Blanche, Duchess of Lancaster

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The wedding of Blanche of Lancaster and John of Gaunt, painted by Horace Wright, 1914

Blanche of Lancaster is one of those ladies of history more famous because of her children and the antics of her husband. Blanche’s life was pitifully short, but her legacy would see the unravelling of peace in the fifteenth century, and the decades of civil war called the Wars of the Roses.

Blanche of Lancaster was born around 25th March 1345, at Bolingbroke Castle in Lincolnshire. She was the 2nd and youngest daughter of illustrious parents; Henry of Grosmont, Duke of Lancaster and Isabella de Beaumont. Henry of Grosmont was the grandson of Edmund Crouchback and a great-grandson of Henry III. Isabella was the daughter of Henry, 1st Baron de Beaumont and Earl of Buchan by right of his wife, Alice Comyn.

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Henry of Grosmont, Duke of Lancaster

Blanche had only one sibling, her older sister, Matilda, who was married, 1st to Ralph de Stafford and later to William V, Duke of Bavaria, Count of Holland, Hainault and Zeeland. Blanche herself was betrothed to John de Segrave as a child, but this seems to have been set aside soon afterwards.

By the late 1350s Blanche was a part of King Edward III’s plans to provide for his growing number of sons. As one of the country’s richest heiresses, Blanche was chosen as the bride for Edward’s 3rd surviving son, John of Gaunt. Blanche and John were 3rd cousins, being great-great-grandchildren of Henry III.

The couple was married on the 19th of May 1359 at Reading Abbey in Berkshire. Blanche had just turned 14 and John was 19 years old.

In 1361 Blanche suffered a double tragedy; her father died of bubonic plague in Leicester in March and her mother succumbed to the same disease before the end of the year. While her sister inherited the earldoms of Leicester and Lincoln, John of Gaunt inherited those of Derby and Lancaster by right of his wife; however, the title of Duke of Lancaster became extinct with Henry of Grosmont’s death.

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John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster

By April 1362 Blanche’s sister had also succumbed to the Black Death; there were some rumours of poison, but this seems unlikely. Maud had died childless and so Blanche inherited the remainder of her father’s estates. Blanche – and by extension John of Gaunt – now added the earldoms of Leicester and Lincoln to their vast holdings. John was invested with the title of Duke of Lancaster and was now the most powerful magnate in England; holding more than 30 castles, his lands and possessions were second only to those of the king.

Blanche herself was pregnant for most of her married life, giving birth to 7 children between 1360 and 1368. 3 sons, John, Edward and a 2nd John, and a daughter, Isabella, died young. Two daughters and a son did, however, survive into adulthood.

The eldest daughter, Philippa, was born on 31st March 1360  and would marry King John I of Portugal. Philippa was the mother of 8 children, known as the ‘Illustrious Generation’ in Portugal, including Edward, King of Portugal, Prince Henry the Navigator and Ferdinand the Holy Prince. Philippa herself would die of plague in 1415.

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Tomb of Henry IV and Joanna of Navarre, Canterbury Cathedral

A 2nd daughter, Elizabeth, was born around 1363 at Burford, Shropshire. Although her 1st marriage to John Hastings, 3rd Earl of Pembroke, was annulled, her 2nd marriage, to John Holland, 1st Duke of Exeter, would end with his execution for treason in 1400; they had 5 children. Elizabeth would marry for a 3rd time to John Cornwall, 1st Baron Fanhope, with whom she had a daughter before she died in 1426.

Blanche and John’s last surviving child, Henry of Bolingbroke, was born at Bolingbroke Castle in 1367, probably on 15th April. Having been exiled in the later years of the reign of his cousin, Richard II, Henry would return to England following the death of his father and confiscation of his inheritance by the king. Richard was forced to abdicate and Henry succeeded to the throne as King Henry IV.

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Bolingbroke Castle, Lincolnshire, where Blanche of Lancaster was born, and died.

