Elly McDonald

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Historical sex offences: the case of King Edward and the countess of Salisbury

The allegations still shock:

Come the night, when he had gone to bed in proper state, and he knew that the fine lady was in her bedchamber and that all her ladies were asleep and his gentlemen also, except his personal valets, he got up and told these valets that nothing must interfere with what he was going to do, on pain of death. So it was that he entered the lady’s chamber, then shut the doors of the wardrobe so that her maids could not help her, then he took her and gagged her mouth so firmly that she could not cry out more than two or three times, and then he raped her so savagely that never was a woman so badly treated; and he left her lying there all battered about, bleeding from the nose and the mouth and elsewhere, which was for her great damage and great pity. Then he left the next day without saying a word, and returned to London, very disgusted with what he had done.

The year is 1341. The chronicler is Jean Le Bel. The man is King Edward III of England. The woman is identified as Alice, Countess of Salisbury.

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With “historical sexual abuse” and the #MeToo movement topical as I write, this tale of rape nearly seven centuries ago seems to me an intriguing case study in how rape by a powerful man in a past epoch has been recounted and responded to.

Let’s consider.

First, let’s take Jean Le Bel.

According to Wikipedia,

Jean Le Bel (c. 1290 – 15 February 1370) was a chronicler from Liege. His father, Gilles le Beal des Changes, was an alderman of Liege, where Jean himself was active.

Jean was one of the first chroniclers to write in French instead of Latin. He was a soldier and companion of Jean, Count de Beaumont and travelled with him to England and Scotland in 1327 [where he fought against the Scots in the Border Wars]. At the request of the duke, he wrote Vrayes Chroniques (“True Chronicles”), which recorded the events of the reign of Edward III. He is believed to be the first person to use interviews to confirm and supplement his facts.[citation needed] Jean gives as his reason for writing a desire to replace a certain misleading rhymed chronicle of the wars of Edward III by a true relation of his enterprises down to the beginning of the Hundred Years’ War. Jean Froissart was greatly influenced by him and borrowed from his texts. […]

In the matter of style Le Bel has been placed by some critics on the level of Froissart. His chief merit is his refusal to narrate events unless either he himself or his informant had witnessed them.

Reference – Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). “Lebel, Jean“. Encyclopædia Britannica. 16 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. pp. 349–350.

Jean lived to about age 80 and enjoyed a conspicuously prosperous lifestyle.

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Statue of Jean Le Bel (right) – provincial palace at Liege

So, who witnessed this event who could have been Le Bel’s informant?

Presumably, one or more of King Edward’s personal valets; or someone in Edward’s retinue in whom a valet confided; or one or more of the ladies of the bedchamber, albeit they were seemingly asleep when the assault commenced.

Second, let’s consider Edward.

In late December 1341, the time of the alleged rape, King Edward III had recently turned 29 years old (born 13 November 1312). He had been crowned king at age 14 (1 February 1327), one week after his father Edward II was deposed. For three years he was a puppet king, with power in the hands of his mother Queen Isabella’s lover, Roger Mortimer. At 15 he was married to Philippa of Hainault (25 or 26 January 1328), following an 18-month betrothal. On 19 October 1330, just prior to his 18th birthday, Edward wrested power from Mortimer, through a coup led by Sir William Montagu.

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The young King Edward III of England pays homage to King Philip VI of France

Sir William was rewarded by being made earl of Salisbury, earl then being the highest rank of nobility in England after prince (‘duke’ at that time was a continental title, not yet in use in England). Sir William remained Edward’s closest friend and senior military commander till his death from tournament injuries in January 1344.

Edward’s marriage to Philippa was considered a great success. They were much the same age, met at about age 13, and hit it off from the outset. At the time of the alleged rape Philippa was five months pregnant with their eighth child, having already given birth to five sons. In total she birthed thirteen children, of whom six lived to have offspring: to them, we owe the Wars of the Roses (a.k.a. “the Cousins’ Wars).

Edward III funeral effigy head & shoulders, Westminster Abbey Mu

Edward III – mask for effigy

That said, across the previous year – 1340-41 – the royal marriage faced a crisis and Edward seems to have engaged in some uncharacteristic behaviours. Edward had been king from his teens and had many sexual liaisons; his enemies condemned his court as immoral, while his friends acknowledged their king enjoyed the company of ladies. No one expected Edward to be monogamous. Yet, three envoys entrusted with a letter to the pope written 18 November 1340 were instructed by King Edward to inform the pontiff that the archbishop of Canterbury, the senior churchman in England, had “spoken separately to me of my wife, and to my wife of me, in order that, if he were listened to, he might provoke us to such anger as to divide us forever”.

Worse, in his letter to the pope, Edward accuses the archbishop of Canterbury of wanting him dead, possibly of attempting to contrive his death.

The accusations against the archbishop of Canterbury arise from the archbishop’s lack of support for Edward’s wars in France, specifically his disapproval of the financial costs and his opposition to the massive taxes Edward levied to raise finance.

The issue within the marriage is more mysterious. Did Edward believe Philippa committed adultery? Could he have believed her seventh child, Edmund, was not his? Edward could not have fathered the child if the pregnancy went full-term, as the royal couple was separated, in Ghent and in Tournai, at the time conception must have taken place. But sixteen days premature is not implausible. If Edmund was premature and perhaps sickly, that could explain why he was not accorded the same honours as his elder brothers as the same young ages, why he lived in Philippa’s care longer than the others, and even, possibly, why his temperament was milder than his brothers’.

