ANNA BELFRAGE

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Archive for the category “Writing”

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!

 

Falling forward – a reflection on evolution

The other day, I was listening to a radio programme about the deficiency of our basic design. “Our” in this case being us humans. It seems that the biped descendant of those very ancient primates that is modern human has as yet to fully master the challenge of walking without falling over.

Research has been conducted on young healthy people and their walking mishaps (the scientists have given up on the rest of us, unstable wrecks that we are). Turns out that even these prime specimens have a tendency to fall over. More than 50% report falling over on a regular basis – mostly due to stumbling over their own feet. Note that the participants were all sober, and the falling over incidents were not restricted to midnight walks through forests. Nope. Bright daylight, even ground beneath, and still our young and healthy representatives fell. A lot.

Maybe it’s not the two legs that’s the problem. Maybe it’s our feet. Maybe we, as a species, have been burdened with feet that stick out too much. The scientists disagree. There’s nothing wrong with our feet, they say. Instead, our overall stability would have been much, much better had we continued to walk on all four, dragging our knuckles along the ground. Not exactly a surprising conclusion.

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Moonlight Sonata, R.A Blakelock

Thing is, had we not dared to let go of the ground and rise on our (then) hind legs, we might have been less prone to falling, but we would also have been much, much dumber than we are today. Once primitive man lifted his eyes off the ground to view the world at large, to stare at the moon and stars above, something began happening in his brain, further stimulated by the fact that now that he wasn’t walking on his hands, he could use them for other things. Like making rudimentary tools. Or picking fruits and berries. (Or lice. Plenty of lice to pick off our ancient ancestors’ hairy frames)

Obviously, Homo Erectus was not aware of the “small step for man, huge leap for mankind” he represented. Here was a hirsute creature, standing on his two feet and regarding his surroundings from a sufficient height to discover threats before they discovered him – a good thing, seeing as our ancient forebears had little with which to defend themselves against, f.ex, a hungry leopard. I’m guessing this is where the tool development took off. Hungry leopard drops down on biped. Biped falls to the ground. Long fingers find purchase round a rock. Biped frantically hits hungry leopard over the head with rock. Leopard very surprised, lets go. Biped lives to see another day. Phew.

From rock to bash leopard with, progress was probably quick, all the way to that day when a very thin, very sharp sliver of flint was used to do some basic hair removal. “Oooo! Look at my legs,” cooed Mrs Homo Erectus, “all smooth and unhairy.” (I’m not sure we should be grateful to her, BTW) Somewhat more seriously, making tools had a huge impact on our intellectual capacity. It requires intelligence to fashion a lump of rock into something – specifically, it requires a vision, the capacity to see what it will be once it is done.

Our tool-making forefather had thereby moved into the realm of conceptual thinking. Once you can look at an unshaped lump of rock and think “hmm, that would make a great hand-axe. All I need is to chip a bit here, and there, and then…” the step towards considering the future, where we might come from and where we might end up, is not that big. Yes, Homo Erectus may have been a bit unsteady on the ground, but his brain was expanding at an impressive speed.

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Moonlight on the Fens by G Coulson

So when next you stumble over your own two feet (and no, it’s not the feet’s fault: that has been scientifically proven) remember that this is the very, very small price you pay for being able to crane your head back to look at the night sky and wonder about life on Mars. Or listen to a Beethoven symphony. Or lose ourselves in art by men like Blakelock and Coulson. Mind you, Homo Erectus would probably not have appreciated the art. Or the music. And he had never heard of Mars. But he was thrilled to bits at having survived that leopard attack!

Love unto death and beyond

Come, bitter conduct, come, unsavoury guide!
Thou desperate pilot, now at once run on
The dashing rocks thy sea-sick weary bark!
Here’s to my love!
(Drinks.)
O true apothecary!
Thy drugs are quick. Thus with a kiss I die

And so Romeo brushed his lips against Juliet’s and died, preferring death to living without her. A very sad end, Mr Shakespeare, one that would not have gone down well with publishers of Romance, as such publishers (and such readers) much prefer a Happily Ever After, an alternative ending in which Romeo sits up and says “Nah, I was just kidding”, except, of course, that it wouldn’t have worked. Plus, the love story with the tragic ending is much more enduring than the one with the pink fluffy clouds.

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Don Afonso

Such love stories have been around since man first began telling stories – and sometimes, the story wasn’t a story, but rather a real-life drama. Like the tale I’m going to tell you today. I might as well warn you right from the beginning that there is no HEA. Nope. Not my fault, mind you. Instead, you should blame King Afonso IV of Portugal, except that he would tell you he did as he had to do to safeguard his realm. Or so he thought.

But let us start at the beginning, and to do so I think we must start in 1320, when the not-as-yet-king Don Afonso and his wife, Beatriz, welcomed a third son into the world. In difference to his brothers, little Pedro thrived, and Don Afonso could relax. He had an heir—at last.

Don Afonso did not only have sons—he had daughters as well, and the eldest, Maria, was married to Alfonso XI of Castile. An unhappy marriage, especially once Alfonso had clapped eyes on Leonor de Guzmán, thereby more or less abandoning his wife and their little son to spend all his time with Leonor and their children. Obviously, Don Afonso was very upset by all this, and he must have had days when he deeply regretted having given his daughter in marriage to such a cad. (I’m not so sure Alfonso XI was a cad: I think he just fell in love. More about all this and Leonor’s inevitable fate can be found here)

Even worse from Don Afonos’s perspective, Maria’s bridegroom had been married elsewhere when Don Afonso convinced Alfonso XI to wed Maria instead. This was sorted by Alfonso dissolving his first marriage. The jilted (and very young) bride, Constanza Manuel, had a VERY aggravated father, and so for years Don Afonso had been embroiled in a feud with Juan Manuel, Constanza’s father. However, as the years passed, Don Afonso and Juan Manuel found a common enemy in Alfonso XI: Afonso because of how his Maria was being treated, Juan Manuel because of how his Constanza had been treated.

The two fathers struck an alliance, and what better way to celebrate such an event than have Don Afonso’s son, Pedro, wed Constanza? Everyone—including the prospective groom—felt this was a good thing. Well, until Constanza and her entourage arrived in Portugal, that is. Because you see, among Constanza’s ladies was a certain Inés de Castro, and Pedro took one look and was lost, falling irrevocably in love with this beautiful Galician lady.

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Pedro and Inés

The marriage went ahead as planned. There must have been some affinity between the newly-weds, and soon enough Constanza was pregnant. But the woman Pedro spent his time with was Inés. It was with Inés he shared his dreams, it was in Inés’ ear he whispered sweet nothings, and poor Constanza was neglected and unhappy, albeit that she gave birth to three babies before she died in 1345, just six years after her marriage.

Don Afonso was anything but delighted with his son’s infatuation. First of all, he detested that his own son was treating his wife as shabbily as dear daughter Maria was being treated by her husband. Secondly, with Inés came her brothers, and Afonso didn’t like it, how Pedro fell under the influence of these Castilians. Thirdly, upon Constanza’s death, he worried that the little legitimate heir, Fernando, was puny and weak. What if Inés was to give Pedro a son, would Pedro prefer his lover’s son to his first-born?

The obvious solution to all this worrying would have been for Don Afonso to acquiesce when Pedro asked for his permission to marry Inés once Constanza was dead. But Don Afonso said no – he didn’t want to aggravate Constanza’s father, he felt Inés was well below Pedro, and he most definitely disliked the de Castro brothers. Instead, he proposed that his son find himself a new, royal bride. Not about to happen, Pedro told him. It was Inés or no one.

