ANNA BELFRAGE

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The Smiling Villain – Ms Morton shares her thoughts re bad guys

It is always a distinct pleasure to welcome Alison Morton to my blog. Not only is she an author I enjoy & admire, she also delivers insightful posts which I enjoy reading – and I hope you, dear peeps, do as well. Today, Alison has written a little something about that very necessary ingredient in most books: the bad guy (or gal).

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AM White WitchDamnèd, smiling villain

O villain, villain, smiling, damnèd villain!
My tables—meet it is I set it down
That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain—
At least I am sure it may be so in Denmark.

(Hamlet, Wm.Shakespeare)

“And some that smile have in their hearts, I fear,
Millions of mischiefs”

Young Octavius, in Julius Caesar, Wm.Shakespeare)

Ah yes, Shakespeare’s smiling villains. Well, if it’s good enough for him, it’s good enough for the rest of us. It also points to how we should portray the ‘bad guy’ in stories.

Undiluted villains like Fu Manchu, the White Witch, Dracula, Cruella de Vil, Mrs Danvers, Ernst Blofeld, are straightforwardly nasty, with a single goal of eliminating the ‘good guy’. We see only one aspect of them and apart from the ways in which they inflict pain on our heroines/heroes we find them a tad ridiculous and potentially boring. Proper villains are multi-layered, often with mixed motivations that sometimes they themselves don’t understand.

AM Apollodorous

Apollodorus, as AM sees him

In the Roma Nova thrillers I’ve written psychopaths (Renschman in INCEPTIO), sociopaths (Pertinax in PERFIDITAS , Caius Tellus in AURELIA, INSURRECTIO and RETALIO) and vengeful children (Nicola in SUCCESSIO). And then there are characters who hover in between such as pragmatic criminal Apollodorus in INCEPTIO and PERFIDITAS whom we can’t decide is good or bad.

Some characters are weak and fall into bad company like Superbus in PERFIDITAS, some become temporary ‘bad guys’ (no spoilers here!), some are forced into ‘bad guy’ behaviour due to circumstances, some are merely opportunistic. And these grey areas are the most interesting…

How to write a plausible and interesting villain
All characters need a solid back-story, so it’s a good idea to sketch out when your villain became one, why and in what circumstances. Was it a single incident, a simmering discontent, envy, mistreatment or being a spoilt child? Did he or she fall into bad company or were they abandoned as a child or on the death of one or both parents?  Such events don’t always lead down the dark path, but they may nudge them that way.

A criminal mastermind who seems all-knowing and all-seeing with almost telepathic powers is not credible. Neither is a bumbler or a TSTL (Too stupid to live) fool. But villains should be intelligent or at least crafty. Our heroines (and heroes) need foes worthy of them, ones that will test their mettle.

Are villains ‘born bad’? We all differ in temperament and character. Some of us are laid back, others ambitious, some warm-hearted, others unemotional, some caring and holistic, others full of desire to dominate. The Myers Briggs Type Indicator is extremely useful for making up multi-layered profiles for all your characters. It’s a psychometric test system popular in business and government since the Second World War to indicate psychological preferences about how people perceive the world and make decisions. A gold mine for writers!

Villains’ dialogue should not lapse into stereotypes  or melodrama – they are people like other characters in the story and should speak normally, although irony, sarcasm and anger can be present when appropriate.

[From INSURRECTIO: After she is captured, Aurelia is taken before Caius who has usurped power in Roma Nova]

I was completely alone. With my nemesis. He went back to staring through the window.

‘I can’t decide what to do with you,’ he said. ‘You will undoubtedly try everything to oppose me under some delusion of duty, so it would be prudent to remove you permanently. And you caused me to rot in a Prussian jail for twelve years. I shall never forgive you for that.’

‘You murdered a Prussian citizen and permanently disabled another. You ran a silver smuggling organisation that threatened Roma Nova’s security. You got off lightly.’

He shrugged.

‘And let’s not forget your two attempts to kill me.’

‘You were being irritating, Aurelia, and I dislike that.’

‘Irritating!’ I raised my hands to vent my frustration but the steel grip of the handcuffs constrained them. ‘I was a Praetorian officer tasked to hunt you down. I’d hardly class that as irritating.’

‘“Was”. That’s the correct word.’ He turned and looked straight at me. ‘You’re finished. I’ve cancelled your commission along with that of every other female officer. You’re no longer a minister, nor a senator, nor head of your family. You have become an irrelevance in the new Roma Nova.’

I stared at him. Irrelevant? He couldn’t take away my identity like that.

‘Don’t be ridiculous. You can’t destroy the structure of such an old country just like that.’

He strode over to me. I took a step back, but he was too fast. He grabbed me by the throat, pressed his thumb and fingers hard, and squeezed. I could hardly breathe. He pressed harder. My head swam and my vision blurred.

‘Don’t tell me what I can and can’t do.’ Then he dropped his hand and released me. I bent over coughing. Gods, his grip had been strong. I thought I was going to choke to death.
‘You have two options – adapt or go under. There is no release for you, Aurelia. You will be guarded and tracked, and if you attempt escape, I’ll execute one of your friends like Calavia. Maybe I’ll do that anyway, if only to motivate you.’

‘Only cowards let their friends take the punishment for them. Just call in the swordsman and I’ll kneel in the sand.’

‘Certainly not. You’re far too valuable a political asset. And you do have a certain amusement value.’ He smirked at me. ‘Perhaps I’ll keep you as jester, my own tame doomsayer. You’d look quite fetching in scarlet.’

I couldn’t speak. The humiliation of what he suggested – how dare he?

He laughed. ‘You should see your face, Aurelia. You always were quick to rise.’ Then his mouth straightened into a crisp line. ‘This is not a game. The old ways are finished, as is everybody associated with them.’ 

Handsome mature man.

Caius as per AM

Another technique is to put yourself into the villain’s place, to get into their mind-set. They are the strong one on the right path if they are like Caius or Pertinax, or are perfectly justified in what they do to make their way in the world if they are Apollodorus. They often care for, or at least reward, their subordinates and cannot see why others don’t see things as they do. And for an additional twist, the ‘bad guy’ may well demonstrate many of the qualities of the ‘good guy’ and share some values.

[From INSURRECTIO: Same scene as above, Aurelia speaks first]

‘I’d rather end my days in Truscium than lift one of my little fingers to help you.’

‘Always so dramatic. Phobius would throw you in there without hesitating after he’d had you and given his men a turn. Would you prefer that?’ Just for a second, something in his eyes united us as patricians, revolted at the thought of Phobius touching either of us.
‘Quite,’ he said.

In a series, the characters can overlap the books: Apollodorus, so prominent in INCEPTIO, returns in PERFIDITAS; Caius Tellus is the antagonist in all three of the latest books. The return of a bad guy must be carefully engineered. If the heroine is so competent, how come the bad guy keeps escaping? Eventually, a recurring villain has to disappear, but a writer can really enjoy themselves doing that and wring high emotion out of it for the reader.

And the grey areas?
AM stressedSometimes the heroine/hero has to show transgressive or even criminal tendencies and act on them. Does this make them a villain? Sometimes an upright character’s personality changes then they suffer a mental breakdown and they act unlawfully. Does that make them a villain? And occasionally ‘bad guys’ sacrifice themselves, ostensibly to save themselves from justice, but covertly for an entirely different reason. Putting one type of character into the opposite situation natural to them creates very interesting conflicts…

Finally, remote villains
A villain doesn’t have to be present in person or even still alive. In INCEPTIO, PERFIDITAS and SUCCESSIO, the first three Roma Nova thrillers, the mere memory of Caius touches the characters who had interacted with him in the second prequel trilogy. Aurelia, Conrad and Silvia recount terrifying snippets from their contact decades ago with Caius to Carina in the present and thus to the reader.

In RETALIO, the Aurelia doesn’t encounter Caius in person until Chapter 19 and then only for moments. He doesn’t recognise her as she’s in disguise. And it’s many chapters later that they meet openly. However, he has attacked her and her colleagues physically, emotionally, mentally, legally, financially and politically. His reach is long and frightening.

[From RETALIO: Aurelia is in exile in Vienna with her lover and companion of fifteen years, Miklós] 

‘The exiles are hurt and frightened. I must help them. We can’t leave Caius to rampage and destroy everything.’

‘But if what Quintus writes is true, he’ll extradite or snatch you.’

‘I have you, and now Sándor to protect me physically and once I’m fit again, I won’t be such an easy target. I just need to put myself beyond Caius legally.’ I shuddered at the prospect of being dragged back to Caius and handed over to his sadistic assistant for ‘punishment’. And it would all be perfectly legal, from the New Austrian police arrest to deportation, handover like a package at the Roma Novan border and into the cells of the Transulium prison to await Caius’s pleasure. My heart pounded at the terrifying thought of facing Caius’s vengeance.

I hope I’ve given you some practical techniques for writing credible and three-dimensional villains. But whether viewed as a writer or reader, the most disturbing villains are, of course, the ones you find reflecting your own beliefs, fears and values, whether on the side of the angels or the devils.

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Thank you for that, Alison. And as always, I LOVE your dialogue. I also love the entire Roma Nova concept, so those of you who have as yet not discovered this excellent series (all six of them, although I would recommend staring with Aurelia and read that trilogy first) have quite an adventure before them.

