Conisbrough Castle – its Life and History

ConisbroughCastle

Growing up near Conisbrough Castle, South Yorkshire, I did not know much about its history. It was rather underrated. We always thought it was just a bland old place – it was great for exploring and rolling down the hills and playing hide and seek in the inner bailey. However, being so far from London, the centre of power,  it didn’t seem to have much history or national importance. The most famous thing about it was that it was used as the Saxon castle in Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe.

The castle’s early history

English Heritage have spent a lot of money on it in recent years. When I worked there in the early 1990s there was no roof, it was open to the elements, with green moss on the walls and erosion caused by acid rain. And there was just a very narrow walkway around the inside of the keep. It was just a shell. Now it has a roof, floors on every level, sensitive lighting, information videos on each floor and a fantastic little visitor centre with a small museum. It looks so much better (although I still wouldn’t want to stand on the battlements on a windy day like today).

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Conisbrough’s hexagonal keep

When I joined the castle team as a volunteer tour guide, I started looking into the actual history of the Castle, seeing it more for what it has been, than for the visitor attraction it is now. Instead of being a forgotten, unimportant little castle in the middle of nowhere, Conisbrough Castle comes to life through the history it has been a part of, and the people who have called it home.

According to Geoffrey of Monmouth, in his Historia Regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain), Conisbrough was founded as ‘Conan’s Burg’ by a British leader called Conan. It was said to have later belonged to Ambrosius Aurelianus, a candidate for the legendary King Arthur. As Geoffrey of Monmouth says, Ambrosius captured the Saxon leader Hengist, once a mercenary for Vortigern, at the battle of ‘Maisbeli.’ And brought him to his stronghold at Conisbrough. Hengist was then beheaded on Ambrosius’ orders and buried at the entrance to the castle of ‘Cunengeburg’, that is Conisbrough. A small hill, locally called Hengist’s Mound, is in the grounds of the outer bailey.

What we know, for certain, is that by 1066 the Honour of Conisbrough belonged to Harold Godwinson, Earl of Wessex and later King Harold II of England, though there is no evidence that he ever visited. On a prominent, steep hill, the castle guards the main road between Sheffield and Doncaster to the east, and the navigable River Don to the north.

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The kitchen range in the inner bailey

Following Harold’s defeat and death at the Battle of Hastings, and shortly after the Harrying of the North of 1068 Conisbrough was given to one of William the Conqueror’s greatest supporters, William de Warenne. Warenne was a cousin of Duke William of Normandy and fought alongside him at the Battle of Hastings. He was given land in various counties, including Lewes in Sussex and Conisbrough in Yorkshire; and although he developed his property at Castle Acre in Norfolk, little was done at Conisbrough. In those days the castle itself was little more than a wooden motte and bailey construction, surrounded by wooden palisades and earthworks.

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A thoroughly modern Castle

It was not until the reign of Henry II that the Castle began to take on the majestic appearance we know today. Conisbrough came into the hands of Hamelin Plantagenet, illegitimate half-brother of King Henry II; Hamelin had married the de Warenne heiress, Isabel, 4th Countess of Warenne and Surrey, and became 4th Earl of Warenne and Surrey by right of his wife.

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Fireplace in the bedchamber in the keep

It was Hamelin who built the spectacular hexagonal keep that we can see today. The stairs to the keep were originally accessed across a drawbridge, which could be raised in times of attack. The ground floor was used for storage, with a basement storeroom below, housing the keep’s well,  and accessed by ladder.

The first floor holds the great chamber, or solar, with a magnificent fireplace and seating in the glass-less window. This is where the Lord would have conducted business, or entertained important guests. Henry II, King John and King Edward II are known to have visited Conisbrough: King John even issued a charter from Conisbrough Castle in March 1201.

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The chapel’s vaulted ceiling

The second floor would have been sleeping quarters for the lord and lady. Both the solar and the bedchamber have impressive fireplaces, garderobes and a stone basin, which would have had running water delivered from a rainwater cistern on the roof.

On this floor, also, built into one of the keep’s buttresses is the family’s private chapel. This may well have been the chapel endowed by Hamelin and Isabel in 1189-90, and dedicated to St Philip and St James (although there was a, now lost, second chapel in the inner bailey to which the endowment could refer). The chapel is well-decorated, with quatrefoil windows, elaborate carving on the columns and a wonderful vaulted ceiling.

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Chapel carvings

There is a small sacristy for the priest, just to the left of the door, with another basin for the priest’s personal use, and cavities for storing the vestments and altar vessels.

The winding stairs, built within the keep’s thick walls, give access to each successive level and, eventually, to the battlements, with a panoramic view of the surrounding area.

These battlements also had cisterns to hold rainwater, a bread oven and weapons storage; and wooden hoardings stretching out over the bailey to aid in defence. The keep and curtain walls – which were built slightly later – were of a state-of-the art design in their day. The barbican, leading into the inner bailey, had 2 gatehouses and  a steep passageway guarded by high walls on both sides; an attacking force would have been defenceless against missiles from above, with nowhere to run in the cramped corridor.

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View from the battlements

Although the encircling moat is dry (the keep is built high on a hill), all the detritus from the toilets and kitchens drained into it; another little aid to defence – imagine having to attack through that kind of waste?

None of the buildings in the inner bailey have survived, although you can see their stone foundations in the ground. Along one wall there were kitchens and service rooms leading into a great hall, with a raised dais at the far end, and a solar and living quarters above. Another range of buildings attached to the western wall also held living quarters, possibly for the garrison and any guests. There’s even a small jail cell just to the side of the barbican.

Although Conisbrough is not a large castle, the extensive range of buildings, the magnificent decorations of the fireplaces and chapel, suggest it would have been impressive in its day; and reflects the importance of the castle’s owners and occupants.

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The Castle’s Residents

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The inner bailey

The Warenne Earls of Surrey were close to the crown, and the centre of government, for the best part 3 centuries. The daughter of the 2nd Earl, Ada, had married the heir to the Scots throne and was mother to 2 Scottish kings; Malcolm the Maiden and William the Lion.

Hamelin’s son and heir, William, 5th Earl of Warenne and Surrey, married Maud Marshal, daughter of the Greatest knight, William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke and Regent during Henry III’s  infancy. A cousin of King John, William was deeply involved in the Magna Carta crisis, though not always in support of his cousin. Their son John, the 6th Earl, was Edward I’s lieutenant in Scotland and beat the Scots at the Battle of Dunbar in 1296, though he had been defeated by William Wallace at Stirling Bridge the following year. John’s daughter, Isabella, married John Balliol, King of Scots, and was mother to Edward Balliol, another Scottish king. John’s sister, Isabel, married Hugh d’Aubigny, 5th Earl of Arundel, and is remembered as the countess who stood up to Henry III, invoking Magna Carta, when he appropriated land that was rightfully hers.

The 7th – and last – Warenne earl, John, was a colourful character who lived through some of the most dramatic events of English history; the reign of Edweard II. John was the grandson of the 6th earl; his father, William de Warenne, had diedbeen killed in a tournament at Croydon, in December 1286, when John was just 6 months old. Although he was married to Joan of Bar, a granddaughter of Edward I, John lived openly with his mistress and made several unsuccessful attempts to obtain a divorce from his wife. A private feud with Thomas Earl of Lancaster saw John arrange the kidnapping of Earl Tomas’ wife, Alice de Lacey, possibly in retaliation for Lancaster standing in the way of Surrey’s longed-for divorce. The result was the 1st – and only – siege of Conisbrough Castle.

Lancaster sent forces to seize the Warenne castles at Sandal and Conisbrough. His men found the gates of Conisbrough closed to them. The castle was defended by only six men, including the town miller and three brothers, Thomas, Henry and William Greathead, who were men-at-arms. The siege lasted less than two hours and the defenders appear to have relinquished the castle after apparently putting up a token resistance; the three brothers were fined for drawing blood. The chapel in the castle’s inner bailey may have been damaged in the brief altercation, as the following year, Lancaster sent orders to his castellan at Conisbrough, John de Lassell, to ‘repailler la couverture de la chapele de Conynggesburgh.’1

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The bedchamber in the keep, with wash basin and stairway leading to the garderobe and battlements

The last Earl of Surrey died without heirs in 1347 and Conisbrough passed to John de Warenne’s godson, Edmund of Langley, fourth son of Edward III. Edmund’s wife Isabella of Castile gave birth to her 3rd child, Richard Earl of Cambridge (also known as Richard of Conisbrough) at Conisbrough, possibly in the lavish bedchamber within the keep itself. Cambridge had the dubious reputation of being England’s poorest Earl and was executed following his involvement in the Southampton plot against Henry V; however, he is remembered to history as the grandfather of the Yorkist kings, Edward IV and Richard III.

