Book Corner: Mercia, the Rise and Fall of a Kingdom by Annie Whitehead

Many people know about Wessex, the ‘Last Kingdom’ of the Anglo-Saxons to fall to the Northmen, but another kingdom, Mercia, once enjoyed supremacy over not only Wessex, but all of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. At its zenith Mercia controlled what is now Birmingham and London ‒ and the political, commercial paramountcy of the two today finds echoes in the past.

Those interested in the period will surely have heard of Penda, Offa, and Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians ‒ but remarkably there is no single book that tells their story in its entirety, the story of the great kingdom of the midlands.

Historically, the records are in two halves, pre- and post-Viking, in the way they have been preserved. Pre-Viking, virtually all the source material was written by the victims, or perceived victims, of Mercian aggression and expansion. Post-Viking, the surviving documents tend to hail from places which were not sacked or burned by the Northmen, particularly from Wessex, the traditional enemy of Mercia. The inclusion of those records here allows for the exploration of Mercia post-924.

Mercia ceased to be a kingdom when Alfred the Great came to power, but its history did not end there. Examining the roles of the great ealdormen in the anti-monastic reaction of the tenth century, through the treachery of Eadric Streona in the eleventh, and the last, brave young earls who made a stand against William the Conqueror, this book shows the important role the Mercians played in the forging of the English nation.

 

I have been waiting eagerly for Annie Whitehead’s Mercia: the Rise and Fall of  a Kingdom ever since I knew she was writing it. Luckily, I got an advanced copy from the publisher – but it was well worth the wait! In her introduction Annie Whitehead promises:

This is the story of the Mercians, the kings, the queens, saints, sinners, earls and warrior women who governed the kingdom and shaped its history.

 

And she does not disappoint!

Mercia: the Rise and Fall of  a Kingdom covers the story of the English midlands kingdom from its pagan origins, in the 7th century, to its absorption into the kingdom of England; a process started in the reign of King Alfred but not completed until after the Norman Conquest. Annie Whitehead traced the fortunes of Mercia from Penda, a king we know little enough about – and that from his enemies. As the author tells us, the problems with knowing anything about early Mercian history spring from the fact Mercia was a pagan land; they therefore had no monastic tradition of writing everything down. In which case, their history is taken from such as the Venerable Bede, who lived in the land of Mercia’s enemies, Northumbria.

As a result, Annie Whitehead’s first task was to assess the bias of her sources, all of whom had their own hostile vision of Mercia. She uses sources from varied fields, including charter and archaeological evidence, in order to reconstruct early Mercian society and tell the story of the land itself, and its relations to its neighbours, such as Northumbria, Wessex and East Anglia. Using primary sources wherever possible, Mercia: the Rise and Fall of  a Kingdom brings the people of this ancient kingdom to vivid life. The author also uses alliterative analysis, to suggest familial links between such rulers as Coenred and Ceolred, for example. Although this is not an exact science, it does help to give the reader some perspective on the personal and familial relationships between the major players in the region.

Throughout the book, Annie Whitehead retells the story from the available sources, taking great care to avoid filling in the gaps with invention and clearly offering theories and analysis to explain the direction in which the narrative proceeded. She provides an ongoing assessment of sources, discussing their validity, honesty and integrity; clearly stating where charters are thought to be spurious or of dubious provenance.

The story portrayed is one of conflict, from within and without the region, marriage alliances, murder and betrayal and the shifting political tensions of the various kingdoms within England. The history, inevitably, draws on the history of Wessex, Northumbria, Kent and Wales. However, Annie Whitehead constantly retains the focus firmly on Mercia, while clearly demonstrating the shifting political alliances and the internal and external forces which decided the direction in which Mercian – and English history as a whole – would eventual be drawn.

It is difficult to piece together the circumstances of Æthelbald’s exile. It doesn’t appear that Ceolred was a strong enough king to stave off contenders, particularly ones of the calibre Æthelbald would prove to be. Perhaps, then, he had been in exile since the time of Æthelred, yet he did not emerge until after Ceolred’s death. Were there other contenders to the throne? Had he been chased out of Mercia because the kings there were strong, or because he was, and thus he was  a threat? Dynastic disputes would become a feature of Mercian politics, particularly in the next century.

There is, in fact, a hint that the takeover was not so peaceful, provided by a reference in one source to a Ceolwald reigning between Ceolred and Æthelbald. This man, briefly mentioned in Chapter Three, could, if he existed at all, have been the brother of Ceolred. If so, and if he became king, he did not reign for long, for Æthelbald became king in the same year in which Coelred died. Perhaps there was a coup? If only we knew; but as we have seen, particularly when it comes to Mercian history, absence of evidence is most assuredly not evidence of absence, and we can only speculate when we come across these tantalising nuggets of information.

Æthelflæd, Lady of Mercia

Annie Whitehead provides a thorough and in-depth analysis of Mercia, its history and its people. Where there is uncertainty or conflicting evidence , she carefully sets out the opposing theories, providing her own thoughts and analysis, while making it clear what alternative reasoning there is available. The text is supplemented by some wonderful illustrations, colourful photographs of locations and buildings closely associated with Mercia’s history, from the well-known statue of Æthelflæd, daughter of Alfred the Great and Lady of Mercia, to Repton in Derbyshire, burial site of a number of Mercian kings.

On a personal level, it is fascinating to read another author’s interpretation of subjects I have researched myself. Annie Whitehead dedicates (and rightfully so) an entire chapter to the Lady Æthelflæd and her husband Æthelred. And it is good to know that her version of Æthelflæd does not contradict the lady I found when researching Heroines of the Medieval World. The same also happened with her depiction of Lady Godiva. Godiva appears in my next book, Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest; she was the wife of Leofric, Earl of Mercia, and grandmother of the last Anglo-Saxon Earl of Mercia, Edwin, who was killed in 1071 after fighting against the Normans.

Mercia: the Rise and Fall of  a Kingdom  is written in an engaging and conversational manner, leaving the reader both entertained and informed. It is impossible to read this book without being made aware of the depth of research that has gone into producing such an authoritative depiction of Mercia. the

Rich in detail, this is a must-have book for anyone interested in the English midlands, and Anglo-Saxon history. Annie Whitehead delves into all the corners of Mercia, her history and conflicts and relates the story of not just the land, but of the generations of people who occupied it.

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 and available from Amazon UK.

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My books

Heroines of the Medieval World,  is now available in hardback in the UK from both Amberley Publishing and Amazon UK. It is now available in Hardback from Amazon US  and worldwide from Book Depository.

Tracing the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066, Silk and the Sword: the Women of the Norman Conquest will be released in the UK on 15 November 2018 and is available for pre-order on Amazon UKAmazon USAmberley Publishing and 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.

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©2018 Sharon Bennett Connolly

Book Corner: The King’s Witch by Tracy Borman

As she helps to nurse the dying Queen Elizabeth, Frances Gorges longs for the fields and ancient woods of her parents’ Hampshire estate, where she has learned to use the flowers and herbs to become a much-loved healer.

Frances is happy to stay in her beloved countryside when the new King arrives from Scotland, bringing change, fear and suspicion. His court may be shockingly decadent, but James’s religion is Puritan, intolerant of all the old ways; he has already put to death many men for treason and women for witchcraft.

So when her ambitious uncle forcibly brings Frances to court, she is trapped in a claustrophobic world of intrigue and betrayal – and a ready target for the twisted scheming of Lord Cecil, the King’s first minister. Surrounded by mortal dangers, Frances finds happiness only with the precocious young Princess Elizabeth, and Tom Wintour, the one courtier she can trust.

Or can she?

I was lucky enough to receive a copy of Tracy Borman’s first novel, The King’s Witch through NetGalley.

I have often read and enjoyed Tracy Borman’s non-fiction works. Indeed, her book on Matilda of Flanders, queen of William the Conqueror, was very helpful in my research for my own books, Heroines of the Medieval World and Silk and the Sword: the Women of the Norman Conquest. However, there is a great difference in writing non-fiction and fiction and not every author can make the jump. As a result I was unsure what tot expect from The King’s Witch  but discovered that Tracy Borman has managed to create a masterpiece of literary fiction at the first attempt.

Set in the court of James VI and I shortly after his arrival in England, The King’s Witch weaves a wonderful tale of love, intrigue, betrayal and suspense, set against the backdrop of the king’s obsession with eradicating witchcraft within his realm and the persecution of catholics. The officers of the old regime of Elizabeth I are trying to curry favour with the new king by taking on his obsessions and making them their own, so that those out of favour are hunted on every side.