AM RETALIO_800x520RETALIO blurb

Early 1980s Vienna. Recovering from a near fatal shooting, Aurelia Mitela, ex-Praetorian and former foreign minister of Roma Nova, chafes at her enforced exile. She barely escaped from her nemesis, the charming and amoral Caius Tellus who grabbed power in Roma Nova, the only part of the Roman Empire to survive into the twentieth century.

Aurelia’s duty and passion fire her determination to take back her homeland and liberate its people. But Caius’s manipulations have isolated her from her fellow exiles, leaving her ostracised, powerless and vulnerable. But without their trust and support Aurelia knows she will never see Roma Nova again.

BUY LINK

From my review of Retalio: “As always, Ms Morton delivers a fast-paced adventure, very much driven by the excellent dialogue. The descriptions are vivid, the plot is compelling, and the main characters are easy to relate to, even if few of us would have the fortitude and courage of these Roma Novan ladies.”

Alison Morton bio 

AM Alison MortonAlison Morton writes the acclaimed Roma Nova thriller series featuring modern Praetorian heroines. She blends her deep love of Roman history with six years’ military service and a life of reading crime, adventure and thriller fiction.

The first five books have been awarded the BRAG Medallion. SUCCESSIO, AURELIA and INSURRECTIO were selected as Historical Novel Society’s Indie Editor’s Choices.  AURELIA was a finalist in the 2016 HNS Indie Award. The sixth, RETALIO, came out in April 2017.

A ‘Roman nut’ since age 11, Alison has misspent decades clambering over Roman sites throughout Europe. She holds a MA History, blogs about Romans and writing. Now she continues to write, cultivates a Roman herb garden and drinks wine in France with her husband of 30 years.

The queen who took down the empress

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

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

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

MoB Matylda_zena

Matilda, Henry I’s wife

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

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

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

MoB Henry_I_Cotton_Claudius_D._ii,_f._45v.

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

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

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

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

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

And then, in 1135, everything changed.

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

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

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

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

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

MoB StepanAngl

Stephen being crowned

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

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

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

MoB Stephen_bird

Stephen as king

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

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

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

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

MoB Matylda

Empress Maud

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

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

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

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

MoB HenryBlois

The somewhat devious Henry of Blois

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Death by Viking – a painful way to achieve sainthood

All old European kingdoms have a martyred royal or two. In Sweden it’s St Erik, in Norway it is St Olof, Scotland has St Margaret, and England has St Edward. And St Edmund. Two royal saints – one of whom was martyred by the ancestors of St Erik and St Olof.

Edmund 800px-Stedmundcrownedbyangelspierpontms736f42

St Edmund, crowned in glory

So who was this Edmund, and what did he ever do to deserve the honorific of saint? Well, obviously he died – rather painfully – but many people throughout history have done that without being rewarded with a sainthood.

Very little is known about Edmund. In fact, what comes down through the ages is a story of a beleaguered hero, a symbol necessary to keep the fire burning in the hearts of his people, cowering under the weight of the Viking yoke. And what a yoke it was, the Nordic raiders returning year after year to plunder. At times, attempts were made to buy them off, but in the latter half of the ninth century, Ingvar Benlös (Ivar the Boneless), as per the sagas one of Ragnar Lodbroke’s sons, assembled a huge Viking army – adequately named the Great Heathen Army – and landed on English soil. This time, they did not want plunder. This time, the Vikings wanted land. I guess they’d had it with war and blood, hankering instead for meadows and tilled fields. After all, even bashing innocent monks over the head to rob them of everything they have gets a bit old after a while.

Due to all that Viking raiding and pillaging, most East Anglian written records of the time have been lost. Vikings didn’t read books – they burnt them. (Which is not to say they were illiterate. It’s just that the Vikings preferred carving runes into stones – a far more permanent record of their doings than ink on parchment) Despite this lack or records, we do know there existed an Edmund – coins with his name testify to this. Those same coins indicate he succeeded a gentleman named Aethelweard as king of East Anglia. It is thought he was related to Aethelstan, king of Kent, and whatever the case, the general supposition is that he was of a “noble and ancient race”, i.e. of royal Saxon blood.

EHFA 12th-century_painters_-_Life_of_St_Edmund_-_WGA15723

Edmund’s death

Edmund became king at the tender age of fifteen – or so the Anglo Saxon Chronicle tells us, which means we need to take things with a pinch of salt, as the Chronicle showed little interest in the events unfolding in East Anglia until twenty years after Edmund’s supposed death. But let us assume the Chronicle had it right – if nothing else because it makes for a better story. A young, gallant prince takes up the ermine (well…no ermine at the time, but still) and proceeds to lead his people. By all accounts, he did a good job, showing plenty of promise.

He was also a good Christian – a pious young man who in everything was the perfect role model for all those future young men who aspired to be brave and heroic. Here we had a king who refused to compromise when it came to his faith – no matter what it might cost him.

In the 860s, the Viking army landed in England with the intention of staying – for good. This did not go down well with those already there, but the Vikings were a somewhat brusque race, and what people didn’t give them, they took. They started by marching north to conquer York and Northumberland, went from there to Mercia where they forced the king into accepting a treaty, and then turned south to formally conquer East Anglia.

Edmund defended his kingdom as well as he could. But however competent Edmund may have been, he wasn’t much of a match for the battle-hardened Vikings, and his men were pathetically inadequate in facing up to the roaring Northern horde. To be fair, all of the Saxon kingdoms except Wessex were to succumb before the Viking warlords.

In November of 869, Edmund and his men ended up surrounded by the Vikings. There are various versions of what happened, but I prefer the one where Edmund yielded to save the lives of his men. There’s another variant whereby Edmund hid himself under a bridge in Hoxne – hoping no doubt to live and fight another day – but his spurs caught the sunlight and a young girl gave him up. However it came about, our Edmund was now in the less than tender care of the Danes.

EHFA Edmundbeingmartyred05

Killing the saint

Vikings were practical people. Why kill someone you could milk until they were dry? They therefore suggested that Edmund buy his life by giving them half his treasure. But, they added, he would have to embrace their faith as well. Anathema to Edmund. He might consider parting with what little treasure he had left, but his faith was not up for discussion. Edmund squared his shoulders, prepared to meet his fate. A young man still, not yet thirty, about to be cut down in his prime.

The Vikings found this rather hilarious. In general, Vikings couldn’t quite understand how anyone could worship such a weakling as the White Christ – the silly man got himself nailed to a cross, and as far as the Vikings could make out, he hadn’t even tried to fight himself free. Very strange, as per the Norsemen. It therefore amazed them that so many men were willing to die for this – in their opinion – useless god.

Edmund was tied to a tree. He was whipped with chains until he was bleeding from all over. He still refused to disavow his god. If Christ could die for all humanity, then Edmund could die for Christ. Very well, said Ubba – the man in charge – and ordered the half-dead man to be peppered with arrows. Still he didn’t die, but by now his tormentors had tired of their game, so they chopped off his head and threw it into the surrounding woods, leaving the decapitated corpse tied to the tree.

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A talking wolf (?)

No sooner had the Vikings ridden off, but Edmund’s men cut him down, weeping (I suppose) at this futile death. They looked everywhere for the head, but it was dark and cold, and no matter how they looked they couldn’t find it. But Edmund had friends among the wild creatures that lived in the woods, and so it was that a wolf found the head, and called out a series of “hic, hic, hic” until Edmund’s men cottoned on and came charging through the underbrush, marvelling at the miracle of a talking wolf (in Latin, no less).

Edmund was buried in a nearby church and there he remained for twenty-odd years. By then, the myth and legend of Edmund, the brave and handsome young king who died for Christ, had found its ways to the Church, and it was decided that the saintly king needed a more suitable shrine – which is how Edmund ended up being reburied in Bury St Edmunds. ( I like it when place names are this straightforward :))

By then, those Viking raiders had settled firmly into their new land. The Danelaw covered most of England, but interestingly enough those savage heathen warriors developed a softer side when living in peace. Many of them became Christians, and thirty years or so after Edmund’s death, the mints of East Anglia produced pennies with the legend SCE EADMUND REX (St Edmund King). Those ferocious Vikings and their descendants were proud of their brave saint, conveniently choosing to forget he wouldn’t have been a saint had the Vikings not killed him.

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St Edmund’s martyrdom depicted by Brian Whelan ( Creative Commons)

By 925, the cult of St Edmund had grown to such size it required a separate community devoted to this English saint. The abbey of Bury St Edmunds grew fat and happy thanks to their resident saint. Until the Reformation, the cult of the saint remained strong, and when the shrine was defaced and destroyed in the 16th century, it is said gold and silver to the value of 5 000 marks were carried away. Interestingly enough, at the time the shrine was probably empty, as it is said the French invaders who fought King John in the early 13th century stole away the body. As per this story, St Edmund’s remains ended up in Toulouse and were venerated by the French for centuries.

In the early 20th century, some of the remains in the French shrine were returned to England. It has never been determined if they belong to Edmund, which is why these sad little fragments remain in Arundel, under the care of the Duke of Norfolk rather than being buried under the high altar of Westminster Cathedral as originally intended.

Well over 1100 years ago, a young king was tortured to death by barbaric invaders. To this day, his name is remembered, even if the man behind the saint remains forever enigmatic. Me, I hope he did other things in his life but die. I hope there was love, and comradeship, moments filled with the sheer joy of being alive. I hope there were women and beer, nights of peaceful dreams and days of wondrous beauty. I hope Edmund had a life, before he so valiantly gave it away to save his companions.

Researching the Tudors – either there’s too much, or too little!

