Mary of Woodstock, Royal Nun

Mary of Woodstock

To many noble women, the religious life was a career that had been decided for them by their parents when they were still children, as with Mary of Blois. However, for some, this did not necessarily mean they spent their entire lives in the seclusion of the convent. This was the certainly case with Princess Mary, daughter of Edward I and Eleanor of Castile.

Mary of Woodstock was born in March 1279, the 6th daughter of King Edward and Queen Eleanor. Edward and Eleanor were quite a nomadic couple, travelling among their domains, so their children were raised in the royal nursery, based largely at the royal palaces of Woodstock and Windsor; visits from their parents were quite infrequent and from Edward, their father, even less so.

Eleanor of Castile endured a remarkable number of pregnancies, the first was when she was about 13 or 14, resulting in a child who was stillborn or died shortly after birth. The fact that several children died before they reached adulthood has been suggested as a reason for her keeping her distance from her children when they were young; however, it is just as likely that the simple fact Edward and Eleanor ruled a vast kingdom, including their lands in France, meant their responsibilities necessitated long absences.

Eleanor’s almost-constant pregnancies, resulting in a total of sixteen children, meant there were regular additions to the nursery, which also housed a number of children from noble families, sent to be raised alongside the king’s children. Mary would have had many companions, including her brother Alphonso, who was heir to the throne and 5 years her senior, and her sister Margaret, who was 4 years older than Mary. She would be joined by another sister, Elizabeth of Rhuddlan, 3 years later.

Edward I and Eleanor of Castile, Lincoln Cathedral

In 1285, a year after the death of Prince Alphonso, the king took his family on a progress into Kent. Edward went on pilgrimage to the shrine of St Thomas Becket, at Canterbury, before spending a week at Leeds Castle with his family, followed by some hunting in Hampshire. It was at the end of this family holiday that they arrived at Amesbury priory in Wiltshire, where little Mary, still only 6 years old, was veiled as a nun; much to the delight of her grandmother, Eleanor of Provence, but to the consternation of her mother, the queen. Indeed, the Chronicle of Nicholas Trivet emphasises that Mary’s veiling was done by her father, at the request of her grandmother, but only with the ‘assent’ of her mother.1

It may well be that Eleanor had reservations about her daughter’s vocation being decided at such a young age, or that she feared it was only being done so Mary’s grandmother, Eleanor of Provence, would have a companion in the abbey. After a long and eventful life, and with her health failing, the dowager queen took her own vows at around the same time and retired to Amesbury Priory for her final years, dying there in June 1291. Mary’s veiling had been in the planning for some years; Edward I had been in correspondence with the abbey at Fontevrault, the mother house of Amesbury, since 1282, when the little princess was barely 3 years old.

Eleanor’s reluctance, therefore, was probably more to do with when Mary was to become a nun, rather than the vocation itself; after all, the conventual life was considered a good career for a noble lady. The timing of her veiling may have been advanced not only by the failing health of Eleanor of Provence, but also by the imminent departure of Mary’s parents. Edward and Eleanor were about to embark for the Continent and were expecting to be in France for a considerable time, years rather than months.

The Priory Church, now the parish church, Amesbury

The actual veiling ceremony must have been very moving. It took place at Amesbury Abbey on 15 August 1285, where Mary was one of 14 high-born girls who took their vows together. It may well be that her cousin, Eleanor of Brittany – another granddaughter of Eleanor of Provence – took her vows at the same time; Eleanor would later demonstrate a great dedication to the religious life and, eventually, become Abbess of Fontevrault.

Mary’s life at the abbey was probably a very comfortable existence; in the year she was veiled, Mary was awarded an annual income of £100, rising to £200 a year in 1292, following the death of Eleanor of Provence. As she was still only a child, the nuns at Amesbury would have been responsible not only for Mary’s spiritual life, but also for her education. However, the cloistered life by no means meant that Mary was confined and separated from her family for any length of time. She made frequent visits to court throughout her life, and was present for most family occasions.

Having taken the veil in August 1285, Mary returned to be with her family in the autumn, to see the unveiling of the newly created Winchester Round Table and the creation of 44 new knights by her father, the king. She visited her family again in March and May of 1286, each visit lasting about a month. These visits also meant Mary had the chance to bid farewell to her parents, who departed for an extended stay in France in 1286. On 13 August
1289, Mary, her 4 sisters and little brother Edward were at Dover to welcome their parents home, after a 3-year absence.

King Edward I

Mary visited court again in 1290 and stayed for the wedding of her older sister, Joan of Acre, to Gilbert de Clare, Earl of Gloucester and Hertford; Joan and Gilbert were married in a private ceremony at Westminster on 30 April. It is likely that she was back at court later in the year for another wedding, this one at Westminster Abbey in July when her sister, Margaret, married John, the future Duke of Brabant.

Mary would have seen quite a lot of her parents in the spring of 1290 as her father chose Amesbury as the location for a special meeting, convened to settle the arrangements for the English succession. Edward may have chosen the abbey so that his ailing mother could be present for the discussions. The Archbishop of Canterbury and 5 other bishops, in addition to Edward, Eleanor of Castile and Eleanor of Provence, were all present to formalise the settling of the succession on Edward’s only surviving son, 6-year-old Edward of Caernarvon. Should Edward of Caernarvon die without heirs, it was decided that the succession would then pass to Edward I’s eldest daughter, the newly married Countess of Gloucester and Hereford, Joan of Acre.

Eleanor of Castile was a distant mother when her children were young, but she seems to have developed closer relationships as they grew older, so it is not hard to imagine her taking the opportunity to spend time with 12-year-old Mary while they were staying at the abbey. It was probably one of the last times that Mary spent any real time with her mother, who died at Harby, near Lincoln, on 28 November 1290.

The viscera tomb of Eleanor of Castile, Lincoln cathedral

Indeed, it may well have been one of the last times they saw each other; Eleanor was at the king’s palace of Clipstone in Nottinghamshire when it was realised that her illness was probably fatal. Some of her children, Joan, Edward and Elizabeth, were summoned to the queen’s bedside; although Mary is not mentioned, it does not mean that she did not visit her mother one last time.2 Mary’s deep affection for her mother was demonstrated in 1297 when she and her younger sister, Elizabeth, jointly paid for a special Mass in their mother’s honour.

Mary’s career in the Church was far from spectacular; although her high birth gave her some influence, she never made high office and was never given a priory or abbey of her own. However, she was given custody of several aristocratic nuns at Amesbury, trusted to oversee their education and spiritual training. Convent life seems to have held few restrictions for her. Mary was regularly away from the cloister. She was frequently at court, or with various members of her family. In 1293 Mary spent time with her brother, Edward, and in 1297 she spent 5 weeks at court, taking the opportunity to spend some time with her sister, Elizabeth, who had been recently married to John, Count of Holland, and was preparing to join him there. In the event, news of John’s death arrived before her departure and Elizabeth never left England.

Nicholas Trivet

Mary had many cultural interests and was a patron of Nicholas Trivet, who dedicated his chronicle, Annales Sex Regum Angliae, to her. Mary was probably Trivet’s source for many of the details of Edward I’s family and the inclusion of several anecdotes that demonstrated Edward’s luck, such as the story of the king’s miraculous escape from a falling stone while sitting and playing chess. He had stood up to stretch his legs when the stone from the vaulted ceiling landed on the chair he had just vacated.3 The stories that Mary passed on to Trivet also serve to demonstrate that she was at court on a regular basis. The financial provisions settled on her by Edward I meant that Mary did not have to suffer from her vows of poverty.

In addition to the £200 a year she received from 1292, Mary was also granted 40 cocks a year from the royal forests and 20 tuns of wine from Southampton. In 1302, the provision was changed and she was given a number of manors and the borough of Wilton in lieu of the £200, but only for as long as she remained in England. Given that a proposed move to Fontevrault had been dropped shortly after the death of Eleanor of Provence, the likelihood of Mary leaving England seems to have been only a remote possibility.

Mary had a penchant for high living; she travelled to court with an entourage big enough to require 24 horses. By 1305, despite her income, she was substantially in debt, with the escheator south of the Trent being ordered to provide her with £200 in order to satisfy her creditors. Mary also had a taste for gambling, mainly at dice, and her father is known to have paid off at least one gambling debt.4 Following her father’s death in 1307, her younger brother, now King Edward II, continued to support Mary financially and she continued to make regular visits to court.

Mary died sometime around 1322 and was buried where she had lived, at Amesbury Priory. She was a princess whose future was decided for her at a very young age. She doesn’t seem to have excelled at the religious life, in that she never achieved significant office, but she did make the most of the life chosen for her, making frequent pilgrimages and taking charge of the young, aristocratic ladies who joined the convent. Despite her dedication to the Church, she found her own path within it and seems to have achieved a healthy (for her) balance between the cloister and the court.

The Warenne coat of arms

There was, however, one moment of scandal; although it did not arise until more than 20 years after Mary’s death. In 1345, in a final, desperate attempt to escape an unhappy marriage John de Warenne, Earl of Surrey, claimed that he had had an affair with Mary and that, therefore, his marriage to her niece, Joan of Bar, was invalid due to the close blood relationship of the 2 women. Although it is highly unlikely that the claim was anything more than Surrey’s desperate attempt to find a way out of his marriage, it cannot be ignored that Mary was frequently at court and such an opportunity may have arisen; Mary was only a few years older than John de Warenne. The ecclesiastical court, however, refused to believe the earl’s claims and Mary’s reputation remains – largely – intact.

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Footnotes:

1 Eleanor of Castile: The Shadow Queen by Sara Cockerill; 2 A Palace for Our Kings by James Wright; 3 Annales Sex Regum Angliae by Nicholas Trivet; 4 Eleanor of Castile: The Shadow Queen by Sara Cockerill

Images

Courtesy of Wikipedia except the statues of Edward I and Eleanor of Castile and Eleanor’s viscera tomb at Lincoln Cathedral, which are ©2020 Sharon Bennett Connolly.

