The Daughters of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine

A 14th-century representation of Henry and Eleanor

In history we tend to focus on the actions of the men in a family. Well, let’s face it, the life of Henry II and his sons is fascinating, full of love, honour, death and betrayal. Who wouldn’t be drawn into that world? But did you know that the women of the family had no less exciting and eventful lives?

With a mother like Eleanor of Aquitaine, you would not expect her daughters to be shrinking violets. And, indeed, they were not. And neither were the girls sent off into the world, never to see their parents again. In what may be a unique occurrence for royal princesses, each of the three daughters of Eleanor and Henry II would get to spend time with their mother later in their lives.

Matilda of England, the eldest daughter and third child of Henry and Eleanor, was born in London in June 1156. As her parents ruled an empire that stretched from the Scottish borders to the Pyrenees, travel was a constant part of Matilda’s childhood. She took her first sea-voyage across the English Channel at just 2 months old, accompanied her big brother, Henry, later to be known as The Young King. Throughout her childhood, Matilda is often seen accompanying her mother and siblings traveling through the vast Angevin domains. By the time she was 8-years-old, negotiations had begun for her marriage to Henry the Lion; her father planning an alliance with the German Emperor, Frederick Barbarossa. The marriage was part of her father’s policy to build up opposition to Louis VII of France and the Pope, Alexander III. And in July 1166 her mother accompanied 10-year-old Matilda to Dover, where she embarked on a German ship that would take her to her new life and future husband. Her wedding to Henry V ‘the Lion’, Duke of Saxony and Bavaria, finally took place in the cathedral at Minden, Germany, on 1 February 1168. 

Matilda’s dowry and send-off from England cost around £4,500 (about a quarter of England’s annual revenue). The young princess was given a trousseau worth £63, including saddles with gilt fittings, ‘two large silken cloths, and two tapestries and one cloth of samite and twelve sable skins’. Despite the fact Henry the Lion was 27 years Matilda’s senior, the marriage appears to have been a success and produced 10 children, including their eldest daughter, Richenza (her name was later changed to Matilda), born around 1172, and sons Henry, Otto and William. Otto was briefly considered as heir to the English throne by his uncle Richard I, before King John claimed the crown. He would briefly become Holy Roman Emperor as Otto IV in 1209 until his death in 1218.

13th-century depiction of Henry II and his legitimate children

Matilda’s fortunes changed dramatically in 1180 when, following a quarrel with Frederick Barbarossa, who held Henry responsible for the failure of a campaign in Italy, Henry the Lion was deprived of his fiefs and exiled from his lands for 7 years. Henry, Matilda and their children sought refuge with Matilda’s father and, in the Autumn of 1181, Henry II welcomed his daughter, giving her the palace of Argentin as a home for her family. Matilda and her family spent the next two years in the Angevin lands on the Continent; but in 1184 a pregnant Matilda accompanied her father to England, where she gave birth to her son, William, at Winchester. While at her father’s court Matilda petitioned the king to ease the restrictions on her mother’s imprisonment; following her involvement in the failed rebellion of her sons in 1173-4, Eleanor of Aquitaine had spent the last ten years incarcerated in England, at Old Sarum. Although still a prisoner, Eleanor was permitted to stay with Matilda while she was staying in England and when Eleanor was allowed to cross the Channel to take possession of the Vexin Castles, Matilda accompanied her.

Coronation of Henry the Lion and Matilda, from the Gospels of Henry the Lion, c.1188

Matilda and Henry were finally allowed to return to Germany in October 1185, although their children, Otto, William and Matilda remained at Henry’s court, to be raised by their grandfather. Matilda died at Brunswick on 28th June 1189 and was buried there, in the Cathedral of St Blasius, of which she was co-foundress. Her father Henry II died just 8 days later, probably before the news of his daughter’s death could reach him. Matilda’s husband would be buried alongside her, following his death on 6th August 1195.

