ANNA BELFRAGE

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Elizabeth who? A reflection on the life of a medieval woman

Most of us are destined to pass through this life and be quickly forgotten, buried in the huge drifts of human life that border history. Only those that truly stick out—whether for good or bad—get a moment or two of air-time, and for obvious reasons most of these highlighted people tend to be rulers. And men.

Obviously, there are just as many women as men lurking along the margins of recorded history. Quite a few of those women did play a central part—however indirectly—but they are often consigned to the “irrelevant” section, which seems sort of harsh.

One of those long-gone women about whom we know almost nothing is Elizabeth Ferrers. And yet, to judge from what little we do know, this woman had more than her fair share of loss and grief in her life.

Elizabeth was the youngest child of William de Ferrers, the powerful and respected Earl of Derby. This was a man with a surfeit of daughters. Two marriages left him with ten girls and only two sons. Not that Elizabeth ever had the opportunity of developing a close relationship with her father—he died when she was still very young.

Elizabeth was married while still relatively young to William Marshal. (Not the William Marshal but a rather more obscure relative) That marriage ended when her husband died at The Battle of Evesham. Some while later, Elizabeth Ferrers was wed to Dafydd ap Gruffudd.

Was this her choice? Likely not. At the time, Dafydd was estranged from his brother, Llewellyn ap Gruffudd. Well, if we’re going to be quite correct, he’d been his usual pain in the arse, trying to capitalise on the general unrest that followed upon the collapse of Montfort’s control over England. Llewellyn had been a close ally of Montfort. Dafydd chose to present himself as a loyal supporter of the English king, Henry III, and his son, the future Edward I.

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Edward I

So there was Dafydd, kicking his heels at the English court while longing for the green valleys of home. Maybe the English king hoped to tie the younger of the Welsh princes to him by offering him an English bride. Or maybe his decision to marry Elizabeth to Dafydd was a reflection on just how pissed off he was with Elizabeth’s brother, Robert de Ferrers. The young Earl of Derby had sided firmly with Montfort, apparently due to a personal dislike of Prince Edward. In the aftermath of Evesham, Ferrers stubbornly refused to come to terms with his king—at least initially. (In general, Robert’s life reads like a text book case of “how to totally destroy your inheritance”. Due to his own behaviour, Robert de Ferrers lost his title, most of his lands and any political clout he could have had. I may have to give him his very own post—but I can’t say I like him much)

Dafydd was probably ten years or so older than Elizabeth. Yes, he was Welsh, but he’d have been taught to speak Anglo-Norman French and had, after many years at the English court, probably acquired a veneer of civilisation (from the perspective of an Englishman. From the perspective of a Welshman no such veneer was required, thank you very much).

medieval lustWhether Elizabeth liked her husband yes or no was neither here nor there. She was his wife and would have no choice but to accompany him through the ups and downs of his life. Seeing as Dafydd comes across as a somewhat volatile character, prone to stirring up the hornets’ nest whenever he felt unjustly treated, Elizabeth was in for quite the ride.

Dafydd made his peace with his brother in 1267—briefly. When Edward, now king of England, and Llewellyn faced off yet again in 1274, Dafydd happily joined Edward’s side, resenting the fact that his brother wouldn’t grant him as much land as Dafydd felt entitled to. What Elizabeth may have thought of all this is unknown, but when Dafydd was in one of his “I love you, my brother” phase, Elizabeth was likely in Wales, when he was in a “I love you better, my liege” phase, she’d be tagging along to England. After all, where he went, there went she, responsible for ensuring his household worked as it should.

Llewellyn’s attempts to retain his hold on all of Wales failed. Well, to be honest his hold had never been all that strong: to the south and east the English Marcher lords held sway and the other Welsh princelings weren’t always that thrilled at recognising the House of Gwynedd as the first among the Welsh royal dynasties. When Edward assembled a huge host and managed to deprive Llewellyn of the harvests on Anglesey, Llewellyn had no choice but to parley and the Treaty of Aberconwy in 1277 was an excruciatingly humiliating document whereby Llewellyn’s power base was substantially reduced to comprise the lands west of River Conwy.

medieval-dragon-e1492962219524-570x299Dafydd, however, was a happy camper as the treaty called for Llewellyn to hand over the land he’d held east of the river to his younger brother. Edward was an even happier camper as he had a) made his point b) effectively collared the Welsh dragon. So pleased was Edward that he could even be magnanimous and preside over Llewellyn’s much delayed wedding to Eleanor de Montfort. (Delayed because Edward had kidnapped the bride, one should add)

medieval midwife-history-medievalBy the year 1277, Elizabeth and Dafydd had been married for over a decade. There were two surviving sons that we know of, yet another Llewellyn and an Owain. The eldest would have been around ten, the youngest a toddler. Likely there had been other childbirths, but if so no records survive. Other than the boys, the Dafydd/Elizabeth household also included a number of girls, but these seem to have been Dafydd’s daughters by women other than his wife. Difficult to handle, I imagine. Unless Elizabeth disliked sharing her bed with her husband beyond the dutiful embraces required to conceive an heir and a spare. Alternatively, one or two of those girls were, in fact, Elizabeth’s daughters as well. Given future events, it seems a bit unlikely as Elizabeth’s youngest child, a daughter named Gwladys, is named in documents while the rest remain anonymous.

Anyway: 1277 and Dafydd had at last come into his own. It didn’t take him long to realise just how hard Llewellyn’s life had been, always threatened by the encroaching presence of the English who, by now, had settled themselves all around Gwynedd. Edward was busy building castles along the approaches to Gwynedd—magnificent things that sent a very loud message as to who was the real power in Wales. Llewellyn might retain his title of Prince of Wales, but it was Edward Plantagenet whose writ ran strongest.

Inevitably, Dafydd ended up in yet another conflict. This time, however, he directed his anger at Edward and the king’s determination to implement English law in those areas of Wales he controlled. Plus Dafydd probably felt he’d deserved more than the two measly cantrefs he’d received at the Treaty of Aberconwy. He managed to rope in several other dissatisfied Welsh princes, men who had a long last come to realise that in making their peace with Edward of England they’d betrayed their own nation, culture and heritage. While Llewellyn probably cursed his brother to hell and back privately, he had no option but to join. Besides, for a couple of months a Welsh victory did not seem entirely impossible. Until Edward got his war machine moving, of course.

On the one hand, Edward was incensed by Dafydd’s betrayal. One must remember that Edward had seen first hand just how dangerous a powerful and rebellious subject could be—witness Simon de Montfort vs Henry III, Edward’s father. On the other, Edward probably high-fived his closest friends and said “YES!”. Dafydd had handed him the excuse Edward needed to once and for all crush all Welsh resistance.

What did Elizabeth do in all this? Me, I think she was afraid. All the time. She knew Edward and realised he made an implacable foe. She must have understood that if this went wrong, Dafydd would not remain alive for that much longer. And if Dafydd wasn’t around, what would happen to her sons? To her?

We all know this ended badly for the Welsh. A devastated Llewellyn lost his wife in childbirth in the summer of 1282 and was then likely tricked into a trap masterminded by certain Marcher lords, among them Edmund Mortimer, father of the Roger Mortimer who’d go on to rebel against a king, force through the king’s abdication, live joined at the hips with said king’s wife and then die for all that hubris. Neither here nor there. Llewellyn died in December of 1282, his head presented to Edward by Roger Mortimer (Edmund’s brother).

For some months, Dafydd was Prince of Wales—months spent mostly on the run with his family. Elizabeth and the children travelled with him from one castle to the other, and all the while Edward was tightening the noose around his most hated traitor.

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This is Hugh Despenser being hanged, drawn & quartered. Dafydd underwent a similar ordeal

It all came to an end in the summer of 1283. Dafydd was captured together with his wife, his youngest son and all those girls. Neither Dafydd nor Elizabeth would have held any illusions about what awaited Dafydd: death. But I guess none of them expected he would be put to death in such a cruel manner. Dafydd ap Gruffydd has the doubtful distinction of being the first person of noble birth to be hanged, drawn and quartered.

What neither of them could have known is how ruthless Edward would be towards their children. Once Edward’s men captured their eldest son, Llewellyn, he then arranged for both boys—at the time fourteen and eight or so—to be taken to Bristol Castle, there to be locked up for the rest of their lives.

And as to Gwladus, she was taken from her mother and sent to a Gilbertine convent in Lancashire. She would live and die as a nun, far from her mother, her homeland. Her cousin, Llewelyn’s daughter, was likewise dispatched to a convent—but a different one.

So there was Elizabeth. Not only had she just been widowed (or would be, very shortly) but she’d just had all of her children torn from her. No matter that Gwladus was probably a babe, that little Owain was still a child with downy cheeks and knobbly knees, they were taken from her. Did she beg, did she plead? Well, what mother wouldn’t? So yes, I think she did. But it did not avail her. Edward Plantagenet intended to erase this Welsh dynasty from the face of the earth.

