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A baby, a baby, a kingdom for a baby – or when the bishop did his duty

Urraca Alfonso_I_de_Aragón_por_Pradilla_(1879)

Alfonso I el Batallador

In 1134, Alfonso I of Aragón died, without heirs to his body. Regular readers of this blog may remember Alfonso from a previous post about Queen Urraca—or you may not, seeing as Iberian history is infested with kings named Alfonso and it is quite difficult to keep track of all of them. Anyway: Alfonso’s marriage to Urraca was a major disaster, and even worse, there were no children from this union. As Alfonso was a very martial king (and, by all accounts, also very devout, even if this did not stop him from brutalizing his wife), he found a solution to the no-heir issue by writing a will in which he bequeathed his kingdom to the Knights Templars, the Hospitallers and the Knights of the Holy Sepulchre.

Let’s just say that not one single Aragonese baron was about to accept this will. They wanted a king, not a conglomerate of military orders ruling their country. However, there really was no heir. Unless… Like one, the barons fixed their eyes on Ramiro, the Bishop of Roda.

I have previously written a number of blogs about medieval women who have been abducted and carried off from their chosen life. Ramiro is their male equivalent, albeit that no one swept him up by force and galloped off into the night. He was the much younger brother of Alfonso. He had never aspired to a secular life and had spent his life serving God, either as a monk, abbot or, lately, as a bishop. Now, the expectations were that he would set all that aside and instead wrap himself in ermine and royal purple.

“One can serve God in various ways,” the barons told him. “And your holy duty does not lie within your bishopric. You have a much more important duty to fulfil.”
“I do?” Ramiro asked (mostly to irritate them. He knew exactly what they were hinting at, but the thought was repugnant to him)
“You do.” The Aragonese magnates then went on to explain just what they expected Ramiro to do: first of all, he was to cast off his vows and his bishop’s robes and instead become their king. Then he had to father a legitimate child.
“But…” Ramiro likely began, intending to continue by reminding them that the vows he’d made to God were binding unto death. To do as they asked would be to commit a grievous sin. Well, the barons had already considered this: so important was Ramiro’s duty to Aragón that God would allow him a hiatus from his vows. I imagine Ramiro spent a number of sleepless nights on his knees praying for guidance before he reluctantly accepted his new responsibilities.  He owed it to his country.

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Ramiro looking most un 12th century

Once crowned Ramiro proved himself a rather forceful king—to the surprise of his barons who had hoped for an easily managed king. Those barons who did not pledge him their allegiance were in for quite a surprise, as this mild religious man had quite the devious side to him – or so one must presume if one believes the story about the Bell of Huesca. The story first appeared in the 13th century, a good century or so after the events depicted, and according to it, Ramiro was having problems controlling his barons, specifically twelve of them who constantly treated him with disrespect. Ramiro was unaccustomed to dealing with worldly, ambitious men so in desperation he sent to his former abbot for help. The messenger found the abbot in his garden. He listened to the king’s message, nodded, and then proceeded to cut off the heads of the twelve roses that grew the tallest in his garden as his response. Not the most subtle of hints, I’d say.

Ramiro obviously cottoned on fast. He invited all his barons to attend him in Huesca and there to join him in the making of a church bell, so huge it would be heard all over Aragón. Curious about this new contraption, the barons came, no doubt snickering under their breath at their king’s idiotic project. As they travelled from all over the place, they did not come en masse, but arrived one by one. Those twelve stubborn and disloyal barons had their very own welcoming committee waiting for them, and before they could even say “Qué?” their heads were chopped off and arranged in a neat circle round the new bell. Well, one of their heads did not join the circle: it was used as the clapper.

petronila 1280px-Campanahuesca

Once the whole grisly tableau was ready for viewing, Ramiro assembled all the other barons. The bell tolled (sort of). The king announced that behold, as he’d promised, the bell could be heard by all Aragón as represented by the various barons.

Let us leap ahead and leave this spurious legend behind. Now, Ramiro had one other duty to fulfil: he had to father an heir. His barons had already found him a bride, Agnes, the daughter of William IX, Duke of Aquitaine. (She was also the paternal aunt of Eleanor of Aquitaine, but as that has no bearing whatsoever on this post, we shall move on)

Agnes was about Ramiro’s age, around thirty. A bit long in the tooth, one would have thought, but Agnes had one major thing in her favour: she’d given her first husband sons. It was therefore expected she would present Ramiro with a squalling male babe as well. But prior to making babies, the former monk had to marry, and while canonical law might not have had a huge problem with a bishop becoming king, it definitely had major issues with accepting the marriage of a monk-turned-king as legitimate.

Petronila Ramiro

Ramiro

Ramiro himself issued a document a month or so before the wedding, stating that he was entering into matrimony not out of carnal lust but for the restoration of blood and lineage. Well, that can’t have endeared him much to poor Agnes… Later documents state that the couple sought a papal dispensation, but there doesn’t seem to be any such dispensation and so the Ramiro/Agnes union carried quite the whiff of illegitimacy

We have no idea what Agnes may have thought when she married Ramiro in November of 1135. But whatever their feelings, the newlyweds got their acts together (Close your eyes and think of Aragón, echoed in Ramiro’s head. Nah…)  and nine months later, little Petronila was born. A child born for a purpose, not out of any warmer feelings.
“Thank God! A healthy child!” Ramiro exclaimed, eager to return to his religious life now that he’d done what was expected of him.
“It’s a girl!” bleated his counsellors.
“Tough,” Ramiro said. “That’s it, that’s what you’re getting.” He shuddered and crossed himself. “I have sinned to give you what you wanted. Now I must make penance to salvage my immortal soul.”
Agnes was about as keen on this marriage as Ramiro, and very soon after the birth of Petronila the royal couple separated. Some years later, Agnes retired to the Abbey of Fontevraud where she lived for a further twenty years or so before dying in 1159.

Ramiro couldn’t just drop everything and take himself off to a monastery. His little daughter had to be betrothed to someone his barons would accept and who would be capable of acting as regent for Aragón during Petronila’s minority. Alfonso VII of Castile and León wanted nothing so much as to get his hands on the little girl, so he suggested his eldest son as a possible groom. Anathema to the Aragonese who had no desire to be gobbled up by the expanding Castilian kingdom.

