ANNA BELFRAGE

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Archive for the category “Life and death”

A very wicked woman

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The not-so-paragon Eve…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Something Mabel  did a lot – at least ten babies

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

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

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A lady with her spindle – not for our Mabel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Seems like a thing Mabel would do…

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

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

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

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

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

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

Death by Viking – a painful way to achieve sainthood

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

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St Edmund, crowned in glory

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

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

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

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Edmund’s death

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

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

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

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

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

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Killing the saint

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

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

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

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A talking wolf (?)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Hugh dying

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

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

Put not your trust in princes

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

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Peter of Bourbon

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

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

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Beautiful Blanche of Navarra is the lady to the right

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

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

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

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

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Maria saying hello to Pedro. (not likely!)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Pedro being murdered, with du Guesclin holding his arms

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

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

St Lucia: the saint who lost her eyes and found the light

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Note the eyes on a stalk!

This is a post I wrote some years ago, but seeing as St Lucia’s day is an annually recurring event, I’ve decided to review, rewrite somewhat and republish ….taa-daa….today, seeing as it is December 13. Again.

For most Swedish people, Christmas sort of starts on December 13.  Today we celebrate St Lucia’s day, and I would argue that for very many Swedes, this day comes in top three under the category “traditional feast days”. Why? Because of the light. St Lucia is celebrated when winter is at its darkest. Eight days to go until the midwinter solstice, until the year finally turns. Prior to switching to the Gregorian calendar December 13 WAS in actual fact the shortest day of the year.

Anyway: this time of the year, we rise in darkness, we prepare breakfast in darkness, we drop our children off at school in darkness, we arrive at work in darkness. There is a glimmer of daylight from mid-morning until mid-afternoon, but by four (at the latest) we are back in darkness. Christmas comes as a necessary break in all this black, allowing us to light candles and huddle round the gasping little flames.

And then there’s St Lucia. luciaThis is the day when Swedish children don long white nightshirts, the girls use red ribbons or lengths of tinsel to belt the shapeless garments, the boys don’t. Instead, the boys wear white conical hats, decorated with golden stars, and in their hands they carry rods to which a big golden star has been affixed. These are the “star boys”. Most of the girls carry a lit candle in their hand, and one lucky girl carries a crown of lit candles on her head – she is the Lucia. From personal experience, I can tell you it hurts when the hot candlewax drips onto your scalp, and still most Swedish girls desire to carry that flaming headgear at least once in their lives.

So, dressed in white, carrying candles and stars, the children form into processions and start to sing. Songs about how Lucia will drive away the dark, how in the darkest hour of midwinter a Holy Child was born. Songs about believing that one day, soon, the light will return to earth. Most apt, let me tell you.

img_0214In general, the Lucia festivities take place around seven o’clock in the morning. Proud parents, younger siblings and other relatives sit in the darkened rooms, whispering to each other. There is a smell of newly brewed coffee, of gingerbread biscuits and the traditional Luciabuns, bright yellow with saffron and studded with raisins.

From the corridor comes the sound of shuffling feet, of suppressed giggles, and then, at last, young voices break out in song. The Lucia enters – slowly, given her candles – and her handmaidens follow while the star boys come in last. The gloom of the room is lit by this procession of light, and in their benches people smile and nod (mothers wipe their eyes. Mothers do that a lot when their kids perform), most of them mouthing along with the songs. Saint_Lucy_by_Domenico_di_Pace_Beccafumi

So why St Lucia? Why is a Sicilian saint so revered in  country she definitely never visited or even had heard about? It’s all about the eyes, people. For those that don’t know, St Lucia was a young, very pious woman, a firm adherent to the newfangled Christian church. It might strike us as odd to reflect on the fact that there was a time when Christianity was considered nothing but a weird sect – very weird, what with this propensity to meekly accept the tribulations of life on earth while aspiring to come to heaven after death.

I dare say St Lucia’s widowed mother tore at her hair and moaned in desperation when her adolescent and impressionable daughter wanted to consecrate her virginity to the Christian church, deciding to give away her dowry to the poor. Not at all what St Lucia’s ailing mother wanted for her pretty daughter, and so she arranged a marriage with a young man from a wealthy – but pagan – family.

