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  • 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.

  • 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.

  • King Cnut and the Viking Conquest of England by W. B. Bartlett

    Emma of Normandy, Cnut and the Norman Conquest of 1066

    The powerful edifice of Corfe Castle. (King Cnut and the Viking Conquest of England 1016, Amberley Publishing)

    There is no year in English history more famous than 1066. The events of half a century before when Cnut the Great, ultimately king of both England and Denmark, took the throne of the country are however much less remembered. That is a shame, for there are some important links between the two events, most significantly through a remarkable woman, Emma of Normandy. She is also largely forgotten when compared to her more famous relative, William, Duke of Normandy; and her story deserves to be told.

    Most remarkably Emma was married to two kings of England, a situation that is made even more significant because her two husbands were bitter rivals of each other. She married her first husband, Æthelred II (the ‘Unready’) in 1002. It was a marriage that brought benefits to both parties, not atypical for a time when most such relationships were entered into for political reasons rather than love. Emma, daughter of Richard I, Duke of Normandy, gained a king as a husband whilst Æthelred obtained an important potential ally. The Duchy of Normandy was populated by men and women who were directly descended from Vikings; and their contemporary relatives from Denmark and Norway had been using it as a base from which to attack England.   

    The atmospheric site of Glastonbury Abbey, burial place of Edmund Ironside and visited by Cnut. (King Cnut and the Viking Conquest of England 1016, Amberley Publishing)

    Two sons were born to Æthelred and Emma, named Edward and Alfred. However, things did not go well for England in the meantime. In 1013, Æthelred fled the country when he was defeated by the Viking warlord, Sweyn Forkbeard, who had invaded his country with a large force. The exiled English king found sanctuary, along with the rest of his family, in Normandy. However he was not there long, for soon afterwards Sweyn unexpectedly died and Æthelred was invited back to England. Sweyn’s son, Cnut, was caught by surprise and was forced to flee for his life when defeated in battle after a surprise attack. As if by a miracle Æthelred found himself once more king of England.

    However, this incredible turnaround in fortunes did not last. Æthelred soon after died and Cnut came back with another large force and ultimately succeeded in taking the throne of England. Despite the fact that he was already in a relationship with Ælfgifu of Northampton, he looked around for a wife to increase his legitimacy. Emma was the perfect candidate, particularly as she was now very conveniently widowed. And so in 1017 Emma and Cnut were married.

    The statue of Alfred looks over the ruins of Shaftesbury Abbey where Cnut died in Novmeber 1035. (King Cnut and the Viking Conquest of England 1016, Amberley Publishing)

    However, the marriage introduced complications into Emma’s family life. The children she had from this relationship, namely her son Harthacnut, took precedence over those from the first in the line of succession. Edward and Alfred continued to be brought up in exile at the court in Normandy. In the process they seem to have become significantly ‘Nomanised’. There appears to have been little contact between Emma and her absentee sons whilst Cnut was still alive. However this situation changed when first Cnut died in 1035, to be followed a few years later by Harthacnut. By now, Emma’s son from her first marriage, Alfred, was also dead, expiring in agony after being brutally blinded following a failed attempt to invade England after Cnut’s demise. This left Edward as the last man standing, and the heir apparent to the throne of England.

    Edward therefore became king, being known to subsequent generations as ‘the Confessor’. However, he died in 1066, leaving no children behind him. This left the throne vacant; it went first of all to Harold Godwinesson and then, after his death at Hastings, to William of Normandy. Edward whilst alive had fostered close links with Normandy and even invited in some Norman advisers. There were even claims that he had promised that the throne would go to William after his death. And so, in 1066, the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of England breathed its last, an unintended indirect consequence of the marriage politics of the period half a century before which saw a Viking ruler of England and, uniquely in royal dynastic history, the remarkable story of a woman who was queen to two kings of England.

    W. B. Bartlett's new paperback book King Cnut and the Viking Conquest of England 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.

  • Ireland The struggle for Power by Jeffrey James

    The quest for Catholic emancipation during the reign of James II resulted in Ireland becoming a proxy battleground between competing European powers, the legacy of which has blighted modern times. Two Irelands evolved: an impoverished Gaeldom and a more prosperous class which lived well on incomes gleaned from confiscated land. It was an uncompromising system which between the years 1728 and 1845 produced almost thirty artificial famines.

    SAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERA The Wolfe Tone Statue at Bantry

    The outbreak of war in the American colonies provided Irish patriots with an ideological platform for protest. Revolutionary upheavals there and on the Continent were ushering in a new age of Republicanism, a system at odds with the British model of liberal, constitutional monarchy. In 1798, rebellion flared in Ireland. With French assistance, United Irishmen sought to overthrow British rule and declare Ireland a republic. The man most closely identified with them, Theodore Wolfe Tone, was descended from a Cromwellian planter. An avant-garde Presbyterian, Wolfe-Tone brought together dissident Protestants and Catholics under a common banner, asserting the ‘rights of man’, separatism from Britain, and Catholic emancipation. The rising failed and in tragic circumstances Wolfe Tone lost his life.

    Not all emerging rebel groups nurtured Republican agendas. The aims of some were economic and protectionist. These were bands like the Whiteboys and Defenders; loose Catholic factions who targeted debt-collectors and landlords and who were opposed not just by the state but also by rival Protestant gangs like the Peep O’ Day boys and the Orange boys. The latter erected notices warning Catholics that unless they left Armagh – then Ireland’s most populated county – they would have their souls blown ‘to the low hills of Hell’. This was a politically loaded reference to abuses suffered by Ireland’s Catholics in Cromwellian times. The root of such violent rhetoric was competition for land and Catholic penetration of the linen industry at a time when mechanisation was putting downward pressure on wages. The 1790s was perhaps the decade in Ireland when ‘troubles’ first draped themselves in a discernibly modern form.

    Ireland The struggle for Power 3 Whiteboy memorial co Cork The memorial stones at Keimaneigh, laid in 1999 (Ireland The Struggle for Power, Amberley Publishing)

    My new book Ireland the struggle for power tracks through time from Dark-Age Ireland to the Jacobite wars, then on to the emergence of groups like the United Irishmen, Whiteboys and Orange Boys. There are warring high-kings, soldiers of Christ, Vikings, Cambro-Normans adventurers, Anglo-Irish lords, marauding Scots and land-hungry English and Scottish colonists. Under Angevin kings, Dublin and its environs became the western outpost of Empire, but by the turn of the fourteenth-century, military defeats at the hands of a resurgent Gaeldom turned the city’s hinterland into a simmering war-zone. Even more challenging for the occupying English was a Scottish invasion after the Battle of Bannockburn. From Ulster, Edward Bruce’s Scots and a contingent of Irish bravehearts formed a second front against the English, leaving Ireland’s economy in ruins and the legitimacy of English rule in tatters.

    Home rule for Ireland may first have been mooted during the Wars of the Roses in the mid fifteenth-century – the result perhaps of a weakened English state under Henry VI and later Yorkist opportunism. A distrusted Ireland then groaned under the weight and scrutiny of Henry VIII. His daughters continued his containment policies. The first of several new towns outside the Pale, at places like Philipstown (now Daingean) and Maryborough (now Port Laoise), were settled by what the Irish called planters. Territories in modern-day Counties Offaly and Laois were split up and re-named the King’s and Queen’s Counties, after Philip of Spain and Mary of England. These powerful, married monarchs were keen to see Ireland become a more vibrant and integrated part of their joint Catholic domain. Colonising the north, however, proved a more problematic proposition. Northerner Shane O’Neill was described by Elizabeth I as ‘our most cankrid rebel’. Military disasters in the mid seventeenth-century culminated in the infamous Cromwellian settlement, military occupation and the twin horrors for Catholics of ‘Hell or Connaught’ – the catalyst for future violence.


    Jeffrey James' new book Ireland The struggle for Power: From the Dark Ages to the Jacobites is available for purchase now.

  • Did Harold die at Hastings? by Teresa Cole

    Although it was a turning point in British history we don’t actually know exactly how King Harold died. Two different stories have come down to us. The traditional one, known to every schoolchild probably from that day to this, is that he was fatally struck in the eye by an arrow in the final stages of the battle of Hastings. The Carmen de Hastingae Proelio (Song of the Battle of Hastings) however, gives an altogether different version.

