Book Corner: Powers and Thrones by Dan Jones

Dan Jones’s epic new history tells nothing less than the story of how the world we know today came to be built. It is a thousand-year adventure that moves from the ruins of the once-mighty city of Rome, sacked by barbarians in AD 410, to the first contacts between the old and new worlds in the sixteenth century. It shows how, from a state of crisis and collapse, the West was rebuilt and came to dominate the entire globe. The book identifies three key themes that underpinned the success of the West: commerce, conquest and Christianity.

Across 16 chapters, blending Dan Jones’s trademark gripping narrative style with authoritative analysis, Powers and Thrones shows how, at each stage in this story, successive western powers thrived by attracting – or stealing – the most valuable resources, ideas and people from the rest of the world. It casts new light on iconic locations – Rome, Paris, Venice, Constantinople – and it features some of history’s most famous and notorious men and women.

This is a book written about – and for – an age of profound change, and it asks the biggest questions about the West both then and now. Where did we come from? What made us? Where do we go from here?

Well, isn’t this an epic undertaking. The history of the Middle Ages, across Europe and into the four corners of the world (except Australia because it still hadn’t been discovered) – in 16 chapters, 633 pages and about 25 hours of reading. And it is awesome!

I couldn’t read this book at a leisurely pace because I was actually scheduled to interview Dan Jones on 29 September, for Lindum Books in Lincoln and I desperately wanted to make sure I had read the whole thing beforehand. So, I had 10 days to read it and I am quite proud of myself that I managed it. I put all other books aside and concentrated on this, hoping it would keep my attention. I was a little worried. It is a long book and covers such a wide historical arena. Could it keep my interest? Well, the simple answer is YES!

Powers and Thrones by Dan Jones is a thoroughly enthralling read encompassing over a thousand years of history, from the Sack of Rome in 410AD to the sack of Rome in 1527. Writing the story of the entire medieval era was a massive undertaking that Dan said he wanted to do, both as his 10th book and to mark his 40th birthday. And it is, indeed, a magnum opus to be proud of. Powers and Thrones is a perfectly balanced book, giving just enough attention to each area of interest and geographical location, going from Rome, to Byzantium and on to the rise of Islam, Dan Jones manages to cover the significant events and influences that drove change and development through the entire Middle Ages.

Powers and Thrones demonstrates how climate change, disease, technology and ideology were often the forces behind change. For example, the Guttenberg Press was revolutionary in every way, allowing the mass production of books, pamphlets and the dissemination of knowledge to a far-wider audience. It was the medieval equivalent to our social media, both in its reach and influence, and Dan Jones highlights how significant it was in Europe’s emergence from the medieval era, with its impact on learning, communication and – perhaps above all – religion.

For those alert to signs hidden in the fabric of the world, the Roman Empire’s collapse in the west was announced by a series of omens. In Antioch, dogs howled like wolves, night-birds let out hideous shrieks and people muttered that the emperor should be burned alive. In Thrace, a dead man lay in the road and fixed passers-by with a unnerving, lifelike glare, until after a few days the corpse suddenly disappeared. And in the city of Rome itself, citizens persisted in going to the theatre: an egregious and insanely sinful pastime, which, according to one Christian writer, practically invited the wrath of the Almighty. Human beings have been superstitious in all ages and we are especially good at adducing portents when we have the benefit of hindsight. Hence the opinion of the historian Ammianus Marcellinus, who looked back on the end of the fourth century into which he was born and reflected that this was a time when fortune’s wheel, ‘which is perpetually alternating prosperity and adversity’, was turning fast.

In the 370s, when Rome’s fatal malady set in, the Roman state – monarchy, republic and empire – had existed for more than a millennium. Yet within little more than one hundred years, by the end of the fifth century AD, every province west of the Balkans had slipped from Roman control. In the ancient heartlands of empire, Roman institutions, tax systems and trade networks were falling apart. The physical signs of Roma elite culture – palatial villas, cheap imported consumer goods, hot running water – were fading from everyday life. The Eternal City had been sacked several times, the western crown had passed between a succession of dimwits, usurpers, tyrants and children, until eventually it had been abolished; and territory that formerly comprised the core of a powerful mega-state had been parcelled among peoples whom the proud-hearted citizens of Rome’s imperial heyday had previously scorned as savages and subhumans. These were the ‘barbarians’: a derogatory word which encompassed a huge range of people from itinerant nomadic tribes quite new to the west and ignorant or dismissive of Roman mores, through to longstanding near-neighbours, whose lives were heavily influenced by Roman-ness, but who had not been able to share in the fruits of citizenship.

With Dan Jones at The Collection, Lincoln

What makes this book special is the way Dan Jones manages to make Powers and Thrones relevant to today. Writing it in the midst of a pandemic certainly must have helped to give Dan a sense of history all around him and he alludes to this in the book. When interviewing him, Dan told me that living through Covid gave him a better understanding of the plague years of 14th century Europe, of the fear and panic that must have consumed people. And by referring to modern-day equivalents, such as world leaders, the pandemic and the rise of social media, Dan is able to draw the reader in and make medieval history relevant in the modern age.

Dan Jones does not shy away from the harsh questions, either, examining the development and morals of slavery, the reasoning behind the crusades and the rise of Protestantism. What may surprise readers is the facts this book is essentially Euro-centric – it made me realise how Anglo-centric my study of history has been over the years. By focusing on change and development in mainland Europe, whilst encompassing England and the British Isles in various guises where appropriate, it gives the reader a whole new outlook on the medieval era, whilst also demonstrates how events in Europe – even back then – could influence events in England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland. Powers and Thrones highlights the driving forces of change, whether it was people, ideas or technology, and demonstrates how such change effected Europe in general and individuals in particular, whether it was the empire of Charlemagne, the rise of monasticism, or even the development of the humble stirrup that led to the emergence of the knightly class.

In Powers and Thrones, Dan Jones combines a narrative of international events with case studies that focus on individual people, organisations and movements. By highlighting such diverse subjects as Empress Theodora, the rise of Islam, El Cid and the magnificent Lincoln Cathedral, the author manages to personalise what might otherwise have been a wide, sweeping narrative. The Warennes also get a mention in the involvement of William de Warenne, the 1st Earl, and his wife, Gundrada, in founding the first Cluniac priory in England, St Pancras Priory in Lewes, Sussex. From my personal point of view, it is fabulous that Dan Jones chose to include Empress Theodora so prominently – a woman who rose from extremely humble roots to become Empress of Byzantium and a woman who was influential in holding that empire together, especially in adroitly soothing religious dissension. It is impossible to get everything from 1,000 years of history in one book, but by showing the big picture, whilst highlighting particular events, ideas, buildings or people, Dan Jones manages to provide a fascinating narrative that is fast-paced and engaging without being overwhelming.

Powers and Thrones is, quite simply, an amazing book. It is chock full of little snippets of information that you may never have known, it relates medieval events to our modern day equivalents, such as the Black Death to Covid. Such references to the modern era could easily have backfired, but they serve to make the book more accessible and entertaining and not a little amusing. The moments of light-heartedness often provide an extra depth to the reading experience and make the book accessible to every reader.

