ANNA BELFRAGE

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

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

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

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

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

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Isabel by van der Weyden

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Philip (van der Weyden)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the name of love – not always a happy tale

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A pomegranate tree – a symbol of love

God, it is said, created Adam before Eve, and to keep Adam adequately occupied he was given the task of naming all the fantastic forms of life God paraded before him.
“Centipede,” Adam said, having regarded this multifooted creature for a while.
“Zebra,” he nodded (with an extended eeee sound) but was struck mute by the stately grandeur of the hairy pachyderm that looked down its very long, elongated nose at him.
“Mammoth,” Adam decided after a while.

Day after day, he sat there naming these creatures, and it struck him somewhere round day 178 that they all came in pairs. Two elephants, two lions, two penguins, two stoats but only one Adam. Which was why God brought forth Eve, and Adam took but one look and fell helplessly in love. Alternatively one could argue that if Adam wanted to procreate, there wasn’t much to choose from – same goes for Eve.
“You could try, you know,” Eve said one evening, looking Adam up and down.
“Eh?” Adam wiped his mouth with the back of his forearm.
“A girl likes being courted,” Eve pouted. “You know, flowers, jewelry  the odd little daytrip …” Eve sighed and threw a look at the rolling green meadows of Eden, picture perfect and oh, so boring.
“Why bother?” Adam yawned. “It’s only you and me, right?”
“I could find someone else,” Eve threatened.
“Yeah, sure,” Adam laughed, “like how about setting up house with the ant-eater next door? Or hey, chat up Mr Tiger and see how far that gets you.” Adam was very amused. Eve was not, and when dusk settled like a purple velvet curtain Eve refused to snuggle up close to Adam, staring at Venus instead while humming “Love hurts“.
“Pssst! Gorgeoussssssss,” someone hissed.
Eve almost fell off her little log. “Who’s that?” she hissed back, straightening her spine somewhat.
“It’sssss me,” this hissing presence said. “You’re one ssssexy lady, ssssssweetheart.”
“You think?” Eve preened and sidled closer to the voice that seemed to be coming from a nearby tree.
Well, the rest is history as they say, with a very aggravated Adam being thrown out of paradise on account of his woman. (Or wife? Were Adam and Eve married?) I imagine there were many, many nights when Adam berated his wife for being an idiot, in response to which Eve cried that it was his fault – for not showing her he loved her.
“Love you?” Adam snorted. “What sort of romantic drivel is that?”.

If we stay with the Old Testament for a while longer, there’s the sad lovestory of Samson and Delilah. Samson was a somewhat complex character, bound by his parent’s oath as a nazarite, one of God’s chosen. God has plans for Samson, having given the young man impressive strength with which to smite the Philistines – as long as he didn’t cut his hair (Haircuts and alcoholic beverages are a major no-no for the nazarites amongst us). Anyway, Samson became a major burr on the Philistines’ nether parts, and after several failed attempts at catching him, the Philistines resorted to a ruse. Samson loved a young woman called Delilah (as deceitful then as she was when Tom Jones sang about her) and one night he finally told her it was all in his hair, whereupon she proceeded to shave his head while he slept. This was probably unrequited love from Samson’s side – Delilah seemed quite unperturbed when her man was led away and blinded. One could say that in this case, what Samson did in the name of love was sheer stupidity.

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Kick-ass Judith (L Cranach)

Yet another woman in the Old testament, Judith, took a leaf out of Delilah’s book, seducing the Assyrian general Holofernes before chopping his head off while he slept. Okay, so she had valid reasons to do so – the Assyrians threatened to destroy her home – but yet again love was used as cunning deceit.  (One strong woman, dear old Judith; decapitating someone requires a lot of muscle) One could of course argue that this had nothing to do with love. this was lust, plain and simple, the fire raging in Holofernes’ loins when in Judith’s presence befuddling his mind to the point that he lost his head.

Helene_Paris_DavidWe fast forward a number of centuries and there we are, with Paris and Helen. The lady with the face that launched a thousand ships fell heads over heels for the Trojan prince and decided to run off with her lover thereby shaming her husband and handing the Greeks the pretext they needed to once and for all destroy Troy. Which they did with surprising efficiency, eradicating the city so completely its actual location was lost. (Until a polyglot German business man by the name of Heinrich Schliemann rediscovered it in the nineteenth century. Not a man much swayed by love, Heinrich took a pragmatic approach regarding such matters and advertised for a wife when he needed one. Different story …) Yet another lovestory that ended without a Happily Ever After. Paris died, Helen was dragged back home by hubby Menelaos, and Paris’ entire family was exterminated.

Around the times of Christ we have gorgeous Cleopatra, the lady who gave milk-baths a name, so to say. In keeping with tradition, Cleopatra was married to her younger brothers (in plural, as one died and the next one stepped into his place) But she loved elsewhere, starting with Julius Caesar. When they met, Cleopatra was young and nubile, Caesar was battle-hardened and… yup, old. But clearly vigorous enough to inspire tender feelings in his Egyptian mistress – or was that just Cleopatra pretending to keep herself and her country safe? Later on, after Caesar’s death, Cleopatra was to transfer her affections to Mark Anthony, and for a while it seemed these passionate lovers would succeed in building their own little empire. Enter capable, cool-headed Octavianus and “poof”, that little dream bubble was skewered. Mark Anthony committed suicide after suffering defeat at Octavianus’ hands, and some while later Cleopatra followed suit, as per tradition by being bitten by an asp.

Through the ages, loves and infatuations have often changed the course of history – or at least had severe impact on it. Edward II had a thing about his male favourites that undermined his standing and led to him being ousted (it may all have been platonic, we don’t know), Henry VIII’s infatuation with Anne Boleyn lead to a new English Church, Edward VII fell so in love with Wallis Simpson he abdicated (it’s a tad unclear if this is what Wallis wanted. Whatever the case, how can you say no to a man who has resigned a crown for your sake?). And then we have all those cases where women (okay, okay; a smattering of men as well) have risked everything – even their lives – for love.

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Armfeldt

One such person is Madeleine Rudenschiöld, a Swedish lady who in the late eighteenth century fell head over heels in over with the handsome royal favourite, Gustaf Mauritz Armfelt. An eyeful  was Gustaf – to our modern eyes somewhat lacking in toned muscle, but all the same pleasing to look at with an absolutely magnificent head of hair.  This decorated officer and cosmopolitan Don Juan was one of the king’s confidantes and was responsible for the lavish and complicated entertainments offered at court. Pretty Madeleine was young and innocent, and taken aback by being the object of Armfeldt’s intense courtship.

A determined man, Armfeldt won Madeleine’s heart in 1785 – coincidentally the same year he married another woman – and was soon a regular visitor to Madeleine’s bed. Being a man of voracious appetites when it came to women, Armfeldt had a number of other mistresses as well, but from his correspondence and the length of their relationship, Madeleine does seem to have held a special place in his heart – as did his capable if somewhat frumpty wife (whom he rather sweetly refers to as “my pumpkin”). So far, this is nothing but a little love affair, but when Gustav III was murdered in 1792, Armfeldt’s comfortable existence at court came to an end.

Armfeldt was ousted from power, did not like it and conspired to achieve the downfall of his enemies and his reinstatement at court. Dear Madeleine helped, delivering his messages to the other men involved in the conspiracy. One day she was intercepted, the conspiracy was revealed and while Armfeldt was safe down in Italy, poor Madeleine was not, having to suffer the ultimate shame of pillory and prison for having helped her lover. She was pardoned some years later and sort of drops out of history. She seems to have spent her latter years as an unpaid housekeeper for her brother. Oh, the wages of true love!

People do stupid things for love. Some drink poison to die beside their lover, some sell everything they own to help their loved one pursue a dream. It’s easy to laugh at these gullible fools – even if most of us will twist our lips in wry recognition as we hear a husky voice sing the poignant words in one of my favourite songs, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes

They asked me how I knew, my true love was true,
I of course replied, something here inside cannot be denied.
They said someday you’ll find all who love are blind.
When your heart’s on fire, you must realise, smoke gets in your eyes.”

They say it is better to have loved and lost than to never have loved at all. I agree – heck, I think Cleopatra and Madeleine, Anne Boleyn and even Eve all agree as well. It is what we do in the name of love that defines us as humans, weak and fragile at times, but so resilient and brave at others. And no matter where we are in the world, to what culture we belong or what faith we call our own, there’s no denying that the greatest thrill of all is to hear someone say “I love you” . No, wait; the greatest thrill of all is to SAY “I love you” and see that special someone light up like a beacon.

Here’s to love, people. Here’s to the bubbly fizzy feeling that has you dancing on the spot, here’s to the mellow contentment of belonging together. To love – or as dear old Julius would have cooed to pretty Cleopatra, Amor Vincit Omnia. Except, of course, it doesn’t, as evidenced by Holofernes and Samson, Helena and Cleopatra. And yet…Oh,yes: and yet.