    This Carmen is probably the earliest account of the events of 1066, a poem in Latin prepared rather hastily in 1067 for presentation to King William on his return to Normandy. The only manuscript copy of the poem disappeared some thirty years after it was written and was only rediscovered in 1856 leading to suspicions that it was a forgery. Now, however, it is generally accepted as authentic and the author is named as Guy, Bishop of Amiens.

    In this version of the story, as the English shield wall is finally weakening and beginning to break up, William himself spots a chance to dispose of his rival once and for all. Getting together a group of knights, he deliberately targets Harold, still in the thick of the fighting, and sets out to hack him to death. Gruesome descriptions are given of how Harold was pierced through with a lance and ‘drenched the earth with a gushing torrent of blood,’ at the same time being beheaded and disembowelled and even having his leg cut off.

    Which of these stories is true, we really don’t know. William of Poitiers, a Norman monk who had previously been a soldier himself, gives an account of the conquest full of detail on everything else, but says nothing at all about how Harold met his end. It has been suggested that he might have found the deliberate ganging up on Harold and the subsequent butchery to be a shameful act, and did not want to tarnish his hero William with such a deed, particularly when the victim was a consecrated king.

    the-norman-conquest-3 The death of Harold seems to cover two alternative versions of this as contained in the different accounts. Most take the figure on the left to be Harold, but the caption covers both. (By special permission of the City of Bayeux, The Norman Conquest, Amberley Publishing)

    The other almost contemporary record, the Bayeux Tapestry, is as unclear as usual. The caption, ‘Harold is slain’, is spread over two different deaths. One under the word Harold shows a man clutching an arrow apparently stuck in his eye, while the other has a man cut down by the sword of a horseman. The suggestion that both are Harold in a kind of cartoon sequence, can probably be discounted. In the first picture he is shown with a shield, but in the second this has disappeared and instead he is dropping a battle axe as he falls. It has also been pointed out that if both were intended to be Harold he seems to have had time to change his socks in between.

    Wace, born on Jersey and brought up at Caen in Normandy, wrote his Roman de Rou some hundred years after the event, intending it more as an entertainment than a serious history, but he also has the story of an arrow. He places it, however, towards the start of the battle and has Harold pluck it out and carry on fighting. In fact he flatly declares, ‘I do not indeed know … and have not heard say, who it was that smote down King Harold, nor by what weapon he was wounded.’ This suggests that a century after Hastings neither version of events seemed to be regarded as definitive, at least in Normandy.

    The uncertainty about the mode of death extends even more to the disposal of the body. By the time William finished his pursuit of the fugitives and returned to the battlefield it would probably have been quite dark. In the meantime, as depicted in a whole series of cartoons along the lower frieze of the Tapestry, others had been busy gleaning everything they could from the fallen, leaving the corpses, and no doubt others who were merely wounded, lying naked as they were born. How then was the dead king to be recognised among the pile of bodies?

    There is a story that when women came to claim husbands, fathers and brothers from those left on the battlefield Harold was so disfigured that it was left to his long time mistress Edith Swan-neck to identify the body by some mark known to her alone. Next we hear that Harold’s mother, Gytha, came asking for the body. She is said to have offered his weight in gold in exchange but was flatly refused. Instead we are told William gave the body to one William Malet, telling him to bury it secretly on the seashore and adding that since he had guarded the coast so devotedly in life he could go on guarding it in death.

    A strong tradition, however, claims that, although William refused money for Harold’s body, he did in fact turn it over to Countess Gytha, or at least to two canons from Waltham Abbey who may have supported her claim, and who then brought it back to the abbey and buried it before the high altar. The basis of this claim comes from William of Malmesbury writing in 1125, and he is backed up by Wace in the 1160s, though Wace adds, ‘I do not know who it was that bore him thither, neither do I know who buried him.’ In the abbey grounds today there still stands a memorial to Harold, reputed to mark the site of his grave, and this is certainly the nearest the last consecrated Saxon king has ever come to a gravestone. It is recorded, though, that when on one occasion the grave was excavated it was empty.

    Perhaps that would not be surprising if we were to believe another legend, recorded in a ‘Life of Harold’ also written at Waltham that gives a completely different end to the story. According to this Harold survived the battle of Hastings and in fact lived for many years after.

