ANNA BELFRAGE

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Archive for the category “Women in history”

Treading the streets of the first town in Sweden

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

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Sigtuna today, with the same central street as back then

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sigrid and Olav post-slap

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

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

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

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One of those churches that popped up 

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

A very wicked woman

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The not-so-paragon Eve…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Something Mabel  did a lot – at least ten babies

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

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

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A lady with her spindle – not for our Mabel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Seems like a thing Mabel would do…

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

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

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

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

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

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

The queen who took down the empress

Some time ago, I published a post about that rather impressive lady Matilda of Flanders who married William the Conqueror and thereby became the matriarch of the Norman kings. Today, I thought we’d spend some time with her namesake, the equally impressive Matilda of Boulogne.

Royal 19 B.XV, f.37This Matilda was born in 1105 or thereabouts. Her father, Eustace of Boulogne, was a Crusader and a proven warrior, having participated in the siege (and subsequent massacre) of Jerusalem. Given future events, I’m guessing Matilda had inherited quite a few of her father’s more ferocious qualities, traits that were to come in handy later in her life.

Eustace married relatively late in life—all that crusading had kept him quite busy for some years—but I suspect he was quite pleased with his wife. After all, Mary of Scotland was of royal descent and came with the added bonus of being the sister to Henry I’s queen, yet another Matilda. Thereby, Eustace became a royal in-law, and even if Henry I does not come across as a man who had much time for family ties (this is, after all, the king who allowed his granddaughters to be blinded) it was probably never a disadvantage to be related to the king, however indirectly.

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Matilda, Henry I’s wife

Mary and Matilda Sr had been raised in a convent. In fact, they’d spent so much time with the nuns Henry I had to acquire the pope’s permission to marry Matilda Sr as there were those who muttered that both Matilda Sr and Mary were effectively nuns. What the sisters themselves thought of this, I have no idea, but the upside of their irregular upbringing was that they were both quite well-educated.

As to why Henry I (who seems to have had an unquenchable appetite for women, resulting in twenty plus illegitimate children) was so determined to marry Matilda Sr, this was because of her (and Mary’s) mother: St Margaret of Scotland was not only the mother of eight children, including the two sisters. She was also the descendant of Edmund Ironside, thereby contributing a dollop of Anglo-Saxon royal blood to her offspring.

Neither Mary nor Matilda Sr seem to have been all that fertile. Matilda Sr only gave Henry I two children (and, as we’ve seen above, he had no issue with fertility). Mary presented her husband with one child: Matilda, named after her aunt.

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Henry I, looking as if butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth

Just to add to the name confusion, Henry I’s daughter by Queen Matilda was also named Matilda, and seeing as this Matilda and our Matilda were to play very important roles in each others’ lives, I’ve decided to call Henry’s daughter Maud, as otherwise we will all develop a headache trying to separate one from the other. (In general, I am not impressed by the variation in names during the Middle Ages. Seems to me people snowed in on a couple of them and then went on to use them ad nauseam, resulting in large amounts of Matildas and Alfonsos and Eleanors and Isabellas and Henrys and Williams and…right: no need to elaborate further, I think)

Anyway: Matilda grew up in comfort, mostly in Boulogne, but also in England—her father had estates there. Her mother died when Matilda was around 11 or so, and for some reason Matilda remained unwed throughout her teens. Maybe her father was holding out for a good marriage, or maybe Henry I had a vested interest in ensuring Matilda and her vast inheritance ended up in the right hands. Whatever the case, in 1125 Matilda was married to Stephen of Blois, nephew to king Henry I.

For Stephen, marrying Matilda was a major move upwards financially. As a younger son to the Count of Blois and Adela, Henry I’s sister, Stephen did not expect to inherit much land. Now, by right of his wife, he stood next in line to become the Count of Boulogne. Close to ten years older than his bride, Stephen seems to have found Matilda very much to his liking—a sentiment returned in full by his wife, or at least that is the impression one gets, given just how loyal she would prove to be.

