Book Corner: Powers and Thrones by Dan Jones

Dan Jones’s epic new history tells nothing less than the story of how the world we know today came to be built. It is a thousand-year adventure that moves from the ruins of the once-mighty city of Rome, sacked by barbarians in AD 410, to the first contacts between the old and new worlds in the sixteenth century. It shows how, from a state of crisis and collapse, the West was rebuilt and came to dominate the entire globe. The book identifies three key themes that underpinned the success of the West: commerce, conquest and Christianity.

Across 16 chapters, blending Dan Jones’s trademark gripping narrative style with authoritative analysis, Powers and Thrones shows how, at each stage in this story, successive western powers thrived by attracting – or stealing – the most valuable resources, ideas and people from the rest of the world. It casts new light on iconic locations – Rome, Paris, Venice, Constantinople – and it features some of history’s most famous and notorious men and women.

This is a book written about – and for – an age of profound change, and it asks the biggest questions about the West both then and now. Where did we come from? What made us? Where do we go from here?

Well, isn’t this an epic undertaking. The history of the Middle Ages, across Europe and into the four corners of the world (except Australia because it still hadn’t been discovered) – in 16 chapters, 633 pages and about 25 hours of reading. And it is awesome!

I couldn’t read this book at a leisurely pace because I was actually scheduled to interview Dan Jones on 29 September, for Lindum Books in Lincoln and I desperately wanted to make sure I had read the whole thing beforehand. So, I had 10 days to read it and I am quite proud of myself that I managed it. I put all other books aside and concentrated on this, hoping it would keep my attention. I was a little worried. It is a long book and covers such a wide historical arena. Could it keep my interest? Well, the simple answer is YES!

Powers and Thrones by Dan Jones is a thoroughly enthralling read encompassing over a thousand years of history, from the Sack of Rome in 410AD to the sack of Rome in 1527. Writing the story of the entire medieval era was a massive undertaking that Dan said he wanted to do, both as his 10th book and to mark his 40th birthday. And it is, indeed, a magnum opus to be proud of. Powers and Thrones is a perfectly balanced book, giving just enough attention to each area of interest and geographical location, going from Rome, to Byzantium and on to the rise of Islam, Dan Jones manages to cover the significant events and influences that drove change and development through the entire Middle Ages.

Powers and Thrones demonstrates how climate change, disease, technology and ideology were often the forces behind change. For example, the Guttenberg Press was revolutionary in every way, allowing the mass production of books, pamphlets and the dissemination of knowledge to a far-wider audience. It was the medieval equivalent to our social media, both in its reach and influence, and Dan Jones highlights how significant it was in Europe’s emergence from the medieval era, with its impact on learning, communication and – perhaps above all – religion.

For those alert to signs hidden in the fabric of the world, the Roman Empire’s collapse in the west was announced by a series of omens. In Antioch, dogs howled like wolves, night-birds let out hideous shrieks and people muttered that the emperor should be burned alive. In Thrace, a dead man lay in the road and fixed passers-by with a unnerving, lifelike glare, until after a few days the corpse suddenly disappeared. And in the city of Rome itself, citizens persisted in going to the theatre: an egregious and insanely sinful pastime, which, according to one Christian writer, practically invited the wrath of the Almighty. Human beings have been superstitious in all ages and we are especially good at adducing portents when we have the benefit of hindsight. Hence the opinion of the historian Ammianus Marcellinus, who looked back on the end of the fourth century into which he was born and reflected that this was a time when fortune’s wheel, ‘which is perpetually alternating prosperity and adversity’, was turning fast.

In the 370s, when Rome’s fatal malady set in, the Roman state – monarchy, republic and empire – had existed for more than a millennium. Yet within little more than one hundred years, by the end of the fifth century AD, every province west of the Balkans had slipped from Roman control. In the ancient heartlands of empire, Roman institutions, tax systems and trade networks were falling apart. The physical signs of Roma elite culture – palatial villas, cheap imported consumer goods, hot running water – were fading from everyday life. The Eternal City had been sacked several times, the western crown had passed between a succession of dimwits, usurpers, tyrants and children, until eventually it had been abolished; and territory that formerly comprised the core of a powerful mega-state had been parcelled among peoples whom the proud-hearted citizens of Rome’s imperial heyday had previously scorned as savages and subhumans. These were the ‘barbarians’: a derogatory word which encompassed a huge range of people from itinerant nomadic tribes quite new to the west and ignorant or dismissive of Roman mores, through to longstanding near-neighbours, whose lives were heavily influenced by Roman-ness, but who had not been able to share in the fruits of citizenship.

With Dan Jones at The Collection, Lincoln

What makes this book special is the way Dan Jones manages to make Powers and Thrones relevant to today. Writing it in the midst of a pandemic certainly must have helped to give Dan a sense of history all around him and he alludes to this in the book. When interviewing him, Dan told me that living through Covid gave him a better understanding of the plague years of 14th century Europe, of the fear and panic that must have consumed people. And by referring to modern-day equivalents, such as world leaders, the pandemic and the rise of social media, Dan is able to draw the reader in and make medieval history relevant in the modern age.

Dan Jones does not shy away from the harsh questions, either, examining the development and morals of slavery, the reasoning behind the crusades and the rise of Protestantism. What may surprise readers is the facts this book is essentially Euro-centric – it made me realise how Anglo-centric my study of history has been over the years. By focusing on change and development in mainland Europe, whilst encompassing England and the British Isles in various guises where appropriate, it gives the reader a whole new outlook on the medieval era, whilst also demonstrates how events in Europe – even back then – could influence events in England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland. Powers and Thrones highlights the driving forces of change, whether it was people, ideas or technology, and demonstrates how such change effected Europe in general and individuals in particular, whether it was the empire of Charlemagne, the rise of monasticism, or even the development of the humble stirrup that led to the emergence of the knightly class.

In Powers and Thrones, Dan Jones combines a narrative of international events with case studies that focus on individual people, organisations and movements. By highlighting such diverse subjects as Empress Theodora, the rise of Islam, El Cid and the magnificent Lincoln Cathedral, the author manages to personalise what might otherwise have been a wide, sweeping narrative. The Warennes also get a mention in the involvement of William de Warenne, the 1st Earl, and his wife, Gundrada, in founding the first Cluniac priory in England, St Pancras Priory in Lewes, Sussex. From my personal point of view, it is fabulous that Dan Jones chose to include Empress Theodora so prominently – a woman who rose from extremely humble roots to become Empress of Byzantium and a woman who was influential in holding that empire together, especially in adroitly soothing religious dissension. It is impossible to get everything from 1,000 years of history in one book, but by showing the big picture, whilst highlighting particular events, ideas, buildings or people, Dan Jones manages to provide a fascinating narrative that is fast-paced and engaging without being overwhelming.

Powers and Thrones is, quite simply, an amazing book. It is chock full of little snippets of information that you may never have known, it relates medieval events to our modern day equivalents, such as the Black Death to Covid. Such references to the modern era could easily have backfired, but they serve to make the book more accessible and entertaining and not a little amusing. The moments of light-heartedness often provide an extra depth to the reading experience and make the book accessible to every reader.

Powers and Thrones was certainly an ambitious project, but in the hour-long interview I had with Dan Jones, he spoke about every aspect of it with passion and enthusiasm an that same passion and enthusiasm comes across throughout the book. The book is a pleasure to read and would be a welcome addition to any bookshelf.

Powers and Thrones by Dan Jones is available from Amazon and Bookshop.org.

My Books

Signed, dedicated copies of all my books are available, please get in touch by completing the contact me form.

Defenders of the Norman Crown: The Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey tells the fascinating story of the Warenne dynasty, of the successes and failures of one of the most powerful families in England, from its origins in Normandy, through the Conquest, Magna Carta, the wars and marriages that led to its ultimate demise in the reign of Edward III. Defenders of the Norman Crown: Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey is now available from Pen & Sword BooksAmazon in the UK and US and Book Depository.

1 family. 8 earls. 300 years of English history!

Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England looks into the relationships of the various noble families of the 13th century, and how they were affected by the Barons’ Wars, Magna Carta and its aftermath; the bonds that were formed and those that were broken. It is now available in paperback and hardback from Pen & Sword,  Amazon and from Book Depository worldwide.

Heroines of the Medieval World tells the stories of some of the most remarkable women from Medieval history, from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Julian of Norwich. Available now from Amberley Publishing and Amazon and Book Depository.

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.  Available now from Amazon,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository.

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©2021 Sharon Bennett Connolly

Book Corner: Interview with Helen Batten

Today, it is a pleasure to welcome author Helen Batten to History…the Interesting Bits. Helen’s new book, The Improbable Adventures of Miss Emily Soldene: Actress, Writer, and Rebel is out this week.

About the book:

‘‘I rode on the stage in such style, that the men in front forgot I was a girl, and also forgot to laugh’

Emily Soldene


The fascinating biography of an almost forgotten star of the Victorian stage brought back to life by the Sunday Times bestselling author of Sisters of the East End. Emily Soldene was a courageous actor-manager whose life spanned the entire Victorian period. She challenged the stereotype of Victorian women and showed just what women could achieve with enough determination. From in humble working-class beginnings born as the daughter of a Clerkenwell milliner in 1838, she rose to become a celebrated leading lady, director and formidable impresario creating one of the era’s most celebrated opera companies. Her career took her to theatres across America and Australia, as well as throughout Great Britain, before reinventing herself as a journalist and writer in her fifties. She wrote a weekly column for the Sydney Evening News, as well as a novel and a memoir, and scandalised the capital with her revelations. Emily Soldene died in 1912. A darling of London’s music halls and theatre land, Emily counted Charles Dickens and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood as friends and mingled with the Rothschilds, Oscar Wilde and aristocrats. Charting her international triumphs and calamitous disasters, from taking Broadway by storm, to befriending cowboys in the Wild West and touring the Australian outback, Helen Batten vividly recreates the era and a riotous life that has faded from the limelight. Putting Emily Soldene firmly back in centre stage, The Improbable Adventures of Miss Emily Soldene is a portrait of an irrepressible character who trod the boards, travelled the globe and tore up the Victorian rule book.

So I asked Helen a few questions about this remarkable Victorian, Emily Soldene, and about her experiences in writing the book.

1. Please tell me a little about the book.

When I was growing up Nanna said we were related to a famous actress, but she knew nothing about her. We dismissed this actress as just a figment of Nanna’s imagination, but years later a historian of our ancestral village told me that we were indeed related to a great actress, that her name was Emily Soldene and I must Google her. I was amazed to find that she was not only a star of the music hall, but a leading lady of light opera. She went on to become a producer, director and then an impresario, taking the lease of London’s top theatres. She bought the rights to Bizet’s Carmen and was the first person to tour it around Britain. She was the Cameron Mackintosh of her time, and she was my first cousin three times removed.

Emily had a social life that was as stellar as her career – she mixed with the most interesting men of her generation, the great and the good who were running the country. She was invited to the best parties, sailed in yachts, had weekend trips to Brighton, drank champagne, ate oysters and played a lot of poker. Her favourite pastime was a trip to the races. She also managed to circle the globe several times. Emily took her production company on tour, was a hit on Broadway, played mining towns in the Wild West and got stuck in an earthquake in San Francisco. Then, struck by wanderlust she carried on to New Zealand and Australia, driving across the outback in a Cobbs Coach. Emily was married and had four children, but the existence of a family didn’t stop Emily having the life she wanted. She once said that her husband ‘never got in the way of the green room’.

But it was her next incarnation as a journalist that I find the most heroic. As her light operas went out of fashion (Gilbert and Sullivan were suddenly all the rage), she entered her middle years and struggled with her weight. Emily found herself stranded in Australia with no money for the passage home and needing a new career. She started writing theatre reviews anonymously and within three years was on a boat home, with a new job as the London correspondent for Australia’s largest newspaper. Emily could write about whatever she liked and she did every week for the next eleven years of her life. She was funny and outspoken – parties, politics, suffragettes, Churchill, hemlines and her personal life – everything was fair game. She also published a scandalous novel and her kiss and tell memoir was one of the best-selling books of 1898.

Emily always loved her food (and a brandy and soda) it was this that killed her, having a heart attack after a ten course Easter Sunday lunch that was the subject of her last column. As soon as I found out about Emily, I knew that I wanted to write a book about her. She has disappeared from the public consciousness, but I think her extraordinary story should be told; her life shows what Victorian women could and did achieve. This book is my attempt at putting her back into the limelight where she belongs.

2. What attracted you to Emily Soldene’s story?

Emily had never been educated, she was the illegitimate daughter of a Clerkenwell bonnet maker and yet she managed to have a rare thing for a Victorian working-class woman – a public voice. She mixed with the most famous men of her day and travelled in a way many of us in the twenty first century have never managed. And she was a wife and a mother of four children. I find her very inspiring.

