ANNA BELFRAGE

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Archive for the tag “12th century”

The abducted heiress and the gallant traitor

In a previous post I told the story of Marie de Blois. This lady was an abbess, seemingly content as a nun, when she became the heiress to Boulogne, thereby attracting the unwanted attention of one Matthew of Alsace who abducted her, forced her to marry him and fathered two girls on her before submitting to the church and returning a somewhat tarnished Marie to her religious life.

Ida_of_BoulogneToday, I thought we’d spend some time with Marie’s eldest daughter, Ida of Boulogne, who was as wealthy and as tempting an heiress as her mother had once been. Obviously, suitors were lining up for her hand in marriage from the moment it became clear she was the legitimate heir to Boulogne. In 1181, Ida married one of these gentlemen, in accordance with the wishes of her uncle, Phillip of Flanders. But her first spouse, Gerald, was not long for this world, and no more than a year later, Ida was back on the marital market. (And thank heavens Ida’s mother wasn’t around by then: she’d have been quite distraught by what would happened to her daughter…) This time, Ida’s new husband was a certain Berthold, close to 35 years older than her.

Whether the Berthold and Ida union developed into a winter-spring romance is unknown. What is known is that Berthold expired already in 1186, and so Ida was back to being a merry widow. By all accounts, Ida was rather merry—and more than eager for an amorous adventure. As per Lambert of Ardes, her roving eye fell on the handsome and Arnold of Guines and she fell passionately in love, doing her very best to seduce dear Arnold. Not that Arnold seems to have been averse to the idea. According to Lambert, he either loved Ida back or pretended to do so, his eye on the tempting prize of Boulogne. What can I say? Men!

However, the Ida and Arnold union was never to be, no matter how they batted their eyelashes at each other. Instead, a certain Renaud de Dammartin entered the scene, his eyes very firmly affixed on the marital prize that was Ida.

Initially, Renaud attempted to advance his suit through the normal channel—he spoke to Ida’s uncle, the Count of Flanders. This gent probably looked the young Renaud up and down and smirked before showing him the door. After all, Dammartin may have been of good French noble blood, but his family was not exactly rich and powerful. Plus, of course, Renaud had a wife. Well, he’d had a wife until he set this inconvenient appendage aside and decided Ida was more to his taste.

Seeing as Renaud’s spurned wife was a cousin of Philippe Augustus, the French king, I dare say we can assume the French king was aware of Renaud’s intention to wed Ida. Not, according to Philippe Augustus a bad idea, as by doing so Renaud would bring Boulogne under the influence of the French king rather than the Count of Flanders, and Philippe Augustus was rather fond of expanding the territories he controlled—a sentiment he shared with most of his contemporary kings.

IDA Vereker Monteith Hamilton _The-RescueAs you’ve already gathered, Renaud was all for expanding his own territories, and the fact that his bride was some years older than him was no deterrent. In view of the Count of Flanders’ opposition to the match, Renaud decided to take matters in his own hands and resorted to the age-old tradition of abducting his intended and carrying her back to Lorraine with him. How unwilling Ida was is something we don’t know. By all accounts, Renaud was the medieval version of Dark & Dangerous, and some women just can’t resist such men.

Whatever the case, by the early 1190s Ida was wed to Renaud, and there is even a little story whereby the love-sick (or seriously pissed off at having the prospect of ruling Boulogne stolen from him – take your pick) Arnold rode after her but was lured into a trap and imprisoned, supposedly with Ida’s collusion. Whether this is true or not is difficult to assess. What is indisputable is that Renaud became Count of Boulogne through his wife and soon enough there was a little daughter, Matilda.

This Renaud is one of the more fascinating characters of the late twelfth century. Of an age with Philippe Augustus, he was raised with the future French king, and by all accounts Renaud and Philippe Augustus were firm friends—until Renaud was ordered by his father to join the Plantagenet side in the endless conflicts between the Angevins and France.

Somehow, Renaud and Philippe Augustus managed to salvage their relationship, and as the Plantagenets spent most of the 1180s fighting each other, Renaud did not end up in the unenviable position of having to meet his friend in battle. In 1189 Philippe Augustus joined forces with Richard Lionheart (likely Renaud was with Richard) and together these two young lions crushed the aging Henry II with Renaud in the happy position of not having to choose between his present master (Richard) and his liege-lord (Philippe Augustus).

By the time Renaud carried off Ida, he already had a reputation as a skilled fighter and leader of men. He was also fond of the good life and was something of a patron of the arts, a true renaissance man before the term was even invented. I imagine that after the somewhat decrepit Berthold Ida appreciated her young and vibrant husband, albeit that there must have been moments when Renaud’s continued allegiance to Richard caused Ida moments of severe worry.

As many of you will know, the Richard & Philippe Augustus relationship crashed and burnt when these two kings went off on a crusade together. Philippe Augustus did not like it that Richard hogged all the glory, and so he abruptly left the scene and returned to France. Once Richard had made it back home (and an arduous journey that was, what with being locked up by the Holy Roman Emperor for 18 months or so while his mother collected the huge ransom demanded to set Richard free) he spent the rest of his life waging war on Philippe Augustus – with Renaud on his team.

Fortunately for Renaud, Richard died already in 1199. This was most unfortunate for a lot of other people, but I imagine Philippe Augustus did a happy dance, while Renaud wept for a while before taking the opportunity to mend his fences with his king. Philippe Augustus welcomed Renaud back with open arms, even more so when some years later Renaud was instrumental in taking Chateau Gaillard from the Angevins. Renaud ended up showered with honours and lands, and life was good to Renaud and Ida. For a while.

In 1211, Renaud refused to appear before Philippe Augustus in a legal matter. Philippe Augustus retaliated by seizing Renaud’s lands. A wiser person might have recognised this as a moment when it would make sense to do some brown-nosing—after all, so far the French king had always forgiven his dear childhood bestie Renaud—but Renaud was having none of it. Miffed, he decided to renew his alliance with the Angevins, more specifically John.

How on earth Renaud came to the conclusion that John was a safer bet than Philippe Augustus I have no idea. But suddenly Renaud was riding to war against his liege-lord and this time Philippe Augustus was enraged. This time, Philippe Augustus vowed, Renaud would pay. This time, Renaud de Dammartin was branded a traitor.

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French knights facing off against the knights of the Holy Roman Emperor

At the Battle of Bouvines Philippe Augustus smashed any hopes the Angevin kings might have had of regaining their lost lands. Not that King John was anywhere around when his nephew, Holy Roman Emperor Otto, and his half-brother William Longsword together with Renaud and Ferdinand of Portugal (and Flanders) met the French army.

With roughly 9 000 men on either side and the excellent Flemish infantry under the command of Otto, at first things did not go well for the French, whose undisciplined infantry lost heart when faced with the Flemish. Philippe Augustus had no choice but to join the battle himself, leading his cavalry in a charge that broke the Flemish infantry and almost cost him his life.

Soon enough, the French had their enemy on the run—except for Renaud. With a group of around 700 Brabant pikemen, he made his stand, having every intention of selling himself dear. I guess he knew that this time there’d be no mere slap on the fingers should Philippe Augustus take him prisoner.

For hours, Renaud and his men stood firm, no matter what the enemy threw at them. Long after the battle was over they refused to yield, a knot of desperate men surrounded by a sea of blood and death. Ultimately, of course, it didn’t help. Philippe Augustus ordered 3 000 men to charge the stubborn Renaud and his men. Under such force, the brave Brabant pikemen buckled, and in the resulting melée Renaud was not killed. Much, much worse, he was taken captive and hauled before the French king.

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Renaud carried off into captivity

What Ida thought of all this we don’t know. I dare say she was less than delighted when Philippe Augustus stripped Renaud of all his honours, all his lands, and instead gave them to his bastard son Philippe Hurepel. But at least she had Boulogne, albeit that the French king was keeping a very narrow watch on things. If Ida interceded on behalf of her husband is yet another thing we don’t know. I think she realised it would have been fruitless, but maybe she at least requested to be allowed to see him? Somehow, I suspect the answer was no…

Ida died some years after the Battle of Bouvines. Boulogne passed to her daughter Matilda, but Philippe Augustus was not about to let this juicy morsel pass him by, which was why Matilda was given to Philippe Herupel as his wife. One wonders how that must have felt, to marry the son of the king that presently held your father locked up in the dark somewhere.

As to Renaud, he was to live out the rest of his life in very harsh captivity. Legend has it that he was kept chained to the wall by a chain so short it made most movements impossible. Legend also has it that when he realised he would never be released—not even after the death of Philippe Augustus—he committed suicide, killing himself on the anniversary of Ida’s death. One last flamboyant gesture or an act of despairing love? We don’t know. We will never know.

“Get thee to a nunnery” – in reverse

Marie MaciejowskiLeaf17RuthAndNaomiIn medieval times, women who had no desire to marry and risk the uncertainties of childbirth had the option of becoming a nun – well, assuming their father was amenable to the idea. In some cases, women who had every desire to marry and have babies still ended up as nuns, usually because their father felt this was a good idea. Some girls ended up forcibly veiled, i.e. they were immured in a convent so as to get rid of them. Such was the fate of Llewellyn the Last’s daughter Gwenllian of Wales, whom Edward I locked away with the nuns at Sempringham Priory. Such was the fate of Hugh Despenser’s three young daughters, who in 1327 were sent off to three different convents and there veiled, thereby removing them for ever from the marital market.

