Thursday, May 26, 2016

The Favourite from Hell

by Anna Belfrage

There are few men in English history as vilified as Hugh Despenser the younger. This man, it would seem, was Satan come to earth, and it was his evil influence that indirectly caused the situation which led to Edward II being deposed and locked away in Berkeley Castle. Except, of course, that it was Edward II who was the king, not Despenser, and if Edward allowed Hugh to lead him about by a figurative ring through his nose, then how can that be Hugh’s fault?

Edward I and his son, Edward
Hugh Despenser was born in 1286, making him a couple of years younger than Edward of Caernarvon, Edward I’s fifth and only surviving son. Hugh’s father was another Hugh, and accordingly today’s protagonist usually goes by the name of Hugh Despenser the younger so as to differentiate from his father, Hugh Despenser the elder. These two gentlemen had more in common than their name, namely a rapacious greed that quickly made them extremely unpopular with everyone but their king, Edward II.

The Despensers came with something of a stain, seeing as our Hugh’s grandfather had died at Evesham, fighting for Simon de Montfort against the royal forces. Somewhat ironically, this Despenser (also a Hugh) was killed by a Mortimer (also a Roger) thereby laying the grounds to the implacable enmity between the Despensers and the Mortimers. In brief, all of this history resulted in two of Edward IIs most capable barons detesting each other.

Thanks to Hugh the younger’s paternal great-grandmother, all had not been lost to the Despensers after the debacle of Evesham. Hugh the elder worked hard to re-establish himself in Edward I’s favour, and his son was an intelligent and personable young man who found favour with the king – so much favour, in fact, that in 1307 Edward I did Hugh the younger the honour of giving him Eleanor de Clare as his wife. Eleanor was not only beautiful she was also Edward I’s granddaughter. Hugh Despenser the younger had thereby through his marriage become a member of the royal family.

In July of 1307, Edward I died. Rejoicing broke out in both Scotland and (I assume) in Wales, but the English knew they had lost a great king, and looked with some concern at his heir, the newly crowned Edward II. This second Edward was a handsome man, gifted with a vivid intelligence and physically agile and strong. He was brave, he had presence, and appeared to be everything a king should be – had it not been for his odd pastimes. The new English king enjoyed manual work and would happily spend his time in smithies or thatching. And then there was his faiblesse for handsome young men – and especially for Piers Gaveston, the Gascon knight who so easily twirled Edward II round his little finger.

As Piers is not the subject of the post, suffice it to say that this charismatic man effectively became the power behind the throne. This did not please the barons, and soon enough loud voices were calling for the favourite’s exile.

Piers and Edward, Marcus Stone (1876) 

Piers was not only the king’s favourite, he was also Hugh’s brother-in-law, having married Eleanor’s younger sister, Margaret, late in 1307. I’m not sure this endeared Piers to Hugh, and by 1310 or thereabouts Hugh was firmly in bed with the baronial opposition. Hugh the elder, meanwhile, stood by his king. Now and then I wonder if this was a tactic, the two Hughs sitting down and deciding it made sense to have one foot in each camp, so to say.

By 1312, Piers was dead, executed (murdered, some said, among them the distraught king) by the barons led by Thomas of Lancaster, first cousin to the king. Edward was never to forgive him for this. Hugh the younger was not in a position to comfort his distraught king – at least not initially, given his support for the barons – so the king consoled himself elsewhere. But bit by bit, Hugh wormed his way into the king’s confidence, no doubt helped by the fact that Edward was very fond of his niece, Eleanor de Clare.

Bannockburn (Scotichronicon, c:a 1440)
The Scots had been quick to capitalise on the unrest in England, and in 1314 the king decided it was time to show the Scots once and for all that the son of The Hammer of the Scots could do some hammering of his own. Well, we all know how well that worked out for Edward, don’t we? At the Battle of Bannockburn, the English hit the dust, and among the many, many men killed was Gilbert de Clare, Earl of Gloucester – and Hugh the younger’s brother-in-law.

Gilbert left no children, and so his huge estates were to be distributed between his three sisters. In the ensuing free-for-all, Hugh the younger showed his very rapacious side, having no qualms about hogging the lion’s share on behalf of his beloved wife. What Eleanor may have thought about all this is uncertain, but I I suppose she was as dynastic in her approach as her husband – after all, she had the future of her children to consider. Whatever the case, Hugh’s behaviour alienated his sisters-in-law and their husbands. But by now, Hugh was rising rapidly in Edward’s favour, so I dare say he wasn’t all that worried.

Soon enough, Hugh was a constant presence at the king’s side, hungry for more land, more power. The king was more than happy to give it to him, no matter that the barons grumbled. Edward shrugged and made Hugh his royal chancellor. Suddenly, Hugh controlled access to the king, making him the most powerful man around – well, with the exception of his easy-going royal master.

This is where we can return to my initial paragraph: Hugh did not take his power by force. It was freely given to him by the king, who chose to ignore the rumbling protests this caused. Edward had no desire to submerge himself in the details of running his kingdom and was more than happy to let Hugh handle the day-to-day. Besides, I suspect Edward enjoyed twisting the noses of his recalcitrant barons out of joint – and in particular that of Thomas of Lancaster who was predictably enraged at having someone like Hugh wielding power he felt should be his.

