Guest Post: Busting Mediaeval Building Myths: Part Two

Tattershall Castle, Lincolnshire

I think after the wonderful insights of last week’s Guest Post: Busting Mediaeval Building Myths: Part One, we have all been eagerly awaiting Part Two of James Wright‘s brilliant article – I know I have!

So, without further ado. Here it is:

Busting Mediaeval Building Myths: Part Two

James Wright, Buildings Archaeologist, Triskele Heritage

In my last guest blog for History the Interesting Bits, we discussed five common myths about mediaeval buildings. These tall tales included stories of secret passages, yarns about the twist of spiral staircases relating to right-handed defenders and anecdotes that lepers were provided special windows in churches to watch the mass through.

As a buildings archaeologist I often meet folk who are eager to tell me all about their properties and their enthusiasm is genuinely infectious. I’m a great lover of historic architecture and believe that we can learn so much of value about a society by what it builds. However, romanticised and elaborated stories often grow up around certain mysterious features in mediaeval buildings – and it is surprising how often these get repeated all across the country in so many different structures.

In the second part of this series, I will discuss five more common misconceptions, attempt to explain how they come about and what the underlying truth behind each myth is. Hopefully this will help to give a broader and deeper understanding of historic buildings that will bring us that little bit closer to their former occupants.

  • Ship Timbers
Ship timbers, Tattershall

Perhaps the most tenacious and persistent mediaeval building myth is that lots of timber-framed buildings were constructed from salvaged ship timbers. There is even a house in Hertfordshire that is actually called Ships Timbers! Given that traditional British boozers have a reputation as hotbeds of rumour and intrigue, it will come as no shock that many pubs have the reused ship timbers story associated with them – often linked to a famous battle such as Trafalgar. Is there any truth in these tales?

On extremely rare occasions, it can be demonstrated that specific pieces of timber may have genuinely originated from a ship. I cannot stress just how rare this is and that documentary evidence is often lacking. My former colleague, Damian Goodburn, Historic Timber Specialist at MOLA, has pointed out that ship timbers rarely lend themselves to reuse in terrestrial buildings due to extreme weathering, their shaping designed for aquatic settings and the overall unworkability of seasoned oak. Instead, timbers from ship-breaking yards tend to be reused in marine or inter-tidal architecture, such as the Bermondsey foreshore of the River Thames in London. Alternatively, ship timbers may occasionally be found in the foundations of structures located very close to waterways, such as the three pieces recorded in the foundations of the Rose Playhouse, Bankside, London.

The vast majority of timber-framed buildings were constructed from newly felled trees and/or reused terrestrial structures such as barns, granaries and houses. The reuse of buildings is widely documented – for example the building accounts for Tattershall Castle, Lincolnshire, refer to the removal of timber from nearby Revesby Abbey in 1434-5. Reused timber will often be placed in a different part of the new building to the original structure leaving rectangular holes, known as mortises, visible and it is probably this which gives us the origin of the romantic story of timbers salvaged from wrecked ships.

  • Arrow-sharpening Grooves
Arrow grooves, Lambley

Worn into the hard stonework of the interior of many a church porch can be found clusters of strange vertical grooves which visitors are commonly told were created by archers sharpening their arrows, such as those at Holy Trinity, Lambley, Nottinghamshire. Given Edward III’s law of 1363, that all able-bodied men aged between 16 and 60 must practice their archery on Sundays and holy days, plus the location of many archery butts close to the parish church, the arrow-sharpening story has become received wisdom wherever the grooves are found.

There is neither any documentary evidence to suggest that archers sharpened their arrows on the stones of church porches, neither would this be a practical solution to the problem of dulled arrowheads. As churchyards were consecrated ground, archery butts were located elsewhere in the manor, creating a laborious trek to the porch. Instead, the sixteenth century archery expert, Roger Ascham tells us that bowmen would sharpen their arrows using hand-held files and whetstones. Equally, the majority of the grooves are orientated vertically and are located relatively low-down in the porches which render them as impractical for drawing a metre long arrow shaft across. Finally, these grooves are often found on soft limestones entirely useless for honing an edge.

The swashbuckling tales of English victories at Crécy and Azincourt have led to nationalistic myths of an epic proportion. Not only have accounts of the battles become rather knotted, but the desire to connect local history to the heroic archers has led to a misreading of the evidence. Folk traditions from pre-modern Germany and France, collected in the nineteenth century by Charles Rau, refer to parishioners scraping powder from church stonework to use in rituals. The stone was seen as a powerful holy material which was ingested as cures for fever or impotence. It is likely that similar ritualistic practises associated with holy buildings were also once common in Britain and the grooves in church porches relates to this folk ritual.

  • Murder Holes
Murder holes, Berry Pomeroy, Devon

Look up whilst you are visiting castles and you will often see voids in the overhead masonry associated with the defence of the building. These can take the form of slots overhanging the walls, known as machicolations (for example at Berry Pomeroy, Devon), or holes in the gate passage, known as murder holes (such as those at Caernarfon, Gwynedd). The popular story is that they were built so that the defenders could pour boiling oil down upon attackers.

Although it is not a myth that these holes were created to potentially hurl items into the spaces below them, including projectiles, stones and caustic lime, their uses were even more complicated. They could act as safe observation points from which the wall foot or passageway could be seen. If fires were started, either accidentally or deliberately, during a siege the slots could also be used to douse the flames with cold water.

Boiling oil was rarely used – it was prohibitively expensive, not often available in large enough quantities to be effective, would have been difficult to heat (it has a boiling point at 2040C), problematic to transport around the parapets and could have been a fire risk in itself. There are a very small number of scattered references to the use of hot oil, including at the siege of Orléans in 1428. For the most part, castles were rarely laid siege to and murder holes were mostly left untested. In fact many of them were intended to be nothing more than symbols of architectural prestige: the machicolations at Tattershall would have directly overlooked the roofs of the castle’s Inner Ward – not the best place to drop offensive weapons or scalding materials!

  • Templar Graffiti
Templar graffiti, Worksop

Type “Templar graffiti” into a search engine and you will find a mind-boggling number of links to hundreds of castles and churches, from the dungeons of Warwick Castle to the porch of Worksop Priory, Nottinghamshire. The websites invariably refer to cross-shaped graffiti left behind by the enigmatic Order of the Knights Templar (founded 1199 and dissolved 1312) and their crusading brethren. The legend that he Templars harboured the Holy Grail is all-consuming and many believe that the location of the cup of Christ can be found by decoding intriguing symbols and carvings at sites such as Royston Cave, Hertfordshire.

One of the principle problems with these romanticised notions is that they have more akin to conspiracy theories and Dan Brown novels than to historical research. In particular, it can be demonstrated that the “dungeon” at Warwick Castle was actually the storage basement of Caesar’s Tower, built over 30 years after the Templars were dissolved. Similarly, the carvings at Royston Cave, have been identified, by archaeologist Matthew Champion, as dating to the late fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Again, this falls outside of the Templar period and the religious character of the carvings is entirely consistent with those in a wide variety of other sites of the period.

Ultimately, crosses are a very common discovery in mediaeval graffiti surveys. They may be related to devotional activities such as prayer, but, as large numbers – around 80% – are found in church porches (as at Worksop) it is also likely that they relate to more secular behaviour. In particular, there is good evidence for mediaeval porches being used as sheltered meeting rooms, places where manorial courts were held, locations for reading wills and a site for parish notices to be read or fixed. As such the graffiti crosses may have been left as contractual memorials akin to swearing on the Bible or signing a document.

  • Devil’s Door
Devil’s door, Warkworth

Many churches, such as St Lawrence, Warkworth, Northumberland, have their north aisle doors blocked up – a phenomena which has been increasingly referred to as the Devil’s Door. Tradition states that this door, nearest to the font, was left open during baptisms so that demons could escape from the new-born child upon command of the priest. The north side of the church was thought of as being connected with the devil and after the Reformation these doors were blocked up as they were considered to relate to superstitions incompatible with the Protestant faith.

