Tuesday, 17 May 2016

"A History of the English Monarchy" extract: Edward II and Piers Gaveston


As part of the series of extracts from my book A History of the English Monarchy: From Boadicea to Elizabeth I, this extract examines the love affair between the fourteenth-century's King Edward II and Piers Gaveston, Earl of Cornwall. Like Gaveston's biographer, J. S. Hamilton, I think most of the attempts to insist the relationship was some kind of heightened fraternal bond devoid of a sexual or romantic element are cumbersome, illogical and overwrought. While researching the book, I saw nothing that did not support the conclusion that the two men were romantically involved with one another. Edward II was king from his father's death in 1307 until he was deposed twenty years later. Equally, however, I found mountains of evidence to disproving the old canard that Edward II was not the biological father of his four legitimate children. The relevant footnotes and endnotes are available in the original book. 

Like his father, Edward II was tall and robust. The Vita Edwardi Secundi, which was an account of the King’s life written by a clerk who lived at Edward’s court and who recorded his experiences at the time, observed that the King was ‘a fine figure of a handsome man’, while Sir Thomas Grey, whose father fought in Edward’s army, wrote that ‘physically he was one of the strongest men in the realm’. Another thought Edward moved well despite his size: ‘elegant, of outstanding strength’. None of the eyewitness descriptions of Edward’s contradicts one chronicler’s description of him as ‘fair of body and great of strength’. There are no surviving accounts that mention his eye colour, but illustrations and his effigy all show wavy blond hair that fell either to his chin or his shoulders. Later in life, he grew a beard.

