Guest Post: David and Goliath

Today it is a pleasure to welcome Alistair Forrest to History…the Interesting Bits, with an article about the history behind the biblical story of David and Goliath.

David and Goliath by Caravaggio

David & Goliath

Making the facts fit the story!

ALISTAIR FORREST draws on an upbringing in the Middle East and a love of ancient history to explore fact and fiction surrounding a famous Bible story

I’m an author of fiction, not a historian. So I can assure you that some historians reading Line in the Sand, my account of the David & Goliath story, might get very hot under their academic collars.

I hope lovers of historical fiction will take a different view and accept that I have filled in some gaps that the ancient scribes left in their telling. We know there are inconsistencies and contradictions across the several Biblical books that report the story of King David, leaving many questions unanswered.

So, following my journalist’s mantra, ‘Never let the facts get in the way of a good story’, I have drawn on my studies of the ancient Near East and Old Testament history – let’s call these ‘the facts’ – and unleashed my imagination and love of ‘a good yarn’.

In reality, there are very few facts. The only archaeological reference to King David would appear to be a reference to the House of David on a ninth century stela found at Tel Dan in northern Israel in 1993. Most of the Biblical texts were written down long after the events surrounding David’s rise to power, with the two books of Samuel the earliest account.

Tel Dan Stela House of David

Fair game, then? I decided that this bullied young shepherd should become a spy, find himself betrayed in the Philistine city where giants lived, be tortured and face branding as a slave, fight a giant called Golyat (Goliath) in a gladiatorial arena, rescue a Philistine princess and ultimately escape to warn the Israelites of pending doom.

You might think you know what happens next. I couldn’t possibly comment. But then, I have tried to anchor the story in certain Biblical facts, such as the tensions between the agricultural kingdom of Judah and the five Philistine city states, and the settling of scores in single combat (and who wouldn’t nominate a nine-foot warrior as champion?).

David and Goliath, Andrea Vaccaro

Which brings us to Goliath, or more accurately, ‘Golyat’.

At the outset of writing Line in the Sand, I listened to a very convincing lecture by Professor Jeffrey R. Zorn of Cornell University, entitled Who Was Goliath?, in which he suggests that the Philistine giant was an elite chariot warrior. Most modern depictions of Goliath are as a very large foot-soldier, but Zorn points out his armour and weapons as detailed in 1 Samuel 17: 4-7 would indicate an Aegean/Levantine chariot warrior who was probably transported to the ideal position in a battle to wreak the most havoc.

While researching for the book, I was in touch with Professor Aren Maier, director of the Tel es-Safi excavations that have uncovered so much about ancient Gath, whence the giant came, including an inscription thought to include his name or at least something similar.

Excavating Goliath’s Gath

I am also indebted to the British Egyptologist and author David Rohl, not least for succinct explanations of his New Chronology theories, specifically his interpretation of the Amarna letters and probable references to King Saul.

Books that have helped me include the Bible of course, The King David Report by Stefan Heym; The Source by James A. Michener; David’s Secret Demons by Baruch Halpern, and various books published by Osprey about warfare in the ancient Middle East.

I have read many books about ancient Israel both on-line and in my studies, too numerous to mention, all influential in their way. But somehow I still feel as though I know nothing when compared with the likes of Maier, Zorn and Rohl. I hope these knowledgeable historians will forgive my diversion from ‘what is known’ to ‘what might have been’.

What next? I count myself lucky to have spent my childhood and early teens in three Middle Eastern countries and subsequently to have travelled widely as a journalist, always delving into the history that made each place what it is today. A burning passion to write historical fiction fuelled by two years studying theology straddled by my early years as a newspaper reporter.

Although currently focusing on post-Republic Roman themes at the behest of my publisher Sharpe Books, especially the upheaval following the assassination of Julius Caesar (Libertas, Nest of Vipers), I hope one day to return to my formative years in the Middle East and extensive studies of ancient Mesopotamia, including the amazing stories waiting to be reimagined of Assyrians, Israelites, Phoenicians and Philistines.