Francis Young has written eloquently on the subject of baptismal folklore and suggests that the sacrament was never considered to be a true exorcism, thus we might not be expecting demons to come flying out of the north door. Furthermore, Nicholas Groves has pointed out that the part of the baptism when the devil was commanded to leave the body of the infant, actually took place outside of the south porch in the churchyard. Equally, the belief that the north side of the church was particularly feared also does not stand up. Many churches have their principle entrance to the north, including Southwell Minster, Nottinghamshire, they face the principle access route from the settlement. It is also the case that large numbers of churches retained both their north and south porches, as at Kelham, Nottinghamshire.

Although it is acknowledged that north aisle doors may have been left open during baptisms, this was never part of the established liturgy. However, a number of formal church processions, including that on Palm Sunday, required the north porch as an exit point prior to walking, clockwise, around the east end of the church and back in through the south porch. Following the Reformation, these processions no longer took place making the door and porch essentially redundant. Churchwardens eventually decommissioned many of them as an expensive maintenance liability.

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I hope that you enjoyed this blog and that it will prove useful in trying to fully understand mediaeval buildings on your own visits. Should you wish for more information on this subject, please feel free to tweet me on @jpwarchaeology or email on james@triskeleheritage.com

All images courtesy of James Wright.

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I would like to say a HUGE THANK YOU to James Wright for taking the time to write two incredibly fascinating post. I owe you one, James.

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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 and James Wright

Book Corner: Song of the Centurion by Steven A. McKay

Autumn, AD 430. After the Princess Catia’s disappearance, and Bellicus’s adventures trailing her Saxon abductors south to the fabled Hanging Stones, the giant warrior-druid is finally returning home. 

Battle-scarred, and mourning the loss of a loved one, Bellicus has learned from bitter experience that the gods rarely make things easy. Even if he can evade Horsa’s vengeful pursuit and get back to the North safely, his troubles may be far from over. In a land beset by the rivalries of petty warlords, Dun Breatann has stood solid and secure for untold generations. Trouble brews though as King Coroticus has cracked under the pressure of his daughter’s abduction. When the king’s rage finally boils over during a winter feast, Bellicus finds himself with two choices: accept exile, or complete another seemingly impossible undertaking. So much for the returning hero…

Accompanied by his massive war-dog, Cai, and the former centurion, Duro – who has his own painful issues to contend with – Bellicus must somehow survive a journey east into enemy-held lands. Folklore, superstition, the healing power of song, and even a wondrous white stag will all play a part in the companions’ continuing adventures, but armies are gathering and, when spring returns, the people of Dun Breatann will surely find themselves under siege once again. Will their legendary warrior-druid be there to help defend them this time, or will the new ways sweep away the old, once and for all? Find out in Song of the Centurion, the action-packed sequel to 2018’s The Druid!

Tracing the story of Bellicus’ mission to rescue the Princess Catia, The Druid was one of my Top 5 books of 2019 and so I have been eagerly awaiting the sequel with some trepidation; could author Steven A. McKay improve on this great story and the character who drives it?

But … Wow! What a book!

Song of the Centurion not only builds on the story started in The Druid, but takes it in a wholly unexpected direction. Sequels can often suffer by being ‘much of the same’. Not this time. Bellicus returns to his king as the hero rescuer of the princess, but comes home to petty jealousy and court intrigues which see the druid’s life take several unexpected turns.

Song of the Centurion works not only as a sequel, but as a standalone novel. Steven A. McKays’ skillful summary of the first book, interwoven into the story of Bellicus retracing his steps north with the rescued princess, serves to remind the reader of preceding events or act as a backstory if you haven’t read The Druid.

Set in a time of great turmoil in Britain, where the Romans have left and the Saxons are pushing further west and north, Bellicus’ ultimate task is to end the bitter infighting between the clans in Alt Clota and to unite them to fight against the Saxon invaders. Not an easy task.

“Duro isn’t to blame for what happened here today,” Bellicus said, voice low but powerful enough thanks to his years of specialist training that it penetrated even the grief-ravaged minds of the angry townsmen. “We all are.”

“What does that mean?” the blacksmith demanded, eyes fixed on the sobbing man in the centurion uniform. “It’s not my fault the Saxons came here looking for revenge.”

“Aye,” one of his companions agreed. “We just wanted to be left alone.”

“And that’s the problem,” the druid nodded, looking down at the ground sadly. “We all just want to be left alone.” He waited until there were murmurs of surprise agreement from the angry blacksmith and his friends then his head came up and his eyes blazed. “Left alone? That is why your town was targeted by the sea-wolves. They knew you people were an easy target after their last visit here, when only your fat baker was willing to stand against them.”

“Why would we stop them?” the blacksmith demanded. “That lass was nothing to us -“

“That lass was a Briton, and you knew that!” Bellicus roared, the rage in his voice making more than one of the men facing him step back warily as a crowd of soot-blackened locals began to form around them.” “If more of you were as brave as Duro there, the Saxons might have been cut down like the animals they have shown themselves to be here today. If you -” he pointed directly at the blacksmith whose eyes narrowed “- had used that hammer to help a little girl, well …” He trailed off shaking his head, looking around at the scattered bodies sorrowfully. “None of this would have happened.”

The men were either mollified by the druid’s words, or perhaps embarrassed. Shamed by his accusations maybe. Whatever it was, most of them just stood there, looking dumbly at the druid. One stepped forward threateningly, clealy hoping his companions would follow his lead, but none did and, when Cai bared his teeth and barked at him, he stopped instantly in his tracks.

As has come to be expected with books written by Steven A. McKay, from the earliest novels in his Forest Lord series, the story is fast-paced and energetic, leaving the reader little time to stop for breath. The frantic battle scenes contrast remarkably well with the political and personal actions of the characters, recreating the life-or-death existence of Britons in the post-Roman era.

The author has a knack of drawing the reader in, so that they are totally invested in Bellicus’s story and desperate for the druid to succeed. As Bellicus inspires loyalty in Song of the Centurion, so too does he inspire it in his readers! He is a wonderful, noble character, made wise for his years by his druidic training. That his training extended to the martial arts – his proficiency with both sword and staff a testament to this – make for a story that melds both war and diplomacy into the character of the hero.

Song of the Centurion is a unique story, melding the mystical world of the druids with the legends and history of post-Roman Britain. The story drives the hero, the book and the reader to a riveting climax. And the promise of more to come…

Song of the Centurion is available in paperback and ebook from Amazon UK.

About the author:

Steven McKay was born in 1977 near Glasgow in Scotland. He live in Old Kilpatrick with his wife and two young children. After obtaining his Bachelor of Arts degree with the Open University he decided to follow his life-long ambition and write a historical novel.

He plays guitar and sings in a heavy metal band when they can find the time to meet up.

You can check out his website here. Steven also has an Amazon Author page and can be found on Twitter and Facebook.

All images are courtesy of Steven A. McKay.

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

Matilda of Flanders, Queen of the Conqueror

Matilda of Flanders

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

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

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

William the Conqueror from the Bayeux Tapestry

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

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

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

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

Matilda’s son Henry I, King of England

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

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

Queen Matilda’s Grave, Ste Trinité, Caen

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

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

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

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Footnotes:

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

Pictures:

Courtesy of Wikipedia

Sources:

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

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My Books

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

Guest Post: Busting Mediaeval Building Myths: Part One

Tattershall Castle, Lincolnshire

Last week I had the pleasure of attending a talk given by buildings archaeologist James Wright, of Triskele Heritage, on Medieval Graffitti. It was a fascinating lecture and thoroughly enjoyable – if you ever get the chance to go and hear James talk, I highly recommend you do. Anyway, chatting to James afterwards we got on to the topic of the many myths surrounding medieval buildings and James very kindly agreed to write a blog post for me. It is, in fact, a rather large topic – especially after James’ Twitter followers got involved – and so has turned into 2 posts. Part Two will be along next week, but here’s Part One for your delectation.