In response, Don Afonso supposedly had Inés sequestered in a convent. That didn’t stop Pedro, who spent his days roaming the lands abutting the convent and sending his beloved letters in bark boats that he floated across a river that separated convent land from the rest of the world. Inés managed to escape the convent (or more likely, the nuns just let her go, not quite relishing their role of jailors to the mistress of the future king) and Inés and Pedro set up house together. In secret, of course.

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Pedro

Inés was not welcome at court, and accordingly Pedro was not much at court either, the rift between him and his father widening into a chasm. Even worse from Don Afonso’s point of view, Inés presented Pedro with several healthy children, among which were two little sons. Something had to be done to safeguard Portugal from potential civil war (or so Afonso thought, assuming Pedro would prefer his sons by Inés to his son by Constanza. Turned out Pedro didn’t) Desperate measures were required to put a stop to Inés’ influence over Pedro.

There are two versions as to what to happened that January of 1355 – or rather where it happened. As per the romantic legend, the desperate king and his three accomplices waited until Pedro was out hunting before descending on Inés who sitting by the fountain in her patio. As per other versions, Inés was detained in a convent, and the king and his companions visited her there.

Whatever the case, these visitors did not come bearing gifts. No, they came with steel hidden under their mantels, and their intention was to kill the Castilian whore and thereby free Pedro from whatever emotional bonds he had forged with Inés.

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Inés pleading for her life (Karl Bruillon)

Inés was with her children when the king burst upon them. She prostrated herself before Don Afonso and begged for her life, for the life of their children. Apparently, the king was sufficiently touched to depart, leaving his trusted men to do the dirty job themselves. There was no mercy for Inés. Instead, she was brutally killed in front of her children, the final blow decapitating her.

If Don Afonso had thought this foul act would have Pedro crawling back home, he had seriously misjudged his son (duh!) Pedro was enraged, his grief taking on teeth and claws that he turned upon his father. At the head of a growing band of armed men, he harried Portugal from one end to the other, and the civil war Don Afonso had so wanted to avoid became a reality as a consequence of his own machinations.

In 1357, father and son were reconciled – well, sort of. Pedro never forgave his father for his heinous deed, but a truce was reached. Some months later, Don Afonso died, making Pedro king of Portugal.

His first act was to arrest the men who had killed his beloved Inés (two of them, the third managed to escape) and had them put to death most horrendously. Legend has it that Pedro himself tore their beating hearts out of their chests, saying it was only fair that they should feel what it was like to lose their hearts, seeing as they’d robbed Pedro of his heart by killing Inés. Whether this is true or not is difficult to ascertain at a distance of seven centuries. What is undisputed is that Pedro had the two murderers executed.

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A dead Inés on her throne.

Pedro also announced that he had married Inés in secret before she died – contrary to his father’s wishes. There is no surviving proof of such a wedding, not entirely unsurprising seeing as it was a secret wedding, and to this day we only have Pedro’s word for it ever taking place. Don Afonso wasn’t around to object, and so Pedro proclaimed his wife posthumous queen of Portugal. As per the more lurid version of the Inés-Pedro story, Pedro decided to subject his nobles to one final humiliation: he had his beloved Inés disinterred and sat her remains upon a throne after which his nobles had to do homage to the corpse and kiss its hand. Hmm.

Whether the above somewhat macabre anecdote is true or not, Pedro did disinter Inés and had her reburied in state in the Alcobaca monastery. Their tombs stand close together, their effigies facing each other. And as a final gesture to his beloved woman, Pedro had both tombs inscribed with the following: Até o fin do mundo –Until the end of the world.

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Inés spectacular tomb

Let us start as we began, by quoting the words of the Bard, albeit somewhat paraphrased: For never was there a story of more woe, than this of Inés and her Pedro. And in difference to Romeo and Juliet, Inés and Pedro were real persons, people who lived and loved and hoped and dreamed – until that long gone day in January of 1355 when Inés was brutally hacked to death in front of her children. Sad, isn’t it? Which is why I hope that now and then when the church in which they lie is draped in darkness, they whisper to each other.
“Are you there?” he asks.
“Always,” she whispers back.
“Until the end of time,” they say simultaneously, and for an instant the air around their tombs shimmers with golden light.

The whole world in His hands

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The Holy family, Murillo

Lately, I’ve been pondering the word “Christian”. Not Christian as in “yes, I belong to the Christian faith”, more Christian in “I am a Christian” (with a lot of emphasis on the italicised word) , which, as far as I can tell, means the person in question goes to church regularly and studied his/her bible frequently. This in difference to those who are of the Christian denomination by rote, eg they were baptized as Christians but don’t have their lives revolving around their faith. Now, before I go any further, there are a lot of active Christians out there (some of which I count as dear friends) who are very good people – which is fortunate, seeing as anyone defining themselves as “Christian first” have a lot to live up to.

You see, if a person presents themselves as “Christian”, my expectations on that person are that they will live up to the most basic of Christian tenets, namely charity. These last few days, I see a lot of stuff being presented as being part of “Christian” values, but I see little indication of this being done out of an encompassing, altruistic endeavor. Stopping refugees at the borders has little to do with altruism, far more to do with promoting a “we” and “them” take on the world, as does pushing your own “moral” agenda down the throat of people with fundamentally different beliefs. As does pointing fingers at those among us who refuse to be defined by their gender in everything from who they have sex with to how they dress.

I don’t go to church regularly, nor do I read my bible all that often. I do, however, struggle daily with being a good person, even if at times that means sharing when I don’t want to, helping when I don’t have time. I try. Often, I fail. But I try—hard—to live as per the most important message in the New Testament, namely “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.

ehfa-westminster-retablePlease note that others in the above sentence isn’t qualified. It doesn’t say “Do unto other Christians as you would have others do unto you.” Nor does it say “Do unto others who are like you as you would have others do unto you.” It just says “others”, which reasonably must be interpreted as meaning the entire human race. All of us, no matter race, gender or creed. It would seem Jesus really did believe in having the whole world in His hands.

So, now that we’ve established that “others” means others as in stepping-out-of-our-comfort-zone others, maybe we should analyse the rest of the sentence.

Do unto others as you would have others do unto you. If you slip on a patch of ice and fall, you’d like someone to help you up, right? So it follows that if you see someone slipping, you should hasten forward to pull them back up on their feet. Life is not always a walk in the park. There is plenty of ice out there, metaphorically speaking. One very nasty patch of ice is called war, and at present the world has I don’t know how many millions of people fleeing their homelands and the life they’ve known—not because they want to, but because they have to. They’ve slipped pretty badly, one could say, and as good human beings, and definitely as a Christian, we have an obligation to give them a helping hand. After all, it could be us out there, stuck in a patched tent with UN rations the only thing keeping starvation at bay.

slide1When people are in need, it shouldn’t matter if they’re Muslim or Jewish or Hindu or walk about dyed blue, or wear nothing but a loin cloth. It shouldn’t matter if they’re young or old, if they’re male or female. They need help. It is part of basic decency to offer it.

When some among us choose to live in same-sex relationships, this is not ground for condemnation, no matter what Leviticus might have to say on the matter. By the time Jesus came round, Leviticus was OLD stuff, probably severely outdated even back then. Besides, how on earth can anyone purporting to believe in Jesus condemn someone for loving? A good Christian should, IMO, show toleration and respect. A good Christian should, once again IMO, defend every person’s right to find happiness where they can find it – as long as they do not cause anyone else harm. A good Christian should remember “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you” and reflect on the fact that there could come a time when they’re in minority. Surely, they’d want to be respected and tolerated by the surrounding majority who chose to live/believe differently from them, right?

