ANNA BELFRAGE

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The adventures of that perennial herbalist, Mr Nicholas Culpeper

NC d7107f99f9f5f33b5c78b6be93e2de61Some people are born with a major interest in flowers. Take my eldest son, who at the tender age of fourteen months methodically chomped his way through every single one of my hundred odd tulips, leaving half chewed petals in his wake. Or take Nicholas Culpeper, whose interest in flora was somewhat more scientific. I don’t think he ever ate a tulip – but that may have been more out of parsimony than disinclination, as tulips were rare (and expensive) plants during Nicholas’ lifetime.

My son no longer remembers what tulips tasted like, and seeing as these plants – or at least their bulbs – are mildly poisonous, he was never given an opportunity to repeat his gastronomical excursions. Culpeper tells us nothing of the tulip in his writings. I guess we can conclude that Culpeper wasn’t all that interested in flowers that were “merely” beautiful .

Not many authors can boast at having their book in constant publication for more than 350 years. Obviously, this is to some extent due to the fact that very few authors live long enough to experience such a long print run, but leaving witticisms aside, Nicholas Culpeper is one of the few authors around whose book has been in constant demand since it was first published, back in 1652.

NC English_PhysitianSo what was so great about his book? Did he reveal the secrets of alchemy? Was he perhaps an early George R.R. Martin, riveting people to their seats by a complex and convoluted tale involving dragons, feuding kings and resilient damsels? Nope – although Nicholas’ own life contained enough adventure to fill a book or two, what with the times he lived in. But what Nicholas experienced in life resulted in an entirely different kind of book; Nicholas published a herbal, The English Physitian, a DIY manual to keeping hale and hearty in a time when what medicines were to be found came from plants.

If we start at the beginning  – always a good idea, IMO – Nicholas was born in 1616, the posthumous son of Reverend Nicholas Culpeper, lord of Ockley manor in Surrey. The manor slipped through baby Nicholas’ fingers, and instead he was raised by his maternal grandfather, yet another reverend. By the time he was ten, little Nicholas had a good grounding in Greek and Latin, was familiar with both astrology and medical tracts and was well on his way to becoming a master herbalist. One must assume this passion for plants came from his grandfather, and I have this image of two figures, one stout and leaning on a cane, the other agile and all legs and arms, standing side by side as they inspect a stand of digitalis.

At the age of sixteen, Nicholas was sent to Cambridge to study divinities. He wasn’t all that interested – he wanted to study medicine – and as a consequence he never graduated. Besides, Nicholas had other plans. Since childhood, he had held a special fondness for Judith Rivers, a well-to-do heiress, and the two young lovers were committed to a life together. Judith’s parents disapproved. Nicholas was not a catch, and their precious Judith could do better. I imagine Judith wept. She trailed her mother like a whipped puppy and begged her parents to reconsider – she loved Nicholas, would love no other. Mr and Mrs Rivers remained unmoved. Judith was meant for other, richer, men.

Well, we all know what teenaged fools do for love, right? Faced with her parents’ continued opposition, Judith and Nicholas devised a plan. After all, theirs was not a puppy love, theirs was the real thing, and a life without each other was not to be contemplated. They decided to elope to Holland (Gretna Green had not come into the vogue yet) and stay there until the furore died down. As an aside, parental consent was not required for marriage in the 17th century, but to wed without Mama’s and Papa’s approval was to risk end up being disinherited. I suppose Judith was hoping that old adage “distance makes the heart grow fonder” would apply to her parents as well.

Whatever the case, Judith and Nicholas were not destined for a happily ever after. On her way to her rendezvous with Nicholas, Judith’s carriage was struck by lightning and she died. With one bolt of thunder, Nicholas’ hopes of a rosy future were obliterated – even more so when his grandfather decided to disinherit him, shocked to his core by Nicholas’ duplicitous behaviour. (Obviously, the old reverend had little experience of being young and madly in love…)

Nicholas was now in dire straits. There was no money to pay for his education, there was no bride, no welcoming home. After rousing himself from grief-induced depression, Nicholas apprenticed himself to an apothecary in London. He taught his employer Latin, his employer taught Nicholas everything he knew about plants.

NC downloadIn 1635, Nicholas took over his former master’s apothecary shop on Threadneedle Street. Due to his extensive reading and an inquisitive mind, Culpeper’s education was as extensive as that of a physician – but it was an informal education, and as such of very little value professionally. To his medical interests, Culpeper added astrology, blending these two disciplines into a holistic approach to healing. The Royal College of Physicians were not pleased with this interloper. Nicholas Culpeper retaliated by describing the physicians as “bloodsuckers, true vampires” – not the basis for a long-lasting loving relationship.

In 1640, several years after the sad affair with Judith, Nicholas married Alice Field. His new wife had recently inherited a considerable fortune after her merchant father, and using her money the couple established themselves in Spitalfields, far enough from London proper to allow Nicholas to continue with his healing endeavours despite not being an accredited member of the Royal College of Physicians. In Spitalfields, Nicholas opened the doors of his practise to everyone who needed his help. (How fortunate his wife was rich)

NC Digitalis_purpurea_Koehler_drawingMost of Nicholas cures were based on herbs. Some were true advancements in medical science, as when he documents the use of foxgloves to treat heart conditions (definitely works. The dosage, however, is somewhat tricky, and if too high will kill your patient). Some sound decidedly strange, such as boiling your bedstraw in oil to make an aphrodisiac.

Otherwise, he shares that willow can be used to stem the bleeding of wounds, roses can alleviate the discomfort of menses , raspberries and strawberries are excellent ways of ridding your teeth of “tartarous concretions” (plaque?). The seeds of nettles can be used against the bites of rabid dogs (I think not), meadowsweet is recommended against fevers (works, as meadowsweet contains high doses of salicylic acid)and fleabane helps with bites from venomous beasts. Hmm. My general conclusion after browsing through Nicholas’ suggested cures is to take them with a pinch of salt – and to make sure I have a herbal with me to ensure I’m picking the right plant!

NC zodiac manOur innovative healer did more than just list plants. He combined his herbal lore with his other passion, astrology, and borrowed heavily from Galen’s humoral philosophy, which is why in his herbal the plants are sorted by planets. Some belong to Venus, others to Mars and yet others to Saturn or Jupiter. To all this he added his own personal opinions – like when he dismisses black currants as having a “stinking and somewhat loathing savour”, thereby dismissing a plant we know to contain very high levels of vitamin C as well as a number of anti-inflammatory agents.

After some years of contented calm in Spitalfields, things were to change yet again for our intrepid healer. By now, the ravages of the Civil War were upon the people of England. Culpeper was a radical republican and wanted to do his thing for the cause. Besides, there was the matter of a slanderous accusation for witchcraft, plus an increasingly more infected relationship with both the Royal College of Physicians and the Society of Apothecaries. These august bodies disliked Culpeper’s translations of medical texts from Latin to English, making hitherto restricted knowledge available to the broader masses. It sort of undermined their business concept…

Nicholas kissed his wife goodbye, may have stooped over a cradle to coo at one of the many children his wife was to give him – puny little things that all but one died young – and rode off to fight for Parliament. The recruiting officer was less than flattering regarding Nicholas’ physique, but more than impressed when he heard Culpeper’s credentials, and instead of fighting, Nicholas was put to work as a field surgeon.

He attended the wounded at the battle of Edgehill, joined in the initial fighting at the battle of Newbury but was quickly called upon to use his medical skills instead. Culpeper was operating on an injured soldier when a stray musket ball wounded him severely in the chest, effectively ending his military ambitions.

Back in London, Nicholas returned to treating the poor. His own health was deteriorating rapidly, through a combination of too much work, his unhealed injury and tuberculosis. It didn’t help that his children kept on dying, causing both Nicholas and his wife more than their share of grief. On top of this, Nicholas took up a one man crusade against the “closed shop” policies of the Royal College of Physicians and the Society of Apothecaries. This “closed shop” policy was effectively a monopoly, based on the fact that so many of the guidelines to making medicines and treating diseases were only in Latin and only available to a few.

Nicholas made it his purpose in life to crush this monopoly. He translated one text after the other, he wrote treatises on diseases, on midwifery, on the properties of plants. He translated Galen into English, he devoted time to his destitute patients, and in all this he also managed to produce his masterpiece, The English Physitian – a giant handbook on what herbs to use for what diseases.

NC In_Effigiam_Nicholai_Culpeper_Equitis_by_Richard_GaywoodBy now, Nicholas knew he was dying. He was burning his candle both ends as life gasped and fluttered within him, driven by a need to write down as much as possible to help his fellowman. And he was clearly very productive, because when he finally did die, in January of 1654, his wife wrote that her husband had left her “79 books of his own making or translating in my hands.”

Nicholas Culpeper was an idealist. He was a man who combined compassion and passion into a constant endeavour to help the sick and ailing. He considered it a human right to have access to medical care – a precursor of the future welfare state – and like Don Quijote he was not afraid to take on an army of windmills while fighting for what he thought was right. In difference to Don Quijote, Culpeper fought using pen and ink rather than lance. And the fact that his book is still there, is still being read, is a testament to his success.

NC IMG_1227The English Physitian quickly became very popular. Housewives all over wanted a copy, and when people set off for the wild unknown of the New World, many of them carried with them a precious copy of Culpeper’s book, hoping to find cures for whatever ills might afflict them in their new homeland within the covers. I think Nicholas would have been pleased. I also think he would have liked my tulips – no matter that they have very few medicinal uses.

Ælfgyva, The Mystery Lady of The Bayeux Tapestry

For many years the presence of a lady known as Ælfgyva on the Bayeux Tapestry has baffled historians. No one knows who she is or why she is depicted on the tapestry. Today’s guest, Paula Lofting, spends most of her free time researching the 11th century (and writing great books set in the period). She has her own theories as to who the mystery lady was. I suggest you sit back and enjoy the ride as Paula guides you through this rather convoluted story!

PL Becca Marshall

courtesy Becca Marshall

There was a plethora of women called Ælfgyva/Ælfgifu amongst the women of 11th century England. King Cnut’s first consort and the mother of his sons, Harald and Swein, was known as Ælfgifu of Northampton. Her father, Ælfhelm, had been executed and her brothers blinded during Aethelred’s reign, so her hatred of the ‘unready’ king must have made it easy for Cnut to win her, and her relatives, over.

Cnut wasn’t content to have one woman. No, he had to have two. Greedy chap, I hear you say. Well, it was fashionable to have an official wife and a handfasted wife. For the sake of continuity, Cnut decided to hook up with King Æthelred’s widow, Emma of Normandy, who’d been forced to change her name on marriage to Æthelred and be known as, – yes, you’ve got it – Ælfgifu. Emma, however, seems to have preferred her own name, and to avoid confusion as we go on, I’ll refer to her as Emma, no matter what her Anglo-Saxon name was.