Powers and Thrones was certainly an ambitious project, but in the hour-long interview I had with Dan Jones, he spoke about every aspect of it with passion and enthusiasm an that same passion and enthusiasm comes across throughout the book. The book is a pleasure to read and would be a welcome addition to any bookshelf.

Powers and Thrones by Dan Jones is available from Amazon and Bookshop.org.

My Books

Signed, dedicated copies of all my books are available, please get in touch by completing the contact me form.

Defenders of the Norman Crown: The Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey tells the fascinating story of the Warenne dynasty, of the successes and failures of one of the most powerful families in England, from its origins in Normandy, through the Conquest, Magna Carta, the wars and marriages that led to its ultimate demise in the reign of Edward III. Defenders of the Norman Crown: Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey is now available from Pen & Sword BooksAmazon in the UK and US and Book Depository.

1 family. 8 earls. 300 years of English history!

Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

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 in paperback and hardback from Pen & Sword,  Amazon and from Book Depository worldwide.

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.

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.

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©2021 Sharon Bennett Connolly

Book Corner: The Damask Rose by Carol McGrath

1266. Eleanor of Castile, adored wife of the Crown Prince of England, is still only a princess when she is held hostage in the brutal Baron’s Rebellion, and her baby daughter dies. Scarred by privation, a bitter Eleanor swears revenge on those who would harm her family – and vows never to let herself be vulnerable again.

As she rises to become Queen, Eleanor keeps Olwen – a trusted herbalist, who tried to save her daughter – by her side. But it is dangerous to be friendless in a royal household, and as the court sets out on crusade, Olwen and Eleanor discover that the true battle for Europe may not be a matter of swords and lances, but one fanned by whispers and spies . . .

The Damask Rose is the second book in historian and novelist Carol McGrath’s She-Wolves trilogy, giving a refreshing new appraisal of the lives of Eleanor of Provence, Eleanor of Castile and – still to come – Isabella of France. The first in the series, The Silken Rose, followed the story of Eleanor of Provence through the early years of the reign of her husband, Henry III and his struggle with Simon de Montfort. The Damask Rose continues the story through Eleanor’s daughter-in-law, Eleanor of Castile. Though each book can definitely be read as a standalone, the two novels certainly complement each other.

Carol McGrath has a wonderful, engaging writing style that draws the reader in. The Damask Rose is a pleasure to read from start to finish and really gets into the mind of Eleanor of Castile, giving a new interpretation of the queen, her experiences, her emotions and motivations.

It shows the woman behind the crown and follows the life of Eleanor from the young Castilian princess, newly arrived in England to the height of her powers as queen and landowner.

And it is a thoroughly entertaining story.

In this fantastic novel, Carol McGrath explores every aspect of Eleanor’s life and explains how the Barons’ War and Simon de Montfort’s rebellion left a lasting impression on her, so much so that she never wanted to be so vulnerable and helpless ever again.

Eleanor scanned the courtyard where her frightened people had begun to gather in family groups. A priest hurried through them clutching a large cross, his habit flapping in a sudden breeze. He crossed himself and shouted in a voice as clear as reliquary crystal, ‘You, Gilbert of Gloucester, mark this, you are excommunicate by order of our Father, the Pope. You’ll burn Hell’s fire and you’ll deserve your fate.’

Earl Gilbert turned his head away from him. Pushing Eleanor forward again, he said, ‘UP you go, my lady.’ In a heartbeat, he had hoisted her onto his horse as if she were light as a feather, and jumped up behind her. He said into her pained ear, ‘Tell them they are to obey Hugh Bigod when he enters the castle this evening. He’ll arrange an escort for your ladies and household.’

‘We have no choice,’ she called down as she managed to wriggle an arm free from Gilbert’s grip. She pointed at the crumpled scroll still lying on the earth, and shouted to her shocked steward, ‘Take it. Read it to my people. Tell them the king has been forced to sign it.’

Master Thomas ran forward and scooped up the King’s letter. He picked her veil up from the ground and handed it up to her.

‘See the King’s order is obeyed,’ she said in a grudging tone as she took possession of her veil. Gilbert thrust her sword into an empty scabbard hanging from his saddle, and slowly walked his horse forward onto the drawbridge.

She could not let this seizure of her royal person go without another protest. ‘Gilbert of Gloucester, I shall have my revenge on you,’ she barked. ‘No one treats a future queen in such a manner.’ She knew she was making a formidable enemy but she didn’t care. Her temper could be foul but she did not care about this either.

‘Lady Eleanor, when you behave as a queen should, with suitable decorum, I shall treat you as a queen,’ he quipped. ‘Until then you are no better than a harridan.’

‘Arrogant bastard,’ she said under her breath as they rode into the trees, followed by the trotting horse ridden by the squire with the ridiculous name and carrying young Simon, the Devil’s son.

That evening, she peered from her heavily guarded tent, incandescent, watching as Hgh Bigod, Earl of Norfolk, rode to take possession of Windsor Castle. Her child and ladies would be loaded like cattle into wagons the next day to begin the journey to Canterbury. Her close friend and lady-in-waiting, Joanna de Valence, married to King Henry’s own half-brother William of Pembroke, was pregnant and she, herself, had missed her courses twice.

Statues of Edward I and Eleanor of Castile, Lincoln Cathedral ©2021 Sharon Bennett Connolly 

The leading characters of the story are a wonderful, rich collection of historical personages, from Edward and Eleanor themselves to the distasteful Gilbert de Clare, and the various lords, barons and ladies who made up their court, including my very own John de Warenne, Earl of Surrey. The fictional foil to the story is a young woman, Olwen, who helps the queen with her vast knowledge of herbs and their medicinal properties. Olwen is the perfect observer to Eleanor’s life, able to watch and listen whilst escaping notice – for the most part.

Carol McGrath weaves together the known story of Eleanor’s life, through the great events that shaped it, with the fictional creation of Eleanor’s world and emotions, allowing the reader to be a fly on the wall, watching events unfold and marvelling at the sights, smells and emotions of this long lost world.

And it will play on your own emotions.

In The Damask Rose, Carol McGrath not only tells Eleanor of Castile’s story, but also looks deep into the queen’s heart, offering a scenario that would explain Eleanor’s apparent lack of maternal instinct, her need to remain at Edward’s side no matter how far he travelled, and the inter-family relationships that shaped her life. It is a window into the life of a medieval princess and queen that is hard to forget.

Carol McGrath’s portrayal of the Spanish queen is the best depiction of Eleanor of Castile that I have ever read. Beautifully written, it is so touching that it had me in tears in several places – always the sign of a good book.

To buy The Damask Rose: tinyurl.com/dk2att32

About the Author:

Carol McGrath is the author of the acclaimed She-Wolves Trilogy, which began with the hugely successful The Silken Rose and continues with the brand new The Damask Rose. Born in Northern Ireland, she fell in love with historical fiction at a young age, when exploring local castles, such as Carrickfergus, and nearby archaeological digs – and discovering some ancient bones herself. While completing a degree in history, she became fascinated by the strong women who were silenced in record, and was inspired to start exploring their lives. Her first novel, The Handfasted Wife, was shortlisted for the Romantic Novelists’ Association Awards, and Mistress Cromwell was widely praised as a timely feminist retelling of Tudor court life. Her novels are known for their intricacy, depth of research and powerful stories.

