ANNA BELFRAGE

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Archive for the category “Women in history”

The curious case of Karolina – a real Sleeping Beauty

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Karolina, the local attraction adorning a post card

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

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

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One of Mr Vallien’s heads

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

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

The princess and the beast

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Gustav – a proud papa

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

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

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Sofia Vasa

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

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

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Karin soothing Erik

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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King Johan

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

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

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Ratzeburg in 1590. I hope it had a dungeon…

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

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

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

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

Sweet Elizabeth – the life of a child bride

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Rule of a Woman – of Maria de Molina, the Wise Queen of Castile

It’s been ages since I dropped by medieval Spain for a visit. Long enough that I’ve missed all my Alfonsos and my Fernandos, no matter how confusing it may be to keep tabs on so many peeps with the same name. Today, I thought we’d focus on a Spanish lady, but before we get to her we must start off with…taa-daa…an Alfonso, in this case Alfonso X, King of Castile and León, son to San Fernando, half-brother to the Eleanor who was destined to marry Edward I of England.

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Alfonso X (obv not by a contemporary artist)

Our Alfonso was born in 1221 and became king in 1252. He has gone down in history as Alfonso el Sabio which can be translated as either Alfonso the Wise or Alfonso the Learned – not synonyms, I must hasten to point out, and in Alfonso’s case I’d hazard he was more learned than wise, how else to explain how this well-educated man ended up fighting more or less constantly with his nobles, his brothers, and ultimately with his son?

As Alfonso X is not today’s protagonist allow me to leap forward to 1275. This is the year when Alfonso’s eldest son and heir, the twenty-year-old Fernando de la Cerda, died of the wounds he’d received at the Battle of Écija. This was one of the many battles against the Moors fought during Alfonso’s reign, all part of the Reconquista, the determined effort by the Christian kings of Spain to reclaim their land from the Muslims. Poor Alfonso, beset not only by enemies within but also without, one could say. How unfortunate, therefore, that Alfonso invested so much effort and money on trying to be elected the next Holy Roman Emperor instead of sorting out his own kingdom(s).

Anyway: despite his youth, this Fernando had two sons – very young boys, to be sure, but still. Fernando also had a very ambitious eighteen-year-old brother named Sancho, and no sooner was Fernando cooling in his grave but Sancho started campaigning for his right to inherit the throne, repeatedly reminding everyone within earshot that he was a full-grown man, while his nephews were as yet mere boys. Plus, of course, according to ancient Castilian laws and customs, the second brother should inherit if the eldest died without adult sons

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Alfonso dispensing justice

Alfonso X did not agree.  He had recently implemented Roman Law in Castile and as a firm believer in primogeniture he wanted his little grandson and namesake to inherit the throne. Sancho sought help among the nobles, and yet again Castile was torn apart by civil war. It did not help Alfonso that in 1277 he had his own brother, Fadrique, brutally executed for plotting to replace Alfonso with Sancho. (This is all very strange, as Sancho in this matter acted on behalf of the king, personally ensuring Fadrique’s son-in-law and purported co-conspirator, was burned at the stake) In general, Alfonso exhibited an increasingly choleric disposition as he grew older, probably due to a sequence of ailments.

The relationship between father and son soured further when Sancho fell utterly in love with a woman other than his betrothed. Passion gripped our young prince, and apparently the object of all this adoration felt the same, how else to explain that the highly born Doña Maria agreed to wed Sancho despite there being no papal dispensation and despite the fact that contractually he was bound to Guillerma Moncada, his betrothed.

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Sancho

Maria and Sancho were relatives – related well within the third degree. Maria and Sancho´s father Alfonso were first cousins, and the royal blood of the Castilian kings flowed as richly through Maria’s veins as it did through Sancho’s. For a woman of such lineage to marry, knowing full well that without a papal dispensation any children born of the union would be considered illegitimate, indicates strong feelings. At least in my opinion, but we all know I have a deep-seated belief in all that pink and fluffy stuff.

In marrying Maria, Sancho made the smartest decision of his life, no matter that they were excommunicated for wedding. In Maria he found the ideal partner, a woman who matched his obvious bellicose skills and battlefield courage with high-level diplomacy and pragmatism.  Just like her famous ancestresses, Queen Berenguela and Queen Urraca, Maria had an innate sense for politics, for sowing dissent among her enemies and fostering loyalty among her allies.

In 1282, Alfonso was obliged to recognise Sancho as his heir in a humiliating treaty. Not that Alfonso had any intention of honouring his promise, something Sancho probably knew as he suddenly proclaimed himself regent of Castile so as to strengthen his claim on his father’s crown. Alfonso retired to Seville, grumbling and cursing. In 1284 Alfonso died, and in his last will and testament he renounced the treaty of 1282 and named his grandson Alfonso de la Cerda his successor.

maria Cantigas_battleWar broke out. But Sancho was good at war, and his nephew was still too young to command any sort of presence on the battlefield. Plus, as a precaution Sancho did away with as many of his nephew’s supporters as he could find. One such supporter was Sancho’s younger brother, Infante Juan, who together with Maria’s brother-in-law, Lope Díaz III de Haro, one day took things too far. When Sancho demanded that they return some of their castles to him, Lope Díaz went a bit wild and crazy, pulled a knife, and ended up very dead. Sancho was all for having Juan murdered as well, but María, who at the time was big with her fourth child, managed to calm him down. Instead, Juan was locked up for some years.  Maria gave birth to a deaf boy (some said this was because of the murder she’d witnessed) while Sancho continued to fight with the Moors and the Aragonese and the French and whoever else decided making common cause with Alfonso de la Cerda could be a lucrative venture.

