Julian of Norwich: ‘All Shall Be Well’

Statue of Julian of Norwich, Norwich Cathedral by sculptor David Holgate.

The medieval religious life provided a refuge for widows and elderly women in search of calm and peace at the end of their lives. It was an alternative to marriage, and childbearing, for women and girls from diverse backgrounds. Moreover, the cloistered life was not the only path for a woman who wanted to devote her life to God. One such devotee was Saint Julian of Norwich, an anchorite and mystic who lived in a cell at the parish church of St Julian at Conisford in Norwich.

Julian’s life was remarkable in its simplicity, devotion and spirituality, and because of her writing. Having survived 600 years, her book, Revelations of Divine Love, is the earliest surviving of its kind – a book written in English, by a woman. She is renowned for her words

‘all shall be well, all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well,’

Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love

These simple words still offer hope and encourage positivity today, especially in the atmosphere in which we are all currently living.

Julian’s true identity and origins remain obscured. It is possible that Julian took her name from the church in which she lived, St Julian’s, however, it may have been hers from birth. Although Julian was not a common name for a woman at the time, it was not unknown. It may even be a derivative of Juliana, a more familiar woman’s name. However, there was a contemporary of the same name, Julian of Erpingham, who was from one of the foremost noble families of Norwich in the 14th century.

Julian of Erpingham has been suggested by Father John Julian as a possible candidate for the identity of Julian of Norwich. She was the sister of Sir Thomas of Erpingham, who had been a friend of Edward III and later fought at Agincourt in 1415. Julian of Erpingham was married twice; her first husband died in 1373, and her second was dead by 1393. She had at least three children, with a daughter already married and the youngest possibly fostered out by the time Julian entered the Church. If Julian of Erpingham and Julian of Norwich are one and the same person – and this is far from certain – the legacies from her two husbands would have helped to pay for Julian’s upkeep once she had dedicated herself to God.

‘Revelations of Divine Love’ title page

It is also possible that Julian had been a nun at the Benedictine priory of Carrow, which was close by and had an affinity with St Julian’s Church. She was probably from a well-to-do, if not noble, family as she seems to have had some level of education; given that she could, at least, read before she became an anchorite. However, we simply do not know enough about Julian’s early life to positively identify her origins. Although Revelations of Divine Love is considered autobiographical, it concentrates on her spiritual journey, as opposed to her physical life. We can glean some insight, if not a great deal, from the information she gives at various points in her text. For example, we know that Julian was born in the second half of the year 1342, as she mentions in her writing that she received her visions in May 1373, when she was aged thirty-and-a-half.

In that month Julian suffered an illness so serious that her life was despaired of. Whether it was the Black Death, prevalent in England since its first major outbreak in 1348–9, or some other disease, as her illness progressed she was paralysed to the extent that she could barely even move her eyelids. She was given the last rites and she wrote of how the priest

‘…set the cross before my face and said, “I have brought you the image of your maker and saviour. Look at it and take comfort from it.”’

Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love

Julian wrote in Revelations of Divine Love that she had wanted to have a life-threatening illness, which would bring her close to death, but from which she would be saved. Maybe she believed it would bring her closer to God? Whatever the reason, her illness brought on a series of visions in which she encountered Jesus Christ and his mother the Virgin Mary. The sixteen visions were to form the basis for the direction of her spiritual life and for her book, charting her struggle to understand the divine. Julian wrote two versions of Revelations of Divine Love; the Short Text is believed to have been written soon after experiencing her visions, though it took several years to complete. The Long Text – which is six times as long – is more contemplative and appears to have been a constant work-in progress in her later years.

The beginning of the 15th century Short Text of Revelations of Divine Love

Although her near-death experience directed her later life, it was only many years after her illness that Julian entered her cell as an anchorite. The exact date is uncertain, but it is believed to have been in the 1390s that her enclosure may have come, possibly after the death of her husband or family members. The life of an anchorite was a strange, solitary existence in which the person was physically cut off from the world, while still being a part of it. It was a life that could be followed by a man or woman, but was one which could not be lightly taken on by the anchorite themselves, or by the Church at large.

Not all were suited to the life and a person wanting to profess themselves as an anchorite had to go through a rigorous process to assess that suitability. This even included an interview with the bishop. In Julian’s case, it was probably Henry Despenser, Bishop of Norwich, in the late 14th century. Of particular concern was the anchorite’s mental capacity to deal with the solitude and limitation on human contact. Once the Church had endorsed a person’s suitability to become an anchorite, there was a specific ceremony to signify the end of the life they had previously known.

An anchorite was, effectively, dead to the world. They would live in a small cell, attached to the church. As they were led to this cell, a requiem Mass would be sung for them and they would receive extreme unction, normally reserved for the dying. They would be sprinkled with dust, to signify their burial, and then the door to the cell bolted from the outside. In some cases, the cell was walled up. The only access to the outside world was a small, curtained window.

St Julians’s Church, by James Sillett, 1828

Once they had taken their vows, anchorites were forbidden to leave their cell, on pain of excommunication from the Church. As an anchoress, Julian had to adhere to vows of poverty and chastity and to remain in her cell for the rest of her life. She was not allowed to teach young girls, or possess valuables. Conversations with men in private were strictly forbidden and communication with the outside world was done from behind a black curtain, through which she could also hear the daily church offices, even if she couldn’t interact with them.

Julian would been permitted a servant to see to her daily needs, such as food, laundry, and clearing away waste. However, her daily interactions with her servant would have been restricted to dealing with her physical needs, rather than friendship and companionship. She was also allowed to keep a cat, to control the mice and rats; many images of Julian show her dressed in the habit of a nun, with a cat sat at her feet as she studies her books.

Anchorites were expected to devote their lives to prayers and contemplation, to be a benefit to their community and to work for it by praying for their souls. They were an integral part of the Church, and the parish in which they lived;

True anchoresses are indeed birds of heaven which fly up high and sit singing merrily on the green boughs – that is, direct their thoughts upwards at the bliss of heaven.’

Hugh White, translator, Ancrene Wisse

Once Julian entered her cell, her time was her own. She could manage her own daily routine, although she probably followed the canonical hours and prayed seven times daily. Julian probably read a great deal, she would have had access to books brought by well-wishers and the large selection available at the library of the cathedral priory in Norwich; a collection that was added to in 1407 by a substantial bequest of more than 200 books from Cardinal Adam Easton, a supporter of Bridget of Sweden, who was later canonised.

