Anna Belfrage

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When Downing downed the regicides

When I was a little girl, I devoured all kinds of historical fiction, and when the novels didn’t tell me enough I went to the history section, checking out heavy dusty tomes to further dig into what details there were. During one rather long period, I was stuck in the English Civil War, with my heart firmly in the Royalist camp.

Today, I am still stuck in the Civil War – or rather its aftermath, as I have a particular fondness for the latter half of the seventeenth century, but these days I tend to root for the Parliamentarians. A somewhat fruitless position one could argue, given that ultimately Charles II was reinstated, but there you are.

Charles_II_by_John_Michael_Wright_or_studioAs we all know, the Restoration as such was a bloodless event. The returning king was wise enough not to demand redress for years of exile and penury, nor did he actively persecute former Parliamentarians – well, with one exception, the regicides.

Fifty-nine commissioners signed Charles I death sentence, and of these, twenty were already dead when Charles II ascended the throne, nineteen were imprisoned for life, three were disinterred and executed “after the fact” so to say (including Cromwell), and nine were hanged, drawn and quartered.

The story surrounding the arrest of three of the regicides reads like a seventeenth century James Bond, starring George Downing of His Majesty’s Secret Service. (In actual fact he was the English ambassador to the Netherlands, but I prefer imagining him as a sinister guy in immaculate black velvet, rapier in hand as he trawls through the seedier parts of Delft in search of the wanted men.) And yes, in case you’re wondering, it is this individual who has given his name to the address at which the British Prime Minister resides. Not an honour he entirely deserved, if you ask me…


Purportedly Mr Downing

George Downing was born in 1623 in Dublin, spent his childhood in England, but accompanied his family to Massachusetts when he was fifteen where they settled in Salem, as yet a place unburdened by its future notoriety. He was in the first class ever to graduate from Harvard, spent some time in the West Indies and subsequently ended up as a chaplain in a regiment commanded by one John Okey.

The coming years had George seeing very much fighting first hand, and through a series of advantageous career moves plus, one must assume, considerable skills, he advanced steadily from chaplain to spymaster and then all the way to one of Cromwell’s most trusted diplomats.

So far, George had been a steadfast supporter of the Commonwealth cause. His whole career had been built on his staunch Puritan convictions and his loyalty to the Protector. Unfortunately for George, Oliver Cromwell went and died in 1658. Fortunately for George, at the time he was the English ambassador to the Netherlands and managed to cling on to this post throughout the eighteen months of turmoil that followed on Cromwell’s death. And while he was at it, dear George took the opportunity of mending his fences with Charles Stuart – also in the Netherlands – expressing that his life so far was a lie, built on the erroneous principles that had been inculcated in him during his years in the radical Colonies. But, our George assured Charles, penitent eyes wide open, he had finally seen the light, and wanted nothing more than to serve his royal master faithfully.

I’m not sure Charles bought this “volte-face”. In actual fact, I am quite convinced he didn’t, just as he didn’t buy any of the cock-and-bull stories of the men and women who now, in the twelfth hour of his exile, bounded over to Holland to pledge him their undying loyalty. I do, however, believe that Charles Stuart had learnt the hard way how important it was to surround himself with capable men, and George Downing was nothing if not impressively capable.

A tenuous relationship was established, resulting in George still being the ambassador to the Netherlands when Charles set off to claim his throne. There were a number of people in Charles’ inner circle that were anything but thrilled by this development, and somehow George needed to quench all doubts as to where his loyalty lay. (A sarcastic person would conclude he was mostly loyal to his own interests rather than to his professed convictions – seems to have been the guiding light throughout his years…) A golden opportunity to openly declare his total devotion and loyalty to the king arose in early spring of 1662.

Price of conv 2


After several years as a spymaster and an ambassador, George had a number of spies in his service, one of whom lived in Delft and was called Abraham Kick. How unfortunate for the three regicides, Barkstead, Corby and Okey – yup, George’s former commanding officer – that they used Kick as their contact when fleeing the long arm of royal justice. But George, well he must have rubbed his hands together in glee at this most happy turn of events. Here was what he needed, three regicides to bundle together and present to his new master.

The Dutch were ambivalent to the new English king, and were on the whole very sympathetic to Puritans fleeing England for their land. George couldn’t risk such sensitivities getting in the way of his plan, and once he had a warrant for their arrest, he set off to do the actual arresting on his own, with people he could trust.

Night was closing in when George and his men burst into Kick’s house. I wonder what he said to Okey, if he could look these former comrades of his in the eyes when by his actions he was effectively condemning them to gruesome death. Whatever the case, he had the three regicides dragged off to Delft’s town jail and set about organising the logistics of transporting them back to England and the waiting gallows.

The people of Delft were not pleased by George’s nightly raid. The magistrates demanded that the three unfortunates should have their case tried, and public opinion was loud in their support. For a while, it seemed this most juicy plum was about to be plucked from George’s hand, but resourceful as ever, he secured a handover document at lightning speed from the powers that were.


View of Delft, Vermeer

Imagine a cold March dawn in seventeenth century Delft. Mists hung like sheer veils over the network of narrow canals, and this early there were no lights, no sounds but the occasional bark of a dog. A soft splash, a muted curse, and a small boat appeared through the fog, rowed up the canal that lead to the back entrance of the jail. In the prow sat George with his precious document, and minutes later three bound men were man-handled into the boat, muted screams leaking through their gags. Well before sunrise the boat had left Delft far behind and some days later Downing’s precious cargo was deposited on English soil.

The regicides were doomed. In April 1662, Barkstead, Okey and Corby were hanged, drawn and quartered, one of those bloody spectacles that had people cheering and yelling while the men slowly died before them, being first hanged, then castrated and disembowelled. A skilled executioner would ensure the victim lived through every excruciating cut. I am hoping such skilled executioners now and then took pity on their victims and shortened their suffering.

In July of 1663, Downing was made a baronet, dying a couple of decades later as a very wealthy man. But now and then I suspect it came back to haunt him, that day when he arrested those three men. Did he twist in bed as he recalled Okey’s frenzied pleading that he please not do this? Were his nights plagued with echoes of their begging voices, with the sight of the fear in their eyes? Did he sometimes shiver awake in the predawn, convinced that it was Okey’s hand that clutched at his neck? I somehow hope he did. He could have let them run. He chose not to, thereby building his future success on the blood of the men he had once called his brethren. Not, IMO, the actions of an upright man, rather those of a self-serving scoundrel.

This post has, in a somewhat different form, previously appeared on the English Historical Fiction Authors Blog


In the Shadow of the Storm by Anna Belfrage

A review to make my day and then some…

Historical Fiction reviews


In my travels through the magical medium of historical fiction, and most especially in the last year or so, I have encountered some wonderfully crafted female characters.  To name a few, but certainly not all; Eleanor in the Feud series by Derek Birks, Selene in the Daughter Of Cleopatra books by Stephanie Dray, Giulia Farnese as portrayed in Kate Quinn’s Borgia series, Alice Petherton in Martin Lake’s tales of Henry VIIIth, Patsy Jefferson by the duo of Laura Kamoie and Stephanie Dray and now added to the list, Anna Belfrage’s Kit.  The story takes place during a revolt led by Sir Roger Mortimer against King Edward and his principal advisor the twisted, reprehensible Hugh Despencer – he ranks as one of the more disgusting creatures I’ve encountered in literature – though he is but an example of the author’s gift for characterization and development.  It is a story of how…

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Taking matters (or her) in his own hands

Stafford_1430Today, I’d like you to meet Ralph Stafford. I will come clean right from the start and say that I am in two minds about this gentleman, but I’m guessing my opinion is pretty irrelevant to a man who has been dead 600 years and counting. It’s not as if dissing him on FB is an option…

Ralph was born around the turn of the 14th century, the son of a minor baron. Essentially, our man of the day is famous for two things: he was an active participant in the tunnel plot which led to Roger Mortimer’s arrest and subsequent execution in 1330, thereby allowing Edward III to finally begin ruling in his own name, and he had a most unconventional approach to finding himself a bride.