Emily’s story gives an insight into the colourful world of Victorian theatre. But it’s an amazing personal story of rising above unpromising beginnings, and resilience despite numerous public disappointments. She was adored and achieved the heights of fame, only in later years to receive the sort of public criticism that would be worthy of today’s social media trolls – as one reviewer said, ‘please take away the corpse’, but Emily never lost her joie de vivre and just kept on getting up there on the stage.

In her journalism she gives us a unique insight into Edwardian London and the upper classes from the view of a working-class woman. Her opinions are fascinating – she’s a feminist and yet not a suffragette. She despises sexual hypocrisy and is anti-abortion. She loathes Churchill but loves Cecil Rhodes. She is devastated when Queen Victoria dies. She is a great fan of the Empire, hates taxes but is first in the queue to get her pension when they are brought in in 1906. She’s initially suspicious of the motor car (terrible attire for women) but loves the idea of flight, and is confused by the tube – why is it so windy and what happens if they break?

Most of all she was not afraid to speak out about what she believed in. She wrote a novel advocating that men who had affairs should be exposed, and illegitimate children should not be stigmatised but recognised. Of course, this was very personal, the circumstances of her birth had haunted her all her life. And then she practised what she preached by outing the famously respectable men who had consorted with actresses in her bestselling memoir. Basically, Emily gave me more than enough material for a book!

3. What made you become a writer?

I was always scribbling as a child and my earliest ambition was to write a book. It was going to be a historical novel with handsome knights and courageous princesses, a story of great love winning over adversity. This book is still to be written. Instead, I kept a daily diary from the age of five until I went off to university and the late nights got in the way. Afterwards I trained as a journalist but went into television, so I didn’t write so much, but in a way, I was still telling stories, just in a different form. One day I went to a talk at a book festival and had a bit of an epiphany moment. The three successful female authors on the panel said that it was ok not to have the book plotted out before you start – it can write itself, you don’t have to start at the beginning, characters take on a life of their own, momentum is really important – just write a small amount but every day, the first draft is the most difficult and generally rubbish. All these tips made it seem much more possible to write a book. I came out exhilarated with a sense that I could do it too.

Around the same time, I made a television documentary spending a year following Gerry Cottle’s circus. He was a brilliant raconteur and kept me entertained with endless fantastic anecdotes. His whole life felt like a novel – he was a stockbroker’s son who ran away to join the circus when he was sixteen and married into circus royalty. He was soon Britain’s biggest circus owner, and yet he also battled with terrible demons particulalry his addiction to cocaine and prostitutes, which he eventually overcame. He made millions and was bankrupt many times, a survivor. So, when he rang me and asked whether I would write his life story for him, I couldn’t refuse.

4. Who are your major writing influences?

For the Improbable Adventures, Claire Tomalin’s biography of Charles Dicken’s mistress, Nelly Ternan, The Invisible Woman, was an extremely useful window into the world of the Victorian actress, Haille Rubbenhold’s Five gave a sense of the precariousness of life for women in Victorian London and helped explain why Emily worked so hard to make herself financially independent, and rereading Sarah Waters’ Tipping the Velvet inspired me at the beginning of writing the book. Although fiction, it sounded rather like Emily and her theatrical world.

But as to historical writing influences generally, as a child I spent hours pouring over Antonia Fraser’s Kings and Queens of England which started my love of history. Then as a young teenager I read Anya Seaton’s Katherine, a biography of John of Gaunt’s mistress Katherine Swynford, which rooted me firmly in the fourteenth century. The Waning of the Middle Ages by Huizinga is slightly impenetrable but when I first read it as a teenager it somehow managed to make me feel if I was right there in the middle of the calamitous fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, with their misplaced chivalry, endless civil wars, heretical religious movements, revolting peasants and repeating pandemics.

My favourite author is Daphne Du Maurier, I think she is altogether darker and more complicated than at first glance. I also think she is rather good at capturing the breathless intensity, excitement and fun of romantic relationships. My guilty pleasure is Frenchman’s Creek. I read it whenever real life becomes too pressing….

In my twenties I read Tom Baker’s memoir Who on Earth is Tom Baker? which is utterly hilarious and started me off reading a stream of autobiographies of a certain kind of mid to late twentieth century entertainer as if I was unconsciously preparing for writing Gerry’s autobiography. But then I branched out into autobiographies of all kinds – favourites include Clare Balding, Alan Johnson, Elizabeth Jane Howard and Claire Tomalin. Hilary Mantel is of course a genius, but my favourite book is her memoir Giving up the Ghost, and then most recently Maggie O’Farrell’s I am, I am, I am- Seventeen brushes with death which is just an inspired way to construct a life story. Years ago, after losing someone very close and precious to me, I read Joan Didion’s Year of Magical Thinking. It’s short and poetic; and managed to put into beautiful words how I felt in that dark place. A lesson in the power of books to save you in extreme times.

Stephen King’s On Writing and Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird have been the most helpful books with writing. I haven’t started with the books that have inspired my day job as a psychotherapist, but I’ll stop now….

5. How long did you spend researching Emily Soldene before writing the book?

I tend to research as I go along but I’d say the book was six months in preparation and another year almost to the day to write. It was a lockdown book. I signed the publishing deal in the first week of March 2020. I could feel the way things were going, so spent every spare second in the British Library and London Library, trying to get all the information I could, while I could. Luckily the London Library continued to post books through the pandemic which was a lifeline.

6. Have you always been interested in the Victorian era?

I’ve always been interested in social history, particularly the lives of women and how they have changed. Along with previous books, researching Emily’s story has given me a fascinating insight into how women used to live. I’ve been rooted in the twentieth century before, and with this book I really enjoyed the opportunity to go back a bit further. It’s made me very grateful to be a woman in the twenty first century with all the opportunities and rights we have now. I think being a woman of whatever class in Victorian Britain was particularly oppressive. A choice between respectability and independence, security and experience, which makes Emily all the more remarkable.

7. What do you enjoy most about writing?

I’m a bit of an insomniac and so most of my books have been written in the quiet hours before the house stirs between 5 and 7.30am. Watching the daybreak is a precious time. I feel lucky, fashioning something that’s hopefully meaningful out of the contents of my head, seems like a kind of alchemy. When it’s going well, the words write themselves. It’s exhilarating. I can get away from the small nonsense that can clamour too loudly. Writing helps put things into perspective. It can be a kind of therapy.

8. What is the worst thing about writing?

Sometimes I feel like I’m more in the world I’m writing about than the present. When I’m in the flow it can be frustrating to have to stop and re-enter the real world. And then I do become a bit obsessed with the topic I’m working on and keep talking about it. I don’t think being the child (or partner!) of a writer is necessarily easy. It’s no accident that I’ve thanked my three daughters for putting up with my endless book-related chat in the acknowledgements of my last two books.

9. Who are your favourite personalities from history? Is there anyone you would particularly like to write about, but haven’t yet?

My university dissertation was centred on an obscure medieval monarch called Alfonso XI of Castille. He was a bit of a hero – inherited the throne at 10 months old, managed to seize the reins of power from his bossy granny, reunited the warring barons, drove the Moors out of Gibraltar, founded Europe’s first chivalric order, crowned himself with a mechanical statue, and had a hot affair with Eleanor the beautiful widow of Seville. Unfortunately, he died in the Black Death at the age of 38 and his legacy was the most horrible civil war. Over thirty years ago I promised my supervisor that I’d write a book about him, so Alfonso has been on my ‘to do’ list for a long time.

10. Who are your heroes/heroines, from history or elsewhere?

I have a deep respect for some of my ancestors, not least for their general resilience in the face of an unforgiving universe. I dedicated the Improbable Adventures to my three daughters because I think Emily is so inspiring for a young woman – her can do, irrepressible joie de vivre, not ‘why me?’, but ‘why not me?’ attitude to life. But writing my last book, The Scarlet Sisters, I learned about my great grandmother, Clara Crisp, and was humbled by what she had experienced and survived, and her determination to give her daughters a better life. I’m also in awe of my paternal grandfather who was drafted into the Household Cavalry at the start of the First World War because he was so tall (he knew nothing about horses, he was a glazier’s son), and charged the German machine guns on his warhorse. He believed that what kept him alive was reciting Kipling’s poem, If, as the bullets whistled past. Eventually he was made to eat the horse, and then was gassed in the trenches. But he went back and fought right up until the end of the war. Afterwards he joined the police (because he was so tall) and ended up as the Chief Constable of Warwickshire Police, in charge of policing Coventry during the blitz. Every night he was driven round the city inspecting the damage and directing operations. I remember him in his nineties, a kindly archetypal (still tall) grandpa who gave me sweets and pennies, and told me stories of going to bed with candles and a nightcap like Wee Willy Winkie. My granny, was the chief matron at Coventry General and was also busy during the Blitz. She cut off her finger while passing a scalpel during an operation, but didn’t say anything until after it had finished. I was always staring at this half finger. She was also scarred on her face from going back into the hospital when it received a direct hit and pulling a young doctor out from the flames. She was less of an archetypal grandparent though. A gambler, she was known as ‘Five Ace Annie’ because she allegedly always had an extra ace up her sleeve. She taught me how to play poker at the age of five.

Aside from the ancestors, I love the many wise writings of Nora Ephron and I have a lot of time for Dolly Parton, the music and the woman.

11. Do you find social media – such as Facebook and Twitter – a benefit or a hindrance?

I’m late to social media, but I can see the potential. I like Facebook for family and friends, and then I’ve recently joined Twitter and I’m impressed with how easy it is to connect to people with the same interests. I’ve been a bit behind the curve on this one…

12. What’s next? Do you have another writing project in mind?

I’ve got a few ideas of the historical nonfiction variety, but just at the moment I’m doing a writing for TV course, so who knows?

13. What did you learn from writing the book?

Apart from the general awe inspired by the scope of Emily’s adventures, I was struck by how the different expectations of mothers in the Victorian era could give opportunities for a freedom unknown to twenty first century mothers. Victorian mothers were not expected to have a relationship with their children. As long as they kept them fed, washed and morally upright, or at least paid someone else to do it, they’d fulfilled the brief. This meant that Emily could buy a big house in Staines, install her mother and a few maids, and leave her children for years at a time with no one thinking any the worse of her. And then Emily’s views sometimes surprised – for example although she lived a kind of practical feminism way ahead of her time, she was anti the suffragette movement arguing that women held the reins anyway – ‘ let them do it with silk gloves’. She was also, along with many feminists of the time, anti-abortion, believing that women were driven to have them by society’s sexual hypocrisy and harsh judgement. Instead, affairs should be open, mistresses acknowledged, illegitimate children instead of being stigmatized should be welcomed and their legal rights the same as other children. This was deeply personal for Emily as all her life she had hidden her own illegitimacy and the name of her real father.

Thank you so much, Helen, for a fascinating conversation. Good luck with the book – I can’t wait to read it!

About the author:

Helen Batten is the Sunday Times bestselling author of Sisters of the East End, and of The Scarlet Sisters which told the story of her grandmother’s life. She is also the co-author of Confessions of a Showman: My Life in the Circus, Gerry Cottle’s autobiography.

After reading history at Cambridge, Helen studied journalism at Cardiff University. She went on to become a producer and director at the BBC. She now works as a writer and psychotherapist. She lives in West London with her three daughters.

To buy the book:

The Improbable Adventures of Miss Emily Soldene: Actress, Writer, and Rebel is available from Allison & Busby, Waterstones and Amazon.

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My Books

Signed, dedicated copies of all my books are available, please get in touch by completing the contact me form.

Defenders of the Norman Crown: The Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey tells the fascinating story of the Warenne dynasty, of the successes and failures of one of the most powerful families in England, from its origins in Normandy, through the Conquest, Magna Carta, the wars and marriages that led to its ultimate demise in the reign of Edward III. Defenders of the Norman Crown: Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey is now available from Pen & Sword BooksAmazon in the UK and US and Book Depository.

1 family. 8 earls. 300 years of English history!

Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England looks into the relationships of the various noble families of the 13th century, and how they were affected by the Barons’ Wars, Magna Carta and its aftermath; the bonds that were formed and those that were broken. It is now available from Pen & Sword,  Amazon and from Book Depository worldwide.

Heroines of the Medieval World tells the stories of some of the most remarkable women from Medieval history, from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Julian of Norwich. Available now from Amberley Publishing and Amazon and Book Depository.

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.  Available now from Amazon,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository.

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

©2021 Sharon Bennett Connolly

Book Corner: A Marriage of Lions by Elizabeth Chadwick

England, 1238

Raised at the court of King Henry III as a chamber lady to the queen, young Joanna of Swanscombe’s life changes forever when she comes into an inheritance far above all expectations, including her own.

Now a wealthy heiress, Joanna’s arranged marriage to the King’s charming, tournament-loving half-brother William de Valence immediately stokes the flames of political unrest as more established courtiers object to the privileges bestowed on newcomers.