Margery Kempe’s manuscript, where she mentions ‘dame jelyan’ (British Library)

Julian spent many hours in contemplation, reading and writing. Revelations of Divine Love was written in the English vernacular, in beautiful, poetic prose; remarkably, it was written by Julian herself, rather than dictated to a scribe. The text’s near-miraculous survival, through 600 years and the Reformation, is due to three Long Text manuscripts, which were copied in the 17th century by English nuns at Cambrai and Paris. The book describes the sixteen visions of Christ that she had received during her illness, and her subsequent reflections on their meaning.

Not only does Julian describe her visions in the book, but she also describes the physical experience of the visions, saying,

‘All this was shown in three ways: that is to say, by bodily sight, and by words formed in my understanding, and by spiritual visions. But I neither can nor know how to disclose the spiritual vision as openly or as fully as I would wish’.

Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love

Revelations of Divine Love is a spiritual autobiography, contemplating the relationship between love, sin, suffering and God. It is heavily imbued with mysticism, where the author attempts to move beyond normal human thought, exploring sensations and feelings and the relationship with God. Its message of love and peace still gives it relevance today, and her thoughts are possibly more widely respected now than at any time in the past.

Stained glass of Julian of Norwich, Norwich Cathedral

Though Julian was appreciated in her own time. People visited to talk with her. A few years before Julian’s death, she was visited by fellow mystic Margery Kempe. Margery’s approach to her religion was a direct contrast to the path followed by Julian, but the meeting between the two women strikes me as extraordinary. Margery Kempe was about thirty years younger than Julian of Norwich, born around 1373, possibly even in the same year that Julian experienced her visions.

Julian was the recipient of several legacies, which helped to pay for her keep. In his will, Richard Reed left 2s to ‘Julian anchorite’, while Thomas Edmund, in 1404, bequeathed a legacy of 12d to Julian and 8d to Sara, her maid.

Julian died in, or shortly after, 1416; she was around seventy-three years old. She is commemorated in the Anglican calendar on 8 May. Julian had pursued her calling with quiet dignity and spirituality, ensuring her place in history as a heroine to women on many levels, not only for her piety but also as a writer, a mystic and a visionary, whose approach to God is arguably more relevant today than it was in her own day.

*

Sources:

Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love; Janina Ramirez, Julian of Norwich, a Very Brief History; Father John Julian, The Complete Julian of Norwich; Hugh White, translator, Ancrene Wisse: Guide for Anchoresses; Henrietta Leyser, Medieval Women, A Social History of Women in England 450-1500; Toni Mount, A Year in the Life of Medieval England; Felicity Riddy, Oxforddnb.com, Kempe, Margery (9b.c. 1373, d. in or after 1438); Margery Kempe, The Book of Margery Kempe; Santha Bhattacharji, Oxfroddnb, Julian of Norwich (1342-c.1416)

Images courtesy of Wikipedia

The story of St Julian of Norwich appears in my first book, Heroines of the Medieval World.

My Books

Coming soon! 

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

Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

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

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

*

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

©2020 Sharon Bennett Connolly 

Book Corner: The Peasants' Revolting Crimes by Terry Deary

By Lewis Connolly

Popular history writer Terry Deary takes us on a light-hearted and often humorous romp through the centuries with Mr & Mrs Peasant, recounting foul and dastardly deeds committed by the underclasses, as well as the punishments meted out by those on the right side’ of the law.

Discover tales of arsonists and axe-wielders, grave robbers and garroters, poisoners and prostitutes. Delve into the dark histories of beggars, swindlers, forgers, sheep rustlers and a whole host of other felons from the lower ranks of society who have veered off the straight and narrow. There are stories of highwaymen and hooligans, violent gangs, clashing clans and the witch trials that shocked a nation. Learn too about the impoverished workers who raised a riot opposing crippling taxes and draconian laws, as well as the strikers and machine-smashers who thumped out their grievances against new technologies that threatened their livelihoods.

Britain has never been short of those who have been prepared to flout the law of the land for the common good, or for their own despicable purposes. The upper classes have lorded and hoarded their wealth for centuries of British history, often to the disadvantage of the impoverished. Frustration in the face of this has resulted in revolt. Read all about it here!

This entertaining book is packed full of revolting acts and acts of revolt, revealing how ordinary folk – from nasty Normans to present-day lawbreakers – have left an extraordinary trail of criminality behind them. The often gruesome penalties exacted in retribution reveal a great deal about some of the most fascinating eras of British history.

It has been a strange week for us all, I’m sure. And on Tuesday evening we got a message from my son’s school saying it was closed until further notice, so Wednesday morning was my first day of home schooling. School have been amazing and set tons of work to keep the child occupied. However, on Wednesday, there was no English so I had to set some myself; which was basically for said child to write a review of Terry Deary’s The Peasants’ Revolting CRIMES. I received this book as a review copy from the publishers, Pen & Sword, but the child got to read it first, and loved it. He’s a die-hard fan of Horrible Histories, so this book was right up his street.

So, it’s over to Lewis:

I liked, no I LOVED Terry Deary’s The Peasants’ Revolting CRIMES. I would recommend it for people who are age 13+ (due to minor swearing content) and you will not need to know your history because this book educates you in the revolting and hard life of the peasant.

Opening with ‘Norman Nastiness’, the book gives you a vivid taste of peasant crimes right up until the ‘Georgian Jokers and Victorian Villains’ and beyond.

The last witch

After seeing a smiling ‘medium’ at a psychic fair, a friend of mine punched her. When I asked him why he would do such a thing, he replied, ‘My father always taught me to strike a happy medium’,

In 1944, Helen Duncan was a Scottish spiritual medium, working in Portsmouth. She began broadcasting information from the port’s gullible sailors wjhho came ot consult her. D-Day was approaching and she was a security risk. She had to be stopped.

Duncan was originally charged under the Vagrancy Act 1824, relating to fortune telling, astrology and spiritualism. Then there was a change of plan. The paranoid government’s legal experts sent her to be tried by jury at the Old Bailey for contravening section 4 of the Witchcraft Act 1735, which carried the heavier penalty of a prison sentence.

Winston Churchill even described the whole episode as ‘obsolete tomfoolery’ but Helen went to prison for nine months.

The 1753 Act was later repealed and replaced with the Fraudulent Mediums Act of 1951.

So, no more witch trials.

You could call it hex-it

In this book, you will explore various ages of history, from the Middle Ages to the Stuarts, to the vicious, unforgiving Victorian era and the modern era. You will hear various quotes from all sorts of people, from William Shakespeare, to Martin Luther King and many, many others as you explore the book.

I particularly like the funny jokes like “Bring a man a fire and he will be warm for a day. Give a man a fire and he will be warm for the rest of his life” and “Will Shakespeare. Great writer, dodgy historian”. There are various other jokes, which are scattered throughout the book.

