ANNA BELFRAGE

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

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

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

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

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

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Isabel by van der Weyden

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Philip (van der Weyden)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brought to bed of a daughter? Try again!

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One of the things a medieval queen was expected to provide her husband with was a male heir – and preferably a spare. For a medieval king to have only female heirs caused a number of problems, primarily that of convincing the male barons to swear allegiance to a woman. Plus, from a purely dynastic perspective, whatever children the female ruler had would belong to their father’s house.

So when, in 1254, the heir to the English throne, Edward, married Eleanor of Castile, one of the expectations on the (very) young bride was that she ensure a continuation of the Plantagenet dynasty – a dynasty she herself belonged to through her great-grandmother and namesake, Eleanor of England. (Yet another young bride, this daughter of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine married Alfonso VIII in 1174)

I’d have liked to present you with some wedding pics, but seeing as all this happened close to 800 years ago, there aren’t any. In fact, there aren’t any reliable likenesses of Edward and Eleanor. We know he was uncommonly tall. We know he lisped and had a droopy eye-lid. We know nada about her, but I imagine her as small – especially standing side by side with her lanky groom.

“Who is that?” Eleanor whispered, shrinking back behind a pillar.
“That?” Her maid peeked out. “Ah, that is your intended, my lady.”
“Him?” Eleanor pressed her cheek against the cold stone. So tall, so handsome – what would he see in her? 

As always when it came to royalty, the Eleanor-Edward union was political. Edward’s father, Henry III, needed to sort an ongoing feud with Eleanor’s brother, Alfonso X, and stop him from invading Gascony. And so, the fifteen-year-old Edward was sent off to Burgos, there to do his duty and wed the  Castilian princess. At least they met some days before tying the knot. Two tongue-tied teenagers peeking at each other on the sly, cheeks that heated when their eyes met. A shared smile, and then Edward was off to do other things (like being knighted by his future brother-in-law Alfonso) and Eleanor could go back to embroidering an elegant E on the shirt she was making for her soon-to-be husband.

The little bride, Eleanor, came with a good pedigree. Her mother, Jeanne de Dammartin, had once been considered by Henry III as a wife for himself, but due to political reasons this was not to be. Instead, Jeanne was wed to Fernando III of Castile (the future St Fernando) as his second wife.

The thirteen-year-old Eleanor not only had a saint for a father. She also came from a notably fertile family. Her mother had given Fernando five children, four of whom were sons. Her paternal grandmother, Berenguela, had produced five children during seven years of marriage. And as to her great-grandmother Eleanor of England, well she had presented her husband with twelve children – one every other year or so. However, very few of the sons survived – in fact, once the youngest was killed by a falling tile, the Castilian crown passed through Berenguela to Fernando. (More on Berenguela here)

With all these fertile females up her family tree, no one was particularly worried about the mandatory male heir. In the fullness of time, Edward’s new wife would surely present him with a healthy, squalling son.

valentine-dicksee-romeo-and-juliet-on-the-balconyAs an added bonus, the young couple seem to have taken an immediate liking to one another. This resulted in a stillborn (or dead shortly after its birth) baby in 1255, the first of sixteen (or at least fourteen) children. At the time, Eleanor was not yet fourteen, so I imagine this was a traumatic experience. There was a gap of some years – years in which the affection and love between Edward and Eleanor grew, making them almost inseparable. Whether or not there were miscarriages, we don’t know, but in 1261 Edward and Eleanor welcomed a daughter, Katherine, into this world.

Little Katherine died at three, and one year later, in 1265, Eleanor was delivered of yet another daughter, Joanna, who died some months later. I imagine that by now, Eleanor and Edward were beginning to become quite concerned. More than ten years married, and no living children – that did not bode well.

In 1266, little John arrived, and he was miraculously healthy. Prayers of gratitude rang in the royal solar, even more so when in 1268 yet another son, Henry, saw the light of the day. Two boys, albeit that little Henry was sickly. To round things off, a healthy daughter, Eleanor, was born in 1269.

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“Better leave them at home than carry them with us.”

In 1270, Edward took the cross. As a matter of course, Eleanor decided to accompany him, leaving her babies in the care of their grandmother and, in the case of the precious heir, their great-uncle. For a modern person, this seems somewhat callous: what sort of mother leaves her children to gallop off on adventure with her husband, hey? Well, first of all it is important to remember that royal children were quite often brought up in a separate household so as to give them some sort of stability. Being a medieval king – or royal heir – meant being constantly on the move, the entire court ambulating back and forth across the country.