In the early 1290s, Sancho sickened. A strange wasting disease that had him coughing his lungs out (tuberculosis, present day historians think). Where before he’d believed he’d have plenty of time to ensure a stable transition of his kingdom to his son, now time was running out—fast. Little Fernando was a child, and those dispossessed nephews of Sancho were now adults, determined to claim what should have been theirs to begin with.

Sancho realised his son would need a strong and capable regent to survive all this. Very strong, very capable, which was why, obviously, he chose his wife for the job. In 1295, Sancho breathed his last, with his loyal wife at his side.

María_de_Molina_presenta_a_su_hijo_a_las_Cortes_de_Valladolid_1863_Antonio_Gisbert_Pérez

Maria presenting her son to the Cortes at Valladolid

No sooner was Sancho dead but all kinds of enemies began popping up. Sancho’s younger brother, Infante Juan, since some years free of his prison, wanted the throne for himself. Alfonso de la Cerda, backed by Aragón and France, insisted he had a right to the throne. The powerful Castilian nobles took the opportunity to further foment strife, always a favourite pastime of theirs. And then there was the Infante Enrique, brother to Alfonso X who after 23 years imprisoned in Italy had finally returned home to Spain, determined to rule the kingdom on behalf of his great-nephew. (Enrique was pushing seventy at the time, but this larger-than-life gent had a lot to make up for after all those years behind lock and key. More about Enrique in a future post, methinks)

In brief, it was a bloody mess. Things weren’t made any better by the fact that little Fernando—and all his siblings—were illegitimate in the eyes of the Church, as María and Sancho had never received that papal dispensation. In 1296, María was therefore fighting on all fronts, and for a while there it seemed she might very well lose. Alfonso de la Cerda had been crowned by his supporters and was paraded through Castile as the new king, Infante Juan had proclaimed himself king of León, and everyone was waiting for the King of Portugal to come over and join forces with Juan and Alfonso so as to totally crush Maria, at present in Valladolid.

Maria had previously entered into an agreement with King Denis of Portugal whereby her eldest son would marry a Portuguese princess, and one of her daughters marry the Portuguese prince. She now sent a message to the King of Portugal and told him that unless he retired behind his borders the alliances were off, and God help Portugal if they had no alliances in place with Castile once her son was an adult.

This worked. The Portuguese retreated, Infante Juan’s plan unravelled, and for now little Fernando was safe(ish) on his throne. Over the coming years, Maria would work constantly on negotiating agreements with their various enemies, resorting to bribes when necessary. Bit by bit, she strengthened her son’s position, crowning her successes in 1301 with a Papal Bull granting that very overdue dispensation. King Fernando IV was no longer illegitimate and Maria had not lived her married life in sin. Cause for major, major celebration.

In 1304, Alfonso de la Cerda was bought off. In return for renouncing his claims on the throne, he was given significant landholdings, but Maria had insisted they be spread out all over Castile as she feared Alfonso might otherwise create a kingdom within the kingdom. Alfonso was in his thirties by now, and I imagine he was sick of fighting which is why he relocated to France (as one does, hoping for great wines and cheese) and the welcoming court of his first cousin, Philippe IV.

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The young and impetuous Fernando

At last, Maria could relax. Or maybe not, because her son remained young and impetuous and very easy to influence. At times, those who captured the king’s ear took the opportunity to whisper poison about Maria, insinuating the king needed to break free of his lady mother’s leading reins. At times, Fernando behaved like quite the cad towards his mother, but then he doesn’t exactly come across as a great king, more of a spoiled one. Maria may have been good at ruling in his stead, but maybe she pampered him too much.

Whatever the case, after 1304, Maria retired from public life, leaving her son to do things as it suited him. Yes, she was always there, hovering in the background, and no matter that Fernando was an independent young man he wasn’t stupid, so he often came to mama for advice.

And then, in 1312, Fernando died. Just like that, Maria was forced out of retirement as the nobles of the realm insisted she take responsibility for the new young king, an infant just one year old. After all, she had experience when it came to holding together disintegrating kingdoms on behalf of minors… Mind you, things weren’t as bad this time round, and after a year or so Maria and her two surviving sons, Pedro and Felipe, had things pretty much under control.

For nine years, Maria acted the regent for her grandson, doing what she always did best, namely negotiate treaties and alliances. And then, in 1321, she fell gravely ill, dying in July of that same year. She was 57 years old, had been a widow for 26 of those years, and  had been fighting for her beloved Castile (and her men) for 39 years.

She died secure in the knowledge that her grandson had good men around him – she’d made sure of that. I imagine she also died hoping to be reunited with her beloved husband and the four children who predeceased her. She died believing that she’d safeguarded the thrones of Castile and Leon, of Sevilla, Toledo, Murcia, Jaén, Córdoba and Algarve for her descendants. She had—in a way. But things would get ugly and complicated some years down the line when her grandsons Pedro I and Enrique of Trastámara fought each other to death over the Castilian crown. (What can I say? Alfonso XI had a complicated love life) Fortunately, Maria de Molina didn’t know that.