As Joanna and William strive to build a life together, England descends into a bitter civil war. In mortal danger, William is forced to run for his life, and Joanna is left with only her wit and courage to outfox their enemies and prevent them from destroying her husband, her family, and their fortunes.

What a marvellous adventure!

A Marriage of Lions is another fabulous, character-driven historical novel from Elizabeth Chadwick. An enjoyable and entertaining read, it will take you through the full range of emotions; it will have you in tears in one moment and shouting at the characters in the book the next. Beautifully written, it is a wonderful reading experience.

As I have come to expect with Elizabeth Chadwick, A Marriage of Lions transports you back through the centuries, so expertly that you can almost imagine yourself in the midst of Henry III’s court and the battle of wills between Henry and Simon de Montfort. In a change of focus to most books of the time, Elizabeth foregoes telling de Montfort’s story to concentrate on the remarkable relationship of William de Valence and his wife, Joanna de Munchesny, granddaughter of the great William Marshal.

Having just written a biography of the Warenne family, who were the earls of Surrey from the time of the Norman Conquest to the death of the 7th and last earl in 1347, I took particular interest in Elizabeth’s portrayal of John de Warenne, 6th Earl of Surrey, who was brother-in-law to both King Henry III and William de Valence. He was also a cousin to William’s wife, Joanna, through their Marshal mothers. And I have to say, I think Elizabeth got John spot on. He was a loyal, noble character with his friends and family – a trait that ran through his family. Though he could be ruthless to his enemies and was not a benevolent lord to his tenants. 

A Marriage of Lions is not just a fascinating read, it is an experience not to be missed, shining a light on the 13th century, on not only the complex political manoeuvring, but also on the family dynamics that coloured the politics of all those involved, from inheritance disputes to political reform and financial management. Elizabeth manages to weave all these different threads into one fabulous, addictive story.

Elizabeth Chadwick seamlessly combines the history with the fiction.

‘Did you know my mother well?’ Joanna ventured, hoping for crumbs.

Her aunt held out her empty cup to a passing servant to be refilled. ‘I was married with a child before she was born, but I saw her sometimes and I grew to know her better when our father was dying. We sang to him, your mother and me. She was young and shy, but he took great delight in it and it was a moment of light and blessing amid his pain.’ a shadow crossed her face. ‘Our mother died less than a year later and I cared for your mother until she came to be wed. That is why I say you are like her for I knew her well when she was your age. I miss her. I miss all of my sisters. I am the last one. None have made old bones.’

‘I am sorry, madam,’ Joanna said. Her aunt Isabelle, Mahelt’s sister, had died bearing the child she had been carrying at the Queen’s churching – a stillborn son. Her husband, the King’s brother, Richard, had since departed on crusade with Simon de Montfort who was making good use of his exile. ‘I am sorry for the loss of your husband too.’

‘Him I do not miss,’ her aunt said brusquely. ‘Marriage is a bargain and you make the best of your circumstances. If you are fortunate you will bear sons and daughters to nurture and shape, who will be your consolation and make you proud.’

She beckoned to a junior squire who had been attending on the newly knighted Peter of Savoy.

The boy joined them and bowed. Joanna eyed him curiously. He had glossy crow’s wing hair and dark-brown eyes set under slanted brows. He was of about her own age and she recognised his guarded expression from her own repertoire. Her aunt introduced him as her son, John de Warenne, who was entering the household of the newly knighted Peter of Savoy as his squire and ward, where he would be trained to knighthood.

The boy bowed again and gave Joanna an evaluating, slightly wary look. She could almost see prickles bristling on him like a defensive hedgehog. She understood his tension for she had reacted in the same way when she first arrived at court.

‘I will be glad to have another cousin to talk to,’ she said.

Elizabeth Chadwick demonstrates a deep understanding of the politics and nuances of the royal court of Henry III, showing how factionalism and court favourites led to the Second Barons’ War and how it was Henry’s Lusignan siblings suffered from the fallout of Henry’s mounting disagreements with Simon de Montfort. A Marriage of Lions also shows readers how women, despite their inability to take to the field of battle, could use their own skills and abilities to not only protect their family, but also further the interests of their husbands and children. Through Joanna de Munchesny, Elizabeth Chadwick emphasises that medieval women were no more meek and defenceless in the 13th century than they are today. Joanna was intelligent and resourceful – and a force to be reckoned with! She is a character than any reader can admire and get behind.

I have written about many of the historical personages in A Marriage of Lions, either as research subjects or peripheral subjects of my books and I found myself nodding along to Elizabeth Chadwick’s own assessments of these characters, from Simon de Montfort to John de Warenne, from Matilda Marshal to de Montfort’s wife, Eleanor of England – I think Elizabeth and I must read many of the same books for research. This also serves to demonstrate how much knowledge and research the author has accumulated over the years, and how deeply she comes to understand her characters. While this isn’t essential in a historical fiction book, it does help to add authenticity to a novel, and draws the reader in deeper, so that they become totally immersed in the story and its characters.

While I have enjoyed many an Elizabeth Chadwick novel, A Marriage of Lions stands on a level with The Greatest Knight as one of her very best. If you are an Elizabeth Chadwick fan, this is a must read. If you have never read Elizabeth, then I suggest you start with this one – you will definitely want to read the rest afterwards. It is one of the best historical fiction novels that I have read this year. I did not want it to finish and yet – at the same time – could not wait to get to the end!

Elizabeth Chadwick has a knack of getting into the heads and hearts of her characters, so that they jump off the page and insinuate themselves into the thought of the reader. The book is impossible to put down – until the very last page. And finishing the book – especially this book – leaves the reader bereft.

To buy the book: Amazon

About the author:

New York Times bestselling author Elizabeth Chadwick lives in a cottage in the Vale of Belvoir in Nottinghamshire with her husband and their 3 dogs. Her first novel, The Wild Hunt, won a Betty Trask Award and To Defy a King won the RNA’s 2011 Historical Novel Prize. She was also shortlisted for the Romantic Novelists’ Award in 1998 for The Champion, in 2001 for Lords of the White Castle, in 2002 for The Winter Mantle and in 2003 for The Falcons of Montabard. Her sixteenth novel, The Scarlet Lion, was nominated by Richard Lee, founder of the Historical Novel Society, as one of the top ten historical novels of the last decade. She often lectures at conferences and historical venues, has been consulted for television documentaries and is a member of the Royal Historical Society.

For more details on Elizabeth Chadwick and her books, visit http://www.elizabethchadwick.com, follow her on Twitter, read her blogs or chat to her on Facebook.

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My Books

Signed, dedicated copies of all my books are available, please get in touch by completing the contact me form.

Defenders of the Norman Crown: The Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey tells the fascinating story of the Warenne dynasty, of the successes and failures of one of the most powerful families in England, from its origins in Normandy, through the Conquest, Magna Carta, the wars and marriages that led to its ultimate demise in the reign of Edward III. Defenders of the Norman Crown: Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey is now available from Pen & Sword BooksAmazon in the UK and US and Book Depository.

1 family. 8 earls. 300 years of English history!

Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England looks into the relationships of the various noble families of the 13th century, and how they were affected by the Barons’ Wars, Magna Carta and its aftermath; the bonds that were formed and those that were broken. It is now available from Pen & Sword,  Amazon and from Book Depository worldwide.

Heroines of the Medieval World tells the stories of some of the most remarkable women from Medieval history, from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Julian of Norwich. Available now from Amberley Publishing and Amazon and Book Depository.

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.  Available now from Amazon,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository.

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

©2021 Sharon Bennett Connolly

Book Corner: Cecily by Annie Garthwaite

‘Rebellion?’
The word is a spark. They can start a fire with it, or smother it in their fingertips.
She chooses to start a fire.

You are born high, but marry a traitor’s son. You bear him twelve children, carry his cause and bury his past.

You play the game, against enemies who wish you ashes. Slowly, you rise.

You are Cecily.

But when the king who governs you proves unfit, what then?

Loyalty or treason – death may follow both. The board is set. Time to make your first move.

Told through the eyes of its greatest unknown protagonist, this astonishing debut plunges you into the closed bedchambers and bloody battlefields of the first days of the Wars of the Roses, a war as women fight it.

What a fabulous debut novel!

I had already been hearing good things about Annie Garthwaite’s book, Cecily, when I was offered a review copy from NetGalley. So, of course, I jumped at the chance to read it. A book about one of the strongest and most influential women of the 15th century was bound to interest me. I have forever been fascinated with the Wars of the Roses, after all, and written a number of articles about members of the House of York. I’ve also researched and written about Cecily’s amazing mother, Joan Beaufort, and impressive grandmother, Katherine Swynford. So, I was interested to read Annie Garthwaite’s take on this incredible woman.

And I was not disappointed,. It is hard to believe that Cecily is a debut novel. Beautifully written and composed, it transports the reader back the turmoil of fifteenth century England and shows us the Wars of the Roses through the eyes of Cecily and her husband, Richard, Duke of York. Though historical fiction, it has a sense of reality that is not always present in novels.

Cecily takes no wine in Lent but, when its privations are over, she had chance to share her uncle’s gift with unlooked-for visitors. Bedford’s widow comes to Fotheringhay. Not the gentle duchess Anne she’d come to care for in France, but pretty young Jacquetta, who took that lady’s place after plague demanded she vacate it.

In truth, of course, she’d met Jacquetta too, that time in Paris.

It was the morning after Henry’s crowning and she and Richard had been staying in the Bedfords’ household. Their new good fortune had made them more hungry for excitement than sleep, so they stole out in the cold dawn light, planning to take horses and race each other over the frost hard fields beyond the city. They were laughing as they came, thinking themselves alone, until they turned a corner into the mews and saw Jacquetta, daughter of Bedford’s ally the Count of St Pol, leaning down from a fine grey mare and kissing John of Bedford hard on the mouth.

They brazened it out. Jacquetta smiled boldly, gave brief farewells and was gone. Bedford, dismissive, bade them take whichever of his horses they fancied and enjoy their morning. Richard thanked him warmly but couldn’t look him in the eye.

Cecily could.

‘I believe it was Jacquetta’s uncle who captured the peasant Joan when the English could not and sold her to you for ten thousand livres,’ she said, pulling on her gloves. ‘I suppose that, for such service, you owe her much.’

Enough fr him to marry her, it seems. Duchess Anne died the winter after Cecily returned from France. By spring the Duke of Bedford had dried his tears in Jacquetta’s lap and taken her to wife. Cecily had grieved for it but, in truth, who could blame him? Jacquetta was sixteen, untouched by grief and, likely, fertile. He was forty years old and lonely; the king’s her and childless. After the wedding he’d brought his new wife briefly to England and had grace enough to look shamefaced when he’d asked Cecily to be a friend to her. ‘She knows no one here, you see. And I must be busy, so…’

He’d come to make pleas to the council for more money and more men. They begrudged giving either to a man who kept losing. Even then, he’d looked ill; whip thin and hollow. She’d told him so.

‘I’m just tired, Cecily,’ he’d shrugged. ‘This endless war.’

So, out of pity, and because, in truth, he’d been a maker of her fortune, she’d taken Jacquetta into her company, tolerated her French gossip; her vanity and foolishness.

Cecily is a marvellous, sweeping story, that follows the fortunes of the house of York, through the eyes of its duchess, from the last years of the Hundred Years War, through the turbulent ups and downs of the Wars of the Roses, to the triumphal coronation of Edward IV. Meticulously researched, it strikes the perfect balance between portraying national and international events, and the family life of Cecily and her husband, Richard. Ambition, love and loss, victory and defeat all play a powerful part in the narrative.

The storyline is fast-paced, the political and physical landscape of fifteenth century England providing a wonderful backdrop to the dramatic events of the era. Annie Garthwaite tries to get in the heads of her characters, depicting the Yorks not just as whit knights in shining armour, but as genuine, real people, with their own foibles and ambitions. I do love the depth of the characters. Cecily herself is not perfect, and is the product of her experiences – Annie Garthwaite has really considered how Cecily’s personality would be affected by her experiences and by the characters around her, both friends and enemies alike. The complexities of the family relationships involved in the Wars of the Roses can sometimes get confusing, but the author has managed to navigate her way through the complex relationships to craft a story that is, at once, enjoyable and intriguing.

I can heartily recommend Cecily by Annie Garthwaite to anyone with a passion for historical fiction, and for the Wars of the Roses period, in particular. The book does not disappoint!

About the author:

Annie Garthwaite grew up in a working-class community in the north-east of England. She studied English at the University of Wales before embarking on a thirty-year international business career. In 2017 she returned to her first love, books, and set out to write the story of a woman she had always felt drawn to: Cecily Neville. This became her debut novel, Cecily.

Cecily is available from Amazon

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My Books

Defenders of the Norman Crown: The Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey tells the fascinating story of the Warenne dynasty, of the successes and failures of one of the most powerful families in England, from its origins in Normandy, through the Conquest, Magna Carta, the wars and marriages that led to its ultimate demise in the reign of Edward III.