Busting Mediaeval Building Myths: Part One

James Wright, Buildings Archaeologist, Triskele Heritage

As a buildings archaeologist, I am very fortunate to have access to all manner of mediaeval structures, many of which are not open to the public. I feel a great affinity with these buildings, be they timber-framed houses, stunning parish churches or the castles of great lords, and sense a responsibility to let folk know about new discoveries using a wide range of media. There is simply no point doing archaeology unless you tell others what you have done!

Recently I met my friend, the author Sharon Bennett Connolly, after giving a talk on the mediaeval period. Whilst we were having a catch-up, the subject of popular myths about mediaeval buildings cropped up and Sharon asked if I would be interested in submitting a guest blog for this website.

During my visits to mediaeval buildings, the information relayed on websites, leaflets and guidebooks or by property owners, custodians and stewards is not always wholly precise. I want to use this blog to gently bust a few of the more common myths. There is rarely any malicious intent in such stories – they are usually the result of the misidentification of a structure by an early antiquarian, amateur or even professional historian. If something has been repeated enough times or put into print it becomes “real”. Once it becomes “received wisdom” the myth is widely taken as factual and repeated often.

So here are the first five of ten myths, associated with mediaeval buildings, and the (often more interesting) realities hiding behind them…

  • Secret Passages
Secret Passages, Ashby

Tales of underground secret passages are so common that almost every village and town have their own version. Usually the tunnel connects two rather contrasting, and faintly scandalous, locations such as the manor house and the nunnery or the priest’s house and the local pub! In my own home town of Stone, Staffordshire, there is a persistent rumour that a passageway linked the site of the twelfth century priory to Aston Hall.

The fact that the two buildings are over one and half miles apart, and that the intervening land is on the flood plain of the River Trent, never seemed to raise any scepticism when the locals of various pubs were discussing this! How would the presence of the passage be kept secret? Who paid for it? Why was it constructed? Where was the spoil put? How was it kept drained? The practicalities all seem rather insurmountable.

Although some sites do feature genuine tunnels, such as Strelley Hall in Nottinghamshire or Ashby Castle in Leicestershire, they tend to be both post-mediaeval in date and are relatively short in length. In both cases they offer access for goods and connect different buildings within a single complex. The vast majority of tunnel myths turn out to be simple drains when investigated. The origin of the story at Stone is probably related to the survival of a small section of a storage undercroft, from the priory, which is now the cellars of a much later house.

  • Spiral Staircases
Spiral Stair, Newark

Go and visit any castle in the land and you will inevitably find a guidebook, audio-tour, interpretation panel or tour guide stating that all spiral staircases twist clockwise to provide a swordsman’s advantage for the right-handed defenders, who were able to easily wield their weapons, whilst attackers would be at a disadvantage. I’ve spotted this being presented to visitors recently at both Arundel, Sussex and Colchester, Essex.

A brilliant survey of castle staircases, by Neil Guy of the Castle Studies Group, has demonstrated that, contrary to the myth, anti-clockwise spiral staircases were incredibly common. We can find them in the eleventh century at the Tower of London; twelfth century at Newark, Nottinghamshire; thirteenth century at Conwy, Gwynedd; fourteenth century at Carisbrooke, Isle of Wight and fifteenth century at Kirby Muxloe, Leicestershire. Many of these castles were built during periods of military activity such as the Norman Conquest or Edwardian invasion of Wales – yet they still feature anti-clockwise stairs.

Some castle gatehouses (for example, Tonbridge, Kent) feature two staircase turrets, one clockwise and one anti-clockwise. They seem to relate to a similar pattern of access in monastery and cathedral towers (such as St Alphage Tower, London) which may be “up” and “down” routes to avoid collisions and jams. Many castles, such as Richmond, North Yorkshire, even feature straight stair passages. Finally, sieges rarely ended with fighting in the interiors of castles, let alone on the staircases – if the enemy was on your stair the battle was probably already lost!

  • Burn Marks
Burn marks, Gainsborough Old Hall

Huge numbers of timber-framed buildings are littered with curious tear-shaped burn marks which are often over-looked by custodians and visitors alike. However, when attention is drawn to them, as in the kitchens at Haddon Hall, Derbyshire or on an upper floor at Tudor House, Southampton, Hampshire, they are usually interpreted as being scorch marks left by unattended candles, rushlights, tapers or lamps. Many buildings, such as Gainsborough Old Hall, Lincolnshire, are so riddled with burn marks that their occupants must have been so careless that it is astonishing they are still standing!

Instead, a great piece of experimental archaeology, undertaken by John Dean and Nick Hill and published by the Vernacular Architecture Group, showed that these marks were deliberately created. A tear-shaped burn mark is almost impossible to replicate by leaving a light unattended. They found that the only way to leave such a mark was to hold a taper at a 45 degree angle, a few millimetres away from the timber, for between 5 and 15 minutes. Many marks are also found in locations unsuitable for supporting lights – the backs of doors and window shutters – and few had associated evidence of how lights would have been supported.

Once it was realised that the marks were created deliberately, archaeologists mapped their locations and found that the vast majority were on timbers near doors, windows and chimneys. In the mediaeval period, these areas were widely believed to be vulnerable to malicious fires and invasion by evil spirits. Therefore many of the marks were possibly created as part of a tradition of magical house protection. By burning the timber a little bit it would drive away the threat of more significant damage. Equally, there may be other ritual purposes associated with burn marks that may be connected to prayer, devotion, healing or purification.

  • Leper Squints
Leper squints, Lewes

Many parish churches feature curious holes penetrating their walls which are sometimes identified as windows through which sufferers of leprosy (now known as Hansen’s Disease) could observe services. Considered to be contagious and deformed, lepers were literally suffering purgatory on earth, and were therefore discouraged from mixing with the congregation.

Although lepers were considered to be outcasts, they were regularly provided for in charitable hospitals (such as St Nicholas, Harbledown, Kent) which were located on the edge of towns or at crossroads.  Ultimately, they were not encouraged to enter regular communities and the provision of squints at parish churches is unlikely.

Location and form is key here. A number features identified as leper squints (for example at St Cuthbert’s, Aldingham, Cumbria) are very small square holes, on the exterior of the church, capped by a thin lintel stone. These are relict putlog holes – left behind by builders whose mediaeval timber scaffolding was physically bonded into the masonry of the wall during construction. At the end of the work, carpenters would saw off the timber flush with the wall and over time the wood would rot away to leave a hole. Alternatively, small, low down windows like the one at St Leonard’s, Wollaton, Nottinghamshire (which usually have evidence for shutters) were probably built to allow ventilation rather than cater to lepers.

Holes found internally, such as that at St Thomas Becket, Lewes, East Sussex, are usually at an oblique angle through the wall separating the aisle from the chancel. These are formally designed, sometimes elaborately decorated, hagioscopes. This feature enabled priests officiating at side aisle altars to be able to simultaneously engage with the main celebrant, at the high altar in the chancel, during the Elevation of the Host – indicating that the ritual bread was now the body of Christ.

  • Mason’s Marks
Masons marks, Warkworth Castle

Stone buildings were constructed by masons – often considered to be a secretive bunch given to various arcane practises. One tradition states that masons had their own individual symbol (such as the illustrated example from Warkworth Castle, Northumberland) which they would chisel onto a piece of stone, once it was finished, so that they could be paid for it. By finding these marks we may be able to trace the career of a mason as he travelled from site to site.

