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Biggest Lies of the Middle Ages

There are many, many  false ideas and funny beliefs about the Middle Ages and  some of the notable figures  who lived in those times. Alfred and the cakes, Edward II and the hot poker, Eleanor of Aquitaine flinging poisoned toads on Fair Rosamund… And of course, almost everything you can think of about Richard III.  In popular ‘myths’ of the middle ages, still clinging on with remarkable tenacity, everyone was  hobbit-sized, had bad teeth, burned witches and bathed once a year under duress.

Some of these  ideas have come from folklore or from popular fiction, like certain famous plays we know (COUGH); others have been handed down by the good old Victorians who wrote history THEIR way, just as they ‘improved’ on real medieval churches by rebuilding them in a NEW, ‘improved’ cod-medieval style, often obliterating real ancient artifacts and chucking out effigies and tomb slabs in the process.

Recently I was rather pleased to  find this interesting little ‘myth buster’ article–link below.

I was particularly happy to see not only a positive re-assessment of Richard but  a mention of his scoliosis which showed an understanding of the condition. It is really not that rare, that obvious, or that debilitating, unlike the way certain parties STILL  like to portray it.

http://historycollection.co/getting-medieval-6-biggest-lies-middle-ages/

 

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The Bones in the Urn again!…a 17th Century Hoax?

 

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19th century painting of the Henry VII Chapel by an unknown artist.  The entrance to the area where the urn stands is to the left of the tomb of Henry VII

Helen Maurer, in her wonderful article, Whodunnit: The Suspects in the Case  mentioned in the notes  ‘As for why the bones should have been discovered more or less where More said they would be, might it be profitable, if only in the interest of leaving no stone unturned, to forget about Richard, Henry and the late 15th century for the moment and concentrate upon Charles II and the political pressures and perceived necessities of the 1670s.  Any takers?’ Maurer then went on to cover this more fully in her articles Bones in the Tower – Part 2 (1).

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CHARLES II ‘THE MERRY MONARCH’ 

On going to the article, which was printed in the Ricardian in March 1991 pp 2-22, I was intrigued by this theory which seems plausible and makes much sense than the infamous  and ludicrous story given out by More.    In brief, a summary is given of Charles’ reign and the problems he encountered at the time including ‘an abiding public mistrust and rejection of  anything that smacked of absolutism’, religious intolerance, a Parliament who controlled Charles’ pursestrings and a general mistrust of each other.  As Maurer points out ‘As adjunct to these general observations it must be remembered that Charles was the son of a despised and executed monarch.  Experience made him wary.  Unable to  foresee the future, he could only know that tenure of the throne came without guarantees.  It should surprise no-one that Charles became a master of dissimulation….with an overriding concern to preserve what he could of royal power, while ensuring the succession'(2).  It would seem that perhaps the Merry Monarch was not so merry after all.

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THE INFAMOUS URN ……

Having found this theory plausible,  imagine my delight (and surprise) when listening to Pepys Diary that Pepys made the entry on 25 March 1663 that having gone to the chapel of  White Hall, with the King being present he heard a sermon by Dr Critton (Creighton).  The Dr  ‘told the king and ladies, plainly speaking of death and of skulls, how there is no difference, that nobody could tell that of the great Marius or Alexander from a pyoneer, nor, for all the pain the ladies take with their faces, he that should look into a charnel house should not distinguish which was Cleopatra’s or fair Rosamund’s or Jane Shore‘s (3).  This begs the question that having had  this idea planted in Charles head, and moving on to 1674, with building work being undertaken in the area of the Tower where a stair case was being demoralised. that the opportunity arose to get hold of some bones and plant them.  Bones would have been obtainable with ease considering the numerous  charnel houses and plague pits that abounded at that time.     Furthermore the ‘discovery’ of the bones was reported to Charles by Sir Thomas Critcheley, Master of the Ordnance , someone he was on friendly terms with and with whom he played tennis.  Maurer goes on to say ‘No doubt Critcheley’s report was verified by Charles’ chief surgeon Knight’.  The plot thickens as they say.