1125 was the year in which Matilda gained a husband and lost a father. Upon Eustace’s death, the newly married couple became the Count and Countess of Boulogne, and for the coming decade or so, they divided their time between their large estates in England and Boulogne, their family growing with the addition of a couple of children.

And then, in 1135, everything changed.

MoB WhiteShipSinkingBefore we go there, we need to detour briefly to Henry I and the fate of his two legitimate children by Matilda Sr. By the time Stephen wed Matilda of Boulogne, Henry I’s precious male heir, William, was already dead, having drowned in the tragedy of the White Ship. All Henry had left was a bevy of eager nephews (among them Stephen) and his daughter, Maud, recently returned to England after the death of her husband, the Holy Roman Emperor Henry V.

King Henry was determined to ensure his bloodline retained the throne. He’d hastily wed again after the death of William, but so far no royal babies were forthcoming. Maud had not presented her first husband with an heir, but she was still youngish (as per the standards of the time), so Henry decided to marry her again—to the very much younger Geoffrey of Anjou. Not a marriage made in heaven, one could say. Maud resented the fact that her husband was not much more than a child and only a count. She, after all, was an Empress, albeit without the adjoining empire. However, Maud needed a husband as Henry had obliged his barons to recognise Maud—and her legitimate heirs—as his heirs. Just in case, Henry had his barons swear allegiance to his daughter twice.

In 1133, Maud gave birth to a son whom she named Henry. In 1134, she gave birth to a second son, Geoffrey. Henry I could expel a relieved breath: he now had two male heirs, albeit at present no more than infants, but still.

In December of 1135, Henry I died, supposedly after having gone wild and crazy over a dish of lampreys. The more likely reason is that he fell sick after an autumn campaigning against rebels in Normandy—rebels supported by Maud and Geoffrey.

No sooner was Henry dead but a fight over the succession broke out. Several of the barons decided not to honour their oath to Maud (many of them disliked the ambitious Geoffrey) and Theobald of Blois, Stephen’s eldest brother, prepared to go to England and claim the crown.

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Stephen being crowned

Stephen moved faster. Upon hearing the news of his uncle’s demise, he set off like greased lightning, accompanied by his household knights. Some weeks later, he was crowned, which no doubt caused big brother Theobald to grind his teeth, but once anointed always anointed, and so Theobald could do nothing but bow to the inevitable.

Not so our Empress Maud. To give this lady her due, Maud was not the type who gave up. Oh, no: the crown was hers by right—those perjured barons had sworn on it—and she wasn’t about to let this juicy price slip away from her or her sons. Geoffrey agreed, and while these two were often at odds on a personal level, they were scarily alike when it came to ambition, ruthlessness and intelligence. No wonder their son, the future Henry II, would turn out as he did.

We don’t know whether Matilda supported her husband’s bid for the throne. It seems likely, if nothing else because he consulted with her on various other matters, and such a life-changing decision would reasonably be something he’d have talked over with her beforehand. Maybe they’d been planning for this for some time, both of them fully aware of how unpopular Geoffrey d’Anjou was among the English barons.

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Stephen as king

In difference to Geoffrey, Stephen was universally liked. He was rich, easy-going, good-looking, a proven warrior—and, most importantly, a man. What baron in his right mind would prefer Maud to this charmer? Initially, it would seem very few, but Maud was nothing if not determined, and some years into Stephen’s reign, civil war flared up. The anarchy (as it was dubbed by those who lived through it) was to plague the rest of his reign, the barons divided between those who supported Maud (led by her illegitimate half-brother Robert of Gloucester) and those who held with the king.

One of those who definitely held with the king was Matilda. Just like her cousin Maud, she also had a son to look out for, little Eustace. So when Stephen at times leaned towards leniency, she’d prod him into action, reminding him it wasn’t only his future that was at stake, it was their future, the future of their children.