The tunnel plot we will return to in another post (think nervous young men, a tunnel under Nottingham Castle, smoking torches, and the certainty that if they failed, they’d all be dead come morning), so today we shall take a look at Ralph Stafford, the not-so-subtle seducer.

Ralph was, as stated above, the son of a minor nobleman. Yes, he was titled, but he didn’t quite have the means to go splashing about as nobles of the day were expected to do. Ralph had to be careful with his income, and in a court headed by King Edward III, by all accounts a young man who was rather fond of dressing grandly, it was hard to keep up.
Plus, of course, a nobleman needed horses and servants and armour – and a wife.

In 1326, Ralph married his first wife, a Katherine Hastings of which we know little beyond her name and the fact that she gave Ralph two daughters before passing away. Obviously, under such circumstances it was expected the relatively young Baron Stafford would marry again – if nothing else to produce a male heir.

Edward III Siege of Berwick 1333

Ralph’s career was helped by his involvement in the tunnel plot. King Edward was grateful to the men who had rid him off the Mortimer yoke, and Stafford was given ample opportunity to put his best foot forward, which he did both in the king’s various Scottish campaigns but also as an ambassador abroad, accompanying senior nobleman Hugh de Audley on various occasions.

Hugh de Audley was the former brother-in-law to Hugh Despenser – Edward II’s favourite who to some extent caused the conflict that led to Edward II being deposed and replaced by his son (with proud mama Queen Isabella and Roger Mortimer taking over the day-to-day ruling). Hugh’s wife, Margaret de Clare, was one of three sisters to Gilbert de Clare, Earl of Gloucester, who died at Bannockburn. In one fell swoop, the de Clare sisters (or their husbands) became filthily rich – albeit that Lord Despenser, married to Eleanor de Clare, did his best to hog the lion’s share.

By the time Ralph entered Hugh’s orbit, Despenser was long since dead and Margaret de Clare had been assigned a fair share of her patrimony, making Hugh a very rich man. The Hugh and Margaret marriage had resulted in one child, yet another Margaret, who was born in 1320 or thereabouts. Margaret junior was therefore a VERY rich and eligible heiress. Plus, as an extra layer of icing to this already quite irresistible cake, through her mother she was the great-granddaughter of Edward I.

At the time, Ralph remained a relatively poor Lord Stafford. He was close to twenty years Margaret’s senior, and yet he was so smitten he upped and abducted her in 1336. Question, of course, is was he smitten with her, or her money?

ISOTS launch Redgirl_and_knight01

..not the way it was?

Now, I’m hoping it wasn’t only about the money. Yes, yes, I know: it just goes to show I’m an incorrigible romantic, but still. I’m hoping he liked the way she laughed, or that she found him gallant and handsome despite him being as old as 35. Maybe there was something about his eyes that made her blush, or perhaps it was the curve of her hips that had him thinking of beds and pillows. Not only about the money, despite her being worth ten times as much as him.

The fact that Ralph had to resort to abducting his bride indicated Hugh de Audley had other plans for his precious daughter. With her lineage and money, she’d attract suitors like a queen bee does drones, and Hugh was probably thinking minimum an earl. Instead, that uppity Stafford took it upon himself to steal her away – his precious Maggie, in the arms of a bride-snatcher! Hugh threw a hissy-fit. So did his wife. Off they stormed to see the king and demand redress.

At the time, having abducted Margaret – and I imagine he would also have made sure he’d bedded her – Ralph had the upper hand: the de Audley daughter was spoiled goods, and the parents had little choice but to bow to the inevitable and allow them to wed. But their pride was smarting, besides which they may have been genuinely concerned for their poor daughter, especially if there were none of the romance ingredients I hoped for above. After all, it happened now and then that women were forcibly abducted and ashamed into marrying men they definitely did not want. (Like poor Alice de Lacy)

The king, however, would not hear one cross word against his trusted Ralph. Instead, he advocated ensuring the happy couple was married as soon as possible. Seeing as Edward was happily married to his Philippa, I am hoping he’d not have reached such a conclusion without verifying the bride was not totally adverse, but who knows…

Hugh blustered. He cursed. His wife wept and begged. The king insisted this was for the best, and so as to sweeten this unpalatable situation, he made Hugh de Audley an Earl, investing in him the title of Earl of Gloucester, dormant since Gilbert de Clare’s rather unnecessary if gallant death at Bannockburn.
“An earl?” Hugh de Audley said. “Me, Sire?”
“Assuredly you!” Edward clapped him on the shoulder. “A good man, a trusted servant – and a soon to be father-in-law to my very, very dear friend Ralph.”
“Oh.” Hugh looked at his wife, back at the king. “An earl, you say?”
The king inclined his head to Margaret. “Earl of Gloucester, in honour of your wife’s illustrious ancestors.”
Margaret beamed – until she recalled she shouldn’t be beaming, she should be most aggrieved, what with her poor daughter and all that.

ISOTS pic 2And so, in 1336 Margaret de Audley was married to Ralph Stafford. Our formerly borderline poor nobleman was now among the wealthier men in the land – and he had a wife who would go on to give him eight children. I take that as some sort of proof they were at least tolerably happy with each other.

Ralph was to become wealthy in his own right. As one of the king’s most trusted men, he was given several lucrative positions – plus the war in France gave ample opportunities for rich ransoms. And in 1350, Ralph himself was elevated to Earl of Stafford, a title his descendants would hold on to until, some years down the line, his great-grandson took yet another leap upwards and became the first Duke of Buckingham. Two generations further down, and the then Duke of Buckingham was beheaded for treason in 1483 – but that, as they say, is an entirely different story.

When the king’s physician became the queen’s…umm…

CM familyToday, I thought we could spend some time with Caroline Matilda, princess of England and queen of Denmark. She was born in 1751, daughter to Frederick, Prince of Wales and his wife Princess Augusta of Saxe-Coburg. By the time of her birth, her father was already dead, and as per her mother’s wishes she was brought up far from the corrupting influences of court life, the cosseted youngest sister of the future George III.

However protected her upbringing, Caroline Matilda was a princess, and as such she was expected to marry as it benefited her brother’s kingdom. To ensure the young princess was a credit to her future husband, she was given an excellent education, and by the time she was a teenager she spoke not only English, but also Italian, French and German.

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Caroline Matilda to the right

In October of 1766, the fifteen-year-old Caroline Matilda was married by proxy to her cousin, Christian VII of Denmark. There were rumours surrounding the Danish king, mutterings that all was not well in the state of Denmark – or at least not in the head of its royal ruler – but for all George III’s concerns, he still chose to send his little sister off into the unknown. As to the Danish, it was all perfectly simple: “Avec un Coeur bon, une humeur douce (…) et une envie de plaire au roi son epoux, elle peut s’attendre à une sitiation très heureuse.” In other words, smile and please your king and all will be well.

Not so simple as it turned out, seeing as the young Danish king didn’t want a wife; just seventeen, he had hoped to enjoy some more years of carousing and whoring before he was forced into a marriage bed. Carolina Matilda was no more enthusiastic, but she knew where her duty lay, and so tried to make the best of things. Difficult to do, when she was a stranger in a country, doubly difficult when the king began to lavish all his attention and affection on a much admired prostitute.

Further to Christian’s womanizing, Carolina Matilda quickly realised her new husband was not all there. Given to panic attacks, to severe mood swings and a marked lack of concentration, the young king was restless and unhappy – and very much under the thumb of his formidable step-mother, Juliane Marie, and her cronies.

