Isabelle d’Angoulême: A Complicated Queen

Why Isabelle d’Angoulême is hard to love?

Seal of Isabelle d’Angoulême

At first sight, it is easy to have sympathy for Isabelle of Angoulême. When I started researching her for Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England, I was expecting to be able to go some way to redeeming her reputation. She was married at a very young age – she was no more than 12 and may have been as young as 10 – to ‘Bad’ King John, the man who would later be accused of murdering his own nephew and left a woman to starve in his dungeons.

Isabelle d’Angoulême was the only child of Audemar, Count of Angoulême and Alice de Courtenay. Her mother was the daughter Peter de Courtenay, lord of Montargis and Chateaurenard, and a cousin of king Philip II Augustus of France. Through her Courtenay family connections, Isabelle was related to the royal houses of Jerusalem, Hungary, Aragon and Castile. When John set his sights on her, Isabelle was betrothed to Hugh IX de Lusignan: the chronicler Roger of Howden maintained that Isabelle had not yet reached the age of consent, which was why she was still only betrothed to Hugh, rather than married to him. The marriage between Isabelle and Hugh was intended to put to bed, literally, a long-running, bitter rivalry between the Lusignans and the counts of Angoulême. It would also unite neighbouring regions in Aquitaine, posing a threat to Angevin power in the region. This could have effectively cut Aquitaine in two, jeopardising the stability of the borders of Poitou and Gascony. John could not help but see the threat posed by the impending marriage and sought to put a stop to it. Count Audemar, it seems, was quite receptive to the suggestion that he abandon the Lusignan match if it meant that his daughter would become a queen.

King John

In the early years of their marriage, John appears to have treated Isabelle more like a child than a wife, which she still was, and she was financially dependent on him. When she was not at court with the king, Isabelle spent time at Marlborough Castle or in the household of John’s first wife, Isabella of Gloucester, at Winchester. Isabella’s allowance was raised from £50 to £80 a year, to pay for the extra expenses incurred by housing the queen.

It appears that Isabelle was an unpopular queen, guilty by her association with the excesses and abuses of John’s regime. It was in this light that John’s marriage to Isabelle was seen as the start of England’s woes, with some of the blame falling unfairly on the young queen. Contemporary sources reported that John spent his mornings in bed with the queen, when he should have been attending to the business of the country, casting Isabelle as some kind of temptress, irresistible to the king. The fact that Isabelle did not give birth to her first child until 1207, when she was in her late teens, puts the lie to these sources, suggesting that she and John  did not consummate the marriage in the first few years. After 16 years together, the couple had 5 children; Henry III, Richard of Cornwall, Isabella, Joan and the youngest, Eleanor, who was born in 1215 or 1216.

While her movements were restricted and closely controlled during her marriage to John, the situation did not improve for Isabelle following John’s death in 1216. Their 9-year-old son Henry was now king, but Isabelle was excluded from playing a role in the regency government; her unpopularity in England and lack of political experience were major factors. Moreover, she had had limited contact with her children: they lived in separate households and Isabelle was not responsible for their supervision or education, which added to her isolation. Almost as soon as Henrys crowned, Isabelle started making arrangements to go home, to Angoulême, of which she was countess in her own right. In 1217 she left England.

Isabelle’s son, Henry III of England

Once in her own domains, Isabelle was to arrange the wedding of her daughter, Joan. Joan had been betrothed, at the age of 4, to Hugh X de Lusignan, Count of La Marche and the son of Hugh IX, the man who had been betrothed to Isabelle before John married her. In 1220 Isabelle shocked England, and probably the whole continent, when she scandalously married her daughter’s betrothed herself. Poor 9-year-old Joan’s erstwhile fiancé was now her stepfather! Worse was to come, however, when the little princess was not returned to her homeland, as might have been expected, but held hostage, by Isabelle and Hugh, to ensure Hugh’s continued control of her dower lands, and as a guarantee to the transfer of her mother’s dower, which the English government was withholding against the return of Joan.

Stalemate.

Isabelle wrote to her son, Henry III, to explain and justify why she had supplanted her own daughter as Hugh’s bride, claiming ‘…lord Hugh of Lusignan remained alone and without heir in the region of Poitou, and his friends did not permit our daughter to be married to him, because she is so young; but they counselled him to take a wife from whom he might quickly have heirs, and it was suggested that he take a wife in France. If he had done so, all your land in Poitou and Gascony and ours would have been lost. But we, seeing the great danger that might emerge from such a marriage – and your counsellors would give us no counsel in this – took said H[ugh], count of La Marche, as our lord; and God knows that we did this more for your advantage than ours…’

Ironically, Isabelle had now achieved that which King John had hoped to avoid; the union of La Marche and Angoulême, splitting Angevin Aquitaine down the Little Joan was finally returned to England towards the end of 1220, but the arguments over Isabelle’s English lands continued throughout the 1220s and beyond. Isabelle would not retire in peace and in 1224 she and Hugh betrayed Henry by allying themselves with the King of France. In exchange for a substantial pension, they supported a French invasion of Poitou (the lands in France belonging to the King of England, her son).

Seal of Hugh X de Lusignan

Hugh and Isabelle were reconciled with Henry in 1226 and Isabelle met her first-born son for the first time in more than twelve years in 1230, when Henry mounted a futile expedition to Brittany and Poitou. Isabelle and Hugh, however, continued to play the kings of France and England against each other, always looking for the advantage, though this was probably as much by necessity as self-interest. They did, after all, live in France and their relationship with England complicated things. In 1242, for example, when Henry III invaded Poitou, Hugh X initially gave support to his English stepson, only to change sides once more, precipitating the collapse of Henry’s campaign. Isabelle herself was implicated in a plot to poison King Louis IX of France and his brother, only to be foiled at the last minute; the poisoners claimed to have been sent by Isabelle. There is no evidence of Isabelle denying the accusation, but she never admitted her guilt, either.

Isabelle’s second marriage proved even more unstable than her first, shaken by Hugh’s frequent infidelities and threats of divorce. Isabelle enjoyed greater personal authority within her second marriage; where she had issued no charters whilst married to King John, as Hugh de Lusignan’s wife, the couple issued numerous joint charters. Her difficult relationship with France added to Isabelle’s marital problems. In one instance, Isabelle was offended by the queen of France when she was not offered a chair to sit, in the queen’s presence, regardless of the fact she herself was a crowned and anointed queen. Following this insult, in 1241, Isabelle castigated Hugh de Lusignan for supporting a French candidate to the county of Poitou, ahead of her son, Henry III. In retaliation, Isabelle stripped Lusignan Castle of its furnishings and refused to allow her husband into her castle at Angoulême for three days.

Despite the rocky relationship, Isabelle and Hugh had nine children together, including Aymer de Lusignan and William de Valence. Many of his Lusignan half-siblings would later cause problems for Henry III, having come to England to seek patronage and advancement from their royal half-brother.

Tomb effigy of Isabelle d’Angoulême, Fontevraud Abbey

In 1244 the two royal cooks admitted the attempted poisoning of the French king, and that they had been paid by Isabelle. Before she could be arrested, Isabelle retired to Fontevraud Abbey, where she died on 4 June, 1246. The dowager queen of England was buried in the abbey’s churchyard. However, when Henry III visited his mother’s final resting place, he was shocked that she was buried outside the abbey and ordered that she be moved inside. She was finally laid to rest in the abbey church, beside Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine.

As contemporaries described her as ‘more Jezebel than Isabel’, accused her of ‘sorcery and witchcraft’, Isabelle of Angouleme’s reputation as a heartless mother and habitual schemer seems set to remain. Married to King John whilst still a child, she was castigated as the cause for the loss of the majority of John’s continental possessions and the subsequent strife and civil war; one could easily sympathise with her lack of love for England. That Isabelle apparently abandoned the children of her first husband within months of his death, and her supposed willingness to betray her son for her own ends would go some way to destroy the compassion one may have felt for her. However, we have to remember that nothing is ever black and white and we have to consider that Isabelle was balancing the interests of her two families – one French and one English – which were, unfortunately for Isabelle, irreconcilable due to the politics of the time.