That her husband trusted her abilities implicitly was made very clear in 1138, when Matilda was dispatched to handle the rebellions in Kent. Later that same year, she was entrusted with brokering a peace with Scotland—in general, 1138 was a bad, bad year for Stephen, what with rebellions in Kent, the Scots attacking from the north, Robert of Gloucester declaring for Maud, and Geoffrey of Anjou harassing Normandy.

Stephen was an impressive fighter, preferring to lead from the front. This is precisely what he did at the Battle of Lincoln in early 1141, but no matter how well he wielded sword and a battle axe, ultimately his forces were overrun by the much larger armies captained by Robert of Gloucester. King Stephen was taken prisoner, and all, it seemed, was now lost.

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Empress Maud

Matilda succumbed to some moments of desperation. She sent messengers to Maud, pleading that her husband be restored to her, but Maud was no fool and had no intention of releasing Stephen until she’d been properly acclaimed as the ruler of the English. So while Stephen kicked his heels in captivity at Bristol Castle, a triumphant Maud rode for London, there to prepare for her coronation. Like rats on a drowning ship, those who had so far been loyal to Stephen started to defect, including Stephen’s own brother, Henry of Blois.

I have never really liked this Henry (albeit that one must give the man credit for commissioning the Winchester Bible) a self-serving bishop who happily changed sides depending on how it suited him best. In early 1141, he therefore did some major brown-nosing, promising Maud the full support of the church, thereby throwing his own brother overboard.

However, all was not lost. Stephen’s queen was still at large, and after her initial bout of weakness and despair, Matilda regrouped. She was probably helped in this by the fact that Maud had about as much diplomatic skill as an aggressive bull. In a matter of weeks, the haughty and temperamental Empress had alienated not only several members of the nobility, but also the citizens of London. In June of 1141, the Londoners therefore rose on behalf of their king, effectively forcing Maud to flee to Oxford.

At the time, Matilda was in Kent. She may have been a weak female, but she had the heart and guts of a born fighter, and when her husband began to cave in his confinement, agreeing to sign away his crown, Matilda was having none of it. As far as Matilda was concerned, she’d rather be force-fed horse-dung than allow Cousin Maud to plant her backside on the English throne – a sentiment she obviously shared with the Londoners. So Matilda assembled the lieutenants still loyal to her husband and began planning her next steps. Having heard that her husband was held in chains probably served as a major motivator.

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The somewhat devious Henry of Blois

This is when Henry of Blois suddenly regretted throwing his brother to the wolves (or maybe he realised just how determined his his sister-in-law was) and renewed his vows of allegiance to the king, his brother. Being a somewhat flamboyant man, Bishop Henry chose to shout his change of allegiance to the world by besieging the royal castle at Winchester. Maud was predictably not pleased by this. In fact, she was seriously enraged and ordered her troops to teach the bishop a lesson.

Upon sighting Maud’s troops, as always led by the loyal and capable Robert of Gloucester, Henry retreated to the episcopal castle on the other side of Winchester. Maud’s troops settled down for a siege, but Matilda was already marching to the rescue, and soon enough the besiegers became the besieged, trapped inside a town with dwindling resources. There was nothing to do but retreat, Robert told Maud, probably going on to say something along the lines of “better live to fight another day.”

If Robert had hoped they’d be allowed to retreat in an orderly fashion, he’d thought wrong. Someone had clearly underestimated Matilda and her loyal second-in-command William of Ypres. No sooner did Maud’s armies begin to pull out from Winchester in good order, but they were attacked by Matilda’s forces. It became something of a rout, with Maud escaping by the skin of her teeth. Not so Robert of Gloucester, who was taken prisoner and hauled before a delighted Matilda. At last the bargaining chip she needed to free her husband!

It took several months of negotiations to broker the agreement whereby Robert was exchanged for Stephen, but by Christmas of 1141 Stephen was reunited with his loyal wife. This did not end the strife, and over the coming years England lived in a state of constant chaos as men loyal to one side or the other clashed. But in 1147, Robert of Gloucester died, and without her stalwart champion Maud felt obliged to retire to Anjou—for now.

