ANNA BELFRAGE

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Archive for the category “Human life”

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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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…

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

The princess and the beast

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Gustav – a proud papa

In 1547, Gustav Vasa, King of Sweden, and his extremely fertile second wife Margareta Leijonhufvud welcomed their fourth daughter to the world. The little baby was christened Sofia, and as Gustav already had plenty of sons I imagine he was more than delighted with the new addition to his nursery. After all, a princess was a major asset to a king determined to build alliances with his neighbours, and in Gustav Vasa’s case, such alliances were extremely important as he had conquered rather than inherited the Swedish throne.

King Gustav was more than aware that in the eyes of the more established European kingdoms, he (and his country) was something of a parvenu. Until recently, Sweden had been part of the Danish kingdom – had been so since the 14th century. Now, thanks to Gustav, Sweden was rid of the Danish yoke, and to cement his dynasty’s grip on the throne Gustav had also pushed through legislation converting Sweden into a hereditary kingdom. Prior to this (and the inclusion in the Danish kingdom via the Kalmar Union under that medieval kick-ass lady Queen Margareta) the kings of Sweden had been elected—at least formally.

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Sofia Vasa

To ensure he and his family were treated with adequate respect, Gustav Vasa splurged on educating his children—all of them. He also spent minor fortunes on clothes and furnishings and to really make his daughters tempting, he gave them all substantial dowries. To cap it all off, in 1556 Gustav Vasa had their portraits painted and sent off to tempt some nice young man to ask for their hand. Obviously, many an impoverished prince came sniffing, but in general Gustav Vasa was reluctant to hand over his precious daughters to men who needed their dowry—he preferred seeing them wed to men who already had nice steady incomes.

While Gustav was around to arrange the marriages of his older daughters, when he died in 1560 the thirteen-year-old Sofia was still unwed. Instead, the job of finding her an adequate husband fell to her eldest brother, Erik XIV.

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Karin soothing Erik

On the surface, Erik’s candidate Magnus of Saxe-Lauenburg ticked a lot of boxes. He was the heir to a principality and he’d been raised at the Swedish court. From Erik’s perspective, he came with the added advantage of being one hundred percent loyal to Erik, even to the extent of supporting Erik in his determination to wed Karin Månsdotter, a young illiterate girl who was the daughter of one of the royal guards. No one else supported Erik in this infatuation. After all, a king was supposed to marry so as to benefit his nation, and what possible advantage was there in marrying little Karin? To that, Erik would likely have replied that only Karin could soothe his pounding headaches, only her soft voice could lull him to sleep. (More about all that here)

Anyway: Sofia was not as taken with the wannabe groom as her brother. The story goes that when Erik first raised the issue, she blankly refused. Given future events maybe she’d witnessed Magnus pulling legs off flies or kicking little dogs, but unfortunately for Sofia, her brother was dead set on this union. Two days after her initial refusal, she gave in, probably after a lot of pressure had been brought to bear. At the time, Erik and Sofia were not on the best of terms, and this king of ours had a tendency to dangerous rages that probably scared the daylights out of his little sister.

Erik’s idea was that he would marry Karin on the same day as Magnus married Sofia. His sister stalled. Repeatedly. Erik sent her an incensed letter and ordered others to arrange the wedding on her behalf. Still, all this stalling resulted in the wedding being postponed. Instead of tying the knot in 1567 when Erik first married Karin, Sofia gained a respite until 1568, when Erik married Karin for the second time (like more officially). This time, Sofia had no choice. In carmine coloured velvet she followed Karin (soon to be Queen Karin, if only for a little while) into the church, emerging as Mrs Magnus Saxe-Lauenberg.

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Francis, Magnus’ younger brother. I guess Magnus would have looked like this

History has nothing positive to say about Magnus beyond his marital skills. He was a violent and brutal man, and soon enough poor Sofia was the recipient of his fists and boots—especially once his father had ruled Magnus unfit to rule the duchy of Saxe-Lauenberg and replaced him with his younger brother. Magnus seethed at the injustice—and took it out on his wife. Poor Sofia had nowhere to go, and initially, her family (or rather her brothers) turned a blind eye. Domestic violence was a matter best handled between man and wife.

But as the years passed, as Sofia gave birth to child after child that died, her family began to get worried. Magnus had by now been dispatched to Ösel, an island recently conquered from the Danes. There, he went as wild and crazy as always, leaving a wake of blood and pain behind him. In fact, by now Magnus was little more than a brutal highwayman, and Johan (Sofia’s second eldest brother, King of Sweden after Erik had been deposed due to insanity. Those headaches that required soothing were not your normal headaches…) wanted little to do with him. Also, all that violence had affected Sofia more than physically. The records state that she was so cruelly used by her husband it affected her mental capacity.

Sofia was weak, her husband was harsh, and soon enough he’d wasted all the money she brought to their marriage. He didn’t like that, and once he’d pawned or sold Sofia’s jewellery he obliged his wife to beg and wheedle for more funds. Initially, Johan and Karl (Sofia’s third brother) gave her money, but as the situation grew more and more out of control, her brothers realised handing over money was no way to help their sister.

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King Johan

Finally, in 1578, King Johan had had enough. The abuser had to be stopped, ASAP. Magnus was arrested, all the land he’d received upon wedding Sofia was transferred to her, in her own right, and then Magnus was exiled from Sweden. Left behind was a badly scarred wife and one surviving child, a boy of eight.  Interestingly enough, over the coming years Sofia would now and then beg her brother to allow her husband to return. Johan refused, saying she did not know what was best for her. (Duh! An early sufferer of an extreme Stockholm syndrome?)

