ANNA BELFRAGE

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Archive for the category “Human life”

In Memoriam – of graveyards and mothers

A recent survey here in Sweden has concluded that a majority of Swedish people feel we should spread the ashes of those that have died in the great outdoors. A gust of wind and what little remains of a human after cremation would soar upwards, spread and eventually settle back on the ground.

No need, according to this survey, for headstones. No need for a little plaque engraved with the name of the recently deceased. Just this anonymous letting go and then the living can get back to their daily lives, the hole left behind by the deceased filled in by other things, other people.

20180406_180235I like walking in old churchyards. I stroll from headstone to headstone, read the names and the dates. In doing so, I remember that they once existed, even if they’re people I never knew nor have any connection with. When it comes to my own dead, I don’t have any headstones to visit. The lease on my great-grandparents’ plot was not extended in time, and one day my mother got a letter informing her that as there had been no extension, the remains of my great-grandparents and my maternal grandparents had been dug up and reburied in the common memorial grove. She took it rather badly. Even more so when we drove all the way up to her hometown to discover just how depressingly anonymous their new resting place was. Still, at least they had their names there.

My mother died recently, so the whole issue of headstone/plaque vs anonymous resting place has been up for discussion. We didn’t have a choice: my mother had left instructions and wanted her cremated remains to be put to rest anonymously in the same grove where my father’s ashes were interred twenty years ago.

20180406_180453Those that rest in this grove do so without names. Their ashes come in cardboard boxes and are buried by the churchyard staff so that no one knows exactly where their loved ones’ ashes ended up. It is a beautiful and peaceful place, a circular space bordered by a hedge and with a couple of very old trees that strive upwards to the heavens. It’s a stone throw’s distance from one of Malmö’s central squares, and so here the dead are surrounded by life, by the sound of laughter and music, of buses and cars. They may be anonymous, they may be forgotten, but somehow they’re still part of life. I like that. My mother would have liked that.

Us human beings are on this world for a very short time, and if we’re going to be honest, very few of us leave a legacy behind. Most of us are born, live and die in obscurity—which does not mean we don’t live life in full. It just means we’re like most people: too unimportant in the overall context of things, no matter how important we are to those that love us and are loved by us.

As we wander through old churchyards we may think all those who died in the past ended up with an engraved stone commemorating their existence. That is not true. Only those who could afford a mason could commission a headstone, and that means many, many people ended up in unmarked graves. In times of epidemics, war and disaster, people were buried in mass graves. No one carved their names on a headstone. They were simply gone.

Obviously, for those most affected by a death there is no need of a headstone to keep the memory alive. Children remember their parents for most of their lives, Grandchildren may remember their grandparents, but go one generation further down the line and there are no memories. There may be stories, little anecdotes shared from one generation to the other, but these are not necessarily representative of the person in question. It’s a bit like with history in general. We study the information that comes down to us and try to build a cohesive picture of the man/woman who lived ages ago based on entries in rolls and charters. However, what we get are details—not necessarily the truly important details—round which we try to recreate what that person might have been like.

mamma simone-martini-angel-gabriel_u-l-o2ohx0It is difficult to lose someone close to you. Losing a parent brings home that there is no IF about death, it is only a WHEN. Yes, we know that rationally, but we don’t feel it until it actually happens. With my mother’s passing, I am the eldest person in my original family. Reasonably, that makes me next in line. Not an entirely pleasant thought.

What is also difficult is handling the cocktail of emotions. It is especially difficult when the presumption is that as a daughter and a mother, my mother and I were very close and loving. Don’t get me wrong: I loved my mother and I am sure she loved me. But that does not mean the relationship was an easy one. In fact, for most of my adult life I have lived under a burden of expectations I have never quite lived up to, and that is very draining.

We are all a product of our lives and my mother was no exception. From the horizon of a fifty-plus woman, I can understand why she was as demanding as she was, her constant need for affirmation and attention a consequence of a difficult adolescence. I can understand that now, but I couldn’t quite understand it as a young woman when I mostly felt that no matter what I did, my mother was not entirely happy with me. She felt alone and abandoned. I juggled four children, a full-time job and a home, and still invited her over for dinner every weekend. But she was lonely all the other days as well and I went about with a constant burden of guilt.

Guilt is an interesting emotion. It steals so much energy that somewhere along the line it starts morphing into resentment. Years and years of not being quite good enough led to a certain distancing—it had to, as it hurt too much at times to be accused of being self-centred, of never having time for my mother, the person I owed everything to as she had given birth to me.

My mother’s last few years were bad years. She suffered from COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease) and this is a cruel, cruel condition, leaving the afflicted constantly short of breath, constantly in a state of air-anxiety. Every breath is a conscious effort, every movement is a challenge. We did what we could. We tried to show her that we loved and cared—because we did, of course we did.

We wished she would let go, because with each day her suffering increased, but my mother was not a quitter. She clung to life with everything she had. She loved life, was worried that the alternative wouldn’t be much fun. So she fought tooth and nail to stay alive, she breathed and breathed and breathed, she looked at us with panic in her eyes and breathed some more.

Talking to her about death and an eventual afterlife was not an option at this stage. She was too scared, too angry. And yes, she took it out on us—as we all take things out on those we trust the most.

It was almost—no, I must rephrase—it was a relief when the doctors concluded there was nothing more to be done for our mother. Instead, she was transferred to palliative care.
“What do you think your mother would say if we asked her what she wants?” the doctor asked me.
“My mother?” I shrugged. “She wants to live. Don’t we all?”
“Her body doesn’t. Not anymore,” the doctor said. And as our mother was no longer all there, the doctor made the decision to stop with all invasive treatments and instead to help her die with dignity.

My mother died at home. She died wearing her favourite nightdress, lying in her own sheets with her favourite painting on the wall in front of her. For the last four days of her life there was no pain, no air-anxiety. There was only peace—and resignation. I believe she died feeling safe. I hope she felt she was being called home and that in those last moments she could give thanks for a long and fulfilling life.

mamma b79e66fca0cf0d38dbbe12df843a2e40Now my mother lies in an anonymous grove. In summer, the wind soughs through the trees, through the flowering shrubs. In winter, frost crackles in the grass and in the deep, deep winter night, the stars are like miniature diamonds in the distant sky. Where she is right now, I do not know. I hope she is at peace and that if there is an afterlife, she has run effortlessly through the rolling pastures into the arms of her waiting man.

Of golden camels and shortchanged heiresses

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

Manuel_I_Comnenus

Manuel I Komnenos

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

Barbarossa

Frederick Barbarossa

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

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

Marie de Montpellier SagèlGuilhèmVIII

Guillaume’s seal

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

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

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

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Pedro II 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marie de montpellier Pedro2_marie

Pedro and Marie conceiving Jaime (under supervision)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is she Violent? No, she’s Violante

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

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

Violante TumboAKing

Alfonso

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

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

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

Violanta

Violant

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

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

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

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Sancho

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Margaret de Male 

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

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

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Lionel

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

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

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

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Violante and her brother

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

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

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

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

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

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

The male footnote – of a young man in Tudor England

History as we know it is like a very large, very incomplete embroidery, where some of those who have lived and breathed before us have ended up as a minuscule little stitch or two while the vast majority of our ancestors have lived and died without leaving as much as a wrinkle on the tapestry of human history. Many of those surviving stitches represent a male historical person. Now and then, a woman has been colourful enough to make her own mark, like Margaret, Countess of Norfolk, or Elizabeth I. But there’s no escaping the fact that in the annals of recorded history, women are seriously underrepresented and often flit by as mere footnotes.

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Edward VI

Today, I thought we’d spend some time with a male footnote. Think Tudor England and we think Henry VIII (NOT a footnote), we think Anne Boleyn (nope, she wasn’t a footnote either) Jane Seymour (hmm…), Edward VI (the jury is out: footnote or not?) and his sisters, Mary I and Elizabeth I. Plus we’ve all heard of Lady Jane Grey, of course. This devout Protestant teenager was Edward VI’s choice as his heir (and how he and his councillors must have despaired at the fact that there were no male claimants around. At least none that they wanted to promote). Jane ruled for nine days, was ousted from her throne, thrown into the Tower and several months later she was executed, this despite Mary I not wanting to execute the young woman. But Jane had become a safety risk for Mary and all safety risks had to be eliminated.