Ode to the Washing Machine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The suffering of a loyal wife

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Mortimer being taken down

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

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

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

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

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

Ælfgyva, The Mystery Lady of The Bayeux Tapestry

For many years the presence of a lady known as Ælfgyva on the Bayeux Tapestry has baffled historians. No one knows who she is or why she is depicted on the tapestry. Today’s guest, Paula Lofting, spends most of her free time researching the 11th century (and writing great books set in the period). She has her own theories as to who the mystery lady was. I suggest you sit back and enjoy the ride as Paula guides you through this rather convoluted story!

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courtesy Becca Marshall

There was a plethora of women called Ælfgyva/Ælfgifu amongst the women of 11th century England. King Cnut’s first consort and the mother of his sons, Harald and Swein, was known as Ælfgifu of Northampton. Her father, Ælfhelm, had been executed and her brothers blinded during Aethelred’s reign, so her hatred of the ‘unready’ king must have made it easy for Cnut to win her, and her relatives, over.

Cnut wasn’t content to have one woman. No, he had to have two. Greedy chap, I hear you say. Well, it was fashionable to have an official wife and a handfasted wife. For the sake of continuity, Cnut decided to hook up with King Æthelred’s widow, Emma of Normandy, who’d been forced to change her name on marriage to Æthelred and be known as, – yes, you’ve got it – Ælfgifu. Emma, however, seems to have preferred her own name, and to avoid confusion as we go on, I’ll refer to her as Emma, no matter what her Anglo-Saxon name was.

The Ælfgifu on the Bayeux Tapestry appears in one scene where it says, Here Ælfgyva and a cleric. In the scene, the priest, or monk, is touching her face, signifying a collaboration with her. But it isn’t the priest that draws the eye: it’s the two naked men at the bottom. Question is, who is this Ælfgifu?  

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Our lady of the day being touched by a priest

Having made studies of the various primary and secondary sources, I believe that the woman on the Tapestry is Ælfgifu of Northampton, as J Bard McNulty (1980) first identified her. Why do I believe this? Because Ælfgifu of Northampton became the subject of a scandal when she was accused of presenting Cnut with two sons that were neither his nor hers. One was rumoured to be the son of a workman and a serving maid and the other, the son of a priest and the same serving maid – or maybe Ælfgifu herself.

In the Tapestry scene featuring Ælfgifu the pictures at the bottom depict a naked workman with a monkish style haircut, his genitals exposed as he works with a hammer and wood. In the next scene, the naked man mirrors the stance of the cleric who is touching her face. The scene comes just after a scene depicting Harold and William meeting, and maybe it is there to illustrate what the two men talked about, namely an old scandal involving a royal consort and a priest. Whatever the case, it is the only scene of its kind in the tapestry.

Whether there is any truth to the scandal, around 1030 Cnut sent Ælfgifu with their son Swein to Norway to govern on Cnut’s behalf. This may have been to keep her out of Emma’s way. No doubt the two women would have been directly at odds with each other. After all, Emma agreed to marry Cnut on the surety that her children with him would take precedence over Ælfgifu’s in the succession.

Ælfgifu’s heavy-handed taxation did not endear her to the Norwegians. She and Swein were ousted after some years. Nothing more was heard about her after 1040 and it is thought that she had died in Denmark after her son Swein.

Not everyone agrees with the above interpretation. Historian Eric Freeman states that he believes, owing to a 14th century legend, that Emma of Normandy is the woman being portrayed disgracefully on the Tapestry. I am unsure as to how and why a 11th century scandal may have only emerged in the 14thcentury, but whatever the case, it goes thus:

Edward, the king, believing that his mother had entered into sexual relations with a Bishop Ælfwine, (or a Bishop Stigand) sent her into a monastery and had the bishop locked up. Shown in a heroic light, Emma offered to prove the Bishop’s innocence by ordeal by hot iron, but Robert, the Bishop of London, threw more coal on the fire by announcing a list of her sins which included conspiring to murder her son, Alfred, and defaming her other son, Edward himself. Emma was ordered to undergo the ordeal and survived, the tale transforming into some sort of miraculous legend, with Edward begging forgiveness and mercy of her and restoring all that he had taken and more. There is no contemporary evidence for this strange story, beyond illustrating the strained relationship between Emma and her son.

Emma had always had a reasonably good relationship and reputation with the English whilst she was wed to Cnut. In Normandy, however, her reputation was sullied by her second marriage. After all, she put aside her sons from her marriage to Æthelred (a marriage arranged by her brother, the duke of Normandy) and abandoned them in Normandy, dissolving any Norman ambition of future successions to the English crown.

Then Cnut died. Emma’s reputation and power did not suffer overmuch—at least not while her son by Cnut, Harthacnut, was king. But when her son by Æthelred, Edward, succeeded to the throne, things changed. Unsurprisingly, Edward’s view of her was coloured by her abandonment of him in his adolescent years for a man who essentially caused the downfall of his father. Edward removed all Emma’s wealth and assets and basically told her to stop prying in England’s affairs and lead a quiet life in Winchester. Emma seems to have done so, right up until she died in 1052. No indications of a passionate affair with a bishop, no detailed account of an ordeal by hot iron, just an older abandoned woman living out what remained of her life.

There is another reason to discount Emma as the scandalous Ælfgifu on the Tapestry: her great-nephew William of Normandy. His claim on the English crown was tenuous at best and depended entirely on his kinship—via Emma—with King Edward. Therefore, with Emma being integral to William’s claim to the crown, it would hardly seem a good idea to represent her on the Tapestry in this way. William was already a bastard; he needed all the ‘decency’ in his backstory he could get.