So instead of stopping Hugh when he appropriated land that did not belong to him – Edward even looked the other way when Hugh claimed land belonging to the king’s half-brothers, the earls of Norfolk and Kent – instead of curbing his favourites excesses, Edward sat back and enjoyed the ride. He didn’t even intercede when Despenser violated the law, as he did in the case of the Welshman Llewellyn Bren, whom Hugh had hanged, drawn and quartered, without a trial.

By 1321, the barons had had enough. Their attempts to reach an amicable solution with the king had failed, and consensus among them was that Hugh Despenser – both of them – had to go. The rebellious barons devastated Despenser land and marched in force against the king, throwing a cordon of armed men round the royal court. Led by Thomas of Lancaster, Humphrey de Bohun and Roger Mortimer, they demanded that the king exile his favourite – and Papa Hugh – that he allow himself to be counselled by his barons, and that order and the rule of law be restored within the realm. This last was a not-so-oblique reference to the unjust killing of Bren. The king was trapped and had no choice but to comply.

Hugh the younger and elder left – but they did not go far. For the coming months, they took up a career as Channel pirates, while in England the king plotted his revenge. For once, Edward II showed an impressive capacity for swift action, and come late autumn he had the tables turned on the victorious barons.

Had Lancaster ridden to Mortimer’s aid, the king might not have had such an easy win, but Lancaster preferred to stay in the north, thereby giving Edward the opportunity to pick his enemies off one by one. Mortimer ended up in the Tower, Lancaster was executed, and Hugh Despenser returned to his beloved king. And this time, Despenser and the king thought they had won for good.

Turns out they hadn’t. In 1323, Mortimer escaped from the Tower and fled to France, where he was warmly welcomed by Queen Isabella’s brother, King Charles.  Edward II and Despenser went into a frenzy. It became paramount to cleanse the realm of England of any potential traitors, a.k.a. Mortimer supporters, and so a large number of men were hauled before the assizes, in many cases subjected to crippling fines, but just as often found guilty of treason and executed. Family members of these traitors – wives, children – were confined or thrown out to starve. Dark, dark years for the English – and most blamed Hugh Despenser.

By now, Hugh had also earned the enmity of the queen, firstly by marginalising her at court, secondly by suggesting to the king that he take back her dower lands and exile her French household. Seeing as England was at war with France over Gascony, exiling potential French spies made some sense, but Isabella had been Edward’s loyal wife for sixteen years, and she took it badly. Very badly.

The war in France did not go well, and Edward saw no option but to send Isabella to negotiate with her brother. Which she did, brokering a peace treaty which called for Edward to do homage for his French lands – in France. Not a good idea, as per Hugh, because with the king gone, God knew what might happen to him, poor unprotected favourite left behind in England? Hmm, the king said, but he loved Hugh, and these last few years of tyranny had not endeared Hugh to the barons – rather the reverse.  So instead, Edward sent his son, the future Edward III to France.

In retrospect, Edward could just as well have tightened a noose around his own neck. Waiting for Prince Edward in France was not only the disgruntled queen, but also Roger Mortimer – and Mortimer had scores to settle, especially with his personal enemy, Hugh Despenser.

An artistic interpretation of Edward II's arrest
In 1326, Mortimer and Isabella returned to England, bringing with them a small invasion force – and the young prince. The people of England flocked to their banners, tired of living under the heavy Despenser yoke. The king could easily have raised an army to meet them, but Despenser panicked and suggested they flee west, make for Ireland before it was too late. Edward did as his favourite asked, but they never made it to Ireland. Instead, the king and his favourite were captured in Wales. Edward was hauled off to Kenilworth as a prisoner. Hugh Despenser was hauled off to Hereford, there to die.

On November 24, 1326, Hugh Despenser the younger stood some sort of trial in Hereford. The verdict was never in doubt, and the naked man was attached to four horses that dragged him towards the waiting gallows, built very high so that everyone could see how the king’s favourite, the rapacious and greedy Despenser, died. He was hanged, taken down while alive, castrated and disembowelled. Purportedly, Mortimer and Isabella sat watching the spectacle while partaking of food and wine. Hugh, they say, died well – whatever that means when you’re being tortured to death.

Following Despenser’s death, Queen Isabella had Despenser’s wife incarcerated in the Tower. Three of Hugh’s daughters were forcibly veiled as nuns (the oldest of them was about ten), and his sons were locked up. And as to Hugh, his bodily remains were quartered and hung from the city walls in York, Bristol, Dover and Carlisle, while his parboiled head adorned London Bridge. By then, of course, Hugh was no longer in a position to care.

Hugh Despenser was not a nice man. Once in power, he stopped at little to further his own interests, whether that meant disinheriting orphans and widows, or killing men without trial. But ultimately, he was a product of his king, a sovereign too weak to keep his favourite in check.

All images from Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain


Had Anna been allowed to choose, she’d have become a professional time-traveller. As such a profession does not exist, she became a financial professional with two absorbing interests, namely history and writing. 

Presently, Anna is hard at work with The King’s Greatest Enemy, a series set in the 1320s featuring Adam de Guirande, his wife Kit, and their adventures and misfortunes in connection with Roger Mortimer’s rise to power. And yes, Hugh Despenser plays a central role.

The first book In The Shadow of the Storm was published in 2015, the second, Days of Sun and Glory, will be published in July 2016.

