Marie Louise d'Orleans really drew the short straw when it came to a Royal marriage. This poor French princess was sacrificed on the altar of political necessity, and married off to the last Habsburg king of Spain – King Carlos II.
Born on 26 March 1662 Marie Louise was the daughter of Philippe, Duke of Orleans, and Henrietta Anne of England. Her father was the younger brother of King Louis XIV “the Sun King” while her mother was a younger sister of King Charles II of England and the future King James II. She grew up in the ostentatious luxury of the French court, travelling with her family between various palaces and staying with her grandmothers – the Dowgar Queen of France Anne of Austria, and Dowager Queen of England Henrietta Maria.
When Marie was eight her mother died. Poison was suspected by some, but it was probably an infection from a perforated ulcer. Philippe remarried a year later to Elizabeth Charlotte “Liselotte” of the Palatinate, and again Marie Louise fell on her feet. Liselotte was not a stepmother out to cause trouble between her husband and his elder children, and she developed a close relationship with both Marie and her sister Anne.
But when it came to marriage Marie Louise was less lucky. Although a marriage with her cousin the Dauphin was considered to be the best match a girl could want, it was France’s on-going battles with Spain that won out. Carlos had become king at the tender age of three on the death of his father King Philip IV. Such an inheritance at such a young age was difficult enough, but it was made worse by Carlos’ severe mental and physical disabilities. Generations of inbreeding between the two sides of the House of Habsburg meant that Carlos’ parents were uncle and niece. Philip IV’s parents had also been first cousins, in total eight of Carlos’ great-grandparents were descended from Philip Habsburg and Juana of Castile.
Carlos’ health problems were well known around Europe. Unable to speak until he was four and unable to walk until he was eight, his deformed jaw and overly large tongue meant that he could barely chew his food. He had a minimal education, his doctors feared that mental exertion would lead to his early death. Marie Louise would not have been ignorant of these issues, and reportedly spent most of her time after the proxy marriage ceremony in floods of tears. Liselotte travelled with her for part of the journey to Spain, and kept up an active correspondence once she left France.
Life in Spain was about as bad if not worse than Marie Louise may have imagined. Carlos was fascinated by his beautiful wife and fell in love with her, and she developed a good relationship with her mother-in-law Mariana. But in all other aspects it was a miserable existence. A young woman used to the beautiful opulence of the French court, Marie was now trapped in the austere residences of the Spanish court. She was expected to follow Spanish etiquette, highly formal and with strict rules about what Queens must not do. She wasn't even allowed to look out the window, lest a common citizen catch a glimpse of her. Spanish Catholicism was very different from French Catholicism, as Queen Marie was expected to witness the burning of heretics by the Inquisition. The courtiers and the Spanish people hated their French-born Queen and both Marie and her attendants from France were accused of plotting against the King.
Marie Louise never fell pregnant, and this was also blamed squarely on her. Infertility was inevitably blamed on the woman, even when the husband was as clearly ill as Carlos was. Marie even confided to the French ambassador that she was sure she would never have a child, indicating that she was well aware it was Carlos' health problems that were the root cause.
After a day out riding in February 1689 Marie Louise complained of a pain in her stomach. After two days of agonising stomach pains she was dead. Like her mother's untimely death, poison was suspected and her mother-in-law was accused of having her killed off so a more fertile woman could marry Carlos. Modern belief is that she died from appendicitis or food poisoning. She was only 26 years old, she had never seen France since leaving it for her wedding.
On 27 November 1252 the Regent of the French throne died. Not an uncle or brother or other male relative of King Louis IX but his mother, Blanche of Castile. With her son on Crusade she had proved to be an able regent, but this surprised no one. It wasn't the first time Blanche had been required to take care of France for her son, and she came from a line of highly capable women.
Granddaughter of Eleanor of Aquitaine
Blanche was born in 1188, the daughter of King Alfonso VIII of Castile. Her mother was an illustrious princess, Eleanor of England, the daughter of King Henry II and Queen Eleanor, Duchess of Aquitaine. She was the sixth of eleven children, although her three older brothers had all predeceased her.