William had no relationship with Ælfgifu of Northampton. She was not a person whom he would have greatly regarded, so the embroiderers would not have worried too much about stitching her and her clerical (potential) lover onto the tapestry.  Due to the lack of info stitched onto the tapestry regarding the scene, it seems this was a well-known scandal of the day. In other words, it was anecdotal to the time and it fits far better than the story of Emma.

In conclusion, I have no doubt that the mystery lady on the Bayeaux Tapestry is Ælfgifu of Northampton—but that does not mean we should necessarily assume she was involved in a scandal. After all, gossip back then was probably as vicious as it can be now!

**************************

Thank you for that, Paula! Now, as I stated already at the beginning, Paula’s love of the 11th century isn’t restricted to researching the period – she also writes. So far, she has published two books about Wulfhere of Horstede and his complicated life in which marital issues, war and an infected blood-feud figure prominently.  I have recently read the second book in her series, The Wolf Banner, and this is my review:

PL WBThere are a couple of things that are very apparent when reading Ms Lofting’s The Wolf Banner: the author knows her history inside out and the author loves her chosen period. This results in a vibrant historical setting, little details of everyday life blending together to create quite the time travelling experience. While reading Ms Lofting’s book I am transported to the 11th century, walking side by side with her characters.

Further to the setting, Ms Lofting adds a well-developed plot and an interesting cast of characters. Not all of these characters are likeable – notably Wulfhere’s wife Ealdgytha is very difficult for me to warm towards, no matter that the woman has her fair share of woes – but then that is how it is in real life as well. The protagonist is Wulfhere, thane of Horstede and sworn to serve King Edward the Confessor. Other than doing his duty by his lord Wulfhere has a somewhat infected situation at home and a bitter feud with his nearest neighbour to handle. Plus there are all his children, from his eldest daughter Freyda to Tovi, the son who is treated like an enervating afterthought by both his parents.

Ms Lofting does an excellent job with Tovi who very quickly grows into the character I care the most about. Some scenes involving this young boy and his parents are quite heart-breaking, and I can only hope we will see more of Tovi as the story progresses.

The personal lives of Wulhere and his family are interwoven with the political events of the times. King Edward, Harold Godwinson, the Welsh king Gryffud ap Llywellyn, the ever-present Danes – they all affect the narrative, culminating in vivid—I would even say excellent—battle scenes with Wulfhere in the thick of things.

The Wolf Banner is a sequel to Sons of the Wolf and to fully enjoy it I recommend the reader starts at the beginning. Likewise, The Wolf Banner does not conclude all the stories begun in it. For that we must await the next instalments of the saga.

At times, I feel the novel would have benefited from some abbreviation—this is a very long book and some pruning would, in my opinion, have enhanced the narrative. But this is a minor quibble: all in all The Wolf Banner is a gripping read, offering quite the insight into pre-Conquest England.

About the Author:

PL PaulaWriting has always been a lifelong ambition for Paula. A prolific reader, she loved to spend weekends buried in a book. Earliest influences such as Rosemary Sutcliffe, Leon Garfield, Charles Dickens, inspired an interest in history and a longing to write historical fiction. However, this ambition was reluctantly put on hold due to life events.

Her début novel, Sons of the Wolf eventually materialised, followed by the sequel, The Wolf Banner. These are stories set in the years leading up to the Norman Conquest of England. She is now working on Book 3 in the series, Wolf’s Bane.

History is a great love of hers and her interest in the subject goes beyond that of the keyboard. She also enjoys Anglo-Saxon re-enactment with Regia Anglorum, also a great source of research for her writing.

Twitter – @paulalofting

Facebook – https://www.facebook.com/Paula-Lofting-Author-Page-436306319727806/

Paula’s books can be found on Amazon!

 

A head for my lady love – a most unusual gift

At the Battle of Evesham in 1265, Roger Mortimer, 1st Baron Mortimer, not only killed Simon de Montfort, he also had his head and genitals chopped off, decorated the head with said man-parts, and sent the entire package off to his wife with his warmest regards.

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Salome, cradling her gift, the head of John the Baptist. (Titian) I think Maud did little cradling…

One can but wonder as to what sort of woman his wife was, seeing as Baron Mortimer clearly expected the lady to be delighted by his delayed birthday gift. Was she some sort of evil monster? A new Salome, demanding a head in return for a dance? Nope, not so much. But she was a woman who had seen her home and lands devastated at the hands of Montfort’s followers, and this was her husband’s way of telling her that wouldn’t happen again. Not on his watch.

The baroness received the gift and had Montfort’s head displayed in her great hall for a while. Soon enough, the smell of rot would have banished the sad remains elsewhere, but it is said the skull remained with the Mortimers for quite some time.

So who was this fearsome lady? Well, Maud de Braose had ferocity in her genes. Her namesake and great-grandmother, Maud de Braose Sr, is the lady renowned for having openly accused King John of having had his nephew murdered (by her husband). John punished her brutally for this. Maud Sr and her son were locked up in the same dungeon without food. They died, of course, but the son predeceased the mother, seeing as she supposedly ate bits and pieces of him. Ugh.

Anyway: the de Braose family suffered through a sequence of tough years, but King John died, chaos enveloped the land, and somehow that gallant man William Marshal managed to guide the new boy-king Henry III and the very unsteady ship that was England through the resulting fog. Good news for the de Braose family, as one of William Marshal’s daughters went on to marry William de Braose, grandson of the formidable first Maud, son of the man she’d chewed on in her dungeon.

