How the Normans built Castles

chepstow-2The Great Tower at Chepstow Castle, one of the earliest Norman stone structures in the British Isles. (© Tosca Weijers/Dreamstime.com)

 

The Normans, as is widely appreciated, were originally Norsemen: Vikings who settled in the area around the Seine estuary in the late ninth and early 10th centuries. The traditional date for the founding of Normandy is AD 911, when the authority of the Norman leader, Rollo, was recognised by the king of France.

Castles appeared somewhat later, with the earliest examples being constructed around the turn of the first millennium. They differed from earlier fortifications by being smaller and taller: the distinctive feature of early castle design was the great artificial mound of earth, or motte. Dating a mound of earth is difficult, since it relies on the discovery of datable ‘small finds’, and so establishing a precise chronology for mottes is impossible. Nor is it possible to say for certain how and why the design originated, other than to observe that the rise of castles seems to coincide with an intensification of lordship across northern France in the decades around the millennium. Evidently someone had the notion of building a great mound of earth to assert his power and the idea caught on fast.

The Normans began ditching their Norse culture and adopting French customs almost from the minute of their arrival. During the 10th century, for example, they embraced Christianity, the French language and the habit of fighting on horseback. Learning how to build castles was therefore simply part of an ongoing process of acculturation. According to contemporary chroniclers, a great surge of castle-building took place during the troubled years of William the Conqueror’s boyhood in the 1030s and 1040s.

“Lots of Normans, forgetful of their loyalties, built earthworks in many places,” wrote William of Jumièges, “and erected fortified strongholds for their own purposes.”

Answered by Marc Morris, historian, author and broadcaster.

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Murder, conspiracy and execution: 6 centuries of scandalous royal deaths!

From mysterious hunting ‘accidents’ to the public execution of Charles I, dozens of British royals died in suspicious or shocking circumstances. Historian Nicola Tallis investigates…

The execution of Charles I, 1649. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

 

Royal status brings with it privilege and power – but also danger, particularly the risk of assassination by those craving that power. From the Norman conquest to Charles’s execution in 1649, many British men, women and children of royal blood died in extraordinary circumstances. Deaths early in that period were often shrouded in mystery, but by the 17th century circumstances had changed to an extraordinary extent – for the first time an executioner severed the head of a king of England: Charles I, condemned by his own people…

William II meets his fate in the forest

On 2 August 1100 King William II, third son of William the Conqueror, was hunting in the New Forest. The chronicler William of Malmesbury reported that after dinner the king, nicknamed ‘Rufus’, went into the forest “attended by few persons”, notably a gentleman named Walter Tirel. While most of the king’s party “employed in the chase, were dispersed as chance directed,” Tirel remained with the king. As the sun began to set, William spotted a stag and “drawing his bow and letting fly an arrow, slightly wounded” it.

In his excitement the king began to run towards the injured target, and at that point Tirel, “conceiving a noble exploit” in that the king’s attention was occupied elsewhere, “pierced his breast with a fatal arrow”. William fell to the ground and Tirel, seeing that the king was dead, immediately “leaped swiftly upon his horse, and escaped by spurring him to his utmost speed”.

Upon discovering William’s body, the rest of his party fled and, in an attempt to protect their own interests, readied themselves to declare their allegiance to the next king. It was left to a few countrymen to convey the dead king’s corpse to Winchester Cathedral by cart, “the blood dripping from it all the way”.

Was William’s death an accident, or was it murder? An accident was possible, but there were many who believed otherwise. William’s younger brother immediately assumed the throne and swiftly had himself crowned Henry I. Henry had much to gain from his brother’s death, and Tirel may have been in his employ. William had, however, been an unpopular king, and his death was “lamented by few”.

