ANNA BELFRAGE

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Archive for the category “history”

The good, the bad and the ugly – a smorgasbord of pirates

hh-pirates-whole-series-2016Today, I’ve invited Helen Hollick to join me here on Stolen Moments. Helen is the author of many, many books, among which her books about Emma of Normandy and Harold II of England deserve a special mention. As do her wonderful books about the dashing pirate Jesamiah Acorne and his adventures in the early 18th century. I must admit to being somewhat addicted to the Seawitch series – and Jesamiah. Now, in difference to real pirates, Jesamiah is a “good” pirate. So far, he hasn’t tortured, raped, terrorised or otherwise intimidated his fellow men. Thank heavens for that!

hh-2-helen-mediumObviously, to write books about an imaginary pirate requires that you do your research. It is therefore not exactly surprising that Helen knows A LOT about pirates. So much, in fact, that she has now written a non-fiction book, Pirates: Truth and Tales, about these maritime bandits – most of them anything but good!

So, I now turn you over to Helen and her post about some not-so-nice men.

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Were there any good pirates? They might be a tad difficult to find, unless you go back as far as Ancient Greece when a pirate was respected and admired as a warrior figure; the word pirate comes from the Greek verb, peiran: to attack.

There’s no denying that pirates were thieves, murderers and rapists – the terrorists of their time, although during the seventeenth and earlier eighteenth century they were tolerated, even encouraged, by various Kings, Queens and Governments of England because they plundered the ships of countries which were enemies. Spain mostly.

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Favourite hunting grounds of the pirates

The handful of years between 1700-1722 was the Golden Age for these scurvy knaves of the sea. They might be dashing heroes in the eyes of Errol Flynn and Johnny Depp fans, but were darn nuisances to the Spanish and merchant traders. Funny how piracy, under the guise of legal privateering, was acceptable when it involved English ships with mostly English crews plundering Spanish treasure for the benefit of King and Country, but as soon as their deeds started hitting the pockets of merchants back home in England, the pirates had to go.

To be fair, trade between England and the American Colonies, pre 1700, was only on the cusp of exploding into Big Profit Territory – ergo uninteresting to those of piratical inclinations. Land such as Florida and the Carolinas had nothing to offer. Virginia beyond the Blue Ridge Mountains was unknown territory. The few plantations along the coast, Chesapeake Bay, easy-access rivers and on the islands of the Caribbean and Bahamas, yielded some profit, but not much.

To earn income from land, labour was needed. This was supplied by indentured servants – on the surface mostly (but not all) willing men and women who traded several years of their lives in return for the promise of land or payment; in reality, slaves, because the majority never received any reward except cruelty, poverty, and all too often, death.

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A Buccaneer (Howard Pyle)

Then, the wars with Spain, more or less, ended and for landowners and merchants, tobacco crops became a high source of income, along with sugar and cotton. Vessels carrying these products were just what a pirate wanted. These crops were highly lucrative but required cheap labour to tend them. Forget those poor indentured fools who succumbed to illness and heatstroke. They were replaced by black African slaves. And captured slave ships, for many a pirate, were wonderful because the cargo brought in a lot of money, and once the captured ship itself was cleaned and scrubbed – inside and out – it made a good pirate vessel, for slavers were usually designed for speed. The quicker the Atlantic crossing, the less likely the ‘livestock’ would die in transit.

The most famous ‘bad’ pirate, Blackbeard, had, for a short while, a splendid flagship which he renamed Queen Anne’s Revenge. He had ‘acquired’ her in November 1717 while she was being used as a French Slaver. We don’t know what happened to her cargo, but we do know the ship’s fate. Blackbeard ran her aground in 1718 off the coast of North Carolina, where her wreck was found many decades later in 1996.

Stede Bonnet was known as the ‘Gentleman Pirate’, so was he perhaps the ‘good one’? I personally am curious whether his name was Bonnet as in a lady’s hat, or Bonnay with a French-sounding twist to it? We will never know, except Bonnet (as in hat) doesn’t sound very piratical does it? Nor was he successful as a pirate. After messing things up several times, he was eventually captured and hanged. He had only turned to piracy to escape his nagging wife. Divorce, I feel, would have been an easier option.

Several notorious pirates fitted the category of ‘ugly’ – as in temperament rather than looks. (Although I would wager they were not especially handsome!)

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More Howard Pyle – pirates fighting

Among the worst was Edward ‘Ned’ Lowe. Born in London in 1690, he was a known thief. His younger brother was hanged for burglary, and Lowe himself fled to the Caribbean in 1710, probably to avoid a similar fate. He met a girl, married, had a child, the wife dying in childbirth. He tried to hold down a legitimate job, but losing his temper he killed a man, commandeered a ship and turned to piracy. He seems to have respected marriage and women, though, for when capturing ships and forcing men to join his crew, he never insisted that married men should join him. A ‘good’ man after all? Ha! Read on.

Lowe captured more than one hundred vessels and became feared for his cruelty and liking for torture. His favoured method of discovering where valuable cargo was stashed, or punishing someone who crossed him, or who had a face he didn’t like, was to place a slow-match (a rope fuse) between the fingers of bound hands and set light to the rope, which would burn slowly, roasting the flesh to the bone. Another favourite was to suspend his victims by the ankles from a yardarm and drop them to the deck, repeating the process until they died.

As an early form of bungee-jumping, this particular style is not to be recommended.

Then Lowe captured a Portuguese ship, the Nostra Seigniora de Victoria. She was carrying 11,000 gold Portuguese moidores, worth at the time around £15,000 (you can add at least one more zero to that today,) but rather than the treasure falling into pirate hands the ship’s captain heaved it all into the sea. In fury Lowe cut off the man’s lips and boiled them in water, then forced the unfortunate victim to eat them. Lowe then murdered him along with the rest of the crew. He was also said to have burned a Frenchman alive. Definitely not a nice man.

In 1723 he sailed to the coast of Guinea where he met up with a previous partner. The partnership lasted two days, Lowe was abandoned by his friend and most of his crew – they’d had enough of his ugly nastiness. He sailed off due south and was never heard of again.

I doubt many shed tears over his loss!

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Ugh! That Lowe character seems like someone best avoided at all costs. Thank you, Helen, for sharing his story with us. Too bad he sort of sailed off and disappeared – although I’ve heard there is an alternative version of his fate, whereby he was captured by the French and hanged. Good riddance, I say.

hh-piratesAs to Pirates: Truth and Tales, it has already received some great reviews. Like this one:

In this informative and comprehensive book, the author takes the idea of pirates and piracy. Interspersed throughout is the author’s impressive knowledge of historical detail and it is obvious that a great deal of research has gone into bringing this piratical guide to life. Skilfully blending historical facts with literary fiction, sometimes, the book reads as lightly as a novel, at other times, we come sharply back to reality with daring tales of mischance and menace, of lives ruined by too much grog and too many loose women, and which ended, all too often, dangled at the end of a hangman’s rope. Throughout the book, the author’s real life buccaneers nestle comfortably alongside their more colourful literary counterparts. I especially enjoyed seeing the author’s own pirate creation, Jesamiah Acorne, from The Sea Witch Voyages, come to vibrant life in his own much deserved chapter. However you like your pirates, be they real or imaginary, there is no doubt that Pirates: Truth and Tales, is a great dip in and out of kind of book and whichever page the book falls open at, you are guaranteed to find a fascinating snippet into the life and times of these colourful, and it must be said, decidedly, dangerous characters. (Jaffa Reads Too)

Should you want to know more about Helen and her books, I recommend you stop by her website or her blog, or on twitter, or on FB. See? Helen’s all over the place!

 

A priceless treasure – of crocuses and saffron

From where I am sitting on this cold winter day, I can see a stand of snowdrops. Puny little things, giving little reassurance spring is anywhere close. Unfortunately, no matter how I look, I cannot find the pointy narrow green shoots that presage my favourite among spring flowers, the crocus. But seeing as I am desperately longing for spring, I’ve decided a little excursion into the wild and exciting life of the crocus might be just the thing.

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Photo by KENPEI Licensed under CC BY_SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Okay, so crocuses have little of excitement in their lives. Up they grow, and once the spring sun is warm enough, they open their faces to the sun, presenting us with a colourful display that ranges from the most pristine of white to the explosive compo of deep purple and bright, bright yellow. After some days, they’re so exhausted by all this show-casing that they wilt. In truth, a brief display of beauty – and not at all exciting.

Crocuses are among the oldest of our flowers. The name must have very ancient roots, and whether in Sanskrit or ancient Hebrew, English, German or Spanish, the flower’s name is very similar. And it was obviously a very appreciated little flower, what with it being mentioned in the Song of Solomon and depicted for posterity in ancient frescoes found in Santorini.

The reason for its popularity was not the modest flower. No, the crocus was precious because of saffron – yet another word that sounds more or less the same in most languages, indicating just how ancient our relationship is with this particular spice. Personally, I prefer azafrán, the Spanish word that still clings to its Arab roots.

Saffron is a very, very expensive spice. One gram costs approximately two pounds (three dollars), and as always when it comes to pricing, this reflects just how restricted the supply is versus the demand. Harvesting saffron must be one of the most labour intensive jobs in the world, and it takes approximately 250 000 flowers to generate 1 kilo of saffron. Why? Because saffron consists of the three stigma a crocus plant produces, bright red lightweight things that look like short treads.

saffron-cueilleuse_de_safran_fresque_akrotiri_greceNo one really knows where the saffron crocus originated, but as shown in Minoan pottery and frescoes, well over three thousand years ago people were picking the delicate threads. We know the Assyrians held saffron in high regard, as did the Egyptians. After all, saffron is a versatile product, as useful as a spice as in medicine and in colour production. It was also considered an aphrodisiac, and Cleopatra sprinkled her bathwater (or should that be bathmilk? Although as I hear it, it would take a veritable army of donkeys to fill a bath tub with their milk…) with saffron to increase the pleasures of lovemaking. (Which requires yet another parenthesis as we ponder whether this is lovemaking in the bath or after the bath. Well, we will never know, will we?)

In difference to most other crocuses, the saffron crocus flowers in autumn. Bright purple flowers open to capture the rays of the autumn sun for one day, and the pickers must be quick to harvest the stigma – even more so as almost all the crocuses flower within the same week or so. As a word of advice, don’t go around assuming all crocus look-a-likes that flower in autumn are saffron crocuses. Chances are you’re looking at what is called meadow saffron (or naked lady), an entirely different genus to crocuses – and very, very poisonous with no known antidote.

