ANNA BELFRAGE

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Archive for the category “Writing”

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

Urraca Alfonso_I_de_Aragón_por_Pradilla_(1879)

Alfonso I el Batallador

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

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

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

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

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Ramiro looking most un 12th century

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

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

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

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

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

Petronila Ramiro

Ramiro

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

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

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

Petronila Raymond

Ramón

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

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

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

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Petronila & Ramón

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

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Petronila looking less than happy

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

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

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

In Memoriam – of graveyards and mothers

A recent survey here in Sweden has concluded that a majority of Swedish people feel we should spread the ashes of those that have died in the great outdoors. A gust of wind and what little remains of a human after cremation would soar upwards, spread and eventually settle back on the ground.

No need, according to this survey, for headstones. No need for a little plaque engraved with the name of the recently deceased. Just this anonymous letting go and then the living can get back to their daily lives, the hole left behind by the deceased filled in by other things, other people.

20180406_180235I like walking in old churchyards. I stroll from headstone to headstone, read the names and the dates. In doing so, I remember that they once existed, even if they’re people I never knew nor have any connection with. When it comes to my own dead, I don’t have any headstones to visit. The lease on my great-grandparents’ plot was not extended in time, and one day my mother got a letter informing her that as there had been no extension, the remains of my great-grandparents and my maternal grandparents had been dug up and reburied in the common memorial grove. She took it rather badly. Even more so when we drove all the way up to her hometown to discover just how depressingly anonymous their new resting place was. Still, at least they had their names there.

My mother died recently, so the whole issue of headstone/plaque vs anonymous resting place has been up for discussion. We didn’t have a choice: my mother had left instructions and wanted her cremated remains to be put to rest anonymously in the same grove where my father’s ashes were interred twenty years ago.

20180406_180453Those that rest in this grove do so without names. Their ashes come in cardboard boxes and are buried by the churchyard staff so that no one knows exactly where their loved ones’ ashes ended up. It is a beautiful and peaceful place, a circular space bordered by a hedge and with a couple of very old trees that strive upwards to the heavens. It’s a stone throw’s distance from one of Malmö’s central squares, and so here the dead are surrounded by life, by the sound of laughter and music, of buses and cars. They may be anonymous, they may be forgotten, but somehow they’re still part of life. I like that. My mother would have liked that.

Us human beings are on this world for a very short time, and if we’re going to be honest, very few of us leave a legacy behind. Most of us are born, live and die in obscurity—which does not mean we don’t live life in full. It just means we’re like most people: too unimportant in the overall context of things, no matter how important we are to those that love us and are loved by us.

As we wander through old churchyards we may think all those who died in the past ended up with an engraved stone commemorating their existence. That is not true. Only those who could afford a mason could commission a headstone, and that means many, many people ended up in unmarked graves. In times of epidemics, war and disaster, people were buried in mass graves. No one carved their names on a headstone. They were simply gone.

Obviously, for those most affected by a death there is no need of a headstone to keep the memory alive. Children remember their parents for most of their lives, Grandchildren may remember their grandparents, but go one generation further down the line and there are no memories. There may be stories, little anecdotes shared from one generation to the other, but these are not necessarily representative of the person in question. It’s a bit like with history in general. We study the information that comes down to us and try to build a cohesive picture of the man/woman who lived ages ago based on entries in rolls and charters. However, what we get are details—not necessarily the truly important details—round which we try to recreate what that person might have been like.

mamma simone-martini-angel-gabriel_u-l-o2ohx0It is difficult to lose someone close to you. Losing a parent brings home that there is no IF about death, it is only a WHEN. Yes, we know that rationally, but we don’t feel it until it actually happens. With my mother’s passing, I am the eldest person in my original family. Reasonably, that makes me next in line. Not an entirely pleasant thought.

What is also difficult is handling the cocktail of emotions. It is especially difficult when the presumption is that as a daughter and a mother, my mother and I were very close and loving. Don’t get me wrong: I loved my mother and I am sure she loved me. But that does not mean the relationship was an easy one. In fact, for most of my adult life I have lived under a burden of expectations I have never quite lived up to, and that is very draining.

We are all a product of our lives and my mother was no exception. From the horizon of a fifty-plus woman, I can understand why she was as demanding as she was, her constant need for affirmation and attention a consequence of a difficult adolescence. I can understand that now, but I couldn’t quite understand it as a young woman when I mostly felt that no matter what I did, my mother was not entirely happy with me. She felt alone and abandoned. I juggled four children, a full-time job and a home, and still invited her over for dinner every weekend. But she was lonely all the other days as well and I went about with a constant burden of guilt.

Guilt is an interesting emotion. It steals so much energy that somewhere along the line it starts morphing into resentment. Years and years of not being quite good enough led to a certain distancing—it had to, as it hurt too much at times to be accused of being self-centred, of never having time for my mother, the person I owed everything to as she had given birth to me.