In summary Maurer wrote ‘Assessments of Charles’ character and of the situation in 1674 makes it high probable that the decision to commemorate these bones did not stem entirely from Charles’ mercy, as eventually inscribed upon the urn.  The inurnment was a political act, fraught with a political message for Charles’ own time.  This view is strongly supported by the manner in which it was accomplished.  The carelessness with which the remains were interred along with the bones of other animals, including chicken and fish and 3 rusty nails is striking evidence that the chief concern at the time was not reverent burial but the political statement made by a display of the urn.  It did not matter whose bones were placed in it, or whether they were all the same bones found in 1674 or even human bones, so long as something was put in it to be visibly commemorated’.

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SAMUEL PEPYS, ARTIST JOHN HAYLES. SECRETARY TO THE ADMIRALTY  UNDER King Charles  MP, DIARIST AND FRIEND TO JAMES DUKE OF YORK

If this is indeed what happened and whether Pepys himself had a hand in it – he was indeed on very friendly terms with Charles’ brother James Duke of York, visiting him at the Duke’s home on numerous  occasions according to his diary – is a matter of speculation.  Did the old sermon preached on that day pop into someone’s head. That the bones of Edward IV’s sons, Edward and Richard, the so called ‘princes in the Tower’ would be non discernible from those of the sons of a beggar? And was it used to demonstrate to people that this fate is one that can easily befall disposed monarchs – and was this something to be desired?  Frustratingly Pepys stopped writing his Diary in 1669 and the bones not being ‘discovered’ until 1674 he made no entry pertaining to it.  It also begs the further question, if this speculation was correct, would he have ever written about it anyway?   Pepys wrote in shorthand and possibly he never intended  his diary to come into the public domain.  But it remains a tantalising thought that if only Pepys had continued with his diaries for longer one of the most enduring mysteries of all time may never have arisen.

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JAMES II PAINTED BY LELY.   JAMES’  REIGN WAS ALSO TROUBLED LEADING TO HIM REPLACED BY HIS DAUGHTER MARY.

1.Whodunit The Suspects in the Case Helen Maurer note 30.

2.  Bones in the Tower Part 2 Helen Maurer Ricardian p10

3.  Pepys Diary Chapter 4 March 25 1663

 

 

 

 

 

MISTRESS OF THE MAZE—Rosamund Clifford, Lover of King Henry II

Jane Shore is one of the most famous royal mistresses and certainly the prime one of the 15th century. Arguably, however, the most famous royal mistress in medieval English history  is the enigmatic Rosamund de Clifford, known as ‘Fair Rosamund’ or ‘Rose of the World.’

Like Jane, Rosamund seemed to have received a generally benign treatment from historians and later writers, despite one of her contemporaries, Gerald of Wales, making a cruel pun on her name and calling her ‘The Rose of Unchastity.’ In comparison Edward III’s young mistress Alice Perrers, was often depicted as greedy and grasping, and King John’s mistress, ‘queen’ Clementia, was mocked for giving herself regal airs and graces. Just as writers from Thomas More onwards lauded Jane Shore for her beauty and generosity and overlooked her dubious liaisons with William Hastings and Thomas Grey, Rosamund was generally seen in a wholly favourable manner, with her ‘rival,’ Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine, taking the part of the villain, despite being the injured party, so to speak. Henry, a notorious womaniser just like his descendant Edward IV, seemed to get no blame for anything at all.

