The Man in the Iron Mask has all the hallmarks of a thrilling adventure story: a glamorous and all-powerful king, ambitious ministers, a cruel and despotic gaoler, dark and sinister dungeons – and a secret prisoner. It is easy for forget that this story, made famous by Alexandre Dumas, is that of a real person, who spent more than thirty years in the prison system of Louis XIV’s France never to be freed. This book brings to life the true story of this mysterious man and follows his journey through four prisons and across decades of time. It introduces the reader to those with whom he shared his imprisonment, those who had charge of him and those who decided his fate. The Man in the Iron Mask is one of the most enduring mysteries of Louis XIV’s reign, but, above all, it is a human story. Using contemporary documents, this book shows what life was really like for state prisoners in seventeenth-century France and offers tantalising insight into why this mysterious man was arrested and why, several years later, his story would become one of France’s most intriguing legends.
I have long had a fascination with the story of the Man in the Iron Mask, probably thanks to my obsession for all things related to The Three Musketeers. Alexandre Dumas covers a version of the story in the last book, Ten Years Later (Dix Ans Plus Tard). In Dumas’ version, the prisoner is a twin brother of Louis XIV, who had been spirited away after birth in order to avoid a succession competition between the two heirs. And Dumas was not the only one to advance a theory. In other stories, the young man is an illegitimate older brother, a lookalike, the English Duke of Beaufort, various of Louis XIV’s ministers…
The list is a long one.
In The Man in The Iron Mask: the Truth About Europe’s Most Famous Prisoner, Josephine Wilkinson finally separates the legend from the history and brings the real story of the mysterious prisoner to light.
It began with a letter written to an obscure gaoler in the distant fortress of Pignerol at the end of July 1669. Saint-Mars, the governor of the donjon of Pignerol, was alerted to the imminent arrival of a new prisoner. It was of the utmost importance to the king’s service, he was told, that the man whose name was given as ‘Eustache d’Auger’ should be kept under conditions of the strictest security. Particularly, it was imperative that this man should be unable to communicate with anyone by any means whatsoever.
Saint-Mars was being warned in advance of the arrival of his prisoner so that he could prepare a secure cell. He was ordered to take care that the windows of this cell were ‘so placed that they could not be approached by anyone’, and that it was equipped with ‘enough doors closing one upon the other’ that Saint-Mars’s sentries would not be able to hear anything. Saint-Mars himself was to take to this ‘wretch’, once a day, whatever he might need for the day, and he was not under any pretext to listen to what the prisoner might say to him, but instead to threaten to kill him if he tried to speak of anything except his basic needs. The sieur Poupart, commissioner for war at Pignerol, was on standby waiting to begin work on the secure cell, while Saint-Mars was authorised to obtain some furniture for the prisoner, bearing in mind that ‘since he is only a valet’ this should not cost very much.’
The letter to Saint-Mars, which was dated 19 July 1669, was written on the orders of Louis XIV by François-Michel Le Tellier, marquis de Louvois. Still only twenty-eight years old, Louvois was destined to play a vital role in the story of the Man in the Iron Mask. Serving as Louis XIV’s minister of state for war, Louvois had been educated at the Jesuit Collège de Clermont in the rue Saint-Jacques in Paris. Upon leaving the school in 1657, he was instructed in French law by his father, the formidable secretary of state for war, Michel Le Tellier. Louvois then served at the parlement of Metz as counsellor before obtaining the survivance of his father’s office. He worked in the ministry for war for a time, learning the job under his father’s guidance, but Le Tellier would hand over increasing amounts of ministry work to his son and, upon being made chancellor in 1677, he would leave Louvois in sole charge. As the minister for war, the garrison and prison of Pignerol came under Louvois’s jurisdiction, as did any prisoner who might be held there.
Beautifully written and told as a narrative following the career of the supposed Man in the Iron Mask’s gaoler, Josephine Wilkinson traces the origins of the legend, the facts of the story and the embellishments that came after, helped along by the likes of Voltaire and Liselotte, Duchess of Orleans. The Man in The Iron Mask: the Truth About Europe’s Most Famous Prisoner, is a fabulous investigation of every aspect of the Iron Mask story. Tracing the prisoner’s life from the fortress of Pignerol to his last few years in the Bastille, the book clears up so many mysteries, misunderstandings and questions that have arisen over the years.
Josephine Wilkinson has written a superb book that will have the reader engrossed from the very first pages. For anyone with even a passing interest in the Man in the Iron Mask, it is an essential addition to their library.
I cannot recommend it highly enough!
The Man in The Iron Mask: the Truth About Europe’s Most Famous Prisoner is available from Amazon and Amberley 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 Books, Amazon in the UK and US and Book Depository.
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.
Hubert de Burgh, King John’s justiciar, came from a gentry family rather than the higher echelons of the nobility. His origins are quite obscure. His mother’s name was Alice, as evidenced by a grant he made to the church of Oulton in about 1230, stating the gift was ‘for the soul of my mother Alice who rests in the church at Walsingham.’ Hubert de Burgh’s father may have been the Walter whose daughter Adelina owed 40 marks in the Pipe Rolls of Henry II, for recognition of a knights’ fee at Burgh in Norfolk, although this is little more than a possibility.
We do know that Hubert de Burgh was the younger brother of William de Burgh who had accompanied King Henry II’s youngest son, John, to Ireland in 1185; he eventually became lord of Connacht. Hubert de Burgh also had two younger brothers. Geoffrey became archdeacon of Norwich in 1202 and then bishop of Ely in 1225. A third brother, Thomas, was castellan of Norwich Castle in 1215–16. Little is known of Hubert de Burgh’s childhood, upbringing or education, though a letter of 1220 that William Longespée, Earl of Salisbury, sent to Hubert de Burgh reminds the justiciar that they were raised together, probably fostered in the same noble household.
A self-made man, coming from a family of minor landowners in East Anglia centred on the manor of Burgh in Norfolk, Hubert de Burgh first appears in official records on 8 February 1198, when he witnessed a charter of John, as count of Mortain, at Tinchebrai in Normandy. In a charter of 12 June in the same year, he was identified as chamberlain of John’s household and in 1199, when John succeeded to the throne, he was created chamberlain of the royal household. Hubert de Burgh’s career in royal service developed rapidly. In December 1200 he was made custodian of two important royal castles, Dover and Windsor. In 1201 he was sheriff of Dorset and Somerset and when John departed for France in June 1201, along with the two senior Marcher lords, the earl of Pembroke and constable of Chester, de Burgh was created custodian of the Welsh Marches with 100 men-at-arms at his disposal. He was also given the castles of Grosmont, Skenfrith and Whitecastle ‘to sustain him in our service.’