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Jane (National Portrait Gallery)

Jane had royal blood, her grandmother being Henry VIII’s vivacious sister, Mary. (Now this is a lady after mine own heart who dared her brother’s wrath to marry the man she loved) In difference to Mary and Elizabeth, Jane had never been bastardised. Obviously, Jane was luckier in her father than her female cousins once removed. But then almost everyone was luckier than them in this respect. I’m thinking Henry VIII’s mama didn’t raise him properly, how else to explain how he treated the women in his life? Neither here nor there, so let’s move on.

Edward VI was a precocious young king, well-educated and well-read. He had also been raised to see himself as defender of the Protestant faith as represented by the Anglican church. I imagine he walked about with an inflated sense of self-importance, but ultimately he was a boy masquerading as a powerful king, with most of the ruling done by men like his uncle, Edward Seymour the Duke of Somerset, and the very ambitious Earl of Warwick (soon to be Duke of Northumberland), John Dudley.

Initially, it seems Seymour and Dudley got on. Seymour as Lord Protector was infinitely more powerful, but Dudley soon showed just how capable he was, being instrumental in putting down one of the more serious rebellions during Edward VI’s reign in 1549. Thing is, the reasons for the rebellion could be laid rather neatly at Seymour’s door—he was not quite the ruler England needed—and Dudley soon joined those in opposition of the Lord Protector.

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John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland

At the time, Dudley still had the troops he’d raised to put down Kett’s Rebellion. Seymour had no such forces at his disposal, so he panicked, more or less kidnapped the king and carried him off to Windsor. Let’s just say things did not end well for Seymour and Dudley ended up as top-dog and Duke of Northumberland. Dudley and Seymour seemed to reconcile, but some years later, Somerset yet again tried to regain control of the king. This time, he ended up with his head on the block. Bye, bye Seymour, hello Dudley.

Some years later, the young king was now firmly under Northumberland’s control and our ambitious Duke liked having things this way. (Before we go any further I must say I find John Dudley quite the charismatic man. Capable and bright, he carved his own way to the top, had the endearing quality of being a good and loving husband, a good and loving father, and in general seems to have been a good guy to have around. Until he was bitten by the megalomania bug and fell victim to his hunger for more and more power…) England was at peace, the finances had been somewhat mended, and in general things were good. While there were hopes Edward would live long enough to rule in his own right, Dudley and his other councillors did their best to prepare their young liege for the task ahead.

By 1553, it became evident the young king was probably too frail to live long enough to conceive a child to inherit the crown. Yes, he had two sisters, but whether it was Edward’s brainchild or Dudley’s, the young king wasn’t entirely taken with the notion of designating either Mary or Elizabeth as his heir. I’m guessing Northumberland heartily agreed: gifted with as much intelligence as their father, further enhanced by their respective mothers, and an excellent education, neither Mary nor Elizabeth was about to accept being controlled by Dudley. With Elizabeth, Dudley had a potential in—his son, Robert Dudley, and Elizabeth knew and liked each other. With Mary he had nothing. Plus, of course, Mary was Catholic—anathema to a man who had embraced the new faith with a passion. Or with an eye out for what was politically the smartest thing to do.

It was something of a fortunate coincidence that Northumberland had an alternative heir closer to home—and to his family. This is where today’s footnote enters the scene and seeing as we’re at a wordcount of 1 000 before I even introduce him, it’s very obvious he’s no major player.  Peeps, I give you Guildford Dudley, a man so young he’d only recently started sprouting bristles.

In May of 1553, Guildford was wed to Lady Jane Grey, first cousin once removed of the ailing king. On that same occasion, Guildford’s younger sister married Henry Hastings and Jane’s sister married the heir of the Earl of Pembroke. A magnificent occasion, I imagine—and not necessarily indicative of Dudley’s devious plotting to continue controlling the crown. After all, these marriages had been under negotiation for quite some time, and at the time they were not much remarked upon.

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Victorian depiction of Guildford. Probably all wrong…

The happy couple seemed to like each other. By all accounts, Guildford was a handsome and charming lad. The sixth son born to John Dudley and his beloved wife, Jane Guildford, he was raised in a household as Protestant as that of the Grey family. Was he as pious as Jane Grey supposedly was? Hmm. Was he as educated? No—but then Jane must be considered something of a 16th century bookworm.

Come summer, the young king was fading quickly. Stubbornly determined not to name either of his half-sisters, he realised he had to name someone as his successor as those hoped for “heirs of my body” weren’t about to show. Ever. Did Northumberland nudge him in the direction of Lady Jane Grey? No idea. But I imagine the serious and pious young king found the equally pious and serious Jane very much to his liking. Promoting this young woman was the smart thing to do for Dudley—especially as Jane was his dear daughter-in-law.

On July 6 of 1553 Edward VI died. Three days later, Jane was informed she was now the queen and transported to the Tower, there to await her coronation. What did Guildford think of all this? Well, what little we do know indicates he was rather taken by the idea of becoming king. In fact, he said as much to his wife but she refused to do so, naming him instead Duke of Clarence, as only Parliament could pronounce her husband king. Guildford sulked, Jane was adamant.

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Mary

In the event, what title her husband was to have was the smallest of Jane’s problems. On July 10, Mary claimed the crown and the English rose like one (well) and hailed her as queen—including the entire Privy Council who’d all signed Edward’s final will designating Jane. Northumberland realised he’s miscalculated and tried to salvage what he could by proclaiming for Mary. Didn’t help much. Other than Guildford and Jane, soon enough both John Dudley and his sons Robert, Ambrose and Henry were incarcerated in the Tower. John Dudley was tried and sentenced to die. In a desperate attempt to save himself, Dudley converted to Catholicism on the eve of his execution. It did not help, and in August of 1553, his head was struck off.

Things weren’t looking all that good for our footnote. There he was, locked up in the Tower and come November he and his wife were tried for treason. They could do one thing only: plead guilty and throw themselves on Mary’s mercy. The queen was prepared to be merciful, fully aware of the fact that both Jane and Guildford were mere pawns. And had Mary not decided to wed Philip II of Spain, who knows what would have happened to our man of the day and his wife.

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Philip II

Ah. I see some of you scratching your head in confusion. What does Philip II of Spain have to do with Guildford’s and Jane’s fate? Well, the English did not fall head over heels and whoop with joy when they were told their queen intended to wed a foreigner—and a Catholic to boot. While they would gladly forgive Mary (at least initially) for being Catholic, many English had embraced the new faith and found it far more to their liking. A Spanish king brought with it the fear of Inquisitions, of being burned as a heretic for your beliefs. Plus, of course, he wasn’t English. Major drawback.

So upset were Mary’s subjects that rebellions broke out. The largest of these was Thomas Wyatt’s Rebellion which had as its objective to depose Mary and replace her with Elizabeth. One of the men involved in this rebellion was Henry Grey, Jane’s father. Need I say more? No, I didn’t think so.

The rebellion was crushed, the leaders were executed (and tortured. Poor Thomas Wyatt himself was tortured repeatedly in the hopes of getting him to admit Elizabeth had been involved in the plot. The brave man said nothing that could be used against Elizabeth) Elizabeth was placed in the Tower. And Mary’s counsellors, including her new, Spanish friends, all bayed for jane and Guildford’s blood. She didn’t want to, but ultimately Mary succumbed to pressure and signed their death warrants .

The evening before their execution, Guildford sent a message to his wife, requesting one last meeting. She refused, saying it would not help them face the morrow. Actually, I think it would have helped Guildford face the axe. I think she was much more convinced of her place in the hereafter than he was. She may have been reconciled to death, but he, I suspect, wanted desperately to live. To see his wife one last time, to hold her and caress her, would have allowed him to pretend there was still hope of a reprieve, still one more night that could, potentially, change fate.