King William II of England, aka William Rufus, c1100. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The Lionheart and eyeless Art

Almost 100 years later, Henry I’s great-grandson, Richard I, also met a violent end at the point of an arrow, but in very different circumstances. Richard had spent the majority of his 10-year reign fighting abroad on crusade; he was a brave solider who inspired loyalty in his men. In 1199, while he was besieging the Château de Châlus-Chabrol, a crossbow bolt struck him in the shoulder. Though the shot did not kill him, it penetrated deep into his body. Though removal of the bolt by a surgeon was a painful ordeal, Richard survived – but before long the wound became infected and gangrene set in. It became clear that the king’s days were numbered, and on 6 April, 11 days after he was shot, “the man devoted to martial deeds, breathed his last.”

Richard was succeeded by his younger brother, John. However, though John was accepted as king of England he had a rival for his French lands: Arthur of Brittany, son of John’s brother, Geoffrey, who had died over a decade earlier. In 1202, John’s forces captured Arthur at Mirebeau, where the latter had been attempting to besiege the castle in which his grandmother (John’s mother), Eleanor of Aquitaine, was sheltering. Arthur was taken to Falaise, where – it was later claimed – John gave orders for his 16-year-old nephew to be “deprived of his eyes and genitals”, but the jailer refused to obey such a cruel command. Shortly afterwards, the boy was moved to Rouen where, on the evening of 3 April 1203, it seems that John himself, “drunk with wine and possessed of the Devil”, killed Arthur personally. The young boy’s lifeless body was reputedly weighed down with a heavy stone and thrown into the river Seine.

In the two centuries after the murder of Arthur of Brittany, both Edward II and Richard II were deposed. The latter was almost certainly starved to death in Pontefract Castle, but controversy still surrounds the end of Edward II – he may have been murdered in Berkeley Castle, but several modern historians are of the opinion that he escaped abroad.

Richard I, aka ‘Richard the Lionheart’, depicted plunging his fist into a lion’s throat, c1180. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The bloody Wars of the Roses

In the middle of the 15th century, the Wars of the Roses broke out, causing a profusion of bloodshed that did not exclude royal or noble families. After a struggle that saw the Lancastrian King Henry VI deposed in favour of the Yorkist Edward IV, and a brief period of restoration for Henry VI (commonly referred to as the readeption), on 4 May 1471 the armies of Lancaster and York met at Tewkesbury, where Edward IV won “a famous victory”. It was a fierce battle during which around 2,000 Lancastrians were slain, and the battlefield is still referred to as ‘Bloody Meadow.’

For Henry’s son and heir, the 18-year-old Prince Edward of Lancaster, Tewkesbury had been his first experience of war, and one that he would not survive. Reports of the precise manner of the prince’s death vary: most sources state that the he was killed in the field, whereas the Yorkist author of the Arrivall of Edward IV, who claimed to be a servant of Edward IV’s and a witness to many of the events about which he wrote, asserts that Edward “was taken fleeing to the townwards, and slain in the field”. Later Tudor historians, however, implied that the prince had been murdered “by the avenging hands of certain persons,” on the orders of Edward IV. Whatever the circumstances, the Lancastrian heir had been removed; now all that remained was for his father to be eliminated.

While the battle of Tewkesbury raged, Henry VI was a prisoner in the Tower of London. Following his victory, Edward IV travelled to London in triumph, arriving on 21 May. That same evening, Henry VI was reportedly praying in his oratory within the Wakefield Tower when he “was put to death”. Though the author of the Arrivall stated that Henry died of “pure displeasure and melancholy” as a result of being told of the death of his son, there is little doubt that he died violently. The examination of his skull in 1911 revealed that to one piece “there was still attached some of the hair, which was brown in colour, save in one place, where it was much darker and apparently matted with blood,” consistent with a blow to the head. Many believed that Henry had been murdered at the hands of the king’s brother Richard, Duke of Gloucester, but though Richard may have been present, the order undoubtedly came from Edward IV.