When Anna is not stuck in the 14th century, she's probably visiting in the 17th century, specifically with Alex and Matthew Graham, the protagonists of the acclaimed The Graham Saga. This is the story of two people who should never have met – not when she was born three centuries after him. 

More about Anna on her website or on her blog

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

The Duke and Duchess Must Give Up Their Miracle Child

By Kim Rendfeld

Waldelen and Flavia were desperate, even though he ruled a duchy most would envy. Based in Besançon, his territory ranged from the Jura to the Alps, but the couple had a major problem: no child to inherit the land.

In sixth century Burgundy, Waldelen could have set Flavia aside and freed himself to marry a fertile woman. Their union was a political arrangement between two noble families, not a sacrament. But a divorce carried risks, mainly angering Flavia’s noble family. The duke could have taken a concubine, but his extended family might not recognize a son born outside wedlock.

Waldelen did neither of these things. Maybe, he was bound by his Christian faith. Perhaps, he was truly fond of Flavia and thought her a good wife and duchess. Saint Columbanus's hagiographer, a monk named Jonas, described her as "noble both by her family and by her disposition."

The couple needed divine intervention and decided to travel to Luxeuil to speak to Columbanus, who had founded an abbey on the ruins of a castle called Luxovium. The Irish missionary already had a reputation for miracles. (Readers might remember Columbanus* from an earlier post as the guy who decided on forsaking all women included his mother. See link below)

Saint Columbanus window in the crypt
at the Abbey of Bobbio,
photo by Trebbia at English Wikipedia,
  CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Waldelen and Flavia’s trip would not be easy. It was about 55 miles, and there was no good road to get there. In a time when armies traveled 12 to 15 miles a day, the journey would have taken at least five days, assuming no cart wheel broke or horse got injured or person got sick. Waldelen and Flavia could afford plenty of guards to deter brigands, but in the early medieval mind, travelers might face otherworldly creatures like demons, ghosts, and kobolds.

When they arrived in Luxeuil, the couple begged Columbanus to pray for them. He said he would but under one condition: they must dedicate their first child to God, and if they kept that promise, they would have as many children as they wanted. Jonas said the couple agreed to this “joyfully.”

To decide that an unborn baby will go into the clergy might seem strange to a modern audience. But in medieval times, parents decided their children’s fates, everything from whom to marry to whether they took the cowl or the veil. Waldelen and Flavia’s marriage was arranged, and no one would frown on a betrothal of a little girl to a little boy to form an alliance for two aristocratic families. That the children might grow up hating each other was not a consideration. Having a child as an abbot, abbess, or bishop assured that control of the land that went with the abbey or bishopric stayed in the family.

How Christians dressed in the fourth through sixth centuries,
according to The History of Costume
by Braun & Schneider (c.1861-1880), public domain image

Before the couple arrived home, Flavia believed she had conceived. When their son was born, the couple took him to Columbanus, who baptized him and named him Donatus. The boy was given back to Flavia to be nursed. When he was older—7 was a typical age to send a noble child to a church school—he was taken back to Luxeuil.

Waldelen and Flavia must have believed they needed to keep their oath to God, out of gratitude, fear, a sense of honor, or mix of all three. They must have accepted that Donatus belonged to the Church. Still, I cannot help but think giving their little boy to the abbey was difficult, no matter how much they trusted Columbanus, no matter that they would have other children—a second son, Ramelen, to inherit the duchy, and two daughters. Donatus was a gift in the truest sense of the word.

How did Donatus take it? Was he sad or angry to be separated from his parents and his home, or having been told all along this was his destiny, did he welcome it?

Considering what happened later, he apparently embraced his calling and Columbanus's teaching. After Waldelen died, Flavia founded a convent for herself and her daughters in Besançon, where Donatus was bishop. This was an act of piety but also a strategic political move. Flavia had limited claimants to the duchy and ensured that it went in its entirety to Ramelen, who also revered Columbanus and founded a monastery in the Jura Mountains.

With Flavia's help, Donatus founded two abbeys. One of them was a double monastery over which his sister Sirude presided as abbess. (Donatus and Sirude would later be canonized.)

Donatus, who was still alive when Jonas wrote Columbanus’s hagiography, saw the Irish missionary as a spiritual father, but his relationship with his mother endured. The act of faith that separated them physically when he was a boy bound them to a cause in years later.

*Columbanus Forsakes All Women


Medieval Sourcebook: The Life of St. Columban by the Monk Jonas

The Monks of the West: From St. Benedict to St. Bernard by Charles Forbes, comte de Montalembert

A Dictionary of Saintly Women, Volume 2 by Agnes Baillie Cunninghame Dunbar

"Abbey of Luxeuil" by Richard Urban Butler, The Catholic Encyclopedia

Kim Rendfeld is the author of two novels set in early medieval Francia, The Cross and the Dragon and The Ashes of Heaven's Pillar, and she is working on a third, Queen of the Darkest Hour. The Cross and the Dragon, in which a young noblewoman must contend with a vengeful jilted suitor and the anxiety her husband might die in battle, will be republished in August. You can preorder on Kobo and iTunes now; the novel will soon be available elsewhere.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

The Markhams: A study in betrayal, treachery and infidelity. Part One: The Knight.