An Iron Age skeleton is discovered beneath a Roman floor at Longis, Alderney. Photo: David Nash

And while there’s ink my pen, I must surely make the most of the archaeological dig just a few yards from my home in Alderney (Channel Islands) where archaeologists Jason Monaghan and Phil de Jersey have uncovered well-preserved remains of Roman and Iron Age settlements. The historian Dan Snow is keenly interested in the site. But that’s yet another story…

I would like say a huge thank you to Alistair for such a fascinating article and wish him all the best with his latest book.

Line in the Sand

(Sharpe Books 2020)

1000 BC 

His mother is reviled as a whore and his half-brothers despise him. 

The best Dhavit of Beth Lechem can do is escape. But just as life couldn’t get much lower for the youth they call Leper, he is recruited as a spy. His mission – to find out about the superior weapons and invasion plans of the warlike Philistines. 

When he is betrayed, Dhavit is thrown into an arena with two other misfortunates to fight a pair seemingly invincible warriors. Only speed and quick wits can save him. 

Dhavit believes he is chosen by the gods and finds himself revered in the Philistine court, whose rulers want to declare war on his people. 

At the head of the Philistine forces is the famed Golyat, a man bred for war and destruction. 

A vicious conflict for supremacy is sure to follow.

Two armies will go to war. But also two soldiers – Dhavit and Golyat.

A king and country will rise.

To buy the book:

Amazon UK Amazon US

About the author:

Alistair Forrest is a journalist, editor and author of historical fiction. He has worked for several UK newspapers, edited magazines in the travel, photographic and natural products sectors, and owned a PR company.

He lives in the Channel Islands with his wife Lynda. They have five children, two Maremma dogs and a Spanish cat, Achilles. His books are published by Sharpe Books of London. Alistair loves to hear from readers.

Alistair Forrest is the author of Libertas and Nest of Vipers.

You can find Alistair Forrest:

Twitter Handle: @alistairforrest

Website: https://www.alistairforrest.com

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My Books

Coming soon! 

Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England will be released in the UK on 30 May 2020 and is now available for pre-order from Pen & SwordAmazon UK and from Book Depository worldwide. It will be released in the US on 2 September and is available for pre-order from Amazon US.

Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest traces the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066.  Available now from Amazon UK,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository and Amazon US.

Heroines of the Medieval World tells the stories of some of the most remarkable women from Medieval history, from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Julian of Norwich. Available now from Amberley Publishing and Amazon UK, Amazon US and Book Depository.

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You can be the first to read new articles by clicking the ‘Follow’ button, liking our Facebook page or joining me on Twitter and Instagram.

©2020 Sharon Bennett Connolly  and Alistair Forrest

Book Corner: Stephen and Matilda’s Civil War: Cousins of Anarchy by Matthew Lewis

The Anarchy was the first civil war in post-Conquest England, enduring throughout the reign of King Stephen between 1135 and 1154. It ultimately brought about the end of the Norman dynasty and the birth of the mighty Plantagenet kings. When Henry I died having lost his only legitimate son in a shipwreck, he had caused all of his barons to swear to recognize his daughter Matilda, widow of the Holy Roman Emperor, as his heir and remarried her to Geoffrey, Count of Anjou. When she was slow to move to England on her father’s death, Henry’s favorite nephew Stephen of Blois rushed to have himself crowned, much as Henry himself had done on the death of his brother William Rufus.

Supported by his brother Henry, Bishop of Winchester, Stephen made a promising start, but Matilda would not give up her birthright and tried to hold the English barons to their oaths. The result was more than a decade of civil war that saw England split apart. Empress Matilda is often remembered as aloof and high-handed, Stephen as ineffective and indecisive. By following both sides of the dispute and seeking to understand their actions and motivations, Matthew Lewis aims to reach a more rounded understanding of this crucial period of English history and asks to what extent there really was anarchy.

Stephen and Matilda’s Civil War: Cousins of Anarchy by Matthew Lewis, is a wonderful book looking at the civil war, known as The Anarchy, through the eyes of the two leading protagonists, King Stephen and his cousin, Empress Matilda. A totally absorbing read, this book is enjoyable and informative, analysing the actions of both sides in a critical but sympathetic light.

Matthew Lewis digs deep into the personalities involved in both sides of the war and puts flesh on the bones of these characters. The result is a fair and balanced appraisal of the conflict between these two cousins, both as rival claimants to the throne and as leaders of their disparate supporters. The story is told in alternate chapters from the views of Stephen and Matilda, helping to keep the analysis and narrative balanced and fresh.

