England’s First Queen, the Original Wicked Stepmother?

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Queen Ælfthryth and King Edward at Corfe

After writing an article about Edward the Martyr the other week, I thought it only fair to take a look at the other side of the story and write about Ælfthryth, England’s first ever crowned queen and Edward’s stepmother – and possible murderer.

Author Annie Whitehead researched Ælfthryth for her book Alvar the Kingmaker and rather likes her. So she can’t be all bad – can she?

Ælfthryth was probably born around 945; the daughter of Ealdorman Ordgar of Devon and an unknown woman who is said to have been descended from the royal family. As you can imagine, after the passage of more than 1,000 years, nothing is known of her childhood; although she had a least one sibling, a brother, Ordulf, who was founder of Tavistock Abbey. She was married around the age of 11 to Æthelwold, the son of Æthelstan Half-King (I have to do a post about him! What a name!) and ealdorman of East Anglia.

Æthelwold died in 962, probably in a hunting accident, although there were rumours of murder on the orders of his wife’s supposed lover, King Edgar. Edgar and Æthelwold would have known each other very well. After being orphaned as a baby, Edgar was raised in Æthelstan’s household alongside his own sons; of whom Æthelwold was one of the youngest.  Some stories have Edgar wielding the dagger himself, while others don’t even mention murder. Whether the suspicion arose at the time of the event, or following Ælfthryth’s marriage to Edgar 2 years later, is also unclear.

Edgar’s marital history was already chequered. Ælfthryth could be Edgar’s second or third wife; she was certainly the third relationship by which children were born. Edgar’s first wife, Æthelfled “the Fair”, was the mother of his eldest son, Edward (the Martyr). Following Æthelfled’s death, Edgar had a relationship with Wulfryth from which a daughter, Edith, was born around 963/964. The sources are uncertain as to whether or not Edgar and Wulfryth married, and some even suggest that she was a nun Edgar had seduced; although this may be confusion due to the fact that Wulfryth entered a convent shortly after Edith was born. Edith joined her mother in the abbey at Wilton, where Wulfryth eventually became abbess; in time both mother and daughter would be venerated locally as saints.

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King Edgar the Peaceable

Ælfthryth and Edgar were married in 964 and were soon the parents of 2 sons; Edmund and Æthelred. Despite having an older half-brother, Edward, it is Edmund who appears as Edgar’s acknowledged heir; his name being above that of Edward’s in a charter of 966, witnessed by both boys, which founded the New Minster at Winchester. Poor Ælfthryth must have been distraught when, in 971 and still only a child of about 7, young Edmund died.

The grandson of Edward the Elder, and great-grandson of Alfred the Great, Edgar had been king since 959; however on 11 May 973 he had a coronation, at Bath Abbey. Whether this was his first coronation, or a second ceremony seems to be still debated by historians. Edgar was about 30 and the venerated Archbishop Dunstan of Canterbury officiated. It is the first known coronation of a queen of England, Ælfthryth.

According to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography there is a near contemporary account of the coronation, which depicts Ælfthryth feasting with many abbots and abbesses, wearing a silken gown sewn with pearls and precious stones. The coronation was an important display for Edgar and Ælfthryth, as a way to emphasise the legitimacy of their union, especially given Edgar’s marital history, and the claims of their children as Edgar’s heirs. Ælfthryth’s new position as a consecrated queen would give her surviving son, Æthelred, seniority over Edgar’s oldest son, Edward, whose mother was never queen.

However, when it came down to it, Æthelred’s tender age was held against him, when Ælfthryth’s security was destroyed just 3 years later. King Edgar died unexpectedly at the young age of 32. With their eldest son dead and the youngest only 7 years old, the crown went to Edgar’s eldest son, the 12/13-year-old Edward. Edward faced opposition when Ælfthryth pressed Æthelred’s claim, supported by several leading figures, including Bishop Æthelwold of Winchester and her first husband’s brother, Æthelwine, ealdorman of East Anglia.