In her mother Blanche had an excellent example of a highly educated woman, able to wield the kind of control often denied to women at the time. The Queen had been gifted control of her dower, specific towns, ports and villages whose rents went towards the upkeep of her court. King Alfonso trusted his wife's judgement and named her in his will as Regent should his eventual heir, Prince Henry, be too young to rule in his own right. Queen Eleanor also supported several monastic houses in Castile and maintained a shrine to St Thomas Becket, providing Blanche with an example of the religious influence a Queen could wield.
When Blanche was twelve the court of Castile received a visit from her grandmother, the dowager Queen of England – Eleanor of Aquitaine. Another strong woman, Eleanor had been sent to assist in the negotiations for the hand of a Castilian Princess for the heir to the French throne. In theory the honour was to go to Blanche's older sister Urraca, but Eleanor chose Blanche (Urraca had to settle for the King of Portugal instead). As spring came Eleanor and Blanche crossed back in to Gascony, where a sick Eleanor handed the custody of her granddaughter to the Archbishop of Bordeaux and then retired to the convent of Fontevrault.
Queen in Waiting
Blanche and the crown prince Louis were married in May 1200 in Port-Mort. Louis' father, King Philip II of France, had had his Kingdom placed under an interdict due to his treatment of Ingeborg of Denmark. The terms of an interdict meant that no religious services, including baptisms, marriages and burials, could be carried out. Port-Mort was owned by King John of England, Blanche's maternal uncle, and was therefore not under any religious interdict.
Blanche had her first child, a daughter also named Blanche, in 1205. The baby didn't live long, but a boy followed in 1209. Blanche gave birth to a total of thirteen children, including four sons who all lived past infancy.
There wasn't much scope for Blanche to wield any kind of influence. With King Philip firmly in charge there was little for the heir to the throne and his wife to do. King John's own problems with his barons in 1215 led to Louis being offered the English throne in right of his wife. Blanche was his only supporter in this endeavour, along with raising money from her father in law she also organised a fleet of ships to assist her husband. The French were eventually paid to leave England, Blanche's fleet had already been destroyed by the English off the coast at Sandwich, but it showed Louis that his wife could take charge when needed.
King Philip eventually died in 1223. After two decades of waiting Blanche was finally Queen of France alongside her husband, King Louis VIII. But it was to be a brief reign for the King. In 1226 Louis rode south to fight Count Raymond of Toulouse, leaving a pregnant Blanche behind. The King succeeded in taking Avignon, but on the journey home he contracted dysentery and died before he could reach home. France was suddenly left with a twelve year old King and his pregnant mother in charge. Almost immediately a group of French nobles began to consider a revolt, a pregnant woman was no match for them.
The best thing the dead king could have done for his son was leave his mother as ruler of France in her own right until their son came of age. Despite her condition Blanche moved quickly to have Louis crowned at Rheims, which would show her who was loyal and who was not. Sure enough in the following years, those barons who avoided the coronation led several rebellions against the new King. But they were unsuccessful, and by the time he came of age Blanche was able to hand a secure kingdom on to her son.
The unpleasant mother-in-law
Strong, determined, and clever, Blanche was no match for any disobedient noble. But the qualities that made her a good regent didn't do quite so well in the personal sphere. She arranged for Louis to marry a young woman from the county of Provence, Marguerite the daughter of Count Raymond and his wife Beatrice of Savoy. But Marguerite's presence at court led to a reduction in interest in Blanche. Marguerite's beauty and gentle nature were praised, Blanche was sidelined. More importantly Louis quickly grew close to his wife, and this was a lapse in influence that Blanche could not allow to happen.
Her treatment of Marguerite was reportedly couched in terms of concern. The new Queen failed to become pregnant quickly enough, so Blanche dispatched her on a public pilgrimage to a variety of shrines. She did everything possible to stop Marguerite and Louis meeting privately during the day, even assigning servants to watch the young woman. Louis was a King and Kings were busy ruling the kingdom, surely the new Queen could understand that she couldn't be bothering her husband during the day? Marguerite was reportedly deeply unhappy at her treatment at the hands of her mother-in-law, but Blanche was still too powerful at court for anyone to go against her, including Louis himself. He still needed her advice on matters of state, and was dependent on her for assistance. It was only when Marguerite gave birth to her first child, a daughter named Blanche in 1240, that the King's mother finally move to her own household and gave her son and daughter-in-law some peace. Albeit with Louis still needing her advice on matters of policy.
