Book Corner: Robert the Bruce; Champion of a Nation by Stephen Spinks

Robert the Bruce is a man of both history and legend. In his lifetime he secured Scottish independence in the face of English imperial aggression under the successive leadership of Edward I and Edward II. He was the victor of Bannockburn, a self-made king against all odds, and is celebrated as a champion of the Scottish nation. Yet Robert s colourful life is far from straightforward. Stephen Spinks seeks to examine this most enigmatic of kings beyond the myths to reveal him in the context of his time, his people and in his actions.

Stephen shows that Robert was a complex man, confronted by hardships and difficult and often dangerous decisions. He was not born to rule. As the murderer of John Comyn, a rival for the Scottish crown, Bruce sent shockwaves across Europe and was condemned by kings and popes. In war he suffered terrible personal loss, including the deaths of all four of his brothers and the imprisonment of his wife, daughter and two sisters, all at the hands of the English. He was at times a desperate yet focussed and highly determined man. Robert was also astute, breaking the rules of chivalry to even the odds, systematically fighting a guerrilla war against the English which he ultimately won. Yet he also cultivated the symbols of kingship, was pious, careful with his patronage and fought to uphold his fiercely held beliefs.

King Robert unified his deeply divided kingdom and secured its independence from England. His dramatic life as the victorious underdog forged a significant legacy that has survived for 700 years.

I may have mentioned before that I have a soft spot for Robert the Bruce and his family. I have already written of his daughter Marjorie, wife Elizabeth de Burgh and 2 of his sisters, Christian and Mary, women who suffered under the heavy hand of Edward I due to their relationship with Robert the Bruce and his ambition for an independent Scotland. King Robert I (the Bruce) is an enigmatic figure, whose conflicted loyalties saw him change sides on a number of occasions during the early years of his career.

So, of course I have been eagerly awaiting Robert the Bruce: Champion of a Nation ever since I first heard that Stephen Spinks was writing it. And it does not disappoint. Beautifully written and presented, Stephen Spinks tells the incredible story of Robert the Bruce and the fight for Scottish independence with great passion and enthusiasm. This is a wonderful book for any fan of Robert the Bruce – and Scottish history in general.

Since his surreptitious meeting with Lamberton, Robert may well have been building discreet coalitions to shore up a foundation on which to launch a bid for the Scottish throne. Yet, however successful he may have been at this juncture, there remained a significant contingent of men who would probably not support him, in particular the Balliols and Comyns and their adherents, who still held out for the return of King John or the accession of his heir, Edward Balliol, the latter still in English captivity. Just because Bruce wanted to champion his right did not mean Scotland would unite behind his cause. His greatest challenge now rested with John ‘the Red’ Comyn, lord of Badenoch, who had assumed the leadership of the Comyn family. He was nephew to King John, cousin to the Comyn Earl of Buchan, and brother-in-law to the English Aymer de Valence, soon to be Earl of Pembroke. If Bruce was to secure the crown, he needed to reconcile Comyn to his cause one way or another. What happened next tested the limits of Bruce’s personal ambition, and has gone down in the annals of history.

What is certain is that, on a cold night on 10 February 1306, Robert and John Comyn met at the Church of the Greyfriars in Dumfries. Comyn had been resident at his nearby castle at Dalswinton, not far from Bruce’s family home of Lochmaben. The two men, who had a history of bitter rivalry and had clashed violently at Peebles during the summer gathering near Selkirk Forest in 1299, could guarantee a safe, violence-free meeting constrained by their choice of location. Spilling blood in a church was sacrilegious and warranted excommunication, the gravest of punishements.

Robert the Bruce: Champion of a Nation doesn’t sugar coat Robert the Bruce’s actions, it examines the good and the bad in detail, from his support for Edward I in his early years, to the fateful murder of John Comyn that set him on the road to his coronation, a race against time to become king before the inevitable sentence of excommunication could be passed.

The author uses the primary sources of both England and Scotland, to present the story of Bruce’s fight to gain – and hold on to – the Scottish throne. Analytical and highlighting source bias, Stephen Spinks presents Robert the Bruce as a flawed hero, like all kings, whose personal and political ambition is balanced by opposition within a deeply divided Scotland, and a personal cost to him and his family that few of us could bare.

Robert the Bruce: Champion of a Nation is a wonderful, entertaining and informative read from beginning to end. Insightful and analytical, it puts every known aspect of Robert the Bruce’s life under the microscope, from his family, ambitions and military capabilities, to his health and leadership. Author Stephen Spinks examines Bruce’s actions and motivations in great detail, painting a fascinating portrait of the man and king.