For more news, exclusive content and competitions, sign up to Carol’s newsletter at: http://www.carolcmcgrath.co.uk

Follow her on Facebook: /CarolMcGrathAuthor1

And Twitter: @CarolMcGrath

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My books

Coming 31st May:

Defenders of the Norman Crown: The Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey tells the fascinating story of the Warenne dynasty, of the successes and failures of one of the most powerful families in England, from its origins in Normandy, through the Conquest, Magna Carta, the wars and marriages that led to its ultimate demise in the reign of Edward III.

Defenders of the Norman Crown: Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey will be released in the UK on 31 May and in the US on 6 August. And it is now available for pre-order from Pen & Sword BooksAmazon in the UK and US and Book Depository.

Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

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 & Sword,  Amazon and from Book Depository worldwide.

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.

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.

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.

©2021 Sharon Bennett Connolly 

Defenders of the Norman Crown

Defenders of the Norman Crown: Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey is now available for pre-order.

In the reign of Edward I, when asked Quo Warranto? – by what warrant he held his lands – John de Warenne, the 6th earl of Warenne and Surrey, is said to have drawn a rusty sword, claiming ‘My ancestors came with William the Bastard, and conquered their lands with the sword, and I will defend them with the sword against anyone wishing to seize them.’

John’s ancestor, William de Warenne, 1st Earl of Surrey, fought for William the Conqueror at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. He was rewarded with enough land to make him one of the richest men of all time. In his search for a royal bride, the 2nd earl kidnapped the wife of a fellow baron. The 3rd earl died on crusade, fighting for his royal cousin, Louis VII of France…

For three centuries, the Warennes were at the heart of English politics at the highest level, until one unhappy marriage brought an end to the dynasty. The family moved in the most influential circles, married into royalty and were not immune to scandal.

Defenders of the Norman Crown tells the fascinating story of the Warenne dynasty, of the successes and failures of one of the most powerful families in England, from its origins in Normandy, through the Conquest, Magna Carta, the wars and marriages that led to its ultimate demise in the reign of Edward III.

As a child, I regularly visited Conisbrough Castle. I have fond memories of summer picnics in the outer bailey, rolling down the hills and sneaking past the man in his little hut to get into the inner bailey without paying (sorry about that).

Conisbrough Castle

In those days the history of the castle mainly focused on the fact it was the inspiration for the Saxon stronghold of the eponymous hero’s father in Sir Walter Scott’s novel, Ivanhoe. Scott is said to have been driving by in a carriage, on his way to Scotland, when he saw the castle and decided it was the perfect setting for a Saxon lord’s home – quite ironic, considering the fact it had been a Norman stronghold since the Conquest, although it had previously belonged to the unfortunate King Harold II, defeated and killed at the Battle of Hastings.

As a tour guide at the castle in the 1990s, I developed a fascination for the family that had once owned Conisbrough Castle and built the magnificent hexagonal keep: the Warenne earls of Surrey. The last Warenne earl died 674 years ago and the castle became a royal castle shortly after. However, for almost 300 years, from the Norman Conquest to 1347, Conisbrough Castle was part of the vast Warenne demesne. The extensive Warenne lands spanned the country from Lewes on the south coast to their castles of Conisbrough and Sandal in Yorkshire, with their family powerbase in East Anglia, where they built a magnificent priory, castle and medieval village at Castle Acre. The family mausoleum was at St Pancras Priory in Lewes, founded by the first earl and his wife, Gundrada, burial place of all but two subsequent earls and numerous other family members.

St Pancras Priory, Lewes

The Warennes were at the heart of English history and politics from the time of the Conquest to their demise. The Warenne story is one of drama, tragedy, glory and ambition that was consigned to history with the death of John II de Warenne, the seventh and last Earl of Warenne, Surrey, Sussex and Strathearn. The dynasty founded by William and Gundrada in the turmoil of the Norman Conquest, would continue to serve the Crown until John’s death in 1347.

To tell the Warenne story has been a personal ambition for a long time; I cannot wait for you to read the story of this incredible family.

Defenders of the Norman Crown: Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey

Defenders of the Norman Crown: Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey will be released in the UK on 31 May and in the US on 6 August. And it is now available for pre-order from Pen & Sword Books, Amazon in the UK and US and Book Depository.

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Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

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 & Sword,  Amazon and from Book Depository worldwide.

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.

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.

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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.

©2021 Sharon Bennett Connolly.

Book Corner: Crusaders and Revolutionaries of the Thirteenth century: De Montfort by Darren Baker

One of the families that dominated the thirteenth century were the de Montforts. They arose in France, in a hamlet close to Paris, and grew to prominence under the crusading fervour of that time, taking them from leadership in the Albigensian wars to lordships around the Mediterranean. They marry into the English aristocracy, join the crusade to the Holy Land, then another crusade in the south of France against the Cathars. The controversial stewardship of Simon de Montfort (V) in that conflict is explored in depth. It is his son Simon de Montfort (VI) who is perhaps best known. His rebellion against Henry III of England ultimately establishes the first parliamentary state in Europe. The decline of the family begins with Simon s defeat and death at Evesham in 1265. Initially they revive their fortunes under the new king of Sicily, but they scandalise Europe with a vengeful political murder. By this time it is the twilight of the crusades era and the remaining de Montforts either perish or are expelled. Eleanor de Montfort, the last Princess of Wales, dies in childbirth and her daughter is raised as a nun.

There are so many reasons to love Crusaders and Revolutionaries of the Thirteenth Century: De Montfort by Darren Baker. The foremost reason is that it is a fabulous, enjoyable and entertaining read. Darren Baker has fast become the ‘go to’ historian for all things De Montfort. His research is thorough and the story is recounted in an accessible manner that draws the reader in. Told in chronological order, the narrative flows freely, drawing the reader into the lives of this incredible family.

The second reason is the cover. If there ever was a cover to attract a reader, this is it. It is stunning! And the artwork was done by a de Montfort descendant, Rosana de Montfort. It epitomises the ethos of the medieval barons, their sense of duty and dedication to the crusading ideal.

Crusaders and Revolutionaries of the Thirteenth Century: De Montfort charts the successes and failures of the Montfort family from their origins to the dizzy heights of Simon VI de Montfort, Earl of Leicester and virtual ruler of England in the reign of Henry III and beyond. The triumph of this book, however, is not in the famous Simon of English history, but in this Simon’s father, the leader of the Albigensian Crusade against the Cathar heresy in south-western France. Having studied the Albigensian Crusade during my university years, it was interesting to revisit the conflict, focusing on the de Montfort contribution.

Although the book invariable concentrates on the two famous Simon de Montforts – father and son – it also highlights the less renowned, the crusading de Montforts who made their reputations in the Holy Land, the wives and daughters who helped to hold the family together and the younger brothers and sons who shared in the family tradition of war and crusading. Crusaders and Revolutionaries of the Thirteenth Century: De Montfort is a fascinating study of this famous – and sometimes notorious – family.

