ANNA BELFRAGE

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Archive for the category “Women in history”

From royal sweetheart to Iron Lady

Kalle-nioIn October of 1611, Karl IX, king of Sweden, died. And no, one should not judge this gentleman by his umm…creative hair-do. Karl was a competent (if rather ruthless) man who used religion as an excuse to wrest the Kingdom of Sweden from his nephew, Sigismund, leaving behind a realm in order, a half-grown son and a rather impressive wife.

The recently bereaved Kristina of Holstein-Gottorp headed the regency council set up to rule Sweden until her son, Gustav II Adolf, came of age. This happened sooner rather than later, the just seventeen-year-old young king deciding in December of 1611 that he was ready to rule on his own, thank you very much. Proud mama acquiesced and so the personal rule of Gustav Adolf began.

Now, one of the things a young king needed was a wife—and heirs. Gustav Adolf probably felt he’d  solved that issue some time later. You see, our young and dashing king was in love. Head over heels in love to judge from his surviving letters to Ebba Brahe, who was two years younger than him and one of his mother’s ladies in waiting.

Ebba Brahe was by no means a bad choice. Her family belonged to the upper echelons of Swedish nobility and she was closely related to Gustav Vasa’s third queen (This Gustav was the grandfather of “our” Gustav Adolf). When Ebba’s mother died, the Dowager Queen invited Ebba to court—Kristina had been a close friend of Ebba’s mother and had promised to oversee Ebba’s education. The girl was pleasing to the eye, well-mannered and obviously intelligent, which initially had her finding favour with her new mistress. Until Kristina realised her son had fallen utterly and irrevocably in love with Ebba, pretty and manipulative little minx that she was. This was not good. Oh, no: Kristina had far loftier plans for her son.

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Gustav Adolf wooing Ebba

The young king, who lived under the delusion that he could decide who to marry without his forceful mama’s consent, went as far as to offer Ebba marriage. In one of the surviving letters he asks her to raise the issue of impending nuptials with her father. After all, king or not, his bride needed her father’s consent. The reply from Magnus Brahe was a resounding no. He was not about to anger the Dowager Queen by approving a marriage she was so set against—it would make his daughter’s (and his) life hell on earth. Clearly, Kristina of Holstein-Gottorp was a respected woman, fully capable of holding her own among her male contemporaries.

Crestfallen, Gustav Adolf retired to lick his wounds. His mother was unrelenting: Ebba Brahe would not be the queen of Sweden unless it was over Kristina’s dead body. So when Gustav Adolf was next out and about in the world, bringing havoc and fear in his wake as he led the Swedish Army to more victories, he fell under the charm of a married lady and took her to bed. I imagine several people made it their objective in life to inform Ebba of her sweetheart’s betrayal. Maybe that’s why she supposedly engraved “Jag är förnöjd med lotten min och tackar Gud för nåden sin” (I am content with my place in life and thank God for his mercy) on a window. Or maybe this is a case of everyone over-interpreting a young woman’s spontaneous graffiti.

It is more likely that Ebba had long since reconciled herself to the fact that she would never be allowed to marry the man of her dreams. Her future life indicates a substantial pragmatic streak, ironically very much in line with Kristina of Holstein Gottorp’s temperament. Ebba even tried to dissuade her ardent suitor, repeating over and over again that she was not worthy to be Gustav’s wife. It drove him crazy when she said stuff like that, hence him drowning his sorrows in the welcoming arms of another woman. Erm…

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Maria Eleonora

With mama cruelly nipping the Ebba-Gustav love story in the bud, Gustav Adolf went on to marry a princess, Maria Eleonora of Brandenburg. His mother was delighted—at first. Over the years, I suspect she came to regret her insistence on having her son wed for dynastic reasons only. The marriage was unhappy, Maria Eleonora was not the most mentally stable of people, and even worse, there were no surviving sons, only a puny little daughter, the future Kristina of Sweden. (One of Gustav Adolf’s big, big plus points is that he seems to have delighted in his daughter, confident she could become as capable a ruler as any man).

Life did not end for Ebba Brahe just because she gave up on Gustav II Adolf. In fact, well before she engraved her famous little quote her father had been approached by the dashing Jacob de la Gardie who had his heart set on Ebba. After some consideration, Ebba accepted his proposal and in 1618 the twenty-two-year-old former royal sweetheart married Jacob.

