Ladies of Magna Carta Blog Tour

Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century Europe is going on tour – virtually at least. With articles, book reviews and interviews coming over the next 2 weeks, we will be visiting such exotic places as Barnsley, Tennessee, the Yorkshire Dales, Sussex and Michigan – all from the desktop!

Here’s the itinerary!

First stop is 1st July at my amazing publishers, Pen and Sword, who have done a wonderful job of organising the tour. Here’s an article on the inspiration behind the book.

5th July, Joanna Arman, The History Lady, will publishing her thoughts on Ladies of Magna Carta. I’m not nervous – much!

6th July, I will be stopping by for a cuppa with Samantha Wilcoxson to talk about The Marshal Sisters.

7th July, I will be chatting with Susan Higginbotham on History Refreshed about why it is so hard to love Isabelle d’Angoulême.

I will be making 2 stops on 8th July, visiting Simon Turney’s S.J.A. Turney’s Books and More, with an article on the many Family Ties of the women of the Magna Carta a story, plus Simon has written a wonderful review of Ladies of Magna Carta. And then it’s a quick hop over to visit Carol McGrath for her review of Ladies of Magna Carta and a chat about history, research and writing in general.

9th July I’ll be visiting the inimitable author, Tony Riches, with an article on Matilda de Braose.

10th July its down to Surrey for a review from the wonderful Paula Lofting over at The Road to Hastings and Other Stories.

13th July its back over to the US to Adventures of a Tudor Nerd for ace reviewer Heidi Malagasi’s thoughts on Ladies of Magna carta.

14th July, its over to nursing historian Louise Wyatt for coffee and a Q &A – and a little taster from the book.

15th July its back over the pond to Tennessee, to visit Kristie Dean and give you 16 Facts About Woman and Magna Carta – it was supposed to be 10 but I got carried away!

16th July Last – but by no means least – stop on the tour is the amazing Derek Birks and one final – hopefully glowing – review.

Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England  is now available from Pen & SwordAmazon and from Book Depository worldwide.

I would like to thank Rosie and Rebecca at Pen & Sword and all the authors and bloggers involved for taking part in this amazing tour. I am truly humbled and grateful that you have all taken the time to read Ladies of Magna Carta and shared your thoughts and blog space with me.

THANK YOU!

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Signed book plates

If you have a copy of Ladies of Magna Carta and would like a signed book plate to pop in the front, for you or someone else, just drop me a line via the ‘Contact Me‘ page with your address and who you would like the dedication made out to, and I will get one out to you.

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About me:

Sharon Bennett Connolly has been fascinated by history her whole life. She has studied history academically and just for fun – and even worked as a tour guide at historical sites. For Christmas 2014, her husband gave her a blog as a gift – http://www.historytheinterestingbits.com – and Sharon started researching and writing about the stories that have always fascinated, concentrating on medieval women. Her latest book, Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England, released in May 2020, is her third non-fiction book. She is also the author of Heroines of the Medieval World and Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest. Sharon regularly gives talks on women’s history; she is a feature writer for All About History magazine and her TV work includes Australian Television’s ‘Who Do You Think You Are?

My Books

Out Now!

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: Why was Ailenor of Provence called a She Wolf Queen? by Carol McGrath

Alienor of Provence

Given my recent articles on She Wolves, it is a distinct pleasure to welcome Carol McGrath to History…the Interesting Bits with an article about Eleanor of Provence, another queen labelled a ‘she-wolf’.

Why was Ailenor of Provence called a She Wolf Queen?

The first novel, in The She Wolf Queens Trilogy, The Silken Rose was published as an ebook on Thursday 2nd April. The Silken Rose features Ailenor of Provence, who married Henry III in 1236 at only twelve or thirteen years of age. He was already old at twenty-nine years old. The term She Wolf Queen was initially used for Margaret of Anjou by William Shakespeare.