The unwilling Regent
In 1244 Louis fell seriously ill, he had contracted dysentery two years before and this may have been a relapse. Blanche and Marguerite spent days praying at his sickbed, and at one point he was close to death. When he recovered Louis demanded he be given the cross, a sign that he would take up a Crusade in the name of God.
Blanche spent months trying to persuade him to not go, even getting the Bishop of Paris to intervene. But Louis was determined, and Marguerite decided to go with him too. Blanche would be both Regent of France and the guardian of three infants (baby Blanche had died, as had a son named John, but by the time they were ready Isabella, Louis, and Philip were all in the French royal nursery). It was probably the first time that the King had openly defied his mother.
Blanche was now sixty years old and dreading the responsibility her son was placing on her. After celebrating the start of his crusade with a Mass in Notre Dame the court travelled to Blanche's home in Corbeil. There the King said his farewells to his mother, who reportedly said to him “Alas, my fine son, I will never see you again in this mortal life.”
During her second period as Regent, Blanche faced problems on multiple fronts. Raymond VII of Toulouse died just as the crusade left. As her son Alphonse was due to be the new Count of Toulouse (he had married Raymond's only child, a daughter), and was also on the Crusade, Blanche had to arrange for the smooth transition of power to the French crown. In Gascony English influence was leading to problems on the border. Blanche appealed to the Pope for aid, and got an extension on a truce already agreed with England, but English soldiers in Gascony could cause all manner of problems.
Then Blanche received the worst news possible. The crusade had started well with the capture of Damietta. But after an attack on Egypt had gone badly wrong the French forces had been slaughtered, King Louis had been captured, and his brother Robert of Artois had been killed. Blanche suddenly found herself mourning the loss of a child and having to find an enormous sum of money for Louis' ransom. While trying to raise the money she wrote to Louis, begging him to return to France. Louis refused her request, sending back his two remaining brothers in his place. They both wanted to return and commanding them to go allowed Louis to save face. He wasn't being abandoned by his brothers, he was sending them to help their mother.
The sum of money needed to free Louis was so large that Blanche refused to divulge the total, in case it led to a rebellion. After raising the money from the church and increasing the taxes on the towns she had it shipped to Acre. But it was all for nothing, the ship carrying the treasure sank in a storm and Blanche had to raise the money all over again. Louis was even writing to her asking her to raise a new load of troops for another crusade, but no one was willing to sign up.
As she predicted Blanche never saw Louis again. In November 1252 she was taken ill while visiting Melun. After taking the veil and receiving the last rites from the Bishop of Paris, she died on 27 November 1252. She had requested to be buried in her crown, with her ermine robes, and her nun's veil over the top. Her two sons Charles and Alphonse carried her funeral bier back to Paris and had her interred in Maubuisson abbey, one of the Cistertian monasteries she had founded in 1236.
Even his mother's death couldn't stop the King's desire to remain in the Holy Land. Louis finally arrived back in France in July 1254.
If you're a fan of Blanche of Castile you can find her badge here.
On 13 September 1944, four women were executed at Dachau Concentration Camp. All four of them; Yolande Beekman, Elaine Plewman, Madeleine Damerment, and Noor-un-nisa Inayat Khan, were agents from Special Operations Executive. A Dutch prisoner at the camp reported that Noor in particular had been singled out and beaten badly before being shot. It was a sorry end for a short life that had started out with wealth and privilege, whose course had been significantly changed by the outbreak of the second world war.
The quiet child
Noor-un-Nisa Inayat Khan was born in Moscow on 2 January 1914 as the eldest child of Hazrat Inayat Khan and Pirani Ameena Begum. Hazrat came from a noble Indian family related to Tipu Sultan, Pirani was an American who changed her name from Ora Ray Baker after her marriage to Hazrat. Noor's family moved around Europe, her father taught music and Sufism while her mother was a prolific writer of poetry.
