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  1. You probably don't know, but a few weeks ago was my birthday. To celebrate my partner got tickets for us to go and see the Ancient Lives New Discoveries exhibit at the British Museum. I've been dying to see this ever since the original media coverage for it's opening, so it was great to finally get along to it. We originally chose my birthday month as the exhibition was due to close a few weeks after, but it has been so popular that they've extended it to April 2015. This means that you've still got time to go and see it!

    Ancient Lives

    This exhibit focuses on the mummified remains of eight individuals from ancient Egypt and the Sudan, including the Roman and early Christian periods. They include those found with sarcophagi (not necessarily the right sarcophagus though) and who went through the full ritualised mummification process, through to those that were simply buried in the hot, dry sand and naturally preserved. Through the exhibit you see both the mummies, the sarcophagi where appropriate, and other ancient Egyptian artefacts that are either directly related to the mummies (including canopic jars) or which add context and detail to the information given in the displays. 

    New Discoveries

    You may be wondering what the point of the exhibit is. After all the British Museum already has multiple galleries dedicated to ancient Egypt, including displays of mummies, so why pay £10 for this?

    The difference is that all eight of these mummies have been digitally "unwrapped". Using the latest technology they scanned each mummy, and used the images to create digital 3D images of the remains under the wrappings. They managed to discover medical conditions, such as plaque in leg arteries and dental abcesses, amulets and other ritualistic equipment that was under the bandages, and in one instance they found a mummification tool left inside a skull.

    Probably the one let-down from it was that no attempt was made to recreate how the people would have looked when alive. One thing I loved about visiting the Jorvik Centre in York was that they using digital imaging to show what the skeletal remains looked like in life. However I think that it's easier to do that if you're just working with a skull, rather than mummified remains, so it may have simply been impossible to do in this exhibit.

    I will admit, I didn't learn much more about ancient Egypt than I already knew, and I'm certainly neither an expert nor an Egyptologist. But I did learn that medical technology has come on leaps and bounds in the past ten years, and that it can be put to some great uses in archaeology as well as medicine. I hope that the Museum manages to get funding for more scans of other mummies in their possession in the future, it would be incredible to find out what else is hidden under the bandages!

  2. If you've read some of Philippa Gregory's latest works then you'll have seen the occasional mentions of Margaret of York. In "The White Queen" she's sent off to marry the Duke of Burgundy, and in "The White Princess" she is mentioned helping the pretenders that try to claim Henry VII's throne.

    After doing some very basic reading on Margaret of York I realised that she deserved far more interest than just a footnote in some historical fiction, so I included her in Volume 2 of my eBook series. As part of my research I got hold of a copy of Christine Weightman's "Margaret of York: The Diabolical Duchess" and got down to some serious reading. marofburgundy2

    This book is a really good look at Margaret's life. It starts with her marriage to Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy, skips back to her birth and childhood, and then winds forward again to look at the rest of her life. Normally I'd complain about the time skipping, but this actually worked very well as it set the scene for the life that Margaret was about to marry in to, complete with descriptions of the sumptuous welcome and wedding festivities, and was then followed by the descriptions of a a young woman growing up in an England frequently at war.

    At 201 pages of biography (plus the usual bibliography, index etc) this certainly isn't the longest book, but it doesn't skimp on details. Along with setting the historical context, Weightman also examines Margaret's personal relationships. She never had any children with her husband, but she was close to her step-daughter Mary and then played an important role in raising Mary's children. Weightman also looks at Margaret's popularity with the Burgundian population, and her political skill at negotiating with France after the death of her husband, before moving on to support Lambert Simnel in his attempt to claim the throne of England.

    Weightman paints a rich picture of a woman who was politicially savvy and extremely popular. For many people her history is only interesting when it ties in to England's, through her attempts to oust Henry VII. But the rest of her life is equally as fascinating. Like many upper-class women in the Medieval period, she was sent abroad to marry a man that she barely knew. Unlike many women however, she never had children with her husband. But she still managed to carve out a prominent role in both domestic and international politics, something which was extremely rare for a childless woman in that time.

    My biggest criticism about this book is the pictures. The book itself is printed on gorgeous high quality paper, making it quite weighty even though it's not very big. But the photos are printed in black and white. I'm sure this must have been a cost-cutting exercise, but frankly I'd rather have cheaper pages and colour images, especially for the portraits of the leading figures at the time. It's an expensive book at £15, I'd expect decent colour images as part of that.

    Regardless of my preference for nice pictures, this is still a very good read. If you've ever wondered about Margaret of York, I'd recommend this biography (or if you want an overview you can buy Volume 2 of my ebook).

