ANNA BELFRAGE

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Archive for the category “Life and death”

Killing my darlings

Archer, James, 1823-1904; La mort d'Arthur

James Archer, Mort d’Arthur

The drawback about writing books set in the past is that any ”real” character one decides to include is dead. There is no ambiguity there, no leeway for twisting things slightly so that the person in question gets to enjoy some years of sunset and peace before passing on—not if the facts unequivocally state that on this date so-and-so died in this way.

Invented characters also die. Not necessarily because I planned it that way, but rather because all of a sudden their character arch took a turn I wasn’t expecting.

Accordingly, I have had to write a lot of death scenes, and I must admit I find these very difficult to write—especially when I’ve bonded with the person about to expire. Not even when I dislike the character I’m about to off do I find it easy – a case in point is the scene in my series The King’s Greatest Enemy where Hugh Despenser is executed. It is difficult to feel anything but compassion for a naked man about to die a slow and painful death in front of a howling mob.

Death is not always violent. Death is also a part of life—even if us modern people have little exposure to it. Not that long ago, generations lived closer together and chances were most children would have seen dead people before they entered their teens. Back then, people died at home. These days, we mostly die in hospital, monitored by beeping machinery that suddenly stops beeping.

One thing I always spend a lot of time considering is in what POV to write the death scene. In some cases, the choice is self-evident: if the character hasn’t been a POV character previously I’m not about to drag my reader into his/her head to live through the final moments of life. It would feel contrived, somehow. But there are deaths where I have a choice: should I depict it from the perspective of the person dying or from the person watching?

Seeing as I have no experience of dying (and I really prefer to keep it that way for quite some more years, thank you very much), writing in the POV of the person about to pass comes with challenges. How cognisant is a dying person of the fact that they’re about to die? How much does it hurt? Is there fear, anger? Or is there a point at which one simply gives up and goes with the flow?

A Newfound Land-Facebook Shared Image“What day is it today?” Magnus asked Alex a few days later. He craned his head back to look out at the pale blue summer sky.
“Midsummer’s Eve.”
How apt, Magnus thought, to die on the longest day of the year. He lay in silence, listening to the sounds around him. Sounds of life, of continuity: Samuel’s soft snuffling from where he slept in his basket only feet from his ear, David’s piercing screams from outside, and Agnes’ low soothing voice, shushing him. In the distance he could hear a horse – probably Moses – and there were birds, and hens cackling, and the ubiquitous sound of young, vibrant beings, his grandchildren, tumbling around in the summer afternoon.
He recognised the tread of Matthew’s feet on the kitchen floor – there was that damned plank that always creaked – and from beside him came the clicking sound of Mrs Parson’s knitting. He listened some more and heard that one sound was missing. Alex was holding her breath, and that meant she was trying very hard not to cry. He moved one hand in her direction and immediately her fingers closed over his.
“It’s not too bad,” Magnus lied. It was fucking terrible! Whenever he opened his eyes, it was like having a red-hot needle poked through his tender cornea, so he preferred to keep them closed. Behind his eyelids swirled blacks and blues and the occasional dash of bright vermillion and orange and sometimes – thank heavens – a soothing green, and then it all began again and he was in so much pain that sometimes he could feel each individual strand of hair as a hurting, aching extremity. 
He heard Matthew enter the room, hesitating for a few seconds before pulling up a stool to sit beside Alex. It almost made Magnus laugh; like a lit de parade, the adults of his family converging to watch him die. He twisted his face towards the twilight that hovered outside the small window.
“I always knew,” he said.
“Knew what?” Alex asked.
“That I’d die at dusk.” Soon he’d be dead, and never again would he see the trees or the clouds, never would he walk over fields, brush his legs through knee-high grasses. Not that it mattered. Nothing mattered except for the pain that inhabited his head, the humongous effort it was to keep on breathing. Air. He needed air, and he sucked and sucked, but nothing seemed to reach his lungs. No click, click, click from his right-hand side; instead, Mrs Parson’s hand closed over his, her breath warm on his cheek as she leaned over him.
“Go with God, Magnus Lind,” she said, and he heard it in her voice that any moment now he’d be dead, and he didn’t want to be.
In Magnus’ head, things happened that were frightening and awe-inspiring – like being high on something far more potent than marijuana, his brain dissolving into extraordinary fireworks. Everything was spinning; he saw bands of shifting colours and he shot forward through time and there was Isaac – in Stockholm, Magnus noted with pleased surprise. He was dragged backwards in time, he whizzed past Alex, and there was his Mercedes. He squinted because he’d never seen her so old, but there she was, her dark hair a beautiful silvered grey covered by a lace mantilla, and he realised she was back in her time, living out her life, and all of him shrivelled in panic. I don’t want to die if she’s not there waiting for me! Idiot, his brain jeered, no one’s waiting for you – you don’t believe in the afterlife, do you? No, Magnus Lind, this is the final curtain call, and soon… No! Magnus shrieked in protest at God, at the bursts of light that were falling like confetti in his head.
Hands on his arm, someone kissed his cheek, dragging him back to a glimmer of real life. With an effort, he opened his eyes.
“Alex? Lilla hjärtat?”
Pappa.” She clasped his groping hand and held Magnus as he began the final fall from life. It no longer hurt. It was all a soothing cold that was like rustling silk over his poor, aching brain. It grew dark. The spinning slowed to a gentle twirling and he could no longer hear, but he could still feel Alex’s hand in his.
It grew even darker and it was very cold but it didn’t matter because now there was a growing point of light and in it he saw Mercedes. She was young, her hair fell free down her back, and she held out her hand to him and smiled.
“Mercedes?” he whispered.
Estoy aquí,” she murmured. “I’m always here, amor mío.” (A Newfound Land)

HDQ02ef126bf225e1545b51ecb2094efd20When it comes to violent and painful deaths such as that of Hugh Despenser, I prefer to describe them from the POV of someone watching. This is partly because this gives me room to properly depict just how the person dies—a man being castrated probably registers little beyond a wave of pain—but also because the images that fill my head when I try to sink into the POV of the condemned person are too black, too full of fear, making it difficult to write coherently about it.

Sometimes, the obvious turmoil lies with the bereaved. This is definitely the case when a child dies. As a mother of four, writing the death of beloved children is among the most difficult things I’ve done. It is far too easy to envision the pain and grief that would follow in the wake of such a loss. And yet, if you write historical fiction children have to die. It is unrealistic otherwise, as child mortality was high and few were the households spared such losses.

Adam found Kit by the stream, in the little hollow that was their miniature Garden of Eden. He smiled at the memories of his Kit naked in the summer grass, of the way she laughed when she splashed through the shallow waters of the pool. She wasn’t laughing now, sitting huddled just by the water, her thick winter cloak draped like protective armour around her.
“Tell me about her,” Adam said, sinking down to sit beside her.
She didn’t reply at first. Instead she sat staring at the water, now and then sending a pebble flying to land with a soft plop.
“There is nothing to tell. She is dead.”
“But she lived before she died, did she not?” Adam had seen dead infants before, but never one of his own, and grief rushed through him. He’d had a daughter, but she was dead and he had never seen her nor held her. Something of his pain must have coloured his voice, because Kit turned her head to look at him, her heavy hair lying like a mantle down her back.
“She was bald, but I could see she’d be fair – like you.” She gnawed at her lip. “She never opened her eyes. She lived for one pitiful day, and not once did she open them. So I don’t know if they were blue or green or brown or grey. All I know is that she had long, fair lashes, and that when I held her, her eyelids fluttered, as if she was trying to open them but couldn’t quite find the strength to do so.” Her voice broke. “I knew the moment I saw her that she wouldn’t live.”
Days of Sun and Glory-BookBub“Oh, Kit,” he said, taking her hand. “I am so sorry I wasn’t here – for you and for her. And I swear that had I known, I would have come, no matter what the prince might have said.” He tightened his hold on her fingers. “In my heart, you always come first. You know that, don’t you?”
“Not always.” She kept her gaze on her lap, her posture stiff and unyielding.
“I…” He cleared his throat. “I do not have the luxury to order my life. If I had, I’d never be parted from you, never spend a night without you in my arms.” He caught a flash of blue from under her lashes, the only sign she was listening to him. “This is home,” he said softly, “this place, this house, but most of all it is you. You are my home and my life, and every day I spend away from you is a wasted day, a day I pray will pass as quickly as possible, that I might return to you all the sooner.”
She glanced at him. “Quite the troubadour.”
“No.” He tugged at her hand, and she shifted closer. “It is the truth.” He reached out to smooth at her hair. “As the queen once said, you are the sun in my existence. What man prefers stumbling about in the dark to standing in the brightness of a sunbeam?”
There was a muffled sound he first assumed to be sobs.
“The brightness of a sunbeam?” Kit lifted her face, her mouth quivering – with laughter. It bubbled from her, and then she was no longer laughing, she was weeping, and Adam gathered her close, pressing his cheek to her head. (Days of Sun and Glory)

The_Triumph_of_Death,_or_The_Three_Fates

The Three Fates

When writing deaths, I also spend a lot of time wondering about the role of faith. While we live in an agnostic age, where most of us go to our death without the comfort of believing in a hereafter, my characters belong to earlier times, where God’s existence was a given (Back then, those who questioned God were given the task of proving he didn’t exist. Today, we’ve turned it around and demand those who believe prove that he does…) But even if you did believe in God, I imagine losing someone you loved was difficult. It always is, the grief and loss standing in proportion to just how much you loved them. And however strange it may sound, it doesn’t help if the person dying is an invented person. Rather the reverse, in fact, because added to the grief is a huge portion of guilt. After all, in the microcosmos of my imaginary world it is I who spin the threads of fate – and cut them.