William de Braose and his wife Eva had four children, one of which was our Maud, born around 1224 or so. She never had the opportunity of developing any stronger relationship with her father, as William was hanged in 1230 for purportedly having had sex with Llewellyn the Great’s wife. Whatever one can say about the de Braose family—and in general they were not much liked, known for their ruthless pursuit of wealth and lands—they were never boring.

As William had no son, his daughters were considered quite the catch, all of them bringing substantial lands and wealth to their prospective grooms. In Maud’s case, she was betrothed already as a child to Roger Mortimer, this despite her being seven years older than him. This might have been a bit complicated emotionally, seeing as Roger was the grandson of Llewellyn, the man who’d had Maud’s father executed. Roger, however, does not seem to have been all that keen on his Welsh blood—in fact, he spent a sizeable part of his life fighting his own cousin Llewellyn ap Gryffudd, yet another grandson (and namesake) of Llewellyn the Great. Besides, Maud’s own sister was married to Llewellyn’s son, so I imagine family reunions had been pretty tense even prior to Maud marrying Roger.

Now, the reason I find Maud de Braose fascinating—beyond her delight at being presented with a head—is because she’s the grandmother of “my” Roger Mortimer, the man who would go on to woo a queen, depose a king and rule all England on behalf of the very young Edward III. It seems to me many of Maud’s qualities, such as determination, intelligence and courage, were passed on to her grandson together with far less endearing traits such as ruthlessness and acquisitiveness. I guess those Marcher lords (and ladies) bred true, all of them eager to feather their own nests at the expense of others.

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The arch of the former gatehouse at Wigmore, slowly sinking out of sight

Once married, Maud became the mistress of Wigmore, the principal residence of her husband, Roger Sr. For those of you who haven’t visited Wigmore, I recommend that you do, albeit that today all that remains of what must once have been an impregnable castle are ruins that are being slowly reclaimed by nature. Built on a lozenge shaped escarpment, Wigmore had but one main point of entry, and the steep sides of the hill on which it stood made it virtually impossible to breach the defences. Like the eerie of an eagle, the walls of Wigmore offered unimpeded views in most directions, making it difficult for the enemy to sneak up unnoticed.

Maud was about twenty-two when she was wed to her sixteen-year-old groom. The age gap does not seem to have been much of an impediment to this marriage of two people with a similar outlook on life, and soon enough there were baby Mortimers to take care off. We know of at least six children, but chances are there would have been more.

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Henry III vs Simon de Montfort

Like all noble ladies of the time, Maud managed most of her husband’s estate, supervised the raising of her children, and took an active part in defending what was hers (theirs) should such a need arise. Which it did, frequently, as England in the late 1250s and early 1260s was not exactly a place of peace and contentment. The barons of the land had split neatly down the middle, some of them siding with Simon de Montfort and his demand for reforms, some holding to their king, Henry III. From 1259 or so, Montfort was effectively in charge of England, albeit that he suffered severe setbacks at time.

Roger Mortimer was a bit of a weather-vane in all this: initially siding with Montfort, he then sidled over to join the king’s party, less than thrilled at how Prince Edward (at the time a warm admirer of Montfort) blamed him for the loss of Builth, a strategically important castle on the Welsh March. Plus, of course, Montfort allied himself with Llewellyn ap Gruffydd, whom Mortimer considered his hereditary enemy, no matter that they shared blood. In this, he had the full support of the other Marcher lords who had no intention of sitting on their hands while Montfort more or less handed back their hard-won lands to the Welsh prince.

Things came to a head when Mortimer despoiled three of Montfort’s manors. Enraged, Montfort sent his young sons to deal with the stubborn Marcher lords, and over a couple of months these youngsters reaped major success, even managing to take Wigmore, no matter how spirited the defence (And I imagine it was spirited, seeing as Maud comes across as being very, very spirited). Maud’s home was no longer hers, and I imagine her fleeing with her children while cursing Montfort and his allies to hell and back.

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A young Edward I

By now, Prince Edward had fallen out of love with Montfort. As always, those who grab power become enamoured with it, and I bet Montfort was no exception, causing Prince Edward some serious concerns as to the future of the kingdom. This young hawk had no intention of growing up to become a weak king like his father, and where before the prince had admired Montfort, now Edward came to the conclusion Montfort had to be stopped.

“Hear, hear,” I imagine Mortimer saying, by now safely back in control of his precious Wigmore. In the spring of 1264, Prince Edward took the field against Montfort. The first battle was a rousing victory for the royalist side, and Mortimer and his fellow Marchers sent a number of hostages back home. The Battle of Lewes did not go so well—mostly due to Prince Edward’s rash pursuit of fleeing Montfort supporters. Suddenly, both king Henry and Prince Edward were Montfort’s prisoners.

The Marcher lords, however, were allowed to return to the March so as to keep England safe from marauding Welsh. They were also requested to release their prisoners, but Mortimer and his fellow Marchers hemmed and hawed until Montfort lost patience. This time, Montfort joined forces with Llewellyn and set the entire March ablaze, thereby forcing the Marchers to negotiate. The terms were harsh: all Marcher lords were exiled to Ireland for a year and a day, but once again these gents dragged their feet, while further to the south Gilbert de Clare, Earl of Gloucester, was building an army to defeat Montfort.

However, as long as Montfort held both the king and the prince, the opposition was hamstrung. This is when Maud stepped out of the wings of history to grab the limelight by coming up with an audacious escape plan.