Later, the Victorian Historian, Agnes Strickland, used it for Ailenor of Provence, although Ailenor had, without doubt, made enemies during own her life time. Why label Ailenor of Provence a she wolf queen. Did she deserve this sobriquet?

Alms dish (photograph courtesy of Carol McGrath)

In many ways beautiful Ailenor was the perfect queen who generously gave alms to the poor, was devoted to her husband and endowed abbeys. She was a good mother, protective of her children. Exemplary you might think. However, Ailenor was foreign at a time when English Continental territories had been reduced to Gascony and Aquitaine and ‘Englishness’ was becoming a national identity.

Ailenor of Provence never brought Henry a dowry. She was not even from the top-drawer of European nobility. After her marriage, she introduced a collection of penniless Savoyard and Provençal relatives to England.  The English barons who had become inward looking, after the loss of estates in Normandy during the previous reign, were furious. They disliked top positions being parcelled out to the queen’s relatives, particularly to her uncles from Savoy.

Opus Anglicanum

It probably seemed natural to Ailenor to advance her own relatives. Uncle William of Savoy who had accompanied Ailenor to England became one of King Henry’s chief counsellors. Henry even attempted to make him Bishop of Winchester.

Uncle Peter, reportedly charming and clever, became an advisor and received the Honour of Richmond, in Yorkshire. Peter built the Savoy Palace in London. Thomas of Savoy acted as an envoy when Ailenor attempted to buy the Sicilian crown for her second son, Edmund. An unpopular foolish move. It was costly and fell apart when Thomas was captured and imprisoned in Turin and Ailenor had to raise a ransom. The handsome, reforming Uncle Boniface became Archbishop of Canterbury.

Peter of Savoy

In addition, talented clerks came to England from Provence and Savoy. They took over running the treasury as well as other areas of government. This did not please the English barons who felt such jobs were theirs to distribute and control. Henry loved pageants and parties. He spent money on magnificent, expensive building works such as Westminster Abbey. She adored fashion and rich embroidery.  I off set her point of view in the novel with that of a court embroiderer. Extravagant spending and nepotism would lead to conflict between King and Barons. She was blamed as a bad influence on the King.

English marriages were arranged for her relations, including that of Ailenor’s younger sister, Sanchia, to Henry’s brother, Richard of Cornwall. This limited English heirs and heiresses available for English barons’ own sons and daughters. After the disgrace and death of Henry’s mother, his hated Lusignan half-brothers arrived in England seeking patronage. Incensed,

Coat of arms of Alienor of Provence

Ailenor’s opposition to the unpopular Lusignans gave her momentarily a stronger political position at court. However, she recognised she would have to tolerate them if she was to preserve good will within her marriage. Henry made her joint regent when he campaigned in Gascony during the 1250s but she levied new taxes, an unpopular move.

At the outbreak of the Baron’s war in 1263, Ailenor was pelted with offal from London Bridge as she attempted to take a boat from The Tower upriver. After that, she sailed for France to raise mercenaries for the royalist cause.

Ailenor was a force to be reckoned with. No wonder during the Victorian era she earned the title of she wolf queen. Nowadays, I suspect, we admire her loyalty, intelligence, love of culture and personal strength.

I would like to extend huge thanks to Carol for a fabulous post and wish her every success with The Silken Rose.

About the author:

Carol McGrath

Following her first degree in English and History, Carol McGrath completed an MA in Creative Writing at The Seamus Heaney Centre, Belfast, followed by an MPhil from University of London. Her fifth historical novel, The Silken Rose, first in The Rose Trilogy, published by the Headline Group, is set during the High Middle Ages. It features Ailenor of Provence and will be published on April 2nd 2020. Carol was the co-ordinator of the Historical Novels’ Society Conference, Oxford in September 2016. Visit her website: http://www.carolcmcgrath.co.uk.