Noor was only a few months old when the family left Russia for England, where they spent the First World War living in London. In 1920 the family, now expanded by two sons and a second daughter, moved to France where they lived in Suresnes in Paris. The family had a talent for music, Hazrat would sing to his children, especially when they couldn't sleep. Noor learned to play the harp and piano, her brother Hidayat played the violin and eventually became a Professor of Music, and her sister Khair-un-nisa learned the piano.
Noor's father died in 1927 shortly after choosing the site of his tomb in India. Noor was just thirteen years old. In the following years the family would travel to India to see the creation of Hazrat's tomb, and travel around Switzerland. Noor also spent time in the Hague as guest of two of her father's disciples. After this visit Noor also travelled to Italy, and spent time travelling around Spain with one of her brothers. She had excelled in languages in school, fluent in English and French and also studying German and Spanish. She also studied Child Psychology at the Sorbonne, which led to her writing a variety of books for children, and working with Radio Paris on a series of children's programmes. The financial support from her father's disciples meant that Noor had received an excellent education and the opportunity to travel. She had been raised to believe that lying was one of the worst sins one could commit, and she was described as being a bit of a "dreamer".
At the outbreak of the Second World War Noor and her sister Khair trained as Red Cross nurses. The hospital they were stationed at was evacuated as the Germans advanced, in the end the two women hurried back to Paris to join their mother and brothers. Together the family fled to the south of France, where they eventually managed to get a spot on a Belgian cargo ship that took them to England.
For the first time the Khan family found themselves poverty-stricken. Their supporters were mainly based in Europe and were unable to send money across to England to support them. After some discussion with her brother Vilayat, the pair decided that although their father had always preached for pacifism, the threat that Nazism posed meant that they should both join the fight. Vilayat joined the RAF while Noor signed up for the Women's Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) in November 1940. She spent several years in the WAAF as a wireless operator, reportedly earning the nickname "Bang Away Lulu" due to the noise she made during Morse key tapping.
In October 1943 Noor had her first SOE interview. The danger of such work was highlighted repeatedly to her during the interview, but she still volunteered to undertake SOE training. She was considered to be an ideal candidate, she was calm, unflappable and appeared to have thought deeply about the potential consequences of the work. She had even discussed the work with her mother and had come to the conclusion that her family would adapt to the worry of her being abroad. They would also benefit from the pay she would received as an SOE agent, her family were struggling financially and the wages for SOE were better than in the WAAF.
She entered in to the training programme but the reports about her progress suggest that a few problems were identified quite early on. She was a fast runner, always a useful skill to evade capture, but she was clumsy. Training with weapons was essential but they scared her, and in some cases she preferred to give in rather than confront a problem and deal with it. She also disliked the idea of becoming friends with a person purely to gain information from them, and repeatedly stated that she couldn't tell a lie (which was doubted by people higher up who seemed to think that would change once she realised the danger she was in).
Noor's "defects" were eventually raised by other agents, but were mostly dismissed by command. In some cases she had earned a few fans through her quiet, generous nature, she was keen to get along well with everyone and showed an interest in the people she worked with. In other cases it was felt that her faults were not that big a problem. By June 1943 she was considered ready to be sent out to France. She was given the codename "Madeleine" and her cover civilian identity was "Jeanne Marie Renier", who had trained in Child Psychology and worked as a nanny in Bordeaux during the first half of the war. She landed in France on 16 June 1943 and was in Paris the next day.
Within a week of Noor's arrival one of SOE's biggest networks in northern France, the PROSPER network, saw mass arrests with over 170 agents caught by the Germans. She was able to prevent one arrest by warning the agent in advance that other PROSPER agents had been arrested, but it put other networks in danger. Several of the earliest people that Noor had met in her earliest days in Paris were also arrested. Noor's own network, CINEMA, continued to operate and Noor herself sent and received messages about drop-off points and circuit orders. She appears to have assisted in the evacuation of airmen shot down in France and also co-ordinated messages about agents arriving.