1 family. 8 earls. 300 years of English history!

Defenders of the Norman Crown: Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey is now available from Pen & Sword BooksAmazon in the UK and US and Book Depository.

Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England looks into the relationships of the various noble families of the 13th century, and how they were affected by the Barons’ Wars, Magna Carta and its aftermath; the bonds that were formed and those that were broken. It is now available from Pen & Sword,  Amazon and from Book Depository worldwide.

Heroines of the Medieval World tells the stories of some of the most remarkable women from Medieval history, from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Julian of Norwich. Available now from Amberley Publishing and Amazon and Book Depository.

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.  Available now from Amazon,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository.

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

©2021 Sharon Bennett Connolly

Introducing the Earls of Warenne and Surrey

William de Warenne, 1st Earl of Warenne and Surrey, Trinity Church, Southover

The Warenne earls of Surrey were a fascinating family, right at the heart of English history and politics for almost 300 years, from the time of the Norman Conquest to the reign of Edward III. They held lands throughout England, acted as justiciars, sheriffs and generals – and yet, few people know their story.

But who were they?

William I de Warenne was rewarded for his support of King William II in the 1088 rebellion with the earldom of Surrey. However, the earls thereafter were as often referred to as the earls of Warenne – or the familial Earl Warenne, rather than earls of Surrey. The earldoms of Sussex and Strathearn (Scotland) were later added to these titles. As they appear to have preferred the simple familial title of Earl Warenne, that is how I have chosen to refer to them, except when establishing their titles. The Warenne’s extensive lands were spread over 13 counties and spanned the country from Lewes on the south coast to their castles of Conisbrough and Sandal in Yorkshire, with their family powerbase in East Anglia, where they built a magnificent priory, castle and medieval village at Castle Acre.

Wakefield, including Sandal Castle, appears to have come into the hands of the Warenne family at some point before 1121, during the tenure of the 2nd Earl Warenne. It is possible that they were acquired possibly in an exchange of lands with William Meschin, who had taken control of the Warenne holdings of Kimbolton in Huntingdonshire and Dean in Bedfordshire some time before 1130.

The family mausoleum was at St Pancras Priory in Lewes, founded by the first earl and his wife, Gundrada. It is the burial place of all but two subsequent earls and numerous other family members, as well as several earls of Arundel and their countesses.

For almost 300 years the Warenne earls of Surrey were some of the most influential men in the country, but the family died out rather ingloriously, with the seventh – and last – earl’s marital difficulties. Despite a prestigious marriage to a granddaughter of the king of England, John de Warenne, 7th Earl Warenne, died with no legitimate son to succeed him, though he had numerous acknowledged illegitimate children to whom he had given the family name.

Gundrada de Warenne, wife of the 1st earl

The first Warenne earl, William de Warenne, Earl of Warenne and Surrey, came to England with William the Conqueror’s invasion force and fought at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. As a younger son, he had little hope of an inheritance and had acquired his fortune and reputation fighting for the duke of Normandy, making his name as a young man at the 1054 Battle of Mortemer.

The Warennes were at the heart of English history and politics from the time of the Conquest to the death of John de Warenne, the 7th and last earl in 1347

So who were the Warenne earls?

Briefly,

William de Warenne was a distant cousin of William the Conqueror and fought at the Battle of Hastings. William was a trusted advisor and companion of King William I and was appointed justiciar in England during the king’s absences in Normandy. He pursued a personal feud against English freedom fighter, Hereward the Wake, after Hereward murdered his brother-in-law, Frederic. William was created Earl of Surrey by King William II, just weeks before his death in 1088, having been fatally wounded at the siege of Pevensey. William and his wife, Gundrada, founded the first Cluniac priory in England, St Pancras, at Lewes in Sussex. It would become the family mausoleum. William and Gundrada’s coffins were found in the 19th century, when the railway line was being laid, and are now interred in the Gundrada Chapel of Trinity Church, Southover.

The Warenne coat of arms, adopted by William de Warenne, 2nd Earl of Warenne and Surrey

He was succeeded by his oldest son, William II de Warenne (it was a popular name) who was earl for 50 years. This William had an awkward relationship with Henry I – William was thwarted in love by Henry when they both set their sights on the same woman, Matilda of Scotland. William supported Robert Curthose’s claim for the throne against Henry, but was persuaded to abandon the duke of Normandy in favour of the king of England after the former’s failed attempt to invade England led to Earl Warenne’s lands being confiscated by King Henry. From that moment on Earl Warenne was loyal to Henry and gave a rousing speech in favour of King Henry before the 1119 Battle of Bremule. He married Isabel de Vermandois, granddaughter of King Henry I of France and widow of Robert, Earl of Gloucester. The relationship caused some scandal as one chronicler suggests Isabel and William ran away together, before Isabel’s first husband was dead. William’s royal ambitions would be realised when his daughter, Ada de Warenne, married Prince Henry of Scotland in 1139; William’s grandsons, Malcolm IV and William the Lion, both succeeded to the Scottish throne.

The 3rd earl fought on the wrong side (in my opinion) during the Anarchy; he supported King Stephen. Also named William, he and his forces were ignominiously routed at the 1141 Battle of Lincoln, leaving King Stephen to be captured by Earl Robert of Gloucester. Earl Warenne redeemed himself by capturing the same Earl Robert during the Rout of Winchester in the summer of 1141, thus facilitating and exchange of commanders that saw King Stephen’s release from imprisonment at Bristol Castle. Perhaps growing tired of the constant civil war, in 1147 the earl left on the Second Crusade with his half-brother, Waleran de Beaumont, Count of Meulan, led by the brothers’ second cousin, Louis VII, and his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine. Earl William was killed at the age of 28 at the Battle of Mount Cadmus in January 1148, leaving the earldom to his young daughter, Isabel.

Seal of Isabel de Warenne, 4th Countess of Warenne and Surrey in her own right

The 4th earl. Now this is where the subsequent numbering of earls gets confusing. There were two 4th earls, though some history books count them as the 4th and 5th earls. The earldom actually belonged to Isabel. Isabel de Warenne was 4th Countess of Warenne and Surrey in her own right. Her first husband, William of Blois (the first 4th earl), was the youngest son of King Stephen and her second husband, Hamelin Plantagenet (the second 4th earl), was the illegitimate half-brother of King Henry II; a thoroughly modern Hamelin changed his name from Plantagenet to de Warenne on marrying Isabel. The first marriage produced no children, which was a stroke of luck for Henry II, as William of Blois could have founded a dynasty to rival the mighty Plantagenets. The second marriage proved more fruitful, with three daughters and a son. Hamelin was a loyal supporter of his brother, Henry II, and nephews, Richard I and King John – despite the fact John seduced one of Hamelin’s daughters, fathering an illegitimate child with her. Hamelin also built the magnificent keep at Conisbrough Castle, South Yorkshire.

Their son, William de Warenne, the 5th Earl, was first cousin to both King Richard I and King John. He probably grew up in Normandy, and served with King Richard in France in the 1190s. William played an active role in English politics, negotiating with the rebels on John’s behalf in Spring 1215, attempting to avert civil war. He was a signatory of the Magna Carta in 1215 and again on its reissue in 1225; he was one of the few surviving earls to have witnessed both issues of the charter. He did side with the rebel barons and their French allies, for a time, but returned to the fold following King John’s death in October 1216. He then helped to negotiate the peace, in September 1217, which saw the French Prince Louis give up his claim to England and return home. He married Matilda Marshal, daughter of the great William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke and regent of England for the first few years of Henry III’s reign. The couple had two children; their daughter, Isabel d’Aubigny, Countess of Arundel, became famous for berating King Henry III over the appropriation of a wardship that was rightfully hers.

Seal of John de Warenne, 6th Earl of Warenne and Surrey

John de Warenne, the 6th earl, was the longest serving earl of them all, holding the title for 64 years. His father died when he was 8 years old. Henry III became his brother-in-law when he married the king’s half-sister, Alice de Lusignan, daughter of Queen Isabella of Angouleme and her second husband, Hugh X de Lusignan. The marriage was a happy one and the couple truly loved each other; following Alice’s death in childbirth, John did not take another wife. John de Warenne fought in the Second Barons’ War and was a close associate of the future king, Edward I. He was at the Battle of Lewes in 1264, fighting for King Henry III against Simon de Montfort, but escaped to the continent when the battle was lost. John was probably at Evesham for the defeat and death of Simon de Montfort, though his presence is not recorded; he was certainly with Henry III’s son, Edward, in the days before the battle. His daughter, Isabella, was married to John Balliol, King of Scots, and the mother of Edward Balliol, who pursued his own claim to the Scottish throne in the 1330s. John was guardian of Scotland for a time and lost the Battle of Stirling to William Wallace in 1298. John de Warenne was a brutal man with a sense of humour; he once claimed the rights to all the rabbit warrens in Surrey – because it was his name! His son, William de Warenne, had died during a tournament in 1286, so when John died in 1304, aged 68, he was succeeded by his 18-year-old grandson, John II de Warenne.

Lewes Castle, Sussex, seat of the earls of Warenne and Surrey

John II de Warenne, the 7th and last earl of Warenne and Surrey, spent most of his adult life trying to divorce his wife, Jeanne de Bar (Joan of Bar), a granddaughter of King Edward I, in order to marry his mistress. He made various claims to try and effect a divorce, including that he had had an affair with his wife’s aunt, Mary of Woodstock, who had been a nun from the age of 7. John was embroiled in a private – but very public – feud with Thomas of Lancaster, Edward II’s most powerful vassal, and even went so far as kidnapping Lancaster’s wife, Alice de Lacey. In retaliation, Lancaster seized the Warenne castles of Conisbrough and Sandal, both being close to his own castle of Pontefract. The castles were only restored to John after Lancaster’s execution following his defeat at the Battle of Boroughbridge, in 1322. John was involved in many of the events that shaped the reign of Edward II, though he did not fight in the 1314 English defeat by the Scots at the Battle of Bannockburn. He supported Edward II to the end – almost, only adding his to support to Isabella of France and the future Edward III, when he saw that the king’s cause was hopeless. He died in 1347 at Conisbrough, still married to Jeanne de Bar and with no legitimate heir to succeed him. The earldom passed to his nephew, Richard FitzAlan, Earl of Arundel, but the Yorkshire lands, including Conisbrough and Sandal castles, passed to the crown and were given to Edward III’s fourth surviving son, Edmund of Langley, 1st Duke of York.

Castle Acre Priory, Norfolk, one of the Cluniac monasteries founded by the Warenne earls

And that is just a – very – brief summary of the earls.

The Warenne family has a fascinating history, right at the heart of English politics for the better part of 3 centuries. They had family bond that is not always found amongst the aristocracy, with brothers and sisters helping and supporting each other and working for the benefit of their family. Strategic marriages forged links with the greatest families in England, Scotland and France; their family connections spanned the greatest noble houses, from the Marshals, the FitzAlans, the Lusignans, the d’Aubignys and Percys to the Scottish, French and English royal families.

One family, over 8 generations, the Warennes were at the centre of 300 years of English history.

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Selected Sources:

Elisabeth Van Houts, Hereward and Flanders (article), Anglo-Saxon England vol. 28; A History of the County of Sussex: Volume 2 edited by William Page; W.H. Blaauw, On the Early History of Lewes Priory, and its Seals, with extracts from a MS. Chronicle, Sussex Archaeological Collections; Edward Impey, Castle Acre Priory and Castle, English Heritage; Warenne, Gundrada de (d.1085) (article) by C.P. Lewis, Oxforddnb.com; Elisabeth M.C. Van Houts and Rosalind C. Love (eds and trans), The Warenne (Hyde) Chronicle; Jeffrey James, The Bastard’s Sons: Robert, William and Henry of Normandy; Early Yorkshire Charters Volume 8 Edited by William Farrer and Charles Travis Clay; Rev. John Watson, Memoirs of the Ancient Earls of Warren and Surrey, and Their Descendants to the Present Time, Volume I; Alfred S. Ellis, Biographical Notes on the Yorkshire Tenants Named in Domesday Book (article); C.P. Lewis, Warenne, William de, first Earl of Surrey [Earl Warenne] (d. 1088) (article), Oxforddnb.com; The Oxford Companion to British History Edited by John Cannon; The Plantagenets, the Kings who Made England by Dan Jones; History Today Companion to British History Edited by Juliet Gardiner and Neil Wenborn;  Brewer’s British Royalty by David Williamson; Britain’s Royal Families, the Complete Genealogy by Alison Weir; Conisbrough Castle Giudebook by Steven Brindle and Agnieszka Sadraei; The Mammoth Book of British Kings and Queens by Mike Ashley; The Plantagenets, the Kings that made Britain by Derek Wilson; royaldescent.net; F. Royston Fairbank, ‘The Last Earl of Warenne and Surrey, and the Distribution of his Possessions’, The Yorkshire Archaeological Journal, vol. XIX; Scott L. Waugh, ‘Warenne, John de, seventh earl of Surrey earl of Surrey and Sussex, Earl Warenne’, ODNB; ‘Annals written by a certain monk of Lewes, from the birth of Christ to the year 1312’ quoted in Blaauw, On the Early History of Lewes Priory; Kelcey Wilson-Lee, Daughters of Chivalry: The Forgotten Children of Edward I; Katheryn Warner, Philippa of Hainault: Mother of the English Nation

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My Books

Defenders of the Norman Crown: The Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey tells the fascinating story of the Warenne dynasty, of the successes and failures of one of the most powerful families in England, from its origins in Normandy, through the Conquest, Magna Carta, the wars and marriages that led to its ultimate demise in the reign of Edward III.

