ANNA BELFRAGE

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Archive for the category “historical people”

Treading the streets of the first town in Sweden

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

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Sigtuna today, with the same central street as back then

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sigrid and Olav post-slap

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

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

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

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One of those churches that popped up 

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Off the beaten track in Sweden

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

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

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

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

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Visingsö, visible from Gränna

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

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

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

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

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Well over 2 metres tall, behold Rökstenen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Erik of Pomerania

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

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

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Blanche with Håkan

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

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

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

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

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

A very wicked woman

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The not-so-paragon Eve…

Not all medieval women were paragons of virtue. Not all that surprising as I’d hazard the paragons among us were as much of a minority back then as they are now, but still.

Today’s protagonist falls in the category, mean, cruel and generally bad-ass, at least if we’re to believe her near-contemporary Orderic Vitalis, who has nothing good to say about her in his chronicle. Orderic is generally considered a trustworthy source, but when approaching today’s formidable Mabel, one should keep in mind that Orderic was a monk at an abbey generously endowed by Mabel’s hereditary enemies, ergo we should take some of what he says with a pinch of salt. Still, no smoke without fire, and while Orderic may be exaggerating, this particular lady is not one I’d present my back to after a heated quarrel as she might very well be tempted to sink a dagger in it.

Mabel de Bellême probably had her contrary character from her father. William de Bellême , known as William Tavalas I, comes down to us as being as rapacious and ambitious as all of his family with the added qualities of cruelty and sinfulness. Supposedly, this gent was so irritated by his wife’s piety that he had her strangled on the way to church.

How this affected his little daughter, Mabel, we don’t know. It does seem to have horrified his son, Arnulf. Some years later, William added to his list of sins by imprisoning, mutilating and blinding a certain William fitzGiroie, this due to an infected feud between the two men. Even worse, he took the opportunity to imprison fitzGiroire when he was attending William Tavalas’ second wedding.

Somehow, fitzGiroie survived his torture and retired to live out his days in a convent. His sons promised revenge, and Arnulf, who clearly inherited his character from his pious and strangled-to-death mama, was so disgusted he ousted his father in 1048 and forced him into exile. For some odd reason, Mabel chose to accompany her father into uncertainty and penury (well, everything is relative) rather than stay with her goody-goody brother. Says a lot about her character, albeit that at the time she can’t have been more than a teenager.

Father and daughter ended up as charity cases with the powerful Montgomerie family. William decided to bargain with what he had, which is how Mabel ended up betrothed to the eldest Montgomerie son, Roger, in return for William promising she’d inherit his lands upon his death. A somewhat worthless promise at the time, seeing as Arnulf was in control of the Bellême lands and honours. However, William was the rightful owner, and I suppose he (and the Montgomeries) gambled on him somehow regaining control.

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Something Mabel  did a lot – at least ten babies

Fortunately for everyone involved (except poor Arnulf), Arnulf died very soon after exiling his father. William was restored, the value of Mabel as a bride spiked, and Roger was quick to convert the betrothal into a marriage, thereby adding considerably to the Montgomerie lands. Maybe having a termagant in bed was worth it, or maybe he had Mabel well and truly tamed in the privacy of their solar. Or maybe they liked each other, seeing as they would go on to have ten children. They do seem to have shared certain traits, such as ambition, ruthlessness and greed, but Roger is rarely vilified for these qualities, while Mabel, according to Orderic, was an unnatural, evil woman who’d go on to bequeath all her nasty attributes to her eldest son, Robert, known as a singularly cruel man.

Roger Montgomerie was one of William the Conqueror’s most trusted men—this long before he’d earned the epithet Conqueror and still struggled with being nick-named the Bastard Duke. When William concentrated on pacifying his new realm after 1066, he entrusted Roger with helping Matilda rule Normandy. This Roger did well—he seems to have done most things well—which is why he ended up as the Earl of Shrewsbury.

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A lady with her spindle – not for our Mabel

Upon William Tavalas’ death, Mabel became the Dame de Alençon, de Séez, and Bellême. Together with her husband, Mabel now controlled a sprawling collection of lands, all the way from southern Normandie and Maine to England. Life, one could say, was good, and with so much stuff to administer, Mabel should not have had time for mischief. Not so. Mabel, according to Orderic, greatly enjoyed being a pain in the nether parts. In particular, she enjoyed needling the powerful Church and the various religious establishments that were slowly expanding their hold on the land.

Mabel was no fool: to challenge the religious institutions outright would be to court serious danger, not only from the Church itself but also from her husband’s overlord. William the Conqueror was one of those complicated characters who combined an outward show of personal piety with a ruthless approach to anyone who threatened what he considered his. Mabel therefore decided on a subtle approach, whereby she would descend on an abbey complete with a HUGE entourage, and stay for several days as their guest, thereby depleting their stores. Her favourite target was the Abbey of Saint-Evroul (where Orderic would, some years later, become an oblate), and when the abbot dared protest at her extended visits, she threatened to return with an even larger retinue.

As told by Orderic, this is when the abbot rebuked her for her wicked ways, suggesting she cease them before they brought her great pain. Mabel just laughed, but that self-same evening, she was afflicted by a terrible, terrible pain. As per some, the pain centred round breasts, so when she stumbled upon a nursing infant, she insisted on placing said child at her breasts. The baby nursed, Mabel felt immediate relief, and the baby died. No major loss, according to Mabel: peasant brats were of no major importance.

It seems that this incident made Mabel somewhat wary of inflicting her presence on religious houses. Besides, she had other fish to fry, notably the personal vendetta of her family against the heirs of fitzGiroire, the man who her father had tortured so cruelly. Already back in the early 1060s, Mabel and Roger succeeded in convincing Duke William to seize the fitzGiroire lands and hand them over to Mabel. Obviously, this did not go down well, and the fitzGiroire heir, Arnold de Echauffour, protested loudly. So loudly, in fact, that in 1063 Duke William relented and was all for returning the lands to the rightful owner.

“What? Take my lands?” Mabel spluttered, almost choking on her wine. “Over my dead body!”
“If we’re going to be correct, they’re really his lands,” Roger said.
“Once mine, always mine,” Mabel retorted. She considered just what to do for some days, before concluding that the solution was simple. Kill Arnold and the problem would go away.
“We can’t just ride in there and cut him down,” Roger protested. “Duke William would nail my balls to the closest church door for breaking his peace!”
“Well, we can’t have that,” Mabel said, pursing her lips. “I’ll find another way. Maybe, if we’re fortunate, God will strike him down.”
Even Roger raised his brows at that…

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Jezebel – Mabel’s role model? (Yet another vilified female, IMO)

Mabel wasn’t about to wait for God to intercede. Instead, she resorted to that most classic of female murder weapons: poison. On one occasion when Arnold was visiting (and one can’t help but wonder why he’d do that—unless, of course, he’d been lured there with promises of discussing the return of his lands) Mabel doctored his goblet of wine. Unfortunately for her, Arnold wasn’t thirsty. Instead, Roger’s younger brother Gilbert drank the poisoned brew—and died. I imagine this sparked heated discussions in the privacy of the solar.

“My brother! Damn it, woman, you’ve murdered Gilbert!”
“That’s what you get for hogging the visitor’s cup.” She sidled closer. “I didn’t mean to, you know that. I liked Gilbert.” Her fingers slipped inside her husband’s shirt, tugging at his chest hair. “But those lands of his won’t come amiss, dear husband. There will be a new babe come spring.”
“Huh!” He slid her a look. “Truly? A new babe?”

One failure was not enough to stop Mabel. Soon enough, she’d sunk her claws into one of Arnold’s servants, promising him gold and gratitude everlasting if he’d only do this teensy-weensy little favour for her: poison his master. Which he did, thereby ridding Mabel’s world of the hated Arnold.

Now, before dismissing this story out of hand as being the figment of Orderic’s heated imagination, it might serve to remember that Orderic does have a reputation for telling things as they were—and that one of his fellow monks was the son of the murdered Arnold. Plus, Orderic’s father had served Roger Montgomery for his whole life, so Orderic did have access to very good sources.

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Seems like a thing Mabel would do…

With advancing age, one could have hoped Mabel would mellow. Very little indicates she did, remaining as rapacious as ever well into middle-age. In 1077, she went after the lands of one Hugh Brunel, sending her men-at-arms to drive him from his home. Hugh fled, but promised retribution. Mabel probably laughed. What on earth could Hugh do to her, Dame de Alençon, de Séez, and Bellême in her own right, Countess of Shrewsbury and Lady of Arundel through her husband? Turns out she underestimated Hugh…

In late 1079, Mabel was enjoying a warm bath in one of her castles when out of nowhere several men broke into her room.

“Remember me?” Hugh said, drawing his sword. And just like that, he cut her head off before fleeing the castle with his brothers.

An apt end to an evil woman according to Orderic, who goes on to quote her epitaph, adding a sour comment along the lines that whoever wrote it was doing her friends (and husband) a favour rather than portraying the lady in question correctly.

Sprung from the noble and the brave,
Here Mabel finds a narrow grave.
But, above all woman’s glory,
Fills a page in famous story.
Commanding, eloquent, and wise,
And prompt to daring enterprise;
Though slight her form, her soul was great,
And, proudly swelling in her state,
Rich dress, and pomp, and retinue,
Lent it their grace and houours due.
The border’s guard, the country’s shield,
Both love and fear her might revealed,
Till Hugh, revengeful, gained her bower,
In dark December’s midnight hour.
Then saw the Dive’s o’erflowing stream
The ruthless murderer’s poignard gleam.
Now friends, some moments kindly spare,
For her soul’s rest to breathe a prayer!

