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Category: Women in History

  1. On This Day: Death of Blanche of Castile

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    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. 

  2. 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. 

  3. 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… 

  4. 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. 

  5. 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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  6. 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.

    Childhood

    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!)