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  1. 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!

  2. A few months ago while browsing around Waterstones I naturally ended up in the history section. While scrolling through the endless list of biographies on men in history I stumbled upon one of Alison Weir's works; Katherine Swynford.

    Katherine Swynford

    The full title of this work is actually "Katherine Swynford - John of Gaunt and his Scandalous Mistress". I know very little about the medieval period outside of remembering the list of kings and queens and some of the bigger events at the time, so I decided to pick up this book and have a read, and in general I was quite impressed with it.

    For those who don't know, John of Gaunt was a younger son of King Edward III of England and his wife Philippa of Hainault. John's nickname "of Gaunt" comes from his birthplace, Ghent in modern-day Belgium. Katherine Swynford on the other hand was the daughter of one of Philippa's servants, she was raised in the Royal nursery and married to an impoverished English knight who was in service to John and his first wife Blanche. In time Katherine became more than just a servant to John.

    One of the things that Alison Weir makes quite clear from the start is that it's very difficult to find out much about Katherine Swynford. For example mentions of gifts to her are found in John of Gaunt's registers, but not all of these registers survive. On top of that Katherine and John were very discreet when their affair started, and even when it did become public knowledge it was a scandal, but not as scandalous as later Royal affairs such as that between Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn since John wasn't a King. There's no evidence such as surviving letters or poems sent between them, that could give us a glimpse into the lives of this couple, most of what we know comes from those who were writing against them.

    Unfortunately this lack of evidence does take it's toll on this book. If you're expecting to read a lot about Katherine then you'll be disappointed. I almost feel that it should instead have been titled "Gaunt & Swynford" or "The Knight and His Mistress" instead of "Katherine Swynford". Weir has to dedicate a lot of page space to John of Gaunt and his first two marriages, partly to explain the historical context (which was useful since, as I said above, I knew very little) and partly because if she didn't then the book would be half the size it actually is. There really is so little about Katherine that most of it involves careful estimating based on things such as dates of birth of children (even these are estimates due to Katherine's discretion), John's movements as noted by charters and his registers, and general common knowledge or mentions that have seeped down from contemporary writers.

    Setting aside the lack of Katherine focus, this is actually a very good book. Weir has a clear way of writing that is easy to read, and her explanations of the political situations at the time are descriptive enough to give you a good idea of what was going on, without being so long that you get bored and give up. She puts forward her own theories about aspects of Katherine and John's relationship, such as when their affair first began, that are certainly credible alternatives to those that have been suggested before.

    Overall this book is a really good read. It's not all about Katherine, but you'll certainly come out of it with a greater understanding of England at the time and know more about the couple whose descendants would bring about the Tudor dynasty.

  3. Back in May myself and my boyfriend enjoyed a weekend in the lovely old city of York. From it's magestic cathedral to it's quaint old shops, York is iconic as a great place to visit, especially if you happen to like history. I bought a guide book weeks before we went, and managed to find plenty to keep us entertained (all photos used in this post are mine).

    York Cathedral

    The first place we visited was York Cathedral. We arrived quite late on Saturday morning to find a queue out the door, but luckily it moved quickly. York Cathedral charges for entrance (a controversy when it was first introduced) but if you hold on to the ticket you will be able to visit again any time in a year, which is a good deal if you live nearby. The Cathedral itself is as lovely as you'd think, with some gorgeous stained glass and a side-chapel with a beautifully tiled floor. The far end is currently screened off as it's being renovated, which includes cleaning the large stained glass window. There is a really excellent series of touch-screen displays around this end so you don't feel that you're actually missing anything. The screens help keep children amused while the information on them helps adults learn about some of the techniques of both the masons and the glass workers.

    TYorkhere was also a large black bubble in which was housed some of the glass that had already been cleaned, giving you a chance to see the images in far more detail than you would normally. It's a really excellent way to handle a renovation and I hope more places follow suit in the future.