Contracts were signed, and the prospective bridegroom rubbed his hands with glee at the thought of increasing his considerable fortune with Lucia’s sizeable dowry. Lucia was less than thrilled, and managed to convince her mother to go to the nearby shrine of St Agatha and pray. While there, Lucia prayed for her mother’s recovery, and miraculously the chronic illness was cured (well, that is what normally happens at the shrines of saints, right?) Lucia was happy, her mother was happy, and Lucia succeeded in convincing her mother it was best to give away her dowry to the poor – a gesture of gratitude for the mother’s miraculous cure. The poor were obviously VERY happy at being the benefactors of so much largesse. Lucia’s intended bridegroom was very unhappy – pissed off, if we’re going to be brutally honest. After all, he had a signed contract that more or less made him the owner of all those jewels now being handed out to all sort of riff-raff. 478px-Lotto,_pala_di_santa_lucia_00

The bridegroom protested to the pagan authorities, who were most upset at discovering a subversive Christian in their midst. Lucia was dragged before the court and ordered to sacrifice to the emperor. She refused, setting that pretty mouth of hers in a stubborn line. (I’m guessing here. For a story to make it down close to 17 centuries, I bet you Lucia was quite the looker. Had she been ugly, no one would have bothered to record this story of woe – after all, some things never change…)

The pagan governor, Paschasius, waved his arms about and screamed a bit. Lucia lifted her shoulders in a resigned shrug. No matter what he threatened her with, she had no intention of sacrificing to a false god.
“False?” squeaked Paschasius, his voice floating into falsetto. “How false?”
“The emperor is a man, as fallible as you or I. There is but one God, and his son is Jesus Christ,” Lucia replied, her features acquiring a dreamy look.
This is when Paschasius pulled out all the stops, ordering his soldiers to take the young girl to a nearby brothel and there defile her. Nice guy, this Paschasius.

“You can try.” Lucia sat down on the ground. The guards heaved. The guards pushed.  The guards pulled. Little Lucia could not be budged, making one think of  “and all the king’s horses and all the king’s men,couldn’t get Humpty up again“, except, of course, that Lucia was a slender girl – a very pretty, slender girl. (Once again, I’m guessing. Maybe Lucia was a very pretty, very plump girl, nice and round, like. But generally, the heroines of these ancient stories aren’t – plump, I mean.)

The guards gave up. Paschasius grumbled a bit about having to skip the defilement part, but had his soldiers stack fire wood around the sitting girl.
“I’ll burn you alive if you don’t sacrifice to the emperor,” he said.
“Do your best,” Lucia said calmly, adjusting her hair. Tapers were brought and held to the wood. Nothing happened. Oil was poured on the wood, more tapers were brought. Nothing happened. By now, Paschasius was jumping up and down in frustration. Lucia just smiled. st lucia_sword

So far, the story is more or less the same throughout the ages, but sometime in the medieval times, someone decided the story needed some further spice, which is when the rather gory detail of putting Lucia’s eyes out were added. Paschasius, as per this version, seemed to think her eyes were adequate compensation for the sacrifice she refused to perform on behalf of the emperor. He was probably motivated by spite, what with not having been able to defile her OR get a nice, bright blaze burning around her. This uncooperative bonfire is also the reason why eventually Lucia was killed with a sword, blood staining her white linen dress – in both versions of the story. (And yes, this is a bit illogical: they couldn’t defile her or burn her, but kill her with a sword worked fine. As was poking her eyes out first…)

In the “let’s poke her eyes out” version, her eyes were miraculously restored to her body when her family set off to bury her – a gift from God, giving her the light of her eyesight back. The more cynical amongst us may consider this a belated gesture, what with Lucia already being dead and all that, but at least she was now buried with her beautiful eyes (blue, I think. No wait; she was Sicilian, right? A brilliant light brown, the colour of well-aged whisky). Anyway, because of this eye thing, Lucia became the patron saint of the blind, and what is more blind than man, stumbling through the eternal darkness of midwinter? Ergo, St Lucia was venerated on the day that traditionally was the darkest of the year, the midwinter solstice that as per the Julian calendar fell on December 13. Today.

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I began this dark December day huddling before the TV, surrounded by lit candles as I watched the televised Lucia procession. Voices raised in song, a light that grew brighter as the Lucia approached, her handmaidens in tow. All the songs I know by heart – most Swedish people do – and once I was the Lucia, striding down a darkened church with candles like a fiery crown upon my head. Today we sing of the returning sun, of darkness that recedes as dawn grows brighter. No wonder us people of the north love our St Lucia, this harbinger of light in the pitch-black of a winter night.

As an addendum, I’d like to remind all those Swedes who walk about thinking that Lucia has to be blond and blue-eyes, that the original Lucia was neither blond nor blue-eyed. Chances are she had dark hair, dark eyes and a delicious olive tint to her skin. Just sayin’…

In great ambition lies destruction

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

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Roger and his lady queen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Mortimer being seized

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

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

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The fall of Icarus – Blondell

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

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

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

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Alfonso surrounded by his knights

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

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

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

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Maria

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

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

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Alfonso, about to mount

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

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

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

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

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

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Alfonso fighting Moors

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Enrique de Trastámera

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

Twinkle, twinke, little star

light-800px-petrus_van_schendel_lekture_bei_kerzenlichtThe dark has come upon us. With the resetting of the clocks – away from what we call “summer time” to “winter time” – the days become that much shorter, daylight fading already around four thirty or so in the afternoon. That’s what you get for living up here in the north – dark, dark winters are the price we pay for light, light summers.