1 family. 8 earls. 300 years of English history!

Defenders of the Norman Crown: Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey is now available from Pen & Sword BooksAmazon in the UK and US and Book Depository.

Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England looks into the relationships of the various noble families of the 13th century, and how they were affected by the Barons’ Wars, Magna Carta and its aftermath; the bonds that were formed and those that were broken. It is now available from Pen & Sword,  Amazon and from Book Depository worldwide.

Heroines of the Medieval World tells the stories of some of the most remarkable women from Medieval history, from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Julian of Norwich. Available now from Amberley Publishing and Amazon and Book Depository.

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.  Available now from Amazon,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository.

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

©2021 Sharon Bennett Connolly

Guest Post: Trial by Combat – Rough Justice by Toni Mount

It is an absolute pleasure to welcome author and historian Toni Mount back to the blog, with an article based on her research for her latest non-fiction book, How to Survive in Medieval England. Toni has a wonderful way with words to the extent that her books – fiction and non-fiction alike – are a pure pleasure to read.

So, without further ado, it is over to Toni:

Trial by Combat – Rough Justice

My new book, How to Survive in Medieval England, published by Pen & Sword, is a guide to travelling in history: what to expect, how to dress, how to stay safe and what to look for on the menu.

If you were able to go back in time to medieval England, so much would be very different and so many things missing – all technology, from engines to the Internet. All work would be done by hand. In medieval England, the law sometimes works quite differently from the way we expect today. Trial by Ordeal was a means of deciding who was innocent and who was guilty. A suspect or the accused would be taken to a church and with a priest presiding, subjected to one of a number of horrific acts.

Trial by Fire – a priest (centre) blesses the ordeal as the accused (left) takes the red-hot iron in hand.
[Readers may note the accused wears ‘motley’ – parti-coloured cloth – a sure sign of untrustworthiness.’

A favourite was Trial by Fire. In this case, a piece of iron was heated to red-hot in a brazier and the accused had to remove the metal from the fire – by hand! His burns would be bandaged and left for a week. When inspected by the priest at the end of seven days, if they were healing well this was God’s decision and the accused was innocent. But if the burns were septic and weeping, that was also God’s doing and proved the accused was guilty because God was not on his side.

Trial by Water could be similar with the accused having to plunge his hand into a cauldron of boiling water. Or, an alternative Ordeal by Water involved throwing the accused into a pond or river, though this one always seems most unfair to me. If the accused sank and, therefore, probably drowned, he was innocent because the water, having been blessed by a priest, ‘accepted’ him. If he floated, he was guilty because the blessed water refused him. In which case, he would be hanged, so he died either way.

Another method was Trial by Combat in which the accuser and the accused fought it out with weapons. God would cause whoever was telling the truth to win the battle.

In 1249, a gang of thieves was terrorising Winchester, Salisbury and Guildford, specialising in stealing expensive clothing and shoes. The gang was often violent and, although folk in the area knew who they were, they were too scared to accuse them.

Top right corner – Walter (left) fighting Hamo (right) and Hamo (top centre) being hanged after he lost
[https://blogs.loc.gov/law/2018/09/judicial-combat-barbarous-relic-or-timeless-litigation-strategy/]

In my new book, I include some imagined interviews with real people of the time as a means of telling about true aspects or incidents in their lives. Let’s speak to Walter Blowberme, a member of this notorious gang of thieves:

‘Now Walter, you were caught in the act, I believe, and admitted your crimes. Tell us what you did.’

‘Well, see, we stoled all this valuable stuff, didn’t we? Good cloth, shoes, some jewellery and silver cups. Made a fine profit ’til I got caught, filching a gold brooch. I knewed this meant a date wi’ the hangman for me so I told the sheriff I’d be an approver.’

‘What is an approver?’

‘You don’t know? What a dim-wit. It means my life’ll be spared if I telled the court the names of ten others involved in the crimes. I didn’t want t’ do it, ’cos they was my mates but a man has t’ lookout for hisself.’

‘So you snitched on your fellows. What happened then?’

‘I named six fellows from Guildford who was all members of the gang. They was all arrested, tried and condemned. I didn’t feel too bad about them ’cos I never liked most of ’em, except Tom. It was a shame about him. But I still needed another four fellows convicted to save my own neck, so I accused three from Hampshire. They wasn’t in the gang; just fellows I knowed and didn’t like much. They was found not guilty and released so I had t’ name four others as gang members. It’s a good thing I know so many folk and don’t like none of ’em. These four was nasty bits o’ work, I can tell you, but when the sheriff tried to take ’em, three managed to escape. But because they never turned up in court, they was found guilty anyway. The fourth fellow, Hamo Stare – my sister’s husband what I never liked – was brung to trial but things was so complicated, the judge offered Hamo a trial by ordeal.’

‘I thought trial by ordeal was made illegal by the Church?’

‘Don’t ask me; I’m not the judge. Anyhow, Hamo chosed trial by combat and I, as his accuser, had to be his opponent. We had wooden clubs and shields and fighted ’til we was both bloody but Hamo gave in first. The judge declared God had gived me most strength, so I must have spoke truly against Hamo. Hamo was hanged – good riddance – and I’d managed to get ten fellows convicted, so my life was spared but I got banished from the district forever ’cos I admitted being guilty of so many crimes.’

‘But you didn’t mend your ways, Walter?’

‘Nay. Couldn’t resist some silver bits, could I? I comed t’ London and just six months later I got caught, thieving a chalice and candlesticks from St Mary-le-Bow church.’

‘And this time there is no second chance for you, is there, Walter?’

‘Nay. This time it’s the gallows for me. T’morrow. Pray for me soul, won’t you?’

Judicial tests and ordeals had been abolished at an important Lateran Council meeting, held by the pope in 1215, stating that churchmen may ‘neither pronounce nor execute a sentence of death. Nor may they act as judges in extreme criminal cases, or take part in matters connected with.’ This meant trial by ordeal no longer had God’s sanction – a priest had to be present as His representative – since it was God who determined the outcome. However, obviously, such trials must have continued for at least another thirty years.

A naughty priest in the stocks along with his mistress – churchmen’s punishments were not so bad.
[https://www.historyextra.com/period/medieval/monks-sex-drink-gamble-history-pope/]

Churchmen could no longer sit in judgement but neither could they be tried in a state court. They had to be tried in church courts by their fellow clerics and a death sentence could never be past, even for murder. So, in medieval England, if anyone could prove they were a man of the cloth, or a nun, then they could, literally, get away with murder. Here’s how: only trained clerics can read Latin; so if the accused can read the Bible – always in Latin – he must be a churchman. To prove a person can read, the same passage is always required to be read aloud from the Bible: ‘Oh loving and kind God, have mercy. Have pity upon my transgressions.’ (Psalm 51, Verse 1.) This meant that any forward-thinking criminal learned this verse by heart, in Latin, even if he couldn’t read a word. It saved the necks of so many miscreants, it was known as the ‘Neck-Verse’ and got a great number of very guilty people out of trouble.

Readers can find out far more about medieval lives, meet some of the characters involved and get a ‘taste’ of the food of the time in How to Survive in Medieval England, my new book from Pen & Sword, published on 30th June 2021 and available for pre-order now on Amazon.

About the book:

How to Survive in Medieval England by Toni Mount
Pen & Sword History (30 Jun. 2021)

Imagine you were transported back to Medieval England and had to start a new life – without mobile phones, ipads, or social media. When transport meant walking or, if you’re lucky, horse-back; how will you know where you are or what to do? Where will you live? What is there to eat? What shall you wear and how can you communicate? Who can you turn to if you fall ill or are mugged in the street,? All these questions and many more are answered in this new guide book. How to Survive in Medieval England is a handy self-help guide with tips and suggestions to make your visit to the Middle Ages much more fun. Learn the rules so you don’t get into trouble or show your ignorance in embarrassing
situations and read interviews with the stars of the day, from a celebrity chef to King Richard III himself. Have an exciting visit but be sure to keep this book to hand.

About the Author

Toni Mount is a history teacher and a best-selling author of historical non-fiction and fiction. She’s a member of the Richard III Society’s Research Committee, a regular speaker to groups and societies and belongs to the Crime Writers’ Association. She writes regularly for Tudor Life magazine, has written several online courses for http://www.MedievalCourses.com and created the Sebastian Foxley series of medieval murder mysteries. Toni has a First class honours degree in history, a Masters Degree in Medieval History, a Diploma in English Literature with Creative Writing, a Diploma in European Humanities and a PGCE. She lives in Kent, England with her husband and has two grown-up sons.

Web http://www.tonimount.com

Social https://www.facebook.com/toni.mount.10/ https://twitter.com/tonihistorian https://www.instagram.com/toni.mount.10/

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My Books

Defenders of the Norman Crown: The Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey tells the fascinating story of the Warenne dynasty, of the successes and failures of one of the most powerful families in England, from its origins in Normandy, through the Conquest, Magna Carta, the wars and marriages that led to its ultimate demise in the reign of Edward III.

1 family. 8 earls. 300 years of English history!

Defenders of the Norman Crown: Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey is now available from Pen & Sword BooksAmazon in the UK and US and Book Depository.

Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England looks into the relationships of the various noble families of the 13th century, and how they were affected by the Barons’ Wars, Magna Carta and its aftermath; the bonds that were formed and those that were broken. It is now available from Pen & Sword,  Amazon and from Book Depository worldwide.

Heroines of the Medieval World tells the stories of some of the most remarkable women from Medieval history, from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Julian of Norwich. Available now from Amberley Publishing and Amazon and Book Depository.

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.  Available now from Amazon,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository.

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

©2021 Sharon Bennett Connolly and Toni Mount

The Parentage of Gundrada de Warenne

Gundrada de Warenne, the Gundrada chapel, Trinity Church Southover

When I first volunteered at Conisbrough Castle, in the early 1990s, it was believed that Gundrada de Warenne the wife of William de Warenne, first Earl of Warenne, was the daughter of William the Conqueror and Matilda of Flanders. Royal connections were very important in the 11th century and still provide a fascination to us today, so it was a fabulous piece of history to be able to impart to visitors. Unfortunately, the truth is never quite what it seems.

Sometime in the years either side of the Conquest, William de Warenne married Gundrada. Gundrada’s parentage has long been a subject of debate among historians. Her story throughout history has been coloured by the belief, now thought to be a mistaken one, that she was the daughter of Queen Matilda. Many historians from the eighteenth to the twentieth centuries accepted this as fact and obviously started their research from this false assumption, without looking deeper into the origins of the story. For many years Gundrada was believed to be the fifth and youngest daughter of William the Conqueror and his wife, Matilda of Flanders. In 1878 Sir George Duckett wrote an article for the Cumberland and Westmorland Archaeological Society arguing that the foundation charter for St Pancras Priory, Lewes ‘expressly states Gundrada to have been the Queen’s Daughter’, the wording within the charter being; ‘pro salute dominæ meæ Matildis Reginæ matrix uxoris mea’ [ ‘for the health of my mistress Queen Matilda, mother of my wife’].1

This statement in the priory’s second founding charter, issued in the reign of King William II Rufus, appeared to contradict the claims by Orderic Vitalis, a near contemporary, that ‘Guillelmo de Guarenna qui Gundredam sororem Gherbodi conjugem habitat, dedit Surregiam.’ [‘William de Warenne, whose wife Gundrada was sister of Gerbod, was given Surrey’.]2 Gundrada’s own tombstone contains enough ambiguity to add to the confusion, rather than clarify the issue:

Gundrada, offspring of dukes, glory of the age, noble shoot,
brought to the churches of the English the balm of her character.
As a Martha …
she was to the wretched; a Mary she was in her piety.
That part of Martha [in her] died; the greater part of Mary survives.
O, pious Pancras, witness of truth and justice,
she makes you her heir; may you in your clemency accept the mother.
The sixth day of the kalends of June, showing itself,
broke the alabaster containing her flesh …3

In 1846 Thomas Stapleton wrote a paper for the Archaeological Journal proposing that Gundrada was Matilda’s daughter from an earlier, undocumented marriage, to Gerbod, advocate of Saint-Bertin, thus explaining her also being a sister to Gerbod, Earl of Chester. In this theory, it was proposed that Gundrada was not a daughter of the king, but his stepdaughter. This notion neatly ties in with Orderic Vitalis identifying Gundrada as ‘Sister of Gherbode, a Fleming, to whom King William the First had given the City and Earldom of Chester.’4 E.A. Freeman, in his six-volume The History of the Norman Conquest of England, published between 1867 and 1879 stated, ‘For a long while, Gundrada was looked on as a daughter of William himself, but there is no doubt that she and her brother Gerbod were the children of Matilda by her first husband.’5

The certainty of Gundrada being the daughter of Matilda of Flanders mean that historians tried to fit the facts to that theory, rather than re-examining the case entirely.