The Ælfgifu on the Bayeux Tapestry appears in one scene where it says, Here Ælfgyva and a cleric. In the scene, the priest, or monk, is touching her face, signifying a collaboration with her. But it isn’t the priest that draws the eye: it’s the two naked men at the bottom. Question is, who is this Ælfgifu?  

PL BT nr 1

Our lady of the day being touched by a priest

Having made studies of the various primary and secondary sources, I believe that the woman on the Tapestry is Ælfgifu of Northampton, as J Bard McNulty (1980) first identified her. Why do I believe this? Because Ælfgifu of Northampton became the subject of a scandal when she was accused of presenting Cnut with two sons that were neither his nor hers. One was rumoured to be the son of a workman and a serving maid and the other, the son of a priest and the same serving maid – or maybe Ælfgifu herself.

In the Tapestry scene featuring Ælfgifu the pictures at the bottom depict a naked workman with a monkish style haircut, his genitals exposed as he works with a hammer and wood. In the next scene, the naked man mirrors the stance of the cleric who is touching her face. The scene comes just after a scene depicting Harold and William meeting, and maybe it is there to illustrate what the two men talked about, namely an old scandal involving a royal consort and a priest. Whatever the case, it is the only scene of its kind in the tapestry.

Whether there is any truth to the scandal, around 1030 Cnut sent Ælfgifu with their son Swein to Norway to govern on Cnut’s behalf. This may have been to keep her out of Emma’s way. No doubt the two women would have been directly at odds with each other. After all, Emma agreed to marry Cnut on the surety that her children with him would take precedence over Ælfgifu’s in the succession.

Ælfgifu’s heavy-handed taxation did not endear her to the Norwegians. She and Swein were ousted after some years. Nothing more was heard about her after 1040 and it is thought that she had died in Denmark after her son Swein.

Not everyone agrees with the above interpretation. Historian Eric Freeman states that he believes, owing to a 14th century legend, that Emma of Normandy is the woman being portrayed disgracefully on the Tapestry. I am unsure as to how and why a 11th century scandal may have only emerged in the 14thcentury, but whatever the case, it goes thus:

Edward, the king, believing that his mother had entered into sexual relations with a Bishop Ælfwine, (or a Bishop Stigand) sent her into a monastery and had the bishop locked up. Shown in a heroic light, Emma offered to prove the Bishop’s innocence by ordeal by hot iron, but Robert, the Bishop of London, threw more coal on the fire by announcing a list of her sins which included conspiring to murder her son, Alfred, and defaming her other son, Edward himself. Emma was ordered to undergo the ordeal and survived, the tale transforming into some sort of miraculous legend, with Edward begging forgiveness and mercy of her and restoring all that he had taken and more. There is no contemporary evidence for this strange story, beyond illustrating the strained relationship between Emma and her son.

Emma had always had a reasonably good relationship and reputation with the English whilst she was wed to Cnut. In Normandy, however, her reputation was sullied by her second marriage. After all, she put aside her sons from her marriage to Æthelred (a marriage arranged by her brother, the duke of Normandy) and abandoned them in Normandy, dissolving any Norman ambition of future successions to the English crown.

Then Cnut died. Emma’s reputation and power did not suffer overmuch—at least not while her son by Cnut, Harthacnut, was king. But when her son by Æthelred, Edward, succeeded to the throne, things changed. Unsurprisingly, Edward’s view of her was coloured by her abandonment of him in his adolescent years for a man who essentially caused the downfall of his father. Edward removed all Emma’s wealth and assets and basically told her to stop prying in England’s affairs and lead a quiet life in Winchester. Emma seems to have done so, right up until she died in 1052. No indications of a passionate affair with a bishop, no detailed account of an ordeal by hot iron, just an older abandoned woman living out what remained of her life.

There is another reason to discount Emma as the scandalous Ælfgifu on the Tapestry: her great-nephew William of Normandy. His claim on the English crown was tenuous at best and depended entirely on his kinship—via Emma—with King Edward. Therefore, with Emma being integral to William’s claim to the crown, it would hardly seem a good idea to represent her on the Tapestry in this way. William was already a bastard; he needed all the ‘decency’ in his backstory he could get.

William had no relationship with Ælfgifu of Northampton. She was not a person whom he would have greatly regarded, so the embroiderers would not have worried too much about stitching her and her clerical (potential) lover onto the tapestry.  Due to the lack of info stitched onto the tapestry regarding the scene, it seems this was a well-known scandal of the day. In other words, it was anecdotal to the time and it fits far better than the story of Emma.

In conclusion, I have no doubt that the mystery lady on the Bayeaux Tapestry is Ælfgifu of Northampton—but that does not mean we should necessarily assume she was involved in a scandal. After all, gossip back then was probably as vicious as it can be now!

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

Thank you for that, Paula! Now, as I stated already at the beginning, Paula’s love of the 11th century isn’t restricted to researching the period – she also writes. So far, she has published two books about Wulfhere of Horstede and his complicated life in which marital issues, war and an infected blood-feud figure prominently.  I have recently read the second book in her series, The Wolf Banner, and this is my review:

PL WBThere are a couple of things that are very apparent when reading Ms Lofting’s The Wolf Banner: the author knows her history inside out and the author loves her chosen period. This results in a vibrant historical setting, little details of everyday life blending together to create quite the time travelling experience. While reading Ms Lofting’s book I am transported to the 11th century, walking side by side with her characters.

Further to the setting, Ms Lofting adds a well-developed plot and an interesting cast of characters. Not all of these characters are likeable – notably Wulfhere’s wife Ealdgytha is very difficult for me to warm towards, no matter that the woman has her fair share of woes – but then that is how it is in real life as well. The protagonist is Wulfhere, thane of Horstede and sworn to serve King Edward the Confessor. Other than doing his duty by his lord Wulfhere has a somewhat infected situation at home and a bitter feud with his nearest neighbour to handle. Plus there are all his children, from his eldest daughter Freyda to Tovi, the son who is treated like an enervating afterthought by both his parents.

Ms Lofting does an excellent job with Tovi who very quickly grows into the character I care the most about. Some scenes involving this young boy and his parents are quite heart-breaking, and I can only hope we will see more of Tovi as the story progresses.

The personal lives of Wulhere and his family are interwoven with the political events of the times. King Edward, Harold Godwinson, the Welsh king Gryffud ap Llywellyn, the ever-present Danes – they all affect the narrative, culminating in vivid—I would even say excellent—battle scenes with Wulfhere in the thick of things.

The Wolf Banner is a sequel to Sons of the Wolf and to fully enjoy it I recommend the reader starts at the beginning. Likewise, The Wolf Banner does not conclude all the stories begun in it. For that we must await the next instalments of the saga.

At times, I feel the novel would have benefited from some abbreviation—this is a very long book and some pruning would, in my opinion, have enhanced the narrative. But this is a minor quibble: all in all The Wolf Banner is a gripping read, offering quite the insight into pre-Conquest England.

About the Author:

PL PaulaWriting has always been a lifelong ambition for Paula. A prolific reader, she loved to spend weekends buried in a book. Earliest influences such as Rosemary Sutcliffe, Leon Garfield, Charles Dickens, inspired an interest in history and a longing to write historical fiction. However, this ambition was reluctantly put on hold due to life events.

Her début novel, Sons of the Wolf eventually materialised, followed by the sequel, The Wolf Banner. These are stories set in the years leading up to the Norman Conquest of England. She is now working on Book 3 in the series, Wolf’s Bane.

History is a great love of hers and her interest in the subject goes beyond that of the keyboard. She also enjoys Anglo-Saxon re-enactment with Regia Anglorum, also a great source of research for her writing.

Twitter – @paulalofting

Facebook – https://www.facebook.com/Paula-Lofting-Author-Page-436306319727806/

Paula’s books can be found on Amazon!

 

Heavy weighs the usurped crown

On July 4, 1399, a man landed at Ravenspurn, Yorkshire, returning from his exile in France. With him came a handful of companions, and I suppose the man must have been nervous, no matter how determined. He was, after all, risking his life and his future. Henry Bolingbroke had come to claim the English crown.

It reads like an improbable adventure. The red-headed Henry, son of John of Gaunt, speedily took control over most of England, further helped along by the fact that Richard II was in Ireland, having taken his loyal lords with him.

Henry Bolingbroke-richard-flint-castle-harley-ms-1319

Richard surrendering to Henry

By the time Richard made it back in late July, it was too late. Inexplicably, Richard left his main host in Pembrokeshire and disguised as a friar rode north, there to meet with the Earl of Salisbury, who had been charged with raising a royal army. No such army materialised. At Conwy Castle, Richard was forced to receive Henry’s messengers. On August 19, Richard II surrendered to his cousin at Flint Castle and rode in his retinue all the way back to London, no doubt most indignant at having to ride behind Henry rather than in front of him.

Richard presented his abdication to parliament on September 29, and on October 13 Henry Bolingbroke was crowned as Henry IV, the first of the Lancastrian kings. A quick and neat usurpation, taking no more than twelve weeks.

Three Plantagenet kings have been named Richard. The first died – rather ingloriously for this embodiment of chivalric virtues – from a crossbow quarrel in his armpit. The other two share the distinction of being ousted from their thrones by a man called Henry. While Richard III’s death at Bosworth and the subsequent enthronement of Henry Tudor still inspires a lot of controversy and opinionated discussions, in general Henry IV’s usurpation back in 1399 is met with little more than a shrug. Why is that? Well, I believe it is due to Henry Bolingbroke, a man far less controversial to his future subjects than Henry Tudor.

Henry Bolingbroke was a respected man – admired for his prowess at tournaments, loved because of his largesse. A renowned warrior and leader of men, a crusader, the father of a bevy of sons where Richard II had none, Henry epitomised the male ideals of the time. Add to this a thorough education, an excellent role model in his father, and a reputation for fairness, and it is easy to understand why so many considered Henry a far more palatable choice for king than Richard II.

Henry IV Richard_II_King_of_England

Richard II

Richard never succeeded in living up to his subjects’ expectations of becoming like his father, the Black Prince. Besides, Richard had a tendency to expend huge amounts of money on his court, himself and his beloved arts. Just like his great-grandfather, Edward II, Richard II also liked handing out gifts and lands to his favourites – often at the expense of the public purse.

To salve his conscience, Henry Bolingbroke could claim he had been most unfairly treated by his royal cousin. Despite loyal and steadfast service to the crown, Richard had rewarded him by forcing him into exile, and even worse, when John of Gaunt died, Richard had refused to honour the laws of inheritance, effectively disinheriting Henry. Not a popular thing to do, not in a country where more and more of his people were beginning to consider the king petty and unreliable, prone to considering himself well above the laws and customs of the realm. Richard’s nobles were even more worried; if the king chose to act so unjustly towards his first cousin, what was to stop him from acting in a similar way towards other rich and powerful noblemen?

