Guest Post: King Cenwulf by Annie Whitehead

Today it is a pleasure to welcome author Annie Whitehead to the blog. Annie’s book, Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom was released by Amberley on 15th September and traces the fortunes of the Anglo-Saxon Midlands kingdom of Mercia, from its origins in the 6th century to its absorption into Norman England in the 11th century. The book is a fabulous, enjoyable read and I can highly recommend it to anyone with an interest in Anglo-Saxon England.

A huge thank you to Annie for this fabulous article.

King Who?

King Cenwulf, that’s who. He may not be all that well known, but he was one of the most successful Anglo-Saxon kings and was king for twenty-five years (796-821) during a period when most kings were lucky if they survived a year in the job.

So why don’t we know more about him? Probably because his reign was sandwiched between a lot of kings with odd names, and he was overshadowed by his more famous predecessor, Offa.

Cenwulf was supposedly descended from a brother of the infamous pagan king, Penda, but no one is entirely sure of the precise link (although my new book provides an intriguing theory…).

Statue/carving of King Cenwulf in St Peter’s Winchcomb

One thing is for sure, and that is that he had no direct connection with his immediate predecessor, Ecgfrith, who was Offa’s son. Offa had gone to great lengths to secure the succession of his son, even going so far as to have him anointed as his heir. But all his plans were for naught, because Ecgfrith survived only five months after being crowned.

Foul play? Maybe. There was no suggestion of it in the chronicles and many believed that he died for the sins of his father. It looks as if Cenwulf wasn’t around at court much during Offa’s reign, and may have been in exile. Perhaps he was the victim of the purges of which Offa had been accused, and for which the punishment was supposedly the untimely death of his son. No accusations of murder were ever levelled against Cenwulf.

Cenwulf’s reign was an impressive one of overlordship and conquest. We don’t know much about his marital history but it is possible that he was married twice, firstly to a lady named Cynegyth, although it’s by no means certain, as a charter naming her as queen has been declared unreliable. His – possibly second – wife was Ælfthryth.

Offa had controlled East Anglia (famously doing away with their king, whom he’d had beheaded) but after his death East Anglia seems to have regained its independence. That was short-lived, however, for while they had been minting their own coins, very soon after he came to power, the East Anglian moneyers were striking coins for Cenwulf.

Coffin believed by some to be that of Kenelm, Cwoenthryth’s murdered brother, but it actually dates from a later period.

East Saxon independence also appears to have been short-lived, with its last ever recorded king, Sigered, being reduced to the status of first sub-king, and then dux.

In 801, Cenwulf was attacked by King Eardwulf of the Northumbrians, ‘because of his harbouring of his enemies.’ A letter from Pope Leo III to Charlemagne in 808 mentions the nobleman, Wada, and seems to confirm the accusation that Cenwulf had indeed been harbouring Eardwulf’s enemies, because Wada was involved in a battle of 798 where he had fought against King Eardwulf. Eventually the two kings agreed to a truce.

Things were a little more violent when it came to Cenwulf’s dealings with Kent, however, and it was perhaps not Cenwulf’s finest hour.

In 798, the same year as the battle involving Wada, Cenwulf was busy ravaging Kent, and he captured the Kentish king, known as Eadberht Præn.

When Offa, who had been overlord of Kent, died, Kent had risen up in revolt against Mercia. Eadberht Præn had been in exile at the court of Charlemagne, and he returned after Offa’s death, forcing the archbishop of Canterbury – who was known to have Mercian sympathies – to flee.

Kenelm’s Well, supposedly where his funeral procession rested on its journey

According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Cenwulf ‘seized Præn and brought him in fetters into Mercia’ where his eyes were put out and his hands cut off. But while one later chronicler, Henry of Huntingdon, refers to the capture, he makes no mention of the mutilations and another twelfth-century writer, William of Malmesbury, called Cenwulf a ‘truly great man’ who ‘surpassed his fame by his virtues, doing nothing that malice could justly find fault with.’ His praise seems motivated by the latter’s having restored Canterbury, and he goes on to say that Cenwulf released Eadberht Præn out of pity.