Carol’s latest novel, The Silken Rose, telling the remarkable story of Alienor of Provence is available now. To purchase The Silken Rose ebook click here

To watch the trailer click here https://youtu.be/EOPKFBhpa0I

To subscribe to my newsletter click here   bit.ly/39eUgKl

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My Books

Coming soon! 

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

Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

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

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

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

©2020 Sharon Bennett Connolly and Carol McGrath

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It is an enjoyable and fascinating read!

To buy the Book:

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

About the author:

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

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My Books

Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest

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

Heroines of the Medieval World

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

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

©2019 Sharon Bennett Connolly

Little Princess Gwenllian

Gwenllian was the only child of Llywelyn ab Gruffuddd, also known as Llywelyn the Last, Prince of Wales. Her mother was Eleanor de Montfort, who was the daughter of Eleanor of England, sister of Henry III, and Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester. Llywelyn and Eleanor had married in Worcester Cathedral in October 1278, in a lavish ceremony attended by Edward I, King of England, and Alexander III, King of Scots.

Memorial to Gwenllian, Sempringham, Lincolnshire

Gwenllian, a descendant of both Welsh and English royalty, was born in June 1282 at the palace of Garth Celyn, Abergwyngregyn, near Bangor; her mother died giving birth to her. Shortly after her birth, Edward I concluded his conquest of Wales. Gwenllian’s father, Llywelyn, was killed in an ambush on 11 December 1282 – and just six months after her birth, Gwenllian was an orphan. Her uncle Dafydd, Llywelyn’s younger brother, became the little princess’s legal guardian. After his brother’s death, Dafydd continued the fight for Welsh independence but was betrayed to the English, in June 1283.

Dafydd, his wife, children and little Gwenllian were captured at Bera Mountain in Snowdonia, where they had been in hiding. At just one year old, Gwenllian was taken, by sea, probably to thwart any attempt at rescue, from Wales, the land of her birth. She would never see her homeland again. The baby girl was placed behind the high walls of the Gilbertine priory of Sempringham, in Lincolnshire, just south of the great city of Lincoln. Her female cousins, the seven daughters of Dafydd, were also placed in various nunneries, so it is possible some of her cousins were with her. Dafydd’s legitimate daughter, Gwladus, who was a similar age to Gwenllian, was placed in Sixhills, another Gilbertine priory, in the Lincolnshire Wolds.

Statue of Gwenllian’s father, Llywelyn the Last at Cardiff City Hall

Dafydd’s two sons, Llywelyn and Owain, were imprisoned in Bristol Castle; the eldest, Llywelyn, died there in 1287, just four years after his capture. Owain was still living in 1325, every night securely incarcerated in a specially constructed timber cage within Bristol Castle. Dafydd himself suffered the horrendous ‘traitor’s death’; he was hung, drawn and quartered at Shrewsbury.

The Gilbertines were the only wholly-English monastic community. Their founder, St Gilbert, had some form of physical deformity, which prevented him from pursuing a career as a knight. He trained as a clerk in France, studying under Master Anselm at Laon. He eventually entered the household of the Bishop of Lincoln and, in 1129, was appointed Vicar of Sempringham and West Torrington. He established the first priory there in 1131, with seven local women vowing to live a life of chastity, poverty and obedience. Sempringham Priory was a double-house, housing both men and women in segregated quarters.

At its height, the priory housed 200 nuns and forty canons. The order followed strict rules, based on those of the Augustinian and Premonstratensian monasteries. By the time of Gilbert’s death in 1189 there were thirteen priories in England; this number had risen to twenty-five at the time of the Reformation.1

Gwenllian was a prisoner at the Gilbertine Priory of St Mary, at Sempringham, for the rest of her life. A prisoner of three English kings, Edward I, Edward II and Edward III, she was a rallying figure for the subjugated Welsh and too valuable to ever be freed. Edward I wrote to the Prior and Prioress of Sempringham of his decision to place Gwenllian in their custody, on 11 November 1283: ‘… Having the Lord before our eyes, pitying also her sex and her age, that the innocent may not seem to atone for the iniquity and ill-doing of the wicked and contemplating especially the life in your Order’.2