Although there are definitely marks on the walls of mediaeval buildings which can be attributed to stonemasons, the reasons for their presence has become a little scrambled. Firstly, masons were very rarely paid per stone (i.e. piecework). Mediaeval building accounts (such as those for Caister Castle, Norfolk) indicate that masons were paid weekly wages. Secondly, the simplicity of masons marks means that they get widely repeated. Identical examples to those recorded in the early sixteenth century Hospital of the Savoy, London, were also found in fourteenth century Strasbourg Cathedral, France; seventeenth century Kirby Hall, Northamptonshire and nineteenth century Canton Viaduct, America.

The marks left behind by masons were not necessarily specific to an individual. There was no register of such things and it is likely that they were assigned to either individuals or entire work-gangs just for the lifespan of the building project. When they moved on to a new site, new marks were distributed. On a particular project the marks would be used by foremen to account for productivity, ensuring that the required number of stones were cut during set time periods.

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I hope that you enjoyed this blog and that it will prove useful in trying to fully understand mediaeval buildings on your own visits. Part two of this series will discuss subjects including crusader graffiti and ship’s timbers in mediaeval buildings.

Should you wish for more information on this subject, please feel free to tweet me on @jpwarchaeology or email on james@triskeleheritage.com

I have to extend a huge ‘thank you‘ to James for such a fabulous article. Can’t wait for Part Two!

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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

Judith of Flanders, Countess of Northumberland

Judith of Flanders

Judith of Flanders was born sometime in the early 1030s. Her father was Baldwin IV, Count of Flanders; he died in 1035, when Judith was, at most, five years old and possibly still only a baby.

Baldwin had been count since the age of seven, from 987. His first wife was Orgive of Luxembourg, the mother of Baldwin’s son and heir, Baldwin V, who was born in 1012. Orgive died in 1030. Their son, Baldwin V, married Adele of France, the second daughter of Robert II (the Pious), King of France, and they had at least three children together, including Baldwin VI, Count of Flanders, and Matilda of Flanders, Duchess of Normandy and Queen of England as the wife of William the Conqueror. After Orgive’s death, Baldwin IV married again. In about 1031 he wed Eleanor of Normandy, the daughter of Baldwin’s neighbour, Richard II, Duke of Normandy, and his wife, Judith of Brittany. Eleanor’s brother was Robert I, Duke of Normandy, the father of William the Conqueror, who became Duke of Normandy and King of England. Eleanor’s daughter and only child Judith, therefore, was a first cousin of William the Conqueror, the future King of England, as well as aunt of his wife, Matilda.

When her father died in 1035, Judith’s older brother, who was about twenty years her senior, succeeded as Count Baldwin V; it would be he who decided on Judith’s future when the time came for her to marry. We know nothing of Judith’s childhood or level of education. As the daughter of a count, expected to make a good marriage into another ruling or noble family, she would have been taught how to run a large household, dancing, embroidery and possibly some languages, such as Latin. It is unlikely, however, that she was taught to read and write, skills usually reserved for members of the Church. It is possible she was raised alongside her niece, Matilda, who was of a similar age to Judith.

Cover of one of the four gospels commissioned by Judith of Flanders

In the late summer or autumn of 1051, Judith was married to Tostig, a son of the powerful Earl Godwin of Wessex and his wife, Gytha. And when the family fell foul of King Edward the Confessor, Judith accompanied them into exile; back to her homeland of Flanders. Tostig was probably the third eldest son of Godwin and Gytha of Wessex, one of his older brothers being the future King Harold II of England. He would have been in his early twenties at the time of his marriage and the family’s subsequent exile; Judith was no more than six years younger than him, which would suggest she was at least fifteen years old at the time of her marriage.

Judith would have returned to her new homeland of England when Tostig and his family forced their return from exile in 1052. After some vigorous negotiations in London, an uneasy peace was restored between Earl Godwin and the king. Judith and Tostig would have finally been able to settle down to married life, following months of uncertainty and upheaval. Although it is impossible to say for certain, they were probably given one of Godwin’s many comital estates, somewhere in Wessex, in which to set up their household. Their marriage appears to have been a successful one, with no rumours of infidelity recorded by the various chroniclers of the time. They are thought to have had two sons together, Skuli Tostisson Kongsfostre and Ketil Tostisson, born in 1052 and 1054, respectively.

Tostig was created earl of Northumbria in 1055 and spent the next few years sparring with Malcolm III, King of Scots. However, with peace restored Tostig left on pilgrimage to Rome in 1061, taking Judith with him. They were accompanied by several English bishops, including Ealdred, bishop of Worcester, who had just been made archbishop of York by King Edward, and was travelling to Rome to receive his pallium.

Their party reached Rome in the spring of 1061, where they were received honourably by Pope Nicholas; Tostig given the honour of attending a synod, possibly that held on 15 April at Easter 1061, at which Tostig is said to have sat next to the pope. Shortly after departing Rome for their homeward journey, Tostig’s party were caught up in a local dispute between the papacy and the Tuscan nobility; they were ambushed while travelling along the Via Cassia, by the Count of Galeria. Tostig was able to escape by the ruse of one of his own thegns pretending to be the earl. Judith and a large portion of the party had gone on ahead and were unaware for some time of what had befallen Tostig. She must have been relieved to hear of the failure of the attack when Tostig eventually caught up with her.

Memorial to the Battle of Stamford Bridge, York

Judith appears to have been a very pious individual, although some stories have come down to us of disagreements between the Earl and his countess, and the Church. One story from Symeon of Durham tells of Judith’s attempts to circumvent the rules of the community of St Cuthbert. Despite there being a specific injunction forbidding women to enter the precincts of the church in which lay the shrine of St Cuthbert, Judith was determined to get around this. She sent one of her own maidservants to attempt entry, but the poor girl fell ill as soon as she crossed the boundary and died shortly afterwards, clearly demonstrating the power of St Cuthbert’s will. We can assume that Judith gave up trying to enter the shrine after that! Judith sent gifts to the cathedral – including a crucifix, church ornaments and images of the Virgin Mary and St John the Evangelist, decorated in gold and silver – to make amends for her disastrous attempt to break the rules.

Despite this, the relationship between the couple and the Church at Durham was generally cordial and mutually appreciated. The earl and countess were notable for almsgiving in Northumbria, and for their generosity towards the community of St Cuthbert. In return Æthelwine, Bishop of Durham, was generous enough to give Judith a relic containing some of St Oswine’s hair. As a consequence, Tostig and Judith are both commemorated in the Durham Liber Vitae.

In 1065, rebellion in Northumbria, and the lack of support from his fellow nobles – including his brother Harold – saw Tostig and his family banished from England; he and Judith, their children and their entire household, crossed the English Channel on 1 November 1065. They made their way to Flanders, to seek refuge with Judith’s brother, Count Baldwin, where they were warmly welcomed just a few days before Christmas.

Memorial Plaque, Stamford Bridge, York

However, everything changed in January 1066, with the death of Edward the Confessor and the accession of Tostig’s brother, Harold, to the English throne. Not one to miss an opportunity, Tostig started raiding English shores, before invading from Scotland with his ally Harald Hardrada, King of Norway. They defeated the Northumbrians at the Battle of Fulford, near York, before facing Tostig’s brother, King Harold II, across the battlefield of Stamford Bridge a few days later. King Harold proved victorious and Tostig and his ally, Harald Hardrada, were both killed in the fighting.

