The Mysterious Knight in the Graveyard

The imposing keep of Conisbrough Castle

Whilst I was researching the Warenne earls of Surrey my cousin, who lives in Conisbrough, passed on to me a story of the accidental discovery of a long-dead knight during road-widening work in the village. Whether he has any relation to the Warenne family is open to conjecture, of course, although it is entirely possible. His identity is a mystery…

The story starts in 1955, with a road widening programme that was carried out along Church Street in Conisbrough. Conisbrough was a tightly packed village, with the road so narrow in places that cars had to mount the pavement if they met oncoming traffic. The ‘pinch’ was outside the parish church of St Peter’s. As a consequence, Conisbrough Urban District Council set to work to widen the road where Church Street meets Church Yard. As this was church property, and graves would have to be disturbed, strict rules were put in place to allow the work to proceed. The then vicar, Rev. G.F. Braithwaite allowed that the boundary wall could be removed and rebuilt a metre further into the churchyard. It was stipulated, however, that no photographs or archaeological examinations could be undertaken during the works. They expected to find twelve lots of human remains in the area to be excavated, and these were to be removed and reinterred speedily, and with reverence and solemn prayer, elsewhere within the churchyard.

When the boundary wall was removed, the stones were carefully stacked for reuse. One stone proved particularly interesting. It was a large stone which had been situated close to the base of the wall, was about a metre long and half a metre wide, with the image of a sword blade carved into the façade; the part of the stone which would have shown the hilt was missing. Work then began on excavating that area of the church yard that was to make way for the widened road. It was expected that twelve graves, dating from Victorian times, would need to be removed. The remains were removed only a short distance and reinterred in an area which is now the memorial garden. As work continued, however, the number of graves had been sorely underestimated, and several dozen graves were uncovered. It was discovered that graves had been stacked, one on top of another, going back through the years.

The Warenne coat of arms

Among the remains found was one who had been buried with a small shield. The shield was about 60cm long and 50cm wide, decorated with a lion rampant (where the lion is stood on his two back legs). It was, therefore, assumed that the remains were that of a knight; although the stipulation that there could be no archaeological investigation, nor photographs taken, means that we know nothing beyond this. We do know that the knight did not belong to the household of the Warenne earls, who had owned Conisbrough and its castle since the time of the Normans; their coat of arms was a shield of blue and gold checks, adopted by the second earl in the first half of the twelfth century.

Although the colour of the lion on the shield was black, this is unlikely to have been the original colour; several hundred years in the ground had erased any indication of the colours of the lion or the background of the shield, thus making it impossible to identify the coat of arms. The remains were reinterred along with the others, according to the conditions imposed for the road widening scheme. The work was then continued, the road widened and a new boundary wall built, with steps into the church yard and a memorial park marking where the disturbed remains had been reburied.

St Peter’s Church, Conisbrough

The incident was then forgotten about with the passage of time. Indeed, when I came to look into it, few had heard of the mysterious knight buried in Conisbrough church yard. Internet searches brought up nothing. The story re-emerged in 1990, when Conisbrough Castle installed new floodlights and hosted a grand ‘switch on’ ceremony for the residents of Conisbrough. An article sent to me by a Conisbrough resident talks of meeting re-enactors at the ceremony, who were dressed as knights of the Earl of Norfolk, with a lion rampant on their shields.

It was then suggested that Earl Hamelin’s daughter Isabel had married Roger Bigod, the first Earl of Norfolk, who died in 1221. Unfortunately, this relationship is not supported by history; Earl Roger was, in fact, the second earl of Norfolk and married to Ida de Tosny, former mistress of Henry II. However, Earl Roger’s son, Hugh, who died in 1225, was married to Matilda Marshal, the eldest daughter of William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke and regent for Henry III. On Hugh’s death, Matilda had married William de Warenne, Earl Hamelin’s son and fifth Earl of Warenne and Surrey. It is entirely possible that Matilda was accompanied by knights of her first husband when she visited Conisbrough, or was visited there by a Norfolk knight who then perished and was buried in the church yard of St Peter’s at Conisbrough. However, the emblem of the earls of Norfolk, in Matilda’s time, was a red cross on a yellow background. The red lion rampant, on a field of gold and green, was only adopted until 1269, when Roger Bigod, fifth earl of Norfolk and Matilda Marshal’s grandson, inherited the title of Marshal of England, which had passed to the family through his grandmother. This also means that it is just as likely, or even more so, that the shield belonged to a Marshal retainer who was visiting Matilda, or in Matilda’s employ.

The coat of arms of William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke

There are several other possibilities for a Warenne connection to the knight in the churchyard. The emblem of the lion rampant was not an uncommon feature among medieval heraldry in England and Scotland. The royal arms of Scotland, for example, are of a red lion rampant on a yellow field. Edward Balliol, King of Scotland at various points in the 1330s, was a grandson of John de Warenne, sixth Earl of Warenne and Surrey, through his mother, Isabella de Warenne. Edward did not officially relinquish his claim to the Scottish throne until 1356 and died near Doncaster in around 1367. The mysterious knight may have been one of his household retainers. Another daughter of the sixth earl, Eleanor, married Henry Percy, the son of a cadet branch of the earls of Northumberland. The Percy family arms are a yellow lion rampant on a blue field. Other families associated with the Warennes also used the lion rampant on their shields, not least being the d’Aubigny earls of Arundel, whose arms were a yellow lion rampant on a red field; Isabel, daughter of William, the fifth Earl of Warenne and Surrey, married Hugh d’Aubigny, the fifth Earl of Arundel.