Meanwhile, Magnus continued his bitter feud with his father and brothers. It was his right to inherit Saxe-Lauenberg  (it was) and no way was he going to let his younger brother, Francis, oust him. But so unpopular was Magnus, so unappetising his reputation for violence and brutality, that the Holy Roman Emperor decided to ignore the rights of primogeniture and support baby brother Francis. This did not please Sofia. After all, she had a young son whose patrimony now was being squandered by his evil papa. King Johan was unmoved by her pleas that he help Magnus. As far as he was concerned, Magnus deserved everything he had coming and then more.

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Ratzeburg in 1590. I hope it had a dungeon…

In 1588 Magnus was captured by his brother and locked up in Ratzeburg Castle where he would remain until his death in 1603. Somehow, I hope his captivity was very harsh and uncomfortable.

With Magnus out of her life, Sofia concentrated on raising her son, Gustav. Truth be told, she mollycoddled the boy, and when he was sent off to his uncle’s household to be raised as befitted a noble young boy, she begged and begged that he be returned to her. So Gustav grew up spoiled and rather unbearable, at times behaving as violently as his father. Once in his teens he was taken in hand by his uncles who sent him off abroad to toughen him up and teach him some basic decency. Seems it worked, albeit that any benefits were short-lived as this young man managed to kill himself by shooting himself in the knee in 1597.

Sofia lived out the rest of her life alone. She concentrated on managing her estates (which she did dismally) and preferred to live away from the busy life at court. In letters to her, her large family urge her not to “sink too deep into her sorrows and thereby cause yourself a serious accident or fall into permanent illness” which indicates she may have been severely depressed—or maybe she’d inherited the Vasa gene for mental instability that led to Erik XIV’s deposition and her fourth brother’s totally secluded life. Ironically, that brother was named Magnus—just like the monster of a husband who “treated his princess with all unkindness, disdain and shameful slander, that she of the sorrow was caused great weakness of the head.”

Sofia died in 1611. Her life was no fairy tale despite her being a princess. In fact, it was rather the reverse…

Sweet Elizabeth – the life of a child bride

Today I thought we’d spend some time with a young lady who, I suspect, preferred living well below the radar, albeit she had no notion of what a radar is , seeing as she was born in 1313. Still, Elizabeth is one of those medieval ladies who sort of steps out the pages mostly because of the misfortunes that befell her and her family – at least for the first two decades of her life.

elizabeth c28e93e431c5aa13a9bc65f020fa1696--births-medievalWhen Elizabeth was born, things looked relatively rosy. Her father, Bartholomew de Badlesmere, was a respected baron, a loyal servant of the king, Edward II. As yet, there’d been no Bannockburn, no years of failing crops, no royal favourite named Hugh Despenser whose actions drove Elizabeth’s father into opposition.

Elizabeth was the third child, the third girl. I imagine both her parents had hoped for a boy, but a girl was a valuable asset when it came to building alliances, and in Elizabeth’s case she was married off at the tender age of three. Three. Now, medieval noble brides were married young, but the Church demanded that there be consent from both parties. As proven by Margaret, Countess of Norfolk, a woman claiming NOT to have consented could have her marriage annulled, but as far as we know, Elizabeth never put forth any such claims. Maybe this was due to her being happy with hubby. Maybe this was due to her not being a forceful personality (in difference to the delightfully forceful Margaret mentioned above).

elizabeth banquetElizabeth was only three, her groom was at most fifteen. Edmund Mortimer was Baron Roger Mortimer’s eldest son and quite the catch – so much of a catch Elizabeth’s father paid Roger Mortimer 2 000 pounds for the right to marry his daughter to the precious son. In return, Roger settled dower properties on little Elizabeth.

Before we go on, now might be a good time to explain the difference between dowry and dower. Dowry was the property the bride brought to her groom. It became part of the groom’s estate and once turned over, the bride had no right to any income from the dowry (which often was in land). Dower was the land set aside to provide for the bride. In most cases, the income from the dower lands belonged to the bride from day one. In some cases, such incomes ended up with hubby (for management, one imagines). But should the husband die or the marriage be annulled or some other calamity occur, the dower lands belonged to the bride. Should the husband be attainted, the wife could demand that her dower lands be exempted from the attaintment as they belonged to her, not him. (This is the argument Joan de Geneville used with success when her considerable dower lands were taken from her after her husband, Roger Mortimer had been found guilty of treason and attainted.)

In most cases, a young bride would grow up with her in-laws, educated by them in the managing of her husband’s future estates. In Elizabeth’s case, she was so young everyone agreed it was best she remained with her mother.

leeds-castle-facebook_imageThis is why Elizabeth, together with her siblings, was with her mother at Leeds Castle in 1321. By then, Bartholomew de Badlesmer was nowhere close to being King Edward II’s favourite flavour—rather the reverse. Bartholomew had joined the baronial opposition headed by Roger Mortimer and Thomas, Earl of Lancaster. The barons had won a major victory in the late summer of 1321, obliging Edward II to exile his favourites, Hugh Despenser Jr & Sr. But since then, the king had been biding his time, and unwittingly Lady Badlesmere was to provide King Edward with the reason he needed to go to war.