CM Christian_VII_1772_by_RoslinChristian seems to have been born with certain mental weaknesses – and things were not made better by the rather terrifying methods used to instill discipline in the young prince. He was often severely beaten and subjected to being submerged in ice cold water when he threw “tantrums”. His father was not all that interested in his son – he was more interested in women and spirits – and so little Christian had no one to look out for him. His step-mother most certainly did not: she had a son of her own to promote, and driving Christian over the edge would have been a perfect stepping stone for the oh, so eager mama to get her own baby into the ermine.

One therefore imagines that Juliane Marie was less than thrilled by Christian’s marriage to a potentially fertile wife. I imagine she did little to encourage the newly married couple to conceive, and must have been quite devastated when Christian’s reluctant visits to his wife’s bedchamber resulted in a little prince, born 15 months after the wedding.

CM babyThe birth of an heir did not improve the relationship between the young king and queen. He remained as distant as ever, she submerged herself in the care of her son. Now that he’d done his duty and fathered a son, Christian VII decided he needed to see the world, and  in May of 1768 he set off on a grand tour, planned to take at least two years. Caroline Matilda heaved a sigh of relief. Christian did too, sitting back in his gilded carriage after waving goodbye to his assembled family.

A king on a grand tour didn’t exactly ride around unaccompanied. With Christian went a group of people numbering close to fifty, and among his inner circle was one Johan Friedrich Struensee, hired as his personal physician. Struensee was a highly educated man, a proponent of the Enlightenment. He was also a kindly and patient man, and for the first time ever Christian found a person who took his panic attacks and mental ghosts seriously. In a matter of months, Struensee had become the king’s confidante, his pillar of strength, and when the king’s mental collapse in Paris forced the royal party to return home much earlier than planned, Struensee returned with them.

CM Struensee


I imagine Caroline Matilda was less than happy to welcome her husband home – things had been nice and calm during his absence. And he was as vile as ever, his impervious, near on cruel, behaviour towards Carolina Matilda upon his return left her humiliated – and ill. Seriously ill.

The king proposed that his new doctor examine her – no, he insisted that the queen allow Struensee to do so. Caroline Matilda was sceptical. Struensee was the king’s man, and she had no reason to trust him. However, after a further few weeks of feeling ill, she reluctantly agreed to do as the king suggested. The progressive doctor did a thorough examination and concluded there was nothing physically wrong with the queen, she suffered from melancholia brought on by her obvious unhappiness. Struensee ordinated exercise, such as riding, and some months later the queen had clearly recovered, riding through Copenhagen in men’s clothes, her cheeks rosy, her eyes glittering.

While it is a fact very many young women adore horses, it wasn’t only the riding that had Caroline Matilda all starry-eyed and rosy. No, the queen had fallen in love – most unfortunately – with her husband’s physician. Struensee performed an elegant balancing act, tending to the king’s needs and anguishes during the day, to the queen’s rather more carnal desires at night. The man was as besotted as the queen, finding in Carolina Matilda an intelligent companion, a woman who applauded his progressive ideas and was willing to support him on various issues.

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The king, his parrot, the queen and Struensee

The king may have been mad as a hatter, but he was no fool. He was well aware of Struensee’s nightly visits to his queen, and he doesn’t seem to have cared. If anything, the addition of Struensee to the household had resulted in something approaching domestic bliss for both the king and queen, and for the first time ever, the king voluntarily spent time both with his wife and his son.

If the king had no issue with his present unorthodox marital situation, his court most certainly did. The immorality had to be stopped, someone should cane the queen for riding about in breeches, and as to Struensee’s visits to her bedchamber, well, really! The king shrugged and intensified his relationship with Struensee, appointing him his chief minister.

Struensee was a man of vision. He wanted to reform society, to break away the government from the stranglehold of the prim and conservative Danish church. In less than a year, Struensee pushed through more than a thousand new laws, notable among them a law that forbade torture. The king happily went along with all this, while in the wings his former advisors gnashed their teeth and howled in frustrated rage. A mere doctor, a foreigner (Struensee was German) to usurp their power and change their world – no, this was unacceptable.

While discontent brewed, the king, the queen and Struensee continued to play happy families. The king was given a Moorish boy as his personal page, and spent his days romping about with his new playmate. The queen was pregnant and even if the king now and then graced her bed with his presence, it was the opinion of the court that the expected child was Struensee’s, not the king’s. Whatever the case, once the child was born, the king claimed the new-born princess as his.

CM Princess_Louise_Augusta_by_Sturz_1771The summer when little Louise Augusta was born was the high point in Caroline Matilda’s life. A new child, a lover she admired and lusted for, a husband who seemed happy enough with his games, and a son she doted upon. All was well in her little world, and she probably dreamed of many future years like this, years in which Struensee would rule, the king would play, and she would raise the future king to be a man of ideals.

Unfortunately, the Danish nobility had other plans. Ably captained by Juliane Marie, the ousted former ministers performed a coup in January of 1772. After a night of festivities, a masquerade ball no less, Juliane Marie and her men paid the king a nightly visit, scaring him into signing two arrest orders, one for Struensee, one for the adulterous queen.

At dawn, January 17 1772, Carolina Matilda was wakened by her terrified maid, who handed her a note from the king telling her she was to be arrested and taken to Kronborg. Carolina Matilda first thoughts were for Struensee and she rushed through the secret passage to her lover’s room. It was filled with grim soldiers going through his papers. The queen rushed back and tried to get access to the king, to plead her case. Not to be, and an hour or so later the queen was bundled off to captivity, holding her little daughter. Her son she was forced to leave behind.

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Caroline Matilda

Initially, Caroline Matilda denied her affair with Struensee, hoping thereby to save her lover. But there were too many witnesses, and under substantial pressure, Carolina Matilda finally admitted to her adultery. He did the same, and in April of 1772, Johan Friedrich Struensee was beheaded before a huge crowd. It is said he kept on hoping for a reprieve… His mistress, the disgraced queen, signed the divorce papers that same month. Little Louise Augusta was taken from her once she was weaned, and in May of 1772, Carolina Matilda was exiled from Denmark – brother George III had sent envoys to negotiate for her release.

Caroline Matilda was never to see her children again. In June of 1775 she died, some months shy of her twenty-fourth birthday. It is said she died of scarlet fever – but some whisper she died of a broken heart.

Her cuckolded husband was to live for very many more years, at first as the unhappy and frightened puppet of Juliane Marie and her son, but from his son’s 18th birthday under Crown Prince Fredrick’s regency. Caroline Matilda’s son was to prove himself a most capable leader, both as regent and king, a man of vision and reform. And as to Louise Augusta, she would become her brother’s most trusted confidante and quite the darling of the Danish court.

(This post was originally posted on English Historical Fiction Authors blog – albeit that the above had been reworked.)


Of love and loss

Some months back, I posted about the unhappy Juana of Castile and her erratic behaviour when her husband died. Grief, it seemed, pushed her over the edge, and life would never again be the same. In Juana’s case, very much the truth, what with her spending over four decades locked up.

Victoria and AlbertThere are, of course, various other examples of people who have loved so much it left them vulnerable to immense heartache upon the loss of the other, and one example that immediately springs to mind is that of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert.

I must come clean and admit from the beginning that I am not much of a Victoria fan – or rather, of the Victorian age as such. IMO, it suffices to look at the clothes to understand why – that, and what I perceive as the hypocrisy of the age. Since some weeks back, however, I’ve had to revise my opinion of Victoria substantially – while the immediate image that pops to mind is the grieving widow in black of her latter years, she was once a spirited young woman with an amazing combination of guts and wits. And then there was Albert, and as most of you know by now, I am a sucker for love stories…

For those who know little of Victoria, one can start by stating it must have seemed very unlikely that she would one day become queen – her father was the fourth son of George III, and his chances of inheriting the throne were therefore slim. However, the future George IV only fathered one legitimate child, the Princess Charlotte (who died tragically in childbirth), the second son died without issue and while King William IV had ten illegitimate children, he had no legitimate issue. Victoria’s father, Prince Edward, therefore won the jackpot in this genetic gamble: his child would be the one to ascend the throne.