For a short while, Cenwulf put his brother into Kent to rule there as a puppet king, but after his brother died, he took direct control.

For all William of Malmesbury praised Cenwulf for restoring order at Canterbury (Offa had fought to have the archbishopric moved to London and when that failed, established one at Lichfield. Cenwulf reversed this decision), Cenwulf had a fractious relationship with the Church.

He became embroiled in an argument with the new archbishop of Canterbury, Wulfred. The dispute concerned the Kentish minsters and whether it was right that the state should have control over ecclesiastical lands. The argument raged from 816 and was not resolved when Cenwulf died in 821.

Drawing of Coenwulf Coin

The kings who followed him make up a list which looks a little like a cat has walked over the keyboard and show that the kingdom was troubled by a series of dynastic disputes between rival families. In amongst this, Cenwulf reigned successfully for a quarter of a century, and it seems as though he was on campaign against the Welsh when he died, but his reign is overshadowed by what (allegedly) happened to his children.

His daughter, Cwoenthryth, inherited not only her father’s lands but his dispute with the Church. Wulfred was accused of forging documents to support his case, but the Church Council found in his favour and whilst Cwoenthryth was allowed to keep the possession of Winchcombe she was forced to hand over the rights to the Kentish minsters. Winchcombe, where her father was buried and where she was abbess, became the centre of a scandal when she was accused of arranging for her little brother, Kenelm, to be murdered. Some of the stories say that her eyeballs dropped out as divine punishment, some that she was struck down dead. Reality was probably somewhat different, since it’s hard to prove that the young brother in question was even a small boy at the time of the alleged murder, and Cwoenthryth lived on as abbess of Winchcombe; some historians think she survived until the 840s.

Photo of the Cenwulf coin is a replica from my own collection

When the history of this period includes Offa the Great, a murder of a little boy, and dynastic struggle which also ended in murder, it’s hardly surprising that poor Cenwulf gets forgotten. But as one historian pointed out, his achievement was ‘scarcely less impressive’ than Offa’s.

He controlled the whole of the south east, and while his influence was not felt over Wessex, he at least kept the Northumbrians at bay, and he increased pressure on the Welsh, to the extent that his eventual successor, his brother, was able virtually to overrun Powys. Old-fashioned warlord he may have been, but he was the only English king before the tenth century to be styled ‘emperor’. If only he’d lived at another time, or gone up against more famous adversaries, perhaps he’d be better remembered today.

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Picture credits: ©Annie Whitehead except drawing of Cenwulf (public domain).

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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 and Annie Whitehead

 

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

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

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

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

 

My News

Hi all. I know I have been quiet recently, so I thought I would write a post with all my latest news.

Book News

Silk and the Sword: the Women of the Norman Conquest

I have been working hard to finish my latest book, Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest, which went off to the publishers yesterday. I have thoroughly enjoyed delving into the lives of the women of the 11th century and looking at the events of 1066 through their eyes.

Here’s the synopsis:

Everyone knows about the events of 1066; the story of invasion and conquest.

But what of the women?

Harold II of England had been with Edith Swan-neck for twenty years but in 1066, in order to strengthen his hold on the throne, he married Ealdgyth, sister of two earls. William of Normandy’s duchess, Matilda of Flanders had, supposedly, only agreed to marry the Duke after he’d pulled her pigtails and thrown her in the mud. Harald Hardrada had two wives – apparently at the same time.
So, who were these women? What was their real story? And what happened to them after 1066?

From Emma of Normandy, wife of both King Cnut and Æ II to Saint Margaret, a descendant of Alfred the Great himself, ‘Silk and the Sword’ 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 is due for release in the UK on 15 November 2018 and is available for pre-order on Amazon UK, Amberley Publishing and Book Depository. I have no date for the US release, but will keep you posted.

Heroines of the Medieval World

In other exciting news, Heroines of the Medieval World is released today in hardback the US and Canada, and is available from Amazon US.

These are the stories of women, famous, infamous and unknown, who shaped the course of medieval history.

Today, it is easy to think that all women from this era were downtrodden, retiring and obedient housewives, whose sole purpose was to give birth to children (preferably boys) and serve their husbands. 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.