Henry’s 1st marriage, to Mary de Bohun, produced 7 children, including the future King Henry V; his 2nd marriage was to Joanna of Navarre, Duchess of Brittany. Henry IV died on 20th March 1413 and was buried at Canterbury Cathedral; Joanna would be buried beside him following her own death in 1437.

By 1365 Blanche had taken Katherine Swynford into her household. Katherine was the wife of one of John of Gaunt’s Lincolnshire knights. Moreover, John was godfather to their daughter, Blanche, who was named after the Duchess. Young Blanche Swynford was lodged in the same chambers as the Duchess’s daughters, Philippa and Elizabeth and accorded the same luxuries as the princesses.

Having lost her parents and sister to the Black Death it is not surprising that Blanche was fearful of the disease. In the summer of 1368 she is said to have moved her family away from the city, to Bolingbroke Castle to escape the pestilence.

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1658 etching by Wenceslas Hollar, of the tomb of John of Gaunt and Blanche of Lancaster

There seems to be some doubt over the year of her death – some sources say 1368 – and even the nature of it. One theory is that Blanche succumbed to the bubonic plague, the disease she most feared, in 1369. As a daughter, Isabella, who died young, was born in 1368 some have suggested Blanche died in childbirth. However, recent research by Amy Licence has discovered that Blanche died at Tutbury on 12th September, 1368, more likely from the complications of childbirth than from the plague. Her husband was by her side when she died and a letter has come to light in which John arranged to have prayers said for the soul of his lost duchess.¹

Blanche was buried in Old St Paul’s Cathedral, London; where John of Gaunt arranged for a splendid alabaster tomb and annual commemorations for the rest of his life. And despite 2 subsequent marriages, John of Gaunt would be interred next to Blanche following his own death in 1399. The tomb was lost when the cathedral was destroyed during the Great Fire of London in 1666.

Blanche is one of the few ladies of the 14th century of whom we have several descriptions. The Chronicler Froissart noted that she was “jone et jolie” – young and pretty.

The best description, however, is from Geoffrey Chaucer, Katherine Swynford’s brother-in-law, who was commissioned by John of Gaunt to write The Book of the Duchess, also known as The Deth of Blaunche. The poem is said to depict Gaunt’s mourning for his wife, in the tale of a Knight grieving for his lost love.

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Geoffrey Chaucer’s ‘The Book of the Duchess’

Chaucer describes Blanche’s neck (yes, her neck) as “whyt, smothe, streght and flat. Naming the heroine “White”, he goes on to say she is “rody, fresh and lyvely hewed”.  Blanche (White) was “bothe fair and bright” and Nature’s “cheef patron of beautee”.

Despite his marrying Constance of Castile just 2 years later, and his eventual marriage to his mistress, Katherine Swynford, being singled out as one of the great love affairs of the age, it was said that Blanche was the love of his life.

Chaucer’s poem and the lavish tomb and commemorations are said to highlight Gaunt’s love for his 1st wife; the fact he was eventually buried beside her has been seen, by many, as the final proof of this love.

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Footnote: ¹Red Roses: From Blanche of Gaunt to Margaret Beaufort by Amy Licence.

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Photograph of the tomb of Henry IV and Joanna of Navarre are © Sharon Bennett Connolly, 2015. All other pictures are courtesy of Wikipedia.

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Sources: Brewer’s British Royalty by David Williamson; Red Roses: From Blanche of Gaunt to Margaret Beaufort by Amy Licence; 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 Life and Times of Edward III by paul Johnson; The Perfect King, the Life of Edward III by Ian Mortimer; Chronicles of the Age of Chivalry Edited by Elizabeth Hallam; unofficialroyalty.com; katherineswynfordsociety.org.uk; The Reign of Edward III by WM Ormrod; The Plantagenets, the kings Who Made Britain by Dan Jones; englishmonarchs.co.uk; oxforddnb.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.

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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.