Henry VI , c1450. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The slaughter also extended to Edward’s own family. The relationship Edward shared with his younger brother George, Duke of Clarence, was tumultuous, to say the least. After several estrangements and reconciliations, in 1477 Clarence finally went too far. Convinced that his brother was conspiring against him, Edward had Clarence arrested; at the beginning of February 1478, he was tried and condemned to death. On 18 February Clarence was executed within the confines of the Tower of London. According to several contemporary sources, at his own request the duke was drowned after being “plunged into a jar of sweet wine” in the Bowyer Tower. Clarence’s daughter, Margaret Pole, was later painted wearing a bracelet with a barrel charm, which appears to support this story. The duke’s death orphaned both Margaret and her younger brother Edward, Earl of Warwick. Like their father, both would meet violent ends.

The princes in the Tower

Edward IV died unexpectedly on 9 April 1483, leaving as successor his 12-year-old son, also Edward, at that time staying at Ludlow Castle. After his father’s death, the young Prince Edward set out for London but was intercepted en route by his uncle Richard, Duke of Gloucester, who lodged Edward and his brother Prince Richard in the Tower of London. Having been declared illegitimate, on 26 June Edward was deposed in favour of his uncle, who took the throne as Richard III.

Rumours about the fate of the ‘princes in the Tower’ soon began to circulate. Many believe that they were murdered “lying in their beds” on the orders of Richard III, and the skeletons of two youths discovered in the Tower in 1674 seems to support this theory. Some, however, insist that the boys did not die in the Tower but managed to escape. Though their ultimate fate is still obscure, one thing is certain: after the coronation of Richard III on 6 July, neither boy was seen alive again.

‘The Young Princes in the Tower’, 1831. After a painting by Hippolyte De La Roche (1797–1856), commonly known as Paul Delaroche. From the Connoisseur VOL XXVII, 1910. (Photo by The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images)

Richard III did not hold his throne for long. In 1485 his army was confronted by the forces of the Lancastrian Henry Tudor at Bosworth in Leicestershire. Richard fought bravely in his attempt to defend his crown, but was “pierced with many mortal wounds”, and became the last king of England to be killed on the battlefield. Thanks to the discovery of his skeleton in Leicester, we now know that a blow to the head killed Richard, and that his body was subjected to a number of “humiliation” wounds after his death.

Richard’s successor, Henry VII, ordered the execution of the Duke of Clarence’s son, the Earl of Warwick, beheaded In 1499 for conspiring with the pretender Perkin Warbeck to overthrow the king. Warwick’s sister, Margaret Pole, was executed in 1541 by command of Henry VIII on charges of treason. In her late sixties and condemned on evidence that was almost certainly falsified, Margaret’s death shocked her contemporaries, one of whom observed that her execution was conducted by “a wretched and blundering youth” who “literally hacked her head and shoulders to pieces in the most pitiful manner” so that she bled to death.

Henry VIII’s wives

Henry VIII also notoriously executed two of his wives. Anne Boleyn and Katherine Howard were both condemned on charges of adultery, treason, and, in Anne’s case, incest with her own brother. Anne was almost certainly innocent of the crimes of which she was accused; nevertheless, on the morning of 19 May 1536 she became the first queen of England to be executed. Although her death within the confines of the Tower of London was intended to be a private affair, conducted away from the eyes of curious Londoners, around 1,000 people watched as her head was struck from her body with one strike of a French executioner’s sword.

In 1554 Lady Jane Grey also met her fate at the headsman’s axe. So, too, did Mary, Queen of Scots, executed in February 1587 on the orders of Elizabeth I. The first queen regnant to be beheaded, Mary was decapitated at Fotheringhay Castle in a bloody scene: it took three strokes of the axe to remove her head.

The execution of Mary, Queen of Scots at Fotheringhay Castle, 1587. From ‘The Island Race’, a book written by Sir Winston Churchill and published in 1964 that covers the history of the British Isles from pre-Roman times to the Victorian era. (Photo by Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)

Mary’s grandson was to suffer a similar ignominious end the following century. Having been defeated in the Civil War, in January 1649 Charles I became the first English monarch to be tried and condemned for treason – there was no precedent for the lawful killing of a king. On the date of his execution, 30 January, Charles stepped out of Banqueting House in Whitehall on to a public scaffold. His head was removed amid a great groan from the crowd, and it was observed that many of those who attended dipped their handkerchiefs in the late king’s blood as a memento.