Tomb of Gundrada, Gundrada Chapel, Trinity Church, Southover

Disputing the suggestion of Matilda’s marriage to Gerbod, historian W.H. Blaauw observed that not one of the Norman chroniclers ‘dropped the smallest hint of any husband or child, or consequently any such divorce on the part of Matilda previous to her marriage with the King.’6 Duckett goes on to say that the Norman chroniclers, indeed, said quite the opposite; each of them attesting that Matilda was a young, unmarried girl at the time of her betrothal to William of Normandy. However, Duckett then draws the conclusion that this can only mean that Gundrada was the daughter of both Matilda and William of Normandy, and that Gerbod of Chester was her foster-brother, rather than actual brother. The claim was also made in a charter in which the king gave to the monks of St Pancras (Lewes) the manor of Walton in Norfolk, on the foundation of the priory. In the charter the king distinctly names ‘Guilelmi de Warenna, et uxoris suæ Gundredæ filiæ meæ’ (‘William de Warenne and his wife Gundrada, my daughter’).7

St Pancras Priory at Lewes was founded as a Cluniac monastery by William and Gundrada and it may be that the monks got carried away with the idea of their foundress having royal blood; royal links could prove financially lucrative when a monastery was looking for benefactors, and would help a monastery stand out among the many vying for patronage. However, it may also be that there was a simple error when copying the charter from the original. For whatever reason, the claims by St Pancras Priory at Lewes have caused controversy throughout the ensuing centuries. Other suggestions have included that Gundrada was an adopted daughter, raised alongside William and Matilda’s own children who were of a similar age. Alternatively, due to her Flemish origins, it has been argued that the confusion arose as she had joined Matilda’s household at an early age; an assertion supported by Matilda’s gift to Gundrada of the manor of Carlton in Cambridge – a manor Gundrada later gave to Lewes Priory. In 1888, writing in the English Historical Review, E.A. Freeman returned to the subject and used the priory’s original charter to conclude that there was no familial relationship between Gundrada and William the Conqueror. In it, while the king and William de Warenne, both, mention Gundrada, neither refer to her as being related to the king or queen. Freeman stated, ‘there is nothing to show that Gundrada was the daughter either of King William or of Queen Matilda; there is a great deal to show that she was not.’8

It now seems more likely that Gundrada was a Flemish noblewoman, the sister of Gerbod who would be, for a brief time, earl of Chester. Historian Elisabeth van Houts argues that Gundrada was most likely a distant relative of Queen Matilda and the counts of Flanders, as asserted in her epitaph as ‘offspring of dukes’ and a ‘noble shoot’. Indeed, had her father been William the Conqueror, her epitaph would surely have referred to her as the offspring of kings. Even if she had been the daughter of Matilda by an earlier marriage, off-spring of kings would have still been appropriate, given that Queen Matilda was the granddaughter of King Robert II of France.

William de Warenne, the Gundrada chapel, Trinity Church Southover

Gundrada’s father may also have been called Gerbod, or Gherbode. It is highly likely that this was the same Gerbod who was the hereditary advocate of the monastery of St Bertin; a title which in later generations will pass down through the Warenne family. Another brother, Frederic, appears to have jointly, with Gundrada, held lands in England even before the Conquest, when two people named Frederic and Gundrada are mentioned as holding four manors in Kent and Sussex. It would indeed be a coincidence if there were two other related people, named Frederic and Gundrada, very distinctive foreign names, in England at that time. Gundrada’s brothers, it seems, were deeply involved in the border politics between Flanders and Normandy; indeed, it is thought that Gerbod resigned his responsibilities in Chester in order to return to the Continent to oversee the family’s lands and duties there, following the death of an older brother, Arnulf II of Oosterzele-Scheldewindeke.

Gundrada’s brother, Frederic, along with the count of Flanders, was a witness to Count Guy of Ponthieu’s charter to the Abbey of St Riquier in 1067.9 The ‘dukes’ referred to in Gundrada’s epitaph, although naturally assumed to be of Normandy, could well refer to a kinship with the house of Luxembourg, to which Queen Matilda’s paternal grandmother, Orgive, belonged. Moreover, Frederic was a familial name within the house of Luxembourg. This kinship via the House of Luxembourg with Queen Matilda would also explain the queen’s gift to Gundrada, of the manor of Carlton, which is usually given as evidence that Gundrada belonged to the queen’s household; an association which would be entirely consistent with kinship.

The Warenne coat of arms, the Gundrada chapel, Trinity Church Southover

Marriage between William de Warenne and Gundrada was a good match on both sides. Although William was a second son, he had acquired lands and reputation through his military skills. Warenne’s lands in Normandy lay close to the border with Flanders, while Gundrada, with her politically astute brothers and links to England even before the Conquest, would have been an attractive proposition as a bride. Both Frederic and Gerbod appear to have joined the Norman expedition to England, with Frederic receiving, as reward, lands in Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire, valued at over £100 a year; lands which had previously belonged to a rich Englishman named Toki. Gerbod, in turn, was given the earldom of Chester, which he held until relinquishing it to return to Flanders in 1071.

Gundrada’s parentage may not be as illustrious as was once thought and her origins are now obscured by time, but the dynasty that she and William founded would be at the heart of the Anglo-Norman political elite for the next three centuries. In the twelfth century, her great grandsons, Malcolm IV and William the Lion, would sit on the Scottish throne and her descendants would, eventually, become the rulers of the United Kingdom, even down to the present incumbent, Queen Elizabeth II.

Footnotes:

1 My translation from quote in George Floyd Duckett, Observations on the Parentage of Gundreda, the Daughter of William Duke of Normandy, and Wife of William de Warenne; 2 ibid; 3 Elisabeth M.C. Van Houts and Rosalind C. Love (eds and trans), The Warenne (Hyde) Chronicle; 4 Early Yorkshire Charters Volume 8: The Honour of Warenne, Edited by William Farrer and Charles Travis Clay; 5 ibid; 6 W.H. Blaauw quoted in Duckett, Observations on the Parentage of Gundreda; 7 Duckett, Observations on the Parentage of Gundreda; 8 Farrer and Clay, Early Yorkshire Charters; 9 C.P. Lewis, ‘Warenne, Gundrada de (d.1085)’, ODNB.

Sources:

Early Yorkshire Charters Volume 8: The Honour of Warenne, Edited by William Farrer and Charles Travis Clay; England Under the Norman and Angevin Kings by Robert BatlettBrewer’s British Royalty by David WilliamsonBritain’s Royal Families, the Complete Genealogy by Alison Weir; british-history.ac.uk; kristiedean.com; English Heritage Guidebook for Conisbrough Castle by Steven Brindle and Agnieszka Sadrei; oxforddnb.com; George Floyd Duckett, Observations on the Parentage of Gundreda, the Daughter of William Duke of Normandy, and Wife of William de Warenne; Elisabeth M.C. Van Houts and Rosalind C. Love (eds and trans), The Warenne (Hyde) Chronicle; C.P. Lewis, ‘Warenne, Gundrada de (d.1085)’, ODNB; Elisabeth Van Houts, ‘The Warenne View of the Past’, in Proceedings of the Battle Conference 2003, edited by John Gillingham

Images:

©2021 Sharon Bennett Connolly. Published with the kind permission of the rector of Trinity Church, Southover

My books

Defenders of the Norman Crown: The Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey tells the fascinating story of the Warenne dynasty, of the successes and failures of one of the most powerful families in England, from its origins in Normandy, through the Conquest, Magna Carta, the wars and marriages that led to its ultimate demise in the reign of Edward III.

1 family. 8 earls. 300 years of English history!

Defenders of the Norman Crown: Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey will be released in the UK on 31 May and in the US on 6 August. And it is now available for pre-order from Pen & Sword BooksAmazon in the UK and US and Book Depository.

Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England looks into the relationships of the various noble families of the 13th century, and how they were affected by the Barons’ Wars, Magna Carta and its aftermath; the bonds that were formed and those that were broken. It is now available from Pen & Sword,  Amazon and from Book Depository worldwide.

Heroines of the Medieval World tells the stories of some of the most remarkable women from Medieval history, from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Julian of Norwich. Available now from Amberley Publishing and Amazon and Book Depository.

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.  Available now from Amazon,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository.

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

©2021 Sharon Bennett Connolly.

Book Launch: Defenders of the Norman Crown

In the reign of Edward I, when asked Quo Warranto ‘by what warrant he held his lands’ John de Warenne, the 6th earl of Surrey, is said to have drawn a rusty sword, claiming “My ancestors came with William the Bastard, and conquered their lands with the sword, and I will defend them with the sword against anyone wishing to seize them”

John’s ancestor, William de Warenne, 1st Earl of Surrey, fought for William the Conqueror at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. He was rewarded with enough land to make him one of the richest men of all time.

In his search for a royal bride, the 2nd earl kidnapped the wife of a fellow baron.

The 3rd earl died on crusade, fighting for his royal cousin, Louis VII of France…

For three centuries, the Warennes were at the heart of English politics at the highest level, until one unhappy marriage brought an end to the dynasty. The family moved in the highest circles, married into royalty and were not immune to scandal. Defenders of the Norman Crown tells the fascinating story of the Warenne dynasty, of the successes and failures of one of the most powerful families in England, from its origins in Normandy, through the Conquest, Magna Carta, the wars and marriages that led to its ultimate demise in the reign of Edward III.

It’s finally here!

My fourth non-fiction book, Defenders of the Norman Crown: Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey, comes out today in hardback in the UK – it will be released in the US and elsewhere on 6 August. Telling the remarkable story of the Earls of Warenne and Surrey, and their family, from the time of the Norman Conquest to the reign of Edward III, Defenders of the Norman Crown follows a family right at the heart of Anglo-Norman England.

1 family. 8 earls. 300 years of English history!

And here’s what early reviewers are saying:

Sharon Bennett Connolly has written an evocative narrative, highlighting the role the Warenne earls of Surrey played in the nation’s history. Her meticulous research is evident in every page, making the book both a reference guide and an immensely enjoyable read.

Kristie Dean, author of On the Trail of the Yorks and The World of Richard III

Another great read from Pen & Sword. I’m vaguely familiar with this family, so reading a book specifically about their history from inception to the end of it, was very interesting. It’s definitely one I’d like to have on my shelf to reference again in the future.

NetGalley, Caidyn Young
Warenne coat of arms

5 out of 5 stars

An impressive and long overdue publication about the earls of Surrey, the Warenne (Varenne in Normandy) and their steadfast contributions and deep loyalties to the English Crown from the heyday of the Norman Conquest and the battlefield of Hastings to the glorious reign of Edward III. Ms. Bennett Connolly has given us a solidly researched portrait of a medieval family and its successful longevity during the three long and troublesome centuries that followed the Norman establishment on the throne and the roles played by its successive and prominent members in the shadows of the crown. A colorful tapestry through all the ups and downs of medieval England, its monarchical shenanigans and its military and political restlessness. Highly recommended to anyone interested in English and European medieval history.

NetGalley, jean luc estrella

Oh my goodness, Sharon Bennett Connolly has done it again! This was the perfect romp through a medieval family! Honor, scandal, marriages, and intrigue all play into the Warrene family lines.
Beginning with William of Normandy, and going down through the Wars of the Roses, this book will read as an action-packed, give me all the information book!

I loved this one! The Warrene family was very prominent throughout the medieval history of England, and this book will dive into their past, and share everything that you could ever want to know about this ambitious family.

And if you would like to hear a little more about the Warenne earls, I presented the David Hey Memorial Lecture in 2020 as part of the Doncaster Local Heritage Festival. The lecture, Warenne: The Earls of Surrey and Conisbrough Castle, is still available to watch on YouTube.

Rebecca Hill, NetGalley

And …

To survive during the reigns of the Norman and Plantagenet Kings of England, one must understand where their loyalty and trust lied. Did they follow the crown or did they take a risk and follow those who opposed the person who wore the crown? For one family, there was no question who they were loyal to, which was the crown. The Warenne Earls of Surrey served the Kings of England from William the Conqueror to Edward III, gaining titles, prestige, and marriages that would cement their names in history books. They survived some of the most turbulent times in English history even if they did have a few scandals in their illustrious history. In Sharon Bennett Connolly’s latest non-fiction adventure, “Defenders of the Norman Crown: The Rose and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey ”, she explores this family’s history that spanned over three centuries.