In the aftermath of her husband’s rebellion, Elizabeth lost it all. Husband, sons, daughter(s). She would never see any of her children again and as to her own fate, well, she’d had her moment in the limelight, hadn’t she? With Dafydd dead and her sons locked away, Elizabeth became irrelevant. We don’t know what happened to her. It’s as if her life stopped in 1283. I suppose that she would have agreed. To lose it all like that must leave a person permanently maimed.

medieval marriage frontpage2Some have put forward the theory that Elizabeth was hastily wed to another man. If so, we don’t know to whom or if she became the mother of other children. Some say she retired to Wales and was buried there several years later. Me, I think she grieved for the rest of her life. I sort of hope she died before her eldest son in 1287, but God does not seem to have been kind to Elizabeth, so likely she didn’t. I hope she never found out about the king’s order that her sons be kept in fortified cages at night. But life being as it is, I suspect someone made sure to tell her.

Well over eight hundred years ago, Elizabeth Ferrers was born. We know so little about her. What did she look like, how did her laughter sound? Did she laugh or was she mostly of a serious disposition? Was she passionate or cold, did she have someone to comfort her when she wept for the life she had lost, the future her children were robbed of? We don’t know. But it takes a person seriously lacking in empathy not to be affected by the tragedies that befell her—and her children.

From underage groom to powerful magnate

Today I thought we’d spend some time with a man named Richard. Okay, so very many men in medieval England were named Richard, including three Plantagenet kings, but nope, we won’t be talking about them today. Instead, we’re going to spend time with a baron so powerful, so wealthy, he probably could (and now and then likely did) outshine his king. As his king was Henry III, this was not all that hard to do: Henry may have been possessed of an extremely well-developed aesthetic sense, but his political and military acumen were somewhat weaker. Our man of the day was substantially more successful in the area of worldly power-mongering.

Richard de ClareMind you, it had not always been like that. Born in 1222, Richard de Clare was the heir to the huge de Clare estates. His father was Gilbert de Clare, earl of Gloucester and Hereford. His mother was Isabel Marshal, daughter to the William Marshal. None of this, I suspect, really helped when Richard’s father died in 1230. In one fell swoop, the boy was converted into one of the richest magnates in England—well, he would be, once he was invested with his inheritance. At the time, Richard was a child, a minor, and many were the barons eager to put themselves forward as a suitable guardian for this very, very rich ward.

HENRYIIIEngland in 1230 was ruled by a young king. Henry III had ascended the throne in 1216, all of nine years old. Since reaching his majority, Henry ruled in his own name—with Hubert de Burgh as his principal counsellor. Hubert had been unfailingly loyal to John and been rewarded accordingly. He was equally loyal to Henry, but like all barons of the time, Hubert always had an eye out for his own interests and when little Richard de Clare’s wardship came up for grabs, Hubert was in a position to award himself this very juicy plum.

Richard had to leave his mother, his siblings, and was instead transferred to Hubert’s care. It was de Burgh who was responsible for Richard’s future education—his widowed mother had no say. Not that this was uncommon: usually, a boy of noble birth would be raised in another noble household, spending his formative years as a page and squire far from home. And mothers rarely had a say in how their sons were educated beyond the first years—at least not officially.

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Hubert, stripped of power

Now, like all powerful men Hubert de Burgh had collected plenty of enemies during his long political life. In 1232, these enemies managed to discredit the earl of Kent who ended up imprisoned. This impacted Richard in two ways: one, his wardship was transferred to two others of Henry III’s favourites, Peter de Roches, Bishop of Winchester, and Peter de Rivaux, nephew to de Roches. Secondly, this is when Richard was probably married for the first time.

What? You might say, having made some quick calculations prior to concluding Richard was a child of ten. Youth was not a hindrance when it came to marriages as such—many a young child was married in medieval times. The church, however, required two things for such a marriage to stand: that consent was given and that it was consummated, neither of which a boy of ten was considered capable of doing. (Phew!)

Richard’s first bride was Margaret de Burgh, daughter to the disgraced Hubert and his third wife, Princess Margaret of Scotland. Some say this clandestine wedding was arranged by Hubert’s wife as a desperate measure to safeguard some sort of future protection for her daughter. It has also been said that, no matter their tender age, Margaret and Richard were genuinely in love.  Makes me spontaneously break out in “They try to tell us we’re too young, too young to really fall in love. They say that love’s a word, a word we’ve only heard, and can’t begin to get the meaning of…” (Nat King Cole, in case you’re wondering)

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Seriously, I have my doubts about two children experiencing emotions so strong they asked Margaret Mater to help them wed. But whether true or not, it does seem they were married. Without royal consent. Oh, dear…You see, a magnate as powerful as Richard would one day become needed royal approval before he wed. At least in theory – Henry’s own brother, also called Richard, seems to have ignored this when he married our Richard’s mother. (So yes, Richard had an in on the royal family. Henry III was his step-uncle)

Henry III threw a fit. It was him, only him, who would decide who Richard was to marry. (By then, Henry III had taken custody of Richard himself, the Peter double-act having fallen out of favour in 1234) Pressure was brought to bear on the young couple. As the marriage was unconsummated, it was easy to annul—assuming Richard and little Margaret agreed to do so.

From the distance of eight centuries it is difficult to know what really happened. Edith Pargeter has written a heart-wrenching version of events in The Marriage of Megotta according to which our star-crossed lovers were kept forcibly apart to ensure they did not seal their love with more than a kiss. (Read it! Wow book) A somewhat more pragmatic take on things would suggest the marriage was just annulled. In the event, whether it was annulled or not became a moot point as Margaret de Burgh died in 1237 at the age of fifteen. It no longer mattered if the marriage had been valid, had been consummated: Richard was free to wed as it pleased his king.

A marital prize such as Richard could be used for all sorts of alliances. At first, Henry toyed with the idea of marrying Richard to a member of the powerful French family, de Lusignan. As an aside, this is the family Henry III’s mother, Isabella of Angouleme married into after the death of John, effectively stealing her daughter’s intended. Not so sure little Princess Joan was all that depressed by this turn of events—her intended was old enough to be her father and then some—but Isabella’s behaviour was frowned upon. It just went to prove how lecherous women in general and beautiful women in particular were. Right: back to our Richard and the hunt for a suitable bride. Turns out the de Lusignans weren’t that interested.

Someone else, however, was very interested. John de Lacy, Earl of Lincoln was eager to see his eldest daughter as Richard’s wife—and he was willing to pay the king handsomely for the honour. Which was how Richard ended up marrying Maud de Lacy in early 1238.

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Richard himself?

Richard remained under royal wardship for several years more. In 1243 he came of age and was knighted by the king plus received official seisin of his vast inheritance. At last, Richard was in control of his own life. At last, he need answer to no man but himself—and his king. Thing is, a baron as powerful as Richard was destined to be, could use that to his advantage: there would be numerous occasions when Richard’s support would be the difference between success or failure for whatever plans Henry III might have.

In 1243, Richard already had an heir, named Gilbert after Richard’s father. All in all, Maud and Richard would have seven children and while Richard concentrated on expanding his territories—he added substantially to them via his mother’s Marshal inheritance—Maud dedicated a lot of time to arranging advantageous marriages for her children. I get the impression theirs was a successful marriage, which does not mean it was a happily ever after marriage. Few medieval ladies and lords had such expectations—to them, a marriage was an alliance with the purpose of forwarding the family interests.

Richard was good at managing his huge estates. He developed an impressive administrative system that allowed him to keep tabs on what was happening but left the running of his estates in the south-east and in Ireland to his efficient stewards. He himself focused on his Marcher lordships and on expanding into Wales. This he did through a combination of ruthless campaigning, castle building and implementation of English law. He stomped any Welsh rebellions on his lands into the ground and made sure everyone knew that in this part of the world only one man’s word was law: his word.

As many of you know, Henry III’s reign was plagued by upheaval, all of it coming to a head in the late 1250s when a certain Simon de Montfort set himself up as the leader of the baronial opposition. Initially, Richard sided with de Montfort and when he threw his weight behind the Provisions of Oxford the king had little choice but to accept them. But Richard had spent most of his youth at the royal court, had a close relationship with his step-father who was also Henry’s brother. And he had little liking for de Montfort, who was not only an eager reformer but also very acquisitive, both when it came to land and power.

In 1261, Richard abandoned the baronial cause and returned to the royal fold. What role he could have played and how things would have developed had Richard been in a position to influence events we will never know.  In 1262 he died, not yet forty years old. Some say he was poisoned—there had been a previous attempt some years earlier—but as the main chronicles don’t mention anything about a suspicious death I dare say we can rule it out.

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Richard died in a time of turmoil. Civil war was to rage for many years more and his own son the fiery Gilbert de Clare was to play a central role. First as de Montfort’s loyal second-in-command, then as Prince Edward’s equally loyal second-in-command. Seems those de Clare men had an ambivalent relationship with the crown…

By the time he died, Richard’s memories of his first little bride would have been very hazy. Since those childhood days when he’d wed Margaret de Burgh, so much time had passed. It was with Maud he’d built a life, fathered children so any last thoughts would reasonably have been of her. Whether he did think of her or not, he died knowing that his capable and tenacious wife would keep on protecting the family interests.

Maud de Lacy never remarried. Her dower contracts left her an immensely wealthy widow, to the chagrin of her eldest son who would go as far as to sue her to push through a reduction in her dower income. I guess this was a case of like mother, like son: Maud de Lucy has the dubious reputation of being the most litigious lady in 13th century England!