    On the Sunday we visited both Castle Museum and the Jorvik Centre which were also very good. The Castle Museum had a Victorian high street, completed with costumed "shop staff" who talked to people walking around, and a history of the old prison which included using a projector to beam a series of "characters" (based on prison records) onto the walls in the cells. The Jorvik Centre was also very good with some interesting displays, including another projector showing the injuries on one of the Viking skeletons found during excavations and depicting how she would have looked when alive. The level of technology seen in both museums served as an fantastic example of the direction such places are moving in, and I genuinely hope some of the London museums catch on to the improvements. Myself and my boyfriend don't have children so I can't ask their opinion, but there were plenty of them at both museums and judging by the repeated cries of "Mum/Dad look at this!" I think it's fair to say that they do a good job of keeping anyone under the age of 14 entertained.

    Abbey RuinsIf money is a bit tight then there are a few free things to do in York as well. The York Museum Gardens (York Museum is a separate entity to the Castle Museum but they do offer a "joint entry" deal on ticket prices) are free to get in to and lovely to have a wander around on a nice day. They feature the ruins of the old Abbey, and the old "Hospitarium" which seems to be used for various events including weddings and craft fairs. There are also plenty of second hand bookshops (very useful to dive into when it starts raining) and antique shops that you can browse around. There is also the old Georgian Assembly rooms, which are now an "ASK" Italian restaurant but you can still poke your head round the door for a quick look (alternatively stop off there for lunch or dinner).

    On Sunday afternoon we decided to make our way back to the hotel via the National Railway Museum. After the level of interactivity with the other two museums this was, sadly, a bit of a let down. You can wander around and peer in to old carriages, walk up next to trains and see how big the wheels are compared to you, and again there were certainly a lot of happy children around so it was clearly popular. But for something that called itself a Railway Museum it didn't seem to tell me much about the railways and how they revolutionised transport in this country (it's quite possible that I missed it though as I was quite tired from all the walking at this point).

    However the trains were clearly very well cared for and the place was spotlessly tidy, and it was nice to be able to get so close to the old steam engines. If you need somewhere indoors to exhaust small children then this place should be a good distraction. Along with big trains there's also a model Hornby set with a train looping around it, and an outdoor play area at the back. I certainly wouldn't call the museum a waste of time, because it was still interesting to see the trains. At one point I had to get my boyfriend to take a photo of one because it was taller than me! Just don't expect to come out of it having learned much.

    York is an absolutely beautiful city, if you ever have the chance to visit I would seriously recommend that you do so. Before you go make sure you get a small guidebook that has a map in it, it will be in invaluable once you get there due to the small inter-connected streets.

  4. If you're not familiar with certain aspects of history, and you're working through a book on medieval history, dozens of unfamiliar terms and situations can assail you. Salic law, primogeniture, proxy weddings.

    Proxy weddings? What on earth is that!?

    What was a proxy wedding?

    A proxy wedding will generally only refer to a marriage that is being held between two upper-class people in different countries or territories. Most of the time it will involve a Prince and a Princess, but one or both parties could be a duke, duchess or another highborn person, since these were the people who contracted marriages across whole countries. Such a marriage would often be designed to cement alliances or provide a balance against regional political problems. Quite often the first step would involve officially arranging a betrothal, this could involve children but also infants and newborns, at least one French Royal marriage was arranged when the bride was a mere three months old.

    Once the bride reached a suitable age - twelve was the legal minimum for marriage but was no guarantee that anything would take place before they were fourteen or fifteen - a proxy wedding would be held. This ceremony was identical to the proper marriage ceremony, but with a stand-in or "proxy" for the groom, sometimes a close family relative or another highborn nobleman from his country. This marriage was completely legally binding, but only between the bride and the real groom, the proxy had no claim over the bride. The marriage would be celebrated by the bride's family with the usual banquets and festivities, and it was often soon after this that the bride would be packed up and sent to her new husband and home in the company of those who had been sent over to take part in the proxy wedding.

    Upon arrival at her new country a second marriage ceremony would often be performed with her real groom, complete with even more celebrations. There was no real need for a second ceremony as the first was technically legally binding, but it did give an opportunity for a party and gave the political elite a chance to show off to their people.