Henry_IV_(cropped)

Henry

When Henry Bolingbroke initiated his armed rebellion, he officially stated that he was in England only to claim his paternal inheritance, wrongfully denied him by the king. Smart move, as everyone could sympathise with that. He made a big show of proclaiming his desire to help reform government in England, to bring order and stability, reinstate the rule of law rather than that of royal prerogative. Not once did he say “I want the crown”, as had he voiced his intent to claim the throne, he might have had a problem rallying support. Richard’s subjects were sick of their king’s high-handed rule, but to depose a king was a major undertaking, and few had the stomach for it.

This presented something of a conundrum to Henry. Having once before experienced just how capable Richard was of holding a grudge (it took him more than a decade to plan his cunning revenge on the Lords Appellant, a group of men, including Henry, who had protested against the mismanagement of the government. Rumours had it he had even ordered the murder of one of the Lords Appellant, his own uncle, Thomas of Woodstock), Henry was disinclined to allow Richard to remain on the throne. Somehow, the king had to be convinced to abdicate in favour of Henry, preferably in such a way as to allow Henry to emerge untarnished from this whole sordid matter.

Henry IV Richard_II_arrest

Northumberland taking custody of  Richard

That didn’t work. To ensure Richard’s cooperation, Henry’s supporters lied to him. At Conwy Castle, the Earl of Northumberland and the Earl of Westmoreland perjured themselves by swearing on holy relics that the intention was not to relieve Richard of his crown, rather to “help” him govern. Richard was an intelligent man and wasn’t convinced, but he played for time, hoping that by pretending to accept these lies, he’d get the opportunity to flee and gather support. Not to be, as next morning Richard was forcibly taken into custody by the Earl of Northumberland and transported to Flint Castle, there to wait for Henry.

Henry went out of his way to be as courteous as

Henry Johnofgaunt

John, a displeased Papa?

possible towards his unhappy cousin. A steel hand in a velvet glove, one could say, as there was no doubt in either man’s mind as to who was presently in charge, but all the same Henry attempted to make things as comfortable as possible for Richard, treating him always with respect. I suspect Henry was uncomfortably aware of just how displeased his father, John of Gaunt, would have been with this whole mess. John would never have countenanced deposing the Lord’s anointed – but then John had died (obviously) before Richard committed the unforgiveable act of denying Henry his inheritance.

What forces were brought to bear on Richard for him to sign his abdication remain unclear. Undoubtedly, threats to his life would have been made – never by Henry personally, of course. And maybe Richard believed that signing the abdication was the only thing he could do at present, hoping no doubt to turn the tables on his cousin at a future date.

HenryBolingbrokeClaimsThrone

Henry claiming the crown

Once on his throne, it seems Henry IV was quite willing to let Richard live. This was his first cousin, and while they were too different to have much of a natural liking for each other, they were both aware of their blood-ties. Maybe Henry’s intention was to keep Richard in comfortable captivity – although choosing Pontrefact as the future home of the retired king indicates Henry didn’t want him too comfortable (or too close to London).

All that changed when several of Richard’s former favourites became involved in a plot against the new king, with the intention of murdering not only Henry but also his four sons, all of them children. The Epiphany Rising in 1400 might not have implicated Richard per se, but it underlined the risk of keeping the former king alive, a potential rallying point to all future discontent.

Conveniently, sometime in February 1400, Richard II died. It was said he starved to death – whether voluntarily or not is still up for debate. Personally, I believe he was murdered.

To take a crown comes at a price. Henry was never entirely comfortable on his throne, and to make matters worse his relationship with his eldest son was permanently damaged by his usurpation. Young Henry was very fond of Richard, and never forgave his father for having deposed him.

Besides, there was the matter of guilt. By all accounts, Henry Bolingbroke was a man of tender conscience, a devout man who worked hard at being good and just. Mostly he succeeded. But the false promises made to Richard back in August of 1399, promises that Richard would remain king, no matter that Henry would rule, gnawed at Henry for the rest of his life. Then there’s the matter of Richard’s death, a millstone of guilt for a man as upright as Henry to carry. It broke him, and over the coming years of his life, the once so powerful, so vibrant Henry Bolingbroke would transform into a sick and melancholy man. Upon his death he left no instructions as to how he was to be buried, and his will breathes of humility and guilt, in glaring contrast to most other wills of the period.

I guess the lesson is easy; never do anything that makes it difficult to meet your eyes in the mirror. Fate, however, now and then obliges us to act against our conscience. Henry Bolingbroke felt had no choice – he had to safeguard his inheritance, for himself and for his sons. I dare say he never forgave himself. I dare say he found the price too steep.

A colony, a colony – we need a fricking colony!

Sweden hasn’t given American culture all that much: one very famous hymn (How Great Thou Art), one so-and-so famous revolutionary (Joe Hill), and one most emblematic building (the log cabin).  The log cabin? I see my American readers wrinkling their brows. Isn’t the log cabin a home grown invention? Nope. It’s as Swedish as zippers (oh, yes) and dynamite (sadly, yes).

But let’s take it from the beginning, shall we?

In the 17th century, every country that aspired to greatness needed a colony.  It was the accessory, so to say, and those that didn’t have one, didn’t really qualify as an important nation.

cabin Ferdinand_of_Aragon,_Isabella_of_Castile

Fernando & Isabel

This vogue started in the 15th century. After years of vicious bickering between Spain and Portugal, in 1493 Pope Alexander IV decided enough was enough and divided up the world between these two countries by establishing a dividing meridian 100 leagues west of Cape Verde. Portugal wasn’t too happy with the pope (who was Spanish and therefore, as per Portugal, biased) and after a lot of noise, the Portuguese king and Their Most Catholic Majesties of Spain, Fernando and Isabel, signed the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494.

As per this treaty, Spain and Portugal divided up the non-Christian world, establishing a separating meridian approximately 370 leagues west of the Cape Verde islands. Anything west of that line befell to the Spanish – should they want it. They most certainly did, blatantly claiming everything beyond as theirs. And it was so easy to claim, wasn’t it? They just planted a flag in the sand and said “this is ours”.

cabin Desembarco_de_Colón_de_Dióscoro_Puebla

Columbus planting flags & thanking God

What the original inhabitants might have thought of all this was neither here nor there – at least as per the Europeans. In fact, the Spanish argued they were doing these poor savages a favour by bringing them the word of God. Unfortunately, with the word of God came such things as measles and smallpox and slavery, but hey, small price to pay for eternal salvation.

While Spain was busy sinking teeth and claws into the newly discovered continents to the west, Portugal was hogging everything else, from Africa to the Far East.

However, claiming and holding on to are two very different things. The Dutch had no intention of leaving all of Asia or Africa to the Portuguese. After all, the Dutch considered themselves as great a  nation of seafarers and merchants as the Portuguese – the Dutch would argue they were even greater – and where the Portuguese sailed, so did the Dutch. Nor did the Dutch intend to leave all of America to Spain and Portugal, being very quick to establish their own presence in Curacao.

cabin sir-walter-raleigh-9450901-1-402

Handsome Raleigh

England had no intention of being left behind in this “grab what you can and annex it” rally. After all, what the Dutch could do, the English could do better. Men like Raleigh and Drake set their eyes on North America and with them came shiploads of their compatriots, all of them eager to claim their share of this virgin land.

Attendez! As any self-respecting Frenchman would tell you, there was nothing the English could do that they couldn’t do, and so off they went to claim their share of this new continent.

By the first decades of the 17th century, that old Treaty of Tordesillas was a dead duck in the water. Yes, the Spanish still insisted all of America was theirs, but no one listened to them. With French colonies here, English colonies there, the odd Dutch outpost somewhere else, it was apparent even to the haughty Spaniards that they were fighting a losing battle in North America. Instead, the Spanish government decided to concentrate its resources on defending South America and Mexico (after all, that was where the gold was).

Some European countries felt very left out. Take Sweden, which at the time was suffering from severe megalomaniac delusions. Had not that magnificent Swedish warrior king, Gustavus Adolphus more or less singlehandedly conquered all of Europe? (No. But us Swedes like to think he did…) And yet, something was missing, a je-ne-sais-quoi to raise Sweden to a station equivalent to that of Spain or France (Sweden never compared itself to England: too small, too poor…)  After some consideration, it dawned on the Swedes that what they needed was a colony.

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“I get lands, you get beads, yes?” 

For those of you familiar with Swedes, you know we dither a long time over taking decisions (it’s called “creating consensus”) but are amazingly effective in implementing once the decision is taken. Once the Swedish Government had decided to go for a colony, off we went, and as Swedes can be quite pragmatic when necessary, in this case Sweden decided to hire a Dutch guy to find a colony for them. The Dutch guy in question was Peter Minuit, a true colonial veteran. This was the man credited with buying all of Manhattan from the natives for the equivalent of 60 Dutch guilders. Not only had he been governor of New Amsterdam, he had also been a director of the Dutch West India Company, and was therefore very familiar with who was claiming what where.

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Kalmare Nyckel

After some consideration, Peter Minuit directed the two Swedish ships, Kalmare Nyckel and Fågel Grip to the Delaware River. Somewhat devious, as this effectively meant he was infringing on land claimed by the Dutch. Not that Peter Minuit cared; he had scores to settle with his former colleagues in the Dutch West India Company, still smarting after having been ousted from the job as Governor of New Netherlands. Besides, Minuit insisted the Dutch only had deeds to the eastern shore of the Delaware River, and upon arrival in March of 1638, Minuit immediately assembled the local Indian chiefs and had them sign deeds which effectively gave Sweden the western shore.

The Dutch protested loudly. I dare say a bottle or two of genever must have been thrown to crash against a wall as angered Dutchmen cursed Minuit for his treachery. Minuit shrugged and went on with organising his little colony – at least until he drowned, a year or so later.

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Kristina, pre-huzzah to judge from her sour expression

A fort was hastily constructed and named Fort Christina after Sweden’s twelve-year-old queen. I imagine Christina celebrated this event by exclaiming a rousing “huzzah!”  At last the young Swedish queen could hold her head up high among her royal peers; she too had a colony now.

Two years after that first landing, a further 600 immigrants arrived in New Sweden. Towns were established, an embryonic administration was created, and the little colony thrived. Although the Dutch continued to grumble and moan, they had other concerns, even if now and then they glanced at New Sweden with covetous eyes. The English were as irritated as the Dutch by these Nordic latecomers to the party, but England was engulfed by the initial stages of the Civil War, and so Sweden’s little piece of America was left alone. For now.