Had He not been resurrected, I think Jesus would have been spinning like a top in the grave, groaning out loud at all the people who take His name in vain. Because that’s what you do if you loudly proclaim yourself a Christian but lack in charity and compassion. Once in heaven, Jesus won’t be all that impressed by hearing about bible-reading and church-going. It’s the actions that count, and He’ll want to know about what you did, how you contributed to alleviate the suffering of those who have little – or nothing at all.

So if you’re going to present yourself as “Christian”, please do some loving. And caring. Be tolerant and supportive. Extend that hand of yours and help, no matter who it is that has slipped on the ice.

hand-20170205_142546Actually, all of this is valid no matter what you might believe in. So let me rephrase: be a GOOD person, okay? Or try to be. The world needs good people—now more than ever. It needs us to care, to defend those who are weaker, to stand up for everyone’s right to be treated with respect. It needs us to show some basic decency and remember that the human condition is a global condition. It needs those of us who’ve attended Sunday school in those distant days of our childhood to hum “black and yellow, red and white, they’re all precious in His sight” and remember that the similarities that bind us are far, far greater than the differences.
You are my brother/sister. Here’s my hand if you need it!

Avesnes vs Dampierre – a 13th century family feud

drottning_blanka_malning_av_albert_edelfelt_fran_1877In a previous post—quite some time ago—I wrote about Blanka of Namur, Swedish queen who was immortalised by a nursery rhyme. I must admit that I knew very little about Blanka—there isn’t much to find, and other than concluding her father’s name was Jean and that she had ten siblings, I concentrated mostly on Blanka’s life in Sweden.

Now Blanka (or Blanche, as her name was spelled in French) came from a relatively illustrious family that had had the misfortune of antagonising Philippe IV of France. Antagonising this gentleman was generally a bad idea. Although Philippe had the face of an angel—hence his nickname, le Bel—he comes across as a ruthless ruler—hence his nickname the Iron King—more than willing to do whatever it took to advance his interests.

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Baldwin, setting off on Crusade

If we start at the beginning, allow me to introduce you to Guy de Dampierre. No, wait: we need to start with Guy’s formidable mother, Margaret of Flanders, born around 1202. Margaret had an unfortunate childhood in that her father, Baldwin of Hainault, took the cross and rode off to join the Fourth Crusade before she was born, and no sooner had Margaret’s mother, Marie de Champagne, recovered from the ordeal of birth but she followed her husband, leaving her two little girls in the care of their paternal uncle. Soon enough, both Baldwin and Marie were dead, and Margaret’s big sister, Jeanne, was effectively the heiress to Hainault and Flanders.

When big sister Jeanne married Fernando of Portugal (a.k.a. Ferrand of Flanders) there were plans to marry Margaret to the Earl of Salisbury, but Margaret’s guardian, Bouchard de Avesnes, put a stop to this. Instead, in 1212 Bouchard married Margaret himself, this despite the bride being only ten, twenty years younger than Bouchard. At this point, things could have taken a turn for the HEA. By all accounts, Margaret was very fond of her husband—and he of her. But Bouchard was a bellicose person, who was constantly involved in one war or another. At times, he was fighting his brother, at others, he made common cause with the English against the French. Like at the Battle of Bouvines in 1214. Big mistake, seeing as the then French king Philippe Augustus emerged victorious and wasn’t exactly known for his clemency towards those he defeated.

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It was suggested to Philippe Augustus that the best way to get to Bouchard was to have the pope declare his marriage invalid. The pope did so in 1215, but Margaret and Bouchard refused to accept his ruling and fled to Luxemburg where they settled down to do some serious begetting—three sons in three years, even if their firstborn died after a year or so.

Things conspired against Bouchard who was captured and locked up in Ghent. Pressure was brought to bear on Margaret—big sister Jeanne seems to have detested Bouchard—and according to some sources she reluctantly agreed to having her marriage annulled so that Bouchard could regain his freedom. Bouchard, just as reluctantly, agreed to the separation. The idea, apparently, was for Bouchard to ride to Rome and plead their case before the pope. Sister Jeanne, however, took the opportunity to marry Margaret off to another man, a William de Dampierre.

To say things were complicated is putting it mildly: Margaret had two sons by her first marriage, and to make matters even worse, Bouchard was still very much alive and kicking, making this second marriage borderline bigamous. (How on earth did she tell him? “Hi honey, I know we have sworn to love each other for ever, no matter what popes and kings may think, but I think I may just have made a teensy-weensy mistake. I’ve married someone else. I hope you won’t mind.” )

One wonders just why William de Dampierre was willing to marry Margaret, and given the circumstances, I’m not about to put it down to passionate love. I rather think he was gambling on Margaret becoming the next Countess of Flanders, seeing as Joan’s husband was languishing in prison after the Battle of Bouvines, thereby hindered from siring any children with his wife.

For some odd reason, Margaret quickly decided her sons from her second marriage were much more dear to her than those from her first. Maybe she was just trying to forget she had once been married to Bouchard. Maybe she genuinely preferred both her second husband and her second brood of children. Maybe it was as simple as her being aware of the fact that in the eyes of the church, her Avesnes sons were illegitimate. Whatever the case, she and William had five children before William died in 1231. Margaret chose not to remarry. Perhaps because Bouchard was still alive…

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Margaret’s seal

In 1244, several things happened. Bouchard died – some say he was executed on Countess Jeanne’s orders. Margaret was now definitely a widow, both her husbands dead and buried. That same year, Jeanne died and Margaret became Countess of Flanders, making her eldest Dampierre son, William, her co-ruler.

This did not go down well with her Avesnes sons (Duh!) Soon enough, there was major strife in Flanders and Hainault. In 1246, the French king, Louis IX, ruled that Hainault was to go to the Avesnes sons, Flanders to the Dampierre sons. Margaret refused to turn over Hainault to her son John de Avesnes, war exploded. Things came to a head in 1251 when the Avesnes sons had William assassinated. And this dear peeps, is when Guy de Dampierre, Margaret’s second Dampierre son and grandfather of the future Swedish queen, Blanche of Namur, finally steps into the limelight.

Now Guy may have been a charming gentleman, but he wasn’t the most effective of men. Or maybe his Avesnes half-brother, John, was simply a better warrior. Whatever the case, in 1253 Guy was defeated by John in battle and taken prisoner. He kicked his heels for three years before he was ransomed in 1256. Yet again, Louis of France decided that Hainault should go to the Avesnes family, Flanders to the de Dampierres. Yet again, Margaret was reluctant, but when John de Avesnes died in 1257 she agreed to have her young grandson, also a John, named as Count of Hainault—with her as his regent.

I have no idea what Guy thought of all this. His domineering mother had no intention of relinquishing control anywhere, so for the coming two decades, he was co-ruler of Flanders, which probably meant he had little say in anything. Maybe he liked it that way. After all, the man sired sixteen legitimate children with two consecutive wives, so maybe he preferred spending time with his family.

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Guy himself

In 1278, Margaret decided it was time to step down. At last Guy came into his own. But in France, King Philippe IV wanted to make life difficult for the English, who traded extensively with Flanders. Obviously, the Flemish merchants—or Guy—did not share Philippe’s goal. Philippe decided to up the pressure. Did not go down well, but Guy couldn’t exactly challenge Philippe on his own. Which was why, in 1294, Guy came up with the brilliant idea of entering into an alliance with Edward I of England. How? By offering the hand of his daughter Philippa as a wife to Edward, Prince of Wales.

Philippe was having none of it. He was presently negotiating with the English king, attempting to take advantage of the difficult situation with Scotland. So he abducted Philippa and locked her up. The poor child would never regain her freedom, dying twelve years later, still a prisoner of the French king. Very sad, isn’t it? And as to Guy, Philippe decided some coercion was required to make the Count of Flanders realise just how dangerous it was to rile him. Which was why Guy and two of his sons also ended up as prisoners.