Elizabeth who? A reflection on the life of a medieval woman

Most of us are destined to pass through this life and be quickly forgotten, buried in the huge drifts of human life that border history. Only those that truly stick out—whether for good or bad—get a moment or two of air-time, and for obvious reasons most of these highlighted people tend to be rulers. And men.

Obviously, there are just as many women as men lurking along the margins of recorded history. Quite a few of those women did play a central part—however indirectly—but they are often consigned to the “irrelevant” section, which seems sort of harsh.

One of those long-gone women about whom we know almost nothing is Elizabeth Ferrers. And yet, to judge from what little we do know, this woman had more than her fair share of loss and grief in her life.

Elizabeth was the youngest child of William de Ferrers, the powerful and respected Earl of Derby. This was a man with a surfeit of daughters. Two marriages left him with ten girls and only two sons. Not that Elizabeth ever had the opportunity of developing a close relationship with her father—he died when she was still very young.

Elizabeth was married while still relatively young to William Marshal. (Not the William Marshal but a rather more obscure relative) That marriage ended when her husband died at The Battle of Evesham. Some while later, Elizabeth Ferrers was wed to Dafydd ap Gruffudd.

Was this her choice? Likely not. At the time, Dafydd was estranged from his brother, Llewellyn ap Gruffudd. Well, if we’re going to be quite correct, he’d been his usual pain in the arse, trying to capitalise on the general unrest that followed upon the collapse of Montfort’s control over England. Llewellyn had been a close ally of Montfort. Dafydd chose to present himself as a loyal supporter of the English king, Henry III, and his son, the future Edward I.

Edward Gal_nations_edward_i

Edward I

So there was Dafydd, kicking his heels at the English court while longing for the green valleys of home. Maybe the English king hoped to tie the younger of the Welsh princes to him by offering him an English bride. Or maybe his decision to marry Elizabeth to Dafydd was a reflection on just how pissed off he was with Elizabeth’s brother, Robert de Ferrers. The young Earl of Derby had sided firmly with Montfort, apparently due to a personal dislike of Prince Edward. In the aftermath of Evesham, Ferrers stubbornly refused to come to terms with his king—at least initially. (In general, Robert’s life reads like a text book case of “how to totally destroy your inheritance”. Due to his own behaviour, Robert de Ferrers lost his title, most of his lands and any political clout he could have had. I may have to give him his very own post—but I can’t say I like him much)

Dafydd was probably ten years or so older than Elizabeth. Yes, he was Welsh, but he’d have been taught to speak Anglo-Norman French and had, after many years at the English court, probably acquired a veneer of civilisation (from the perspective of an Englishman. From the perspective of a Welshman no such veneer was required, thank you very much).

medieval lustWhether Elizabeth liked her husband yes or no was neither here nor there. She was his wife and would have no choice but to accompany him through the ups and downs of his life. Seeing as Dafydd comes across as a somewhat volatile character, prone to stirring up the hornets’ nest whenever he felt unjustly treated, Elizabeth was in for quite the ride.

Dafydd made his peace with his brother in 1267—briefly. When Edward, now king of England, and Llewellyn faced off yet again in 1274, Dafydd happily joined Edward’s side, resenting the fact that his brother wouldn’t grant him as much land as Dafydd felt entitled to. What Elizabeth may have thought of all this is unknown, but when Dafydd was in one of his “I love you, my brother” phase, Elizabeth was likely in Wales, when he was in a “I love you better, my liege” phase, she’d be tagging along to England. After all, where he went, there went she, responsible for ensuring his household worked as it should.

Llewellyn’s attempts to retain his hold on all of Wales failed. Well, to be honest his hold had never been all that strong: to the south and east the English Marcher lords held sway and the other Welsh princelings weren’t always that thrilled at recognising the House of Gwynedd as the first among the Welsh royal dynasties. When Edward assembled a huge host and managed to deprive Llewellyn of the harvests on Anglesey, Llewellyn had no choice but to parley and the Treaty of Aberconwy in 1277 was an excruciatingly humiliating document whereby Llewellyn’s power base was substantially reduced to comprise the lands west of River Conwy.

medieval-dragon-e1492962219524-570x299Dafydd, however, was a happy camper as the treaty called for Llewellyn to hand over the land he’d held east of the river to his younger brother. Edward was an even happier camper as he had a) made his point b) effectively collared the Welsh dragon. So pleased was Edward that he could even be magnanimous and preside over Llewellyn’s much delayed wedding to Eleanor de Montfort. (Delayed because Edward had kidnapped the bride, one should add)

medieval midwife-history-medievalBy the year 1277, Elizabeth and Dafydd had been married for over a decade. There were two surviving sons that we know of, yet another Llewellyn and an Owain. The eldest would have been around ten, the youngest a toddler. Likely there had been other childbirths, but if so no records survive. Other than the boys, the Dafydd/Elizabeth household also included a number of girls, but these seem to have been Dafydd’s daughters by women other than his wife. Difficult to handle, I imagine. Unless Elizabeth disliked sharing her bed with her husband beyond the dutiful embraces required to conceive an heir and a spare. Alternatively, one or two of those girls were, in fact, Elizabeth’s daughters as well. Given future events, it seems a bit unlikely as Elizabeth’s youngest child, a daughter named Gwladys, is named in documents while the rest remain anonymous.

Anyway: 1277 and Dafydd had at last come into his own. It didn’t take him long to realise just how hard Llewellyn’s life had been, always threatened by the encroaching presence of the English who, by now, had settled themselves all around Gwynedd. Edward was busy building castles along the approaches to Gwynedd—magnificent things that sent a very loud message as to who was the real power in Wales. Llewellyn might retain his title of Prince of Wales, but it was Edward Plantagenet whose writ ran strongest.

Inevitably, Dafydd ended up in yet another conflict. This time, however, he directed his anger at Edward and the king’s determination to implement English law in those areas of Wales he controlled. Plus Dafydd probably felt he’d deserved more than the two measly cantrefs he’d received at the Treaty of Aberconwy. He managed to rope in several other dissatisfied Welsh princes, men who had a long last come to realise that in making their peace with Edward of England they’d betrayed their own nation, culture and heritage. While Llewellyn probably cursed his brother to hell and back privately, he had no option but to join. Besides, for a couple of months a Welsh victory did not seem entirely impossible. Until Edward got his war machine moving, of course.

On the one hand, Edward was incensed by Dafydd’s betrayal. One must remember that Edward had seen first hand just how dangerous a powerful and rebellious subject could be—witness Simon de Montfort vs Henry III, Edward’s father. On the other, Edward probably high-fived his closest friends and said “YES!”. Dafydd had handed him the excuse Edward needed to once and for all crush all Welsh resistance.

What did Elizabeth do in all this? Me, I think she was afraid. All the time. She knew Edward and realised he made an implacable foe. She must have understood that if this went wrong, Dafydd would not remain alive for that much longer. And if Dafydd wasn’t around, what would happen to her sons? To her?

We all know this ended badly for the Welsh. A devastated Llewellyn lost his wife in childbirth in the summer of 1282 and was then likely tricked into a trap masterminded by certain Marcher lords, among them Edmund Mortimer, father of the Roger Mortimer who’d go on to rebel against a king, force through the king’s abdication, live joined at the hips with said king’s wife and then die for all that hubris. Neither here nor there. Llewellyn died in December of 1282, his head presented to Edward by Roger Mortimer (Edmund’s brother).

For some months, Dafydd was Prince of Wales—months spent mostly on the run with his family. Elizabeth and the children travelled with him from one castle to the other, and all the while Edward was tightening the noose around his most hated traitor.