As curator of the Historic Royal Palaces, Tracy Borman uses the wealth of inside  knowledge and information she has acquired to vividly recreate the world of early Stuart Britain in vibrant detail. She breathes life into her characters, both historical and invented, so that it is impossible to tell where the fact ends and the fiction begins. Her expertise is demonstrated not only in court etiquette, dress and manners, but also in the seedier side of Stuart Britain, in the treatment and punishment of prisoners, the oppression of catholic families and priests. The extent of research the author pursued in the writing of the book is demonstrated in the knowledge of herbs and their healing qualities, and how a girl may gain and use the knowledge to help others, if not always successfully.

There was silence for a few moments, then Helena bade her daughter sit with her again, and clasped both of Frances’s hands in her own.

‘My daughter.’ She pronounced the word as ‘dotter’, a rare hint of her native tongue. ‘You are my precious jewel. If only I could keep you as safe as these trifles -‘ she gestured to the coffers surrounding them, each secured with a brightly polished lock, the keys to which were only entrusted to her highest-ranking attendant.

Frances looked up into her mother’s dark brown eyes. She had long since seen her fiftieth year, but with her pale skin, high cheekbones, and small rosebud mouth, she was still beautiful.

‘Lady Mother?’

‘Frances, you must know that the court – the kingdom – is greatly changed,’ Helena began, her voice low. ‘King James has no patience with the traditions upheld by the late queen. Already the court is beset with scandal and vice. It will bring shame upon the kingdom.’ A scornful look crossed her face.  ‘Yet neither does he respect our former mistress’s moderation in matters of religion, but insists upon the strict observance of the Protestant faith. He seems determined to bend his subjects to his will.

Helena looked down at her hands for a moment, and when she raised her eyes to Frances again they were clouded with anxiety.

‘He has declared a war on witches, Frances. He says that they are a canker in our midst, and that God has appointed him to destroy them all. He will not leave a stone unturned in his search for the “whores of Satan”, as he calls them. Already Cecil is drafting a new Act against witchcraft. Any practice that is deemed to be sorcery will be punishable by death.’ She paused, eyeing Frances closely. ‘Even the arts of healing are under suspicion. There is to be no mercy.’

Frances looked doubtful. ‘Surely the king does not mean to hunt down the wise women and cunning folk? His officials would have to scour every village in the kingdom, and to what purpose? Their skills have always been used for good, not evil.’

 

The heroine of the story, Frances Gorges, as lady-in-waiting to King James’ pampered daughter, Elizabeth, has to navigate the Stuart court, despite being suspected as a witch by the king’s chief adviser, Robert Cecil. A skilled healer, Frances’ kind and trusting nature is tested to the extremes. While her skill with herbs and healing leads her into a dark place, her love for one of the men of the court leads her into the heart of a dangerous conspiracy and she doesn’t know who to trust. As the story unfolds, the reader is taken on a journey into the heart of a plot could change the course of history….

Tracy Borman has succeeded wonderfully in attaining that often difficult balance with historical fiction, of keeping to the historical fact while weaving an enchanting story which will keep the reader gripped to the very last page. Her obvious expertise in the era means that she is able to get into the heads of the characters she is depicting, thus relating their thoughts feelings and motivations with an uncanny accuracy which serves to transport the reader back in time, to the court and country of James VI and I. The author accurately depicts the sense of unease and apprehension at the change in regime from Elizabethan to Jacobean, demonstrating the distrust and unfamiliarity that accompanies the Scottish king to his new court; and conflict between those who find favour with the new king and those who hanker after the times and tolerance of the old queen, Elizabeth I.

Tracy Borman’s heroine, Frances Gorges, must traverse this difficult terrain of shifting allegiances and changing favourites, searching for a way to survive the plots and machinations of those who would see her fall. The King’s Witch is an exquisitely crafted novel, recreating the essence of Stuart Britain in wonderful detail.

The King’s Witch is available from Amazon.

About the author

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Tracy Borman is joint Chief Curator of Historic Royal Palaces and Chief Executive of the Heritage Education Trust. She studied and taught history at the University of Hull and was awarded a PhD in 1997.

Tracy is the author of a number of highly acclaimed books, including Thomas Cromwell: The Untold Story of Henry VIII’s Most Faithful Servant, Matilda: Wife of the Conqueror, First Queen of England, Elizabeth’s Women: The Hidden Story of the Virgin Queen and Witches: A Tale of Sorcery, Scandal and Seduction. Tracy is also a regular broadcaster and public speaker, giving talks on her books across the UK and abroad. She lives in Surrey with her daughter.

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My books

Heroines of the Medieval World tells the stories of women, famous, infamous and unknown, who shaped the course of medieval history. It is available in hardback in the UK from both Amberley Publishing and Amazon UK. It is now available in Hardback from Amazon US  and worldwide from Book Depository.

From Emma of Normandy, wife of both King Cnut and Æthelred II to Saint Margaret, a descendant of Alfred the Great himself, 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. Silk and the Sword: the Women of the Norman Conquest will be released in the UK on 15 November 2018 and is available for pre-order on Amazon UKAmazon USAmberley Publishing and 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.

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©2018 Sharon Bennett Connolly

Book Corner: A Missed Murder by Michael Jecks

When Jack Blackjack disobeys the orders of his spymaster, he enters dangerous waters in this lively Tudor mystery.

London, 1555. Queen Mary is newly married to Philip II of Spain – and not everyone is happy about the alliance. The kingdom is divided between those loyal to Catholic Mary and those who support her half-sister, Lady Elizabeth.

Former cutpurse turned paid assassin Jack Blackjack has more immediate matters to worry about. Having been ordered to kill a man, he determines to save him instead. But Jack defies his spymaster at his peril … and even the best-laid plans can sometimes go awry. When it appears that Jack has killed the wrong man, he reluctantly finds himself drawn into affairs of state, making new enemies wherever he turns. Can he survive long enough to put matters right?

I have long been a fan of Michael Jecks. I have been an avid reader of his books ever since The Last Templar, the first of his Knights Templar Mysteries series came out many, many moons ago! Michael Jecks has a knack of transporting the reader back in time and subjecting them to a jolly good murder mystery, unhampered by any modern-day crime solving techniques. I also thoroughly enjoyed his Vintener Trilogy, set during the Hundred Years’ War. However, the Bloody Mary Mysteries,following the adventures of Jack Blackjack, are a new departure for him, in a way.

Michael Jecks has moved away from the 14th century into the heart of Tudor London and the reign of Mary I. However, the intrigue and suspense is still present – in abundance. With this series Michael Jecks proves that he is the consummate story-teller in whatever era he writes. His expertise at writing mysteries shines through on every page, keeping the reader guessing to the very last page.

The author has recreated Tudor London’s sordid underworld in fine detail, taking the reader through the backstreets and wharves, to the brothels of Southwark and the alehouses of the city, leaving the reader with a lasting (and not always pleasant) impression of the sights, sounds and smells of an overcrowded and tense London, uneasy at the marriage of their queen to a Spaniard and eager for the impending birth of a prince and Tudor heir.

‘Mistress,’ i said, and bowed elaborately. ‘I am your most devoted servant. I saw you enter, and …’

‘I must speak with Jack Blackjack, Master. Do you know where I might find him?’

The man from the bar sniggered and walked away as I smiled lecherously. ‘I am he. You were looking for me? What is your name, pretty maiden?’

She looked doubtful. ‘I was told to look for a man who had a square face, brown eyes and a little scar on his left cheek.’

i smiled at her. My face has always been my fortune. Women look at me and see a bold yeoman they want to coddle. God would never have given such looks to a black-hearted devil, they think.

Turning my head, I indicated my scar. I always think it gives me a devil-may-care appearance, a proof that I am a bold, adventurous type – although I won it from falling while fleeing a furious miller who wanted to exact vengeance for my deflowering of his daughter. Deflowering, indeed! That little hussy had been more practised than half the women in Piers’s brothel.

‘Who told you to seek me?’ I asked.

‘Master Blount.’

