Today, I have something of a treat for you. The lovely, knowledgeable and entertaining Sharon Bennett Connolly has just released a new book covering the impressive women with an involvement in the great Magna Carta. You might know that I’m a devotee of Sharon’s work, having read and reviewed her two previous books, and this one holds up her excellent standard. Quite simply I’ve not come across anyone more knowledgeable on the subject of the women of Medieval Britain than her. I’ll review the book at the end here, but first, as part of her Blog Tour, Sharon has kindly penned an article on the book, so feast your historical hunger on this:
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Thank you so much to Simon for inviting me to his blog to talk about Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England.
There is only one clause in Magna Carta that mentions particular women. Although they are not identified by name, they are easily identifiable due to their positions. These two women were the daughters of William I, the Lion, King of Scots. They were the sisters of the new King of Scots, Alexander II, and had been hostages in England since the treaty of Norham in 1209. Clause 59 of Magna Carta agrees to negotiate for their release, alongside a number of other Scottish hostages:
We will treat Alexander, king of Scots, concerning the return of his sisters and hostages and his liberties and rights in the same manner in which we will act towards our other barons of England, unless it ought to be otherwise because of the charters which we have from William his father, formerly king of Scots; and this shall be determined by the judgement of his peers in our court.1
The king of Scots’ two sisters referred to in the clause were Margaret and Isabella, the oldest daughters of William I (the Lion), King of Scots, and his wife, Ermengarde de Beaumont. The two girls had been caught up in the power struggle between their father and the Plantagenet kings. William I was the second of the three sons of Henry, Earl of Northumberland, and his wife, Ada de Warenne. He was, therefore, a grandson of David I and great-grandson of Malcolm III Canmor and St Margaret, the Anglo-Saxon princess.
William had succeeded his father as earl of Northumberland in June 1153, when he was about 11 years old; during his time as earl, William used ‘Warenne’ as his family name when earl of Northiumberland. He lost the earldom, however, when his brother, Malcolm IV (known as Malcolm the Maiden) surrendered the northern counties of England to Henry II; he was given lands in Tynedale, worth £10 per annum, in compensation. This loss of Northumberland was never forgotten and was to colour William’s future dealings with the English crown throughout his reign.
William was probably knighted in 1159, when he accompanied his brother Malcolm on an expedition to Toulouse and in 1163 he was in attendance in a meeting with King Henry II at Woodstock where the Scots king did homage to the English king. The youngest of the royal brothers, David, was to remain in England as a hostage to Malcolm’s good behaviour. William ascended the Scottish throne on Malcolm’s death on 9 December 1165, aged about 23; his coronation took place at Scone on Christmas Eve, 24 December. In 1166 William travelled to Normandy to meet with King Henry II and, although we do not know what they spoke of, it was reported that they parted on bad terms.
Nevertheless, in 1170 William and his brother David were at the English court, attending Henry II’s council at Windsor in April and were in London on 14 June, at the coronation of Henry’s eldest son, also Henry, the Young King; he died in 1183, six years before his father. Both William and his brother David did homage to the Young King after the coronation. In 1173 when the Young King and his brothers, Richard and Geoffrey, rebelled against their father, Henry II, they sought William’s support. The younger King Henry promised that he would give the northern counties of England to the Scots king, and the earldoms of Huntingdon with Cambridgeshire to the king’s brother, David, in return for their support in the rebellion.
William considered the offer, but after consulting his barons in the summer of 1173, he decided to ask Henry II to return Northumberland. He would renounce his homage if the English king refused. Henry II did refuse and William joined the Young King’s rebellion. He formed an alliance with Louis VII of France and Count Philippe of Flanders, who both promised mercenaries would be sent to England in support. This was the start of the long Scottish tradition of alliances with France, against England, which would become known as the Auld Alliance. On 20 August 1173 the Scottish forces moved south, to Alnwick, Warkworth and Newcastle.
Although they devastated the countryside, the campaign in Northumberland achieved very little; they were unable to take the strategically important castles. They moved on to Carlisle, but pulled back to Roxburgh after receiving news that a new English force was advancing. This force, under Ranulf de Glanville, the justiciar, burned Berwick before agreeing to a truce until 13 January 1174. The truce was later extended to 24 March 1174, after a payment of 300 marks by the bishop of Durham to King William. At the end of the truce, the Scots, accompanied by Flemish mercenaries, again advanced into England. They ravaged the Northumberland coast and besieged both Wark-on-Tweed and Carlisle castles, but failed to take either.
On 13 July, while much of the Scottish army was spread out in raiding parties, the Scots were the victims of a surprise attack. King William’s horse was killed, the king trapped underneath. William surrendered to Ranulf de Glanville and was taken first to Newcastle and then to Northampton, where he appeared before Henry II on 24 July. The Scots king was sentenced to imprisonment at Falaise in Normandy and the price of his freedom was to submit himself, his kingdom and the castles of Berwick, Roxburgh and Edinburgh to King Henry II. The Convention of Falaise on 1 December 1174 also granted that ‘the church of Scotland shall henceforward owe such subjection to the church of England as it should do.’2 It was a humiliating treaty for the Scots, which also required twenty Scottish noble hostages be handed to the English in return for their king’s freedom.
King William arrived back in Scotland in February 1175, having spent two months in England until the handover of the Scottish castles had been completed. He returned to a revolt in Galloway, which he managed to quash, he was then faced with a threat from Donald Ban Macwilliam, grandson of Duncan II, who was gaining support for a challenge to the throne and a return to the royal line of Duncan II. Things quietened down for a time, but in April 1181, when the king and David were in Normandy Donald Ban Macwilliam led an uprising in Moray and Ross, apparently gaining full control of the two earldoms. One royal retainer, Gillecolm the Marischal, surrendered the castle of Auldearn and then joined the rebels.
The king was also faced with unrest in Galloway, where Gilbert of Galloway was vying with his nephew Roland for control of the region. Gilbert died on 1 January 1185 and shortly after King William invaded Galloway, alongside Gilbert’s nephew Roland. On 4 July 1185 William and his allies defeated the main force of Gilbert’s followers and by 1190 Roland had been granted the lordship of Galloway by King William while Gilbert’s son, Duncan, was made lord of Carrick.As a result, Galloway remained at peace well into the 13th century, until the death of Roland’s son, Alan, in 1234.
With Galloway subdued, in 1187 King William was finally able to quash the rebellion in the north, leading his considerable army as far as Inverness. On 31 July, at the now-lost site of ‘Mam Garvia’, Roland of Galloway faced the rebels in battle where over 500 of them were killed, including Donald Macwilliam, whose head was sent to King William.