Memorial plaque to Gwenllian on the memorial at Sempringham

Although Edward wanted Gwenllian to be forgotten, he could not afford to forget about her himself, and four years after she was placed in the convent, Edward ordered Thomas Normanvill to ‘go to the places where the daughters of Llewellyn and of David his brother, who have taken the veil in the Order of Sempringham, are dwelling, and to report upon their state and custody by next Parliament’.3 The extent of Gwenllian’s knowledge of her own history and homeland is far from certain. Having been taken from Wales at six months old, she is said not to have spoken a word of Welsh and may not have even known how to spell her name; she is referred to as ‘Wencillian’, in a document sent to Edward III at the time of her death, although spelling was far from uniform in the 14th century.

Gwenllian was probably well-cared for. Edward III endowed her with a pension of £20 a year, which was paid to the priory for her food and clothing. Whether Gwenllian was treated according to her rank at the priory is unknown. However, she was aware of her importance and her family connections; as David Pilling points out and she does in fact call herself Princess of Wales, daughter of Llywelyn ap Gruffudd in a petition of 1327 to Edward II:

Wentliane, daughter of Lewelyn [Llywelyn], formerly Prince of Wales, prays the King of his grace to remember her and aid her, since the King, his father, promised her when she was put in the house of Sempringham, £100 of land and rent; whereof he told Walter de Langeton, then Treasurer, that he had given her £20 from the Exchequer yearly; and with this she has been provided.4

She is said to have received gifts from her cousin the king, and may have spent time in Edward III’s company, when he visited the priory at Easter-time in 1328; the young king issued a charter from Sempringham on 2 April of that year.5

St Andrew’s Church, Sempringham stands close to the site of the Gilbertine priory of Sempringham

Gwenllian may also have spent time in the company of Joan Mortimer, the daughter of Roger Mortimer, supposed lover of Isabelle of France, Edward III’s mother, and ruler of England after the deposition of her huusband, Edward II. Joan was held at Sempringham following her father’s downfall in 1330. She was only eighteen at the time, however, so may have had little in common, beyond their joint status as prisoners of the crown, with Gwenllian, who was a woman now in her late forties who had spent her entire life in conventual seclusion. The profound difference between Joan and Gwenllian, of course, is that Joan was released after a short time.

Gwenllian only found release in death. The on 7 June 1337, the same month as her fifty-fifth birthday. She was buried at the priory where she had spent all but eighteen months of her life. Her grave was lost at the time of the dissolution of the monasteries, in the 16th century. However, a memorial plaque was placed near St Andrew’s Church in Sempringham in 1993, stating:

In memory of Gwenllian, daughter of the last Prince of Wales. Born at Abergwyngregyn 12.06.1282. Died at Sempringham 7.6.1337. Having been held prisoner for 54 years.6

Although she left very few marks on the world, a child whose very future was stolen by Edward I, Gwenllian’s remarkable story has not been forgotten. In 2009 a mountain in Snowdonia in Wales, formerly known as Carnedd Uchaf, was renamed Carnedd Gwenllian in the lost princess’s honour.

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Gwenllian’s story, and that of her mother and grandmother, is told in my latest book, Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England.

Footnotes: [1] David Ross, editor, Sempringham Priory, Church and Holy Well, britainexpress.com; [2] englishmonarchs.co.uk; [3] ibid; [4] William Rees, Calendar of Ancient Petitions Relating to Wales [5] Calendar of the Charter Rolls. 1-14, Edward III; [6] The Princess Gwenllian Society, Princessgwenllian.co.uk

Sources: castlewales.com; snowdoniaheritage.info; William Rees, Calendar of Ancient Petitions Relating to Wales; Marc Morris A Great and Terrible King;David Williamson Brewer’s British royalty; Mike Ashley The Mammoth Book of British kings & Queens; Alison Weir Britain’s Royal Families; Roy Strong The Story of Britain; Dan Jones The Plantagenets; the Kings who Made England; Chronicles of the Age of Chivalry Edited by Elizabeth Hallam; The Oxford Companion to British History; The History Today Companion to British History; Derek Wilson The Plantagenets; britainexpress.com; englishmonarchs.co.uk; princessgwenllian.co.uk; Calendar of the Charter Rolls; David Pilling.