Petronila Raymond

Ramón

Fortunately, there was an alternative. To the south-east of Aragón lay the domains of Ramon Berenguer IV, count of Barcelona and one of the more powerful movers and shakers in a region that encompassed not only present-day Catalunya but also a substantial chunk of Provence. A capable and energetic man, Ramón was already a respected warrior and known to be both erudite and devout. He was also all of twenty-three and, one supposes, eager to start a family and father heirs to his lands. However, Ramón was also ambitious. So when Ramiro approached him and suggested a union between their two countries, solidified by the betrothal of Ramón to baby Petronila, Ramón said yes.

Admittedly, Ramiro was dangling quite the sweet offer before the young man: not only was he to marry the heiress to Aragón, thereby ensuring his son became the next king of Aragón, but Ramiro was putting Ramón in charge ASAP. After all, Ramiro had other places to see, notably the monastery of San Pedro el Viejo de Huesca.

In 1137, the contracts were signed whereby Ramón became regent on behalf of his future little wife. With a huge sigh of relief, Ramiro hastened off to begin doing penance for his carnal sins, leaving Ramón to carry the baby in more senses than one.

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Petronila & Ramón

By all accounts, Ramón did an excellent job of caring for the baby. This product of a loveless marriage was fortunate in her father’s choice for her husband. Petronila grew up cosseted and protected at Ramón’s court, fully aware of the fact that as soon as she came of age, she was to wed the man who more or less raised her. Aragón thrived under his leadership, and by the time wedding bells rang for Ramón and Petronila, no one disputed Ramón’s right to rule on behalf of his fourteen-year-old wife. He did, however, respect the niceties: Petronila was Queen of Aragón while Ramón held the title of Prince of Aragón.

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Petronila looking less than happy

Petronila gave her husband five children of which four survived to adulthood. Upon Ramón’s death in 1162, the twenty-six-year old widow abdicated in favour of her oldest surviving son, refused to consider a second marriage and went on to live a quiet life of contemplation. I guess she had it in her DNA, given her parents.

From the perspective of doing his duty for blood and lineage, most medieval peeps would have felt Ramiro failed. His spiritual sacrifice produced a girl and everyone knew it was the male line that was important, that truly counted. When Petronila’s son ascended to the Aragonese throne, he brought with him a new dynasty, the house of Barcelona.

As to Ramiro, he died in 1157. I hope twenty years of begging God to forgive him for the sin of having married a woman and fathered a child was enough to see him on to greener pastures. Well, assuming God didn’t hear about that thing with the bell at Huesca…

Of golden camels and shortchanged heiresses

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

Manuel_I_Comnenus

Manuel I Komnenos

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

Barbarossa

Frederick Barbarossa

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

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

Marie de Montpellier SagèlGuilhèmVIII

Guillaume’s seal

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

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

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

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Pedro II 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Pedro and Marie conceiving Jaime (under supervision)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is she Violent? No, she’s Violante

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

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

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Alfonso

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

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

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

Violanta

Violant

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

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

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

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Sancho

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Margaret de Male 

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

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

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Lionel

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

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

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

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Violante and her brother

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

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

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

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

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

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

Margaret – a beloved wife or a victim?

Margaret f1cfc61cc83ffc1b2fe3a699b9fdc28bBeing a medieval woman came with risks – well, nothing strange there: life itself is a risk. Specifically, medieval heiresses ran the risk of being abducted and forcibly obliged to marry their abductor. Not, I imagine, a particularly pleasant scenario although there are cases where one can suspect the abductee and abductor had agreed beforehand on abduction being the only option.

Today’s medieval lady is one of those ambiguous cases. Was she okay with being abducted or was she totally shocked when hubby-to-be proceeded to whisk her off into the night? Well, we will never know for sure, of course, but before I indulge in speculation it makes sense to introduce our abductee. I give you Margaret de Moulton of Gilsland, a very young woman who became a veritable marital prize upon the death of her brother, Thomas. Said brother died childless and as there were no other surviving siblings, Margaret thereby became an heiress. Granted, the Barony of Gilsland was not exactly an earldom, but for an up and coming man the Moulton lands and castles were tempting indeed, no matter that they were smack in the middle of the Borders and therefore subject to Scottish raids.

You see, all of this happened some years after Bannockburn and no matter how humiliated the English were at that battle, Edward II stubbornly refused to recognise Robert the Bruce as king of Scotland. What did Robert do to push the issue? Well, he was a constant pain in the nether parts, sending his men raiding regularly through the north of England, attacking towns like Carlisle (no luck there, very much due to the rather impressive Sir Andrew de Harcla who led the defences) and Berwick (much more luck: Bruce retook the city). Over and over again, raiding Scots wreaked havoc in these northern lands. And yes, the English did retaliate, but in general the raiding momentum was with the Scots, capably led by men such as Black Douglas and the Earl of Moray.

Margaret ffdf571177fb234fd58ef4666bbc95ffBack to our Margaret. At the age of seven, she was married to one Robert Clifford. Obviously, there was no consummation but when Margaret was orphaned, her in-laws were not awarded the wardship. Instead, the king took control over little Margaret. At the time, the Cliffords weren’t all that popular with the king, probably because they were loyal supporters of the king’s ambitious cousin, Thomas, earl of Lancaster. In fact, the king had personal reasons for disliking the Cliffords—and his dear cousin—as the Clifford family had been involved in the capture of Piers Gaveston in 1312 which ended with Gaveston being summarily beheaded on the orders of Lancaster and the earls of Warwick and Hereford.

Edward II never forgave the men responsible for Piers’ death. And as to his cousin, Edward and Thomas would continue rubbing each other up the wrong way until Lancaster was executed in 1322.

Neither here nor there from the perspective of little Margaret—or so one would think. However, if the Clifford family had not been out in the cold, things might have ended up very differently for our little bride. As it was, another prospective groom now entered the stage.

Ranulph de Dacre was yet another ambitious lordling with little to his name. Born around 1290, he too had been present at the capture of Gaveston but was no major player—he was too young, too poor. Come late 1314 and he was still rather poor, but now he’d come up with a plan. By now, Margaret had been transferred to Warwick so Ranulph made his way down to this imposing castle where he presented himself to Margaret. She may have been delighted at meeting a man from her neck of the woods. Or she may not. At the time, she was thirteen or fourteen and therefore, one assumes, rather inexperienced when it came to dealing with men.

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Love? Not love? 

Whatever the case, in the winter of 1314/1315 Ranulph abducted her from Warwick castle, riding under the cover of the night with his bride clutched to his chest. Did she scream and beg him to let her go? Or did she burrow her face into his tunic and pray their pursuers would not catch up with them too soon? No idea, but by February they were married.

