Book Corner: Fields of Glory by Michael Jecks

81Lj4afwfALThe year is 1346 and King Edward III is restless. Despite earlier victories his army has still not achieved a major breakthrough and the French crown remains intact. Determined to bring France under English rule and the French army to its knees he has regrouped and planned a new route of attack.

And on the beaches of Normandy his men now mass, ready to march through France to victory. But the French are nowhere to be seen. Edward knows that the worst thing he could do would be to take the battle to the French, where they will have the advantage and so he sets up camp near a small hill at Crécy and waits.

The Battle of Crécy will be a decisive turning point in the Hundred Years’ Wars. This is the story of that battle and the men who won it.”

A masterpiece!

Fields of Glory follows the English army from their landing on the beaches of Normandy, through the devastating destruction of the chevauchée through Northern France and to the gates of Paris itself, before the retreat ever north in search of a crossing of the River Somme, and the final confrontation with  the French army.

We experience the sieges, the skirmishes, the looting and death through the eyes of one of Edward I’s captains and his vintaine (company) of 20 men; hardened soldiers who all have their own secrets,  fears and superstitions.

We are also given snippets behind the decision-making of the great King Edward III and his 16-year-old son Edward, the future Black Prince. The army’s leaders are vivid, but distant, characters as the story concentrates on the experiences of the fighting men

The Vintaine’s captain, Berenger, leads his men through the armies skirmishes and their own personal battles and conflicts. Rescuing a French girl from the Welsh contingent brings its own problems, dividing the opinions and conflicts of the men while showing  the humanity that still existed among the devastation.

Berenger is a seasoned soldier and experienced captain, who needs his men as much as – if not more than – they need him. His men are real characters; Clip, with his prophecies of doom becomes a sort mascot of the company – only if he predicts their deaths are they confident of survival; and Geoff, who projects his own demons onto others in order to avoid their reality. And then there’s young Ed, just a boy wanting revenge on the french for all the ills of the world, and learning the realities of war through this small band of soldiers.

And then there is Archibald, the King’s gynour, a strange loner of a man who incites fear and loathing even from his own side. He is in charge of the king’s gonnes, the cannon which are slowly becoming part of the modern battlefield, but which are still distrusted by the common soldier.

One scene in particular leaves the reader cold and thoughtful. I don’t want to give too much away, but the king’s justice, meted out to his own men following the plundering of a monastery, left me with a sleepless night, so vivid was the imagery invoked by the scene:

Ed listened to the king’s words with breathless disbelief.

When the men had all been marched back to the army he had thought that there would be a court, an opportunity to explain – and yet here he was, with the sentence of death on him!”

How the scene plays out – well, I’ll leave that for you to discover, but it is thought-provoking, indeed.

Micheal Jecks’ treatment of the book’s climax – the Battle of Crécy itself – is gripping and masterful in its telling. While getting glimpses of the battle’s bigger picture, you are treated to the personal battles of Berenger’s men, the vicious hand-to-hand combat, the losses and victories. The devastation and risks wrought by the new battlefield science – gunpowder – are wonderfully described in great detail.

This is story-telling at its best.

The research is, as always, impeccable and the story of the Crécy campaign is told in all its devastation and glory. The interaction of the characters leaves the reader eager to know them better, to read on. The fight scenes are well though out and  realistic, the narrative of the Battle of Crecy itself being the highlight of the book.

Michael Jecks‘s Knights Templar Mysteries have been entertaining readers for many years. I have been reading and enjoying his books since The Last Templar started it all. The knowledge and detail of the early 14th century judicial system has fascinated many.

Fields of Glory takes Michael Jecks in a whole new direction and I can’t say I’m disappointed. The story-telling is masterful – and has taken on a frenetic energy of its own. It is hard to believe he could write anything better, but Book 2 of this Hundred Years’ War series, Blood on the Sand, is already in the bookshops and promises to be just as exciting and action-filled as the first.

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©Sharon Bennett Connolly 2015

The Maid of Norway – The Tragic Story of Scotland’s First Queen Regnant

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The coat of arms of Norway

The story of Margaret, the Maid of Norway, is short and sad. The little girl died before her 8th birthday, and before she ever set foot in the country of which she was Queen. And her death set into a motion a chain of events that would see Scotland torn apart by war for years to come.

Margaret’s claim to the Scottish throne came from her grandfather, Alexander III. Alexander had come to the throne at the age of 8 and had proved to be a very capable and strong monarch. He had married, on 26th December 1251, Margaret, the daughter of Henry III of England and Eleanor of Provence.

Margaret and Alexander had 3 children together. Their eldest daughter, Margaret, was born in February 1261 at Windsor Castle. And of their 2 sons; Alexander was born in 1264 at Jedburgh and David who was born in March 1273. However, their family was soon to face a succession of tragedies. Queen Margaret died in February 1275 at Cupar Castle. And 8-year-old David died in June 1281 at Stirling Castle.

