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Maldon

Following an unsuccesful Viking raid in 924, the battle of Maldon took place in August 991 and the result was a victory for the Norse invaders. Byrthnoth, the Essex earldorman who led the Saxons that day, was among those killed and Ethelred II instituted payment of the “Danegeld” to pacify the Vikings. This Byrthnoth statue (left), consequently, is displayed and a tapestry marking the millennium is part of the Maeldune Centre, to which we shall return.

Just over a mile from the town centre is Beeleigh Abbey, where Isabel Countess of Essex (Richard’s aunt) was buried, together with her Bourchier husband and son, before they were moved to Little Easton by her grandson, then Earl of Essex, at the time of the Dissolution, as were the Mowbrays and Howards in Thetford. The Abbey is closed nowadays, although it can be viewed from the gardens, which remain open.

This Essex town, by the Blackwater Estuary and the narrower River Chelmer, lies about six miles from Witham and was previously accessible from there by train. This plaque (left) by the Moot Hall details the more recent historic buildings, many of them on the High Street. The Rose and Crown (bottom) is one of these, down the hill and still in operation as an inn today.

The Maeldune Centre itself lies at the Market Hill junction, by Coes. Across the road is a long redundant church (St. Peter’s), which was adapted by the Maldon-born Thomas Plume (1630-1704), Vicar of Greenwich and Archdeacon of Rochester, to place Maldon Grammar School on the ground floor and his extraordinary private library (below left) on the first. The school has moved on but the Plume Library, funded by the income from nearby farmland, still stands.

Here, in a structure open only eight hours a week and accessible by a spiral staircase, the books are arranged by size and are not lent but have been stored since Plume’s time and a modern volume is very occasionally added. The collection relates to Plume’s interests in theology, history, science and philosophy, as well as the Civil War that plagued his youth. Some of the leather spines on the books are disintegrating although the pages themselves are in good condition.

Plume’s collection also includes a notable range of portraits, including all the monarchs of his lifetime and others from Edward IV, but excluding Edward V, the first two “Tudors” and Jane. The portraits include other clerics, including an “unknown divine”, whilst that of Charles I was made before his beard made an appearance. Groups can visit only by appointment and the total capacity is limited to twelve, including the staff.

So, to view a good portrait of Richard III and the former burial place of his Bourchier relatives, as well as some other history, Maldon is certainly worth a day out. All Saints, the contemporary civic church, houses the remains of George Washington‘s great-grandfather.

The Death of Robert, Earl of Gloucester

In writing Stephen and Matilda: Cousins of Anarchy, I was keen to apply the same narrow-eyed pursuit of solid facts that I hope comes across in my books on the Wars of the Roses. More than being about battles and, well, anarchy, I wanted to discover the real personalities behind the stories, the people who are sometimes lost in the moralising and misogyny of chroniclers. Few characters are as fascinating and worthy of admiration as Robert, Earl of Gloucester.

RobertConsul_TewkesburyAbbey_FoundersBook Monks of Tewkesbury Abbey, c. 1500-1525 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Robert, Earl of Gloucester and his wife Mabel FitzHamon from the Founders’ Book of the Monks of Tewkesbury Abbey

The first person to hold a peerage title centred on Gloucester was the oldest, and favourite, illegitimate son of Henry I; a man who might have been king. Henry I holds the record for the most known illegitimate children fathered by an English or British monarch. He had at least twenty-two, and possibly more, illegitimate sons and daughters. Robert was his oldest, born around 1090, either his grandfather William the Conqueror or his uncle William Rufus were on the throne and his father was the king’s third son, unlikely to inherit anything more than a hefty lump of cash.

The identity of Robert’s mother is not known for certain. Once conjectured to have been Nest, a daughter of Rhys ap Tewdwr, the last King of Deheubarth, it is more likely that she was a member of an Oxfordshire family, like the mothers of many of Henry’s other illegitimate children. She was possibly a daughter of Rainald Gay of Hampton Gay, but she remains lost in mystery. Her son, however, would be propelled into the political limelight, feted as the favourite son of a father who took the throne as Henry I.