Further grants followed, making Hubert de Burgh a significant and powerful figure in the royal administration by 1200. In that year, Hubert de Burgh was one of the ambassadors despatched to Portugal to negotiate a possible marriage between John and a daughter of Portugal’s king, but the embassy was abandoned after John married Isabelle d’Angoulême. Later, in 1202 Hubert de Burgh was sent to France and made constable of Falaise Castle in Normandy, where he was entrusted with guarding Arthur of Brittany, John’s nephew and rival for the English throne, following hiss capture at Mirebeau in August. While he was being held there, John had sent orders for Arthur’s castration and blinding. John gave the order:
‘enraged by the ceaseless attacks of his enemies, hurt by their threats and misdeed, at length in a rage and fury, King John ordered three of his servants to go to Falaise and perform this detestable act.’
Plantagenet Chronicles, edited by Elizabeth Hallam
Two of the appointed messengers fled the king’s court, to avoid the distasteful duty, while the third carried the order to Falaise where the royal chamberlain, Hubert de Burgh, had custody of Arthur. De Burgh, however, but Hubert had refused to carry out the punishment, believing that
‘having regard for the king’s honesty and reputation and expecting his forgiveness, kept the youth unharmed. He thought that the king would immediately repent of such an order and that ever afterwards would hate anyone who presumed to obey such a cruel mandate.’
Plantagenet Chronicles, edited by Elizabeth Hallam
The fact Hubert de Burgh faced no repercussions on refusing the order suggests that he had read the situation perfectly. Moreover, given the persecution John later inflicted on William de Braose, following his complicity in Arthur’s murder at Rouen the following year, it is clear that Hubert de Burgh knew John well.Hubert de Burgh had been partly right and Arthur’s survival at that time helped to pacify the rebellious Bretons. With Arthur imprisoned at Falaise, the Bretons continued to cause trouble. According to Ralph of Coggeshall,
‘the counsellors of the king, realising that the Bretons were causing much destruction and sedition everywhere on behalf of their lord Arthur, and that no firm peace could be made while Arthur lived, suggested to the king that he order Arthur to be blinded and castrated, thus rendering him incapable of rule, so that the opposition would cease from their insane programme of destruction and submit themselves to the king.’
The Plantagenet Chronicles, edited by Elizabeth Hallam
Despite balking at mutilating a 15-year-old, de Burgh announced that the sentence had been carried out, hoping to put a stop to the Breton revolt. Although it is recorded that, John ‘was not displeased for the moment that his order had not been carried out.’ The Bretons were so enraged that their revolt rose to a new level of ferocity and the rebels were only pacified when it was announced that Arthur was, in fact, alive and well. However, in 1203 Arthur was removed from de Burgh’s custody and transferred to the castle at Rouen. King Philip and the nobility of Brittany continued to press for the release of the young duke, but John had other ideas. It was in Rouen, at Easter 1203, most likely on 3rd April, that Arthur was put to death. Whether John committed the deed himself, or merely ordered it done, will probably never be proved; of the fact he was present there seems to be little doubt. Whichever way, the act itself has been a black mark against John for centuries.
In 1204 Hubert de Burgh was entrusted with the defence of Chinon, against the king of France. He held out for a year, until the summer of 1205, when the walls of the castle were practically levelled. In a last desperate engagement, de Burgh and his men rushed from the castle to confront the French. A fierce fight followed in which de Burgh was wounded and captured; he was held for two years. King John helped with his ransom, with writs to the treasurer and chamberlain, in February 1207, ordering them to pay William de Chayv 300 marks ‘for the pledge of Hubert de Burgh.’
De Burgh returned to England before the end of 1207 and again began to accumulate land and offices. In May 1208 he was given custody of the castle and town of Lafford in Huntingdon and in the following year he married Beatrice de Warenne, who had succeeded her father in the barony of Wormegay; de Burgh became guardian of William, Beatrice’s young son by her first husband, Doun Bardolf. Beatrice was the mother of at least one son by Hubert, John, who was probably born before 1212. It is possible another son, named Hubert, from whom the Burghs of Gainsborough were descended, was born in 1213 or 1214. In the same year, de Burgh returned to France in royal service, first as deputy seneschal of Poitou and then as seneschal in association with Philip d’Aubigny and Geoffrey de Neville. After the French defeated the English at Bouvines in 1214, de Burgh was one of the witnesses to the truce with King Philp II Augustus of France, which agreed that John should keep all his lands south of the River Loire.
Beatrice de Warenne died sometime before 18 December 1214. Hubert de Burgh retained Beatrice’s lands at Wormegay throughout his lifetime and they only passed to her eldest son, William Bardolf, on de Burgh’s death in May 1243. William Bardolf’s inheritance of Portslade and Harthill, both held from the honour of Warenne, serve to demonstrate the continued connections that this junior branch of the family held with the powerful Warenne earls throughout the thirteenth century.
Beatrice and Hubert’s son, John, was knighted on 3 June 1229, but was specifically excluded from inheriting the earldom of Kent, bestowed on his father on 19 February 1226 or 1227. This earldom was created following Hubert de Burgh’s third marriage, to Princess Margaret of Scotland, daughter of William I the Lion and therefore granddaughter of Ada de Warenne. The earldom of Kent was to descend exclusively through de Burgh’s children by the Scottish princess. In 1241 John owed relief on the manor of Portslade which had been given to him by his half-sister, Margery – the daughter of Hubert de Burgh by his third wife, Margaret of Scotland. Margery had received the manor from her father, who had held it of Earl Warenne. When John died on 7 January in 1273 or 1274, he held the manor of his older half-brother, Sir William Bardolf. John de Burgh was succeeded by his son, also John, who was married to Cecily, daughter of John Balliol and his wife Dervorguilla; she was also the sister of John Balliol, King of Scots, who was himself married to Isabella de Warenne, daughter of John de Warenne, sixth Earl Warenne.