Assuming Ordric has things right, I somehow think breathing a couple of prayers would not suffice to give Mabel’s soul rest. Alternatively, the epitaph has it right and Orderic, otherwise so credible, had personal reasons behind his character assassination. We will never know, will we? Still, I do believe that a lady who has her head chopped off by “revengeful Hugh” must have done something to deserve it.

The queen who took down the empress

Some time ago, I published a post about that rather impressive lady Matilda of Flanders who married William the Conqueror and thereby became the matriarch of the Norman kings. Today, I thought we’d spend some time with her namesake, the equally impressive Matilda of Boulogne.

Royal 19 B.XV, f.37This Matilda was born in 1105 or thereabouts. Her father, Eustace of Boulogne, was a Crusader and a proven warrior, having participated in the siege (and subsequent massacre) of Jerusalem. Given future events, I’m guessing Matilda had inherited quite a few of her father’s more ferocious qualities, traits that were to come in handy later in her life.

Eustace married relatively late in life—all that crusading had kept him quite busy for some years—but I suspect he was quite pleased with his wife. After all, Mary of Scotland was of royal descent and came with the added bonus of being the sister to Henry I’s queen, yet another Matilda. Thereby, Eustace became a royal in-law, and even if Henry I does not come across as a man who had much time for family ties (this is, after all, the king who allowed his granddaughters to be blinded) it was probably never a disadvantage to be related to the king, however indirectly.

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Matilda, Henry I’s wife

Mary and Matilda Sr had been raised in a convent. In fact, they’d spent so much time with the nuns Henry I had to acquire the pope’s permission to marry Matilda Sr as there were those who muttered that both Matilda Sr and Mary were effectively nuns. What the sisters themselves thought of this, I have no idea, but the upside of their irregular upbringing was that they were both quite well-educated.

As to why Henry I (who seems to have had an unquenchable appetite for women, resulting in twenty plus illegitimate children) was so determined to marry Matilda Sr, this was because of her (and Mary’s) mother: St Margaret of Scotland was not only the mother of eight children, including the two sisters. She was also the descendant of Edmund Ironside, thereby contributing a dollop of Anglo-Saxon royal blood to her offspring.

Neither Mary nor Matilda Sr seem to have been all that fertile. Matilda Sr only gave Henry I two children (and, as we’ve seen above, he had no issue with fertility). Mary presented her husband with one child: Matilda, named after her aunt.

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Henry I, looking as if butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth

Just to add to the name confusion, Henry I’s daughter by Queen Matilda was also named Matilda, and seeing as this Matilda and our Matilda were to play very important roles in each others’ lives, I’ve decided to call Henry’s daughter Maud, as otherwise we will all develop a headache trying to separate one from the other. (In general, I am not impressed by the variation in names during the Middle Ages. Seems to me people snowed in on a couple of them and then went on to use them ad nauseam, resulting in large amounts of Matildas and Alfonsos and Eleanors and Isabellas and Henrys and Williams and…right: no need to elaborate further, I think)

Anyway: Matilda grew up in comfort, mostly in Boulogne, but also in England—her father had estates there. Her mother died when Matilda was around 11 or so, and for some reason Matilda remained unwed throughout her teens. Maybe her father was holding out for a good marriage, or maybe Henry I had a vested interest in ensuring Matilda and her vast inheritance ended up in the right hands. Whatever the case, in 1125 Matilda was married to Stephen of Blois, nephew to king Henry I.

For Stephen, marrying Matilda was a major move upwards financially. As a younger son to the Count of Blois and Adela, Henry I’s sister, Stephen did not expect to inherit much land. Now, by right of his wife, he stood next in line to become the Count of Boulogne. Close to ten years older than his bride, Stephen seems to have found Matilda very much to his liking—a sentiment returned in full by his wife, or at least that is the impression one gets, given just how loyal she would prove to be.

1125 was the year in which Matilda gained a husband and lost a father. Upon Eustace’s death, the newly married couple became the Count and Countess of Boulogne, and for the coming decade or so, they divided their time between their large estates in England and Boulogne, their family growing with the addition of a couple of children.

And then, in 1135, everything changed.

MoB WhiteShipSinkingBefore we go there, we need to detour briefly to Henry I and the fate of his two legitimate children by Matilda Sr. By the time Stephen wed Matilda of Boulogne, Henry I’s precious male heir, William, was already dead, having drowned in the tragedy of the White Ship. All Henry had left was a bevy of eager nephews (among them Stephen) and his daughter, Maud, recently returned to England after the death of her husband, the Holy Roman Emperor Henry V.

King Henry was determined to ensure his bloodline retained the throne. He’d hastily wed again after the death of William, but so far no royal babies were forthcoming. Maud had not presented her first husband with an heir, but she was still youngish (as per the standards of the time), so Henry decided to marry her again—to the very much younger Geoffrey of Anjou. Not a marriage made in heaven, one could say. Maud resented the fact that her husband was not much more than a child and only a count. She, after all, was an Empress, albeit without the adjoining empire. However, Maud needed a husband as Henry had obliged his barons to recognise Maud—and her legitimate heirs—as his heirs. Just in case, Henry had his barons swear allegiance to his daughter twice.

In 1133, Maud gave birth to a son whom she named Henry. In 1134, she gave birth to a second son, Geoffrey. Henry I could expel a relieved breath: he now had two male heirs, albeit at present no more than infants, but still.

In December of 1135, Henry I died, supposedly after having gone wild and crazy over a dish of lampreys. The more likely reason is that he fell sick after an autumn campaigning against rebels in Normandy—rebels supported by Maud and Geoffrey.

No sooner was Henry dead but a fight over the succession broke out. Several of the barons decided not to honour their oath to Maud (many of them disliked the ambitious Geoffrey) and Theobald of Blois, Stephen’s eldest brother, prepared to go to England and claim the crown.

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Stephen being crowned

Stephen moved faster. Upon hearing the news of his uncle’s demise, he set off like greased lightning, accompanied by his household knights. Some weeks later, he was crowned, which no doubt caused big brother Theobald to grind his teeth, but once anointed always anointed, and so Theobald could do nothing but bow to the inevitable.

Not so our Empress Maud. To give this lady her due, Maud was not the type who gave up. Oh, no: the crown was hers by right—those perjured barons had sworn on it—and she wasn’t about to let this juicy price slip away from her or her sons. Geoffrey agreed, and while these two were often at odds on a personal level, they were scarily alike when it came to ambition, ruthlessness and intelligence. No wonder their son, the future Henry II, would turn out as he did.

We don’t know whether Matilda supported her husband’s bid for the throne. It seems likely, if nothing else because he consulted with her on various other matters, and such a life-changing decision would reasonably be something he’d have talked over with her beforehand. Maybe they’d been planning for this for some time, both of them fully aware of how unpopular Geoffrey d’Anjou was among the English barons.

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Stephen as king

In difference to Geoffrey, Stephen was universally liked. He was rich, easy-going, good-looking, a proven warrior—and, most importantly, a man. What baron in his right mind would prefer Maud to this charmer? Initially, it would seem very few, but Maud was nothing if not determined, and some years into Stephen’s reign, civil war flared up. The anarchy (as it was dubbed by those who lived through it) was to plague the rest of his reign, the barons divided between those who supported Maud (led by her illegitimate half-brother Robert of Gloucester) and those who held with the king.

One of those who definitely held with the king was Matilda. Just like her cousin Maud, she also had a son to look out for, little Eustace. So when Stephen at times leaned towards leniency, she’d prod him into action, reminding him it wasn’t only his future that was at stake, it was their future, the future of their children.

That her husband trusted her abilities implicitly was made very clear in 1138, when Matilda was dispatched to handle the rebellions in Kent. Later that same year, she was entrusted with brokering a peace with Scotland—in general, 1138 was a bad, bad year for Stephen, what with rebellions in Kent, the Scots attacking from the north, Robert of Gloucester declaring for Maud, and Geoffrey of Anjou harassing Normandy.

Stephen was an impressive fighter, preferring to lead from the front. This is precisely what he did at the Battle of Lincoln in early 1141, but no matter how well he wielded sword and a battle axe, ultimately his forces were overrun by the much larger armies captained by Robert of Gloucester. King Stephen was taken prisoner, and all, it seemed, was now lost.

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Empress Maud

Matilda succumbed to some moments of desperation. She sent messengers to Maud, pleading that her husband be restored to her, but Maud was no fool and had no intention of releasing Stephen until she’d been properly acclaimed as the ruler of the English. So while Stephen kicked his heels in captivity at Bristol Castle, a triumphant Maud rode for London, there to prepare for her coronation. Like rats on a drowning ship, those who had so far been loyal to Stephen started to defect, including Stephen’s own brother, Henry of Blois.

I have never really liked this Henry (albeit that one must give the man credit for commissioning the Winchester Bible) a self-serving bishop who happily changed sides depending on how it suited him best. In early 1141, he therefore did some major brown-nosing, promising Maud the full support of the church, thereby throwing his own brother overboard.

However, all was not lost. Stephen’s queen was still at large, and after her initial bout of weakness and despair, Matilda regrouped. She was probably helped in this by the fact that Maud had about as much diplomatic skill as an aggressive bull. In a matter of weeks, the haughty and temperamental Empress had alienated not only several members of the nobility, but also the citizens of London. In June of 1141, the Londoners therefore rose on behalf of their king, effectively forcing Maud to flee to Oxford.

At the time, Matilda was in Kent. She may have been a weak female, but she had the heart and guts of a born fighter, and when her husband began to cave in his confinement, agreeing to sign away his crown, Matilda was having none of it. As far as Matilda was concerned, she’d rather be force-fed horse-dung than allow Cousin Maud to plant her backside on the English throne – a sentiment she obviously shared with the Londoners. So Matilda assembled the lieutenants still loyal to her husband and began planning her next steps. Having heard that her husband was held in chains probably served as a major motivator.

