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

The archbishop-to-be and the Norwegian princess


Fernando, Felipe’s father

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

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

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


King Alfonso

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

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


King Håkon and his son, Magnus

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

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


Jaime of Aragón

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Les feuilles mortes – a reflection over impending autumn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Of names and unsung heroes

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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


Montezuma – dumped

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

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

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

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


The capture of Guatemoc

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


Guatemoc being tortured

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

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


Cesare, Machiavelli’s famous Prince

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where is Morse? Of a visit to Oxford

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


…and the winners are…

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

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

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

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

Read more about the winners on my previous posts:





Thrice married, thrice widowed


Edward I and Eleanor

Some while back, I wrote a post about Joan of Acre, Edward I’s daughter who was married off to the much older Gilbert de Clare, went on to present her doting husband with a male heir and three daughters before becoming a widow, and then had the temerity of upending her father’s plans for her second marriage by wedding a lowly (but, I hope, loving) knight named Ralph de Monthermer.

Joan went on to have more children – back in those days, it was sort of difficult for a fertile woman to avoid pregnancy if she was into making love with her husband – but today I thought we would focus on her youngest daughter by Gilbert de Clare, Elizabeth.

At the time of her father’s death late in 1295, baby Elizabeth was no more than three months or so, which of course precluded a close daughter-father relationship. Instead, she grew up with her mother and her step-father, and seeing as mama was rich (Joan’s marriage contracts gave her control of her first husband’s earldoms until their son came of age) I imagine Elizabeth had a comfortable childhood.

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As all young girls of impeccable bloodlines, Elizabeth was destined for marriage. In September of 1308, the just thirteen-year-old Elizabeth married John de Burgh – the day after her brother, Gilbert, had married John’s sister, Maud.

Seeing as John de Burgh was the son of the Earl of Ulster, Elizabeth moved to Ireland, taking her place among the Anglo-Norman nobility. Four years after her wedding, Elizabeth presented her husband with a son, William. There were to be no more children seeing as John died early in 1313. Not yet eighteen, Elizabeth was now the widowed mother of the future Earl of Ulster, at present a babe in swaddling bands.

Obviously, such a young woman could not be allowed to remain unmarried for long. Even less so when in June of 1314 Elizabeth’s brother died at Bannockburn. Suddenly, Elizabeth, together with her two older sisters, was the heiress to the vast de Clare lands and the equally vast income. Her eldest sister was safely married to Hugh Despenser, but both Elizabeth and her second sister, Margaret, now became exceedingly attractive marital prizes, and Elizabeth was ordered to return to England while her uncle, Edward II, decided just who was to have her as a wife.

While he mulled over his choices, Edward delayed the division of the de Clare lands by maintaining Gilbert’s young widow, Maud, was pregnant. Obviously, by the time the anniversary of Bannockburn had come and gone, this was not the case – after all, Maud was no elephant – but Maud insisted she was expecting, and Edward was happy to “believe” her – as long as he did, the de Clare incomes poured into his coffers.

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Bristol Castle (under attack, which it wasn’t while Elizabeth lived there)

Once in England, Elizabeth was lodged in Bristol Castle so as to keep her safe from salivating potential bridegrooms. What she might have thought of this is unknown, nor do we know if she had a significant other she dreamed about. What we do know is that despite the formidable walls that surrounded the castle, in early 1316 Elizabeth was abducted by a certain Theobald de Verdon who quickly married her.

Edward II was holding Parliament in Lincoln when he received the news that his niece had tied the knot (whether reluctantly or not, we do not know. Theobald maintained they’d been betrothed while she was still in Ireland, which in itself does not mean she was head-over-heels in love). Apparently, he was not pleased. Not at all. Theobald was treated to a dose of the king’s ire – and slapped with a hefty fine. I dare say Theobald was good enough at maths to conclude his actions were still going to pay off, and Edward’s ire was usually of the short-lived variety.

In the event, Theobald himself was to prove short-lived. He died in July of 1316, after a mere five months of wedded bliss. In difference to poor Maud, Elizabeth really was pregnant at her husband’s death and would give birth to a daughter in March of 1317. I suspect Edward was more than delighted at Theobald’s death. This time, he intended to ensure Elizabeth wed his choice, and in May of 1317 Elizabeth contracted her third wedding in nine years, to a certain Roger Damory. She was not quite twenty-two…

medieval marriage a0004359This Damory was “a poor and needy knight” – i.e. originally he had little wealth or land of his own. He’d served under Elizabeth’s brother at Bannockburn, distinguished himself in the battle, and had therefore been rewarded by Edward II, receiving lands worth approximately 100 pounds a year (In comparison, the de Clare lands were worth approximately 6 000 pounds per year, Elizabeth’s share therefore being a sizeable 2 000 or so) More importantly, Roger was part of the threesome that were the king’s favourite companions, a little troika consisting of Hugh Despenser, Hugh Audley and Roger himself.

Edward II was nothing if not fair to his favourites. Where Damory was given the hand of Elizabeth, her sister Margaret was married off to Hugh Audley while big sister Eleanor was already married since years back to Hugh Despenser. The three de Clare sisters were safely in the arms (and beds) of the men Edward wanted to favour, and late in 1317 the farce of Maud de Clare’s extended pregnancy came to an end, the former so huge de Clare lands carved up between the sisters – or their husbands.

