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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.

Violante TumboAKing


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.



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.

Violant Sancho_IV_de_Castilla_02


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.

Violant Flemish_School_-_Lille_-_Margaret_of_Dampierre

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.

Violante LionelDukeOfClarenceAtWestminster


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.


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.

margaret cropped-e070036

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.


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.

MARY 1496_Mary_Tudor


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 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.


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.

clisson BattleofSluys

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 

Mother, queen, widow – meet the lady from Holstein


Mechtild, flanked by Birger and Erik

In one of Sweden’s oldest churches, the pride of place is held by a grave containing three bodies: that of Birger Jarl, the man who more or less hammered Sweden together, that of one of his sons, a.k.a. Erik Good-for-Nothing, and that of his second wife, Mechtild of Holstein. The tomb is decorated with a carved stone slab depicting the buried peeps. Interestingly enough, it is Mechtild’s likeness that takes up most of the space. Why? Because she was of much higher rank than Birger Jarl. She may have been a woman in a man’s world, but her contemporaries had no problem placing her at the top of the status pyramid. After all, Mechtild was a crowned queen, and for all that Birger Jarl was the effective ruler of Sweden for 20 years, he never became its king. (Two of his sons did. Another story.)

leonor medieval-betrothalIf we start at the beginning, Mechtild was born somewhere around 1220 in Holstein, her father being the count of Holstein. In 1237, she married Abel, a prince of Denmark who was also the Duke of Schleswig. Now Abel was not entirely happy being a mere duke. He wanted to be king, but his older brother Erik showed no signs of giving up breath any time soon. Add to this the fact that Erik was determined to expand his power base, reluctant to tolerate a too independent duke within his kingdom and it’s sort of obvious the two brothers didn’t exactly get along.

Anyway: while Abel was unhappy with his brother and more or less constantly fighting with him, his wife did her duty and gave him children, the two eldest being healthy sons. Probably made Abel crow with glee, seeing as Erik’s wife had so far “only” given him surviving daughters, the two sons having died young. In essence, all Abel had to do was wait, because unless Erik had a legitimate son, the Danish crown would pass to Abel upon Erik’s death.

bj3But waiting was hard, especially when Erik subjected Abel’s duchy to repeated raids. On one occasion, Erik’s attack obliged Abel’s little daughter, Sofia, to flee for her life in the dark winter night clad in only her linen shift. Abel gnashed his teeth and promised revenge.

What Mechtild thought of all this we don’t know. But I’m guessing she cheered her husband on when he defended her brother’s patrimony against the grasping Erik and I suppose the fact that Erik wanted to control Holstein himself put him far, far down on Mechtild’s list of “dudes I like”.

In 1250, Erik travelled to Estonia to sort out some issues. On the way home, he decided to pay an intimidating visit to Mechtild’s brother, the young count of Holstein. When he heard of this, Abel offered Erik to stay at his home in Gottorp.

According to the legend, what happened next was that Abel rather cryptically reminded Erik of the instance when little Sofia was forced to run barefoot through the woods to escape his men. Erik supposedly replied that he was rich enough to buy Sofia a new pair of shoes. Abel smirked. Moments later, a large party of noblemen entered the hall and grabbed hold of Erik. To be exact, there were twenty-four men, but whether they were required to hold Erik or whether they were there to hold the king’s men at bay is a bit fuzzy.

Where Mechtild was in all this, we don’t know. Was she watching from a shadowy corner as the king was bound and gagged and dragged out of her home? Did she hurry over to hubby and grab hold of his tunic while whispering “Is this wise?” Did she pump her fist in a “YES!” gesture? Or maybe she was more focused on the fate of her eldest son, at the time twelve or so, who was being held hostage by the archbishop of Cologne.

Erik was dragged onto a boat. When he recognised some of the voices around him, he realised he’d not be seeing the end of the night alive. Somehow, he managed to convey to his abductors that he wanted to be shriven before they did whatever they intended to do to him. “Fair enough,” the rascals said and arranged for a priest to talk to the bound king. Once the priest was done, Erik was rowed out on the Schlei and beheaded, his body and head thrown overboard.

bj elizabeth-skinners-book

A rosy future indeed…

Abel always maintained he had nothing to do with this. Nothing at all. Nope, not him. He and the twenty-four noblemen swore an oath to that effect and Abel could thereby claim the Danish throne. He and Mechtild were crowned in Roskilde in 1250 and for a while there the future looked quite rosy. Except for all the grumblings along the line that the new king was “Abel by name but Cain by deeds”.