However some of the earlier weaknesses about Noor were already starting to show. She was scolded in her early days in Paris for leaving her codes in the reception area of a building she was staying at. But she managed to evade the Gestapo several times, once by directly confronting them when they questioned her about a briefcase she was carrying (it contained her wireless equipment but she told them it was a projector and crossly asked if they'd never seen one before). The danger meant that Noor had to constantly change location when sending and receiving messages, but this made it more difficult for the Gestapo to catch her. Now that PROSPER had fallen she was the only SOE wireless operator in Paris, a vital lifeline between London and the remaining networks in the area.
Arrest and imprisonment
By early 1943 Noor's life was considered to be in serious danger. Later in the year she was ordered to return to Britain but instead argued that she should remain in Paris and simply lie low for a month. The Gestapo knew where she was operating from and kept a close eye in order to catch her, but she was ultimately betrayed by a Frenchwoman whose flat she had been staying in. She was arrested in October 1943, and here the earlier problems with her training came back out. In her room at the flat the Gestapo found a notebook she had kept detailing exactly that information. Although agents had to refer to previous messages, they were expected to hide such information properly, or give it to another agent. With no other agents nearby Noor had to keep hers herself, rather than hide it she had simply kept it in her bedside cabinet. It has also been suggested that Noor may not have been given full training on SOE security procedures, she was used to operating under WAAF guidelines and therefore didn't realise the significance of keeping detailed written records.
The capture of her codes meant that the Gestapo could pick up her work, pretending to be her and communicating with London. Although it was reported to SOE that she had been captured, the Gestapo did such a good job impersonating her that SOE dismissed the report until 1944. She was recommended for both a George Cross and an MBE in early 1944, with the reports stating she had evaded capture several times, the people who nominated her were unaware that she was now a prisoner. Sadly this also meant that several agents, including Madeleine Damerment, were dropped in to France straight in to the hands of the Germans in February 1944. All of them were executed in the following months.
Noor was originally interred in a cell at a building on Avenue Foch. She made her first escape attempt shortly after arriving by climbing out of a bathroom window on the fifth floor, but was quickly recaptured. She then made a further escape attempt with two other prisoners, Bob Starr and Colonel Faye. The three loosened the bars in the windows and escaped one night. Unfortunately Noor's weren't as loose as she had thought and it took her a further two hours to remove them. Shortly after she escaped an air raid siren went off and the subsequent check by guards meant the alarm was raised and all three were recaptured before they'd left the neighbouring buildings they were hiding in. Throughout her imprisonment she had refused to answer questions about her work or about SOE, although she did give away details of her childhood which were used by the Gestapo to convince SOE she was still free.
Due to the two escape attempts Noor was dispatched to Pforzheim prison in Germany. She was kept in solitary confinement with the smallest possible rations, with her hands and feet chained. After the war a neighbouring prisoner reported that he heard her being beaten by the guards, and that during her imprisonment there she was never allowed out of her cell.
There was some confusion over Noor's death. It was originally believed that she was taken to Natzweiler concentration camp in July 1944 with several other women SOE agents and executed there. In 1947 it was finally revealed that Noor was transferred to Dachau on 12 September 1944. On the morning of 13 September the women were dragged out of their cells, shot in the head, and cremated. One of the prisoners from Dachau reported that Noor was beaten shortly before her execution.
In the following year Noor received several posthumous awards, the Croix de Guerre with Gold Star in 1946, and the George Cross in 1949, and a memorial bust was unveiled in 2012 in Gordon Square Gardens in London.
The citation for her George Cross commended her for her "conspicuous courage".
When Philippa of Lancaster died on 19 July 1415, her adopted country of Portugal was plunged in to mourning. Philippa was a popular consort, known for her charity, benevolance, and for being a good influence on a court that had been viewed as being corrupt in the past. But her legacy would live on for multiple generations through her children, grandchildren, and even one particular great-granddaughter…
An English Princess
Philippa was born a Princess of England, as a beloved grandchild of King Edward III and his wife Philippa of Hainault. The young Philippa was the first child of John of Gaunt, one of the King's younger sons, and his wife Blanche of Lancaster. Through his wife John had claimed the title Duke of Lancaster, along with the vast lands and enormous wealth of the duchy.
