ANNA BELFRAGE

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

Mother, queen, widow – meet the lady from Holstein

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Mechtild, flanked by Birger and Erik

In one of Sweden’s oldest churches, the pride of place is held by a grave containing three bodies: that of Birger Jarl, the man who more or less hammered Sweden together, that of one of his sons, a.k.a. Erik Good-for-Nothing, and that of his second wife, Mechtild of Holstein. The tomb is decorated with a carved stone slab depicting the buried peeps. Interestingly enough, it is Mechtild’s likeness that takes up most of the space. Why? Because she was of much higher rank than Birger Jarl. She may have been a woman in a man’s world, but her contemporaries had no problem placing her at the top of the status pyramid. After all, Mechtild was a crowned queen, and for all that Birger Jarl was the effective ruler of Sweden for 20 years, he never became its king. (Two of his sons did. Another story.)

leonor medieval-betrothalIf we start at the beginning, Mechtild was born somewhere around 1220 in Holstein, her father being the count of Holstein. In 1237, she married Abel, a prince of Denmark who was also the Duke of Schleswig. Now Abel was not entirely happy being a mere duke. He wanted to be king, but his older brother Erik showed no signs of giving up breath any time soon. Add to this the fact that Erik was determined to expand his power base, reluctant to tolerate a too independent duke within his kingdom and it’s sort of obvious the two brothers didn’t exactly get along.

Anyway: while Abel was unhappy with his brother and more or less constantly fighting with him, his wife did her duty and gave him children, the two eldest being healthy sons. Probably made Abel crow with glee, seeing as Erik’s wife had so far “only” given him surviving daughters, the two sons having died young. In essence, all Abel had to do was wait, because unless Erik had a legitimate son, the Danish crown would pass to Abel upon Erik’s death.

bj3But waiting was hard, especially when Erik subjected Abel’s duchy to repeated raids. On one occasion, Erik’s attack obliged Abel’s little daughter, Sofia, to flee for her life in the dark winter night clad in only her linen shift. Abel gnashed his teeth and promised revenge.

What Mechtild thought of all this we don’t know. But I’m guessing she cheered her husband on when he defended her brother’s patrimony against the grasping Erik and I suppose the fact that Erik wanted to control Holstein himself put him far, far down on Mechtild’s list of “dudes I like”.

In 1250, Erik travelled to Estonia to sort out some issues. On the way home, he decided to pay an intimidating visit to Mechtild’s brother, the young count of Holstein. When he heard of this, Abel offered Erik to stay at his home in Gottorp.

According to the legend, what happened next was that Abel rather cryptically reminded Erik of the instance when little Sofia was forced to run barefoot through the woods to escape his men. Erik supposedly replied that he was rich enough to buy Sofia a new pair of shoes. Abel smirked. Moments later, a large party of noblemen entered the hall and grabbed hold of Erik. To be exact, there were twenty-four men, but whether they were required to hold Erik or whether they were there to hold the king’s men at bay is a bit fuzzy.

Where Mechtild was in all this, we don’t know. Was she watching from a shadowy corner as the king was bound and gagged and dragged out of her home? Did she hurry over to hubby and grab hold of his tunic while whispering “Is this wise?” Did she pump her fist in a “YES!” gesture? Or maybe she was more focused on the fate of her eldest son, at the time twelve or so, who was being held hostage by the archbishop of Cologne.

Erik was dragged onto a boat. When he recognised some of the voices around him, he realised he’d not be seeing the end of the night alive. Somehow, he managed to convey to his abductors that he wanted to be shriven before they did whatever they intended to do to him. “Fair enough,” the rascals said and arranged for a priest to talk to the bound king. Once the priest was done, Erik was rowed out on the Schlei and beheaded, his body and head thrown overboard.

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A rosy future indeed…

Abel always maintained he had nothing to do with this. Nothing at all. Nope, not him. He and the twenty-four noblemen swore an oath to that effect and Abel could thereby claim the Danish throne. He and Mechtild were crowned in Roskilde in 1250 and for a while there the future looked quite rosy. Except for all the grumblings along the line that the new king was “Abel by name but Cain by deeds”.

A year or so later, Abel was killed while putting down an uprising of rebellious peasants. Everyone saw this as a sign of divine justice. Prior to his funeral, his body was kept at Schleswig cathedral, but the monks woke to horrendous sounds and swore the dead king’s ghost was up and about at night, pacing back and forth like a caged bear in the confines of the cathedral.

This was not good. The monks therefore decided to haul the body over to Gottorp and bury it in unhallowed ground. For good measure, they also staked him to stop him from rising as an undead to plague the region. Didn’t help, as for a long time afterwards people claimed to have seen the dead king astride a white horse riding through the forest with a pack of glowing hounds.

With Abel gone, Mechtild’s situation was precarious, especially as her eldest son was still in Cologne. Abel’s younger brother, Kristoffer, claimed the throne and Mechtild did what many women in a precarious situation did: she entered a convent.

For some years there, Mechtild spend most of her energy defending the birth-right of her sons. Although the Danish crown had been taken from him, her eldest, Valdemar, was confirmed as Duke of Schleswig. He died in 1257 and Kristoffer tried to stop Mechtild’s second son, yet another Erik, from inheriting the duchy. This did not go down well, Kristoffer had to flee his opponents, took shelter with the bishop of Ribe who purportedly poisoned the king. All in all, Denmark during the late 13th century seems to have been an excessively exciting place…

Meanwhile in Sweden, Birger Jarl was consolidating his power over the country. Approximately at the same time as Mechtild wed Abel, he married princess Ingeborg, sister to the Swedish king Erik (I know, I know! Where medieval Spain is chockfull of Alfonsos, medieval Scandinavia just has an endless number of Eriks ) The marriage was fruitful, resulting in eight surviving children, albeit some would die as young adults. The son with whom Birger and Mechtild share a tomb was no more than twenty-five years of age or so, and based on the studies of his bones he suffered from some sort of debilitating disease, hence his nickname “Good-for-nothing”.

In 1254, Ingeborg died. Birger Jarl may have been in no hurry to remarry, but he was not yet fifty and by all accounts a vigorous man, so it is likely he was soon considering potential new wives. As he already had heirs a-plenty, he did not need to marry a fertile woman, but to further shore up his position he needed to marry a woman of some status. Which is why he was not averse to the idea of marrying Mechtild. She, on the other hand, sat in her convent and felt somewhat beleaguered. She needed help to defend her surviving son’s patrimony, and Birger Jarl was powerful enough to help her with that.

medieval lustNot, as we can see, a union based on sweaty palms, lust and thumping hearts, but in 1261 Birger and Mechtild were wed. Mechtild waved bye-bye to the nuns and embraced secular life again. I imagine she had her hands full with managing Birger’s household and his three youngest children, plus, of course, she was expected to lend lustre to state events by being adequately queenly.

Whether this was a happy marriage, I have no idea. I imagine both Birger and Mechtild were old enough to be pragmatic and value the respective benefits each brought to the other. Whatever the case, in 1266 Birger Jarl died and was interred in the abbey church of Varnhem.

20170728_150432Varnhem was a Cistercian abbey, founded by French monks who’d been sent north in the middle of the twelfth century. I’m not sure being chosen for this potentially dangerous expedition into the wilds of Sweden was considered a winning ticket, but spreading the word of God was worth the risk and so our French brethren made the long trip from la Belle France to the Swedish boonies. Their destination was not entirely uncivilised. In fact, Varnhem was built on a site very close to one of the earliest known Christian burial sites in Sweden. Here, people had been worshiping the White Christ since the mid eighth century or so.

When Birger Jarl died, Varnhem was the place to be buried in, several kings already safely interred under the floor. Birger had also been a major benefactor of the abbey which is probably why he was buried in front of the lay altar towards the western end of the church.

With Birger dead, Mechtild decided to leave Sweden. As she was actively disliked in Denmark she moved to Kiel where she would remain for the coming decades or so. In between ferociously defending her sons’ birth right to Shleswig (The three brothers succeeded each other, none of them leaving a male heir) she also worked closely with her brothers to secure Holstein’s independence. As all her sons predeceased her, she claimed Schleswig in her own name and gifted it to her brothers – and so Holstein and Schleswig became Schleswig-Holstein, a part of the world the Danes and the Holsteiners would fight bitterly over for centuries to come. If anything, this made her even more unpopular in Denmark. Not that she cared – she had no inclination to spend time in Denmark.

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The carved head supposed to be Birger Jarl

In 1288, Mechtild died in Kiel. Her body was then transported all the way back to Varnhem in Sweden where she was interred beside her second husband and her stepson. And there she lies to this day, despite several attempts to move her and Birger to Stockholm. After all, the man who united Sweden and founded Stockholm shouldn’t be stuck in an obscure grave in an old abbey church… (Birger, obviously, was of another opinion)

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The reconstructed face of Birger

Just to verify things, the grave was opened in 2001 or so. The remains were of a woman in her sixties, a man in his fifties and a much, much younger man unrelated to the female but closely related to the older male. A DNA analysis had the experts concluding that the older man was, in fact, Birger Jarl.  And on a closer inspection of his cranium, the bone-experts were delighted to discover Birger did, in fact, have a cleft chin – just like the stone head adorning one of the pillars in the church!

