ANNA BELFRAGE

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Archive for the category “historical fiction”

A misunderstood misogynist? Meet John Knox!

I have a fascination with the Reformation. While we tend to simplify and see it as a spur of the moment thing caused by the sale of indulgences, the Holy Church has always had its fair share of people who have questioned its interpretation of scripture and its general approach to things. Such debates could be very vigorous. In some cases, they led to changes. In some cases, the person questioning ended up dead.

I any case, all this internal criticism came to a head in the late fifteenth/early sixteenth century, and this time the division was too deep to be healed. Ergo the Reformation, which was not, as some think, one Protestant faction versus the Holy Church. Nope: it was many, many Protestant factions versus the Holy Church. One such faction were the Calvinists, and today I have invited Marie Macpherson to tell us some more about John Knox, Calvinist reformer of Scotland.

knox-marie-macphersonMarie was born in Musselburgh, has a degree in Russian and English and wrote her PhD thesis about Russian writer Lermontov. The rich history of East Lothian – especially the Reformation period – provided the inspiration for her first fictional work, based on the early life of the Scottish reformer, John Knox. Having read both the first and now the second of Marie’s books, I’d say what she doesn’t know about John Knox is probably not worth knowing, and so, with no further ado, allow me to turn you over into her capable hands!

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John Knox and the “Monstrous Regiment”

The question I’m often asked is why would I, a woman, choose to write about John Knox? Some may idolise the founding father of the Scottish Reformation as a saint – not something the iconoclast would approve of – but for many Knox is the fire-breathing, pulpit-thumping tyrant who penned that vitriolic anti-feminine tract, The First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women.

To be fair, this was not an attack on all women but aimed at the ‘unnatural’ rule or regime of Mary Tudor in England, with sideswipes at Regent Marie de Guise in Scotland and Mary, Queen of Scots in France. Neither was Knox a rogue male chauvinist in trumpeting the view that women were inferior beings: most men of the time agreed with him using scripture to justify their argument, though none were as vociferous as the fiery Scot. He not only wanted to depose the ‘three Marys’ but, if necessary, execute the tyrants. This was tantamount to treason.

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John Knox. Photo Kim Traynor, licensed under Creative Commons

But did Knox hate women? Surprisingly, the answer is no. In contrast to his abject hate and loathing of Catholic queens, Knox loved female company and formed several close relationships with women throughout his life. The twice-married father of five children was also quite the ladies’ man. The celibate Roman Catholic priest in the first half of his life made up for lost time in the second half. According to one source, “Whenever he made a journey he took around with him a certain number of women whom he used to satisfy his lusts.” Or, as someone at one of my talks remarked, “I never knew Knox was such a babe magnet.’ Needless to say, all this sheds a completely different light on Knox and contradicts his reputation as a rampant misogynist.

His relationship with his mother-in-law, Mrs Bowes, is particularly fascinating. Freed from the galleys in 1559, Knox was a pariah in Scotland but welcomed in England. Appointed minister in Berwick-upon-Tweed, he met Elizabeth Bowes, wife of the warden of Norham Castle. This middle-aged matron and mother of 15 children had been a devout Roman Catholic until the religious rug was pulled from under her. Inspired by his sermons, she developed a ‘crush’ on the charismatic Scots preacher. A religious hypochondriac, continually tortured by the devil with doubts about whether or not she was one of the elect, she poured out her heart to her substitute priest/confessor.

When she confessed to being guilty of the sins of Sodom and Gomorrah, Knox must have been horrified – until realising she had no idea what they were. After explaining that these consisted of pride, riotous excess, idleness that provoked filthy lusts, resulting in all abomination and unnatural filthiness, he asked, ‘In which of these, Mother, are ye guilty?’ Unfortunately her response is not recorded.

Nevertheless, their intimacy has led to prurient speculation. The notorious cupboard incident at Alnwick where Knox confessed, “In very deed I thought nae creature had been temptit as I was,” has been wheeled out as evidence of adultery. But this vision of Knox lurking behind the linen cupboard to snatch a furtive embrace with his ‘belovit mother’ has been dismissed as fantasy. To quash rumours, Knox wrote a letter to the faithful explaining that the cause of his familiarity with Mrs Bowes was neither flesh nor blood but entirely of the spirit. More likely, Mrs Bowes was a maternal figure, the soft feminine presence Knox craved in a male dominated life. Though he endured her outpourings with the patience of a saint, she drove him to distraction at times with her “fasherie and nuisance”. She sounds like the mother-in-law from hell – and a novelist’s dream.

At the age of 33 he married Mrs Bowes’s 16 year-old-daughter, causing accusations of cradle snatching to be flung at him. However, in an age when women frequently died in childbirth, it was quite common for an older man to take a young wife. More shocking was Mrs Bowes’s decision to abandon her husband and family and follow her daughter and son-in-law to Geneva. Nevertheless, Marjory proved to be the perfect wife for Knox, not only his dear bedfellow but his helpmeet and secretary. Calvin certainly approved, calling her “the most delightful of wives” and “a rare find”. In Geneva, she gave birth to two sons and her premature death in 1560 left Knox in “no small heaviness”.

Invited to London in 1552 as one of King Edward VI’s court preachers, Knox lodged with the Lockes, a family of wealthy London mercers. He forged an intense relationship with Henry Locke’s young wife Anna, an intelligent, educated woman who wrote poetry and translated Calvin’s writings.

Whether or Anna was, according to Robert Louis Stevenson, the love of Knox’s life, she certainly became a life-long confidante and correspondent and his letters give some insight into the private man. In stark contrast to the image of the bully and brute, they reveal his sensitive ‘feminine’ side’. Exiled in Geneva, he expressed thirst and langour for her presence: “Sometimes I sobbed fearing what should become of you”, he wrote, fearing for her life during Mary Tudor’s persecution. So much so that he invited Anna and her children to Geneva where their ménage-à-quatre dashed any hopes Knox may have had of living a quiet scholarly life. Did these domestic troubles drive the hen-pecked Knox to distraction and fuel the flames for his infamous tract?

knox-firstblastPublished anonymously in 1557, Knox’s First Blast was not only misjudged. Drawing howls of horror from all sides – including John Calvin – it was grossly mistimed. Despite his famous gift of prophecy, he failed to foresee Mary Tudor’s death in November 1558 or the accession of yet another queen – albeit a Protestant one.

Though Knox tried to mince his words, the young Queen Elizabeth I was not at all amused and refused his request for safe passage through England. When Knox finally arrived in 1559, Scotland was in the brunt of civil war and he took up the fight against the Regent, Mary of Guise. Her death in June 1560 heralded the triumph of Protestantism in Scotland.

In December 1560, Knox and Mary Stewart both suffered personal tragedies: the unexpected death of his wife, Marjory, and her husband, King François. Despite these common losses, the elderly widower and the young widow could not be more different and clashed in a series of famous meetings. The staunch Protestant believed the people had the right to depose an ungodly ruler while the devout Roman Catholic queen believed in the divine right of a monarch to rule. Thus she was furious when Knox dared to challenge her marriage to Henry Stewart, Lord Darnley.

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“Must he nag so?”

Neither was she pleased when, after being widowed for three years, 50-year-old Knox took another 17 year-old bride. Mary “stormeth wonderfully”, not only because he’d wed her distant cousin, Margaret Stewart, without royal consent but because it brought Knox into the family. Catholic commentators even accused him of having used the black arts to secure the match.

Whatever his secret, Knox managed to sire three daughters within six years. As well as fulfilling her role as bedfellow, Margaret acted as Knox’s secretary and PA. But the fact that, after his death, the merry widow wed Andrew Ker of Fawdonside who had held a pistol to Mary Stewart’s pregnant belly during David Riccio’s murder, suggests a more spirited character than Marjory.

knox-louise_rayner_john_knoxs_house_edinburghDespite his success in establishing the Protestant Reformation in Scotland, Knox became increasingly embittered in his final years as he realised that religion was not a priority for many of the lords reneging to the queen’s side. In November 1572, Knox died in his bed rather than atop a burning pyre, as he’d always feared, in James Mossman’s house, now known as John Knox House, on High Street. A plaque in the car park outside St Giles Cathedral marks where he was buried – perhaps next to his beloved, tragic Marjory.

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I rather like the idea of Mary, Queen of Scots, “storming wonderfully” 🙂 Thank you, Marie for this interesting post, and should you want to know more about Marie and her books, I recommend you visit her Amazon page. You can also connect on FB or Twitter.

As to her book, I recently read The second blast of the trumpet, and here is my review:

knox-2bott-book-covervWriting a book about John Knox comes with its own particular challenges—principally that of creating some sympathy for a man mostly remembered as a harsh and uncompromising reformer of the church. Fortunately, Ms Macpherson manages to do just that, presenting us with a complex character who is self-righteous and weak in turns, thereby inspiring the odd bout of tenderness

The book covers the period 1549 to 1559. It continues the story begun in Ms Macpherson’s first book, The First Blast of the Trumpet, and for the sake of clarity—and enjoyment—I recommend reading them in order.

Had this book been only about John Knox’s efforts to promote his religious doctrine, it could quickly have become boring. Luckily, there is an unfolding romance within, with Knox being struck with Cupid’s arrow the first time he claps eyes on little Marjory Bowes. Not that Marjory reciprocates his feelings – not initially – but over the years she develops a special fondness for this bearded and passionate man. As does Marjory’s mother. Ms Macpherson handles the resulting tensions with aplomb and a certain tongue-in-cheek, resulting in a very colourful Mrs Bowes.

Ms Macpherson is an accomplished writer. The prose is fluid, the historical details elegantly inserted, the descriptions vivid. All in all, this is an engaging read, my only quibble being the rather abrupt ending. I am looking forward to reading the next instalment in the Knox Saga!

A king, a seductress and their illicit love

Today, I thought we’d spend time with a legendary Spanish seductress, the Jewess from Toledo. The fact that Raquel probably did not exist is not relevant – Raquel is a symbol, a female representation of the Jewish faith in an increasingly more intolerant religious environment.

As per the legend, Raquel was beautiful. And gentle, and mild, and passionate and wise, and…well, every man’s dream come true, was Raquel, and this gorgeous creature clad in floating veils and with almond-shaped come-hither eyes caught King Alfonso’s attention.