In the fullness of time, Richard’s and Maud’s grandchildren were to play important roles on opposing sides in the conflicts that afflicted England in the 1320s. One of their granddaughters would be the first ever woman to be imprisoned in the Tower, two would be left widows after the executions of their husbands. All of them would be smack in the middle of the unfolding events. Not exactly unusual if you were a de Clare…

Is she Violent? No, she’s Violante

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

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

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Alfonso

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

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

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

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Violant

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

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

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

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Sancho

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Margaret de Male 

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

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

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Lionel

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

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

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

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Violante and her brother

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Welsh Princess and her elusive mother

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

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Llewellyn, depicted with his sons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Hitting it off a la medieval

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Mother, queen, widow – meet the lady from Holstein

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Mechtild, flanked by Birger and Erik

In one of Sweden’s oldest churches, the pride of place is held by a grave containing three bodies: that of Birger Jarl, the man who more or less hammered Sweden together, that of one of his sons, a.k.a. Erik Good-for-Nothing, and that of his second wife, Mechtild of Holstein. The tomb is decorated with a carved stone slab depicting the buried peeps. Interestingly enough, it is Mechtild’s likeness that takes up most of the space. Why? Because she was of much higher rank than Birger Jarl. She may have been a woman in a man’s world, but her contemporaries had no problem placing her at the top of the status pyramid. After all, Mechtild was a crowned queen, and for all that Birger Jarl was the effective ruler of Sweden for 20 years, he never became its king. (Two of his sons did. Another story.)

leonor medieval-betrothalIf we start at the beginning, Mechtild was born somewhere around 1220 in Holstein, her father being the count of Holstein. In 1237, she married Abel, a prince of Denmark who was also the Duke of Schleswig. Now Abel was not entirely happy being a mere duke. He wanted to be king, but his older brother Erik showed no signs of giving up breath any time soon. Add to this the fact that Erik was determined to expand his power base, reluctant to tolerate a too independent duke within his kingdom and it’s sort of obvious the two brothers didn’t exactly get along.

Anyway: while Abel was unhappy with his brother and more or less constantly fighting with him, his wife did her duty and gave him children, the two eldest being healthy sons. Probably made Abel crow with glee, seeing as Erik’s wife had so far “only” given him surviving daughters, the two sons having died young. In essence, all Abel had to do was wait, because unless Erik had a legitimate son, the Danish crown would pass to Abel upon Erik’s death.

bj3But waiting was hard, especially when Erik subjected Abel’s duchy to repeated raids. On one occasion, Erik’s attack obliged Abel’s little daughter, Sofia, to flee for her life in the dark winter night clad in only her linen shift. Abel gnashed his teeth and promised revenge.

What Mechtild thought of all this we don’t know. But I’m guessing she cheered her husband on when he defended her brother’s patrimony against the grasping Erik and I suppose the fact that Erik wanted to control Holstein himself put him far, far down on Mechtild’s list of “dudes I like”.

In 1250, Erik travelled to Estonia to sort out some issues. On the way home, he decided to pay an intimidating visit to Mechtild’s brother, the young count of Holstein. When he heard of this, Abel offered Erik to stay at his home in Gottorp.

According to the legend, what happened next was that Abel rather cryptically reminded Erik of the instance when little Sofia was forced to run barefoot through the woods to escape his men. Erik supposedly replied that he was rich enough to buy Sofia a new pair of shoes. Abel smirked. Moments later, a large party of noblemen entered the hall and grabbed hold of Erik. To be exact, there were twenty-four men, but whether they were required to hold Erik or whether they were there to hold the king’s men at bay is a bit fuzzy.

Where Mechtild was in all this, we don’t know. Was she watching from a shadowy corner as the king was bound and gagged and dragged out of her home? Did she hurry over to hubby and grab hold of his tunic while whispering “Is this wise?” Did she pump her fist in a “YES!” gesture? Or maybe she was more focused on the fate of her eldest son, at the time twelve or so, who was being held hostage by the archbishop of Cologne.

Erik was dragged onto a boat. When he recognised some of the voices around him, he realised he’d not be seeing the end of the night alive. Somehow, he managed to convey to his abductors that he wanted to be shriven before they did whatever they intended to do to him. “Fair enough,” the rascals said and arranged for a priest to talk to the bound king. Once the priest was done, Erik was rowed out on the Schlei and beheaded, his body and head thrown overboard.

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A rosy future indeed…

Abel always maintained he had nothing to do with this. Nothing at all. Nope, not him. He and the twenty-four noblemen swore an oath to that effect and Abel could thereby claim the Danish throne. He and Mechtild were crowned in Roskilde in 1250 and for a while there the future looked quite rosy. Except for all the grumblings along the line that the new king was “Abel by name but Cain by deeds”.

A year or so later, Abel was killed while putting down an uprising of rebellious peasants. Everyone saw this as a sign of divine justice. Prior to his funeral, his body was kept at Schleswig cathedral, but the monks woke to horrendous sounds and swore the dead king’s ghost was up and about at night, pacing back and forth like a caged bear in the confines of the cathedral.

This was not good. The monks therefore decided to haul the body over to Gottorp and bury it in unhallowed ground. For good measure, they also staked him to stop him from rising as an undead to plague the region. Didn’t help, as for a long time afterwards people claimed to have seen the dead king astride a white horse riding through the forest with a pack of glowing hounds.

With Abel gone, Mechtild’s situation was precarious, especially as her eldest son was still in Cologne. Abel’s younger brother, Kristoffer, claimed the throne and Mechtild did what many women in a precarious situation did: she entered a convent.

For some years there, Mechtild spend most of her energy defending the birth-right of her sons. Although the Danish crown had been taken from him, her eldest, Valdemar, was confirmed as Duke of Schleswig. He died in 1257 and Kristoffer tried to stop Mechtild’s second son, yet another Erik, from inheriting the duchy. This did not go down well, Kristoffer had to flee his opponents, took shelter with the bishop of Ribe who purportedly poisoned the king. All in all, Denmark during the late 13th century seems to have been an excessively exciting place…

Meanwhile in Sweden, Birger Jarl was consolidating his power over the country. Approximately at the same time as Mechtild wed Abel, he married princess Ingeborg, sister to the Swedish king Erik (I know, I know! Where medieval Spain is chockfull of Alfonsos, medieval Scandinavia just has an endless number of Eriks ) The marriage was fruitful, resulting in eight surviving children, albeit some would die as young adults. The son with whom Birger and Mechtild share a tomb was no more than twenty-five years of age or so, and based on the studies of his bones he suffered from some sort of debilitating disease, hence his nickname “Good-for-nothing”.

In 1254, Ingeborg died. Birger Jarl may have been in no hurry to remarry, but he was not yet fifty and by all accounts a vigorous man, so it is likely he was soon considering potential new wives. As he already had heirs a-plenty, he did not need to marry a fertile woman, but to further shore up his position he needed to marry a woman of some status. Which is why he was not averse to the idea of marrying Mechtild. She, on the other hand, sat in her convent and felt somewhat beleaguered. She needed help to defend her surviving son’s patrimony, and Birger Jarl was powerful enough to help her with that.

medieval lustNot, as we can see, a union based on sweaty palms, lust and thumping hearts, but in 1261 Birger and Mechtild were wed. Mechtild waved bye-bye to the nuns and embraced secular life again. I imagine she had her hands full with managing Birger’s household and his three youngest children, plus, of course, she was expected to lend lustre to state events by being adequately queenly.

Whether this was a happy marriage, I have no idea. I imagine both Birger and Mechtild were old enough to be pragmatic and value the respective benefits each brought to the other. Whatever the case, in 1266 Birger Jarl died and was interred in the abbey church of Varnhem.

20170728_150432Varnhem was a Cistercian abbey, founded by French monks who’d been sent north in the middle of the twelfth century. I’m not sure being chosen for this potentially dangerous expedition into the wilds of Sweden was considered a winning ticket, but spreading the word of God was worth the risk and so our French brethren made the long trip from la Belle France to the Swedish boonies. Their destination was not entirely uncivilised. In fact, Varnhem was built on a site very close to one of the earliest known Christian burial sites in Sweden. Here, people had been worshiping the White Christ since the mid eighth century or so.

When Birger Jarl died, Varnhem was the place to be buried in, several kings already safely interred under the floor. Birger had also been a major benefactor of the abbey which is probably why he was buried in front of the lay altar towards the western end of the church.

With Birger dead, Mechtild decided to leave Sweden. As she was actively disliked in Denmark she moved to Kiel where she would remain for the coming decades or so. In between ferociously defending her sons’ birth right to Shleswig (The three brothers succeeded each other, none of them leaving a male heir) she also worked closely with her brothers to secure Holstein’s independence. As all her sons predeceased her, she claimed Schleswig in her own name and gifted it to her brothers – and so Holstein and Schleswig became Schleswig-Holstein, a part of the world the Danes and the Holsteiners would fight bitterly over for centuries to come. If anything, this made her even more unpopular in Denmark. Not that she cared – she had no inclination to spend time in Denmark.