One thing is for sure, Isabelle d’Angoulême is a fascinating character!

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Images:

Courtesy of Wikipedia

Sources:

Rich Price, King John’s Letters Facebook group; Robert Bartlett England Under the Norman and Angevin Kings 1075-1225; Dan Jones The Plantagenets; the Kings who Made EnglandThe Plantagenet Chronicle Edited by Elizabeth Hallam; Maurice Ashley The Life and Times of King John; Roy Strong The Story of BritainOxford Companion to British History; Mike Ashley British Kings & Queens; David Williamson Brewer’s British Royalty; Ralph of Diceto, Images of History; Marc Morris, King John; David Crouch, William Marshal; Crouch and Holden, History of William Marshal; Crouch, David, ‘William Marshal [called the Marshal], fourth earl of Pembroke (c. 1146–1219)’, Oxforddnb.com; Flanagan, M.T., ‘Isabel de Clare, suo jure countess of Pembroke (1171×6–1220)’, Oxforddnb.com; Thomas Asbridge, The Greatest Knight; Chadwick, Elizabeth, ‘Clothing the Bones: Finding Mahelt Marshal’, livingthehistoryelizabethchadwick.blogspot.com; Stacey, Robert C., ‘Roger Bigod, fourth earl of Norfolk (c. 1212-1270)’, Oxforddnb.com; finerollshenry3.org.uk; Vincent, Nicholas, ‘William de Warenne, fifth earl of Surrey [Earl Warenne] (d. 1240)’, Oxforddnb.com.

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, Bookshop.org 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,  AmazonBookshop.org 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, Bookshop.org 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, Bookshop.org and Book Depository.

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©2021 Sharon Bennett Connolly

The Daughters of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine

A 14th-century representation of Henry and Eleanor

In history we tend to focus on the actions of the men in a family. Well, let’s face it, the life of Henry II and his sons is fascinating, full of love, honour, death and betrayal. Who wouldn’t be drawn into that world? But did you know that the women of the family had no less exciting and eventful lives?

With a mother like Eleanor of Aquitaine, you would not expect her daughters to be shrinking violets. And, indeed, they were not. And neither were the girls sent off into the world, never to see their parents again. In what may be a unique occurrence for royal princesses, each of the three daughters of Eleanor and Henry II would get to spend time with their mother later in their lives.

Matilda of England, the eldest daughter and third child of Henry and Eleanor, was born in London in June 1156. As her parents ruled an empire that stretched from the Scottish borders to the Pyrenees, travel was a constant part of Matilda’s childhood. She took her first sea-voyage across the English Channel at just 2 months old, accompanied her big brother, Henry, later to be known as The Young King. Throughout her childhood, Matilda is often seen accompanying her mother and siblings traveling through the vast Angevin domains. By the time she was 8-years-old, negotiations had begun for her marriage to Henry the Lion; her father planning an alliance with the German Emperor, Frederick Barbarossa. The marriage was part of her father’s policy to build up opposition to Louis VII of France and the Pope, Alexander III. And in July 1166 her mother accompanied 10-year-old Matilda to Dover, where she embarked on a German ship that would take her to her new life and future husband. Her wedding to Henry V ‘the Lion’, Duke of Saxony and Bavaria, finally took place in the cathedral at Minden, Germany, on 1 February 1168. 

Matilda’s dowry and send-off from England cost around £4,500 (about a quarter of England’s annual revenue). The young princess was given a trousseau worth £63, including saddles with gilt fittings, ‘two large silken cloths, and two tapestries and one cloth of samite and twelve sable skins’. Despite the fact Henry the Lion was 27 years Matilda’s senior, the marriage appears to have been a success and produced 10 children, including their eldest daughter, Richenza (her name was later changed to Matilda), born around 1172, and sons Henry, Otto and William. Otto was briefly considered as heir to the English throne by his uncle Richard I, before King John claimed the crown. He would briefly become Holy Roman Emperor as Otto IV in 1209 until his death in 1218.

13th-century depiction of Henry II and his legitimate children

Matilda’s fortunes changed dramatically in 1180 when, following a quarrel with Frederick Barbarossa, who held Henry responsible for the failure of a campaign in Italy, Henry the Lion was deprived of his fiefs and exiled from his lands for 7 years. Henry, Matilda and their children sought refuge with Matilda’s father and, in the Autumn of 1181, Henry II welcomed his daughter, giving her the palace of Argentin as a home for her family. Matilda and her family spent the next two years in the Angevin lands on the Continent; but in 1184 a pregnant Matilda accompanied her father to England, where she gave birth to her son, William, at Winchester. While at her father’s court Matilda petitioned the king to ease the restrictions on her mother’s imprisonment; following her involvement in the failed rebellion of her sons in 1173-4, Eleanor of Aquitaine had spent the last ten years incarcerated in England, at Old Sarum. Although still a prisoner, Eleanor was permitted to stay with Matilda while she was staying in England and when Eleanor was allowed to cross the Channel to take possession of the Vexin Castles, Matilda accompanied her.

Coronation of Henry the Lion and Matilda, from the Gospels of Henry the Lion, c.1188

Matilda and Henry were finally allowed to return to Germany in October 1185, although their children, Otto, William and Matilda remained at Henry’s court, to be raised by their grandfather. Matilda died at Brunswick on 28th June 1189 and was buried there, in the Cathedral of St Blasius, of which she was co-foundress. Her father Henry II died just 8 days later, probably before the news of his daughter’s death could reach him. Matilda’s husband would be buried alongside her, following his death on 6th August 1195.

Matilda’s next youngest sister, Eleanor, was born in October 1162 (1161 has also been suggested, but most sources agree on 1162) at Domfront Castle in Normandy. As with Matilda, Eleanor’s early childhood was quite nomadic. She travelled often with her parents, in her mother’s entourage. In February 1165 3-year-old Eleanor was betrothed to the infant son of Frederick Barbarossa, Frederick, as part of the same negotiations which saw Matilda married to Henry the Lion. However, Eleanor’s proposed marriage would eventually fall by the wayside. By 1170 Henry II was seeking to extend his influence across the Pyrenees and in order to prevent a French alliance with Castile, he betrothed Eleanor to 14-year-old Alfonso VIII, who had been king of Castile since he was just 2 years old. By September 1177, a month short of her 15th birthday, Eleanor was on her way to Castile, with an impressive escort to see her safely to her wedding at Burgos Cathedral.

The betrothal of Alfonso VIII of Castile and Eleanor of England

Eleanor and Alfonso appear to have had a very successful marriage, and a close, trusting relationship. Described as modest, elegant and gracious, Eleanor is renowned for introducing her mother’s Poitevin culture into the Castilian court, blending it with the luxuries offered by neighbouring Moorish cultures. Eleanor also acted as a diplomatic conduit between her husband and brothers, Richard and John, in order to aid each other and keep the peace, although not always successfully.Seven of Eleanor and Alfonso’s children survived infancy. Their eldest daughter Berengaria would eventually act as regent in Castile for her younger brother, Henry I, before succeeding him as queen regnant. One daughter, Eleanor, married James I, king of Aragon, but they divorced in 1229. While another, Constance, was dedicated as a nun and eventually became abbess of the abbey of Las Huelgas, founded by her parents in 1187.

Alfonso and Eleanor also had 2 sons who would survive childhood. The eldest, Ferdinand, died of a fever in 1209 or 1211 while his younger brother, Henry, would succeed his father, but died in a freak accident when a loose roof tile fell on his head. He was 13 years old.