By the time of the Magna Carta crisis in the spring and summer of 1215, Hubert de Burgh was back in England and supporting the king in his attempts to quell the rebellion. He was tasked, alongside the bishop of Coventry, with speaking to the mayor, sheriff and knights of London, who were instructed to listen to what de Burgh and the bishop had to say; despite this, the Londoners opened their gates to the rebels. In the preamble to Magna Carta, Hubert de Burgh is styled seneschal of Poitou and listed eighth among the list of lay barons. By 25 June 1215 he was being styled as justiciar in official documents. Matthew Paris later claimed he had been appointed to the post in the presence of Stephen Langton, Archbishop of Canterbury, and the earls of Surrey and Derby, among other magnates.
As justiciar, in the Magna Carta, Hubert de Burgh is mentioned as being the one to hold ultimate responsibility in the realm whenever the king was abroad; this was a considerable change to the role of justiciar in former reigns, when he was primarily responsible as president of the exchequer and chief justice. He was, essentially, the most powerful man in the land after the king himself, quite an achievement for the younger son of a minor landholder from Norfolk. De Burgh was also made castellan of Dover Castle, the gateway to England from the Continent, and was besieged there from 22 July 1216 until King John’s death in October of the same year, when the Dauphin Louis abandoned the siege.
King John was soon writing to the pope to have Magna Carta annulled, plunging England into rebellion. The barons invited the French dauphin, Louis, to join them and make a play for the throne. Louis was the son of John’s erstwhile friend Philip II Augustus, King of France, and the husband of his niece Blanche, who was the daughter of his sister Eleanor, Queen of Castile. Louis and his men had landed on the Isle of Thanet on 14 May 1216. The dauphin advanced through Kent and took Canterbury before moving onto Winchester. Louis was hailed as King of England in London in June of 1216. John seems to have been undecided as to how to act; he sent his oldest son Henry to safety at Devizes Castle in Wiltshire. Dover Castle, under the command of Hubert de Burgh, held out against the French and rebel forces, as did Windsor and Lincoln.
This was the state of the kingdom when King John died on the night of 18/19 October 1216; he was succeeded by his 9-year-old son, Henry, now King Henry III. Despite John’s death, his half-brother and uncle of the new king, William Longespée, Earl of Salisbury, had remained with Louis and it was he who called for Hubert de Burgh to surrender Dover to the French. The justiciar refused.
John’s death turned the tide of the war, giving the English royalists the upper hand and allowing Hubert de Burgh and his fellow loyal barons, including William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke, to take the initiative and begin the recovery of the kingdom. Hubert de Burgh had done rather well from the reign of King John; he had attained high office, a good marriage and the opportunity to play a major role in the next reign. The new reign offered a new start for everyone, though the struggle was far from over and Hubert de Burgh would rise to new heights.
Look out for Part 2, Hubert de Burgh and the Minority of Henry III, coming next week…
finerollshenry3.org.uk; Oxforddnb.com; magnacarta800th.com; Church, Stephen, King John: England, Magna Carta and the Making of a Tyrant; Danziger, Danny and John Gillingham, 1215: The Year of Magna Carta; Crouch, David, William Marshal; Matthew Paris, Robert de Reading and others, Flores Historiarum, volume III; Robert Bartlett England Under the Norman and Angevin Kings 1075-1225; Dan Jones The Plantagenets; the Kings who Made England; Maurice Ashley The Life and Times of King John; Roy Strong The Story of Britain; Oxford Companion to British History; Mike Ashley British Kings & Queens; David Williamson Brewer’s British Royalty; Rich Price King John’s Letters Facebook page; Elizabeth Hallam, editor, The Plantagenet Chronicles; Donald Matthew, King Stephen; Medieval Lands Project on the Earls of Surrey, Conisbrough Castle; Farrer, William and Charles Travis Clay, editors, Early Yorkshire Charters, Volume 8: The Honour of Warenne; Rev. John Watson, Memoirs of the Ancient Earls of Warren and Surrey and their Descendants to the Present Time; Morris, Marc King John: Treachery, Tyranny and the Road to Magna Carta; doncasterhistory.co.uk.
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
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.
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.
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.
As I said the other day, I am well behind on the list of book reviews I still have to write up, so the second article to include mini-reviews of several books that I have read and enjoyed over the last few months, to clear the backlog and give you some fabulous ideas if you’re looking for that next read (or a last minute Christmas pressie).
Four Queens and a Countess by Jill Armitage
When Mary Stuart was forced off the Scottish throne she fled to England, a move that made her cousin Queen Elizabeth very uneasy. Elizabeth had continued the religious changes made by her father and England was a Protestant country, yet ardent Catholics plotted to depose Elizabeth and put Mary Stuart on the English throne. So what was Queen Elizabeth going to do with a kingdomless queen likely to take hers? She had her placed under house arrest with her old friend Bess of Hardwick, then married to her fourth husband, the wealthy and influential Earl of Shrewsbury. The charismatic Scotswoman was treated more like a dowager queen than a prisoner and enjoyed the Shrewsbury’s affluent lifestyle until Bess suspected Mary of seducing her husband. But for sixteen years, with the never-ending threat of a Catholic uprising, Bess was forced to accommodate Mary and her entourage at enormous cost to both her finances and her marriage. Bess had also known the doomed Jane Grey and Mary Tudor, Queen of France. She had been in service in the Grey household and companion to the infant Jane. Mary Tudor had been godmother to Bess’s fifth child. Four Queens and a Countess delves deep into the relationships of these women with their insurmountable differences, the way they tried to accommodate them and the lasting legacy this has left. The clash of personalities and its deadly political background have never been examined in detail before.
Jill Armitage looks at the second half of the Tudor period through the lives of the four queens that shaped it and one remarkable countess. The flowing narrative tells the stories of Lady Jane Grey – the queen for 9 days – Mary I, Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots alongside that of Bess of Hardwick, jailer of the Scottish queen. Four Queens and a Countess is a wonderful study of these remarkable women; women who, between them, influenced the direction of England for generations to come.
Jill Armitage investigates their various characters, relationships and disagreements, and explains how their relationships with each other affected the nations as a whole, and each other on an individual basis. Four Queens and a Countess is a thoroughly enjoyable and absorbing read, providing new insight and a refreshing change of focus on the Tudor era.
I highly recommend it!