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The somewhat devious Henry of Blois

This is when Henry of Blois suddenly regretted throwing his brother to the wolves (or maybe he realised just how determined his his sister-in-law was) and renewed his vows of allegiance to the king, his brother. Being a somewhat flamboyant man, Bishop Henry chose to shout his change of allegiance to the world by besieging the royal castle at Winchester. Maud was predictably not pleased by this. In fact, she was seriously enraged and ordered her troops to teach the bishop a lesson.

Upon sighting Maud’s troops, as always led by the loyal and capable Robert of Gloucester, Henry retreated to the episcopal castle on the other side of Winchester. Maud’s troops settled down for a siege, but Matilda was already marching to the rescue, and soon enough the besiegers became the besieged, trapped inside a town with dwindling resources. There was nothing to do but retreat, Robert told Maud, probably going on to say something along the lines of “better live to fight another day.”

If Robert had hoped they’d be allowed to retreat in an orderly fashion, he’d thought wrong. Someone had clearly underestimated Matilda and her loyal second-in-command William of Ypres. No sooner did Maud’s armies begin to pull out from Winchester in good order, but they were attacked by Matilda’s forces. It became something of a rout, with Maud escaping by the skin of her teeth. Not so Robert of Gloucester, who was taken prisoner and hauled before a delighted Matilda. At last the bargaining chip she needed to free her husband!

It took several months of negotiations to broker the agreement whereby Robert was exchanged for Stephen, but by Christmas of 1141 Stephen was reunited with his loyal wife. This did not end the strife, and over the coming years England lived in a state of constant chaos as men loyal to one side or the other clashed. But in 1147, Robert of Gloucester died, and without her stalwart champion Maud felt obliged to retire to Anjou—for now.

Stephen and Matilda enjoyed some years of relative peace, but in 1152 Matilda was struck down by a fever and died. By all accounts, her husband was devastated, left rudderless—at least for a while—by the loss of his dear wife.

When Stephen’s son, Eustace, died a year or so later, it seems Stephen lost all motivation to continue defending his crown. So when the young, red-haired and extremely energetic and capable Henry FitzEmpress landed in England, determined to fight for the crown that belonged to him, Stephen did not exactly charge out to meet him in battle. Truth be told, the barons of England were so sick and tired of all this strife they more or less refused to fight, telling Henry and Stephen they should get over things and negotiate a final solution to this whole mess.

After months of back and forth Henry and Stephen arrived at an arrangement: Stephen would keep his crown, but upon his death Henry would inherit it, not Stephen’s surviving son or his equally surviving daughter (Somehow, I don’t think the daughter figured all that much in these negotiations seeing as she was a nun and very happy being one, thank you very much. That would soon change, though…Future post, people).

And so, finally, England was at peace again. Stephen could at last relax and savour his kingship—a somewhat sour experience, seeing as he had neither his beloved wife nor his heir with which to savour it. Maybe that’s why he died in 1154, thereby bringing to end one of the more dismal reigns in English history. And maybe, in retrospect, it was a good thing that Matilda died when she did. Somehow, I don’t think this brave lady would have allowed her husband to come to terms with young Henry—not as long as they had a living son. And that, dear peeps, would not have been good for England, no matter how admirable Matilda’s loyalty and determination was.

Death by Viking – a painful way to achieve sainthood

All old European kingdoms have a martyred royal or two. In Sweden it’s St Erik, in Norway it is St Olof, Scotland has St Margaret, and England has St Edward. And St Edmund. Two royal saints – one of whom was martyred by the ancestors of St Erik and St Olof.

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St Edmund, crowned in glory

So who was this Edmund, and what did he ever do to deserve the honorific of saint? Well, obviously he died – rather painfully – but many people throughout history have done that without being rewarded with a sainthood.

Very little is known about Edmund. In fact, what comes down through the ages is a story of a beleaguered hero, a symbol necessary to keep the fire burning in the hearts of his people, cowering under the weight of the Viking yoke. And what a yoke it was, the Nordic raiders returning year after year to plunder. At times, attempts were made to buy them off, but in the latter half of the ninth century, Ingvar Benlös (Ivar the Boneless), as per the sagas one of Ragnar Lodbroke’s sons, assembled a huge Viking army – adequately named the Great Heathen Army – and landed on English soil. This time, they did not want plunder. This time, the Vikings wanted land. I guess they’d had it with war and blood, hankering instead for meadows and tilled fields. After all, even bashing innocent monks over the head to rob them of everything they have gets a bit old after a while.

Due to all that Viking raiding and pillaging, most East Anglian written records of the time have been lost. Vikings didn’t read books – they burnt them. (Which is not to say they were illiterate. It’s just that the Vikings preferred carving runes into stones – a far more permanent record of their doings than ink on parchment) Despite this lack or records, we do know there existed an Edmund – coins with his name testify to this. Those same coins indicate he succeeded a gentleman named Aethelweard as king of East Anglia. It is thought he was related to Aethelstan, king of Kent, and whatever the case, the general supposition is that he was of a “noble and ancient race”, i.e. of royal Saxon blood.

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Edmund’s death

Edmund became king at the tender age of fifteen – or so the Anglo Saxon Chronicle tells us, which means we need to take things with a pinch of salt, as the Chronicle showed little interest in the events unfolding in East Anglia until twenty years after Edmund’s supposed death. But let us assume the Chronicle had it right – if nothing else because it makes for a better story. A young, gallant prince takes up the ermine (well…no ermine at the time, but still) and proceeds to lead his people. By all accounts, he did a good job, showing plenty of promise.

He was also a good Christian – a pious young man who in everything was the perfect role model for all those future young men who aspired to be brave and heroic. Here we had a king who refused to compromise when it came to his faith – no matter what it might cost him.

In the 860s, the Viking army landed in England with the intention of staying – for good. This did not go down well with those already there, but the Vikings were a somewhat brusque race, and what people didn’t give them, they took. They started by marching north to conquer York and Northumberland, went from there to Mercia where they forced the king into accepting a treaty, and then turned south to formally conquer East Anglia.

Edmund defended his kingdom as well as he could. But however competent Edmund may have been, he wasn’t much of a match for the battle-hardened Vikings, and his men were pathetically inadequate in facing up to the roaring Northern horde. To be fair, all of the Saxon kingdoms except Wessex were to succumb before the Viking warlords.

In November of 869, Edmund and his men ended up surrounded by the Vikings. There are various versions of what happened, but I prefer the one where Edmund yielded to save the lives of his men. There’s another variant whereby Edmund hid himself under a bridge in Hoxne – hoping no doubt to live and fight another day – but his spurs caught the sunlight and a young girl gave him up. However it came about, our Edmund was now in the less than tender care of the Danes.

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Killing the saint

Vikings were practical people. Why kill someone you could milk until they were dry? They therefore suggested that Edmund buy his life by giving them half his treasure. But, they added, he would have to embrace their faith as well. Anathema to Edmund. He might consider parting with what little treasure he had left, but his faith was not up for discussion. Edmund squared his shoulders, prepared to meet his fate. A young man still, not yet thirty, about to be cut down in his prime.

The Vikings found this rather hilarious. In general, Vikings couldn’t quite understand how anyone could worship such a weakling as the White Christ – the silly man got himself nailed to a cross, and as far as the Vikings could make out, he hadn’t even tried to fight himself free. Very strange, as per the Norsemen. It therefore amazed them that so many men were willing to die for this – in their opinion – useless god.

Edmund was tied to a tree. He was whipped with chains until he was bleeding from all over. He still refused to disavow his god. If Christ could die for all humanity, then Edmund could die for Christ. Very well, said Ubba – the man in charge – and ordered the half-dead man to be peppered with arrows. Still he didn’t die, but by now his tormentors had tired of their game, so they chopped off his head and threw it into the surrounding woods, leaving the decapitated corpse tied to the tree.

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A talking wolf (?)

No sooner had the Vikings ridden off, but Edmund’s men cut him down, weeping (I suppose) at this futile death. They looked everywhere for the head, but it was dark and cold, and no matter how they looked they couldn’t find it. But Edmund had friends among the wild creatures that lived in the woods, and so it was that a wolf found the head, and called out a series of “hic, hic, hic” until Edmund’s men cottoned on and came charging through the underbrush, marvelling at the miracle of a talking wolf (in Latin, no less).

Edmund was buried in a nearby church and there he remained for twenty-odd years. By then, the myth and legend of Edmund, the brave and handsome young king who died for Christ, had found its ways to the Church, and it was decided that the saintly king needed a more suitable shrine – which is how Edmund ended up being reburied in Bury St Edmunds. ( I like it when place names are this straightforward :))

By then, those Viking raiders had settled firmly into their new land. The Danelaw covered most of England, but interestingly enough those savage heathen warriors developed a softer side when living in peace. Many of them became Christians, and thirty years or so after Edmund’s death, the mints of East Anglia produced pennies with the legend SCE EADMUND REX (St Edmund King). Those ferocious Vikings and their descendants were proud of their brave saint, conveniently choosing to forget he wouldn’t have been a saint had the Vikings not killed him.

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St Edmund’s martyrdom depicted by Brian Whelan ( Creative Commons)

By 925, the cult of St Edmund had grown to such size it required a separate community devoted to this English saint. The abbey of Bury St Edmunds grew fat and happy thanks to their resident saint. Until the Reformation, the cult of the saint remained strong, and when the shrine was defaced and destroyed in the 16th century, it is said gold and silver to the value of 5 000 marks were carried away. Interestingly enough, at the time the shrine was probably empty, as it is said the French invaders who fought King John in the early 13th century stole away the body. As per this story, St Edmund’s remains ended up in Toulouse and were venerated by the French for centuries.