Edward was married to a German princess, Victoria of Saxe-Coburg Saalfield. The lady in question does not seem to have been the life and soul of a party, being of a serious disposition. Seeing as Prince Edward died while his daughter was as yet a baby, he had little influence in shaping his daughter’s character, which may not necessarily have been a bad thing, given that he doesn’t exactly come across as a paragon of virtues.

Victoria 800px-Denning,_Stephen_Poyntz_-_Princess_Victoria_aged_Four_-_Google_Art_ProjectInstead, Victoria was raised by her mother, and due to Victoria Senior’s overprotective behaviour, no one but the mother (and her trusted comptroller – a rather vile character called John Conroy who, together with loving Mama, tried to coerce Victoria into appointing him her private secretary. Didn’t work…) had much of a say in how Victoria was brought up. One gets the impression of an isolated child, always watched, always supervised, her every day carefully regimented. It is testament to Victoria’s inner qualities that she emerged from this dreary childhood and youth relatively unscathed.

William IV disliked his sister-in-law, a sentiment returned in full by the lady in question who considered William IV a depraved monarch, what with all those bastard children of his that grew up at court. (And kudos to William’s wife, the gracious Adelaide, for seemingly finding it in her to welcome all these offspring when she herself was destined to remain childless) Specifically, William was very concerned by what might happen should he die before Victoria’s 18th birthday – he was determined to survive long enough to ensure Victoria Senior did not become regent. Happily, he did, clinging to life until Victoria was safely beyond her 18th birthday.

Victoria became queen in 1837, stepping out of the shadow cast by her mother to begin forging her own destiny. A young queen – but by no means a stupid queen. However, there was no getting by the fact that she was a girl, and as everyone knew, women were the weaker sex. Clearly, Victoria needed a man by her side. Hmm. Victoria rather enjoyed her new-found freedom, and was in no hurry to wed.

On the other hand, there was gorgeous Albert.

Victoria 800px-Prince_Albert_-_Partridge_1840Albert was Victoria’s first cousin – a marital candidate eagerly promoted by Victoria’s mother and maternal uncle. They hoped to control the young couple and thereby influence the political development in Britain. While Albert may initially have been party to his uncle’s ambitions, soon enough the young man was genuinely in love with his prospective bride – and she with him.

They married in 1840 – after Victoria proposed to Albert (She had to: she was higher in rank). They were both twenty – very young as per our way of thinking. They also had what we in Swedish call äktenskapstycke, which translates into “marital affinity” and essentially means the bride and groom share values, interests and also certain physical aspects. Looking at Albert and Victoria, it is obvious they are related. Likewise, they were both proficient musicians, they both enjoyed drawing and shared an interest for culture in general. A marriage made in heaven, one would think.

But it wasn’t always a bed of roses: Albert was frustrated by being relegated to being “the husband, not the master”. A man of many talents and a well-developed social conscience, he went mildly stir-crazy living a life in which he was mostly expected to be decorative. Fortunately, Victoria quickly came to realise just how valuable an advisor her husband could be, and soon enough their partnership extended beyond bed and parlour to the office and beyond.

Victoria-Winterhalter_-_Queen_Victoria_1843All in all, this was a successful marriage. She had herself painted in deshabillé for him, he reciprocated by always being there for her. Together, they had nine children. Albert was a firm believer in bringing up children with plenty of light and air, and in difference to Victoria’s isolated childhood, her large brood grew up in a home full of noise and laughter. I believe both Victoria and Albert wanted to compensate for their own unhappy childhoods – Victoria’s we have touched upon above, Albert’s was somewhat more dramatic, seeing as his mother was exiled from court and he was never allowed to see her again.

By the time the couple was entering into their forties, life was good – even very good. Yes, Albert suffered from some sort of chronic disease to his bowels, but it was a manageable matter. In 1861, Victoria’s mother died. She was quite affected by this, and Albert moved in to take over more of her duties so as to give her time to grieve. There was also the matter of the worrying rumours concerning their eldest son – apparently the future Edward VII was engaging in an affair with an actress. Victoria and Albert were horrified, and Albert set off post-chase to knock some sense into junior. (And for those of us who enjoyed the TV series Lily Langtry, we know just how well that worked out…)


The whole happy family

Whatever the case, all these extra duties had a negative impact on Albert’s health. In December of 1861 he contracted typhus, and some days later he was dead. Dead. Gone from this world in the prime of his life, and Victoria was utterly devastated. The person she had come to rely on in all matters, the father of her children but first and foremost her husband, her companion through life, was no more, and she couldn’t quite fathom how she was to go on. Life, Victoria surely felt, had ended for her as well.

It hadn’t. In fact, she was to live on for 39 more years – always dressed in black. Her stockings were black. Her gloves were black. Her bonnets were black. Not so sure about her underwear…Initially, she retired almost completely from public life, incapable of facing the world without Albert at her side. As her isolation continued, people began to mutter. After all, the queen had duties to attend to, and all this grieving was considered excessive – borderline hysterical. Typical of a woman, to allow herself to be so dragged down by the loss of her husband, yet again underlining the relative frailty of the female gender.

NPG 708; Queen Victoria by Lady Julia Abercromby, after  Heinrich von Angeli

Some years later, Victoria rallied. A bit. She began to make public appearance in 1866 – but they were few and far between. Criticism mounted, and the once so popular queen was viewed askance – she should pull herself up by her bootstraps and get on with things. Ironically, her popularity rebounded after a failed assassination attempt, and by the time of the Jubilees she was restored to the position of Very Beloved Queen. Plus, of course, we have the presence of Mr Brown, Victoria’s faithful servant and (some say) potential lover. Did this mean she missed her dead husband less? I don’t think so…

Over time, Victoria’s family expanded as her children married and presented her with forty-odd grandchildren. More or less all modern European royalty is descended from this rather imposing lady and her so beloved husband. A big, bustling family, and at its midst, Victoria, always alone despite all the people that surrounded her. Alone.

To some it is granted to meet that one in a million person. Eyes meet, hearts click, and life goes on in joyous symbiosis. But such love comes at a price – all things in life come at a price – and when the other half dies, he (or she) leaves the partner torn apart, bleeding from wounds no one can see – or comprehend.

IMG_0168Over time, scabs form – humans are nothing if not resilient – but the pain, the loss is always there. At first, one lives in the hope that it is all a nightmare, that soon enough one will wake up and there he’ll be, smiling tenderly as he wipes away the tears. With time, one reconciles to the fact that he is gone, but at times, out of the corner of the eye, one sees a familiar shape, and hope clutches at the heart, throngs the throat with tears. That, I believe, is how it was for Victoria. That is how it is for all who love and lose. But, as a certain Tennyson put it, “‘Tis better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all.” And you know what? I think Victoria would agree.

One very incendiary little book…

CovenantersIn a simplified version of history, the Scottish Covenanter movement sprang from a smouldering fire to a huge bonfire through the actions of one Jenny Geddes. A devout member of the Scottish Kirk, Jenny was in St Giles that day in 1637 when the dean chose to read from the new Book of Common Prayer, and so incensed was she by these proposed changes to her familiar liturgy that she stood up and spontaneously hurled her stool at the poor dean. Hmm.

Whether spontaneous or not – and a lot of things point to this being a well-planned protest – it is a fact that when the new Book of Common Prayer was introduced, the majority of the Scots were already convinced this was a fiendish attempt at weaning them away from the true religion as advocated by the Scottish Kirk, luring them into the dangerous waters of popery there to drown spiritually.