En garde – with pens aloft!

IMG_0057I guess no one has missed out on the fact that it is March. Catkins, snowdrops and crocuses, the odd shy daffodil and afternoons that grow increasingly lighter herald the advent of spring. March is also the month many of us dedicate to highlighting women – whether it be historical people or present-day heroines.

Some weeks ago, Helen Hollick, Alison Morton and I were chatting about this and that (well, we were actually discussing what our fictional heroines would do if our equally fictional heroes were unfaithful. Became quite heated…) from which we segued into a discussion that resulted in Helen writing the post below. Seeing as we’re relatively creative (What can I say? Most writers are) we decided to publish Helen’s post simultaneously on our three blogs AND couple it with a giveaway – in honour of our fictional ladies! Which is why I hereby take a step back and ask you to welcome Helen – preferably with a round of applause 🙂

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Author Anna Belfrage, during a recent conversation mentioned a thought about the real heroines behind the fictional heroines. I wondered if heroes should also be included, but March is Women’s History month, so let’s stick to the ladies here. (We can spotlight the men another time to balance the books.)

In this instance, Anna was referring to the writer as the heroine – the author, the person tapping away at a keyboard or scribbling with a pen on paper (remember those?)

writer ec13c36cd139a922b728e78c2dd84892The fictional heroine usually goes through hell and back in a story, or at least some sort of trauma or disaster or romantic upheaval, or complication or… well, you get the picture. But what about the writer who is creating that character, that scene, that story? Is it a case of sitting down at a desk from 9-5 Monday to Friday, tapping out a few thousand words a day, Other Half supplying a cup of tea/coffee/wine/gin on the hour every hour? Those several thousand words flowing freely, the plot flashing along, scene after scene with no wavering? Novel finished, a dutiful re-write, check for the occasional missed blooper, then off to the editor for a quick once-over?

Oh I wish!

The only bit of the above that is mildly true for me personally is the tea/coffee appearing a couple of times a day in between countless re-runs of Westerns on the TV which my husband watches with avid fascination, apparently completely unaware that he watched the same John Wayne/Jimmy Stewart et al movie the day before. And the day before that.

Meanwhile, I struggle during the dark, miserable days of winter. Even the effort to get out of bed some dank, dark, damp mornings is hard work for those of us who suffer from S.A.D. (Seasonal Affected Disorder – basically a desire to hibernate during winter.) To be creative, to find the words to write when I can’t even remember the cat’s name (I am not joking!) is hard work.

Then there is the research, particularly for historical fiction writers who need to know the facts of a period or event before they can even start writing chapter one. All genres need a certain amount of research, even fantasy and science fiction – possibly even more so, because to make the unbelievable believable the facts have to be correct, otherwise all the believability goes out the window.

For writers, meeting our new characters – male or female – is not always a walk in the park, although for me, I did meet my pirate hero, Jesamiah Acorne, on a drizzly-day Dorset beach. Long story cut short: I was walking on the beach thinking up ideas for Sea Witch. Looked up and saw a vision of Jesamiah. Might have been my imagination, might have been a spirit from the past – no matter, I saw him. In full pirate regalia. And immediately fell in love.

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Alison Morton

Alison says hers have been swishing around in her head for decades ever since she trod on a Roman mosaic floor at age eleven!

As for Anna, she blames it all on her husband. It was all because of his family history, which involved fleeing Scotland in 1624 due to religious persecution. She started reading up on the 17th century and fell in love. One day, Matthew Graham stepped out of her murky imagination and demanded she tell his story, which she has done, over several books.

Our characters get under our skin, into our hearts, minds, lives and very being. When it is time to finish the book, or a series – oh, the heartache of saying goodbye and letting them go! To create believable characters, to bring them alive, to make them look, feel, behave, sound real, to do real (even if they are impossibly over-the-top real) things takes dedication, skill, determination and courage.

Yes. Courage.

Writing can be a hard taskmaster. We slog away in our studies, corner of a room, spare-bedroom or wherever trying to get a paragraph – a sentence – right. We edit, re-edit and edit again and again. We spend hours writing a scene, then delete it because it isn’t good enough. I have deleted entire chapters. We wake up with our characters, walk, live, play, think of, go to bed with them (no not that sort of ‘go to bed’!) They are there with us 24/7 because if these fictional people are real to us, then they will become as real to our readers. In theory.

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Helen Hollick

I am not being sexist here, but I do think women writers have a tougher time of it than do the men. Admitted I am talking in general here, but many women writers already have a full-time 24/7 job of bringing up children and organising the family, at least this was so thirty years ago when I gave up the ‘hobby’ of scribbling my ideas and got on with attempting to do it properly with the end goal of being published in mind. Usually (OK not always) it is the woman who gets the kids off to school, does the housework, the shopping, the laundry, goes to her own job, collects the kids from school, cooks the dinner, gets the kids to bed… We grab coffee breaks or the bliss of a quiet hour in the evening to get that next paragraph written. I’m not saying that the blokes in between work and chores also have to snatch those golden moments where they can sit and write, but I’d wager that many an established male writer wanders off to his study in the morning, saunters out at lunchtime, strolls back to his desk to emerge around six-ish to watch TV. Lunch, dinner, clean shirts and tidy house happening via the Magic House Fairy.

At least, now, women writers can create our stories under our own name. How many of our great female writers from the past had to invent a male pseudonym to be heard and published? I think the term ‘heroine’ definitely applies to these brave and determined ladies of the past.

So why do we do it? Why do we spend hours doing this darn silly job of writing fiction? It’s not for the money that’s for sure. Very few writers outside the top listers make enough to equal a suitable annual wage. So why?

Ever heard the answer to a question put to Sir Edmund Hilary when he had successfully climbed Everest in 1953? “Why did you want to climb it?”
His answer? “Because it’s there.”

Well, for us, for fiction authors, we write the words because they are not there…

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democracy-1280px-eugene_delacroix_-_la_liberte_guidant_le_peupleThank you, Helen! For some reason, the above has me thinking of this picture… (I know, a bit over the top)

As promised above, this post comes with a giveaway. I will be giving away one copy of whatever book the winner chooses, whether it be from my time-slip series The Graham Saga or from The King’s Greatest Enemy, my series set in the midst of the medieval mayhem that characterised the 1320s in England. All you have to do is leave a comment below, telling us who your favourite historical woman is 🙂 The winner will be presented on Saturday this week, so you have until Friday to enter.

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And, don’t forget: Helen Hollick and Alison Morton are also doing giveaways, so pop over to their blogs to join in!

BoxA6-final_smFind Alison’s books here! And for those already familiar with Alison’s writing, keep an eye out for the next book in her Roma Nova series. Retalio will be out end of April. For those as yet unfamiliar with this excellent alt hist series featuring a modern day remnant of the Roman Empire, Roma Nova, and its people, what on earth are you waiting for?

 

 

 

All-Books-2017-768x595Find Helen’s books here! And no, Helen doesn’t only write about fictional pirates (although Jesamiah Acorne is intriguing enough to inspire like twenty books, IMO). Other than her historical fiction, she also writes non-fiction, and has recently released Pirates: truth and tales – an excellent intro to those real-life villains who made the high seas so unsafe during the early 18th century.

 

Eternity is a long, long time – but we only have now

Spending time with second son is always something of an intellectual stretch, often ending with hubby and I staring at each other and wondering where on earth second son came from. Okay, okay: we know where he came from. We even have a pretty good idea just when he was conceived, but there was no sudden burst of stars at that critical moment, nor did his birth have us breaking out in song. It’s sort of difficult to sing and push at the same time, and hubby is tone-deaf and has too much self-preservation to risk humming as I was labouring. Whatever the case, second son is something of an enigma to us – he thinks so out of the box the rest of his family have a hard time keeping up.

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Lucas Cranach, The Tree of Knowledge

Second son is also one of those people who are constantly expanding their knowledge. For a light summer read, second son chooses “The Wealth of Nations” followed by an treatise on Chinese history. He is just as happy discussing details in Roman history as he is explaining the inexplicable world of genetic algorhythms to his mother, and as he not only reads a lot, but also seems to listen to hours and hours of obscure podcasts, he can bring up the most amazing topics over tea and cake. Like immortality.

In this case, it all started with a discussion about Elon Musk and his somewhat dark view of what the advent of advanced artificial intelligence (AI) may mean for us humans. As per Musk, AI & digitalisation will lead to a huge reduction in “simple” jobs such as driving cars, lorries, buses, trains, working on production lines & whatnot, and as a consequence a lot of people will lose their income. This is a view Musk shares with many, which is why there is an increasing discussion about the need of implementing some sort of citizen’s wage. I can just imagine how difficult it will be to get such a system in place. Plus, I’m not so sure human beings benefit from passivity.