Following Cambridge’s execution for treason in 1415 his 2nd wife, Maud Clifford, made Conisbrough her principal residence until her death in 1446. Maud entertained her Clifford family here and her great-nephew and godson John Clifford, known to Yorkists as the Butcher of Skipton was born there in 1435. In a strange twist of fate, John Clifford is the one accused of murdering the Earl of Cambridge’s 17-year-old grandson Edmund, Earl of Rutland, following the Lancastrian’s defeat of the Yorksists at the Battle of Wakefield on 30 December 1460. Maud died at the castle in August 1446 and is buried in Roche Abbey, about 10 miles from her home.

The castle underwent repairs during the reigns of Edward IV and Richard III, in 1482-3, but by 1538 a survey revealed the it had fallen into neglect and decay, with parts of the curtain wall having slipped down the embankment.

From then on, although it has had successive owners until it came under the protection of English Heritage, Conisbrough Castle has been a picturesque ruin, a wonderful venue for picnics and exploring its many hidden treasures.

Conisbrough Castle from the outer bailey

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All photographs are copyright to Sharon Bennett Connolly, 2015.

Footnote:

1 Hunter’s South Yorkshire ii; Deanery of Doncaster ii quoted in F. Royston Fairbank, The Last Earl of Warenne and Surrey, and the Distribution of His Possessions, Yorkshire Archaeological Journal, p. 213

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Sources:

Further reading: East Yorkshire Charters Volume 8: The Honour of Warenne, edited by William Farrer & Charles Travis Clay; English Heritage Guidebook for Conisbrough Castle by Steven Brindle and Agnieszka Sadrei; English Tourist Board’s English Castles Almanac; http://www.kristiedean.com/butcher-skipton; On the Trail of the Yorks by Kristie Dean; F. Royston Fairbank, The Last Earl of Warenne and Surrey, and the Distribution of His Possessions, Yorkshire Archaeological Journal.

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My Books

Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England  looks into the relationships of the various noble families of the 13th century, and how they were affected by the Barons’ Wars, Magna Carta and its aftermath; the bonds that were formed and those that were broken. It is now available from Pen & SwordAmazon and from Book Depository worldwide.

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,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository.

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 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

Book Corner: Fortress of Fury by Matthew Harffy

Beobrand is besieged in the action-packed instalment in the Bernicia Chronicles set in AD 647 Anglo-Saxon Britain.

War hangs heavy in the hot summer air as Penda of Mercia and his allies march into the north. Caught unawares, the Bernician forces are besieged within the great fortress of Bebbanburg.

It falls to Beobrand to mount the defence of the stronghold, but even while the battle rages, old and powerful enemies have mobilised against him, seeking vengeance for past events.

As the Mercian forces tighten their grip and unknown killers close in, Beobrand finds himself in a struggle with conflicting oaths and the dreadful pull of a forbidden love that threatens to destroy everything he holds dear.

With the future of Northumbria in jeopardy, will Beobrand be able to withstand the powers that beset him and find a path to victory against all the odds?

In recent years, the Matthew Harffy new book release has become one of the highlights of my year, and 2020 is no exception. Fortress of Fury is the 7th book in his wonderful series, The Bernicia Chronicles. And it is probably the best so far! Beobrand has returned home after his recent journey to France in Storm of Steel, and now must defend the kingdom of Bernicia (now known as Northumbria) – and Bebbanburgh itself – from Welsh and Mercian invaders.

Fast paced, full of suspense and action, it is a non-stop rollercoaster ride of action and emotion for the reader. Matthew Harffy expertly combines the story with the known history and recreates 7th century Northumbria perfectly, giving the reader vivid descriptions of the landscape, the harsh reality of life in a kingdom suffering from invasion and fight scenes to die for – literally!

The fears of the characters are palpable.

Matthew Harffy’s storytelling abilities are second-to-none, he pulls you into the story from the very first, action-packed pages, and keeps you constantly gripped to the very last. And he always leaves you wanting more. Fortress of Fury is no exception! Waiting for book no. 8 is going to really test my patience!

They chased the raiders westward as the sun slid down through a crimson sky towards the desolate hills and moors of western Bernicia. Far beyond the horizon, before the land dipped into the sea that separated Albion from Hibernnia, Beobrand knew there rose great snowcapped mountains. But that land was days’s ride away and they would run their quarry to ground long before they saw the craggy bluffs and peaks of Rheged. He glanced over his shoulder at the score of warriors that rode hard behind him. Given their pace and the freshness of their steeds, they might well catch the men they pursued before sunset. He hoped so. He did not wish to lose them in the night. They had burnt a steading, killing folk whom Beobrand had sword to defend. And they had injured one of Beobrand’s gesithas. These Mercians must pay.

Beobrand squinted into the lowering sun. He could make out no details in the glare. A prickle of unease scratched the nape of his neck. Could they be riding into an ambush? With a twitch of the reins, he slowed his black stallion, Sceadugenga, almost imperceptibly. Beside him, Cynan shot him a glance and guided his mount closer.

“What is it?” asked the Waelisc warrior. He rode his bay mare effortlessly, and as always, when Beobrand watched the man ride, he marvelled at how one who had been so unsuited to horseback at first had gone on to become the nest horseman of his warband, and arguably in the kingdom.

Beobrand was no great rider, but he had the finest of horses. Sceadugenga was no longer young, but the horse was still hale and strong and there was a deep understanding between horse and rider. Beobrand knew it was foolish to care for a beast, but the bond he shared with Sceadugenga was unlike anything he had felt with other animals. The stallion and he had been through much together and it often seemed to him that the animal knew what he was going to command before he even knew himself.

“Something is not right,” Beobrand said, raising his voice over the thunder of the horses’ hooves on the summer-dry ground.

“You think it a trap?” said Cynan

There is not just one aspect of this book you can look at and point to and say ‘that’s what makes this a good book’; it is the combination of history, atmosphere, action, characters and storytelling that makes Fortress of Fury the perfect novel. Matthew Harffy uses the background of real events behind the invasion of Bernicia, and weaves it seamlessly into the lives of his characters. Beobrand, now the most feared and renowned warrior in Bernicia, is tasked with defending the great fortress of Bebbanburgh.

Fortress of Fury feels like it is a seminal book in the series, a turning point for Beobrand, as he matures into a great leader of men, whose own men are now becoming leaders. The decision he takes in this book will decide his future. I have yet to see if I’m right – I will have to wait for book no. 8 – but this feels like a momentous book for its hero. The events of Fortress of Fury will have a major influence on where Beobrand goes next – I can feel it!

I still haven’t worked out if ‘unputdownable’ is a word, but it is the best way to describe Fortress of Fury. I lost two afternoons of work because I couldn’t leave the book at crucial moments in the story, then stayed up til midnight, just so I could finish the last 50 pages.

I have long thought that the books of the Bernicia Chronicles are addictive and Fortress of Fury is no exception.

Simply put, Fortress of Fury by Matthew Harffy is a fabulous feat of storytelling.

It is available from 6 August. Buy link: Amazon UK

About the author:

Matthew grew up in Northumberland where the rugged terrain, ruined castles and rocky coastline had a huge impact on him. He now lives in Wiltshire, England, with his wife and their two daughters.

 Follow Matthew Harffy:    

Twitter: @MatthewHarffy, Facebook: @MatthewHarffyAuthor, Website: http://www.matthewharffy.com/

Buy link: Amazon UK

My Books

Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England  looks into the relationships of the various noble families of the 13th century, and how they were affected by the Barons’ Wars, Magna Carta and its aftermath; the bonds that were formed and those that were broken. It is now available from Pen & SwordAmazon and from Book Depository worldwide.