Beyond her tomb, Mechtild has left little trace in history. But once she lived, by all accounts a determined lady who fought for the rights of her sons and her brothers. Not at all a shrinking violet, IMO, more of a lioness defending her own.

When Christmas looms – of decorations, traditions and short stories

Today is the first Sunday of Advent. Big, big thing in Sweden. In fact, it is probably the only Sunday of the year when our churches are full, the congregations adding loud and enthusiastic voices to psalms most Swedish people over the age of thirty know by heart. (The younger generation is a lost cause – they prefer other tunes)

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A whole table of woolen tomtes – Swedish somewhat more sinister version of the Christmas elf

By the time this Sunday comes around, most self/respecting Swedes will have decorated their homes. Not fully ( As an example, we don’t do trees until some days before Christmas) but there should at least be a poinsettia, some hyacinths, a number of paper stars, candles and a tomte or two. An evergreen wreath on the door is an added plus. Prior to decorating, a major cleaning operation should have taken place.

Now, Advent sort of kicks off the whirling pre-Christmas season. Us Swedes consume mountains of gingerbread biscuits in December, we drink glögg (hot spiced wine served with raisins and almonds) and bake. No Swedish Christmas without home-baked cakes, without a table that groans under the weight of the massive smorgasbord, containing everything from herring, salmon, ham, pork trotters, meatballs, sausages, three types of cabbage, potatoes, cheeses, bread, ribs, and rice-porridge mixed with whipped cream.

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Yum yum – saffron buns

Normally, I would spend December baking. Fruit cake, Swiss rolls, saffron buns, gingerbread cookies, almond cakes, fritters. As I do every year I’d have tried to convince my mother it is high time she gives me her recipe for chocolate and hazelnut cookies. As always, she would promise to do so but keep on forgetting to do so. I’d be considering just how many types of herring I need to pickle and whether it was enough with gravad lax or did we need some smoked salmon as well. By now, I’d have ordered the ham and the ribs. I’d be making toffee and fudge and other goodies. This year, I’m not doing any of that. This year, Christmas will be healthy and very non-traditional.

It’s strange how deep-seated these traditions are, especially if one considers that they’re not much more than a hundred years old or so. If we go back beyond the 19th century, most Swedes were far too poor to eat anything but cabbage and porridge. Only the rich could afford meat for Christmas. Those further down the social hierarchy may have had a pig, but once the beast was slaughtered they sold the meat to buy cabbage and dried peas. (Okay, they may have kept the trotters & feasted on them)

julbock 2Likewise, we burn candles like crazy in December – every self-respecting Swede has an Advent candleholder for four candles plus we do like combating the midwinter dark by lighting as many candles as we possibly can. Our forebears likely didn’t have much more than rush lights, and the very, very cold and dark Swedish winter had them huddling together before their hearths while throwing worried looks at the dark outdoors. After all, everyone knew there were trolls and elves and gnomes in the forest and anyone foolish enough to venture outside after nightfall might very well end up on the troll’s dinner table.

Swedish fairy tales tend to be of the darker type. Rarely does the princess kiss the frog and reveal a prince, Rather she kisses the frog and dies or reveals a huge troll that wants nothing as much as to gobble her down, nicely served on a golden platter (even trolls have style). I suspect these tales reflect the mood of our forefathers, sitting cold and hungry in one-room abodes housing entire families, beasts and a generous complement of fleas and lice. There they were, sitting close together and what better way to pass time but to tell each other stories? Preferably stories that would keep the young ones from exploring too far into the wintry forests…

DD-Blog-Hop-notoptextI like telling stories. (Duh!) So while I will steer clear of all the foodie traditions this year, I am proud to announce that I am taking part in a short-story blog tour which starts today and runs all the way to Christmas. Maximum 2 000 words long, these little nuggets go very well with tea and cake. Or wine and olives. Or coffee and chocolate. And they’re not nuggets – these Diamond Tales are more like sparkling jewels, the entire collection hosted by the Discovering Diamonds review site. So why not spend 15 minutes each day from now to Christmas escaping into a little bubble of glittering escapism? Who knows, you may encounter authors you’ve not read before – always a good thing, assuming you like what you read 😊

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A typical Swedish Xmas goat with a little “nisse” (elf)

Back to Swedish traditions: In Sweden, we have a Christmas Goat. Very strange, you might think, and there are various explanations as to why we have this fondness for Yule goats. One of the explanations has to do with the old feast day of Saint Nicolas on December 6. Tradition has it that on this day Nicolas would bring gifts to children and to show just how powerful this medieval saint was, he was often accompanied by a goat-figure named Krampus (originally representing the devil) whom Nicolas had on a leash to show that good wins over bad. Not that this was any truer six centuries ago than it is today, but we really do like hoping that the bad will be vanquished by the good, right? Over time, Krampus grew into his own: where St Nicolas would reward the good children, Krampus would punish or even carry off bad children.

After the reformation, St Nicolas was thrown on the scrapheap in Sweden. Saints were scoffed at (except for St Lucia) and instead of having a canonized bishop distribute goodies to the eager children on December 6th, the goat figure/ Krampus took over that role, becoming a mostly benign if stern figure who would reward the good children with presents while butting the bad children with his horns.

The goat was an established symbol here in Sweden loooong before Ansgar made it up here to christen us. Those of you who know your mythology will of course be familiar with the fact that Tor, god of thunder and war, rode a chariot drawn by two impressive goats. Long before St Nicolas & Krampus were household names, us Scandinavians celebrated the winter solstice with intense and wet parties that had as their primary purpose to ensure good crops and fertility in the year to come. One tradition was that the last of the sheaves harvested was saved until this midwinter event, at which time it was shaped into a rough representation of a four-legged animal. The resulting “goat” was used in various games but was also seen as a symbol for next year’s harvest, which hopefully would be better (or as good as) this year’s.

julbock 1These days, our goats are mostly decorative. And as we’re now officially in the Christmas season, my goat is already in place, candle and all. As to me, it is time to start clearing my throat and humming a few bars of the first psalm to be sung today!

 

Dead #otd: Roger Mortimer

There are a couple of death dates I know by heart: Being Swedish, I know the death date of Karl XII who died in Norway November 30, 1718 purportedly having been shot by one of his own with a button. Hmm. Since then the button part has been dismissed, but whether or not he was shot by a Swede who had had it with this very bellicose king we will never know. I also know the death date of Gustav II Adolf who sadly died on November 6, 1632. Note the month peeps, and then it may not be a surprise that another of those death dates I know by heart is that of Roger Mortimer, first Earl of March, who died on November 29, 1330. In other words, he died today – well, 687 years ago, but still.

Bishop beheading-650x387Opinions about Roger Mortimer are divided. I belong to those who see in him a man of great capacity and ambition who was ultimately corrupted by power. Alternatively, some of his more questionable actions were driven by fear: Mortimer was no fool, and the older Edward III became, the closer he knew the day of reckoning was coming, because Edward III was as capable, as ruthless, as ambitious, as Mortimer himself and would not tolerate being on a leash forever.

I have in a previous post told the story of how Edward, some weeks shy of eighteen, had Mortimer arrested, using the famous tunnels under Nottingham Castle to get to him. Mortimer was hogtied and transported back to London where he was walled up in a room in the Tower as Edward didn’t want a repeat of Mortimer’s famous escape from the Tower eight years before.

I assume they left a little hole through which to pass victuals, water and a chamber pot, because a month later Mortimer was condemned to death by the assembled parliament. He had no opportunity to speak in his defence, the king ordering him to be gagged and bound. In one way, Edward’s personal rule therefore began under the stain of illegality – an accused man had the right to answer charges brought against him.

As Mortimer was found guilty of treason (usurping the young king’s power could be considered treasonous I suppose, but at the same time it was Mortimer who’d secured the throne for Edward III) he could have been condemned to suffer that rather awful death of being hanged, drawn and quartered. Edward chose to go for the drawn and hanged version, and I suspect Mortimer shivered in relief. To die with dignity was difficult if you were first hanged until you were almost dead, cut down, castrated, disembowelled while still alive, and then mercifully killed by the separation of your heart from your body. Rephrase: not so merciful…

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Alternative A

On this day in 1330, Mortimer was drawn through the streets of London to Tyburn where he was divested of his clothes and hanged until dead. Mind you, by the time he reached Tyburn, his fine black tunic would probably have been in shreds – being drawn behind horses caused a lot of wear and tear.

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Alternative B

Now, one thing I’ve always wondered is if Mortimer had his hands or his legs tied to the horses. There are medieval depictions of men being drawn either way, and I suppose that if it was by your legs, chances were your head would be badly knocked about. By your arms, you’d have the dubious pleasure of seeing the surrounding crowds as they catcalled and pelted you with whatever objects they felt you deserved, be it rotten eggs, stones, mud or the odd veggie.

