ANNA BELFRAGE

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

When a Spanish señorita set an English princely heart aflutter

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

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Frederick

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

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

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

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Elizabeth, queen of Bohemia

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

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

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

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Henry Frederick

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

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

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James in all his glory

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Infanta María Ana

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

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

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

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

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Felipe IV

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Charles w Henrietta Maria

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

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

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

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

The curious case of Karolina – a real Sleeping Beauty

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Karolina, the local attraction adorning a post card

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

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

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One of Mr Vallien’s heads

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

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

A gift fit for a queen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Innocent VI: Pope and warmonger

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

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

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

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(Photo by Giorces)

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

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A dashing Condottiero

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

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

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

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

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

John Hawkwood Portrait_de_Dante

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

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

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

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

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

The princess and the beast

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Gustav – a proud papa

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

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

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Sofia Vasa

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

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

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Karin soothing Erik

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

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

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

Sofia Francis II

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

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

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

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

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King Johan

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

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

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Ratzeburg in 1590. I hope it had a dungeon…

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

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

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

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

Sweet Elizabeth – the life of a child bride

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reminiscing in the Tower

When I was a child, I lived in South America. I attended an English school, learnt to read and write in English, sang English songs and studied English history. In third grade, I had a teacher named Mrs Miller who was charged with teaching us about The Hundred Years’ War as well as with starting us in French. Mrs Miller was also in charge of the dreaded deportment classes, where tomboys like me barely scraped through. To this day, I still don’t know why it was so important for me to learn how to make roses out of crepe paper, or why it was imperative for a young girl to walk about with books on her head, sit down & stand up with those books on her head. On the other hand, I never slouch, so maybe…

Don’t get me wrong: there was plenty of Latin America in my life as well, all the way from TV shows such as Topo Gigio, Esmeralda and Papá Corazón (aaah) to salsa and cumbia and frijoles con arroz, empanadas and arepas.  But mostly it was school and Mrs Miller, to be followed by Mr Carey and Mr Wilmshurst – teachers I will never forget. I really wanted to be English—or at least British. I wanted to go to boarding school in England (too much Mallory Towers), I wanted to be part of a nation that had brought forth such men as Harold Godwinson, Richard I, Edward I and Edward III. I had a serious crush on all four of them, but I wanted to marry Henry Grosmont, the Duke of Lancaster. Unfortunately, he was very dead. In fact, all my heroes were very, very dead.

These days, I realise it was history I was falling in love with—more specifically, British history. Since then, I’ve gone on to discover the deliciously spicy history of present day Spain, of France under the Capets, of my own country Sweden. But my first love is, and will always be, British history up to 1690 or so.

My parents weren’t all that much into history, but when I was twelve, my father took me to London via Casablanca. Just him and me for a week—a most unusual occurrence. And while we were in London, we went to the Tower of London. It was love at first sight, even if I was very disappointed at discovering there no longer was a lion pit.

Tower princes-in-the-towerWhile not a history fan, my father was more than willing to listen to me as I told him about this king or that king. I think it was the first time I truly impressed him, and as the hours passed and we’d not got beyond the Salt Tower I was worried he’d hasten us along, but he didn’t. He asked questions, he asked for more details. He stood to the side as this very young me had an intense discussion with a Beefeater about the fate of the two little princes purportedly murdered by their uncle, Richard III. Afterwards, he told me I needed to become better at separating wishful thinking from the actual facts.

Some years later, 75% of my family moved “home” to Sweden. My mother was worried we were forgetting our Swedish roots (we probably were) and I think she’d been homesick for Sweden for years. My father remained behind in South America, promising that next year he’d come home to us. It took eighteen years before he did, and then he died a few years later, still relatively young.

For obvious reasons, my relationship with my father was never close. Too many years of only seeing him a couple of weeks a year, too many years of feeling abandoned by him. There he was in South America, here we were trying to cope in a country both my sister and I found unfamiliar and unwelcoming. (Swedish teenagers are about as warm and cuddly as teenagers everywhere…) Plus we had to cope with our mother’s obvious disillusion with the country she’d always painted as paradise on earth. Things had changed in Sweden during all those years we lived in South America, and our mother was as much of an outsider as we were.

