History Blog

 RSS Feed

  1. The church of St George stands in the village of Anstey in Hertfordshire. A church has been on the site since Saxon times, but was rebuilt by the Normans after the invasion of 1066, and then restored in the late 19th century by William Butterfield. Despite this restoration there are still remains of the old Norman structure, including part of the tower. Unusually for the area, the church is built as a cruciform, with the tower in the middle of the building. A south porch was added in the 15 century, and there is also remains of 14 century work, such as the corbels. 

  2. If you've ever read up on medieval graffiti (especially if you got the incredible book "Medieval Graffiti: The Lost Voices of England's Churches" by Ashwell Church in HertfordshireMatthew Champion for last Christmas) then you'll probably have heard of the church at Ashwell. This small Hertfordshire village is full of unique historic property, with a high street showing houses from several eras. But this church itself is the real call for many, due to the extensive medieval graffiti you can find inside. 

  3. In the late 1700's, Charles Langhorn appears to have had a decent enough life for a village labourer. He was married with two young children, living in or near the village of Ashwell in Hertfordshire, and apparently on good terms with his neighbours and well-liked by the community at large. Like many men in rural areas he worked for a prominent local family, in this case he was employed as a shepherd by Elias Fordham. 

  4. On this day, 10th May 1403, one of medieval England's most well-known, or notorious (depending on your point of view) women passed away. Given how her life had caused such a scandal, it comes a bit of a surprise to know that her passing was barely noted by the chronicles of the time.

    A Respectable Wife

    Katherine de Roet was the daughter of a minor nobleman from Hainault, now in modern-day Belgium. He came to England in the service of Philippa of Hainault on her marriage to Edward III of England, and Katherine was raised in the royal nursery in the company of the princes and princesses of England. She was married to a rather impoverished English knight, Hugh Swynford, and Katherine Swynford became the name that history remembered her under. Her husband's manor was at Kettlethorpe in Lincolnshire, but the land was poor and the family often struggled for money. Katherine had several children by Hugh (the exact number is difficult to confirm) and raised them at Kettlethorpe.

    Hugh's death around 1371 or 1372 left Katherine in dire financial straights. However here her Royal connections helped. Katherine had served in the household of John of Gaunt in the past, and as a widow she was taken back in to his household, where she was put in charge of the ducal nursery. At some point during this part of her life, she and John began their affair. Their first child was a son named John, who was born some time in 1373.

    Infamous Mistress

    But while Katherine was widowed, John wasn't. His first wife, Blanche of Lancaster, had died but he had married a second time to a Spainish princess, Constance of Castile. This marriage was not particularly happy, and John may have had several affairs before he and Katherine began their relationship. Katherine went on to have three sons and a daughter by John, who were given the surname "Beaufort".

    Even though they were discreet, the news of their affair got out eventually, and Katherine was slandered as a whore in the chronicles. Public opinion had swung against John, and the news of his relationship didn't help. During the Peasant's Revolt John's beautiful Savoy Palace was looted and burned to the ground, and he seemed to take this as a sign of divine disapproval for his behaviour. He and Katherine ended their relationship, and John settled down to focus on his wife and her Castilian inheritance.

    Scandalous Marriage

    This separation would not last. Several years later their relationship was resumed, and when Constance died in 1394 John further scandalised the country by marrying Katherine. The poor noblewoman of no particular family was suddenly elevated to the position of Duchess of Lancaster, making her second in the land after the Queen of England. People couldn't complain too loudly though, as King Richard II, John's nephew, seemed to approve the match, and no one would argue too loudly with the king.

    Katherine outlived her husband by four years, and spent her widowhood quietly. She was welcome at court by King Richard, and then later by her stepson King Henry IV, but she appears to have spent most of her time in Lincolnshire. On her death she was buried in Lincoln Cathedral, and in time her daughter Joan Beaufort would be buried next to her. Her Swynford children had distinguished enough careers, but it was her Beaufort descendants by John that would go far. In 1485 her great great grandson, Henry Tudor, would claim the throne of England, and make her an ancestress of the English royal family.

    If you're a fan of Katherine Swynford, check out her badge!