My soon-to-come book In The Cold Light of Dawn will of course have to address this issue. I can reveal that I have made a choice of arms vs legs purely based on what works best for the specific scene I have in mind. “My” Mortimer (who now and then takes up a lot of space in my head – I’d say we have a close relationship after all these years reading up on him. He doesn’t agree, as he is still sulking at my refusal to go alternate history on him and change the events in Nottingham) has expressed a preference and I’ve decided to go with his choice. After all, the end result is still the same: a forty-three-year-old man standing naked and shivering as he offers a short speech before the noose around his neck is drawn tight and he is heaved up to die. Takes some time to die when you’re hanged that way as your neck isn’t broken by the fall…

Anyway: once I’ve recovered from the pang of grief I always feel on this date I will do what I usually do on this day (and on November 6. Not so much November 30 as I don’t rate Karl XII as much of a king. Weird man who indulged in such hobbies as beating bears with cudgels…) I will light a candle and hope Roger Mortimer’s soul is at rest.

(NOTE! This is a rewritten version of the post I was asked to write for the FB Group The History Geeks)

A reflection on moving, books and the digital age

We have recently moved. An exhausting experience which not only involves a lot of packing and unpacking, but also a lot of vacuuming, of running about like a headless chicken while wondering in which box you’ve packed the very important screwdriver without which you cannot reassemble the bed.

These days, most of us move several times over our lives. We may think that in this we are different from our forebears, but we’re not. While we have a preconceived idea that our ancestors were born, lived and died in the same place, the truth is that those with land—however little—probably stayed put, while the great majority (because let’s face it, the great majority has rarely been landed. Rather the reverse…) have moved due to work or a desire to better themselves. The ambition to make something more of ourselves, to leave our children slightly better off than we are, has been a driving force throughout the history of humanity and accordingly younger sons, excess daughters, unmarried sisters would have packed what little they had, waved bye-bye to their family and made for that constant lure: the city.

medieval-merchant-guild“Ha,” some of you may say, “that didn’t work if you were a villein, tied to the manor at which you were born.”
True enough: but medieval villeins had ambitious children too, or became disgruntled with their restricted life and many villeins escaped their servitude and made for the..taa-daa…big city. Once in a city, a villein who managed to avoid his master’s search parties for a year could claim his/her liberty.

Leap some centuries forward in time and in 1620 a group of very audacious people took this moving concept to a new level by setting off on the Mayflower to found a colony in the New World. Okay, so this was a novel concept from an English perspective. The Spanish would at most have raised an eyebrow, seeing as the more entrepreneurial among the sons of Spain had been crossing the Atlantic for some generations by then.

Those travelling on the Mayflower were not the first English people to set off to settle virgin North American territory. Since some decades back, Jamestown in Virginia was a (not so) flowering colony, afflicted by starvation, tense relations with the native tribes and an exuberant nature that just was too much at times. Plus there was a chronic woman shortage which further affected the general mood of the colony.

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Further north, our intrepid Mayflower travellers came with wife et al, and I can but express my admiration for these women who left everything they knew to cross an unknown sea and land in an unknown world and somehow feel responsible for ensuring their babies (and hubby) would survive in this unfamiliar environment. They probably had more to worry about than where the dratted screwdriver might be hiding – leaving aside the fact that they’d never even heard of a screwdriver.

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Leaving it all behind…

That first trickle of colonists was to have many, many followers. Initially, those who took the giant step to leave everything they knew behind often did it for religious reasons. Being a Puritan in the first few decades of the 17th century wasn’t easy, ergo the trip over the ocean. Some decades later, those seeking a safe harbour would be Catholics escaping persecution in England by moving to Maryland. Over time, the majority of those braving the seas for a new life in an unknown world mostly came for economic reasons—like those escaped villeins who made it to the big city. Or because they needed to reinvent themselves.

Compared to the moves described above, ours is a pathetic little thing. We move from one flat to the other, at most a distance of three kilometres. I’ve not had to take traumatic farewells of people I will never see again, I am not facing an uncertain future. What I am facing, however, is an identity crisis. Why, you might ask. Dear reader, bear with me.

Of our total 32 boxes or so, 19 contained my books. (Hubby’s books have long since been relegated to the country house as “light reading matter”) I love my books. I’ve carried many of them with me for years and years and years and would no more part from them than chop off a toe. For me, putting my books back on their shelves is when the hitherto somewhat impersonal space becomes my space.

So this past weekend I started my book ritual. Many very well-loved tomes were carefully handled and placed on their shelves. I was distracted by the odd book that fell open to reveal a dog-ear or a little scrap of paper with faded scribblings I could scarcely decipher. I was happy in my book bubble, now and then breaking off to take a sip or two of my tea. And then I was finished and took a step back to admire my handiwork. Very nice. But it didn’t feel like it used to. Hmm.

Reader Fragonard,_The_ReaderIt took me some time to realise what was wrong. I am the victim of the digital age, people. You see, all those very loved books on my shelves, they are, with some exceptions, dated. Not dated in themselves, but dated in my reading experience. Since some years back, I read like 80% of all my books on my Kindle, and while there is space for my Kindle on my bookshelves there is no purpose in putting it up there, is there? Accordingly, my bookshelf no longer gives an accurate reflection of my present reading tastes.

“This is no longer me,” I said to hubby. Exaggeration: those books are a huge part of my reading persona, but they no longer reflect all of me.
“Silly,” hubby said, “you’re not a person who defines yourself by what you have on your bookshelves, are you?”
Err… I’ve spent quite some time thinking about this, and I am now worried that not only don’t my shelves give a correct representation of what I read and enjoy, but even worse: I may be holding on to my book babies out of some sort of intellectual snobbism. “Therese Raquin? Oh yes, I have it somewhere. Ah, Madame Bovary? Yes, my mother gave it to me on my sixteenth birthday. No, I never enjoyed 1984, but there’s a very well-read copy of Animal Farm somewhere.”
Agh!
“A snob?” Hubby laughs and pulls out some of my books, of the very non-intellectual (but oh, so enjoyable) kind. “I think not. Now, run along and do something about the unpacked boxes in the kitchen.”

On a more serious note, I have always been the kind of person who has gravitated to other people’s bookcases, seeing in their reading matter a window into their souls. Come to think of it, the same applied to flipping through a person’s music collection. These days, music is on Spotify and books are on Kindle or the like. Oddly enough, this means that in some aspects we have become more private versus our friends while baring ourselves entirely before those who provide our selected reading, viewing and listening matter digitally. Food for thought, hey?

Holding hands through eternity

In medieval times, a man with titles and lands very much wanted a male heir, someone to take over when Papa clocked out. This doesn’t mean that daughters were unloved or unwelcome. For families eager to cement future alliances, daughters were valuable assets, albeit too many daughters could become something of a financial strain: after all, if you wanted your girls to marry well, they had to come with dowry.

Marriage love Manesse1Roger Mortimer and his wife Joan de Geneville were married in 1301. Joan was one of those precious daughter—even more precious as a bride because she had no brothers and her elders chose to send Joan’s sisters to convents so as to make Joan one very impressive heiress. For the Mortimers, this marriage was a major coup, increasing their holdings in the Welsh Marches substantially. Fourteen and fifteen respectively at the time of their marriage, Roger and Joan seem to have hit it off. Not only did Joan accompany her husband much more than was usual at the time, but over the coming two decades they would have at least 12 children that we know of. Four of these children were sons. The rest were daughters, and soon enough Roger and Joan were scouring their world for adequate grooms for their girls.

One of their daughters was called Catherine. She was born around 1314 or so, and already in 1319 her father sought a papal dispensation for her as she and her intended groom, Thomas Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick, were related within the forbidden degree.

Thomas Beauchamp was a great catch as a groom. As a toddler, in 1315 he inherited his father’s title and vast estates. As was customary at the time, he was placed under wardship. Whoever was granted the wardship stood to make a minor fortune, as any incomes derived from the Warwick estates would go straight into the pouch of the one holding the wardship. Unsurprisingly, such a rich plum was coveted by many. Edward II granted it to Hugh Despenser Sr, one of his favourites. To be fair, Hugh Despenser could claim kinship with the fatherless little earl: his wife was Thomas’ aunt, his children by her were Thomas’ cousins.

Usually, the future marriage of the ward went with the wardship, i.e. in this case Hugh Despenser would have chosen Thomas’ bride. But in 1318, Roger Mortimer was granted the marriage. Turns out there was an arrangement between Thomas’ father, Guy de Beauchamp (who was not a man Edward II had any warmer feelings for, seeing as he was instrumental to the murder of Edward II’s first favourite, Piers Gaveston) and Roger Mortimer to have Thomas marry one of Mortimer’s daughters, mainly to resolve a feud between the families related to some land.

Roger became Thomas’ guardian and I guess the idea was to raise him with his future wife. Except that things didn’t quite turn out that way. In 1321, a frustrated Mortimer, together with the most powerful baron in England, Thomas of Lancaster, and Humphrey de Bohun, rebelled against Edward II. They had had it with Hugh Despenser Sr and Hugh Despenser Jr controlling the king and obliged the king to exile them.