Robert’s importance solidified after The White Ship Disaster of 1120, when Henry lost his only legitimate son. Shortly afterwards, Robert was created Earl of Gloucester, probably reflecting the amount of land and the number of honours his wife, Mabel FitzHamon, brought to him within the area. He also held extensive lands in Wales and Normandy. When Henry appointed his only other legitimate child, his daughter Empress Matilda, as his heir, he extracted oaths from his barons that they would support her. More than most, though, Henry would have been aware of the fragility of such pledges: he had not been his brother’s heir but had snatched the throne on William Rufus’s sudden death.

Robert was promoted further, given lands that made him one of the most wealthy and powerful men on both sides of the Channel. The plan was clear: Robert was to be a crutch for his half-sister as she tried to exercise power as a woman in a strictly man’s world. Crutches come in pairs, and the other one readied for Empress Matilda was her cousin, Stephen of Blois, Count of Boulogne. Stephen was the son of Henry’s sister Adela of Normandy and was another of Henry’s favourites, made powerful to help support Matilda.

Henry’s plans, however well laid, ultimately fell to pieces on his death in 1135. It is possible the king changed his mind on his deathbed, since he was at odds with Matilda and her husband Geoffrey of Anjou, but whatever really happened behind closed doors, it was Stephen who rushed to have himself crowned in place of Empress Matilda. Robert trod a difficult and strained line. He eventually submitted to Stephen, but the king was never quite sure of his cousin. Whether Robert had planned to remain loyal to his half-sister all along or Stephen’s suspicion drove him away is unclear – chroniclers have their ideas based on their prejudices, but Robert alone knew the secrets of his heart.

When Empress Matilda landed at Arundel Castle to formally launch her bid to take the crown in 1139, she was accompanied by her half-brother Robert. While she remained inside the castle until Stephen arrived, Robert sped west to his stronghold at Bristol, a castle deemed impenetrable and which would form the beating heart of Matilda’s bid for power for years. Robert became the military arm of his half-sister’s efforts, allowing her to overcome the problems of putting an army into the field. In 1141, it was Robert who led the army against Stephen at the Battle of Lincoln that resulted in the king’s capture. Later the same year, when Matilda was driven out of Winchester, it was Robert who fought a rear guard action to allow Matilda to escape safely, but which led to his own seizure by forces loyal to Stephen.

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Medieval knights riding into battle from wall paintings at Claverley Church, Shropshire

It is a mark of the importance to Matilda’s cause of Earl Robert that he was part of a prisoner exchange, his release secured with that of Stephen in a complex arrangement of hostages and releases. The chronicler William of Malmesbury, who knew Earl Robert and is unfalteringly positive about his patron, believed that Robert demonstrated his courage, guile and humility when he initially refused to be exchanged for the king, since he was a mere earl and worth less than Stephen. Even when he was offered control of the government, he still refused. It was Matilda who blinked first. Robert was perhaps not as clever as William of Malmesbury believed (if the earl didn’t exaggerate his role in the negotiations for his writer friend!). Matilda’s case was largely based on the illegitimacy of Stephen’s rule; he was not the rightful king and had broken his own oaths to support her. Robert, in recognising Stephen as a king and as one of higher worth than an earl, undid that pretence and handed Stephen all of the religious authority and infallibility that went with being king.

Robert died on 31 October 1147, aged around fifty-seven, at Bristol Castle, still trying to lift his half-sister onto the throne. He was buried at his own foundation of St James’s Priory in Bristol. The hammer blow to Matilda’s cause is amply demonstrated by her decision to leave England in the early months of 1148, abandoning her own claim to the throne but bequeathing the effort to her son, Henry FitzEmpress, the future Henry II. Robert had been a paragon of chivalry, and shared many attributed with his rival King Stephen. William of Malmesbury is full of gushing praise for the brave, chivalrous, unflappable earl, and it is clear that he was the strong core of his half-sisters efforts.

Many urged Robert to make his own claim to the throne in 1135 and afterwards. This presented problems, not the least of which was his illegitimacy. His grandfather, William the Conqueror had been a bastard, but becoming a duke was different from becoming a king, and William took England by conquest, not by right. Illegitimacy was always much more of a bar to becoming a king, with all of the associated religious aspects of being chosen by God. On the other hand, he was the favourite son of the old king, Henry I, and solved all of the problems of female rule that Matilda relentlessly encountered. Capable, both militarily and politically, he was more acceptable to some despite his illegitimacy than any woman would ever be.