Anyway, in the midst of this debate, we ended up discussing somewhat more theoretical concepts such as artificial intelligence taking over, the challenges of living in a world where more and more people would likely make it to a hundred. This is when second son stole the last piece of cake and casually said that soon enough, eternal life would be a possibility.
“Round the corner,” he said. “It’s just a matter of locking down the way our cells replace themselves.” Fortunately, it’s not exactly round the corner. There’s a huge gap between understanding that if we can only find a way to stimulate old and tired cells to continue replacing themselves we can live for ever to actually doing it. Phew.

I’m not sure eternal life is something to aspire to. Isn’t life as precious as it is precisely because it is finite? And can you imagine the tensions it would cause in society when all these ancient peeps insisted on remaining alive, thereby shortchanging future generations? Plus any “eternity treatment” would probably be very expensive, which means it would be a person’s wealth rather than their moral attributes that would decide whether they would live forever, yes or no. In the world we presently inhabit there are quite a few very rich people with exceedingly low morals who, I believe, would be more than thrilled at extending their lifespan to the detriment of humanity in general. Not exactly a scenario I find particularly palatable.

Second son shrugged. “The technology will be there at some point. Just as we already have the technology to tamper with the DNA of unborn babies.” Yeah, we do. And it is a great thing if such technologies can be used to eradicate genetic diseases. It is not quite as good a thing if those technologies are used to “enhance” those future babies so that they all develop into tall, athletic, handsome blue-eyed and blond people. Or brown-eyed and dark haired. Second son nodded in agreement before stating that nature had a tendency to balance things out.

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Photo Rsika (Creative Commons)

“Think of the banana,” he said, and I must admit my response to that was “Eh?”
“The banana,” he repeated patiently. “It used to be all bananas more or less were of a type known as the Gros Michel, but back in the 1950s, a fungus disease wiped out all Gros Michel bananas. A major catastrophe for the banana world, the result of all those bananas sharing the same DNA. If we start tampering with human embryos so as to make them fit one mould, chances are their DNA will also be very similar, which in turn would make the population very susceptible to certain types of epidemics.”
“Ah.”
“What we need to do is understand – or at least attempt to comprehend – just how radical the possibilities offered by new technologies will be – and start thinking about legislation to ensure all this new stuff isn’t misused,” second son continued.
“Would it be misuse to pay for eternal life?” I asked, visualising a number of men (yes, mostly rich white men with a narcissistic streak) sitting around sipping at some grossly expensive elixir.
“Probably not.” Second son stretched. “But the concept of eternal life and the reality of it are two very different things. Imagine living on and on while your friends die, your family dies, the world changes and no one can anymore understand your references to the music of your youth, or the events that shaped you.” He tapped his head. “That way lies insanity.”

I am prone to agree. While we may one day be able to tamper with our bodies so as to offer an endless lifespan, I’m not so sure our mental capacities would be as adaptable. Eternity is a long, long time to spend alive. Boredom would likely set in. Severe boredom, the type that makes you depressed enough to throw yourself in front of a train or off a house. If you live long enough, likely you’ll spend most of your time considering just how to stop living.

eternity Science_fiction_quarterly_195611Very many years ago, I was a big fan of Isaac Asimov’s short stories. One of them has stayed with me through life, and is a rather short thing called The Last Answer. It tells the story of atheist Templeton who dies of a heart attack and ends up as a cognitive presence in the hereafter, his only purpose being to think thoughts that will amuse The Voice, an ancient, immensely powerful intellect that can easily think up amusing things all on his own. So goaded is Templeton by the futility of this continued existence at  The Voice’s behest that he decides to think up a way to destroy it. Which is precisely what The Voice wants him to do… (Great short story, BTW, as is the companion piece, The Last Question)

I guess Asimov and I shared a common perception as to how horrible eternal life could be…

No, no eternal life for me – at least not here on earth. I wouldn’t mind several more years, though, just as I wouldn’t mind miraculously shedding like 15 kilos, growing a couple of inches and wake up to long, thick hair the colour of a rippling rye-field. Probably won’t happen, and I’m okay with that too.

IMG_0199But when it is time for me to go, I am sure there is something on the other side. (And yes, I realise I am being inconsistent here: but this would be another life, not an ever-extended life)  I must admit to hoping for gambolling lambs and green pastures, ever-replenished teapots and warm apple pie and an endless supply of Belgian chocolate. And hubby to hold my hand, but when I say that hubby just smiles and shakes his head, reminding me that he doesn’t believe in stuff like that. He is planning on returning as a bluebell.
“Or a lupin, seeing as you love them so much,” he says with a smile that grows softer when he sees the tears in my eyes. Eternity without him seems sort of pointless, actually. That makes him lean forward to kiss my brow.

Ultimately, all we have is now. As yet, there is no elixir that adds years to our lives, no magical rejuvenation that has us springing out of bed at eighty while feeling twenty-five. Tomorrow there may be, and humanity will collectively have to address the challenges poised by such an invention. But for now, grab hold of your life and savour it. Life is short, and no matter how many gambolling lambs may be waiting in the afterlife, only this life is a certainty. Live it to the full, people. Marvel at the world that surrounds us, walk barefoot through dewy grass, wade along the seashore under a starlit sky. And when you see a bluebell – or a lupin – stop for a moment and consider just how lucky you are. You are alive. Not bad, hey?

Brought to bed of a daughter? Try again!

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One of the things a medieval queen was expected to provide her husband with was a male heir – and preferably a spare. For a medieval king to have only female heirs caused a number of problems, primarily that of convincing the male barons to swear allegiance to a woman. Plus, from a purely dynastic perspective, whatever children the female ruler had would belong to their father’s house.

So when, in 1254, the heir to the English throne, Edward, married Eleanor of Castile, one of the expectations on the (very) young bride was that she ensure a continuation of the Plantagenet dynasty – a dynasty she herself belonged to through her great-grandmother and namesake, Eleanor of England. (Yet another young bride, this daughter of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine married Alfonso VIII in 1174)

I’d have liked to present you with some wedding pics, but seeing as all this happened close to 800 years ago, there aren’t any. In fact, there aren’t any reliable likenesses of Edward and Eleanor. We know he was uncommonly tall. We know he lisped and had a droopy eye-lid. We know nada about her, but I imagine her as small – especially standing side by side with her lanky groom.

“Who is that?” Eleanor whispered, shrinking back behind a pillar.
“That?” Her maid peeked out. “Ah, that is your intended, my lady.”
“Him?” Eleanor pressed her cheek against the cold stone. So tall, so handsome – what would he see in her? 

As always when it came to royalty, the Eleanor-Edward union was political. Edward’s father, Henry III, needed to sort an ongoing feud with Eleanor’s brother, Alfonso X, and stop him from invading Gascony. And so, the fifteen-year-old Edward was sent off to Burgos, there to do his duty and wed the  Castilian princess. At least they met some days before tying the knot. Two tongue-tied teenagers peeking at each other on the sly, cheeks that heated when their eyes met. A shared smile, and then Edward was off to do other things (like being knighted by his future brother-in-law Alfonso) and Eleanor could go back to embroidering an elegant E on the shirt she was making for her soon-to-be husband.

The little bride, Eleanor, came with a good pedigree. Her mother, Jeanne de Dammartin, had once been considered by Henry III as a wife for himself, but due to political reasons this was not to be. Instead, Jeanne was wed to Fernando III of Castile (the future St Fernando) as his second wife.

The thirteen-year-old Eleanor not only had a saint for a father. She also came from a notably fertile family. Her mother had given Fernando five children, four of whom were sons. Her paternal grandmother, Berenguela, had produced five children during seven years of marriage. And as to her great-grandmother Eleanor of England, well she had presented her husband with twelve children – one every other year or so. However, very few of the sons survived – in fact, once the youngest was killed by a falling tile, the Castilian crown passed through Berenguela to Fernando. (More on Berenguela here)

With all these fertile females up her family tree, no one was particularly worried about the mandatory male heir. In the fullness of time, Edward’s new wife would surely present him with a healthy, squalling son.

valentine-dicksee-romeo-and-juliet-on-the-balconyAs an added bonus, the young couple seem to have taken an immediate liking to one another. This resulted in a stillborn (or dead shortly after its birth) baby in 1255, the first of sixteen (or at least fourteen) children. At the time, Eleanor was not yet fourteen, so I imagine this was a traumatic experience. There was a gap of some years – years in which the affection and love between Edward and Eleanor grew, making them almost inseparable. Whether or not there were miscarriages, we don’t know, but in 1261 Edward and Eleanor welcomed a daughter, Katherine, into this world.

Little Katherine died at three, and one year later, in 1265, Eleanor was delivered of yet another daughter, Joanna, who died some months later. I imagine that by now, Eleanor and Edward were beginning to become quite concerned. More than ten years married, and no living children – that did not bode well.