Sources:

Edward I A Great and Terrible King by Marc Morris; Brewer’s British Royalty by David Williamson; Britain’s Royal Families by Alison Weir; The Mammoth Book of British Kings & Queens by Mike Ashley; The Plantagenets, The Kings Who Made England by Dan Jones; OxfordDNB.com; findagrave.com; susanhigginbotham.com; womenshistory.about.com; Daughters of Chivalry by Kelcey Wilson-Lee; Nobility and Kingship in Medieval England by Andrew M. Spencer; Memoirs of the Ancient Earls of Warren and Surrey, and Their Descendants to the Present Time, Volumes I and II by Rev. John Watson; Eleanor of Castile: The Shadow Queen by Sara Cockerill; A Palace for Our Kings: The History and Archaeology of a Medieval Royal Palace in the Heart of Sherwood Forest by James Wright

My Books

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

Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest traces the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066.  Available now from Amazon,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository.

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

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

©2020 Sharon Bennett Connolly 

Book Corner: Betrayal

“Loyalty breaks as easily as a silken thread.”

Misplaced trust, power hunger, emotional blackmail, and greed haunt twelve characters from post-Roman Britain to the present day. And betrayal by family, lover, comrade can be even more devastating.

Read twelve tales by twelve accomplished writers who explore these historical yet timeless challenges.

AD455—Roman leader Ambrosius is caught in a whirlpool of shifting allegiances
AD940—Alyeva and cleric Dunstan navigate the dangers of the Anglo Saxon court
1185—Knight Stephan fights for comradeship, duty, and honour. But what about love?
1330—The powerful Edmund of Kent enters a tangled web of intrigue
1403—Thomas Percy must decide whether to betray his sovereign or his family
1457—Estelle is invited to the King of Cyprus’s court, but deception awaits
1483—Has Elysabeth made the right decision to bring Prince Edward to London?
1484—Margaret Beaufort contemplates the path to treason
1577—Francis Drake contends with disloyalty at sea
1650—Can James Hart, Royalist highwayman, stop a nemesis destroying his friend?
1718—Pirate Annie Bonny, her lover Calico Jack, and a pirate hunter. Who will win?
1849/present—Carina must discover her ancestor’s betrayer in Italy or face ruin.

Betrayal: Historical Stories is a wonderful anthology of 12 short stories exploring the concept of betrayal, either of country, family or lovers. Featuring some of the best authors of the moment, Betrayal: Historical Stories features stories from post-Roman Britain to an alternative reality in modern times, where the Roman Empire never fell but continued under powerful, influential women in Roma Nova.

There is something in this book for everyone. There are kings and queens, knights, pirates and cavalier highwaymen. There are stories of love, loyalty and friendship combined with implacable enemies, broken promises, family secrets and – above all – betrayal!

The remarkable diversity of the stories make this anthology a gripping read. You never know what story you are going to come across next, whether its the exploits of Sir Francis Drake, the heartbreaking story of 13-year-old Edward V’s journey to London, from his proclamation as king to his deposition and imprisonment in the Tower of London. Each story is written by a different author; their voices are as distinct as their characters.

In a book of short stories, it is impossible to pick an extract that shows the full range of writing on offer. However, it is possible to choose and extract that highlights the high standard of writing throughout the book. So here’s an excerpt from Honour of Thieves by Cryssa Bazos:

A panicked rider appeared from around the bend, twisted in the saddle, his attention fixed behind him as though the hounds of hell snapped at his feet. When he finally turned to face the road ahead, he saw James barring his way and screamed. the rider yanked hard on teh reins, and his horse skidded to a bone’jarring halt. He fought to keep himself from launching over his horse’s head.

James levelled his pistol at him. ‘Stand and deliver!’

A bead of sweat trickled down the man’s brow. ‘Ah, Master Highwayman. Do you not remember me? I passed this way before. You afforded me a free pas through Moot Hill.’ When he received no acknowledgement, he pressed on, his voice cracking, ‘I’m the pauper you took pity on. Do you not recall?’

James studied the man. Same battered hat and frayed cloak, a nearly broken horse better suited for the pasture than the road. True, he had last taken the man for a beggar, as he was meant to, but since then he had learned the truth. ‘A thrice of days ago; I haven’t forgotten. I allowed you the freedom of the highway.’

‘Blessed be the day.’ The man beamed and wiped his forehead with his sleeve. ‘Naturally, there’s no profit accosting me.’ His smile faded when he realised that the pistol was still trained on him. ‘I’m not even a Parliamentarian – I’m a good Royalist still mourning his fallen king … like yourself.’

James lifted a brow, satisfied to see the man squirm. Lying sod. Many travellers had passed this way over the last year pretending to share the highwayman’s abhorrence for their Parliamentarian usurpers in order to save their purse. James had seen through their ruses, but this one had somehow rooked him. That set his teeth on edge. ‘You pled your case well, claiming to be a half-starved hare.’ He swept his gaze to the man’s new leather boots. Clearly, the man’s subterfuge did not extend to the discomfort of ill-fitting shoes. ‘I took pity on you – instead of taking, I gave you a goodly sum to keep you well and a few coins besides to drink my health.’

‘God save you -‘

‘Did you have that drink?’ James asked.

‘Of course! I sang your praises at a public house that night.’

‘Are you certain?’

Silence.

I have read some of the authors before. Derek Birks, Tony Riches, Annie Whitehead, Cryssa Bazos and Anna Belfrage are among my favourite authors and I have reviewed their books before. These short stories allowed me to revisit some of their best characters, from Ambrosius Aurelianus to Captain James Hart, Sir Stephan de l’Aigle and Kit and Adam de Guirande of Anna Belfrage’s The King’s Greatest Enemy series.

Reading Betrayal: Historical Stories was a combination of spending a few hours with old friends and meeting new ones. Elizabeth St John, Judith Arnopp and Alison Morton were authors I was familiar with, but had not read before. I am now going to rectify that and go through their back catalogue to catch up. Alison’s Roma Nova short story provided an intriguing alternative to the modern day, showing us how the world might be, had a Roman Empire survived and flourished into the modern world, under the auspices of 12 ruling families.

The stories are beautifully written, enjoyable diversions. It is impossible to choose a favourite! Betrayal: Historical Stories showcases some of the best writing in historical fiction today. It is a pure pleasure to read.

What a fabulous way to discover new authors and new adventures!

The Betrayal: Historical Stories anthology is available for free from Amazon UK and Amazon US.

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My Books

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

Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest traces the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066.  Available now from Amazon,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository.

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

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

©2020 Sharon Bennett Connolly 

Book Corner: The Errant Hours by Kate Innes

A headlong journey through the physical and spiritual dangers of Plantagenet Britain, in all its savage pageantry. Welsh Marches, July 1284 – the uprising in Wales is over, the leader gruesomely executed, the dead are buried. But for Illesa Arrowsmith, the war’s aftermath is just as brutal. When her brother is thrown into the Forester’s prison on false charges, she is left impoverished and alone. All Illesa has left is the secret manuscript entrusted to her – a book so powerful it can save lives, a book so valuable that its discovery could lead to her death. When the bailiff’s daughter finds it, Illesa decides to run, and break her brother out of jail by whatever means. But the powerful Forester tracks them down, and Illesa must put herself and the book at the mercy of an unscrupulous knight who threatens to reveal all their secrets, one by one. Inspired by the seductive art of illuminated manuscripts, The Errant Hours draws from the deep well of medieval legend to weave a story of survival and courage, trickery and love.

Every now and again you come across a book that draws you in and makes you lose entire days to reading. For me, The Errant Hours by Kate Innes was one of those books: I lost the whole of last weekend to reading the final 200 pages because I HAD to get to the end. Of course, I now wish I’d taken a little longer over it, but this was a book I needed to devour. With just short of 400 pages of beautiful prose, a unique storyline and the perfect combination of intrigue, betrayal and love, The Errant Hours is a perfect book for lockdown or those long, dark, winter nights.

A brother-sister relationship most of us can relate to, family secrets and mysteries and a beautiful, valuable book all come together to create The Errant Hours by Kate Innes. Illesa Arrowsmith losing her home to her creditors and helping her reckless brother escape the Forester’s prison is only the start of her adventures; adventures that will lead her to the heart of the court of Edward I and into the political turmoil of the English conquest of Wales. While the national political climate contrasts perfectly with the turmoil in Illesa’s own life as she attempts to uncover her own origins and her feelings for Sir Richard Burnel, the knight who could be both protector and her accuser.

‘Illesa!’

She ignored the angry whisper and went back towards the torchlight. The guard’s head had changed position. She stood still, watching him. A thin stream of saliva came from the corner of his open mouth. His jerkin was unbuttoned. The iron chain was wound around his belt and the end hung down behind the bench.

Illesa slowly undid the buckle and loosened the chain, pulling it, link by link, off the leather belt. Gathering the chain in her hand, she pulled it up. There was a dull clang. The guard grunted and shifted on the bench, but his eyes remained closed. The ring holding the keys was caught between the wall and the bench. Illesa held the chain in her left hand and knelt down. She reached under the bench, her arms stretched around the guard, straining not to touch him. Her fingers brushed against the keys, and she let them rest on her palm. Illesa let the chain slip slowly out of her left hand until she held it, and the keys, in her right hand. She got shakily to her feet and ran to the cell door.

‘Where is the lock?’ she whispered.

‘Here, follow my hand.’Illesa saw the vague whiteness of Kit’s fingers; she put her own on top of them, feeling for the keyhole with her thumb.

