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Category: Women in History

  1. On This Day: Nancy Wake Returns To France

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    On this day (technically the night of 29th April, or the early morning of 30th April depending on your point of view) in 1944, an SOE agent named Nancy Wake was parachuted in to France. She already had a five million franc price on her head, had been captured and freed, and it had taken her six attempts to get out of France in the first place. To say she was returning to the lion's den would be a bit of an understatement. She is also, for many reasons, one of my favourite women in history.

    Before The War

    Nancy Wake was born in New Zealand but raised in Australia. As a teenager she moved to the USA, where she became a journalist, and then on to France, where she met and married a wealthy Frenchman named Henri Fiocca. When Germany invaded France she volunteered with the French Resistance as a courier, while she and her husband let their holiday home be used as a safe house for people trying to escape.

    During The War

    Wake became an absolute pain in the neck to the Gestapo. They named her "The White Mouse", and she was so effective that they issued a 5 million franc reward for her capture. Under increasing pressure as members of her network were arrested, she eventually chose to flee Marseille. Her husband opted to stay behind, and was eventually captured, tortured and executed by the Gestapo. Wake herself was arrested in Toulouse, but was freed after a friend claimed they were having an affair and her secretive behaviour was due to her worry her husband would find out. Had the Gestapo got hold of her they would have done the same to her as they did to her husband.

    She eventually managed to escape France in to Spain, via the Pyrenees, and from there got a ship back to Britain. She promptly volunteered with SOE, nancy-wakewhere she earned high praise for both her attitude and abilities. She was then parachuted in to France, where she met up with a local network. Her role was to oversee the groups finances and handle the division of weapons and supplies dropped by the Allies, but she was soon helping recruit new members, plan and oversee operations, and eventually came to lead over 7000 men. She claimed that her greatest moment was cycling a 300 mile round trip to get new wireless codes. She also killed a German sentry to prevent him raising the alarm, and shot a woman who was a German spy. In total her team killed around 1400 Germans, while suffering only 100 casualties.

    Post-War

    In the years after the war Nancy Wake was awarded multiple honours, including Britain's George Cross. It was only after the war that she found out her husband had been killed by the Gestapo. She spent several years back in Australia where she attempted a political career, returned to England where she met and married her second husband, and then moved back to Australia once again. After her second husband passed away Wake once more returned to England, where she spent the final years of her life. After her death in 2011 her ashes were scattered in the countryside near Montluçon, the French town close to where her team had operated.

    In many ways I think that Nancy Wake is so often forgotten because she survived. Had she been caught and executed she would no doubt be remembered as a valiant heroine who died for the cause. But the fact that she came through the war without being killed doesn't diminish how brave she was. When she escaped to Britain, with a 5 million franc bounty still on her head, she could have simply settled there in relative safety. Instead she chose to join SOE and jump straight back in to danger, and that is why she is one of my favourite women in history.

  2. Death of Mary of Burgundy

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    Death of Mary of Burgundy

    On this day in 1482, Mary of Burgundy died from injuries she suffered after a fall from her horse. Her early death was the last tragedy of a life that had suffered many such encounters.

    Mary of Burgundy was born in February 1457. Her father, Charles the Bold, was the Duke of the wealthy duchy of Burgundy, while her mother was maryburgundyIsabella of Bourbon. Her mother died in 1465, leaving Charles with Mary as his only heir. The general view at the time was that a girl couldn't possibly rule, and therefore Charles decided to remarry. In 1468 Mary acquired a step-mother, Margaret of Burgundy, the sister of King Edward IV (and later, Richard III) of England. Margaret and Charles never had a child, but Mary became close to her step-mother, and it was Margaret who guided Mary's steps when tragedy struck again in 1477, when Charles died in the Battle of Nancy.