Sometimes, however, a nun ended up being a marital pawn no matter what vows she had taken. At times, it may have been the nun herself who regretted her choices and absconded (but it was a serious, serious offence to take up with an ex-nun, so she’d have to work hard at keeping her identity secret). Or, in some cases, the nun in question ended up being the sole heiress to lands and wealth, thereby attracting ambitious suitors who were willing to risk the opprobrium of the church to feather their nests.

Marie of Blois is one of those nuns, and somewhat ironically she is also one of those little girls who was destined for the cloisters already as a young child. Her parents, King Stephen of England and Matilda of Boulogne, were devout and what better gift to God than their own precious child?

Little Marie was accordingly placed in a convent, and whether she was delighted at the idea or not was neither here nor there. Besides, the girl seems to have adapted well enough, and by the time her father died in 1154, she was about twenty years old and the Abbess of Romsey. Had things gone according to plan, likely Marie would have remained there for the rest of her life, capably managing her little universe.

Fate, however, had other plans. Marie had one surviving brother, William, who swallowed his pride, submitted to Henry II, and was rewarded with a nice heiress as his consolation price. Seeing as William could have insisted the English crown was his – the previous king, Stephen, was his father – the Earldom of Warenne was a cheap price for Henry II to pay so as to ensure peace in his new realm.

William died in 1160—childless. In one fell swoop, Abbess Marie became a major landowner, inheriting the substantial Boulogne lands that came from her mother. Having said lands under the control of a woman sat somewhat uncomfortably with Henry II, who preferred his lords to be adequately beholden to him for their fiefs and grants. Besides, what was a woman—and a nun to boot—to do with all that wealth, all that power?

marriage loving-coupleHenry wasn’t the only one thinking along those lines. One of those considering the possibilities offered by William’s demise was Matthew of Alsace, younger son to the Count of Flanders. Being a man of action (and I suspect Henry II gave him a discreet go-ahead) Matthew decided to make a grab for the prize in the literal sense. Marie, Abbess of Romsey, was therefore forcibly abducted in 1160 and carried off by Matthew who was determined to make her his wife.

Most contemporary sources are of the opinion that Marie was not at all delighted by this turn of events—rather the reverse. One source tells us she was raring to go, panting eagerly at the thought of finally having a man in her bed. Whether willingly or not, soon enough she was wed and the wedding consummated, as demonstrated by the birth of a daughter, Ida, in 1160/61. I’m thinking Marie derived some pleasure from presenting her husband with a girl and not a boy, but truth be told I have no idea what her feelings were for Matthew. She seems to have actively disliked Henry II, thereby indicating he did more than give Matthew a discreet go-ahead, this despite the fact that abducting an abbess was a serious breach of canon law. So serious, in fact, that Matthew was placed under interdict. But hey, why wait for heavenly rewards when earthly rewards are ripe for the taking?

I suppose a marriage that began with an abduction was not destined to be successful. Or maybe it was – after all, we don’t know if Marie stayed with Matthew because she had nowhere else to go or because she started developing warmer feelings for him. Whatever her thoughts, the Church was not about to let this go: a nun had promised herself to Christ, and unless she received a papal dispensation, those vows were binding unto death.

There was no papal dispensation—or at least we can’t find any records of one. Besides, would the Church have kept up the pressure had there been one? But keep up the pressure they did, and by 1170, Matthew’s father was beginning to have serious fears for his son’s eternal soul. So much so, in fact, that the ailing Count of Flanders urged Matthew to accept the Church’s demands that the marriage be annulled.

Marie 239_LancelotdelLacSuddenly, Marie was neither married nor a nun. The man who had once imperilled his own soul—and hers—no longer wanted her enough to risk the Church’s wrath. Poor Marie was in limbo, but the Church offered to welcome her back, and whether this was what she wanted (she had just been delivered of a little girl, so one would have thought she might have wanted to stay with her baby) this was what she did. Obviously, her forays into the outside world had left her religious reputation somewhat tarnished, which meant Marie returned to her cloistered life as a plain nun. Not for her the lofty station of abbess, not anymore.

As to Matthew, he continued to rule Boulogne, now on behalf of his eldest daughter, Ida. I’m betting there’d been some horse-trading behind the scenes, along the lines of “I can send my wife back to the convent, but my daughters must be declared legitimate”. After all, this was what Matthew had always wanted: to pass Boulogne down to his heirs. Yes, he’d have preferred male heirs, but any heirs were better than no heirs, right?

Ensuring her children were recognised as legitimate was probably very important for Marie as well, and the Church had no beef with little Ida or baby Matilda, so agreeing to this was no hardship.

Matthew died in 1173. Marie remained in her convent, and her daughters were raised by their paternal uncle, the new Count of Flanders. In 1182, Marie died, no doubt relieved to know her eldest daughter was already safely married. Not for her Ida an existence as tumultuous as her own, Marie probably thought, sending off a prayer or two of gratitude to God for having arranged it thus. Turns out all that gratitude was premature, as soon enough Ida of Boulogne’s private life would eclipse her mother’s. But that, I think, is a subject for another day, as otherwise this post would become far too long!

The queen who took down the empress

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

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

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

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Matilda, Henry I’s wife

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then, in 1135, everything changed.

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

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

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

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

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

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Stephen being crowned

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

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

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

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Stephen as king

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

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

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

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

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Empress Maud

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

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

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

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

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The somewhat devious Henry of Blois

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A king, a seductress and their illicit love

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

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

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Today’s Alfonso

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Alfonso at Las Navas de Tolosa

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

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

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

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

Weep, Ingeborg, weep

In 1237, Ingeborg, Dowager Queen of France, died. At the time of her death, she was approximately sixty years old, and had lived more than forty years in France, having arrived as a young and pretty bride-to be in 1193. Her intended was Philip II, King of France, a.k.a. Philip Augustus. At the time, he was pushing thirty, ten years or so older than his Danish wife. The fact that Ingeborg is described as being “sweet, wise and pretty” was not enough to endear her to him – but we have no idea why the groom exited the bridal chamber so distraught he never touched his wife again.

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Valdemar with best buddy Archbishop Absalon, toppling the heathen god of the Wends

If we start at the beginning, Ingeborg was the youngest of the eight surviving children born to Valdemar the Great of Denmark and his wife, Sofia of Minsk. Seeing as Valdemar’s mother was a princess from Kiev, I suspect he was now and then called Vladimir both by her and by his wife. Valdemar had not had the easiest of lives, born the posthumous son of Knut Lavard, who was one of Sven Estridsen’s grandsons. Valdemar is famous as the Danish king who crushed the Wends, a ferocious race who plagued the Danes with continuous raids, but before he got to that point, Valdemar had to fight for his throne. By 1157 he was safe on the Danish throne which was when he married Sofia.

Sofia of Minsk was reputedly very beautiful, but as per the legends, she was also cruel and vindictive. Supposedly, she rid herself of the competition for her future husband by burning the poor woman alive. At a distance of 900 years, we’ll never know the truth in the matter, so maybe we should give the woman the benefit of the doubt. After all, she was a foreigner in Denmark, and maybe a jilted Danish lady with her eye on Valdemar chose to get her own back by spreading these lurid rumours.

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Philip at his coronation

Ingeborg was born around 1176, and six years or so later, her father died. Instead, her eldest brother, Knut, became king, and it was Knut who was involved in arranging her marriage – with the French king! Paris beckoned, but I imagine Ingeborg was somewhat torn: at the time, it was a long ride from Denmark to Paris, and chances were she’d never see her homeland again. Plus, she didn’t speak French.

Philip had political reasons for pursuing an alliance with Denmark. First of all, the Danish fleet was feared throughout Europe, and Philip wanted to make sure the fleet would not attack his lands or his budding navy. Secondly, since the time of Knut the Great (a.k.a. Canute), the Danish kings insisted they had a claim on the English throne. A tenuous claim, but still: Philip must have chortled at the thought of presenting the English with an alternative to those Angevin bastards who presently wore the English crown – and controlled a sizeable chunk of Philip’s France.

Thirdly, both Denmark and France were eager to thumb their nose at the Holy Roman Empire. By entering into an alliance, they sent a not-so-subtle message to the Holy Roman Emperor that they didn’t like him much – and would like it even less if he tried to expand his empire at their expense.

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Isabella of Hainault

Philip also had personal reasons for finding a new wife: his first wife, Isabella of Hainault, had died in childbed in 1190. As her twin boys died with her, this left Philip with only one child, little Louis. Not enough, as per Philip, and Ingeborg came with the benefit of having a fertile mother. By alla ccounts, Philip was not particularly nice to his first wife, even going as far as threatening to divorce her because she hadn’t given him a son. The poor bride was fifteen or so…

On August 14, 1193, Ingeborg was wed to Philip. After the usual celebrations, the couple retired to their chamber. And there, dear peeps, something happened. Whatever it was, we don’t know, but already the next day, Philip was insisting Ingeborg be sent home – far, far away from him. He wanted the marriage annulled, no matter if it cost him the Dano-French alliance.