Usually, the clocks are reset at the end of October, around All Hallows. Until relatively recently, All Hallows and its modern version Halloween was not really celebrated in our neck of the woods. We did not drown in false spiderwebs, orange lanterns and various other spooky ingredients. Pumpkins were more or less unknown, and as to donning a masquerade costume and going partying, nope, not done.

All Hallows was a serious affair – had been for thousands of years, long before it was even known as All Hallows. The Christian Church was smart enough to adopt existing holidays, and in this particular case, those ancient Christian missionaries appropiated the Celtic celebration of Samhain, originally a day to mark the midway point between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice.

light-mary-magdalene-800px-georges_de_la_tour_007Mind you, Samhain was more than that: our long-gone ancestors believed that Samhain was when the veil  between the living and the dead was at its sheerest, a day in which the restless souls of those who were dead and not at peace could come back to haunt the living. It was also a day in which fairies and other non-human spirits could travel between their realm and ours – and reasonably, this meant that the unsuspecting among the humans could be lured to step across the great divide into the unknown, from which they might not return.

The early Christian missionaries likely felt a frisson or two of fear. Maybe they also believed that the souls of the dead were abroad on this dark day – how else to explain that just on this date the Christian Church decided to celebrate All Hallows (or All Saints), which included not only all saints and known martyrs, but also dead relatives and friends. Smart move by the church, IMO.

In some countries, the celebration of the dead takes on rather impressive proportions. In Mexico, the holiday Día de Muertos (or Día de los Muertos), the day of the dead, has roots in Aztec culture but has somehow merged with the Catholic feasts brought to Mexico by the Spanish Conqistadores. In Spain, All Saints was something of a fiesta – one has to applaud the Spanish for making fiestas of everything, even the celebration of the dead – and these days the Mexican holiday is a chaotic mix of indigenous traditions and Spanish partying, often culminating in the families having major picnics in the cemetaries, close to their dead.

light-femme-a-la-chandelle-godfried-schalckenNot so here in Sweden. The Protestant Church has always been much more austere than the Catholic Church – not so much fiesta, far more fidgeting on worn pews while listening to loooong sermons about the innate wickedness of humanity. All Hallows, accordingly, was not defined by relaxed family get-togethers at which one commemorated the dead by toasting them and having a party. Nope, here All Hallows was all about ensuring the graves were neat and tidy, faded flowers tidied away and replaced by evergreen wreaths.

The older generation still do this: the last weekend of October, off they go, driving from grave to grave to ensure they are tidy before the winter. The younger generation doesn’t – to some extent because most of us don’t have any graves to visit – our parents have been cremated and rarely rest beneath a stone marker. (As an aside, I find it a bit sad that so many don’t have a headstone anymore – no solid evidence reminding the generations to come that once they lived and breathed)

As a final touch, the graves are adorned with a candle. A little fluttering flame, an offering of light to those permanently trapped in the dark. Come evening, our cemetaries are dotted with these little flames, miniature earthbound stars that burn through the coming nights and days.

Soon enough, Sweden will see such miniature lights everywhere: we combat the December dark by lighting our candles, by draping our evergreens with fairy lights. But for now, the candles are for those that went before, those that we sometimes imagine (or hope) sit way up high and gaze down on us. Twinklings stars above, gasping flickers of lights below – a remembrance of our dead, those that gave us life and live on in memories and mannerisms, in how we bake our family recipes, in the traditions we uphold.

A vast sea of anonymous ancestors precede us – an equally vast sea of unknown descendants will hopefully come after us. In the greater context, our time on Earth is very short, an inhalation, no more, when measured against the infinity of time. But for the little while we live, we are a spark of light, a little burst of energy that shouts to Cosmos that we are here – for now.

light-st-josephthecarpenterbygeorgesdelatourThe dark is here. It swoops down and envelops the Northern countries, several months in which light becomes precious. And on All Hallows, we light our candles for those that no longer are among us, a fluttering flame to tell them we still think of them, we still remember them. And as long as we remember, they’re still around, somehow. As long as we mention their names, laugh at the memories we have of them – or cry – as long as they still touch our lives, they remain, to some extent, alive.