One final possibility is that the knight was a natural son of the last earl. John de Warenne, seventh Earl of Warenne and Surrey, had no legitimate children with his wife Joan of Bar, a granddaughter of Edward I but fathered a number of illegitimate children by his mistress, Maud Nerford. Maud was from a knightly family in Norfolk; their coat of arms was a lion rampant. It is known that at least one of their sons, —–, used the Nerford arms as his own. Further, the arms of John’s last mistress, Isabella Holland, who he called ‘ma compaigne’ in his will, was a white lion rampant of a blue field, surrounded by white fleur de lys.1

As to the stone, mentioned earlier, with the carving of a sword blade upon it, it was suggested that this stone was previously a grave marker for the mysterious knight and was found lying in the church grounds sometime in the early 1800s. There was extensive building going on in Conisbrough between 1800 and 1810 and it is assumed that stone was used to rebuild the boundary wall of the churchyard. The fact that the two were found in the vicinity of each other is no suggestion of a link. As archaeologist James Wright explained to me, such stones were often used to decorate churches, castles and important buildings, then repurposed elsewhere once those buildings fell into disuse. The stone could have come from anywhere, and not necessarily a grave marker at all. The stone in question can still be seen at St Peter’s church, to the side of the church porch.

Scotland’s King John Balliol with the arms of a red lion rampant on his surcoat

Although we have no definitive answers as to the identity of the mysterious knight who rests in the grounds of St Peter’s Church, Conisbrough, there are many possibilities that suggest a familial link with the Warenne family. As we have no archaeological survey or photographs to aid the investigation, definitive identification is impossible. Indeed, we do not even have any useful dates through which we can narrow down the possibilities. Although the last earl of Warenne and Surrey died in 1347, it seems unlikely that the knight is from a later period and had no relationship whatsoever with the Warenne earls. Conisbrough Castle passed into royal hands after the earl’s death and was given to Edward III’s fourth surviving son, Edmund of Langley, Duke of York; although the arms of Edmund and his sons were derived from the royal arms of England, which are three lions passant quartered with the fleur de lys of France.

It seems likely, therefore, that although we do not know the identity of century of the knight, he died sometime during the 300 years that the Warenne family held the castle and honour of Conisbrough; and there are several possible explanations for his association with the family, through their many and varied prestigious marriage alliances. There is also a chance that the knight was a Warenne himself, as the illegitimate son of the seventh and final earl, John de Warenne, and his mistress, Maud de Nerford.

The possibilities may not be endless, but they are numerous; without further information, however, it is impossible to narrow it down.

Footnotes:

1 Warner, Kathryn, Philippa of Hainault: Mother of the English Nation

Images:

Conisbrough Castle and Warenne coat of arms by Sharon Bennett Connolly, St Peter’s Church, Conisbrough by Andrea Mason, John Balliol and Marshal arms courtesy of Wikipedia

Sources:

Early Yorkshire Charters Volume 8 Edited by William Farrer and Charles Travis Clay; Rev. John Watson, Memoirs of the Ancient Earls of Warren and Surrey, and Their Descendants to the Present Time, Volume I; Alfred S. Ellis, Biographical Notes on the Yorkshire Tenants Named in Domesday Book (article); 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; Conisbrough Castle Giudebook by Steven Brindle and Agnieszka Sadraei; F. Royston Fairbank, ‘The Last Earl of Warenne and Surrey, and the Distribution of his Possessions’, The Yorkshire Archaeological Journal, vol. XIX; Scott L. Waugh, ‘Warenne, John de, seventh earl of Surrey earl of Surrey and Sussex, Earl Warenne’, ODNB; Kelcey Wilson-Lee, Daughters of Chivalry: The Forgotten Children of Edward I; Kathryn Warner, Philippa of Hainault: Mother of the English Nation; Vincent, Nicholas, ‘William de Warenne, fifth earl of Surrey [Earl Warenne] (d. 1240)’, Oxforddnb.com; 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.

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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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©2022 Sharon Bennett Connolly

A Little Update

Hi all! I hope your 2022 is going well? Or as well as it can be, anyway. I though I would give you a little update on what I’ve been up to – and will be up to in the near future.

Historical Writers Forum Zoom talks programme

As you may know, I am admin for a writers’ group on Facebook, Historical Writers Forum, and last year we launched a series of history-related talks featuring both fiction and non-fiction historical authors. So far, there are 4 talks in the series and we opened with an amazing discussion between myself, Elizabeth Chadwick, Carol McGrath and Samantha Wilcoxson, entitled Writing History in Fiction: Getting the Balance Right. This was followed by A Good Fight: Writing Battles in Historical Fiction, featuring authors SJA Turney, Derek Birks, Lynn Bryant and Paula Lofting. And then we hosted a book launch for Historical Writers’ Forums new anthology of short stories, Hauntings: an Anthology, which includes works from SJA Turney, Samantha Wilcoxson, Paula Lofting, Kate Jewell, KS Barton, Lynn Bryant, Jennifer C. Wilson and introducing Danielle Apple. There’s also a foreword by myself. The Hauntings Book Launch brought all the authors face to face for the first time, if virtually, and gave them the opportunity to discuss the inspirations behind their stories. If you haven’t read the book yet, I recommend you do – it is replete with thoughtful, intelligent historical fiction stories that stretch out the suspense.

Kicking off our 2022 Zoom Talks series was Aelfgyva: the Mysterious Woman in the Bayeux Tapestry. Hosted by Samantha Wilcoxson, authors Patricia Bracewell, myself, Paula Lofting and Carol McGrath will debated the various candidates for the identity of Aelfgyva: Was she the ravaged nun? The sister of a Norman duke? Daughter of a powerful English earl? Concubine of King Cnut? Or the twice-crowned English queen? And what fun it was! A fabulous, energetic discussion about the possibilities – please do take a look.

Historical Writers Forum continues its programme of talks this year, with one for Women’s History Month on 26 February 2022 at 7pm (UK time). Hosted by Paula Lofting, authors Tony Riches, Sharon Bennett Connolly, Samantha Wilcoxson and Anna Belfrage will discuss Women in History: a lively discussion, followed by an audience Q & A, on researching and writing about Women in History. Tickets are free and available through Eventbrite, so do come along if you can! If you can’t make it on the evening, don’t worry, the discussion will be uploaded to our YouTube Channel by 28 February (I hope!).

