Wednesday 29 April 2015

Royal Baby: The Spare

The wait goes on for the royal baby. While Prince George is the heir, his younger brother or sister will be 'the spare', ready to step into his place if anything should happen.

Being the spare with no defined role can be an unenviable position. Nonetheless, the history of the English monarchy is full of examples of the Spare becoming monarch.

In the Anglo-Saxon period, it was common for an adult brother to succeed a king rather than infant sons. In this manner, King Alfred succeeded his elder brother Aethelred, while the sons of Edward the Elder: Athelstan, Edgar and Edmund I succeeded in turn. Edmund I's two son, Eadwyg and Edgar also became king in turn (although Edgar was an active participant in an attempt to depose his brother). Edward the Martyr was murdered to make way for his brother, Aethelred II.

In the post-Conquest period it became established that sons succeeded their father in preference to their uncles. In spite of this, the spare often succeeded. William the Conqueror chose his second son, William Rufus, as his heir in England over his eldest son, Robert. Henry I, the youngest of the brothers also became king.

King John was also a brother, but he succeeded Richard I. Richard had also not been their parents' eldest son. This was the short-lived William, while a second son, Henry, died as an adult before becoming king.

Edward I had several sons, including one named Alphonso, but he was eventually succeeded by the youngest son of his first marriage. Richard II, was also a younger brother, becoming heir when his brother died at the age of five. A century later, Richard III, who was his parents' youngest child, very famously became king.

Henry VIII only became heir after the death of his elder brother, Prince Arthur, while Elizabeth I was also a younger child. Charles I became prince of Wales when his very promising adult brother, Prince Henry tragically died. James II and his daughters Queens Mary and Anne were also younger siblings. William IV succeeded his elder brother, George IV, while the current queen's father, George VI, only became king when his elder brother abdicated.

As you can see, the spare is often called upon, by death, sibling childlessness or abdication to step into the heir's place, so the baby born today or later this week might just be very significant indeed. You can read more about the history of the English monarchy in my books, England's Queens: From Boudica to Elizabeth of York and England's Queens: From Catherine of Aragon to Elizabeth II.

By the way, let me know if I've missed anyone above!

Monday 27 April 2015

Flog It on BBC 1

I appeared in today's episode of Flog It on BBC 1, talking about the Boleyns at Hever. It's always great to be asked to appear on television and Flog It is a phenomenally popular programme. The episode will be live on the BBC's I Player for the next fews day. You can find it here.


Wednesday 22 April 2015

Childhood Records

Have you ever wondered what your ancestors were like as children? What school did they go to? Did they have a job? Were they illegitimate? You can find out how to trace them in my cover feature on Childhood Records in issue 155 of Your Family Tree magazine.

Saturday 11 April 2015

Queens Elfrida, Emma and Edith

The final three prominent Anglo-Saxon queens are entirely noteworthy, but I didn't want to stay too long in the pre-Conquest period on this run down of fascinating queens. You can read the stories of all of them in my book, England's Queens: From Boudica to Elizabeth of York, which also includes all the lesser known queens. Nonetheless, I couldn't head past 1066 without mentioning Elfrida (or Aelfthryth), Emma of Normandy and Edith Godwin.

If you are interested in reading more about Elfrida, then check out my biography of her: Elfrida, The First Crowned Queen of England, which was published by Amberley back in 2013. She was born in around 940 and was the only daughter of a wealthy West Country thegn and his royally descended wife. Her first marriage, to the eldest son of the famous Athelstan Half-King was a grand one, but it was also brief. Some sources suggest that King Edgar, who fell in love with his friend's wife, arranged his murder. Others assign a more prominent role to Elfrida. It is the first murder with which her name is connected, although the story is unlikely. Elfrida's husband had been dead two years before the king repudiated his second wife to marry her.

As queen, Elfrida was very prominent in the religious reform movement, receiving an official appointment as overseer of the nunneries, while her husband (who had once abducted and married a nun) was placed in authority over the monasteries. She shared Edgar's imperial coronation at Bath in 973 and there is evidence that the king considered this marriage and, thus, Elfrida's children, more legitimate than his earlier unions. When he died suddenly on 8 July 975, Elfrida promoted the claims of her young son, Ethelred, but his older half-brother, Edward, was eventually chosen as king. It is with Edward's murder in 978 that Elfrida's name is indelibly associated, since it took place at her house at Corfe while he visited her. She may have been involved, but contemporary sources point the finger more at Ethelred's followers. The jury is very much still out.

