princess

Some of these well-eels lived to well over a hundred, and living in the dark caused their eyes to grow bigger than normal. A cruel, stunted life – but the silent creature living in the dark was at times accredited with other, somewhat supernatural, powers. Went hand in hand with all the other superstitious stuff people believed back then, in an age where it was a known fact that mossy rocks were trolls sleeping through the day only to come alive at night. Or that the lifting morning fog was all a human could see of the fairies dancing on the meadow. And fairies were not all that nice: they lured good men away from their true loves, drove these poor guys crazy and laughed themselves silly while doing it. In fact, as any 18th century Swede would tell you, fairies were much, much more dangerous than trolls. Why? Because trolls were stupid – as stupid as a rock (he he)

Despite the lingering warmth, September brings with it shorter days and longer nights. Already, night has taken over, and over the coming three months, we who live in the north must prepare ourselves for ever shorter days, for nights that grow successively darker. Back when it was the norm to keep your own pet eel in the well, there was no electricity with which to light up the night. Instead, those obliged to tramp through the dark had at most a lantern, spilling a weak glimmer of light at their feet, while breathing life into the shadows that surrounded our lonely night walker. Not exactly strange, that those that went before us preferred not to do much walking in the dark – not only due to fear of falling, but just as much out of fear of what they might meet.


August Malmström – Dancing fairies

These days, we scoff at trolls. We may enjoy the beauty of a fog-filled meadow, dew clinging like glittering crystals to every blade, every stalk. But fairies? Nope, we’ve lost the ability to see them. Ours is a world where imagination is reined in by science and logic, where everything can be explained – and if it can’t, chances are it doesn’t exist. Except, of course, that some things cannot be explained, can they?

I walk through forests dotted with the remains of those that went before. Crumbling stone fences, house foundations slowly reverting to nature. Life was hard back then, and promises of a better life elsewhere lured people away from the backbreaking labour of clearing a patch of land.


A passage to the underworld?

Here and there, more substantial structures remain. Like ancient food cellars, dug into the hillside and lined with rock. They are cold, they are dark, the doors are long gone, the shelving has rotted away. Some of them are very deep, our predecessors having built upon a natural cavity. Such cavities must be approached with caution – long, narrow tunnels leading into the underworld and the creatures that live in the dark. Before, the back end of such food cellars would therefore sport a timbered wall, ensuring the goblins and trolls couldn’t get out that way. Now, these protective barriers are long gone, the once so stout wood reduced to mulch. I peer into the never-ending dark, and the weak light of the inbuilt flashlight on my phone glitters off damp walls. Who knows where it leads – maybe it’s a convoluted backway to the fabled hall of the Mountain King, the biggest and most powerful of trolls.

I step away from the crevice and make for the sunlit glade beyond the entrance to the food cellar. I may not believe in trolls and goblins – of course not! – but better safe than sorry, right? And as to the eel, I am happy to report we did not have such a sad creature living in our well. But who knows, any day, a wandering well-eel may come crawling through the dark, tired of the well he came from, and eager for a new home. After all, we all know these magical creatures can travel miles from one source of water to the other. Just as we know that they prefer to feed off drowned men and are made of mud and innards. Well…Until recently, no one knew where the eels came from, but these days we know they travel all the way to the Sargasso sea to procreate. Or we think we know. After all, as far as I know, no one has ever seen an eel procreate…

The archbishop-to-be and the Norwegian princess


Fernando, Felipe’s father

It’s probably not an easy thing to be the son of a man on his way to sainthood. In this case, the man pursuing the halo was also a king – and a forceful, skilled king at that – which probably made it even more difficult to live up to parental expectations. Fortunately for today’s protagonist, he wasn’t the heir. Or maybe he would have disagreed about the adverb, maybe he resented not being the future king. We don’t know, and likely never will.

What we do know is that today’s man of the hour was born an Infante of Castilla. I rather like the word Infante/Infanta – a Child of Castilla. I suppose all royal children back then sort of belonged to the country in which they were born, destined to enter into alliances as it served their kingdom, not necessarily themselves. (We tend to forget that it wasn’t only the daughters that were bartered as marital prizes. The sons were just as much pawns in the intricate political games that resulted in future weddings)

Our Felipe was the fifth son of Fernando III of Castilla and León, a king remembered for his successful campaigns against the Moors in southern Spain. Like all Fernando’s children, little Felipe received an excellent education, and as he was promised to the church, he not only studied in Burgos but was also sent to Paris. Whether or not Felipe wanted to enter the church was neither here nor there: Fernando III was blessed with many sons, and as a matter of course his fifth and sixth son were promised to the service of the Holy Church. What Felipe thought of all this only becomes apparent after Fernando’s death: by then, he’d been handed benefices all over southern Spain and was the archbishop-elect of Sevilla – all of this at the impressive age of 21.


King Alfonso

Anyway, no sooner was Fernando safely buried, but Felipe began to make noises along the lines that he wasn’t entirely comfortable as a prince of the church. The new king, Felipe’s older brother Alfonso X, frowned, displeased by this lack of piety in a man raised explicitly to serve the faith. (Easy for him to say, one would think) At the time, Alfonso was having problems with various of his brothers, notably with Enrique who instigated a rebellion against him, and Fadrique, only two years younger than Alfonso and somewhat peeved at having very little to his name while big brother was king of Castilla and León. What Alfonso definitely didn’t need was yet another disgruntled brother, which may be why he, most reluctantly, allowed Felipe to throw his ecclesiastic career overboard and instead embrace a future as a happy bachelor prince.