Charles’s death signalled the abolition of the monarchy, and the establishment of a republic in England. In a public display of contempt for the monarchy, he became the only king of England to be murdered by his subjects. It was a far cry from the dark and mysterious circumstances surrounding the death of William ‘Rufus’ and those other ill-fated royals who came before.

Nicola Tallis is a British historian and author. Her new book Crown of Blood: The Deadly Inheritance of Lady Jane Grey is published by Michael O’Mara Books on 3 November 2016.

To find out more about Nicola, visit nicolatallis.com

Henry VIII is buried where?!

Henry VIII buried 2

Henry VIII is buried where?!

Portrait of Henry VIII. (Photo by Imagno/Getty Images)

He’s the king who had six wives and tired of them like a child tires of toys, who rid himself (and the world) of anyone who disagreed with him, didn’t like the pope and was fat…. Well, not quite. The truth and the facts are somewhat simplified for the wider audience; as one American tourist said to me on thinking she had found the tomb of Henry VIII in Westminster Abbey: “Henry VIII? He’s the one who killed all his wives, right?” She can be forgiven for both thinking of him as the ‘wife-killing king’ and for assuming he would be buried within the splendour of Westminster Abbey. She was wrong on both counts.

The iconic image of Henry VIII, created by talented court painter Hans Holbein, is known worldwide. Poised in confrontational stance, he stares out of the painting, challenging us to find fault and leaving us in no doubt that he is in charge. This was a carefully crafted image as was typical of Henry. As his father before him, he consciously, purposely and effectively used ceremony, art and symbolism to send the self-asserting message to his contemporaries: “I am the rightful king of England, appointed and supported by God.” We can only imagine the consternation and anger he would feel to know that the shrine-like tomb he designed for himself was never completed.

Indeed, despite his keen control of self-image in life and instructions for his tomb and image in death, he remains in a ‘temporary’ vault under the Quire in St George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle in the company of his third queen, Jane Seymour, and also the body of Charles I and one of Queen Anne’s tragically short-lived children. The chamber is marked simply by a black marble slab placed there almost 300 years later on the orders of William IV, its functional description the only thing alerting us to his presence beneath:

IN A VAULT

BENEATH THIS MARBLE SLAB

ARE DEPOSITED THE REMAINS

OF

JANE SEYMOUR QUEEN OF KING HENRY VIII 1537

KING HENRY VIII

1547

KING CHARLES I

1648

AND

AN INFANT CHILD OF QUEEN ANNE. THIS MEMORIAL WAS PLACED HERE

BY COMMAND OF

KING WILLIAM IV. 1837.

The Quire In St George's Chapel, Windsor Castle

The Quire in St George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle. (Photo by Tim Graham/Getty Images)

So how, when it came to what should have been Henry’s most important and enduring symbol, do we find him in a crowded vault marked only by a simple black marble tomb stone? It is a far cry from the ostentatious tomb of his father and mother in Westminster Abbey and far from what Henry imagined, indeed instructed, should be created for himself.

Henry VIII died in the early hours of 28 January 1547 at Whitehall Palace aged 55. For a couple of days his death was kept secret from everyone except those closest to the king, to allow for a smooth transition to the council rule which was to follow under his son, Edward VI. Court ritual continued so as not to alert anyone to the king’s death before everything was ready. Meals even continued to be brought to his chambers – announced, as always, by the sound of trumpets.

Edward VI was nine years old at his accession and would be only the third monarch of the Tudor dynasty. He was male and legitimate, but for the fledgling dynasty a child king was almost as dangerous a prospect as a woman on the throne. Everything had to be managed in minute detail, all of which had been planned by Henry himself. Of course this included Henry’s funeral which would, through impressive pageantry and ceremony, assert once again that the Tudors were rightful kings of England under God with the strong implication that Edward should be unchallenged. Always one for self-appreciation, Henry also wanted to show that he had been a true Renaissance king on the European stage.