On the morning of February 12, 1554, Guildford Dudley was escorted out to Tower Hill, there to see his fate fulfilled. Not for him an endless sequence of mornings, of waking up in bed and wondering just what this day might bring. Not for him a house full of children and puppies. Guildford Dudley was all of nineteen that long-gone day when he inhaled one last lungful of precious air, placed his head on the block and heard the whistle of the axe descending. Sic transit Gloria mundi, one could say.

So ends the tale of our male footnote. A short, stunted life that left little of value behind. But once he existed, once he had hopes and dreams – like we all do. I wonder how often he cursed his father’s ambition to hell and back as he sat in the Tower and waited and waited for his life to (hopefully) begin. It never did.

NOTE! This excursion into Tudor England takes me very, very far from my historical comfort zone. But somehow, Guildford called to me and I felt compelled to answer…

Happy Christmas!

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In difference to preceding generations, we live in the age of globalisation. Most of us have gadgets in our homes produced on the other side of the world, we wear clothes made in India or Bangladesh, we eat fruit and vegetable and fish that has been transported from very, very far away. That’s how we can eat tomatoes in winter, avocado all year round and munch our way through a bowl of scampi.

Globalisation also impacts our cultures. I recall the first time I travelled to China on business. The adverts that stared down at me from various billboards promoted stuff I’d never heard of before. (And in Chinese characters, which sort of added to the exoticism) Western food chain eateries were few on the ground and the music blaring from the radio was in Chinese, however modern the beat.

Some years later, and the adverts were for Gillette, McDonald’s, KFC, BMW. The music playing on the radio was no longer exclusively Chinese. In fact, most of it was in English. Not necessarily a bad thing, but how does this affect the local culture? Actually, how does it affect culture, full stop?

Sometimes, I fear we’re mistaking consumerism for culture. Take Valentine’s Day, until recently not much of a thing in Europe. Now we are bombarded with adverts suggesting we buy gifts and flowers and chocolate (yes please) for our loved ones on February 14. But in those countries where Valentine’s is an imported holiday there are no cultural roots to link all these gifts to, no traditions of homemade Valentine cards to somehow mitigate the “buy, buy, buy her stuff if you love her” message.

In Sweden, we’ve seen an upsurge in Halloween celebrations in the last decade. We’ve never celebrated Halloween. We’ve celebrated All Saints, a religious holiday when we’ve visited the graves of our dead and lit a candle for them. These days, we don’t do that anymore. We carve pumpkins into toothy grins and embrace artificial spiderwebs (and spiders), decorating our homes in orange and black. Not because it is part of our cultural identity, but because it is part of the new “global” culture, disseminated through various shows/movies & social media and eagerly spurred on by all those who make money on selling us yet another celebration.

These days, we even have a major Black Friday craze here in Europe. Not because we’ve suddenly started celebrating Thanksgiving, but because the commercial powers that are recognise yet another opportunity to make money. And we, dumb consumers that we are, fall for all those special offers, buying stuff we probably don’t need or much want. Most of us have too much stuff and too little content in our lives.

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Tomorrow it is Christmas Eve, and for the last four weeks or so, we’ve been in the grip of Christmas shopping. From every store blares Christmas music, most of it of the Anglo-Saxon kind. Very little of it is traditional – rarely does one hear Oh Come All ye Faithful, while José Feliciano’s Feliz Navidad seems to be on constant repeat. I suspect up-beat music stresses us into buying more stuff, the spiritual message of Christmas (God sending us his Son to deliver us all from evil) submerged by the “All I Want for Christmas” varieties which focuses on the presents. As I write this, the television in the background is informing me I can still buy my Christmas presents—at a bargain price, as this particular store has already started its After Xmas sale. (Most illogical: if it is an After Xmas sale, then how can it start before Christmas?)

It seems to me we’ve lost our way, somehow. For me, the weeks before Christmas should be about lighting candles to brighten the winter gloom while preparing for those few days when our family is reunited. Do I buy presents? Of course I do. But they’re not central to my Christmas and I rarely have a wish-list of my own. After all, I don’t need more things.

For me, the high point of our Christmas celebration is early on the morning of December 24 (In Sweden, Christmas Eve is the thing) All our children lie sleeping and hubby and I tip-toe around, lighting candles and preparing hot cocoa. We whip cream to go with the cocoa, heat the mandatory saffron buns and then, once we’re done, we crank up the volume so that the whole house echoes with “Hosanna, David’s son, blessed be he who comes in the name of the Lord” (One of my favourite X-mas psalms). One by one, our children emerge, sleepy-eyed and tousled. And while they are all taller than me, all of them adults, in that precise moment they are all still my babies, for all that they have to bend down for me to kiss them Happy Christmas.

jul Carl_Larsson_Brita_as_IdunaI hope you all have someone to kiss this Christmas. I hope there are moments when you sit in the glow of candles and enjoy the peace and quiet of the winter night, a little bubble of golden light in a world that sometimes feels very scary and dark. With that, I wish you all a Merry Christmas. Or just Happy Holidays and a fabulous New Year. And when life gets confusing and difficult, may you all have a star to guide you, a little beacon to light your way!

Ode to the pea

There are a couple of words in the global dictionary that have Swedish roots. Ombudsman, for example. And smorgasbord – or as we say, smörgåsbord – which essentially is a the huge buffet us Swedes enjoy at Christmas.

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Tables clad in red cloths are laden with several types of herring, just as many variants on salmon, smoked eel (big no-no these days: eels are an endangered species), mackerel, meatballs (duh!) ribs, sausages, mustard-glazed ham, smoked reindeer meat, potatoes, red cabbage, brown cabbage (normal cabbage prepared with syrup), kale, cheeses of all kinds, hard bread, soft bread and then, to top it all off, a huge selection of desserts, the primus inter pares being the cold rice porridge that is mixed with whipped cream and sliced oranges (we call it Rice a la Malta). There are some healthy alternatives, like the lutfisk (dried fish that is soaked back into shape for fifteen days prior to Christmas. The result is gelatinous and somewhat…umm…bland) but mostly this is a meal that requires a heroic approach to eating, the food washed down with schnaps and beer.

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Van Gogh, The Potato Eaters. The reality for most Swedes a century or so ago…

In Sweden, we consider the smorgasbord to be traditional. In actual fact, it is a relatively recent addition to our Christmas traditions. After all, until some decades into the twentieth century, Sweden was a very, very poor country, the majority of our population being either tenant farmers or workers in the traditional Swedish industries such as mining and saw mills. Wages did not stretch to much meat. Neither did they stretch to such luxuries as cheese or bread baked with wheat. The majority of our population survived on potatoes, barley and cabbage. Prior to the 18th century (when the potato was upgraded from suspicious tubular best fed to animals to a crop worthy of human consumption) it was cabbage – and peas.

So today, dear peeps, I give you the riveting history of the pea, this humble but oh, so important companion through the centuries.

I thought we’d start with the story about the princess and the pea. For those who’ve never heard of this famous literary combo, this fairy tale by H.C. Andersen is the story of a princess who had lost her way in life and so arrived bedraggled and wet at a castle, begging a bed for the night. Being without any useful identifying objects such as a crown, an ermine cape or a frog prince, she was naturally met with suspicion by her hosts, but the lady of the castle – and the mother of the potential bridegroom, a dashing prince – knew just how to verify if the wet little thing with curly hair down to her waist was a real princess. All she needed was a pea.

pea 452px-Edmund_Dulac_-_Princess_and_peaSaid pea was placed under 20 mattresses. The princess was then carefully tucked in (the prince hovered hopefully in the background, more than willing to offer a goodnight kiss. His lady mother told him to forget it: her precious son would not press his lips to anything but the real thing) Come morning, the overnight guest was black and blue all over, complaining mightily about the lumpy mattresses. The lady of the castle smiled. Their surprise guest was thereby revealed as a true princess, for only a girl of such rare sensibilities would have felt one itty-bitty pea through all those feather mattresses. Ergo, there was a wedding and a happily ever after.

As a child, I had major problems with this story. (I had problems with quite a few, starting with the rather obnoxious custom of kissing a frog to find your prince) In this case, I simply could not understand how a pea would survive being squashed under 20 mattresses. Peas in my world were soft and green. In H.C. Andersen’s world, they were mostly yellow and hard. In fact, for most of our species relationship with this versatile little legume, the pea has been dried and yellow, one of those must-have foodstuffs that ensured the household survived the winter.