Matilda’s next youngest sister, Eleanor, was born in October 1162 (1161 has also been suggested, but most sources agree on 1162) at Domfront Castle in Normandy. As with Matilda, Eleanor’s early childhood was quite nomadic. She travelled often with her parents, in her mother’s entourage. In February 1165 3-year-old Eleanor was betrothed to the infant son of Frederick Barbarossa, Frederick, as part of the same negotiations which saw Matilda married to Henry the Lion. However, Eleanor’s proposed marriage would eventually fall by the wayside. By 1170 Henry II was seeking to extend his influence across the Pyrenees and in order to prevent a French alliance with Castile, he betrothed Eleanor to 14-year-old Alfonso VIII, who had been king of Castile since he was just 2 years old. By September 1170, a month short of her 8th birthday, Eleanor was on her way to Castile, with an impressive escort to see her safely to her wedding at Burgos Cathedral.

The betrothal of Alfonso VIII of Castile and Eleanor of England

Eleanor and Alfonso appear to have had a very successful marriage, and a close, trusting relationship. Described as modest, elegant and gracious, Eleanor is renowned for introducing her mother’s Poitevin culture into the Castilian court, blending it with the luxuries offered by neighbouring Moorish cultures. Eleanor also acted as a diplomatic conduit between her husband and brothers, Richard and John, in order to aid each other and keep the peace, although not always successfully.Seven of Eleanor and Alfonso’s children survived infancy. Their eldest daughter Berengaria would eventually act as regent in Castile for her younger brother, Henry I, before succeeding him as queen regnant. One daughter, Eleanor, married James I, king of Aragon, but they divorced in 1229. While another, Constance, was dedicated as a nun and eventually became abbess of the abbey of Las Huelgas, founded by her parents in 1187.

Alfonso and Eleanor also had 2 sons who would survive childhood. The eldest, Ferdinand, died of a fever in 1209 or 1211 while his younger brother, Henry, would succeed his father, but died in a freak accident when a loose roof tile fell on his head. He was 13 years old.

Of their two other daughters, 14-year-old Urraca was initially suggested as the bride of the future Louis VIII of France, son of Philip II Augustus. The girls’ grandmother, Eleanor of Aquitaine, was instrumental in arranging the marriage and the 77-year-old queen travelled to Castile, in 1200, in person and in the depths of winter, to collect the granddaughter who would be Louis’ bride. The reunion of mother and daughter would surely have been highly emotional, having not seen each other in 23 years. The elder Eleanor spent two months with her daughter and her family and in getting to know her granddaughters, Eleanor of Aquitaine seems to have decided that the younger Blanca – rather than Urraca – would make a more suitable bride for Louis. The 12-year-old princess travelled back to Normandy with her grandmother where Blanca – or Blanche – and Louis were married.

Eleanor of England, Queen of Castile

The happy marriage of Eleanor and Alfonso came to an end when Alfonso died in Burgos on 6th October 1214. He was buried in the Abbey of Las Huelgas, where their daughter, Constance, was now Abbess, leaving Eleanor as regent for their 10-year-old son, Henry I. Broken-hearted Eleanor, however, only survived her husband by a little over 3 weeks. Overcome with grief she died in Burgos on 31st October 1214, and was laid to rest beside her beloved husband; leaving their daughter Berengaria to take up the regency for Henry. Eleanor was the last surviving daughter of the Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine. Only her younger brother, King John, remained of the Plantagenet siblings.

The youngest of the trio of Plantagenet sisters, Joanna, was born in October 1165. Ten years younger than her oldest brother, Henry the Young King, she was born at Angers Castle in Anjou, at a time when their parents’ relationship was breaking down; 1165 was the first ever Christmas Henry and Eleanor spent apart. With Henry still in England dealing with a Welsh revolt, he would not meet his new daughter for several months. Although Joanna spent much of her childhood at her mother’s court in Poitiers, she and her younger brother, John, were also educated at the magnificent Abbey of Fontevraud, where she learned the skills needed to run a large, aristocratic household.