Edward VI

Edward VI. (Photo by Universal History Archive/Getty Images)

The funeral procession that escorted Henry’s body to Windsor left London on 14 February with an overnight stop at Syon House. It was four miles long, included more than a thousand men on horseback and hundreds more on foot. The coffin, draped in cloth of gold with an effigy of the king on top, was pulled on a carriage by eight horses. It impressed all who lined the processional route. So far so good! Henry would have approved.

The ceremony, too, was as Henry wanted. Following a sermon by Stephen Gardiner, bishop of Winchester, Henry’s coffin was lowered into its temporary place next to his third wife and Edward VI’s mother, Jane Seymour. The white wands of office, which each office holder broke over his head, followed into the grave in customary fashion. 

For his tomb, Henry requested “… a convenient altar honourably prepared and apparelled with all manner of things requisite and necessary for daily masses there to be said perpetually while the world shall endure”. Neither the tomb, nor the masses, were completed as Henry had stipulated.

A black marble sarcophagus, confiscated from Cardinal Wolsey by Henry, was already at Windsor. Thanks to John Speed, the 17th-century mapmaker and antiquarian, and his 1627 book The History of Great Britaine, we are able to understand how Henry planned to use it for himself. Fortuitously, for Henry’s original manuscript has since gone missing, Speed transcribes the instructions Henry left for a double tomb, magnificent in size, decoration and iconography.

Described in around 1,400 words, the plans included effigies of the king and queen as if sleeping; numerous angels; prophets aloft columns; scriptures and children with baskets of red and white roses scattering them down over the tomb and the pavement beyond. It would have been fabulous, very ‘Henry-esque’ – if it had been built! However, the sarcophagus remained at Windsor for more than 250 years until the Georgians found a use for it and transported it to the crypt of St Paul’s Cathedral, London, where it now holds the coffin of Admiral Horatio Nelson.

Nelson's Tomb
The sarcophagus of English naval officer Horatio Nelson in the Crypt of St Paul’s Cathedral, London, circa 1925. It was originally made for Cardinal Wolsey in around 1524. (Photo by General Photographic Agency/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

So why did Henry not ensure his legacy by having his tomb built in his own time? Lack of money perhaps, although that had never deterred Henry from large expensive projects before. More likely, then, that despite Henry’s concern (you could say preoccupation) with the Tudor succession, he simply did not want to face up to his own mortality. Talk of the death of the king was a treasonable offence. Indeed, it had been a brave Sir Anthony Denny who had finally told Henry on the evening of 27 January 1547 that he was dying and thus allowing him (just) enough time to take the last rites – essential for one of the Catholic faith, as Henry was right to the end of his life.

Henry may not have liked to think about his own death, but three of his children followed him to the throne. Did none of them wish to honour their father with a fitting monument? The short answer is ‘no’. At any rate, none of them did. But why was this the case?

Edward VI may have been a child of only nine years old when he followed his father to the throne, but he had determination beyond his years and had one clear agenda – to make England Protestant. Edward was ruthless in his reforms, going far beyond anything his father had done. He died only six years later and had dedicated the majority of his reign to religious reform. We can surmise that building his father’s tomb as designed, with all its trappings of the Catholic faith, was neither a priority nor a concern to the boy king. It was far easier to display his father’s memory for his own use in his own image. A portrait of Edward in the National Portrait Gallery, believed to have been painted following his accession, mimics the strong pose of his father in the Whitehall Mural.

Edward was succeeded in turn by his two older half-sisters. First Mary, daughter of Henry’s first wife, Catherine of Aragon, and then by Elizabeth, daughter of his second wife, Anne Boleyn. Unlike Edward, both sisters had been subjected to emotional damage at the hands of their father and both had suffered the devastation of being declared illegitimate, coupled with separation from their mothers.

