“The Lincoln Fair” – the Battle that Saved England

Magna Carta

Saturday 20th May, 2017, marks the 800th anniversary of one of Medieval England’s most decisive battles. The Second Battle of Lincoln, also known as “The Lincoln Fair”, rescued England from the clutches of Louis, Dauphin of France and future King Louis VIII.

England had been in turmoil during the last years of the reign of King John, with the barons trying to curtail the worst of his excesses. It had been hoped that he 1215 issuing of Magna Carta would prevent war, but when John reneged on the Great Charter, war was inevitable. England’s disgruntled barons even went so far as to write to Philip II, King of France, and invite his son, Louis, to come and claim the throne. Louis had jumped at the chance and landed on England’s shores in 1216.

Strategically placed in the centre of the country, Lincoln was a target for the rebel barons and their French allies. An important Royalist stronghold, it was held by the redoubtable hereditary castellan, Lady Nicholaa de la Haye; it had already been under siege in both 1215 and 1216. In 1215, the northern rebels had been paid to go away, while the 1216 besiegers – including the King of Scotland – fled as John’s army advanced on the city. It was probably after the 1216 siege that Nicholaa made a show of relinquishing her post as castellan; however, John had other ideas:

And once it happened that after the war King John came to Lincoln and the said Lady Nicholaa went out of the eastern gate of the castle carrying the keys of the castle in her hand and met the king and offered the keys to him as her lord and said she was a woman of great age and was unable to bear such fatigue any longer and he besought her saying, “My beloved Nicholaa, I will that you keep the castle as hitherto until I shall order otherwise”.¹

John went even further to show his trust in Nicholaa, who was a long-time supporter of the unpopular king. As Louis consolidated his position in the south, John made an inspection of Lincoln castle in September 1216. During the visit Nicholaa de la Haye, who held the castle for John, even though the city supported the rebels, was appointed Sheriff of Lincolnshire in her own right, a very unusual move in a male-dominated world.

The Observatory Tower, Lincoln Castle

Moving south, just 2 weeks later, the king’s baggage train was lost as he crossed the Wash estuary and within a few more days John was desperately ill. King John died at Newark on 19th October 1216, with half his country occupied by a foreign invader and his throne now occupied by his 9-year-old son, Henry III. The elder statesman and notable soldier William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke was appointed Regent and set out to save the kingdom.

Following the coronation of young Henry, Magna Carta was reissued and some of the rebel barons returned to the fold, not wanting to make war on a 9-year-old king. However, Louis still had powerful supporters and did not seem keen to give up on his dream to rule England.

Louis’ forces, under the Comte de Perche, marched north intending to relieve Mountsorel Castle, which was being besieged by the Earl of Chester. Chester had withdrawn as the French arrived and Perche’s forces diverted to Lincoln. In early 1217, they took the city and laid siege to the castle with a small force. Now in her 60s, Nicholaa de la Haye took charge of the defences, with the help of her lieutenant, Sir Geoffrey de Serlant. Shortly afterwards, Prince Louis  personally travelled up to Lincoln to ask for her surrender, assuring her no one would be hurt, but Nicholaa refused to yield.

For almost 3 months – from March to mid-May – siege machinery bombarded the south and east walls of the castle. When the small force proved insufficient to force a surrender, the French had to send for reinforcements. This meant that half of Louis’ entire army was now outside the gates of Lincoln Castle and provided William Marshal with an opportunity; one decisive battle against Louis’ forces at Lincoln could destroy the hopes of Louis and the rebel barons, once and for all.

Carving depicting Nicholaa de la Haye, in the grounds of Lincoln Castle

Risking all on one battle was a gamble, but one that Marshal was determined to take. Spurred on by the chivalrous need to rescue a lady in distress – the formidable Lady Nicholaa – Marshal ordered his forces to muster at Newark by 17th May. While the young king, Henry III, waited at Nottingham, Marshal’s forces prepared for war. The papal legate, Guala, absolved the Royalist army of all their sins – of all the sins they had committed since their birth – and excommunicated the French forces, before riding to join the king at Nottingham.