Or, was what the archbishop had to say not against Philippa but against Edward? Some misbehaviour beyond the expected infidelities? Some abuse or misuse of members of her household? Of female relatives?

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Baptism of Edward III and Philippa’s daughter Isabella

Third: let’s look at the alleged rape victim.

Jean Le Bel names her as Alice, countess of Salisbury, wife of Edward’s great friend Sir William Montagu.

Except Sir William’s wife was Catherine.

In Jean Le Bel’s account, Alice, countess of Salisbury, is in her husband’s northern castle at Wark besieged by the Scots. Her nephew, the castle’s governor, apparently another William Montagu, escapes the siege, seeks out King Edward and his armies in Newcastle, and begs the king’s aid, which is forthcoming. King Edward has not seen the countess since her marriage and is publicly, conspicuously, struck by infatuation. The lady declines his overtures, tactfully. Subsequently he invites her and her husband to a great tournament in London, where she dresses in a subdued manner to attempt to deflect his attentions. Then Edward visits the castle in her husband’s absence and, when the countess continues to refuse him, he rapes her.

Which parts are attestable fact?

William Montagu, earl of Salisbury, was lord of the castle at Wark. In the summer of 1342 he was a prisoner of war in France. At that time, King Edward and his armies were engaged in Border War fighting in the immediate area of Wark. The earl did die just a few years later.

Which parts are wrong?

Sir William’s lady was Catherine. She did not have a nephew named William Montagu – but her 12 year-old son, the earl’s heir, was named William. (Le Bel claimed the couple had no heir.) The earl died in England, not fighting abroad. He did not abrogate his estates, his marriage and his liege lord.

Which parts are plausible?

After the earl’s release from imprisonment in France and his return to England, he and his wife almost certainly attended the king’s great feast in London that summer, which very likely included jousts.

Which parts just don’t sound right?

It’s improbable the countess of Salisbury would have resided in a border castle while warfare with the Scots was flaring.

Sir William and his countess had by 1342 been married 13 years. It seems improbable the king had never since the wedding seen his best friend’s wife. Catherine would have been about 38 and had six children by then, four of them girls. It’s not impossible a 38 year-old mother of six could be raped by a king. Cesare Borgia notoriously raped Caterina Sforza when she was 37 and the mother of eight children. But he’d just captured her castle, with her as the enemy commander. He was not her purported rescuer, and she was not married to his closest, long-time friend.

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Edward III with William Montagu and co-conspirators prepare to oust Mortimer

Can these discrepancies be reconciled?

Curiously, they can, to an extent.

Sir William was not married to an Alice and his countess did not have a nephew named William. But Sir William had a brother, Edward, and Edward Montagu married Alice of Norfolk, a cousin of the king’s, in 1338. King Edward had not seen Alice since her marriage; in 1342 she was 18 years old. Obviously, Alice Montagu did have a nephew named William Montagu – her brother-in-law the earl’s son and heir, Catherine’s eldest son. William Montagu was not old enough to be Wark Castle’s governor, but it’s plausible Edward Montagu might have been the castle’s governor. Edward Montagu might have been his nephew’s guardian. It’s plausible young William Montagu might have served in his uncle Edward’s household.

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William Montagu the younger, 2nd Earl of Salisbury

Jean Le Bel wrote his account about ten years after the alleged rape occurred, in about 1352. In January 1352, Alice Montagu was savagely beaten by her husband and his retainers and died from her injuries shortly after. She would have been perhaps 27 years old.

Was Alice of Norfolk killed by her husband for bringing his name into disrepute, for injuring his reputation? Was she killed because her cousin the king had sex with her, possibly raped her?

It’s tempting to surmise.

But caution is in order. Edward Montagu had a history of violent lawlessness. He had squeezed dry his wife’s substantial estates. She had given him four daughters but the male issue had died. Edward and several of his men were indicted for Alice’s killing but it appears only one henchman was convicted and he was subsequently pardoned. Edward Montagu was a veteran of the Battle of Crecy (1346), a famous English victory in the Hundred Years’ War with France. It’s probable his henchman were also Crecy “heroes”.

It’s quite possible Edward Montagu’s murder of his wife Alice was unrelated to any alleged sexual episode between his wife and his king. It’s possible he killed her simply because he was a violent murderous man and because he could.

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From the Chronicles of Jean Froissart – King Edward III counts the dead after the Battle of Crecy

It’s possible that when Jean Le Bel wrote his account, he inadvertently conflated Catherine, countess of Salisbury, with Alice, the recently deceased wife of Edward Montagu.

It’s also possible Jean Le Bel deliberately conflated the countess with Alice of Norfolk, because by conflating the two, the story elements become so much more sensational – wife of best friend, wife of friend to whom King Edward owes his crown – and with Alice dead, speculation can run rife.

Maybe Jean Le Bel, ex-foot soldier in the Border Wars, had sympathy with Edward Montagu, hero of Crecy, and wrote the tale to help Montagu justify the killing of his wife – although this seems unlikely, given the lady in Le Bel’s tale behaves with impeccable propriety, and the king, whom Le Bel admired, and had met, behaves shockingly.