All of seventeen, this must have been terribly humiliating for the recently married and crowned Ingeborg – who, to add further injury, had been stripped of her own name and re-named Isambour. I imagine her lonely and frightened – unless, of course, she did have a streak of black magic in her, inherited from her mama. Philip would later claim that she’d put a spell on him, making it impossible for him to consummate the marriage. Ingeborg vigorously denied both the spell and the non-consummation.

One can’t help but wonder what transpired between the two on that long-gone August night. Did she giggle at the size of his member? Was she somehow malformed? (although there is nothing on record to indicate that was the case) Did she smell? Or was she so shocked by her new husband’s attempt at making l’amour she kneed him where it really, really hurts? After all, she didn’t even speak the language, so maybe she misunderstood what he was trying to say.

Philip immediately demanded an annulation. He seems to have assumed Ingeborg – oops, Isambour – would go along with this, but she refused. As per Ingeborg, she was now a happily (hmm) married woman, and, even better, the queen of France. No way was she letting that go without a fight. Given just how stubbornly she refused to give into Philip’s demands that they part ways, I get the feeling that whatever transpired between them had left her hurting badly. So maybe it was him who laughed…

Anyway: Philip decided to force Ingeborg’s hand by placing her under house arrest. In distant Denmark, Ingeborg’s brother raised his voice in loud protest, and when Philip tried to argue the marriage was invalid due to consanguinity, this was repudiated by the Danish diplomats, who produced a genealogy chart that showed the Capet king had very little blood in common with his fair wife.

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A page from Ingeborg’s psalter

The pope became involved. Philip refused to reconcile. Ingeborg refused to accept an annulment. The pope ruled in favour of Ingeborg, and in retaliation, Philip ensured Ingeborg’s captivity was made even more uncomfortable. She found solace in her faith – there’s a beautiful psalter still in existence she commissioned in 1200 – and in the firm belief she was in the right. Even more so, when Philip did a one-sided annulment and married Agnes of Merain.
“Bigamy!” yelled Ingeborg and her supporters.
“Get a life,” Philip growled. “Just sign the documents and get over it.”
“No way.” Ingeborg set her jaw. “You may sleep with your whore, but you’re married to me.”

The pope totally agreed with Ingeborg. He urged Philip to set Agnes aside and return to his loyal wife. Philip wasn’t having it. In fact, it seems that he was genuinely in love with Agnes – like for the first and last time in his life – and he stubbornly insisted his marriage to Ingeborg was invalid – or annulled, depending on how he had to argue the case.

The pope had had it. Either Philip set aside Agnes, or he’d place France under interdict. Still Philip refused to give up on Agnes, whom he treated as if she were his crowned queen. Where Ingeborg had never shown her face at court, never sat side by side with her husband, Agnes was a fixture in Philip’s court, and delighted him further by presenting him with two children. Illegitimate children as per the Church.

While Agnes was enjoying the good life, Ingeborg languished in captivity, deprived of sufficient food, of companionship. She toyed with the idea of suicide, and wrote as much to the pope, who was horrified and made good on his threat of placing France under interdict. This time, he also excommunicated Philip.

Late in 1200, Philip relented, officially sending Agnes away from court. Not that anything changed for Ingeborg, still locked up in her tower. Agnes, however, was heartbroken at being sent off, stripped of her status as wife. In 1201, she died. I can’t imagine this evoked any pity from Ingeborg.

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Love and affection – not to be, in the Philip and Ingeborg union

One would have thought that with Agnes dead, Philip might have given things a go with Ingeborg. Nope. Instead he appealed yet again to the pope for annulment, stating he’d been subjected to witchcraft on his wedding night with Ingeborg. Pope Innocent snorted – loudly, I imagine.

For the coming decade or so, Philip went on with his life, while poor Ingeborg remained locked up. Her life was slipping through her fingers, any dreams she may have had of babies and a position in court denied her. Maybe she should have agreed to an annulment and attempted to find contentment elsewhere, but by now she’d gone down the road of obstinate refusal for too long to change her mind.

In 1213, Philip had a change of heart. With his eyes very firmly set on England and the potentials offered by the turmoil there, he needed peace with Denmark – an assurance the Danish fleet would not sneak up and demolish the French ships should France attempt an invasion. So, out of nowhere, more or less, he decided to reconcile with Ingeborg – Isambour.

After twenty years of captivity, Ingeborg was at last accorded the respect she deserved, recognised as Philip’s queen at court. Suddenly, her food was rich and plentiful, she was swathed in precious fabrics and adorned with glittering jewels. But her husband never touched her – he didn’t have to, seeing as his eldest son had recently fathered a son, thereby ensuring the Capet dynasty would thrive.

In 1223, Philip died. Supposedly, he asked his son, the future Louis VIII to treat Ingeborg well – a volte-face versus how he himself had treated this once so young Danish princess. Louis VIII would, in fact, always show Ingeborg the respect she deserved as his father’s widow. This was probably politically motivated, as by recognising that Ingeborg had been queen since 1193, Louis was also indirectly reminding everyone that his young half-brother, Philip, was nothing but a royal bastard, no matter that the pope had legitimised him after Agnes’ death.

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Ingeborg

Ingeborg paid for various masses to be said for Philip’s soul. She took to the role as a pious widow as a fish takes to water, and maybe all those masses were her way of letting the world know she’d forgiven Philip. Maybe she had. Maybe she was just playing to the audience.

After Philip’s death, Ingeborg retired to live out the remainder of her life mostly at the priory of Saint Jean de l’Ile, which she had founded. Fourteen years after Philip, Ingeborg departed this world and was buried in a church in Corbeil. A sad life, in many ways, twenty years spent in solitude as the prisoner of the man who’d married you. And as to what really happened on their wedding night, well only two people know – and they’re both very, very dead. I guess we can safely conclude that whatever it was, it sure didn’t make the earth move for them – at least not in a good way.

Unmourned and unloved – poor Johnny boy

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John, riding to the hounds

It’s not easy to be misunderstood. Or the youngest – and possibly unwanted – child. Ask John, a.k.a. John Lackland. He would know all about growing up in a dysfunctional family with an anything but warm and fuzzy relationship to his parents and siblings. Mind you, having a tough childhood is an explanation, not an excuse. But still…

Today marks the 800th anniversary of John’s death. Eight hundred years, and still the man is a household name. Not in the most complimentary of terms – John is the bad dude, the man who betrayed his older brother Richard and had his nephew murdered. John is the somewhat unbalanced individual who alienated his nobles by his outrageous and grasping behaviour, and then there’s the matter of the hostages he hanged in Nottingham. No, all in all, John was not the kind of person you’d want to hang out with. Assuming, of course, that the black legend that surrounds him is true. Some of it most definitely is. But is any man entirely black?

Let us start at the beginning. Henry FitzEmpress made the marriage of a generation the day he swept Eleanor of Aquitaine, recently divorced from King Louis of France, into his arms and married her. Two larger-than-life personalities, these two were well-suited, possessing drive and determination – and quite the dollop of ambition. Did they love each other? I think that if you’d asked them, they would have given you an amused look in return. When did love come into the equation of building a European powerhouse?

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Eleanor and Henry

The Henry-Eleanor match was just that: a powerhouse. Together, they controlled a massive empire, all the way from the foggy north of England to the sun-drenched lands of Aquitaine. As we all know, the previously not so fecund Eleanor (with “only” two daughters to her name after 15 years of marriage to Louis) presented her new, vigorous husband with several sons and daughters. These children inherited a lot of characteristics from their strong, driven and ambitious parents, making them – and especially the elder sons – just as strong, driven and ambitious. And hungry for power. Ultimately, this would lead to bloody conflict between the sons and the father, and when Eleanor sided with her sons, the Henry-Eleanor union sort of crashed and burned.

Eleanor was locked away in 1173. Okay, so now and then she emerged from her prison to participate in courtly life and assist her husband in managing certain issues, but she was always accompanied by a guard, a silent reminder that she was a prisoner.

At the time of his mother’s incarceration, John was seven. Until then, he hadn’t exactly seen much of either parent, having instead been raised in his own household. But the bitter feud between Henry II and his older sons had him turning to his younger son, with John accompanying his father as he rode to quell his upstart sons.

Over the coming years, John became his father’s favourite child. Not favourite enough to load with land, though. John’s oldest brother, also as Henry, was designated heir to England and Normany, his second eldest brother, Richard was already the Duke of Aquitaine, brother Geoffrey was lording it in Brittany, and in comparison, John had…Nada. Niente. Nothing.

The easy solution was to find John an heiress. After some scouting, Henry decided on Isabella, daughter of the dead Earl of Gloucester. To make the match even better, Henry disinherited Isabella’s two sisters, making her the sole heiress to her father’s lands. There was, however, a teeny, weensy problem: John and Isabella were third cousins, so the union required a papal dispensation. A matter to be handled later, Henry decided, settling for a betrothal in 1176 instead. John was all of ten, the bride-to-be around three.

A year or so later, Henry made John Lord of Ireland. John Lackland was no longer lacking in land, one could say, albeit that the territory the eleven-year-old was to rule was considered a savage place. Plus, Ireland already had a number of powerful local lords, both of Norman and Gaelic extraction.