Podcasts

In 2021 I also made my first forays into podcasts, talking to Khaki Malarkey about the Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England in March and in December I spoke to the Tudors Dynasty podcast about the life of Katherine Willoughby, Duchess of Suffolk, the Tudor heiress who was the fourth and last wife of Henry VIII’s best friend, Charles Brandon. In January, I giggled my way through a chat with Zack White and Alexandra Churchill from History Hack about the Ladies of Magna Carta. We somehow managed to compare King John to Napoleon – or Napoleon to King John – and decided Ela of Salisbury was awesome! Listen here!

My latest podcast has gone live today, with me chatting with Matthew Lewis over at Gone Medieval, discussing my favourite medieval family – the Warenne Earls of Surrey. We talk about my fascination for the Warennes, the events they were involved in, their remarkable strength as a family and how one disastrous marriage caused their demise. Listen here!

Women’s History Month Talks

To celebrate Women’s History Month this March, I will be presenting two online talks for Heritage Lincolnshire via Zoom.

I can tell you about the 2 online talks I will be doing for Heritage Lincolnshire in March, to celebrate Women’s History Month. The first, Lincolnshire’s Medieval Heroines, will include the legendary Lady Godiva, the indomitable Nicholaa de la Haye, heiress Alice de Lacy and Katherine Swynford, the mistress who became a royal duchess. It will be a Zoom talk on 10 March at 7pm.

The second talk is, as you may have guessed, on my favourite subject, Nicholaa de la Haye, the Heroine of Lincoln Castle and will by via Zoom on 17 March at 7pm. The remarkable Nicholaa de la Haye held Lincoln Castle in no less than 3 sieges during the reigns of Richard I and King John – the last was a 6-week siege, ended by the 1217 Battle of Lincoln when Nicholaa was in her 60s. She was the first woman to be appointed sheriff in her own right.

Tickets for both are available now and are £6 for members and £8 for non-members.

Unfortunately, these talk will not be recorded for later viewing, so please do come along on the night if you can. It would be great to see you! To reserve a place, book here!

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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.

©2022 Sharon Bennett Connolly

Book Corner: The House in the Marsh by Steven A. McKay

For generations, stories have been told about the ruined old house in the marsh outside Wakefield. Stories of hidden treasure, sinister night-time cries, and ghostly figures doomed to haunt the lonely estate for all eternity as punishment for some terrible crime.
This winter, it seems the old tales might just turn out to be true…

England, AD 1330
John Little, a bailiff living in Yorkshire, has little interest in ghost stories, having seen enough horrors among the living to bother much about the dead. The strange accounts from his fellow villagers have everyone talking though, and it’s not long before he’s asked to accompany a group of curious locals on nocturnal visits to the house in the marsh.
There are more worrying concerns in northern England however, as autumn gives way to winter and rumours of rogue bailiffs attacking, and even murdering people in their own homes, begin to circulate.
Along with his friends – ill-tempered Will Scaflock and the renowned friar, Robert Stafford – John is drawn inexorably into a dangerous adventure that will leave yet more people dead and only add to the eerie legends which will pass into English folklore for centuries to come.
Can John and his companions uncover the truth about the house in the marsh and its terrible secrets? And will they be able to forever exorcise the ghost haunting Wakefield, or will this Christmas be anything but merry?

The House in the Marsh by Steven A. McKay is another novella chronicling the investigative adventures of 3 of Robin Hood’s Merry Men; Little John, Friar Tuck and Will Scarlet. In this outing of the intrepid ex-outlaws-turned-investigators the trio are investigating the spooky goings-on of an abandoned manor house and a pair of murderers who are impersonating bailiffs. That one of the miscreants is taken to be Little John makes identifying the killers all the more urgent.

The House in the Marsh by Steven A. McKay is a wonderful, creepy novella, combining a detective story with the ghostly and mysterious events that always seem to accompany abandoned, half-derelict buildings. Little John, Friar Tuck and Will Scarlet have to look to their own safety whilst calming the fears of villagers – both of the haunted house and the ruthless fake bailiffs. It makes for a story full of suspense, adventure and the threat of sudden, unrestrained violence.

The ex-outlaws, it seems have the skills, courage and intelligence between them to face down both the fear and the violence. The many twists and turns in the book leave the reader on the edge of their seat throughout.

Little John might be a lawman, but he was capable of extreme, deadly violence. There were enough stories and songs about him to back that up.

Desperation could make a man more dangerous, however, and, somehow – perhaps John was distracted by a movement in the crowd beside him – the butcher’s cleaver caught the bailiff’s arm. A bright-red, bloody line appeared on the white skin and John roared in pain.

Before Simon could decide what to do next, press his attack or, more probable, run for his life, John stepped forward and smashed the pommel of his sword into the butcher’s mouth.

Simon staggered back almost comically, spitting out bloody teeth, and then he fell onto his knees and pitched forward onto the ground. He didn’t move after that, and, for what felt like a long time, everyone just stared, from the butcher’s prone form to that of the grimacing bailiff whose arm was bleeding heavily.

“Fetch clean water,” a woman said to her son. “And linen.” He ran off towards their house which wasn’t far off, and she hurried to John’s side. “That’s a nasty wound,” she said, examining it expertly. “But you already know that, I’m sure. Sit down, before you fall down like that idiot.”

Despite his injury, John laughed and the sound seemed to take all the fear and alarm from the atmosphere. Others laughed, and chattered excitedly about what had just happened, while the lady knelt beside the bailiff and pushed aside his sleeve.

Her son returned quickly, and, when she used the water he’d brought to wash John’s cut she nodded in satisfaction. “It’s not as deep as I’d feared,” she said.

“I had a feeling he might want a fight,” John said. “So I wore leather bracers.” He shook his sleeve and the leather armour fell out onto the ground, sliced cleanly in half. There were whistles and gasps from teh crowd as they realised what would have happened had he not been wearing bracers.

“That probably saved your life,” said the woman, still washing away the blood before taking the linen her son handed her and using it to tightly bandage the wound. “Or at least your arm.”