 

Unmourned and unloved – poor Johnny boy

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John, riding to the hounds

It’s not easy to be misunderstood. Or the youngest – and possibly unwanted – child. Ask John, a.k.a. John Lackland. He would know all about growing up in a dysfunctional family with an anything but warm and fuzzy relationship to his parents and siblings. Mind you, having a tough childhood is an explanation, not an excuse. But still…

Today marks the 800th anniversary of John’s death. Eight hundred years, and still the man is a household name. Not in the most complimentary of terms – John is the bad dude, the man who betrayed his older brother Richard and had his nephew murdered. John is the somewhat unbalanced individual who alienated his nobles by his outrageous and grasping behaviour, and then there’s the matter of the hostages he hanged in Nottingham. No, all in all, John was not the kind of person you’d want to hang out with. Assuming, of course, that the black legend that surrounds him is true. Some of it most definitely is. But is any man entirely black?

Let us start at the beginning. Henry FitzEmpress made the marriage of a generation the day he swept Eleanor of Aquitaine, recently divorced from King Louis of France, into his arms and married her. Two larger-than-life personalities, these two were well-suited, possessing drive and determination – and quite the dollop of ambition. Did they love each other? I think that if you’d asked them, they would have given you an amused look in return. When did love come into the equation of building a European powerhouse?

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Eleanor and Henry

The Henry-Eleanor match was just that: a powerhouse. Together, they controlled a massive empire, all the way from the foggy north of England to the sun-drenched lands of Aquitaine. As we all know, the previously not so fecund Eleanor (with “only” two daughters to her name after 15 years of marriage to Louis) presented her new, vigorous husband with several sons and daughters. These children inherited a lot of characteristics from their strong, driven and ambitious parents, making them – and especially the elder sons – just as strong, driven and ambitious. And hungry for power. Ultimately, this would lead to bloody conflict between the sons and the father, and when Eleanor sided with her sons, the Henry-Eleanor union sort of crashed and burned.

Eleanor was locked away in 1173. Okay, so now and then she emerged from her prison to participate in courtly life and assist her husband in managing certain issues, but she was always accompanied by a guard, a silent reminder that she was a prisoner.

At the time of his mother’s incarceration, John was seven. Until then, he hadn’t exactly seen much of either parent, having instead been raised in his own household. But the bitter feud between Henry II and his older sons had him turning to his younger son, with John accompanying his father as he rode to quell his upstart sons.

Over the coming years, John became his father’s favourite child. Not favourite enough to load with land, though. John’s oldest brother, also as Henry, was designated heir to England and Normany, his second eldest brother, Richard was already the Duke of Aquitaine, brother Geoffrey was lording it in Brittany, and in comparison, John had…Nada. Niente. Nothing.

The easy solution was to find John an heiress. After some scouting, Henry decided on Isabella, daughter of the dead Earl of Gloucester. To make the match even better, Henry disinherited Isabella’s two sisters, making her the sole heiress to her father’s lands. There was, however, a teeny, weensy problem: John and Isabella were third cousins, so the union required a papal dispensation. A matter to be handled later, Henry decided, settling for a betrothal in 1176 instead. John was all of ten, the bride-to-be around three.

A year or so later, Henry made John Lord of Ireland. John Lackland was no longer lacking in land, one could say, albeit that the territory the eleven-year-old was to rule was considered a savage place. Plus, Ireland already had a number of powerful local lords, both of Norman and Gaelic extraction.

In 1183, John’s eldest brother died of dysentery, this after a campaign against the joint forces of Henry II and brother Richard. With that, Richard took a giant step towards the throne of England, but showed no inclination of wanting to part with Aquitaine. Rather, Richard seems to have reasoned Aquitaine was his, full stop, and anything on top of that was also his, with no need to share with baby brother John – or Geoffrey.

In 1186, Geoffrey died from injuries incurred during a tournament. He left behind a young son, and as Richard had neither wife nor legitimate son, little Arthur was now second in line to the English throne. In John’s opinion, he should be second in line: given the choice between a puling child and a well-grown young man, only a fool would choose the child.

Not everyone agreed. By now, some of John’s more dislikeable traits were causing concern. While on the one side John was intelligent, well-educated, courageous and charming when he so wanted, there was that other side to him, the one that flew into tantrums, that was spiteful and petty, that had him taking what he wanted with little thought to the consequences.

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Henry II and his children

John comes across a spoiled brat, a young man who considers himself entitled, and who would have benefited from a good thrashing. Papa Henry, however, spent more times making excuses for his temperamental son than in lecturing him. Henry was paying the price of having led a life constantly on the move, always entangled in one conflict of the other. He was tired, somewhat careworn after losing two of his sons, and had no desire whatsoever to alienate his favourite.