“Hang on,” the observant reader might say, “how could they be married? She was already married to that Robert Clifford guy.”

Yes, she was, wasn’t she? And if that was the case, not only was Ranulph something of a blackguard for carrying off the king’s ward, but even worse, he was carrying off a married woman and by wedding her he made Margaret commit the sin of bigamy. Oh dear, oh dear. While the Holy Church seems to have tolerated abductions—as long as the abductor and abductee wed—bigamy was a major, major no-no.

This is when, propitiously, a document popped up whereby Margaret’s father had contacted Ranulph’s father ages ago to discuss a union between their children. In fact, this document could be seen as a pre-contract, thereby rendering Margaret’s marriage to Robert Clifford null and void. Even better, Ranulph was now some sort of hero, riding through the night to claim the bride he had once been promised. Err…

Other than the legalities of their union, Ranulph had reason to fear the king’s reprisals. Edward II did not like having his wards snatched away from under his nose, but he had other, more pressing matters to deal with, such as defending his kingdom against those obnoxious Scots. And as Ranulph was more than willing to shoulder his share of the burden in keeping the Scots out, Edward II chose to ignore his faux-pas.

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In 1317, Ranulph was formally pardoned for “stealing away in the night out of the king’s custody Margaret, daughter and heir of Thomas of Moulton of Gilsland.” I imagine he heaved a huge relieved sigh. What his wife thought of all this is unrecorded. By then I imagine she was resigned to her lot in life, wife of Ranulph Dacre, soon to be mother of several sons. She was also officially the Baroness of Gilsland, albeit her hubby did the actual management of her lands.

From a distance of seven centuries it is impossible for us to form an opinion regarding Margaret’s abduction. Wait, allow me to rephrase: from a distance of seven centuries abducting a girl not yet fifteen is very, very wrong. Likely no one asked her opinion and once she was on that horse with Ranulph she really did not have a choice—it was either marry him or be ruined forever. It is, however, impossible to form an opinion about Margaret’s marriage. Her expectations were fundamentally different from our expectations on a marriage. She lived in a time when dynastic ambitions were encouraged. She would have understood what drove Ranulph to do as he did to expand his landholdings. She may even have liked the fact that hubby was a go-getter.

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Dacre graves at Lanercost (photo Dimitros Corcodilos) 

In 1339, Ranulph died and was buried at Lanercost Priory. Margaret never remarried. When she died in 1361 she too was laid at rest at Lanercost. And there the two remain until this day, surrounded by their various descendants. Whatever else their marriage may have been, it does seem to have been fruitful.

Other posts about abducted medieval ladies:

Poor little rich girl – of a medieval heiress

Taking matters (or her) in his own hands

The abducted heiress and the gallant traitor

“Get thee to a nunnery” – in reverse

Rubbing the wrong face in the dirt – of Mortimer, King Arthur and tournaments

In the summer of 1329, Roger Mortimer invited more or less every nobleman in England to Wigmore, the hereditary home of the Mortimers. He was planning a major tournament, several days of fun and fighting followed by feasting. A veritable city of tents were pitched outside the walls of the castle as knights from all over came to take part in the festivities, and I imagine Roger Mortimer expended a minor fortune in ensuring his castle looked its best. Roger was fond of renovating his various castles. Some years earlier, he’d added a whole wing of additional guestrooms to his castle in Ludlow with, believe it or not, medieval en-suites. Hygiene was important in the Middle Ages—at least to those that could afford it.

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The once so impressive gatehouse arch of Wigmore

Back to Wigmore. Today, little remains of what must once have been an impressive castle, standing so proud on a spur of rock. Back in the 1329 it sported new buildings, high walls, an impressive gatehouse and a huge outer bailey. Roger Mortimer was fond of pretty things, of luxuries. This is a man who owned sheets of silk, who surrounded himself with expensive books, silverware and jewels. Not for our Roger the run of the mill tunic, oh no, this man dressed with care and in expensive materials. In 1329 he could afford it, being one of the richer men in England. Being one of the young king’s regents came with its perks… How do we know what he wore, how he slept and ate? Well, Roger Mortimer had the misfortune of being attainted twice: the first time in early 1322, the second late in 1330. On both those occasions, a detailed inventory of what he owned was taken.

However, in the late summer of 1329, Mortimer’s star was firmly lodged very high in the sky. Did he have enemies? Oh, yes. His fellow barons were not exactly enthused at being lorded over by the newly created Earl of March. But Mortimer was a capable ruler, something of an administrative genius, so he had a pretty firm grip on the kingdom. To speak out against Mortimer or Isabella was to risk the regents’ displeasure. That could become quite costly and rather detrimental to your health.

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Mortimer and Isabella, as depicted a century or so later

Before we go any further I feel it is important to underline that I admire Roger Mortimer. Through a daring escape from the Tower in 1323 he escaped Edward II’s custody and fled to France where he regrouped, joined forces with Edward’s disgruntled wife Isabella and returned to England in 1326, there to oust the king and, even more importantly for Roger, the royal favourite(s) Hugh Despenser (there were two of them, father and son). Mortimer restored order in England and had he been wise enough to ride off into the sunset in early 1329 or so, maybe he would never have ended his life dangling from a gallows. For some reason this vibrant intelligent man didn’t see the writing on the wall: Edward III was growing up fast and was surrounded by young men who were as determined as the young king was to ensure the power in the realm was wielded by the king, not his regents. Alternatively, maybe he did, but saw no option but to cling all that harder to his power.

early 14th c fighting Codex_Manesse_(Herzog)_von_AnhaltHowever, in August of 1329 the events of 1330 were still very much in the future. Mortimer felt confident enough to host this magnificent tournament sparing little expense in his efforts to dazzle the assembled nobility. Officially, the tournament was held in celebration of the recent marriages of two of his daughters, but the little brides were overshadowed by their glamourous father. By his side, as always, was fair Isabella. Mortimer’s wife, Joan de Geneville, chose not to attend. Not exactly a surprise, as I imagine she must have felt quite humiliated by the tendresse between her husband and the dowager queen. (And yes, I am of the firm opinion they were lovers. If Edward II’s great love was Piers Gaveston, then Mortimer’s love was Isabella, a woman as ambitious, as intelligent and as determined as he was)

Mortimer was trying to recreate a famous event hosted by his grandfather, also called Roger Mortimer. This Roger is famous for having supported Edward I (or Prince Edward as he was at the time) against Simon de Montfort. He was responsible for killing Montfort at Evesham and sent his wife Montfort’s head as a little gift. Loyal and capable, Mortimer Sr was one of Edward I’s most trusted men, instrumental in Edward’s conquest of Wales. In 1279, Roger the elder hosted a magnificent Round Table tournament at Kenilworth Castle. The event was a huge success, with both King Edward I and Queen Eleanor attending.