In 1183, John’s eldest brother died of dysentery, this after a campaign against the joint forces of Henry II and brother Richard. With that, Richard took a giant step towards the throne of England, but showed no inclination of wanting to part with Aquitaine. Rather, Richard seems to have reasoned Aquitaine was his, full stop, and anything on top of that was also his, with no need to share with baby brother John – or Geoffrey.

In 1186, Geoffrey died from injuries incurred during a tournament. He left behind a young son, and as Richard had neither wife nor legitimate son, little Arthur was now second in line to the English throne. In John’s opinion, he should be second in line: given the choice between a puling child and a well-grown young man, only a fool would choose the child.

Not everyone agreed. By now, some of John’s more dislikeable traits were causing concern. While on the one side John was intelligent, well-educated, courageous and charming when he so wanted, there was that other side to him, the one that flew into tantrums, that was spiteful and petty, that had him taking what he wanted with little thought to the consequences.

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Henry II and his children

John comes across a spoiled brat, a young man who considers himself entitled, and who would have benefited from a good thrashing. Papa Henry, however, spent more times making excuses for his temperamental son than in lecturing him. Henry was paying the price of having led a life constantly on the move, always entangled in one conflict of the other. He was tired, somewhat careworn after losing two of his sons, and had no desire whatsoever to alienate his favourite.

In looks, John was very much his father’s son – short and powerfully built, with a fondness for opulent clothes and jewels. (In this, he does not seem to have taken after daddy, who comes across as relatively uninterested in fashion) An avid reader, John always travelled with an extensive library, and was extremely fond of hunting. He was a skilled horseman, was appreciative of good music (from his mother’s side, no doubt) and enjoyed board games. He was also capable and hard-working, traits that somehow get lost in the overall descriptions of him.

Anyway: in 1189, Richard allied himself with Philip Augustus and made war on his father. Why? Because he was worried Henry might be considering naming John as his heir. Henry was sick, he was old, and everything pointed at him losing – which was when John abandoned him, riding like the devil to join brother Richard and ingratiate himself with him. Henry died, alone. Richard was less than impressed by his brother’s behaviour – plus I imagine Richard suffered some pangs of guilt due to having indirectly caused his father’s death.

john-richardsaladinRichard was now king – a restless king, eager to ride off and heap himself with glory in the Third Crusade. Richard was savvy enough to realise John could very well become a problem during his absence, and so he set about buying John’s favour. John was made Count of Mortain, his marriage with Isabella of Gloucester was pushed through, and he was heaped with honours and riches, the king’s most beloved brother.

This didn’t help. No sooner was Richard off, but John began his scheming. Now, what is important to remember is that not everyone in England was all that thrilled by the idea of having a crusading king. Crusades were expensive things, and financing was acquired by increasing taxes, which did not exactly endear Richard to his English subjects. In difference to Richard, John had spent a lot of time in England, knew the people and the country. He could therefore play on their ambivalence, thereby securing quite some support. To further strengthen his position, he allied himself with Philip Augustus of France.

When Richard was captured on his way home from the Holy Land, John likely did a few capers of joy. Those in England remaining true to Richard must have been torn between their loyalties to the king and the need to curry favour with the heir – because in the eyes of the English, John was the heir, Arthur or no Arthur. This is when formidable mama Eleanor waded into the fray, ensuring everyone knew what was what – i.e. the English nobility were taxed with amassing the huge ransom required to buy Richard free. To do so, the taxed nobles taxed the people – not, I imagine, a popular move.

We all know Richard came back. Robin Hood and his Merry Men made even merrier, the Sheriff of Nottingham gnashed his teeth – even more so, one presumes, after Richard besieged and took the castle – and John fled to Normandy. Some months later, Richard found him, and although he forgave his brother, he stripped him of all his lands but Ireland. Humiliated and substantially poorer, John had no choice but to bend knee to paragon brother Richard. For the following years, John served his king loyally and capably – so capably that Richard restored his lands to him.

And then Richard died. A crossbow quarrel to the armpit, and England’s most famous warrior king (well, bar Henry V. And maybe Edward III) died. His mama cried. His brother, not so much. John had finally come into his own, the only potential fly in his ointment being nephew Arthur, no longer a baby but a handsome twelve-year-old, backed by his overlord Philip Augustus of France. (As an aside, Philip Augustus does not come across as the nicest of men, switching his support this way and that, depending on what suited him best. Probably needs his own post…)

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John – king at last

John was acclaimed by his nobles in England and Normandy, was crowned in Westminster, and crossed the Channel to address the issue of Arthur. He did so by signing a treaty with Philip, who promptly abandoned Arthur. Some years later, Arthur raised his banners in rebellion against his uncle. This time, John captured him. In 1203, Arthur disappeared into the bowels of the Castle of Rouen. He was never seen again…

Obviously, John was the party who most benefited from Arthur’s disappearance. Early on, accusations of murder were made, and much later in the reign, Maude de Braose was to publicly accuse John of having killed his own nephew. That didn’t end well for Maude, who by all accounts died in an oubliette, having first attempted to still her hunger by gnawing on her dead son’s body.

By 1204, John had acquired quite the lurid legend: a number of bastards with various women, some very high-born, the whole thing with Arthur, his repeated betrayal of his brother, his last-minute abandonment of his father, and the dismal treatment of the prisoners he took in the wake of Arthur’s rebellion, resulting in several deaths. And then there was the whole thing with his second wife, where he claimed the supposedly gorgeous Isabella of Angouleme, ignoring the fact that the girl was betrothed to Hugh de Lusignan. (Before this, he’d annulled his first marriage – but kept the lands)

Some say John was immediately besotted by little Isabella. Others say Isabella came with lands that would strengthen John’s position in France. Whatever the case, she was spoken for, but John convinced Isabella’s father to ignore his previous promises, and Isabella became a very young and pretty queen. Hugh de Lusignan became an angry rebel, and ultimately the marriage cost John huge chunks of his French lands. In the fullness of time, Isabella would return to France and the arms of a Hugh de Lusignan, in this case the eldest son of her former fiancé. In the in between, however, she was to present John with five children whom he seems to have doted on.

By 1204, John had also lost most of his French patrimony, with the exception of Aquitaine. This obliged him to concentrate his efforts in England. John was no sloth: he worked hard, with a special interest in reforming the legal system. Upsides of the new system was that free men were no longer at the mercy of the barons’ administration of justice. Through the introduction of legal experts, coroners and judges, John revamped the entire system, motivated no doubt by a desire to reform, but also by the financial rewards the system brought – legal fees increased, filling the king’s coffers.

The king’s coffers needed refilling. John was determined to retake Normandy, and to do so, he needed money – lots of money. So he increased taxes, charged his nobles huge amounts to allow them to succeed to properties and castles they had inherited. Widows wanting to remain widows were charged substantial fees to be allowed to do so, warships were sold as were appointments, fines were increased, fees were increased, and all in all, John made himself very unpopular – especially among the wealthy.

And then there was the matter with the pope. When the Archbishop of Canterbury died, John wanted to replace him with his candidate. The pope instead ordained Stephen Langton, and John threw a hissy fit. After all, he was within his rights to have a say in who became archbishop. Nope, the pope retorted. Stephen was it, take it or leave it. John chose to leave it, closing his harbours to Stephen and seizing the lands of the archbishopric. What followed was a long period of spiritual war. In the end, John caved – an excommunicated king was in some ways a powerless king – but he did so with style and cunning, gaining a stalwart supporter in the pope.

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Bouvines – where the French whipped the English…

War, interdiction, taxes, fees, fines…John’s barons had had it. The final straw came when John lost to the French in the Battle of Bouvines, thereby permanently losing Normandy. Not that John’s northern barons gave a fig about Normandy, but they were sick and tired of levied scutage, of taxes and fees, that had left them all severely indebted to the king. The Barons’ revolt was therefore far more motivated by personal interests than any desire to better the cause of the Englishman in general. Truth be told, the barons probably didn’t give a fig about the ordinary Englishman either…

No matter all those personal interests, the Magna Charta went beyond these, and presented a new framework for government, with a council of barons to guide the king, rules regarding a free man’s right to justice, to protection from illegal imprisonment. Taxes were no longer to be a royal prerogative, but required approval from the barons. The Magna Charta defined and contained the rights and obligations of the king, a charter designed to curb the royal excesses by empowering the nobles. A first, if small, step towards representative government, if you will…

In 1215, John signed the Magna Charta – with his fingers crossed. The moment he could, he appealed to the pope for support, and the Holy Father responded by excommunicating the rebel barons. And just like that, England was plunged into civil war. The French invaded, invited by some of the rebel barons. This actually played into John’s hands – the English were no fans of the French. John was a skilled commander, and had the money on hand to pay for substantial mercenaries, but then his entire treasure was lost crossing the Wash close to King’s Lynn. Even worse, he’d contracted dysentery. A sick king, making his way towards the west. An impoverished king, what with all that treasure lost in the sea.

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John’s tomb in Worcester Cathedral

He arrived in Newark and took to bed. In the night between 18-19 of October, John died. He was all of fifty years old, leaving an embattled throne to his nine-year-old son, Henry. Some sources insinuate he was poisoned. Others that he splurged on peaches. I’m guessing it was the dysentery that killed him – just as it had once killed his older brother. Like his father, John died without the comfort of his family around him. Unlike his father, he has constantly been vilified since.