There was nothing to dislike about this book, despite its gory and bloody moments. It will tickle your funny bone for hours on end, so much so you will never put it down!

In conclusion, this is a great book for children and adults alike. It is not only comedy but it also used 100% historically accurate. You should order it now. What are you waiting for?

Huge thanks to Lewis for a fabulous, entertaining review!

The Peasants’ Revolting CRIMES by Terry Deary is available from Pen & Sword and Amazon.

About the author:

Terry Deary is the esteemed author of the immensely popular Horrible Histories series. This is his first title for Pen and Sword Books, to be followed next year by The Peasants’ Revolting Lives.

My Books

Coming soon! 

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

Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

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

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

*

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

©2020 Sharon Bennett Connolly 

Mother’s Day Giveaway

Competition Closed: And the winner is Carolyn Hester

Sunday 22nd March 2020 is Mother’s Day in the UK this year and what better way to celebrate the 1st birthday of the paperback of Heroines of the Medieval World, than a giveaway for everyone’s favourite Heroine – MUM?!?!

“As Connolly ably demonstrates, knowing about these fascinating women is essential to filly understanding medieval Europe.” (Publishers Weekly)

About Heroines of the Medieval World

Heroines come in many different forms, and it is no less true for medieval heroines. They can be found in all areas of medieval life; from the dutiful wife and daughter to religious devotees, warriors and rulers. What makes them different compared to those of today are the limitations placed on them by those who directed their lives – their fathers, husbands, priests and kings. Women have always been an integral part of history, although when reading through the chronicles of the medieval world, you would be forgiven if you did not know it. We find that the vast majority of written references are focussed on men. The chronicles were written by men and, more often than not, written for men. It was men who ruled countries, fought wars, made laws and treaties, dominated religion and guaranteed – or tried to guarantee – the continued survival of their world. It was usually the men, but not all of them, who could read, who were trained to rule and who were expected to fight, to defend their people and their country…

And don’t worry, the offer is open worldwide – even if it isn’t Mother’s Day for you just yet.

It’s easy to enter!

To win a signed copy of Heroines of the Medieval World dedicated to a heroine of your choice – your mum, aunt, sister, grandmother, daughter or yourself (I won’t judge!), or someone else’s mum – for Mother’s Day, simply leave a comment below or on my Facebook page and I will include you in the prize draw.

The draw will be made on Wednesday 18th March, so you should get the book in time for the big day.

Good luck!

*

My Books

Coming soon! 

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

Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

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

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

*

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

©2020 Sharon Bennett Connolly 

Medieval She-Wolves: Part Two

As promised, here’s Part Two of Medieval She-Wolves. Charting the stories of 3 more remarkable women who have been labelled ‘she-wolves’ due to their strength and determination – and a ruthlessness born out of an impressive survival instinct.

Zoe, Empress of Constantinople

Mosaic of Empress Zoe, Hagia Sophia

Zoe Porphyrogenita lived much of her life in relative obscurity. At the age of 50, in 1028, she was married to her father’s designated successor, Emperor Romanos III, and became empress consort when he succeeded to the throne in the same year. Zoe was described by a palace courtier, Michael Psellos, as ‘a woman of great beauty, most imposing in her manner and commanding respect … a woman of passionate interests.’

As empress consort, Zoe asserted herself. Her younger sister, Theordora, was sent to a monastery. Neglected by her husband, who had taken a mistress and refused his wife access to the treasury, Zoe took a much younger, teenage lover, Michael. Together the lovers conspired to dispose of Romanos and he was drowned in his bath in 1034.

Zoe promptly married her lover and made him Emperor Michael IV. Their marriage, however, was full of distrust and Zoe was allowed no power or say in government.  Michael IV then banished Zoe to a monastery. Not to be forgotten, Zoe began scheming to reclaim her throne. After she was allowed back to court, and unable to bare her own children, Zoe adopted Michael IV’s nephew, another Michael, and made him her heir. Michael IV’s life would have probably ended in the same way as his predecessor, Romanos III, drowned in the bath or with a knife in his back, had he not died of natural causes in 1041.

Michael’s nephew, Zoe’s adopted son, ascended the throne as Michael V. When Michael V was crowned, Zoe was again banished to a monastery, an act which caused an uprising in Constantinople. Michael V was deposed after only four months of disastrous rule. He was exiled to a monastery, but complaints about such lenient treatment meant that Zoe issued orders for his mutilation and he was blinded, an act symbolically rendering him incapable of ruling.

Zoe and Theodora

Now 64-years-old, Zoe was empress, once again. Her sister, Theordora, was retrieved from her monastery to rule beside her, though Zoe’s throne being placed slightly further forward, at the joint coronation ceremony, was an obvious indication of which of the sisters was in charge. In the same year, 1042, Zoe took a third husband, Emperor Constantine IX, who co-ruled the empire, with the two sisters. Constantine outlived his wife; Zoe died in 1050, aged about 72. A ruthless empress who knew what she wanted, Zoe was not afraid to dispose of her rivals – whether they be a husband or an adopted son.

Isabella of Angouleme, Queen of England

At first sight, it is easy to have sympathy for Isabella of Angouleme. When I started researching her for my forthcoming book, Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England, I was expecting to be able to go some way to redeeming her reputation. She was married at a very young age – she was no more than 12 and may have been as young as 10 – to ‘Bad’ King John, the man who left women to starve in his dungeons and murdered his own nephew. Isabella and John were married in 1200 and, after 16 years together, they had 5 children; the youngest, Eleanor, was born in 1215.

Seal of Isabella of Angouleme

When John died in October 1216, however, Isabella didn’t spend much time seeking to comfort and protect her children. As soon as her oldest son, Henry III, was crowned with her own ‘chaplet’, Isabella started making arrangements to go home, to her own lands in Angouleme, France. In 1217 she left England, supposedly to arrange the wedding of her daughter, Joan, but she never returned. Joan had been betrothed, at the age of 4, to Hugh X de Lusignan, Count of La Marche and the son of Hugh IX de Lusignan (the man who had been betrothed to Isabella before John married her).

In 1220, however, in a scandalous about-face Hugh IX repudiated Joan and married her mother, his father’s former betrothed. And poor 9-year-old Joan’s erstwhile betrothed was now her step-father!

But worse was to come…

Instead of being sent back to England, as you would expect, Joan went from being Hugh’s betrothed – to being his prisoner. She was held hostage to ensure Hugh’s continued control of her dower lands, and as a guarantee to the transfer of his new wife’s dower. England, on the other hand, was withholding Queen Isabella’s dower against the return of Joan’s dower lands.