Right: so now you know more than you necessarily feel you need to know about saffron crocuses – except that there is one crucial part missing. You see, the saffron crocus is sterile, so the only way to propagate it is through the corms. This makes it more difficult to cultivate, which of course was great news for whoever already had a nice little saffron plantation going, not so great for those who wanted to enter into competition. A so called high-entry barrier market…

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A medieval market

In medieval Europe, saffron was the thing. Even more so as it was disgustingly expensive, a way to shout to the world just how rich you were. Throughout the ages, rich people have shared this little idiosyncrasy, that of having to ascertain everyone else knows just how loaded they are, whether it be by driving Aston Martin DB9’s (yes, please!) or by having a couple of houses more than they need, or buying Crystal champagne by the crate, or, in medieval times, by splurging on saffron. Somehow, saffron consumption seems quite low-key in comparison.

The saffron prices sky-rocketed in the 14th century in the aftermath of the Black Death, as saffron was a recurring ingredient in all the potions and salves produced to ward off the pestilence. A ship loaded with saffron was hi-jacked by a nobleman and triggered a two week war; Venice imported as much saffron as it could find and sold it at exorbitant prices. Being a saffron-pirate was, for a short time, a lucrative profession. In brief, people went a bit wild and crazy.

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Burn those dratted saffron-cutters!

Now, with such a profitable commodity, many were tempted to cheat – to cut the saffron, so to say, by mixing it with other stuff. This was not approved off. In 15th century Nürnberg, a man was burned at the stake for doing this. Some years later, two men and a woman were buried alive for the same crime. Clearly, tampering with saffron was considered a very bad thing to do.

Even more were tempted to steal some of the precious corms. After all, once you had some, you could relatively quickly (like over 3-5 years) develop bulbs. Obviously, those that had saffron bulbs and corms weren’t about to give them away. What was required was an intrepid and brave undercover agent to somehow infiltrate the crocus fields and dig up the prize. Even more importantly, the corms had to be smuggled out of whatever territory they might be in, as controls were rigorous.

As per legend, the English had one such agent. I have no idea what he might have looked like, but suspect we are looking for a person who blended in well, ergo was rather non-descript and who definitely didn’t make a nuisance of himself by ordering “stirred, not shaken” hippocras. The gentleman in question toddled off to the Holy Land, and I hope he took the opportunity to combine his botanical espionage with some serious pilgrimaging. Some years later, the man returned to England, safe and sound. The pilfered corms were hidden in his walking staff.

Edward III was probably very pleased – finally, England was on the road of self-sufficiency when it came to saffron. His secret agent was dispatched to Essex and an anonymous little place. Over time, this place was renamed as Saffron Walden – no need to explain why, methinks – and for the coming centuries or so, saffron was cultivated in various parts of England, contributing to the relative wealth of the saffron farmers.

saffron-crocus-1Things rarely remain the same. At the dawn of the Early Modern Age, England was inundated by new spices, new commodities. Tea and coffee, chocolate and spices from the New World – they all supplanted saffron as the next hot thing in cooking. English saffron farmers went out of business, and after several centuries of home-grown saffron, English saffron addicts now had to depend on deliveries from Spain.

These days, Iran is by far the largest producer of saffron. Spain comes in as a steady number two, delivering approximately one ton of saffron per year to the market. That, ladies and gentlemen, is not all that much – not when you’re the world’s second largest producer. I guess it reflects the fact that over time the saffron crocus hasn’t changed. Just as it did in the distant past, it produces only three stigma, precious red threads that have to be harvested by hand. And just as in those long gone times, saffron remains the most precious of spices – well worth it, if you ask me, seeing as I am about to dig into a delicious fish soup, in which saffron and cream combine into a golden, fragrant dish.

Put not your trust in princes

Some time ago, I wrote a post about the unfortunate Danish princess Ingeborg who was sent off to France to marry Philippe Augustus and instead ended up as Philippe’s prisoner for a number of years, this after a wedding night that somehow must have been very momentous. After all, it was the morning after that Philippe emerged from the chamber and promised he would never, ever spend another night with the woman within. Quite the little mystery, that.

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Peter of Bourbon

Today, I’m going to introduce you to yet another sad little princess. Once again, the bride is abandoned only days after the wedding, but this time we probably know why. Well, perhaps. Anyway, allow me to introduce Blanche. When we first meet her, she is twelve or so, one of Peter of Bourbon’s six daughters.

One could say that Blanche’s future fate was shaped by the Black Death. Had Princess Joan of England, Edward III’s daughter, not died of the plague while on her way to wed Pedro of Castile (sometimes known as Pedro the Cruel, sometimes as Pedro the Just – a matter of perspective and political spin, I suppose) then Pedro would not have needed a wife. Had not the pope and the French king John II jumped at the opportunity of throwing a major wrench in Edward III’s plans for a new alliance with Castile, likely she’d never have popped up on the list of potential brides. And had it not been because Pedro’s first choice among the French ladies, the purportedly drop-dead AND wise Dowager Queen Blanche of Navarra, had told him no, our little Blanche would never have travelled all the way to Castile, there to wed the Castilian king.

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Beautiful Blanche of Navarra is the lady to the right

Before we go on, I just have to digress: Blanche of Navarra was known throughout Europe for her beautiful countenance, and originally came to France to marry the future John II. However, John’s father, Philippe VI, who was recently widowed was afflicted by a serious coup de foudre and decided to marry this angelic creature himself. Did not go down well with John. What Blanche thought of all this, I have no idea, but one year later, Philippe died, supposedly due to having exhausted himself in bed. Blanche was now a twenty-year-old widow, and would remain a widow for the rest of her life. Maybe John II wanted it so. Maybe Blanche wanted it so.

Anyway, back to today’s leading lady: Blanche of Bourbon came with an impeccable pedigree. Through her mother she was the great-granddaughter of Philippe III and the cousin of the French king John II. Her father was the great-grandson of Saint Louis of France, and as Saint Louis had a Castilian mother, Blanca, little Blanche was also a distant relation of her future groom. She was also a generously dowered bride, John of France promising Pedro 300 000 gold florins, money Pedro needed to finance the ongoing civil war between him and his half-brothers.

You see, the situation in Castile was a tad messy, seeing as Pedro’s father Alfonso XI had preferred his mistress, Leonor, to Pedro’s mother, Maria. As a consequence, when Alfonso died he had only one legitimate heir—Pedro—but half a dozen or so bastard sons with Leonor. And when Pedro’s mother decided to execute her husband’s mistress, things quickly went downhill. (More about all this can be found here)

The negotiations for the Blanche and Pedro marriage took some time. By the time Blanche set off for Castile, she was almost fourteen—a big, big girl in a big, big world. Well, not such a big girl, actually. Probably rather scared, and even more so when she arrived in Valladolid only to have her groom delay the marriage. Now what?

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Maria saying hello to Pedro. (not likely!)

We are now in early 1353, and Pedro had recently met the love of his life, Maria de Padilla. No matter what the various chroniclers may think of Pedro, they do seem to agree on the fact that Maria was not only very pretty, she was also kind and a good influence on Pedro in his darker moments. But she wasn’t a princess, and the king had to contract a dynastic marriage.

Some say the reason for the delay between Blanche arriving in Spain and Pedro marrying her was due to his love for Maria—he just couldn’t countenance betraying her with another woman. The truth is probably more prosaic: Pedro had as yet not received the moneys promised him by John II of France (The huge dower was to be paid in instalments)

Anyway, in June of 1353, a reluctant Pedro finally married Blanche, more or less dragged to the altar by his mother. Three days later he abandoned her and would never again treat her as his wife, rather as his prisoner. There are various theories as to why he did this. Some say it was because he found out his bride was not a virgin (but would that have taken him three days?) and even worse, she’d welcomed one of Pedro’s half-brothers, Fadrique, to her bed. Hmm, is all I say.

Others say it was because of his love for Maria. Once wed, he realised just how unbearable life would be without the light of his life, and so decided to be forever faithful to Maria, while throwing Blanche in prison to stop her objecting. Yet again, hmm.

The third reason (and the one borne out—to some extent—by letters he sent to the pope) is that he found out he’d been duped: the French king had no intention of ever honouring his promise of 300 000 florins, and seeing as John was nowhere about for Pedro to vent his anger on, poor Blanche got it all.

Copyright Museums Sheffield / Supplied by The Public Catalogue FoundationWhatever the case, he must have been very, very angry, because instead of just sending Blanche home, he locked her up. A year later, he managed to convince some of his bishops to declare his marriage null and void and married Juana de Castro – but even then, he held on to poor Blanche who, as per her own letters to the pope, was kept in anything but a comfortable captivity.

Juana was also abandoned after some time—this time because the pope threatened Pedro with excommunication if he did not return to his first, true wife (Blanche)—but Pedro spent long enough with her to sire a son, even if he made it very clear that in his opinion his true wife was Maria, so his children by her had precedence. And as to Blanche, well Pedro had no intention of returning to her. Ever.

After all this marital effort, coupled with a lot of fighting and blood and gore in general—Pedro left a relatively high number of murdered people in his wake, not all of them necessarily by his hand or his orders, but still—Pedro made his home with Maria, who was to present him with four children, albeit that the only son died young. Those who’d been around for some time muttered that history was repeating itself: just like his father, Pedro was spending his time with his mistress rather than his wife. Of course, in this particular case, there were TWO wives. Very complicated, and the only one utterly delighted by this mess was Enrique of Trastámera, Pedro’s half-brother and contender for the Castilian crown.

The pope continued to thunder. Innocent IV sent letter after letter, demanding that Pedro recognise Blanche as his wife – or at least free her from her prison. In Castile, a number of romances saw the light of the day, sad little stories that all had a poor, imprisoned princess as the protagonist. Some of Pedro’s nobles began to make a lot of noise on behalf of Blanche. The French kept on insisting that she be returned to them—together with what dowry they had paid. The obvious solution would have been to send Blanche home. Instead, Pedro opted for a more creative approach.

In 1361, Blanche was being held in the royal palace at Jeréz de la Frontera, far away from anyone attempting to free her. Pedro approached the constable and told him to poison the prisoner. The constable refused and resigned his post. Pedro found a new constable who was more than happy to do as the king wished, and so poor Blanche expired. Whether she was forced to consume whatever contained the poison, I don’t know. But I hold it likely, as failure was not an option if you were serving dear Pedro. Mind you, there are some that say Blanche could have died of natural causes, but seeing as her death followed upon a sequence of assassinations, I must yet again offer up a hmm. Whatever the case, Blanche was now as dead as a rock, and Pedro could happily skip off to tell Maria the good news. She could now be queen in name as well as fact.