 

Other News

I have recently confirmed two new projects that I will be working on over the next couple of years.

Ladies of the Magna Carta

Ladies of the Magna Carta will look at the wives and families of the barons who were involved in the creation and implementation of the 1215 Magna Carta, and will be published by Pen & Sword Books in 2020.

The De Warenne Earls of Surrey: From the Conquest to the Reign of Edward III

The De Warenne Earls of Surrey: From the Conquest to the Reign of Edward III is a biography of the De Warenne family, from the first Earl, William de Warenne, who fought for William the Conqueror at the Battle of Hastings, to the seventh and last earl, John de Warenne and his unfortunate wife, Joan of Bar.

Newark Book Festival

On Sunday 15 July, 2018, I will be appearing at the Newark Book Festival, Nottinghamshire, UK. I will be talking on a Historical Fiction panel with the wonderful Elizabeth Chadwick and hosted by Nick Quantrill.

It would be great to see you there.

Here’s the details::

Historical Fiction Panel
Elzabeth Chadwick & Sharon Bennett Connolly
Newark Town Hall
Sunday 15th July
3.15pm – 4.30pm
£5/£4 FESTIVAL FRIENDS
Festival Box Office: 01636 655755 palacenewark.com

 

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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 UK, Amberley Publishing and Book Depository.

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

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©2018 Sharon Bennett Connolly

 

Mother’s Day Treat

Sunday 11th March 2018 is Mother’s Day in the UK this year

Mum is everyone’s favourite Heroine, in whatever era, and I could not think of a better way to celebrate Mother’s Day than with a giveaway of a hardback copy of Heroines of the Medieval World.

About Heroines of the Medieval World

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

 

If you would like to win a signed copy of Heroines of the Medieval World to give to your mum on Mother’s Day, or someone else’s mum – or even as a gift to yourself, simply leave a comment below or on my Facebook page and I will include you in the prize draw.

The draw will be made on Wednesday 7th March, so you should get the book in time for the day.

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The winner is ….. Janet Carter.

The draw is now closed and I would like to thank everyone for taking part.

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Heroines of the Medieval World,  is now available in hardback in the UK from both Amberley Publishing and Amazon UK and worldwide from Book Depository. It is also available on Kindle in both the UK and USA and will be available in Hardback from Amazon US from 1 May 2018.

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

Guest Post: Catrin ferch Owain Glyn Dwr by David Santiuste

Guest post from David Santiuste

It is with great pleasure that I welcome historian David Santiuste to History … The Interesting Bits, with an article about Owain Glyn Dwr’s daughter, Catrin. Over to David.

Catrin ferch Owain Glyn Dŵr

The remains of Owain Glyn Dŵr’s house at Sycharth

I was very pleased to be invited to write something for History… The Interesting Bits – a blog I have followed for some time. Above all, I have appreciated Sharon’s efforts to raise awareness of some fascinating medieval women, whose stories are too often neglected. Another such woman is Catrin, a daughter of the Welsh hero Owain Glyn Dŵr, who ultimately paid a heavy price for her father’s ambitions.

Catrin was born after 1383, when Owain, then in his late twenties, married her mother, Margaret Hamner. Catrin was almost certainly one of his oldest legitimate children, although in time she would become part of a large family. Owain and Margaret had eleven children who survived infancy, in addition to Owain’s sons and daughters who were born outside marriage (probably when he was still a bachelor).

Catrin’s early years were presumably spent at her father’s house at Sycharth (near Oswestry). It was described by the bard Iolo Goch as a beautiful and lively place – ‘the fairest timber hall’ – where Owain offered lavish hospitality. Nevertheless, while he had evidently established himself as a man of some status, much of his early career was typical of the minor aristocracy. Through Owain, Catrin could claim descent from Welsh royalty, but her upbringing was surely intended to prepare her for an adult life within the same kind of setting – probably as the wife of a local gentleman who had connections with her family.