In looks, John was very much his father’s son – short and powerfully built, with a fondness for opulent clothes and jewels. (In this, he does not seem to have taken after daddy, who comes across as relatively uninterested in fashion) An avid reader, John always travelled with an extensive library, and was extremely fond of hunting. He was a skilled horseman, was appreciative of good music (from his mother’s side, no doubt) and enjoyed board games. He was also capable and hard-working, traits that somehow get lost in the overall descriptions of him.

Anyway: in 1189, Richard allied himself with Philip Augustus and made war on his father. Why? Because he was worried Henry might be considering naming John as his heir. Henry was sick, he was old, and everything pointed at him losing – which was when John abandoned him, riding like the devil to join brother Richard and ingratiate himself with him. Henry died, alone. Richard was less than impressed by his brother’s behaviour – plus I imagine Richard suffered some pangs of guilt due to having indirectly caused his father’s death.

john-richardsaladinRichard was now king – a restless king, eager to ride off and heap himself with glory in the Third Crusade. Richard was savvy enough to realise John could very well become a problem during his absence, and so he set about buying John’s favour. John was made Count of Mortain, his marriage with Isabella of Gloucester was pushed through, and he was heaped with honours and riches, the king’s most beloved brother.

This didn’t help. No sooner was Richard off, but John began his scheming. Now, what is important to remember is that not everyone in England was all that thrilled by the idea of having a crusading king. Crusades were expensive things, and financing was acquired by increasing taxes, which did not exactly endear Richard to his English subjects. In difference to Richard, John had spent a lot of time in England, knew the people and the country. He could therefore play on their ambivalence, thereby securing quite some support. To further strengthen his position, he allied himself with Philip Augustus of France.

When Richard was captured on his way home from the Holy Land, John likely did a few capers of joy. Those in England remaining true to Richard must have been torn between their loyalties to the king and the need to curry favour with the heir – because in the eyes of the English, John was the heir, Arthur or no Arthur. This is when formidable mama Eleanor waded into the fray, ensuring everyone knew what was what – i.e. the English nobility were taxed with amassing the huge ransom required to buy Richard free. To do so, the taxed nobles taxed the people – not, I imagine, a popular move.

We all know Richard came back. Robin Hood and his Merry Men made even merrier, the Sheriff of Nottingham gnashed his teeth – even more so, one presumes, after Richard besieged and took the castle – and John fled to Normandy. Some months later, Richard found him, and although he forgave his brother, he stripped him of all his lands but Ireland. Humiliated and substantially poorer, John had no choice but to bend knee to paragon brother Richard. For the following years, John served his king loyally and capably – so capably that Richard restored his lands to him.

And then Richard died. A crossbow quarrel to the armpit, and England’s most famous warrior king (well, bar Henry V. And maybe Edward III) died. His mama cried. His brother, not so much. John had finally come into his own, the only potential fly in his ointment being nephew Arthur, no longer a baby but a handsome twelve-year-old, backed by his overlord Philip Augustus of France. (As an aside, Philip Augustus does not come across as the nicest of men, switching his support this way and that, depending on what suited him best. Probably needs his own post…)

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John – king at last

John was acclaimed by his nobles in England and Normandy, was crowned in Westminster, and crossed the Channel to address the issue of Arthur. He did so by signing a treaty with Philip, who promptly abandoned Arthur. Some years later, Arthur raised his banners in rebellion against his uncle. This time, John captured him. In 1203, Arthur disappeared into the bowels of the Castle of Rouen. He was never seen again…

Obviously, John was the party who most benefited from Arthur’s disappearance. Early on, accusations of murder were made, and much later in the reign, Maude de Braose was to publicly accuse John of having killed his own nephew. That didn’t end well for Maude, who by all accounts died in an oubliette, having first attempted to still her hunger by gnawing on her dead son’s body.

By 1204, John had acquired quite the lurid legend: a number of bastards with various women, some very high-born, the whole thing with Arthur, his repeated betrayal of his brother, his last-minute abandonment of his father, and the dismal treatment of the prisoners he took in the wake of Arthur’s rebellion, resulting in several deaths. And then there was the whole thing with his second wife, where he claimed the supposedly gorgeous Isabella of Angouleme, ignoring the fact that the girl was betrothed to Hugh de Lusignan. (Before this, he’d annulled his first marriage – but kept the lands)

Some say John was immediately besotted by little Isabella. Others say Isabella came with lands that would strengthen John’s position in France. Whatever the case, she was spoken for, but John convinced Isabella’s father to ignore his previous promises, and Isabella became a very young and pretty queen. Hugh de Lusignan became an angry rebel, and ultimately the marriage cost John huge chunks of his French lands. In the fullness of time, Isabella would return to France and the arms of a Hugh de Lusignan, in this case the eldest son of her former fiancé. In the in between, however, she was to present John with five children whom he seems to have doted on.