He had a ribald sense of humour. In a letter to a French prince, the Comte d’Évreux, he joked about the sexual prowess of the Welsh, or the ‘plenty of wild men’ in ‘our land of Wales’, as he put it. Growing up, he saw little of his parents and was only six when his mother, Eleanor of Castile, died, but he was close to his stepmother Marguerite and he took an interest in helping former servants of Eleanor. Queen Marguerite came to Edward’s aid in 1307 when Piers Gaveston, the prince’s favourite, was exiled on the old King’s orders. The exact nature of Edward’s relationship with Gaveston has perplexed scholars, with some cautioning against ‘anachronistic and futile’ attempts to impose modern concepts of sexuality on the medieval period. However, the contemporary accounts leave little room for reasonable doubt that it was a romantic relationship and while it will always be impossible to verify how far they went sexually or how often, what mattered was that it was a love affair, the great love affair of Edward II’s life. 
Piers Gaveston was the son of a Gascon knight, born a year or two before Edward II in 1284. His father, Arnaud, had served Edward I in the wars in Gascony, Wales and Scotland, although it was through his mother, Claramonde, that the family acquired most of their wealth. Piers was barely a teenager when he joined his father in combat, where he apparently impressed the King with his manners and skills as a soldier. Shortly after that, Edward I appointed him as one of ten young men to attend on the Prince of Wales to provide him with some suitable company. Gaveston seems to have been the oldest of the ten and that, coupled with his good looks – one contemporary wrote that Gaveston was ‘graceful and agile in body, sharp witted, refined in manners [...] well versed in military matters’ – his prowess as a jouster and the fact that he had already experienced the battlefield, perhaps explain young Edward’s initial infatuation with him.
Infatuation quickly turned into obsession. A clerk in Edward’s service wrote, ‘I do not remember to have heard that one man so loved another. Jonathan cherished David, Achilles loved Patroclus.’ Another chronicle wrote that after a short separation, Edward ran over to Piers ‘giving him kisses and repeated embraces; he was adored with a special familiarity’. In an age when embracing and kissing, even on the lips, was an accepted form of greeting within the upper classes, it was not so much Edward’s actions that caused offence as the effusiveness with which they were bestowed. During the last years of the old man’s life, Longshanks grew so concerned about the two men’s intimacy that he sent Gaveston abroad, still well-provided for but abroad nonetheless, and it was Edward’s request to provide Gaveston with an overly generous amount of land that prompted his father to scream, ‘You bastard son of a bitch! Now you want to give lands away – you who never gained any? As the Lord lives, were it not for fear of breaking up the kingdom, you would never enjoy your inheritance!’ And he began viciously beating him. In a ruthless and mercenary age, the Earl of Pembroke would later remark, ‘he perishes on the rocks that loves another man more than himself’. It was a lesson that Edward II never learned. 
... Gaveston was witty and his tongue cut like a scythe. Cocksure, charismatic and eye-wateringly rude, he was clever but he was not wise. He gave scornful nicknames to the earls, the most powerful members of the aristocracy, a closed blue-blooded group of eleven who did not take kindly at having their corpulence mocked, as he did with the rotund Earl of Lincoln, or being publicly referred to by his nicknames for them, including ‘the Jew’, ‘the Actor’ or ‘the Black Dog’. Piers turned up to the coronation wearing purple, a colour associated with royalty, and he was left in charge of the government when the King visited France in 1308. In a world obsessed with rank and precedence, Gaveston constituted an offensive anomaly. At the coronation banquet, the King’s two brothers-in-law, Charles de Valois and Louis d’Évreux, left in protest at the upsetting of etiquette in Gaveston’s favour. Further anger came when Edward arranged for Piers to be married to his niece, Margaret de Clare, a more-than advantageous match for the son of a knight. 
In 1308, Edward himself was married to his stepmother’s niece, Princess Isabella of France. Although she had only just passed the age of consent, it was already clear that Isabella would grow to inherit the good looks of the French royal family ...  Three months after his marriage, Parliament presented Edward with a declaration asking for Piers Gaveston to be banished and stripped of his title. Faced with united opposition from his peers, Parliament and family, Edward had to acquiesce, but he did so begrudgingly and with minimal sincerity. In return for losing the earldom of Cornwall, Gaveston was appointed Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, a job he executed with great success. ... In the summer of 1309, he was brought back to England and two years later, Edward took him with him on campaign against Scotland. Here Gaveston was far less successful. Edward II is often blamed for losing the Scottish Wars of Independence, but while he was an infinitely less talented general than his father it is unlikely that Longshanks himself would have won even if he had lived longer. 
... But how to account for the extraordinary venom Piers Gaveston provoked in the other earls while he lived? The most obvious answer is what we would now call homophobia. That was the interpretation taken by Derek Jarman when he directed the 1991 movie Edward II, with Steven Waddington and Andrew Tiernan playing the couple opposite Tilda Swinton as Edward’s malicious wife, who allies herself with the worst elements of the puritanical Far Right in order to gain power. The film dramatised Christopher Marlowe’s play of the same name and, in order to make the modern parallel work, the nobles surrounding Edward II were shown to be disgusted by his sexuality. As a director, Jarman was less interested in historical accuracy and more in the applicability of the story to Thatcherite Britain, dedicating the film to the repeal of the country’s anti-gay laws, which were then so pernicious that they prohibited the discussion of homosexuality in schools even if a child’s mental health was at risk.The idea that Gaveston died because he was Edward II’s lover is a popular one and it enjoys some support academically. However, medieval attitudes to sexuality were not as simplistic as is commonly supposed and a case could be made for arguing that the problem was the background and prominence, rather than the gender, of the royal favourite. 
Gaveston also had the bad luck to be the favourite of a King who inherited a tainted throne from an awe-inspiring father. Surrounded by military failure, economic problems and diplomatic stalemate, the barons and earls vented their frustration on the most convenient scapegoat, the King’s right-hand man. Jealousy too must have played a part in what happened, for royal largesse always brings out the green-eyed monster in those excluded from it. That is why the most successful monarchs try to balance their favour between different factions, but Edward II, as the contemporary Vita attests, was incapable of moderation. There were many men and women in history who paid for royal friendship with their lives – Robert Cochrane, favourite of King James III of Scotland, was frog-marched to his own hanging by a group of earls much like Gaveston had been; Philibert Le Vayer, confidante of the future King Henri III of France, was found murdered in an alleyway near the Louvre, possibly with the connivance of the fretful Queen Mother; Mary, Queen of Scots’ faithful secretary, David Riccio, was dragged screaming from her presence and stabbed to death by her husband and his aristocratic allies. There was also Concino Concini, a favourite of Marie de Medici, the Duke of Buckingham under Charles I, Dr Johann Streunsee in eighteenth-century Denmark, Marie-Antoinette’s beloved Princesse de Lamballe and, of course, Grigori Rasputin, hounded to his death in the last days of Imperial Russia. Gaveston may be one of many royal intimates who was undone not because of what he did, but because he had access to something others wanted. 
Finally, personal blame cannot be discounted. The victim’s actions may not make the crime excusable, but they may help render it explicable and in Gaveston’s case, his arrogance and his insensitivity to others may have helped hasten his end. A palace clerk who witnessed his rise and fall wrote later, ‘I therefore believe and firmly maintain that if Piers had from the outset borne himself prudently and humbly towards the magnates of the land, none of them would have opposed him’.Today, a private dining club at the University of Oxford still bears his name but his daughter died young and by the time the earldom of Cornwall was revived, it was once again given to a member of the royal house. The Duchy of Cornwall is now part of the traditional inheritance given to the heir to the throne, an unintentional merging of the titles once held by Edward II and Piers Gaveston. 
Edward II did his duty by fathering four children with Queen Isabella who, as she grew older and became a mother, was given more of a say in her husband’s government...