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This is Hugh Despenser being hanged, drawn & quartered. Dafydd underwent a similar ordeal

It all came to an end in the summer of 1283. Dafydd was captured together with his wife, his youngest son and all those girls. Neither Dafydd nor Elizabeth would have held any illusions about what awaited Dafydd: death. But I guess none of them expected he would be put to death in such a cruel manner. Dafydd ap Gruffydd has the doubtful distinction of being the first person of noble birth to be hanged, drawn and quartered.

What neither of them could have known is how ruthless Edward would be towards their children. Once Edward’s men captured their eldest son, Llewellyn, he then arranged for both boys—at the time fourteen and eight or so—to be taken to Bristol Castle, there to be locked up for the rest of their lives.

And as to Gwladus, she was taken from her mother and sent to a Gilbertine convent in Lancashire. She would live and die as a nun, far from her mother, her homeland. Her cousin, Llewelyn’s daughter, was likewise dispatched to a convent—but a different one.

So there was Elizabeth. Not only had she just been widowed (or would be, very shortly) but she’d just had all of her children torn from her. No matter that Gwladus was probably a babe, that little Owain was still a child with downy cheeks and knobbly knees, they were taken from her. Did she beg, did she plead? Well, what mother wouldn’t? So yes, I think she did. But it did not avail her. Edward Plantagenet intended to erase this Welsh dynasty from the face of the earth.

In the aftermath of her husband’s rebellion, Elizabeth lost it all. Husband, sons, daughter(s). She would never see any of her children again and as to her own fate, well, she’d had her moment in the limelight, hadn’t she? With Dafydd dead and her sons locked away, Elizabeth became irrelevant. We don’t know what happened to her. It’s as if her life stopped in 1283. I suppose that she would have agreed. To lose it all like that must leave a person permanently maimed.

medieval marriage frontpage2Some have put forward the theory that Elizabeth was hastily wed to another man. If so, we don’t know to whom or if she became the mother of other children. Some say she retired to Wales and was buried there several years later. Me, I think she grieved for the rest of her life. I sort of hope she died before her eldest son in 1287, but God does not seem to have been kind to Elizabeth, so likely she didn’t. I hope she never found out about the king’s order that her sons be kept in fortified cages at night. But life being as it is, I suspect someone made sure to tell her.

Well over eight hundred years ago, Elizabeth Ferrers was born. We know so little about her. What did she look like, how did her laughter sound? Did she laugh or was she mostly of a serious disposition? Was she passionate or cold, did she have someone to comfort her when she wept for the life she had lost, the future her children were robbed of? We don’t know. But it takes a person seriously lacking in empathy not to be affected by the tragedies that befell her—and her children.

In Memoriam – of graveyards and mothers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Of Easter witches and dire death

I just spoke to one of my colleagues who asked me if I was already comfortably seated on my broomstick.
“Not yet,” I told him. “Some hours to go before the annual get-together:”
“Ah. And do you use GPS or a more traditional compass?”
I snorted. “I just point the broom in the right direction, and off we go.”

witches klm_32779_21.300x0

Easter Witch by Jenny Nyström (Kalmar Läns Museum)

Now, for non-Swedes, the above conversation is something of a mystery. Is my colleague (who is also the HR Director where I work) actually accusing me of being a witch? Yes, he is—but in a nice, seasons greetings sort of way. You see, in Sweden everyone knows that Maundy Thursday is the day when every single witch in the country congregates at the somewhat unspecified destination, Blåkulla.

Blåkulla is the Swedish version of the German name Blockberg. According to tradition, Blockberg/Blåkulla was the location of huge orgies, led by the Devil himself. Witches from all over came to Blåkulla to dance, copulate with Satan and in general go wild and crazy for a couple of days. In Sweden, the days most associated with these events were the days between Maundy Thursday and Easter Sunday—yet another sign of just how depraved the whole business was: while the rest of the country was commemorating the death and resurrection of Christ, the evil witches were cavorting with the Prince of Darkness himself.

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So how did all these witches travel to Blåkulla? Well, obviously a good broomstick helped. Or a goat, a cat, a length of hazel wood. Whatever mode of travelling was chosen, the witches would use a magic potion to ensure a safe and speedy journey. The then archbishop of Sweden, Olaus Magnus, describes in his book from 1555 how the witches would mix henbane, hemlock, belladonna, mandrake and water lilies into a potent mixture which would not only facilitate their journey but also, when it came in contact with their private parts, incite abnormal lust. Now we must take dear Olaus Magnus with a huge pinch of salt: the man is the author of one of the earlier histories of the Swedish people whereby Sweden was once populated by giants. Still: the herbs mentioned above all have hallucinatory properties, so anyone ingesting or inhaling them may very well have believed they could fly—or dance with the devil himself at Blåkulla.

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Blåkulla (or Blockberg) German postcard from the early 2oth century

Blåkulla and witches are an old, old thing in Sweden. Already in Västgötalagen – one of the first codified set of laws in Sweden, dating to the early 13th century—it is listed as an offence to accuse someone of having “gone to Blåkulla”. Well, unless there was proof, of course. In general, at this point in time the existence of magic and witches was not questioned, but the Church had little time for such superstition and it was extremely rare for anyone to be taken to court on accusations of witchery. It was even rarer for someone to be executed for being a witch: in cases where the judges found the defendant guilty of using magic to stop the neighbour’s cows from giving milk or to cause someone to trip in the street, usually they were sentenced to public flogging. In itself pretty bad for an invented crime, but better than dying for it.

In a previous post I’ve written of when the persecution of witches really took off in Europe, of the Malleus Maleficarium and the sad fate of all those innocents (mostly women) who just because they were odd or alone or healers or old or contentious or all of the above were accused of witchery by those who wanted to get rid of them. Very, very sad. While women died in their thousands on the Continent, England “only” executed about 300 witches (and very many of them due to the thoroughly despicable Matthew Hopkins). In Sweden, a total of 400 witches were executed between 1492 and 1704. Of these, 300 died between 1668 and 1676, when Sweden fell prey to a major witch hysteria. More of that later.

What is interesting to note is that while there were very few recorded cases of witchery pre-Reformation, no sooner had the Lutheran faith set down roots in Sweden but there was a gigantic increase in witch trials. All that fervour inspired by the new faith seems to have resulted in a desire to root out evil in every form, and now that people could read the Bible for themselves, some of them got stuck on stuff like “thou shalt not suffer a witch to live”. Between 1527 and 1596, Sweden has approximately 100 recorded witch trials. Of these “only” ten ended in a death sentence. Between 1596 and 1598, the number of witch trials was about 140 – a major spike.

In general, Swedish law was unprepared for the increasing accusations of witchery. Medieval law had been lenient, valid law required that the person accused either confessed or that there were six witnesses to her (because it was mostly a her) acts of evil magic for there to be a death sentence.

This was not good according to some of the more vociferous proponents of rooting out all evil and all potential witches. Take, for example, the most unsatisfactory case of Brita the Piper, who was accused of being a witch in 1593. Now Brita admitted to using magic. She even admitted to using magic to further her own needs at the expense of others. But she denied ever having been to Blåkulla and she emphatically denied serving Satan. Her judges found themselves in a difficult position: the woman was obviously dangerous (!) but as long as she insisted on never having served Satan she did not qualify as a full witch and could therefore not be executed. Torture was not allowed at the time, and so Brita was left to languish in jail for two years before the court decided to let her go while exiling her permanently from Stockholm.

Witches John_William_Waterhouse_-_Magic_CircleIn 1607, a woman was dragged before the court, accused of having used a local wizard to “suck the strength and blood” out of her own son. Wow. Sweden’s only recorded case of vampirism. This horrified the entire establishment. The king himself ordered that the woman be burned at the stake. In view of such evil, things had to change. In 1608, Sweden implemented a new Witchery Law which effectively made any practise of witchery a capital crime. At last the country had the legal structure with which to combat evil!

As an aside, Sweden wasn’t the only country afflicted by “witch fever” at the time. In Denmark, the otherwise so progressive Christian IV was actively rooting out witches and burning them. In Scotland the “wisest fool in Christendom”, a.k.a. James IV (and I of England) was all for destroying evil wherever it was to be found, which resulted in the Berwick Witch Trials.

Despite the new law, the Swedish witches brought to trial in the first few decades of the 17th century were relatively few. Only rarely did these cases end with execution. In most cases the accused was fined or sentenced to public whipping.