In October of 1321, Queen Isabella was on her way to Canterbury. At the time, Queen Isabella and her hubby were rubbing along just fine. They’d recently welcomed their fourth child, Joan, in to the world, and if Isabella resented Hugh Despenser’s growing influence—which I am sure she did—it had as yet not become intolerable to her. (It would, though: especially when her royal husband decided to deprive her of her dower income, some say at Hugh’s suggestion)

Anyway, Isabella decided to stop by at Leeds Castle (which was a royal castle held by Badlesmere and which also was part of Isabella’s dower) Some weeks previous to this, Bartholomew de Badlesmere has transferred most of his valuables to Leeds Castle, so maybe that’s why his wife acted as she did. Or maybe Lady Badlesmere was a belligerent sort and the king was counting on it.

Lady Badlesmere was no major fan of Queen Isabella—or her king. Her dislike for Isabella went some years back and was due to Isabella refusing to speak up for someone Lady Badlesmere was hoping to see employed at court. So when Isabella came riding, I imagine Lady Badlesmere rather enjoyed refusing her entrance, saying she couldn’t do so without express orders from her lord, i.e. her husband.

At the time, Lord Badlesmere was in Oxford together with Mortimer and the other rebellious barons. I imagine King Edward knew that. And when Lady Badlesmere was foolish enough to order her archers to fire on the queen’s advancing party—Isabella was no way going to accept being turned away from her own castle—the king was more than delighted to send troops to demand the surrender of the castle and all its contents.

Elizabeth siege_of_acreLady Badlesmere refused. She was, however, outnumbered. After five days of constant bombardments, and with no sign of her husband coming to the rescue, she had no choice but to surrender, having first received the king’s promise of mercy. No sooner had the king entered the castle and seized the treasure but he had the garrison hanged (not a man of his word, our King Edward) and Lady Badlesmere and her children – including Elizabeth, who at the time was around eight—were transported to the Tower where Lady Badlesmere had the dubious honour of becoming its first ever female prisoner.

This did not go down well with the king’s barons. Making war on women was not acceptable, although in this case one could argue Lady Badlesmere had provoked the king.

I don’t imagine the coming year was any fun for Elizabeth. One whole year in the Tower, and to add further salt to the wound in April of 1322 her father, Bartholomew de Badlesmere was hanged drawn and quartered just outside Canterbury, this as part of King Edward’s display of power after having crushed the rebellious barons in March of 1322.

In November of 1322, Lady Badlesmere was released from the Tower, was allowed to keep some of her dower lands and did her best to keep her head down for the coming years. It is assumed her children were released with her. Little Elizabeth had nowhere to go: her father-in-law was locked up in the Tower, her husband was locked up at Windsor, and of the huge Mortimer lands nothing remained, all of it having been attainted as a consequence of Roger Mortimer’s rebellion.

In 1326, things changed for the better. By then, Queen Isabella had since some years back headed up the opposition against her husband—or rather his hated favourite, Hugh Despenser—and at some point she and Roger Mortimer (who’d managed to escape from the Tower) had met up and joined forces. I’d say they joined more than forces, two passionate and forceful people who recognised in each other a common desire for power. Anyway: by the end of 1326, Hugh Despenser was history. King Edward II was held as a prisoner at Kenilworth and Queen Isabella and Mortimer ruled the roost—even more so once Edward had been forced to abdicate in favour of his young son, Edward III.

Elizabeth was reunited with her husband. By now, Elizabeth was 13 years old and it was time for her to assume her wifely duties—or at least some of them. She’d probably still have been considered too young to bed, at least for a further year or so. But in late 1328 she gave birth to her first child, a son named Roger. (They’re sadly unimaginative when it comes to names, the Mortimers: it is Roger, Edmund, Roger, Edmund with the odd John and Ralph thrown in…)

I imagine our Elizabeth was relieved: on her first try she’d done her duty and given her husband a male heir. And whether she loved her husband or not, I bet she was also relieved to be married to the son of the most powerful man in England. Not for her the fears of ending up a prisoner in the Tower again, not when she was part of the powerful Mortimer family, her father-in-law wielding more power in the realm than the young king himself.

elizabeth 885862cfe3cee32c69f14e155c2d8f24--medieval-life-medieval-artTherein, of course, lay the problem. As he grew older, Edward III began to resent his regents—and also fear that they might never be willing to turn over the power to him, the rightful ruler. So in late 1330,our young king, spurred on by a band of young valiant companions including a young man named William de Bohun, acted with swift determination. Queen Isabella ended up in house arrest for well over a year, Roger Mortimer ended up dead, his estates attainted, and poor Elizabeth was yet again to experience the turmoil of losing any sense of security she might have had. Plus she also had to live through the pain of losing her second son, a little John who died very young.

Once safely in control of his realm, Edward III was not without mercy. Edmund Mortimer had some of his hereditary lands returned to him, but as he died in 1331 he never really got a chance to enjoy them. Instead, Elizabeth’s three-year-old son was now the heir to whatever remained of the once so vast Mortimer landholdings. Elizabeth herself was not yet twenty and I imagine she felt she’d lived through enough excitement to last her a lifetime. Maybe she hoped to live out her days in peaceful quiet in a convent, or maybe she really did want to marry a new man, but whatever her wishes were mattered little: Elizabeth was an heiress in her own right and her dower lands were situated in the ever restless Welsh Marches. Plus, Edward III had men to reward, and that William de Bohun mentioned earlier was a younger brother with little but his own prowess (and the king’s love for his first cousin) to his name.

elizabeth Brabantsche Yeesten bIn 1335, Elizabeth was therefore married to William de Bohun. He was more or less her age, and by all accounts he was a good stepfather to little Roger Mortimer. After all, the de Bohuns and the Mortimers went a long way back, so long a papal dispensation was required for Will to be able to wed Elizabeth due to him being a relative of her first husband. Besides, William’s father and Roger Mortimer Sr had fought on the same side in the rebellion of 1321-22. Where Mortimer had ended up thrown into the Tower, Humphrey de Bohun lost his life at the Battle of Boroughbridge, supposedly by being impaled on a pike. Ugh.

