Book Corner: The Peasants' Revolting Crimes by Terry Deary

By Lewis Connolly

Popular history writer Terry Deary takes us on a light-hearted and often humorous romp through the centuries with Mr & Mrs Peasant, recounting foul and dastardly deeds committed by the underclasses, as well as the punishments meted out by those on the right side’ of the law.

Discover tales of arsonists and axe-wielders, grave robbers and garroters, poisoners and prostitutes. Delve into the dark histories of beggars, swindlers, forgers, sheep rustlers and a whole host of other felons from the lower ranks of society who have veered off the straight and narrow. There are stories of highwaymen and hooligans, violent gangs, clashing clans and the witch trials that shocked a nation. Learn too about the impoverished workers who raised a riot opposing crippling taxes and draconian laws, as well as the strikers and machine-smashers who thumped out their grievances against new technologies that threatened their livelihoods.

Britain has never been short of those who have been prepared to flout the law of the land for the common good, or for their own despicable purposes. The upper classes have lorded and hoarded their wealth for centuries of British history, often to the disadvantage of the impoverished. Frustration in the face of this has resulted in revolt. Read all about it here!

This entertaining book is packed full of revolting acts and acts of revolt, revealing how ordinary folk – from nasty Normans to present-day lawbreakers – have left an extraordinary trail of criminality behind them. The often gruesome penalties exacted in retribution reveal a great deal about some of the most fascinating eras of British history.

It has been a strange week for us all, I’m sure. And on Tuesday evening we got a message from my son’s school saying it was closed until further notice, so Wednesday morning was my first day of home schooling. School have been amazing and set tons of work to keep the child occupied. However, on Wednesday, there was no English so I had to set some myself; which was basically for said child to write a review of Terry Deary’s The Peasants’ Revolting CRIMES. I received this book as a review copy from the publishers, Pen & Sword, but the child got to read it first, and loved it. He’s a die-hard fan of Horrible Histories, so this book was right up his street.

So, it’s over to Lewis:

I liked, no I LOVED Terry Deary’s The Peasants’ Revolting CRIMES. I would recommend it for people who are age 13+ (due to minor swearing content) and you will not need to know your history because this book educates you in the revolting and hard life of the peasant.

Opening with ‘Norman Nastiness’, the book gives you a vivid taste of peasant crimes right up until the ‘Georgian Jokers and Victorian Villains’ and beyond.

The last witch

After seeing a smiling ‘medium’ at a psychic fair, a friend of mine punched her. When I asked him why he would do such a thing, he replied, ‘My father always taught me to strike a happy medium’,

In 1944, Helen Duncan was a Scottish spiritual medium, working in Portsmouth. She began broadcasting information from the port’s gullible sailors wjhho came ot consult her. D-Day was approaching and she was a security risk. She had to be stopped.

Duncan was originally charged under the Vagrancy Act 1824, relating to fortune telling, astrology and spiritualism. Then there was a change of plan. The paranoid government’s legal experts sent her to be tried by jury at the Old Bailey for contravening section 4 of the Witchcraft Act 1735, which carried the heavier penalty of a prison sentence.

Winston Churchill even described the whole episode as ‘obsolete tomfoolery’ but Helen went to prison for nine months.

The 1753 Act was later repealed and replaced with the Fraudulent Mediums Act of 1951.

So, no more witch trials.

You could call it hex-it

In this book, you will explore various ages of history, from the Middle Ages to the Stuarts, to the vicious, unforgiving Victorian era and the modern era. You will hear various quotes from all sorts of people, from William Shakespeare, to Martin Luther King and many, many others as you explore the book.

I particularly like the funny jokes like “Bring a man a fire and he will be warm for a day. Give a man a fire and he will be warm for the rest of his life” and “Will Shakespeare. Great writer, dodgy historian”. There are various other jokes, which are scattered throughout the book.

There was nothing to dislike about this book, despite its gory and bloody moments. It will tickle your funny bone for hours on end, so much so you will never put it down!

In conclusion, this is a great book for children and adults alike. It is not only comedy but it also used 100% historically accurate. You should order it now. What are you waiting for?

Huge thanks to Lewis for a fabulous, entertaining review!

The Peasants’ Revolting CRIMES by Terry Deary is available from Pen & Sword and Amazon.

About the author:

Terry Deary is the esteemed author of the immensely popular Horrible Histories series. This is his first title for Pen and Sword Books, to be followed next year by The Peasants’ Revolting Lives.

My Books

Coming soon! 

Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England will be released in the UK on 30 May 2020 and is now available for pre-order from Pen & SwordAmazon UK and from Book Depository worldwide. It will be released in the US on 2 September and is available for pre-order from Amazon US.

Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

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 UK,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository and Amazon US.

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 UK, Amazon US 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.

©2020 Sharon Bennett Connolly 

Mother’s Day Giveaway

Competition Closed: And the winner is Carolyn Hester

Sunday 22nd March 2020 is Mother’s Day in the UK this year and what better way to celebrate the 1st birthday of the paperback of Heroines of the Medieval World, than a giveaway for everyone’s favourite Heroine – MUM?!?!

“As Connolly ably demonstrates, knowing about these fascinating women is essential to filly understanding medieval Europe.” (Publishers Weekly)

About Heroines of the Medieval World

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

And don’t worry, the offer is open worldwide – even if it isn’t Mother’s Day for you just yet.

It’s easy to enter!

To win a signed copy of Heroines of the Medieval World dedicated to a heroine of your choice – your mum, aunt, sister, grandmother, daughter or yourself (I won’t judge!), or someone else’s mum – for Mother’s Day, simply leave a comment below or on my Facebook page and I will include you in the prize draw.

The draw will be made on Wednesday 18th March, so you should get the book in time for the big day.

Good luck!

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My Books

Coming soon! 

Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England will be released in the UK on 30 May 2020 and is now available for pre-order from Pen & SwordAmazon UK and from Book Depository worldwide. It will be released in the US on 2 September and is available for pre-order from Amazon US.

Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

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 UK,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository and Amazon US.

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 UK, Amazon US 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.

©2020 Sharon Bennett Connolly 

Medieval She-Wolves: Part Two

As promised, here’s Part Two of Medieval She-Wolves. Charting the stories of 3 more remarkable women who have been labelled ‘she-wolves’ due to their strength and determination – and a ruthlessness born out of an impressive survival instinct.

Zoe, Empress of Constantinople

Mosaic of Empress Zoe, Hagia Sophia

Zoe Porphyrogenita lived much of her life in relative obscurity. At the age of 50, in 1028, she was married to her father’s designated successor, Emperor Romanos III, and became empress consort when he succeeded to the throne in the same year. Zoe was described by a palace courtier, Michael Psellos, as ‘a woman of great beauty, most imposing in her manner and commanding respect … a woman of passionate interests.’

As empress consort, Zoe asserted herself. Her younger sister, Theordora, was sent to a monastery. Neglected by her husband, who had taken a mistress and refused his wife access to the treasury, Zoe took a much younger, teenage lover, Michael. Together the lovers conspired to dispose of Romanos and he was drowned in his bath in 1034.

Zoe promptly married her lover and made him Emperor Michael IV. Their marriage, however, was full of distrust and Zoe was allowed no power or say in government.  Michael IV then banished Zoe to a monastery. Not to be forgotten, Zoe began scheming to reclaim her throne. After she was allowed back to court, and unable to bare her own children, Zoe adopted Michael IV’s nephew, another Michael, and made him her heir. Michael IV’s life would have probably ended in the same way as his predecessor, Romanos III, drowned in the bath or with a knife in his back, had he not died of natural causes in 1041.

Michael’s nephew, Zoe’s adopted son, ascended the throne as Michael V. When Michael V was crowned, Zoe was again banished to a monastery, an act which caused an uprising in Constantinople. Michael V was deposed after only four months of disastrous rule. He was exiled to a monastery, but complaints about such lenient treatment meant that Zoe issued orders for his mutilation and he was blinded, an act symbolically rendering him incapable of ruling.