Although Eleanor was imprisoned following the failed rebellion of 1173, three years later, she was allowed to travel to Winchester to say ‘goodbye’ to her youngest daughter, who had been betrothed to King William II of Sicily. Provided with an impressive trousseau, Joanna set out from Winchester at the end of August 1176, accompanied by her uncle Hamelin de Warenne Earl of Surrey. Once on the Continent, she was escorted from Barfleur by her brother Henry, the Young King to Poitiers, and from Poitiers, by another brother, Richard, who then escorted his little sister to Toulouse in a leisurely and elegant progress.

Joanna of England

Having finally reached Sicily 12-year-old Joanna was married to 24-year-old William on 13th February 1177, in Palermo Cathedral. The marriage ceremony was followed by her coronation as Queen of Sicily. Joanna must have looked magnificent, her bejewelled dress cost £114 – not a small sum at the time. Joanna and William had no surviving children and when William died without an heir in November 1189, Joanna became a pawn in the race for the succession. William’s sister, Constance was the rightful heir, but she was married to Henry VI, Holy Roman Emperor and many feared being absorbed into his empire. William II’s illegitimate nephew, Tancred of Lecce, seized the initiative. He claimed the throne and, in need of money, imprisoned Joanna and stole her dowry and the treasures left to her by her husband.

Luckily for Joanna her brother Richard I – the Lionheart – having gained the English throne in 1189, had wasted no time in organising the Third Crusade and arrived at Messina in Sicily in September 1190. Richard demanded Joanna’s release; and fearing the Crusader king’s anger Tancred capitulated and freed Joanna, also paying 40,000 ounces of gold towards the Crusade.

The beautiful and spirited Joanna was briefly reunited with her mother in Lent of 1191 when she arrived in Sicily with Richard’s bride, Berengaria of Navarre. Joanna and Berengaria were to become firm friends and travelled together to the Holy Land, ahead of Richard’s main force. However, during a storm, their ship was onto the shores of Cyprus by a storm and the two women were at risk of becoming hostages of the ruler of Cyprus, Isaac Comnenus. Again, Richard came to the rescue, reduced Cyprus in three weeks and clamped Comnenus in chains (silver ones apparently). Lent being over, Richard and Berengaria were married, with great pomp and celebration, before the whole party continued their journey to the Holy Land, arriving at Acre in June 1191.

Seal of Joanna of England

Joanna’s time in the Holy Land was mainly spent in Acre and Jaffa, accompanying her sister-in-law and following – at a safe distance – behind the Crusading army. In attempts to reach a political settlement with the Muslim leader, Saladin, Richard even offered Joanna as a bride for Saladin’s brother. His plans were scuppered, however, when Joanna refused outright to even consider marrying a Muslim. When a three-year truce was eventually agreed with Saladin, Joanna and Berengaria left the Holy Land ahead of the army, to await Richard in Rome. Richard, however, never made it; falling into the hands of Duke Leopold of Austria, he was handed over to his enemy, the Holy Roman Emperor. He was eventually freed in 1194, following payment of a huge ransom. 

Joanna spent the next few years at the courts of her mother and brother. But at the age of 31 she was proposed as a bride for Raymond VI, Count of Toulouse, with the aim of bringing the County of Toulouse into the Plantagenet fold, a long-time dream of Eleanor’s. Raymond had a colourful marital history. He had been excommunicated for marrying his third wife whilst still married to his second; and he now repudiated his third wife in order to marry Joanna, which he did in Rouen in October 1196, with Queen Berengaria in attendance. Although not a happy marriage the couple had two children; with a son Raymond born around 1197 and a daughter, possibly called Mary, in 1198.