Which begs the question: why did Jean Le Bel write this tale?

It’s easy to dismiss the entire story as propaganda by King Edward’s enemies in France. But Le Bel is not a Frenchman: he’s from Hainault, home of Queen Philippa. And he’s Edward’s supporter.

The better-known chronicler Jean Froissart is more circumspect:

You have heard me speak of Edward’s love for the countess of Salisbury. The chronicle of Jean Le Bel speaks of this love less properly than I must, for, please God, it would never enter my head to incriminate the king of England and the countess of Salisbury with such a vile accusation. If respectable men ask why I mention that love, they should know that Jean Le Bel relates in his chronicle that the English king raped the countess of Salisbury. Now I declare that I know England well, where I have lived for long periods mainly at the royal court and also with the great lords of the country. And I have never heard tell of this rape although I have asked people about it who must have known if it had ever happened. Moreover I cannot believe [it] and it is incredible that so great and valiant a man as the king of England would have allowed himself to dishonor one of the most notable ladies of this realm and one of his knights who had served him so loyally all his life.

This is Froissart’s second attempt at addressing the rape episode. In the first version, he omits mention of rape and instead substitutes an anecdote about Edward being enamoured of the countess and engaging in risqué flirting with her during a game of chess. Rapey ‘flirting’, it must be said – when the countess wins at chess, because he lets her, she refuses the ring he presses on her as a gift, whereupon he allegedly remarks “she could be sure he would have taken something of hers if he had won”.

When Froissart revised his chronicle a third time, he omits all mention.

It is said a principle informant of Froissart for his chronicles was Queen Philippa herself. Queen Philippa died in 1369, before the first volume of Froissart’s chronicles appeared. But removing the rape story might have been judicious.

Queen_Philippa_of_Hainault

Queen Philippa in effigy

There is another scandalous tale about a countess of Salisbury circulating from about the late 1340s. Famously, King Edward III created the Noble Order of the Garter, with founding members knighted in 1344 and Garter costume first issued, according to the king’s wardrobe accounts, in late 1348.

Popular legend has it that the countess of Salisbury was dancing at a ball in Calais when her garter slipped from her thigh. Courtiers sniggered, but King Edward gallantly picked up the undergarment and returned it to the countess, exclaiming “Honi soit qui mal y pense!” (“Shame on him who thinks badly of it!”).

Or, as the popular twentieth-century garbled humorous history book 1066 And All That recalls it, “Honey, your garter’s slipped!”

It’s a nonsense. The Order of the Garter refers to the straps (garters) used to secure armour. “Honi soit qui mal y sense” heaps shame on him who thinks badly of the English king’s claim to the French throne.

If a garter slipped on a dance floor (and it didn’t), the “countess of Salisbury” could have been Catherine, wife to Sir William. More likely it would have referred to Joan of Kent, another cousin and protégée of King Edward’s, who had bigamously married William Montagu the younger at age 13 in 1341 and had become countess on her father-in-law’s death in 1344.

Joan subsequently returned to her first husband, whom she’d married secretly (without royal consent) at age 12 in 1340, and, after his death in 1360, despite many obstacles the Black Prince, Edward Prince of Wales, son and heir to King Edward III, made her his wife.

Their son became King Richard II. Richard II’s deposition unsettled the succession and paved the way for the Wars of the Roses between the Houses of York and Lancaster.

Now that really was a scandal.

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Joan of Kent – ceiling boss at Canterbury Cathedral

But still I ask myself:

If Jean Le Bel so admired Edward III, and if, as he says, he only ever knew King Edward to do one bad thing (this alleged rape – not starting the Hundred Years’ War, not hanging 12 year-old hostage Thomas Seton, not other war crimes or miscarriages of justice): why did Jean feel compelled to recount, in such grim detail, that one bad thing that Edward, allegedly, did?

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King Edward III of England

Credit:

This blog owes everything to Ian Mortimer’s discussion of the alleged rape by Edward III in his biography The Perfect King: The life of Edward III, father of the English Nation (2006) – Chapter 8, Chivalry and Shame

https://ellymcdonaldwriter.com/2017/06/12/lucrezia-elizabeth-and-sansa/


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Review: The Last Days of Jeanne D’Arc (2017) by Ali Alizadeh

Jeanne_D'Arc_Elly_McDonald_Writer.pngIvor Indyk at Giramondo Publishing was one of my lecturers at Sydney Uni 30 years ago, and I see he helped birth Ali Alizadeh’s novel The Last Days of Jeanne D’Arc, which I read last night.

Declaration: When I read Thomas Keneally’s Joan of Arc novel Blood Red, Sister Rose at age 14 in 1975 it made an indelible impression on me. It was always, perhaps, an uphill task for Alizadeh’s novel to surmount that.

It’s not that the Alizadeh novel isn’t interesting. It’s simply that for me it’s not compelling. And partly it’s not compelling, for me, because of how he’s chosen to expound his narrative, in ways that might be described as unconventional, might be described as experimental, might be described (my description) as pompous.

Alizadeh has chosen to write mostly in very short sentences. Sentences grammatically incomplete. Missing subject pronoun or verb. Repetitive. Yeah, he’s a poet. He wrote his PhD on Jeanne D’Arc in verse. Very clever. Not compelling.