In the early 20th century, some of the remains in the French shrine were returned to England. It has never been determined if they belong to Edmund, which is why these sad little fragments remain in Arundel, under the care of the Duke of Norfolk rather than being buried under the high altar of Westminster Cathedral as originally intended.

Well over 1100 years ago, a young king was tortured to death by barbaric invaders. To this day, his name is remembered, even if the man behind the saint remains forever enigmatic. Me, I hope he did other things in his life but die. I hope there was love, and comradeship, moments filled with the sheer joy of being alive. I hope there were women and beer, nights of peaceful dreams and days of wondrous beauty. I hope Edmund had a life, before he so valiantly gave it away to save his companions.

Researching the Tudors – either there’s too much, or too little!

Today I’ve invited Tony Riches to visit, specifically to share some insight into all the research he’s had to do while writing his series about the early Tudors, Owen, Jasper and Henry. Turns out Tony has had his moments of frustration!

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TR The Tudor Trilogy books2The original idea for writing the Tudor Trilogy came to me when I began looking into the life of Owen Tudor, the Welsh servant who married a queen, and was surprised to find there were no books offering a full picture of his adventures. I soon found out why, as it is so hard to track down reliable information about his life. There are no images of him and even his name is written by scribes as ‘Owen Tidder’ or ‘Owain Tetyr’ and was probably Owain ap Maredudd ap Tewdwror).

I began to collect fascinating details of the lives of Owen’s sons, Edmund and Jasper and realised that if I planned it as a trilogy, Henry Tudor would be born in the first book, come of age in the second and become King of England in the final book.

The research for the first book, OWEN, consisted mostly of reading about the well documented life of his wife, Queen Catherine of Valois. Although I had to piece together the details of Owen’s life by cross-checking different sources and ‘fill in the gaps’ from other records of the period.

Owen’s first son Edmund died from wounds or a form of bubonic plague while in prison in November 1456, barely two months before Margaret Beaufort gave birth to Henry in Pembroke Castle. I visited the scene of Edmund’s death at Carmarthen Castle and found only the gatehouse remains, as the castle was largely demolished to build a Victorian Prison.

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Edmund’s tomb

Fortunately, Edmund’s tomb was rescued from Carmarthen Priory during the dissolution, so I was able to visit it at St David’s Cathedral, although even there it wasn’t safe. Stripped of its finery by Oliver Cromwell’s army in the seventeenth century, the tomb was restored in 1873 with an engraved brass representing Edmund Tudor by Thomas Waller.

It was left to Edmund’s younger brother to continue the story of the Tudors in the second book of the trilogy, JASPER. Now my research became easier, as he was based at Pembroke Castle (in the town where I was born) and owned a house in Tenby, close to where I now live.

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Tenby tunnel

Supporters of King Edward IV forced Jasper and the young Henry Tudor to flee for their lives. The secret tunnel they used to reach the harbour still exists, so I was able to see it for myself and walk in their footsteps deep under the streets of Tenby.

I’ve sailed from Tenby harbour many times, including at night, so have a good understanding of how they might have felt as they slipped away to Brittany. Rather than follow their course around Land’s End I chose to sail on the car ferry from Portsmouth to St Malo in Brittany, where I began to retrace the Tudor’s time in exile.

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Chateau de Suscinio

I’ve read that little happened during those fourteen years but of course Brittany was where Henry would come of age and begin to plan his return. Starting at the impressive palace of Duke Francis of Brittany in Vannes, I followed the Tudors to the Château de Suscinio on the coast. I was amazed to find it has been restored to look much as it might have when Jasper and Henry were there, and the surrounding countryside and coastline is largely unchanged.

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Chateau de Josselin

Duke Francis of Brittany, began to worry when Yorkist agents began plotting to capture the Tudors, so he moved them to different fortresses further inland. I stayed by the river within sight of the magnificent Château de Josselin, were Jasper was effectively held prisoner. Although the inside has been updated over the years, the tower where Jasper lived survives and I was even able to identify Tudor period houses in the medieval town which he would have seen from his window.

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Tony at Largoët

Henry’s château was harder to find but worth the effort. The Forteresse de Largoët is deep in the forest outside of the town of Elven. His custodian, Marshall of Brittany, Jean IV, Lord of Rieux and Rochefort, had two sons of similar age to Henry and it is thought they continued their education together. Proof I was at the right place was in the useful leaflet in English which confirmed that: ‘On the second floor of the Dungeon Tower and to the left is found a small vaulted room where the Count of Richemont was imprisoned for 18 months (1474-1475).’ 

Entering the Dungeon Tower through a dark corridor, I regretted not bringing a torch, as the high stairway is lit only by the small window openings. Interestingly, the lower level is octagonal, with the second hexagonal and the rest square. Cautiously feeling my way up the staircase I was walking in the footsteps of the young Henry Tudor, who would also have steadied himself by placing his hand against the cold stone walls, nearly five and a half centuries before

When I returned to Wales I made the journey to remote Mill Bay, where Henry and Jasper landed with their small invasion fleet. A bronze plaque records the event and it was easy to imagine how they might have felt as they began the long march to confront King Richard at Bosworth. On the anniversary of the battle I walked across Bosworth field and watched hundreds of re-enactors recreate the battle, complete with cavalry and cannon fire.

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Reenactment of Bosworth

The challenge I faced for the final book of the trilogy, HENRY, was too much information. Henry left a wealth of detailed records, often initialling every line in his ledgers, which still survive. At the same time, I had to deal with the contradictions, myths and legends that cloud interpretation of the facts. I decided the only way was to immerse myself in Henry’s world and explore events as they might have appeared from his point of view. I stood in the small room in Pembroke Castle where Henry Tudor is thought to have been born, (within sight of where I was born) and began three years of intensive research about this enigmatic king.

I bought every book I could find about Henry and his times, and also studied the lives of those around him, including his mother, Margaret Beaufort, and his queen, Elizabeth of York. As I reached the end I decided to visit Henry’s Tomb in Westminster Abbey. There is something quite surreal about making your way through Westminster Abbey to the Lady Chapel at the far end. There are many amazing distractions, as you pass the tombs of earlier kings and Henry’s granddaughter Elizabeth I in a side chapel. Henry’s tomb dominates the centre of the Lady Chapel and is surrounded by a high bronze grille. His effigy is raised too high to see, so I climbed a convenient step and peered through the holes in the grille. There lay Henry with his wife, Elizabeth of York, their gilded hands clasped in prayer.

I am pleased to say that after all these years researching the lives of the early Tudors, all three books of the trilogy have become international best sellers. I’d like to take this opportunity to thank all the readers around the world who have been on this journey with me. Although this is the end of the Tudor trilogy, I am now researching the life of Henry’s daughter Mary and her adventurous husband Charles Brandon, so the story of the Tudors is far from over.

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Thank you, Tony for that. And I for one am happy to hear you’ll be writing more books – especially about someone as fascinating as the wayward Mary and her Charles!

Tony Riches AuthorFor those of you as yet unacquainted with Tony Riches, he is a full time author of best-selling fiction and non-fiction books. He lives by the sea in Pembrokeshire, West Wales with his wife and enjoys sea and river kayaking in his spare time. For more information about Tony’s other books please visit his popular blog, The Writing Desk and website www.tonyriches.com and find him on Facebook and Twitter @tonyriches.  The Tudor Trilogy is available on Amazon UK  Amazon US and Amazon AU

 

A short and inconsequential life

Not that long ago, I wrote a post about Isabel of Portugal who married Philip the Good of Burgundy. Had it not been for a certain artist, I’d probably not have expended much time on this lady, or on her son and grandchild. Burgundy in the 15th century has mostly been indirectly relevant to me from the perspective of the Yorkists in the War of the Roses, seeing as Edward IV’s sister Margaret married Isabel’s son, Charles the Bold.

Now Isabel should have been a Lancastrian. Her grandfather was John of Gaunt, her uncle was Henry IV, and at one time a marriage between Isabel and Henry V had been considered. But despite her lineage, Isabel—and her son—tended to side with the Yorkists. As many of you will know, Burgundy was to play an important role in the 1470s, welcoming the exiled Edward IV and his brother to stay and lick their wounds prior to them returning to England there to defeat Warwick the Kingmaker and the Lancastrian Prince of Wales.

However, the focus of today’s post is neither the Yorkists or Isabel. Or her son. No, today we will spend time with Isabel’s only grandchild, born in 1457.

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Meet the parents: Isabella and Charles

Let us start by saying that this birth did not have everyone breaking out into whoops of joy. Notably, the babe’s grandfather was less than thrilled, muttering that whoever needed a girl baby? As per Philip, the child was of the wrong gender—he’d married three times to ensure he had a male heir, and now that male heir of his had sired a useless daughter, not a son. Fortunately (from Philip’s perspective) Charles was still young, as was his wife, so there was still hope for a future boy.

Charles, however, was delighted—as was his mother. The baby was christened Mary, and as the years passed, it became apparent she was to be an only child, this further reinforced when her mother, Isabella of Bourbon, died in 1465. Having only a female heir placed Burgundy in a tenuous position. With its lands wedged between France and the Holy Roman Empire, Burgundy had been fighting off encroachments for generations, fiercely determined to hold on to their independence. This was why a male heir was so important: a female heir would have to marry, and it would be her husband, not the lady in question, who would do the actual ruling. Not, as per the proud Burgundians, a good thing: I mean, what if the heiress married a Frenchie? Or, almost as bad, a Hapsburg?