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Margaret of England, Queen of Scotland

One happy event in the midst of the tragedy, was the marriage of 20-year-old Margaret of Scotland to 13-year-old Erik Magnusson around the 31st August 1281. Erik had become King Erik II of Norway the year before, with a royal council ruling for the under-age king.

Eric came of age in 1282 and the following year, on the 9th April 1283, Margaret gave birth to a daughter, another Margaret. The queen died giving birth to Margaret; at Tonsberg, Norway, and was buried in Christ’s Kirk, Bergen.

For Alexander III, even more tragedy was to follow in January 1284 when his son and heir, Alexander, died aged just 20. Alexander’s death sparked a succession crisis for Scotland’s king. He had no brothers or uncles to succeed him; his only heir was his 8-month-old granddaughter, Margaret, in Norway. In the same year Alexander obtained, from his nobles, a recognition of Margaret’s right to succeed to the throne, should he fail to produce any further heirs.

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The coronation of Alexander III

However, the death of his last surviving child also prompted Alexander III to look for a new wife. And on 1st November 1285, at Jedburgh Abbey, Alexander married Yolande de Dreux, daughter of Robert IV, Count of Dreux, in the hope of producing an heir.

Shortly after the marriage, in March 1286, Alexander was on his way to visit his new bride, one night, when he got separated from his escort during a violent storm; his horse appears to have lost its footing and fallen down an embankment. The king’s body, with his neck broken, was found on the beach the next day, just a mile from where his wife was staying, at Kinghorn in Fife.

With the new queen pregnant 6 Guardians were appointed to rule the kingdom until the arrival of Alexander’s posthumous heir. However, Yolande either miscarried, or the baby was still-born and by the end of the year it was clear that Scotland had to look elsewhere for a ruler. Alexander’s only surviving heir was now 3-year-old Margaret of Norway.

Within weeks of Alexanders death Robert Bruce and John Balliol had both made attempts on the crown and the south-west was raised in rebellion. However the majority of Scots, represented by the 6 Guardians, gave their backing to Margaret, the Maid of Norway and Bruce and Balliol were forcibly held in check.

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Erik II Magnusson

As early as 1284 Alexander III had, following the death of his last son, floated the idea that England and Scotland might unite through marriage. In response to a letter of condolence from his brother-in-law, Edward I, Alexander had suggested that, through his tiny granddaughter, ‘much may yet come to pass’.

The prospect at the time had not been without risk, however; should Alexander have more children, England would have been committed to a disadvantageous marriage with a Norwegian princess. But with Alexander’s death, and the queen’s child dead, Margaret’s accession seemed certain.

With the Guardians maintaining an uneasy peace between the competing claims of Margaret, Robert Bruce and John Balliol, Erik II of Norway sought the help of Edward I of England. Messengers were sent between the English and Norwegian courts and in Spring 1289 serious negotiations began.

On 6th November 1289 an international summit was held at Salisbury. The Norwegian ambassadors met with Edward and his advisers. It’s possible the Scottish Guardians had also sent representatives, but some sources say the Scots were excluded from these initial talks. The summit proved successful and it was agreed that Margaret would marry Edward of Caernarfon, Edward I’s son and heir, within the next 12 months.

For the Scottish, the marriage alliance promised an end to the years of uncertainty and to the latent threats they had been facing since 1286. For Margaret, a marriage alliance with England gave the Maid a powerful protector.

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Alexander III of Scotland (left) with Edward I of England (centre) and Llewelyn, prince of Wales (right)

In March 1290 the community of Scotland, comprising over 100 Scotsmen of substance, met to ratify the marriage agreement. They wrote to Edward expressing their will to proceed with the wedding. The Guardians of Scotland, however, had sworn an oath to preserve Alexander III’s kingdom intact and undiminished for his eventual heirs, and their overriding concern now was to safeguard Scotland’s future independence.

It was agreed at Brigham that, although Edward and Margaret were not yet of marriageable age, the would be regarded as married on Margaret’s arrival from Norway – and Edward of Caernarfon would be King of Scotland from that moment. The business of Scottish government and law was to remain in Scotland and be run by a resident Viceroy or lieutenant.

There was no common ground, however, on the issue of royal fortresses: Edward I wanted to appoint all custodians as a guarantee of security but the Scots saw this as a demand for the surrender of sovereignty. In the final agreement, ratified at Northampton, the point is glossed over with an agreement that keepers would be appointed by the ‘common advice of the Scots and the English king’.

The reason Edward acquiesced on – or, rather, failed to push – the castles issue was the news that Margaret had already left Norway. Edward wanted the deal signed and sealed before the Scots’ hand was strengthened by the physical possession of their queen.

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Edward of Carnarvon

In the final agreement, the Scots got a clear statement safeguarding their independence. Edward promised that Scotland should remain ‘free in itself, and without subjection from the kingdom of England’.

Margaret set sail in September 1290; accompanied by Bishop Narve of Bergen, she was bound for Leith. In preparation for the Maid’s arrival, Edward I sent gifts for his future daughter-in-law; and the magnates of Scotland began to assemble at Scone Abbey, Perth, in anticipation of the enthronement of their new queen.