I would like to thank Pen and Sword Books and NetGalley for sending me a copy of this book. I have been a fan of Sharon Bennett Connolly’s books for a while now, so when I heard about this title, I knew I wanted to read it. I was going in a bit blind since I have never heard of the Warenne Earls of Surrey, but that is part of the fun of studying a new aspect of history.

The first Earl of Surrey, William de Warenne began this family’s tradition of royal loyalty as he joined William the Conqueror on his journey to England and fought alongside him to establish Norman rule at the Battle of Hastings. William’s descendants would be involved in some of the most important events of the time, from the crusades to the 1st and 2nd Baron’s Wars and the sealing of the Magna Carta. At some points, the earls would briefly switch sides if they thought the king was not in the best interest of the country, but they remained at the heart of English politics and worked hard to help guide the king and the country to become stronger.

What made the Warennes a tour de force when it came to noble families was their ability to marry well, except for the final earl and his scandalous relationships. The second earl desired to marry into the royal family, which did not happen, but his daughter, Ada de Warenne would marry William the Lion, King of Scotland. One of the daughters of Hamlin and Isabel de Warenne would be the mistress of King John and would give birth to his illegitimate son Richard of Chilham. The only woman of the family who inherited the earldom of Surrey, Isabel de Warenne, was married twice and so both of her husbands, William of Blois and Hamelin of Anjou, are considered the 4th earl of Surrey.

Connolly does a wonderful job explaining each story in de Warenne’s long history, including the minor branches of the family. I was able to understand the difference between family members who shared the same first name, (like William, John, and Isabel) but I know that others might have struggled with this aspect. I think it would have been helpful if Connolly had included either a family tree or a list of family members of the de Warennes at the beginning of this book to help readers who did struggle.

I found this particular title fascinating. The de Warenne’s were a family that proved loyalty to the crown and good marriages went a long way to cement one’s legacy in medieval England. Connolly proved that she has a passion for bringing obscure noble families to the spotlight through her impeccable research. If you want a nonfiction book of a noble family full of loyalty, love, and action, you should check out “Defenders of the Norman Crown: The Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey” by Sharon Bennett Connolly.

Heidi Malagisi, NetGalley and Adventures of a Tudor Nerd

David Hey Memorial Lecture

Last year, I presented the David Hey Memorial Lecture for Doncaster Heritage Festival, entitled Warenne: The Earls of Surrey and Conisbrough Castle. Just press play on the link below if you would like to watch and hear a little more about the Warennes.

Defenders of the Norman Crown: Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey is released in the UK today and in the US on 6 August. And it is now available from Pen & Sword BooksAmazon in the UK and US and Book Depository.

Signed copies!

If you would like a signed, dedicated copy of  Defenders of the Norman Crown: Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey, or any of my books, please get in touch by completing the contact me form.

Online Book Launch Event

Defenders of the Norman Crown online Book Launch!I am going to do a Zoom online talk to celebrate the launch of Defenders of the Norman Crown: Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey.It will be on Saturday 5th June from 7pm UK time, with a talk followed by a Q&A. Bring your own wine and cake!

If you would like to join me (please do!) then just pm me with your email address and I will send you an invite. If you would like to come along, please get in touch via the CONTACT ME form and I will send you an invite. Can’t wait to tell you all about Defenders of the Norman Crown and the Warenne earls of Surrey.

The Warenne stronghold of Conisbrough Castle

Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England looks into the relationships of the various noble families of the 13th century, and how they were affected by the Barons’ Wars, Magna Carta and its aftermath; the bonds that were formed and those that were broken. It is now available from Pen & Sword,  Amazon and from Book Depository worldwide.

Heroines of the Medieval World tells the stories of some of the most remarkable women from Medieval history, from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Julian of Norwich. Available now from Amberley Publishing and Amazon and Book Depository.

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.  Available now from Amazon,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository.

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

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Images: ©2021 Sharon Bennett Connolly

©2021 Sharon Bennett Connolly

Guest Post: The Infamous Lady Rochford and the fall of Anne Boleyn by Monika Simon

Today it is a pleasure to welcome Monika Simon to the blog. Monika’s debut book, From Robber Barons to Courtiers: The Changing World of the Lovells of Titchmarsh, is out at the end of the month. And on the anniversary of the execution of Henry VIII’s second and tragic queen, Anne Boleyn, Monika has written about the involvement in events, of Anne’s sister-in-law, Jane, Lady Rochford.

The Infamous Lady Rochford and the fall of Anne Boleyn

by Monika Simon

Anne Boleyn, National Portrait Gallery

Anne Boleyn, the second wife of Henry VIII and mother of Queen Elizabeth I, was executed on 19 May 1536. Reading about the whirlwind prosecution of Anne Boleyn and her fellow accused that lasted not even four weeks, one name comes up inevitably as one of the key witness if not the key witness: Anne’s sister-in-law Jane, Lady Rochford, sometimes cited as the person who may have accused Anne and her brother George of incest.

In short, she has become ‘the infamous Lady Rochford’. But does she deserve her infamy?

Jane was born Jane Parker, the name I continue to use here*, around the year 1500 as the oldest (or possibly second oldest) daughter of Henry Parker, Lord Morley and his wife Alice St John. Her father was the son of Alice Lovell and Sir William Parker, a knight from an obscure northern family. William Parker had made his career in the service of Richard III and it is possible that Alice Lovell’s cousin Francis Lovell had helped to arrange the marriage between Alice and his fellow member of the retinue of Richard, then Duke of Gloucester. Alice Lovell inherited her mother’s Morley estates after the death of her brother Henry Parker, Lord Morley in the battle of Dixmude in 1489. As a boy, Henry Parker entered the service of Margaret Beaufort, the mother of Henry VII, and she arranged his marriage to Alice St John, the granddaughter of her half-brother John St John.

Around 1520, Jane Parker became a lady-in-waiting of Catherine of Aragon. To achieve this position she must have been good looking and quite accomplished. In the following years she often participated in the grand pageants at court, including a particularly spectacular one in 1522 revolving around a mocked-up castle, the Château Vert. It was inhabited by ladies dressed as virtues. A mock fight was then staged between boys representing vices and eight gentleman, including Henry VIII, who also bore mottos. Jane was given the role of Perseverance, the king’s sister Mary Tudor was Beauty and a recent newcomer, Anne Boleyn, portrayed Constancy. In the mid-1520s Jane Parker married Anne Boleyn’s brother George, whom she must have known well from court.

The Parkers were estates were situated near those of the Boleyns and the Howards were another noble family whose property was nearby. As is so often the case with aristocratic families, multiple ties existed between these families. Jane’s grandmother Alice Lovell had married Edward Howard after the death of her first husband. Edward Howard’s sister Elizabeth was the wife of Thomas Boleyn and the mother of Jane’s husband George and Anne Boleyn. Thomas Boleyn’s sister Anne was in turn the mother-in-law of Jane’s sister Margaret.

While George Boleyn was profiting from his sisters affair with and marriage to Henry VIII, Jane was able to enjoy the honours and grants that he received alongside her husband. When her father-in-law was elevated to Earl of Wiltshire, George received the courtesy title of Viscount and Jane became a Viscountess.

But Jane’s situation changed drastically when the relationship between Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn soured. As lady-in-waiting and sister-in-law to Anne, Jane was one of the women and men who were questioned in the search for incriminating evidence against Anne, her brother George, and the other accused. The brief description of Jane’s life in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography asserts that by this time, she had turned against Anne and that she may have been the source of rumours about George and Anne’s incest and of Henry VIII’s impotence. It is speculated that the reason for Jane’s actions was that her relationship to the Boleyns had been ‘poisoned by sexual jealousy’. As the accusations against Anne and her alleged lovers are almost generally regarded as spurious and just a means to an end, Jane Parker must have deliberately lied and lied in the full knowledge that it would cost her husband, her sister-in-law, and the other accused their lives. Accordingly, she has been described by Diarmaid MacCulloch as a ‘less than grieving widow’ and when she wrote to her husband imprisoned in the Tower that she would plead for his life, Eric Ives states that the letter ‘smells of malice’. Her complaints about her impoverished state after the goods and estates of her husband had been confiscated have been severely criticised as well.

Commemorative Plaque at the Tower of London

But on what evidence is the assertion based that Jane Parker was a main or the key witnesses against Anne Boleyn and the other accused?

The short answer is: not much. Though the proceedings against the accused are fairly well documented, and individual statements are known, what exactly Jane or anybody else said under questioning was not recorded in detail. The one information provided by Jane that we know for certain was used in the trial of her husband George. He was asked to silently read a note he was handed and answer yes or no. George, however, probably knowing that he had already been condemned before the official judgement, decided to read the note out loud. It said that his wife Jane had told him that his sister Anne had told her that the king ‘was no good in bed with women, and that he neither had potency nor force’.

This statement was probably received with embarrassed silence by the assembled Lords, Jane’s father among them, who knew that this was a particularly touchy topic. However tactless it was, the information was neither about adultery nor incest.

Another piece of evidence against Jane is that George Boleyn is recorded to have said, ‘On the evidence of only one woman you are willing to believe this great evil of me, and on the basis of her allegations you are deciding my judgement’. It has often been assumed that the one woman he referred to was his wife. There were however other women who were questioned and according to John Spelmen, one of the judges of the trial, it was Lady Wingfield’s deathbed confession that first revealed Anne’s behaviour.

The third piece of ‘damning’ evidence is the lost journal of Antony Antony, which probably  included the statement that ‘the wife of Lord Rochford [George Boleyn] was a particular instrument in the death of Queen Anne’.

The charge that Jane was the source of incest against her husband is based on a book by Bishop Burnet, writing over a hundred years later, who asserted that Jane Rochford ‘carried many stories to the king or some about him [George Boleyn]’, and evidence ‘that there was a familiarity’. Bishop Burnett had access to sources no longer existing, but what these sources said and how reliable they were cannot be determined today.

Signature of Jane, Lady Rochford

To me this evidence seems rather flimsy, but for many it has been enough to condemn Jane, but there are also those, who like me don’t believe Jane was responsible for the death of Anne Boleyn, her husbands and the other accused notably Julia Fox who wrote a biography about her.

How Jane’s previous and subsequent actions have been interpreted depends on whether the historian in question believes in Jane’s guilt or not.

Three examples show this quite clearly. According to a report by the imperial ambassador Eustace Chapuys from 1534, Jane was banished from court as she had conspired with Anne to get rid of a lady who Henry VIII had become too interested in. If Jane is thought to be guilty in the case against Anne, as for example Eric Ives does, this must be an unfounded rumour. If Jane is not seen as guilty, for example by Julia Fox, it is believable that she worked together with Anne to remove a rival.

A year later a crowd of women from London demonstrated their loyalty to Lady Mary, the daughter of Catherine of Aragon, who was saying at Greenwich at this time. Among the mob were two ladies, Lady Jane Parker and Lady ‘William Howard’. Those who think Jane was guilty find this only natural, as she was ‘otherwise known as Anne’s enemy’, in the words of Eric Ives. Others, Richard Starkey for example, point out that the names of the two ladies were later added to the document, and states that Jane Parker would never be foolish enough to participate in such a demonstration.

It is also hard to believe that Anne Boleyn would have allowed Jane to remain her lady-in-waiting if she had been a ‘known enemy’. Ives himself repeatedly stresses how much control Anne had over the personnel at court so she would have been able to have Jane dismissed or at least sent away from court until she learned how to behave herself. Jane’s husband George would have hardly pressed a ‘known enemy’ on his sisters, and Jane’s father definitely had not enough influence to force Anne to accept his daughter as lady-in-waiting if the queen wanted her gone.

Unknown Man, possibly George Boleyn, Hans Holbein

The third example of how Jane’s actions, or in this case possible actions, are interpreted is the report that on Whitsun 1536, two weeks after the executions of Anne Boleyn, Jane, her father and mother paid a visit to Lady Mary. This visit is seen as further proof of Jane’s hostility to Anne. However, the document from which the visit is known is badly damaged and most likely says only that Henry Parker, Lord Morley, his wife and unnamed daughter visited Mary. The daughter in question was, however, most likely not Jane but her sister Margaret. Margaret’s parents-in-law, John Shelton and Anne Boleyn, were in charge of Mary at the time.

What the relationship between Jane and her husband was really like on a personal level is something we can only judge from their actions and as the three examples above show, Jane’s behaviour has been interpreted according to the author’s judgement on whether or not she was responsible for Anne’s death.