Once he’d promised never, ever to marry one of his daughters to an English prince, Guy and his sons were released. In 1297, Guy yet again allied himself with Edward I, which gave Philippe the excuse he needed to invade Flanders. And as to Edward, he made his own peace with Philippe in 1298, leaving poor Guy in the lurch. Once again, Guy was imprisoned, and this time, except for a brief period in 1302, he would not regain his freedom. In 1305, Guy died, still a prisoner of the French king.

I’m thinking many, many Flemish people heaved sighs of relief when Philippe died in 1314 – some say due to being cursed by Jacques de Molay, the last Grand Master of the Templars. (Different story: see more here) Too late for Guy, too late for Philippa, but Guy had many, many children, and his sixth son, Jean, was made Marquis of Namur.

At the advanced age of forty-three this Jean married the nineteen-year-old Marie d’Artois and over the coming twenty years she would give him eleven children—one of which was little Blanche, destined to be queen of Sweden. I’m thinking Margaret of Flanders would have liked that. Just as she would have liked that her great-great-granddaughter, Philippa of Hainault, would one day become Queen of England—even if Philippa was an Avesnes, not a Dampierre.

A priceless treasure – of crocuses and saffron

From where I am sitting on this cold winter day, I can see a stand of snowdrops. Puny little things, giving little reassurance spring is anywhere close. Unfortunately, no matter how I look, I cannot find the pointy narrow green shoots that presage my favourite among spring flowers, the crocus. But seeing as I am desperately longing for spring, I’ve decided a little excursion into the wild and exciting life of the crocus might be just the thing.

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Photo by KENPEI Licensed under CC BY_SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Okay, so crocuses have little of excitement in their lives. Up they grow, and once the spring sun is warm enough, they open their faces to the sun, presenting us with a colourful display that ranges from the most pristine of white to the explosive compo of deep purple and bright, bright yellow. After some days, they’re so exhausted by all this show-casing that they wilt. In truth, a brief display of beauty – and not at all exciting.

Crocuses are among the oldest of our flowers. The name must have very ancient roots, and whether in Sanskrit or ancient Hebrew, English, German or Spanish, the flower’s name is very similar. And it was obviously a very appreciated little flower, what with it being mentioned in the Song of Solomon and depicted for posterity in ancient frescoes found in Santorini.

The reason for its popularity was not the modest flower. No, the crocus was precious because of saffron – yet another word that sounds more or less the same in most languages, indicating just how ancient our relationship is with this particular spice. Personally, I prefer azafrán, the Spanish word that still clings to its Arab roots.

Saffron is a very, very expensive spice. One gram costs approximately two pounds (three dollars), and as always when it comes to pricing, this reflects just how restricted the supply is versus the demand. Harvesting saffron must be one of the most labour intensive jobs in the world, and it takes approximately 250 000 flowers to generate 1 kilo of saffron. Why? Because saffron consists of the three stigma a crocus plant produces, bright red lightweight things that look like short treads.

saffron-cueilleuse_de_safran_fresque_akrotiri_greceNo one really knows where the saffron crocus originated, but as shown in Minoan pottery and frescoes, well over three thousand years ago people were picking the delicate threads. We know the Assyrians held saffron in high regard, as did the Egyptians. After all, saffron is a versatile product, as useful as a spice as in medicine and in colour production. It was also considered an aphrodisiac, and Cleopatra sprinkled her bathwater (or should that be bathmilk? Although as I hear it, it would take a veritable army of donkeys to fill a bath tub with their milk…) with saffron to increase the pleasures of lovemaking. (Which requires yet another parenthesis as we ponder whether this is lovemaking in the bath or after the bath. Well, we will never know, will we?)

In difference to most other crocuses, the saffron crocus flowers in autumn. Bright purple flowers open to capture the rays of the autumn sun for one day, and the pickers must be quick to harvest the stigma – even more so as almost all the crocuses flower within the same week or so. As a word of advice, don’t go around assuming all crocus look-a-likes that flower in autumn are saffron crocuses. Chances are you’re looking at what is called meadow saffron (or naked lady), an entirely different genus to crocuses – and very, very poisonous with no known antidote.

Right: so now you know more than you necessarily feel you need to know about saffron crocuses – except that there is one crucial part missing. You see, the saffron crocus is sterile, so the only way to propagate it is through the corms. This makes it more difficult to cultivate, which of course was great news for whoever already had a nice little saffron plantation going, not so great for those who wanted to enter into competition. A so called high-entry barrier market…

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A medieval market

In medieval Europe, saffron was the thing. Even more so as it was disgustingly expensive, a way to shout to the world just how rich you were. Throughout the ages, rich people have shared this little idiosyncrasy, that of having to ascertain everyone else knows just how loaded they are, whether it be by driving Aston Martin DB9’s (yes, please!) or by having a couple of houses more than they need, or buying Crystal champagne by the crate, or, in medieval times, by splurging on saffron. Somehow, saffron consumption seems quite low-key in comparison.

The saffron prices sky-rocketed in the 14th century in the aftermath of the Black Death, as saffron was a recurring ingredient in all the potions and salves produced to ward off the pestilence. A ship loaded with saffron was hi-jacked by a nobleman and triggered a two week war; Venice imported as much saffron as it could find and sold it at exorbitant prices. Being a saffron-pirate was, for a short time, a lucrative profession. In brief, people went a bit wild and crazy.

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Burn those dratted saffron-cutters!

Now, with such a profitable commodity, many were tempted to cheat – to cut the saffron, so to say, by mixing it with other stuff. This was not approved off. In 15th century Nürnberg, a man was burned at the stake for doing this. Some years later, two men and a woman were buried alive for the same crime. Clearly, tampering with saffron was considered a very bad thing to do.

Even more were tempted to steal some of the precious corms. After all, once you had some, you could relatively quickly (like over 3-5 years) develop bulbs. Obviously, those that had saffron bulbs and corms weren’t about to give them away. What was required was an intrepid and brave undercover agent to somehow infiltrate the crocus fields and dig up the prize. Even more importantly, the corms had to be smuggled out of whatever territory they might be in, as controls were rigorous.

As per legend, the English had one such agent. I have no idea what he might have looked like, but suspect we are looking for a person who blended in well, ergo was rather non-descript and who definitely didn’t make a nuisance of himself by ordering “stirred, not shaken” hippocras. The gentleman in question toddled off to the Holy Land, and I hope he took the opportunity to combine his botanical espionage with some serious pilgrimaging. Some years later, the man returned to England, safe and sound. The pilfered corms were hidden in his walking staff.

Edward III was probably very pleased – finally, England was on the road of self-sufficiency when it came to saffron. His secret agent was dispatched to Essex and an anonymous little place. Over time, this place was renamed as Saffron Walden – no need to explain why, methinks – and for the coming centuries or so, saffron was cultivated in various parts of England, contributing to the relative wealth of the saffron farmers.

saffron-crocus-1Things rarely remain the same. At the dawn of the Early Modern Age, England was inundated by new spices, new commodities. Tea and coffee, chocolate and spices from the New World – they all supplanted saffron as the next hot thing in cooking. English saffron farmers went out of business, and after several centuries of home-grown saffron, English saffron addicts now had to depend on deliveries from Spain.

These days, Iran is by far the largest producer of saffron. Spain comes in as a steady number two, delivering approximately one ton of saffron per year to the market. That, ladies and gentlemen, is not all that much – not when you’re the world’s second largest producer. I guess it reflects the fact that over time the saffron crocus hasn’t changed. Just as it did in the distant past, it produces only three stigma, precious red threads that have to be harvested by hand. And just as in those long gone times, saffron remains the most precious of spices – well worth it, if you ask me, seeing as I am about to dig into a delicious fish soup, in which saffron and cream combine into a golden, fragrant dish.