Simon de Montfort’s first-known encounter with the Cathars was actually a miracle. A perfect and his initiate were brought before him near Castres. After taking counsel, Simon decided to burn them. The initiate panicked and asked for mercy, promising to be a good Catholic in the future. After a heated discussion, Simon sided with those who insisted the man had come too far with his heresy. Both men were bound with chains and tied to a stake.

This was not the first use of burning at the stake in the crusade. A smaller army had already moved through the Agenais northwest of Toulouse. According to William of Tudela, this host ‘condemned many heretics to be burned and had many fair women thrown into the flames, for they refused to recant however much they were begged to do so’. The Church had provided no fixed guidelines to secular authorities on the punishment of heretics except to insist that it be ‘fitting’. Burning them to death had always been the conventional way, both because the flames purged them of their sins and it resembled the hell they found themselves in.

In this particular case, Simon justified burning the novice because, if he was truly repentant, the flames would expiate his sins; if he was not, it would be his ‘just reward for perfidy’. The fire was lit, but while the prefect was consumed by the flames instantly, the initiate broke out of his chains and escaped with just singed fingertips. Peter of Vaux-de-Cernay does not say what became of the man after that, but since he calls his escape a miracle, Simon and the others probably did so too and spared the heretic his life.

For anyone interested in studying the 12th and 13th centuries, of the de Montforts in particular, Crusaders and Revolutionaries of the Thirteenth Century: De Montfort would be an invaluable – and essential – addition to their library. It not only works as the study of a medieval family, but as a study of the motivations of medieval barons, both in their religious and military duties – and of the women who support them.

Crusaders and Revolutionaries of the Thirteenth Century: De Montfort is a wonderful study of the entire de Montfort family. Darren Baker provides his usual level of unbiased analysis that allows the reader to make their own decision of the family and its individual members. His research and referencing is impeccable, as I have come to expect, and his extensive use of primary sources provide a unique insight into the de Montfort family.

My review simply cannot do this book justice. What I can say, is that I cannot recommend it highly enough. Crusaders and Revolutionaries of the Thirteenth Century: De Montfort is a wonderful book for anyone interested in medieval history, either for leisure, research or study. The narrative is so eminently readable that you find yourself forgetting it is not a novel, it is so enjoyable.

Crusaders and Revolutionaries of the Thirteenth Century: De Montfort is now available in hardback and ebook from Pen & Sword Books and Amazon.

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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 & Sword,  Amazon and from Book Depository worldwide.

Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

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.

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.

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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.

©2021 Sharon Bennett Connolly.

Guest Post: The Women of the House of Montfort by Darren Baker

It is a pleasure to welcome historian Darren Baker to History … the Interesting Bits today, with a guest article about the women of the family of Simon de Montfort. Darren is the author of The Two Eleanors, a book telling the dual biography of Eleanor of Provence, wife of Henry III, and Eleanor of England, wife of Simon de Montfort. Darren’s latest book, Crusaders and Revolutionaries of the Thirteenth Century: De Montfort, was released in November from Pen & Sword and is a stunning biography of the the Montfort family.

So, over to Darren …

The Women of the House of Montfort

Darren Baker

King Philip I of France leaving his wife for Bertrade de Montfort

The house of Montfort arose some 50 kilometres west of Paris in a place known today as Montfort l’Amaury. Their family name ‘de Montfort’ is usually associated with two Simons, father and son, the relentless Albigensian crusader and the determined English revolutionary, both men of the 13th century. Other family members went further afield and established lordships in Italy and the crusader states.

Less known is the prominence of the de Montfort women. Their influence reaches back to the 11th century, starting with Isabella. Her father, Simon I, gave her in marriage to Ralph de Tosny, who in turn forced his sister Agnes to marry this first Simon. When Isabella fell out with her father’s children with Agnes, she put on armour and led a body knights in the field against her half-brothers.

Isabella’s half-sister Bertrade was married to Fulk IV of Anjou. She grew tired of his lecherous ways and took as her next husband the king of France, Philip I, who deserted his wife to marry her. Hoping to see her son with Philip succeed to the throne over her stepson Louis (VI), Bertrade had the older youth poisoned, but the attempt failed and brought about her disgrace. She died in a nunnery in 1117, not living to see her son from her first marriage, Fulk V of Anjou, become king of Jerusalem.

Two generations later, Simon III stood loyally by the English in their fight with the French. He was rewarded with marriages for his three children into the Anglo-Norman nobility. His oldest son Amaury V married Mabel, daughter of the earl of Gloucester, the next son Simon IV married Amicia, daughter of the earl of Leicester, and daughter Bertrade II married Hugh, the earl of Chester. This Bertrade was the mother of the legendary Ranulf de Blondeville, arguably the last of the great Anglo-Norman barons.

The senior branch of the house of Montfort died out in 1213, but Amicia’s son Simon V (the crusader), who was already the count of Montfort, inherited the earldom of Leicester. It was confiscated by King John in 1207 and ended up in the custody of Ranulf. It was from Ranulf that Simon VI acquired Leicester in 1231 and became an English noble, but that’s getting ahead of the story.

Eleanor de Montfort and children

Simon V’s wife was Alice de Montmorency. She was very much an active crusader against the Albigensians and often participated in her husband’s war councils. Their daughter Petronilla was born during the crusade and baptised by Dominic de Guzman, founder of the Dominican order. After Simon’s death in 1218, Alice placed Petronilla in a nunnery, where she became the abbess later in life. Alice’s oldest daughter Amicia founded the nunnery of Montargis, south of Paris, and died there in 1252.

In England, Alice’s son Simon VI rose high in royal favour and married Eleanor, the youngest sister of King Henry III and widow of William Marshal II. Together she and Simon had five sons and one daughter. The clash between Eleanor’s husband and brother ended in civil war and Simon’s death in 1265 at the battle of Evesham. Eleanor left England to live out the rest of her life in Montargis and took her namesake daughter with her.

Guy de Montfort was the only one of Eleanor’s sons to marry. He found service under Charles of Anjou, the king of Sicily, and rapidly advanced to become the count of Nola. He received a Tuscan heiress as his bride, but he scandalised the family in 1271 by vengefully murdering his cousin. Guy escaped punishment for the most part and had two daughters, of whom only the youngest Anastasia survived to adulthood. She became the countess of Nola at her father’s death in 1292 and married into the Orsini family of Rome.

Eleanor de Montfort died in 1275, living long enough to see her daughter marry Llywelyn of Wales by proxy. Later that year, the boat carrying young Eleanor and her brother Amaury VIII was captured by the forces of their cousin King Edward I, who had been alerted to their intentions. Eleanor was confined at Windsor Castle and not freed to marry Llywelyn until 1278.

She died four years later giving birth to a daughter Gwenllian. When Llywelyn was then killed, the baby girl was placed in a nunnery in Lincolnshire. By the time of her death in 1337, the de Montfort family, once so admired and respected across Europe and the Mediterranean, seemed long extinct. But their fortunes were about to be revived.