However, storms drove the Maid’s ship off course and she landed at St Margaret’s Hope, South Ronaldsay, on Orkney. Scottish and English representatives rode north to Orkney to meet her. Margaret died at Orkney, in the arms of the Bishop, supposedly from the effects of a severe bout of seasickness. She was 7 years old.

As the Scottish and English messengers returned south with news of the Maid’s death, Margaret’s body was returned to Norway. She was buried beside her mother, in the north aisle of Christ’s Kirk, in Bergen.

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Margaret, Maid of Norway, Queen of Scotland

Her father confirmed the identity of the body before her burial, an act that proved significant in 1300, a year after Erik’s death, when a woman turned up in Bergen. claiming to be Margaret. Reports say the woman appeared to be 40 years old, when Margaret would have only been 17, and she gained popular support, despite the king’s identification Margaret’s body, before finally being convicted as ‘the False Margareth’; she was burned at the stake in 1301.

The tragedy of Margaret’s death brought an end to the rule of the House of Dunkeld, begun with Malcolm III Canmore in 1058, and plunged Scotland into crisis. Edward I’s intervention with his judgement of the 13 Competitors for the crown, and his backing of John Balliol as the next King, saw the beginning of Scotland’s Wars of Independence. Marred not only be English invasion, but also the in-fighting among the Scottish nobles, it was not until Robert the Bruce emerged victorious that Scotland found her feet again.

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©Sharon Bennett Connolly 2016

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Pictures taken from Wikipedia, except that of Edward I, Alexander III and Llewelyn, which was taken from castlewales.com

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Sources: castlewales.com; Marc Morris Edward I: A Great and Terrible King; David Williamson Brewer’s British royalty; Mike Ashley The Mammoth Book of British kings & Queens; Alison Weir Britain’s Royal Families; Roy Strong The Story of Britain; Dan Jones The Plantagenets; the Kings who Made England; Chronicles of the Age of Chivalry Edited by Elizabeth Hallam; The Oxford Companion to British History edited by John Cannon; The History Today Companion to British History Edited by Juliet Gardiner and Neil Wenborn; The Plantagenets by Derek Wilson; The Story of Scotland by Nigel Tranter; royal.gov.uk; britroyals.com; undiscoveredscotland.co.uk; englishmonarchs.co.uk; educationscotland.gov.uk.

The Complicated Love Life of John of Gaunt

200px-JohnofgauntThe third surviving son of Edward III and Philippa of Hainault John of Gaunt was born in 1340 at the Abbey of St Bavon, in Ghent in modern-day Belgium. At the height of his career he was the most powerful man in the kingdom after the king. He was virtually regent for his father, Edward III, in his old age, thus getting the blame for military failures and government corruption. His reputation was further damaged when he blocked the reforms of the Good Parliament of 1376, which had tried to curb the corruption of Edward III’s and limit the influence of the king’s grasping mistress, Alice Perrers.

John of Gaunt’s wealth meant he could form the largest baronial retinue of knights and esquires in the country. He alone provided a quarter of the army raised for Richard II’s Scottish campaign in 1385. A stalwart supporter of his nephew, Richard II, he was the target for the rebels during the Peasants’ Revolt; his London residence, the Savoy Palace, was burned to the ground in 1381.

He was a soldier and statesman whose career spanned 6 decades and several countries, including England, Belgium, France, Scotland and Castile. However, by far the most fascinating part of his life is his love life. John married three times; his wives being two great heiresses and a long-time mistress.

John of Gaunt’s first marriage, at the age of 19, was aimed to give him prestige, property and income and was arranged as part of his father’s plans to provide for the futures of several of his children. John and 14-year-old Blanche of Lancaster, youngest daughter of Henry of Grosmont, Duke of Lancaster, were married on 19th May 1359 in the Queen’s Chapel at Reading.

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Wedding of John of Gaunt and Blanche of Lancaster

It is quite likely that John had already fathered one child, a daughter, Blanche, by Marie de St Hilaire before his marriage. Blanche was born sometime before 1360 and would go on to marry Sir Thomas Morieux before her death in 1388 or 1389.

Blanche of Lancaster was described as “jone et jolie” – young and pretty – by the chronicler Froisssart, and also “bothe fair and bright” and Nature’s “cheef patron of beautee” by Geoffrey Chaucer. She brought John of Gaunt the earldom of Lancaster following her father’s death from plague in 1361, and those of Leicester and Lincoln when her older sister, Matilda, died of the same disease in 1362, making him the largest landowner in the country, after the king.

The marriage proved very successful, with 7 children being born in just 8 years, 3 of whom survived infancy; daughters Philippa and Elizabeth and a son, Henry of Bolingbroke.

It has always been believed that Blanche died in 1369, when John of Gaunt was away in France, having moved her young family to Bolingbroke Castle in Lincolnshire, to escape a fresh outbreak of the Black Death, but that she succumbed to the plague while there. However, recent research has discovered that Blanche died at Tutbury on 12th September, 1368, more likely from the complications of childbirth than from the plague, following the birth of her daughter, Isabella, who died young. Her husband was by her side when she died and arranged to have prayers said for the soul of his lost duchess.