It is difficult for us to imagine a world without potatoes – one of our staples. Or chocolate. Yes, I realise chocolate is not considered a staple, but for those addicted to the stuff it most certainly is. However you want to categorise chocolate, it wasn’t around until relatively recently. Nor were potatoes. Or orange carrots. Or tomatoes. Or popcorn. But the pea, ladies and gentlemen, most certainly was.

Peas Tokarski_Still_life_with_peaHumans have been eating peas for eons. Like many other legumes, the pea comes with the benefit of preserving itself – if you leave it to dry on its vine it will do just that, and instead of harvesting when the pods are juicy and green you wait until the summer is gone and pick the desiccated pods and the hard, yellow peas instead.

These days, most of us only eat the pea in its green variety – and chances are we’ll pull out a bag from the freezer whenever we feel inclined to produce a nice Crème Ninon or just have some peas with our wiener schnitzel (as an aside, a wiener schnitzel without peas is no wiener schnitzel) Some of us – notably those who live in the northern parts of England – enjoy consuming our peas as mushy peas, often served with fish and chips. Yes, I know mushy peas are made with dried marrowfat peas (which are greenish), and no, I’ll not share my little story about when I visited a plant that produced mushy peas – will put you off them forever…

The pea originates from the eastern Mediterranean area. In Georgia, they’ve been munching peas for over 7 000 years, and I’d hazard that originally the peas were eaten while green. Our distant ancestors lived a nomadic hand-to-mouth existence, so storing stuff was not high on the agenda. Over the years, the pea was domesticated and more and more it was grown for its dry fruit. Roman legionaries foraged for wild peas to complement their rations, as already the old Romans had a predilection for mushy peas. They just never got round to adding the fish and chips.

peas Peasants_breaking_breadIn the Middle Ages, green peas were a luxury item. Rich people served them to impress, a not-so-subtle reminder that they were rich enough not to worry about their food stores during the following winter. In general, a very small percentage was harvested while green, but in years of famine – and it is important to keep in mind that with depleted stores food was scarce until the next harvest, not just beyond the last frost – the poor and hungry were given leave to pick the peas while green so as not to die of starvation.

Other than the pea, people of the Middle Ages consumed huge quantities of cabbage and barley. Peas, cabbages, leeks and barley were all used to make various types of pottages – served with bread. It is estimated at least 50% of the daily calorie intake came from bread – baked with wheat in the more affluent/civilised areas of Europe, with barley and rye in the eastern & northern backwaters.

A pottage was essentially a soup. It varied in thickness depending on the means of the household. In poorer homes, the pottage could well consist of cabbage, herbs and a handful of crushed barley or oats to thicken it. In richer homes, a pottage could include meat and various vegetables. Sweet varieties included almonds and dried fruits, were thickened with eggs and eaten with a lot of lip-smacking.

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Photo Kalle Fridén

The dry pea was excellent for making pottage – pease pottage. It had the benefit of being rich in nutrients and was relatively cheap. Add some thyme and garlic, and it tasted quite nice. Those higher up the financial hierarchy would combine their pease pottage with ham, those somewhat poorer would instead make their pease pottage very thick – when it became a pease pudding (similar to humus in texture) and was quite filling. Growing peas was a fail-safe way of ensuring there was food on the table throughout the winter.

There were other benefits to cultivating peas. They did not require pampering. Peas could be planted early in spring as they do not require high temperatures to germinate. They didn’t need much sun. They were easy to harvest and, as stated above, easy to store. That being said, there were a lot of superstitions about the planting of peas, such as the fact that they should only be planted during a waning moon and preferably on a Wednesday or Saturday as otherwise the birds might make off with the planted peas. Apparently, birds back then took the days of the week very seriously indeed.

If you eat the same stuff every day, reasonably you’ll get tired of it. For generations, Europeans ate cabbage and peas, cabbage and peas, more peas, more cabbage. Which is probably why we no longer eat quite as much cabbage – or peas. And IF we eat it, chances are we’ll eat the cabbage shredded in a coleslaw (our medieval forebears would be quite horrified: eat it raw?) and the peas when they are at their greenest. We, in difference to our ancestors, do not need to worry about where tomorrow’s dinner will come from. We, unlike our ancestors, rather have the problem of having too much to eat around us. We, just like our ancestors, tend to have a predilection for all things sweet and fat – such foodstuffs were important in the distant past, when that extra layer of fat could well be the difference between survival or death – and green peas are substantially sweeter than the dried variety.

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Carl Larsson: Shelling peas

Still: to this day, that ancient dish the pease pottage still survives – although nowadays we tend to call it split-pea soup. What is truly interesting about pea soup is that it exists in most of the traditional European cuisines. The recipes are surprisingly similar – thyme, peas and broth – and accordingly the end result is always a creamy yellow thick soup that requires little in the way of extras to leave you agreeably full.

In Sweden, Thursday used to be the traditional pea-soup day. In fact, to some extent it still is – the determined Swede will always be able to find at least one restaurant in the vicinity that has pea-soup on its Thursday menu. The dried peas are left to soak overnight, and then they’re cooked in a rich ham-broth with plenty of thyme and served with mustard and pork sausage. Yummy. Even better, after the pea soup come Swedish pancakes with raspberry jam and whipped cream.

After such a meal – just like after a full Swedish smörgåsbord – the bed beckons. And I can assure you that should anyone see fit to place a dried pea or two beneath my mattress I will complain – loudly – about how lumpy and hard my bed is. I may not be a princess, but dried peas make uncomfortable bed companions. Trust me, I’ve tried.

The peace bride

In 1328, the very young Princess Joan of the Tower, Edward II’s and Isabella’s youngest daughter, was wed to the even younger Prince David of Scotland. Two small children, speaking vows they’d rehearsed but probably didn’t understand. Not exactly unusual in medieval times, but even by those standards Joan and David were very young. Once the ceremony was concluded, little Joan was carried off to Scotland to be raised by her in-laws.

Joan c5492bddf7315ba168da4dcac237a5c6The wedding between the two children sealed the treaty between England, as represented by Queen Isabella and Roger Mortimer, and Scotland, represented by an aging Robert Bruce. It was the culmination of negotiations that began already back in 1326, when Mortimer and Isabella reached out to the Scottish king to ensure he and his men stayed well away from England while Isabella and Mortimer invaded to depose Edward II. Mortimer preferred fighting one enemy at the time, and having to deal with both Edward II’s troops and the Scots would have been too much.

In the event, Edward II never mustered his troops. He fled west, mostly because his dearest friend and councillor, Hugh Despenser, begged him to. The ordered troops under Mortimer’s command (nominally they were under Isabella’s command) found little resistance, and come November, Edward II was a prisoner and Despenser was dead.

So why did the Scots not take advantage of all this upheaval and raid the north? Isabella and Mortimer dangled the promise of a permanent treaty, formally recognising Robert Bruce as king. This would go a long way to stabilise things in the north, and Robert wanted nothing so much as to be able to hand over a peaceful kingdom to his son. So Robert held back and waited for the promised treaty to be delivered. Except it wasn’t. Isabella and Mortimer had other, more immediate concerns, such as pushing through Edward II’s abdication and crowning young Edward III instead.

Midway through 1327, the peace negotiations between England and Scotland broke down. To force the issue, Robert Bruce sent men into the north of England to do some harrying. These men were led by Sir James Douglas and Thomas Randolph, and for a number of weeks they left a trail of destruction in their wake. Unacceptable, according to the very young but bellicose Edward III, and so the English army rode out to defeat these wily Scots and were utterly humiliated by James Douglas at the Battle of Stanhope Park.

Robert Bruce’s tactics worked. The negotiations were resumed, despite the young English king’s insistence that there should be no truce with the Scots. And, once an agreement had been reached, the Treaty of Northampton was sealed by the wedding of Joan and David in Berwick. Edward III did not attend.