Raymond VI, however, was not a popular Count and faced rebellion. Joanna herself had to confront some of her husband’s enemies. She laid siege to a rebel stronghold at Cassee; however, her own traitorous troops set fire to her camp and Joanna barely managed to escape. Injured and pregnant, Joanna was then trying to make her way to her brother Richard when she heard of his death; changing direction, she eventually reached her mother at Niort. With no allowance from her Joanna’s husband, Queen Eleanor managed to persuade John to give his sister an annual pension of 100 marks. Knowing she was dying, Joanna became desperate to be veiled as a nun at Fontevraud; a request normally denied to married women – especially when they were in the late stages of pregnancy. However, seeing how desperate her daughter was, Eleanor asked Hubert Walter, the Archbishop of Canterbury, to intervene.

Tombs of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine at Fontevraud Abbey

The Archbishop tried to dissuade Joanna, but was impressed by her fervour and convened a committee of nuns and clergy; who agreed that Joanna must be ‘inspired by heaven’. In Eleanor’s presence, the Archbishop admitted Joanna to the Order of Fontevraud. Joanna was too weak to stand and died shortly after the ceremony; her son, Richard, was born a few minutes later and lived only long enough to be baptised. She died in September 1199, a month short of her 34th birthday. Joanna and her baby son were interred together at Fontevraud, the funeral cortege having been escorted there by Eleanor of Aquitaine and King John.

There is no record that Matilda, Eleanor and Joanna ever met as adults, and the last time they were together as sisters was most likely shortly before Matilda’s marriage, when Joanna was only 2-years-old. However, although they led very different and adventurous lives, all three daughters of Eleanor of Aquitaine had the unique opportunity, in the medieval era, of spending time with their mother as adults. Given the dangers of travel and the great distances involved, as well as the fickleness of life in general, they may have hoped for a reunion but surely would never have expected it to become a reality.

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An earlier version of this article first appeared on Henry the Young King Blog in 2017.

Images:

Courtesy of Wikipedia

Further reading: 

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; finerollshenry3.org.ukEleanor, April Queen of Aquitaine by Douglas Boyd; Eleanor of Aquitaine, by the Wrath of God, Queen of England by Alison Weir; oxforddnb.com; bestofsicily.com; britannica.com; geni.com; royalwomenblogspot.co.uk; medievalqueens.com.

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Defenders of the Norman Crown: The Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey tells the fascinating story of the Warenne dynasty, of the successes and failures of one of the most powerful families in England, from its origins in Normandy, through the Conquest, Magna Carta, the wars and marriages that led to its ultimate demise in the reign of Edward III. Defenders of the Norman Crown: Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey is now available from Pen & Sword BooksAmazon in the UK and US, Bookshop.org and Book Depository.

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Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England looks into the relationships of the various noble families of the 13th century, and how they were affected by the Barons’ Wars, Magna Carta and its aftermath; the bonds that were formed and those that were broken. It is now available in paperback and hardback from Pen & Sword,  AmazonBookshop.org and from Book Depository worldwide.

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, Bookshop.org and Book Depository.

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

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For the Sake of a Crown – the Marriage of John of Gaunt and Constance of Castile

Constança_de_Castela,_Duquesa_de_Lencastre_-_The_Portuguese_Genealogy_(Genealogia_dos_Reis_de_Portugal)
Constance of Castile

Constance of Castile was born in 1354 at Castro Kerez, Castile. Her father was Peter, or Pedro, king of Castile. Although he had earned himself the nickname of Peter the Cruel, he was also known as Peter the Just, depending on whether you were talking to his enemies, or his friends. In 1353 18-year-old Peter had married, in a secret ceremony, Maria de Padilla, who would bear him 4 children; of which Constance was the second oldest.

In the summer of the same year, a couple of months shy of his 19th birthday, on 3rd June, Peter had been practically coerced into marriage with 14-year-old Blanche de Bourbon, by his mother, Maria of Portugal, and his counsellors. Blanche was the daughter of Peter I, Duke of Bourbon, and Isabella de Valois; through her mother, Blanche was a cousin of the king of France. As a consequence of the marriage, Peter was forced to deny that a marriage ceremony with Maria ever took place. However, almost immediately after the wedding, Peter deserted his new bride and returned to Maria.