I remain ambivalent to John. Through the centuries he comes across as highly intelligent, sardonic and somewhat twisted. Was he rapacious? Oh, yes. Immoral? On various occasions. But he was also a hard-working king, a man who drove through reforms to the legal system, a caring father, and a man who counted among his friends the future saint, Hugh of Lincoln. He inspired the loyalty of people like Nicolaa de la Haye and her husband, Gerard de Camville. Surely, he wasn’t all bad. In fact, I’m quite sure he wasn’t. After all, no one is. I hope.

The unfortunate Stephanie

In Spanish, today’s protagonist is Estefanía la Desdichada, Stephanie the Unfortunate. If we’re going to be quite correct her name is Estefanía Alfonso and she was the illegitimate daughter of Alfonso VII of Castilla and León and his paramour, Urraca. (And no, this Urraca was not his mother, whom I wrote about here, she was just another lady of good birth burdened with an odd name)

Little Estefanía is mainly remembered because of her death. Always somewhat sad, IMO. I am assuming she had an okay childhood – her royal father seems to have been fond of his mistress and readily recognised his daughter, which if nothing else guaranteed a life of some comfort. We know nothing about her early years, but reasonably she was raised to be a good, pious lady – her father was a very pious king, despite his extra-marital relationships.

Estefania Alfonso_VIIAt the time, Alfonso VII was the most powerful of the Christian kings in Spain. Since the death of his step-father, Alfonso I of Aragón, there was no one to threaten our Alfonso’s position. The kingdom of Castilla and León thrived, the relationship with the Moors was, as always, fraught but not unbearably so. Alfonso VII could concentrate on giving his court the trappings of grandeur his title, Emperor of Spain, required. His co-kings did homage to him, and all in all, Alfonso was quite content: after the tumultuous years during his mother’s reign, he was now recognised as the supreme Christian power on the Iberian Peninsula.

All of this was neither here nor there for little Estefanía. Instead, she learnt to embroider and spin, to converse and sing. In 1157, when Estefanía was about seventeen, her father died, and instead her half-brothers, Fernando and Sancho took over, one as king of León, the other as king of Castilla. At the time, Estefanía was as yet unmarried. Yes, she was the daughter of a king, but she was the illegitimate daughter, which made her hand less sought after, especially as she didn’t come laden with dowry – Alfonso had many children to look out for.

In 1158, Sancho III died young, leaving a three-year-old son, Alfonso, as the new king of Castilla. A year or so later, and the kingdom of Castilla was torn asunder by civil war, on the one side the House of Lara, on the other the House of Castro. What they were fighting for? Control over the young king, of course. The House of Castro had the silent support of Fernando of León, who no doubt saw an opportunity to annect the kingdom of Castilla. Anyway, at the battle of Lobgregal in 1160,  the House of Lara hit the dust. Riding with the count of Lara was a man named Osorio Martínez. In the fighting he was killed, by none other than his own son-in-law Fernando Rodriguez de Castro. In the aftermath of the battle, Fernando repudiated his wife (he couldn’t very well have the daughter of a rebel as his wife, could he? Or maybe she couldn’t stand the sight of him, what with him having killed her father). Instead, he was given the hand of Estefanía Alfonso in marriage.

What Estefanía thought of all this is unknown. But Fernando was not a bad catch, and although older than her, he was still in his prime. Plus, of course, they were related, so it wasn’t as if she was marrying a stranger.

Estefanía’s brother, Fernando of León, had probably hoped that Fernando Rodriguez would hand over his little nephew Alfonso VIII on a silver platter. And maybe he would have, but the young king was whisked away by the surviving members of the House of Lara. Some years later, the Lara family was cornered, with Fernando Rodriguez having conquered a number of castilian cities, and they decided to turn over the boy-king, now about eight, into the tender care of his uncle. Didn’t happen, as an unknown gent smuggled the boy out of the castle where he was held. Alfonso VIII would go on to claim his lands, marry Eleanor of England (daughter to Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine), have many babies, and in general lead his own exciting life, among which sticks out the victory over the Moors at the famous battle of Las Navas de Tolosa.

None of this had much effect on Estefanía. She presented her husband with at least one son and a daughter, and I’d assume her life would have included a lot of waiting about for her husband who was ususally off on some royal assignment or another.

Sex post illicit-sex-e1436561949425By 1180, Estefanía and Fernando had been married for twenty years. She was around forty, he in his mid-fifties. Were they content with each other? Maybe, maybe not. But when Fernando was informed that his wife had been seen sneaking off to secret assignations with a man, he had no problems believing what he was told, which indicates it wasn’t all sunsets and roses in the Fernando/Estefanía marriage. Or maybe he was feeling the weight of his years, worried that his wife was not getting what she needed at home.

Whatever the case, Fernando had her followed. On repeated occasions, she was seen hastening off, returning some hours later. At long last, Fernando couldn’t stand this any longer. His honour was being dragged through the gutters by his adulterous wife, and he was not having it! Nope. No more. So one night, when the veiled and cloaked lady of the house yet again disappeared down an alley, it was Fernando who followed, dagger in hand.

He waited in the shadows, gritting his teeth at the sounds of love-making that escaped the closed shutters. And once she was gone, as veiled and cloaked as when she’d arrived, Fernando entered the room and swiftly killed the lover – a man so young he qualified as a toy-boy, except that the term wasn’t invented yet.

Fernando rushed home, burst into the bedroom and found his wife in bed, sleeping. He attacked her, stabbing her repeatedly until she died in a spreading pool of her own blood. Which was when Fernando stopped to think. How could she be fast asleep in her bed when she had at most returned home some minutes before him? And where were the clothes she’d been wearing? He couldn’t find them anywhere. So he turned the room up and down, and this is when an icy weight started to collect in his guts, even more so when under the bed he found one of his wife’s maids, dressed in her mistress’ cloak and veil.

Turns out the maid had been using Estefanía’s clothes for months so as to hide her identity when she sneaked off to see her lover. After all, having sex outside of marriage was a sin, and the maid didn’t want to risk being fired for her low morals. Instead, her subterfuge had led to two people being murdered by a man who was by now a sickly white, staring down in shock at his bloodied hands. Fernando had killed his loyal wife, the sister of his king, and all because his pride had made it impossible for him to confront Estefanía and ask her if she was cheating on him…

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Estefanía’s final resting place: the royal pantheon, San Isidoro, León

Fernando draped a heavy noose round his neck and went directly to the king where he confessed his crime. The king chose to pardon him, moved no doubt by the genuine grief displayed by Fernando. Estefanía was buried side by side with her paternal grandmother, Queen Urraca, a simple inscription making no mention of how she died, only who she was, who was her father, who she was married to and who she gave birth to. And as to the maid, she was burned alive at Fernando’s orders.

Some centuries later, Lope de Vega (Spain’s equivalent to Shakespeare – well, together with Calderón de la Barca) would write a play based on Estefanía’s fate, La Desdichada Estefanía. Other than that, she remains a footnote in history, a woman who never quite steps out of the shadows – except for her gory death. And even that, dear people, we may have to take with a pinch of salt, as not all sources relate the same story. All we really know is that she died on July 1, 1180 and was survived by her husband and son.

Finally, in the below Fernando Rodriguez “borrows” the words of  Ramon de Campoamor, 19th century Spanish poet:

Mi esposa Estefanía, que está en gloria,
fue del Séptimo Alfonso hija querida;
desde hoy sabréis, al escuchar su historia,
que hay desgracias sin fin en nuestra vida.
Yo la maté celoso; y si, remiso,
no me maté también la noche aquella,
fue por matar después, si era preciso,
a todo el que, cual yo, dudase de ella.

My wife Estefanía, who is in glory,
was of Alfonso VII a dear daughter;
As of today you will know, upon listening to this story,
that there are sorrows without end in our life.
Jealous, I killed her; and if, remiss,
I did not kill myself also that night,
it was to kill later, if it was necessary,
all who, like me, doubted her

In search of a saint

Saints The_Olivetan_Master_Monks_Singin_the_OfficeToday’s post is about a saint I’ve always believed never existed. In actual fact, I suspect quite a few saints never existed – or were particularly saintly – but when a country embraced Christianity it was sort of important to produce a nice paragon of virtues to hold up as an example to the previously pagan population and inspire conversion. Seeing as saints very often met grisly deaths, I’m not so certain this worked all that well, but still.

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St Birgitta

Anyway: us Swedes would say we only have one real saint, namely St Birgitta. We would like to claim St Lucia as ours, but she is Italian, no matter that, in our opinion, we do a far better job of celebrating St Lucia than any other nation in the world. Some Swedes would put forward that St George must be a Swedish saint – if nothing else because of the absolutely fabulous sculpture depicting St George in Stockholm’s Cathedral (A true work of art, commissioned in the 15th century). St George would probably object. The English might object as well, although St George was no more English than St Lucia is Swedish.

But we do have a longish list of home-grown saints – starting, of course with St Birgitta who scared everyone from her king to a sequence of popes silly. A tough lady, St Birgitta – but then what was a woman to do if she wanted to get ahead in the 14th century? Sit and spin? Other than St Birgitta, only two of the Swedish saints have been canonised by the pope: St Sigfrid (who was English) and St Helena of Skövde (never heard of her – must read up – but it seems the pope had his arm twisted to canonise her so as to inspire conversion…) So the rest of our saints were mostly canonised by local bishops, and one of these is the subject of today’s post, namely St Erik.