In 1266, little John arrived, and he was miraculously healthy. Prayers of gratitude rang in the royal solar, even more so when in 1268 yet another son, Henry, saw the light of the day. Two boys, albeit that little Henry was sickly. To round things off, a healthy daughter, Eleanor, was born in 1269.

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“Better leave them at home than carry them with us.”

In 1270, Edward took the cross. As a matter of course, Eleanor decided to accompany him, leaving her babies in the care of their grandmother and, in the case of the precious heir, their great-uncle. For a modern person, this seems somewhat callous: what sort of mother leaves her children to gallop off on adventure with her husband, hey? Well, first of all it is important to remember that royal children were quite often brought up in a separate household so as to give them some sort of stability. Being a medieval king – or royal heir – meant being constantly on the move, the entire court ambulating back and forth across the country.

Also, in the case of Edward and Eleanor, I do believe her first love was always her husband – he and his needs came first. And Edward seems to have been as genuinely in love with his wife, so maybe it was a symbiotic thing: he couldn’t go anywhere without her. Or maybe that is me being ridiculously romantic, seeing as we’re talking about a man with a very ruthless streak, as demonstrated by how he crushed the Welsh and attempted to subjugate the Scots. On the other hand, all men have multiple sides to them, and…Stop, stop, stop! Back to today’s topic – the quest for a male heir.

In 1271, there was a stillborn child. In 1272, while in Palestine, Edward and Eleanor welcomed yet another daughter, Joan. By then, they would have heard that their son John had died and what little joy they experienced at the birth of their daughter soured into fear when Edward was almost murdered. Clearly, they weren’t welcome in the Holy Land, and they set off for home. On the way, they learnt Henry III was dead. Edward was now king, and the pressing matter of a male heir became even more pressing – little Henry was not expected to live long.

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“Look, a son, an heir!”

In 1273, son number three, Alphonso, was born. A fine, lusty son, and Eleanor must have wept in relief. The little boy even survived his first few months, and it was therefore with great happiness Edward and Eleanor celebrated their coronation in 1274. By then, they’d been married almost twenty years, and even if little Henry died some months later, they did have their lovely Alphonso – and two healthy little girls. Does not seem much, given that Eleanor had given birth nine times. Nine. As she was only thirty-three, she could look forward to several more pregnancies. I wonder if there were times when this thought filled her with trepidation.

1275, 1276, 1277, 1279 – four pregnancies, four births, resulting in four little girls of whom two died. But at least Alphonso, this apple of his parents’ eyes, still thrived.

1281 – a little boy came and went like a shadow in the night. But still, they had Alphonso.

1282 – Elizabeth of Rhuddlan was born. A healthy child, and now there were five daughters – plus the precious Alphonso.

In April of 1284, a heavily pregnant Eleanor accompanied her husband to Wales.
Maybe you should stay at home,” he might have said to her, patting her on her swelling stomach. Not that he meant it, not really.
Stay at home? I accompanied you to the Holy Land – what is a jaunt to Wales compared with that?” she puffed, giving him a bright smile.

Royal 20 C.III, f.15So off they went, and there, in the building site that was Caernarvon Castle, Eleanor was delivered of a boy. A boy! Yes, a miracle baby, a strong little prince, and Eleanor smiled and wept as she presented her husband with the much-desired, if not so necessary, spare. After all, their sweet son Alphonso was now old enough to wed, and a marriage had been arranged for him with Margaret, daughter of the Count of Holland. For a little while there, everything was perfect in the Eleanor-Edward household. Until Alphonso fell ill, dying in August of 1284.

Alphonso lived the longest of all those children who died. Long enough for his parents to pin hopes on him, long enough to grow from an anonymous baby into an adored boy. And then, just like that, he died. It must have been utterly devastating. Yes, they had Prince Edward, but both Eleanor and Edward knew just what frail things children were – after all, with Alphonso they buried a tenth child. Even by the standards of the time, they were singularly unlucky as parents.

Eleanor was not to have any more children. After sixteen births, I guess she was worn out, and besides, her health was failing. So all hopes for a surviving male heir now rested on Edward, and even if he was a robust child, there were concerns that he too would die young.Just like with all her other children, on a daily basis, Eleanor did not see much of her youngest son. But despite not being with her son and daughters 24/7, Eleanor was a conscientious mother, ensuring her children were in good, competent hands. Did she love her children? I’d say yes – as much as she dared to. But no matter that she loved them, she loved her husband much more. It was with him she wanted to be, it was at his side she belonged.

In 1290, Eleanor died. Edward was numb with grief – so much so that for three whole days all royal business was suspended. But life goes on, and Edward had a duty to the crown – and his dynasty – to ensure there was more than one little boy in line to the throne. So in 1299, Edward married a second wife, the pretty and vivacious sister of the king of France. At the time, he was sixty and she was twenty – and fertile enough to present him with two beautiful and healthy sons.

In the event, these little spares would not be needed. In 1307, Eleanor’s last-born, Edward of Caernarvon, became king after his father. I daresay she would have been mightily pleased. She had done her duty by her husband and his family – she had birthed the next king.

A bouquet of ladies

In celebration of the International Women’s Day, I’ve decided to throw the doors of my blog—for the day known as my salon—wide open to some of my favourite historical ladies:

christina_queen_of_sweden_1644-1654_-_google_art_projectQueen Kristina of Sweden is a 17th century lady who was born so hirsute the midwives first declared her a boy only to then discover the babe was a girl. It is said they quaked at the thought of telling Kristina’s father the truth, but I am glad to report Gustav II Adolf was a progressive man in many respects, including being delighted at having a healthy daughter. Kristina’s mother was far from delighted: a daughter was a major, major disappointment in her book. Kristina became queen at the tender age of six, ruled in her own right from her 21st birthday or so, and abdicated at 28, sick and tired of all this queen stuff (Well, the fact that she was considering converting to Catholicism probably affected her decision. Being a Catholic in fiercely Protestant Sweden came with its own risks).

Isabella w Hugh D the eder & Earl of ArundelMy second visitor is Queen Isabella, born some 330 years before Kristina. The only daughter of Philippe IV of France (a.k.a. le Bel), Isabella is reputed to have been incredibly beautiful – and very well-educated. A smart mover and shaker, this is the lady who colluded with Roger Mortimer and deposed Edward II, Isabella’s not-so-loved husband. (At the time: prior to her falling out with hubby, she’d been more or less happily married to him for 16 years or so)

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Berenguela’s mum & dad

Our third visitor is Berenguela of Castile, daughter of Alfonso VIII and Eleanor of England, granddaughter of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine. Seeing as all her brothers died young, Berenguela ended up inheriting her father’s kingdom, abdicated in favour of her young son so as to appease the machismo of her Castilian nobles and proceeded to call the shots for the rest of her life—albeit working with her son rather than against him. It is to Fernando’s great credit that he always respected and valued his mother’s input.

Now that the introductions are over, let’s all settle in and get cosy. And no, you need not worry: I have not dug them up and dragged them here in all their decomposed glory, instead I am inviting them as they appear in my head, very much alive and kicking. That is one of the drawbacks of spending too much time with my nose stuck in history: these long-gone women are in many ways as real to me as some of the people I meet on a daily basis. Not so that I hold long conversations with them while waiting for my print-outs (actually, yes I do—but only in my head), but I invest a lot of time and effort in trying to recreate these ladies based on what historical records we may have.

