ANNA BELFRAGE

Step inside and steal some moments in another place, another time

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

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

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The once so impressive gatehouse arch of Wigmore

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

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

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Mortimer and Isabella, as depicted a century or so later

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No pressure – of queens and babies

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

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

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

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

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

medieval-priest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mary, Mary quite contrary – except she wasn’t

MARY ~Tudor PrincessToday I’ve invited Tony Riches (more about him can be found at the end of this post) to pop by with a guest post about his latest book, Mary – Tudor Princess. And no, this is not a book about the Mary who would go on to become Mary I, but rather about Mary, younger sister to Henry VIII. She rarely gets much more than a passing mention in most history books, and I am pleased Tony has taken it upon himself to shed some limelight on this lady! 

They say you should avoid reading reviews of your books, as there’s no ‘right of reply’ although sometimes the feedback can be thought provoking. One recent example was in a review of my novel about one of my wife’s ancestors, The Secret Diary of Eleanor Cobham. The male reviewer wondered if, as a man, I was able to understand Eleanor’s female point of view. It’s a good question, as I’ve just spent a year ‘in the shoes’ of Henry VIII’s youngest sister Mary Tudor.

MARY 1496_Mary_Tudor

Mary

I chose to write about Mary because I’d researched her birth and early life for my last book, Henry – Book Three of the Tudor Trilogy. In the trilogy I’d moved forward one generation with each book, so it appealed to me to write a ‘sequel’ which did the same. I’d become intrigued with Mary’s story of how she risked everything to defy her brother when he became King Henry VIII.

When I began the Tudor trilogy, I had little factual information about Owen Tudor, Mary’s great-grandfather. The amount of information increased exponentially by the time I reached the story of Mary’s father, Henry Tudor, as he kept detailed legers of his finances. Some of Henry’s letters also survive, including some to his mother, but they were all rather formal.

This time, I had the advantage of a fascinating book The French Queen’s Letters: Mary Tudor Brandon and the Politics of Marriage in Sixteenth-Century Europe (Queenship and Power)  by Erin Sadlack, which includes all Mary’s surviving letters, many with replies, as well as an insightful analysis of her state of mind at the time. I prefer primary research and found her letters offer an evocative ‘voice’ for Mary, as well as revealing how she felt about people and events.

MARY Bernhard_Strigel_Karel_in_1516

Charles V

I wanted to explore Mary’s vulnerability as well as her strengths, and I was assisted in this by her brother, who broke off her engagement to young Prince Charles, future Emperor of Rome, to marry her off to the fifty-two-year-old King Louis XII of France. Although Mary was barely eighteen at the time, Henry saw his younger sister as a small price to pay for a treaty with France.

I enjoyed untangling the many myths about what happened next, from causing the death of King Louis with her ‘passionate exertions’ to her dying of ‘grief at her brother’s divorce from her friend Catherine of Aragon.’ I also had the benefit of knowing a great deal about the people and places of Mary’s world.

The difficulties came when I had to show Mary’s struggles with the dangers of medieval childbirth. I was present at my daughter’s and my son’s births, and there are plenty of historical accounts to draw from, but I believe only a woman can fully understand how it feels to bring a new life into the world.

If you’d like to see how well I’ve done, my new book Mary – Tudor Princess is now available on Amazon UK, Amazon US and Amazon AU in eBook and paperback. An audiobook edition will be available later in the year.

Thank you, Tony! As I have spent quite an enjoyable weekend reading Mary – Tudor Princess, I’ve written a little review: 

Having previously read Mr Riches’ books about three male Tudors—Owen, Jasper and Henry—I was intrigued to find he had now chosen to write about Mary Tudor. Not the Mary Tudor, the daughter of Henry VIII and Katherine of Aragon, who became Mary I, but the Mary famous for defying her brother Henry VIII and marrying the man she loved when her first husband, King Louis of France, died.

MARY Mary_Tudor_and_Charles_Brandon

Mary and Charles Brandon

I must admit to knowing little about Mary prior to reading this book. Yes, I knew she was the grandmother of Lady Jane Grey, yes, I knew she’d married Charles Brandon for love and seeing as I’m a hopeless romantic I rather liked her for that.

Life, however, is rarely romantic. Mary’s life was bordered by losses: that of her mother when she was still a young child, that of her father some years later, that of her impressive grandmother a year or so after her father. Her flamboyant brother did not hesitate to use Mary as a pawn to achieve political gains, which was how Mary also lost her betrothed, the future Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and instead ended up married to the old and ailing King Louis of France.

As always, Mr Riches presents the historical background in great detail. Clothes, food, furnishings all add vibrancy to the story as does the convoluted political situation. While the book centres on Mary and how the unfolding events affected her, Henry VIII, Queen Katherine, Cardinal Wolsey and the rather delicious Francis I of France all add colour to the narrative—as does Mary’s husband, Charles Brandon. I am in two minds about Charles: did he love Mary as she loved him or was she a convenient stepping stone? I suppose that the fact that he risked his king’s rage to marry her indicate he did have strong feelings for her—at least initially. But where Mary’s life revolves round Charles, their home and their children, Charles’ life revolves around his king and best friend, Henry VIII.  That oh, so sweet story of a secret marriage turns out to be not quite as fluffy and pink as one would have thought…

Mr Riches has done a great job of depicting just how restricted the role of a woman was in the 16th century. From Queen Katherine to Mary, a wife cannot overstep the boundaries set by their husbands or by society. Women may be strong and resourceful, but in Tudor times they were also vulnerable—extremely so, at times. Mr Riches has left us with a portrait of a woman who, from a very early age, knows herself to be a pawn, no more, no less.

MARY Tony Riches AuthorAbout the author:
Tony Riches is a full-time author of best-selling historical fiction. He lives in Pembrokeshire, West Wales and is a specialist in the fifteenth century, with a particular interest in the Wars of the Roses and the lives of the early Tudors. For more information about Tony’s other books please visit his website tonyriches.com and his popular blog, The Writing Desk and find him on Facebook and Twitter @tonyriches

The short life of Edmund of Woodstock

Today, I’m planning on spending some time with a man who has gone down in history as extremely handsome. A very, very pretty face – but hopefully there was more to him than his exterior. Very few of us are all surface no depth (although there are exceptions) and I am sure Edmund had his fair share of interesting qualities.

EHFA Edmund zat53nuw_mediumEdmund of Woodstock was the second son born to Edward I and his second wife, Marguerite of France. As can be deduced from his name, he was born at the palace of Woodstock in 1301, and we can assume there was quite some rejoicing at his birth—Edward I now had three sons to safeguard his bloodline – his heir and namesake Edward, from his first marriage with Eleanor of Castile, Thomas and little Edmund. Marguerite was a half-sister to Philip IV of France, so Edmund was also related to the Capet kings of France.

Edward I was over sixty when Edmund was born and very busy doing his thing in Scotland. As most royal children, Edmund was raised by others, but Edward and Margaret were conscientious parents, keeping tabs on their sons and little daughter. Unfortunately, Edmund would never have the opportunity to forge a strong father-son relationship. In 1307, Edward I died – to the great relief of the Scots – and his not-quite-as-bellicose son, Edward II became king.

Edward Gal_nations_edward_i

Edward I

Edward I had made plans for his two younger sons, but had not followed through on them prior to dying. His intention had been to settle an earldom each on his sons, but early on in his reign Edward II decided to invest his beloved favourite Piers Gaveston with the earldom of Cornwall, which was one of the titles earmarked for his brothers. Edmund’s mother seethed, Edward likely shrugged—but as his brothers grew older he invested Thomas as Earl of Norfolk and granted Edmund sufficient land to keep the lad in style.

In difference to his older brother, who but rarely emerges from the shadows in what documents we have,  Edmund has left some impressions. He proved himself a useful and capable young man during the Despenser War in 1321-22 (this is when Roger Mortimer and Thomas of Lancaster rebelled against Edward II, sick to death of his greedy favourites, Hugh Despenser Sr. and Jr.) Edmund stuck with his brother and was very much in the midst of things, all the way from the initial conflict at Leeds Castle to being one of the signatories on the execution order for Thomas of Lancaster.

The baronial rebellion was quashed, Mortimer was thrown in the Tower, and Edward was very pleased with his young brother, who emerged from the fray as the Earl of Kent and holder of substantial lands in the Welsh Marches. Our Edmund had every reason to be grateful to his royal brother—except, of course, that where Edmund got some land, Edward’s favourite, Hugh Despenser, got much, much more land. In fact, so generous was the king to Hugh that he had an annual income almost four times higher than Edmund’s. Not something that pleased Edmund—or anyone else, to be honest, seeing as the English barons were getting very tired of the grasping Despenser.

EHFA E IIIn the aftermath of the baronial rebellion, Edward II, together with his trusted advisors Bishop Stapledon and Hugh Despenser, implemented what is best described as a dictatorship. Anyone suspected of colluding with the rebels risked losing everything they had, including their lives. Their paranoia increased tenfold when Mortimer managed to escape from the Tower and flee to France. Suddenly, the baronial opposition had a leader again, and the more heavy-handed Edward II and Despenser became, the more attractive the option of joining Mortimer became.

