Sifting through history for interesting ladies!
Today I have the honour of welcoming Sharon Bennett Connolly to my blog. This is a lady with whom I share a common passion for all things medieval and I was fortunate enough to spend a day with her last year in Lincoln. Needless to say, we spent that time visiting Lincoln Castle and Lincoln Cathedral, a first for me, not so for Sharon. (And she’s been back there since, to judge from the pic)
Sharon has recently published a non-fiction book featuring a number of medieval ladies. Aptly named Heroines of the Medieval World, it introduces the reader to quite the gallery of personalities. (You’ll find my review at the bottom of this post)
So, I gave Sharon a virtual cup of tea (with a slice of virtual cake – comes with the benefit of zero calories) and had her sit on the hot seat while answering some questions.
Why this passion for history?
I honestly don’t know. I have always loved history – I just can’t get enough of it. The stories and the mysteries are so compelling. I love the ‘what ifs’. And it is something that is everywhere – you can go to Scotland, France, Russia, Canada and there is history.
Have you ever wished you could travel back in time to say hello to some of your favourite medieval heroines?
I would love to – so long as I can come back, I wouldn’t want to live in the past. I like my creature comforts too much. But it would be nice to sit at a table with Agnes of Dunbar and Nicholaa de la Haye and find out what made them so formidable. Or Eleanor of Aquitaine’s daughters and ask them what they really thought of their mum and dad – oh, that would be so interesting.
If so, what would you take with you as a gift?
Now that is an interesting question. I think I would want to take them something practical, that we women find so useful today – maybe a decent sized handbag?
Who are your three favourite medieval ladies and why?
There are so many! I have a soft spot for Nicholaa de la Haye, because writing about her on my blog gave me the original idea for the book. I admire Matilda, wife of William the Conqueror; I love the idea of this diminutive woman being treated as a partner by this great bear of a warrior. And she wasn’t afraid to defy him for the sake of her children. And Joanna of England, daughter of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine. She wasn’t always in control of her life, but she could put her foot down when she wanted to – such as when Richard I wanted to marry her to Saladin’s brother.
Do you have a special period you are particularly interested in?
Medieval, although it’s more the people than the period, for me. I have dabbled in the Napoleonic and Tudor eras, but always seem to go back to the medieval. However, I couldn’t specify a particular reign or century – it is more the stories and the characters associated with them, that I find fascinating.
Lincoln Cathedral or the York Minster?
Impossible decision – they’re both at the top, for different reasons. I’m a Yorkshire lass and York is something very special. But the refectory at Lincoln Cathedral do the most scrumptious cakes. (Totally agree!) I can spend a day in each of them and still not see everything.
I know you’re planning on writing a book about the women of the Conquest and I imagine Matilda of Flanders will be a pivotal character in such a book. What do you think of her husband, William the Conqueror? Was he a horrible baddie or is he the victim of a black legend?
I think it is never black and white. I’m from Yorkshire – and the Harrying of the North was a dreadful incident – but you can’t really hold a grudge for 1,000 years. William had his good qualities, he was a strong, able ruler and rewarded those loyal to him. He was also a loyal husband – there is no record of any mistresses and he seems to have prized Matilda as a wife, companion and ruling partner. He left Normandy in Matilda’s hands on a number of occasions and respected her abilities.
While researching your book, what sources did you use?
Everything I could find. It is easier to research from home these days, so many contemporary chronicles, such as Froissart and Orderic Vitalis, are available online. I think I only ventured to the library a couple of times. I also have a pretty decent book collection myself – I always told the hubby they would come in handy one day, and I was right. I also found this great website from Columbia University, called Epistolae which has published the Latin letters – and their translations – written or dictated by over 200 women of the Middle Ages, ranging from Hildegard of Bingen to Adela of Normandy. It is a wonderful resource, giving a unique insight into these women.
I imagine you, just like me, run into the problem of contradictory stories: one version says A was murdered, another insists A rode into the sunset and lived happily ever after. What do you do in such situations?
I like to present all the versions available, assess their validity and then explain why I have decided one may be more likely above the other. Sometimes there is just no way to decide which is true, so you just have to say you can’t decide, and leave it to the reader to draw their own conclusions – luckily, I haven’t had to do that too often.
There are a couple of historical controversies that always cause a LOT of discussion: one of these is whether Richard III did away with his nephews yes or no. What do you think?
