Amberley Publishing - Transport, Military, Local and General History

Tag Archives: Early History

  • Joanna of Flanders: Heroine and Exile by Julie Sarpy

    Who was Joanna of Flanders and how did I stumble upon her?

    Joanna of Flanders, Countess de Montfort and Duchess of Brittany, abruptly vanished from public life after 1343 amidst the Breton Wars of Succession during the Hundred Years’ War.  As wife of the late Duke John de Montfort, Joanna’s rightful place was in Brittany as regent of the duchy for their five-year-old son and heir John of Brittany.  Despite her fame for the defense of Hennebont in 1342 during her husband’s imprisonment, she along with her children had accompanied Edward III of England to Britain in February 1343 and seemingly never departed.  She resided in England in Tickell Castle, Yorkshire, in comfortable obscurity until her death around 1374.  What happened to her and why?  Her extended absence should have provoked more suspicion, but it did not.  Nevertheless, as one delves deeper into her story the answers to those two questions belie the core complexities of medieval social structures, the care of the vulnerable, and the custody of women.

    Titled Jeanne la Flamande. From a miniature in a Froissart manuscript in the Royal Library. Handcoloured copperplate drawn and engraved by Leopold Massard from "French Costumes from King Clovis to Our Days," Massard, Mifliez, Paris, 1834. (Joanna of Flanders: Heroine and Exile, Amberley Publishing)

    My new book Joanna of Flanders: Heroine and Exile seeks to uncover the mysterious circumstances of Joanna of Flanders’ untimely sequester in England.  For certain, Edward III orchestrated her relocation from London to Yorkshire in the summer of 1344. He likely engineered her indefinite detention, following the untimely death of her husband in September 1345 to prevent Joanna’s interference with his plans for conquering Brittany.  Joanna of Flanders’ conservatorship stands out for its rariety, a non-judicial fiduciary guardianship of an adult foreign-born noblewoman and widow with no English dower. Joanna’s case offers modern historical scholarship a window into the medieval cosmology of incompetency and legal jurisdiction and a chance to reappraise when protection becomes forced incarceration. Even if Joanna were mad, her indefinite confinement without adjudication was illegal.

    I would have to say that the mystery of Joanna of Flanders drew me to her.  I have always been fascinated by Fourteenth-Century England. What can I say? Plague and warfare are my passions. I can’t get enough of reading about the Black Death and particularly the Edwardian Phase of the Hundred Years War. I came across Joanna of Flanders doing some research on medieval captivity and confinement. I read a passage about her success at Hennebont and her presumed madness, against the backdrop of the late Middle Ages I was hooked.  Her story intrinsically intrigued and compelled me to learn more.

    Although the basis for Joanna of Flanders’ detention through royal prerogative wardship was invalid, her confinement was not out of bounds. In fact, the constraint of aristocratic women during the Middle Ages was not atypical.   As patriarchy was the cornerstone of medieval society, medieval women were subject to the protection and custody of fathers and lords until marriage and their husbands after that.  Thus it was not extraordinary for these men to periodically confine them, but social arrangements were more complex and hardly one-dimensional.   Despite the advantages of station and rank, medieval noblewomen remained sexual and reproductive pawns of men where their power was tethered to the female life cycle.  This manifest itself most blatantly in the system of feudal land tenure that sought to protect widows, wards, the incompetent, and anyone else considered incapable in administrating their estates.

    Joanna of Flanders and Hennebont defenders joyously greeting the English ships, most likely the expeditionary forces under Sir Walter de Mauny, by Jean de Wavrin. (Joanna of Flanders: Heroine and Exile, Amberley Publishing)

    Historic scholarship on Joanna of Flanders is limited. Undoubtedly, chronicler Jean Froissart shaped initial impressions and took a favorable view of Joanna. From his privileged position as scholar and historiographer to Queen Philippa and King Edward III, he observed and recorded events first-hand.  He professed Joanna to have the “heart of a lion” and he alluded stated that she orchestrated her husband’s expedient acclamation as Duke of Brittany in late May 1341.  Froissart contended that she returned France to fight for Brittany and frequently traveled back forth, although no corroborating evidence exists.

    Joanna of Flanders: Heroine and Exile is divided into two parts, with the first devoted to introducing Joanna of Flanders, her family and the mechanics of feudal protection worked. Particularly during the Breton Civil War and the Hundred Years’ War.  Besides warfare, the classical and medieval cosmologies of religion, medicine, women, and the law shaped the realities of Joanna’s life. Accordingly, the book’s first half draws attention to the politics of madness and the use of insanity as a political tool from its earliest legal foundations in Jewish and Roman law to its application in feudal society as custodia and garde.

