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Category: Women in History

  1. On This Day: Death of Noor-un-Nisa Inayat Khan

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    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. 

  2. On This Day: Death of Philippa of Lancaster

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    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… 

  3. Ada Woodley - First World War Nurse

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    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. 

  4. On This Day: Death of Katherine Swynford

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    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.

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  5. On This Day: Birth of Isabella of Castile

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    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: Birth of Mary Tudor, Queen of France

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    On 18th March 1496, Henry VII and Elizabeth of York became parents to a second daughter. The baby girl was named Mary, and like her older sister Margaret and her brother Henry, she would go on to have an interesting marital history.

    Queen of FranceMary Tudor

    Like many English princesses, and like her siblings Arthur and Margaret, Mary was required to play a key role in the political aspirations of her father. England's traditional enemies were Scotland in the north, and France in the south, while the old kingdom of Castile had been both ally and enemy, and the duchy of Burgundy had been a long-term friend and trading partner. It was natural then that Henry would want to bolster England's standing by contracting marriages that would neutralise it's enemies, while bringing it's old friends in to a closer relationship.

    For Arthur it was the famous marriage to Catherine of Aragon, daughter of Queen Isabella of Castile and King Ferdinand of Aragon. Arthur and Catherine were distantly related, and their marriage was a way of reaffirming England's old ties to Spain. Margaret on the other hand had been earmarked for Scotland in her infancy, a potential marriage between her and King James IV had been discussed for the first time when she was just six years old, and their marriage was celebrated in 1503.

    For Mary there was less certainty. Originally she was betrothed to Charles Habsburg, the future Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and the nephew of Catherine of Aragon. Mary was four years older than her intended husband, and had to wait until he was considered old enough to marry her. This meant that she was still unmarried at the age of seventeen, when the match was called off in favour of a peace treaty with France. In 1514 the eighteen year old princess married King Louis XII of France, who was fifty two years old and had already been married twice.

    Mary became step-mother to two girls, Claude and Renee, but Louis had no living son at the time of his third marriage. She would no doubt had known that there was a lot of pressure on her, but luckily for Mary she didn't need to face the same worries as her sister-in-law Catherine, as Louis was dead nearly three months after their wedding in January 1501.

    Duchess of Suffolk

    Since Louis had died without a male heir, the French throne went to his cousin Francis. The new King of France was keen to arrange Mary's second marriage in a way that would benefit him, while in England Mary's brother was determined that it would be arranged to suit himself. However Mary took matters in to her own hands and married Charles Brandon, the Duke of Suffolk, in secret just months after Louis' death.

    Charles was a close friend of Henry, but originally it looked as if even that wouldn't be enough to save his life. Henry was furious that his sister had been married without his permission, and the English court was horrified by the idea of Brandon marrying a woman with such a high social status. There was even talk of Brandon being executed for his behaviour, but in the end his old friendship with Henry and Mary's own close relationship with her brother won out. He and Mary had to pay an enormous fine, but they were allowed back in the country and were given a second wedding ceremony at Greenwich Palace, with Henry attending.

    Mary settled back in to life in England, spending most of her time on her husband's estate in Suffolk. Through Charles she once again became a step-mother to two girls, and she had four children of her own. When at court she appears to have been a friend of Catherine of Aragon, in later years she would side with the Queen of England against Anne Boleyn. But she didn't live to see her brother's on-going marital dramas. She died in June 1533, and was buried at Bury St Edmunds. It was through her that Lady Jane Grey would eventually make her own claim to the English throne, as Mary's eldest daughter Frances was Jane's mother.

  7. On This Day: Death of Joan of England, Queen of Scotland

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    On this day in 1238, Queen Joan of Scotland died in Havering-atte-Bower. Her relatively short life had been frequently disrupted by the vagaries of English medieval politics, she had been passed from pillar to post as nothing more than a bargaining chip, and at the end of her life her marriage had been in ruins. She was yet another princess whose life was not what she may have hoped for.

    Childhoodjoan of england queen of scotland

    Joan was born on 22nd July 1210, the third child and first daughter of King John and his wife Isabella of Angouleme. Like the rest of her siblings her early life was influenced by King John's on-going war with the English Barons, as the court moved around the country trying to find alliances and support for John. Her life only really settled when, at the age of four, she was betrothed to Hugh X of Lusignan. As part of the betrothal agreement she was sent to Lusignan to be raised in her future husband's court. The betrothal was a peace offering on John's part, Hugh's father had originally been betrothed to Joan's mother Isabella of Angouleme. John had effectively betrayed the elder Hugh by tricking him in to leaving Lusignan and then marrying Isabella himself, leading to a series of battles and recriminations between both sides.