Naturally Catrin’s life changed in 1400, when her father launched a ferocious rebellion against King Henry IV of England. Sycharth was no longer safe – it was later destroyed by the English – although Catrin would soon find herself in much grander surroundings, as the rebels took control of many of Wales’s castles. Owain was acclaimed by his supporters as Prince of Wales, and for a time it must have seemed that Welsh independence had finally arrived.

In June 1402 Owain won a significant victory at the Battle of Bryn Glas, and the English commander, Edmund Mortimer, was taken prisoner. Edmund was treated with respect, and he became incensed when King Henry refused to pay his ransom – possibly because he was afraid of the Mortimers, whose strong claim to the throne had been passed over in his own favour. Edmund therefore decided to join Owain, who agreed to help him assert his nephew’s ‘right’ in England. The alliance was sealed in the time-honoured fashion, and Catrin became Edmund’s wife.

Catrin and Edmund had four children – a boy, Lionel, and three girls – although little else is known about their life together. However, their circumstances must have changed from 1405 onwards, as the English began to gain the upper hand in Wales. Owain avoided capture (his last recorded appearance was in 1412), but ultimately some of his family, including Catrin and Edmund, were pinned down at Harlech Castle. From this imposing fortress the Welsh continued to defy the English – and Edmund’s own exploits were celebrated by the bards – but the defenders were eventually starved into submission. The castle was surrendered in February 1409, by which point Edmund had already died.

Harlech Castle

After the fall of Harlech, Catrin and her surviving children were taken into custody, as was her mother, and they were later held in the Tower of London. They were all still there in June 1413, shortly after Henry V assumed the English throne, but Catrin passed away before the end of the year. The accounts of the Exchequer include a payment in December for her burial in St Swithin’s Church (which, intriguingly, is some distance from the Tower), together with her daughters.

Several historians, such as Terry Breverton, have suggested that Catrin and the others were put to death on the new king’s orders. This is partly based on the assumption that young Lionel was imprisoned with Catrin and subsequently disappeared; it is fair to say that Lionel, with his mixture of English and Welsh royal blood, might have posed a considerable threat to Henry if he had lived. Nevertheless, the evidence is ambiguous, as it is by no means clear that Lionel was taken at Harlech. It seems equally possible that he had already died, like his father – and that he was never in the Tower at all.

The fate of Catrin’s mother is also very uncertain, and one of Catrin’s daughters appears, in fact, to have outlived her; this is explicitly mentioned by the chronicler Adam of Usk, who was often well-informed. Besides, while Henry V could sometimes be a ruthless man, the notion that he ordered the murder of Catrin, and at least some of her children, does not sit well with the leniency he offered to other members of the Mortimer family (and even to Owain’s eldest son). Perhaps the conditions of Catrin’s imprisonment might have played a part, but it seems most likely that her death was due to natural causes.

Catrin was not entirely forgotten. She makes an interesting appearance, for example, in the first part of Shakespeare’s Henry IV. Edmund tells her fondly that ‘I understand thy kisses and thou mine’, but Catrin and her husband remain hampered by the language barrier between them. There is also tension between Catrin and her father, as they exchange words in Welsh, and one begins to suspect that Owain is not always a faithful translator. At last she tells her father that she will sing. Somewhat mollified, Owain instructs Edmund to rest his head in Catrin’s lap: so that she can ‘sing the song that pleaseth you, and on your eyelids crown the god of sleep.’

It is no longer clear what Shakespeare intended: the direction simply states that ‘here the lady sings a Welsh song’. Owain hopes, it would seem, that his daughter will provide a moment of calm before the storms ahead, and in many productions this is the effect achieved. She has been presented rather differently, however, in one recent American production. While her exhausted husband does rest his head in her lap, in this case Catrin’s song is no lullaby. Instead she offers a powerful lament, regretting man’s propensity for self-defeating war.

The memorial statue near the site of Catrin’s grave

In keeping with her father’s reputed gifts as a soothsayer, there is also an element of prophecy in the song, as Catrin rightly fears for the future of her ‘home’ (which is surely meant in a broader sense here). The text is adapted from a poem by Hedd Wyn a Welshman who was killed during the First World War, yet even those who cannot understand the words can still appreciate the sense of urgency and pathos. Previously denied the chance to speak directly to the audience, Catrin eventually finds a way to make her message plain.