Not only did Edward manage to aggravate his barons. He also alienated his wife when he deprived Queen Isabella of her dower lands. Isabella was closer in age to Edmund than to her husband, and seeing as she was drop-dead gorgeous and Edmund was just as mouth-wateringly handsome, I imagine these two shared a common admiration for each other. Besides, they were cousins, grandchildren to Philip III of France.

At the time, being French to any degree was not an advantage in England: yet again, England and France were at war, this time over Gascony. In 1324, Edmund was sent to France to attempt a diplomatic solution, and when that failed he was put in charge of defending Gascony, an almost impossible task seeing as Edmund lacked both men and means. But he did his best, holding out until late September of 1324 before he was forced to surrender and agree to a six-month truce.

Edmund chose to remain in France. Maybe he preferred not to face his brother’s wrath at having failed him in Gascony, or maybe he was sick and tired of dancing attendance of the royal chancellor, Hugh Despenser. Whatever the case, he was in France when Isabella arrived in March of 1325, charged by her husband with the delicate task of negotiating a permanent truce between him and his French counterpart, Charles IV.

How Isabella had managed to convince Edward to entrust her with this mission is unknown, but I suppose Isabella was smart enough to hide her anger and humiliation at being deprived of all her income while promising herself she would have revenge—some day. Whatever her feelings, she successfully negotiated a treaty with her brother Charles. All Edward II had to do was to come to France and do homage for his French lands and everything would be peachy-pie.

Except that Edward II didn’t want to come to France—or rather, Hugh Despenser didn’t want him to go, worried that the moment the king left the country, the baronage would rise in rebellion and kill poor Hugh. Probably a correct assessment of the sentiments of the time, and Edward was not about to risk his beloved Hugh so instead of going himself, he sent his young son and heir, Edward of Windsor. Unwittingly, he had thereby handed Isabella the weapon with which to destroy him.

edward 220px-Isabela_Karel_Eda

The young Edward doing homage

Young Edward came to France, young Edward did homage, young Edward did not go straight back home as instructed by his father. Instead, he stayed with his mother, who simply could not bear to let him go. Isabella had collected several disgruntled English noblemen as her admirers, including Edmund of Woodstock. I imagine there were already whispers of invasions, of doing something to oust that despicable Despenser.

When Roger Mortimer rode in to present himself to Isabella, the invasion had found its leaders: the extremely capable and ruthless combo of Isabella and Mortimer.

Edmund would likely not have been entirely thrilled at seeing Mortimer rise so rapidly in Isabella’s favour. Mortimer would not have been delighted at coming face to face with the man who’d been rewarded with Mortimer land for his efforts in putting down the rebellion of 1321. For the moment, whatever differences they had were laid aside, and to reinforce this fragile truce Edmund married Margaret Wake, Mortimer’s first cousin. By doing so, he sent a clear signal to his half-brother that he’d changed his allegiance, and in March of 1326 Edward II retaliated by stripping Edmund of all his lands and titles. Edmund had, so to say, burned his bridges and was now more or less obliged to stick with fair Isabella and Mortimer.

Edmund and Margaret

Edmund and his wife, Margaret

Mortimer’s and Isabella’s invasion of England was a resounding success. Soon enough, Hugh Despenser was dead and Edward II was locked up in Kenilworth, his son crowned as Edward III in his stead. Edmund expected to be part of the inner circle that guided his young nephew, but neither Isabella nor Mortimer were interested in sharing their power. This did not go down well with Edmund, who was also struggling with feelings of guilt related to his deposed brother. That guilt became a crushing burden when it was announced in 1327 that their former king, Edward of Caernarvon, had died while in captivity.

In 1328, Edmund joined his cousin’s Henry of Lancaster’s rebellion against the regents, demanding that Mortimer be set aside in favour of the true peers of the realm. Mortimer acted with speed and determination. Edmund, knowing just how efficient Mortimer could be, abandoned Lancaster’s cause and returned to the royal fold just before Lancaster’s final humiliation.

By now, Edmund had acquired the (justified) reputation of being a weather-vane: first he’d supported his royal brother, then he’d joined Mortimer and Isabella, then he’d thrown his lot in with Lancaster only to change his colours yet again when things got sticky. Not a man to count on, one could say, even if Edmund would probably have disagreed, protesting that he’d been driven into rebellion against his brother and king by the grasping and conniving Despenser.

Whatever his reputation, Edmund was concerned with other matters: there were rumours that his brother had not died but was still alive behind the thick walls of Corfe Castle. Disenchanted with Isabella’s and Mortimer’s continued rule, Edmund chose to investigate further. One little piece here, another there, and soon enough Edmund was convinced his brother was alive—as were very many of the English peers. If so, what better way to right the wrongs he’d done his brother than to spring him from his prison and help him retake his throne?

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Parliament – but this depicts Edward I, not Edward III

In March of 1330, a parliament was held at Winchester. As always since 1327, the young king Edward III officially presided, but the real power lay with his regents: Queen Isabella and Roger Mortimer, by now 1st Earl of March.
The men assembling in Winchester fell into two categories: those who supported the regents and those who didn’t. The king himself belonged among the latter, but as things stood, our seventeen-year-old king had no option but to smoulder and bear it—for now. The same thing applied to many of the peers present: men like Henry of Lancaster detested Mortimer but were not in a position to oust him —yet. Notably, Edmund of Woodstock was not present when the parliament opened. He was under arrest for treason.

Early in 1330, Mortimer had uncovered Edmund’s plans to free the king. His agents had intercepted a letter Edmund’s wife had written on his behalf to the imprisoned king
(In itself interesting: does this mean Edmund did not know how to write or was it a matter of penmanship?)

Being somewhat gullible, Edmund had handed the sealed missive to an intermediary who’d promised to smuggle it into Corfe and deliver it to the unhappy erstwhile king. Instead, the rascal gave it to Mortimer, and so Edmund was arrested and brought before parliament where his confession was read out loud.

There was only one verdict: death. Appalled, Edmund threw himself on his nephew’s mercy, begging piteously for his life. He’d do anything—anything!—to prove his loyalty. He’d even walk all the way to London with a noose round his neck to atone for his actions. But there was nothing Edward III could do. Mortimer had seen to that, making it impossible for Edward to pardon his uncle without implicitly admitting there could be some truth in Edmund’s assertions that the former king was alive.

Whether or not Edward II was alive is, as per some historians, an open question. The men named as co-conspirators included several barons and bishops, men who would be in a position to know—and surely they’d not risk Mortimer’s displeasure for a dead man? We will never know, of course. It does, however, seem probable that Mortimer very much on purpose fed Edmund the little bits and pieces that convinced him his brother was alive, thereby luring the earl into treason. Ultimately, Mortimer’s behaviour in this matter would lead to his own death: the king, disgusted at having been duped into signing away his uncle’s life did not forgive. Or forget.

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On a cold March morning in 1330, Edmund of Woodstock was led out to meet his maker. The executioner had done a runner, refusing to soil his hands with the blood of a man condemned for trying to help his brother. None of the assembled men-at-arms volunteered in his stead, neither did their captains. Poor Edmund shivered in only his shirt as the hours passed and no one was found willing to strike off his head. At long last, a condemned man undertook the task in exchange for a reprieve. The earl knelt. The axe fell. The severed head was held aloft, accompanied by the traditional cry of “behold the death of a traitor.” Usually, the crowd would cheer. This time, no one did.

In the Cold Light of Dawn_eb-pb-tr 160412The events presented above play a major part in my upcoming release, The Cold Light of Dawn. Out on February 16th! (I sort of felt it did not qualify as a Valentine’s novel…)

After Henry of Lancaster’s rebellion has been crushed early in 1329, a restless peace settles over England. However, the young Edward III is no longer content with being his regents’ puppet, no matter that neither Queen Isabella nor Roger Mortimer show any inclination to give up their power. Caught in between is Adam de Guirande, torn between his loyalty to the young king and that to his former lord, Roger Mortimer.   

Edward III is growing up fast. No longer a boy to be manipulated, he resents the power of his mother, Queen Isabella, and Mortimer. His regents show little inclination of handing over their power to him, the rightful king, and Edward suspects they never will unless he forces their hand.

Adam de Guirande is first and foremost Edward’s man, and he too is of the opinion that the young king is capable of ruling on his own. But for Adam siding with his king causes heartache, as he still loves Roger Mortimer, the man who shaped him into who he is.

Inevitably, Edward and his regents march towards a final confrontation. And there is nothing Adam can do but pray and hope that somehow things will work out. Unfortunately, prayers don’t always help.

 

The life and loves of Felipe II

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Felipe II

If you ask a Spanish person who Felipe II was, they’ll likely tell you he was a great and learned king who rebuilt the Escorial, had major issues with his insane eldest son but managed to do his duty and father a (relatively) healthy heir, Felipe III. In passing, they may mutter something about constant wars in the Netherlands and a rather unsuccessful naval venture.