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Blå Jungfrun – the potential Blåkulla (photo sv:användare:Jochr)

This did not mean that people stopped believing in witches. Come Easter, people would light huge bonfires and fire muskets to scare away any witches planning on using their village as a temporary Blåkulla (and yes, we still light Easter bonfires). Those in the know pointed fingers at the island called Blå Jungfrun (the Blue Maiden) as being Blåkulla—Olaus Magnus had done so already in the 16th century. As the location for a good orgy, Blå Jungfrun has its benefits. Situated some kilometres off the Swedish east coast, it’s an isolated place, so the devil and his acolytes would have been able to let their hair down as they danced, fornicated and feasted on frogs, toads and snakes—normal fare for those who dabbled in evil.

As the years passed, more and more people started thinking that the Swedish witches had been exterminated. Until the events of 1665. In this year, a twelve-year-old girl called Gertrud Svensson was accused by a boy of leading her goats to walk on the water. She was interrogated by the local priest and admitted to having been to Blåkulla on several occasions. She’d been lured there by her father’s maid, Märet Jonsdotter. Just like that, the Swedish witch hysteria began.

Gertrud gave vivid descriptions of what happened in Blåkulla. People fornicated with Satan and several minor devils, they feasted and danced, gave birth to frogs which were then eaten. She admitted to having participated in all these evil acts, but also insisted she’d seen a weeping angel, begging her to help God and his angels free the world of evil. Hence the confession, one imagines.

Poor Märet denied everything. Unfortunately for her, she had a birthmark on her left little finger—a clear sign she’d been marked by Satan. She was sentenced to death. However, as long as she denied her guilt, she couldn’t be executed. Not good. In 1672 the law was changed. A confession was no longer a prerequisite and Märit was beheaded before her remains were burnt at the stake.

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A depiction of the Witch Trials at Mora in the 1670s

Gertrud was forced to run the gauntlet to whip the evil out of her. Her accusations led to other children remembering they too had been carried off to Blåkulla, and suddenly one woman after the other found herself accused by these “innocents” and dragged off to face trial for witchery. Very often, the proceedings were headed by the local priests who saw evil everywhere. Boys known as “visgossar” (wise boys) were considered exceptionally good at recognising witches and were carted hither and dither to point out the witches in whatever congregation they might be visiting. To further help cleanse the country of evil, torture was used, as was the infamous trial by water. Any woman not conforming to society’s norms was at risk. In some cases, children even gave up their own mothers, swept along by this mass hysteria that saw witches and evil everywhere.

Between Gertrud’s accusation of Märet to 1676, when the authorities in Stockholm put an end to “this ludicrous and superstitious nonsense” close to 300 people were executed, the lion’s share in those regions suffering from bad harvests. The vast majority of the victims were women. As a rule, their child accusers were whipped. After all, they’d participated in the festivities at Blåkulla and needed to be punished so as to save their souls. Me, I think their little souls were lost the moment they lifted their hand to point at a woman and hiss “witch”. Well; at least I hope so.

In 1779, the death sentence for witchery was abolished. Between 1676 and 1779, only five people were executed for dabbling in evil magic. I bet they were just as innocent as all those who died in “the great hullabaloo” of 1668 to 1676.

Having shared all this with you, I feel somewhat less inclined to sit myself astride my broom and whizz off to Blåkulla. What is to me and my contemporaries a cute little story of superstition was to my forebears a reality—and sometimes that reality morphed into a vicious with-hunting beast that left many, many dead in its wake.

A lady with claws

The other day, I was at the dentist. I detest going to the dentist, no matter how much I like the actual dentist. My dentist is a charming man who entertains me with anecdotes from Paris while he drills. Doesn’t help much, but at least he tries. Anyway: the single upside with going to the dentist is that the waiting room has a very varied selection of magazines. So while I was waiting I came upon an article about the Lioness from Brittany. The article made me smile and remember a very enthusiastic history teacher when I was in fifth grade. Mrs Miller was a big fan of spicing up her lessons with plenty of human interest, and the story of the Lioness from Brittany (or La Tigresse Bretonne, as Mrs Miller always called her, seeing as Mrs Miller was French which led to a somewhat alternative take on The Hundred Years’ War in general and Henry V in particular) comes with a huge dollop of drama. You haven’t heard of this feline lady? Not to worry, as I feel she deserves some airtime here on my blog—after all, I have a thing about strong women who flaunt convention and carve their own path through life.

Today’s protagonist was born around 1300 in France, more specifically in the Vendeé to the wealthy nobleman Maurice Montaigu de Belleville and his wife, Letice. The baby was christened Jeanne and at the tender age of twelve she was married to Geoffrey de Chateaubriant who was all of nineteen. Two years later, she gave birth to her first child, a son, to be followed by a daughter some years later. If she gave birth to more children, these must have died young as there is no record of them. So far, her life had been nothing out of the ordinary. Nor was the death of her husband in 1326 an unusual event. People died all the time back then. Come to think of it, they still do. Anyway: Jeanne was not destined to remain a widow for long. Already in 1328 she remarried, but a year later that marriage was declared null and void by the pope, maybe because by then Jeanne had met the love of her life, Olivier de Clisson.

Now, there is some evidence indicating Jeanne and Olivier went years back. In fact, some say Jeanne gave birth to a daughter fathered by Olivier already in 1325, when she was still married to hubby nr 1. Rather unlikely, IMO—a child born to a married woman was automatically assumed to be her husband’s child. For a baby to be recorded as being fathered by another man, the mother would have had to come forward and admit to adultery. Seems like a stupid thing to do for a medieval lady.

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Clisson – photo by Cyril555, licensed under Creative Commons

Anyway: in 1330, Jeanne wed Olivier de Clisson, a well-off Breton who swept her off to live happily ever after with him at his castle in Clisson. Soon enough, Jeanne gave birth to a son. And another. And another. First son died young, but as some sort of compensation Jeanne and Olivier also had a daughter. All in all, the Clissons were happy with each other. Thing is, the times were complicated politically – and that is putting it mildly.

In 1337, King Edward III of England officially claimed the French crown, this based on the fact that he was the grandson of Philippe IV. Obviously, this did not go down well with the crowned French king, Philippe VI, who was the nephew of Philippe IV, son to the rather impressive Charles of Valois. Now, at the time there were some regions which we would call French that were pretty much independent. One such region was Brittany, which was of strategic importance in a war between England and France as it offered a lot of coastline for English ships to safely land English knights, men-at-arms and archers.

The situation in Brittany was somewhat messy: The previous duke of Brittany, Arthur, had married twice. In his first marriage, he had three sons, one of whom was named John and was recognised as his heir. In his second marriage he had yet another son, also called John but known to history as John de Montfort as he inherited the title of count of Montfort through his mother. One wonders why the same father would name two sons John, but maybe he had a special fondness for this particular name.

When Arthur died, his eldest John inherited as John III. This John detested his half-siblings and expended a lot of energy on trying to get them branded as bastards. Didn’t work. As John III had no children of his own, his younger brother was his obvious heir. This John III didn’t like, so instead he chose his niece, yet another Jeanne as his designated heir. This Jeanne was married to a certain Charles de Blois who was delighted at the notion of becoming Duke of Brittany.

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John de Montfort entering Nantes

In 1341, John III died – after changing his mind and naming his half-brother as heir. Too late. Charles de Blois claimed the dukedom on behalf of his wife. John de Montfort was not about to give up his patrimony without a fight, and soon enough he had Edward III in his court, while Charles de Blois had the support of Philippe VI of France. The stage, as they say, was set for a very long and very bloody conflict…

The local nobility took sides. Olivier de Clisson seems to have supported Charles de Blois. His brother, Amaury de Clisson, supported John de Montfort. Olivier was ordered to help defend the city of Vannes against the English. In 1342, Vannes fell to the English and Olivier was captured. He was subsequently exchanged for Ralph Stafford (a gentleman whose rather high-handed marital exploits you can read much more about here) and a ransom. A suspiciously low ransom according to Philippe VI who suspected Olivier might be in cahoots with the English and John de Montfort.

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Olivier and his Breton buddies being executed

The French king had a devious side to him. In 1343, a treaty was signed by Philippe VI and Edward III, creating a bit of a breathing space in the ongoing war. To celebrate, Philippe organised a major tournament and Olivier, together with some other Breton lords, was invited to take part. Turns out there wouldn’t be much jousting for Olivier. Instead, he (and several other Breton lords) was arrested, dragged off to Paris where he was tried by his peers and sentenced to death. Early in August, he was beheaded, his body displayed in a gibbet and his head sent off to adorn a spike in Nantes.

In France, such a public display of a nobleman’s body was not the done thing. Besides, there was no evidence of Olivier’s guilt. Contemporaries were therefore not impressed by their king’s actions, with quite a few expressing concern an innocent and loyal man had been murdered on the king’s say-so.