By Linda Root

Plots against the Scotsman who had become the King of England did not begin with Guido Fawkes and William Catesby in November of 1605, nor were they all the result of his religion.  For that matter, there was no consensus as to what exactly his religion was. In her article published in 1985 in the Journal of British Studies and entitled Gunpowder, Treason, and Scots, historian Jenny Wormald hypothesizes that there was just as much resistance to James VI stemming from his Scottishness as attributed to his Protestantism.

While the Armada threat had created more than a few Hispanophobes among the English, and the English and the Hapsburgs were hardly friends, a dislike of all things Spanish did not overshadow the English response to highly charged buzz words such as Bannockburn and Ancrum Moor. An enemy sitting tight in Madrid and Flanders was far more remote than the one entrenched on the far side of the Rivers Tweed and Clyde or along the Borders of the Middle Marches at places like Ferniehirst, where Scots a short step above barbarians had been known to play with severed English heads.

A young King James I

Sir Anthony Weldon put the sentiment to words, saying "Scotland was too guid for those that inhabit it, and too bad for others to be at the charge of conquering it. The ayre might be wholesome, but for the stinking people that inhabit it...Thair beastis be generallie small (women excepted) of which sort there are no greater in the world."  James banished him.for his anti-Scottish statements.

Those who favored the Spanish Infanta as an alternative candidate to James Charles Stuart, King of Scots had not all flocked to support Isabella Clara Eugenie because she was a Catholic. In spite of their denials, Elizabeth's First Minister William Cecil (Lord Burghley) and his son Robert, Earl of Salsbury, were among her sponsors. Nevertheless, Archduchess Isabella, who ruled the Spanish Netherlands alongside her husband, did not like the terms proposed by the Cecils, which included a pledge to work in harmony with England's protestant-dominated regime.

Archdukes Albert and Isabella (yes, she used the masculine!)

There was more to Isabella's lack of enthusiasm than her Catholicism. She and Archduke Albert had brought a Golden Age to the Netherlands and enjoyed a pleasant life, but even their luxurious salons did not explain it all.  Although her father Phillip II had willed the Southern Netherlands to her and Albert, it was a conditional grant. In effect, they served as Regents for the benefit of her brother Phillip III in the event Isabella died without issue. By the time Elizabeth Tudor was in extremis, the Infanta was thirty-six years old and probably barren. Nevertheless, she and Albert did not wish to do anything to cause a reversion prematurely. Adopting a position tolerant of Protestantism would be a dangerous move likely to alienate her brother.

Thus, in the Spring of 1603, Elizabeth lay dying and England was without a designated heir apparent. In that uncertain climate, the Queen's failing health and the fluctuating fortunes of Sir Walter Raleigh spawned two precursors to the Gunpowder Treason--the Bye Plot and the Main plot.  The target was King James, and the scapegoat was Sir Walter Raleigh.

SirWalter Raleigh

The Bye Plot and the Main Plot.

Enter stage right, Sir Griffin Markham.

In early 1603, many Catholics in England held out hopes of leniency towards Catholics on the part of James IV of Scotland. Thomas Percy, later one of the Gunpowder Conspirators, had stoked them. He was a second cousin and agent of Henry Percy, the Earl of Northumberland. Northumberland had sent him to Scotland to meet privately with James on the issue of his ascension.  Whether it was to gain status with his friends or because of a language barrier as some historians suggest (i.e., Antonia Fraser, The Gunpowder Plot), Tom  Percy had overstated the Scottish king's intentions on the issue of religion.

A widespread belief that Scottish James had grown tolerant of Catholicism did not seem so outlandish in light of evidence suggesting his consort Anne of Denmark had embraced Catholicism and both of his parents had been Catholic.  Rumors abounded in Europe that James himself intended to convert as soon as the English crown was sitting firmly on his head. In early 1603, Elizabeth died, James was tapped to succeed her, and he and a parade of ambitious Scots crossed into England in the Spring, just what many of the Protestant English feared.

Coronation of James I

But when his first Parliament was convened, the royal agenda was aimed at a union of the nations as well as the crowns.In June 1604 the national parliaments of both Scotland and England passed acts appointing commissioners to explore the possibility of "a more perfect union". James closed the final session of his first parliament with a rebuke to his opponents in the House of Commons — "Here all things suspected...He merits to be buried in the bottom of the sea that shall but think of separation, where God had made such a Union". Nothing was said about a reconciliation of religions, and during his first months in office, he took a harsh stand against the open practice of Catholicism.

The Bye Plot.

The first plot to threaten the monarchy has been referred to as the harebrained scheme of two disgruntled priests--William Watson and  William Clark. The pair planned to kidnap "the King and all his cubbes" from their lodging in Greenwich and carry them to the Tower. Next,  they would force the King 1) to pardon them; 2) to adopt a policy of  'tolleration of relligion;' and,  3) to place Catholics in 'places of credit' in the government. Since the two priests lacked the muscle to carry it off, they recruited some men who knew how to wield a sword and promised them a place in the pro-Catholic government they had conjured.