Today I’ve invited Tony Riches to visit, specifically to share some insight into all the research he’s had to do while writing his series about the early Tudors, Owen, Jasper and Henry. Turns out Tony has had his moments of frustration!

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TR The Tudor Trilogy books2The original idea for writing the Tudor Trilogy came to me when I began looking into the life of Owen Tudor, the Welsh servant who married a queen, and was surprised to find there were no books offering a full picture of his adventures. I soon found out why, as it is so hard to track down reliable information about his life. There are no images of him and even his name is written by scribes as ‘Owen Tidder’ or ‘Owain Tetyr’ and was probably Owain ap Maredudd ap Tewdwror).

I began to collect fascinating details of the lives of Owen’s sons, Edmund and Jasper and realised that if I planned it as a trilogy, Henry Tudor would be born in the first book, come of age in the second and become King of England in the final book.

The research for the first book, OWEN, consisted mostly of reading about the well documented life of his wife, Queen Catherine of Valois. Although I had to piece together the details of Owen’s life by cross-checking different sources and ‘fill in the gaps’ from other records of the period.

Owen’s first son Edmund died from wounds or a form of bubonic plague while in prison in November 1456, barely two months before Margaret Beaufort gave birth to Henry in Pembroke Castle. I visited the scene of Edmund’s death at Carmarthen Castle and found only the gatehouse remains, as the castle was largely demolished to build a Victorian Prison.

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Edmund’s tomb

Fortunately, Edmund’s tomb was rescued from Carmarthen Priory during the dissolution, so I was able to visit it at St David’s Cathedral, although even there it wasn’t safe. Stripped of its finery by Oliver Cromwell’s army in the seventeenth century, the tomb was restored in 1873 with an engraved brass representing Edmund Tudor by Thomas Waller.

It was left to Edmund’s younger brother to continue the story of the Tudors in the second book of the trilogy, JASPER. Now my research became easier, as he was based at Pembroke Castle (in the town where I was born) and owned a house in Tenby, close to where I now live.

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Tenby tunnel

Supporters of King Edward IV forced Jasper and the young Henry Tudor to flee for their lives. The secret tunnel they used to reach the harbour still exists, so I was able to see it for myself and walk in their footsteps deep under the streets of Tenby.

I’ve sailed from Tenby harbour many times, including at night, so have a good understanding of how they might have felt as they slipped away to Brittany. Rather than follow their course around Land’s End I chose to sail on the car ferry from Portsmouth to St Malo in Brittany, where I began to retrace the Tudor’s time in exile.

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Chateau de Suscinio

I’ve read that little happened during those fourteen years but of course Brittany was where Henry would come of age and begin to plan his return. Starting at the impressive palace of Duke Francis of Brittany in Vannes, I followed the Tudors to the Château de Suscinio on the coast. I was amazed to find it has been restored to look much as it might have when Jasper and Henry were there, and the surrounding countryside and coastline is largely unchanged.

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Chateau de Josselin

Duke Francis of Brittany, began to worry when Yorkist agents began plotting to capture the Tudors, so he moved them to different fortresses further inland. I stayed by the river within sight of the magnificent Château de Josselin, were Jasper was effectively held prisoner. Although the inside has been updated over the years, the tower where Jasper lived survives and I was even able to identify Tudor period houses in the medieval town which he would have seen from his window.

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Tony at Largoët

Henry’s château was harder to find but worth the effort. The Forteresse de Largoët is deep in the forest outside of the town of Elven. His custodian, Marshall of Brittany, Jean IV, Lord of Rieux and Rochefort, had two sons of similar age to Henry and it is thought they continued their education together. Proof I was at the right place was in the useful leaflet in English which confirmed that: ‘On the second floor of the Dungeon Tower and to the left is found a small vaulted room where the Count of Richemont was imprisoned for 18 months (1474-1475).’ 

Entering the Dungeon Tower through a dark corridor, I regretted not bringing a torch, as the high stairway is lit only by the small window openings. Interestingly, the lower level is octagonal, with the second hexagonal and the rest square. Cautiously feeling my way up the staircase I was walking in the footsteps of the young Henry Tudor, who would also have steadied himself by placing his hand against the cold stone walls, nearly five and a half centuries before

When I returned to Wales I made the journey to remote Mill Bay, where Henry and Jasper landed with their small invasion fleet. A bronze plaque records the event and it was easy to imagine how they might have felt as they began the long march to confront King Richard at Bosworth. On the anniversary of the battle I walked across Bosworth field and watched hundreds of re-enactors recreate the battle, complete with cavalry and cannon fire.

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Reenactment of Bosworth

The challenge I faced for the final book of the trilogy, HENRY, was too much information. Henry left a wealth of detailed records, often initialling every line in his ledgers, which still survive. At the same time, I had to deal with the contradictions, myths and legends that cloud interpretation of the facts. I decided the only way was to immerse myself in Henry’s world and explore events as they might have appeared from his point of view. I stood in the small room in Pembroke Castle where Henry Tudor is thought to have been born, (within sight of where I was born) and began three years of intensive research about this enigmatic king.

I bought every book I could find about Henry and his times, and also studied the lives of those around him, including his mother, Margaret Beaufort, and his queen, Elizabeth of York. As I reached the end I decided to visit Henry’s Tomb in Westminster Abbey. There is something quite surreal about making your way through Westminster Abbey to the Lady Chapel at the far end. There are many amazing distractions, as you pass the tombs of earlier kings and Henry’s granddaughter Elizabeth I in a side chapel. Henry’s tomb dominates the centre of the Lady Chapel and is surrounded by a high bronze grille. His effigy is raised too high to see, so I climbed a convenient step and peered through the holes in the grille. There lay Henry with his wife, Elizabeth of York, their gilded hands clasped in prayer.

I am pleased to say that after all these years researching the lives of the early Tudors, all three books of the trilogy have become international best sellers. I’d like to take this opportunity to thank all the readers around the world who have been on this journey with me. Although this is the end of the Tudor trilogy, I am now researching the life of Henry’s daughter Mary and her adventurous husband Charles Brandon, so the story of the Tudors is far from over.

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Thank you, Tony for that. And I for one am happy to hear you’ll be writing more books – especially about someone as fascinating as the wayward Mary and her Charles!

Tony Riches AuthorFor those of you as yet unacquainted with Tony Riches, he is a full time author of best-selling fiction and non-fiction books. He lives by the sea in Pembrokeshire, West Wales with his wife and enjoys sea and river kayaking in his spare time. For more information about Tony’s other books please visit his popular blog, The Writing Desk and website www.tonyriches.com and find him on Facebook and Twitter @tonyriches.  The Tudor Trilogy is available on Amazon UK  Amazon US and Amazon AU

 

A short and inconsequential life

Not that long ago, I wrote a post about Isabel of Portugal who married Philip the Good of Burgundy. Had it not been for a certain artist, I’d probably not have expended much time on this lady, or on her son and grandchild. Burgundy in the 15th century has mostly been indirectly relevant to me from the perspective of the Yorkists in the War of the Roses, seeing as Edward IV’s sister Margaret married Isabel’s son, Charles the Bold.

Now Isabel should have been a Lancastrian. Her grandfather was John of Gaunt, her uncle was Henry IV, and at one time a marriage between Isabel and Henry V had been considered. But despite her lineage, Isabel—and her son—tended to side with the Yorkists. As many of you will know, Burgundy was to play an important role in the 1470s, welcoming the exiled Edward IV and his brother to stay and lick their wounds prior to them returning to England there to defeat Warwick the Kingmaker and the Lancastrian Prince of Wales.

However, the focus of today’s post is neither the Yorkists or Isabel. Or her son. No, today we will spend time with Isabel’s only grandchild, born in 1457.

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Meet the parents: Isabella and Charles

Let us start by saying that this birth did not have everyone breaking out into whoops of joy. Notably, the babe’s grandfather was less than thrilled, muttering that whoever needed a girl baby? As per Philip, the child was of the wrong gender—he’d married three times to ensure he had a male heir, and now that male heir of his had sired a useless daughter, not a son. Fortunately (from Philip’s perspective) Charles was still young, as was his wife, so there was still hope for a future boy.

Charles, however, was delighted—as was his mother. The baby was christened Mary, and as the years passed, it became apparent she was to be an only child, this further reinforced when her mother, Isabella of Bourbon, died in 1465. Having only a female heir placed Burgundy in a tenuous position. With its lands wedged between France and the Holy Roman Empire, Burgundy had been fighting off encroachments for generations, fiercely determined to hold on to their independence. This was why a male heir was so important: a female heir would have to marry, and it would be her husband, not the lady in question, who would do the actual ruling. Not, as per the proud Burgundians, a good thing: I mean, what if the heiress married a Frenchie? Or, almost as bad, a Hapsburg?

In 1467, Philip died and Charles became Duke of Burgundy. With no other children but Mary, it was imperative he marry again, and after much hemming and hawing, his choice fell on Margaret of York. The French king was less than delighted at the thought of Burgundy and England joining forces and did his best to throw a monkey wrench or two into the works. Edward IV vacillated, there was some general procrastination all around, but with Edward facing more and more opposition at home, he needed to build alliances abroad, which is how Margaret ended up wed to Charles.

At the time, Mary was eleven. Her mother had been dead for three years, and accordingly it had been her grandmother, Isabel, who actively organised Mary’s life. As Isabel had been brought up to appreciate learning in all its forms, it is likely Mary was a well-educated little girl, with Isabel ensuring that she not only learnt her Latin, but also studied mathematics and philosophy and other relevant subjects. Plus, of course, Isabel passed on her own passion for riding to her little granddaughter.