By 1322, the king had turned the tables on his uppity barons. Lancaster and Bohun were dead, Mortimer languished in the Tower and all his worldly good now belonged to the king.

Thomas’ marriage was re-granted to the Earl of Arundel who had plans to marry the young earl to one of his daughters instead. (Poor Thomas, yanked around from one prospective bride to the other with no one giving a whit about what he might want) Catherine, as all of Mortimer’s young daughters, was sent to a convent—a genteel if dreary form of imprisonment.

As we all know (What? You don’t? Read up here!) Mortimer managed to escape the Tower, flee to France, join forces with Edward II’s disgruntled queen, Isabella, and return to England in 1326 to depose the king and take control of the kingdom. Once he was in charge, Mortimer granted himself the wardship (and marriage) of Thomas de Beauchamp and could resume his plans for marrying his Catherine to the earl. In 1329, Catherine and Thomas wed. As a gesture, Mortimer granted Thomas his lands that same year, allowing the fifteen-year-old earl to manage his own affairs from that day forward. (The mind boggles: fifteen and independently wealthy and an earl to boot)

Catherine Beauchamp_Elsing

Thomas

Once married, Catherine and Thomas settled in Warwick Castle, the principal abode of the earls of Warwick. Soon enough Catherine’s father was dead, hanged at Tyburn on orders of the young king Edward III. Did she miss him? Hmm. For several years between 1322 and late 1326, she had not seen him and likely not heard from him either. But a powerful daddy is always a good thing to have and Roger took his duties as a parent seriously so I suppose that if nothing else she prayed for his soul–or cursed him in private, because being the daughter of a traitor didn’t have quite the same ring to it as being the daughter of a regent.

It took quite a few years before Catherine could welcome her first child to the world, but by 1339 she had two thriving sons and over the coming years she would give Tomas at least twelve children, some say fifteen. If we assume the number of children are an indication of how successful the marriage was, this would indicate Catherine and Thomas were happy bunnies indeed. We don’t know, of course, but I rather like imagining they cared for each other.

Mind you, such romantic notions as marrying for love were not around at the time: marriages were contracts uniting family A to family B thereby (hopefully) increasing the standing and wealth of both involved families. So Catherine would not have expected to go weak at the knees at the sight of her husband, fell her heart flutter madly in his presence. She would have expected her husband to treat her with respect and in general take care of her. Likewise, Thomas’ expectations on his wife would have been that she managed their household (major, major task, that) and gave him the heir he needed.

Battle-poitiers(1356)Just because Thomas was an earl he couldn’t slouch about and sniff the flowers while enjoying his wealth. No, Thomas was expected to serve the king in a military capacity, and Thomas was good at war. Very good, in fact. So good he was appointed the Earl Marshal for England and was one of the first knights to become a Knight of the Garter. His ferocity and courage in battle gave him the nickname “le devil Warwick” and supposedly just the mention of his name would have the enemies knocking their knees together in fright.

For Thomas to have such a successful martial career, he had to spend a lot of time away from home. Obviously, he made it home at reasonably regular intervals, departing for more adventures on the Continent while leaving his wife adequately content and yet again with child. While he was away, Catherine would have shouldered the overall management of his estates, albeit supported by Thomas’ stewards and clerks and whatnot.

While Thomas was away fighting, Catherine ensured their large brood of children were adequately raised. Her sons were educated in other households than hers, preparing for a life as warriors. Now, the thing about sons being raised to fight is that they quite often end up dead on some battlefield or other. In 1360, Catherine’s eldest son, Guy, died in France. In his case, the death was not due to having something sharp and hard sticking him in an armpit. No, Guy died of injuries he received in a freak hail storm.

Thomas and Catherine were devastated by the loss of their eldest. In 1361, they lost two more of their sons. Fortunately, they had two sons left plus their daughters.

Other than fighting wars and taking rich Frenchmen prisoners & holding them for ransom, Thomas spent a lot of time improving his ancestral home. Towers were added, walls were reinforced, and then he decided to turn his attention to the church of St Mary in Warwick proper. Ironically, he used the ransom for a French archbishop to finance the renovation of this collegiate church. The renovation of the church was still ongoing when Catherine died in August of 1369. Three months later, Thomas died too—not of a broken heart, but of the plague. At the time he was in France, yet again fighting the French.

20160830_120014Catherine and her Thomas share a tomb in St Mary’s Church. The alabaster effigies that decorate their resting place were added some years later when the chancel was completed. There they lie, side by side and holding hands for eternity. I rather like it that,  after all they had been each other’s companion through a (relatively) long life, so why should they not walk hand in hand through the gates of heaven?

The peace bride

In 1328, the very young Princess Joan of the Tower, Edward II’s and Isabella’s youngest daughter, was wed to the even younger Prince David of Scotland. Two small children, speaking vows they’d rehearsed but probably didn’t understand. Not exactly unusual in medieval times, but even by those standards Joan and David were very young. Once the ceremony was concluded, little Joan was carried off to Scotland to be raised by her in-laws.

Joan c5492bddf7315ba168da4dcac237a5c6The wedding between the two children sealed the treaty between England, as represented by Queen Isabella and Roger Mortimer, and Scotland, represented by an aging Robert Bruce. It was the culmination of negotiations that began already back in 1326, when Mortimer and Isabella reached out to the Scottish king to ensure he and his men stayed well away from England while Isabella and Mortimer invaded to depose Edward II. Mortimer preferred fighting one enemy at the time, and having to deal with both Edward II’s troops and the Scots would have been too much.

In the event, Edward II never mustered his troops. He fled west, mostly because his dearest friend and councillor, Hugh Despenser, begged him to. The ordered troops under Mortimer’s command (nominally they were under Isabella’s command) found little resistance, and come November, Edward II was a prisoner and Despenser was dead.

So why did the Scots not take advantage of all this upheaval and raid the north? Isabella and Mortimer dangled the promise of a permanent treaty, formally recognising Robert Bruce as king. This would go a long way to stabilise things in the north, and Robert wanted nothing so much as to be able to hand over a peaceful kingdom to his son. So Robert held back and waited for the promised treaty to be delivered. Except it wasn’t. Isabella and Mortimer had other, more immediate concerns, such as pushing through Edward II’s abdication and crowning young Edward III instead.

Midway through 1327, the peace negotiations between England and Scotland broke down. To force the issue, Robert Bruce sent men into the north of England to do some harrying. These men were led by Sir James Douglas and Thomas Randolph, and for a number of weeks they left a trail of destruction in their wake. Unacceptable, according to the very young but bellicose Edward III, and so the English army rode out to defeat these wily Scots and were utterly humiliated by James Douglas at the Battle of Stanhope Park.

Robert Bruce’s tactics worked. The negotiations were resumed, despite the young English king’s insistence that there should be no truce with the Scots. And, once an agreement had been reached, the Treaty of Northampton was sealed by the wedding of Joan and David in Berwick. Edward III did not attend.

In England, this resulted in Joan acquiring a new epithet: Makepeace. She was too young to care, I suspect, but her big brother didn’t like it at all that his baby sister was to be sent off to be raised among the wild Scots. Especially as he didn’t want peace with the Scots. He wanted revenge for Bannockburn and was as eager to hammer the Scots into obedience as his grandfather, Edward I. But for now, Edward III had to bide his time. In his kingdom, his dear mama and her constant companion called the shots. For now.

At the time of her wedding, Joan was all of seven. David was just four, and I can imagine just how disdainful she’d have been of her little groom. “He’s just a baby,” she might have whispered. Did she fully understand that once she and David were joined in matrimony she would be separated from the family and people she knew and loved to be raised in Scotland? Probably not—at least not until the moment came to say her goodbyes. I think it was a sad little girl who rode north.

Robert Bruce did not live for long after acquiring his precious treaty. In 1329 he died, and a boy of five became the new king. A year or so later, David and Joan were crowned, thereby making Joan the first Scottish queen to be crowned. However, not all Scots considered David to be their rightful king. After all, Robert Bruce won the crown by conquest, and one of the other claimants, Edward Balliol, was still around. So the moment Bruce was dead, Scottish unity fell apart—especially as such notables as Thomas Randolph, Guardian of the Realm, and Duncan of Mar died soon after.

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Joan and David w Philippe

In fact, by 1332 the Balliol side had the upper hand—and the support of Edward III. After a devastating defeat at Halidon Hill, Balliol claimed the crown. Little David and his wife were sent to France for safety. From one day to another they went from king and queen to destitute supplicants. Fortunately for them, King Philippe VI of France was more than happy to welcome them, if nothing else to spite Edward III.

We know little of the David-Joan match. It does not appear to have been a passionate affair, in fact some go as far as describing it as loveless. This does not necessarily indicate active dislike, and seeing as they were to spend so many years together, I hope they were at least friends of sorts.

In France, Philippe offered them Chateau Gaillard as a residence. A somewhat big and sprawling place for a ten-year-old boy and his somewhat older wife, but it’s not as a medieval king travelled all on his lonesome.

Joan would spend close to eight years in France. Formative years, years in which she grew from girl to woman. To some extent difficult years, Joan probably being one of the few people in her present surroundings who had any sort of fond feelings for Edward III—especially after the young English King proclaimed his intention to seize the French crown in 1337, thereby initiating The Hundred Years’ War.

