ANNA BELFRAGE

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Archive for the category “historical people”

A series of Hapsburg Doñas

By now, the regular followers of my blog know I
a) have a thing about strong women
b) am very interested in the Hapsburgs. (I am also somewhat crazy about the medieval period and the seventeenth century, but as today’s post has NOTHING to do with these periods, I am glossing over these addictions of mine)

Now, I have written a lot of posts about the Spanish Hapsburgs and today I aim to share another little story with you. Or maybe it is more of a reflection, along the lines that men who have a healthy self-confidence appreciate and encourage strong women. It takes balls to share the stage with a colourful and intrepid lady—as valid today as it has been in the past.

The early Spanish Hapsburgs were obviously well-endowed gents. Carlos I & V had been raised by his aunt Archduchess Margaret of Austria, an impressive lady, and clearly this made him positively disposed towards other strong women, as he selected his sister, Mary of Austria, Queen of Hungary,  to succeed Margaret as the governor of the Low Countries when Margaret died.

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Mary, Carlos’ sister

Mary was temperamentally not as comfortable with ruling as Auntie Margaret had been. She wasn’t quite as social, quite as much the life and soul of a party – not that Margaret was much into capering about and singing loudly, but she knew how to mingle, how to cajole and convince. Mary was of a much more serious disposition and had to learn these skills, recognising that the independently minded Flemish and Dutch subjects were not exactly dazzled into obedience, no matter how grand their governor or how much blue blood ran in the governor’s veins. Interestingly enough, the fact that Mary was a woman does not seem to have been an issue. Besides, should someone displease Mary, the chances were high brother Carlos would ride in to punish the perpetrator.

Mary and Carlos did not see eye to eye on everything. Specifically, they did not agree on how to handle the Lutheran movement. Carlos was all for bashing every Protestant over the head and burning them as the heretics they were, thereby hoping to prod those among the Dutch who’d converted into returning to the fold of the Holy Roman Church. Mary had a much more tolerant approach, advocating that as long as her Protestant subjects respected the laws and did their duty by her, she saw no reason to persecute them on account of their faith. Nice lady.

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Maria of Spain

Other than his sister, Carlos V also had competent daughters whom he also promoted to positions of influence. His legitimate daughter, Maria of Spain, was on several occasions left in charge of Spain, both to cover for her dear Papa and, after Carlos had abdicated, for her brother, Felipe II.

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Juana’s baby son, Sebastian

The same goes for Maria’s sister Juana, who was ordered to return home to Valladolid in Castile from Portugal and assume the regency. Juana did as she was told, leaving behind her baby son. As heir to the Portuguese throne, baby Sebastian was not allowed to leave the country. Juana never saw her son again, this despite him surviving childhood and growing into a fine young man before he died fighting in Morocco. (Well, it is assumed he died fighting as he was last seen charging the enemies) No, instead Juana turned to God and is the only known woman to have become a member of the Jesuits. Clearly, something I need to explore further…

Carlos V was a man who seems to have believed in the sanctity of marriage. Yes, he sired some illegitimate children, but they were either born before or after his marriage. As a youth he developed a passion for a Flemish lady named Judith and fathered a girl, Margaret, born in 1522. The child was raised at the court of the Archduchess Margaret and Mary of Austria, her father setting out a detailed schedule for her education. At the age of seven, Margaret was formally recognised by her father and some years later she was sent off to Italy, destined to marry Alessandro d’Medici. Her first hubby was assassinated and Margaret was wed to Ottavio Farnese, no matter that the fifteen-year-old bride clearly expressed she did not want to marry the future Duke of Parma. Poor Margaret had a hard time of things as her father the Emperor had every intention of controlling most of Italy while the pope and  her husband, understandably, were less than thrilled with the idea. Several years later, an agreement was struck whereby Parma remained independent on the condition that the Emperor was granted custody of the young heir to Parma, Margaret’s son Alessandro Farnese.

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Margaret (or Margarita) of Parma

As a consequence of this agreement, Margaret took her ten-year-old son and in 1555 returned to the Netherlands. Her boy she transferred into the care of her brother, Felipe II, who sent little Alessandro to Spain to be raised with his own (rather insane) son and the other known illegitimate child of Carlos V, Juan de Austria. Margaret was made governor of the Low Countries. However: Felipe had no intention of letting Margaret rule according to her own head or heart, which put Margaret in an untenable position.

In protest to Felipe’s meddling, Margaret resigned and returned to Italy but was recalled some years later by Felipe to co-rule the Low Countries with her son (Alessandro Farnese was the bees’ knees according to his uncle and various of his contemporaries. From Felipe’s perspective, Alessandro came with the benefit of being 100% loyal to him, having been more or less raised by Felipe) Mother and son did not really hit it off, and Margaret was allowed to retire to Italy where she died some years later.

I suppose one could argue that in the case of Margaret, she was more of a figurehead than a person with real power, and Felipe seems to have been more hesitant about endowing women with power than his father was. In difference to Carlos, Felipe had been raised without any strong females in his proximity.

In 1566, Felipe’s French wife Elizabeth of Valois gave birth to a daughter, Isabel Clara Eugenia. Felipe was delighted, falling in love with his baby girl from the first moment he saw her. Isabel would grow up to be the only child Felipe allowed to help him with his work, in charge of sorting his correspondence and of translating from Italian to Spanish. As was the custom among the Hapsburgs. Isabel was betrothed at a very early age to her first cousin Rudolf of Austria, next in line to become the Holy Roman Emperor. Rudolf, however, was to grow up into a man with no interest whatsoever in marrying. So there was poor Isabel, left standing atop Spinster Mountain. Not for long, though, as her dear Papa soon came up with the suggestion that she marry another of her first cousins, Albert of Austria.

This Albert had been raised in Spain, destined for the Church. In 1577 he’d been made a cardinal, despite being very young (eighteen) and not having taken full orders. Hmm. What money and influence can buy, right? Still valid in our day and age, except that these days no one wants to buy a cardinal’s hat… When Felipe proposed that he marry Isabel, Albert was the Archbishop of Toledo which, one assumes, would have led to a number of raised brows: archbishops did not marry. Albert, however, was more eager to wed than pursue an ecclesiastic career and so he resigned the archbishopric, married Isabel and was, together with his wife, made governor of the Low Countries.

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Albert and Isabel

Isabel and Albert were a great double act. Together, they brought stability and peace to the Spanish Netherlands. Together, they promoted measures that strengthened the cultural identity of the Flemish Catholics, such as supporting Rubens magnificent paintings. They developed trade, they helped the region to flourish. Under their rule, Brussels became a centre of culture, of trade and learning. And when Albert died in 1621, Isabel continued to rule on her own, appointed governor by her half-brother Felipe III. When she died in 1633, she left behind a well-ruled region and subjects who genuinely grieved for her. I believe the old Archduchess Margaret, aunt to Isabel’s grandfather Carlos V, would have approved. A lot.

In pursuit of the Early American Dream

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Crossing the seas to new shores…

I have something of a fascination with those intrepid ancestors of ours who decided to uproot themselves from everything they knew and start over, in lands they had never seen. Okay, so I must admit to these not being my ancestors – my ancestors remained very rooted to their few acres of land, complementing that income with long shifts in the nearby mines.

People left for various reasons: some needed to re-invent themselves, some had to escape from baying creditors, others had no choice, many went because of religious persecution, and quite a few set off to become rich. These were often young men, with their heads filled with dreams of finding gold, or silver, or at least some copper. They hoped for rivers filled with sturgeon, for welcoming lands in which crops grew more or less by themselves. Boy, were they disappointed.

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“And bring us back gold. Lot’s of gold!” Isabel & Fernando w Columbus

One of the reasons behind this belief in a land of riches was due to propaganda. People were needed to populate the colonies, and selling a permanent trip to the other side of the Atlantic as being “harsh and difficult, with years of toil before you, and possibly you’ll die” would not exactly have volunteers lining up. The Spanish explorers, needing to justify the costs of sending repeated expeditions over the seas, promised their financial backers (ergo Their Most Catholic Majesties, Fernando and Isabel) gold and silver. Ultimately, as we know, the Spanish Conquistadores found gold aplenty in Peru, silver in Potosí, and a very much impenetrable jungle elsewhere.

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Welcome to the New World, a veritable cornucopia. Not!

Anyway; young men (it’s always the young men who bounce about on their toes, eager for adventure and pots of gold) who wanted to rise above their original standing in life listened to these rather imprecise descriptions and salivated. Go out, make a fortune, return home and marry well – seemed like an excellent plan, like an early version of the American Dream, although at the time it would have been labelled the Colonial Dream.

Most of them failed dismally. But some made good – good enough to be toted as examples of just how true the dream of riches was. One such man was William Claiborne, a man born in Kent to Thomas and Sarah Clayborne, who would carve himself quite the excellent life in Virginia. Along the way he would also instigate the first naval battle in North America and cause quite some tension between the colonies of Virginia and Maryland. One of the movers and shakers of this world was William Claiborne – and definitely not afraid of taking on new challenges and unknown coasts.

William C 001Claiborne was born in Kent, England, in 1600. As his family did not have the means to offer him a promising career back home, William set off for Virginia in 1621, where he was appointed land surveyor. He was granted 200 acres, and through a combination of astute business sense and perfect timing, his original grant quickly expanded to well over 1 000 acres. Already here, William had more than realised his dreams of future wealth, but this was an ambitious young man, with his eyes set not only on gold but also on achieving a standing in society.

Life in Virginia was not exactly a walk in the park. In William’s second year there, the Powhatan rose in anger against the white settlers, and over one very bloody night more than a third of the settlers were killed. William was (obviously) not among the dead – and I suppose all those deaths increased the opportunities for an intrepid young man to further his own position. Our young hero capitalised on the situation, and at the age of 26 was appointed Secretary of State for the Colony of Virginia.

Being a landowner was not sufficient for our restless protagonist, and after some pondering, William decided to try his hand at trade. Off he went to develop the fur trade, sailing up and down the coasts of the Chesapeake to trade with the local Indians. I guess it was very much glass beads for furs, although now and then William probably offered a musket or two as well.

William C 202_w_fullDuring his travels round the bay, William came upon the perfect place for a trading post, a small island just off the eastern shore of the bay. In a burst of nostalgia, he named it Kent Island and appropriated it in his own name. His Virginian financial backers cheered William on. Others did not, foremost among them Lord Calvert, who was looking for land in which to establish his very own colony, one of his options being future Maryland, to which territory Kent Island belonged. Calvert’s first attempt at founding a colony, in Newfoundland, had failed dismally. (And let us not here spend time wondering why on earth Calvert chose Newfoundland in the first place)

Lord Calvert came to Virginia in 1629. At the time, he was more interested in colonising south of Virginia (the Carolinas) than north of it (Maryland). As far as the Virginians were concerned, Lord Calvert had no business being in their neck of the woods at all. Not only did Lord Calvert’s desire for his own colony pose a threat to Virginia’s territorial expansion, but to add insult to injury, Lord Calvert was a Catholic, and to make matters worse, the demented man actually argued for religious toleration, making the staunch Virginia Protestants squirm in their boots.