[1] In the Old Testament, the future King David was the friend of the Israelite prince Jonathan, who ultimately saved his life, while in Greek myth the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus was usually presented as a romance. The ambiguity continues elsewhere in the Vita, with the clerk saying that there was no evidence to prove that Edward and Gaveston had ever been ‘immoderate’ with one another, then going on to say that in this case, Edward seemed incapable of moderation. A platonic example is supplemented by a conclusion with one that suggests romance.

Thursday, 3 December 2015

"A History of the English Monarchy" extract: The men of Wales



My most recent book A History of the English Monarchy covers the English Crown from Roman rule to the death of Elizabeth I in 1603, when the monarchy began to shift into a British institution. Over the next few weeks, I'm posting short extracts from each of the book's seven chapters.

The book's third chapter is called Diluted Magnificence and it focuses on the thirteenth-century monarchy, including the birth of Parliament, the conquest of Wales and the Scottish Wars of Independence. The chapter covers the reigns of three generations of kings between 1199 and 1307 - John, Henry III, and Edward I. This section discusses Edward I's feud with Prince Llywelyn of Wales, which ultimately resulted in an end to the principality's independence. 


The resurgence of so-called ‘Celtic nationalism’ in the twentieth century and the inescapable romance of a lost cause saw Llywelyn ap Gruffudd cast as the heroic leader of a lost golden age, but this Gone with the Wind-esque rehabilitation of Llywelyn has more to do with Edward’s vices than Llywelyn’s virtues. By the time Edward I came to the throne in 1272, Llywelyn’s rule in Wales was detested. His military skills and long run of good luck when it came to the internecine incompetence of the neighbouring government in England meant that he was begrudgingly respected, but his attempts to modernise the Welsh economy and his bullying demands for money from his subjects did not make him popular. Wales was, and is, one of the most beautiful countries in the world. However, Llywelyn was sufficiently astute to realise that its stunning hills and mountains made agriculture difficult – in a moment of admirable honesty from any country’s leader, he compared the ‘fertile and abundant land’ of Edward’s kingdom with the ‘barren and uncultivated land’ of Wales. This agricultural shortfall meant that the entire principality relied on a few pockets of arable land for its subsistence, namely the island of Anglesey. The economy and trade networks, drastically underdeveloped in comparison to England’s, were the focus of much of Llywelyn’s reforming zeal, and an indicator of the disparity between the two countries can be gauged by comparing the revenue generated by customs for Llywelyn, estimated at about £17 per annum, against roughly £10,000 for the King of England. The assessment of one modern historian, that despite its internal difficulties England remained ‘a thirteenth-century superpower’, particularly in relation to its neighbours, is fair. 
In the centuries after the Norman conquest, English domination over Wales had increased greatly. Nowhere was this more obvious than with the Marcher Lords, English aristocrats who held sway in the disputed borderlands between the two countries. Llywelyn quarrelled with them often and it was their most recent spat that provided him with the excuse he needed to decline his invitation to Edward’s coronation. He must have been desperate to find a reason, because had he gone Edward would almost certainly have kept him there until he could bully him into undoing the Treaty of Montgomery. 
Tensions boiled over when Llywelyn’s devious and stupid youngest brother, Dafydd, fled to England after a family quarrel. Edward granted him sanctuary, much to Llywelyn’s anger since it violated the spirit, if not the letter, of previous Anglo-Welsh agreements about political refugees from the two countries. When Edward reiterated his demand for Llywelyn to perform homage before him for his power in Wales, Llywelyn refused. Relations took a further tumble when Edward’s navy intercepted a ship just off the Isles of Scilly carrying Simon de Montfort’s daughter back from exile in France. Llywelyn had proposed marriage to her and she was travelling to Wales to accept. The captured de Montfort girl was taken to Windsor where she was kept in close, if comfortable, confinement for the next three years and Edward informed the Marcher Lords that their antagonism towards Llywelyn would no longer be checked by the English government. Realising, too late, what he had done or perhaps simply accepting that he had been caught, Llywelyn tried desperately to convince the world that he wanted peace. Letters to the Pope and Robert Kilwardby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, attest to Llywelyn’s apparently genuine wishes to avoid conflict with his powerful neighbour. His epistles to Edward cried for peace, but only on condition of partial homage – Llywelyn still had terms and conditions and Edward would not accept them. He did not negotiate, he commanded.