Zoe and Theodora

Now 64-years-old, Zoe was empress, once again. Her sister, Theordora, was retrieved from her monastery to rule beside her, though Zoe’s throne being placed slightly further forward, at the joint coronation ceremony, was an obvious indication of which of the sisters was in charge. In the same year, 1042, Zoe took a third husband, Emperor Constantine IX, who co-ruled the empire, with the two sisters. Constantine outlived his wife; Zoe died in 1050, aged about 72. A ruthless empress who knew what she wanted, Zoe was not afraid to dispose of her rivals – whether they be a husband or an adopted son.

Isabella of Angouleme, Queen of England

At first sight, it is easy to have sympathy for Isabella of Angouleme. When I started researching her for my forthcoming book, 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 left women to starve in his dungeons and murdered his own nephew. Isabella and John were married in 1200 and, after 16 years together, they had 5 children; the youngest, Eleanor, was born in 1215.

Seal of Isabella of Angouleme

When John died in October 1216, however, Isabella didn’t spend much time seeking to comfort and protect her children. As soon as her oldest son, Henry III, was crowned with her own ‘chaplet’, Isabella started making arrangements to go home, to her own lands in Angouleme, France. In 1217 she left England, supposedly to arrange the wedding of her daughter, Joan, but she never returned. Joan had been betrothed, at the age of 4, to Hugh X de Lusignan, Count of La Marche and the son of Hugh IX de Lusignan (the man who had been betrothed to Isabella before John married her).

In 1220, however, in a scandalous about-face Hugh IX repudiated Joan and married her mother, his father’s former betrothed. And poor 9-year-old Joan’s erstwhile betrothed was now her step-father!

But worse was to come…

Instead of being sent back to England, as you would expect, Joan went from being Hugh’s betrothed – to being his prisoner. She was held hostage to ensure Hugh’s continued control of her dower lands, and as a guarantee to the transfer of his new wife’s dower. England, on the other hand, was withholding Queen Isabella’s dower against the return of Joan’s dower lands.

Isabella wrote to her son, Henry III, to explain and justify why she had supplanted her own daughter as Hugh’s bride, claiming that his ‘friends’ were worried about Joan’s youth and forcing Hugh to repudiate the English princess in favour of a French bride who was old enough to bear him a son. Isabella had married Hugh to stop him going over to the French and to guarantee his allegiance to her son.

Ironically, the proposed union of Hugh IX and Isabella, and of their lands, was the reason John had married Isabella in the first place – to prevent the lands of La Marche and Angouleme combining and challenging Plantagenet superiority in the region. Little Joan was returned to England towards the end of 1220, but the arguments over Isabella’s English lands continued and they were confiscated, for a short time, in 1221.

Isabella would not retire in peace, however, 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). Although she reconciled with Henry in 1230, Isabella and Hugh continued to play the kings of France and England against each other, always looking for the advantage. In 1242, for example, when Henry III invaded Poitou, Hugh X initially gave support to his English stepson, only to change sides once more. Isabella herself was implicated in a plot to poison King Louis IX of France and his brother, only to be foiled at the last minute.

As contemporaries described her as ‘more Jezebel than Isabel’, accused her of ‘sorcery and witchcraft’, Isabella of Angouleme’s reputation as a heartless mother and habitual schemer seems set to remain. With little to recommend her, she stands out as a She-wolf with an impressive ruthless streak, even against her own son.

Isabella of France, Queen of England

Isabella of France, Queen of England

Isabella of France was the wife and queen of Edward II of England. In 1325, Isabella went on a diplomatic mission to France to negotiate terms with her brother, the French king Charles IV, who had seized Edward’s lands in France. Isabella saw an opportunity to take a stand against the unfairness of her situation. Ignored, spied on and persecuted by her husband’s favourite, the hated Hugh Despencer, and after 17 years of marriage, Isabella refused to return home. Isabella took to wearing widow’s weeds and claimed:

‘I feel that marriage is a joining together of man and woman, maintaining the undivided habit of life. Someone has come between my husband and myself, trying to break this bond. I protest that I will not return until this intruder has been removed but, discarding my marriage garment, I shall assume the robes of widowhood and mourning until I am avenged of this Pharisee.’

Isabella and the Strange Death of Edward II by Paul Doherty

With her son Edward, the heir to the throne, in her in France, and with the help of her close friend and adviser – and, quite possibly, her lover – Roger Mortimer, Isabella started attracting support from the disappointed and disillusioned of Edward’s subjects. In 1326, she launched the invasion of England that would see her husband fleeing for his life in the face of her advancing army. Edward and Hugh were captured near Llantrisant in Wales. Edward was sent to imprisonment in Berkeley Castle.

Hugh Despencer was taken before a military tribunal in Hereford, blamed for the collapse of the queen’s marriage and humiliating Isabella, and seizing her wealth and estates, he was given no right to reply. His guilt was a foregone conclusion. Paraded through the city of Hereford, with a crown of nettles on his head and all manner of things thrown at him, before being dragged on a sled to the town square, where Despencer suffered the full horror of a traitor’s death. He was hanged from a specially-erected gallows, fifty feet high; cut down whilst still alive, his intestines were cut out and burned before his eyes, before his head was cut off to end his agony.

Despencer’s death demonstrated the anger Isabella felt towards her husband and his favourite. Edward’s death may well have been just as gruesome – or not at all. Historians are divided about what happened to Edward II. Some claim he escaped to the continent, dying years later in Italy, while others are convinced that he was killed in Berkeley Castle, although probably not by a red-hot poker up his bum. Whatever happened to Edward, Isabella’s revenge was complete; Despencer had been utterly destroyed and Edward was deposed and replaced with his son, the 14-year-old Edward III.

Isabella (3rd from the left), with her father King Philip IV, brothers and uncle

For 3 years Isabella and Mortimer ruled England, only to be themselves deposed by Edward III when he turned eighteen; their own arrogance and mismanagement of England causing their downfall. Mortimer was hanged at Tyburn and Isabella spent her remaining years in comfortable house arrest, the She-Wolf who had launched an invasion of England and deposed – and possibly murdered – her husband, only to be deposed herself.

Zoe, Isabella of Angouleme and Isabella of France have been much maligned throughout history. Their stories have concentrated on the ruthlessness of their actions, rather than how they themselves had been treated by the men around them. If we turn it around, it is far easier to sympathise with women who were used as pawns in an Empire, or child brides or endured troubled marriages. Just as with Æthelflæd, Eleanor of Aquitaine and Isabeau of Bavaria (see Medieval She-Wolves from Part One), they fought for what they wanted, often against impossible odds, and achieved much. At a time when the perceived main purpose of a wife was to produce and raise children, these women made a remarkable imprint on history that has ensured their stories are still being told today.

Selected Sources:

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; http://www.britannica.com; oxforddnb.com; finerollshenry3.org.uk; The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles by Michael Swanton; The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle by James Ingram; Chronicles of the Kings of England, From the Earliest Period to the Reign of King Stephen, c. 1090–1143 by William of Malmesbury; The Chronicle of Henry of Huntingdon by Thomas Forester; Alfred the Great by David Sturdy; Britain’s Royal Families, the Complete Genealogy by Alison Weir; The Wordsworth Dictionary of British History by JP Kenyon; The Anglo-Saxons in 100 Facts by Martin Wall; Kings, Queens, Bones and Bastards by David Hilliam; Mercia; the Rise and Fall of a Kingdom by Annie Whitehead.

Images courtesy of Wikipedia

A version of both parts of Medieval She-Wolves first appeared in the 2019 edition of All About History magazine. Isabella of Angouleme’s story is discussed in greater detail in my forthcoming book, Ladies of Magna Carta.

My Books

Coming soon! 

Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England will be released in the UK on 30 May 2020 and is now available for pre-order from Pen & SwordAmazon UK and from Book Depository worldwide. It will be released in the US on 2 September and is available for pre-order from Amazon US.

Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

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 UK,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository and Amazon US.

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 UK, Amazon US 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.