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Cecil Calvert, Lord Baltimore

Lord Calvert was not a man to give up. He returned to England to urge the king to give him a charter for his own colony. The Virginians had no intention of giving Lord Calvert as much as a square inch on their precious shore, so they sent their Secretary of State to London to argue against any grant to Calvert. William was more than willing to go.

The Privy Council listened to Calvert. It listened to William. In between, the Privy Council yawned and thought of other things – after all, what happened in Virginia stayed in Virginia, and few Englishmen other than the merchants cared all that much about the colonies. The merchants, however, saw huge opportunities – this was the age when sugar and tobacco were becoming popular crops – and one such rich merchant took a liking to William Claiborne and his plans for Kent Island. Suddenly, William had the means to recruit indentured servants for his future trading post, and in May of 1631 William left London and sailed back home, quite convinced Calvert would never get the grant of land he so wanted.

It must have been somewhat of a shock to William – and his fellow Virginians – when the Privy Council awarded Lord Calvert a charter for the colony of Maryland. The charter included Kent Island, but William made it very clear to Calvert that he answered only to Virginia and the king, not to some upstart Catholic. The upstart Catholic in question had received Maryland as a personal grant, so the colony was in effect Lord Calvert’s property, and Lord Calvert intended to enjoy all his lands – including Kent Island.

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William looking elegant

Kent Island became a symbol. William refused to hand it over to Calvert, calling for Virginia to come to his aid. The Virginia Governor, one John Harvey, was loath to do so: Lord Calvert came with an impressive Royal Charter, and Harvey was not about to pick a fight with the king. William was livid and probably expressed this. The Governor retaliated by having him dismissed as Secretary of State. The Virginia Assembly did not like that one bit, most of them being firm friends of Claiborne, and so Harvey was ousted from office.

Not that it helped William all that much. A Maryland commissioner captured one of William’s ships, and in 1635 the first two naval battles on North American waters took place, both of them in Chesapeake, both of them involving William and his (unfairly according to William) impounded ship. Three Virginian died, things simmered down a bit, and still William hung on to Kent Island, but all this turmoil was not good for business. William’s intended profitable trading post was doing less than well, and in 1637 a London attorney popped up on Kent Island, representing William’s disgruntled London financiers. William was sent back to London to attend court proceedings against him, and while he was gone the attorney invited Maryland to take over Kent Island. Rather back-stabbing, and we must suppose William fumed and protested, but to no avail.

For some years, William was occupied elsewhere – in Honduras, to be precise – but with the advent of the English Civil War, William saw an opportunity to reclaim Kent Island once and for all. One wonders just what it was about this little island that had William so determined to control it. Was it simply a matter of pique? Was there a place on the island that reminded him of home? Hmm. William doesn’t strike me as the nostalgic type.

Whatever his reasons, William joined forced with Richard Ingle, a Parliamentarian Puritan merchant whose ships had been seized by the Maryland authorities in response to a royal order to do so. With England being torn asunder by civil war and religious tensions riding sky high, William and Ingle used Calvert’s Catholic faith as a pretext and attacked in 1644. William reclaimed Kent Island, Ingle took over St Mary’s City. I imagine William did a little happy dance, complete with hand-clapping and stamping, but already by 1646 Kent Island was back under Calvert control.

One cannot fault William with lack of perseverance. In 1648, as the newly appointed Parliamentary Commissioner and Secretary of Virginia – William declared for Parliament and the Puritan faith – he was also made responsible for bringing Maryland to heel. Yet again, up popped the question of Calvert’s Catholicism and how far a papist could be trusted. (I know; this becomes very repetitive, but blame it on the times, not on me). Calvert’s Governor was outnumbered by the vocal anti-papists and submitted to Claiborne’s authority – for a while.

In 1653, to William’s outraged surprise, Cromwell confirmed Lord Calvert as owner of Maryland. In 1654, Calvert’s man in Maryland, Governor Stone, declared that William Claiborne’s property – and life – could be taken at the Governor’s pleasure. The purpose was to scare William into leaving Maryland alone, but instead William and his co-commissioner, Bennet, overthrew the hapless Stone and ousted all Catholics from Maryland’s Assembly. This did not please Lord Calvert. Stone was told to get his act together and regain authority ASAP. Stone tried and failed. By 1655, the colony of Maryland was in the hands of Puritan colonists who went on quite the burning spree, destroying any Catholic institution they could find.

At last it seemed to William he was in a position to permanently claim Kent Island back. Together with Bennet, he sailed for England with the intention of convincing Cromwell to once and for all tear up that irritating Royal Charter which granted Maryland to Lord Calvert. Didn’t work. Instead, Lord Calvert was granted total control over Maryland for the rest of the Protectorate, and William Claiborne had to kiss Kent Island away for ever.

William C The-Great-Southern-PlantationOnce Charles II was restored, William Claiborne’s political career was dead. A former Parliamentarian and Puritan had no future in the royalist and Anglican Virginia, and so William retired from public life, living out the rest of his years on his huge estate, Romancoke. He may not have acquired everything he desired, but when William Claiborne was laid to rest in 1677 he left behind a substantial fortune. The young penniless man who set sail from England in 1621 had indeed realised the American dream. He wasn’t the first to do so, nor was he the last – but he was definitely one of the few.

How expansive ambitions led to revolution

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAToday, I have the honour of being visited by Paul Bennett, who not only maintains an excellent review site, Hoover Book Reviews, but also writes books about set in the Americas during the decades leading up to the War of Independence. An interesting and not so often depicted period, IMO, which is why I felt it important to highlight Paul’s writing. It is also a complicated period to depict, with global alliances affecting the events on North American soil which is why I am so grateful to Paul for writing this guest post and shedding some light on this whole mess.

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The mid-18th century was a time of turmoil and change in colonial America. The British colonies, being hemmed in between the Atlantic Ocean and the Appalachian Mountains sought to expand their territories west of the mountains that run from Maine in the north to Georgia in the south, despite the fact that there were already many native tribes living or hunting in these lands. Many of the tribes were being pushed further and further west; a movement that exacerbated the already volatile situation existing between traditional enemies. The Iroquois Confederacy, a powerful collection of tribes were in almost constant conflict with the Huron, Shawnee and Delaware tribes being displaced by British settlers. Despite this, the lure of fertile farmland and the lucrative fur trade were too promising to pass up and soon there were settlements dotting the landscape in what is now central and western Pennsylvania and upstate New York.

The French, meanwhile, were also laying claim to the western frontier, but not with an aim to colonize. Rather it was the major waterways, and consequently the fur trade that they sought to control with a string of forts and trading posts that stretched from Montreal to St. Louis following the St. Lawrence River through to the great lakes surrounding Michigan. They also constructed Fort Duquesne (modern day Pittsburgh) thereby controlling the Ohio River and the wealth derived from the abundance of fur bearing critters. In June of 1749 a French patrol was sent into the disputed area around the Ohio bearing to bury lead plates emblazoned with the royal French crest, thereby claiming the land for France. The patrol’s other missions were to round up and remove any English hunters and trappers they encountered, and to further ally themselves with the Indians in the area.

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Young George

In 1754, Virginia colony dispatched a party of Virginia Militia to investigate French activity around the Fort Duquesne area led by Lieutenant Colonel George Washington. He had learned from a Seneca Chief, Tanaghrisson, that thirty-five French troops were camped in a nearby ravine. Washington decided to investigate; while his troops surrounded the unguarded camp, a shot was fired. The plan to talk to the French quickly became an inadvertent but deadly ambush. This ‘shot heard round the world’ resulted in a massacre that saw French commander Jumonville dead, along with 10 of his troops.

Many of the French were captured; however, at least one French soldier escaped, and made his way back to Fort Duquesne to report the incident. Washington, knowing that a reprisal was coming, returned to his base camp to strengthen the recently constructed Fort Necessity.

On the third of July, six hundred French – accompanied by one hundred Indian allies – began their assault against Washington and his 293 men. Faced with these odds, a truce was called which led to Washington surrendering Fort Necessity to the French. While war between England and France was not officially declared for another two years, these events initiated what could be called the real first world war, which engaged the governments and people of most of Europe, eastern Canada, and the British colonies in America. The French and Indian War raged from 1756-1763 and was known as The Seven Years’ War in Europe.

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Braddock, mortally wounded at the Battle of the Wilderness

The strategy for the British was to seize control of the French forts, the first to be attempted was Fort Duquesne. The Battle of the Wilderness was a thoroughly humiliating defeat at the hands of an outnumbered and outgunned French and Indian force. The expedition was led by General John Braddock and included such illustrious personages as Colonel Thomas Gage, who later became one of the British commanders in the early goings of the Revolutionary War; George Washington, who had resigned his commission after the Fort Necessity debacle and was with Braddock only as an advisor; and a young Daniel Boone, a teamster and hunter for the army.

After Braddock’s defeat, the British government went all in on defeating the French, calling upon King George’s Hessian cousins to take care of Europe thereby freeing up men, material, and money for the North American effort. The French could not match the British and gradually, fort by fort, they were defeated; losing not only the Ohio River area but all holdings in North America except for the southern Mississippi posts.

This change in governance was a drastic change in fortune for the various tribes. Those who were French allies had grown accustomed to the largesse of the French in terms of gifts and trade. However, the British governor, Jeffrey Amherst, was not as generous. Even the tribes who sided with the British would soon feel colonials breathing down their necks as more and more settled across the mountains. A tribal confederation under the leadership of the Odawa chief, Pontiac laid siege to Fort Detroit, beginning a short lived rebellion that wreaked havoc on new settlements and small outposts.

In conclusion, Britain defeated the French, gaining Canada and the promising Ohio frontier, but victory would not come cheap. The British government soon determined to levy the American colonies, to help pay the costs of the war. The cries of ‘no taxation without representation’ and ‘give me liberty or give me death’ were responses to this decision, which fed the flames of rebellion, leading to the birth of the country twenty years later on July 4, 1776.

paul clash_coverIt is in this historical setting that I chose to place my fictional family and thus began Clash of Empires the first book of The Mallory Saga. With the hope and promise of a new life, the Mallory clan move to the frontier establishing a trading post at the junction of the Kiskiminetas and Allegheny Rivers, a mere 40 miles from Fort Duquesne. When war is finally declared, the Mallory’s are caught up in the ensuing struggle, serving as militia scouts for the British. Book 2 of The Mallory Saga, Paths to Freedom, follows the exploits of the family as events unfold leading to the Battle of Lexington and Concord; thus starting The American Revolution.

Available on Kindle, paperback.

https://www.amazon.com/dp/B01MXR186R

https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B01MXR186R

Goodreads link:

https://www.goodreads.com/work/editions/53828699-clash-of-empires-a-novel-of-the-french-indian-war-the-mallory-saga-1

Facebook Page:

https://www.facebook.com/Clash-of-Empires-1115407281808508/

The loyal sister – the life of a renaissance princess

In 1568, a little Swedish princess saw the light of the day. I am proud to report she is a namesake of mine and was therefore baptised Anna. There, dear readers, all similarities between me and this princess end, but hey, one must work with what one has, right?