Unfortunately for Pedro, Maria died shortly after. So devastated was he, that for a year he wept in grief. Then he pulled himself together and went back to defending his realm, this time with the support of the Black Prince. Wily Pedro had secured an alliance with England by promising two of his daughters as brides to Edward III’s sons. Effectively, this could lead to Castile becoming a vassal state to England.

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Pedro being murdered, with du Guesclin holding his arms

In the end, Pedro lost. In 1369 he was foully murdered by his half-brother, stabbed to death while held immobile by a rather famous French dude called Bertrand du Guesclin. Reputedly, du Guesclin had first accepted a bribe from Pedro to help him escape, then told Enrique (whom he was serving as a mercenary commander) about this. Enrique promised du Guesclin more money if he would only lead Pedro to Henry’s tent. Du Guesclin thought this was a great idea, and when Pedro and Enrique started to fight, he stood to the side. Well, until Pedro managed to land on top of Enrique. At this point, Bertrand stepped forward and grabbed hold of Pedro while saying “Ni quito ni pongo rey, pero ayudo a mi señor,” which meant “I am not really interfering here, I am simply helping my lord.” Since then, this has been used as a blanket excuse by all Spanish grandees doing as ordered, no matter if it is right or wrong.( Nah, just kidding)

blanche-john_william_waterhouse_-_fair_rosamundMaybe we can see Pedro’s bloody death as divine retribution for what he did to Blanche. A young girl had her life stolen from her, made to pay for the duplicity of others. And whether or not he had her poisoned, he had humiliated her and mistreated her, dragging her from one locked tower to the other. It is said Blanche herself never wanted to marry Pedro: she begged her father, her king, her mother and sister, to find another bride for the Castilian groom. At the time, her opinion was dismissed as unimportant – an alliance with Castile was far more important than a young girl’s misgivings. Turned out Blanche was right: the union with Pedro was all thorns no blooms, and as to that alliance, it evaporated the moment Pedro realised the French king never intended to pay the promised dowry. Poor, poor Blanche. Poor little French princess, so far from home, so very alone. Did she sit at her window and stare towards the horizon, hoping to see someone come riding to save her? If she did, she did so in vain.

Ode to the onion

onions-pierre-auguste-renoir-1881Last night was one of those stressful evenings when I came home far too late and far too hungry. Which is why I was delighted to find some cold meatloaf in the fridge.And an onion. What more does one need?

The end result was delicious. Very much due to the onion, in this case a shallot. So this set me to thinking about onions in general which is why the rest of the post is dedicated to this versatile little vegetable.

onions-ribera-c1615-smellFirst of all, we can start off by stating people have been eating onions for ages. In Sweden, where my forebears were of the opinion that anything truly old had to be Egyptian, seeing as everyone knew the Egyptians were a really, really, really ancient civilisation, one of the oldest forms of cultivated onions is called Egyptian onions. Turns out it is called Egyptian Onion in English as well, but so as not get distracted by the Egyptian part (and I could go on: some of the oldest varieties of beets cultivated in Sweden are known as Egyptian flatfeet (?) which of course makes one suspect those ancient Egyptians only ate onions and beets. Not…) let us immediately steer this post back to today’s protagonist.

In prehistoric offal heaps, like 7 – 8000 years old, scientists have found remains of onions, together with date stones and bits and pieces of figs. Not a combination that does much for me (I hate dates ) but those distant Bronze Age people were probably not all that picky – they couldn’t afford to be. Anyway, those very old onions were probably eaten raw – and they grew wild. But by the time of Ancient Egypt (no way round those Egyptians, it seems) onions were being cultivated, and were considered good for everything from boosting your sexuality to complementing the standard fare of bread, radishes and beets.

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That thing in her hand? An onion…

The Egyptians were fascinated by the onion. They liked the shape, the various layers, and now and then an onion or two would make it into a grave – something to munch on while journeying to the hereafter. In fact, this humble vegetable became a symbol of eternity and the complexity of life (I’m guessing it’s all that layers) and was appreciated in all the ancient civilisations for its various qualities. First of all, the onion is easy to grow. Even better, it stores well, even in colder climates. Once harvested, the onions could be braided into a decorative plait and left to dry somewhere dark and dry.  They could then be used throughout winter – both in food and in various medicinal cures.

The onion was great to carry along on longer treks as it mitigates thirst. It also contains enough vitamin C to keep scurvy at bay. Plus, it added flavour to whatever else you were eating and came in handy should you be bitten by a snake, as onions were supposedly the ideal cure against poison. Hmm.

The Ancient Greeks were major, major fans of onions. They believed this humble veggie came packed with divine strength, and for those participating in the original Olympic games, onions became the equivalent of steroids. They ate them raw, they ate them cooked, they drank onion juice and used it as a rubbing oil. As a result. I’m thinking they glowed with health, had a somewhat obnoxious breath and probably nailed the discus throw.

The Romans were not quite as convinced as to the divine properties of onions – but they were great fans of eating them. Cooked, fried, pickled – the Romans carried the onion with them wherever they went, and while now and then the conquered people grumbled and wondered “What have the Romans ever done for us?” I think the onion would qualify as a major contribution.

The Roman Empire crumbled. Those wild Germanic tribes were on the move, redrawing the map of the known world as they went. But they too liked the onion, and as Europe fell into the chaotic centuries that followed upon the sack of Rome, years in which the veneer of Roman civilisation was lost, thereby plunging the people back into a darker, less comfy place, at least they still had the onion.

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Chopping onions in the 17th century

Come the Middle Ages, and onions were used to combat everything from hairloss to flagging erections. And infertility in women. Plus all those snakebites. And coughs. And tasteless cabbage soups. People set such high store on onions, in some cases you could use onions to pay off your debts. Or bribe an official. Or woo a bride.

So does the onion have medicinal properties? Well, other than being rich in vitamin C, it is also rich in polyphenols, which help combat everything from diabetes to cardiovascular disease. And then there are those flavonids, some of which are very anti-inflammatory. The conclusion is that yes, munching onions is good for you – although I’m not so sure it would help with erectile problems.

Once the Europeans “discovered” the New World, they carried their favourite vegetable over the seas to their new land. As per diaries, bulb onions were among the first things planted by the colonists – together with garlic. After all, what would life be without a good onion soup to warm you to the bone on a cold winter day?

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Photo by Nikchick (Creative Commons)

Onion soup is still quite the thing on a cold, blustery day. French onion soup is even better, with that delicious topping of toast and cheese. A far cry from how those Ancient Egyptians enjoyed their onions, but somehow I suspect they’d enjoy this “modern” variety. Nom nom…

onions-weissbort-george-still-life-with-onion-plaits-wooden-cheese-box-fruit-and-a-bottleThese days, the onion is still going strong. Not that all that many of us ever grow it ourselves, nor do we have plaits of drying onions hanging from the kitchen rafters (likely because most of us don’t have kitchen rafters, more’s the pity). But I’d bet all of you – every single one of you reading this post – has an onion or two in their fridge. Or in your larder/root cellar, should you have one of those.

So when next you cut into an onion, squishing your eyes shut to stop them from watering, remember you are cutting into a vegetable that has accompanied humankind all the way from the hieroglyphs to the digital age. Not bad for a humble bulb, hey? Not bad at all.

 

Making it good in tough times – meet Aethelflaed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Edward the Elder

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Aethelflaed – courtesy Richard Tearle

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

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My review

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

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

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

 

 

The Queen and the Cardinal – a love story?

cristina_de_suecia_a_caballo_bourdon-1It’s a tough job being a 17th century queen. Well, in this case, we’re talking ex-queen, but Christina of Sweden was a tad sensitive about the ex, so if you didn’t want her to yell at you, it was best to stick to the “Your Majesty” when addressing her. After all, there were days when Christina seriously regretted abdicating in 1654 on behalf of her cousin. There were others when she didn’t, when she remembered why she abdicated, starting with the fact that she had secretly embraced the Catholic faith, thereby making it quite, quite impossible to remain reigning queen of the Very Protestant Sweden.

Instead, Christina moved to Rome – an early version of Escape to the Continent, if you will, albeit that 17th century Rome was a disconcerting mixture of fabulous art (think Bernini) and primitive entertainment such as forcing Jews to run naked through the streets. Christina stuck to the arty stuff – and to the various princes of the Church she regularly interacted with (She also put a stop to the tradition of making the poor Jews run naked) . Well, when she wasn’t dabbling in politics that is. Or enraging the French by executing poor Monaldesco without a preceding trial in France. But mostly, she stuck to invigorating discussions about everything from God to philosophy to the art of war – and her principal companion was one Cardinal Azzolino.

garbo_-_queen_christinaEver since Greta Garbo depicted Christina on the silver screen, people seem to believe this Swedish queen was quite the beauty. Err…no. Christina may have been extremely gifted intellectually, she rode as well as any man, and by all accounts was as adept with a rapier, but she was not drop-dead. A lot of dark hair, a beak of a nose adorning a face that had little feminine softness to it – well, except for her large eyes. Not that Christina ever expressed much interest in how she looked or dressed. Initially, because she knew it didn’t matter  whether she is pretty or not – her courtiers sucked up to her anyway, falling over their feet in their eagerness to compliment the little queen and win her favour. The little queen was too smart to take this at face value. And when men swore they loved her, chances were she’d snort. She didn’t believe in love – and she didn’t believe these men loved her. If anything, they loved her crown.

Christina grew up with few examples of loving relationships. Her father, Gustav Adolf, died when she was not yet six. Her mother, Maria Eleonora, had never reconciled herself to the disappointment of having birthed yet another daughter, not the much-longed-for son, and had a tendency to take this disappointment out on Christina, by dropping her down the stairs and the like. Gustav Adolf and Maria Eleonora were very different people: he had his sights on conquering Europe and establishing a mighty Swedish Empire, she was clinging and needy, and felt abandoned whenever he set off to fight. Accordingly, Gustav Adolf preferred to avoid his wife as much as he could, which only made her more clingy and needy.

