Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Christmas Past

Last year, before I started this blog, I posted a piece on Christmas day 500 years ago and Christmas day 1000 years ago on my website. I will do something similar this year but, in the meantime, here is Christmas 1511 and Christmas 1011 once again:


Christmas Day 1511 - 500 Years Ago
Five hundred years ago Henry VIII and his court prepared for a particularly lavish Christmas: the third of the king's reign. Henry brought his court to Greenwich, one of his favourite palaces, for the festivities. The celebrations at court were not just reserved for those close to the king, with the chronicler, Edward Hall, recording that an abundance of foods were served 'to all comers of any honest behaviour' - such generosity was on a scale that was rarely seen.

As usual, the main focus of the celebrations was on New Year. For Henry and his queen, Catherine of Aragon, the celebration must have been somewhat bitter as on New Year's Day one year before the queen had given birth to the couple's first son, Henry, Prince of Wales, who had survived for only a few weeks. The couple put on a united front, however, with a great pageant staged in the hall at Greenwich. A model of a castle, with gates, towers and a dungeon and laden with artillery 'after the most warlike fashion' was brought in, with six richly dressed ladies carried within. Once in the hall, the castle was brought Catherine for her approval, before the king entered with five companions, dressed to compliment the women. Henry and his companions then attacked the castle, with the ladies, seeing them 'so lusty and courageous' soon agreeing to yield the castle. The company then danced before the ladies led the knights inside the castle. The company were further amazed by a Tudor special effect when 'the castle suddenly vanished out of their sights'.

As was customary, the Christmas festivities continued until Twelfth Night, with the king taking part in a masque, dressed in Italian fashion. Once again, Henry and his companions danced with the queen and her ladies, before the Christmas festivities were brought to an end and the company departed to their beds.

Christmas Day 1011 - 1000 Years Ago
Christmas 1011 would not have been as merry for King Aethelred II of England. By 1011, the country had been largely overrun by Viking invaders. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle recorded that the attackers 'travelled about everywhere in bands and raided and roped up and killed our wretched people'. In September 1011, the Vikings besieged Canterbury, the centre of the church in England, capturing Archbishop Aelfheah and overrunning the town. The capture of the archbishop, who was led onto one of the raiders' ships was a further blow to the country, with the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle recording that 'he who was earlier the head of the English race and of Christendom was a roped thing. There wretchedness might be seen where earlier was seen bliss, in that wretched town from where there first came to us Christendom and bliss before God and before the world'.
 The archbishop spent his Christmas as a prisoner of the Vikings. Archbishop Aelfheah was a pious man and refused to pay any ransom or to allow a ransom to be paid on his behalf. Finally on 19 April 1012, furious with him, and drunk, Aelfheah's captors pelted him with animal bones and then bludgeoned him with the butt of an axe.

The martyrdom of the Archbishop of Canterbury was just one of a series of disasters in Aethelred's reign. Soon after Christmas 1013, Aethelred himself abandoned his kingdom, joining his wife and children in exile in Normandy. He returned to England the following year after the death of the Viking leader, Sweyn Forkbeard, but died in 1016 beset by rebellion from his eldest son, Edmund II, and an invasion from Cnut, the son of Sweyn Forkbeard

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Reigning Queens

Following the announcement of an impending royal baby, I was interviewed yesterday on BBC Three Counties radio to discuss reigning queens (Roberto Perrone show, available on the BBC I-player at It was recently agreed that the eldest child of Prince William will succeed to the throne, regardless of whether they are male or female. The legislation to bring this into force has not yet been enacted but it does look as though this baby, if a girl, will become queen, regardless of whether or not she has younger brothers.

Reigning queens enjoy a special status amongst English monarchs, with Elizabeth I, Victoria and the current queen largely considered to have been successful and memorable. Part of this must be due to longevity, but Henry III, Edward III and George III (all of whom enjoyed long reigns) are not similarly revered. Their gender certainly helped to endear them to their people and build a mythology: Mary I and her sister, Elizabeth I, both claimed to be wedded to their countries, a claim that a male king never felt the need to make. Perhaps in the popular perception women are considered better able to symbolise their country and an era. This was somewhat unexpected and there was widespread dread at the prospect of female rule in the mid-sixteenth century when Edward VI's death began to look likely.