By 1204, John had also lost most of his French patrimony, with the exception of Aquitaine. This obliged him to concentrate his efforts in England. John was no sloth: he worked hard, with a special interest in reforming the legal system. Upsides of the new system was that free men were no longer at the mercy of the barons’ administration of justice. Through the introduction of legal experts, coroners and judges, John revamped the entire system, motivated no doubt by a desire to reform, but also by the financial rewards the system brought – legal fees increased, filling the king’s coffers.

The king’s coffers needed refilling. John was determined to retake Normandy, and to do so, he needed money – lots of money. So he increased taxes, charged his nobles huge amounts to allow them to succeed to properties and castles they had inherited. Widows wanting to remain widows were charged substantial fees to be allowed to do so, warships were sold as were appointments, fines were increased, fees were increased, and all in all, John made himself very unpopular – especially among the wealthy.

And then there was the matter with the pope. When the Archbishop of Canterbury died, John wanted to replace him with his candidate. The pope instead ordained Stephen Langton, and John threw a hissy fit. After all, he was within his rights to have a say in who became archbishop. Nope, the pope retorted. Stephen was it, take it or leave it. John chose to leave it, closing his harbours to Stephen and seizing the lands of the archbishopric. What followed was a long period of spiritual war. In the end, John caved – an excommunicated king was in some ways a powerless king – but he did so with style and cunning, gaining a stalwart supporter in the pope.

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Bouvines – where the French whipped the English…

War, interdiction, taxes, fees, fines…John’s barons had had it. The final straw came when John lost to the French in the Battle of Bouvines, thereby permanently losing Normandy. Not that John’s northern barons gave a fig about Normandy, but they were sick and tired of levied scutage, of taxes and fees, that had left them all severely indebted to the king. The Barons’ revolt was therefore far more motivated by personal interests than any desire to better the cause of the Englishman in general. Truth be told, the barons probably didn’t give a fig about the ordinary Englishman either…

No matter all those personal interests, the Magna Charta went beyond these, and presented a new framework for government, with a council of barons to guide the king, rules regarding a free man’s right to justice, to protection from illegal imprisonment. Taxes were no longer to be a royal prerogative, but required approval from the barons. The Magna Charta defined and contained the rights and obligations of the king, a charter designed to curb the royal excesses by empowering the nobles. A first, if small, step towards representative government, if you will…

In 1215, John signed the Magna Charta – with his fingers crossed. The moment he could, he appealed to the pope for support, and the Holy Father responded by excommunicating the rebel barons. And just like that, England was plunged into civil war. The French invaded, invited by some of the rebel barons. This actually played into John’s hands – the English were no fans of the French. John was a skilled commander, and had the money on hand to pay for substantial mercenaries, but then his entire treasure was lost crossing the Wash close to King’s Lynn. Even worse, he’d contracted dysentery. A sick king, making his way towards the west. An impoverished king, what with all that treasure lost in the sea.

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John’s tomb in Worcester Cathedral

He arrived in Newark and took to bed. In the night between 18-19 of October, John died. He was all of fifty years old, leaving an embattled throne to his nine-year-old son, Henry. Some sources insinuate he was poisoned. Others that he splurged on peaches. I’m guessing it was the dysentery that killed him – just as it had once killed his older brother. Like his father, John died without the comfort of his family around him. Unlike his father, he has constantly been vilified since.

I remain ambivalent to John. Through the centuries he comes across as highly intelligent, sardonic and somewhat twisted. Was he rapacious? Oh, yes. Immoral? On various occasions. But he was also a hard-working king, a man who drove through reforms to the legal system, a caring father, and a man who counted among his friends the future saint, Hugh of Lincoln. He inspired the loyalty of people like Nicolaa de la Haye and her husband, Gerard de Camville. Surely, he wasn’t all bad. In fact, I’m quite sure he wasn’t. After all, no one is. I hope.

The archbishop-to-be and the Norwegian princess

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Fernando, Felipe’s father

It’s probably not an easy thing to be the son of a man on his way to sainthood. In this case, the man pursuing the halo was also a king – and a forceful, skilled king at that – which probably made it even more difficult to live up to parental expectations. Fortunately for today’s protagonist, he wasn’t the heir. Or maybe he would have disagreed about the adverb, maybe he resented not being the future king. We don’t know, and likely never will.