Jack Blackjack is not your traditional, gung-ho, hero. He is worldly-wise, in many ways, though sometimes a little too trusting. He is cautious where heroes may just jump in and he has landed himself a job as a paid assassin, despite his dislike of the sight of blood. However, as a character he has a charm all of his own. He is a likable fellow, who seems to have a tendency to get himself into trouble without even trying. His adventurous take you on a journey through the seedier parts of Tudor London, introducing some of the most colourful characters you are ever likely to meet, including Mal the Loaf (so-called because of the bread knife he carries) and Ramon, a Spanish soldier with a sharp rapier and a desire to use it!)

Before you know it, the reader is drawn into Jack’s adventures, willing him to unravel the mysteries surrounding the death of a Spaniard, the disappearance of several purses of money and the confusion caused by a change orders sent by his employer, Master Blount.

Written in the first person, the writing style of A Missed Murder takes a little getting used to, but creates a more personal relationship between the reader and the book’s hero. Thoroughly researched, the author has managed to reanimate Tudor London, down to the finest detail. As I have come to expect from Michael Jecks, A Missed Murder is well written and thoroughly absorbing, taking the reader on an adventure through Tudor London which will not easily be forgotten.

To buy the book.

About the author:

Michael Jecks is the author of more than thirty novels in the Knights Templar medieval mystery series. A former Chairman of the Crime Writers’ Association, he lives with his wife, children and dogs in northern Dartmoor.

For more on Michael Jecks, check out writerlywitterings.com, look him up at writerlywitterings on YouTube, check his pictures on Flickr.com/photos/Michael_Jecks, like his page on FaceBook, or check for him on Instagram, Pinterest, LinkedIn, and all other social media!

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My books

Heroines of the Medieval World tells the stories of women, famous, infamous and unknown, who shaped the course of medieval history. It is available in hardback in the UK from both Amberley Publishing and Amazon UK. It is now available in Hardback from Amazon US  and worldwide from Book Depository.

From Emma of Normandy, wife of both King Cnut and Æthelred II to Saint Margaret, a descendant of Alfred the Great himself, 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. Silk and the Sword: the Women of the Norman Conquest will be released in the UK on 15 November 2018 and is available for pre-order on Amazon UKAmazon USAmberley Publishing and 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.

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©2018 Sharon Bennett Connolly

Book Corner: After the Conquest by Teresa Cole

On his deathbed William the Conqueror divided his property between his three sons, Robert, William and Henry. One of them got England, one got Normandy and one £5,000 of silver. None of them was satisfied with what he received. It took much violence, treachery, sudden death and twenty years before one of them reigned supreme over all the Conqueror’s lands.

Geoffrey of Monmouth, in his ‘Prophecies of Merlin’, depicted them as two dragons and a lion with a mighty roar, but which would end up the winner, and what was the fate of the losers?

After the Conquest tells the story of the turbulent lives of the sons of the Conqueror.

Having read and enjoyed Teresa Cole’s book, The Norman Conquest, I was expecting a great deal from this book, and was not disappointed. After the Conquest takes up the story where the first book left off, giving an overview of the Conquest and the years which followed with the reign of William the Conqueror, before coming into its own with the stories of the Conqueror’s 3 surviving sons; Robert Curthose, William Rufus and Henry I. Taking the story from teh Conquest itself, to the death of Henry I and the succession squabble which followed, Teresa Cole provides and in-depth view of the post-Conquest years in England and Normandy.

Robert II Curthose, Duke of Normandy

After the Conquest provides a complete and detailed study of each of the 3 sons of William and Matilda; their family life and military and political careers. She is thorough and analytical in her approach, using primary sources to support her arguments and theories. The book provides a new and refreshing insight into the story of the struggles between the brothers is told in a balanced, thoughtful style, highlighting the strengths and weaknesses of each with equal vigour. She dissects the abilities and failings of each brother separately, and compares their successes and failures, providing a complete image of their changing relationships throughout the years.

There is a tendency to see Henry, especially at this time, as the innocent younger brother, tossed about and beset by the whims of hos elders. Clearly, though, there was a strong streak of his father’s ruthlessness in the young man’s make-up, and also a strong conviction as to what was due to people of his class and upbringing.

William II Rufus, King of England

 

Rather than an example of brotherly love, After the Conquest tells the story of one of the most significant examples of sibling rivalry in English royal history, rivalling that of King Richard the Lionheart and King John in its viciousness. However, although this theme runs throughout the book, the author also provides an in-depth study of the regimes of each of the brothers, separately, highlighting the successes and failures of their rule as kings of England and dukes of Normandy. While Henry I, the youngest brother, invariably comes out on top, it is fascinating to read of Henry’s abilities, as the baby of the family, to exploit his brothers’ weaknesses for his own benefit.

Teresa Cole not only analyses the relationship of the brothers, with each other, but also with those around them, including their siblings,  officials, servants and the church. She provides a wonderful overview of the period and the main actors involved the affairs of England and Normandy in the years immediately following the Conquest.

If Henry had thought his support for his brother might have secured his affection, or at least his approval, he was soon disillusioned. Instead, it appeared that Robert grudged him his success, particularly in view of his own perceived failure…

Teresa Cole’s writing style  is a pleasure to read. While authoritative and thorough, the book is an enjoyable, accessible read for all those interested in history in general, and the Norman Conquest in particular. She also provides a brief, comprehensive analysis of each of the primary sources used in her work. My only criticism, however, would be the lack of footnotes hampers the reader’s ability to investigate some of her arguments further.

Henry I, King of England and Duke of Normandy

After spending a year researching the women of the period for my new book, Silk and the Sword: the Women of the Norman Conquest, I was worried that, having read so much on the period recently, I would be too jaded with the 11th century to truly enjoy the book. However, in After the Conquest, Teresa Cole has taken a new approach, in focusing on the 3 sons of William the Conqueror, and has produced a thoroughly engaging book, providing a view of the Conquest and its aftermath from a new and intriguing angle. It would be a wonderful complement to anyone’s library of 11th century works.

After the Conquest by Teresa Cole is available from both Amazon and Amberley Publishing.

About the Author

Teresa Cole has been a teacher for thirty years. She has written several law books and a historical biography by Amberley, ‘Henry V: The Life of the Warrior King & the Battle of Agincourt 1415’ (‘Cole understands the importance of drama… a thorough account of Henry’s life’ HISTORY OF WAR MAGAZINE). She lives just outside Bath.

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My books

Heroines of the Medieval World tells the stories of women, famous, infamous and unknown, who shaped the course of medieval history. It is available in hardback in the UK from both Amberley Publishing and Amazon UK. It is now available in Hardback from Amazon US  and worldwide from Book Depository.

From Emma of Normandy, wife of both King Cnut and Æthelred II to Saint Margaret, a descendant of Alfred the Great himself, 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. Silk and the Sword: the Women of the Norman Conquest will be released in the UK on 15 November 2018 and is available for pre-order on Amazon UKAmazon USAmberley Publishing and 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.

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©2018 Sharon Bennett Connolly

Book Corner: The Rebel Killer by Paul Fraser Collard

Paul Fraser Collard’s roguish hero Jack Lark – dubbed ‘Sharpe meets the Talented Mr Ripley’ – returns once more, switching sides to join the ranks of the Confederate Army. This latest adventure will see Jack journey through the Southern states as the American Civil War continues in earnest, and is a must-read for fans of Bernard Cornwell and Simon Scarrow.

‘Enthralling’ The Times on the Jack Lark series

Fighting for the Union gave Jack Lark purpose. But America is tearing itself apart and no one will be left in peace.

Virginia, 1861. With his comrades defeated, Jack turns his back on the battlefield. At heart he’s still a soldier, but this wholly uncivil war has left him wanting something – and someone – more. Lost in the woods with the Confederate army closing in, Jack will stop at nothing to protect Rose and the future they might share.

Then one bullet changes everything and Jack wakes up in a military hospital – alone. Broken but determined, he sets out on an epic journey across the Confederacy disguised in the grey coat of his one-time enemy. He will find the man who destroyed his life. Jack Lark is out for revenge.

 

Paul Fraser Collard has done it again!

The Rebel Killer is a stunning adventure which is impossible to put down. It is one of those books every reader hopes to find, which don’t come along too often; you are desperate to finish it, but want it never to end, and feel bereft as soon as you have read the last word, knowing that you were not quite ready to say goodbye to such a wonderful story.