Back in Bretagne, Jeanne received the news of her husband’s death. She took her two surviving sons with her to Nantes to show them their father’s head, and I can’t imagine what it must have felt like for her (and her boys, at the time seven and five) to see her husband’s head displayed as a trophy. Something snapped in Jeanne. There, in front of her beloved husband’s decapitated head the forty-three-year-old widow swore revenge: King Philippe would live to regret having murdered her husband.

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Supposedly, this is Jeanne.

First, Jeanne sold everything she had of value—likely the lands had been attainted, but what she could sell, she sold. Then she armed herself (legend says with a huge axe), hired several men-at-arms and began her own personal war on the French. Supposedly she attacked a couple of castles, slaughtered the garrisons (she left one or two alive as witnesses) and openly declared her support for John de Montfort—and Edward III.

After this initial killing spree, Jeanne bought three ships (probably with financial support from the English) that she painted black and fitted with crimson sails, and began to wreak havoc on the French. This was not a pirate out for spoils. Jeanne targeted French ships to kill, exacting a grisly and bloody revenge for the death of her husband. She participated herself in the killing—or so the legend says—using that big axe of hers to lop of the heads of whatever unfortunate Frenchmen she captured. French nobles could expect no mercy, no matter that they promised huge ransoms. The Lioness of Brittany was not interested in gold: she wanted blood.

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Battle of Sluys

The French had nothing with which to fight back—at least not initially. After all, the French had lost most of their fleet at the Battle of Sluys in 1340, and Philippe was beginning to feel the pinch of being constantly at war: he simply did not have the money or the men to outfit a new fleet.

 

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Charles de Blois being captured

In Brittany, it seemed Charles of Blois had finally managed to gain the upper hand. By 1345, John de Montfort was dead and most of his supporters had no choice but to make their peace with Charles. However: Charles did not inspire much loyalty among the Bretons—especially not after slaughtering huge numbers of civilians when he took the town of Quimper. And when the English defeated the French at Crecy and went on to capture Charles of Blois in 1347, the de Montfort cause revived somewhat.

Not that Jeanne cared. She’d helped the English transport provisions over the Channel in preparation for Crecy, but otherwise she preferred to expend her time on her favourite pastime: murdering Frenchmen. However, her luck could not hold for ever, and somewhere around 1346-47 the French managed to sink her flagship. Jeanne and her two sons ended up drifting around for days. Her younger son died of exposure before they were rescued and she decided to send her surviving and eldest son, Olivier, to England to be raised in the household of the English king. After this, she went back to her pirating and would continue to be a scourge on the French until 1356 or so.

After thirteen years as a pirate captain, Jeanne had apparently had enough. Her husband’s death had been avenged many times over and her eldest son was safe in England where he was a close companion of John de Montfort Jr. At well over fifty, she was probably tired of living on a cramped ship. Or maybe it was more a case of wanting to spend time with her new hubby, an English gentleman called Walter Bentley. Whatever the case, she settled down in the Breton town of Hennebont with her husband, the castle in which she lived situated right by the sea.

In 1359, Jeanne died. She would therefore never know that her eldest son was destined to become the most famous Clisson male, ending his life as Constable of France and the richest man around. But that, as they say, is another story. Besides, I’m not entirely sure our Jeanne would have been pleased by her son’s change of sides. For her, Philippe VI had permanently killed any loyalty to France when he unjustly beheaded her husband.

So lived and died La Tigresse Bretonne, a lady who brought home just how dangerous a woman can be when sufficiently riled. And frankly, thinking about her did serve as an adequate distraction while my dear dentist went at it with his drill. After all, if she could survive her excessively exciting life, then I can live through a visit to the dentist. Maybe.

Treason on Twelfth Night

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Henry claiming the throne

On October 13, 1399, Henry of Lancaster was crowned king of England. There was just a teensy-weensy problem: the king he succeeded wasn’t dead. Instead, Richard II had been forced to abdicate.

Henry and Richard were cousins, their common grandfather being Edward III. Richard became king as a child and grew up to be a firm believer in royal prerogative. He surrounded himself with favourites whom he showered with offices and wealth and this led to a conflict with a group of his barons, the so called Lords Appellant which included dear cousin Henry and Richard’s uncle the Duke of Gloucester. The Lords Appellants did away with Richard’s favourites and curtailed his power significantly. Richard nursed a grudge against these lords for over a decade after which he struck back, ordering the murder of his uncle and exiling Henry as well as denying his cousin his huge inheritance. Did not go down well with Henry—or with Richard’s other barons who realised that if he could cheat his cousin of his lands, then he could cheat them as well. So when Henry returned to England in the summer of 1399, stating that he only came to claim what was rightfully his, he met little opposition. Rather the reverse, people being rather sick of Richard and his high-handed personal rule. A few weeks after landing at Ravenspurn, Henry had effectively taken control of England – and of Richard, who was now his prisoner.

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Henry IV presenting the captive Richard (in red) to the Londoners (Jean Creton)

There was little love lost between Henry and Richard, but Henry went out of his way to treat his dethroned cousin with courtesy and does not seem to have known just what to do with him. Killing an anointed king was out of the question—Henry is one of those rather likeable medieval grandees who seems to have had a well-developed conscience, plus he was genuinely devout. While Henry felt obliged (and to some extent entitled) to usurp Richard’s crown to safeguard his own life and that of his sons, that was as far as it went. At first.

The problem with deposed kings is that they’re not exactly grateful for having been allowed to keep their head. They also remain a focal point for those determined to oppose the new king—not necessarily because they loved the previous king, but because causing unrest can be quite lucrative.

The first few months as king were happy months for Henry IV. He brimmed with self-confidence as he went about the business of securing his realm. He established good relationships with Parliament, retained most of Richard’s administrators and in general went out of his way to assure people he intended to be a good king, a king who took counsel and listened to Parliament.

It was therefore in a good mood that Henry IV retired to Windsor Castle with his sons to celebrate Christmas – his first Christmas ever as king. At the time, the unhappy Richard II was held at Pontefract Castle, albeit in some comfort. Henry must have felt he had everything under control – the realm, his people and the former king.

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John Holland and John Montacute (BL, MS Harley)

Ha! Henry was in for a surprise. Already in mid-December, a group of conspirators met. They included John Holland, half-brother to Richard II and Earl of Huntingdon , John’s son Thomas, Earl of Kent, John Montacute, Earl of Salisbury,  Thomas le Despenser, Baron Despencer, and Edward of Norwich, Earl of Rutland. These men had benefited from Richard’s largesse and considered Henry a usurper (which he was). There were other men present, such as Thomas Blount and Ralph Lumley and a certain Richard Maudeleyn who in looks was an eerie double of Richard II. The meeting was held at Westminster abbey, whose abbot was in on the conspiracy as was the ousted Archbishop of Canterbury and the bishop of Carlisle.

henry tournamentThese men were determined to rid the world of Henry IV, and indirectly the new king had handed them a golden opportunity in that he was holding a tournament at Windsor on Twelfth Night. A perfect way of gaining access to the king with arms, and the plan was relatively simple: the various earls were to call on their retainers and pull together a sizeable force of armed men. This rebel army was to muster as discreetly as possible at Kingston while the conspiring lords, together with a smaller force, were to ride for Windsor on January 4th, gain access to the unsuspecting king, murder him, his sons and the new Archbishop of Canterbury (I’m guessing this was a condition imposed by the ousted Archbishop, who very much wanted to regain his see, no matter how bloodily). Once all these foul deeds were done, they’d order their army to ride forth to seize a number of important towns. As King Richard was nowhere close, it fell to Maudeleyn to dress as the king and stir the English people to rise on behalf of their former king.

Successful conspiracies depend on two things: not including too many people and that the involved peeps don’t spill the beans. In the case of this particular conspiracy, there were quite a few magnates involved. One of them, Edward of Norwich, was Henry IVs cousin and as the plans were set in motion it appears he got cold feet. While dining with his father, the Duke of York, Edward supposedly told him about the plot. His father was horrified and convinced Edward to tell Henry.

There is another version of how Henry found out, involving a tender-hearted prostitute who’d spent one night with a man loyal to one of the rebel lords. A talkative fellow, this man told her all about the plot and the next night, when she shared her bed with a man loyal to Henry, she was so affected by the thought that maybe her most recent bedfellow would die during the upcoming rebellion that she told him everything she knew. Hmm.

Edward was never punished for participating in the conspiracy—in itself an indication that he was the one who blew the whistle on the others.