Arthur-Holy-grail-round-table-ms-fr-112-3-f5r-1470-detailIt is significant that, just as in 1279, Mortimer themed his tournament on the Round Table. The Mortimers had Welsh blood—royal Welsh blood. Our Roger’s great-grandmother was a lady called Gwladys Ddu, daughter of Llewellyn the Great and (probably) King John’s illegitimate daughter Joanna. The House of Gwynedd claimed descent from Arthur himself, so through Gwladys the Mortimers could trace their ancestry back to the most famous of chivalric kings. Hence, the Round Table.

Not only could the Mortimers swell with pride because of great-great-to-the-nth degree-granddaddy Arthur, there was also that very old prophecy stating that one day the Welsh Dragon would rise from its hiding place and rule all England. (This prophecy has been trotted out at regular intervals: Edward IV, Roger Mortimer’s distant descendant, could claim to be the dragon. So could Henry Tudor, some years later)

Now in 1329, England had a young and somewhat insecure king. Edward III was growing into his powers as a man, was already a skilled jouster and as brave as a lion, but he was very aware of the fact that he was relatively defenceless against his regents—for now. Maybe Mortimer and Isabella felt it might be a good idea to remind their young charge who called the shots. Or maybe they were so swept up into the events they were directing that they didn’t stop to think. Whatever the case, when the tournament opened, more than one person gaped when Mortimer appeared, bedecked as King Arthur, with Isabella as his Guinevere.

Arthur Vortigern-DragonsThis did not go down well. Not with Edward III, not with most of his barons. Was Mortimer suggesting he should claim the crown himself? Did he believe he was the Welsh dragon? Probably not. But Mortimer had become complaisant and either did not understand or care how insulting his behaviour was to the king. Even worse, he no longer showed Edward the deference due to a king. Instead of walking behind him, he walked beside him. If he wanted to say something, he interrupted. Edward was rigid with rage—and fear, one supposes. There and then, I suspect Edward understood Mortimer would have to go. Soon. But Mortimer did not notice and no one had the guts to tell him he was overstepping. Not until his son, Geoffrey, took it upon himself to berate his father for his folly.

In the below, someone else than Geoffrey decides it is time to talk to Mortimer. I give you Adam de Guirande, my fictional hero in my series The King’s Greatest Enemy:

Kings Greatest Enemy Series-Twitter Timeline Image 2Adam waited until after compline, shrugging off Kit’s objections that this was something he should not meddle in. Adam climbed the steep path towards the inner bailey and Lord Roger’s rooms—old rooms, but as elegant—if not more—than the new solar. The guards recognised him and let him in, one of them saying Lord Roger already had a visitor, his son.
“You’re goading him!” Geoffrey’s voice carried through the half-open door.
“I am merely acting the part of King Arthur. And it does him good to grovel a bit.”
“Grovel?” Geoffrey sounded astounded. “He’s your king, Father. The king. And this…” He kicked at something, sending it rattling across the floor. “Those are the trappings of the King of Folly.”

Adam did not have time to step aside. Geoffrey barged into him, sending them both crashing into the opposite wall.
“Adam.” Geoffrey wiped his mouth. “Here to talk some sense into him? Good luck.” He took off, and in the door stood Lord Roger, eyebrows raised.
“More visitors? Come in, by all means.”
Adam entered a room ablaze with candlelight. In a corner lay the helmet Geoffrey had kicked; on the table were an assortment of rolls and quills, Mortimer’s seal lying thrown to the side.
“What can I do for you, Adam?” Lord Roger crossed his arms. “Well?” he demanded when Adam remained silent, taking in the opulence of the room. New tapestries depicting various hunting scenes flanked an impressive hearth, a huge silverware plate held pride of place on one of the tables, with a collection of silver goblets standing to the side. The large bed was covered in a counterpane embroidered with flowers and butterflies, the sheets of shimmering silk. Everywhere, the trappings of a rich man—a very rich man.
Adam cleared his throat. “You’re becoming just like him.”
“Who?”
“Despenser.”
Lord Roger stilled. “Despenser?” He flexed his hands a couple of times, casually picked up his dagger, and locked eyes with Adam.
“Aye.” Adam stood his ground.
“Ah. So you have appointed yourself my conscience, have you?” Lord Roger was suddenly close enough that Adam could feel his exhalations. “Have you?” he demanded, his voice rising. “With what right, eh? How dare you compare me to Despenser?” The shove sent Adam crashing against the wall. “Despenser was a sodomite, a miscreant, accursed from the day he exited his mother’s womb. A man without honour. Are you saying I have no honour?”
Adam straightened up, wiping spittle from his cheek. “You amass wealth on a daily basis, as greedy as he was—for riches and power.”
“I am not like him!” Mortimer’s face had gone the colour of ash. “Everything I do, I do for the king.”
Adam laughed. “Don’t lie—at least not to yourself. What is this spectacle of a tournament but you shouting to the world that the true power in England lies with you, not our rightful king? Soon enough, you’ll stoop to killing those who stand in your way—and where’s the honour in being a murderer?”
He could have heard a mouse fart in the ensuing silence. Lord Roger set a hand to the wall as if to support himself, all of him sagging. “You have no idea,” he finally said, turning his back on Adam. His voice shook. “No idea at all.”
“My lord,” Adam took a step towards him, wanting somehow to lift the burden that had Lord Roger stooping, arms braced against the wall.
“Go.” Mortimer kept his back to him. “And be grateful you’re no longer in my service, or I’d have you flogged.”
“For what, my lord? For telling the truth?”
Mortimer whirled and pushed Adam so hard he went staggering backwards. He slammed into the table, overturning the goblets.
“Get out!” Mortimer yelled. “And don’t forget it was I who lifted you out of obscurity. Beware that I don’t throw you back into the cesspit whence you came.”
“The lord I loved, the man I would gladly have died for, would never have lowered himself to making such threats.” Adam bowed slightly. “And I only came because I care.” He banged the door closed as he left.

Phew…quite some emotion there, right? And if you want to read more about my take on the events of 1329 I suggest  you read The Cold Light of Dawn.