In 1468, Mary and Isabel met Margaret for the first time. They got on like a a house on fire, those three, and lifelong friendships were forged almost instantly. Isabel was very taken by her son’s new wife, whom she found not only very beautiful, but also politically shrewd and very intelligent. As to Mary, her elegant young stepmother made quite the impression, presenting her with someone to emulate. Margaret, being a smart young lady, realised just how important it was to win over her new husband’s daughter and mother, but I also believe she genuinely liked both Isabel and Mary, as would be demonstrated by how she would grieve at their deaths.

Margaret never had any children. Was Charles disappointed? Probably. Was Margaret, the daughter of a singularly fertile mother, devastated? I’d think yes. To live up to the dynastic expectations, she should have popped out a son to inherit the duchy. But God works in mysterious ways, and while Margaret was never to experience the joy and travail of birthing a child, she did have a daughter in her stepdaughter Mary, a relationship that grew even closer when Isabel died in 1471.

Charles was not always the easiest of men to live with—or work with. By the mid 1470s, he was determined to carve out a new, expanded kingdom for himself, which did not go down well with those whose lands he planned on adding to his own. He ended up quarrelling with almost everyone who had previously been an ally to him, but Charles was not about to back down—or betray the few allies remaining to him. Which was why, in 1476, he attacked Grandson, a town recently captured by the Swiss Confederacy, but whose original ruler was one of Charles’ allies.

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Charles being lenient: drowning, anyone?

Grandson only surrendered after Charles had promised leniency. Well, so say the Swiss sources. Other sources say that the town surrendered and threw itself at the mercy of the duke. Said duke had no intention of being merciful and ordered over 400 men to be hanged or drowned, a procedure that took several hours.

Charles was not destined to savour his victory. An approaching Swiss army more or less annihilated Charles’ force (more due to surprise than anything) and the duke was obliged to flee, leaving his enormous war booty in the hands of the Swiss.

Determined to reclaim both his booty and his honour, Charles assembled a new army and rode to meet the Swiss at the battle of Morat. He lost. Charles decided to try again, and in January of 1477 he engaged in the Battle of Nancy. This time, he not only lost. He died. His badly mutilated and looted body was found some three days later. And just like that, one of the most important players on the European political scene was a nineteen-year-old girl, Mary of Burgundy.

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Mary

Fortunately for Mary, her stepmother was something of a lion. Stepping into the void left behind by her husband, Margaret ably organised Burgundy’s defences, involved herself in everything from diplomatic missions to the day-to-day. One of the most urgent items on the agenda of the duchy was to ensure Mary married the right person (from a Burgundian perspective. Mary’s own preferences were neither here nor there).

Charles had already initiated discussions regarding his daughter’s wedding with Frederick, the Holy Roman Emperor. But now that Charles was dead, several other suitors popped out of the woodwork, with France aggressively demanding the new Duchess remember who her overlord was (the French king, something Charles had chosen to ignore as far as possible).

King Louis XI of France wanted Mary to marry his son, a boy thirteen years her junior. Frederick, of course, demanded that the negotiations initiated by Charles be concluded, whereby Mary would marry his son, Maximilian. The recently widowed George, Duke of Clarence, pushed his suit, hoping his dear sister Margaret would convince her stepdaughter to marry him. Elizabeth Woodville had an unmarried brother who rather liked the idea of becoming the new duke. Decisions, decisions, people, and the only one Mary trusted to guide her through all this was Margaret.

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Mary marrying Maximilian

After much consideration, Margaret voted for Maximilian. She liked the young man’s energy and intelligence, qualities she deemed necessary to defend Mary’s inheritance. And so, in August of 1477, Mary wed the Hapsburg heir, thereby permanently redrawing the map of political influence in Europe. Okay, so she didn’t know that at the time. Probably none of the players did, but ultimately the union between Mary and Maximilian would result in the Hapsburgs ascending the throne of Spain, with Mary’s grandson, Charles V (or I, depending on who is counting) becoming king of Castile and Aragon – and emperor, duke, count, prince, king of I don’t know how many other territories, making him the most powerful man in Europe.

Still, in 1477, this was still in the future, and the immediate present required the complete attention of the newly-wed, what with Louis having retaken the heartland of the Duchy of Burgundy which was thereby lost forever. The problems didn’t stop there: Louis adeptly fomented unrest among Mary’s subjects—not everyone loved a Hapsburg—and even went as far as to question the gender of Mary’s first child, loudly proclaiming to the Burgundians that they were being duped, the child was not a son, but a girl. That particular statement was easily disproved when Margaret, in her role as godmother to the baby, disrobed little Philip at his christening, proudly presenting an undoubtedly male child to the assembled people.

In 1480, Mary gave birth to her second child, a little girl she named Margaret in honour of her stepmother. A good start to her marriage, she might have thought: two healthy children in less than three years promised a sequence of more babies as the years rolled by. On the other hand, she must have been concerned by the political turbulence that surrounded her, albeit that Margaret and Maximilian formed a rather impressive team that did their best to safeguard Mary’s inheritance.

Despite the constant fighting with France, with the rebellious Burgundians, Mary and Maximilian did have time for each other and other pastimes. Now and then, they took a break from war and worry and indulged in fun things, such as hunting. In 1482, they rode out together to enjoy a day out in the field. For some reason, Mary fell off her horse. As per some, her horse tripped, threw her, and then fell on top of her. As per others, she “just” fell off. Whatever the sequence of events, the fall broke her back, and some days later, Mary was dead. She was all of twenty-five.

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Mary’s babies: Philip and Margaret

Mary was never to see her children grow up, her son to become a drop-dead womaniser who wed the eldest daughter of Fernando and Isabel (and more about the Philip and Juana marriage here), her daughter to marry twice, be widowed twice, and then become a kick-ass regent, managing the Hapsburg interests in the Low Countries so adeptly even her nephew, Charles V, approved. But that, dear peeps, will have to be the subject of a future post. Archduchess Margaret deserves as much, IMO.

Mary’s role in history is restricted to that of daughter, wife and mother. She never actively ruled her inherited lands, nor does she seem to have been all that interested in that aspect of things, more than happy to leave such matters to Maximilian and Margaret. But had there been no Mary, there would not have been a Hapsburg alliance. Had there not been a Hapsburg alliance, there would not have been a Charles V. Had there not been a Charles V to defend the interests of his aunt, Catherine of Aragon, then maybe Henry VIII would have convinced the pope to grant him a divorce, thereby making his break with Rome redundant.

Plus, of course, no Mary, no Spanish Hapsburgs. I’m not entirely sure that would have left the world bereft—after all, with the exception of Charles himself and his son Philip they weren’t the most gifted lot (this due to the Hapsburg tendency to marry their very close relatives), but no Philip IV and then maybe there wouldn’t have been a Diego Velázquez, or a magnificent painting named Las Meninas. And that, dear peeps, would have been a major, major loss!

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The major loss

Living unremarkably through remarkable times

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Framlingham, by Ian Dalgleish (licensed under Creative Commons)

Some time ago, I visited Framlingham Castle. I wasn’t there to admire the Tudor chimneys (however impressive), nor was I all that interested in the Bigod family, original builders and owners of the place. No, I came to Framlingham chasing the ghost of a certain Thomas of Brotherton.

The guide book to Framlingham Castle describes Thomas as being “an unexceptional man”. I didn’t like that, but I suppose that’s what you get when you jostle for space in the annals of history with such people as Edward II, Isabella of France, Hugh Despenser, Roger Mortimer and Edward III – no matter that you were born a prince. It probably didn’t help that our unexceptional Thomas had an exceptionally handsome and flamboyant younger brother, the far more famous Edmund, Earl of Kent, father to the equally exceptionally beautiful Joan, a.k.a. The Fair Maid of Kent.

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Eleanor’s tomb in Lincoln (which only contains her viscera)

If we start at the beginning – always a safe bet – we need to return to the year 1290. Late in November of that year, England’s queen, Eleanor of Castile, died. She left behind a grief-struck husband. From the day they married, him a gangly fifteen, she a pretty thirteen-year-old, they’d been more or less joined at the hip, rarely apart. Over the thirty-six years of their marriage she had given him sixteen children, of which five daughters and one son were still alive when she died. The son was only six, and herein lay the rub: Edward I needed a spare.

A king had to do what a king had to do, and although I doubt Edward was all that inclined to marry – after all, what sort of a paragon would be required to fill the shoes of his beloved Eleanor? – he decided to get on with it, suggesting to Philippe IV of France that he marry Philippe’s young half-sister, Blanche. Hmm, said Philippe, reminding Edward that Blanche was already betrothed to Edward’s young son.
“I need a wife now, he doesn’t,” I imagine Edward replied, and so an agreement was struck whereby Edward gave up the province of Gascony and in return acquired a blushing bride and permanent peace with France so that he could concentrate on those dastardly Scots.

Turns out Philippe IV was as dastardly as the Scots, if not more. You see, when Edward’s brother Edmund turned up to fetch the fetching Blanche, he found the bride-to-be was betrothed elsewhere.
“Oops,” said Philippe. “How remiss of me to forget that! But I have another sister,” he continued hastily, proposing that Edward, at the time fifty-four, wed the eleven-year-old Marguerite.
“I don’t want a child bride!” Edward growled and exploded into a magnificent display of Plantagenet temper which resulted in renewed war with France.