©2020 Sharon Bennett Connolly 

Medieval She-Wolves: Part One

Throughout history – and particularly in medieval times – strong, determined women have been labelled ‘she-wolves’. It is a term that has been used as a criticism or insult. It has often been applied to suggest a woman of serious character flaws who would invariably put her own interests ahead of others, who fought for what they wanted, be it a crown, their children or independence. Men who performed similar actions and had similar aims tended to be called strong and determined rulers. However, the term can also be used to show women in a positive light, women who didn’t give up, fought for themselves and their families. So I have chosen 6 women who could have been termed ‘she-wolves’ to show women from both viewpoints, and to demonstrate the strength of the characters and the challenges they faced. And while their actions were not always exemplary, their stories were always remarkable.

Æthelflæd, Lady of Mercia

Æthelflæd, Lady of Mercia

The daughter of King Alfred the Great, Æthelflæd was married to Æthelred, ealdorman of Mercia. Æthelflæd was a strong, brave woman and is often regarded more as a partner to Æthelred than a meek, obedient wife. Although she exercised regal rights in Mercia even before her husband’s death, after Æthelred died in 911, it was left to Æthelflæd to lead the Mercians in the fight against the Danes. Alongside her brother, King Edward of Wessex. It is universally acknowledged that Æthelflæd helped to push back the Viking incursions. Losing four of her greatest captains in the battle to capture Derby in 917, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle reported:

‘With God’s help Ethelfleda, lady of Mercia, captured the fortress known as Derby with all its assets. Four of her favoured ministers were slain inside the gates.’

Anglo-Saxon Chronicles edited by Michael Swanton

In 918, Æthelflæd captured Leicester, ravaging the countryside around the town until the Danes surrendered. The combination of her indefatigable forces and compassion in victory saw the Danes soon suing for peace; in the summer of 918, the noblemen and magnates of York sent emissaries to Æthelflæd, promising that they would surrender to her. She personally led campaigns against the Welsh, the Norse and the Danes – though whether she actually wielded a sword in battle is unknown.

While often magnanimous in victory, Æthelflæd could be ruthless when it was her friends who were attacked; even she was not immune from the desire for revenge. In June 916, on the feast of St Cyriac, Æthelflæd’s good friend, Abbot Egbert, was murdered for no known reason. The Mercian abbot and his retainers were ambushed and killed while travelling in the Welsh mountain kingdom of Brycheiniog. The abbot had been under Æthelflæd’s protection and within three days she was leading an army into the Wales to exact revenge.

Statue of Aethelflaed and Athelstan

Æthelflæd’s army ravaged Brycheiniog, burning the little kingdom and taking many hostages. Although King Tewdr escaped Æthelflæd, his wife did not; Queen Angharad and thirty-three others, many of them relatives of the Welsh king, were taken back to Mercia as hostages. Æthelflæd’s strength and determination was complemented by her quick actions and an impressive ruthless streak. When the Welsh king eventually submitted to Æthelflæd, he promised to serve her faithfully, and to pay compensation for the murder of the abbot and his people.

Æthelflæd died suddenly in June 918. She did not live to see the successful conclusion to the work she and her brother had worked tirelessly to achieve; between 910 and 920 all Danish territories south of Yorkshire had been conquered.

Eleanor of Aquitaine, Queen of France, Queen of England (died 1204)

Tomb effigy of Eleanor of Aquitaine, Fontevraud Abbey, France

Eleanor of Aquitaine is iconic. Probably the most famous woman of the middle ages, she is the only woman to have ever worn the crowns of both England and France. She has even been promoted as the first feminist.

Eleanor’s long life saw her weather the dangers of crusade, scandal, siege, imprisonment and betrayal to emerge as the great matriarch of Europe.

When her first husband, Louis VII, led the Second Crusade, Eleanor went with him, only to find herself mired in scandal.  Eleanor’s uncle Raymond of Toulouse, Prince of Antioch, welcomed Eleanor warmly and lavished such attention on her that rumours soon arose of an affair. Despite a lack of concrete evidence, but accused of adultery and incest, Eleanor spent most of the crusade under close guard on her husband’s orders.

Louis and Eleanor’s marriage had been dealt a fatal blow; they left the Holy Land in 1149 and their divorce was finally proclaimed 21 March 1152. By May 1152 Eleanor was married again, to the man who would become her first husband’s greatest rival. Henry of Anjou would become King of England in 1154 and eventually built an empire that extended 1,000 miles, from the Scottish border in the north to the Pyrenees in the south and incorporating most of western France.

Later rumours again mired Eleanor in scandal, accusing her of murdering Henry’s lover Rosamund Clifford. In one extravagant version, Rosamund was hidden in her secret bower within a maze but, with the help of a silken thread, a jealous Eleanor still found her and stabbed her while she bathed. In another the discarded queen forced Rosamund to drink from a poison cup. Of course, a closely guarded prisoner in Old Sarum or at Winchester as Eleanor was at the time of Rosamund’s death, it was impossible for her to do any such thing. But who are we to let facts get in the way of a good story?

Eleanor did, however, commit one of the most heinous crimes a woman could in the medieval world. As a she-wolf, protecting her cubs, she rebelled against her husband. In 1173 her eldest son by Henry, also called Henry, rebelled against his father and fled to the French court for support. His father-in-law, King Louis VII welcomed the disgruntled Angevin prince and Eleanor of Aquitaine, having sided with her sons against her husband, sent two of her other sons, fifteen-year-old Richard and fourteen-year-old Geoffrey, to join their older brother at the French court, while she rallied her barons in Poitou to their cause. In 1174, when the rebellion failed, Henry accepted the submission of his sons.

Eleanor, who was captured as she rode towards safety in France, wearing men’s clothing – an act itself highly frowned upon – was not so fortunate. While it was not encouraged for sons to rebel against their father, it could be seen as boys flexing their muscles. For a wife to rebel against her husband was practically unheard of, and went against the natural order of society, and therefore deserved harsher punishment – where would the world be if women refused to behave?

Unforgiven and defeated, Eleanor was sent to perpetual imprisonment in various castles throughout southern England. She was only released after Henry II’s death in 1189, when her favourite son, Richard I, the Lionheart, ascended England’s throne. If she had done everything of which she was accused – murder, incest, adultery and rebellion – Eleanor would be the ultimate she-wolf. As it was, her rebellion, an act unprecedented for a queen, meant she paid the price with her freedom for the next fifteen years.

Isabeau of Bavaria, Queen of France

Isabeau of Bavaria

If all the stories of Isabeau of Bavaria were to be believed, she would be the most ruthless and wicked queen to have ever lived. For centuries Isabeau has been accused of almost every crime imaginable, from adultery and incest to treason and avarice. Variously described as being beautiful and hypnotic or so obese that she was crippled, the chroniclers have not been kind to Isabeau. According to them, her moral corruption led to the neglect of her children and betrayal of her husband and country.

However, they ignored the challenges faced by a queen whose husband was sinking deeper and deeper into the realms of insanity, going so far as killing four of his own knights during one mental breakdown and thinking he was made of glass in another. Married to King Charles VI of France, also known as Charles ‘the Mad’, Isabeau was left to raise her children and navigate the dangers and intrigues of court politics with little assistance from her mentally disturbed husband. Her political alliance with Louis of Orléans, her husband’s brother, led to her imprisonment amid slanderous rumours of adultery and incest – from the opposing political party.

To add to this, France was – not that they knew it at the time – halfway through the conflict with England that would become known as the Hundred Years’ War. The war was going badly for France – Henry V defeated them decisively at Agincourt – and Isabeau was forced to put her signature to the Treaty of Troyes in 1420. In that instant she disinherited her own son, the Dauphin, making Henry V heir to King Charles and handing France over to England. Much of Isabeau’s life and career has been re-examined in the twentieth century and she has been exonerated of many of the accusations against her, but, despite the fact Isabeau was backed into a corner, she still signed away her son’s inheritance in favour of a foreign power…

Although not all their actions were womanly, and some of what they did could be seen as dishonourable and ruthless, what is certain is that these women – and many others from their time – left their mark on history. With each of them, applying the term ‘she-wolf’ highlights their strengths, their determination, and the challenges they faced and overcame. They fought for what they wanted, often against impossible odds, and achieved much. At a time when the perceived main purpose of a wife was to produce and raise children, these women made a remarkable imprint on history that has ensured their stories are still being told today.