Initially, it was Damory who received the lion’s share of the king’s largesse – he seems to have been a favourite among the favourites, so to say. So covetous and greedy was Damory that the other barons, notably among them Thomas of Lancaster, protested loudly. Things weren’t exactly improved when Damory got his hands on Elizabeth’s patrimony – he was now so wealthy it became dangerous to threaten him, and Damory seems to have had few qualms when it came to adding to his wealth.

All in all, this does not exactly paint Damory as a loving husband – instead, he probably considered Elizabeth no more than a means to an end, which in his case probably was to become so rich no one ever described him as “poor and needy” again.

In 1318, Elizabeth was delivered of yet another child – Damory’s daughter. She now had three children by three husbands, and as far as we know, she had no other. Meanwhile, Damory’s position at court was no longer what it had been. Of late, Edward II preferred Hugh Despenser to Audley and Damory, and Despenser was not above using his increased influence with the king to push his demands for a larger share of the de Clare lands, thereby eating into the land held by Damory and Audley.

This did not go down well. In fact, so incensed were both Damory and Audley that they sided with Thomas of Lancaster and Roger Mortimer in 1321, an explosive rebellion that ended when Edward II agreed to exile Hugh Despenser (and his father).


Edward II and Piers

What Elizabeth thought of all this we do not know. Her royal uncle seems to have shown little consideration for her in his choice of groom, but on the other hand, Elizabeth would have expected the king to decide who she should wed, so this was not something she’d have held against him. Edward is known to have been very fond of Eleanor and Margaret – the latter had been Piers Gaveston’s wife, and Edward had adored Piers – and it is reasonable to assume some of that affection would have spilled over on Elizabeth, albeit that he didn’t know her as well. However, it is reasonable to assume she sided with her husband against her rapacious brother-in-law, and maybe this brought about a closer relationship with Damory.

Whatever the case, in 1322 Edward II had brought his rebellious barons to heel. His detested cousin, Thomas of Lancaster, had been executed, Mortimer languished in the Tower, and Roger Damory was dead, having died of an infected wound. Elizabeth and her children were captured at the castle of Usk and taken to Barkings Abbey where she was forced to sign over Usk to Despenser. For a while, all of her lands were under attainder, but late in 1322 Edward restored her English lands. Her Welsh lands, however, stayed with Despenser. I’m thinking this did not lead to the warmest of relationships between Elizabeth and big sister Eleanor – but maybe Eleanor couldn’t care less, now that her husband had come out on top.

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Edward II being arrested and brought before a triumphant Isabella

Elizabeth was never to remarry. She supported Queen Isabella’s invasion in 1326 and was rewarded by having the lordship of Usk restored to her. By then, Despenser was dead, sister Eleanor and her youngest children were in the Tower while three of the Despenser girls had been forcibly veiled. I guess Elizabeth was relieved at having escaped such a dire faith, and over the coming years, she concentrated on raising her children and negotiating good marriages for them.

Her son, William de Burgh, was wed to a daughter of Henry of Lancaster and soon enough Elizabeth was dangling a namesake granddaughter on her knee. Unfortunately, William died young – he was murdered in Ireland in revenge for letting a rebellious cousin starve to death. It fell to our Elizabeth to manage her granddaughter’s inheritance – just as she managed her own lands, spread throughout England, Wales and Ireland.

Her eldest daughter, Isabel, was married at the age of eleven and brought to bed of her first child before she turned fourteen. Fortunately, little Isabel survived this experience and went on to have several children, most of whom survived infancy. Isabel herself, however, died already in 1348, one of the many, many who succumbed to the plague.

Elizabeth’s youngest child, also an Elizabeth, was also married young. In difference to both her siblings, she did not die young, surviving all the way to her forties. I suppose that was a great comfort to our Elizabeth.

Truth be told, most of Elizabeth’s family died well before her. Other than her three husbands, both her sisters died before 1342, yet another reminder of how short human life could be. Maybe that is why she devoted so much of her latter life to works of piety – hoping, maybe, to reap the fruits in an afterlife devoid of strife and violent death. She took a vow of chastity in 1343 (which seems something of a grand gesture, no more. By then, she’d been a widow for over twenty years…) made regular pilgrimages to Canterbury and Walsingham, was a generous benefactress of various religious communities, founded a Franciscan friary in Walsingham and gave generously to a convent of Minoresses just outside Aldgate in London. This latter establishment seems to have held a special place in her heart, as she built a house close to the convent and passed a sizeable chunk of her time there.

An eager proponent of learning, Elizabeth was also one of the principal benefactors of present day Clare College of Cambridge university. She gave land and monies, she drafted the statutes whereby learning in all its forms were to be encouraged, and when she died, the college was one of the principal beneficiaries of her will, ensuring that her “ten poor scholars” would continue to thrive for the foreseeable future.

Already in 1355, Elizabeth began preparing for her death. She drew up her will, making bequests that would ensure not only her own salvation, but also that of her three husbands. By then, John, Theobald and Roger cannot have been much more than hazy memories – she’d lived far longer without a man than with one. In early 1360, her youngest child died. Some months later, Elizabeth followed her, dying late in 1360 at the age of sixty-five. Hers had been a long life – and a rather lonely one, IMO.

Home is where the heart is

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Conquering Saint – meet Fernando

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Granada La_Rendición_de_Granada_-_Pradilla

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fernando Las_postrimerías_de_Fernando_III,_el_Santo._Virgilio_Mattoni._1887

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

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

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

Ti volio bene – an Italian lesson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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