Whatever the case, the moment Henry found out, he acted with impressive speed. In a matter of hours he’d swept up his sons and was riding madly for London, making a wide detour so as not to run into the conspirators and their armed retinues who at that same moment were riding to Windsor to set their plan in action. At some distance from the city, Henry met the mayor of London who was on his way to warn him that something was afoot—why else had 6 000 armed men assembled at Kingston?

Once his sons were safe in the Tower, Henry decided it was time to deal with the rebels. He closed all ports, issued writs ordering the arrest of the rebel lords and called up the Londoners to ride with him, offering good silver to all those that would ride with him. Come morning, Henry was ready to act.

First, he sent Edward to inform the rebels that the king was riding towards them with a huge army. (Yet another indication that Edward must have had one foot in each camp, the king using his hapless cousin as some sort of spy) As a consequence of this information, the various rebel lords rode hell for leather for their own lands, hoping to inspire their people to join in the rebellion.

Thing is, Richard wasn’t a popular king. He’d overtaxed his people, was considered rather shifty and with little genuine interest in his subjects. Henry, on the other hand, was popular. Here was a man who gladly spoke English, who wanted to rule with Parliament, who hoped to bring back the halcyon days of good king Edward III. (Not that those days were all that halcyon, at least not for the common man and woman, but nostalgia is not exactly a modern invention). To the shock of the rebels, the people rose against them.

Richard Maudeleyn was captured in London—and hanged. John Holland tried to flee the country in a small boat, was blown back to the English coast and ended up in the custody of Henry’s mother-in-law. This impressive lady had no qualms about transporting John to Pleshey Castle and handing him over to a mob which promptly beheaded him. Thomas Holland and John Montacute were captured in Cirencester. They too were beheaded. Thomas le Despenser tried to flee the country by boarding a ship in Cardiff but the crew refused to help a rebel and transported him to Bristol where he was summarily executed. Other leading rebels were rounded up and brought before Henry at Oxford Castle.

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gruesome death – such as Thomas Blount’s

The king chose to personally act the judge and most of the frightened and desperate men brought before him were pardoned, very much in line with Henry’s magnanimous character. Twenty odd were beheaded and half a dozen were condemned to die the full traitor’s death, one of these being that Thomas Blount who’d been present at the first meeting in December. And whatever one may think about this gent, he had his fair share of courage. As he was watching his entrails being burned before him, he was asked by one of his guards if he needed a drink. Thomas Blount politely declined the offer, saying that he did not know where to put it…

Henry IV The National Archives Illumination_of_Henry_IV_(cropped)The Epiphany Rising was a major failure, but it was to have dark consequences. Henry had been brutally reminded of just how insecure his hold on the crown was and felt compelled to act to safeguard himself and, more importantly, his sons. There are indications that already on January 6th he sent a trusted retainer north to Pontefract with the order to kill Richard should the rising garner support. As we’ve seen, there was no support, but killing Richard was no longer quite as anathema to Henry as it had been some months ago. In fact, he’d probably come to the conclusion that Richard’s death was a prerequisite for political stability.

On February 14, 1400, Richard died (at least officially) The standard story is that he starved to death, some saying it was self-starvation (because the rising failed and he despaired of ever seeing the world outside again) some saying he was denied food so as to ensure he died without any marks on his body. Sadly (as I like Henry IV much, much more than Richard), IMO things point to the latter. The Epiphany Rising made Henry a murderer and the burden of guilt was to haunt him for the rest of his life.  Uneasy indeed, did his crowned head lie…

Dead #otd: Roger Mortimer

There are a couple of death dates I know by heart: Being Swedish, I know the death date of Karl XII who died in Norway November 30, 1718 purportedly having been shot by one of his own with a button. Hmm. Since then the button part has been dismissed, but whether or not he was shot by a Swede who had had it with this very bellicose king we will never know. I also know the death date of Gustav II Adolf who sadly died on November 6, 1632. Note the month peeps, and then it may not be a surprise that another of those death dates I know by heart is that of Roger Mortimer, first Earl of March, who died on November 29, 1330. In other words, he died today – well, 687 years ago, but still.

Bishop beheading-650x387Opinions about Roger Mortimer are divided. I belong to those who see in him a man of great capacity and ambition who was ultimately corrupted by power. Alternatively, some of his more questionable actions were driven by fear: Mortimer was no fool, and the older Edward III became, the closer he knew the day of reckoning was coming, because Edward III was as capable, as ruthless, as ambitious, as Mortimer himself and would not tolerate being on a leash forever.

I have in a previous post told the story of how Edward, some weeks shy of eighteen, had Mortimer arrested, using the famous tunnels under Nottingham Castle to get to him. Mortimer was hogtied and transported back to London where he was walled up in a room in the Tower as Edward didn’t want a repeat of Mortimer’s famous escape from the Tower eight years before.

I assume they left a little hole through which to pass victuals, water and a chamber pot, because a month later Mortimer was condemned to death by the assembled parliament. He had no opportunity to speak in his defence, the king ordering him to be gagged and bound. In one way, Edward’s personal rule therefore began under the stain of illegality – an accused man had the right to answer charges brought against him.

As Mortimer was found guilty of treason (usurping the young king’s power could be considered treasonous I suppose, but at the same time it was Mortimer who’d secured the throne for Edward III) he could have been condemned to suffer that rather awful death of being hanged, drawn and quartered. Edward chose to go for the drawn and hanged version, and I suspect Mortimer shivered in relief. To die with dignity was difficult if you were first hanged until you were almost dead, cut down, castrated, disembowelled while still alive, and then mercifully killed by the separation of your heart from your body. Rephrase: not so merciful…

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Alternative A

On this day in 1330, Mortimer was drawn through the streets of London to Tyburn where he was divested of his clothes and hanged until dead. Mind you, by the time he reached Tyburn, his fine black tunic would probably have been in shreds – being drawn behind horses caused a lot of wear and tear.

HDQ harclay-man-drawn

Alternative B

Now, one thing I’ve always wondered is if Mortimer had his hands or his legs tied to the horses. There are medieval depictions of men being drawn either way, and I suppose that if it was by your legs, chances were your head would be badly knocked about. By your arms, you’d have the dubious pleasure of seeing the surrounding crowds as they catcalled and pelted you with whatever objects they felt you deserved, be it rotten eggs, stones, mud or the odd veggie.

My soon-to-come book In The Cold Light of Dawn will of course have to address this issue. I can reveal that I have made a choice of arms vs legs purely based on what works best for the specific scene I have in mind. “My” Mortimer (who now and then takes up a lot of space in my head – I’d say we have a close relationship after all these years reading up on him. He doesn’t agree, as he is still sulking at my refusal to go alternate history on him and change the events in Nottingham) has expressed a preference and I’ve decided to go with his choice. After all, the end result is still the same: a forty-three-year-old man standing naked and shivering as he offers a short speech before the noose around his neck is drawn tight and he is heaved up to die. Takes some time to die when you’re hanged that way as your neck isn’t broken by the fall…

Anyway: once I’ve recovered from the pang of grief I always feel on this date I will do what I usually do on this day (and on November 6. Not so much November 30 as I don’t rate Karl XII as much of a king. Weird man who indulged in such hobbies as beating bears with cudgels…) I will light a candle and hope Roger Mortimer’s soul is at rest.

(NOTE! This is a rewritten version of the post I was asked to write for the FB Group The History Geeks)

Holding hands through eternity

In medieval times, a man with titles and lands very much wanted a male heir, someone to take over when Papa clocked out. This doesn’t mean that daughters were unloved or unwelcome. For families eager to cement future alliances, daughters were valuable assets, albeit too many daughters could become something of a financial strain: after all, if you wanted your girls to marry well, they had to come with dowry.

Marriage love Manesse1Roger Mortimer and his wife Joan de Geneville were married in 1301. Joan was one of those precious daughter—even more precious as a bride because she had no brothers and her elders chose to send Joan’s sisters to convents so as to make Joan one very impressive heiress. For the Mortimers, this marriage was a major coup, increasing their holdings in the Welsh Marches substantially. Fourteen and fifteen respectively at the time of their marriage, Roger and Joan seem to have hit it off. Not only did Joan accompany her husband much more than was usual at the time, but over the coming two decades they would have at least 12 children that we know of. Four of these children were sons. The rest were daughters, and soon enough Roger and Joan were scouring their world for adequate grooms for their girls.

One of their daughters was called Catherine. She was born around 1314 or so, and already in 1319 her father sought a papal dispensation for her as she and her intended groom, Thomas Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick, were related within the forbidden degree.