The short life of Edmund of Woodstock

Today, I’m planning on spending some time with a man who has gone down in history as extremely handsome. A very, very pretty face – but hopefully there was more to him than his exterior. Very few of us are all surface no depth (although there are exceptions) and I am sure Edmund had his fair share of interesting qualities.

EHFA Edmund zat53nuw_mediumEdmund of Woodstock was the second son born to Edward I and his second wife, Marguerite of France. As can be deduced from his name, he was born at the palace of Woodstock in 1301, and we can assume there was quite some rejoicing at his birth—Edward I now had three sons to safeguard his bloodline – his heir and namesake Edward, from his first marriage with Eleanor of Castile, Thomas and little Edmund. Marguerite was a half-sister to Philip IV of France, so Edmund was also related to the Capet kings of France.

Edward I was over sixty when Edmund was born and very busy doing his thing in Scotland. As most royal children, Edmund was raised by others, but Edward and Margaret were conscientious parents, keeping tabs on their sons and little daughter. Unfortunately, Edmund would never have the opportunity to forge a strong father-son relationship. In 1307, Edward I died – to the great relief of the Scots – and his not-quite-as-bellicose son, Edward II became king.

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Edward I

Edward I had made plans for his two younger sons, but had not followed through on them prior to dying. His intention had been to settle an earldom each on his sons, but early on in his reign Edward II decided to invest his beloved favourite Piers Gaveston with the earldom of Cornwall, which was one of the titles earmarked for his brothers. Edmund’s mother seethed, Edward likely shrugged—but as his brothers grew older he invested Thomas as Earl of Norfolk and granted Edmund sufficient land to keep the lad in style.

In difference to his older brother, who but rarely emerges from the shadows in what documents we have,  Edmund has left some impressions. He proved himself a useful and capable young man during the Despenser War in 1321-22 (this is when Roger Mortimer and Thomas of Lancaster rebelled against Edward II, sick to death of his greedy favourites, Hugh Despenser Sr. and Jr.) Edmund stuck with his brother and was very much in the midst of things, all the way from the initial conflict at Leeds Castle to being one of the signatories on the execution order for Thomas of Lancaster.

The baronial rebellion was quashed, Mortimer was thrown in the Tower, and Edward was very pleased with his young brother, who emerged from the fray as the Earl of Kent and holder of substantial lands in the Welsh Marches. Our Edmund had every reason to be grateful to his royal brother—except, of course, that where Edmund got some land, Edward’s favourite, Hugh Despenser, got much, much more land. In fact, so generous was the king to Hugh that he had an annual income almost four times higher than Edmund’s. Not something that pleased Edmund—or anyone else, to be honest, seeing as the English barons were getting very tired of the grasping Despenser.

EHFA E IIIn the aftermath of the baronial rebellion, Edward II, together with his trusted advisors Bishop Stapledon and Hugh Despenser, implemented what is best described as a dictatorship. Anyone suspected of colluding with the rebels risked losing everything they had, including their lives. Their paranoia increased tenfold when Mortimer managed to escape from the Tower and flee to France. Suddenly, the baronial opposition had a leader again, and the more heavy-handed Edward II and Despenser became, the more attractive the option of joining Mortimer became.

Not only did Edward manage to aggravate his barons. He also alienated his wife when he deprived Queen Isabella of her dower lands. Isabella was closer in age to Edmund than to her husband, and seeing as she was drop-dead gorgeous and Edmund was just as mouth-wateringly handsome, I imagine these two shared a common admiration for each other. Besides, they were cousins, grandchildren to Philip III of France.

At the time, being French to any degree was not an advantage in England: yet again, England and France were at war, this time over Gascony. In 1324, Edmund was sent to France to attempt a diplomatic solution, and when that failed he was put in charge of defending Gascony, an almost impossible task seeing as Edmund lacked both men and means. But he did his best, holding out until late September of 1324 before he was forced to surrender and agree to a six-month truce.

Edmund chose to remain in France. Maybe he preferred not to face his brother’s wrath at having failed him in Gascony, or maybe he was sick and tired of dancing attendance of the royal chancellor, Hugh Despenser. Whatever the case, he was in France when Isabella arrived in March of 1325, charged by her husband with the delicate task of negotiating a permanent truce between him and his French counterpart, Charles IV.

How Isabella had managed to convince Edward to entrust her with this mission is unknown, but I suppose Isabella was smart enough to hide her anger and humiliation at being deprived of all her income while promising herself she would have revenge—some day. Whatever her feelings, she successfully negotiated a treaty with her brother Charles. All Edward II had to do was to come to France and do homage for his French lands and everything would be peachy-pie.

Except that Edward II didn’t want to come to France—or rather, Hugh Despenser didn’t want him to go, worried that the moment the king left the country, the baronage would rise in rebellion and kill poor Hugh. Probably a correct assessment of the sentiments of the time, and Edward was not about to risk his beloved Hugh so instead of going himself, he sent his young son and heir, Edward of Windsor. Unwittingly, he had thereby handed Isabella the weapon with which to destroy him.

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The young Edward doing homage

Young Edward came to France, young Edward did homage, young Edward did not go straight back home as instructed by his father. Instead, he stayed with his mother, who simply could not bear to let him go. Isabella had collected several disgruntled English noblemen as her admirers, including Edmund of Woodstock. I imagine there were already whispers of invasions, of doing something to oust that despicable Despenser.

When Roger Mortimer rode in to present himself to Isabella, the invasion had found its leaders: the extremely capable and ruthless combo of Isabella and Mortimer.

Edmund would likely not have been entirely thrilled at seeing Mortimer rise so rapidly in Isabella’s favour. Mortimer would not have been delighted at coming face to face with the man who’d been rewarded with Mortimer land for his efforts in putting down the rebellion of 1321. For the moment, whatever differences they had were laid aside, and to reinforce this fragile truce Edmund married Margaret Wake, Mortimer’s first cousin. By doing so, he sent a clear signal to his half-brother that he’d changed his allegiance, and in March of 1326 Edward II retaliated by stripping Edmund of all his lands and titles. Edmund had, so to say, burned his bridges and was now more or less obliged to stick with fair Isabella and Mortimer.

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Edmund and his wife, Margaret

Mortimer’s and Isabella’s invasion of England was a resounding success. Soon enough, Hugh Despenser was dead and Edward II was locked up in Kenilworth, his son crowned as Edward III in his stead. Edmund expected to be part of the inner circle that guided his young nephew, but neither Isabella nor Mortimer were interested in sharing their power. This did not go down well with Edmund, who was also struggling with feelings of guilt related to his deposed brother. That guilt became a crushing burden when it was announced in 1327 that their former king, Edward of Caernarvon, had died while in captivity.

