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Category: Women in History

  1. On This Day: Death of Maria Theresa of Spain

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    "This is the first trouble she has ever given me."

    As Maria Theresa lay dying, her husband's words showed the kind of Queen of France that she had been. Quiet, unassuming, supportive to her husband, and loving to their children. King Louis XIV could not have found a better definition of her time with him.

    Princess of Spain

    Maria Theresa was born in September 1638 the daughter of King Philip IV of Spain and his wife Elisabeth of France. France and Spain had been closely connected by marriage in the previous generation, her parents were the siblings of the King and Queen of France, as King Philip's sister Anne had married Queen Elisabeth's brother Louis. Like many such marriages between France and Spain, the weddings had been decided upon in an attempt to bring peace between the two countries, unfortunately it didn't work.

    She grew up in the strict formality of the Spanish court, which encouraged solemnity and serious pasttimes. Her mother died when she was just six years old, and her father remarried several years later. Maria Theresa does not appear to have got on well with her new step-mother, and so may have lacked the kind of warm, affectionate home that her future husband had.

    Queen of Francemariatheresaofspain

    After many years of war a peace deal was brokered between Spain and France, and was to be sealed with a marriage between Maria Theresa and Louis XIV. They were the same age, in fact there were only a few days age difference between them, and the marriage had been hoped for for many years by Louis' mother Anne. Any potential courting between the afianced couple was stifled by Maria Theresa's father, who refused to let his daughter even read a letter from her future groom, and who strictly supervised their first meeting shortly before the wedding (in fact he banned Louis from even being in the same room as Maria Theresa, an order that the King of France tried to evade by lingering in the doorway while his brother chatted to the princess, King Philip continually refused to allow him in to the room).

    It's reported that on their wedding night, Maria Theresa made her husband promise to never spend a night sleeping away from her. Whether or not this was true, it certainly was a habit that Louis stuck to, although it wasn't enough to prevent him having many affairs through their marriage. His wife found herself settling in to her new home, with help from her aunt, who was thrilled to have another Spainiard at court. There was no bickering between mother-in-law and daughter-in-law, instead the pair of them frequently prayed and visited convents together.

    In fact Maria Theresa was a little too Spanish for the French court. Her new home was one that loved innovation, fashion, dancing and wit. Her upbringing had left her rather shy, she preferred to keep to herself with a select group of companions, and she wasn't fashionable or quick enough to be a leader of the court. Despite this, she was a good Queen to Louis. She was upset by his frequent affairs, but realised there was nothing she could do to stop them. She even sponsored one of her husband's former mistresses, Louise de la Valliere, when she decided to retire from court and become a nun. Louis in turn protected her from any disrespect on the part of his other women, rebuking them when they declined to show her the deference required by her position.

    If royal marriages were designed to create peace and provide an heir, then Maria Theresa failed in the first part, France and Spain were still consistently at war over the years. But in the second part she succeeded, as she gave birth to six children, of whom three were sons. The first, also called Louis, was born on 1st November 1661. Sadly it was only this eldest child who would outlive her, her eldest surviving daughter lived for five years, and her other children mostly died within weeks of birth.

    Maria Theresa's own death would come as a surprise, as her illness was sudden, and her decline swift. She reporedtly surprised the court by never complaining about the agonising treatments she went through, medical intervention still didn't include any pain relief. She died on 30th July 1683, leaving her husband to utter the simple, but evocative, summation of their life together.


    Interested in biographies of Royal women? You might like my Unlucky Princess blog series.

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  2. On This Day: Death of Joan of England

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    On this day, 1 July 1348, Joan of England died in Gascony. The daughter of King Edward III of England and his wife, Philippa of Hainault, Joan had been on her way to marry Peter of Castile. Her wedding trousseau had been stuffed with sumptous fabrics and jewels, her household furniture was the finest quality that money could buy, and her wedding dress was designed to show the Castilian court that England was wealthy and powerful, and it's princess was a valuable treasure. Sadly none of it could stop the terrible ravages of the Black Death.

    Princess Joan

    Joan was born in 1334 at the Palace of Woodstock in Oxfordshire, the third child and second daughter of Edward and Philippa. In total her parents had fourteen children, and Joan grew up in a loving household. She and her siblings had a retinue of servants, but they were still close to their parents, who took an active interest in their children's lives.

    Like many Royal girls, Joan was betrothed at a young age to a suitable man from another noble family. At the age of four Joan and her mother travelled to Herenthals, where Joan was placed in the care of her aunt, Philippa's sister Margaret. Together with a suitable retinue, Joan travelled across Germany to meet her fiance Frederick, son of the Duke of Austria. Since she was only a little girl there was no chance of Joan pulling the same trick as her sister Isabella, who consistently refused to wed various men that caught her attention, and at one point came within a week of marrying before she changed her mind.

    Instead Joan's marriage was called off after her future father-in-law died, leaving his brother to act as regent. The alliance that Joan's marriage was meant to cement was called off, as was the wedding. The little girl had barely arrived in her new home before circumstances meant that she had to turn around and return to Ghent, where her mother was still residing after giving birth to another son.