After Ethelred became king, Elfrida took on an unofficial role as regent, appearing prominently at court. After attaining his majority, Ethelred sent his mother away from court, although she was placed in charge of raising his sons. She returned to court with them in the 990s, before dying in 1000 or 1001.

As queen mother, Elfrida entirely overshadowed Ethelred's first wife, Aelfgifu, who played no public role as queen. Ethelred's reign was troubled by substantial Viking incursions and, in 1002, he married Emma, the sister of the Duke of Normandy. The girl was younger than many of Ethelred's children, but she underwent a coronation ceremony in England designed to give additional throneworthiness to her own children. She played only a limited political role during Ethelred's reign, although it was to Normandy that the king fled in 1013 when he lost his throne to the Viking King Sweyn. He returned the following year, but his last years were ones of turmoil. Emma was in London with her husband when he died in 1016.

Following Ethelred's death, the throne was disputed by her stepson, Edmund Ironside, and Cnut, the son of Sweyn. During this period, Emma sent her sons to Normandy for safety. This was a sensible precaution. When Cnut took control of London later that year, he ordered the English queen to be 'fetched' as his wife. When Edmund Ironside suddenly died he became the sole king of England, with Emma as his queen.

Emma was considerably more prominent during her marriage to Cnut, playing a political role. On his death in 1035, she supported the claims of her teenaged son, Harthacnut, who was then in Denmark. When his half-brother, Harold, claimed the throne instead, she wrote to her sons by Ethelred to return. This proved disastrous, since the younger, Alfred, was captured by Harold's men, blinded and murdered. When the elder, Edward, arrived in Winchester to see his mother, he promptly fled back to Normandy on hearing of his brother's death. Emma was herself exiled to Flanders in 1037, although she returned triumphantly with Harthacnut on Harold's death in 1040. During her youngest son's brief reign, Emma persuaded him to invite his half-brother, Edward, to return. This paved the way for the smooth succession of Edward the Confessor on his brother's death in 1042. Unfortunately for Emma, however, her eldest child was far from grateful. After he seized her property, she lived in obscurity until her death in 1052.

If Edward the Confessor disliked his mother, it was nothing compared to his feelings for his wife, Edith, the daughter of the powerful Earl Godwin. Edith had received an excellent education and reveled in her role as queen. Unfortunately, her husband hated her father, who had been responsible for the murder of his brother. When he finally felt strong enough to exile Godwin in 1051, he also attempted to repudiate his childless queen, who was sent to a nunnery. He was forced to take her back the following year when her father returned with an army and she was firmly ensconced as queen when he died in 1066.

Edith played no known political role in the events of 1066, in spite of the fact that her brother, Harold, was proclaimed king on her husband's death. Following the Conquest, William I treated her well as the widow of the Confessor. She died in 1075, after a comfortable retirement.

These are obviously very concise accounts of the lives of three very important Anglo-Saxon women. During their lifetimes they dominated their office of queen, to the extent that other king's wives of the period: Aelfgifu, Aldgyth of the Five Boroughs, Aelfgifu of Northampton, Edith Swanneck and Edith of Mercia were entirely overshadowed. You can also read their stories in England's Queens!

I'll be moving on to the post Conquest queens next week.

Friday 10 April 2015

Queen Eadgifu

Carrying on with posts on England’s most noteworthy queens, no list would be complete without Eadgifu, the third wife of King Edward the Elder. She was one of the most powerful medieval women and I included her in a list of the top ten English queens which I compiled for BBC History magazine last year. Surprisingly, she is very little known today.

Eadgifu, who was born in around 899, was the much younger third wife of Edward the Elder. She was the daughter of the wealthy Kentish ealdorman, Sigehelm, who was killed fighting the Vikings at the Battle of the Holme in 902. She may have been her father’s heiress and, certainly, inherited estates from him in Kent. Eadgifu’s wealth and connections recommended her to Edward the Elder and he married her in 919 after repudiating his second wife. She played no known political role during her husband’s lifetime. This is hardly surprising, however since, in five years of marriage, she produced four children.

Edward’s death in July 924 caused a dispute over the crown. He was initially succeeded by Aelfweard, the eldest son of his second wife, but he died very soon afterwards. This cleared the way for Athelstan, the son of Edward’s first marriage and a man several years older than Eadgifu. It has been suggested that Eadgifu came to terms with Athelstan, offering her support for his claims over that of Aelfweard’s younger brother, Edwin. Certainly, Athelstan seems to have accepted Eadgifu’s young sons as his heirs. He also arranged the prestigious marriage of her eldest daughter to the continental nobleman, Louis of Aquitaine. Eadgifu’s second daughter, Eadburgh, had been dedicated as an infant to the convent at Nunnaminster and was venerated as a saint following her death in around 950.