Isabella wrote to her son, Henry III, to explain and justify why she had supplanted her own daughter as Hugh’s bride, claiming that his ‘friends’ were worried about Joan’s youth and forcing Hugh to repudiate the English princess in favour of a French bride who was old enough to bear him a son. Isabella had married Hugh to stop him going over to the French and to guarantee his allegiance to her son.

Ironically, the proposed union of Hugh IX and Isabella, and of their lands, was the reason John had married Isabella in the first place – to prevent the lands of La Marche and Angouleme combining and challenging Plantagenet superiority in the region. Little Joan was returned to England towards the end of 1220, but the arguments over Isabella’s English lands continued and they were confiscated, for a short time, in 1221.

Isabella would not retire in peace, however, and in 1224 she and Hugh betrayed Henry by allying themselves with the King of France. In exchange for a substantial pension, they supported a French invasion of Poitou (the lands in France belonging to the King of England, her son). Although she reconciled with Henry in 1230, Isabella and Hugh continued to play the kings of France and England against each other, always looking for the advantage. In 1242, for example, when Henry III invaded Poitou, Hugh X initially gave support to his English stepson, only to change sides once more. Isabella herself was implicated in a plot to poison King Louis IX of France and his brother, only to be foiled at the last minute.

As contemporaries described her as ‘more Jezebel than Isabel’, accused her of ‘sorcery and witchcraft’, Isabella of Angouleme’s reputation as a heartless mother and habitual schemer seems set to remain. With little to recommend her, she stands out as a She-wolf with an impressive ruthless streak, even against her own son.

Isabella of France, Queen of England

Isabella of France, Queen of England

Isabella of France was the wife and queen of Edward II of England. In 1325, Isabella went on a diplomatic mission to France to negotiate terms with her brother, the French king Charles IV, who had seized Edward’s lands in France. Isabella saw an opportunity to take a stand against the unfairness of her situation. Ignored, spied on and persecuted by her husband’s favourite, the hated Hugh Despencer, and after 17 years of marriage, Isabella refused to return home. Isabella took to wearing widow’s weeds and claimed:

‘I feel that marriage is a joining together of man and woman, maintaining the undivided habit of life. Someone has come between my husband and myself, trying to break this bond. I protest that I will not return until this intruder has been removed but, discarding my marriage garment, I shall assume the robes of widowhood and mourning until I am avenged of this Pharisee.’

Isabella and the Strange Death of Edward II by Paul Doherty

With her son Edward, the heir to the throne, in her in France, and with the help of her close friend and adviser – and, quite possibly, her lover – Roger Mortimer, Isabella started attracting support from the disappointed and disillusioned of Edward’s subjects. In 1326, she launched the invasion of England that would see her husband fleeing for his life in the face of her advancing army. Edward and Hugh were captured near Llantrisant in Wales. Edward was sent to imprisonment in Berkeley Castle.

Hugh Despencer was taken before a military tribunal in Hereford, blamed for the collapse of the queen’s marriage and humiliating Isabella, and seizing her wealth and estates, he was given no right to reply. His guilt was a foregone conclusion. Paraded through the city of Hereford, with a crown of nettles on his head and all manner of things thrown at him, before being dragged on a sled to the town square, where Despencer suffered the full horror of a traitor’s death. He was hanged from a specially-erected gallows, fifty feet high; cut down whilst still alive, his intestines were cut out and burned before his eyes, before his head was cut off to end his agony.

Despencer’s death demonstrated the anger Isabella felt towards her husband and his favourite. Edward’s death may well have been just as gruesome – or not at all. Historians are divided about what happened to Edward II. Some claim he escaped to the continent, dying years later in Italy, while others are convinced that he was killed in Berkeley Castle, although probably not by a red-hot poker up his bum. Whatever happened to Edward, Isabella’s revenge was complete; Despencer had been utterly destroyed and Edward was deposed and replaced with his son, the 14-year-old Edward III.

Isabella (3rd from the left), with her father King Philip IV, brothers and uncle

For 3 years Isabella and Mortimer ruled England, only to be themselves deposed by Edward III when he turned eighteen; their own arrogance and mismanagement of England causing their downfall. Mortimer was hanged at Tyburn and Isabella spent her remaining years in comfortable house arrest, the She-Wolf who had launched an invasion of England and deposed – and possibly murdered – her husband, only to be deposed herself.

Zoe, Isabella of Angouleme and Isabella of France have been much maligned throughout history. Their stories have concentrated on the ruthlessness of their actions, rather than how they themselves had been treated by the men around them. If we turn it around, it is far easier to sympathise with women who were used as pawns in an Empire, or child brides or endured troubled marriages. Just as with Æthelflæd, Eleanor of Aquitaine and Isabeau of Bavaria (see Medieval She-Wolves from Part One), they fought for what they wanted, often against impossible odds, and achieved much. At a time when the perceived main purpose of a wife was to produce and raise children, these women made a remarkable imprint on history that has ensured their stories are still being told today.

Selected Sources:

The Oxford Companion to British History Edited by John Cannon; The Plantagenets, the Kings who Made England by Dan Jones; History Today Companion to British History Edited by Juliet Gardiner and Neil Wenborn;  Brewer’s British Royalty by David Williamson; Britain’s Royal Families, the Complete Genealogy by Alison Weir; The Plantagenet Chronicles Edited by Elizabeth Hallam; The Mammoth Book of British Kings and Queens by Mike Ashley; The Plantagenets, the Kings that made Britain by Derek Wilson; England Under the Norman and Angevin Kings  by Robert Bartlett; http://www.britannica.com; oxforddnb.com; finerollshenry3.org.uk; The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles by Michael Swanton; The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle by James Ingram; Chronicles of the Kings of England, From the Earliest Period to the Reign of King Stephen, c. 1090–1143 by William of Malmesbury; The Chronicle of Henry of Huntingdon by Thomas Forester; Alfred the Great by David Sturdy; Britain’s Royal Families, the Complete Genealogy by Alison Weir; The Wordsworth Dictionary of British History by JP Kenyon; The Anglo-Saxons in 100 Facts by Martin Wall; Kings, Queens, Bones and Bastards by David Hilliam; Mercia; the Rise and Fall of a Kingdom by Annie Whitehead.

Images courtesy of Wikipedia

A version of both parts of Medieval She-Wolves first appeared in the 2019 edition of All About History magazine. Isabella of Angouleme’s story is discussed in greater detail in my forthcoming book, Ladies of Magna Carta.

My Books

Coming soon! 