The new baby, even if it is a girl, may not succeed for a very long time: 'her' grandfather has already waited over sixty years. She probably wont have to wait as long as another heiress to the English crown, Sophia of Hannover, who died in June 1714 at the age of 83, only weeks before she would have succeeded to the throne.

Friday, 30 November 2012

Matilda of Scotland

30 November marks the anniversary of the death of King Edmund II ‘Ironside’ in 1016, the eldest surviving son of Aethelred II. Although king for only a few months, Edmund later became an important political figure posthumously with the childlessness of his half-brother, Edward the Confessor. Edmund’s successor was his rival, the Danish invader, Cnut. Cnut exiled Edmund’s young sons and one of them, Edward the Exile, settled in Hungary. He was recalled to England by his uncle but died soon afterwards, leaving a son, Edgar Aetheling, and two daughters. At the Confessor’s death in 1066, Edgar was too young to take the throne. Instead, first Harold Godwinson and then William of Normandy won the crown.

In 1100 William’s youngest son, Henry I, became king and, soon afterwards married Matilda, a young Scottish princess. Matilda’s father was Malcomlm Canmore, King of Scotland, while her mother was St Margaret, the daughter of Edward the Exile. In spite of his father’s claims to be the heir to Edward the Confessor, in reality, Henry’s title was based solely on conquest. At the time of Henry and Matilda’s marriage, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle enthused that she was ‘of the rightful royal family of England’ and the marriage went some way to healing the wounds created by the Conquest less than forty years before. Her English royal blood had always been significant and Malcolm and Margaret pointedly gave their children English royal names: Matilda was originally called Edith, the same name as the Confessor’s wife, only later changing her name to a more conventional Norman one. This change notwithstanding, it was well known in England that Matilda was a member of the Anglo-Saxon royal house, adding legitimacy to the Norman dynasty in England.

Henry had to overcome a formidable obstacle to win Matilda as his bride. Matilda and her sister spent much of their childhoods in England at the nunneries of Romsey and Wilton and under the care of her aunt, Christina, Abbess of Romsey. It is possible that, in sending her daughters to Romsey, St Margaret intended that they would both become nuns. This was certainly Christina’s hope and she put considerable pressure on her young nieces to take the veil. According to Matilda’s own account, given to Archbishop Anselm, Christina was convinced that the veil was the only way to protect her young charges:

‘For when I was quite a young girl and went in fear of the rod of my Aunt Christina, whom you knew quite well, she to preserve me from the lust of the Normans which was rampant and at that time ready to assault any woman’s honour, used to put a little black hood on my head and, when I threw it off, she would often make me smart with a good slapping and most horrible scolding, as well as treating me at being in disgrace. That hood I did indeed wear in her presence, chafing at it and fearful; but, as soon as I was able to escape out of her sight, I tore it off and threw it on the ground and trampled on it and in that way, although foolishly, I used to vent my rage and the hatred of it which boiled up in me. In that way, and only in that way, I was veiled, as my conscience bears witness’.

While it may have been intended that Matilda would become a nun, her royal blood meant that she was the subject of considerable interest, with rumours that Henry’s brother and predecessor as king, William Rufus, was her suitor. According to William of Malmesbury, Matilda would wear the veil in order to reject unworthy suitors who came to her at the nunnery and this is borne out by Matilda’s own account of one such occasion. According to Matilda, in 1093 her father arrived unexpectedly at Wilton with Count Alan, intending that he should marry her. Malcolm, ‘when by chance he saw me veiled snatched the veil off and tearing it to pieces invoked the hatred of God upon the person who had put it on me, declaring that he had rather have chosen to marry me to Count Alan than consign me to a house of nuns’. Malcolm was so furious that he took Matilda back to Scotland without taking the time to arrange her marriage. She was soon back in England however and her use of the veil served to make her marriage a scandalous proposition in the eyes of the church.

