Last year I took my 9-year-old son and 40-something husband to visit their first battlefield. We were holidaying in Derbyshire and decided to drive down to Leicestershire and visit Bosworth. With all the hype around the discovery and re-burial of Richard III, it seemed a great way to show a 9-year-old the story of a battle.
He, of course, knows a little of the Richard III story. He can identify the king’s portrait and knows he was involved in the Wars of the Roses, but we don’t linger on the Princes in the Tower too much. I don’t think he is as familiar with Henry VII, but he can tell you all of Henry VIII’s queens, in order, and tell you their fate. So taking my son to the battlefield was a way of giving him a place and time where he could visualise the events and the people.
However, what I found surprising was the effect it had on my husband. Hubby is a bit of a computer geek and into all the mod cons. He never had an interest in history before he met me, and even now I can see his eyes glossing over if I talk too much about the past – 15 minutes a day is usually all he can take!
I have visited battlefields before; Waterloo, Stamford Bridge, Hastings and a few others. The calm serenity always amazes me. I expect to hear the echoes of battle, the cries of the wounded, clashes of arms and the shouted orders of the battle’s commanders – and the thunder of the horses hooves during the cavalry charge. At Bosworth, if you close your eyes tight, and listen intently, you can almost hear it…..
The Battlefield trail is a wonderful leisurely walk. It’s not the actual battlefield; they found that a short distance away a few years ago, but it is Ambion Hill. And standing at the memorial you have a panoramic view of the area; you can imagine the 2 sides facing each other, troops in the thick of it and those waiting to engage. My son listened in awe as I described the death of Norfolk and the final, desperate charge of Richard III; and Percy’s men standing, watching and waiting – possibly very close to where we were stood at that moment.
As you walk round the hill and through the woods, there are markers, pointing the way; and viewpoints and information posts telling the story of the battle and explaining the technology and tactics used. One marker explains the use of the longbow, how it dealt death from afar. The marker explained where the archers were positioned during the fighting; you almost expected to look to your right and see them raising their bows to the air.
My son was fascinated by the idea that children as young as he was had already started their knightly training, that there were only about 1,000 knights in the whole of England. And I was amazed to discover that many who could be knights chose not to, in order to avoid the duty and responsibility that came with knighthood; these men were simply called esquires or gentlemen.
It amazed my husband to discover that cannon and handguns were in use in the battle. 1485 seems to be too long ago for men to have used gunpowder. The handguns were large and cumbersome weapons, too large for one hand to use; guns were still very much in their infancy. However, it was a scattering of cannon balls and other small metal objects (such heraldic badges, spur rowels and coins), found by metal detectors, which finally meant the location of the battlefield could be confidently identified.
Although the general battlefield has now been identified, we still don’t know where individual parts of the action took place. We can’t say for certain where the action between Norfolk and Oxford took place, nor where Norfolk fell. We can’t tell where Stanley and his men were standing, watching for that turn in the battle that made him decide to join Henry Tudor’s forces.
But the specifics don’t matter as much as I expected they would. The battlefield provides its own story. And the fact you can’t say exactly where each part of the action happened serves to highlight the confusion of a battle. When you’re on the ground, in the thick of it, fighting for your life and your king, you wouldn’t be looking round to see where on the field you were. You would be looking to your own survival, fighting the man in front of you while watching your back.
So the locations of events are vague, but that they are remembered and commemorated is what matters. Whether the marker is where Richard fell matters less than that there is a marker to the fallen king.
And once you have walked the Battlefield Trail, there is the Heritage Centre to visit. The Centre offers wonderful background to the battle, told through the voices of those involved: a serving girl at a local inn, a mercenary’s wife, an archer. The 2 armoured kings stand watch over you as you view artefacts found on the field of battle and study maps and videos explaining the battle and the troop movements.
The Heritage Centre is very hands-on; children can try on the armour and test out the helmets. You can test your ability to draw a longbow; it’s not as easy as you think. By far the most dramatic display is the little corner dedicated to the Barber-Surgeons. The tools of his trade are displayed and a skeleton depicting the wounds of one soldier from the battlefield. Given the recent discovery of Richard III, and the detailed descriptions of his wounds, this seemed a particularly poignant display.
