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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.


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.


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”).


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.



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


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?


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.


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…)


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.


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.


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…

Estefania PanteónSanIsidoroLeón

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, 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.

Saints 800px-Heliga_Birgitta_på_ett_altarskåp_i_Salems_kyrka

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.

saints erik_den_helige

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.

Urraca AlfonsoVI_of_Castile

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.

Urraca RaymondofBurgundy


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.

Urraca Alfonso_I_de_Aragón_por_Pradilla_(1879)

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.



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!


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.


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.

Medieval Ireland: My Research Favourite Five

EM THE LORD OF IRELANDToday, I have the pleasure of welcoming E.M. Powell to my blog. This lady is somewhat stuck in the Middle Ages as demonstrated by her books about Sir Benedict Palmer, knight in the service of Henry II. The third book, Lord of Ireland is about to see the light of the day, and as revealed by the title it is set on the Emerald Isle, which also happens to be E.M. Powell’s place of birth. The lord in question is the future King John, and I am looking forward to seeing how E.M. depicts this flawed, gifted man. Enough of all this: allow me instead to turn you over into E.M. Powell’s capable hands!


The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.’ I don’t think anyone who loves history would disagree with novelist L.P. Hartley’s famous quote. Last in the Disagree Queue would probably be historical novelists. We know only too well how important it is to convey that difference, to make sure that we transport our readers back through the decades and the centuries and make them believe in our worlds. And how we do it is through our research. Lots and lots and lots of it. Writers of other genres recoil in horror at the amount of time we spend. Truth be told, so do we when we look at the tottering mounds of information we need to know and remember.

But a bit of occasional recoiling aside, we all, deep down, love it. My medieval thriller Fifth Knight series is set in twelfth century England. In the course of writing the first two novels, I’ve uncovered research gold along the way. I discovered that Knaresborough in North Yorkshire, where the knights who had murdered Thomas Becket at Canterbury had fled, had a tiny Jewish community at the time. I found a leopard at Henry II’s Woodstock Palace. I discovered that dried and pulverized vulture kidneys and testicles were considered a cure for impotence. All these and more found their way into the first two novels and hand on heart, ended up as being very important plot points.

In book #3 in the series, The Lord of Ireland, Sir Benedict Palmer travels to medieval Ireland in the service of John, future Bad King John and youngest son of England’s Henry II. In the course of writing the book, I found even more to gladden my novelist’s heart and researcher’s brain. And confession time: I’m Irish and so it was extra special to delve into the history of the land of my birth. I could fill up most of Anna’s blog space with it, but I don’t think she’d thank me for it. (Be my guest, Anna says. Splurge as much as you want!) So here, as they say to reality TV contestants, are some of my best bits.

Research Favourite 1: ‘Dwellers at the Earth’s Edge.’

In a seventh century letter to the Pope, Saint Columbanus refers to the Irish as the ‘Dwellers at the Earth’s Edge.’ Because as far as the millions of inhabitants of Europe were concerned, the Irish were. The island of Ireland occupied a unique place in the medieval world: nothing else existed to the west (sorry, Americas).

EM1 Ireland's Atlantic Coast, Co. CorkEven by the twelfth century, Gerald of Wales (of whom more later), royal clerk to England’s King Henry II, still confirmed Ireland as ‘the farthest western lands…Beyond the whole horizon only the ocean flows and is borne on in endless space.’ I loved this world view of Ireland as a scary frontier. It is of course the view of the suspicious outsider- the Normans who were traveling there to try and make it theirs. And it brought me right into the mind-set of the conquerors and was gold in shaping the goals, motivation and conflict of my characters.

Research Favourite 2: ‘One of the Three Darkest Places in Ireland.’

On visiting the wonderful Dunmore Cave in Co. Kilkenny, I was pleased to see an information board announcing it as ‘One of the Three Darkest Places in Ireland.’ No, this wasn’t just a cheap marketing ploy by the Irish Office of Public Works. It’s a reference to the mention of Dunmore Cave in one of the ninth century Irish Triads. Triads, the arrangement of ideas or sayings in groups of three, are common in ancient Irish and Welsh writing. While the hugely atmospheric three-chambered Dunmore Cave is indeed dark, it also has history.

EM 2 The entrance to Dunmore Cave, Co. Kilkenny

Dunmore Cave

It has been used for refuge and storage for hundreds of years. A Viking massacre here is recorded in the Annals of the Four Masters, a 17th century compilation of earlier Irish chronicles. In 928 Godfrey and the Vikings of Dublin reputedly slaughtered more than 1,000 people here. Archaeological investigations have found the remains of hundreds of people, with many being those of women and children. 10th century coins, beads, and pins have also been found. With the help of a guide, the passages and chambers of the cave are fabulous to explore. So Dunmore Cave also made its way into The Lord of Ireland. I couldn’t resist such a great location. It’s only one of many, but I hugely enjoyed writing the scenes there.