    This Vita Haroldi or The Life of Harold was among a collection of ancient documents known as the Harley Collection, preserved after the dissolution of the monasteries and eventually sold to the newly founded British Museum in 1753. It appears to be an early fourteenth century copy of an original work from the late twelfth century, written by a secular canon of Waltham Abbey. This in turn claimed to be based on a shorter primary source from someone with direct personal knowledge of the facts alleged.

    The story it tells is quite simply that Harold survived Hastings, that another body was wrongly identified as his, and that he was slowly nursed back to health over a period of two years. He then went abroad to try and raise help to dislodge William, failed in that, became a pilgrim and eventually returned to England to live out his life at Chester as a hermit.

    Hastings, Chester or Waltham? 1066 or sometime between 1090 and 1150? Harold, last Anglo-Saxon King of England died and was buried, but how, when or where we may never know.


    Teresa Cole's new book The Norman Conquest is available for purchase now.

  • Dragon’s Blood - A Mystical Medieval Treatment or Natural Remedy?

    Dragon’s Blood and Willow Bark (Amberley Publishing April 2015) was the title of my original medieval medicine book. I chose the title to illustrate and contrast the use of both mystical and natural treatments in the middle ages and to consider the efficacy of these remedies.

    Willow bark had been used since ancient times to relieve inflammation and reduce fevers. We now know that this plant-based remedy contains salicylic acid, an active constituent of aspirin, so modern science understands how and why this would have benefitted the patient.

    As well as medicines derived from plants, medieval doctors also included animal-based remedies in their pharmacopeia. Some of these would horrify us today, such as a treatment for gout that required boiling newborn puppies! But others are far less grim, such as snail slime, used in medieval times to treat minor burns and scalds and currently making a comeback. Marketed as ‘snail gel’, this natural remedy aids the healing of cuts, insect bites and even acne spots. If you think how vulnerable the underside of a snail must be as it travels over spiky plant material and gritty soil, an antiseptic lubricant that promotes the healing of minor nicks and abrasions is an evolutionary asset. Modern medical research is now also looking at the possibilities of substances like snake venom and leech saliva as possible sources of new treatments.

    But what of the dragon’s blood mentioned in my book title? An ingredient mentioned in many medieval remedies, as the name suggests, was this some mysterious magical potion obtained from mythical creatures? Of course not. Dragon’s blood is neither mystical nor even animal-related.

    Microsoft Word - An article for Amberley Dragons Blood A Dracaena draco tree in Tenerife in the Canary Islands. Courtesy: Esculapio

    It is a red resin originally from the tree Dracaena draco, a native of the Canary Islands and Morocco. When the bark of the tree is damaged, it oozes a blood-red sap which hardens to form a resinous protective layer over the site of injury. Historically, it was sold by medieval merchants as either lumps of dark red resin or a bright red powder, its price hugely inflated by the incredible story told of its origins. According to these tales, trees were not involved at all; the resin was said to be the solidified blood of dragons.

    According to a thirteenth-century Bestiary[1] – the medieval equivalent of a zoology guide with Christian overtones – dragons and elephants were mortal enemies and any chance encounter between these creatures resulted in combat to the death. Apparently, the dragons weren’t as invincible as most legends suggested and the elephants were always victorious. This may explain why they are so much more common than dragons today.

    Dragon’s blood was used as a dye and a paint pigment as well as having medicinal properties. The first century Greek botanist-physician, Dioscorides, described its uses in his herbal, De Materia Medica, prescribing it as a treatment for respiratory and gastrointestinal problems, particularly for diarrhoea. Trotula of Salerno – who may have been a female lecturer in medicine at the University of Salerno in the twelfth century – recommended it in a long list of ingredients to make a remedy for treating women who suffer menorrhagia (heavy bleeding during their periods):

    After eating or during meals, let there be given to them to drink... a powder of coral and gum arabic, pomegranate, myrtleberry seed and purslane... great plantain, knotgrass, dragon’s blood, burnt elephant bones and quince seed[2].

    Dragon 1 An elephant meets a dragon: British Library, an English bestiary, dated to between 1236 and c.1250, MS Harley 3244, f. 39v.