She was buried in St Paul’s Cathedral in London. John of Gaunt arranged for a splendid alabaster tomb and annual commemorations for the rest of his life. John also commissioned Geoffrey Chaucer to write The Book of the Duchess, also known as The Deth of Blaunche; a poem that is said to depict Gaunt’s mourning for his wife, in the tale of a Knight grieving for his lost love. In it Chaucer describes Blanche as “whyt, smothe, streght and flat. Naming the heroine “White”, he goes on to say she is “rody, fresh and lyvely hewed”.

Before 1365 Blanche had taken into her household a lady called Katherine Swynford, wife of one of her husband’s Lincolnshire knights. John was godfather to the Swynfords’ daughter, Blanche. Katherine later became governess to Blanche’s two daughters, Philippa and Elizabeth and young Blanche Swynford was lodged in the same chambers as the Duchess’s daughters, and accorded the same luxuries as the princesses.

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Surrender of Santiago de Compostela to John of Gaunt. Constance is the lady on horseback (Froissart)

Katherine was the daughter of a Hainault knight, Sir Paon de Roet of Guyenne, who came to England in the retinue of Queen Philippa. She had grown up at court with her sister, Philippa, who would later marry Geoffrey Chaucer. Whilst serving in Blanche’s household, she had married one of John of Gaunt’s retainers, a Lincolnshire knight, Sir Hugh Swynford of Coleby and Kettlethorpe, at St Clement Danes Church on the Strand, London.

Following Blanche’s death Katherine stayed on in the Duke’s household, taking charge of the Duke’s daughters. However, it was only shortly after her husband’s death in 1371 that rumours began of a liaison between Katherine and the Duke; although it is possible the affair started before Sir Hugh’s death, this is far from certain.

John and Katherine would have four children – 3 sons and a daughter – in the years between 1371 and 1379. They were supposedly born in John’s castle in Champagne, in France, and were given the name of the castle as their surname; Beaufort. However it seems just as likely that they were named after the lordship of Beaufort, which had formerly belonged to Gaunt and to which he still laid claim.

Meanwhile, John had not yet done with his dynastic ambitions and, despite his relationship with Katherine, married Constance of Castile in September 1371. Constance was the daughter of Peter I “the Cruel” and his ‘hand-fast’ wife, Maria de Padilla. Born in 1354 at Castro Kerez, Castile, she succeeded her father as ‘de jure’ Queen of Castile on 13th March 1369, but John was never able to wrest control of the kingdom from the rival claimant Henry of Tastamara, reigning as Henry III, and would eventually come to an agreement in 1388 where Henry married John and Constance’s daughter, Katherine.

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Tombs of Katherine Swynford and her daughter, Joan Beaufort, Lincoln Cathedral

Katherine was born in 1372/3 at Hertford Castle and was the couple’s only surviving child.

John and Constance’s relationship appears to be purely dynastic. There is some suggestion John formally renounced his relationship with Katherine and reconciled with Constance in June 1381, possibly as a way to recover some popularity during the Peasant’s Revolt, following the destruction of his palace on the Thames.

Katherine left court and settled at her late husband’s manor at Kettlethorpe, before moving to a rented townhouse in Lincoln. John of Gaunt visited her regularly throughout the 1380s, and Katherine was frequently at court. With 4 children by John of Gaunt but still only, officially, governess to his daughters, Katherine was made a Lady of the Garter in 1388.

Constance, however, died on 24th March, 1394, at Leicester Castle and was buried at Newark Abbey in Leicester.

John then went to Guienne to look after his interests as Duke of Aquitaine and remained in France from September 1394 until December 1395. When he returned to England, John wasted no time in reuniting with Katherine and they were married in Lincoln Cathedral in January 1396.

John then made an appeal to the Pope and his children by Katherine were legitimated on 1st September 1396, and then by Charter of Richard II on 9th February 1397. However, a later clause excluded the Beaufort children from the succession.

John was a man of renown, of culture and refinement. An amateur poet and friend of Chaucer, who had married Katherine’s sister, Philippa, he was also a patron of Wycliffe and encouraged the translation of the Bible into English.

His complicated love life would cause problems for future generations, with his son by Blanche of Lancaster, Henry, forcing the abdication of Richard II and usurping the throne on 30th September 1399. His Beaufort descendants would be prominent players on both sides of the Wars of the Roses. While his son John, Earl of Somerset was the grandfather of Margaret Beaufort, mother of Henry VII, his daughter, Joan, was grandmother of the Yorkist kings Edward IV and Richard III.

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Drawing of the tomb of John of Gaunt and Blanche of Lancaster, etching by Wenceslas Hollar, 1658

Katherine would outlive John and died at Lincoln on 10th May 1403. She was buried, close to the High Altar, in the cathedral in which she had married her prince just 7 years earlier. Her daughter Joan, Countess of Westmoreland, was laid to rest beside her, following her death in 1440. Their tombs, however, are empty and they are buried beneath the floor of the cathedral.