Me and them – a beleaguered writer and her characters

It is strange with characters: once you’ve created them, they never go away. Not even when you’re no longer writing about them, but have moved over to other invented loves. They lurk in your head, mostly as silent shadows of themselves, now and then substantially more vociferous.

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Apparently, not the last…

“Just because you’re done with us, doesn’t mean we’re done with you,” Alex Graham tells me, graciously accepting a cup of tea. (Now and then, we have these intense tea sessions in my head: all my characters and me. Like a major reunion…)
“Really? I’d never have guessed,” I reply. For the last few weeks, Alex and her 17th century hubby have been very active in my brain. So actiove, in fact, that I’ve written another 110 000 words about them. And here was I, thinking To Catch a Falling Star was the last in The Graham Saga.
“What do you expect?” Matthew asks, looking up from where he’s mending a rake. “We still have plenty of life left to us, and surely you must sympathise with our need to find out what happens to our bairns, our friends?”
I do. Heck, I want to find out too. It’s just that at present, I am mostly with Adam and Kit and the struggles they’re facing in 14th century England. Or with Jason and Helle, as we speak facing off with their own personal nemesis.
“Yes, please get on with that, would you?” Jason says, an accusing expression in his bloodied face. “You can’t leave us here, dangling between life and death for much longer.”
“Sorry.” I hand him a big cup of tea – and a huge slice of chocolate cake which he promptly passes to Helle. Jason doesn’t do sweet stuff. He’s into broccoli and chicken and other healthy stuff. “You’re making me sound very boring,” he says, those amber eyes of his giving me an accusing look.

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Coming 2017…

So maybe I should add that he’s very, very old, remembers most of his 50 odd lives, and has the most amazing mahogany coloured hair. Plus he’s been looking for Helle in each and every one of those lives with like zero success rate except for the life when he found her floating dead in Paris—and this one.
“A very persevering man.” Helle drags her blonde curls off her face, revealing that she too is looking the worse for wear. “Look, could you please just finish this scene before I catch my death of a cold and die?” Oh, right: she’s soaked. And if I were her, I’d be more worried about drowning.
“She can’t swim?” Kit asks, eyeing Helle over the rim of her mug. My 14th century leading lady stays close to her man, the green of her kirtle complementing her blue eyes. And her red hair, except that she isn’t showing us any hair, neatly veiled as behoves a modest wife.
“Modest?” Adam chuckles. “Haven’t you heard what she did to save me from certain death?”
Err, yes, I have. I wrote it, remember? Central scene in In the Shadow of the Storm… “Ah, aye, so you did.” He looks a bit confused. “But tell me, is it you that writes in which direction things will go, or is it we who direct you what to write?”
“I can swim,” Helle pipes up before I can reply to Adam’s question. “But I’m no fan of deep water.”
“And yet there is no need to swim in the shallows,” Kit replies. She nibbles daintily at her chocolate cake. “What is this?”
“Something as yet not discovered back in your time,” Alex tells her. “Just making a name for itself in our time.”
“Our time?” Helle leans forward. “I thought you were from my time.”
“I was.” Alex smiles at Matthew and squeezes his hand. “But now his time is my time.” She fixes me with one of those death-ray looks she uses to quell her many children. “You could have chosen a time with more modern comforts.”
“Sorry.” I jerk my thumb at Matthew. “He was in the 17th century. That’s where he belongs, rooted to his time in a way you’re not.”
“Aye,” Matthew says. “I prefer not being dragged through time.” He nods at Adam. “What do you think?”

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The next Adam & Kit book, coming in April

“Plenty of challenges in my time,” Adam replies. “I do not need to further complicate things.” He looks away.
“Will Mortimer win, do you think?” Matthew asks.
“You know, don’t you?” Adam asks.
“Aye, I do.”
“So why ask?” Adam demands, getting to his feet. “Is it to taunt me, for not knowing what to do when the lord I love as a father usurps the powers of the young king I serve and love just as much?”
Matthew clears his throat. “No, of course not.” He grasps Adam’s arm and pulls him into a rough embrace. “You’re a good man, de Guirande. Your conscience will guide you.”
“Amen to that.” Kit sets a hand to Adam’s shoulder. “And I’ll be there.”
“Nothing you can do, sweeting,” Adam tells her. He sighs. “Nothing either of us can do.” He turns my way. “How will it end?”
“Sorry. Can’t tell you.” I make a zipping gesture over my mouth.
“Bloody enervating writers,” Alex mutters, joining her husband and Adam and Kit. “Think they can decide our lives just as it pleases them.”

In the case of Roger Mortimer, I am restricted by historical facts—as I am, if to a lesser extent, when telling Matthew’s and Adam’s story. But I don’t say that out loud. Besides, when it comes to my invented characters, I rarely feel entirely in control. To answer Adam’s question, generally things turn out with me on control. Until they take a firm hold of their fates—even if it plays havoc with my initial plotline. Just as their continued presence threatens to play havoc with my sanity.

“Tsss!” Alex gives me a light shove. “Admit it, you love having us here.”
I do. Of course, I do. Without them, my head would be very empty. Sort like a huge black coffin without a corpse in it.
“You just have to accept it,” Helle says, handing me the last of the chocolate cake. “We may only exist in your head, but we’re the immortal ones here. Long after you’re gone to dust, we’ll still be around, sitting on a bookshelf or a Kindle somewhere.”

Well, that put me in my place, didn’t it? Me, the mere mortal, has spawned invented characters that potentially will outlive me. For some reason, that makes me smile before going in search of the Advil. Seriously, must they talk so much? And at the same time?

Put not your trust in princes

Some time ago, I wrote a post about the unfortunate Danish princess Ingeborg who was sent off to France to marry Philippe Augustus and instead ended up as Philippe’s prisoner for a number of years, this after a wedding night that somehow must have been very momentous. After all, it was the morning after that Philippe emerged from the chamber and promised he would never, ever spend another night with the woman within. Quite the little mystery, that.

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Peter of Bourbon

Today, I’m going to introduce you to yet another sad little princess. Once again, the bride is abandoned only days after the wedding, but this time we probably know why. Well, perhaps. Anyway, allow me to introduce Blanche. When we first meet her, she is twelve or so, one of Peter of Bourbon’s six daughters.

One could say that Blanche’s future fate was shaped by the Black Death. Had Princess Joan of England, Edward III’s daughter, not died of the plague while on her way to wed Pedro of Castile (sometimes known as Pedro the Cruel, sometimes as Pedro the Just – a matter of perspective and political spin, I suppose) then Pedro would not have needed a wife. Had not the pope and the French king John II jumped at the opportunity of throwing a major wrench in Edward III’s plans for a new alliance with Castile, likely she’d never have popped up on the list of potential brides. And had it not been because Pedro’s first choice among the French ladies, the purportedly drop-dead AND wise Dowager Queen Blanche of Navarra, had told him no, our little Blanche would never have travelled all the way to Castile, there to wed the Castilian king.

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Beautiful Blanche of Navarra is the lady to the right

Before we go on, I just have to digress: Blanche of Navarra was known throughout Europe for her beautiful countenance, and originally came to France to marry the future John II. However, John’s father, Philippe VI, who was recently widowed was afflicted by a serious coup de foudre and decided to marry this angelic creature himself. Did not go down well with John. What Blanche thought of all this, I have no idea, but one year later, Philippe died, supposedly due to having exhausted himself in bed. Blanche was now a twenty-year-old widow, and would remain a widow for the rest of her life. Maybe John II wanted it so. Maybe Blanche wanted it so.