Of their two other daughters, 14-year-old Urraca was initially suggested as the bride of the future Louis VIII of France, son of Philip II Augustus. The girls’ grandmother, Eleanor of Aquitaine, was instrumental in arranging the marriage and the 77-year-old queen travelled to Castile, in 1200, in person and in the depths of winter, to collect the granddaughter who would be Louis’ bride. The reunion of mother and daughter would surely have been highly emotional, having not seen each other in 23 years. The elder Eleanor spent two months with her daughter and her family and in getting to know her granddaughters, Eleanor of Aquitaine seems to have decided that the younger Blanca – rather than Urraca – would make a more suitable bride for Louis. The 12-year-old princess travelled back to Normandy with her grandmother where Blanca – or Blanche – and Louis were married.

Eleanor of England, Queen of Castile

The happy marriage of Eleanor and Alfonso came to an end when Alfonso died in Burgos on 6th October 1214. He was buried in the Abbey of Las Huelgas, where their daughter, Constance, was now Abbess, leaving Eleanor as regent for their 10-year-old son, Henry I. Broken-hearted Eleanor, however, only survived her husband by a little over 3 weeks. Overcome with grief she died in Burgos on 31st October 1214, and was laid to rest beside her beloved husband; leaving their daughter Berengaria to take up the regency for Henry. Eleanor was the last surviving daughter of the Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine. Only her younger brother, King John, remained of the Plantagenet siblings.

The youngest of the trio of Plantagenet sisters, Joanna, was born in October 1165. Ten years younger than her oldest brother, Henry the Young King, she was born at Angers Castle in Anjou, at a time when their parents’ relationship was breaking down; 1165 was the first ever Christmas Henry and Eleanor spent apart. With Henry still in England dealing with a Welsh revolt, he would not meet his new daughter for several months. Although Joanna spent much of her childhood at her mother’s court in Poitiers, she and her younger brother, John, were also educated at the magnificent Abbey of Fontevraud, where she learned the skills needed to run a large, aristocratic household.

Although Eleanor was imprisoned following the failed rebellion of 1173, three years later, she was allowed to travel to Winchester to say ‘goodbye’ to her youngest daughter, who had been betrothed to King William II of Sicily. Provided with an impressive trousseau, Joanna set out from Winchester at the end of August 1176, accompanied by her uncle Hamelin de Warenne Earl of Surrey. Once on the Continent, she was escorted from Barfleur by her brother Henry, the Young King to Poitiers, and from Poitiers, by another brother, Richard, who then escorted his little sister to Toulouse in a leisurely and elegant progress.

Joanna of England

Having finally reached Sicily 12-year-old Joanna was married to 24-year-old William on 13th February 1177, in Palermo Cathedral. The marriage ceremony was followed by her coronation as Queen of Sicily. Joanna must have looked magnificent, her bejewelled dress cost £114 – not a small sum at the time. Joanna and William had no surviving children and when William died without an heir in November 1189, Joanna became a pawn in the race for the succession. William’s sister, Constance was the rightful heir, but she was married to Henry VI, Holy Roman Emperor and many feared being absorbed into his empire. William II’s illegitimate nephew, Tancred of Lecce, seized the initiative. He claimed the throne and, in need of money, imprisoned Joanna and stole her dowry and the treasures left to her by her husband.

Luckily for Joanna her brother Richard I – the Lionheart – having gained the English throne in 1189, had wasted no time in organising the Third Crusade and arrived at Messina in Sicily in September 1190. Richard demanded Joanna’s release; and fearing the Crusader king’s anger Tancred capitulated and freed Joanna, also paying 40,000 ounces of gold towards the Crusade.

The beautiful and spirited Joanna was briefly reunited with her mother in Lent of 1191 when she arrived in Sicily with Richard’s bride, Berengaria of Navarre. Joanna and Berengaria were to become firm friends and travelled together to the Holy Land, ahead of Richard’s main force. However, during a storm, their ship was onto the shores of Cyprus by a storm and the two women were at risk of becoming hostages of the ruler of Cyprus, Isaac Comnenus. Again, Richard came to the rescue, reduced Cyprus in three weeks and clamped Comnenus in chains (silver ones apparently). Lent being over, Richard and Berengaria were married, with great pomp and celebration, before the whole party continued their journey to the Holy Land, arriving at Acre in June 1191.

Seal of Joanna of England

Joanna’s time in the Holy Land was mainly spent in Acre and Jaffa, accompanying her sister-in-law and following – at a safe distance – behind the Crusading army. In attempts to reach a political settlement with the Muslim leader, Saladin, Richard even offered Joanna as a bride for Saladin’s brother. His plans were scuppered, however, when Joanna refused outright to even consider marrying a Muslim. When a three-year truce was eventually agreed with Saladin, Joanna and Berengaria left the Holy Land ahead of the army, to await Richard in Rome. Richard, however, never made it; falling into the hands of Duke Leopold of Austria, he was handed over to his enemy, the Holy Roman Emperor. He was eventually freed in 1194, following payment of a huge ransom. 

Joanna spent the next few years at the courts of her mother and brother. But at the age of 31 she was proposed as a bride for Raymond VI, Count of Toulouse, with the aim of bringing the County of Toulouse into the Plantagenet fold, a long-time dream of Eleanor’s. Raymond had a colourful marital history. He had been excommunicated for marrying his third wife whilst still married to his second; and he now repudiated his third wife in order to marry Joanna, which he did in Rouen in October 1196, with Queen Berengaria in attendance. Although not a happy marriage the couple had two children; with a son Raymond born around 1197 and a daughter, possibly called Mary, in 1198.

Raymond VI, however, was not a popular Count and faced rebellion. Joanna herself had to confront some of her husband’s enemies. She laid siege to a rebel stronghold at Cassee; however, her own traitorous troops set fire to her camp and Joanna barely managed to escape. Injured and pregnant, Joanna was then trying to make her way to her brother Richard when she heard of his death; changing direction, she eventually reached her mother at Niort. With no allowance from her Joanna’s husband, Queen Eleanor managed to persuade John to give his sister an annual pension of 100 marks. Knowing she was dying, Joanna became desperate to be veiled as a nun at Fontevraud; a request normally denied to married women – especially when they were in the late stages of pregnancy. However, seeing how desperate her daughter was, Eleanor asked Hubert Walter, the Archbishop of Canterbury, to intervene.

Tombs of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine at Fontevraud Abbey

The Archbishop tried to dissuade Joanna, but was impressed by her fervour and convened a committee of nuns and clergy; who agreed that Joanna must be ‘inspired by heaven’. In Eleanor’s presence, the Archbishop admitted Joanna to the Order of Fontevraud. Joanna was too weak to stand and died shortly after the ceremony; her son, Richard, was born a few minutes later and lived only long enough to be baptised. She died in September 1199, a month short of her 34th birthday. Joanna and her baby son were interred together at Fontevraud, the funeral cortege having been escorted there by Eleanor of Aquitaine and King John.

There is no record that Matilda, Eleanor and Joanna ever met as adults, and the last time they were together as sisters was most likely shortly before Matilda’s marriage, when Joanna was only 2-years-old. However, although they led very different and adventurous lives, all three daughters of Eleanor of Aquitaine had the unique opportunity, in the medieval era, of spending time with their mother as adults. Given the dangers of travel and the great distances involved, as well as the fickleness of life in general, they may have hoped for a reunion but surely would never have expected it to become a reality.

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An earlier version of this article first appeared on Henry the Young King Blog in 2017.