John himself died in February 1399, probably at Leicester Castle. He was buried in Old St Paul’s Cathedral, beside his first wife, Blanche of Lancaster. This has often been seen as his final act of love for his first wife, despite the problems John went through in order to finally be able to marry his mistress, Katherine Swynford.

Personally, I think the two ladies, Blanche and Katherine, were his true love at different parts of John’s life. And I hope he had some feelings for poor Constance, who frequently appears as only a means to his dynastic ambitions.

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Article originally published on English Historical Fiction Authors in September 2015.

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Sources: Williamson, David Brewer’s British Royalty; Juliet Gardiner & Neil Wenborn History Today Companion to British History; Mike Ashley The Mammoth Book of British Kings & Queens; Alison Weir Britain’s Royal Families, the Complete Genealogy; Paul Johnson The Life and Times of Edward III; Ian Mortimer The Perfect King, the Life of Edward III; WM Ormrod The Reign of Edward III; Edited by Elizabeth Hallam Chronicles of the Age of Chivalry; Amy Licence Red Roses: From Blanche of Gaunt to Margaret Beaufort; womenshistory.about.com/od/medrenqueens/a/Katherine-Swynford; katherineswynfordsociety.org.uk.

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Pictures courtesy of Wikipedia, except the tomb of Katherine Swynford, © Sharon Bennett Connolly, 2015.

In Search of Sir Lancelot

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The Great Hall and Round Table in Winchester

I have always had a soft spot for the Arthurian Romances. I love the legend of King Arthur and really hope that there was a historical Arthur who inspired the original tales. His Knights of the Round Table are held up as models of chivalry throughout Europe.

And the recent discovery of some wonderful wall paintings of Lancelot du Lac in a Ducal Tower in Siedlęcin in Poland is simply incredible.

Rodengo, Schmalkalden and Siedlęcin: Where Did the Knights of the Round Table Go?

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Castel Rodengo

King Arthur is mortally wounded and taken to the isle of Avalon, the cream of the crop – his best knights dead. With their passing the age of chivalric deeds and marvelous exploits is over.

Is it really? After all, what the king and his knights have left behind is an extensive body of literature and next to Arthur himself, each of the knights has his own story to be told and retold. And their stories have been retold many times in several versions in different languages.

Some of Arthur’s knights were so celebrated that their fame spread from the literary world to the world of art, music and architecture.

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Rodengo murals (detail)

Today I am going to focus on the two of these knights, both very popular and with an enormous impact on the literary world. Yvain and Lancelot, for they are the ones, became the main characters of Chretien de Troyes’ romances and many other poets and writers that followed and based their versions on Chretien’s.

A few groups of the wall paintings, for example, presenting their deeds and exploits survive scattered across Europe. The most famous murals are certainly those painted by Sir Lancelot himself in the Prose Lancelot, but let me take a closer look at those painted on the walls of medieval castles, towers and houses.

Yvain was beside himself. everything he heard upset him, and everything he saw tormented him. He wished he were far away in a land so wild that no one would know where to look for him…
(from Yvain ou le Chevalier au lion)

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Hessenhof in Schmalkalden in the Middle Ages

One look at Castel Rodengo mounted on a hilltop covered with thick verdure is enough to give the impression that Yvain’s wish has come true, fortunately the surrounding land is not as wild as it may seem and everyone has a chance to visit and admire the wall paintings preserved inside the former castle chapel, dedicated to St Nicholas. Dating back to the 1220s, the cycle depicts the story of Ivain as told by Chretien de Troyes and Hartmann von Aue and is an “extraordinary document without known precedent: the oldest surviving representation in the monumental arts of the High Middle Ages of a profane narrative subject in the context of profane architecture”. Little wonder that the discovery of the murals in 1973 caused a great sensation.

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Schmalkalden wall paintings (detail)

The castle itself was built c.1140 near Bressanone, in the South Tirol, and is known variously as Schloss Rodenegg or Rodeneck after its first owner’s surname: Federico I di Rodank. From the late 16th century to the 1970s, the paintings remained hidden under cover of vaulting and flooring. Eleven Yvain scenes represent the episodes from the first half of the epic, with the end of the story not depicted which led to speculations that the paintings were created before Hartmann completed his poem.

In further search for Ivain we move from the north-east of Italy to the central Germany, where in the small town of Schmalkalden, Thuringia, one more fine example of the remarkable wall paintings survive in the basement of the 13th-century Hessenhof house. This cycle is more extensive than the one at Rodengo, the surviving 26 scenes having been probably created between 1220 and 1230. The knightly adventure presented in them is shown as a game and courtly leisure. The Schmalkalden murals are the oldest surviving secular wall paintings in Germany.