When Gustav Adolf died at the Battle of Lützen, Sweden reeled with shock. Their gallant young king, cut down before he had presented the kingdowm with a male heir, before he had won the Thirty Years’ War! Now what? Woe, woe, and even worse, their new queen was a child of six. Maria Eleanora wailed with the best of them. In her role as grieving widow, she gave the Oscar performance of her life and would spend her nights with Gustav Adolf’s embalmed heart by her bed. Little Christina quickly learnt that love could morph into morbid obsession, which in turn could impact your sanity. Christina liked being sane and in control. Ergo, love was something to be wary of.

So when, in 1655, Christina arrived in Rome, I think it is a safe bet to assume she was relatively inexperienced when it came to matters of the heart. Yes, she’d had a teenage crush on her cousin, the future Carl X Gustav, yes, there was the matter of her infatuation with Ebba Sparre, yes, she’d flirted a bit with Swedish gallant Magnus de la Gardie, but all in all, Christina was still an innocent, had not been struck by Cupid’s arrows. Yet. Because, you see, in Rome there was that handsome cardinal, Decio Azzolino.

decioazzolinodef

Decio Azzolino

A cardinal? I hear you ask. Well, dear peeps, I hate to break it to you, but many of the cardinals of the 17th century – and the popes – weren’t exactly moral rolemodels. Those seven capital sins afflicted several of the princes of the Church, everything from greed and gluttony to lust. Those who became cardinals were not necessarily the most pious among priests. Rather, they were the most brilliant, the most ambitious, the most well-connected. In Azzolino’s case, he was among the truly brilliant, having received doctorates in law, philosphy and theology. He was also a skilled cryptographer, an able administrator, and ambitious. Some years older than Christina, he would have been in his early thirties when they first met, and by then it was well known Cardinal Azzolino liked beautiful women, had a knack for writing poetry and also had a burning interest for science.

So far in her life, Christina had openly expressed her distaste for marriage – one of the reasons she abdicated was because she refused to entertain the notion of marrying anyone as it would reduce her to a subservient status. (She was also of the firm belief women should not rule, being too weak, too affected by emotions. I dare say she considered herself something of an exception) She found love and emotions in general ridiculous and unreliable and preferred to be guided by her intellect and rational thought. In truth, she saw herself as the Minerva of the North – wise, cool, unobtainable.

christina_queen_of_sweden_1644-1654_-_google_art_projectDecio Azzolino was an attractive man who carried himself with elegance. He was also well-educated, shared Christina’s interests for science and philosphy, and was appointed to help her settle into her new life in Rome. Soon enough, he had become indispensable to her, and there are rumors suggesting she took to carrying his portrait around, extracting it from wherever she was hiding it to peek at it. Hmm. Doesn’t sound quite like Christina, but hey, maybe this was Cupid’s bolt hitting home.

As to rumors, Cardinal Azzolino was surrounded by many of them. It was said he got no work done due to all his amorous affairs, that he had a fondness for busty actresses (and Kristina seems to have been aware of this, sending him a letter in which she snarkily comments that she assumes he only spends time in the company of these lady thespians to offer his services as a priest). There is, however, no proof to support the notion of Azzolino as a serial womanizer. His love of the theatre and of the arts is well-known, but other than that, Decio Azzolini seems to have invested most of his time in church politics.

Whatever the case, soon enough “everyone” in Rome knew that Christina and Azzolino were spending their days, their nights, their mornings and afternoons together. The pope was so worried he expressed his concerns to Azzolino who replied in writing (the letter, dated 1656, still exists) stating that there was nothing untoward in his relationship with the young Swedish queen. And maybe that was true for Azzolino, but Christina herself was soon in the grips of a passion, a love so strong it would last for the rest of her life.

christina_of_sweden_1626_1667_attributed_to_w-_heimbach

Christina

Over the coming decade, Azzolino and Christina indulged in an exclusive friendship. He was fond of her, was perhaps even slightly attracted to her – but only slightly, because Christina was, as stated before, not a particularly attractive woman. But where Azzolino liked Christina – a lot – she loved him, all the way to the depth and breadth and height her soul could reach when it was safely out of sight. Some spreculate that they did, in fact, have a physical relationship during the early years of their relationship, but I’m not so sure.

How do we know that Christina loved Azzolino? Well, mainly because of the letters she wrote him – and in particular a letter dated in 1667, when she was moping in Hamburg, far from Rome and her cardinal. While Christina’s letters glow with feelings, Azolino’s missives are borderline dry – well, at least the ones that have survived are. Azzolino took the precaution of destroying most of his archives in the days before his death, and we will never know just what it was he was so anxious to reduce to ashes.

All the same, from reading her letters to him, it’s pretty clear that where she burns, where she loves, he retreats into cool friendship, going so far as to admonishing her for her emotional outbursts. Now, at the time, (and we’re in 1666 – 1667 by now) Christina was going through a rough patch. She was pushing forty and had been back to Sweden in an effort to convince the council to appoint her as regent for the new little Swedish king (Carl X Gustav died young-ish) and received a resounding “NEJ!” in reply. No way was this Catholic ex-queen going to be allowed anywhere close to the little boy.

She was also struggling with financial problems – something Azzolino helped her deal with as she had effectively given him a carte blanche to do what was needed to salvage her economy. Azzolino was of the opinion Christina needed to cut back on her expenses. She wasn’t too thrilled at having most of his letters to her consist of long lists of excessive spending she needed to curb. What she wanted were expressions of love – or at least affection – instead, she got rebukes. To add to her burdens, she was suffering health problems, some of which she was certain would be cured if only she could ensure a steady supply of fresh milk (!)

Christina was a proud woman. As proud as Lucifer. some would say. And yet, in her letters to Azzolino she grovels. She begs for scraps. She requests to be allowed to adore. This is a woman desperate to consummate her love. Unfortunately for her, he does not share her passion. Unrequited love is a bummer, people, even more so when Azzolino forbids her to love him- or at least to express such feelings for him. And while she is up north, our dear cardinal is not exactly without beautiful female company, which drives Christina crazy.

Where he in one letter assures her of his warm friendship towards her, she replies by telling him she more than deserves his friendship, seeing as she has the tenderest of passions for him. “I know I will never again be happy, but I also know I will love you until the day I die.” She speaks of love, he wants friendship… This is in the summer of 1666, and clearly the cardinal is a tad worried by her declaration of love. As the summer progresses, he turns down the temperature in his missives, warm friendship becoming cool friendship, and by September, Kristina is devastated by what she perceives as his distance. She writes: “Whatever change of heart you may experience, it will not affect me, and I will be loyal to you unto death.”

In October she writes: “I can neither change my feelings for you, nor share them with you without hurting you.” Azzolino has by now forbidden her to declare her love to him. But she perseveres. “No matter how coldly you treat me, it will not stop me from adoring you for the rest of my days.”  This is a woman writing her heart’s blood onto the paper, while the recipient is frightened rather than flattered by all that pent-up passion. After all, Azzolino was a cardinal, and to openly indulge in a carnal affair with someone as closely watched as Christina would be the equivalent of professional suicide. Plus, she wasn’t his type.

In January of 1667, Christina throws caution  to the wind and writes the following: “I would like to add that is not my intention, by the grace of God, to offend Him, or to lure you into sin ; but this intention cannot stop me from loving you unto death, and as your piety makes it impossible for you to be my lover, I find it impossible to have you as my servant. Instead, I want to live and die your slave.” (I’ve included the original French further down – for those fluent in the langauge, this may offer further nuances my translation may not convey)

cupid-piero_della_francesca_-_cupid_blindfolded_-_wga17587Wow. I can see Azzolino sitting back and fanning himself after reading that. I also suspect he’d have wondered if she was being ironic – after all, dear Decio was not known for his piety. Personally, I don’t see anything ironic in the above. I just hear the voice of a sad, heartbroken woman, fully aware of the fact that cruel Cupid has made her fall in love with an unobtainable man. Sometimes, love sucks.

The letters between Christina and Azzolino went back and forth for almost two more years. Letters in which she is at times bitter, at times abjectly begging for forgiveness, terrified at the thought of losing what little affection he had for her. At the end of this period, Kristina had learnt her lesson: she no longer wrote about love, she wrote about the deep friendship they shared. She tried to find other interests and submerged herself in the study of alchemy (an interest they shared, to the extent of setting up a laboratory together in Rome) Slowly, she buried her love, her fiery passion underneath layers of steel. It displeased him to know she loved him. She, therefore, had no choice but to pretend she no longer did.

Azzolino may have been reluctant to become Christina’s lover, but he was her friend, a loyal and devoted friend throughout her life. When, in April of 1689, Christina died, Azzolino was the main beneficiary of her will. He did not live long enough to enjoy it, as he followed her to the hereafter some months later. Instead, Kristina’s collection of artworks and books fell into the hands of Azzolino’s nephew, who quickly sold it and cashed in. Said nephew also inherited his uncle’s books and stuff – and Azzolino’s severely depleated personal archive, with most of his letters to Christina (and from Christina) destroyed. We have no idea what secrets he chose to take with him to the grave. Maybe, just maybe, there was an early declaration of love from him to her? Or maybe not.

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And as promised, here’s the French version: “J’ajouterai toutefois que mon intention est de n’offenser jamais Dieu, avec sa grâce, et de ne vous donner jamais sujer d’offenser, mais cette résolution n m’empêchera pas de vous aimer jusqu’à la mort, et pusique la dévotion vous dispense d’être mon amant, je vous dispense d’être mon serviteur, car je veux vivre et mourir votre esclave.” 

 

In great ambition lies destruction

On the subject of men who carry the seeds of their own destruction within, today I’d like to introduce you to Roger Mortimer. Seems apt, given that it is 686 years today since he was executed. This is a man who epitomises the consequences of too much ambition, too much greed. He was also an extremely capable person, an experienced leader of men and a man with impressive strategical skills. Not that it helped him…

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Roger and his lady queen

Had I been able to travel back in time (yes, please!) I would actually consider dropping in on Roger and giving him the friendly advice to retire from the public eye gracefully – although that could have been difficult to do, given that he was sleeping with the Queen Isabella, mother to the very young King Edward III. Clearly, bedding with queens carries the risk of untimely and gruesome death (see my post on the Earl of Bothwell) making me conclude that maybe we as a race have more in common with spiders than I am entirely comfortable with.

Roger Mortimer was born in 1287 as the eldest son and heir of Edmind Mortimer. Of mixed Norman and Welsh descent, the Mortimers were a power to be reckoned with on the Welsh Marches, and Roger was raised to shoulder this responsibility. He seems to have spent much of his childhood with his uncle, another Roger Mortimer (Roger senior is perhaps most (in)famous for having delivered Llewellyn ap Gruffyds head to Edward I) and was by all accounts a well-educated and handsome young man, who had as many friends among the aspiring clergy as he did amongst his peers.