A year or so later, Abel was killed while putting down an uprising of rebellious peasants. Everyone saw this as a sign of divine justice. Prior to his funeral, his body was kept at Schleswig cathedral, but the monks woke to horrendous sounds and swore the dead king’s ghost was up and about at night, pacing back and forth like a caged bear in the confines of the cathedral.

This was not good. The monks therefore decided to haul the body over to Gottorp and bury it in unhallowed ground. For good measure, they also staked him to stop him from rising as an undead to plague the region. Didn’t help, as for a long time afterwards people claimed to have seen the dead king astride a white horse riding through the forest with a pack of glowing hounds.

With Abel gone, Mechtild’s situation was precarious, especially as her eldest son was still in Cologne. Abel’s younger brother, Kristoffer, claimed the throne and Mechtild did what many women in a precarious situation did: she entered a convent.

For some years there, Mechtild spend most of her energy defending the birth-right of her sons. Although the Danish crown had been taken from him, her eldest, Valdemar, was confirmed as Duke of Schleswig. He died in 1257 and Kristoffer tried to stop Mechtild’s second son, yet another Erik, from inheriting the duchy. This did not go down well, Kristoffer had to flee his opponents, took shelter with the bishop of Ribe who purportedly poisoned the king. All in all, Denmark during the late 13th century seems to have been an excessively exciting place…

Meanwhile in Sweden, Birger Jarl was consolidating his power over the country. Approximately at the same time as Mechtild wed Abel, he married princess Ingeborg, sister to the Swedish king Erik (I know, I know! Where medieval Spain is chockfull of Alfonsos, medieval Scandinavia just has an endless number of Eriks ) The marriage was fruitful, resulting in eight surviving children, albeit some would die as young adults. The son with whom Birger and Mechtild share a tomb was no more than twenty-five years of age or so, and based on the studies of his bones he suffered from some sort of debilitating disease, hence his nickname “Good-for-nothing”.

In 1254, Ingeborg died. Birger Jarl may have been in no hurry to remarry, but he was not yet fifty and by all accounts a vigorous man, so it is likely he was soon considering potential new wives. As he already had heirs a-plenty, he did not need to marry a fertile woman, but to further shore up his position he needed to marry a woman of some status. Which is why he was not averse to the idea of marrying Mechtild. She, on the other hand, sat in her convent and felt somewhat beleaguered. She needed help to defend her surviving son’s patrimony, and Birger Jarl was powerful enough to help her with that.

medieval lustNot, as we can see, a union based on sweaty palms, lust and thumping hearts, but in 1261 Birger and Mechtild were wed. Mechtild waved bye-bye to the nuns and embraced secular life again. I imagine she had her hands full with managing Birger’s household and his three youngest children, plus, of course, she was expected to lend lustre to state events by being adequately queenly.

Whether this was a happy marriage, I have no idea. I imagine both Birger and Mechtild were old enough to be pragmatic and value the respective benefits each brought to the other. Whatever the case, in 1266 Birger Jarl died and was interred in the abbey church of Varnhem.

20170728_150432Varnhem was a Cistercian abbey, founded by French monks who’d been sent north in the middle of the twelfth century. I’m not sure being chosen for this potentially dangerous expedition into the wilds of Sweden was considered a winning ticket, but spreading the word of God was worth the risk and so our French brethren made the long trip from la Belle France to the Swedish boonies. Their destination was not entirely uncivilised. In fact, Varnhem was built on a site very close to one of the earliest known Christian burial sites in Sweden. Here, people had been worshiping the White Christ since the mid eighth century or so.

When Birger Jarl died, Varnhem was the place to be buried in, several kings already safely interred under the floor. Birger had also been a major benefactor of the abbey which is probably why he was buried in front of the lay altar towards the western end of the church.

With Birger dead, Mechtild decided to leave Sweden. As she was actively disliked in Denmark she moved to Kiel where she would remain for the coming decades or so. In between ferociously defending her sons’ birth right to Shleswig (The three brothers succeeded each other, none of them leaving a male heir) she also worked closely with her brothers to secure Holstein’s independence. As all her sons predeceased her, she claimed Schleswig in her own name and gifted it to her brothers – and so Holstein and Schleswig became Schleswig-Holstein, a part of the world the Danes and the Holsteiners would fight bitterly over for centuries to come. If anything, this made her even more unpopular in Denmark. Not that she cared – she had no inclination to spend time in Denmark.