Judith’s whereabouts during Tostig’s invasion are not mentioned. It is possible that she stayed safe in Flanders with her family and two young sons, the oldest of whom was about fourteen by 1066. However, she may have travelled with her husband; there is a suggestion that at least one of her sons fought at Stamford Bridge and travelled to Norway with the survivors. Following Tostig’s defeat at Stamford Bridge, and Harold’s subsequent death at the Battle of Hastings, Judith’s two sons by Tostig eventually sought refuge with King Olaf ‘the Peaceable’ of Norway, Harald Hardrada’s son who had been allowed to return home following his father’s defeat and death at Stamford Bridge. Little is known of their movements after that, other than that the oldest, Skuli Tostisson Kongsfostre, must have married and had children as he was the ancestor of King Inge II of Norway.

Wedding of Judith of Flanders and Welf IV, Duke of Bavaria

For a time, Judith remained in Flanders from where her older, half-brother, Count Baldwin V, arranged a second marriage for her in about 1070, to Welf IV, the newly created Duke of Bavaria. The couple were to have two sons and a daughter; Welf, who succeeded his father as Duke of Bavaria and died in 1119, Henry and Kunizza, who married Count Frederick of Diessen and died in 1120. Henry succeeded his brother as Duke of Bavaria and died in 1126; he had at least seven children by his wife, Wulfhilde of Saxony.

A patron of the arts, Judith is renowned for the commissioning of four gospel books, luxurious creations produced in England, probably at Winchester. When Judith left England, she took these gospels, with other manuscripts and relics in her private collection, with her to Flanders. After she remarried, they accompanied her to southern Germany.

On 12 March 1094, with the approval of her husband and sons, Judith drew up a list of bequests. She bequeathed the four gospels and other treasures, to the monastery at Weingarten, a foundation of her husband’s family, thus helping to disseminate Anglo-Saxon art throughout southern Europe. Among the bequests was also a relic of Christ’s blood, given to her by her father. She died a year later, on 5 March 1095, and was buried at the Abbey of Weingarten. Judith is remembered at Weingarten as a widowed queen of England, perhaps a testimony to how close her first husband got to the English throne.

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This article, Judith of Flanders, Countess of Northumberland, first appeared on Mary Anne Yarde’s wonderful blog Myths, Legends, Book and Coffee Pots.

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Pictures:

Courtesy of Wikipedia, except Stamford Bridge memorials ©2018 Sharon Bennett Connolly and Judith’s gospel courtesy of the British Library.

Sources:

The English and the Norman Conquest by Dr Ann Williams; Brewer’s British Royalty by David Williamson; Britain’s Royal Families, the Complete Genealogy by Alison Weir; The Wordsworth Dictionary of British History by JP Kenyon; The Norman Conquestby Marc Morris; Harold, the King Who Fell at Hastings by Peter Rex; The Anglo-Saxons in 100 Facts by Martin Wall; The Anglo-Saxon Age by Martin Wall; Kings, Queens, Bones and Bastards by David Hilliam; The Mammoth Book of British kings & Queens by Mike Ashley; The Oxford Companion to British History Edited by John Cannon; The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles translated and edited by Michael Swaton; The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle translated by James Ingram; Queen Emma and the Vikings by Harriett O’Brien; The Bayeux Tapestry by Carola Hicks; On the Spindle Side: the Kinswomen of Earl Godwin of Wessex by Ann Williams; oxforddnb.com.

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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

Joan Beaufort: a Medieval Matriarch

Joan Beaufort, Countess of Westmorland, Raby Castle

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

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

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

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

John of Gaunt, Joan’s father

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

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

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

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

Go, smal book to the noble excellence

Of my lady of Westmerland and seye,

Her humble seruant with al reuerence

Him recommandith vn-to hir nobleye.

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

Raby Castle, Count Durham

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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My Books

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

Guest Post: Song of the Centurion by Steven A. McKay

One of my favourite books of 2018 was The Druid by Steven A. McKay. Having completed his Robin Hood series, Steven had turned his hand to the Dark Ages with a new story set in the time of King Arthur and Merlin, but with characters of his own creation. Bellicus, the eponymous druid, journeyed the length of Britain to rescue a young princess from the clutches of her kidnappers, and return her to her desperate parents. This month, Steven is back with a much-anticipated second instalment in Bellicus’ story

Here’s an excerpt to whet your appetite:

Northern Britain, Autumn, AD 430

“Get down! Their slingers are attacking!”

There was a horrific rattling as dozens of stones battered against the walls and the defending Damnonii soldiers crouched low to avoid being struck. A slinger’s missile could do severe damage if it hit someone in the right place, as a few of the men had discovered to their cost during the previous days.

“Now!” Gavo roared as the attack ended without injuring any of the defenders. “Give them some back!”

Instantly, his men stood up and launched a volley of their own fist-sized rocks down onto the enemy below. The captain grinned as cries of anger and pain filtered up to him. It was much easier to hit people when they were beneath you, especially when they didn’t have walls to hide behind.

Not all the enemy slingers were crouching under their shields though, and a sharp-edged, flat rock careered past Gavo, hammering into the neck of a young soldier at his side. The warrior reeled back, a terrible gurgling sound coming from his ruined, bloody throat as he dropped onto the wooden platform they were standing on and Gavo knew the lad would be dead within moments.

Thank the gods though, the enemy were taking casualties of their own beneath the hail of Damnonii missiles, and the besieging army pulled back now, out of range, heralding another in a long line of stand-offs.

“That’s it,” Gavo shouted in fury. “Run, you bastards!”

Dun Breatann, ancient capital of Alt Clota, was under siege, and had been for almost a week, the Picts from the far north led by King Drest having finally grown tired of the attacks on their raiding parties by King Coroticus’s soldiers.

For generations, livestock theft from neighbouring tribes was an accepted part of life – part of a young warrior’s coming-of-age. Unwritten rules made it clear that any captured during such an action could be beaten, but then sent on their way home, to try again another day.

Now, though, Coroticus, outraged by his daughter Catia’s recent abduction, was slaughtering every such raider he could find in his lands and displaying their severed heads as ghoulish trophies – warnings – on the towering rock of Dun Breatann. It wasn’t just Pictish thieves suffering such violence either – Dalriadans, Selgovae and Votadini tribesmen had all been killed by the Damnonii king’s forces. In response, Drest had formed an alliance with the other kings and led them here for vengeance.

To Queen Narina it was a ludicrous situation to be in – a war started over the execution of a few cattle thieves. Yet her husband had broken with tradition, despite her protestations, and now Alt Clota was paying the price. Standing high on the eastern peak of the fortress, she looked away from the guard captain, Gavo, commanding the defending warriors on the walls, and turned her attention to the tents, cooking-fires and massed, undisciplined, ranks of the enemy camping at the foot of her home.

Standing two hundred and forty feet high, and surrounded on three sides by the river Clota, Dun Breatann had never been taken by a besieging army. The queen shook her head sadly and turned to her maidservant, Enica, whose downcast expression mirrored her own.

“They’re wasting their time,” Enica muttered, shifting her gaze back to the tiny figures on the ground so far below them. “King Drest must have known that when he embarked on this foolish course.”

Narina didn’t answer for a while. She could see Drest’s tent, grander and more colourful than the others surrounding it, and she wondered what was going through his mind at that moment.

“I don’t think their siege is so foolish,” the queen finally said. “Coroticus pushed them all too far and they’re within their rights to strike back. Besides, they might say they’re here to avenge their dead warriors, but there’s more to it than that. Drest, and Loarn in particular, would like to make our lands their own. This is merely their first move towards that end.”

“They’ll never take this place though, my lady,” Enica said and her voice was full of conviction. “We have fresh water from the spring that comes up between the two peaks and enough men to rebuff any attempts to scale the gatehouses. Food is plentiful too, since your husband stockpiled it when he heard of the approaching army.”

Enica was correct in her assessment and Narina wondered if the woman surreptitiously listened at Coroticus’s door when he met with his advisors. It wouldn’t surprise her. Enica was a canny servant, which was why Narina liked her.