‘Got it,’ she said, fumbling with the larger key.

It slid easily into the hole, but as she turned it there was a terrible screeching sound of metal against metal. Something hit the floor with a loud thump and a gasp of pain.

Kit pushed the door, nearly knocking Illesa over as he ran out of the cell.

‘Follow me!’

Kate Innes must have done a remarkable amount of research to produce such a historically accurate work of historical fiction. Although her leading characters are fictional, the supporting characters are very much historical fact, with Edward I, Eleanor of Castile, young Prince Alphonso and John, 6th Earl Warenne all making an appearance. I didn’t know one of the Warennes would be making an appearance in the story – it was such a lovely surprise!

I particularly liked Kate Innes’ portrayal of Earl Warenne as a brutal, brash lord who spares little thought for the niceties – he certainly comes across as that in my research for my own forthcoming book on the Warennes, Defenders of the Norman Crown: Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey. In fact, I think Kate Innes was a little more generous with Warenne’s personality than some chroniclers were!

The fictional characters, Illesa, her brother Kit and the knight, Richard Burnel, are the central actors in the story. Their personalities, appearance and relationships are wonderfully ‘fleshed’ out. Illesa is a strong female character, but one that is not out of place in 13th century England. A young woman with determination and capability, she is also all-too-aware of the limitations forced on her by her sex.

A beautifully crafted tome, The Errant Hours by Kate Innes is a unique insight into 13th century England. The narrative flows freely and Illesa’s story will keep the reader entranced from the first page to the last. I cannot recommend it highly enough and have already put book 2, All the Winding World, on my Christmas list.

The Errant Hours by Kate Innes is available from Amazon.

About the author:

Kate Innes was born in London and lived and worked in America and Zimbabwe. She is now based in Shropshire, and it is the history and natural beauty of this area that provides inspiration for both her fiction and poetry.

She originally trained as an archaeologist and a teacher, and then worked as a Museum Education Officer around the Midlands, writing poetry in her spare time. After the arrival of her children, Kate began work on her medieval novel ‘The Errant Hours’ which was published in 2015.

The Historical Novel Society selected ‘The Errant Hours’ as an ‘Editor’s Choice’, and it was added to the reading list of the Medieval Studies Department at Bangor University. It is one of Book Riot’s ‘One Hundred Must Read Medieval Novels’.

Her second novel, ‘All the Winding World’ is a sequel to ‘The Errant Hours’, set ten years later. It is due to be published on the 22 June 2018.

Kate has been writing and performing poetry for many years, usually with a particular focus on animals, art and the natural world. Her poem ‘Flocks of Words’ won first prize in the ‘Imagined Worlds’ Competition held by the Friends of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Her first collection, also called ‘Flocks of Words’, was published in Spring 2017 and many of these poems form part of a performance with the acoustic music group ‘Whalebone’.

Kate runs writing workshops, gives illustrated talks, works collaboratively with communities and undertakes commissions and residencies.

http://www.kateinneswriter.com

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My Books

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

Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest traces the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066.  Available now from Amazon,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository.

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

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

©2020 Sharon Bennett Connolly 

Guest Post: Life in Miniature: A History of Dolls’ Houses by Nicola Lisle

It is a pleasure to welcome to History … the Interesting Bits today, Nicola Lisle, author of Life in Miniature: A History of Dolls’ Houses as part of her Blog Tour with Pen & Sword. A history of dolls’ houses is a little different to my usual type of post, but reading Life in Miniature brought back some very happy childhood memories of my sister and I playing with our dolls’ house in our grandparents’ attic. So I was very interested in finding out more of their history and origins. Nicola very kindly answered a few of my most pressing questions.

Dolls’ house at Charles Dickens’ House, Doughty Street, London

Hi Nicola, congratulations on the release of Life in Miniature and thank you for stopping by to chat.

1. When I heard about your book, I immediately thought of the dolls’ house my sister and I had as children – we used to play with it for hours. How long have you had a fascination for dolls’ houses? Did you have one as a child?

I did have a dolls’ house as a child, and my sister and I played with it a lot. It was apparently made for us by a distant relative, who also made wooden furniture for it. It’s all quite basic, but I love it because it’s unique and it was part of my childhood. We used to have some tiny dolls for it, and we also used to decorate it at Christmas. We had a Christmas tree and had to cut away a square of carpet to fit it in! Sadly, the dolls and Christmas decorations have been lost, but the original furniture and other bits and pieces are still there. As we grew up we lost interest in the dolls’ house and it was in my parents’ loft for many years gathering dust! It wasn’t until I started writing that I became interested in dolls’ houses again, and it was quite by chance. I subscribed to Writing Magazine and Writers’ News – and still do! – and in one issue there was a piece about Dolls House and Miniature Scene magazine, which was open to submissions from freelance writers. It caught my attention, and I got in touch with some ideas. My first piece for the magazine was about the Museum of Childhood at Sudbury Hall in Derbyshire, and it was published in 2004. I carried on writing for the magazine for many years, and it ignited a real passion in me for dolls’ houses. Eventually I rescued my childhood dolls’ house from my mum’s house, and I’m hoping at some point to find the time to give it a bit of TLC! It’s not in bad condition, but it could definitely do with a bit of a makeover!

2. The thing with dolls’ houses is that they are not just for children, are they? My mum has one!

Dolls’ house at Tolsey Museum, Burford

Dolls’ houses are definitely not just for children. I think a lot of adults who had them as children still treasure them, and collecting vintage and antique dolls’ houses is also popular. For children, they are great for stimulating the imagination, but for adults I think it’s more about appreciating the sheer delight of miniatures and the craftsmanship that went into creating them.

3. I think the most famous dolls’ house has to be Queen Mary’s in Windsor Castle, isn’t it? What is so special about it?

Reproduction of miniature of Conan Doyle’s ‘How Watson Learned the Trick’, written for Queen Mary’s Dolls’ House

Yes, I think Queen Mary’s dolls’ house is probably the most famous. It’s special because it captures a slice of 1920s England in such exquisite detail, from the furniture and soft furnishings right down to the food and drink that were popular at the time. It attracted international interest when it first appeared, and it was a showcase to the world, a display of some of the very finest British talent. I think it also restored some pride and optimism in the country during the immediate post-war years. The house and garden were designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens and Gertrude Jekyll, and among its highlights are miniature books, music scores and paintings by popular writers, composers and artists of the day. Many of the books contained original stories written exclusively for the dolls’ house. Two of these, Fougasse’s J. Smith and Conan Doyle’s How Watson Learned the Trick, have been reproduced as miniature replicas with booklets containing the stories in full-size print. Another, Vita Sackville-West’s A Note of Explanation – a story about a mischievous spirit who inhabits the dolls’ house – was also reproduced in full size. I treated myself to all three when I was researching my book, and they are now treasured items on my bookshelves!

4. How long have dolls’ houses been around, Nicola? I always associate them with the Victorians, but were they around earlier? Are dolls’ houses an English creation, or did they come from the continent?

Nicola’s childhood dolls’ house

Dolls’ houses have been around since at least the 16th century and originated in Germany, where they were known as baby houses. The first known dolls’ house was made for the Duke of Bavaria in 1557, and it was a miniature version of his ducal palace. By the 17th century, baby houses had become popular in Germany, particularly in Nuremberg. The idea caught on in Holland towards the end of the 17th century, but instead of baby houses the

Dutch favoured cabinet houses, which were grand, elaborately-carved cabinets containing exquisitely furnished miniature rooms. The earliest dolls’ houses in England appeared in the late 17th century and were similar to the Dutch cabinet houses. By the early 18th century they were beginning to look more like houses than cabinets, and they were often modelled on the great country houses and created by estate carpenters. It wasn’t until the Victorian era that they became regarded as toys for children, and mass production towards the end of the 19th century made them much more widely accessible.

5. And what was their original purpose, were they always aimed at children.

The earliest baby houses, cabinet houses and dolls’ houses were primarily display pieces, and they were very much the preserve of royalty and the aristocracy – each one was a statement of the owner’s wealth and social status. They also had an educational role, often being used to instruct young ladies and servants in efficient household management and domestic skills.

6. I am fascinated by dolls’ houses and have to admit that the first thing I did on getting your book was look at the pictures. The houses are beautiful and the furniture inside is so detailed and intricate, do you have a favourite?

Reproduction of miniature of J. Smith by Fougasse, written for Queen Mary’s Dolls’ House

I saw so many gorgeous dolls’ houses while writing and researching my book that it’s almost impossible to pick a favourite. I think all dolls’ houses have their own particular charm, from the grand, ornate ones to the very simplest, and often it’s the stories behind them that make them special. For this reason, I think the dolls’ house at Uppark in West Sussex is one of my favourites, partly because it’s one of the earliest surviving dolls’ houses from the early 18th century, reflecting the Palladian-style architecture that was popular at the time, and partly because it has a connection with H.G. Wells, and I always love literary connections! Wells’s mother was the housekeeper at Uppark during the late 19th century, and he drew on his childhood memories of Uppark in his novel Tono-Bungay, in which he refers to the “great dolls’ house on the nursery landing”.

Another with a literary connection is the dolls’ house at Charles Dickens’ House at Doughty Street in London. The house doesn’t actually have a connection with Dickens himself, but it was modelled on the Doughty Street house by dolls’ house maker Christopher Cole for his book Make Your Own Dolls’ House, which was published in 1976. It is a simplified version of the real thing, rather than an exact replica, but it is very similar, especially the outside, and it was one I particularly enjoyed going to see! It’s not on public display, but it can be viewed by appointment.