Katherine Parr: Oppportunist, Queen, Reformer by Don Matzat
Don Matzat here provides a new perspective on the life of Katherine Parr, the sixth and final wife of the infamous Henry VIII. While most biographers suggest that Katherine chose to marry the obese, irascible monarch in order to further some reformation or obey a divine imperative, the author goes against the tide and concludes that Katherine was an opportunist who married the king in order to enjoy the comforts of being the Queen of England, proven by her sumptuous lifestyle. But everything changed for Katherine when she had a dramatic conversion experience, embracing the primary tenets of the Protestant Reformation as described in her seminal work, The Lamentation of a Sinner. Her newly found belief placed her in a precarious position, not only with her husband but with the heresy hunters who, with the king’s blessing, beheaded those who held such beliefs. Yet Katherine had the courage to discuss her faith with her dangerous husband during the final months of his life. The life of Katherine Parr was one of drama, intrigue, danger, deceit, clandestine romance, scandal, tragedy and mystery. She came to a tragic end, and for three hundred years her burial site remained unknown. Katherine ruled England while Henry went to war against France. She was the first woman published in England under her own name. Her Lamentation of a Sinner is a little-known gem of the Protestant Reformation. Her influence upon the children of Henry, the future monarchs Edward VI, Mary I and Elizabeth I, would affect English history for many years to come.
I think, out of all Henry VIII’s queens, Katherine Parr’s story fascinates me the most. And its not just because she lived at Gainsborough Old Hall – one of my favourite haunts – for a time. Henry VIII was Katherine’s third husband – and she was his sixth wife. But Katherine Parr was so much more than Henry VIII’s wife. She was an intelligent woman and a proponent of the new Protestant faith – indeed, she almost met the fate of her predecessors, Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard, when Henry suspected her of heresy.
Author Don Matzat looks at Katherine’s life and her religious outlook using The Lamentations of a Sinner, written by Katherine herself, to give him an insight into Katherine the woman and Katherine the queen.
In Katherine Parr: Opportunist, Queen, Reformer Don Matzat uses Katherine Parr’s own writings and letters to paint a vivid picture of this remarkable queen. Beautifully written, engaging and thoroughly researched, this book is a wonderful addition to any Tudor library.
The Bastard’s Sons by Jeffrey James
“William the Conqueror’s intellect is said to have remained clear right up to his death. He would have questioned whether any of his three sons individually had the ability to rule the troublesome amalgam of England, Normandy and Maine once he was gone. The Bastard’s Sons is the story of those three men: Robert, William and Henry of Normandy.
Of Robert, the dying king is said to have claimed he was ‘a proud and silly prodigal’, adding that ‘the country which is subject to his dominion will be truly wretched’. Yet Robert became a great crusader. William got on better with his namesake, known to us as William Rufus for his florid looks. He was, like his father, of kingship material, and might have gained the throne of England on his father’s nod, but, equally plausibly, orchestrated a coup. The youngest of the Bastard’s sons, Henry, inherited money from his father, but not land. To placate Henry, the Conqueror is alleged to have told him that one day he would gain both England and Normandy.
The stage was set for an epic power struggle between the three men and their barons, who held lands on both sides of the Channel and were thus caught in a difficult position. A mysterious death in the forest, a crusading hero’s return and the tenacity of an overlooked third son would all combine to see this issue settled once and for all.”
The Bastard’s Sons: Robert, William and Henry of Normandy by Jeffrey James is a wonderful book telling the story of the post-Conquest years through the power struggles of William the Conqueror’s three surviving sons. In a wonderful, engaging narrative, Jeffrey James provides a unique insight into these three, very different brothers.
By looking at their relationships with each other, at the nobles who surrounded and supported them, and at the events of the latter part of the eleventh century and beginning of the twelfth, Jeffrey James shows us how these three brothers influenced each other’s lives, and the lives of those around them; as well as the politics of England and Normandy and of Europe in general.
The Bastard’s Sons: Robert, William and Henry of Normandy is an absorbing read, offering a new perspective on the post Conquest years and demonstrating the far reaching influences of all three of William the Conqueror’s surviving sons. It is a must-read for anyone interested in the post Conquest years of England and Normandy, and in the establishment of the Norman dynasty.
Eleanor of Aquitaine by Sara Cockerill
“In the competition for remarkable queens, Eleanor of Aquitaine tends to win. In fact her story sometimes seems so extreme it ought to be made up.
The headlines: orphaned as a child, Duchess in her own right, Queen of France, crusader, survivor of a terrible battle, kidnapped by her own husband, captured by pirates, divorced for barrenness, Countess of Anjou, Queen of England, mother of at least five sons and three daughters, supporter of her sons’ rebellion against her own husband, his prisoner for fifteen years, ruler of England in her own right, traveller across the Pyrenees and Alps in winter in her late sixties and seventies, and mentor to the most remarkable queen medieval France was to know (her own granddaughter, obviously).
It might be thought that this material would need no embroidery. But the reality is that Eleanor of Aquitaine’s life has been subjected to successive reinventions over the years, with the facts usually losing the battle with speculation and wishful thinking.
In this biography Sara Cockerill has gone back to the primary sources, and the wealth of recent first-rate scholarship, and assessed which of the claims about Eleanor can be sustained on the evidence. The result is a complete re-evaluation of this remarkable woman’s even more remarkable life. A number of oft-repeated myths are debunked and a fresh vision of Eleanor emerges. In addition the book includes the fruits of her own research, breaking new ground on Eleanor’s relationship with the Church, her artistic patronage and her relationships with all of her children, including her family by her first marriage.”
Sara Cockerill’s Eleanor of Aquitaine: Queen of France and England, Mother of Empires was one of the most anticipated history books of 2019 and it did not disappoint. Dispelling many of the rumours and stories that float around whenever Eleanor of Aquitaine is mentioned, Sara Cockerill looks for the real woman behind the legend.
Mainly using primary sources, Sara Cockerill re-examines every aspect of Eleanor’s life. The research is impeccable and Sara Cockerill’s arguments and analysis are well reasoned and compelling. Eleanor of Aquitaine: Queen of France and England, Mother of Empires is essential reading for anyone interested in the era in general and Eleanor of Aquitaine’s story in particular.
This is one of those books that should sit in all medieval history lovers’ libraries, to be read and devoured.