    By 1402, the myth about the elephants and dragons was no longer widely believed and dragon’s blood was now understood to come from a plant, but it was still used in medicine as a cure-all. It was applied to wounds as a coagulant to stop the bleeding; it was taken by mouth for reducing fevers, curing diarrhoea and dysentery, mouth ulcers, sore throat, intestinal and stomach disorders, as well as for chest problems and it was applied to the skin as an eczema treatment.

    But did this exotic substance have any beneficial effects? The answer is yes, it probably did. Today, alternative medicine uses dragon’s blood as an antiseptic wash for wounds and internally for chest pains, menstrual problems and post-partum bleeding after childbirth. More orthodox medical research has found that dragon’s blood has not only antibiotic properties, but one of its components, taspine, has antiviral and wound-healing effects[3]. Animal and laboratory tests have shown some promise for the use of dragon’s blood in modern medicine but, to date, there are no human clinical studies verifying these effects.

    Dragon 2 Dragon’s blood (Daemonorops draco). Courtesy: Andy Dingley

    These days, dragon’s blood resin is still imported – at one time it was used to varnish Stradivarius violins – but Dracaena draco is just one source. The resin can also be obtained from Dracaena cinnabari which is native to the island of Socotra in the Indian Ocean and this may well have been another source available to Islamic medicine and to Europe via the Incense Road. Most supplies now come from various species of Daemonorops, native to Malaysia and Indonesia.

    For the most serious diseases, prevention was always better than cure, but some concoctions were reckoned to do both. The following was written by an anonymous chronicler, describing how the lives of the people of Winchester in England were saved when plague came to the city in 1471:

    The most sovereign medicine for the pestilence concluded by doctors of physic both beyond the sea and in England, also about the king in late days in the reign of King Edward the IV the tenth year [1471]. Take four spoonful of water and five spoonful of vinegar and treacle the size of a bean and mix all this together and drink it, fasting once a week or twice in a month and if you are not infected it will preserve you and if you are infected it will save your life with regular habits. This is proved and has saved 300 or 400 lives of men, women and children in the city of Winchester in the year of the king above said.

    Microsoft Word - An article for Amberley Dragons Blood Concocting Theriac, The Arcadian Library, Jacob Meydenbach's Hortus Sanitatis 1491 Nicolas of Poland

    This recipe sounds so cheap and easy. If “with regular habits” it prevented and cured plague why should anyone die of that dreaded disease? Water, vinegar and treacle sound simple enough. The trouble was this ‘treacle’ wasn’t just any old treacle. It was ‘theriac’. According to legend, theriac was invented by King Mithridates VI, King of Pantus (now in Turkey) in the second century BCE. The king had a great fear of being assassinated by poison[4]. To be certain of having the correct antidote, if anyone ever did succeed in poisoning him, he experimented on his prisoners with every known poison and all possible antidotes. His numerous toxicity experiments eventually led him to declare that he had discovered an antidote for every venomous reptile and poisonous substance. He then mixed all the effective antidotes into a single one, which he called ‘mithridate’, naming this incredible cure-all after himself. Mithridate contained opium, myrrh, saffron, ginger, cinnamon, castor oil and dragon’s blood, along with some forty other ingredients.

    When the Romans defeated Mithridates, his medical notes fell into their hands and Roman medici began to use them. The Emperor Nero’s physician, Andromachus, improved upon mithridate and brought the total number of ingredients to sixty-four, including viper’s flesh, a mashed decoction of which, first roasted then well aged, has since proved the most constant ingredient. Crushed amber and pearls added to its cost and exotic appeal. Apparently, the Roman Emperor, Marcus Aurelius, took it on regular basis on the advice of his physician, Galen. After all, he was wealthy and could afford all those expensive ingredients.

    In the medieval period, the traditional name became corrupted and shortened to ‘theriac’ and this, the most elaborate of all medicaments, now with more than a hundred ingredients, was called Venice or Genoa treacle by the English, depending on which Italian city state the merchants imported it from. But even if you could afford this ‘sovereign medicine’ or ‘magic bullet’ the secret of success lay in those two words ‘regular habits’. What were one man’s perfect regular habits could be another man’s destruction, depending on his humoral complexion, so the outcome was still in doubt, even for the rich.

    As for the common folk, there was no chance of them getting hold of that ‘bean-sized’ amount of treacle, even enough for a single dose and, when it came to their ‘regular habits’, of course they were deplorably ‘irregular’ in every way. Especially irregular were the habits of women – ever unpredictable, according to medieval belief, but that’s another story.