Alfonso, just like any other medieval king, was eager to make alliances with distant kingdoms. One such very, very distant kingdom was Norway, where the king, Håkon, was just as eager to make such alliances. Being a Norwegian king always came with the drawback of having his kingdom eyed covetously by both his Swedish and his Danish counterpart, and I suppose Håkon wanted an alliance with Castilla so as to keep his neighbours off his back. (At the time, Sweden was embroiled in a long-standing civil war between various pretenders to the throne, so it didn’t constitute a serious risk, but one never knows with those Swedes – or so Håkon would likely have reasoned) Mind you, had Denmark or Sweden gone after Norway, any help from Castilla would have been a long time coming…


King Håkon and his son, Magnus

In the mid-13th century, Håkon, eager for an illustrous alliance, sent emissaries to Castilla, presenting Alfonso with prized Norwegian falcons, with gorgeous furs (difficult to use in the Castilian climate, one would think) and other precious items. Alfonso returned the favour and sent ambassadors all the way to Norway, where these Spanish men, accustomed to the sultry, dark beauty of their local ladies, got quite the eyeful of Scandinavian girls – tall, willowy and blonde. (And yes, before anyone else points it out, I am aware that many of the Spanish nobles had Visigoth genes, so being blond and blue-eyed was not unknown, but still…) One of these girls was Princess Kristina, Håkon’s daughter, and it was suggested that maybe an alliance between Norway and Spain should be cemented by a marriage.

Hmm, said Håkon, who was very fond of his daughter. The ambassadors assured him his girl would be very well received – they’d even line up Alfonso’s unwed brothers and have her choose her bridegroom. Hmm, Håkon repeated. The Norway to Spain journey was long and perilous, and once his Kristina rode away, chances were he’d never see her again. But an alliance with Castilla was a good thing, and Kristina deserved a life of splendour and comfort – something she’d likely get at the sophisticated Castilian court in Valladolid. Kristina, at the time well over twenty and borderline an old maid as per the standards of the day, seems to have been positive to the idea, which is why, in the summer of 1257, she and her huge entourage set off on the long, long journey to Spain. First they crossed the North Sea to Yarmouth. Then they rode through England and took ship to Normandy. Then they rode and rode, all the way to Barcelona, where King Alfonso’s father-in-law welcomed them and suggested Kristina marry him instead, so taken was he by her beauty.


Jaime of Aragón

Kristina had not ridden across a continent to marry a man more than 25 years her senior – albeit that Jaime of Aragón was supposedly a good-looking man, even at the ripe age of fifty or so. Besides, Kristina’s father had no desire to enter into an alliance with Jaime – he wanted the real deal, which was to ally himself with the substantially bigger kingdom ruled by Alfonso. So, after a week or so of enjoying Jaime’s hospitality, Kristina rode on, arriving in Valladolid in early January of 1258.

She was warmly welcomed by her host and his nobles, including Felipe, who was quite taken by the notion of marrying a princess – and a pretty one at that. They were of an age, Felipe and Kristina, him only three years older than her. Fadrico – the other candidate – was ten years older than Kristina, and he also had the disadvantage of sporting a scar. Kristina comes across as somewhat shallow when this scar is cited as her main reason for choosing Felipe. I hope she saw beyond the exterior prior to making her final choice.

Some months after arriving in Valladolid, Kristina married Felipe. The former priest, abbot of several monasteries, presumptive archbishop of Sevilla, gladly embraced his bride, even more so as Alfonso showered the happy couple with land – mostly to appease Kristina’s father. Felipe was now a significant landowner, and I imagine he was eager to carry off his bride to Sevilla and start with the pleasant (one hopes) business of procreating.


Kristina’s tomb (Creative Commons, photo by Ecelar)

Whether or not it was pleasant, we will never know. What we do know was that no matter what efforts the couple expended on making a baby, it didn’t work. Did they comfort each other, blame each other? No idea. But four years later, in 1262, Kristina of Norway passed away. She was 28 years old, and as per the examination of her remains conducted in the 1950’s, she was approximately 172 cm tall, with good teeth and strong bones. And childless.

I imagine Felipe was distressed. By now a man in his early thirties, he needed an heir, and so he quickly married again, this time to a second cousin named Inéz. Some years later, she too was dead – childless – and Felipe was obliged to marry for the third time. By now, he had a couple of illegitimate children, so it clearly wasn’t his fault if his wives didn’t conceive. Not much of a comfort I imagine, even less so when his third wife presented him with a son and namesake who promptly died.

A frustrated and edgy Felipe now turned his attention to politics. Alfonso may have been nicknamed “el sabio” (the wise), but his Castilian nobles were not overly impressed by his leadership – or his determined attempts to be appointed Holy Roman Emperor (a claim he could push due to his mother, born a Hohenzollern and sister to Holy Roman Emperor Fredrick II) As always, there were skirmishes with the Moors and with Aragón and with Navarra and with Portugal, and Alfonso’s leading barons felt the king ignored these pressing issues in his quest to convince the pope he was the best candidate for the job as emperor. Besides, the nobles grumbled, Alfonso owed them several years of back-pay for their service in his army

The disgruntled nobles approached Felipe. His older brother Enrique had been exiled in 1260, Fadrico had made some sort of peace with Alfonso, and baby brother Sancho was busy being an archbishop, which sort of left Felipe as the only prince available. He listened, hemmed and hawed, but fundamentally agreed with the long list of demands the nobles had drawn up – principal among them that Alfonso revert to governing according to tradition, i.e. that he be counselled by his barons.