In the end, the case against Jane Parker rests on one vague statement by her husband about ‘a woman’, a lost journal that may have included the accusation, and the later report by Bishop Burnett that is impossible to verify. On the other hand, the one definite piece of information we have, that she was told by Anne a very intimate detail about her married life, which Jane in turn shared with her husband, shows that far from being estranged to the queen or her husband, Jane was on good terms with them. Anne surely would not have divulged the problematic state of her relationship to Henry VIII to a woman who was her enemy.

Additionally, if the whole case against Anne Boleyn and her alleged lovers was a farce and falls apart as soon as it is analysed, as Ives states, can Jane even be responsible for Anne Boleyn’s fate? If the trial was only the means to the end of getting rid of Anne and make way for a new queen, what Jane said or whether or not George Boleyn read out the note in court made no difference whatsoever.

Why are so many writers convinced of Jane Parker’s guilt based on this meagre evidence? For most of them this is an open and shut case and has been proved for centuries. The focus of their research was on a different subject and they had to rely on other writers for their information. Diarmaid MacCullough working on his massive and excellent biography of Thomas Cromwell could not let himself be side-tracked by examining in detail every person that happened to come in contact with the subject of his study.

Additionally, Jane Parker, Lady Rochford also became entangled in the downfall of another of Henry VIII’s wives: Katherine Howard. Jane was briefly exiled from court following Anne Boleyn’s execution, but returned to became lady-in waiting to the next three queens. When Katherine Howard’s youthful misdemeanours had come to light, her behaviour as queen was scrutinised and it was discovered that she had become all too friendly with a young courtier, Thomas Culpepper, one of the king’s gentlemen of the Privy Chamber. During the court’s progress through northern England Katherine had secretly met Thomas Culpepper on several occasions, meetings that often lasted for hours. Her lady-in-waiting Jane Parker was incriminated as well as she had helped arranged these clandestine encounters and acted as a chaperon. In their trial, all three, Thomas Culpepper, Katherine Howard, and Jane Parker, naturally tried to present their part in the events in as innocent a light as possible. Culpepper blamed the women for leading him astray, Katherine blamed Jane for encouraging her and enabling the meetings, and Jane said she had only done what Katherine had told her to do. None of them could deny they had been involved and all three were executed.

In the light of her involvement in Katherine Howard’s conviction and death, it was easy to assume that Jane had also been involved in the downfall of Anne Boleyn. By the reign of Elizabeth it was also adamant that the reputation of her mother had to be freed of any doubts about her sexual conduct, but the blame for her execution should also not be put on Elizabeth’s father Henry VIII. Blaming others, like Jane Parker or Thomas Cromwell, had become the prudent explanation of the downfall of Anne Boleyn.

* I generally refer to married women my their maiden names for one to keep their natal family in mind and secondly to avoid confusion. Alice Lovell and Alice St John would otherwise become Alice Parker.

About the book:

Francis Lovell is without a doubt the most famous – if not the only famous – Lovell of Titchmarsh. In 1483 he was he was made a viscount by Edward IV, the first Lovell to be raised into the titled nobility. He is most famous for being the chamberlain and close friend of Richard III, the ‘dog’ of William Collingbourne’s famous doggerel.

Though Francis Lovell is the best known member of his family, the Lovells were an old aristocratic family, tracing their roots back to eleventh-century Normandy. Aside from the Battle of Hastings, a Lovell can be found at virtually all important events in English history, whether it was the crusade of Richard I, the Battle of Lewes, the siege of Calais, the Lambert Simnel rebellion against Henry VII, or the downfall of Anne Boleyn. Over the centuries the Lovells rose in wealth and power through service to the crown, rich marriages, and, to a considerable degree, luck.

The history of the Lovells of Titchmarsh, from their relatively obscure beginnings in the border region between France and Normandy to a powerful position at the royal court, not only illustrates the fate of this one family but also throws an interesting light on the changes and developments in medieval and Tudor England. Several themes emerge as constant in the lives of an aristocratic family over the five centuries covered in this book: the profit and perils of service to the crown, the influences of family tradition and personal choice, loyalty and opportunism, skill and luck, and the roles of women in the family.

About the author:

Monika E. Simon studied Medieval History, Ancient History, and English Linguistics and Middle English Literature at the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität, Munich, from which she received an MA. She wrote her DPhil thesis about the Lovells of Titchmarsh at the University of York. She lives and works in Munich.

Links:
https://www.pen-and-sword.co.uk/From-Robber-Barons-to-Courtiers-Hardback/p/19045
https://www.facebook.com/MoniESim
http://www.monikasimon.eu/lovell.html

My Books:

Coming 31 May 2021:

Defenders of the Norman Crown: The Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey tells the fascinating story of the Warenne dynasty, of the successes and failures of one of the most powerful families in England, from its origins in Normandy, through the Conquest, Magna Carta, the wars and marriages that led to its ultimate demise in the reign of Edward III.

1 family. 8 earls. 300 years of English history!

Defenders of the Norman Crown: Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey will be released in the UK on 31 May and in the US on 6 August. And it is now available for pre-order from Pen & Sword BooksAmazon in the UK and US and Book Depository.

Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England looks into the relationships of the various noble families of the 13th century, and how they were affected by the Barons’ Wars, Magna Carta and its aftermath; the bonds that were formed and those that were broken. It is now available from Pen & Sword,  Amazon and from Book Depository worldwide.

Heroines of the Medieval World tells the stories of some of the most remarkable women from Medieval history, from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Julian of Norwich. Available now from Amberley Publishing and Amazon and Book Depository.

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.  Available now from Amazon,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository.

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

©2021 Sharon Bennett Connolly  and Monika Simon

Book Corner: The Damask Rose by Carol McGrath

1266. Eleanor of Castile, adored wife of the Crown Prince of England, is still only a princess when she is held hostage in the brutal Baron’s Rebellion, and her baby daughter dies. Scarred by privation, a bitter Eleanor swears revenge on those who would harm her family – and vows never to let herself be vulnerable again.

As she rises to become Queen, Eleanor keeps Olwen – a trusted herbalist, who tried to save her daughter – by her side. But it is dangerous to be friendless in a royal household, and as the court sets out on crusade, Olwen and Eleanor discover that the true battle for Europe may not be a matter of swords and lances, but one fanned by whispers and spies . . .

The Damask Rose is the second book in historian and novelist Carol McGrath’s She-Wolves trilogy, giving a refreshing new appraisal of the lives of Eleanor of Provence, Eleanor of Castile and – still to come – Isabella of France. The first in the series, The Silken Rose, followed the story of Eleanor of Provence through the early years of the reign of her husband, Henry III and his struggle with Simon de Montfort. The Damask Rose continues the story through Eleanor’s daughter-in-law, Eleanor of Castile. Though each book can definitely be read as a standalone, the two novels certainly complement each other.

Carol McGrath has a wonderful, engaging writing style that draws the reader in. The Damask Rose is a pleasure to read from start to finish and really gets into the mind of Eleanor of Castile, giving a new interpretation of the queen, her experiences, her emotions and motivations.

It shows the woman behind the crown and follows the life of Eleanor from the young Castilian princess, newly arrived in England to the height of her powers as queen and landowner.

And it is a thoroughly entertaining story.

In this fantastic novel, Carol McGrath explores every aspect of Eleanor’s life and explains how the Barons’ War and Simon de Montfort’s rebellion left a lasting impression on her, so much so that she never wanted to be so vulnerable and helpless ever again.

Eleanor scanned the courtyard where her frightened people had begun to gather in family groups. A priest hurried through them clutching a large cross, his habit flapping in a sudden breeze. He crossed himself and shouted in a voice as clear as reliquary crystal, ‘You, Gilbert of Gloucester, mark this, you are excommunicate by order of our Father, the Pope. You’ll burn Hell’s fire and you’ll deserve your fate.’

Earl Gilbert turned his head away from him. Pushing Eleanor forward again, he said, ‘UP you go, my lady.’ In a heartbeat, he had hoisted her onto his horse as if she were light as a feather, and jumped up behind her. He said into her pained ear, ‘Tell them they are to obey Hugh Bigod when he enters the castle this evening. He’ll arrange an escort for your ladies and household.’

‘We have no choice,’ she called down as she managed to wriggle an arm free from Gilbert’s grip. She pointed at the crumpled scroll still lying on the earth, and shouted to her shocked steward, ‘Take it. Read it to my people. Tell them the king has been forced to sign it.’

Master Thomas ran forward and scooped up the King’s letter. He picked her veil up from the ground and handed it up to her.

‘See the King’s order is obeyed,’ she said in a grudging tone as she took possession of her veil. Gilbert thrust her sword into an empty scabbard hanging from his saddle, and slowly walked his horse forward onto the drawbridge.

She could not let this seizure of her royal person go without another protest. ‘Gilbert of Gloucester, I shall have my revenge on you,’ she barked. ‘No one treats a future queen in such a manner.’ She knew she was making a formidable enemy but she didn’t care. Her temper could be foul but she did not care about this either.

‘Lady Eleanor, when you behave as a queen should, with suitable decorum, I shall treat you as a queen,’ he quipped. ‘Until then you are no better than a harridan.’

‘Arrogant bastard,’ she said under her breath as they rode into the trees, followed by the trotting horse ridden by the squire with the ridiculous name and carrying young Simon, the Devil’s son.

That evening, she peered from her heavily guarded tent, incandescent, watching as Hgh Bigod, Earl of Norfolk, rode to take possession of Windsor Castle. Her child and ladies would be loaded like cattle into wagons the next day to begin the journey to Canterbury. Her close friend and lady-in-waiting, Joanna de Valence, married to King Henry’s own half-brother William of Pembroke, was pregnant and she, herself, had missed her courses twice.

Statues of Edward I and Eleanor of Castile, Lincoln Cathedral ©2021 Sharon Bennett Connolly 

The leading characters of the story are a wonderful, rich collection of historical personages, from Edward and Eleanor themselves to the distasteful Gilbert de Clare, and the various lords, barons and ladies who made up their court, including my very own John de Warenne, Earl of Surrey. The fictional foil to the story is a young woman, Olwen, who helps the queen with her vast knowledge of herbs and their medicinal properties. Olwen is the perfect observer to Eleanor’s life, able to watch and listen whilst escaping notice – for the most part.

Carol McGrath weaves together the known story of Eleanor’s life, through the great events that shaped it, with the fictional creation of Eleanor’s world and emotions, allowing the reader to be a fly on the wall, watching events unfold and marvelling at the sights, smells and emotions of this long lost world.

And it will play on your own emotions.

In The Damask Rose, Carol McGrath not only tells Eleanor of Castile’s story, but also looks deep into the queen’s heart, offering a scenario that would explain Eleanor’s apparent lack of maternal instinct, her need to remain at Edward’s side no matter how far he travelled, and the inter-family relationships that shaped her life. It is a window into the life of a medieval princess and queen that is hard to forget.

Carol McGrath’s portrayal of the Spanish queen is the best depiction of Eleanor of Castile that I have ever read. Beautifully written, it is so touching that it had me in tears in several places – always the sign of a good book.

To buy The Damask Rose: tinyurl.com/dk2att32

About the Author:

Carol McGrath is the author of the acclaimed She-Wolves Trilogy, which began with the hugely successful The Silken Rose and continues with the brand new The Damask Rose. Born in Northern Ireland, she fell in love with historical fiction at a young age, when exploring local castles, such as Carrickfergus, and nearby archaeological digs – and discovering some ancient bones herself. While completing a degree in history, she became fascinated by the strong women who were silenced in record, and was inspired to start exploring their lives. Her first novel, The Handfasted Wife, was shortlisted for the Romantic Novelists’ Association Awards, and Mistress Cromwell was widely praised as a timely feminist retelling of Tudor court life. Her novels are known for their intricacy, depth of research and powerful stories.

For more news, exclusive content and competitions, sign up to Carol’s newsletter at: http://www.carolcmcgrath.co.uk

Follow her on Facebook: /CarolMcGrathAuthor1

And Twitter: @CarolMcGrath

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My books

Coming 31st May:

Defenders of the Norman Crown: The Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey tells the fascinating story of the Warenne dynasty, of the successes and failures of one of the most powerful families in England, from its origins in Normandy, through the Conquest, Magna Carta, the wars and marriages that led to its ultimate demise in the reign of Edward III.

Defenders of the Norman Crown: Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey will be released in the UK on 31 May and in the US on 6 August. And it is now available for pre-order from Pen & Sword BooksAmazon in the UK and US and Book Depository.

Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England looks into the relationships of the various noble families of the 13th century, and how they were affected by the Barons’ Wars, Magna Carta and its aftermath; the bonds that were formed and those that were broken. It is now available from Pen & Sword,  Amazon and from Book Depository worldwide.

Heroines of the Medieval World tells the stories of some of the most remarkable women from Medieval history, from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Julian of Norwich. Available now from Amberley Publishing and Amazon and Book Depository.

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.  Available now from Amazon,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository.

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

©2021 Sharon Bennett Connolly