My mother’s last few years were bad years. She suffered from COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease) and this is a cruel, cruel condition, leaving the afflicted constantly short of breath, constantly in a state of air-anxiety. Every breath is a conscious effort, every movement is a challenge. We did what we could. We tried to show her that we loved and cared—because we did, of course we did.

We wished she would let go, because with each day her suffering increased, but my mother was not a quitter. She clung to life with everything she had. She loved life, was worried that the alternative wouldn’t be much fun. So she fought tooth and nail to stay alive, she breathed and breathed and breathed, she looked at us with panic in her eyes and breathed some more.

Talking to her about death and an eventual afterlife was not an option at this stage. She was too scared, too angry. And yes, she took it out on us—as we all take things out on those we trust the most.

It was almost—no, I must rephrase—it was a relief when the doctors concluded there was nothing more to be done for our mother. Instead, she was transferred to palliative care.
“What do you think your mother would say if we asked her what she wants?” the doctor asked me.
“My mother?” I shrugged. “She wants to live. Don’t we all?”
“Her body doesn’t. Not anymore,” the doctor said. And as our mother was no longer all there, the doctor made the decision to stop with all invasive treatments and instead to help her die with dignity.

My mother died at home. She died wearing her favourite nightdress, lying in her own sheets with her favourite painting on the wall in front of her. For the last four days of her life there was no pain, no air-anxiety. There was only peace—and resignation. I believe she died feeling safe. I hope she felt she was being called home and that in those last moments she could give thanks for a long and fulfilling life.

mamma b79e66fca0cf0d38dbbe12df843a2e40Now my mother lies in an anonymous grove. In summer, the wind soughs through the trees, through the flowering shrubs. In winter, frost crackles in the grass and in the deep, deep winter night, the stars are like miniature diamonds in the distant sky. Where she is right now, I do not know. I hope she is at peace and that if there is an afterlife, she has run effortlessly through the rolling pastures into the arms of her waiting man.

Like Bambi on ice

I am stepping out of my comfort zone, peeps. Not a thing I like to do—I guess none of us do. And yet, unless we take that deep breath and jump, we will not grow, not reach our full potentials. Or so I tell myself, at least.

20170128_121800Specifically, I am working on the finishing touches of a new book. Well, new and new is a misnomer, as this novel and its two protagonists have been living in my heart and my head since 2006 or so. But as it has not seen the light of day before, it is new. The finished product is hugely different from the first draft (and I have 85 or so drafts. Crazy me) It is also very different from my other books, hence this sensation of setting a foot on the ice only to hear it crack beneath my weight.

I usually write within the expansive umbrella labelled historical fiction. Anyone following this blog can testify to my passion for all things historical, whether it be the Spanish Hapsburgs or the complications surrounding Edward II’s reign. It is therefore rather natural that my writing endeavours have been set in historical times, a happy marriage between the stories I want to tell and the history I so love researching.

Okay, so I do like adding the little odd quirk, which is why my 17th century series, The Graham Saga, features a most reluctant time traveller.
“Not now that I’m here,” Alex protests. She slides closer to Matthew Graham, her 17th century dreamboat of a man. “Now I mainly worry that you will yank me out of here and throw me back in the 21st century.”
I have toyed with the idea. Frequently. But things happened and soon enough Matthew and Alex were running with their own storyline. Plus, had I yanked Alex away from Matthew, I suspect this rather forceful male character would have made it his mission in life to drive me permanently insane.

A Torch in His Heart_SMBInstagram Shared Image“Insane?” Jason Morris chuckles. “You have no idea how close to insanity you’ve driven me.”
Ah. Allow me to introduce the protagonist of A Torch in His Heart. He first saw the light of the day in a very, very distant past—when the fall of Troy was still a memory and not a legend. He was a gifted child, son to an equally gifted healer, the mighty Nefirie. But whatever future his mother had hoped he would have, it all changed the day Jason met Helle. She was eight, he was twelve. Turquoise eyes met his, and that was that. Fate twined their threads together and bound them forever to each other.

All very nice, one could think, but Helle was out of Jason’s league and then there was the brooding and powerful Samion, Prince of Kolchis. Suffice it to say things did not end as they should back then. In fact, they ended so badly that since then Jason, Helle and  Samion have tumbled through time, reborn over and over again. Helle remembers nothing of her previous existences. Jason remembers everything, hence his quip about insanity. And as to Samion, well he’s a power unto himself. A very dangerous power.

By now, I suspect you understand why I feel that sheet of ice cracking underfoot. I am stepping into an entire new genre, people. A Torch in His Heart may be a lot of things, but it is not historical fiction. It is about love—the toothy, painful kind—it is about revenge and a need for closure. It is about making amends for what you did wrong last time round, about daring to love when it can potentially kill you to do so. Jason, of course, has no choice: he’s as imprinted on Helle as those ducklings were on Kant. Sam doesn’t really do love—he does possession. But Helle, well she does have a choice. Or maybe she doesn’t.