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Corfe Castle, Dorset

However, with the backing of the revered, future saint, Archbishop Dunstan it was Edward who was crowned. Following his coronation Edward honoured his father’s promises to his wife, confirming the gift of jurisdiction over the whole of Dorset as Ælfthryth’s dower. As a consequence, Ælfthryth and her son, Æthelred, settled at Corfe, in the Purbeck Hills; it was a large estate surrounding a defensive mound, which would later become the Norman stronghold of Corfe Castle.

And it was at Corfe on 18th March 978 that Ælfthryth’s reputation was irrevocably damaged, following a visit from 16-year-old King Edward. Whether Edward had been out hunting, or was in the area to specifically visit his stepmother and half-brother seems to be uncertain. However, he did send a message that he would be calling on them and Ælfthryth’s retainers were awaiting the young king at the gate, when he arrived with a small retinue. Still sitting in the saddle he was handed a drink; and stabbed. It must have been a horrific sight, as the king’s horse panicked and bolted, racing off with Edward’s foot stuck in the stirrup and the dying king being dragged along behind.

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Æthelred II the Unready

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle recorded:

No worse deed than this was ever done by the English nation since they first sought the land of Britain. Men murdered him, but God hath magnified him. He was in life an earthly king. He is now after death a heavenly saint.¹

Although Edward’s brother, Æthelred, only around 10 years old but now king of England, was above suspicion due to his age, Ælfthryth had no such protection. Some traditions go so far as to accuse Ælfthryth of wielding the dagger herself. However, while most believe she was complicit in the murder, it is by no means certain and it is entirely possible that court malcontents, who had migrated to Æthelred’s corner, were responsible for the murder.

Ælfthryth rode out the ensuing furore and with her son as the new king, Ælfthryth was exonerated of any complicity; amid the necessity of stabilising the country, establishing the new reign and rescuing England’s reputation. Æthelred was crowned at Kingston, Surrey, on 4th May 979, a year after his brother’s death and just a few months after the reburial of Edward’s remains, with great ceremony, at Shaftesbury. A council was established to assist the young king in ruling the country, probably involving Queen Ælfthryth, who may have acted as regent during Æthelred’s minority; it also included the aging Dunstan, Archbishop of Canterbury, Æthelwold, bishop of Winchester, and Ælfhere, ealdorman of Mercia.

As Dowager Queen Ælfthryth’s dower lands in Rutland and east Suffolk helped to extend West Saxon rule over East Anglia as a whole.

Even when Æthelred was old enough to rule alone, Ælfthryth did not retire entirely. Following her son’s marriage to Ælfgifu of York, it was Ælfthryth who seems to have had the responsibility of raising their first-born son and ætheling, Æthelstan. Æthelstan died aged about 20 in 1014, 2 years before his father, and spoke warmly of his grandmother in his will. Æthelred and Ælfgifu had over 10 children together, including Æthelred’s eventual successor in 1016, Edmund II Ironside, before Ælfgifu died; Æthelred then married Emma of Normandy, mother of England’s future kings, Harthacnut by her 2nd husband, King Cnut, and Edward the Confessor by Æthelred.

As queen Ælfthryth had substantial influence over the nunneries of England; she ousted the abbess of Barking, a cousin of Edgar’s second wife, Wulfthryth.  She endowed convents at Amesbury and Wherwell; her granddaughter would eventually become abbess of the latter.

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The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Peterborough

And it was to Wherwell that the queen did eventually retire from the limelight, sometime before the year 1000, dying there on 17 November in either 999, 1000 or 1001.

Over a thousand years later Ælfthryth’s actions and reputation are still being debated by historians. While it is not inconceivable that she played a part in Edward the Martyr’s death, we also have to be aware that women of power and influence were much vilified in Medieval times; a strong, independent woman would be blamed for many crimes, simply because she dared to know her own mind….

While I am not entirely convinced of her innocence, neither am I certain of her guilt.

Ælfthryth’s career and influence, however, stretched far beyond that one action. As the first crowned queen of England, her prestige and honour is incomparable with those who had gone before her. And it is telling, perhaps, that her daughter-in-law, Ælfgifu of York, was never crowned, nor was accorded the title while her Ælfthryth still lived. The next crowned Queen of England was Æthelred’s second wife, Emma of Normandy, who married the king after his mother’s death.