Images: Photos of Sempringham Church and memorial copyright Sharon Bennett Connolly. Llywelyn the Last courtesy of Wikipedia.

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My Books

Out Now!

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

Isabella, England’s Second Holy Roman Empress

Isabella_of_England,_Holy_Roman_Empress
Isabella of England, Holy Roman Empress

Nearly everyone knows that Henry I’s daughter Matilda, Lady of the English, was Holy Roman Empress as the wife of Holy Roman Emperor Henry V. What is less well-known is that, almost 70 years after Matilda’s death, her great-granddaughter followed in her footsteps.

Isabella of England was born in 1214; she was the 4th of 5 children born to King John and his 2nd wife Isabella of Angouleme. She had 3 older siblings, Henry, Richard and Joan, and a baby sister Eleanor. Born at a time when her father’s strife with his barons was at its height, her early childhood was turbulent, to say the least. John died just 2 years later, in October 1216, leaving 9-year-old Henry as king of a country in the midst of civil war while fighting off an occupying French army.

Even before her father’s death, Isabella’s older sister Joan (born in 1210) had left England, to be raised by the family of her intended husband, Hugh de Lusignan. However, by 1220, amidst great scandal, Hugh had repudiated Joan and married her mother in her stead, whilst still holding Joan as hostage in order to gain Queen Isabella’s dower.

Whilst Joan was still in the hands of the Lusignans, her marriage to Alexander II of Scotland was negotiated, with an added clause that Isabella could be substituted for her older sister, should Joan not make it back to England in time. In the event Joan returned in time and Henry III looked elsewhere for a husband for Isabella.

330px-Frederick_II_and_eagle
Frederick II, Holy Roman Emperor

Becoming part of his policy of continental diplomacy, Henry looked at several possible husbands, such as Henry VII, king of the Romans and Louis IX of France. After some prompting by Pope Gregory IX, Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II (father of Henry VII) sent an embassy to England to pursue his own suit for the English princess to become his 3rd wife.

Within 3 days of the Sicilian embassy’s arrival Henry was agreeable to the match, which complimented his keen interest in the Holy Roman Empire. He had Isabella brought from the Tower of London to Westminster to be interviewed by the ambassadors. They were so impressed with her that they hailed Isabella “Vivat imperatrix! Vivat!”

The marriage contract was signed on 22nd February 1235, with Henry giving Isabella a dowry of 30,000 marks. Although Isabella already had her own fine chapel silver, Henry gave her a magnificent trousseau, which included a service of gold and silver plate. The English people were irritated by Henry’s demand for a substantial marriage aid, but Henry saw the marriage as adding to his personal prestige, and a possible alliance against Louis IX of France.

On 11th May 1235 Isabella set sail from Sandwich, escorted by the bishop of Exeter, the archbishop of Cologne and the duke of Brabant; she arrived at Antwerp 4 days later. With a substantial escort, to guard against kidnap threats from Frederick II’s enemies, Isabella arrived in Cologne on 24th May. She made a processional entry into the city, to the cheers of a 10,00 strong crowd, endearing herself to the noble ladies by throwing her veil back.

The marriage of Frederick II and Isabella of England

She was to spend 6 weeks in Cologne waiting for Frederick, who was dealing with a rebellion by his oldest son, Henry VII.

By July 1235, however, they were together in Worms where, on Sunday the 15th, they were married in the cathedral by the archbishop of Mainz. Isabella was crowned Holy Roman Empress at the same time. Four days of wedding festivities followed, with guests including – according to Matthew Paris – 4 kings, 11 dukes and 30 counts and marquesses.