I take some comfort in the fact that while A Torch in his Heart is not historical fiction, it does qualify as time-slip. But other than that, this is my first venture into the world of contemporary romance, spiced up with a lot of mystery & suspense, quite some paranormal stuff and (ahem) a sequence of steamy scenes. I like steamy.
“Oh, so do I,” Jason says. “The best invention ever, IMO, when humans got round to hot water spouting from a tap.”
“Not that sort of steamy,” I say, scowling at him. He knows full well what I mean—heck, he’s the star of every single steamy sequence. He grins. He really has a most luscious mouth, and…Oops. I give Helle a little smile.
A Torch in His Heart_SMBFacebook Shared Image 2“He’s too young for me,” I tell her. “Much, much, too young.”
“No, he isn’t.” She folds her arms over her chest. “He’s like way older than you. But…” Here she rises on her toes and gives me a belligerent stare. “He’s mine, okay? Mine!”
It seems Helle has made her choice. For some reason, it makes my palms sweat. Sam won’t like this. Not at all. And when Sam doesn’t like something, he has a tendency to do whatever it takes to change things…

Oh, dear. I have to suppress the urge to bite my nails. How will this end?

If you want to know how it ends, I suggest you follow this link and nominate my book to the Kindle Scout programme. (PLEASE do!) Enough nominations can lead to a publication deal and if so, everyone who voted for the book get their own free copy. Yet another novelty in my life, this attempt to win a publishing contract. In difference to my choice of genre, this novelty does not make me feel like Bambi on ice. After all, should Amazon not publish it then I’ll do so myself—and that is very much within my comfort zone!

Of Easter witches and dire death

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

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Easter Witch by Jenny Nyström (Kalmar Läns Museum)

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

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

witches 800px-Albert_Joseph_Pénot_-_Départ_pour_le_Sabbat_(1910)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Of golden camels and shortchanged heiresses

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

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Manuel I Komnenos

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

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Frederick Barbarossa

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

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

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Guillaume’s seal

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

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

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

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Pedro II 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Pedro and Marie conceiving Jaime (under supervision)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is she Violent? No, she’s Violante

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

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

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Alfonso

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

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

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

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Violant

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

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

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

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Sancho

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Margaret de Male 

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

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

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Lionel

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

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

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

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Violante and her brother

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

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

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

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

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

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

Margaret – a beloved wife or a victim?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Margaret medieval wounded

Love? Not love? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Dacre graves at Lanercost (photo Dimitros Corcodilos) 

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

Other posts about abducted medieval ladies:

Poor little rich girl – of a medieval heiress

Taking matters (or her) in his own hands

The abducted heiress and the gallant traitor

“Get thee to a nunnery” – in reverse

Dragging an obscure Viking boy into the light

Those of you who pop by my blog regularly will know by now that I spend a lot of time in Britain and Spain, mostly in medieval times or in the seventeenth century. Now and then I do dip into Nordic history, but in general those forays are rare. Today, I thought I’d introduce you to a gent who has done the full immersion thing when it comes to Scandinavian (well, more specifically Norwegian) history.  I read one of his books some time ago and was impressed by how much he knew about our rather cold corner of the world. Even more, I was intrigued by his choice of protagonist. Yes, I had heard of the young boy/man Eric has as his lead, but hey, I’m Swedish and thereby a neighbour of those proud and fierce Norwegians who once beat the bejesus out of us Swedes in Viking warfare and still continue to twist our noses out of joint by winning every single cross country skiing event in the world (on the men’s side).

So I decided to ask him about this: How did you come upon Håkon Haraldsson and what drove you to write about him. What was the little piece of historical grit that got lodged in your brain and irritated your cerebral tissues until “your” Håkon popped out? (see? I can’t even abbreviate when I ask a question)

Below is Eric’s answer. Enjoy!

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Baby Håkon being presented to Athelstan

For those of you who haven’t read my books, here’s a short summary of the character in question, Hakon Haraldsson. He’s the youngest son (and bastard child) of arguably one of Norway’s greatest kings, Harald Fairhair. When Hakon is roughly eight years old, Harald ships him off to England to be raised in the Christian courts of Wessex. He becomes a Christian and lives among the Saxons until he is a teenager, at which point he is summoned back to Norway to help the nobles oust Harald’s unpopular son Erik “Bloodaxe” from the throne.

So let me start with the first part of your question — how I came across Hakon. In truth, Hakon was not the first Viking about whom I started to write. I was actually focused on a completely fictitious character who had backed the wrong side of history and lost everything at the battle of Hafrsfjord. That was the defining battle that made Harald Fairhair the most powerful ruler in the North and saw the destruction of all petty kings opposed to him, including my character.