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,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository.

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 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

Book Corner: Britannia: World’s End by Derek Birks

454 AD.
Even after years of Roman rule, Britannia is a conflicted and largely untamed land.
Disgraced Imperial Officer, Dux Ambrosius Aurelianus, flees to its shores seeking sanctuary in the land of his deceased mother. His years of loyal service to the emperor count for nothing now. He must carve out a new life beyond the empire.
Accompanying Ambrosius is a disparate group of fellow refugees: Inga, a freed Saxon slave, his bucellarii – warriors sworn to him – and the surviving members of his estranged family.
The burden of command weighs heavy on his shoulders, for when he lands in the country, winter is fast approaching.
But the weather is not the only thing inhospitable towards the newcomers.
Plagued by troubles, Ambrosius faces opponents among both the native Britons and Saxon settlers. He discovers that no-one in Britannia – least of all, the High King, Vortigern – still fears the soldiers of the decaying empire.
When those he loves are savagely abducted and betrayal divides his company, Ambrosius is left with only a handful of his bucellarii. Though heavily outnumbered and unfamiliar with the land, Ambrosius remains undaunted.
Pitted against powerful opponents, the Roman will need new allies if he is to free the hostages and make Britannia his home.
There will be blood.

Derek Birks has fast become one of my favourite authors. His first novel, Feud, is still one of my personal favourites. He has a knack for fast-paced action woven into a wonderful story that keeps the reader hooked from the first page to the last. This latest offering is no different. Trouble arrives almost at the very first page and leaves the reader on the edge of their seat to the very end. Survival is far from certain and each character has their own battle to fight – and their own demons to face – within the larger story.

Britannia: World’s End is the second book in Derek Birks’ new series based in the twilight of the Roman era, which follows the exploits of Ambrosius Aurelianus and his small band of loyal warriors, and a disparate group of waifs and strays that he has picked up since being chased out of the Roman Empire. Ambrosius leads his people to the island of Britain, in the hope of finding a new home, but only finds more problems and more enemies to fight.

Set in the age of King Arthur, there are suggestions of the famous Arthurian legends, and the links to Ambrosius Aurelianus, though the story is firmly set in the history and reality of Britain at the waning of the Roman Empire, where land and people were open to exploitation and manipulation.

With a final scowl at Remigius, Ambrosius leapt from the boat onto the stony shore where dog-tired men were cheering and clapping each other on the back. They deserved to celebrate, he thought, for though they were some yards east of the camp now, at least they had salvaged the boat. By the time he heard the hooves, it was too late and he could only stare, helpless, as a dozen horsemen cantered through his camp.

By the time he roared: “To arms!”, women were already scattering in fear. Obliged to retrieve their scattered weapons from all along the beach, Ambrosius and his bucellarii were slow to return to the camp. Ambrosius was still trying to disentangle his spatha from his belt when he heard Inga’s voice, heaping Saxon abuse at her assailants.

“I’m here, Inga!” he cried, as he watched her trying to fend off one of the riders with her knife. “Run – this way! Run to us!”

Defiant as ever, she retorted: “I have Ferox with me!”

Thank God for Ferox, thought Ambrosius, as he stumbled towards her. Of course, the damned dog had not been warning him about the boat at all, for how would a dog know the boat was drifting out to sea? No, Ferox had caught the scent of strangers and their horses, but Ambrosius, like some green recruit, had ignored the animal’s alert and allowed himself to be drawn away from camp.

Though he had told Inga to run, of course, she had not. Armed only with her long blade, she stood her ground, flailing at her mounted assailants. Ambrosius cursed under his breath as he ran, for had he not told her how brave she was – as brave as any one of his bucellarii? And because he encouraged her, she fought, when she should have run. One moment Ambrosius glimpsed her, slashing out in vain, the next she was grappling with her captor. Racing to her side, spatha in hand and ready to dispense death to the villains who had dared to assault his camp, he was relieved to see that she had broken free.

“Stay behind me!” he ordered, but Inga’s blood was up and she took a snarling pace towards one of the horsemen. Thrusting out an arm to pull her back, Ambrosius’ fingertips scarcely brushed hers, as she was lifted clean off her feet and borne away.

Derek Birks has several great strengths as a writer. He is a natural storyteller and has a knack for knowing how to draw a reader in and holding their attention, so that you’re always promising yourself ‘just one more page’ or ‘just one more chapter’. His actions scenes are second-to-none and help to keep the tension high throughout the book.

His greatest skill, however, is in his characters. Despite a large number of supporting characters, Derek Birks has the ability to make each and everyone of them an individual. Not just in their appearance, but in their actions and in their individual stories. Each character has a legend that is his or her own; this means that each character has their own motivations and their own set of rules.

The author is also known for creating strong, independent female characters, such as the great Eleanor Elder in his two series set in the Wars of the Roses. In The Last of the Romans, it is Inga, a former sex slave, who steals the show with her strength and quiet determination. And then there is the dog, Ferox, a ferocious war dog with a soft spot for Inga, and a scene stealer in every chapter in which he appears. He is such a unique character!

There is one other thing Derek Birks has become renowned for in his books;; no character is so precious that he cannot be killed off, if the story asks for it. Not even the hero of the book is safe. And this brings an added tension to the book; the reader does not know who will make it out alive!

These 3 great strengths in the author are a fantastic combination that leads to another amazing novel. I have never had any qualms about recommending Derek Birks’ books to any fan of action-packed historical fiction, and Britannia: World’s End is no exception.

It is an awesome book!

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About the author:

Derek was born in Hampshire in England but spent his teenage years in Auckland, New Zealand, where he still has strong family ties. 

On his return to England, he read history at Reading University and for many years he taught history in a secondary school. Whilst he enjoyed his teaching career and it paid the bills, he found a creative outlet in theatrical activities, stage-managing many plays and outdoor Shakespeare performances.

Derek always wanted to write and began, aged 17, writing stories, songs and poetry – in fact virtually anything. Inevitably, work and family life took precedence for a long period of time but in 2010 Derek took early retirement to indulge his passion for history and concentrate on his writing. He is interested in a wide range of historical themes but his particular favourite is the late medieval period. 

Derek writes action-packed fiction which is rooted in accurate history. He also produces podcasts on the Wars of the Roses for those interested in the real historical background to his books. Check them out on his website at: https://www.derekbirks.com/history-podcasts/

His historical fiction works include: 
Rebels & Brothers – a 4-book series set during the fifteenth century, which follows a fictional family, the Elders, through their struggle to survive the Wars of the Roses up to 1471.  The Craft of Kings – a sequel series which finds the Elder family ten years later in 1481. The latest book in this series is book 3, Echoes of Treason, which is set during the short and turbulent reign of Richard III.

He has recently embarked upon a new Post-Roman series and the first book is out now: The Last of the Romans

Apart from his writing, he enjoys travelling – sometimes, but not always, to carry out research for his books. He also spends his time walking, swimming and taking part in archaeological digs.

He was a regular presence at the Harrogate History Festival, is an active member of the Historical Novel Society and you will also find him each summer signing books – and selling them – at the Chalke Valley History Festival outside Salisbury in Wiltshire.

His books are available on Amazon in the UK and US.
You can find Derek at: Amazon; Blog; Facebook; Twitter 

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My Books

Out Now!

Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England  looks into the relationships of the various noble families of the 13th century, and how they were affected by the Barons’ Wars, Magna Carta and its aftermath; the bonds that were formed and those that were broken. It is now available from Pen & SwordAmazon and from Book Depository worldwide.

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,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository.

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 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

Malcolm the Maiden

Malcolm IV

Malcolm IV (the Maiden), King of Scots, was the son of Prince Henry of Scotland and Ada de Warenne. He was the grandson of David I, King of Scots and great-grandson of Malcolm III, King of Scots and second his wife St Margaret, herself a descendant of Alfred the great. On his mother’s side, he was the grandson of William de Warenne, second Earl of Warenne and Surrey, and Isabel de Vermandois, granddaughter of King Henry I of France and his queen, Anna of Kiev.