Jacob was the son of a French wannabe-monk turned condottiere turned royal counsellor and loyal servant of King Johan III of Sweden. Pontus de la Gardie was generously rewarded for his loyal service. King Johan was so fond of Pontus (born Ponce d’Escouperie , but Swedish peeps had a problem with pronouncing such a fancy name) that in 1580 he gave Pontus his own daughter, Sofia Johansdotter, as his wife. The groom was thirty-six years older than the bride but this was no impediment to getting things going, hence baby Jacob was born in 1583 as the third of three children. Sofia expired at childbirth and the sixty-three-year-old Pontus was left alone to raise his children. Seeing as he died some years later, Jacob was orphaned at a very young age and grew up to become an accomplished military commander.

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Jacob

By the time he wed Ebba, Jacob de la Gardie had built quite a reputation. After all, he’s one of the few non-Russians who has led a successful campaign through Russia, all the way to Moscow. At the time, Russia was a mess, one faction after the other putting forth their candidate for the new tsar. De la Gardie took advantage of the chaos to strengthen the Swedish position and so admired were his military methods that the young Gustav Adolf spent 1615 campaigning with him to learn the art of war from an expert. At the time, Gustav Adolf was still hopelessly in love with Ebba. At the time, Jacob had already proposed to Ebba. I bet they never discussed that subject over dinner…

Anyway: once wed, Jacob swept his young wife into his arms and carried her off to Reval (present day Tallinn). Jacob was the governor of the Baltic states and constantly busy with his military career. Ebba, therefore, handled their private affairs and estates.

The Jacob and Ebba union is described as being very happy. They complemented each other, with Jacob trusting his wife to capably manage their various investments. She was openly devoted to him and over nineteen years she was brought to bed of fourteen full-term children. Of these, seven would live to adulthood, the most famous being her gallant of a son, Magnus de la Gardie.

Jacob and Ebba settled in Sweden in 1628. Together, they built an impressive empire, featuring everything from palaces such as Makalös (which means Incomparable. It apparently was, which did not always please the king) to successful business ventures.

Ebba excelled at the business side of things. She was especially interested in developing the iron works she owned. Early on, she caught on to the correlation between consistent (and high) quality and premium pricing. The iron produced at the de la Gardie works was of the highest quality. In fact, the iron Ebba sold was so good she was known as Countess Iron – a true iron lady, one could say. This had Ebba laughing all the way to the bank—well, it would have, if our Ebba had not been something of a high spender, with an obvious taste for life’s luxuries. Her clothes, her jewels, her furnishings, the art that decorated her walls – all of it was sumptuous. The de la Gardies also had a huge household. Approximately one hundred people were employed by them to keep their domestic life turning smoothly, plus they had all those palaces to maintain, children to raise in adequate style, horses and dogs and carriages and landscaped gardens, preferably a la francaise. Let me tell you, it was fortunate Ebba had such a well-developed nose for business!

In her business ventures Ebba was supported mostly by one of her daughters, Maria Sofia de la Gardie. Just like her dear Mama, Maria Sofia was possessed of an innate head for business and was one of Sweden’s first industrial entrepreneurs, amassing a huge fortune. That, however, was all in the future when Ebba taught her daughter about USPs and the like.

However, not everything was roses in Ebba’s life. The seventeenth century was not always generous to powerful—and wealthy—women, and in 1651 rumours started making the rounds in Stockholm. The young queen, Kristina, had been spelled by none other than Ebba Brahe, how else to explain the queen’s firm opposition to marriage? Yes, the gossipers whispered, this was Ebba working behind the scenes and using magic to keep Queen Kristina enthralled to Ebba’s much-loved son, Magnus Gabriel de la Gardie, royal favourite par excellence.

We find such accusations mildly amusing. Ebba, however, was probably quite terrified. The accusation of witchery had a tendency to stick like tar. It was therefore fortunate that the accusers in this case were a certain Arnold Messenius and his father, Arnold Johan Messenius. As the elder Messenius had already been convicted of treason on a previous occasion and also came with the stigma of having been educated by Jesuits and potentially being a closet papist, the end result of all these whispers was that Messenius father and son were executed for treason. Ebba could breathe easy again. Well, she would have, had she not had her hands full caring for her ailing husband.

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Ebba as a widow

It is somewhat ironic that Jacob de la Gardie, always a man on the move, always involved in one military campaign or the other, should spend his last few years afflicted by a disease that robbed him of his eyesight, thereby making it difficult for him to leave his home. Ebba invested her considerable energies in making his life as comfortable as possible but in 1652 her husband of thirty-four years died, leaving her a very wealthy widow. I dare say she was devastated.