Matthew Lewis tries to be fair to both sides. You can tell that he feels for Empress Matilda, faced not only with a challenge to her right to the throne, but with the extra challenges that arose out of her being a woman and unable to lead the military aspects of the war. The author highlights Matilda’s failings, but does temper them with an explanation of how her actions would have been received differently, had she only been a man!

On the other side, King Stephen’s own faults and weaknesses are also singled out, though Matthew Lewis also stresses that where Matilda was hindered by her sex, so was Stephen – by Matilda’s gender, that is. There were limits put on Stephen by the fact he was challenged by a woman; just as Matilda could not lead her troops into battle, neither could Stephen face his challenger in an all-for-nothing trial by combat that could have put an end to the war years later. The result was a long, protracted war during which it was said ‘Christ and his saints slept.’

Before any move was made, there were probably four prime candidates to succeed Henry. His daughter, Empress Matilda, was perhaps the most obvious, but also in many ways the least attractive. Female rule was still something unheard of, at least in England, a nation that would have no queen regnant for another 400 years. The second possibility was Robert, Earl of Gloucester. Robert was an illegitimate son of Henry I, widely considered his favourite. He had extensive lands and power both in Normandy and England and was well respected. He was, however, illegitimate. That was less of a bar to power in Normandy: the Conqueror himself had been called William the Bastard. In England, it was unheard of. Legitimacy was still an absolute, marking the distinction between a duke and a king. Robert had everything required to follow his father except the right mother.

The two other contenders came from the House of Blois. They were Henry’s nephews, the sons of his sister Adela and her husband Stephen, Count of Blois. Theobald, Count of Blois and Champagne was the senior male of the house, though his younger brother Stephen, Count of Mortain, had been in England for years and was close to his uncle. They offered the prospect of legitimate, male successors as grandsons of William the Conqueror, albeit in a female line of descent. None of these solutions appeared perfect, and only one could win the throne. As it turned out, only two displayed an interest, and neither would give up during the nineteen years that followed.

Stephen and Matilda’s Civil War: Cousins of Anarchy by Matthew Lewis is a thoroughly enjoyable read, offering the perfect balance in a non-fiction book; accessible, interesting and informative. It gives a whole new perspective to the Civil War which divided England for the whole of Stephen’s 19-year reign. The book looks into each aspect of the war. The battles, conferences, truces and stalemates, are all analysed through the disparate eyes of those involved; not only looking into how they effected events, but also how events affected them.

Although it concentrates on the 2 leading protagonists, Stephen and Matilda, the book also gives insight into the lead supporting characters on both sides, giving the reader a comprehensive, panoramic view of the era through the personalities of those involved; from the steadfast and loyal Robert, Earl of Gloucester, to Stephen’s queen, also Matilda and the gruff, fearless John Marshal, father of William Marshal, first Earl of Pembroke and arguable the greatest knight England ever had.

Although more known for his books on the Wars of the Roses, Matthew Lewis has managed to demonstrate the breadth and depth of his historical knowledge with Stephen and Matilda’s Civil War: Cousins of Anarchy. He had put his usual level of passion and attention to detail into this book and the result is well worth reading. Stephen and Matilda’s Civil War: Cousins of Anarchy by Matthew Lewis is a thoroughly compelling read.

Stephen and Matilda’s Civil War: Cousins of Anarchy by Matthew Lewis is available from Amazon.

About the author:

Matthew Lewis trained in law and is now a full time author of historical fiction and non-fiction. He also blogs on his website, Matt’s History Blog, and can be found on Twitter as @mattlewisauthor. His main interest is medieval history and he has a number of books on that topic, including The Survival of the Princes in the Tower and Richard, Duke of York: King by Right.

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My Books

Coming soon! 

Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England will be released in the UK on 30 May 2020 and is now available for pre-order from Pen & SwordAmazon UK and from Book Depository worldwide. It will be released in the US on 2 September and is available for pre-order from Amazon US.

Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest traces the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066.  Available now from Amazon UK,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository and Amazon US.

Heroines of the Medieval World tells the stories of some of the most remarkable women from Medieval history, from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Julian of Norwich. Available now from Amberley Publishing and Amazon UK, Amazon US and Book Depository.