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Johan III

Anna was the daughter of Prince Johan of Sweden, Duke of Finland, and his wife, Katarina Jagellonica, Polish princess. As the younger brother of a reigning king, Johan should have acquired Erik XIV’s permission to marry Katarina, but Johan chose to negotiate his own marriage which further strained the relationship between the two brothers. Even worse, from Erik’s point of view, with Katarina came some very powerful connections, and he was already suspicious of his brother, whom he perceived as worryingly ambitious.

The Johan-Katarina marriage came with one major challenge: Katarina was a Catholic, while Johan was the son of the man who’d pushed through the Reformation in Sweden and had accordingly been educated as a Lutheran. Johan seems to have been pretty relaxed about all this religious stuff, investing a lot of effort on trying to bridge the divide between Lutherans and Catholics. “It’s not as if there’s any major difference between us,” he may have argued. More fool he, as it would turn out – but not until Johan himself was safely dead and buried.

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Johan and Katarina in captivity, with baby Sigismund

Right: let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Anna saw the light of the world in May of 1568 and she was likely the result of an intense celebration between her father (at the time 31 years or so) and her mother (all of 42 years old). Why a celebration? Well, the Erik and Johan relationship tanked after Johan’s unauthorised marriage and in 1563 Johan and Katarina were locked up at the castle of Gripsholm. Erik gave Katarina the opportunity to go home to Poland. She refused, saying it was her duty to remain by her husband’s side. It was probably a good thing for Johan that she did refuse, as her presence made it difficult for Johan’s jailers to be as harsh as Erik’s most trusted servant, Jöran Persson, wanted them to be. Jöran Persson is the closest Sweden gets to Thomas Cromwell, a man of low birth who rose to be chief whisperer in the royal ear. In the fullness of time Jöran was to die a horrible death on the orders of Johan. I guess this just proves one should never, ever kick the one who’s down…

By 1567, Erik’s mental health was in severe decline and the nobility managed to set him aside and free Johan. Hence my comment about celebrations – maybe Katarina and Johan went a bit wild and crazy in their marital bed, drunk on freedom and a return to the lap of luxury. Mind you, they already had a son, Sigismund, born while they were imprisoned, but I imagine that begetting was more about comforting each other than joy.

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A young Sigismund

A year or so after Anna’s birth, Johan became king of Sweden. Little Anna was therefore raised as a royal princess, which in this case meant being the recipient of an excellent education. As her mother was a Catholic, Anna was raised as one too, and this caused some muttering among the recently reformed Swedish nobility, many of whom had embraced the Lutheran faith with ardour. It wasn’t so much Anna being a Catholic that worried them—it was the fact her brother was being raised as one that did. A future Catholic king in the Protestant kingdom of Sweden? A collective shudder ran through the high and mighty.

The years passed. We know very little of Anna’s early years. We know negotiations for a marriage started early, but nothing came to fruition. In 1583, Katarina died. It is said that Anna was present at her mother’s bedside and heard the Jesuit priest assure the dying woman that she didn’t need to worry about Purgatory as it didn’t really exist, it was just something the Church had made up. Anna supposedly suffered so severe a disillusion that no sooner had her mother died but she began drifting towards the Lutheran faith.  I think the explanation is much simpler: with Anna’s mother gone, there was no formative Catholic influence in her proximity. In 1584, Anna formally converted to Lutheranism.

This was not good according to Anna’s aunt and namesake, Queen Anna of Poland. She tried to convince Johan to send Anna to Poland to be raised there, but Johan refused, just as he refused to countenance a marriage between Anna and one of the Hapsburgs. Johan was doing a religious tightrope act so as to keep his nobles relatively happy and wedding his daughter to an arch-Catholic archduke would not have gone down well.

Throughout all this, big brother Sigismund remained a staunch Catholic. In his case, he didn’t really have a choice. As designated heir to Poland (and Poland was a much, much bigger and grander kingdom that Sweden) he had to be Catholic. In 1587, Sigismund became king of Poland. When he travelled to his coronation, he was accompanied by his sister.

In Sweden, it had been Sigismund who was viewed askance. In Poland, the prelates and nobles took one look at the vivacious and bright Anna Vasa and decided they hated her for her influence over their young king but primarily for her heretic ways. (As Anna had been baptised a Catholic and then converted, she was considered a heretic, a bit like the Cathars. And we all know what happened to the poor Cathars, right?)

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Anna Vasa

After two years in Poland, Anna returned home to Sweden. Along the way she was involved in a conflict between her father and his councillors who begged her to intercede for them. She did so, and as a consequence a lifelong friendship between her and a certain Erik Sparre took root. Her father was not exactly delighted at her meddling, but the Vasa family was accustomed to having their fair share of bright and temperamental women so he probably wasn’t surprised by his daughter’s excursion into the world of politics.

The princess’ uncle, Duke Karl, was less enthusiastic. While he too was a man who respected strong women (he married one, for starters) he seems to have developed an intense dislike of his niece, going so far as to call her a meddling evil witch in his correspondence to her brother. But this was as yet in the future.

Johan died in 1592. Sigismund was the new king of Sweden. The cheering was decidedly muted, most of the nobility having long since decided a Lutheran nation like Sweden needed a Lutheran king. How fortunate that the man closest to the throne bar Sigismund was the very staunch Protestant Duke Karl who did what he could to fan the flames of religious fanaticism ever higher.

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Uncle Karl, future Karl IX

Anna was at the time living in Sweden having been granted the castle of Stegeborg. There she held court and surrounded herself with friends and courtiers. One of her ladies in waiting was a Margareta Brahe, sister-in-law twice over to Erik Sparre mentioned above. She and Anna were very close, as was Anna and Margareta’s brother Gustav Brahe. This young gentleman had a major crush on Anna – reciprocated, it would seem. Rumours abounded about their love life and Duke Karl, this man of high morals, openly accused his niece of having taken Gustav as her lover. Well, he did it somewhat more subtly, pointing finger at Margareta and accusing her of smuggling her brother into Anna’s bedchamber. What happened next, he did not detail. I guess Duke Karl was an early fan of the “dot,dot, dot” type of writing.

There was a third Brahe sibling in Anna’s household, namely the younger sister Sigrid. Now Sigrid was very much in love with a certain Johan Gyllenstierna, but her parents had decreed that she should marry Erik Bielke instead. There were rumours Bielke had syphilis, which for obvious reasons didn’t exactly have Sigrid jumping about with joy. Besides, it was Johan she loved and adored.

Anna decided to act. On an ordinary Wednesday, she arranged a wedding between Sigrid and Johan. This was unheard of—Anna had no right to do so. The Bielke family went ballistic and demanded restitution. The Brahe parents were as upset, but one did not yell at a princess, so they yelled at their silly, inconsiderate daughter instead. However, a wedding was a wedding and could not be reversed and soon enough every man and his dog in Sweden was taking sides. Well, okay: not every man and his dog, obviously. Only those that counted, i.e. those with lands and power. Plus their wives who did not hesitate to voice their opinions.

The Bielke family demanded that the officiating priest be castrated (!) and that Johan be condemned to death for stealing a bride already betrothed.  Things were looking rather nasty and when Anna begged Duke Karl to help her sort the mess he just snorted  and told her she had better clean up her own mess or witness Johan Gyllenstierna’s beautiful head be permanently severed from his body. It helped that Anna was the king’s sister. After days of hard negotiation she managed to convince the Bielke family to accept monetary restitution instead of Johan’s head. The happy couple was also placed under house arrest for a year. Not necessarily a hardship if you were young and very much in love…

This incident soured the relationship between Anna and Duke Karl. Things took a turn for the worse as the opposition to Sigismund grew, captained by Duke Karl. Anna was infallibly loyal to her brother, reminding the Swedes he was their anointed king. But Anna’s voice was one voice and a female voice at that. Ranged against her were not only Duke Karl and many of the more powerful noble families but also the Swedish Lutheran Church.

Sweden was quickly slipping through Sigismund’s fingers. Influenced by his Polish advisors, the papal nuntio Germanico Malaspina and his Jesuit confessors, he was determined to revoke the prohibition against worship outside the Swedish Lutheran Church, this to protect his Catholic subjects. Did not go down well. Many were the grumbling Swedes who reminded their new king that there were no papists in their fair country—they’d made sure of that, thank you very much. (There were, of course, but most of them kept a very low profile) Even worse, Sigismund—or rather his Polish advisors—were clearly of the opinion that Sweden was nothing more than a puppet state, subservient to Poland.

In all this, Anna did her best to negotiate. Her brother listened to what she said but the papal nuntio detested her and made it very clear that following an apostate’s advice was like walking down the paved road to hell. Duke Karl didn’t do much listening. He was beyond that, his eyes lighting up whenever he thought of just how close to his fingers the Swedish crown dangled.

In 1598, Sigismund was defeated at the battle of Stångebro and in 1599 he was deposed by parliament and replaced by…ta-daa…Duke Karl, now become Karl IX. To cement his hold on his new throne, Karl did some cleansing. Among those who ended up with their heads chopped off was Erik Sparre, Anna’s friend. In the proceedings leading up to his execution, Karl had Anna’s home ransacked, looking for proof that she had helped Sparre. A couple of letters in code were found, but by then Anna was no longer in Sweden – she had accompanied her brother back to Poland.

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Sigismund in his heyday

Anna was to live out the rest of her life in Poland, usually far from court where she was viewed with suspicion by Sigismund’s Catholic courtiers—even more so as she never hesitated to speak up in defence of the Lutheran minority in Poland. Sigismund and Anna remained very close and he always valued her advice. She never married, even if negotiations for a marriage continued until 1609.

She died in 1625 and her griefstruck brother wanted to give her a grand burial in Krakow. The Polish Church refused. So did the pope. A heretic was a heretic and no way was Anna Vasa to defile the resting place of her Catholic forebears. It took nine years before Anna was finally laid to rest, but not in Krakow as her brother had wished but in the far more modest church of St Mary in Torun. As she was buried according to Lutheran rites, none of her Polish relatives attended. Instead, Anna’s nephew sent one of his few Protestant magnates to represent him. Not that Anna cared. She hadn’t done so for nine long years.

Elizabeth who? A reflection on the life of a medieval woman

Most of us are destined to pass through this life and be quickly forgotten, buried in the huge drifts of human life that border history. Only those that truly stick out—whether for good or bad—get a moment or two of air-time, and for obvious reasons most of these highlighted people tend to be rulers. And men.

Obviously, there are just as many women as men lurking along the margins of recorded history. Quite a few of those women did play a central part—however indirectly—but they are often consigned to the “irrelevant” section, which seems sort of harsh.

One of those long-gone women about whom we know almost nothing is Elizabeth Ferrers. And yet, to judge from what little we do know, this woman had more than her fair share of loss and grief in her life.

Elizabeth was the youngest child of William de Ferrers, the powerful and respected Earl of Derby. This was a man with a surfeit of daughters. Two marriages left him with ten girls and only two sons. Not that Elizabeth ever had the opportunity of developing a close relationship with her father—he died when she was still very young.

Elizabeth was married while still relatively young to William Marshal. (Not the William Marshal but a rather more obscure relative) That marriage ended when her husband died at The Battle of Evesham. Some while later, Elizabeth Ferrers was wed to Dafydd ap Gruffudd.