Walking the battlefield is a humbling experience. So little is known about the men who fought and died in these fields on 22nd August 1485. And, yet, the date marks so much change in English history: the end of one the Plantagenet dynasty and the start of Tudor rule; the end of the Middle Ages and the beginnings of the Renaissance. Just around the corner were the marital problems of Henry VIII and the English Reformation and the subsequent, glorious reign of Elizabeth I. But the men who fought that day would know nothing of the significance of the battle beyond that moment.
My book, Heroines of the Medieval World, looking into the lives of some of the most fascinating women from medieval history, will be published by Amberley on 15th September, 2017. It is now available for pre-order in the UK from both Amberley Publishing and Amazon and worldwide from Book Depository.
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Mother Shipton’s Cave is England’s oldest tourist attraction. People have been visiting since 1630. The area is a beautifully landscaped park, lending atmosphere to an already magical place.
As a child I didn’t know the story of Mother Shipton, just that she was a local witch who lived in a cave. The witch part doesn’t exactly tell the whole story.
As the legend goes Mother Shipton’s real name was Ursula Sontheil. She was the daughter of Agatha, a local girl who found herself pregnant, but unmarried, at the age of 15. When she refused to tell the identity of the father, and with no parents to support her, she was shunned, banished from the village. Poor Agatha found shelter in a cave on the outskirts of Knaresborough by the bank of the River Nidd, below Knaresborough Castle. And there, one stormy night in 1488, with thunder banging, lightening crashing and gales blowing, she gave birth to Ursula.
Shortly after her birth, the Abbot of Beverley took an interest in Ursula; he placed her with a local family. Her mother was sent to a convent in Nottinghamshire, where she died a few years later.
Poor Ursula had a large, crooked nose, her back was bent and her legs twisted. She had to walk with a stick. And although not a handsome child, Ursula was bright and surprised her teachers with her intelligence. However, she only attended school for a short time; she was teased and taunted by the other children. There were claims that Ursula got her revenge; hair being pulled or children being tripped and falling to the ground… when no one was near.
She eventually found her way back to the cave in which she was born, preferring the solitude of the woods. At the age of 24 she met and married a young carpenter from York, Tobias Shipton. Some say she had bewitched him, as she was too hideous for him to be attracted to her. Their life together was short, as he died 2 years later, before they had any children. The name ‘Mother’ Shipton came years later, when Ursula became the oldest woman in the village.
Ursula made a living telling the future and fortunes of those who asked. She soon became known as Knaresborough’s Prophetess.
Ursula’s prophecies became famous. The King sent messengers from London to hear her prophecies but she became a target of Cardinal Wolsey. Wolsey became the subject of one of Ursula’s predictions. She told him that, though he would see York, he would never set foot in it; while Wolsey retorted that when he made it to York he would build a huge pyre on which to burn her as a witch.
As it transpired, Wolsey made it to Cawood, on the outskirts of York; where he was arrested for treason by Henry Percy, 6th Earl of Northumberland. As he made his journey back to a trial in London, Wolsey fell ill and died at Leicester on 29th November 1530.
Mother Shipton is also said to have foretold the Black Death of 1665 and the Great Fire of London that followed it in 1666. Among her other predictions were aeroplanes, cars, the English Reformation, London’s Crystal Palace, the American Civil War and the French Revolution; and, possibly, the internet;
“Around the world thoughts shall fly in the twinkling of an eye”.
And, of course, she predicted the end of the world:
” The world shall end when the High Bridge is thrice fallen”.
The High Bridge at Knaresborough has fallen twice so far….
Mother Shipton died in 1561 at the grand old age of 73. Having being refused burial by the Church her grave is lost to history.
But, of course, we still have Mother Shipton’s Cave and the Wishing well beside it.
For your wish to come true, you have to put your hand in the well’s water and silently make your wish; let your hand dry naturally, and keep your wish a secret until it comes true.
I remember going there as a child, visiting the wishing well and making my wish. I have never quite forgiven Mother Shipton for the fact I asked for a doll’s pram for Christmas – and got a doll’s pushchair instead.