No sooner had Roger survived infancy but his parents began checking out potential brides. After some scouting, they decided on Joan de Geneville, a well-dowered little Irish Heiress (well, French blood figured prominently). The happy couple were wed when Roger was only fourteen, but apparently the lad knew what to do, and a year later Joan gave birth to a son, the first of the thirteen children she was to give her husband. Thirteen!  Clearly, the young couple were very affectionate, and Joan quite often accompanied her husband as he went about his massive estates.

edward_i__ii_prince_of_wales_1301In 1306, Roger was knighted by Edward I in a massive ceremony which included Edward, Prince of Wales. More or less of an age, the two young men seemed to enjoy each other’s company, even if Roger had the distinct advantage of being in control of his own purse strings (his father was dead since some years back) while the prince depended on his father. The Edward-Edward relationship was not an easy one; Edward I was a tough old man, and there were times when his son probably felt that no matter what he did, it wasn’t good enough. In retrospect, it is easy to agree with that opinion; Edward II may have been a nice man, unjustly maligned by history, but he was not much of a king.

Anyway; the old king died, the new king took over, Joan had babies as regularly as clockwork, and Roger nurtured his career, serving the king in one capacity after the other. He was handed the rather nasty job of pacifying Ireland – and specifically of routing Edmund Bruce, Robert Bruce’s younger brother who had claimed the title of King of Ireland – and set off across the Irish Sea to do his best. Roger’s first tour in Ireland was not all that successful – the Irish did not take kindly to being pacified, one could say – but when he returned for a second tour as Lieutenant Governor, Roger managed to establish control over the Emerald Isle. Edmund Bruce was killed, Roger organised the administration, filled vacant offices, inspected his own (well, his wife’s) extensive holdings, and while he was at it he founded Trinity College in Dublin.

In 1318, Roger Mortimer returned from Ireland victorious. The king was duly grateful, but also somewhat disturbed; Roger Mortimer was a tad too capable, and Edward II was getting rather sick and tired of competent – and powerful – barons who were telling him how to run his kingdom. At the time of Roger’s return, Edward was at loggerheads with his cousin, Thomas of Lancaster, the single most powerful man in England, arguably more powerful than the king himself.

Thomas of Lancaster does not come across as a particularly nice man – nor a wise one. He constantly antagonised his royal cousin, he was more than active in separating the king from his favourites (Lancaster was personally involved in the execution of Piers Gaveston, Edward II’s boon companion) and he seems to have been quite convinced the sun shone out of his own backside. Always a man to insist on his prerogatives, he constantly needled the king, causing conflicts about almost everything. At times, Lancaster’s grievances were legitimate, as in the case of the Despensers (father and son – both favourites of the king, both named Hugh) and in 1318 a stale mate had arisen between the king and his not so loyal subject.

It may be worthwhile to take the time here to point out that Roger Mortimer hated Hugh Despenser (both of them). Hugh Despenser (both of them) hated Roger Mortimer. The families’ bad blood went back a couple of generations – it was Roger’s grandfather who had killed Hugh Despenser the younger’s grandfather at Evesham. That Despenser had sided with Simon de Montfort against the king. So when Lancaster demanded that the king be counselled by a group of barons that excluded the Despensers, Roger was all for it. The king was not, but felt forced to agree.

For some years, an uneasy truce existed between the king and his barons. While there was a council of barons to officially counsel the king, he seems to have preferred to take his counsel behind locked doors from Hugh Despenser (both of them, but mostly the younger). The barons seethed. The king was in flagrant breach of his coronation oath, and people muttered about Magna Charta and faithless kings. Roger Mortimer had so far done his best to remain a loyal servant to the king, but when the king repeatedly went against law and custom to give Hugh Despenser (both of them) whatever their little hearts desired, be it another man’s land or not, something snapped in Roger. He knew the Despensers were his mortal enemies, and Mortimer had no intention of sitting around as a sitting duck for the Despensers to shoot at.

mortimer-c5b24c86e4c809e755d803f8adbe1aebIn 1321, incensed by yet another case of unlawful behaviour by Despenser that the king chose to ignore (as I said; a bad king), Mortimer allied himself with Lancaster and began a full-scale attack on Despenser land. Mortimer was a military professional with years of experience on the field – specifically on Irish bogs. He and his men squashed whatever resistance they encountered, and by the end of the summer Mortimer had his men encamped around London. His only demand was that the king exile the Despensers – and he wasn’t alone in demanding this, as a number of English barons, including Lancaster, agreed with him. The king wailed. The king gnashed his teeth. The king acquiesced, weeping as he signed the order that effectively exiled the Despensers. He must have wept even more when he signed the pardons for his rebellious barons, seeing as they’d only acted “in the interest of the realm”.

Mortimer now had TWO (Three) powerful enemies; Hugh Despenser (both of them) and the king. Not that our baron seems to have been unduly worried – or maybe he truly believed the Despenser issue had been sorted once and for all. If so, he seriously underestimated the king. Edward showed an impressive amount of ingenuity and drive, going from baron to baron to mutter about Roger Mortimer and Thomas of Lancaster. These men, the king whispered, threatened his royal rule – and not only that, but also the power of any minor baron. However, the king went on, should these minor barons ally themselves with the king, well then…

Not only were there a number of minor lords in the king’s camp. He had a number of earls who felt more than bound by their oaths to the king, albeit that they might secretly have agreed with Roger’s objections to Despenser. One such earl was Aymer de Valence, Earl of Pembroke. This particular earl was a veteran of political intrigue, as respected by Roger Mortimer as he was by the king. Had Aymer been around to smooth things over a few months earlier, things might never have become quite as polarised. As it was, Aymer had no success in attempting a rapprochement between the king and his stubborn baron.

Things came to a head over an incident at Leeds Castle (which, just to confuse things is in Kent, nowhere close to Leeds). The castle belonged to Lord Badlesmere, and when he wasn’t around it was his lady wife who did the running of things. This lady had the temerity to refuse the queen entry to the castle, and this insult was just the excuse King Edward needed. In a matter of weeks, he had the castle besieged. The garrison surrendered on the promise of their lives, but were summarily hanged anyway. Poor Lady Badlesmere was dragged off to the Tower with her children – one of which was Roger Mortimer’s little daughter-in-law.

Shit, one could say. Mortimer decided to do some pow-wowing with Lancaster and trotted off up to Pontrefact Castle. In the south, the king continued raising an army, and suddenly the tables were turned, with Mortimer having to flee the advancing might of the king. Had Thomas of Lancaster held true to his vow to Mortimer and joined forces with him, chances are the king would have been defeated. As it was, Lancaster chose to sit in the north and sulk, muttering that he had never liked Badlesmere.

Mortimer retired beyond the Severn, but he was a pragmatic man – and a realist – and knew his chances of holding out in the long run were extremely slim. Which was when the Earl of Pembroke approached him and suggested he submit to the king, who, Pembroke said, would be merciful. Pissed off as hell, yes, but merciful.

It is testament to Pembroke’s reputation that Mortimer took him at his word, but what happened next would for ever sully Pembroke’s honour. Mortimer rode to Shrewsbury and submitted to the king, only to be brusquely informed that whatever Pembroke may have promised was no longer valid, and Mortimer should prepare himslef to die – and die gruesomly. In chains, Mortimer was dragged off to the Tower, there to await his final date with the executioner.

That date never happened. Despenser must have begged the king on his bare knees to rid the world of Mortimer, but whatever bursts of initiative had inflamed Edward in 1321 now petered out. Plus, he had an angry country on his hands, given the number of barons he had summarily executed in the aftermath of Mortimer’s rebellion – starting with his own cousin, Thomas of Lancaster, who was first defeated by the royal forces at the Battle of Boroughbridge, then convicted of treason and summarily beheaded.

Mortimer was therefore allowed to languish in captivity – alive, but deprived. However, hawks like Mortimer don’t like being cooped up, and in August of 1323, Mortimer escaped from the Tower, having first ensured the guards had been served drugged wine at their annual celebration of St Peter. The king’s Greatest Traitor was free – and hot-footed it to France, while back home his wife and children remained prisoners of the king.

mortimer-isabella2In France, Mortimer was to join forces with Queen Isabella, King Edward’s disgruntled wife (read more here) Actually, they did more than join forces – they sort of joined everything together, indulging in a passionate affair. I imagine Edward choked on his wine at the thought of his wife in the arms of his rebellious baron. He must have choked even more when he realised just what a threat those two were to his throne – in particular as Isabella had her eldest son, the future Edward III, with her.

Well, we all know how that ended, don’t we? Isabella returned to England in 1326, accompanied by Mortimer and her son. Edward and Hugh Despenser  fled westwards but were captured. Edward was imprisoned at Kenilworth and subsequently forced to abdicate. Hugh was subjected to a mock trial and a gruesome execution. Mortimer, dear peeps, had arrived. Together with Isabella, he controlled the young king and through him, the kingdom. Let’s just say that not everyone cheered at this development.

eduard3Mortimer turned his impressive organisational skills to ordering the kingdom, hiring competent officers throughout the realm. Good men, to be sure, these officers were officially the king’s men, but most of them were loyal to Mortimer first, the king second. As it should be, Mortimer probably felt. Not so much, the young Edward III thought. For now, the young king was not in a position to strike back, and initially he seems to have respected and even liked Mortimer. But as the years passed, Edward began choimping at the bit, increasingly concerned when it seemed neither of his regents (his Mama was as involved as Mortimer in running things on his behalf) had any intention of stepping down.

Late in 1328, various of the barons rebelled, led by Henry of Lancaster (brother to the dead Thomas) Lancaster demanded that he be regent, seeing as he was closer kin to the king and also a much more important baron than the upstart Mortimer. This did not go down well with Mortimer – or Isabella. And as to being a more important baron, well that was easily solved: in October 1328, Mortimer became the 1st Earl of March. Lancaster likely choked. So, more importantly, did Edward III, who felt strongarmed into giving Mortimer the title.

Anyway: in early 1329 the rebels were crushed, and Mortimer and Isabella were magnanimous in defeat, exacting fines rather than lives. Things, it seemed, had settled down, except that the kingdom was constantly plagued by rumors that the old king was alive, rumours that could potentially escalate into rebellion as men flocked to the standards of Edward II, preferring him to being ruled by an upstart marcher lord and an adulterous queen.