    Hugh the younger was anywhere between 15 and 27 years older than his future wife, but marriage to a Princess was not a deal that could be given up lightly, especially as Joan could instead have been used as a diplomatic deal between England and France. By keeping Joan at the Lusignan court Hugh and his family could at least be certain that John would keep his side of any future bargain, they effectively had his daughter as a hostage should things turn sour. How Joan was treated at the court, as unwanted future bride or honourable guest, isn't known. But in 1216 things changed again when King John died and her brother Henry became King Henry III.

    Up to this point Joan and Henry's mother Isabella had simply gone along with what her husband wanted. She had been 12 years old when she had married him, he hadn't been a brilliant husband to her, and it appears that she had no real love for England or the English. As soon as Henry was crowned and settled she decided to return to the continent, where she had inherited the county of Angouleme. Once she was home she soon became reacquainted with local power struggles and alliances, and in 1220 she usurped Joan's position by marrying Hugh X herself. With no father or brother to arrange her marriage for her, this was clearly a choice made by Isabella alone. It suddenly made Joan's position deeply awkward, with no groom waiting in the wings there was no point in her remaining in Lusignan. But Hugh and Isabella exploited the poor girl's position for everything it was worth.

    Back in England Henry and his advisors were shocked by the turn of events. The union of the counties of Angouleme and Lusignan made a powerful bloc that could upset the delicate political balance on the continent. Hugh and Isabella knew this, and simultaneously refused to place Joan in her brother's custody and threatened to deal with the King of France if their demands weren't met. Isabella wanted the dower that she was due to receive as the widow of a King of England, and Hugh wanted the lands and money that had been promised to him as part of the agreement for marrying Joan.

    The English court had no choice but to agree, they had already been arranging a new treaty with Scotland that was going to be cemented with a new marriage for Joan, this time to King Alexander II. Her sister Isabella was waiting a potential second best, but once again the age difference between bride and groom meant that an older bride was preferred, if only to reduce the amount of time until an heir could be produced. Henry agreed to his mother and Hugh's demands, and Joan was packed off back to England to face a new marriage.

    Queen of Scotland

    Ten year old Joan married the twenty three year old King of Scotland on 21 June 1221 at York. Henry paid for several days of celebrations, attended by nobles from both the English and Scottish courts, and Alexander then escorted his new bride back to his kingdom.

    Joan maintained close contact with her brother for the rest of her life. Although Alexander had granted Joan a "dower" of various lands in Scotland, the money from which was supposed to support her and her household, it does not appear that she was actually given any control over this money. Although she was only a child when she married Alexander, she appears to have been continuously denied her rights once she became an adult. This was alleviated somewhat by Henry, who occasionally granted her lands in England, as well as rights to build property and claim other sources of income that helped her gain a little independence.

    The real problems in the marriage seem to have stemmed from their childlessness. Like all Kings, Alexander was desperate to have a son and heir who would inherit his throne on his death. Even taking in to account the fact that Joan was only ten when they married, a decade later the couple still had an empty nursery. Although Joan had frequently proved her worth on the diplomatic front, frequently exchanging letters with her brother that also included things her husband had told her which helped smooth relations between both sides, to a medieval King her only value came from the sons she would give him.

    In 1237 Alexander and Joan travelled south to York for a meeting between Alexander and Henry. Alexander had been demanding that Henry grant him the county of Northumbria, and a face-to-face meeting was considered to be the best way to resolve the argument. Once things came to a successful conclusion - Alexander dropped his claim in favour of other grants and acknowledgements from Henry - Joan left her husband and travelled down to Canterbury with her sister-in-law Eleanor of Provence. By this time Canterbury was a centre of pilgrimage, and both Queens may have been praying for help getting the sons that both their husbands wanted.

    Joan then spent Christmas with her English family, with no apparent indication that she would return to Scotland any time soon. She was still in England when she fell ill, and she died on 4th March 1238, with her brothers King Henry and Richard Duke of Cornwall at her side. She was buried in Tarrant Crawford Abbey in Dorset, where Henry paid for masses to be sung and for a memorial set up over her tomb. Alexander married Marie de Coucy and by her had a son, the future King Alexander III