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Footnotes: ¹ Anglo-Saxon Chronicle quoted by Martin Wall in The Anglo-Saxons in 100 Facts.

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Pictures courtesy of Wikipedia

Sources: Brewer’s British Royalty by David Williamson; Britain’s Royal Families, the Complete Genealogy by Alison Weir; The Wordsworth Dictionary of British History by JP Kenyon; The Anglo-Saxons in 100 Facts by Martin Wall; Kings, Queens, Bones and Bastards by David Hilliam; The Mammoth Book of British kings & Queens by Mike Ashley; The Oxford Companion to British History Edited by John Cannon; oxforddnb.com.

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Out Now!

Tracing the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066, Silk and the Sword: the Women of the Norman Conquest will be released in the UK on 15 November 2018 and is available for pre-order on Amazon UK,  Amberley Publishing and Book Depository. It is scheduled for release in the US on 1 March 2019 and is available for pre-order from Amazon US.

DSCN7347

Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

Telling the stories of some of the most incredible women from Medieval history, Heroines of the Medieval World,  is now available in hardback in the UK from both Amberley Publishing and Amazon UK, in the US from Amazon US  and worldwide from Book Depository. It will be released in paperback in the UK from 15 March 2019 and is available for pre-order on Amazon.

Be the first to read new articles by clicking the ‘Follow’ button, liking our Facebook page or joining me on Twitter.

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©2016 Sharon Bennett Connolly.

The Short Life and Sad Death of Edward the Martyr

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Edward the Martyr

Poor Edward the Martyr is one of the great ‘what ifs’ of Medieval history. It’s not that he was anything special in the kingly department, it’s simply that he didn’t get the chance to be – or to not be – any kind of king.

Born around 962 he was the eldest son of Edgar the Peaceable, king of England. His mother was Æthelfled “the Fair”, daughter of Ealdorman Ordmaer. There seems to be some confusion as to Æthelfled’s actual status (not surprising given the distance of over 1,000 years, I suppose). Some sources say she and Edgar were married, but later divorced. However, others suggest that young Edward’s legitimacy was in doubt and that his parents never married. This last is compounded by suggestions of ‘youthful indiscretion’ on Edgar’s part.

Nothing is heard of Edward’s mother after his birth, possibly suggesting that she died shortly after. Edgar, however, married again – or at least formed another relationship. His 2nd wife was Wulfthryth, with whom he had a daughter, Edith (Eadgyth). Wulfryth became the abbess of  Wilton and young Edith followed her mother into the convent.

And then Edgar formed a 3rd and final relationship that would have far-reaching consequences for his first-born son, Edward. Edgar married the daughter of Ordgar, a powerful Devon thegn who died in 971. Unlike Edgar’s previous ‘wives’, Ælfryth was crowned and anointed as queen, following her marriage with Edgar, which was officially blessed by the church. Ælfryth gave Edgar 2 sons; Edmund, who died in 971  and Æthelred, born in 968.

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Coin of Edward the Martyr

Both Edward and Edmund appear in a charter of 966, as witnesses to the foundation of the New Minster at Winchester. Curiously, Edward’s name appears below that of his half-brother, suggesting Edmund was regarded as his father’s heir, rather than his older sibling.

Little is known of Edward’s childhood; according to Byrthferth of Ramsey he was fostered for some years by Sideman, bishop of Crediton and protégé of Ælfhere, ealdorman of western Mercia and the most powerful ealdorman in England at the time.

When his father died in 975, Edward, at 13 years of age but with doubtful legitimacy, was one of 2 rival candidates for the crown. Edward was up against his baby brother, Æthelred; undoubtedly legitimate but only 6 or 7 years old. With both too young to make an independent bid for power, each boy was backed by court factions.