Philippa grew up in a wealthy household with a succession of siblings following her, including a sister named Isabella and a brother named Henry. At the age of nine she lost her mother to the plague, which must have been devastating as Blanche appears to have been a dedicated mother. Although John of Gaunt was deeply affected by the death of his wife, he still remarried two years later to Constance of Castile. The connection between Constance and Philippa seems to be a bit remote, Constance herself was only six or seven years older than her new step-daughter. But Philippa and her sister Isabella also gained a new governess, Katherine Swynford, who had served in the ducal household during their mother's life, and would have been a familiar woman in their lives.
Katherine was also a familiar woman in John's life, as she became his mistress some time after his marriage to Constance. It's difficult for historians to guess whether Philippa and Isabella were aware of their father's relationship with Katherine while they were children, or whether they knew that her occasional returns to her home in Lincolnshire were to give birth to their illegitimate half-siblings. But the scandal that eventually broke when the public learned about Duke John's extra-marital relationship was a sharp lesson for Philippa. A good reputation would be hard to earn, and all too easy to lose.
Despite the scandal caused by Katherine's relationship with John, she seems to have been liked by Philippa and her siblings. Philippa received an excellent education for a medieval woman, learning her lessons from a variety of well-known names at the time, including Geoffrey Chaucer and Jean Froissart. Duke John was also able to ensure that she received a good collection of books to read from, including from classical writers such as Pliny. Philippa may have been fluent in several languages, including latin.
Queen of Portugal
Any upper-class medieval woman would have known that her marriage would be a political act, and Philippa was no exception. With all her paternal aunts either dead or married off, it fell to Edward III's granddaughters to lead the way in political alliances. France was allied with Castile, which threatened English interests on the continent. In return England decided to seek an alliance with Castile's neighbour, Portugal. King John I of Portugal was happy to get an alliance, but may have been less happy to seal it with a marriage, he already had a beautiful mistress and three children. However he had no legitimate offspring, and a grandchild of the King of England would be a suitable bride for a King of Portugal.
The alliance was used by Duke John as a way to springboard his invasion of Castile and claim the throne in right of his wife Constance. When English ships landed in Portugal in 1387, they carried not only the Duke and Duchess of Lancaster (Katherine Swynford had been left at home), but King John's new bride.
Philippa was in her late twenties when she married, old for a woman on her first marriage. She may not have been popular with the Portugese public, who questioned whether such an "old" woman would be able to give them the legitimate heir to the throne that they wanted.
But if she'd learned one thing at home, it was how a woman could earn a good reputation. Philippa was quick to make some changes in the court of her new home. King John's long-term mistress was sent off to a convent, where she eventually became Prioress thanks to Philippa's influence. She had John's surviving children, Alphonso and Beatrice, raised at the Portugese court, and arranged for Beatrice to make a good marriage to the Earl of Arundel back in England. Such graceful treatment of her "rival" and the children improved her standing in the eyes of the court, who may have expected a temper tantrum from the Queen and banishment to some remote rock for the mistress and children.
She also proved that she was able to bear children very quickly. Her first child, a daughter named Blanche, was born in 1388, followed by a son named Alphonse in 1390, and a second son named Edward in 1391. Young Edward was clearly named for his paternal grandfather, and it is through the unfortunate vagaries of childhood illness that he inherited the throne, becoming King Duarte I, instead of his older brother Alphonse, who died at the age of ten. In total Philippa would have nine children by King John, six of whom would live to become adults.
As mother of such a brood, Philippa became known as a dedicated parent, paying particularly close to attention to her children's education and upbringing. As adults the six surviving children would become known as the "Illustrious Generation" due to the political and economic changes that happened in Portugal during their lifetime, including the first expeditions that would eventually lead to the foundation of the Portugese empire.