If you ask an English person the same thing you may of course get a blank look and a “Philip who?” reply. But if there’s one historical period (inexplicably so, IMO) most English people have some knowledge of it is the Elizabethan period, and one of the major, major events during Elizabeth I’s reign was Philip’s attempt to invade England. As we all know, the Spanish Armada in 1588 was not “a rather unsuccessful naval venture”. It was a major catastrophe for Spain, wiping out I don’t know how many ships and men.

The Armada was not Philip II’s first contact with England. In 1554 he had married Mary, Elizabeth’s older half-sister. While Mary was very much in love with her much younger husband, Philip married for political reasons and likely closed his eyes and thought of England on those few occasions when he fulfilled his husbandly duties.

One could think, based on this, that Philip had a special affinity for England, that his heart and soul longed to be an Englishman. I’m sorry to break this to you, but from Philip’s perspective, England was pretty insignificant – this was a man with more titles than would fit on the fly leaf of a Bible, ruler of a huge empire. No, Philip’s interest in England emanated from his irritation with this pesky Protestant kingdom and its determined support to those equally pesky Protestants in the Spanish Netherlands.

EHFA Philip_IIPhilip II comes down to us through the years as something of a bore. Too stiff, too dour, too fond of black…Rarely does anyone mention his impressive library in El Escorial, where the books were turned the wrong way so that instead of spines, the visitors saw only gold-edged pages. Philip knew exactly where each book was anyway. Rarely does anyone mention that Philip had read a substantial part of all those books – conversant in multiple languages, raised to rule, and from a family that set a high value on schooling their princes, Philip had received an excellent and thorough education. And rarely does anyone mention his other wives, his problems with his children, his affectionate letters to his daughters, his carefully chosen gifts to both his children and his wives – or his gruesome death.

So today, I thought we’d spend some time with Philip – or Felipe el Prudente, as those of us who speak Castilian prefer to call him. (And I will stick to his Spanish name for the rest of the post)

In 1527, Felipe was born as the eldest son of Carlos I & V, that powerful Holy Roman Emperor who championed his aunt, Catherine of Aragon against her hubby Henry VIII (see? Another, if indirect, English connection) and ruled an empire so vast the sun never set on it.

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Felipe’s mother – a beautiful lady (Titian) 

Carlos married Felipe’s mother Isabel of Portugal (who also happened to be Carlos’ cousin) to keep his Spanish grandees happy. He himself was in no hurry to wed, but by all accounts he was happy with his Portuguese wife, and his son and heir was raised in a harmonious household. Once again, to appease those Spanish grandees, Felipe was raised in Spain, speaking Castilian as his first language.

Felipe was a serious man – and somewhat shy. Already as a boy, his distinguishing characteristic was his sense of duty. Duty to his father, duty to his mother, duty to his tutors – and as he grew, this would morph into duty to his country, to his family and wives. Rarely did Felipe do something for himself. Never did he caper about while warbling “don’t worry, be happy.” In Felipe’s strictly regimented life, happy was not something a serious man aspired to, and as to worry, well Felipe always worried. About being good enough. About the lack of sons. About the situation in England. About the Spanish Netherlands. About God. About the state of his linens – Felipe had an abhorrence of anything dirty and was meticulous about his hygiene. Major plus, if you ask me…

Carlos tried to teach Felipe everything he knew about ruling an empire consisting of various people, various languages, various cultures. There was one fundamental difference between them: Carlos had been raised in the polyglot court of his aunt Margaret of Austria, had as a matter of course been exposed to various creeds, various cultures. Felipe, on the other hand, had been raised in the tender care of devout Catholics in a rather xenophobic country. Let’s just say that Felipe’s upbringing left him somewhat less…flexible.

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Maria Manuela

When Carlos arranged Felipe’s first marriage with Princess Maria Manuela of Portugal, Felipe of course agreed. As an aside, being a prince – just as much as being a princess – meant little say in who you married. Royal marriage was for building alliances and consolidating power, not for something as ephemeral as love.

Anyway: Maria Manuela and Felipe were of an age – both of them were sixteen – and liked each other. They were also very closely related: Maria’s mother was Felipe’s paternal aunt, and Felipe’s mother was Maria’s paternal aunt, plus Felipe’s maternal grandmother was his father’s maternal aunt. Very complicated – and it didn’t help that the somewhat unstable bloodline of the Trástamara dynasty appeared all over the place. So when little Maria Manuela gave birth to a son in 1545, the baby had a DNA mix that resembled a Molotov cocktail. Even worse, Maria died in childbirth, and Felipe was left with a feeble if male heir but no wife.

Years passed. In England, that heretic of a king, the man who’d broken with the Holy Church finally died – and it was Felipe’s conviction Henry VIII was destined for hell. As we all know, Henry’s son was not long for this world, and in 1553, Mary Tudor became queen of England. Holy Roman Emperor Carlos made happy sounds, as did the Pope. At last an opportunity to bring England back into the fold of the true faith! At the time, Mary was in her late thirties and wanted an heir of impeccable Catholic lineage. Carlos slid a look at his son – at the time 27 or so – slid a look at Mary, and suggested they wed, despite being cousins. Well: it was suggested to Mary. Felipe was ordered to comply with daddy’s wishes.

Felipe_of_Spain_and_MariaTudor-2Mary was over the moon. Handsome Felipe had everything she desired in a bridegroom. Whether the groom was as thrilled is debatable. His aide wrote that “the marriage was concluded for no fleshly consideration” but as always Felipe set his shoulders and proceeded to do his duty. In this case, his duty was to preserve control over the Low Countries. A fiercely Protestant England had offered succour to the Protestants in the Spanish Netherlands, but now, with Mary and Felipe firmly in charge, such safe harbours no longer existed.

Mary very much wanted a child. Here, yet again, Felipe did his duty, but despite hope, prayers and effort there was no child – there was just a phantom pregnancy. Felipe seems to have doubted all along that Mary was pregnant, and after the sad matter had come to an end, he left his bride for the restless Low Countries. Mary was inconsolable. What Felipe felt is unknown, but he was courteous enough to bid his wife a tender farewell.

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The young (and pretty) Elizabeth

We are now in 1555, and this is when Felipe supposedly was starting to regard Elizabeth Tudor as a potential replacement for her sister. Hmm. At the time, Mary was not yet forty, and while barren there was nothing to suggest she was about to die anytime soon. Felipe enjoyed Elizabeth’s company – he liked intelligent and erudite women – and Elizabeth came with the added plus of being younger than Felipe rather than eleven years older. But there were issues regarding Elizabeth’s faith, and Felipe would never consider marrying a Protestant – his soul shrieked in pain at the thought.

In 1556, Carlos abdicated in favour of his son and brother. Felipe became king of Spain and all its dominions, his uncle became the next Holy Roman Emperor, based in the historical homeland of the Hapsburgs, namely Austria.

Mary’s reign was plagued by famine, by her cleansing of the heretics among her subjects, by dwindling trade as her Spanish husband forbade her from doing anything detrimental to Spain. Of course her subjects grumbled, and there were risings aplenty. To complicate things further, France and Spain were at loggerheads, so France considered England an enemy too. Felipe wanted England’s help in defeating the French to show them just who was the most important Catholic monarch in the world. That’s why Felipe popped by on a short visit in 1557 – to convince Mary to support war with France. Mary hoped this conjugal visit would lead to other things, and lo and behold, some months later Mary declared herself pregnant. Yet again, a phantom pregnancy…

Poor Mary – no child, no loving husband, just a cool political union as expressed by Philip’s rather laconic comment upon hearing about Mary’s death in 1558. “I feel reasonable regret.”

By now, Felipe had other matters to handle, first and foremost the situation in France. And then there was the matter of his son, Don Carlos, all of thirteen and showing worrying signs of mental instability. Don Carlos had been proposed as a groom for Elizabeth of Valois, this as an attempt to heal the rift between France and Spain. Felipe went one step further and offered to marry Elizabeth himself, despite an age difference of almost twenty years.

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Elizabeth of Valois

By all accounts, this was a happy marriage. Felipe was a devoted husband, entranced by his pretty and vivacious wife. She stood by his side during that most difficult time in his life, when his son went from bad to worse until at last Felipe had no option but to incarcerate Don Carlos, by now mad as a hatter. Felipe’s wife might have been young, but she was wise, and in her company he found comfort and hope – plus she gave him children. Daughters, to be sure, but healthy living children. A son would surely follow. Unfortunately, that did not happen. Elizabeth died in childbirth – yet another girl, stillborn, and Felipe was devastated.

By now we’re in 1568, and while relationships with France remained coolly cordial, Philip now had another mess on his hands: the Low Countries had risen in insurrection, protesting the heavy yoke of Spanish taxes and demanding the right to embrace the Protestant faith. England, of course, hastened to the aid of their religious brethren. Felipe was pissed off, putting it mildly. Here he’d been advocating a lenient approach towards the upstart English and their Protestant queen, urging the Pope to not do anything hasty, and this is how the English dogs repaid him?