The younger Malcolm was born between born between 23 April and 24 May 1141. He earned the soubriquet ‘the Maiden’ due to his youth, religious devotion and the fact he remained unmarried. Malcolm had become his grandfather’s heir following his father’s death in 1152, at which time he had been placed into the custody of Duncan, Earl of Fife, and taken on a progress around Scotland north of the Forth, following the old Celtic tradition of showing the heir to the kingdom. When King David I died less than twelve months after his son, Henry, on 24 May 1153, he was succeeded by his grandson, Malcolm. The new king succeeded to the crown at the age of twelve – possibly even on his twelfth birthday – as Malcolm IV.

The accession of Malcolm surpassed all the ambitions of his Warenne grandfather. William de Warenne, the second earl, had sought a royal bride for himself. He had not lived to see his daughter marry the heir to the Scottish throne not to see his grandson’s accession and coronation, which surpassed all of his aspirations and ambitions.

The chronicles make no mention of Malcolm’s mother, Ada, playing a part in the politics of Scotland during her eldest son’s kingship. She did appear at court often and was present for many of the important occasions; she was also a witness to no less than sixteen of Malcolm’s charters. Ada did, moreover, take great interest in the futures of her children, arranging the marriages of her two surviving daughters and employing any means possible to persuade her son to marry. The chronicler, William of Newburgh, relates a story of the lengths Ada had to go to in order to get her reluctant son to choose a bride. Ada went so far as to present her son with a young woman of noble birth, in his bed. Not wishing to cause an argument with his mother, Malcolm did not send her away and allowed the lady to spend the night in his royal bed; while he slept on the floor, wrapped in his cloak. Ada, it seems, was relentless in her attempts to persuade Malcolm to marry, until the young king tired of her constant nagging and begged her to hold her peace.

Coin of Malcolm’s father, Prince Henry, minted at Corbridge

While William of Newburgh makes it sound as if Ada was pushing for grandchildren, or tempting her son to lose his innocence, Ada’s constant attempts to discuss marriage with Malcolm had a political motive as much as a personal one. She was well aware of the importance of royal marriage, not just for the continuation of a dynasty and political alliance, but also for the strength and stability of the monarchy itself. Ada, moreover, was not the only one eager to see the young king settle down with a wife.

The Scottish curia regis (royal council) continued to pressure Malcolm to find a bride, even after his mother had given up. Arnold, Bishop of St Andrews encouraged Malcolm to follow the example of his recently married sisters. The king, however, was no more persuaded by the archbishop and his royal council than he was by his mother. He was eager to hold onto to the highest ideals of Christian knighthood and remain chaste. Malcolm’s relative youth may also have led him to believe that he had many years ahead of him and plenty of time before he needed to settle down and raise a family.

Malcolm’s kingship faced several challenges during his all-too-short reign. In November 1154, the young king was faced with a revolt from Somerled, Earl of Argyll. The unrest was to continue for several years, with Somerled only suing for peace in 1159 having been deprived of his chief supporters, the MacHeths, father and sons, who had been reconciled with the king in 1157.

Malcolm’s greatest challenge, however, was with his larger neighbour, England. While David I had taken advantage of the civil war in England during Stephen’s turbulent reign – known to history as the Anarchy – the accession of Henry II in 1154 changed the political landscape entirely. In 1157 the two kings met at Chester, where Malcolm performed homage ‘in the manner in which his grandfather had been the man of old King Henry’. 1 This homage suggests that Malcolm was accepting that he was a vassal of King Henry, as David I had done with King Henry I. He was also forced to resign his lordship of Northumberland, Cumberland and Westmorland, although the honour of Huntingdon was returned to the Scots king and his brother and heir, William, was given the lordship of Tynedale.

The charter to Kelso Abbey, depicting David I on the left with his grandson Malcolm IV on the right

In 1159 Malcolm, his brother and others joined Henry II and the English army on an expedition to Toulouse; William of Blois, son of King Stephen and husband of Malcolm’s cousin, Isabel de Warenne, Countess of Surrey, was also part of the expedition. The military enterprise gave Malcolm the chance to be knighted honourably in the field. The Scots contingent joined Henry II at Poitiers on 24 June and Henry knighted Malcolm at Périgueux a few days later. The expedition met with initial success and the army overran the county of Toulouse before laying siege to the city itself. However, the siege had to be abandoned when King Louis VII of France, another kinsman of Malcolm’s, intervened.

By the end of the year, Henry and Malcolm were back in Limoges, crossing to England shortly afterwards. Malcolm returned to Scotland in 1160 and to a revolt of six earls led by Feterth, Earl of Strathearn, angry at his expedition with the English army. Mediation by the clergy led to an uneasy peace and their abandoning of their besieging Malcolm at Perth. Unrest then arose in Galloway and Malcolm made several forays into the region before the end of the year, when Fergus, lord of Galloway, submitted to the king. It was the last major unrest by any Scottish earls for not only Malcolm’s reign, but for also for that of his brother, William I.

Malcolm was again summoned to meet Henry II in 1163. Despite falling ill at Doncaster, he was still expected to complete the journey to Henry’s court and arrived at Woodstock at the end of June. It seems Henry wanted to assert his supremacy over Britain, as a group of Welsh rulers had also been called to attend the English king. On 1 July, Malcolm renewed his oath to Henry and handed over hostages, the most senior of whom was his own youngest brother, David, soon to be made earl of Huntingdon. Homage given, Malcolm returned to Scotland, where he faced a revolt led by Somerled, Lord of the Isles, who was later killed in an attempted raid on Glasgow in 1164.

Jedburgh Abbey

Malcolm appears to have never fully recovered from the illness he suffered in Doncaster in 1163 and frequently complained of pains in his head and feet. He planned a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, to pray for healing, but was too ill to undertake it. He died at Jedburgh on Thursday 9 December 1165, aged only 24: he had reigned for 12 years and 6 months and was buried among his ancestors at Dunfermline Abbey. We do not have his mother’s response to the death of her first-born son, but it cannot have been easy for her, only in her forties herself and already a widow of thirteen years. Malcolm was succeeded by his brother William, later known as William the Lion.

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Footnote: 1 The Melrose Chronicle quoted in W.W. Scott, Malcolm IV (c. 1141–1165)

Images: courtesy of Wikipedia except Jedburgh which is ©2017 Sharon Bennett Connolly

Further reading:

Scott, W.W., Malcolm IV (c. 1141–1165) Oxforddnb.com; Mackay, A.J.G. (ed.), The Historie and Chronicles of Scotland … by Robert Lindesay of Pitscottie; Ross, David, Scotland: History of a Nation; Farrer, William and Charles Travis Clay, editors, Early Yorkshire Charters, Volume 8: The Honour of Warenne; Morris, Marc King John: Treachery, Tyranny and the Road to Magna Carta; Church, Stephen, King John: England, Magna Carta and the Making of a Tyrant; Danziger, Danny and John Gillingham, 1215: The Year of Magna Carta; Crouch, David, William Marshal; fmg.ac; Brewer’s British Royalty by David Williamson; The Mammoth Book of British Kings and Queens by Mike Ashley; The Story of Scotland by Nigel Tranter; Ada, Queen Mother of Scotland (article) by Victoria Chandler.

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My Books

Out Now!

Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England  looks into the relationships of the various noble families of the 13th century, and how they were affected by the Barons’ Wars, Magna Carta and its aftermath; the bonds that were formed and those that were broken. It is now available from Pen & SwordAmazon and from Book Depository worldwide.

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,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository.

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 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

Book Corner: Women of Power in Anglo-Saxon England by Annie Whitehead

Many Anglo-Saxon kings are familiar. Æthelred the Unready is one, yet less is written of his wife, who was consort of two kings and championed one of her sons over the others, or his mother who was an anointed queen and powerful regent, but was also accused of witchcraft and regicide. A royal abbess educated five bishops and was instrumental in deciding the date of Easter; another took on the might of Canterbury and Rome and was accused by the monks of fratricide.

Anglo-Saxon women were prized for their bloodlines – one had such rich blood that it sparked a war – and one was appointed regent of a foreign country. Royal mothers wielded power; Eadgifu, wife of Edward the Elder, maintained a position of authority during the reigns of both her sons.