Philippa contracted the plague in July 1415, and summoned her sons to her bedside. The official report of her death stated that she gave her sons some deeply symbolic gifts, jewelled swords and pieces of the True Cross, gifts that she may have been intending to give to them in the future if she had lived. She was reportedly conscious right until the end, praying with her priests, and stating that she wasn't in any pain. Given that plague was meant to be a particularly agonising death, it may have been that such a report was meant to gain her some particular favour from the Catholic church such as a sainthood. Today Philippa's tomb can be seen Batalha Monastery, where she rests alongside her husband King John.
Although she wouldn't become a saint, Philippa left her own enduring legacy, the strong women that followed her. Her only surviving daughter, Isabella, became Duchess of Burgundy on her marriage and acted as an effective regent for her husband when he was absent. Through her younger son John, Philippa also became grandmother to Infanta Isabella of Portugal, who married King John II of Castile in 1447. Isabella would have two children by her husband, a son named Alfonso who died aged fifteen, and a daughter also named Isabella. This princess, Philippa's great-granddaughter, would inherit the Castilian throne, marry the King of Aragon, and help unify Spain as Queen Isabella of Castile, mother of Catherine of Aragon.
On 10 January 1918, a nurse named Ada Woodley died at Littlebury in Essex. She's not a famous woman in history, but when me and my fiancé stumbled on her grave two years ago while visiting this beautiful old village, I decided to research her. It's rare to find a war memorial grave in a local cemetery, and I'd certainly never seen one dedicated to a woman before. But researching Ada's story reminded me that women who worked hard for their country during the war weren't really treated with the same amount of respect as their male counterparts.
Home in Littlebury
Ada was born around 1886 at Littlebury. Woodley was her mother's maiden name, and as such Ada appears to have been illegitimate. She can be found on the 1891 census living with her mother Sarah, her maternal grandfather George Woodley, and her step-father Daniel Perrin, as well as a 2 month old half sister named Elizabeth. Ada had kept the Woodley name, but obviously I don't know if that was her mother's choice, or if Daniel didn't want her to take his name.
By the 1901 census Ada was out making her own way in the world as a servant for the Pryke family in Saffron Walden. Her employer, Charles Edwin Pryke, is noted as "Superintendent of Police", so Ada may have been working in quite a nice house. Saffron Walden isn't too far away from Littlebury, so she may have been able to return and visit her mother quite frequently. Sarah and Daniel had increased their family, Elizabeth had been joined by Annie, Mabel, Harry and Frederick, and were still living with George Woodley.
In 1911 we first see Ada as a nurse. The census for this year shows her in Dearnley near Rochdale, where she was employed by the workhouse as a hospital nurse. Evidently at some point in those ten years Ada decided that being a servant wasn't the career for her, and made changes in her life that enabled her to train as a nurse and find employment further away from home. The workhouse at Dearnley still stands, with a grand imposing red-brick façade and clock tower. The infirmary, where Ada would have worked, was built in 1902 and appears to be tucked away in the north corner, possibly where it could be better isolated during serious epidemics.
Three years later, war broke out. As it became clear that it wouldn't be "all over by Christmas", more people were expected to show their commitment to war work. In the case of women such as Ada, there was a need for them to work in the military hospitals that had sprung up in both Britain and across Europe. On 21 June 1915 Ada Woodley joined the Territorial Force Nursing Service. Maybe she hoped to be sent abroad, some nurses were sent to work on hospital ships in the Mediterranean, others were dispatched to France and Belgium to serve in casualty clearing stations and hospitals near the coast. But many more were required to stay in Britain, and look after the men who were invalided "back to Blighty". In Ada's case she was sent to the 2nd Western General Hospital in Manchester.
Ada appears to have settled in well at the hospital. The matron in charge of her clearly tried to help fight her corner when she became ill, something she may not have done for a nurse she rated less highly. The TFNS also wrote to her mother after her death stating that "The council have placed on record the cheerful and willing service she rendered to her country, which was so appreciated at the 2nd Western General Hospital".
