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Category: Women in History

  1. On This Day: Death of Nellie Bly

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    On 27th January 1922 an incredible woman passed away in New York. Elizabeth Cochrane Seaman, who went by the pen name "Nellie Bly", was supposed to write about dresses and parties. Instead she had set a record, patented inventions, led mental health reform and annoyed the Mexican government.


    Nellie became a journalist almost by accident. On reading a misogynistic article in her local newspaper, she wrote a spirited defence to the editor. Her writing style impressed him, leading to first a trial offer and then a full time job as a writer for the Pittsburgh Dispatch. As a woman writer, she was expected to stick solely to the columns dedicated to "women's interest" - which primarily consisted of articles about fashion and beauty, and local celebrity gossip. None of this was of interest to her, so instead she moved to Mexico and began sending home a series of articles about life in the country and it's people. Afer a highly critical article about the Mexican government, Nellie was forced to flee back to America, where she not only published more criticisms on Mexico's politics, but collected her earlier articles and published a book.

    Mental Health ReformNellie Bly

    Back in Pittsburgh, Nellie was quickly reduced once again to the women's interest section. She soon got bored and quit her job to move to New York City, where she eventually managed to get a job interview with the New York World, the newspaper owned by Joseph Pullitzer. The paper had received reports of abuse being carried out at a mental asylum in the state, and Nellie was given the task of infiltrating the asylum to see what she could find. In order to be admitted she faked a bout of insanity, and after being brought before a judge and examined by several doctors, she was committed to the asylum. There she witnessed multiple acts of abuse, patients were beaten if they refused to be quiet, fed food that was either uncooked or had gone off, tied together with ropes and left on benches with no mental stimulation to keep them occupied, and occasionally deliberately drenched in freezing cold water.

    Nellie spent ten days in the asylum, after which her colleagues at the New York World persuaded the judge that it had been an act and that she should be released. She promptly wrote a report detailing her experiences, which was later also published as a book titled "Ten Days in a Madhouse". One of the biggest scandals was that a woman who was completely sane had been deemed otherwise by medical professionals, leading to questions about how many other women had been mistakenly classed as seriously mentally ill. The abuse she witnessed led to a public scandal, which prompted reform in the mental health system of the state. Nellie frequently submitted her own suggestions for changes that should be made, many of which were implemented.

    Eighty Days Around The World

    In the book "Eighty Days Around the World", Phileas Fogg makes a grand attempt to circumnavigate the world in a hot air balloon. On 14th November 1889, Nellie started out on her own version of the journey, publically supported by the New York World. She left New York by steamboat, and proceeded to travel through England, France, Italy, Egypt, Sri Lanka, China and Japan, using boats and railways. She took minimal luggage, carrying just one bag with her, and travelled alone. She was also in direct competition, the New York paper "Cosmopolitan" sent their own woman journalist on the same trip, but in the opposite direction.

    On 21st January 1890, Nellie's boat docked at San Francisco. Bad weather on the final leg of her journey meant that she was a few days behind schedule, but this was soon dealt with by Joseph Pullitzer, who paid for a private train to carry her back to New York from the west coast. She arrived home on 25th January, having travelled around the world in seventy two days, beating the Cosmopolitan's journalist by four days. Nellie only held the record for a few months, but she would always be the first person to travel around the world in less than eighty days, let alone the first woman to complete such a trip.


    On marrying in 1895, Nellie gave up writing to work with her husband (who was fourty years her senior) in his company, the Iron Clad Manufacturing Co. Nine years after they married, her husband died, leaving Nellie in charge of the company. She lodged two patents for products that the company made, but the business eventually collapsed as it was embezzled by employees. In the final decade of her life, Nellie returned to writing.

    Her death in 1922 appears to have gone relatively unnoticed. She was buried in New York, but her grave was unmarked until 1978 when the New York Press Club paid for the erection of a headstone. However in recent years her accomplishments have been noted in numerous plays, tv shows and movies, which have frequently drawn on her work "Ten Days in a Mad-House", and she was the feature of a 2015 Google Doodle.

    If you want to read about more women in history, you can check out my ebook on amazon.co.uk and amazon.com!

  2. On This Day: Birth of Isabella of Valois

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    On this day in 1389 Isabeau of Bavaria, Queen of France, gave birth to a baby girl in Paris. Princess Isabella was the third child and second daughter of the Queen and her husband King Charles VI. Sadly she did not have the best childhood, or the longest life.


    Isabella's parent's marriage had originally seemed like it was divinely blessed. Charles reportedly fell in love with his bride at first sight, and showered her with gifts and a lavish coronation. Their first child was a boy named Charles, who died aged eight, followed by Jeanne and then Isabella.