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Schmalkalden in Thuringia today

My lady, it’s not fitting to speak of this, but take pity on him, for he loves you more than himself; God help me, when he came I knew nothing of his thoughts except that he was afraid of being recognized, and he never revealed anything else to me. (from The Prose Lancelot)

Henry I of Jawor was the 3rd son of Bolko I The Strict and Beatrice of Brandenburg, he was born in the early 1290s. His father died while Henry was still a child and it was not until 1312 that Henry assumed control of his Duchy of Jawor. Situated in Lower Silesia, it was only Henry’s political acumen that kept Jawor independent from its larger neighbour, Bohemia, despite other Silesian Dukes were swearing fealty to Bohemia’s king, John the Blind.

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Ducal tower of Siedlęcin (sekulada.com)

After joining a coalition against King John Henry married Agnes of Bohemia, only daughter of the late king Wenceslaus II of Bohemia by his 2nd wife, Elizabeth of Poland. Although the marriage proved childless it did make Henry a rival claimant to Agnes’s half-brother, King John, for the Bohemian throne.

The Ducal Tower at Siedlecin was built by Henry shortly after he assumed control of Jawor. One of the most important medieval residences in Central Europe, the Medieval mural paintings are in the great hall, on the 2nd floor of the keep. Commissioned in 1345 by Duke Henry, they remained unfinished following the Duke’s death in 1346.

Arthurian legends were very popular in the courts of Medieval Poland and Silesia,, but these paintings are the earliest surviving examples. Sir Lancelot managed to hide unidentified in the ducal tower of Siedlęcin for almost 700 years.

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Siedlęcin wall paintings

Fortunately his true identity was revealed, for today the Siedlęcin is the only place in the world where Lancelot wall paintings have been preserved in situ. The true subject matter of these remarkable 14th-century murals was not recognised until 1990s.

Their major conservation was carried out in 2006, actually saving them, for they were in a very poor condition – they had been almost lost due to perfunctory conservation process carried out in the 1930s. The Siedlęcin group includes representations of the scenes from the Vulgate Lancelot, which were to be the main source of Sir Thomas Malory’s romances in the 15th century…….

There are 4 scenes depicting the court of Camelot. The 1st shows Arthur’s queen Guinevere with her ladies, followed by Guinevere’s kidnapping by Meleagant and her rescue by Arthur’s champion, Lancelot. Below these are representations of Lancelot and his cousin, Lionel;  Lancelot asleep under an apple tree and Lionel sleeping on guard. Then we see a duel between Lancelot and Tarquin and Lancelot with Arthur’s brother, Sir Kay.

The unfinished portion depicts a duel between Lancelot and Sagramour and the healing of Urry de Hongre…..

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Siedlęcin murals

Today Siedlęcin really is the only place in the world where you can still admire the Lancelot paintings preserved in situ.

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For more details on the Ducal Tower at Siedlecin, just click here.

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Photos courtesy of: Winchester – Wikipedia, Castel Rodengo – Valle Isarco, Rodengo murals – sentres.com, Schmalkalden – romoe.com, Hessenhof and the wall paintings – schmalkalden.com, Ducal tower od Siedlęcin – sekulada.com, Siedlęcin murals – L.Bartosik (Go Lower Silesia), Siedlęcin murals – Wojciech Pudło
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Sources: Le Gof, Jacques. The Medieval Imagination. The University of Chicago, 1992; Allaire, Gloria. The Arthur of the Italians: The Arthurian Legend in Medieval Literature and Culture. University of Wales Press, 2014; Lacy, Norris. The New Arthurian Encyclopedia; Lacy, Norris. A Companion to Chrétien de Troyes, D.S. Brewer, 2005; Witkowski, Jacek Szlachetna a wielce zalosna opowiecs o Panu Lancelocie z Jeziora; Wierssing, Johannes. Schmalkalden. Eine kleine stadt mit grosser Geschichte. 2013; Lupack, Alan. Oxford Guide to Arthurian Literature and Legend. Oxford University Press, 2007; The Norton Anthology of English Literature (Norton Topics Online); Ducal tower of Siedlęcin

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©2015 Sharon Bennett Connolly

Book Corner: Duval and the Empress’s Crown

Over on The Review blog!

Read my review of Duval and the Empress’s Crown by Michele McGrath.

632747“Police Agent Alain Duval is tasked with finding the crown but time is very short and his suspects many. Present when the crown disappeared are Napoleon’s sisters, Princess Elisa, Princess Pauline and Princess Caroline. Are they involved or merely witnesses? Aided by his wife Eugenie and his friends Lefebvre and Fournier, Duval sets out to unravel the mystery.” 

Ever since I was a teenager I’ve had a soft spot for the Napoleonic Period.  Napoleon’s story has always fascinated me; the rise of an obscure Corsican to become the most powerful man  in France (a novelist just couldn’t make it up!). So when the chance came to review a novel of the period I jumped at it.Duval and the Empress’s Crown is not the longest book you’ll ever read. At just shy of 100 pages, it’s short and sweet. But it is a little gem.