Was this her choice? Likely not. At the time, Dafydd was estranged from his brother, Llewellyn ap Gruffudd. Well, if we’re going to be quite correct, he’d been his usual pain in the arse, trying to capitalise on the general unrest that followed upon the collapse of Montfort’s control over England. Llewellyn had been a close ally of Montfort. Dafydd chose to present himself as a loyal supporter of the English king, Henry III, and his son, the future Edward I.

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Edward I

So there was Dafydd, kicking his heels at the English court while longing for the green valleys of home. Maybe the English king hoped to tie the younger of the Welsh princes to him by offering him an English bride. Or maybe his decision to marry Elizabeth to Dafydd was a reflection on just how pissed off he was with Elizabeth’s brother, Robert de Ferrers. The young Earl of Derby had sided firmly with Montfort, apparently due to a personal dislike of Prince Edward. In the aftermath of Evesham, Ferrers stubbornly refused to come to terms with his king—at least initially. (In general, Robert’s life reads like a text book case of “how to totally destroy your inheritance”. Due to his own behaviour, Robert de Ferrers lost his title, most of his lands and any political clout he could have had. I may have to give him his very own post—but I can’t say I like him much)

Dafydd was probably ten years or so older than Elizabeth. Yes, he was Welsh, but he’d have been taught to speak Anglo-Norman French and had, after many years at the English court, probably acquired a veneer of civilisation (from the perspective of an Englishman. From the perspective of a Welshman no such veneer was required, thank you very much).

medieval lustWhether Elizabeth liked her husband yes or no was neither here nor there. She was his wife and would have no choice but to accompany him through the ups and downs of his life. Seeing as Dafydd comes across as a somewhat volatile character, prone to stirring up the hornets’ nest whenever he felt unjustly treated, Elizabeth was in for quite the ride.

Dafydd made his peace with his brother in 1267—briefly. When Edward, now king of England, and Llewellyn faced off yet again in 1274, Dafydd happily joined Edward’s side, resenting the fact that his brother wouldn’t grant him as much land as Dafydd felt entitled to. What Elizabeth may have thought of all this is unknown, but when Dafydd was in one of his “I love you, my brother” phase, Elizabeth was likely in Wales, when he was in a “I love you better, my liege” phase, she’d be tagging along to England. After all, where he went, there went she, responsible for ensuring his household worked as it should.

Llewellyn’s attempts to retain his hold on all of Wales failed. Well, to be honest his hold had never been all that strong: to the south and east the English Marcher lords held sway and the other Welsh princelings weren’t always that thrilled at recognising the House of Gwynedd as the first among the Welsh royal dynasties. When Edward assembled a huge host and managed to deprive Llewellyn of the harvests on Anglesey, Llewellyn had no choice but to parley and the Treaty of Aberconwy in 1277 was an excruciatingly humiliating document whereby Llewellyn’s power base was substantially reduced to comprise the lands west of River Conwy.

medieval-dragon-e1492962219524-570x299Dafydd, however, was a happy camper as the treaty called for Llewellyn to hand over the land he’d held east of the river to his younger brother. Edward was an even happier camper as he had a) made his point b) effectively collared the Welsh dragon. So pleased was Edward that he could even be magnanimous and preside over Llewellyn’s much delayed wedding to Eleanor de Montfort. (Delayed because Edward had kidnapped the bride, one should add)

medieval midwife-history-medievalBy the year 1277, Elizabeth and Dafydd had been married for over a decade. There were two surviving sons that we know of, yet another Llewellyn and an Owain. The eldest would have been around ten, the youngest a toddler. Likely there had been other childbirths, but if so no records survive. Other than the boys, the Dafydd/Elizabeth household also included a number of girls, but these seem to have been Dafydd’s daughters by women other than his wife. Difficult to handle, I imagine. Unless Elizabeth disliked sharing her bed with her husband beyond the dutiful embraces required to conceive an heir and a spare. Alternatively, one or two of those girls were, in fact, Elizabeth’s daughters as well. Given future events, it seems a bit unlikely as Elizabeth’s youngest child, a daughter named Gwladys, is named in documents while the rest remain anonymous.

Anyway: 1277 and Dafydd had at last come into his own. It didn’t take him long to realise just how hard Llewellyn’s life had been, always threatened by the encroaching presence of the English who, by now, had settled themselves all around Gwynedd. Edward was busy building castles along the approaches to Gwynedd—magnificent things that sent a very loud message as to who was the real power in Wales. Llewellyn might retain his title of Prince of Wales, but it was Edward Plantagenet whose writ ran strongest.

Inevitably, Dafydd ended up in yet another conflict. This time, however, he directed his anger at Edward and the king’s determination to implement English law in those areas of Wales he controlled. Plus Dafydd probably felt he’d deserved more than the two measly cantrefs he’d received at the Treaty of Aberconwy. He managed to rope in several other dissatisfied Welsh princes, men who had a long last come to realise that in making their peace with Edward of England they’d betrayed their own nation, culture and heritage. While Llewellyn probably cursed his brother to hell and back privately, he had no option but to join. Besides, for a couple of months a Welsh victory did not seem entirely impossible. Until Edward got his war machine moving, of course.

On the one hand, Edward was incensed by Dafydd’s betrayal. One must remember that Edward had seen first hand just how dangerous a powerful and rebellious subject could be—witness Simon de Montfort vs Henry III, Edward’s father. On the other, Edward probably high-fived his closest friends and said “YES!”. Dafydd had handed him the excuse Edward needed to once and for all crush all Welsh resistance.

What did Elizabeth do in all this? Me, I think she was afraid. All the time. She knew Edward and realised he made an implacable foe. She must have understood that if this went wrong, Dafydd would not remain alive for that much longer. And if Dafydd wasn’t around, what would happen to her sons? To her?

We all know this ended badly for the Welsh. A devastated Llewellyn lost his wife in childbirth in the summer of 1282 and was then likely tricked into a trap masterminded by certain Marcher lords, among them Edmund Mortimer, father of the Roger Mortimer who’d go on to rebel against a king, force through the king’s abdication, live joined at the hips with said king’s wife and then die for all that hubris. Neither here nor there. Llewellyn died in December of 1282, his head presented to Edward by Roger Mortimer (Edmund’s brother).

For some months, Dafydd was Prince of Wales—months spent mostly on the run with his family. Elizabeth and the children travelled with him from one castle to the other, and all the while Edward was tightening the noose around his most hated traitor.

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This is Hugh Despenser being hanged, drawn & quartered. Dafydd underwent a similar ordeal

It all came to an end in the summer of 1283. Dafydd was captured together with his wife, his youngest son and all those girls. Neither Dafydd nor Elizabeth would have held any illusions about what awaited Dafydd: death. But I guess none of them expected he would be put to death in such a cruel manner. Dafydd ap Gruffydd has the doubtful distinction of being the first person of noble birth to be hanged, drawn and quartered.

What neither of them could have known is how ruthless Edward would be towards their children. Once Edward’s men captured their eldest son, Llewellyn, he then arranged for both boys—at the time fourteen and eight or so—to be taken to Bristol Castle, there to be locked up for the rest of their lives.

And as to Gwladus, she was taken from her mother and sent to a Gilbertine convent in Lancashire. She would live and die as a nun, far from her mother, her homeland. Her cousin, Llewelyn’s daughter, was likewise dispatched to a convent—but a different one.

So there was Elizabeth. Not only had she just been widowed (or would be, very shortly) but she’d just had all of her children torn from her. No matter that Gwladus was probably a babe, that little Owain was still a child with downy cheeks and knobbly knees, they were taken from her. Did she beg, did she plead? Well, what mother wouldn’t? So yes, I think she did. But it did not avail her. Edward Plantagenet intended to erase this Welsh dynasty from the face of the earth.

In the aftermath of her husband’s rebellion, Elizabeth lost it all. Husband, sons, daughter(s). She would never see any of her children again and as to her own fate, well, she’d had her moment in the limelight, hadn’t she? With Dafydd dead and her sons locked away, Elizabeth became irrelevant. We don’t know what happened to her. It’s as if her life stopped in 1283. I suppose that she would have agreed. To lose it all like that must leave a person permanently maimed.

medieval marriage frontpage2Some have put forward the theory that Elizabeth was hastily wed to another man. If so, we don’t know to whom or if she became the mother of other children. Some say she retired to Wales and was buried there several years later. Me, I think she grieved for the rest of her life. I sort of hope she died before her eldest son in 1287, but God does not seem to have been kind to Elizabeth, so likely she didn’t. I hope she never found out about the king’s order that her sons be kept in fortified cages at night. But life being as it is, I suspect someone made sure to tell her.

Well over eight hundred years ago, Elizabeth Ferrers was born. We know so little about her. What did she look like, how did her laughter sound? Did she laugh or was she mostly of a serious disposition? Was she passionate or cold, did she have someone to comfort her when she wept for the life she had lost, the future her children were robbed of? We don’t know. But it takes a person seriously lacking in empathy not to be affected by the tragedies that befell her—and her children.

From royal sweetheart to Iron Lady

Kalle-nioIn October of 1611, Karl IX, king of Sweden, died. And no, one should not judge this gentleman by his umm…creative hair-do. Karl was a competent (if rather ruthless) man who used religion as an excuse to wrest the Kingdom of Sweden from his nephew, Sigismund, leaving behind a realm in order, a half-grown son and a rather impressive wife.

The recently bereaved Kristina of Holstein-Gottorp headed the regency council set up to rule Sweden until her son, Gustav II Adolf, came of age. This happened sooner rather than later, the just seventeen-year-old young king deciding in December of 1611 that he was ready to rule on his own, thank you very much. Proud mama acquiesced and so the personal rule of Gustav Adolf began.

Now, one of the things a young king needed was a wife—and heirs. Gustav Adolf probably felt he’d  solved that issue some time later. You see, our young and dashing king was in love. Head over heels in love to judge from his surviving letters to Ebba Brahe, who was two years younger than him and one of his mother’s ladies in waiting.

Ebba Brahe was by no means a bad choice. Her family belonged to the upper echelons of Swedish nobility and she was closely related to Gustav Vasa’s third queen (This Gustav was the grandfather of “our” Gustav Adolf). When Ebba’s mother died, the Dowager Queen invited Ebba to court—Kristina had been a close friend of Ebba’s mother and had promised to oversee Ebba’s education. The girl was pleasing to the eye, well-mannered and obviously intelligent, which initially had her finding favour with her new mistress. Until Kristina realised her son had fallen utterly and irrevocably in love with Ebba, pretty and manipulative little minx that she was. This was not good. Oh, no: Kristina had far loftier plans for her son.

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Gustav Adolf wooing Ebba

The young king, who lived under the delusion that he could decide who to marry without his forceful mama’s consent, went as far as to offer Ebba marriage. In one of the surviving letters he asks her to raise the issue of impending nuptials with her father. After all, king or not, his bride needed her father’s consent. The reply from Magnus Brahe was a resounding no. He was not about to anger the Dowager Queen by approving a marriage she was so set against—it would make his daughter’s (and his) life hell on earth. Clearly, Kristina of Holstein-Gottorp was a respected woman, fully capable of holding her own among her male contemporaries.