Tower 450px-WhitetowerlondonStill, whenever I visit the Tower of London, I think of my father. I recall how he and I were chased down a street in Casablanca by people begging for Mr McQueen’s signature (he was an eerie double of Steve McQueen). I remember playing in the Caribbean surf with him, shrieking with joy as he threw me to land several metres away in the water. I remember the beautiful sword he made me, complete with a matching shield sporting Richard I’s arms. I recall those few heart-to-heart conversations we had when I was an adult, and how delighted he was by all his grandsons. All of that I remember as I stand on the old cobbles of the Tower, with ancient walls on both sides. Maybe that’s why I always go there whenever I’m in London, wishing to recapture that perfect day I spent here with my father, so very many years ago.

 

The Rule of a Woman – of Maria de Molina, the Wise Queen of Castile

It’s been ages since I dropped by medieval Spain for a visit. Long enough that I’ve missed all my Alfonsos and my Fernandos, no matter how confusing it may be to keep tabs on so many peeps with the same name. Today, I thought we’d focus on a Spanish lady, but before we get to her we must start off with…taa-daa…an Alfonso, in this case Alfonso X, King of Castile and León, son to San Fernando, half-brother to the Eleanor who was destined to marry Edward I of England.

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Alfonso X (obv not by a contemporary artist)

Our Alfonso was born in 1221 and became king in 1252. He has gone down in history as Alfonso el Sabio which can be translated as either Alfonso the Wise or Alfonso the Learned – not synonyms, I must hasten to point out, and in Alfonso’s case I’d hazard he was more learned than wise, how else to explain how this well-educated man ended up fighting more or less constantly with his nobles, his brothers, and ultimately with his son?

As Alfonso X is not today’s protagonist allow me to leap forward to 1275. This is the year when Alfonso’s eldest son and heir, the twenty-year-old Fernando de la Cerda, died of the wounds he’d received at the Battle of Écija. This was one of the many battles against the Moors fought during Alfonso’s reign, all part of the Reconquista, the determined effort by the Christian kings of Spain to reclaim their land from the Muslims. Poor Alfonso, beset not only by enemies within but also without, one could say. How unfortunate, therefore, that Alfonso invested so much effort and money on trying to be elected the next Holy Roman Emperor instead of sorting out his own kingdom(s).

Anyway: despite his youth, this Fernando had two sons – very young boys, to be sure, but still. Fernando also had a very ambitious eighteen-year-old brother named Sancho, and no sooner was Fernando cooling in his grave but Sancho started campaigning for his right to inherit the throne, repeatedly reminding everyone within earshot that he was a full-grown man, while his nephews were as yet mere boys. Plus, of course, according to ancient Castilian laws and customs, the second brother should inherit if the eldest died without adult sons

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Alfonso dispensing justice

Alfonso X did not agree.  He had recently implemented Roman Law in Castile and as a firm believer in primogeniture he wanted his little grandson and namesake to inherit the throne. Sancho sought help among the nobles, and yet again Castile was torn apart by civil war. It did not help Alfonso that in 1277 he had his own brother, Fadrique, brutally executed for plotting to replace Alfonso with Sancho. (This is all very strange, as Sancho in this matter acted on behalf of the king, personally ensuring Fadrique’s son-in-law and purported co-conspirator, was burned at the stake) In general, Alfonso exhibited an increasingly choleric disposition as he grew older, probably due to a sequence of ailments.

The relationship between father and son soured further when Sancho fell utterly in love with a woman other than his betrothed. Passion gripped our young prince, and apparently the object of all this adoration felt the same, how else to explain that the highly born Doña Maria agreed to wed Sancho despite there being no papal dispensation and despite the fact that contractually he was bound to Guillerma Moncada, his betrothed.

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Sancho

Maria and Sancho were relatives – related well within the third degree. Maria and Sancho´s father Alfonso were first cousins, and the royal blood of the Castilian kings flowed as richly through Maria’s veins as it did through Sancho’s. For a woman of such lineage to marry, knowing full well that without a papal dispensation any children born of the union would be considered illegitimate, indicates strong feelings. At least in my opinion, but we all know I have a deep-seated belief in all that pink and fluffy stuff.

In marrying Maria, Sancho made the smartest decision of his life, no matter that they were excommunicated for wedding. In Maria he found the ideal partner, a woman who matched his obvious bellicose skills and battlefield courage with high-level diplomacy and pragmatism.  Just like her famous ancestresses, Queen Berenguela and Queen Urraca, Maria had an innate sense for politics, for sowing dissent among her enemies and fostering loyalty among her allies.