Æthelred’s mother, Ælfryth, garnered support for her son from Æthelwold, bishop of Winchester, Byrhtnoth, ealdorman of Essex, and Æthelwine, ealdorman of east Anglia and brother of  Ælfrythf’s 1st husband. However, Edward had the backing of ealdorman  Ælfhere and, possibly, Oswald, archbishop of York. However, the crucial support came from Dunstan, the highly influential and saintly archbishop of Canterbury, who crowned Edward personally.

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Corfe Castle

We know very little of Edward the Martyr, and what we have is contradictory to the extreme. According to Byrthferth, Edward himself was known for having a hot temper; a temper which instilled fear within the people of his own household. However, Osbern maintained that men had a good opinion of Edward.

With Edward too young to rule alone,  Ealdorman Ælfhere held the reins of government. Only 3 charters have survived, 2 of which were issued in Crediton, Edward’s childhood home. The regime’s influence seem to be very limited the further north you look, especially in the Danelaw. In the Five Boroughs region (including Stamford and Lincoln), coinage was below the standard of that of his father, Edgar. The short reign was overshadowed by a backlash to Edgar’s previous ecclesiastical policies, seeing a violent reaction against the expansion of the reformed monasteries; however, Edward retained the support of Dunstan, who did much to influence church policy and direction.

Dunstan’s influence saw  him call a meeting of councillors in Calne in 978. Held in an upper room, the meeting turned into disaster when the floor gave way. Many councillors were killed or injured; however, Dunstan, possibly in his early 70s by then, miraculously survived when the rafter on which he was standing was the only one that didn’t give way.

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Aelfryth presenting Edward with a drink

Edward seems to have been benevolent towards his stepmother, bearing her no ill will following her attempts to claim the throne for her own son. He allowed Ælfryth to claim her part of his father’s dower and thus confirmed her jurisdiction over the whole of Dorset. She and Æthelred settled at Corfe, a castle and large estate in the Purbeck Hills.

Ælfryth, however, seems to have been less forgiven and wasn’t willing to settle for her son being Edward’s heir. When the opportunity presented itself, she jumped at it, with few qualms.

In March 978 Edward had decided to visit his half-brother at Corfe; arriving on the evening of 18th March, with only a small band of men accompanying him. According to  the chronicles, he was met at the gates of Corfe Castle by Ælfryth’s retainers; he had probably sent ahead to warn of his arrival and would have expected a welcome, someone to take his horse and lead him into the castle. Sources vary, some suggesting that he was presented with a cup; so he could quench his thirst after a long ride.

What is certain, is that Edward was pulled from his horse and stabbed – murdered. Following the stabbing, Edward’s horse bolted; with the dying king’s foot caught in the styrrup, he was dragged along the ground for some considerable distance.

He was 16.

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The murder of Edward

He was buried quickly and without ceremony somewhere close by – possibly Wareham. With Æthelred considered too young to be guilty, the finger of accusation pointed straight at his mother, Ælfryth.

An anointed king was seen as God’s representative on earth, with regicide being viewed as a heinous crime. In spite of this, Edward’s killers escaped punishment. Ælfryth was – and still is – the prime suspect. As late as 40 years after the killing, Archbishop Wulfstan of York laid the blame firmly at her door, in the D text of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which opined:

No worse deed than this was ever done by the English nation since they first sought the land of Britain. Men murdered him, but God hath magnified him. He was in life an earthly king. He is now after death a heavenly saint.¹

However, given the political reality of her position as mother of the king, it was expedient for her to remain beyond suspicion.

Although the crowned was not conferred on Æthelred straight away, whatever the dowager queen’s actions, at only 9 or 10 years old, her son was now the only candidate for the succession. However, it was only after an interregnum and a period of negotiations that the crown was settled on Æthelred.

Almost a year after Edward’s death, the young king was exhumed by Ealdorman Ælfhere. Edward’s erstwhile supporter stayed a couple of days at Wareham before escorting the body to the nunnery at Shaftesbury. It was only after Edward was safely re-buried with the honour to which he was entitled as king, that Æthelred was crowned by Archbishop Dunstan; on 4th May 979.