“God, how you go on!” Queen Kristina of Sweden looks me up and down before throwing herself backwards into an armchair.
“Amen to that.” Isabella of France glides over the floor. “And really, Kristina, must you sit like that? So unladylike!”
“You’re not my mother,” Queen Kristina retorts, but straightens up all the same, hands patting at her curly hair before adjusting her lace collar. Isabella is an intimidating lady—even to a fellow queen—and she is also, as always, perfectly attired, a combination of kirtle and robes in various shades of pink complemented by a sheer veil and a mantel in embroidered purple.
“Byzantine,” Isabella informs me, smoothing at the rich cloth.
Christina_of_Sweden_(1626)_1667_attributed_to_W._Heimbach“Expensive,” Kristina remarks drily, shaking out her dark skirts.
“What can I say? I’m French, non?” (Mais oui. Isabella is as French as they come)
“You’re vain, child,” Berenguela of Castile cuts in. No pinks and purples for this rather daunting matriarch. Berenguela’s face is framed by veil and wimple, her clothes dark and unadorned.
“I’m not a child,” Isabella sniffs.
“You are to me. You’re married to my great-grandson.” Berenguela frowns. “You don’t treat him as respectfully as you should.”
“Edward?” Isabella snorts. “You expect me to respect a man who stole my dower lands? Who evicted most of my household? Who prefers the company of Hugh Despenser to mine?”
“He’s your husband. Where he leads, you should follow.” Berenguela looks down her nose at Isabella.
“Oh, as you did, you mean?”
“An entirely different matter! The pope annulled our marriage, and…”
“Right, stop it,” I interrupt. I gesture towards the table. “I was thinking we would have tea and cake while discussing the situation of women in your times and mine.”
“Tea?” Isabella asks, sniffing suspiciously at her cup.
“Cake?” Kristina sounds hopeful.
“The situation of women?” Berenguela sits down and shakes her head at the offered cake. “Has it changed, do you think?”
I almost choke on my tea. “I sure hope so. Woman is no longer subservient to man.”
“Hmm.” Berenguela shares a look with the other two. “I was never subservient to a man. I was a ruler in my own right.”
“As was I.” Kristina reaches for some more cake. “Raised to be a king, not some insipid female.”
“Who says females are insipid?” Isabella says. “Just because I was queen consort, doesn’t mean I didn’t wield power.”
“Oh, you did?” Berenguela murmurs, eyes on her cup. “I thought it was Edward and Hugh who did the wielding. In difference to me and Kristina here.”
“Well, at least my children aren’t illegitimate,” Isabella snaps.
Berenguela bristles. “They’ve been legitimized! Besides, who cares? My son is a saint!”
“So say all mothers,” Isabella snorted.
“Umm, in this case she’s telling the truth,” Kristina breaks in. “San Fernando is quite the impressive man.” She pats Isabella’s arm. “As is your son—well, he will be, once he’s grown up.” She shudders. “Though how on earth either of you could go through with all that giving birth stuff is beyond me.”
“No choice,” Berenguela says. “As you make your bed, you must lie in it.”
“Not anymore,” Kristina says. “In the here and now, women have the means to make the bed without the lie-in. I’m right, aren’t I?” she demands, turning my way.
“Yup.”
“And women can even have children without ever having had a man in their bed,” Kristina continues. “Sounds perfect to me – makes man redundant.”

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Edward II – hot stuff as per Isabella

“What, all work no play?” Isabella grimaces. “I like bedding with my husband. Well, I did until he stopped bedding with me. If only that dratted Hugh…”
“Maybe Eduardo thinks you’ve lost your looks,” Berenguela says, and Isabella grips her teaspoon as if considering just how to murder this Spanish Doña with it.
“If she’s lost her looks, I’ve never had any,” Kristina puts in. She shrugs. “Not that I care. I’ve never wanted to marry anyway.”
“Wanted?” Berenguela says. “I was never given a choice in the matter.”
“Neither was I, “Isabella puts in, and they share a look over the table. “That’s the lot of a princess, to marry as it suits her father and her country.”
“Amen to that,” Berenguela puts in, crossing herself hastily.
“Fortunately, by the time I was of marriageable age, my father was long dead, so I was spared the experience,” Kristina says, but she looks a bit sad, and I wonder if maybe she’s thinking of the love of her life, Cardinal Azzolini. (And yes, that was complicated)
“These days, no one forces a woman to marry,” I put in.
Berenguela raises her brows. “What about doing her duty to her family?”
“We don’t believe in stuff like that,” I reply. “Individuals first, you know.”
“How terrible,” Berenguela says. “Family is everything! Everything!”
Oui!” Isabella chimes in. “And the best family is the Capet family.”
“Silly goose,” Berenguela says. “You have my blood in your veins, much better than that diluted Capet stuff. We are family…”
“…I have all my sisters with me,” Kristina sings, and the three of them are out of their seats and dancing like crazy.
“I must hand it to these modern people, they do know how to write some good tunes,” Kristina gasps some minutes later, fanning herself with a book.
“And bake cake,” Isabella adds, nabbing the last piece on the plate.
“Would you prefer this time to your time?” I ask. “You know, a world of comfort, of hot baths and washing machines.”
baths medieval-bath-3-650x487“We have hot baths,” Berenguela points out.
“And who needs washing machines when there are laundry maids?” Isabella asks. Kristina and Berenguela nod in agreement. These overprivileged women have never as much as washed a sock – or darned a hole. They’ve embroidered for fun—well, not Kristina. Not her thing.
“But what about books? Education?”
“I am extremely well-educated, thank you very much,” Kristina sniffs. (She is. Horribly so)
“As am I. Private tutors, endless amounts of Latin texts…” Isabella yawns.
“Scripture. I know it in and out,” Berenguela says.
“Ah.” I nod. “So nothing tempts you in the here and now?”
“Of course, it does,” Berenguela says, “but we belong where we belong, with our families, our kin…”
“…our lovers, our ambitions,” Isabella fills in.
“…our misguided decisions and our regrets,” Kristina finishes.
“Regrets?” Berenguela asks.
“Oh yes. Being an ex-queen is substantially less fun than being the real thing.” Kristina gives a crooked smile. “But I guess we all have to live with the decisions we make—no matter in what time.”
Very true. And in my time, someone is banging at the door and asking where I have the latest ppt presentation. Time to leave this time transcending tea party and return to real life, a life sadly devoid of strong historical women.
No seas tonta,” Berenguela says. “We’re right here, with you. Now, if you explain what a ppt is, then maybe we can help.”
Er… Mind you, with these savvy ladies one never knows!

The perfection of imperfection

20170301_094357In my office, I have a mug from which I drink my tea. It’s a nice mug, handmade and in a dark, dark red – very much an Anna mug. It has an ear to hold it by, but when I drink tea, I like cradling the mug, hold its warmth in my hands. Whenever I do so, one of my fingers will automatically stray to the flaw in my mug: right at the base, there’s a point where the clay broke off or the mug was chipped between firing and glazing. About one centimetre wide, the imperfection has jagged edges. I run my finger back and forth over it – repeatedly. It is soothing, somehow.

While not all of you may have a tea mug like mine, I bet you’ve all had a loose tooth—or a cavity or a blister in your mouth, or a seed stuck between your teeth. And I bet all of you have run your tongue over whatever the defect may have been. The imperfection attracts, so to say.

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Perfection is rarely alluring. That picture-perfect home, in which the tassels line up in regimental order, the pillows are plumped just so, the tables and shelves are dustless—it comes across as stiff and cold. Life has not left its mark on the sofa cushions, there isn’t any indication of anyone ever having breathed and laughed—even danced—in this beautiful space. It doesn’t tell us anything about the owner—beyond them suffering from OCD—it is just a reflecting surface, anonymous and cold. Until we add a book turned upside down on the coffee table, a hoodie thrown in the sofa. An arrangement of tulips that is well beyond its best before date spilling pollen and faded petals on the floor. A plate with a half-eaten sandwich, the bread dry enough to crumble at the touch. Signs of life, of time passing. And life is rarely perfect, is it?

I suppose it is mostly a matter of contrast: we need the slight imperfection to appreciate the beauty that surrounds it. Or maybe it’s as simple as perfection being a bit boring. A slightly crooked nose in an otherwise picture-perfect face makes the whole more interesting, teases us with various scenarios as to why it is crooked.
A mole—essentially a defect—may instead highlight the lustre of the skin that surrounds it.
The uprooted tree that leans drunkenly against its soughing neighbour serves to underline that life is ephemeral—thereby making it more precious.
A rose in full bloom is breathtakingly beautiful – but it is already tainted by decay, a faint line of brown edging its perfection.

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Kintsugi – the art of making imperfections into perfection (Image Wikipedia)

In some cultures, the irregularities, the cracks, are appreciated. In Japan, broken porcelain bowls were often repaired in such a way as to highlight the crack, resulting in creations that are beautiful because of their defects, not despite of them. Sometimes, they fill in the cracks with gold, and what was broken and ugly is elevated to finest art. Maybe an approach we should learn something from, all of us who live in a world that is increasingly fixated on outward perfection, all the way from ourselves to our homes, our gardens, our cars.

It’s not as if anyone is perfect. No matter how hard we work at our exterior, we all have our warts, our hidden cracks. It’s what makes us human, what makes us interesting and unique. It’s what makes my tea mug mine. Its little defect is what sets it apart, makes it immediately distinguishable from other dark red tea mugs. I like that it is different – I like that I am different, that I am me, even if that is mostly due to my many imperfections than my (very) few perfections. Rephrase: it’s the sum of my imperfections that makes me perfectly me!

Below in the comments Gabriel has weighed in with a link to a beautiful poem about cracks and their consequences. The poem is by René François Armand Sully-Prudhomme (quite a mouthful), a French poet who was the first ever winner of the Nobel prize back in 1901. Anyway: I think the link may well get lost in the comments so I post it here instead and urge you to pop over to the site and read it. Very beautiful. http://www.onbeing.org/uncategorized/le-vase-brise-broken-vase/

 

 

A misunderstood misogynist? Meet John Knox!

I have a fascination with the Reformation. While we tend to simplify and see it as a spur of the moment thing caused by the sale of indulgences, the Holy Church has always had its fair share of people who have questioned its interpretation of scripture and its general approach to things. Such debates could be very vigorous. In some cases, they led to changes. In some cases, the person questioning ended up dead.