I also have special fondness for the dolls’ house at Overbeck’s in Devon. It was created during the 1980s by a lady called Mabel Hill, a very talented, self-taught craftswoman who used scraps of leftover material and other household odds and ends to make the furniture and soft furnishings. What’s particularly lovely is that Overbeck’s was used as a convalescent home for wounded soldiers during the First World War, and one of the activities they were encouraged to do as therapy was to make dolls’ house furniture. Although there’s no direct link between that and Mabel Hill’s house, it does feel as though there is a spiritual connection.

Others closer to home, in Oxfordshire, include the Regency-style dolls’ house at the Tolsey Museum in Burford, which was created during the 1930s by members of the local community and reflects the town’s rural industries (another fascination of mine!), and the Palladian-style house at Greys Court, near Henley, which was created by a local lady, Patricia Mackenzie, during the 1970s. Like Mabel Hill, she used old materials and household objects to create the house and its contents. She was inspired by the Carlisle Collection of Miniature Rooms, which she used to visit when it was displayed at Greys Court during the 1970s. The collection is now housed at Nunnington Hall in Yorkshire, and is another favourite of mine, with a fascinating history – as I said, there are so many favourites!

7. I am guessing that some of these dolls’ houses have fascinating histories – is there one that has a story that particularly caught your attention?

Interior of Dolls’ house at Charles Dickens’ House

Something I became fascinated with while researching the book was finding out about famous collectors, particularly Vivien Greene, wife of novelist Graham Greene. Her collection was once housed in a museum in Oxford, not far from where I live, so there’s a bit of a connection there! Tracking down Vivien Greene’s dolls’ houses almost became a project of its own – sadly, she decided to auction her collection during the late 1990s when her eyesight was deteriorating and most of it finished up in private hands. But one that is on public display is Whiteway at Saltram, a National Trust house in Devon, and its Victorian-style interior is exquisite. I particularly loved the library with its miniature books, all made from wood, and the dining room with its plush red furnishings. The provenance of the house is something of a mystery, and I do love a good mystery! There’s another Vivien Greene house on display at Ilkley Toy Museum in Yorkshire, which dates from the late Victorian era and used to belong to a lady in Abingdon, Oxfordshire – again, not far from where I live. At some point it was converted into an hotel and named The Original Swan after a pub in Cowley, just outside Oxford. It has lost some of its original contents, but it is in good condition and you can still see the mahogany bar and its wooden barrels and glass bottles.

8. What made you want to write a book on dolls’ houses?

The Original Swan at Ilkley Toy Museum

It was writing for Dolls House and Miniature Scene magazine for so many years that made me think it would be interesting to write a book on the subject. I had already accumulated a lot of information and pictures that I could use as the basis for a book, and I had a lot of fun building on that, visiting various museums and stately homes that had dolls’ houses on display and gathering up lots more fascinating facts about these wonderful miniatures. I enjoyed researching and writing the book so much – it was a real labour of love!

9. What is your next writing project?

I’ve been working on some possible new book ideas, but at the moment I’m very busy with other writing work. I have several article deadlines coming up, and I am also a tutor on four distance-learning courses with The Writers Bureau, so I’m having to work on my book pitches in between everything else! Hopefully, though, at some point I’ll get them finished and sent off!

10. Where can people find you? Do you have a website or blog? Are you on social media?

I’m on Twitter – you can find me at @NicolaLisle1. I did set up a blog a while ago but haven’t actually done anything with it for some time, so it’s due for a major overhaul – that’s probably going to be a Christmas holiday job!

Thank you, Nicola, for such a lovely chat!

Life in Miniature: A History of Dolls’ Houses is available from Amazon or direct from Pen & Sword and would make a perfect Christmas present.

About the author:

Nicola Lisle is a freelance journalist and author specialising in history and the arts. She has written numerous articles for family history magazines, including Who Do You Think You Are?, Your Family History and Discover Your Ancestors, and was a regular contributor to Dolls House and Miniature Scene magazine for many years. She is the author of Tracing Your Family History Made Easy (Which? Books, 2011) and Tracing Your Oxfordshire Ancestors (Pen & Sword, 2018).

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My Books

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

Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest traces the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066.  Available now from Amazon,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository.

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

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

©2020 Sharon Bennett Connolly & Nicola Lisle

Cover and Title reveal – Defenders of the Norman Crown

Here it is!

The finalised cover for Defenders of the Norman Crown: Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey, coming out next year.

Huge thanks to designer Paul Wilkinson at Pen & Sword for making my book look sooo good!

Defenders of the Norman Crown: Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey

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

John’s ancestor, William de Warenne, 1st Earl of Surrey, fought for William the Conqueror at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. He was rewarded with enough land to make him one of the richest men of all time. In his search for a royal bride, the 2nd earl kidnapped the wife of a fellow baron. The 3rd earl died on crusade, fighting for his royal cousin, Louis VII of France…

For three centuries, the Warennes were at the heart of English politics at the highest level, until one unhappy marriage brought an end to the dynasty. The family moved in the most influential circles, married into royalty and were not immune to scandal.

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

Warenne arms

If you have been following this blog for any length of time, you will have noticed that I have a fondness for the Warennes. The family were earls of Surrey from 1088 until the death of the last Warenne earl in 1347. They possessed lands throughout England, stretching from Lewes in Sussex to Castle Rising in Norfolk and on to Conisbrough and Sandal Castles in Yorkshire.

Growing up close to the Warenne castle at Conisbrough in South Yorkshire, I developed a fascination for the castle’s history, for its connections to royalty, and for the family which built this amazing stronghold – the Warennes. As a student, I worked at the castle as a volunteer tour guide and started researching the story of the family. Many, many years later, when Pen & Sword asked me for some book ideas, I suggested writing a biography of the family, not really expecting them to say ‘yes’ – but they did. Defenders of the Norman Crown: Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey is a book I have always wanted to write, but never expected I would get the chance.

From the time of the Norman Conquest to the death of the seventh and last earl, the Warenne family was at the heart of English politics and the establishment, providing military and administrative support to the Crown. In the years following 1066 William I de Warenne, who became the first Earl of Surrey in 1088, was the fourth richest man in England and the richest not related to the royal family – he ranks at number 18 in MSN.com’s Top 20 Richest People of All Time.

Conisbrough Castle

The earls of Surrey were at the centre of the major crises of medieval England, from the Norman Conquest itself to the deposition of Edward II and accession of Edward III. Strategic marriages forged links with the leading noble houses in England and Scotland, from the Marshals, the FitzAlans, the d’Aubignys and Percys to the Scottish and English royal families themselves. Indeed, it is from Ada de Warenne, daughter of the second earl, married to the oldest son of the king of Scots, that all the leading competitors for the Scottish throne, after the death of Margaret, Maid of Norway in 1286, are descended. Queen Elizabeth II, herself, can trace her own lineage back to Ada and, through Ada, to the second earl of Warenne and Surrey.

In the 14th century, one unhappy marriage brought the dynasty to an end, the family’s influence and achievements almost forgotten…

Writing Defenders of the Norman Crown: Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey and researching this incredible family has been an amazing experience – a dream come true – and I will be eternally grateful to Pen & Sword for allowing me to tell their story.

Defenders of the Norman Crown: Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey tells the story of this remarkable dynasty. It is a story of power, ambition, loyalty and – above all – family!

Defenders of the Norman Crown: Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey will be published by Pen & Sword in the spring of 2021.

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My Books

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

Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest traces the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066.  Available now from Amazon,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository.

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

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

©2020 Sharon Bennett Connolly 

Mary, Reluctant Countess of Boulogne

Mary’s mother, Matilda of Boulogne

Mary of Blois was the youngest daughter of Stephen of Blois and his wife, Matilda of Boulogne, herself the granddaughter of St Margaret, queen of Scotland. Mary was born in Blois, France around 1136. She was destined for the cloister from an early age and, while still a young girl, was placed in a convent at Stratford, Middlesex, with some nuns from St Sulpice in Rennes.

Mary’s lineage and the quirks of fate, however, meant that Mary’s peaceful convent life would be violently cut short.

Mary’s father Stephen was the nephew of Henry I, and his closest, legitimate, male relatives. Following the death of his only legitimate son, William Adelin, in the White Ship disaster of 1120, and with his only other legitimate child, Empress Matilda, living in Germany, it seems that Henry looked at Stephen as a possible successor. However, when Matilda’s husband died in 1125 and the empress returned to her father’s court, Stephen’s position was left undetermined. Stephen remained prominent at the English court, always present as a viable alternative to the succession of a woman – Empress Matilda.

In the confusion following Henry’s death in December 1135, it was Stephen who acted quickly and decisively. As he claimed the crown in England and his adherents secured Normandy in Stephen’s name, Empress Matilda was home in Anjou with her husband Geoffrey, Count of Anjou and two young sons, Henry and Geoffrey. She was pregnant with her third and youngest son, William.

What followed was a period known as the Anarchy, almost 20 years of conflict and bloodshed as Stephen and the Empress Matilda battled for supremacy of England and Normandy. Ultimately, Stephen managed to retain control of England but lost Normandy to Count Geoffrey, who passed it on to his and Matilda’s eldest son, Henry FitzEmpress. Henry, was eager to win back his birthright and following several incursions by Henry – whilst still in his teens – he and Stephen came to an agreement.

King Stephen

Stephen and his wife Matilda had five children in total, but only three, including Mary, who survived infancy. Of Stephen and Matilda’s three children, Eustace IV, Count of Boulogne, was the eldest to survive into adulthood, and was groomed as his father’s heir. He was married to Constance of France, daughter of King Louis VI and sister of Louis VII, in 1140 and knighted in 1147. He died in August 1153, after suffering some form of seizure. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle said of him

‘he had little success, and with just cause, because he was an evil man, because wheresoever he came he did more evil than good; he robbed the lands and laid great taxes on them.’