Another writer to give Catrin a voice is Menna Elfyn, who has imagined her experience of captivity in a moving series of poems. At first Catrin is imprisoned with her children, but then her ‘chicks’ are taken from her: ‘without a farewell kiss, without wrapping them warmly’. ‘They were born to a traitor’, spits out one man, brusquely, although their fate remains uncertain (both for the reader and for Catrin). She pleads with the guards – ‘Take me too. There’s a knife in my heart’ – but she is left in her cell to meet a lonely end.

The medieval church of St Swithin’s was destroyed in the seventeenth century, during the Great Fire of London, and with it Catrin’s tomb. However, she is now represented by a modern statue, which can be found in a garden on the site of the church. The sculpture is intended not only as a commemoration of Catrin’s life, but also as a memorial to all the women and children who have suffered in war.

Sources

Terry Breverton, Owain Glyndŵr: The Story of the Last Prince of Wales (Stroud, 2009).

Chris Given-Wilson (ed.), The Chronicle of Adam of Usk, 1377-1421 (Oxford, 1997).

J.E. Lloyd, Owen Glendower (Owain Glyn Dŵr) (Oxford, 1931).

Menna Elfyn, Murmur (Tarset, 2012).

I would also like to thank Sara Hanna-Black for her help and encouragement.

All images from Wikipedia

About the Author

David Santiuste teaches history at the Centre for Open Learning, University of Edinburgh. His most recent book is The Hammer of the Scots. His other publications include Edward IV and the Wars of the Roses, as well as various articles.

David’s website can be found at davidsantiuste.com [insert link: https://davidsantiuste.com/], where he writes an occasional blog. You can follow him on Facebook at David Santiuste Historian or on Twitter @dbsantiuste.

The University of Edinburgh is a charitable body, registered in
Scotland, with registration number SC005336.

 

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My Book:

Heroines of the Medieval World,  is now available in hardback in the UK from both Amberley Publishing and Amazon UK. It is also available on Kindle in both the UK and USA and will be available in Hardback from Amazon US from 1 May 2018. It can also be ordered worldwide from Book Depository.

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

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©2018 Sharon Bennett Connolly

 

Sifting through history for interesting ladies!

Earlier this week, it was a pleasure to drop by Anna Belfrage‘s blog and have a chat about Heroines of the Medieval World and my love of history in general.

Anna posed some very interesting, thoughtful questions and finished off with a wonderful review of ‘Heroines’ – for which I am still smiling.

Here’s a taster of the interview:

Why this passion for history?

I honestly don’t know. I have always loved history – I just can’t get enough of it. The stories and the mysteries are so compelling. I love the ‘what ifs’. And it is something that is everywhere – you can go to Scotland, France, Russia, Canada and there is history.

Have you ever wished you could travel back in time to say hello to some of your favourite medieval heroines?

I would love to – so long as I can come back, I wouldn’t want to live in the past. I like my creature comforts too much. But it would be nice to sit at a table with Agnes of Dunbar and Nicholaa de la Haye and find out what made them so formidable. Or Eleanor of Aquitaine’s daughters and ask them what they really thought of their mum and dad – oh, that would be so interesting.

If you would like to read the entire interview and review, simply click here.

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My Book:

Heroines of the Medieval World,  is now available in hardback in the UK from both Amberley Publishing and Amazon UK and worldwide from Book Depository. It is also available on Kindle in both the UK and USA and will be available in Hardback from Amazon US from 1 May 2018.

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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©2017 Sharon Bennett Connolly

The Countess who Chastised a King

The arms of Hugh d’Aubigny, 5th Earl of Arundel

I recently came across the wonderful story of Isabel d’Aubigny, countess of Arundel, a woman who wouldn’t be cheated – even if it was by the king himself.

Isabel was born sometime in the late 1220s, the daughter of William de Warenne, 4th earl of Surrey and Warenne, and Matilda (or Maud) Marshal, daughter and co-heir of the Greatest Knight, William Marshal, earl of Pembroke. Through her grandfather, Hamelin Plantagenet, illegitimate half-brother of King Henry II, Isabel was a cousin of the king, Henry III.