Joan of Navarre, Queen of England

This part of the story goes back to Simon V and Alice’s oldest son Amaury VII, who succeeded his father as the count of Montfort. He was followed by his son John, whose wife was pregnant when he left on crusade and died overseas. The daughter born to her, Beatrice, became the countess of Montfort when she came of age. She married Robert of Dreux and had a daughter Yolande, who became the second wife of King Alexander III of Scotland in 1285 in the hope of producing an heir to that throne.

It didn’t happen, and after Alexander died, Yolande married Arthur II of Brittany. Their son John succeeded her as the count of Montfort, and when his half-brother the duke of Brittany died in 1341 without an heir, John put in a claim for the duchy. It turned into a war of succession, which was won by his son, another John of Montfort, in 1365, a hundred years after Evesham.

In 1386, this John of Montfort took as his third wife the famous Joan of Navarre. She was the mother of his children and after his death became the queen of England with her marriage to King Henry IV. It was through her and Yolande that the Montfort family line returned to England.

About the Author:

Darren Baker was born in California, raised in South Carolina, and came to Europe in 1990, settling permanently in the Czech Republic. A former submariner in the US Pacific fleet, he later studied languages at the University of Connecticut and works as a translator. A trip to the UK inspired him to revisit the events of 13th century England, which he does on his website simon2014.com and in his books. His newly released Crusaders and Revolutionaries of the Thirteenth Century: De Montfort is his fourth on the subject.

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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 & Sword,  Amazon 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: Betrayal

“Loyalty breaks as easily as a silken thread.”

Misplaced trust, power hunger, emotional blackmail, and greed haunt twelve characters from post-Roman Britain to the present day. And betrayal by family, lover, comrade can be even more devastating.

Read twelve tales by twelve accomplished writers who explore these historical yet timeless challenges.

AD455—Roman leader Ambrosius is caught in a whirlpool of shifting allegiances
AD940—Alyeva and cleric Dunstan navigate the dangers of the Anglo Saxon court
1185—Knight Stephan fights for comradeship, duty, and honour. But what about love?
1330—The powerful Edmund of Kent enters a tangled web of intrigue
1403—Thomas Percy must decide whether to betray his sovereign or his family
1457—Estelle is invited to the King of Cyprus’s court, but deception awaits
1483—Has Elysabeth made the right decision to bring Prince Edward to London?
1484—Margaret Beaufort contemplates the path to treason
1577—Francis Drake contends with disloyalty at sea
1650—Can James Hart, Royalist highwayman, stop a nemesis destroying his friend?
1718—Pirate Annie Bonny, her lover Calico Jack, and a pirate hunter. Who will win?
1849/present—Carina must discover her ancestor’s betrayer in Italy or face ruin.

Betrayal: Historical Stories is a wonderful anthology of 12 short stories exploring the concept of betrayal, either of country, family or lovers. Featuring some of the best authors of the moment, Betrayal: Historical Stories features stories from post-Roman Britain to an alternative reality in modern times, where the Roman Empire never fell but continued under powerful, influential women in Roma Nova.

There is something in this book for everyone. There are kings and queens, knights, pirates and cavalier highwaymen. There are stories of love, loyalty and friendship combined with implacable enemies, broken promises, family secrets and – above all – betrayal!

The remarkable diversity of the stories make this anthology a gripping read. You never know what story you are going to come across next, whether its the exploits of Sir Francis Drake, the heartbreaking story of 13-year-old Edward V’s journey to London, from his proclamation as king to his deposition and imprisonment in the Tower of London. Each story is written by a different author; their voices are as distinct as their characters.

In a book of short stories, it is impossible to pick an extract that shows the full range of writing on offer. However, it is possible to choose and extract that highlights the high standard of writing throughout the book. So here’s an excerpt from Honour of Thieves by Cryssa Bazos:

A panicked rider appeared from around the bend, twisted in the saddle, his attention fixed behind him as though the hounds of hell snapped at his feet. When he finally turned to face the road ahead, he saw James barring his way and screamed. the rider yanked hard on teh reins, and his horse skidded to a bone’jarring halt. He fought to keep himself from launching over his horse’s head.

James levelled his pistol at him. ‘Stand and deliver!’

A bead of sweat trickled down the man’s brow. ‘Ah, Master Highwayman. Do you not remember me? I passed this way before. You afforded me a free pas through Moot Hill.’ When he received no acknowledgement, he pressed on, his voice cracking, ‘I’m the pauper you took pity on. Do you not recall?’

James studied the man. Same battered hat and frayed cloak, a nearly broken horse better suited for the pasture than the road. True, he had last taken the man for a beggar, as he was meant to, but since then he had learned the truth. ‘A thrice of days ago; I haven’t forgotten. I allowed you the freedom of the highway.’

‘Blessed be the day.’ The man beamed and wiped his forehead with his sleeve. ‘Naturally, there’s no profit accosting me.’ His smile faded when he realised that the pistol was still trained on him. ‘I’m not even a Parliamentarian – I’m a good Royalist still mourning his fallen king … like yourself.’

James lifted a brow, satisfied to see the man squirm. Lying sod. Many travellers had passed this way over the last year pretending to share the highwayman’s abhorrence for their Parliamentarian usurpers in order to save their purse. James had seen through their ruses, but this one had somehow rooked him. That set his teeth on edge. ‘You pled your case well, claiming to be a half-starved hare.’ He swept his gaze to the man’s new leather boots. Clearly, the man’s subterfuge did not extend to the discomfort of ill-fitting shoes. ‘I took pity on you – instead of taking, I gave you a goodly sum to keep you well and a few coins besides to drink my health.’

‘God save you -‘

‘Did you have that drink?’ James asked.

‘Of course! I sang your praises at a public house that night.’

‘Are you certain?’

Silence.

I have read some of the authors before. Derek Birks, Tony Riches, Annie Whitehead, Cryssa Bazos and Anna Belfrage are among my favourite authors and I have reviewed their books before. These short stories allowed me to revisit some of their best characters, from Ambrosius Aurelianus to Captain James Hart, Sir Stephan de l’Aigle and Kit and Adam de Guirande of Anna Belfrage’s The King’s Greatest Enemy series.

Reading Betrayal: Historical Stories was a combination of spending a few hours with old friends and meeting new ones. Elizabeth St John, Judith Arnopp and Alison Morton were authors I was familiar with, but had not read before. I am now going to rectify that and go through their back catalogue to catch up. Alison’s Roma Nova short story provided an intriguing alternative to the modern day, showing us how the world might be, had a Roman Empire survived and flourished into the modern world, under the auspices of 12 ruling families.

The stories are beautifully written, enjoyable diversions. It is impossible to choose a favourite! Betrayal: Historical Stories showcases some of the best writing in historical fiction today. It is a pure pleasure to read.

What a fabulous way to discover new authors and new adventures!

The Betrayal: Historical Stories anthology is available for free from Amazon UK and Amazon US.

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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 

Cover and Title reveal – Defenders of the Norman Crown

Here it is!

The finalised cover for Defenders of the Norman Crown: Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey, coming out next year.

Huge thanks to designer Paul Wilkinson at Pen & Sword for making my book look sooo good!