Elizabeth gave her new husband two surviving children: a son named Humphrey was born in 1342, a daughter named Elizabeth in 1350. In the fullness of time, Elizabeth’s second son would sire two little girls, two very wealthy heiresses who would both marry very young: Eleanor de Bohun was ten when she wed Thomas of Gloucester, Edward IIII’s youngest son. Her sister, Mary de Bohun was twelve when she wed Henry Bolingbroke in 1380, eldest son of John of Gaunt and Edward III’s grandson.

Elizabeth’s eldest son, Roger Mortimer Jr, would go on to restore the family fortunes, marry well, sire one surviving legitimate son and die young. A repetitive pattern that, with subsequent Mortimers all dying well before their prime. But one day, a descendant of the Mortimers would claim the English throne as Edward IV. I bet old Roger Mortimer would have loved that…

Elizabeth de Badlesmere died in 1356, having enjoyed two decades of relative peace with her second husband, albeit that William was often out fighting for his king. Would she be pleased at knowing her descendants would one day sit on the throne of England? I’m not entirely sure: after all, Elizabeth had experienced first hand just how bloody the game of thrones can get—and so would her descendants, ending up fighting on opposite sides in the War of the Roses.

Ode to the Washing Machine

laundress 709d5b99b49a630c3c221a83871d7b70Laundry days, peeps! Woo hoo, time to undress and cavort in the shallows, looking rosy and warm and quite, quite desirable. To judge from various historical depictions of young girls doing the laundry, men did find them desirable – maybe they smelled nice and clean, like.

laundress 779dca0329c893b3d2152023d21a8a39Despite all these depictions of blushing laundresses, doing the laundry was no fun. It was hard, hard work involving a lot of water and stinging lye soap. Obviously, the well-to-do did not do their own laundry. They paid someone else to do it for them, and usually these someone elses were women, engaged in one of the few occupations that women have always been allowed to do to earn their living. I’d hazard doing laundry is almost as ancient a profession as whoring, and at times the clients had a tendency of mixing up these two trades, so that young and pretty laundry maids could find themselves in compromising situations.

Laundresses laundry-1_tc3b6pffer_-_washerwomen_in_a_grottoAnyway: the thing about laundry back then (which is not that long ago, a hundred years, give or take) was that it took time – and a lot of muscle. Usually, households saved up their laundry. In cold countries such as Sweden, washing anything but the absolute necessities was difficult during winter when lakes and rivers froze. Accordingly, no sooner was the blackbird warbling in the shrubs but all the dirty laundry that had been stockpiled over winter was dragged out of wherever it was kept and set to soak. In some cases, it was soaked in urine as this helped bleach yellowing and greying linen.

The soaking stage was called “bucking” and would take at least one full day. In some places, the linen was first soaked in water (or urine), then in a mixture of lye and water, then in water again before being transferred to the next stage. This is when our pretty laundresses had to start working those arms of theirs. Usually, the soaked linen was scrubbed with lye soap, both on the outside and the inside. Wham, wham, wham went the washing bats, ensuring a good work out of the biceps in at least one arm.

Laundress 1200px-Jean-Baptiste_Greuze_(French_-_The_Laundress_(La_Blanchisseuse)_-_Google_Art_ProjectOnce scrubbed, beaten, scrubbed and beaten some more, the garments were boiled. This took some time and involved a lot of heavy stirring. By now, of course, the arms and backs of our laundresses were beginning to ache – a lot. (And speaking from my own experience, it is hard work to boil f.ex. sheets) Once the garments had been boiled for long enough, they were lifted out of the cauldron, the released steam causing the hair of all those little laundresses to curl most enticingly. (In the pictures. In reality, it covered their faces with a sweaty sheen, dampened the clouts with which they covered their hair and had their clothes sticking most uncomfortably to their skin.)

laundresses 1340358820_image001The steaming laundry was then rinsed. Quite often, this was done in the closest river. Up here in the north, this meant the water was horribly cold, and as each garment had to be thoroughly rinsed, the laundresses ended up with numbed and chapped hands. Very chapped. Rarely shows up in all those paintings…

It wasn’t only the cold water that caused discomfort. Burns were common while tending to the cauldron, and then, of course, there was the lye. The correct name for lye is sodium hydroxide – it suffices to hear that name to understand lye is a) complicated stuff from a chemical perspective b) potentially dangerous. Spilled lye caused burns – very painful ones. Should you be unlucky and get it in your eyes, chances were you’d end up blind. Should you be even more unlucky and sort of end up falling over into the lye container, you’d likely die. (And for a graphic description of just what can happen with lye, I recommend Dina’s Book by Herbjörg Wassmo. 19th century Gothic drama set in Norway…)

Laundress e1a99e86901a14a28bc2bebfdf0cc352--th-century-oil-on-canvasAnyway: assuming our laundresses had survived the lye and the water, had avoided falling into the river to drown, at the end of a long, long day they had heaps and heaps of clean linen to hang on lines or spread on shrubs or on the grass to dry. And as I am of the firm opinion we have more in common with our ancestors than we think, I bet those distant laundresses did what I do as they folded the sheets: they sniffed them, smiling at how they smelled of sun and wind and rustling grass. Or maybe they were just too tired to do so. I hope not.