    But things slowly took the shine off the royal life. Charles developed a mental illness, which first appeared in 1392 when Isabella was three years old. For the rest of his life Charles would swing between lucidity and insanity, a situation that led to various political players attempting to gain control of the country. One of those players was Isabeau, who quickly developed a reputation in the medieval chronicles for neglecting her children.

    Charles' periods of sanity meant that Isabeau continued to fall pregnant, in total Isabella was followed by nine siblings. The Royal nursery was reportedly far from what it should have been, records stated that the children were left to run around in old, dirty clothes, and that if it wasn't for the servants they would have starved, as Isabeau never bothered to arrange supplies. Modern historians have pointed out that the actual records from the court show payments made for toys and clothes for the children, suggesting that even if Isabeau didn't spend much time with them, she certainly didn't neglect them.Isabella of Valois

    Charles' illness also meant that France was vulnerable to attack from outside as well. France and England had been at war for years, but it was a fight that was proving to be increasingly unpopular in England, and in the end Charles and King Richard II negotiated a truce, with Isabella playing a key part. Richard was a widower, his wife Anne of Bohemia died in 1394, and he had no children. The peace with France was sealed with a marriage to Isabella, who was a mere seven years old when the wedding took place in October 1396.


    After the wedding Isabella was taken over the English Channel and deposited safely in the care of two English duchesses and provided with a governess from France. Richard reportedly visited her frequently, when he would take her for walks in the garden. Despite the wealth that she brought with her, she was far from popular with English public or Richard's court, who felt that he should have married a woman old enough to bear children.

    Despite the unconventional home set-up, Isabella appears to have had genuine affection for her "husband". After Richard was deposed by his cousin Henry, the new king decided that the French truce could continue. He had a son, also called Henry, who was closer in age to Isabella, and by marrying his heir she would still eventually be Queen of England. Isabella on the other hand appears to have refused, and went in to official mourning for her husband. After a certain amount of negotiation (Henry was probably stalling in the hope that Isabella would change her mind), she was allowed to return to France with the jewels and other goods that her family had given her for her wedding.

    In June 1406 at the age of fifteen Isabella married for a second time, to her cousin the Duke of Orleans. Four years later she gave birth to her only child, a daughter named Joan, and passed away a few hours later. In her time as Queen of England she had little opportunity to make her mark, and her early death meant that she left little impression on French politics. Her younger sister Catherine went on to take her throne, marrying Henry V in attempt to bind France and England together once more. 

  3. On This Day: Death of Jane Seymour

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    On this day in 1537 Henry VIII's third wife, Jane Seymour, died at Hampton Court Palace. Twelve days earlier she had done what her predecessor, Anne Boleyn, had failed to do - give birth to a living baby boy. Sadly though the birth would end up killing her.


    Jane's exact date of birth isn't known, but she is believed to have been born some time in 1508, mostly likely at her family's home of Wulfhall in Wiltshire. She was one of nine children, of whom six survived, including three of her brothers. Very little is known about her childhood however, her father was Sir John Seymour, but he wasn't a great political player like Anne Boleyn's uncle, the Duke of Norfolk. Unlike Catherine and Anne, she didn't have a reputation for being well-educated or quick witted, which suggests that she may have been taught little more than reading and writing.

    But even with little education, Jane could still attend court. Since her father was a courtier it was natural that a place would also be found for her. She was duly assigned to the household of Catherine of Aragon, and on her downfall, to that of Anne Boleyn. During this time she came to the attention of King Henry himself, who by this point was becoming convinced that his second marriage wasn't going to give him the necessary son, just like the first. Jane wasn't considered to be particularly beautiful, and with her lack of education she wasn't going to be the centre of attention like Anne had been. In fact, that was just what Henry appears to have wanted, a quiet and mild wife.

    MarriageJane Seymour Queen of England

    Jane and Henry were betrothed on 20th May 1536, the day after Anne Boleyn's execution. They were privately married ten days later at the Palace of Whitehall, but Jane wasn't crowned. Historians believe that Henry decided to wait until Jane was pregnant before she was officially given the crown, coronations were large, public and expensive events and he would hardly go to the trouble for a woman that may prove to disappoint him.

    Unlike Catherine in her early days, and Anne during the height of her success, Jane appears to have had little to no power or influence over the King. Several times she appealed for mercy, first for Princess Mary and then later on behalf of an Abbey and for the lives of men involved in a northern rebellion. Henry consistently refused her requests, and at one point reportedly told her to keep Anne in mind, which can't be seen as anything less than a threat. On the other hand Jane was allowed to order her women as she liked, and apparantly banned her ladies from sporting the French fashions which had been so popular under Anne.