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

Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

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

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

*

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

©2020 Sharon Bennett Connolly 

Medieval She-Wolves: Part One

Throughout history – and particularly in medieval times – strong, determined women have been labelled ‘she-wolves’. It is a term that has been used as a criticism or insult. It has often been applied to suggest a woman of serious character flaws who would invariably put her own interests ahead of others, who fought for what they wanted, be it a crown, their children or independence. Men who performed similar actions and had similar aims tended to be called strong and determined rulers. However, the term can also be used to show women in a positive light, women who didn’t give up, fought for themselves and their families. So I have chosen 6 women who could have been termed ‘she-wolves’ to show women from both viewpoints, and to demonstrate the strength of the characters and the challenges they faced. And while their actions were not always exemplary, their stories were always remarkable.

Æthelflæd, Lady of Mercia

Æthelflæd, Lady of Mercia

The daughter of King Alfred the Great, Æthelflæd was married to Æthelred, ealdorman of Mercia. Æthelflæd was a strong, brave woman and is often regarded more as a partner to Æthelred than a meek, obedient wife. Although she exercised regal rights in Mercia even before her husband’s death, after Æthelred died in 911, it was left to Æthelflæd to lead the Mercians in the fight against the Danes. Alongside her brother, King Edward of Wessex. It is universally acknowledged that Æthelflæd helped to push back the Viking incursions. Losing four of her greatest captains in the battle to capture Derby in 917, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle reported:

‘With God’s help Ethelfleda, lady of Mercia, captured the fortress known as Derby with all its assets. Four of her favoured ministers were slain inside the gates.’

Anglo-Saxon Chronicles edited by Michael Swanton

In 918, Æthelflæd captured Leicester, ravaging the countryside around the town until the Danes surrendered. The combination of her indefatigable forces and compassion in victory saw the Danes soon suing for peace; in the summer of 918, the noblemen and magnates of York sent emissaries to Æthelflæd, promising that they would surrender to her. She personally led campaigns against the Welsh, the Norse and the Danes – though whether she actually wielded a sword in battle is unknown.

While often magnanimous in victory, Æthelflæd could be ruthless when it was her friends who were attacked; even she was not immune from the desire for revenge. In June 916, on the feast of St Cyriac, Æthelflæd’s good friend, Abbot Egbert, was murdered for no known reason. The Mercian abbot and his retainers were ambushed and killed while travelling in the Welsh mountain kingdom of Brycheiniog. The abbot had been under Æthelflæd’s protection and within three days she was leading an army into the Wales to exact revenge.

Statue of Aethelflaed and Athelstan

Æthelflæd’s army ravaged Brycheiniog, burning the little kingdom and taking many hostages. Although King Tewdr escaped Æthelflæd, his wife did not; Queen Angharad and thirty-three others, many of them relatives of the Welsh king, were taken back to Mercia as hostages. Æthelflæd’s strength and determination was complemented by her quick actions and an impressive ruthless streak. When the Welsh king eventually submitted to Æthelflæd, he promised to serve her faithfully, and to pay compensation for the murder of the abbot and his people.

Æthelflæd died suddenly in June 918. She did not live to see the successful conclusion to the work she and her brother had worked tirelessly to achieve; between 910 and 920 all Danish territories south of Yorkshire had been conquered.

Eleanor of Aquitaine, Queen of France, Queen of England (died 1204)

Tomb effigy of Eleanor of Aquitaine, Fontevraud Abbey, France

Eleanor of Aquitaine is iconic. Probably the most famous woman of the middle ages, she is the only woman to have ever worn the crowns of both England and France. She has even been promoted as the first feminist.

Eleanor’s long life saw her weather the dangers of crusade, scandal, siege, imprisonment and betrayal to emerge as the great matriarch of Europe.

When her first husband, Louis VII, led the Second Crusade, Eleanor went with him, only to find herself mired in scandal.  Eleanor’s uncle Raymond of Toulouse, Prince of Antioch, welcomed Eleanor warmly and lavished such attention on her that rumours soon arose of an affair. Despite a lack of concrete evidence, but accused of adultery and incest, Eleanor spent most of the crusade under close guard on her husband’s orders.

Louis and Eleanor’s marriage had been dealt a fatal blow; they left the Holy Land in 1149 and their divorce was finally proclaimed 21 March 1152. By May 1152 Eleanor was married again, to the man who would become her first husband’s greatest rival. Henry of Anjou would become King of England in 1154 and eventually built an empire that extended 1,000 miles, from the Scottish border in the north to the Pyrenees in the south and incorporating most of western France.

Later rumours again mired Eleanor in scandal, accusing her of murdering Henry’s lover Rosamund Clifford. In one extravagant version, Rosamund was hidden in her secret bower within a maze but, with the help of a silken thread, a jealous Eleanor still found her and stabbed her while she bathed. In another the discarded queen forced Rosamund to drink from a poison cup. Of course, a closely guarded prisoner in Old Sarum or at Winchester as Eleanor was at the time of Rosamund’s death, it was impossible for her to do any such thing. But who are we to let facts get in the way of a good story?

Eleanor did, however, commit one of the most heinous crimes a woman could in the medieval world. As a she-wolf, protecting her cubs, she rebelled against her husband. In 1173 her eldest son by Henry, also called Henry, rebelled against his father and fled to the French court for support. His father-in-law, King Louis VII welcomed the disgruntled Angevin prince and Eleanor of Aquitaine, having sided with her sons against her husband, sent two of her other sons, fifteen-year-old Richard and fourteen-year-old Geoffrey, to join their older brother at the French court, while she rallied her barons in Poitou to their cause. In 1174, when the rebellion failed, Henry accepted the submission of his sons.

Eleanor, who was captured as she rode towards safety in France, wearing men’s clothing – an act itself highly frowned upon – was not so fortunate. While it was not encouraged for sons to rebel against their father, it could be seen as boys flexing their muscles. For a wife to rebel against her husband was practically unheard of, and went against the natural order of society, and therefore deserved harsher punishment – where would the world be if women refused to behave?

Unforgiven and defeated, Eleanor was sent to perpetual imprisonment in various castles throughout southern England. She was only released after Henry II’s death in 1189, when her favourite son, Richard I, the Lionheart, ascended England’s throne. If she had done everything of which she was accused – murder, incest, adultery and rebellion – Eleanor would be the ultimate she-wolf. As it was, her rebellion, an act unprecedented for a queen, meant she paid the price with her freedom for the next fifteen years.

Isabeau of Bavaria, Queen of France

Isabeau of Bavaria

If all the stories of Isabeau of Bavaria were to be believed, she would be the most ruthless and wicked queen to have ever lived. For centuries Isabeau has been accused of almost every crime imaginable, from adultery and incest to treason and avarice. Variously described as being beautiful and hypnotic or so obese that she was crippled, the chroniclers have not been kind to Isabeau. According to them, her moral corruption led to the neglect of her children and betrayal of her husband and country.