In 1272, Felipe was sent off to Navarra to organise a bolt hole for the conspirators. His job was to convince the king of Navarra to offer them asylum should things not go their way in Castilla. The king of Navarra was more than happy to do so – having Alfonso beset by his nobles was not a bad thing as per him.

Things came to a head when the king ordered all his nobles to attend on the heir to the throne, Infante Fernando, in Sevilla, there to do battle with the infidels. To a man, the rebellious barons refused to do so. Alfonso was incensed – but prepared to be conciliatory. The barons weren’t. Alfonso gnashed his teeth and promptly entered into an alliance with the king of Navarra, thereby placing the rebels in a precarious position: Aragón would not receive them – Jaime of Aragón’s daughter was married to Alfonso – and the Portuguese had little love for the haughty Castilians. However, down in the south, Mohammed of Granada welcomed them with open arms, and no matter how Alfonso pleaded with his stubborn nobles, they rode off to Granada and signed a treaty with Mohammed, promising each other mutual support until Alfonso agreed to their demands.

fernando-cantigas-de-santa-maria-mohammed_i_ibn_nasrAlfonso was no fool – as demonstrated by the fact that he comes down through the ages as “Alfonso el sabio“, which can be interpreted as Alfonso the Wise or  Alfonso the Learned, but never as Alfonso the Fool. If Mohammed’s loyalty could be bought by unspecified promises by the Castilian nobles, reasonably he was open to negotiating with Alfonso himself. He was. The nobles scurried off to Navarra and pledged their allegiance to King Enrique, remaining obdurate in their demands. Alfonso was by now in something of a pickle: how would anyone take his candidature to be the next Holy Roman Emperor seriously if he couldn’t manage his dratted barons?

By 1274, the nobles had won. Alfonso gave in to almost all of their demands, and the scions of the rebellious families Lara, Castro and Haro could return home in triumph – as could the king’s treacherous brother, Infante Felipe. In his case, however, the joy would be short-lived. In November of 1274, Felipe died, leaving behind an illegitimate daughter who would one day become a nun, and two bastard sons, one of whom was to serve his uncle Alfonso, far more loyally than Felipe had done. Felipe himself was interred beside his second wife, preferring to share eternity with her rather than his first, foreign wife, that blonde, tall and willowy Norwegian princess. Or maybe that wasn’t his choice – we will never know.

Les feuilles mortes – a reflection over impending autumn

20160918_123437We took a walk through the woods some days ago. It was quiet. Most of the migrating birds have already left for warmer climes – albeit that it has been very warm up here the last few weeks. Anyway: other than the odd chirping sparrow and the high-pitched call of the kites that soared over the recently turned fields, it was mostly us and our footsteps through the drifts of ancient fallen leaves.

That’s the thing with forests: the ground is a carpet of russet colours most of the year, all those accumulated leaves slowly turning to mulch. In our forest, wild boars gouge trenches through the fallen leaves, revealing the rich dark soil beneath. In spring, anemones thrust their bright green stems and leaves through the rotting foliage, and here and there a stand of ferns adds a splash of dark green to the multiple hues of dun and russet and fading yellow.

20151031_112940Our woods consist mostly of beeches. The beech has ancient roots in Scandinavia. During the nice, warm period that followed on the last ice age, the beech and the oak marched north, reaching well into northern Sweden before the winters became too harsh and too cold for them to survive. The climate cooled, and the beech retreated, clinging stubbornly to this the southernmost part of Sweden. These days, the climate is yet again changing, and spruce and pine wilt while the beech thrives. As do aspens and rowans, oaks and birches. Mind you, the birch thrives more or less everywhere – like a huge weed, almost.

This year, the rowans are laden with berries. As per Swedish oral tradition, plenty of rowan berries promise a winter with plenty of snow. If so, we’re looking at man-high drifts come December and January. Interestingly enough, in Finland they say that plenty of rowan berries means there will be very little snow. I guess the conclusion is that we cannot trust the rowan berries…

20160918_123202Rowan berries are horribly tart, but they make a passable jelly to serve with your venison. Elderberries are nowhere near as sour, but they make a better cordial than jelly – an excellent infusion to cure persistent colds during late autumn and winter. I love the contrast of the elder: snow white flowers followed by black, black berries that stain your fingers.

20160918_123615We wandered by a blackberry bramble – the birds had eaten all the berries, but the leaves presented themselves in the brightest of colours. Autumn is a sequence of fiery reds, one last gasp of bright colour before winter strips the world of everything but the most muted of greys and browns.

High above, the leaves of a birch rustled, its slender branches dipping in the wind. In summer, I love lying on my back and staring up at the sky through the whispering leaves of a birch. They sing me to sleep, and as they dip and twirl in the wind, they dapple the ground beneath, patches of sun darting like minnows through the grass. Now, in autumn, the leaves are already acquiring a yellow hue, and they no longer sing and burble, they sigh and crumble, drifting to litter the ground beneath with golden colours. Birches are one of those trees that are fundamental to the northern gardener: those of us with a passion for roses have learnt the hard way never to prune our roses before the birch presents its first miniscule leaves, dashes of bright, bright green shouting to the world that there will be no more killing frosts – not this spring.