Just before Mother Shipton’s Cave is also the Petrifying Well. The Well is fed by a spring that comes from a natural lake a mile underground. The water travels through a band of porous rock,called an aquifer, in order to reach the surface, and a huge amount of minerals are dissolved. The magical water turns all things to stone; it takes 3 months to transform a teddy bear.
Mother Shipton’s Cave is a wonderful place to visit. With play areas and a trail quiz for the children, wonderful carvings among the trees and even the chance to meet Knaresborough Castle’s Ravens and the Raven Keeper.
Mother Shipton herself will tell you her story and Cardinal Wolsey is not far away, trying to cause mischief and full of threats against the Prophetess. And, of course, there’s always the chance that your wish may come true…..
Blanche of Lancaster is one of those ladies of history more famous because of her children and the antics of her husband. Blanche’s life was pitifully short, but her legacy would see the unravelling of peace in the fifteenth century, and the decades of civil war called the Wars of the Roses.
Blanche of Lancaster was born around 25th March 1345, at Bolingbroke Castle in Lincolnshire. She was the 2nd and youngest daughter of illustrious parents; Henry of Grosmont, Duke of Lancaster and Isabella de Beaumont. Henry of Grosmont was the grandson of Edmund Crouchback and a great-grandson of Henry III. Isabella was the daughter of Henry, 1st Baron de Beaumont and Earl of Buchan by right of his wife, Alice Comyn.
Blanche had only one sibling, her older sister, Matilda, who was married, 1st to Ralph de Stafford and later to William V, Duke of Bavaria, Count of Holland, Hainault and Zeeland. Blanche herself was betrothed to John de Segrave as a child, but this seems to have been set aside soon afterwards.
By the late 1350s Blanche was a part of King Edward III’s plans to provide for his growing number of sons. As one of the country’s richest heiresses, Blanche was chosen as the bride for Edward’s 3rd surviving son, John of Gaunt. Blanche and John were 3rd cousins, being great-great-grandchildren of Henry III.
The couple was married on the 19th of May 1359 at Reading Abbey in Berkshire. Blanche had just turned 14 and John was 19 years old.
In 1361 Blanche suffered a double tragedy; her father died of bubonic plague in Leicester in March and her mother succumbed to the same disease before the end of the year. While her sister inherited the earldoms of Leicester and Lincoln, John of Gaunt inherited those of Derby and Lancaster by right of his wife; however, the title of Duke of Lancaster became extinct with Henry of Grosmont’s death.
By April 1362 Blanche’s sister had also succumbed to the Black Death; there were some rumours of poison, but this seems unlikely. Maud had died childless and so Blanche inherited the remainder of her father’s estates. Blanche – and by extension John of Gaunt – now added the earldoms of Leicester and Lincoln to their vast holdings. John was invested with the title of Duke of Lancaster and was now the most powerful magnate in England; holding more than 30 castles, his lands and possessions were second only to those of the king.
Blanche herself was pregnant for most of her married life, giving birth to 7 children between 1360 and 1368. 3 sons, John, Edward and a 2nd John, and a daughter, Isabella, died young. Two daughters and a son did, however, survive into adulthood.
The eldest daughter, Philippa, was born on 31st March 1360 and would marry King John I of Portugal. Philippa was the mother of 8 children, known as the ‘Illustrious Generation’ in Portugal, including Edward, King of Portugal, Prince Henry the Navigator and Ferdinand the Holy Prince. Philippa herself would die of plague in 1415.
A 2nd daughter, Elizabeth, was born around 1363 at Burford, Shropshire. Although her 1st marriage to John Hastings, 3rd Earl of Pembroke, was annulled, her 2nd marriage, to John Holland, 1st Duke of Exeter, would end with his execution for treason in 1400; they had 5 children. Elizabeth would marry for a 3rd time to John Cornwall, 1st Baron Fanhope, with whom she had a daughter before she died in 1426.
Blanche and John’s last surviving child, Henry of Bolingbroke, was born at Bolingbroke Castle in 1367, probably on 15th April. Having been exiled in the later years of the reign of his cousin, Richard II, Henry would return to England following the death of his father and confiscation of his inheritance by the king. Richard was forced to abdicate and Henry succeeded to the throne as King Henry IV.