I any case, all this internal criticism came to a head in the late fifteenth/early sixteenth century, and this time the division was too deep to be healed. Ergo the Reformation, which was not, as some think, one Protestant faction versus the Holy Church. Nope: it was many, many Protestant factions versus the Holy Church. One such faction were the Calvinists, and today I have invited Marie Macpherson to tell us some more about John Knox, Calvinist reformer of Scotland.

knox-marie-macphersonMarie was born in Musselburgh, has a degree in Russian and English and wrote her PhD thesis about Russian writer Lermontov. The rich history of East Lothian – especially the Reformation period – provided the inspiration for her first fictional work, based on the early life of the Scottish reformer, John Knox. Having read both the first and now the second of Marie’s books, I’d say what she doesn’t know about John Knox is probably not worth knowing, and so, with no further ado, allow me to turn you over into her capable hands!

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John Knox and the “Monstrous Regiment”

The question I’m often asked is why would I, a woman, choose to write about John Knox? Some may idolise the founding father of the Scottish Reformation as a saint – not something the iconoclast would approve of – but for many Knox is the fire-breathing, pulpit-thumping tyrant who penned that vitriolic anti-feminine tract, The First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women.

To be fair, this was not an attack on all women but aimed at the ‘unnatural’ rule or regime of Mary Tudor in England, with sideswipes at Regent Marie de Guise in Scotland and Mary, Queen of Scots in France. Neither was Knox a rogue male chauvinist in trumpeting the view that women were inferior beings: most men of the time agreed with him using scripture to justify their argument, though none were as vociferous as the fiery Scot. He not only wanted to depose the ‘three Marys’ but, if necessary, execute the tyrants. This was tantamount to treason.

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John Knox. Photo Kim Traynor, licensed under Creative Commons

But did Knox hate women? Surprisingly, the answer is no. In contrast to his abject hate and loathing of Catholic queens, Knox loved female company and formed several close relationships with women throughout his life. The twice-married father of five children was also quite the ladies’ man. The celibate Roman Catholic priest in the first half of his life made up for lost time in the second half. According to one source, “Whenever he made a journey he took around with him a certain number of women whom he used to satisfy his lusts.” Or, as someone at one of my talks remarked, “I never knew Knox was such a babe magnet.’ Needless to say, all this sheds a completely different light on Knox and contradicts his reputation as a rampant misogynist.

His relationship with his mother-in-law, Mrs Bowes, is particularly fascinating. Freed from the galleys in 1559, Knox was a pariah in Scotland but welcomed in England. Appointed minister in Berwick-upon-Tweed, he met Elizabeth Bowes, wife of the warden of Norham Castle. This middle-aged matron and mother of 15 children had been a devout Roman Catholic until the religious rug was pulled from under her. Inspired by his sermons, she developed a ‘crush’ on the charismatic Scots preacher. A religious hypochondriac, continually tortured by the devil with doubts about whether or not she was one of the elect, she poured out her heart to her substitute priest/confessor.

When she confessed to being guilty of the sins of Sodom and Gomorrah, Knox must have been horrified – until realising she had no idea what they were. After explaining that these consisted of pride, riotous excess, idleness that provoked filthy lusts, resulting in all abomination and unnatural filthiness, he asked, ‘In which of these, Mother, are ye guilty?’ Unfortunately her response is not recorded.

Nevertheless, their intimacy has led to prurient speculation. The notorious cupboard incident at Alnwick where Knox confessed, “In very deed I thought nae creature had been temptit as I was,” has been wheeled out as evidence of adultery. But this vision of Knox lurking behind the linen cupboard to snatch a furtive embrace with his ‘belovit mother’ has been dismissed as fantasy. To quash rumours, Knox wrote a letter to the faithful explaining that the cause of his familiarity with Mrs Bowes was neither flesh nor blood but entirely of the spirit. More likely, Mrs Bowes was a maternal figure, the soft feminine presence Knox craved in a male dominated life. Though he endured her outpourings with the patience of a saint, she drove him to distraction at times with her “fasherie and nuisance”. She sounds like the mother-in-law from hell – and a novelist’s dream.

At the age of 33 he married Mrs Bowes’s 16 year-old-daughter, causing accusations of cradle snatching to be flung at him. However, in an age when women frequently died in childbirth, it was quite common for an older man to take a young wife. More shocking was Mrs Bowes’s decision to abandon her husband and family and follow her daughter and son-in-law to Geneva. Nevertheless, Marjory proved to be the perfect wife for Knox, not only his dear bedfellow but his helpmeet and secretary. Calvin certainly approved, calling her “the most delightful of wives” and “a rare find”. In Geneva, she gave birth to two sons and her premature death in 1560 left Knox in “no small heaviness”.

Invited to London in 1552 as one of King Edward VI’s court preachers, Knox lodged with the Lockes, a family of wealthy London mercers. He forged an intense relationship with Henry Locke’s young wife Anna, an intelligent, educated woman who wrote poetry and translated Calvin’s writings.

Whether or Anna was, according to Robert Louis Stevenson, the love of Knox’s life, she certainly became a life-long confidante and correspondent and his letters give some insight into the private man. In stark contrast to the image of the bully and brute, they reveal his sensitive ‘feminine’ side’. Exiled in Geneva, he expressed thirst and langour for her presence: “Sometimes I sobbed fearing what should become of you”, he wrote, fearing for her life during Mary Tudor’s persecution. So much so that he invited Anna and her children to Geneva where their ménage-à-quatre dashed any hopes Knox may have had of living a quiet scholarly life. Did these domestic troubles drive the hen-pecked Knox to distraction and fuel the flames for his infamous tract?

knox-firstblastPublished anonymously in 1557, Knox’s First Blast was not only misjudged. Drawing howls of horror from all sides – including John Calvin – it was grossly mistimed. Despite his famous gift of prophecy, he failed to foresee Mary Tudor’s death in November 1558 or the accession of yet another queen – albeit a Protestant one.

Though Knox tried to mince his words, the young Queen Elizabeth I was not at all amused and refused his request for safe passage through England. When Knox finally arrived in 1559, Scotland was in the brunt of civil war and he took up the fight against the Regent, Mary of Guise. Her death in June 1560 heralded the triumph of Protestantism in Scotland.

In December 1560, Knox and Mary Stewart both suffered personal tragedies: the unexpected death of his wife, Marjory, and her husband, King François. Despite these common losses, the elderly widower and the young widow could not be more different and clashed in a series of famous meetings. The staunch Protestant believed the people had the right to depose an ungodly ruler while the devout Roman Catholic queen believed in the divine right of a monarch to rule. Thus she was furious when Knox dared to challenge her marriage to Henry Stewart, Lord Darnley.

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“Must he nag so?”

Neither was she pleased when, after being widowed for three years, 50-year-old Knox took another 17 year-old bride. Mary “stormeth wonderfully”, not only because he’d wed her distant cousin, Margaret Stewart, without royal consent but because it brought Knox into the family. Catholic commentators even accused him of having used the black arts to secure the match.

Whatever his secret, Knox managed to sire three daughters within six years. As well as fulfilling her role as bedfellow, Margaret acted as Knox’s secretary and PA. But the fact that, after his death, the merry widow wed Andrew Ker of Fawdonside who had held a pistol to Mary Stewart’s pregnant belly during David Riccio’s murder, suggests a more spirited character than Marjory.

knox-louise_rayner_john_knoxs_house_edinburghDespite his success in establishing the Protestant Reformation in Scotland, Knox became increasingly embittered in his final years as he realised that religion was not a priority for many of the lords reneging to the queen’s side. In November 1572, Knox died in his bed rather than atop a burning pyre, as he’d always feared, in James Mossman’s house, now known as John Knox House, on High Street. A plaque in the car park outside St Giles Cathedral marks where he was buried – perhaps next to his beloved, tragic Marjory.

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I rather like the idea of Mary, Queen of Scots, “storming wonderfully” 🙂 Thank you, Marie for this interesting post, and should you want to know more about Marie and her books, I recommend you visit her Amazon page. You can also connect on FB or Twitter.

As to her book, I recently read The second blast of the trumpet, and here is my review:

knox-2bott-book-covervWriting a book about John Knox comes with its own particular challenges—principally that of creating some sympathy for a man mostly remembered as a harsh and uncompromising reformer of the church. Fortunately, Ms Macpherson manages to do just that, presenting us with a complex character who is self-righteous and weak in turns, thereby inspiring the odd bout of tenderness

The book covers the period 1549 to 1559. It continues the story begun in Ms Macpherson’s first book, The First Blast of the Trumpet, and for the sake of clarity—and enjoyment—I recommend reading them in order.