    Charles had spent most of his life fighting against the French, and King Louis XI wasn't about to let sympathy for an orphaned girl stop him taking advantage of the situation. Luckily for Mary her step-mother was still alive, and she advised Mary to follow the marriage plans her father had set in place before his death. In August 1477, eight months after her father's death, Mary married Maximilian of Austria. They became co-rulers, with Margaret assisting in the background as both a mother figure to Mary and a popular Dowager Duchess to the people.

    In July 1478 Mary gave birth to a son, named Philip, thereby ensuring the succession for her family. A daughter named Margaret followed in 1480, and another son called Francis in 1481, who died within a few months. Philip and Margaret would go on to have a double marriage with Infanta Juana and Infante Juan of Spain, the sister and brother of Catherine of Aragon.

    Sadly though, Mary would never see her children's marriages. While out hunting in March 1482, Mary's horse fell, throwing her from the saddle, the resulting injuries left her in agony for several days before she died on the 27th March, aged just 25. Philip and Margaret were 4 and 2 years old respectively, and had to learn to rule Burgundy without their mother's advice.

  3. Annulment of Eleanor of Aquitaine's Marriage

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    On this day in 1152, Eleanor of Aquitaine officially became a single woman. Her fourteen-year marriage had begun when she was just a teenager, now she was a mother of two daughters, and Duchess of Aquitaine in her own right. Her now former husband, King Louis VII of France, made sure that part of the divorce meant that Eleanor would have to ask his permission to remarry. Unfortunately for Louis, it wouldn't work out that way.

    The Marriage

    Eleanor and Louis had married in July 1137, within months of her father's death. As the eldest surviving daughter, with no brothers, Eleanor was the eleanorofaquitainenew Duchess of Aquitaine. Prince Louis' father spotted an opportunity to increase his kingdom, and promptly dispatched his son and heir to marry her.

    Their marriage was not a happy one. There was a strong clash of personalities and cultures, there was a big difference between Louis' French court and the Aquitainian lifestyle that Eleanor was used to. Louis was also extremely devout, while Eleanor simply followed more traditional piety. They had one child, a daughter named Marie, before they went on Crusade together. While they were in Antioch, rumours flew around that Eleanor was having an affair with her uncle Raymond. Sources state that she suggested to Louis that they divorce, but he refused.

    On their eventual journey home they visited the Pope, who worked to reconcile the arguing couple. Eleanor became pregnant with her second child, which turned out to be another daughter. This little girl's birth is probably what saved her from continuing her marriage to Louis, as the French court helped persuade him to divorce her, so that he could marry another woman who would give him a son. The annulment was granted on 21st March 1152 on the grounds of consanguinity, meaning that the Church felt the couple were too closely related. Eleanor once again became Duchess of Aquitaine in her own right, but Louis had to approve any future marriage she might consider. Their daughters were also left to be raised in the French court, rather than sent to Aquitaine with their mother.

    The Aftermath

    Eleanor raced back to Aquitaine, escaping several attempts to capture her and force her in to marriage. The fact that she travelled as quickly as she did shows that she was well aware of the danger she was now in, while travelling at all shows just how brave and determined she was to make her own life from now on.

    In fact she was so determined that she ignored the requirement to see permission from Louis, and remarried eight weeks after her divorce. Her choice of groom was Duke Henry of Normandy, their marriage combined two large Duchies to create the kind of border problem that Louis had wanted to avoid. Henry was everything that Louis wasn't; brave, decisive, quick to take action. She and Henry would go on to have five sons and three daughters, and become King and Queen of England.

    While the ending of her marriage to Henry was far from positive, at least the start of it was better than her marriage to Louis.

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  4. Execution of Catherine Howard

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    On this day in 1542 Catherine Howard, fifth wife of Henry VIII, was beheaded at the Tower of London. Her execution was the final chilling parallel to the reign of Anne Boleyn, Henry's infamous second wife, who was related to Catherine.

    How were Catherine Howard and Anne Boleyn Related?