Officially, Edward II died already back in September of 1327. He was interred in Gloucester in December of that same year, but there are a lot of oddities re this death – like the fact that no one actually saw the dead king prior to him already having been covered by cerecloths (part of the conservation process). Also, there were murmurs as to whether the king had died or been murdered, with fingers pointing not so discreetly at Mortimer. In truth, a very infected situation, even more so when more and more people started circulating teh theory that the king was alive but imprisoned.

So, was Edward II dead? Well, I am of the opinion that he probably wasn’t – several historians agree with me, but just as many are convinced Edward II did die in 1327. Even if he was dead, I have problems believeing Isabella and Mortimer would have ordered his death – an anointed king was an anointed king, however much deposed he was. But what I believe is neither here nor ther – if nothing else because the barons back in the 14th century wouldn’t give a rat’s arse about what I might think. After all, they were living these turbulent times, not reading about them with a nice cuppa close at hand.

One of the barons who genuinely seems to have believed Edward II was still alive was the drop-dead gorgeous Edmund, Earl of Kent, much younger half-brother of Edward II. Edmund even went as far as to consider how to break Edward out of captivity, and some of his missives ended up in Mortimer’s hand. What followed is one of the blacker stains on Mortimer, because at parliament in Winchester in march 130, he effectively manipulated teh procedings in such a way that he gave the young king no option but to condemn his uncle to death.

Edmund was terrified. He pleaded and begged for his life, but there was nothing to do – Edward had his hands tied and couldn’t pardon him without showing weakness. And so Kent was hauled out to die in his shirt on a cold March day. Except that the executioner had fled, not wanting any part in this. Hours of waiting ensued, the condemned man shivering in his shirt unrtil someone was found willing to cut his head off. Not pretty. At all. Edwrad would never forgive Mortimer for this – an intelligent young man, he realised just how elegantly Mortimer had played his cards to assure himself of this grisly outcome.

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Mortimer being seized

From that moment on, the clock was ticking for Mortimer. And, as described in this post, in October of 1330, the young king and his companions acted, entering the castle of Nottingham through a secret passage to take Mortimer captive and haul him off to London where he was to stand trial on a number of charges – including murdering the former king. (Elegantly played by Edward III. By accusing Mortimer of this crime, he effectively killed off any speculation that his father might still be alive. Clearly, Edward had learnt a thing or two from his regents)

Mortimer was not accorded a fair trial. Bound and gagged, he was not given the opportunity to speak in his defence. Just like at Hugh Despenser’s trial, four years before, the outcome was given. Mortimer was condemned to die, but was spared the horrors of being hanged, drawn and quartered, He was “just” to be drawn and hanged.

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The fall of Icarus – Blondell

On the cold morning of November 29, 1330, he was led out to the waiting horses, dressed in the black velvet tunic he’d worn to Edward II’s funeral. He was tied to the horses, dragged through the streets of London all the way to Tyburn. By then his tunic was in tatters, and what remained was torn of him, so that he stood naked while the noose was tightened round his neck. Some final words, a prayer, and up he went, life being strangled out of him as the noose tightened. And so, dear peeps, died Roger Mortimer, a man so driven by ambition he did not realise just how close he was flying to the sun until it was too late.

Personally, I have a fondness for Mortimer, which is probably why I’ve built my entire 14th century series round his rise and fall. It is also why I’ll be raising a glass in honour of his memory today. A man larger than life deserves as much, methinks.

The king, his mistress, and his wife – A Castilian 14th century soap opera

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Alfonso surrounded by his knights

Once upon a time, there was a king. A Castilian king, called Alfonso. By now, regular readers of my blog will know there are an uncountable number of Spanish kings called Alfonso – ok, not uncountable, but still, we’re talking far more than a dozen. This particular Alfonso was number XI and king of Castile from the age of one or so. During his minority, various greedy relatives did their best to amass as much land and wealth as they could, and accordingly Alfonso had his work cut out for him once he was declared capable of ruling in his own name.

A skilled and ruthless ruler, Alfonso quickly brought his kingdom back under control, albeit that at times the methods he employed were brutal and borderline illegal, with potential rebels dispatched without a trial. In 1325, at the age of 14, Alfonso married a certain Constanza, two years later he had the marriage annulled, and in 1328 he married Maria of Portugal, a good dynastic marriage that came with the benefit of strenthening relationships between Castile and Portugal. Maria was considered very beautiful, but unfortunately for her, Alfonso was to lose his heart to another woman, Leonor de Guzmán.

Leonor was a year or so older than Alfonso, and had been married young to a man called Juan Velasco. By all accounts a happy marriage, it all ended too soon when Juan died, leaving Leonor a devastated, if pretty, teenaged widow. Leonor lived in Seville, and it was there that she first met the king (some say before his marriage to Maria, some say after. Given various dates, I’d say after). Alfonso was beguiled by this pretty, vivacious woman, and she, in turn, must have found him attractive, how else to explain that a high-born lady initiated an adulterous relationship with  a married man?

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Maria

Whatever the case, Alfonso made no secret of the fact that he much preferred Leonor to Maria. Where he hastened to spend as much time as he could with his mistress, his wife had to make do with the odd conjugal visit, moments in which the king closed his eyes and thought of Leonor while fulfilling his marital duties. Not much fun for poor Maria, one imagines. Even less fun when the king insisted Leonor be present at court, while Maria was shunted off to live in a convent – albeit in luxury.

Already in 1330, Leonor gave birth to the first of the ten children she would give Alfonso. He was estatic  and promptly showered both babe and mother with land. In 1331, yet another son was born, and I imagine this twisted the knife even deeper in Maria’s heart. However, the king continued to visit his wife, eager to sire a legitimate heir. Maybe this is a good time to stop for a moment and consider just how Maria would feel about all this, her husband’s interest in her reduced to her role as brood mare no more, his conjugal visits an obvious onerous duty that he discharged before hurrying off to love and adore Leonor. No wonder the woman became bitter and harsh.

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Alfonso, about to mount

In 1333, Maria was delivered of a son. Unfortunately, little Fernando died a year later, just as Leonor gave birth to twin sons, thereby having given Alfonso four healthy sons in three years. By now, Leonor was a major landowner, the king’s largesse making her a power unto her own – which did not exactly endear her either to poor Maria or to the Spanish nobles, who were more than worried by Leonor’s influence over their king. Alfonso couldn’t care less what his nobles might think – or anyone else, for that matter. People who had the temerity of criticising the fact that the royal mistress spent her time at court, always side by side with the king, while the queen was nowhere in sight, ended up punished.

In 1334, Queen Maria gave birth to yet another son – this time a healthy and squalling lad that would grow up to become Pedro el Cruel (Pedro the Cruel) or Pedro el Justiciero (Pedro the Just) depending on what chronicle you choose to read. The king was satisfied with this lusty heir, and apparently he never saw any reason to return to his wife’s bed again. Poor Maria’s life narrowed even further. Leonor’s, on the other hand, did not. She and her children were always at court, while little Pedro spent his childhood with his isolated and increasingly vitriolic mother. Did not lead to the best father-son relationship, I imagine.

Leonor was not only pretty and fertile. She was also ambitious and politically astute, working always towards the goal of ensuring her children’s future. The king was more than happy to give her what she wanted, and so her sons were given lands aplenty, and raised to various important positions, despite their youth. One of their sons, Fadrique Alfonso, was made Master of the Order of Santiago at the tender age of eight. Being an intelligent woman, Leonor was also aware of the resentment she and her huge brood elicited – which had her redoubling her efforts to see her babies safe and secure.

Leonor’s position at court was recognised far beyond the borders of her lover’s kingdom. As an example, Edward III wrote to her when he was trying to arrange a marriage between his daughter Joan and Alfonso’s legitimate son, Pedro. She, apparently, was happy to help out, and the contracts were duly signed. (The marriage was not to be. Joan died on her way to Castile of the plague)

Alfonso was very happy with Leonor, and other than the initial excursions to do what he had to do with his wife, seems to have been faithful to his mistress. He was also constantly quelling various insurrections, and in 1340 he had a minor crisis on his hands when the pope, his father-in-law and several influential nobles banded together, insisting he lock Leonor up in a convent and bring back Maria to court, or else…

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Alfonso fighting Moors

At the time, Alfonso was fighting on several fronts: against the Moors, against the Aragonese, against his unhappy nobles. Being a pragmatic man, he therefore sent Maria off to negotiate an agreement with her father, promising to treat her  as his queen going forward. Leonor was taken to a convent, but given future events, I imagine Alfonso had assured her the stay among the nuns would be short. After all, Alfonso had no intention of keeping his promise to Maria. No sooner were his enemies vanquished but he brought Leonor back to court, while Maria was yet again banished to live out her life alone with her son.

No one lives for ever, and in 1350, Alfonso was in Gibraltar when he contracted the plague. Some days later, he was dead, and all of Castile was in a turmoil. The new king was a sixteen-year-old who’d spent very little time at court, and soon enough various factions were vying for control over the new king.

Leonor, I imagine, was devastated by the death of her lover. For over twenty years, they’d shared a life, and further to this she was left with little protection against the enemies that now started to come out of the woodworks, principally among them Maria, the Queen Mother, who was determined to exact her revenge for all those years of humiliation.

Things see-sawed. An initial reconciliation proved short-lived when Leonor made one final bid to secure the future of her children. In 1350, she pushed through the marriage of her eldest surviving son, Enrique of Trastámara with a certain Juana Manuel. Now this young girl was a great-granddaughter of the great and saintly Fernando III, and as such a marriage to her gave Enrique a legitimate claim on the throne of Castile. Not good, as per Pedro and his protective mama. Leonor, who was fully aware of just how unpalatable this union was to the new king, went one step further: she had the newly-weds ushered into her bedchamber to consummate the marriage ASAP.

As a result of all this, Leonor was imprisoned.  Whether Maria was already toying with the idea of assasinating her, we don’t know. I’m guessing she was very, very tempted. But for now, Leonor was “just” a prisoner, and when the court moved south in early 1351, she was obliged to accompany them. The ambulating court paid a visit to the Master of the Order of Santiago at Llerena, and I imagine Leonor was delighted to see her son, Fadrique Alfonso. Did she know she’d never see him again? Probably not, but she may have suspected as much.

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Antonio Amorós de Botella: The last farewell – Leonor bidding Fadrique Alfonos goodbye under Maria’s supervision. At the time, her son was seventeen, so he’d have been a tad taller, methinks.