According to their plan,  Watson would be Lord Keeper (of the Privy Seal); their co-conspirator Lord Grey would be Earl Marshall;  Brooke would be Lord Treasurer (referring either to Henry Brooke, Lord Cobham, or his brother George),  and Sir Griffin Markham would be Secretary.  The plot was uncovered separately by two different Jesuit priests, one of whom promptly blew the whistle. The subtler of the two was the aristocrat-turned-Jesuit  Father John Gerard who engaged his brethren to put a stop to the foolishness. In investigating the affair, the interrogators got Cobham talking, and he exposed the Main Plot and implicated Raleigh.

The Main Plot.

The Main Plot was more ambitious and deadlier and was believed to have the financial backing of the Spanish government. Its objective was to eliminate the king and replace him with his hapless paternal cousin Arabella Stuart.

When those named by Cobham, including Raleigh, who was almost certainly innocent, were brought before the King, James was faced with a cause celebre. Raleigh was a well established English hero with no reason to fall in with the likes of the others charged.  He certainly would not have looked to Spain for money, since he had already deprived the Spanish treasuries of most of its New World gold. The likes of Raleigh and Drake had greatly relieved the English people of their tax burdens through their privateering, and not even James wished to see him hanged and gutted.  What followed is one of the most bizarre execution stories in the history of what James was referring to as Great Britain.

Raleigh's heroics  at Trinidad

The Execution Comedy.

After a series of joint and separate trials of those arrested in each of the plots, and in spite of the lack of any evidence against Sir Walter Raleigh, all of the prisoners were condemned. The two priests who designed the ridiculous Bye Plot were the first to die. They climbed the scaffold the 29th of November, 1603. Next in line were the remaining Bye conspirators, Cobham, Grey, and Sir Griffin Markham, who was a Midland Catholic from a family of known recusants. His wife Anne was a friend and neighbor to Eliza Roper, the redoubtable Dowager Lady Vaux (See my post The Undaunted Eliza Roper, Dowager Lady Vaux, supra.).

 In planning the event, King James revealed a talent for stagecraft that even the Bard could not have surpassed. Surprisingly, he kept the script very close to the chest. Not even the families of the victims or the Queen knew what James had planned. Each of the condemned men had been housed separately. They were to die one at a time. Markham was the first to mount the scaffold, to be followed at intervals by Grey and Cobham.  At the last minute, Markham, who was visibly disconcerted with good reason,  was told he did not appear ready to die, and would be given time to make his peace. He was escorted from the scaffold, unbeknownst to the remaining two, who thought him dead.

When Grey ascended the scaffold and made his peace with God,  he was told the order of executions had been changed,  and he, too, was escorted to his cell. The routine repeated itself with all three, each thinking the worst as to the fate of the others, and fearing the worst for himself, until the Sheriff offered them the Kings pardon and announced the king would do the same for Raleigh, who had been scheduled to die the following Monday. According to eyewitness accounts, the outcries of God Save the King were deafening.

In spite of overtures to the contrary to the crowd at the aborted execution, Raleigh, though spared, was not released.  He spent the rest of his life in a Tower Suite. He was executed many years later after he finally fell into the trap and committed treason. One could hardly blame him.

Sir Griffin Markham and the others were allowed to leave the scaffold with their lives, but little else. Markham was stripped of his lands and his knighthood and banished from the kingdom. From that time forward, the fortunes of the Markhams' feel into the hands of his wife, Lady Anne. While there is scarce information as to how she accomplished it, she quickly made friends with people in high places. Her name was already familiar to Cecil, who heard her mentioned by a turncoat Jesuit as someone who knew Gerard from his enthusiasm for hunting in the Midlands. In any event, the lady's circumstances did not remain dire for long.  By November 1604, her husband's attained property was ordered delivered to her care. A portion of  Markham's debts had been assumed by a cousin, John Harington, who was imprisoned when he could not pay them, but James forgave the debt and made Harington a Knight of the Bath.

Meanwhile, Markham, who was living in the Spanish Netherlands, found lucrative employment in the households of wealthy exiles there, probably as a spy.  By November 1605, his wife Anne was still living well, mixing with Midland society. Free of her husband's debts, she maintained an adequate household staff and resumed her formal lifestyle. She had been a long-time friend of the recusant Vaux of Harrowden and was a welcome visitor at Great Harrowden Hall.  By the time of the Gunpowder Conspiracy, she had made a new friend of Robert Cecil, Earl of Salisbury, the King's right-hand man.  Her absentee husband was not the only spy in the family.

Part 2 of this post, The Lady Spy, will be published on this blog on Friday, June 03 2016.


Additional Reading and References

Childs, Jessie, God’s Traitors: Terror and Faith in Elizabethan England, Oxford Press, N.Y. 2004.
deLisle, Leandra, After Elizabeth, The Rise of James o fScotland and the Struggle for the Throne of England, Ballantyne Books, NewYork, 2005.
Fraser, Antonia, The Gunpowder Plot: Terror and Faith in 1605, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1995. Also, see
Gerard, John, S.J. The Autobiography of a Hunted Priest, Ignatius Press, San Francisco, Translated and edited by P.Carman, S.J., 195
Hogge, Alice, God’s Secret Agents, Queen Elizabeth’s Forbidden Priests and the Hatching of the Gunpowder Plot, Harper Perrenial, New York *London *Tronto*Sydney, 2005
Lovell, Mary, Bess of Hardwick, Empire Builder, W.W.Norton & Company,2007
Morris, John, S.J., Editor. The condition of Catholics Under James I, Father John Gerard’sNarrative of the Gunpowder Plot and Biography, 1871, London, a public domain book.
Morrisey, Mary, Politics and the Paul’s Cross Sermons,1558-1642
Patterson, W.B., King James VI and I and the Reunion of Christendom, Cambridge Studies in Early Modern British History, Cambridge University Press 1997.
Wormald, Jenny, Gunpowder, Treason and Scots, Journal of British Studies, Vol.24, issue 2 April 1985,pp141-168.
___________1603: The men of the Bye Plot,but not those of the Main Plot, December 9th, 2010, The Headsmen,from Executed Today,
Additional materials from Wikipedia.