The carved head supposed to be Birger Jarl

In 1288, Mechtild died in Kiel. Her body was then transported all the way back to Varnhem in Sweden where she was interred beside her second husband and her stepson. And there she lies to this day, despite several attempts to move her and Birger to Stockholm. After all, the man who united Sweden and founded Stockholm shouldn’t be stuck in an obscure grave in an old abbey church… (Birger, obviously, was of another opinion)


The reconstructed face of Birger

Just to verify things, the grave was opened in 2001 or so. The remains were of a woman in her sixties, a man in his fifties and a much, much younger man unrelated to the female but closely related to the older male. A DNA analysis had the experts concluding that the older man was, in fact, Birger Jarl.  And on a closer inspection of his cranium, the bone-experts were delighted to discover Birger did, in fact, have a cleft chin – just like the stone head adorning one of the pillars in the church!

Beyond her tomb, Mechtild has left little trace in history. But once she lived, by all accounts a determined lady who fought for the rights of her sons and her brothers. Not at all a shrinking violet, IMO, more of a lioness defending her own.

Holding hands through eternity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Catherine Beauchamp_Elsing


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The peace bride

In 1328, the very young Princess Joan of the Tower, Edward II’s and Isabella’s youngest daughter, was wed to the even younger Prince David of Scotland. Two small children, speaking vows they’d rehearsed but probably didn’t understand. Not exactly unusual in medieval times, but even by those standards Joan and David were very young. Once the ceremony was concluded, little Joan was carried off to Scotland to be raised by her in-laws.

Joan c5492bddf7315ba168da4dcac237a5c6The wedding between the two children sealed the treaty between England, as represented by Queen Isabella and Roger Mortimer, and Scotland, represented by an aging Robert Bruce. It was the culmination of negotiations that began already back in 1326, when Mortimer and Isabella reached out to the Scottish king to ensure he and his men stayed well away from England while Isabella and Mortimer invaded to depose Edward II. Mortimer preferred fighting one enemy at the time, and having to deal with both Edward II’s troops and the Scots would have been too much.

In the event, Edward II never mustered his troops. He fled west, mostly because his dearest friend and councillor, Hugh Despenser, begged him to. The ordered troops under Mortimer’s command (nominally they were under Isabella’s command) found little resistance, and come November, Edward II was a prisoner and Despenser was dead.

So why did the Scots not take advantage of all this upheaval and raid the north? Isabella and Mortimer dangled the promise of a permanent treaty, formally recognising Robert Bruce as king. This would go a long way to stabilise things in the north, and Robert wanted nothing so much as to be able to hand over a peaceful kingdom to his son. So Robert held back and waited for the promised treaty to be delivered. Except it wasn’t. Isabella and Mortimer had other, more immediate concerns, such as pushing through Edward II’s abdication and crowning young Edward III instead.

Midway through 1327, the peace negotiations between England and Scotland broke down. To force the issue, Robert Bruce sent men into the north of England to do some harrying. These men were led by Sir James Douglas and Thomas Randolph, and for a number of weeks they left a trail of destruction in their wake. Unacceptable, according to the very young but bellicose Edward III, and so the English army rode out to defeat these wily Scots and were utterly humiliated by James Douglas at the Battle of Stanhope Park.

Robert Bruce’s tactics worked. The negotiations were resumed, despite the young English king’s insistence that there should be no truce with the Scots. And, once an agreement had been reached, the Treaty of Northampton was sealed by the wedding of Joan and David in Berwick. Edward III did not attend.

In England, this resulted in Joan acquiring a new epithet: Makepeace. She was too young to care, I suspect, but her big brother didn’t like it at all that his baby sister was to be sent off to be raised among the wild Scots. Especially as he didn’t want peace with the Scots. He wanted revenge for Bannockburn and was as eager to hammer the Scots into obedience as his grandfather, Edward I. But for now, Edward III had to bide his time. In his kingdom, his dear mama and her constant companion called the shots. For now.

At the time of her wedding, Joan was all of seven. David was just four, and I can imagine just how disdainful she’d have been of her little groom. “He’s just a baby,” she might have whispered. Did she fully understand that once she and David were joined in matrimony she would be separated from the family and people she knew and loved to be raised in Scotland? Probably not—at least not until the moment came to say her goodbyes. I think it was a sad little girl who rode north.