I suppose that what this post brings home is just how lucky we are to live in a day and age where the washing process consists of sorting clothes, stuffing them in the washing machine, adding detergent, selecting a programme and pressing ON. We don’t have to carry bucket after bucket of water to fill the cauldron. We don’t have to stand with our arms in urine as we stir the soaking linen. We don’t have to make lye, we don’t have to whack the washing, scrub it, scrub it some more. No boiling, no endless rinsing in icy water. No crying at the end of the day because our nails are blue and ache so, so much.

laundresses arkhipov-the-laundresses-c1900Once the laundry was done, our weary laundresses had other chores to do. Cows had to be milked, food had to be cooked, bread had to be baked, clothes had to be mended. For those with a fancy streak, all that newly washed linen also had to be ironed, collars and cuffs starched into perfection. A lot of hard work was involved in keeping your clothes clean, so maybe it’s no wonder people wore their garments for as long as they could before adding them to the “to wash” pile. Especially if you were a woman…

These days, we change clothes on a daily basis. Where our grandmothers aired their clothes, gave them a good brush-down and then wore them for some days more, we wrinkle our nose at the thought of well-worn clothes (with the exception of jeans. Maybe) We have the luxury to do so, thanks to that wonderful, wonderful invention, the washing machine. To paraphrase Maurice Chevalier: “Thank heavens for washing machines, without them what would modern peeps do?”  

The suffering of a loyal wife

medieval loveOn a September day in 1301, the fifteen-year-old Joan de Geneville wed Roger Mortimer, the future Baron Mortimer. He was one year younger, but this was apparently no hindrance as already one year later Joan was delivered of a child.

Joan brought a lot to her husband. The eldest of three daughters born to Piers de Geneville and his wife, Jeanne Lusignan, Joan born in 1286, the principal heiress to her grandfather’s substantial holdings in Wales and Ireland. Born at Ludlow Castle, her father’s residential seat, she inherited this upon the death of her father in 1292. Her attractiveness as an heiress was tripled when her family decided to concentrate all their wealth on her while dispatching her two younger sisters to convents. What the younger sisters may have thought of all this is unknown, but as a consequence Joan became quite the prize on the marital market, and I imagine Edmund Mortimer, Roger’s dear papa, was more than delighted when he reeled in this particular bridal catch for his son and heir.

Neither Roger nor Joan would have expected to have much say in who they wed. They were both born into noble houses and knew their duty was to wed as it benefited their families. A marriage was a partnership, entered into with the express intention of producing heirs and furthering the combined family interests. If said partnership developed into genuine affection and love, that was a nice little extra.

Joan and Roger seem to have been among the lucky couples who liked each other (although I imagine a fifteen-year-old girl may well have found her younger husband unbearably childish at times). Over the coming eighteen years, Joan would be brought to bed of at twelve children that we know of, suggesting she spent little time separated from her husband, no matter where he went.

After a couple of carefree years just after their marriage, things changed when Roger’s father died in 1304, thereby making him the new Baron Mortimer. He was considered too young to manage his own affairs, and initially he was made a ward of Piers Gaveston, soon to become far more famous as Edward II’s favourite than as Mortimer’s guardian. Edward I was still very much alive and kicking when all this transpired, and it was the old king himself who arranged the lavish affair at Westminster in 1306 when the future Edward II was knighted together with hundreds of other youngsters, including our Roger.

EHFA E IIIn 1307, Edward I died. His son was a very different kind of man. Where Edward I had experienced first-hand just how important it was for a king to be king and not let himself be swayed by favourites as Henry III was prone to, Edward II very quickly became dependent on his favourites. Initially, this did not affect the new king’s relationship with young Mortimer. In fact, Roger proved himself a capable and loyal servant of the king and was sent off to handle a number of sticky situations, mostly with Joan at his side.

But then the king began developing an affection for Hugh Despenser. This Roger did not like. At all. The Despensers and the Mortimers did not get along (putting it mildly) This probably had something to do with Roger’s grandfather killing Hugh’s granddaddy at Evesham and chopping off his head. I suppose such actions are hard to forgive.

Now, the problem with Hugh (according to the Mortimers) was not the man himself. It was the fact that he was married to Eleanor de Clare, niece to the king and one of the three de Clare heiresses, all of whom had substantial landholdings in the Mortimer stomping ground, the Welsh Marches. Hugh being Hugh, he (well, Eleanor really) came away with the lion’s share of the de Clare inheritance thereby making him quite the powerful lord in Mortimer’s ‘hood. Not good. In this, Roger and Joan were in agreement.

I am not sure as to how much in agreement they were when Roger, provoked by just how often the king turned a blind eye to Hugh’s less savoury deeds, went wild and crazy and attacked Hugh’s lands. I suspect Joan was with him all the way, even if she must have felt a niggle at unease: to go after Hugh was to go after the king, and even if most of the Marcher lords didn’t rate Edward II all that highly – they were rough and ready men who needed a firm hand on the bridle—he was still their anointed king. One did not rebel against the king.

Roger carried the day in that first encounter. A cornered king was obliged to pardon Mortimer and his companions for their rebellious actions and exile his beloved Hugh. That should be Hugh in plural, as the king was very fond of Hugh senior as well, as rapacious and greedy as his son. Well, according to Mortimer.

Some months later, Edward II turned the tables on the rebels. Intelligent and brave, the king had it in him to act decisively when so prodded. (It is a bit unfortunate he didn’t combine these attributes with consistency and impartiality. If so, none of what happened would have happened) Being deprived of Hugh was a major, major prod which is why the king mustered an army and went after Roger Mortimer who was forced to submit to the king in January of 1322.