20150911_180717We reached the shores of the lake and stood for a while staring out over the expanse of water. Dark water, ruffled with frothing waves, and this time of the year we saw no loons, no geese, no ospreys. A gull wheeled by, a crow cawed from a nearby tree, and just by the water’s edge a tenacious dogrose had sunk roots into the stony shore, its dipping branches laden with bright red hips. Once upon a time, those hips were carefully collected and dried, an important source of c-vitamin (even if no one had ever heard of vitamins back then) during the winter. We picked a couple and nibbled carefully. The seeds within are hairy and can cause quite the itch should one swallow them – or rub them on someone’s skin.

We walked back through the silent beeches. Acorns in prickly shells dotted the ground – a precious commodity back when these woods were used to herd pigs in. Now they feed the wild boars, and consensus is the boars are a pest, not an asset, what with their propensity to invade gardens and chomp their way through flower beds and vegetable patches. We rarely see any boars – we just see their tracks and the patches of disturbed ground where they’ve dug for worms and whatever else boars find sufficiently delicious for them to thrust their sensitive snouts into the earth.

I find a conker and stuff it in my pocket. Autumn requires pockets to be full of conkers and ripe hazelnuts, and especially beautiful leaves. Putting them all in the same pocket results in disintegrated leaves, so generally I carry my leaves.
“More leaves?” hubby asks with a smile. “More conkers?”
“Can’t get enough of them,” I reply, but I throw the leaves I’m holding up into the air and watch them twirl down to the ground. Les feuilles mortes, I hum, kicking up another spray. Yesteryear’s leaves dance in the air around me, so brittle they’re almost translucent. In a month or so, they’ll be joined by this year’s harvest, sinking deeper and deeper into the ground. An endless circle of life, of buds that break into vivid green, adorning the trees for months before they finally fade and fall, slowly converting into soil in which new trees will take root, extending their branches to the sky. Les feuilles mortes? Can leaves die? Do they ever live? I have no idea – and nor, I bet, did Yves Montand, who sang of those fallen leaves that reminded him of memories and regrets.

Les feuilles mortes se ramassent à la pelle,
Les souvenirs et les regrets aussi
Et le vent du nord les emporte
Dans la nuit froide de l’oubli.

20160910_091630Soon enough, the north wind will sweep through our woods, and the trees will be stripped of their leaves to stand naked and shivering in the winter gale. But not yet, not today, or tomorrow. For some weeks more, the golden glow of autumn will remain.

Of names and unsung heroes

“If I have a son, I’m going to name him Guatemoc,” second son said from the backseat of the car.
“Guatemoc. The last hero of the Aztec people, a warrior who died with his honour intact.”
“Ah.” I chose not to comment further. Some ideas are best killed by silence rather than arguments, and knowing second son, too voluble a protest against the idea of a future grandson named Guatemoc might very well result in an innocent Swedish babe being lumbered with this historically proud name.

Anyway, as a consequence of this discussion I felt compelled to find out more about this (in my ears) unsung hero. Having grown up in South America, having celebrated 12 of October as the “Día de la Raza” on numerous occasions (and these days the feast day has been renamed to Día de la Hispanidad, i.e. a celebration of Hispanic culture rather than the sovereignty of the Spanish race – much better name, I think), I considered myself to have a pretty good grasp of the Spanish Conquest of America. My mother ensured I not only heard the panegyrics, but handed me Bartolomé de las Casas very critical and contemporary description of the conquest, reminding me over and over again that history is always written by the winner. But despite all this, Guatemoc did not ring a bell.



In Peru, Francisco Pizarro conquered the mighty Inca Empire with a handful of soldiers and a huge portion of sly cunning. The fate of the last Inca Emperor, Atahualpa, I have touched upon in a previous post, but so far I don’t think I’ve written about Montezuma and dear old Hernán. In difference to most of the Spanish Conquistadores, Hernán was an educated man, a younger son in a minor noble family. His parents wanted him to be a lawyer, but after two years kicking his heels in Salamance, Hernán decided the life of law was not for him, which was why, at the age of nineteen, he set out for the New World and its beckoning riches.

Initially, there weren’t any riches. Hernán ended up in Cuba where there were no mountains of gold, no rubies littering the ground. But he, like many others, heard of endless riches in mainland Mexico. Which was why this ruthless and greedy adventurer landed in México in 1519 on an exploratory expedition. Some months later, he was safely ensconced in the Aztec capital Tenochtitlán, an honoured guest of the mighty Aztec emperor, Montezuma.

What happened afterwards is all a bit hazy. The Aztec nobility were none too happy when their Spanish “guests” kept on extending their stay, and at some point they grumbled so loudly Montezuma suggested it might be wise for the Spanish leave – for a while.

“Hmm,” said Cortés, who had just received word a certain Pánfilo de Narváez had landed in Mexico, here with an order from the governor of Cuba to arrest Hernán for having set off on an “unauthorised invasion of Mexico”. (Yes, even the Spanish had some standards. Well: the governor was seriously pissed off at losing his share of the expected booty…) Anyway: Hernán set off to deal with Pánfilo, and despite being severely outnumbered, he took his would-be-arrester prisoner.