Despite being a prisoner, Edward was allowed out to ride, always accompanied by his guards. Maud’s plan was simple: she smuggled messages to the prince, instructing him to challenge the guards to numerous races to ensure their mounts were blown and tired. And once all those horses were reduced to exhaustion, Maud’s men rode out of the forest, handed the prince a fresh horse and galloped off, making for Wigmore.

Maud took good care of the prince. He was fed, clothed, horsed and sent on his way to join Gilbert de Clare at Ludlow Castle. The royalist army had their general back, and while Edward might have been young, he was a competent leader. With him to lead them, the royalist party took heart. Due to luck Edward managed to intercept one of his Montfort cousins at Kenilworth, killing several of the men riding with him, chasing the rest into Kenilworth castle itself. With the captured Montfort banners held aloft, Edward then rode to join his men at Evesham there to destroy Simon Montfort.

It is said that the moment Montfort realised the men carrying his son’s banners were royalists, he knew the day was lost. Grimly, he and his companions prepared themselves to die. Among these companions was one Hugh Despenser, unfailingly loyal to Montfort. Together with his lord, Despenser took the field, and in desperation Montfort led his men in an uphill charge doomed to fail.

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The mutilation of Simon de Montfort’s body

Edward had no intention of taking Montfort prisoner. He wanted him dead, and a small group of men, including Roger Mortimer, were tasked with this somewhat dishonourable task. It was Roger who delivered the killing blow, thrusting his lance through Montfort’s throat. Once he was dead, Mortimer and his friends went on to mutilate his body—which was how Maud de Braose, Baroness Mortimer, became the recipient of one of the gorier birthday gifts in history.

As an aside, Hugh Despenser’s body was also mutilated, thereby spawning the unrelenting enmity between the Mortimers and the Despensers that would come to a head several decades later.

Maud would go on to live a life marked by her fair share of loss and pain. Her eldest son and precious heir, Ralph, died young. By all accounts Ralph was something of a paragon, showing an innate aptitude for the martial skills required of a Marcher lord. Fortunately, there were plenty of spares, including the well-educated Edmund Mortimer who was obliged to leave Oxford and return home. In time, Edmund’s son, “my” Roger, would inherit the extensive Mortimer lands.

In 1282 Roger Mortimer died, at the age of fifty or so. In comparison with future generations of Mortimer men who all had a tragic tendency to die relatively young, Roger Mortimer Sr had a nice long life but his wife was to survive him for a further twenty years or so before dying in 1301 or thereabouts. By then, she was well over seventy and most of her children were dead. But she must have been comforted by the fact that her eldest grandson Roger was already a vibrant young man, thereby ensuring the Mortimer star would continue to rise. Which, as we know, it did. Before it came crashing back down… (more here)

 

“Get thee to a nunnery” – in reverse

Marie MaciejowskiLeaf17RuthAndNaomiIn medieval times, women who had no desire to marry and risk the uncertainties of childbirth had the option of becoming a nun – well, assuming their father was amenable to the idea. In some cases, women who had every desire to marry and have babies still ended up as nuns, usually because their father felt this was a good idea. Some girls ended up forcibly veiled, i.e. they were immured in a convent so as to get rid of them. Such was the fate of Llewellyn the Last’s daughter Gwenllian of Wales, whom Edward I locked away with the nuns at Sempringham Priory. Such was the fate of Hugh Despenser’s three young daughters, who in 1327 were sent off to three different convents and there veiled, thereby removing them for ever from the marital market.

Sometimes, however, a nun ended up being a marital pawn no matter what vows she had taken. At times, it may have been the nun herself who regretted her choices and absconded (but it was a serious, serious offence to take up with an ex-nun, so she’d have to work hard at keeping her identity secret). Or, in some cases, the nun in question ended up being the sole heiress to lands and wealth, thereby attracting ambitious suitors who were willing to risk the opprobrium of the church to feather their nests.

Marie of Blois is one of those nuns, and somewhat ironically she is also one of those little girls who was destined for the cloisters already as a young child. Her parents, King Stephen of England and Matilda of Boulogne, were devout and what better gift to God than their own precious child?

Little Marie was accordingly placed in a convent, and whether she was delighted at the idea or not was neither here nor there. Besides, the girl seems to have adapted well enough, and by the time her father died in 1154, she was about twenty years old and the Abbess of Romsey. Had things gone according to plan, likely Marie would have remained there for the rest of her life, capably managing her little universe.

Fate, however, had other plans. Marie had one surviving brother, William, who swallowed his pride, submitted to Henry II, and was rewarded with a nice heiress as his consolation price. Seeing as William could have insisted the English crown was his – the previous king, Stephen, was his father – the Earldom of Warenne was a cheap price for Henry II to pay so as to ensure peace in his new realm.

William died in 1160—childless. In one fell swoop, Abbess Marie became a major landowner, inheriting the substantial Boulogne lands that came from her mother. Having said lands under the control of a woman sat somewhat uncomfortably with Henry II, who preferred his lords to be adequately beholden to him for their fiefs and grants. Besides, what was a woman—and a nun to boot—to do with all that wealth, all that power?

marriage loving-coupleHenry wasn’t the only one thinking along those lines. One of those considering the possibilities offered by William’s demise was Matthew of Alsace, younger son to the Count of Flanders. Being a man of action (and I suspect Henry II gave him a discreet go-ahead) Matthew decided to make a grab for the prize in the literal sense. Marie, Abbess of Romsey, was therefore forcibly abducted in 1160 and carried off by Matthew who was determined to make her his wife.