The Swedish colonists were used to living in dense forests. Most of them grew up with trees standing thick around them, and what land they cleared, they cleared by the slash-and-burn method – as effective in their new home as in their old. The trees they felled, they used to build log cabins in the tradition of their homelands, constructions where dovetailed logs were stacked into four walls, often topped by a shingle roof.

The benefit of the log cabin is that it is relatively quick to build and very robust. Chinks between the logs would generally be filled with moss, and the resulting sturdy structure did as well in Delaware winters as it had done in Swedish winters – or should I say Scandinavian winters? This is probably an opportune moment to come clean. You see, the majority of those Swedish immigrants who arrived in Delaware in the 1640’s were not really Swedish. They were Forest Finns, a derogatory word used by Swedes to describe the Finns that were forcibly transferred from Finland to Sweden to clear land in Western Sweden.

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Log Cabin, courtesy of Norsk Folkhem Museum

These Forest Finns leapt at the chance of going to the New World. Few of them had any warmer feelings for Sweden, where they were often treated with scorn. None of them remembered Finland – they were second or third generation poor immigrants by the 17th century – and all of them knew they would never be allowed to return to Finland. (Sweden was doing its own form of ethnical cleansing by moving stubborn Finns to Sweden, oppositional Danes to Finland, truly obstructive people to the Baltic States, Baltic people to Sweden – in brief, stirring the pot so that local loyalties were effectively disarmed) Having to settle for second best, the Forest Finns opted for New Sweden, where they were promised land of their own.

I suppose this means that the emblematic log cabin is as much a Finnish invention as a Swedish one. If you ask a Norwegian, he’ll tell you they’ve been building log cabins since the Ice Age. So maybe we should agree on the log cabin being a Scandinavian contribution to the American architecture – but introduced in the land of the free and brave by the colonial ambitions of Sweden.

Sweden’s forage into the world of colonial matters was destined to be brief. After some years of uneasy if not unfriendly cohabitation, the Dutch decided to build a fort of their own, Fort Casimir, uncomfortably close to Swedish land. In a rash act of daring, the dashing governor of New Sweden, Johan Rising, captured Fort Casimir in 1654. In doing so, he inadvertently signed New Sweden’s death sentence. Enraged, the powerful Governor of New Netherlands, Peter Stuyvesant, attacked New Sweden in 1655. In a matter of weeks, the Swedish governor was forced to surrender, and with that the Swedish foothold on the American continent was gone.

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Swedish colonists conversing with the locals

Or was it? During the 17 years that Sweden had its colony, close to 1 000 settlers had come over from Sweden. No matter that the Dutch now controlled the area the settlers were still there, still speaking Swedish (or Finnish) to each other, still holding on to their customs and traditions. Their Dutch overlords didn’t mind, and everyone seems to have rubbed together quite happily for a decade or so. I guess the Dutch and the Swedes could meet over their common love of herring (and genever).

In the early 1660’s, the English were done with their Civil War. Peace was restored, the king was back where he belonged, and the English government at last found the time to study the situation in America. What they saw, they did not like. Like a huge sore thumb between the northern English colonies such as Massachusetts, Rhode Island and present day Connecticut, and the southern colonies Virginia and Maryland was New Netherlands.
“Well, we can’t have that, can we?” uttered the Duke of York, and so the English set out in force to take control over “their” continent.

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The Nothnagle Log House, dating from the 17th century

By 1664, Delaware – together with the rest of New Netherlands – was taken over by the English. With the English came new colonial administration, new laws – and a new, more practical language. (Even back then, Swedish suffered from being a language VERY few speak) The original settlers held on to their antiquated Swedish when at home or in church, but overtime their language and those traditions and customs they’d carried with them from their homeland faded into obscurity – except for one small and utilitarian building: the log cabin.

Over time, this ingenious and simple little piece of architecture would go walk-about all over the North American continent, home to an endless number of intrepid settlers who, just like the 17th century Swedes (and Finns) came to America in search of a better life. Not a bad contribution, all in all. On the other hand, neither is “How Great Thou Art”

(And for those of you interested in one of the more colourful inhabitants of New Sweden, allow me to introduce you to Armegott, a determined Swedish Amazon)

A head for my lady love – a most unusual gift

At the Battle of Evesham in 1265, Roger Mortimer, 1st Baron Mortimer, not only killed Simon de Montfort, he also had his head and genitals chopped off, decorated the head with said man-parts, and sent the entire package off to his wife with his warmest regards.

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Salome, cradling her gift, the head of John the Baptist. (Titian) I think Maud did little cradling…

One can but wonder as to what sort of woman his wife was, seeing as Baron Mortimer clearly expected the lady to be delighted by his delayed birthday gift. Was she some sort of evil monster? A new Salome, demanding a head in return for a dance? Nope, not so much. But she was a woman who had seen her home and lands devastated at the hands of Montfort’s followers, and this was her husband’s way of telling her that wouldn’t happen again. Not on his watch.

The baroness received the gift and had Montfort’s head displayed in her great hall for a while. Soon enough, the smell of rot would have banished the sad remains elsewhere, but it is said the skull remained with the Mortimers for quite some time.

So who was this fearsome lady? Well, Maud de Braose had ferocity in her genes. Her namesake and great-grandmother, Maud de Braose Sr, is the lady renowned for having openly accused King John of having had his nephew murdered (by her husband). John punished her brutally for this. Maud Sr and her son were locked up in the same dungeon without food. They died, of course, but the son predeceased the mother, seeing as she supposedly ate bits and pieces of him. Ugh.

Anyway: the de Braose family suffered through a sequence of tough years, but King John died, chaos enveloped the land, and somehow that gallant man William Marshal managed to guide the new boy-king Henry III and the very unsteady ship that was England through the resulting fog. Good news for the de Braose family, as one of William Marshal’s daughters went on to marry William de Braose, grandson of the formidable first Maud, son of the man she’d chewed on in her dungeon.

William de Braose and his wife Eva had four children, one of which was our Maud, born around 1224 or so. She never had the opportunity of developing any stronger relationship with her father, as William was hanged in 1230 for purportedly having had sex with Llewellyn the Great’s wife. Whatever one can say about the de Braose family—and in general they were not much liked, known for their ruthless pursuit of wealth and lands—they were never boring.

As William had no son, his daughters were considered quite the catch, all of them bringing substantial lands and wealth to their prospective grooms. In Maud’s case, she was betrothed already as a child to Roger Mortimer, this despite her being seven years older than him. This might have been a bit complicated emotionally, seeing as Roger was the grandson of Llewellyn, the man who’d had Maud’s father executed. Roger, however, does not seem to have been all that keen on his Welsh blood—in fact, he spent a sizeable part of his life fighting his own cousin Llewellyn ap Gryffudd, yet another grandson (and namesake) of Llewellyn the Great. Besides, Maud’s own sister was married to Llewellyn’s son, so I imagine family reunions had been pretty tense even prior to Maud marrying Roger.

Now, the reason I find Maud de Braose fascinating—beyond her delight at being presented with a head—is because she’s the grandmother of “my” Roger Mortimer, the man who would go on to woo a queen, depose a king and rule all England on behalf of the very young Edward III. It seems to me many of Maud’s qualities, such as determination, intelligence and courage, were passed on to her grandson together with far less endearing traits such as ruthlessness and acquisitiveness. I guess those Marcher lords (and ladies) bred true, all of them eager to feather their own nests at the expense of others.

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The arch of the former gatehouse at Wigmore, slowly sinking out of sight

Once married, Maud became the mistress of Wigmore, the principal residence of her husband, Roger Sr. For those of you who haven’t visited Wigmore, I recommend that you do, albeit that today all that remains of what must once have been an impregnable castle are ruins that are being slowly reclaimed by nature. Built on a lozenge shaped escarpment, Wigmore had but one main point of entry, and the steep sides of the hill on which it stood made it virtually impossible to breach the defences. Like the eerie of an eagle, the walls of Wigmore offered unimpeded views in most directions, making it difficult for the enemy to sneak up unnoticed.

Maud was about twenty-two when she was wed to her sixteen-year-old groom. The age gap does not seem to have been much of an impediment to this marriage of two people with a similar outlook on life, and soon enough there were baby Mortimers to take care off. We know of at least six children, but chances are there would have been more.

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Henry III vs Simon de Montfort

Like all noble ladies of the time, Maud managed most of her husband’s estate, supervised the raising of her children, and took an active part in defending what was hers (theirs) should such a need arise. Which it did, frequently, as England in the late 1250s and early 1260s was not exactly a place of peace and contentment. The barons of the land had split neatly down the middle, some of them siding with Simon de Montfort and his demand for reforms, some holding to their king, Henry III. From 1259 or so, Montfort was effectively in charge of England, albeit that he suffered severe setbacks at time.

Roger Mortimer was a bit of a weather-vane in all this: initially siding with Montfort, he then sidled over to join the king’s party, less than thrilled at how Prince Edward (at the time a warm admirer of Montfort) blamed him for the loss of Builth, a strategically important castle on the Welsh March. Plus, of course, Montfort allied himself with Llewellyn ap Gruffydd, whom Mortimer considered his hereditary enemy, no matter that they shared blood. In this, he had the full support of the other Marcher lords who had no intention of sitting on their hands while Montfort more or less handed back their hard-won lands to the Welsh prince.

Things came to a head when Mortimer despoiled three of Montfort’s manors. Enraged, Montfort sent his young sons to deal with the stubborn Marcher lords, and over a couple of months these youngsters reaped major success, even managing to take Wigmore, no matter how spirited the defence (And I imagine it was spirited, seeing as Maud comes across as being very, very spirited). Maud’s home was no longer hers, and I imagine her fleeing with her children while cursing Montfort and his allies to hell and back.

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A young Edward I

By now, Prince Edward had fallen out of love with Montfort. As always, those who grab power become enamoured with it, and I bet Montfort was no exception, causing Prince Edward some serious concerns as to the future of the kingdom. This young hawk had no intention of growing up to become a weak king like his father, and where before the prince had admired Montfort, now Edward came to the conclusion Montfort had to be stopped.

“Hear, hear,” I imagine Mortimer saying, by now safely back in control of his precious Wigmore. In the spring of 1264, Prince Edward took the field against Montfort. The first battle was a rousing victory for the royalist side, and Mortimer and his fellow Marchers sent a number of hostages back home. The Battle of Lewes did not go so well—mostly due to Prince Edward’s rash pursuit of fleeing Montfort supporters. Suddenly, both king Henry and Prince Edward were Montfort’s prisoners.