“They’ll need to leave soon enough,” the maid went on as if she’d spent many hours thinking this over.

“Their men will be needed at home to bring in the harvests and so on, yes, I know that,” Narina nodded. “But what of our people whose homes Drest’s soldiers destroyed? The people he killed on his way here, and those he’ll no doubt kill on his way back north again?”

“At least he didn’t destroy our crops,” Enica said and Narina peered at her thoughtfully. There was no way the servant could have known that unless she had truly spent a long time listening to Coroticus’s private councils or…Narina took in the woman’s unlined, pretty face, full lips, and firm, shapely figure and resolved to find out if Enica had taken a lover amongst the king’s advisors. That kind of information could come in very handy.

“No, he hasn’t destroyed our crops,” said the queen with a wave of her hand. “Yet. Probably because he hoped they would belong to him once he defeated us.” The queen turned away from the depressing sight on the ground far below and walked slowly back towards the royal chambers. They were located within the building in the very centre of the rock, flanked by birch trees and the rising twin peaks, one of which was gently rounded while the other, the higher one, was narrow and so steep that it was a challenge for many people to climb. Indeed, it was so narrow no proper buildings could be erected upon it and, other than a single sentry watching the Clota for invading ships, only a giant raven could be seen there most days, its strange cry—almost like the bark of some weird dog—heard pealing out across the ancient rock.

The thought of that majestic bird, black with a white tuft on its neck, brought Bellicus to mind. The druid had somehow trained the raven to speak—it could say ‘hello’ and cough like a person thanks to Bel’s tutelage—and she felt an ache in her heart just as she always did when the druid came to mind. Was he dead?

Was her beautiful, sweet daughter?

A feeling of anxiety swept through her and she almost stumbled like one of the many people who grew dizzy when looking down from the lofty summit of Dun Breatann. What if Bel returned today, with Catia? They would walk straight into Drest’s besieging army and be torn to pieces!

Enica noticed her lady’s discomfort and placed a steadying hand on her upper arm as Narina pulled herself together. Bellicus was no fool, and besides, he knew Drest well; there would be no danger there.

If only the giant warrior-druid would return. It had been such a long time since he left to hunt the princess’s kidnappers, with no word coming to them from any who had seen him on the road, and it was hard not to give up hope.

Or go mad, rather like Coroticus seemed to have done in starting this insane war that no-one could ever truly win.

Song of the Centurion comes out as an ebook on Thursday 12 September 2019 and is available from Amazon UK.

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About the author:

Steven McKay was born in 1977 near Glasgow in Scotland. He live in Old Kilpatrick with his wife and two young children. After obtaining his Bachelor of Arts degree with the Open University he decided to follow his life-long ambition and write a historical novel.

He plays guitar and sings in a heavy metal band when they can find the time to meet up.

You can check out his website here. Steven also has an Amazon Author page and can be found on Twitter and Facebook

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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 and Steven A. McKay

Book Corner: the Irish Princess by Elizabeth Chadwick

Her father’s only daughter.
Her country’s only hope.
Ireland, 1152

The King of Leinster, awaiting news of his newborn child, is disappointed to hear he has a daughter. Diarmait MacMurchada wanted another strapping son to shoulder a spear, wield a sword, and protect his kingdom. But the moment Diarmait holds tiny Aoife in his arms, he realised she would be his most precious treasure.

1166

Forced into exile Aoife and her family find themselves at the mercy of Henry II. Aoife – aware of her beauty but not its power – intrigues and beguiles Henry in equal measure. He agrees to help her father, an alliance that leads the MacMurchadas to the charistmatic Richard de Clare, a man dissatisfied with his lot and open to new horizons.

Diarmit promises Richard Aoife’s hand in marriage in return for his aid in Ireland, but Aoife has her own thoughts on the matter. She may be a prize, but she is not a pawn, and she will play the men at their own game. For herself, for her family, and for her country.

From the royal halls of scheming kings, to staunch Welsh border fortresses and the wild green kingdoms of Ireland, The Irish Princess is a sumptuous, journey of ambition and desire, love and loss, heartbreak and survival.

Elizabeth Chadwick’s The Irish Princess is one of the most anticipated historical fiction novels of the year. I was lucky enough to receive and advance copy from NetGalley – and it more than lives up to expectation. Telling the story of the marriage of Richard de Clare (Strongbow) and his Irish princess, Aoife MacMurchada, against the backdrop of the Norman invasion of Ireland it seamlessly weaves together the various strands to make an engaging and utterly engrossing story.

Aoife is a proud and precocious princess who has grown up amid the brutality of the power struggles of the Irish clans. She has seen brothers maimed and murdered, the heads of her father’s enemies decorating her home and had to flee into exile, all before she had left what should have been the innocence of childhood. Her marriage to Richard de Clare, Earl of Striguil, is a political necessity in the strategies of her father, to recover his lost kingdom of Leinster.

Richard de Clare, on the other hand, is a man on the outside; not trusted or employed by King Henry II, he sees helping Aoife’s father as an opportunity to gain a wife and heirs, lands and influence. He still has to play the courtier, however, and has to walk a fine line with Henry, deferring to the king whilst protecting his own interests – not an easy path to walk.

The entrance to the castle was above ground level with steps leading to a doorway decorated with a patterned arch of zig-zags and painted chevrons. A man stepped from the darkness of the arch and came down the steps to greet them. Tall and well proportioned, he moved with confident grace. His tunic was grey, topped by a cloak of a darker, charcoal hue, lined with squirrel fur, creating a strong but subtle contrast. His hair was the same rich auburn as the squirrel pelts.

Welcome to Striguil, sire.’ He bowed his head in courtesy and extended his hand to clasp her father’s. ‘I trust you have journeyed well?’ his voice was light, but the words were clearly spoken and his smile showed a flash of white teeth. he sent a brief glance in her direction, as he encompassed everyone in his greeting.

‘Well enough, my lord,’ her father answered in accented French. ‘But glad to arrive. You have a fine castle.’ His gaze roved the walls.

‘It serves its purpose well,’ de Clare replied, still smiling. ‘Will you come within?’

Diarmait presented Aoife’s mother and her brothers to de Clare, and then spread his arm in a flourish. ‘And this is my daughter Aoife.’

Aoife swallowed and held her ground as she had held it before King Henry. De Clare’s eyes were clear with a glassy mingling of sea-colours, utterly striking against the dark contrast of his pupils. His stare was as intense as Henry’s had been but assessing her rather than predatory.

‘My lady, you are indeed welcome,’ he said, speaking slowly and clearly to help her understand him. ‘Word of your great beauty has carried, and it is not exaggerated.’

Elizabeth Chadwick wonderfully combines the history of the conflict with the private lives and experiences of her leading characters. The personal stories are what make this book truly a incredible read. I wasn’t keen on Aoife at first, but she grows on you as she grows up and is a courageous heroine, who has to use all her attributes as a woman in order to survive and prosper. No shrinking violet and no meek, biddable child, she is well versed in the politics of Ireland and England, but knows her place as a woman of the times; advising and steering policy in private and charming the English king to gain his protection.

From Aoife herself, to her sister-in-law Basilia, from Richard de Clare to King Henry, it is the characters in The Irish Princess that serve as the backbone of the novel. They drive the direction of the story and the empathy and engagement of the reader, even more so than the action and intrigue of the times.

Elizabeth Chadwick, as always, has done extensive research and the historical story comes across in each page, even as she weaves in the recreated words and emotions of the characters, adding a sense of having a fly-on-the-wall view of events as they happened. The sweeping landscapes of Ireland, the bloody battlefields, the warmth and comfort of the lord’s hall and the intimacy of the lady’s private quarters are beautifully recreated and woven into the story to draw the reader into the world of Ireland at the time of the Norman invasion.