Defenders of the Norman Crown: Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey

In the reign of Edward I, when asked Quo Warranto? – by what warrant he held his lands – John de Warenne, the 6th earl of Warenne and Surrey, is said to have drawn a rusty sword, claiming ‘My ancestors came with William the Bastard, and conquered their lands with the sword, and I will defend them with the sword against anyone wishing to seize them.’

John’s ancestor, William de Warenne, 1st Earl of Surrey, fought for William the Conqueror at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. He was rewarded with enough land to make him one of the richest men of all time. In his search for a royal bride, the 2nd earl kidnapped the wife of a fellow baron. The 3rd earl died on crusade, fighting for his royal cousin, Louis VII of France…

For three centuries, the Warennes were at the heart of English politics at the highest level, until one unhappy marriage brought an end to the dynasty. The family moved in the most influential circles, married into royalty and were not immune to scandal.

Defenders of the Norman Crown tells the fascinating story of the Warenne dynasty, of the successes and failures of one of the most powerful families in England, from its origins in Normandy, through the Conquest, Magna Carta, the wars and marriages that led to its ultimate demise in the reign of Edward III.

Warenne arms

If you have been following this blog for any length of time, you will have noticed that I have a fondness for the Warennes. The family were earls of Surrey from 1088 until the death of the last Warenne earl in 1347. They possessed lands throughout England, stretching from Lewes in Sussex to Castle Rising in Norfolk and on to Conisbrough and Sandal Castles in Yorkshire.

Growing up close to the Warenne castle at Conisbrough in South Yorkshire, I developed a fascination for the castle’s history, for its connections to royalty, and for the family which built this amazing stronghold – the Warennes. As a student, I worked at the castle as a volunteer tour guide and started researching the story of the family. Many, many years later, when Pen & Sword asked me for some book ideas, I suggested writing a biography of the family, not really expecting them to say ‘yes’ – but they did. Defenders of the Norman Crown: Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey is a book I have always wanted to write, but never expected I would get the chance.

From the time of the Norman Conquest to the death of the seventh and last earl, the Warenne family was at the heart of English politics and the establishment, providing military and administrative support to the Crown. In the years following 1066 William I de Warenne, who became the first Earl of Surrey in 1088, was the fourth richest man in England and the richest not related to the royal family – he ranks at number 18 in MSN.com’s Top 20 Richest People of All Time.

Conisbrough Castle

The earls of Surrey were at the centre of the major crises of medieval England, from the Norman Conquest itself to the deposition of Edward II and accession of Edward III. Strategic marriages forged links with the leading noble houses in England and Scotland, from the Marshals, the FitzAlans, the d’Aubignys and Percys to the Scottish and English royal families themselves. Indeed, it is from Ada de Warenne, daughter of the second earl, married to the oldest son of the king of Scots, that all the leading competitors for the Scottish throne, after the death of Margaret, Maid of Norway in 1286, are descended. Queen Elizabeth II, herself, can trace her own lineage back to Ada and, through Ada, to the second earl of Warenne and Surrey.

In the 14th century, one unhappy marriage brought the dynasty to an end, the family’s influence and achievements almost forgotten…

Writing Defenders of the Norman Crown: Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey and researching this incredible family has been an amazing experience – a dream come true – and I will be eternally grateful to Pen & Sword for allowing me to tell their story.

Defenders of the Norman Crown: Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey tells the story of this remarkable dynasty. It is a story of power, ambition, loyalty and – above all – family!

Defenders of the Norman Crown: The Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey will be released in the UK on 31 May and is now available for pre-order from Pen & Sword Books.

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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: The Crescent and the Cross by SJA Turney

An epic battle of the Reconquista; a personal struggle to survive; a fight for glory.

War is brewing, and the Pope has summoned a crusade. The nations of Christendom are rallying to fight the Almohad caliphate, but they are a formidable foe.

Meanwhile, behind Moorish lines, a fortress held by Castile is under siege. As the siege falls, a knight is lost. Arnau leaves on a dangerous, near-suicidal quest to save him, a new squire in tow.

In the heat of the sierras though, things are not as they seem. War is coming to Iberia and all will be tested. Arnau’s sword arm will need practice, as will his mind.

A riveting and brutal historical adventure, the latest instalment of S.J.A Turney’s Knights Templar series, perfect for fans of Bernard Cornwell and Conn Iggulden.

The Crescent and the Cross is book number 5 in SJA Turney’s wonderful Knights Templar series and is as good as, if not better than the rest. Unlike the usual Templar novels Turney has chosen to set his stories against the backdrop of the Muslim invasion of Spain, rather than the Holy Land. What may be seen as an intriguing move has proved to be a hit with me. Having studied the Crusades at university, and read up as much as I could find on the foundation of the Templar order, for some reason, I have always associated the Templars with the Holy Land. The reconquest of Spain is unfamiliar territory, and absolutely fascinating.

You could write in just a few words the amount I know about the Reconquista; basically, that Jamie Douglas took Robert the Bruce’s heart to Spain and threw it into the heat of the battle against the Muslim ruler of Grenada. Douglas was killed in the action; his body and King Robert’s heart were both retrieved and returned to Scotland. The story of the Reconquista is also that of El Cid, and of Ferdinand and Isabella, the parents of Henry VIII’s first wife, Katherine of Aragon.

But it is also the story of the Knights Templar, who fought alongside other knightly orders, such as the knights of Calatrava, to recover Spain from the Muslims. SJA Turney therefore has an area of history that has been virtually ignored by novelists before, and it is such a fertile area of untapped and undiscovered stories which keep the reader gripped to the very end.

At a gesture from the preceptrix, Balthesar closed the door behind them, deepening the gloom further. The three knights walked halfway across the room and then fell into line, standing before the preceptrix like a white-clad parody of the three magi. ‘You sent for us, Mother Superior?’

The silence that filled the room as Balthesar’s words died away was tense, uncomfortable.

‘I did. I am faced with a problem, Brothers, and I fear there is little time in current circumstances to convene a full convent or to send for instructions from the mother house. I need the advice of my knights. This man is Amal.’ Her hand reached out, indicating the Moor. ‘Amal has come to us from within the lands of our great enemy bearing a letter, at great personal risk.

‘A letter, mother Superior?’

‘A personal missive. It would appear that out dear sister Joana’s former suitor, the knight Martin Calderon, is not dead as was believed.’

Arnau frowned. ‘I am unfamiliar with his story, Mother. He was presumed dead?’

The preceptrix nodded, her gaze slipping sideways towards the puffy-eyed Joana. ‘The reason for Joana’s predicament has been somewhat difficult and beyond our moral judgement, despite the damage done to our sister. Sir Calderon heard the calling of the Lord and regretfully parted from our sister, taking his vows with the Order of the knights of Calatrava. While Joana has heard nothing from her former betrothed since the day of their departure, however, I have sufficient contacts in that Order and took it upon myself to remain informed as to Brother Calderon’s activities. Last autumn, he was one of the knights who carried out the heroic defence of Salvatierra against the caliph’s army. While the bulk of the defenders were given safe passage to Aragon upon their surrender, Calderon’s name appears on the roster of the fallen.’