The plot of The House in the Marsh by Steven A. McKay is perfectly crafted, with a number of twists and turns throwing the reader off the trail as the story unfolds. As ever, Steven A. McKays’ storytelling skills are first class as he draws the reader through the story. His impeccable research means that he recreates a highly plausible 14th century Yorkshire – you wouldn’t believe he doesn’t live near Wakefield himself!

Growing up in South Yorkshire myself, I have always had a soft spot for the Robin Hood legend. Of Course, Steven A. McKay sets it in Barnsdale Forest in Wakefield, instead of Sherwood, but he can be forgiven for that as his stories are such wonderful adventures. And his characters are much as I have always imagined them, loyal friends who rib each other but are there for each other when needed.

My only problem with The House in the Marsh by Steven A. McKay is that I wish it was longer. Steven A. McKay has created a wonderful side job for these three Merry Men and I do wish he would give them a full length story to get their teeth into.

For now, though, The House in the Marsh by Steven A. McKay is a perfect read for these cold, dark, winter nights.

To buy the book:

The House in the Marsh by Steven A. McKay is available in ebook and paperback on Amazon.

From the author:

I was born in Scotland in 1977 and always enjoyed studying history – well, the interesting bits, not so much what they taught us in school. I decided to write my Forest Lord series after seeing a house called “Sherwood” when I was out at work one day. I’d been thinking about maybe writing a novel but couldn’t come up with a subject or a hero so, to see that house, well…It felt like a message from the gods and my rebooted Robin Hood was born.

My current Warrior Druid of Britain series was similarly inspired, although this time it was the 80’s TV show “Knightmare”, and their version of Merlin that got my ideas flowing. Of course, the bearded old wizard had been done to death in fiction, so I decided to make my hero a giant young warrior-druid living in post-Roman Britain and he’s been a great character to write.

I was once in a heavy metal band although I tend to just play guitar in my study these days. I’m sure the neighbours absolutely love me.

Check out my website at stevenamckay.com and sign up for the email list – in return I’ll send you a FREE short story, as well as offering chances to win signed books, free audiobooks and other quite good things!

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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: The Moorland Murderers by Michael Jecks

July, 1556. En route to France and escape from Queen Mary’s men, Jack Blackjack decides to spend the night at a Devon tavern, agrees to a game of dice – and ends up accused of murder. To make matters worse, the dead man turns out to have been the leader of the all-powerful miners who rule the surrounding moors – and they have no intention of waiting for the official court verdict to determine Jack’s guilt.

But who would frame Jack for murder . . . and why? Alone and friendless in a lawless land of cut-throats, outlaws and thieves, Jack realizes that the only way to clear his name – and save his skin – is to unmask the real killer. But knowing nothing of the local ways and customs, how is he to even begin? As Jack’s attempts to find answers stirs up a hornet’s nest of warring factions within the town, events soon start to spiral out of control . . .

What a thoroughly enjoyable adventure! Michael Jecks returns to his old literary haunts of Dartmoor – Lydford and Oakhampton – but without a Simon Puttock or Baldwin de Furnshill in sight. No, we are a few hundred years after the adventures of the bailiff and his friend, Baldwin, the former Knights’ Templar. The Moorland Murderers is set in the time of the Tudor queen, Mary I, shortly after the Wyatt Rebellion. Closely associated with the queen’s sister, Elizabeth, the book’s hero – if you can call him that – Jack Blackjack, has left London for his own safety. Heading for the Continent via Plymouth, he finds himself caught up in a little bother in Oakhampton and stands accused of murder.

Jack Blackjack is not your typical hero. He can’t stand the sight of blood, tends to get bashed on the head – A LOT – and has a rather high opinion of himself. As The Moorland Murderers is told in the first person, the reader gets a healthy – or unhealthy – dose of Jack Blackjack’s opinions about himself and others. Which make for a highly amusing, light-hearted approach to the serious business of murder.

There are few men who can be as uncooperative and suspicious as those who own taverns. I suppose they are used to seeing men trying to drink their houses dry before ‘remembering’ that they had left all their money at home. This fellow,, Mal, was no exception, and as I made my slow and painful way to his bar, I was concerned to see that he had picked up a stout cudgel and was allowing it to slap unpleasantly into his other hand while he gazed at me in a thoughtful manner. It was not an encouraging look. As to my gambling companion, there was no sign.

‘See? My purse has been cut from me!’ I declareed, holding up my laces. ‘The man who gambled with me, he must have chosen to get his money back! He set upon me and robbed me!’

There was some murmuring at that. The large man at the farther end of the room unhitched himself from his post at the wall and began to walk towards me. I did not like the look on his face. The man at the bar, I saw, was no longer there. He too had left. I moved around so that the wench who had wriggled so enticingly on my lap was between us. His expression was not reassuring to this traveller. It was the sort of look a cat might wear while stalking a rat.

The host was not taking my word. ‘Shew ‘un th’ ‘aid.’

I stared at him. His brows darkened. He had looked rather like an ape beforehand, but now he was an angry ape with the suspicion that the figure before him had stolen his favourite fruits. His stick rose menacingly.

‘He said to show him your head,’ the maid translated with a sigh. She rolled her eyes as though thinking me the purest form of fool she had encountered. It made me scowl – but briefly. The movement pulled the skin over the lump on my scalp, and that hurt.

I submitted myself to her inspection. She came forward and glanced at my head. She pulled a face when she parted my hair, making me wince and flinch in pain, and her hands came away with my gore on them. The sight of blood can make me feel queasy at the best of times, but the sight of my own has always had a marked effect. I could feel the colour drain from my face, and the world began to whirl about me once more.

‘Get him a stool!’ the wench burst out, and since her mouth was close to my ear, I started like a child caught stealing a biscuit, and fainted away.