And to top it all, a cameo appearance by … (not saying, I don’t want to spoil the surprise!)

Fans of Elizabeth Chadwick – old and new – will not be disappointed by this wonderful novel. The author has lived up to every expectation in this wonderful novel. The story and characters are beautifully crafted to bring the reader an epic tale of love, war betrayal … and family.

The Irish Princess by Elizabeth Chadwick will be released on 12 September 2019 and is available from Amazon UK.

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About the Author:

Myself and Elizabeth Chadwick at the Newark Book Festival, 2018

New York Times bestselling author Elizabeth Chadwick lives in a cottage in the Vale of Belvoir in Nottinghamshire with her husband and their 3 dogs. Her first novel, The Wild Hunt, won a Betty Trask Award and To Defy a King won the RNA’s 2011 Historical Novel Prize. She was also shortlisted for the Romantic Novelists’ Award in 1998 for The Champion, in 2001 for Lords of the White Castle, in 2002 for The Winter Mantle and in 2003 for The Falcons of Montabard. Her sixteenth novel, The Scarlet Lion, was nominated by Richard Lee, founder of the Historical Novel Society, as one of the top ten historical novels of the last decade. She often lectures at conferences and historical venues, has been consulted for television documentaries and is a member of the Royal Historical Society.

For more details on Elizabeth Chadwick and her books, visit http://www.elizabethchadwick.com, follow her on Twitter, read her blogs or chat to her on Facebook.

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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

Robert de Breteuil, the Crusader Earl

Arms of Robert de Breteuil, 4th Earl of Leicester

Robert de Breteuil, also known as Robert de Beaumont, was a remarkable individual whose adventures in the Holy Land would make a wonderful novel. A renowned warrior and a powerful magnate, he was a companion to the Plantagenet princes, both Richard the Lionheart and King John. Robert was the son-in-law of Matilda de Braose, whose horrific persecution by King John led to her death by starvation in one of John’s dungeons – and the inclusion of clause 39 in Magna Carta:

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

Magna Carta, magnacartaresearch.og

Robert was the second son of Robert de Breteuil, 3rd earl of Leicester, and his wife, Petronilla de Grandmesnil and the great-grandson of Robert de Beaumont, Count of Meulan and 1st Earl of Leicester, and his wife, Elizabeth de Vermandois. Robert was probably born in the early-1160s and was closely associated with his elder brother William. As they grew up and entered public life they were linked with the household of their cousin, Robert, Count of Meulan, and they regularly appeared on their father’s charters together. Their younger brother, Roger, was bishop of St Andrews. William died in 1189, sometime after the accession of King Richard I. A later legend suggests he suffered from leprosy, though there is no contemporary evidence to corroborate this. William’s death meant Robert therefore became heir to their father’s earldom of Leicester.

Both Robert and his father were at the royal court at Verneiul on 2 January 1190 and joined the Third Crusade of Richard the Loinheart. Robert’s father took an overland route to the Holy Land, while it appears that Robert travelled with the king. Robert was with the king at Messina, Sicily, when news reached him of his father’s death. The 3rd earl had died on 31 August or 1 September 1190 and so Robert was invested as earl by the king on 2 February 1191, in Sicily.

During his time in the Holy Land, Robert was one of the leaders of the assault on Acre on 11 July 1191 and fought in the battle of Arsuf on 7 September. In November he rescued some ambushed Templars at Ibn-Ibrak and then was himself surrounded, with his knights, by a party of Turks outside the camp at Ramlah. Robert was rescued by his cousin Robert de Neubourg; in the process he nearly drowned in a river and had two horses killed under him.

Seal of Robert de Breteuil

Robert and his men were prominent among the forces who stormed Deir al-Bela on 22 May 1192 and on 5 August 1192 he was one of the ten knights who helped to thwart an attempt to kidnap the king from his tent at Jaffa and the king himself rescued Robert when he was thrown from his horse. He probably set out for home in September or October 1192, having distinguished himself and earned the king’s eternal goodwill.1

Following his return from the crusade, Robert was occupied with the defence of Normandy, but was captured by King Philip Augustus’ forces in June 1194, after a skirmish outside Gourany. He was imprisoned at Étampes for more than a year and only freed after surrendering his castle and lordship of Pacy-sur-Eure to King Philip. His freedom was achieved sometime around February 1196 and in the same year he was married to the teenage Loretta de Braose. Loretta de Braose, was probably born in the early-to-mid-1180s,. She was one of the sixteen children of Matilda and William de Braose. Four of her sisters married prominent Welsh Marcher lords, but Loretta was married to Robert de Breteuil, 4th earl of Leicester.

The marriage was an alliance of two of the leading Anglo-Norman families of the Plantagenet world. He was a powerful earl who had made a name for himself on the crusades, whilst she was a daughter of one of the most powerful barons of the Welsh March. As her marriage portion, Loretta was given Tawstock, near Barnstaple in Devon.

Robert de Breteuil was back campaigning in 1197 and 1198 and was with King Richard when he was mortally wounded at Châlus in April 1199. He had had a long association with Richard’s brother since John had been Count of Mortain, and so was a firm supporter of John’s succession, acting as steward at his coronation on 27 May 1199, claiming the office his grandfather had relinquished in 1153. Robert was highly influential in the early years of John’s reign. He also fought for John in Normandy, being one of the major landholders in the duchy, and was rewarded generously for his support; he was granted Richmondshire in Yorkshire in September 1203. The following year he suffered the loss of his Continental estates when Normandy fell and was the biggest loser of the Anglo-Norman barons.

Although he was one of the two barons (the other being William Marshal) who was given a year to decide whether to pay homage to King Philip of France to try to retain his Norman estates, Robert was not punished by John. Indeed, he was given more lands in England, English lands that had belonged to families who had chosen to remain in Normandy, such as the Harcourts. Robert died before King Philip’s deadline, and so never did have to decide where and how to share his allegiances in order to keep all his lands.

The ruins of Leicester Abbey, where Robert de Breteuil is buried

Robert died on 20 or 21 October 1204; the life of St Hugh of Lincoln reported that he died a leper, although this seems highly unlikely.1 He was buried in the choir of the Augustinian Abbey in Leicester. Robert and Loretta had remained childless, so Robert’s lands were divided between his two sisters. The earldom and the town of Leicester went to his eldest sister, Amice, the wife of Simon de Montfort and therefore grandmother of the Simon de Montfort who would marry King John’s daughter, Eleanor, and claim the earldom of Leicester for himself. Half of the old earldom, centred around Brackley in Northamptonshire, went to Robert’s younger sister, Margaret, wife of Saher de Quincy, Earl of Winchester.

It is a sad legacy that Robert’s death before John began the persecution of Loretta’s family meant that she was without her husband’s powerful protection when she needed it most. King John’s pursuit of the family did not end with the deaths of Matilda, who died in custody in 1210, and William de Braose, Lord of Bramber, who died in exile in France in 1211. In November 1207 John extracted a promise from Loretta that she would not remarry without the king’s permission and her lands were taken from her. She probably left for France shortly afterwards and only returned to England in 1214.

Once in England, Loretta was allowed to recover her confiscated estates after again to only marry as the king directed. The restoration of Loretta’s estates were complicated by the king’s desire to keep happy those who had benefited from tehir confiscation, such as the powerful Saher de Quincy, earl of Winchester. Loretta’s experiences in this respect may well have inspired clauses 7 and 8 of Magna Carta, which guaranteed that widows should have their marriage portions without hindrance and that they could remarry at their own pleasure, so long as it was with the king’s consent.