Anyway, back to today’s leading lady: Blanche of Bourbon came with an impeccable pedigree. Through her mother she was the great-granddaughter of Philippe III and the cousin of the French king John II. Her father was the great-grandson of Saint Louis of France, and as Saint Louis had a Castilian mother, Blanca, little Blanche was also a distant relation of her future groom. She was also a generously dowered bride, John of France promising Pedro 300 000 gold florins, money Pedro needed to finance the ongoing civil war between him and his half-brothers.

You see, the situation in Castile was a tad messy, seeing as Pedro’s father Alfonso XI had preferred his mistress, Leonor, to Pedro’s mother, Maria. As a consequence, when Alfonso died he had only one legitimate heir—Pedro—but half a dozen or so bastard sons with Leonor. And when Pedro’s mother decided to execute her husband’s mistress, things quickly went downhill. (More about all this can be found here)

The negotiations for the Blanche and Pedro marriage took some time. By the time Blanche set off for Castile, she was almost fourteen—a big, big girl in a big, big world. Well, not such a big girl, actually. Probably rather scared, and even more so when she arrived in Valladolid only to have her groom delay the marriage. Now what?

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Maria saying hello to Pedro. (not likely!)

We are now in early 1353, and Pedro had recently met the love of his life, Maria de Padilla. No matter what the various chroniclers may think of Pedro, they do seem to agree on the fact that Maria was not only very pretty, she was also kind and a good influence on Pedro in his darker moments. But she wasn’t a princess, and the king had to contract a dynastic marriage.

Some say the reason for the delay between Blanche arriving in Spain and Pedro marrying her was due to his love for Maria—he just couldn’t countenance betraying her with another woman. The truth is probably more prosaic: Pedro had as yet not received the moneys promised him by John II of France (The huge dower was to be paid in instalments)

Anyway, in June of 1353, a reluctant Pedro finally married Blanche, more or less dragged to the altar by his mother. Three days later he abandoned her and would never again treat her as his wife, rather as his prisoner. There are various theories as to why he did this. Some say it was because he found out his bride was not a virgin (but would that have taken him three days?) and even worse, she’d welcomed one of Pedro’s half-brothers, Fadrique, to her bed. Hmm, is all I say.

Others say it was because of his love for Maria. Once wed, he realised just how unbearable life would be without the light of his life, and so decided to be forever faithful to Maria, while throwing Blanche in prison to stop her objecting. Yet again, hmm.

The third reason (and the one borne out—to some extent—by letters he sent to the pope) is that he found out he’d been duped: the French king had no intention of ever honouring his promise of 300 000 florins, and seeing as John was nowhere about for Pedro to vent his anger on, poor Blanche got it all.

Copyright Museums Sheffield / Supplied by The Public Catalogue FoundationWhatever the case, he must have been very, very angry, because instead of just sending Blanche home, he locked her up. A year later, he managed to convince some of his bishops to declare his marriage null and void and married Juana de Castro – but even then, he held on to poor Blanche who, as per her own letters to the pope, was kept in anything but a comfortable captivity.

Juana was also abandoned after some time—this time because the pope threatened Pedro with excommunication if he did not return to his first, true wife (Blanche)—but Pedro spent long enough with her to sire a son, even if he made it very clear that in his opinion his true wife was Maria, so his children by her had precedence. And as to Blanche, well Pedro had no intention of returning to her. Ever.

After all this marital effort, coupled with a lot of fighting and blood and gore in general—Pedro left a relatively high number of murdered people in his wake, not all of them necessarily by his hand or his orders, but still—Pedro made his home with Maria, who was to present him with four children, albeit that the only son died young. Those who’d been around for some time muttered that history was repeating itself: just like his father, Pedro was spending his time with his mistress rather than his wife. Of course, in this particular case, there were TWO wives. Very complicated, and the only one utterly delighted by this mess was Enrique of Trastámera, Pedro’s half-brother and contender for the Castilian crown.

The pope continued to thunder. Innocent IV sent letter after letter, demanding that Pedro recognise Blanche as his wife – or at least free her from her prison. In Castile, a number of romances saw the light of the day, sad little stories that all had a poor, imprisoned princess as the protagonist. Some of Pedro’s nobles began to make a lot of noise on behalf of Blanche. The French kept on insisting that she be returned to them—together with what dowry they had paid. The obvious solution would have been to send Blanche home. Instead, Pedro opted for a more creative approach.

In 1361, Blanche was being held in the royal palace at Jeréz de la Frontera, far away from anyone attempting to free her. Pedro approached the constable and told him to poison the prisoner. The constable refused and resigned his post. Pedro found a new constable who was more than happy to do as the king wished, and so poor Blanche expired. Whether she was forced to consume whatever contained the poison, I don’t know. But I hold it likely, as failure was not an option if you were serving dear Pedro. Mind you, there are some that say Blanche could have died of natural causes, but seeing as her death followed upon a sequence of assassinations, I must yet again offer up a hmm. Whatever the case, Blanche was now as dead as a rock, and Pedro could happily skip off to tell Maria the good news. She could now be queen in name as well as fact.

Unfortunately for Pedro, Maria died shortly after. So devastated was he, that for a year he wept in grief. Then he pulled himself together and went back to defending his realm, this time with the support of the Black Prince. Wily Pedro had secured an alliance with England by promising two of his daughters as brides to Edward III’s sons. Effectively, this could lead to Castile becoming a vassal state to England.

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Pedro being murdered, with du Guesclin holding his arms

In the end, Pedro lost. In 1369 he was foully murdered by his half-brother, stabbed to death while held immobile by a rather famous French dude called Bertrand du Guesclin. Reputedly, du Guesclin had first accepted a bribe from Pedro to help him escape, then told Enrique (whom he was serving as a mercenary commander) about this. Enrique promised du Guesclin more money if he would only lead Pedro to Henry’s tent. Du Guesclin thought this was a great idea, and when Pedro and Enrique started to fight, he stood to the side. Well, until Pedro managed to land on top of Enrique. At this point, Bertrand stepped forward and grabbed hold of Pedro while saying “Ni quito ni pongo rey, pero ayudo a mi señor,” which meant “I am not really interfering here, I am simply helping my lord.” Since then, this has been used as a blanket excuse by all Spanish grandees doing as ordered, no matter if it is right or wrong.( Nah, just kidding)

blanche-john_william_waterhouse_-_fair_rosamundMaybe we can see Pedro’s bloody death as divine retribution for what he did to Blanche. A young girl had her life stolen from her, made to pay for the duplicity of others. And whether or not he had her poisoned, he had humiliated her and mistreated her, dragging her from one locked tower to the other. It is said Blanche herself never wanted to marry Pedro: she begged her father, her king, her mother and sister, to find another bride for the Castilian groom. At the time, her opinion was dismissed as unimportant – an alliance with Castile was far more important than a young girl’s misgivings. Turned out Blanche was right: the union with Pedro was all thorns no blooms, and as to that alliance, it evaporated the moment Pedro realised the French king never intended to pay the promised dowry. Poor, poor Blanche. Poor little French princess, so far from home, so very alone. Did she sit at her window and stare towards the horizon, hoping to see someone come riding to save her? If she did, she did so in vain.

A shallow nomad

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Genghis Khan with a yurt in the background

Had I lived back in the times of Genghis Khan, I would have been one of the Mongolian wives protesting loudly whenever the horde packed up and moved on.
“Leave my yurt alone,” I’d have told the fearless Mongolian warrior who was the father of my children. “Seriously, I want to put down roots, ok? You know, il faut cultiver son jardin and all that.”

