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  1. What do you do when you've booted your husband off the throne? Name your teenager son as king and crown him as quickly as possible!

    On 1st February 1327, Isabella of France did just that. After years of humiliation thanks to her weak husband and his favourites (you can read about her wedding here), she had led a rebellion against King Edward II, ably assisted by her lover Roger Mortimer. Isabella won, Edward senior was captured, and suddenly the Queen was left with a massive problem.King Edward III

    Since she was both a woman and French, Isabella couldn't claim the throne in her own right. Nor could Roger Mortimer, he wasn't a member of the royal family, and him ruling would lead to a serious civil war. Instead they decided to skip the key point of English succession, which required the former king to be dead, and had Edward junior named king. With his father bullied in to giving up the throne to his son (no English king had abdicated before), the fourteen year old boy was declared King Edward III on 25th January 1327.

    The fact that the coronation was held a week later shows that Isabella needed to move fast. It wasn't the first rushed coronation, Henry III had to be crowned so quickly that there was no actual crown, his mother had to use a gold collar in it's place. But like Henry, Edward was facing problems within his own country. While many had hated his father, they weren't too happy about him being removed by a French woman and her lover. Not only that but at fourteen it was obvious he was too young to be allowed to rule on his own. Edward III's coronation simply showed the world that he was a puppet king, with mummy pulling the strings.

    As it turned out, Edward III would go down in history as one of England's greatest kings. His fifty year rule saw changes to English law and culture, and with his wife Philippa of Hainault he had a large family, unique among those of his ancestors in that his sons actually got along with both him and each other.

    Proof then that a rushed coronation didn't necessarily lead to a bad king.

  2. On 25th January 1308, a young French princess walked up the aisle in the church at Boulogne in northern France. At only twelve years old she would have no inkling of how her life would turn out, all she was probably hoping for at the time was a kindly groom.

    That princess was Isabella, daughter of King Philip IV of France, and the groom was the new king of England, Edward II. The match had been arranged several years before between Edward's father, King Edward I, and Philip. The wedding and attendant celebrations lasted for over a week, the French knew how to put on a good show, and Isabella was loved by her father, who wanted to see her off with a grand display. For the beloved princess it must have looked as if everything was going to be fine.

    Sadly though this is one Royal marriage that will always go down in English history as a total disaster. When Edward and Isabella were crowned a month after their wedding, the young bride was almost completely ignored by her husband in favour of Piers Gaveston, his favourite. Historians have debated the nature of Edward's relationship with Piers for centuries, but regardless of whether he was bisexual or homosexual, Edward's actions were humiliating to the poor girl. Not only was she ignored by her husband, but Piers' activities stole the spotlight firmly away from the Queen, he even had tapestries bearing his coat of arms, in place of those of Isabella, decorating the banqueting hall for the post-coronation celebrations.

    In the years that followed, Isabella and Edward really would have many instances of "for better or worse". While twelve was the canonical age for girls to marry in medieval law, biology didn't necessarily follow suit. Isabella finally fell pregnant four years after the wedding, but made up for it in the minds of the people by giving birth to the all-important son first time round. The boy would one day become King Edward III of England. She had to contend with Piers and then, after his death, the Despensers. Edward failed to protect her and provide for her, and eventually pushed her in to taking a lover (Roger Mortimer) and instigating a rebellion.

    But in 1308 she could never have predicted any of that. Instead, on this day over 700 years ago, Isabella could only have imagined a glittering future.

  3. One of my Christmas presents was Alison Weir's book "Elizabeth of York". This is the second of Weir's books on medieval women that I've read and reviewed, the first being her work on Katherine Swynford. I was really excited about this book as I was thoroughly disappointed by Philippa Gregory's "The White Princess", and really wanted to read something that gave a true picture of Elizabeth and her life.

    Elizabeth of York

    For those of you who are less historically inclined; Elizabeth of York was a daughter, wife and mother of Kings of England. Her father was King Edward IV, she was his eldest child by his wife Elizabeth Woodville (which Weir gives the old spelling; Wydville). Her husband was Henry Tudor, who became Henry VII, and by him she had several children including the future Henry VIII.

    Elizabeth is believed to have been a rather submissive figure, weighed down by her husband's paranoia and his mother's dislike of her. While she certainly appears to have been more passive than her predecessors, Weir gives a much more rounded view of her, and explains some of the circumstances around her life that may have helped shape that side of her.

    york1The Book

    Weir starts this book in the tumultuous years leading up to Elizabeth's birth. The Wars of the Roses, Edward IV claiming the throne and his marriage to Elizabeth Woodville are all dealt with in the first chapter. Each chapter follows a similar pattern for the first part of Elizabeth's life, Weir sets the contextual scene and then explains how the events affected the young princess. In some cases she is able to use direct sources, but mostly it has to be conjecture based on other sources of the time. As a princess of England, Elizabeth was a valuable dynastic match. As a girl however she was of little interest to our sources, featured only in relation to her father's plans for her.