The Victorians and pre-Raphaelites who painted interpretations of Rosamund’s legend painted Rosamund as timid and meek, even a little simple-looking, while Eleanor was shown as being crafty and hard, with a sallow skin, pinched features and hooked nose—despite in reality being a notable beauty of the age herself. It appears Eleanor, being rather liberated for the era she lived in, was deemed by the Victorians as ‘unnatural’and unwomanly, having sought an annulment from her first marriage to Louis of France to marry the younger Henry and then by inciting her sons to rebel against their father. Rumours also abounded of consensual flings in her youth, including with her own uncle. Far better, it seemed, to be a naïve young girl at the command of the much older king than a determined ‘hussy’ like Eleanor who dared to do what SHE wanted!

Some attempts were made to change the more ‘unsavoury’ elements of Rosamund’s story to make it more palatable to the mores of 19th century readers. Suddenly she was not a young girl but of an age with the King—his first sweetheart whom he had married in secret, making her his rightful wife. This was nonsense; Rosamund’s parentage is known and accordingly the birthdates of her parents and siblings and, in all likelihood, Rosamund herself. In reality, she was probably only a teenager when she met Henry, and their affair seems to have started around 1166-7, when Henry’s youngest son John was born. Equally, the myth,also originating in this time, that she was the mother of Henry’s two most famous bastards, William Longspee and Geoffrey Plantagenet, Archbishop of York, has been proven to be false. Recently discovered documents show that William’s mother was Ida de Tosney, Duchess of Norfolk, and not only was Geoffrey too old to be Rosamund’s child, chroniclers wrote that his mother was a prostitute called Ykenai.

Rosamund, of course, is famous not just for the affair with King Henry but also for being kept in a maze near the now-vanished palace of Woodstock. The maze, which was meant to keep her safe from Eleanor, almost certainly did not exist, but there is ground disturbance at the site and a house may have once existed, perhaps with some kind of ornate garden, that had been built or adapted for Rosamund’s use. A well still flows on the spot, which has been known as Rosamund’s Well for around four hundred years at least, although its earliest known name was Everswell.

And what about the dramatic tale of Rosamund being murdered in person by Eleanor, given the choice of poison or a dagger? (Versions that are even more lurid have her roasted between two fires and attacked by toads!) Toads or no toads, murder by Eleanor is almost certainly untrue, since the Queen was imprisoned at the time Rosamund died, and no Queen would personally attend to such matter anyway, vengeful or not. There is a vague possibility one of her agents could have done the deed on her behalf, but at that time, the Queen had no finances to pay an assassin, being in straightened circumstances and reduced to sharing a bed with her maid in Old Sarum Castle.

However, what is known is that Henry officially announced his relationship with Rosamund to the court in 1174 and spoke of an annulment of his marriage with Eleanor shortly thereafter. A mere two years later, Rosamund had departed Woodstock and retired to Godstow nunnery, and then, abruptly, she was dead. Chroniclers say she died before the age of thirty. So something unfortunate did happen to Rosamund, though whether her death was natural or more sinister is impossible to say.

Henry did appear to genuinely love Rosamund, although his mistresses were legion—including, but not limited to, Annabel de Balliol, Duchess Ida, Alice de Porhoet (whose father was furious), Alis of France who was intended for his son Richard (only a rumour but possible given his reputation for seducing his wards), and the intriguingly named BelleBelle, for whom he brought rich robes at the same time as he brought gowns for the Queen. He ordered a lavish tomb made for Rosamund, which was raised before the high altar in Godstow Priory, and made monetary payments to the prioress.

The tomb became something of a shrine, decked with flowers and candles, until the arrival of Bishop Hugh of Lincoln in the years following Henry’s own death. Bishop Hugh was scandalised at the seeming veneration of the tomb of an ‘unchaste’ woman and ordered it removed to the nuns’ cemetery. It was duly dismantled and placed against the wall of the chapterhouse, where it was still visible for some years after the Dissolution. Around this time, a house was built incorporating the priory ruins, and when this was subequently destroyed in the Civil War, most of the remaining features of the priory vanished with it.