While at Newark, Marshal set out the order of battle, although not without some argument. The Norman contingent and Ranulf, earl of Chester, both claimed the right to lead the vanguard. However, when Ranulf threatened to withdraw his men, it was decided to acquiesce to his demands.

Lincoln is an unusual city; its castle and cathedral sit at the top of a hill, with the rest of the city to the south, at the hill’s base. In the 12th century it was enclosed in a rectangular wall, which had stood since Roman times,  with 5 gates, and the castle abutting the wall at the north-west corner. William Marshal decided not to attack Lincoln from the south, which would have meant heading up the Fosse Way (the old Roman road) and forcing a crossing of the River Witham, before climbing the steep slope to the castle and cathedral (so steep, the road going up is called Steep Hill to this day). Instead he chose to take a circuitous route, so he could come at the city from the north-west and attack close to the castle and cathedral, directly where the enemy troops were concentrated.

On the 19th May Marshal’s forces crossed the River Trent and set up camp at Torksey, about 8 miles to the north of Lincoln, with some troops possibly camped 3 miles closer to the city, at Stowe.

Coronation of Louis VIII and Blanche of Castile. Louis’ claim to England was through his wife, a granddaughter of Henry II

The English commanders included William Marshal, earl of Pembroke, his son, Young William Marshal, and nephew, John Marshal, in addition to Ranulph, Earl of Chester, William Longspée, earl of Salisbury, Peter des Roches, bishop of Winchester, and Faulkes de Breauté. They led 406 knights, 317 crossbowmen and a large number of sergeants-at-arms, foot soldiers and camp followers.

Although Louis was in charge of the French forces in England, those in Lincoln were led by Thomas, Comte de Perche, himself a grandson of Henry II’s daughter Matilda, and therefore a cousin of King Henry III; the commanders, of the English rebels in the city included Robert FitzWalter and Saer de Quincey. They led over 600 knights and several thousand infantry.

At various points in the lead up to the battle, William Marshal is known to have made some stirring speeches. When battle was imminent, he made one more;

Now listen, my lords! There is honour and glory to be won here, and my opinion is that we have the chance to free our land. It is true that you can win this battle. Our lands and our possessions those men have taken and seized by force. Shame be upon the man who does not strive, this very day, to put up a challenge, and may the Lord our God take care  of the matter. You see them here in your power. So much do I fully guarantee, that they are ours for the taking, whatever happens. if courage and bravery are not found wanting.

Coat of arms of William Marshal

And, if we die …, God, who knows who are his loyal servants, will place us today in paradise, of that I am completely certain. And, if we beat them, it is no lie to say that we will have won eternal glory for the rest of our lives and for our kin. And I shall tell you another fact which works very badly against them: they are excommunicated and for that reason all the more trapped. I can tell you that they will come to a sticky end as they descend into hell. There you see men who have started a war on God and the Holy Church. I can fully guarantee you this, that God has surrendered them into our hands.

Let us make haste and attack them, for it is truly time to do so!²

As with all battles, the information gets confusing as battle commences, timings get distorted and facts mixed. No two sources give exactly the same information. So the story of a battle is a matter of putting the pieces together and making sense of various snippets of information – much as it would have been for the commanders on the day.

In the dawn of 20th May the English Royalist army marched south towards Lincoln. Marshal had hoped that, on reaching the plain in front of the city walls, the French would come out and meet him and a pitched battle would be fought outside of the city. Marshal was resting everything – the very future of England – on the outcome of that one battle. However, it seems that, although the French leaders did come out and take a look at the forces arrayed before them, they then chose to stay inside the city walls and wait for the Royalists to come to them.

The West Gate of Lincoln Castle

William Marshal’s nephew, John Marshal was sent to the castle, to ascertain the situation within the city, but as he approached, Nicholaa’s deputy, Geoffrey de Serlant, was making his way out to report to the English commanders that the castle was still in Nocholaa’s hands. It is not hard to imagine Nicholaa or her deputy climbing the tallest towers of the castle, to watch out for an approaching relief force. Seeing the Marshal’s banners appearing in the north must have been an amazing feeling.