Wednesday, 2 December 2015

Blog Tour: Claire Ridgway

I am delighted to welcome Claire Ridgway to the blog as part of her tour for her new book, Tudor Places of Great Britain. Claire Ridgway is the author of the best-selling books George Boleyn: Tudor Poet, Courtier and Diplomat (co-written with Clare Cherry); On This Day in Tudor History; The Fall of Anne Boleyn: A Countdown; Sweating Sickness: In a Nutshell and both instalments in The Anne Boleyn Collection. Claire was also involved in the English translation and editing of Edmond Bapst's 19th century French biography of George Boleyn and Henry Howard, now available as Two Gentleman Poets at the Court of Henry VIII. 

Claire worked in education and freelance writing before creating The Anne Boleyn Files history website and becoming a full-time history researcher, blogger and author. The Anne Boleyn Files is known for its historical accuracy and Claire's mission to get to the truth behind Anne Boleyn's story. Her writing is easy-to-read and conversational, and readers often comment on how reading Claire's books is like having a coffee with her and chatting about history. Claire is also the founder of The Tudor Society.

Tuesday, 1 December 2015

December edition of "Tudor Life"

Keith Michell as Henry VIII and Jane Asher as Queen Jane Seymour (1972)

The December edition of Tudor Life magazine, for members of the Tudor Society, is out. Sadly, the Australian actor Keith Michell, famous for his three on-screen performance as Henry VIII, passed away less than two weeks ago, which makes Roland Hui's article on Michell's work in Henry VIII and his Six Wives (1972) all the more poignant. Along with articles on piracy in Tudor England, the theory of the "little Ice Age", a review of a new study of Mary I, short stories, profiles of houses belonging to Anne of Cleves, banquets and carols, the magazine was also thrilled to host a wonderful piece of satire from Professor Susan Bordo, author of The Creation of Anne Boleyn. I am so pleased to post the excerpt from She, Anne, which formed the banner piece for this month's edition. The story is dedicated by the author to author Sue Grafton and Oscar-nominated actress, Genevieve Bujold.