In 1467, Philip died and Charles became Duke of Burgundy. With no other children but Mary, it was imperative he marry again, and after much hemming and hawing, his choice fell on Margaret of York. The French king was less than delighted at the thought of Burgundy and England joining forces and did his best to throw a monkey wrench or two into the works. Edward IV vacillated, there was some general procrastination all around, but with Edward facing more and more opposition at home, he needed to build alliances abroad, which is how Margaret ended up wed to Charles.

At the time, Mary was eleven. Her mother had been dead for three years, and accordingly it had been her grandmother, Isabel, who actively organised Mary’s life. As Isabel had been brought up to appreciate learning in all its forms, it is likely Mary was a well-educated little girl, with Isabel ensuring that she not only learnt her Latin, but also studied mathematics and philosophy and other relevant subjects. Plus, of course, Isabel passed on her own passion for riding to her little granddaughter.

In 1468, Mary and Isabel met Margaret for the first time. They got on like a a house on fire, those three, and lifelong friendships were forged almost instantly. Isabel was very taken by her son’s new wife, whom she found not only very beautiful, but also politically shrewd and very intelligent. As to Mary, her elegant young stepmother made quite the impression, presenting her with someone to emulate. Margaret, being a smart young lady, realised just how important it was to win over her new husband’s daughter and mother, but I also believe she genuinely liked both Isabel and Mary, as would be demonstrated by how she would grieve at their deaths.

Margaret never had any children. Was Charles disappointed? Probably. Was Margaret, the daughter of a singularly fertile mother, devastated? I’d think yes. To live up to the dynastic expectations, she should have popped out a son to inherit the duchy. But God works in mysterious ways, and while Margaret was never to experience the joy and travail of birthing a child, she did have a daughter in her stepdaughter Mary, a relationship that grew even closer when Isabel died in 1471.

Charles was not always the easiest of men to live with—or work with. By the mid 1470s, he was determined to carve out a new, expanded kingdom for himself, which did not go down well with those whose lands he planned on adding to his own. He ended up quarrelling with almost everyone who had previously been an ally to him, but Charles was not about to back down—or betray the few allies remaining to him. Which was why, in 1476, he attacked Grandson, a town recently captured by the Swiss Confederacy, but whose original ruler was one of Charles’ allies.

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Charles being lenient: drowning, anyone?

Grandson only surrendered after Charles had promised leniency. Well, so say the Swiss sources. Other sources say that the town surrendered and threw itself at the mercy of the duke. Said duke had no intention of being merciful and ordered over 400 men to be hanged or drowned, a procedure that took several hours.

Charles was not destined to savour his victory. An approaching Swiss army more or less annihilated Charles’ force (more due to surprise than anything) and the duke was obliged to flee, leaving his enormous war booty in the hands of the Swiss.

Determined to reclaim both his booty and his honour, Charles assembled a new army and rode to meet the Swiss at the battle of Morat. He lost. Charles decided to try again, and in January of 1477 he engaged in the Battle of Nancy. This time, he not only lost. He died. His badly mutilated and looted body was found some three days later. And just like that, one of the most important players on the European political scene was a nineteen-year-old girl, Mary of Burgundy.

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Mary

Fortunately for Mary, her stepmother was something of a lion. Stepping into the void left behind by her husband, Margaret ably organised Burgundy’s defences, involved herself in everything from diplomatic missions to the day-to-day. One of the most urgent items on the agenda of the duchy was to ensure Mary married the right person (from a Burgundian perspective. Mary’s own preferences were neither here nor there).

Charles had already initiated discussions regarding his daughter’s wedding with Frederick, the Holy Roman Emperor. But now that Charles was dead, several other suitors popped out of the woodwork, with France aggressively demanding the new Duchess remember who her overlord was (the French king, something Charles had chosen to ignore as far as possible).

King Louis XI of France wanted Mary to marry his son, a boy thirteen years her junior. Frederick, of course, demanded that the negotiations initiated by Charles be concluded, whereby Mary would marry his son, Maximilian. The recently widowed George, Duke of Clarence, pushed his suit, hoping his dear sister Margaret would convince her stepdaughter to marry him. Elizabeth Woodville had an unmarried brother who rather liked the idea of becoming the new duke. Decisions, decisions, people, and the only one Mary trusted to guide her through all this was Margaret.

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Mary marrying Maximilian

After much consideration, Margaret voted for Maximilian. She liked the young man’s energy and intelligence, qualities she deemed necessary to defend Mary’s inheritance. And so, in August of 1477, Mary wed the Hapsburg heir, thereby permanently redrawing the map of political influence in Europe. Okay, so she didn’t know that at the time. Probably none of the players did, but ultimately the union between Mary and Maximilian would result in the Hapsburgs ascending the throne of Spain, with Mary’s grandson, Charles V (or I, depending on who is counting) becoming king of Castile and Aragon – and emperor, duke, count, prince, king of I don’t know how many other territories, making him the most powerful man in Europe.

Still, in 1477, this was still in the future, and the immediate present required the complete attention of the newly-wed, what with Louis having retaken the heartland of the Duchy of Burgundy which was thereby lost forever. The problems didn’t stop there: Louis adeptly fomented unrest among Mary’s subjects—not everyone loved a Hapsburg—and even went as far as to question the gender of Mary’s first child, loudly proclaiming to the Burgundians that they were being duped, the child was not a son, but a girl. That particular statement was easily disproved when Margaret, in her role as godmother to the baby, disrobed little Philip at his christening, proudly presenting an undoubtedly male child to the assembled people.

In 1480, Mary gave birth to her second child, a little girl she named Margaret in honour of her stepmother. A good start to her marriage, she might have thought: two healthy children in less than three years promised a sequence of more babies as the years rolled by. On the other hand, she must have been concerned by the political turbulence that surrounded her, albeit that Margaret and Maximilian formed a rather impressive team that did their best to safeguard Mary’s inheritance.

Despite the constant fighting with France, with the rebellious Burgundians, Mary and Maximilian did have time for each other and other pastimes. Now and then, they took a break from war and worry and indulged in fun things, such as hunting. In 1482, they rode out together to enjoy a day out in the field. For some reason, Mary fell off her horse. As per some, her horse tripped, threw her, and then fell on top of her. As per others, she “just” fell off. Whatever the sequence of events, the fall broke her back, and some days later, Mary was dead. She was all of twenty-five.

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Mary’s babies: Philip and Margaret

Mary was never to see her children grow up, her son to become a drop-dead womaniser who wed the eldest daughter of Fernando and Isabel (and more about the Philip and Juana marriage here), her daughter to marry twice, be widowed twice, and then become a kick-ass regent, managing the Hapsburg interests in the Low Countries so adeptly even her nephew, Charles V, approved. But that, dear peeps, will have to be the subject of a future post. Archduchess Margaret deserves as much, IMO.

Mary’s role in history is restricted to that of daughter, wife and mother. She never actively ruled her inherited lands, nor does she seem to have been all that interested in that aspect of things, more than happy to leave such matters to Maximilian and Margaret. But had there been no Mary, there would not have been a Hapsburg alliance. Had there not been a Hapsburg alliance, there would not have been a Charles V. Had there not been a Charles V to defend the interests of his aunt, Catherine of Aragon, then maybe Henry VIII would have convinced the pope to grant him a divorce, thereby making his break with Rome redundant.

Plus, of course, no Mary, no Spanish Hapsburgs. I’m not entirely sure that would have left the world bereft—after all, with the exception of Charles himself and his son Philip they weren’t the most gifted lot (this due to the Hapsburg tendency to marry their very close relatives), but no Philip IV and then maybe there wouldn’t have been a Diego Velázquez, or a magnificent painting named Las Meninas. And that, dear peeps, would have been a major, major loss!

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The major loss

Hanged, drawn and quartered – not a death to aspire to

HDQ main-qimg-6d1cf921e99741e6559b96e99e88897bBeing a medieval king came with all sorts of challenges, chief among them how to stop people from rebelling and in general causing unnecessary upheaval in your country. Sheesh: couldn’t they just accept that the one in charge was the king? Only the king? Clearly, something had to be done to keep people on the straight and narrow, which is why – or so the story goes – late in the 13th century, Edward I decided he needed to up the death-penalty somewhat, make it even more of a deterrent. Specifically, Edward I wanted people considering treason to think again – which was why, on October of 1283, he had the last Prince of Wales, Dafydd ap Gruffydd, subjected to horrific torture before the poor man finally died. Dafydd thereby became the first recorded person to be executed by the gruesome means of being hanged, drawn and quartered. I’m guessing Dafydd would have preferred being remembered for something else…

HDQ 300px-Drawing_of_William_de_MariscoTo be thus executed involved a lot of stages. First, you were tied to a horse (or in some cases several horses) and dragged through the town. Doesn’t sound too bad, you may think, but imagine being dragged over uneven cobbles, over gravel and stones, mud and slime, while the spectators lining the road pelt you with stuff – hard stuff, mostly. By the time the victim arrived at the gallows, he was a collection of bruises and gashes, his garments torn to shreds. Chances were, the man couldn’t stand, but stand he had to, and soon enough he was hoisted upwards, to the waiting noose.

HDQ france-used-to-torture-and-execute-its-finance-ministers-for-policies-gone-badThe second stage involved the hanging as such. Now, in medieval times, hanging rarely resulted in a broken neck. The condemned man didn’t drop several feet. Instead, the victim was set to swing from his neck and slowly strangled to death. A painful and extended demise, with the further indignity that when a man dies, his bowels and bladder give. However, the unfortunate sod who’d been condemned to being hanged, drawn and quartered, never got to the bladder and bowels part. He was cut down before he died and placed before the executioner and his big, sharp knife. The horror was just about to begin.