    In its second half this study analyzes the consequences of Joanna of Flanders’ confinement.  The omission of Joanna of Flanders competency determination is the lynchpin for Joanna’s unlawful detention.  Comparative analysis of other noblewomen’s custody, in wardship and as political hostages, reveals Joanna’s confinement to be even more strange, not for the confinement itself, but for its lack of justification.  All guardianships were adjudicated and administrated publicly; Joanna’s was not.  As historian Gerda Lerner stated, “We can best express the complexity of women’s various levels of dependency and freedom by comparing each woman with her brother and considering how the sister’s and brother’s lives and opportunities would differ.”  Joanna’s life took place against the backdrop of Hundred Years’ War and the political interests and machinations of kings of England and France and all of Europe irreparably shaped her life.

    Julie Sarpy's new book Joanna of Flanders: Heroine and Exile is available for purchase now.

  • The Anarchy: The Darkest Days of Medieval England by Teresa Cole

    One amazing year of Anarchy

    Before he died in December 1135, King Henry I of England had all the nobility of England and Normandy swear to accept his daughter, the Empress Matilda, as his successor. Before he was buried in January 1136, his nephew Stephen of Blois had been crowned as the new king. There followed a struggle for the crown between Stephen and Matilda, that lasted nearly nineteen years and was later known as the Anarchy. The strangest year of all that period, however, was the twelvemonth of 1141, when each side in turn came within touching distance of total victory over the other.

    Four Kings: This fanciful medieval representation of the four Norman kings shows, from left, William the Conqueror, William Rufus, Henry I and Stephen. (The Anarchy, Amberley Publishing)

    This ‘mazy labyrinth of events,’ as the chronicler William of Malmesbury called it, was set in train at the end of the previous year, when Earl Ranulf of Chester and his half-brother William of Roumare, took possession of Lincoln Castle. They claimed, with some justification that one of the two keeps there, known as Lucy’s Tower, was theirs by right of inheritance from their mother, Lucy of Bolingbroke. At first King Stephen seemed to accept this, but in the middle of the Christmas festivities he abruptly changed his mind, marched a relatively small army to Lincoln and put the castle under siege.

    Before the encirclement was complete, Ranulf of Chester had slipped away, and, having remained aloof from the struggle for the crown before this time, he came down firmly on the side of Matilda. His father-in-law was Robert, Earl of Gloucester, Matilda’s half-brother and most substantial backer, and when Robert received an appeal for help from Ranulf, he called up all the forces he could assemble, including a strong contingent of the Welsh, and marched to Lincoln to confront the king.

    Henry I's castle at Caen. This was inherited by his son, Robert of Gloucester, who eventually sided with Matilda and Geoffrey of Anjou against King Stephen. (The Anarchy, Amberley Publishing)

    Stephen was advised to retreat but refused to do so. On Candlemas Day, 2nd February 1141, the battle of Lincoln was fought and the king was soundly defeated and taken prisoner. For most of the rest of the year he would be held, sometimes in chains, in Robert of Gloucester’s strongest castle at Bristol.

    Stephen’s passage to the throne had been greatly helped by his brother Henry, bishop of Winchester, who, among other things, was by now the papal legate – the pope’s representative in England. Negotiations were now opened between Matilda and Henry, and soon the bishop was announcing that Stephen had broken the promises he had made to the church at the time of his coronation, and that therefore he should be deposed and replaced on the throne by the Empress Matilda.

    The church accepted Matilda. Many of the nobility in England and Normandy accepted her. London, however, did not accept her, and nor did Stephen’s queen, also called Matilda. The queen now set about raising an army of opposition, ably assisted by the mercenary leader William of Ypres. Over a period of months, as the empress slowly negotiated her way to an impressive entry into Westminster, Queen Matilda brought up her own army from Kent to threaten London from the other side. Then, on 24th June, just as it seemed that the empress had finally won her crown, the Londoners rose up and drove her away. So sudden was this uprising that she and her supporters had just sat down to eat when they were forced to flee, leaving the food behind them on the table.

    Wolvesey Castle. This was the palace and stronghold of Bishop Henry of Winchester. It was besieged by Matilda and her supporters in 1141. (The Anarchy, Amberley Publishing)

    Matilda and Robert of Gloucester made for Oxford, but Bishop Henry went instead to Winchester, where he decided he had been too hasty in abandoning his brother. Re-opening communications with the queen, he also took steps to strengthen and provision Wolvesey Castle, his fortified palace close to the cathedral. As soon as the empress got wind of this, she gathered her forces, moved to her royal castle at Winchester and put Wolvesey Castle under siege.

    Henry himself had already escaped to summon help from the queen. She now brought up her own forces – including a thousand-strong London militia – to encircle the entire city of Winchester. From being a besieger, the empress now found herself besieged, and in severe danger of falling into the hands of her namesake.

    By September the situation was desperate, and in the middle of that month Empress Matilda and her supporters made a break for freedom. The priority, of course, was to get her safely away, and she and a picked bodyguard set off at a gallop, first for Ludgershall, then Devizes and finally Gloucester. For some of the way, notes the chronicler John of Worcester, she even rode astride, ‘male fashion’, though whether he admired or disapproved is hard to tell.