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©2015 Sharon Bennett Connolly

Witchy Woman – the Fall of Eleanor Cobham, Duchess of Gloucester

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Sterborough Castle, possible birthplace of Eleanor

Born around 1400 and probably at the castle of Sterborough in Kent, Eleanor Cobham was the daughter of Sir Reginald Cobham of Sterborough and his wife Eleanor, daughter of Sir Thomas Culpeper of Rayal.

As is often the case with Medieval women, nothing is known of Eleanor’s early life. She appeared at court in her early 20s, when she was appointed lady-in-waiting to Jacqueline of Hainault,  Duchess of Gloucester.

Jacqueline had come to England to escape her 2nd husband, the abusive John IV Duke of Brabant. She obtained an annulment of the marriage from the Antipope, Benedict XIII, and married Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, in 1423. He would spend a large amount of their marriage trying to recover Jacqueline’s lands from the Dukes of Brabant and Burgundy.

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Humphrey Duke of Gloucester

Humphrey was a younger brother of King Henry V and John, Duke of Bedford. He had fought at the Battle of Shrewsbury at the age of 12 years and 9 months and would go on to fight at Agincourt in 1415. On Henry V’s death, Humphrey acted as Regent for  his young nephew, Henry VI, whenever his older brother, the Duke of Bedford, was away fighting in France. However, he seems to have been little liked and was never trusted with full Regency powers.

In 1428 Pope Martin V refused to recognise the annulment of Jacqueline’s previous marriage to John of Brabant and declared the Gloucester marriage null and void. However, John of Brabant had died in 1426 and so Humphrey and Jacqueline were free to remarry – if they wanted to. In the mean time, Humphrey’s attention had turned to Eleanor of Cobham and he made no attempt to keep Jacqueline by his side.

This did not go down too well with the good ladies of London, who petitioned parliament between Christmas 1427 and Easter 1428.

According to the chronicler Stow their letters were delivered to Humphrey, the archbishops and the lords “containing matter of rebuke and sharpe reprehension of the Duke of Gloucester, because he would not deliver his wife Jacqueline out of her grievous imprisonment, being then held prisoner by the Duke of Burgundy, suffering her to remaine so unkindly, contrary to the law of God and the honourable estate of matrimony”.

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Coat of arms of Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester

Humphrey paid the petition little attention and married Eleanor sometime between 1428 and 1431. It has been suggested that Eleanor was the mother of Humphrey’s 2 illegitimate children – Arthur and Antigone – although this seems unlikely as Humphrey made no attempt to legitimise them following the marriage (as his grandfather John of Gaunt had done with his Beaufort children by Katherine Swynford).

Described by Aeneas Sylvius as “a woman distinguished in her form” and “beautiful and marvellously pleasant” by Jean de Waurin, Eleanor and Humphrey had a small but lively court at their residence of La Plesaunce at Greenwich. Humphrey had a lifelong love of learning, which Eleanor most likely shared, and the couple attracted scholars, musicians and poets to their court.

On 25th June 1431, as Duchess of Gloucester, Eleanor was admitted to the fraternity of the monastery of St Albans – to which her husband already belonged – and in 1432 she was made a Lady of the Garter.

Eleanor’s status rose even higher in 1435, with the death of John Duke of Bedford. Whilst Henry VI was still childless, John had been heir presumptive. He died having had no children and so the position passed to Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester.

With her heightened status, Eleanor received sumptuous Christmas gifts from the king; and her father was given custody of the French hostage Charles, Duke of Orleans – a prisoner since Agincourt.

But in 1441 came Eleanor’s dramatic downfall.

Master Thomas Southwell, a canon of St Stephen’s Chapel at Westminster, and Master Roger Bolyngbroke, a scholar, astronomer and cleric – and alleged necromancer, were arrested for casting the King’s horoscope and predicting his death.

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Eleanor – alongside Humphrey – joining the confraternity of St Albans, 1431

Southwell and Bolyngbroke, along with Margery Jourdemayne, known as the Witch of Eye and renowned for selling potions and spells, were accused of making a wax image of the king, ‘the which image they dealt so with, that by their devilish incantations and sorcery they intended to bring out of life, little and little, the king’s person, as they little and little consumed that image’.