Rosamund has appeared in art and in song, and features in several novels about Henry II and his family, including by Sharon Penman, author of the famous Ricardian novel, The Sunne in Splendour. One solitary novel solely from Rosamund’s point of view was written in the 1970’s by Philippa Wiat, the Philippa Gregory of her day, but it was oddly flat and unexciting. However, in early 2017 MISTRESS OF THE MAZE was released, containing solid historical facts while incorporating the more fantastical elements of the legend, such as the Maze at Woodstock. Rosamund here is not the simpering icon beloved by overwrought Vctorian artists but a tragic flesh and blood woman caught up in the midst of the marital entanglements of Kings.

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Godstow Priory

What do Matilda and Margaret, Eleanor and Elizabeth, plus two Henrys, add up to…?

To my mind, it adds up to two very similar situations that are two centuries apart.

Henry I deathbed - stand-in pic

Let us begin in the 12th century. On his deathbed, Henry I of England named as his successor his only surviving child, his daughter, the Empress Matilda. He obliged the nobility to agree. They reneged, of course. A woman as queen in her own right? Cue mass hysteria among the male upper classes and uncontrollable fits of the vapours in the Church. And cue a sharp move by her cousin, Stephen, who promptly had himself crowned before she could even return to England.

To cut a long story short, Matilda fought first for herself, supported by her powerful half-brother, Robert of Gloucester. When it became clear she would never be accepted because she was a woman, Matilda fought on behalf of her eldest son. He, thanks to her tireless efforts, eventually became Henry II—and yes, he is one of the two Henrys.

There was nothing Matilda would not have done to see her son on the throne, and her aim came to fruition. And when he was crowned, she became the highest woman in the realm. She wasn’t monarch in the own right, but came darned close!

Then came the time when Henry II chose a queen. Not just any queen, but beautiful, spirited Eleanor of Aquitaine, who was not only a powerful, troublesome lady with a mind very much of her own, but was also prepared to scheme and manipulate on behalf of her sons by Henry. Against Henry.

Eleanor’s reputation was not squeaky clean. She had been married to the King of France, only for the marriage to be annulled and custody of their two daughters given to Louis. She had been on a Crusade with her husband, and halted at Antioch, where she encountered her uncle, Raymond of Poitiers, who was described by William of Tyre as “a lord of noble descent, of tall and elegant figure, the handsomest of the princes of the earth, a man of charming affability and conversation, open-handed and magnificent beyond measure“. There were whispers because Raymond and Eleanor spent such a great deal of time together and seemed so very intimate. She quite clearly found her uncle preferable to her husband. The whispers increased when she declined to leave Antioch with said husband, who eventually took her away by force. She was a lady to whom scandal seemed drawn, but it is only her ‘acquaintance’ with Raymond that is of interest for this article.

Raymond of Poitiers

Raymond of Poitiers

The difficulties between Henry and Eleanor commenced when the latter came up against Matilda, who was not about to surrender the position of First Lady. As far as Matilda was concerned, Eleanor was simply Henry’s wife, with no claim to any power. A baby-making machine, no more or less. Open warfare threatened.

fighting women

Was Henry caught in the middle? Well, in a way, but he loved his mother because of all she had done to put him on the throne. Then (so the story goes) he fell for one of his many mistresses, a lady known as Fair Rosamund Clifford. It was too much for Eleanor. Already furious about playing second fiddle to Matilda, she now had to endure his immense infatuation for younger  woman. Eleanor stormed off to her lands in Europe, there to plot with her sons against their father.

the lion in winter

If you have seen the film The Lion in Winter, you will know that Eleanor and Henry were played by Katherine Hepburn and Peter O’Toole. Oh, how the sparks and flames flew when they were on screen together. Eleanor was indeed very beautiful, but I don’t think Henry resembled O’Toole. According to Gerald of Wales [he had} “a reddish complexion, rather dark, and a large, round head. His eyes were grey, bloodshot, and flashed in anger. He had a fiery countenance, his voice was tremulous, and his neck a little bent forward; but his chest was broad, and his arms were muscular. His body was fleshy, and he had an enormous paunch, rather by the fault of nature than from gross feeding.” Definitely not the gorgeous Peter.