Things did not go so well for Edward in the initial stages of his war with France. Also, our gallant and ferocious English lion was strapped for cash, so when he decided to attack France he could no longer afford to offer Balliol support. Those Scots who wanted David back did not hesitate to act and by 1341 David and Joan were back in Scotland.

By now, Joan was pushing twenty. So far, there had been no child. Whether this was due to not trying or not conceiving I have no idea, but I hold it unlikely that David and Joan wouldn’t have consummated their marriage—after all, the purpose of their union was to produce a healthy heir or two.

Anyway, once back in Scotland, David stepped out from under the shadow of his seniors and began to rule in his own name. In 1346 he rode with his armies into England, this to offer help to the French who were presently battling the English in Normandy. Unfortunately for David, there were enough men left in England to offer a spirited defence, and at the battle of Neville’s Cross, the Scots were defeated and David was taken prisoner.

Joan_Queen_of_Scotland

Joan. Odd hairstyle…

Initially, Joan seems to have remained in Scotland. In fact, she may have found herself in the uncomfortable position of being something of a hostage, a not-so-subtle reminder to the English king that he might have the Scots king, but they had his sister. We know from safe-conducts issued that Joan was invited to visit her husband. Edward even allowed conjugal visits, but whether Joan utilised them is unknown. She did, however, travel to England. One assumes that she must at least have popped by to say hello to her husband, but she also spent considerable time rebuilding her relationship with her mother.

David’s captivity was relatively comfortable. So comfortable that he had opportunity to meet and woo a new love interest, a certain Katherine Mortimer. Who this lady was is still something o a mystery. Given her name one could guess she was related to Roger Mortimer, but if so it must be very, very distantly. What we do know is that David professed he loved her more than he had ever loved a woman—including his wife.

Joan David_II,_King_of_Scotland_and_Edward_III,_King_of_England_(British_Library_MS_Cotton_Nero_D_VI,_folio_66v)

David (left) and Edward being friendly

Joan may not have been passionately in love with her husband (casual affection seems more probable), but that doesn’t mean she was all that thrilled at discovering he’d found a mistress. Maybe this was the straw that broke the camel’s neck, because when Edward decided to release David in 1357—in return for a huge ransom to be paid in annual instalments—and allow him to return home (with Katherine in tow), Joan apparently chose to stay in England.

While they did not part on the best of terms, Joan and David remained in contact. As Queen of Scotland, Joan could intercede on behalf of her husband and she did so with quite some success a few years later, thereby negotiating an extension on the annual payments of David’s ransom.

Joan Makepeace died in 1362, just 41 years old. She’d been married for 34 years and a crowned queen since the age of eight, but neither crown nor marriage had brought her happiness. Instead, she’d had a life marked by the constant conflicts both within her husband’s kingdom and between Scotland and England.

David was to outlive his wife by close to ten years. Not so his Katherine who was brutally knifed to death in 1360—the Scottish nobles did not like this foreign lady and her influence over their king. David soon found comfort elsewhere and not long after Joan’s death he married his current mistress, Margaret Drummond. He would never sire a child, and when he died in 1371 the crown passed to his nephew Robert Stewart, the first in a very long line of Stewart/Stuart kings.

Going back to my roots – or why there now are NINE books in The Graham Saga

There is always a tomorrow-pb-eb@0,5xToday is the publication date for the ninth book in the Graham Saga. Ninth. What began as a book (with a very sad and depressing ending involving two lonely people dying far, far from each other) developed into a saga and by now I am quite convinced Matthew and Alex and their large family are quite, quite real.

I know how they think, how they feel. I know what they like and dislike, what convictions they hold and why. I know how Alex’s childhood shaped her (or rather how her weird mother shaped her. Mercedes was a woman whose life had involved so much time travelling her sanity was somewhat affected) and what adventures and experiences shaped Matthew as he grew from boy to man while serving in the New Model Army.

Now, I wasn’t planning on writing a ninth book. I was pretty happy with the eight I had out there. Plus, the older Matthew and Alex get, the closer I get to the inevitability of their demise and that is not something I want to write about.
“But you already know when we die,” Alex says.
I do. I also know how. But that still doesn’t mean I want to share this with anyone. As long as I don’t write those scenes, they remain alive and well.
Alex smiles and pats my hand. “That’s nice of you. But we all die, Anna. No one lives for ever.” She tightens her hold on my wrist. “But make sure I die first. I couldn’t cope with the pain of losing him.” She glances at her man, standing some distance away. A ray of sun filters through the cloud cover and lightens up his features. He looks good, my Matthew—err, Alex’s Matthew—no matter that his hair is grey.

Anyway: in There is Always a Tomorrow, both Matthew and Alex are alive and kicking. It is 1692 and up in Massachusetts the legal scandal named the Salem Witch Trials are in full swing. There is unrest in Maryland: after the Protestant Associators ousted the Catholic governor some years ago, the colony is no longer a haven for people of various Christian beliefs. Catholic priests are not allowed and those who cling to the papist faith have a hard time advancing themselves up the ladders of power. But Maryland has a large amount of Catholic settlers—the colony was founded by Cecil Calvert specifically to create a territory in which Catholics were welcome, albeit Maryland has always welcomed other Christian faiths as well.

In brief, things get messy. Especially when Father Carlos Muñoz, a long time Graham friend, is betrayed to the authorities by one of the Graham children… Things get even messier when little Rachel’s life unravels.

The big challenge with diving back into the world of Matthew and Alex is that I had to re-acclimatise myself to the 17th century. These last few years have been mostly spent in the 14th century with a relatively recent detour to the 13th and a constant back and forth with the time of Ancient Troy & the present day. (What can I say? I like bouncing about on the human timeline. Something all of you who follow my blog probably have realised ages ago, right?)

When visiting with Alex, I can have her drink tea. There is even hope of some chocolate (albeit of the bitter type) and a majority of people know how to read and write. Major progress compared to my 14th century world…

There is also a constant religious tension. Ever since Luther posted his theses in 1517, European humanity split down the middle, some clinging to their Catholic beliefs, some embracing one of the new reformed versions of Christianity. Mind you, this does not mean that there wasn’t religious controversy among Christians prior to Luther. Of course there was which is why John Wycliffe (a 14th century man) was declared a heretic after his death, his corporal remains dug up and burned to ashes. Wycliffe, in turn, influenced Jan Hus, the great Czech reformer and thinker who was burned at the stake in 1415. Luther, a century or so later, was greatly influenced by Hus, as was Calvin. John Knox was a great admirer of Calvin which is why the Scottish Reformation was Calvinist—and why my Matthew Graham is a proud member of the Presbyterian Scottish Kirk. See? It all comes together somehow: what begins as a ripple in one era grows into a roaring wave some generations down the line. And in the 17th century, that roaring wave of Protestantism crested and crashed head on with the equally roaring wave of the Counter Reformation, as launched by the Holy Catholic Church.

Reading this last paragraph, I realise I get a bit carried away by all this and yes, I will happily admit that all the religious strife that characterised both the 16th but mainly the 17th century (think the Thirty Years’ War) is quite fascinating. As a consequence of the Reformation more people learned to read (the Reformers were great believers in people reading the Bible) which in turn led to a market for political pamphlets. Suddenly, a growing percentage of the population had the opportunity of making their own mind up, of reading and drawing their own conclusions—which led to lively debate about how a country should be governed.
“Not something you need to worry about,” Charles I might have said. “I, the king, am best placed to take the right decisions on your behalf.”
Turns out very, very many didn’t agree. As you all know, the English Civil War ended with a victory for the republicans and an executed king. Some years later, however, England joyously welcomed Charles II back as their sovereign.
“Not me,” Matthew mutters. True. Matthew’s convictions remain the same throughout his life. Sometimes, this causes a lot of heartache for the Graham family.
“Tell me about it,” Alex says. But she takes her man’s hand. Fingers tighten round each other, they share a brief smile and then “poof”, just like that, my reluctant time traveller and her 17th century man fade away. For now. I suspect they’ll be back soon enough to pester me about book number ten. As I am a person who likes symmetry and even numbers, I suspect they’ll convince me to write one more. One. Maybe. We’ll see. For now, I hope There is Always a Tomorrow will bring my readers as much joy in reading as I had in writing!

 

The Silent Man who Founded a Nation

William the silent Philip_II_of_Spain_berating_William_the_Silent_Prince_of_Orange_by_Cornelis_Kruseman

Today’s protagonist, William, to the right. Philip II to the left

It is an obvious challenge for someone as vocal as myself to approach the historical gentleman known as William the Silent. Given the times he lived in, holding his tongue was probably a wise move – not that it ultimately helped. Still, let us not get to the end before we’ve even touched upon the beginning, which is why I hereby grab you, my dear reader, by the scruff of your neck and pull you straight back to 1533.