Robert refused at every turn, and at every request, to even consider trying to make himself a king. It is perhaps unkind to suggest that he lacked confidence that he would succeed, because he relentlessly spearheaded his half-sister’s efforts to unseat Stephen. William of Malmesbury may not have been far wide of the mark when he admiringly assured his reader that Robert would not consider such a step because he accepted Matilda as the rightful heir to their father’s throne. He swore oaths to her and, once Matilda launched her bid for the throne and turned away from Stephen, he spent the remainder of his life trying to keep those promises.

Robert died without seeing the eventual success of their cause, but he never gave up. He managed to be the military arm of an attempt to implement female rule in England more than four centuries before it would finally be accepted. That he did so without blurring the lines of his half-sister’s claim to the throne or allowing himself to become embroiled in efforts to make him king speaks volumes for the man and his abilities. There is an awful lot to admire in this dedicated, honourable and capable first holder of a peerage based on the city of Gloucester.

Stephen and Matilda: Cousins of Anarchy is released by Pen and Sword on 30 October 2019.

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Stephen-Matildas-Civil-War-Cousins/dp/1526718332

A book about heraldry and livery on the medieval battlefield….

As a member of the Mortimer History Society, I have been notified that the above book has been greatly reduced in price at Oxbow Books. I’ve ordered it – including £4 postage!

The blurb for the book is as follows:
“The medieval battlefield was a place of spectacle and splendour. The fully-armed knight, bedecked in his vivid heraldic colours, mounted on his great charger, riding out beneath his brightly-painted banner, is a stock image of war and the warrior in the middle ages. Yet too often the significance of such display has been ignored or dismissed as the empty preening of a militaristic social elite. Drawing on a broad range of source material and using innovative historical approaches, this book completely re-evaluates the way that such men and their weapons were viewed, showing that martial display was a vital part of the way in which war was waged in the middle ages. It maintains that heraldry and livery served not only to advertise a warrior’s family and social ties, but also announced his presence on the battlefield and right to wage war. It also considers the physiological and psychological effect of wearing armour, both on the wearer and those facing him in combat, arguing that the need for display in battle was deeper than any medieval cultural construct and was based in the fundamental biological drives of threat and warning.”

I hope it’s as good as it seems, and will be sure to post my review.

PS: Later. To be honest, I found this book hard going. Maybe my mood wasn’t quite right. I’ve abandoned it for the time being, and will give it another go some other time.

Doggeing “Tudor” footsteps?

Michele Schindler’s seminal biography of Francis Viscount Lovell, one of the trio named in Colyngbourne‘s doggerel, is published today. Hopefully, it will go towards solving the great mystery of his fate.

Could he really have suffocated in a Minster Lovell chamber, after the estate was given to Jasper “Tudor”? Could he have ended his days in Scotland, under a safe conduct complicated by the Sauchieburn rebellion, or was that a red herring?

Leicestershire’s griffin of Griffydam….?

Leicestershire folk tales for children

Here’s Legends an interesting book of Leicestershire folk tales for children. It includes the intriguing story of the griffin of Griffydam.

Oh, and it also relates the “legends” about King Richard III !!

Spot the deliberate mistakes?

An article in British History Online , as illustrated by this John Zephaniah Bell painting says:
“Here [Westminster Abbey/Sanctuary/Cheyneygates] the unhappy queen [Elizabeth Woodville] was induced by the Duke of Buckingham and the Archbishop of York to surrender her little son, Edward V., to his uncle Richard, who carried him to the Tower, where the two children shared a common fate.”