    Rochester Castle. Rochester was held for King Stephen by William of Ypres. It was here that Robert of Gloucester was kept a prisoner while negotiations proceeded between the Empress Matilda and Stephen's queen, also named Matilda, for an exchange of captives. (The Anarchy, Amberley Publishing)

    Meanwhile, the weight of the queen’s army fell upon the empress’s forces. Many simply fled, leaving weapons, armour and costly possessions abandoned behind them. Robert of Gloucester, though, fought a determined rear-guard action at the Stockbridge crossing of the River Test, thus enabling his sister to escape.

    Eventually he was overcome by simple weight of numbers, taken before the queen, and handed over to William of Ypres to be imprisoned in his mighty keep at Rochester Castle. While he was there, inducements were offered to persuade him to change sides, but he remained loyal to his sister.

    Now, however, each side had a significant prisoner – Stephen at Bristol and Robert at Rochester. Many hoped a permanent peace could be negotiated, but instead all that was arranged was a prisoner swap, ‘an exchange of the king for the earl, one for the other.’ This was carried out early in November with great care, hostages and guarantors being given for each side, including the queen, the archbishop of Canterbury and Robert’s own son William.

    When all was complete, both sides were in exactly the same position as they had been at the start of the year, and all the triumph and tragedy in between had achieved precisely nothing. Another dozen years would pass before the Anarchy finally came to an end, and a little while longer than that before England once more had a single, undisputed king.

    Teresa Cole's new book The Anarchy: The Darkest Days of Medieval England is available for purchase now.

  • John Morton: Adversary of Richard III, Power Behind the Tudors by Stuart Bradley

    What makes a sparkling and successful career? What makes for a life that history will record? How about the brilliant lawyer who becomes Lord Chancellor of England? What about the outstanding academic who become Chancellor of Oxford University? What about the committed cleric who becomes Archbishop of Canterbury? What about the able politician who becomes the adviser of kings? Each one of these would be a highly creditable achievement in anyone’s lifetime but in John Morton they are combined in the lifetime of one man. It is an outstanding achievement. And this is not all, Morton also managed to oversee building and construction projects on a remarkable scale, and finance the publication of a book which contained the first printed music in England.

    The Bell Harry Tower of Canterbury Catherdral, funded by John Morton. (c. Tony Bates under Creative Commons, John Morton: Adversary of Richard III, Power Behind the Tudors, Amberley Publishing)

    However, life did not always go his own way. Morton was accused of treason twice – and imprisoned in the Tower of London – from whence he escaped. He lived in penurious exile twice – once for a period of ten years. However, in his mid-sixties he became the chief and most trusted counsellor of a new king – a king with a tenuous claim to the throne but who through Morton’s advice, survived and established a new dynasty.

    Yet this man is unknown to most, and even to students of the period he only gets a cursory glance or an incidental mention. His contribution of over fifty years to his country’s service is barely recognised. His career began at Oxford where his brilliance was rapidly noticed and led to him becoming a member of the court of the Lancastrian king, Henry VI. However, in the political turmoil of what is known as ‘The Wars of the Roses’, he lost all when the Yorkists gained power and was forced into exile abroad. Following the death of Henry VI he was summoned back by Edward IV and became one of his most trusted councillors. After his death, Morton was implacably opposed to the usurpation of Richard III and conspired against him throughout his short reign. Called back to England again, he then served Henry VII until his death in 1500. It was through his advice, in his roles as Lord Chancellor and Archbishop of Canterbury, that Henry safely navigated the challenges of his reign. This is a man who deserves to be retrieved from the shadows and credited for his singular role in the politics of the fifteenth century.

    Stuart Bradley's new book John Morton: Adversary of Richard III, Power Behind the Tudors is available for purchase now.

  • Henry VII: The Maligned Tudor King by Terry Breverton

    Henry VII by C. E. Kempe (1909) at the church of St Mary the Virgin, inside the town walls near Pembroke Castle. (Henry VII, Amberley Publishing)

    With the exhumed Richard III being given a cathedral service and burial, he seems to have assumed heroic status in the eyes of many, a modern myth, or should I now say ‘fake news’ for those with a knowledge of history. However, the newly aroused interest in one of our most devious and cruel monarchs threw the spotlight upon the man who usurped his throne. In fact, only three major lords supported Richard at his demise, two of them created by him. Over thirty other great barons, who had always followed Richard’s brother Edward IV into battle, stayed away from Bosworth or supported Henry. Edward IV’s bodyguard and closest allies came to Henry’s assistance, along with Edward IV’s widow as her brother-in-law Richard had killed her sons. The people who disagree with this sentence are members of the Richard III Society or readers of modern historical fiction.