In 1328, Edmund joined his cousin’s Henry of Lancaster’s rebellion against the regents, demanding that Mortimer be set aside in favour of the true peers of the realm. Mortimer acted with speed and determination. Edmund, knowing just how efficient Mortimer could be, abandoned Lancaster’s cause and returned to the royal fold just before Lancaster’s final humiliation.

By now, Edmund had acquired the (justified) reputation of being a weather-vane: first he’d supported his royal brother, then he’d joined Mortimer and Isabella, then he’d thrown his lot in with Lancaster only to change his colours yet again when things got sticky. Not a man to count on, one could say, even if Edmund would probably have disagreed, protesting that he’d been driven into rebellion against his brother and king by the grasping and conniving Despenser.

Whatever his reputation, Edmund was concerned with other matters: there were rumours that his brother had not died but was still alive behind the thick walls of Corfe Castle. Disenchanted with Isabella’s and Mortimer’s continued rule, Edmund chose to investigate further. One little piece here, another there, and soon enough Edmund was convinced his brother was alive—as were very many of the English peers. If so, what better way to right the wrongs he’d done his brother than to spring him from his prison and help him retake his throne?

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Parliament – but this depicts Edward I, not Edward III

In March of 1330, a parliament was held at Winchester. As always since 1327, the young king Edward III officially presided, but the real power lay with his regents: Queen Isabella and Roger Mortimer, by now 1st Earl of March.
The men assembling in Winchester fell into two categories: those who supported the regents and those who didn’t. The king himself belonged among the latter, but as things stood, our seventeen-year-old king had no option but to smoulder and bear it—for now. The same thing applied to many of the peers present: men like Henry of Lancaster detested Mortimer but were not in a position to oust him —yet. Notably, Edmund of Woodstock was not present when the parliament opened. He was under arrest for treason.

Early in 1330, Mortimer had uncovered Edmund’s plans to free the king. His agents had intercepted a letter Edmund’s wife had written on his behalf to the imprisoned king
(In itself interesting: does this mean Edmund did not know how to write or was it a matter of penmanship?)

Being somewhat gullible, Edmund had handed the sealed missive to an intermediary who’d promised to smuggle it into Corfe and deliver it to the unhappy erstwhile king. Instead, the rascal gave it to Mortimer, and so Edmund was arrested and brought before parliament where his confession was read out loud.

There was only one verdict: death. Appalled, Edmund threw himself on his nephew’s mercy, begging piteously for his life. He’d do anything—anything!—to prove his loyalty. He’d even walk all the way to London with a noose round his neck to atone for his actions. But there was nothing Edward III could do. Mortimer had seen to that, making it impossible for Edward to pardon his uncle without implicitly admitting there could be some truth in Edmund’s assertions that the former king was alive.

Whether or not Edward II was alive is, as per some historians, an open question. The men named as co-conspirators included several barons and bishops, men who would be in a position to know—and surely they’d not risk Mortimer’s displeasure for a dead man? We will never know, of course. It does, however, seem probable that Mortimer very much on purpose fed Edmund the little bits and pieces that convinced him his brother was alive, thereby luring the earl into treason. Ultimately, Mortimer’s behaviour in this matter would lead to his own death: the king, disgusted at having been duped into signing away his uncle’s life did not forgive. Or forget.

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On a cold March morning in 1330, Edmund of Woodstock was led out to meet his maker. The executioner had done a runner, refusing to soil his hands with the blood of a man condemned for trying to help his brother. None of the assembled men-at-arms volunteered in his stead, neither did their captains. Poor Edmund shivered in only his shirt as the hours passed and no one was found willing to strike off his head. At long last, a condemned man undertook the task in exchange for a reprieve. The earl knelt. The axe fell. The severed head was held aloft, accompanied by the traditional cry of “behold the death of a traitor.” Usually, the crowd would cheer. This time, no one did.

In the Cold Light of Dawn_eb-pb-tr 160412The events presented above play a major part in my upcoming release, The Cold Light of Dawn. Out on February 16th! (I sort of felt it did not qualify as a Valentine’s novel…)

After Henry of Lancaster’s rebellion has been crushed early in 1329, a restless peace settles over England. However, the young Edward III is no longer content with being his regents’ puppet, no matter that neither Queen Isabella nor Roger Mortimer show any inclination to give up their power. Caught in between is Adam de Guirande, torn between his loyalty to the young king and that to his former lord, Roger Mortimer.   

Edward III is growing up fast. No longer a boy to be manipulated, he resents the power of his mother, Queen Isabella, and Mortimer. His regents show little inclination of handing over their power to him, the rightful king, and Edward suspects they never will unless he forces their hand.

Adam de Guirande is first and foremost Edward’s man, and he too is of the opinion that the young king is capable of ruling on his own. But for Adam siding with his king causes heartache, as he still loves Roger Mortimer, the man who shaped him into who he is.

Inevitably, Edward and his regents march towards a final confrontation. And there is nothing Adam can do but pray and hope that somehow things will work out. Unfortunately, prayers don’t always help.

 

The Welsh Princess and her elusive mother

In 1230, Ralph Mortimer of Wigmore took a certain Gwladus Ddu as his wife. Ralph was a Marcher Lord, always intent on expanding his domains into Wales. His new wife was as Welsh as they came, daughter of Prince Llewellyn the Great.

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Llewellyn, depicted with his sons

While Gwladus’ paternity has never been up for discussion – she is Gwladus ferch Llewellyn when mentioned in records of the time – who her mother was is a substantially thornier issue. Was Gwladus the product of Llewellyn’s long-standing affair with a certain Tangwystl, mother of his eldest son Gruffydd, or was she a legitimate daughter, born to Llewellyn and his Angevin wife Joanna? Somewhat ironically given the discussions as to whether Gwladus was illegitimate or not, Joanna was most definitely illegitimate, the daughter of King John of England.

To sort out who was Gwladus’ mother, one could start by trying to pin down when Gwladus was born. Well, unsurprisingly, it’s not as if there’s a neat entry stating her date of birth. Instead, genealogists usually work backwards from what known facts there are, and one of those facts is that Gwladus’ marriage to Ralph was not her first: she’d been wed to Reginald de Braose already back in 1215.