About the Author:

Linda Root is a historical fiction author writing in the 16th and 17th Century, whose books include The First Marie and the Queen of Scots, The Last Knight and the Queen of Scots, Unknown Princess, The Knight's Daughter, 1603: The Queen's Revenge; In the Shadow of the Gallow, with Deliverance of the Lamb to follow. She is a former major crimes prosecutor who lives in the California hi-desert Town of Yucca Valley. She has written a Scottish fantasy, the Green Woman, under the name J.D.Root and is currently writing a comedic mystery tentatively called The Hurricane and the Morongo Blonds.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Medieval Illuminated Manuscripts.

By E.M. Powell

The word manuscript literally means ‘written by hand’ and medieval manuscripts refers to those books produced in Europe between about the fifth century and the late fifteenth century. Illuminated manuscripts are works which are decorated with a variety of pictures and ornamentation.

Psalm 27 from the Vespasian Psalter- 8th Century Kent.
It is the earliest surviving English biblical example of an initial with a narrative scene.

The word ‘illuminated’ comes from a usage of the Latin word illuminare in the sense of its meaning ‘to adorn’. Burnished gold was often used in the decorating of books from the 13th century onwards but the term ‘illuminated’ does not only apply to manuscripts where gold or silver is used. It applies more broadly to any manuscript that is more elaborately decorated than with simple coloured initials.

From the early writings of Saint Jerome (who died c.420) to around 1100, the vast majority of manuscripts were produced in the scriptoria or cloisters of abbeys and monasteries. They were primarily theological, liturgical and academic works.

The Lindisfarne Gospels- 8th Century
Written & illustrated probably by Eadfrith, bishop of Lindisfarne.

Prior to the time of Saint Jerome, manuscripts (such as those produced in Rome) were in scroll format and made of papyrus. The use of papyrus is problematic in that, as a material, it is more likely to break, especially if it is handled frequently. Early medieval scribes moved to the use of prepared animal skin, the material that we refer to as parchment or vellum. The format also underwent a significant change to that of the book or codex, with separate pages that can be turned, read in sequence and much more easily navigated by a reader.

Initial from the Howard Psalter & Hours- England,1310 -1320.
Clerics sing from a scroll, which contains musical notation. 

The codex didn’t only make life easier for readers. It also improved the lot of those who wrote and illustrated the manuscripts—our medieval scribes. It is much easier to write on the flat, stable surface of a page than on a lengthy, unrolled scroll. But it’s probably fair to say the ‘easier’ is a relative term. Even the preparation was laborious and demanded perfection. Producing fine vellum involved the soaking in lime and skilled, meticulous scraping and stretching of expensive calfskin. Inks such as oak gall and lampblack had to be produced. Guide lines had to be ruled with absolute precision.

Book of Hours- Oxford, 1240, written in & illuminated by William de Brailes.
It is the earliest surviving English Book of Hours.

Note that such precision also had to be achieved using a feather quill pen. Quill pens were introduced around the sixth century and replaced the reed pen. They were most commonly made from the flight feathers of geese but could also be made from swan, duck, crow, or even pelicans and peacocks. Most of the feather was removed and the end sharpened and slit so it could be filled with ink.  The sharpening of the nib was done at different angles, which would make pen strokes of differing thickness. Such careful nib-work didn’t last long. A scribe would have to trim it frequently with a quill-cutter to keep its sharpness.

A seated scribe from the Life of St Dunstan.
Canterbury- late 11th/early 12th Century

All that before the most challenging and skilled task of all: the writing and illustrating of the text. One can only deeply admire the concentration, dedication and sheer physical toll it must have taken, with scribes having no reading glasses, no electric light and no modern heating through freezing and damp winters.

The fruits of their labours, that are the decorations on medieval illuminated manuscripts, are of three main types. First, larger illustrations that can take up a whole page and /or miniatures or small pictures incorporated into the text. These usually illustrate or complement the content of the text.

A map of the whole known world from Ranulf Higden’s Polychronicon.
England, last quarter of the 14th century.

The second type are initial letters that contain scenes (known as historiated initials) or that have elaborate decoration. Again, these usually illustrate or complement the content of the text.

Historiated initial 'D'(omine) with a crowned Virgin and Child.
English Book of Hours, 1st quarter of the 15th century.

Third, we have borders and line-endings, which may have many detailed images/miniatures in them. These often do not relate directly to the text and can contain unusual figures.

Marginal illustration from the Gorleston Psalter- Norfolk, early 14th century.
How much do we love the medieval duck? 

And while the illuminations could serve to illustrate or to decorate, they also provided aids for contemplation and meditation for those reading them as part of their daily prayer and devotion. On another (very practical) level, the illustrations were useful markers for less literate readers to be able to navigate a lengthy manuscript. One does not have to be able to read to identify a picture of the Virgin Mary or one of the story of Adam and Eve.