    As for usurpation, a glance through all English kings from Athelstan onwards will show a history or violence, revolt of fathers against sons, and no obvious royal bloodline or rightful kings. After a series of Germanic then French kings marrying Germanic then French wives, Henry Tudor was the first king with any British blood in him, via his grandfather Owen Tudor. Owen was descended in direct line from Ednyfed Fychan (1170-1246), Seneschal to Llywelyn the Great, via the Tudors of Anglesey who initiated the Owain Glyndwr war of 1400-1415. Much of his success in succeeding against seemingly overwhelming odds was owing to his march through Wales to meet Richard. The whole nation rose in support, believing that Henry was the mab darogan – the son of prophecy – who had come to take England back from the German and French invaders. Indeed, there had been almost continuous rebellion by the British (i.e. Welsh) and in particular the Tudor family, against the English from the time of the defeat of Llywelyn II in 1282. The fight ended with the coronation of the first king of England with British blood.

    Terry Breverton's new paperback edition of Henry VII: The Maligned Tudor King is available for purchase now.

  • Arthur: Warrior and King by Don Carleton

    King Arthur and Brexit

    History doesn’t exactly repeat itself, but it sometimes throws up interesting parallels that can look like repetitions. For example, I was checking some references for my book ‘Arthur: Warrior and King’ around the time negotiations were going on about the size of Britain’s exit payment from the EU was being discussed.

    I found that the issue had come up before – in King Arthur’s time. Back then, according to Triad 51 of the ‘Triads of Britain’ (Trioedd ynys Prydein, an early Welsh collection of verses), Rome had demanded under a treaty (we may call that the Treaty of Rome) that Britain pay a tribute that had been customarily paid. Arthur robustly replied that the men of Rome had no greater claim to tribute from the men of this island than the men of the island of Britain had from them.

    Mrs May hasn’t quite given that reply – at least not yet – but the sum demanded now is not very different from the continentals wanted then. In Arthur’s time, they wanted annually £3000 in money, and that is, allowing for inflation over 1500 years, not all that different from the £39 billion conditionally agreed. Arthur in the end couldn’t reach an agreement and went over to the Alps and inflicted a great military defeat upon them. Let us hope we don’t have to repeat that history.

    Don Carleton's new book Arthur: Warrior and King is available for purchase now.

  • Black Death: A New History of the Bubonic Plagues of London by Stephen Porter

    Plague has been the greatest scourge of mankind in recorded history. The plague bacillus has been identified in skeletons in Eastern Europe and the Balkans dating from the late Neolithic period and the Bronze Age, perhaps carried by migrations from the Russian and Ukrainian steppes around 4,800 years ago. Since then there have been three pandemics, which have killed millions of people, and the disease still claims roughly a thousand victims a year. The first outbreak began in the mid-sixth century in Ethiopia and reached Constantinople in 541, during the reign of the emperor Justinian. It had subsided by the mid-eighth century and Europe did not suffer from further eruptions of plague until the onset of the Black Death in the 1340s. Its arrival in the Mediterranean world was attributed to a siege by the troops of Janibeg, the Khan of the Golden Horde, of the port town of Kaffa (now Foedosiya) on the Black Sea in 1345-6. From there it spread to Europe, the Middle East and North Africa, reaching Iceland and Greenland. In response to a request from the Pope an estimate of the number of victims was made which put the death-toll at 23,840,000, or roughly one-third of Europe’s population. That cannot be taken as at all accurate, but gives some indication of the scale of the catastrophe and the fear which it produced, for who could hope to survive when a virulent disease was striking down so many?

    A sick patient with his attendants, 1460; a devil which has knocked over the table in the foreground indicates that all is not going well. (Author's Collection, Black Death, Amberley Publishing)

    The nature and symptoms of the plague generated horror and dismay. Victims complained of headaches, quickly followed by a fever and vomiting, with painful blotches developing that were caused by haemorrhaging beneath the skin and buboes forming on the lymph nodes in the groin and armpits, and on the neck. As the buboes grew, so did the pain, which was so excruciating that some victims became uncontrollable and delirious, screaming and running wildly around the streets, and their speech became impaired. Foul smells emanated from the sick, repelling those caring for them, and the affliction produced such fear and revulsion that the sufferers were left unattended. The social structure threatened to disintegrate as the rich fled and many who remained gave themselves up to riotously wild living. Those who were prepared to stay and nurse the sick or bury the bodies were accused of doing so to rob the victims and loot their houses. One complaint that was made was that the clothing ‘of those who were once noble are now divided as spoil . . . among grooms, and maid-servants and prostitutes’. Social norms had been discarded during the epidemic and it took time for them to be re-established.

    Death rates among those infected are hard to determine but estimates of between 75 and 80 per cent are probably not far wide of the mark. Few of those who survived left any record of their sufferings, and from the few accounts that we have what comes across is the pain, fear and sense of desolation that the victims experienced, and the panic and aversion which it caused in others, even family and friends, so that the victims were left to suffer alone.

     

     

    London in the late fifteenth century, an impression by the painter John Fulleylove, based upon a contemporary illustration. (Author's Collection, Black Death, Amberley Publishing)

    The Black Death had subsided by 1352 but the plague returned intermittently over the following centuries. It was never again to spread so universally across the continent as it had done in the fourteenth century, but in the regions and cities afflicted during an outbreak the suffering was no less, the social disruption caused was as damaging and the proportion of the population that died was as high as during that first epidemic. Plague outbreaks contributed to the slow recovery of population numbers in the late Middle Ages; London did not attain its pre-Black Death size until the mid-sixteenth century.