The castle itself had 2 main gates, one in the eastern wall and one in the west, with postern gates were in the Lucy Tower to the south-east of the castle and the Cobb Hall to the north-east corner. On ascertaining that the castle still held, Peter des Roches then made his way inside, probably by the postern gate in Cobb Hall. Having met with Nicholaa de la Haye in the Lucy Tower, it seems he then made his way into the town via the postern, to check the defences and try to find a way into the city.

Des Roches’ reconnaissance proved successful and he reported to Marshal that there was a gate within the north-west wall of the city, which, although blockaded, could be cleared. As Marshal set men to clearing the blockaded gate, the earl of Chester was sent to attack the North Gate as a diversion and Faulkes de Breauté took his crossbowmen into the castle via the West Gate and set them on the ramparts above the East Gate, so their bolts could fire down on the besiegers.

De Breauté fell into disgrace in 1224 and so the major source for the Battle of Lincoln – the Histoire de Guillaume le Maréschale – plays down his role in the battle. However, his crossbowmen managed to keep the French forces focussed on the castle, rather than Marshal’s forces outside the city. De Breauté did make a sortie out of the East Gate, to attack the besiegers, but was taken prisoner and had to be rescued by his own men; although at what stage of the battle this happened is uncertain.

It took several hours, it seems, for Marshal’s men to break through the gate; but when they did, the 70-year-old William Marshal was so eager to lead the charge that he had to be reminded to don his helmet. Once safely helmeted, he led his men down West Gate, turning right to approach the castle from the north, his men spilling into the space between castle and cathedral, where the main force of the besiegers were still firing missiles at the castle.

Lincoln Cathedral viewed from the Castle. The fiercest fighting was between the 2 great buildings

The English forces took the enemy so totally by surprise that one man – according to the Histoire he was the enemy’s ‘most expert stonethrower’² – thought they were allies and continued loading the siege machinery, only to head struck from his shoulders.

Almost simultaneously, it seems, the earl of Chester had broken through the North Gate and battle was joined on all sides. Vicious, close-quarter combat had erupted in the narrow streets, but the fiercest fighting was in front of the cathedral. In the midst of the melee, William Longspée took a blow from Robert of Roppesley, whose  lance broke against the earl. The aged Marshal dealt a blow to Roppesley that had the knight who, having crawled to a nearby house ‘out of fear, [he] went to hide in an upper room as quickly as he could’.³

The Comte de Perche made his stand in front of the cathedral, rallying his troops; and it was there he took a blow from Reginald Croc which breached the eye slit of his helmet. Croc himself was badly wounded and died the same day. The Comte continued to fight, striking several blows to the Marshal’s helmet (the one he had almost forgotten to don), before falling from his horse. It was thought the Comte was merely stunned until someone tried to remove his helmet and it was discovered that the point of Croc’s sword had pierced the count’s eye and continued into his brain, killing him.

With the death of their leader,  the French and rebel barons lost heart and started pulling back. They fled downhill, to the south of the city. Although they briefly rallied, making an uphill assault, but the battle was lost and there was a bottleneck at the South Gate and the bridge across the Witham as the enemy forces fled. The rebel leaders, Saer de Quincey and Robert FitzWalter were both taken prisoner, as were many others. In total, about half of the enemy knights surrendered.

The Exchequer Gate, which lies between the Castle and Cathedral

A sad story is related that, after the battle, women took to the river with their children, in small boats, to escape the attentions of the victorious army. However, not knowing how to control the overloaded craft, many capsized and the women and children drowned.

The city, which had supported the rebels, was sacked, churches included; the excommunication seen as permission that everything was fair game. The battle earned the name ‘The Lincoln Fair’, probably because of the amount of plunder gained by the victorious English army.

Immediately the battle was won, William Marshal, earl of Pembroke, rode to Nottingham to inform the king of the victory. The Battle of Lincoln turned the tide of the war. On hearing of the battle, Louis immediately lifted his siege of Dover Castle and withdrew to London. His situation became desperate, his English allies were bristling against the idea of Louis giving English land as reward to his French commanders and were beginning to see the young Henry III as rightful king – after all, the son couldn’t be blamed for the actions of the father. In August of the same year Louis was soundly defeated at sea in the Battle of Sandwich, off the Kent coast. By September he had sued for peace and returned to France.