    Toni Mount's new paperback edition of Dragon's Blood called Medieval Medicine: Its Mysteries and Science is available now.



    [1] British Library, English bestiary, MS Harley 3244, dated between 1236 and 1250

    [2] Green, M. H., The Trotula – An English Translation of the Medieval Compendium of Women’s Medicine (Philadelphia, USA: The University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002), p.70.

    [3] (accessed 27 September 2014)

    [4] Pickover, C. A., The Medical Book – from Witch Doctors to Robot Surgeons, 250 Milestones in the History of Medicine (New York: Sterling Publishing, 2012), p.44.

    © Toni Mount April 2016

  • Edward IV - Glorious Son of York by Jeffrey James

    edward pic 1 Edward IV (Courtesy of Ripon Cathedral)

    Perhaps no English king fought harder for the throne than King Edward IV, personified by Shakespeare as ‘this Sun of York’; an allusion to the three suns which are said to have risen in splendour prior to the Battle of Mortimer’s Cross, near Hereford, fought on 2 or 3 February 1461, a perceived supernatural display seen by Edward as a favourable omen, presaging victory. Courtier, Philippe de Commines, recalled Edward as ‘the handsomest prince my eyes ever beheld’. Tudor historian Sir Thomas More described him as ‘princely to behold, of body mighty’. In true Plantagenet mould, he stood six foot three inches tall. Naturally charismatic, with abundant charm and bonhomie, Edward approached every man (and woman) ‘of high and low degree’ with great familiarity. Down to earth, easy-going and with an eye for the ladies, his enjoyment of the trappings of luxury has sometimes been portrayed as a weakness, but might more generously be extolled as a virtue; a necessary display of status and achievement in an age which demanded it.

    Edward was a usurper, his kingship was won on the battlefield, the result of a conflict caused by upheavals at the end of the Hundred Years War. As such he could be seen as an opportunist. In my book, Edward IV, Glorious Son of York, I explore the background to this takeover and chart the difficulties Edward faced consolidating his rule. It was a bloody business. The period between June 1469 and May 1471 has been described as one of great instability ‘without parallel in English history since 1066’. Governance changed hands three times, the crown twice, and major battles for the throne were fought.

    edward pic 2 Elizabeth Woodville, whom Edward IV married in sercet, putting love above the interests of the state

    Edward was a fighter, but not just for the sake of it. He considered his greatest martial achievement to have been the bloodless campaign and settlement with the French King Louis XI during his second reign, rather than any of the epic battles for which he is better known. Even so, he had the knack of seizing the initiative and winning battles, but they came at great cost: his victory at Towton near York, fought in a snow blizzard, has been characterised as England’s most brutal battle, its outcome described as akin to a national disaster in terms of casualties inflicted; the Battle of Barnet, fought in dense fog ten years later on the outskirts of London, another of Edward’s victories, gained the dubious accolade of being the fiercest battle fought in Europe for a hundred years.

    Like the visibility at Towton and Barnet, much that occurred in Edward’s day remains opaque: marriage carried out in secret, remorseless propaganda, malicious slanders and proxy wars. These years have been described as among the darkest of our annals, and not just for lack of primary source material. Motivations and rivalries that existed within a closely inter-married nobility were of paramount importance in shaping what occurred. The main players included Edward’s father, Richard duke of York, described as England’s most illustrious failure of the Middle Ages; the period’s great facilitator of political change, Richard Neville earl of Warwick, known as the ‘kingmaker’; the ill-starred Henry VI who Edward deposed (twice); Henry VI’s steadfastly loyal Queen, Margaret of Anjou, a woman maligned as the ‘she-wolf’ of France, but who bravely defended her husband’s and her son’s rights with all the means she could muster; Edward’s seductive wife, Elizabeth Woodville, an upwardly-mobile commoner who Edward married in secret, putting love above the interests of the state. There were also Edward’s ambitious brothers, George duke of Clarence and Richard duke of Gloucester. Richard famously seized the throne once, yet Edward did it twice, becoming the only English king to both win and regain his crown through force of arms.


    Jeffrey James' new book Edward IV Glorious Son of York is available for purchase now.

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