A little while later, Leonor was put to death at a castle belonging to Maria, Talario de la Reina. Some say she was tied to a post under the punishing sun and left to die, a cord pulled tight around her neck…If so, I hope she had her eyes affixed on the endless blue of an Andalucian sky as she died, murdered for the sin of having been loved too much. Okay, okay: and for being somewhat avaricious and ambitious.

As per the chronicler Pedro Lopez de Ayala, Leonor died as a consequence of a direct order from Maria of Portugal. “..and much evil, and much war, would afflict Castile because of this,” he writes. Too right. Leonor’s sons did not like it when they heard their mother had been murdered. Suddenly, the new young king had a major civil war on his hands – a conflict that wouldn’t end until the day in 1369 when Enrique avenged his mother by murdering his half-brother, Pedro.

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Enrique de Trastámera

One could say that ultimately, Leonor won. With her son, the House of Trastámara ascended the Castilian throne and would remain safely parked there until, in 1518, the very young Charles V of Hapsburg was acclaimed as joint ruler of Castile, together with the last Trastámara queen, his mother Juana. But that is another story – one you can read more about here!

Sleeping with the enemy – a royal duty

Throughout history, Denmark and Sweden have mostly been at war. Sometimes, Denmark has had the upper hand – mostly, in fact – but now and then Sweden has stomped their southern neighbours into the dust, like they did in the 17th century. Along the way, Sweden took over substantial lands previously belonging to Denmark, and this did not go down well with the Danes.

In 1658, Denmark was forced into a humiliating treaty whereby they gave up the entire province of Scania (which is the southern-most tip of present day Sweden). Why the treaty? Well, it all had to do with the very intrepid Swedish king Karl X Gustav, nephew of Gustav II Adolf, who surprised the Danes by leading his army across the ice to the south of Denmark, thereby attacking them in the back while they were expecting the Swedes to come across the seas to the north.

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Little Karl

Fortunately, as per the Danes, Karl X Gustav was not long for this world. He died in 1660 and suddenly the mighty Sweden had a five-year-old child as king, the as yet very puny and un-martial Karl XI. Hmm, thought the Danes, maybe now would be a good time to reclaim some of that lost territory? Not. The little king had an impressive mother and good men around him to keep him and his reign safe, so for now the Danes had to hold their peace. Besides, Fredrik III of Denmark had learnt at his own expense not to bait the Swedish wolf, and preferred to live out his last few years in peace.

Karl XI was not the most socially gifted of people. He was interested in facts, in war and in numbers. He was also determined not to let that French pompous king by the name of Louis XIV hog all the limelight – which didn’t work out all that well. After all Louis was king of France, while Karl XI was king of Sweden. And while Sweden in the second half of the 17th century was big – much, much bigger than France – it wasn’t exactly the centre of the world. Rather the reverse, actually.

From the day of Karl XI’s birth, his potential wedding was a hot topic of discussion – as it was for any prince or princess of the blood. In little Karl’s case, a suitable bride was found very close to home: he had a cousin, Juliana, who was brought to court to be raised with her future husband. Now Juliana came with something of a blemish – or rather her mother did, having admitted to her husband that she’d had an affair with a French Lute player. Obviously, expectations were that nurture would beat any adulterous genes little Juliana might possess, and things were ticking along quite nicely – until Juliana gave birth to a child while out riding in a carriage with her prospective mother-in-law. The Queen Mother was not amused. Juliana, of course was disgraced and discarded as a bride-to-be. Karl himself seems not to have cared overmuch. (More about Juliana – and her mother – can be found here)

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Ulrika Eleonora as a child

Instead, Karl decided to follow his council’s advice and do what most young princes did: he was going to wed where it suited his political interests best, which is why, in 1675, he sent off an embassy to Copenhagen to request the hand in marriage of Ulrika Eleonora, youngest sister to the new Danish king, Christian V. At the time, Christian V was already planning war on Sweden. The lands his father had lost called to him, so to say, and Christian considered himself a far better general and leader than his father – and superior in all things to the young Swedish king, at the time a slight youth of twenty who had not begun shaving regularly.

Being of a devious inclination (but that may be the Swede in me), Christian V chose to pretend he was all for this match. In fact, to really lull the Swedes into a sensation of false security he encouraged his sister to accept the proposal – without telling her of his double-dealing. Ulrika Eleonora is one of those people in history who mostly impress by being good and kind, and in this case she innocently agreed to the match, being more than mortified by the fact that her stiff skirts did not allow her to curtsey properly to the Swedish ambassador.

Some months later, war exploded. Christian immediately rescinded on his promise to wed his sister to the soon-to-be Swedish loser, but his sister insisted she had given her word – and her heart (which seems strange as she’d never clapped eyes on Karl) – to the Swedish king.
“He’s the enemy!” the somewhat upset Danish Dowager Queen said. “You can’t go to bed with him.”
“Of course, I can. It’s my duty to do so – as his wife,” Ulrika Eleonora said, her eyes acquiring a somewhat misty look.
Difficult situation, one could say, even more so when the Danish princess made a point of taking a personal interest in the Swedish prisoners of war that soon began streaming into Copenhagen. You see, initially Christian seemed to be winning. Rephrase: he was winning, big time, with the very young Karl pushed further and further north. Until, in December of 1676, the Swedish army pulverised the Danish forces at the battle of Lund, with over 10 000 men killed in one day.

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The victorious Karl

The war continued – and not only in Scandinavia. France allied itself with Sweden against Holland who were allied with Denmark, more nations joined in, and it was all quite the mess – until the French defeated the forces of present day Netherlands in 1678. Louis XIV, who considered himself the senior member in the Swedish-French coalition (duh!) pushed through a treaty in 1678 without consulting Sweden, and so, according to Louis, things were neatly concluded.

The Swedes were miffed at having the French treat on their behalf without consulting with them. Never mind that the Swedes got everything they wanted from the treaty, this was a matter of national pride. Who did the French think they were, lording it over everyone, hey? Too right, the Danes agreed, after all they were perfectly capable of negotiating their own treaty with Sweden, weren’t they? And so the Swedes and Danes met in Lund where they did just that: negotiate a treaty that was already signed (!)

As part of that treaty, the matter of the royal marriage was yet again raised by the Swedish representatives. At the time, Karl lived under the assumption that his match with Ulrika Eleonora was as dead as any of the poor frozen corpses that had recently decorated the field in Lund. No one thought to inform him that this particular corpse was now back to living and breathing again – in fact, the king was presented with a fait accompli – his Danish princess would soon be his wife.

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Ulrika Eleonora

Karl took this pretty much in stride, albeit that he was heard to grumble a bit about Ulrika Eleonora’s purported plainness (they had still not seen each other). And yes, to judge from her portraits, Ulrika Eleonora was not a major looker, having been gifted by an oversized nose that sort of dwarfed all her other features, but Karl was not exactly prince Charming either.

In the spring of 1680, the Swedish nobleman Johan Gyllenstierna was dispatched to Copenhagen to fetch the bride-to-be. Now Johan had quite the ostentatious streak in him – in contrast, Karl XI was anything but, being somewhat miserly when it came to spending money – so Johan arrived in Copenhagen in style travelling with an entourage of 130 people and close to seventy horses.

In Wonderful, Wonderful Copenhagen, there were balls and dinners and more balls and more dinners, and everyone was waiting for Karl to ask Johan to bring Ulrika Eleonora over to Sweden. Instead, Karl prevaricated. Twice, Johan was forced to delay their departure on the king’s orders, but when Karl tried to delay things a third time, Johan refused to comply.

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Karl striking a pose

One doesn’t exactly get the picture of an eager bridegroom, even less so when Johan had to remind his king that maybe he should send his fiancée some gifts – she’d sent him plenty. At long last Karl sent over a pearl necklace and some matching earrings, and then managed to really irritate Johan by absolutely refusing to take apart in a huge, public wedding. Nope, the king said, he wanted something small and private, with no family present except for Ulrika Eleonora’s two brothers. Johan scratched his hair in despair. The French ambassador was insisting he be invited! Tough, Karl said.
“You’re not stopping me,” the French ambassador, a gentleman by the name of Feuquières said. “I’m coming whether you like it or not.”

Karl couldn’t very well stop the stubborn Frenchman – but he could make it uncomfortable for him, by ordering his noblemen not to offer him lodgings. Feuquières , however, was a man of the world and found lodgings on his own in the insignificant town of Halmstad where the wedding was to be held.

Karl sniffed. He was adamant that the wedding ceremony be private, and so he rode out to meet his bride in the late afternoon, suggested they travel over to the nearby manor of Skottorp, and then more or less surprised everyone by insisting the wedding go ahead just before midnight. A blushing bride, her not quite as enthusiastic groom, the groom’s mother, an assortment of noblemen and that was it. No fuss, no major expense – just like Karl liked it.

After the wedding ceremony, Karl retired to eat dinner with two of his officers. Ulrika was served a light dinner in her mother-in-law’s rooms. At one o’clock in the morning, she was escorted to the bridal chamber and her waiting husband. Whatever transpired between them, we don’t know, but come four in the morning Karl was already up and about. I imagine he looked quite smug when Feuquières popped up to offer his congratulations.

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The happy family

Whether these congratulations were also extended to the new queen of Sweden, I don’t know. In fact, I don’t think there was all that much to congratulate her about, as in Karl’s life other things would always be far more important and interesting than his wife. He did, however, perform his marital duties regularly if with little passion, and over the coming years Ulrika Eleonora would be brought to bed of five sons and two daughters. All but one of the sons died very young, their deaths having the single upside of bringing the grieving king and his wife closer together.

In 1693, Ulrika Eleonora died. By then, the shy, dutiful and kind Danish princess had won the hearts of her subjects – even that of her husband. In an uncharacteristically emotional entry in his diary he writes “I have lost a Godfearing, virtuous and very dear wife, leaving me in despair and grief.” She was 36 years old. Four years later, Karl also died, leaving behind yet another very young king, the fifteen-year-old Karl XII.

The female touch – of a renaissance king and his wives

Gustav Eriksson Vasa is something of a national hero in Sweden. Okay, so we don’t do national heroes all that well, so while we credit him with freeing Sweden from the unbearable Danish yoke as represented by Christian II, we also consider Gustav Vasa as something of a grasping bastard.

christianiibIf we start with the Danish angle, Christian II (nicknamed “The Tyrant” in Sweden, which shows just how much we love him) trod Sweden underfoot in the early decades of the 16th century, and is also responsible for one of the bloodier massacres in Early Swedish History, the Stockholm Bloodbath. Christian’s intention was to murder all leading Swedish male nobles. Luckily for Gustav Vasa, he wasn’t in Stockholm on that particular November day in 1520. Instead, he swore to avenge his father, his uncles, his cousins, his…long list.