Lincoln Cathedral

In an incredible demonstration of ingratitude, within 4 days of the relief of the Castle, Nicholaa de la Haye’s position of Sheriff of Lincolnshire was given to the king’s uncle William Longspée, Earl of Salisbury, who took control of the city and seized the castle. However, not one to give up easily Nicholaa travelled to court to remind the king’s regents of her services, and request her rights be restored to her. A compromise was reached whereby Salisbury remained as Sheriff of the County, while Nicholaa held the city and the castle.

The battle had been a magnificent victory for the 70-year-old regent, William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke, and is a testament to his claim to the title ‘The Greatest Knight’. He staked the fate of the country on this one battle and pulled off a decisive victory, saving his king and country.

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Footnotes: ¹Irene Gladwin: The Sheriff; The Man and His Office; ²Histoire de Guillaume le Maréschal translated by Stewart Gregory; ³ Quoted in Thomas Asbridge’s The greatest Knight

All photos from Lincoln – Castle, Cathedral and Magna Carta, © Sharon Bennett Connolly 2015. All other pictures are courtesy of Wikipedia.

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Sources: King John by Marc Morris; Henry III The Son of Magna Carta by Matthew Lewis; The Demon’s Brood by Desmond Seward; The Greatest Knight by Thomas Asbridge; The Knight Who Saved England by Richard Brooks; The Plantagenet Chronicles edited by Elizabeth Hallam; Brassey’s Battles by John Laffin; 1215 The Year of Magna Carta by Danny Danziger & John Gillingham; The Life and times of King John by Maurice Ashley; The Story of Britain by Roy Strong; The Plantagenets, the Kings Who Made England by Dan Jones; England Under the Norman and Angevin Kings  by Robert Bartlett; lincolnshirelife.co.uk; catherinehanley.co.uk; magnacarta800th.com; lothene.org; lincolncastle.com; Nick Buckingham; The Sheriff: The Man and His Office by Irene Gladwin; Elizabeth Chadwick; swaton.org.uk; Histoire de Guillaume le Mareschal translated by Stewart Gregory, usna.edu.

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My book, Heroines of the Medieval World, looking into the lives of some of the most fascinating women from medieval history, will be published by Amberley on 15th September, 2017. It is now available for pre-order in the UK from both Amberley Publishing and Amazon and worldwide from Book Depository.

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

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©2017 Sharon Bennett Connolly

Ela: Heiress, Wife and Abbess

Model of Salisbury Castle

Ela of Salisbury was intended to be one of my Heroines of the Medieval World; however I ran out of words before I could tell her story – I had a word limit of 110,000 and poor Ela was one of the victims of this. So, I decide I would turn her into a blog post instead.

Ela was born at Amesbury in Wiltshire in 1187. She was the only surviving child – and sole heir – of William FitzPatrick, earl of Salisbury, and his wife, Eleanor de Vitré. Her father was a descendant of Walter, an ally of William the Conqueror, who had rewarded his support at Hastings with great estates which eventually passed to Ela. When her father died in 1196, Ela became Countess of Salisbury in her own right, and the most prized heiress in England.

There is a story that little Ela, only 9 years old at the time of her father’s death, was kidnapped by her uncle and hidden away in a castle in Normandy, so that he could gain control of the vast Salisbury inheritance. The tale goes, that an English knight, named William Talbot, toured the Norman castles in search of poor Ela, he would sing ballads beneath castle windows in the hope that the little Countess would hear him and join in with his singing. Whether a romantic legend or a true story, who can tell?

Whether she was rescued, or never kidnapped in the first place, we do not know. However, what we do know is that, on her father’s death, Ela’s wardship passed into the hands of the king himself, Richard I, the Lionheart. The king saw Ela as the opportunity to reward his loyal,  but illegitimate, brother, William Longspée (or Longsword), by offering him her hand in marriage. The Salisbury lands were a suitable reward for a king’s son, especially one born out of wedlock.