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Harald Fairhair (Hårfagre) 

As I began to wade farther into the story, I realized it was missing a lot of the conflict I was after. Moreover, I found myself drawn to writing about actual historical figures, like Harald Fairhair. It was as I was investigating Harald that I learned more about his many sons and their conflicts, and one fight in particular: Harald’s favored son, Erik Bloodaxe, against the youngest of Harald’s extensive brood, Hakon.

Which brings me to the next question — what drove me to write about him. While we don’t know all of the facts of Hakon’s life, we do know that even if marginally true, Hakon’s story takes many of the norms of Viking literature and turns them on their head. His upbringing, his religion, his stature in his family — all of these things were dripping with potential conflict. In many ways, Hakon is the anti-Viking, yet a memorable hero nonetheless. What’s more, I saw Hakon as a microcosm of the times in which he lived, which were rife with warfare and religious tension between Christians and pagans. All of these things I thought would make great fodder for a story.

Eric Bloodheights

When I say, Hakon takes many of the norms of Viking literature and turns them on their head, here are a few examples of what I mean:

The sagas and literature are bursting with tales of strong, fearsome Viking warriors. Yet Hakon returns from England as a young teen to fight for the High Seat of the North. We presume, though don’t know for sure, he’s approximately fourteen. In other words, his body is not fully developed. Nor is his mind. While he may have been strong or large for his age (we have no way of knowing), he is anything but the Beowulf-esque champion we think of when he think of a challenger to the throne of Norway.

What Hakon lacked in physical strength, he must surely have made up for with internal strength. I saw him, for right or wrong, as an idealist, which many young people tend to be. During his time, the Norse worshiped the “old gods”, and many stories speak of Viking raids on Christian realms and churches. Yet along comes Hakon, a lone Christian boy fighting for the throne of his “pagan” homeland. The pagans look at him askance and urge him to convert, yet Hakon holds fast to his beliefs. That type of courage — that idealism — is a fascinating spin on the traditional Viking yarn.

WikingerBut lest we forget, Hakon is a Northman and they liked their battles. His ambition to rule his father’s realm is no different than the ambition of the brother he seeks to dethrone. Only I saw Hakon as fighting two battles, one against his brother and one against himself. His strength in many ways is his greatest weakness. How easy it could have been for him to shed his beliefs and earn the favor of his countrymen. But in GOD’S HAMMER and later, in RAVEN’S FEAST, he didn’t, and it plagues him. All of this conflict and internal strife grabbed me, or, as you say, “lodged in my brain”.

There are a few things I’d like to add to this post about Hakon. The first is, Hakon is an historical figure, but there is still much we don’t know about him. Those unknown pieces are what gave me some license to create the Hakon that is in my novels. I got to put the meat on the bones of his character, and I loved that process.

Second, I have learned in my many years of writing about Hakon, that I enjoy characters who experience, and must overcome, some internal or moral strife. I write about Vikings, but it is not enough for me just to write about one-dimensional brutes who go around bludgeoning people.

Finally, some reviewers have said that Hakon comes across as soft and somewhat dependent on his counselors. That, by way way, is intentional. Hakon was a teenager in essentially a foreign land, whose religion was unwelcome. I cannot imagine him having all of the answers fresh off the boat. I wanted him to start off as a somewhat insecure and idealistic teen, yet possessed of (or capable of learning) the skills he will ultimately need to overcome his challenges. I wanted him to have internal struggles and conflicts with those he trusts. I wanted him to lean on his counselors, at least at first, and understand that over time he would need to carve his own path. If you pick up the novels, you will see Hakon become more confident in his decisions, and more independent in his actions. Like all of us, he evolves. Hopefully for the better.

Thank you for this, Eric – and I must say you’ve done a fantastic job of breathing life into your Hakon (or as us Swedes say, Håkan) And for the record, I love our Norwegian neighbours (despite the cross country skiing thing) Heja Norge!

My review of Raven’s Feast:

Eric RavensFeastBookShot_FINALVery rarely does one come across a book written about the man remembered as Hakon the Good or Hakon Adalsteinsfostre, and as Mr Schumacher points out in his afterword, this may be because we know so very little about him – beyond concluding he must have been quite the forceful young lad, seeing as he was only fifteen when he claimed the Norwegian crown and defeated his substantially older brother, Erik Bloodaxe.