After some years of bickering and skirmishes, Philippe and Edward made up: both men were pragmatists, neither of them had any desire to invest men and money on a war which could be exceedingly costly for both parties. And so, in September of 1299, winter married spring, with the sixty-year-old Edward taking the teen-aged Marguerite as his wife. Not the romance of the century, one could say, but Edward proved to be a devoted husband to his much younger wife – and she returned the favour, seemingly content with her much, much older man.

medieval-minnesinger-medieval-loveBy the beginning of 1300, all this marital contentment had resulted in a pregnancy. Marguerite was an active woman who saw no reason to curtail her activities due to being with child, and legend has it she was riding to the hounds when her waters broke. Other sources are somewhat less dramatic: our pregnant lady was on her way to the place of her confinement when her labour began. Whichever version you prefer, the delivery was difficult, requiring a lot of praying to St Thomas Becket before the unexceptional Thomas of Brotherton finally saw the light of the day. His royal father did not think the baby was unexceptional. In fact, he was ecstatic: a healthy son, a spare! One year later, Margaret repeated the feat, presenting Edward with yet another son, Edmund of Woodstock.

In 1307, Edward I died. His young widow was prostrate with grief (due to loss of husband or loss of position is a tad unclear), his eldest son not so much. Relations between Edward I and his namesake and heir had been fraught over the last few years, principally due to one Piers Gaveston, a man the future Edward II seemed incapable of living without. Edward I had even gone so far as to exile his son’s favoured companion, but now papa was dead, and Piers was back, and Edward II was so happy he promptly elevated Piers to the Earl of Cornwall – this despite knowing that this particular earldom was intended for the eldest of his half-brothers.

Thomas was too small to care. His mama, the dowager queen, did. She was not pleased. At all. Even less so when Edward went on to hand over some of her dower lands to up and coming Piers. The previously warm and fuzzy relationship between Marguerite and her step-son chilled somewhat as a consequence, and I dare say she was not exactly devastated when Piers was murdered in 1312.

In 1312, Thomas of Brotherton became the Earl of Norfolk, his lands coming out of the deceased Roger Bigod’s estate. Among his new possessions was Framlingham Castle, where he apparently left so little an impression he is not remembered at all – except as being unexceptional. I guess the Bigod family was a hard act to follow.

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Edward II

In 1318, Marguerite of France died, and her two young sons no longer had her holding their back. Over the coming years, the young Earl of Norfolk was to experience the greed of the new royal favourite, Hugh Despenser, first hand. The latter appropriated land belonging to Thomas, but Thomas’ protests went unheard – Edward II was far fonder of Hugh than he was of his own brother. I imagine this did not foster a loving relationship between Thomas and Hugh – or Thomas and Edward – but our hero of the day chose to keep his head down and swallow the insult.

Some time before 1320, Thomas married. For a man of such wealth and lineage, his choice of bride is peculiar. Alice was the daughter of the coroner of Norfolk, had no wealth, no lands – at least not compared to her husband. The king, by all accounts, was less than pleased when he was informed of his brother’s choice of bride. Maybe it was a case of true love, maybe it was merely a dalliance that led to unforeseen consequences – but for the son of a king, such consequences could have been handled without marrying the girl.

Whatever the status of his marriage, by 1321 Thomas had other matters to think about – specifically the brewing discontent among the barons. Humphrey de Bohun, Earl of Hereford & brother-in-law to Edward II, and Roger Mortimer rode roughshod over Despenser lands, pillaging and destroying as they went, and soon enough Edward II had his back to a wall, having to face not only the triumphant Roger and Humphrey, but also his cousin, Thomas of Lancaster, who joined his voice to the other rebellious barons.

The Despensers were exiled, the king was obliged to set his seal to a document pardoning the rebel barons for their rebellion – after all, it had been done with his best interests at heart. I don’t think Edward saw it quite that way, and in these trying times when he no longer had Despenser at his side, it makes sense that he would turn to his half-brothers. At last an opportunity for Thomas to prove his worth to the king, and initially the king seems to have been more than pleased. But once the barons had been defeated Despenser came back, and Thomas was once again back to fading into the tapestries while Edward fawned over his favourite royal chancellor. Not, I suppose, an enjoyable experience for the young and reputedly hot-tempered Thomas.

It didn’t help that he was forced to surrender the lordship of Chepstow to Despenser in 1323. Nor that the king verbally rebuked him for having been somewhat remiss in his duties as Earl Marshal. Or that the king preferred to seek advice from his treasurer Stapledon and Despenser than from his half-brother.

But then, in 1326, things changed. By then Mortimer had fled the Tower and was safe in France, planning his return. The king needed all allies he could find and went out of his way to grant Thomas lands and wardships, expanded his authorities and in general made an effort to ensure his brother felt appreciated. Too little, too late. Thomas had already followed his brother into the opposing camp, and when Isabella of France and Roger Mortimer landed in England at the head of an invading army, they landed on Thomas’ lands, secure of their welcome.

eduard3Some months later, Edward II was imprisoned, Edward III was crowned, and Thomas looked forward to being one of the central movers and shakers in his nephew’s realm. Not about to happen. Isabella and Mortimer had other plans, and once again Thomas was marginalised.

Frustrated by his position, Thomas joined Henry of Lancaster’s rebellion against Edward III and his regents. At the last moment, his nerve failed him, and he and brother Edmund scarpered back to the royal camp, begging their nephew for forgiveness. Understandably, relations were somewhat cool after this, but at some point Thomas was forgiven – and to properly show just how forgiven, his only son was offered a Mortimer daughter as a bride. It wasn’t as if Thomas had the option of refusing – little Edmund of Norfolk was a great marital prize, and Mortimer had many daughters to marry off.

In 1330, the wheel of fortune did another turn. First, a turn to the worse, when Thomas’ brother, the earl of Kent, was accused of treason – an elegantly masterminded plot by Mortimer which ended up with Kent very, very dead. Some months later, it was Mortimer’s turn to die, this time due to a plot masterminded by the young king himself. Isabella was exiled from court – at least for a while – and Edward III was now firmly in control of his own kingdom.

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Fighting the Scots at Halidon Hill

At last, Thomas had come into his own. Over the coming years, he was one of his nephew’s most trusted men, albeit that he was rather dismal at managing his own personal finances. But he was brave and trustworthy, an Earl Marshal to rely on, and when it came to the infected matter of fighting the Scots, Edward was more than happy to heed Thomas’ advice.

In 1336, Thomas married for the second time – his first wife had died some time before 1330. Why he waited that long, I do not know, and yet again, his choice of bride is a bit odd – no highborn lady for our Thomas. Instead he settled on a widow, and I suppose he’d hoped for more children – just like his father before him, Thomas only had the one surviving son from his first marriage. In difference to his father, Thomas was not to have any more sons. Even worse, in 1337, Thomas’ only son died, leaving a little widow but no issue.

In 1338, Thomas died. He left behind a widow, two daughters, and an earldom. A short life, from our perspective, a life led in the shadows of the turmoil which distinguished the reign of his brother. And yes, in many ways it was an unremarkable life. Thomas somehow managed to avoid taking centre stage in any of the internal conflicts that plagued England, hovering in the background instead. As a survival technique it worked quite well – Thomas was never imprisoned, never lived with the threat of execution hanging over his head. Maybe that’s what distinguishes an unexceptional man, a reluctance to risk it all for a cause.

Whatever the case, Thomas of Brotherton was to leave the world one very impressive legacy: his daughter Margaret, Countess of Norfolk and Earl Marshal of England. She already has her own post on this blog – a sign, I suppose, of just how much she overshadows her father.

Hanged, drawn and quartered – not a death to aspire to

HDQ main-qimg-6d1cf921e99741e6559b96e99e88897bBeing a medieval king came with all sorts of challenges, chief among them how to stop people from rebelling and in general causing unnecessary upheaval in your country. Sheesh: couldn’t they just accept that the one in charge was the king? Only the king? Clearly, something had to be done to keep people on the straight and narrow, which is why – or so the story goes – late in the 13th century, Edward I decided he needed to up the death-penalty somewhat, make it even more of a deterrent. Specifically, Edward I wanted people considering treason to think again – which was why, on October of 1283, he had the last Prince of Wales, Dafydd ap Gruffydd, subjected to horrific torture before the poor man finally died. Dafydd thereby became the first recorded person to be executed by the gruesome means of being hanged, drawn and quartered. I’m guessing Dafydd would have preferred being remembered for something else…

HDQ 300px-Drawing_of_William_de_MariscoTo be thus executed involved a lot of stages. First, you were tied to a horse (or in some cases several horses) and dragged through the town. Doesn’t sound too bad, you may think, but imagine being dragged over uneven cobbles, over gravel and stones, mud and slime, while the spectators lining the road pelt you with stuff – hard stuff, mostly. By the time the victim arrived at the gallows, he was a collection of bruises and gashes, his garments torn to shreds. Chances were, the man couldn’t stand, but stand he had to, and soon enough he was hoisted upwards, to the waiting noose.

HDQ france-used-to-torture-and-execute-its-finance-ministers-for-policies-gone-badThe second stage involved the hanging as such. Now, in medieval times, hanging rarely resulted in a broken neck. The condemned man didn’t drop several feet. Instead, the victim was set to swing from his neck and slowly strangled to death. A painful and extended demise, with the further indignity that when a man dies, his bowels and bladder give. However, the unfortunate sod who’d been condemned to being hanged, drawn and quartered, never got to the bladder and bowels part. He was cut down before he died and placed before the executioner and his big, sharp knife. The horror was just about to begin.