Look out for Part Two of Medieval She-Wolves, next week.

Selected Sources:

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; http://www.britannica.com; oxforddnb.com; finerollshenry3.org.uk; The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles by Michael Swanton; The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle by James Ingram; Chronicles of the Kings of England, From the Earliest Period to the Reign of King Stephen, c. 1090–1143 by William of Malmesbury; The Chronicle of Henry of Huntingdon by Thomas Forester; Alfred the Great by David Sturdy; Britain’s Royal Families, the Complete Genealogy by Alison Weir; The Wordsworth Dictionary of British History by JP Kenyon; The Anglo-Saxons in 100 Facts by Martin Wall; Kings, Queens, Bones and Bastards by David Hilliam; Mercia; the Rise and Fall of a Kingdom by Annie Whitehead.

Images courtesy of Wikipedia

A version of this article first appeared in the 2019 edition of All About History magazine.

My Books

Coming soon! 

Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England will be released in the UK on 30 May 2020 and is now available for pre-order from Amazon UK and from Book Depository worldwide. It will be released in the US on 2 September and is available for pre-order from Amazon US.

Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

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 UK,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository and Amazon US.

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 UK, Amazon US 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.

©2019 Sharon Bennett Connolly 

Book Corner: Fortune’s Child by James Conroyd Martin

Theodora: actress, prostitute, mistress, feminist. And Byzantine Empress of the civilized world. Stephen: handsome Syrian boy, wizard’s apprentice, palace eunuch. And Secretary to the Empress. How does this unlikely pair become such allies that one day Empress Theodora asks Stephen to write her biography?

From a very young age, Theodora, daughter of a circus bearkeeper in Constantinople, sets her sights well above her station in life. Her exquisite beauty sets her apart on stages and in the eyes of men.

Stephen, a Syrian lad of striking good looks, is sold by his parents to a Persian wizard, who teaches him a skill in languages that will serve him well.
By the time Destiny brings them together in Antioch, Theodora has undergone heart-rending trials and a transformation, while Stephen has been sold again . . . and castrated.
Discover the enduring bond that, however imperfect, prompts Theodora—as Empress—to request palace eunuch Stephen to write her biography.

This is a true rags to riches story, of a girl from the lowers echelons of society who rose to be empress of Constantinople. Fortune’s Child: A Novel of Empress Theodora tells the story of Empress Theodora, born in 500, into a poor Greek family; her father a circus worker for the Greens, who rose to be Master of the Bears. Theodora’s future was to be an actress, a popular one, but little more than a prostitute in the eyes of many, and with no prospects to ever improve her situation, unless she forced matters.

Although a novel, Fortune’s Child: A Novel of Empress Theodora flawlessly blends history and story-telling to draw the reader into the exotic world of 6th century Constantinople and the East. Recreating the life of Theodora and the world in which she lived, James Conroyd Martin takes you on an adventure that explores every aspect of Theodora’s world, the challenges, grief and struggles that she had to face to climb out of the fate into which she was born and make her own fortune.

This is a novel that will take you through the full range of emotions. It is not all glamour and success, but neither is it all dull and gloom. The author imbues a humanity that invokes both sympathy and compassion for the title character, even when her actions are less than noble.

It is late at night when a soft knock, almost imperceptible, comes at the door. I open it to find Theodora standing there, a finger to her lips. She is dressed in a purple bedchamber robe. She wears no veil or headdress. Her hair falls about her face like an ebony frame about the portrait of a ghost. I stand aside and she enters, gliding like some visitant saint into a monk’s cell.

But she is no saint. And since I am no monk, I take the comfortable chair.

“You know the circumstances of my birth, Stephen, how my mother kept me from being … abandoned – exposed to the elements.”

I nod, taking up a kalamos.

“The story is legend by now. Of course, it may be quite accurate, but my mother would relate it as a way of upbraiding a thoughtless and unappreciative daughter who would drolly mimic the ways of the adults around her, as well as the pretentious airs of an older sister. I was two when the mid-wife was called again and mother gave birth to a third child – alas, another girl.” She pauses, appraising me, her biographer. “Take what I tell you, Stephen, and bring my life to parchment. Breathe life into my past.” The empress grimaces as she settles in without complaint against the hard back of the chair, bringing her hands together in her lap, the interlocking fingers pale as moonbeams against the purple of her robe. “I shall begin, Stephen, where my memory begins.”

For my pettiness in my choice of chair, I feel a tinge of guilt, but I dust away and begin taking the notes that will become her biography.

Sixth century Byzantium is a period that is not often featured in historical fiction, which is such a shame, if Fortune’s Child: A Novel of Empress Theodora is anything to go by. It is a thoroughly engaging read, immersing the reader in 6th century Byzantium, through the sights, sounds and smells of Constantinople; the challenges and prejudices faced by lower class women, however beautiful and alluring, and the rules and restrictions of the privileged classes and the imperial court.

It is, at times, a hard book to read, when the reality of a woman’s lot and the prejudices and attitudes Theodora had to face and overcome. And yet, she never seems to forget her roots. The author avoids melodrama to bring you a story that is, at once, the story of Theodora and of her biographer, and how their lives are intertwined with Theodora’s own rise through the ranks of society.

As you read the novel, you can understand why James Conroyd Martin chose to tell Theodora’s life, it is as mesmerising and engaging as Theodora herself must have been. From the first pages the reader is immediately and irrevocably invested in the story of this incredible woman. I cannot recommend it highly enough – it is a must-read. Many aspects of it will remain with you long after you have finished the last page.

Fortune’s Child: A Novel of Empress Theodora by James Conroyd Martin is available in hardback, paperback and ebook from Amazon UK.

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My Books

Coming soon! 

Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England will be released in the UK on 30 May 2020 and is now available for pre-order from Amazon UK and from Book Depository worldwide.

Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

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 UK,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository and Amazon US.

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 UK, Amazon US 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.

©2020 Sharon Bennett Connolly 

Ladies of Magna Carta

Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England

In my first year of writing History … the Interesting Bits I told the stories of 2 remarkable women, contemporaries of each other, but with markedly different fates. Matilda de Braose fell foul of King John and suffered a horrible death in his dungeons, while Nicholaa de la Haye was John’s steadfast supporter, successfully defending Lincoln Castle in no fewer than 3 sieges; the last against a combined French and rebel army.

These 2 stories became the catalyst for my latest book, which looks into how the 1215 Magna Carta was relevant to the women of the great families of 13th century England, including the royal families of England and Scotland, the Marshals, the Bigods, the Salisburys, Braoses and Warennes.

Magna Carta clause 39: No man shall be taken, imprisoned, outlawed, banished or in any way destroyed, nor will we proceed against or prosecute him, except by the lawful judgement of his peers or by the law of the land.

This clause in Magna Carta was in response to the appalling imprisonment and starvation of Matilda de Braose, the wife of one of King John’s barons. Matilda was not the only woman who influenced, or was influenced by, the 1215 Charter of Liberties, now known as Magna Carta. Women from many of the great families of England were affected by the far-reaching legacy of Magna Carta, from their experiences in the civil war and as hostages, to calling on its use to protect their property and rights as widows.

Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England looks into the relationships – through marriage and blood – of the various noble families and how they were affected by the Barons’ Wars, Magna Carta and its aftermath; the bonds that were formed and those that were broken. Including the royal families of England and Scotland, the Marshals, the Warennes, the Braoses and more, _Ladies of Magna Carta_ focuses on the roles played by the women of the great families whose influences and experiences have reached far beyond the thirteenth century.

And it is almost here! Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England will be released in the UK on 30 May 2020 and is now available for pre-order from Amazon UK and from Book Depository worldwide.

Book Launch:

Please join me at The Collection, Lincoln, for the launch of Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England, hosted by Lindum Books.