Æthelflaed, Lady of the Mercians, was a queen in all but name, while few have heard of Queen Seaxburh, who ruled Wessex, or Queen Cynethryth, who issued her own coinage. She, too, was accused of murder, but was also, like many of the royal women, literate and highly-educated.

From seventh-century Northumbria to eleventh-century Wessex and making extensive use of primary sources, Women of Power in Anglo-Saxon England examines the lives of individual women in a way that has often been done for the Anglo-Saxon men but not for their wives, sisters, mothers and daughters. It tells their stories: those who ruled and schemed, the peace-weavers and the warrior women, the saints and the sinners. It explores, and restores, their reputations.

I was very lucky to receive an advance copy of Annie Whitehead’s wonderful new book, Women of Power in Anglo-Saxon England. Beautifully written and thoroughly researched, this book brings to life the women on England from before the Norman Conquest.

Women of Power in Anglo-Saxon England is a wonderful study of the influential royal and noble women of pre-Conquest England, whether they were queens, princesses, abbesses or countesses. Annie Whitehead tells their stories in wonderful, vivid detail, beautifully weaving the historical implications off their lives with their larger-than-life stories.

Though they have been dead a thousand years and more, and while written evidence on these women may be scarce, the author has managed to squeeze every bit of information from the available chronicles, charters and saints’ lives. She has given the reader every possible snippet of information on their lives, presenting and analysing the sources in an accessible, engaging and thoroughly enjoyable reading experience.

The stories of these women is told with a passion and eloquence which makes every chapter a pleasure to read. The more familiar stories of Æthelflæd, Lady Godiva and St Hilda of Whitby are given excellent new interpretations, while the reader may be meeting the less familiar women, such as Æthelfrith of Bernicia, Eadburh and Alfred the Great’s sister, Æthelswith, for the first time.

Ælfgifu appears not to have been married for long. Her son Eadwig was probably born around 940, and his younger brother Edgar around 943. King Edmund himself died in 946 – the victim of a brawl, or perhaps a political assassination – having married again, so his first marriage must have ended not long after Edgar’s birth. The younger of the royal orphans, Edgar, was fostered by a noblewoman, the wife of the ealdorman of East Anglia, whom we shall meet in Part VI.

Ælfgifu is known as Ælfgifu of Shaftesbury, and William of Malmesbury in particular had a lot to say about her. He said that it was she who built the nunnery there and that her bodily remains were placed there. She was ‘so pious and loving that she would even secretly release criminals who had been openly condemned by the gloomy verdict of a jury.’ She would also give away her expensive clothes to the needy and she was a beautiful woman who was remembered for the miracles associated with her; the blind, the deaf and the lame were cured after visiting Shaftesbury.

It would be easy to assume that she retired to Shaftesbury in the manner of a number of previous queens, but the short-lived nature of her marriage and the young age of her children suggest another scenario. It is plausible that she died in childbirth, either in labour with Edgar or with a subsequent pregnancy in which both mother and child died. If she did indeed die in childbirth then she cannot have been a nun at Shaftesbury, but merely its benefactress.

Æthelflæd with her nephew Æthelstan

of these women were not easy to find, and the detective work involved in researching Women of Power in Anglo-Saxon England is both entertaining and fascinating. In recreating and retelling the lives of these remarkable women, Annie Whitehead has given us a window into a distant past. We have the chance to observe the lives, loves, hopes and dreams of these remarkable women; women who helped shape their present and futures, and thus the world in which we now live.

The author also helps to dispel some of the myths that have arisen about these women, whether by historical fiction writers or the over-active imaginations of the chroniclers of the past. The true stories of Æthelflæd and Godiva, and others, are revealed, the myths surrounding them examined and explained. This is a wonderful book, filled with stories of love, intrigue and murder, of the power struggles and betrayals of Anglo-Saxon England, of strong and influential women who made an impression, not only on their own times, but on the generations who came after.

Women of Power in Anglo-Saxon England brings to life the women of the Anglo-Saxon period with vivid clarity. It is a remarkable study of the lives of women of the period – known and unknown – and their impact on history. Saints, princesses and queens; wives, daughters and mothers, Annie Whitehead demonstrates the strengths, weaknesses and challenges these incredible women faced in order to exert their influence on their corner of the world. The author’s meticulous research, beautiful writing and natural storytelling ability make this book a pleasure to read from beginning to end.

To Buy the Book:

Bookhttp://mybook.to/WomeninPower Amazonhttp://viewauthor.at/Annie-Whitehead

About the author:

Annie Whitehead graduated in history having specialised in the ‘Dark Ages’ and is a member of the Royal Historical Society. She’s written three books about early medieval Mercia, the ancient Anglo-Saxon kingdom of the Midlands. The first, To Be a Queen, tells the story of Alfred the Great’s daughter, and was long-listed for the Historical Novelist Society’s Indie Book of the Year 2016, and was an IAN (Independent Author Network) Finalist in 2017, while the second, Alvar the Kingmaker, is the story of Aelfhere, Earl of Mercia in the 10th century. The third, Cometh the Hour, is the first of two volumes set in seventh-century Mercia. She was a contributor to the anthology 1066 Turned Upside Down, a collection of alternative short stories. She writes magazine articles and has had pieces printed in diverse publications, including Cumbria Magazine and This England. She has twice been a prize winner in the Mail on Sunday Novel Writing Competition, and won First Prize in the 2012 New Writer Magazine’s Prose and Poetry Competition. She was a finalist in the 2015 Tom Howard Prize for nonfiction, and is also a contributor and editor for the English Historical Fiction Authors blog, as well as blogging for her own site – Casting Light upon the Shadow. In 2017 she won the inaugural HWA/Dorothy Dunnett Society Short Story Prize. Her first full-length nonfiction book, Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom, is published by Amberley. Her latest nonfiction, Women of Power in Anglo-Saxon England, is published by Pen & Sword Books.

Social Media links: Blog; Twitter; Website; Facebook

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My Books

Out Now!

Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England  looks into the relationships of the various noble families of the 13th century, and how they were affected by the Barons’ Wars, Magna Carta and its aftermath; the bonds that were formed and those that were broken. It is now available from Pen & SwordAmazon and from Book Depository worldwide.

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,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository.

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 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

Book Corner: Interview with Annie Whitehead

Today it is a pleasure to welcome Annie Whitehead to the blog. Annie’s latest book, Women of Power in Anglo-Saxon England, was also released yesterday.

Our books are twins!

Both books were commissioned, written and submitted at within days of each other. It has been a bit of a roller coaster experience, with the advent of the Corona virus. In order to get the books published on time, it was decided that they would be released in paperback first. But at the last minute, Pen & Sword changed their minds and went for the hardback release. As a result, the books look fabulous!

For me, it has been that bit more special, having Annie and her book taking the journey with us – having someone to talk to, who was going through the same experience – has made all the difference.

Annie and I have done an interview swap where we each answer the same questions, just to give you an idea of who we are and what we write.

You can find my interview over on Annie’s blog.

What motivated you to write the book?

I’d already written about a few of these women both in fiction and nonfiction. My first novel, To Be A Queen, tells the life story of Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians and my second, Alvar the Kingmaker, features Queen Ælfthryth, said to be the first crowned consort of an English king, and Queen Ælfgifu, who was accused of getting into bed, quite literally, with her husband and her mother. My third novel, Cometh the Hour, also has some strong, influential women in it, from King Penda’s wife, who was left in charge of a kingdom, to various queens and abbesses who made important policy decisions and had direct influence on the men in charge; women like St Hild, for example, founder of Whitby Abbey. My first nonfiction book, Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom, featured some equally powerful and notorious women, so I suppose this new book was inevitable.

The idea was to tell the stories of these women, with minimal reference to the men, and discover all I could about them. There are over 130 named women in the book, most of them royal wives, sisters and daughters, and some of them women who are familiar to us – Lady Godiva, for example – who weren’t royal but still left their mark on history.

What were the research challenges?