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You can be the first to read new articles by clicking the ‘Follow’ button, liking our Facebook page or joining me on Twitter and Instagram.

©2020 Sharon Bennett Connolly 

Guest Post: Why was Ailenor of Provence called a She Wolf Queen? by Carol McGrath

Alienor of Provence

Given my recent articles on She Wolves, it is a distinct pleasure to welcome Carol McGrath to History…the Interesting Bits with an article about Eleanor of Provence, another queen labelled a ‘she-wolf’.

Why was Ailenor of Provence called a She Wolf Queen?

The first novel, in The She Wolf Queens Trilogy, The Silken Rose was published as an ebook on Thursday 2nd April. The Silken Rose features Ailenor of Provence, who married Henry III in 1236 at only twelve or thirteen years of age. He was already old at twenty-nine years old. The term She Wolf Queen was initially used for Margaret of Anjou by William Shakespeare.

Later, the Victorian Historian, Agnes Strickland, used it for Ailenor of Provence, although Ailenor had, without doubt, made enemies during own her life time. Why label Ailenor of Provence a she wolf queen. Did she deserve this sobriquet?

Alms dish (photograph courtesy of Carol McGrath)

In many ways beautiful Ailenor was the perfect queen who generously gave alms to the poor, was devoted to her husband and endowed abbeys. She was a good mother, protective of her children. Exemplary you might think. However, Ailenor was foreign at a time when English Continental territories had been reduced to Gascony and Aquitaine and ‘Englishness’ was becoming a national identity.

Ailenor of Provence never brought Henry a dowry. She was not even from the top-drawer of European nobility. After her marriage, she introduced a collection of penniless Savoyard and Provençal relatives to England.  The English barons who had become inward looking, after the loss of estates in Normandy during the previous reign, were furious. They disliked top positions being parcelled out to the queen’s relatives, particularly to her uncles from Savoy.

Opus Anglicanum

It probably seemed natural to Ailenor to advance her own relatives. Uncle William of Savoy who had accompanied Ailenor to England became one of King Henry’s chief counsellors. Henry even attempted to make him Bishop of Winchester.

Uncle Peter, reportedly charming and clever, became an advisor and received the Honour of Richmond, in Yorkshire. Peter built the Savoy Palace in London. Thomas of Savoy acted as an envoy when Ailenor attempted to buy the Sicilian crown for her second son, Edmund. An unpopular foolish move. It was costly and fell apart when Thomas was captured and imprisoned in Turin and Ailenor had to raise a ransom. The handsome, reforming Uncle Boniface became Archbishop of Canterbury.

Peter of Savoy

In addition, talented clerks came to England from Provence and Savoy. They took over running the treasury as well as other areas of government. This did not please the English barons who felt such jobs were theirs to distribute and control. Henry loved pageants and parties. He spent money on magnificent, expensive building works such as Westminster Abbey. She adored fashion and rich embroidery.  I off set her point of view in the novel with that of a court embroiderer. Extravagant spending and nepotism would lead to conflict between King and Barons. She was blamed as a bad influence on the King.

English marriages were arranged for her relations, including that of Ailenor’s younger sister, Sanchia, to Henry’s brother, Richard of Cornwall. This limited English heirs and heiresses available for English barons’ own sons and daughters. After the disgrace and death of Henry’s mother, his hated Lusignan half-brothers arrived in England seeking patronage. Incensed,

Coat of arms of Alienor of Provence

Ailenor’s opposition to the unpopular Lusignans gave her momentarily a stronger political position at court. However, she recognised she would have to tolerate them if she was to preserve good will within her marriage. Henry made her joint regent when he campaigned in Gascony during the 1250s but she levied new taxes, an unpopular move.

At the outbreak of the Baron’s war in 1263, Ailenor was pelted with offal from London Bridge as she attempted to take a boat from The Tower upriver. After that, she sailed for France to raise mercenaries for the royalist cause.

Ailenor was a force to be reckoned with. No wonder during the Victorian era she earned the title of she wolf queen. Nowadays, I suspect, we admire her loyalty, intelligence, love of culture and personal strength.

I would like to extend huge thanks to Carol for a fabulous post and wish her every success with The Silken Rose.