Bolyngbroke implicated Eleanor during questioning, saying she had asked him to cast her horoscope and predict her future; for the wife of the heir to the throne, this was a dangerous practise. Did she have her eye on the throne itself?

On hearing of the arrest of her associates Eleanor fled to Sanctuary at Westminster. Of 28 charges against her she admitted to 5. Eleanor denied the treason charges, but confessed to obtaining potions from Jourdemayne in order to help her conceive a child. Awaiting further proceedings, as Eleanor remained in Sanctuary, pleading sickness, she tried to escape by river. Thwarted, she was escorted to Leeds Castle on 11th August and held there for 2 months.

Having returned to Westminster Eleanor was examined by an ecclesiastical tribunal on 19th October and on the 23rd she faced Bolyngbroke, Southwell and Jourdemayne who accused her of being the “causer and doer of all these deeds”.

Eleanor was found guilty of sorcery and witchcraft; she was condemned to do public penance and perpetual imprisonment. Of her co-accused; Bolyngbroke was hanged, drawn and quartered, Southwell died in the Tower of London and Margery Jourdemayne was burned at the stake at Smithfield.

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The Penance of Eleanor by Edwin Austin Abbey

Eleanor’s own chaplain, Master John Hume, had also been arrested, although he was accused only of knowing of the others’ actions and was later pardoned.

On 3 occasions Eleanor was made to do public penance at various churches in London; on the 1st of such, 13th November 1441, bareheaded and dressed in black carrying a wax taper, she walked from Temple Bar to St Paul’s Cathedral, where she offered the wax taper at the high altar. Following 2 further penances, at Christ Church and St Michael’s in Cornhill, Eleanor was sent first to Chester Castle and then to Kenilworth. Her circumstances much reduced, Eleanor was allowed a household of only 12 persons.

Eleanor’s witchcraft conviction discredited her husband; Humphrey was marginalised and on 6th November 1441 his marriage was annulled. Humphrey’s enemies, Margaret of Anjou (Henry VI’s queen) and the Earl of Suffolk, convinced the king that his uncle was plotting against him. In February 1447, Humphrey was arrested and confined in Bury St Edmunds. He died a week later, on 23rd February; some claimed it was murder, but the most likely cause of death is stroke.

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Beaumaris Castle, Anglesey

Eleanor was moved to Peel Castle on the Isle of Man, in 1446 and one final time in 1449 when she was transferred to Beaumaris Castle on Anglesey.

Eleanor Cobham, one time Duchess of Gloucester and wife to the heir to England’s throne, having risen so high – and fallen so low – died still a prisoner, at Beaumaris Castle on 7th July 1452; she was buried at Beaumaris, at the expense of Sir William Beauchamp, the castle’s constable.

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Pictures courtesy of Wikipedia

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Sources: Brewer’s British Royalty by David Williamson; History Today Companion to British History Edited by Juliet Gardiner and Neil Wenborn; The Mammoth Book of British Kings & Queens by Mike Ashley; Britain’s Royal Families, the Complete Genealogy by Alison Weir; The Oxford Companion to British History Edited by John Cannon; The Plantagenets, the Kings who made England by Dan Jones; The Plantagenets, the Kings that Made Britain by Derek Wilson; madameguillotine.co.uk; susanhigginbotham.com; The Medieval Mind.

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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.

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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.

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©2015 Sharon Bennett Connolly

Nicholaa de la Haye, England’s Forgotten Heroine

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View, from the castle. of Lincoln Cathedral

Nicholaa de la Haye is one of those very rare women in English history. She is renowned for her abilities, rather than her family and connections. In a time when men fought and women stayed home, Nicholaa de la Haye held Lincoln Castle against all-comers. Her strength and tenacity saved England at one of the lowest points in history.