Four scenes from the Book of Genesis, with three of Adam & Eve.
The Huth Psalter, England, late 13th century.

Although so many wonderful works were produced by men (and women) of the church, by 1100 this situation began to change. The production of manuscripts was no longer the preserve of the church, and secular scribes and illustrators rose in importance. This was in part due to the expansion of the content of manuscripts. Romances, chronicles, medical and other texts and aristocratic family trees all began to be produced. The rise of the universities and the increase in book ownership by the wealthy saw a thriving secular book trade in Paris and Bologna by the 13th century.

Guinevere questioning Lancelot about his love for her.
Lancelot du Lac, France, c.1316.

It was another university city, the city of Cologne, that was to trigger the start of the demise of the manuscript. By the 1470s Cologne had become the most important centre of printing in north-west Germany and where a certain William Caxton was perfecting his own particular art. Handwritten texts were being replaced by the printed version.

From the Arnstein Bible, a large two-volume MS, Germany c. 1172.
It was written by a single scribe, a monk named Lunandus.

But it was English Reformation that was to see the wanton destruction of the illuminated manuscript. Henry VIII decreed that the 'images and pictures' of Saint Thomas Becket shall 'through the whole realm be put down and avoided out of all churches, chapels, and other places.’ The Act against Superstitious Books and Images (1550) ordered that prayer and service books that did not comply with the reformed liturgy should be destroyed. The religious communities did their best to keep their handwritten treasures safe. Books were smuggled out of religious houses and hidden in sympathetic homes. But not all could be saved. Priceless manuscripts were torn up, burned, used to clean candlesticks, clean boots, stop up beer barrels and even deployed in the privies.

The martyrdom of Thomas Becket from the Harley collection-
a rare survival in an English context.
Netherlands, 3rd quarter of the 15th century.

Yet despite all of this appalling vandalism, medieval manuscripts have preserved for posterity the lion’s share of medieval painting. As Beal so beautifully puts it: ‘Books have a knack of surviving.’ It is our great good fortune that they do.

Detail of marginal images of apes with books.
France, 1318-1330.

All images are in the Public Domain and are part of the British Library's Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts. (This online resource is truly a treasure trove and I cannot recommend it highly enough.)
Beal, Peter, A Dictionary of English Manuscript Terminology 1450–2000: Oxford University Press, Current Online Version. (2011)
Brigstocke, Hugh, The Oxford Companion to Western Art: Oxford University Press, Current Online Version (2003)
Chilvers, Ian, The Oxford Dictionary of Art and Artists (4 ed.): Oxford University Press, Current Online Version (2014)
De Hamel, Christopher, A History of Illuminated Manuscripts (2nd ed.), London: Phaidon Press Ltd. (1994).
Kerr, Julie: Life in the Medieval Cloister, London, Continuum Publishing (2009)
Whittock, Martyn, A Brief History of Life in the Middle Ages: London, Constable & Robinson (2009)
E.M. Powell’s medieval thrillers THE FIFTH KNIGHT and THE BLOOD OF THE FIFTH KNIGHT have been #1 Amazon bestsellers and a Bild bestseller in Germany. Book #3 in the series, THE LORD OF IRELAND, about John’s failed campaign in Ireland was published by Thomas & Mercer on April 5 2016. Born and raised in the Republic of Ireland into the family of Michael Collins (the legendary revolutionary and founder of the Irish Free State), she now lives in northwest England with her husband, daughter and a Facebook-friendly dog. As well as blogging and editing for EHFA, she is a contributing editor to International Thriller Writers The Big Thrill magazine, reviews fiction & non-fiction for the Historical Novel Society and is part of the HNS Social Media Team. Find out more by visiting

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Friday, May 20, 2016

The Six Lady St. Johns and their influence on the Court of King James I

By Elizabeth St. John

On July 20th, 1615, the six St.John sisters stood proudly commemorated in the polyptych portrait at St. Mary’s Church, Lydiard Tregoze, in Wiltshire. According to Lucy Hutchinson, author of Memoirs of the Life of Colonel Hutchinson, there were not in those days so many beautiful women found in any family as these.” She went on to say, “but my mother was by the most judgments preferred before all her elder sisters, who, something envious at it, used her unkindly.”

(L to R) Lucy, Barbara, Eleanor, Jane, Anne and Katherine

Her mother was Lucy St.John, the youngest of the six sisters, and one who would perhaps lead the most adventurous life of all of them. As a generation of women who were central to the Stuart milieu of patronage and influence, the portrait also celebrated their husbands, for at the foot of each woman rests a tablet with the coat of arms of the men they married. Only Lucy’s lozenge is blank, for although she had met her future husband, Sir Allen Apsley, they were not yet married. And yet, he arguably promoted Lucy to one of the most influential of the sisters, for shortly after the marriage he was appointed Lieutenant of the Tower of London, and they moved into The Queen’s House overlooking Tower Green.