Robert Bruce did not live for long after acquiring his precious treaty. In 1329 he died, and a boy of five became the new king. A year or so later, David and Joan were crowned, thereby making Joan the first Scottish queen to be crowned. However, not all Scots considered David to be their rightful king. After all, Robert Bruce won the crown by conquest, and one of the other claimants, Edward Balliol, was still around. So the moment Bruce was dead, Scottish unity fell apart—especially as such notables as Thomas Randolph, Guardian of the Realm, and Duncan of Mar died soon after.

Joan 220px-Filip6_David2_Joan_of_the_Tower

Joan and David w Philippe

In fact, by 1332 the Balliol side had the upper hand—and the support of Edward III. After a devastating defeat at Halidon Hill, Balliol claimed the crown. Little David and his wife were sent to France for safety. From one day to another they went from king and queen to destitute supplicants. Fortunately for them, King Philippe VI of France was more than happy to welcome them, if nothing else to spite Edward III.

We know little of the David-Joan match. It does not appear to have been a passionate affair, in fact some go as far as describing it as loveless. This does not necessarily indicate active dislike, and seeing as they were to spend so many years together, I hope they were at least friends of sorts.

In France, Philippe offered them Chateau Gaillard as a residence. A somewhat big and sprawling place for a ten-year-old boy and his somewhat older wife, but it’s not as a medieval king travelled all on his lonesome.

Joan would spend close to eight years in France. Formative years, years in which she grew from girl to woman. To some extent difficult years, Joan probably being one of the few people in her present surroundings who had any sort of fond feelings for Edward III—especially after the young English King proclaimed his intention to seize the French crown in 1337, thereby initiating The Hundred Years’ War.

Things did not go so well for Edward in the initial stages of his war with France. Also, our gallant and ferocious English lion was strapped for cash, so when he decided to attack France he could no longer afford to offer Balliol support. Those Scots who wanted David back did not hesitate to act and by 1341 David and Joan were back in Scotland.

By now, Joan was pushing twenty. So far, there had been no child. Whether this was due to not trying or not conceiving I have no idea, but I hold it unlikely that David and Joan wouldn’t have consummated their marriage—after all, the purpose of their union was to produce a healthy heir or two.

Anyway, once back in Scotland, David stepped out from under the shadow of his seniors and began to rule in his own name. In 1346 he rode with his armies into England, this to offer help to the French who were presently battling the English in Normandy. Unfortunately for David, there were enough men left in England to offer a spirited defence, and at the battle of Neville’s Cross, the Scots were defeated and David was taken prisoner.


Joan. Odd hairstyle…

Initially, Joan seems to have remained in Scotland. In fact, she may have found herself in the uncomfortable position of being something of a hostage, a not-so-subtle reminder to the English king that he might have the Scots king, but they had his sister. We know from safe-conducts issued that Joan was invited to visit her husband. Edward even allowed conjugal visits, but whether Joan utilised them is unknown. She did, however, travel to England. One assumes that she must at least have popped by to say hello to her husband, but she also spent considerable time rebuilding her relationship with her mother.

David’s captivity was relatively comfortable. So comfortable that he had opportunity to meet and woo a new love interest, a certain Katherine Mortimer. Who this lady was is still something o a mystery. Given her name one could guess she was related to Roger Mortimer, but if so it must be very, very distantly. What we do know is that David professed he loved her more than he had ever loved a woman—including his wife.

Joan David_II,_King_of_Scotland_and_Edward_III,_King_of_England_(British_Library_MS_Cotton_Nero_D_VI,_folio_66v)

David (left) and Edward being friendly

Joan may not have been passionately in love with her husband (casual affection seems more probable), but that doesn’t mean she was all that thrilled at discovering he’d found a mistress. Maybe this was the straw that broke the camel’s neck, because when Edward decided to release David in 1357—in return for a huge ransom to be paid in annual instalments—and allow him to return home (with Katherine in tow), Joan apparently chose to stay in England.

While they did not part on the best of terms, Joan and David remained in contact. As Queen of Scotland, Joan could intercede on behalf of her husband and she did so with quite some success a few years later, thereby negotiating an extension on the annual payments of David’s ransom.

Joan Makepeace died in 1362, just 41 years old. She’d been married for 34 years and a crowned queen since the age of eight, but neither crown nor marriage had brought her happiness. Instead, she’d had a life marked by the constant conflicts both within her husband’s kingdom and between Scotland and England.