Images:

Courtesy of Wikipedia

Further reading: 

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; The Plantagenet Chronicles Edited by Elizabeth Hallam; The Mammoth Book of British Kings and Queens by Mike Ashley; The Plantagenets, the Kings that made Britain by Derek Wilson; England Under the Norman and Angevin Kings  by Robert Bartlett; finerollshenry3.org.ukEleanor, April Queen of Aquitaine by Douglas Boyd; Eleanor of Aquitaine, by the Wrath of God, Queen of England by Alison Weir; oxforddnb.com; bestofsicily.com; britannica.com; geni.com; royalwomenblogspot.co.uk; medievalqueens.com.

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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, Bookshop.org 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,  AmazonBookshop.org 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, Bookshop.org 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, Bookshop.org and Book Depository.

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

©2021 Sharon Bennett Connolly

Book Corner: John Brown’s Women: A Novel by Susan Higginbotham

As the United States wrestles with its besetting sin-slavery-abolitionist John Brown is growing tired of talk. He takes actions that will propel the nation toward civil war and thrust three courageous women into history.

Wealthy Brown, married to John Brown’s oldest son, eagerly falls in with her husband’s plan to settle in Kansas. Amid clashes between pro-slavery and anti-slavery settlers, Wealthy’s adventure turns into madness, mayhem, and murder.

Fifteen-year-old Annie Brown is thrilled when her father summons her to the farm he has rented in preparation for his raid. There, she guards her father’s secrets while risking her heart.

Mary Brown never expected to be the wife of John Brown, much less the wife of a martyr. When her husband’s daring plan fails, Mary must travel into hostile territory, where she finds the eyes of the nation riveted upon John-and upon her.

Spanning three decades, John Brown’s Women is a tale of love and sacrifice, and of the ongoing struggle for America to achieve its promise of liberty and justice for all.

I have to confess, I knew little about John Brown beyond the song when I started this novel. It demonstrated to me how much my knowledge of American history is seriously lacking. All I knew of John Brown comes from the song about his body ‘a-mouldering in its grave’. I knew he had something to do with abolitionism, but to what extent and what he did to merit the song about him, I was sadly unaware. I had heard of Harper’s Ferry, but hadn’t realised how significant an incident it was,, nor what spark it ignited that would burn into the American Civil War.

John Brown’s Women: A Novel by Susan Higginbotham tells the story of John Brown and his family through the eyes of three women; his second wife, Mary, his daughter-in-law Wealthy and his daughter Annie. Not merely spectators, these three women played active roles in the family’s mixed fortunes and endeavours against slavery. This is the story of a family living in an emerging nation, trying to build a family and farm whilst also fighting against that most abhorrent of practices, slavery. John Brown appears to have been one of those men who was steadfast in his beliefs and managed to draw in those around him.

John’s family, with his first wife and then with Mary, was large and at times disparate, often living in different states, but they were always close. And it is this closeness, often facilitated by Mary, that draws them into the conflicts in Kansas, and later at Harper’s Ferry, that saw the family devastated by loss. John Brown’s Women: A Novel tells their story in a sensitive, thought-provoking manner, that will draw the reader in from the very beginning. Mary’s compassion and John Brown’s quirks provide a fascinating insight into this famous family.

Mary heard someone unbolt a door, then a face appeared, lit by a skylight in the room. It belonged to a girl who was probably about Mary’s age and, to her immense surprise, not all that far off from her color. There were no shackles, and the girl’s calico dress, though too thin for a Pennsylvania winter, was perfectly ordinary, even pretty. “This is Miss Day, ”Johnny said to her. “And this is Josie.”

“Pleased to meet you, ma’am.”

“Johnny said you needed a warmer dress.” Mary displayed the one under her arm. “If you let me try this on you, I can cut it down and have it ready by the morning.”

“That’s kind of you, missus. But ain’t no need for you to do the work. I’ve been sewing since I was a little bit of a thing. Sewed for my mistress, and she was right particular. If you bring me a needle and thread and shears, I’ll whip this out in no time. It’ll pass the time here too.”

“All right.”Mary looked around the room. It was small but adequately ventilated and supplied with a feather bed and heaps of warm blankets. Clearly, this space had been the result of careful planning. “How long have you been  .  .  . escaping?”

“Lord, miss, I’ve lost all track of time. Been a good two months, I guess. Started out in Maryland.”

“What made you decide to run?”

Josie looked in John Jr.’s direction and shook her head.

“John, could you get my sewing things so I don’t have to go up and down this ladder again? You know where I keep them all.” John Jr. obeyed. When she and Mary heard the sound of his feet descending the ladder, Josie said, “Master was looking at me the way he looked at all of us girls when we started getting a shape to us, miss. I knew he’d be doing more than looking soon. So I lit out to a place I’d heard about, and here I am.”

“It must have been hard leaving your family.”

“Ma died years ago.”

“Your father?”

“You might say Master is my father, miss.”

There were so many layers of awfulness here, Mary could hardly unpack them. Josie shrugged. “That’s the way it is, miss. At least in my place. Some masters leave us girls alone, but others don’t. If a girl complains, if she’s fool enough, she gets beaten or sold to someone even worse. Or both.”

Mary tried to imagine what “even worse” might be and decided to stop trying.

Over the next day or so, Mary visited Josie as often as she could without being too conspicuous about it. Josie redid her dress so wonderfully it almost looked pretty—indeed, she put Mary’s sewing to shame—and it was a good thing she was quick about it, for Mr. Brown came home shortly afterward. The next evening, he left on another trip, with Josie—as John Jr. told Mary later—concealed beneath some hay, bound for Ohio. Mary had sent her off with her warmest shawl, knowing she could soon knit herself a new one.

A few days later, Mr. Brown returned from his journey. The morning after his arrival, he caught Mary alone at her spinning wheel. “Miss Day, John told me that you helped with the delivery the other day, and you gave away your shawl and dress.”

Beautifully written and thoroughly researched, John Brown’s Women: A Novel shows America’s struggled with its identity and ethos in the mid- nineteenth century. And the extent of the research undertaken by Susan Higginbotham to produce such a novel is evident in every page. From the methods of farming, to new medical treatments and the historical events themselves, the author’s descriptions are replete with detail and serve to transport the reader back in time.

John Brown’s Women: A Novel is an endearing read, giving the reader an insight into the lives, loves and tragic losses that the family Brown had to endure. Susan Higginbotham allows you be a fly on the wall, watching the tragedies and hardships, that the family had to go through, but also showing you their strength and resilience, and how much of each they took from each other. The strength of John Brown’s convictions resonate throughout the family and its generations.

John Brown’s Women: A Novel by Susan Higginbotham takes you on an emotional rollercoaster – you will need tissues, I can guarantee it. I read the last few chapters through eyes streaming with tears.

For anyone interested in life in 19th century American, whether on a social, political or simply entertaining level, I cannot recommend John Brown’s Women: A Novel highly enough.

To buy the book:

John Brown’s Women: A Novel is available on Amazon in the UK and US.

About the author:

Susan Higginbotham’s meticulously researched historical fiction brought to life by her heartfelt writing delights readers. Higginbotham runs her own historical fiction/history blog, History Refreshed by Susan Higginbotham. She has worked as an editor and an attorney and lives in Maryland with her family.

Website: www.susanhigginbotham.com

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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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

Magna Carta’s Family Ties

Magna Carta

When I am researching into the female personalities in medieval England, I am struck time and again by how closely the nobility of England was related, through blood and marriage. Just look at the women who surround the Magna Carta story. Each of the women I wrote of had at least one familial connection to another great noble family; some had a number of links to several families. It is a tangled and complicated web, but I will try and give you a brief overview here.