    This changes about a third of the way through the book. Edward IV died when Elizabeth was a young woman, and her role starts to become more prominent due to her age and her sudden significance in the reigns of Richard III and her husband Henry VII.

    One thing I like about this book is that Weir doesn't shy away from trying to get to the bottom of common controversies about Elizabeth. She doesn't just explain her own theories, she also explains what sources others have previously used to support the controversial viewpoints. Her pro-Elizabeth bias is obvious in certain parts, but she doesn't ignore the arguments of others. You start to understand where such legends and controversies come from, and how prevalent they have been over the centuries. Reading this book, I certainly came to see it as dismissing some of the things that Gregory put in "The White Princess". Whether Weir read it while she was writing this book, or merely heard about it, I can't say. But to me at least, I suspect she was as annoyed by the book as others are.

    So what didn't I like about this book? Like her book on Katherine Swynford, Weir dedicates a large amount of page space to the men in Elizabeth's life, to the point where parts of it more a biography of Henry VII than his wife. I know that this is because many of her readers need the context, and there are limited sources on Elizabeth herself, but there were parts where I wanted to skip ahead to where Elizabeth was next mentioned. I also wish she had mentioned more about Elizabeth's relationship with her children. Although she comments that Elizabeth regularly visited them, there's no other indication of what kind of parent she was. Again, this is probably due to lack of evidence, but I would have preferred it if there had been some acknowledgement of this. There were also one or two fact and spelling errors that should have been caught before publishing, but when you've been working on something for a while you do become a bit blind!

    Overall this is a really good read, and I would recommend it to anyone who is interested in Elizabeth of York. Weir does a really good job of writing a biography that is very readable, and even though it's quite big you'll still struggle to put it down!

  4. On 7th January 1536, Catherine of Aragon passed away at Kimbolton Castle in Cambridgeshire.

    As her name "of Aragon" shows, Catherine was a Spanish "Infanta" by birth, the daughter of King Ferdinand of Aragon and Queen Isabella of Castile. Her parents had united Spain and driven out the Muslims, and then married off their children to various European Royal families to cement alliances. Two of her sisters were married to Kings of Portugal, one sister was married to the powerful Habsburg family, and Catherine herself was sent to England to marry Prince Arthur Tudor.

    catherinearagon2As any student of Tudor history will know, that was a marriage that did not last long or end happily. Catherine spent several years as a widow before marrying King Henry VIII within weeks of his father's death. There followed over twenty years of heartbreak as Catherine frequently miscarried, gave birth to stillborn babies or lost live children within weeks of their birth, with only one daughter name Mary surviving in to adulthood. To this day the reasons why the family was hit by so many tragedies has baffled scientists, especially as it then continued with Anne Boleyn (Jane Seymour had one live son but died herself, Henry's following three wives never had children by him).

    Many people blame Anne Boleyn for Henry's attempts to divorce Catherine, despite evidence showing that he was considering getting a divorce before Anne was on the scene. Catherine was a strong woman, the daughter and sister of Queens, she fought Henry's divorce attempts with every weapon she had. But in the end Henry left her for Anne and she was moved from the comfort of beautiful palaces such as Greenwich, to cold stone castles in the damp East Anglian countryside. Her household was reduced, she was banned from seeing her daughter Mary, and she was spied upon. Eventually she succumbed to illness and died in Kimbolton Castle. Rather than bury her in Westminster Abbey, among other late Queens, she was interred in Peterborough Cathedral.

    In a further piece of historical scandal, when the embalmers discovered a black growth on Catherine's heart. To the highly superstitious people of Tudor England, this was a clear sign that their beloved Queen had been poisoned, perhaps on the orders of her angry husband, or Catherine's long-term enemy Anne Boleyn. Nowadays it's safe to say that her cause of death was cancer, and even if Henry had kept her as his wife she would have died from it.

    catherinearagon1

    You can visit Catherine's grave at Peterborough Cathedral, where many tourists stop by to see one of England's best-loved queens. Nowadays the Cathedral holds an annual "Katharine of Aragon" festival, which includes laying flowers at her tomb and children dressing up in Tudor costume. You can find out more about it at their website. And if you're a fan of Catherine, we have a badge just for her supporters (or one for Henry)!

    (Images from WikiCommons)

  5. Last Christmas I got a lovely collection of history books, and I've recently re-read one by Elizabeth Norton. The full title of this book is "She Wolves: The Notorious Queens of England", and as you can probably tell it focuses on a cross-section of England's Queens. You won't find anything about Adeliza of Louvain or Jane Seymour in this book, instead Elizabeth Norton focuses on those Queens whose terrible reputation has been maintained down the centuries.