In England, this resulted in Joan acquiring a new epithet: Makepeace. She was too young to care, I suspect, but her big brother didn’t like it at all that his baby sister was to be sent off to be raised among the wild Scots. Especially as he didn’t want peace with the Scots. He wanted revenge for Bannockburn and was as eager to hammer the Scots into obedience as his grandfather, Edward I. But for now, Edward III had to bide his time. In his kingdom, his dear mama and her constant companion called the shots. For now.

At the time of her wedding, Joan was all of seven. David was just four, and I can imagine just how disdainful she’d have been of her little groom. “He’s just a baby,” she might have whispered. Did she fully understand that once she and David were joined in matrimony she would be separated from the family and people she knew and loved to be raised in Scotland? Probably not—at least not until the moment came to say her goodbyes. I think it was a sad little girl who rode north.

Robert Bruce did not live for long after acquiring his precious treaty. In 1329 he died, and a boy of five became the new king. A year or so later, David and Joan were crowned, thereby making Joan the first Scottish queen to be crowned. However, not all Scots considered David to be their rightful king. After all, Robert Bruce won the crown by conquest, and one of the other claimants, Edward Balliol, was still around. So the moment Bruce was dead, Scottish unity fell apart—especially as such notables as Thomas Randolph, Guardian of the Realm, and Duncan of Mar died soon after.

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Joan and David w Philippe

In fact, by 1332 the Balliol side had the upper hand—and the support of Edward III. After a devastating defeat at Halidon Hill, Balliol claimed the crown. Little David and his wife were sent to France for safety. From one day to another they went from king and queen to destitute supplicants. Fortunately for them, King Philippe VI of France was more than happy to welcome them, if nothing else to spite Edward III.

We know little of the David-Joan match. It does not appear to have been a passionate affair, in fact some go as far as describing it as loveless. This does not necessarily indicate active dislike, and seeing as they were to spend so many years together, I hope they were at least friends of sorts.

In France, Philippe offered them Chateau Gaillard as a residence. A somewhat big and sprawling place for a ten-year-old boy and his somewhat older wife, but it’s not as a medieval king travelled all on his lonesome.

Joan would spend close to eight years in France. Formative years, years in which she grew from girl to woman. To some extent difficult years, Joan probably being one of the few people in her present surroundings who had any sort of fond feelings for Edward III—especially after the young English King proclaimed his intention to seize the French crown in 1337, thereby initiating The Hundred Years’ War.

Things did not go so well for Edward in the initial stages of his war with France. Also, our gallant and ferocious English lion was strapped for cash, so when he decided to attack France he could no longer afford to offer Balliol support. Those Scots who wanted David back did not hesitate to act and by 1341 David and Joan were back in Scotland.

By now, Joan was pushing twenty. So far, there had been no child. Whether this was due to not trying or not conceiving I have no idea, but I hold it unlikely that David and Joan wouldn’t have consummated their marriage—after all, the purpose of their union was to produce a healthy heir or two.

Anyway, once back in Scotland, David stepped out from under the shadow of his seniors and began to rule in his own name. In 1346 he rode with his armies into England, this to offer help to the French who were presently battling the English in Normandy. Unfortunately for David, there were enough men left in England to offer a spirited defence, and at the battle of Neville’s Cross, the Scots were defeated and David was taken prisoner.

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Joan. Odd hairstyle…

Initially, Joan seems to have remained in Scotland. In fact, she may have found herself in the uncomfortable position of being something of a hostage, a not-so-subtle reminder to the English king that he might have the Scots king, but they had his sister. We know from safe-conducts issued that Joan was invited to visit her husband. Edward even allowed conjugal visits, but whether Joan utilised them is unknown. She did, however, travel to England. One assumes that she must at least have popped by to say hello to her husband, but she also spent considerable time rebuilding her relationship with her mother.

David’s captivity was relatively comfortable. So comfortable that he had opportunity to meet and woo a new love interest, a certain Katherine Mortimer. Who this lady was is still something o a mystery. Given her name one could guess she was related to Roger Mortimer, but if so it must be very, very distantly. What we do know is that David professed he loved her more than he had ever loved a woman—including his wife.

Joan David_II,_King_of_Scotland_and_Edward_III,_King_of_England_(British_Library_MS_Cotton_Nero_D_VI,_folio_66v)

David (left) and Edward being friendly

Joan may not have been passionately in love with her husband (casual affection seems more probable), but that doesn’t mean she was all that thrilled at discovering he’d found a mistress. Maybe this was the straw that broke the camel’s neck, because when Edward decided to release David in 1357—in return for a huge ransom to be paid in annual instalments—and allow him to return home (with Katherine in tow), Joan apparently chose to stay in England.

While they did not part on the best of terms, Joan and David remained in contact. As Queen of Scotland, Joan could intercede on behalf of her husband and she did so with quite some success a few years later, thereby negotiating an extension on the annual payments of David’s ransom.

Joan Makepeace died in 1362, just 41 years old. She’d been married for 34 years and a crowned queen since the age of eight, but neither crown nor marriage had brought her happiness. Instead, she’d had a life marked by the constant conflicts both within her husband’s kingdom and between Scotland and England.

David was to outlive his wife by close to ten years. Not so his Katherine who was brutally knifed to death in 1360—the Scottish nobles did not like this foreign lady and her influence over their king. David soon found comfort elsewhere and not long after Joan’s death he married his current mistress, Margaret Drummond. He would never sire a child, and when he died in 1371 the crown passed to his nephew Robert Stewart, the first in a very long line of Stewart/Stuart kings.

The Silent Man who Founded a Nation

William the silent Philip_II_of_Spain_berating_William_the_Silent_Prince_of_Orange_by_Cornelis_Kruseman

Today’s protagonist, William, to the right. Philip II to the left

It is an obvious challenge for someone as vocal as myself to approach the historical gentleman known as William the Silent. Given the times he lived in, holding his tongue was probably a wise move – not that it ultimately helped. Still, let us not get to the end before we’ve even touched upon the beginning, which is why I hereby grab you, my dear reader, by the scruff of your neck and pull you straight back to 1533.

Now, by 1533, Europe was no longer the harmonious continent it used to be (kidding: Europe has seldom been harmonious). In fact, since 1517, Europe was being rent apart for religious reasons, some countries clinging to the Old Faith, a.k.a. the Holy Roman Church, others embracing Protestantism in one of its many forms. After all, Protestants was an umbrella term encompassing various new versions of the Christian faith, from Calvinists to Lutherans and onwards.

People who convert to (or adopt) a new faith are generally very intense about their beliefs. So, as a consequence of the Reformation sparked by Luther on the last day of October 1517, religious fervour swept the European nations. Those who chose to remain Catholic experienced a resurge of devoutness as they took a stand against the heretics, and thing in general became very tense.

William the silent father Willemderijke

William Sr

William, Count of Nassau, and his wife Juliana were among those very devout, very intense Lutherans. In 1533, Juliana gave birth to the first of their twelve children, a boy named William after his father.

Our young William grew up in a big family who took their Lutheran religion very seriously. But in 1544, little William’s cousin, Rene of Chalon, Prince of Orange died. He had named William as his heir with the condition that he be raised a Catholic. Now, one would have thought that for such devout people as William Sr and his wife, the thought of having one of their children raised a papist was anathema. Not so. Taking a leaf out of Henri IV’s book (except, of course, that Henri IV had yet to appear on the French stage) William Sr obviously concluded that a principality was worth a mass or two. And it was a LOT of land, both in France and present-day Germany as well as in the Netherlands. In one fell swoop, the Nassau family became truly important, adding a hyphen and Orange to their family name. Today, the Orange-Nassau line still sits on the Dutch throne, and William remains a preferred family name.

William the silent Mary_(1505–1558),_Queen_of_Hungary

Mary of Hapsburg, Queen of Hungary

What William himself thought of all this is unknown, but being an obedient lad he did as his father wished, bid his large family farewell, and went first to Breda, then to Brussels, to be properly educated in his new faith under the supervision of Mary of Hapsburg, one of those rather impressive female relatives of Emperor Charles V (in this case she was Charles’ sister) whom he liked to place in positions of great power. In fact, Charles V can be viewed as something of a trailblazer when it comes to gender equality, but that is probably the subject for another post.