The authorial voice switches between what I think of as Pompous Academic; first person; second person; and Voices. The first person and second person pronouns interchange across much of the novel’s central sequences. Sometimes together within the same paragraph. Sometimes they are linked immediately together, hand in hand. I’ll take that as a metaphor for the lesbian relationship which forms one plot strand. The Voices are Jeanne’s saints, or angels, and they speak in free-form verse, italicized.

Confession: I skipped quite a bit of the italicized sacred voices. I also skipped a lot of the lesbian relationship, but I did go back and read those sections afterwards. I skipped the lesbian relationship not because I have any aversion to lesbian relationships – contemporary, historical, speculative or fictional – but because I was interested (not compelled) by Alizadeh’s recounting of the historical narrative, and initially I chose to follow that more closely. I’ll come back to that lesbian relationship.

Joan of Arc as imagined by John Everett MillaisPreRaphaelite-Joan_of_Arc_Elly_McDonald_Writer

Let’s address the historical record, and that Pompous Academic voice.

In her review for Readings Online, Freya Howarth states “Alizadeh’s authorial interjections in the midst of battle scenes (about what future films will get wrong or debates historians will have) are jarring, in a good way; they remind the reader that what we know of Jeanne D’Arc is an amalgamation of stories told and retold over centuries”.

We are indeed frequently reminded that Jeanne D’Arc – that history – is an amalgamation of stories told and retold over centuries. And those reminders, that frequency, does jar. I agree with Howarth that this is intentional, intended to provoke readers to re-examine their assumptions, their received wisdoms.

Is Henry V of England a hero, as late medieval English people saw him, the very model of a king and warrior? Here’s how Alizadeh introduces Henry:

“Twenty-seven years old, a grotesquely scarred face. An extremely devout Christian, not at all the fun-loving, riotous youth of Shakespeare’s future play [Henry IV Part 1]. Severe and frankly soulless. Muscular. Possibly a psychopath. Probably a war criminal.”

And later:

“The Treaty of Troyes between the king of England, the Duke of Burgundy and the terrified, bullied queen of France. French Princess Catherine given to the English king. It is agreed that their child will be the joint ruler of the kingdoms of England and France. Celebrations in London. Shame in Paris. King Henry burps, rubs his hands after an ale, then fucks the beautiful Catherine without interest. Without any of the courtship of Shakespeare’s Henry V.”

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How to respond to these passages?

Let’s compare them to Peter Ackroyd’s account in The History of England, Vol I: Foundations:

“There can be no doubt that Henry V was driven by a sense of divine right as well as of duty. He abandoned his youthful pursuits and almost overnight, according to chroniclers, became a grave and serious king. He acquired a reputation for piety and for the solemn observance of ceremonies; until his marriage, seven years later, he remained chaste. He established several monastic foundations of an ascetic nature, where the daily exhalation of prayer was meant to support the Lancastrian dynasty. His devotion also had an aesthetic cast. The annalist, John Stowe, recorded that ‘he delighted in songs, metres and musical instruments, insomuch that in his chapel, among his private prayers, he used our Lord’s prayer, certain psalms of David, with diverse hymns and canticles’. When he went to war in France, he took with him organists and singers.”

Ackroyd summarises Henry as follows:

“No king won such plaudits from his contemporaries as Henry V. The [financial] misgivings about his wars in France were forgotten for the sake of celebrating his martial valour. He was devout as well as magnificent, chaste as well as earnest. He was as generous to his friends as he was stern to his enemies; he was prudent and magnanimous, modest of temperament. He was the very model of a medieval king.”

He continues:

“Yet there are some who have doubted that verdict. Shakespeare’s play Henry V can be interpreted in quite a different spirit as an account of a military tyrant who staked all on vain-glorious conquest of France. What did he finally achieve? Once his French conquests were dissipated, and the dream of a dual monarchy dissolved, very little was left to celebrate. All was done for the pride of princes.”

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Which tells us nothing about Henry’s personal relations with the beautiful Catherine. Or the state of his soul (“soulless”?).

I am inclined to suspect Alizadeh’s descriptions of Henry burping, rubbing his hands after an ale and fucking the French princess without interest are speculative (fictional). And this inclines me to suspect other embellishments where the Pompous Academic voice does not make clear what is on the historical record as against what is speculative, or where the Pompous Academic voice omits details on the historical record, creating a different impression of events.

For example, on Edward III:

“His father, another Edward, murdered in captivity so that the boy could claim the throne. Murdered by having a red-hot blade forced into his anus, apparently. So the towering young ruler has reason to be consumed with shame, self-loathing, brutality, hatred.”

These alleged feelings, are, according to Alizadeh, Edward III’s motive for starting the Hundred Years’ War with France.

Alizadeh is not, to my knowledge, a psychiatrist or psychotherapist. (He’s a poet.) Henry V was probably not, in my opinion, a psychopath (although being a psychopath was a handy requisite for being a successful medieval warlord). Edward III may have had many strong feelings but there is nothing on the historic record, to my awareness, to suggest shame and self-loathing were among them.

Edward_III_Elly_McDonald_Writer

Let’s try the Battle of Crecy:

“The French king’s Genoese [mercenary] crossbowmen advance upon the English longbowmen. The crossbows’ range is very short – no more than seventy metres at the most – compared to the longbows’ 400-metre range. Corpses of Genoese shooters pile up. Haughty French knights, angered by the crossbowmen’s failure, charge the English positions.”