He was stripped of his titles, his lands and carried off in chains to the Tower. Joan must have believed she’d never see her dear lord again, and somehow she was left with the responsibility of trying to salvage what could be salvaged from the resulting mess. Very little, as it turned out. The king showed his more vindictive side and had Joan and her children locked up. Unfortunately, not together. The Mortimer sons in England were taken to Windsor, the unwed Mortimer daughters were sent to various convents, with very little set aside for their board. Not exactly happy years for these little girls. Joan herself (with her youngest child) was kept under constrained circumstances.

In 1323, Mortimer escaped the Tower. Things became very bad for Joan who was taken to Skipton Castle and kept under very harsh conditions. Things didn’t get better when rumours reached England (and Joan) of Mortimer taking up with the king’s disgruntled queen, Isabella. (More about her and her “disgruntledness” here. This is, after all, a post about Joan and Isabella had a tendency to outshine most of her female contemporaries)

mortimerIn 1326, Mortimer returned to England, side by side with his queen. And yes, I am one of those who believe Mortimer and Isabella not only shared a lust for power but also a bed, which must have been very difficult for loyal Joan. Especially since she’d spent close to five years in captivity because of her husband. So I’m thinking she was anything but warm and cuddly when she finally met her husband again:

An ancient building, this hall still had a central hearth, the smoke spiralling upwards to the hole in the roof. The stone flags were bare of any rush mats, and even through the thick soles of Adam’s boots, the cold seeped through. The walls were adorned with heavy tapestries, there was a table and some chairs, and after having arranged for wine, Lady Joan retired to stand by the table, fingers tugging at the skirts of the cream kirtle that did little for her complexion.
Adam bowed deeply, grateful for this opportunity to compose his features. The lady before him bore little resemblance to the lady he conserved in his memories, her previously so womanly figure reduced to that of a stick-like waif, her narrow wrists protruding from the embroidered cuffs of her heavy sleeves.
She was wearing a silk veil, but a heavy braid of grey hair hung in plain sight, and from the way Lord Roger winced, Adam suspected Lady Joan was taking the opportunity to show him what these last few years had cost her. While he had been safe and sound in France, his loyal lady wife had suffered years of deprivation, and her suffering must have been compounded by the rumours concerning her husband and the queen.
“My lady.” Lord Roger approached her with his hands extended, as if to take hold of hers.
Lady Joan backed away. “My lord husband,” she said stiffly, emphasising the last word. “Long have I awaited your visit.”
Lord Roger looked away. “I’m sorry that I didn’t come sooner, but I—”
She waved him quiet. “So now what?” she asked.
“I…” Lord Roger wet his lips. “I brought you a gift.” He gestured, and Adam presented Lady Joan with the carefully wrapped bundle.
“A gift?” Lady Joan undid the cloth, revealing three books. Beautiful books, even Adam could see that; one of them reminiscent of Queen Jeanne’s book of hours. For what seemed like an eternity, Lady Joan just stood there, studying the books.
“Thank you,” she finally said. “And now what?” she repeated. “Will we return to Wigmore together, husband?” Yet again, she emphasised the last word. Yet again, Lord Roger looked away.
“Ah.” Lady Joan nodded, and her hand closed on the uppermost book. “For close to five years, I have been held captive. Five years in which my life has shrunk to four walls and a constant fear – for you, for our children. Five years spent mostly on my knees, praying for your safe return, for the sanity of our daughters, locked away among the nuns, for the lives of our sons, held prisoners by the king. I have prayed and prayed, and what have you done? What?” The book flew through the air, hitting Lord Roger full in the face. “You, husband, have shamed me! Before the entire court in France, before our sniggering countrymen, you have paraded that whore of a queen as your mistress, while I – I, your loyal wife, mother to your children – have suffered on your behalf. And this…” She picked up the next book and hurled it at him. “This is how you see fit to repay me? By buying me books?”

Right: let’s leave her there, shall we?

Eduard3Edward II was deposed, his young son crowned in his stead with Mortimer and Isabella as his regents. Over the coming years, Mortimer would spend most of his time at court, with Isabella. Did he communicate with his wife? He must have, as they had all those children in common and a huge joint estate to manage. Did he and Joan resume marital relations, find their way back to the intimacy pre 1321? I have my doubts. Joan de Geneville does not strike me as a woman who would have been content with the crumbs from the royal table, so if Roger Mortimer was sleeping with the queen he was probably not sleeping with his wife. Did Joan miss him? Did she regret the loss of what they once had? I believe she must have – after all, once upon a time they went everywhere together, and now she was the third wheel in an intense and devouring relationship, her husband more interested in the wielding of power together with Isabella than in her. Very sad, IMO. Not nice, Roger.

Mortimer Munro-Essay-1200

Mortimer being taken down

In 1330, Edward III ousted Mortimer and dear mama from power. Isabella was “allowed” to retire and think things over, Mortimer was tried, convicted of treason and executed. In a repeat of 1322, all Mortimer’s lands were attainted—including Joan’s dower lands. Once again, Joan was tainted with the brush of treason and for a while she ended up in captivity. Again. Most unfair and unchivalrous of a young king who otherwise prided himself on being a good and valiant knight.

Already in 1331, some parts of Mortimer lands were returned to Edmund, Joan’s and Roger’s eldest son. In 1336, Joan received full restitution of her lands and could go back to managing her affairs – and those of her children that required managing. By then, her eldest son was long dead and the hopes of the Mortimers rested on the very young shoulders of Roger Mortimer, her husband’s namesake and their grandson. Not that Joan had much say in how the young Roger was brought up, but this little Mortimer was fortunate in his stepfather and would go on to make quite his mark on the world.