Research Favourite 3: the tall tales of Gerald of Wales.

Giraldus Cambrensis, or Gerald of Wales, is one of the most famous chroniclers of the 12th century and as I mentioned earlier, served King Henry II as a royal clerk. Gerald visited Ireland and produced two major two volumes on it: the Topographia Hibernica (Topography of Ireland) and Expugnatio Hibernica (The Conquest of Ireland). Now, much of what Gerald wrote about is factual and useful and without his writings, we would be much the poorer in our knowledge of medieval Ireland. But Gerald also had a tendency to spin yarns and report as fact things that had no basis in reality. Some of the wilder highlights from the Topography are in the second part, The Wonders and Miracles of Ireland.

Royal 13 B.VIII, f.18Under Wonders, we have reports of a small island where corpses don’t rot. A priest who conversed at length with a wolf. A whale that was found with three gold teeth. Wonders, indeed, but the lake that was formed in a flood because the people were addicted to bestiality is probably the show stopper. Moving swiftly onto Miracles, Gerald includes (among several others), the fleas banished by Saint Nannan, a cross in Dublin that speaks the truth and the inextinguishable fire of Saint Brigid.

So, yes, Gerald might have had a bit of a distant relationship with the truth at times. But he also is a great research gift to me: Gerald accompanied John to Ireland on the disastrous campaign of 1185, the events of which I based The Lord of Ireland upon.

Research Favourite 4: Hugh de Lacy, Henry II’s first Lord of Meath.

It’s always something g very special when one discovers a real historical character who springs to life in the writing of a novel. That was the case for me with Hugh de Lacy, Henry’s first Lord of Meath and threat to Henry’s power in England. Gerald of Wales knew him and provided me with the following gems to start me off.

Physically, de Lacy was not the most handsome of men. Gerald says: ‘What Hugh’s complexion and features were like, he was dark, with dark, sunken eyes and flattened nostrils. His face was grossly disfigured down the right side as far as his chin by a burn, the result of an accident. His neck was short, his body hairy and sinewy. He was a short man. His build- misshapen.’

As for personality, Gerald tends to bounce from one opinion to another (and Gerald was always good for an opinion). He describes de Lacy as ‘resolute and reliable…restrained from excess by French sobriety. A man of great honesty and good sense.’ But less favourably when ‘after the death of his wife [Rose of Monmouth], he was a womanizer and enslaved by lust, not for just one woman, but for many.’

EM 4 Hugh de Lacy's Trim Castle, Co. Meath

Hugh de Lacy’s seat, Trim Castle

De Lacy might have been a thorn in Henry’s side but he proved to be an invaluable asset in Ireland. Even Gerald is pleased: he says de Lacy ‘made an excellent job of fortifying Leinster and Meath with castles.’ Trim Castle, his seat in Meath, still stands today and is remarkable in its size and scale. Again, it’s well worth a visit. As for my version of Hugh de Lacy, I sincerely hope I did him justice. And of course, there’s one more in my Favourite Five: the Lord of Ireland himself.

Research Favourite 5: John, Lord of Ireland.

By 1185, medieval Ireland was in a state of major unrest, with native Irish kings and Henry’s Anglo-Norman barons who had taken Irish lands fighting it out for power. This of course included the very able and very threatening Hugh de Lacy.

Henry had an ingenious solution: make his eighteen year old son John Lord of Ireland and send him over to sort it out. John landed at the Port of Waterford on the south east coast on April 25 1185, with three hundred knights in tow. Still standing tall on Waterford’s quay is the medieval Reginald’s Tower, part of the old city’s fortifications which date from the time of the Vikings. Not only is it an impressive building, it houses a huge collection of medieval artefacts inside.

EM 5 John, Lord of Ireland

John, Lord of Ireland

While the Tower would have looked a bit different in John’s day, we do know precisely what he did as he stood outside it. A group of powerful Irish chieftains came to pay tribute to him as Henry’s representative, greeting him as their lord. John’s response? Well, according to Gerald, John ‘pulled some of them about by their beards, which were large and flowing according to the native custom.’ Suitably angered and very unimpressed, the Irish made for the court of one of the Irish kings, where they reported back on the insults and how John was ‘a mere youth…a stripling who only listened to youthful advice.’ Worse, they decided that rather than make peace with John, they would ‘plot to resist [John’s force]…guard the privileges of their ancient freedom’ with their lives, and ‘make pacts’ to resist him.