On top of the utter political mess in the Spanish Netherlands, plus the rather urgent matter of halting Ottoman expansion into Europe, Felipe had the pressing matter of begetting an heir, which was why he married his niece, Anne of Austria, in 1570. (Yes: those Hapsburgs had a predilection for keeping things in the family – unfortunately)

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Anne of Austria

Anne was yet another young bride, more than twenty years his junior, but just like Elizabeth she was affectionate and kind, and Felipe was as happy with her as he’d been with his French princess. Anne gave him sons – beautiful boys, and at last Felipe had his heir, the Infante Fernando. He died at age six of dysentery. A grief-struck father consoled himself with the fact that there was the Infante Diego to take the dead son’s place. Except that four years later he also died, this time of small-pox. Fortunately, there was one son left, little Felipe. Not that baby Felipe was the son his father would have hoped for, being small and sickly, but at least he was alive.

Anne died in 1580, leaving Felipe a widower for the fourth time. He was never to re-marry. Instead, he invested his efforts in his children and his empire, a lot of his energy directed at pacifying the Dutch now that the Ottomans had been adequately crushed at Lepanto in 1571.

In England, Elizabeth encouraged support to the Dutch, quietly applauded English pirates when they attacked the treasure-laden Spanish galleons, and in general caused Philip much irritation. However, he chose to do nothing. Why? Well, as Elizabeth had no children the obvious heir to the English crown was Mary, Queen of Scots, at present Elizabeth’s prisoner and a devout Catholic. A light in the tunnel for Catholics everywhere, was Mary – a light brutally extinguished when Elizabeth was prevailed upon to sign the execution order for her cousin in 1587.

Felipe Invincible_ArmadaThe situation in the Spanish Netherlands went from bad to worse, and with Mary dead, there was no hope the English would come to their senses and turn from their heretic faith. No, it fell upon Felipe to take responsibility for their souls – and, while he was at it, effectively squash all support for the Dutch reformers – which was why he decided to send the Armada to invade England and once and for all reinstate the Catholic faith. We all know how that ended, don’t we?

Today, we tend to measure Felipe by his few failures rather than his numerous successes. Partly because he was who he was, partly because of his turn-coat secretary Antonio Perez, generations of Europeans have been fed an image of Felipe as a cold-hearted fanatic who delighted in seeing heretics twist in torment. Felipe has become a victim to the Black Legend, whereby Spain – and Felipe – are depicted as infested by evil. Felipe has been accused of killing his own son, of strangling prisoners with his own hands. He has been defamed and ridiculed – even in his own lifetime – and rarely has anyone risen to defend him, least of all Felipe himself, who chose to never respond to the more ludicrous of Perez’ accusations.

Felipe_II,_King_of_Spain_from_NPGI would argue Felipe was much more than this: in his private letters, we see a man who concerned himself greatly with the well-being of those he loved. In how he managed his empire, we see a man who eschewed absolute power, attempting instead to ensure there were robust controls in place. Genuinely devout, he quelled some of the more fanatic aspects of the Counter-Reformation, he encouraged learning and education and brought Spain firmly out of the Middle Ages. Yes, he was the enemy of Protestants champions such as William the Silent. But he was equally the hero of his Catholic subjects, the determined defender of Europe against the Ottomans, and a man who always tried to do his duty. Always. Not, IMO, a bad epitaph.

In 1598, an old and weakened Felipe fell ill. By now, he was a lonely old man – of his eleven children only tree remained alive, and his favourite daughter had recently died, the single recorded occasion when Felipe gave in to open despair, cursing fate for taking his loved ones from him. For 55 days, the king lay dying, covered in pustules and weeping sores. It was impossible to keep him clean so he lay in his stinking waste—a humiliating death for a man who abhorred being dirty. He died clutching the same crucifix his father had held when he died. At the moment of his death he was lucid, and it is said he saw Death coming and smiled in welcome, free at last from this life of duty and sorrows – so many, many sorrows.

The male footnote – of a young man in Tudor England

History as we know it is like a very large, very incomplete embroidery, where some of those who have lived and breathed before us have ended up as a minuscule little stitch or two while the vast majority of our ancestors have lived and died without leaving as much as a wrinkle on the tapestry of human history. Many of those surviving stitches represent a male historical person. Now and then, a woman has been colourful enough to make her own mark, like Margaret, Countess of Norfolk, or Elizabeth I. But there’s no escaping the fact that in the annals of recorded history, women are seriously underrepresented and often flit by as mere footnotes.

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Edward VI

Today, I thought we’d spend some time with a male footnote. Think Tudor England and we think Henry VIII (NOT a footnote), we think Anne Boleyn (nope, she wasn’t a footnote either) Jane Seymour (hmm…), Edward VI (the jury is out: footnote or not?) and his sisters, Mary I and Elizabeth I. Plus we’ve all heard of Lady Jane Grey, of course. This devout Protestant teenager was Edward VI’s choice as his heir (and how he and his councillors must have despaired at the fact that there were no male claimants around. At least none that they wanted to promote). Jane ruled for nine days, was ousted from her throne, thrown into the Tower and several months later she was executed, this despite Mary I not wanting to execute the young woman. But Jane had become a safety risk for Mary and all safety risks had to be eliminated.

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Jane (National Portrait Gallery)

Jane had royal blood, her grandmother being Henry VIII’s vivacious sister, Mary. (Now this is a lady after mine own heart who dared her brother’s wrath to marry the man she loved) In difference to Mary and Elizabeth, Jane had never been bastardised. Obviously, Jane was luckier in her father than her female cousins once removed. But then almost everyone was luckier than them in this respect. I’m thinking Henry VIII’s mama didn’t raise him properly, how else to explain how he treated the women in his life? Neither here nor there, so let’s move on.

Edward VI was a precocious young king, well-educated and well-read. He had also been raised to see himself as defender of the Protestant faith as represented by the Anglican church. I imagine he walked about with an inflated sense of self-importance, but ultimately he was a boy masquerading as a powerful king, with most of the ruling done by men like his uncle, Edward Seymour the Duke of Somerset, and the very ambitious Earl of Warwick (soon to be Duke of Northumberland), John Dudley.

Initially, it seems Seymour and Dudley got on. Seymour as Lord Protector was infinitely more powerful, but Dudley soon showed just how capable he was, being instrumental in putting down one of the more serious rebellions during Edward VI’s reign in 1549. Thing is, the reasons for the rebellion could be laid rather neatly at Seymour’s door—he was not quite the ruler England needed—and Dudley soon joined those in opposition of the Lord Protector.

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John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland

At the time, Dudley still had the troops he’d raised to put down Kett’s Rebellion. Seymour had no such forces at his disposal, so he panicked, more or less kidnapped the king and carried him off to Windsor. Let’s just say things did not end well for Seymour and Dudley ended up as top-dog and Duke of Northumberland. Dudley and Seymour seemed to reconcile, but some years later, Somerset yet again tried to regain control of the king. This time, he ended up with his head on the block. Bye, bye Seymour, hello Dudley.

Some years later, the young king was now firmly under Northumberland’s control and our ambitious Duke liked having things this way. (Before we go any further I must say I find John Dudley quite the charismatic man. Capable and bright, he carved his own way to the top, had the endearing quality of being a good and loving husband, a good and loving father, and in general seems to have been a good guy to have around. Until he was bitten by the megalomania bug and fell victim to his hunger for more and more power…) England was at peace, the finances had been somewhat mended, and in general things were good. While there were hopes Edward would live long enough to rule in his own right, Dudley and his other councillors did their best to prepare their young liege for the task ahead.

By 1553, it became evident the young king was probably too frail to live long enough to conceive a child to inherit the crown. Yes, he had two sisters, but whether it was Edward’s brainchild or Dudley’s, the young king wasn’t entirely taken with the notion of designating either Mary or Elizabeth as his heir. I’m guessing Northumberland heartily agreed: gifted with as much intelligence as their father, further enhanced by their respective mothers, and an excellent education, neither Mary nor Elizabeth was about to accept being controlled by Dudley. With Elizabeth, Dudley had a potential in—his son, Robert Dudley, and Elizabeth knew and liked each other. With Mary he had nothing. Plus, of course, Mary was Catholic—anathema to a man who had embraced the new faith with a passion. Or with an eye out for what was politically the smartest thing to do.

It was something of a fortunate coincidence that Northumberland had an alternative heir closer to home—and to his family. This is where today’s footnote enters the scene and seeing as we’re at a wordcount of 1 000 before I even introduce him, it’s very obvious he’s no major player.  Peeps, I give you Guildford Dudley, a man so young he’d only recently started sprouting bristles.

In May of 1553, Guildford was wed to Lady Jane Grey, first cousin once removed of the ailing king. On that same occasion, Guildford’s younger sister married Henry Hastings and Jane’s sister married the heir of the Earl of Pembroke. A magnificent occasion, I imagine—and not necessarily indicative of Dudley’s devious plotting to continue controlling the crown. After all, these marriages had been under negotiation for quite some time, and at the time they were not much remarked upon.