    Not until the late nineteenth century was the plague bacillus Yersinia pestis identified and the means of transmission recognised to be rats’ fleas moving from host to host to feed, carrying the infection and spreading it through their bites as they drew blood. More recent work has acknowledged that human fleas and lice carry the disease, as well as rats’ fleas.

     

     

    Plague was a disease of the trade routes and was brought to England in vessels such as this one. (Author's Collection, Black Death, Amberley Publishing)

    Taken by surprise and with no notion of what caused the disease or how it spread, contemporaries were at first unable to take steps to protect their communities. But from that first bewildering outbreak in the 1340s steps were devised to try to halt the progress of the disease, with the Italian cities leading the way. Isolation of the sick, either in their houses or in especially-built pesthouses, and control of movement, with the exclusion of people from areas known to be infected, were gradually introduced. Some cities forbade access to those coming from an infected area or anyone carrying or transporting linen or woollen cloth, reflecting the suspicion that the disease emanated from textiles. To identify the presence and progress of plague, records began to be kept of the number of victims who had died and the figures for all deaths. That gave the authorities information which they required to decide what steps to take, and to gain acceptance of their policies, for they did not have the means to enforce either quarantine or restrictions on travel if the population did not agree with such measures. Merchants were bound to resent restrictions on trade and so too were those who supplied food and fuel to their local city or town.

    Foul air was also thought to harbour the disease in the miasma which arose from stagnant water or piles of garbage, and so the cleanliness of public places by the frequent removal of dirt and waste and the washing down of streets became integral elements of the measures against plague. The well-to-do citizens who occupied parts of houses which were away from the rubbish of everyday existence seemed not to be afflicted to the same extent. That was because those spaces did not attract rodents and their parasites, although of course the connection was not recognised at the time. Many such householders absented themselves until the epidemic had subsided, while the poorer people could not leave. The plague came to be regarded as a disease of the poor, whose lifestyles, even the size of their families, made them vulnerable. The disease was socially divisive, to say the least.

    The Charterhouse and Charterhouse Square in the mid-eighteenth century; the site of the Black Death burial ground. (c. The Charterhouse, Black Death, Amberley Publishing)

    From those procedures and an awareness of steps taken elsewhere, similar policies on public health matters developed across Christian Europe and were continued and extended after the gradual ending of the plague threat, from the mid-seventeenth century onwards. London’s last and most deadly outbreak, the Great Plague, came in 1665. Quarantining of shipping and naval controls applied at ports around the coasts of north-west Europe had become a major element in plague prevention, while overland cordons in continental Europe also proved to be effective. Such measures pushed the source of the disease further away and cities such as London, Dublin, Bristol, Southampton and Amsterdam could be kept free of the disease, for the infected fleas could not survive the long voyages from beyond the cordon. But in the Ottoman Empire plague prevention was not implemented because Islam was deemed to require a fatalistic response to epidemics.

    Yet plague recurred in east and south Asia and Africa in the late nineteenth century and continued to claim victims through much of the twentieth century. Despite such failures, the measures taken to limit plague were not only retained but became the core of public health policy. When an epidemic of another disease, designated as SARS, struck in 2003, control of travel, confinement of victims and their contacts, and the use of isolation hospitals were implemented, and were effective in halting its progress. Plague’s depredations have created a fear which is still with us and the word has been given a wider meaning, as a curse or a menace, but the responses to plague have developed into a range of practices that are of enormous benefit for public health. Perhaps we should be more aware that plague’s legacy has not been entirely detrimental.

    Stephen Porter's new book Black Death: A New History of the Bubonic Plagues of London is available for purchase now.

  • Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom by Annie Whitehead

    Escomb Church (Mercia, Amberley Publishing)

    In Search of the Mercians

    Writing an account of the history of Mercia from c. 605 to 1071 was not without its challenges. The primary sources are scant, often contradictory, and many were lost during the upheaval of the Viking raids. But it is possible to piece together the story of the ancient kingdom through careful examination of the sources. Anglo-Saxon England is a long way from us, however, not just in terms of time, but because a distinct line was drawn with the Norman conquest of 1066.

    This marker is most obvious when one looks at the landscape of England, for with the Normans came the castles, the rebuilt churches; the wooden halls and smaller Saxon churches disappeared in the main. Visiting locations with a palpable connection to Anglo-Saxon England is perhaps the biggest obstacle to the historian.

    But it is still possible.

    Repton, St Wystan's (Wigstan) Church - the crypt which housed the remains of Æthelbald, Wiglaf and Wigstan. (Mercia, Amberley Publishing)

    For a stunning example of a Saxon Church, one need look no further than Escomb in County Durham. Built of stone, it probably dates to the late seventh century. Why did it survive? It is thought that the Prince Bishops of Durham were not interested in building a bigger/better church in such a tiny village. In other words, it has probably – ironically – survived because of a lack of interest. The bishops of Durham, whose official residence is still at Auckland Castle in Bishop Auckland, became virtually autonomous and wielded extraordinary power. Little Escomb Church was in all likelihood a beneficiary, in a strange way, of their almost regal status.