    By the spring of 1537 Jane was pregnant. The summer progress - a tour of various counties by the King and Queen so they could get away from sickness in London - was cancelled. After so many miscarriages with the previous Queens, nothing was left to chance with this pregnancy, there would be no travelling if it could be avoided. Jane went in to "confinement" at Hampton Court on 16th September. She went in to labour in the second week of October. It would prove to be a long ordeal, reports from the time suggest it took three days for things to progress, and prayers and hymns were sung for her health. On 12th October, a live baby boy was finally born, and was promptly named Edward. After his christening, three days later, he was returned to Jane's room where she and Henry were waiting to receive the court.

    At first it seemed that Jane had got through her ordeal safely, she was certainly well enough to receive the court in her room. But she soon took a turn for the worst. Despite more prayers in St Paul's Cathedral, and the best attempts of her doctors, she died on 24th October 1537. Her cause of death was most likely puerperal fever, a serious infection that was common in a time when no one understood the concept of hygiene, such as midwives washing their hands.

    She was buried at Windsor Castle in St George's Chapel, and Henry would eventually be buried beside her. Jane's death sealed her in Henry's memory as his perfect wife. She had given her life so that he could have the heir he wanted.

    (If you're a fan of Jane Seymour, you can also check out her badge!)

  4. On This Day: Birth of Margaret of England, Queen of Scotland

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    On 29th September 1240, Eleanor of Provence gave birth to her second child and first daughter at Windsor Castle. The baby girl was named Margaret, probably after her mother's sister, Queen Margaret of France. She was preceded by Edward, the heir to the English throne, and followed by Beatrice, Edmund and Katherine.


    The Royal nursery appears to have been established at Windsor Castle, and despite the wandering nature of the English royal court, was probably the closest place that Margaret had to a home. Eleanor of Provence was unpopular during her tenure as Queen, but as a wife and mother she was thoroughly dedicated to her family (something that may have stemmed from her own childhood, her parents also kept their daughters close by in childhood).Margaret of England, Queen of Scotland

    At the age of eleven Margaret was married to King Alexander III of Scotland, who was a year younger than his new spouse. The bride's father, Henry III, managed to maintain peace with Scotland for most of his reign. King Alexander II of Scotland had been married to Henry's sister Joan. Their childless marriage had ended when Joan died, Alexander III was the King's son by his second wife, Marie de Coucy. At the time of his marriage, the boy had already been king for two years.

    Life in Scotland

    After the wedding, which was held at York Minster, the new royal couple returned to Scotland. But it didn't all go smoothly at first. Margaret had left behind a warm and loving family to move to a court full of people she didn't know, which led to a period of severe homesickness for the young Queen. After writing to her parents complaining that she was badly treated, Henry and Eleanor requested that she be allowed to return home for a visit. The Scottish council who were ruling the country on behalf of Alexander refused the request. In the end Henry and Eleanor gathered an army together and marched north, determined to see their daughter. Margaret was allowed to travel south to visit her parents, and then returned to Scotland.

    She would be allowed to return home again in the future. In February 1261 she gave birth to her and Alexander's first child, a daughter named Margaret. The little girl was born at Windsor Castle, showing the affection that the Queen of Scotland retained for both her old home and the country of her birth. Two sons, named Alexander and David, were born in Scotland in 1264 and 1272 respectively.


    In February 1275, Margaret died at Cupar Castle in Scotland, she was only thirty four years old. Given that her last child was born in 1275, it's highly likely that she fell ill rather than died in childbirth. King Alexander remained a widower for ten years (although it's reported that that didn't stop him having a few mistresses in the intervening period) before marrying a second time to Yolande of Dreux. Margaret's children all died young; Princess Margaret married the King of Norway and died shortly after giving birth to a baby girl, Prince Alexander died childless shortly before he turned twenty, and Prince David died aged nine. In time this would create a succession crisis, and the Scottish interregnum.

  5. On This Day: Birth of Arthur Tudor

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    On this day, 20th September 1486, Elizabeth of York, Queen of England, gave birth to a baby boy at Winchester. He was christened with the name Arthur, and his birth symbolised the hope of the new Tudor dynasty.


    Arthur's birth has caused some historical controversy as his parents were married on 18th January 1486. Over the centuries some have questioned whether Elizabeth of York and Henry VII were lovers before their wedding, citing Arthur's date of birth as proof. Others have argued that he was premature, citing it as a cause for his later illnesses and early death. Regardless, Arthur was given a splendid christening in Winchester cathedral, ordered by his paternal grandmother Margaret Beaufort, with tapestries, carpets, and the font placed on a raised stage so that the crowds could get a good view of their future king. The choice of name was a good propaganda move, as a new king of a new dynasty Henry VII needed to boost the popularity of his line. By naming his son Arthur he was telling the crown that under his family the country would return to the glorious days of Camelot, an extremely popular tale in the medieval period.