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Today’s Alfonso

Right: minor pause to sort out the Alfonso issue. Today’s Alfonso was king of Castile and carries number VIII. He is one of Spain’s heroes after defeating the Moors at the battle of Las Navas de Tolosa – which was his way of salvaging his reputation and getting back the lands he lost to the self-same Moors at the battle of Los Alarcos. He is also the Alfonso who married Eleonor of England, daughter of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine. By all accounts, this was a highly successful marriage – but more of that later.

Anyway: Alfonso was only two when he became king, and throughout his minority his nobles fought each other for power while his uncle, king of León, discreetly annexed one little piece of Castile after the other. Fortunately, Alfonso grew up quickly, and at the age of fifteen, he took control over his kingdom. In some cases, this entailed wresting fortified cities by force from his disloyal nobles. One such city was Toledo, which the Lara family had decided to incorporate as part of their lands. Alfonso wasn’t having it – Toledo was the then capital of Castile – and through a mix of serendipity and subterfuge managed to retake the city.

At the time, our young hero was in his late teens. Toledo was a prize indeed, even more so as it was a city in which the Moorish, the Castilian, and the Jewish cultures lived in symbiosis. Toledo boasted magnificent multi-lingual libraries, its inhabitants worshiped God in churches, mosques and synagogues. Ancient streets, ancient walls, voices that rose in intellectual discussions while women of all faiths hastened by, adequately veiled. This was the city which the gorgeous Raquel Fermosa called home.

Fermosa is medieval Spanish for hermosa – beautiful. At the time, Castilian still retained a delicious labiodental fricative f in words like fermosa (now hermosa – beautiful), fabrar (now hablar – talk), fazer (now hacer – to do) soon to be replaced by a glottal fricative h which in turn would develop into being entirely mute as it is today. This is neither here nor there, I suppose, but the development of language is so fascinating, and I am now desperately fighting the urge to launch myself into some paragraphs re the Spanish lisped s-sound, “el ceceo”, versus non-lisped “el seseo” . But no. Not today. No. Nope.

Let us therefore return to our potential loving couple. I suppose it is fully possible that a victorious young king caught sight of the beautiful Jewess and indulged in some nights, weeks, even months, of passion. At the time, Alfonso was still a bachelor, but he was already betrothed to Eleonor of England. Already in 1170, he had sent an embassy to Henry II to request the hand of his daughter. Alfonso was only fifteen at the time and in desperate need of allies. Henry II and his impressive wife Eleanor of Aquitaine were the best allies a young man could have, and if such an alliance came with a bride, well, all the better.

Being betrothed did not mean living in celibacy, and the Castilian kings had a reputation as vigorous lovers, men who were rarely without a woman in their bed. The fact that Raquel was Jewish would in this context not matter all that much: she was one in a line of royal mistresses. So yes: should Alfonso have spied Raquel in Toledo in the early years of his reign, he may very well have indulged in bedsport with her. He may even have loved her deeply. We don’t know. We will never know.

Our legend, however, does not start with a carousing unwed king in Toledo. It starts several years later, with a married king who one day decided to take some time off from the tedious business of running his unruly realm. Leaving his English wife at home in Toledo, Alfonso and his companions rode out of the city, crossed the river Tajo, and indulged in some hunting.

At some point, the king raised his gaze upwards, and saw a dove desperately trying to evade a falcon. So impressed was the king by the dove’s determined attempts to flee that when the falcon struck the dove, the king lifted his bow and shot the falcon. (I know: a bit late in the day for the poor dove, but there you are) Pierced by an arrow, the falcon fell, landing behind a wall. A wall in the middle of the forest? The king was as intrigued as we are, dear peeps, and set off to explore.

raquel-waterhouse-my-sweet-roseThe wall rose out of mossy ground, old and massive it was garlanded with vines, some as thick as a man’s arm. At last, a gate, and after ordering his nervous squires to wait for him, the king set his hand to the wood and pushed. It grated and creaked as it swung open, and on the other side sunlight danced over ponds and bowers,over well tended rosebushes and narrow paths bordered by lavender. Alfonso had found a secret garden, a place of birdsong and murmuring waters, of air that smelled of sun and flowers. And in the garden, staring at the dead falcon, was the most beautiful woman the king had ever seen. She looked at him and inhaled. (Maybe she bit her lower lip. I have read somewhere that men go wild and crazy when women bite their lip) He couldn’t tear his eyes away from her. Somehow, they got over this embarrassing staring contest, he recovered the falcon and his arrow, mumbled some sort of goodbye, and left.

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Over the coming days, Alfonso couldn’t stop thinking about the apparition in the bower. The apparition suffered from a similar affliction. Never had she seen such a handsome knight before, and whenever she closed her eyes, his image sprang forth, causing her unaccustomed heat in unaccustomed places. Ah, me! She fanned herself, loitered in the shade of her huge rose bushes and watched the pink petals drift to the ground, where their pristine beauty quickly became bruised. (A portent, okay? Perfection is ephemeral…)

raquel-florence-harrison-51c149cad1a87a1ff0b963a42f0a9279Finally, Alfonso couldn’t take this any longer. He returned to the secret garden, and over the coming months, he visited frequently. At first, all they did was look – like thirsting travellers at a well. Soon enough, they were sitting close enough to touch. One day, he caressed her hand. The next, her face. His touch ignited a fire, and the fair maid gladly gave herself to her handsome knight, endless afternoons spent in dappled shadows, on a bed of crushed herbs and silks.

Meanwhile, Eleonor (or Leonor as she is in Spanish) was starting to suspect something was amiss. Dear Alfonso was no longer quite as attentive, and there were times when she caught him staring out of the window, a rose in his hand. Hmm. Leonor was well acquainted with the fact that the men of her times – especially powerful men such as her husband and father – now and then took a lover on the side. But she was too much her mother’s daughter to like it – even less so when it became apparent Alfonso spent more and more of his time with this unknown rival.

Before we go on, it’s time for a reality check. Alfonso married Leonor in 1174. She was twelve, he was nineteen, and out of consideration for the bride, the marriage was probably not consummated immediately. But between 1180 and 1204, they would have eleven children, and their marriage is generally considered a happy one. So devastated was Leonor by Alfonso’s death in 1214 that she died a year later, her heart crushed by Alfonso’s demise. Keep that in mind as we move on with our story.

Back to our legend. Alfonso could not get enough of his mistress. (And in the early versions, the lady remains nameless, she is simply called The Jewess from Toledo or The Beautiful Jewess) By now, people were beginning to grumble: the king was spending too much time with his hands up his lover’s skirts, too little ruling his kingdom – or taking care of his wife.

The Alfonso of the legend must have been either a very stupid or a very deaf man, because he decided to move his mistress into the royal palace, and for the coming seven years he “abandoned himself to the pleasures of love”, rarely leaving the chamber in which he had installed his pearl among pearls. Well, now and then he sneaked off to make Leonor pregnant… The poor man must have walked about in a state of constant sexual exhaustion.

20160809_181149Obviously, things could not continue like this. Alfonso’s wife was desperate. His nobles were just as desperate – well, not all of them, as the king’s infatuation provided them with ample opportunity to feather their own nests at his expense, thereby increasing poor Leonor’s desperation. So Leonor concocted a plan. One day, she sent a messenger to the rooms in which the king spent his days and nights with the fair Raquel, begging him to hurry to her, she had grave news to share. Alfonso grumbled a bit, pulled on a robe and set off towards the queen’s rooms. No sooner was he out of the room, but various of his nobles burst in, and in a matter of minutes the royal favourite was dead, her throat slit open to stain the bed with her blood. White, white sheets – red, red blood.

The king realised he’d been duped the moment he saw the look on Leonor’s face. With a hoarse cry, he rushed back to his little love nest, but he was too late to do anything but weep at the sight that met him. He was overcome with rage, and exacted revenge on everyone involved. His nobles were exiled. Leonor was packed off to a convent for years and years (given the babies coming every 18 months or so, even then he managed to sneak in now and then to “seed her womb”).

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Alfonso at Las Navas de Tolosa

Instead, Alfonso spent his days sighing over Raquel’s tomb. Until the day when an angel of God appeared before him (this, I suspect, is a late addition to the story) and reminded him of his duty to his people, his wife, and his faith, because as the angel pointed out, the Christians had been defeated by the infidel at Los Alarcos while Alfonso was frolicking among the bedsheets with pretty, pretty Raquel. Alfonso was immediately ashamed and promised to better himself. Which he did, trouncing the Moors at the battle of Las Navas de Tolosa. He reconciled with his wife, and went on to rule wisely for many more years, albeit that when he finally died he saw a dove fluttering heavenward and whispered a soft “Raquel”. *sniff*

In the early versions of the story, it is presented as a tragic love affair, where the king loses the (impossible) love of his life due to his manipulative and jealous wife and his treacherous nobles. This version quickly became very popular both in romances and in ballads, and while most would agree the king had failed in his duties, it was evident these two star-struck lovers had truly loved each other. Very sad, in truth, but that’s love for you – sometimes it is more thorns than roses.

Over the centuries, the legend becomes something else. The young woman innocent of any crime but that of loving her Alfonso too much transforms into a temptress who so enslaves her royal lover that he forgets his duties as a married and a Christian king, enthralled as he is by the dangerous Jewess. Occasionally, Raquel is even painted as a potential witch – how else to explain her powers over the king? This development goes hand in hand with an increasingly more intolerant approach to Jews in Spain, an approach that was to culminate in 1492 with the Edict of Alhambra, which exiled all Jews from the various Spanish kingdoms. Raquel becomes the embodiment of the dangers of fraternising with those not of the True Faith, a not so subtle reminder that he who sleeps with the infidel brings the wrath of God down on his head. (And hers. Mostly on hers)

raquel-aucassin-et-nicolette-marianne_stokes05So, is there any truth in the legend? Well, I’d say it is not improbable that Alfonso had an affair with a beautiful Jewish woman. But did he lock himself up with her for seven years, ignoring the demands of his people, his wife, his realm? No. Neither are there any indications of a serious breach between Alfonso and Leonor (all those babies tell another story). But despite this, the story of Alfonso and Raquel has universal appeal, thereby surviving down the centuries albeit that there is no Happily Ever After, there is only blood and death and loss. He saw her, she saw him, and from that moment she was doomed to die, he to live without her. Very sad. But, as dear Tennyson put it, it’s better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all. Would Raquel Fermosa agree? I don’t know. I see only a shadow, a dark, lustrous eye and a tear that slides slowly down her cheek as she extends her hand to her handsome caballero, the man who entered her garden and stole her heart.