Now as William was a minor, all his new vast lands were managed by Charles V who also ensured William was properly educated. Clearly, there was a strong bond between William and Charles—I guess William saw in the Emperor a second father.

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Anna, wife nr 1

By the time William turned eighteen, he had become an exemplary Catholic and a much-admired up-and-coming young man. Four years later, he was made commander of one of the Emperor’s armies, which, I presume, indicates William was quite good at the martial stuff. By then, William was a married man and father, having married his first wife, Anna van Egmond in 1551. It was a happy marriage, but unfortunately Anna died already in 1558. A difficult year for William, who not only lost his wife but his mentor, Charles V.

Philip II of Spain trusted William as implicitly as his father had done, and by the end of 1559, William was not only in control of his own various lands, but also the Stadtholder of Holland, Zeeland and Utrecht. Obviously, Philip expected William to be adequately grateful and toe the imperial line when it came to policies and religion, but William was having second thoughts about his Catholicism—even more so when Philip unleashed the Inquisition in Spanish Netherlands.

Even worse, in 1559 William discovered a secret. While in France as a hostage, William was invited to ride out with Henri II on a hunt. Now Henri was all chatty, sharing with William the not-so-appetizing fact that he and Philip II had a secret alliance.
“Mmm,” William said. (This is supposedly the incident which gave him his nickname, hence the monosyllabic response)
“Well, you already know, don’t you?” Henri continued.
“Mmm,” came the enigmatic reply. Henri went on to describe that the purpose of his and Philip’s collaboration was to exterminate all Protestants. Violently. That did not sit well with William—after all, most of his family were Lutherans, as were many of the people living in his domains.

According to Apology, a text William published in 1581, this was when he realised he could no longer side with the Spanish king. Soon enough, he had become the leader of the Dutch rebels, thereby instigating a period of conflicts that would last for eighty years (which is probably why it is called..ta-daa…the Eighty Years’ War).

William Avsachsen

Anna, wife nr 2

One indication of his new loyalties was his choice of a second wife. Anna of Saxony was impeccably Lutheran (and very rich) She was also not the easiest of women, prone to tantrums, depressions and an over-consumption of alcohol. But the marriage gave William valuable connections in Germany—connections he needed to take on the might of the Spanish Empire.

By 1567, William was persona non grata in the Hapsburg domains – sort of comes with the territory if you lead a rebellion. Even worse, his eldest son, Philip, had been seized by the Spanish and sent to Spain as a hostage. William would never see him again. Furthermore, his Dutch estates were confiscated which meant he depended on his wife’s wealth to tide him over. She had just given birth to their third child, having recuperated after an attempted suicide after the death of their first son. She was worried about their financial status and this resulted in quarrels and discord.

William escaped from all this by throwing himself into the religious wars, spending months away from home. In retaliation, his wife contracted a lawyer, a certain Jan Reubens, to help her claim her jointure from what little remained of William’s estates.

800px-William_I,_Prince_of_Orange_by_Adriaen_Thomasz._Key_Rijksmuseum_Amsterdam_SK-A-3148 (1)

William himself. A rather handsome man, IMO

Anna and Jan hit it off, so when William came home for a visit he was surprised to find his wife pregnant. Major scandal, although I suspect that in secret William punched the air and said “Yes!” Finally he had the means with which to push through a divorce from his difficult wife. Said and done, and as Anna’s family were utterly disgusted by her adultery poor Anna spent her last years locked up in a room reinforced with bars at the window and the door. She died in 1577, and was, sadly, not much missed.

By then, William had married for the third time. He had also had some success against the Spanish, plus he’d eschewed his Catholic faith and instead declared himself a Calvinist which could be considered opportunistic but probably reflected his true religious preferences. This didn’t exactly endear him to the Spanish, and the somewhat extreme views of the Calvinists regarding Catholics in general led to a partition of the Spanish Netherlands, where the southern provinces (more or less present-day Belgium) remained Spanish, while the northern provinces signed the Union of Utrecht, thereby laying the grounds for present-day Netherlands. William was not happy with this partition. He felt all the provinces should be ruled as one entity, but he didn’t have the resources with which to oust the Spanish, and years and years of warfare had worn him down.

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Charlotte wife nr 3

If he was less than satisfied with what was happening with the Spanish Netherlands, he was extremely happy with his new wife. Charlotte de Bourbon-Montpensier had been raised by a mother who leaned towards the Reformed religion but was forcibly made a nun at the age of thirteen. Instead of accepting her fate this spirited lady escaped from the convent, declared herself a Calvinist and fled to the Electorate of the Palatinate. She and William hit it off from day one, and over the course of six years she gave him as many daughters, the eldest of whom would go on to become the ancestress of the House of Hanover.

In 1580, Philip formally outlawed William. The Spanish king was sick to death of the stubborn Dutch and especially of William. What do you do when you just need someone to disappear? Well, you put out a contract on him, which is just what Philip II did, offering a minor fortune to whoever assassinated that foul outlaw, William the Silent.

In 1581, the Northern Provinces declared that they no longer recognised Philip II as their king. Instead, the fledgling state pronounced William their stadtholder. A very determined Spanish bounty hunter ambushed William in Antwerp. His injuries were life-threatening, and for some time, his life hung in the balance. The dedicated efforts of his wife and sister kept him alive, but unfortunately this dedication came at a cost, and an exhausted Charlotte died in May of 1582. William was devastated—but had no choice but to soldier on, for the sake of his subjects and family.

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Louise, wife nr 4

I think that when Charlotte died, life lost some of its vibrancy for William. But he still had a duty to fulfil, and albeit that he had a full nursery, he only had one son at home, his eldest being held in Spain. One son was not enough—anything could happen to an adolescent boy—so in 1583 William decided to marry again. This bride was also French, a Huguenot named Louise de Coligny who’d lost her first husband and her father in the St Bartholomew massacre. Nine months after the wedding, a son was born.

Unfortunately, William was not destined to enjoy life with his new wife and son for long. A certain Balthasar Gerard had made it his mission in life to rid the world of William. Gerard was a Catholic and a most loyal subject of Philip II. According to Gerard, William was a disgusting traitor, a man best erased from the surface of the earth. His plan was simple: earn William’s trust and then kill him. So in 1584 he presented himself at William’s court, pretending to be a French noble. He also offered to travel to France on William’s behalf and deliver messages to various of William’s allies.

Some months later, Gerard reappeared in Delft and requested a meeting with William. When William entered the room, Gerard produced two wheel-lock pistols and shot William at close range. William thereby became the first head of state in history to be assassinated with a handgun, a distinction I suspect he would have preferred not to have.

There is another version of how William was murdered, whereby Gerard simply loitered in the vicinity of the Prince’s residence, armed with two wheel-lock pistols he had bought off one of William’s soldiers. When William paused to talk to one of his Welsh soldiers, Gerard took the opportunity to shoot him and then fled, pursued by the Welshman. Both versions agree on William being shot.

Gerard fled but was apprehended before he made it out of Delft. So instead of living the good life in Costa de Sol at the Spanish king’s expense, Gerard suffered through horrific torture and one of the most extended and brutal executions in history. First, he had his right hand burned off with a red-hot iron. Then he had huge pincers ripping flesh off his body in six different places after which he was quartered while still alive, disembowelled, had his heart cut out and thrown in his face before he was beheaded. The beheading was probably unnecessary—I don’t think anyone survives being quartered.

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17th c depiction of William’s grave

As to William, he was buried in Nieuwe Kerk, Delft. Since then, most of his descendants have joined him there, generation after generation of Orange-Nassau men and women, including all Dutch monarchs. His original grave was a modest affair, but in the early 17th century our William was already considered some sort of Founding Father, and accordingly it was decided he needed an impressive monument. Like really impressive.

Other than liberty and all his descendants, William has bequeathed the Dutch not only an obvious connection to the colour orange but also their flag and their national anthem, the Wilhelmus, which began its days as a little ditty sung back in William’s day. This makes the Dutch national anthem the oldest in the world (with the possible exception of the Japanese anthem). It is also an anthem I know how to sing, thanks to lovely Dutch friends. But that, dear peeps, is neither here nor there.