Left behind in Tenochtitlán were a large number of Spanish under the command of Pedro de Alvarado. After all, Cortés had no intention of returning to the Aztec capital only to find its gates barred to him. So while Hernán was trussing up Pánofilo, the Spanish in Tenochtitlán decided to liven things up a bit. The Aztecs were celebrating the feast of Toxcatl, the temple grounds filled to bursting with celebrating people, when the armed Spanish barred the gates and then proceeded to kill as many of the defenceless natives as they could. The ground grew muddy with blood and entrails, people attempted to scale the walls to escape the murdering conquistadores – who would later claim they’d only intervened to stop the planned human sacrifices.

The massacre provoked a rebellion. The Spanish retreated to Montezuma’s palace, and their former host was now their hostage, a shield with which to protect themselves from the angered mob. Hernán returned to a situation that had escalated beyond the point of return. In one last bid to calm the people, he forced Montezuma to step out on his balcony and appeal to his people to lay down their arms.


Montezuma – dumped

As per the Spanish, the heathen Aztecs were having none of this and pelted their emperor with so many stones and other objects that he died some days later. As per indigenous narratives, it was the Spanish who killed Montezuma, dumping his body on the streets while fleeing Tenochtitlán and its angry Aztec warriors.

Not that Cortés was planning on going anywhere far: he had his sights firmly set on the Aztec empire, and he struck an alliance with the Tlaxcalans, offering them their freedom from Aztec dominance if they just sided with the Spanish. Seeing as the Aztecs were anything but nice and cuddly overlords, the Tlaxcalans jumped at the offer. Cortés prepared for war.

Meanwhile, in Tenochtitlán, my son’s hero Guatemoc had just emerged from the shadows. A nephew of Montezuma, he assumed the role of Aztec ruler and reinforced his claim by marrying Montezuma’s twelve-year-old daughter. By then, his people were not only fighting the Spanish – they had just been ravaged by a small-pox epidemic that had them dying like flies.

Despite all this, Guatemoc was not about to roll over before the Spanish and their allies. His Aztec warriors thoroughly agreed with this approach to things, and for close to a year, the determined Aztecs fought for their world. Beset on all sides, it was a losing battle, and late in 1521, the last Aztec emperor was captured by Cortés. Reputedly, Guatemoc demanded that Cortés kill him there and then, but Cortés refused, expressing how impressed he was by the young leader’s bravery.


The capture of Guatemoc

With Guatemoc’s surrender, the Aztec empire had submitted, defeated by the 800 or so remaining Spanish adventurers. Magnanimous in victory, Cortés allowed the defeated to retire from Tenochtitlán, but as per various versions, this magnanimity turned sour when he and his men did not discover the stockpiles of gold they had hoped for. Guatemoc was therefore subjected to torture, the Spanish demanding he reveal where the treasure was hidden. Problem was, there wasn’t all that much treasure…To judge from the painting below, Guatemoc took it all stoically (he practically dangles his own foot in the fire, doesn’t he?)


Guatemoc being tortured

Somehow, Guatemoc and Hernán repaired their relationship after the torture incident. To be honest, Guatemoc had no choice, just as he had no choice when Cortés ordered him to accompany Cortés on his expedition to Honduras. There, Cortés purportedly heard of a secret plot to kill him, led by Guatemoc and two others. Taking no chances, Cortés had Guatemoc hanged – on extremely scanty evidence. Once again, some narratives state that Cortés fabricated the plot, others say he genuinely belived in it.

Whatever the case, Guatemoc was dead as a log, and Cortés was plagued by insomnia for years – guilt, some said, Guatemoc coming back to haunt him. Not entirely impossible, especially not after Cortés moved Guatemoc’s wife in to live with him and got her with child…


Cesare, Machiavelli’s famous Prince

“Quite the man, that Guatemoc,” I commented to second son some days after doing my reading.
“Eh?” He looked up from his book. “Oh, him.” He smiled. “Well, you don’t need to worry, I’ve decided to not name my future son after him.” He held up his reading matter. “Machiavelli has a much better ring to it, don’t you think?”
Why does he do this to me? But at least this time I know who the potential namesake of my potential grandson is. I guess one must always count the small blessings, right? And if I play my cards right, maybe I can move him towards Cesare rather than Machiavelli. Cesare Belfrage – has quite the ring, IMO.


To the glory of God – the ruminations of an awestruck visitor

img_0126Once upon a time, this particular corner of the earth was all forest. The odd call of a bird of prey, the occasional glimpse of a fox, a deer. Now and then, a biped wandered by. Over time, these very ancient ancestors of ours dropped by regularly. A river offered water and fish, the forest was rich in game and other edibles. Our nomadic forebears stayed for some days, but the women complained about lying down on the marshy and wet ground. I imagine they solved that problem by moving up the impressive hill that stood to the north of the pool. And so, dear people, Lincoln was born.

Well, okay, okay: it’s a long way from a nomadic rest-stop to present day Lincoln, but the site as such has seen humans come and go for thousands of years. Some hundred years or so before the birth of Christ, there were huts along the river, coracles on the water.  The land had been settled, had even acquired a name: Lindon.

And then came the Romans. What they liked was not only the waterways, the natural harbour, and the forest. They also really, really liked the steep hill, a perfect defensive position for an invading army. Seeing as the Romans were no slouches, soon enough they’d constructed a fortress on top of the hill. Over time, this was replaced with stone, the walls extending downhill to the waterfront.