Yes, and no. What Alizadeh fails to mention is that it is raining, raining so that the Genoese crossbows are damp. The crossbows cannot operate when wet. The Genoese mercenaries’ captain explains this to the French commanders, pleads not to be deployed. The French force the Genoese forwards. When the Genoese crossbows misfire, the French heavy cavalry trample over the top of them.

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Henry V is a “psychopath”, “Probably a war criminal”? Well yes. Henry V did order the execution of French prisoners taken for ransom during the Battle of Agincourt (Azincourt). The numbers of French prisoners overwhelmed the numbers of men available to guard them. But the order was stayed and most of the French knights and nobles taken captive survived to be ransomed.

Henry lays siege to Rouen: “the city’s trade routes, food supplies, water conduits, blocked by the English. Hunger forces out the city’s poorest, about twelve thousand. The English open fire: filled with arrows, thousands of civilians fall and fester. The surviving die of starvation and cold during the winter – one of the worst atrocities of the European Middle Ages.”

But hold up. “Hunger” forces out the city’s poorest? I think not. I believe the records show the good burghers of Rouen force out the city’s poor and sick, so the wealthier and healthier can live longer, sharing food and water between many fewer. Should the English army have taken in the outcasts, given them free passage? The English had camp followers enough of their own. Given men in medieval besieging armies die from contagious illnesses as much or more as they die in military assaults, the frail and sick of Rouen were potentially a biological weapon. The refugees might have included assassins, terrorists, fifth columnists. The debate has contemporary resonance.

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Not long after his marriage and the Treaty of Troyes, Henry V of England dies of dysentery, at the siege of Meaux.

Henry presided over a scorched earth policy, where English raiding parties burnt all habitations and all food sources that might provide shelter and sustenance to French troops. Henry didn’t invent that strategy; it was standard modus operandi for the English in France and their allies. Meanwhile, at the French court, the Burgundian and Orleans factions engage in massacres and assassinations. The French king believes he is made of glass. No one here has clean hands, no one is wholly sane.

But I digress. I promised to come back to the lesbian love story. Was Joan of Arc raped in imprisonment, prior to execution? That’s plausible. Was she raped by the Earl of Warwick? Speculative. Highly. Was she lesbian? Who knows. Did she engage in lesbian sexual relations? Speculative. Highly.

I am touched to learn from Ali Alizadeh that after Jeanne/Joan’s capture by Burgundian forces, not a voice in all of France, from all her erstwhile martial and political fellows, spoke up in Jeanne’s defence save one: a novice nun told a University of Paris theologian and judge something along the lines of “She’s not evil, sire. You must believe me. Joan is a good woman.”

Or maybe she said, “Jeanne’s a good woman, sire. All that she’d done has been good and according to God. She’s innocent.”

I wish I knew the precise words this Breton nun actually said, but I don’t, because Ali Alizadeh quotes all those words, yet he also writes, “What is known of Pieronne the Breton and her trial comes from a minor entry, one paragraph, in Journal d’un Bourgeois de Paris, an account of events of that time written by an anonymous Parisian.”

One paragraph? Did that one paragraph quote all those words verbatim? Or are they speculative? Or, does this Journal d’un Bourgeois de Paris exist at all, or is it a postmodern fictional insertion?

I wish I knew. Because I can’t trust the author, the Pompous Academic, and his “authorial interjections”.

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Lucrezia, Elizabeth and Sansa

Blood & Beauty / In the Name of the Family – Sarah Dunant
The White Princess – Philippa Gregory
Game of Thrones (TV series) – George R.R. Martin, David Benioff, D.B. Weiss

Lucrezia Borgia lived an extraordinary life, but really, who’d swap? Who’d be a Renaissance princess for real?

Born in 1480, the illegitimate daughter of a prince of the Roman Catholic Church, Pope Alexander VI, Lucrezia was twice engaged before age 12; married (to a third fiancé) at 13, divorced four years later, allegedly (but implausibly) still virginal; remarried at 18, widowed by age 20 when her brother had her husband garrotted; married once more at 22, to a duke’s syphilitic son; ten children (and multiple miscarriages) later, dead at 39. Libelled through the centuries as an adulteress, an incestuous wanton, a poisoner.

Lucrezia Borgia Elly McDonald Writer

There’s Elizabeth of York, born in 1466, eldest daughter of King Edward IV of England: first engaged at age 3; then engaged to the French Dauphin at age 9; rumoured to be her uncle King Richard III’s intended wife at 18; offered by her malformed uncle to the Portuguese king’s heir; offered by her mother to Henry Tudor, King Henry VII. Six live births, three surviving children (including the future Henry VIII) when she died in childbirth on her 37th birthday.

Elizabeth of York Elly McDonald Writer

Then there’s Sansa Stark. Sansa Stark is a fictional character. Arguably, she’s a composite invention, with elements of Elizabeth of York’s life woven through her story, and a few tangential elements of Lucrezia Borgia’s: Lucrezia’s sister-in-law, from her second marriage, was named Sancia. Viewers of the TV series Game of Thrones will recall that Sansa was engaged to King Robert Baratheon’s heir Joffrey, then married to the dwarf Tyrion Lannister, abandoned still virginal to be bigamously married off to the sociopathic rapist Ramsay Bolton. (Readers of the George RR Martin novels A Song of Ice and Fire understand the narrative in the books unfolds somewhat differently.)