Author’s note: In July 2015, Sue Grafton, author of the Kinsey Millhone mysteries, was interviewed in The New York Times. When asked about her favorite reading, she replied that she “has trouble passing up books about Anne Boleyn. I keep hoping for a different ending. So far, no luck.’ (New York Times, July 16, 2015, “By the Book”)
She, Anne, sits musing about preparations for the execution they say is to come in the morning.  She is troubled at the prospect that her bit of an extra fingernail, which has been gestating like a deformed fetus in the imaginations of her enemies, growing larger and more disfiguring each day, would be exposed for all as she spread her arms for the executioner’s well-timed blow.  She ponders which highly fashionable French execution robe would cover it most effectively.  “Looking good is the best revenge,” she cackled to herself (cackling being a human sound especially beloved by witches,) revealing as she did so small, feral teeth that she longed to put to best use by piercing the robust neck of her husband’s chief counselor TC.  Then she sighed, remembering that her days as a living body were soon to be over.  She can already feel her fictional self ascending, her teeth becoming sharper, her hair blacker, her motives meaner.  There were compensations, of course. She was pleased to note that her sallow skin and moles would disappear and she would grow more beautiful over the coming centuries.  Eventually, perhaps, even the sixth finger would disappear.
Interrupting her musings, a visitor to her Tower rooms!  Was it her jailer, Mr. Kingston, come to blather some more about the skill of her executioner? (French—of course he was skilled! Kingston himself--an idiot who doesn’t know a joke when he hears it.) Was it Cranmer, come to make her an offer of life in a convent should she agree to renounce her daughter Elizabeth’s claim to the throne? Cranmer was a dear man, but didn’t he know she, Anne, was a goggle-eyed whore who would as soon chop her own head off with a dull English hatchet as spend the rest of her life without a man to suck on her slender toes?  Is it Elizabeth, come to pose for a painting of a tearful parting from her martyred mother?  Is it her sister Mary, that simpering do-gooder (then again, might she be gulled into asking Henry to pardon her)? Perhaps it is TC himself, and they can together converse about the 21st century alchemy that would transform him, Cromwell (She never calls him “Cremuel”; sometimes “Crumb” but never “Cremuel”), from unscrupulous factotum to a warm and dryly witty man for all seasons?  (Or was that TM?  It is so difficult to keep the Thomas’s straight as they mutate, along with Anne herself, over the centuries!) 
No.  The visitor is the beloved husband himself, come to make the offer of life “for old times’ sake.” He wants to marry again, they all know that.  But he is a fool if he thinks her daughter’s rights can be bought that cheaply. And—ah! —He also wants to know if the charges are true.  Has she, Anne, really been unfaithful to him? Henry appears bleary-eyed, as though he has been on a bender; he is speaking oddly, bellowing with eyes raised to heaven, much like a preacher or a travelling actor from the north, come to court to tell tales of Arthur and Guinevere. Anne, recalling those tales, is tempted to make an argument with herself: Guinevere was queen, Guinevere was condemned, Guinevere was saved.  Perhaps she, too….? 
No.  She, Anne, is not fooled by the poetic, impassioned performance of her husband (who also seems to have lost a bit of weight since her arrest.) She knows that future re-tellings will often make her look about anxiously as she walks to the scaffold, hoping for the savior/messenger, but she does not expect her husband to issue a last-minute pardon.  She knows too that the future will often make her colder, meaner, and more grasping than she is, but rarely will it fathom her intelligence.  She has “wit,” they always say.  But she, Anne, this Anne, has more than wit, and she knows how to conjure a real curse.  “Take it to your grave,” she tells him, excited and flushed by the perfect extravagance of her lie, “I was unfaithful to you with half your court.” Henry, who cannot bear to feel his mind waver—it isn’t Kingly or manly—does not now know what to believe.  Impotent with rage, he slaps her.  She hardly cares about the sting of the slap; she faces far worse in the morrow. Actually, it is quite a delectable moment, even more soul satisfying than when, barely a breath later really, in eternal time, she will see that snake TC with his head finally off his shoulders.  As for Henry, she cannot resist a final thrust, knowing it will stir the souls of later generations, with a persuasion beyond mere fact. “But Elizabeth is yours! And will rule an England far greater than any you could have built!” Henry’s expression is worth the coming blood on the scaffold.  
She, Anne, wishes she could do better than this for Sue Grafton.  Alas, there are some things—very few—that biographers and novelists cannot tinker with.  Whore, martyr, sister from hell, exploited innocent, ambitious predator, sexual temptress, religious reformer, rebel girl—she, Anne, can see her many strange future selves displayed before her, as she awaits the hour of her execution.  Fingers, moles, skin, swellings, teeth, nipples—up for grabs. The head, however, must come off.  She, Anne, is as sorry about this as you are. But think on this, as you count the books on your shelf:  Who, of all Henry’s wives, has lived the longest?  Ha!


Professor Bordo holds the Otis A. Singletary Chair in the Humanities at the University of Kentucky and she is the author of many well-known books and articles, most recently The Creation of Anne Boleyn: A New Look at England’s Most Notorious Queen, available both in U.S. and U.K. editions.

Friday, 27 November 2015

"A History of the English Monarchy" extract: The Queen in the Silver Saddle


My most recent book A History of the English Monarchy covers the English Crown from Roman rule to the death of Elizabeth I in 1603, when the monarchy began to shift into a British institution. Over the next few weeks, I'm posting short extracts from each of the book's seven chapters.

The book's third chapter is called From Scotland to Spain and it focuses on the early Plantagenet empire, which cover more of modern France than the then French monarchy. The English royal family's power and their dysfunction were both augmented by Henry II's glamorous and famous queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine. A reigning duchess in her own right, Eleanor's legend was born in her own lifetime thanks to the strength of her character and the scandals she managed to attract, then weather. The extract below discusses Eleanor's larger-than-life personality, which had been on display during her first marriage to King Louis VII of France. (It had ended in divorce and after an indecently short period, she married the future Henry II of England.)