Had this book been only about John Knox’s efforts to promote his religious doctrine, it could quickly have become boring. Luckily, there is an unfolding romance within, with Knox being struck with Cupid’s arrow the first time he claps eyes on little Marjory Bowes. Not that Marjory reciprocates his feelings – not initially – but over the years she develops a special fondness for this bearded and passionate man. As does Marjory’s mother. Ms Macpherson handles the resulting tensions with aplomb and a certain tongue-in-cheek, resulting in a very colourful Mrs Bowes.

Ms Macpherson is an accomplished writer. The prose is fluid, the historical details elegantly inserted, the descriptions vivid. All in all, this is an engaging read, my only quibble being the rather abrupt ending. I am looking forward to reading the next instalment in the Knox Saga!

A Catholic recusant in the court of Elizabeth I

In the aftermath of Martin Luther nailing his 95 theses to a church door in Wittenberg (and yes, I know it isn’t entirely certain he did nail them, but it makes for a forceful image, doesn’t it? Much more forceful than politely handing them over to the bishop) the people in Europe were to live through decades—even centuries—of religious confusion. The Holy Church fell apart, with some adhering to the old ways, some embracing the new.

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Edward VI, with his dying father Henry VIII in bed. An allegorical transfer of power

In England, Henry VIII chose to break with Rome and make himself head of the Church of England (this, as we all know, due to personal issues: he really, really wanted a divorce, and the Pope refused to give him one). At heart, Henry VIII was a Catholic, and the Church of England under him adopted some aspects of the Reformation but retained a lot of the colour, pageantry and rites of the Catholic Church. Things changed under Henry VIII’s son. Edward VI was VERY Protestant, and the Church of England developed accordingly, even if things were brought to a grinding halt when Mary I ascended the throne, determined to lead her subjects back into the welcoming fold of the Catholic Church. By then, things had gone too far. Too many of the English had embraced the reformed faith and had no desire whatsoever to return to the fold, no matter how welcoming.

In 1559, Elizabeth I ascended the throne. A Protestant Princess became a Protestant Queen, and no matter that she supposedly said she had no desire to open windows into men’s souls, Elizabeth ruled a country where Catholics were viewed with distrust. These recusants were potential papist spies, and then there was the infected matter of Elizabeth’s cousin and long-time prisoner, Mary Queen of Scots, who was a Catholic—with a claim on the English throne. No, it is safe to say that in the second half of the 16th century the smart thing was to be a Protestant. Especially if you were planning on a career at court—and a long life.

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Supposedly, Mary FitzAlan, Philip’s mother

After this somewhat lengthy preamble, it is time to introduce today’s protagonist. Philip Howard was born 1557, straight into the upper echelons of English nobility. His father, Thomas Howard, was the 4th Duke of Norfolk, his mother the heiress to the Earl of Arundel. Not that Philip ever got the opportunity to develop a relationship with his mother, as she died at seventeen after having given birth to him. The Howard family was a powerful family, descended from Thomas of Brotherton, Edward I’s son, through his impressive daughter Margaret. Philip’s Catholic great-grandfather, the 3rd Duke of Norfolk, had been instrumental in helping Mary I secure her throne, but Philip’s father had been educated by Protestants and had turned his back on the “old religion”.

Thomas was a busy up-and-coming man and needed a wife. Accordingly, he didn’t remain a widower for long. Philip was presented with a step-mother, and over the coming years, the Howard nursery expanded with four more children. And then wife number two died as well. Thomas Howard married Elizabeth Leyburne, widow to a Thomas Dacre and mother of three little girls (and a son who died young).

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Thomas Howard, Philip’s father

Elizabeth was a devout Catholic, something that didn’t exactly thrill her new husband. When she lay dying, a scant seven months or so after the wedding, she begged to be allowed to see a priest, but her husband refused. Maybe he was distraught—Elizabeth had gone into premature labour, and the baby died with her—maybe he considered it too much of a risk to allow a Catholic priest to visit his home. Or maybe he was just being pigheaded.Whatever the case, poor Elizabeth died uncomforted. This time, Thomas didn’t marry again. Instead, he married his three sons to his three step-daughters. A complicated “let’s keep it in the family” game.

Philip Howard was twelve when he married Anne Dacre. This was also the year when his father was accused of planning to marry Mary, Queen of Scots. The Duke wiggled out of that one, but some years later he was back kicking his heels in the Tower, now accused of participating in the Ridolfi plot, whereby the plotters intended to supplant Elizabeth with Mary, Queen of Scots. The evidence tying Howard to the plot are somewhat tenuous, but in June of 1572 he was executed for treason.

At the time, Philip Howard was fifteen. His father’s vast estates were attainted and fell to the crown, but fortunately for Philip, his maternal grandfather left an impressive inheritance, and so he became the Earl of Arundel – not quite as fancy as being a Duke, but definitely better than being an impoverished lordling.

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The young Philip.

The Philip – Anne marriage was not exactly a bed of roses, at least not initially. Anne was devout, and her upbringing had her leaning towards the Catholic faith. The Howard family had its own sizeable share of Catholic recusants, but Philip was not one of them, and he wasn’t thrilled to have a wife whose religion could cause him major problems at court. After all, Philip intended to spend a lot of time at court, where he very quickly had become one of Elizabeth’s favourites.

Things, however, happened. Philip began developing an affection for his wife – and for her religious preferences. He witnessed a debate at the Tower between Jesuits and Protestants in the early 1580’s that definitely swung him in matters of religion but for some years more he sat on the fence. Not so his wife, who converted in 1582. When the queen found out, Anne was placed under house arrest, a whole year of solitude during which she gave birth to a daughter whom she promptly named Elizabeth. (For her mother, not her queen, I imagine)

The queen relented, Anne was released and rushed into her husband’s arms. No longer the foppish courtier of his early youth, Philip had developed a serious—and devout—side. The queen’s treatment of his wife had not served to deter him from conversion, instead it made him all that more determined to become a Catholic, just like Anne. Philip probably never had the intention of going public with his conversion, but he lived in an age where every major household had a bevy of servants, and quite a few of those servants also acted as informers on their masters, which was how Queen Elizabeth found out that her erstwhile favourite and second cousin had decided to become a recusant.

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Elizabeth I, not only queen but also head of the Church of England

Queen Elizabeth ordered Philip to be placed under house arrest. Unlike his wife, Philip chose to flee. One wonders why: did he have reason to suspect the house arrest would be permanent? That the queen would never release him? That he would be assassinated? The present mood at court was very anti-Catholic, so maybe his fears were warranted.
Whatever the case, Philip decided to flee to France, but was betrayed and captured at sea. He was brought back to England where he was thrown into the Tower in 1585, sentenced to pay a fine of 10 000 pounds and to remain imprisoned at the queen’s pleasure. His wife was ordered to leave London and retire to the country, and no matter how much Philip begged, the queen refused permission for his wife and newborn son to visit him. Not one of Queen Elizabeth’s better moments…

Things might have ended differently for Philip had it not been for his Spanish namesake. In 1588, Philip II of Spain ordered the Great Armada to invade England under the auspices of restoring the True Religion, thereby doing every Catholic in England a huge disfavour – including Philip Howard.

As we all know, the threat of invasion came to nothing, and the English people rejoiced. Not so Philip Howard, who was now tried for treason, for having prayed for the Armada’s success and for having been party to a plan to excommunicate Queen Elizabeth. (As an aside, it is somewhat interesting that the excommunication threat be brought up: as a Protestant Monarch, why should Elizabeth care about a papal bull excommunicating her? Shows just how ingrained the Old Religion still was…)

Of course, Philip was found guilty and was attainted. For the coming years, he lived in constant fear that this would be the day he was dragged out to be beheaded, but in actual fact Queen Elizabeth never signed his execution order – even if no one had the charity to tell him so. Philip spent his days in relatively comfortable captivity in the Beauchamp Tower, accompanied by a dog that he used as a go-between to other prisoners. But he worried constantly for his family, knowing full well the future of his children now depended on the fortitude of his wife. (Fortunately, Anne Dacre was one tough cookie, so she rose to the challenge admirably.)

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Philip languishing in captivity

Some of his despair shines through in the inscription he carved on the stone above the chimney in Beauchamp Tower. In a spidery handwriting it reads “quanto plus afflictions pro Christo in hoc saeculo, tanto plus gloriae cum Christo in future” which translates as the more affliction we suffer in the name of Christ in this world, the greater the glory at Christ’s side in the next. Not sure just how much comfort he could draw from that.

Interestingly enough, Philip Howard always had a “Get out of jail” card at his disposal. All he had to do was recant, embrace the Protestant faith, and he would be forgiven, his estates restored to him. But he never did. Not even when he lay dying and yet again begged the queen to allow his wife and children to visit him, did he ever consider denying his faith. It must have been a terrible temptation for the ailing man. All he had to do, as per the queen, was to attend a Protestant Service and he would have the joy of his family at his side and be restored to all his honours – and her favour. An hour or so of lip service, and he would be allowed to hold his wife’s hand one last time, lay eyes on his son and daughter. One measly service and he would buy his children an easier life, himself a respectable death.