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The carved head supposed to be Birger Jarl

In 1288, Mechtild died in Kiel. Her body was then transported all the way back to Varnhem in Sweden where she was interred beside her second husband and her stepson. And there she lies to this day, despite several attempts to move her and Birger to Stockholm. After all, the man who united Sweden and founded Stockholm shouldn’t be stuck in an obscure grave in an old abbey church… (Birger, obviously, was of another opinion)

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The reconstructed face of Birger

Just to verify things, the grave was opened in 2001 or so. The remains were of a woman in her sixties, a man in his fifties and a much, much younger man unrelated to the female but closely related to the older male. A DNA analysis had the experts concluding that the older man was, in fact, Birger Jarl.  And on a closer inspection of his cranium, the bone-experts were delighted to discover Birger did, in fact, have a cleft chin – just like the stone head adorning one of the pillars in the church!

Beyond her tomb, Mechtild has left little trace in history. But once she lived, by all accounts a determined lady who fought for the rights of her sons and her brothers. Not at all a shrinking violet, IMO, more of a lioness defending her own.

The White Queen of France

In medieval times, the Castilian royals had a preference for naming their daughters Urraca or Berenguela, now and then adding a Sancha or a Leonor to the mix. Alfonso VIII was no different, which is why he named his eldest daughter Berenguela and his second Urraca. A third daughter was given the name Blanca after which followed a Mafalda, a Leonor and then a Constanza. Yes, he had a Sancha too, but this little girl died in infancy before Urraca was born.

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Eleanor

All these girls were destined for great things. Not only was their father a forceful and competent king, but their mother was Eleanor of England, daughter to Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, the medieval equivalent of the Kardashians—although in difference to this soap family, Henry II and his queen actually achieved stuff, prior to tearing each other to pieces during years of conflict. Neither here nor there, as this post is not about these two fascinating peeps.

Back to our Castilian princesses: Berenguela, as the eldest daughter, was kept relatively close to home, seeing as her various brothers had a tendency to die young, thereby making Berenguela a potential heiress to the Castilian crown. (In the fullness of time she did inherit it, but that’s another story). The other sisters were to make grand marriages and in spring of 1200 Urraca was informed she was to wed the dauphin of France ASAP.

This Castilian-French marriage was part of the Treaty of Le Goulet, whereby Philippe Augustus of France and John of England made peace with each other, exchanged a lot of air-kisses and promised to be friends forever while crossing their fingers behind their back.  One of the movers and shakers behind this treaty was Eleanor of Aquitaine who was determined to salvage what was left of the Angevin empire for John’s future heirs.

At the time, Eleanor was pushing eighty. Despite her age, she undertook the strenuous journey to Burgos in Castile, there to collect the future French queen. What Urraca may have looked like I don’t know, but based on descriptions of other members of the Castilian royal family I believe she was pleasing to the eye, definitely as pretty as any of her sisters. And yet Eleanor of Aquitaine decided to swap brides. Urraca was left behind and her younger sister, Blanca, rode off in her stead. Why? Because Eleanor believed Blanca’s personality would be a better fit with that of Louis of France. Plus, Blanca in French became the rather pleasing Blanche, while Urraca…No, such an odd name would not work in France.

Did Urraca resent her younger sister? Had she already started dreaming of a rosy future with Prince Louis? No idea. As a consolation prize, Urraca would some years later marry the future Portuguese king, have a number of babies and die young. Okay: not much of a consolation prize…

Blanca—oops, Blanche—was married to Louis in May of 1200. She was twelve, he was thirteen, and as was customary when the bride was so young consummation was postponed for a couple of years. Instead, the young couple lived together, studied together and in general got to know each other.

In 1205, Blanche gave birth to her first child. A little girl who did not live long. Four years later, a son named Philippe was born. He would die aged seven. Twins were born and died in 1213. By now, I imagine Blanche was beginning to feel substantial pressure to produce a healthy spare (little Philippe was still alive). Fortunately, in 1214 baby Louis was born—and he thrived! Phew! Even better, in 1216 Blanche had yet another healthy son, Robert, to be followed by six sons and one daughter. Only five of all these children would survive to adulthood of which four would outlive their mother.

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Blanche

Blanche’s life was not all about having babies. Some of you will know that the treaty between John and Philippe Augustus was broken already back in 1202, and by 1204 John had lost almost all his French lands, retreating to England there to lick his wounds. As most of you also know, John wasn’t exactly the most successful of kings, and come 1214 or so, civil war raged with John determined to hold on to his crown while his disgruntled barons were just as determined to oust him and replace him with Louis of France. Louis had no right to the English crown, but Blanche was descended from Henry II and this was all the excuse the anti-John party needed to proclaim Louis their king.

Initially, Philippe Augustus supported his son’s bid for the English crown. After all, John was an excommunicated king, and any Christian monarch could thereby insist he was just doing his duty by invading John’s realm. However, John was not a fool and when he offered to make England a vassal state to the Pope, his excommunication was no more. In fact, any Christian monarch who now attempted to conquer England would likely end up excommunicated instead.

Philippe Augustus had no desire to end up an enemy of the Church—he’d had his quarrels with this powerful institution over his terrible treatment of his Danish queen Ingeborg. After the French lost at Lincoln in 1217 and had to flee south, Philippe Augustus withdrew his support of his son’s venture. The dauphin and his men were now hounded by the English who, after John’s death, rallied round their boy-king, Henry III. All those power-hungry, disgruntled English barons saw a major opportunity to feather their own nests with a child on the throne, and so any support for Louis melted away as fast as a snowdrift in the Sahara.

Blanche, however, had taken to the idea of being queen of England, and was determined to stand by her husband. When Philippe Augustus refused assistance, she threatened to use her children as hostages to raise the money required to help hubby Louis out. Apparently Philippe Augustus was too fond of his little grandchildren to countenance such a scheme, and with the means he handed over to Blanche, our forceful young lady pulled together an army and vessels to transport them over to England and her waiting main.

The weather conspired against her. Plus, the English now presented a strong united front. Louis was far too experienced a leader of men to not read the writing on the wall, and so he returned home to his wife (and somewhat disgruntled daddy, I imagine)

Blanche Coronation_of_Louis_VIII_and_Blanche_of_Castille_1223In 1223, Philippe Augustus died. Louis became king of France with Blanche as his queen. Some years later, Louis died. It is said Blanche was so devastated she tried to kill herself to follow her beloved husband into the hereafter, but either her suicidal attempt was not in serious or someone managed to stop her. Truth be told, Blanche did not have the luxury to wallow in grief. With a twelve-year-old son to protect against the ambitious French nobles, she was soon fighting tooth and nail to preserve his kingdom. Plus, further to the south the count of Toulouse was still holding his own against the French, proudly refusing to kneel before the Capet king. (As an aside, Blanche’s hubby, Louis, had on purpose stirred the dying embers of the Albigensian crusade into flames again so as to give him an excuse to trounce the southern counts and demand their homage)

Well-educated and as competent and forceful as her grandmother, Blanche wasn’t about to sit around passively and allow her son’s (her) powers to be usurped. Nope. To the surprise of her rebellious nobles, Blanche assembled an army and rode out to fight them. And then she turned her attention south, hammering out a treaty with the cornered Count of Toulouse whereby his only daughter was married to Blanche’s third surviving son. By 1229, she had managed to secure her hold on the entire French kingdom—and hold off dear cousin Henry III who had hoped to capitalise on the fact that a mere woman was ruling France to regain some of the territories lost by King John.

Henry III quickly realised that he’d never gain a foothold in France through use of armed men. Instead, he decided to marry into lands, and in 1226 he negotiated a betrothal with little Yolande of Brittany, at the time seven years old. Well, Blanche was having none of that. She forced Yolande’s father to break off the engagement and instead little Yolande was betrothed to another of Blanche’s sons.

Henry III was not so easily discouraged. Soon enough, he’d found a new potential bride, Joan de Dammartin. With this lady came a lot of strategically important land, and once again Blanche had to step in and forbid the marriage. This did not please the bride’s family—after all, through Blanche’s meddling, little Joan was deprived of a crown. Blanche promised to compensate them and an opportunity to do arose when Blanche’s nephew, Fernando III of Castile, became a widower. Berenguela was anxious to see her son wed ASAP—the Castilian kings were a virile lot and she preferred it if her son did not spill his seed right, left and centre. The two sisters hatched a plan and Joan was dispatched to Castile, married Fernando and went on to have several children, one of whom was destined to become the queen of England.

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Margaret

Meanwhile in France, Louis IX was now old enough to rule on his own and by his side stood his wife, Margaret of Provence. It was Blanche who’d negotiated the marriage—Margaret and her three sisters came with impeccable bloodlines—but she wasn’t exactly fond of her daughter-in-law. In fact, she resented her, and did her best to keep Louis and Margaret apart. Margaret was too popular, too pretty, and where previously troubadours had written songs lauding Blanche’s beauty, now they sang about the fair Margaret.

Fortunately (at least from Blanche’s point of view) her son continued to turn to dear mama for counsel rather than to his wife. In fact, for as long as Blanche lived, she was her son’s go-to person so when he set off on a crusade in 1248 he named Blanche his regent. (He took his wife with him, and Margaret would prove herself to be much more than a pretty face during the years that followed)

Blanche wholly supported her son’s desire to go on a crusade. She was extremely devout and passed this on to her children, saying things like “I love you, my dear son, as much as a mother can love her child; but I would rather see you dead at my feet than that you should ever commit a mortal sin.” To her—and her son—the duty to God came first and involved such things as helping the sick and the weak, doing severe penance for any sins and combating heresy wherever it arose.