Tracking them down! The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle sometimes mentions them but, up to the arrival on the shores of Emma of Normandy in the 11th Century, there are fewer than 20 instances in that chronicle where the women are named. However, a lot can sometimes be deduced: Wulfrun is named as a hostage taken by the ‘Vikings’ and from this it’s clear that she was high status. Luckily we don’t have to rely on the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, and through other sources we discover that she was the lady after whom Wolverhampton was named and that her son was known as Wulfrun’s son, rather than his father’s. So there’s a whole other story; was his father somehow disgraced? Of lesser status than Wulfrun? When doing this kind of research it’s as well to be prepared to drop down plenty of ‘rabbit holes’!

The other challenge is keeping pace with the archaeological discoveries, of which there were more than a few while I was writing the book. Often I had to add details to footnotes, because the editing process was too far advanced to allow me to alter the main text. All were truly exciting discoveries, including the siting of the original Anglo-Saxon abbeys at Coldingham, and at Lyminge in Kent, the possible identification of Queen Emma’s bones in Winchester and the fascinating tale of the blue-toothed nun, who, it’s believed, stained her teeth by licking her paintbrush whilst working on illuminated manuscripts. Here was yet more evidence that women worked as scribes.

Do you have a particular favourite amongst the women you’ve written about?

Too many to choose, really. Because I’ve written so much about her already, I suppose most people might expect me to say Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians, but there are some others whom I grew to like and/or admire. Among them would be Eanflæd, Queen of Northumbria, for sheer determination and overcoming personal loss. She travelled north from Kent, no small undertaking, to marry a man who murdered one of her kinsman. She demanded, and received, recompense for that. She outlived most of her children, which must have been heart-breaking (although mercifully she had died by the time her adult daughter was murdered) and most likely had to tolerate her husband’s infidelity and fathering of at least one illegitimate child. She sponsored the career of St Wilfrid and it’s clear that she ran her own, separate, and highly influential household.

Other women brought a wry smile to my face, such as Queen Æthelburh who arranged for her servants deliberately to trash the royal residence while she and the king were out one day, so that she could demonstrate to him the transience of earthly pleasures. She gets the briefest of mentions in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, but what a mention – she razed a town to the ground. We’re not told the circumstances, but I think it’s fair to assume she was a woman with a lot of personality and fortitude!

Another lady who intrigued me was Siflæd. We know about some noblewomen because their wills are extant. Siflæd is unusual because she left not one, but two wills. It seems as if one was made before she went off on her travels ‘across the sea’. I’d love to know where she went, and what sort of adventures she had. I think of her as the original ‘merry widow’, setting her affairs in order at home before going off gallivanting.

Can you tell us briefly about your other books?

As well as the novels and the nonfiction book I mentioned earlier, I contributed to 1066 Turned Upside Down, in which nine authors re-imagined the events of 1066. Lady Godiva featured in my story, as the elderly matriarch of a powerful Mercian family. She’s often thought of as a young woman – erroneously in my view – riding naked through Coventry but she lived to a ripe old age and was a witness to many extraordinary events.

What’s next?

I’ve just finished a collection of short stories about women in history, and am part of the Historical Fictioneers Co-operative who will be producing an anthology of stories centred on the theme of betrayal, for which I’m contributing a tale of scandal from the tenth century. I’ll also be writing the follow-up to Cometh the Hour, which will feature the sons and daughters of King Penda of Mercia and his nemesis, King Oswiu of Northumbria.

Finally, where can people find you on Social Media and where can they buy your books?

Book http://mybook.to/WomeninPower

Amazon http://viewauthor.at/Annie-Whitehead

Blog https://anniewhitehead2.blogspot.com/ 

Twitter https://twitter.com/AnnieWHistory

Website https://anniewhiteheadauthor.co.uk/

Facebook https://www.facebook.com/anniewhiteheadauthor/

I would like to say a huge ‘thank you’ to Annie for taking the time to give such wonderful answers and wish her every success with Women of Power in Anglo-Saxon England. Look for my review of this wonderful book, coming in the next few days.

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My Books

Out Now!

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 Annie Whitehead

David Hey Memorial Lecture

It was an honour and a privilege to be asked to present the David Hey Memorial Lecture for the Doncaster Local Heritage Festival 2020. Due to the current Coronavirus outbreak, the lecture was moved online and broadcast via You Tube.

Conisbrough Castle

To keep it relevant with Doncaster and South Yorkshire, I decided to talk about one of my favourite subjects, and my current research project; the Warennes, the earls of Surrey who held Conisbrough from the Norman Conquest until the death of the last earl in 1347.

A family at the centre of English history for almost 300 years. It is a story of strong family loyalties, national and international rivalries, rebellion and civil wars, lost loves and royal connections. It’s also the story of Conisbrough’s iconic castle!

This talk is dedicated to David Hey. In the 1970s he was one of few professional historians to respond in a positive way to the growing interest in family and local history. David was a highly regarded and pioneering figure in this field.He held posts of importance such as being Professor of Local and Family History at the University of Sheffield and President of the British Association of Local History. But he was first and foremost a Yorkshireman at heart and never forgot his roots. He was the Patron of the Doncaster and District Heritage Association and gave a talk at the 2013 Heritage Festival.

So, here it is:

I hope you enjoyed it!

I would like to express my immense gratitude to the Doncaster Local Heritage Festival for inviting me to present such a prestigious lecture. I truly hope I did justice to the memory of David Hey.

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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 

Mother’s Day Giveaway

Competition Closed: And the winner is Carolyn Hester

Sunday 22nd March 2020 is Mother’s Day in the UK this year and what better way to celebrate the 1st birthday of the paperback of Heroines of the Medieval World, than a giveaway for everyone’s favourite Heroine – MUM?!?!

“As Connolly ably demonstrates, knowing about these fascinating women is essential to filly understanding medieval Europe.” (Publishers Weekly)

About Heroines of the Medieval World

Heroines come in many different forms, and it is no less true for medieval heroines. They can be found in all areas of medieval life; from the dutiful wife and daughter to religious devotees, warriors and rulers. What makes them different compared to those of today are the limitations placed on them by those who directed their lives – their fathers, husbands, priests and kings. Women have always been an integral part of history, although when reading through the chronicles of the medieval world, you would be forgiven if you did not know it. We find that the vast majority of written references are focussed on men. The chronicles were written by men and, more often than not, written for men. It was men who ruled countries, fought wars, made laws and treaties, dominated religion and guaranteed – or tried to guarantee – the continued survival of their world. It was usually the men, but not all of them, who could read, who were trained to rule and who were expected to fight, to defend their people and their country…

And don’t worry, the offer is open worldwide – even if it isn’t Mother’s Day for you just yet.

It’s easy to enter!

To win a signed copy of Heroines of the Medieval World dedicated to a heroine of your choice – your mum, aunt, sister, grandmother, daughter or yourself (I won’t judge!), or someone else’s mum – for Mother’s Day, simply leave a comment below or on my Facebook page and I will include you in the prize draw.

The draw will be made on Wednesday 18th March, so you should get the book in time for the big day.

Good luck!

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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 

Medieval She-Wolves: Part One

Throughout history – and particularly in medieval times – strong, determined women have been labelled ‘she-wolves’. It is a term that has been used as a criticism or insult. It has often been applied to suggest a woman of serious character flaws who would invariably put her own interests ahead of others, who fought for what they wanted, be it a crown, their children or independence. Men who performed similar actions and had similar aims tended to be called strong and determined rulers. However, the term can also be used to show women in a positive light, women who didn’t give up, fought for themselves and their families. So I have chosen 6 women who could have been termed ‘she-wolves’ to show women from both viewpoints, and to demonstrate the strength of the characters and the challenges they faced. And while their actions were not always exemplary, their stories were always remarkable.

Æthelflæd, Lady of Mercia

Æthelflæd, Lady of Mercia

The daughter of King Alfred the Great, Æthelflæd was married to Æthelred, ealdorman of Mercia. Æthelflæd was a strong, brave woman and is often regarded more as a partner to Æthelred than a meek, obedient wife. Although she exercised regal rights in Mercia even before her husband’s death, after Æthelred died in 911, it was left to Æthelflæd to lead the Mercians in the fight against the Danes. Alongside her brother, King Edward of Wessex. It is universally acknowledged that Æthelflæd helped to push back the Viking incursions. Losing four of her greatest captains in the battle to capture Derby in 917, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle reported:

‘With God’s help Ethelfleda, lady of Mercia, captured the fortress known as Derby with all its assets. Four of her favoured ministers were slain inside the gates.’