I think we will never know for certain, but the more I read about it, the more I think Richard had to be the culprit. He had the means – he was in charge; he had the motive – while they were alive, they were always a threat; and he had the opportunity – they were in his custody. I don’t like the way some people argue that Richard couldn’t have done it because he was too pious, and then say it must have been Margaret Beaufort because she was too pious. Excuse me? You can’t have it both ways. When the boys disappeared in 1483, Richard was the one who needed them out of the way. The Yorkists had already attempted to rescue them once, and he could not afford to have them free and attracting support to their cause. Henry VII did benefit from their disappearance, but 2 years later, rather than at the time. (Ha! I fear your answer will upset quite a few Ricardians… It’s very frustrating we’ll never know, isn’t it?)
Is there any event in history you would really, really want to change?
The execution of Joan of Arc. That was such a travesty. The poor girl was only 19 and was thrown to the wolves and devoured because she beat the English, almost single-handedly. When I was researching her, I came across all these comments about her on Facebook, saying she was mad and no saint. However, when you look at this teenage girl, leading armies and running verbal rings around her interrogators, you realise that, whether or not it was divine inspiration, there was something very, very special about her. No one deserves to be burned alive, Joan least of all.
Other than writing & reading history, what other interests do you have?
I love playing badminton, bike riding and the theatre. And exploring. During the school holidays, my son and I love nothing better than taking off for a day or two to explore new places. We love driving into the Pennines, or spending a day in York. On the last school holidays, we took a trip down to Hastings, research for me and exploring for Lewis – he re-enacted William the Conqueror’s trip when he landed on Pevensey Beach.
Christmas will soon be upon us. Do you have any special family traditions you would like to share?
We always put the tree up on the first weekend in December. When my son was born, I did start a tradition of buying a new decoration for the tree, every year. The idea was that when junior leaves home, he will have a full set of decorations for his tree. However …. I now don’t want to part with them, so I will probably get him a starter set from Wilko’s and keep the ones we’ve collected.
We also go to the annual village tradition of carols around the Christmas tree. It’s lovely. The kids have a great time, running around, catching up with their friends – and singing. Plus, there’s hot chocolate and mince pies afterwards. It’s a great village atmosphere.
Thank you for sharing this with us, Sharon. And should you ever want to pop by with a guest post, you are more than welcome!
About the author:
Sharon Bennett Connolly, has been fascinated by history for over 30 years now and even worked as a tour guide at historical sites, including Conisbrough Castle. Born in Yorkshire, she studied at University in Northampton before working in Customer Service roles at Disneyland in Paris and Eurostar in London.
She is now having great fun, passing on her love of the past to her son, hunting dragons through Medieval castles or exploring the hidden alcoves of Tudor Manor Houses.
Having received a blog as a gift, History…the Interesting Bits, Sharon started researching and writing about the lesser-known stories and people from European history, the stories that have always fascinated. Quite by accident, she started focusing on medieval women. And in 2016 she was given the opportunity to write her first non-fiction book, Heroines of the Medieval World, which was published by Amberley in September 2017. She is currently working on her second non-fiction book, Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest, which will be published by Amberley in late 2018.
Since some years back I have regularly popped by Ms Bennett Connolly’s blog called “History…the interesting bits”. Quite often, we’ve honed in on the same historical ladies and I have enjoyed comparing my (always rather subjective) take on these medieval ladies with Ms Bennett Connolly’s more objective approach.
In Heroines of the Medieval World, Ms Bennett Connolly has collected several of her favourite ladies under various headings such as “The Medieval Mistress” or “Women who ruled” or (my favourite) “Scandalous Ladies”. Geographically, her selected heroines span the European continent, from Spain to distant Kiev, but focus lies on English and French women, some of them nothing more than pawns, others brave as lions when defending what was theirs.
Ms Bennet Connolly’s passion and knowledge of the period and her heroines shine through in every word. This is an informative read, introducing not only each respective woman but also their family, their relatives and the people in their proximity that may have been affected by them. I particularly enjoyed the chapter with Julian of Norwich in which Ms Bennett Connolly speculates as to who this Julian really was, thereby underlining just how little we really know about these long-dead women.
This is not a book one reads in one go. Rather, it is a book best enjoyed chapter by chapter so as to allow all the information to properly sink in. Ms Bennett Connolly delivers all this knowledge in a driven prose, maintaining a nice balance between pace and information throughout. For all those who love immersing themselves in the past—and in particular the medieval past—this is a must read.