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Victorian depiction of Guildford. Probably all wrong…

The happy couple seemed to like each other. By all accounts, Guildford was a handsome and charming lad. The sixth son born to John Dudley and his beloved wife, Jane Guildford, he was raised in a household as Protestant as that of the Grey family. Was he as pious as Jane Grey supposedly was? Hmm. Was he as educated? No—but then Jane must be considered something of a 16th century bookworm.

Come summer, the young king was fading quickly. Stubbornly determined not to name either of his half-sisters, he realised he had to name someone as his successor as those hoped for “heirs of my body” weren’t about to show. Ever. Did Northumberland nudge him in the direction of Lady Jane Grey? No idea. But I imagine the serious and pious young king found the equally pious and serious Jane very much to his liking. Promoting this young woman was the smart thing to do for Dudley—especially as Jane was his dear daughter-in-law.

On July 6 of 1553 Edward VI died. Three days later, Jane was informed she was now the queen and transported to the Tower, there to await her coronation. What did Guildford think of all this? Well, what little we do know indicates he was rather taken by the idea of becoming king. In fact, he said as much to his wife but she refused to do so, naming him instead Duke of Clarence, as only Parliament could pronounce her husband king. Guildford sulked, Jane was adamant.

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Mary

In the event, what title her husband was to have was the smallest of Jane’s problems. On July 10, Mary claimed the crown and the English rose like one (well) and hailed her as queen—including the entire Privy Council who’d all signed Edward’s final will designating Jane. Northumberland realised he’s miscalculated and tried to salvage what he could by proclaiming for Mary. Didn’t help much. Other than Guildford and Jane, soon enough both John Dudley and his sons Robert, Ambrose and Henry were incarcerated in the Tower. John Dudley was tried and sentenced to die. In a desperate attempt to save himself, Dudley converted to Catholicism on the eve of his execution. It did not help, and in August of 1553, his head was struck off.

Things weren’t looking all that good for our footnote. There he was, locked up in the Tower and come November he and his wife were tried for treason. They could do one thing only: plead guilty and throw themselves on Mary’s mercy. The queen was prepared to be merciful, fully aware of the fact that both Jane and Guildford were mere pawns. And had Mary not decided to wed Philip II of Spain, who knows what would have happened to our man of the day and his wife.

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Philip II

Ah. I see some of you scratching your head in confusion. What does Philip II of Spain have to do with Guildford’s and Jane’s fate? Well, the English did not fall head over heels and whoop with joy when they were told their queen intended to wed a foreigner—and a Catholic to boot. While they would gladly forgive Mary (at least initially) for being Catholic, many English had embraced the new faith and found it far more to their liking. A Spanish king brought with it the fear of Inquisitions, of being burned as a heretic for your beliefs. Plus, of course, he wasn’t English. Major drawback.

So upset were Mary’s subjects that rebellions broke out. The largest of these was Thomas Wyatt’s Rebellion which had as its objective to depose Mary and replace her with Elizabeth. One of the men involved in this rebellion was Henry Grey, Jane’s father. Need I say more? No, I didn’t think so.

The rebellion was crushed, the leaders were executed (and tortured. Poor Thomas Wyatt himself was tortured repeatedly in the hopes of getting him to admit Elizabeth had been involved in the plot. The brave man said nothing that could be used against Elizabeth) Elizabeth was placed in the Tower. And Mary’s counsellors, including her new, Spanish friends, all bayed for jane and Guildford’s blood. She didn’t want to, but ultimately Mary succumbed to pressure and signed their death warrants .

The evening before their execution, Guildford sent a message to his wife, requesting one last meeting. She refused, saying it would not help them face the morrow. Actually, I think it would have helped Guildford face the axe. I think she was much more convinced of her place in the hereafter than he was. She may have been reconciled to death, but he, I suspect, wanted desperately to live. To see his wife one last time, to hold her and caress her, would have allowed him to pretend there was still hope of a reprieve, still one more night that could, potentially, change fate.

On the morning of February 12, 1554, Guildford Dudley was escorted out to Tower Hill, there to see his fate fulfilled. Not for him an endless sequence of mornings, of waking up in bed and wondering just what this day might bring. Not for him a house full of children and puppies. Guildford Dudley was all of nineteen that long-gone day when he inhaled one last lungful of precious air, placed his head on the block and heard the whistle of the axe descending. Sic transit Gloria mundi, one could say.

So ends the tale of our male footnote. A short, stunted life that left little of value behind. But once he existed, once he had hopes and dreams – like we all do. I wonder how often he cursed his father’s ambition to hell and back as he sat in the Tower and waited and waited for his life to (hopefully) begin. It never did.

NOTE! This excursion into Tudor England takes me very, very far from my historical comfort zone. But somehow, Guildford called to me and I felt compelled to answer…

The Welsh Princess and her elusive mother

In 1230, Ralph Mortimer of Wigmore took a certain Gwladus Ddu as his wife. Ralph was a Marcher Lord, always intent on expanding his domains into Wales. His new wife was as Welsh as they came, daughter of Prince Llewellyn the Great.

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Llewellyn, depicted with his sons

While Gwladus’ paternity has never been up for discussion – she is Gwladus ferch Llewellyn when mentioned in records of the time – who her mother was is a substantially thornier issue. Was Gwladus the product of Llewellyn’s long-standing affair with a certain Tangwystl, mother of his eldest son Gruffydd, or was she a legitimate daughter, born to Llewellyn and his Angevin wife Joanna? Somewhat ironically given the discussions as to whether Gwladus was illegitimate or not, Joanna was most definitely illegitimate, the daughter of King John of England.

To sort out who was Gwladus’ mother, one could start by trying to pin down when Gwladus was born. Well, unsurprisingly, it’s not as if there’s a neat entry stating her date of birth. Instead, genealogists usually work backwards from what known facts there are, and one of those facts is that Gwladus’ marriage to Ralph was not her first: she’d been wed to Reginald de Braose already back in 1215.

This, according to some, means she must have been born at the latest around 1202, so as to be of marriageable age in 1215. And if Gwladus was born in 1202, she could not be Joanna’s daughter seeing as Joanna and Llewellyn were wed in 1205, ergo Ralph Mortimer married an illegitimate Welsh princess.

gwladus marriageHowever, there are some doubts as to whether there was a real marriage in 1215. Maybe it was more of a betrothal. Besides, why would Reginald de Braose, a man pushing forty and with heirs to his body (among which a certain William de Braose whom Llewellyn would hang in 1230 for having engaged in adulterous relations with Llewellyn’s wife, Joanna. All very complicated, isn’t it?) want to marry the illegitimate daughter of Llewellyn? A second marriage in this case would have been entered out of political interests, and Gwladus was worth much, much more as a political pawn if she was the legitimate daughter of a Welsh prince and the granddaughter of an English king than if she were the daughter of Llewellyn and the irresistibly named Tangwystl.

It is also interesting to note that while Gwladus and Reginald were married for thirteen years there are no recorded children. Reginald was definitely fertile and with her second husband Gwladus would go on to prove that she was too which begs the question if this first marriage was ever consummated, thereby indicating (perhaps) that maybe the bride was very young in 1215, corresponding with a birthdate after 1205.

Gwladus 1024px-King_John_from_De_Rege_JohanneWhen King John gave his daughter in marriage to Llewellyn, he also had Llewellyn promise that it would be the children he had with Joanna who would be his heirs. This was not in accordance with Welsh custom which in general supported every child’s right to inherit its father, no matter if the child was conceived within or without the marital bed.

At the time of Llewellyn’s wedding to Joanna, he already had a son named Gruffydd, so by agreeing to John’s demands he was effectively disinheriting his boy. Did not go down well with Gruffydd. In fact, this permanently soured the relationship between father and son and would spill over into the future bitter enmity between Gruffydd and his half-brother Dafydd. However, at the time of Llewellyn agreeing to John’s demands there was no Dafydd ap Llewellyn (except as a twinkle in his father’s eye) so we can leave that sad story of brotherly strife for some other day.

Anyway: back to Gwladus, who seems to have enjoyed a better relationship with her baby brother Dafydd. Is this indicative of a closer relationship than that of being his half-sister? No idea. But when a very young Dafydd rode to London in 1229 to visit with his young uncle, Henry III, Gwladus rode with him. Dafydd undertook this little trip to present himself before the entire English court as Llewelyn’s recognised heir, thereby formally acquiring his uncle’s support against his half-brother’s claim.

At the time, Gwladus was recently widowed, Reginald having passed away in 1228. Now, the fact that Gwladus chose to accompany her younger sibling may indicate nothing more than a case of wanderlust. But if Gwladus was Gruffydd’s full sister, wouldn’t she have hesitated in accompanying her half-brother on a trip that had as its purpose to permanently scotch Gruffydd’s hopes of inheriting Llewellyn’s lands?