When Raven’s Feast opens, Hakon has just defeated Erik and been acclaimed as king. But bringing peace and stability is not an easy process, and soon enough it seems Hakon’s dreams of a united kingdom will unravel as quickly as a nightmare dissipates at dawn. Other than rebellious jarls and ambitious Danes, there is also the issue of faith: Hakon has been raised as a Christian at the court of his foster father King Athelstan, and wishes to convert his pagan countrymen. They are less than thrilled…

Mr Schumacher has used what little we know and filled in the rather huge gaps quite plausibly, delivering an exciting read about a very young king attempting to hold on to a kingdom cracking wide open. Haakon is an engaging and likeable young man, the prose is fluid and the dialogue crisp – if at times very modern. At times, pace flags due to the detailed descriptions of everything from interiors to food, but all in all this is a book that should appeal to all those gripped by Viking fever – and quite a few others as well.

Eric headshot_squareAbout Eric Schumacher

Eric Schumacher is an American historical novelist who currently resides in Santa Barbara, California, with his wife and two children. He was born and raised in Los Angeles and attended college at the University of San Diego.

At a very early age, Schumacher discovered his love for writing and medieval European history, as well as authors like J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. Those discoveries continue to fuel his imagination and influence the stories he tells. His first novel, God’s Hammer, was published in 2005. Its sequel, Raven’s Feast, was published in 2017. A third, yet-to-titled book, is currently in the works.

For more information, connect with him at one of these sites:

Website: www.ericschumacher.net

Twitter: @DarkAgeScribe

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/EricSchumacherAuthor/

Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Eric-Schumacher/e/B001K8G4YW/ref=ntt_dp_epwbk_0

About God’s Hammer

Eric GodsHammerBookShot_FINALHistory and legend combine in the gripping tale of Hakon Haraldsson, a Christian boy who once fought for the High Seat of a Viking realm.

It is 935 A.D. and the North is in turmoil. King Harald Fairhair has died, leaving the High Seat of the realm to his murderous son, Erik Bloodaxe. To solidify his claim, Erik ruthlessly disposes of all claimants to his throne, save one: his youngest brother Hakon.

Erik’s surviving enemies send a ship to Wessex, where the Christian King Athelstan is raising Hakon. Unable to avoid his fate, he returns to the Viking North to face his brother and claim his birthright, only to discover that victory will demand sacrifices beyond his wildest nightmares.

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About Raven’s Feast

It is 935 A.D. and Hakon Haraldsson has just wrested the High Seat of the North from his ruthless brother, Erik Bloodaxe. Now, he must fight to keep it.

The land-hungry Danes are pressing from the south to test Hakon before he can solidify his rule. In the east, the Uplanders are making their own plans to seize the throne. It does not help that Hakon is committed to his dream of Christianizing his people – a dream his countrymen do not share and will fight to resist.

As his enemies move in and his realm begins to crumble, Hakon and his band of oath-sworn warriors must make a stand in Raven’s Feast, the riveting sequel to God’s Hammer.

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Rubbing the wrong face in the dirt – of Mortimer, King Arthur and tournaments

In the summer of 1329, Roger Mortimer invited more or less every nobleman in England to Wigmore, the hereditary home of the Mortimers. He was planning a major tournament, several days of fun and fighting followed by feasting. A veritable city of tents were pitched outside the walls of the castle as knights from all over came to take part in the festivities, and I imagine Roger Mortimer expended a minor fortune in ensuring his castle looked its best. Roger was fond of renovating his various castles. Some years earlier, he’d added a whole wing of additional guestrooms to his castle in Ludlow with, believe it or not, medieval en-suites. Hygiene was important in the Middle Ages—at least to those that could afford it.

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The once so impressive gatehouse arch of Wigmore

Back to Wigmore. Today, little remains of what must once have been an impressive castle, standing so proud on a spur of rock. Back in the 1329 it sported new buildings, high walls, an impressive gatehouse and a huge outer bailey. Roger Mortimer was fond of pretty things, of luxuries. This is a man who owned sheets of silk, who surrounded himself with expensive books, silverware and jewels. Not for our Roger the run of the mill tunic, oh no, this man dressed with care and in expensive materials. In 1329 he could afford it, being one of the richer men in England. Being one of the young king’s regents came with its perks… How do we know what he wore, how he slept and ate? Well, Roger Mortimer had the misfortune of being attainted twice: the first time in early 1322, the second late in 1330. On both those occasions, a detailed inventory of what he owned was taken.

However, in the late summer of 1329, Mortimer’s star was firmly lodged very high in the sky. Did he have enemies? Oh, yes. His fellow barons were not exactly enthused at being lorded over by the newly created Earl of March. But Mortimer was a capable ruler, something of an administrative genius, so he had a pretty firm grip on the kingdom. To speak out against Mortimer or Isabella was to risk the regents’ displeasure. That could become quite costly and rather detrimental to your health.