Anglo-Saxon Chronicles edited by Michael Swanton

In 918, Æthelflæd captured Leicester, ravaging the countryside around the town until the Danes surrendered. The combination of her indefatigable forces and compassion in victory saw the Danes soon suing for peace; in the summer of 918, the noblemen and magnates of York sent emissaries to Æthelflæd, promising that they would surrender to her. She personally led campaigns against the Welsh, the Norse and the Danes – though whether she actually wielded a sword in battle is unknown.

While often magnanimous in victory, Æthelflæd could be ruthless when it was her friends who were attacked; even she was not immune from the desire for revenge. In June 916, on the feast of St Cyriac, Æthelflæd’s good friend, Abbot Egbert, was murdered for no known reason. The Mercian abbot and his retainers were ambushed and killed while travelling in the Welsh mountain kingdom of Brycheiniog. The abbot had been under Æthelflæd’s protection and within three days she was leading an army into the Wales to exact revenge.

Statue of Aethelflaed and Athelstan

Æthelflæd’s army ravaged Brycheiniog, burning the little kingdom and taking many hostages. Although King Tewdr escaped Æthelflæd, his wife did not; Queen Angharad and thirty-three others, many of them relatives of the Welsh king, were taken back to Mercia as hostages. Æthelflæd’s strength and determination was complemented by her quick actions and an impressive ruthless streak. When the Welsh king eventually submitted to Æthelflæd, he promised to serve her faithfully, and to pay compensation for the murder of the abbot and his people.

Æthelflæd died suddenly in June 918. She did not live to see the successful conclusion to the work she and her brother had worked tirelessly to achieve; between 910 and 920 all Danish territories south of Yorkshire had been conquered.

Eleanor of Aquitaine, Queen of France, Queen of England (died 1204)

Tomb effigy of Eleanor of Aquitaine, Fontevraud Abbey, France

Eleanor of Aquitaine is iconic. Probably the most famous woman of the middle ages, she is the only woman to have ever worn the crowns of both England and France. She has even been promoted as the first feminist.

Eleanor’s long life saw her weather the dangers of crusade, scandal, siege, imprisonment and betrayal to emerge as the great matriarch of Europe.

When her first husband, Louis VII, led the Second Crusade, Eleanor went with him, only to find herself mired in scandal.  Eleanor’s uncle Raymond of Toulouse, Prince of Antioch, welcomed Eleanor warmly and lavished such attention on her that rumours soon arose of an affair. Despite a lack of concrete evidence, but accused of adultery and incest, Eleanor spent most of the crusade under close guard on her husband’s orders.

Louis and Eleanor’s marriage had been dealt a fatal blow; they left the Holy Land in 1149 and their divorce was finally proclaimed 21 March 1152. By May 1152 Eleanor was married again, to the man who would become her first husband’s greatest rival. Henry of Anjou would become King of England in 1154 and eventually built an empire that extended 1,000 miles, from the Scottish border in the north to the Pyrenees in the south and incorporating most of western France.

Later rumours again mired Eleanor in scandal, accusing her of murdering Henry’s lover Rosamund Clifford. In one extravagant version, Rosamund was hidden in her secret bower within a maze but, with the help of a silken thread, a jealous Eleanor still found her and stabbed her while she bathed. In another the discarded queen forced Rosamund to drink from a poison cup. Of course, a closely guarded prisoner in Old Sarum or at Winchester as Eleanor was at the time of Rosamund’s death, it was impossible for her to do any such thing. But who are we to let facts get in the way of a good story?

Eleanor did, however, commit one of the most heinous crimes a woman could in the medieval world. As a she-wolf, protecting her cubs, she rebelled against her husband. In 1173 her eldest son by Henry, also called Henry, rebelled against his father and fled to the French court for support. His father-in-law, King Louis VII welcomed the disgruntled Angevin prince and Eleanor of Aquitaine, having sided with her sons against her husband, sent two of her other sons, fifteen-year-old Richard and fourteen-year-old Geoffrey, to join their older brother at the French court, while she rallied her barons in Poitou to their cause. In 1174, when the rebellion failed, Henry accepted the submission of his sons.

Eleanor, who was captured as she rode towards safety in France, wearing men’s clothing – an act itself highly frowned upon – was not so fortunate. While it was not encouraged for sons to rebel against their father, it could be seen as boys flexing their muscles. For a wife to rebel against her husband was practically unheard of, and went against the natural order of society, and therefore deserved harsher punishment – where would the world be if women refused to behave?

Unforgiven and defeated, Eleanor was sent to perpetual imprisonment in various castles throughout southern England. She was only released after Henry II’s death in 1189, when her favourite son, Richard I, the Lionheart, ascended England’s throne. If she had done everything of which she was accused – murder, incest, adultery and rebellion – Eleanor would be the ultimate she-wolf. As it was, her rebellion, an act unprecedented for a queen, meant she paid the price with her freedom for the next fifteen years.

Isabeau of Bavaria, Queen of France

Isabeau of Bavaria

If all the stories of Isabeau of Bavaria were to be believed, she would be the most ruthless and wicked queen to have ever lived. For centuries Isabeau has been accused of almost every crime imaginable, from adultery and incest to treason and avarice. Variously described as being beautiful and hypnotic or so obese that she was crippled, the chroniclers have not been kind to Isabeau. According to them, her moral corruption led to the neglect of her children and betrayal of her husband and country.

However, they ignored the challenges faced by a queen whose husband was sinking deeper and deeper into the realms of insanity, going so far as killing four of his own knights during one mental breakdown and thinking he was made of glass in another. Married to King Charles VI of France, also known as Charles ‘the Mad’, Isabeau was left to raise her children and navigate the dangers and intrigues of court politics with little assistance from her mentally disturbed husband. Her political alliance with Louis of Orléans, her husband’s brother, led to her imprisonment amid slanderous rumours of adultery and incest – from the opposing political party.

To add to this, France was – not that they knew it at the time – halfway through the conflict with England that would become known as the Hundred Years’ War. The war was going badly for France – Henry V defeated them decisively at Agincourt – and Isabeau was forced to put her signature to the Treaty of Troyes in 1420. In that instant she disinherited her own son, the Dauphin, making Henry V heir to King Charles and handing France over to England. Much of Isabeau’s life and career has been re-examined in the twentieth century and she has been exonerated of many of the accusations against her, but, despite the fact Isabeau was backed into a corner, she still signed away her son’s inheritance in favour of a foreign power…

Although not all their actions were womanly, and some of what they did could be seen as dishonourable and ruthless, what is certain is that these women – and many others from their time – left their mark on history. With each of them, applying the term ‘she-wolf’ highlights their strengths, their determination, and the challenges they faced and overcame. They fought for what they wanted, often against impossible odds, and achieved much. At a time when the perceived main purpose of a wife was to produce and raise children, these women made a remarkable imprint on history that has ensured their stories are still being told today.

Look out for Part Two of Medieval She-Wolves, next week.

Selected Sources:

The Oxford Companion to British History Edited by John Cannon; The Plantagenets, the Kings who Made England by Dan Jones; History Today Companion to British History Edited by Juliet Gardiner and Neil Wenborn;  Brewer’s British Royalty by David Williamson; Britain’s Royal Families, the Complete Genealogy by Alison Weir; The Plantagenet Chronicles Edited by Elizabeth Hallam; The Mammoth Book of British Kings and Queens by Mike Ashley; The Plantagenets, the Kings that made Britain by Derek Wilson; England Under the Norman and Angevin Kings  by Robert Bartlett; http://www.britannica.com; oxforddnb.com; finerollshenry3.org.uk; The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles by Michael Swanton; The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle by James Ingram; Chronicles of the Kings of England, From the Earliest Period to the Reign of King Stephen, c. 1090–1143 by William of Malmesbury; The Chronicle of Henry of Huntingdon by Thomas Forester; Alfred the Great by David Sturdy; Britain’s Royal Families, the Complete Genealogy by Alison Weir; The Wordsworth Dictionary of British History by JP Kenyon; The Anglo-Saxons in 100 Facts by Martin Wall; Kings, Queens, Bones and Bastards by David Hilliam; Mercia; the Rise and Fall of a Kingdom by Annie Whitehead.