Making it good in tough times – meet Aethelflaed

headshotcroppedToday I am very proud to host Annie Whitehead here on Stolen Moments. Annie has a thing about Anglo-Saxon England – most understandable, IMO – and so far, she has published two books set in this period. I have read the first book, To be a Queen, and so enjoyed it I just had to have Annie drop by & visit. The second one, Alvar the Kingmaker, already resides on my Kindle. Anyway: you want to know more about Annie, I suggest you drop by her blog or her website. And just like that, I turn you over to Annie. Enjoy!

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It’s fair to say that life in Anglo-Saxon England was tough. Whether you were a noble, or a slave (yes, they kept slaves) there were certain hazards which could not be avoided: wounds festering, tooth enamel being worn away by chewing bread made from roughly-ground flour, Viking raids, infestations of worms, and other nasties such as ergot, a fungus which attached itself to cereal crops and was toxic to humans who subsequently ate it.

So, in general, it’s probably also fair to say that women were no better off than men, although maybe they didn’t accumulate so many war wounds. But they could wield power, and influence, and some of them rose to great prominence in what was, essentially, a warrior society.

Certain ladies come immediately to mind: Emma of Normandy – queen, wife of kings, mother of kings, and possibly the first spin doctor. And with her great work of propaganda, she allowed us a glimpse of the status of another woman, her rival, Aelfgifu of Northampton.

The Encomium Emmae Reginae, commissioned by Emma to bolster her reputation and the claims to the throne of her son Harthacnut, seeks to destroy his rival Harald’s claims by denying that he was King Cnut’s son. But it goes further, also denying that Harald is even the son of Aelfgifu of Northampton. Clearly his position as the son of a great Northampton lady is important.

Another royal lady was also called Aelfgifu. Her brief time as consort was remembered for a scandal, when she was found in bed with her husband the king, and her mother, but despite this she was able to amass such riches during her lifetime that in her will she bequeathed, among other treasures, a necklace worth 120 mancuses, two armlets, each also worth 120 mancuses, and grants elsewhere of 100 mancuses and 200 mancuses. A mancus was either a gold coin, or a weight in gold of around 4.25 g, equivalent to a month’s wages for a skilled worker in medieval Europe. This lady was clearly very rich, not only in material goods, but in estates too – many of her bequests were grants of land.

annie-aethelflaed_as_depicted_in_the_cartulary_of_abingdon_abbeyPerhaps the epitome though, of successful Anglo-Saxon women, was Aelthelflaed, Lady of the Mercians, daughter of Alfred the Great. Granted, her position as daughter of the king gave her a certain amount of guaranteed wealth and status. But the same can be said for many ‘princesses’ (not a term that was used in this era). She was extraordinary, even by the standards of the day, and she is remembered in some annals as a queen, even though the title was never hers by right. She certainly knew how to be one however.

Her story begins like so many, with an arranged marriage of political convenience. She was married off to the Lord Ethelred of Mercia, Alfred’s only ally against the invading Vikings. (It speaks volumes to me that Alfred ‘the Great’ needed to secure his ally in this way – and I’m passionate in my belief that Mercia played a very large part in Alfred’s successes. I digress, though.)

It’s always been assumed that Aethelflaed grew up elsewhere than at her father’s court, and a prime candidate for her childhood home would have been Mercia. At the time of her birth, Mercia was ruled by King Burgred, who was married to Alfred’s sister. Alfred’s wife was a Mercian noblewoman, so there were strong family ties between the two kingdoms.

However, as a bride, returning to the midlands, Aethelflaed would not necessarily have been welcomed. Indeed, there is a (later, medieval) tale that she was attacked on her way to Mercia, by Mercians who were not in favour of alliance between the two countries.

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Edward the Elder

The war against the Vikings fared better once Alfred and Ethelred were working in partnership, and went better still when Alfred’s son, Aethelflaed’s younger brother, Edward, reached an age where he too could fight. Edward, later known as Edward the Elder, was an admirable warrior and strategist. Bear that point in mind…

At some point, around the year 902, Ethelred of Mercia was struck with some kind of debilitating illness. It would have been easy, and perfectly natural, for Edward (who had at this point succeeded his father to the throne) simply to annex Mercia and rule it himself. But he didn’t. Even after Ethelred’s death, apart from putting a couple of strongholds, London and Oxford, under his direct control, he allowed his sister to remain in charge of Mercia. Yes, a fit, able, strong young king allowed his sister, a woman, to rule.

Maybe the Mercians, fiercely independant, would have put up too much resistance. But just think – they didn’t rise up against her, she who was not really ‘one of them’. They didn’t rebel against Edward, and they didn’t put up a candidate of their own. They, like Edward, were happy to be led by a woman. One can only wonder what her personal qualities must have been, to inspire such loyalty.

annie-aethelflaed_-_ms_royal_14_b_viDid she actually fight? I’m not sure. But she was definitely present at the siege of Derby, where she lost thegns ‘who were dear to her’ and we can infer that it was she who oversaw the successful defence of Chester in 907, because we know that by this time her husband was incapacitated. In 917, an abbot of whom she was fond was murdered by the Welsh, and she led an army into Brycheiniog, attacking the fort on Llangorse Lake and taking many hostages. Clearly, this was not a lady to be crossed.

Even when she died, she was in the middle of negotiations with a deputation from the north, who had asked for her help against a fresh wave of invaders.

I think her achievements rank her alongside the likes of Boudicca, of Joan of Arc, of, well – there aren’t that many others, are there?

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Aethelflaed – courtesy Richard Tearle

And yet history barely remembers her. I think it’s largely because the main primary source for this period is the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which was commissioned by Alfred the Great, and was written by monks of Wessex, who naturally had a bias towards the West Saxons. But she is remembered in the old capital of Mercia, Tamworth, where in 1918 they erected a statue of her. I hope she would be pleased!

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My review

annie-queenI must admit that while I find Anglo-Saxon England fascinating it is also a bit of an unchartered territory for me, and while I had heard Aethelflaed mentioned, I did not know much about her prior to reading this book. Now, of course, I know much more, starting with the fact that our protagonist grew up in an environment of fear – her father, Alfred the Great experienced his fair share of setbacks, and when he did, his immediate family lived in fear of their lives, something that in many ways marked Aethelflaed for life.

Ms Whitehead presents a serious child who grows into a serious young woman, then a serious wife. A woman for whom duty comes first, no matter what her heart’s desires may be. A lady who has every intention of doing what she can to never again experience fear, which effectively means halting and defeating the Vikings. Aethelflaed is an engaging character, and by the time she is old enough to be torn between her duty to marry as her father wishes and her own desires, I, as a reader, have developed a personal relationship with little Teasel which makes her anguish my anguish. Except, of course, that I, as the reader, have the privilege of glimpsing into the mind of Ethelred, Aethelflaed’s husband, and realise Alfred has chosen wisely – both for political and personal reasons.

Strong characters are the pillars on which this novel is built, firmly rooted in a historical and geographic context that is beautifully presented. It is apparent Ms Whitehead knows her period inside out, with period details inserted seamlessly into the narrative. It is equally apparent she loves her protagonist – which is maybe why I love her too!

 

 

In the head of a medieval knight

knights_templar“In my head?” Adam de Guirande sounds amused. “You?”
“Honey, I hate to break it to you: I am in your head all the time. Or rather, if we’re going to be correct, you’re in my head all the time.”
Adam just looks at me. Sheesh! Some of these invented characters are sensitive souls, and Adam de Guirande most definitely doesn’t like to be reminded of the fact that he doesn’t exist – well, beyond his very tangible presence in my books about him. In those, if I may say so myself, Adam is a “walking, talking, living doll” – err – I mean knight. No doll. Absolutely not. A man’s man is Adam, which does not mean he walks about in absolute silence while internalising all his emotions. Few men do, no matter that Hollywood has tried to push the image of the silent, suffering hero for decades.

Anyway: writing a protagonist born in 1296 comes with its challenges – even more so when it’s a he and not a she. Mind you, I am of the firm opinion that the human condition as such has not changed all that much in the intervening seven centuries or so. Yes, human life and conceptual thinking took a HUGE leap when Homo Sapiens began decorating their caves with art, when they began spending their evenings sitting round the fire and telling each other stories.

Yes, it took another gigantic leap when the human race decided to eschew nomadic life and become farmers, rooted to the ground. At that moment, concepts such as private property saw the light of the day, as did the concept of patriarchial families. After all, Ancient Farmer who’d broken his back clearing ground to feed his family had a vested interest in ensuring it was his family & genes that would inherit the fruits of his labour.

I am not so sure landing on the moon was quite as climactic from the perspective of the human condition.
“Landing on the moon?” Adam cranes his head back to peer at the moon, which most obligingly appears in all its yellowish glory. “Truly?”
“Yup. And a cold and barren place it is,” I tell him. “No water, no air…”
“Man is intended for life here,” Adam says, sweeping his arm out to encompass the meadows with rippling grasses, the seas, the forests, the moors that offer endless skies and stunted gorse, the tilled fields, the burbling brooks (Okay, so we’re doing a 360 in my head), the walled cities that dot his world. He points upwards. “Those are God’s domains.”

knight-davidisquireAh. And here we have a fundamental difference between Adam’s take on the world and that of modern man. For Adam, God’s existence is never in doubt. He has grown up in a world where God is a constant presence, His will often referred to, His displeasure something best avoided, His grace something to strive for. There is no point in asking Adam (or his wife, Kit) if they believe in God. They wouldn’t comprehend the question. To them, God IS. Full stop.

I can, however, ask him if he believes in everything the Church teaches. Adam raises his brows. (Fair brows, as are his long lashes, fringing grey eyes) “Dangerous question,” he says.
“You’re among friends,” I assure him, and this medieval knight who knows much more about tweeting and blogging than a medieval knight should know – a consequence of all that time he spends hovering in my subconscious while I dedicate myself to such things – gives me a fleeting smile.
“The Churh has its share of ambitious and greedy men,” he says. “Not necessarily good – or godly – men. So no, I do not believe everything the Church teaches.” He squints at the sun (what can I say? night shifts into day rapidly in my head). “Ultimately, it is all very simple, isn’t it? A man must live out his life as well as he can, striving to uphold God’s laws and be good. You don’t need a priest to interpret that for you – you just need a conscience.”