In some cases, the executioner started by gelding the man. Loud cheers from the spectators – or not, depending on who was being executed. Executions generally drew huge crowds, people standing about and snacking on the odd fritter or two while watching the condemned die. Nice – but hey, we must remember this was before the advent of TV and stuff like Counterstrike 4. People have always enjoyed being entertained with violence – which says a lot about the human race in general.

HDQ02ef126bf225e1545b51ecb2094efd20Once the condemned man had been relieved of his manhood (not something he’d ever use again anyway), he was cut open. A skillful executioner would keep him alive throughout the process, ensuring the dying man saw his organs being pulled from his body. And then, once he’d died, they chopped him up, sent off selected parts to be displayed in various parts of the kingdom, and buried what little was left over.

Not, all in all, a nice way to die. Men condemned to die that way must have swallowed and swallowed, knowing full well that no one could bear such indignities and die well. Before he drew his last breath, he’d have cried and wept, suffered horrific pain, hoped for the release of unconsciousness, only to be brought back up to the surface so as to fully experience what they did next to him. A truly demeaning death – most definitely a deterrent!

Edward Gal_nations_edward_iEdward I was rather fond of his new method of execution (although, to be honest, it is still a matter of dispute if it was Edward I who “invented” it – there seems to have been earlier cases, like when a man tried to assassinate Henry III). Other than the unfortunate Dafydd, Edward had several Scottish “rebels and traitors” – in itself a strange label to put on men fighting for the freedom of their country – hanged, drawn and quartered, notably among them William Wallace and some of Robert Bruce’s brothers.

It is unlikely that any man subjected to such a gruesome death would be in a position to inhale and yell “FREEDOM!” as William Wallace does in Mel Gibson’s interpretation. It is far more likely that by the time the cutting began, the victim was in severe shock, incapable of uttering more than high-pitched shrieks and grunts.

Edward I’s son and heir, Edward II, was in many ways a lesser king than his father, but it is to his credit that he was substantially less blood-thirsty. (Edward Sr would probably have called him squeamish, going on to harangue his son about the importance of keeping his barons toeing the line. Wise words, but wasted on Edward II). Anyway: there are very few recorded instances of men having been hanged, drawn and quartered during Edward II’s reign. But among these unfortunate souls one man stands out: In 1318, Llywelyn Bren was executed without having been sentenced to die – a serious violation of existing law.

Llywelyn Bren was (taa-daa) Welsh. His real name was Llywelyn ap Gryffudd ap Rhys, and his father had been one of those men loyal to Llywelyn ap Gryffudd, often referred to as the Last True Prince of Wales (He was Dafydd’s brother. Dafydd was something of a weathervane when it came to his loyalties – he had actually sworn allegiance to Edward I long before he decided to throw his lot in with his Welsh brethren, which was why Edward I was so incensed when Dafydd turned around and proclaimed himself Prince of Wales after big brother Llywelyn had been killed…Apologies for the multiple Llywelyns. Seems teh Welsh were as fond of that name as the medieval Castilians were of Alfonso) Bren is a Welsh honorific meaning something akin to “royal”, and our Llywelyn had earned the sobriquet, not only due to his lineage, but also because he acted like a king should – he defended “his” people.

The story starts in 1315. England was in something of a disarray after the Battle of Bannockburn, and this was especially true of the Welsh Marches, where the powerful Earl of Gloucester had died without a male heir. Young Gilbert de Clare did leave three sisters, but until the inheritance issues could be properly sorted, the huge de Clare lordship was administered by royal officers – with varying success. The period also coincided with famine. The second decade of the 14th century saw a sequence of failed harvests, and by 1315, the people were hungry and finding it increasingly difficult to pay the royal taxes.

The king, of course, insisted his taxes be paid, and his various sheriffs were charged with ensuring the subjects coughed up their pennies. In Wales – and especially in Glamorgan – the situation was very bad, and the newly elected sheriff, a certain de Turberville, did not make things any better when he started by dismissing all Welshmen holding office. One of the men so discourteously snubbed was Llywelyn Bren.

Bren had been a respected sub-lord under the Earl of Gloucester, held in high regard by Welsh and English alike. When de Turberville resorted to force – he sent out armed men to terrorise the Welsh into giving up what little they had, some of which he kept for himself – Llywelyn Bren protested. De Tuberville responded by accusing Bren of sedition, and Llywelyn was so outraged he penned a letter to the king, asking that he remove de Tuberville. Edward II answered by telling Llywelyn Bren to present himself before Parliament – and prepare to hang, should the court find him guilty of the charges made by de Turberville.

De Turberville continued with his persecution of the Welsh. Forced into a corner, Llywelyn Bren had no choice but to defend his people. In a well-planned action, he surrounded the detested sheriff and his closest men while they were holding court just outside Caerphilly castle. De Turberville tried to reach the safety of the castle, but the portcullis came down, the drawbridge was pulled up, and so a number of Englishmen – including de Turberville – were cut down in the outer bailey of the castle. The victorious Welsh then descended on Caerphilly town, looting and burning as they went.

Obviously, the king could not allow this to happen. He ordered the Earl of Hereford, Humphrey de Bohun, and the Lords Mortimer (Roger Mortimer and his uncle Roger Mortimer. I know, I know: more name confusion) to handle the issue, supported by further troops. Llywelyn quickly realised he was hopelessly outnumbered, and decided he had to do what a true leader had to do: set the safety of his men before that of himself. So he gave up, offered himself as a prisoner on terms that allowed his men to keep their lives. Llywelyn himself was to be taken to London, and I dare say he held little hope of ever seeing his homeland again.

Llywelyn’s bravery made a huge impression on both de Bohun and Roger Mortimer. Both of them pleaded with the king that he be lenient – Llywelyn had served the king loyally for many years. Besides, there was ample proof that de Turberville had exceeded his authorities. This time, the king listened, and Llywelyn Bren had the threat of being hanged, drawn and quartered commuted into imprisonment in the Tower. Phew, Llywelyn probably thought.

Time passed. Roger Mortimer was sent to Ireland to handle that Scottish would-be-Irish-king upstart Edward Bruce, and in England a certain Hugh Despenser nestled himself closer and closer to the royal bosom. Hugh was wed to Eleanor de Clare, one of the heiresses to the Earl of Gloucester, and as a consequence of his new position as the king’s favourite, in November of 1317 he (well, formally his wife) was awarded the plum pieces of the huge inheritance – the lordship of Glamorgan, where Llywelyn Bren held his hereditary lands. Neither Roger Mortimer nor de Bohun were too thrilled by the news that Despenser had acquired the lordship of Glamorgan. In one fell swoop, the royal favourite had become a power to be reckoned with on the Welsh Marches, thereby threatening Mortimer’s traditional power base.

HDQ harclay-man-drawnTo celebrate his new lands, Despenser had Llywelyn Bren removed from the Tower. Despite the lack of a formal royal approval, the Welshman was handed over into the less than loving hands of Despenser and carried back to Wales sometime in early 1318. In Cardiff, the poor man was attached to two horses, dragged through the town to the waiting gallows where he was subsequently hanged before being cut down and resuscitated enough to see (and feel) his heart being cut out. Once dead, he was quartered and Hugh Despenser appropriated Llywelyn’s lands, imprisoned his widow and as many of his sons as he could lay his hands on.

The English nobility was appalled. More particularly, Roger Mortimer and Humphrey de Bohun were enraged. With what right had Despenser deprived Llywelyn Bren of his life? After all, Llywelyn Bren had been sentenced to imprisonment in London, not execution in Cardiff. Even worse, the man had died the death of a traitor, an awful extended death that a man like Llywelyn Bren did not deserve – this was a man both de Bohun and Mortimer held in high regard, an educated man with whom the Mortimers even shared (distant) kin. The king was expected to act, punish his favourite for this blatant disregard of the law. Except, of course, that Edward II didn’t, proving yet again to his disgruntled barons that he was not much of a king – or a man of his word. Or a defender of law and justice. All in all, a lesser king than his father.

When Roger Mortimer and Humphrey de Bohun – together with the royal cousin Thomas of Lancaster – rose in rebellion in 1321, one of the reasons they put forward was the despicable treatment of Llywelyn Bren. The royal chancellor Hugh Despenser had violated the law and effectively murdered a loyal servant of the king, with not so much as a slap on the wrist as retribution. England, the rebel barons claimed, deserved to be ruled by better men, men who respected law and order.

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Hugh dying

And so, indirectly, the awful death of Llywelyn Bren set in motion events that would subsequently lead to the deposition of a king – and the equally harrowing death of Hugh Despenser, who died just like Llewlyn Bren did, in November of 1326. Maybe Llewlyn smiled down from the skies as he saw Hugh suffer. One who definitely smiled was Roger Mortimer, now permanently rid of that personal burr up his backside, the equally ambitious – and capable – Hugh Despenser.

(The original version of this post was written for English Historical Fiction Authors – but it has been somewhat modified) 

The king’s sister – the life of a medieval princess

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Medieval boys playing

In a previous post I have discussed the challenges facing Eleanor of Castile – specifically that of presenting her husband, Edward I, with a male heir. It took some time for that eagerly awaited heir to make his appearance. Not until 1284, after almost thirty years of marriage, did the boy who would one day inherit the throne after his father see the light of the day. Little Edward was a much-desired child, but at the time they already had an heir, Prince Alphonso, and so the new baby was mostly perceived as a good-to-have spare. Things changed when Alphonso died some months after Baby Edward’s birth. Yet another loss, yet more months of grief, of crushed hopes, reinforcing just how fragile life was.