As you may have noticed, my favourite medieval woman is Nicholaa de la Haye, castellan of Lincoln Castle; she successfully defended the castle through at least 3 sieges, the last 2 when she was a widow in her 60s. Nicholaa was related to King John’s half-brother, William  Longespée, Earl of Salisbury, through her son, Richard, whose daughter Idonea was married at a young age to William (II), Longespée’s son by his wife, Ela of Salisbury. It was as a result of this connection that William (I) Longespée claimed Lincoln Castle and the shrievalty of Lincolnshire following the Second Battle of Lincoln in May 1217. Longespée claimed that as they were his daughter-in-law’s inheritance, it was his right to administer them. Idonea’s father, Richard, had died sometime in the previous 12 months, leaving Idonea as his sole heir. Longespée appears to have conveniently forgotten – or ignored – the fact that the castle of Lincoln was Nicholaa’s by hereditary right – and Nicholaa was still very much alive!

Coat of arms of William Longespée, 3rd Earl of Salisbury

Despite Nicholaa’s stalwart defence of Lincoln Castle during a 10-week siege, Longespée was granted the castle and position of sheriff just 4 days after the battle. Nicholaa’s refusal to accept this saw her presenting herself to the royal court and requesting she be reinstated. A compromise was reached whereby Longespée remained as sheriff of Lincolnshire, but Nicholaa was reinstated as castellan of Lincoln Castle, and given control of the city of Lincoln itself. Longespée was by no means satisfied and continued to scheme to gain control of the castle; Nicholaa doggedly held on and only retired from her position as castellan of Lincoln in 1226, 3 months after Longespée’s death.

Ela of Salisbury provided at least two further familial connections among my Ladies of Magna Carta. Through her grandfather, Patrick of Salisbury, Ela was a cousin of William Marshal and his five daughters. Marshal was the son of Patrick of Salisbury’s sister, Sybilla. Patrick himself had married, as his second wife, Ela de Talvas, who was the widow of William de Warenne, 3rd Earl of Warenne and Surrey. From her first marriage, Ela de Talvas was the mother of the heiress, Isabel de Warenne, Countess of Surrey in her own right and wife to, first, William of Blois, youngest son of King Stephen and secondly, Hamelin Plantagenet, illegitimate half-brother of King Henry II. Isabel de Warenne, therefore, was aunt to Ela of Salisbury, Richard the Lionheart and King John.

Arms of the Warenne earls of Surrey

Isabel de Warenne’s own aunt, Ada de Warenne, was married to the son and heir of King David I of Scotland, Henry, Earl of Huntingdon. Ada was the mother of two Scottish kings, Malcom IV the Maiden and William I the Lion. She was, therefore, the grandmother of the Scottish princesses, Margaret and Isabella, the only two women, other than the queen, Isabelle d’Angoulême, who can be clearly identified in a clause of Magna Carta. Margaret and Isabella had been handed over to King John as hostages following the 1209 Treaty of Norham, agreed between their father, William the Lion, and King John. John was supposed to find suitable husbands for the teenage girls; it had been implied that they would be married to John’s sons, Henry and Richard, but no marriages had ever materialised. Clause 59 of Magna Carta stipulated that John would find spouses for the princesses or send them home.

The two girls were eventually wed to English noblemen, though not until the 1220s. In 1221 Margaret married Hubert de Burgh, Henry III’s Justiciar and widower of another of my Ladies of Magna Carta, Isabella of Gloucester, who also had the dubious honour of having been the first wife of King John. Princess Isabella was married, in 1225, to Roger Bigod, Earl of Norfolk, who was 14 years her junior. The marriage was not a happy one. A third Scottish princess, Marjorie, who was several years younger than her two sisters and not part of the conditions of the Treaty of Norham, also married into the English nobility. She became the wife of Gilbert Marshal, 4th Earl of Pembroke, 3rd son of the great William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke and regent for Henry III.

Hubert de Burgh from Matthew Paris’s Historia Anglorum

Roger Bigod was the son of Hugh Bigod, Earl of Norfolk, and Matilda Marshal, eldest daughter of William Marshal. Marshal was the man who had led the army that relieved Nicholaa de la Haye and the siege of Lincoln Castle in May 1220. Matilda married, as her second husband, William de Warenne, 5th Earl of Warenne and Surrey and only son of Isabel and Hamelin, mentioned earlier. Matilda’s sister, Isabel, was married to Gilbert de Clare, Earl of Gloucester; he was the nephew of the same Isabella of Gloucester who had been wife to King John, Geoffrey de Mandeville and Hubert de Burgh. Isabel Marshal then married, as her second husband, Richard, Earl of Cornwall, brother of Henry III and youngest son of King John. Another sister, Eva, married William (V) de Braose, grandson of William (IV) de Braose and Matilda, the poor woman who was imprisoned by King John and starved to death, alongside her eldest son, in his dungeons in 1210. It was Eva’s husband who was hanged by Llywelyn, Prince of Gwynedd, after he was found in Llywelyn’s bedroom with Llywelyn’s wife, Joan, Lady of Wales and illegitimate daughter of King John.

Which brings us neatly to the royal family. John’s eldest legitimate daughter, also named Joan, was betrothed as a child to Hugh X de Lusignan, Count of La Marche. The marriage never materialised, however, as Joan’s mother, Isabelle d’Angoulême, decided to marry Count Hugh in her daughter’s stead, causing a rather juicy scandal in the process! Joan was not without a suitor for long and within a year of her mother’s marriage she was married to Alexander II, King of Scots and brother of those same Scottish princesses who were included in Magna Carta’s clause 59. Of Joan’s sisters, Isabella was married to Frederick II, Holy Roman Emperor and Eleanor, only a baby at the time of her father’s death, was married to William (II) Marshal, eldest son and heir of the great William Marshal, at the age of 9. Eleanor was a widow before her 16th birthday, dramatically taking a vow of perpetual chastity in front of the Archbishop of Canterbury shortly after her husband’s death.

Arms of William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke

As her second husband, Eleanor married Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester, despite that pesky vow of chastity, which was to prove costly to Simon when he had to travel to Rome to seek a papal dispensation to have it annulled. Simon de Montfort was to continue the fight for reform that had been enshrined in Magna Carta, but would meet his end at the Battle of Evesham in 1265. Simon and Eleanor’s daughter, also named Eleanor, would marry Llywelyn, Prince of Wales, grandson of Llywelyn, Prince of Gwynedd. Eleanor died in childbirth in June 1282, while Llywelyn was defeated and killed by Edward I’s forces in December, the same year. Their only daughter, Gwenllian, was placed in a convent in Lincolnshire before she was 18 months old and would never leave it, dying there in 1337. Another perpetual royal prisoner was Gwenllian’s distant cousin, Eleanor of Brittany, a granddaughter of Henry II, niece of King John and first cousin of Henry III. Her royal blood meant that she would never be afforded the protection enshrined in clause 39 of Magna Carta and inspired by the gruesome death of Matilda de Braose, that:

“No man shall be taken, imprisoned, outlawed, banished or in any way destroyed, nor will we proceed against or prosecute him, except by the lawful judgement of his peers or by the law of the land.”

There are many more familial links between the Ladies of Magna Carta. I could go on…

But I’m guessing that your heads are spinning and this is more than enough … for now.

Sources:

Rich Price, King John’s Letters Facebook group; Robert Bartlett England Under the Norman and Angevin Kings 1075-1225; Dan Jones The Plantagenets; the Kings who Made EnglandThe Plantagenet Chronicle Edited by Elizabeth Hallam; Maurice Ashley The Life and Times of King John; Roy Strong The Story of BritainOxford Companion to British History; Mike Ashley British Kings & Queens; David Williamson Brewer’s British Royalty; Ralph of Diceto, Images of History; Marc Morris, King John; David Crouch, William Marshal; Crouch and Holden, History of William Marshal; Crouch, David, ‘William Marshal [called the Marshal], fourth earl of Pembroke (c. 1146–1219)’, Oxforddnb.com; Flanagan, M.T., ‘Isabel de Clare, suo jure countess of Pembroke (1171×6–1220)’, Oxforddnb.com; Thomas Asbridge, The Greatest Knight; Chadwick, Elizabeth, ‘Clothing the Bones: Finding Mahelt Marshal’, livingthehistoryelizabethchadwick.blogspot.com; Stacey, Robert C., ‘Roger Bigod, fourth earl of Norfolk (c. 1212-1270)’, Oxforddnb.com; finerollshenry3.org.uk; Vincent, Nicholas, ‘William de Warenne, fifth earl of Surrey [Earl Warenne] (d. 1240)’, Oxforddnb.com.