This, according to some, means she must have been born at the latest around 1202, so as to be of marriageable age in 1215. And if Gwladus was born in 1202, she could not be Joanna’s daughter seeing as Joanna and Llewellyn were wed in 1205, ergo Ralph Mortimer married an illegitimate Welsh princess.

gwladus marriageHowever, there are some doubts as to whether there was a real marriage in 1215. Maybe it was more of a betrothal. Besides, why would Reginald de Braose, a man pushing forty and with heirs to his body (among which a certain William de Braose whom Llewellyn would hang in 1230 for having engaged in adulterous relations with Llewellyn’s wife, Joanna. All very complicated, isn’t it?) want to marry the illegitimate daughter of Llewellyn? A second marriage in this case would have been entered out of political interests, and Gwladus was worth much, much more as a political pawn if she was the legitimate daughter of a Welsh prince and the granddaughter of an English king than if she were the daughter of Llewellyn and the irresistibly named Tangwystl.

It is also interesting to note that while Gwladus and Reginald were married for thirteen years there are no recorded children. Reginald was definitely fertile and with her second husband Gwladus would go on to prove that she was too which begs the question if this first marriage was ever consummated, thereby indicating (perhaps) that maybe the bride was very young in 1215, corresponding with a birthdate after 1205.

Gwladus 1024px-King_John_from_De_Rege_JohanneWhen King John gave his daughter in marriage to Llewellyn, he also had Llewellyn promise that it would be the children he had with Joanna who would be his heirs. This was not in accordance with Welsh custom which in general supported every child’s right to inherit its father, no matter if the child was conceived within or without the marital bed.

At the time of Llewellyn’s wedding to Joanna, he already had a son named Gruffydd, so by agreeing to John’s demands he was effectively disinheriting his boy. Did not go down well with Gruffydd. In fact, this permanently soured the relationship between father and son and would spill over into the future bitter enmity between Gruffydd and his half-brother Dafydd. However, at the time of Llewellyn agreeing to John’s demands there was no Dafydd ap Llewellyn (except as a twinkle in his father’s eye) so we can leave that sad story of brotherly strife for some other day.

Anyway: back to Gwladus, who seems to have enjoyed a better relationship with her baby brother Dafydd. Is this indicative of a closer relationship than that of being his half-sister? No idea. But when a very young Dafydd rode to London in 1229 to visit with his young uncle, Henry III, Gwladus rode with him. Dafydd undertook this little trip to present himself before the entire English court as Llewelyn’s recognised heir, thereby formally acquiring his uncle’s support against his half-brother’s claim.

At the time, Gwladus was recently widowed, Reginald having passed away in 1228. Now, the fact that Gwladus chose to accompany her younger sibling may indicate nothing more than a case of wanderlust. But if Gwladus was Gruffydd’s full sister, wouldn’t she have hesitated in accompanying her half-brother on a trip that had as its purpose to permanently scotch Gruffydd’s hopes of inheriting Llewellyn’s lands?

It did not take long for Llewellyn to find a new husband for his widowed daughter. This time, Gwladus was dispatched to wed Ralph Mortimer of Wigmore, a man some years her senior who’d become heir to the Mortimer lands upon the death of his older brother. The Mortimers were as covetous and power-hungry as all the Marcher Lords and while Ralph definitely wanted heirs, he also wanted valuable alliances. I seriously doubt he’d have wanted Gwladus—no matter how beautiful she might have been—unless she was not only the daughter of Llewellyn but also the niece of Henry III. Or maybe Ralph had already got the measure of the young English king and decided it was more important to keep the Welsh wolf at bay than pacify the English lion cub.

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Hitting it off a la medieval

Whatever the case, Ralph and Gwladus seem to have hit it off. Over the first nine years of married life, she gave birth to six known children, among them the very competent Roger Mortimer who would go on to become a loyal servant of the king, behead Simon de Montfort at Evesham and marry Maud de Braose, daughter of the man his Welsh grandfather once hanged for adultery. And their sons would – no, not today. The story of Edmund and Roger Mortimer Jr (a.k.a. Lord Chirk) and the sad end of Llewellyn ap Gruffyd, grandson to Llewellyn the Great deserves a post of its own (and boxes and boxes of tissues).

In 1246, Ralph died, leaving Gwladus a widow. She never remarried, dying five years later while visiting with her maybe-uncle, Henry III, in Winchester.

Not only don’t we know for sure who Gwladus’ mother was. We know nothing about Gwladus herself, beyond who her father was, who her husbands were, who her children were. She is defined not by who she was but by what she was, daughter, wife, mother. We have no depiction of her, all we have is her epithet, Ddu, which is Welsh for black. I guess this probably means that Gwladus was dark rather than fair, and I picture her with long dark braids and eyes the colour of a deep forest tarn. For some reason, I imagine she was of a serious disposition – but that is entirely fanciful, and for all I know, Gwladus may have been the life and soul of any medieval party she might have been invited to.

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Prosperine (Rossetti) – a dark and enigmatic lady to represent Gwladus

Gwladus Ddu remains an enigmatic and anonymous lady who attracts more interest due to the uncertainties surrounding her mother than due to herself. That’s a bit sad. However, no matter who her mother was, through Gwladus the blood of the Royal House of Gwynedd would pass down the Mortimer line, the Welsh Dragon lying dormant until that very distant descendant of hers, Edward IV, claimed the throne. Through Edward’s daughter, Elizabeth of York, that rather diluted drop of Welsh blood has made it all the way down the line to the present Queen. I rather like that, and I think it makes Gwladus’ father smile in his heaven. Not so sure what her mother might think about it—oh, that’s right: we’re not even sure of who was Gwladus’ mother!

 

ADDENDUM: The very generous Ken John has shared his own extensive research on Gwladus’ maternity with me. It is Ken’s opinion that Gwladus was Joanna’s daughter and he presents as evidence the following:
That first marriage to Reginald Braose was all about alliances, the very young bride turned over to her husband as a pledge of Llewellyn’s good intentions against de Braose family. Gwladus never had any children by Reginald, and this indicates non-consummation which, according to Ken, probably is an indication of how young she was when she was wed (8 or 9 at most).
Just as I argue above, Ken also points out that Gwladus’ value to the Mortimers was much, much higher if she was also the granddaughter of King John. Furthermore, upon Gwladus’ marriage to Ralph Mortimer, she brought to her husband the manors of Knighton and Norton, which King John had settled on llewellyn when Joanna was married to the Welsh prince. It seems highly unlikely that manors that came with Joanna’s dower were used to dower other daughters than her own.
Finally, Ken points out that Henry III apparently had a lot of time for Gwladus which he feels indicates a blood relationship.
Thank you so much, Ken, for sharing this with me!