Stephen and Matilda enjoyed some years of relative peace, but in 1152 Matilda was struck down by a fever and died. By all accounts, her husband was devastated, left rudderless—at least for a while—by the loss of his dear wife.

When Stephen’s son, Eustace, died a year or so later, it seems Stephen lost all motivation to continue defending his crown. So when the young, red-haired and extremely energetic and capable Henry FitzEmpress landed in England, determined to fight for the crown that belonged to him, Stephen did not exactly charge out to meet him in battle. Truth be told, the barons of England were so sick and tired of all this strife they more or less refused to fight, telling Henry and Stephen they should get over things and negotiate a final solution to this whole mess.

After months of back and forth Henry and Stephen arrived at an arrangement: Stephen would keep his crown, but upon his death Henry would inherit it, not Stephen’s surviving son or his equally surviving daughter (Somehow, I don’t think the daughter figured all that much in these negotiations seeing as she was a nun and very happy being one, thank you very much. That would soon change, though…Future post, people).

And so, finally, England was at peace again. Stephen could at last relax and savour his kingship—a somewhat sour experience, seeing as he had neither his beloved wife nor his heir with which to savour it. Maybe that’s why he died in 1154, thereby bringing to end one of the more dismal reigns in English history. And maybe, in retrospect, it was a good thing that Matilda died when she did. Somehow, I don’t think this brave lady would have allowed her husband to come to terms with young Henry—not as long as they had a living son. And that, dear peeps, would not have been good for England, no matter how admirable Matilda’s loyalty and determination was.

Isabel of Portugal – or how one portrait inspired +2000 words

This post started with a picture. If we’re going to be quite correct, it didn’t even start with the picture relevant to this post, but with another picture by the same artist. The artist in question is one Rogier van der Weyden, and he’s been dead for so long likely even his bones have turned to mulch by now.

Rogier_van_der_Weyden_-_Portrait_of_a_Lady_-_Google_Art_Project

One of Rogier’s portraits. Unknown sitter. Great features

Anyway: once upon a time, our Rogier was a much sought after painter. He was known not only for his gorgeous triptychs and altarpieces, but also for his portraits. The rich and famous queued up to have their unprepossessing features put on canvas by Rogier, to a large extent because he was a good painter, but also because he was a kind painter. That little wart you so hated on your chin might very well not make it to the canvas. Or that sagging round your jowls which you so hated might not appear quite as sagging once Rogier was done. Photo-shopping before photo-shopping, if you will, and it is my personal opinion Rogier was not alone in doing this.

Well, that is enough about Rogier. Our female protagonist is looking a tad restless, and as she is royalty and Rogier is not, we must behave ourselves and pay her the attention she was born to. So, with that I give you Isabel of Portugal. As can be seen from her portrait, she is not exactly drop dead. I also suspect those lines on her neck are a tad more visible in real life, and as to the thing she has atop her head, well, I can assure you Isabel has little choice in her headgear – a lady of certain means must keep up with fashion, and fashion dictates this odd creation, further complemented by a shaved brow. Takes a LOT of good bone structure to carry off that look, let me tell you!

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Isabel by van der Weyden

What I like about this portrait is how intelligent she looks. This is no bimbo staring at us, no, this is a woman of wit and education. Isabel was fortunate in that she was born an Infanta of Portugal. Her mother was Philippa of Lancaster, daughter of John of Gaunt, and her father was King Joao I of Portugal. Philippa of Lancaster was an exceptionally well-educated woman. Her father was a big believer in learning, and he therefore ensured his daughters received a good and broad education. Nice man, that John of Gaunt. Truth is, if I had to choose a medieval man to carry me off, I’d have chosen him. Or maybe his father-in-law, Henry of Grosmont. Or perhaps Edward I, but such a choice may have very many going “What???”, so let’s drop the subject and return to Isabel.