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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 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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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

Daughters of the Greatest Knight

Arms of William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke

It is impossible to talk about anything related to Magna Carta without mentioning the man who has come to be known as ‘the Greatest Knight’: William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke, and his family. Marshal was one of the few nobles to stay loyal to King John throughout the Magna Carta crisis. That is not to say that the king and Marshal did not have their differences, nor that their relationship was always smooth sailing. However, William Marshal was famed for his loyalty and integrity and maintained his oaths to King John throughout his reign, regardless of the distrust between the two men.

The children of William and his wife, Isabel de Clare, cannot fail to have benefited from William Marshal’s rise through the ranks from fourth son and humble hearth knight, to earl of Pembroke and, eventually, regent for King Henry III. Their father’s position as a powerful magnate on the Welsh Marches, and the most respected knight in the kingdom, saw William’s daughters make advantageous marriages in the highest echelons of the English nobility.

William and Isabel were the parents of 10 children who survived to adulthood, 5 boys and 5 girls. In a bizarre and sad twist of fate, each of the boys would, in turn, succeed to the earldom, with not one leaving a male heir to continue the Marshal line. Of the girls, the couple’s eldest daughter was Matilda, also known as Maud or Mahelt. Given that her parents married in 1189 and she had two elder brothers, Matilda was probably born in 1193 or 1194. The Histoire de Guillaume le Maréchal wrote glowingly of Matilda, saying she had the gifts of

‘wisdom, generosity, beauty, nobility of heart, graciousness, and I can tell you in truth, all the good qualities which a noble lady should possess.’

 Histoire de Guillaume le Maréchal 

The Histoire goes on to say;

‘Her worthy father who loved her dearly, married her off, during his lifetime to the best and most handsome party he knew, to Sir Hugh Bigot.’

 Histoire de Guillaume le Maréchal 

Unfortunately for Matilda, her husband Hugh, the eldest son of the earl of Norfolk, was among the rebels during the Magna Carta crisis; their eldest son was taken hostage by the king when their castle at Framlingham surrendered to the royal army. It must have been a comfort to Matilda that, on John’s death, her son’s welfare, while still a hostage, would have been supervised by the new regent, the boy’s grandfather. When Hugh died in 1225, Matilda married for a second time just a few months later, to William de Warenne, Earl of Warenne and Surrey, thus uniting the Bigod, Warenne and Marshal families. The marriage appears to have been one of convenience rather than love but produced 2 children, a boy and a girl. Matilda’s son by her second marriage, John de Warenne, joined his 3 older Bigod half-brothers, Roger, Hugh and Ralph as pall bearers for their mother’s coffin at her funeral in 1248, when she was laid to rest beside her mother at Tintern Abbey in Monmouthshire.

Seal of Matilda Marshal’s youngest son John de Warenne, 6th Earl of Warenne and Surrey

The next daughter, Isabel, was at least six years younger than Matilda, born in 1200. She was married to Gilbert de Clare, Earl of Gloucester and Hertford, who was twenty years her senior. Gilbert was the son of Richard de Clare, earl of Hertford, and Amicia, coheiress of William, Earl of Gloucester; through his mother he could trace his ancestry back to King Henry I, albeit through king’s illegitimate eldest son, Robert of Gloucester, the stalwart supporter of his half-sister, Empress Matilda. Gilbert’s aunt, Amicia’s sister, was Isabella of Gloucester, the discarded first wife of King John, who had held the earldom of Gloucester until her death on 14 October 1217, when it passed to Gilbert.

Both Gilbert and his father were named among the twenty-five barons appointed as Enforcers of Magna Carta in 1215; as a consequence, father and son were excommunicated at the beginning of 1216. After the death of King John, Gilbert sided with Prince Louis of France and was only reconciled with the royalist cause after the Battle of Lincoln in May 1217. This was despite having married Isabel, the second daughter of William Marshal, in 1214; Marshal had been regent of England for 9-year-old Henry III since King John’s death in October 1216. Like her older sister, Isabel had found her husband’s family were on the opposing side to her father in the Magna Carta crisis and the civil war that followed. They had 6 children together before Gilbert’s death in October 1230; he died on the return journey from an expedition to Brittany. Isabel was married again, not 6 months later, to the king’s younger brother, Richard, Earl of Cornwall. The early deaths of at least 2 children put a strain on this marriage and Richard had been seeking a divorce when Isabel found herself pregnant again. She was safely delivered of the longed-for son and heir, Henry of Almain in 1235. Tragically, Isabel herself died in childbirth, in 1240. Her baby son, Nicholas, died the same day.

The next-youngest of the Marshal sisters, Sibyl, was born around 1201: she was married to William de Ferrers, fifth earl of Derby. Unlike her elder sisters, Sibyl and her husband played little part in national affairs. Ferrers had been plagued by gout since his youth and led a largely secluded life. He was regularly transported by litter. Further, he had never fully recovered from an accident that had happened sometime in the 1230s. While crossing a bridge at St Neots in Huntingdonshire, Ferrers was thrown from his litter, into the water. It must have been a terrifying experience. He succeeded to the earldom of Derby on his father’s death in 1247 but died in 1254. During the marriage Sibyl gave birth to 7 children, all daughters: Agnes, Isabel, Maud, Sibyl, Joan, Agatha and Eleanor. Sibyl died sometime before 1247 and was laid to rest at Tintern Abbey, alongside her mother.

Tintern Abbey, Monmouthshire, resting place of several members of the Marshal family

William and Isabel Marshal’s fourth daughter, Eva, was born in about 1203 in Pembroke Castle, and so was only 16 when her father died – and 17 when she lost her mother. As a child, she spent several years with her family in exile in Ireland, only returning to England when her father was finally reconciled with King John in 1212. Sometime before 1221, Eva was married to William (V) de Braose, Lord of Abergavenny, son of Reginald de Braose and grandson of Matilda de Braose, who had died of starvation in King John’s dungeons in 1210. William de Braose was a wealthy Norman baron with estates along the Welsh Marches. He was hated by the Welsh, who had given him the nickname Gwilym Ddu, or Black William, and had been taken prisoner by Llywelyn ap Iorweth – Llywelyn the Great – in 1228.

Although he had been released after paying a ransom, de Braose later returned to Llywelyn’s court to arrange a marriage between his daughter, Isabella, and Llywelyn’s son and heir, Dafydd. During this stay, Eva’s husband was ‘caught in Llywelyn’s chamber with the King of England’s daughter, Llywelyn’s wife’. Whilst Llywelyn’s wife, Joan, Lady of Wales, the illegitimate daughter of King John, was imprisoned for a year, a much worse fate was meted out to William de Braose. He was publicly hanged on Llywelyn’s orders, leaving Eva a widow at the age of 27, with 4 young daughters, all under the age of 10. Despite the discomfort caused by Llywelyn’s execution of Braose, the marriage of Isabella and Dafydd went ahead, following some impressive diplomacy on Llywelyn’s part. Eva never remarried and spent her widowhood managing her own lands. She was caught up the revolt of her brother, Richard, in 1234, and appears to have acted as intermediary between her brother and the king to help resolve the situation. She died in 1246.