Ebba was to expend the rest of her life on furthering the interests of her children—and more specifically those of Magnus Gabriel—and on expanding her business empire. When she died in 1674 she left behind a considerable fortune and the persisting legend of a young heartbroken girl, who wanted nothing but to marry her king but ended up with de la Gardie instead. I think Ebba would have been most displeased by this: after all, she spent far more years as Jacob de la Gardie’s trusted and respected wife than she did as Gustav Adolf’s heart-throb. But hey, we all have a thing about tragic love stories, don’t we? Even when they’re not one hundred percent true.

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

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Alfonso I el Batallador

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

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

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

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

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Ramiro looking most un 12th century

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

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

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

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

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

Petronila Ramiro

Ramiro

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

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

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

Petronila Raymond

Ramón

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

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

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

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Petronila & Ramón

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

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Petronila looking less than happy

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

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

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

Of Easter witches and dire death

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

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Easter Witch by Jenny Nyström (Kalmar Läns Museum)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Of golden camels and shortchanged heiresses

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

Manuel_I_Comnenus

Manuel I Komnenos

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

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Frederick Barbarossa

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

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

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Guillaume’s seal

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

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

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

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Pedro II 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Pedro and Marie conceiving Jaime (under supervision)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is she Violent? No, she’s Violante

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

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

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Alfonso

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

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

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

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Violant

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

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

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

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Sancho

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Margaret de Male 

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

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

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Lionel

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

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

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

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Violante and her brother

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

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

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

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

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

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

Margaret – a beloved wife or a victim?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Margaret medieval wounded

Love? Not love? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Dacre graves at Lanercost (photo Dimitros Corcodilos) 

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

Other posts about abducted medieval ladies:

Poor little rich girl – of a medieval heiress

Taking matters (or her) in his own hands

The abducted heiress and the gallant traitor

“Get thee to a nunnery” – in reverse

Mary, Mary quite contrary – except she wasn’t

MARY ~Tudor PrincessToday I’ve invited Tony Riches (more about him can be found at the end of this post) to pop by with a guest post about his latest book, Mary – Tudor Princess. And no, this is not a book about the Mary who would go on to become Mary I, but rather about Mary, younger sister to Henry VIII. She rarely gets much more than a passing mention in most history books, and I am pleased Tony has taken it upon himself to shed some limelight on this lady! 

They say you should avoid reading reviews of your books, as there’s no ‘right of reply’ although sometimes the feedback can be thought provoking. One recent example was in a review of my novel about one of my wife’s ancestors, The Secret Diary of Eleanor Cobham. The male reviewer wondered if, as a man, I was able to understand Eleanor’s female point of view. It’s a good question, as I’ve just spent a year ‘in the shoes’ of Henry VIII’s youngest sister Mary Tudor.

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Mary

I chose to write about Mary because I’d researched her birth and early life for my last book, Henry – Book Three of the Tudor Trilogy. In the trilogy I’d moved forward one generation with each book, so it appealed to me to write a ‘sequel’ which did the same. I’d become intrigued with Mary’s story of how she risked everything to defy her brother when he became King Henry VIII.

When I began the Tudor trilogy, I had little factual information about Owen Tudor, Mary’s great-grandfather. The amount of information increased exponentially by the time I reached the story of Mary’s father, Henry Tudor, as he kept detailed legers of his finances. Some of Henry’s letters also survive, including some to his mother, but they were all rather formal.

This time, I had the advantage of a fascinating book The French Queen’s Letters: Mary Tudor Brandon and the Politics of Marriage in Sixteenth-Century Europe (Queenship and Power)  by Erin Sadlack, which includes all Mary’s surviving letters, many with replies, as well as an insightful analysis of her state of mind at the time. I prefer primary research and found her letters offer an evocative ‘voice’ for Mary, as well as revealing how she felt about people and events.

MARY Bernhard_Strigel_Karel_in_1516

Charles V

I wanted to explore Mary’s vulnerability as well as her strengths, and I was assisted in this by her brother, who broke off her engagement to young Prince Charles, future Emperor of Rome, to marry her off to the fifty-two-year-old King Louis XII of France. Although Mary was barely eighteen at the time, Henry saw his younger sister as a small price to pay for a treaty with France.