I have followed Jack Lark’s story from the very beginning, The Scarlet Thief was a refreshingly different and new innovative style. There is no shadow of the inimitable Sharpe from Bernard Cornwell, which many stories of 19th century soldiering are trying to recreate. Though their starts in life may have been similar, their attitude to soldiering are polar opposites. Where Sharpe seeks honour within the ranks of the army, and the regiment is his family, Jack feels no such connection to a particular regiment, nor a particular army, for that matter. And yet, both have that unique quality, they are natural soldiers and leaders, bound by their own personal interpretation of honour to do the decent thing. In battle they are invincible, natural leaders, soldiers follow them without question.

That is where the comparisons end, however. Jack Lark is very much his own man. He has the ability to change his coat and his allegiance wherever and whenever he has to, whilst still holding on to a set of values which make him an admirable leading man. He is no mercenary, rather a soldier fighting for his own reasons and always where the battle is fiercest. He is a lovable rogue in every way.

Jack looked deep into the other man’s eyes. He saw the fear there, yet he felt not even a shred of compassion. The moment the brothers had spotted the pair of fugitives, they had become a  risk to Rose and to the future he might share with her. It was time to end it. He lashed out with the sabre, bludgeoning the steel into the side of Seth’s head and knocking him to the ground. The Confederate fell without a sound.

Jack turned away, searching the undergrowth for Rose. She had not moved during the short, bitter struggle. Now she rose to her feet and stalked forward.

‘Are they dead?’ She asked the question in a voice quite without emotion.

‘One is. One soon will be.’ He gave the cold answer, then began to wipe the worst of the gore from his sword on the jacket of the man he had slain. He could not return it to its scabbard until it was clean, lest it stick to the insides.

Rose came to his side. There was no hint of horror on her face; only sadness. She had seen Jack fight before. She knew what he was. She had accepted him.

She looked down at the second man, the one she had heard called Seth. He was still alive, yet it was clear that he would not last long. Already the flow of blood pulsing from his grotesque wounds was slowing, and his skin was the colour of week-old ash.

‘Give me your revolver.’ She made the demand of Jack in a voice wrapped in iron.

‘No.’ Jack saw what she intended. ‘Shoot him and you’ll draw more of them this way.’

‘You’d leave him to suffer?’

‘He’s as good as dead, love.’ Jack reached out and took a grip of Rose’s shoulder, turning her so that she faced him and no longer looked at the dying man.

‘He’s suffering.’ Rose shook off his hand. ‘His name is Seth and he is suffering.’

Paul Fraser Collard is a wonderful storyteller, he pulls you into the action from the first page and keeps you constantly wanting more, wanting to know what happens next, wanting to know if the bad guys get there’s, wanting to know if it will all be alright in the end. Jack Lark is a wonderful creation, an impostor, a man who can take on whatever guise, whatever uniform the situation requires. But there is one constant, he’s a soldier, a warrior and he will never give up the fight while there is breath – and blood – in his body.

In The Rebel Killer Jack’s character really comes to the fore. His need for introspection, to decipher his own motives and justify his actions offer a new perspective on the story and great insight into the hero. He grows in this book, as a human being and a soldier, realising where his talents lie and using them to the full.  In The Rebel Killer he is driven by thoughts of vengeance and the need to be alone, to not have to be responsible for others. However, that is not – and never has been – his way. He has a natural protective instinct and cannot leave others to fend for themselves, no matter how much easier it would make his life.

These relationships – with friend and enemy alike – are what brings Jack’s story to life. His talent is not just for killing, but for touching the lives of those around him., not that he always realises this.

In the midst of the American Civil War, Paul Fraser Collard has dropped this English chameleon and left him to fight for his vengeance and survival. And as such created a story which views the war from both sides and shows how men fought, not for the political ideals of their leaders, but for their families, their comrades and their own survival. The action is frenetic and vividly, colourfully described. The reader is not merely an observer, but thrust into the heart and heat of battle, fighting for their next breath, alongside Jack Lark. You can feel the heat and dust of battle, hear the cannons roar and the screams of the wounded and dying.

The Rebel Killer is a wonderful story, not to be missed, and probably the best Jack Lark tale yet. I cannot wait for the next instalment and to see where Jack goes next!

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About the author

Paul’s love of military history started at an early age. A childhood spent watching films like Waterloo and Zulu whilst reading Sharpe, Flashman and the occasional Commando comic, gave him a desire to know more of the men who fought in the great wars of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. This fascination led to a desire to write and his series of novels featuring the brutally courageous Victorian rogue and imposter Jack Lark burst into life in 2013. Since then Paul has continued to write, developing the Jack Lark series to great acclaim. To find out more about Paul and his novels visit www.paulfrasercollard.com or find him on twitter @pfcollard.

Paul Fraser Collard‘s Jack Lark series of books are available now from Amazon.

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My books

Heroines of the Medieval World tells the stories of women, famous, infamous and unknown, who shaped the course of medieval history. It is available in hardback in the UK from both Amberley Publishing and Amazon UK. It is now available in Hardback from Amazon US  and worldwide from Book Depository.

From Emma of Normandy, wife of both King Cnut and Æthelred II to Saint Margaret, a descendant of Alfred the Great himself, 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. Silk and the Sword: the Women of the Norman Conquest will be released in the UK on 15 November 2018 and is available for pre-order on Amazon UKAmberley Publishing and 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.

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©2018 Sharon Bennett Connolly

Ӕlfgifu of York

Æthelread II the Unready

The first wife of Ӕthelred II, Ӕlfgifu of York is a shadowy figure in history, with very little known about her. She was probably born sometime in the 960s. Ӕthelred and Ӕlfgifu were married around 985, when he was in his late teens or early twenties; Ӕlfgifu may have been a little younger.

The monk Ailred of Rievaulx, writing in the 1150s, identified her as the daughter of, Thored. Ailred had served in the household of David I, King of Scotland, a great-great-grandson of Ӕthelred II and Ӕlfgifu through his mother, Queen Margaret and so Ailred was well place to learn the ancestry of King David with some accuracy. Thored was Earl of Northumbria between, about, 975 and 992 and regularly attested charters by King Ӕthelred II during the 980s.

Marriage to the daughter of the leading noble of Northumbria would have been a beneficial move for King Ӕthelred. It would have helped to expand strengthen his influence over the north of England, an area notoriously independent of the royal administration of the south, and bring him powerful friends and allies.

Ӕthelred was the youngest son of King Edgar the Peaceable and his last wife, Ælfthryth. The grandson of Edward the Elder, and great-grandson of Alfred the Great, Edgar was king from 959 until his death in 975. His wife, Ælfthryth, was probably born around 945; she was the daughter of Ealdorman Ordgar of Devon, her mother an unknown woman who is said to have been descended from the royal family. She was first married around the age of eleven to Æthelwold, the son of Æthelstan Half-King, ealdorman of East Anglia. However, Æthelwold died in 962, probably in a hunting accident, although there were rumours of murder on the orders of his wife’s supposed lover, King Edgar. Edgar’s marital history was already chequered. Ælfthryth could be Edgar’s second or third wife; she was certainly the third relationship by which children were born.

Ælfgifu’s son Edmund II Ironside

Ælfthryth and Edgar were married in 964 and were soon the parents of two sons; Edmund and Æthelred. Despite having an older half-brother, Edward, it is Edmund who was treated as Edgar’s acknowledged heir; his name being above that of Edward’s in a charter of 966, witnessed by both boys, which founded the New Minster at Winchester. Poor Ælfthryth must have been distraught when, in 971 and still only a child of about seven, young Edmund died.

When King Edgar died suddenly in 975 it was Edward, at the age of  13, who was proclaimed king, despite Ælfthryth trying to claim the crown for her surviving son, Æthelred, who was aged between 7 and 10 years of age. Edward reigned for just 3 years before he met a violent and untimely death at Corfe Castle in Dorset.

It was on 18th March 978 that 16-year-old King Edward visited his step-mother and half-brother at Ælfthryth estate at Corfe. Whether Edward had been out hunting, or was in the area to specifically visit his Ælfthryth and Æthelred seems to be uncertain. However, he did send a message that he would be calling on them and Ælfthryth’s retainers were awaiting the young king at the gate, when he arrived with a small retinue. Still sitting in the saddle, he was handed a drink; and stabbed. It must have been a horrific sight, as the king’s horse panicked and bolted, racing off with Edward’s foot stuck in the stirrup and the dying king being dragged along behind. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle recorded:

No worse deed than this was ever done by the English nation since they first sought the land of Britain. Men murdered him, but God hath magnified him. He was in life an earthly king. He is now after death a heavenly saint. ¹

With Edward’s death his surviving brother, Æthelred, possibly as young as 10 years old, and certainly no older than 13, was now king of England, with his mother and a council of prominent nobleman to guide him. He would rule over a tumultuous period in English history, when Saxon England was under frequent attacks from the Danes. His tendency to inaction, indecision, his ineffectual handling of the Danish incursions and the fact he lost the throne to Sweyn Forkbeard, have earned him a reputation as one of England’s worst rulers.