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Mortimer and Isabella, as depicted a century or so later

Before we go any further I feel it is important to underline that I admire Roger Mortimer. Through a daring escape from the Tower in 1323 he escaped Edward II’s custody and fled to France where he regrouped, joined forces with Edward’s disgruntled wife Isabella and returned to England in 1326, there to oust the king and, even more importantly for Roger, the royal favourite(s) Hugh Despenser (there were two of them, father and son). Mortimer restored order in England and had he been wise enough to ride off into the sunset in early 1329 or so, maybe he would never have ended his life dangling from a gallows. For some reason this vibrant intelligent man didn’t see the writing on the wall: Edward III was growing up fast and was surrounded by young men who were as determined as the young king was to ensure the power in the realm was wielded by the king, not his regents. Alternatively, maybe he did, but saw no option but to cling all that harder to his power.

early 14th c fighting Codex_Manesse_(Herzog)_von_AnhaltHowever, in August of 1329 the events of 1330 were still very much in the future. Mortimer felt confident enough to host this magnificent tournament sparing little expense in his efforts to dazzle the assembled nobility. Officially, the tournament was held in celebration of the recent marriages of two of his daughters, but the little brides were overshadowed by their glamourous father. By his side, as always, was fair Isabella. Mortimer’s wife, Joan de Geneville, chose not to attend. Not exactly a surprise, as I imagine she must have felt quite humiliated by the tendresse between her husband and the dowager queen. (And yes, I am of the firm opinion they were lovers. If Edward II’s great love was Piers Gaveston, then Mortimer’s love was Isabella, a woman as ambitious, as intelligent and as determined as he was)

Mortimer was trying to recreate a famous event hosted by his grandfather, also called Roger Mortimer. This Roger is famous for having supported Edward I (or Prince Edward as he was at the time) against Simon de Montfort. He was responsible for killing Montfort at Evesham and sent his wife Montfort’s head as a little gift. Loyal and capable, Mortimer Sr was one of Edward I’s most trusted men, instrumental in Edward’s conquest of Wales. In 1279, Roger the elder hosted a magnificent Round Table tournament at Kenilworth Castle. The event was a huge success, with both King Edward I and Queen Eleanor attending.

Arthur-Holy-grail-round-table-ms-fr-112-3-f5r-1470-detailIt is significant that, just as in 1279, Mortimer themed his tournament on the Round Table. The Mortimers had Welsh blood—royal Welsh blood. Our Roger’s great-grandmother was a lady called Gwladys Ddu, daughter of Llewellyn the Great and (probably) King John’s illegitimate daughter Joanna. The House of Gwynedd claimed descent from Arthur himself, so through Gwladys the Mortimers could trace their ancestry back to the most famous of chivalric kings. Hence, the Round Table.

Not only could the Mortimers swell with pride because of great-great-to-the-nth degree-granddaddy Arthur, there was also that very old prophecy stating that one day the Welsh Dragon would rise from its hiding place and rule all England. (This prophecy has been trotted out at regular intervals: Edward IV, Roger Mortimer’s distant descendant, could claim to be the dragon. So could Henry Tudor, some years later)

Now in 1329, England had a young and somewhat insecure king. Edward III was growing into his powers as a man, was already a skilled jouster and as brave as a lion, but he was very aware of the fact that he was relatively defenceless against his regents—for now. Maybe Mortimer and Isabella felt it might be a good idea to remind their young charge who called the shots. Or maybe they were so swept up into the events they were directing that they didn’t stop to think. Whatever the case, when the tournament opened, more than one person gaped when Mortimer appeared, bedecked as King Arthur, with Isabella as his Guinevere.

Arthur Vortigern-DragonsThis did not go down well. Not with Edward III, not with most of his barons. Was Mortimer suggesting he should claim the crown himself? Did he believe he was the Welsh dragon? Probably not. But Mortimer had become complaisant and either did not understand or care how insulting his behaviour was to the king. Even worse, he no longer showed Edward the deference due to a king. Instead of walking behind him, he walked beside him. If he wanted to say something, he interrupted. Edward was rigid with rage—and fear, one supposes. There and then, I suspect Edward understood Mortimer would have to go. Soon. But Mortimer did not notice and no one had the guts to tell him he was overstepping. Not until his son, Geoffrey, took it upon himself to berate his father for his folly.

In the below, someone else than Geoffrey decides it is time to talk to Mortimer. I give you Adam de Guirande, my fictional hero in my series The King’s Greatest Enemy:

Kings Greatest Enemy Series-Twitter Timeline Image 2Adam waited until after compline, shrugging off Kit’s objections that this was something he should not meddle in. Adam climbed the steep path towards the inner bailey and Lord Roger’s rooms—old rooms, but as elegant—if not more—than the new solar. The guards recognised him and let him in, one of them saying Lord Roger already had a visitor, his son.
“You’re goading him!” Geoffrey’s voice carried through the half-open door.
“I am merely acting the part of King Arthur. And it does him good to grovel a bit.”
“Grovel?” Geoffrey sounded astounded. “He’s your king, Father. The king. And this…” He kicked at something, sending it rattling across the floor. “Those are the trappings of the King of Folly.”