    This book is divided in to several parts and from there in to chapters under titles such as "Incestuous Queens", "Arrogance & Pride" and "Witchcraft". shewolvesnortonSome of these chapters encapsulate several Queens in one go, others are dedicated purely to one woman (such as "Witchcraft" which is about Joan of Navarre). Each part includes an introduction of a few pages before delving in to the chapters themselves, in total 19 Queens are analysed and discussed in this book, starting with the Anglo-Saxons and finishing with Mary I. 

    The book itself is an interesting read. Norton sets the Queens out in proper chronological order, which I much prefer over jumping backwards and forwards across centuries. Along with setting the background of each Queen discussing their actions, Norton also gives explanations for their actions and for the hostility of our sources. For readers that aren't used to reading about the medieval world, it brings you firmly out of the modern mentality of "women can do anything", and reminds you that while these women COULD do anything, they weren't actually supposed to.

    I also like that Norton didn't just jump straight into post-Conquest England and instead wrote about some Anglo-Saxon Queens. While many people think that the English monarchy began solely with William the Conqueror, in reality there were plenty of Anglo-Saxon kings. The major problem with this is that Queens are generally ignored by the sources in those times, unless they were "Bad Queens". By including them, Norton reminds us that there were notorious Queens before 1066.

    While I mostly enjoyed reading this book, where was something about it that just didn't sit right with me. For example in her summing up of Elizabeth Woodville she describes her as a "wailing Cassandra". Since Cassandra was a rather ineffective Greek "heroine", this epithet effectively casts Elizabeth Woodville in to the role of passive bystander, when in reality we know that she frequently took control of her own life and plotted against two Kings. It feels that with some of these women she is very quick to condemn them, and with others she takes all responsibility for their actions out of the women's hands, and places it firmly with the men in their lives.

    Being pedantic I also dislike the minor inconsistency of the chapter titles. As said above, each chapter has a title such as "Witchcraft", with the exception being the chapter about Anne Boleyn. It's only a small thing, but it just seems a bit lazy, as if a new title just wasn't possible when "Witchcraft" and "The Seductress" had been taken by others.

    Finally I felt that this book was just a bit too short. At 242 pages for these women it certainly isn't short, and yet several of the chapters seemed rather short for women who had led such varied and interesting lives.

    Overall I think this is a good read, but perhaps it's better off as an introduction to some of England's Queens, than as a book for those of us who have already read plenty of other titles on the subject. 

  6. On 19th December 1490, a young woman named Anne was married by proxy to Maximilian, son of the Holy Roman Emperor.

    Anne was the new Duchess of Brittany, her father had died in 1488 leaving his 11 year old daughter as his only heir. France had been trying to incorporate the Duchy of Brittany in to it's Kingdom for years, and with a girl as Duchess this had suddenly appeared to be a lot easier than anticipated. Had the late Duke had a son then it would have involved a longer war, with no potential of success if the boy proved to be clever, or lucky. But a woman would never be able to lead or command an army, she would have to leave such things to either one of her lords, or to her husband.

    A husband was exactly what Anne needed, which was why the proxy ceremony was held. As the son of the Holy Roman Emperor, Maximilian was an enemy of France, and for Brittany the enemy of their enemy should have been their friend. Maximilian's father agreed to the match, spotting for himself the same opportunity to frustrate the plans of his life-long enemies. Maximilian had already been married to one heiress, Mary of Burgundy, who had died in 1482. By marrying the Duchess of Brittany, it was hoped that Maximilian would be able to incorporate yet another set of lands in to the Habsburg empire.

    However despite the proxy marriage, Maximilian never followed through by travelling to Brittany for a proper wedding. On this day over 500 years ago, Anne must have thought that it would all work out. Her new husband would come to Brittany, lead an army and vanquish her enemies, keeping her beloved Duchy safe from the French. Instead the Holy Roman Empire was already stretched, Maximilian and his father had too many other things to focus on than to worry about Brittany. Six months later Anne was besieged in the city of Rennes by a French army, and less than a year after her proxy marriage to Maximilian she was married to Charles VIII of France.

    The Holy Roman Emperor protested to the Pope, Anne was technically married to his son and Charles had been betrothed to Maximilian's daughter Margaret, therefore their wedding was illegal. But the fact of the matter was that the Emperor and Maximilian had failed to back up their plans with an army, and Anne had no choice but to go through with the marriage or watch the French army overrun her Duchy and kill more of her people.

    In the end Anne would remain a Queen of France, marrying Louis XI after Charles' death, and her efforts to keep Brittany independent would ultimately fail. Maximilian went on to marry Bianca Maria Sforza. It was not a happy marriage.

    You can read more about Anne of Brittany through Volume 1 of my eBook series.

  7. 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!

  8. 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).

  9. 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!

  10. 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!