In some cases, the executioner started by gelding the man. Loud cheers from the spectators – or not, depending on who was being executed. Executions generally drew huge crowds, people standing about and snacking on the odd fritter or two while watching the condemned die. Nice – but hey, we must remember this was before the advent of TV and stuff like Counterstrike 4. People have always enjoyed being entertained with violence – which says a lot about the human race in general.

HDQ02ef126bf225e1545b51ecb2094efd20Once the condemned man had been relieved of his manhood (not something he’d ever use again anyway), he was cut open. A skillful executioner would keep him alive throughout the process, ensuring the dying man saw his organs being pulled from his body. And then, once he’d died, they chopped him up, sent off selected parts to be displayed in various parts of the kingdom, and buried what little was left over.

Not, all in all, a nice way to die. Men condemned to die that way must have swallowed and swallowed, knowing full well that no one could bear such indignities and die well. Before he drew his last breath, he’d have cried and wept, suffered horrific pain, hoped for the release of unconsciousness, only to be brought back up to the surface so as to fully experience what they did next to him. A truly demeaning death – most definitely a deterrent!

Edward Gal_nations_edward_iEdward I was rather fond of his new method of execution (although, to be honest, it is still a matter of dispute if it was Edward I who “invented” it – there seems to have been earlier cases, like when a man tried to assassinate Henry III). Other than the unfortunate Dafydd, Edward had several Scottish “rebels and traitors” – in itself a strange label to put on men fighting for the freedom of their country – hanged, drawn and quartered, notably among them William Wallace and some of Robert Bruce’s brothers.

It is unlikely that any man subjected to such a gruesome death would be in a position to inhale and yell “FREEDOM!” as William Wallace does in Mel Gibson’s interpretation. It is far more likely that by the time the cutting began, the victim was in severe shock, incapable of uttering more than high-pitched shrieks and grunts.

Edward I’s son and heir, Edward II, was in many ways a lesser king than his father, but it is to his credit that he was substantially less blood-thirsty. (Edward Sr would probably have called him squeamish, going on to harangue his son about the importance of keeping his barons toeing the line. Wise words, but wasted on Edward II). Anyway: there are very few recorded instances of men having been hanged, drawn and quartered during Edward II’s reign. But among these unfortunate souls one man stands out: In 1318, Llywelyn Bren was executed without having been sentenced to die – a serious violation of existing law.

Llywelyn Bren was (taa-daa) Welsh. His real name was Llywelyn ap Gryffudd ap Rhys, and his father had been one of those men loyal to Llywelyn ap Gryffudd, often referred to as the Last True Prince of Wales (He was Dafydd’s brother. Dafydd was something of a weathervane when it came to his loyalties – he had actually sworn allegiance to Edward I long before he decided to throw his lot in with his Welsh brethren, which was why Edward I was so incensed when Dafydd turned around and proclaimed himself Prince of Wales after big brother Llywelyn had been killed…Apologies for the multiple Llywelyns. Seems teh Welsh were as fond of that name as the medieval Castilians were of Alfonso) Bren is a Welsh honorific meaning something akin to “royal”, and our Llywelyn had earned the sobriquet, not only due to his lineage, but also because he acted like a king should – he defended “his” people.

The story starts in 1315. England was in something of a disarray after the Battle of Bannockburn, and this was especially true of the Welsh Marches, where the powerful Earl of Gloucester had died without a male heir. Young Gilbert de Clare did leave three sisters, but until the inheritance issues could be properly sorted, the huge de Clare lordship was administered by royal officers – with varying success. The period also coincided with famine. The second decade of the 14th century saw a sequence of failed harvests, and by 1315, the people were hungry and finding it increasingly difficult to pay the royal taxes.

The king, of course, insisted his taxes be paid, and his various sheriffs were charged with ensuring the subjects coughed up their pennies. In Wales – and especially in Glamorgan – the situation was very bad, and the newly elected sheriff, a certain de Turberville, did not make things any better when he started by dismissing all Welshmen holding office. One of the men so discourteously snubbed was Llywelyn Bren.

Bren had been a respected sub-lord under the Earl of Gloucester, held in high regard by Welsh and English alike. When de Turberville resorted to force – he sent out armed men to terrorise the Welsh into giving up what little they had, some of which he kept for himself – Llywelyn Bren protested. De Tuberville responded by accusing Bren of sedition, and Llywelyn was so outraged he penned a letter to the king, asking that he remove de Tuberville. Edward II answered by telling Llywelyn Bren to present himself before Parliament – and prepare to hang, should the court find him guilty of the charges made by de Turberville.

De Turberville continued with his persecution of the Welsh. Forced into a corner, Llywelyn Bren had no choice but to defend his people. In a well-planned action, he surrounded the detested sheriff and his closest men while they were holding court just outside Caerphilly castle. De Turberville tried to reach the safety of the castle, but the portcullis came down, the drawbridge was pulled up, and so a number of Englishmen – including de Turberville – were cut down in the outer bailey of the castle. The victorious Welsh then descended on Caerphilly town, looting and burning as they went.

Obviously, the king could not allow this to happen. He ordered the Earl of Hereford, Humphrey de Bohun, and the Lords Mortimer (Roger Mortimer and his uncle Roger Mortimer. I know, I know: more name confusion) to handle the issue, supported by further troops. Llywelyn quickly realised he was hopelessly outnumbered, and decided he had to do what a true leader had to do: set the safety of his men before that of himself. So he gave up, offered himself as a prisoner on terms that allowed his men to keep their lives. Llywelyn himself was to be taken to London, and I dare say he held little hope of ever seeing his homeland again.

Llywelyn’s bravery made a huge impression on both de Bohun and Roger Mortimer. Both of them pleaded with the king that he be lenient – Llywelyn had served the king loyally for many years. Besides, there was ample proof that de Turberville had exceeded his authorities. This time, the king listened, and Llywelyn Bren had the threat of being hanged, drawn and quartered commuted into imprisonment in the Tower. Phew, Llywelyn probably thought.

Time passed. Roger Mortimer was sent to Ireland to handle that Scottish would-be-Irish-king upstart Edward Bruce, and in England a certain Hugh Despenser nestled himself closer and closer to the royal bosom. Hugh was wed to Eleanor de Clare, one of the heiresses to the Earl of Gloucester, and as a consequence of his new position as the king’s favourite, in November of 1317 he (well, formally his wife) was awarded the plum pieces of the huge inheritance – the lordship of Glamorgan, where Llywelyn Bren held his hereditary lands. Neither Roger Mortimer nor de Bohun were too thrilled by the news that Despenser had acquired the lordship of Glamorgan. In one fell swoop, the royal favourite had become a power to be reckoned with on the Welsh Marches, thereby threatening Mortimer’s traditional power base.

HDQ harclay-man-drawnTo celebrate his new lands, Despenser had Llywelyn Bren removed from the Tower. Despite the lack of a formal royal approval, the Welshman was handed over into the less than loving hands of Despenser and carried back to Wales sometime in early 1318. In Cardiff, the poor man was attached to two horses, dragged through the town to the waiting gallows where he was subsequently hanged before being cut down and resuscitated enough to see (and feel) his heart being cut out. Once dead, he was quartered and Hugh Despenser appropriated Llywelyn’s lands, imprisoned his widow and as many of his sons as he could lay his hands on.

The English nobility was appalled. More particularly, Roger Mortimer and Humphrey de Bohun were enraged. With what right had Despenser deprived Llywelyn Bren of his life? After all, Llywelyn Bren had been sentenced to imprisonment in London, not execution in Cardiff. Even worse, the man had died the death of a traitor, an awful extended death that a man like Llywelyn Bren did not deserve – this was a man both de Bohun and Mortimer held in high regard, an educated man with whom the Mortimers even shared (distant) kin. The king was expected to act, punish his favourite for this blatant disregard of the law. Except, of course, that Edward II didn’t, proving yet again to his disgruntled barons that he was not much of a king – or a man of his word. Or a defender of law and justice. All in all, a lesser king than his father.

When Roger Mortimer and Humphrey de Bohun – together with the royal cousin Thomas of Lancaster – rose in rebellion in 1321, one of the reasons they put forward was the despicable treatment of Llywelyn Bren. The royal chancellor Hugh Despenser had violated the law and effectively murdered a loyal servant of the king, with not so much as a slap on the wrist as retribution. England, the rebel barons claimed, deserved to be ruled by better men, men who respected law and order.

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Hugh dying

And so, indirectly, the awful death of Llywelyn Bren set in motion events that would subsequently lead to the deposition of a king – and the equally harrowing death of Hugh Despenser, who died just like Llewlyn Bren did, in November of 1326. Maybe Llewlyn smiled down from the skies as he saw Hugh suffer. One who definitely smiled was Roger Mortimer, now permanently rid of that personal burr up his backside, the equally ambitious – and capable – Hugh Despenser.

(The original version of this post was written for English Historical Fiction Authors – but it has been somewhat modified) 

A celebratory post

It is out. My eleventh baby, Under the Approaching Dark, sees the light of the day today, and I’ve decided to celebrate my accomplishments. After all, if I don’t celebrate, why should anyone else?

Under the Approaching Dark_eb-pb-tr 160412

Eleven books since 2012. Okay, okay: I haven’t written eleven books in five years – I had quite a few of them done prior to taking those steadying breaths required prior to embarking on the path of publication, but still. Eleven. And guess what? Seeing your book in print doesn’t get old.