The Marcher lords, however, were allowed to return to the March so as to keep England safe from marauding Welsh. They were also requested to release their prisoners, but Mortimer and his fellow Marchers hemmed and hawed until Montfort lost patience. This time, Montfort joined forces with Llewellyn and set the entire March ablaze, thereby forcing the Marchers to negotiate. The terms were harsh: all Marcher lords were exiled to Ireland for a year and a day, but once again these gents dragged their feet, while further to the south Gilbert de Clare, Earl of Gloucester, was building an army to defeat Montfort.

However, as long as Montfort held both the king and the prince, the opposition was hamstrung. This is when Maud stepped out of the wings of history to grab the limelight by coming up with an audacious escape plan.

Despite being a prisoner, Edward was allowed out to ride, always accompanied by his guards. Maud’s plan was simple: she smuggled messages to the prince, instructing him to challenge the guards to numerous races to ensure their mounts were blown and tired. And once all those horses were reduced to exhaustion, Maud’s men rode out of the forest, handed the prince a fresh horse and galloped off, making for Wigmore.

Maud took good care of the prince. He was fed, clothed, horsed and sent on his way to join Gilbert de Clare at Ludlow Castle. The royalist army had their general back, and while Edward might have been young, he was a competent leader. With him to lead them, the royalist party took heart. Due to luck Edward managed to intercept one of his Montfort cousins at Kenilworth, killing several of the men riding with him, chasing the rest into Kenilworth castle itself. With the captured Montfort banners held aloft, Edward then rode to join his men at Evesham there to destroy Simon Montfort.

It is said that the moment Montfort realised the men carrying his son’s banners were royalists, he knew the day was lost. Grimly, he and his companions prepared themselves to die. Among these companions was one Hugh Despenser, unfailingly loyal to Montfort. Together with his lord, Despenser took the field, and in desperation Montfort led his men in an uphill charge doomed to fail.

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The mutilation of Simon de Montfort’s body

Edward had no intention of taking Montfort prisoner. He wanted him dead, and a small group of men, including Roger Mortimer, were tasked with this somewhat dishonourable task. It was Roger who delivered the killing blow, thrusting his lance through Montfort’s throat. Once he was dead, Mortimer and his friends went on to mutilate his body—which was how Maud de Braose, Baroness Mortimer, became the recipient of one of the gorier birthday gifts in history.

As an aside, Hugh Despenser’s body was also mutilated, thereby spawning the unrelenting enmity between the Mortimers and the Despensers that would come to a head several decades later.

Maud would go on to live a life marked by her fair share of loss and pain. Her eldest son and precious heir, Ralph, died young. By all accounts Ralph was something of a paragon, showing an innate aptitude for the martial skills required of a Marcher lord. Fortunately, there were plenty of spares, including the well-educated Edmund Mortimer who was obliged to leave Oxford and return home. In time, Edmund’s son, “my” Roger, would inherit the extensive Mortimer lands.

In 1282 Roger Mortimer died, at the age of fifty or so. In comparison with future generations of Mortimer men who all had a tragic tendency to die relatively young, Roger Mortimer Sr had a nice long life but his wife was to survive him for a further twenty years or so before dying in 1301 or thereabouts. By then, she was well over seventy and most of her children were dead. But she must have been comforted by the fact that her eldest grandson Roger was already a vibrant young man, thereby ensuring the Mortimer star would continue to rise. Which, as we know, it did. Before it came crashing back down… (more here)

 

The abducted heiress and the gallant traitor

In a previous post I told the story of Marie de Blois. This lady was an abbess, seemingly content as a nun, when she became the heiress to Boulogne, thereby attracting the unwanted attention of one Matthew of Alsace who abducted her, forced her to marry him and fathered two girls on her before submitting to the church and returning a somewhat tarnished Marie to her religious life.

Ida_of_BoulogneToday, I thought we’d spend some time with Marie’s eldest daughter, Ida of Boulogne, who was as wealthy and as tempting an heiress as her mother had once been. Obviously, suitors were lining up for her hand in marriage from the moment it became clear she was the legitimate heir to Boulogne. In 1181, Ida married one of these gentlemen, in accordance with the wishes of her uncle, Phillip of Flanders. But her first spouse, Gerald, was not long for this world, and no more than a year later, Ida was back on the marital market. (And thank heavens Ida’s mother wasn’t around by then: she’d have been quite distraught by what would happened to her daughter…) This time, Ida’s new husband was a certain Berthold, close to 35 years older than her.

Whether the Berthold and Ida union developed into a winter-spring romance is unknown. What is known is that Berthold expired already in 1186, and so Ida was back to being a merry widow. By all accounts, Ida was rather merry—and more than eager for an amorous adventure. As per Lambert of Ardes, her roving eye fell on the handsome and Arnold of Guines and she fell passionately in love, doing her very best to seduce dear Arnold. Not that Arnold seems to have been averse to the idea. According to Lambert, he either loved Ida back or pretended to do so, his eye on the tempting prize of Boulogne. What can I say? Men!

However, the Ida and Arnold union was never to be, no matter how they batted their eyelashes at each other. Instead, a certain Renaud de Dammartin entered the scene, his eyes very firmly affixed on the marital prize that was Ida.

Initially, Renaud attempted to advance his suit through the normal channel—he spoke to Ida’s uncle, the Count of Flanders. This gent probably looked the young Renaud up and down and smirked before showing him the door. After all, Dammartin may have been of good French noble blood, but his family was not exactly rich and powerful. Plus, of course, Renaud had a wife. Well, he’d had a wife until he set this inconvenient appendage aside and decided Ida was more to his taste.

Seeing as Renaud’s spurned wife was a cousin of Philippe Augustus, the French king, I dare say we can assume the French king was aware of Renaud’s intention to wed Ida. Not, according to Philippe Augustus a bad idea, as by doing so Renaud would bring Boulogne under the influence of the French king rather than the Count of Flanders, and Philippe Augustus was rather fond of expanding the territories he controlled—a sentiment he shared with most of his contemporary kings.

IDA Vereker Monteith Hamilton _The-RescueAs you’ve already gathered, Renaud was all for expanding his own territories, and the fact that his bride was some years older than him was no deterrent. In view of the Count of Flanders’ opposition to the match, Renaud decided to take matters in his own hands and resorted to the age-old tradition of abducting his intended and carrying her back to Lorraine with him. How unwilling Ida was is something we don’t know. By all accounts, Renaud was the medieval version of Dark & Dangerous, and some women just can’t resist such men.

Whatever the case, by the early 1190s Ida was wed to Renaud, and there is even a little story whereby the love-sick (or seriously pissed off at having the prospect of ruling Boulogne stolen from him – take your pick) Arnold rode after her but was lured into a trap and imprisoned, supposedly with Ida’s collusion. Whether this is true or not is difficult to assess. What is indisputable is that Renaud became Count of Boulogne through his wife and soon enough there was a little daughter, Matilda.

This Renaud is one of the more fascinating characters of the late twelfth century. Of an age with Philippe Augustus, he was raised with the future French king, and by all accounts Renaud and Philippe Augustus were firm friends—until Renaud was ordered by his father to join the Plantagenet side in the endless conflicts between the Angevins and France.

Somehow, Renaud and Philippe Augustus managed to salvage their relationship, and as the Plantagenets spent most of the 1180s fighting each other, Renaud did not end up in the unenviable position of having to meet his friend in battle. In 1189 Philippe Augustus joined forces with Richard Lionheart (likely Renaud was with Richard) and together these two young lions crushed the aging Henry II with Renaud in the happy position of not having to choose between his present master (Richard) and his liege-lord (Philippe Augustus).

By the time Renaud carried off Ida, he already had a reputation as a skilled fighter and leader of men. He was also fond of the good life and was something of a patron of the arts, a true renaissance man before the term was even invented. I imagine that after the somewhat decrepit Berthold Ida appreciated her young and vibrant husband, albeit that there must have been moments when Renaud’s continued allegiance to Richard caused Ida moments of severe worry.

As many of you will know, the Richard & Philippe Augustus relationship crashed and burnt when these two kings went off on a crusade together. Philippe Augustus did not like it that Richard hogged all the glory, and so he abruptly left the scene and returned to France. Once Richard had made it back home (and an arduous journey that was, what with being locked up by the Holy Roman Emperor for 18 months or so while his mother collected the huge ransom demanded to set Richard free) he spent the rest of his life waging war on Philippe Augustus – with Renaud on his team.

Fortunately for Renaud, Richard died already in 1199. This was most unfortunate for a lot of other people, but I imagine Philippe Augustus did a happy dance, while Renaud wept for a while before taking the opportunity to mend his fences with his king. Philippe Augustus welcomed Renaud back with open arms, even more so when some years later Renaud was instrumental in taking Chateau Gaillard from the Angevins. Renaud ended up showered with honours and lands, and life was good to Renaud and Ida. For a while.

In 1211, Renaud refused to appear before Philippe Augustus in a legal matter. Philippe Augustus retaliated by seizing Renaud’s lands. A wiser person might have recognised this as a moment when it would make sense to do some brown-nosing—after all, so far the French king had always forgiven his dear childhood bestie Renaud—but Renaud was having none of it. Miffed, he decided to renew his alliance with the Angevins, more specifically John.

How on earth Renaud came to the conclusion that John was a safer bet than Philippe Augustus I have no idea. But suddenly Renaud was riding to war against his liege-lord and this time Philippe Augustus was enraged. This time, Philippe Augustus vowed, Renaud would pay. This time, Renaud de Dammartin was branded a traitor.

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French knights facing off against the knights of the Holy Roman Emperor

At the Battle of Bouvines Philippe Augustus smashed any hopes the Angevin kings might have had of regaining their lost lands. Not that King John was anywhere around when his nephew, Holy Roman Emperor Otto, and his half-brother William Longsword together with Renaud and Ferdinand of Portugal (and Flanders) met the French army.

With roughly 9 000 men on either side and the excellent Flemish infantry under the command of Otto, at first things did not go well for the French, whose undisciplined infantry lost heart when faced with the Flemish. Philippe Augustus had no choice but to join the battle himself, leading his cavalry in a charge that broke the Flemish infantry and almost cost him his life.

Soon enough, the French had their enemy on the run—except for Renaud. With a group of around 700 Brabant pikemen, he made his stand, having every intention of selling himself dear. I guess he knew that this time there’d be no mere slap on the fingers should Philippe Augustus take him prisoner.

For hours, Renaud and his men stood firm, no matter what the enemy threw at them. Long after the battle was over they refused to yield, a knot of desperate men surrounded by a sea of blood and death. Ultimately, of course, it didn’t help. Philippe Augustus ordered 3 000 men to charge the stubborn Renaud and his men. Under such force, the brave Brabant pikemen buckled, and in the resulting melée Renaud was not killed. Much, much worse, he was taken captive and hauled before the French king.