    Escomb is a delight, but it doesn’t have the connections to the people about whom I’ve written. Luckily there are such places, and one of these is St Mary’s at Deerhurst in Gloucestershire. It is not a ruin, nor a shell, but a working church where services have been held since Anglo-Saxon times. It retains many of the original Saxon features. Another such place is the Anglo-Saxon crypt in St Wystan’s Church at Repton in Derbyshire.

    Repton had strong associations with the royal family of Mercia.

    Saint Guthlac, who was said to be related to the royal family, began his monastic life there and King Æthelbald, who had been a friend of Guthlac’s, was buried at Repton. A later king, Wiglaf, was buried there, too, but the church is named after his grandson, Wigstan, or Wystan. He was allegedly murdered during a dynastic dispute and he was said to have been buried in the tomb of his grandfather. The original crypt is still intact and can be visited. It was built in the first half of the eighth century, during the reign of Æthelbald. Standing here, one feels very much closer to history, knowing that there is no ‘possibly, maybe’. These kings, or at the very least their bones, were interred here.

    The remains of St Oswald's Priory, Gloucester, the burial place of Æthelred and Æthelflæd, Lord and Lady of the Mercians. (Mercia, Amberley Publishing)

    At Repton, too, there is a Viking burial ground. It is still being investigated and new findings were published whilst I was writing the book. The archaeologists are now reasonably certain that the burial pit dates to the time of the Viking occupation in the 870s, when Burgred, king of Mercia, was driven out of the country.

    But perhaps the place where I felt closest of all to my subjects was in Gloucester. A short walk from the cathedral are the remains of St Oswald’s Priory. Originally this priory was dedicated to St Peter, but the name was changed when the relics of St Oswald were translated there from Bardney in Lincolnshire. They were moved on the instruction of Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians and she was buried at the priory, as was her husband, Æthelred, Lord of the Mercians.

    Æthelflæd is something of an anomaly; one of the very few women to lead an Anglo-Saxon kingdom, she was the daughter of Alfred the Great, and yet she was never a queen. The only time she is given this title is in the Irish and Welsh annals; some of the English annals hardly mention her at all. Yet she was instrumental in the fight against the Viking invaders, building fortified towns in strategic areas which enabled the English to arrest the incursions and ultimately to force the invaders into submission. Shortly before her death, she was approached by the men of York who sought her protection and assistance against the Norse raiders too.

    Æthelbald, Wiglaf, Wigstan, Æthelflæd and Æthelred: all feature prominently in the new book, and whilst many Mercians I’ve written about have statues to commemorate them – Cenwulf, Godiva, Wulfrun, and Æthelflæd too – I’m pleased that I was also able to visit locations which brought me closer to the real people.

    Annie Whitehead's new book Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom is available for purchase now.

  • Richard the Lionheart: The Crusader King of England by W. B. Bartlett

    The last surviving remnant of the Castle at Tailleboug, site of one of Richard's great early triumphs in France. (c. W. B. Bartlett, Richard the Lionheart, Amberley Publishing)

    Shortly after the terrible events of 9/11 2001 in New York, President George W. Bush made an appeal for support in his efforts to right the wrongs done to his country. In the process, he unthinkingly used the word ‘crusade’ to describe the actions of the coalition he was attempting to form. He quickly had to withdraw the term as there was a widespread furore about the use of a word that for some still has extremely negative connotations.

    Neither was he alone in using the ‘crusade’ word. His main opponent, Osama Bin Laden, was quick to seize on the slip as evidence that indeed another ‘crusade’ was about to be launched in a rallying-cry for resistance against perceived Western aggression. He reminded his audience of some of those crusaders who had in the past unleashed chaos on the Muslim world; prominent amongst those singled out for particular mention was Richard Coeur de Lion.

    So eight centuries on Richard continues to court controversy. The crusades, in which he took a leading part, are in the modern world an embarrassment. However, eight centuries ago the perception of the movement was vastly different, certainly in Western Europe. The crusades were not only sanctioned by the church, they were encouraged and organised by it. Whilst this may seem morally indefensible through our eyes, it highlights the difficulty of judging the medieval world through a modern prism. We cannot expect a ruler of England in the late 12th Century to think and act in the same way as we would.

    Saladin's castle, one of the major Muslim fortresses in Syria on the borders of Outremer. (c. W. B. Bartlett, Richard the Lionheart, Amberley Publishing)

    When Richard became king of England in 1189 following the death of his father, Henry II, one of his first acts was to put flesh on the bones of his plans for a crusade. This had already been in formulation for a while; Richard had reacted quickly after the news of a disastrous crusader defeat at Hattin two years before had hit Christendom like a thunderbolt. He had quickly ‘taken the cross’ in a symbolic sense, pledging himself to be a crusader; but he was not so quick to turn his good intentions into practical reality. Now that he was king though, he had the resources of England at his disposal and he was quick to use them to further his crusading ambitions.