Which he has – in spades. Sometimes, though, the conscience must come in conflict with his duty and loyalty to his lord. I ask as much, reminding him of the autumn 1321 when his then lord, Roger Mortimer rose in rebellion against the king. “Was that the right thing to do?”
“For me, there was no choice.” Adam sits back, extends his legs and spends a long time studying his hose, here and there expertly darned. “Lord Roger made me into the man I am. When he decided there was no choice but to rebel, I could do nothing but follow him.”
“To death and ruin, almost,” I remind him.
“Aye. Almost.” He sighs. “A knight without loyalty, without honour – he is no knight.”
“A bit like this?” I hand him a picture.

knight_death_and_the_devil

Dürer: The Knight, Death & the Devil

He studies it silence, a finger tracing the exquisite outlines of Albrecht Dürer’s engraving. “Nice horse,” he says after a while. His lips twitch. “And aye, at times it’s like this. A man doing his duty, despite Death’s rank breath tickling his neck, despite the Devil’s whispering.” He crosses himself. “A good knight perseveres and does his duty as best as he can.”
“And would you say all your contemporaries agree with that?”
“I would. Which is not the same thing as saying all knights are honourable and loyal. Many are as afflicted by ambition and greed as certain servants of the Church, and so…” He shrugs.
“And you? Aren’t you ambitious?”
“Not that ambitious.” He looks away. “Besides, I have already achieved my dreams. The abused gutter-rat is now a belted knight, owner of a few manors, and how else to repay the debt of gratitude I owe my master for rising me so high than by serving him diligently?”
“Which him?” I ask as gently as I can. Adam’s face clouds, his cleanshaven jaw clenching and unclenching. In difference to most of the men of his generation, he has never worn a beard. In this, he takes after Roger Mortimer – and it makes them stick out among the otherwise hirsute men who populate the court of the very young (and as yet beardless) Edward III.
“I have but one lord,” he replies. He nods in the direction of Edward, presently engaged in a mock-fight with his younger brother, Prince John.
“Not in here, you don’t,” I say, placing a hand on his chest.
Adam gives me a rueful smile. “No.” His gaze shifts, to where Roger Mortimer is presently walking side by side with Queen Isabella. For now, those two rule on behalf of Edward, but soon enough the pup will be a full-grown hound and then…I suppress the desire to whisper a prayer. Adam gives me a long look. “You know what will happen.”
“I do.” Duh. Apart from the fact that most of it is historical fact, I am also the person penning the novels in which Adam features. And what is to come will tear Adam apart.

medieval-love“So,” I say to change the subject, “God, loyalty and honour. What else is important to you?”
He grins. “Love – that’s what you want me to say, isn’t it?”
“Maybe. Is it?”
“Important? Aye, but it is not something I ever hoped for. I’d have settled for duty and some affection, a wife who was a friend, not a soulmate.” He slides me a look. “You modern people have such high expectations on your relationships, don’t you? Unless the earth moves, unless your heart double-thuds at the sight of your partner, it’s not worth it, and off you go searching for that elusive love elsewhere.” He takes my hands, callused fingers rubbing over my skin. “A marriage built on loyalty and trust may not set the bed on fire, but love comes in many shapes and forms.”
“Why are you holding her hand?” The dark female voice has Adam dropping my hand as if it were red-hot.
“We were talking about love,” I tell Kit, and she moves over to sit beside Adam – almost on Adam, as the bench he’s sitting on is narrow. “Adam was saying it was not something he’d expected to find.”
Kit nods. “Me neither. But then I wasn’t expecting to be coerced into marrying a stranger either.”
“Didn’t turn out too bad, did it?” I ask, watching their fingers braid together.
“Not too bad,” Kit agrees. She stands, reminds Adam the bath is being filled as we speak, and drifts through the hall towards the stairs leading to the solar. I can see Adam is itching to follow her, but instead he courteously enquires if I want some cider. I don’t.

medeltiden_tornering“Does it surprise you, that your wife is such a strong woman?” I ask. For an instant or two, he just stares at me, his cup frozen halfway to his mouth. And then he begins to laugh.
“Strong? All women are strong, ” he says once he has calmed down. “Only a fool of a man would ever underestimate a woman. I dare say that is as valid in your time as it is in mine.”
Too right. I smile at him and wave him off, watching as he hurries towards his waiting bath and wife. My very own medieval knight, burdened with too much loyalty and honour, fortunate in the love he shares with his wife and helpmeet. A man to hold your back when darkness threatens – and it does at times, both in his time and in ours. No wonder I love him to bits!

(And should you want to know more about Adam and his adventures, why not pop over here?)

What if? A speculative exercise

What if Henry_II_of_France.

Henri II – died of a lance in his eye. But what if…

One of the more enjoyable pastimes a history buff can indulge in, is the “what if” game. What if Francisco Pizarro had been murdered by the Incas? What if Henri II of France had not had his eye penetrated by a lance? What if Julius Caesar had survived the plot to kill him? Or if Judas had said “nope, not interested,” and turned his back on those thirty silver pieces? What if Troy hadn’t fallen, laughing their heads off at the idiotic Greeks who thought they were stupid enough to pull that wooden horse through their gates? Or, to open the door on one of the more heated debates within the historic community, what if Richard III had won at Bosworth?

This year, one of the more recurring what if’s will relate to the year 1066. If Harold had won, if William had hit the dust, then what?

Obviously, none of us know. But many of us enjoy to speculate, becoming more and more animated as the waves of discussion rise and crash around us. The only thing we do know is that if events in the past had not happened, things would have been different. Not necessarily worse. Not necessarily better. Just different.

What if 51Vntz2MXOLOne of my favourite “what if” books is Making History by Stephen Fry. In this book, a certain young man travels back in time to ensure Adolf Hitler is never born. How? He poisons the water source that serves Hitler’s parent’s home, and wham, just like that, little Adolf never sees the light of the day. Our hero congratulates himself: he has rewritten history to the better. But has he? Without revealing too much of the plot, let’s just say that no, he hasn’t. Hitler rose to power as a consequence of the political winds blowing at the time. He managed to hit the right time, the right place to spout his racist, ultra-nationalistic nonsense. Had Hitler not been around, someone else would have filled the gap, and what if this person was smarter than dear old Adolf? Same agenda, same ultimate goal, but totally different tactics. Maybe very successful tactics…

medieval william-the-conqueror-manuscript-illustration

William, as per a medieval depiction

Fortunately, we will never know just what such a person could have accomplished, but it’s important to keep in mind that most of the historical people who’ve left such a huge imprint on history have done so due to having been there at a certain point in time. Yes, obviously certain qualities are required – in William the Conqueror’s case, it helped that he was determined and ruthless, that he lived with the conviction (or pretended to) that the English crown was his by right. He must also have been very capable and innovative. I know the people in the Harold camp don’t like to hear this, because in history, Harold is the tragic hero who died on the battlefield after having had the terribly bad luck of first having to fend off Harald Hardrada and treacherous brother Tostig, then turn right around to rush down and fight William.

Except, of course, that the successful among us rarely blame bad luck for anything. They rely on meticulous planning, on a careful assessment of the situation, and a capacity to act quickly and forcefully. Maybe Harold should have handled Tostig differently. Maybe he was inept at building the alliances required to hold both Hardrada and William at bay. Because seriously, a king cannot rely on luck, can he?

It is my personal opinion that William has been somewhat unjustly treated by those of us who love our history. Not that he necessarily was a person I’d invite for tea and cake, but the man is quite often represented as evil incarnate, caring nothing for the people he subjugated. Yes, he committed various heinous deeds, but it seems to me that what we cannot forgive him for – ever – is that he won over our golden-haired hero, the affable, easy-going, handsome, upright Harold. Where William is depicted as dour and cold, little given to casual endearments or jollification, Harold comes across as the life and soul of the party, a man as loved by men as by women. Except that he wasn’t, was he? Not all Anglo-Saxon nobles felt Harold Godwinson was the best thing since sliced bread.

EHFA Bayeux_Tapestry_scene57_Harold_deathHad William lost the battle of Hastings, he’d have been no more than a footnote in history. England would have developed down a different path, a path without Henry II, Thomas Becket, Edward III, without Simon de Montfort and Henry III’s magnificent Westminster Abbey. No War of the Roses, no Henry VIII (no major loss, IMO). Would English as we speak it have existed? Would Shakespeare’s works ever have seen the light of the day? We will never know. After all, William did win, and all we can do is speculate. But when we do, we should keep in mind that there is no guarantee that a future forged by Harold Godwinson would have been better. It would just have been different. Very different.

***************************

1066-TUD-OutNowI have the honour of being one participant in a collaborative effort dedicated to highlighting the potential “what if’s” in the momentous year 1066. Our book, 1066 Turned Upside Down, has just hit the “etailers” and offers nine different perspectives on William, Harold and all the rest. We have played at being nornes, snipping fate’s threads and retying them as we see fit 🙂 Have we had fun? Oh, yes! And all of this for less than £2 – seriously that’s not even one family-sized muffins at Starbucks and comes with the benefit of zero calories.

The authors are:

Helen Hollick, author of multiple historical and pirate novels, including Harold the King
Joanna Courtney, author of the Queens of the Conquest series
Anna Belfrage, Historical Novel Society Indie Award Winner 2015, author of the Graham Saga
Richard Dee, fantasy author of Ribbonworld 
G K Holloway, author of 1066: What Fates Impose
Carol McGrath, author of The Daughters of Hastings trilogy
Alison Morton, author of the Roma Nova thrillers
Eliza Redgold, author of Naked, a novel of Lady Godiva
Annie Whitehead, who writes about Mercia and Saxon England
with an impressive foreword by writer and actor, C.C. Humphreys

The fabulous cover art is by Cathy Helms of Avalon Graphics

An arranged love-match – of Philippa and her Edward

medieval loveIn 1326, a not yet fourteen-year-old boy was betrothed to a girl two years or so his junior. He was Edward, soon-to-be Edward III of England. She was Philippa, one of Guillaume of Hainaut’s four daughters. The betrothal cemented the alliance between Isabella of France and Count Guillaume, whereby the count placed ships and men at Isabella’s disposal for the upcoming conquest of England. It is said that the bride-to-be took an immediate liking to her prospective groom, weeping bitterly when he left.

In setting his name to the contracts, Edward openly defied his father’s will – King Edward II had repeatedly written to his son and told him that under no circumstances was he to enter into a marriage contract without his, the king’s, agreement – but what choice did the adolescent boy have? His mother would have him sign, and he was with her, under her daily influence.