Yes, I have become more critical. I pick up the book, I inspect the spine, the paper, I turn it this way and that looking for flaws. This time round, I didn’t find any. Mind you, I know I will find some. There’ll be that irritating typo both me and my editor have missed. Or a slightly misaligned quotation mark. But for now, I hold up my book and inhale. A rather heady scent of ink and paper—somewhat addictive even for someone as fond of e-books as I am.

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As an ambitious author, I can’t rest on my laurels. I need to write more. And more. There’s a trilogy to finish editing, a sequel to The Graham Saga that just needs the last two chapters, the next book in The King’s Greatest Enemy to revise. Plus all the other stuff that clutters up my brain, all those stories that just have to be told. Not necessarily so as to enrich the human race, but more so that I don’t go slightly crazy keeping it all inside of my poor, buzzing brain.

Tea William Henry Margetson Afternoon-TeaBut today, I’m not doing any of that. Today, I’m going to bask in a sensation of accomplishment. Maybe I’ll even celebrate with a cup of tea and a slice of chocolate cake. Or maybe I’ll just jot down those lines that have been plaguing me for days now:

Simon knew the moment he shoved the door open that he’d made a mistake. He hesitated, not quite knowing what to make of what he saw. Behind him, he could still hear the muted sounds of the tourists making their way around the large Cathedral, most of them in unbuttoned warm winter jackets. Before him, fields dipped and swayed in a summer breeze, a lingering sunset gilding the stone walls closest.
“What is it?” Amanda asked, shoving at him. 
“Let’s go back,” he said, trying to pull the door closed. 
“Why? What do you see?” As impatient as ever, she shoved again, and this time he stumbled over the threshold. Acute pain enveloped him, causing him to fall to his knees while clutching his head.
“Simon?” Her voice sounded surprisingly faint. “Are you ok?” She made as if to go to him, he tried to tell her not to, but it was too late. She collapsed beside him. “What…” she gasped, before doubling over.
The door started to swing shut. Simon tried to get to his feet. The door. He had to keep it open. The door. Damn it, the door! 

With a soft sigh, the door closed. The ground beneath them shook, the pain was gone. 
“What happened?” Amanda asked, getting to her feet. Her eyes widened as she took in the lush greenery. “Simon?” Her voice quavered. “How…”

Well, dear readers, there went my tea and cake. So if you’ll excuse me, I have a new story to write. No rest for the weary, right?

In which Mrs Who converses with her characters

Writing Leonid Pasternak

At times, being a writer brings with it a sense of confusion: Where am I? Who am I? What era am I presently stuck in? Now and then, I need to pinch myself to bring me back to my reality, the one in which electrical light and central heating and hot, hot showers figure prominently, so as not to get stuck on a bloody battlefield in the 14th century or choke in a noose on a 17th century gallows.
“That’s what you get, for interacting with all of us simultaneously,” Jason Morris says with a little laugh, sitting back on the very roomy (and hideously purple. Colour-choice probably needs to be analysed) sofa that takes up most of my brain space at present.
“Well, it’s not exactly as I have a choice, do I? Once you take on shape, you all become very alive and real.” Besides, I find my various protagonists somewhat addictive, which is why I can’t just let them drift off into oblivion while working on something new.  I look at Jason, at Adam, at Matthew. And yes, it’s a “me and my boys” get-together, which will probably cost me a lot once their female counterparts discover they’ve been excluded. But for now, I intend to enjoy the company, not worry about the consequences.

“Oh, I am real.” Matthew Graham adjusts the embroidered cuffs of his fine coat so that the lace that adorns his shirt is adequately visible. For the day, my seventeenth century dreamboat is in dark blue, a colour that brings out the green in his hazel eyes. Tall, broad, strong – all my leading men are rather impressive, but this my first love has a special place in my heart, which he well knows. That long mouth of his curls into a satisfied little smile.
“Only in here,” I tell him, tapping my head.
“Alive in an environment controlled by a lady with a thing about Happily Ever After,” Jason puts in. “Not a bad place to be in.”
“Eh?” Adam de Guirande shoves his messy fair hair off his brow. “Happily what?”
“She likes us to ride off into the sunset,” Jason explains, which if anything just has Adam looking even more confused.
“You don’t get to die in her books,” Matthew clarifies.
“No, she just kills our children,” Adam mutters, and a look passes between him and Matthew. “And being alive does not bring any guarantee of happiness,” he continues. “What if Kit…” He gulps, half standing as if he wants to rush to his wife’s side.
“Happily Ever After,” Jason repeats, reaching across Matthew to pat Adam on his arm. “Yes, we suffer, we hurt, we are humiliated and frightened—as are our loved ones—but somehow we make it through alive right to the end.”
“Alive but not unscathed.” Matthew gives me a blistering look. “Losing bairns is hard—for the father as well as the mother. Being forced to leave your home is hard, being persecuted for your faith is hard, being abducted and humiliated and flogged and…”
Adam nods. “Aye. Being crippled…”
“You’re not a cripple,” I object. Anything but in my biased opinion, this medieval knight of mine fully capable of swinging a sword or wielding a lance.
“Maybe not in your time,” he retorts, “but in my time I most definitely am.” He points at his foot. “You know as well as I do that I can’t run with this.”
“Well, at least she hasn’t had you burnt at the stake,” Jason says, dragging a hand through his mahogany coloured hair. It trembles. Matthew and Adam blink.
“But you said she doesn’t let us die, that…” Matthew begins.
“Happily Ever After and you’re ashes in the wind?” Adam interrupts.
“Previous life,” Jason explains airily.
“Previous life?” Matthew echoes, edging away from Jason. “What kind of creature are you?”
“A man, just like you.” Jason glares. “It’s just that I’ve been reborn fifty times or so.” He most certainly has. If I have problems with navigating various time periods, poor Jason has the not so pleasurable experience of having lived through most of them. Jason gives Matthew a crooked smile. “We may have crossed swords, you and I. I was there at Naseby, at Worcester.”
“You were?” Matthew looks Jason up and down. “A cavalier?”
“If so, a very impoverished one,” Jason retorts, “but yes, I fought for the king.” He stares straight ahead. “Not a good life,” he mutters.
Adam leans forward. “You remember all these lives?”
Jason looks away. “Unfortunately.”
“Merciful Mother!” Adam exclaims. “How terrible.” He frowns at me. “How could you burden him with that?”
“Er…” I say. Not sure, actually. Just as I don’t know why I am presently stuck in a scene in which Adam is in deep, deep trouble – but best not tell him that. Or Kit. I can sense her presence at my back, like an avenging Fury she hisses that if I don’t get Adam out of this pickle she will make it her purpose in life to drive me insane. Nice girl, my Kit. I shake off her presence and refocus on “my” men.
“It’s my destiny,” Jason is saying. “And at least this time round I finally found Helle again.”
“Helen?” Matthew asks.
“Helle,” Jason corrects. “Like Helen but without the n.”
“Odd name,” Adam offers.
“Not if you’re an educated man rather than an illiterate knight,” Jason replies coolly.
“I’m not illiterate!” A sensitive matter with Adam—in particular as his wife reads and writes much better than he does. “And I’ll have you know very few men know how to read and write in my time.”
Jason holds up his hands in apology. “Helle is the name of a princess in Greek mythology,” he explains. “She ended up swimming with the fishes.”
“Mermaids,” Matthew says with a smile. “She’s the lassie who fell off the ram, isn’t she?”
“Ram?” Adam looks from one to the other. “She was riding a ram?”
“Long story,” Jason says. “I’ll tell you over a pint or two.”

My medieval knight may be medieval, but by know he knows full well what a pint is, so he shines up, as does Matthew. Moments later, the sofa is empty. Contemporary Jason, seventeenth century Matthew and medieval Adam are laughing, fading away into another corner of my brain where beer and peanuts await them.

writers 152dc-p1452I go back to my writing. I work on various WIPs at the same time – I enjoy it, even if it means hop-scotching back and forth through time. Mrs Who, that’s me, but instead of a Tardis, I have my trusted computer.

Seeing as I’m still not sure how to solve Adam’s situation, today I’m in the late seventeenth century and a tallow candle casts a faint light in a little room in which a man lies in bed, bloody bandages covering his upper body. A sword and shield rest against the wall, a pair of woollen hose lay thrown on the floor, and…No, no no! 17th century, remember? No sword and shield, no hose, and definitely no wimple and veil on the woman presently clasping her man’s hand and crying her eyes out. I peer at my beloved Matthew, lying so still, so pale, and my throat tightens. Is he going to die this time round? The woman at his bedside whirls, bright blue eyes slicing through me like Death Star rays.
“Don’t you dare!” she hisses. “Happily Ever After, remember?” I do. But sometimes my characters make it all very, very hard for me.

The king’s sister – the life of a medieval princess

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Medieval boys playing

In a previous post I have discussed the challenges facing Eleanor of Castile – specifically that of presenting her husband, Edward I, with a male heir. It took some time for that eagerly awaited heir to make his appearance. Not until 1284, after almost thirty years of marriage, did the boy who would one day inherit the throne after his father see the light of the day. Little Edward was a much-desired child, but at the time they already had an heir, Prince Alphonso, and so the new baby was mostly perceived as a good-to-have spare. Things changed when Alphonso died some months after Baby Edward’s birth. Yet another loss, yet more months of grief, of crushed hopes, reinforcing just how fragile life was.