    Anne of Denmark had a proxy wedding

    Anne of Denmark had a proxy wedding to James VI of Scotland (image from WikiCommons)

    Why was it needed?

    Proxy weddings served both a personal and public service. The bride and groom would be strangers, they may have exchanged some letters as they grew up if they had been betrothed as children, but they wouldn't see each other until the day before their wedding, or a few days earlier if they were lucky. If the bride got to her new home and the groom or his family took an instant dislike to her then the legally-binding proxy wedding prevented them from sending her home in disgrace. They could annul the wedding, but that was a lengthy process that involved appealing to the Pope, and in the meantime they would have to deal with vociferous complaints from the bride's family and demands to cover the costs of sending her home. Likewise it protected the groom, should the bride find that she didn't want to marry then there was no choice, short of possibly entering a convent (and even then the groom's family could appeal to the Pope, who could nullify any Holy Orders she had made since she was, technically, married). By marrying by proxy neither party could flee the altar.

    On a public level it provided the bride with protection. Travelling in the medieval period was a dangerous business. While it was unlikely that a common thief would attempt to rob a Princess escorted by a dozen knights, her ladies and a retinue of servants, a hostile nation with an army was a very real threat as were pirates in the Mediterranean and the English Channel. Should the bride end up captured, or forced by bad weather to take shelter in hostile territory, then it was in the best interests of her groom's family to help her family retrieve her since he couldn't marry someone else.

    Very often there is some confusion between a betrothal and a proxy wedding. Generally a betrothal would be considered to be the first step in the process, it was a promise that the couple would marry in the future. Betrothals were also legally binding, but it was fairly easy for them to be revoked in the future should circumstances change. In a proxy wedding the couple were married, just at a distance.

    It should also be kept in mind that not all upper-class medieval weddings included a proxy marriage, for some a betrothal was enough. Marriages could also be arranged when the bride was past the canon-age for consummation, while it was possible for some to be betrothed in the cradle others were teenagers before a suitable groom came along.

    Proxy weddings in history include James VI of Scotland and Anne of Denmark and Arthur Prince of Wales and Catherine of Aragon.

  5. On this day in 1501, Isabella of Austria was born to Philip of Burgundy and his wife Juana “the Mad” of Castile. I first came across Isabella when researching 30 Women in History, and her story has always struck me as one tinged with sadness.

    isaaustria

    Isabella of Austria (image from Wikipedia)

    Her family life was unconventional even for the time. She was left with her father’s step-mother-in-law, and then his sister, while her parents frequently travelled to Spain. Philip died when Isabella was only five years old and her mother was declared mad and eventually locked up in Castile by Isbella’s grandfather Ferdinand of Aragon. She was under the care of her aunt Margaret, with her grandfather Maximilian, the Holy Roman Emperor, acting as father in Philip’s place.

    When she was fourteen she was married to King Christian II of Denmark, making her Queen of Denmark. But Christian had a mistress, Dyveke, and Isabella found that she came second in both her husband’s heart and at court, where she had very little influence. She only came into her own after Dyveke died.

    She and Christian had three sons (of whom two died in infancy) and two daughters, as well as a further stillborn son. But in 1523 her husband was overthrown as King of Denmark (and Norway, and he had also conquered Sweden for a short time) and she was given a choice between exile with her husband or staying in Denmark under the protection of the new King. She chose her husband, and the pair of them moved to Germany, seeking allies who would help Christian regain his throne. It was in Germany that Isabella came in contact with Lutherism. It is believed that she had been considering a conversion to what would become Protestantism, but when her fiercely Catholic Hapsburg relatives heard about her new interest they were furious and Christian encouraged her to keep her feelings quiet, probably because he was worried her family would refuse to help him regain his throne.

     In 1525 Isabella fell ill and never recovered. She died later that year near Ghent in modern-day Belgium. She was only twenty four years old. Even in an age of high mortality and powerless women she seems to have had more than her fair share of problems, and it’s quite sad that she is rarely remembered.