Anglo_Saxon Chronicles, edited by Michael Swanton

The Gesta Stephani, however, paints a picture of

‘a young man of high character … his manners were grave; he excelled in warlike exercises and had great natural courage … he was courteous and affable … and possessed much of his father’s spirit … ever ready to draw close the bands of peace’ but ‘never shrank from presenting a resolute and indomitable front to his enemies.’

Gesta Stephani

Stephen’s youngest son was William, who was born around 1134/5. In 1149 he married Isabel de Warenne, sole heiress to William de Warenne, third earl of Surrey, in order to bring the vast Warenne lands within the influence of the crown. William would succeed to the County of Boulogne in 1153, on the death of Eustace. Shortly after his brother’s death, and with the help of the clergy, William made an agreement with Henry of Anjou, whereby he waived his own rights to the crown in return for assurances explicitly recognising his rights to his lands, as Count of Boulogne and Mortain and Earl of Surrey.

Romsey Abbey

Mary, who had been in the convent in Stratford, Middlesex, was moved around 1150-52 after some discord with the nunnery. Her parents founded a new convent for her at Lillechurch (Higham) in Kent, making it a sister convent with Rennes’ St Sulpice. Mary does not appear to have been given the title of prioress. However, a charter of Henry II, dated around 1155-58, confirmed Lillechurch to Mary and her nuns, suggesting she held some position of authority. Before 1160 Mary had become abbess of the great abbey at Romsey, an older and more prestigious institution than her little foundation at Lillechurch.

Mary’s brother William died without issue in 1159 during the Siege of Toulouse. Though a nun, Mary succeeded him in the County of Boulogne. In 1160 Mary’s life was turned upside down. She was suddenly a great heiress, countess of Boulogne in her own right and too great a marriage prize to be allowed to remain secluded in the cloisters. She was abducted from Romsey Abbey by Matthew of Alsace, second son of the Count of Flanders, and forced to marry him. This may well have been a political move; although there does not appear to be any proof that Henry II sanctioned it, most sources imply that the marriage was forced on her by the king and he certainly benefited from Mary being safely married to a loyal vassal. She was, after all, not only a great heiress but, through her father, she had a strong, rival claim to the throne of England.

Henry II and his mother, Empress Matilda, from a 12th century manuscript

There was great outrage among the clergy; marriage with a nun was a breach against canon law and opposed by the leading ecclesiastical figures of the day. One source suggested the pope had granted a dispensation for the marriage. However, given that Pope Alexander III expressed great disapproval in a letter to the archbishop of Rheims, his consent seems highly unlikely. The pope imposed an interdict on Matthew of Alsace and pressed the claims of the wife of Mary’s brother, Eustace, to the Boulogne estates; even though Constance had died some fourteen years before. The furore seems to have died down eventually, and the marriage was allowed to stand.

Unfortunately for Henry II, Matthew turned out to be a not-so-loyal vassal and rebelled at least twice. The first occasion arose when Matthew tried to press his claims to Mortain, land that should have been part of Mary’s inheritance but was now held by Henry II. The king was not too accommodating. An agreement was eventually reached whereby, in return for £1,000, Matthew would renounce all claims to those parts of his wife’s estates that were still in royal hands.

Mary seems to have had little love for Henry II, possibly due to his involvement in her abduction and marriage, or simply because of the fact their respective families had spent many years at war. With so much bad history, you wouldn’t expect them to have an affectionate relationship, but Mary appears to have actively worked against Henry. Following a meeting with the ambassadors of the emperor, Frederick Barbarossa, she wrote to King Louis of France. In the document, she describes Henry II as ‘the fraudulent king’, while informing Louis of Henry’s manoeuvring against him.

Mary and Matthew had two children, daughters Ida and Mathilde; and it was after the birth of Mathilde that the couple were divorced, in 1170. There is some suggestion that Matthew was pressured to agree to the divorce by his dying father and the emperor, Frederick Barbarossa, probably in the hope of having the interdict – placed on Matthew on his marriage to Mary – lifted. After the divorce, Matthew would continue to rule Boulogne and was succeeded by Ida on his death in 1173.

Mary’s younger daughter Mathilde, Duchess of Brabant

Ida (b. c1160) married three times; her first husband, Gerard III, count of Gueldres, who died in 1183. Her short marriage to her second husband, Berthold IV, Duke of Zehringen, ended in his death in 1186. Ida’s last marriage was to Reginald, or Renaud, de Tree, Count of Dammartin, who was a childhood friend of France’s king, Philip Augustus. It seems Renaud abducted Ida and forced her into marriage. He died in 1227, outliving Ida, who died in 1216, by eleven years. It was Matilda, the daughter of Ida and Renaud, who inherited Boulogne from Ida, and would also become Queen of Portugal through her marriage to Alfonso III of Portugal.

Born in 1170 Ida’s younger sister, Mathilde, married Henry I, duke of Louvain and Brabant, when she was nine-years-old. She would have seven children before her death sometime in 1210 or 1211; she was buried in St Peter’s Church, Leuven.

The interdict, which had been placed on Matthew on his marriage to Mary, was finally lifted when she returned to the convent life, becoming a simple Benedictine nun at St Austrebert, Montreuil. Mary died there in July 1182, aged about forty-six, and was buried in the convent. A woman who obviously believed that her life should be devoted to God, she is remarkable in that she managed to fulfil her dynastic duties in a forced marriage, and yet asserted herself so that she was able to return to the secluded life she so obviously craved.

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Sources:

Donald Matthew, King Stephen; Robert Bartlett, England Under the Norman and Angevin Kings; David Williamson, Brewer’s British Royalty; the History Today Companion to British History; Dan Jones, the Plantagenets; englishmonarchs.co.uk; The Oxford Companion to British History; Mike Ashley, The Mammoth Book of British Kings & Queens; Alison Weir, Britain’s Royal Families, the Complete Genealogy; S.P. Thompson, Oxforddnb.com, Mary [Mary of Blois], suo jure countess of Boulogne (d. 1182), princess and abbess of Romsey; Anglo_Saxon Chronicles, edited by Michael Swanton; Gesta Stephani.

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My Books

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

Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest traces the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066.  Available now from Amazon,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository.

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

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

©2020 Sharon Bennett Connolly 

Guest Post: Joan, Lady of Wales by Danna R. Messer

Today it is a distinct pleasure to welcome Danna R. Messer to History … the Interesting Bits to talk about her favourite medieval heroine, Joan, Lady of Wales. I recently review Danna’s new, excellent, biography of Joan and now Danna is here to shine some light on Joan.

Joan, Lady of Wales by Danna R. Messer

When Sharon invited me as a guest she happily told me I could write on ‘any subject relating to Joan’. In theory, given such free range to write about one aspect of my long-lived preoccupation with this true ‘heroine of history’ was a blessing and should have been a cinch. In practice, it stumped me. I have just spent almost three years cobbling together my research to write a book about Joan, never mind the seven years spent using her activities and status as a centrepiece for my PhD research on the wives of native Welsh rulers, or the numerous years before and after exploring as many avenues as I could to find out more about her. What more is there to cover, especially on a woman whose presence only peaks through the evidence and events on what sometimes seems the rarest of occasions? Well, it turns out the answer to that is, there’s plenty. And that is what has stumped me.

By nature, my inclination was to either 1) lean further into her role as a ‘Welsh queen’ and try to continue unpack any of those layers that might still be pliable or 2) think more about her role and expectations as a wife. Old habits are hard to break – especially when these two factors combined have already helped in painting a portrait of her. But, I had to really ask myself, what is missing? What are the things that should be given further, serious consideration when it comes to understanding such a complicated woman as Joan – and by complicated I mean the complications of not only her general life circumstances, but the complications also related to lack of sources.  

After much pondering and reflection, I have decided that the largest part of the answer to ‘what is missing’ is the most obvious and lies in Joan’s experiences and the human emotions that dictated every moment of her life. The study of emotions and their impact on how we react to our own worlds, the world at large and during ‘historical’ events has grown in importance over the past thirty years. The understanding of human emotions and how they make us tick as sentient beings should not, and does not, simply fall under the sole remit of psychologists or neuroscientists. It is also an understanding that should be embraced, or in the least, accepted by historians when writing about the past. As I have often said students taking my medieval history courses, ‘Nothing happens in a vacuum, right?’

Of course, I am aware of the debates surrounding the study of and emphasis on emotions when it comes to constructing a better understanding of history: the argument that emotions are culturally constructed and carry their own specific meanings in context to period and place and are therefore variable over time versus the more universal argument that people in the past felt the same way we do, about their lives, themselves, their relationships, their situations, simply because they, too, were people, human beings just like us. Whether emotions themselves have a history is a mute discussion here. The point is emotions play a role in every situation – for every one of us, in every waking moment of every day. For Joan and the characters that surrounded her, from Llywelyn to John, to Susanna to Dafydd, to her ladies in waiting and her own priest, this was also the case.

Although I do touch on aspects of Joan’s emotions and those of her loved ones, as a trained historian, that is all I felt I could allow myself to do. The human part of me wanted, and still wants to, throw them into the fray and exclaim, ‘Look! Can’t you see? She was [insert] angry/sad/stressed/annoyed/happy/excited/eager. That’s why she did what she did when she did it’. She was human after all. Perhaps this is why historical fiction is such a popular genre. An astute and attentive author like Sharon Penman can give, and has given, a woman such as Joan real depth, a personality, a visceral humanness that by nature is missing from any biography or history written on any individual whose own voice seldomly speaks from the grave.