    The crusade that followed certainly courted considerable controversy. One such moment came early on after a great triumph at Acre following one of the great set-piece sieges of the Middle Ages. Richard was left after the victory with several thousand Muslim prisoners on his hands. Negotiations were held for their release with the Muslim leader Saladin but the terms agreed for whatever reason were not complied with. Keen to move on to the next stage of the campaign, Richard ordered that the prisoners should be massacred.

    The Victorian image of Richard the Crusader; the statue stands outside Parliament in Westminster. (c. W. B. Bartlett, Richard the Lionheart, Amberley Publishing)

    The killing of the prisoners at Acre still casts a huge shadow over Richard’s career – though it did not seem to do so at the time where cold-blooded acts such as this were not unique. Much more controversial back then were his relationships with his fellow-crusaders, particularly King Philip of France and Duke Leopold of Austria. Philip could not wait to get back to France and did so not long after he arrived in Outremer (the name for the crusader territories in the Holy Land). By that time, his relationship with Richard had completely broken down, not least because Richard had spurned Philip’s sister Alice to whom he had been betrothed for the ridiculous time of nearly three decades.

    Richard fell out with Duke Leopold over the grimy details of how to split the considerable amount of plunder after Acre fell. Leopold’s banner was flung into a ditch soon after he had put it up over the walls of the city; this was not just some empty symbolic gesture but Leopold staking a claim to a share of the loot that had been taken. Throwing the banner into the ditch was a symbolic rebuttal of his claim to any booty. This act came back to haunt Richard with a vengeance when he was captured by Leopold on his way back to England and held for a huge ransom.

    Controversy also courted Richard in the shape of his relationships with Conrad of Montferrat. Conrad was an adventurer who had arrived in Outremer just as the kingdom was on the point of collapse after Hattin. He managed to organise the defence of the port of Tyre and in the process laid the foundations for a fight-back against Saladin. Conrad was elected king of Outremer whilst Richard was in the country, a decision that was not supported by the Lionheart. Shortly after, Conrad was killed in the streets by Muslim assassins. Though definitive evidence of who was behind the killing is elusive, Richard was one of the prime suspects and accusations of his involvement were given as reasons for his imprisonment and ransom by Duke Leopold’s relative, the immensely powerful Holy Roman Emperor Henry VI.

    The face of the Lionheart: Richard's tomb at Fontevraud. (c. W. B. Bartlett, Richard the Lionheart, Amberley Publishing)

    Even the outcome of the crusade in which Richard was so heavily involved is controversial. Was it a success? It is true that the basis of a reduced but revived crusader kingdom of Outremer was in place by the time that Richard sailed back homewards.  But on the other hand, Jerusalem – lost after Hattin – remained firmly in Muslim hands and that was always seen as the main objective of the expedition. As part of the peace deal negotiated between Richard and Saladin, crusaders were allowed free access to Jerusalem before they returned home. Richard was conspicuously one of those who chose not to go; a sure sign that he would only make the journey to the sacred city on his own terms. This is an indication perhaps that Richard himself did not see the crusade as a success that remained, for him, unfinished business; sadly for him, his premature death in 1199 brought all hopes of his leading a repeat expedition to an end.

    All these unsolved questions and moments of controversy help to explain Richard’s continuing fascination to a modern audience. Later historians tended to criticise him for his obsession with crusading. Ironically it is a claim that does not really stand up to scrutiny. Richard reached Outremer in 1191 and left it less than two years later; he did not go back there during the last seven years of his reign, being far too busy trying to recover lands he had lost to Philip in France during his absence. A number of contemporary chroniclers accused Richard of not being concerned enough about Outremer rather than being obsessed with it; how times have changed and how differently we see the world now.

    W. B. Bartlett's new book Richard the Lionheart: The Crusader King of England is available for purchase now.

  • The Tudor Dynasty by Terry Breverton

    Non-fiction writing is all about fascination – learning intriguing facts and delving to find what is true, misguided or simply wrong. It’s a voyage of discovery but where you have to divest preconceived notions and query everything as you go along. The problem with historical non-fiction is that much material has been hidden, or hijacked with a predictable slant to sell historical fiction books. As a former management consultant I was almost always called in when there were major problems, and then faced the board with unpalatable facts about how they had been running their companies. What I’m trying to say is that you had to go into a company with no preconceived notions, and come up with something acceptable in order to be paid. The way to achieve that was to feed board members with one’s findings as the research progressed, and they could individually say at the final presentation that they agreed with you, as that was what they had been thinking all along. The process saved their faces and ensured full payment for the consultancy was a foregone conclusion.