David was to outlive his wife by close to ten years. Not so his Katherine who was brutally knifed to death in 1360—the Scottish nobles did not like this foreign lady and her influence over their king. David soon found comfort elsewhere and not long after Joan’s death he married his current mistress, Margaret Drummond. He would never sire a child, and when he died in 1371 the crown passed to his nephew Robert Stewart, the first in a very long line of Stewart/Stuart kings.

John of Gaunt’s Castilian matter

JohnofgauntSometimes I find myself considering the impact of John of Gaunt on medieval Europe—as one does, right? I’m going to come clean right at the start and say I rather admire this gent, whom I perceive as educated, intelligent, brave, loyal and very ambitious. Extremely ambitious, even. But not so ambitious as to want to replace his young nephew, Richard II on the throne of England (although I suspect he must have toyed with the idea, at least occasionally). No, John set his sight on another throne—that of Castile.

Obviously, John had no personal claim on the Castilian throne. But his second wife, Constanza, most definitely did. Constanza was the daughter of Pedro I of Castile, the not-so-nice man who locked up his French wife, murdered various relatives and who in1369 ended up murdered himself by his half-brother Enrique Trastámara, bastard son to Pedro´s father, Alfonso XI.

Enrique claimed the Castilian throne by conquest, and for some years Constanza, at the time of her father’s death all of fifteen, was kept under lock and key. But in 1371 Enrique felt safe enough on his throne to let her go—as long as she left Castile. Besides, from Enrique’s perspective Constanza was no major threat—she was as much as a bastard as he was. Erm…There was a difference: Pedro had formally legitimised his children by Maria de Padilla his long-term mistress. Alfonso XI had never legitimised Enrique and his siblings. After all, why should he? Alfonso already had a legitimate heir in Pedro.

Anyway: At the time, John of Gaunt had just lost his first wife. The English had actively supported Pedro in the civil war that had devastated Castile—the Black Prince himself had led the combined Anglo-Castilian troops to victory at Nájera—and it was as clear as the day was bright to the English that Enrique was a usurper. The rightful heir to Pedro’s throne was Constanza, his eldest surviving daughter. Which was why John of Gaunt was all for marrying the Castilian infanta, with Edward III’s blessing.

John and Constanza were wed in 1371. In 1372, Edward III proclaimed them to be the rightful King and Queen of Castile. Obviously, Enrique was none too thrilled. His kingdom was anything but pacified, supporters of Pedro’s daughter crawling out of the woodwork at regular intervals. John, however, was delighted with his new title. As to his new wife, one gets the feeling there was not much more than cordial affection between John and Constanza, but John did his duty in bed and in 1373 Constanza was delivered of a little girl, Catalina (or Catherine).

A year later a little son was born, but he died while still a baby. There would be no more children. John’s carnal desires leaned towards Katherine Swynford rather than his Castilian wife. With Constanza, he shared ambition rather than passion, as determined as his wife to somehow reclaim her rightful throne.

At the time, England was in the midst of the Hundred Years’ War against France. The French had supported Enrique of Trastámara which per definition meant the English supported whoever was against Enrique. By 1379 Enrique was dead and the throne passed to his son, Juan I. This did not please either John or Constanza.

Catalina 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

John and Joao planning their attack on Juan

When Juan tried to claim the Portuguese throne through the rights of his wife, he alienated this neighbouring realm and its new king, Joao I. Our Portuguese monarch was well aware of Castile’s superior strength which was why in 1386 Portugal entered into an alliance with England, further reinforced by the marriage of John of Gaunt’s eldest daughter, Philippa, to Joao. (As an aside: John, Joao and Juan – same name, different languages…) The plan was for Portugal and England to join forces and oust Juan and in 1386 John, Constanza and Catalina therefore travelled to La Coruña in Galicia, from there to triumphantly ride south and crush Juan with the help of Joao.

Things didn’t quite work out like that. Juan was not about to give up without a fight, and it soon became apparent that the sides were well-matched, i.e. this could become a very long war. So when Juan proposed a peaceful solution, all the involved parties were inclined to listen.

Catalina Juan

Juan I

Juan suggested that John of Gaunt and his wife renounce their claims to the Castilian throne. In return, Juan would agree to a marriage between Catalina and his own son and offer financial compensation to Constanza. Such a marriage came with many benefits, principally that of joining the legitimate descendants of Alfonso XI with the illegitimate branch. Plus, from John’s perspective, it meant his grandson would one day be a ruling king.