Edward the Exile, grandson of Ælfgifu and father of St Margaret, Queen of Scotland

As his mother and adviser – and a force to be reckoned with – it may well have been Ælfthryth who chose Ӕlfgifu of York as a bride for Æthelred. It is also possible, even likely, that Ælfgifu was never crowned because her mother-in-law, the crowned and anointed queen, was still alive. Indeed,  Ælfgifu’s successor as Æthelred’s wife, Emma of Normandy, was given a coronation, but Ælfthryth was dead by then.

In the 15-or-so years of marriage to Ӕlfgifu of York, the couple had a large number of children, including at least 6 boys and 4 girls. It is even likely that Ӕlfgifu’s mother-in-law, Ælfthryth, raised a number of her children, including the royal couple’s first-born son and ætheling, Æthelstan. Ӕthelstan, was born c.986 but would die before his father. He died in June 1014, either killed in battle or from wounds received during the wars against Sweyn Forkbeard and his son Cnut. Their other sons included Ecgberht, Edmund, Eadred, Eadwig and Edgar and all died young.

In April 1016 Edmund succeeded his father as King Edmund II Ironside but died in November of the same year, probably from wounds received in battle after a summer of constant fighting. His sole-surviving brother Eadwig was murdered in 1017, on the orders of the victorious King Cnut.

Of Ӕthelred and Ӕlfgifu’s daughters, three were married to prominent Saxon noblemen. Edith was married to the traitorous Ealdorman, Eadric Streona, who kept changing sides during the wars against the Danes and eventually met his death on the orders of the triumphant King Cnut. Ӕlfgifu married Uhtred, Earl of Northumbria, an ally of Edmund Ironside who had to submit to Cnut when his earldom was under threat of being overrun by the Danes. He and forty of his supporters were murdered on Cnut’s orders in 1016. A third daughter, Wulfhild, married Ulfcytel, Ealdorman of East Anglia, who was killed in the fighting of 1016. A possible fourth daughter, whose name is unknown, became the abbess at Wherwell, a prominent convent at the time, and died in the 1050s.

Other than the children she bore, however, Ӕlfgifu of York has left very little imprint on history.  She gets barely a mention in the chronicles of the time. Sulcard of Westminster, writing in the second half of the eleventh century, says that she was “of very noble English stock”, but fails to give her name, while William of Malmesbury ignores her altogether. John of Worcester makes mention of Ӕlfgifu, giving her name and listing her sons but states, probably erroneously, that she was the daughter of Ӕthelberht. Ailred of Rievaulx provides us with the details of Ӕlfgifu’s parentage but, again, fails to name her. The poor woman doesn’t even make it into the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.

St Margaret, Queen of Scotland

There is no evidence that Ӕlfgifu was a crowned and anointed as queen, unlike her successor, Emma of Normandy. We know nothing of her, not her personality or her actions during her time as Ӕthelred’s wife. We don’t even know the date of her death, though it must have been before April 1002, when Ӕthelred married Emma of Normandy.

Ӕlfgifu of York’s story has been greatly overshadowed by her larger-than-life successor, Emma of Normandy, the twice-crowned Queen of England as the wife of both Ӕthelred II (the Unready) and King Cnut (the Great). However, although she may have had little impact on history during her lifetime, it is the blood of Ӕlfgifu of York that still runs in the veins of the British royal family today, through the descendants of her son, Edmund II Ironside and his granddaughter, St Margaret, Queen of Scotland. Margaret’s daughter, Edith, was married to King Henry I of England. Her name was changed to Matilda on her marriage and it is through this Matilda and her daughter and namesake, Matilda, the Lady of the English, that all English kings and queens are descended.

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Footnotes: ¹ Anglo-Saxon Chronicle edited by Michael Swaton.

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Pictures courtesy of Wikipedia

Sources: 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 Anglo-Saxons in 100 Facts 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; oxforddnb.com.

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My books

Heroines of the Medieval World tells the stories of women, famous, infamous and unknown, who shaped the course of medieval history. It is available in hardback in the UK from both Amberley Publishing and Amazon UK. It is now available in Hardback from Amazon US  and worldwide from Book Depository.

From Emma of Normandy, wife of both King Cnut and Aethelred II to Saint Margaret, a descendant of Alfred the Great himself, 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. Silk and the Sword: the Women of the Norman Conquest will be released in the UK on 15 November 2018 and is available for pre-order on Amazon UKAmberley Publishing and 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.

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©2018 Sharon Bennett Connolly

Book Corner: La Reine Blanche by Sarah Bryson

Mary Tudor’s childhood was overshadowed by the men in her life: her father, Henry VII, and her brothers Arthur, heir to the Tudor throne, and Henry VIII. These men and the beliefs held about women at the time helped to shape Mary’s life. She was trained to be a dutiful wife and at the age of eighteen Mary married the French king, Louis XII, thirty-four years her senior.

When her husband died three months after the marriage, Mary took charge of her life and shaped her own destiny. As a young widow, Mary blossomed. This was the opportunity to show the world the strong, self-willed, determined woman she always had been. She remarried for love and at great personal risk to herself. She loved and respected Katherine of Aragon and despised Anne Boleyn – again, a dangerous position to take.

Author Sarah Bryson has returned to primary sources, state papers and letters, to unearth the truth about this intelligent and passionate woman. This is the story of Mary Tudor, told through her own words for the first time.

Mary Tudor, Queen of France, is probably my favourite Tudor. She is a woman who understood duty, but also managed to forge her own way in life, while keeping her mercurial brother (Henry VIII) appeased. I have loved reading anything I could find on her since watching the film The Sword and the Rose as a teenager.

Mary Tudor followed her duty and married the husband her brother chose for her – Louis XII of France. However, before leaving England’s shores for her new life as Queen of France, she managed to extract a promise from her brother which would mean she could eventually choose the direction of her life. Henry  promised that if she married the husband he had chosen for her, then she would be allowed to choose her next husband. And Mary knew that she would have a second husband; Louis XII was 53 and Mary was 18. Their marriage lasted less than 3 months.

Not wanting to trust to her brother’s ability to keep to his promise once she was back under his roof, Mary then married the man of her choice before she had even left France. He was Charles Brandon, one of  her brother’s closest friends. The marriage could have caused great scandal, Brandon was far lower in rank than his royal bride. It did cause the couple financial hardship, that lasted the duration of their marriage; Henry exacted a heavy price, in fines, for his sister to follow her heart.

Sarah Bryson tells the story of Mary Tudor with great empathy and a deep understanding of the woman, her personal and private life, her highs and lows. Using Mary’s own letters as the backbone of the book, the author brings the French Queen to vivid life. It is impossible not to read this book and come to a new admiration for this remarkable lively English princess.

Mary Tudor, Queen of France, and Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk

Mary would not have been able to challenge men verbally, or publicly speak her mind. To do so would have been to step out of the mould that had been so carefully created for her by the men in her life and the culture of her time. Many men held the belief that to publicly challenge a man meant that a woman was not in fact a true woman, or that the woman was somehow mentally unbalanced. There were even physical and humiliating punishments for women who dared to challenge or speak ill of their husbands. Therefore Mary influenced the men in her life by using what skills and means she had at hand – in her case it was letter writing.

Mary Tudor’s letters are a fascinating and captivating look at how a woman could wield power without publicly challenging the patriarchy. They show how Mary was able to manoeuvre those around her to follow her heart – marrying her second husband for love, rather than being dragged back to the international chess game as a marriage pawn. They are also, on occasion, a way of looking into Mary’s life whereby the layers of princess and queen are stripped back and only the woman remains.

La Reine Blanche by Sarah Bryson provides an intimate assessment of the life of Mary Tudor. The author’s love of her subject shines through on every page. Her extensive knowledge of Mary, Charles Brandon and Henry VIII serves to make this book both entertaining and informative and makes it eminently readable. The reader is engaged from the first page and transported to the life and times of the subject and her family.