The Anarchy by Teresa Cole
When the mighty Henry I died in December 1135, leaving no legitimate son, who was to replace him on the throne of England? Would it be Stephen, nephew to the king and showered with favours that maybe gave him ideas above his station? Or could it be a woman, Henry’s own choice, his daughter Matilda, who had been sent away when eight years old to marry the Holy Roman Emperor, widowed, then forced into a hated second marriage for political reasons? Stephen was the first to act, seizing the throne that had been promised to Matilda, but he would find taking a crown far easier than keeping it. The resulting struggle became known as ‘the Anarchy,’ a time when fortune changed sides as frequently and dramatically as in any page-turning thriller, and with a cast of characters to match – some passionately supporting Stephen or Matilda, others simply out to grab what they could from the chaos. These supporting players are not overlooked here: Henry of Blois, brother of Stephen, Bishop of Winchester, and largely orchestrator of the church’s response to the conflict; Robert of Gloucester, illegitimate son of Henry I and chief supporter of his half-sister; and Geoffrey of Anjou, husband of Matilda, determined to secure Normandy (traditional enemy of Anjou) for himself. Covering all the twists and turns of this war between cousins, as first one side then the other seemed within touching distance of total victory, The Anarchy blends contemporary, sometimes eyewitness accounts with modern analysis to describe a period of England’s history so dark and lawless that those who lived through it declared that ‘Christ and his saints slept.’
When I told Amberley I wanted to do a book about the Anarchy, they were reluctant, saying that Teresa Cole had a book coming out about the Anarchy, and they were worried the books would be too similar. So I promised to concentrate on the Women of the Anarchy (my book’s working title), but was – from that moment – curious to read Teresa Cole’s take on the events. Luckily I got the chance.
The Anarchy: The Darkest Days of Medieval England is an intelligent, engaging study of the 19 years of English history during which the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle bemoaned that ‘Christ and his Saints slept’. Told in a chronological narrative, Teresa Cole examines every aspect of the period; the personalities involved and the extent of devastation and destruction caused by the conflict – both in England and Normandy.
Using eyewitness accounts and contemporary chronicles, Teresa Cole examines the motives behind the two protagonists, King Stephen and Empress Matilda, looking at their reasons for wanting the throne – and for wanting to keep it. The Anarchy: The Darkest Days of Medieval England also provides insight into the leading supporters on both sides of the conflict and demonstrates that though war was waged over a 19 year period, the main battles were fought in the early years and by 1147 the nobles were getting so tired of war they were looking to make mutual protection treaties between themselves, or go on crusade, rather than continue a war that had been fought to a stalemate.
The Anarchy: The Darkest Days of Medieval England is an interesting, enjoyable read offering new insight and perspective on an often overlooked period of English history, the only time that a woman led a faction to war on English soil.
Thank you to everyone who entered. If you do get a copy of any of my books, either for yourself or others, please get in touch via the ‘contact me’ page and I will send you out a signed book plate to pop in the front.
My very best wishes for a wonderful Christmas and amazing New Year!
It is my pleasure to be the one to kick of the Historical Writers’ Forum Christmas Advent Blog Hop. And what better way to celebrate the end of 2020 with a book giveaway or special offer for practically every day of advent – so be sure to follow the blog hop through our Facebook page.
You could be a winner!
This year we are celebrating with Jolabokaflod as our Christmas blog hop theme! If you are not familiar with Jolabokaflod, it is the wonderful Icelandic tradition of giving books as gifts on Christmas Eve – except we are doing it for Advent.
And my contribution to Jolabokaflod is a signed paperback copy of my first book, Heroines of the Medieval World – either for yourself or as a gift for a friend or loved one – the dedication is entirely up to you!
Heroines of the Medieval World Giveaway!
Heroines of the Medieval World looks at the lives of the women who broke the mould: those who defied social norms and made their own future, consequently changing lives, society and even the course of history. Some of the women are famous, such as Eleanor of Aquitaine, who was not only a duchess in her own right but also Queen Consort of France through her first marriage and Queen Consort of England through her second, in addition to being a crusader and a rebel. Then there are the more obscure but no less remarkable figures such as Nicholaa de la Haye, who defended Lincoln Castle in the name of King John, and Maud de Braose, who spoke out against the same king’s excesses and whose death (or murder) was the inspiration for a clause in Magna Carta. Women had to walk a fine line in the Middle Ages, but many learned to survive – even flourish – in this male-dominated world. Some led armies, while others made their influence felt in more subtle ways, but all made a contribution to their era and should be remembered for daring to defy and lead in a world that demanded they obey and follow.
The Jolabokaflod Giveaway!
The giveaway is a signed and dedicated – for you or someone you love – paperback copy of my first book, Heroines of the Medieval World. The giveaway is open worldwide – and I will do my best to get the book to you in time for the big day, wherever you are.
Here is a taster:
From Chapter 3: Medieval Mistresses
The most successful of mistresses must be Katherine Swynford, the one mistress who defied the odds and eventually married her man, thus spawning a multitude of novels and love stories. Katherine was born around 1350; she was the younger daughter of Sir Payn Roelt, a Hainault knight in the service of Edward III’s queen, Philippa of Hainault, who eventually rose to be Guyenne King of Arms. Unfortunately, the identity of her mother has never been established, not an unusual situation when you think Katherine was born to an obscure knight and her significance only became evident later in life. Katherine and her older sister, Philippa, appear to have been spent their early years in Queen Philippa’s household. Philippa de Roelt (or Rouet) joined the household of Elizabeth de Burgh, wife of Lionel of Antwerp, where she met her future husband, the literary giant of his age, Geoffrey Chaucer.
By 1365 Katherine was serving Blanche, Duchess of Lancaster, the first wife of John of Gaunt. John was the third surviving son of Edward III and Queen Philippa, and had married Blanche, co-heiress of Henry of Grosmont, Duke of Lancaster, in 1359. Soon after joining Blanche’s household, Katherine was married to Sir Hugh Swynford of Coleby and Kettlethorpe, Lincolnshire. Sir Hugh was a knight and tenant of John of Gaunt, who would serve with his lord on campaigns in 1366 and 1370. The couple had two children, Thomas and Blanche, who was named after the duchess. John of Gaunt stood as little Blanche’s godfather and she was raised alongside his own daughters by Duchess Blanche. Following the duchess’s death in September 1368, Katherine became governess to the duke’s three children: Elizabeth, Philippaand Henry. Three years after the death of Blanche, in September 1371, John married again, this time to a Spanish princess, Constance of Castile, the daughter of Pedro the Cruel, King of Castile, and Maria de Padilla, the king’s concubine-turned-wife. The marriage was a dynastic move, with Constance being heiress to the kingdom of Castile there was a distinct chance of John becoming King of Castile, if only John could wrest it from her father’s killer and illegitimate brother, Henry of Trastámara. From January 1372, he assumed the title of King of Castile and Leon, though in name only as he was never able to consolidate his position.