And did they make pacts, did they resist? They most certainly did- and I put my Sir Benedict Palmer right in the middle of the warring factions. I’d done my research. Now the fun, the writing of my historical novel, could really start: prepare for historical thrills at the earth’s edge.

About the author:
E.M. PowellE.M. Powell’s medieval thrillers THE FIFTH KNIGHT and THE BLOOD OF THE FIFTH KNIGHT have been #1 Amazon bestsellers and a Bild bestseller in Germany. Book #3 in the series, THE LORD OF IRELAND, will be published by Thomas & Mercer on April 5 2016. Born and raised in the Republic of Ireland into the family of Michael Collins (the legendary revolutionary and founder of the Irish Free State), she now lives in northwest England with her husband, daughter and a Facebook-friendly dog. She is also a contributing editor to International Thriller Writers The Big Thrill magazine, blogs for English Historical Fiction Authors, reviews fiction & non-fiction for the Historical Novel Society and is part of the HNS Social Media Team. Find out more by visiting

Of sodomists, sex and sin the Middle Ages – not as clearcut as one thinks

sex Men of the CrossToday, I have invited Charlene Newcomb to visit with me. We originally met over Facebook, but came face to face with each other at the latest HNS Conference which, I believe, has reinforced our friendship. Once you’ve hugged someone for real, they’re sort of more permanently engraved in your heart.

Anyway, one of the things Charlene and I discussed when we met, was her excellent book, Men of the Cross. As you can guess from the cover, this is a book about the crusades – specifically the Third Crusade, the one led by Richard Lionheart, including such unforgettable incidents as the siege of Acre, the mass-slaughter of Muslim prisoners, the horrific heat, rain, mud, and snow (I know! But yes, snow…) on the march to Jerusalem, and finally, King Richard’s capture in Bavaria after he had departed the Holy Land.

sex post Richard_Lionheart_and_Philip_Augustus

Richard and Philip Augustus

Many people write about the Crusades. Charlene’s book, however, is the first one I’ve read which features a love story between two men. I recall being somewhat taken aback when I realised just what sort of feelings Stephan harbours for young Henry, and one part of me was thinking “hang on: did they do guy-guy love & sex back then?”

Charlene: Well of course they did! Why else would the Church have had a whole list of penances ready to dispense if it wasn’t happening? (More about that later!) Can I assume you realised where the story was headed, and then questioned my sanity?

Anna: Your sanity? Nope. But it was an unusual element, one that I found intriguing. Plus, I couldn’t help feeling a bit sorry for your protagonists. The rainbow parade wasn’t exactly around at the time, was it?

Charlene: The book is about conflict on so many different levels. If the reader feels for the characters, I’m going my job, right? And you are correct – no rainbow parades, no public displays of affection, other than what might have been a normal greeting kiss. However, there were places where same-sex unions were sanctioned by the clergy in the Middle Ages, though I don’t deal with that directly.

Anna: Wait, wait: same-sex unions sanctioned by medieval clergy?

Charlene: Yep. In the 12th or early 13th century, the chronicler Gerald of Wales describes an Irish ceremony where two men enter a church, celebrate Mass, and with “the prayers of priests, they are permanently united as if in some marriage.” Liturgical documents have been identified that describe the “Office of Same Sex Union” (10th & 11th centuries) and “The Order for Uniting Two Men” (11th & 12th Century). These and other instances are cited in research by John Boswell, a 20th century scholar who identified texts from numerous European (including Vatican) archives. Boswell identifies medieval same-sex unions that included many of the trimmings of heterosexual unions of those times. His work is controversial, but there are other historians who corroborate his findings.

Anna: Wow – nothing new under the sun, hey? I am somewhat stunned – just as I was surprised when reading your book, as rarely do novels set in those times have gay protagonists.

Charlene: This quote is an inspiration to me: “Be bold. Take risks. Surprise them.” I did.  Mainstream historical fiction may not explore this path, but there is a sub-genre of historical fiction that is LGBTQ. Some of those stories take place in medieval times; and there are historicals that have a gay character, but the few I know of generally don’t include a romantic relationship.

Sex post illicit-sex-e1436561949425Anna: These days, we’re mostly comfortable with the fact that there are some people who prefer same-gender relationships, just as we’re pretty relaxed about sex. The Middle Ages, however, had an anything but permissive approach to sex in general – and definitely not when we’re talking about what the Church so sweepingly covered as “sodomy”.

Charlene: You’re right: “sodomy” covered a spectrum of sex-related sins – not only restricted to sex between two people of the same gender. Getting into that medieval mind-set to understand the Church’s view on sodomy helped me frame Stephan and Henry’s characters and attitudes.