I guess my nomadic husband would just have laughed. He lived for the roaming across the steppes – as did all the Mongolians. Except for me, had I been around. I like living in one place. I like sleeping in the same bed every night. Which is why it is ironic that, as of today, I have three beds I can call my own. In three different locations.

This my most recent bed addition is due to work. I start a new, exciting job tomorrow—I’ll be commuting on a weekly basis—and I’d go crazy if I didn’t have something more permanent than a hotel to spend my evenings/nights in. So despite not having one single nomadic bone in my body, here I am: three homes. Home with a capital H is the apartment in Malmö – the one with hubby in it. This is also the address the tax authorities consider my home, and we all know that if the tax authorities say something, it is useless to disagree.

Then there’s the country house – which also comes with a capital H, seeing as every rock, every piece of timber in that place calls out to my soul. And then there’s here, in the new place. As yet, this is home with a very lower case h. Especially after the last 24 hours of excitement involving an exploding microwave oven, beeping hubs and non-working dishwasher/washing machine. Also, it takes time for a place to become home – or maybe it’s a question of what it contains…

nomads-20170113_143024For me, marking a space as my home has always been related to unpacking my books. Once the book cases are up, once I’ve dusted and sorted my babies, Anna is finally in place. Yes, I want a pic or two of my kids, it’s important the two pictures my dad painted are there, but mostly it’s my literary treasures, from Kristin Lavransdotter, through Gösta Berling’s Saga, Strindberg’s collected short stories to Somerset Maugham, my Anthony Burgess books, all my historical fiction books all the way to Miguel Cervantes, Vargas Llosa and García Marquez.

These books are pretty well-travelled. They smell of old dust, of the occasional close encounter with damp. Now and then, I find a fragile sheet of paper stuck between the pages, and some of them are heavily annotated in the margins. Some are falling apart—more or less. My Tolkien books have so much scotch tape holding their spine together, I can no longer read the titles. The same goes for my Sharon K Penman books. Doesn’t matter: I recognise them anyway. In the dark.

nomads-20170115_155102Obviously, I can’t take all my books from Home to home. That would make Home home, and I do want Home to remain being Home. So I compromised and took a couple of books with me. That helped a bit. They look a bit pathetic, standing to one side of my little bookshelf, but I comfort myself with the fact that there is room for more books. Then I went out and bought myself a new teapot-slash-thermos. That helped a bit more, as did the matching mugs. Then I bought some candlesticks, added candles, and the new place was at least a home. And I stand revealed as something of a materialist, don’t I? Things. Is that what makes a home?

I think most of us would say no. And yet all of us have homes full of things. Ah, some would say, but my things come with memories. Sure they do – some of them. My books, for example, are all tied to the memory of reading them – in some cases several times. But the lamp I bought at Ikea because it was quirky, my new teapot-slash-thermos (very pretty, crap as a teapot: form over function, peeps), the roasting pan I bought some weeks ago because the old one was simply old—they are rather a consequence of that materialistic gene, I fear. And I don’t want to be a materialist. It makes me feel shallow. Oh, God: a shallow materialist—what can possibly be worse than that? Oh, right: being a nomad.

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Mongols doing some amassing

Mind you, nomads can also be materialistic. Take, for example, that Mongolian yurt back in the 12th century, one of the many yurts following the Mongolian horde west across the steppe. This was glamping before glamping had been invented, as yurts were much more than a tent. It had walls and a door and a roof. It had carpets and pillows and furniture and, in some cases, even a floor. And as the Mongolians conquered, they amassed belongings, showing us that materialism was going strong already back then.

Come to think of it, materialism has always been going strong. Us humans have had an urge to collect things since our cave-living days. Initially, because one never knew just when that piece of flint or length of rawhide might come in useful. Over time, because he who had three flints was considered much better than he who only had one. Phew. I need not worry about being shallow—I am merely acting on instinct—which is why, of course, I just HAD to buy new satin sheets for my new apartment.

Despite the sheets and the candlesticks and the odd books, it will take time for my new home to become Home. You see, the truly fundamental part is missing: my man. And not a thing in the world can compensate for the fact that when I go to bed tonight, I’ll go to bed alone.

A king, a seductress and their illicit love

Today, I thought we’d spend time with a legendary Spanish seductress, the Jewess from Toledo. The fact that Raquel probably did not exist is not relevant – Raquel is a symbol, a female representation of the Jewish faith in an increasingly more intolerant religious environment.

As per the legend, Raquel was beautiful. And gentle, and mild, and passionate and wise, and…well, every man’s dream come true, was Raquel, and this gorgeous creature clad in floating veils and with almond-shaped come-hither eyes caught King Alfonso’s attention.

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Today’s Alfonso

Right: minor pause to sort out the Alfonso issue. Today’s Alfonso was king of Castile and carries number VIII. He is one of Spain’s heroes after defeating the Moors at the battle of Las Navas de Tolosa – which was his way of salvaging his reputation and getting back the lands he lost to the self-same Moors at the battle of Los Alarcos. He is also the Alfonso who married Eleonor of England, daughter of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine. By all accounts, this was a highly successful marriage – but more of that later.

Anyway: Alfonso was only two when he became king, and throughout his minority his nobles fought each other for power while his uncle, king of León, discreetly annexed one little piece of Castile after the other. Fortunately, Alfonso grew up quickly, and at the age of fifteen, he took control over his kingdom. In some cases, this entailed wresting fortified cities by force from his disloyal nobles. One such city was Toledo, which the Lara family had decided to incorporate as part of their lands. Alfonso wasn’t having it – Toledo was the then capital of Castile – and through a mix of serendipity and subterfuge managed to retake the city.

At the time, our young hero was in his late teens. Toledo was a prize indeed, even more so as it was a city in which the Moorish, the Castilian, and the Jewish cultures lived in symbiosis. Toledo boasted magnificent multi-lingual libraries, its inhabitants worshiped God in churches, mosques and synagogues. Ancient streets, ancient walls, voices that rose in intellectual discussions while women of all faiths hastened by, adequately veiled. This was the city which the gorgeous Raquel Fermosa called home.

Fermosa is medieval Spanish for hermosa – beautiful. At the time, Castilian still retained a delicious labiodental fricative f in words like fermosa (now hermosa – beautiful), fabrar (now hablar – talk), fazer (now hacer – to do) soon to be replaced by a glottal fricative h which in turn would develop into being entirely mute as it is today. This is neither here nor there, I suppose, but the development of language is so fascinating, and I am now desperately fighting the urge to launch myself into some paragraphs re the Spanish lisped s-sound, “el ceceo”, versus non-lisped “el seseo” . But no. Not today. No. Nope.

Let us therefore return to our potential loving couple. I suppose it is fully possible that a victorious young king caught sight of the beautiful Jewess and indulged in some nights, weeks, even months, of passion. At the time, Alfonso was still a bachelor, but he was already betrothed to Eleonor of England. Already in 1170, he had sent an embassy to Henry II to request the hand of his daughter. Alfonso was only fifteen at the time and in desperate need of allies. Henry II and his impressive wife Eleanor of Aquitaine were the best allies a young man could have, and if such an alliance came with a bride, well, all the better.

Being betrothed did not mean living in celibacy, and the Castilian kings had a reputation as vigorous lovers, men who were rarely without a woman in their bed. The fact that Raquel was Jewish would in this context not matter all that much: she was one in a line of royal mistresses. So yes: should Alfonso have spied Raquel in Toledo in the early years of his reign, he may very well have indulged in bedsport with her. He may even have loved her deeply. We don’t know. We will never know.