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Renaud carried off into captivity

What Ida thought of all this we don’t know. I dare say she was less than delighted when Philippe Augustus stripped Renaud of all his honours, all his lands, and instead gave them to his bastard son Philippe Hurepel. But at least she had Boulogne, albeit that the French king was keeping a very narrow watch on things. If Ida interceded on behalf of her husband is yet another thing we don’t know. I think she realised it would have been fruitless, but maybe she at least requested to be allowed to see him? Somehow, I suspect the answer was no…

Ida died some years after the Battle of Bouvines. Boulogne passed to her daughter Matilda, but Philippe Augustus was not about to let this juicy morsel pass him by, which was why Matilda was given to Philippe Herupel as his wife. One wonders how that must have felt, to marry the son of the king that presently held your father locked up in the dark somewhere.

As to Renaud, he was to live out the rest of his life in very harsh captivity. Legend has it that he was kept chained to the wall by a chain so short it made most movements impossible. Legend also has it that when he realised he would never be released—not even after the death of Philippe Augustus—he committed suicide, killing himself on the anniversary of Ida’s death. One last flamboyant gesture or an act of despairing love? We don’t know. We will never know.

“Get thee to a nunnery” – in reverse

Marie MaciejowskiLeaf17RuthAndNaomiIn medieval times, women who had no desire to marry and risk the uncertainties of childbirth had the option of becoming a nun – well, assuming their father was amenable to the idea. In some cases, women who had every desire to marry and have babies still ended up as nuns, usually because their father felt this was a good idea. Some girls ended up forcibly veiled, i.e. they were immured in a convent so as to get rid of them. Such was the fate of Llewellyn the Last’s daughter Gwenllian of Wales, whom Edward I locked away with the nuns at Sempringham Priory. Such was the fate of Hugh Despenser’s three young daughters, who in 1327 were sent off to three different convents and there veiled, thereby removing them for ever from the marital market.

Sometimes, however, a nun ended up being a marital pawn no matter what vows she had taken. At times, it may have been the nun herself who regretted her choices and absconded (but it was a serious, serious offence to take up with an ex-nun, so she’d have to work hard at keeping her identity secret). Or, in some cases, the nun in question ended up being the sole heiress to lands and wealth, thereby attracting ambitious suitors who were willing to risk the opprobrium of the church to feather their nests.

Marie of Blois is one of those nuns, and somewhat ironically she is also one of those little girls who was destined for the cloisters already as a young child. Her parents, King Stephen of England and Matilda of Boulogne, were devout and what better gift to God than their own precious child?

Little Marie was accordingly placed in a convent, and whether she was delighted at the idea or not was neither here nor there. Besides, the girl seems to have adapted well enough, and by the time her father died in 1154, she was about twenty years old and the Abbess of Romsey. Had things gone according to plan, likely Marie would have remained there for the rest of her life, capably managing her little universe.

Fate, however, had other plans. Marie had one surviving brother, William, who swallowed his pride, submitted to Henry II, and was rewarded with a nice heiress as his consolation price. Seeing as William could have insisted the English crown was his – the previous king, Stephen, was his father – the Earldom of Warenne was a cheap price for Henry II to pay so as to ensure peace in his new realm.

William died in 1160—childless. In one fell swoop, Abbess Marie became a major landowner, inheriting the substantial Boulogne lands that came from her mother. Having said lands under the control of a woman sat somewhat uncomfortably with Henry II, who preferred his lords to be adequately beholden to him for their fiefs and grants. Besides, what was a woman—and a nun to boot—to do with all that wealth, all that power?

marriage loving-coupleHenry wasn’t the only one thinking along those lines. One of those considering the possibilities offered by William’s demise was Matthew of Alsace, younger son to the Count of Flanders. Being a man of action (and I suspect Henry II gave him a discreet go-ahead) Matthew decided to make a grab for the prize in the literal sense. Marie, Abbess of Romsey, was therefore forcibly abducted in 1160 and carried off by Matthew who was determined to make her his wife.

Most contemporary sources are of the opinion that Marie was not at all delighted by this turn of events—rather the reverse. One source tells us she was raring to go, panting eagerly at the thought of finally having a man in her bed. Whether willingly or not, soon enough she was wed and the wedding consummated, as demonstrated by the birth of a daughter, Ida, in 1160/61. I’m thinking Marie derived some pleasure from presenting her husband with a girl and not a boy, but truth be told I have no idea what her feelings were for Matthew. She seems to have actively disliked Henry II, thereby indicating he did more than give Matthew a discreet go-ahead, this despite the fact that abducting an abbess was a serious breach of canon law. So serious, in fact, that Matthew was placed under interdict. But hey, why wait for heavenly rewards when earthly rewards are ripe for the taking?

I suppose a marriage that began with an abduction was not destined to be successful. Or maybe it was – after all, we don’t know if Marie stayed with Matthew because she had nowhere else to go or because she started developing warmer feelings for him. Whatever her thoughts, the Church was not about to let this go: a nun had promised herself to Christ, and unless she received a papal dispensation, those vows were binding unto death.

There was no papal dispensation—or at least we can’t find any records of one. Besides, would the Church have kept up the pressure had there been one? But keep up the pressure they did, and by 1170, Matthew’s father was beginning to have serious fears for his son’s eternal soul. So much so, in fact, that the ailing Count of Flanders urged Matthew to accept the Church’s demands that the marriage be annulled.

Marie 239_LancelotdelLacSuddenly, Marie was neither married nor a nun. The man who had once imperilled his own soul—and hers—no longer wanted her enough to risk the Church’s wrath. Poor Marie was in limbo, but the Church offered to welcome her back, and whether this was what she wanted (she had just been delivered of a little girl, so one would have thought she might have wanted to stay with her baby) this was what she did. Obviously, her forays into the outside world had left her religious reputation somewhat tarnished, which meant Marie returned to her cloistered life as a plain nun. Not for her the lofty station of abbess, not anymore.

As to Matthew, he continued to rule Boulogne, now on behalf of his eldest daughter, Ida. I’m betting there’d been some horse-trading behind the scenes, along the lines of “I can send my wife back to the convent, but my daughters must be declared legitimate”. After all, this was what Matthew had always wanted: to pass Boulogne down to his heirs. Yes, he’d have preferred male heirs, but any heirs were better than no heirs, right?

Ensuring her children were recognised as legitimate was probably very important for Marie as well, and the Church had no beef with little Ida or baby Matilda, so agreeing to this was no hardship.

Matthew died in 1173. Marie remained in her convent, and her daughters were raised by their paternal uncle, the new Count of Flanders. In 1182, Marie died, no doubt relieved to know her eldest daughter was already safely married. Not for her Ida an existence as tumultuous as her own, Marie probably thought, sending off a prayer or two of gratitude to God for having arranged it thus. Turns out all that gratitude was premature, as soon enough Ida of Boulogne’s private life would eclipse her mother’s. But that, I think, is a subject for another day, as otherwise this post would become far too long!

In which a young king bites the dust and learns a lesson

In 1327, a very young Edward III mustered his forces and rode north. He had had it with the Scottish rogues who were ravaging the land, and all of Edward’s adolescent body quivered with anticipation at seeing the Scots eat dust.

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Isabella returning to England – after having treated with Robert

Thing is, other people in high places—notably the king’s mother Isabella and her lover and co-regent, Roger Mortimer—weren’t all that keen on a full out war with Scotland. In fact, Mortimer and Isabella had treated with Robert the Bruce prior to invading England in 1326, and what they’d dangled before the nose of the wily Scottish king was a permanent peace treaty—assuming Bruce did not take advantage of the turbulent situation caused by Isabella and Mortimer ousting Edward II and his favourite, Hugh Despenser.

Robert the Bruce wanted peace. His country needed peace. So Robert held his horses and watched from afar as Mortimer and his paramour forced through Edward II’s abdication and then rapidly crowned the boy-king.

Obviously, finalising the treaty with Scotland was not the first item on Isabella’s and Mortimer’s agenda. They had a kingdom to heal, an administration to put in order, muttering barons to be put in their place.

On the other side of the border, Robert the Bruce grew impatient. (He was getting on, all of fifty-three, and wanted to leave things in order, which included said peace treaty) When the negotiations were yet again put on hold – or broke down, depending on whose POV you applied—the Scottish king decided to do some serious prodding. He ordered his two captains, James Douglas and Thomas Randolph to invade northern England and create some havoc. A lot of havoc, as it turned out, the raiding Scots leaving burned farms and destroyed villages in their wake.

Which is why, in July of 1327, Edward III did all that mustering. Okay, if we’re going to be correct, it was not the fourteen-year-old king who called to arms, no matter how eager he was to teach those dastardly Scots a lesson. Rather, it was his Regents who came to the reluctant conclusion they had to do something to contain the Scots, albeit that they still hoped for a diplomatic solution.

Anyway: an impressive English army took the field, lead by the Earl Marshal of the realm (Edward’s uncle, the earl of Norfolk), the earl of Kent (Edward’s other uncle) and the earl of Lancaster (much, much older cousin to the king). Roger Mortimer was there as well, and while not given an official command, I think it’s a safe bet to assume he was very much on top of things—it sort of went with his nature.

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St George, Edward’s favourite saint

Edward was of the firm opinion that Scotland was his kingdom. Bannockburn was but a minor setback, and now he was going to teach these Scotsmen a lesson. The fact that not one single Scot agreed with this interpretation was neither here nor there according to our young hero.

Edward had his forces ride under the cross of St George, bright red crosses flapping in the wind as the English army advanced. As an aside, Edward III had a serious thing about St George, whom he considered a far more appropriate saint for his bellicose ambitions than Edward the Confessor. This is why he founded a college dedicated to St George at Windsor (which then sort of took over the chapel previously dedicated to St Edward) and why the red cross is part of the insignia for the Order of Bath. Right: not today’s topic.

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A Victorian depiction of Sir James (white stars on blue)

James Douglas was just as canny, just as capable, as any of the commanders on the English side. This hero of the Scottish people had stood by his king through thick and thin and would continue to do so as long as he had breath in his body. He had only one objective with his raiding: to force the English back to the negotiation table, there to recognise Scottish independence and Robert the Bruce as Scottish king. It made Edward almost choke just to think of doing so. His grandfather had fought long and hard to bring the Scots to bay, and our Edward was not about to give back what he considered his.

So off the English army went, eager to corner the Scots and force them to fight. Douglas was having none of it. His mounted men easily outpaced the English army, and so it was that as Edward and his men rode one way, they’d see fires burning in the other direction. If they turned towards the destruction, chances were new fires would spring to life behind them. Very frustrating. I imagine Edward took every opportunity offered to call these elusive Scots craven and misbegotten creatures.