Arms of the Longspée earls of Salisbury

William Longspée was the son of Henry II by Ida de Tosney, wife of Roger Bigod, earl of Norfolk, from a relationship she had with the king before her marriage. For many years, it was thought that Longspée was the son of a common harlot, called Ikenai, and a full brother of another of Henry’s illegitimate sons, Geoffrey, Archbishop of York. There were also theories that his mother was, Rosamund Clifford, famed in ballads as ‘the Fair Rosamund’. However, it is now considered beyond doubt that his mother was, in fact, Ida de Tosney, with two pieces of evidence supporting this.  There is a charter in the cartulary of Bradenstoke Priory, made by William Longspée, in which he identifies his mother as the Countess Ida. There is also a prisoner roll from after the Battle of Bouvines, in which William Longspée is listed as the brother of Ralph Bigod.

Despite the misunderstandings over his mother, the identity of William Longspée’s father was never in doubt. He was Henry II’s son and served two of his half-brothers; Richard I and King John. At the time of his marriage to Ela, Longspée was in his early-to-mid-2o’s, while his bride was not yet 10 years old, although she would not have been expected to consummate the marriage until she was 14 or 15.

William I Longspée had an impressive career during the reigns of his half-brothers, he served in Normandy with Richard between 1196 and 1198, and took part in John’s coronation in May, 1199. In 1213 he destroyed the French fleet off the Flemish coast. He commanded an army in northern France for John, in 1214 and in July of the same year, he was captured at the Battle of Bouvines, after being clubbed on the head by the Bishop of Beauvais. Longspée briefly turned against his brother and joined Louis, the Dauphin, when he invaded England and took London. However, by the end of the summer of 1214, he was back with the king and stayed loyal to his brother from then on. He was one of the signatories of Magna Carta in 1215.

Following the death of King John in October 1216,  Longspée swore loyalty to his 9-year-old nephew, Henry III in March 1217. He was part of William Marshal’s army at the Battle of Lincoln Fair, when Lincoln Castle and its formidable castellan, Nicholaa de la Haye, were finally relieved from a 3-month siege by the French under the Comte de Perche.

William II Longspée, 4th Earl of Salisbury

Although we know little-to-nothing of their married life, it appears to have been happy. The couple had at least 8 children together, if not more; 4 boys and 4 girls. Of their younger boys, Richard became a canon at the newly built Salisbury Cathedral, while Nicholas eventually rose to be Bishop of Salisbury and Stephen became Senschal of Gascony and Justiciar of Ireland. The oldest son, William II Longspée, 4th Earl of Salisbury, was married to Idonea, granddaughter and sole heiress of the formidable Nicholaa de la Haye, who held Lincoln Castle against the French. Young William and Nicholaa de la Haye would spend several years in legal disputes over the inheritance of Nicholaa’s Lincolnshire holdings; a compromise was finally reached in which Nicholaa retained possession of Lincoln Castle, while William held the city of Lincoln, itself.

William II Longspée went on Crusade with Richard, Earl of Cornwall, in 1240-1 and later led the English contingent in the Seventh Crusade, led by Louis IX of France. His company formed part of the doomed vanguard, which was overwhelmed at Mansourah in Egypt, in on 8th February 1250. William’s body was buried in Acre, but his effigy lies atop an empty tomb in Salisbury Cathedral. His mother is said to experienced a vision of her son’s last moments at the time of his death.

Of the couple’s 4 daughters, Petronilla died unmarried, possibly having become a nun. Isabella married  William de Vescy, Lord of Alnwick and had children before her death in 1244. Named after her mother, Ela married, firstly Thomas de Beaumont, Earl of Warwick and, secondly, Phillip Basset; sadly, she had no children by either husband. A fourth daughter, Ida, married Walter Fitzrobert; her second marriage was to William de Beauchamp, Baron Bedford, by whom she had 6 children.

As a couple, William Longspée and Ela were great patrons of the church, laying the 4th and 5th, respectively, foundation stones for the new Salisbury Cathedral in 1220. In 1225 Longspée was shipwrecked off the coast of Brittany and a rumour spread that he was dead. While he spent months recovering at an island monastery in France Hubert de Burgh, 1st Earl of Kent and husband of Isabel of Gloucester, proposed a marriage between Ela and his nephew, Reimund. Ela, however, would not even consider it, insisting that she knew William was alive and that, even were he dead, she would never consider marrying below her status. It has been suggested that she used the 8th clause of Magna Carta to support her rejection of the offer; “No widow is to be distrained to marry while she wishes to live without a husband…”

As it turned out, William Longspée was still alive and eventually returned to his wife. However, he never seems to have recovered fully from his injuries and died at the royal castle at Salisbury shortly after his return home, on 7th March 1226. He was buried in a splendid tomb in Salisbury Cathedral.