Michael Jecks has long been one of my favourite authors – ever since I read his first book, The Last Templar, a murder mystery series set in the time of Edward II, many years ago. The Bloody Mary Mysteries are set later, in the Tudor era, but are just as engrossing. Jack Blackjack is not your typical hero. He is a paid assassin who cannot stand the sight of blood and has to outsource his work. He thinks very highly of himself – probably too highly – and has a knack for getting into trouble.

Jack Blackjack is a very likeable chap who is trying to negotiate the way through trying times in the reign of Mary I, when political plotting was at a dangerous high and the counter-Reformation was in full swing in England. In The Moorland Murderers, Jack is trying to get away from the intrigues of London – and becoming implicated in the latest rebellion. He finds himself on the edge of Dartmoor, where regional politics were just as dangerous as in London itself!

With the The Moorland Murderers, Michael Jecks is back in his old haunts. He knows the history and landscape of Dartmoor like the back of his hand. And it shows. Historical authenticity, of life on the Moors, of the clashes between the tin miners and those from the towns and of the suspicion of strangers is evident on every page. The story is fast paced and completely absorbing to read. It is such fun! I smiled and giggled through every page!

I haven’t enjoyed a book so much in ages!

I cannot recommend it highly enough.

About the author:

Michael Jecks is the author of more than thirty novels in the Knights Templar medieval mystery series, and four previous Bloody Mary Tudor mysteries. A former Chairman of the Crime Writers’ Association, he lives with his wife, children and dogs in northern Dartmoor. 

Michael is a regular speaker about the Knights Templar, the end of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, about writing and publishing, and about finding work. He is also keen to help those who are now going through the latest recession. He endured enough hardship, and lost all his savings, during the last recession, and understands what it means to risk losing everything.

An enthusiastic photographer and watercolourist, Michael can often be seen walking across Dartmoor where he lives, gaining inspiration into the lives of our ancestors for his stories. When relaxing he can usually be found clad in white in a pub near you before dancing mad stick Morris.

Of course, if you want to contact him or link on social media, you can find him at writerlywitterings.com, he’s on YouTube as writerlywitterer, on LinkedIn, he is at Facebook.com/Michael.Jecks.author, at Flickr.com/photos/Michael_Jecks, on Instagram, Pinterest and everywhere else too! He appreciates hearing from readers, so do please contact him.

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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

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

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©2021 Sharon Bennett Connolly

Book Corner: Crown of Fear by Derek Birks

England, August 1485.
For almost thirty years, the Elder family has been ravaged by the feud between York and Lancaster. Now exiled John Elder, yearning for an end to the Elders’ troubles, throws his support behind a young, untried pretender, Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond.
Henry’s tiny invasion force looks certain to be heavily outnumbered by the massive host that Richard III has summoned. But nothing is certain for some of King Richard’s subjects are wondering if the dire rumours they have heard about him are true.
Since one of Richard’s most powerful nobles, Lord Thomas Stanley is also Henry’s stepfather the king takes Stanley’s son hostage. If Stanley deserts him, the king must rely upon the vast army of Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland, but the earl has long resented Richard’s power in the north.
King Richard’s chief councillor, Sir William Catesby, keen to protect his king decides to crush the dangerous Elder brood once and for all. So, one by one John’s kinfolk are captured and imprisoned.
On a marshy plain not far from Market Bosworth the fate of the Elders and the kingdom of England will finally be settled.

Well this is bitter-sweet. The final instalment of Derek Birks‘ magnificent Wars of the Roses series is finally here. Nine books have followed 2 generations of the Elder family as they negotiated the highs and lows of one of the most protracted and violent conflicts in English history. And with Crown of Fear not only do we come to the culmination of the series, but to the culmination of the wars themselves, with the Battle of Bosworth and the campaign to put Henry VII on the throne.

The fact the author is not averse to killing off a leading character, or a readers’ favourite, means the reader is constantly on tenterhooks, not knowing what is going to happen. This adds to the tension in the story as you really do not know who is going to survive. It also gives a level of authenticity you do not find in many books; no one during the Wars of the Roses knew whether or not the battle they were fighting was going to be their last. Skill in battle could only get you so far; you also needed a heavy dose of luck. And rank was no protection – look at Richard III at Bosworth! Derek Birks manages to get this fact over to the reader perfectly!

The fictional Elder family have fit neatly into the actual history of the 15th century, acting as witnesses and participants of the great events, and explaining the divided loyalties and constantly moving lines that are drawn during a civil war. The family acts as a wonderful foil to the political leaders of the times, on both sides of the political divide, thus allowing the reader to see all aspects of the Wars of the Roses, from both sides of the battlefield. Crown of Fear also demonstrates that not all battles are fought in open fields, between two armies, but also in the family dynamic, in the corridors of power and in the murky world of espionage, where the rules hold no sway and the boundaries are constantly changing.

“Where are they, Mary?” groaned Eleanor Elder. “Four days! Hal promised me he would be back in four days.”

“I think what Hal said, my lady was that, with luck they’d be back in four days.” said her servant, Mary Ford in a vain attempt to soothe Eleanor’s ragged nerves.

“Luck?” grumbled Eleanor. “The only fortune this family knows is ill fortune.”

“Then … just have a little faith in my Hal, lady,” urged Mary.

“For the love of Christ, Mary, how can you ask me that?” snarled Eleanor. “I put my faith in ‘your’Hal long before you ever set eyes on him! Aye, and sometimes Hal was all that kept me alive. No, I would never doubt your man but I just know that, whenever my nephew John’s involved blood starts to flow like water – and sometimes a great black torrent of it.”

Mary’s lined face creased into a familiar grimace. “Aye well, there are some folk, lady, who might say the same about you!”

Eleanor stood still for a moment, contemplating Mary’s barbed response which was, as ever, not only pithy but disturbingly accurate. Mary might carry out the duties of a servant but she was infinitely more than that to Eleanor. Since the two first met in a wild, rain-sodden Yorkshire dale, Mary had been her constant shadow. When Eleanor was reckless, Mary advised caution; when others deserted her, Mary remained loyal. And, if Eleanor was abusive or ungrateful, Mary responded in kind. She had seen Eleanor Elder at her worst and had come back for more.

