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Tag Archives: Sharon Bennett Connolly

  • Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest by Sharon Bennett Connolly

    One of the first things I had to do when planning Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest was to decide which women would be included in the book. I had to decide whether I would include as many as possible, with short biographies (which was pretty much how I had written Heroines of the Medieval World), or to write about fewer women, but with more in-depth biographies.

    Detail of the 'Ælfgyva and a certain cleric' scene from the Bayeux Tapestry. (c. Dennis Jarvis, Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest, Amberley Publishing)

    In the end, it was a simple decision, to choose twelve of the more prominent women of the 11th century and dedicate a chapter to each one. Twelve chapters may not seem a lot, but it became evident early on in my research that I would have to include three general chapters, which told the story of the actual events before, during and after the Norman Conquest, and then tell the women’s stories and highlight their place in the wider events of the time.

    And so how to choose who to include?

    Some of the women were quite obvious choices; Harold II’s 20-year relationship with Edith Swanneck and subsequent marriage to Ealdgyth of Mercia were impossible to leave out, as was Matilda of Flanders, the wife of William the Conqueror. And if you were including the wives of two of the contenders, then it would be impossible to leave out the wives of Harald Hardrada, the third contender to the English throne in 1066. He was husband to both Elisiv of Kiev and Thora Thorbergsdottir.

    The stories of these five women formed the backbone of Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest, but they were the easiest choices to include.

    Detail of a miniature of Queen Emma before an altar. (c. British Library Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts, Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest, Amberley Publishing)

    Deciding to tell the story from the beginning of the 11th century onwards meant that the tale had to start with Emma of Normandy. Emma was the only woman to ever be crowned queen of England, twice; as the wife of, firstly, Æthelred II and, secondly, King Cnut. She was also the mother of two English kings; Harthacnut and the saintly king, Edward the Confessor. Emma’s story was the perfect place to start the story of the Norman Conquest; she was an integral part of the politics and government of the first half of the 11th century.

    A woman who may, at first, to appear to be an anomaly to the story of 1066 is Lady Godiva. Her tale is more fiction and legend than fact, but she serves to demonstrate how history can be shrouded in the mists of these legends. While Lady Godiva almost certainly did not ride through Coventry naked, she did exist and was a powerful benefactor of the church, as well as being the matriarch of the House of Mercia, from which King Harold’s wide, Ealdgyth, came – Godiva was her grandmother.

    Another lady who could not be left out comes towards the end of the 1066 story: St Margaret. As one of the last survivors of the Anglo-Saxon royal house, Margaret, was a great marriage prize. And, although her preference was for a life dedicated to God, she married Malcom III Canmor, king of Scots and it is through her daughter, Edith – later known as Matilda – and her marriage to King Henry I, that the blood of the Saxon royal family once again sat on the English throne.

    The final chapter is dedicated to a mysterious woman known as Ælfgyva. One of only three women to appear in the Bayeux Tapestry, Ælfgyva’s identity remains a mystery, though there are many theories….

    Sharon Bennett Connolly's new book Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest is available for purchase now.

  • Heroines of the Medieval World by Sharon Bennett Connolly

    On Saturday, 14th October, Conisbrough Castle was the venue for my first talk after the release of my book, Heroines of the Medieval World. In the glorious sunshine, the Castle looked spectacular, the ideal setting for a history talk.

    I grew up just 5 miles from Conisbrough Castle and so, as a child, every summer holiday included a picnic at the castle and a climb to the top of the keep. As a student I volunteered at the castle, helping out at events and giving guided tours to school groups. In those days, the castle was just a shell, with green slime on the walls, but now it has floors inside, a roof to protect it from the elements and visual displays throughout. The Visitor Centre has a small museum with a cartoon strip telling the castle’s story and interactive displays for the kids. Conisbrough Castle’s only claim to fame seemed to be its link to Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe, in which it played the part of a Saxon stronghold.

    Conisbrough Castle, South Yorkshire, built by Hamelin and Isabel de Warenne in the late twelfth century. (Heroines of the Medieval World, Amberley Publishing)

    However, Conisbrough had been very much a Norman stronghold since the Conquest, given as a prize to one of William the Conquerors’ most loyal followers, William de Warenne, first earl of Warenne and Surrey. My talk took place on the 951st anniversary of the Battle of Hastings, the day the Castle changed hands. On the morning of the battle, it belonged to Harold II, but by the end of the day Harold had lost the kingdom and his life and Conisbrough was a prize of war.

    Heroines of the Medieval World looks at the lives of the women – famous, infamous and unknown who broke the mould. Those who defied social norms and made their own future, consequently changing lives, society and even the course of history. Four of the women in the book had strong connections with Conisbrough Castle, and so it seemed appropriate to hold my first talk and book signing at my ‘home’ castle.

    Roche Abbey, final resting place of Maud Clifford, Countess of Cambridge. (Heroines of the Medieval World, Amberley Publishing)

    My talk concentrated on these four women, telling the stories of their lives and explaining their links to this magnificent castle. The first was Isabel de Warenne, great granddaughter of the first Earl of Warenne and Surrey. Isabel was one of the greatest heiresses in England and it was her second husband, Hamelin, who was responsible for building the keep we still see today. The second Heroine was Joan of Bar, neglected wife of the last de Warenne Earl of Surrey. She was followed by Isabel of Castile, who gave birth to her son, Richard of Conisbrough, Earl of Cambridge, within the castle walls and thus became the matriarch of the York dynasty which would rule England under Edward IV, Edward V and Richard III. And the last was Maud de Clifford, widow of Richard of Conisbrough, who lived out her life at the castle and was buried at nearby Roche Abbey, and who had family on both sides of the Wars of the Roses.

    The talk was aimed at demonstrating the many links that Conisbrough Castle has to the major events in English medieval history, from the Norman Conquest, to the disastrous reign of Edward II and the civil war which became known as the Wars of the Roses. Conisbrough Castle and its former residents have a rich history and it was a pleasure to bring just a few moments of it to life.

    Attended by over 50 people, the audience was made up of friends, family, readers of my book and blog – historytheinterestingbits.com - and visitors who had called at the Castle because it was a gorgeous Saturday afternoon. And they were aged from 3 to 73! I was nervous – the last time I had done a talk was when I used to give tours at this very castle as a student. I had made plenty of notes, but in the end, I never even looked at them. The stories just flowed, from one Medieval Heroine to the next, with the children kept busy counting the number of Heroines, and the number of gruesome deaths!

    However, the audience was lovely. Some had travelled from as far afield as Manchester, Staffordshire and Nottinghamshire. One lady gave me flowers and another gave me a ‘congratulations’ card from The Swinton Book Lovers Club (from my home town). Several people had brought their copies of ‘Heroines of the Medieval World’ for me to sign and many more bought the book on the day – it was a pleasure to sign every single copy.

    I am very grateful to the staff at Conisbrough Castle, who were absolutely wonderful, welcoming guests and encouraging visitors to join the talk, and even offering discounts on Castle entry to anyone who had a copy of my book.

    It was a perfect day.

    Sharon Bennett Connolly's new book Heroines of the Medieval World is available for purchase now.

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