Mary Tudor
1544, Mary Tudor (1516 – 1558), the daughter of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon, at the age of 28. Following the death of her half-brother Edward VI and the brief rule of Lady Jane Grey, she ascended to the English throne as Queen Mary I in 1553. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Mary Tudor, 1544. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Of the two, Mary suffered the most. Elizabeth, two years old when her mother was executed, may have been confused to be addressed one day as ‘Princess Elizabeth’ and the following day ‘the lady Elizabeth’, but the toddler probably had no lasting memories of such events. On the other hand, Mary could remember all too vividly the cruel treatment herself and her mother endured at the hands of her father when he failed in his efforts to secure a divorce from Mary’s mother, Catherine of Aragon, in order to marry Anne Boleyn. Mary had been forbidden to see her mother, forced to agree that her parents’ marriage was illegal and that her mother had never been queen, and to reject the pope and recognise her father as supreme head of the Church in England. It would be difficult to overestimate the impact all these things had on her. Tragically, mother and daughter were kept apart and Mary never saw her mother again.

It would therefore have been surprising for Mary to expend much energy on the glorification of her father’s memory. Besides, she was far too busy trying to undo his and Edward’s religious reforms by re-establishing the Catholic church in England under the pope in Rome. 

After Mary came Elizabeth, who is known to have enjoyed reminding people that she was her father’s daughter. Elizabeth often referred to Henry when speaking to her council and made reference to him in a speech to parliament quite late into her reign, in 1593, when she talked of the debt she was in to her father “whom in the duty of a child I must regard, and to whom I must acknowledge myself far shallow”.

Many historians and writers have asserted that Elizabeth’s references come from a deep affection for her late father, which had developed toward the end of his life when she spent a great deal of time at court. Perhaps this is true. However, it is difficult to deny that her references served a purpose. Invoking her father’s memory, aided no doubt by her inheritance of his auburn hair, reminded those around her of her descent and provided Henry’s support for her legitimacy from beyond the grave. Ironically this was something he had failed to do in life when he restored her to the succession but left her illegitimate.

Elizabeth I is not known to have spoken of her mother in public, however a ring she wore, now known as the Chequers Ring, contained a miniature portrait of her mother and one of herself. Although she had only been a little girl of two years old when her mother was beheaded at the Tower of London, Elizabeth felt a connection to her and, privately at least, kept her memory alive. Would she have been willing to create a tomb to her father when she could not have done the same for her mother?

Queen Elizabeth I Ring, c. 1560. Artist: Anonymous master
Queen Elizabeth I Ring, c. 1560. Found in the collection of the Chequers Estate. (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

The Chequers Ring. (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

We could surmise from all of this that once Henry’s mortal presence was gone his children were not going to be his biggest supporters. It was easier to invoke his name at points where it was advantageous to them than to muster the effort and money required to erect his permanent shrine. Nowadays, then, thousands of visitors walk over his remains every year without realising they are so close to the infamous Henry VIII.

Philippa Brewell is a historical trip writer and blogs at britishhistorytours.com

 

On this day, July 11th, in Tudor Times

Cranmer-Thomas-Archbishop-of-Canterbury

 

On 11th July 1536, the Act of Ten Articles was promulgated. This was the first element of Henry VIII’s Reformation that actually affected doctrinal matters, and was probably written by Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury. Considered to be reformist in tone, whilst it permitted prayers for the dead, it negated any value in papal pardons or remissions. It confirmed the Real Presence in the sacraments, and thus remains essentially a Catholic exposition of faith. It was, however, novel enough to cause disquiet, and religious change was one of the motives behind the Pilgrimage of Grace.

6 Trailblazing Medieval Women

Six trailblazing medieval women

Everyone has heard of Joan of Arc or Eleanor of Aquitaine, but which other women were important during this 1,000-year period? As Susan Signe Morrison explains, evidence abounds concerning medieval women who were doctors, musicians, writers, theologians, explorer and scientists…

Submitted by: Emma Mason
Hildegard of Bingen (1098–1179). (Photo by ullstein bild via Getty Images)

Hildegard of Bingen (1098–1179), a scientist, doctor of medicine, musician, philosopher and theologian, is “acclaimed as the most accomplished of medieval women”, says Susan Signe Morrison. (Photo by ullstein bild via Getty Images)

First female playwright: Hrotsvit of Gandersheim (c935–c1000)

 

The 10th-century Saxon canoness Hrotsvit of Gandersheim called herself ‘the strong voice of Gandersheim’. She had many firsts to her credit: first medieval playwright; first female playwright; first female German poet and first female German historian.