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St Erik as depicted on a church wall

St Erik is the patron saint of Stockholm, and died gruesomely – as saints do – in 1160. At the time, he was king Erik, although he wasn’t necessarily recognised as being king by all his subjects. In the 12th century, Sweden was not a cohesive kingdom. The southern part of present day Sweden was Danish, the middle part was divided into Götaland and Svealand, and as to the north, no one really cared: it was forested, wild and preferably avoided as God alone knew what lived up there beyond giant wolves and strange people who had tame reindeer. Note that the “north” corresponded to roughly half of present day Sweden…

What we truly know about St Erik can be summarised in like eight words, i.e. it’s not exactly much. We do know he had a son, who did his best to promote his dear, departed father’s saintliness. Seeing as this son murdered to become king of Sweden, maybe his opinion is neither here nor there. On the other hand, at the time kings were murdered regularly in Sweden.

Back to our Erik: he was one of those murdered kings. Yup. Very sad, but there you have it. The story goes like this: Erik Jedvardsson was a pious man, who took the celebration of mass very seriously. After becoming king (probably through violent means) in 1150, Erik had spent most of his time fighting off other claimants – and spreading the word about God in a country that still contained deep pockets of pagan beliefs (and in Finland: Erik led a crusade to Finland). By all accounts, Erik was a capable king, and under him the country flourished. Laws were implemented, trade grew and for some years there was peace.

saints The_battle_of_PoitiersOn the 18th of May 1160 – exactly 856 years ago today – Erik was attending a church service in Östra Aros (close to Stockholm) when word reached him that one of his enemies was approaching fast, accompanied by many, many armed men. Erik was urged to flee, but he refused, saying he had no intention of cutting short the service in honour of God. (That’s what saints do: they set God before life). By the time mass was concluded, the church was surrounded. Erik, however, was a brave man and a proven fighter, so he stepped outside to meet his enemies.

A battle ensued. Erik was swarmed and wounded repeatedly until at last he fell to the ground, too weak to remain on his feet. His enemies, led by Magnus, the Danish claimant to the Swedish throne, jeered at him, taunted him, hurt him some more, and in general had their fun before finally chopping off the prostrate Erik’s head.

Immediately, a spring welled forth where the decapitated king lay. Miracles were reported not only at the spring but also at the king’s grave. A king was dead, a saint was born. Not that it helped Erik – or his son, who fled for his life. God was clearly most displeased by all this, and within a year Danish Magnus was dead, the crown passing instead to Karl Sverkersson, the son of the man who was king before St Erik. (This King Sverker was murdered on his way to church, but not by Erik). Some years later, Knut Eriksson invited Karl Sverkersson to visit him and had him killed, thereby taking the Swedish crown as his own.

saints Pilgrims-In-Front-Of-The-Church-Of-The-Holy-Sepulchre-Of-JerusalemSome decades after his death, Erik’s remains ended up in a reliquary. People made pilgrimages to pray by his bones or the well, and he was one of those household saints people directed their daily prayers to. He was one of the most depicted saints in contemporary art, churches were built in his name. Over the centuries, the veneration grew. And then came the Reformation. Suddenly, saints were not the thing. Shrines were packed away, bones were thrown on the garbage heap. Well: not all bones. However cocky, the new Protestant bishops were hesitant to dump dear old St Erik on a midden – or, as we say, a “kökken-mödding” – so instead they put him in deep storage. Which is why his bones are still around…

Recently, these bones have been examined. Not for the first time, I might add, but back in the 1940s techniques were not all that advanced, so the conclusions were not exactly riveting. “His head has been chopped off.” Err…we already knew that.

The new examination has revealed more. First of all, our Erik ate a lot of fish – which was in line with the teachings of the Church. He was roughly forty years old at the time of his death and was all of 1.67 metres tall (5 ft 6 inches). Preliminary isotope analysis shows he spent most of his life south of present-day Stockholm, and healed injuries to his cranium match stories from his exploits as a crusader in Finland. Dating is consistent with a death in the 12th century. The skeleton also shows signs of several unhealed wounds, received just before death,  none of which are on the torso. This, the experts say, indicate that Erik was wearing a hauberk.

Cuts to his shin bones show he’s been wounded while lying on the ground, consistent with the legend’s version. And then there’s the damage to the neck vertebrae, which indicates that someone actually relieved the king of his hauberk before delivering the fatal blow – with the poor man flat on the ground. Maybe he was unconscious by then, because all those blows to his legs must have bled a lot. Whatever the case, someone said “off with his head” and Erik was no more – just like in the legend.

In conclusion, the bones confirm that once upon a time there was a man who was attacked, badly wounded, thrown to the ground and decapitated. We must take it on trust that the bones belong to Erik Jedvardsson – his bones don’t exactly come with an engraved name. Likewise, we cannot assess his character: all we know about Erik comes from the legend constructed by his son who had a vested interest in painting poor dad in the brightest of lights. But whether Erik deserved the sobriquet of saint yes or no, at least he did exist. Always a good start, I’d say.

A magpie with ambitions

urraca eggplantThe other day, I made a comment to a friend regarding Richard the Lionheart’s wife, Berengaria (or Berenguela) de Navarra. You see, I always confuse her name with berenjena, which is Spanish for eggplant, and so I keep on seeing a rather violet lady in my head. Berengaria is a bit of an odd name, I suppose, but nothing comes quite close to that royal Spanish name, Urraca.

Other than being a rather harsh name, (double rr in Spanish is not exactly a caressing sound) Urraca means magpie, and why one Spanish king after the other saw fit to load his daughter with a name representing a thieving bird is beyond me. Although to be fair, at the time magpies were often held as pets, and seeing as these handsome birds are very intelligent, I imagine they made quite an impression on their owners.

Today’s lady is one of these Urracas – perhaps the most famous of them. And so, with no further ado, let me sweep you several centuries back in time, to the very distant Spanish kingdom of Castile in the very early twelfth century.

Urraca a3260-batalla-guadalete-711-la-reconquistaAt the time, Spain did not exist. Instead, the Iberian Peninsula was home to various kingdoms, such as Aragón, Zaragoza, Castilla, Galicia, and, in the south, al-Andaluz, the most famous of the Moorish kingdoms on the peninsula. At one point in time it seemed as the Moors were about to conquer all of Iberia, but in a cave in the mountains of Asturias, the determined (and very few) Christians led by a certain Pelayo made a stand, and no matter what the Moors hurled at them, the Christians refused to give up. The cave of Covadonga represented a turning point: “here, but no further!” Don Pelayo yelled, and as per some of the more exaggerated chronicles, 31 Christian heroes wiped out 250 000 Moorish warriors. Not likely, but Covadonga was a victory, and Pelayo was elected king of Asturias and went on to spend the rest of his life being a burr up the Moors’ backside.

Urraca BAC09690While the “faithful & righteous” of Europe had to gallop off all the way to the distant Holy Land to battle the infidel, in Spain, they were the next-door neighbour. Truces, skirmishes, more truces, war, more war. The Christian kingdoms were determined to reclaim their lands from the Moors, a holy war waged over generations (it took 800 years to re-conquer the lost territories). Accordingly, the various kings of the various kingdoms were first and foremost military leaders, men who donned armour as a matter of course and spent their lives expanding their borders – preferably at the expense of the Moors, but now and then at the expense of their Christian neighbours.

Such kings needed male heirs. In medieval Europe, the idea of women riding into battle was preposterous. Men wanted to be led by men, not by a frail creature in skirts. So when Alfonso VI of Castilla and León, despite several marriages, found himself with only three legitimate daughters, he had a major problem on his hands.

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Alfonso VI (?)

Alfonso was something of a complex characters: born the second son of three to Fernando the Great, he was given the kingdom of León when his father passed away. Not enough for our ambitious Alfonso, and after a decade or so of manoeuvring he had claimed Galicia from baby brother García (whom he kept locked up) and Castilla from big brother Sancho (who was serendipitously assassinated). After this, Alfonso proclaimed himself “Emperor of Spain” and continued with his efforts to dislodge the tenacious Moors.

As per the various cantares about Alfonso, he was honourable and brave, a man who treated his foes with respect. Hmm. Not so sure García or Sancho would agree, but his sister Urraca most definitely would, seeing as Alfonso had defended her and her lands against Sancho’s grasping hands.

In difference to his predecessors, Alfonso went beyond the Iberian Peninsula for a bride, which is how he married Constance of Burgundy as his second wife. Alfonso was pushing forty, his first wife had died childless, and his French wife – granddaughter to Robert II of France – had high expectations to live up to. She didn’t. After producing a healthy girl child who was named Urraca after her paternal aunt, Constance went on to have several more pregnancies, but none resulted in a living child. She died in 1093, leaving Alfonso plus fifty – and still without a male heir. Unless…

You see, Alfonso did have a son. A strapping lad called Sancho who was the result of Alfonso’s affair with the fair Muslim princess & refugee Zaida of Seville. This lady seems to have had quite the grip on Alfonso’s heart, and some speculate that she converted to Christianity, took the name Isabel, and as such is the same Isabel Alfonso took as his fourth wife. Whatever the case, baby Sancho was born prior to any such marriage, making him illegitimate. But he was a boy, and so Alfonso designated Sancho as his heir. I imagine this did not please his daughter Urraca – or her French husband, Raymond of Burgundy.