About the author:

Carol McGrath

Following her first degree in English and History, Carol McGrath completed an MA in Creative Writing at The Seamus Heaney Centre, Belfast, followed by an MPhil from University of London. Her fifth historical novel, The Silken Rose, first in The Rose Trilogy, published by the Headline Group, is set during the High Middle Ages. It features Ailenor of Provence and will be published on April 2nd 2020. Carol was the co-ordinator of the Historical Novels’ Society Conference, Oxford in September 2016. Visit her website: http://www.carolcmcgrath.co.uk.

Carol’s latest novel, The Silken Rose, telling the remarkable story of Alienor of Provence is available now. To purchase The Silken Rose ebook click here

To watch the trailer click here https://youtu.be/EOPKFBhpa0I

To subscribe to my newsletter click here   bit.ly/39eUgKl

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My Books

Coming soon! 

Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England will be released in the UK on 30 May 2020 and is now available for pre-order from Pen & SwordAmazon UK and from Book Depository worldwide. It will be released in the US on 2 September and is available for pre-order from Amazon US.

Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest traces the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066.  Available now from Amazon UK,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository and Amazon US.

Heroines of the Medieval World tells the stories of some of the most remarkable women from Medieval history, from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Julian of Norwich. Available now from Amberley Publishing and Amazon UK, Amazon US and Book Depository.

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You can be the first to read new articles by clicking the ‘Follow’ button, liking our Facebook page or joining me on Twitter and Instagram.

©2020 Sharon Bennett Connolly and Carol McGrath

Book Corner: Camelot by Giles Kristian

Britain is a land riven by anarchy, slaughter, famine, filth and darkness. Its armies are destroyed, its heroes dead, or missing. Arthur and Lancelot fell in the last great battle and Merlin has not been seen these past ten years. Now, the Saxons are gathering again, their warbands stalk the land, their king seeks dominion. As for the lords and kings of Britain, they look only to their own survival and will not unite as they once did under Arthur and his legendary sword Excalibur.

But in an isolated monastery in the marshes of Avalon, a novice of the order is preparing to take his vows when the life he has known is suddenly turned upside down in a welter of blood. Two strangers – the wild-spirited, Saxon-killing Iselle and the ageing warrior Gawain – will pluck the young man from the wreckage of his simple existence. Together, they will seek the last druid and the cauldron of a god. And the young man must come to terms with his legacy and fate as the son of the most celebrated yet most infamous of Arthur’s warriors: Lancelot.

For this is the story of Galahad, Lancelot’s son – the reluctant warrior who dared to keep the dream of Camelot alive . . .

A couple of years ago, I read Lancelot by Giles Kristian, not really expecting to like it. After all, Lancelot was the villain of the King Arthur story and lover of Guinevere; he caused the downfall of Camelot. However, Kristian skillfully put a different spin on the story, presenting Lancelot as a flawed but talented knight, torn between the love for his lord, Arthur, and that for for his true love, Guinevere. Lancelot became a tragic hero and the cause of his own downfall. Lancelot was a story of complex loyalties, tested to the limit by war and circumstance beyond the control of the leading protagonists. In short, it was an incredible piece of storytelling that totally changed my view of Lancelot and the Arthurian legend.

This new book, Camelot, had a lot to live up to!

And, of course, it did not disappoint. In fact, I think Camelot surpasses Lancelot in so many ways. The story follows Galahad, Lancelot’s son in the attempts of the British tribes to form one last alliance that will see them fighting off the Saxon advance. The old heroes – Gawain, Arthur and, of course, Merlin – are there to help the new generation find their way. And the love interest is no defenceless little girl in need of saving – she’s a strong, independent character you will not fail to love, with a story all her own. There is humour, sadness, action and adventure. Giles Kristian cleverly weaves his own story into the existing legend, recreating a world lovers of all thing Arthurian cannot fail to appreciate.

‘You must leave this place and you must do it without delay,’ Gawain said, not looking up from his bowl. He fished out a scrap of meat and blew on it as it steamed between his finger and thumb. Then he thrust the scrap into his mouth and closed his eyes for a moment as if seeking to commit the taste and pleasure of the food to memory.

Father Brice and Father Judoc, standing across from Gawain on the other side of the hearth, looked at each other. ‘We cannot leave Ynys Wydryn,’ Father Brice said.

‘Why would we?’ Father Judoc asked. ‘We are safe here. Hidden.’