Edward was soon venerated as a saint and martyr with Æthelred himself championing his brother’s cult, translating Edward’s bones to a new shrine at Shaftesbury Abbey in 1001. A grant of that year, in favour of Shaftesbury, stated that the gift was being made to God and to

“his saint, my brother Edward, whom drenched with his own blood, the Lord has seen fit to magnify in our time through many miracles.”²

Shaftesbury_Abbey
Shaftesbury Abbey

During the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 16th century, Shaftesbury Abbey was destroyed and Edward’s shrine lost. However, in 1931 his grave was discovered and his bones were removed to a bank vault in Croydon, as neither the Churches of England or Rome would take the relics for reburial. Tests on the remains, in 1970, seemed to confirm they were Edward’s, the injuries on the bones being consistent with the wounds Edward is known to have received. The young king’s remains were finally removed from the bank, in September 1984, to be interred in a shrine in the Russian Orthodox Cemetery at Brookwood, Surrey.

And despite the fact Shaftesbury would like to have Edward back, so far as I can discover he remains the only Saxon king to be resting in a Russian Orthodox cemetery.

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Footnotes: ¹ Anglo-Saxon Chronicle quoted by Martin Wall in The Anglo-Saxons in 100 Facts; ² AS chart., S899 quoted by Cyril Hart in Oxforddnb.com.

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Pictures courtesy of Wikipedia

Sources: Brewer’s British Royalty by David Williamson; Britain’s Royal Families, the Complete Genealogy by Alison Weir;The Wordsworth Dictionary of British History by JP Kenyon; The Anglo-Saxons in 100 Facts by Martin Wall; Kings, Queens, Bones and Bastards by David Hilliam; The Mammoth Book of British kings & Queens by Mike Ashley; The Oxford Companion to British History Edited by John Cannon; oxforddnb.com.

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My book, Heroines of the Medieval World,  is now available in hardback in the UK from both Amberley Publishing and Amazon UK and worldwide from Book Depository. It is also available on Kindle in both the UK and USA and will be available in Hardback from Amazon US from 1 May 2018.

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

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©2016 Sharon Bennett Connolly.

 

Maud de Braose, the King’s Enemy

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Arms of William de Braose

Matilda de Braose was probably born in the early 1150s in Saint-Valery-en-Caux, France, to Bernard IV, Seigneur de Saint-Valery and his wife, Matilda. Contemporary records describe her as tall and beautiful, wise and vigorous.

Made famous by the de Braose’s spectacular falling-out with King John – and the manner of her death – very little is known of Matilda’s early years; though she probably spent time at her family’s manor of Hinton Waldrist in Berkshire.

Sometime around 1166 she married William de Braose, 4th Lord of Bramber, a Norman lord with land on the Welsh Marches. William was highly favoured by both Richard I and, later his brother King John.

Whilst William was away campaigning in Normandy, Matilda would be left to manage their estates in Wales. In 1198, Matilda defended Painscastle in Elfael against a massive Welsh attack by Gwenwynyn, Prince of Powys. She held out for 3 weeks until English reinforcements arrived, earning the castle its nickname of Matilda’s Castle.

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Hay Castle

One of Matilda’s titles was the Lady of Hay and Welsh folklore has her building the Castle of Hay in one night, single-handed, carrying the stones in her skirts.

The couple had around 16 children together, who married into some of the most powerful families of the time. Their eldest son, William, married Maud de Clare, daughter of the Earl of Hertford. Another son, Giles, became Bishop of Hereford.

Of their daughters Loretta, married Robert de Beaumont, 4th Earl of Leicester and another, Margaret, married Walter de Lacy, Lord of Meath.

A third son, Reginald, married, as his 2nd wife, Gwladus Ddu, daughter of Llewelyn the Great, Prince of Wales. Reginald’s son, William, by his 1st wife married Eva Marshal, daughter of the great knight, William Marshal. It was this William de Braose who was ignominiously hanged by Llewelyn the Great, after being found in the bedchamber of Llewelyn’s wife Joan, the Lady of Wales and natural daughter of King John. William had been at the Welsh court to arrange the marriage of his daughter, Isabel, to Llewelyn and Joan’s son, David. Interestingly, the marriage still went ahead, although it was to be childless.