“I told John I wanted no part in this … this torment,” cried Eleanor. “I’m just … weary of it.”

Crown of Fear is beautifully written and meticulously researched. The author was once a history teacher, and you can tell that he knows his stuff! From the armour and weapons used, to battle tactics and distances travelled, Derek Birks’ historical knowledge and research add to the authenticity of this impressive novel. As ever, the fight scenes, including the Battle of Bosworth itself, are perfectly choreographed, frenetic and urgent in their action. You only realise you’ve been holding your breath throughout once the fight is over!

With Crown of Fear Derek Birks ably demonstrates that he has become a skillful storyteller by keeping the reader enthralled from the first page to the last. He has dedicated a great deal of time and words to the story of the Elder family and this dedication has paid off in that the reader themselves become totally in vested in the characters, particularly in the unlikely heroine, Eleanor Elder. Poor Eleanor has not had the best of lives, and never comes out of any book unscathed. She has lost loves, family and blood for the Elder cause. And she has become a firm favourite with the fans of the Elder family. My trepidation in reading Crown of Fear was irretrievably linked with my fear for Eleanor’s survival. I won’t tell you what happens to her – you need to read the book yourself. But needless to say, with everything going on in the book, my first concern was for what poor Eleanor would have to endure.

So, what did I think of Crown of Fear? I loved it. I read it in 3 days over the Christmas break, eager to get to the end and find out what happened to Eleanor Elder and the rest of her family (I’m still not telling though). It was as exciting an experience as I had reading Feud so many years ago – and it is a fitting end to what has been a fabulous series. I am bereft, because I know there will be no more. But what an experience it has been. I will never look at the Wars of the Roses in the same way again. If you have not read the series, I really do recommend that you do. You are in for a treat. And if,, like me, you have been ardently following the Elder family since the beginning – you are gonna love it!

Crown of Fear is now available from Amazon.

About the author:

Derek was born in Hampshire in England but spent his teenage years in Auckland, New Zealand, where he still has strong family ties. On his return to England, he read history at Reading University and for many years he taught history in a secondary school. Whilst he enjoyed his teaching career and it paid the bills, he found a creative outlet in theatrical activities, stage-managing many plays and outdoor Shakespeare performances. Derek always wanted to write and began, aged 17, writing stories, songs and poetry – in fact virtually anything. Inevitably, work and family life took precedence for a long period of time but in 2010 Derek took early retirement to indulge his passion for history and concentrate on his writing. He is interested in a wide range of historical themes but his particular favourite is the late medieval period.

Derek writes action-packed fiction which is rooted in accurate history. He also produces podcasts on the Wars of the Roses for those interested in the real historical background to his books. Check them out on his website at: https://www.derekbirks.com/history-podcasts/

His historical fiction works include:

The Wars of the Roses – a 9-book series set during the fifteenth century, which follows a fictional family, the Elders, through their struggle to survive the Wars of the Roses from 1459 to 1485. The final book in the series, Crown of Fear is out on December 22nd.

Derek has recently embarked upon a new Post-Roman series and books 1-3 are out now: The Last of the Romans; Britannia: World’s End; and Land of Fire.

Apart from his writing, he enjoys travelling – sometimes, but not always, to carry out research for his books. He also spends his time walking, swimming and taking part in archaeological digs. He was a regular presence at the Harrogate History Festival, is an active member of the Historical Novel Society and you will also find him each summer talking to readers, signing books – and selling them – at the Chalke Valley History Festival outside Salisbury in Wiltshire.

Derek welcomes feedback from readers and you can order signed paperbacks from his website.

Feel free to get in touch with him at: http://www.derekbirks.com or follow him on twitter: https://twitter.com/Feud_writer or on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/derek.birks.14

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

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 1170, a month short of her 8th 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

Old Year Out, New Year In

Conisbrough Castle, March 2020

As we have come to the end of 2021 and are on the eve of 2022, so I thought it might be time to look back on last year and look forward to the next. And what a strange year it has been, with us all trying to carry on amidst the worst pandemic in 100 years. There have been highs and lows and I feel for all those who have been affected or lost loved ones to this dreadful disease. In March 2020, as the realisation was dawning of what Covid-19 could be, I remember sitting in the shadow of Conisbrough Castle, the stronghold of the earls of Warenne in South Yorkshire, my ‘local’. I was writing the foreword for Defenders of the Norman Crown: Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey, and wrote the following lines:

“I must also give a nod to living through history. I started writing this foreword while visiting Conisbrough Castle in March 2020. I finished it at home, during ‘lockdown’ as the dreadful Coronavirus runs its course. I had planned to visit the castle again before completing the book, but that has proved impossible. Though the castle itself stands as a reminder that it has stood through 800 years of history. It has stood witness to the dreadful effects of invasion, war, famine and plague and its survival is, in itself, a promise of better days to come.”

I’m smiling!

I don’t think anyone thought that we would still be tackling Covid almost two years later, but I do hope that there is now a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel. Still, there have been some highlights for me this year. Defenders of the Norman Crown was released at the end of May with an Online Book Launch, which is now available on YouTube, and it has been getting some great reviews, the latest from authors Caroline Angus and John Paul Davis for Historia, the magazine of the Historical Writers Association. I managed to do a handful of talks, most notably for Lindum Books at The Collection in Lincoln, in June, at the wonderful Newark Book Festival in July, and at the Conisbrough Castle Heritage Day in August. Audiences were limited, but it was nice to be able to introduce them to the wonderful Warenne family. I also had the pleasure of interviewing Dan Jones, about his latest book, Powers and Thrones, for Lindum Books – and it was such fun!