Shortly after the marriage of John and Constance, in November 1371, Sir Hugh Swynford died while serving overseas, leaving Katherine a widow with two very young children; the youngest was probably less than two years old. It was not long after Sir Hugh’s death that Katherine became John of Gaunt’s mistress; although some sources suggest the couple were lovers even before Sir Hugh’s death, which has brought into question the paternity of Katherine’s eldest son by John of Gaunt. However, the majority of historians agree the relationship between John and Katherine started in late 1371 or early 1372 and was developing well in the spring of that year, when Katherine received rewards and a significant increase in her status within Gaunt’s household….
Myths and rumour have shrouded the Borgia family for centuries – tales of incest, intrigue and murder have been told of them since they themselves walked the hallways of the Apostolic Palace. In particular, vicious rumour and slanderous tales have stuck to the names of two members of the infamous Borgia family – Cesare and Lucrezia, brother and sister of history’s most notorious family. But how much of it is true, and how much of it is simply rumour aimed to blacken the name of the Borgia family? In the first ever biography solely on the Borgia siblings, Samantha Morris tells the true story of these two fascinating individuals from their early lives, through their years living amongst the halls of the Vatican in Rome until their ultimate untimely deaths. Cesare and Lucrezia Borgia begins in the bustling metropolis of Rome with the siblings ultimately being used in the dynastic plans of their father, a man who would become Pope, and takes the reader through the separate, yet fascinatingly intertwined, lives of the notorious siblings. One tale, that of Cesare, ends on the battlefield of Navarre, whilst the other ends in the ducal court of Ferrara. Both Cesare and Lucrezia led lives full of intrigue and danger, lives which would attract the worst sort of rumour begun by their enemies. Drawing on both primary and secondary sources Morris brings the true story of the Borgia siblings, so often made out to be evil incarnate in other forms of media, to audiences both new to the history of the Italian Renaissance and old.
Cesare and Lucrezia Borgia: Brother and Sister of History’s Most Vilified Family by Samantha Morris is a fascinating look at two of the most famous villains in history; a brother and sister renowned for murder, intrigue and incest. Or are they? Samantha Morris’s beautifully written dual biography of these siblings aims to peal away the centuries of rumour and accusations and find the real people beneath the legend.
Samantha Morris combines a lively, engaging narrative with keen historical analysis, uncovering the facts embedded in the legends, rumours and scandals. She demonstrates a deep understanding not only of her subjects and their motivations but of the political theatre of Italy, the papacy and Europe in general at that time.
In Cesare and Lucrezia Borgia: Brother and Sister of History’s Most Vilified Family, Samantha Morris expertly separates rumour from fact to provide a balanced appraisal of these famous siblings; their strengths and weakness. Using creditable sources, papal records and even family letters, she clearly establishes the facts behind the lies of the incest accusation, whilst demonstrating how such accusations came about and the various efforts to sully the name of the Borgia family.
The careers of the Borgia children were decided and laid out before them before they could even waalk. Juan was chosen as the son who would be the military leader, the great Duke who would go on to continue the Borgia line; Cesare was destined for a life in the Church; Lucrezia would be forced into diplomatic marriages and Gioffre would do the same. The children were their father’s pawns, important chess pieces but Cesare in particular did not like the career path that was chosen for him.
When Cesare was just six years old, the Pope granted a dispensation that allowed him to hold Church benefices despite his illegitimacy and the following year, 1482, King Ferdinand of Aragon exempted him from a law that would stop him from holding lordships in Spain due to his illegitimacy. Being bastard born would not get in the way of raising Cesare Borgia to the heights that his father so wanted for him.
By the age of just fifteen, Cesare had already been given a vast number of Church benefices including the Bishopric of Pamplona, the ancient capital of Navarre. This caused particular outrage as the young man had not yet taken his holy orders and Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia did his best to calm down the populace, telling them that Cesare’s elevation was simply down to his merits and hard work. Cesare, on a break from the University of Perugia and busy on a hunting trip, found himself having to write a letter to the people of Navarre to try and soothe their anger. But it didn’t work and the Pope had to intervene to halt the rebellion.
From tracing their origins in Spain, to the spectacular heights to which the family rose, to the politics that brought about the demise of Cesare and meant the family were embroiled in constant struggles for land and power, Samantha Morris charts the successes and failures – and underhand dealings of the infamous family. The siblings’ father and family patriarch, Rodrigo Borgia, Pope Alexander VI is depicted as a scheming but capable man and pope who loved his children dearly. He sought to establish his illegitimate children in lives and careers appropriate to their rank as the children of a reigning pope.
Lucrezia Borgia comes across as an intelligent, passionate woman, far removed from , the poisoner of legend conducting a love affair with her own brother. She proved herself capable of ruling and was loving and loyal to her family. She pursued an active political career despite her almost constant pregnancies, and suffered incalculable griefs and family loss. Lucrezia, however, is not depicted as a pure, innocent virgin, but a well educated, politically astute woman who may also have conducted certain indiscretions, or at least platonic love affairs, during her lifetime. She is a woman who made the best of the life that was mapped out for her.
Cesare, on the other hand, is a ruthless man not cut out for the career in the church to which he appeared destined. The untimely murder of his older brother meant he went from cardinal to soldier, a job to which he was much better suited and a thousand times more capable and dedicated. Cesare is a complex character; accused of numerous murders, including those of his own brother and Lucrezia’s second husband, he is remembered to history as a ruthless, scheming murderer and seducer of his own sister. While he may have been ruthless and scheming – and a murderer to some extent, Samantha Morris goes on to prove that not all the murders laid at Cesare’s door were his responsibility.