I enjoyed untangling the many myths about what happened next, from causing the death of King Louis with her ‘passionate exertions’ to her dying of ‘grief at her brother’s divorce from her friend Catherine of Aragon.’ I also had the benefit of knowing a great deal about the people and places of Mary’s world.

The difficulties came when I had to show Mary’s struggles with the dangers of medieval childbirth. I was present at my daughter’s and my son’s births, and there are plenty of historical accounts to draw from, but I believe only a woman can fully understand how it feels to bring a new life into the world.

If you’d like to see how well I’ve done, my new book Mary – Tudor Princess is now available on Amazon UK, Amazon US and Amazon AU in eBook and paperback. An audiobook edition will be available later in the year.

Thank you, Tony! As I have spent quite an enjoyable weekend reading Mary – Tudor Princess, I’ve written a little review: 

Having previously read Mr Riches’ books about three male Tudors—Owen, Jasper and Henry—I was intrigued to find he had now chosen to write about Mary Tudor. Not the Mary Tudor, the daughter of Henry VIII and Katherine of Aragon, who became Mary I, but the Mary famous for defying her brother Henry VIII and marrying the man she loved when her first husband, King Louis of France, died.

MARY Mary_Tudor_and_Charles_Brandon

Mary and Charles Brandon

I must admit to knowing little about Mary prior to reading this book. Yes, I knew she was the grandmother of Lady Jane Grey, yes, I knew she’d married Charles Brandon for love and seeing as I’m a hopeless romantic I rather liked her for that.

Life, however, is rarely romantic. Mary’s life was bordered by losses: that of her mother when she was still a young child, that of her father some years later, that of her impressive grandmother a year or so after her father. Her flamboyant brother did not hesitate to use Mary as a pawn to achieve political gains, which was how Mary also lost her betrothed, the future Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and instead ended up married to the old and ailing King Louis of France.

As always, Mr Riches presents the historical background in great detail. Clothes, food, furnishings all add vibrancy to the story as does the convoluted political situation. While the book centres on Mary and how the unfolding events affected her, Henry VIII, Queen Katherine, Cardinal Wolsey and the rather delicious Francis I of France all add colour to the narrative—as does Mary’s husband, Charles Brandon. I am in two minds about Charles: did he love Mary as she loved him or was she a convenient stepping stone? I suppose that the fact that he risked his king’s rage to marry her indicate he did have strong feelings for her—at least initially. But where Mary’s life revolves round Charles, their home and their children, Charles’ life revolves around his king and best friend, Henry VIII.  That oh, so sweet story of a secret marriage turns out to be not quite as fluffy and pink as one would have thought…

Mr Riches has done a great job of depicting just how restricted the role of a woman was in the 16th century. From Queen Katherine to Mary, a wife cannot overstep the boundaries set by their husbands or by society. Women may be strong and resourceful, but in Tudor times they were also vulnerable—extremely so, at times. Mr Riches has left us with a portrait of a woman who, from a very early age, knows herself to be a pawn, no more, no less.

MARY Tony Riches AuthorAbout the author:
Tony Riches is a full-time author of best-selling historical fiction. He lives in Pembrokeshire, West Wales and is a specialist in the fifteenth century, with a particular interest in the Wars of the Roses and the lives of the early Tudors. For more information about Tony’s other books please visit his website tonyriches.com and his popular blog, The Writing Desk and find him on Facebook and Twitter @tonyriches

The Welsh Princess and her elusive mother

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

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Llewellyn, depicted with his sons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

gwladus sex

Hitting it off a la medieval

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

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

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

Gwladus Prosperine

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

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

 

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

A lady with claws

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

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

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

Clisson by Cyril5555 800px-Vue_château_et_pont_Clisson

Clisson – photo by Cyril555, licensed under Creative Commons

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

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

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

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

clisson john_entering_nantes

John de Montfort entering Nantes

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

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

Clisson Exécution_d'Olivier_IV_de_Clisson_(1343)

Olivier and his Breton buddies being executed

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

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

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

Clisson 500px-De_Belleville_Montaigu-1

Supposedly, this is Jeanne.