Straight through the Roman town – now named Lindum Colonia – ran the Ermine Street, one of those Roman roads that bisected the British isle. To this day, the Ermine Street is still there, albeit these days the part that runs up the hill is called Steep Hill – for the obvious reason that it is very steep. I imagine the legionaries must have cursed under their breath as they tramped up the long incline, but being Roman I bet they didn’t stop for a breather as I had to do. (It was somewhat frustrating to see the locals hurrying upwards, for all the world as if this near on vertical hill was nothing but a slight bump in the road. I imagine the residents of Lincoln have good hearts and strong lungs.)

Anyway: if you were a non-legionary Roman, you didn’t have to tramp up the steep street. No, instead you could stroll up the over-sized elegant terraces the Romans built, bordered by shops and taverns and other necessities in life such as bath houses. Like one huge staircase, climbing the hill towards the forum and the administrative centre of the Roman city.

20160906_111508The Romans left the Britain some centuries later. Their stone walls, their houses, were left behind to succumb to nature. Except that when Romans built stuff, they built it to last, which is why to this day the remnants of the old city gates still stand – and it is a surreal experience to duck under an arch that has been around for two thousand years, give or take.

The Roman walls at the top of the hill also survived – I guess those that came after saw the benefit in maintaining them – at least some of them. So when William the Conqueror came riding up the hill in the late 1th century, he found nice thick walls just waiting to encircle his future castle. He also found a number of Anglo-Saxons residing within those walls, but such details did not concern our Will. He ousted the inhabitants from their homes and set them to further strengthening his defences by digging a dry ditch round the old walls. He also demolished and burnt down their houses before having them throw up a motte inside what was now William’s impressive bailey. In this case, the bailey was big enough for two mottes, although the second one would not be constructed until a century or so later – William was content with one.

20160904_181532Now, the top of the hill was nice and flat and large. Will turned his head this way and that, took in the impressive views, and probably muttered something along the lines of “location, location” before deciding that here, in Lincoln, he would order the building of a magnificent cathedral – conveniently at a walking distance from the castle.

William envisioned two sets of walls, one round his castle, the other round the cathedral close, a symbolic union of the temporal and spiritual powers. Or maybe he just wanted to hedge his bets re the afterlife by sponsoring a glorious building dedicated to God. Whatever the case, in deciding to place a minster on top of the hill, William gifted the world a marvellous creation. Having recently stood before the sheer splendour of the cathedral, I must admit to having fallen in love – with a soaring construction of carved, golden stone, stretching its towers towards the heavens.

Obviously, William didn’t do the building himself – he was more a blood & gore kind of guy than a stone and mortar dude. Instead, he ordered Remigius, bishop of Lincolnshire, to move his episcopal seat to Lincoln and get cracking on building an adequately splendid cathedral. Remigius did as ordered, and soon enough a huge church began to take shape. Unfortunately for Remigius, he died before the cathedral was consecrated in 1192.

Unfortunately for the cathedral, it took fire in 1141. The roof came crashing down, and the new bishop immediately set about repairing the church. Some forty years later, the church “was split from top to bottom” by an earthquake. Only the western front remained standing…A huge disaster, and of course the general assumption was that God had a finger in the pie. Likely, it was more a question of faulty designs in the vaulting that led to the destruction. Whatever the case, Lincoln’s new bishop, the future St Hugh, was not about to allow such a minor thing as a collapsed church to stop him.  Instead, this energetic and determined bishop oversaw the reconstruction of the cathedral, ensuring the old western front was lovingly integrated with the new design.

This St Hugh is quite the colourful character. Among other things, he purportedly bit of a piece of St Mary of Magdalen’s arm while gawking at her relics in France. Takes a man of determination to sink his teeth into the desiccated remains of a long-dead woman, be she a saint or not… Why he chose to attack the saint’s arm? Well, he wanted a piece of the relic to take home to his precious cathedral.

20160904_181941By the time Hugh died, Lincoln’s skyline was yet again dominated by the triple towers of the Lincoln minster. And in 1237, the main tower came crashing down. Again. One could have thought all these disasters would have mitigated the enthusiasm for rebuilding. Not so. Nope, not at all. Eager masons and builders swarmed all over the place, adjusted the general design of the vaulting, and voilá, up the tower went. Again. Early in the 14th century, Lincoln Cathedral not only displayed its three towers, it could also proudly claim the title of the tallest building in the world. Umm…the known world, may be a relevant qualifier.

While all this rebuilding and repairing went on, the inside of the cathedral was a beehive of activity. Chapels lined the nave, pilgrims met to chat about their travels, from the choir screen came the voice of whoever was reading the gospels for the day. The choir screen was a marvel in itself, a vividly decorated structure that had as its purpose to separate the stillness of the eastern part of the church from the everyday bustle of the nave. By the late 13th century, the cathedral also had a famous shrine – that of St Hugh – and pilgrims were allowed to enter beyond the screen to pray at the saint’s shrine. From 1290, St Hugh had company in the easternmost part of the church. In a stately tomb nearby lay Eleanor of Castile – well, her intestines.


Eleanor’s tomb – the effigy is from the 19th century

To us, the notion of building a huge tomb to house a person’s viscera is a bit odd to say the least. To the medieval mind, spreading the bodily parts of the deceased was nothing new. I mean, look at all those poor saints, chopped up in bits and pieces! I suppose the dean of Lincoln Cathedral was deeply honoured to be made custodian of the dead queen’s stomach. Edward, by all accounts heartbroken, then had the rest of his wife’s remains transported south, erecting a cross in her memory wherever her coffin rested for the night. But before she was laid to rest in Westminster, her heart was removed and buried with her beloved son Alphonso, which means the poor lady has three locations to visit before she can recover all her bodily parts prior to the Resurrection.