As an aside, the reader cannot fail to notice the prevalence of syphillis in Italy at the time. A countless number of the protagonists in the story suffered from this disfiguring disease, Cesare Borgia among them. The French, attempting to conquer Italy at the time, called it ‘the Italian disease’, though in England it was known as ‘the French disease’ – those same invading French soldiers took the dreadful disease with them when they returned home.
Cesare and Lucrezia Borgia: Brother and Sister of History’s Most Vilified Family is an engaging narrative of the history of not only these most famous Italian siblings, but also Italy, the papacy and wider European politics at the time when the world was moving from the Medieval era into the Early Modern, when the Renaissance was in full swing and the Reformation was just around the corner. Samantha Morris demonstrates the power of the papacy, of Pope Alexander VI in particular, and how papal factions caused the rise – and fall – of the Borgia family.
Cesare and Lucrezia Borgia: Brother and Sister of History’s Most Vilified Family is an entertaining and enthralling read – one not to be missed!
Cesare and Lucrezia Borgia: Brother and Sister of History’s Most Vilified Family by Samantha Morris is available from Pen & Sword Books and Amazon.
About the author:
Samantha Morris studied archaeology at the University of Winchester and it was there, whilst working on a dissertation about the battlefield archaeology of the English Civil War that her interest in the Italian Renaissance began. Her main area of interest is the history of the Borgia family and the papacy of Pope Alexander VI, however she also has a keen interest in the history of other Renaissance families. Samantha has previously written on the Borgia family and runs a successful blog based mainly on the history of the Italian Renaissance, but with snippets of other eras thrown in too.
It is a pleasure to welcome to History … the Interesting Bits today, Nicola Lisle, author of Life in Miniature: A History of Dolls’ Houses as part of her Blog Tour with Pen & Sword. A history of dolls’ houses is a little different to my usual type of post, but reading Life in Miniature brought back some very happy childhood memories of my sister and I playing with our dolls’ house in our grandparents’ attic. So I was very interested in finding out more of their history and origins. Nicola very kindly answered a few of my most pressing questions.
Hi Nicola, congratulations on the release of Life in Miniature and thank you for stopping by to chat.
1. When I heard about your book, I immediately thought of the dolls’ house my sister and I had as children – we used to play with it for hours. How long have you had a fascination for dolls’ houses? Did you have one as a child?
I did have a dolls’ house as a child, and my sister and I played with it a lot. It was apparently made for us by a distant relative, who also made wooden furniture for it. It’s all quite basic, but I love it because it’s unique and it was part of my childhood. We used to have some tiny dolls for it, and we also used to decorate it at Christmas. We had a Christmas tree and had to cut away a square of carpet to fit it in! Sadly, the dolls and Christmas decorations have been lost, but the original furniture and other bits and pieces are still there. As we grew up we lost interest in the dolls’ house and it was in my parents’ loft for many years gathering dust! It wasn’t until I started writing that I became interested in dolls’ houses again, and it was quite by chance. I subscribed to Writing Magazine and Writers’ News – and still do! – and in one issue there was a piece about Dolls House and Miniature Scene magazine, which was open to submissions from freelance writers. It caught my attention, and I got in touch with some ideas. My first piece for the magazine was about the Museum of Childhood at Sudbury Hall in Derbyshire, and it was published in 2004. I carried on writing for the magazine for many years, and it ignited a real passion in me for dolls’ houses. Eventually I rescued my childhood dolls’ house from my mum’s house, and I’m hoping at some point to find the time to give it a bit of TLC! It’s not in bad condition, but it could definitely do with a bit of a makeover!
2. The thing with dolls’ houses is that they are not just for children, are they? My mum has one!
Dolls’ houses are definitely not just for children. I think a lot of adults who had them as children still treasure them, and collecting vintage and antique dolls’ houses is also popular. For children, they are great for stimulating the imagination, but for adults I think it’s more about appreciating the sheer delight of miniatures and the craftsmanship that went into creating them.
3. I think the most famous dolls’ house has to be Queen Mary’s in Windsor Castle, isn’t it? What is so special about it?
Yes, I think Queen Mary’s dolls’ house is probably the most famous. It’s special because it captures a slice of 1920s England in such exquisite detail, from the furniture and soft furnishings right down to the food and drink that were popular at the time. It attracted international interest when it first appeared, and it was a showcase to the world, a display of some of the very finest British talent. I think it also restored some pride and optimism in the country during the immediate post-war years. The house and garden were designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens and Gertrude Jekyll, and among its highlights are miniature books, music scores and paintings by popular writers, composers and artists of the day. Many of the books contained original stories written exclusively for the dolls’ house. Two of these, Fougasse’s J. Smith and Conan Doyle’s How Watson Learned the Trick, have been reproduced as miniature replicas with booklets containing the stories in full-size print. Another, Vita Sackville-West’s A Note of Explanation – a story about a mischievous spirit who inhabits the dolls’ house – was also reproduced in full size. I treated myself to all three when I was researching my book, and they are now treasured items on my bookshelves!
4. How long have dolls’ houses been around, Nicola? I always associate them with the Victorians, but were they around earlier? Are dolls’ houses an English creation, or did they come from the continent?
Dolls’ houses have been around since at least the 16th century and originated in Germany, where they were known as baby houses. The first known dolls’ house was made for the Duke of Bavaria in 1557, and it was a miniature version of his ducal palace. By the 17th century, baby houses had become popular in Germany, particularly in Nuremberg. The idea caught on in Holland towards the end of the 17th century, but instead of baby houses the
Dutch favoured cabinet houses, which were grand, elaborately-carved cabinets containing exquisitely furnished miniature rooms. The earliest dolls’ houses in England appeared in the late 17th century and were similar to the Dutch cabinet houses. By the early 18th century they were beginning to look more like houses than cabinets, and they were often modelled on the great country houses and created by estate carpenters. It wasn’t until the Victorian era that they became regarded as toys for children, and mass production towards the end of the 19th century made them much more widely accessible.
5. And what was their original purpose, were they always aimed at children.
The earliest baby houses, cabinet houses and dolls’ houses were primarily display pieces, and they were very much the preserve of royalty and the aristocracy – each one was a statement of the owner’s wealth and social status. They also had an educational role, often being used to instruct young ladies and servants in efficient household management and domestic skills.