La Reine Blanche is well written and engaging. With impeccable research it follows Mary’s story from cradle to grave, giving a deep insight into the woman and the times in which she lived. It analyses the constraints which were placed on a woman – and especially a queen – at that time. It also provides an interesting assessment of Henry VIII, both as a brother and a king. There is a wonderful balance between Mary’s public and private life as the author delves into Mary’s experiences, motivations and clever manipulations of those around her. Sarah Bryson brings Mary to life through her letters, clearly demonstrating how the Tudor princess was aware of her station and the limitations placed on women; but used her own wiles and the art of flattery and persuasion to take as much control of her life as was humanly possible.

In reading Sarah Bryson’s wonderful biography, it is impossible not to fall a little bit in love with this amazing Tudor princess and French Queen.

La Reine Blanche by Sarah Bryson is now available from Amberley Books and Amazon .

About the author: Sarah Bryson is a researcher, writer and educator. Se runs a website dedicated to Tudor history and has written on other websites including ‘On the Tudor Trail’ and ‘Queen Anne Boleyn’. She has been studying primary sources to tell the story of Mary Tudor for a decade and is the author on Mary Boleyn and Charles Brandon.

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Picture courtesy of Wikipedia

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My books

Heroines of the Medieval World tells the stories of women, famous, infamous and unknown, who shaped the course of medieval history. It is available in hardback in the UK from both Amberley Publishing and Amazon UK. It is now available in Hardback from Amazon US  and worldwide from Book Depository.

From Emma of Normandy, wife of both King Cnut and Aethelred II to Saint Margaret, a descendant of Alfred the Great himself, 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. Silk and the Sword: the Women of the Norman Conquest will be released in the UK on 15 November 2018 and is available for pre-order on Amazon UKAmberley Publishing and 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.

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©2018 Sharon Bennett Connolly

Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians

Æthelflæd (from The Cartulary and Customs of Abingdon Abbey, c. 1220)

12th June 2018 marks the 1100th anniversary of one of England’s greatest ever women. The daughter of Alfred the Great, Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians, led the resistance against Danish invasion, alongside her brother, Edward the Elder. And yet, she is virtually unknown to the people of today.

Æthelflæd was born about 870, the eldest child of King Alfred and his wife, Ealhswith. Alfred’s biographer, Asser, says Ealhswith was a member of the Mercian royal house through her mother, Eadburh. Around 886 Æthelflæd was married to Æthelred, ealdorman of Mercia and a trusted lieutenant of her father. Æthelred ruled over the English half of the Mercian kingdom, which had been dissected by the Vikings, but submitted to King Alfred’s overlordship. The marriage was a political alliance, intended to strengthen Saxon resistance to the Danes, who were now occupying Northumbria, Yorkshire and East Anglia. The resulting close relationship of Mercia and Wessex was only further strengthened by the renewed Viking attacks of the 890s.

During the early years of their marriage the young couple appear to have settled in London, the city that had been entrusted to Æthelred’s care by Alfred. Æthelflæd seems to have taken after her father – she was a strong, brave woman and is often regarded more as a partner to Æthelred than a meek, obedient wife. The couple jointly presided over provincial courts. The ‘Mercian Register’, a fragment of a Mercian chronicle, included in some versions of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, records that Æthelflæd was exercising regal powers in the region even before her husband’s death. In his final years Æthelred increasingly suffered from illness, during which time Æthelflæd assumed greater authority. The couple had only one child, a daughter, Ælfwynn. Writing 2 centuries later William of Malmesbury claimed the lack of more children was due to Æthelflæd’s avoidance of marital relations, possibly due to a fear of dying in childbirth. Malmesbury quotes her as saying it was ‘unbecoming a daughter of a king to give way to a delight, which after a time produced such painful consequences’. Æthelred died in 911, though whether this was from wounds received in battle or from illness remains unclear. He was buried at Gloucester.

Charter S 221 dated 901 of Æthelred and Ætheflæd donating land and a golden chalice to Much Wenlock Church

Wessex had already adjusted to a change in ruler when Æthelflæd’s father had died in 899 and had been succeeded by her younger brother, Edward ‘the Elder’. When Æthelred died, Edward was happy to support his sister as sole ruler of Mercia, but he took personal control of the cities of London and Oxford, cities that could be used as bases from which Edward would be able to launch campaigns against the Danes of the Midlands. The siblings seem to have had a trusting relationship for many years; Edward had entrusted his son Æthelstan, often viewed as the first king of England, to Æthelflæd and her husband, to be educated at the Mercian court.

The first woman to rule an Anglo-Saxon kingdom  – albeit as a client of her brother’s more powerful kingdom of Wessex, Æthelflæd was accorded the title the Lady of the Mercians. She proved to be a vital ally to her brother and the siblings worked together to combat the threats of the Danes. In 909, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Edward sent an army, made up of West Saxons and Mercians, into Danish territory in the north. It was probably this army that brought back to Mercia the relics of St Oswald, the 7th century Northumbrian saint. They had been taken from Bardney in Lincolnshire and Æthelflæd had them translated to the new minster at Gloucester, which was renamed St Oswald in his honour.

Æthelflæd continued the policy, started by her father, of building burhs and established a ring of fortified centres around western Mercia. The burhs not only provided protection against the Danes, but served as bases from which to launch attacks on Danish occupied regions. Each burh could provide a refuge for all villagers within a 20-mile radius; it would have a large garrison, depot and its own water supply. During Æthelred’s lifetime, burhs had been established at ‘Bremesburh’, Worcester (between 887 and 899) and Chester (907). Later, on Æthelflæd’s orders, in 913, fortresses were built at several further sites, including Bridgnorth, Tamworth and Stafford, in response to Viking raids into Edward’s territories.

Edward built two further burhs at Buckingham in 914, plugging a defensive gap between Tamworth and Hertford. At the same time, Æthelflæd built one at Warwick and another at Eddisbury; this latter, with a new burh at Runcorn in 915, helped to strengthen her northern defences. While the Danes appeared to be the greatest risk, Æthelflæd did not neglect her defences along the Welsh border, building a burh at Chirbury and one at the now-lost location of ‘Wearburh’. In the same year, Edward fortified Bedford and in 916 he built a burh at Maldon to fortify Essex against seaborne raiding. While this building programme was going on, it also seems highly likely that Æthelflæd rebuilt and strengthened the defences of Gloucester and Hereford.

Statue of Æthelflæd and her nephew, Athelstan, Tamworth

Æthelflæd was no silent partner in Edward’s reconquest of England. Most remarkably, she personally led successful military campaigns against the Welsh, the Norse and the Danes of York. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle relates that on the feast of St Cyriac the Martyr, 16 June 916, the abbot Egbert and his retainers, were murdered for no known reason. The Mercian abbot had been travelling in the Welsh mountain kingdom of Brycheiniog when he was attacked. Æthelflæd seems to have taken the murder as a personal affront; the abbot was, after all, under her protection. Three days later she invaded Wales; her army ravaged Brycheiniog, burning the little kingdom. Although King Tewdr escaped, Æthelflæd took his wife, Queen Angharad, as a hostage, with 33 others, many of whom were relatives of the Welsh king. Eventually, the king submitted to Æthelflæd, promising to serve her faithfully and to pay compensation. The incident not only demonstrates Æthelflæd’s commitment to her people, but also shows her strength and determination, attributes she was to put to good use against the Danes.

In 917 Æthelflæd turned her attention to those Danes. Danish forces had taken the offensive, raiding English territories. By the end of the year Edward had subdued East Anglia, with all the Scandinavian armies of the region submitting to him. While her brother was raiding in  the East Midlands, Æthelflæd led her forces across the West Midlands. She marched on the Viking stronghold of Derby, personally leading the army on campaign. It would be the first of the Danes’ ‘Five Boroughs’, which made up the Danelaw, to fall. Although she managed to successfully storm the fort, her army suffered heavy casualties, including four of her most trusted and senior thegns (thegns were the army’s commanders and officers). 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’.¹

The Saxon victory was a great shock to the Danes. Their Viking myths told of an invincible woman who would appear at Ragnarok, the Norse apocalypse, and make brave warriors cower before her. Æthelflæd was relentless  – in early 918 she and her army moved on to Leicester, while Edward headed for Stamford. Leicester was the centre of a heavily settled Danish colony, and Æthelflæd ravaged the countryside around the settlement. The Danes had no choice but to surrender in the face of her indefatigable forces. However, she was magnanimous in victory, displaying mercy and charity by distributing alms as she progressed into town.

