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Archive for the tag “Reading Abbey”

Britain’s top burial sites?

This Sun article, which originally confused Richard’s Leicester with Henry I’s Reading, lists what they consider to be Britain’s top burial sites, although there is no detail on the supposed “Princes” in that urn, especially now that there is evidence to test the remains.

Are there any others you might have included?

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

THE HOLY HAND OF ST JAMES FROM READING ABBEY

A fascinating article  from the Royal Berkshire History site on the preserved hand of St James, which was discovered in 1796 walled up in the ruins of Reading Abbey and now resides in the Catholic Church in Marlow.  Recently,this medieval artefact has undergone scientific analysis with interesting results.

Reading Abbey was a highly important place in the Middle Ages. Not only  was it the burial place of a King  (Henry I–lost and still waiting to be found) and a child of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine (a boy who died of a seizure and was buried at his great grandfather’s feet)  but it contained a great many relics, including bits of the True Cross, Christ’s sandal, Christ’s foreskin (apparently 17 of these existed, ahem), crusts  from the ‘Feeding of the Five Thousand’, head hair from the Virgin Mary, pieces of Mary’s tomb and so on. These appeared to have been shipped in from Constantinople. The abbey became a great draw for pilgrims and it was here Edward IV first publicly presented Elizabeth Woodville as his “wife” and guided her to a chair of estate as Queen of England.

One of the most famous  relics at Reading was the arm of St James, which was probably donated by the Empress Matilda. Having survived both the Reformation and Cromwell, the mummified hand has recently given up some of its secrets…including the fact it cannot have belonged to St James, as the date is wrong. (So here we have a case of bones long thought of as belonging to a certain individual being found by science to be someone else’s, despite centuries of deeply-held belief. Hopefully science will continue to verify such relics where possible. *Cough “Princes in the Tower” Cough.*)

Interestingly,  a preserved hand  was found in the city of Salisbury many years back, within a  medieval house  known as The Haunch of Venison, now currently a pub/restaurant (and supposedly very haunted!). The smoke-dried hand grew many legends, including that the hand was cut from a cheating whist-player in the 1700’s  (there were some old playing cards placed by it at some time) or that it was a ‘Hand of Glory’, a magical talisman used by thieves to put an inn’s tenants to sleep while the thieves robbed them. However, a local  historian surmised it might have in fact been a religious relic hidden during the  reformation; the Haunch had belonged  to the nearby  church of Thomas a Becket, and was used to lodge craftsmen who were building the spire of Salisbury Cathedral. Unfortunately, the hand had a habit of being stolen from the pub, and the last time it was snatched in 2010, it was never returned. A replica lies in its place but any chance of dating and learning more of its past it is now lost…unless it mysteriously returns again!

Haunch-of-Venison_1597466c

preserved hand from Salisbury

hand-of-st-james

mummified hand of St James

The remains of Henry I not found yet at reopened Reading Abbey….

Reading Abbey - without Henry I

Reading Abbey is reopening, but without the remains of Henry I having been found. He’s there somewhere, having definitely been buried there after his “surfeit of lampreys”. Well, they found Richard in Leicester, so there’s still hope of locating Henry.

The wrong Philippa for Reading….!

Gardening MOR 050415

Reading in Berkshire is apparently famous for, among other things, five varieties of potato. Nine other items for which Reading is renowned are listed here, and I presume that eight of them are correct. But the last one definitely is NOT! I quote:

“Philippa Gregory, the woman who found the body of Richard III under a car park in Leicester, believes the grave of Henry I is also under a car park in Reading.”

Um, Philippa Who? Rather a boo-boo, methinks.

PS: The error has now been corrected, but I promise that the wrong Philippa was indeed there originally!

More news from Reading

When I watched this video, talking about the precise location of the high altar of the Abbey with respect to Henry I, the parallels with the search for Richard III in Leicester’s Greyfriars are almost exact:

Neither should we forget Henry I’s Queen, Edith (Matilda) of Scotland, who reintroduced Anglo-Saxon royal (Wessex) blood to the English monarchy.

Does Henry the First have Richard’s pulling power….?

Henry-I-

Does Henry the First have the pulling power of Richard the Third? I don’t believe he does. So while this enterprise is marvellous, and Henry may indeed be found, the end result will not have the huge impact of Richard’s discovery.

 

The elusive last Norman

Although Richard was found in Leicester five years ago, exactly where he was buried, and Henry I is close to being identified in Reading, Kingfinding is not always successful. As this blog shows, the 1965 excavation of the Faversham Abbey site to find King Stephen was unsuccessful.

It seems that his bones really were moved during the Reformation. Sometimes, there is truth in such a legend.

I’m Henry I, I am?

r-6242797-1422183744-7972-jpegThere is some news from Reading, where Henry I is being sought under a car park. The GPR results are in and the Abbey seems to have been located

You can hear more from the Kingfinder-General here as well, after eleven minutes, or here after forty-four.

Empress Matilda-Should She Be Listed as an English Monarch?

One of the most fascinating (and bloody) periods of English history is The Anarchy, when Empress Matilda, daughter of Henry I (he who might well be found sometime soon in the ruins of Reading Abbey) fought her cousin Stephen of Blois (thought to be in Faversham Abbey) for the English throne. Battles raged across the land and barons, without permission, threw up adulterine castles everywhere and lived lawlessly. The times were so turbulent that it was said ‘Christ and His Saints slept.’

Matilda’s forces captured Stephen in 1141 and she came very close to being crowned, but violent crowds of Stephen’s supporters on the way to London stopped the Coronation from taking place. Then her biggest supporter, her half-brother Robert of Gloucester was captured at Winchester, and the only way to free him was to trade Stephen’s freedom for Robert’s.

In 1148, Matilda retreated from England for good and left the fighting to her son, Henry FitzEmpress, the son of Geoffrey Plantagenet–the future Henry II. In 1153 Henry and Stephen came to an agreement after the Siege of Wallingford, in which Henry was declared Stephen’s heir as the latter’s eldest son Eustace had died. The next year, Stephen died and Henry took the throne.

Matilda is generally not listed as one of the rulers of England but some believe that she should be. Although never crowned, she was Henry I’s heir and before the High Altar of All Saints, Northampton, Henry rallied his barons to swear loyalty to her and to support her claim to the throne. They swore at the time, but as often happened in the Middle Ages, the oaths were quickly broken once Henry died. The idea of a female ruler was not a popular one, although there was no legal impediment to it, as England, unlike France, did not have a Salic Law.

Many sources list Edward V, Jane and Edward VIII as monarchs of England, despite the fact that they were never crowned and their legitimacy to the position was disputed–so, if that is considered correct, why then is the Empress Matilda excluded from the list, as designated heir to Henry I?

Matilda is, of course ancestor to the line of Plantagenet kings that followed on from her son, and through her maternal side, they also have a line of descent from both King Malcolm of Scotland and the royal House of Wessex via St Margaret. Both claimants were, therefore, among Richard III’s ancestors.parents_of_henry_ii

 

An interesting post on the subject of Matilda from the FB page ‘House of Plantagenet History & Geneology’ :https://www.facebook.com/groups/41546823396/permalink/10154937093853397/

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