From the first words you are drawn into the world of Imperial Paris, still recovering from the petrifying post-Revolutionary Terror, but looking forward to the pomp and pageantry that accompanies an Empire.
And into this world are thrown 3 friends: Duval the former soldier, Fournier the career policeman and Lefebvre the reformed thief. They work for Napoleon’s feared Chief of Police, Fouquet. With just days until the coronation of Napoleon and Josephine, the Empress’s crown is stolen from the jeweler tasked with creating it. Duval and his friends are given the unenviable task of finding it – in time for the coronation.
It’s a race against time…
To make matters worse, it soon becomes evident that the prime suspects are the Emperor’s own sisters; the Princesses Elisa, Pauline and Caroline. Duval has to be both determined and diplomatic in order to recover the crown in time for the coronation, just days away. With the Terror still only a recent memory, Duval has to tread very carefully, or he could end up not only with a ruined career, but facing the guillotine!
Duval and the Empress’s Crown is a great detective novel, full of adventure, intrigue and royal scandal. The story takes you through the investigative process in great detail, while giving you the human side of the lead characters. The three policemen enjoy a wonderful relationship, and the book is at its best during the scenes when they are together. Their banter seems natural and easy and makes the reader smile:

 [Duval] “What about my lame leg?”
[Lefebvre] “What about it? You ran at such a high speed when Monsieur Duclos was firing his pistols at you, I couldn’t catch you up, lame leg and all”
[Duval] “Just as well he was such a bad shot….”

You are also treated to glimpses of the glamour and power of the French Empire by visiting the salons of the Emperor’s sisters, as Duval tries to unravel the mystery of the crown’s disappearance. He has to tread carefully with the wily Elisa and pregnant Caroline. And then there is the Emperor’s over-familiar sister, Pauline:

“Let us be comfortable while you tell me what my brother wants of me”

Although this is the fifth book in a series, it really doesn’t matter. It is eminently readable as a standalone, with only vague references to the previous novels in the series – ensuring you don’t feel like you are missing anything. The author has done a wonderful job of taking the reader on a journey through post-Revolutionary Paris. You can still feel the long shadow of the guillotine, while being treated to a glimpse of the splendour and elitism of the emerging Imperial court, where careers are made and ruined by the whim of one man…
Duval and the Empress’s Crown is a wonderful, easy, light read. The plot is not over-complicated but flows smoothly and swiftly to its conclusion. Whilst it could benefit from deeper descriptions of locations and events the characters are well-developed, amusing and capable of eliciting a range of emotions from the reader.
It’s a wonderful novel for a lazy day in the sun. A highly enjoyable read.

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The Lost Prince – John of Eltham

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The Great Hall of Eltham Palace

John of Eltham was the 2nd child and youngest son of Edward II of England and Isabella of France. He was born on 15th August 1316 at Eltham palace in Kent. Edward II had given Eltham to his queen, as a gift and she stayed there often.

John’s birth was a reassurance of the continuation of his father’s dynasty; his elder brother Edward of Windsor – the future Edward III – had been born in 1312. Although he had lost Scotland after the Battle of Bannockburn 2 years earlier, Edward’s throne was relatively secure when John was born. Edward II himself was not personally under pressure; as he had been when his eldest son was born.

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Eltham Palace today

The St Albans Chronicler reported how happy the king was, with the birth of his new son. Eubolo de Montibus was rewarded £100 for bringing the news of the birth to the king in York on 24th August. On the same day Edward II himself wrote to the Dominican friars, asking them to pray for the king, the queen, Edward of Windsor and John of Eltham, ‘especially on account of John’ who was not yet 10 days old.

Although miles away in York, Edward arranged for coverings of cloth-of-gold to be delivered for the font in Eltham’s chapel, to be used during John’s baptism. He also ordered a robe of white velvet to be made for Isabella’s churching ceremony.

Edward II also saw to the practicalities of his new son’s finances, ordering Edward of Windsor’s Justiciar in Chester, Sir Hugh Audley the Elder, to pay the rents, from the manor of Macclesfield, to the queen to cover John’s expenses. When a daughter, Eleanor of Woodstock, was  born in 1318, all 3 children were housed together at Wallingford Castle, near Oxford.

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Coat of arms of John of Eltham, Earl of Cornwall

In 1320, however, their household was rearranged again and John and Eleanor went to live with their mother, Queen Isabella, while 8-year-old Edward joined the king’s household.

Edward and Isabella’s relationship seems to have been cordial, at least, until after the birth of their last daughter, Joan of the Tower, in 1321.

At the age of 6, in August 1322, John was given the Lancastrian castle of Tutbury.

Edward’s defeat of his cousin, Thomas of Lancaster, and rebel barons at the Battle of Boroughbridge in 1322 seems to have precipitated the final breakdown of the marriage. With the defeat of the rebels, Edward was able to lavish power on his favourite Hugh le Despenser the Younger.

As Despenser’s authority and influence over the king grew, Isabella’s waned. She had to turn to Hugh’s wife Eleanor, the king’s niece, as intermediary to get the king’s approval of her requests.

In 1323 and 1324 Isabella spent a lot of time in London, seeing a great deal of her children, including John. However, in September 1324 John and his sister, Eleanor, were removed from their mother by the king. They were placed in the care of Eleanor Despenser.