Having researched Joan for well over twenty years, I often wonder what she thought, how she reacted, how she felt. I envision her as trepidatious – perhaps scared, excited or both — on her initial journey to Wales. I imaging frustration and annoyance at not being able to understand the language of her new home on arrival. The anxiety of ensuring she fulfilled her roles as Llywelyn’s consort and wife; the pressure she felt to learn and adopt the new customs at an accelerated speed. The desire to be accepted, the shame or anger at being rejected as a foreigner. As a bastard. An incomprehensible fear of looming death in 1211 for husband or her father, or even herself and her children. A sense of determination to do right by both her natal and martial families over her long career. A growth in her self-esteem from her younger years as a ‘political princess’ to a deeper sense of empowerment and prerogative as political diplomat, based on knowledge, experience and wisdom as she aged.

What about a sense of freedom? Did she have any, either carrying out her role as a ‘queen’, perhaps on circuit, or managing her own English lands? Or did she simply feel trapped deep down, but made the most of her situation? Undeniably, Joan understood her status and position with both her families and within Anglo-Welsh politics. I suspect moments of real pride in herself and her own achievements could be found in attaining legitimacy (including a sense of spiritual security and, I assume relief), and above all, her witnessing her son’s homage at Westminster, where she was there as a mother, but embracing and imbuing the real power of her status as a ‘queen’. From bastard to ‘queen’, not a bad climb up the social ladder. Perhaps all the more empowering with the thought that such an event essentially placed her publicly on par with a number of her female relatives scattered across Britain and the Continent, who themselves were queens.     

Above all, I often wonder about love, the joys and sorrows it brought her. How long did it take for her and Llywelyn to build a relationship? Was there real love involved? What about William de Braose? Did Joan really experience the anguish of losing someone she loved because of her love? How difficult was it for her to love her father and face his cruelties? What about the worry and love that define motherhood, or parenthood in general? How did she feel watching her daughters leave, one by one, to pastures generally unknown, facing an uncertain future? What about her son, knowing full well that his position, his life, was forever in a precarious balance being Llywelyn’s chosen successor?

Such musings easily occupy the time, but should not be deemed frivolous. They really are important to take into consideration when thinking about Joan, Lady of Wales and her impact on history, evidence or no. Her emotions impacted her and influenced the decisions, actions and outcomes we write about and talk about when it comes to Britain in the early thirteenth century. In the words of one of my favourite writers, Ralph Waldo Emerson: ‘Life is a tram of moods like a string of beads, and as we pass through them they proved to be many colored lenses which paint the world in their own hue.’

Thank you so much to Danna for a fascinating article. Danna R. Messer’s book Joan, Lady of Wales: Power and Politics of King John’s Daughter is now available in the UK from Pen & Sword and Amazon.


About the Author:

I am a medieval historian by training and trade. My BA history honours thesis, many moons ago, at the University of Denver was, unsurprisingly, about Joan as a ‘political princess’. Researching her at that time, and over the pond, wasn’t terribly easy. I vividly recall asking a librarian for help when searching the (literal) card catalogue, telling her I was researching medieval Wales to which she responded with utter disbelief, ‘The things that live in the sea?!’ That may have unconsciously propelled my move to Britain after graduation. I earned my MA from the University of York, again using Joan as a centre-piece on the role of illegitimate daughters in England’s royal family. Whilst working full time at the Borthwick Institute for Archives at the University of York, I taught classes on medieval and women’s history for the Centre for Life Long Learning and studied for my PhD, via long distance, at Bangor University. My doctoral thesis is on the uxorial agency of the wives of native Welsh rulers, yet again, where Joan features as a case study.

Over of the past few years I have worked in publishing as an editor for medieval history. I am Acquisitions Editor at Arc Humanities Press, the academic publishing arm of the medieval network CARMEN. Part of my role with Arc includes being the Executive Editor for the Encyclopedia of the Global Middle Ages, an online encyclopedia run in partnership with Bloomsbury Academic and their Medieval Studies Digital Resource. I am also the Series Editor for both Medieval History and Women’s Studies, with Pen and Sword Books.  

My other publications relating to Joan, Welsh queenship and medieval consorts to date include:

‘Volume 1: Norman to Early Plantagenet Consorts’, English Consorts: Power, Influence, Dynasty, edited by Aidan Norrie, Carolyn Harris, Joanna Laynesmith, Danna Messer and Elena Woodacre, 4 vols. (Palgrave Macmillan, 2022)

‘A Model of Welsh Queenship: Joan of England and the Medieval Court of Gwynedd’, Special Edition on Medieval and Early Modern Queenship, edited by Louise Wilkinson, Women’s History Review (2020)

‘Welsh Queenship in the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries’, Encyclopedia of the Global Middle Ages: Core Case Study (Bloomsbury Academic, 2019), Bloomsbury Medieval Studies, Web

‘Joan (d. 1237), princess and diplomat’, Dictionary of Welsh Biography Online (2018, revised article), http://wbo.llgc.org.uk/en/s-JOAN-TYW-1237.html

‘Impressions of Welsh Queenship in the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries’, in A Companion to Global Queenship, edited by Elena Woodacre (ARC Humanities Press/CARMEN, 2018), pp. 147-58

‘Medieval Monarchs, Female Illegitimacy and Modern Genealogical Matters, Pt. 2: Joan of England, c.1190–1236/7’, Foundations: Newsletter of the Foundation for Medieval Genealogy, 1:4 (2004), 294-8

Filia Notha or Filia Regis?: Kinship and the Acquiescence of Royal Illegitimate Daughters, c.1090–1440’, Foundations: Newsletter of the Foundation for Medieval Genealogy, 1:1 (2003), 51-3

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My Books

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

Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest traces the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066.  Available now from Amazon,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository.

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

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

©2020 Sharon Bennett Connolly and Danna R. Messesr

Book Corner: Drake – Tudor Corsair by Tony Riches

1564: Devon sailor Francis Drake sets out on a journey of adventure.

Drake learns of routes used to transport Spanish silver and gold, and risks his life in an audacious plan to steal a fortune.

Queen Elizabeth is intrigued by Drake and secretly encourages his piracy. Her unlikely champion becomes a national hero, sailing around the world in the Golden Hind and attacking the Spanish fleet.

King Philip of Spain has enough of Drake’s plunder and orders an armada to threaten the future of England.

I have read practically everything Tony Riches has ever written and I have to say, this is one of his best!

Drake – Tudor Corsair, is the first in a new Elizabethan Series. It follows the career of Sir Francis Drake from his first days as a sailor on a slave ship, to becoming captain of his own ship captain, to his raid on Cadiz and the Spanish Armada and to his final voyage as one of the greatest sailors England has ever produced. It is a life full of danger and adventure – and ambition.

As I have come to expect from Tony Riches, the book is meticulously researched and draws on primary sources to recreate Drake’s life as a novel. The result is a stunning, detailed story that draws the reader onto every aspect of Elizabethan naval life.

I confess, I knew nothing of Francis Drake beyond his participation in defeating the Spanish Armada. Tony Riches paints the portrait of a fascinating character, adventurous, ambitious, caring of his family and his crews. Drake pushed the boundaries of navigation, seamanship and – oftentimes – the law. He was a thorn in the side of the Spanish, preying on their colonies and treasure ships – they must have hated him.

I’d grown tired of remaining on the ship and wanted to experience something of Africa. I armed myself with an old sword, and found a leather bag to carry anything of value I discovered. For years I’d dreamed of searching for gold in this wild country, and now I had my chance.

Morgan cursed as the dark mud at the landing place chosen by our guide clung like glue to his boots. We walked in single file down the narrow path and I hacked at the undergrowth with my sword, mindful of stories of poisonous spiders, deadly snakes and dangerous animals.

The village came into view, in a clearing surrounded by thick forest. I was surprised by the silence; it seemed the villages had learned of our approach and fled. We’d been ordered to keep together, but the men began rushing from hut to hut, their discipline lost in the search for gold.

The first arrow flashed through the air and struck the man ahead of me in the throat. He fell with bright blood gushing from a deep wound. More arrows flew from the forest, finding their targets with deadly accuracy.

I froze in panic. We’d walked into a trap and were a long way from the boats. An arrow thudded deep into a tree close to where I stood, and Master Gilbert yelled in pain as another hit him in the shoulder.

A native ran towards me, his spear raised high in the air. Painted with red earth, he wore a necklace of curved white fangs. His muscular arm drew back, ready to put all his strength into the throw.

I turned and ran back the way we’d come, the yells and cries of pain urging me on as my heart pounded and I ran for my life. The low branch of a thorn tree scratched across my face, drawing blood, and I expected an arrow to strike my back at any moment.

Drake – Tudor Corsair is a thoroughly enjoyable read. Rich in detail and characters, it depicts the good and bad of Tudor history, delicately dealing with sensitive issues such as the slave trade, while not ignoring the brutality nor immorality of it. Tony Riches depicts the drama and danger of life at sea in a Tudor warship – fighting against not only the Spanish and the often violent natives, but also the elements themselves; the weather and the dangerous, uncharted coastlines.

Tony Riches’ characters are always rich and full of life. Sir Francis Drake himself is a likable character, he has some flaws, but comes across as someone who knows what he wants, who he wants to be and naturally takes command of every situation.

Drake – Tudor Corsair is a fabulous, entertaining read. It takes the reader on a journey full of adventure and fraught with danger, to the West Indies, Africa, South America and the Spanish coast. The various voyages and natives they encounter leave Drake – and the reader – in suspense as to whether they are friend and foe.

Tony Riches highlights the dangers faced by Drake and the brave adventurers of his era, who pushed their ships further and for longer in the name of discovery and of Elizabeth I. These were men who pushed the boundaries and often paid the ultimate price. As a result, Drake – Tudor Corsair is also a story of friendship, companionship and survival, with a twist of betrayal when ambition outweighs friendship.

And what’s more, Tony Riches is telling an epic, real-life story!

Drake – Tudor Corsair is out now and available from Amazon.