‘We found you,’ Gawain said, chewing, juices running into his beard.

‘The Saxons do not know we are here,’ Brice said. ‘The ones who attacked Galahad -‘

‘If they were Saxons,’ Judoc interrupted.

‘- They must have wandered in search of plunder, straying far from King Cerdic’s army,’ Brice went on, ‘which I believe is some miles east of Camelot and -‘

‘The Saxons are already here,’ Gawain cut him off, looking up now, holding Brice’s gaze. There were rumours and rumbles around the fire then.

‘We had to slip past them to get across the White Lake,’ Gediens said, thumbing at the east wall. He was the youngest of the four men, though he could not have been less than forty years old. ‘And not just a few scouts and foragers but war bands. Spearmen by the score. Saw their fires on Pennard Hill. Too many to count.’

Camelot by Giles Kristian is a wonderful crafted novel that leads the reader on a winding tale through Arthurian Britain. It takes you on a legendary quest, to the wondrous castles of Tintagel and Camelot, to the wilds of Anglesey and the Isle of Man and through various skirmishes, political intrigues, disappointments and love – with many twists and turns along the way. While you are desperate to read on through the next chapter, you simultaneously, never want the book to end.

I truly believe that the sign of a good book, is one that will take you through a range of emotions, from laughter to tears, and that will – when you get to the final page – leave you bereft that there is no more to read, and disappointed that you know will not read anything so good any time soon. Camelot fills all this criteria. It surprises you at every turn. It is probably the best book I will read this year – and its only April! This book is a keeper, and one I’ll be getting my dad for Father’s Day, that’s for sure!

Camelot is one of those rare books that will remain with you for days to come, musing over why Arthur acted the way he did, how Galahad managed to achieve what he did, how Gawain’s loyalty and perseverance saved the heroes on more than one occasion and how Merlin managed to weave his magic through the whole story, all the way to the final, climactic battle.

Camelot by Giles Kristian is due for release in the UK on 14 May 2020 and is available for pre-order from Amazon.

About the author:

Family history (he is half Norwegian) and a passion for the fiction of Bernard Cornwell inspired GILES KRISTIAN to write. Set in the Viking world, his bestselling ‘Raven’ and ‘The Rise of Sigurd’ trilogies have been acclaimed by his peers, reviewers and readers alike. In The Bleeding Land and Brothers’ Fury, he tells the story of a family torn apart by the English Civil War. He also co-wrote Wilbur Smith’s No.1 bestseller, Golden Lion. In his most recent novel, the SundaTimes bestseller Lancelot, Giles plunged into the rich waters of the Arthurian legend. For his next book, he continues his epic reimagining of our greatest island ‘history’.
Giles Kristian lives in Leicestershire.

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My Books

Coming soon! 

Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England will be released in the UK on 30 May 2020 and is now available for pre-order from Pen & SwordAmazon UK and from Book Depository worldwide. It will be released in the US on 2 September and is available for pre-order from Amazon US.

Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest traces the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066.  Available now from Amazon UK,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository and Amazon US.

Heroines of the Medieval World tells the stories of some of the most remarkable women from Medieval history, from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Julian of Norwich. Available now from Amberley Publishing and Amazon UK, Amazon US and Book Depository.

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You can be the first to read new articles by clicking the ‘Follow’ button, liking our Facebook page or joining me on Twitter and Instagram.

©2020 Sharon Bennett Connolly 

Julian of Norwich: ‘All Shall Be Well’

Statue of Julian of Norwich, Norwich Cathedral by sculptor David Holgate.

The medieval religious life provided a refuge for widows and elderly women in search of calm and peace at the end of their lives. It was an alternative to marriage, and childbearing, for women and girls from diverse backgrounds. Moreover, the cloistered life was not the only path for a woman who wanted to devote her life to God. One such devotee was Saint Julian of Norwich, an anchorite and mystic who lived in a cell at the parish church of St Julian at Conisford in Norwich.

Julian’s life was remarkable in its simplicity, devotion and spirituality, and because of her writing. Having survived 600 years, her book, Revelations of Divine Love, is the earliest surviving of its kind – a book written in English, by a woman. She is renowned for her words

‘all shall be well, all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well,’

Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love

These simple words still offer hope and encourage positivity today, especially in the atmosphere in which we are all currently living.