What we do know is that today’s man of the hour was born an Infante of Castilla. I rather like the word Infante/Infanta – a Child of Castilla. I suppose all royal children back then sort of belonged to the country in which they were born, destined to enter into alliances as it served their kingdom, not necessarily themselves. (We tend to forget that it wasn’t only the daughters that were bartered as marital prizes. The sons were just as much pawns in the intricate political games that resulted in future weddings)

Our Felipe was the fifth son of Fernando III of Castilla and León, a king remembered for his successful campaigns against the Moors in southern Spain. Like all Fernando’s children, little Felipe received an excellent education, and as he was promised to the church, he not only studied in Burgos but was also sent to Paris. Whether or not Felipe wanted to enter the church was neither here nor there: Fernando III was blessed with many sons, and as a matter of course his fifth and sixth son were promised to the service of the Holy Church. What Felipe thought of all this only becomes apparent after Fernando’s death: by then, he’d been handed benefices all over southern Spain and was the archbishop-elect of Sevilla – all of this at the impressive age of 21.

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King Alfonso

Anyway, no sooner was Fernando safely buried, but Felipe began to make noises along the lines that he wasn’t entirely comfortable as a prince of the church. The new king, Felipe’s older brother Alfonso X, frowned, displeased by this lack of piety in a man raised explicitly to serve the faith. (Easy for him to say, one would think) At the time, Alfonso was having problems with various of his brothers, notably with Enrique who instigated a rebellion against him, and Fadrique, only two years younger than Alfonso and somewhat peeved at having very little to his name while big brother was king of Castilla and León. What Alfonso definitely didn’t need was yet another disgruntled brother, which may be why he, most reluctantly, allowed Felipe to throw his ecclesiastic career overboard and instead embrace a future as a happy bachelor prince.

Alfonso, just like any other medieval king, was eager to make alliances with distant kingdoms. One such very, very distant kingdom was Norway, where the king, Håkon, was just as eager to make such alliances. Being a Norwegian king always came with the drawback of having his kingdom eyed covetously by both his Swedish and his Danish counterpart, and I suppose Håkon wanted an alliance with Castilla so as to keep his neighbours off his back. (At the time, Sweden was embroiled in a long-standing civil war between various pretenders to the throne, so it didn’t constitute a serious risk, but one never knows with those Swedes – or so Håkon would likely have reasoned) Mind you, had Denmark or Sweden gone after Norway, any help from Castilla would have been a long time coming…

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King Håkon and his son, Magnus

In the mid-13th century, Håkon, eager for an illustrous alliance, sent emissaries to Castilla, presenting Alfonso with prized Norwegian falcons, with gorgeous furs (difficult to use in the Castilian climate, one would think) and other precious items. Alfonso returned the favour and sent ambassadors all the way to Norway, where these Spanish men, accustomed to the sultry, dark beauty of their local ladies, got quite the eyeful of Scandinavian girls – tall, willowy and blonde. (And yes, before anyone else points it out, I am aware that many of the Spanish nobles had Visigoth genes, so being blond and blue-eyed was not unknown, but still…) One of these girls was Princess Kristina, Håkon’s daughter, and it was suggested that maybe an alliance between Norway and Spain should be cemented by a marriage.

Hmm, said Håkon, who was very fond of his daughter. The ambassadors assured him his girl would be very well received – they’d even line up Alfonso’s unwed brothers and have her choose her bridegroom. Hmm, Håkon repeated. The Norway to Spain journey was long and perilous, and once his Kristina rode away, chances were he’d never see her again. But an alliance with Castilla was a good thing, and Kristina deserved a life of splendour and comfort – something she’d likely get at the sophisticated Castilian court in Valladolid. Kristina, at the time well over twenty and borderline an old maid as per the standards of the day, seems to have been positive to the idea, which is why, in the summer of 1257, she and her huge entourage set off on the long, long journey to Spain. First they crossed the North Sea to Yarmouth. Then they rode through England and took ship to Normandy. Then they rode and rode, all the way to Barcelona, where King Alfonso’s father-in-law welcomed them and suggested Kristina marry him instead, so taken was he by her beauty.

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Jaime of Aragón

Kristina had not ridden across a continent to marry a man more than 25 years her senior – albeit that Jaime of Aragón was supposedly a good-looking man, even at the ripe age of fifty or so. Besides, Kristina’s father had no desire to enter into an alliance with Jaime – he wanted the real deal, which was to ally himself with the substantially bigger kingdom ruled by Alfonso. So, after a week or so of enjoying Jaime’s hospitality, Kristina rode on, arriving in Valladolid in early January of 1258.

She was warmly welcomed by her host and his nobles, including Felipe, who was quite taken by the notion of marrying a princess – and a pretty one at that. They were of an age, Felipe and Kristina, him only three years older than her. Fadrico – the other candidate – was ten years older than Kristina, and he also had the disadvantage of sporting a scar. Kristina comes across as somewhat shallow when this scar is cited as her main reason for choosing Felipe. I hope she saw beyond the exterior prior to making her final choice.