Æthelflæd in the thirteenth century Genealogical Chronicle of the English Kings

The inexorable advance of Æthelflæd’s army combined with her compassion for the defeated was to prove to be a clever strategy, demonstrating to those regions still controlled by the Danes that she was prepared to offer compromise if they would only submit to her. The Danes of York, the Viking capital, in particular, began to look at submitting to Æthelflæd as a serious option to avoid continued conflict. Their new king was Ragnall, a Viking pirate from Dublin, who had taken the throne by force; but the Danes knew that Edward and Æthelflæd would never make peace with him. In the summer of 918 the noblemen and magnates of York sent emissaries to Æthelflæd, promising that they would surrender to her.

In May, King Edward had marched his army to Stamford, building a new fort south of the river and accepting the surrender of the local Danes, who submitted to him as their new ruler. It was while he was still at Stamford that Edward received word of his sister, The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle made a cold, clinical report:

918 While he was there his sister Æthelflæd died at Tamworth two weeks before midsummer. The king took possession of Tamworth and the whole province of Mercia which she had governed.²

Æthelflæd died suddenly at Tamworth on 12 June 918. She was buried beside her husband, in the east chapel of the cathedral she had founded, St Oswald’s Minister, Gloucester. Although she did not live long enough to see the successful conclusion to the work she and her brother had carried out, her achievements cannot be lightly brushed off. Between 910 and 920 all Danish territories south of Yorkshire had been conquered. Her nephew Athelstan consolidated the kingdom that had been created by the efforts of Edward and Æthelflæd. If Æthelflæd did not live to see the extent of her success, neither did she live to see her daughter, Ælfwynn, nearly thirty and still unmarried, briefly become the nominal ruler of Mercia; only to be ‘deprived of all authority’ six months later and taken to Wessex, from where nothing more is heard of her.

St Oswald’s Priory, Gloucester, where Æthelflæd and her husband are buried

The story of Æthelflæd mainly comes from the Mercian Register, embedded largely in the B, C and D texts of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. She appears only rarely in the primary text, text A, which focuses on Edward and Wessex. Text A tries to minimise Æthelflæd’s significance, but could not wholly obscure her achievements. She was, after all, the daughter of Alfred the Great, the wife of the ealdorman of Mercia and a prominent woman in her own right, in an era when this was an incredible rarity. It is thought that it was Æthelflæd, the Lady of the Mercians, who inspired the 10th century poem, ‘Judith’ who is ‘white and shining’, ‘noble and courageous’. In the poem, Æthelflæd is depicted as the ‘valorous virgin’ who struck off the head of the hostile foe with her gleaming sword and ‘ascribed the glory of all that to the Lord of Hosts’. Recognising her vital role in the creation of England, the 12th century Henry of Huntingdon declared Æthelflæd ‘to have been so powerful that in praise and exaltation of her wonderful gifts, some call her not only lady, but even king’. In a poem he described her as ‘worthy of a man’s name’ and ‘more illustrious than Caesar’, apparently high praise indeed – for a woman.

In the 21st century Æthelflæd’s story is becoming more widely known than it has ever been. She is one of the major influences of my book, Heroines of the Medieval World and appears, appropriately, in the chapter on Warrior Heroines. Joanna Arman’s non-fiction book The Warrior Queen: the Life and Legend of Æthelflæd, Daughter of Alfred the Great is well worth a perusalIn addition, with her appearance in Bernard Cornwell’s wonderful The Last Kingdom books and television series, and Annie Whitehead’s novel, To Be A Queen, Æthelflæd’s story is finally being brought into the light. On the 1100th anniversary of her death, her incredible achievements are being celebrated in the heart of Mercia, in Gloucester and Tamworth. And not before time; Æthelflæd should be the inspiration for future generations of strong, influential women and stand out as an example of what can be achieved if you are determined enough.

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Footnotes: ¹ The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles by Michael Swaton; ² ibid.

Pictures courtesy of Wikipedia

Further Reading: The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles by Michael Swaton; 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; Brewer’s British Royalty by David Williamson;  History Today Companion to British History Edited by Juliet Gardiner & Neil Wenborn; The mammoth Book of British kings & Queen by Mike Ashley; Britain’s Royal Families, the Complete Genealogy by Alison Weir; The 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; The Oxford Companion to British History Edited by John Cannon; oxforddnb.com.

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My books

Heroines of the Medieval World tells the stories of women, famous, infamous and unknown, who shaped the course of medieval history. It is available in hardback in the UK from both Amberley Publishing and Amazon UK. It is now available in Hardback from Amazon US  and worldwide from Book Depository.

From Emma of Normandy, wife of both King Cnut and Aethelred II to Saint Margaret, a descendant of Alfred the Great himself, 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. Silk and the Sword: the Women of the Norman Conquest will be released in the UK on 15 November 2018 and is available for pre-order on Amazon UKAmberley Publishing and 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.

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©2018 Sharon Bennett Connolly

The First Marriage of Katherine Parr

Katherine Parr

We often hear the story that Katherine Parr was used to marriage to older men when she accepted the proposal of Henry VIII in 1543. Her second husband, Lord Latimer, was a widower with young children and twenty years older than his bride. And her first husband, it has often been said was a man much older in years. However, this story has arisen from a case of mistaken identity, between a grandfather and grandson of the same name, Edward Burgh.

Katherine Parr’s first husband was Edward Burgh (pronounced Borough) of Gainsborough in Lincolnshire. And Katherine’s early biographers appear to have assumed that this was Edward Burgh senior, Lord Burgh from 1496 to his death in 1528.

The Burgh family were descended from Hubert de Burgh, 1st Earl of Kent and Justiciar for King John and Henry III. Hubert had even been married, briefly, to King John’s first, discarded wife, Isabel of Gloucester. The first Thomas Burgh had fought at Agincourt and married Elizabeth Percy, a co-heiress of a junior branch of the mighty Percy family, the Earls of Northumberland. It was through Elizabeth Percy that the manor house at Gainsborough came into the Burgh family, inherited from her father; she then left the estate to her son Thomas (II) Burgh, Baron  Gainsborough, on her death in 1455.

Thomas (II) Burgh was a trusted Yorkist, named sheriff of Lincoln in 1460 and, later, an Esquire of the Body for King Edward IV. By the end of 1462 he had been knighted and was a member of the Privy Council. By 1464 he had married a wealthy widow Margaret, dowager Lady Botreaux and daughter of Lord Thomas Ros. It was Sir Thomas Burgh who, along with Thomas Stanley, rescued Edward IV from his imprisonment in Middleham Castle by the Earl of Warwick.

The sacking of Burgh’s manor house at Gainsborough was the opening move of the rebellion of Richard, Lord Welles, in 1470, which eventually saw Edward IV escaping to Flanders and the brief readeption of Henry VI; Edward IV recovered his kingdom in 1471, with the Battle of Tewkesbury, and Henry VI’s mysterious death in the Tower of London just days later, putting an end to Lancastrian hopes. On Edward IV’s death, Sir Thomas had initially supported the succession of his brother, Richard III, but switched his allegiance to Henry Tudor shortly after King Richard visited the Sir Thomas’s Hall at Gainsborough. What had been said to make this staunch Yorkist transfer his support to a Lancastrian pretender, we can only guess….

Gainsborough Old Hall

In 1496, Thomas was succeeded as Baron Gainsborough by his son, Edward Burgh, who married Anne Cobham, daughter of Sir Thomas, 5th Baron Cobham of Starborough, when he was 13 and she was just 9 years old. It was from this marriage that the Burgh’s would inherit Starborough Castle.

Although he won his knighthood on the battlefield at Stoke in 1487, and was a Member of Parliament for Lincoln in 1492, Edward appears to have been less politically capable than his father. He soon fell foul of King Henry VII, whether it was because of the fact he associated with those the king distrusted, or due to early signs of mental illness, in December 1496, Edward was forced into a legal bond where he was obliged to present himself to the king wherever and whenever it was demanded, and to vow to do his subjects no harm.¹ He was even remanded to the custody of the Lord Chamberlain and had to seek royal permission if he wanted to leave court for any reason. For a time, he was incarcerated in the Fleet Prison, but managed to escape, despite his promise and financial guarantee not to; an action which put him in thousands of pounds of debt to the king.