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

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

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Battle of Sluys

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

 

Clisson Capture_Charles_de_Blois

Charles de Blois being captured

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

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

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

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

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

Sifting through history for interesting ladies!

sharon rsz_img_5302 1Today I have the honour of welcoming Sharon Bennett Connolly to my blog. This is a lady with whom I share a common passion for all things medieval and I was fortunate enough to spend a day with her last year in Lincoln. Needless to say, we spent that time visiting Lincoln Castle and Lincoln Cathedral, a first for me, not so for Sharon. (And she’s been back there since, to judge from the pic)

Sharon has recently published a non-fiction book featuring a number of medieval ladies. Aptly named Heroines of the Medieval World, it introduces the reader to quite the gallery of personalities. (You’ll find my review at the bottom of this post)

So, I gave Sharon a virtual cup of tea (with a slice of virtual cake – comes with the benefit of zero calories)  and had her sit on the hot seat while answering some questions.

Why this passion for history?

I honestly don’t know. I have always loved history – I just can’t get enough of it. The stories and the mysteries are so compelling. I love the ‘what ifs’. And it is something that is everywhere – you can go to Scotland, France, Russia, Canada and there is history.

Have you ever wished you could travel back in time to say hello to some of your favourite medieval heroines?

I would love to – so long as I can come back, I wouldn’t want to live in the past. I like my creature comforts too much. But it would be nice to sit at a table with Agnes of Dunbar and Nicholaa de la Haye and find out what made them so formidable. Or Eleanor of Aquitaine’s daughters and ask them what they really thought of their mum and dad – oh, that would be so interesting.

If so, what would you take with you as a gift?

Now that is an interesting question. I think I would want to take them something practical, that we women find so useful today – maybe a decent sized handbag?

medieval loversWho are your three favourite medieval ladies and why?

There are so many! I have a soft spot for Nicholaa de la Haye, because writing about her on my blog gave me the original idea for the book. I admire Matilda, wife of William the Conqueror; I love the idea of this diminutive woman being treated as a partner by this great bear of a warrior. And she wasn’t afraid to defy him for the sake of her children. And Joanna of England, daughter of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine. She wasn’t always in control of her life, but she could put her foot down when she wanted to – such as when Richard I wanted to marry her to Saladin’s brother.

Do you have a special period you are particularly interested in?

Medieval, although it’s more the people than the period, for me. I have dabbled in the Napoleonic and Tudor eras, but always seem to go back to the medieval. However, I couldn’t specify a particular reign or century – it is more the stories and the characters associated with them, that I find fascinating.

Lincoln Cathedral or the York Minster?

Impossible decision – they’re both at the top, for different reasons. I’m a Yorkshire lass and York is something very special. But the refectory at Lincoln Cathedral do the most scrumptious cakes. (Totally agree!) I can spend a day in each of them and still not see everything.

I know you’re planning on writing a book about the women of the Conquest and I imagine Matilda of Flanders will be a pivotal character in such a book. What do you think of her husband, William the Conqueror? Was he a horrible baddie or is he the victim of a black legend?

I think it is never black and white. I’m from Yorkshire – and the Harrying of the North was a dreadful incident – but you can’t really hold a grudge for 1,000 years. William had his good qualities, he was a strong, able ruler and rewarded those loyal to him. He was also a loyal husband – there is no record of any mistresses and he seems to have prized Matilda as a wife, companion and ruling partner. He left Normandy in Matilda’s hands on a number of occasions and respected her abilities.

medieval woman w unicornWhile researching your book, what sources did you use?

Everything I could find. It is easier to research from home these days, so many contemporary chronicles, such as Froissart and Orderic Vitalis, are available online. I think I only ventured to the library a couple of times. I also have a pretty decent book collection myself – I always told the hubby they would come in handy one day, and I was right. I also found this great website from Columbia University, called Epistolae which has published the Latin letters – and their translations – written or dictated by over 200 women of the Middle Ages, ranging from Hildegard of Bingen to Adela of Normandy. It is a wonderful resource, giving a unique insight into these women.

I imagine you, just like me, run into the problem of contradictory stories: one version says A was murdered, another insists A rode into the sunset and lived happily ever after. What do you do in such situations? 

I like to present all the versions available, assess their validity and then explain why I have decided one may be more likely above the other. Sometimes there is just no way to decide which is true, so you just have to say you can’t decide, and leave it to the reader to draw their own conclusions – luckily, I haven’t had to do that too often.

There are a couple of historical controversies that always cause a LOT of discussion: one of these is whether Richard III did away with his nephews yes or no. What do you think?