Most contemporary sources are of the opinion that Marie was not at all delighted by this turn of events—rather the reverse. One source tells us she was raring to go, panting eagerly at the thought of finally having a man in her bed. Whether willingly or not, soon enough she was wed and the wedding consummated, as demonstrated by the birth of a daughter, Ida, in 1160/61. I’m thinking Marie derived some pleasure from presenting her husband with a girl and not a boy, but truth be told I have no idea what her feelings were for Matthew. She seems to have actively disliked Henry II, thereby indicating he did more than give Matthew a discreet go-ahead, this despite the fact that abducting an abbess was a serious breach of canon law. So serious, in fact, that Matthew was placed under interdict. But hey, why wait for heavenly rewards when earthly rewards are ripe for the taking?

I suppose a marriage that began with an abduction was not destined to be successful. Or maybe it was – after all, we don’t know if Marie stayed with Matthew because she had nowhere else to go or because she started developing warmer feelings for him. Whatever her thoughts, the Church was not about to let this go: a nun had promised herself to Christ, and unless she received a papal dispensation, those vows were binding unto death.

There was no papal dispensation—or at least we can’t find any records of one. Besides, would the Church have kept up the pressure had there been one? But keep up the pressure they did, and by 1170, Matthew’s father was beginning to have serious fears for his son’s eternal soul. So much so, in fact, that the ailing Count of Flanders urged Matthew to accept the Church’s demands that the marriage be annulled.

Marie 239_LancelotdelLacSuddenly, Marie was neither married nor a nun. The man who had once imperilled his own soul—and hers—no longer wanted her enough to risk the Church’s wrath. Poor Marie was in limbo, but the Church offered to welcome her back, and whether this was what she wanted (she had just been delivered of a little girl, so one would have thought she might have wanted to stay with her baby) this was what she did. Obviously, her forays into the outside world had left her religious reputation somewhat tarnished, which meant Marie returned to her cloistered life as a plain nun. Not for her the lofty station of abbess, not anymore.

As to Matthew, he continued to rule Boulogne, now on behalf of his eldest daughter, Ida. I’m betting there’d been some horse-trading behind the scenes, along the lines of “I can send my wife back to the convent, but my daughters must be declared legitimate”. After all, this was what Matthew had always wanted: to pass Boulogne down to his heirs. Yes, he’d have preferred male heirs, but any heirs were better than no heirs, right?

Ensuring her children were recognised as legitimate was probably very important for Marie as well, and the Church had no beef with little Ida or baby Matilda, so agreeing to this was no hardship.

Matthew died in 1173. Marie remained in her convent, and her daughters were raised by their paternal uncle, the new Count of Flanders. In 1182, Marie died, no doubt relieved to know her eldest daughter was already safely married. Not for her Ida an existence as tumultuous as her own, Marie probably thought, sending off a prayer or two of gratitude to God for having arranged it thus. Turns out all that gratitude was premature, as soon enough Ida of Boulogne’s private life would eclipse her mother’s. But that, I think, is a subject for another day, as otherwise this post would become far too long!

Treading the streets of the first town in Sweden

20170524_123156There are rune stones mentioning Sigtuna, so we can safely say that today’s stop on our exploration of the lesser-known aspects of Sweden is old. Like very old, even if these days the theories that Sigtuna was founded on a place hallowed to Odin are dismissed as fanciful. Instead, Sigtuna is thought to mean “marshy trading-post”, and while one wonders why on earth anyone would want to build a village on marshy ground, someone back then clearly thought this was an excellent idea. Maybe the proximity to an ancient hill fort helped determine the venue. Or maybe it was the excellent position on the shores of Lake Mälaren, seeing as travelling by boat was the preferred way back then.

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Sigtuna today, with the same central street as back then

Whatever the case, by the 980s, Sigtuna was the unofficial capital of Sweden, the then king Erik Segersäll (Erik the Victorious) having declared the former trading post a town. Erik went about his this town thing in a structured manner: he planned one long central street (still the high street of present day Sigtuna), he divided the land in a number of equal sized lots which he stipulated were all to contain four buildings – a shop, a workshop, living quarters & hall – he then gave said lots to people he really wanted to settle in his new town, and, to further promote the image of being a modern king, he invited the Church to establish themselves, probably offering his own soul as bait. “Come here and baptise me,” he might have said, while having no serious intention of ever deserting the old gods.

Now, while all of the above indicates this King Erik really existed, the reason for his epithet is somewhat murkier, but if we dig into Saxo Grammaticus, the Icelandic Edda, the somewhat biased writings of Adam of Bremen and touch all of this up with the fantastic stories told by Olof Rudbeck in the 17th century (Olof had a thing about recreating a very glorious Swedish past) we end up with a story that goes a bit like this:

Erik and his brother Olof became kings together, but unfortunately Olof died and Erik decided there was no need for two kings—he could easily handle the pressure on his own. Olof had a son, Styrbjörn, who for various reasons did not agree. Tough, said Erik, but in compensation he gave his nephew 60 ships with which to explore the world – Viking speak for doing some lucrative raiding.