Arms of William de Braose, Loretta’s father

Loretta took her future into her own hands, however, and in early 1221, took a vow of chastity and became an anchorite in Hackington, near Canterbury. An anchorite was a religious recluse who lived in a small cell within a church, allowed on the briefest of contact with others, although she was allowed attendants to help with her daily needs. Loretta’s influence was still in evidence, however, in that she obtained a pardon for a man who had accidentally killed another and helped to establish the Franciscan order in England. She died on 4 March, probably in 1266, and was buried at the church of St Stephen, Hackington.

It is a fact of life that whilst researching one particular person, you come across several others who spark your interest. I stumbled upon the stories of Robert de Breteuil and Loretta de Braose while researching for my new book, Ladies of Magna Carta, which will be out in Spring 2020.

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Footnote: ¹Oxforddnb.com

Sources: sussexcastles.com; genie.com; steyningmuseum.org.uk; berkshirehistory.com; England Under the Norman and Angevin Kings 1075-1225 by Robert Bartlett; Oxford Companion to British History Edited by John Cannon; The Story of Britain by Roy Strong; The Plantagenets, the Kings who Made England by Dan Jones; The Life and Times of King John by Maurice Ashley; The Plantagenet Chronicles Edited by Elizabeth Hallam; Oxforddnb.com; magnacartareseearch.org; Magna Carta by David Starkey; King John by Marc Morris; King John, England, Magna Carta and the Making of a Tyrant by Stephen Church; 1215, the Year of Magna Carta by Danny Danziger and John Gillingham; Women in Thirteenth Century Lincolnshire by Louise J. Wilkinson.

Pictures courtesy of Wikipedia

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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

Guest Post: The Battle of Tippermuir by Mark Turnbull

Today marks the 375th anniversary of the Battle of Tippermuir and it is a pleasure to welcome author Mark Turnbull to History…the Interesting Bits with an article of the English Civil War battle. Over to Mark….

British Civil War cavalry (The English Civil War Society) 
Montrose only had three horses at the Battle of Tippermuir

Three hundred and seventy-five years ago a son of Scotland secured his first victory in the name of King Charles I. The Battle of Tippermuir produced the famous ‘highland charge’ as well as the legend of the Earl of Montrose, but a matter of days prior, it seemed like none of this could be borne from a few seeds of resistance.

When three Scotsmen crossed the border in August 1644, they did not look back. Carlisle Castle was barely visible; nothing more than a red-stoned pimple on the top of a hill in the distance. William Rollo was a horseman par-excellence, honed through being entirely lame. Colonel William Sibbald rode alongside Rollo, both ignoring the groom trailing behind and leading a spare horse.

The trio left an England riven apart by civil war. King Charles I and his Parliament had been battling it out for two years, but eight months ago, Scotland had stepped from the side-lines and thrown their bonnets into the ring with Parliament. Scotland’s army of covenanters had marched into England and just won a stunning victory outside of York. Sibbald and Rollo intended to assist the King by beginning a guerrilla war in their homeland to draw back the covenanter army.

British Civil War Pikemen. Montrose’s men were poorly armed and he suggested they take stones from the earth and bash the enemies’ brains out.

Sewn into the saddle of the riderless horse was King Charles’s commission and his royal standard; two instruments essential to the plan. The man entrusted with securing the nation and restoring their Scottish-born King’s authority, was none other than the pretended groom himself; James Graham, Earl of Montrose. One fact remained in keeping with his disguise – Montrose only had one measly horse to lead and just Sibbald and Rollo to assist him. However, Montrose was banking on the Earl of Antrim’s promise to assemble an army of twelve thousand Irishmen to serve the King. But this readymade army was delivered with missing components – it turned out to number only sixteen-hundred. Led by Alasdair MacColla, they landed on the west coast and headed east to Aberdeen, but finding no royalist support there, turned south, meeting Montrose, Sibbald and Rollo in Blair Athol.

The English Civil War Society. Montrose unfurled the King’s Royal Standard in August 1644 which saw many clans join him.

On 28 August 1644 Montrose unfurled the King’s standard. In answer, the Scottish Parliament conscripted local Stewarts, Robertsons and Grahams to put the insurgents down. Having discarded his groom’s garb, Montrose emerged from his chrysalis, donned highland dress and broadsword, and encouraged his men to insert strands of oats into their bonnets as a means of signifying their allegiance. Much success was harvested when the clans sent against Montrose actually joined him and boosted his numbers to two thousand. Yet his troops remained untrained, armed only with dirks and swords and with just three horses between them.

Montrose was well aware that their impetus could be scattered by even so much as a biting highland wind. He had to strike now, before his men melted away, and as such, he marched them to Perth, gathering a few hundred more recruits on the way. On 1 September 1644 at Tippermuir, Montrose met a covenanter army hastily sent by the Scottish Parliament under the command of Lord Elcho.

The two sides were relatively equal in numbers, but the covenanters possessed cavalry. Montrose placed McColla and his Irishmen in the centre, and promptly took his own position on the right wing, opposite the only experienced officer in the enemy army. Each of his men had ammunition for only a single gunshot, therefore it was imperative that every last one found their marks. Devastating it was then, when the covenanters sent skirmishers forward with the cry ‘Jesus and no quarter,’ to draw and expend royalist firepower. Nevertheless, the covenanter skirmishers were sent packing and pushed back to their own front lines. Montrose had thinned the troops on his army’s left and right to three-deep, and as a result these longer lines prevented any attempts to outflank him.

Montrose crossed into Scotland in August 1644 disguised as a groom, with only two other men. At one point it’s said that a man bid the groom, “Good Morning, my lord.”

To his troops, Montrose was characteristically honest, suggesting a novel way to counter their shortage of arms and ammunition; pick stones out of the ground, bash the enemy’s brains out and then seize theirs. Without his charisma, these words would have rung hollow, but his men heeded them like the gospels and he led them against the enemy cavalry throwing missiles, roaring and rampaging down the slope. This tirade of aggression and fervour sent the enemy horsemen fleeing from the field. Not used to such unbridled determination, the covenanters clattered through their own infantry and a rot began which ate through their entire resolve.

The furious highland charge proved its efficiency long before the days of Culloden, still one hundred years off. Tippermuir was Montrose’s first battle of many. The start of an immense cat and mouse chase with superior covenanter forces that would make him, in the words of The Montrose Society, one of Scotland’s most noble and militarily gifted leaders. Against all odds, this lifelong admirer of Alexander the Great would come tantalisingly close to securing the whole of Scotland for the King.

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More about Mark: I became hooked on the English Civil War at the age of 10. We’d visited Helmsley Castle and my parents bought me a pack of ‘top trump’ cards featuring the monarchs of England. The minute I saw Van Dyck’s portrait of King Charles I at the hunt, I wanted to know more. The painting, costumes and the King’s image were fascinating and then turning over, I read how he was executed. I’d started trying to write stories at a young age (earliest was my own plot for a children’s television show called Thomas the Tank Engine!) so as my interest grew in the English Civil War, my interest in writing automatically seemed to go hand in hand. 

The first civil war book I bought was Christopher Hibbert’s ‘Cavaliers and Roundheads’ and I decided that I also wanted to keep the history and its characters alive in writing, so eventually I began creating my own historical novel. I’ve made sure I have kept true to historical events and characters and ‘Allegiance of Blood’ is due out later this year. 

It opens at Edgehill and follows a fictional character, Sir Francis Berkeley, whose life and family are turned upside down by the twists and turns of this momentous period. The story also features many historical characters along the way, allowing the reader a fly-on-the-wall view of the deadly allegiances that threaten Francis.

I’m also writing articles at the moment about various civil war battles, seeing as there are many 375th anniversaries coming up. 

I have re-enacted before and would love to again, but at the minute writing takes up my spare time.
To buy Mark’s books: www.allegianceofblood.com
Join Mark on his Facebook page: ttps://m.facebook.com/markturnbullauthor

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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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©2019 Sharon Bennett Connolly and Mark Turnbull