It did not take long for Llewellyn to find a new husband for his widowed daughter. This time, Gwladus was dispatched to wed Ralph Mortimer of Wigmore, a man some years her senior who’d become heir to the Mortimer lands upon the death of his older brother. The Mortimers were as covetous and power-hungry as all the Marcher Lords and while Ralph definitely wanted heirs, he also wanted valuable alliances. I seriously doubt he’d have wanted Gwladus—no matter how beautiful she might have been—unless she was not only the daughter of Llewellyn but also the niece of Henry III. Or maybe Ralph had already got the measure of the young English king and decided it was more important to keep the Welsh wolf at bay than pacify the English lion cub.

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Hitting it off a la medieval

Whatever the case, Ralph and Gwladus seem to have hit it off. Over the first nine years of married life, she gave birth to six known children, among them the very competent Roger Mortimer who would go on to become a loyal servant of the king, behead Simon de Montfort at Evesham and marry Maud de Braose, daughter of the man his Welsh grandfather once hanged for adultery. And their sons would – no, not today. The story of Edmund and Roger Mortimer Jr (a.k.a. Lord Chirk) and the sad end of Llewellyn ap Gruffyd, grandson to Llewellyn the Great deserves a post of its own (and boxes and boxes of tissues).

In 1246, Ralph died, leaving Gwladus a widow. She never remarried, dying five years later while visiting with her maybe-uncle, Henry III, in Winchester.

Not only don’t we know for sure who Gwladus’ mother was. We know nothing about Gwladus herself, beyond who her father was, who her husbands were, who her children were. She is defined not by who she was but by what she was, daughter, wife, mother. We have no depiction of her, all we have is her epithet, Ddu, which is Welsh for black. I guess this probably means that Gwladus was dark rather than fair, and I picture her with long dark braids and eyes the colour of a deep forest tarn. For some reason, I imagine she was of a serious disposition – but that is entirely fanciful, and for all I know, Gwladus may have been the life and soul of any medieval party she might have been invited to.

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Prosperine (Rossetti) – a dark and enigmatic lady to represent Gwladus

Gwladus Ddu remains an enigmatic and anonymous lady who attracts more interest due to the uncertainties surrounding her mother than due to herself. That’s a bit sad. However, no matter who her mother was, through Gwladus the blood of the Royal House of Gwynedd would pass down the Mortimer line, the Welsh Dragon lying dormant until that very distant descendant of hers, Edward IV, claimed the throne. Through Edward’s daughter, Elizabeth of York, that rather diluted drop of Welsh blood has made it all the way down the line to the present Queen. I rather like that, and I think it makes Gwladus’ father smile in his heaven. Not so sure what her mother might think about it—oh, that’s right: we’re not even sure of who was Gwladus’ mother!

 

ADDENDUM: The very generous Ken John has shared his own extensive research on Gwladus’ maternity with me. It is Ken’s opinion that Gwladus was Joanna’s daughter and he presents as evidence the following:
That first marriage to Reginald Braose was all about alliances, the very young bride turned over to her husband as a pledge of Llewellyn’s good intentions against de Braose family. Gwladus never had any children by Reginald, and this indicates non-consummation which, according to Ken, probably is an indication of how young she was when she was wed (8 or 9 at most).
Just as I argue above, Ken also points out that Gwladus’ value to the Mortimers was much, much higher if she was also the granddaughter of King John. Furthermore, upon Gwladus’ marriage to Ralph Mortimer, she brought to her husband the manors of Knighton and Norton, which King John had settled on llewellyn when Joanna was married to the Welsh prince. It seems highly unlikely that manors that came with Joanna’s dower were used to dower other daughters than her own.
Finally, Ken points out that Henry III apparently had a lot of time for Gwladus which he feels indicates a blood relationship.
Thank you so much, Ken, for sharing this with me!

A lady with claws

The other day, I was at the dentist. I detest going to the dentist, no matter how much I like the actual dentist. My dentist is a charming man who entertains me with anecdotes from Paris while he drills. Doesn’t help much, but at least he tries. Anyway: the single upside with going to the dentist is that the waiting room has a very varied selection of magazines. So while I was waiting I came upon an article about the Lioness from Brittany. The article made me smile and remember a very enthusiastic history teacher when I was in fifth grade. Mrs Miller was a big fan of spicing up her lessons with plenty of human interest, and the story of the Lioness from Brittany (or La Tigresse Bretonne, as Mrs Miller always called her, seeing as Mrs Miller was French which led to a somewhat alternative take on The Hundred Years’ War in general and Henry V in particular) comes with a huge dollop of drama. You haven’t heard of this feline lady? Not to worry, as I feel she deserves some airtime here on my blog—after all, I have a thing about strong women who flaunt convention and carve their own path through life.

Today’s protagonist was born around 1300 in France, more specifically in the Vendeé to the wealthy nobleman Maurice Montaigu de Belleville and his wife, Letice. The baby was christened Jeanne and at the tender age of twelve she was married to Geoffrey de Chateaubriant who was all of nineteen. Two years later, she gave birth to her first child, a son, to be followed by a daughter some years later. If she gave birth to more children, these must have died young as there is no record of them. So far, her life had been nothing out of the ordinary. Nor was the death of her husband in 1326 an unusual event. People died all the time back then. Come to think of it, they still do. Anyway: Jeanne was not destined to remain a widow for long. Already in 1328 she remarried, but a year later that marriage was declared null and void by the pope, maybe because by then Jeanne had met the love of her life, Olivier de Clisson.

Now, there is some evidence indicating Jeanne and Olivier went years back. In fact, some say Jeanne gave birth to a daughter fathered by Olivier already in 1325, when she was still married to hubby nr 1. Rather unlikely, IMO—a child born to a married woman was automatically assumed to be her husband’s child. For a baby to be recorded as being fathered by another man, the mother would have had to come forward and admit to adultery. Seems like a stupid thing to do for a medieval lady.

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Clisson – photo by Cyril555, licensed under Creative Commons

Anyway: in 1330, Jeanne wed Olivier de Clisson, a well-off Breton who swept her off to live happily ever after with him at his castle in Clisson. Soon enough, Jeanne gave birth to a son. And another. And another. First son died young, but as some sort of compensation Jeanne and Olivier also had a daughter. All in all, the Clissons were happy with each other. Thing is, the times were complicated politically – and that is putting it mildly.

In 1337, King Edward III of England officially claimed the French crown, this based on the fact that he was the grandson of Philippe IV. Obviously, this did not go down well with the crowned French king, Philippe VI, who was the nephew of Philippe IV, son to the rather impressive Charles of Valois. Now, at the time there were some regions which we would call French that were pretty much independent. One such region was Brittany, which was of strategic importance in a war between England and France as it offered a lot of coastline for English ships to safely land English knights, men-at-arms and archers.

The situation in Brittany was somewhat messy: The previous duke of Brittany, Arthur, had married twice. In his first marriage, he had three sons, one of whom was named John and was recognised as his heir. In his second marriage he had yet another son, also called John but known to history as John de Montfort as he inherited the title of count of Montfort through his mother. One wonders why the same father would name two sons John, but maybe he had a special fondness for this particular name.

When Arthur died, his eldest John inherited as John III. This John detested his half-siblings and expended a lot of energy on trying to get them branded as bastards. Didn’t work. As John III had no children of his own, his younger brother was his obvious heir. This John III didn’t like, so instead he chose his niece, yet another Jeanne as his designated heir. This Jeanne was married to a certain Charles de Blois who was delighted at the notion of becoming Duke of Brittany.

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John de Montfort entering Nantes

In 1341, John III died – after changing his mind and naming his half-brother as heir. Too late. Charles de Blois claimed the dukedom on behalf of his wife. John de Montfort was not about to give up his patrimony without a fight, and soon enough he had Edward III in his court, while Charles de Blois had the support of Philippe VI of France. The stage, as they say, was set for a very long and very bloody conflict…

The local nobility took sides. Olivier de Clisson seems to have supported Charles de Blois. His brother, Amaury de Clisson, supported John de Montfort. Olivier was ordered to help defend the city of Vannes against the English. In 1342, Vannes fell to the English and Olivier was captured. He was subsequently exchanged for Ralph Stafford (a gentleman whose rather high-handed marital exploits you can read much more about here) and a ransom. A suspiciously low ransom according to Philippe VI who suspected Olivier might be in cahoots with the English and John de Montfort.

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Olivier and his Breton buddies being executed

The French king had a devious side to him. In 1343, a treaty was signed by Philippe VI and Edward III, creating a bit of a breathing space in the ongoing war. To celebrate, Philippe organised a major tournament and Olivier, together with some other Breton lords, was invited to take part. Turns out there wouldn’t be much jousting for Olivier. Instead, he (and several other Breton lords) was arrested, dragged off to Paris where he was tried by his peers and sentenced to death. Early in August, he was beheaded, his body displayed in a gibbet and his head sent off to adorn a spike in Nantes.

In France, such a public display of a nobleman’s body was not the done thing. Besides, there was no evidence of Olivier’s guilt. Contemporaries were therefore not impressed by their king’s actions, with quite a few expressing concern an innocent and loyal man had been murdered on the king’s say-so.