The overlordship of Henry II caused additional problems for King William in the Scottish church; the archbishops of York and Canterbury both claimed the homage of the Scottish clergy. William also had a long running dispute with the papacy, with five successive popes, in fact, over the appointment of a bishop of St Andrews; neither king nor pope approved the other’s choice of candidate. The English king sided with the popes on the matter and in 1181 King William was excommunicated by the archbishop of Canterbury; the Scottish people, as a whole, were subsequently excommunicated by the bishop of Durham. Within two years, however, the papacy and the Scots king were on such good terms that the pope sent William the Golden Rose as a tribute to ‘a king of exceptional religious zeal’.3 On 13 March 1192 Pope Celestine III issued the papal bull, Cum universi, recognising the Scottish church as a ‘special daughter’ of the apostolic see and subject to Rome without an intermediary. Thereby denying the claims to superiority of both York and Canterbury.
Unusually for a king in this period, by 1180 William had been on the throne for fifteen years and was still unmarried. He had several illegitimate children but until he married, William’s heir was his younger brother, David. With this in mind, in 1184, William was at King Henry’s court to discuss a possible marriage with Henry’s granddaughter, Matilda of Saxony. The match was forbidden by the pope on the grounds of consanguinity. In May 1186, during a council at Woodstock, King Henry suggested Ermengarde de Beaumont as a bride for William. Ermengarde was the daughter of Richard, Vicomte de Beaumontsur-Sarthe, who was himself the son of Constance, one of the many illegitimate daughters of King Henry I of England.
With such diluted royal blood, she was hardly a prestigious match for the king of Scots, but he reluctantly accepted the marriage after consulting his advisers. The wedding took place at Woodstock on 5 September 1186, with King Henry hosting four days of festivities. Edinburgh Castle was returned to the Scots as part of Ermengarde’s dowry.Although we do not know Ermengarde’s birth date, at the time of the marriage, she was referred to as ‘a girl’, suggesting that she may have only just reached the age of 12.
King William agreed to provide Ermengarde with £100 of rents and forty knights’ fees in Scotland, for the financial maintenance of her household; she also had dwellings and lands at Crail and Haddington, lands which had previously been held by William’s mother, Ada de Warenne.Between 1187 and 1195 Queen Ermengarde gave birth to two daughters, Margaret and Isabella. A son, the future Alexander II, was finally born at Haddington on 24 August 1198, the first legitimate son born to a reigning Scottish king in 70 years; a contemporary remarked that ‘many rejoiced at his birth.’4 A third daughter, Marjorie, was born sometime later.
On the death of King Henry II in 1189, King William again went south, and met with the new king, Richard I, at Canterbury, where he did homage for his English lands. Desperate for money for his crusade, on 5 December 1189, Richard abandoned his lordship of Scotland in the quitclaim of Canterbury; King William was released from the homage and submission given to Henry II, the castles of Roxburgh and Berwick were returned and the relationship between the kingdoms reverted to that in the time of Malcolm IV. The cost to the Scots was to be 10,000 marks, but Scotland was independent once again. However, Richard still refused to sell Northumberland back to William. The Scots king remained on good relations with King Richard, paying 2,000 marks towards his ransom in 1193. The Scots king carried one of the three swords of state at Richard’s second coronation at Winchester on 17 April 1194.
In the spring of 1195 King William fell gravely ill at Clackmannan, causing a succession crisis, the king’s only legitimate children being daughters. The Scottish barons appear to have been divided, between recognising William’s oldest legitimate daughter, Margaret, as his heir, or marrying Margaret to Otto, Duke of Saxony, grandson of Henry II, and allowing Otto to succeed to the throne. A 3rd faction claimed that either solution was contrary to the custom of the land, so long as the king had a brother who could succeed him.In the event, the king recovered from his illness and three years later the queen gave birth to Alexander, the much-desired son and heir. For the last years of the century, William was again occupied with unrest in the north. Before going on campaign in October 1201, he had the Scottish barons swear fealty to his son, Alexander, now 3 years old, a sensible precaution, given that he was approaching his sixtieth birthday.
Relations with England changed again 1199, with the accession of King John. During the reign of King Richard, William had agreed with the justiciar, William Longchamp, and backed Arthur of Brittany as the king’s heir. John may well have remembered this and soon after his accession, in 1200, the two kings met at Lincoln, with William doing homage for his English lands. The matter of Northumberland, still in English hands, was raised and deferred on several occasions between 1199 and 1205. The two kings finally met for formal talks at York from 9 to 12 February 1206 and again from 26 to 28 May 1207, although we have little record of what was discussed. However, John appears to have been prevaricating, suggesting another meeting in October 1207, which the Scots rejected.
In the meantime, the death of the bishop of Durham meant John took over the vacant see and set about building a castle at Tweedmouth. The Scots, seeing this as a direct threat to Berwick, destroyed the building works and matters came to a crisis in 1209. After many threats, and with both sides building up their armies, the two kings met at Norham, Northumberland, in the last week of July and first week of August 1209. The Scots were in a desperate position, with an ailing and ageing king, and a 10-year-old boy as heir, whilst the English, with their Welsh allies and foreign mercenaries, had an army big enough to force a Scottish submission.
The subsequent treaty, agreed at Norham on 7 August, was humiliating for William and the Scots. They agreed to pay 15,000 marks for peace and to surrender hostages, including the king’s two oldest legitimate daughters, Margaret and Isabella. As a sweetener, John promised to marry the princesses to his sons; although Henry was only 2 years old at the time and Richard was just 8 months, whilst the girls were probably in their early-to-mid teens. John would have the castle at Tweedmouth dismantled, but the Scots would pay an extra £4,000 compensation for the damage they had caused to it. The king’s daughters and the other Scottish hostages were handed into the custody of England’s justiciar, at Carlisle on 16 August. How the girls, or their parents, thought about this turn of events, we know not. Given John’s proven record of prevarication and perfidy, King William may have hoped that the promised marriages would occur in good time, but may also have expected that John would find a way out of the promises made.
There is no mention of Queen Ermengarde being present for the treaty at Norham, although she did act as mediator in 1212, when her husband was absent, in negotiations with John at Durham. A contemporary observer described the Scottish queen as ‘an extraordinary woman, gifted with a charming and witty eloquence’.5 It seems likely that King John was not immune to the queen’s charms, as he did not ask for more hostages and agreed that the Scottish heir, Alexander, would be knighted and one day marry an English princess. Alexander was knighted at Clerkenwell on 4 March 1212.
King William I, later known as William the Lion, died on 4 December 1214, aged about 72, having reigned for a total of forty-nine years, almost to the day. He was buried before the high altar of Arbroath Abbey. William’s daughters were still in English custody, the conditions for their release would form one of the clauses of Magna Carta. He was succeeded by Alexander, his only legitimate son, who was proclaimed king at Scone on 6 December 1214, aged just 16. Queen Ermengarde was said to be distraught at her husband’s death. She lived for 19 more years, devoting her time to the founding of a Cistercian abbey at Balmerino in Fife. She died on 11 February 1233.