  3. It's an inevitable part of historical research that one will be reading a book about one event or person, and find a secondary individual that also sounds interesting and draws your attention away. While reading Alison Weir's book on Katherine Swynford (which I recently reviewed) I came across Constance of Castile, the wife to whom Swynford was "the other woman".

    Constance was the daughter of King Pedro/Peter "the Cruel" of Castile. She was technically illegitimate, her mother was the King's mistress, but after repudiating his actual wife Peter claimed to have married his mistress in the past and declared that this then made Constance his legitimate daughter and therefore his heir to the Castilian throne. Unfortunately not everyone saw it that way, and Peter's cruelty became his undoing when he was overthrown by his illegitimate half-brother Henry of Trastamara. Peter fled to Gascony with his daughters, and appealed to Edward "The Black Prince" of England for help.

    Edward agreed to help but with certain conditions, which included Constance and her sister Isabella being kept in "honourable captivity" by the English, as hostages for their father's good behaviour. When Peter died the throne was officially claimed by his half-brother Henry, and the girls were left with very little. In to this problematic situation stepped John of Gaunt, who married Constance while his brother Edmund picked up Isabella. John's first wife, Blanche of Lancaster, had died a few years before leaving him with a brood of children that needed a mother.

    Through Constance's claim John hoped that he could gain a throne of his own. He appears to have been utterly loyal to his father King Edward III, his brother Edward the Black Prince and then his nephew Richard who inherited as the Black Prince died before their father. He didn't want the throne of England, but he did want to be King of something. He and Constance though do not appear to have been a well-matched couple, John was an active man who took a great deal of interest in managing his lands and looking after his and Blanche's children. Constance appears to have preferred a more quiet life with the ladies she brought with her from Spain. Alison Weir points out that proof of this comes from the fact that they only had two  children in their twenty three years of marriage, a daughter called Catherine and a short-lived son named John. Likewise during his first marriage John of Gaunt was faithful to Blanche, whereas while married to Constance he had at least one long-term affair (Katherine Swynford) and probably other brief ones.

    In the end Constance never got her father's throne despite her and John's best efforts. When she died in 1394 she was buried in England, apart from a few months in Castile with her husband while they tried to reclaim the throne she never returned to her homeland. But her daughter Catherine took her place for her, as part of the deal to stop John and Constance claiming the throne Catherine was married to King Henry's son and became Queen Catalina of Castile. In time Catalina was also to become the great-grandmother of a famous English queen, Catherine of Aragon.

    If you've liked this post and want to start learning more about women in history, you can check out my eBook series!

  4. Five Reasons To Buy a Tote Bag!

    I must admit, when I heard about the plastic bag ban coming in to force in England I was a bit annoyed. I know it's been common in many coHistory Tote Baguntries for a while, but it still seemed like a silly thing to me, probably becase I reuse my carrier bags constantly in supermarkets and then reuse them again as bin liners when they're coming to the end of their life.

    But with the ban getting closer I started to wean myself off the plastic and move towards the tote. Luckily I recently started selling tote bags in the shop, so I decided I treat myself to one of my own bags and then I could at least give it a quality test-run and see if I could adapt to the change.

    Luckily along with surviving all the books and potatos I dragged in it, carrying my new tote bag gave me some good reasons to encourage others to take them up.

    1. They fold up well

    My "main" bag is a big rucksack, which I originally bought when I started my BA (10 years ago, shhh!) to help lug my laptop around. Since then it has carried many other items, and now it has a tote bag permanently folded up and stored in the small pocket at the front. I also managed to fit it in to my handbag and a quick test found that it fitted in my boyfriend's jacket pocket. Plus they don't make that annoying rustling noise when you walk along, so bonus silence!

    2. They're pretty tough

    I mentioned potatoes and books, which makes my grocery list sound a bit mental. In reality I used my tote bag to carry books to and from the library and my flat. Occasionally I can get away with only getting two books in the library, which are quite easy to carry. But mostly I end up with large, heavy recipe books, a biography or two and some historical fiction paperbacks. Luckily the tote can easily survive the large, heavy stuff leaving my arms for the paperbacks.

    Likewise the weekly food shop can include potatoes, which are a heavy nuisance but very tasty when cooked. I also buy pre-baked rolls, the packaging for which often pokes giant holes in carrier bags, which occasionally split. Now my lovely tote has no problems with pointy plastic, and it keeps my potatoes safe too!