I will be doing a talk and book signing, at The Collection in Lincoln. Tickets: £7  Single; including book:£29. Couple including book: £32. Tickets are available from The collection and Lindum Books, Lincoln.

Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

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 UK,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository and Amazon US.

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 UK, Amazon US 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.

©2020 Sharon Bennett Connolly

Thora, Harald Hardrada’s Other Wife

Coin of Harald Hardrada

The legend of Harald Hardrada, King Harald III of Norway, is one of my favourite stories of the 11th century. It is the tale of a warrior king, probably the best fighter of his generation, a poet and a lover. Harald’s marriage to his first wife, Elisiv of Kiev, is the stuff legends are made of; a landless prince making his fortune in Byzantium before returning to claim his bride and winning a crown. And they lived happily ever after …. or not!

Elisiv gave Harald 2 daughters, Ingegerd and Maria, but no sons. It may, therefore, have been a desire for sons that led Harald to take a second wife, although without setting aside his first. According to Snorri Sturluson, in the ‘winter after King Magnus the Good died, King Harald took Thora, daughter of Thorberg Arnason, and they had two sons; the oldest called Magnus, and the other Olaf.’ [1]

Thora (or Tora) was the daughter of Thorberg Arnason and Ragnhild Erlingsdottir and was born around 1025; her kinsman, Fin Arnason, was a good friend of Harald’s and was married to Bergliot, the daughter of Halfdan, a brother of Harald Hardrada and Saint Olaf.  The marriage also provided the desired son and heir, which his first marriage had failed to do; both of Thora’s sons would later become kings of Norway. Magnus succeeded his father in 1066, and was in 1069 succeeded by his brother, Olaf III, who had ruled alongside Magnus since 1067.

Gerhard Munthe: illustration for Olav Kyrres saga in Heimskringla (1899)

Harald probably went through some form of marriage ceremony, more likely a handfasting than a Christian marriage, with Thora in 1048. The marriage appears to have been a political arrangement, in order to garner the support of the powerful Giskeӕtten family, the chiefs of which played a significant role in power politics.

Of Harald’s two sons, Magnus, who succeeded his father in 1066, appears to have been as warlike as Harald. In 1058, aged no more than ten or eleven, he led a fleet to England in support of Earl Ӕlfgar of Mercia, after the earl had been outlawed only a year after he had succeeded to his father’s earldom. Magnus was probably little more than a figurehead for the expedition and unlikely to have been expected to make crucial military decisions, but it would have been good experience for the young prince, and a taste of what the future held for him. By the time he was sixteen, Magnus was a successful warrior and is said to have clashed with his father; the two almost coming to blows until the king was restrained by friends.

Coin dating to the reign of King Olaf Kyrre

It has been suggested that the marriage may have come following the death of Elisiv, or that Elisiv never even left Russia, but given that her daughters were born once Harald was back in Scandinavia, this seems improbable. Harald’s daughters are not likely to have been the daughters of Thora, as Maria was engaged to Thora’s brother, Eystein Orre; who would have been Maria’s uncle, had she been Thora’s daughter. Harald having two wives, simultaneously, seems the most likely explanation. As demonstrated by King Cnut and King Harold II of England, two wives and, therefore, two families, were not uncommon in Scandinavian culture; although in these two other cases an earlier wife was put aside for the sake of a more prestigious marriage, whereas Harald Hardrada’s first marriage was by far the more prestigious, while the second was politically expedient.

Thora was the kinswoman of Harald’s one-time friend, Fin Arnason, who was captured fighting for the Danes against Harald. When Fin refused Harald’s offer of quarter (life), Harald made a further offer:

‘“Wilt thou accept thy life, then, from thy she-relation Thorer [Thora]?”

The earl: “Is she here?”

“She is here, ” said the king.

Then Earl Fin broke out with the ugly expressions which since have been preserved, as a proof that he was so mad with rage that he could not govern his tongue: —

“No wonder thou hast bit so strongly, if the mare was with thee.”

Earl Fin got life and quarter and the king kept him a while about him…’

Heimskringla. The Chronicle of the Kings of Norway, by Snorre Sturluson.
Harald landing near York, 1066 (Matthew Paris)

At the beginning of September, 1066, Harald sailed his fleet of over 200 ships to Shetland and then to Orkney, where he gathered reinforcements and left his wife and daughters to await news of events. There is some confusion as to which wife was left on Orkney, some sources say Elisiv, who, as Harald’s wife and queen would have expected to become queen of England, had he been successful. Some historians argue that as Thora was a relative of the Earl of Orkney she would have been more likely to travel with Harald than Elisiv.

We know from Thora’s joining one of Harald’s expeditions to Denmark, that he was not averse to taking his wives with him to war. However, given that young Magnus was left behind to rule Norway, aged only sixteen, it seems likely that his mother was also left behind, to advise him. According to Snorri;

‘Thora, the daughter of Thorberg, also remained behind; but he took with him Queen Ellisif [Elisiv] and her two daughters, Maria and Ingegerd. Olaf, King Harald’s son, also accompanied his father abroad.’

Heimskringla. The Chronicle of the Kings of Norway, by Snorre Sturluson.

Harald fought two battles outside York. The first, the Battle of Fulford, on 20 September, against the brothers, Edwin, Earl of Mercia, and Morcar, Earl of Northumberland, ended in victory for Harald Hardrada and his ally, Tostig, the former earl of Northumberland and brother of the new King of England, Harold II. However, a second battle at Stamford Bridge, five days later, saw victory go to the English. Harold II had marched his men the 200 miles from the south coast to York, in less than 4 days, and confronted his brother and the Norwegian king on 25 September. At the end of the day, Harald Hardrada and Tostig both lay dead on the field.

Battle of Stamford Bridge, 1066 (Matthew Paris)

Harald and Elisiv’s daughter, Maria, is said to have died suddenly on 25 September 1066, the same day as the Battle of Stamford Bridge, on hearing of her father’s death. She had been betrothed to Eystein Orre, the brother of Harald’s second wife, Thora; Eystein was also among the dead at Stamford Bridge. Maria’s sister, Ingegerd, returned to Norway with her mother and half-brother. Olaf had traveled with the Norwegian army, but had not taken part in the battle, having been left to guard the ships at Riccal, near York. After the English victory, he was allowed to claim his father’s body and take the survivors home.

After Harald’s death, Norway was ruled successively by Harald’s sons Magnus II and Olaf III. Olaf III ruled until his death in 1093 and was succeeded by Magnus III, his acknowledged but illegitimate son.

Of Thora’s fate, little is certain. She may have remarried, although there is some confusion. According to Adam of Bremen, she married either King Swein of Denmark or an unknown Swedish king. [2] As with much of her life, the year of Thora’s death remains unknown.

Footnotes:

[1] Heimskringla. The Chronicle of the Kings of Norway, by Snorre Sturluson; [2] Fulford: The Forgotten Battle of 1066 by Charles Jones.

Pictures:

Courtesy of Wikipedia

Sources:

The English and the Norman Conquest by Dr Ann Williams; Brewer’s British Royalty by David Williamson; Britain’s Royal Families, the Complete Genealogy by Alison Weir; The Wordsworth Dictionary of British History by JP Kenyon; The Norman Conquestby Marc Morris; Harold, the King Who Fell at Hastings by Peter Rex; The Anglo-Saxons in 100 Facts by Martin Wall; The Anglo-Saxon Age by Martin Wall; Kings, Queens, Bones and Bastards by David Hilliam; The Mammoth Book of British kings & Queens by Mike Ashley; The Oxford Companion to British History Edited by John Cannon; The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles translated and edited by Michael Swaton; The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle translated by James Ingram; Queen Emma and the Vikings by Harriett O’Brien; The Bayeux Tapestry by Carola Hicks; On the Spindle Side: the Kinswomen of Earl Godwin of Wessex by Ann Williams; oxforddnb.com.

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My Books

Coming soon! 

Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England will be released in the UK on 30 May 2020 and is now available for pre-order from Amazon UK and from Book Depository worldwide.

Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

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 UK,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository and Amazon US.