Edward II opposed the marriage precisely because it gave Isabella access to the fighting men – and the ships required to transport them – she required to invade England. Not that Isabella would be captaining these men, that job fell to her partner and lover, Roger Mortimer.

EHFA E II

Edward II trying out his crown

However, prior to the events that led to Isabella openly challenging her husband, Edward II had also toyed with marrying his eldest to one of Count Guillaume’s daughters, had even gone so far so as to have his trusted man, Walter Stapledon, Bishop of Exeter, travel over to inspect the goods, so to say. A description still survives, but it is unclear whether it refers to Philippa or to one of her sisters. Whatever the case, the bishop describes a dark-haired girl with dark eyes, a full mouth, good teeth – well, at least some of them. All in all, the bishop found her pleasant enough to look like, and one hopes young Edward agreed, that distant June day when he first clapped eyes on the girl who was to become his wife.

To be quite honest, we have no idea what Philippa may have looked like, but seeing as she lived in the fourteenth century, poor Philippa was burdened with a hairdo that is decidedly unflattering. If you look at her effigy in Westminster abbey, what you mostly see are those heavy arrangements of braids framing her face. Mind you, that effigy depicts Philippa as an adult woman, so maybe she was a bit more daring in her youth – maybe there were days when she wore her hair loose and covered by a sheer veil. Probably not – and definitely not after she’d married Edward. Married women were supposed to keep their hair firmly under control – i.e. covered, as it was a well-known fact men went all gaga at the sight of curls billowing in the wind.

We know little of Philippa’s youth. Her father married Jeanne of Valois, a cousin to Isabella of France, and assuming Jeanne’s father, Charles Valois, was as great a believer in education as Isabella’s father (and Charles’ brother), Philippe IV, was, Jeanne was literate and well-educated, something she surely passed on to her many daughters. Whatever the case, the Hainaut children spent most of their time in Valenciennes, Guillaume’s principal city, but would also have been regular visitors at Le Quesnoy – of WWI fame for ANZAC soldiers – where Guillaume and his family enjoyed such noble pastimes as hunting and hawking.

Due to Edward and Philippa being related – they were second cousins through their mothers – no wedding could take place without a papal dispensation. Not that Count Guillaume had any hurry in securing the dispensation. After all, should the invasion backfire, chances were Edward II would punish his eldest son by having him imprisoned or even executed.

Eduard3

Edward III being crowned

In the event, the invasion was a success. Capably led by Mortimer, Isabella’s forces soon had England under control. Edward II was imprisoned at Kenilworth Castle, his hated favourite Despenser was executed, and next on the agenda was to make Prince Edward King Edward, which was achieved by forcing Edward II to abdicate. So in February of 1327, Edward III was crowned, and on the other side of the English Channel, preparations began for Philippa’s wedding.

As many other young ladies of the time, she was actually married twice: the first time by proxy, i.e. Edward sent over a man to stand in his stead, the second time in January of 1328 in York – this time the real thing in the half-finished cathedral with her young and handsome husband at her side.

Without any surviving diaries or letters, it is of course difficult to assess just how successful this marriage was, but by all accounts Edward III was faithful to his wife, and the regular appearance of more babies indicate they enjoyed each other’s company behind the bed hangings. Mind you, it took some time for baby number one to arrive – but this may have been due to consideration. Philippa was not quite fourteen when they wed, and in general consummation with such young brides was not encouraged.

At the time of their wedding, Edward must have been in the grip of conflicting emotions: he’d recently seen his father buried after his death back in September (some people say Edward II didn’t die, but let us bypass that for now), his mother had awarded herself a huge income which seriously depleted the royal coffers, Roger Mortimer was effectively in charge of running the country (albeit together Isabella), and Edward was beginning to suspect neither Isabella nor Roger would be all that keen on stepping down from their position of power. So what did that make him? A leashed lion? For a young man determined to become a perfect king, that was not an option.

I imagine he found a confidante in Philippa, someone as firmly in his own corner as he himself was. Philippa might initially have been unfamiliar with the power games at court, and I guess she was quite intimidated by her mother-in-law, who still went by Queen Isabella, when in fact she should have been the Queen Mother Isabella. Thing is, Philippa was as yet uncrowned, and Isabella showed little interest in ensuring she was. From where Isabella was standing, England was better off with one crowned king – her son – and one crowned queen – herself.

Philippa_of_Hainault-miniIn 1330, Edward pushed through the coronation of his wife, by then pregnant with their first child. In an act of defiance, he swept his arms wide and told Philippa to go wild and crazy when it came to her coronation outfits, and she definitely did, changing from one precious combo to the other during the festivities. Mama Isabella was probably not entirely pleased at being upstaged, but public opinion was moving in the direction of Edward and Philippa, and after the little queen proudly presented her husband with a son and heir in June of 1330, Isabella should have realised power was slipping through her fingers. Edward III now had every reason to act – and act quickly – so as to retake control of his country. Which he did – or rather his friends did, which is how Mortimer ended up dead and Isabella ended up marginalised.

Philippa was now queen not only in name but also in fact – and she did a good job of it, the perfect medieval consort who advised her husband in private, interceded on behalf of the weak and needy, and oversaw the raising of their large and mostly happy family. She was his pillar of strength, the companion from his youth that became his companion through life, the person he could always trust to have his, Edward’s, interests at heart.

Philippa was also a patron of the arts, was held in high regard by men such as Jean Froissart, and owned and commissioned several illustrated manuscripts, some of which are still around. Over a period of 25 years, she gave birth at least thirteen times, which means she was just sixteen when the first baby was born, over forty when the baby of the family, Thomas of Woodstock, saw the light of the day. Edward clearly enjoyed her company – and vice-versa – which explains why she accompanied her bellicose husband on various of his campaigns – both to Scotland but also to France, where she forever earned the reputation of being a gentle and good queen when she begged Edward to spare the burghers of Calais.

BattleofSluys

Battle of Sluys – from Jean Froissart’s Chronicle

I remember the first time I heard this story. My teacher, Mrs Miller, had a stochastic approach to the Hundred Years’ War, so that we went from Sluys to Agincourt and then back to Crecy, mainly because she had all these lovely Jean Froissart posters that she used for inspiration and tended to get them mixed up. At the time, I was seriously confused: one moment, we’re talking about Edward III and his naval victory over the French (Sluys, 1340), the next we’re at Agincourt (and yes, Shakespeare was quoted) with Edward III’s great-grandson Henry V, then we’re back to Edward III at Crecy, now accompanied by his young, just as bellicose, son Edward (whom Mrs Miller never called anything but The Black Prince, which really had me wondering if he was a bad guy. I was ten, okay?)

Anyway, after more or less annihilating the French at Crecy in 1346, in September of that same year Edward turned north – to Calais. At the time, this town was protected by impressive walls, and no matter how many men Edward threw at the town, the defences held. Months of this did not improve Edward’s temper, but he was determined to win Calais, so in February of 1347, he effectively closed off all lines of supply into the town. The siege of Calais had begun.

The_French_defeated_before_Calais_by_Edward_IIIThe stubborn townspeople refused to give up, hoping their king would come to their aid. Philippe of France did show up, but he was still smarting after the loss at Crecy, and he was severely outnumbered and “outstrategised” by Edward, which made Philippe decide it was best to retreat and fight another day. Abandoned by their king, in August, Calais gave up.

By then, Edward was seriously pissed off with the town for holding out for so long – it sort of put a dent in his calendar. Plus, he had hoped to force the French king into a decisive battle outside Calais, but Philippe had evaded that trap. So when Calais finally surrendered, I reckon Edward was seriously tempted to do unleash his men on the town. But as Edward was in France claiming the French crown, he realised this was probably not a good way of endearing himself to his French subjects, so instead he offered the people of Calais a way out: if six of them would come before him and offer him the keys of the city, give themselves up unconditionally, he would spare the rest.

Death. Those six Calais burghers had no illusions as to what fate awaited them – especially as Edward ordered that they wear nothing but their shirts and a noose round their neck – ready to hang, if you will. They prostrated themselves before the smouldering Edward and begged for their lives. He ordered their heads to be cut off – ASAP.

Queen_Plippia_intercending_for_the_Burghers_of_Calais_byJ.D_PenroseThis is when Philippa stepped forth from the shadows of history to hog the limelight. Heavily pregnant, she kneeled before her husband and begged him to show mercy. Mrs Miller tended to embroider this bit: the queen, all in white, sank to her knees before her seated husband and approached him on her knees, repeatedly asking that he spare the burghers as otherwise she feared God would rob them of the child presently in her womb. Mrs Miller tended to get emotional here, a hand drifting down to her very flat abdomen (Mrs Miller was well past childbearing at the time).

Edward was very fond of his wife, and, according to Mrs Miller, never had she looked more beautiful to him than she did as she kneeled abjectly before him. Hmm. I hope she had. Whatever the case, he was so touched he spared the six burghers and everyone lived happily ever after. Except that they didn’t – at least not the citizens of Calais who were evicted out of their town by Edward and replaced by his men. Neither did Philippa’s baby. A son, Thomas of Windsor, was born in 1347 but died within a year.

Anyway, after the events at Calais, Philippa went back to being the mild wife she’d always been, never questioning her husband in public, however much she may have argued with him in private. Not that I think they did argue. I think they had a happy and fulfilling marriage, one in which they enjoyed spending time together, sharing their thoughts with each other. Edward found in Philippa and their children the family he’d lost as a child when his mother and father ended up on opposite sides of a battlefield. In her, he had a loyal and devoted spouse. In him, she found a man who cherished her and honoured her.

In the 1360s, Philippa fell ill. A wasting disease that had her growing weak and him somewhat desperate. Yes, this is when Edward also began his association with Alice Perrers, his only known mistress, but his devotion for his wife and his distress at her continued illness was evident.

In July of 1369, Philippa sent for her husband, presently preparing for yet another campaign. He rushed to her side at Windsor and found her wan and pale in her bed. They held hands as she had him promise that once he died, he’d be buried beside her. Edward wept and gave her his word, gripping the hand of the woman who’d been his mainstay through life.

Philippa was all of fifty-five when she died, and had lived through the misfortune of seeing nine of her children die before her. Her husband was devastated and never quite recovered from her death. Soon enough, he would fall under the spell of Alice Perrers, even more so as his mind deteriorated, but in his heart Philippa ruled uncontested. Of that I am sure.