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King John

William de Braose was greatly favoured by King John in the early part of his reign. He was given  Limerick in Ireland for 5,000 marks and also received the castle at Glamorgan and the lordship of Gower. William de Braose was the knight who captured the rival to John’s throne, Arthur of Brittany, at the Siege of Mirebeau in 1202 and possibly witnessed Arthur’s murder at Rouen in Easter 1203.

It was following Arthur’s murder that things started to go wrong for the Lord and Lady of Bramber. John became increasingly suspicious of de Braose’s loyalty and turned against him. This could have been for several reasons, not least being de Braose’s knowledge of Arthur’s fate.

Elsewhere, De Braose had fallen behind in his payments to the Exchequer for the honour of Limerick, but he had also sided with his friend William Marshal in his disagreements with the king. In addition, de Braose’s son, Giles had been one of the bishops to approve an Interdict against John.

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Trim Castle, Meath

Whatever the reason, in 1207 King John moved to make a public example of one of his most powerful barons, and punish him for his debts to the Exchequer. John demanded William and Matilda give up their sons as hostages.

Matilda refused and Roger of Wendover recorded her response to the soldiers sent to collect the boys, as; “I will not deliver my sons to your lord, King John, for he foully murdered his nephew Arthur, whom he should have cared for honourably.”

There is some suggestion that William and Matilda realised she had gone too far, and tried to placate John with gifts. But it was too late.

John took possession of de Braose’s castles and moved to arrest William. Forewarned, the couple fled to Ireland with 2 of their sons, where they took refuge with Walter de Lucy, their son-in-law and Lord of Meath. John followed after them, bringing other recalcitrant barons to heal along the way. While William de Braose tried to come to terms with the king, Matilda and their eldest son, William, escaped by taking ship for Scotland.

However, Matilda and her son were captured in Galloway by Duncan of Carrick, and having been returned to England in chains, they were imprisoned in Windsor Castle. King John made an agreement with both William and Matilda; freedom for her and a pardon for William in return for 40,000 marks.

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Corfe Castle

However, being either unwilling or unable to pay, Matilda and her son remained in prison – either at Windsor or Corfe Castle – and William was outlawed, eventually escaping into exile in France, disguised as a beggar, where he died in 1211.

Matilda’s fate was more gruesome; she and her son were left to starve to death in John’s dungeons (though whether this was at Corfe or Windsor is unclear). Tradition has it, that when their bodies were found, William’s cheeks bore his mother’s bite marks, where she had tried to stay alive following his death.

Magna_Carta_(British_Library_Cotton_MS_Augustus_II.106)
Magna Carta

John’s treatment of the de Braose family did not lead to the submission of his barons, as John had intended, and the remainder of his reign was marred by civil war.

However when Magna Carta was written in 1215, Clause 39 may well have been included  with Matilda and her family in mind:

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

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Sources: sussexcastles.com; genie.com; steyningmuseum.org.uk; berkshirehistory.com; England Under the Norman and Angevin Kings 1075-1225 by Robert Bartlett; Oxford Companion to British History Edited by John Cannon; The Story of Britain by Roy Strong; The Plantagenets; the Kings who Made England by Dan Jones; The Life and Times of King John by Maurice Ashley; The Plantagenet Chronicles Edited by Elizabeth Hallam.

Pictures courtesy of Wikipedia

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Out Now!

Tracing the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066, Silk and the Sword: the Women of the Norman Conquest is available from Amazon UK,  Amberley Publishing and Book Depository. It is scheduled for release in the US on 1 March 2019 and is available for pre-order from Amazon US.

fave

 

Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

Telling the stories of some of the most incredible women from Medieval history, Heroines of the Medieval World,  is now available in hardback in the UK from both Amazon UK, in the US from Amazon US  and worldwide from Book Depository. It will be released in paperback in the UK from 15 March 2019 and is available for pre-order from both Amberley Publishing and Amazon.

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Be the first to read new articles by clicking the ‘Follow’ button, liking our Facebook page or joining me on Twitter.

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©2015 Sharon Bennett Connolly