Robert the Bruce: Champion of a Nation by Stephen Spinks is a must-read for anyone interested in Scottish history, and one of the best non-fiction books I have read in recent years. It is thoroughly enjoyable, totally engaging and impossible to put down.

Robert the Bruce: Champion of a Nation is now available from Amazon in the UK. It will be released in the US on 1 April 2020 and is available for pre-order on Amazon US.

About the Author:

Stephen Spinks wrote his dissertation on Edward II while studying at King’s College, London. He works for the National Trust and manages three Medieval heritage sites with 900 volunteers and 150 staff. He is a columnist for ‘Midlands Zone’ magazine, in which he writes a very well received exploration of life as a gay man today, partly political, partly personal. He has given many interviews on radio and in his capacity at the National Trust, to ‘BBC’s Escape to the Country’ and the ‘Antiques Road Show’. He has been studying the primary sources (and locations) for this book over the past 15 years.

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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 Amazon 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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©2020 Sharon Bennett Connolly 

An Uncommon Sister – Christian Bruce

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Turnberry Castle

Christian Bruce was one of the many children of Sir Robert le Brus, Lord of Annandale, and his wife Marjorie, Countess of Carrick in her own right. Christian was one of 11 children, with 5 boys and 5 girls surviving infancy. Unfortunately we don’t know when she was born, nor whether or not she was an older or younger sibling.

Christian was probably born at her father’s castle of Turnberry sometime in the 1270s or early 1280s.

Christian’s grandfather was another Robert le Brus, one of the 13 Competitors for the throne of Scotland following the death of Margaret, the Maid of Norway; when the vacancy of the Scottish throne was resolved by Edward I of England in favour of John Balliol. And when Balliol’s kingship failed it was Christian’s brother, Robert the Bruce, who became one of the leading candidates for the Scottish throne.

There are some question marks over Christian’s marital history. Some sources claim she married Gartnait, Earl of Mar in the 1290s, and was the mother of Donald of Mar. However, this has recently been disputed. Christian never seems to have been addressed, or described, as the Countess of Mar, and there seems to have been little communication between Christian and her supposed son, Donald, even though they were both held prisoner in England simultaneously.

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Robert the Bruce and Elizabeth de Burgh

The main argument against the marriage appears to be that Abbot Walter Bower had stated that Gartnait had been married to the ‘eldest Bruce daughter’, a description never applied to Christian. However, if the elder daughters were already married, Christian may well have been the eldest ‘unmarried’ Bruce daughter.

By 1305, however, Gartanit was dead and Christian had married Sir Christopher Seton (c. 1278-1306). Sir Christopher was a knight with lands in Annandale and northern England. He was a stalwart supporter of Robert the Bruce, his family having had a long tradition of serving the Bruce family. We know little to nothing about Christian’s short marriage to Sir Christopher; their relationship had to take a back seat to the national events of the time.

Sir Christopher was with Christian’s brother on the fateful day in the Greyfriars Church in Dumfries, when Robert the Bruce fatally stabbed John Comyn, his rival to  the Scottish throne. Robert then made the dash for Scone, hoping to achieve his coronation before the Christian world erupted in uproar over his sacrilege. An excommunicate could not be crowned. Christian accompanied her brother, his wife Elizabeth and daughter Marjorie and her sister Mary to Scone Abbey. The Stone of Scone was the traditional coronation seat of the Kings of Scotland and, although the stone had been stolen by the English and spirited away to London, holding the coronation at the Abbey sent a message of defiance to the English.

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Scone Abbey with a replica of the Stone of Scone in the forefront.

On 25th March 1306 Christian, alongside her husband, saw her brother crowned King Robert I by Isabella MacDuff, Countess of Buchan, who claimed her family’s hereditary right to crown Scotland’s kings (despite her being married to a Comyn), just 6 weeks after John Comyn’s death. The next day saw the ceremony repeated following the late arrival of William Lamberton, Bishop of St Andrews,

Robert’s coronation was the start of the most desperate period of his life – and that of his supporters. Edward I of England was never a one to casually acquiesce when he saw his will flouted. He sent his army into Scotland to hunt down the new king and his adherents. After his defeat by the English at Methven in 1306, Robert went into hiding in the Highlands. He sent his wife and daughter north to what he hoped would be safety. Christian, her sister Mary and the Countess of Buchan accompanied them, escorted by  the Earl of Atholl and Christian’s brother, Sir Neil Bruce.