Louis’ crusade was a disaster. He ended up a prisoner and it fell to Blanche to somehow collect the means required to buy her son’s freedom. As always, formidable Blanche came through, and soon enough Louis was a free man again. By now, Blanche was some years over sixty and late in 1252 she fell ill. Some days later, she was dead. It is said that when Louis heard the news, he was struck mute for two days.

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St Louis

In the fullness of time, Louis would be canonised (as would his surviving sister) I dare say Blanche would have been thrilled at having birthed two saints. Even more so as big sister Berenguela “only” gave birth to one, namely San Fernando (Yes, the virile king Berenguela was so anxious to see wed again).

In conclusion, I’d say Eleanor of Aquitaine made a wise choice that day in 1200 when she decided to take Blanca, not Urraca, with her to France. Blanca—Blanche—would live up to all her grandmother’s expectations and become not only a fertile queen consort but also a wise and pragmatic ruler, a lady who did not hesitate to use force when so required but who also excelled at playing the political game.

The Rule of a Woman – of Maria de Molina, the Wise Queen of Castile

It’s been ages since I dropped by medieval Spain for a visit. Long enough that I’ve missed all my Alfonsos and my Fernandos, no matter how confusing it may be to keep tabs on so many peeps with the same name. Today, I thought we’d focus on a Spanish lady, but before we get to her we must start off with…taa-daa…an Alfonso, in this case Alfonso X, King of Castile and León, son to San Fernando, half-brother to the Eleanor who was destined to marry Edward I of England.

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Alfonso X (obv not by a contemporary artist)

Our Alfonso was born in 1221 and became king in 1252. He has gone down in history as Alfonso el Sabio which can be translated as either Alfonso the Wise or Alfonso the Learned – not synonyms, I must hasten to point out, and in Alfonso’s case I’d hazard he was more learned than wise, how else to explain how this well-educated man ended up fighting more or less constantly with his nobles, his brothers, and ultimately with his son?

As Alfonso X is not today’s protagonist allow me to leap forward to 1275. This is the year when Alfonso’s eldest son and heir, the twenty-year-old Fernando de la Cerda, died of the wounds he’d received at the Battle of Écija. This was one of the many battles against the Moors fought during Alfonso’s reign, all part of the Reconquista, the determined effort by the Christian kings of Spain to reclaim their land from the Muslims. Poor Alfonso, beset not only by enemies within but also without, one could say. How unfortunate, therefore, that Alfonso invested so much effort and money on trying to be elected the next Holy Roman Emperor instead of sorting out his own kingdom(s).

Anyway: despite his youth, this Fernando had two sons – very young boys, to be sure, but still. Fernando also had a very ambitious eighteen-year-old brother named Sancho, and no sooner was Fernando cooling in his grave but Sancho started campaigning for his right to inherit the throne, repeatedly reminding everyone within earshot that he was a full-grown man, while his nephews were as yet mere boys. Plus, of course, according to ancient Castilian laws and customs, the second brother should inherit if the eldest died without adult sons

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Alfonso dispensing justice

Alfonso X did not agree.  He had recently implemented Roman Law in Castile and as a firm believer in primogeniture he wanted his little grandson and namesake to inherit the throne. Sancho sought help among the nobles, and yet again Castile was torn apart by civil war. It did not help Alfonso that in 1277 he had his own brother, Fadrique, brutally executed for plotting to replace Alfonso with Sancho. (This is all very strange, as Sancho in this matter acted on behalf of the king, personally ensuring Fadrique’s son-in-law and purported co-conspirator, was burned at the stake) In general, Alfonso exhibited an increasingly choleric disposition as he grew older, probably due to a sequence of ailments.

The relationship between father and son soured further when Sancho fell utterly in love with a woman other than his betrothed. Passion gripped our young prince, and apparently the object of all this adoration felt the same, how else to explain that the highly born Doña Maria agreed to wed Sancho despite there being no papal dispensation and despite the fact that contractually he was bound to Guillerma Moncada, his betrothed.

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Sancho

Maria and Sancho were relatives – related well within the third degree. Maria and Sancho´s father Alfonso were first cousins, and the royal blood of the Castilian kings flowed as richly through Maria’s veins as it did through Sancho’s. For a woman of such lineage to marry, knowing full well that without a papal dispensation any children born of the union would be considered illegitimate, indicates strong feelings. At least in my opinion, but we all know I have a deep-seated belief in all that pink and fluffy stuff.

In marrying Maria, Sancho made the smartest decision of his life, no matter that they were excommunicated for wedding. In Maria he found the ideal partner, a woman who matched his obvious bellicose skills and battlefield courage with high-level diplomacy and pragmatism.  Just like her famous ancestresses, Queen Berenguela and Queen Urraca, Maria had an innate sense for politics, for sowing dissent among her enemies and fostering loyalty among her allies.

In 1282, Alfonso was obliged to recognise Sancho as his heir in a humiliating treaty. Not that Alfonso had any intention of honouring his promise, something Sancho probably knew as he suddenly proclaimed himself regent of Castile so as to strengthen his claim on his father’s crown. Alfonso retired to Seville, grumbling and cursing. In 1284 Alfonso died, and in his last will and testament he renounced the treaty of 1282 and named his grandson Alfonso de la Cerda his successor.

maria Cantigas_battleWar broke out. But Sancho was good at war, and his nephew was still too young to command any sort of presence on the battlefield. Plus, as a precaution Sancho did away with as many of his nephew’s supporters as he could find. One such supporter was Sancho’s younger brother, Infante Juan, who together with Maria’s brother-in-law, Lope Díaz III de Haro, one day took things too far. When Sancho demanded that they return some of their castles to him, Lope Díaz went a bit wild and crazy, pulled a knife, and ended up very dead. Sancho was all for having Juan murdered as well, but María, who at the time was big with her fourth child, managed to calm him down. Instead, Juan was locked up for some years.  Maria gave birth to a deaf boy (some said this was because of the murder she’d witnessed) while Sancho continued to fight with the Moors and the Aragonese and the French and whoever else decided making common cause with Alfonso de la Cerda could be a lucrative venture.

In the early 1290s, Sancho sickened. A strange wasting disease that had him coughing his lungs out (tuberculosis, present day historians think). Where before he’d believed he’d have plenty of time to ensure a stable transition of his kingdom to his son, now time was running out—fast. Little Fernando was a child, and those dispossessed nephews of Sancho were now adults, determined to claim what should have been theirs to begin with.

Sancho realised his son would need a strong and capable regent to survive all this. Very strong, very capable, which was why, obviously, he chose his wife for the job. In 1295, Sancho breathed his last, with his loyal wife at his side.

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Maria presenting her son to the Cortes at Valladolid

No sooner was Sancho dead but all kinds of enemies began popping up. Sancho’s younger brother, Infante Juan, since some years free of his prison, wanted the throne for himself. Alfonso de la Cerda, backed by Aragón and France, insisted he had a right to the throne. The powerful Castilian nobles took the opportunity to further foment strife, always a favourite pastime of theirs. And then there was the Infante Enrique, brother to Alfonso X who after 23 years imprisoned in Italy had finally returned home to Spain, determined to rule the kingdom on behalf of his great-nephew. (Enrique was pushing seventy at the time, but this larger-than-life gent had a lot to make up for after all those years behind lock and key. More about Enrique in a future post, methinks)

In brief, it was a bloody mess. Things weren’t made any better by the fact that little Fernando—and all his siblings—were illegitimate in the eyes of the Church, as María and Sancho had never received that papal dispensation. In 1296, María was therefore fighting on all fronts, and for a while there it seemed she might very well lose. Alfonso de la Cerda had been crowned by his supporters and was paraded through Castile as the new king, Infante Juan had proclaimed himself king of León, and everyone was waiting for the King of Portugal to come over and join forces with Juan and Alfonso so as to totally crush Maria, at present in Valladolid.

Maria had previously entered into an agreement with King Denis of Portugal whereby her eldest son would marry a Portuguese princess, and one of her daughters marry the Portuguese prince. She now sent a message to the King of Portugal and told him that unless he retired behind his borders the alliances were off, and God help Portugal if they had no alliances in place with Castile once her son was an adult.

This worked. The Portuguese retreated, Infante Juan’s plan unravelled, and for now little Fernando was safe(ish) on his throne. Over the coming years, Maria would work constantly on negotiating agreements with their various enemies, resorting to bribes when necessary. Bit by bit, she strengthened her son’s position, crowning her successes in 1301 with a Papal Bull granting that very overdue dispensation. King Fernando IV was no longer illegitimate and Maria had not lived her married life in sin. Cause for major, major celebration.

In 1304, Alfonso de la Cerda was bought off. In return for renouncing his claims on the throne, he was given significant landholdings, but Maria had insisted they be spread out all over Castile as she feared Alfonso might otherwise create a kingdom within the kingdom. Alfonso was in his thirties by now, and I imagine he was sick of fighting which is why he relocated to France (as one does, hoping for great wines and cheese) and the welcoming court of his first cousin, Philippe IV.

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The young and impetuous Fernando

At last, Maria could relax. Or maybe not, because her son remained young and impetuous and very easy to influence. At times, those who captured the king’s ear took the opportunity to whisper poison about Maria, insinuating the king needed to break free of his lady mother’s leading reins. At times, Fernando behaved like quite the cad towards his mother, but then he doesn’t exactly come across as a great king, more of a spoiled one. Maria may have been good at ruling in his stead, but maybe she pampered him too much.