Blanche was imprisoned in the castle of Arevalo. Her cousin, Jean II, King of France, called for her release and asked the pope to excommunicate Peter for imprisoning her. The pope, Innocent VI, refused. Blanche was eventually moved to the town of Medina Sidonia, far remote from any possible rescue by Peter’s enemies from Aragon or France. It was at Medina Sidonia that Blanche died in 1361, though whether by murder or from natural causes is disputed (but that is a story for another time…).

Peter was married again, in 1354, to Juana de Castro, with whom he had a son, John. Despite the marriage, his relationship with Maria de Padilla endured. Peter and Maria were together until Maria’s death in 1361, probably from plague, and they had 3 daughters and a son. Although their son died young, their 3 daughters grew to adulthood. The eldest, Beatrice, entered the Abbey of Santa Clara at Tordesillas and so it would be Constance who eventually became her father’s heir.

Little is known of Constance’s childhood. She was around 7 when her mother died, her sister Isabella was a year younger and their baby brother, Alfonso was about 2. Alfonso would die in 1362.

170px-Estatua_de_Pedro_I_el_Cruel_(M.A.N.)_01
King Peter of Castile

Peter of Castile was engaged in constant wars with Aragon from 1356 to 1366, followed by the 1366 Castilian Civil War which saw him dethroned by his illegitimate half-brother, Henry of Trastamara.

Peter turned to his neighbours for help. He fled over the Pyrenees, to Aquitaine and England’s Prince of Wales, Edward the Black Prince. Peter brought his 2 daughters with him. The Black Prince agreed to mount an expedition to restore Peter to his throne, and would take his brother, John of Gaunt, along with him.

Constance and Isabella were handed over to the English as collateral against thee repayment of the costs of the expedition; a staggering £176,000 that Peter could never hope to repay.

In 1367 the Black Prince and John of Gaunt led an army across the Pyrenees, defeating Henry of Trastamara at the Battle of Najera, despite his being backed by the French. Trastamara fled Castile and Peter was restored to his throne, but could not repay the costs of the expedition. Unable to pay his army, and with his health in decline, the Black Prince left Spain for Aquitaine.

Peter was eventually murdered by Henry of Trastamara in March 1369; Henry usurped the throne as King Henry II, ignoring the rights of his niece Constance, who became ‘de jure’ Queen of Castile on 13th March 1369. However, Constance and her sister remained in English hands.

200px-Dukeoflancaster
The surrender of Santiago de Compostela to John of Gaunt, Constance of Castile is the lady on horseback

John of Gaunt’s wife of almost 10 years, Blanche Duchess of Lancaster, had died at Tutbury on 12th September, 1368, more likely from the complications of childbirth than from the plague. Shortly after John started a liaison with a woman who would be his mistress for the next 25 years, Katherine Swynford.

However, John of Gaunt was not done with his dynastic ambitions and saw in Constance of Castile the chance to gain his own crown. John and Constance were married, probably at Rocquefort, in Guyenne on 21st September 1371.

From 1372 John assumed the title King of Castile and Leon, by right of his wife. Crowds lined the streets when, as Queen of Castile, Constance was given a ceremonial entry into London in February 1372. Her brother-in-law, the Black Prince, escorted her through the city to be formally welcomed by her husband at his residence of the Savoy Palace.

Constance’s sister, Isabella, came with her, and would marry Constance’s brother-in-law Edmund of Langley, 5th son of Edward III, in July 1372.

Little is known of Constance’s relationship with her husband’s mistress, Katherine Swynford; except for an incident in June 1381. Amid the turmoil of the Peasant’s Revolt, John is said to have given up his mistress and reconciled with his wife, suggesting their relationship wasn’t all smooth. Katherine returned to  her manor in Lincolnshire where, it seems, John visited her from time to time.