Sansa Stark Elly McDonald Writer

What’s interesting about these storylines is agency.

Were Lucrezia and Elizabeth merely marriage pawns? Were they merely bargaining chips in high stakes political alliances? Or did they have some say in their ‘choices’? Once married, what degree of ‘choice’ did they have in how those marriages – and those political alliances – worked out?

Any historical fiction is always a working through of issues that address contemporary readers. As is all science fiction. So fictionalised imaginings of the lives of Lucrezia Borgia and Elizabeth of York, and fictional creations such as Sansa Stark, are vehicles to explore issues affecting women today: self-determination, autonomy and dependence among them.

Sarah Dunant has written five novels now which explore aspects of women’s lives in Renaissance Italian states. The Birth of Venus (2003) tells the tale of a Florentine merchant’s daughter who aspires to be an artist. In the Company of the Courtesan (2006) follows the career of a courtesan who, after the 1527 Sack of Rome by French armies, rebuilds her career in Venice. Sacred Hearts (2008) concerns a young girl unwillingly interned in a convent as a novice nun. Blood & Beauty (2013) and In the Name of the Family (2017) recount the fortunes of Lucrezia Borgia, through to the death of her father and her brother Cesare’s political demise.

Sarah Dunant scrupulously follows historical fact as best it can be ascertained. Where there is no surviving primary evidence, she chooses plausible speculations, from a feminist perspective. Most of the calumnies against Lucrezia Borgia are not plausible. Consequently, the Lucrezia Borgia Dunant presents is much the Lucrezia Borgia presented by Sarah Bradford in her readable biography, Lucrezia Borgia: Life, Love, and Death in Renaissance Italy (2004) – an exemplary Renaissance princess, a convent-educated patron of the arts well-versed in diplomatic skills.

Lucrezia Borgia 2 Elly McDonald Writer

This Lucrezia Borgia has no say in her first marriage and divorce, no hand in the death of her second husband, no choice in leaving her first-born child, but is actively involved in negotiating her third marriage and committed to ensuring that marriage succeeds. She is not an adulteress, being instead a poet’s muse, in line with poet-patroness conventions of the day. Dunant doesn’t allude to Lucrezia’s alleged affair with her brother-in-law the Duke of Mantua, but the case is well-made for why a canny political operative such as Lucrezia proved to be would reject a sexual liaison. (Besides, Francesco Gonzaga was frequently incapacitated by syphilis, and there were few occasions when the two were in physical proximity; their relationship was mainly a written correspondence.)

Lucrezia Borgia 3 Elly McDonald Writer

Lucrezia couldn’t prevent a husband she apparently loved from being murdered on her brother’s orders and was obliged to collaborate in impregnation after impregnation by a husband with advanced syphilis whose temperament and affinities were poles apart from hers. But their interests coincided: preserving the duchy of Ferrara for d’Este rule in a time of turmoil. As a team, they were a success.

Similarly, Elizabeth of York and Henry VII appear to have made a success of their marital alliance, albeit on very different terms. Elizabeth’s claim to the throne of England, as the eldest surviving child of Edward IV, was better than Henry Tudor’s. (Being female did not disbar her, as the subsequent ascents of Mary I, Lady Jane Grey and Elizabeth I in the Tudor period proved.) It was important to Henry that it be clear he claimed the throne in his own right, by right of conquest, and not as male spouse to a queen regnant, the Yorkist heir. The timing of his coronation, prior to the marriage, reinforced this point. Elizabeth was relegated to queen consort, stripped of political power.

It wasn’t that late medieval English female royals had no formal political influence, as had been argued until relatively recently. Henry’s mother, Margaret Beaufort, was his foremost political adviser, with private rooms adjoining her son’s and prominence in public ceremonies. Her household papers attest to the degree of power and autonomy she enjoyed.

But Elizabeth, the White Rose of York, was acknowledged as little more than a breeder. Little contemporary testimony as to her character and activities survives, other than that she was a most amiable woman, with a russet gown and one blue, fond of past-times such as cards, music and dancing, who loved her siblings, her mother and her children, and also her greyhounds. She grew plump over time. Her son Henry, who was 11 when she died, remembered her as a very pretty woman. She lived away from the public gaze, mostly at Greenwich Palace and Eltham Palace.

For Elizabeth, this was a good outcome. She had grown up as the marital prize for the would-be kings. Her destiny was to be queen of England, and she fulfilled that destiny. Even if she could not exercise power herself, her son would be king, and her descendants future rulers. She survived the downfall of her house, the House of York, the York Plantagenets, just as Lucrezia survived the fall of the house of Borgia to thrive as duchess of Ferrara, mother of future dukes.

Both were survivors – until they weren’t, until childbirth felled them. But they survived their brothers and fathers, and fared better than many might have wagered at the time.

Elizabeth of York 2 Elly McDonald Writer

The central mystery of Elizabeth’s life however remains what she made of the emergence of the man who claimed he was her brother Richard – a man who claimed he hadn’t been murdered in the Tower of London as believed, had survived his older brother Edward, had been brought up in Burgundy, and was in fact the rightful king of England, King Richard IV. This man was supported by European royalty and enjoyed prolonged hospitality at royal courts, marrying the daughter of one of Scotland’s most powerful nobles.