By 1523, Vasa had achieved his goal. Christian II and his acolytes were on the run, and our Gustav, supported by the brave Swedish yeomanry, re-established Sweden as an independent kingdom, with, unsurprisingly, Gustav Vasa as its king. At the time, Gustav was around 28 or so, and, unusually for the times, unmarried. I suppose having spent the last three years on the run and fighting for his life and his country had made him less than inclined to burden himself with a wife, but once seated on the Swedish throne, Vasa turned his attention to finding a woman and begetting an heir.

Gustav Vasa had grown up surrounded by formidable women. His aunt, Kristina Gyllenstierna, had led the defence of Stockholm against the Danes, often to be found on the ramparts with her men. His mother, Cecilia, had been hauled off to captivity by Christian II in the aftermath of Stockholm’s Bloodbath, together with her younger daughters. Christian promised Cecilia her freedom if she would convince her son to submit, and supposedly Cecilia tried. Hmm. Having seen her husband, her brothers, her uncles, die in Stockholm, I’m not entirely sure Cecilia trusted Christian’s intentions. Neither did Kristina, imprisoned with Cecilia.

Whatever the case, upon hearing Gustav Vasa had been crowned Swedish king, Christian supposedly had Cecilia sew a sack out of burlap, tied her up in it, and threw her in the sea to drown. The somewhat more pragmatic truth is that Cecilia succumbed to the plague – conditions in the prison she shared with all the other Swedish ladies were rather nasty. Not only Cecilia died: her two young daughters also died in Denmark.

gustav_vasaGustav liked women. Not in the sense of involving himself in numerous carnal relationships, but rather from the perspective of enjoying their company. So when he set out to choose a wife, he wasn’t looking for a pretty little thing to impregnate and ignore, no, he wanted a companion. He also needed to build alliances – Sweden was still a weak and shaky country, and no matter that Denmark was struggling with its own internal affairs (Christian II was subsequently deposed, forced to flee into exile with his family) it still posed a threat.

Gustav’s first wife was therefore a foreign lady, Catherine of Saxe-Lauenburg. This young woman came with the benefit of having a sister who was already married to the new Danish king, Christian III. Gustav Vasa hoped that familial ties would smooth the way to a permanent peace with his southern, somewhat bellicose, neighbour.

Catherine was unhappy in Sweden. Eighteen years old to Gustav’s thirty-six, she considered her husband old, Stockholm depressingly rustic, and the Swedes lacking in anything resembling polish. Probably quite true, but her open criticism resulted in an unhappy and rocky marriage, which ended when Catherine died after a fall at the age of twenty-two (Lurid legend has it that Gustav beat her to death with an axe. Seeing as her bones show no sign of such brutality, we can put this down to Danish propaganda…) She left behind a little son, the future king Erik XIV.

In 1536, Gustav married again. Now a robust forty, the king needed to fill his nursey – one puny little boy was not enough to ensure the survival of his bloodline. As per contemporary descriptions, Gustav Vasa was quite an attractive man, sporting an impressive beard, tightly cropped blond hair and an excellent physique. Something of a slave under fashion, Gustav was a flamboyant dresser, and seemingly carried off revealing hose with panache. So despite his advanced age, he attracted his fair share of female looks, and his second wife, Margareta Leijonhuvud, seems to have been quite taken with her husband, even if he was twice her age.

Mind you, things didn’t get off to a brilliant start, seeing as Margareta was promised elsewhere – and supposedly was very infatuated with young Svante Sture, her original intended. It is said that when Gustav came to press his suit, Magareta was so distraught she scurried up to hide in the attic. Gustav, however, was a determined man, and followed her up there. Somehow, he convinced her to say yes, and once she’d done so, she never looked back.

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Margareta

Margareta was twenty years old when she and Gustav married in September of 1536. Of impeccable bloodlines, she too had lost male relatives en masse at the Stockholm Bloodbath and had been raised in a household where politics were discussed openly at the dinner table. In difference to the unfortunate Catherine, Margareta had the skills and knowledge required to offer her husband relevant advice – and to judge from their correspondence, he gladly took it.

Theirs was a happy marriage. Gustav was devoted to his wife (nowhere is there as much as an insinuation that Gustav ever strayed from the marital bed) and she to him, presenting him with ten children of which eight would survive to adulthood. His letters to her often began “To Margareta, my dearest heart”, and she would usually direct herself to “my most beloved lord”. He trusted her to manage their various homes, to hire staff, arrange their financial affairs, administer justice when he wasn’t around, and in general act as his second-in-command. In return, her various siblings made advantageous marriages – but Margareta was made responsible of ensuring they did not mistreat their tenant farmers. (Gustav had the utmost respect for the Swedish farmers: he knew first hand that these doughty men made formidable fighters when riled – after all, these were the men who’d helped him oust the Danes)

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“Honey, maybe you should…”

Like all wise consorts in this day and age, Margareta rarely challenged her husband in public. Should her opinions differ from his, she saved any discussion for when they were alone, and even then, she would abstain from open criticism. Men like Gustav responded better to murmured cajoling than ultimatums. Margareta, as all medieval queens, was also expected to intercede with the king for those who begged her to do so. Like all successful consorts, Margareta was selective in who she chose to plead for. She seems to have done a lot of manoeuvring on behalf of her youngest sister Märta who had ended up married with dashing Svante Sture. Maybe Margareta still retained a soft spot for the young man she once hoped to wed.

Margareta also oversaw the schooling of the royal children. Gustav Vasa was a great believer in education, and especially his sons were given tutors that would help expand their knowledge of the world. That Margareta was allowed to take control over the education of her children is interesting seeing as she was a devout Catholic. Gustav Vasa reformed the Swedish Church early on in his reign – he needed the money the dissolution of the various monasteries would bring – but he was relatively lenient when it came to the question of faith as such. As long as people toed the line when it came to his laws, as long as they paid their taxes, he left it up to them to worship God as they pleased. Accordingly, his children had Catholic tutors, Protestant tutors, Calvinist tutors. Simply put, Margareta and Gustav wanted the best tutors, no matter what their religious beliefs might be.

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Gustav with his eldest son, Erik, receiving a copy of the first-ever Bible in Swedish

Just how much Gustav trusted his wife was made evident in 1544, when Sweden was formally converted to a hereditary kingdom. By then, Gustav had three sons to secure the hold of the Vasa dynasty on the Swedish throne, Erik, Johan and Magnus. There would be one more before Margareta and Gustav were done, the future Karl IX. There were also a couple of daughters – valuable pawns in Gustav’s search for alliances – and I imagine Gustav smiled into his beard as he studied his growing family.

Anyway, in 1544 Gustav also decided that should he die before his sons were of an age to rule, Margareta was to act as regent. To reinforce her power, he granted her several of Sweden’s more important castles to hold in her own name until the heir of the throne came of age. Suddenly, Margareta was in a position to wield substantial power should she want to. She didn’t, expressing fervently that she hoped she would never live to see the day when she had to make her way through life without her beloved husband. Went down well with hubby, I imagine…

Margareta was granted her wish. In 1551, she sickened and died, leaving behind a distraught husband and eight children, the youngest no more than a year old. It is said there was a solar eclipse on the day she died, the heavens as affected by her death as was her husband and her family. She was buried with adequate pomp and circumstance in Uppsala Cathedral, sharing a tomb with Gustav’s first wife. When Gustav Vasa died nine years later, he was buried between them.

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Gustav, pushing sixty

Gustav was very affected by Margareta’s death. Now well into his fifties, he’d grown accustomed to having her see to his physical comfort, to having her always at his side. The king decided to marry again – something everyone expected him to do, as he needed someone to help him raise all those children. After some scouting about, his eye fell on Katarina Stenbock, a pretty blonde girl who was forty years his junior. She was also Margareta’s niece, which caused some problems – the church was not happy with what they considered to be a marriage within the prohibited degree.

Katarina herself was not thrilled. Yet again, the chosen bride was already promised elsewhere, and I imagine exchanging the vision of sleeping with a man her own age to that of sleeping with a man old enough to be her grandfather must have been…err…difficult. But no one asked Katarina’s opinion – her family was eager to see her wed to the king, thereby ensuring a future of preferences. So in 1552, Katarina married Gustav in a splendid ceremony where her new step-daughters (and cousins) in red silk surrounded the bride in pink.

Katarina and Gustav never achieved the relationship Gustav had had with Margareta. Hers were big shoes to fill, and besides the age difference must have made it difficult for them to find all that much to chit-chat about. Being of an age with her step-children, Katarina was probably prone to take their part in any conflict with their father – and there were conflicts, as the ageing Gustav grew increasingly short of temper while his children chafed under his control.

Plus, of course, there was the major, major scandal when one of Gustav’s daughters, Cecilia, was caught in the very compromising situation of having a half-naked man in her bedroom. Gustav blamed Katarina for not having exercised sufficient control over Cecilia. Reputedly, Katarina told him Cecilia wasn’t her daughter, but his.

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Katarina

Katarina never gave Gustav any children, although to judge from some oblique comments in various documents she was probably pregnant on some occasions. Neither was she put in the same position of trust as Margareta, Gustav mostly using her as his housekeeper and step-mother to his children. He never corresponded with her as he did with Margareta, preferring to write directly to his elder daughters instead.

In the end, Katarina was relegated to being his nurse. Gustav took his time dying and hated being bedridden – something he took out on poor Katarina, blaming her for the fact that his children rarely came to visit. Truth was, they avoided their father and his foul temper during his last months on earth…

When Gustav died in 1560, Katarina was left to the mercy of her step-sons. Gustav had left instructions that she be given an income and lands in keeping with her status as dowager queen, but he had never specified either amounts or lands. Fortunately for Katarina, her step-sons were fond of her, so she wasn’t exactly left destitute.

Katarina survived her husband for well over six decades. She never married again, never wore anything but widow’s weeds, and when she finally died, at the very advanced age of 86 years, she too was buried with her husband in Uppsala Cathedral. And there, to this day, they lie: the king, his first dynastic wife, his beloved second wife, and his housekeeper third wife. And let me tell you, if skeletons can hold hands, then Gustav’s finger bones are tightly interlinked with those of Margareta, the wife he adored.

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