The eldest daughter and co-heiress of Richard de la Haye and his wife, Matilda de Verdun, she was probably  born in the early 1150s. Richard de la Haye was a minor Lincolnshire lord; in 1166 he was recorded as owing 20 knights’ fees, which had been reduced to 16 by 1172. When he died in 1169, Nicholaa inherited her father’s land in Lincolnshire and his position as castellan of Lincoln Castle, a position she would hold for over 30 years.

Nicholaa was married twice, her first husband, William Fitz Erneis, died in 1178. Before 1185 she married Gerard de Camville, son of Richard de Camville, admiral of Richard I’s crusading fleet during the 3rd Crusade. Although her first marriage was probably childless, Nicholaa and Gerard had at least 3 children; Richard, Thomas and Matilda.

Nicholaa’s husbands each claimed the position of castellan of Lincoln Castle by right of his wife; but Nicholaa seems to have been far from the normal subservient wife. When her husband was not in the castle, she was left in charge rather than an alternative, male deputy.

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Lincoln castle walls

Nicholaa first comes to the attention of the chroniclers in 1191, when Prince John made a play for his brother Richard’s throne. Gerard de Camville was a supporter of John and joined him at Nottingham Castle, leaving Nicholaa to hold Lincoln. Richard I’s Chancellor, William Longchamps had headed north to halt John’s coup and laid siege to Lincoln Castle.

The formidable Nicholaa refused to yield, holding out for 40 days before Longchamps raised the siege following the fall of the castles at Tickhill and Nottingham. Amusingly, Richard of Devizes said of this defence of Lincoln Castle, that she did it ‘without thinking of anything womanly’.

In 1194, on the king’s return, Camville was stripped of his positions as Sheriff of Lincolnshire and Castellan of the castle; only having it returned to him on the accession of King John in 1199.

Gerard de Camville died around 1215 and, although now a widow, it seems the castle remained in Nicholaa’s hands. On one of King John’s visits to inspect the castle’s defences in either 1215 or 1216 there was a rather dramatic display of fealty from Nicholaa :

Nicholaa de la Haye, Lincoln Castle
Nicholaa de la Haye, Lincoln Castle

And once it happened that after the war King John came to Lincoln and the said Lady Nicholaa went out of the eastern gate of the castle carrying the keys of the castle in her hand and met the king and offered the keys to him as her lord and said she was a woman of great age and was unable to bear such fatigue any longer and he besought her saying, “My beloved Nicholaa, I will that you keep the castle as hitherto until I shall order otherwise”.¹

As we all know, King John’s reign wasn’t exactly smooth sailing. He lost his French lands and was held to account by the barons of England for  numerous examples of maladministration, corruption and  outright murder. In 1215 he had been forced to seal the Magna Carta in order to avoid war. Although it eventually came to be considered a fundamental statement of English liberties, as a peace treaty Magna Carta failed miserably. Within months John had written to Pope Innocent III and the charter had been declared null and void; the barons were up in arms.

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The West Gate, through which part of William Marshal’s relieving force entered Lincoln Castle

The rebels invited the king of France to take the throne of England; instead Philip II’s son, Louis (the future Louis VIII), accepted the offer and was hailed as King of England in London in June of 1216. In the same year Nicholaa prevented another siege by paying off a rebel army, led by Gilbert de Gant, who had occupied the city of Lincoln.

As Louis consolidated his position in the south, John made an inspection of Lincoln castle in September 1216. During the visit Nicholaa de la Haye, who held the castle for John, even though the city supported the rebels, was appointed Sheriff of Lincolnshire in her own right.

Moving south, just 2 weeks later, the king’s baggage train was lost as he crossed the Wash estuary and within a few more days John was desperately ill.

King John died at Newark on 19th October 1216, with half his country occupied by a foreign invader and his throne now occupied by his 9-year-old son, Henry III. The elder statesman and notable soldier William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke was appointed Regent and set out to save the kingdom.

Meanwhile, Louis’ forces, under the Comte du Perche, headed north and, in early 1217, took the City of Lincoln and laid siege to the castle with a small force. Now in her 60s Nicholaa de la Haye took charge of the defences. Prince Louis  personally travelled up to Lincoln to ask for her surrender, assuring her no one would be hurt, but Nicholaa refused.