When this man proclaimed himself king in England, he hoped for a popular uprising. It didn’t happen. Instead he was captured. Henry VII’s agents denounced him as an imposter. They said he was really Perkin Warbeck, a Fleming. But Henry treated the imposter well initially, allowing him to live at court for 18 months, albeit under guard and without his wife, who lived under the protection of the queen, Elizabeth.

It is improbable, but possible, that Perkin was born Richard. Did Elizabeth believe Perkin Warbeck was a pretender? Was she unsure, confused? Or, privately, did she recognise him as her brother? Did she believe his wife Lady Katherine was her sister-in-law, or was Lady Katherine, for her, another young noblewoman married for political purposes? Did Elizabeth ever get to have close contact with Perkin? Did she get to see him, to speak to him, at all?

Perkin Warbeck was recaptured after allegedly trying to escape. He was severely beaten and dragged on a wooden hurdle to execution at Tyburn, alongside Elizabeth’s cousin, her aunt Isabelle’s son Edward, the young Earl of Warwick. How did this impact Elizabeth?

The truth is, Elizabeth the White Rose of York, queen consort of England, had zero agency to affect Perkin Warbeck’s fate. Even if Perkin Warbeck was Richard Plantagenet, rightful king of England, and even had his sister recognised him at first glance, there was not a thing she could have done to avert his end. Any hint of recognition, distress or mourning would have been anathema to her husband and to the dynastic interests of her children, and might have endangered Elizabeth herself. After all, her husband – and, after her death, her son Henry – spent years systematically destroying any kin of Elizabeth’s who could be acclaimed as Plantagenet heirs.

Elizabeth of York 3 Elly McDonald Writer

I’m not a huge fan of Philippa Gregory’s novels, despite their immense popularity. But Elizabeth’s powerlessness is poignant as depicted in The White Princess, just as Lucrezia’s powerlessness to prevent her second husband’s murder is poignant – is shocking – as depicted in Dunant’s Blood & Beauty.

Philippa Gregory represents Elizabeth of York almost as catatonic, as paralysed, in relation to Perkin Warbeck. Dunant shows Lucrezia and her sister-in-law Sancia desperately attempting to save Alfonso of Aragon by appealing to a higher authority, her father, the Pope – only to inadvertently leave him exposed and fatally vulnerable.

On Game of Thrones, as at the time of writing we don’t know where Sansa Stark’s story is headed. She’s developed from being a naïve ingénue through manifold manipulations to her current status as an avenging Amazon, intent on reclaiming what is hers. So far, all but one of her immediate family have been killed (with one resurrected, and one transformed into a three-eyed crow). I don’t know whether Sansa gets to call the shots in her future. But I’m betting she doesn’t die in childbirth.

Sansa, of course, is a fiction.

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Sansa Stark 2 Elly McDonald Writer


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Conquest Trilogy: Shieldwall (2011) by Justin Hill

shieldwall-justin-hillShieldwall is a welcome surprise. It’s a serious – and successful – attempt at telling the hero tale of Godwin, father of Harold, last Anglo-Saxon king of England, in a style that’s consciously, but not crudely, an homage to the genre of Germanic heroic lay. It’s elegiac, lyrical, grand, high-minded; centrally concerned with honour and male friendship, fathers and sons, duty, war and death.

There’s a lot on the historic record about Godwin, mostly about his adult life. We know he was an Anglo-Saxon magnate of extraordinary wealth and power, right-hand man in England to King Knut the Great, the Danish King of Denmark, Norway and England. We know he was over-endowed with sons who proved troublesome even by C11th standards. We know he came from relatively humble beginnings, a thegn’s son, and was a pubescent hostage in the court of King Ethelred the Unrede, who exiled Godwin’s father.

History however is written by the winners, and three of Godwin’s sons, including King Harold, were killed at the Battle of Hastings when Duke William of Normandy won his cognomen William the Conqueror. Understandably, chroniclers in the Anglo-Norman period were not kind to Godwin, damning his and his dynasty’s ambition. About how Godwin rose to such heights in the first instance, gaining Knut’s trust, we know little, although we can surmise he was indeed ambitious. Given the violent and uncertain politics of the period, he was also almost certainly outstandingly able, intelligent, and brave. He very likely demonstrated qualities Anglo-Saxons admired and respected: a war-leader, a man of his word, loyal to his king, a just man (within the understandings of ‘justice’ of the time).

[When I say “we”, I am inviting you to agree with me, and I should admit now I am not an expert on Anglo-Saxon England. I do have an academic background in Early Medieval Celtic Literature, and Brythonic Literature, and a reader’s appreciation of the Anglo-Saxon period.]

Justin Hill represents the youthful Godwin in precisely these positive terms. The historic Godwin was likely brutal, ruthless, and feared, not only by his enemies; we see less of this aspect in Hill’s young Godwin. Hill’s Godwin is purely hero.

Arguably, though, the true hero of Shieldwall is less Godwin than the king Hill assigns him as blood-brother and soul-mate, the Anglo-Saxon king who proceeded Knut: Edmund Ironside. The Godwin of Shieldwall may be the adornment, the setting, that better shows off the ‘jewel in the crown’, the young Edmund. Almost forgotten in the popular imagination, Edmund’s life is as courageous as Alfred the Great’s, and well deserves to be retold now.