However, they ignored the challenges faced by a queen whose husband was sinking deeper and deeper into the realms of insanity, going so far as killing four of his own knights during one mental breakdown and thinking he was made of glass in another. Married to King Charles VI of France, also known as Charles ‘the Mad’, Isabeau was left to raise her children and navigate the dangers and intrigues of court politics with little assistance from her mentally disturbed husband. Her political alliance with Louis of Orléans, her husband’s brother, led to her imprisonment amid slanderous rumours of adultery and incest – from the opposing political party.

To add to this, France was – not that they knew it at the time – halfway through the conflict with England that would become known as the Hundred Years’ War. The war was going badly for France – Henry V defeated them decisively at Agincourt – and Isabeau was forced to put her signature to the Treaty of Troyes in 1420. In that instant she disinherited her own son, the Dauphin, making Henry V heir to King Charles and handing France over to England. Much of Isabeau’s life and career has been re-examined in the twentieth century and she has been exonerated of many of the accusations against her, but, despite the fact Isabeau was backed into a corner, she still signed away her son’s inheritance in favour of a foreign power…

Although not all their actions were womanly, and some of what they did could be seen as dishonourable and ruthless, what is certain is that these women – and many others from their time – left their mark on history. With each of them, applying the term ‘she-wolf’ highlights their strengths, their determination, and the challenges they faced and overcame. They fought for what they wanted, often against impossible odds, and achieved much. At a time when the perceived main purpose of a wife was to produce and raise children, these women made a remarkable imprint on history that has ensured their stories are still being told today.

Look out for Part Two of Medieval She-Wolves, next week.

Selected Sources:

The Oxford Companion to British History Edited by John Cannon; The Plantagenets, the Kings who Made England by Dan Jones; History Today Companion to British History Edited by Juliet Gardiner and Neil Wenborn;  Brewer’s British Royalty by David Williamson; Britain’s Royal Families, the Complete Genealogy by Alison Weir; The Plantagenet Chronicles Edited by Elizabeth Hallam; The Mammoth Book of British Kings and Queens by Mike Ashley; The Plantagenets, the Kings that made Britain by Derek Wilson; England Under the Norman and Angevin Kings  by Robert Bartlett; http://www.britannica.com; oxforddnb.com; finerollshenry3.org.uk; The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles by Michael Swanton; The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle by James Ingram; Chronicles of the Kings of England, From the Earliest Period to the Reign of King Stephen, c. 1090–1143 by William of Malmesbury; The Chronicle of Henry of Huntingdon by Thomas Forester; Alfred the Great by David Sturdy; Britain’s Royal Families, the Complete Genealogy by Alison Weir; The Wordsworth Dictionary of British History by JP Kenyon; The Anglo-Saxons in 100 Facts by Martin Wall; Kings, Queens, Bones and Bastards by David Hilliam; Mercia; the Rise and Fall of a Kingdom by Annie Whitehead.

Images courtesy of Wikipedia

A version of this article first appeared in the 2019 edition of All About History magazine.

My Books

Coming soon! 

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

Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

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

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

*

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 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

About the Author:

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

*

My Books

Coming soon! 

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

Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

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

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

*

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

©2020 Sharon Bennett Connolly 

Book Corner: Faces of Darkness by Steven A. McKay

CROFTUN, ENGLAND AD 1328
Lady Isabella de Courcy is found alone in a room bolted from the inside, unconscious, and with a dagger brutally forced through her hand into the floorboards beneath, but this is just the latest in a line of similar, terrifying incidents. For months now she’s been stalked by some shadowy tormentor who leaves no trace of his movements and has never been clearly seen by anyone, even Lady Isabella.

Can the bailiff, John Little, along with his friend – the legendary friar, Robert Stafford – uncover the truth and, more importantly, will they be able to save the troubled victim before she ends up dead?

This new standalone tale from the author of The Druid sees the return of two much-loved characters from the Forest Lord series and is based on a shocking real-life case which remains, to this day, unsolved.

I have been a fan of Steven A McKay‘s writing for several years now. His Forest Lord series, retelling the story of Robin Hood in Barnsdale Forest, rather than Sherwood, was a refreshing new take on the outlaw’s legend. And the 2 books in his new series, Warrior Druid of Britain, the Druid and Song of the Centurion are among the finest books I have read in recent years. So Faces of Darkness had quite a lot to live up to.

And it did not disappoint.

Faces of Darkness is a novella featuring two of Robin Hood’s best friends, Friar Tuck and Little John, and is a detective novel-cum-psychological thriller of impressive quality. The story revolves around Lady Isabella de Courcy, who is being tormented by a mysterious stalker no one has seen. Friar Tuck and Little John are brought int o investigate the matter.

“Did you see him, Isabella?” the nobleman was demanding, in a hard tone of voice which Tuck felt inappropriate given the young woman’s ordeal. It wasn’t his place to interfere in the dynamic of their relationship though, and unbidden, he began to inspect the rooms for signs of what had taken place.

“No,” the lady sobbed. “Please, Adam, my hand is really hurting. Can you fetch me something for it?”

“Anne,” de Courcy said irritably. “Go and fetch some wine for the lady, hurry.”

“No,” broke in Isabella, eyes wide. “I can’t stay in this room another moment.” Tuck turned to look at her and realised there was a length of fabric tied around her neck, which also bore tell-tale red bruising. Clearly, she had suffered a most violent assault – no wonder she wanted away from the scene of the crime.

“John,” he said. “Could you help Lady Isabella to the room we came from? Would that be acceptable, Sir Adam? Aye? Good. Anne will make the place comfortable, with some unwatered wine to numb the pain a little and …” he stood next to the bed as the injured woman rose to her feet. “Fear nothing, my lady. If the person who did this to you is still around, Little John will deal with them.”

“You can be sure of that,” rumbled John who, at over six-and-a-half feet, had to stoop to avoid hitting his head on the doorframe. “You’re safe with me, my lady.”

Faces of Darkness is quite a departure for Steven A. McKay. A psychological thriller, it could be set in any era, but he has ingeniously set it in the world of his Forest Lord series, so that the astute Friar Tuck and redoubtable Little John can take the lead in solving the mystery, giving the reader the comfort of familiar characters in a story that is both emotional and evocative.

The novella keeps you guessing the true cause of Lady Isabella’s misery to the climactic end. There were several points where I thought I had solved the mystery, only to be disabused of my theory a few pages later, which, of course, makes the book even more riveting!

This is fabulous story that has only one downside – it is too short. I would have loved the book to be a full-length historical novel. It was enthralling! Here’s hoping that Faces of Darkness sparks a new career for Friar Tuck and Little John, solving medieval mysteries.

*

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.

*

My Books

Coming soon! 