With such impeccable parentage and family connections, it is no surprise that Isabel made a prestigious marriage. At no older than 8 years of age Isabel was married, in 1234, to 20-year-old Hugh d’Aubigny, 5th earl of Arundel. Hugh’s father, William, 3rd Earl of Arundel, had died in 1221, on his way home from the Fifth Crusade. William had been succeeded as 4th Earl by his oldest son and namesake, who died just 3 years after his father, aged just 21, leaving the earldom to his brother Hugh.

On their marriage, Isabel’s father granted the couple a manor at Marham in Norfolk, worth £40 a year in rent. The charter for this grant offers the only details available for the marriage. In 1242 Hugh accompanied the king on his expedition to Aquitaine. However, after just 9 years, on 7 May 1243, Hugh died; leaving Isabel, at 17 years of age, a childless widow, with a rather large dower.

Within weeks of her husband’s death, on 29th May, Isabel’s marriage was granted to Pierre de Genevre, a Savoyard favourite of the king, Henry III. However, the patent rolls show that provision was made for Isabel to remain unmarried should she so wish; although she would have to pay Pierre for the privilege. Given that she never remarried, she must have been more than happy to pay.

The de Warenne coat of arms

The Arundel inhheritance was divided between Hugh’s 4 sisters; Mabel, Isabel, Nicholaa and Cecily. The earldom itself went to Hugh’s nephew, his sister Isabel’s son, John FitzAlan. Isabel was well provided for, however, with her dower including the hundred and manor of Bourne in Lincolnshire, the manors of Wymondham and Kenninghall in Norfolk, Stansted in Essex and several properties in Norfolk and Buckinghamshire. Suffice to say, she was a very wealthy widow and would continue to be styled Countess of Arundel until her death.

In 1249, the same year as her mother died, Isabel founded the only English convent that was part of the Cistercian order. Established at Marham, 2 Cistercian abbots had inspected it in its first year. Isabel’s brother, John de Warenne, 6th Earl of Surrey, the Bishop of Norwich and Henry III himself all issued charters confirming the abbeys foundation. Along with other endowments, Isabel herself made 11 grants to the abbey in its early years, giving it a strong economic foundation. In 1252 Isabel was granted papal permission to visit the Cistercian house at Waverley to consult with him about her convent; Waverley’s annals record that she granted 4 marks and a cask of wine to the monks there.

Isabel was very protective of her property rights and went on the offensive when they were threatened, even if that meant going against the king. In 1252 Isabel did just that. One of her tenants, Thomas of Ingoldisthorpe, held a ¼ knight’s fee from Isabel at Fring and Snettisham; he also had property in the honour of Haughley, as an escheat from the crown. On his death in 1252 Henry III took all of Thomas’s lands in wardship until Thomas’s heir was of age, including Isabel’s ¼ knight’s fee. In March of 1252 Henry granted the wardship of the lands and marriage of the heir to his former treasurer and keeper of the king’s wardrobe, Peter Chaceporc. Had Thomas held his lands in chief from the king, Henry would have been within his rights to take prerogative wardship, however his land at Haughley was  held from the honour of Haughley, which only in the king’s hands as an escheat and Isabel had therefore been treated unjustly in being denied the wardship of his heirs.

Isabel took her grievances direct to the king, supposedly berating him for trampling on the rights laid out in Magna Carta. She is said to have asked

‘Where are the liberties of England, so often recorded, so often granted, and so often ransomed?’¹

According to Matthew Paris, the chronicler and a personal friend of Isabel’s (though no particular fan of Henry), Henry scorned Isabel’s argument, ‘derisively and curling his nostrils’ and asked if the nobles of the realm had given her permission to speak on their behalf. Isabel argued that the king had given her the right to speak thus, in the articles granted in Magna Carta and accused the king of being a ‘shameless transgressor’ of the liberties laid down in the Great Charter, breaking his sworn oath to uphold its principles. At the end of the audience, Henry refused to be moved, ‘After listening to her [civilly] reproachful speech, the king was silent, and the countess, without obtaining or even asking for permission, returned home.’²