200px-Johnofgaunt
John of Gaunt

Constance was made a Lady of the Garter in 1378. Constance and John, King and Queen of Castile and Duke and Duchess of Lancaster, had 2 children. A son, John, was born in 1374 at Ghent in Flanders, but died the following year. Their daughter Catherine, or Catalina,  of Lancaster was born at Hertford Castle, sometime between June 1372 and March 1373. She would be made a Lady of the Garter in 1384.

John had several plans to recover his wife’s Castilian crown, but suffered from a lack of finances. Until 1386 when John I of Castile, son of Henry of Trastamara, attempted to claim the crown of Portugal. John of Avis, King of Portugal, turned to John of Gaunt for help. John saw this as his opportunity to overthrow John of Castile and claim the crown.

Having  landed in Galicia, however, John was unable to bring the Castilians to battle and his army succumbed to sickness. The opposing forces eventually agreed the Treaty of Bayonne, where in return for a substantial sum, John of Gaunt abandoned his claim to Castile. The treaty also saw a marriage alliance, between John of Castile’s son, Henry and Constance and John’s daughter, Catherine.

Catalina-de-Lancaster
Catherine of Lancaster

Catherine married Henry III of Castile in September 1388 at the Church if St Antolin, Fuentarrabia, Castile. Catherine therefore sat on the throne denied her mother. Catherine would have 3 children; 2 daughters, Katherine and Mary, and a son. Catherine and Henry’s son, John II, would succeed his father just a few months after his birth, with Catherine having some limited say in the Regency, and custody of her son until he was around 10. She died on the 2nd June 1418 and is buried in Toledo, Spain. Her great-granddaughter, Catherine of Aragon, would marry Henry VIII of England.

She died on the 24th March 1394 at Leicester Castle and was buried at Newark Abbey in Leicester, far away from her Castilian homeland. Just 2 years later her widower would marry his long-time mistress, Katherine Swynford. When he died in 1399, however, John of Gaunt chose to be buried beside his 1st wife, Blanche of Lancaster.

It’s hard to imagine that Constance was happy with her husband’s living arrangements, a belief highlighted by the 1381 reconciliation. It cannot have been easy, being at the centre of a love story that was not her own. John of Gaunt had offered Constance the chance to be a part of the English royal family, and to recover her crown. Although he failed in his personal ambition, John of Gaunt did manage to secure the crown for Constance’s descendants, through their daughter Catherine and grandson, John II of Castile.

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Pictures taken from Wikipedia.

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Sources: The Perfect King, the Life of Edward III by Ian Mortimer; The Life and Time of Edward III by Paul Johnson; The Reign of Edward III  by WM Ormrod; The Mammoth Book of British kings & Queens by Mike Ashley; Britain’s’ Royal Families, the Complete Genealogy by Alison Weir; Brewer’s British Royalty by David Williamson; The Plantagenets, the Kings Who Made Britain by Dan Jones; englishmonarchs.co.uk; The Oxford Companion to British History edited by John Cannon; Chronicles of the Age of Chivalry Edited by Elizabeth Hallam.

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My Books

Signed, dedicated copies of all my books are available, please get in touch by completing the contact me form.

Defenders of the Norman Crown: The Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey tells the fascinating story of the Warenne dynasty, of the successes and failures of one of the most powerful families in England, from its origins in Normandy, through the Conquest, Magna Carta, the wars and marriages that led to its ultimate demise in the reign of Edward III. Defenders of the Norman Crown: Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey is now available from Pen & Sword BooksAmazon in the UK and US, Bookshop.org and Book Depository.

1 family. 8 earls. 300 years of English history!

Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England looks into the relationships of the various noble families of the 13th century, and how they were affected by the Barons’ Wars, Magna Carta and its aftermath; the bonds that were formed and those that were broken. It is now available in paperback and hardback from Pen & Sword,  AmazonBookshop.org and from Book Depository worldwide.

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, Bookshop.org and Book Depository.

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

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©2015 Sharon Bennett Connolly