The youngest Marshal sister was Joan, who was still only a child when William Marshal died in 1219, being born in 1210. She is mentioned in the Histoire as having been called for by her ailing father, so that she could sing for him. Joan was married, before 1222, to Warin de Munchensi, a landholder and soldier who was born in the mid-1190s. When his father and older brother died in 1204 and 1208 (possibly), respectively, Warin was made a ward of his uncle William d’Aubigny, Earl of Arundel. He was ill-treated by King John, who demanded 2,000 marks in relief and quittance of his father’s Jewish debts on 23 December 1213. He was ordered to pay quickly and pledged his lands as a guarantee of his good behaviour.

Effigy identified as William Marshal, Temple Church, London

This harsh treatment drove him to ally with the rebel barons and he was captured fighting against the royalist forces, and his father-in-law, at the Battle of Lincoln, on 20 May 1217. He was, soon after, reconciled with the crown and served Henry III loyally on almost every military campaign of the next forty years. His marriage to Joan Marshal produced two children; John de Munchensi and a daughter, Joan, who would marry the king’s half-brother, William de Valence, fourth son of Isabelle d’Angoulême and her second husband, Hugh X de Lusignan, Count of La Marche. It was through his wife and, more accurately her mother, that William de Valence was allowed to accede to the earldom of Pembroke following the extinction of the Marshal male line. Joan Marshal died in 1234 and so never saw her daughter marry and become countess of Pembroke in 1247.

The various experiences of the 5 Marshal daughters serve as a demonstration of the divisions among the nobility, caused by the Magna Carta crisis, with several of them finding themselves on the opposing side to that of their father. It must have been a source of great anxiety for a family which appears to have been otherwise very close. These 5 young women also provide a snapshot of the fates of women in thirteenth century England, death in childbirth, early widowhood and second marriages arranged for personal security rather than love. What is evident is that, just like their father, these girls were an integral part of the Magna Carta story.

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An earlier version of this article first appeared on Samantha Wilcoxson’s blog.

Sources:

Rich Price, King John’s Letters Facebook group; Robert Bartlett England Under the Norman and Angevin Kings 1075-1225; Dan Jones The Plantagenets; the Kings who Made EnglandThe Plantagenet Chronicle Edited by Elizabeth Hallam; Maurice Ashley The Life and Times of King John; Roy Strong The Story of BritainOxford Companion to British History; Mike Ashley British Kings & Queens; David Williamson Brewer’s British Royalty; Ralph of Diceto, Images of History; Marc Morris, King John; David Crouch, William Marshal; Crouch and Holden, History of William Marshal; Crouch, David, ‘William Marshal [called the Marshal], fourth earl of Pembroke (c. 1146–1219)’, Oxforddnb.com; Flanagan, M.T., ‘Isabel de Clare, suo jure countess of Pembroke (1171×6–1220)’, Oxforddnb.com; Thomas Asbridge, The Greatest Knight; Chadwick, Elizabeth, ‘Clothing the Bones: Finding Mahelt Marshal’, livingthehistoryelizabethchadwick.blogspot.com; Stacey, Robert C., ‘Roger Bigod, fourth earl of Norfolk (c. 1212-1270)’, Oxforddnb.com; finerollshenry3.org.uk; Vincent, Nicholas, ‘William de Warenne, fifth earl of Surrey [Earl Warenne] (d. 1240)’, Oxforddnb.com.

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.

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.

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.

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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 Giveaway: Ladies of Magna Carta

Giveaway results!

First of all, i would like to say a huge thank you to everyone who entered the giveaway. There were 156 entries, which is truly incredible. But unfortunately there can be only one winnerAnd the winner is…Charlotte Clark.

Congratulations Charlotte. Thank you all for taking part and giving me such a confidence boost with your lovely comments.

If you do get your hands on a copy of Ladies of Magna Carta – or any of my books – do get in touch and I will send you a signed bookplate to pop in the front. Alternatively, I do have copies of all my books in stock if you’d like to purchase a signed and dedicated copy.

Love Sharon x

I realise that I haven’t done a giveaway in over a year. So, to celebrate the release of Ladies of Magna Carta in paperback in the UK this week, I thought I would do a giveaway. One signed copy of the brand spanking new paperback (it looks very pretty!) will go to the lucky competition winner.

Inspired by the lives of Matilda de Braose and Nichoaa de la Haye, My third book looks at the events surrounding the issuing of Magna Carta with a view to how it affected the women.

Praise for Ladies of Magna Carta:

“Sharon Bennett Connolly throws much needed light on the lives of the high-born women of thirteenth-century England…Connolly’s version of the first Plantagenets is superbly concise. No distractions or detours, hitting all the right nails on the head…Connolly’s book is an informative and delightful read about women aspiring to control their destiny against this backdrop, but their success or failure had less to do with Magna Carta than with the timeless principles of resourcefulness, determination and knowing how to skilfully handle the big guy. It’s these qualities that make their stories inspiring.”

Darren Baker, author of The Two Eleanors

“A well-researched and comprehensive study of the women who lived through, and were affected by, the Barons’ Revolt and the sealing of the Magna Carta. Ms Bennett Connolly has skilfully brought to the fore the lives of the women who have hitherto been hidden in the background. A must-read for anyone interested in this pivotal moment in English and Scottish history.”

Annie Whitehead, author of Women of Power in Anglo-Saxon England

It’s easy to enter!

The competition is open to everyone, wherever you are in the world. To win a signed and dedicated copy of Ladies of Magna Carta, simply leave a comment below or on my Facebook page and I will include you in the prize draw.

The draw will be made on Sunday 21 November.

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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 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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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

Women in Love: Katherine Swynford and Joan Beaufort

The coat of arms of Katherine Swynford

Sometimes the similarities in the stories of medieval women are intriguing. Especially among families. Katherine Swynford’s story is one of the endurance of love and is unique in that she eventually married her prince. Katherine’s granddaughter, Joan Beaufort, is one half of, arguably, the greatest love story of the middle ages. I say arguably, of course, because many would say that Katherine’s was the greatest.

You may not consider a mistress as a heroine, seeing her as ‘the other woman’ and not worthy of consideration. However, women in the medieval era had little control over their own lives; if a lord wanted them, who were they to refuse? And even if they were in love, differences in social position could mean marriage was impossible – at least for a time.

Katherine was born around 1350; she was the younger daughter of Sir Payn Roelt, a Hainault knight in the service of Edward III’s queen, Philippa of Hainault, who eventually rose to be Guyenne King of Arms. Her mother’s identity is unknown, but Katherine and her older sister, Philippa, appear to have been spent their early years in Queen Philippa’s household. By 1365 Katherine was serving Blanche, Duchess of Lancaster, the first wife of John of Gaunt and Katherine was married to Sir Hugh Swynford of Coleby and Kettlethorpe, Lincolnshire, shortly after. The couple had three children, Thomas, Margaret, who became a nun, and Blanche, who was named after the duchess. John of Gaunt stood as little Blanche’s godfather and she was raised alongside his own daughters by Duchess Blanche.

Following Blanche’s death in 1368, Katherine was appointed governess to the duchess’s daughters. In September 1371 John of Gaunt was remarried, to Constance of Castile; Constance had a claim to the throne of Castile and John was soon being addressed as King of Castile. In the same year, Katherine’s husband, Sir Hugh Swynford, died whilst serving overseas and it seems that within months of his death, probably in the winter of 1371/72 Katherine became John’s mistress. Their first child, John Beaufort, was born towards the end of 1372. Over the next few years, three further children – two sons and a daughter – followed. John’s wife Constance also had children during this time – she gave birth to a daughter, Catherine, (Catalina) in 1373 and a short-lived son, John, in 1374.