Eadgifu’s eldest son, Edmund, became king in 939 after Athelstan’s death. As queen mother, she wielded a great deal of influence, using the title of ‘Mater Regis’ (mother of the king), during the reigns of both her sons. She entirely overshadowed both of Edmund’s wives and was regularly at court, appearing prominently in the witness lists of charters. Both of her sons made grants of land to her. In 943, for example, Edmund I, granted Eadgifu estates in Kent. In 953 Eadred granted his mother thirty hides at Felpham in Sussex. Eadred, in particular, was concerned for his mother’s welfare and in his Will he bequeathed land to her at Amesbury, Wantage and Basing, as well as other estates in Sussex, Surrey and Kent.

Edmund died in 946 and was succeeded by Eadred who never married and relied upon his mother as a leading councillor. Eadgifu is remembered as a patron of the early religious reform movement in England and, under Eadred, she played a valuable role in assisting the leading churchmen in the kingdom. The Viking invasions of the late ninth century had impoverished the church. Many monasteries had been burned or deserted during the period and those that survived often failed to live up to the defining principles of monasticism: community life, celibacy and personal poverty.

Eadgifu was very interested in the reform movement, which was led by Edmund’s Archbishop of Canterbury, Oda. She was associated with another leading churchman, Dunstan, who came to prominence during Edmund’s reign. She was also instrumental in the promotion of another leading churchman, Aethelwold. When he petitioned the king to be allowed to study at a continental monastery, Eadgifu – who recognised his promise – persuaded Eadred to refuse. Instead, at his mother’s urging, the king made Aethelwold abbot of the ruined monastery at Abingdon, which later became a centre of reform. Both Eadred and Eadgifu made gifts to the monastery, with the queen mother’s on a ‘lavish scale’.

Eadred’s death in November 955 saw Eadgifu’s fortunes wane. Following a succession disputed between Eadwig and Edgar, the sons of Edmund I, Eadwig came to the throne. Eadgifu, along with her ally, Dunstan, supported her younger grandson, Edgar, and, soon after Eadwig’s accession, she was deprived of her lands and possessions. Dunstan was exiled to Ghent by the young king. Eadwig was not able to establish his authority as king for long and, by 958 Edgar had created his own kingdom north of the Thames. Eadwig died soon afterwards and, with the accession of her younger grandson, Edgar, Eadgifu was one again restored to her lands and possessions. To her satisfaction, Dunstan was appointed as Archbishop of Canterbury and the religious reform reached its peak under King Edgar.

By the late 950s, Eadgifu was considered elderly by her contemporaries and she retired to a religious life, rarely visiting court. She remained an important member of the royal family and, in 966, attended Edgar’s refoundation of the New Minster at Winchester. She was also friendly with Edgar’s queen, the equally reform minded Aelfthryth and, in her Will, she bequeathed to her five hides of land in Essex to be presented on her behalf to the Abbey at Ely. The date of Eadgifu’s death is nowhere recorded, but it appears to have been around 966 or 967 when she was approaching seventy.

Thursday 9 April 2015

Queen Raedburgh

The next noteworthy queen is also one of the most shadowy. In 802, Egbert – a man not directly related to his predecessors - came to the throne of Wessex. While he never attained direct control over the whole of what is now known as England, he achieved ascendancy over Cornwall, East Anglia, Mercia and Northumbria during his reign, as well as subduing the Welsh. Egbert was the overlord of most of what would become England and he and his wife were the ancestors of all but four future monarchs of England.

For such an important royal ancestress, Egbert’s wife is very obscure. There is no contemporary record of her, although one later medieval document suggests that he was married to a woman called Raedburgh, and that she was a kinswoman of the great Frankish emperor, Charlemagne. This is possible as Egbert was exiled to Francia in around 800, staying at Charlemagne’s court before returning to Wessex to take the throne. Egbert retained contact with the Frankish royal family, and, according to the Annals of St Bertin’s, he corresponded with Charlemagne’s son and successor, Louis the Pious. The most that can be said for Raedburgh is that it is not impossible that she was a kinswoman of Charlemagne who married Egbert during his exile.