Also, in the case of Edward and Eleanor, I do believe her first love was always her husband – he and his needs came first. And Edward seems to have been as genuinely in love with his wife, so maybe it was a symbiotic thing: he couldn’t go anywhere without her. Or maybe that is me being ridiculously romantic, seeing as we’re talking about a man with a very ruthless streak, as demonstrated by how he crushed the Welsh and attempted to subjugate the Scots. On the other hand, all men have multiple sides to them, and…Stop, stop, stop! Back to today’s topic – the quest for a male heir.

In 1271, there was a stillborn child. In 1272, while in Palestine, Edward and Eleanor welcomed yet another daughter, Joan. By then, they would have heard that their son John had died and what little joy they experienced at the birth of their daughter soured into fear when Edward was almost murdered. Clearly, they weren’t welcome in the Holy Land, and they set off for home. On the way, they learnt Henry III was dead. Edward was now king, and the pressing matter of a male heir became even more pressing – little Henry was not expected to live long.

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“Look, a son, an heir!”

In 1273, son number three, Alphonso, was born. A fine, lusty son, and Eleanor must have wept in relief. The little boy even survived his first few months, and it was therefore with great happiness Edward and Eleanor celebrated their coronation in 1274. By then, they’d been married almost twenty years, and even if little Henry died some months later, they did have their lovely Alphonso – and two healthy little girls. Does not seem much, given that Eleanor had given birth nine times. Nine. As she was only thirty-three, she could look forward to several more pregnancies. I wonder if there were times when this thought filled her with trepidation.

1275, 1276, 1277, 1279 – four pregnancies, four births, resulting in four little girls of whom two died. But at least Alphonso, this apple of his parents’ eyes, still thrived.

1281 – a little boy came and went like a shadow in the night. But still, they had Alphonso.

1282 – Elizabeth of Rhuddlan was born. A healthy child, and now there were five daughters – plus the precious Alphonso.

In April of 1284, a heavily pregnant Eleanor accompanied her husband to Wales.
Maybe you should stay at home,” he might have said to her, patting her on her swelling stomach. Not that he meant it, not really.
Stay at home? I accompanied you to the Holy Land – what is a jaunt to Wales compared with that?” she puffed, giving him a bright smile.

Royal 20 C.III, f.15So off they went, and there, in the building site that was Caernarvon Castle, Eleanor was delivered of a boy. A boy! Yes, a miracle baby, a strong little prince, and Eleanor smiled and wept as she presented her husband with the much-desired, if not so necessary, spare. After all, their sweet son Alphonso was now old enough to wed, and a marriage had been arranged for him with Margaret, daughter of the Count of Holland. For a little while there, everything was perfect in the Eleanor-Edward household. Until Alphonso fell ill, dying in August of 1284.

Alphonso lived the longest of all those children who died. Long enough for his parents to pin hopes on him, long enough to grow from an anonymous baby into an adored boy. And then, just like that, he died. It must have been utterly devastating. Yes, they had Prince Edward, but both Eleanor and Edward knew just what frail things children were – after all, with Alphonso they buried a tenth child. Even by the standards of the time, they were singularly unlucky as parents.

Eleanor was not to have any more children. After sixteen births, I guess she was worn out, and besides, her health was failing. So all hopes for a surviving male heir now rested on Edward, and even if he was a robust child, there were concerns that he too would die young.Just like with all her other children, on a daily basis, Eleanor did not see much of her youngest son. But despite not being with her son and daughters 24/7, Eleanor was a conscientious mother, ensuring her children were in good, competent hands. Did she love her children? I’d say yes – as much as she dared to. But no matter that she loved them, she loved her husband much more. It was with him she wanted to be, it was at his side she belonged.

In 1290, Eleanor died. Edward was numb with grief – so much so that for three whole days all royal business was suspended. But life goes on, and Edward had a duty to the crown – and his dynasty – to ensure there was more than one little boy in line to the throne. So in 1299, Edward married a second wife, the pretty and vivacious sister of the king of France. At the time, he was sixty and she was twenty – and fertile enough to present him with two beautiful and healthy sons.

In the event, these little spares would not be needed. In 1307, Eleanor’s last-born, Edward of Caernarvon, became king after his father. I daresay she would have been mightily pleased. She had done her duty by her husband and his family – she had birthed the next king.

A Catholic recusant in the court of Elizabeth I

In the aftermath of Martin Luther nailing his 95 theses to a church door in Wittenberg (and yes, I know it isn’t entirely certain he did nail them, but it makes for a forceful image, doesn’t it? Much more forceful than politely handing them over to the bishop) the people in Europe were to live through decades—even centuries—of religious confusion. The Holy Church fell apart, with some adhering to the old ways, some embracing the new.