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Now we must fast forward to the fifteenth century, and Lady Margaret Beaufort, yet another mother who would stop at nothing to see her son on the throne. Meet that son, Henry VII, the second Henry concerned in this article. Unlike Henry II, who was a direct blood heir, Henry VII’s forebears descended through a rather convoluted and weak line that included the bastard strain of the Beauforts (illegitimate offspring of John of Gaunt and his mistress, Katherine de Roët.

When Henry, taking for himself the role of legitimate heir of the House of Lancaster, was helped to Richard III’s throne by traitors, his formidable mother became First Lady—she was known as the King’s Lady Mother. Like Matilda, Margaret also had a helpful half-brother, John Welles, Viscount Welles, but he was hardly in the same class as the mighty Robert of Gloucester.

I could not find an illustration of John Welles, but this is his father, Lionel, Lord Welles, who died at Towton.

Henry always supported whatever Margaret did. She was, perhaps, the only person he ever trusted completely. His was a suspicious, secretive, paranoid character. He was not a mother’s boy, but came pretty close.

Then he too took a wife. He had to, he’d promised it in order to win the support of discontented supporters of the House of York (to which his defeated predecessor, Richard III, had belonged). If Henry had tried to wriggle out of it, there would have been uproar, because the promise entailed marrying the eldest Yorkist princess, Richard III’s niece, Elizabeth. Henry VII did not like having to do as he was told, but wasn’t given much of a choice.

Elizabeth of York - for WordPress

It is hard to imagine anyone less like Eleanor of Aquitaine. Elizabeth of York was reportedly lovely, but was mostly so quiet and apparently inactive that she barely offered a defiant squeak when Henry and his mother belittled her. She must have loathed Margaret, who swanned around almost as if she were the king, not Henry.

However, like Eleanor before her, Elizabeth had also been caught up in a scandal. It too involved an uncle, Richard III. There were strong rumours that something went on between uncle and niece—so strong that Richard was forced to deny it all in public. Whether there was any truth in it all will never be known, although I doubt very much that Richard returned any incestuous affection. That falls into the realm of fiction. He was intent upon arranging a foreign match for her. But the story clings to Elizabeth’s memory. Maybe she did love Richard, who, unlike his Shakespearean namesake, was actually a handsome young widower at the time in question.

Richard III for WordPress

Henry VII may have come to feel affection for his queen (perhaps because she was so unlike his domineering mother!) but she always took second place to Margaret. There is no known equivalent of Fair Rosamund in Henry’s life, so Elizabeth was never challenged on that score. Even if she had been, I doubt if she would have flounced off in a fury as Eleanor did. Perhaps Henry’s problem with his marriage was that he could not forget the rumours about Richard.

Maybe Elizabeth was one of those people who work quietly in the background, getting her own way when she wanted, but never openly defying either Henry or Margaret. Well, she did once, and Henry was so startled at the unexpected stamping of her Yorkist foot, that he backed down. I’d love to have been there, just for the joy of seeing his face.

So, there we have it. Two grimly determined mothers-in-law, two daughters-in law touched by rumours of incest and consigned to second place. And two Henrys who were loath to take on their mothers. Two M’s, two E’s and two H’s!

Matilda and Margaret could not have the throne in their own right, but were prepared to fight tooth and nail to put their sons there. Eleanor was another in the same mould, but Elizabeth of York was not. Neither daughter-in-law was afforded proper prominence in the eyes of her husband.

As for the Henrys, well, while their mothers could not rule alone as the true monarch (heaven forfend!) these sons were quite happy to lay claim the throne through the female line. So, a woman’s blood was good enough pass on to a son who would be crowned, but was next to worthless if she tried to assert herself by becoming “king”.

 

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