Arundel Castle

Isabel was one of the great nobles of England, the daughter of one earl and wife of another, and was obviously undaunted by an audience with the king. And although the king did not react to her reprimand immediately he did, eventually, admit that he may have been in the wrong, issuing a letter to her on 23 May 1253 saying:

‘Since the king has learnt that Thomas of Ingoldisthorpe, whose son and heir is in the custody of Ptere Chaceporc by concession of the king, did not hold from the crown of the king in chief but from the honour of Haughley, which is in the hand of the king as his escheat, and that the same Thomas held from Hugh de Aubigny, once earl of Arundel, a quarter part of the fee of one knight with appurtenances in Fring and Snettisham and the service of which was assigned to Isabella, countess of Arundel, the widow of the foresaid earl, in dower, he has returned to the same countess custody of the foresaid quarter part of a fee with appurtenances; and the foresaid Peter is ordered to give the countess full seizin of the foresaid custody.’²

However, Isabel’s victory was incomplete, as in late 1253, while the king was overseas in Aquitaine, she instigated legal proceedings against Peter Chaceporc ‘for custody of Ingoldisthorpe’. Whether Chaceporc had not relinquished the land, or she believed she was entitled to more land than was returned to her, Isabel in fact lost the suit and was amerced £20 (30 marks) for a false claim. The writ was witnessed by Henry III’s queen, Eleanor of Provence, and his brother Richard, Earl of Cornwall.

As persistent as ever, and although he was overseas, Isabel appealed directly to the king, who responded with a pardon, although it seems he still smarted from the upbraiding she had given him earlier in the year:

‘3 April. Meilham. Henry, by the grace of God king of England, lord of Ireland, duke of Normandy and Aquitaine and count of Anjou sends greeting to his beloved consort E, by the same grace queen of England, lady of Ireland, duchess of Normandy and Aquitaine and countess of Anjou and to his beloved and faithful brother, R. earl of Cornwall. Know that we have pardoned our beloved and faithful Isabella countess of Arundel the 30m. at which she was amerced before our justices against our beloved and faithful … Peter Chaceporc, our Treasurer, for custody of Ingoldisthorpe. We, therefore, order you to cause the same countess to be quit of the aforesaid 30m. by our seal of England provided she says nothing opprobrious to us as she did when we were at Westminster and as we have signified to her by letter. Witness myself.’

Holy Trinity Church, Marham

Isabel obviously had an eye for business, given that she could so concern herself with a ¼ knight’s fee out of the 60 that she held. A wealthy widow with impressive family connections, she was renowned not only for her religious endowment of the Cistercian convent at Marham, but also as a patron of religious texts, having commissioned at least 2 saints’ lives, including the life of St Richard of Wyche by Ralph Bocking. Isabel could count among her friends Richard Wych himself, the bishop of Chichester who was later canonised, and Matthew Paris. Paris translated  a life of Saint Edmund of Abingdon in to Anglo-Norman verse for Isabel’s personal use.

Isabel died shortly before 23 November 1282 and was laid to rest at her own foundation at Marham; her dower properties passed to her husband’s great-great nephew, Richard FitzAlan, 8th Earl of Arundel. Having spent almost 40 years as a childless widow, Isabel never remarried, her remarkable life dedicated to the patronage of her convent at Markham and religious writers, such as Paris and Bocking. This incredible woman stands out as the countess who reprimanded and humbled her king for his injustices.

 

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Footnotes: ¹quoted by John A. Nichols in Oxforddnb.com; ² quoted by Susanna Annesley in finerollshenry3.org.uk

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Pictures courtesy of Wikipedia

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Sources: John A. Nichols Oxforddnb.com; Susanna Annesley finerollshenry3.org.uk; Robert Bartlett England Under the Norman and Angevin Kings; Dan Jones The Plantagenets;David Williamson Brewer’s British Royalty; british-history.ac.uk; Early Yorkshire Charters Volume 8: The Honour of Warenne, Edited by William Farrer and Charles Travis Clay.

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©2017 Sharon Bennett Connolly