Shortly after her marriage, King Louis [VI] died and Eleanor’s husband succeeded to the throne as Louis VII. Arriving in Paris for their coronation, Eleanor quickly discovered that she was no more popular with the French than Louis was with the Aquitinians. Her respected mother-in-law, Adélaïde of Maurienne, was ugly and pious; Eleanor was extravagant and said to be very beautiful. France hardly has a heart-warming history when it comes to its foreign-born queens consort, particularly if they happened to be pretty and had so much as a spark of a personality. It has already been mentioned that powerful clerics like Bernard of Clairvaux took issue with their new Queen’s pendulous earrings, but they also disliked her expensive jewellery, fur-trimmed silks and the long sleeves of her gowns. To them, and for whatever reason, the Queen’s wardrobe seemed indecent. She had been raised in a court that was comparatively more sophisticated and far wealthier than that of France. One contemporary noted that from childhood Eleanor had acquired ‘a taste for luxury and refinement’. Now that she was Queen, she saw absolutely no reason to tailor her whims to soothe the outrage of a few troublesome priests. 
More damaging by far than her extravagance was Queen Eleanor’s passion for intrigue. Her younger sister Petronilla came to Paris with her and embarked upon an affair with the Comte de Vermandois, who was married. His wife, Éleonore, was King Stephen of England’s younger sister. That the Count was married to the sister of a King and that she had numerous powerful relatives at the French court should have warned Petronilla off her course of action. It should certainly have dissuaded Eleanor from stepping in to help her. However, Eleanor was close to her sister and she had a score to settle with the Comte de Champagne, King Stephen’s brother, who had recently opposed a French invasion of Toulouse, part of Eleanor’s patrimony, which she felt was being kept from her illegally. When news of the affair between Vermandois and Petronilla broke, Eleanor persuaded her husband to support Vermandois divorcing his wife to marry Petronilla. The clergy were appalled at the Queen’s actions and she gained a lifelong enemy in the Comte de Champagne, who regarded the divorce of his sister as a slight on his entire family. Champagne subsequently rebelled and many blamed Eleanor for provoking it. Criticised on all sides, the Queen brazenly refused to apologise and even publicly quarrelled with Bernard of Clairvaux when he declined to intercede with the Pope on Petronilla’s behalf. It was only when Eleanor began to fear that her continued childlessness was a sign of God’s displeasure that she began to improve her relationship with the Church. 
It was during her first pregnancy, which she and those around her attributed to the intercession of the Blessèd Virgin, that news reached France that Edessa had fallen to the armies of Imad al-Din Zengi, the Islamic Emir of Mosul and Aleppo. Edessa was part of Outremer and its collapse prompted Pope Eugenius III to issue the Papal bull Quantum praedecessores, exhorting the Christian knights of Europe to ‘take the Cross’ and go east to defend the holiest sites of Christianity from falling into the hands of the non-believers. Both Louis and Eleanor were caught-up in the crusading fever and at Bernard of Clairvaux’s Easter sermon in praise of the sanctity of the Crusade, Eleanor knelt at her former opponent’s feet and pledged that the knights of the Aquitaine would take up their swords in the service of Christ. She, as their Duchess, would go with them.

It was not quite what Bernard had wanted from her. Like many of his contemporaries, the famous preacher neither liked nor trusted the idea of women anywhere near an army and Eleanor in particular worried him. However, the Queen had sworn publicly and she could not therefore be gainsaid. If she did not go, there was also every chance that the men of the Aquitaine would not go either, since going without their Duchess would mean submitting themselves entirely to the control of the French. One is tempted to think that Eleanor’s public gesture of commitment to the Crusade may therefore have been a deliberate ploy to bounce Bernard and her clerical opponents into giving their reluctant blessing to her participation. In any case, the Pope was keen to encourage maximum royal involvement in the holy war and his office formally blessed Eleanor and Louis in a ceremony at the basilica of St Denis shortly before they set off for Palestine. Having won a place for herself, Eleanor did nothing to dispel fears that she would prove a disruptive influence. She took nearly three hundred female servants with her and turned up for the army’s departure on a horse with a silver saddle encrusted with golden fleurs-de-lis and a dress glistening with jewels. She had many strengths. Minimalism was not one of them.