Whatever the case, after 1304, Maria retired from public life, leaving her son to do things as it suited him. Yes, she was always there, hovering in the background, and no matter that Fernando was an independent young man he wasn’t stupid, so he often came to mama for advice.

And then, in 1312, Fernando died. Just like that, Maria was forced out of retirement as the nobles of the realm insisted she take responsibility for the new young king, an infant just one year old. After all, she had experience when it came to holding together disintegrating kingdoms on behalf of minors… Mind you, things weren’t as bad this time round, and after a year or so Maria and her two surviving sons, Pedro and Felipe, had things pretty much under control.

For nine years, Maria acted the regent for her grandson, doing what she always did best, namely negotiate treaties and alliances. And then, in 1321, she fell gravely ill, dying in July of that same year. She was 57 years old, had been a widow for 26 of those years, and  had been fighting for her beloved Castile (and her men) for 39 years.

She died secure in the knowledge that her grandson had good men around him – she’d made sure of that. I imagine she also died hoping to be reunited with her beloved husband and the four children who predeceased her. She died believing that she’d safeguarded the thrones of Castile and Leon, of Sevilla, Toledo, Murcia, Jaén, Córdoba and Algarve for her descendants. She had—in a way. But things would get ugly and complicated some years down the line when her grandsons Pedro I and Enrique of Trastámara fought each other to death over the Castilian crown. (What can I say? Alfonso XI had a complicated love life) Fortunately, Maria de Molina didn’t know that.

A head for my lady love – a most unusual gift

At the Battle of Evesham in 1265, Roger Mortimer, 1st Baron Mortimer, not only killed Simon de Montfort, he also had his head and genitals chopped off, decorated the head with said man-parts, and sent the entire package off to his wife with his warmest regards.

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Salome, cradling her gift, the head of John the Baptist. (Titian) I think Maud did little cradling…

One can but wonder as to what sort of woman his wife was, seeing as Baron Mortimer clearly expected the lady to be delighted by his delayed birthday gift. Was she some sort of evil monster? A new Salome, demanding a head in return for a dance? Nope, not so much. But she was a woman who had seen her home and lands devastated at the hands of Montfort’s followers, and this was her husband’s way of telling her that wouldn’t happen again. Not on his watch.

The baroness received the gift and had Montfort’s head displayed in her great hall for a while. Soon enough, the smell of rot would have banished the sad remains elsewhere, but it is said the skull remained with the Mortimers for quite some time.

So who was this fearsome lady? Well, Maud de Braose had ferocity in her genes. Her namesake and great-grandmother, Maud de Braose Sr, is the lady renowned for having openly accused King John of having had his nephew murdered (by her husband). John punished her brutally for this. Maud Sr and her son were locked up in the same dungeon without food. They died, of course, but the son predeceased the mother, seeing as she supposedly ate bits and pieces of him. Ugh.

Anyway: the de Braose family suffered through a sequence of tough years, but King John died, chaos enveloped the land, and somehow that gallant man William Marshal managed to guide the new boy-king Henry III and the very unsteady ship that was England through the resulting fog. Good news for the de Braose family, as one of William Marshal’s daughters went on to marry William de Braose, grandson of the formidable first Maud, son of the man she’d chewed on in her dungeon.

William de Braose and his wife Eva had four children, one of which was our Maud, born around 1224 or so. She never had the opportunity of developing any stronger relationship with her father, as William was hanged in 1230 for purportedly having had sex with Llewellyn the Great’s wife. Whatever one can say about the de Braose family—and in general they were not much liked, known for their ruthless pursuit of wealth and lands—they were never boring.

As William had no son, his daughters were considered quite the catch, all of them bringing substantial lands and wealth to their prospective grooms. In Maud’s case, she was betrothed already as a child to Roger Mortimer, this despite her being seven years older than him. This might have been a bit complicated emotionally, seeing as Roger was the grandson of Llewellyn, the man who’d had Maud’s father executed. Roger, however, does not seem to have been all that keen on his Welsh blood—in fact, he spent a sizeable part of his life fighting his own cousin Llewellyn ap Gryffudd, yet another grandson (and namesake) of Llewellyn the Great. Besides, Maud’s own sister was married to Llewellyn’s son, so I imagine family reunions had been pretty tense even prior to Maud marrying Roger.

Now, the reason I find Maud de Braose fascinating—beyond her delight at being presented with a head—is because she’s the grandmother of “my” Roger Mortimer, the man who would go on to woo a queen, depose a king and rule all England on behalf of the very young Edward III. It seems to me many of Maud’s qualities, such as determination, intelligence and courage, were passed on to her grandson together with far less endearing traits such as ruthlessness and acquisitiveness. I guess those Marcher lords (and ladies) bred true, all of them eager to feather their own nests at the expense of others.

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The arch of the former gatehouse at Wigmore, slowly sinking out of sight

Once married, Maud became the mistress of Wigmore, the principal residence of her husband, Roger Sr. For those of you who haven’t visited Wigmore, I recommend that you do, albeit that today all that remains of what must once have been an impregnable castle are ruins that are being slowly reclaimed by nature. Built on a lozenge shaped escarpment, Wigmore had but one main point of entry, and the steep sides of the hill on which it stood made it virtually impossible to breach the defences. Like the eerie of an eagle, the walls of Wigmore offered unimpeded views in most directions, making it difficult for the enemy to sneak up unnoticed.

Maud was about twenty-two when she was wed to her sixteen-year-old groom. The age gap does not seem to have been much of an impediment to this marriage of two people with a similar outlook on life, and soon enough there were baby Mortimers to take care off. We know of at least six children, but chances are there would have been more.

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Henry III vs Simon de Montfort

Like all noble ladies of the time, Maud managed most of her husband’s estate, supervised the raising of her children, and took an active part in defending what was hers (theirs) should such a need arise. Which it did, frequently, as England in the late 1250s and early 1260s was not exactly a place of peace and contentment. The barons of the land had split neatly down the middle, some of them siding with Simon de Montfort and his demand for reforms, some holding to their king, Henry III. From 1259 or so, Montfort was effectively in charge of England, albeit that he suffered severe setbacks at time.

Roger Mortimer was a bit of a weather-vane in all this: initially siding with Montfort, he then sidled over to join the king’s party, less than thrilled at how Prince Edward (at the time a warm admirer of Montfort) blamed him for the loss of Builth, a strategically important castle on the Welsh March. Plus, of course, Montfort allied himself with Llewellyn ap Gruffydd, whom Mortimer considered his hereditary enemy, no matter that they shared blood. In this, he had the full support of the other Marcher lords who had no intention of sitting on their hands while Montfort more or less handed back their hard-won lands to the Welsh prince.

Things came to a head when Mortimer despoiled three of Montfort’s manors. Enraged, Montfort sent his young sons to deal with the stubborn Marcher lords, and over a couple of months these youngsters reaped major success, even managing to take Wigmore, no matter how spirited the defence (And I imagine it was spirited, seeing as Maud comes across as being very, very spirited). Maud’s home was no longer hers, and I imagine her fleeing with her children while cursing Montfort and his allies to hell and back.

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A young Edward I

By now, Prince Edward had fallen out of love with Montfort. As always, those who grab power become enamoured with it, and I bet Montfort was no exception, causing Prince Edward some serious concerns as to the future of the kingdom. This young hawk had no intention of growing up to become a weak king like his father, and where before the prince had admired Montfort, now Edward came to the conclusion Montfort had to be stopped.

“Hear, hear,” I imagine Mortimer saying, by now safely back in control of his precious Wigmore. In the spring of 1264, Prince Edward took the field against Montfort. The first battle was a rousing victory for the royalist side, and Mortimer and his fellow Marchers sent a number of hostages back home. The Battle of Lewes did not go so well—mostly due to Prince Edward’s rash pursuit of fleeing Montfort supporters. Suddenly, both king Henry and Prince Edward were Montfort’s prisoners.

The Marcher lords, however, were allowed to return to the March so as to keep England safe from marauding Welsh. They were also requested to release their prisoners, but Mortimer and his fellow Marchers hemmed and hawed until Montfort lost patience. This time, Montfort joined forces with Llewellyn and set the entire March ablaze, thereby forcing the Marchers to negotiate. The terms were harsh: all Marcher lords were exiled to Ireland for a year and a day, but once again these gents dragged their feet, while further to the south Gilbert de Clare, Earl of Gloucester, was building an army to defeat Montfort.

However, as long as Montfort held both the king and the prince, the opposition was hamstrung. This is when Maud stepped out of the wings of history to grab the limelight by coming up with an audacious escape plan.

Despite being a prisoner, Edward was allowed out to ride, always accompanied by his guards. Maud’s plan was simple: she smuggled messages to the prince, instructing him to challenge the guards to numerous races to ensure their mounts were blown and tired. And once all those horses were reduced to exhaustion, Maud’s men rode out of the forest, handed the prince a fresh horse and galloped off, making for Wigmore.