Had Charles I understood just what havoc his insistence on implementing this new Prayer Book was to have, he would probably have desisted. Maybe. However, being anything but prophetic, Charles I took a mulish approach to the loud protests from Scotland, and in so doing fanned the flames of religious fervour into a devastating inferno that was to consume his three kingdoms and ultimately cost him his life.

Henrietta_Maria_and_Charles_ICharles I was neither unintelligent nor uneducated – rather the reverse, in fact – but he does seem to have had a tendency to compensate his short stature with an authoritarian approach to most things in life. As anointed king, he firmly believed it was his responsibility and duty to care for his subjects, leading them up the right path in all matters, including faith. Minor obstacles such as the said subjects reluctance to follow him down the chosen path, mainly because they did not agree with their king’s opinion in matters of faith, were generally ignored by Charles, who to further undermine his religious credibility in his kingdoms (minus Ireland, one presumes) committed the faux-pas of marrying a catholic princess – not a popular move in a time and age when the whole of Europe was a battlefield between the Protestants of the north and the Catholics of the south.

So what was the argument about? What were those principles of faith that had the majority of the English – and Scottish – citizens of the seventeenth century walking about with their knickers in a twist? (Not that all that many of them had any knickers to twist in the first place …) Well, to answer that we must leapfrog backwards a century to the heady age of the Reformation.

In England, Henry VIII proclaimed himself the Head of the Anglican Church in 1534, disbanded the clerical orders and severed his ties with Rome. But the rituals remained virtually unchanged, the Anglican Church building on the medieval (and therefore catholic) rites that were already well-established within the kingdom. After all, Henry VIII did not break with the pope due to an urgent desire to reform, but rather for the far more crass reason of wanting to exchange his wife.

In Scotland, the Reformation was led by John Knox, a disciple of Calvin himself, but was ultimately a bid for Scottish independence from the French interests as represented by Marie de Guise, mother of Mary Queen of Scots. The hundred or so Scottish nobles who were involved in this matter probably found it convenient to set a religious label on their actions – it had a better ring to it than to admit they were only doing this to protect their own interests. However, in difference to England, the Reformed Scottish Kirk very quickly divested itself of “popish” ritual and practise, emphasising instead the importance of the Word (scripture) and faith.

By the seventeenth century, the Scottish Kirk was a robust and thriving organisation in which the local parishes played a strong role while the overall leadership lay with the General Assembly.  It was also an organisation dominated by leaders who shuddered at the thought of having their cleansed and purified Kirk besmirched by the papist trappings that still lingered in the Anglican Church. So when Charles I decided to harmonize the religious practices in his three kingdoms by advocating a Book of Common Prayer he was throwing in a lit fuse in a munitions store, and eventually the whole thing exploded in his face.

Covenanters 2A Book of Common Prayer valid in all three kingdoms was not a new idea. Already James VI & I had tried to go down that way, but having far better political instincts than his unfortunate son, he backed off in the light of the Scottish protests. In difference to Charles, James understood his Scottish subjects, having spent his first 37 years as king of Scotland only. Charles on the other hand was born in Scotland, but he was raised and educated in England, and his first visit to Scotland as an adult was for his coronation in 1633. As stated above, Charles was also somewhat jealous of his royal prerogative, and where his father would have been open to discussions about the incendiary book – if nothing else out of intellectual curiosity – Charles refused to budge. He was the king and knew best what his subjects needed to fortify their spiritual life.

The Scottish Kirk wasn’t about to keel over without a fight. Upon hearing that Charles was planning a new Book of Common Prayer, the Kirk began its countermoves which involved all the parishes but also a massive PR effort with a number of printed documents (pamphlets, tracts) defending its principal tenets of faith.

Long before the Book of Common Prayer had been published, “everyone” in Scotland knew that it was full of potentially popish garbage, and matrons in Edinburgh were heard protesting about this terrible little book well in advance of Jenny’s little stunt with her stool.

On Sunday 23 July 1637, a number of loyalist ministers and bishops set out to their respective churches to use the new Book of Common Prayer for the first time. By the time the sun set, all of them had realised that implementing the new liturgy was a bad idea. Very bad. Unfortunately, they never got Charles to understand this. Over the coming months the protests did not abate – rather the reverse – and when Charles finally grasped just how serious the situation was, it had already snowballed into an unstoppable avalanche.

The protest culminated in the document known as the National Covenant. Drafted by Alexander Henderson , the Covenant was an elegant piece of work that professed the Kirk’s loyalty to God and the king – in that order – thereby attempting to avoid being labelled as treasonous. The Covenant also listed the acts of parliament against superstitious and papist rites, an oath to uphold the true reformed religion, plus an oblique reference to the king’s obligation to uphold the kirk. More importantly, there were a lot of things NOT SAID in the covenant, but implicit in the entire document was a clear threat: “Back off our Kirk, Mr King, or beware of the consequences.”

Covenanters Charles iCharles I recognised the Covenant for what it was; a thrown gauntlet telling him that should he not hold to his coronation oaths, well then … Unfortunately for him – and the thousands upon thousands of civilians that were to lose their lives, homes, families in the coming conflict – Charles severely underestimated his adversary, calmly convinced that his forces would prevail against whatever army the covenanters might put together. Seriously? Religious rabble-rousers? Pah! The royal might would grind them into submission. But it didn’t. Scotland was riddled with veterans from the Thirty Years’ War, battle-hardened men who combined their martial skills with religious fervour. Even worse, the Covenanters inspired people of similar beliefs in England to also take up arms.

charles_executionFor close to a decade, Charles’ kingdoms would be ravaged by religious wars, brother turning aginst brother, families sundered and thousands upon thousands left dead on the various battlefields. As we all know, it did not end well for Charles: his family driven into exile, the monarchy overturned, and, finally, that cold January day in 1649 when his head was severed from his body.

And all of this because of a book…Just goes to show one should never understimate the power of the written word, hey? Although, to be honest, it wasn’t ALL about the book – Charles had the uncanny ability of rubbing his subjects up the wrong way on a number of issues. But that, I think, we’ll save for some other day.

(This post was originally written for the English Historical Fiction Authors blog back in 2012. Since then, it has been somewhat modified)

Making real people work for you

Valdemar_Atterdag_brandskattar_Visby_(1882)I write Historical Fiction. While my protagonists are entirely fictional, they now and then have to interact with “real” people – people who’ve existed, lived and died for real. This can be something of a bummer – especially when your perfectly crafted timeline suddenly crashes headlong into the wall of historical facts. That conversation your protagonist was to have with the wife of the Earl of Lancaster can no longer happen, seeing as the lady died some months before the planned meeting. (Shoot! How inconsiderate of her…) The touching scene in which the king and his wife are reconciled must be scrapped – the king would no more reconcile with his wife than he would have a crocodile in his bed (which would not only be very weird, but also anachronistic, as there were no crocodiles in England in the 14th century)

See? These real-life characters are hard to deal with. In actual fact, so are the invented characters, as all of a sudden they start developing opinions of their own and generally refuse to cooperate when they don’t agree with the overall plotline, but that is neither here nor there – not in this post.

At the same time, including real characters in the story adds a certain nerve. People can read the book, become intrigued and spend some time googling the real characters. Hopefully, they come away with the impression that the author has done a good job adhering to the overall facts. If not, there may be a problem, as readers of historical fiction tend to be sensitive to incorrect information. Not, I might add, that all readers of historical fiction KNOW the facts – but they are often quite convinced that they do, and if not they will google. Trust me – I’m a reader too.