In 1282, Alfonso was obliged to recognise Sancho as his heir in a humiliating treaty. Not that Alfonso had any intention of honouring his promise, something Sancho probably knew as he suddenly proclaimed himself regent of Castile so as to strengthen his claim on his father’s crown. Alfonso retired to Seville, grumbling and cursing. In 1284 Alfonso died, and in his last will and testament he renounced the treaty of 1282 and named his grandson Alfonso de la Cerda his successor.

maria Cantigas_battleWar broke out. But Sancho was good at war, and his nephew was still too young to command any sort of presence on the battlefield. Plus, as a precaution Sancho did away with as many of his nephew’s supporters as he could find. One such supporter was Sancho’s younger brother, Infante Juan, who together with Maria’s brother-in-law, Lope Díaz III de Haro, one day took things too far. When Sancho demanded that they return some of their castles to him, Lope Díaz went a bit wild and crazy, pulled a knife, and ended up very dead. Sancho was all for having Juan murdered as well, but María, who at the time was big with her fourth child, managed to calm him down. Instead, Juan was locked up for some years.  Maria gave birth to a deaf boy (some said this was because of the murder she’d witnessed) while Sancho continued to fight with the Moors and the Aragonese and the French and whoever else decided making common cause with Alfonso de la Cerda could be a lucrative venture.

In the early 1290s, Sancho sickened. A strange wasting disease that had him coughing his lungs out (tuberculosis, present day historians think). Where before he’d believed he’d have plenty of time to ensure a stable transition of his kingdom to his son, now time was running out—fast. Little Fernando was a child, and those dispossessed nephews of Sancho were now adults, determined to claim what should have been theirs to begin with.

Sancho realised his son would need a strong and capable regent to survive all this. Very strong, very capable, which was why, obviously, he chose his wife for the job. In 1295, Sancho breathed his last, with his loyal wife at his side.

María_de_Molina_presenta_a_su_hijo_a_las_Cortes_de_Valladolid_1863_Antonio_Gisbert_Pérez

Maria presenting her son to the Cortes at Valladolid

No sooner was Sancho dead but all kinds of enemies began popping up. Sancho’s younger brother, Infante Juan, since some years free of his prison, wanted the throne for himself. Alfonso de la Cerda, backed by Aragón and France, insisted he had a right to the throne. The powerful Castilian nobles took the opportunity to further foment strife, always a favourite pastime of theirs. And then there was the Infante Enrique, brother to Alfonso X who after 23 years imprisoned in Italy had finally returned home to Spain, determined to rule the kingdom on behalf of his great-nephew. (Enrique was pushing seventy at the time, but this larger-than-life gent had a lot to make up for after all those years behind lock and key. More about Enrique in a future post, methinks)

In brief, it was a bloody mess. Things weren’t made any better by the fact that little Fernando—and all his siblings—were illegitimate in the eyes of the Church, as María and Sancho had never received that papal dispensation. In 1296, María was therefore fighting on all fronts, and for a while there it seemed she might very well lose. Alfonso de la Cerda had been crowned by his supporters and was paraded through Castile as the new king, Infante Juan had proclaimed himself king of León, and everyone was waiting for the King of Portugal to come over and join forces with Juan and Alfonso so as to totally crush Maria, at present in Valladolid.

Maria had previously entered into an agreement with King Denis of Portugal whereby her eldest son would marry a Portuguese princess, and one of her daughters marry the Portuguese prince. She now sent a message to the King of Portugal and told him that unless he retired behind his borders the alliances were off, and God help Portugal if they had no alliances in place with Castile once her son was an adult.

This worked. The Portuguese retreated, Infante Juan’s plan unravelled, and for now little Fernando was safe(ish) on his throne. Over the coming years, Maria would work constantly on negotiating agreements with their various enemies, resorting to bribes when necessary. Bit by bit, she strengthened her son’s position, crowning her successes in 1301 with a Papal Bull granting that very overdue dispensation. King Fernando IV was no longer illegitimate and Maria had not lived her married life in sin. Cause for major, major celebration.

In 1304, Alfonso de la Cerda was bought off. In return for renouncing his claims on the throne, he was given significant landholdings, but Maria had insisted they be spread out all over Castile as she feared Alfonso might otherwise create a kingdom within the kingdom. Alfonso was in his thirties by now, and I imagine he was sick of fighting which is why he relocated to France (as one does, hoping for great wines and cheese) and the welcoming court of his first cousin, Philippe IV.