In 1100, when plans for Matilda’s marriage were announced, Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury, believing that she was a nun, ordered her to return to the convent. Matilda went personally to Anselm to ask for his help. She vehemently denied that she was a nun and set out the full story of her childhood with her aunt Christina and the pressure that had been put upon her. Anselm, to Matilda’s relief and gratitude, believed her story and called a church court at Lambeth which investigated her claims. Matilda attended the council and, according to the report of Eadmer, a follower of Anselm, she offered to swear that she was free to marry. This was enough for the Archbishop and he declared that she had never been a nun, allowing the couple to marry a few days later on 11 November 1100. Soon after the ceremony, Anselm consecrated Matilda as queen.

Matilda proved to be an excellent queen consort, often serving as regent during her husband’s absences in Normandy. Her main contribution to history however must be her role in helping to reconcile the English people to the fact of the Norman Conquest. By virtue of her English royal blood, Matilda was able to legitimise the Norman kingship and, also, demonstrate the continuing importance of the indigenous royal family and way of life to the people of England. Matilda’s children were members of both the Norman and Anglo-Saxon royal houses. Her daughter, the Empress Matilda, passed this on to her own son, Henry II, and to all future monarchs of England. In many respects, Matilda represented a amalgamation of both English and Norman queenship, something which is symbolised by her change of name – an English Queen Edith superseded by a Norman Queen Matilda.

You can read more about Matilda of Scotland in my book, England’s Queens: The Biography, which was recently released in paperback by Amberley Publishing.

Thursday, 29 November 2012

Heraldic Visitations

My article on Heraldic Visitations was published today in Your Family History magazine (issue 35). Visitation records are one of the best record types for research into families in the sixteenth century and medieval periods. I always look for a visitation when starting research into a subject or family.

The visitations were compiled in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and involved teams of royal heralds touring England to make enquiries about families that claimed gentry status. The heralds interviewed family members and reviewed documents before producing a pedigree for the family, some of which go back to 1066. The claims should always be taken with a pinch of salt - everyone wants to think that they have illustrious ancestors after all. However, by cross-referencing with other documents you can generally work out what is true and what is more likely to be wishful thinking.

Visitations are a great resource for historians and genealogists and, with many available free online, it's always worth having a look when carrying out research.

Monday, 22 October 2012

Double Bill at the Arts Theatre, London

As a follow up to my previous post about Double Bill, which is showing in the Arts Theatre, you may be interested in the blog for Shakespeare's Queens, which makes up one of the plays of the double bill. The link is here:

Also, the website for Double Bill is:!home/mainPage

As I said before, the play provides a funny and interesting take on the many queens of Shakespeare's plays and I would recommend it.

Friday, 19 October 2012

Double Bill at the Arts Theatre, London

I was invited to attend the West End premier of Double Bill at the Arts Theatre yesterday evening. The play (as the name suggests!) is made up of two separate plays inspired by Shakespeare's works. The first is Shakespeare's Queens: She-Wolves and Serpents and the second is The Madness of King Lear.

Shakespeare's Queens centres on Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots involved in a posthumous argument as to who had the better style of rule. They enlist Shakespeare to help provide the answer, taking the audience on a journey through the queens in his plays. The play was amusing and the cast excellent and I thoroughly enjoyed it. It was particularly interesting to see the portrayal of Margaret of Anjou, whom I featured in my first book, She-Wolves as 'Shakespeare's She-Wolf'.

The Madness of King Lear was completely different in tone and took the audience on a journey into King Lear's mind. The play was interesting, providing a new interpretation of King Lear and, once again, the cast was excellent.

I would certainly recommend Double Bill, which will be at the Arts Theatre until 3 November.

Friday, 12 October 2012

Why was Henry VIII so desperate for a son?