Adam did not have time to step aside. Geoffrey barged into him, sending them both crashing into the opposite wall.
“Adam.” Geoffrey wiped his mouth. “Here to talk some sense into him? Good luck.” He took off, and in the door stood Lord Roger, eyebrows raised.
“More visitors? Come in, by all means.”
Adam entered a room ablaze with candlelight. In a corner lay the helmet Geoffrey had kicked; on the table were an assortment of rolls and quills, Mortimer’s seal lying thrown to the side.
“What can I do for you, Adam?” Lord Roger crossed his arms. “Well?” he demanded when Adam remained silent, taking in the opulence of the room. New tapestries depicting various hunting scenes flanked an impressive hearth, a huge silverware plate held pride of place on one of the tables, with a collection of silver goblets standing to the side. The large bed was covered in a counterpane embroidered with flowers and butterflies, the sheets of shimmering silk. Everywhere, the trappings of a rich man—a very rich man.
Adam cleared his throat. “You’re becoming just like him.”
“Who?”
“Despenser.”
Lord Roger stilled. “Despenser?” He flexed his hands a couple of times, casually picked up his dagger, and locked eyes with Adam.
“Aye.” Adam stood his ground.
“Ah. So you have appointed yourself my conscience, have you?” Lord Roger was suddenly close enough that Adam could feel his exhalations. “Have you?” he demanded, his voice rising. “With what right, eh? How dare you compare me to Despenser?” The shove sent Adam crashing against the wall. “Despenser was a sodomite, a miscreant, accursed from the day he exited his mother’s womb. A man without honour. Are you saying I have no honour?”
Adam straightened up, wiping spittle from his cheek. “You amass wealth on a daily basis, as greedy as he was—for riches and power.”
“I am not like him!” Mortimer’s face had gone the colour of ash. “Everything I do, I do for the king.”
Adam laughed. “Don’t lie—at least not to yourself. What is this spectacle of a tournament but you shouting to the world that the true power in England lies with you, not our rightful king? Soon enough, you’ll stoop to killing those who stand in your way—and where’s the honour in being a murderer?”
He could have heard a mouse fart in the ensuing silence. Lord Roger set a hand to the wall as if to support himself, all of him sagging. “You have no idea,” he finally said, turning his back on Adam. His voice shook. “No idea at all.”
“My lord,” Adam took a step towards him, wanting somehow to lift the burden that had Lord Roger stooping, arms braced against the wall.
“Go.” Mortimer kept his back to him. “And be grateful you’re no longer in my service, or I’d have you flogged.”
“For what, my lord? For telling the truth?”
Mortimer whirled and pushed Adam so hard he went staggering backwards. He slammed into the table, overturning the goblets.
“Get out!” Mortimer yelled. “And don’t forget it was I who lifted you out of obscurity. Beware that I don’t throw you back into the cesspit whence you came.”
“The lord I loved, the man I would gladly have died for, would never have lowered himself to making such threats.” Adam bowed slightly. “And I only came because I care.” He banged the door closed as he left.

Phew…quite some emotion there, right? And if you want to read more about my take on the events of 1329 I suggest  you read The Cold Light of Dawn.

No pressure – of queens and babies

medieval babies hague-mmw-10-a-11There is a moment during childbirth when most women become quite convinced they’ll emerge from the experience permanently ripped in two. The baby is simply too big in comparison to the channel it is navigating, and I bet I’m not the only one who has wondered if there is something seriously wrong with the design of our bodies. Not only human bodies, of course, as all female mammals seem to encounter the same challenge: the offspring is too big.

Having given birth four times, I am happy to report most of us recover. Most of us also forget that agonising moment—until we’re back in the delivery room with the next baby. This, of course, is because Mother Nature is pretty smart. The euphoria of holding your child wipes our memory clean of the discomfort that has preceded this precious moment.

As to the design flaw I mentioned earlier, well it is all because of Eve, isn’t it? The moment our Biblical ancestress sank her teeth into that juicy apple, she condemned all of us to give birth in agony and pain. Not exactly fair, IMO. Besides, Adam could have said no when she offered him the apple and then we might never have left the Garden of Eden.

Us modern women do not blame Eve. Nor do we have to go through one childbirth after the other unless we want to. Plus, these days there are ways to manage the pain. I’m telling you, ladies, we are very, very lucky!

Now, if you’d been alive in (let’s say) the 14th century, having babies was a risky business. It was also an unavoidable business unless you were barren or a nun. Women were expected to have babies and it was obviously their fault if the much-longed-for babe did not appear. Women had one child after the other, and one day their bodies just couldn’t cope anymore and next time round, they died.

medieval-priest

Our medieval ancestresses had been brought up in a religious society. Sex was sinful unless procreation was the objective. Loving cuddles in bed were a major no-no if there already was a child growing in your belly. It was also a major no-no during Lent and various other religious feast days. I, however, suspect our forebears enjoyed sex as much as we do—in fact, I sincerely hope so—and I therefore believe that quite a few had to confess to the sin of lust when they had a moment or two with their priest.