Egbert may have had a good reason for keeping Raedburgh in the background. According to the ninth century writer, Asser, the role of the queen was deliberately kept in obscurity during the ninth century. Asser claimed that:

‘The West Saxons did not allow the queen to sit beside the king, nor indeed did they allow her to be called ‘queen’, but rather ‘king’s wife’. The elders of the land maintain that this disputed and indeed infamous custom originated on account of a certain grasping and wicked queen of the same people, who did everything she could against her lord and the whole people, so that not only did she earn hatred for herself, leading to her expulsion from the queen’s throne, but she also brought the same foul stigma on all queens who came after her’.

The queen in question was Eadburh, daughter of Offa of Mercia and the wife of Egbert’s predecessor, King Beohtric. She was politically influential and ultimately murdered her husband, before fleeing the kingdom, leading the people of Wessex to reject the office of queen altogether.

Given the strength of feeling against her predecessor, Raedburgh would never have used the title of queen and, instead, would have been called ‘lady’. She bore more than one son, although only Aethelwulf survived to adulthood. Her only surviving child had been groomed for a career in the church, with his education entrusted by his father to Bishop Helmstan. According to the twelfth century chronicler, William of Malmesbury, he had previously been subdeacon of Winchester, but the deaths of all other legitimate heirs led to him returning to the secular world with the agreement of the pope.  There is no evidence that Raedburgh survived her husband, who died in 839.

Wednesday 8 April 2015

Bertha, Queen of Kent

Given the recent re-release of my England’s Queens: The Biography in two parts, I thought I would think about some of England’s and (later) Great Britain’s, most memorable queens. The word ‘English’ is derived from ‘Angle’ and, as such, the Anglo-Saxon queens are the earliest English queens. The first one that I am going to look at, was not English by birth, however.

Bertha, Queen of Kent, is a relatively well-known figure today as the woman who is usually credited with bringing Christianity to England. She was born in 539 and was the daughter of Charibert I, King of Paris and his wife, Ingerberg. Through her father, she was the great-granddaughter of King Clovis of the Franks who, at the instigation of his wife, Clotild, had converted to Christianity. While Bertha was raised as a Christian, her father was rather less committed to piety than his grandmother had been. According to the historian, Gregory of Tours, he dismissed Bertha’s mother to marry one of her servants, before divorcing his second bride to marry her sister. This led to the couples’ excommunication. Undaunted, Bertha’s father had taken a fourth wife by the time of his death in 567 – his daughter’s own marriage would prove rather more lasting.

At some point before her father’s death, Bertha had married King Ethelbert of Kent, crossing the channel to join him in his kingdom. From Ethelbert’s point of view, it was an excellent match, giving him links to the prestigious Merovingian kings of Francia. Bertha’s religion was important to her and her father secured a promise that she be allowed to practice Christianity before she sailed to Kent. Once there, she was given a converted Roman building to use as a chapel and she and her chaplain, Bishop Liuthard, set about trying to convert the king.

Bertha saw the conversion of England as her duty. According to the Anglo-Saxon historian, Bede, in 596, Pope Gregory decided to begin the conversion of England by sending a churchman, Augustine, and some monks to preach in England. They arrived in Ethelbert’s kingdom of Kent, an ideal landing place given the queen’s Christian beliefs. According to Bede:

‘On receiving this message, [that Augustine and the monks had arrived] the king ordered them to remain in the island where they had landed, and gave directions that they were to be provided with all necessaries until he should decide what action to take. For he had already heard of the Christian religion, having a Christian wife of the Frankish royal house named Bertha’.

Ethelbert agreed to meet with the embassy, while Bertha allowed Augustine to use her chapel to perform mass, preach and baptise his converts. It was there that Ethelbert also came to be baptised.

Bertha’s role in the conversion of Kent was widely known. In 602, she received a letter from Pope Gregory, instructing her to spread her faith to the other Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, with the pontiff exhorting her to be as Helena – the mother of Constantine – had been to the Romans. It is not clear whether she acted on this letter, although her daughter, Aethelberg, assisted in the conversion of Northumbria through her own marriage. Bertha’s date of death is not known, although her husband had remarried before his own death in 616. He chose to be buried with her in the Church of St Peter and St Paul that had been built in his kingdom.

Thursday 2 April 2015

Back to 1066

Have you ever wondered just what your ancestors were doing in the medieval or Tudor periods? If you have taken your family tree back to 1600 with parish records, the censuses and BMD indexes, it is entirely possible to go back further. Issue 4 of the Discover Your Ancestors bookazine is available now, which includes my article 'Back to 1066', which sets out the most important records and how to use them. Who knows, perhaps your ancestor sailed for England with the Conqueror in 1066, or fought at Agincourt? Alternatively, were they hauled before their manorial court? With a lot of hard work and a bit of luck, you can take your family tree back deep into the medieval period.