Images courtesy of Wikipedia

A version of this article first appeared in the 2019 edition of All About History magazine.

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 Amazon 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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©2019 Sharon Bennett Connolly 

Thora, Harald Hardrada’s Other Wife

Coin of Harald Hardrada

The legend of Harald Hardrada, King Harald III of Norway, is one of my favourite stories of the 11th century. It is the tale of a warrior king, probably the best fighter of his generation, a poet and a lover. Harald’s marriage to his first wife, Elisiv of Kiev, is the stuff legends are made of; a landless prince making his fortune in Byzantium before returning to claim his bride and winning a crown. And they lived happily ever after …. or not!

Elisiv gave Harald 2 daughters, Ingegerd and Maria, but no sons. It may, therefore, have been a desire for sons that led Harald to take a second wife, although without setting aside his first. According to Snorri Sturluson, in the ‘winter after King Magnus the Good died, King Harald took Thora, daughter of Thorberg Arnason, and they had two sons; the oldest called Magnus, and the other Olaf.’ [1]

Thora (or Tora) was the daughter of Thorberg Arnason and Ragnhild Erlingsdottir and was born around 1025; her kinsman, Fin Arnason, was a good friend of Harald’s and was married to Bergliot, the daughter of Halfdan, a brother of Harald Hardrada and Saint Olaf.  The marriage also provided the desired son and heir, which his first marriage had failed to do; both of Thora’s sons would later become kings of Norway. Magnus succeeded his father in 1066, and was in 1069 succeeded by his brother, Olaf III, who had ruled alongside Magnus since 1067.

Gerhard Munthe: illustration for Olav Kyrres saga in Heimskringla (1899)

Harald probably went through some form of marriage ceremony, more likely a handfasting than a Christian marriage, with Thora in 1048. The marriage appears to have been a political arrangement, in order to garner the support of the powerful Giskeӕtten family, the chiefs of which played a significant role in power politics.

Of Harald’s two sons, Magnus, who succeeded his father in 1066, appears to have been as warlike as Harald. In 1058, aged no more than ten or eleven, he led a fleet to England in support of Earl Ӕlfgar of Mercia, after the earl had been outlawed only a year after he had succeeded to his father’s earldom. Magnus was probably little more than a figurehead for the expedition and unlikely to have been expected to make crucial military decisions, but it would have been good experience for the young prince, and a taste of what the future held for him. By the time he was sixteen, Magnus was a successful warrior and is said to have clashed with his father; the two almost coming to blows until the king was restrained by friends.

Coin dating to the reign of King Olaf Kyrre

It has been suggested that the marriage may have come following the death of Elisiv, or that Elisiv never even left Russia, but given that her daughters were born once Harald was back in Scandinavia, this seems improbable. Harald’s daughters are not likely to have been the daughters of Thora, as Maria was engaged to Thora’s brother, Eystein Orre; who would have been Maria’s uncle, had she been Thora’s daughter. Harald having two wives, simultaneously, seems the most likely explanation. As demonstrated by King Cnut and King Harold II of England, two wives and, therefore, two families, were not uncommon in Scandinavian culture; although in these two other cases an earlier wife was put aside for the sake of a more prestigious marriage, whereas Harald Hardrada’s first marriage was by far the more prestigious, while the second was politically expedient.

Thora was the kinswoman of Harald’s one-time friend, Fin Arnason, who was captured fighting for the Danes against Harald. When Fin refused Harald’s offer of quarter (life), Harald made a further offer:

‘“Wilt thou accept thy life, then, from thy she-relation Thorer [Thora]?”

The earl: “Is she here?”

“She is here, ” said the king.

Then Earl Fin broke out with the ugly expressions which since have been preserved, as a proof that he was so mad with rage that he could not govern his tongue: —

“No wonder thou hast bit so strongly, if the mare was with thee.”

Earl Fin got life and quarter and the king kept him a while about him…’

Heimskringla. The Chronicle of the Kings of Norway, by Snorre Sturluson.
Harald landing near York, 1066 (Matthew Paris)

At the beginning of September, 1066, Harald sailed his fleet of over 200 ships to Shetland and then to Orkney, where he gathered reinforcements and left his wife and daughters to await news of events. There is some confusion as to which wife was left on Orkney, some sources say Elisiv, who, as Harald’s wife and queen would have expected to become queen of England, had he been successful. Some historians argue that as Thora was a relative of the Earl of Orkney she would have been more likely to travel with Harald than Elisiv.

We know from Thora’s joining one of Harald’s expeditions to Denmark, that he was not averse to taking his wives with him to war. However, given that young Magnus was left behind to rule Norway, aged only sixteen, it seems likely that his mother was also left behind, to advise him. According to Snorri;

‘Thora, the daughter of Thorberg, also remained behind; but he took with him Queen Ellisif [Elisiv] and her two daughters, Maria and Ingegerd. Olaf, King Harald’s son, also accompanied his father abroad.’

Heimskringla. The Chronicle of the Kings of Norway, by Snorre Sturluson.

Harald fought two battles outside York. The first, the Battle of Fulford, on 20 September, against the brothers, Edwin, Earl of Mercia, and Morcar, Earl of Northumberland, ended in victory for Harald Hardrada and his ally, Tostig, the former earl of Northumberland and brother of the new King of England, Harold II. However, a second battle at Stamford Bridge, five days later, saw victory go to the English. Harold II had marched his men the 200 miles from the south coast to York, in less than 4 days, and confronted his brother and the Norwegian king on 25 September. At the end of the day, Harald Hardrada and Tostig both lay dead on the field.

Battle of Stamford Bridge, 1066 (Matthew Paris)

Harald and Elisiv’s daughter, Maria, is said to have died suddenly on 25 September 1066, the same day as the Battle of Stamford Bridge, on hearing of her father’s death. She had been betrothed to Eystein Orre, the brother of Harald’s second wife, Thora; Eystein was also among the dead at Stamford Bridge. Maria’s sister, Ingegerd, returned to Norway with her mother and half-brother. Olaf had traveled with the Norwegian army, but had not taken part in the battle, having been left to guard the ships at Riccal, near York. After the English victory, he was allowed to claim his father’s body and take the survivors home.

After Harald’s death, Norway was ruled successively by Harald’s sons Magnus II and Olaf III. Olaf III ruled until his death in 1093 and was succeeded by Magnus III, his acknowledged but illegitimate son.

Of Thora’s fate, little is certain. She may have remarried, although there is some confusion. According to Adam of Bremen, she married either King Swein of Denmark or an unknown Swedish king. [2] As with much of her life, the year of Thora’s death remains unknown.

Footnotes:

[1] Heimskringla. The Chronicle of the Kings of Norway, by Snorre Sturluson; [2] Fulford: The Forgotten Battle of 1066 by Charles Jones.

Pictures:

Courtesy of Wikipedia

Sources:

The English and the Norman Conquest by Dr Ann Williams; Brewer’s British Royalty by David Williamson; Britain’s Royal Families, the Complete Genealogy by Alison Weir; The Wordsworth Dictionary of British History by JP Kenyon; The Norman Conquestby Marc Morris; Harold, the King Who Fell at Hastings by Peter Rex; The Anglo-Saxons in 100 Facts by Martin Wall; The Anglo-Saxon Age by Martin Wall; Kings, Queens, Bones and Bastards by David Hilliam; The Mammoth Book of British kings & Queens by Mike Ashley; The Oxford Companion to British History Edited by John Cannon; The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles translated and edited by Michael Swaton; The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle translated by James Ingram; Queen Emma and the Vikings by Harriett O’Brien; The Bayeux Tapestry by Carola Hicks; On the Spindle Side: the Kinswomen of Earl Godwin of Wessex by Ann Williams; oxforddnb.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 Amazon UK and from Book Depository worldwide.

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