Some novels within the contemporary genre of Viking and Anglo-Saxon stories are gratuitously and sadistically violent, and violently misogynist. Hill’s tale doesn’t shy away from strong violence, and the extended battle sequences are informed by forensic research on wound marks on skeletons of men killed in early medieval battles. But he doesn’t indulge in the almost pornographic dwelling on brutality that some authors do. (Of course, some authors might argue that the world of Anglo-Saxons and Vikings was irredeemably violent and misogynist; I reply, an author chooses the world they write.) Although he depicts an earthy milieu, his nobles admire their noble wives, sometimes even love their sex slaves, and treat their dependents decently.

We know peasants – and slaves – suffered severely. Hill introduces characters intended to represent the experiences of the poor and powerless, and some of these characters die base deaths. But the nature of the heroic lay is that it memorializes a hero, high-born, and is aristocratic. Its focus is the lives, loyalties, betrayals and deaths of men who wield swords with precious hilts and who wear armbands gifted by their lord, who sing sad songs of the deaths of kings.

I loved Shieldwall. Can’t wait to read the next two novels in Justin Hill’s trilogy.


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Conquest Trilogy: Viking Fire (2016) by Justin Hill

viking-fire-justin-hill-elly-mcdonald-writer

Harald Hardrada’s true-life story is epic. Parts of it are recorded in a range of historical sources, including Snorri Sturluson’s Saga of Harald Hardrada (“Hard Ruler”), and all of it is extraordinary, larger than life, as was the man, famously described as “taller than most men” and therefore requiring a larger burial plot.

It’s an epic that cries out to be told and re-told.

Viking Fire tells Harald Sigurdsson’s story for contemporary readers. It’s the second novel in Justin Hill’s Conquest Trilogy, which began with Shieldwall (also excellent).

I first met Harald Hardrada through another historical fiction trilogy, about a different – and fictional – Viking named Harald Sigurdson (sic): Henry Treece’s Viking Dawn, The Road to Miklagard, Viking Sunset. Reading Treece’s Viking Trilogy as a child in the 60s led me to Treece’s fictions Last of the Vikings and Swords from the North, both about Hardrada.

More recently I’ve re-traced Viking voyages from the frozen north through Rus through Pecheneg lands to Byzantium with Robert Low’s Orm and his men, in the Oathsworn series, starting with The Whale Road. Orm’s journey is a descent into darkness: savage, nihilistic.

Justin Hill charts similar geographical territory in his life of Harald Sigurdsson, King of Norway – Harald Hardrada, Last of the Vikings – but Hill’s novel has a different project. Framed as if recounted by a Saxon archbishop, as told to him by Harald, it’s ambitious and literary and seeks to situate Harald historically as a ruler with wide experience of the known world’s great powers, a Christian king who recognizes the need for the peoples of the North to transition from raiding and subsistence agrarian communities to trading-based economies with centralized institutions and a literate administrative class.

Hill suggests that had Harald (rather than William) succeeded in conquering England in 1066, England might have remained part of a Scandinavian sphere post-Knut, with its Saxon and Dane traditions respected and evolving to meet the needs of a new epoch. Instead, the Normans led by William defeated Harold Godwinsson at Hastings, the Harrowing devastated English lands, Saxon elites were destroyed or absorbed through marriages, Norman institutions were imposed, and Anglo-Norman England became a domain of mainland western Europe, its history for the next 500 years (or more) inextricably and bloodily entwined with that of the French kingdoms.

Ealdred the Archbishop writes: “For a king more famous for his prowess as a warrior, I expected a bluff and ill-educated man, but I was surprised. He talked expansively of his life, and he was not the brute that we had feared. He was learned, and wise, and had not wasted his time among the Greeks.”

Indeedy. As ‘Araltes’ the Varanger (a bodyguard to Emperor Michael IV), Harald played a key role in the bloody politics of C11th Byzantium, travelled in the Emperor’s service to Jerusalem, and fought in Sicily and the Italian peninsula. He amassed a fortune, enabling him to return in style to Norway, which he’d left as a 15 year old fugitive from the Battle of Stiklestad, where his half-brother King Olaf (St Olav) was killed.

It’s an astonishing life narrative that seems to argue that which doesn’t kill makes stronger. Or that fortune favours the bold. Or simply that being smart and strong and brave and lucky is a winning combination.

Justin Hill tells Harald’s tale superbly. His writing here is confident and entirely effective.

I particularly like that Hill allows his women characters dignity. There are serving women, nursemaids, empresses, queens, sex partners, wives and mothers – but he’s made the effort to acknowledge each, to create characters, and not to exploit them pornographically. Yes, women in this period were often sexually exploited, sexually abused; but women also had respected roles, sometimes important roles, and as individuals were loved and admired, as sex partners, wives, mothers, daughters and sisters have been often, throughout the ages. Reading other Viking novels we might sometimes forget this.

Read Viking Fire. Read Shieldwall. Read the third novel in the trilogy, when it comes out.

On a personal note, as I write this, and as I read this novel, I am nursing my father in his last days. Justin Hill’s novel plucked me out of my small world, and took me somewhere else. Thank you for that.