Ashdown-Hill’s The Mythology of the “Princes in the Tower” (ch.9, p.49) talks about the confusion between Shrewsbury and Sir Richard Grey, who WAS arrested at Stony Stratford. ch.10 p.54 includes your c19 portrait: “Buckingham was also a leading member of a delegation which, on Monday 16 June, was sent by boat a short distance up the Thames to Westminster Abbey, to try to persuade Elizabeth Woodville to release her younger son, RICHARD DUKE OF YORK, from sanctuary and send him to join his elder brother at the King’s Lodgings in the Tower. However, the person who actually led the deputation into the sanctuary at Westminster had to be a priest. Therefore the group was led by another royal cousin, Cardinal Bourchier, Archbishop of CANTERBURY”.
The same volume points out that we don’t know about any “common fate”, whilst putting us in a better position to find out.

Coming up soon …

Here is the front cover of the next book, about Edward IV’s chief mistress, from Britain’s busiest historian , to be published by Pen and Sword on 31 July. I wonder which surprises he will have for us this time?

Will it be fair to Richard?….or another Tudor hatchet job?

Mark Horowitz

“Prior to defeating Richard III in battle, Henry VII had the most anemic claim to the British monarchy since William the Conqueror in 1066.” Anemic/anaemic is a great adjective for the Tudor’s actual situation. He should never have won at Bosworth!

The above quote from here is to do with another book about our period, a biography (I think!) of Henry VII. It does not give me much information about Mark Horowitz’s attitude to Richard. I’m a “once bitten, twice shy” sort of gal, so do not hold out much hope that Richard will be dealt with even-handedly. I trust I’m wrong. Over to you, Mr. Horowitz….

Why bury a chest of books….?

Here is a puzzle, circa 1400. Why would a usurped king’s half-brother bury a chest of books in the ground at the church in his Devon estate? The usurped king was Richard II, the half-brother John Holand, Earl of Huntingdon (had been Duke of Exeter), the Devon estate Dartington.

Dartington - for Chest of Books buzz

This was just before Holand joined the Epiphany Rising against Richard’s murderer and usurper, Henry IV – a rebellion he, Holand, did not survive. The titles of the books are not known, but apparently the key to the chest is still in existence.

JH'S CHEST OF BOOKS

The 15th century tower is all that remains of the church, which is adjacent to Dartington Hall, only a few steps from Holand’s private apartments in the main house.

I learned of this strange activity in “William called Long Will” by Michael Bennett:-

“More intriguingly, he [Holland] was the owner of a chest full of books that, prior to the conspiracy that led to his execution in 1400, he hid in the ground in Dartington church.63

63The titles of the books are not recorded. The label to the key to the chest is extant in the exchequer records (Clavis de quadam cista plena diversis libris qui fuerunt Iohannis nuper comitis de Huntingdon in terra absconditur in ecclesia de Dartyngton in comitatu Devonie): Kew, TNA, E 101/699/25.”

If anyone has any ideas – other than Holand’s desire to prevent the books from falling into other hands – please comment. It doesn’t seem that he buried other valuables at the same time, just the books.

The Mythology of the “Princes in the Tower”

This is less a book and more of an outdoor swimming pool, becoming deeper as the chapters progress. In the shallow end, the subjects go from the definition of a “prince” and the circumstances under which Edward IV’s elder sons came to live there, centuries before Buckingham Palace was built to the origin of the term “Princes in the Tower” (p.17). Before progressing further, the reader should be aware exactly which sibling definitely died at the Tower, during a “confinement”. For those still unaware why the whole Wydeville brood were illegitimate and how the “constitutional election” (Gairdner) resulted in Richard III’s succession, the whole point is painstakingly explained again.

The dramatic conclusions begin at about halfway, in chapter 17, before the process of the rumour mill and the many finds of the Stuart era are described. In the deep end, we are reminded how science has moved on during the 85 years since Tanner and Wright investigated the remains, including Ashdown-Hill’s own investigations into “CF2″‘s remains on the Norwich Whitefriars site, together with a repeat of the DNA process that gave us Joy Ibsen and thus Richard III in Leicester. This time, he and Glen Moran have found a professional singer originally from Bethnal Green, a short distance from the Tower itself.

What has always stood out about Ashdown-Hill’s work is his superior use of logic when primary sources are of limited availability and it is applied here to several aspects of the subject.

In many ways, this book is itself a tower, built on the foundations of his previous eleven, but also his research into things such as numismatics, yet there is a prospect of more construction work …

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