  5. On this day in 1451, Isabella of Castile was born. At the time of her birth she would have been seen as nothing more than a future wife for some foreign king, but she would go on to set up a new role for women in the medieval period; determined, forceful, and a ruler in her own right.


    Isabella's father, King John II of Castile, died when Isabella and her younger brother Alfonso were just three years old and less than a year old respectively. The children and their mother, Isabella of Portugal, lived in the castle at Arevalo. Isabella's older half brother, Henry, was now King, but he appears to have kept his step-mother and her children in relative poverty. The household was frequently short of money, but historians are unsure if this was deliberate policy on Henry's part, or simple incompetence.Isabella of Castile

    At the age of ten Isabella and Alfonso were summoned back to the Spanish court. Henry's wife Joan was due to give birth, and the impending arrival of a new heir to the throne meant that the King wanted to keep a closer eye on his half-siblings, who were also in the line of succession. The legitimacy of Henry's daughter was questioned from the moment the pregnancy was announced. It had taken the couple seven years to conceive their first child, and there were rumours that Joan had taken a lover, to make up for her husband's lack of fertility.

    It would have been in the middle of this politically turbulent time that Isabella would have begun to understand just how important a daughter or sister could be. Should Henry die without a legitimate male heir, then her younger brother Alfonso would be King, and she would be first in line after him. When Alfonso died in 1468, Isabella became the new focus of Henry's opposition.

    Unwanted Husbands

    As part of a political settlement between Henry and Isabella, the subject of her marriage fell to a mutual agreement. Isabella would not marry without her half-brother's permission, and Henry would not force her to marry against her will. Henry quickly betrayed his promise, putting immense pressure on Isabella to agree to marry King Alfonso V of Portugal. When this failed, he attempted to force her to marry Charles, Duke of Barry, a brother of Louis XI of France.

    Instead Isabella went behind Henry's back, and arranged her own marriage. She had been betrothed to Ferdinand of Aragon as a child, and the Aragonese royal family were still keen for this match to go ahead. At a time when she should have obeyed her brother, as her nearest male relative, Isabella turned her back on generations of tradition. Announcing that she was visiting her brother Alfonso's tomb, Isabella left Henry's court, travelled to Valladolid, and married Ferdinand in October 1469. 

    The Warrior Queen

    Isabella's defining image in history, is as a woman who was not afraid to be near battles. After Henry's death, she had to spend several years of her life fighting for the Castilian throne. She was pregnant at least seven times, giving birth to five live babies, one boy and four girls. She was considered Queen of Castile in her own right, and had to balance reviving a kingdom that was worn down by years of war and neglect, with being a wife and mother, and facing opposition from those who didn't want a woman in charge.

    At the same time, she and Ferdinand dedicated years to the work that would come to define their lives. With Castile and Aragon, two of the largest kingdoms in Spain, now unified by their marriage, they began to look at dominating the rest of Spain. The "Reconquista", as it became known, saw them conquer more and more cities in Spain, and drive out the Muslim population that had been ruling them for generations. Isabella was part of the discussions on the war, she travelled with her husband when he went out to battle, and she ensured that their troops were supplied with everything they needed on the way. She was seen wearing armour and riding out among her soldiers, encouraging them to the build-up to battle. Although she didn't fight herself, she was certainly for more active that many women in a similar position, who were expected to stay at home and wait for news.

    There were more unpleasant sides to Isabella's character. She was raised in a strict, religious household, and once the Reconquista was complete she would allow on-going persecution of Spain's Jewish population, as well as expelling all Jews and Muslims who refused to convert to Catholicism. It was through Isabella and Ferdinand that the Spanish Inquisition gained it first foothold in the country, leading to decades of persecution, torture and murder of people who were considered to be not Catholic enough.

    Despite this, there is no doubt that Isabella was an incredible woman for her time. No one would have expected it at the time, but the tiny baby born on 22 April 1451, would go on to show the world a different kind of Royal woman.

    (If you found this blog post interesting and want to learn more about women in history, you can check out my eBook series!)

  6. On this day in 1199 King Richard I of England died in France. Although historically he has been seen a popular King, he virtually bankrupted the country, and his early death probably did more to save his reputation than expected.