Frederick, it seems, put great store by astrology; in 1228 Michael Scot had completed his encyclopedia of astrology while at Frederick’s court. And it was on the advice of the emperor’s court astrologers that the marriage was not consummated until the 2nd night.

Isabella was the emperor’s 3rd wife; his 1st, Constance of Aragon, had died of malaria in 1222 and his 2nd wife, Queen Isabella-Yolanda of Jerusalem had died in childbirth in 1228. Frederick was 20 years Isabella’s senior and expended all his energy on war, travelling and ceremonials in order to maintain his authority throughout his vast empire.

Frederick was delighted with his bride; she was beautiful and popular. He sent 3 leopards to Henry III in England as a sign of his appreciation. However, following the celebrations he also dismissed the majority of Isabella’s English attendants; she was allowed to retain only her nurse, Margaret Biset – who and been with her  since her early childhood – and a maid, called Kathrein.

300px-St._Peter's_Cathedral_Worms_south_side
St Peter’s Cathedrals, Worms, where Isabella was married and crowned Holy Roman Empress

Isabella travelled with Frederick’s slaves to his palace at Hagenau, where Frederick spent the winter with his new empress. Their first child was probably born around 1237/8, although there does seem to be some confusion over how many children there were, and when they were born. What is certain is 2 children survived childhood; Henry, King of Jerusalem, died unmarried in his teens in 1254 and Margaret married Albert I, Margrave of Meissen and Langrave of Thuringia and Misnes, in 1256.

Isabella travelled extensively through her husband’s lands, residing in Apulia, Lombardy, Noventa between 1238 and 1239. Frederick was always close by, despite his battles with  the papacy, and arrived in southern Italy shortly after his wife’s arrival in February 1240.

Isabella was expected to live in some magnificence, but Henry III was irritated that she was only rarely allowed to appear in public. There were rumours that Frederick kept his wives in a harem, although these were probably unfounded and arose from the seclusion that firstly Isabella-Yolanda and then Isabella lived in.

When Richard Earl of Cornwall visited the Emperor in 1241, he didn’t immediately see his sister, although this was probably down to court protocol, as the Empress was pregnant at the time. When they did meet the brother and sister were treated to a lavish court entertainment, being delighted by a magnificent display of jugglers and Muslim dancers.

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Andria cathedral, Isabella’s final resting-place

Following Richard’s visit, Frederick II returned to war. He was besieging Faenza in northern Italy when his wife died in childbirth on 1st December 1241; the baby died with her. Before his departure  on campaign, Isabella had urged Frederick to stay on good terms with her brother Henry III, who was leaning more and more towards the papacy.

She was buried at Andria, Sicily, alongside the emperor’s 2nd wife, Isabella-Yolanda. Isabella had been married for just over 6 years and was only  27 years of age.

Through her daughter Margaret, Isabella is the ancestor of Queen Victoria’s beloved husband, Prince Albert.

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Isabella’s story features in greater detail in my forthcoming book, Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England  which will be published by Pen & Sword on 30 May 2020.

Pictures courtesy of Wikipedia

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Sources: The Oxford Companion to British History Edited by John Cannon; The Plantagenets, the Kings who Made England by Dan Jones; History Today Companion to British History Edited by Juliet Gardiner and Neil Wenborn;  Brewer’s British Royalty by David Williamson; Britain’s Royal Families, the Complete Genealogy by Alison Weir; The Plantagenet Chronicles Edited by Elizabeth Hallam; The Mammoth Book of British Kings and Queens by Mike Ashley; The Plantagenets, the Kings that made Britain by Derek Wilson; England Under the Norman and Angevin Kings  by Robert Bartlett; http://www.britannica.com; oxforddnb.com.

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My Books

Coming soon! 

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

Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

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

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

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©Sharon Bennett Connolly 2016