I hope Joan found some peace and contentment during the last few decades of her life. She had family to visit, grandchildren to take pride in, she had wealth and comfort. But now and then I suspect she thought of her Roger, of the very young lad she married and loved before she lost him to other ambitions, other goals.

Joan died in 1356 and was buried at Wigmore Abbey. This is where I would have liked to end this post by stating that as Joan had petitioned the king to have Roger’s remains returned to her to be reinterred at Wigmore abbey, she was laid to rest side by side with her husband – loyal to the end, one could say. Unfortunately, there is little to prove she succeeded in her petition, and so Joan de Geneville was buried to lie alone, far from the man who’d so shaped her life.  I’m thinking that by then she no longer cared.

9789198324518P.S. The excerpt above is from Days of Sun and Glory, the second in my series about Roger, Isabella and the people dragged along in their wake.

The adventures of that perennial herbalist, Mr Nicholas Culpeper

NC d7107f99f9f5f33b5c78b6be93e2de61Some people are born with a major interest in flowers. Take my eldest son, who at the tender age of fourteen months methodically chomped his way through every single one of my hundred odd tulips, leaving half chewed petals in his wake. Or take Nicholas Culpeper, whose interest in flora was somewhat more scientific. I don’t think he ever ate a tulip – but that may have been more out of parsimony than disinclination, as tulips were rare (and expensive) plants during Nicholas’ lifetime.

My son no longer remembers what tulips tasted like, and seeing as these plants – or at least their bulbs – are mildly poisonous, he was never given an opportunity to repeat his gastronomical excursions. Culpeper tells us nothing of the tulip in his writings. I guess we can conclude that Culpeper wasn’t all that interested in flowers that were “merely” beautiful .

Not many authors can boast at having their book in constant publication for more than 350 years. Obviously, this is to some extent due to the fact that very few authors live long enough to experience such a long print run, but leaving witticisms aside, Nicholas Culpeper is one of the few authors around whose book has been in constant demand since it was first published, back in 1652.

NC English_PhysitianSo what was so great about his book? Did he reveal the secrets of alchemy? Was he perhaps an early George R.R. Martin, riveting people to their seats by a complex and convoluted tale involving dragons, feuding kings and resilient damsels? Nope – although Nicholas’ own life contained enough adventure to fill a book or two, what with the times he lived in. But what Nicholas experienced in life resulted in an entirely different kind of book; Nicholas published a herbal, The English Physitian, a DIY manual to keeping hale and hearty in a time when what medicines were to be found came from plants.

If we start at the beginning  – always a good idea, IMO – Nicholas was born in 1616, the posthumous son of Reverend Nicholas Culpeper, lord of Ockley manor in Surrey. The manor slipped through baby Nicholas’ fingers, and instead he was raised by his maternal grandfather, yet another reverend. By the time he was ten, little Nicholas had a good grounding in Greek and Latin, was familiar with both astrology and medical tracts and was well on his way to becoming a master herbalist. One must assume this passion for plants came from his grandfather, and I have this image of two figures, one stout and leaning on a cane, the other agile and all legs and arms, standing side by side as they inspect a stand of digitalis.

At the age of sixteen, Nicholas was sent to Cambridge to study divinities. He wasn’t all that interested – he wanted to study medicine – and as a consequence he never graduated. Besides, Nicholas had other plans. Since childhood, he had held a special fondness for Judith Rivers, a well-to-do heiress, and the two young lovers were committed to a life together. Judith’s parents disapproved. Nicholas was not a catch, and their precious Judith could do better. I imagine Judith wept. She trailed her mother like a whipped puppy and begged her parents to reconsider – she loved Nicholas, would love no other. Mr and Mrs Rivers remained unmoved. Judith was meant for other, richer, men.

Well, we all know what teenaged fools do for love, right? Faced with her parents’ continued opposition, Judith and Nicholas devised a plan. After all, theirs was not a puppy love, theirs was the real thing, and a life without each other was not to be contemplated. They decided to elope to Holland (Gretna Green had not come into the vogue yet) and stay there until the furore died down. As an aside, parental consent was not required for marriage in the 17th century, but to wed without Mama’s and Papa’s approval was to risk end up being disinherited. I suppose Judith was hoping that old adage “distance makes the heart grow fonder” would apply to her parents as well.

Whatever the case, Judith and Nicholas were not destined for a happily ever after. On her way to her rendezvous with Nicholas, Judith’s carriage was struck by lightning and she died. With one bolt of thunder, Nicholas’ hopes of a rosy future were obliterated – even more so when his grandfather decided to disinherit him, shocked to his core by Nicholas’ duplicitous behaviour. (Obviously, the old reverend had little experience of being young and madly in love…)

Nicholas was now in dire straits. There was no money to pay for his education, there was no bride, no welcoming home. After rousing himself from grief-induced depression, Nicholas apprenticed himself to an apothecary in London. He taught his employer Latin, his employer taught Nicholas everything he knew about plants.

NC downloadIn 1635, Nicholas took over his former master’s apothecary shop on Threadneedle Street. Due to his extensive reading and an inquisitive mind, Culpeper’s education was as extensive as that of a physician – but it was an informal education, and as such of very little value professionally. To his medical interests, Culpeper added astrology, blending these two disciplines into a holistic approach to healing. The Royal College of Physicians were not pleased with this interloper. Nicholas Culpeper retaliated by describing the physicians as “bloodsuckers, true vampires” – not the basis for a long-lasting loving relationship.