Back in Bretagne, Jeanne received the news of her husband’s death. She took her two surviving sons with her to Nantes to show them their father’s head, and I can’t imagine what it must have felt like for her (and her boys, at the time seven and five) to see her husband’s head displayed as a trophy. Something snapped in Jeanne. There, in front of her beloved husband’s decapitated head the forty-three-year-old widow swore revenge: King Philippe would live to regret having murdered her husband.

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Supposedly, this is Jeanne.

First, Jeanne sold everything she had of value—likely the lands had been attainted, but what she could sell, she sold. Then she armed herself (legend says with a huge axe), hired several men-at-arms and began her own personal war on the French. Supposedly she attacked a couple of castles, slaughtered the garrisons (she left one or two alive as witnesses) and openly declared her support for John de Montfort—and Edward III.

After this initial killing spree, Jeanne bought three ships (probably with financial support from the English) that she painted black and fitted with crimson sails, and began to wreak havoc on the French. This was not a pirate out for spoils. Jeanne targeted French ships to kill, exacting a grisly and bloody revenge for the death of her husband. She participated herself in the killing—or so the legend says—using that big axe of hers to lop of the heads of whatever unfortunate Frenchmen she captured. French nobles could expect no mercy, no matter that they promised huge ransoms. The Lioness of Brittany was not interested in gold: she wanted blood.

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Battle of Sluys

The French had nothing with which to fight back—at least not initially. After all, the French had lost most of their fleet at the Battle of Sluys in 1340, and Philippe was beginning to feel the pinch of being constantly at war: he simply did not have the money or the men to outfit a new fleet.

 

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Charles de Blois being captured

In Brittany, it seemed Charles of Blois had finally managed to gain the upper hand. By 1345, John de Montfort was dead and most of his supporters had no choice but to make their peace with Charles. However: Charles did not inspire much loyalty among the Bretons—especially not after slaughtering huge numbers of civilians when he took the town of Quimper. And when the English defeated the French at Crecy and went on to capture Charles of Blois in 1347, the de Montfort cause revived somewhat.

Not that Jeanne cared. She’d helped the English transport provisions over the Channel in preparation for Crecy, but otherwise she preferred to expend her time on her favourite pastime: murdering Frenchmen. However, her luck could not hold for ever, and somewhere around 1346-47 the French managed to sink her flagship. Jeanne and her two sons ended up drifting around for days. Her younger son died of exposure before they were rescued and she decided to send her surviving and eldest son, Olivier, to England to be raised in the household of the English king. After this, she went back to her pirating and would continue to be a scourge on the French until 1356 or so.

After thirteen years as a pirate captain, Jeanne had apparently had enough. Her husband’s death had been avenged many times over and her eldest son was safe in England where he was a close companion of John de Montfort Jr. At well over fifty, she was probably tired of living on a cramped ship. Or maybe it was more a case of wanting to spend time with her new hubby, an English gentleman called Walter Bentley. Whatever the case, she settled down in the Breton town of Hennebont with her husband, the castle in which she lived situated right by the sea.

In 1359, Jeanne died. She would therefore never know that her eldest son was destined to become the most famous Clisson male, ending his life as Constable of France and the richest man around. But that, as they say, is another story. Besides, I’m not entirely sure our Jeanne would have been pleased by her son’s change of sides. For her, Philippe VI had permanently killed any loyalty to France when he unjustly beheaded her husband.

So lived and died La Tigresse Bretonne, a lady who brought home just how dangerous a woman can be when sufficiently riled. And frankly, thinking about her did serve as an adequate distraction while my dear dentist went at it with his drill. After all, if she could survive her excessively exciting life, then I can live through a visit to the dentist. Maybe.

Treason on Twelfth Night

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Henry claiming the throne

On October 13, 1399, Henry of Lancaster was crowned king of England. There was just a teensy-weensy problem: the king he succeeded wasn’t dead. Instead, Richard II had been forced to abdicate.

Henry and Richard were cousins, their common grandfather being Edward III. Richard became king as a child and grew up to be a firm believer in royal prerogative. He surrounded himself with favourites whom he showered with offices and wealth and this led to a conflict with a group of his barons, the so called Lords Appellant which included dear cousin Henry and Richard’s uncle the Duke of Gloucester. The Lords Appellants did away with Richard’s favourites and curtailed his power significantly. Richard nursed a grudge against these lords for over a decade after which he struck back, ordering the murder of his uncle and exiling Henry as well as denying his cousin his huge inheritance. Did not go down well with Henry—or with Richard’s other barons who realised that if he could cheat his cousin of his lands, then he could cheat them as well. So when Henry returned to England in the summer of 1399, stating that he only came to claim what was rightfully his, he met little opposition. Rather the reverse, people being rather sick of Richard and his high-handed personal rule. A few weeks after landing at Ravenspurn, Henry had effectively taken control of England – and of Richard, who was now his prisoner.

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Henry IV presenting the captive Richard (in red) to the Londoners (Jean Creton)

There was little love lost between Henry and Richard, but Henry went out of his way to treat his dethroned cousin with courtesy and does not seem to have known just what to do with him. Killing an anointed king was out of the question—Henry is one of those rather likeable medieval grandees who seems to have had a well-developed conscience, plus he was genuinely devout. While Henry felt obliged (and to some extent entitled) to usurp Richard’s crown to safeguard his own life and that of his sons, that was as far as it went. At first.

The problem with deposed kings is that they’re not exactly grateful for having been allowed to keep their head. They also remain a focal point for those determined to oppose the new king—not necessarily because they loved the previous king, but because causing unrest can be quite lucrative.

The first few months as king were happy months for Henry IV. He brimmed with self-confidence as he went about the business of securing his realm. He established good relationships with Parliament, retained most of Richard’s administrators and in general went out of his way to assure people he intended to be a good king, a king who took counsel and listened to Parliament.

It was therefore in a good mood that Henry IV retired to Windsor Castle with his sons to celebrate Christmas – his first Christmas ever as king. At the time, the unhappy Richard II was held at Pontefract Castle, albeit in some comfort. Henry must have felt he had everything under control – the realm, his people and the former king.

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John Holland and John Montacute (BL, MS Harley)

Ha! Henry was in for a surprise. Already in mid-December, a group of conspirators met. They included John Holland, half-brother to Richard II and Earl of Huntingdon , John’s son Thomas, Earl of Kent, John Montacute, Earl of Salisbury,  Thomas le Despenser, Baron Despencer, and Edward of Norwich, Earl of Rutland. These men had benefited from Richard’s largesse and considered Henry a usurper (which he was). There were other men present, such as Thomas Blount and Ralph Lumley and a certain Richard Maudeleyn who in looks was an eerie double of Richard II. The meeting was held at Westminster abbey, whose abbot was in on the conspiracy as was the ousted Archbishop of Canterbury and the bishop of Carlisle.

henry tournamentThese men were determined to rid the world of Henry IV, and indirectly the new king had handed them a golden opportunity in that he was holding a tournament at Windsor on Twelfth Night. A perfect way of gaining access to the king with arms, and the plan was relatively simple: the various earls were to call on their retainers and pull together a sizeable force of armed men. This rebel army was to muster as discreetly as possible at Kingston while the conspiring lords, together with a smaller force, were to ride for Windsor on January 4th, gain access to the unsuspecting king, murder him, his sons and the new Archbishop of Canterbury (I’m guessing this was a condition imposed by the ousted Archbishop, who very much wanted to regain his see, no matter how bloodily). Once all these foul deeds were done, they’d order their army to ride forth to seize a number of important towns. As King Richard was nowhere close, it fell to Maudeleyn to dress as the king and stir the English people to rise on behalf of their former king.

Successful conspiracies depend on two things: not including too many people and that the involved peeps don’t spill the beans. In the case of this particular conspiracy, there were quite a few magnates involved. One of them, Edward of Norwich, was Henry IVs cousin and as the plans were set in motion it appears he got cold feet. While dining with his father, the Duke of York, Edward supposedly told him about the plot. His father was horrified and convinced Edward to tell Henry.

There is another version of how Henry found out, involving a tender-hearted prostitute who’d spent one night with a man loyal to one of the rebel lords. A talkative fellow, this man told her all about the plot and the next night, when she shared her bed with a man loyal to Henry, she was so affected by the thought that maybe her most recent bedfellow would die during the upcoming rebellion that she told him everything she knew. Hmm.

Edward was never punished for participating in the conspiracy—in itself an indication that he was the one who blew the whistle on the others.

Whatever the case, the moment Henry found out, he acted with impressive speed. In a matter of hours he’d swept up his sons and was riding madly for London, making a wide detour so as not to run into the conspirators and their armed retinues who at that same moment were riding to Windsor to set their plan in action. At some distance from the city, Henry met the mayor of London who was on his way to warn him that something was afoot—why else had 6 000 armed men assembled at Kingston?

Once his sons were safe in the Tower, Henry decided it was time to deal with the rebels. He closed all ports, issued writs ordering the arrest of the rebel lords and called up the Londoners to ride with him, offering good silver to all those that would ride with him. Come morning, Henry was ready to act.