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 UK, Amazon US and Book Depository.

*

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

©2020 Sharon Bennett Connolly

Harald Hardrada and Elisiv of Kiev

Elisiv of Kiev

One of my favourite characters of the 1066 story is the Norwegian king Harald Hardrada. Harald led a fascinating life, even before his ill-fated attempt on the English throne; exiled in Kiev at 15, while seeking his fortune in the east he became captain of the famous Varangian Guard before returning to his native Norway to become king.

When I started writing Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest I discovered that there were several Kievan links to the story of 1066. The baby sons of England’s short-lived king, Edmund II Ironside, who reigned and died in 1016, were given sanctuary and protection in Kiev, saving them from the clutches of Edmund’s successor, King Cnut. And after the Conquest, Harold II Godwinson’s own daughter, Gytha, would make her life in Kiev as the wife of Vladimir II Monomakh; she was the mother of Mstislav the Great, the last ruler of a united Kievan Rus. Vladimir was the nephew of Harald Hardrada’s first wife, the Russian princess, Elisiv.

Harald Hardrada’s story had been one of almost-constant conflict since he was a teenager. At the age of 15 he had fought alongside his half-brother, King Óláf, at the Battle of Stiklestad, in an unsuccessful attempt by Óláf to regain the throne. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle recorded: ‘This year returned King Óláf into Norway; but the people gathered together against him, and fought against him; and he was there slain, in Norway, by his own people, and was afterwards canonized.’ [1]

Following Olaf’s death, Harald Hardrada first fled to Sweden before moving on to Kievan Rus. Harald spent 3 or 4 years at the court of Yaroslav I (the Wise), Prince of Kiev. Yaroslav was the husband of Óláf’s sister-in-law, Ingergerd (sister of Óláf’s wife, Queen Astrid). At only 15, Harald’s military skills were already impressive and Yaroslav made him a captain in his army; the young Norwegian fought alongside the Kievan prince on his campaigns against the Poles in 1031.

Coin of Harald

Having gained a reputation that spread throughout eastern Europe, in 1034 or 1035, Harald and his force of 500 men moved on to Constantinople, where he joined the ranks of the Varangian Guard, in the service of the Byzantine emperor, Michael IV (reigned 1034–1041). A formidable warrior and commander, Harald eventually became leader of the whole Varangian guard, seeing action against Arab pirates, and the towns of Asia Minor that supported them. Throughout his adventures in Byzantium, Harald sent his plunder back to Prince Yaroslav in Kiev; treasure which, given the number of towns he had taken, must have been quite considerable.

On the death of Michael IV Constantinople proved a less friendly place for the Scandinavian and after a brief imprisonment and daring escape from his cell, Hardrada decided that it was time to return home. It is said that the new empress, Zoe, refused him permission to leave, but the Norwegian managed to escape Constantinople with two ships and his most loyal supporters. One of the ships was destroyed by the iron chains which blocked the seagoing entrance and exit to Constantinople, but the other made it through by shifting the weight in the ship so acted like a seesaw and it effectively jumped over the chain.

Harald returned to his friend Yaroslav I in Kiev, to whom he had sent his vast amounts of plunder. In 1044, whilst still at Yaroslav’s court, Harald married the Kievan prince’s daughter, Elisiv (also known as Elisiff, Elizabeth or Elizaveta). Elisiv was born around 1025 and would probably have met Harald when he first appeared at her father’s court, in 1034-5; when she was 9 or 10 years old and he a 15-year-old fugitive from Cnut’s conquest of Norway. Elisiv was probably the oldest daughter of Yaroslav’s eleven children with his wife, Ingegerd. Through her mother, Elisiv was the granddaughter of Sweden’s king, Olof Stötkonung. Her father, Grand Prince Yaroslav, was responsible for the rise in power and influence of Russia in the 11th century; his court was considered modern and cultured.

Yaroslav’s children were well-educated and able to read and write, including the girls; Elisiv’s sister, Anna, who married King Henry I of France, demonstrated her superior level of education when she signed her marriage contract with her full name, in her own hand; King Henry, her new husband, could only manage to write a cross. Although we have no description of Elisiv, we know that Anna was renowned for her ‘exquisite beauty, literacy and wisdom’ and we can assume that Elisiv, having shared in her sister’s upbringing, was no less accomplished. [2]

It is possible that marriage between Harald and Elisiv had been discussed during the Norwegian’s first visit to Kiev in 1035. However, given that she would have only been nine or ten years of age when Harald left for Constantinople, it seems hard to believe the claims that Elisiv had refused him on the grounds that he was not wealthy enough to marry her; her father, on the other hand, may well have done so. This may also explain Harald sending his plunder back to Kiev for safekeeping, as proof of his increasing wealth and eligibility as a husband for Elisiv, even if he still held no princely title and was exiled from his homeland. In 1044, therefore, there was no financial objection to Harald and Elisiv marrying and there is evidence that Harald was genuinely in love with his Russian bride. Harald wrote poetry to his Russian princess:

Past Sicily’s wide plains we flew,
A dauntless, never-wearied crew;
Our Viking steed rushed through the sea,
As Viking-like fast, fast sailed we.
Never, I think, along this shore
Did Norsemen ever sail before;
Yet to the Russian queen, I fear,
My gold-adorned, I am not dear. [3]

Contemporary image of Yaroslav the Wise, from his seal

With the treasure Harald amassed during his sojourn in Constantinople and Elisiv’s dowry, Harald now had the means to return home. He initially made for Sweden, arriving there in 1046. By the end of the year, he was co-king in Norway, under Magnus the Good, who left Harald to rule Norway while he concentrated on Denmark; the two kings had kept separate courts. Harald’s court in Norway was presided over by his queen, Elisiv. Within a few of years of arriving in Norway, the couple had two daughters, Ingegerd and Maria Haraldsdóttir. Ingergerd was probably born in 1046, with Maria arriving a year of two after.

Married life, however, was about to get more complicated, when Harald took a second wife, without setting aside Elisiv. According to Snorri Sturluson, in the ‘winter after King Magnus the Good died, King Harald took Thora, daughter of Thorberg Arnason, and they had two sons; the oldest called Magnus, and the other Olaf.’ [4] 

It has been suggested that the marriage may have come following the death of Elisiv, or that Elisiv never even left Russia, but given that her daughters are believed to have been born once Harald was back in Scandinavia, this seems improbable. Harald’s daughters are not likely to have been the daughters of Thora, as Maria was engaged to Eystein Orre, who would have been her uncle had she been Thora’s daughter. Harald having two wives, simultaneously, seems the most likely explanation. As demonstrated by King Cnut and King Harold II of England, two wives and, therefore, two families, were not uncommon in Scandinavian culture; although in these two other cases an earlier wife was put aside for the sake of a more prestigious marriage, whereas Harald Hardrada’s first marriage was the most prestigious, while the second was politically expedient. And it was this second marriage which gave Harald his sons; Magnus and Olaf, both later kings of Norway.

Battle of Fulford, 1066, taken from ‘The Life of Edward the Confessor’

At the beginning of September, 1066, Harald sailed his fleet of over 200 ships to Shetland and then to Orkney, where he gathered reinforcements and left his wife and daughters to await news of events. There is some confusion as to which wife was left on Orkney, some sources say it was Elisiv, who, as Harald’s wife and queen would have expected to become queen of England, had he been successful. Some historians argue that as Thora was a relative of the Earl of Orkney she would have been more likely to travel with Harald than Elisiv.

We know from Thora’s joining one of Harald’s expeditions to Denmark, that he was not averse to taking his wives with him to war. However, given that young Magnus was left behind to rule Norway, aged only sixteen, it seems likely that his mother was also left behind, to advise him. According to Snorri; ‘Thora, the daughter of Thorberg, also remained behind; but he took with him Queen Ellisif [Elisiv] and her two daughters, Maria and Ingegerd. Olaf, King Harald’s son, also accompanied his father abroad.’ [5]

Battle of Stamford Bridge, 1066, taken from ‘The Life of Edward the Confessor’

Harald and Elisiv’s daughter, Maria, is said to have died suddenly on 25 September 1066, the same day as the Battle of Stamford Bridge, on hearing of her father’s death. She had been betrothed to Eystein Orre, the brother of Harald’s second wife, Thora; Eystein was also among the dead at Stamford Bridge. Maria’s sister, Ingegerd, returned to Norway with her mother and half-brother. She was first married to Olaf I, King of Denmark who died in 1095, with whom she had a daughter, Ulvhild. Following Olaf’s death, Ingegerd married Philip, King of Sweden. She was widowed again in 1118 and died around 1120, having been consecutively queen of Denmark and Sweden.