Now, by 1533, Europe was no longer the harmonious continent it used to be (kidding: Europe has seldom been harmonious). In fact, since 1517, Europe was being rent apart for religious reasons, some countries clinging to the Old Faith, a.k.a. the Holy Roman Church, others embracing Protestantism in one of its many forms. After all, Protestants was an umbrella term encompassing various new versions of the Christian faith, from Calvinists to Lutherans and onwards.

People who convert to (or adopt) a new faith are generally very intense about their beliefs. So, as a consequence of the Reformation sparked by Luther on the last day of October 1517, religious fervour swept the European nations. Those who chose to remain Catholic experienced a resurge of devoutness as they took a stand against the heretics, and thing in general became very tense.

William the silent father Willemderijke

William Sr

William, Count of Nassau, and his wife Juliana were among those very devout, very intense Lutherans. In 1533, Juliana gave birth to the first of their twelve children, a boy named William after his father.

Our young William grew up in a big family who took their Lutheran religion very seriously. But in 1544, little William’s cousin, Rene of Chalon, Prince of Orange died. He had named William as his heir with the condition that he be raised a Catholic. Now, one would have thought that for such devout people as William Sr and his wife, the thought of having one of their children raised a papist was anathema. Not so. Taking a leaf out of Henri IV’s book (except, of course, that Henri IV had yet to appear on the French stage) William Sr obviously concluded that a principality was worth a mass or two. And it was a LOT of land, both in France and present-day Germany as well as in the Netherlands. In one fell swoop, the Nassau family became truly important, adding a hyphen and Orange to their family name. Today, the Orange-Nassau line still sits on the Dutch throne, and William remains a preferred family name.

William the silent Mary_(1505–1558),_Queen_of_Hungary

Mary of Hapsburg, Queen of Hungary

What William himself thought of all this is unknown, but being an obedient lad he did as his father wished, bid his large family farewell, and went first to Breda, then to Brussels, to be properly educated in his new faith under the supervision of Mary of Hapsburg, one of those rather impressive female relatives of Emperor Charles V (in this case she was Charles’ sister) whom he liked to place in positions of great power. In fact, Charles V can be viewed as something of a trailblazer when it comes to gender equality, but that is probably the subject for another post.

Now as William was a minor, all his new vast lands were managed by Charles V who also ensured William was properly educated. Clearly, there was a strong bond between William and Charles—I guess William saw in the Emperor a second father.

william the silent Anna_von_Egmond

Anna, wife nr 1

By the time William turned eighteen, he had become an exemplary Catholic and a much-admired up-and-coming young man. Four years later, he was made commander of one of the Emperor’s armies, which, I presume, indicates William was quite good at the martial stuff. By then, William was a married man and father, having married his first wife, Anna van Egmond in 1551. It was a happy marriage, but unfortunately Anna died already in 1558. A difficult year for William, who not only lost his wife but his mentor, Charles V.

Philip II of Spain trusted William as implicitly as his father had done, and by the end of 1559, William was not only in control of his own various lands, but also the Stadtholder of Holland, Zeeland and Utrecht. Obviously, Philip expected William to be adequately grateful and toe the imperial line when it came to policies and religion, but William was having second thoughts about his Catholicism—even more so when Philip unleashed the Inquisition in Spanish Netherlands.

Even worse, in 1559 William discovered a secret. While in France as a hostage, William was invited to ride out with Henri II on a hunt. Now Henri was all chatty, sharing with William the not-so-appetizing fact that he and Philip II had a secret alliance.
“Mmm,” William said. (This is supposedly the incident which gave him his nickname, hence the monosyllabic response)
“Well, you already know, don’t you?” Henri continued.
“Mmm,” came the enigmatic reply. Henri went on to describe that the purpose of his and Philip’s collaboration was to exterminate all Protestants. Violently. That did not sit well with William—after all, most of his family were Lutherans, as were many of the people living in his domains.

According to Apology, a text William published in 1581, this was when he realised he could no longer side with the Spanish king. Soon enough, he had become the leader of the Dutch rebels, thereby instigating a period of conflicts that would last for eighty years (which is probably why it is called..ta-daa…the Eighty Years’ War).

William Avsachsen

Anna, wife nr 2

One indication of his new loyalties was his choice of a second wife. Anna of Saxony was impeccably Lutheran (and very rich) She was also not the easiest of women, prone to tantrums, depressions and an over-consumption of alcohol. But the marriage gave William valuable connections in Germany—connections he needed to take on the might of the Spanish Empire.

By 1567, William was persona non grata in the Hapsburg domains – sort of comes with the territory if you lead a rebellion. Even worse, his eldest son, Philip, had been seized by the Spanish and sent to Spain as a hostage. William would never see him again. Furthermore, his Dutch estates were confiscated which meant he depended on his wife’s wealth to tide him over. She had just given birth to their third child, having recuperated after an attempted suicide after the death of their first son. She was worried about their financial status and this resulted in quarrels and discord.

William escaped from all this by throwing himself into the religious wars, spending months away from home. In retaliation, his wife contracted a lawyer, a certain Jan Reubens, to help her claim her jointure from what little remained of William’s estates.

800px-William_I,_Prince_of_Orange_by_Adriaen_Thomasz._Key_Rijksmuseum_Amsterdam_SK-A-3148 (1)

William himself. A rather handsome man, IMO

Anna and Jan hit it off, so when William came home for a visit he was surprised to find his wife pregnant. Major scandal, although I suspect that in secret William punched the air and said “Yes!” Finally he had the means with which to push through a divorce from his difficult wife. Said and done, and as Anna’s family were utterly disgusted by her adultery poor Anna spent her last years locked up in a room reinforced with bars at the window and the door. She died in 1577, and was, sadly, not much missed.

By then, William had married for the third time. He had also had some success against the Spanish, plus he’d eschewed his Catholic faith and instead declared himself a Calvinist which could be considered opportunistic but probably reflected his true religious preferences. This didn’t exactly endear him to the Spanish, and the somewhat extreme views of the Calvinists regarding Catholics in general led to a partition of the Spanish Netherlands, where the southern provinces (more or less present-day Belgium) remained Spanish, while the northern provinces signed the Union of Utrecht, thereby laying the grounds for present-day Netherlands. William was not happy with this partition. He felt all the provinces should be ruled as one entity, but he didn’t have the resources with which to oust the Spanish, and years and years of warfare had worn him down.

William the Silent 220px-Charlottebourbon

Charlotte wife nr 3

If he was less than satisfied with what was happening with the Spanish Netherlands, he was extremely happy with his new wife. Charlotte de Bourbon-Montpensier had been raised by a mother who leaned towards the Reformed religion but was forcibly made a nun at the age of thirteen. Instead of accepting her fate this spirited lady escaped from the convent, declared herself a Calvinist and fled to the Electorate of the Palatinate. She and William hit it off from day one, and over the course of six years she gave him as many daughters, the eldest of whom would go on to become the ancestress of the House of Hanover.

In 1580, Philip formally outlawed William. The Spanish king was sick to death of the stubborn Dutch and especially of William. What do you do when you just need someone to disappear? Well, you put out a contract on him, which is just what Philip II did, offering a minor fortune to whoever assassinated that foul outlaw, William the Silent.

In 1581, the Northern Provinces declared that they no longer recognised Philip II as their king. Instead, the fledgling state pronounced William their stadtholder. A very determined Spanish bounty hunter ambushed William in Antwerp. His injuries were life-threatening, and for some time, his life hung in the balance. The dedicated efforts of his wife and sister kept him alive, but unfortunately this dedication came at a cost, and an exhausted Charlotte died in May of 1582. William was devastated—but had no choice but to soldier on, for the sake of his subjects and family.

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Louise, wife nr 4

I think that when Charlotte died, life lost some of its vibrancy for William. But he still had a duty to fulfil, and albeit that he had a full nursery, he only had one son at home, his eldest being held in Spain. One son was not enough—anything could happen to an adolescent boy—so in 1583 William decided to marry again. This bride was also French, a Huguenot named Louise de Coligny who’d lost her first husband and her father in the St Bartholomew massacre. Nine months after the wedding, a son was born.

Unfortunately, William was not destined to enjoy life with his new wife and son for long. A certain Balthasar Gerard had made it his mission in life to rid the world of William. Gerard was a Catholic and a most loyal subject of Philip II. According to Gerard, William was a disgusting traitor, a man best erased from the surface of the earth. His plan was simple: earn William’s trust and then kill him. So in 1584 he presented himself at William’s court, pretending to be a French noble. He also offered to travel to France on William’s behalf and deliver messages to various of William’s allies.

Some months later, Gerard reappeared in Delft and requested a meeting with William. When William entered the room, Gerard produced two wheel-lock pistols and shot William at close range. William thereby became the first head of state in history to be assassinated with a handgun, a distinction I suspect he would have preferred not to have.

There is another version of how William was murdered, whereby Gerard simply loitered in the vicinity of the Prince’s residence, armed with two wheel-lock pistols he had bought off one of William’s soldiers. When William paused to talk to one of his Welsh soldiers, Gerard took the opportunity to shoot him and then fled, pursued by the Welshman. Both versions agree on William being shot.