About the author:

Tony Riches is a full-time writer and lives with his wife in Pembrokeshire, West Wales, UK. A specialist in the history of the early Tudors, Tony is best known for his Tudor Trilogy. His other international best-sellers include Mary – Tudor Princess, Brandon – Tudor Knight and Katherine – Tudor Duchess.

For more information visit Tony’s author website http://www.tonyriches.com and his blog at http://www.tonyriches.co.uk. He can also be found at Tony Riches Author on Facebook and Twitter @tonyriches.

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My Books

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

Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest traces the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066.  Available now from Amazon,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository.

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

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

©2020 Sharon Bennett Connolly

Matilda of Flanders, Queen of the Conqueror

Matilda of Flanders

Matilda of Flanders was the consummate duchess and queen. Born in the early to mid-1030s, possibly around 1032, Matilda was the daughter of Baldwin V, Count of Flanders, and his wife Adela of France, a daughter of Robert the Pious, King of France. Matilda had two brothers and each of them became Count of Flanders in his turn; Baldwin of Mons and Robert the Frisian. As is often the case with medieval women, we know very little of Matilda’s early life, though it is likely she was raised alongside her aunt, Judith, her father’s sister who was of a similar age to Matilda, and who would go on to marry Tostig, Earl of Nurthumberland and brother of king Harold II.

The first time Matilda appears on the world stage is when her marriage is being discussed. There is a popular story of how Matilda refused to marry William, Duke of Normandy, stating that she was too highly born to marry a bastard. As the legend goes; on hearing this, William was so infuriated that he rode to Flanders and confronted Matilda. He is said to have thrown her to the ground, before pulling her braids and cutting her with his spurs. Matilda, unlikely as it seems, then accepted his proposal and they were married. Despite the story most likely being a later invention, William was the one to propose the marriage and, although he was a duke, his illegitimacy would have meant making a proposal to a niece of the King of France was audacious, to say the least.

The arrangements for the marriage of Matilda and William probably started in 1048, but it was a long, drawn out matter, marred by papal and political machinations. The Synod of Reims, of 3 and 4 October 1049, issued a decree instructing Count Baldwin not to allow the marriage of his daughter to Duke William. However, despite these papal objections, Matilda and William were married by 1053, at the latest. A penance was later imposed on the couple for their disobedience in marrying against papal prohibition. Each was to found an abbey; William founded the Abbaye-aux-Hommes, or St Stephen’s Abbey, in his Norman capital of Caen, while Matilda founded the Abbaye-aux-Dames, or Holy Trinity Abbey, in the same city. The two abbeys still stand to this day.

William the Conqueror from the Bayeux Tapestry

The marriage between Matilda and William proved to be a strong and trusting relationship; William is one of very few medieval kings believed to have been completely faithful to his wife, no known lovers or illegitimate children have ever been uncovered, although that did not stop the rumours. William of Malmesbury related one such story, of William having a mistress, the daughter of a priest, who Matilda ordered to be hamstrung and disinherited; in punishment, Matilda is said to have been beaten to death by a horse bridle. Malmesbury himself was sceptical of the story and, given that Matilda’s death came after a short illness in 1083, it does seem rather far-fetched.

William trusted Matilda to act as regent in Normandy during his many absences on campaign or in England. Their relationship appears to have been more of a partnership than most marriages of the time; she was witness to thirty-nine pre-conquest and sixty-one post-conquest charters. Matilda supported her husband’s proposed invasion of England; she promised a great ship for William’s personal use, called the Mora. Just before leaving for England in 1066, William accompanied Matilda to the consecration of her foundation, Holy Trinity Abbey – the Abbaye-aux-Dames – in Caen, arranging for his duchess to act as regent in his absence. The Conquest was a close-run thing and it was not until 1068 that William felt secure enough to bring his wife to England for her coronation. Matilda, six months pregnant with her son Henry, who would be born at Selby in September, was crowned Queen of England in Westminster Abbey, by Archbishop Ealdred of Canterbury, at Whitsuntide 1068.

Matilda and William had a large family, with four boys and at least four daughters. Of their sons; the eldest, Robert Curthose, would inherit Normandy, Richard was killed in a hunting accident as a youth, William, known as Rufus, became King William II, and the youngest was the future King Henry I. Of the four or five daughters; Adeliza became a nun following a series of failed marriage plans, Cecilia was given to the convent of Ste Trinité as a child, Constance married Alain Fergant, Duke of Brittany, and Adela married Stephen of Blois and was the mother of King Stephen of England. There are suggestions of two further daughters, Matilda and Agatha, though evidence for their existence is limited. Queen Matilda was very close to her family, especially her eldest son, Robert. William and Robert, father and son, however, were often at loggerheads, with Robert rebelling against his father as a young man. Matilda was constantly trying to play the peacemaker. During a period of exile imposed on Robert, Matilda still supported her son as best she could; she would send him vast amounts of silver and gold through a Breton messenger, Samson.

Although the problems with Robert, their eldest son, caused considerable tensions within the marriage, Matilda and William’s relationship is one of the most successful of the medieval period. Their partnership as rulers, and as husband and wife, was strong and appeared to be one built on mutual respect. One contemporary remarked that ‘The Queen adored the King and the King the Queen.’ [1]

Matilda’s son Henry I, King of England

Matilda’s piety was renowned. Although founding the Abbaye aux Dames in Caen was a penance for her irregular marriage to William, her constant and repeated donations to religious houses demonstrated her dedication to her faith. The nuns of her abbey at Ste Trinité, Caen, received a substantial bequest from Matilda’s will, written the year before her death; as well as her crown and sceptre, they were given a chalice, a chasuble, a mantle of brocade, two golden chains with a cross, a chain decorated with emblems for hanging a lamp in front of the altar, several large candelabras, the draperies for her horse and all the vases ‘which she had not yet handed out during her life’. [2]

Having drawn up her will in 1082, it is possible that Matilda was aware of her illness long before her last summer. The continuing worry over the rift between her husband and beloved son cannot have helped her health, and the arrival of winter saw her gravely ill. Matilda died on 2 November 1083, having ‘confessed her sins with bitter tears and, after fully accomplishing all that Christian custom requires and being fortified by the saving sacrament’. [3] Her husband was with her throughout the final moments of her illness, and he ‘… showed many days of the deepest mourning how much he missed the love of her whom he had lost’. [4] She was buried at Ste Trinité, Caen, following a funeral that lasted two days and that was attended by a host of monks, abbots, bishops and nuns and a host of people came to pay homage. There is no record of which of her children attended the funeral, although her daughter Cecilia was most likely in attendance, being a nun of the abbey. The original tombstone still survives; it has an inscription carved around the edge, emphasising her royal descent on her mother’s side.

Queen Matilda’s Grave, Ste Trinité, Caen

Matilda’s height has been discussed frequently by historians, with some claiming that she was a dwarf. The casket, containing her bones, was opened in 1961 and misreported as revealing a woman of about 4ft 2in tall. However, Professor Dastague, from the Institut D’Anthropologie at Caen, who was present at the original dig confirmed that it had been calculated that Matilda was in fact 152cm, about 5ft, in height. [5] Matilda’s actual height cannot be said with certainty, however, as the skeleton which was examined was incomplete. The queen’s grave had been destroyed in the sixteenth century, during the French Wars of Religion, and much of her remains never recovered.

William the Conqueror followed his wife to the grave four years later, in 1087. In many aspects of her life, Matilda is clearly seen as the ideal medieval wife and mother. Ever supportive of her husband, he relied heavily on her to administer Normandy in his frequent absences. Even when disobeying William, in her support of their eldest son Robert, she was still trying to be the embodiment of the good medieval woman, playing the peacemaker between warring members of her family. Her piety and steadfast support of her husband provided an example for future queens, and noble ladies, to follow.

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This article, first appeared in March 2019, as Matilda of Flanders: The Ideal Medieval Queen, on Mary Anne Yarde’s wonderful blog Myths, Legends, Book and Coffee Pots.

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Footnotes:

[1] Les Oeuvres Poétiques de Baudri de Bourgueil edited by P. Abrahams; [2] Musset, La Reine Mathilde, quoted by Elizabeth van Houts in oxforddnb.com. [3] Matilda by Tracy Borman, [4] Chronicles of the Kings of England, From the Earliest Period to the Reign of King Stephen by William of Malmesbury; [5] A Historical Obstetric Enigma: How Tall was Matilda? (article) by J Dewhurst Journal of Obstetriccs and Gynaecology.

Pictures:

Courtesy of Wikipedia

Sources:

England Under the Norman and Angevin Kings by Robert Bartlett; Heroines of the Medieval World by Sharon Bennett Connolly; Chronicles of the Kings of England, From the Earliest Period to the Reign of King Stephen by William of Malmesbury; Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest by Sharon Bennett Connolly; Brewer’s British Royalty by David Williamson; Britain’s Royal Families, the Complete Genealogy by Alison Weir; Matilda by Tracy Borman; The Norman Conquest by Marc Morris; The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles by Michael Swanton; The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle by James Ingram; The Mammoth Book of British Kings and Queens by Mike Ashley; oxforddnb.comQueen Matilda, wife of William the Conqueror, was NOT a Dwarf (article) by Marc Morris, marcmorris.org.uk; epistolae.ccnmtl.columbia.edu; womenshistory.about.com; Les Oeuvres Poétiques de Baudri de Bourgueil edited by P. Abrahams

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My Books

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

Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest traces the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066.  Available now from Amazon,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository.

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

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

©2019 Sharon Bennett Connolly

Joan Beaufort: a Medieval Matriarch

Joan Beaufort, Countess of Westmorland, Raby Castle

Joan Beaufort was the youngest child and only daughter of John of Gaunt and his mistress, Katherine Swynford. Her father, Gaunt, was the third surviving son of Edward III and his queen, Philippa of Hainault. He had married Blanche of Lancaster in 1359 – a marriage which eventually brought him the title of Duke of Lancaster. With Blanche he had 3 surviving legitimate children: Elizabeth, Philippa and Henry – the future king, Henry IV.