I dare say the fact that they had five thriving daughters was little comfort: a medieval king needed a son to which entrust his kingdom, as God alone knew what would happen with a weak female in charge. (I hasten to add that this opinion was not necessarily shared by Eleanor, who, after all, had some pretty impressive kick-ass female rulers up her family tree. Like Urraca.)

In line with the parenting models of the day, the baby prince did not see all that much of his parents. Edward and Eleanor were joined at the hip, so where Edward I went, there went his wife, and all that travelling was not considered good for a child, which was why Edward grew up in his own household—and with his youngest sisters.

One of those sisters is today’s protagonist (Ha! Fooled you there, didn’t I? You were thinking it would be Edward II) Question is, which sister? Mary of Woodstock or Elizabeth of Ruddlan? Well, Mary is an interesting character in her own right, who spent most of her time with her grandmother. At her grandmother’s behest, Mary was placed in a nunnery at the tender age of seven, was veiled at the age of twelve, went on to become a rather wordly nun in that she travelled a lot, accumulated gambling debts, visited the court as often as she could, and was even dragged into a rather sordid legal case when John de Warenne claimed to have had carnal knowledge of her, thereby making his marriage to his despised wife null and void. All in all, an interesting lady, although I must hasten to add that John’s accusations were made after Mary was dead and therefore incapable of defending herself.

But despite all that potential juiciness, I’m skipping Mary in favour of Elizabeth. Born in 1282 in Wales, Elizabeth seems to have been something of a daddy’s girl—at least to judge from how Edward indulged her. She was also very close to her brother, something that must have caused her considerable anguish later on in her life. More of that later.

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The literate Castilians, represented by Alfonso X, Eleanor’s brother

Now, Eleanor of Castile was a very well-educated lady. She’d grown up in a court that lived and breathed culture, where clerks toiled day and night to translate the literary treasures discovered in the libraries of the Moor kingdoms re-conquered by Eleanor’s father, the very impressive Fernando. Where it is doubtful if Edward I could write with ease, Eleanor most definitely could—in various languages. One would assume such a learned lady would ensure her children were equally well-educated, but we don’t really know just how much of mama’s learning was passed on to her offspring. Maybe the English didn’t put quite as high a value on education as the Castilians did. Maybe Edward considered it sufficient if his children could read—after all, scribing was something one could have clerks do for you.

I still think we should assume Elizabeth was a relatively well-educated girl, if nothing else because she would have benefited from being in the proximity of her brother and his Dominican tutor. She was also a girl that saw little of her parents—Edward and Eleanor spent several years on the Continent during Elizabeth’s early childhood. So when Eleanor died in 1290, I suspect Elizabeth was stricken but that the actual void her mother left behind was relatively shallow.

Elizabeth’s father, however, was devastated by the death of his wife. Maybe this is when a special closeness began to develop between him and his youngest daughter. Children are good at offering undemanding solace, small warm presences that offer shy cuddles.

No matter how grief-struck, Edward was back to running his country three days after the death of his wife. Among the things he had to handle were marriages for his daughters—and for himself (He needed that spare heir, you know). When it came to his daughters, things were mostly sorted, two of them already wed, one betrothed, one promised to the Church, and one with ongoing negotiations now that her intended groom had died.

Elizabeth had been betrothed already in 1285 to John, Count of Holland. Of an age with his bride, the boy was raised in England, so Elizabeth had ample opportunity to get to know her future husband. Whether she liked him all that much is a tad doubtful: the marriage was celebrated in 1297 when Elizabeth was not quite fifteen, and the idea was for the young couple to take ship for Holland. Elizabeth refused to go with him, and somehow wheedled Edward into allowing her to stay in England, with him.

Of course, over time Elizabeth had no choice: as a married woman, her duty lay with her husband. To make things easier (and because it coincided with other matters he had to handle) Edward accompanied her to the Low Countries and even stayed with her for some months before going on to sort out his infected relationship with Philippe IV of France. The outcome of all this sorting was that Edward married Philippe’s much younger sister, which did little to resolve the infected relationship between France and England in the long term, but which had the upside of Marguerite, this rather enchanting young woman whom Edward soon grew to love and cherish. Lucky man: two marriages, both of them notably happy. I guess he did something right 😊

deathElizabeth’s marriage to John never got the opportunity to develop into something long-lasting. The young man died of dysentery in 1299, and Elizabeth was sent back home to England. There, in 1302, she married Humphrey de Bohun, Earl of Hereford. A good marriage as per dear Papa, having the benefit of tying one of England’s most powerful magnates to the English king. As part of the contract, Humphrey was obliged to relinquish his titles and lands to his king, who then graciously restored them to Humphrey and his wife, together. What Humphrey thought of all this is unknown, but to judge from the number of children Elizabeth gave him, the happily married couple was, if nothing else, compatible in bed.

Humphrey was some six years older than Elizabeth, and now that Prince Edward was well on his way to becoming an adult, Humphrey was probably one of the prince’s closer companions. When Edward was knighted, Humphrey had the honour of buckling on his spurs, and in general they seemed to get along quite well with each other.

In 1307, Edward I died and Edward II ascended the throne. By then, Elizabeth had already given birth four times to five children of which two remained alive: one little son and one little daughter. As the sister of the new king, Elizabeth would probably have been a frequent guest at court together with her husband—and the new king’s favourite, Piers Gaveston.

Initially, it seems Humphrey de Bohun and Piers got on well. Humphrey witnessed the grant of the earldom of Cornwall to Piers, something that would not have gone down well with Elizabeth, as her step-mother (to whom she was very close) had expected this honour to come to her eldest son—as intended by Edward I.

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Edward and Piers in happier days

Edward II waved away the angry protests of Queen Marguerite and went on showering Piers with gifts and offices. To be fair to Piers, he doesn’t seem to have been as avaricious as Edward was generous, but for the remaining barons, he soon became a burr up their backsides. Who did he think he was, this Gascon parvenu who had the king’s ear in all matters? By 1308, Humphrey had joined the baronial opposition, something which must have put Elizabeth in a difficult position. After all, she was close to her brother—and to her husband.

For some years, thing sort of trundled along anyway. Elizabeth gave birth to one more son, Piers rose to more and more prominence, and Humphrey ground his teeth. In 1310-11, he refused to join the king’s Scottish campaign because of his dislike of Piers. Did not go down well, one could say, and in retribution, Edward II stripped Humphrey of the constableship. A lot of hot air, a distraught Elizabeth caught in the middle, one more baby to take care of, but by the end of 1311 things calmed down, with Humphrey being restored to his hereditary office and Piers forced into exile.

Early in 1312, Piers returned to England. The king was delighted, but his barons had had enough. War broke out, Piers was captured and in June of 1312, Piers Gaveston was summarily executed on the orders of the earls of Warwick and Lancaster. Humphrey was present at the deliberations that resulted in the decision to have Piers killed—murdered might be a better term for what happened, with Gaveston run through by the swords of two Welsh men-at-arms before they beheaded him.

What Elizabeth thought of all this is unknown. She was yet again with child (twins this time)—as was Edward II’s young wife, Queen Isabella. But having grown up with Edward, she probably knew him well enough to realise that no matter how easy-going and affable he could appear to the world, some things he never forgot or forgave. The murder of Piers was one of those things.

Battle_of_BannockburnIn 1313, Edward formally forgave Humphrey. But he didn’t really, which was why when the English army marched north in 1314 to defeat the Scots once and for all, he gave command to his very young nephew, Gilbert de Clare, bypassing Humphrey, who, as Constable of England, should have been in charge. Humphrey was not happy. He and Gilbert had words and supposedly this heated argument indirectly caused some of the confusion that led to the English being trounced. Whatever the case, Gilbert ended up very dead, Humphrey was taken prisoner, and Edward escaped by the skin of his teeth, having to ride so fast he and his men did not even dare to stop to pass water in case the pursuing Scots should catch them.

Elizabeth was distraught. Her husband a prisoner of those barbaric Scots, and here she was, recently delivered of child number ten. I imagine Edward was not exactly inclined to bend over backwards to ransom Humphrey, but de Bohun was an English magnate, family, even. Elizabeth probably agreed. She wanted her husband home, and so Humphrey was exchanged for Robert Bruce’s wife and daughter.

There seems to have been some sort of rapprochement between Humphrey and Edward after this. A potential happily ever after hovered in the air. In 1315 Elizabeth yet again became pregnant. I’m not entirely sure she was delighted by the news – essentially she’d been with child for seven years of the last 13 years. All those births had so far resulted in seven living children, and in difference to her mother Elizabeth had more than delivered when it came to male heirs, with five of her brood being boys. She and Humphrey didn’t need more children, but they must have enjoyed making them…

childbirthHaving so many children comes with risks. In May of 1316, Elizabeth went into labour. Neither she nor her daughter survived and were buried together at Waltham Abbey. She was thirty-four years old – a very short life as per us. But like any life it contained glimmers of absolute joy, moments when the sheer joy of being alive had her blood singing. Well, at least I hope it did. The alternative would have been very depressing.

As to Humphrey, the loss of his countess sank him into a deep depression. Without his wife’s moderating influence, his relationship with the king was destined to deteriorate to the point where Humphrey joined Lancaster and Mortimer in rebellion. In March of 1322, Humphrey met his death at the Battle of Boroughbridge, reputedly having been impaled on a pike. A painful and gory death, leaving his many orphaned children at the mercy of their uncle, the king.

Isabel of Portugal – or how one portrait inspired +2000 words

This post started with a picture. If we’re going to be quite correct, it didn’t even start with the picture relevant to this post, but with another picture by the same artist. The artist in question is one Rogier van der Weyden, and he’s been dead for so long likely even his bones have turned to mulch by now.