Monday, 23 November 2015

"A History of the English Monarchy" extract: The Empress and the Sleeping Saints


My most recent book A History of the English Monarchy covers the English Crown from Roman rule to the death of Elizabeth I in 1603, when the monarchy began to shift into a British institution. Over the next few weeks, I'm posting short extracts from each of the book's seven chapters.


The book's second chapter, God, Life and Victory, covers the years from 1066 to 1154 by focusing on the four kings who ruled after the Norman Conquest. This extract describes the impact of the monarchy's implosion during a civil war subsequently known as "the Anarchy", when the former King's only surviving daughter, the German Emperor's widow, was displaced in the line of succession by her cousin, who claimed the throne as King Stephen. 


… in 1141 Stephen suffered an eviscerating defeat at the Battle of Lincoln. The skirmish took place at Candlemas, the feast that marked the anniversary of the infant Jesus being formally presented by His mother and stepfather at the Temple in Jerusalem. The day also marked when the Virgin Mary had been ritually purified by the rites of the Jewish faith, removing the stain of childbirth from her. Thus known variably as Candlemas, the Presentation of Jesus or the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin, the day was celebrated by a festival of light within Christian churches and it was during Mass that King Stephen’s Candlemas candle broke in his hands. If it was an omen, as many at the time assumed, it was an accurate one. In the ensuing carnage, Stephen fought bravely in hand-to-hand combat, but was eventually knocked unconscious by one of the Empress’s knights. 
With Stephen in her clutches, the Empress moved to London, where she was granted the interim title of domina Anglorum – ‘lady of the English’. Rather than win hearts, however, the Empress preferred to step on toes. Her haughtiness, her petty vindictiveness, her demands for tribute, her heavy fines and her overbearing arrogance alienated the capital until the Londoners rose up against her, forcing her to flee before she could be crowned. The riots happened so abruptly that the Empress fled mid-dinner, plates still on the table. Stephen’s wife Matilda was encamped on the south bank of the Thames with mercenaries from her native Boulogne, perfectly situated to take advantage of the Empress’s incompetence. The latter’s biographer, Marjorie Chibnall, is certainly correct in stating that the Empress was excoriated for displaying the same kind of dictatorial behaviour that had been tolerated in her father and it is curious that a woman who had won such praise for her behaviour in Italy and Germany during her first marriage could have behaved with such belligerent idiocy in England, but people change, and rage at her disinheritance by Stephen, and the ease with which he had done it, may have permanently shocked and embittered her. Either way, the loss of London in 1141 was the closest the Empress ever came to winning the crown. 
After that, the war between the cousins settled into a long and vicious campaign of attrition. The chronicles of the time record the agony endured by the population. Normandy, invaded by the armies of the Empress’s husband Geoffrey, ‘suffered continually from terrible disasters and daily feared still worse […] the whole province was without an effective ruler’. The Gesta Stephani, a chronicle sympathetic to King Stephen, wrote of ‘villages […] standing solitary and almost empty because the peasants of both sexes and all ages were dead’. Henry of Huntingdon remembered an England full of ‘slaughter, fire and rapine, cries of anguish and horror on every side’. The rich men filled their castles ‘with devils and evil men’, and with royal justice in the doldrums, the common folk bore the brunt of the aristocracy’s lawless depravity. ‘They put them in prison,’ the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle wrote, ‘and tortured them with indescribable torture to extort silver and gold […] They were hung by the thumbs or by the head, and chains were hung on their feet. Knotted ropes were put round their heads and twisted till they penetrated to the brains. They put them in prisons where there were adders and snakes and toads, and killed them like that. Some they put in an instrument of torture, that is in a chest which was short and narrow and not deep, and they put sharp stones in it and pressed the man so that he had all his limbs broken.’ The vicious, bloody and selfish upper class installed by the first Norman King helped lose it for the last. Many of those nobles had pressured Stephen into taking the throne in the first place, but abandoned him when war came. Little wonder that Stephen cried, ‘When they have chosen me king, why do they abandon me?’

It was a time of anarchy, misery and unanswered prayers: ‘To till the ground was to plough the sea; the earth bare no corn, for the lands were all laid waste by such deeds; and [men] said openly that Christ slept and his saints.’

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