Footnotes: 1 Marc Morris, King John; 2E.L.G. Stones quoted in Scott, W.W., William I; 3Ross, David, Scotland: History of a Nation; 4W.W. Scott, Ermengarde de Beaumont (1233); 5Bower quoted in W.W. Scott, Ermengarde de Beaumont (1233),
Further reading: W.W. Scott, Ermengarde de Beaumont (d. 1233), Oxforddnb.com; Scott, W.W., William I [known as William the Lion] (c. 1142–1214) Oxforddnb.com; Scott, W.W., Malcolm IV (c. 1141–1165) Oxforddnb.com; Mackay, A.J.G. (ed.), The Historie and Chronicles of Scotland … by Robert Lindesay of Pitscottie; Ross, David, Scotland: History of a Nation; Farrer, William and Charles Travis Clay, editors, Early Yorkshire Charters, Volume 8: The Honour of Warenne; Morris, Marc King John: Treachery, Tyranny and the Road to Magna Carta; Church, Stephen, King John: England, Magna Carta and the Making of a Tyrant; Danziger, Danny and John Gillingham, 1215: The Year of Magna Carta; Crouch, David, William Marshal; fmg.ac; Brewer’s British Royalty by David Williamson; The Mammoth Book of British Kings and Queens by Mike Ashley; The Story of Scotland by Nigel Tranter; Ada, Queen Mother of Scotland (article) by Victoria Chandler.
Malcolm IV (the Maiden), King of Scots, was the son of Prince Henry of Scotland and Ada de Warenne. He was the grandson of David I, King of Scots and great-grandson of Malcolm III, King of Scots and second his wife St Margaret, herself a descendant of Alfred the great. On his mother’s side, he was the grandson of William de Warenne, second Earl of Warenne and Surrey, and Isabel de Vermandois, granddaughter of King Henry I of France and his queen, Anna of Kiev.
The younger Malcolm was born between born between 23 April and 24 May 1141. He earned the soubriquet ‘the Maiden’ due to his youth, religious devotion and the fact he remained unmarried. Malcolm had become his grandfather’s heir following his father’s death in 1152, at which time he had been placed into the custody of Duncan, Earl of Fife, and taken on a progress around Scotland north of the Forth, following the old Celtic tradition of showing the heir to the kingdom. When King David I died less than twelve months after his son, Henry, on 24 May 1153, he was succeeded by his grandson, Malcolm. The new king succeeded to the crown at the age of twelve – possibly even on his twelfth birthday – as Malcolm IV.
The accession of Malcolm surpassed all the ambitions of his Warenne grandfather. William de Warenne, the second earl, had sought a royal bride for himself. He had not lived to see his daughter marry the heir to the Scottish throne not to see his grandson’s accession and coronation, which surpassed all of his aspirations and ambitions.
The chronicles make no mention of Malcolm’s mother, Ada, playing a part in the politics of Scotland during her eldest son’s kingship. She did appear at court often and was present for many of the important occasions; she was also a witness to no less than sixteen of Malcolm’s charters. Ada did, moreover, take great interest in the futures of her children, arranging the marriages of her two surviving daughters and employing any means possible to persuade her son to marry. The chronicler, William of Newburgh, relates a story of the lengths Ada had to go to in order to get her reluctant son to choose a bride. Ada went so far as to present her son with a young woman of noble birth, in his bed. Not wishing to cause an argument with his mother, Malcolm did not send her away and allowed the lady to spend the night in his royal bed; while he slept on the floor, wrapped in his cloak. Ada, it seems, was relentless in her attempts to persuade Malcolm to marry, until the young king tired of her constant nagging and begged her to hold her peace.
While William of Newburgh makes it sound as if Ada was pushing for grandchildren, or tempting her son to lose his innocence, Ada’s constant attempts to discuss marriage with Malcolm had a political motive as much as a personal one. She was well aware of the importance of royal marriage, not just for the continuation of a dynasty and political alliance, but also for the strength and stability of the monarchy itself. Ada, moreover, was not the only one eager to see the young king settle down with a wife.
The Scottish curia regis (royal council) continued to pressure Malcolm to find a bride, even after his mother had given up. Arnold, Bishop of St Andrews encouraged Malcolm to follow the example of his recently married sisters. The king, however, was no more persuaded by the archbishop and his royal council than he was by his mother. He was eager to hold onto to the highest ideals of Christian knighthood and remain chaste. Malcolm’s relative youth may also have led him to believe that he had many years ahead of him and plenty of time before he needed to settle down and raise a family.
Malcolm’s kingship faced several challenges during his all-too-short reign. In November 1154, the young king was faced with a revolt from Somerled, Earl of Argyll. The unrest was to continue for several years, with Somerled only suing for peace in 1159 having been deprived of his chief supporters, the MacHeths, father and sons, who had been reconciled with the king in 1157.
Malcolm’s greatest challenge, however, was with his larger neighbour, England. While David I had taken advantage of the civil war in England during Stephen’s turbulent reign – known to history as the Anarchy – the accession of Henry II in 1154 changed the political landscape entirely. In 1157 the two kings met at Chester, where Malcolm performed homage ‘in the manner in which his grandfather had been the man of old King Henry’. 1 This homage suggests that Malcolm was accepting that he was a vassal of King Henry, as David I had done with King Henry I. He was also forced to resign his lordship of Northumberland, Cumberland and Westmorland, although the honour of Huntingdon was returned to the Scots king and his brother and heir, William, was given the lordship of Tynedale.
In 1159 Malcolm, his brother and others joined Henry II and the English army on an expedition to Toulouse; William of Blois, son of King Stephen and husband of Malcolm’s cousin, Isabel de Warenne, Countess of Surrey, was also part of the expedition. The military enterprise gave Malcolm the chance to be knighted honourably in the field. The Scots contingent joined Henry II at Poitiers on 24 June and Henry knighted Malcolm at Périgueux a few days later. The expedition met with initial success and the army overran the county of Toulouse before laying siege to the city itself. However, the siege had to be abandoned when King Louis VII of France, another kinsman of Malcolm’s, intervened.
By the end of the year, Henry and Malcolm were back in Limoges, crossing to England shortly afterwards. Malcolm returned to Scotland in 1160 and to a revolt of six earls led by Feterth, Earl of Strathearn, angry at his expedition with the English army. Mediation by the clergy led to an uneasy peace and their abandoning of their besieging Malcolm at Perth. Unrest then arose in Galloway and Malcolm made several forays into the region before the end of the year, when Fergus, lord of Galloway, submitted to the king. It was the last major unrest by any Scottish earls for not only Malcolm’s reign, but for also for that of his brother, William I.