Ela didn’t marry again. On her husband’s death, she was forced to relinquish her custody of the castle (although she did eventually buy it back), but was allowed to take over her husband’s role as Sheriff of Wiltshire, which he had held 3 times, holding the office continuously from 1213 until his death in 1226. Ela acted as Sheriff until 1228. She was known as a great patron of religious houses; she and her husband had co-founded Salisbury Cathedral and Ela herself founded 2 Augustinian religious houses. She managed to lay the foundation stones of both, at Hinton and Lacock, 16 miles apart, on the same day. The abbey at Hinton, Somerset, was endowed for monks, in memory of her husband, after they had found the original house, founded by Longspée at Hathorp unsuitable.

Lacock Priory was established in 1230 as a house for Augustinian canonesses at the village of Lacock in Wiltshire. Ela herself entered the priory in 1237 and became the first Abbess when it was upgraded to an Abbey in 1239. As Abbess, Ela was able to secure many rights and privileges for the abbey and its village. She obtained a copy of the 1225 issue of Magna Carta, which had been given to her husband for him to distribute around Wiltshire. She remained Abbess for 20 years, resigning in 1259. Ela remained at the abbey, however, and died there on 24th August, 1261.

Lacock Abbey, Wiltshire

Ela of Salisbury outlived both her eldest son and grandson. She was succeeded as Countess of Salisbury by her great-granddaughter, Margaret, who was the daughter of William III Longspée. Margaret was married to Henry de Lacey, 3rd Earl of Lincoln, and was the mother of Alice de Lacey, 4th Countess of Lincoln and the unfortunate, unloved wife of Thomas, Earl of Lancaster, who was killed in rebellion against Edward II, at the Battle of Boroughbridge in 1322.

The 3rd Countess of Salisbury was described in the Register of St Osmund as “a woman indeed worthy of praise because she was filled with the fear of the Lord.”¹ Ela was not buried alongside her husband in Salisbury Cathedral, but within the Abbey that she had founded and ruled – and had called her home for the last 24 years of her life. Her tombstone demonstrates the high esteem in which she was held and records the words; “Below lie buried the bones of the venerable Ela, who gave this sacred house as a home for the nuns. She also had lived her as holy abbess and Countess of Salisbury, full  of good works.”²

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Footnote: ¹ Ela, suo jure Countess of Salisbury, Jennifer C Ward, Oxforddnb.com, October 2009; ² Ela of Salisbury stanfordmagnacarta.worpress.com

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Pictures courtesy of Wikipedia

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Sources: The Plantagenet Chronicles edited by Elizabeth Hallam; Brassey’s Battles by John Laffin; 1215 The Year of Magna Carta by Danny Danziger & John Gillingham; The Life and Times of King John by Maurice Ashley; The Story of Britain by Roy Strong; The Plantagenets, the Kings Who Made England by Dan Jones; England Under the Norman and Angevin Kings  by Robert Bartlett; lincolnshirelife.co.uk; catherinehanley.co.uk; magnacarta800th.com; lothene.org; lincolncastle.com; The Sheriff: The Man and His Office by Irene Gladwin; Oxforddnb.com; stanfordmagnacarta.wordpress.com; A Year in the Life of Medieval England by Toni Mount; The Demon’s Brood by Desmond Seward; The Oxford Companion to British History, Edited by John Cannon; The Greatest Knight by Thomas Asbridge; Britain’s Royal Families by Alison Weir; chitterne.com

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My book, Heroines of the Medieval World, looking into the lives of some of the most fascinating women from medieval history, will be published by Amberley on 15th September, 2017. It is now available for pre-order in the UK from both Amberley Publishing and Amazon and worldwide from Book Depository.

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

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©2017 Sharon Bennett Connolly