It is thought that the Bruce women were heading north to Orkney in order to take a boat to Norway, where Robert’s sister, Isabel, was queen consort to King Erik II. Unfortunately they would never make it. The English caught up with them at Kildrummy Castle and laid siege to it. The defenders were betrayed by someone in their own garrison, a blacksmith who set fire to the barns, making the castle indefensible. The women managed to escape with the Earl of Atholl, but Neil Bruce remained with the garrison to mount a desperate defence in order give the queen, his niece and sisters enough time to escape.

Following their capitulation the entire garrison was executed. Sir Neil Bruce was given a traitor’s death; he was hung, drawn and quartered at Berwick in September 1306.

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Doon Castle

Christian and her companions did not escape for long; they made for Tain, in Easter Ross, possibly in the hope of finding a boat to take them onwards. They were hiding in the sanctuary of St Duthac when they were captured by the Earl of Ross (a former adherent of the deposed King John Balliol), who handed them over to the English. They were sent south, to Edward I at Lanercost Priory in Cumbria.

Following the coronation Christian’s husband, Sir Christopher Seton, had been sent to hold Loch Doon Castle against the English. Following a siege the castle was surrendered by its Governor, Sir Gilbert de Carrick. Seton was executed on the orders of Edward I; the poor man was hanged.

Christian’s sister Mary and Isabella, Countess of Buchan, were treated particularly harshly by Edward I. The English king had special cages built for them and for centuries it has been thought they were suspended from the walls of the keeps at Roxburgh and Berwick Castles, exposed to the elements and the derision of the English garrisons and populace, and a taunt to the Scots just over the border. However, the cages were in fact indoors, within rooms in the castles’ keeps. In contrast, Christian was sent into captivity to a Gilbertine convent at Sixhills in Lincolnshire; she was probably told of her husband’s death – and the manner of it – some time during the journey south. Christian languished at Sixhills for 8 years, until shortly after her brother’s remarkable victory over the English at Bannockburn, in 1314.

King Robert the Bruce had managed to captured several notable English prisoners, including Humphrey de Bohun, 4th Earl of Hereford and Essex. Suddenly in a strong bargaining position, the Scots King was able to exchanged his English captives for his family, incarcerated in England.

Once home in Scotland Christian joined her brother’s court. In no hurry to remarry, she accompanied the king and his family on a short progress around Tyndale, an area of Northumberland which was officially in Scottish hands. Some time after her return to Scotland, Christian had also been granted the Bruce lands of Garioch in Aberdeenshire.

David_II_of_Scotland_by_Sylvester_Harding_1797
David II, Robert the Bruce’s son and successor

The Scottish Wars of Independence took a heavy toll on Christian’s family. Having lost her brother and husband in 1306, she lost her 2 younger brothers on the same day in 1307. Thomas and Alexander Bruce had been leading a force into Galloway when they were overwhelmed by the forces of Dungal MacDouall, a supporter of the Comyn faction. The brothers, both in their early 20s, were handed over to the English and were beheaded at Carlisle on 9th February 1307. Robert and Christian’s surviving brother, Edward, was killed in battle in Ireland in 1318.

The sad losses must have seemed endless to Christian. In 1316 King Robert had lost his daughter, Marjorie, in childbirth. She was just 19. Her son, Robert Stewart, survived and would be the king’s heir until the birth of his only son, David, in 1324. Marjorie’s son would eventually succeed as King Robert II following his uncle David II’s death in 1371. And in 1323 Christian’s sister Mary died; Mary had survived 4 years imprisoned in an iron cage at Roxburgh Castle before being transferred to a more comfortable imprisonment in 1310. It wouldn’t be surprising if her inhumane incarceration had contributed to Mary’s death in her early 40s.

Christian remained unmarried for many years. Although their marriage had been a short one, Christian kept her husband’s memory alive for many years to come; in 1324 she founded a chapel in Dumfries in his honour. There is a possibility  she was the Bruce sister mooted as a bride for Sir Andrew Harclay, earl of Carlisle, as part of a peace treaty with Scotland in 1323. However, negotiations broke down and the marriage never took place.

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Bothwell Castle

Christian eventually married in 1326, to a man who was probably about 20 years her junior. Her 2nd husband was Sir Andrew Murray of Bothwell, posthumous son of the Sir Andrew Murray who had fought beside Sir William Wallace in the victory at Stirling Bridge.

Christian and Andrew were to have 2 children, sons. Their eldest, John, married Margaret Graham, Countess of Mentieth, sometime after 21st November 1348. John died in 1352 and Margaret would go on to marry Robert Duke of Albany, brother of Robert III and a great-grandson of King Robert the Bruce. A 2nd son, Thomas, would marry Joan, a daughter of Maurice Moray, Earl of Strathearn, and died in 1361.