    The same process applies to writing historical non-fiction – you have to take the reader along with you – following the same research path as yourself. In my book ‘Richard III – the King in the Car Park’, it was pointless decrying his recent cathedral burial until the end of the book, where hopefully all those who are not convinced Ricardians would agree with myself, and with just about every current history academic and writer. I sometimes wonder why people write historical novels – the facts are far, far more interesting and even entertaining.  The Tudors for instance – WOW! What a story. An unknown Welshman, later known as Owen Tudor, impoverished because his father and uncles fought in the Owain Glyndŵr war of 1400-1415, secretly married Henry V’s young widow. He was imprisoned, but one son, Edmond, Earl of Richmond, died fighting for his step-brother Richard II in the so-called Wars of the Roses. Another son, Jasper Tudor, Earl of Pembroke, rescued Henry, the son of Edmond, born after his father’s death.  Jasper then was the only peer to fight throughout the civil wars, from the First Battle of St Albans in 1455 to Stoke Field in 1487.

    Jasper’s life was spent fighting and escaping, and his father Owen Tudor was executed after being captured at Jasper’s defeat at Mortimer’s Cross in 1461. Jasper managed to secure his nephew Henry from captivity and they escaped to Brittany and then France, but their lives in exile were at constant threat from Edward IV and then Richard III trying to have them killed. The Tudors’ choice was to either die or try and take the throne of England. With massive unrest against Richard III, their small army landed in Pembroke and swelled in numbers, supported by nearly all of Edward IV’s closest followers. They knew that Richard III had killed his brother’s sons and Edward’s closest friend Hastings, and hardly any lords now followed Richard into battle at Bosworth Field in 1485. Henry’s victory led to general peace across the land and a period of prosperity for the nation. I wrote ‘Everything You Wanted to Know about the Tudors but were Afraid to Ask’, detailing interesting facts about the new dynasty, England’s greatest. My trilogy of books upon the Tudors includes the first biographies of ‘Jasper Tudor – Dynasty Maker’ and ‘Owen Tudor – Founding Father of the Tudor Dynasty’. In between them I wrote ‘Henry VII – the Maligned Tudor King.’ They were enjoyable to research and write, and I hope that readers will be informed as well as entertained by them.

      

    Terry Breverton's books Richard III: The King in the Car Park, Owen Tudor: Founding Father of the Tudor Dynasty, Jasper Tudor: Dynasty Maker, Henry VII: The Maligned Tudor King and Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About the Tudors But Were Afraid to Ask are all available for purchase now.

  • August 1415: The Agincourt campaign off to a stuttering start…

    The armada sailed across the English Channel at last. The preparations were over, the die was cast and even a last minute plot to depose Henry V could not stop the invasion. The crossing was no doubt nerve-wracking but the weather behaved itself. Then came the really anxious time when the ships approached their final destination. Like all amphibious operations the most dangerous moment was when the men started to disembark. If an opponent attacked before they were properly assembled then disaster might follow.

    Agincourt - The attack by Henry V's army on Harfleur The attack by Henry V's army on Harfleur

    And so they moved in close to land, their target at last clear. It was Harfleur, an important sea port (near to modern Le Havre which would eventually replace it) which dominated the entrance to the mighty Seine river. From here Rouen and even Paris would be under threat. With baited breath, the English army started to move onto land. Would they be faced with stern opposition and would the campaign be stopped dead in its tracks?

    The answer was no. There were no French soldiers to stop them and with great relief the army made its way ashore. Supplies were unloaded along with thousands of soldiers. The English got themselves into position, laying siege to the town. The landing could not have gone better. It was a great start; it was not to last.

    For one thing Harfleur was strongly fortified. Its walls had been strengthened not too long before and the defenders even had access to a cannon. As for the men manning those walls they were heavily outnumbered by the English army crowded around laying siege but they would soon show that they had the stomach for a fight.

    Agincourt aug pic Thomas, Duke of Bedford, Henry V’s eldest brother. Thomas was invalided back to England after the siege of Harfleur. (Courtesy of Jonathan Reeve)

    The English could not afford a long delay. The campaigning season was moving on. Although it was not yet clear what Henry’s next move would be, once they had taken Harfleur presumably it would involve moving onto the offensive. If they were to do so as the autumn rains hit, that could cause problems.

    So Henry wanted a quick surrender so that he could move on. He was not to get it. The defenders were further encouraged when early on reinforcements arrived and badly deployed besieging forces were unable to stop them. Henry learned the lesson quickly: the noose was tightened and there would be no repeat. But to a large extent the damage had already been done.

    The siege settled down to a hard grind. English cannon and more old-fashioned siege engines battered the walls remorselessly but there was no sign of any weakening in the defence. Each passing day not only slowed up the English, it also made the arrival of a large French relieving force more likely. They could attack the besiegers from the rear with disastrous results. Henry settled in for a longer than expected siege whilst at the same time not knowing what to expect in terms of a counter-attack from the direction of Rouen. Just weeks in things were already starting to go badly wrong.

    Agincourt - 9781445639499

    W.B. Bartlett's book Agincourt: Henry V, The Man at Arms & The Archer coming September 2015 pre-order your copy today.

10 Item(s)