Crestfallen, Gustav Adolf retired to lick his wounds. His mother was unrelenting: Ebba Brahe would not be the queen of Sweden unless it was over Kristina’s dead body. So when Gustav Adolf was next out and about in the world, bringing havoc and fear in his wake as he led the Swedish Army to more victories, he fell under the charm of a married lady and took her to bed. I imagine several people made it their objective in life to inform Ebba of her sweetheart’s betrayal. Maybe that’s why she supposedly engraved “Jag är förnöjd med lotten min och tackar Gud för nåden sin” (I am content with my place in life and thank God for his mercy) on a window. Or maybe this is a case of everyone over-interpreting a young woman’s spontaneous graffiti.

It is more likely that Ebba had long since reconciled herself to the fact that she would never be allowed to marry the man of her dreams. Her future life indicates a substantial pragmatic streak, ironically very much in line with Kristina of Holstein Gottorp’s temperament. Ebba even tried to dissuade her ardent suitor, repeating over and over again that she was not worthy to be Gustav’s wife. It drove him crazy when she said stuff like that, hence him drowning his sorrows in the welcoming arms of another woman. Erm…

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Maria Eleonora

With mama cruelly nipping the Ebba-Gustav love story in the bud, Gustav Adolf went on to marry a princess, Maria Eleonora of Brandenburg. His mother was delighted—at first. Over the years, I suspect she came to regret her insistence on having her son wed for dynastic reasons only. The marriage was unhappy, Maria Eleonora was not the most mentally stable of people, and even worse, there were no surviving sons, only a puny little daughter, the future Kristina of Sweden. (One of Gustav Adolf’s big, big plus points is that he seems to have delighted in his daughter, confident she could become as capable a ruler as any man).

Life did not end for Ebba Brahe just because she gave up on Gustav II Adolf. In fact, well before she engraved her famous little quote her father had been approached by the dashing Jacob de la Gardie who had his heart set on Ebba. After some consideration, Ebba accepted his proposal and in 1618 the twenty-two-year-old former royal sweetheart married Jacob.

Jacob was the son of a French wannabe-monk turned condottiere turned royal counsellor and loyal servant of King Johan III of Sweden. Pontus de la Gardie was generously rewarded for his loyal service. King Johan was so fond of Pontus (born Ponce d’Escouperie , but Swedish peeps had a problem with pronouncing such a fancy name) that in 1580 he gave Pontus his own daughter, Sofia Johansdotter, as his wife. The groom was thirty-six years older than the bride but this was no impediment to getting things going, hence baby Jacob was born in 1583 as the third of three children. Sofia expired at childbirth and the sixty-three-year-old Pontus was left alone to raise his children. Seeing as he died some years later, Jacob was orphaned at a very young age and grew up to become an accomplished military commander.

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Jacob

By the time he wed Ebba, Jacob de la Gardie had built quite a reputation. After all, he’s one of the few non-Russians who has led a successful campaign through Russia, all the way to Moscow. At the time, Russia was a mess, one faction after the other putting forth their candidate for the new tsar. De la Gardie took advantage of the chaos to strengthen the Swedish position and so admired were his military methods that the young Gustav Adolf spent 1615 campaigning with him to learn the art of war from an expert. At the time, Gustav Adolf was still hopelessly in love with Ebba. At the time, Jacob had already proposed to Ebba. I bet they never discussed that subject over dinner…

Anyway: once wed, Jacob swept his young wife into his arms and carried her off to Reval (present day Tallinn). Jacob was the governor of the Baltic states and constantly busy with his military career. Ebba, therefore, handled their private affairs and estates.

The Jacob and Ebba union is described as being very happy. They complemented each other, with Jacob trusting his wife to capably manage their various investments. She was openly devoted to him and over nineteen years she was brought to bed of fourteen full-term children. Of these, seven would live to adulthood, the most famous being her gallant of a son, Magnus de la Gardie.

Jacob and Ebba settled in Sweden in 1628. Together, they built an impressive empire, featuring everything from palaces such as Makalös (which means Incomparable. It apparently was, which did not always please the king) to successful business ventures.

Ebba excelled at the business side of things. She was especially interested in developing the iron works she owned. Early on, she caught on to the correlation between consistent (and high) quality and premium pricing. The iron produced at the de la Gardie works was of the highest quality. In fact, the iron Ebba sold was so good she was known as Countess Iron – a true iron lady, one could say. This had Ebba laughing all the way to the bank—well, it would have, if our Ebba had not been something of a high spender, with an obvious taste for life’s luxuries. Her clothes, her jewels, her furnishings, the art that decorated her walls – all of it was sumptuous. The de la Gardies also had a huge household. Approximately one hundred people were employed by them to keep their domestic life turning smoothly, plus they had all those palaces to maintain, children to raise in adequate style, horses and dogs and carriages and landscaped gardens, preferably a la francaise. Let me tell you, it was fortunate Ebba had such a well-developed nose for business!

In her business ventures Ebba was supported mostly by one of her daughters, Maria Sofia de la Gardie. Just like her dear Mama, Maria Sofia was possessed of an innate head for business and was one of Sweden’s first industrial entrepreneurs, amassing a huge fortune. That, however, was all in the future when Ebba taught her daughter about USPs and the like.

However, not everything was roses in Ebba’s life. The seventeenth century was not always generous to powerful—and wealthy—women, and in 1651 rumours started making the rounds in Stockholm. The young queen, Kristina, had been spelled by none other than Ebba Brahe, how else to explain the queen’s firm opposition to marriage? Yes, the gossipers whispered, this was Ebba working behind the scenes and using magic to keep Queen Kristina enthralled to Ebba’s much-loved son, Magnus Gabriel de la Gardie, royal favourite par excellence.

We find such accusations mildly amusing. Ebba, however, was probably quite terrified. The accusation of witchery had a tendency to stick like tar. It was therefore fortunate that the accusers in this case were a certain Arnold Messenius and his father, Arnold Johan Messenius. As the elder Messenius had already been convicted of treason on a previous occasion and also came with the stigma of having been educated by Jesuits and potentially being a closet papist, the end result of all these whispers was that Messenius father and son were executed for treason. Ebba could breathe easy again. Well, she would have, had she not had her hands full caring for her ailing husband.

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Ebba as a widow

It is somewhat ironic that Jacob de la Gardie, always a man on the move, always involved in one military campaign or the other, should spend his last few years afflicted by a disease that robbed him of his eyesight, thereby making it difficult for him to leave his home. Ebba invested her considerable energies in making his life as comfortable as possible but in 1652 her husband of thirty-four years died, leaving her a very wealthy widow. I dare say she was devastated.

Ebba was to expend the rest of her life on furthering the interests of her children—and more specifically those of Magnus Gabriel—and on expanding her business empire. When she died in 1674 she left behind a considerable fortune and the persisting legend of a young heartbroken girl, who wanted nothing but to marry her king but ended up with de la Gardie instead. I think Ebba would have been most displeased by this: after all, she spent far more years as Jacob de la Gardie’s trusted and respected wife than she did as Gustav Adolf’s heart-throb. But hey, we all have a thing about tragic love stories, don’t we? Even when they’re not one hundred percent true.

From underage groom to powerful magnate

Today I thought we’d spend some time with a man named Richard. Okay, so very many men in medieval England were named Richard, including three Plantagenet kings, but nope, we won’t be talking about them today. Instead, we’re going to spend time with a baron so powerful, so wealthy, he probably could (and now and then likely did) outshine his king. As his king was Henry III, this was not all that hard to do: Henry may have been possessed of an extremely well-developed aesthetic sense, but his political and military acumen were somewhat weaker. Our man of the day was substantially more successful in the area of worldly power-mongering.

Richard de ClareMind you, it had not always been like that. Born in 1222, Richard de Clare was the heir to the huge de Clare estates. His father was Gilbert de Clare, earl of Gloucester and Hereford. His mother was Isabel Marshal, daughter to the William Marshal. None of this, I suspect, really helped when Richard’s father died in 1230. In one fell swoop, the boy was converted into one of the richest magnates in England—well, he would be, once he was invested with his inheritance. At the time, Richard was a child, a minor, and many were the barons eager to put themselves forward as a suitable guardian for this very, very rich ward.

HENRYIIIEngland in 1230 was ruled by a young king. Henry III had ascended the throne in 1216, all of nine years old. Since reaching his majority, Henry ruled in his own name—with Hubert de Burgh as his principal counsellor. Hubert had been unfailingly loyal to John and been rewarded accordingly. He was equally loyal to Henry, but like all barons of the time, Hubert always had an eye out for his own interests and when little Richard de Clare’s wardship came up for grabs, Hubert was in a position to award himself this very juicy plum.

Richard had to leave his mother, his siblings, and was instead transferred to Hubert’s care. It was de Burgh who was responsible for Richard’s future education—his widowed mother had no say. Not that this was uncommon: usually, a boy of noble birth would be raised in another noble household, spending his formative years as a page and squire far from home. And mothers rarely had a say in how their sons were educated beyond the first years—at least not officially.

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Hubert, stripped of power

Now, like all powerful men Hubert de Burgh had collected plenty of enemies during his long political life. In 1232, these enemies managed to discredit the earl of Kent who ended up imprisoned. This impacted Richard in two ways: one, his wardship was transferred to two others of Henry III’s favourites, Peter de Roches, Bishop of Winchester, and Peter de Rivaux, nephew to de Roches. Secondly, this is when Richard was probably married for the first time.

What? You might say, having made some quick calculations prior to concluding Richard was a child of ten. Youth was not a hindrance when it came to marriages as such—many a young child was married in medieval times. The church, however, required two things for such a marriage to stand: that consent was given and that it was consummated, neither of which a boy of ten was considered capable of doing. (Phew!)

Richard’s first bride was Margaret de Burgh, daughter to the disgraced Hubert and his third wife, Princess Margaret of Scotland. Some say this clandestine wedding was arranged by Hubert’s wife as a desperate measure to safeguard some sort of future protection for her daughter. It has also been said that, no matter their tender age, Margaret and Richard were genuinely in love.  Makes me spontaneously break out in “They try to tell us we’re too young, too young to really fall in love. They say that love’s a word, a word we’ve only heard, and can’t begin to get the meaning of…” (Nat King Cole, in case you’re wondering)

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Seriously, I have my doubts about two children experiencing emotions so strong they asked Margaret Mater to help them wed. But whether true or not, it does seem they were married. Without royal consent. Oh, dear…You see, a magnate as powerful as Richard would one day become needed royal approval before he wed. At least in theory – Henry’s own brother, also called Richard, seems to have ignored this when he married our Richard’s mother. (So yes, Richard had an in on the royal family. Henry III was his step-uncle)

Henry III threw a fit. It was him, only him, who would decide who Richard was to marry. (By then, Henry III had taken custody of Richard himself, the Peter double-act having fallen out of favour in 1234) Pressure was brought to bear on the young couple. As the marriage was unconsummated, it was easy to annul—assuming Richard and little Margaret agreed to do so.

From the distance of eight centuries it is difficult to know what really happened. Edith Pargeter has written a heart-wrenching version of events in The Marriage of Megotta according to which our star-crossed lovers were kept forcibly apart to ensure they did not seal their love with more than a kiss. (Read it! Wow book) A somewhat more pragmatic take on things would suggest the marriage was just annulled. In the event, whether it was annulled or not became a moot point as Margaret de Burgh died in 1237 at the age of fifteen. It no longer mattered if the marriage had been valid, had been consummated: Richard was free to wed as it pleased his king.