Isabel’s father, was as per some not fit to be king. After all, Joao was the bastard son of Pedro I (he of the sad, sad love story with Inés de Castro) and as such his claim was weak. “Fiddlesticks,” Joao would probably have said. He was chosen as Portuguese king when his half-brother Fernando died without male issue. One of the main reasons for choosing Joao was that Fernando’s daughter was married to the Castilian king, and no Portuguese worth his salt would even contemplate having a Castilian overlord.

Isabel John_of_Gaunt,_Duke_of_Lancaster_dining_with_the_King_of_Portugal_-_Chronique_d'_Angleterre_(Volume_III)_(late_15th_C),_f.244v_-_BL_Royal_MS_14_E_IV

Joao (centre) negotaiting with John of Gaunt (to the left)

Whatever blots may have existed up Joao’s family tree, these were effectively eradicated when he married Philippa of Lancaster, granddaughter of Edward III, descended from Henry III on both sides. Here was royal blood indeed, and Philippa herself was quite the catch: not only was she well-read, but she would prove to be loyal and politically astute. Mind you, there were concerns regarding her fertility at the time of her marriage. All of twenty-seven, Philippa was old for a first time bride, but her union with Joao would be fruitful, resulting in nine children of which six survived to adulthood.

Only one of these surviving children was female. Isabel was brought up in a court dominated by her virtuous mother and received as thorough an education as her brothers. King Joao had a reputation as one of the best educated men in Europe, and he had every intention of ensuring his children received the best tutors, so Isabel learnt Latin and French, English and Italian. She was taught science and politics, and she was also a proficient rider.

All in all, with all those virtues, all that education, one would have thought Isabel would have been snapped up as a potential bride. Not. Yes, there were plans to see her wed to Henry V, but that fell through (probably a good thing: they were first cousins) and Isabel somehow ended up on the shelf. Or maybe it was her father, wanting to keep her close after his wife died in 1415. At the time, Isabel was 18, and whether or not she was unhappy as a spinster, we don’t know.

Isabel Philip_the_good

Philip (van der Weyden)

In 1428 an embassy from Philip of Burgundy arrived in Portugal. Recently widowed, Philip desired to wed again ASAP. He needed an heir, and for there to be an heir he needed a wife. He also wanted a bride that came with good English connections – Philip wanted to strengthen his alliance with England, probably so as to stop the French king breathing down his neck. Being the Duke of Burgundy came with a patchwork of territories, many of which lie in present-day Belgium and Netherlands. It also came with a tricky balancing act: the Duke of Burgundy owed allegiance to the French king for some territories.

Philip was by all accounts a competent ruler. He was also something of a skirt-chaser, with well over two dozen of documented mistresses. As a result of all that loving, Philip had numerous offspring – but they were all illegitimate. Not good. Without a legitimate heir, chances were the duchy would be absorbed into France, and for a proud Burgundian that was a fate worse than death. Which was why Philip was in such a hurry to marry again, even if the prospective bride was a bit long in the tooth. (At thirty, Isabel was deffo past her best-before-date. At least as per medieval standards) However, Philip was heartened by the fact that Isabel’s mother had also been an old bride, and look how many babies she’d produced!

Philip was a major patron of the arts. Among the artists he supported (other than the as yet up-and-coming Rogier van der Weyden) was a certain Jan van Eyck, the man behind the famous Arnolfini portrait. Van Eyck was sent off to Portugal to paint Isabel – Philip had no desire to be landed with an old and ugly bride. This portrait is now lost, so I can’t present you with a pic, all that survives are sketches of the painting. It is said van Eyck was honest in his depiction of his sitters. Isabel was therefore presented as not particularly pretty, but her pose indicated a forceful personality, someone it might be fun to get to know.

Whatever the case, what Philip saw, Philip liked, and so, in July of 1429 Isabel and Philip were married by proxy. Some weeks after that, Isabel set off for her new homeland, a rather disastrous journey involving several storms. She arrived in Sluys in late December of 1429, and two weeks later, she and Philip were formally married.