Of Harald’s queen, Elisiv, little is known after King Harald’s death, not even the year of her own death. This Russian princess, who captured the heart of one of the greatest Viking warriors of all time, just disappears into the mists of history.

Footnotes:

[1] The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle translated by James Ingram; [2] Prominent Russians: Anna Yaroslavna (article), russiapedia.rt.com; [3] Quoted in Fulford: The Forgotten Battle of 1066 by Charles Jones; [4] Heimskringla. The Chronicle of the Kings of Norway, by Snorre Sturluson; [5] ibid.

Pictures:

Courtesy of Wikipedia

Sources:

The English and the Norman Conquest by Dr Ann Williams; Brewer’s British Royalty by David Williamson; Britain’s Royal Families, the Complete Genealogy by Alison Weir; The Wordsworth Dictionary of British History by JP Kenyon; The Norman Conquestby Marc Morris; Harold, the King Who Fell at Hastings by Peter Rex; The Anglo-Saxons in 100 Facts by Martin Wall; The Anglo-Saxon Age by Martin Wall; Kings, Queens, Bones and Bastards by David Hilliam; The Mammoth Book of British kings & Queens by Mike Ashley; The Oxford Companion to British History Edited by John Cannon; The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles translated and edited by Michael Swaton; The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle translated by James Ingram; Queen Emma and the Vikings by Harriett O’Brien; The Bayeux Tapestry by Carola Hicks; On the Spindle Side: the Kinswomen of Earl Godwin of Wessex by Ann Williams; oxforddnb.com.

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My Books

Coming soon! 

Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England will be released in the UK on 30 May 2020 and is now available for pre-order from Amazon UK and from Book Depository worldwide.

Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

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 UK,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository and Amazon US.

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 UK, Amazon US 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.

©2020 Sharon Bennett Connolly 

Zoe, Empress of Constantinople

Mosaic of Empress Zoe at the Hagia Sophia

Zoe Porphyrogenita lived most of her life in relative obscurity. She was the second of 3 daughters born to Constantine VIII and his wife, Helena. Zoe was born in Constantinople in about 978. She was the niece of Basil II, the warrior emperor who had co-ruled, as senior emperor, with Constantine for over 60 years. Basil died in January 1025, leaving Constantine to rule alone for a further 3 years before his own death in November 1028. By all accounts, while Basil fought to preserve his empire, Constantine was more in love with the trapping of power, rather than the wielding of it.

Zoe’s father had been emperor since the age of 2, meaning that Zoe was ‘born into the purple’ – born to a reigning emperor. She had an elder sister, Eudokia, who joined a monastery, and a younger sister, Theodora. Zoe’s uncle Basil II refused to arrange marriages for his nieces, as such marriages would give their husbands a claim to the imperial throne. The girls lived in virtual obscurity in the women’s quarters of the palace for many years.

Zoe first appeared on the international stage in 1001, at the age of 23, when her uncle offered her as a bride to German Emperor Otto III (reigned 996-1002). Zoe had set sail from Constantinople, but on arriving at Bari, was met with the news that her prospective groom had died of a fever. Zoe returned home to Constantinople and the continued seclusion of the royal palace.

Following the death of her uncle, and with no legitimate male heir to succeed him, Zoe’s father, Constantine, sought to settle the empire’s future by finally arranging Zoe’s marriage. At the age of 50, in 1028, she was married to her father’s designated successor, probably to add legitimacy to his claim to the imperial throne. Her new husband became Emperor Romanos III, and Zoe empress consort, when he succeeded to the throne just 3 days after the wedding.

Zoe was described by a palace courtier, Michael Psellos, as;

‘a woman of great beauty, most imposing in her manner and commanding respect … a woman of passionate interests, prepared with equal enthusiasm for both alternatives, death or life, I mean. In that she reminded me of sea-waves, now lifting a ship on high and then again plunging it down to the depths … Zoe was openhanded, the sort of woman who could exhaust a sea teaming with gold-dust in one day … [she] confused the trifles of the harem with important matters of state … her eyes were large, set wide apart with imposing eyebrows. Her nose was inclined to be aquiline, and her whole body was radiant with the whiteness of her skin.’

Zoe and Theodora, Chronographia

As empress consort, Zoe asserted herself. Her younger sister, Theodora, was sent to a monastery. Romanos was an unpopular ruler, his economic policies and military defeat in 1030 causing consternation. Neglected by her husband, who took a lover and refused to allow Zoe any say in affairs of state, the empress took a much younger, teenage lover, her chamberlain, Michael. Together they conspired to dispose of Romanos and he was found dead in his bath on 10 April 1034, allegedly poisoned by Zoe or her lover.

Michael IV

Zoe promptly married her young lover and made him Emperor Michael IV. Not surprisingly, their marriage was full of distrust and Zoe was allowed no power or say in government. Michael IV then banished Zoe to a monastery. His reign was no golden age, with the aristocracy opposing the undue influence of the emperor’s brother, John the Orphanostrophos. High taxation sparked a revolt, led by Peter Deljan, who used it as a pretext to end the Byzantine dominance of the Bulgars. The rebellion was quashed within a year, with the aid of Harald Hardrada and his 500 Norwegians, who had joined the Varanagian Guard in 1034. Further losses in Sicily and the emperor’s worsening epilepsy added to the empire’s woes. Not to be forgotten, Zoe began scheming to reclaim her throne. After she was allowed back to court, and unable to bear her own children due to her age, Zoe was persuaded to adopt Michael IV’s nephew, another Michael, and make him her heir.

Michael IV’s life would have probably ended in the same way as his predecessor, Romanos III, drowned in the bath or with a knife in his back, had he not died of natural causes in 1041, after retiring to a monastery. His nephew, Zoe’s adopted son, ascended the throne as Michael V; Michael was the son of the sister of Michael IV. Michael V was crowned in 1041 but immediately turned against those who had raised him to the throne. His uncle, John the Orphanotrophos, was exiled from court and Zoe was again banished to a monastery, an act which caused an uprising in Constantinople.

The people of Constantinople and the church wanted to see the crown returned to Zoe and the legitimate dynastic line. The mob ransacked the royal palace and deposed Michael V in April 1042. The young emperor was deposed after only 4 months of disastrous rule. He was exiled to a monastery, but complaints about such lenient treatment meant that Zoe issued orders for his mutilation. He was blinded, an act symbolically rendering him incapable of ruling, supposedly by Harald Hadrada, the future king of Norway, himself.

Zoe and Theodora

Now 64 years old, Zoe was empress once again.

Zoe’s sister, Theodora, was retrieved from her monastery to rule beside her. As the elder sister, Zoe’s throne was placed slightly forward of her Theodora’s at the joint coronation ceremony, as an obvious indication of which of the sisters was in charge!

The sisters sought to reform Byzantine imperial policies, making new court appointments, ending corrupt practices, such as selling titles, and instigating an investigation into the actions of their predecessor.

In the same year, 1042, Zoe took a third husband, Constantine Monomachos, who ruled as Emperor Constantine IX. Long-admired by the empress, Constantine had been exiled to Lesbos but was recalled to become Zoe’s third husband. Constantine was rich and elegant, with a reputation as a ladies man, but with experience of Byzantine government as a senior civil administrator. He co-ruled the empire with the 2 imperial sisters.

Domestic arrangements, however, were frowned upon when Constantine moved his long-time lover, Sclerina, into the imperial palace, apparently with Zoe’s blessing. The public were not so tolerant and called for Sclerina’s removal; the crisis was resolved by Sclerina’s sudden death from a pulmonary disease.