Gerard fled but was apprehended before he made it out of Delft. So instead of living the good life in Costa de Sol at the Spanish king’s expense, Gerard suffered through horrific torture and one of the most extended and brutal executions in history. First, he had his right hand burned off with a red-hot iron. Then he had huge pincers ripping flesh off his body in six different places after which he was quartered while still alive, disembowelled, had his heart cut out and thrown in his face before he was beheaded. The beheading was probably unnecessary—I don’t think anyone survives being quartered.

William the silent Willem.zwijger.grablege.delft

17th c depiction of William’s grave

As to William, he was buried in Nieuwe Kerk, Delft. Since then, most of his descendants have joined him there, generation after generation of Orange-Nassau men and women, including all Dutch monarchs. His original grave was a modest affair, but in the early 17th century our William was already considered some sort of Founding Father, and accordingly it was decided he needed an impressive monument. Like really impressive.

Other than liberty and all his descendants, William has bequeathed the Dutch not only an obvious connection to the colour orange but also their flag and their national anthem, the Wilhelmus, which began its days as a little ditty sung back in William’s day. This makes the Dutch national anthem the oldest in the world (with the possible exception of the Japanese anthem). It is also an anthem I know how to sing, thanks to lovely Dutch friends. But that, dear peeps, is neither here nor there.

From French monk to Supreme Commander – a rather unusual career

There must be something about the Swedish air that attracts ambitious Frenchmen to our shores. Or maybe it’s the beautiful Swedish women. Or the fact that there’s so much space up here. After all, there must be a reason why Jean Baptiste Bernadotte, French marshal in Napoleon’s army, left the cultured life of Paris to become king of Sweden. Not that I intend to tell you more about this upstart from Pau who was “adopted” by Charles XIII of Sweden when, in fact, there was a perfectly good little heir named Prince Gustav who should have inherited the throne.  No, today I’m going to tell you about another Frenchman, a certain Ponce d’Escouperie. Never heard of him? Well, neither have most Swedes. They might, however, have heard of him under the name of Pontus de la Gardie. Chances are they haven’t…

8184_1318551636_4Anyway, today’s protagonist saw the light of the day back in 1520. In La Belle France, more precisely in Chaunes, Languedoc. At the time, no one had any reason to believe little Ponce was destined for anything but a relatively ordinary life. His father was a well-to-do merchant named Jacques Scorperier. In the little town of Chaunes Jacques owned two houses, a mill, a vineyard, an olive orchard and a couple of meadows and fields. Plus he had a manor called La Gardie in the neighbouring county. All in all, Jacques was comfortably off, and further to this he’d been blessed with three sons, one of whom was our Ponce.

Ponce was not the eldest. Instead, brother Etienne stood to inherit what Jacques owned. As with so many younger sons, Ponce was therefore destined for the church. Did he want to become a monk? We don’t know. Judging from his future career, I’d say he never had the temperament to really be happy as a religious man. Ponce was a man of action, not of contemplation.

Anyway: Jacques was rich enough to afford to educate his youngest son, so Ponce was sent to the university of Bologna to study. Some years later, he was accepted as a monk at a French monastery. It didn’t take long for our young man to regret his choice of career. Rather radically, he left the calm and orderly life in the monastery and became a soldier instead. I wonder what Jacques would have thought of that, but Ponce was likely more interested in how to get ahead in the world than in pleasing cher Papa.

 

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A young Charles V

The 16th century was (unsurprisingly) full of conflict. Spain under Charles V (or I, depending if you’re counting in Spain or in the Hapsburg domains) was flexing its muscles and rapidly growing into a superpower. France was none too happy with this development, which resulted in a series of wars between France, Spain and Austria. Plus the Reformation caused new conflicts, this time between Catholics and Protestants. Ergo, an eager young mercenary had no problems finding employment.

 

Ponce took to fighting as a fish to the water. He rose steadily through the ranks, serving Henri II of France. In 1559, he was sent over by Henri to Scotland, there to offer his services to Marie de Guise, Mary Queen of Scots’ somewhat beleaguered (and very French & Catholic) regent and mother. By then, the Protestant movement headed by men like John Knox was racing like wildfire across the Lowlands and in 1560 Scotland officially became a Protestant country. Not exactly good news for our Catholic mercenary leader.

For some reason, Ponce took his men and went to Denmark instead of returning to France. As always in this neck of the world, the Danes and the Swedes were at loggerheads in the so-called Nordic Seven Years’ War. Perfect for an innovative and experienced mercenary captain. Fredrik II of Denmark agreed and welcomed Ponce with open arms. Fortunately for Sweden, they won this particular war. Bad news for Ponce, who was leading the defence of Varberg’s Castle. While impressive, the castle wall stood no chance against the insistent cannon fire from the Swedish artillery, and in August of 1565, Ponce saw no option but to capitulate.

 

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Ponce in armour

Mercenaries are rarely popular. Men who fight for money rather than loyalty have always been viewed with a certain level of distrust. Besides, a captured mercenary rarely had a weeping family willing to pauper themselves to pay his ransom. The options for a captured mercenary were therefore limited: change your allegiance or lose your head. Ponce preferred to keep his head attached to his neck, which is how he ended up serving the Swedish king, Erik XIV instead.

 

Not everyone was delighted at the presence of this battle-hardened man among the king’s closest advisors, but Erik took a liking to Ponce. Unwise—but then Erik had moments when he was not all there. You see, Erik had two younger half-brothers and these two dukes were of the opinion that they would be far better kings than big brother. To some extent I agree with them: Erik’s bouts of mental instability came with dire consequences, like when he participated in the murder of the Sture family.

Anyway: Ponce and the eldest of Erik’s brothers, Johan, hit it off. Big time. Soon enough, Ponce had shrugged off any debt of gratitude he owed Erik and was happily aiding and abetting Johan as he planned his palace coup. In Johan’s defence, he probably felt he had no choice: there was little love lost between him and big brother Erik, especially after Johan had married Katarina Jagellonica, daughter of the Polish king, in direct contradiction of Erik’s wishes. So Johan had spent the better part of four years behind lock and key and once he was released, he was determined to ensure that never happened to him again.

 

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Johan III

By late 1568, Johan and baby brother Karl (with Ponce’s help) had turned the tables on Erik. The crowned and anointed king was locked up—in far less comfort than Johan’s imprisonment—and some months later Johan had himself proclaimed king by the assembled Riksdag (Swedish for parliament) which also deposed Erik. Well, I guess they began by deposing Erik and then handed over the crown to Johan.

 

Johan was grateful for Ponce’s help. So grateful, in fact, that the mercenary not only received lands and manors but was also given a title. The youngest son of  French merchant was now a member of the Swedish nobility, taking the surname de La Gardie  in honour of the manor his father had once owned. Not that all that many Frenchmen would have been impressed: Sweden was (correctly) considered a backwater. But Ponce—now renamed Pontus as this is much easier for a Swede to pronounce—was a happy man. He was also a very trusted man, representing Sweden on a number of missions to Spain, France, the Holy Roman Empire and so on. As Johan III was married to a Catholic princess, he wanted to mend the fences with the Catholic church, and who better to do that than a born and bred Catholic like Pontus? After all, the man had once been a monk. Very briefly, but still…

 

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Sofia Johansdotter

Johan had to tread carefully round the issue of religion. Most Swedes had embraced their new Lutheran faith with fervour and were wary of Johan’s relaxed approach to evil papists—and highly suspicious of their Polish born queen. Pontus proved he was not only good at war, but also at diplomacy plus he was wise enough to rarely flout his faith while in Sweden. A good man, King Johan III thought, so good the old warhorse deserved a bride. By now, Pontus was approaching sixty. Still hale and vigorous, but definitely old. Much, much older than Johan’s illegitimate daughter Sofia, who was in her early twenties. I wonder what she thought when her father decided she was to marry Pontus. I guess no one really asked her opinion…

 

In 1580, Pontus and Sofia were wed according to Catholic rites in the huge abbey church of Vadstena. Johan threw the happy couple a huge wedding and the church was filled to the brim, people standing in every available space, crammed together on the floor or on the wooden galleries above. In the midst of the ceremony, one of the galleries collapsed, injuring several of the guests and killing one of them.
“Aha!” said the righteous Swedes, “God punishes the papists.”
”See?” said the Catholics, “That’s how God treats evil heretics.”

Whatever the case, the accident dampened the joyous mood at the wedding, but the newlyweds still managed to party before retiring to consummate their marriage. Less than a year later, their first child, a daughter, was born. By then, Pontus and Sofia were living in Reval, Pontus having been promoted to Supreme Commander and entrusted with the task of defending Sweden’s Baltic and Finnish holdings. This he did with his usual panache, and also found the time to visit his wife often enough to keep her more or less constantly pregnant between their marriage and her death, three years later, in childbirth.

 

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Arent’s engraving

How Pontus reacted to losing his wife, I don’t know. He was suddenly left a widower with three small children but seems to have sorted out the babysitting issues with ease, which was why he could leave his little daughter and his two very young sons in 1585 to negotiate with the Russians. Unfortunately, on the way back his boat capsized. Pontus de La Gardie died of drowning and was buried in Tallinn’s Cathedral, side by side with his young wife. So distraught was Johan III by this, that he commissioned a beautiful tomb chest from the (then) famous Dutch sculptor Arent Passar.