The first incidence of serious illness appears in Ada's nursing records in July 1917, when she was granted two months sick leave. At a time when the country was under great strain from the war effort, and injured men were being sent back from the front lines with increasing frequency, 2 months of leave suggests quite a serious illness. She travelled back home to her mother at Littlebury, and sought treatment there. In September 1917 a further two months sick leave was granted, but this is where war time bureaucracy really starts to show it's less helpful side, something that Ada's mother would have to deal with after her death.
A series of letters kept in Ada's file detail the sudden decline in her health. A letter from 14 September, sent to Ada, informs her that she is only eligible to receive three months sick pay as her illness is not caused "in and by" the service. Therefore, despite her sick leave totalling four months up to October, she will only receive three months pay. The letter also informs her that once her four months is close to expiring she'll be required to attend another medical board meeting, presumably to show them that she has recovered.
This letter wasn't what Ada was expecting. There's a gap of a month in the records, but a letter written by Ada herself dated 9 November 1917 appears in her file. In it she defends herself against what's clearly a basic box-ticking exercise, highlighting in her letter that she can't attend the medical board as directed, as she's confined to her bed. She also states that "I refuse to accept this statement" about her work not contributing to her illness. She highlights that when she first joined the TFNS she had a certificate confirming her good health, and in the two years she's worked at Manchester she hasn't had a single day off sick. She also points out that since returning home she's been under medical supervision, which has included being seen by a specialist. The conclusion she's received from her doctors is that even if her illness hasn't been caused by the hospital, then the strain and hard work has helped it develop.
Throughout the record I couldn't see anything indicating what was wrong with her, only that it was serious. At one point a note states that she's being treated by radium, which was used for a number of illnesses at the time. Given her job involved helping injured men, it may be that helping lift those heavier than herself led to a hernia or internal haemorrhage, something that was difficult to treat properly, and which could lead to a serious infection.
Sadly Ada's condition went downhill quite quickly, and it became obvious that she wasn't going to get better any time soon. One letter from her former Matron-in-Chief encourages the War Office to deal with her discharge from the service as quickly as possible as she was seriously ill. The Matron had already tried to help, asking for a medical board to be convened at Ada's home as she was too ill to travel to the necessary meeting. Given that the Matron was still up in Manchester, it's quite likely that she and Ada were keeping up correspondence, checking on how her former colleague was doing and becoming increasingly concerned when she heard about how Ada was being treated.
Ada was finally invalided out of the TFNS on 28 November 1917. This at least meant that she no longer had to worry about being summoned before a medical board to prove she was unfit for work, and probably came as a relief to her and her mother. A gratuity was then paid of just over £24, the letter confirming receipt of the money was written by the Reverend Ernest Edgeley, the vicar of Littlebury. The letter was dated 7 January 1918, Ada died three days later on 10 January. Given that we know from other letters that we was literate, with a lovely clear handwriting, she was clearly too sick to manage this last task herself.
Fighting the War Office
Reverend Edgeley proved to be a good friend to Ada's mother Sarah. The rest of the file contains letters written by the Reverend on Sarah's behalf, it's quite possible that unlike her daughter, her literacy was limited. Sarah had to pay for her daughter's funeral out of the money Ada had left in Sarah's possession. Ada had no will, and the War Office held on to the money for such costs as part of her Estate. Sarah had to apply to the War Office for the funeral expenses to be reimbursed, but the reply from the Office, dated June 1918, refused. "As the deceased was of illegitimate birth Mrs Perrin has no legal claim to the amount due to deceased's estate from Army Funds".
This must have been the last kick in the teeth for Ada's mother. The letter goes on to inform her that if she writes in, stating that if she had supported Ada in her childhood, then they would reconsider her application. Reverend Edgeley became involved again at this point, you can almost hear the anger in his letter; "I can certify from my own knowledge as vicar of the Parish extending over nearly 30 years, that Mrs Perrin supported the deceased during her infancy, childhood, provided her with a home in instances of holiday and finally nursed her through her last illness". Soldiers were encouraged to make their wills before they left for the front line, evidently such legal niceties weren't encouraged for those serving in the services at home, including nurses. Or perhaps Ada's end came too suddenly for it to be a consideration.
Ada's mother chose the quote she wanted on her daughter's headstone, it simply reads "She hath done what she could".