Some people are an unknown quantity until life throws them into the fires of fate. Some emerge strengthened by the experience, some crumble to ashes. Philip Howard belonged to the former, which is why he refused to give in. In a last burst of inspiration, he had the following message conveyed to the queen: “Tell Her majesty if my religion be the cause for which I suffer, sorry I am that I have but one life to lose.” And so Philip Howard died, alone in his tower on a cold October day of 1595. He had spent more than ten years behind the walls of the Tower for the single sin of being a Catholic. I wonder if Elizabeth ever felt a sting of shame – she should, IMO.

After Philip’s death, the queen withheld the possessions that should rightfully go to his widow. But Anne was no milksop and she fought for her rights, for the rights of her otherwise impoverished children. So successful was she, that ultimately her son, yet another Thomas Howard, was restored to his title as Earl of Arundel. And in the fullness of time, this Thomas Howard’s descendants would yet again become the Dukes of Norfolk – which they remain until today – but that would have to wait another hundred years or so.
As to Philip, his body was first buried together with that of his father, executed twenty-three years earlier. But in 1624, his widow (who, as you can work out, lived a long, long life) had his remains transferred to Arundel, where they still lie.

Philip Howard was canonised by the pope in 1970.

The good, the bad and the ugly – a smorgasbord of pirates

hh-pirates-whole-series-2016Today, I’ve invited Helen Hollick to join me here on Stolen Moments. Helen is the author of many, many books, among which her books about Emma of Normandy and Harold II of England deserve a special mention. As do her wonderful books about the dashing pirate Jesamiah Acorne and his adventures in the early 18th century. I must admit to being somewhat addicted to the Seawitch series – and Jesamiah. Now, in difference to real pirates, Jesamiah is a “good” pirate. So far, he hasn’t tortured, raped, terrorised or otherwise intimidated his fellow men. Thank heavens for that!

hh-2-helen-mediumObviously, to write books about an imaginary pirate requires that you do your research. It is therefore not exactly surprising that Helen knows A LOT about pirates. So much, in fact, that she has now written a non-fiction book, Pirates: Truth and Tales, about these maritime bandits – most of them anything but good!

So, I now turn you over to Helen and her post about some not-so-nice men.

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Were there any good pirates? They might be a tad difficult to find, unless you go back as far as Ancient Greece when a pirate was respected and admired as a warrior figure; the word pirate comes from the Greek verb, peiran: to attack.

There’s no denying that pirates were thieves, murderers and rapists – the terrorists of their time, although during the seventeenth and earlier eighteenth century they were tolerated, even encouraged, by various Kings, Queens and Governments of England because they plundered the ships of countries which were enemies. Spain mostly.

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Favourite hunting grounds of the pirates

The handful of years between 1700-1722 was the Golden Age for these scurvy knaves of the sea. They might be dashing heroes in the eyes of Errol Flynn and Johnny Depp fans, but were darn nuisances to the Spanish and merchant traders. Funny how piracy, under the guise of legal privateering, was acceptable when it involved English ships with mostly English crews plundering Spanish treasure for the benefit of King and Country, but as soon as their deeds started hitting the pockets of merchants back home in England, the pirates had to go.

To be fair, trade between England and the American Colonies, pre 1700, was only on the cusp of exploding into Big Profit Territory – ergo uninteresting to those of piratical inclinations. Land such as Florida and the Carolinas had nothing to offer. Virginia beyond the Blue Ridge Mountains was unknown territory. The few plantations along the coast, Chesapeake Bay, easy-access rivers and on the islands of the Caribbean and Bahamas, yielded some profit, but not much.

To earn income from land, labour was needed. This was supplied by indentured servants – on the surface mostly (but not all) willing men and women who traded several years of their lives in return for the promise of land or payment; in reality, slaves, because the majority never received any reward except cruelty, poverty, and all too often, death.

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A Buccaneer (Howard Pyle)

Then, the wars with Spain, more or less, ended and for landowners and merchants, tobacco crops became a high source of income, along with sugar and cotton. Vessels carrying these products were just what a pirate wanted. These crops were highly lucrative but required cheap labour to tend them. Forget those poor indentured fools who succumbed to illness and heatstroke. They were replaced by black African slaves. And captured slave ships, for many a pirate, were wonderful because the cargo brought in a lot of money, and once the captured ship itself was cleaned and scrubbed – inside and out – it made a good pirate vessel, for slavers were usually designed for speed. The quicker the Atlantic crossing, the less likely the ‘livestock’ would die in transit.

The most famous ‘bad’ pirate, Blackbeard, had, for a short while, a splendid flagship which he renamed Queen Anne’s Revenge. He had ‘acquired’ her in November 1717 while she was being used as a French Slaver. We don’t know what happened to her cargo, but we do know the ship’s fate. Blackbeard ran her aground in 1718 off the coast of North Carolina, where her wreck was found many decades later in 1996.

Stede Bonnet was known as the ‘Gentleman Pirate’, so was he perhaps the ‘good one’? I personally am curious whether his name was Bonnet as in a lady’s hat, or Bonnay with a French-sounding twist to it? We will never know, except Bonnet (as in hat) doesn’t sound very piratical does it? Nor was he successful as a pirate. After messing things up several times, he was eventually captured and hanged. He had only turned to piracy to escape his nagging wife. Divorce, I feel, would have been an easier option.

Several notorious pirates fitted the category of ‘ugly’ – as in temperament rather than looks. (Although I would wager they were not especially handsome!)

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More Howard Pyle – pirates fighting

Among the worst was Edward ‘Ned’ Lowe. Born in London in 1690, he was a known thief. His younger brother was hanged for burglary, and Lowe himself fled to the Caribbean in 1710, probably to avoid a similar fate. He met a girl, married, had a child, the wife dying in childbirth. He tried to hold down a legitimate job, but losing his temper he killed a man, commandeered a ship and turned to piracy. He seems to have respected marriage and women, though, for when capturing ships and forcing men to join his crew, he never insisted that married men should join him. A ‘good’ man after all? Ha! Read on.

Lowe captured more than one hundred vessels and became feared for his cruelty and liking for torture. His favoured method of discovering where valuable cargo was stashed, or punishing someone who crossed him, or who had a face he didn’t like, was to place a slow-match (a rope fuse) between the fingers of bound hands and set light to the rope, which would burn slowly, roasting the flesh to the bone. Another favourite was to suspend his victims by the ankles from a yardarm and drop them to the deck, repeating the process until they died.

As an early form of bungee-jumping, this particular style is not to be recommended.

Then Lowe captured a Portuguese ship, the Nostra Seigniora de Victoria. She was carrying 11,000 gold Portuguese moidores, worth at the time around £15,000 (you can add at least one more zero to that today,) but rather than the treasure falling into pirate hands the ship’s captain heaved it all into the sea. In fury Lowe cut off the man’s lips and boiled them in water, then forced the unfortunate victim to eat them. Lowe then murdered him along with the rest of the crew. He was also said to have burned a Frenchman alive. Definitely not a nice man.

In 1723 he sailed to the coast of Guinea where he met up with a previous partner. The partnership lasted two days, Lowe was abandoned by his friend and most of his crew – they’d had enough of his ugly nastiness. He sailed off due south and was never heard of again.

I doubt many shed tears over his loss!

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Ugh! That Lowe character seems like someone best avoided at all costs. Thank you, Helen, for sharing his story with us. Too bad he sort of sailed off and disappeared – although I’ve heard there is an alternative version of his fate, whereby he was captured by the French and hanged. Good riddance, I say.

hh-piratesAs to Pirates: Truth and Tales, it has already received some great reviews. Like this one:

In this informative and comprehensive book, the author takes the idea of pirates and piracy. Interspersed throughout is the author’s impressive knowledge of historical detail and it is obvious that a great deal of research has gone into bringing this piratical guide to life. Skilfully blending historical facts with literary fiction, sometimes, the book reads as lightly as a novel, at other times, we come sharply back to reality with daring tales of mischance and menace, of lives ruined by too much grog and too many loose women, and which ended, all too often, dangled at the end of a hangman’s rope. Throughout the book, the author’s real life buccaneers nestle comfortably alongside their more colourful literary counterparts. I especially enjoyed seeing the author’s own pirate creation, Jesamiah Acorne, from The Sea Witch Voyages, come to vibrant life in his own much deserved chapter. However you like your pirates, be they real or imaginary, there is no doubt that Pirates: Truth and Tales, is a great dip in and out of kind of book and whichever page the book falls open at, you are guaranteed to find a fascinating snippet into the life and times of these colourful, and it must be said, decidedly, dangerous characters. (Jaffa Reads Too)

Should you want to know more about Helen and her books, I recommend you stop by her website or her blog, or on twitter, or on FB. See? Helen’s all over the place!

 

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