A marital prize such as Richard could be used for all sorts of alliances. At first, Henry toyed with the idea of marrying Richard to a member of the powerful French family, de Lusignan. As an aside, this is the family Henry III’s mother, Isabella of Angouleme married into after the death of John, effectively stealing her daughter’s intended. Not so sure little Princess Joan was all that depressed by this turn of events—her intended was old enough to be her father and then some—but Isabella’s behaviour was frowned upon. It just went to prove how lecherous women in general and beautiful women in particular were. Right: back to our Richard and the hunt for a suitable bride. Turns out the de Lusignans weren’t that interested.

Someone else, however, was very interested. John de Lacy, Earl of Lincoln was eager to see his eldest daughter as Richard’s wife—and he was willing to pay the king handsomely for the honour. Which was how Richard ended up marrying Maud de Lacy in early 1238.

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Richard himself?

Richard remained under royal wardship for several years more. In 1243 he came of age and was knighted by the king plus received official seisin of his vast inheritance. At last, Richard was in control of his own life. At last, he need answer to no man but himself—and his king. Thing is, a baron as powerful as Richard was destined to be, could use that to his advantage: there would be numerous occasions when Richard’s support would be the difference between success or failure for whatever plans Henry III might have.

In 1243, Richard already had an heir, named Gilbert after Richard’s father. All in all, Maud and Richard would have seven children and while Richard concentrated on expanding his territories—he added substantially to them via his mother’s Marshal inheritance—Maud dedicated a lot of time to arranging advantageous marriages for her children. I get the impression theirs was a successful marriage, which does not mean it was a happily ever after marriage. Few medieval ladies and lords had such expectations—to them, a marriage was an alliance with the purpose of forwarding the family interests.

Richard was good at managing his huge estates. He developed an impressive administrative system that allowed him to keep tabs on what was happening but left the running of his estates in the south-east and in Ireland to his efficient stewards. He himself focused on his Marcher lordships and on expanding into Wales. This he did through a combination of ruthless campaigning, castle building and implementation of English law. He stomped any Welsh rebellions on his lands into the ground and made sure everyone knew that in this part of the world only one man’s word was law: his word.

As many of you know, Henry III’s reign was plagued by upheaval, all of it coming to a head in the late 1250s when a certain Simon de Montfort set himself up as the leader of the baronial opposition. Initially, Richard sided with de Montfort and when he threw his weight behind the Provisions of Oxford the king had little choice but to accept them. But Richard had spent most of his youth at the royal court, had a close relationship with his step-father who was also Henry’s brother. And he had little liking for de Montfort, who was not only an eager reformer but also very acquisitive, both when it came to land and power.

In 1261, Richard abandoned the baronial cause and returned to the royal fold. What role he could have played and how things would have developed had Richard been in a position to influence events we will never know.  In 1262 he died, not yet forty years old. Some say he was poisoned—there had been a previous attempt some years earlier—but as the main chronicles don’t mention anything about a suspicious death I dare say we can rule it out.

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Richard died in a time of turmoil. Civil war was to rage for many years more and his own son the fiery Gilbert de Clare was to play a central role. First as de Montfort’s loyal second-in-command, then as Prince Edward’s equally loyal second-in-command. Seems those de Clare men had an ambivalent relationship with the crown…

By the time he died, Richard’s memories of his first little bride would have been very hazy. Since those childhood days when he’d wed Margaret de Burgh, so much time had passed. It was with Maud he’d built a life, fathered children so any last thoughts would reasonably have been of her. Whether he did think of her or not, he died knowing that his capable and tenacious wife would keep on protecting the family interests.

Maud de Lacy never remarried. Her dower contracts left her an immensely wealthy widow, to the chagrin of her eldest son who would go as far as to sue her to push through a reduction in her dower income. I guess this was a case of like mother, like son: Maud de Lucy has the dubious reputation of being the most litigious lady in 13th century England!

In the fullness of time, Richard’s and Maud’s grandchildren were to play important roles on opposing sides in the conflicts that afflicted England in the 1320s. One of their granddaughters would be the first ever woman to be imprisoned in the Tower, two would be left widows after the executions of their husbands. All of them would be smack in the middle of the unfolding events. Not exactly unusual if you were a de Clare…

A baby, a baby, a kingdom for a baby – or when the bishop did his duty

Urraca Alfonso_I_de_Aragón_por_Pradilla_(1879)

Alfonso I el Batallador

In 1134, Alfonso I of Aragón died, without heirs to his body. Regular readers of this blog may remember Alfonso from a previous post about Queen Urraca—or you may not, seeing as Iberian history is infested with kings named Alfonso and it is quite difficult to keep track of all of them. Anyway: Alfonso’s marriage to Urraca was a major disaster, and even worse, there were no children from this union. As Alfonso was a very martial king (and, by all accounts, also very devout, even if this did not stop him from brutalizing his wife), he found a solution to the no-heir issue by writing a will in which he bequeathed his kingdom to the Knights Templars, the Hospitallers and the Knights of the Holy Sepulchre.

Let’s just say that not one single Aragonese baron was about to accept this will. They wanted a king, not a conglomerate of military orders ruling their country. However, there really was no heir. Unless… Like one, the barons fixed their eyes on Ramiro, the Bishop of Roda.

I have previously written a number of blogs about medieval women who have been abducted and carried off from their chosen life. Ramiro is their male equivalent, albeit that no one swept him up by force and galloped off into the night. He was the much younger brother of Alfonso. He had never aspired to a secular life and had spent his life serving God, either as a monk, abbot or, lately, as a bishop. Now, the expectations were that he would set all that aside and instead wrap himself in ermine and royal purple.

“One can serve God in various ways,” the barons told him. “And your holy duty does not lie within your bishopric. You have a much more important duty to fulfil.”
“I do?” Ramiro asked (mostly to irritate them. He knew exactly what they were hinting at, but the thought was repugnant to him)
“You do.” The Aragonese magnates then went on to explain just what they expected Ramiro to do: first of all, he was to cast off his vows and his bishop’s robes and instead become their king. Then he had to father a legitimate child.
“But…” Ramiro likely began, intending to continue by reminding them that the vows he’d made to God were binding unto death. To do as they asked would be to commit a grievous sin. Well, the barons had already considered this: so important was Ramiro’s duty to Aragón that God would allow him a hiatus from his vows. I imagine Ramiro spent a number of sleepless nights on his knees praying for guidance before he reluctantly accepted his new responsibilities.  He owed it to his country.

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Ramiro looking most un 12th century

Once crowned Ramiro proved himself a rather forceful king—to the surprise of his barons who had hoped for an easily managed king. Those barons who did not pledge him their allegiance were in for quite a surprise, as this mild religious man had quite the devious side to him – or so one must presume if one believes the story about the Bell of Huesca. The story first appeared in the 13th century, a good century or so after the events depicted, and according to it, Ramiro was having problems controlling his barons, specifically twelve of them who constantly treated him with disrespect. Ramiro was unaccustomed to dealing with worldly, ambitious men so in desperation he sent to his former abbot for help. The messenger found the abbot in his garden. He listened to the king’s message, nodded, and then proceeded to cut off the heads of the twelve roses that grew the tallest in his garden as his response. Not the most subtle of hints, I’d say.

Ramiro obviously cottoned on fast. He invited all his barons to attend him in Huesca and there to join him in the making of a church bell, so huge it would be heard all over Aragón. Curious about this new contraption, the barons came, no doubt snickering under their breath at their king’s idiotic project. As they travelled from all over the place, they did not come en masse, but arrived one by one. Those twelve stubborn and disloyal barons had their very own welcoming committee waiting for them, and before they could even say “Qué?” their heads were chopped off and arranged in a neat circle round the new bell. Well, one of their heads did not join the circle: it was used as the clapper.

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Once the whole grisly tableau was ready for viewing, Ramiro assembled all the other barons. The bell tolled (sort of). The king announced that behold, as he’d promised, the bell could be heard by all Aragón as represented by the various barons.

Let us leap ahead and leave this spurious legend behind. Now, Ramiro had one other duty to fulfil: he had to father an heir. His barons had already found him a bride, Agnes, the daughter of William IX, Duke of Aquitaine. (She was also the paternal aunt of Eleanor of Aquitaine, but as that has no bearing whatsoever on this post, we shall move on)

Agnes was about Ramiro’s age, around thirty. A bit long in the tooth, one would have thought, but Agnes had one major thing in her favour: she’d given her first husband sons. It was therefore expected she would present Ramiro with a squalling male babe as well. But prior to making babies, the former monk had to marry, and while canonical law might not have had a huge problem with a bishop becoming king, it definitely had major issues with accepting the marriage of a monk-turned-king as legitimate.

Petronila Ramiro

Ramiro

Ramiro himself issued a document a month or so before the wedding, stating that he was entering into matrimony not out of carnal lust but for the restoration of blood and lineage. Well, that can’t have endeared him much to poor Agnes… Later documents state that the couple sought a papal dispensation, but there doesn’t seem to be any such dispensation and so the Ramiro/Agnes union carried quite the whiff of illegitimacy

We have no idea what Agnes may have thought when she married Ramiro in November of 1135. But whatever their feelings, the newlyweds got their acts together (Close your eyes and think of Aragón, echoed in Ramiro’s head. Nah…)  and nine months later, little Petronila was born. A child born for a purpose, not out of any warmer feelings.
“Thank God! A healthy child!” Ramiro exclaimed, eager to return to his religious life now that he’d done what was expected of him.
“It’s a girl!” bleated his counsellors.
“Tough,” Ramiro said. “That’s it, that’s what you’re getting.” He shuddered and crossed himself. “I have sinned to give you what you wanted. Now I must make penance to salvage my immortal soul.”
Agnes was about as keen on this marriage as Ramiro, and very soon after the birth of Petronila the royal couple separated. Some years later, Agnes retired to the Abbey of Fontevraud where she lived for a further twenty years or so before dying in 1159.

Ramiro couldn’t just drop everything and take himself off to a monastery. His little daughter had to be betrothed to someone his barons would accept and who would be capable of acting as regent for Aragón during Petronila’s minority. Alfonso VII of Castile and León wanted nothing so much as to get his hands on the little girl, so he suggested his eldest son as a possible groom. Anathema to the Aragonese who had no desire to be gobbled up by the expanding Castilian kingdom.

Petronila Raymond

Ramón

Fortunately, there was an alternative. To the south-east of Aragón lay the domains of Ramon Berenguer IV, count of Barcelona and one of the more powerful movers and shakers in a region that encompassed not only present-day Catalunya but also a substantial chunk of Provence. A capable and energetic man, Ramón was already a respected warrior and known to be both erudite and devout. He was also all of twenty-three and, one supposes, eager to start a family and father heirs to his lands. However, Ramón was also ambitious. So when Ramiro approached him and suggested a union between their two countries, solidified by the betrothal of Ramón to baby Petronila, Ramón said yes.