Having a queen – or at least some parts of her – buried within, was quite the coup for the cathedral. A century or so later, the “famous ladies” gallery was expanded by the interment of Katherine Swynford’s bodily remains, neatly buried several feet below her stone tomb.


Katherine’s tomb – and the smaller one is that of her daughter

Katherine is one of those rags-to-riches stories, a young girl of noble birth and no wealth made good by her illicit relationship with John of Gaunt, Edward III’s son. Okay, so it was somewhat more convoluted than that, what with Katherine first being married elsewhere. Upon her husband’s death, she was given a position in John of Gaunt’s household, and soon enough the attraction between them grew into a passionate blaze, the heat of their emotions strong enough to survive John’s second marriage (for dynastic reasons). Not so sure it was all that much fun being John’s second wife: not only was Constance Spanish and thereby a foreigner, she was also expected to accept the fact that her husband’s true affections lay with his mistress, not with her.  Well over twenty years after they initiated their relationship, John of Gaunt was finally free to marry Katherine – and did so in Lincoln Cathedral, on a cold January day in 1396. Three years later, John was dead. As per his wishes, he was buried with his first wife, thereby relegating Katherine to the position of second-best – and to lie without her man beneath the stone canopy that adorns her tomb.

20160905_103731What was once a richly decorated interior, blazing with colour and gold, fared badly during the Reformation. The choir screen was scrubbed clean of colour, St Hugh’s shrine was destroyed, and the huge statue of the crucified Christ that gazed down the nave from its position atop the choir screen was dismantled and thrown away. Gone was the pomp, the exuberant wall paintings, the statues of saints and madonnas. But the structure itself remained, its richly carved stone testament to the generations of stone masons who spent their entire lives decorating this house dedicated to God.

By now, my dear discerning readers, I guess you’ve understood that I was somewhat knocked off my feet by the Lincoln Cathedral. Once seen, everything else around it paled, and while I dutifully trotted this way and that through the town to take in one sight or the other, my eyes were continuously drawn back to the church, to its flying buttresses and decorated pinnacles. One of those pinnacles is topped by a statue of St Hugh. The other by a swineherd, who upon hearing that the cathedral had collapsed in the aftermath of the earthquake (we’re back in the 12th century) graciously donated all his earthly belongings to the repairs. All of sixteen silver pennies, and I suspect other, far richer, benefactors, snickered. Not so St Hugh, who recognised in the lowly swineherd a man willing to sacrifice everything he had for the glory of God.

20160904_183106Obviously, I spent time at the castle. I even took the guided tour, but I dare say my friends and I were somewhat intimidating to the poor guide, who quickly realised he was in the company of three ladies who knew far more about medieval times than he did. Wise man that he was, he therefore concentrated his tour on the Georgian prison – which none of us had all that much interest in. But we did see the Magna Carta, and we did clamber up to the wall walk.

Once there, my gaze yet again stuck on the nearby Cathedral. I turned to study the bailey and squinted, mentally replacing the 18th and 19th century buildings with the hustle and bustle of a medieval ward. Atop its mound, the keep (in this case integrated with the curtain wall) stood round and fat, pennons snapping in the wind. To the east of the keep, yet another mound, topped by elegant rooms designed as luxurious living quarters. Yes, it must have been impressive, the thick walls making it almost impregnable.

20160905_162112Side by side, the castle and the cathedral have stood on top of the hill for close to a thousand years. To the west, the castle is a symbol of power, looming over the town that spilled down the steep slope, that grew round the base of the walls. But to the east soars the cathedral, a glorious testament to the fact that man may be great, but God is always greater. No wonder I keep on humming Handel under my breath: “And the glory, the glory of the Lord, shall be revealed.

Where is Morse? Of a visit to Oxford

20160831_191403I have recently been in Oxford. Hubby and I have been excited for months about going to Oxford, and as both of us are avid Morse and Lewis fans, we were expecting to see a city defined by little bridges over various waterways, punters propelling boats laden with languid girls and huge picnic hampers forward, very many pubs set in pastoral surroundings, plus the ubiquitous yellow stone which gives Oxford that soft gilded look.

There’s a lot of golden stone. Yes, there are bridges, but not all that many are quite as picturesque as the ones that feature in the TV show. And there are very, very, very many buses. Like an army of buses. Never see them on telly. Never hear the noise they make – or inhale the exhausts. Okay, okay: I know that TV programs rarely smell – but even if they don’t, the visuals convey an expectation of smell. Take Poldark, for example. You see Aiden Turner, and you know he’ll smell of leather and horse and warm linen (or damp wool).  You see John Thaw as Morse, zooming about in his Jaguar, and you do not think exhausts. You think a subtle male after-shave with patchouli or sandalwood tones, you think of the smell of stale tweeds, of crisp cotton shirts. So somehow, buses never figured in our preconceived view of Oxford.