Maria 800px-Fernando_IV_de_Castilla_(Ayuntamiento_de_León)

The young and impetuous Fernando

At last, Maria could relax. Or maybe not, because her son remained young and impetuous and very easy to influence. At times, those who captured the king’s ear took the opportunity to whisper poison about Maria, insinuating the king needed to break free of his lady mother’s leading reins. At times, Fernando behaved like quite the cad towards his mother, but then he doesn’t exactly come across as a great king, more of a spoiled one. Maria may have been good at ruling in his stead, but maybe she pampered him too much.

Whatever the case, after 1304, Maria retired from public life, leaving her son to do things as it suited him. Yes, she was always there, hovering in the background, and no matter that Fernando was an independent young man he wasn’t stupid, so he often came to mama for advice.

And then, in 1312, Fernando died. Just like that, Maria was forced out of retirement as the nobles of the realm insisted she take responsibility for the new young king, an infant just one year old. After all, she had experience when it came to holding together disintegrating kingdoms on behalf of minors… Mind you, things weren’t as bad this time round, and after a year or so Maria and her two surviving sons, Pedro and Felipe, had things pretty much under control.

For nine years, Maria acted the regent for her grandson, doing what she always did best, namely negotiate treaties and alliances. And then, in 1321, she fell gravely ill, dying in July of that same year. She was 57 years old, had been a widow for 26 of those years, and  had been fighting for her beloved Castile (and her men) for 39 years.

She died secure in the knowledge that her grandson had good men around him – she’d made sure of that. I imagine she also died hoping to be reunited with her beloved husband and the four children who predeceased her. She died believing that she’d safeguarded the thrones of Castile and Leon, of Sevilla, Toledo, Murcia, Jaén, Córdoba and Algarve for her descendants. She had—in a way. But things would get ugly and complicated some years down the line when her grandsons Pedro I and Enrique of Trastámara fought each other to death over the Castilian crown. (What can I say? Alfonso XI had a complicated love life) Fortunately, Maria de Molina didn’t know that.

Loving all his imperfections – a novelist’s take on Roger Mortimer, 1st Earl of March. A guest post by Anna Belfrage

I was invited to write a post for The Mortimer History Society. Left me puffed up with pride 🙂

Roger Mortimer, 1st earl of March (1287-1330) remains a figure of much controversy even over five hundred years after his death. With the recent (and extremely thorough) research carried out by historian Kathryn Warner on Edward II and Queen Isabella, interest in Roger has grown as a result. Was he responsible for the apparent murder of Edward II? Were he and Queen Isabella even lovers? Was he a tyrant, deserving of his execution? Dr Ian Mortimer looked to answer these questions in his excellent 2003 biography The Greatest Traitor: the Life of Sir Roger Mortimer, 1st Earl of March, Ruler of England 1327-1330, yet there is still little middle ground. 

As a result of academic and popular interest in the life of Roger Mortimer there has also been several historical fiction novels written in recent years, notably Anna Belfrage’s trilogy ‘The King’s Greatest Enemy’ centred on Edward II’s reign…

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Ode to the Washing Machine

laundress 709d5b99b49a630c3c221a83871d7b70Laundry days, peeps! Woo hoo, time to undress and cavort in the shallows, looking rosy and warm and quite, quite desirable. To judge from various historical depictions of young girls doing the laundry, men did find them desirable – maybe they smelled nice and clean, like.

laundress 779dca0329c893b3d2152023d21a8a39Despite all these depictions of blushing laundresses, doing the laundry was no fun. It was hard, hard work involving a lot of water and stinging lye soap. Obviously, the well-to-do did not do their own laundry. They paid someone else to do it for them, and usually these someone elses were women, engaged in one of the few occupations that women have always been allowed to do to earn their living. I’d hazard doing laundry is almost as ancient a profession as whoring, and at times the clients had a tendency of mixing up these two trades, so that young and pretty laundry maids could find themselves in compromising situations.