Dedicating her works to various members of Emperor Otto’s family, Hrotsvit was highly educated in both the quadrivium (music, arithmetic, geometry and astronomy) and the trivium (grammar, rhetoric and dialectic), as well as key writings by Christian theologians. Hrotsvit was also well-versed in Roman pagan authors, whose immoral comedies featured love affairs and women of suspect reputation, embodying the worst of misogynist beliefs. Hrotsvit took these well-plotted, but immoral, plays and turned them into morally admirable dramas featuring worthy women and weak men. Girls stood up to those who did not let them lead the lives they chose.

Hrotsvit put to vellum the first-known dramas since the classical period. Her plays extol females, from strong virgins to prostitute saints, willing to sacrifice themselves for God. What could have been happier for a devout medieval Christian than to end up in heaven? Her heroines include young girls, one as young as eight, who stand up defiantly under torture and humiliation from pagan Roman officials.  One holy virgin tells the violent emperor, “I have called him a fool, I now call him a fool, and I shall call him a fool as long as I live.” Nothing frightens her.

Hrotsvit uses misogynistic stereotypes about women – that they are more physically weak than men, for example – to argue the very opposite. Hrotsvit even has two fallen women as her heroines, who exemplify the category of the ‘holy harlot’, as seen most famously in the life of St Mary of Egypt.

 

Hrotsvit presents Emperor Otto the Great with her Gesta Oddonis, in the background is Abbess Gerberga. Woodcut by Albrecht Dürer, 1501.  (Photo by Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)

 

 

 

Fighting crusader: Margaret of Beverley (c1150–c1214/15)

 

The 12th-century Margaret of Beverley, born in Jerusalem to her English pilgrim parents, returned to the Holy Land just as the great Muslim leader Saladin decided to reclaim Jerusalem from Christian control. Margaret lived in Jerusalem as the city came under siege by Saladin’s troops in September 1187. Mobbed with refugees from other defeated cities, Jerusalem was surrounded by enemy soldiers. No food or water could enter. Everyone living in this urban nightmare had to participate in its defence.

Forced to stay, Margaret willingly set to work. “[L]ike a fierce virago, I tried to play the role of a man,” her brother records her saying. She told how “During this siege, which lasted 15 days, I carried out all of the functions of a soldier that I could. I wore a breastplate like a man; I came and went on the ramparts, with a cauldron on my head for a helmet. Though a woman, I seemed a warrior, I threw the weapon; though filled with fear, I learned to conceal my weakness.”

The heat was blistering. The soldiers inside had to battle continually to prevent their enemies from entering. Women helped by using weapons and machines such as catapults when not enough men were available, filling in ditches and providing food and drink. Once, when Margaret gave water to the men to drink, a catapult sent a millstone over the walls. It burst apart. A small piece of stone flew off and struck her, causing blood to gush out. Margaret carried the scar throughout her life.

About two weeks after the tumult had begun, the siege was over. Later enduring imprisonment, torture and humiliation, Margaret ultimately gained her freedom and returned to Europe, becoming a Cistercian lay-sister in a French nunnery.

 

 

 

Scandalous nun: Heloise d’Argenteuil (c1100–64)

 

By the time she was not yet 20, Heloise d’Argenteuil was renowned as the most educated woman in Europe. Peter Abelard, arguably the most brilliant philosopher of his time, had already caused an uproar among the intellectual classes. No diplomat, Peter alienated respectable older theologians, making enemies.

Heloise’s uncle, Fulbert, a clergyman at the church of Notre-Dame on the Île-de-France in Paris, hired Peter, who gladly took on the role of tutor to this young girl. Peter later wrote how he intended to break his lifelong chastity with this student entrusted to him.  Featuring a pregnant teenager and the older teacher who seduced her, this scandalous affair stemming from 1118 became the gossip of Paris.