Rogier_van_der_Weyden_-_Portrait_of_a_Lady_-_Google_Art_Project

One of Rogier’s portraits. Unknown sitter. Great features

Anyway: once upon a time, our Rogier was a much sought after painter. He was known not only for his gorgeous triptychs and altarpieces, but also for his portraits. The rich and famous queued up to have their unprepossessing features put on canvas by Rogier, to a large extent because he was a good painter, but also because he was a kind painter. That little wart you so hated on your chin might very well not make it to the canvas. Or that sagging round your jowls which you so hated might not appear quite as sagging once Rogier was done. Photo-shopping before photo-shopping, if you will, and it is my personal opinion Rogier was not alone in doing this.

Well, that is enough about Rogier. Our female protagonist is looking a tad restless, and as she is royalty and Rogier is not, we must behave ourselves and pay her the attention she was born to. So, with that I give you Isabel of Portugal. As can be seen from her portrait, she is not exactly drop dead. I also suspect those lines on her neck are a tad more visible in real life, and as to the thing she has atop her head, well, I can assure you Isabel has little choice in her headgear – a lady of certain means must keep up with fashion, and fashion dictates this odd creation, further complemented by a shaved brow. Takes a LOT of good bone structure to carry off that look, let me tell you!

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Isabel by van der Weyden

What I like about this portrait is how intelligent she looks. This is no bimbo staring at us, no, this is a woman of wit and education. Isabel was fortunate in that she was born an Infanta of Portugal. Her mother was Philippa of Lancaster, daughter of John of Gaunt, and her father was King Joao I of Portugal. Philippa of Lancaster was an exceptionally well-educated woman. Her father was a big believer in learning, and he therefore ensured his daughters received a good and broad education. Nice man, that John of Gaunt. Truth is, if I had to choose a medieval man to carry me off, I’d have chosen him. Or maybe his father-in-law, Henry of Grosmont. Or perhaps Edward I, but such a choice may have very many going “What???”, so let’s drop the subject and return to Isabel.

Isabel’s father, was as per some not fit to be king. After all, Joao was the bastard son of Pedro I (he of the sad, sad love story with Inés de Castro) and as such his claim was weak. “Fiddlesticks,” Joao would probably have said. He was chosen as Portuguese king when his half-brother Fernando died without male issue. One of the main reasons for choosing Joao was that Fernando’s daughter was married to the Castilian king, and no Portuguese worth his salt would even contemplate having a Castilian overlord.

Isabel John_of_Gaunt,_Duke_of_Lancaster_dining_with_the_King_of_Portugal_-_Chronique_d'_Angleterre_(Volume_III)_(late_15th_C),_f.244v_-_BL_Royal_MS_14_E_IV

Joao (centre) negotaiting with John of Gaunt (to the left)

Whatever blots may have existed up Joao’s family tree, these were effectively eradicated when he married Philippa of Lancaster, granddaughter of Edward III, descended from Henry III on both sides. Here was royal blood indeed, and Philippa herself was quite the catch: not only was she well-read, but she would prove to be loyal and politically astute. Mind you, there were concerns regarding her fertility at the time of her marriage. All of twenty-seven, Philippa was old for a first time bride, but her union with Joao would be fruitful, resulting in nine children of which six survived to adulthood.

Only one of these surviving children was female. Isabel was brought up in a court dominated by her virtuous mother and received as thorough an education as her brothers. King Joao had a reputation as one of the best educated men in Europe, and he had every intention of ensuring his children received the best tutors, so Isabel learnt Latin and French, English and Italian. She was taught science and politics, and she was also a proficient rider.

All in all, with all those virtues, all that education, one would have thought Isabel would have been snapped up as a potential bride. Not. Yes, there were plans to see her wed to Henry V, but that fell through (probably a good thing: they were first cousins) and Isabel somehow ended up on the shelf. Or maybe it was her father, wanting to keep her close after his wife died in 1415. At the time, Isabel was 18, and whether or not she was unhappy as a spinster, we don’t know.

Isabel Philip_the_good

Philip (van der Weyden)

In 1428 an embassy from Philip of Burgundy arrived in Portugal. Recently widowed, Philip desired to wed again ASAP. He needed an heir, and for there to be an heir he needed a wife. He also wanted a bride that came with good English connections – Philip wanted to strengthen his alliance with England, probably so as to stop the French king breathing down his neck. Being the Duke of Burgundy came with a patchwork of territories, many of which lie in present-day Belgium and Netherlands. It also came with a tricky balancing act: the Duke of Burgundy owed allegiance to the French king for some territories.

Philip was by all accounts a competent ruler. He was also something of a skirt-chaser, with well over two dozen of documented mistresses. As a result of all that loving, Philip had numerous offspring – but they were all illegitimate. Not good. Without a legitimate heir, chances were the duchy would be absorbed into France, and for a proud Burgundian that was a fate worse than death. Which was why Philip was in such a hurry to marry again, even if the prospective bride was a bit long in the tooth. (At thirty, Isabel was deffo past her best-before-date. At least as per medieval standards) However, Philip was heartened by the fact that Isabel’s mother had also been an old bride, and look how many babies she’d produced!

Philip was a major patron of the arts. Among the artists he supported (other than the as yet up-and-coming Rogier van der Weyden) was a certain Jan van Eyck, the man behind the famous Arnolfini portrait. Van Eyck was sent off to Portugal to paint Isabel – Philip had no desire to be landed with an old and ugly bride. This portrait is now lost, so I can’t present you with a pic, all that survives are sketches of the painting. It is said van Eyck was honest in his depiction of his sitters. Isabel was therefore presented as not particularly pretty, but her pose indicated a forceful personality, someone it might be fun to get to know.

Whatever the case, what Philip saw, Philip liked, and so, in July of 1429 Isabel and Philip were married by proxy. Some weeks after that, Isabel set off for her new homeland, a rather disastrous journey involving several storms. She arrived in Sluys in late December of 1429, and two weeks later, she and Philip were formally married.

Very soon, Isabel discovered she was pregnant. She also discovered her husband had no intention of remaining faithful to her. Philip liked his life the way it was, and as yet he’d developed little fondness for his wife, being very occupied with other matters, such as capturing Joan of Arc and handing her over to the English. Isabel was distraught. She’d grown up with parents who respected and cared for each other, and while it may not have been a surprise that her husband strayed, she detested having his infidelity flung in her face, so to speak. She was also uncomfortable in her new home. The ambulating court of Philip the Good was lavish to the extreme, a far cry from the austere surroundings Isabel was accustomed to. And as to Isabel herself, she stuck out among the elegant Burgundian ladies, preferring to dress plainly.
“Almost like a nun,” the courtiers snickered, expressing that it was no wonder Duke Philip went elsewhere for some nightly fun. After all, what could their flamboyant ruler possibly see in this severe and drab woman?

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Isabel and Philip as they may have looked 1440-45 or so

Not, all in all, a good start to the Philip and Isabel marriage. But at least she did present him with a son in December of 1430, and while the child was sickly this proved Isabel was fertile. Soon enough, she was pregnant yet again, this time after having spent several months in her husband’s company. During that time together, Philip reassessed his wife, finding her both intelligent and resourceful. So impressed was he that he made her his regent when he had to hasten off to some distant part of his domains, a responsibility Isabel discharged efficiently.

In 1432, both Isabel’s sons died. Fortunately, she soon found herself pregnant again, and in 1433 Philip’s longed for healthy heir was finally born. Charles the Bold had seen the light of the day, and his proud mama doted on him.

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Handsome Charles. I bet it was his looks his famously handsome grandson, Philip the Handsome, inherited

The time Isabel could spend with her son was restricted: she was often sent off as Philip’s ambassador to the French court, and in general spent a lot of time counselling her husband who seems to have appreciated her input. Not always, of course, and when father and son fell out several years later, Isabel sided with her son by the simple strategy of retiring from court, officially so as to lead a more devout life. I don’t think that pleased Philip. Even less did he like it when in 1457 his wife set up a parallel court to his, a court at which his critics were openly welcomed.

In 1458, Philip suffered a stroke, supposedly after having played a hard game of tennis. Isabel rushed to his side, and whatever tensions had existed between them dissipated like fog on a summer morning. For the remainder of Philip’s life, Isabel would be there to nurse and support, the epitome of the loyal and devoted wife.

In 1467, Philip died, passing his precious duchy to his son, Charles. Unfortunately for Philip, despite all his efforts to secure male descendants Charles would never sire a legitimate son. Instead, upon Charles’ death his daughter, Mary, would become Duchess of Burgundy. Mary would go on to marry one Maximilian of Hapsburg, thereby laying the foundations of one of the most powerful dynasties to ever have ruled in Europe. But that is another story, even if I suspect Isabel would have been more than delighted to know that one day her great-great-grandson, Charles I (or V) would become king of Castile.

Isabel died in 1471. She’d lived more than forty years in Burgundy, been an active participant in the ruling of her husband’s territories, sorted out conflicts, raised armies, negotiated important royal marriages, kept a close eye on the unfolding wars in England and in general shown the world that a woman could be much, much more than “just” a mother. I somehow think her contemporaries were pretty unsurprised: strong women are not in any way a modern phenomenon. In fact, strong women have been around since the beginning of time. After all, what was it that Maurice Chevalier sang? “Thank heaven for little girls, thank heaven for them all, no matter where, no matter who, without them what would little boys do?” Too right! And it works both ways, BTW!

And so ends this post, inspired by a painting. What better way to end it than with yet another of Rogier’s paintings? IMO, the man was something of a genius, but for very many years his work was considered old-fashioned and boring. Boring? With all that colour, all those details? Pah!

Isabel Van_der_weyden_miniature

van der Weyden depicting Philip (in black) and his son Charles

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