Malcolm was again summoned to meet Henry II in 1163. Despite falling ill at Doncaster, he was still expected to complete the journey to Henry’s court and arrived at Woodstock at the end of June. It seems Henry wanted to assert his supremacy over Britain, as a group of Welsh rulers had also been called to attend the English king. On 1 July, Malcolm renewed his oath to Henry and handed over hostages, the most senior of whom was his own youngest brother, David, soon to be made earl of Huntingdon. Homage given, Malcolm returned to Scotland, where he faced a revolt led by Somerled, Lord of the Isles, who was later killed in an attempted raid on Glasgow in 1164.
Malcolm appears to have never fully recovered from the illness he suffered in Doncaster in 1163 and frequently complained of pains in his head and feet. He planned a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, to pray for healing, but was too ill to undertake it. He died at Jedburgh on Thursday 9 December 1165, aged only 24: he had reigned for 12 years and 6 months and was buried among his ancestors at Dunfermline Abbey. We do not have his mother’s response to the death of her first-born son, but it cannot have been easy for her, only in her forties herself and already a widow of thirteen years. Malcolm was succeeded by his brother William, later known as William the Lion.
Footnote: 1 The Melrose Chronicle quoted in W.W. Scott, Malcolm IV (c. 1141–1165)
Scott, W.W., Malcolm IV (c. 1141–1165) Oxforddnb.com; Mackay, A.J.G. (ed.), The Historie and Chronicles of Scotland … by Robert Lindesay of Pitscottie; Ross, David, Scotland: History of a Nation; Farrer, William and Charles Travis Clay, editors, Early Yorkshire Charters, Volume 8: The Honour of Warenne; Morris, Marc King John: Treachery, Tyranny and the Road to Magna Carta; Church, Stephen, King John: England, Magna Carta and the Making of a Tyrant; Danziger, Danny and John Gillingham, 1215: The Year of Magna Carta; Crouch, David, William Marshal; fmg.ac; Brewer’s British Royalty by David Williamson; The Mammoth Book of British Kings and Queens by Mike Ashley; The Story of Scotland by Nigel Tranter; Ada, Queen Mother of Scotland (article) by Victoria Chandler.
Many Anglo-Saxon kings are familiar. Æthelred the Unready is one, yet less is written of his wife, who was consort of two kings and championed one of her sons over the others, or his mother who was an anointed queen and powerful regent, but was also accused of witchcraft and regicide. A royal abbess educated five bishops and was instrumental in deciding the date of Easter; another took on the might of Canterbury and Rome and was accused by the monks of fratricide.
Anglo-Saxon women were prized for their bloodlines – one had such rich blood that it sparked a war – and one was appointed regent of a foreign country. Royal mothers wielded power; Eadgifu, wife of Edward the Elder, maintained a position of authority during the reigns of both her sons.
Æthelflaed, Lady of the Mercians, was a queen in all but name, while few have heard of Queen Seaxburh, who ruled Wessex, or Queen Cynethryth, who issued her own coinage. She, too, was accused of murder, but was also, like many of the royal women, literate and highly-educated.
From seventh-century Northumbria to eleventh-century Wessex and making extensive use of primary sources, Women of Power in Anglo-Saxon England examines the lives of individual women in a way that has often been done for the Anglo-Saxon men but not for their wives, sisters, mothers and daughters. It tells their stories: those who ruled and schemed, the peace-weavers and the warrior women, the saints and the sinners. It explores, and restores, their reputations.
I was very lucky to receive an advance copy of Annie Whitehead’s wonderful new book, Women of Power in Anglo-Saxon England. Beautifully written and thoroughly researched, this book brings to life the women on England from before the Norman Conquest.
Women of Power in Anglo-Saxon England is a wonderful study of the influential royal and noble women of pre-Conquest England, whether they were queens, princesses, abbesses or countesses. Annie Whitehead tells their stories in wonderful, vivid detail, beautifully weaving the historical implications off their lives with their larger-than-life stories.
Though they have been dead a thousand years and more, and while written evidence on these women may be scarce, the author has managed to squeeze every bit of information from the available chronicles, charters and saints’ lives. She has given the reader every possible snippet of information on their lives, presenting and analysing the sources in an accessible, engaging and thoroughly enjoyable reading experience.
The stories of these women is told with a passion and eloquence which makes every chapter a pleasure to read. The more familiar stories of Æthelflæd, Lady Godiva and St Hilda of Whitby are given excellent new interpretations, while the reader may be meeting the less familiar women, such as Æthelfrith of Bernicia, Eadburh and Alfred the Great’s sister, Æthelswith, for the first time.
Ælfgifu appears not to have been married for long. Her son Eadwig was probably born around 940, and his younger brother Edgar around 943. King Edmund himself died in 946 – the victim of a brawl, or perhaps a political assassination – having married again, so his first marriage must have ended not long after Edgar’s birth. The younger of the royal orphans, Edgar, was fostered by a noblewoman, the wife of the ealdorman of East Anglia, whom we shall meet in Part VI.
Ælfgifu is known as Ælfgifu of Shaftesbury, and William of Malmesbury in particular had a lot to say about her. He said that it was she who built the nunnery there and that her bodily remains were placed there. She was ‘so pious and loving that she would even secretly release criminals who had been openly condemned by the gloomy verdict of a jury.’ She would also give away her expensive clothes to the needy and she was a beautiful woman who was remembered for the miracles associated with her; the blind, the deaf and the lame were cured after visiting Shaftesbury.
It would be easy to assume that she retired to Shaftesbury in the manner of a number of previous queens, but the short-lived nature of her marriage and the young age of her children suggest another scenario. It is plausible that she died in childbirth, either in labour with Edgar or with a subsequent pregnancy in which both mother and child died. If she did indeed die in childbirth then she cannot have been a nun at Shaftesbury, but merely its benefactress.
of these women were not easy to find, and the detective work involved in researching Women of Power in Anglo-Saxon England is both entertaining and fascinating. In recreating and retelling the lives of these remarkable women, Annie Whitehead has given us a window into a distant past. We have the chance to observe the lives, loves, hopes and dreams of these remarkable women; women who helped shape their present and futures, and thus the world in which we now live.
The author also helps to dispel some of the myths that have arisen about these women, whether by historical fiction writers or the over-active imaginations of the chroniclers of the past. The true stories of Æthelflæd and Godiva, and others, are revealed, the myths surrounding them examined and explained. This is a wonderful book, filled with stories of love, intrigue and murder, of the power struggles and betrayals of Anglo-Saxon England, of strong and influential women who made an impression, not only on their own times, but on the generations who came after.