Henry’s 1st marriage, to Mary de Bohun, produced 7 children, including the future King Henry V; his 2nd marriage was to Joanna of Navarre, Duchess of Brittany. Henry IV died on 20th March 1413 and was buried at Canterbury Cathedral; Joanna would be buried beside him following her own death in 1437.
By 1365 Blanche had taken Katherine Swynford into her household. Katherine was the wife of one of John of Gaunt’s Lincolnshire knights. Moreover, John was godfather to their daughter, Blanche, who was named after the Duchess. Young Blanche Swynford was lodged in the same chambers as the Duchess’s daughters, Philippa and Elizabeth and accorded the same luxuries as the princesses.
Having lost her parents and sister to the Black Death it is not surprising that Blanche was fearful of the disease. In the summer of 1368 she is said to have moved her family away from the city, to Bolingbroke Castle to escape the pestilence.
There seems to be some doubt over the year of her death – some sources say 1368 – and even the nature of it. One theory is that Blanche succumbed to the bubonic plague, the disease she most feared, in 1369. As a daughter, Isabella, who died young, was born in 1368 some have suggested Blanche died in childbirth. However, recent research by Amy Licence has discovered that Blanche died at Tutbury on 12th September, 1368, more likely from the complications of childbirth than from the plague. Her husband was by her side when she died and a letter has come to light in which John arranged to have prayers said for the soul of his lost duchess.¹
Blanche was buried in Old St Paul’s Cathedral, London; where John of Gaunt arranged for a splendid alabaster tomb and annual commemorations for the rest of his life. And despite 2 subsequent marriages, John of Gaunt would be interred next to Blanche following his own death in 1399. The tomb was lost when the cathedral was destroyed during the Great Fire of London in 1666.
Blanche is one of the few ladies of the 14th century of whom we have several descriptions. The Chronicler Froissart noted that she was “jone et jolie” – young and pretty.
The best description, however, is from Geoffrey Chaucer, Katherine Swynford’s brother-in-law, who was commissioned by John of Gaunt to write The Book of the Duchess, also known as The Deth of Blaunche. The poem is said to depict Gaunt’s mourning for his wife, in the tale of a Knight grieving for his lost love.
Chaucer describes Blanche’s neck (yes, her neck) as “whyt, smothe, streght and flat. Naming the heroine “White”, he goes on to say she is “rody, fresh and lyvely hewed”. Blanche (White) was “bothe fair and bright” and Nature’s “cheef patron of beautee”.
Despite his marrying Constance of Castile just 2 years later, and his eventual marriage to his mistress, Katherine Swynford, being singled out as one of the great love affairs of the age, it was said that Blanche was the love of his life.
Chaucer’s poem and the lavish tomb and commemorations are said to highlight Gaunt’s love for his 1st wife; the fact he was eventually buried beside her has been seen, by many, as the final proof of this love.
Footnote: ¹Red Roses: From Blanche of Gaunt to Margaret Beaufort by Amy Licence.
Sources: Brewer’s British Royalty by David Williamson; Red Roses: From Blanche of Gaunt to Margaret Beaufort by Amy Licence; History Today Companion to British History Edited by Juliet Gardiner & Neil Wenborn; The mammoth Book of British kings & Queen by Mike Ashley; Britain’s Royal Families, the Complete Genealogy by Alison Weir; The Life and Times of Edward III by paul Johnson; The Perfect King, the Life of Edward III by Ian Mortimer; Chronicles of the Age of Chivalry Edited by Elizabeth Hallam; unofficialroyalty.com; katherineswynfordsociety.org.uk; The Reign of Edward III by WM Ormrod; The Plantagenets, the kings Who Made Britain by Dan Jones; englishmonarchs.co.uk; oxforddnb.com.
My book, Heroines of the Medieval World, looking into the lives of some of the most fascinating women from medieval history, will be published by Amberley on 15th September, 2017. It is now available for pre-order in the UK from both Amberley Publishing and Amazon UK and worldwide from Book Depository. It will be available from Amazon US from 1 May 2018.
You can be the first to read new articles by clicking the ‘Follow’ button, liking our Facebook page or joining me on Twitter.