I think we will never know for certain, but the more I read about it, the more I think Richard had to be the culprit. He had the means – he was in charge; he had the motive – while they were alive, they were always a threat; and he had the opportunity – they were in his custody. I don’t like the way some people argue that Richard couldn’t have done it because he was too pious, and then say it must have been Margaret Beaufort because she was too pious. Excuse me? You can’t have it both ways. When the boys disappeared in 1483, Richard was the one who needed them out of the way. The Yorkists had already attempted to rescue them once, and he could not afford to have them free and attracting support to their cause. Henry VII did benefit from their disappearance, but 2 years later, rather than at the time. (Ha! I fear your answer will upset quite a few Ricardians… It’s very frustrating we’ll never know, isn’t it?)

Is there any event in history you would really, really want to change?

The execution of Joan of Arc. That was such a travesty. The poor girl was only 19 and was thrown to the wolves and devoured because she beat the English, almost single-handedly. When I was researching her, I came across all these comments about her on Facebook, saying she was mad and no saint. However, when you look at this teenage girl, leading armies and running verbal rings around her interrogators, you realise that, whether or not it was divine inspiration, there was something very, very special about her. No one deserves to be burned alive, Joan least of all.

Other than writing & reading history, what other interests do you have?

I love playing badminton, bike riding and the theatre. And exploring. During the school holidays, my son and I love nothing better than taking off for a day or two to explore new places. We love driving into the Pennines, or spending a day in York. On the last school holidays, we took a trip down to Hastings, research for me and exploring for Lewis – he re-enacted William the Conqueror’s trip when he landed on Pevensey Beach.

Christmas will soon be upon us. Do you have any special family traditions you would like to share?

We always put the tree up on the first weekend in December. When my son was born, I did start a tradition of buying a new decoration for the tree, every year. The idea was that when junior leaves home, he will have a full set of decorations for his tree. However …. I now don’t want to part with them, so I will probably get him a starter set from Wilko’s and keep the ones we’ve collected.

We also go to the annual village tradition of carols around the Christmas tree. It’s lovely. The kids have a great time, running around, catching up with their friends – and singing. Plus, there’s hot chocolate and mince pies afterwards. It’s a great village atmosphere.

Thank you for sharing this with us, Sharon. And should you ever want to pop by with a guest post, you are more than welcome!

sharon Lo-res jkt, 9781445662640 6About the author:

Sharon Bennett Connolly, has been fascinated by history for over 30 years now and even worked as a tour guide at historical sites, including Conisbrough Castle. Born in Yorkshire, she studied at University in Northampton before working in Customer Service roles at Disneyland in Paris and Eurostar in London.
She is now having great fun, passing on her love of the past to her son, hunting dragons through Medieval castles or exploring the hidden alcoves of Tudor Manor Houses.
Having received a blog as a gift, History…the Interesting Bits, Sharon started researching and writing about the lesser-known stories and people from European history, the stories that have always fascinated. Quite by accident, she started focusing on medieval women. And in 2016 she was given the opportunity to write her first non-fiction book, Heroines of the Medieval World, which was published by Amberley in September 2017. She is currently working on her second non-fiction book, Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest, which will be published by Amberley in late 2018.

You can connect with Sharon on FB or Twitter.

My review: 

Since some years back I have regularly popped by Ms Bennett Connolly’s blog called “History…the interesting bits”. Quite often, we’ve honed in on the same historical ladies and I have enjoyed comparing my (always rather subjective) take on these medieval ladies with Ms Bennett Connolly’s more objective approach.

In Heroines of the Medieval World, Ms Bennett Connolly has collected several of her favourite ladies under various headings such as “The Medieval Mistress” or “Women who ruled” or (my favourite) “Scandalous Ladies”. Geographically, her selected heroines span the European continent, from Spain to distant Kiev, but focus lies on English and French women, some of them nothing more than pawns, others brave as lions when defending what was theirs.

Ms Bennet Connolly’s passion and knowledge of the period and her heroines shine through in every word. This is an informative read, introducing not only each respective woman but also their family, their relatives and the people in their proximity that may have been affected by them. I particularly enjoyed the chapter with Julian of Norwich in which Ms Bennett Connolly speculates as to who this Julian really was, thereby underlining just how little we really know about these long-dead women.

This is not a book one reads in one go. Rather, it is a book best enjoyed chapter by chapter so as to allow all the information to properly sink in. Ms Bennett Connolly delivers all this knowledge in a driven prose, maintaining a nice balance between pace and information throughout.  For all those who love immersing themselves in the past—and in particular the medieval past—this is a must read.

Buy link, Amazon UK
Buy link, Amazon US 

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