The Queen's House, the Tower of London
For the next thirteen years, Lucy St.John looked after the prisoners and raised her children within the confines of the Tower of London. Sir Allen was generous, and gave her “a noble allowance of £300 for her own private use.” She certainly put this to good use, for her daughter goes on to say, 
“Sir Walter Raleigh and Mr. Ruthin being prisoners in the Tower, and addicting themselves to chemistry, she suffered them to make their rare experiments at her cost, partly to comfort and divert the poor prisoners, and partly to gain the knowledge of their experiments, and the medicines to help such poor people as were not able to seek physicians.”
Sir Allen Apsley did not attain his appointment a Tower on his own merit, however. Lucy St.John’s sister, Barbara, married Edward Villiers, the fatherless second son of a Leicestershire squire. However, five years later, his older half-brother, George Villiers, was made Knight of the Garter, after being “discovered” by James I. Once knighted, George Villiers ascended rapidly, a comet at the court of King James with a multitude of relatives and supporters trailing in his tail. One of these was Allen Apsley. According to contemporary court papers, Sir Allen was given the option of securing the lucrative position of Lieutenant of the Tower because of his wife’s relationship to George Villiers, the Duke of Buckingham. For a mere £3,000 (£500,000 in today’s money), the job was his. 

The view from Lucy's parlour, overlooking Tower Green
Unfortunately, the close friendship that evolved between Sir Allen and the Duke did not end in harmony. Sir Allen also held the position of Victualler of the Navy, and Buckingham’s frequent forays overseas to engage in foreign wars strained the nation’s finances immensely, and placed a huge personal burden on Sir Allen as he struggled to provision a Navy that was poor on men, ships and supplies. At the time of Buckingham’s assassination in 1628, Sir Allen was almost £100,000 (£9,000,000) in debt, putting his own credit and that of others on the line to support his patron. The money was never recovered, and Lucy and her children were hauled through the courts for decades after his death in 1630 in attempts to recover funds. 

Riches and perquisites for the Ladies St.John did not stop here, however. Katherine St.John, the eldest of the sisters, married a gentleman of shrewd business acumen but shaky character, Sir Giles Mompesson. He devised a scheme of licensing inns that enabled his patron – the Duke of Buckingham – to secure thousands of pounds worth of fines to satisfy his very expensive habit of acquiring Italian artwork. Sir Giles’s method of extracting fines left a lot to be desired and in his resulting prosecution he was forced to leave the country in a hurry. However, no shrinking violet was Katherine, for when the attempt to arrest Sir Giles was made in his chambers, his escape was orchestrated by Katherine, her brother-in-law Sir William St.John, and her half-brother Sir Edward Hungerford. The St.John women were obviously very persuasive.

Barbara St. John Villiers

And what of Barbara, the sister who married Edward Villiers? She, along with her husband, nearly caused the downfall of the Duke of Buckingham through his tacit endorsement and granting of gold and silver thread monopolies. Sir Edward (he was knighted around the same time as George started his rise to fame) was involved in this scheme up to his neck, and when he forced the Attorney General to imprison several gold and silver makers for not paying fees to him, there was an immediate uproar. The House of Commons were out for blood, and although they were told that Buckingham had given his half-brother no encouragement in the matter, the reaction was such that it was felt an example should be made of Buckingham. Monopolists such as George and Edward Villiers were “bloodsuckers of the kingdom and vipers of the commonwealth,” and the furor nearly brought down the Duke.

Interestingly, Barbara maintained a secure hold on the gold and silver thread monopolies long after her husband’s death. It is quite possible that income from this lucrative opportunity could have funded the education and lifestyle of her granddaughter, another Barbara Villiers – future Countess of Castlemaine and mistress of King Charles II.

The remaining older sisters, Anne and Jane, appeared to lead fairly quiet lives, although without a doubt they observed the antics of their sisters at Whitehall. However, they were not immune from the influences of court – Anne’s husband Sir George Ayliffe left this rather touching bequest in his will:

“…to my dearest and best friend that ever I found in the world, my Ladie Villiers, my dear sister, £20 for a diamond ring, in memories of me her poor brother, who ever truly loved her and honour her even to death…”

And what of the younger sister, Eleanor? The tablet at her feet reveals she married a distant cousin, Sir William St.John of Highlight in Wales (the same gentleman who arranged the escape of Giles Mompesson). A soldier, a pirate, and a commander of the King’s Ships, Sir William was a good friend of Sir Walter Raleigh, and tragically was instructed by the Duke to arrest him in his final escape attempt before being executed.

It is fascinating to contemplate the effort required to survive and prosper during the time this generation of St.John sisters were alive. Not only were they facing the daily threat of contagion, disease and childbirth, they faced the continual challenge of relying on others to look after their interests. Thus, their life must have been an intricate dance where partners changed daily and the steps were never the same. More than four hundred years later we can look back and admire these women for their courage and dexterity.

Photos © 2016 Anthony St.John and Elizabeth St.John

Elizabeth St.John was brought up in England and lives in California. In the course of writing her best-selling debut novel, The Lady of the Tower, she has tracked down family papers and sites from Nottingham Castle, Lydiard Park, and the British Library to Castle Fonmon and The Tower of London. Although the family sold a few castles and country homes along the way (it's hard to keep a good castle going these days), Elizabeth's family still occupy them - in the form of portraits, memoirs, and gardens that carry their imprint. And the occasional ghost. But that's a different story...

For more information about Elizabeth visit her website at, or for more information about her novel, visit Lady of the Tower.

The novel The Lady of the Tower is available through Amazon