The further back in history you write, the more leeway you have when utilizing the real-life characters. Also, I think it important to underline that Historical Fiction is precisely that: fiction. Even when writing about real historical people, we must keep in mind that we don’t know these shadowy ghosts from the past. What we have are fragments of their lives (at best), mentions in this roll or the other, acidic comments in one chronicler’s version of events, praise in another’s. So what any good historical fiction author does is that he/she constructs a picture – fleshes out the spare bones we have left to create a living, breathing character (in as much as characters can breathe, of course). Every such representation is incorrect in that it does not – cannot – be a fair representation of the person who lived and died all those years ago.

Henry_VIIThis is why we get such varied depictions of historical people. Authors may start with the same bare facts, but then they’ll add biases and personal values, which is why Henry Tudor may come across as the villain in one book, as an earnest man with a mission in another. Thing is, we have no idea what he was really like. Was he passionate in bed? Did he have the enervating habit of sucking his teeth as he thought? Did he take reading matter with him to the garderobe? Did he eat the veggies first? Did he now and then curse that meddlesome mother of his to hell and back? Or maybe he didn’t think her meddlesome at all? We simply don’t know. What we do know is that he won at Bosworth – and that, according to some, is down to pure luck, while others will argue for divine intervention.

Knights_TemplarTestament to the skill of the writer, is how well they succeed in influencing our opinions about those long dead people. Was William Marshal truly as gallant as Elizabeth Chadwick depicts him? I lean towards saying yes, and even if I were leaning towards saying no, I don’t think it would matter. This gentleman has been given the ultimate PR consultant in Ms Chadwick – her meticulous research coupled with her evident love for William have resulted in a representation that does breathe, does bleed.

Also, hands up those who knew anything at all about Llewellyn ap Iorwerth before reading Here be Dragons by Sharon Penman. No, I thought as much…Now Llewellyn may very well have been quite the thug, and there is something a tad bothersome about a man pushing forty wedding a fourteen-year-old, and yet Ms Penman – through research and admiration – has given us a hero, a man who sets the wellbeing of his people and his country before his own pride – no matter how much that hurts. To write a book in which Llewellyn is represented as being anything but a hero would be difficult. Too many readers would howl in protest…Yet again: we DON’T know if he had bad hair days, if he suffered from piles or refused to eat raspberries because they gave him a rash. But it doesn’t matter.

I guess the long and short of all this is that a historical fiction author must know his/her period, must be familiar with customs and foods, clothes and values. Of course, when writing about real people, the author needs to have read up on the facts that exist. But these are just the building blocks. A historical fiction author first and foremost wants to tell a story, and sometimes those real life characters have to be tweaked – a bit – so as to create the required tension. And so Henry Tudor is at times represented as diabolical, at others as an ambitious man who truly believes he deserves the English crown. A skilled author will have the reader accepting either or – for the sake of the story as such.

In the Shadow of the StormIn my recent release, In the Shadow of the Storm, I am writing about a turbulent time in English history. We’re in the 1320s, and on the one side we have Edward II and his beloved favourite Hugh Despenser, on the other side we have the disgruntled barons, led by Roger Mortimer. I suppose Hugh Despenser must have had some nice, cuddly personal traits. Some. Maybe. But I am writing this book strictly in the POV of people who are 100% loyal to Mortimer, and as Despenser hated Mortimer’s guts – a sentiment returned in full – Hugh Despenser comes across as a nasty, sadistic villain. I am sure he was – to those who opposed him and his king. But he was also more than that – to the king he served, to his wife and children. Of course he was.

“Him? Despenser is a sick, perverted bastard,” Adam de Guirande mutters. He glowers at me. “You should have allowed me to kill him.” Hmm. I can understand where my dear Adam is coming from, given what Despenser puts him through, but Despenser’s subsequent fate is a matter of historical record, and no matter how much I commiserate with Adam’s desire to avenge himself on dear Hugh, I cannot let this invented male protagonist of mine have his way. Nope. (And this argument has had Adam sulking in the corners of my mind for weeks. I finally cajoled him into returning to the party by promising him he could…Well, you’ll have to wait and see what happens in the next book.)

Likewise, a lot of the book centres round Roger Mortimer. We know a lot about Roger – detailed inventories of what he owned when he was attainted survive, as do mentions in rolls and legal documents. His overall biography – birth, marriage, children, political career, death – is there for us to study. We know very little about him as a person, though. He has left us no diary, no Youtube clips in which he shares his personal views. This for me as a novelist is manna from heaven: as long as I stick to the known facts, I can choose to depict Mortimer as it best suits me, and so in this first book I present you with a man of convictions, an honourable servant of the crown until something snaps in him. Is this a “true and fair” representation of the man? I don’t know – but then, neither does anyone else, seeing as those who had the privilege of chit-chatting with Roger Mortimer are so dead they’re not even dust in the air anymore.

As I said right at the beginning, I write fiction. I have the joy of constructing a plot that weaves its way through the tapestry of known history, my invented leads interacting freely with the people who populate the history books – as I see them. Sometimes, this causes me to tear at my hair while begging them all to cooperate so that we can get this pivotal scene right. At others, I sit back and stare at my computer screen before either bursting into tears (tragic scene) or grinning goofily (amusing scene). Sometimes, I have to get up and kiss my husband – but I don’t need to explain what sort of scenes drive that behavior, do I?

All in all, I consider myself lucky. My life is enriched by those vague shadows of the long ago, by the characters that populate my mind. Or maybe I am going crazy – if so an affliction I share with most of my fellow writers.

Of Templars, towers and adulterous princesses

Once upon a time…No; that won’t work. After all, the story I’m about to tell you is not a fairy tale complete with a happy ending. Rather the reverse actually. And it all began – or so those blessed with hindsight would claim – when Philip the Fair of France went after the Templars.

Knights_TemplarThe Templars were an order of monastic knights. You know, men with white tabards adorned with a big red cross who bravely rode out to do battle against the infidels. Over time, the Templars not only acquired a reputation for being fearless in battle, but also for being very rich. Exceedingly rich. And as we all know, with money comes power, so it follows that the Grand Master of the Templars was quite a force to be reckoned with, a mover and shaker, should he be so inclined.

This did not please the Pope, who was of the firm opinion that he should be the most powerful man in Christendom. Neither did it please Philip the Fair, who just as firmly maintained that he should be the most powerful – and richest – man around. Plus he owed the Knights Templars a mint, and he’d had quite some success in lowering his debt burden a year or so previously by evicting the Jews (to whom he also owed a considerable amount) so why not do something similar with the Templars?

Philip IV

Philip the Fair, rejecting papal authority

A Christian order of fighting knights could not just be evicted, which is why Philip, with some grudging help from the Holy See, decided it was time to crush the Templars by accusing them of heresy. As a nice side-effect, he would also be making the point that the Pope did his bidding, thereby underlining just who was calling the shots.

Philip was a handsome man, hence his nickname. He was also something of a cold fish, not given to much emotion one way or the other. In fact, the one person he seems to have been truly attached to was his wife, Jeanne of Navarre, who was described as plump and plain. That, I suppose, is a point in his favour. He was also a relatively efficient ruler – if ruthless, to which the poor Templars can attest.

In 1307, Philip made his move. On Friday the 13th of October, hundreds upon hundreds of Templars all over France were arrested and during the subsequent torture many of them confessed whatever crimes they were asked to confess, primarily that of heresy. The pope made some noises about holding trials, Philip produced all those signed confessions and the pope decided to zip it. He was too dependent on Philip to do otherwise.

TdN Templars_on_Stake_02Destroying an order while appropiating their possessions take time, and so it wasn’t until March of 1314, when the last Grand Master of the Templars, Jacques de Molay, was burnt at the stake, having first retracted any confessions by claiming they’d been wrung from him through torture. It is said he died bravely, and people fought over his ashes, a sure sign that in burning him, Philip had indirectly created a martyr. Some say the Grand Master cursed Philip. Subsequent events would confirm such a supposition, but before we go there, allow me to give you some further backstory.