Medieval herbs greenwood+treeIt was also a major sin to interfere with procreation. Medieval midwives knew a lot about herbal remedies, ancient knowledge passed down from one generation to the other. For those who did not want children but who still wanted to enjoy the company of their man in bed, there were various concoctions they could try. Wild carrot seeds, tansy, rue, pennyroyal, mugworth – they could all help, but had to be used with caution.

Herbs were also used to stimulate fertility. After all, a wife who did not conceive was a worthless wife, and especially so if said wife was married to a baron or a king, desperate for a male heir.

Take, for example, the case of Philippa of Hainaut (or Hainault). She was married to Edward III in January of 1328. He was fourteen, she was likely a year or so younger. No one expected them to get going with the baby business immediately, in fact it is likely they did not consummate their marriage as such a young bride would find it hard to survive childbirth. Philippa came from a fertile family: her mother had given birth to at least eight children, her maternal grandmother to five children that we know of. Even better, Philippa’s older sister had already presented her husband Louis, Holy Roman Emperor to-be with two children and she was around fifteen or so. In brief, little Philippa was expected to start filling up the royal nurseries in a year or so.

But she didn’t. While her older sister presented her husband with two more babies in 1328 and 1329—one of which was a precious son—Philippa had as yet not rounded with child.

Edward is one of those kings who seems to have been very fond of his wife—and she of him. But like all kings it was important for Edward to have an heir, maybe especially important to him as he grew a bit older and started to resent the hold his two regents had over him. Queen Isabella and Roger Mortimer had deposed Edward’s father in 1326 and had the boy-king crowned in early 1327. Yes, they must have realised that some day Edward would want to rule on his own, but they were in no hurry to relinquish their hold on the young king. As Edward began to test his powers he must have been very aware of the fact that should anything happen to him, dear Mama had a spare to replace him with, namely Edward’s younger brother John of Eltham. It was therefore very important to Edward—or so I imagine—to present his barons with an heir of his body, thereby dealing his overbearing regents something of a sucker punch. After all, a man capable of siring a son was also capable of ruling on his own. (Hmm. But I happen to believe Edward III was a surprisingly mature young man, having had to grow up very fast during the years in which his parents were at odds with each other.)

medieval herbs A_024_herbsSo when the months passed and Philippa did not quicken with child, this must have worried Edward. And Philippa. A wife who did not deliver the goods could be put aside, branded a failure.

“What are you whispering about?” Queen Isabella had entered on soundless feet, causing both Kit and Philippa to start.
“My lady.” Kit rose automatically and made a reverence. Isabella slipped into her vacated seat and bent over to peer at their handiwork.
“Very nice.” She smiled at her daughter-in-law. “Edward will be very pleased.”
“Edward will not notice,” Philippa replied. “When do men ever notice anything but their hounds and horses, their new tunics and weapons?” She stroked the plush, dark red velvet. “This is for me, more than for him.”
Isabella laughed, a light tinkling sound. “Wise beyond your years, my dear.” Long, elegant fingers brushed ever so lightly over Philippa’s sleeve. “But surely by now you know what to do to catch his attention, don’t you?”
“My lady?” Philippa sat erect.
“Seeing as there’s no heir…” Isabella left the rest hanging. She patted Philippa on the cheek. “Ah well, still plenty of time for that. Not an infinite amount of time, mind you.” She reclined against the stone wall and gave Philippa a little smile. “Fortunately, I have a younger son as well. Just in case.”
Philippa raised her chin. “There will be a son, my lady.”
“Good.” Isabella stood, a collection of silks in various shades of blue. “It would be such a pity to have to send you back to your mother branded a barren wife.”
Kit was tempted to sink her embroidery needle into Queen Isabella’s arm. Instead, she made yet another reverence, her eyes on the floor as the queen mother departed in a swirl of skirts.
Philippa was sitting as still as a statue. A single tear slid down her cheek.
“Do you think we should have tassels?” she finally asked, her voice thick with tears.
“My lady, you shouldn’t take what she says to heart. She’s—”
“A queen. Mother four times over.” Philippa cleared her throat. “So, tassels?”

As we all know, Philippa would go on to give her husband many, many children—thirteen in total. But I bet there were several months when she hoped and despaired, hoped and despaired.

In the Cold Light of Dawn_eb-pb-tr 160412And if you want to read more about Philippa, Edward and the somewhat infected relationships between them and Queen Isabella and Roger Mortimer, I suggest you pick up my latest book, The Cold Light of Dawn

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