Women of Power in Anglo-Saxon England brings to life the women of the Anglo-Saxon period with vivid clarity. It is a remarkable study of the lives of women of the period – known and unknown – and their impact on history. Saints, princesses and queens; wives, daughters and mothers, Annie Whitehead demonstrates the strengths, weaknesses and challenges these incredible women faced in order to exert their influence on their corner of the world. The author’s meticulous research, beautiful writing and natural storytelling ability make this book a pleasure to read from beginning to end.
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. Her latest nonfiction, Women of Power in Anglo-Saxon England, is published by Pen & Sword Books.
Today it is a pleasure to welcome Annie Whitehead to the blog. Annie’s latest book, Women of Power in Anglo-Saxon England, was also released yesterday.
Our books are twins!
Both books were commissioned, written and submitted at within days of each other. It has been a bit of a roller coaster experience, with the advent of the Corona virus. In order to get the books published on time, it was decided that they would be released in paperback first. But at the last minute, Pen & Sword changed their minds and went for the hardback release. As a result, the books look fabulous!
For me, it has been that bit more special, having Annie and her book taking the journey with us – having someone to talk to, who was going through the same experience – has made all the difference.
Annie and I have done an interview swap where we each answer the same questions, just to give you an idea of who we are and what we write.
I’d already written about a few of these women both in fiction and nonfiction. My first novel, To Be A Queen, tells the life story of Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians and my second, Alvar the Kingmaker, features Queen Ælfthryth, said to be the first crowned consort of an English king, and Queen Ælfgifu, who was accused of getting into bed, quite literally, with her husband and her mother. My third novel, Cometh the Hour, also has some strong, influential women in it, from King Penda’s wife, who was left in charge of a kingdom, to various queens and abbesses who made important policy decisions and had direct influence on the men in charge; women like St Hild, for example, founder of Whitby Abbey. My first nonfiction book, Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom, featured some equally powerful and notorious women, so I suppose this new book was inevitable.
The idea was to tell the stories of these women, with minimal reference to the men, and discover all I could about them. There are over 130 named women in the book, most of them royal wives, sisters and daughters, and some of them women who are familiar to us – Lady Godiva, for example – who weren’t royal but still left their mark on history.
What were the research challenges?
Tracking them down! The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle sometimes mentions them but, up to the arrival on the shores of Emma of Normandy in the 11th Century, there are fewer than 20 instances in that chronicle where the women are named. However, a lot can sometimes be deduced: Wulfrun is named as a hostage taken by the ‘Vikings’ and from this it’s clear that she was high status. Luckily we don’t have to rely on the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, and through other sources we discover that she was the lady after whom Wolverhampton was named and that her son was known as Wulfrun’s son, rather than his father’s. So there’s a whole other story; was his father somehow disgraced? Of lesser status than Wulfrun? When doing this kind of research it’s as well to be prepared to drop down plenty of ‘rabbit holes’!
The other challenge is keeping pace with the archaeological discoveries, of which there were more than a few while I was writing the book. Often I had to add details to footnotes, because the editing process was too far advanced to allow me to alter the main text. All were truly exciting discoveries, including the siting of the original Anglo-Saxon abbeys at Coldingham, and at Lyminge in Kent, the possible identification of Queen Emma’s bones in Winchester and the fascinating tale of the blue-toothed nun, who, it’s believed, stained her teeth by licking her paintbrush whilst working on illuminated manuscripts. Here was yet more evidence that women worked as scribes.
Do you have a particular favourite amongst the women you’ve written about?
Too many to choose, really. Because I’ve written so much about her already, I suppose most people might expect me to say Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians, but there are some others whom I grew to like and/or admire. Among them would be Eanflæd, Queen of Northumbria, for sheer determination and overcoming personal loss. She travelled north from Kent, no small undertaking, to marry a man who murdered one of her kinsman. She demanded, and received, recompense for that. She outlived most of her children, which must have been heart-breaking (although mercifully she had died by the time her adult daughter was murdered) and most likely had to tolerate her husband’s infidelity and fathering of at least one illegitimate child. She sponsored the career of St Wilfrid and it’s clear that she ran her own, separate, and highly influential household.
Other women brought a wry smile to my face, such as Queen Æthelburh who arranged for her servants deliberately to trash the royal residence while she and the king were out one day, so that she could demonstrate to him the transience of earthly pleasures. She gets the briefest of mentions in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, but what a mention – she razed a town to the ground. We’re not told the circumstances, but I think it’s fair to assume she was a woman with a lot of personality and fortitude!
Another lady who intrigued me was Siflæd. We know about some noblewomen because their wills are extant. Siflæd is unusual because she left not one, but two wills. It seems as if one was made before she went off on her travels ‘across the sea’. I’d love to know where she went, and what sort of adventures she had. I think of her as the original ‘merry widow’, setting her affairs in order at home before going off gallivanting.
Can you tell us briefly about your other books?
As well as the novels and the nonfiction book I mentioned earlier, I contributed to 1066 Turned Upside Down, in which nine authors re-imagined the events of 1066. Lady Godiva featured in my story, as the elderly matriarch of a powerful Mercian family. She’s often thought of as a young woman – erroneously in my view – riding naked through Coventry but she lived to a ripe old age and was a witness to many extraordinary events.
I’ve just finished a collection of short stories about women in history, and am part of the Historical Fictioneers Co-operative who will be producing an anthology of stories centred on the theme of betrayal, for which I’m contributing a tale of scandal from the tenth century. I’ll also be writing the follow-up to Cometh the Hour, which will feature the sons and daughters of King Penda of Mercia and his nemesis, King Oswiu of Northumbria.
Finally, where can people find you on Social Media and where can they buy your books?
I would like to say a huge ‘thank you’ to Annie for taking the time to give such wonderful answers and wish her every success with Women of Power in Anglo-Saxon England. Look for my review of this wonderful book, coming in the next few days.
The Anarchy was the first civil war in post-Conquest England, enduring throughout the reign of King Stephen between 1135 and 1154. It ultimately brought about the end of the Norman dynasty and the birth of the mighty Plantagenet kings. When Henry I died having lost his only legitimate son in a shipwreck, he had caused all of his barons to swear to recognize his daughter Matilda, widow of the Holy Roman Emperor, as his heir and remarried her to Geoffrey, Count of Anjou. When she was slow to move to England on her father’s death, Henry’s favorite nephew Stephen of Blois rushed to have himself crowned, much as Henry himself had done on the death of his brother William Rufus.