    Joan's second wedding was arranged with just as much care. The Castilians were allied with the French, and their ships were a perpetual problem for English merchant ships, which were frequently attacked. A marriage between a Castilian prince and an English princess would hopefully pacify the Spainish, if not lead to a proper alliance. It wasn't the first time there was a wedding between the two kingdoms, Joan's great-grandmother was Eleanor of Castile (this connection naturally meant that a papal dispensation had to be arranged for the couple), but it was the last such wedding for over one hundred years, when Catherine of Aragon (daughter of Isabella of Castile) married King Henry VIII.

    The Plaguejoan of england

    At the age of fourteen, Joan was considered old enough to be sent to Castile. Although she had been sent to Germany at a young age, it had been anticipated that the wedding itself wouldn't have been until she was a more suitable age. Her sisters were all married in their late teens, older than expected for the time, and it may be that Joan and Peter weren't expected to live together until the bride was a little older.

    The first stage of the journey was the sea voyage from her home, to the English county of Gascony in France. At the time she left the plague hadn't reached England, although stories of it were becoming known. Her household and belongings were carefully packed up on to several ships, a grand farewell was held, and then Joan set sail. As the ships arrived at Bourdeaux, they were told not to come on land. The town was in the grip of the plague, and it wasn't safe for the English retinue to be there. The warnings were ignored, the party moved to the castle in the town, but two weeks later members of the group started to fall ill.

    Those that were currently healthy, including Joan, fled towards Castile. But sadly the disease caught up with them quickly. Joan fell sick, and died in the village of Loremo, having never met her betrothed. Mystery still surrounds the fate of her remains, some stories state that she was buried in a local church, others say that she was repatriated to England at the insistance of her distraught parents. A memorial was raised to her in Westminster Abbey, but no tomb has been found, suggesting that if she was indeed buried in a church near her place of death, then it would have been the kind of anonymous grave that many plague victims were given. 

  3. On This Day: Eleanor of Aquitaine's Second Wedding

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    You may remember my blog post a few weeks ago about Eleanor of Aquitaine's divorce from King Louis VII of France. Their marriage had been rocky for years, a split was virtually inevitable. Louis tried to ensure that he still had some say in Eleanor's life, by including a clause that stated that she had to ask his permission before remarrying. In this way he hoped to prevent her from allying herself with someone who would pose a danger to his kingdom.

    Unfortunately for Louis, on this day, 18th May 1152, remarrying without permission was exactly what Eleanor did. Her groom was none other than Henry "Plantagenet", Duke of Normandy, and their marriage united two of the biggest duchies in France, creating exactly the kind of problem Louis wanted to avoid.

    Henry Plantagenethenryplantagenet

    The young groom, who was nine years younger than the bride, was the son of Duke Geoffrey of Anjou and his wife the Empress Matilda, a princess of England by birth and technically the rightful heir to the English throne (once you got past her gender). This was another rocky marriage, but unlike Eleanor it wasn't one that would be put aside. Matilda had originally been married to Henry, the Holy Roman Emperor, and she continued to be known as "Empress Matilda" for the rest of her life. She had no children by her first husband, and his death meant that she had to leave the Empire and return to England.

    Her second marriage, arranged by her father Henry I of England, was designed to prevent the Duke of Anjou from being a pain in the neck. Unfortunately Matilda hated her new husband, and he wasn't exactly taken with her. Henry had to step in several times to prevent them from becoming completely estranged. In the end though they settled down enough to conceive several children, the eldest of whom was named Henry after his grandfather.

    Henry's life was dominated by the war his parents waged against Matilda's cousin, Stephen, the new King of England. To this day historians argue over whether Stephen stole the throne from Matilda, or had been privately acknowledged as Henry I's heir. Either way, Matilda and Geoffrey were not about let an opportunity pass, and while Geoffrey focused on attacking strategic points in Normandy, Matilda travelled to England and waged war with the support of her illegitimate half-brother. "The Anarchy" as it became known, went on for years and decimated the English population. In the end a compromise would be reached, Stephen would reign as King, but his heir on his death would be Matilda's son Henry.

    The Marriageeleanorofaquitaine

    Of course, there was no guarantee that Henry really would be King on Stephen's death, at the time of the wedding it wasn't even much of a consideration. Stephen had sons of his own, and the English nobility may choose to support one of them instead. But Henry had learned a lot about successful warfare from his father, and was quickly gaining a reputation for being both brave and skillful. For a woman who had a Duchy to maintain, against enemies both inside and out, he was the obvious choice. Even as Eleanor was making her way home she had already decided to marry him.

    The journey back was dangerous. In the medieval period a woman's consent to a marriage was considered a technicality rather than a necessity, and
    there were several men who plotted to kidnap and marry her themselves, including Henry's brother Geoffrey, so they could claim Aquitaine. But through a combination of bravery and speed, Eleanor managed to evade the plotters and reach Aquitaine safely. Henry arrived soon after, and the hasty wedding took place at Poitiers.

    Louis instantly reacted by gathering a force to invade Aquitaine. Henry collected his own troops, fully supported by his wife, and was quickly successful. Louis was humiliated twice over, not only was he beaten in the field of battle, but a year later Eleanor gave birth to a healthy baby boy, giving Henry the heir that Louis had always wanted from her, and proving once and for all that if there was a fertility problem then it certainly wasn't hers.

    The enmity between Louis and Henry would continue for decades, and would see Louis successfully turn Henry's sons against him, and lead to Eleanor's imprisonment for supporting them over her husband. But at least on this day in 1152, she would have started to feel safe for the first time in weeks, if not months.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.