    3. I get to show off my history geekiness

    With plastic bags all I get to show off is that I shop in Tesco and Waitrose. On top of that I also feel a bit embarrassed when I get the wrong bag out in the wrong shop. A Waitrose bag in Tesco says that I'm happy to get my Green Clubcard points for reusing bags, but it's not THEIR bags I'm reusing. In Waitrose using a Tesco bag just screams that I want to spend the extra money, but I'm worried about appearing too middle class to everyone on the District line. It's a bit of a minefield.

     But now I simply get to show everyone that I love history, and in time I'll most certainly be adding ancient history and archaeology designs as well, at which point I'll either be carrying around three bags or making a very difficult choice over which really is my favourite.

    4. They're colourful

    When I was looking for bag suppliers I was determined to not get a neutral coloured bag. It might be a tiny bit more environmentally friendly, since it doesn’t involve the dying process, but I find them boring. I deliberately wanted something brightly coloured so it would stand out and look nice. Currently I have red in the shop but future designs will include purple, green and orange. Should make them easy to find as well!

    5. They're machine washable

    It's incredibly annoying when you get a carrier bag and fully intend to reuse it, and then get home to find that a carton of orange juice has exploded all over the inside, or the pint of milk that you tried to keep upright has fallen over and leaked all over it. You could run the bag under the tap to try to wash it out, but it seems like rather a lot of effort for a piece of plastic that probably also has a hole or two in it, so you bin it even though you know it's not very environmentally friendly.

    Tote bags on the other hand don't need to be run under the tap. You can just chuck them in the washing machine with the laundry and it'll come out in one piece, not smelling of old milk or oranges. I've run my one through the washing machine (I didn't spill milk on it, I just wanted to test it) and found that it survives a 60 degree wash! If you're really fussy you can even iron the back of it to get the creases out.

    As you can see, there are plenty of fantastic reasons to start using tote bags! If history is your fandom then I'd highly recommend you check out my lovely red tote bags, and if you buy one and Tweet a photo of yourself with it to @CreateHistorian then I'll send you a discount code for 10% off your next order!

  5. One of my colleagues at work is a big fan of quiz and game shows on TV, and after finding out that I am very interested in history she has started to save up any history-based questions she sees so that she can test me and a few other colleagues the next day.

    A recent question was on one of the King Georges, I ended up making an educated guess as I don't know much about the Georgian or Regency periods, and got the answer wrong. But a discussion of things we've learned through these shows prompted me to explain one of the few times I've managed to get an answer right while watching QI; The King Henry Question.

    I think the basic question was "How many King Henrys has England had?", for most people the answer would be "8" as we haven't had a King Henry since the wife-killer died.henryii

    The correct answer though was that we've had nine. Along with all the numbered kings the ninth is "Young King Henry" who, if he had lived, would have been King Henry III. He was the eldest surviving son of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine. At the time the English crown had only been in the Plantagenet family for one generation, Henry II was a great-grandson of the Conqueror. There was also a distinct blurring of the lines between England and France as barons from England owned land in France, likewise French nobles had diplomatic interests in England and occasionally married their daughters to English nobility. Not only that but Henry II himself had grown up on the Continent and his wife had been Queen of France before she married him.

    This lead to the curious incident of attempting to adapt French Royal customs to the English Royal family. In France it was customary to crown the heir to the throne as King while his father was still alive. In theory this would give the next generation a chance to learn the art of reigning through observing their older parent, and meant a smoother transition should the King die suddenly in warfare or a hunting accident. It also meant that if the older King decided to go on Crusade he could leave his son behind to rule as King in his stead without worrying about renegade nobles rebelling.

    This was a French custom but not an English one, in England the heir was only crowned King once his father died. But Henry II decided to try the French custom. His son wanted power, this was a way to curb his enthusiasm without giving away too much. His son was crowned in 1170 and became known as "Henry The Young King", although in reality he was given no power or real influence. Henry II was notoriously jealous of his power and incredibly reluctant to give any of it up. How can a Prince learn to rule if the King won't show him?

    richard1stIn the end Young Henry, fed up with being treated like a child and egged-on by his father-in-law, the King of France, rebelled against his father in 1173 along with his brothers and his mother Eleanor. They failed, Young Henry and his brothers managed to escape the situation with a few new castles, Eleanor of Aquitaine was locked up. But in the end it wasn't enough and Young Henry rebelled again in 1183. He contracted dysentry while on campaign against his father, and died on 11th June 1183. He never officially became Henry III, the practise of crowning sons in their father's life time was never repeated in England, and his crown instead passed to his brother, the future King Richard I.

    So next time someone asks you how many King Henrys this country has had, remember that it's a trick question!