Joan’s mother, Katherine Swynford, was a member of Blanche’s household and had been married to a Lincolnshire knight, Sir Hugh Swynford, in 1367. They had 3 children together; Blanche, Thomas and Margaret. Sir Hugh was a tenant of John of Gaunt and served on the continent with him in 1366 and 1370. John of Gaunt was widowed in 1368, when Blanche died in childbirth. Katherine had been governess to the Lancaster children for a number of years when Hugh died in November 1371, leaving her a young widow with 3 children to feed.

John and Katherine may have begun their relationship shortly after Hugh’s death, despite John having married again, to Constance of Castile, in September 1371. John and Katherine’s first child, John, was probably born in 1372, with 3 more children, Henry, Thomas and Joan, born before 1379. They would be given the surname of Beaufort, though no one seems to know quite where the name came from. Although the children were illegitimate, the boys enjoyed successful careers during the reign of their half-brother, Henry IV; with John in politics, Henry rising to the rank of cardinal in the church and Thomas pursuing a military career.

Joan was the youngest of the Beaufort children, born sometime between 1377 and 1379. She was close to her family. She joined the household of her sister-in-law, Mary de Bohun, wife of her half-brother, the future Henry IV, in 1386. It seems that she was accompanied by her mum, Katherine Swynford, possibly because Katherine and John of Gaunt had separated and John was reconciled with his second wife, Constance of Castile. Joan was about 7-years-old and was continuing her education and being prepared for her first marriage – she had just been betrothed to 10-year-old Robert Ferrers of Oversley, Warwickshire. Robert would become one of her father’s retainers and, through his mother, heir to the estates of the Botelers of Wem, Shropshire. They were married in 1392, when Joan was 13 or 14 and 2 daughters were born in quick succession; Elizabeth in 1393 and Mary the following year. The marriage was cut short, however, when Robert died in 1395 or 1396, leaving Joan – still only in her mid-teens – a widow with young children.

John of Gaunt, Joan’s father

As the granddaughter of a king, Joan was bound not to remain a widow for long. And her marriage prospects improved drastically in February 1396, when her parents were married in Lincoln Cathedral. Shortly after he married Katherine, John of Gaunt applied to the pope to have their children declared legitimate; the papal bull declaring the legitimacy of Joan and her brothers arrived in September of the same year. As the legitimate granddaughter of a king, Joan’s status was improved immensely and she was soon married to the recently widowed 6th baron of Raby and later earl of Westmorland, Ralph Neville.

Unlike many medieval women, we have some idea of what Joan may have looked like, thanks to a miniature by Pol de Limbourg. Taken from the Neville Book of Hours, it shows Joan dressed piously in black and white, though her cloak and cuffs are lined with ermine and she wears the Lancastrian S-collar around her neck. Her features are delicate. Her hands, with rings on the fingers, are clasped in prayer.

Joan was a learned woman, she was educated to the same standard as her legitimate half-sisters, Philippa and Elizabeth of Lancaster. She seems to have possessed a considerable library, the texts being largely devotional. She owned a copy of ‘Les Cronikels de Jerusalem et de Viage de Godfray de Boylion’ (Chronicles of Jerusalem and the Voyages of Godfrey de Bouillon) which she lent to her nephew, Henry V, but had to petition the Council for its return after Henry’s death. Her brother, Thomas, had left her a book, titled ‘Tristram’.

Thomas Hoccleve dedicated a volume of poems, ‘Hoccleve’s Works’ to her sending it to her around 1422, saying:

Go, smal book to the noble excellence

Of my lady of Westmerland and seye,

Her humble seruant with al reuerence

Him recommandith vn-to hir nobleye.

Also, an early copy of Hoccleve’s ‘Regiment of Princes’ was made for Joan’s son-in-law, John Mowbray.

Raby Castle, Count Durham

Known for her piety, Joan left many bequests to religious institutions in her will, especially monasteries in the north. Admitted to the sisterhood at St Albans, she was also licensed to appropriate for the support of the chantry the advowson of the church of Welton, in the Howden area; and it was Joan who saw the completion of the college at Staindrop, founded by her husband in 1408. According to antiquarian, John Leland, Joan ‘erectid the very house self of the college’ in the form of a medieval hospital. Her piety, however, was not always conventional. Her father had been a defender of the Lollards – he employed John Wycliffe, the first person to translate the Bible into English, as a tutor to his children. And Joan seems to have had a similar religious curiosity – hence her association with Margery Kempe.

Margery Kempe was a mystic from Lyn, Norfolk; she claimed to have visions of Christ and travelled throughout England and on the Continent. She wrote the Book of Margery Kempe which recounted the story of her life and her visions and considered to be the first ever autobiography in English. Joan invited Margery Kempe to visit her at Raby. She also wrote a letter to exonerate Margery from accusations of corruption. Margery’s own testimony says they knew each other for ‘this two years and more’. In 1417 Margery was brought before the Archbishop of York, accused of advising Joan’s daughter, Elizabeth Greystoke, to leave her husband. Margery was found ‘not guilty’ of the offence and under questioning, admitted she had told Countess Joan and her daughter a ‘good tale of a lady who was damned because she would not love her enemies’. Margery even suggested her questioners ask Joan for corroboration of her testimony, demonstrating her trust that the Countess would back her.

Joan enjoyed influence at court – as the sister of one king, Henry IV, and aunt to his successor, Henry V. She was named in royal grants as ‘the king’s sister’ and made a Lady of the Garter in the reign of her cousin, Richard II. She was compassionate and used her influence to petition the king to aid those less fortunate, such as Christopher and Margaret Standith, who had fallen on hard times after Christopher had been dismissed from his father’s service for marrying for love. Joan wrote the king, asking him to give Margaret a position in the household of his queen, Joan of Navarre.

It can be argued that Joan had a strong bond of affection and purpose with her husband. They both wanted to see their family’s prospects improved even further, arranging advantageous marriages for their large brood of children. Although, it is unclear how much influence Joan had when her husband, the Earl of Westmorland, manage to entail the bulk of his estates onto his children by Joan, rather than the children by his first marriage to Margaret Stafford. This seems to have been a sensible strategy, given that his children by Joan were closely related to the royal family – Joan being the half sister of King Henry IV. The strategy, however, caused Joan problems after her husband’s death and led to a family feud – which sometimes turned violent – which wasn’t resolved until after Joan died.

Tomb of Ralph Neville, St Mary’s Church, Staindrop

Joan was a strong influence on her daughters and daughters-in-law. She concerned herself with matters of family – such as her children’s marriages – rather than business. Ralph’s son, also Ralph, by his first marriage, was married to Mary, Joan’s younger daughter from her first marriage. Ralph and Joan’s children were married into many of the leading noble dynasties of the time and served to strengthen the position of the Beauforts as a whole. Such significant marriages saw their eldest daughter, Katherine, married to John Mowbray, 2nd Duke of Norfolk – it was Katherine who later married John Woodville, brother-in-law of her nephew Edward IV; Katherine was around 65 years old and John just 20. Of other daughters, Eleanor married Henry Percy, 2nd Earl of Northumberland, while Anne married Humphrey Stafford, a descendant of Edward III and 1st Duke of Buckingham. Of their sons, Richard Neville married Alice Montagu, heiress to the earldom of Salisbury, and became Earl of Salisbury by right of his wife; their son, Richard Neville, was the Earl of Warwick known as the Kingmaker. Robert Neville became Bishop of Durham and other sons married rich heiresses to claim titles and positions for themselves.

Ralph died in 1425 and was buried at Staindrop, close to Raby Castle. His tomb includes effigies of both Joan and his first wife, although neither woman is buried beside him. Joan was herself responsible for the negotiations after her husband’s death, which saw their youngest daughter, Cecily, married to Richard, Duke of York. Two of Cecily’s sons would become Kings of England; Edward IV and Richard III.

Having married young herself, and having become a mother before she was 15 years old, Joan was sensible to the dangers of girls marrying too young and ensured that none of her daughters or daughters-in-law, faced the dangers of childbirth before they were 17 or 18 years of age. She even kept married couples apart – such as Cecily and the Duke of York – when necessary, in order to protect the girls.

Joan’s tomb, beside that of her her mother, in Lincoln Cathedral

On 28 November 1437, Joan was granted licence for the foundation of a chantry with two chaplains at Lincoln Cathedral, to pray daily for the soul of her mother, Katherine Swynford, as well as for herself, her husband, brother (Cardinal Henry Beaufort) and father. On the same day, she secured a grant for daily prayers to be said at Staindrop Church – where her husband Ralph, Earl of Westmorland, was buried – for the souls of her husband, brother and father.

Joan died at Howden, a manor near Beverley in her son Robert’s possession as Bishop of Durham, on 13 November 1440. In her will, she requested to be buried with her mother, with whom she had a strong bond in life, but also for her mother’s burial site to be enlarged and enclosed. It seems likely that the now-lost wrought iron screens which surrounded her mother’s tomb, were added at this time, rather than when Katherine died in 1403. Joan’s epitaph claimed that the whole nation grieved at her death.

There is, however, no clear indication why Joan chose to be buried with her mother, rather than at Staindrop with her husband. It may be that as the granddaughter of a king (Edward III), she thought Lincoln Cathedral a more appropriate resting place, or that she wanted to be close to her mother.

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Pictures: John of Gaunt courtesy of Wikipedia. All other photos ©SharonBennettConnolly

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

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My Books

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

Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest traces the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066.  Available now from Amazon,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository.

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

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©2019 Sharon Bennett Connolly