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The Battle of Lincoln, 1217

When the small force proved insufficient to force a surrender, the French had to send for reinforcements. For almost 3 months – from March to mid-May – siege machinery bombarded the south and east walls of the castle. On the 20th May William Marshal arrived, from the north-west, with a relieving force. Having taken the North Gate of the city walls, his army proceeded to attack the besieging forces and routed the enemy; the enemy’s commander, the Comte du Perche, was killed in the fighting.

The city, which had supported the rebels and welcomed the French, was sacked and looted by the victorious army; the battle becoming known as the Lincoln Fair, as a result.

The Battle of Lincoln turned the tide of the war. The French were forced to seek peace and returned home. Magna Carta was reissued and Henry III’s regents could set about healing the country.

In a magnificent demonstration of ingratitude, within 4 days of the relief of the Castle, Nicholaa’s position of Sheriff of Lincolnshire was given to the king’s uncle William Longspée, Earl of Salisbury, who took control of the city and seized the castle.

Not one to give up easily Nicholaa travelled to court to remind the king’s regents of her services, and request her rights be restored to her. A compromise was reached whereby Salisbury remained as Sheriff of the County, while Nicholaa held the city and the castle.

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Magna Carta

Nicholaa’s granddaughter and heiress, Idonea – daughter of Nicholaa’s eldest son Richard – was married to Salisbury’s son, William II Longspée; the couple inherited the de la Haye and Camville lands on Nicholaa’s death. The settlement was not ideal, however, and some wrangling seems to have continued until Salisbury’s death in 1226.

A staunchly independent woman, she issued some 25 surviving charters in her name. She made grants to various religious houses, including Lincoln Cathedral, and even secured a royal grant for a weekly market on one of her properties.

A most able adversary for some of the greatest military minds of the time, and a loyal supporter of King John, she was unique among her peers. Although praised by the chroniclers, they seemed to find difficulty in describing a woman who acted in such a fashion;  the Dunstable annals refer to her as a ‘noble woman’, saying she acted ‘manfully’. One cannot fail to feel admiration for a woman who managed to hold her own in a man’s world, who fought for her castle and her home in a time when women had so little say over their own lives – and at such an advanced age. Her bravery and tenacity saved Henry III’s throne.

 

Not surprisingly, Henry III referred to her as ‘our beloved and faithful Nicholaa de la Haye’.

Nicholaa de la Haye, the woman who saved England, lived well into her 70s. By late 1226 she had retired to her manor at Swaton, dying there on 20 November, 1230. She was buried in St Michael’s Church, Swaton in Lincolnshire.

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Footnote: ¹Irene Gladwin: The Sheriff; The Man and His Office

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Photos of Lincoln Castle, copyright Sharon Bennett Connolly 2015.

Picture of the Battle of Lincoln and Magna Carta are courtesy of Wikipedia.

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Sources: The Plantagenet Chronicles edited by Elizabeth Hallam; Brassey’s Battles by John Laffin; 1215 The Year of Magna Carta by Danny Danziger & John Gillingham; The Life and times of King John by Maurice Ashley; The Story of Britain by Roy Strong; The Plantagenets, the Kings Who Made England by Dan Jones; England Under the Norman and Angevin Kings  by Robert Bartlett; lincolnshirelife.co.uk; catherinehanley.co.uk; magnacarta800th.com; lothene.org; lincolncastle.com; The Sheriff: The Man and His Office by Irene Gladwin; Elizabeth Chadwick; Nick Buckingham; swaton.org.uk.

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Out Now!

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.

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Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

Telling the stories of some of the most incredible women from Medieval history, Heroines of the Medieval World,  is now available in hardback in the UK from both Amberley Publishing and Amazon UK, in the US from Amazon US  and worldwide from Book Depository. It will be released in paperback in the UK from 15 March 2019 and is available for pre-order on Amazon.

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©2015 Sharon Bennett Connolly