That rather explained the state of poor sister Joana, Arnau realised. His gaze flicked once more to the Moor. Calderon was apparently not dead, though.

Balthesar frowned. ‘Respectfully, Mother Superior, why would you concern yourself woth the an? Quite apart from his treatment of Sister Joana and the gulf now between them, of what interest might such a man be when we have the crusade looming?’

Every writer has his or her own strengths, for SJA Turney, it is that he can write and entire series of books – this is the 5th and there is at least one more to come – where every story in the series is not only a standalone, but is a unique intriguing story that takes the reader – and the protagonist – in a different direction every time. The first book in the series, Daughter of War, told the unlikely – but true – story of a woman in charge of the Templar preceptory at Rourell. Book 2, The Last Emir, took two of the Rourell knights on a quest to Majorca in search of a holy relic, while book 3, City of God saw the series’ hero, Arnau de Vallbona, caught up in the epic siege of Constantinople and book 4, The Winter Knight, was an intriguing murder mystery set in a German castle!

Each story has proved to be unique, edge of the seat action and The Crescent and the Cross is no different. Set in the heart of Spain, Arnau is given the task of recovering a knight held captive by the Almohad caliphate, only to find all is not as it seems. SJA Turney expertly recreates the Iberian landscape; the scorching heat, soaring mountains and vast plains. He builds the Christian army just as the leaders must have done at the time, introducing the alliance of kings, church leaders and knightly orders who have to face their enemies on the Spanish plains.

The Crescent and the Cross is a marvellous story, wonderfully told and gripping to the very end. I can’t wait for the next book! SJA Turney is a first class storyteller who draws the reader in from the very first page, the action frenetic from the first page to the last. The Crescent and the Cross is a truly excellent read, with a wonderful author note at the end, giving the reader a comprehensive background to the fight to reconquer Spain that lasted 9 centuries.

The Crescent and the Cross is available from Amazon UK.

About the author:

Simon lives with his wife, children, rabbits and dog in rural North Yorkshire. Having spent much of his childhood visiting historic sites with his grandfather, a local photographer, Simon fell in love with the Roman heritage of the region, beginning with the world famous Hadrian’s Wall. His fascination with the ancient world snowballed from there with great interest in Egypt, Greece and Byzantium, though his focus has always been Rome. A born and bred Yorkshireman with a love of country, history and architecture, Simon spends most of his rare free time travelling the world visiting historic sites, writing, researching the ancient world and reading voraciously.

Simon’s early career meandered along an arcane and eclectic path of everything from the Ministry of Agriculture to computer network management before finally settling back into the ancient world. During those varied years, Simon returned to university study to complete an honours degree in classical history through the Open University. With what spare time he had available and a rekindled love of all things Roman, he set off on an epic journey to turn Caesar’s Gallic War diaries into a novel accessible to all. The first volume of Marius’ Mules was completed in 2003 and has garnered international success, bestseller status and rave reviews, spawning numerous sequels. Marius’ Mules is still one of Simon’s core series and although Roman fiction features highly he now has Byzantine, Fantasy and Medieval series, too, as well as several collaborations and short stories in other genres.

Now with in excess of 30 novels available and, Simon is a prolific writer, spanning genres and eras and releasing novels both independently and through renowned publishers including Canelo and Orion. Simon writes full time and is represented by MMB Creative literary agents.

Look out for Roman military novels featuring Caesar’s Gallic Wars in the form of the bestselling Marius’ Mules series, Roman thrillers in the Praetorian series, set during the troubled reign of Commodus, epics of the Knights Templar, adventures around the 15th century Mediterranean world in the Ottoman Cycle, and a series of Historical Fantasy novels with a Roman flavour called the Tales of the Empire.

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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

Joanna of England, the Lionheart’s Little Sister

220px-Joanna_Plantagenet
Joanna of England

Joanna of England was born in October 1165, the 7th child and youngest daughter of Henry II of England and Eleanor of Aquitaine. 10 years younger than her eldest brother, Henry the Young King, she was born at a time when their parents’ relationship was breaking down; her mother would eventually go to war against her husband, before being imprisoned by him for the last 16 years of Henry’s reign.

Born at Angers Castle in Anjou, Christmas 1165 was the first ever Christmas her parents spent apart; with Henry still in England dealing with a Welsh revolt, he wasn’t to meet his new daughter for several months. Although Joanna spent much of her childhood at her mother’s court in Poitiers, she and her younger brother, John, spent sometime at the magnificent Abbey of Fontevraud. Whilst there Joanna was educated in the skills needed to run a large, aristocratic household and in several languages; English, Norman French and rudimentary Latin.

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Joanna’s seals

When Eleanor and her sons rebelled in 1173, Henry II went to war against his wife. When she was captured – wearing men’s clothes – she was sent to imprisonment in England. Joanna joined her father’s entourage and frequently appeared at Henry’s Easter and Christmas courts.

3 years later, Eleanor was allowed to travel to Winchester to say ‘goodbye’ to her youngest daughter, who had been betrothed to King William II of Sicily. Provided with a trousseau, probably similar to that of her sister Matilda on her marriage to Henry the Lion, Joanna set out from Winchester at the end of August 1176; escorted by Bishop John of Norwich and her uncle, Hamelin de Warenne.

Joanna’s entourage must have been a sight to see. Once on the Continent, she was escorted from Barfleur by her brother Henry, the Young King. Her large escort was intended to dissuade bandit attacks against her impressive dowry, which included fine horses, gems and precious metals. At Poitiers, Joanna was met by another brother, Richard, who escorted his little sister to Toulouse in a leisurely and elegant progress.

Dedication_mosaic_-_Cathedral_of_Monreale_-_Italy_2015_(crop)
William II dedicating the Cathedral of Monreale to the Virgin Mary

Having finally reached Sicily 12-year-old Joanna was married to 24-year-old William on 13th February 1177, in Palermo Cathedral. The marriage ceremony was followed by her coronation as Queen of Sicily. Joanna must have looked magnificent, her bejewelled dress cost £114 – not a small sum at the time.

Sicily was an ethnically diverse country; William’s court was composed of Christian, Muslim and Greek advisers. William himself spoke, read and wrote Arabic and, in fact, kept a harem of both Christian and Muslim girls within the palace. Although she was kept secluded, it must have been a strange life for a young girl, partly raised in a convent.

Joanna and William only had one child, Bohemond, Duke of Apulia, who was born – and died – in 1181. And when William died without an heir in November 1189, Joanna became a pawn in the race for the succession. William’s aunt, Constance was the rightful heir, but she was married to Henry VI, Holy Roman Emperor and many feared being absorbed into his empire. William II’s illegitimate nephew, Tancred of Lecce, seized the initiative. He claimed the throne and, in need of money, imprisoned Joanna and stole her dowry and the treasures left to her by her husband.

180px-Vilem2Sicilie_smrt
William II on his deathbed

Who knows how long Joanna would have remained imprisoned, if it had not been for her brother’s eagerness to go on Crusade? Having gained the English throne in 1189 Richard I – the Lionheart – had wasted no time in organising the Third Crusade and arrived at Messina in Sicily in September 1190.