    Arthur grew up in Farnham in Surrey, close enough to London for his parents to be able to visit him but far enough away that he was protected from the plague and other virulent illnesses which were rife in the city. As the heir to the throne he was assigned a household to care for him, two years after his birth a woman named Elizabeth Darcy was put in charge of his nursery, she had had a similar role for Arthur's maternal uncle Edward. In time Arthur would be sent to "rule" the principality of Wales, while his siblings (including his brother Henry) grew up at the palace of Eltham.

    Marriagearthur tudor

    The future of the Tudor dynasty, and it's place in European politics, seemed to be cemented when King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain proposed a match between Arthur and their youngest daughter Catherine. As the prospective bride and groom were both toddlers at the time it took a while for negotiations to come to a solid conclusion. They finally underwent a marriage "by proxy" in 1499, and in October 1501 Catherine arrived in England. Arthur met her for the first time at Dogmersfield in Hampshire, and would not meet again until their wedding day. Instead Arthur and his father watched Catherine's ceremonial London entry on 12th November from the top floor of a house, out of sight of the Spanish princess.

    On 14th November 1501 Prince Arthur and Princess Catherine were married at St Paul's Cathedral. As with his christening, Arthur's marriage ceremony was held on a specially constructed stage so that all those who had been able to squeeze in to the church could see the heir to the throne. After the ceremony the Royal family travelled to Baynard's Castle for the wedding feast. In the evening the couple were put to bed, an event that would lead to serious controversy several decades later over the question of whether the marriage was consummated or not.


    Within weeks of the wedding Arthur was dispatched back to Ludlow, taking his new bride with him. They resided in Ludlow Castle, albeit in separate sets of rooms. Their marriage ended up being rather short-lived, on 2nd April 1502 Arthur died after a short illness. The illness that killed him is another cause of debate, with some believing that it was the dreaded "sweating sickness" that had cut through swathes of England in recent years. Others argue that it may have been a measles outbreak, and some believe that it may have been tuberculosis.

    Arthur was buried at Worcester Cathedral, where his monument still stands. His throne and his wife both went to his younger brother, Henry VIII. 

  6. On This day: Death of Empress Theodora

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    On this day in 1056, the Empress Theodora passed away. After starting out life as a Princess, spending most of her adult life as a Nun, and then facing the jealousy of her sister, Theodora ended up ruling despite the best attempts at many others to keep her in a subservient position.

    Born into the Purple

    Theodora was the youngest sister of Zoe Porphyrogenita, a word that means "born into the purple". The two girls were the daughters of a reigning Byzantine Emperor, Constantine VIII, who was joint-ruler with his brother Basil II. The death of both men, neither of whom had a son, pushed both Theodora and her sister in to the limelight.Byzantine Empress Theodora

    Theodora appears to have been a woman with her own mind. Her father had arranged for her to marry Romanos Argyros, who was expected to take the throne and rule through his wife. Theodora refused to go through with the marriage, and in the end Romanos married her older sister Zoe.

    In the following years Theodora was implicated in multiple plots against the royal couple. Many historians believe that these were attempts by Zoe to marginalise her sister, and have her removed from any potential power. Although Theodora played no active role in politics, she would never be safe from her sister's jealousy. Eventually she was pushed in to a monastery and forced to become a nun, which should have stopped her from being allowed to rule in the future.

    Coming To Power

    Zoe went through several husbands over the following years, none of whom were particularly popular. After she was displaced by her adoptive nephew, the people of Constantinople rebelled, and both Zoe and Theodora were brought out of their respective places of captivity. Theodora in particular was furious at being pushed back in to power, but to the people she was the balance against her sister's terrible choice in men, both as husbands and heirs. She was crowned as co-Empress with Zoe, who tried to have her sister sent back to the monastery, only to be overruled by the Senate.

    Theodora is believed to be the more capable of the two women, although how much of that is reflected from people's dislike of Zoe is hard to tell. Zoe wasn't inclined towards any actual ruling, but she disliked her sister taking control and getting things done. Yet another marriage meant that Theodora was required to leave the administration of the empire to her new brother-in-law, Constantine IX Monomachos.

    She outlived both her sister and her brother-in-law, and subverted Constantine's attempts to bypass her in the line of succession. She was proclaimed sole "Emperor", and promptly set about assigning her own favourites as ministers. By ruling as an Emperor she offended plenty of people, who felt that a woman shouldn't be allowed to act as a supreme judge in courts, or appoint clerics. But her death led to over twenty years of fighting between numerous noble families, and after a while it must have seemed to her people that even the rule of a woman was better than the lack of stability caused by her death.

    If you'd like to find out more about her sister, Empress Zoe, you can check out my e-book 30 Women in History Volume 2, which contains a mini-biography on her rival for power.

  7. 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. For over ten years her main rival was Athenais de Montespan, whose disrespect as well as her place by the King's side infuriated Maria Theresa.

    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.

    Fan of King Louis XIV? He has a badge!

  8. 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. 

  9. 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.

  10. 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.


    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.