Historical Writers Forum Zoom talks programme

This year, also, as an admin for Historical Writers Forum, we have launched a series of history-related talks featuring both fiction and non-fiction historical authors. So far, there are three talks in the series and we opened with an amazing discussion between myself, Elizabeth Chadwick, Carol McGrath and Samantha Wilcoxson, entitled Writing History in Fiction: Getting the Balance Right. This was followed by A Good Fight: Writing Battles in Historical Fiction, featuring authors SJA Turney, Derek Birks, Lynn Bryant and Paula Lofting. And then we hosted a book launch for Historical Writers’ Forums new anthology of short stories, Hauntings: an Anthology, which includes works from SJA Turney, Samantha Wilcoxson, Paula Lofting, Kate Jewell, KS Barton, Lynn Bryant, Jennifer C. Wilson and introducing Danielle Apple. There’s also a foreword by myself. The Hauntings Book Launch brought all the authors face to face for the first time, if virtually, and gave them the opportunity to discuss the inspirations behind their stories. If you haven’t read the book yet, I recommend you do – it is replete with thoughtful, intelligent historical fiction stories that stretch out the suspense.

Historical Writers Forum is also looking forward to continuing its programme of talks into the New Year, with our next book for 29 January 2022 at 8pm (UK time). Hosted by Samantha Wilcoxson, authors Patricia Bracewell, Sharon Bennett Connolly, Paula Lofting and Carol McGrath will discuss the various candidates for the identity of Aelfgyva: Was she the ravaged nun? The sister of a Norman duke? Daughter of a powerful English earl? Concubine of King Cnut? Or the twice-crowned English queen? It will be up to the audience to decide which panelist has made the best case. To book, click here: Aelfgyva: the Mysterious Woman in the Bayeux Tapestry. If you can’t make it on the evening, don’t worry, the discussion will be uploaded to our YouTube Channel by 31 January.

Podcasts

In 2021 I also made my first forays into podcasts, talking to Khaki Malarkey about the Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England in March and this month I spoke to the Tudors Dynasty podcast about the life of Katherine Willoughby, Duchess of Suffolk, the Tudor heiress who was the fourth and last wife of Henry VIII’s best friend, Charles Brandon. And I have more podcasts lined up for the New Year, when I will be talking with Zack White about the Ladies of Magna Carta at History Hack and Matthew Lewis about the Warennes for Gone Medieval. I will post the links when I have them…

Forthcoming talks

I already have a number of talks lined up for 2022, and some more awaiting confirmation and one very exciting one, which I won’t tell you about just yet, because I don’t want to jinx it!

Tomb of Nicholaa de la Haye, Swaton

I can tell you about the 2 online talks I will be doing for Heritage Lincolnshire in March, to celebrate Women’s History Month. The first, Lincolnshire’s Medieval Heroines, will include the legendary Lady Godiva, the indomitable Nicholaa de la Haye, heiress Alice de Lacy and Katherine Swynford, the mistress who became a royal duchess. It will be a Zoom talk on 10 March at 7pm. The second talk is, as you may have guessed, on my favourite subject, Nicholaa de la Haye, the Heroine of Lincoln Castle and will by via Zoom on 17 March at 7pm. Tickets for both are available now and are £6 for members and £8 for non-members.

Book news

And last but not least, to book news. My next book, Women of the Anarchy, is with my publisher, Amberley Books. Unfortunately, they have a backlog of books to get out, thanks to the pandemic, and so I don’t yet have a publication date for it, nor even a book cover to show you. But I am hopeful that it will be out sometime in 2022. I am working hard on my Nicholaa de la Haye biography, tentatively titled King John’s Right Hand Lady, which is about half way finished. It is due into my editor at Pen & Sword in May and I should hopefully get it to them on time, with a view to publication in May 2023. I am also working on a ‘sequel’ to Heroines of the Medieval World, Heroines of the Tudor World, which should hit the shops late 2023/early 2024. And I have just been commissioned to contribute the entry on Henry III for a new book, entitled Kings & Queens, which will be published by Hodder & Stoughton in late 2023. Iain Dale, the editor, has some amazing historians, broadcasters and politicians, working on the project, including the likes of Michael Wood, Tom Holland (the historian, not the actor) and Dan Jones – and little old me!

The blog

I will, as ever, continue to write for History…the Interesting Bits. This blog has always been a place for me to flesh out ideas, share those ‘bits’ of history that I think you will like, and an escape. It is now entering its 8th year and has clocked over a million views in that time – something I never could have dreamed of!

I think that is all my news for now, so it just remains for me to thank you all for your continuing support and encouragement. I really would not be able to do this without you! And to wish you all a

Happy, Healthy and Prosperous New Year!

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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,  Amazon, Bookshop.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

Yorkshire’s Little Prince

Æthelread II (known to history as the Æthelread Unready)

It may come as no surprise that very few royals have been born in Yorkshire over the years. There was Ӕlfgifu of York, the first wife of Ӕthelred II (known to history as Ӕthelred the Unready). Ӕlfgifu was the daughter of the earl of Northumbria and the marriage was intended to strengthen the links between the north and south of England. Ӕlfgifu was the mother of, among others, Edmund II Ironside, and therefore the great-grandmother of Margaret of Wessex, (St Margaret) Queen of Scots as the wife of Malcolm III Canmor. Ӕlfgifu died before April 1002 when Ӕthelred II married his second wife, Emma of Normandy.

Another royal with links to Yorkshire was Henry I. The youngest son of William the Conqueror and Matilda of Flanders, Henry was the only king of England born in Yorkshire. Henry was born in Selby in the summer of 1068, whilst his father was in Yorkshire, stamping out rebellion and pursuing his Harrying of the North. He would seize the throne in 1100 following the death of his older brother, William II Rufus, in a hunting accident in the New Forest. In the same year, Henry would marry Edith of Scotland, who changed her name to Matilda on her marriage. As the daughter of Malcolm III and St Margaret, Edith/Matilda was herself a descendant of Ӕthelred II and Ӕlfgifu of York.

There is one other medieval royal born in Yorkshire, a little prince who spent his entire – though tragically short – life in our great county. William of Hatfield.