Thomas Beauchamp was a great catch as a groom. As a toddler, in 1315 he inherited his father’s title and vast estates. As was customary at the time, he was placed under wardship. Whoever was granted the wardship stood to make a minor fortune, as any incomes derived from the Warwick estates would go straight into the pouch of the one holding the wardship. Unsurprisingly, such a rich plum was coveted by many. Edward II granted it to Hugh Despenser Sr, one of his favourites. To be fair, Hugh Despenser could claim kinship with the fatherless little earl: his wife was Thomas’ aunt, his children by her were Thomas’ cousins.

Usually, the future marriage of the ward went with the wardship, i.e. in this case Hugh Despenser would have chosen Thomas’ bride. But in 1318, Roger Mortimer was granted the marriage. Turns out there was an arrangement between Thomas’ father, Guy de Beauchamp (who was not a man Edward II had any warmer feelings for, seeing as he was instrumental to the murder of Edward II’s first favourite, Piers Gaveston) and Roger Mortimer to have Thomas marry one of Mortimer’s daughters, mainly to resolve a feud between the families related to some land.

Roger became Thomas’ guardian and I guess the idea was to raise him with his future wife. Except that things didn’t quite turn out that way. In 1321, a frustrated Mortimer, together with the most powerful baron in England, Thomas of Lancaster, and Humphrey de Bohun, rebelled against Edward II. They had had it with Hugh Despenser Sr and Hugh Despenser Jr controlling the king and obliged the king to exile them.

By 1322, the king had turned the tables on his uppity barons. Lancaster and Bohun were dead, Mortimer languished in the Tower and all his worldly good now belonged to the king.

Thomas’ marriage was re-granted to the Earl of Arundel who had plans to marry the young earl to one of his daughters instead. (Poor Thomas, yanked around from one prospective bride to the other with no one giving a whit about what he might want) Catherine, as all of Mortimer’s young daughters, was sent to a convent—a genteel if dreary form of imprisonment.

As we all know (What? You don’t? Read up here!) Mortimer managed to escape the Tower, flee to France, join forces with Edward II’s disgruntled queen, Isabella, and return to England in 1326 to depose the king and take control of the kingdom. Once he was in charge, Mortimer granted himself the wardship (and marriage) of Thomas de Beauchamp and could resume his plans for marrying his Catherine to the earl. In 1329, Catherine and Thomas wed. As a gesture, Mortimer granted Thomas his lands that same year, allowing the fifteen-year-old earl to manage his own affairs from that day forward. (The mind boggles: fifteen and independently wealthy and an earl to boot)

Catherine Beauchamp_Elsing

Thomas

Once married, Catherine and Thomas settled in Warwick Castle, the principal abode of the earls of Warwick. Soon enough Catherine’s father was dead, hanged at Tyburn on orders of the young king Edward III. Did she miss him? Hmm. For several years between 1322 and late 1326, she had not seen him and likely not heard from him either. But a powerful daddy is always a good thing to have and Roger took his duties as a parent seriously so I suppose that if nothing else she prayed for his soul–or cursed him in private, because being the daughter of a traitor didn’t have quite the same ring to it as being the daughter of a regent.

It took quite a few years before Catherine could welcome her first child to the world, but by 1339 she had two thriving sons and over the coming years she would give Tomas at least twelve children, some say fifteen. If we assume the number of children are an indication of how successful the marriage was, this would indicate Catherine and Thomas were happy bunnies indeed. We don’t know, of course, but I rather like imagining they cared for each other.

Mind you, such romantic notions as marrying for love were not around at the time: marriages were contracts uniting family A to family B thereby (hopefully) increasing the standing and wealth of both involved families. So Catherine would not have expected to go weak at the knees at the sight of her husband, fell her heart flutter madly in his presence. She would have expected her husband to treat her with respect and in general take care of her. Likewise, Thomas’ expectations on his wife would have been that she managed their household (major, major task, that) and gave him the heir he needed.

Battle-poitiers(1356)Just because Thomas was an earl he couldn’t slouch about and sniff the flowers while enjoying his wealth. No, Thomas was expected to serve the king in a military capacity, and Thomas was good at war. Very good, in fact. So good he was appointed the Earl Marshal for England and was one of the first knights to become a Knight of the Garter. His ferocity and courage in battle gave him the nickname “le devil Warwick” and supposedly just the mention of his name would have the enemies knocking their knees together in fright.

For Thomas to have such a successful martial career, he had to spend a lot of time away from home. Obviously, he made it home at reasonably regular intervals, departing for more adventures on the Continent while leaving his wife adequately content and yet again with child. While he was away, Catherine would have shouldered the overall management of his estates, albeit supported by Thomas’ stewards and clerks and whatnot.

While Thomas was away fighting, Catherine ensured their large brood of children were adequately raised. Her sons were educated in other households than hers, preparing for a life as warriors. Now, the thing about sons being raised to fight is that they quite often end up dead on some battlefield or other. In 1360, Catherine’s eldest son, Guy, died in France. In his case, the death was not due to having something sharp and hard sticking him in an armpit. No, Guy died of injuries he received in a freak hail storm.

Thomas and Catherine were devastated by the loss of their eldest. In 1361, they lost two more of their sons. Fortunately, they had two sons left plus their daughters.

Other than fighting wars and taking rich Frenchmen prisoners & holding them for ransom, Thomas spent a lot of time improving his ancestral home. Towers were added, walls were reinforced, and then he decided to turn his attention to the church of St Mary in Warwick proper. Ironically, he used the ransom for a French archbishop to finance the renovation of this collegiate church. The renovation of the church was still ongoing when Catherine died in August of 1369. Three months later, Thomas died too—not of a broken heart, but of the plague. At the time he was in France, yet again fighting the French.

20160830_120014Catherine and her Thomas share a tomb in St Mary’s Church. The alabaster effigies that decorate their resting place were added some years later when the chancel was completed. There they lie, side by side and holding hands for eternity. I rather like it that,  after all they had been each other’s companion through a (relatively) long life, so why should they not walk hand in hand through the gates of heaven?

The Silent Man who Founded a Nation

William the silent Philip_II_of_Spain_berating_William_the_Silent_Prince_of_Orange_by_Cornelis_Kruseman

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

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

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

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

William the silent father Willemderijke

William Sr

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

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

William the silent Mary_(1505–1558),_Queen_of_Hungary

Mary of Hapsburg, Queen of Hungary

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

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

william the silent Anna_von_Egmond

Anna, wife nr 1

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

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

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

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

William Avsachsen

Anna, wife nr 2

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

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

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

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

William himself. A rather handsome man, IMO

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

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

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Charlotte wife nr 3

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

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

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

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Louise, wife nr 4

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

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

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

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

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

William the silent Willem.zwijger.grablege.delft

17th c depiction of William’s grave

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

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

A gift fit for a queen

In a feudal society, the first-born son generally hit the jackpot. His was the future title, his were his father’s lands, and not very much was left for his younger brothers – unless, of course, the mother had her own lands and titles that could be settled on a younger son. Alternatively, the younger son entered holy orders. The church, you see, offered an interesting and lucrative career path to the ambitious younger son. Not that the younger son was always given a choice: your medieval ambitious daddy saw the benefits in having a son or two high up the ecclesiastic hierarchy.

Obviously, not all bishops in medieval England were younger sons of noblemen. Take, for example, today’s protagonist, Walter Stapledon, Bishop of Exeter and loyal servant of Edward II. Not as much as a drop of noble blood, but our Walter was a younger brother. Big brother Richard was to inherit some minor landholdings from their father, and little Walter was therefore destined for the church.

The Stapledon family was not without means, seeing as both Richard and Walter were educated at Oxford. Richard would go on to become a lawyer and local judge, on top of his day-to-day management of his lands. Walter, on the other hand, made his way to Exeter, where he became a cathedral canon in 1301. By then, Walter was in his mid-thirties, a well-educated man who in 1305 became a doctor of canon and civil law, which qualified him for royal employment.

EHFA medieval-bishopIn 1307, the bishop of Exeter died, and Walter was chosen as his replacement. Not a unanimous vote, and there was a lot of quibbling back and forth before Walter’s backside was firmly welded to the bishop’s chair. But once there, Walter had arrived: as a bishop, not only did he have access to substantial means, but he was also a member of Parliament. And somewhere along the line, Bishop Walter found favour with the king, Edward II.

During his first decade as bishop, Walter not only organised his diocese and founded Stapledon Hall in Oxford (present day Exeter College). He also served Edward as an envoy to Gascony on several occasions. Things weren’t all that good in Gascony, the French encroaching regularly on English land. From a French perspective, the land was French. From an English perspective, Gascony was what remained of the magnificent Angevin empire that had been built by Henry II and his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, and which started crumbling the moment Henry II died – albeit that his son Richard held it together for some more years. Gascony therefore had immense emotional value for the English – and Edward II was not about to let this last toe-hold on the continent slip away.