Anna: Back then, the general approach to relationships was that sex was essentially always a sin – unless it happened between man and wife for pro-creational purposes.

Charlene: Exactly. Not just a sin, but mortal sin. Still, the threat of eternal hellfire and damnation did not stop people from sinning. Shall we go through that litany?

Anna: Why not? “Spilling your seed” – e.g. having sex without actively “planting” a child (or trying to) – was considered a terrible sin. Masturbation was a sin, doggy style was a sin, loving your pregnant wife was a sin, sleeping with a whore was a sin, and – it goes without saying – man sleeping with man was a sin. Not much worse than the others, though…

Charlene: Sleeping with anyone who was not your spouse was a sin. Sex – even with your spouse – was also a sin on certain days of the year. One scholar noted that if you marked off all the days when sex was forbidden, that would leave about 40 days in the year when a man and wife could have sex. Bummer, eh?

Anna: Yeah, but somehow I think people then were as people are now – we all need love and intimacy, and if indulging led to extra penance after the next confession, so be it.

Charlene: AMEN to that!

sex lastjudgementadulterers378 Taddeo di Bartolo adulterers and lustful

San Gemigiano, The Last Judgement. Adulterers and other lusful creatures getting their comeuppance

Anna: Getting back to the subject: In principle, when a medieval person spoke of sodomy – or was accused of engaging in it – this could be any type of sexual activity outside of marital sex, whether you did it alone or with “a friend”. It is also important to understand that the desire to pigeonhole people based on their sexual inclinations is a very modern invention. Medieval people had no need to label anyone as being straight or gay or whatever. Lust was a mortal sin, a desire to be fought tooth and nail, and whether your “baser instincts” led you to sleeping with your wife on a forbidden day, or your young handsome squire, well, who cared? You’d sinned, full stop.

We can see from medieval depictions of the Last Judgement that men who had indulged in homo-erotic pleasures were in for a tough time once they were in hell, but so were the usurers and the gluttons – who, interestingly enough, were also considered as sodomites. (I guess combining food and sex would have been amajor, major no no) And yet, given the fact that there are so many explicit depictions of eternal punishment, one must assume men did love men, just as women loved women. Interestingly enough, medieval society rarely consider two women capable of engaging in sexual acts. Sex was an act of penetration, and women had nothing with which to penetrate.

Charlene: Ah, but there was the dildo (or its equivalent) – even back in medieval times! Penitentials, or Church rules, listed sins and their appropriate penances. Would you be surprised to learn that penances were usually harsher for female/female relationships than for male/male dependent on the circumstances? Men who used artificial aids to stimulate themselves might receive 40 days of penance; a woman who used a dildo: 1 year if used alone, 3 years if used with another woman!

Anna: Seriously? 3 years?

Charlene. Yep.

sex lastjudgementthelustful388

San Gemigiano, again. More lustful to be punished (by having their sexual organs devoured by a snake…)

Anna: So how do Henry and Stephan deal with their relationship? How do the Church’s teachings on sex during their 12th century lifetimes impact them?

Charlene: They are in denial for a long time. Henry had never considered that he could be attracted to another man. Stephan wants Henry, but he respects Henry’s wishes. He won’t jeopardize their friendship. It’s a profound change for him. Stephan has had a string of sexual encounters since his teens, and for him, it had been about the physical act. He didn’t believe men like him could have love. Then he meets Henry. Hello, confusion. How could he be falling in love with another man?

Anna: So Stephan could accept the physical aspects of his attraction to other men, but not the emotional consequences?

Charlene: Stephan never had that emotional tie to the men he had sex with. He accepted that it wasn’t part of the deal. There were no ‘relationships.’ He didn’t expect anything but a good roll in the hay. Henry comes along and changes that for him.

Anna: Complicated man…but it wasn’t easier for Henry, was it?

Charlene: No. Henry has a girl back home waiting for him. The good ol’ arranged marriage, common for people of his class. Though he likes her well enough, she stirs no passion in him, but Henry will do his duty and marry because that is what society expects.

As the knights’ friendship deepens, Henry questions his feelings for Stephan. He’s been taught from a very early age that Hell awaits those who commit this “unnatural” act. He struggles to keep thoughts of loving Stephan away. He prays to God for guidance, but finds the answer in himself. As Stephan says, “How can loving another person be a sin?”

sex two-men-embracingAnna: Interesting. I’m dealing with a similar issue in my new series, The King’s Greatest Enemy, as one of the indirect protagonists is Edward II, accused of having intimate relationships with his male favourites. For a medieval king, admitting to a love-affair with a man must have been very difficult – and dangerous. On the other hand, a medieval king was powerful enough to bend the rules a bit – if not much.