First, he sent Edward to inform the rebels that the king was riding towards them with a huge army. (Yet another indication that Edward must have had one foot in each camp, the king using his hapless cousin as some sort of spy) As a consequence of this information, the various rebel lords rode hell for leather for their own lands, hoping to inspire their people to join in the rebellion.

Thing is, Richard wasn’t a popular king. He’d overtaxed his people, was considered rather shifty and with little genuine interest in his subjects. Henry, on the other hand, was popular. Here was a man who gladly spoke English, who wanted to rule with Parliament, who hoped to bring back the halcyon days of good king Edward III. (Not that those days were all that halcyon, at least not for the common man and woman, but nostalgia is not exactly a modern invention). To the shock of the rebels, the people rose against them.

Richard Maudeleyn was captured in London—and hanged. John Holland tried to flee the country in a small boat, was blown back to the English coast and ended up in the custody of Henry’s mother-in-law. This impressive lady had no qualms about transporting John to Pleshey Castle and handing him over to a mob which promptly beheaded him. Thomas Holland and John Montacute were captured in Cirencester. They too were beheaded. Thomas le Despenser tried to flee the country by boarding a ship in Cardiff but the crew refused to help a rebel and transported him to Bristol where he was summarily executed. Other leading rebels were rounded up and brought before Henry at Oxford Castle.

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gruesome death – such as Thomas Blount’s

The king chose to personally act the judge and most of the frightened and desperate men brought before him were pardoned, very much in line with Henry’s magnanimous character. Twenty odd were beheaded and half a dozen were condemned to die the full traitor’s death, one of these being that Thomas Blount who’d been present at the first meeting in December. And whatever one may think about this gent, he had his fair share of courage. As he was watching his entrails being burned before him, he was asked by one of his guards if he needed a drink. Thomas Blount politely declined the offer, saying that he did not know where to put it…

Henry IV The National Archives Illumination_of_Henry_IV_(cropped)The Epiphany Rising was a major failure, but it was to have dark consequences. Henry had been brutally reminded of just how insecure his hold on the crown was and felt compelled to act to safeguard himself and, more importantly, his sons. There are indications that already on January 6th he sent a trusted retainer north to Pontefract with the order to kill Richard should the rising garner support. As we’ve seen, there was no support, but killing Richard was no longer quite as anathema to Henry as it had been some months ago. In fact, he’d probably come to the conclusion that Richard’s death was a prerequisite for political stability.

On February 14, 1400, Richard died (at least officially) The standard story is that he starved to death, some saying it was self-starvation (because the rising failed and he despaired of ever seeing the world outside again) some saying he was denied food so as to ensure he died without any marks on his body. Sadly (as I like Henry IV much, much more than Richard), IMO things point to the latter. The Epiphany Rising made Henry a murderer and the burden of guilt was to haunt him for the rest of his life.  Uneasy indeed, did his crowned head lie…

A Toast to St Sylvester

Today is New Year’s Eve. Most of us perceive this as a very secular holiday, best celebrated by drinking champagne, going a tad maudlin while singing Auld Lang Syne, and cheering madly as the sky lights up with fireworks just as the clock strikes midnight.

Celebrating New Year’s Eve on December 31st is a relatively modern invention. Okay, okay, maybe that should be re-invention as already the old Romans considered January 1st as the first day in a new year. However, what the Romans thought was mostly forgotten by medieval times, and accordingly New Year tended to vary. In most European countries, March 25th was celebrated as the New Year, usually through religious processions in honour of the Virgin who was visited by the archangel Gabriel on this date & told she was to give birth to God’s son in nine months. Was she thrilled at the thought? Scared stiff? Probably the latter, I suspect. God gave this young woman quite the burden to carry…

Back to New Year: Other than March 25th, there were some countries that felt March 20th was a better option. Or Easter (which was a bit of a challenge, seeing as Easter is a moveable feast). Anglo-Saxon England leaned towards December 25th. In brief, there was little consensus in this matter, but whatever the opinions might have been about the New Year, most Christian countries celebrated December 31st anyway. Why? Because it was the feast of St Sylvester.

I bet most of you haven’t heard of St Sylvester. As a child, I lived in Colombia where very many people referred to New Year’s Eve as “San Silvestre”. There was also a tradition of cracking an egg in a glass of water and analysing the resulting pattern to see what sort of year next year would be. This had nothing to do with Sylvester – I suspect the gent in question would have frowned on such superstitious practises – but it was quite fun, as was the tradition to eat exactly twelve grapes at midnight unless you wanted to end up all unloved in the New Year.

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Constantine & the cross (Raphael’s studio)

So who was this Sylvester, you may ask. Well, the man in question was a pope—and a saint. He became pope first, and sat in St Peter’s chair for a couple of decades in the fourth century. He was a contemporary of Constantine (you know, the Roman Emperor who saw a blazing cross in the sky with the flaming Greek words Ἐν τούτῳ νίκα which translated to Latin meant In Hoc Signo Vinces or In This Sign Thou Shalt Conquer, thereby convincing Constantine it was about time he embraced the Christian faith. Whether this is true or not, I leave up to you, dear reader, to decide for yourself. Let’s just say that an alternative – and more credible – version has it that Constantine didn’t convert to Christianity until he was on his deathbed)

At the time, temporal power was very much the top dog. The Roman Emperor may have chosen to convert to Christianity, but as far as he was concerned, he had more clout than the pope. Full stop. Until dear Sylvester, popes tended to be of the same opinion: power belonged to the emperor, conscience and spiritual supremacy to the pope.

If we’re going to be quite honest, we don’t really know much about Sylvester. Yes, we know that he lived through Diocletian’s horrific persecution of the Christians, we know he was elected pope in 314, we know he didn’t participate at the Council of Nicea but approved the various decisions taken there. But no matter who Sylvester really was, it’s the legend surrounding him that permanently shifted the balance of power. You see, some centuries after his death, Sylvester became the poster boy for the all-powerful church. All-powerful as in “if you don’t behave, you’ll have to come crawling to Canossa and beg the Holy Father for forgiveness”. (Curious about Canossa? Look up Frederick Barbarossa, Holy Roman Emperor in the 12th century)

Now we don’t know what sort of relationship Constantine and Sylvester had. Did they chit-chat over a game of chess? Did the pope and the emperor spend quality time together while considering just how to divvy up the power between them? Hmm. I suspect they moved in different circles, one of them constantly defending his empire, the other slowly but safely expanding the influence of the church.

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Sylvester & Constantine

Whatever the case, by the early sixth century a legend was spreading whereby Sylvester cured Constantine of leprosy using baptismal waters. Some variants have Constantine asking Sylvester to approve him taking a second wife. Sylvester said “no way” and as Constantine insisted on doing as he pleased, God decide to teach him a lesson, ergo the leprosy. No matter the reason behind his affliction, Constantine was appropriately grateful and to really show the world just how grateful, he acted the pope’s groom, walking beside the mounted pope while leading the papal horse. Constantine went one step further, proclaiming to the world that Sylvester as the pope was primus inter pares among the various leaders of the early Christian church. Probably didn’t go down well with the Patriarch. It is also highly unlikely that Constantine did this—it all smells of propaganda, even more so when one considers it was written centuries after both Sylvester’s and Constantine’s deaths.

The purpose of the above legend, described in the Vita Beati Silvestri—and of the eighth century Donation of Constantine, which promoted itself as being the true story of Constantine’s conversion—was to validate the papal push for supreme power led by a gent named Gelasius, elected pope around 496 AD. Gelasius was of the firm opinion that he, as pope, was king of the heap, while all the various emperors and kings of the time were not. After all, God had appointed the pope (somewhat indirectly, but still) while secular rulers relied on bloodlines or the power of their sword to get them to where they wanted to be.

Undoubtedly, the pope had a lot of power during the medieval period—especially prior to the papacy being moved to Avignon, when effectively the pope became dependent on the French kings, something peeps like Philippe IV of France were glad to use to their own advantage. After all, a pope blessed William the Conqueror’s attack on England. A pope had Fredrik Barbarossa crawling on his hands and knees. A pope called for the crusades. A pope could give and withhold dispensations to wed. It was a pope who divided up the world between Spain and Portugal in the so-called treaty of Tordesillas (the self-same pope that fathered a number of children, kept one of the most beautiful women around as his mistress and in general believed in sucking the marrow out of life as our time on earth is short and God alone knows what happens after death. I think Constantine would have liked this pragmatic and venal pope)

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Sylvester, killing a dragon

In the times of Sylvester, popes led a somewhat more retiring existence. But our man of the day is remembered as being the first link in the papal chain that would eventually exert enormous influence—and power—in Medieval Europe.

Personally, I won’t be thinking all that much about Sylvester tonight. I will be thinking of the year that went and the year to come. I will think of the people I love, the people I’ve lost. I will toast in champagne hoping that 2018 will be a better year for our world than 2017 was. And to you, my dear readers, here’s a heartfelt wish that 2018 will be a good year for you, a year where someone will give you a hand when you need it, cheer you on when you surge ahead. But hey, whatever you do, don’t forget to eat those twelve grapes at midnight. After all, a year without love would be a very, very dreary year!

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