The Scots were neither craven or misbegotten. After some weeks of playing the scarlet pimpernel with the English (you know: they seek him here, they seek him there, the Frenchies seek him everywhere. Is he in heaven or is he in hell, that demned elusive pimpernel) Douglas found a nice, strong position and set up camp. He also had one of his English captives released, ordering the man to find Edward and tell him the Scots were waiting to do him battle.

“Yes!” Edward punched the air upon hearing this. His commanders were less delighted, and in particular Mortimer had far too much respect for Douglas to believe Sir James had set himself up as an easy kill. He hadn’t. Douglas had chosen his position carefully. A hill, defended by the river Wear and steep slopes, with Douglas’ colours—three silver stars on a blue background—flapping lazily in the wind. Mortimer groaned inwardly—even more so when Edward started talking about what strategies to use to pulverise the Scots. (As yet another aside, Mortimer and Edward shared a fascination for new technology, so on this campaign they’d brought along some rather primitive versions of the cannon. Ergo the pulverisation above)
“You can’t fight them up that hill,” Mortimer told his young king.
“Of course, I can. But I’ll start by inviting him to come down and meet us on the flat ground, prove he is as brave as they say.”
“He’s brave, not an idiot,” Mortimer probably replied. “What commander worth his salt would give up that position?”

Mortimer was right. Sir James politely declined Edward’s invitation to come down from his hill, and Edward decided it was time to show the Scots just who had the upper hand. He ordered his archers to advance—the English (and Welsh) archers were the best in the world, and as soon as they came within range, they’d fill those dratted Scots with more arrows than a hedgehog has spines. Douglas was fully aware of how deadly the English archers were. He waited until they were wading the river, or making a hesitant approach up the slopes before attacking them. Soon enough, there were dead archers everywhere, making it very clear Edward had no hand at all—not in this game of war poker.

An exhausted and dispirited English army settled down for the night. Weeks of chasing the Scots, of more or less constant rain, of insufficient food, had left Edward’s men weak and grumpy. Their Scottish foes were made of sterner stuff: no sooner had the summer night begun to darken, but the Scots began an all-night party, blowing horns and clashing swords against shields. Impossible to sleep in, so to all their other woes, Edward’s men could now add sleep-deprivation.

weardale-a_020_knightsCome morning, a host of pale and shivering men did their best to look intimidating and warlike, all of them probably hoping there wouldn’t be a battle this day. There wasn’t. James stuck to his hill, and come nightfall the Scots repeated last night’s procedure. Blaring horns, steel against steel, and the English tossed and turned, further plagued by the drifting scents of roasted meat.

A couple of nights of this, and then suddenly, just before dawn one night, the Scots went quiet.
“Finally!” the English exclaimed, sinking into blissful oblivion. When they woke, it was to discover Douglas had sneaked off, leading his men to a new position, if possible even more impregnable.

Edward spent some time cursing the Scottish dogs to hell and back. Didn’t help much. He ordered the English army to follow Douglas and set up a new camp.

For a change, that August day was a nice day. No rain, and once the tents had been set up and the fires lit, the English had yet another pleasant surprise: the Scots were obviously too tired to repeat the hullabaloo of the preceding nights, and so the summer night was fragrant and wonderfully silent.

The king and his earls had supper with Mortimer. Plans were drawn up for the next day. Some wine, some good food and they took to their beds—as did the rest of the men. Which is when some of them registered the sound of many horses, approaching at a gallop.

Out of nowhere—or so it seemed—came the Scots. Armed with torches and spears, they charged through the English camp. Some wielded swords to cut the guy ropes, thereby causing the tents to collapse. Others set fire to the tents, or skewered the people trapped within on their spears. Chaos. Fear. Screams. Blood. Smoke.

Like witless hens, the English ran before the Scots. Some emerged with sword in hand and began to fight back. Others died. Quite a lot of others. The Scots thundered on, making for the tent flying the royal colours. Swish, and the guy lines were cut. Like a cut soufflé, the tent fell together, trapping the young king inside. He was helpless, the Scots were only moments away from abducting him, but here came Edward’s men, here came Mortimer, sword aloft, and the Scots backed away. A horn blew. Douglas, calling for help. The horn blew again, and the Scots rode to their lord’s defence. Some moments later, they were gone, leaving a trail of carnage behind them.

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Edward III besieging Berwick in 1332

Next morning, Douglas and his men had left, riding hard for Scotland. Standing in the shambles of his camp, the young Edward had learnt a valuable lesson: never underestimate your enemy.

Several months later, a treaty with Scotland was concluded, sealed by the marriage of Edward’s little sister, Joan, to Robert the Bruce’s little son, David. Edward didn’t want the treaty. He wanted Scotland. But other than never to underestimate, he had also learnt another lesson: bide your time. So he did. For now.

Treading the streets of the first town in Sweden

20170524_123156There are rune stones mentioning Sigtuna, so we can safely say that today’s stop on our exploration of the lesser-known aspects of Sweden is old. Like very old, even if these days the theories that Sigtuna was founded on a place hallowed to Odin are dismissed as fanciful. Instead, Sigtuna is thought to mean “marshy trading-post”, and while one wonders why on earth anyone would want to build a village on marshy ground, someone back then clearly thought this was an excellent idea. Maybe the proximity to an ancient hill fort helped determine the venue. Or maybe it was the excellent position on the shores of Lake Mälaren, seeing as travelling by boat was the preferred way back then.

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Sigtuna today, with the same central street as back then

Whatever the case, by the 980s, Sigtuna was the unofficial capital of Sweden, the then king Erik Segersäll (Erik the Victorious) having declared the former trading post a town. Erik went about his this town thing in a structured manner: he planned one long central street (still the high street of present day Sigtuna), he divided the land in a number of equal sized lots which he stipulated were all to contain four buildings – a shop, a workshop, living quarters & hall – he then gave said lots to people he really wanted to settle in his new town, and, to further promote the image of being a modern king, he invited the Church to establish themselves, probably offering his own soul as bait. “Come here and baptise me,” he might have said, while having no serious intention of ever deserting the old gods.

Now, while all of the above indicates this King Erik really existed, the reason for his epithet is somewhat murkier, but if we dig into Saxo Grammaticus, the Icelandic Edda, the somewhat biased writings of Adam of Bremen and touch all of this up with the fantastic stories told by Olof Rudbeck in the 17th century (Olof had a thing about recreating a very glorious Swedish past) we end up with a story that goes a bit like this:

Erik and his brother Olof became kings together, but unfortunately Olof died and Erik decided there was no need for two kings—he could easily handle the pressure on his own. Olof had a son, Styrbjörn, who for various reasons did not agree. Tough, said Erik, but in compensation he gave his nephew 60 ships with which to explore the world – Viking speak for doing some lucrative raiding.

Styrbjörn took the ships, sailed off to the mythical Jomsborg, home to the Jomsvikings, defeated these, and thereby earned the undying gratitude of Harald Blåtand (Bluetooth) of Denmark who offered to ally himself with Styrbjörn to teach uppity Erik a lesson.

styrstarkA huge fleet sailed for Sweden, and once there, Styrbjörn set his ships on fire to make it very clear to his men this was a win-or-die day. The Danes had no desire to die on behalf of a crazy Swede, so they refused to burn their ships and sailed back home, leaving Styrbjörn and his (I suppose) somewhat demotivated men to face a very determined Erik. The Battle of Fyrisvallarna was a resounding victory for Erik. Styrbjörn died and everyone lived happily ever after . Well, except for Styrbjörn, obviously.

Where this battle actually took place or even if it took place no one really knows, but a number of rune stones refer to men who died at a big battle just outside of Uppsala (which is close to Sigtuna) so something did go down back in King Erik’s day.

According to some of the sources, Erik was married to a tough-as-boots lady called Sigrid Storråda (Sigrid the Haughty) She was the mother of his sons, one of which was the future king Olof Skötkonung. For some reason, Sigrid and Erik decided to part ways – maybe he found her too overbearing, or maybe she hankered after doing some ruling of her own. Whatever the case, as per the sagas she ended up ruling over a piece of Sweden, and so beautiful and so rich was Sigrid that she was pestered by eager suitors until the day she locked two of them inside a building and burned them alive. For a while there, other suitors thought twice before importuning her with their heated love declarations.

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Sigrid and Olav post-slap

Sigrid didn’t care: she had her eyes set on the handsome and powerful Norwegian king Olav Tryggvason, and as he was amenable, the wedding preparations went ahead—until Olav told Sigrid she had to become  Christian prior to him wedding her. She refused, he supposedly slapped her and told her he would never lower himself to wedding a pagan bitch. Not the smartest of moves, and in the fullness of time Sigrid would get her revenge, spurring her son and her second husband, Sven Forkbeard, into declaring war on Olav who was roundly defeated and killed at the battle of Svolder in the year 1000. Beware of a woman spurned, hey?

Sigrid would supposedly go on to give Sven Forkbeard one daughter, Estrid. This Estrid would marry Ulf Jarl, brother to Gytha, wife of Godwin of Wessex and mother to Harold Godwinson, and Estrid’s son, Sven Estridsen would be the first in a long, long line of Danish kings.

Unfortunately, this is when I must tell you that Sigrid may be a very colourful lady, but her historical existence is doubtful. There are those who feel the evidence rather points to Erik being wed to a Slavic princess who neither burned eager suitors nor was slapped in the face by Olav Tryggvason, but who definitely gave Erik a son called Olof. Seeing as I’m rather taken by Sigrid, I’m hoping they’re wrong.

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One of those churches that popped up 

Right: back to today’s subject, which is not the fascinating Sigrid, but rather the equally fascinating little town of Sigtuna.  Erik Segersäll was a pagan, and his son Olof Skötkonung was just as pagan – at least initially. But the times they were a-changing, and a lot of pressure was brought to bear on Olof, which was why he became a Christian, supposedly baptised in 1008 by St Sigfrid. As a consequence, churches began to sprout like mushrooms in Sigtuna, which houses some of the oldest church ruins in Sweden. Today, we can wander round the ruins of several of these churches, huge imposing things that served a town consisting of 1000 inhabitants, give or take. Once there were churches, soon enough there were priests. Once there were priests, soon enough there came a bishop, and Sigtuna thereby became an early ecclesiastic centre, a beacon of light in an area where the old Norse faith still held its own.

There is an alternative version of Olof’s baptism: the Anglo Saxon Chronicle tells the story of how King Swein (Sven Forkbeard) and a king Anlaf harried England in 994, pillaging and looting until Ethelred the Unready, as was his wont, bought them off with a huge Danegeld. This Anlaf is by some considered identical to Olof, and as per the Chronicle, Anlaf was baptised at Andover by an Anglo Saxon bishop called Sigeric (a name very similar to Sigfrid, IMO). This would sadly mean no St Sigfrid, but this version is borne out by the fact that already in 995 Olof issued coins stamped with a cross.