Supported by his brother Henry, Bishop of Winchester, Stephen made a promising start, but Matilda would not give up her birthright and tried to hold the English barons to their oaths. The result was more than a decade of civil war that saw England split apart. Empress Matilda is often remembered as aloof and high-handed, Stephen as ineffective and indecisive. By following both sides of the dispute and seeking to understand their actions and motivations, Matthew Lewis aims to reach a more rounded understanding of this crucial period of English history and asks to what extent there really was anarchy.
Stephen and Matilda’s Civil War: Cousins of Anarchy by Matthew Lewis, is a wonderful book looking at the civil war, known as The Anarchy, through the eyes of the two leading protagonists, King Stephen and his cousin, Empress Matilda. A totally absorbing read, this book is enjoyable and informative, analysing the actions of both sides in a critical but sympathetic light.
Matthew Lewis digs deep into the personalities involved in both sides of the war and puts flesh on the bones of these characters. The result is a fair and balanced appraisal of the conflict between these two cousins, both as rival claimants to the throne and as leaders of their disparate supporters. The story is told in alternate chapters from the views of Stephen and Matilda, helping to keep the analysis and narrative balanced and fresh.
Matthew Lewis tries to be fair to both sides. You can tell that he feels for Empress Matilda, faced not only with a challenge to her right to the throne, but with the extra challenges that arose out of her being a woman and unable to lead the military aspects of the war. The author highlights Matilda’s failings, but does temper them with an explanation of how her actions would have been received differently, had she only been a man!
On the other side, King Stephen’s own faults and weaknesses are also singled out, though Matthew Lewis also stresses that where Matilda was hindered by her sex, so was Stephen – by Matilda’s gender, that is. There were limits put on Stephen by the fact he was challenged by a woman; just as Matilda could not lead her troops into battle, neither could Stephen face his challenger in an all-for-nothing trial by combat that could have put an end to the war years later. The result was a long, protracted war during which it was said ‘Christ and his saints slept.’
Before any move was made, there were probably four prime candidates to succeed Henry. His daughter, Empress Matilda, was perhaps the most obvious, but also in many ways the least attractive. Female rule was still something unheard of, at least in England, a nation that would have no queen regnant for another 400 years. The second possibility was Robert, Earl of Gloucester. Robert was an illegitimate son of Henry I, widely considered his favourite. He had extensive lands and power both in Normandy and England and was well respected. He was, however, illegitimate. That was less of a bar to power in Normandy: the Conqueror himself had been called William the Bastard. In England, it was unheard of. Legitimacy was still an absolute, marking the distinction between a duke and a king. Robert had everything required to follow his father except the right mother.
The two other contenders came from the House of Blois. They were Henry’s nephews, the sons of his sister Adela and her husband Stephen, Count of Blois. Theobald, Count of Blois and Champagne was the senior male of the house, though his younger brother Stephen, Count of Mortain, had been in England for years and was close to his uncle. They offered the prospect of legitimate, male successors as grandsons of William the Conqueror, albeit in a female line of descent. None of these solutions appeared perfect, and only one could win the throne. As it turned out, only two displayed an interest, and neither would give up during the nineteen years that followed.
Stephen and Matilda’s Civil War: Cousins of Anarchy by Matthew Lewis is a thoroughly enjoyable read, offering the perfect balance in a non-fiction book; accessible, interesting and informative. It gives a whole new perspective to the Civil War which divided England for the whole of Stephen’s 19-year reign. The book looks into each aspect of the war. The battles, conferences, truces and stalemates, are all analysed through the disparate eyes of those involved; not only looking into how they effected events, but also how events affected them.
Although it concentrates on the 2 leading protagonists, Stephen and Matilda, the book also gives insight into the lead supporting characters on both sides, giving the reader a comprehensive, panoramic view of the era through the personalities of those involved; from the steadfast and loyal Robert, Earl of Gloucester, to Stephen’s queen, also Matilda and the gruff, fearless John Marshal, father of William Marshal, first Earl of Pembroke and arguable the greatest knight England ever had.
Although more known for his books on the Wars of the Roses, Matthew Lewis has managed to demonstrate the breadth and depth of his historical knowledge with Stephen and Matilda’s Civil War: Cousins of Anarchy. He had put his usual level of passion and attention to detail into this book and the result is well worth reading. Stephen and Matilda’s Civil War: Cousins of Anarchy by Matthew Lewis is a thoroughly compelling read.
Stephen and Matilda’s Civil War: Cousins of Anarchy by Matthew Lewis is available from Amazon.
About the author:
Matthew Lewis trained in law and is now a full time author of historical fiction and non-fiction. He also blogs on his website, Matt’s History Blog, and can be found on Twitter as @mattlewisauthor. His main interest is medieval history and he has a number of books on that topic, including The Survival of the Princes in the Tower and Richard, Duke of York: King by Right.
Britain is a land riven by anarchy, slaughter, famine, filth and darkness. Its armies are destroyed, its heroes dead, or missing. Arthur and Lancelot fell in the last great battle and Merlin has not been seen these past ten years. Now, the Saxons are gathering again, their warbands stalk the land, their king seeks dominion. As for the lords and kings of Britain, they look only to their own survival and will not unite as they once did under Arthur and his legendary sword Excalibur.
But in an isolated monastery in the marshes of Avalon, a novice of the order is preparing to take his vows when the life he has known is suddenly turned upside down in a welter of blood. Two strangers – the wild-spirited, Saxon-killing Iselle and the ageing warrior Gawain – will pluck the young man from the wreckage of his simple existence. Together, they will seek the last druid and the cauldron of a god. And the young man must come to terms with his legacy and fate as the son of the most celebrated yet most infamous of Arthur’s warriors: Lancelot.
For this is the story of Galahad, Lancelot’s son – the reluctant warrior who dared to keep the dream of Camelot alive . . .
A couple of years ago, I read Lancelot by Giles Kristian, not really expecting to like it. After all, Lancelot was the villain of the King Arthur story and lover of Guinevere; he caused the downfall of Camelot. However, Kristian skillfully put a different spin on the story, presenting Lancelot as a flawed but talented knight, torn between the love for his lord, Arthur, and that for for his true love, Guinevere. Lancelot became a tragic hero and the cause of his own downfall. Lancelot was a story of complex loyalties, tested to the limit by war and circumstance beyond the control of the leading protagonists. In short, it was an incredible piece of storytelling that totally changed my view of Lancelot and the Arthurian legend.
This new book, Camelot, had a lot to live up to!
And, of course, it did not disappoint. In fact, I think Camelot surpasses Lancelot in so many ways. The story follows Galahad, Lancelot’s son in the attempts of the British tribes to form one last alliance that will see them fighting off the Saxon advance. The old heroes – Gawain, Arthur and, of course, Merlin – are there to help the new generation find their way. And the love interest is no defenceless little girl in need of saving – she’s a strong, independent character you will not fail to love, with a story all her own. There is humour, sadness, action and adventure. Giles Kristian cleverly weaves his own story into the existing legend, recreating a world lovers of all thing Arthurian cannot fail to appreciate.