Admittedly, Ramiro was dangling quite the sweet offer before the young man: not only was he to marry the heiress to Aragón, thereby ensuring his son became the next king of Aragón, but Ramiro was putting Ramón in charge ASAP. After all, Ramiro had other places to see, notably the monastery of San Pedro el Viejo de Huesca.

In 1137, the contracts were signed whereby Ramón became regent on behalf of his future little wife. With a huge sigh of relief, Ramiro hastened off to begin doing penance for his carnal sins, leaving Ramón to carry the baby in more senses than one.

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Petronila & Ramón

By all accounts, Ramón did an excellent job of caring for the baby. This product of a loveless marriage was fortunate in her father’s choice for her husband. Petronila grew up cosseted and protected at Ramón’s court, fully aware of the fact that as soon as she came of age, she was to wed the man who more or less raised her. Aragón thrived under his leadership, and by the time wedding bells rang for Ramón and Petronila, no one disputed Ramón’s right to rule on behalf of his fourteen-year-old wife. He did, however, respect the niceties: Petronila was Queen of Aragón while Ramón held the title of Prince of Aragón.

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Petronila looking less than happy

Petronila gave her husband five children of which four survived to adulthood. Upon Ramón’s death in 1162, the twenty-six-year old widow abdicated in favour of her oldest surviving son, refused to consider a second marriage and went on to live a quiet life of contemplation. I guess she had it in her DNA, given her parents.

From the perspective of doing his duty for blood and lineage, most medieval peeps would have felt Ramiro failed. His spiritual sacrifice produced a girl and everyone knew it was the male line that was important, that truly counted. When Petronila’s son ascended to the Aragonese throne, he brought with him a new dynasty, the house of Barcelona.

As to Ramiro, he died in 1157. I hope twenty years of begging God to forgive him for the sin of having married a woman and fathered a child was enough to see him on to greener pastures. Well, assuming God didn’t hear about that thing with the bell at Huesca…

Of golden camels and shortchanged heiresses

In 1204, a certain Marie de Montpellier married King Pedro II of Aragón. This was her third marriage, and I dare say we can safely conclude Marie was rather unlucky in love—or at least in marriages. But before we start dissecting her marital unions, we need some background.

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Manuel I Komnenos

Marie was the daughter of Guillaume of Montpellier and Eudokia Komnene, a great-niece of the Byzantine Emperor, Manuel I Komnenos. Now, the idea wasn’t to have Eudokia wed Guillaume (who was a relatively small fish in the overall scale of things) but rather one of the Aragonese princes—preferably the heir to the throne. Alas, when Eudokia in 1179 arrived at the Aragonese court, the heir, the future Alfonso II was already wed—this according to various chansons which may not be the most reliable of sources. After all, troubadours aimed to entertain rather than give a correct factual account. It is more probable that Eudokia was sent off to Provence specifically to wed Alfonso’s younger brother, Raymond Berenger V who was the count of Provence. As the young man remained happily unwed when she arrived, the couple was formally betrothed.

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Frederick Barbarossa

This did not go down well with Frederick Barbarossa, Holy Roman Emperor, who had no desire to have his vassals entangled with the Byzantine empire. In fact, Frederick and Manuel I had history, with Manuel doing what he could to foil Frederick’s attempts at expanding his power base and vice-versa. Raymond was forbidden to wed the fair Eudokia and instead a marriage was arranged for her with Guillaume VIII, Lord of Montpellier and famous troubadour in his own right. Not at all the grand marriage promised her, but Eudokia was young and far away from her own family so what could she do but accept? She managed to push through one condition: her firstborn, whether male or female, was to be recognised as the heir to Montpellier.

Marie de Montpellier DVlrYm6XkAAB_38Now, before we go any further, let us stop for a while and consider this: the 12th century was not exactly an egalitarian society, and while women had rights of inheritance, generally they were secondary to those of their brothers. Men wanted male heirs who would carry their name forward. I imagine this applied to Guillaume as well (especially considering his future behaviour) so why did he agree to this condition? Was Eudokia that fair, that rich? Contemporary troubadours refer to her as Emperor Manuel’s golden camel which I take to mean she was well-dowered (one hopes it did not reflect on her appearance…) Maybe that’s why Guillaume agreed. It seems he did so while keeping his fingers crossed.

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Guillaume’s seal

Anyway: in 1182 Eudokia gave birth to a girl, Marie. Five years later, Guillaume divorced her and sent her off to an abbey where she would eventually take the veil. He then went on to wed again and his second wife presented him with a son. Guillaume was delighted—and not about to let the condition in his marriage contract with Eudokia hinder his son from inheriting. Fortunately for Marie, the pope was of a different opinion: setting your wife aside as Guillaume had done did not necessarily make the second marriage valid. The pope found Guillaume’s children by his second wife illegitimate and confirmed Marie as her father’s heir. I imagine this did not lead to a happy father-daughter relationship. But then I suppose seeing your mother banished to a convent didn’t exactly have you bonding with dear papa…

Marie was only ten when she was married for the first time, this to a gent named Raymond Geoffrey, viscount of Marseilles. He had recently repudiated his first wife (because all they had to show for their marriage was a disappointing girl) and was happy to wed a potential heiress such as Marie. Mind you, at the time it was uncertain if she was an heiress, seeing as her half-brother had recently been born and her father was making a lot of noise about needing a male heir.

At the age of eleven, Marie was widowed. In 1197, at the age of fifteen, she was wed again, this time to Bernard de Comminges. This was a complicated relationship: Bernard already had two living wives (he’d repudiated them but the Church had not formally annulled those marriages) which effectively meant Marie was living in a polygamous marriage. Did she mind? No idea.  And whether polygamous or not, Bernard was happy to father children on Marie who gave birth to two girls, Mathilde and Petronille. I dare say Bernard was disappointed. Or maybe he wasn’t, but this was soon to be a moot point, because another, much stronger player, had now begun to develop an interest in Marie.

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Pedro II 

Enter Pedro II of Aragón, the young and ambitious Aragonese king. Ah, some of you may happily sigh: at last, here comes Marie’s Happily Ever After. Nope. Pedro did not pursue Marie out of passion. For him, it was all about politics.  About five years Marie’s senior, Pedro had his eyes on Montpellier, thinking that adding this particular castle to his domains would help him strengthen his position in Languedoc. Plus, Montpellier was a wealthy town, grown rich on trade.

At the time, Marie was in dire straits: her father had died, and as expected, he’d named Marie’s half-brother as his heir, ignoring the binding clause in his marriage contract with Eudokia. Marie wasn’t having it, protesting to the pope. But Guillaume Jr was already in control of Montpellier and no matter how much the pope protested, Guillaume seemed reluctant to leave. Why should he? His father wanted him to inherit, not the sad daughter of his first marriage to Emperor Manuel’s golden camel.

Pedro offered to help out—at a price. If he could convince the pope to annul Marie’s marriage to Bernard, he wanted Marie to marry him, thereby transferring Montpellier under his control. Marie said yes—which probably indicates a not-so-loving relationship with Bernard. Or maybe she was as avaricious as Pedro and looked forward to becoming a queen.

In 1204, Marie married Pedro. That same year, Pedro and Marie regained control over Montpellier. As an aside, Pedro had quite some good sides to him, starting with how he tried to defend the Cathars from the French crusaders led by Simon de Montfort. He actively worked towards establishing some sort of peace in Languedoc, was suspicious of fanatics, no matter what side they were on, and was so committed to defending those who had pledged their loyalty to him that he took to the field to defend them. It ended with him dying at the Battle of Muret, but that is an entirely different story.

Back to our loving couple: In 1205, Marie gave birth to a daughter. By then, Pedro was regretting having married Marie. He now had his sights set on Maria de Montferrat, the thirteen-year-old queen of Jerusalem. Being a man of action, Pedro therefore decided to divorce Marie, preferably while retaining Montpellier. Forget it, Marie said, appealing once again to the pope.

Pedro obviously wanted an obedient wife. Being challenged by the woman whose patrimony he had restored to her did not go down well. So he retaliated by avoiding his wife as much as he could, spending his nights with his mistresses instead. However, there was a problem: the pope was reluctant to give Pedro the divorce he wanted and Aragón needed an heir.

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Pedro and Marie conceiving Jaime (under supervision)

According to legend, Pedro refused to bed with his wife, despite the pleading of his councillors. Driven to the edge of despair, the councillors hatched a plan. Seeing as they needed Marie’s cooperation, I’m assuming she was very much on board with disguising herself sufficiently for Pedro to mistake her for his favourite mistress (it was dark, one assumes. And Pedro had been plied with wine) So, against his will, Pedro bedded his wife and lo and behold, that one night of passion resulted in baby Jaime, born in 1208. Hmm. Or, as I am prone to saying, double Hmm. While the legend is rather intriguing, I think Pedro realised he had to do his duty, no matter what he might have thought of his wife. A bit sad, that, isn’t it? Two people, obliged to share a bed to procreate, no more, no less.

According to the more lurid version, so incensed was Pedro at being tricked that he refused to acknowledge little Jaime. And despite Marie now having done her duty and presented him with a male heir, Pedro was determined to get his divorce. Marie was just as determined to foil his attempts. Once again, Marie could count with the support of the pope—much to Pedro’s chagrin—and in 1213 the pope ruled there would be no divorce. Not that Marie would live to enjoy her victory—she died a few months later. And while Pedro may have rejoiced at being a free man again, he had other issues to deal with, principally the increased tensions in Languedoc that would end with his death in September of 1213 at the aforementioned Battle of Muret.

So passed Marie of Montpellier, all of 31 years of age. Hers had been a life controlled by men who rarely set her interests before their own, a life that seems sadly devoid of joy and contentment. She didn’t even get to spend much time with her son, as Pedro had used Jaime to negotiate some sort of accord with Simon de Montfort. At the age of two, little Jaime was transferred into the care of de Montfort to be raised with his prospective bride, de Montfort’s daughter Amicia.

Had such a marriage happened, Simon de Montfort’s younger son and namesake would have ended up as brother-in-law not only to Henry III of England, but also to Jaime I of Aragón. Not so sure that would have had any major impact on the life of Simon junior, remembered as the man who single-handedly introduced some sort of representative democracy in England. Yet another double Hmm required, methinks…

In the event, Jaime was orphaned at the tender age of five when he also became the rightful king of Aragón. Perfect, de Montfort Sr thought, deciding then and there to keep Jaime close, thereby acquiring the wherewithal to control Aragón. Loud protests followed. No way were the Aragonse barons going to accept that their little king was effectively held as a hostage. Only on direct orders from the Pope Innocent III did de Montfort Sr return Jaime to the Aragonese and by then the idea of a future wedding between little Jaime and Amicia was quite, quite dead.

Jaime grew up to become one of the longest reigning Iberian kings. He never knew his mother (or his father) but he was proud of his Byzantine blood. (I dare say no one ever referred to his grandmother as “the Emperor’s golden camel” in his hearing.) And as to Montpellier, this thriving town remained a jewel in the Aragonese crown well into the 14th century.  I’m not sure Guillaume de Montpellier would have approved.