Maud took good care of the prince. He was fed, clothed, horsed and sent on his way to join Gilbert de Clare at Ludlow Castle. The royalist army had their general back, and while Edward might have been young, he was a competent leader. With him to lead them, the royalist party took heart. Due to luck Edward managed to intercept one of his Montfort cousins at Kenilworth, killing several of the men riding with him, chasing the rest into Kenilworth castle itself. With the captured Montfort banners held aloft, Edward then rode to join his men at Evesham there to destroy Simon Montfort.

It is said that the moment Montfort realised the men carrying his son’s banners were royalists, he knew the day was lost. Grimly, he and his companions prepared themselves to die. Among these companions was one Hugh Despenser, unfailingly loyal to Montfort. Together with his lord, Despenser took the field, and in desperation Montfort led his men in an uphill charge doomed to fail.

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The mutilation of Simon de Montfort’s body

Edward had no intention of taking Montfort prisoner. He wanted him dead, and a small group of men, including Roger Mortimer, were tasked with this somewhat dishonourable task. It was Roger who delivered the killing blow, thrusting his lance through Montfort’s throat. Once he was dead, Mortimer and his friends went on to mutilate his body—which was how Maud de Braose, Baroness Mortimer, became the recipient of one of the gorier birthday gifts in history.

As an aside, Hugh Despenser’s body was also mutilated, thereby spawning the unrelenting enmity between the Mortimers and the Despensers that would come to a head several decades later.

Maud would go on to live a life marked by her fair share of loss and pain. Her eldest son and precious heir, Ralph, died young. By all accounts Ralph was something of a paragon, showing an innate aptitude for the martial skills required of a Marcher lord. Fortunately, there were plenty of spares, including the well-educated Edmund Mortimer who was obliged to leave Oxford and return home. In time, Edmund’s son, “my” Roger, would inherit the extensive Mortimer lands.

In 1282 Roger Mortimer died, at the age of fifty or so. In comparison with future generations of Mortimer men who all had a tragic tendency to die relatively young, Roger Mortimer Sr had a nice long life but his wife was to survive him for a further twenty years or so before dying in 1301 or thereabouts. By then, she was well over seventy and most of her children were dead. But she must have been comforted by the fact that her eldest grandson Roger was already a vibrant young man, thereby ensuring the Mortimer star would continue to rise. Which, as we know, it did. Before it came crashing back down… (more here)

 

Brought to bed of a daughter? Try again!

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One of the things a medieval queen was expected to provide her husband with was a male heir – and preferably a spare. For a medieval king to have only female heirs caused a number of problems, primarily that of convincing the male barons to swear allegiance to a woman. Plus, from a purely dynastic perspective, whatever children the female ruler had would belong to their father’s house.

So when, in 1254, the heir to the English throne, Edward, married Eleanor of Castile, one of the expectations on the (very) young bride was that she ensure a continuation of the Plantagenet dynasty – a dynasty she herself belonged to through her great-grandmother and namesake, Eleanor of England. (Yet another young bride, this daughter of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine married Alfonso VIII in 1174)

I’d have liked to present you with some wedding pics, but seeing as all this happened close to 800 years ago, there aren’t any. In fact, there aren’t any reliable likenesses of Edward and Eleanor. We know he was uncommonly tall. We know he lisped and had a droopy eye-lid. We know nada about her, but I imagine her as small – especially standing side by side with her lanky groom.

“Who is that?” Eleanor whispered, shrinking back behind a pillar.
“That?” Her maid peeked out. “Ah, that is your intended, my lady.”
“Him?” Eleanor pressed her cheek against the cold stone. So tall, so handsome – what would he see in her? 

As always when it came to royalty, the Eleanor-Edward union was political. Edward’s father, Henry III, needed to sort an ongoing feud with Eleanor’s brother, Alfonso X, and stop him from invading Gascony. And so, the fifteen-year-old Edward was sent off to Burgos, there to do his duty and wed the  Castilian princess. At least they met some days before tying the knot. Two tongue-tied teenagers peeking at each other on the sly, cheeks that heated when their eyes met. A shared smile, and then Edward was off to do other things (like being knighted by his future brother-in-law Alfonso) and Eleanor could go back to embroidering an elegant E on the shirt she was making for her soon-to-be husband.

The little bride, Eleanor, came with a good pedigree. Her mother, Jeanne de Dammartin, had once been considered by Henry III as a wife for himself, but due to political reasons this was not to be. Instead, Jeanne was wed to Fernando III of Castile (the future St Fernando) as his second wife.

The thirteen-year-old Eleanor not only had a saint for a father. She also came from a notably fertile family. Her mother had given Fernando five children, four of whom were sons. Her paternal grandmother, Berenguela, had produced five children during seven years of marriage. And as to her great-grandmother Eleanor of England, well she had presented her husband with twelve children – one every other year or so. However, very few of the sons survived – in fact, once the youngest was killed by a falling tile, the Castilian crown passed through Berenguela to Fernando. (More on Berenguela here)

With all these fertile females up her family tree, no one was particularly worried about the mandatory male heir. In the fullness of time, Edward’s new wife would surely present him with a healthy, squalling son.

valentine-dicksee-romeo-and-juliet-on-the-balconyAs an added bonus, the young couple seem to have taken an immediate liking to one another. This resulted in a stillborn (or dead shortly after its birth) baby in 1255, the first of sixteen (or at least fourteen) children. At the time, Eleanor was not yet fourteen, so I imagine this was a traumatic experience. There was a gap of some years – years in which the affection and love between Edward and Eleanor grew, making them almost inseparable. Whether or not there were miscarriages, we don’t know, but in 1261 Edward and Eleanor welcomed a daughter, Katherine, into this world.

Little Katherine died at three, and one year later, in 1265, Eleanor was delivered of yet another daughter, Joanna, who died some months later. I imagine that by now, Eleanor and Edward were beginning to become quite concerned. More than ten years married, and no living children – that did not bode well.

In 1266, little John arrived, and he was miraculously healthy. Prayers of gratitude rang in the royal solar, even more so when in 1268 yet another son, Henry, saw the light of the day. Two boys, albeit that little Henry was sickly. To round things off, a healthy daughter, Eleanor, was born in 1269.

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“Better leave them at home than carry them with us.”

In 1270, Edward took the cross. As a matter of course, Eleanor decided to accompany him, leaving her babies in the care of their grandmother and, in the case of the precious heir, their great-uncle. For a modern person, this seems somewhat callous: what sort of mother leaves her children to gallop off on adventure with her husband, hey? Well, first of all it is important to remember that royal children were quite often brought up in a separate household so as to give them some sort of stability. Being a medieval king – or royal heir – meant being constantly on the move, the entire court ambulating back and forth across the country.

Also, in the case of Edward and Eleanor, I do believe her first love was always her husband – he and his needs came first. And Edward seems to have been as genuinely in love with his wife, so maybe it was a symbiotic thing: he couldn’t go anywhere without her. Or maybe that is me being ridiculously romantic, seeing as we’re talking about a man with a very ruthless streak, as demonstrated by how he crushed the Welsh and attempted to subjugate the Scots. On the other hand, all men have multiple sides to them, and…Stop, stop, stop! Back to today’s topic – the quest for a male heir.

In 1271, there was a stillborn child. In 1272, while in Palestine, Edward and Eleanor welcomed yet another daughter, Joan. By then, they would have heard that their son John had died and what little joy they experienced at the birth of their daughter soured into fear when Edward was almost murdered. Clearly, they weren’t welcome in the Holy Land, and they set off for home. On the way, they learnt Henry III was dead. Edward was now king, and the pressing matter of a male heir became even more pressing – little Henry was not expected to live long.

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“Look, a son, an heir!”

In 1273, son number three, Alphonso, was born. A fine, lusty son, and Eleanor must have wept in relief. The little boy even survived his first few months, and it was therefore with great happiness Edward and Eleanor celebrated their coronation in 1274. By then, they’d been married almost twenty years, and even if little Henry died some months later, they did have their lovely Alphonso – and two healthy little girls. Does not seem much, given that Eleanor had given birth nine times. Nine. As she was only thirty-three, she could look forward to several more pregnancies. I wonder if there were times when this thought filled her with trepidation.

1275, 1276, 1277, 1279 – four pregnancies, four births, resulting in four little girls of whom two died. But at least Alphonso, this apple of his parents’ eyes, still thrived.

1281 – a little boy came and went like a shadow in the night. But still, they had Alphonso.

1282 – Elizabeth of Rhuddlan was born. A healthy child, and now there were five daughters – plus the precious Alphonso.

In April of 1284, a heavily pregnant Eleanor accompanied her husband to Wales.
Maybe you should stay at home,” he might have said to her, patting her on her swelling stomach. Not that he meant it, not really.
Stay at home? I accompanied you to the Holy Land – what is a jaunt to Wales compared with that?” she puffed, giving him a bright smile.

Royal 20 C.III, f.15So off they went, and there, in the building site that was Caernarvon Castle, Eleanor was delivered of a boy. A boy! Yes, a miracle baby, a strong little prince, and Eleanor smiled and wept as she presented her husband with the much-desired, if not so necessary, spare. After all, their sweet son Alphonso was now old enough to wed, and a marriage had been arranged for him with Margaret, daughter of the Count of Holland. For a little while there, everything was perfect in the Eleanor-Edward household. Until Alphonso fell ill, dying in August of 1284.