Our legend, however, does not start with a carousing unwed king in Toledo. It starts several years later, with a married king who one day decided to take some time off from the tedious business of running his unruly realm. Leaving his English wife at home in Toledo, Alfonso and his companions rode out of the city, crossed the river Tajo, and indulged in some hunting.

At some point, the king raised his gaze upwards, and saw a dove desperately trying to evade a falcon. So impressed was the king by the dove’s determined attempts to flee that when the falcon struck the dove, the king lifted his bow and shot the falcon. (I know: a bit late in the day for the poor dove, but there you are) Pierced by an arrow, the falcon fell, landing behind a wall. A wall in the middle of the forest? The king was as intrigued as we are, dear peeps, and set off to explore.

raquel-waterhouse-my-sweet-roseThe wall rose out of mossy ground, old and massive it was garlanded with vines, some as thick as a man’s arm. At last, a gate, and after ordering his nervous squires to wait for him, the king set his hand to the wood and pushed. It grated and creaked as it swung open, and on the other side sunlight danced over ponds and bowers,over well tended rosebushes and narrow paths bordered by lavender. Alfonso had found a secret garden, a place of birdsong and murmuring waters, of air that smelled of sun and flowers. And in the garden, staring at the dead falcon, was the most beautiful woman the king had ever seen. She looked at him and inhaled. (Maybe she bit her lower lip. I have read somewhere that men go wild and crazy when women bite their lip) He couldn’t tear his eyes away from her. Somehow, they got over this embarrassing staring contest, he recovered the falcon and his arrow, mumbled some sort of goodbye, and left.

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Over the coming days, Alfonso couldn’t stop thinking about the apparition in the bower. The apparition suffered from a similar affliction. Never had she seen such a handsome knight before, and whenever she closed her eyes, his image sprang forth, causing her unaccustomed heat in unaccustomed places. Ah, me! She fanned herself, loitered in the shade of her huge rose bushes and watched the pink petals drift to the ground, where their pristine beauty quickly became bruised. (A portent, okay? Perfection is ephemeral…)

raquel-florence-harrison-51c149cad1a87a1ff0b963a42f0a9279Finally, Alfonso couldn’t take this any longer. He returned to the secret garden, and over the coming months, he visited frequently. At first, all they did was look – like thirsting travellers at a well. Soon enough, they were sitting close enough to touch. One day, he caressed her hand. The next, her face. His touch ignited a fire, and the fair maid gladly gave herself to her handsome knight, endless afternoons spent in dappled shadows, on a bed of crushed herbs and silks.

Meanwhile, Eleonor (or Leonor as she is in Spanish) was starting to suspect something was amiss. Dear Alfonso was no longer quite as attentive, and there were times when she caught him staring out of the window, a rose in his hand. Hmm. Leonor was well acquainted with the fact that the men of her times – especially powerful men such as her husband and father – now and then took a lover on the side. But she was too much her mother’s daughter to like it – even less so when it became apparent Alfonso spent more and more of his time with this unknown rival.

Before we go on, it’s time for a reality check. Alfonso married Leonor in 1174. She was twelve, he was nineteen, and out of consideration for the bride, the marriage was probably not consummated immediately. But between 1180 and 1204, they would have eleven children, and their marriage is generally considered a happy one. So devastated was Leonor by Alfonso’s death in 1214 that she died a year later, her heart crushed by Alfonso’s demise. Keep that in mind as we move on with our story.

Back to our legend. Alfonso could not get enough of his mistress. (And in the early versions, the lady remains nameless, she is simply called The Jewess from Toledo or The Beautiful Jewess) By now, people were beginning to grumble: the king was spending too much time with his hands up his lover’s skirts, too little ruling his kingdom – or taking care of his wife.

The Alfonso of the legend must have been either a very stupid or a very deaf man, because he decided to move his mistress into the royal palace, and for the coming seven years he “abandoned himself to the pleasures of love”, rarely leaving the chamber in which he had installed his pearl among pearls. Well, now and then he sneaked off to make Leonor pregnant… The poor man must have walked about in a state of constant sexual exhaustion.

20160809_181149Obviously, things could not continue like this. Alfonso’s wife was desperate. His nobles were just as desperate – well, not all of them, as the king’s infatuation provided them with ample opportunity to feather their own nests at his expense, thereby increasing poor Leonor’s desperation. So Leonor concocted a plan. One day, she sent a messenger to the rooms in which the king spent his days and nights with the fair Raquel, begging him to hurry to her, she had grave news to share. Alfonso grumbled a bit, pulled on a robe and set off towards the queen’s rooms. No sooner was he out of the room, but various of his nobles burst in, and in a matter of minutes the royal favourite was dead, her throat slit open to stain the bed with her blood. White, white sheets – red, red blood.

The king realised he’d been duped the moment he saw the look on Leonor’s face. With a hoarse cry, he rushed back to his little love nest, but he was too late to do anything but weep at the sight that met him. He was overcome with rage, and exacted revenge on everyone involved. His nobles were exiled. Leonor was packed off to a convent for years and years (given the babies coming every 18 months or so, even then he managed to sneak in now and then to “seed her womb”).

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Alfonso at Las Navas de Tolosa

Instead, Alfonso spent his days sighing over Raquel’s tomb. Until the day when an angel of God appeared before him (this, I suspect, is a late addition to the story) and reminded him of his duty to his people, his wife, and his faith, because as the angel pointed out, the Christians had been defeated by the infidel at Los Alarcos while Alfonso was frolicking among the bedsheets with pretty, pretty Raquel. Alfonso was immediately ashamed and promised to better himself. Which he did, trouncing the Moors at the battle of Las Navas de Tolosa. He reconciled with his wife, and went on to rule wisely for many more years, albeit that when he finally died he saw a dove fluttering heavenward and whispered a soft “Raquel”. *sniff*

In the early versions of the story, it is presented as a tragic love affair, where the king loses the (impossible) love of his life due to his manipulative and jealous wife and his treacherous nobles. This version quickly became very popular both in romances and in ballads, and while most would agree the king had failed in his duties, it was evident these two star-struck lovers had truly loved each other. Very sad, in truth, but that’s love for you – sometimes it is more thorns than roses.

Over the centuries, the legend becomes something else. The young woman innocent of any crime but that of loving her Alfonso too much transforms into a temptress who so enslaves her royal lover that he forgets his duties as a married and a Christian king, enthralled as he is by the dangerous Jewess. Occasionally, Raquel is even painted as a potential witch – how else to explain her powers over the king? This development goes hand in hand with an increasingly more intolerant approach to Jews in Spain, an approach that was to culminate in 1492 with the Edict of Alhambra, which exiled all Jews from the various Spanish kingdoms. Raquel becomes the embodiment of the dangers of fraternising with those not of the True Faith, a not so subtle reminder that he who sleeps with the infidel brings the wrath of God down on his head. (And hers. Mostly on hers)

raquel-aucassin-et-nicolette-marianne_stokes05So, is there any truth in the legend? Well, I’d say it is not improbable that Alfonso had an affair with a beautiful Jewish woman. But did he lock himself up with her for seven years, ignoring the demands of his people, his wife, his realm? No. Neither are there any indications of a serious breach between Alfonso and Leonor (all those babies tell another story). But despite this, the story of Alfonso and Raquel has universal appeal, thereby surviving down the centuries albeit that there is no Happily Ever After, there is only blood and death and loss. He saw her, she saw him, and from that moment she was doomed to die, he to live without her. Very sad. But, as dear Tennyson put it, it’s better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all. Would Raquel Fermosa agree? I don’t know. I see only a shadow, a dark, lustrous eye and a tear that slides slowly down her cheek as she extends her hand to her handsome caballero, the man who entered her garden and stole her heart.

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