Said and done: in 1388, Catalina wed Prince Enrique, a sickly child six years her junior known to history as Enrique el Doliente, or Enrique the Sufferer, this due to his frailty. John of Gaunt and his wife sailed off back home, and Catalina was left behind to adequately prepare for her future role as queen of Castile.

In the event, she didn’t get that much time to prepare as her father-in-law died in 1390. An eleven-year-old boy was now king of Castile, and his seventeen-year-old wife was of little support, seeing as Catalina had not been educated to become a ruler—she’d been raised to become a good consort and had apparently not inherited any of her parents’ ambitious genes. Catalina was uninterested in power and wanted only to be a good wife.

Catalina 800px-Enrique_III_de_Castilla_(Ayuntamiento_de_León)


Despite his physical frailty, Enrique was made of quite some stern stuff. In 1393 he assumed personal control of his reign, and then he spent the following years fortifying his hold on Castile. He reformed the administration, reduced the influence of the nobility, supported the expansion of Castile overseas by funding the conquest of the Canary Islands and built a strong naval presence—strong enough to defeat the English. He also embarked on a campaign to conquer the kingdom of Granada, the last remaining Moorish kingdom, and in general seems to have been a very competent king.

Where Enrique dedicated himself to policy, Catalina was of a pious nature, expending her time and efforts on founding religious houses. Catalina accompanied her hubby as much as she could, but it took some time before Catalina gave birth to their first child, maybe because of Enrique’s health. However, by 1406 there were three children—two daughters and a baby prince. Unfortunately, in 1406 Enrique died on Christmas Day. Castile had a new king, the one-year-old Juan II.

Catalina 3c793c9660b804c0d502c828a5093164--king-henry-lancaster


Enrique had named Catalina and his brother, Fernando, as co-regents. Catalina was obliged to step out of her comfort zone and assume a more active role to protect her son’s interests. Problem was, she and her brother-in-law rarely saw eye-to-eye on things which was why they eventually agreed to split Castile into two regions, one governed by her, the other by him. It was Fernando who wielded most of the power but it was also Fernando who ensured Catalina was allowed to keep her little son with her rather than turn him over to the men Enrique had appointed as his guardians. Still, their relationship was fraught and I suspect Catalina felt quite some relief when Fernando was elected king of Aragon, thereby diverting his attention from the governance of Castile.


Catalina as depicted by a contemporary artist

There is a surviving description of Catalina, in which she is said to be tall and fat, of an extremely fair complexion and with a tendency to blush. She was blonde, walked like a man rather than like a lady, and she’d inherited the strong features of her Plantagenet forebears. She was also more prone to negotiations than to warfare, and when her brother-in-law died in 1416, Catalina made it her mission in life to shore up the boundaries of her son’s kingdom by various treaties.

Due to her family ties with England she encouraged trade between the countries, which benefited both nations. She also advocated new legislation that forced the Mudéjares (Muslims living Castile) and Jews to wear some sort of emblem and obliged them to stay in their home towns, forbidden to travel or to work with good Christians. This was not well-received everywhere, and some Castilian cities just refused to implement these laws. Still, the writing was on the wall, and some generations further down the line Catalina’s granddaughter, Queen Isabel, would throw all non-Christians out of Castile. After all, Isabel and her hubby were not for nothing nick-named their Most Catholic Majesties…

All of Catalina’s three children married first cousins, children of their uncle Fernando. This would over time become something of a tradition within the Trastámara family, with Queen Isabel marrying her first cousin Fernando II of Aragón. An unfortunate tradition that was embraced by the Hapsburgs as well and which would, in the fullness of time, result in a degenerated royal gene pool.

Catalina 800px-Sepulcro_de_Catalina_de_Lancáster

Catalina’s tomb. (Photo by borjaanimal, Creative Commons)

In 1418, Catalina died and was buried in Toledo, close to her husband. Her young son, Juan II, was thirteen at the time. One year later, he began his personal rule.

In 1501, Catalina’s great-granddaughter would return to the land of her great-great-grandfather as the bride of the Tudor prince, Arthur. Ironically, this prince was also descended from John of Gaunt via the legitimised bastards he sired with Katherine Swynford. In fact, John of Gaunt’s blood was all over the place: In the Yorkist kings, in the Lancastrian kings and even in the Tudor kings. In retrospect one could therefore say John of Gaunt was more than successful in his dynastic ambitions. Somehow, I suspect he wouldn’t have been entirely thrilled by the intervening years of civil war and bloodshed. Just as he’d have been horrified at the thought of his own son dethroning an anointed king and murdering him…

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