John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster

We can only guess at what the two women thought of each other, but it can’t have been an easy time for either. In 1381, following the unrest of the Peasants’ Revolt and the hefty criticism aimed particularly at John and his relationship with Katherine, John renounced Katherine. Giving up her position as governess, Katherine left court and returned to Lincoln. Her relationship with John of Gaunt and, indeed, his family, remained cordial and the duke still visited her, although discreetly. In 1388 Katherine was made a Lady of the Garter – a high honour indeed. And in 1394 Constance died. In January 1396, John and Katherine were finally married in Lincoln Cathedral; they had to obtain a dispensation from the church as John was godfather to Katherine’s daughter. With the marriage, Katherine had gone from being a vilified mistress to Duchess of Lancaster. Her children by John were legitimised by the pope in September 1396 and by Richard II’s royal patent in the following February, although they were later excluded from the succession by Henry IV.

Sadly, Katherine’s marital happiness with John of Gaunt was short-lived; John of Gaunt died in February 1399 and Katherine retired to live in Lincoln, close to the cathedral of which her second son by John, Henry, was bishop. Katherine herself died at Lincoln on 10 May 1403 and was buried in the cathedral in which she had married her prince. Her tomb can still be seen today and lies close to the high altar, beside that of her youngest child Joan Beaufort, countess of Westmorland, who died in 1440.

Although it seems easy to criticise Katherine’s position as ‘the other woman’, her life cannot have been an easy one. The insecurity and uncertainty of her position, due to the lack of a wedding ring, must have caused her much unease. However, that she eventually married her prince, where so many other medieval mistresses simply fell by the wayside and were forgotten, makes her story unique. What makes her even more unique is that Katherine’s own granddaughter was part of one of the greatest love stories of the middle ages.

Joan Beaufort was the only daughter of Katherine’s eldest son by John of Gaunt, also named John. The story of King James I of Scotland and his queen, Joan Beaufort, is probably the greatest love story of the medieval era. He was a king in captivity and she a beautiful young lady of the court of her Lancastrian cousin, Henry V. The son of Robert III of Scotland, James had been on his way to France, sent there for safety and to continue his education, when his ship was captured by pirates in April 1406. Aged only eleven, he had been handed over to the English king, Henry IV, and imprisoned in the Tower of London. Within a couple of months of his capture, James’s father had died, and he was proclaimed King of Scots, but the English would not release their valuable prisoner. James was closely guarded and regularly moved around, but he was also well-educated while in the custody of the English king and became an accomplished musician and poet.

Joan Beaufort, Queen of Scots

Probably born in the early 1400s, Lady Joan was the daughter of John Beaufort, 1st Earl of Somerset. She was at court by the early 1420s, when James first set eyes on her. The Scottish king wrote of his love for Joan in his famous poem, The Kingis Quair. According to Nigel Tranter, James was with the court at Windsor, when he saw Joan for the first time; she was walking her little lapdog in the garden, below his window. The narrow window afforded him only a limited view, but the Lady Joan walked the same route every morning and James wrote of her;

Beauty, fair enough to make the world to dote,

Are ye a worldy creature?

Or heavenly thing in likeness of nature?

Or are ye Cupid’s own priestess, come here,

To loose me out of bonds

One morning James is said to have dropped a plucked rose down to Lady Joan, which he saw her wearing the following evening at dinner. Nigel Tranter suggests Lady Joan grieved over James’s imprisonment and even pleaded for his release. Written in the winter of 1423/24, the autobiographical poem, The Kingis Quair, gives expression to James’ feelings for Joan;

I declare the kind of my loving

Truly and good, without variance

I love that flower above all other things

James’s imprisonment lasted for eighteen years. His uncle Robert Stewart, Duke of Albany and Guardian of Scotland in James’s absence, refused to ransom him, in the hope of gaining the throne himself. He never quite garnered enough support, but managed to keep the Scottish nobles in check. However, when he died in 1420, control passed to his son Murdoch, and Scotland fell into a state of virtual anarchy. With Henry V’s death in 1422, it fell to his brother John, Duke of Bedford, as regent for the infant Henry VI, to arrange James’ release. The Scots king was charged 60,000 marks in ransom – ironically, it was claimed that it was to cover the costs for his upkeep and education for eighteen years. The agreement included a promise for the Scots to keep out of England’s wars with France, and for James to marry an English noble woman – not an onerous clause, given his love for Lady Joan Beaufort.

James and Joan were married at the Church of St Mary Overie in Southwark (now Southwark Cathedral) on 2 February 1424, with the wedding feast taking place in the adjoining hall, the official residence of Joan’s uncle Henry Beaufort, Bishop of Winchester. Finally united – and free – the young couple made their way north soon afterwards and were crowned together at Scone Abbey on 21 May 1424. James and Joan had eight children, seven of whom survived childhood. Their six daughters helped to strengthen alliances across Europe. The royal couple finally had twin sons on 16 October 1430; and although Alexander died within a year of his birth, his younger twin, James, thrived and was created Duke of Rothesay and heir to the throne. He would eventually succeed his father as James II.

On his return to Scotland, James immediately set about getting his revenge on the Duke of Albany’s family and adherents; executing some, including Murdoch, Albany’s son and heir. Two other claimants to James’s throne were sent to England, as hostages for the payment of his ransom. James and Joan ruled Scotland for thirteen years; James even allowed Joan to take some part in the business of government. Although the Scots were wary of her being English, Queen Joan became a figurehead for patronage and pageantry. The English hope that Joan’s marriage to James would also steer the Scots away from their Auld Alliance with France, was short-lived, however, and the 1436 marriage of their eldest daughter, Margaret, to the French dauphin formed part of the renewal of the Auld Alliance.

James I, King of Scots

James’ political reforms, combined with his desire for a firm but just government, made enemies of some nobles, including his own chamberlain Sir Robert Stewart, grandson of Walter, Earl of Atholl, who had been James’s heir until the birth of his sons. Sir Robert and his grandfather hatched a plot to kill the king and queen. In February 1437, the royal couple was staying at the Blackfriars in Perth when the king’s chamberlain dismissed the guard and the assassins were let into the priory. The king is said to have hidden in an underground vault as the plotters were heard approaching. There is a legend that the vault had originally been an underground passage, however, the king had ordered the far end to be sealed, when his tennis balls kept getting lost down there. Unfortunately, that also meant James had blocked off his own escape route. The assassins dragged the king from his hiding place and stabbed him to death; Joan herself was wounded in the scuffle.

And one of the greatest love affairs of the era ended in violence and death. The plotters, far from seizing control of the country, were arrested and executed as the Scottish nobles rallied around the new king, six-year-old James II. Joan’s life would continue to be filled with political intrigue, but her love story had been viciously cut short, without the happy ending her grandmother had achieved. Katherine and Joan led very different lives, although the similarities are there if you look for them; they both lived their lives around the glittering court and married for love. Joan’s happy marriage only achieved because her grandmother finally got her prince; if Katherine had not married John of Gaunt, the Beauforts would have remained illegitimate and their future prospects seriously restricted by the taint of bastardy.

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Images courtesy of Wikipedia.

Sources:

katherineswynfordsociety.org.uk; Red Roses: Blanche of Gaunt to Margaret Beaufort by Amy Licence; The Nevills of Middleham by K.L. Clark; The House of Beaufort: the Bastard Line that Captured the Crown by Nathen Amin; Brewer’s British Royalty by David Williamson; History Today Companion to British History Edited by Juliet Gardiner & Neil Wenborn; The mammoth Book of British kings & Queen by Mike Ashley; Britain’s Royal Families, the Complete Genealogy by Alison Weir; The Life and Times of Edward III by Paul Johnson; The Perfect King, the Life of Edward III by Ian Mortimer; The Reign of Edward III by WM Ormrod; Chronicles of the Age of Chivalry Edited by Elizabeth Hallam; Oxforddnb.com; womenshistory.about.com/od/medrenqueens/a/Katherine-Swynford.

An earlier version of this article first appeared on The Henry Tudor Society blog in November 2017.

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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 in hardback, ebook and paperback 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: 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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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: 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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©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