‘You must leave this place and you must do it without delay,’ Gawain said, not looking up from his bowl. He fished out a scrap of meat and blew on it as it steamed between his finger and thumb. Then he thrust the scrap into his mouth and closed his eyes for a moment as if seeking to commit the taste and pleasure of the food to memory.
Father Brice and Father Judoc, standing across from Gawain on the other side of the hearth, looked at each other. ‘We cannot leave Ynys Wydryn,’ Father Brice said.
‘Why would we?’ Father Judoc asked. ‘We are safe here. Hidden.’
‘We found you,’ Gawain said, chewing, juices running into his beard.
‘The Saxons do not know we are here,’ Brice said. ‘The ones who attacked Galahad -‘
‘If they were Saxons,’ Judoc interrupted.
‘- They must have wandered in search of plunder, straying far from King Cerdic’s army,’ Brice went on, ‘which I believe is some miles east of Camelot and -‘
‘The Saxons are already here,’ Gawain cut him off, looking up now, holding Brice’s gaze. There were rumours and rumbles around the fire then.
‘We had to slip past them to get across the White Lake,’ Gediens said, thumbing at the east wall. He was the youngest of the four men, though he could not have been less than forty years old. ‘And not just a few scouts and foragers but war bands. Spearmen by the score. Saw their fires on Pennard Hill. Too many to count.’
Camelot by Giles Kristian is a wonderful crafted novel that leads the reader on a winding tale through Arthurian Britain. It takes you on a legendary quest, to the wondrous castles of Tintagel and Camelot, to the wilds of Anglesey and the Isle of Man and through various skirmishes, political intrigues, disappointments and love – with many twists and turns along the way. While you are desperate to read on through the next chapter, you simultaneously, never want the book to end.
I truly believe that the sign of a good book, is one that will take you through a range of emotions, from laughter to tears, and that will – when you get to the final page – leave you bereft that there is no more to read, and disappointed that you know will not read anything so good any time soon. Camelot fills all this criteria. It surprises you at every turn. It is probably the best book I will read this year – and its only April! This book is a keeper, and one I’ll be getting my dad for Father’s Day, that’s for sure!
Camelot is one of those rare books that will remain with you for days to come, musing over why Arthur acted the way he did, how Galahad managed to achieve what he did, how Gawain’s loyalty and perseverance saved the heroes on more than one occasion and how Merlin managed to weave his magic through the whole story, all the way to the final, climactic battle.
Camelot by Giles Kristian is due for release in the UK on 14 May 2020 and is available for pre-order from Amazon.
About the author:
Family history (he is half Norwegian) and a passion for the fiction of Bernard Cornwell inspired GILES KRISTIAN to write. Set in the Viking world, his bestselling ‘Raven’ and ‘The Rise of Sigurd’ trilogies have been acclaimed by his peers, reviewers and readers alike. In The Bleeding Land and Brothers’ Fury, he tells the story of a family torn apart by the English Civil War. He also co-wrote Wilbur Smith’s No.1 bestseller, Golden Lion. In his most recent novel, the Sunday Times bestseller Lancelot, Giles plunged into the rich waters of the Arthurian legend. For his next book, he continues his epic reimagining of our greatest island ‘history’. Giles Kristian lives in Leicestershire.
CROFTUN, ENGLAND AD 1328 Lady Isabella de Courcy is found alone in a room bolted from the inside, unconscious, and with a dagger brutally forced through her hand into the floorboards beneath, but this is just the latest in a line of similar, terrifying incidents. For months now she’s been stalked by some shadowy tormentor who leaves no trace of his movements and has never been clearly seen by anyone, even Lady Isabella.
Can the bailiff, John Little, along with his friend – the legendary friar, Robert Stafford – uncover the truth and, more importantly, will they be able to save the troubled victim before she ends up dead?
This new standalone tale from the author of The Druid sees the return of two much-loved characters from the Forest Lord series and is based on a shocking real-life case which remains, to this day, unsolved.
I have been a fan of Steven A McKay‘s writing for several years now. His Forest Lord series, retelling the story of Robin Hood in Barnsdale Forest, rather than Sherwood, was a refreshing new take on the outlaw’s legend. And the 2 books in his new series, Warrior Druid of Britain, the Druid and Song of the Centurion are among the finest books I have read in recent years. So Faces of Darkness had quite a lot to live up to.
And it did not disappoint.
Faces of Darkness is a novella featuring two of Robin Hood’s best friends, Friar Tuck and Little John, and is a detective novel-cum-psychological thriller of impressive quality. The story revolves around Lady Isabella de Courcy, who is being tormented by a mysterious stalker no one has seen. Friar Tuck and Little John are brought int o investigate the matter.
“Did you see him, Isabella?” the nobleman was demanding, in a hard tone of voice which Tuck felt inappropriate given the young woman’s ordeal. It wasn’t his place to interfere in the dynamic of their relationship though, and unbidden, he began to inspect the rooms for signs of what had taken place.
“No,” the lady sobbed. “Please, Adam, my hand is really hurting. Can you fetch me something for it?”
“Anne,” de Courcy said irritably. “Go and fetch some wine for the lady, hurry.”
“No,” broke in Isabella, eyes wide. “I can’t stay in this room another moment.” Tuck turned to look at her and realised there was a length of fabric tied around her neck, which also bore tell-tale red bruising. Clearly, she had suffered a most violent assault – no wonder she wanted away from the scene of the crime.
“John,” he said. “Could you help Lady Isabella to the room we came from? Would that be acceptable, Sir Adam? Aye? Good. Anne will make the place comfortable, with some unwatered wine to numb the pain a little and …” he stood next to the bed as the injured woman rose to her feet. “Fear nothing, my lady. If the person who did this to you is still around, Little John will deal with them.”
“You can be sure of that,” rumbled John who, at over six-and-a-half feet, had to stoop to avoid hitting his head on the doorframe. “You’re safe with me, my lady.”
Faces of Darkness is quite a departure for Steven A. McKay. A psychological thriller, it could be set in any era, but he has ingeniously set it in the world of his Forest Lord series, so that the astute Friar Tuck and redoubtable Little John can take the lead in solving the mystery, giving the reader the comfort of familiar characters in a story that is both emotional and evocative.
The novella keeps you guessing the true cause of Lady Isabella’s misery to the climactic end. There were several points where I thought I had solved the mystery, only to be disabused of my theory a few pages later, which, of course, makes the book even more riveting!