Julian’s true identity and origins remain obscured. It is possible that Julian took her name from the church in which she lived, St Julian’s, however, it may have been hers from birth. Although Julian was not a common name for a woman at the time, it was not unknown. It may even be a derivative of Juliana, a more familiar woman’s name. However, there was a contemporary of the same name, Julian of Erpingham, who was from one of the foremost noble families of Norwich in the 14th century.

Julian of Erpingham has been suggested by Father John Julian as a possible candidate for the identity of Julian of Norwich. She was the sister of Sir Thomas of Erpingham, who had been a friend of Edward III and later fought at Agincourt in 1415. Julian of Erpingham was married twice; her first husband died in 1373, and her second was dead by 1393. She had at least three children, with a daughter already married and the youngest possibly fostered out by the time Julian entered the Church. If Julian of Erpingham and Julian of Norwich are one and the same person – and this is far from certain – the legacies from her two husbands would have helped to pay for Julian’s upkeep once she had dedicated herself to God.

‘Revelations of Divine Love’ title page

It is also possible that Julian had been a nun at the Benedictine priory of Carrow, which was close by and had an affinity with St Julian’s Church. She was probably from a well-to-do, if not noble, family as she seems to have had some level of education; given that she could, at least, read before she became an anchorite. However, we simply do not know enough about Julian’s early life to positively identify her origins. Although Revelations of Divine Love is considered autobiographical, it concentrates on her spiritual journey, as opposed to her physical life. We can glean some insight, if not a great deal, from the information she gives at various points in her text. For example, we know that Julian was born in the second half of the year 1342, as she mentions in her writing that she received her visions in May 1373, when she was aged thirty-and-a-half.

In that month Julian suffered an illness so serious that her life was despaired of. Whether it was the Black Death, prevalent in England since its first major outbreak in 1348–9, or some other disease, as her illness progressed she was paralysed to the extent that she could barely even move her eyelids. She was given the last rites and she wrote of how the priest

‘…set the cross before my face and said, “I have brought you the image of your maker and saviour. Look at it and take comfort from it.”’

Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love

Julian wrote in Revelations of Divine Love that she had wanted to have a life-threatening illness, which would bring her close to death, but from which she would be saved. Maybe she believed it would bring her closer to God? Whatever the reason, her illness brought on a series of visions in which she encountered Jesus Christ and his mother the Virgin Mary. The sixteen visions were to form the basis for the direction of her spiritual life and for her book, charting her struggle to understand the divine. Julian wrote two versions of Revelations of Divine Love; the Short Text is believed to have been written soon after experiencing her visions, though it took several years to complete. The Long Text – which is six times as long – is more contemplative and appears to have been a constant work-in progress in her later years.

The beginning of the 15th century Short Text of Revelations of Divine Love

Although her near-death experience directed her later life, it was only many years after her illness that Julian entered her cell as an anchorite. The exact date is uncertain, but it is believed to have been in the 1390s that her enclosure may have come, possibly after the death of her husband or family members. The life of an anchorite was a strange, solitary existence in which the person was physically cut off from the world, while still being a part of it. It was a life that could be followed by a man or woman, but was one which could not be lightly taken on by the anchorite themselves, or by the Church at large.

Not all were suited to the life and a person wanting to profess themselves as an anchorite had to go through a rigorous process to assess that suitability. This even included an interview with the bishop. In Julian’s case, it was probably Henry Despenser, Bishop of Norwich, in the late 14th century. Of particular concern was the anchorite’s mental capacity to deal with the solitude and limitation on human contact. Once the Church had endorsed a person’s suitability to become an anchorite, there was a specific ceremony to signify the end of the life they had previously known.

An anchorite was, effectively, dead to the world. They would live in a small cell, attached to the church. As they were led to this cell, a requiem Mass would be sung for them and they would receive extreme unction, normally reserved for the dying. They would be sprinkled with dust, to signify their burial, and then the door to the cell bolted from the outside. In some cases, the cell was walled up. The only access to the outside world was a small, curtained window.

St Julians’s Church, by James Sillett, 1828

Once they had taken their vows, anchorites were forbidden to leave their cell, on pain of excommunication from the Church. As an anchoress, Julian had to adhere to vows of poverty and chastity and to remain in her cell for the rest of her life. She was not allowed to teach young girls, or possess valuables. Conversations with men in private were strictly forbidden and communication with the outside world was done from behind a black curtain, through which she could also hear the daily church offices, even if she couldn’t interact with them.