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…

A Toast to St Sylvester

Today is New Year’s Eve. Most of us perceive this as a very secular holiday, best celebrated by drinking champagne, going a tad maudlin while singing Auld Lang Syne, and cheering madly as the sky lights up with fireworks just as the clock strikes midnight.

Celebrating New Year’s Eve on December 31st is a relatively modern invention. Okay, okay, maybe that should be re-invention as already the old Romans considered January 1st as the first day in a new year. However, what the Romans thought was mostly forgotten by medieval times, and accordingly New Year tended to vary. In most European countries, March 25th was celebrated as the New Year, usually through religious processions in honour of the Virgin who was visited by the archangel Gabriel on this date & told she was to give birth to God’s son in nine months. Was she thrilled at the thought? Scared stiff? Probably the latter, I suspect. God gave this young woman quite the burden to carry…

Back to New Year: Other than March 25th, there were some countries that felt March 20th was a better option. Or Easter (which was a bit of a challenge, seeing as Easter is a moveable feast). Anglo-Saxon England leaned towards December 25th. In brief, there was little consensus in this matter, but whatever the opinions might have been about the New Year, most Christian countries celebrated December 31st anyway. Why? Because it was the feast of St Sylvester.

I bet most of you haven’t heard of St Sylvester. As a child, I lived in Colombia where very many people referred to New Year’s Eve as “San Silvestre”. There was also a tradition of cracking an egg in a glass of water and analysing the resulting pattern to see what sort of year next year would be. This had nothing to do with Sylvester – I suspect the gent in question would have frowned on such superstitious practises – but it was quite fun, as was the tradition to eat exactly twelve grapes at midnight unless you wanted to end up all unloved in the New Year.

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Constantine & the cross (Raphael’s studio)

So who was this Sylvester, you may ask. Well, the man in question was a pope—and a saint. He became pope first, and sat in St Peter’s chair for a couple of decades in the fourth century. He was a contemporary of Constantine (you know, the Roman Emperor who saw a blazing cross in the sky with the flaming Greek words Ἐν τούτῳ νίκα which translated to Latin meant In Hoc Signo Vinces or In This Sign Thou Shalt Conquer, thereby convincing Constantine it was about time he embraced the Christian faith. Whether this is true or not, I leave up to you, dear reader, to decide for yourself. Let’s just say that an alternative – and more credible – version has it that Constantine didn’t convert to Christianity until he was on his deathbed)

At the time, temporal power was very much the top dog. The Roman Emperor may have chosen to convert to Christianity, but as far as he was concerned, he had more clout than the pope. Full stop. Until dear Sylvester, popes tended to be of the same opinion: power belonged to the emperor, conscience and spiritual supremacy to the pope.

If we’re going to be quite honest, we don’t really know much about Sylvester. Yes, we know that he lived through Diocletian’s horrific persecution of the Christians, we know he was elected pope in 314, we know he didn’t participate at the Council of Nicea but approved the various decisions taken there. But no matter who Sylvester really was, it’s the legend surrounding him that permanently shifted the balance of power. You see, some centuries after his death, Sylvester became the poster boy for the all-powerful church. All-powerful as in “if you don’t behave, you’ll have to come crawling to Canossa and beg the Holy Father for forgiveness”. (Curious about Canossa? Look up Frederick Barbarossa, Holy Roman Emperor in the 12th century)

Now we don’t know what sort of relationship Constantine and Sylvester had. Did they chit-chat over a game of chess? Did the pope and the emperor spend quality time together while considering just how to divvy up the power between them? Hmm. I suspect they moved in different circles, one of them constantly defending his empire, the other slowly but safely expanding the influence of the church.

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Sylvester & Constantine

Whatever the case, by the early sixth century a legend was spreading whereby Sylvester cured Constantine of leprosy using baptismal waters. Some variants have Constantine asking Sylvester to approve him taking a second wife. Sylvester said “no way” and as Constantine insisted on doing as he pleased, God decide to teach him a lesson, ergo the leprosy. No matter the reason behind his affliction, Constantine was appropriately grateful and to really show the world just how grateful, he acted the pope’s groom, walking beside the mounted pope while leading the papal horse. Constantine went one step further, proclaiming to the world that Sylvester as the pope was primus inter pares among the various leaders of the early Christian church. Probably didn’t go down well with the Patriarch. It is also highly unlikely that Constantine did this—it all smells of propaganda, even more so when one considers it was written centuries after both Sylvester’s and Constantine’s deaths.

The purpose of the above legend, described in the Vita Beati Silvestri—and of the eighth century Donation of Constantine, which promoted itself as being the true story of Constantine’s conversion—was to validate the papal push for supreme power led by a gent named Gelasius, elected pope around 496 AD. Gelasius was of the firm opinion that he, as pope, was king of the heap, while all the various emperors and kings of the time were not. After all, God had appointed the pope (somewhat indirectly, but still) while secular rulers relied on bloodlines or the power of their sword to get them to where they wanted to be.

Undoubtedly, the pope had a lot of power during the medieval period—especially prior to the papacy being moved to Avignon, when effectively the pope became dependent on the French kings, something peeps like Philippe IV of France were glad to use to their own advantage. After all, a pope blessed William the Conqueror’s attack on England. A pope had Fredrik Barbarossa crawling on his hands and knees. A pope called for the crusades. A pope could give and withhold dispensations to wed. It was a pope who divided up the world between Spain and Portugal in the so-called treaty of Tordesillas (the self-same pope that fathered a number of children, kept one of the most beautiful women around as his mistress and in general believed in sucking the marrow out of life as our time on earth is short and God alone knows what happens after death. I think Constantine would have liked this pragmatic and venal pope)

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Sylvester, killing a dragon

In the times of Sylvester, popes led a somewhat more retiring existence. But our man of the day is remembered as being the first link in the papal chain that would eventually exert enormous influence—and power—in Medieval Europe.

Personally, I won’t be thinking all that much about Sylvester tonight. I will be thinking of the year that went and the year to come. I will think of the people I love, the people I’ve lost. I will toast in champagne hoping that 2018 will be a better year for our world than 2017 was. And to you, my dear readers, here’s a heartfelt wish that 2018 will be a good year for you, a year where someone will give you a hand when you need it, cheer you on when you surge ahead. But hey, whatever you do, don’t forget to eat those twelve grapes at midnight. After all, a year without love would be a very, very dreary year!

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