20170524_100219Olof was the first Swedish king to issue coins. The mint was set up in Sigtuna, and it was run by an Anglo Saxon gent named Godwine who had some sort of monopoly over the Scandinavian coin-making business, seeing as he was also in charge of the Danish and Norwegian mints. As stated above, already in 995 these coins came decorated with a cross and Olof’s name. Initially, we can assume the people in charge of the minting could read—and move with the times—as Olof is first titled “king of Sigtuna” before becoming “king of Sweden” some years later. Over time, the literacy level among those minting must have dropped severely, as in later periods we have Olof being presented as “king of England”.

Whatever the case, Olof’s conversion to Christianity and his mint were two important steps in moving Sweden away from its Viking past and towards the somewhat more civilised Europe. When Olof died, his son Anund Jacob continued issuing coins, but upon his death the Swedish mint disappeared—at least for a while. It would take almost two centuries before new Swedish coins were issued, and by then Sweden had taken great strides towards a cohesive national state, albeit that the costs had been high – almost constant civil war as one wannabe king after the other tried to grab the crown.

20170524_103503By then, Sigtuna’s heyday was over. In the early 13th century a new town saw the light of the day further to the east, and over time this humble collection of timber houses was destined to become Sweden’s present-day capital, Stockholm. Sigtuna reverted to being a somewhat somnolent place, and only in its many, many ruins of long gone churches and religious establishments can we catch a glimpse of what it was like during those two centuries when Sigtuna was truly the centre of the Swedish world.

 

 

Off the beaten track in Sweden

I might just as well start out by saying that for very, very many people Sweden is per definition off the beaten track—an insignificant place far to the north with like 10 million inhabitants in a country consisting of 55% forests. Of course, for us Swedes the place is not insignificant: after all, WE live here.

Now Sweden is a very elongated country in which approximately 80% live in Stockholm or south of the capital. This does not mean that the southern part of Sweden is particularly densely populated, but compared to the north, we are positively crowded together, like 25 people or so per square kilometre (I’m being ironic, OK?) Obviously, with all that space, there are plenty of byroads.

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One of the many pretty wooden houses to be found in Gränna

This excursion into the (relatively) unknown Sweden starts in Gränna. Once again, everyone in Sweden knows where Gränna is, albeit that not everyone in Sweden has visited this rather cute little town, situated on the shores of Vättern, Sweden’s second largest lake, Vättern. With a protective hillside to the east, the waters of the lake to the west, and a relatively flat space in between. Gränna enjoys a rather nice autumnal climate in which pears thrive. It therefore follows that Gränna pears are a big thing—well, in Sweden.

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Visingsö, visible from Gränna

Gränna town was founded in 1652 and has the distinction of being Sweden’s only feudal town, in that it was founded by Count Per Brahe, not by the king. Per Brahe was the richest man in Sweden and I suppose such a man felt he needed his very own town to round off his image. He chose Gränna—at the time a rather obscure village—because of its harbour. You see, until then Gränna was an insignificant little village, no more than a quick stop on the road for all those determined to cross the choppy waters of the lake to Visingsö, an elongated island in the middle of Vättern which in early medieval times was a preferred residence for the Swedish kings.

Why live on an island, one might ask—especially an island so far away from Stockholm. Well, at the time (we’re talking 11-12th century or so), Stockholm did not exist. Plus, being king of Sweden came with the risk of being murdered so that someone else could be elected king, and so retiring to an island seemed the prudent thing to do. Not that it helped Karl Sverkersson, the Swedish king who was brutally murdered in 1167 by his successor, Knut Eriksson. The intrepid Knut had no need to visit Gränna to get to Visingsö – he waited until winter and crossed the lake when it was frozen. He also avoided death by assassin’s blade by the simple expedient of murdering all of Karl Sverkersson’s male relatives he could lay hands on. One little male relative managed to flee: Karl’s three-year-old son, Sverker Karlsson, was smuggled out of Sweden by his mother and would, in the fullness of time, return to wrest the crown from Knut’s sons, but as this has nothing whatsoever to do with Visingsö or Gränna, we won’t go there.

PPimages (2)Other than pears and the proximity to Visingsö, Gränna is famous for its “polka pigs”. No, we’re not talking four-legged creatures that go oink in the dark, we’re talking the world-famous Gränna Polkagrisar (polka pigs), which is Swedish for striped stick candy. 20170523_093934This contribution to the world’s sweets was invented in 1852 by Amalia Erickson, a young widow who had to do something to support herself and her children. As one does in such tricky situations, she developed a special type of sugar paste which was kneaded on a marble table top and pulled and twisted as it was shaped into a classic red and white swirl. These days, Amalia is honoured all over the place in Gränna, including a life-size statue

Having explored Gränna to the full, we drove off towards Rök, home to 185 souls, give or take. Not that we were going to see the inhabitants. Nor were we all that interested in the church, built in the mid 19th century atop the demolished ruins of a 12th century church. IMO, I’d have preferred to see the old church, but the people living in Rök a century or so ago desired a new place of worship, airy and filled with light, and so they happily destroyed the old to give room for the new, a process called progress for which we must have some respect as otherwise we would all still be living in wattle and daub cottages without running water or central heating.

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Well over 2 metres tall, behold Rökstenen

Now, outside the old medieval church there used to be a tithing booth, and fortunately for all of us, those men so determined to rebuild the church in the 19th century were wise enough to salvage the truly impressive runestone that our medieval ancestors had walled into the tithing booth as a nice, robust foundation. This, dear peeps was what we had come to see: Rökstenen, one of the most well-preserved and impressive runestones still around.

The inscription on Rökstenen is the longest known rune inscription and dates from the early 9th century. It is thought it was originally placed close to where it now stands, right by the side of the processional road which all newly elected kings would travel as part of their inauguration process. By placing the stone there, the grieving Varin, father of the dead Vämod in whose honour the stone was erected, ensured his son’s name would never be forgotten. Given that we still know his son’s name, more than 1200 years after his death, I guess Varin succeeded.

When the Christian church began establishing itself in the region the stone was toppled – you know, out with the old heathen stuff, in with the new Christian things – which is how it ended up as building material. Fortunately, the stone was never defaced, and so we can still read (but not necessarily understand) the convoluted inscription in which Varin laments the loss of Vämod

20170523_120820From the runestone it was but a short drive to Alvastra. Once one of the more important monastic houses in Sweden, today Alvastra is a peaceful collection of ruins, the original layout clearly visible. The monks who founded Alvastra were invited here by King Sverker (dad to Karl Sverkersson who was murdered on Visingsö), which is why in 1143 a group of monks left Clairvaux In France and made the long and perilous journey to this distant backwater. One can only imagine just how unpopular these poor monks must have been to be sent off into the wilderness, to a place where Christianity was still a novelty.  Forty years after arriving, the proud monks consecrated their abbey church, built in local limestone. Some 400 years after the monks’ arrival, Alvastra disappeared as a religious community , the impressive library, the silver and relics carted off to Stockholm and the new, Protestant king’s treasury.

St_Brigitta_1476After some time imbibing the serenity of Alvastra, off we went to Vadstena, one of the holier places in Sweden – well, at least according to St Birgitta, who founded the Brigittine order here. To be quite correct, St Birgitta was only present as a bag of bones when the convent was opened, seeing as she’d died in Rome after having nagged the pope into allowing her to start a religious order in which both men and women were welcome (albeit living in separate dormitories) In general, St Birgitta was a very determined lady who managed to browbeat almost everyone into doing what she wanted, which was how she harassed the pope into leaving Avignon behind and moving back to Rome. Yes, she was also very devout and had been afflicted by religious visions since the tender age of six, and yes, she believed in helping the poor and needy – especially the women. More about St Birgitta can be found here – and I hasten to add that just because she was canonised, this does not mean St Birgitta was all that soft and cuddly. Rather the reverse, in fact.

In the abbey church of Vadstena lie the mortal remains of another medieval lady, Philippa of England, Queen of Norway, Denmark & Sweden. While St Birgitta inspires reluctant admiration, little Philippa mostly inspires compassion. She was sent off at the tender age of twelve by her father, Henry IV of England, as a bride to the (at the time) very distant north. From little Philippa’s perspective, her father was more or less sending her to the “here be dragons” part of the map. Not so from her daddy’s perspective, seeing as Henry IV (prior to usurping his cousin’s throne, i.e. when he was still plain old Henry of Bolingbroke) had spent a lot of time fighting for the Teutonic Order in the Baltics.

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Erik of Pomerania

Philippa was married to Erik of Pomerania, heir to the combined thrones of Sweden, Norway and Denmark, By all accounts, Philippa did a great job managing Sweden for her husband, so much so that while the Swedish nobles heartily disliked Erik, they always respected their little queen. Unfortunately, Philippa died young and childless, and soon enough the Swedish nobles threw Erik out, leaving the ex-king no other option but to become a pirate (!) with the Baltic Sea as his hunting ground. Maybe a story for another day.

Vadstena is not only famous for its religious history. Long before St Birgitta decided to house her convent here, Vadstena was a favourite residential town for the Swedish medieval kings, home to one of their most luxurious palaces. Seeing as Birgitta strong-armed the then king, Magnus, to grant her the palace for her future religious establishment, there is little left of the palatial interiors – and truth be told, they’d only be palatial from a medieval Swedish perspective. Magnus’ wife, Blanche of Namur, was probably less than impressed by the comforts offered by her Swedish residences, comparing them unfavourably with the palaces of her childhood in present-day Flanders.

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Blanche with Håkan

As to why Magnus chose to give Birgitta his royal residence, I suspect he did that to stop her from insinuating he was more into men than women and that his son, Prince Håkan, was the consequence of the fair Blanche of Namur finding pleasure in other arms. See? I told you being a saint doesn’t necessarily mean being nice.

Finally, we could not leave Vadstena without at least mentioning Princess Cecilia, the party princess who in the late 16th century was discovered entertaining a scantily clad young man in her bedroom. Most unseemly, and the scandal so angered dear papa the young man spent a long, long time cowering under the shadow of the gallows before papa relented and decided to have his wayward daughter wed the intrepid lover. Cecilia’s life would end up being one very long adventure, including such highlights as fleeing England due to unpaid debts and dabbling in piracy to balance the books.

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Strolling along the Lake Vättern in Vadstena. The abbey church can be seen to the right through the trees

After all this sightseeing, a longish human break was in order before setting off due north, towards the not-so-well-known town of Sigtuna.  More about this little gem in my next post!

P.S. A quick note: Sweden in the early medieval period was substantially smaller than it is today. The southern part belonged to Denmark, the north was unchartered terrain, and to the west large chunks of present day Sweden belonged to Norway.

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