Charlene: True. Laws and punishment varied across Europe in the Middle Ages. Canon law might have been very clear on the matter, but in the late 12th century of Men of the Cross, England had no secular laws regarding punishment for this “crime.” Laws were enacted in the second half of the 13th century, so your Edward II would have been well aware of the consequences.

Anna: Well, sodomy had the benefit (from the accused’s perspective) of being difficult to prove unless your partner in sin decided to confess – not about to happen when it came to royal favourites, who had everything to gain from staying on Edward’s good side.

Charlene: Mid-twentieth century historians cited incidents to accuse Richard the Lionheart of being gay, but there is no definitive proof in the historical record and I haven’t suggested it in Men of the Cross. Aren’t historians on the fence about Edward’s homosexuality? What is your approach in the series?

Series-One-RowAnna: In my series, Edward does have an amorous relationship with Hugh Despenser. To some extent, this is because I want to portray Hugh with some good qualities – as the story is told from the POV of people firmly in the other camp, Despenser is mostly lean, mean and dangerous – but also because I believe Edward was open to sexual and emotional relationships with men as well as women. Whether he acted on these impulses, we will never know, but seeing as Edward comes across as a rather unhappy person – a square peg forced into a round hole, just because he was born to inherit a crown – I do hope he did find some happiness, however short-lived. Other than one very tender scene in the next book, I never invite the reader to come along to the king’s bed – mostly because he’s a secondary character. In your books, however, the protagonists are gay. How have you handled that?

Charlene: There are sex scenes in Men of the Cross, but they aren’t overly graphic. I’d call them tender, sensual, and occasionally steamy – and necessary for character development. On a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being erotica, I’d say the scenes are about a 2 to 2.5.

Anna: I’d agree.

Charlene: So Edward’s scene with Hugh is tender – where does that fall?

Anna: A 2, I think.

A5 Mailer-FrontCharlene: But you’ve written some pretty steamy love scenes in The Graham Saga. *fans self*

Anna: Yup. I enjoy writing sex scenes. But for me, the emotional context is fundamental. My characters enjoy steamy hay-rolling sex because they love each other. Sex in my books strengthens the bonds, reinforces just how dependent my protagonists are on each other – after all, sex is an integral part of most loving relationships. This is the romantic me coming to the fore, I guess, but I genuinely believe great sex goes hand in hand with an emotional commitment. Or maybe I’m just naïve and inexperienced…*laughs*

Charlene: You said that so much better than I could! I don’t think any of the scenes between Henry and Stephan come close to the heat levels of Alex(andra) and Matthew in the Graham Saga. I had to decide what I was comfortable with writing sex-wise when I wanted my book to appeal to a broad audience. I figure most readers – even heterosexual ones – know the logistics of gay sex. I don’t need to give them a play-by-play. But, is there a comfort level for readers who will read a very hot het romance but will cringe at the idea of a tender love scene between two men?

800px-Amor_Vincet_OmniaAnna: Some will – perhaps. But if the characters are well-developed, I think most readers will see beyond the gender to the relationship. Besides, I’d say that neither you nor I write formulaic romance – we write books set in the past that depict human beings muddling through their lives as well as they can, taking comfort where it is offered. IMO, love – and sometimes sex – are just some of many ingredients required to build a multi-faceted story.

Charlene: Multi-faceted? You can say that again! I’m writing military history and bloody battles, complete with renowned warrior heroes, that might appeal to a mostly male audience. I’ve added in a romance, which probably has little appeal to most men. And OMG – it’s a love story between two men!

Anna: Except, of course, that I would argue many men enjoy a romantic element, even if they don’t always own up to it. After all, men need love just as much as women do.

Charlene: You’re right: every human has the capacity to love. Some just happen to love someone of the same sex. And this has been true throughout history, it’s part of the human condition. It’s only natural that historical fiction should recognize this – at least now and then.

Anna: I couldn’t agree more! I’ll look forward to reading the sequel to Men of the Cross.

Charlene: For King and Country will be out in early 2016.

Anna: Wonderful! On that note, I’d like to thank you for stopping by.

Charlene: It’s been my pleasure to chat with you, Anna.


For those of you who want to read more about Charlene’s thoughts on the subject, please go here,

Should you want to buy & read her book (warmly recommended) it can be found here!

Other interesting posts on the subject are MJ Logue’s post about her female cross-dressing 17th century trooper, and Hunter S Jones who asks the question “How should sexuality be portrayed in fiction?”

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