Styrbjörn took the ships, sailed off to the mythical Jomsborg, home to the Jomsvikings, defeated these, and thereby earned the undying gratitude of Harald Blåtand (Bluetooth) of Denmark who offered to ally himself with Styrbjörn to teach uppity Erik a lesson.

styrstarkA huge fleet sailed for Sweden, and once there, Styrbjörn set his ships on fire to make it very clear to his men this was a win-or-die day. The Danes had no desire to die on behalf of a crazy Swede, so they refused to burn their ships and sailed back home, leaving Styrbjörn and his (I suppose) somewhat demotivated men to face a very determined Erik. The Battle of Fyrisvallarna was a resounding victory for Erik. Styrbjörn died and everyone lived happily ever after . Well, except for Styrbjörn, obviously.

Where this battle actually took place or even if it took place no one really knows, but a number of rune stones refer to men who died at a big battle just outside of Uppsala (which is close to Sigtuna) so something did go down back in King Erik’s day.

According to some of the sources, Erik was married to a tough-as-boots lady called Sigrid Storråda (Sigrid the Haughty) She was the mother of his sons, one of which was the future king Olof Skötkonung. For some reason, Sigrid and Erik decided to part ways – maybe he found her too overbearing, or maybe she hankered after doing some ruling of her own. Whatever the case, as per the sagas she ended up ruling over a piece of Sweden, and so beautiful and so rich was Sigrid that she was pestered by eager suitors until the day she locked two of them inside a building and burned them alive. For a while there, other suitors thought twice before importuning her with their heated love declarations.

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Sigrid and Olav post-slap

Sigrid didn’t care: she had her eyes set on the handsome and powerful Norwegian king Olav Tryggvason, and as he was amenable, the wedding preparations went ahead—until Olav told Sigrid she had to become  Christian prior to him wedding her. She refused, he supposedly slapped her and told her he would never lower himself to wedding a pagan bitch. Not the smartest of moves, and in the fullness of time Sigrid would get her revenge, spurring her son and her second husband, Sven Forkbeard, into declaring war on Olav who was roundly defeated and killed at the battle of Svolder in the year 1000. Beware of a woman spurned, hey?

Sigrid would supposedly go on to give Sven Forkbeard one daughter, Estrid. This Estrid would marry Ulf Jarl, brother to Gytha, wife of Godwin of Wessex and mother to Harold Godwinson, and Estrid’s son, Sven Estridsen would be the first in a long, long line of Danish kings.

Unfortunately, this is when I must tell you that Sigrid may be a very colourful lady, but her historical existence is doubtful. There are those who feel the evidence rather points to Erik being wed to a Slavic princess who neither burned eager suitors nor was slapped in the face by Olav Tryggvason, but who definitely gave Erik a son called Olof. Seeing as I’m rather taken by Sigrid, I’m hoping they’re wrong.

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One of those churches that popped up 

Right: back to today’s subject, which is not the fascinating Sigrid, but rather the equally fascinating little town of Sigtuna.  Erik Segersäll was a pagan, and his son Olof Skötkonung was just as pagan – at least initially. But the times they were a-changing, and a lot of pressure was brought to bear on Olof, which was why he became a Christian, supposedly baptised in 1008 by St Sigfrid. As a consequence, churches began to sprout like mushrooms in Sigtuna, which houses some of the oldest church ruins in Sweden. Today, we can wander round the ruins of several of these churches, huge imposing things that served a town consisting of 1000 inhabitants, give or take. Once there were churches, soon enough there were priests. Once there were priests, soon enough there came a bishop, and Sigtuna thereby became an early ecclesiastic centre, a beacon of light in an area where the old Norse faith still held its own.

There is an alternative version of Olof’s baptism: the Anglo Saxon Chronicle tells the story of how King Swein (Sven Forkbeard) and a king Anlaf harried England in 994, pillaging and looting until Ethelred the Unready, as was his wont, bought them off with a huge Danegeld. This Anlaf is by some considered identical to Olof, and as per the Chronicle, Anlaf was baptised at Andover by an Anglo Saxon bishop called Sigeric (a name very similar to Sigfrid, IMO). This would sadly mean no St Sigfrid, but this version is borne out by the fact that already in 995 Olof issued coins stamped with a cross.

20170524_100219Olof was the first Swedish king to issue coins. The mint was set up in Sigtuna, and it was run by an Anglo Saxon gent named Godwine who had some sort of monopoly over the Scandinavian coin-making business, seeing as he was also in charge of the Danish and Norwegian mints. As stated above, already in 995 these coins came decorated with a cross and Olof’s name. Initially, we can assume the people in charge of the minting could read—and move with the times—as Olof is first titled “king of Sigtuna” before becoming “king of Sweden” some years later. Over time, the literacy level among those minting must have dropped severely, as in later periods we have Olof being presented as “king of England”.

Whatever the case, Olof’s conversion to Christianity and his mint were two important steps in moving Sweden away from its Viking past and towards the somewhat more civilised Europe. When Olof died, his son Anund Jacob continued issuing coins, but upon his death the Swedish mint disappeared—at least for a while. It would take almost two centuries before new Swedish coins were issued, and by then Sweden had taken great strides towards a cohesive national state, albeit that the costs had been high – almost constant civil war as one wannabe king after the other tried to grab the crown.

20170524_103503By then, Sigtuna’s heyday was over. In the early 13th century a new town saw the light of the day further to the east, and over time this humble collection of timber houses was destined to become Sweden’s present-day capital, Stockholm. Sigtuna reverted to being a somewhat somnolent place, and only in its many, many ruins of long gone churches and religious establishments can we catch a glimpse of what it was like during those two centuries when Sigtuna was truly the centre of the Swedish world.

 

 

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