Julian would been permitted a servant to see to her daily needs, such as food, laundry, and clearing away waste. However, her daily interactions with her servant would have been restricted to dealing with her physical needs, rather than friendship and companionship. She was also allowed to keep a cat, to control the mice and rats; many images of Julian show her dressed in the habit of a nun, with a cat sat at her feet as she studies her books.

Anchorites were expected to devote their lives to prayers and contemplation, to be a benefit to their community and to work for it by praying for their souls. They were an integral part of the Church, and the parish in which they lived;

True anchoresses are indeed birds of heaven which fly up high and sit singing merrily on the green boughs – that is, direct their thoughts upwards at the bliss of heaven.’

Hugh White, translator, Ancrene Wisse

Once Julian entered her cell, her time was her own. She could manage her own daily routine, although she probably followed the canonical hours and prayed seven times daily. Julian probably read a great deal, she would have had access to books brought by well-wishers and the large selection available at the library of the cathedral priory in Norwich; a collection that was added to in 1407 by a substantial bequest of more than 200 books from Cardinal Adam Easton, a supporter of Bridget of Sweden, who was later canonised.

Margery Kempe’s manuscript, where she mentions ‘dame jelyan’ (British Library)

Julian spent many hours in contemplation, reading and writing. Revelations of Divine Love was written in the English vernacular, in beautiful, poetic prose; remarkably, it was written by Julian herself, rather than dictated to a scribe. The text’s near-miraculous survival, through 600 years and the Reformation, is due to three Long Text manuscripts, which were copied in the 17th century by English nuns at Cambrai and Paris. The book describes the sixteen visions of Christ that she had received during her illness, and her subsequent reflections on their meaning.

Not only does Julian describe her visions in the book, but she also describes the physical experience of the visions, saying,

‘All this was shown in three ways: that is to say, by bodily sight, and by words formed in my understanding, and by spiritual visions. But I neither can nor know how to disclose the spiritual vision as openly or as fully as I would wish’.

Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love

Revelations of Divine Love is a spiritual autobiography, contemplating the relationship between love, sin, suffering and God. It is heavily imbued with mysticism, where the author attempts to move beyond normal human thought, exploring sensations and feelings and the relationship with God. Its message of love and peace still gives it relevance today, and her thoughts are possibly more widely respected now than at any time in the past.

Stained glass of Julian of Norwich, Norwich Cathedral

Though Julian was appreciated in her own time. People visited to talk with her. A few years before Julian’s death, she was visited by fellow mystic Margery Kempe. Margery’s approach to her religion was a direct contrast to the path followed by Julian, but the meeting between the two women strikes me as extraordinary. Margery Kempe was about thirty years younger than Julian of Norwich, born around 1373, possibly even in the same year that Julian experienced her visions.

Julian was the recipient of several legacies, which helped to pay for her keep. In his will, Richard Reed left 2s to ‘Julian anchorite’, while Thomas Edmund, in 1404, bequeathed a legacy of 12d to Julian and 8d to Sara, her maid.

Julian died in, or shortly after, 1416; she was around seventy-three years old. She is commemorated in the Anglican calendar on 8 May. Julian had pursued her calling with quiet dignity and spirituality, ensuring her place in history as a heroine to women on many levels, not only for her piety but also as a writer, a mystic and a visionary, whose approach to God is arguably more relevant today than it was in her own day.

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Sources:

Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love; Janina Ramirez, Julian of Norwich, a Very Brief History; Father John Julian, The Complete Julian of Norwich; Hugh White, translator, Ancrene Wisse: Guide for Anchoresses; Henrietta Leyser, Medieval Women, A Social History of Women in England 450-1500; Toni Mount, A Year in the Life of Medieval England; Felicity Riddy, Oxforddnb.com, Kempe, Margery (9b.c. 1373, d. in or after 1438); Margery Kempe, The Book of Margery Kempe; Santha Bhattacharji, Oxfroddnb, Julian of Norwich (1342-c.1416)

Images courtesy of Wikipedia

The story of St Julian of Norwich appears in my first book, Heroines of the Medieval World.

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