Very soon, Isabel discovered she was pregnant. She also discovered her husband had no intention of remaining faithful to her. Philip liked his life the way it was, and as yet he’d developed little fondness for his wife, being very occupied with other matters, such as capturing Joan of Arc and handing her over to the English. Isabel was distraught. She’d grown up with parents who respected and cared for each other, and while it may not have been a surprise that her husband strayed, she detested having his infidelity flung in her face, so to speak. She was also uncomfortable in her new home. The ambulating court of Philip the Good was lavish to the extreme, a far cry from the austere surroundings Isabel was accustomed to. And as to Isabel herself, she stuck out among the elegant Burgundian ladies, preferring to dress plainly.
“Almost like a nun,” the courtiers snickered, expressing that it was no wonder Duke Philip went elsewhere for some nightly fun. After all, what could their flamboyant ruler possibly see in this severe and drab woman?

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Isabel and Philip as they may have looked 1440-45 or so

Not, all in all, a good start to the Philip and Isabel marriage. But at least she did present him with a son in December of 1430, and while the child was sickly this proved Isabel was fertile. Soon enough, she was pregnant yet again, this time after having spent several months in her husband’s company. During that time together, Philip reassessed his wife, finding her both intelligent and resourceful. So impressed was he that he made her his regent when he had to hasten off to some distant part of his domains, a responsibility Isabel discharged efficiently.

In 1432, both Isabel’s sons died. Fortunately, she soon found herself pregnant again, and in 1433 Philip’s longed for healthy heir was finally born. Charles the Bold had seen the light of the day, and his proud mama doted on him.

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Handsome Charles. I bet it was his looks his famously handsome grandson, Philip the Handsome, inherited

The time Isabel could spend with her son was restricted: she was often sent off as Philip’s ambassador to the French court, and in general spent a lot of time counselling her husband who seems to have appreciated her input. Not always, of course, and when father and son fell out several years later, Isabel sided with her son by the simple strategy of retiring from court, officially so as to lead a more devout life. I don’t think that pleased Philip. Even less did he like it when in 1457 his wife set up a parallel court to his, a court at which his critics were openly welcomed.

In 1458, Philip suffered a stroke, supposedly after having played a hard game of tennis. Isabel rushed to his side, and whatever tensions had existed between them dissipated like fog on a summer morning. For the remainder of Philip’s life, Isabel would be there to nurse and support, the epitome of the loyal and devoted wife.

In 1467, Philip died, passing his precious duchy to his son, Charles. Unfortunately for Philip, despite all his efforts to secure male descendants Charles would never sire a legitimate son. Instead, upon Charles’ death his daughter, Mary, would become Duchess of Burgundy. Mary would go on to marry one Maximilian of Hapsburg, thereby laying the foundations of one of the most powerful dynasties to ever have ruled in Europe. But that is another story, even if I suspect Isabel would have been more than delighted to know that one day her great-great-grandson, Charles I (or V) would become king of Castile.

Isabel died in 1471. She’d lived more than forty years in Burgundy, been an active participant in the ruling of her husband’s territories, sorted out conflicts, raised armies, negotiated important royal marriages, kept a close eye on the unfolding wars in England and in general shown the world that a woman could be much, much more than “just” a mother. I somehow think her contemporaries were pretty unsurprised: strong women are not in any way a modern phenomenon. In fact, strong women have been around since the beginning of time. After all, what was it that Maurice Chevalier sang? “Thank heaven for little girls, thank heaven for them all, no matter where, no matter who, without them what would little boys do?” Too right! And it works both ways, BTW!

And so ends this post, inspired by a painting. What better way to end it than with yet another of Rogier’s paintings? IMO, the man was something of a genius, but for very many years his work was considered old-fashioned and boring. Boring? With all that colour, all those details? Pah!

Isabel Van_der_weyden_miniature

van der Weyden depicting Philip (in black) and his son Charles

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