    The actual family relationship between Catherine and Anne is pretty straightforward, despite the multiple marriages of various Howards. Anne's mother, Elizabeth Boleyn, was the younger sister of Catherine's father Lord Edmund Howard. Anne and Catherine were first cousins through a shared grandfather, and nieces of the powerful Lord Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk, who was high in King Henry's favour for most of his reign, and did his best to ensure that he stayed there.

    How Similar Were They?

    Apart from the manner of their deaths and their marriage to Henry, there's very little similarity between Catherine and Anne. The exact years of birth of both women aren’t certain, but the age gap could be somewhere around twenty years. Anne's father, Thomas Boleyn, was a diplomat from a wealthy family. Thomas used his connections to ensure that his children were given good educations in some of Europe's greatest courts. Anne herself served in the courts of Burgundy and France before she returned to England, where her mother and sister were serving Catherine of Aragon.catherinehoward

    Catherine's father on the other hand was almost constantly in debt, he served at Henry's court but doesn't seem to have had the same flair and abilities as his older brother, or his brother-in-law. He eventually fled to Calais, often a stopping point for men whose debts were more than they could handle. Unable to raise his children himself, he had them farmed out to various wealthy relatives. Catherine, who was five years old when her mother died, was sent to live with Agnes Howard, the Dowager Duchess of Norfolk and step-mother to Thomas, Edmund and Elizabeth (making her a step-grandmother to Anne and Catherine).

     

    Their backgrounds affected their education. Anne spoke several languages, played the lute, composed songs and could argue a theological case with the King with ease. Catherine, whose education was seriously neglected, could read and write. She was taught to dance, and had some music lessons with a man named Henry Maddox (with whom she also had a relationship), but she far from the educated, sophisticated woman that Anne was.

    Their Marriages and Deaths

    Their courtships by King Henry VIII were also very different. Anne had to wait six years before she was able to marry the King, as he was already married to Catherine of Aragon, and she refused to consent to a divorce. When Anne and Henry did marry it was in secret, Anne was already pregnant so speed was required, but her grand coronation was meant to make up for it. Anne gave birth to a daughter, Elizabeth, and had several miscarriages before she was arrested and put on trial. She was charged with adultery and incest, and had to go through the ordeal of a public trial before she was found guilty and executed. In total she was married to Henry for three years, although their relationship had been going for nine years if you count the time it took to get a divorce.

    In comparison Catherine had a relatively short tenure. She joined the court as a maid in waiting to Anne of Cleves, Henry's fourth wife, sometime in early 1540 when Anne came to England for her wedding. By July 1540 Henry had divorced her, a much quicker process when the wife doesn't argue against it, and Catherine became Henry's wife on 28th July 1540. Theirs was a quiet wedding, and Catherine was never formally crowned so there was no coronation to make up for it. It's generally believed that she never conceived, she certainly never gave birth and there's no mention of any miscarriages in historical sources. In November 1541 Catherine was arrested and imprisoned in Syon Abbey. Instead of a public trial she was found guilty of adultery by a "Bill of Attainder". At the time of her execution she had been married for less than two years, and probably hadn't even reached her twentieth birthday.

    The final difference between these  two women is their guilt. Many historians now argue that Anne certainly wasn't guilty of incest with her brother, and probably wasn't guilty of incest with the other men executed alongside him. On the other hand it's generally believed that Catherine was guilty of having an affair with Thomas Culpeper, although many historians continue to debate just how far they had gone, and whether they were in love, or if Culpeper was using Catherine's affections for him to manipulate her.

    After she was beheaded Catherine was buried near her place of execution, in the in the chapel of St Peter ad Vincula at the Tower of London.  This was also where Anne Boleyn and her brother George were laid to rest after their executions. These two women, who lived their lives with so many parralels, now continue the pattern in death.

    (Image used above is one that is believed to be of Catherine Howard. This particular image was from WikiCommons)

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    You can also check my Catherine Howard badge.

  5. On This Day: Death of Catherine of Aragon

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

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

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

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

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

    catherinearagon1

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

    (Images from WikiCommons)