In my latest release, Days of Sun and Glory, I have included a first meeting between the adolescent Edward and a girl who still climbs trees and wears her hair in braids.

9789198324518After supper, the count and Lord Mortimer retired to discuss military matters with the men. Prince Edward scowled as the men left, but when Countess Jeanne invited him and the queen to her apartments, generously including most of Queen Isabella’s retinue as well, he bowed politely and accepted, throwing smouldering looks at his mother.
Entertainment came in the shape of a troubadour, who sang them a selection of verses from the Roman de la Rose, which made Prince Edward shift on his seat while the three unwed Hainaut daughters blushed and tittered.
Fortunately, the troubadour had an ear not only for music, but also for his audience, and he changed to livelier tunes, accompanied by a man on a vielle and an old lady on a guimbarde, and Philippa rose to her feet and danced, graceful and lively. Her sisters followed suit, but it was Philippa the prince followed with his eyes, and when the young girl approached him, he took her hand and allowed her to lead him out to dance.
Afterwards, a flushed prince retired to sit on the window seat.
“Does she please you, my lord?” Kit joined him. The potential future Queen of England was standing on the opposite side of the vaulted room, dark braids framing her face. The child had the most remarkable eyes: large and somewhat almond-shaped, they were the colour of ripe hazelnuts and seemed to glow from within when she looked at the prince.
“What does it matter what I think?” Prince Edward said morosely.
“Your mother is bartering your future for weapons and men,” Kit said with asperity. “It seems only fair that you should end up with a bride you feel some affection for.”
Edward shrugged. “I am a prince. Princes do not marry for love.” He gave her a pained look. “My father never loved my mother. She was a child and he was a man.”
“But you and Lady Philippa are of an age – a far better foundation for a good marriage, don’t you think?” Kit nudged him in the ribs. “She’s quite pretty.”
Prince Edward went the colour of a boiled lobster, while muttering that aye, he thought she was. “She is so…uncomplicated, so sunny,” he continued. “I could do with a sun in my life.”
Kit was tempted to hug him. Poor lad; not quite fourteen and already so disillusioned.
“Well, we all need someone to brighten up our days, don’t we? Tell your mother you want Philippa. Let her sort out the practicalities with the count.”

As you can see – and surely it is not much of a surprise by now – I do believe in love at first sight, even if in this case it was probably more of a puppy love 🙂

Digging up the Tudor roots

Okay, I’m going to come clean: I am NOT a major Tudor fan. I’ve had it up to here (waves hand around eye level) with novels featuring Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. Likewise with Elizabeth I – undoubtedly an intriguing lady – maybe not so much with Mary Tudor. Which is why I surprised myself when I bought a book about Owen Tudor – but hey, all I knew about this particular Tudor was that he’d seduced Henry V’s widow  and that this happened like 100 years before Henry VIII’s heyday. Turns out I enjoyed the book, which is why I’ve invited the author, Tony Riches, to pop by.

TR Owen and Jasper BooksWelcome to my blog, Tony! By now, I have read quite a few of your books, and I recently enjoyed (yes, to my surprise – see above) both Owen and Jasper, the first two books in your Tudor trilogy. Why this fascination with the early Tudors?

Hi Anna – and thank you for inviting me to your blog. I was born within sight of Pembroke Castle, birthplace of Henry Tudor, so was naturally intrigued by how Henry became King of England. Surprised to find there were no books about Owen Tudor, the Welsh servant who married the widow of King Henry V, I began researching his life and discovered the fascinating story of how the Tudor dynasty began. I soon had more than enough material for a book and decided to write the trilogy, with Henry being born in the first book, coming of age in the second and becoming king in the third.

In Owen, you present Catherine of Valois as being prone to depression, if not full-blown mental instability. Tell us a bit about this – did your research lead you to conclude she was somewhat frail, or is this a case of “filling in the blanks”?

Although there is no direct evidence of Catherine’s ‘instability’ it’s recorded that her father, Charles VI of France, suffered from delusions, such as the belief he was made of glass. He began violently attacking his servants and had to be locked up for his own safety. Catherine’s son Henry VI also suffered from ’lapses’ and is reported as falling into some form of depressive catatonic state. Importantly, both her father and her son sometimes failed to recognise their own family and, as the link between them, Queen Catherine must have feared for her own mental health. She became a recluse at Bermondsey Abbey after Owen was arrested and her sons taken from her, so it was easy to imagine how this might have caused tension in her relationship with Owen Tudor.

In Jasper, Henry VI is already showing clear signs of retiring mentally from the world, leaving his forceful wife to cope on her own. Do you think there were ever discussions among the Lancastrians to depose him?

Yes – he was definitely unfit to rule, so if it had not been for the protection of Queen Margaret of Anjou I’m sure he would have been ‘retired’ through ill health much earlier. It’s fascinating to wonder how history might have changed if he’d not remained on the throne…

There has been speculation regarding the paternity of Prince Edward, Henry VI’s son. What is your take on it?

The only person who knows for certain is Queen Margaret, although providing the king with a male heir transformed her status in the country. By all accounts she was an attractive and lonely young woman, so given her husband’s mental and physical state at the time the temptation to take matters into her own hands must have been overwhelming.  (Ha! A true diplomat, Mr Riches…)

You paint a very engaging picture of Jasper Tudor – a man loyal to a fault, both to his brother and his nephew. Was this your starting point when you decided to write about him?

I wanted to show Jasper as a man with plenty of weaknesses. He always seemed to run from battles to save himself, he wasn’t a great military tactician, often failed to listen to good advice and didn’t settle down and marry until he was fifty-five.  At the same time, Jasper was an easy man to like, as he always put others first. There is no question of his loyalty to Henry Tudor or his diplomatic skills, qualities which were vital for the future of the Tudor dynasty.

 

In Jasper, the Welsh are talked into supporting Henry Tudor because he’s Welsh and rides under the Welsh dragon. Were there benefits to the Welsh during Henry VII’s reign?

The Welsh had been subjugated, second-class citizens for centuries, not allowed to own land or even carry a sword, so it must have been compelling to believe Henry was their prophesised saviour, ‘Y Mab Darogan’, the ‘son of destiny’. There is scant evidence that Henry VII ever returned to Wales once he was king, however, although he generously rewarded those who supported him at Bosworth.

As a writer, I found it interesting to note that Owen is written in first person, present tense, while Jasper is third person, past tense. Why have you used two such different approaches?

I started writing Owen in the third person, then read Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and was impressed by the sense of immediacy she achieves. I enjoyed the challenge of re-writing Owen in the first person and present tense – but Jasper was always third person in book one and I decided to continue this. I understand some readers struggle to get in to first person, present tense, although the feedback and reviews (and international sales) suggest it wasn’t an issue.

Your trilogy is to be concluded with a third book (obviously) named Henry. It seems to me the world of historical fiction readers is very polarised when it comes to Henry Tudor – what is your take on this enigmatic man?

I respected Richard III’s courage at the end of my book Jasper – and now I’m keen to present a fresh perspective on the man Henry was. He inherited a bankrupt throne and left it richer than it had ever been. He oversaw the longest period of peace for centuries, uniting families and establishing a new style of monarchy. (I’m attending the Bosworth anniversary re-enactment next month, however, and am sure the ‘Ricardians’ will take some convincing!)

What I found very interesting in Jasper was how distant you depicted the relationship between Margaret Beaufort and her son, Henry. Not so strange, really, seeing as he was raised by others than her, but somewhat at odds with the notion that she was the “power behind the throne” once he became king. What are your thoughts on Margaret and her relationship with Henry?

Margaret Beaufort was a fascinating woman, and I relied on numerous sources but was particularly impressed by Elizabeth Norton’s Margaret Beaufort: Mother of the Tudor Dynasty. The price of Henry’s long exile was that his mother would have been a complete stranger, as for many years they couldn’t exchange letters, yet she never stopped working for his return and became his most trusted advisor once he was king.

Finally, when will we be able to read Henry?

I am now working on the first draft and plan to launch Henry, Book Three of The Tudor Trilogy by Easter next year.

Thank you so much for dropping by, Tony – and for giving me a new perspective on the Tudors!

*****************************

TR Tony Riches 2016Tony Riches lives with his wife in Pembrokeshire, West Wales and is a specialist in the history of the fifteenth century, with a particular interest in the Wars of the Roses and the lives of the early Tudors. For more information about Tony’s books please visit his popular blog, The Writing Desk and his WordPress website and find him on Facebook and Twitter @tonyriches.

No, no, no! Please don’t die! – of the constraints imposed by reality

I write historical fiction, and as such I am a big fan of knowing my period and the important players of the time. However, my first series featured a time-traveller and her 17th century husband, a couple affected by what was happening round them – Matthew Graham is obliged to uproot himself and his family and leave Scotland due to the religious persecution in the aftermath of the Restoration in 1660 – but they were never anywhere close to the centre of things. This allowed me a lot of freedom when plotting their lives and adventures – albeit that I do have real-life characters flitting in and out.

EHFA Isabella_and_Roger_Mortimer

Isabella and Roger – IRL (hmm, like a century after the fact)

My new series also features fictional characters. But this time round, I’ve tied their fate to that of the movers and shakers of the time, and suddenly my writing is populated by far more characters who did exist than did not.
“I should hope so.” Roger Mortimer pours himself a goblet of wine and reclines on one of the window seats that have, just by magic, popped up in my head. “It is us that are truly interesting.”
Well, excuse me for not agreeing 100%, Lord Mortimer! Well, okay: I am fascinated by Roger Mortimer – have been, since a certain Mr Wilmshurst (one of my first history teachers) summarised the story of Queen Isabella and Roger.

At the time, Queen Isabella came as a fresh air, proving to everyone in the class room that not all medieval ladies were meek and submissive. In actual fact, I think very few were: it suffices to look around at the women that surround us to realise submissiveness is not necessarily an ingrained female trait. But you see, no matter how tough as boots Isabella was, I never really warmed to her. I did, however, warm to Mortimer.
“He would not have given you as much as a glance,” Isabella says from where she has joined Mortimer by the window. She twirls, showing off her perfect figure. Everything is perfect about her – but there’s something hard and calculating about her, and I’ve always felt she could have done more to save her lover from his fate.
“My fate?” Mortimer stands up, and beside him, Isabella is as dainty as a foal beside a stallion.
“Well, you know,” I say, squirming a bit. “You die.”
He gives me a humourless smile. “I know. I was there, remember?” His hand rubs at his neck. “I was hoping you’d apply an alternate history approach.” .
Ah. But I already do – sort of – and one can only play with the facts so far, unless I aim to recreate an entirely new historical setting, which I don’t. So I clear my throat and shake my head. “Sorry. Facts are facts.”
“Are they?” His brows shoot up. “So you know everything about me and Isabella?”
“Umm…” Obviously not. It’s not as if these two were kind enough to leave me huge diaries to read. And even if they had, who’s to say that would be the truth. The truth is never much more than a perception – unless we talk of the hard facts, such as “he was born then, died then.” Died. Gone. An irrefutable fact.