In 1640, several years after the sad affair with Judith, Nicholas married Alice Field. His new wife had recently inherited a considerable fortune after her merchant father, and using her money the couple established themselves in Spitalfields, far enough from London proper to allow Nicholas to continue with his healing endeavours despite not being an accredited member of the Royal College of Physicians. In Spitalfields, Nicholas opened the doors of his practise to everyone who needed his help. (How fortunate his wife was rich)

NC Digitalis_purpurea_Koehler_drawingMost of Nicholas cures were based on herbs. Some were true advancements in medical science, as when he documents the use of foxgloves to treat heart conditions (definitely works. The dosage, however, is somewhat tricky, and if too high will kill your patient). Some sound decidedly strange, such as boiling your bedstraw in oil to make an aphrodisiac.

Otherwise, he shares that willow can be used to stem the bleeding of wounds, roses can alleviate the discomfort of menses , raspberries and strawberries are excellent ways of ridding your teeth of “tartarous concretions” (plaque?). The seeds of nettles can be used against the bites of rabid dogs (I think not), meadowsweet is recommended against fevers (works, as meadowsweet contains high doses of salicylic acid)and fleabane helps with bites from venomous beasts. Hmm. My general conclusion after browsing through Nicholas’ suggested cures is to take them with a pinch of salt – and to make sure I have a herbal with me to ensure I’m picking the right plant!

NC zodiac manOur innovative healer did more than just list plants. He combined his herbal lore with his other passion, astrology, and borrowed heavily from Galen’s humoral philosophy, which is why in his herbal the plants are sorted by planets. Some belong to Venus, others to Mars and yet others to Saturn or Jupiter. To all this he added his own personal opinions – like when he dismisses black currants as having a “stinking and somewhat loathing savour”, thereby dismissing a plant we know to contain very high levels of vitamin C as well as a number of anti-inflammatory agents.

After some years of contented calm in Spitalfields, things were to change yet again for our intrepid healer. By now, the ravages of the Civil War were upon the people of England. Culpeper was a radical republican and wanted to do his thing for the cause. Besides, there was the matter of a slanderous accusation for witchcraft, plus an increasingly more infected relationship with both the Royal College of Physicians and the Society of Apothecaries. These august bodies disliked Culpeper’s translations of medical texts from Latin to English, making hitherto restricted knowledge available to the broader masses. It sort of undermined their business concept…

Nicholas kissed his wife goodbye, may have stooped over a cradle to coo at one of the many children his wife was to give him – puny little things that all but one died young – and rode off to fight for Parliament. The recruiting officer was less than flattering regarding Nicholas’ physique, but more than impressed when he heard Culpeper’s credentials, and instead of fighting, Nicholas was put to work as a field surgeon.

He attended the wounded at the battle of Edgehill, joined in the initial fighting at the battle of Newbury but was quickly called upon to use his medical skills instead. Culpeper was operating on an injured soldier when a stray musket ball wounded him severely in the chest, effectively ending his military ambitions.

Back in London, Nicholas returned to treating the poor. His own health was deteriorating rapidly, through a combination of too much work, his unhealed injury and tuberculosis. It didn’t help that his children kept on dying, causing both Nicholas and his wife more than their share of grief. On top of this, Nicholas took up a one man crusade against the “closed shop” policies of the Royal College of Physicians and the Society of Apothecaries. This “closed shop” policy was effectively a monopoly, based on the fact that so many of the guidelines to making medicines and treating diseases were only in Latin and only available to a few.

Nicholas made it his purpose in life to crush this monopoly. He translated one text after the other, he wrote treatises on diseases, on midwifery, on the properties of plants. He translated Galen into English, he devoted time to his destitute patients, and in all this he also managed to produce his masterpiece, The English Physitian – a giant handbook on what herbs to use for what diseases.

NC In_Effigiam_Nicholai_Culpeper_Equitis_by_Richard_GaywoodBy now, Nicholas knew he was dying. He was burning his candle both ends as life gasped and fluttered within him, driven by a need to write down as much as possible to help his fellowman. And he was clearly very productive, because when he finally did die, in January of 1654, his wife wrote that her husband had left her “79 books of his own making or translating in my hands.”

Nicholas Culpeper was an idealist. He was a man who combined compassion and passion into a constant endeavour to help the sick and ailing. He considered it a human right to have access to medical care – a precursor of the future welfare state – and like Don Quijote he was not afraid to take on an army of windmills while fighting for what he thought was right. In difference to Don Quijote, Culpeper fought using pen and ink rather than lance. And the fact that his book is still there, is still being read, is a testament to his success.

NC IMG_1227The English Physitian quickly became very popular. Housewives all over wanted a copy, and when people set off for the wild unknown of the New World, many of them carried with them a precious copy of Culpeper’s book, hoping to find cures for whatever ills might afflict them in their new homeland within the covers. I think Nicholas would have been pleased. I also think he would have liked my tulips – no matter that they have very few medicinal uses.

A short and inconsequential life

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

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

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

mary of burgundy Charles_Isabella_Burgundy

Meet the parents: Isabella and Charles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mary of Burgundy 1024px-Belagerung_Grandson

Charles being lenient: drowning, anyone?

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

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

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

Mary_of_burgundy_pocher

Mary

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

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

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

Mary of Burgundy Marriage_of_Mary_of_Burgundy_and_Maximilian_of_Austria

Mary marrying Maximilian

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

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

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

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

Mary of Burgundy Philip_the_Handsome_and_Margaret_of_Austria

Mary’s babies: Philip and Margaret

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

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

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

Las_Meninas,_by_Diego_Velázquez,_from_Prado_in_Google_Earth

The major loss

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