Emperor Constantine IX

Constantine set about reforming the Byzantine administration, exiling John the Orphanotrophos from court for a second time, and surrounding himself with noted intellectuals, among them Michael Psellos. However, his reforms and neglect of the army led to two uprisings, in 1043 and 1047, respectively, and saw the frontiers of the empire crumbling under incursions from the Normans, the Seljuks and the Pechenegs.

Constantine outlived his wife; Zoe died in 1050, aged about 72. And when her sister, Theodora, died in 1056, the Macedonian dynasty founded by Basil I (reigned 867-886) came to an end. Zoe is remembered in the gold and glass mosaic of the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople (now Istanbul) in which she is portrayed with Constantine IX and Jesus Christ. The inscription reads ‘Zoe, the most pious Augusta’.

Pictures:

Courtesy of Wikipaedia

Sources:

britannica.com; A History of the Vikings by T.D. Kendrick; God’s Viking: Harald Hardrada by Nic Fields; Heimskringla. The Chronicle of the Kings of Norway by Snorre Strurluson; Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest by Sharon Bennett Connolly; Ancient History Encyclopedia.

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My Books

Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest

From Emma of Normandy, wife of both King Cnut and Æthelred II to Saint Margaret, a descendant of Alfred the Great himself, Silk and the Sword: the Women of the Norman Conquest traces the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066.  Available now from Amazon UK,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository and Amazon US.

Heroines of the Medieval World

Telling the stories of some of the most remarkable women from Medieval history, from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Julian of Norwich, Heroines of the Medieval World,  is available now on kindle and in paperback in the UK from from both Amberley Publishing and Amazon, in the US from Amazon and worldwide from Book Depository.

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

©2019 Sharon Bennett Connolly 

Book Corner: The Two Eleanors of Henry III by Darren Baker

Eleanor of Provence was born in the province of her name in 1223. She has come to England at the age of twelve to marry the king, Henry III. He’s sixteen years older, but was a boy when he ascended the throne. He’s a kind, sensitive sort whose only personal attachments to women so far have been to his three sisters. The youngest of them is called Eleanor too. She was only nine when, for political reasons, her first marriage took place, but she’s already a chaste twenty-year old widow when the new queen arrives in 1236. In a short time, this Eleanor will marry the rising star of her brother’s court, a French parvenu named Simon de Montfort, thus wedding the fates of these four people together in an England about to undergo some of the most profound changes in its history. It’s a tale that covers three decades at its heart, with loyalty to family and principles at stake, in a land where foreigners are subject to intense scrutiny and jealousy. The relationship between these two sisters-in-law, close but ultimately doomed, will reflect not just the turbulence and tragedy of their times, but also the brilliance and splendour.

Having just reviewed one of the best fiction books of 2019 in Angus Donald’s Blood’s Campaign, it is a pleasure to review one of the best non-fiction books I’ve read this year. Darren Baker’s The Two Eleanors of Henry III: The Lives of Eleanor of Provence and Eleanor de Montfort is a truly engaging book, delving into the lives of two very different women, friends who were on opposing sides during the Second Baron’s War and the rebellion of Simon de Montfort.

Told chronologically, with their lives running in parallel, Darren Baker recreates the experiences of Eleanor of Provence, queen of Henry III, and Eleanor de Montfort, sister of Henry III and wife of his bitter enemy, Simon de Montfort. Sympathetic but not overly sentimental, Darren Baker recreates the political and personal lives of his two protagonists, both on the national and international stage.

The Two Eleanors of Henry III: The Lives of Eleanor of Provence and Eleanor de Montfort is a wonderful analysis of the years between the issuing of Magna Carta and the death of Simon de Montfort at the Battle of Evesham, clearly demonstrating the roles played by the wives of the two main protagonists in the ongoing battle between crown and barons. Darren Baker examines the conflict, and motivations behind it, from a new and innovative angle.

It cannot have been easy to write a dual biography about two women who shared a Christian name, but Darren Baker has a remarkable skill in always clearly identifying which Eleanor he is talking about at any particular time, negating any possible confusion for the reader.

As the banquet commences, Eleanor [of Provence] notices a man standing in close proximity to them, holding a basin of water for the king to clean his hands in before, during and after the meal. But e is clearly no servant. Besides wearing stately robes, he walks with Henry with a familiarity that suggests they are friends. More intriguing, his accent is very close to hers. Someone in the party whispers that it is Simon de Montfort, the son of the crusader who set most of their region ablaze three decades earlier. Simon too grew up in the south of France until his father was felled in the conflict. When the crusade was over, he ventured to England to claim the earldom of Leicester through his grandmother’s noble lineage. The earldom came with the office of steward, which is what this tall and handsome knight, then in his late twenties, is doing in attending the king at the feast.

Simon looks at the party from Provence with equal suspicion. He survived a purge of foreign courtiers only a few years before and is worried this new crowd from abroad might re-ignite that peculiar English obsession with aliens. His position seems safe because he is one of Henry’s most trusted confidants. He has recently shown his loyalty to him by proposing marriage to two widowed countesses on the Continent, presumably at the king’s urging. Henry has grand ideas about creating alliances across the Channel as a means of recovering the lands seized by the French from his father. ‘Do that,’ he intimated, ‘and I’ll find you a suitable bride if it doesn’t work out.’ Simon returned empty-handed.

Widows abound in this feudal society and the king gets to decide who marries the rich and powerful ones. None is more desirable than his own sister, who is also named Eleanor. She was younger than her new sister-in-law when she was betrothed to William Marshal II, son of her brother’s first regent. Because of her extreme youth at the time, it was years before she and William began cohabiting. Their marriage waas successfull but childless.

Don’t be fooled by the flowing narrative, The Two Eleanors of Henry III: The Lives of Eleanor of Provence and Eleanor de Montfort is an in-depth analysis, not only of the lives of the two women, but of the events which shaped their world and threatened the very stability of England and the monarchy. Darren Baker delves into the motivations of both women, their loyalty to their husbands and family and examines the lengths that each went to in order to protect their own interests.

The Two Eleanors of Henry III: The Lives of Eleanor of Provence and Eleanor de Montfort is a pleasure to read. It provides great insight into the lives of Eleanor of Provence, Eleanor de Montfort, their husbands and children and the impact that their family feuding had, not only on England, but also on the European stage. The author does not run to judgement and provides a balanced analysis of both sides of the conflict of the Second Barons’ War. He clearly points out the character strengths and flaws of both Eleanors, using chronicles and letters to build clear images of their characters and personalities.

The Two Eleanors of Henry III: The Lives of Eleanor of Provence and Eleanor de Montfort firmly places Eleanor of Provence and Eleanor de Montfort within the thirteenth century world in which they lived. Darren Baker brings their stories to life, with his passion for his subjects clearly visible in the elegant narrative. This book is a must for anyone interested in medieval women or in the conflict between Henry III and Simon de Montfort. Placing the focus on the two women who saw their husbands and sons drawn into the Second Barons’ War shines a whole new light on the period.

It is an enjoyable and fascinating read!

To buy the Book:

The Two Eleanors of Henry III: The Lives of Eleanor of Provence and Eleanor de Montfort is now available from Amazon UK and is available for pre-order from Amazon US and direct from Pen & Sword.

About the author:

Darren Baker is a translator and historian who took his degree at the University of Connecticut. He currently lives in the Czech Republic.

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My Books

Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest

From Emma of Normandy, wife of both King Cnut and Æthelred II to Saint Margaret, a descendant of Alfred the Great himself, Silk and the Sword: the Women of the Norman Conquest traces the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066.  Available now from Amazon UK,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository and Amazon US.

Heroines of the Medieval World

Telling the stories of some of the most remarkable women from Medieval history, from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Julian of Norwich, Heroines of the Medieval World,  is available now on kindle and in paperback in the UK from from both Amberley Publishing and Amazon, in the US from Amazon and worldwide from Book Depository.

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

©2019 Sharon Bennett Connolly