Richard demanded Joanna’s release; and fearing the Crusader king’s anger Tancred capitulated and freed Joanna, paying 40,000 ounces of gold towards the Crusade in fulfilment of William II’s promise of aid.

Described as beautiful and spirited, Joanna had been Queen of Sicily for 13 years and it seems that, while at her brother’s court, she caught the eye of Richard’s co-Crusdaer, King Philip II of France. Richard was having none of it and moved Joanna to the Priory of Bagnara on the mainland, out of sight and hopefully out of mind.

Richard stayed in Sicily for sometime, negotiating a treaty with Tancred which would recognise him as rightful king of Sicily in return for the remainder of Joanna’s dowry and 19 ships to support the Crusade. He was also waiting for his bride, Berengaria of Navarre, to catch up with him.

Richard_I_and_Joan_greeting_Philip_Augustus
Joanna with her brother, Richard the Lionheart, and King Philip II of France

During Lent of 1191 Joanna had a brief reunion with her mother Eleanor of Aquitaine when she arrived in Sicily, having escorted Richard’s bride. Joanna became Berengaria’s chaperone and they were lodged together at Bagnara, like ‘two doves in a cage’.

Unable to marry in the Lenten season, Richard sent Joanna and Berengaria on ahead of the main army, and departed Sicily for the Holy Land.

The Royal ladies’ ship was driven to Limassol on Cyprus by a storm. After several ships were crippled and then plundered by the islanders, the ruler of Cyprus, Isaac Comnenus, tried to lure Joanna and Berengaria ashore. Richard came to the rescue, reduced Cyprus in 3 weeks and clamped Comnenus in chains (silver ones apparently). Lent being over, Richard and Berengaria were married, with great pomp and celebration, before the whole party continued their journey to the Holy Land, arriving at Acre in June 1191.

Joanna’s time in the Holy Land was spent in Acre and Jaffa, accompanying her sister-in-law and following – at a safe distance – behind the Crusading army. She spent Christmas 1191 with Richard and Berengaria, at Beit-Nuba, just 12 miles from Jerusalem. However, although he re-took Acre and Jaffa, Richard fell out with his allies and was left without a force strong enough to take Jerusalem.

In attempts to reach a political settlement with the Muslim leader, Saladin, Richard even offered Joanna as a bride for Saladin’s brother. His plans were scuppered, however, when Joanna refused outright to even consider marrying a Muslim, despite the fact Richard’s plan would have seen her installed as Queen of Jerusalem.

When a 3-year truce was eventually agreed with Saladin, Joanna and Berengaria were sent ahead of the army, to Sicily and onto Rome where they were to await Richard’s arrival. Richard, however, never made it; falling into the hands of Duke Leopold of Austria, he was handed over to his enemy, the Holy Roman Emperor.

With Richard imprisoned, Berengaria and Joanna arrived back in Poitiers. Berengaria herself set out to help raise the ransom money for Richard’s release, which finally came about in February 1194.

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Raymond VI Count of Toulouse

Joanna spent the next few years at her mother’s and brother’s courts, her wealth having been squandered by Richard’s Crusade. But at the age of 31 she was proposed as a bride for Raymond VI, Count of Toulouse. Her title as Queen of Sicily would give him greater prestige while bringing the County of Toulouse into the Plantagenet fold, a long-time aim of Eleanor’s.

3-times married Raymond does not seem to have been ideal husband material; he had been excommunicated for marrying his 3rd wife whilst still married to his 2nd. And he now repudiated wife number 3, confining her to a convent, in order to marry Joanna. Despite such a colourful history, the wedding went ahead and Joanna and Raymond were married in Rouen in October 1196, with Queen Berengaria in attendance.

Although not a happy marriage Joanna gave birth to a son, Raymond, in around 1197 and a daughter, possibly called Mary, in 1198. Little is known of Mary, and it is possible she died in infancy. Raymond succeeded his father as Raymond VII Count of Toulouse, and married twice.

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Raymond VII Count of Toulouse

Raymond VI was not a popular Count of Toulouse and while he was away in the Languedoc, in 1199, dealing with rebel barons, Joanna herself tried to face down her husband’s enemies. She laid siege to a rebel stronghold at Cassee. Mid-siege, however, her troops turned traitor and fired the army’s camp – Joanna managed to escape, but was probably injured.

A pregnant Joanna was then trying to make her way to her brother Richard when she heard of his death. She diverted course and finally reached her mother at Niort. Hurt, distressed and pregnant, Eleanor sent her to Fontevraud to be looked after by the nuns.

With no allowance from her husband, Joanna returned to her mother and brother – King John – in Rouen in June 1199, pleading poverty; Eleanor managed to persuade John to give his sister an annual pension of 100 marks.

Joanna’s last few months must have been a desperate time. Too ill to travel and heavily pregnant, she remained at Rouen. In September, King John gave her a lump sum of 3,000 marks, to dispose of in her will; she specifically mentioned a legacy towards the cost of a new kitchen at Fontevraud and asked Eleanor to dispose of the remainder in charitable works for the religious and the poor.

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The Church at the Abbey of Fontevraud

Knowing she was dying, Joanna became desperate to be veiled as a nun at Fontevraud; a request normally denied to married women – especially when they were in the late stages of pregnancy. However, seeing how desperate her daughter was, Eleanor sent for Matilda, the Abbess of Fontevraud but, fearing the Abbess would arrive too late, she also asked Hubert Walter, the Archbishop of Canterbury, to intervene. The Archbishop tried to dissuade Joanna, but was impressed by her fervour and convened a committee of nuns and clergy; who agreed that Joanna must be ‘inspired by heaven’.

In Eleanor’s presence, the Archbishop admitted Joanna to the Order of Fontevraud. Joanna was too weak to stand and died shortly after the ceremony; her son, Richard, was born a few minutes later and lived only long enough to be baptised. She died a month short of her 34th birthday.

Joanna and her baby son were interred together at Fontevraud, the funeral cortege having been escorted there by Eleanor of Aquitaine and King John.

The Winchester Annalist said of Joanna, that she was;

a woman whose masculine spirit overcame the weakness of her sex

Winchester Annalist quoted in Oxforddnb.com

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Pictures taken from Wikipedia

References: Mike Ashley The Mammoth Book of Kings & Queens; Alison Weir Britain’s Royal Families, the Complete Genealogy; Robert Bartlett England Under the Norman and Angevin Kings; Alison Weir Eleanor of Aquitaine, by the Wrath of God, Queen of England; Douglas Boyd Eleanor, April Queen of Aquitaine; bestofsicily.com; Oxforddnb.com; britannica.com; geni.com; royalwomenblogspot.co.uk; medievalqueens.com.

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My books

Defenders of the Norman Crown: The Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey tells the fascinating story of the Warenne dynasty, of the successes and failures of one of the most powerful families in England, from its origins in Normandy, through the Conquest, Magna Carta, the wars and marriages that led to its ultimate demise in the reign of Edward III. Defenders of the Norman Crown: Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey is now available from Pen & Sword BooksAmazon in the UK and US and Book Depository.

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Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

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 & Sword,  Amazon and from Book Depository worldwide.

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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©2015 Sharon Bennett Connolly