From French monk to Supreme Commander – a rather unusual career

There must be something about the Swedish air that attracts ambitious Frenchmen to our shores. Or maybe it’s the beautiful Swedish women. Or the fact that there’s so much space up here. After all, there must be a reason why Jean Baptiste Bernadotte, French marshal in Napoleon’s army, left the cultured life of Paris to become king of Sweden. Not that I intend to tell you more about this upstart from Pau who was “adopted” by Charles XIII of Sweden when, in fact, there was a perfectly good little heir named Prince Gustav who should have inherited the throne.  No, today I’m going to tell you about another Frenchman, a certain Ponce d’Escouperie. Never heard of him? Well, neither have most Swedes. They might, however, have heard of him under the name of Pontus de la Gardie. Chances are they haven’t…

8184_1318551636_4Anyway, today’s protagonist saw the light of the day back in 1520. In La Belle France, more precisely in Chaunes, Languedoc. At the time, no one had any reason to believe little Ponce was destined for anything but a relatively ordinary life. His father was a well-to-do merchant named Jacques Scorperier. In the little town of Chaunes Jacques owned two houses, a mill, a vineyard, an olive orchard and a couple of meadows and fields. Plus he had a manor called La Gardie in the neighbouring county. All in all, Jacques was comfortably off, and further to this he’d been blessed with three sons, one of whom was our Ponce.

Ponce was not the eldest. Instead, brother Etienne stood to inherit what Jacques owned. As with so many younger sons, Ponce was therefore destined for the church. Did he want to become a monk? We don’t know. Judging from his future career, I’d say he never had the temperament to really be happy as a religious man. Ponce was a man of action, not of contemplation.

Anyway: Jacques was rich enough to afford to educate his youngest son, so Ponce was sent to the university of Bologna to study. Some years later, he was accepted as a monk at a French monastery. It didn’t take long for our young man to regret his choice of career. Rather radically, he left the calm and orderly life in the monastery and became a soldier instead. I wonder what Jacques would have thought of that, but Ponce was likely more interested in how to get ahead in the world than in pleasing cher Papa.

 

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A young Charles V

The 16th century was (unsurprisingly) full of conflict. Spain under Charles V (or I, depending if you’re counting in Spain or in the Hapsburg domains) was flexing its muscles and rapidly growing into a superpower. France was none too happy with this development, which resulted in a series of wars between France, Spain and Austria. Plus the Reformation caused new conflicts, this time between Catholics and Protestants. Ergo, an eager young mercenary had no problems finding employment.

 

Ponce took to fighting as a fish to the water. He rose steadily through the ranks, serving Henri II of France. In 1559, he was sent over by Henri to Scotland, there to offer his services to Marie de Guise, Mary Queen of Scots’ somewhat beleaguered (and very French & Catholic) regent and mother. By then, the Protestant movement headed by men like John Knox was racing like wildfire across the Lowlands and in 1560 Scotland officially became a Protestant country. Not exactly good news for our Catholic mercenary leader.

For some reason, Ponce took his men and went to Denmark instead of returning to France. As always in this neck of the world, the Danes and the Swedes were at loggerheads in the so-called Nordic Seven Years’ War. Perfect for an innovative and experienced mercenary captain. Fredrik II of Denmark agreed and welcomed Ponce with open arms. Fortunately for Sweden, they won this particular war. Bad news for Ponce, who was leading the defence of Varberg’s Castle. While impressive, the castle wall stood no chance against the insistent cannon fire from the Swedish artillery, and in August of 1565, Ponce saw no option but to capitulate.

 

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Ponce in armour

Mercenaries are rarely popular. Men who fight for money rather than loyalty have always been viewed with a certain level of distrust. Besides, a captured mercenary rarely had a weeping family willing to pauper themselves to pay his ransom. The options for a captured mercenary were therefore limited: change your allegiance or lose your head. Ponce preferred to keep his head attached to his neck, which is how he ended up serving the Swedish king, Erik XIV instead.

 

Not everyone was delighted at the presence of this battle-hardened man among the king’s closest advisors, but Erik took a liking to Ponce. Unwise—but then Erik had moments when he was not all there. You see, Erik had two younger half-brothers and these two dukes were of the opinion that they would be far better kings than big brother. To some extent I agree with them: Erik’s bouts of mental instability came with dire consequences, like when he participated in the murder of the Sture family.

Anyway: Ponce and the eldest of Erik’s brothers, Johan, hit it off. Big time. Soon enough, Ponce had shrugged off any debt of gratitude he owed Erik and was happily aiding and abetting Johan as he planned his palace coup. In Johan’s defence, he probably felt he had no choice: there was little love lost between him and big brother Erik, especially after Johan had married Katarina Jagellonica, daughter of the Polish king, in direct contradiction of Erik’s wishes. So Johan had spent the better part of four years behind lock and key and once he was released, he was determined to ensure that never happened to him again.

 

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Johan III

By late 1568, Johan and baby brother Karl (with Ponce’s help) had turned the tables on Erik. The crowned and anointed king was locked up—in far less comfort than Johan’s imprisonment—and some months later Johan had himself proclaimed king by the assembled Riksdag (Swedish for parliament) which also deposed Erik. Well, I guess they began by deposing Erik and then handed over the crown to Johan.

 

Johan was grateful for Ponce’s help. So grateful, in fact, that the mercenary not only received lands and manors but was also given a title. The youngest son of  French merchant was now a member of the Swedish nobility, taking the surname de La Gardie  in honour of the manor his father had once owned. Not that all that many Frenchmen would have been impressed: Sweden was (correctly) considered a backwater. But Ponce—now renamed Pontus as this is much easier for a Swede to pronounce—was a happy man. He was also a very trusted man, representing Sweden on a number of missions to Spain, France, the Holy Roman Empire and so on. As Johan III was married to a Catholic princess, he wanted to mend the fences with the Catholic church, and who better to do that than a born and bred Catholic like Pontus? After all, the man had once been a monk. Very briefly, but still…

 

Pontus Sophia_Gyllenhielm_c_1561_by_unknown

Sofia Johansdotter

Johan had to tread carefully round the issue of religion. Most Swedes had embraced their new Lutheran faith with fervour and were wary of Johan’s relaxed approach to evil papists—and highly suspicious of their Polish born queen. Pontus proved he was not only good at war, but also at diplomacy plus he was wise enough to rarely flout his faith while in Sweden. A good man, King Johan III thought, so good the old warhorse deserved a bride. By now, Pontus was approaching sixty. Still hale and vigorous, but definitely old. Much, much older than Johan’s illegitimate daughter Sofia, who was in her early twenties. I wonder what she thought when her father decided she was to marry Pontus. I guess no one really asked her opinion…

 

In 1580, Pontus and Sofia were wed according to Catholic rites in the huge abbey church of Vadstena. Johan threw the happy couple a huge wedding and the church was filled to the brim, people standing in every available space, crammed together on the floor or on the wooden galleries above. In the midst of the ceremony, one of the galleries collapsed, injuring several of the guests and killing one of them.
“Aha!” said the righteous Swedes, “God punishes the papists.”
”See?” said the Catholics, “That’s how God treats evil heretics.”

Whatever the case, the accident dampened the joyous mood at the wedding, but the newlyweds still managed to party before retiring to consummate their marriage. Less than a year later, their first child, a daughter, was born. By then, Pontus and Sofia were living in Reval, Pontus having been promoted to Supreme Commander and entrusted with the task of defending Sweden’s Baltic and Finnish holdings. This he did with his usual panache, and also found the time to visit his wife often enough to keep her more or less constantly pregnant between their marriage and her death, three years later, in childbirth.

 

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Arent’s engraving

How Pontus reacted to losing his wife, I don’t know. He was suddenly left a widower with three small children but seems to have sorted out the babysitting issues with ease, which was why he could leave his little daughter and his two very young sons in 1585 to negotiate with the Russians. Unfortunately, on the way back his boat capsized. Pontus de La Gardie died of drowning and was buried in Tallinn’s Cathedral, side by side with his young wife. So distraught was Johan III by this, that he commissioned a beautiful tomb chest from the (then) famous Dutch sculptor Arent Passar.