I read a book recently that mistakenly said William of Hatfield was born in Hatfield, Hertfordshire. I was amazed that the author wasn’t aware that he was actually born at the royal hunting lodge of Hatfield, near Doncaster. I thought everyone knew this! Then I realised that most people, when talking about royals and Hatfield, would automatically think of the Hertfordshire Hatfield, It was, after all, where Queen Elizabeth I was living when she was told that she was queen of England. It makes sense that most people would think of that Hatfield first. But I’m a Yorkshire lass and, as I say, we don’t get many royals born up our way. So, I suppose, when we do, we know about them.

Monument to William of Hatfield, York Minster

William of Hatfield was the fourth child and second son of Edward III and Philippa of Hainault. The king and queen were keeping Christmas at the manor of Hatfield, in the old West Riding of Yorkshire, in 1336, when Prince William was born. Hatfield was situated in the midst of the royal hunting grounds of Hatfield Chase and was close to the Earl Warenne’s hunting lodge of Peel Castle, Thorne. The young prince was baptised by William Melton, Archbishop of York, but died soon afterwards. After his death, the little prince’s body was transported a little further north, to York. On 10 February 1337, William was buried in York Minster, the church in which his parents had been married in January 1328. His short life memorialised by an elaborate tomb surmounted with his effigy and located in the north quire aisle of the Minster, though the site of his grave is now lost.

In 1345, the tragic little prince’s story was caught up in the marital affairs of John de Warenne, 7th and last earl of Warenne and Surrey. John had been married to a granddaughter of King Edward I, Joan of Bar, in 1306, when John was 20 years old and Joan a girl of 10. The marriage was a disaster, with John having a number of affairs and spending many years trying to obtain a divorce. In pursuit of this divorce, and in the hope of finally being able to marry his mistress of the time, Isabella Holland, John claimed that he had had an affair before marrying Joan, with his wife’s maternal aunt Mary of Woodstock, when he was 19 and Mary 27 years of age. This was indeed a drastic claim, as Mary had been a nun since she was about 7 years old, and it was probably born out of desperation; John was becoming increasingly infirm and still had no heir to succeed him. It was a last-ditch attempt to marry Isabella and have legitimate children. It failed, though the earl’s confession was presented to Pope Clement VI who,

on 15 May, 1345, issued a mandate to the Bishop of S. Asaph to absolve John de Warenne, Earl of Surrey and Stratherne, Lord of Bromfeld and Yale, from excommunication, which he has incurred by inter-marrying with Joan, daughter of Henry, Count de Barre, whose mother’s sister, Mary, he had carnally known. A penance is to be enjoined; and as to the marriage, canonical action is to be taken.

Calendar of Papal Registers, Papal Letters (p. 116) quoted in Fairbank, ‘The Last Earl of Warenne and Surrey’, p. 245
Roche Abbey, South Yorkshire

No further action seems to have been taken with regards to the marriage. John and Joan would remain husband and wife until John’s death at Conisbrough Castle at the end of June, 1347. John’s penance, however, appears to have been the generous donation of the manor of Hatfield to Roche Abbey:

1345. November 22. Westminster. Whereas the King’s kinsman, John de Warenna, Earl of Surrey, holds the manor of Haytfield for life of the grant of Edward II, with successive remainders to Maud de Neyrford for life, to John de Warenna her son, in tail male, to Thomas his brother, in tail male, and to the heirs of the body of the said earl, and reversion to the said King and his heirs, as in the letters patent is more fully contained; the earl has now made petition that – Whereas the said Maud is dead, and John son of Maud and Thomas have taken the religious habit in the Order of the Brethren of the Hospital of S. John of Jerusalem in England, at Clerkenwell, he may have licence to grant for his life to the abbot and convent of Roche, the advowson of the church of Haytfield, held in chief, which church is extended, of the value of 70 marks yearly; and the King has assented to his petition. Also, as a further grace, the King has granted that the abbot and convent shall retain in frankalmoign the said advowson, which should revert to him on the death of the earl; and may appropriate the church whenever they deem it expedient to do so, to find thirteen monks as chaplains to celebrate divine service daily for ever in the abbey for the King, Queen Philippa, and their children, and for the earl; also for the soul of William, the King’s son, who lately died in the said manor; also the souls of the progenitors of the King and of the earl.

Calendar of Papal Registers, Papal Letters (p. 116) quoted in Fairbank, ‘The Last Earl of Warenne and Surrey’, p. 246

It is touching that John’s penance also served as a means for the king and queen to remember their infant son, William, who had been born in late 1336 at the manor of Hatfield, Doncaster, and died there in early 1337.

The motte of Peel Castle, Thorne, near Doncaster

William had been born six years after his older brother Edward, known to history as the Black Prince. Edward who was their father Edward III’s heir, until his death in 1376, a year before the king. As a consequence, Edward III was succeeded by the Black Prince’s only surviving son by his wife, Joan of Kent, Richard II. It was the unsurpation of Henry iV, who seized the crown from King Richard in 1399, that caused the fatal rivalry of the royal houses of Lancaster and York. Had William survived to adulthood, the story of England in the 15th century could have been very different; the rival houses of Lancaster and York were both descended from sons of Edward III who were younger than William. Had he lived, the Wars of the Roses may never have happened….

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Images:

Courtesy of Wikipedia, except Peel Castle and Roche Abbey, which are © Sharon Bennett Connolly

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; Early Yorkshire Charters Volume 8, Edited by William Farrer and Charles Travis Clay; Conisbrough Castle by Steven Brindle and Agnieszka Sadraei; The Mammoth Book of British Kings and Queens by Mike Ashley; The Plantagenets, the Kings that made Britain by Derek Wilson; oxforddnb.com; royaldescent.net; Fairbank, F. Royston, ‘The Last Earl of Warenne and Surrey, and the Distribution of hisPossessions’, The Yorkshire Archaeological Journal, vol. XIX, (1907), pp. 193–266; Historic England, ‘Peel Hill Motte and Bailey Castle, Thorne’, historicengland.org.uk; ‘Peel Hill Motte’, http://historyofthorne.com/peel_hill.html

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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.

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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.

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