Edward had problems closer to home. Due to his blatant favouritism of the Despensers, father and son, he had alienated most of his powerful barons, who felt he was in breach of his coronation oaths, whereby he was supposed to take counsel from a larger group of barons, not only the Despensers. When Edward II repeatedly turned a blind eye on the Despensers’ rapacious appropriation of land belonging to others, the barons were further enraged. When Hugh Despenser the younger took it upon himself to hang, draw and quarter a man without a trial, the barons had had enough. In 1321, the barons, led by Roger Mortimer and Thomas of Lancaster, rebelled, and Walter Stapledon was one of ten bishops who had their work more than cut out for them as they hastened back and forth between the king and the barons in an attempt to broker a peace.

Ultimately, the king was given no choice: The Despensers were exiled and Edward retreated to lick his wounds and plan vengeance. Stapledon retired to his diocese, resigning from the role of Treasurer he’d been given by Edward a year or so earlier (this appointment was one of the issues of contention with the barons; such appointments should be discussed with the baronial council). Maybe Walter felt an element of relief at this development, hoping to expend his considerable energy on his diocese. Alternatively, he was disappointed, seeing as he’d earned the reputation of increasing his own wealth due to his position, not above applying extortion when so required.

EHFA E IIIn the event, Edward II rose like a phoenix from the ashes. Clearly, the risk of never seeing Hugh Despenser again sufficed to have the king act swiftly and resolutely, and by 1322 the tables had been turned on the barons, with Mortimer languishing in the Tower and Lancaster very dead. The Despensers were recalled, Stapledon was reinstated, and things were, in Edward’s opinion, good. Well: except for Gascony, where things had taken a turn for the worse.

Stapledon had his work cut out for him as Treasurer. The hostilities in Gascony, the skirmishes with Scotland – it all cost money. And when Mortimer escaped the Tower in August of 1323, money had to be expended on increased security for the king and his favourites. Stapledon was an efficient administrator, but money was scarce – the king was not given to parsimony, neither was dear Hugh – and in 1324 the king seized Queen Isabella’s dower lands to supplement his income. Some say this was Stapledon’s idea, but whether it was or not, the bulk of Isabella’s holdings lay in his diocese, so Stapledon was put in charge of doing the actual seizing. This did not go down well with Isabella, who was reduced to an allowance and blamed Stapledon for her humiliation.

The political situation in England became increasingly volatile. Spurred on by Hugh Despenser, Edward turned England upside down in his search for potential allies to his rebellious barons – first and foremost Mortimer. Suspects were hauled before the assizes, in some cases deprived of their lands, in others imprisoned or executed. Tensions rode high, putting it mildly. In Gascony, the French under Charles de Valois routed the English. If Edward wanted to retain his Gascon lands, he had to act – which he did, by sending his queen to negotiate with her brother, the French king Charles IV. Isabella was successful, Charles IV was willing to be magnanimous, and all that remained was the thorny issue of homage.

Charles IV wanted Edward II to do homage – in Paris – for Gascony. This would mean leaving England in Hugh Despenser’s hands, and while Edward himself had no problem with this, Despenser most certainly did, convinced that the moment the king was gone, he’d be attacked and murdered by the disgruntled barons. Probably a legitimate fear, and so in September of 1325 Edward II despatched his son, Edward of Windsor, to do homage in his stead. The young prince was accompanied by Walter Stapledon who was charged with one further task: bring Queen Isabella home.

By then, Isabella had been in France for six months or so, and she showed no inclination whatsoever to return to her husband. Seeing as Roger Mortimer was at large on the continent, this made Edward decidedly uncomfortable – he was intelligent enough to realise that his disaffected and humiliated wife might entertain the notion of supporting the traitorous (as per Edward) baron. He had repeatedly ordered Isabella to return, and at her non-compliance had cut off her funds, hoping this would bring his wife to heel. The only thing that happened was that Isabella moved in with her brother, still stubbornly refusing to return to England.

Stapledon oversaw the homage ceremony, tried to corner Isabella into having a private conversation, and when that didn’t work he chose to stand up before the entire French court and tell her she had no option but to return home immediately, her husband would not tolerate any more excuses from his disobedient wife. Isabella stood and told Stapledon she would not go home – not as long as Hugh Despenser the younger was the third wheel in her marriage. Stapledon turned to the French king – a man-to-man demand that the king send his sister back to her husband. Charles, unsurprisingly, refused. Stapledon had no choice but to retire, utterly humiliated. Some days later, he chose to flee the court in disguise, convinced there was a plot afoot to assassinate him. Left behind in France was Prince Edward, now firmly under his mother’s control. The rebellion against Edward II had just acquired its figurehead – the heir to the throne.

Stapledon returned to an England in turmoil. Over the coming months, it became apparent that Isabella and Roger had joined forces, even embarked on a passionate relationship. In England, all those suffering under the double yoke of Despenser and Edward II organised themselves, while the king and his advisors concentrated on defence strategies. Stapledon was made responsible for defending his part of the country, and as the winter of 1325 became the spring of 1326, people waited. And waited. And waited.

EHFA Retour_d_Isabelle_de_France_en_AngleterreIn September of 1326, Isabella and her son, accompanied by Roger, landed in England. In a series of rousing speeches, Isabella declared that they were here only to safeguard England from the tyranny of the Despensers and the other evil counsellors of the king (I am convinced she included Stapledon in this little club), and to ensure the rule of law was restored within the land. At every opportunity, she presented her handsome fourteen-year-old son, ensuring everyone got an eyeful of the heir – the future king.

Despenser urged the king to flee. Edward II did not lack personal courage, and with the funds in his treasury he could easily have fielded an army substantially larger than that of Isabella and Roger. But in view of Hugh’s abject terror, he did as his favourite asked him to and rode west, making for the relative safety of Ireland. London was left in control of Stapledon – a dangerous task, seeing as the Londoners were major Mortimer and Isabella fans.

On October 15, 1326, London exploded. Angry citizens decided to take justice in their own hands and the mayor (who, incidentally, was one of the men who condemned Roger Mortimer to death in 1321) was forced to sign the death sentences of two men: one was a purported Despenser spy, the other was none other than the hated Treasurer, Walter Stapledon. Now, Walter was a bishop, and as such could only be tried by an ecclesiastic court, but the mob had gone beyond trials – they wanted blood, and they wanted it now. The Despenser spy was hunted down and dragged to Cheapside where he was beheaded. And then they went in search of the bishop.

Stapledon was not at home when the mob burnt down his doors, ransacked his house and carried off his precious belongings. But upon hearing that his house was being looted, the bishop donned armour and rode into the city, ignoring the advice to stay away. By the time he’d realised his error, it was too late, the mob baying for his blood as they chased Stapledon and his squires through the London streets.

Bishop beheading-650x387Desperately, Stapledon made for St Paul’s, hoping to claim sanctuary. At the north door, the crowd caught up with him, and he was pulled off his horse, screaming in fear as he was hauled towards Cheapside. Once there he was forced to his knees and his head was sawed off with a breadknife. I can only imagine just how much time that took…

The ecstatic Londoners sent Stapledon’s head as a gift to Isabella, throwing the rest of the bishop’s mauled remains in a dungheap to be eaten by dogs. It is to her credit that Isabella was horrified – mostly because one should not saw off the head of bishops. Isabella needed the church on her (and her son’s) side, and no matter what her feelings for Bishop Stapledon might have been, she had to express her disgust at the horrible way in which he’d been put to death. The Londoners who’d been dispatched to present their queen with the grisly gift were curtly thanked and on Isabella’s orders, the battered body (and head, one assumes) of Walter Stapledon were returned to Exeter. There the poor man was buried before the high altar as befitted a bishop, and a good bishop at that. Whatever his other faults, Stapledon had been a good administrator of the diocese, a man with a passion for learning so strong he founded Stapledon Hall at Oxford University to offer young men of little means the opportunity to study. These days, Stapledon Hall is known as Exeter College.

Walter Stapledon does not lie alone in Exeter Cathedral. Close by is the grave of his brother, Richard, who tried to defend Walter from the London mob and in so doing lost his life too. An older brother defending a younger, a knight defending a priest. Two men caught up in a power struggle which ended with a deposed king and a new, very young, king. I wonder if now and then they rise from their graves to chat about that distant past, two ghostly outlines gliding through the dark interior of the cathedral. Likely, they don’t. Likely they lie silent and still, have done so for close to 700 years.

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