Alphonso lived the longest of all those children who died. Long enough for his parents to pin hopes on him, long enough to grow from an anonymous baby into an adored boy. And then, just like that, he died. It must have been utterly devastating. Yes, they had Prince Edward, but both Eleanor and Edward knew just what frail things children were – after all, with Alphonso they buried a tenth child. Even by the standards of the time, they were singularly unlucky as parents.

Eleanor was not to have any more children. After sixteen births, I guess she was worn out, and besides, her health was failing. So all hopes for a surviving male heir now rested on Edward, and even if he was a robust child, there were concerns that he too would die young.Just like with all her other children, on a daily basis, Eleanor did not see much of her youngest son. But despite not being with her son and daughters 24/7, Eleanor was a conscientious mother, ensuring her children were in good, competent hands. Did she love her children? I’d say yes – as much as she dared to. But no matter that she loved them, she loved her husband much more. It was with him she wanted to be, it was at his side she belonged.

In 1290, Eleanor died. Edward was numb with grief – so much so that for three whole days all royal business was suspended. But life goes on, and Edward had a duty to the crown – and his dynasty – to ensure there was more than one little boy in line to the throne. So in 1299, Edward married a second wife, the pretty and vivacious sister of the king of France. At the time, he was sixty and she was twenty – and fertile enough to present him with two beautiful and healthy sons.

In the event, these little spares would not be needed. In 1307, Eleanor’s last-born, Edward of Caernarvon, became king after his father. I daresay she would have been mightily pleased. She had done her duty by her husband and his family – she had birthed the next king.

Avesnes vs Dampierre – a 13th century family feud

drottning_blanka_malning_av_albert_edelfelt_fran_1877In a previous post—quite some time ago—I wrote about Blanka of Namur, Swedish queen who was immortalised by a nursery rhyme. I must admit that I knew very little about Blanka—there isn’t much to find, and other than concluding her father’s name was Jean and that she had ten siblings, I concentrated mostly on Blanka’s life in Sweden.

Now Blanka (or Blanche, as her name was spelled in French) came from a relatively illustrious family that had had the misfortune of antagonising Philippe IV of France. Antagonising this gentleman was generally a bad idea. Although Philippe had the face of an angel—hence his nickname, le Bel—he comes across as a ruthless ruler—hence his nickname the Iron King—more than willing to do whatever it took to advance his interests.

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Baldwin, setting off on Crusade

If we start at the beginning, allow me to introduce you to Guy de Dampierre. No, wait: we need to start with Guy’s formidable mother, Margaret of Flanders, born around 1202. Margaret had an unfortunate childhood in that her father, Baldwin of Hainault, took the cross and rode off to join the Fourth Crusade before she was born, and no sooner had Margaret’s mother, Marie de Champagne, recovered from the ordeal of birth but she followed her husband, leaving her two little girls in the care of their paternal uncle. Soon enough, both Baldwin and Marie were dead, and Margaret’s big sister, Jeanne, was effectively the heiress to Hainault and Flanders.

When big sister Jeanne married Fernando of Portugal (a.k.a. Ferrand of Flanders) there were plans to marry Margaret to the Earl of Salisbury, but Margaret’s guardian, Bouchard de Avesnes, put a stop to this. Instead, in 1212 Bouchard married Margaret himself, this despite the bride being only ten, twenty years younger than Bouchard. At this point, things could have taken a turn for the HEA. By all accounts, Margaret was very fond of her husband—and he of her. But Bouchard was a bellicose person, who was constantly involved in one war or another. At times, he was fighting his brother, at others, he made common cause with the English against the French. Like at the Battle of Bouvines in 1214. Big mistake, seeing as the then French king Philippe Augustus emerged victorious and wasn’t exactly known for his clemency towards those he defeated.

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It was suggested to Philippe Augustus that the best way to get to Bouchard was to have the pope declare his marriage invalid. The pope did so in 1215, but Margaret and Bouchard refused to accept his ruling and fled to Luxemburg where they settled down to do some serious begetting—three sons in three years, even if their firstborn died after a year or so.

Things conspired against Bouchard who was captured and locked up in Ghent. Pressure was brought to bear on Margaret—big sister Jeanne seems to have detested Bouchard—and according to some sources she reluctantly agreed to having her marriage annulled so that Bouchard could regain his freedom. Bouchard, just as reluctantly, agreed to the separation. The idea, apparently, was for Bouchard to ride to Rome and plead their case before the pope. Sister Jeanne, however, took the opportunity to marry Margaret off to another man, a William de Dampierre.

To say things were complicated is putting it mildly: Margaret had two sons by her first marriage, and to make matters even worse, Bouchard was still very much alive and kicking, making this second marriage borderline bigamous. (How on earth did she tell him? “Hi honey, I know we have sworn to love each other for ever, no matter what popes and kings may think, but I think I may just have made a teensy-weensy mistake. I’ve married someone else. I hope you won’t mind.” )

One wonders just why William de Dampierre was willing to marry Margaret, and given the circumstances, I’m not about to put it down to passionate love. I rather think he was gambling on Margaret becoming the next Countess of Flanders, seeing as Joan’s husband was languishing in prison after the Battle of Bouvines, thereby hindered from siring any children with his wife.

For some odd reason, Margaret quickly decided her sons from her second marriage were much more dear to her than those from her first. Maybe she was just trying to forget she had once been married to Bouchard. Maybe she genuinely preferred both her second husband and her second brood of children. Maybe it was as simple as her being aware of the fact that in the eyes of the church, her Avesnes sons were illegitimate. Whatever the case, she and William had five children before William died in 1231. Margaret chose not to remarry. Perhaps because Bouchard was still alive…

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Margaret’s seal

In 1244, several things happened. Bouchard died – some say he was executed on Countess Jeanne’s orders. Margaret was now definitely a widow, both her husbands dead and buried. That same year, Jeanne died and Margaret became Countess of Flanders, making her eldest Dampierre son, William, her co-ruler.

This did not go down well with her Avesnes sons (Duh!) Soon enough, there was major strife in Flanders and Hainault. In 1246, the French king, Louis IX, ruled that Hainault was to go to the Avesnes sons, Flanders to the Dampierre sons. Margaret refused to turn over Hainault to her son John de Avesnes, war exploded. Things came to a head in 1251 when the Avesnes sons had William assassinated. And this dear peeps, is when Guy de Dampierre, Margaret’s second Dampierre son and grandfather of the future Swedish queen, Blanche of Namur, finally steps into the limelight.

Now Guy may have been a charming gentleman, but he wasn’t the most effective of men. Or maybe his Avesnes half-brother, John, was simply a better warrior. Whatever the case, in 1253 Guy was defeated by John in battle and taken prisoner. He kicked his heels for three years before he was ransomed in 1256. Yet again, Louis of France decided that Hainault should go to the Avesnes family, Flanders to the de Dampierres. Yet again, Margaret was reluctant, but when John de Avesnes died in 1257 she agreed to have her young grandson, also a John, named as Count of Hainault—with her as his regent.

I have no idea what Guy thought of all this. His domineering mother had no intention of relinquishing control anywhere, so for the coming two decades, he was co-ruler of Flanders, which probably meant he had little say in anything. Maybe he liked it that way. After all, the man sired sixteen legitimate children with two consecutive wives, so maybe he preferred spending time with his family.

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Guy himself

In 1278, Margaret decided it was time to step down. At last Guy came into his own. But in France, King Philippe IV wanted to make life difficult for the English, who traded extensively with Flanders. Obviously, the Flemish merchants—or Guy—did not share Philippe’s goal. Philippe decided to up the pressure. Did not go down well, but Guy couldn’t exactly challenge Philippe on his own. Which was why, in 1294, Guy came up with the brilliant idea of entering into an alliance with Edward I of England. How? By offering the hand of his daughter Philippa as a wife to Edward, Prince of Wales.

Philippe was having none of it. He was presently negotiating with the English king, attempting to take advantage of the difficult situation with Scotland. So he abducted Philippa and locked her up. The poor child would never regain her freedom, dying twelve years later, still a prisoner of the French king. Very sad, isn’t it? And as to Guy, Philippe decided some coercion was required to make the Count of Flanders realise just how dangerous it was to rile him. Which was why Guy and two of his sons also ended up as prisoners.

Once he’d promised never, ever to marry one of his daughters to an English prince, Guy and his sons were released. In 1297, Guy yet again allied himself with Edward I, which gave Philippe the excuse he needed to invade Flanders. And as to Edward, he made his own peace with Philippe in 1298, leaving poor Guy in the lurch. Once again, Guy was imprisoned, and this time, except for a brief period in 1302, he would not regain his freedom. In 1305, Guy died, still a prisoner of the French king.

I’m thinking many, many Flemish people heaved sighs of relief when Philippe died in 1314 – some say due to being cursed by Jacques de Molay, the last Grand Master of the Templars. (Different story: see more here) Too late for Guy, too late for Philippa, but Guy had many, many children, and his sixth son, Jean, was made Marquis of Namur.

At the advanced age of forty-three this Jean married the nineteen-year-old Marie d’Artois and over the coming twenty years she would give him eleven children—one of which was little Blanche, destined to be queen of Sweden. I’m thinking Margaret of Flanders would have liked that. Just as she would have liked that her great-great-granddaughter, Philippa of Hainault, would one day become Queen of England—even if Philippa was an Avesnes, not a Dampierre.

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