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

Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

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

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

*

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

©2020 Sharon Bennett Connolly 

Book Corner: Fortune’s Child by James Conroyd Martin

Theodora: actress, prostitute, mistress, feminist. And Byzantine Empress of the civilized world. Stephen: handsome Syrian boy, wizard’s apprentice, palace eunuch. And Secretary to the Empress. How does this unlikely pair become such allies that one day Empress Theodora asks Stephen to write her biography?

From a very young age, Theodora, daughter of a circus bearkeeper in Constantinople, sets her sights well above her station in life. Her exquisite beauty sets her apart on stages and in the eyes of men.

Stephen, a Syrian lad of striking good looks, is sold by his parents to a Persian wizard, who teaches him a skill in languages that will serve him well.
By the time Destiny brings them together in Antioch, Theodora has undergone heart-rending trials and a transformation, while Stephen has been sold again . . . and castrated.
Discover the enduring bond that, however imperfect, prompts Theodora—as Empress—to request palace eunuch Stephen to write her biography.

This is a true rags to riches story, of a girl from the lowers echelons of society who rose to be empress of Constantinople. Fortune’s Child: A Novel of Empress Theodora tells the story of Empress Theodora, born in 500, into a poor Greek family; her father a circus worker for the Greens, who rose to be Master of the Bears. Theodora’s future was to be an actress, a popular one, but little more than a prostitute in the eyes of many, and with no prospects to ever improve her situation, unless she forced matters.

Although a novel, Fortune’s Child: A Novel of Empress Theodora flawlessly blends history and story-telling to draw the reader into the exotic world of 6th century Constantinople and the East. Recreating the life of Theodora and the world in which she lived, James Conroyd Martin takes you on an adventure that explores every aspect of Theodora’s world, the challenges, grief and struggles that she had to face to climb out of the fate into which she was born and make her own fortune.

This is a novel that will take you through the full range of emotions. It is not all glamour and success, but neither is it all dull and gloom. The author imbues a humanity that invokes both sympathy and compassion for the title character, even when her actions are less than noble.

It is late at night when a soft knock, almost imperceptible, comes at the door. I open it to find Theodora standing there, a finger to her lips. She is dressed in a purple bedchamber robe. She wears no veil or headdress. Her hair falls about her face like an ebony frame about the portrait of a ghost. I stand aside and she enters, gliding like some visitant saint into a monk’s cell.

But she is no saint. And since I am no monk, I take the comfortable chair.

“You know the circumstances of my birth, Stephen, how my mother kept me from being … abandoned – exposed to the elements.”

I nod, taking up a kalamos.

“The story is legend by now. Of course, it may be quite accurate, but my mother would relate it as a way of upbraiding a thoughtless and unappreciative daughter who would drolly mimic the ways of the adults around her, as well as the pretentious airs of an older sister. I was two when the mid-wife was called again and mother gave birth to a third child – alas, another girl.” She pauses, appraising me, her biographer. “Take what I tell you, Stephen, and bring my life to parchment. Breathe life into my past.” The empress grimaces as she settles in without complaint against the hard back of the chair, bringing her hands together in her lap, the interlocking fingers pale as moonbeams against the purple of her robe. “I shall begin, Stephen, where my memory begins.”

For my pettiness in my choice of chair, I feel a tinge of guilt, but I dust away and begin taking the notes that will become her biography.

Sixth century Byzantium is a period that is not often featured in historical fiction, which is such a shame, if Fortune’s Child: A Novel of Empress Theodora is anything to go by. It is a thoroughly engaging read, immersing the reader in 6th century Byzantium, through the sights, sounds and smells of Constantinople; the challenges and prejudices faced by lower class women, however beautiful and alluring, and the rules and restrictions of the privileged classes and the imperial court.

It is, at times, a hard book to read, when the reality of a woman’s lot and the prejudices and attitudes Theodora had to face and overcome. And yet, she never seems to forget her roots. The author avoids melodrama to bring you a story that is, at once, the story of Theodora and of her biographer, and how their lives are intertwined with Theodora’s own rise through the ranks of society.

As you read the novel, you can understand why James Conroyd Martin chose to tell Theodora’s life, it is as mesmerising and engaging as Theodora herself must have been. From the first pages the reader is immediately and irrevocably invested in the story of this incredible woman. I cannot recommend it highly enough – it is a must-read. Many aspects of it will remain with you long after you have finished the last page.

Fortune’s Child: A Novel of Empress Theodora by James Conroyd Martin is available in hardback, paperback and ebook from Amazon UK.

*

My Books

Coming soon! 

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

Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

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

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

*

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

©2020 Sharon Bennett Connolly 

Ladies of Magna Carta

Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England

In my first year of writing History … the Interesting Bits I told the stories of 2 remarkable women, contemporaries of each other, but with markedly different fates. Matilda de Braose fell foul of King John and suffered a horrible death in his dungeons, while Nicholaa de la Haye was John’s steadfast supporter, successfully defending Lincoln Castle in no fewer than 3 sieges; the last against a combined French and rebel army.

These 2 stories became the catalyst for my latest book, which looks into how the 1215 Magna Carta was relevant to the women of the great families of 13th century England, including the royal families of England and Scotland, the Marshals, the Bigods, the Salisburys, Braoses and Warennes.

Magna Carta clause 39: 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.

This clause in Magna Carta was in response to the appalling imprisonment and starvation of Matilda de Braose, the wife of one of King John’s barons. Matilda was not the only woman who influenced, or was influenced by, the 1215 Charter of Liberties, now known as Magna Carta. Women from many of the great families of England were affected by the far-reaching legacy of Magna Carta, from their experiences in the civil war and as hostages, to calling on its use to protect their property and rights as widows.

Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England looks into the relationships – through marriage and blood – of the various noble families and how they were affected by the Barons’ Wars, Magna Carta and its aftermath; the bonds that were formed and those that were broken. Including the royal families of England and Scotland, the Marshals, the Warennes, the Braoses and more, _Ladies of Magna Carta_ focuses on the roles played by the women of the great families whose influences and experiences have reached far beyond the thirteenth century.

And it is almost here! Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England will be released in the UK on 30 May 2020 and is now available for pre-order from Amazon UK and from Book Depository worldwide.

Book Launch:

Please join me at The Collection, Lincoln, for the launch of Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England, hosted by Lindum Books.

I will be doing a talk and book signing, at The Collection in Lincoln. Tickets: £7  Single; including book:£29. Couple including book: £32. Tickets are available from The collection and Lindum Books, Lincoln.

Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

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

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

*

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

©2020 Sharon Bennett Connolly

Thora, Harald Hardrada’s Other Wife

Coin of Harald Hardrada

The legend of Harald Hardrada, King Harald III of Norway, is one of my favourite stories of the 11th century. It is the tale of a warrior king, probably the best fighter of his generation, a poet and a lover. Harald’s marriage to his first wife, Elisiv of Kiev, is the stuff legends are made of; a landless prince making his fortune in Byzantium before returning to claim his bride and winning a crown. And they lived happily ever after …. or not!

Elisiv gave Harald 2 daughters, Ingegerd and Maria, but no sons. It may, therefore, have been a desire for sons that led Harald to take a second wife, although without setting aside his first. According to Snorri Sturluson, in the ‘winter after King Magnus the Good died, King Harald took Thora, daughter of Thorberg Arnason, and they had two sons; the oldest called Magnus, and the other Olaf.’ [1]

Thora (or Tora) was the daughter of Thorberg Arnason and Ragnhild Erlingsdottir and was born around 1025; her kinsman, Fin Arnason, was a good friend of Harald’s and was married to Bergliot, the daughter of Halfdan, a brother of Harald Hardrada and Saint Olaf.  The marriage also provided the desired son and heir, which his first marriage had failed to do; both of Thora’s sons would later become kings of Norway. Magnus succeeded his father in 1066, and was in 1069 succeeded by his brother, Olaf III, who had ruled alongside Magnus since 1067.

Gerhard Munthe: illustration for Olav Kyrres saga in Heimskringla (1899)

Harald probably went through some form of marriage ceremony, more likely a handfasting than a Christian marriage, with Thora in 1048. The marriage appears to have been a political arrangement, in order to garner the support of the powerful Giskeӕtten family, the chiefs of which played a significant role in power politics.

Of Harald’s two sons, Magnus, who succeeded his father in 1066, appears to have been as warlike as Harald. In 1058, aged no more than ten or eleven, he led a fleet to England in support of Earl Ӕlfgar of Mercia, after the earl had been outlawed only a year after he had succeeded to his father’s earldom. Magnus was probably little more than a figurehead for the expedition and unlikely to have been expected to make crucial military decisions, but it would have been good experience for the young prince, and a taste of what the future held for him. By the time he was sixteen, Magnus was a successful warrior and is said to have clashed with his father; the two almost coming to blows until the king was restrained by friends.

Coin dating to the reign of King Olaf Kyrre

It has been suggested that the marriage may have come following the death of Elisiv, or that Elisiv never even left Russia, but given that her daughters were born once Harald was back in Scandinavia, this seems improbable. Harald’s daughters are not likely to have been the daughters of Thora, as Maria was engaged to Thora’s brother, Eystein Orre; who would have been Maria’s uncle, had she been Thora’s daughter. Harald having two wives, simultaneously, seems the most likely explanation. As demonstrated by King Cnut and King Harold II of England, two wives and, therefore, two families, were not uncommon in Scandinavian culture; although in these two other cases an earlier wife was put aside for the sake of a more prestigious marriage, whereas Harald Hardrada’s first marriage was by far the more prestigious, while the second was politically expedient.

Thora was the kinswoman of Harald’s one-time friend, Fin Arnason, who was captured fighting for the Danes against Harald. When Fin refused Harald’s offer of quarter (life), Harald made a further offer:

‘“Wilt thou accept thy life, then, from thy she-relation Thorer [Thora]?”

The earl: “Is she here?”

“She is here, ” said the king.

Then Earl Fin broke out with the ugly expressions which since have been preserved, as a proof that he was so mad with rage that he could not govern his tongue: —

“No wonder thou hast bit so strongly, if the mare was with thee.”

Earl Fin got life and quarter and the king kept him a while about him…’

Heimskringla. The Chronicle of the Kings of Norway, by Snorre Sturluson.
Harald landing near York, 1066 (Matthew Paris)

At the beginning of September, 1066, Harald sailed his fleet of over 200 ships to Shetland and then to Orkney, where he gathered reinforcements and left his wife and daughters to await news of events. There is some confusion as to which wife was left on Orkney, some sources say Elisiv, who, as Harald’s wife and queen would have expected to become queen of England, had he been successful. Some historians argue that as Thora was a relative of the Earl of Orkney she would have been more likely to travel with Harald than Elisiv.

We know from Thora’s joining one of Harald’s expeditions to Denmark, that he was not averse to taking his wives with him to war. However, given that young Magnus was left behind to rule Norway, aged only sixteen, it seems likely that his mother was also left behind, to advise him. According to Snorri;

‘Thora, the daughter of Thorberg, also remained behind; but he took with him Queen Ellisif [Elisiv] and her two daughters, Maria and Ingegerd. Olaf, King Harald’s son, also accompanied his father abroad.’

Heimskringla. The Chronicle of the Kings of Norway, by Snorre Sturluson.

Harald fought two battles outside York. The first, the Battle of Fulford, on 20 September, against the brothers, Edwin, Earl of Mercia, and Morcar, Earl of Northumberland, ended in victory for Harald Hardrada and his ally, Tostig, the former earl of Northumberland and brother of the new King of England, Harold II. However, a second battle at Stamford Bridge, five days later, saw victory go to the English. Harold II had marched his men the 200 miles from the south coast to York, in less than 4 days, and confronted his brother and the Norwegian king on 25 September. At the end of the day, Harald Hardrada and Tostig both lay dead on the field.

Battle of Stamford Bridge, 1066 (Matthew Paris)

Harald and Elisiv’s daughter, Maria, is said to have died suddenly on 25 September 1066, the same day as the Battle of Stamford Bridge, on hearing of her father’s death. She had been betrothed to Eystein Orre, the brother of Harald’s second wife, Thora; Eystein was also among the dead at Stamford Bridge. Maria’s sister, Ingegerd, returned to Norway with her mother and half-brother. Olaf had traveled with the Norwegian army, but had not taken part in the battle, having been left to guard the ships at Riccal, near York. After the English victory, he was allowed to claim his father’s body and take the survivors home.

After Harald’s death, Norway was ruled successively by Harald’s sons Magnus II and Olaf III. Olaf III ruled until his death in 1093 and was succeeded by Magnus III, his acknowledged but illegitimate son.

Of Thora’s fate, little is certain. She may have remarried, although there is some confusion. According to Adam of Bremen, she married either King Swein of Denmark or an unknown Swedish king. [2] As with much of her life, the year of Thora’s death remains unknown.

Footnotes:

[1] Heimskringla. The Chronicle of the Kings of Norway, by Snorre Sturluson; [2] Fulford: The Forgotten Battle of 1066 by Charles Jones.

Pictures:

Courtesy of Wikipedia

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.

*

My Books

Coming soon! 

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

Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

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

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

*

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

©2020 Sharon Bennett Connolly