Happy 475th Birthday to Edward VI, Henry VIII's longed for son and heir. Edward was born to Queen Jane Seymour on 12 October 1537 after a long labour and nearly thirty years after his father first embarked on matrimony.

So why was Henry VIII so desperate for a son? In 1537 England had never had an effective queen regnant. The Empress Matilda, who was the only surviving legitimate child of Henry I, had claimed the throne in 1135 on her father's death, only for her cousin, Stephen of Blois, who had previously sworn to recognise her claim, to rush over to England to take the crown. Matilda arrived in England in 1139 to claim the crown, enjoying some early success. In 1141, for example, she captured Stephen with his reign viewed by many as effectively over and Matilda recognised as 'Lady of the English'. There is some evidence that she used the title of queen of England. She certainly intended to, moving her court to London to await her coronation. 

Unfortunately, for Matilda, another cousin who was also Stephen's wife was able to rally the support of the Londoners, forcing the empress to flee when they rushed out to attack her as she sat down to her dinner. Later that year, Matilda's half-brother, Robert of Gloucester, was captured by Stephen's supporters and the empress exchanged him for Stephen, bringing her own 'reign' to an end. Matilda remained in England for some years, holding authority over much of the West Country. She eventually passed her campaign over to her son, Henry FitzEmpress, who eventually came to terms with Stephen, agreeing that Stephen would retain his throne after naming Henry as his heir.

Matilda showed that a woman could transmit a claim to the throne and make good attempts to wear the crown herself. However, by the sixteenth century the period of Stephen and Matilda was remembered as a time of anarchy that no one cared to repeat.

A second consideration for Henry would have been that the Wars of the Roses effectively came about through the position of a woman. Henry IV, who usurped the throne from his cousin, Richard II, was the son of the third surviving son of Edward III. With Richard's murder the line of the eldest son died out, while that of the second son was represented by the Mortimer family who never built an effective challenge to the Lancastrian dynasty. Anne Mortimer's marriage to Richard, Earl of Cambridge, however, who was the heir of the fourth son changed matters considerably, with her son, Richard, Duke of York, using his descent from Anne to claim the throne in the reign of Henry VI. York's son, Edward IV, took the crown from Henry VI but the period was far from stable, with Henry VI briefly returning in 1470, for example.

Finally, Henry VIII's own mother, Elizabeth of York, was considered to be heiress to England by many but there was never a suggestion that she should wear the crown herself. Her husband, Henry VII, used his marriage to Elizabeth as one of his claims to the throne. Another was his hereditary claim through his mother, Margaret Beaufort. Margaret was still living during Henry's reign but, again, no one suggested that she should rule before him.

By 1537 the odds of a daughter of Henry VIII successfully succeeding to the crown and holding it were not high. Even continental examples were not encouraging: while Henry's former mother-in-law, Isabella of Castile had won and held the crown of Castile, her niece, from whom she took the crown, and daughter, Juana, who was imprisoned by her father and then her son, proved unable to establish their rules. France barred the succession of women and even the ability of men to claim the throne through a woman. Although he did not know it, after the Empress Matilda, the next female claimant to the throne, Lady Jane Grey, also failed to establish herself, although it should be noted that her rival was another woman: Henry VIII's own daughter.

So it was no surprise that Henry was doubtful that a woman could succeed. He also did not help matters, with his complicated marital career leading to the bastardising of first his eldest daughter, Mary, and then his younger, Elizabeth. Both were later subject to challenges by other family members due to their 'illegitimacy'.

In 1537 England had never had a queen regnant and the country erupted in joy when they heard the news of the birth. By far the greatest joy was felt by Henry himself who finally had a legitimate male heir. By 1553 however, when Edward VI lay dying, it had become inevitable that England would have its first queen regnant. This was due to the failure of the Tudors to produce healthy males rather than any great change in the fears that people had of female rule. When Mary I became queen the assumption was that she would marry quickly and provide England with a king, with the same view being held when Elizabeth I took the throne. It was Elizabeth who changed this and showed that a woman really could rule alone.