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Raymond

Urraca was only eight when she wed Raymond, at the time made Count of Galicia. The marriage was not consummated until later, but by the time she was 13 or 14, Urraca suffered a stillbirth before going on to live through nine pregnancies that resulted in a surviving daughter, Sancha, and, after ten years or so of trying, a healthy son, also an Alfonso. Very confusing, with all these very similar names…

In the meantime, her bastard brother Sancho had upped and died, as had Raymond. Alfonso saw no other option but to proclaim Urraca his heir – but just to make sure things would go well, he also insisted she marry again. Her new husband was Alfonso I of Aragón. Urraca was vocally opposed to this union, and hoped to get out of it when her father died, but her nobles insisted, and so, in 1109, Urraca and Alfonso were wed.

It was not a happy marriage. Some say Alfonso I was homosexual, and found the idea of sleeping with his wife repugnant. Obviously, this may just be slander, and Alfonso must have done his duty in the marital bed, as he loudly complained about the lack of little heirs. The marriage agreement stated that should there be a child born of this union, that child would inherit it all: León, Castilla and Aragón. If there was no child, the respective kingdoms would go to the respective heirs. Urraca had a son she loved and wanted to see as king, so maybe she did what she could to avoid conception.

Whatever the case, the marriage quickly fell apart. Urraca refused to play the role of submissive wife – she was the ruling queen of Castilla and León, he was but her husband – and this drove Alfonso nuts. In his opinion, women should stay well in the background and leave the ruling to men of worth such as himself. Their quarrels became increasingly heated and Alfonso reputedly abused Urraca physically – repeatedly and brutally. In fear of her life she fled for the security of a nearby convent.

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El Batallador as per Pradilla, late 19th C. Just love Pradilla…

Domestic hostility exploded into civil war. Alfonso was known as “El Batallador”, the warrior, and this was a well-earned sobriquet, him being an astute general, veteran of close to thirty pitched battles. He’d learnt the art of warfare from El Cid himself, and years of fighting the Moors had left him an experienced campaigner. There was not a chance in hell Urraca could beat him, but fortunately for Urraca, Alfonso managed to antagonise the powerful church, and by 1110 the marriage had been annulled by the pope.

Alfonso chose to ignore this at first, and even managed to lure Urraca into believing their marriage could be salvaged – only to imprison her in Aragón. Urraca fled, returned to Castilla and insisted the marriage was over. Only in 1114 did he relinquish his claims on Urraca – by then, he’d realised the men of Castilla and León might not be happy with a female ruler, but they were even less happy with the idea of an Aragonese king. Plus, of course, a little bird had whispered that Urraca was not beyond assassinating him if she had to.

Urraca’s problems were far from over. Her treacherous sister and her husband, the count of Portugal, had taken the opportunity to claim Extremadura. Large parts of Castilla remained in Alfonso of Aragón’s hands. And then there were the Moors, eager to take the opportunity offered by the spectacular fall-out among the Christians to forward their own interests. On top of this, her nobles remained disgruntled at having a queen, and in Galicia things were fast spinning out of control.

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Urraca

In an effort to keep some of her lands out of Alfonso I’s grasping hands while they were married, Urraca had approved the coronation of her little son, Alfonso VII, as the king of Galicia. Now Urraca wanted to retake the reins of government (her son was ten or so), but this was violently opposed by the Galician nobles who quite enjoyed doing their own thing, their boy-king an easily managed regent. To show their independence, they even chased the bishop of Santiago de Compostela out of the city.

Urraca opted for a show of force. She had Santiago de Compostela besieged, and soon enough the nobles were suing for peace. Urraca, triumphant, entered the city to receive their submission with the ousted Bishop Gelmírez at her side. No sooner were they ensconced in the bishop’s palace but the people of Santiago de Compostela rose in revolt. A howling, angry mob surrounded the bishop’s palace, the central tower was set alight, the mob demanding the death of the bishop, who was seen as too loyal to the Castilian cause. Death was imminent. The doors creaked under the weight of the angry men attempting to break through, the crowds bayed for blood. The bishop heard the confessions of his few companions, including that of the queen. They prepared to die. The wood splintered, someone cheered. Urraca ordered that they stop this nonsense. I guess she was met with derisive laughter and a mocking suggestion that she come outside to talk to them if she wanted to save her precious bishop. Seeing as Urraca did not lack balls, whatever her gender, she did just that. The mob surrounded her. She was beaten, her clothes were torn off and she was thrown into the mud, where her naked body was subjected to stones, whips, feet, whatnot. Somehow, she got away – as did the bishop, disguised as a mendicant.

Once reunited with her troops, Urraca unleashed her revenge: the besieging army entered Santiago de Compostela, looting and killing at will. Pay-back for her recent humiliation, with the further benefit of making it very clear to the Galician people that they might have a boy-king, but it was the mother, Urraca, Empress of Spain, who held the true power. At last, Urraca had come into her own, respected as a ruler throughout her various kingdoms.

Other than being queen, Urraca was also a woman of passions. Once her marriage had been annulled, she lived openly with Pedro Gonzales, count of Lara, and gave birth to at least two more children. By late 1125, she had re-established some sort of control over her extensive lands, ensuring her young son’s inheritance was safe. She’d reclaimed most of Castilla from Alfonso, had thwarted her sister’s ambitions to expand at Urraca’s expense, and had brought the Moors to a halt. All in all, our king in skirts had proved she too could lead an army, as determined as any man to safeguard her dominions.

Urraca died on March 8, 1126, giving birth to yet another child. A propitious date, IMO: a strong woman dying on the day that would one day become the International Women’s Day.

Urraca Alfonso-Privilegium

Alfonso VII

Alfonso VII would go on to become a strong ruler. In 1128 he married Berenguela, daughter to Ramon Berenguer III, Count of Barcelona. And there, somehow, this post comes full circle: yet another Berenguela (although this Berenguela is the grandmother of Richard the Lionheart’s wife) . And as to Urraca, there would be very many more such little magpies in the royal nurseries of Castilla. But none would ever become as famous as this Urraca, Queen of León and Castilla, Empress of Spain.

Of writing, Star Wars and home-coming Crusader knights

CS me1smallToday I welcome yet another fellow writer to my blog. Char Newcomb is a Star Wars fan who writes excellent books set in medieval times – maybe not so much of a contradiction as one might think, seeing as swords play a major part in both these settings. Anyway, having recently read Char’s latest release For King and Country, I felt it appropriate to sit her down, serve her tea and cake, and throw her some questions. Plus, she has been kind enough to offer a giveaway – further details at the end of the post 🙂

First of all, congratulations on your new book. Me, I am always a bit ambivalent when I publish a book – there’s a great sense of pride and achievement, but there’s also a substantial amount of separation angst. Is it the same for you?
Thank you for inviting me to chat with you today, Anna. There is incredible satisfaction writing THE END, but a massive amount of angst when you release your ‘baby’ into the wide, wide world. It is hard enough to share with critique partners, beta and advanced readers, but now the novel is there for everyone to see. And then you have to do it all over again!

CS 20035702072_420e501e13_z-2I touched upon your fascination with all things Star Wars in the brief intro above. Would you say this iconic Sci-Fi story has any bearing on the story you tell? Are there any common elements? And why the Star Wars thing to begin with?
Star Wars is based on Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey, put very simply, the adventures and transformation of a character. Battle Scars I & II don’t have all Campbell’s elements, but my stories are the adventures, trials and tribulations of a young knight who goes off to war and is changed by that experience.
I started writing Star Wars to escape the stresses of real life. I was a fan of the movies since A New Hope debuted in 1977 and in 1992 discovered a novel by Timothy Zahn that picked up the story 5 years after Episode VI. Heir to the Empire plunged me back into that galaxy far, far away. I was driven to add to the saga and penned my first short story. A Lucasfilm-licensed role-playing game magazine was looking for short fiction, so I submitted my story and it was accepted for publication!

Your books are set at the close of the 12th century, and while this is very long ago, we still know quite a lot about the principal players. Tell us a bit about your research, and specifically about how you’ve recreated the world of everyday lives.
My initial research started on the web where I found gold – fully digitized (and translated) contemporary chronicles of the events, politics, and people of the Third Crusade. The Annals of Roger de Hoveden offers the crusaders’ side of the story; and a number websites give background information, but few provide the detail necessary to immerse a reader in the past. But – speaking in my librarian voice – a good online resource includes citations and bibliographies, which led me to Saladin’s chroniclers. I read biographies, general histories, books on society and culture, on warfare in medieval times, and found more citations and bibliographies – it’s a vicious cycle, isn’t it? Then there is more angst – have I missed some important aspect of the place and time? I plunged in with a deeper understanding of the life and times of Richard I, integrating my fictional characters into that world and hoping I have transported my readers to the past.

Is it the research that drives you or the story-telling?
It’s been a mix of both. My reading of de Hoveden’s Annals began purely out of an interest in learning more about The Third Crusade. It laid the groundwork and said ‘you have a story to tell.’ It became a matter of creating situations where Henry and Stephan could participate. For King and Country takes the knights back to England and introduces Henry’s family, and while there is the wider political context, Henry’s conflict really drives the story. I knew where I wanted each of the characters’ story arcs to go, and then confirmed that each would fit with the historical events through my research.