 

As to the three little orphans, they were neither destitute nor totally alone. The two sons would grow up to become well-respected members of the Swedish nobility, and many, many years later, Pontus’ grandson Magnus Gabriel de la Gardie would also marry royalty and become the richest and most ostentatious man in Sweden. And probably the best educated and most well-travelled. Plus Magnus Gabriel had a sweet-tooth so large he installed an entire room in one of his castles to hold all the various sweets he (and his equally sugar-addicted wife) regularly consumed. I’m not sure our battle-hardened Ponce would have approved, but my personal opinion is that there can be little wrong with a man whose eyes light up at the thought of candy. Well, except for his teeth. Especially back then…

John of Gaunt’s Castilian matter

JohnofgauntSometimes I find myself considering the impact of John of Gaunt on medieval Europe—as one does, right? I’m going to come clean right at the start and say I rather admire this gent, whom I perceive as educated, intelligent, brave, loyal and very ambitious. Extremely ambitious, even. But not so ambitious as to want to replace his young nephew, Richard II on the throne of England (although I suspect he must have toyed with the idea, at least occasionally). No, John set his sight on another throne—that of Castile.

Obviously, John had no personal claim on the Castilian throne. But his second wife, Constanza, most definitely did. Constanza was the daughter of Pedro I of Castile, the not-so-nice man who locked up his French wife, murdered various relatives and who in1369 ended up murdered himself by his half-brother Enrique Trastámara, bastard son to Pedro´s father, Alfonso XI.

Enrique claimed the Castilian throne by conquest, and for some years Constanza, at the time of her father’s death all of fifteen, was kept under lock and key. But in 1371 Enrique felt safe enough on his throne to let her go—as long as she left Castile. Besides, from Enrique’s perspective Constanza was no major threat—she was as much as a bastard as he was. Erm…There was a difference: Pedro had formally legitimised his children by Maria de Padilla his long-term mistress. Alfonso XI had never legitimised Enrique and his siblings. After all, why should he? Alfonso already had a legitimate heir in Pedro.

Anyway: At the time, John of Gaunt had just lost his first wife. The English had actively supported Pedro in the civil war that had devastated Castile—the Black Prince himself had led the combined Anglo-Castilian troops to victory at Nájera—and it was as clear as the day was bright to the English that Enrique was a usurper. The rightful heir to Pedro’s throne was Constanza, his eldest surviving daughter. Which was why John of Gaunt was all for marrying the Castilian infanta, with Edward III’s blessing.

John and Constanza were wed in 1371. In 1372, Edward III proclaimed them to be the rightful King and Queen of Castile. Obviously, Enrique was none too thrilled. His kingdom was anything but pacified, supporters of Pedro’s daughter crawling out of the woodwork at regular intervals. John, however, was delighted with his new title. As to his new wife, one gets the feeling there was not much more than cordial affection between John and Constanza, but John did his duty in bed and in 1373 Constanza was delivered of a little girl, Catalina (or Catherine).

A year later a little son was born, but he died while still a baby. There would be no more children. John’s carnal desires leaned towards Katherine Swynford rather than his Castilian wife. With Constanza, he shared ambition rather than passion, as determined as his wife to somehow reclaim her rightful throne.

At the time, England was in the midst of the Hundred Years’ War against France. The French had supported Enrique of Trastámara which per definition meant the English supported whoever was against Enrique. By 1379 Enrique was dead and the throne passed to his son, Juan I. This did not please either John or Constanza.

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John and Joao planning their attack on Juan

When Juan tried to claim the Portuguese throne through the rights of his wife, he alienated this neighbouring realm and its new king, Joao I. Our Portuguese monarch was well aware of Castile’s superior strength which was why in 1386 Portugal entered into an alliance with England, further reinforced by the marriage of John of Gaunt’s eldest daughter, Philippa, to Joao. (As an aside: John, Joao and Juan – same name, different languages…) The plan was for Portugal and England to join forces and oust Juan and in 1386 John, Constanza and Catalina therefore travelled to La Coruña in Galicia, from there to triumphantly ride south and crush Juan with the help of Joao.

Things didn’t quite work out like that. Juan was not about to give up without a fight, and it soon became apparent that the sides were well-matched, i.e. this could become a very long war. So when Juan proposed a peaceful solution, all the involved parties were inclined to listen.

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Juan I

Juan suggested that John of Gaunt and his wife renounce their claims to the Castilian throne. In return, Juan would agree to a marriage between Catalina and his own son and offer financial compensation to Constanza. Such a marriage came with many benefits, principally that of joining the legitimate descendants of Alfonso XI with the illegitimate branch. Plus, from John’s perspective, it meant his grandson would one day be a ruling king.

Said and done: in 1388, Catalina wed Prince Enrique, a sickly child six years her junior known to history as Enrique el Doliente, or Enrique the Sufferer, this due to his frailty. John of Gaunt and his wife sailed off back home, and Catalina was left behind to adequately prepare for her future role as queen of Castile.

In the event, she didn’t get that much time to prepare as her father-in-law died in 1390. An eleven-year-old boy was now king of Castile, and his seventeen-year-old wife was of little support, seeing as Catalina had not been educated to become a ruler—she’d been raised to become a good consort and had apparently not inherited any of her parents’ ambitious genes. Catalina was uninterested in power and wanted only to be a good wife.

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Enrique

Despite his physical frailty, Enrique was made of quite some stern stuff. In 1393 he assumed personal control of his reign, and then he spent the following years fortifying his hold on Castile. He reformed the administration, reduced the influence of the nobility, supported the expansion of Castile overseas by funding the conquest of the Canary Islands and built a strong naval presence—strong enough to defeat the English. He also embarked on a campaign to conquer the kingdom of Granada, the last remaining Moorish kingdom, and in general seems to have been a very competent king.

Where Enrique dedicated himself to policy, Catalina was of a pious nature, expending her time and efforts on founding religious houses. Catalina accompanied her hubby as much as she could, but it took some time before Catalina gave birth to their first child, maybe because of Enrique’s health. However, by 1406 there were three children—two daughters and a baby prince. Unfortunately, in 1406 Enrique died on Christmas Day. Castile had a new king, the one-year-old Juan II.

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Catalina

Enrique had named Catalina and his brother, Fernando, as co-regents. Catalina was obliged to step out of her comfort zone and assume a more active role to protect her son’s interests. Problem was, she and her brother-in-law rarely saw eye-to-eye on things which was why they eventually agreed to split Castile into two regions, one governed by her, the other by him. It was Fernando who wielded most of the power but it was also Fernando who ensured Catalina was allowed to keep her little son with her rather than turn him over to the men Enrique had appointed as his guardians. Still, their relationship was fraught and I suspect Catalina felt quite some relief when Fernando was elected king of Aragon, thereby diverting his attention from the governance of Castile.

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Catalina as depicted by a contemporary artist

There is a surviving description of Catalina, in which she is said to be tall and fat, of an extremely fair complexion and with a tendency to blush. She was blonde, walked like a man rather than like a lady, and she’d inherited the strong features of her Plantagenet forebears. She was also more prone to negotiations than to warfare, and when her brother-in-law died in 1416, Catalina made it her mission in life to shore up the boundaries of her son’s kingdom by various treaties.

Due to her family ties with England she encouraged trade between the countries, which benefited both nations. She also advocated new legislation that forced the Mudéjares (Muslims living Castile) and Jews to wear some sort of emblem and obliged them to stay in their home towns, forbidden to travel or to work with good Christians. This was not well-received everywhere, and some Castilian cities just refused to implement these laws. Still, the writing was on the wall, and some generations further down the line Catalina’s granddaughter, Queen Isabel, would throw all non-Christians out of Castile. After all, Isabel and her hubby were not for nothing nick-named their Most Catholic Majesties…

All of Catalina’s three children married first cousins, children of their uncle Fernando. This would over time become something of a tradition within the Trastámara family, with Queen Isabel marrying her first cousin Fernando II of Aragón. An unfortunate tradition that was embraced by the Hapsburgs as well and which would, in the fullness of time, result in a degenerated royal gene pool.

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Catalina’s tomb. (Photo by borjaanimal, Creative Commons)

In 1418, Catalina died and was buried in Toledo, close to her husband. Her young son, Juan II, was thirteen at the time. One year later, he began his personal rule.

In 1501, Catalina’s great-granddaughter would return to the land of her great-great-grandfather as the bride of the Tudor prince, Arthur. Ironically, this prince was also descended from John of Gaunt via the legitimised bastards he sired with Katherine Swynford. In fact, John of Gaunt’s blood was all over the place: In the Yorkist kings, in the Lancastrian kings and even in the Tudor kings. In retrospect one could therefore say John of Gaunt was more than successful in his dynastic ambitions. Somehow, I suspect he wouldn’t have been entirely thrilled by the intervening years of civil war and bloodshed. Just as he’d have been horrified at the thought of his own son dethroning an anointed king and murdering him…

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