6. I am fascinated by dolls’ houses and have to admit that the first thing I did on getting your book was look at the pictures. The houses are beautiful and the furniture inside is so detailed and intricate, do you have a favourite?
I saw so many gorgeous dolls’ houses while writing and researching my book that it’s almost impossible to pick a favourite. I think all dolls’ houses have their own particular charm, from the grand, ornate ones to the very simplest, and often it’s the stories behind them that make them special. For this reason, I think the dolls’ house at Uppark in West Sussex is one of my favourites, partly because it’s one of the earliest surviving dolls’ houses from the early 18th century, reflecting the Palladian-style architecture that was popular at the time, and partly because it has a connection with H.G. Wells, and I always love literary connections! Wells’s mother was the housekeeper at Uppark during the late 19th century, and he drew on his childhood memories of Uppark in his novel Tono-Bungay, in which he refers to the “great dolls’ house on the nursery landing”.
Another with a literary connection is the dolls’ house at Charles Dickens’ House at Doughty Street in London. The house doesn’t actually have a connection with Dickens himself, but it was modelled on the Doughty Street house by dolls’ house maker Christopher Cole for his book Make Your Own Dolls’ House, which was published in 1976. It is a simplified version of the real thing, rather than an exact replica, but it is very similar, especially the outside, and it was one I particularly enjoyed going to see! It’s not on public display, but it can be viewed by appointment.
I also have special fondness for the dolls’ house at Overbeck’s in Devon. It was created during the 1980s by a lady called Mabel Hill, a very talented, self-taught craftswoman who used scraps of leftover material and other household odds and ends to make the furniture and soft furnishings. What’s particularly lovely is that Overbeck’s was used as a convalescent home for wounded soldiers during the First World War, and one of the activities they were encouraged to do as therapy was to make dolls’ house furniture. Although there’s no direct link between that and Mabel Hill’s house, it does feel as though there is a spiritual connection.
Others closer to home, in Oxfordshire, include the Regency-style dolls’ house at the Tolsey Museum in Burford, which was created during the 1930s by members of the local community and reflects the town’s rural industries (another fascination of mine!), and the Palladian-style house at Greys Court, near Henley, which was created by a local lady, Patricia Mackenzie, during the 1970s. Like Mabel Hill, she used old materials and household objects to create the house and its contents. She was inspired by the Carlisle Collection of Miniature Rooms, which she used to visit when it was displayed at Greys Court during the 1970s. The collection is now housed at Nunnington Hall in Yorkshire, and is another favourite of mine, with a fascinating history – as I said, there are so many favourites!
7. I am guessing that some of these dolls’ houses have fascinating histories – is there one that has a story that particularly caught your attention?
Something I became fascinated with while researching the book was finding out about famous collectors, particularly Vivien Greene, wife of novelist Graham Greene. Her collection was once housed in a museum in Oxford, not far from where I live, so there’s a bit of a connection there! Tracking down Vivien Greene’s dolls’ houses almost became a project of its own – sadly, she decided to auction her collection during the late 1990s when her eyesight was deteriorating and most of it finished up in private hands. But one that is on public display is Whiteway at Saltram, a National Trust house in Devon, and its Victorian-style interior is exquisite. I particularly loved the library with its miniature books, all made from wood, and the dining room with its plush red furnishings. The provenance of the house is something of a mystery, and I do love a good mystery! There’s another Vivien Greene house on display at Ilkley Toy Museum in Yorkshire, which dates from the late Victorian era and used to belong to a lady in Abingdon, Oxfordshire – again, not far from where I live. At some point it was converted into an hotel and named The Original Swan after a pub in Cowley, just outside Oxford. It has lost some of its original contents, but it is in good condition and you can still see the mahogany bar and its wooden barrels and glass bottles.
8. What made you want to write a book on dolls’ houses?
It was writing for Dolls House and Miniature Scene magazine for so many years that made me think it would be interesting to write a book on the subject. I had already accumulated a lot of information and pictures that I could use as the basis for a book, and I had a lot of fun building on that, visiting various museums and stately homes that had dolls’ houses on display and gathering up lots more fascinating facts about these wonderful miniatures. I enjoyed researching and writing the book so much – it was a real labour of love!
9. What is your next writing project?
I’ve been working on some possible new book ideas, but at the moment I’m very busy with other writing work. I have several article deadlines coming up, and I am also a tutor on four distance-learning courses with The Writers Bureau, so I’m having to work on my book pitches in between everything else! Hopefully, though, at some point I’ll get them finished and sent off!
10. Where can people find you? Do you have a website or blog? Are you on social media?
I’m on Twitter – you can find me at @NicolaLisle1. I did set up a blog a while ago but haven’t actually done anything with it for some time, so it’s due for a major overhaul – that’s probably going to be a Christmas holiday job!
Thank you, Nicola, for such a lovely chat!
Life in Miniature: A History of Dolls’ Houses is available from Amazon or direct from Pen & Sword and would make a perfect Christmas present.
About the author:
Nicola Lisle is a freelance journalist and author specialising in history and the arts. She has written numerous articles for family history magazines, including Who Do You Think You Are?, Your Family History and Discover Your Ancestors, and was a regular contributor to Dolls House and Miniature Scene magazine for many years. She is the author of Tracing Your Family History Made Easy (Which? Books, 2011) and Tracing Your Oxfordshire Ancestors (Pen & Sword, 2018).
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.
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 Surreyis 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.
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 Surreywill be released in the UK on 31 May andis now available for pre-order from Pen & Sword Books.
Competition is now closed and the draw has been made. The winner is… Lisa Graham. Thank you so much to everyone for taking part – there were over 300 entries! And thank you for the many wonderful birthday wishes. Apparently a ‘big’ birthday doesn’t feel as overwhelming when you have so many wonderful friends. THANK YOU!!!!
It’s my birthday!
Today is my birthday, and its one of those big ones with a ‘0’ on the end. I’m not going to say exactly, but here’s a few clues:
I’m not 40 or 60;
My son keeps telling me that I’m now a part of history;
and he keeps making sly remarks about half centuries.
So, you work it out…
Anyway, seeing as its such a big birthday, I thought it would be nice to celebrate with a giveaway, seeing as I haven’t done one in a while.
The competition is open to everyone, wherever you are in the world. To win a signed and dedicated copy of one of my books, simply leave a comment below or on my Facebook page and I will include you in the prize draw.