Laundresses laundry-1_tc3b6pffer_-_washerwomen_in_a_grottoAnyway: the thing about laundry back then (which is not that long ago, a hundred years, give or take) was that it took time – and a lot of muscle. Usually, households saved up their laundry. In cold countries such as Sweden, washing anything but the absolute necessities was difficult during winter when lakes and rivers froze. Accordingly, no sooner was the blackbird warbling in the shrubs but all the dirty laundry that had been stockpiled over winter was dragged out of wherever it was kept and set to soak. In some cases, it was soaked in urine as this helped bleach yellowing and greying linen.

The soaking stage was called “bucking” and would take at least one full day. In some places, the linen was first soaked in water (or urine), then in a mixture of lye and water, then in water again before being transferred to the next stage. This is when our pretty laundresses had to start working those arms of theirs. Usually, the soaked linen was scrubbed with lye soap, both on the outside and the inside. Wham, wham, wham went the washing bats, ensuring a good work out of the biceps in at least one arm.

Laundress 1200px-Jean-Baptiste_Greuze_(French_-_The_Laundress_(La_Blanchisseuse)_-_Google_Art_ProjectOnce scrubbed, beaten, scrubbed and beaten some more, the garments were boiled. This took some time and involved a lot of heavy stirring. By now, of course, the arms and backs of our laundresses were beginning to ache – a lot. (And speaking from my own experience, it is hard work to boil f.ex. sheets) Once the garments had been boiled for long enough, they were lifted out of the cauldron, the released steam causing the hair of all those little laundresses to curl most enticingly. (In the pictures. In reality, it covered their faces with a sweaty sheen, dampened the clouts with which they covered their hair and had their clothes sticking most uncomfortably to their skin.)

laundresses 1340358820_image001The steaming laundry was then rinsed. Quite often, this was done in the closest river. Up here in the north, this meant the water was horribly cold, and as each garment had to be thoroughly rinsed, the laundresses ended up with numbed and chapped hands. Very chapped. Rarely shows up in all those paintings…

It wasn’t only the cold water that caused discomfort. Burns were common while tending to the cauldron, and then, of course, there was the lye. The correct name for lye is sodium hydroxide – it suffices to hear that name to understand lye is a) complicated stuff from a chemical perspective b) potentially dangerous. Spilled lye caused burns – very painful ones. Should you be unlucky and get it in your eyes, chances were you’d end up blind. Should you be even more unlucky and sort of end up falling over into the lye container, you’d likely die. (And for a graphic description of just what can happen with lye, I recommend Dina’s Book by Herbjörg Wassmo. 19th century Gothic drama set in Norway…)

Laundress e1a99e86901a14a28bc2bebfdf0cc352--th-century-oil-on-canvasAnyway: assuming our laundresses had survived the lye and the water, had avoided falling into the river to drown, at the end of a long, long day they had heaps and heaps of clean linen to hang on lines or spread on shrubs or on the grass to dry. And as I am of the firm opinion we have more in common with our ancestors than we think, I bet those distant laundresses did what I do as they folded the sheets: they sniffed them, smiling at how they smelled of sun and wind and rustling grass. Or maybe they were just too tired to do so. I hope not.

I suppose that what this post brings home is just how lucky we are to live in a day and age where the washing process consists of sorting clothes, stuffing them in the washing machine, adding detergent, selecting a programme and pressing ON. We don’t have to carry bucket after bucket of water to fill the cauldron. We don’t have to stand with our arms in urine as we stir the soaking linen. We don’t have to make lye, we don’t have to whack the washing, scrub it, scrub it some more. No boiling, no endless rinsing in icy water. No crying at the end of the day because our nails are blue and ache so, so much.

laundresses arkhipov-the-laundresses-c1900Once the laundry was done, our weary laundresses had other chores to do. Cows had to be milked, food had to be cooked, bread had to be baked, clothes had to be mended. For those with a fancy streak, all that newly washed linen also had to be ironed, collars and cuffs starched into perfection. A lot of hard work was involved in keeping your clothes clean, so maybe it’s no wonder people wore their garments for as long as they could before adding them to the “to wash” pile. Especially if you were a woman…

These days, we change clothes on a daily basis. Where our grandmothers aired their clothes, gave them a good brush-down and then wore them for some days more, we wrinkle our nose at the thought of well-worn clothes (with the exception of jeans. Maybe) We have the luxury to do so, thanks to that wonderful, wonderful invention, the washing machine. To paraphrase Maurice Chevalier: “Thank heavens for washing machines, without them what would modern peeps do?”  

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