Other than being creative in his approach to reducing his debts, Philip had other matters to handle – the life of a medieval monarch was relatively hands-on, so one day he’d be off putting down a rebellion, the next he’d be establishing a university, and all the time he’d be keeping an eye on his more powerful nobles. In Philip’s case, one of the most powerful nobles was a woman, a certain Mahaut d’Artois, and to secure this lady’s fidelity, Philip married two of his sons to two of her daughters.

Philip had three sons. The eldest, Louis, married Margaret of Burgundy. The second, Philip, married Joan of Burgundy. The third, Charles, married Blanche of Burgundy. Err…One could be excused for thinking all three of these ladies were sisters, but nope, Margaret was of the Ducal house of Burgundy, while the other two were daughters of a mere count. Not that their papa, Otto, would appreciate being called a mere count – and neither would his formidable wife, Mahaut.

Anyway: Philip’s sons were all married to Burgundy ladies, and his only daughter, the beautiful Isabella (she took after her father as did her brother Charles) was married to Edward II of England. A most handsome couple those two, even if Edward now and then showed more interest in hose and braies than in kirtles and garters.

EHFA Philip_iv_and_family

Philip the Fair with his children

By 1308 all these dynastic marriages had been concluded. All Philip had to do was sit back and relax while his sons produced plenty of male heirs and the Capet dynasty would remain forever on the French throne. Further to this, the Templar matter was progressing just as Philip had hoped it would, thereby balancing Philip’s seriously overstretched credit facilities. For some years, life was good. And then came the scandal of the Tour de Nesle.

It all began with a purse. Well, with multiple purses. In 1313, Isabella and her husband came for a visit to France. As a token of her esteem, Isabella gave her sisters-in-law beautifully embroidered purses. They all went “oolala”, Isabella was happy they’d liked her gifts, and after some weeks of harmonious family time, Isabella and Edward went back to England while Marguerite, Joan and Blanche went back to playing happy families with their husbands. Or?

As stated earlier, in March of 1314 Philip had the last Grand Master of the Templars burnt to death. According to legend, the dying Grand Master cursed Philip and all of his blood – as per what little we know that probably didn’t happen. What did happen was that the pope who’d allowed Philip to ride roughshod over the Templars died a month after the execution. A sure sign to some that maybe Philip had overreached – and more such signs were to come.



Several months after her stay in France, Isabella was visited in England by two gentlemen named Gautier and Philippe d’Auney. She delighted in having French visitors, but was somewhat shocked when she recognised the purses that hung from these elegant Frenchmen’s belts. They were the purses she’d given her sisters-in-law. To Isabella, this could only mean one thing: the purses had been given as love tokens.

I suppose we must all take a break here as we consider whether the gift of a purse necessarily means there’d been some hanky-panky going on. Apparently, to the 14th century mind, it was crystal clear: give a man a purse and you’d obviously been giving him other things as well, such as access to your body.

Isabella felt obliged to inform her father. Most moral of her – and rather hypocritical, given her future adventures, but they’re neither here nor there in this post. Philip the Fair was not pleased. I’m thinking he wasn’t too pleased with Isabella for telling him either, because once she had, he had to act. Which he did, by having Gautier and Philippe discreetly followed wherever they went.

The two gentlemen seemed to spend a lot of time at the Tour de Nesle. Very much time, given its rather dilapidated state. The old tower had been bought by Philip some time earlier, but had not been refurbished, and yet these two young gentlemen could not stay away. Neither, it transpired could Marguerite and Blanche. The two princesses went as often as Gautier and Philippe, and it wasn’t to sit about and discuss the meaning of life, at least not to judge from what those charged with the surveillance could see and hear.

And so, in the summer of 1314 the scandal broke. Gautier and Philippe were arrested and tortured, the three princesses – even poor innocent Joan was besmirched in all this – were locked up, and soon enough the two young men admitted to having bedded the royal ladies, thereby sealing their fates. To sleep with a royal wife was the equivalent of high treason, and the two unfortunate men were most gruesomely executed. Some say they were hanged, drawn and quartered. Others say they were flayed alive. Some suggest they were broken on the wheel before being castrated and subsequently killed. Whatever the case, we can assume it was painful and bloody and extended.

As to the princesses, they were dragged before the Paris Parliament. Philip junior insisted his wife was innocent, an impassioned defender of the mother of his children, and as nothing implicated Joan she was found innocent by the Parliament – but placed under house arrest, just in case. Eventually, she was freed and returned to court, very much due to her husband’s championing of her cause.

Marguerite and Blanche were found guilty of adultery. There, before the assembled grandees, they had their heads shaved and were then thrown into the dank dungeons of Chateau Gaillard. Note that this was not a genteel captivity, this was punishment, locked away in the dark and damp.

It is said Philip the Fair was so shocked by all this it brought on his premature death in a hunting accident some months later. Or maybe it was the purported curse of the burning Grand Master…


Louis being crowned w Clementia of Hungary

With Philip’s death, his eldest son, Louis, became king. With a vacant Papal See, there was no one to annul his marriage with the disgraced Marguerite – and Louis very badly wanted to be rid of his adulterous wife, he needed a son. It is therefore something of a coincidence that Marguerite died in 1315, still in the dungeons of Chateau Gaillard. Some say she was poisoned. Some say she was strangled. Whatever the case, she was dead, and left to sit all alone in the dark was Blanche.

Louis married a Hungarian princess, but died very soon after, leaving a pregnant wife. Louis claim to fame – other than as a royal cuckold – is that he was a major fan of real tennis, and was the first to construct an indoor tennis court. So in love was he with this game, it would eventually cost him his life, seeing as it was after a particularly strenuous game that he drank too much cold water and contracted pneumonia – alternatively he was poisoned. Or cursed by the Templar Grand Master.


Philip junior

Louis’ was succeeded by a baby boy who died, and instead Philip, faithful husband to Joan, became king. Some say the baby was poisoned too, thereby clearing the way for Philip who was now king.

The years passed. Philip also died – no poison, dysentery – and left only daughters. People nodded and muttered: yet another of Philip the Fair’s sons dead prematurely, yet another with no living male heir. The Capet dynasty was living on borrowed time, and all because of the cruel repression of the Templars – and the Grand Master’s curse.

Whatever the case, the time had come for Charles, the last son of Philip the Fair. The first thing he did was have his marriage to Blanche annulled. After eight years locked up, Blanche was instead transported to a nunnery, where she conveniently died very quickly, her health broken by all those years as a prisoner.


Charles marrying Marie

Charles married again. His wife, Marie of Luxembourg quickly became pregnant – but miscarried. She became pregnant again, and everyone was so happy – until she fell out of the carridge she was travelling in, thereby going into premature labour. Her little son lived only for some hours, and some days later, Marie died as well. Not good. Clearly, the Capets were doomed.

In 1328, Charles died, leaving behind a pregnant wife but no son. France held its breath: would the widowed queen be delivered of a son? Yes please, prayed Queen Jeanne. No, no, no prayed Philippe Valois, vigorous cousin to Charles.

God – influenced perhaps by the souls of the dead Templars – went with the girl. The Capet dynasty was no more, all the male heirs dead. All but one, and in England the young Edward III set his covetous eyes on the shores of France and whispered “mine”. But that, I believe, is the subject for a future post, one without either Templars, adulterous princesses or towers.

A New Year, a new beginning…


August Strindberg – I love the hope for bright tomorrows this painting inspires


Ugh. I’m going to come clean here and admit I don’t like New Year celebrations. Don’t get me wrong – I like the parties and the good food and the champagne and the dancing, but the closer we get to midnight, the more I start to feel a certain malaise spread through me.