I dare say the fact that they had five thriving daughters was little comfort: a medieval king needed a son to which entrust his kingdom, as God alone knew what would happen with a weak female in charge. (I hasten to add that this opinion was not necessarily shared by Eleanor, who, after all, had some pretty impressive kick-ass female rulers up her family tree. Like Urraca.)

In line with the parenting models of the day, the baby prince did not see all that much of his parents. Edward and Eleanor were joined at the hip, so where Edward I went, there went his wife, and all that travelling was not considered good for a child, which was why Edward grew up in his own household—and with his youngest sisters.

One of those sisters is today’s protagonist (Ha! Fooled you there, didn’t I? You were thinking it would be Edward II) Question is, which sister? Mary of Woodstock or Elizabeth of Ruddlan? Well, Mary is an interesting character in her own right, who spent most of her time with her grandmother. At her grandmother’s behest, Mary was placed in a nunnery at the tender age of seven, was veiled at the age of twelve, went on to become a rather wordly nun in that she travelled a lot, accumulated gambling debts, visited the court as often as she could, and was even dragged into a rather sordid legal case when John de Warenne claimed to have had carnal knowledge of her, thereby making his marriage to his despised wife null and void. All in all, an interesting lady, although I must hasten to add that John’s accusations were made after Mary was dead and therefore incapable of defending herself.

But despite all that potential juiciness, I’m skipping Mary in favour of Elizabeth. Born in 1282 in Wales, Elizabeth seems to have been something of a daddy’s girl—at least to judge from how Edward indulged her. She was also very close to her brother, something that must have caused her considerable anguish later on in her life. More of that later.

AlfonsoX

The literate Castilians, represented by Alfonso X, Eleanor’s brother

Now, Eleanor of Castile was a very well-educated lady. She’d grown up in a court that lived and breathed culture, where clerks toiled day and night to translate the literary treasures discovered in the libraries of the Moor kingdoms re-conquered by Eleanor’s father, the very impressive Fernando. Where it is doubtful if Edward I could write with ease, Eleanor most definitely could—in various languages. One would assume such a learned lady would ensure her children were equally well-educated, but we don’t really know just how much of mama’s learning was passed on to her offspring. Maybe the English didn’t put quite as high a value on education as the Castilians did. Maybe Edward considered it sufficient if his children could read—after all, scribing was something one could have clerks do for you.

I still think we should assume Elizabeth was a relatively well-educated girl, if nothing else because she would have benefited from being in the proximity of her brother and his Dominican tutor. She was also a girl that saw little of her parents—Edward and Eleanor spent several years on the Continent during Elizabeth’s early childhood. So when Eleanor died in 1290, I suspect Elizabeth was stricken but that the actual void her mother left behind was relatively shallow.

Elizabeth’s father, however, was devastated by the death of his wife. Maybe this is when a special closeness began to develop between him and his youngest daughter. Children are good at offering undemanding solace, small warm presences that offer shy cuddles.

No matter how grief-struck, Edward was back to running his country three days after the death of his wife. Among the things he had to handle were marriages for his daughters—and for himself (He needed that spare heir, you know). When it came to his daughters, things were mostly sorted, two of them already wed, one betrothed, one promised to the Church, and one with ongoing negotiations now that her intended groom had died.

Elizabeth had been betrothed already in 1285 to John, Count of Holland. Of an age with his bride, the boy was raised in England, so Elizabeth had ample opportunity to get to know her future husband. Whether she liked him all that much is a tad doubtful: the marriage was celebrated in 1297 when Elizabeth was not quite fifteen, and the idea was for the young couple to take ship for Holland. Elizabeth refused to go with him, and somehow wheedled Edward into allowing her to stay in England, with him.

Of course, over time Elizabeth had no choice: as a married woman, her duty lay with her husband. To make things easier (and because it coincided with other matters he had to handle) Edward accompanied her to the Low Countries and even stayed with her for some months before going on to sort out his infected relationship with Philippe IV of France. The outcome of all this sorting was that Edward married Philippe’s much younger sister, which did little to resolve the infected relationship between France and England in the long term, but which had the upside of Marguerite, this rather enchanting young woman whom Edward soon grew to love and cherish. Lucky man: two marriages, both of them notably happy. I guess he did something right 😊

deathElizabeth’s marriage to John never got the opportunity to develop into something long-lasting. The young man died of dysentery in 1299, and Elizabeth was sent back home to England. There, in 1302, she married Humphrey de Bohun, Earl of Hereford. A good marriage as per dear Papa, having the benefit of tying one of England’s most powerful magnates to the English king. As part of the contract, Humphrey was obliged to relinquish his titles and lands to his king, who then graciously restored them to Humphrey and his wife, together. What Humphrey thought of all this is unknown, but to judge from the number of children Elizabeth gave him, the happily married couple was, if nothing else, compatible in bed.

Humphrey was some six years older than Elizabeth, and now that Prince Edward was well on his way to becoming an adult, Humphrey was probably one of the prince’s closer companions. When Edward was knighted, Humphrey had the honour of buckling on his spurs, and in general they seemed to get along quite well with each other.

In 1307, Edward I died and Edward II ascended the throne. By then, Elizabeth had already given birth four times to five children of which two remained alive: one little son and one little daughter. As the sister of the new king, Elizabeth would probably have been a frequent guest at court together with her husband—and the new king’s favourite, Piers Gaveston.

Initially, it seems Humphrey de Bohun and Piers got on well. Humphrey witnessed the grant of the earldom of Cornwall to Piers, something that would not have gone down well with Elizabeth, as her step-mother (to whom she was very close) had expected this honour to come to her eldest son—as intended by Edward I.

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Edward and Piers in happier days

Edward II waved away the angry protests of Queen Marguerite and went on showering Piers with gifts and offices. To be fair to Piers, he doesn’t seem to have been as avaricious as Edward was generous, but for the remaining barons, he soon became a burr up their backsides. Who did he think he was, this Gascon parvenu who had the king’s ear in all matters? By 1308, Humphrey had joined the baronial opposition, something which must have put Elizabeth in a difficult position. After all, she was close to her brother—and to her husband.

For some years, thing sort of trundled along anyway. Elizabeth gave birth to one more son, Piers rose to more and more prominence, and Humphrey ground his teeth. In 1310-11, he refused to join the king’s Scottish campaign because of his dislike of Piers. Did not go down well, one could say, and in retribution, Edward II stripped Humphrey of the constableship. A lot of hot air, a distraught Elizabeth caught in the middle, one more baby to take care of, but by the end of 1311 things calmed down, with Humphrey being restored to his hereditary office and Piers forced into exile.

Early in 1312, Piers returned to England. The king was delighted, but his barons had had enough. War broke out, Piers was captured and in June of 1312, Piers Gaveston was summarily executed on the orders of the earls of Warwick and Lancaster. Humphrey was present at the deliberations that resulted in the decision to have Piers killed—murdered might be a better term for what happened, with Gaveston run through by the swords of two Welsh men-at-arms before they beheaded him.

What Elizabeth thought of all this is unknown. She was yet again with child (twins this time)—as was Edward II’s young wife, Queen Isabella. But having grown up with Edward, she probably knew him well enough to realise that no matter how easy-going and affable he could appear to the world, some things he never forgot or forgave. The murder of Piers was one of those things.

Battle_of_BannockburnIn 1313, Edward formally forgave Humphrey. But he didn’t really, which was why when the English army marched north in 1314 to defeat the Scots once and for all, he gave command to his very young nephew, Gilbert de Clare, bypassing Humphrey, who, as Constable of England, should have been in charge. Humphrey was not happy. He and Gilbert had words and supposedly this heated argument indirectly caused some of the confusion that led to the English being trounced. Whatever the case, Gilbert ended up very dead, Humphrey was taken prisoner, and Edward escaped by the skin of his teeth, having to ride so fast he and his men did not even dare to stop to pass water in case the pursuing Scots should catch them.

Elizabeth was distraught. Her husband a prisoner of those barbaric Scots, and here she was, recently delivered of child number ten. I imagine Edward was not exactly inclined to bend over backwards to ransom Humphrey, but de Bohun was an English magnate, family, even. Elizabeth probably agreed. She wanted her husband home, and so Humphrey was exchanged for Robert Bruce’s wife and daughter.

There seems to have been some sort of rapprochement between Humphrey and Edward after this. A potential happily ever after hovered in the air. In 1315 Elizabeth yet again became pregnant. I’m not entirely sure she was delighted by the news – essentially she’d been with child for seven years of the last 13 years. All those births had so far resulted in seven living children, and in difference to her mother Elizabeth had more than delivered when it came to male heirs, with five of her brood being boys. She and Humphrey didn’t need more children, but they must have enjoyed making them…

childbirthHaving so many children comes with risks. In May of 1316, Elizabeth went into labour. Neither she nor her daughter survived and were buried together at Waltham Abbey. She was thirty-four years old – a very short life as per us. But like any life it contained glimmers of absolute joy, moments when the sheer joy of being alive had her blood singing. Well, at least I hope it did. The alternative would have been very depressing.

As to Humphrey, the loss of his countess sank him into a deep depression. Without his wife’s moderating influence, his relationship with the king was destined to deteriorate to the point where Humphrey joined Lancaster and Mortimer in rebellion. In March of 1322, Humphrey met his death at the Battle of Boroughbridge, reputedly having been impaled on a pike. A painful and gory death, leaving his many orphaned children at the mercy of their uncle, the king.

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