Friday, 27 March 2015

Online Prison Records

Ever wondered whether you had gaolbird ancestors? Finding family on the wrong side of the law can come as a shock, but prison records are also a great way of expanding your family tree.  I wrote an article called 'Looking Online: Prison Records' for issue 154 of Your Family Tree magazine, which is available now.

Thursday, 12 March 2015

England's First Ruling Queen

I'm just writing an article on England's ruling queens and it occurred to me that there is one queen who is almost always missed off the lists of female monarchs. In fact, few people have even heard of her.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for 672 states, matter of factly, that 'here Cenwalh passed away, and Seaxburh, his queen, ruled one year after him'.

This is almost all we know about England's first ruling queen, Seaxburh of Wessex, who may have died in 674, since this is the year from which the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle dates the start of the next reign in Wessex. Her husband, Cenwalh, had first been married to a sister of the Pagan King Penda of Mercia. According to Bede, he then 'took another woman' who may, perhaps be identified with Seaxburh. This led to Penda driving his former brother-in-law from his kingdom, with Cenwalh taking refuge in East Anglia for three years, during which time he became a Christian. He then returned to his kingdom to rule for another twenty-five years.

In the seventh century, Wessex was just one of several kingdoms in England and far from the most important. From the ninth century onwards, however, the kings of Wessex began a programme of uniting England under their rulership and the current queen is a descendant of the kings of Wessex.

Seaxburh may have had a troubled reign, since Bede claimed that, on her husband's death, 'under-kings took over the government of the realm, which they divided amongst them and ruled for about ten years'. Perhaps her authority was disputed, or she was only able to retain control over part of the kingdom? No details survive and she had no known children.

Although Seaxburh's life is almost entirely obscure, the fact that there was a ruling queen in the early Anglo-Saxon period is fascinating. None of her successors as queens of Wessex would reach so high. You can, however, read more about another fascinating Anglo-Saxon queen - Elfrida - in my book, Elfrida: The First Crowned Queen of England. Although not a ruling queen, there is rather more known about the tenth century Elfrida's life!

Happy Birthday Anne Hyde

To celebrate the publication today of England's Queens: From Catherine of Aragon to Elizabeth II, I thought I would write an article about one of the women featured, whose birthday it is today. Not all the women covered in the book were actually queens. One of those was Anne Hyde, the wife of a king and the mother of two ruling queens, but a woman who never wore the crown herself.

Anne is relatively little known today but she was, in her day, as controversial a figure as her husband, James, Duke of York, who became King James II. She was born on 12 March 1637 and has one of the most unlikely backgrounds of any king's wife. Anne was the eldest child of Sir Edward Hyde, a lawyer in the service of the king. She was close to her father, who later commented that 'he had always had a great affection for her, and she, being his eldest child, he had more acquaintance with her than with any of his children'. Her childhood was disrupted by the English Civil War. Her father remained loyal to the Crown throughout, going into in 1646. He was soon joined by his family on the Continent.

During their time in France, Hyde remained a close advisor to the future Charles II, while his eldest daughter served the prince's sister, Mary of Orange, in the Netherlands. She was no beauty, with the diarist Samuel Pepys, commenting that she was 'a plain woman and, like her mother, my lady Chancellor'. Another contemporary more flatteringly considered that she 'had a majestic air, a pretty good shape, not much beauty, a great deal of wit, and so just a discernment of merit, that, whoever of either sex was possessed of it, were sure to be distinguished by her: an air of grandeur in all her actions made her to be considered as if born to support the rank which placed her so near the throne'.

In February 1656 the Princess of Orange returned to Paris, bringing Anne with her. James, Duke of York, came out of Paris to greet his sister and (as he later commented) 'it was there that the Prince for the first time saw Mistress Hyde'. James was a notorious womaniser and had soon seduced young Mistress Hyde. She was already pregnant when she returned to England with her parents in 1660, following Charles II's restoration to the throne.

In order to bed Anne, James had promised before witnesses that he would marry her and, in London, she pressed him to fulfil his promise. Suddenly finding himself heir to the throne, however, James was not so eager to bind himself to Anne. He tried to steal the evidence of the engagement from his fiance, as well as obtaining testimonies that she had enjoyed other lovers. Unfortunately, for James, his brother relied on the support of Anne's father and, when told of the affair, insisted that 'he must drink as he brewed, and live with her whom he had made his wife'. The couple were married a month before the birth of their son.

Anne's time as Duchess of York was largely taken up with childbearing although, of her eight children, only two daughters - Mary and Anne - survived. Her husband was also spectacularly unfaithful, with it well known about court that Anne was 'very troublesome' to her husband due to jealousy. She took her own revenge, enjoying a flirtation with two young courtiers.

Anne, like her namesake daughter, grew hugely fat. She was unkindly called 'one of the highest feeders in England' by one contemporary. By 'gratifying her good appetite' she 'grew so fat and plum, that it was a blessing to see her'. Her health was also poor after the birth of her youngest son, Edgar, in 1667, and, over the next few years she became increasingly unwell. For consolation, she turned to religion. From at least the end of 1669 it was suspected that she was a Roman Catholic. She always publicly denied that she had converted but, privately, she wrote a paper setting out her justification for taking such a drastic (for seventeenth century England) step.

Anne collapsed suddenly in March 1671, soon after the birth of her youngest child. She was probably suffering from breast cancer. The queen, Catherine of Braganza, helped to ensure that no Protestant ceremonies were carried out as her friend died. James was with his wife as she slowly expired, whispering to him at the end 'duke, duke, death is terrible, death is very terrible', before passing away on 31 March 1671. She was thirty-four years old. If she had lived another fourteen years, she would have been queen.

You can read more about Anne Hyde and other queens of England in the two parts of my England's Queens.

England's Queens: From Catherine of Aragon to Elizabeth II

England's Queens: From Catherine of Aragon to Elizabeth II is released this week. This is the second part of the reissue of England's Queens: The Biography (so don't buy the new book if you already have the full edition!).

Starting with the six wives of Henry VIII, part 2 of England's Queens traces the lives of the women who have either been queen of England or who were married to one of England's kings. With six ruling queens and a number of remarkable consorts, the five hundred years of history covered are full of drama. My personal favourite is Caroline of Brunswick, who was hilarious, as well as Queen Anne, who came across as much more human and likeable in my research than I had been expecting.

Thursday, 5 March 2015

Some More Great Reviews

Sorry for the silence recently, I have been working flat out to submit a book to my publishers! Normal service should resume shortly but, in the meantime, here are a few more great reviews that I've spotted.

First up, England's Queens: The Biography was featured in the March 2015 edition of The Good Book Guide. 'Covering two thousand years, this book looks at the lives and reigns, however brief, of each queen'.

The History of Royal Women blog have reviewed Elfrida: The First Crowned Queen of England here.

'Overall I loved reading about Elfrida, a woman about which I knew so little. Elfrida was certainly a powerful figure in the time of the Anglo-Saxons and I wish we knew more about her time out of royal favour and her possible involvement in King Edward's murder. It's still awesome we have an actual letter written by her! The book was a surprisingly easy read despite all the names that look alike'.

'Please go and read about Elfrida!'

The History of Royal Women blog have also reviewed England's Queens: From Boudica to Elizabeth of York (which is the first part of the reissue of England's Queens: The Biography). You can read the review here.

'There are some queens who don't have biographies of their own so it is nice to finally be able to read about them. I was surprised to learn that I definitely have things that I have yet to learn'.

'I love Elizabeth Norton's writing style and this book gives an excellent glimpse into the lives of these women. I would highly recommend it to all history lovers. I'm really looking forward to the second part'.