It has to do with expectations. Not necessarily my expectations, but rather those imposed on me. A New Year is an opportunity to make a clean break with nasty habits and become a better, braver person. Or at least a person who is determined to lose weight. Or stop smoking. Or learn how to knit. Or…Agh!

As a child, I lived abroad. Well, I didn’t live abroad, I was a kid, and therefore I was living at home – which just happened to be Colombia. My parents, however, were very much living abroad – they were Swedish people, uprooted (however voluntarily) from a country of snowy winters and dark midwinter nights to a place where there was little seasonal variance.


Carl Larsson – A Swedish Christmas

For them, Christmas and New Year’s were very much about upholding Swedish traditions. No matter it was 30 degrees outside, we celebrated Christmas Eve with lit candles starting at three o’clock in the afternoon. No salsa or cumbia on the grammophone, no it was all Christmas music from “back home”. They cried – a bit – when one of the singers crooned about Christmas at home, with loved ones and candles, and churchbells and carols. Dutifully, my sister and I cried too. Or maybe we were just affected by the sight of our parents weeping.

Christmas had the benefit of presents. Come New Year, there were no presents, and our parents went into a strange mood. With the perspective of many years since then, it is patently obvious my mother and father were so homesick they weren’t quite functioning as they should. For a child, it wasn’t that evident.

New Year – just as Christmas – was a carefully orchestrated event. At Christmas, things started at three on the dot and contained such recurring items as a Christmas quiz, and a Christmas show (my sister and I did the showing, our parents the audience). At New Year, it was mandatory to dress up. Dinner was served later than usual – around eight – and was normally very fancy. But no matter how slowly you eat, it only took an hour or so, and then began the loooong wait for midnight.

IMG_0055These hours were spent discussing the year that was just ending. Had we lived up to our resolutions ? (And the answer to that was generally no. It mostly is…) Had we tried to be better people? Had we done our utmost at school? It was a bit like being catechised, a detailed review of flaws and failings, the occasional pat on the back for things well done. But mostly it was flaws and failings – Swedish people are bad at praise.

Once all family members had been adequately dissected, we turned to that all important issue of our new resolutions. To say one didn’t have any wasn’t allowed. Uh-uh. Moral fibre and all that required that we always strive for something. It was, putting it mildly, one of the drearier hours of the year.

The closer we got to midnight, the sadder our parents. “One more year gone by, one year less of life ahead of us.” My sister and I still lived in the illusion that life was endless. Our parents weren’t all that old, but melancholia combined with homesickness had them sinking into a very dark place. I wanted to go to bed. My parents kissed and held hands, tears in their eyes.

There was the mandatory reading of Tennyson (in Swedish: Ring, klocka ring…) There was the just as mandatory singing of Auld Lang Syne. Just before midnight there were some fireworks, and then it was midnight and there was champagne and our parents were crying and wishing us a Happy New Year. I wanted to go to bed.

There you have it, the reason why I shy away from New Year. The reason why I have NEVER imposed something similar on my own children. The reason why I don’t make resolutions. But I do rather like the champagne :)

IMG_0177So here’s me wishing you all a Happy New Year. May 2016 be a year that expands your experience and leaves you with yet another collection of beautiful memories. May it be a good year. And may you all (learn to) love yourselves just as you are – no resolutions needed!


A light in the dark

The_Earth_seen_from_Apollo_17They say life may be possible on other planets. There is water on Mars, even on the moon, and as long as there’s water, life as we know it has a fighting chance. Or so they say. The future of humanity may lie beyond our galaxy, as intrepid colonists of other worlds, so distant the going will take generations.

Somewhere in space, there may be another planet with the perfect balance of land and water. A beautiful, pristine place, where forests stretch endless from coast to coast, and life forms so exotic we can’t even imagine them call and hoot, graze and hunt. It seems to me we would be doing this untouched Eden a major disfavour by releasing mankind to wreak havoc on it. What right do we have to populate elsewhere, when we seem incapable of caring for the world that is our own?

At present, I am sitting looking out over our lake. It is over ten degrees outside, the sun is shining and it is as warm today as it was at midsummer. Very weird. Even weirder, the other day we sat outside to eat lunch – in December. A consequence of climate change? The effect of human life, human development, human never-ending appetite for more and more and more? Whatever the case, at our latitudes December should mean frozen lakes, frost if not snow on the ground, and definitely not invite us to sit outside while munching on a hot dog.

20151223_122603On the upside, my hellebore thrives, the huge fig we have planted by our door (and which rarely gives us figs due to the cold climate) is setting new vibrant green shoots, all of it dotted with miniature figs. Soon enough, they say, we will be able to grow grapes outside – even olives. Well, that sounds great for us, but what does it mean further south on our planet? And anyway, what happens if the Gulf Stream up and dies due to the present lack of cold water in the Greenland area?

Solnedgång 2This is when the “life on other planets” becomes a viable discussion. For some. Me, I have no inclination to leave. This is my planet, these are my trees, my birds, my flowers, my bugs. I have no desire to colonise a new world, I want to remain here, where the sun sets in fiery gold and oranges and rises haloed in the softest of pinks and greys. This is home. Out there, it mostly looks dark and cold. “Here be dragons” as they say…

Tomorrow it is Christmas Eve. We call it JULAFTON, and originally we celebrated other things than the birth of Christ. Come to think of it, we still do. Very few of the Swedish populace will think of Jesus and his manger tomorrow, it is more about herring and ham and smorgasbords in general and opening presents (yes, we do all that on Christmas Eve. Christmas day is spent in a food-induced coma).

IMG_0093But maybe we should take a moment and think: of the people we love, of the planet we live on and the future of mankind in general. 2015 has not been a good year for humanity. Horrifying terror attacks, fanatic religious armies breaking every moral law – in whatever holy book you may cite – as they claim supremacy over yet another piece of the planet. Some weeks later, and they’re pushed back, and the ground they’ve trod on is thick with blood and gore. Holy warriors, it seems, take the right to extinguish the holiest gift of all: life.

Atrocities are committed in the name of God, and God, dear people, weeps. He sits in a corner and watches as we tear each other apart and wonders where His design went wrong. All that free will – intended as a divine gift – has swelled into something self-serving and dangerous.

starry-night-over-the-rhone-vincent-van-goghBut tomorrow is Christmas. Tomorrow is the day when, so the Bible tells us, a star was lit, a child was born. A child to bring hope. A child to promise a better tomorrow. God’s ultimate gift to mankind, His son who would live – and die – for us. Thing is, it doesn’t help if Jesus died for us – not unless we ourselves take responsibility for making this world of ours a little bit better, a little bit kinder.

And it doesn’t really matter if we believe in God or not: if we, as humans, want to gift our children and grandchildren with a better world, it is up to us to act. That refugee who has nothing but the shoes he walks in, he needs a helping hand. The child who starves in Africa must have help to survive. Little girls in Afghanistan need schools, young men in Iraq need peace. Those that walk in the darkness need the rest of us to light up their way, and all of us need a hand to hold on to, someone who cares.

As to our poor planet, it is gasping. The climate is changing, and most of us still haven’t woken up to the fact that the tipping point may have come and gone, spelling future ruin for us all.

Fortunately, there is still hope – and it starts with us. In moments of absolute despair, humans throughout the ages have shown great resilience and a capacity to rise to the challenge. Tomorrow is Christmas Eve. So how about we light a candle while making a silent promise to do something – anything – to make the world a better place?

722px-DiwaliOilLampCropTomorrow is Christmas Eve. May millions upon millions of candles light up the night, a beacon of hope in the darkness, a promise to ourselves that we will try. We must try – for us, for our children, for all the generations that come after.

May your holidays be filled with peace. May you be granted the joy of celebrating with those you love. And why not take a moment when you consider the miracle of life – and our common responsibility to keep that fragile flame alive.

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