I’m going to come clean here and say I have a major, major problem when my characters – invented or not invented – die on me.

1280px-John_Everett_Millais_-_Ophelia_-_Google_Art_Project

Dead – very dead (Ophelia by Millais)

Now, when it comes to invented characters, the savvy writer can keep a careful eye on the character’s development and the plotline so as to ensure death is not the only option. Close shaves at times, but not death. Not yet. Preferably not ever – or at least not in any of the books I intend to write about this character. Some characters take matters out of your hands by being quite contrary and end up dead anyway, but such misfortunes can be avoided when dealing with imaginary peeps.

The problem is compounded when dealing with people who did live – and die. Unless you’re aiming for alternative history – as my pal Roger so helpfully suggested – in which you could, f.ex., keep Harold alive at Hastings while having William eating dust, writing about real-life people is constraining.

“Harold?” Roger snorts softly. “He was a Saxon savage. With William came order and structure. No William, no Henry II, no Eleanor of Aquitaine, no Edward I, no Edward II.” His brow furrows. “Not that Edward II would have been a major loss to mankind.”
“Whatever,” I tell him, wanting to clap him over the head for his disparging comment about Harold. “My point is rather that real life characters such as you were born, and then you DIED.”
And once these historical people reach their best by date, no tweaking of the plotline will help – there they lie, as still as a rock and with as much animation. Truth be told, they were just as inert prior to being included in the ongoing Work-in-progress, but once you start breathing life into a person, they become your baby, sort of, and we don’t like it when our babies die.
Roger Mortimer gives me an amused look. “Your baby?”
“Figuratively speaking.”
“Ah.” He glances at Isabella, who has moved off to study her reflection in a pool of water. (My head is very roomy, okay?) “Not baby in the more modern sense?” He winks.
Sheesh! My cheeks heat, and darkly handsome Roger Mortimer throws back his head and laughs. Well: I’ll get my revenge – sort of – by sticking to the actual dates, so come December 1330, this vibrant, forceful and extremely ambitious man will be lying in an anonymous grave somewhere. Right: I need to take a little break and fortify myself with a gulp or two of tea. Roger – who is quite the gentlemen when he wants to be – pats me on the back and tells me not to feel too bad about killing him off. After all, most of his contemporaries were of the opinion he deserved it. This he says with a crooked smile, and I know his ignominious death still rankles.

My conversation with Mortimer is interrupted by the sudden appearance of Adam de Guirande, my very invented hero who loves Mortimer as a father – even if at times he doesn’t like him or his methods much. If I am upset by the thought of Mortimer’s death, it will eviscerate Adam.
“It will.” Mortimer’s dark gaze follows Adam’s progress towards him. “So we don’t tell him. Not yet.”
“Not yet,” I promise.
Mortimer moves off with Adam, doing one of those elegant fade aways my characters often do when they desire some moments of privacy. I revert to my morbid musings regarding the demise of characters.

One of my main gripes with George R. R. Martin’s Game of Throne series is that he keeps on killing people off. No sooner have I developed a relationship with one of his main characters, and he offs them. I have still not recuperated from Ned Stark’s beheading, let me tell you. Now, if I feel so bereaved, I can only imagine how bereaved he feels. Or maybe he doesn’t. Maybe he maintains a professional distance to all his imaginary creations – but I don’t believe that, as anyone with half a brain cell can see how much of himself he has invested in his books and characters.

Still, Martin has the option of keeping them all alive. Had he wanted to, the entire Stark family could still be sitting in Winterfell, expressing that “winter is coming” in between bickering about whether to worship the Seven, the old goods, or the fire god. Not necessarily the most riveting of stories, but he could have aimed for a Happily Ever After seeing as he invented the Starks.

Had George R.R. Martin been writing about William Wallace, Happily Ever After would not even be an option. After all, we all know how Wallace died, and there was nothing happy about it. (And while I break out in hives every time I see Mel Gibson depict Wallace wearing a kilt, I must give him plus points for that awesome death scene.)

Edward_Burne-Jones.The_last_sleep_of_Arthur

A very dead Arthur (Edward Burne-Jones)

It’s very frustrating to know from the beginning you’re going to have to kill off some of your protagonists – just because they happen to have a fixed death date. Alternatively, you end the story before they die, but sometimes that isn’t an option. In the example of William Wallace, there really is no point at which we can have him riding off into a rosy sunset, leaving his future fate to be determined by the reader.

No, William Wallace had no Happily Ever After, and neither did my Roger Mortimer. I sigh and press the heels of my hands against my eyes. Shit: Adam de Guirande will never forgive me for this, for allowing him to develop such strong bonds with a man I knew from the beginning wouldn’t be around to grow old. But that, dear readers, is one of those things us writers have to deal with. Still: I wish…

Sunny days and summer reads – a new book & a giveaway!

The other day, I published my tenth book. I’m starting to feel like one of those ladies back in medieval times who popped out a baby a year and probably worried how on earth she was to feed and clothe them, let alone love them all. Except, of course, that one always loves one’s babies, right?

9789198324518Days of Sun and Glory is the second in my series The King’s Greatest Enemy. Once again, I get to muck about in the delightfully complicated political environment of 14th century England, rubbing shoulders with Edward II and Despenser (although I keep my distance from dear Hugh – don’t like him much) and, of course, Roger Mortimer. Him I like – or rather, I see him through the eyes of my protagonist, Adam de Guirande, who loves Roger, has loved him since that day when Roger saved twelve-year-old Adam from his abusive father.

“Complicated,” Kit de Guirande says when I ask her what she thinks of Roger. She frowns. “To love Roger Mortimer in this the year of our Lord 1323 is to ask for trouble.”
Tell me about it. Mortimer has just managed to escape from the Tower and has fled to France. In England, Edward II is cursing himself to hell and back for not having executed Mortimer while he had the chance. Despenser totally agrees, but wisely holds his tongue. Queen Isabella, Edward IIs wife, detests Despenser – and even more she detests being marginalised by the king’s favourite, which is why she’s rooting for Mortimer, albeit extremely discreetly. And then there’s Edward of Windsor, the young prince, since some months Adam’s new lord and master.

Adam loves his young lord. He agonises with Prince Edward as the boy is torn apart betwen his father and his mother – after all, Adam knows just how that feels, as torn between Mortimer and the prince. And then there’s Kit, whom he adores and desperately wants to keep safe, but how is he to do that in this political quagmire?
“All he has to do to keep me safe is to keep himself safe.” Kit fingers her veil. “If he dies…” She shudders. “If Despenser gets hold of him…”
Yeah. That would be bad. Very bad.

Well: in conclusion, Days of Sun and Glory is something of a medieval roller-coaster. People fight.People die. And in all this mess, all this upheaval, I just have to trust that Adam’s innate honour and loyalty will help him choose the right way forward. Sheesh! I keep my fingers crossed so hard they hurt…

Slide1So, what are you waiting for? Go and grab a copy of Days and Sun and Glory and leave the very complicated here and now for an equally complicated, if distant, 14th century.

And should you want to start at the beginning, why not pick up In the Shadow of the Storm as well!

And seeing as a new book is always cause for celebration, I am giving away two e-book copies of Days of Sun and Glory. Just leave a comment and let me know where you prefer to do your #summerreading 🙂 Giveaway closes July 21st.

UPDATE! The winners are Denise and Sharon! Congratulations!

An Appropriate Death for a Woman

Today, I thought I’d treat you to one of my short stories. And as such stories should work without an extensive introduction, without further ado allow me to begin:

“No sooner has a man found his bed but he is dragged out of it,” Eskil Gyllenstierna complained. He hastened down the narrow cobbled street towards the royal castle, keeping a firm hold on Kristina’s arm. “Three days of drinking has my head near on split in two – I had hoped for a nice, long nap.”
“At least you enjoyed the coronation celebrations.” It had been a lavish affair, presided over by a triumphant Christian II. Kristina grimaced; it had been like swallowing bile to watch the Danish king crowned king of Sweden. Had not Sten died, none of this would have happened. Kristina sucked in a breath, trying to dull the jab of grief her husband’s name elicited.
“Why a coronation in November?” Eskil took a sharp turn to the right, skipping over a pile of horse dung.
“Why not?” Kristina slipped and clutched at her brother. “As his majesty is so fond of reminding us, he is king and can do as he pleases.”
“King for now,” Eskil muttered, throwing her a sharp look out of red-shot eyes.
“Hush!”
“It should be Nils on the throne,” Eskil muttered.

Kristina Death_of_Sten_Sture_the_Younger

Sten, dying…

“It should have been Sten,” Kristina corrected. Her Sten, dead in his prime, killed by a Danish cannon back in January of 1520, and now here they were, hastening to bow and scrape to the Danish king. At times the wheel of fortune turned too quickly.
“Sten would have wanted it to be Nils.”
“Nils is a boy. We must be patient.” Kristina smiled at the thought of her eldest son. Keep him safe, she admonished herself. Make sure he makes it to manhood, and then we’ll see if Christian II sits as easily on his throne. The thought revived her somewhat; her son, a future king.

Just as they hurried over the bridge leading to the castle, Kristina placed a hand on Eskil’s arm. “No heroics, dear brother. I have no idea why the king has convened this meeting of nobles so late in the day, but promise me you will not do anything to draw the royal eye.”
Eskil smirked and pulled himself up straight, presenting her with the full glory of his presence. A handsome man, Eskil was also vain and had expended a small fortune on his garments. His doublet was of French damask, his hose was of silk, and the lace at collars and cuffs was from the nunnery of Vadstena – as fine, if not better, than the Brussels lace the Danes favoured.
“I shall melt into the background,” Eskil said. “Well, try to, at least.”
Kristina laughed. “You do that.” She patted him fondly on his cheek.