    Younger Son

    Richard wasn't supposed to become King of England. When he was born in September 1157 he had a healthy older brother, Henry "the Young King", who was the designated heir to the English throne. Instead Richard was raised to be the future Duke of Aquitaine, helped by his mother Eleanor. Following his childhood in England he spent an increasing amount of time in Aquitaine, where his mother had him officially recognised as her heir, and even toured the region with him so the people would become used to their new ruler.

    When Young Henry rebelled against their father, King Henry II, Richard joined in on his brother's side, encouraged by Eleanor. Although they were defeated, the boys were treated with a certain leniency. Richard was allowed to return to Aquitaine to punish the lords who had helped his rebellion. Eleanor, on the other hand, was imprisoned in England. Over the following months and years, Richard faced his own rebellion from within the territory, and then from his brothers Young Henry and Geoffrey. But Young Henry's death in 1183 catapulted Richard in to a previously unconsidered position; heir to the English throne.

    King of England

    In the six years that followed, Richard fought his own father several times. Henry was determined that now he was due to inherit England, Richard should give up Aquitaine to his youngest brother, John. But Richard had dedicated too much of his life to Aquitaine, and was adamant that he would rule a united empire. Richard even went so far as to form an alliance with King Philip of France. When Henry died in July 1189, it was with the knowledge that his own son had allied himself with his old enemy.Richard the Lionheart

    As King, one of Richard's first orders was for his mother to be released from captivity, and while he set about putting his affairs in order in Normandy, Eleanor began preparing for his return to England and the resulting coronation. Richard was crowned in September 1189 at Westminster Abbey, and quickly began preparations for a Crusade. He had already "taken the cross" two years earlier, but problems with his father had prevented him from leaving the continent. Now he was King there was no one who could talk him out of going, and he spent vast sums of money on weapons, supplies, armour and recruiting an army to accompany him. When he set off for the Middle East in 1190, he hadn't even been in England for a year.

    While in Italy Richard once again met up with his mother Eleanor, who brought with her Berengaria of Navarre. Richard had been betrothed to Princess Alix of France for years, but had no intention of marrying her, and instead contracted a marriage to Berengaria. Alix's brother King Philip, Richard's old friend and supposed ally on the Crusade, was so angry at this repudiation of his sister that he took his army and left for the Middle East ahead of schedule. Richard followed a more leisurely pace, stopping at Cyprus to marry Berengaria.

    Richard arrived in Acre in 1191, and after contracting dysentery, arguing with his allies, defeating Saladin and then discovering his brother John was leading a rebellion in England, he left in 1192, sending Berengaria on ahead of him. The journey home proved to be difficult. Berengaria made it back to Europe safely, but bad weather meant that Richard was forced to abandon his plan of travelling by sea, and had to go across land instead. He was captured near Vienna, and handed over to the Holy Roman Empire, who promptly held him for ransom. Richard's mother eventually gathered together the money that was needed by imposing heavy taxes on England and Normandy. Richard and his wife Berengaria were already estranged by this point, and it was up to Eleanor to negotiate the release of her son and payment of the ransom money.

    DeathKing Richard I

    By the time Richard was released in February 1194, Philip and John between them had caused plenty of damage to his empire. Philip had attacked and captured parts of Normandy, and John had encouraged English nobles to rebel against his brother. After his release from captivity Richard spent a few months in England, shoring up support and gathering money, before he collected a new army and left for his territories in France. King Philip had done his best to capture as much of Normandy as possible in Richard's absence, and he was determined to get it back. As part of his reconquest, Richard besieged the castle of Chalus-Chabrol. One evening he walked out to view the work being carried out by sappers, who were trying to undermine the castle walls, when an arrow fired from the castle landed in his shoulder.

    The wound was not instantly fatal, Richard managed to make it back to his tent without causing too much alarm. But the arrow proved difficult to remove from his shoulder, and the necessary "surgery" led to the wound becoming infected. As gangrene set in it became obvious to everyone that Richard was dying. His mother Eleanor was summoned from the convent, and raced to her son's bedside. Richard officially named his younger brother John as his heir, and died on 6th April.

    Through his crusade, ransom and fighting in Normandy, Richard had financially ruined his empire. Although many people blame John entirely for the mess of his reign, the foundations of some of it were down to Richard.

    (If you're a fan of Richard I, check out his badge!)