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Edward VI, with his dying father Henry VIII in bed. An allegorical transfer of power

In England, Henry VIII chose to break with Rome and make himself head of the Church of England (this, as we all know, due to personal issues: he really, really wanted a divorce, and the Pope refused to give him one). At heart, Henry VIII was a Catholic, and the Church of England under him adopted some aspects of the Reformation but retained a lot of the colour, pageantry and rites of the Catholic Church. Things changed under Henry VIII’s son. Edward VI was VERY Protestant, and the Church of England developed accordingly, even if things were brought to a grinding halt when Mary I ascended the throne, determined to lead her subjects back into the welcoming fold of the Catholic Church. By then, things had gone too far. Too many of the English had embraced the reformed faith and had no desire whatsoever to return to the fold, no matter how welcoming.

In 1559, Elizabeth I ascended the throne. A Protestant Princess became a Protestant Queen, and no matter that she supposedly said she had no desire to open windows into men’s souls, Elizabeth ruled a country where Catholics were viewed with distrust. These recusants were potential papist spies, and then there was the infected matter of Elizabeth’s cousin and long-time prisoner, Mary Queen of Scots, who was a Catholic—with a claim on the English throne. No, it is safe to say that in the second half of the 16th century the smart thing was to be a Protestant. Especially if you were planning on a career at court—and a long life.

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Supposedly, Mary FitzAlan, Philip’s mother

After this somewhat lengthy preamble, it is time to introduce today’s protagonist. Philip Howard was born 1557, straight into the upper echelons of English nobility. His father, Thomas Howard, was the 4th Duke of Norfolk, his mother the heiress to the Earl of Arundel. Not that Philip ever got the opportunity to develop a relationship with his mother, as she died at seventeen after having given birth to him. The Howard family was a powerful family, descended from Thomas of Brotherton, Edward I’s son, through his impressive daughter Margaret. Philip’s Catholic great-grandfather, the 3rd Duke of Norfolk, had been instrumental in helping Mary I secure her throne, but Philip’s father had been educated by Protestants and had turned his back on the “old religion”.

Thomas was a busy up-and-coming man and needed a wife. Accordingly, he didn’t remain a widower for long. Philip was presented with a step-mother, and over the coming years, the Howard nursery expanded with four more children. And then wife number two died as well. Thomas Howard married Elizabeth Leyburne, widow to a Thomas Dacre and mother of three little girls (and a son who died young).

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Thomas Howard, Philip’s father

Elizabeth was a devout Catholic, something that didn’t exactly thrill her new husband. When she lay dying, a scant seven months or so after the wedding, she begged to be allowed to see a priest, but her husband refused. Maybe he was distraught—Elizabeth had gone into premature labour, and the baby died with her—maybe he considered it too much of a risk to allow a Catholic priest to visit his home. Or maybe he was just being pigheaded.Whatever the case, poor Elizabeth died uncomforted. This time, Thomas didn’t marry again. Instead, he married his three sons to his three step-daughters. A complicated “let’s keep it in the family” game.

Philip Howard was twelve when he married Anne Dacre. This was also the year when his father was accused of planning to marry Mary, Queen of Scots. The Duke wiggled out of that one, but some years later he was back kicking his heels in the Tower, now accused of participating in the Ridolfi plot, whereby the plotters intended to supplant Elizabeth with Mary, Queen of Scots. The evidence tying Howard to the plot are somewhat tenuous, but in June of 1572 he was executed for treason.

At the time, Philip Howard was fifteen. His father’s vast estates were attainted and fell to the crown, but fortunately for Philip, his maternal grandfather left an impressive inheritance, and so he became the Earl of Arundel – not quite as fancy as being a Duke, but definitely better than being an impoverished lordling.

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The young Philip.

The Philip – Anne marriage was not exactly a bed of roses, at least not initially. Anne was devout, and her upbringing had her leaning towards the Catholic faith. The Howard family had its own sizeable share of Catholic recusants, but Philip was not one of them, and he wasn’t thrilled to have a wife whose religion could cause him major problems at court. After all, Philip intended to spend a lot of time at court, where he very quickly had become one of Elizabeth’s favourites.

Things, however, happened. Philip began developing an affection for his wife – and for her religious preferences. He witnessed a debate at the Tower between Jesuits and Protestants in the early 1580’s that definitely swung him in matters of religion but for some years more he sat on the fence. Not so his wife, who converted in 1582. When the queen found out, Anne was placed under house arrest, a whole year of solitude during which she gave birth to a daughter whom she promptly named Elizabeth. (For her mother, not her queen, I imagine)

The queen relented, Anne was released and rushed into her husband’s arms. No longer the foppish courtier of his early youth, Philip had developed a serious—and devout—side. The queen’s treatment of his wife had not served to deter him from conversion, instead it made him all that more determined to become a Catholic, just like Anne. Philip probably never had the intention of going public with his conversion, but he lived in an age where every major household had a bevy of servants, and quite a few of those servants also acted as informers on their masters, which was how Queen Elizabeth found out that her erstwhile favourite and second cousin had decided to become a recusant.