The great hall of the castle was thronged with people. Kristina and Eskil moved through the crowd, greeting friends and relatives. No other women, Kristina noted, throwing a nervous look in the direction of the silent guards that stood at every door.
“I don’t like this,” she muttered to Erik Vasa, her brother-in-law. She gestured at the guards. “They’re all heavily armed.”
Erik gave her a bleary look, making Kristina sigh. Vasa was not the brightest of men, and even less so when in his cups. His companion, however, straightened up and studied the guards, his features setting in a scowl.
“You’re right.” Joakim Brahe shifted on his feet. “I don’t like this either.”

Kristina ChristianIIb

Christian II

“Don’t be silly. The king is merely displaying his power. And…” Erik broke off as the king entered, accompanied by a bevy of Danish nobles. In black – not surprising, as Christian II was much taken with the sobriety of the Holy Roman Emperor’s court – and with a fur lined cloak that hung almost to the floor, he strode down the room, the light of the candles and torches reflecting off his rings and the jewel-encrusted embroidery that adorned his chest . Thick reddish hair, a well-groomed reddish beard, a longish nose that some people whispered made him look like a Jew, and dark eyes under reddish eyebrows – the Danish king looked more like a well-to-do merchant than he did a king, but that was an opinion Kristina kept to herself.

Among the king’s men, Kristina caught sight of the recently reinstated Archbishop Trolle. The churchman saw her, wrinkled his nose and turned away, the heavy robes of his office swirling round him.
“What is he doing here?” she hissed to Eskil.
“Who?”
“Trolle!” Kristina swallowed nervously. The Archbishop had been deposed by the Swedish parliament several years ago, effectively decapitating the Danish faction in Sweden – to no use, given that the Danes had emerged victorious. Kristina crossed herself and groped for the crucifix she kept hanging at her waist. It was a blatant breach of canonical law to depose an archbishop, and the parliament had only done so after days of deliberation –and at the instigation of her dead husband. It had been bad enough to witness a most hale and hearty Archbishop Trolle perform the coronation rituals some days ago, but for the man to be here, looking as smug as a bedbug in a brothel, no, it didn’t sit right.
“I smell a rat,” Kristina said, eyeing the guards that not only stood by the doors, but also lined the walls. Joakim muttered an agreement, but her brother’s reply was lost in his bow, and Kristina curtsied deeply when the king passed by.
“Ah, our Lady of Stockholm,” the king said, motioning for Kristina to rise.
“Your Grace,” she replied, a sensation of disquiet rippling through her at his use of that particular title.

In the aftermath of her husband’s death, she had headed the opposition against the Danish king, refusing to surrender Stockholm. Only when she saw no other option, had she negotiated a truce with the king, demanding amnesty. The king had agreed, but it was said that Christian II had a long memory – and no reputation for leniency. She smoothed nervously at her stomacher, her skirts, while Christian regarded her in silence. Kristina was hard put to refrain from squirming. She didn’t like the way the king’s mouth seemed to be pursed round a smile wanting to break forth, nor the brightness in his eyes – as if he walked about in a fever of expectation. 

The king continued his stroll towards the raised dais upon which sat his chair. The archbishop whispered something in the king’s ear, and Christian smiled widely – to Kristina a most blood-curdling vision.
“We must leave.” Kristina urged her brother towards one of the doors. As if on cue, the doors banged shut. Bolts were drawn and the guards unsheathed their swords. Some heartbeats of silence were followed by a wave of loud mutters as the assembled Swedish nobility looked at each other, at the heavily armed guards, at the king.

Christian II took his time, regarding his audience until the mutters died away. He sat down, arranged his cloak and displayed his teeth in a victorious grin.
“The day of reckoning is here,” the king said.
“Reckoning?” Joakim Brahe’s voice carried like a war horn. “What reckoning, my liege?”
“For your past sins, of course,” the king replied.
Kristina pushed her way forward. “You gave your word.” A deep breath to calm her racing heart and she approached the king, cleaving a path through the assembled men as if she were Moses parting the Red Sea. “You gave amnesty for all previous perceived traitorous actions, you promised clemency to all. Those were the terms of my surrender, Your Grace.”
Christian sat back and stroked his beard. “Maybe I lied,” he said mildly.
“True kings don’t lie. They give their word and hold to it.” She raised her chin, refusing to break eye-contact.
“What an innocent you are at times.” The king chuckled, eyeing Kristina as if she were an enervating chit of a girl, no more. He sat up straight and his expression hardened. “How dare you presume to tell me how kings should behave? You, an upstart female I should have drowned in a barrel for your rebellious resistance to my rule?” He stopped to draw breath, and the silence was such that should one have spilt a drop of water, it would have echoed like thunder in the vast hall. The archbishop placed a hand on the royal shoulder. With an irritated shrug, the king waved him away.

Kristina_Nilsdotter_Gyllenstierna_(ur_Svenska_Familj-Journalen)

Kristina – hmm…

“I have never rebelled against anyone,” Kristina said. “I have but defended my country from the rapacious grasp of others.” There was a collective gasp from the men surrounding her, and she thought she could hear Eskil moan her name. Too late; she’d thrown caution in the wind, and from the expression on Christian’s face she would pay dearly. Lord, keep my sons safe, she prayed. Whatever fate You burden me with, please keep them safe. Once again, she clasped the crucifix in her hand.
“You I will deal with later,” the king said. “But first, we will listen to Archbishop Trolle.” He waved his hand at the archbishop who stood, cleared his throat and proceeded to speak.

Kristina’s head reeled. Accusations of heresy? The archbishop droned on, insisting that all those nobles who had actively participated in deposing him were nothing more than heretics, and as such deserved to be punished as such.
“You promised!” she yelled, interrupting the archbishop’s monologue. She pointed at the king. “You gave amnesty for all acts against Danish interests, including that of deposing your pet archbishop.”
The king smirked and opened his arms wide. “Alas, it is out of my hands. The Church demands restitution, not me.”
“But you swore…”
“Silence!” the king roared. “As I said, it is out of my hands.”
From all over the room, loud voices rose, yelling that this was a farce, a violation of the newly anointed king’s oaths. Men pressed forward, demanding that the lying archbishop be thrown out.
“He’s the rebel!” Joakim Brahe screamed. “It was Trolle who betrayed his country, not the other way around.”

Trolle backed away from the angered mob, eyes darting in the direction of his king. Christian gestured, and the guards closest drew their swords, using them to force the crowd away from the dais. The king rose to his feet. “Either you listen to what the archbishop has to say in silence, or I will have you all thrown into the dungeons.”
“He is speaking of heresy!” someone yelled. “We all know what that means. If found guilty, we die!”
The king held up his hands in a placating gesture. “You will be accorded a fair hearing – as your king, I promise you that.”
“Our king?” Kristina closed her eyes when she recognised her brother’s voice. “Our true leader lies dead since ten months back,” Eskil continued. “And we all know Trolle just wants to get his own back.” He spat in the direction of the archbishop. “A pox on you, Gustav Trolle. You are no archbishop of ours, you’re just a cur, grovelling at your Danish master’s feet.”
There was a slap, and Eskil staggered back, holding his hand to his face. One of the guards shook his sword at him. “Next time I use the cutting edge, not the flat.”

The archbishop resumed his litany. Kristina swayed when she was named as one of the heretics, as was her deceased husband, her brothers, Joakim Brahe, Erik Vasa – everyone who had supported her husband was on the archbishop’s list – truly a divine coincidence, she thought bitterly. Voices were raised in protest, people screamed and yelled, and at one point something flew through the air to land with a splat on the archbishop’s robes. At the king’s command, the accused noblemen were dragged off at sword point to be locked up for the night. As Kristina was manhandled past the archbishop, she spat at his feet.
“May you rot in hell for what you just did to your countrymen.”
“I live to serve God and my king,” Trolle replied mildly, turning his back on her.

After a sleepless night, Kristina rose just before dawn and kneeled down by the eastern window, her eyes affixed on the returning light as she said her prayers.
“Mother of God, give me resolve,” she whispered. “Help me through this day, my Lady.” She crossed herself and got to her feet. She could hear the guards shuffling on their feet in the antechamber, saying something in that ugly language of theirs.
When the guards came to fetch her, Kristina was standing in the middle of the room, back straight, hands clasped lightly in front of her. She took a deep breath. She would show no fear. She took yet another breath and raised her chin. Show no fear. She moved towards the waiting guards.

Kristina Stockholm_Bloodbath

The bloodbath – a bishop is being killed to the left

The travesty of a trial was concluded by noon. A council of bishops found the accused guilty of heresy, and with barely contained glee the king sprang into action. One by one, the condemned men were dragged out into the central square, there to be beheaded – or hanged, depending on their station. Kristina was hauled to the window to watch as her brothers, her brother-in-law, her cousins and her menfolk in general, were decapitated.
“Eskil!” she shrieked when he was dragged fighting towards the rudimentary block. “Eskil,” she sobbed when his head was tossed into the fountain. The cobbles of the square ran red with blood, the gallows groaned under the weight of all those slowly spinning bodies, and Kristina was hoarse with weeping, her eyes so bloated she could scarcely see.

A soft chuckle from behind her made her turn. The king was standing a yard or so away, studying her with interest.
“What? Are you not enjoying the spectacle?”
She shook her head, incapable of speech.
The king laughed again. “Tomorrow we will burn their bodies – and as we speak I am having your husband disinterred to burn him with them.”
Kristina moaned a ‘no’, sinking down to her knees. “Please, my liege, leave Sten to rest in peace.”
The king regarded her with amusement. “So you beg for the body of your husband, but not for your life.”
Kristina swallowed. She’d thought herself reprieved. Her hands rose to her neck. She didn’t want to die.
“You will burn in hell everlasting for this,” she told him.
“And you will die. But I won’t drag you out to the square to meet your death like your menfolk have. It would be quite inappropriate, for a woman to die like that.”
“Inappropriate?”
“Inappropriate.” Eyes reminiscent of pebbles drilled into hers. “So, my lady, I give you a choice. Do you prefer burning at the stake or being buried alive?”
She collapsed to the floor, her head filling with the sound of Christian’s laughter. All she could see were the toes of his boots. To burn or be buried alive – two appropriate deaths for a rebellious woman. Show no fear. Kristina Gyllenstierna crawled on the floor, clutching at the king’s leg.
“Mercy.” Show no fear. “Mercy, my liege.”
The king just laughed and laughed.

(And if you want to read Kristina Gyllenstierna’s full story, go here!)

 

 

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