 

As to the three little orphans, they were neither destitute nor totally alone. The two sons would grow up to become well-respected members of the Swedish nobility, and many, many years later, Pontus’ grandson Magnus Gabriel de la Gardie would also marry royalty and become the richest and most ostentatious man in Sweden. And probably the best educated and most well-travelled. Plus Magnus Gabriel had a sweet-tooth so large he installed an entire room in one of his castles to hold all the various sweets he (and his equally sugar-addicted wife) regularly consumed. I’m not sure our battle-hardened Ponce would have approved, but my personal opinion is that there can be little wrong with a man whose eyes light up at the thought of candy. Well, except for his teeth. Especially back then…

The curious case of Karolina – a real Sleeping Beauty

Karolina 800px-DornröschenOnce upon a time there was a curious little girl who cut her finger on a spindle and fell into a deep, deep sleep—until prince Charming rode by and kissed her back to life again. A fairy tale we’re all familiar with, right?

How about Once upon a time there was a little girl who was skipping across the frozen lake when she slipped and fell, banging her head on the ice. Some time later, she went to bed and fell into a deep, deep sleep lasting several decades. Haven’t heard that one? Well, first of all it isn’t a fairy tale—as demonstrated by the total lack of a Prince Charming—secondly, the ice thing is only one version of what might have happened that day back in 1876 when Karolina Olsson returned home complaining of a ferocious headache.

Allow me to take you back to the late nineteenth century and the little island of Oknö, situated just off Sweden’s eastern coast in the Baltic Sea. The Olsson family were simple folk, deeply religious but also prone to believing in witches and spells, in things that go bump in the night. Come to think of it, at the time they weren’t alone in doing so – education was still rudimentary for most Swedes and where there’s no education there is superstition. The family consisted of eight people—Karolina had five brothers and was the second eldest.

As the only girl, Karolina was kept at home to help her mother with the household. When her brothers went to school, she learnt to read and write in between doing the laundry and cleaning and cooking and mending that was required for such a large family. But somewhere in 1875 Karolina was finally enrolled in the nearby school—probably so as to comply with the requirement that Karolina learn her catechism, a must in the very Lutheran (and rather intolerant) Sweden of the time.

On a February day of 1876, fourteen-year-old Karolina slipped on the ice—or so she said. She was alone at the time, but came home sporting bruises and an injured head. Some days later, the headache was augmented with a splitting toothache. Mama Olsson decided this was all the work of witches and sent her daughter to bed. Karolina was not to rise from it until 1908…

At the time, the story was that Karolina slept. Her mother washed her and cared for her, ensured she drank at least two glasses of milk a day, but other than that, Karolina just slept and slept. She was a local phenomenon, a real-life Sleeping Beauty, lying so well-tended in her bed while year after year slipped away.

These days, such behaviour would have led to some sort of intervention. After all, it isn’t normal for a young woman to lie in bed while life passes her by. At the time, the local doctors came and visited and in 1892 they diagnosed Karolina with a severe case of hysteria so the poor girl was transported to a nearby hospital where she was treated with electrical shock treatment.  This had no effect whatsoever, neither did all the pricking tests with a sharp needle, where the hospital staff hoped to at least elicit a reaction to pain. Nada. Karolina was returned home to her bed and her loving mother, having been incorrectly diagnosed with dementia paralytica which is a late stage symptom of syphilis.  Other doctors came and went, but in general no one could explain her comatose condition.

karolina Henry_Meynell_Rheam_-_Sleeping_Beauty

During all this time, Karolina never spoke—at least not when accompanied by anyone but her mother. Yes, at times she would moan and toss in her sleep, sometimes she whimpered and wept, but there were no words, no communication. According to her brothers, they had no recollection of her doing anything but sleeping, impervious to all the life that surrounded her in the one-room cottage the Olssson family called home. She slept, safe in her own little world of dreams.

Now, there are a lot of strange aspects to all this—beyond the basic problem of believing a human being can hibernate for thirty-odd years. First of all, two glasses of milk is not enough sustenance to keep a growing teenager or an adult woman alive. Secondly, wouldn’t her muscles totally have atrophied had she lain in bed all that time? According to descriptions, other than her being fast asleep, Karolina was in remarkably good shape when she was examined at the hospital in 1892. Assuming she wasn’t hibernating, maybe the real reason for all this pretence was that Karolina Olsson was hiding from the world at large, and that her mother helped her do so. We will come back to this a bit later…

In 1905, Mama Olsson passed. In her sleep, Karolina wept copiously. Her aging father took over the care of her, but he was too old to cope and so a housekeeper was installed to watch over our sleeping beauty. The housekeeper found some things that surprised her, such as the fact that Karolina’s hair was always clean and her nails and hands always well-tended. The housekeeper also claimed that whenever she brought candy with her to the cottage, pieces would go missing when she stepped outside for a moment. But despite the housekeeper’s suspicions, despite the family’s efforts to wake her, Karolina still seemed to spend her days in a deep sleep.

For obvious reasons the housekeeper was not quite as devoted to Karolina as her mother had been. The TLC which Mama Olsson had expended on Karolina was a thing of the past. Where Mama Olsson had made it something of an artform to keep Karolina looking her best, a true sleeping beauty, her new caretakers did what had to be done, no more. I imagine that after thirty years of watching her sleep, the novelty had sort of worn off, making Karolina more of an imposition than a loved family member.

Karolina_OlssonIn 1908, Karolina woke up.  Early in April that year, the housekeeper heard strange sounds from her room and rushed up the stairs to find her staggering about, crying. Karolina was forty-six years old and had no memories whatsoever of her last thirty-two years. She didn’t recognise her brothers, she was totally bamboozled by the Bright New World to which she’d woken.

Obviously, all sorts descended upon her to test her. She was remarkably unaffected by all those years of inertia, albeit that she had lost an awful amount of weight the last few years of her hibernation (which sort of corroborates the theories that when they were alone, Mama Olsson and Karolina ate and talked like normal people, only for Karolina to scurry back to bed at the sound of approaching people) As days became weeks she regained her strength and her speech, even if she was a hesitant speaker. Tests showed her to be above average intelligent and she could still read and write, even if she had no knowledge of such basics as geography.

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Karolina, the local attraction adorning a post card

The press had a field day, enchanted by this innocent woman who rather liked all the attention. One of the more famous Swedish psychiatrists of the day, Harald Fröderström, visited her in 1910 and spent a lot of time trying to understand what had really happened to her. He was quite charmed by this woman who behaved as much, much younger than her actual age and who shyly flirted with him whenever they met. Fröderström quickly ruled out total hibernation, saying it would have been impossible for her to sleep through such a long period of time without starving to death. Instead, he thought Karolina had suffered some sort of psychosis, brought on by a harrowing event. Her loving mother permanented the situation by supporting her daughter in her need to escape the world. Maybe the mother enjoyed the attention too.

The big question then is what really happened to Karolina that long-gone day in 1876 when she came home bruised and injured? Well, obviously that is something we’ll never know, but many believe she was the victim of severe abuse, maybe by many perpetrators. So traumatic was this event that it destroyed her mental equilibrium and caused her to pull the blankets over her head to shut out all the bad stuff in the world.

Bertil V 20170910_134004

One of Mr Vallien’s heads

One person who does believe Karolina experienced a truly terrifying experience is the Swedish glass artist Bertil Vallien. Mr Vallien uses a sand casting technique to create his work, and initially he did mostly amorphous shapes and colours. Someone asked him why he didn’t cast faces or humans, but Mr Vallien wasn’t interested. Until he heard the story about Karolina from Oknö. For some reason, this story hooked him, and at his next exposition he revealed a set of human faces. Male, harsh faces, cold and unemotional. The faces of the perpetrators, Mr Vallien explained, the faces of the monsters within. These days, these aloof representations of human faces have become emblematic for his work—and he no longer perceives all of them as potential perpetrators, which is a major relief.

Whatever dark events triggered Karolina’s retreat from the world in 1876, once she woke up she embraced life to the full, living another forty-two years before dying in 1950.  people who met her described her as a hard worker who seemed content with her life. An odd life, in many ways a stunted life, permanently distorted by those unknown events in her distant youth.

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