This is fabulous story that has only one downside – it is too short. I would have loved the book to be a full-length historical novel. It was enthralling! Here’s hoping that Faces of Darkness sparks a new career for Friar Tuck and Little John, solving medieval mysteries.
About the author:
Steven McKay was born in 1977 near Glasgow in Scotland. He live in Old Kilpatrick with his wife and two young children. After obtaining his Bachelor of Arts degree with the Open University he decided to follow his life-long ambition and write a historical novel.
He plays guitar and sings in a heavy metal band when they can find the time to meet up.
Theodora: actress, prostitute, mistress, feminist. And Byzantine Empress of the civilized world. Stephen: handsome Syrian boy, wizard’s apprentice, palace eunuch. And Secretary to the Empress. How does this unlikely pair become such allies that one day Empress Theodora asks Stephen to write her biography?
From a very young age, Theodora, daughter of a circus bearkeeper in Constantinople, sets her sights well above her station in life. Her exquisite beauty sets her apart on stages and in the eyes of men.
Stephen, a Syrian lad of striking good looks, is sold by his parents to a Persian wizard, who teaches him a skill in languages that will serve him well. By the time Destiny brings them together in Antioch, Theodora has undergone heart-rending trials and a transformation, while Stephen has been sold again . . . and castrated. Discover the enduring bond that, however imperfect, prompts Theodora—as Empress—to request palace eunuch Stephen to write her biography.
This is a true rags to riches story, of a girl from the lowers echelons of society who rose to be empress of Constantinople. Fortune’s Child: A Novel of Empress Theodora tells the story of Empress Theodora, born in 500, into a poor Greek family; her father a circus worker for the Greens, who rose to be Master of the Bears. Theodora’s future was to be an actress, a popular one, but little more than a prostitute in the eyes of many, and with no prospects to ever improve her situation, unless she forced matters.
Although a novel, Fortune’s Child: A Novel of Empress Theodora flawlessly blends history and story-telling to draw the reader into the exotic world of 6th century Constantinople and the East. Recreating the life of Theodora and the world in which she lived, James Conroyd Martin takes you on an adventure that explores every aspect of Theodora’s world, the challenges, grief and struggles that she had to face to climb out of the fate into which she was born and make her own fortune.
This is a novel that will take you through the full range of emotions. It is not all glamour and success, but neither is it all dull and gloom. The author imbues a humanity that invokes both sympathy and compassion for the title character, even when her actions are less than noble.
It is late at night when a soft knock, almost imperceptible, comes at the door. I open it to find Theodora standing there, a finger to her lips. She is dressed in a purple bedchamber robe. She wears no veil or headdress. Her hair falls about her face like an ebony frame about the portrait of a ghost. I stand aside and she enters, gliding like some visitant saint into a monk’s cell.
But she is no saint. And since I am no monk, I take the comfortable chair.
“You know the circumstances of my birth, Stephen, how my mother kept me from being … abandoned – exposed to the elements.”
I nod, taking up a kalamos.
“The story is legend by now. Of course, it may be quite accurate, but my mother would relate it as a way of upbraiding a thoughtless and unappreciative daughter who would drolly mimic the ways of the adults around her, as well as the pretentious airs of an older sister. I was two when the mid-wife was called again and mother gave birth to a third child – alas, another girl.” She pauses, appraising me, her biographer. “Take what I tell you, Stephen, and bring my life to parchment. Breathe life into my past.” The empress grimaces as she settles in without complaint against the hard back of the chair, bringing her hands together in her lap, the interlocking fingers pale as moonbeams against the purple of her robe. “I shall begin, Stephen, where my memory begins.”
For my pettiness in my choice of chair, I feel a tinge of guilt, but I dust away and begin taking the notes that will become her biography.
Sixth century Byzantium is a period that is not often featured in historical fiction, which is such a shame, if Fortune’s Child: A Novel of Empress Theodora is anything to go by. It is a thoroughly engaging read, immersing the reader in 6th century Byzantium, through the sights, sounds and smells of Constantinople; the challenges and prejudices faced by lower class women, however beautiful and alluring, and the rules and restrictions of the privileged classes and the imperial court.
It is, at times, a hard book to read, when the reality of a woman’s lot and the prejudices and attitudes Theodora had to face and overcome. And yet, she never seems to forget her roots. The author avoids melodrama to bring you a story that is, at once, the story of Theodora and of her biographer, and how their lives are intertwined with Theodora’s own rise through the ranks of society.
As you read the novel, you can understand why James Conroyd Martin chose to tell Theodora’s life, it is as mesmerising and engaging as Theodora herself must have been. From the first pages the reader is immediately and irrevocably invested in the story of this incredible woman. I cannot recommend it highly enough – it is a must-read. Many aspects of it will remain with you long after you have finished the last page.
Fortune’s Child: A Novel of Empress Theodora by James Conroyd Martin is available in hardback, paperback and ebook from Amazon UK.
Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England
In my first year of writing History … the Interesting Bits I told the stories of 2 remarkable women, contemporaries of each other, but with markedly different fates. Matilda de Braose fell foul of King John and suffered a horrible death in his dungeons, while Nicholaa de la Haye was John’s steadfast supporter, successfully defending Lincoln Castle in no fewer than 3 sieges; the last against a combined French and rebel army.
These 2 stories became the catalyst for my latest book, which looks into how the 1215 Magna Carta was relevant to the women of the great families of 13th century England, including the royal families of England and Scotland, the Marshals, the Bigods, the Salisburys,Braoses and Warennes.
Magna Carta clause 39: No man shall be taken, imprisoned, outlawed, banished or in any way destroyed, nor will we proceed against or prosecute him, except by the lawful judgement of his peers or by the law of the land.
This clause in Magna Carta was in response to the appalling imprisonment and starvation of Matilda de Braose, the wife of one of King John’s barons. Matilda was not the only woman who influenced, or was influenced by, the 1215 Charter of Liberties, now known as Magna Carta. Women from many of the great families of England were affected by the far-reaching legacy of Magna Carta, from their experiences in the civil war and as hostages, to calling on its use to protect their property and rights as widows.
Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England looks into the relationships – through marriage and blood – of the various noble families and how they were affected by the Barons’ Wars, Magna Carta and its aftermath; the bonds that were formed and those that were broken. Including the royal families of England and Scotland, the Marshals, the Warennes, the Braoses and more, _Ladies of Magna Carta_ focuses on the roles played by the women of the great families whose influences and experiences have reached far beyond the thirteenth century.
And it is almost here! Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England will be released in the UK on 30 May 2020 and is now available for pre-order from Amazon UK and from Book Depository worldwide.
Please join me at The Collection, Lincoln, for the launch of Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England, hosted by Lindum Books.