On the death of Christian’s surviving brother, Robert the Bruce, in 1329, Scotland was once again thrown into turmoil. His 5-year-old son, David, was proclaimed king, with regents set to rule for him. As a member of the royal family Christian took part in David’s coronation in 1331. She shared a room in Scone Palace with her nieces, the new king’s sisters.

The English, however, saw the Bruce’s death as an opportunity and backed Edward Balliol‘s invasion of Scotland. Edward was crowned king in 1332, but could not consolidate his position. In the same year Murray was chosen as Guardian of Scotland and spent the next 5 years fighting the English and repulsing their attempts to return Balliol to the throne. Again, Christian found herself in the thick of the fighting when Sir Andrew installed her as keeper of Kildrummy Castle. In 1335 she was besieged by one of Balliol’s commanders, David Strathbogie, earl of Atholl. Her husband marched to her aid with a force of over a thousand men; he was able to surprise Atholl and defeated him at Culblean.

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Kildrummy Castle

Christian remained in possession of Kildrummy Castle even after Sir Andrew’s death; her husband had died at Avoch Castle in Ross in 1338, having retired from national politics the year before. Christian is known to have entertained her nephew’s wife, Queen Joan, at Kildrummy Castle in 1342. David II was generous to his aunt, providing her with an income from a number of sources, including the customs of Aberdeen.

It is believed that Christian died sometime in 1356, the last time she was mention in the exchequer rolls. She must have been well into her 70s, a great age for the time. I couldn’t find any source to confirm where she was buried; however, her husband was initially buried in the chapel at Rossmarkie, but later reinterred in Dunfermline Abbey, suggesting that this is also Christian’s resting place. It would be appropriate if it was, as so many of her ancestors and family are buried there; including her husband, brother, Robert, and niece, Marjorie.

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Pictures courtesy of Wikipedia

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Sources: The Story of Scotland by Nigel Tranter; Brewer’s British Royalty by David Williamson; Kings & Queens of Britain by Joyce Marlow; educationscotland.gov.uk/scotlandhistory Mammoth Book of British Kings & Queens by Mike Ashley; Oxford Companion to British History Edited by John Cannon; Edward I A Great and Terrible King by Marc Morris; Britain’s Royal Families by Alison Weir; oxforddnb.com thefreelancehistorywriter.com; englishmonarchs.co.uk.

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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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©2016 Sharon Bennett Connolly

Isabella de Warenne, Queen of Scotland?

John Balliol and Isabella de Warenne
John Balliol and Isabella de Warenne

Whilst researching for my post on Ada de Warenne I discovered that 100 years later, a kinswoman of hers also, briefly, made an appearance on the stage of Scottish history.

Isabella de Warenne was the daughter of John de Warenne, 6th Earl of Surrey, and Alice de Lusignan. Alice was the daughter of King John of England’s widow, Isabella of Angouleme, and Hugh X de Lusignan and half-sister to Henry III of England. Isabella was, therefore, Henry’s niece and a 1st cousin of King Edward I. Through her paternal grandmother, Maud Marshal, Isabella was also a great-granddaughter of the ‘Greatest Knight’ William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke and Regent of England in the early years of Henry III’s reign.

Isabella was one of 3 children; her elder sister, Eleanor, married Henry Percy and was the mother of Henry de Percy, 1st Baron Percy. Isabella’s younger brother, William de Warenne, married Joan de Vere, daughter of the 5th Earl of Oxford, and was father to 2 children, a son and a daughter; John and Alice. Isabella’s nephew, John de Warenne, was the last Earl of Warenne and Surrey, whose marital and extra-marital situation led to the extinction of the senior Warenne line. It was through John’s sister, Alice de Warenne, that the title earl of Surrey would eventually pass to her son Richard Fitzalan, 10th Earl of Arundel.

John Balliol, King of Scots

Alice de Lusignan died in 1256, shortly after giving birth to her youngest child, William, leaving the 25-year-old Earl Warenne to raise 3 young children. Alice de Lusignan was buried at Lewes Priory, the family mausoleum, she was ‘placed in the earth before the great altar in the presence of her brother Adelmar [Aymer de Valence], [bishop] elect of Winchester.’1 Isabella was probably born around 1253, although some genealogical sources claim she was younger and the daughter of a second, unknown wife of John de Warenne. However, there is no evidence that John ever remarried after Alice’s death, so this theory seems unlikely.

Isabella was married to John Balliol, Lord of Bywell, sometime before 7th February 1281. In the early 1290s, John Balliol was one of the 13 Competitors for the Scottish throne. He was the great-grandson of Ada de Warenne’s youngest son, David, Earl of Huntingdon, by David’s daughter, Margaret. John and Isabella were, therefore, 4th cousins, both being descended from William de Warenne, 2nd Earl of Surrey, and his wife, Isabel de Vermandois.