(And as an aside, will someone please teach Aidan Turner to scythe? Yes, he is bare-chested, yes, he is sweaty and sexy, but you can get all that and still handle the scythe properly. Neither here nor there, in this post about Oxford – but I blame it on BBC and their gearing up to Poldark Season 2)

20160831_191929_001Back to Oxford as a crime scene: after one day’s 20 kilometre walk (following upon 22 kilometres the day before) I am happy to report that Oxford offers a plethora of possible kill spots, so in this aspect we were not disappointed – at all. There a pool of muddy water that could easily hide a body or two, here a canal path where a late night wanderer could be bludgeoned to death. There are an endless source of beautiful green college quadrant just waiting for a body to be neatly displayed atop the grass, and the glorious Oxford building themselves are like unmarked canvases, waiting for a suitably gruesome – if elegant – murder. Thick foliage along the waterways, numerous bridged from which to hang someone – yes, all in all, most satisfactory.

Also, Oxford offers an impressive intellectual resource. Murderers who are shaped while quoting obscure Greek tracts or while exploring genetic algorithms will not stoop to something as simple as shooting someone and then toss the gun in the water. Actually, in the UK shooting someone isn’t all that simple, as gun laws make access to guns fairly difficult. But still: murderers who decline Latin verbs instead of counting sheep to fall asleep have the potential of offering something extra in their Modus Operandi, don’t they?

So I guess it all comes down to the buses – and the fact that nowhere did we spy a maroon Jaguar, or a harried Lewis with Hathaway in tow. But in the end, it didn’t matter all that much, as we feasted our eyes on so much beauty – and history.

Cranmer_burning_foxeI saw the spot where, in 1556,  Thomas Cranmer decided to retract all his previous recantations – and how brave is that, when you know that standing by your beliefs will see you burnt at the stake? Mind you, the Archbishop had been doing quite some recanting for some time after seeing Latimer burn as a heretic, but so far those recantations had not saved his life – Mary I was determined to make an example out of the men who’d masterminded the birth of the Anglican Church – but at least he’d have been spared the fire. Still: on the day of his execution, Thomas Cranmer found his guts and told the assembled people that he now recanted all his recantations, that the pope was the equivalent of Antichrist, and that he would be more than happy to burn for his faith, ensuring the hand with which he’d signed the previous recantations burned first. So up he went in flames, and the Anglican church had one of its first martyrs.

Gloucester-Talbot-Shrewsbury-BookI stood in awe inside the Bodleian, thinking that Humphrey of Gloucester would approve of how his precious collection of books had been housed. Humphrey is a deliciously complicated character – a scholar educated at Oxford, the son, brother and uncle of kings all named Henry. Astute and gifted with obvious diplomatic skills, he was also an accomplished military leader, actively taking part in Henry V’s campaigns in France. Sadly, these days he is mostly remembered for his second wife, Eleanor Cobham, who was accused of using witchcaft in an attempt to kill the king (by then a weak and confused Henry VI) so as to replace him with her husband. Eleanor was obliged to do public penance, divorce her husband, and was locked up for the rest of her life. Humphrey took the resulting scandal badly and retired from public life, submerging himself in his beloved books – the ones that were then gifted to the embryonical Bodleian library (at the time, it wasn’t called the Bodleian – that came later). I am guessing this learned, if tragic,  15th century duke would have gambolled about like a lamb on a spring meadow had he been able to see just how many books the Bodleian now contains.

20160901_120217We drank tea while gawking at the Radcliffe Camera, walked my way through one more narrow street after the other. Inside the Cathedral, I made happy sounds at the patch of restored ceiling which gives us a glimpse of what a church would have looked like pre-Reformation. Red and green and blue and white and red, and the walls would have been crammed with depictions of Bible stories. Medieval life was nothing if not poly-chromatic.

In the cathedral, I also saw something I’ve never seen before: a guard box. Set some distance from the floor, this was an ornately covered wooden box that would fit a man or two, adequately hidden from sight while spying on those that came to kneel before the tomb of St Frideswide. This saint was a most pious 7-8th century lady who is the patron saint of Oxford and has the distinction of choosing God before a royal husband, hiding among the pigs to evade her determined spurned groom, and founding an abbey once said groom gave up (either due to death or being blinded, depending on which version you believe). Should any of those devout pilgrims at her tomb succumb to the desire of attempting to help themselves to a little relic or two, the gent in the box would go “Aha! I see you, and now I’ll have you hauled off to hang.” I imagine it sufficed with having the box there – a bit like present day speeding cameras that do not always contain a camera, but still have a most deterring effect.

In summary, our endeavour to find Morse turned out to be a most pleasant and educational one – bar all those buses. But I must admit that every time we turned a corner, I was hoping for a glimpse of the grumpy inspector and his loyal shadow. Or Hathaway. I rather like him. On the other hand, not finding them gives me a fantastic excuse for returning to Oxford at some future date in yet another (futile) attempt to find them.


…and the winners are…

HNSIndieFinalist2016A very brief post just to say that the 2016 HNS Indie Award winner have now been revealed at the HNS Oxford conference!

The judges had a major headache. Four quality books – very different – and we read and read, deliberated and deliberated. We graded and ranked, discussed and deliberated some more. And the outcome of all this is that we have TWO winners – we simply could not put one before the other.

The HNS Indie Award has as its purpose to recognise the high-quality indie books out there – and there are very many high quality books, both from a content perspective as well as from an overall presentation/layout perspective. All four finalists were produced to a standard as good as anything by mainstream – and all four finalists are accomplished writers, breathing life into character, setting and plot.

The two winners are Barbara Sjoholm with Fossil Island and Lucienne Boyce with Bloodie Bones. Both books were a pleasure to read! Congratulations!

Read more about the winners on my previous posts:





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