Some months after arriving in Valladolid, Kristina married Felipe. The former priest, abbot of several monasteries, presumptive archbishop of Sevilla, gladly embraced his bride, even more so as Alfonso showered the happy couple with land – mostly to appease Kristina’s father. Felipe was now a significant landowner, and I imagine he was eager to carry off his bride to Sevilla and start with the pleasant (one hopes) business of procreating.

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Kristina’s tomb (Creative Commons, photo by Ecelar)

Whether or not it was pleasant, we will never know. What we do know was that no matter what efforts the couple expended on making a baby, it didn’t work. Did they comfort each other, blame each other? No idea. But four years later, in 1262, Kristina of Norway passed away. She was 28 years old, and as per the examination of her remains conducted in the 1950’s, she was approximately 172 cm tall, with good teeth and strong bones. And childless.

I imagine Felipe was distressed. By now a man in his early thirties, he needed an heir, and so he quickly married again, this time to a second cousin named Inéz. Some years later, she too was dead – childless – and Felipe was obliged to marry for the third time. By now, he had a couple of illegitimate children, so it clearly wasn’t his fault if his wives didn’t conceive. Not much of a comfort I imagine, even less so when his third wife presented him with a son and namesake who promptly died.

A frustrated and edgy Felipe now turned his attention to politics. Alfonso may have been nicknamed “el sabio” (the wise), but his Castilian nobles were not overly impressed by his leadership – or his determined attempts to be appointed Holy Roman Emperor (a claim he could push due to his mother, born a Hohenzollern and sister to Holy Roman Emperor Fredrick II) As always, there were skirmishes with the Moors and with Aragón and with Navarra and with Portugal, and Alfonso’s leading barons felt the king ignored these pressing issues in his quest to convince the pope he was the best candidate for the job as emperor. Besides, the nobles grumbled, Alfonso owed them several years of back-pay for their service in his army

The disgruntled nobles approached Felipe. His older brother Enrique had been exiled in 1260, Fadrico had made some sort of peace with Alfonso, and baby brother Sancho was busy being an archbishop, which sort of left Felipe as the only prince available. He listened, hemmed and hawed, but fundamentally agreed with the long list of demands the nobles had drawn up – principal among them that Alfonso revert to governing according to tradition, i.e. that he be counselled by his barons.

In 1272, Felipe was sent off to Navarra to organise a bolt hole for the conspirators. His job was to convince the king of Navarra to offer them asylum should things not go their way in Castilla. The king of Navarra was more than happy to do so – having Alfonso beset by his nobles was not a bad thing as per him.

Things came to a head when the king ordered all his nobles to attend on the heir to the throne, Infante Fernando, in Sevilla, there to do battle with the infidels. To a man, the rebellious barons refused to do so. Alfonso was incensed – but prepared to be conciliatory. The barons weren’t. Alfonso gnashed his teeth and promptly entered into an alliance with the king of Navarra, thereby placing the rebels in a precarious position: Aragón would not receive them – Jaime of Aragón’s daughter was married to Alfonso – and the Portuguese had little love for the haughty Castilians. However, down in the south, Mohammed of Granada welcomed them with open arms, and no matter how Alfonso pleaded with his stubborn nobles, they rode off to Granada and signed a treaty with Mohammed, promising each other mutual support until Alfonso agreed to their demands.

fernando-cantigas-de-santa-maria-mohammed_i_ibn_nasrAlfonso was no fool – as demonstrated by the fact that he comes down through the ages as “Alfonso el sabio“, which can be interpreted as Alfonso the Wise or  Alfonso the Learned, but never as Alfonso the Fool. If Mohammed’s loyalty could be bought by unspecified promises by the Castilian nobles, reasonably he was open to negotiating with Alfonso himself. He was. The nobles scurried off to Navarra and pledged their allegiance to King Enrique, remaining obdurate in their demands. Alfonso was by now in something of a pickle: how would anyone take his candidature to be the next Holy Roman Emperor seriously if he couldn’t manage his dratted barons?

By 1274, the nobles had won. Alfonso gave in to almost all of their demands, and the scions of the rebellious families Lara, Castro and Haro could return home in triumph – as could the king’s treacherous brother, Infante Felipe. In his case, however, the joy would be short-lived. In November of 1274, Felipe died, leaving behind an illegitimate daughter who would one day become a nun, and two bastard sons, one of whom was to serve his uncle Alfonso, far more loyally than Felipe had done. Felipe himself was interred beside his second wife, preferring to share eternity with her rather than his first, foreign wife, that blonde, tall and willowy Norwegian princess. Or maybe that wasn’t his choice – we will never know.

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