From his mother, Margaret de Ros, it seems Edward had inherited a mental illness, one which also affected his Ros cousins, Sir George Tailboys and Lord Ros of Hamlake. As a result, in 1509, ‘distracted of memorie’, he was declared a lunatic.² His wife died in 1526 and he died in 1528, never quite recovering his wits. He was succeeded as Baron Burgh of Gainsborough by his son, Thomas (III).

In 1496, aged just 8-years-old, Thomas (III) had married Agnes Tyrwhitt. The marriage had been arranged by his grandfather, Thomas (II) and gave the younger Thomas useful contacts within Yorkshire and Lincolnshire, contacts he would need to counteract the damaging effects of his father’s mental illness and royal disfavour. Thomas (III) pursued a dual career, combining service as a justice of the peace in Lindsey with his service at court. In 1513 he was knighted on the battlefield of Flodden, the same field on which James IV of Scotland met his death. He was Sheriff of Lincoln in 1518-19 and 1524-25. He was appointed Anne Boelyn’s Lord Chamberlain in May 1533, and held the middle of the queen’s train at her coronation. He was also one of the twenty-six peers who sat at Anne’s trial in 1536.

Thomas (III) and his wife had as many as 12 children. The eldest of which was Edward, who died in 1533. It was this Edward who was the 1st husband of Katherine Parr, a marriage that had been arranged in 1529 by Sir Thomas and Katherine’s widowed mother, Maud Parr; her husband, Thomas Parr of Kendal, had died in 1517. Maud had taken it upon herself to arrange her daughter’s future. After a failed proposal to marry Katherine to Henry Scrope, the son of Lord Scrope of Bolton, due to the prospective groom’s lack of enthusiasm, Maud turned to another of her late husband’s relatives and arranged for Katherine to marry Edward.

Young Edward was of a similar age to his wife, not the old man as was stated in Katherine’s early biographies, when he was mistaken for his grandfather. Katherine was 17 at the time of the marriage, with Edward in his early twenties. It is impossible not to muse on how life could have been so different for Katherine, had this first marriage proved longer-lasting.

The great hall of Gainsborough Old Hall viewed from the solar

Sir Thomas, however, was renowned for his violent outbursts and wild rages (possibly due to the inherited mental instability in the family) and had a tyrannical control over his family. The first two years of the marriage, spent at Sir Thomas’s Hall at Gainsborough, was a miserable time for Katherine. She wrote, regularly, to her mother of her unhappiness and it seems the situation was only resolved following a visit by Maud Parr, who persuaded Sir Thomas to allow Edward and Katherine to move to their own, smaller, house at Kirton-in-Lindsey.

We don’t know whether Edward was a sickly individual (he may have inherited his grandfather’s mental illness), or whether or not he succumbed to a sudden illness, but their happiness was short-lived, as he died in the spring of 1533. Having no children, Katherine was left with little from the marriage, and, with her mother having died the previous year, and with her siblings in no position to assist her, she was virtually alone in the world. It was possibly as a remedy to her isolation that Katherine married her second husband, John Neville, 3rd Baron Latimer, who was twenty years her senior, in the 1534. There is no record that Katherine served any of Henry VIII’s queens. Her first appearance at court seems to be in 1542, when she became a lady-in-waiting in Mary Tudor’s household, before she caught the King’s eye.

Katherine had not forgotten her time with the Burgh family, however, and when she became queen Katherine paid a pension from her own purse to her former sister-in-law, Elizabeth Owen, widow of her husband’s younger brother, Thomas. Poor Elizabeth had been accused of adultery, during her husband’s lifetime, by her domineering father-in-law, Sir Thomas, and her children were declared illegitimate by a private Act of Parliament in 1542. Although, it does appear that Thomas had a partial change of heart before his death in 1550, as his will included a bequest for ‘700 marks towards the preferment and marriage of Margaret, daughter of Dame Elizabeth Burgh, late wife to Sir Thomas my son, deceased …’ ³

Gainsborough Old Hall

Sir Thomas, Baron Burgh of Gainsborough, was eventually succeeded by his third surviving son, William, born in the early 1520s. He married Katherine Fiennes de Clinton, daughter of Edward Fiennes de Clinton – the future Earl of Lincoln – and Elizabeth (Bessie) Blount, a former mistress of Henry VIII and mother of the king’s illegitimate son, Henry Fitzroy, Duke of Richmond and Somerset.

Lord Latimer died on 2 March 1543 and Katherine became Queen of England when she married Henry VIII on 12 July the same year. Her marriage to the king would last less than 4 years and ended with Henry’s death on 28 January 1547. In May 1547 Katherine secretly married her 4th and final husband, Sir Thomas Seymour, brother of her predecessor as queen, Jane Seymour, and uncle of King Edward VI. She died at Sudeley Castle on 5 September 1548, having given birth to a daughter, Mary, 6 days earlier. She was buried in the chapel at Sudeley on the same day. Her daughter was given into the custody of Katherine Willoughby, Duchess of Suffolk, but disappeared from history whilst still a toddler.

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Footnotes: ¹ ² & ³ Gainsborough Old Hall, Extended Guide Book by Sue Allen

Sources: Gainsborough Old Hall, Extended Guide Book by Sue Allen; In Bed with the Tudors by Amy Licence; oxforddnb.com; The Life and Times of Henry VIII by Robert Lacey; England Under the Tudors by Arthur D Innes; The Earlier Tudors 185-1558 by JD Mackie; Elizabeth’s Women by Tracy Borman; Henry VIII: King and Court by Alison Weir; In the Footsteps of the Six Wives of Henry VIII by Sarah Morris and Natalie Grueninger; Ladies-in-Waiting: Women who Served at the Tudor Court by Victoria Sylvia Evans; The Life and Times of Henry VII by Neville Williams; The Six Wives and Many Mistresses of Henry VIII: The Women’s Stories by Amy Licence; Tudorplace.com; John Leland Leland’s itinerary in England and Wales 1535-43 edited by L Toulmin Smith (1906-10); Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, of the Reign of Henry VIII 1509-47 edited by JS Brewer, James Gairdner and RH Brodie, HMSO London 1862-1932; Privy Purse Expenses of King Henry VIII from November MDXIX to December MDXXXII edited by Sir Nicholas Harris Nicolas 1827.

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My books

Heroines of the Medieval World tells the stories of women, famous, infamous and unknown, who shaped the course of medieval history. It is available in hardback in the UK from both Amberley Publishing and Amazon UK. It is now available in Hardback from Amazon US  and worldwide from Book Depository.

 

From Emma of Normandy, wife of both King Cnut and Aethelred II to Saint Margaret, a descendant of Alfred the Great himself, 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. Silk and the Sword: the Women of the Norman Conquest will be released in the UK on 15 November 2018 and is available for pre-order on Amazon UKAmberley Publishing and 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.

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©2018 Sharon Bennett Connolly

Book Corner: Swords of the King by Charlene Newcomb

Today over at The Review, you can read my thoughts on Charlene Newcomb’s fantastic new novel, Swords of the King, the third book in her Battle Scars series telling the story of two knights in the service of King Richard the Lionheart.

And there’s a fabulous giveaway –  an ebook boxset of the entire series to one lucky winner.

Here’s a taster:

Swords of the King  is the third instalment of Charlene Newcomb’s magnificent Battle Scars series which has followed Sir Henry de Grey and Sir Stephan de l’Aigle from the third Crusade to northern France in the service of King Richard the Lionheart of England. In Men of the Cross, we saw Henry and Stephan meet and get to know each other whilst experiencing the horrors of the Third Crusade. In For King and Country they were back in England, trying to thwart the evil machinations of Prince John whilst King Richard was stuck in a German prison. In Swords of the King, the two heroes are back together again, this time fighting in France alongside King Richard, with enemies within and without.

The story revolves around Plantagenet family crises and the machinations of Philip II of France and his attempts to disrupt Richard I’s policies and tactics. While many of characters have their own agenda, they must also work to implement King Richard’s; not an easy task when the French and enemies closer to home are ready to thwart you at every turn…

 

To read the full review of this fantastic novel – and to enter the prize draw and be in with a chance in this fantastic giveaway, simply visit The Review and leave a comment.

Good luck!

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My books

Heroines of the Medieval World,  is now available in hardback in the UK from both Amberley Publishing and Amazon UK. It is now available in Hardback from Amazon US  and worldwide from Book Depository.

Silk and the Sword: the Women of the Norman Conquest will be released in the UK on 15 November 2018 and is available for pre-order on Amazon UKAmberley Publishing and 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.

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©2018 Sharon Bennett Connolly