Membrane with genealogy of the kings of England.
John of Eltham

In 1325 Queen Isabella was sent to France to negotiate peace with her brother, King Charles IV. John and his sisters remained in England, but Isabella managed to persuade Edward II to send his son Edward of Windsor, newly created Duke of Gascony, to France to do homage for his French lands. With the heir in her custody Isabella and her lover, Roger Mortimer, planned their return to England.

On Mortimer’s invasion in 1326 there was anarchy in London. The mob broke into the Tower of London, intending to set up 9-year-old John of Eltham as ruler of the city. However, Edward II was soon captured and in January 1327 he was forced to abdicate in favour of his eldest son, 14-year-old Edward III.

Edward II was probably murdered at Berkeley castle in September 1327, although some historians now argue he escaped and lived on the Continent as a hermit, under papal protection.

Although Edward was now king, Roger Mortimer was de facto ruler of England. John was a natural ally to his brother against the growing oppression of Mortimer. When Mortimer demanded he receive the Earldom of March at the forthcoming Salisbury Parliament, Edward countered by insisting his brother be given a rich earldom. And in October 1328, on the last day of parliament, John was created Earl of Cornwall.

From May to June of 1329 John was appointed Guardian of the Realm while Edward III travelled to France to pay homage for his French possessions; he was briefly appointed Guardian again in April 1331 when Edward went on pilgrimage to northern France.

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Halidon Hill memorial

Married to Philippa of Hainault, with a son, Edward, in the cradle; in October 1330 Edward III had managed to overthrow the hated Mortimer and began his personal rule. In the lead up to the coup John must have been with his brother almost constantly; he witnessed 66 charters between January and October 1330, 10 more than Mortimer himself.

Edward was very fond of his brother. They had shared the terror of Mortimer’s dictatorship. John had benefited from the flood of estates and rewards following Mortimer’s downfall; Edward had been too cautious to distribute such largesse to his non-royal friends.

While their sisters married – Joan to David of Scotland and Eleanor to the Count of Guelders – John remained very much a stalwart of Edward’s lavish court. A writ in March 1334, for clothing for the court, has John sharing the costs of pearls used to decorate 7 hoods; while Edward footed the bill for 2 of the hoods, John financed 5 of them.

Several brides were proposed for him; Jeanne, a daughter of the Count of Eu, Mary of Blois and Mary of Coucy among them. In October 1334 John received a papal dispensation to marry Maria, a daughter of Fernando IV, king of Castile and Leon. However, the marriage never took place.

When Edward turned his attentions to Scotland, John was with him. Edward III supported the claims of Edward Balliol, against David II Bruce, for the Scots crown. David’s forces were defeated at the Battle of Halidon Hill. While Edward III commanded the central division the king’s uncle, the Earl of Norfolk, led the right with Prince john by his side. Hand-to-hand combat followed a terrifying onslaught of arrows, and the Scots were routed.

Tomb of John of Eltham, Westminster Abbey.
Tomb of John of Eltham, Westminster Abbey

John was also by his brother’s side during the 1335 and 1336 campaigns in Scotland. In June 1335 John joined the muster at Newcastle. The 1335 war was without compromise: looting, raping, killing and burning.

John appears to have been a competent and ruthless commander. Trusted by his brother he commanded a force in southern Scotland, putting down opposition to Edward Balliol. It is said that Joh burned down Lesmahagow Abbey when it was filled with people who had sought sanctuary from the English troops.

In 1336 John led a great council in Northampton while his brother was still in Scotland. The council decided to send an embassy to France to seek a compromise over the developing hostilities (France were promising to aid the Scots). John was soon back with Edward III in Perth where he died on 13th September 1336, just a month after his 20th birthday.

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Weepers on the tomb of John of Eltham

Thomas Gray, writing in 1355, said John died a ‘good death’, it is thought he died of a fever, brought on by his military exertions. There were, however, rumours of foul play and the Scots even suggested John was stabbed by an enraged Edward at the altar of the Church of St John, angry at his brother’s ruthlessness against the Scots.

Edward III was very upset by John’s death. He ordered 900 masses to be said for his brother’s soul, and even a year later his accountant noted extra alms-giving by the king in john’s memory.

John was buried in Westminster Abbey on 13th January 1337 and Edward III had an alabaster monument erected in St Edmund’s Chapel. The effigy has a moustache and is wearing a mixture of mail and plate armour, with John’s coat of arms on the shield. The Weepers surround the base of the tomb and could be representative of John’s family members.

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Photographs: The Weepers © the V&A Museum, London; Tomb of Prince John of Eltham © Westminster Abbey; all other pictures courtesy of Wikipedia

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Sources: The Perfect King, the Life of Edward III by Ian Mortimer; The Life and Time of Edward III by Paul Johnson; The Reign of Edward III  by WM Ormrod; The Mammoth Book of British kings & Queens by Mike Ashley; Britain’s’ Royal Families, the Complete Genealogy by Alison Weir; Brewer’s British Royalty by David Williamson; The Plantagenets, the Kings Who Made Britain by Dan Jones; edwardthesecond.blogspot.co.uk; westminster-abbey.org.