Is she Violent? No, she’s Violante

Violante img8418Sometimes, I can’t help but wonder what our dear ancestors might have been high on when naming their children. Take, for example, the royal custom in medieval Castile of naming their little princesses Urraca. Urraca is Spanish for magpie, and my main objection to the name is how harsh it sounds. Urraca is an onomatopoeic word, i.e. it’s supposed to resemble the sounds emitted by a magpie, and as most of us know, magpies don’t exactly sing, they croak, hence the rather ugly combo of sounds that make up their name. Not that you may care, but in Swedish, magpies are called skata which is not onomatopoeic. The word for crow, kråka, is though. Seems corvids inspire attempts at naming them for the sounds they make. Right: I digress…

I have written about one of these Urraca ladies. She was a ruling queen back in the 11th century and is still considered one of medieval Spain’s more capable rulers.  Today, I thought we’d spend time with another of those names I can’t quite get my head around, namely Violant (or Violante) To me, this name conjures up an image of a not-so-nice lady with a tendency to strike first, ask questions later. However, most of us cannot help our names, having been given them by our parents. In the case of medieval royal children, babies were usually named for their ancestors. Our first Violanta for the day is one such case.

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Alfonso

In 1236, Jaime I, king of Aragón and his Hungarian wife Violant (or Yolande) welcomed their first child, a baby girl, to the world. In honour of her mother, the child was christened Violant. Thirteen years later, little Violant was married to Alfonso, heir to the throne of Castile and León. As with most royal unions, this was a marriage intended to strengthen the ties between the Castile and Aragón, with little consideration of the personal happiness of the groom and bride. At the time of their wedding, Alfonso was twenty-eight, an experienced military leader and an equally experienced lover, very much in love with his mistress Mayor Guillén de Guzmán. Violant was just Violant, too young to have much experience of anything.

No one expected a bride as young as Violant to consummate the wedding. She was given some years to grow into her role, and by all accounts the young lady was not a doormat, rather the reverse. Where Castilian ladies had cultivated the art of remaining cool and collected in all circumstances, with royal ladies in particular being taught from an early age to conduct themselves so as to avoid even as much as an insinuation of bad behaviour, little Violant seems to have been given somewhat freer reins (yay! Or maybe not…) In brief, Violant had something of a temper – or so we are told.

Alfonso wasn’t entirely happy with his opinionated wife. In fact, as the years passed and Violant showed no sign of popping out the desired heir, Alfonso toyed with the idea of annulling the marriage. In 1252, Alfonso’s father, San Fernando died and our Alfonso became king. A Castilian king needed strong male heirs to defend the crown, both against the rapacious Castilian nobility as represented by the families de Lara and de Haro, but also against the remaining Muslim kingdoms on the Iberian peninsula. A barren queen was therefore not an option.

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Violant

However, in 1253, Violant gave birth to her first child. (And we should note that she was around seventeen at the time, so she wasn’t exactly long in the tooth…) Yes, it was a girl, not a boy, but at least Violant could expel a huge sigh of relief. She was not barren.  There is a little legend regarding Violant’s first pregnancy, whereby the court physicians had told her that she needed to relax and take it easy—conception would not happen otherwise. As Alfonso had recently reconquered Alicante from the Moors, he suggested he and his wife retire to an adjoining farm there to enjoy the peace and serenity of simple country life. (Alfonso was willing to do what it took to get that heir of his) Lo and behold, Violant became pregnant which just shows what some R&R in tranquil environments can do for you.

Over the years, Violant was to give her husband at least eleven children, of which five were boys. The eldest of these sons, Fernando de la Cerda, married Blanche of France, daughter of St Louis. He was not destined for a long life and died leaving behind two little boys. Now, according to traditional Castilian law, in such cases the closest surviving brother could claim the throne. According to Roman law—which Alfonso was trying to introduce—the sons of the deceased eldest brother had the stronger claim.

The tragedy of Fernando’s death tore his family apart. Younger brother Sancho did claim the throne and even wrested some sort of acquiescence from Alfonso after years of bloody civil war. Violant, however, was firmly of the opinion her grandsons should inherit and was wise enough to ensure the two little boys were transferred to Aragón, there to be kept safe by her brother. Actually, Alfonso agreed with Violant, so when he died in 1284 he left a will which excluded Sancho from the succession. Didn’t work: Sancho had the support of the nobles and had the added benefit of being a full-grown man, while his nephews were still boys and under Aragonese control.

Violant Sancho_IV_de_Castilla_02

Sancho

Violant would live out the rest of her life in Aragón, a staunch supporter of her grandson’s right to the Castilian throne. Her son Sancho she vilified as an usurper (which, to some extent, he was) I imagine this left little room for happy mother-son conversations. It also meant that Violant supported one grandson against the other, especially as Sancho died young, in turn leaving a very young son as his successor. Had it not been for Violant’s impressive daughter-in-law, Maria de Molina, I imagine chaos would have reigned absolute.

Violant of Aragón died in 1301. By then at least nine of her children were dead but her bloodline would live on through her numerous grandchildren to her two distant descendants Fernando of Aragón and Isabel of Castile, two cousins who would marry, unite Spain and begin forging the foundations of the Spanish empire. That, I believe, would have pleased the outspoken Violant!

In difference to our first Violant, my second lady of that name is very much a footnote in history, more famous for the men she interacted with than anything she herself did. As far as I know, Violante Visconti never expressed an opinion in contradiction to what her father or brother or husband believed—at least not when it came to truly relevant things.

Other than her name, our second Violante has only one thing in common with our first lady of the day: she too was married at a very young age. But her husband was not a soon-to-be king, albeit he was a prince and by all accounts a handsome and a capable prince at that.

Violante Visconti was born in the 14th century, the only daughter of Galeazzo II, powerful ruler of Milan. She lived in a time when Italy was dominated by various city states, constantly at war with each other or the Papal states. Milan was no exception, hereditary enemy of Florence and more than delighted to hire English mercenaries to help in their various battles. One of the more famous English mercenaries who served under the Milanese Viscontis is John Hawkwood, a man whose life reads like a fairy tale rags-to-riches story.

I digress. Violante was born in 1354, the year in which her father, together with his two brothers, became rulers of the city-state of Milan. Galeazzo is one of those very complicated early Renaissance men (ok, ok, VERY early Renaissance man) who on the one hand showered the arts with money and support and actively promoted learning (like in the university he founded in Pavia), on the other is mostly remembered for introducing an innovative torture protocol (!) in Milan whereby the poor unfortunate marked for death due to treason was submitted to forty days of torture which, as per the protocol, ended with said unfortunate’s death. One day of torture was followed by one day of rest so as to extend the entertainment for the avid spectators… I imagine any would-be traitor thought twice about betraying Signore Galeazzo or his co-ruling brothers.

Violant Flemish_School_-_Lille_-_Margaret_of_Dampierre

Margaret de Male 

Anyway: In the 1360s, king Edward III of England was trying to strengthen his position in Europe. One way of doing this was by negotiating marriages between his sons and daughters and the sons and daughters of rulers he wanted to ally himself with. Edward wanted very much to ally himself with the Count of Flanders, Louis de Male who happily had an unwed daughter. Actually, he only had one child, making little Margaret quite the marital prize. Fortunately, Edward had an unwed son, Edmund of Langley. Unfortunately, there were others interested in marrying Margaret, principally Philip the Bold of France. Plus, the pope was being plain obstructive, refusing to grant the dispensation required for Edmund to marry Margaret.

Edward III was not about to give up. As the pope was being a pain in the nether parts, Edward decided it might make sense to up the pressure on dear Pope Urban V. The best way to do that was to start doing some sword-rattling in Italy, where the Holy See was in constant conflict with…ta-daa…Milan and the Viscontis. How extremely fortunate that Galeazzo II had a marriageable daughter. Even more fortuitous, Edward had another son to put forward as a royal groom (he was still holding out hope on the Edmund—Margaret union) Enter Lionel of Antwerp, Duke of Clarence,  the very tall and handsome second son of Edward III.

Violante LionelDukeOfClarenceAtWestminster

Lionel

At the time, Lionel was pushing thirty. His first wife had died in 1363 and an Italian adventure didn’t sound too bad—rather the reverse. Besides, Galeazzo was so delighted at the thought of marrying his daughter to an English prince he offered a huge dowry. Edward III was always in need of money and it was therefore no hardship for the king and Signore Visconti to come to an agreement.

Accompanied by a huge entourage, Lionel set out for Italy in spring of 1368. In June of 1368 the thirteen-year-old Violante married the English giant (Lionel was over two metres tall) and the following wedding festivities were so magnificent people talked about the endless sequence of dishes, the extravagant gifts, for ages afterwards.

The Lionel—Violante union was to be short-lived. In October of 1368 Lionel died, some say due to overindulging in food, others (notably his most loyal and closest companion, Edward le Despenser) insisted he’d been poisoned. We will never know, but given the times, given the high stakes, it is not entirely unlikely a disgruntled pope or one of his supporters may have slipped something into Lionel’s wine. Le Despenser blamed Galeazzo II, but that seems far-fetched as Lionel’s death did not benefit Galeazzo.

Violante_e_Gian_Galeazzo_Visconti

Violante and her brother

The little widow was returned to her parents. One year passed, two years passed, many years passed. Not until 1377 was Violante married again, this time to Secondotto Palaeologus, originally betrothed to Violante’s older sister who died several years earlier. This Secondotto was no mean catch: as can be discerned from his second name, he had royal Greek blood and was, in fact, part of the family that ruled the Byzantine Empire.

Blood alone does not a man make, and by all accounts Secondotto was not all that impressive. According to Barbara Tuchman, the man was an insane sadist who enjoyed killing people with his own bare hands. Nice. One wonders how Galeazzo could entrust Violante to someone like that, but his daughter’s marriage was yet one more move in the power game Galeazzo played, always with an eye to the end game. Secondotto only married Violante because he needed her father’s support in his ongoing conflict with Amadeus of Savoy and his uncle, Otto. Galeazzo rose to the occasion (he generally did) and helped Secondotto retake Asti. Except, of course, that once Galeazzo had reconquered Asti, he saw no reason to turn it over to dear Secondotto. He probably felt Asti was an adequate compensation for his daughter’s hand. Upon Galeazzo’s death in August of 1378, Violante’s brother, Gian Galeazzo, was as obdurate: Asti was to remain under Visconti control

An enraged Secondotto assembled an army and challenged his in-laws. Poor Violante was caught in between, and I imagine there was an element of relief (for various reasons) when Secondotto died, albeit he was probably assassinated on dear brother’s orders.

Once again, Violante returned home, but this time it was not her father but her brother who called the shots. Her marriage with Secondotto had not resulted in any children and Violante was by now resigned to her role as marital pawn, a beautiful woman to use as best suited the Visconti family interests.

Her third marriage was to her cousin, Ludovico Visconti. This time, there was issue, a little boy called Giovanni. Not that Violante was destined for a happily ever after: her hubby died after some years (and it is suspected at the behest of Gian Galeazzo). In 1386, Violante herself died. Other than her son, she left little trace behind.

IMG_0201So, there you have it, peeps. Two ladies named Violant/Violante. One was mostly a footnote, the other comes across as determined to forge her own destiny. One evokes pity, the other admiration. I guess it just goes to prove that Shakespeare had it right: “What is in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.

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