Balliol’s claim lay through seniority, he was grandson of Margaret, the eldest daughter of David of Huntingdon. The other leading Competitor was Robert de Brus, grandfather of the future King Robert (I) the Bruce. Robert de Brus’s claim lay in the fact he was closer in degree to the same David, being the son of David’s youngest daughter, Isobel. John Balliol was therefore David’s great-grandson, whereas Robert de Brus was his grandson, though by a younger daughter.

With 13 claimants to the Scottish throne it was Edward I of England who was given the duty of selecting Scotland’s next king. Isabella’s close family links to the English crown may have helped Edward decide in John’s favour and he was installed as King of Scotland in November 1292.

John and Isabella may have had at least 3, but possibly 4, children together.

A daughter, Margaret, died unmarried. There is mention of another daughter, Anne; but there is  doubt as to whether she ever existed.

Their eldest son, Edward, was born around 1283. Following the deposition of his father, in November 1299 Isabella and John’s oldest son, Edward, was entrusted to the custody of his Earl Warenne, who was then approaching his 70th year. After his grandfather’s death in 1304, Edward was transferred to the custody of his cousin John, the 7th Earl Warenne, until he was delivered into royal custody in 1310.

By the 1330s Edward’s prospects had improved. He was seen as a useful political tool, a rival claimant to the Scottish crown. With English support, Edward made his own bid for the throne, and was crowned king following his defeat of 8-year-old David II‘s forces at the Battle of Dupplin Moor in 1332. David’s supporters and Edward struggled against each other, until they eventually triumphed over Edward and he was deposed in 1336.

Isabella’s son, Edward Balliol, King of Scots

Edward finally surrendered his claim to the Scottish throne in 1356 whilst living in English exile; he died in Wheatley, Doncaster, probably in 1363 or 1364. Although his final resting place has recently been claimed to be under Doncaster Post Office, the former site of Doncaster Priory, it remains elusive.

John and Isabella’s possible younger son, Henry, was killed on 16th December 1332 at the Battle of Annan, a resounding victory for supporters of David II against Henry’s brother, Edward.

Although Edward was briefly married to Margaret of Taranto, the marriage was annulled. Neither Edward nor Henry had any children.

Very little is known of John and Isabella’s life together. Her death date and final resting place are both unknown. It is by no means certain that Isabella was still alive when John became king, so may have died before 1292, when John succeeded to the Scottish throne. She was no longer living, however, when her own father defeated John and the Scottish army at the Battle of Dunbar in April 1296; John abdicated in July of the same year and died in French exile in 1314.

John’s claim to the Scottish throne was supported by the Comyns, which led to the murder of John Comyn, in the church at Dumfries in 1306, by Robert the Bruce, who had succeeded his grandfather as the other leading Competitor to the throne. Shortly after the murder, he was crowned King Robert I at Scone but was only able to consolidate his rule after winning a resounding victory over the English at Bannockburn in 1314.

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Footnotes:

1‘Annals written by a certain monk of Lewes, from the birth of Christ to the year 1312’ quoted in W.H. Blaauw, On the Early History of Lewes Priory, and its Seals, with extracts from a MS. Chronicle

Picture:

John Balliol and Isabella de Warenne from britroyals.com; Edward Balliol courtesy of Wikipedia

Further reading:

W.H. Blaauw, On the Early History of Lewes Priory, and its Seals, with extracts from a MS. Chronicle; William Farrer and Charles Travis Clay, editors, Early Yorkshire Charters, Volume 8: The Honour of Warenne; Nigel Tranter, The Story of Scotland; britroyals.com; Rev. John Watson, Memoirs of the Ancient Earls of Warren and Surrey, and Their Descendants to the Present Time, Volume I; G.P. Stell, John [John de Balliol] (c. 1248×50-1314) (article), Oxforddnb.com; Susan M. Johns, ‘Alice de Lusignan, suo jure countess of Eu’, Oxforddnb.com; Scott L. Waugh, Warenne, John de, sixth earl of Surrey [earl of Surrey and Sussex, Earl Warenne] (1231-1304) Oxforddnb.com; royal.gov.uk/HistoryoftheMonarchy/ScottishMonarchs; Alison Weir, Britain’s Royal Families; David Williamson, Brewer’s British Royalty; Mike Ashley, The Mammoth Book of British Kings and Queens; englishmonarchs.co.uk.

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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.

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©2015 Sharon Bennett Connolly