What inspired you to set your books in this particular period?
I had decided years ago that I was going to write a time-travel spy novel set during the American Revolution, which is an era I studied in more depth in college as a U.S. history major. A BBC television show on Robin Hood distracted me. It featured a couple of episodes with Richard the Lionheart in the Holy Land. I was hooked. Two books later, here we are…

CS kingMedWhy did you decide to build something round the old legends of Robin Hood? Was it your original intent to have Robin be the main character? If yes, when did Henry and Stephan take over?
Robin would like to think he was supposed to be the focus of Battle Scars – he does have a bit of an ego – but he started off as William, a knight and friend of the main characters, a fairly minor role. The original short story that began it all was Henry and Stephan’s story. I told my critique group that William was a Robin Hood-like character, but I had no intention of integrating the Robin Hood legend. I think I was intimidated by the thought of it when so many other writers had written such brilliant takes on the tales. At that point, I wasn’t even planning to write a novel, let alone a Book II, but I re-named William and his life took shape in my mind and in many notes on the computer when, more than two years later, I decided to write the novel. A few chapters into Men of the Cross, I introduced two young thieves, who were merely there to push the plot along and show sides of Henry and Stephan that the reader hadn’t seen. My critique group loved the boys and said, “I hope we see more of them.” That’s when the idea of creating my own version of the Robin Hood legend took shape, and suddenly those two thieves had names: Allan and Little John.

Your books are original in that there is no damsel-in-distress vs saving-knight love story. Instead, we have a fiery blaze of passion and love between Henry and Stephan. Was this planned from the beginning?
Henry had no plans to fall in love with another man, but that had always been one of the main themes of Men of the Cross. Henry did not think of himself as ‘gay,’ if I can use the modern term. And Stephan, who readily admitted his preference for male sexual companionship, changes as much as Henry does as their relationship develops from close friendship to love. The Church’s stance provided plenty of conflict, especially for Henry, and that continues in For King and Country, when Henry worries that his family will see the depth of his relationship with Stephan.

Did you find it difficult to write the Henry and Stephan scenes? (And I must add I think you’ve done a fantastic job, delivering a sequence of scenes of such tenderness I can but applaud you.)
Thank you! I love Henry and Stephan, so writing their love scenes and pouring a range of emotions into them became easy, but that only came after I experimented – with the writing, that is – with various levels of heat. Readers with faint hearts don’t have to worry about anything too graphic – there might be a scene or two in Book II that hits a 3 out of 5.

Obviously, homosexual relationships are as old as the human race, and Henry’s and Stephan’s closest companions take it in stride that they are lovers. Do you think this is indicative of how people would have reacted back then?
I wish I could say yes, but the Church was hugely influential in the daily lives of people, and the Church condemned sodomy, which included homosexual behaviour as well as many other types of sexual activity (e.g., adultery, sex in anything but the missionary position, sex only on certain days of the month). Of course, humans being human, rules were broken, but a quick trip to the confessional – where priests had a list of penitentials for such sins – and your soul was safe from the fires of Hell. Considering Henry’s concern about keeping his love for Stephan hidden from everyone but his small circle of friends, perhaps some people accepted (or ignored) it. Obviously, no one could openly condone it. (Anna says: if you want to read more about this, Char and I have collaborated on a post regarding sex in the middle ages – or rather the attitudes towards it.)

In your book, Prince John is portrayed as the ultimate bad guy. Leaving aside the fact that all good stories need a villain, do you think this is a correct representation of John?
Interestingly, for a short time whilst Richard was on crusade, John had the support of many English barons in the struggle against Chancellor William Longchamp’s quest for power, but I fully believe John’s motives were to consolidate his own power. He showed his shifting loyalties when he abandoned his dying father Henry II to go to the winning side. Prior to that he led the disastrous campaign in Ireland, and during the period of For King and Country, he plots with Philip of France to usurp Richard’s throne. He and the French king were willing to pay the Holy Roman Emperor to keep Richard imprisoned! My plan is to end Book III of Battle Scars with John ascending the throne and I’m having a hard time imagining a happily-ever-after. The tales of John’s treachery and abuses leading up to Magna Carta certainly make him look the villain. He made bad decisions. He trusted the wrong people, if he trusted anyone at all. If Philip of France had not been John’s adversary and he’d not lost most of continental realm to the man, it would be interesting to speculate on the ‘what ifs’.

Likewise, King Richard is the recipient of a lot of hero-worship from your protagonists. Here and there, you include the mutterings from the common people, who have little reason to love their king and his taxes. What is your take on Richard?
Richard was a great warrior and military strategist. I think he knew the art of diplomacy and was adept at negotiation, including during his time in captivity. But he was not a great administrator. On the other hand, with the exception of Longchamp’s appointment, Richard generally chose able men to manage the business of the kingdom. Unfortunately, because of the crusade, his lengthy imprisonment, and the campaigns against the French, he spent all but a few months of his reign on the continent. He gets a bad rap for bankrupting the kingdom and not spending more time in England, but the Angevin empire was more than England and the troubles happened to be with the Plantagenet continental holdings. Kings of the medieval period didn’t sit in the castle waiting for news from the front lines. They led their troops, fought alongside them. Philip of France invaded Richard’s territory. What kind of king would not want to keep his Angevin empire intact?

I know you’re planning for a next book in the series. Have you already started writing it or are you still at the research phase? And can we hope to see plenty of Henry and Stephan in that book as well?
Henry and Stephan will remain major players in Swords of the King. I am in the very early stages of research at this point and only have a few plot points mapped out. I wish I could say I was further along, but real life tends to get in the way of the writing. I hope to begin writing by the end of summer, but unlike some people – eyes the interviewer & smiles – it will probably take me at least 9 months to finish the first draft. In other words, don’t look for Book III anytime soon!

Assuming Henry and Stephan would pop into your present day life for a visit, what would you offer them to eat? And what would they think of Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker?
Lasagna – my Italian mom’s recipe – and some good red wine. I’m rather fond of Argentinian Malbecs myself.
Since I do spend many hours writing about Henry and Stephan at home, they are surrounded by Star Wars, and like my own kids, they think it’s pretty cool. Anyone who has never seen any of the seven films should always start with A New Hope, Episode IV, which is how I introduced the young knights to the Star Wars universe. They got past the strange aliens, the flying ships and robots, and the fact that Obi Wan looks like a priest in his long brown robe. Neither Henry nor Stephan were fond of the whinging Luke Skywalker, but as he showed his bravery and resourcefulness both knights were won over to the light side and became firm believers in Luke’s dedication to the Rebel Alliance. There was no question in their minds that Vader was evil and they were curious about his armor. But those lightsabers – most impressive!

Yes, I imagine having those at hand would have made it that much easier to win a medieval skirmish or two 🙂 Thank you so much for stopping by, Char, and best of luck with your new book!

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Now, I have already read For King and Country, and my review is as follows: WOW. Nah, just kidding, so here goes:

It’s well over a year since I read Ms Newcomb’s first book in her Battle Scars series, Men of the Cross. Set during the Third Crusade, this book introduced Henry de Grey and Stephan l’Aigle, two young men who find themselves in more ways than one while fighting the infidel in the Holy Land.
Now Henry and Stephan – together with the enigmatic Robin – have returned to England, only to find the enemy lives and breathes at home as well, in this case as the grasping Prince John, younger brother to the imprisoned King Richard – and determined to make England his own.
We all know the general story of Richard and his younger brother, we all know that England was ravaged by strife, with some men siding with John, others with their king. This is the complicated mess to which Henry and Stephan return, and soon enough it becomes apparent it will be very difficult to identify friend from foe – even within the immediate family.
Ms Newcomb has stepped outside the normal restrictions imposed on novels set in these times in that her Henry and Stephan are not only comrades in arms, they are lovers. In a sequence of beautiful scenes, she breathes careful life into their passion, moments of tenderness and love that make it abundantly clear theirs is not a short-term relationship, theirs is the love of a lifetime.
Unfortunately, Henry is the heir to estates and is expected to marry. Fortunately, the young bride, Elle, is no more interested in marrying Henry than he is in marrying her, which leads to a creative approach to things.
While Henry’s marital issues are a recurring theme throughout the book, the central plot is based round Prince John’s determination to fight his brother for England. In secret, he is arming and provisioning various castles – among them Nottingham – and this is where Sir Robin, loyal knight to King Richard, takes the lead, forming a band of men to create as much havoc as possible. Men such as Tuck and Little John, Allan and Will take on shape, becoming very different creatures than the outlaws we know from the old tales of Robin and his Merry men. And yes, there is a Marion too.
Beautifully written, chock-full of historical details imparted elegantly throughout, For King and Country is a compelling and wonderful read.

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I think it goes without saying that I warmly recommend this book, and so it is with great pleasure I can inform you that Char is giving away a Kindle copy! To enter the giveaway, just leave a comment in which you share your take on King John. Good or bad?

If you want to buy your own copy – of course you do! – click here!

To find out more about Char & connect with her, why not try her website or her Amazon page? Char is also on FB and Twitter.

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