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Elizabeth I, not only queen but also head of the Church of England

Queen Elizabeth ordered Philip to be placed under house arrest. Unlike his wife, Philip chose to flee. One wonders why: did he have reason to suspect the house arrest would be permanent? That the queen would never release him? That he would be assassinated? The present mood at court was very anti-Catholic, so maybe his fears were warranted.
Whatever the case, Philip decided to flee to France, but was betrayed and captured at sea. He was brought back to England where he was thrown into the Tower in 1585, sentenced to pay a fine of 10 000 pounds and to remain imprisoned at the queen’s pleasure. His wife was ordered to leave London and retire to the country, and no matter how much Philip begged, the queen refused permission for his wife and newborn son to visit him. Not one of Queen Elizabeth’s better moments…

Things might have ended differently for Philip had it not been for his Spanish namesake. In 1588, Philip II of Spain ordered the Great Armada to invade England under the auspices of restoring the True Religion, thereby doing every Catholic in England a huge disfavour – including Philip Howard.

As we all know, the threat of invasion came to nothing, and the English people rejoiced. Not so Philip Howard, who was now tried for treason, for having prayed for the Armada’s success and for having been party to a plan to excommunicate Queen Elizabeth. (As an aside, it is somewhat interesting that the excommunication threat be brought up: as a Protestant Monarch, why should Elizabeth care about a papal bull excommunicating her? Shows just how ingrained the Old Religion still was…)

Of course, Philip was found guilty and was attainted. For the coming years, he lived in constant fear that this would be the day he was dragged out to be beheaded, but in actual fact Queen Elizabeth never signed his execution order – even if no one had the charity to tell him so. Philip spent his days in relatively comfortable captivity in the Beauchamp Tower, accompanied by a dog that he used as a go-between to other prisoners. But he worried constantly for his family, knowing full well the future of his children now depended on the fortitude of his wife. (Fortunately, Anne Dacre was one tough cookie, so she rose to the challenge admirably.)

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Philip languishing in captivity

Some of his despair shines through in the inscription he carved on the stone above the chimney in Beauchamp Tower. In a spidery handwriting it reads “quanto plus afflictions pro Christo in hoc saeculo, tanto plus gloriae cum Christo in future” which translates as the more affliction we suffer in the name of Christ in this world, the greater the glory at Christ’s side in the next. Not sure just how much comfort he could draw from that.

Interestingly enough, Philip Howard always had a “Get out of jail” card at his disposal. All he had to do was recant, embrace the Protestant faith, and he would be forgiven, his estates restored to him. But he never did. Not even when he lay dying and yet again begged the queen to allow his wife and children to visit him, did he ever consider denying his faith. It must have been a terrible temptation for the ailing man. All he had to do, as per the queen, was to attend a Protestant Service and he would have the joy of his family at his side and be restored to all his honours – and her favour. An hour or so of lip service, and he would be allowed to hold his wife’s hand one last time, lay eyes on his son and daughter. One measly service and he would buy his children an easier life, himself a respectable death.

Some people are an unknown quantity until life throws them into the fires of fate. Some emerge strengthened by the experience, some crumble to ashes. Philip Howard belonged to the former, which is why he refused to give in. In a last burst of inspiration, he had the following message conveyed to the queen: “Tell Her majesty if my religion be the cause for which I suffer, sorry I am that I have but one life to lose.” And so Philip Howard died, alone in his tower on a cold October day of 1595. He had spent more than ten years behind the walls of the Tower for the single sin of being a Catholic. I wonder if Elizabeth ever felt a sting of shame – she should, IMO.

After Philip’s death, the queen withheld the possessions that should rightfully go to his widow. But Anne was no milksop and she fought for her rights, for the rights of her otherwise impoverished children. So successful was she, that ultimately her son, yet another Thomas Howard, was restored to his title as Earl of Arundel. And in the fullness of time, this Thomas Howard’s descendants would yet again become the Dukes of Norfolk – which they remain until today – but that would have to wait another hundred years or so.
As to Philip, his body was first buried together with that of his father, executed twenty-three years earlier. But in 1624, his widow (who, as you can work out, lived a long, long life) had his remains transferred to Arundel, where they still lie.

Philip Howard was canonised by the pope in 1970.

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.

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