Soon after they met,  Heloise and Peter exchanged amorous glances, looks that transformed into touches. As Peter openly confesses, “My hands strayed oftener to her bosom than to the pages.” They soon were enjoying carnal embraces. “[O]ur desires left no stage of lovemaking untried, and if love could devise something new, we welcomed it”. Heloise’s uncle remained oblivious, until he caught the lovers together. Meanwhile, Heloise was thrilled to learn she was pregnant.

The couple secretly wed. But Peter ignored Heloise after being tragically castrated by the henchmen of her vengeful uncle. In return, Heloise wrote brilliant, angry and passionate letters. Boldly proclaiming, “It would be dearer and more honorable to me to be called your whore,” she understands her passion to be authentically motivated; the true whores are those women who marry for position and money. Amazingly, scholars once refused to believe that a woman could have written such intelligent letters. Ultimately, Heloise became abbess at the Paraclete, a religious hermitage with daughter houses, six of which were set up under Heloise’s rule. She remained abbess until her death.

 

Héloïse d’Argenteuil and Peter Abélard. (© Quagga Media/Alamy Stock Photo)

 

 

Audacious innovator: Hildegard of Bingen (1098–1179)

 

Female scientists were active in both practical and theoretical medicine. The most famous of all is Hildegard of Bingen, who transcends categorisation. Scientist, doctor of medicine, musician, philosopher, theologian, mystic – Hildegard is acclaimed as the most accomplished of medieval women. A resident of medieval Germany, she explained confounding theological notions such as that of the Trinity (the Father, Son and Holy Ghost).  Standing up to male superiors in the church, she often succeeded in getting her desires, including founding a new convent.

Hildegard wrote about the human body, even using poetic language to describe reproduction from the woman’s perspective. Her music, much performed today, reflects her view that humans create music in an attempt to recapture the cosmically harmonious paradise lost with the fall, when Adam and Eve were thrown out of the Garden of Eden. In Hildegard’s Ordo virtutum, a liturgical drama in song, the devil fights with the soul’s virtues; only the devil has a speaking role.

Hildegard’s other writings include theological, cosmological and visionary works. “Let no man be so audacious as to add anything to this writing lest he be blotted out from the book of life,” she asserts. While many medieval women turned to the divine to find meaning in their interior lives, Hildegard also commented publicly on state and church politics.  Creating voluminous letters to the pope and churchmen, she corresponded on issues of salvation and church organisation. Between 1158 and 1170 she also undertook four preaching tours – extraordinary in a time when women were expected to obey St Paul’s injunction to not teach or speak in the church.

Vocal feminist: Christine de Pizan (1364–c1430)

 

Feminist beliefs were espoused unashamedly by some trailblazing medieval women. The brilliant Christine de Pizan, for instance, was raised by an unconventional father who supported Christine’s desire to study and learn. Her arranged marriage at the age of 15 became a love match. When tragedy struck, cutting down both her father and husband in the prime of life, the 25-year-old Christine was suddenly left in charge of the extended household.

Christine had been left with no knowledge of how the financial accounts were arranged. She was even cheated by people claiming false debts. Initiating a feminist critique of marriage that still resounds today, she laments, “For it was the custom for married men not to talk about or declare the complete state of their affairs to their wives… it makes no sense unless women, instead of being ignorant, learn wise management of such matters.”

Christine had few options. “Now it was necessary for me to go to work, something which I, nurtured on the finer things of life, had not learned”. While initially she copied manuscripts as a scribe, she then became the first European professional female writer. Defying misogynist writers, calling anti-woman invective “hodgepodge, rubbish, and wasted words,” Christine boldly proclaimed to one anti-woman writer, “You have committed a great error without reason.”

In her masterpiece from 1404–5, The Book of the City of Ladies, Christine envisions an allegorical city populated only by women and ruled by the Virgin Mary. In this prose text, Christine asserts how women created all good culture, politics and science. Christine argued that women should be allowed to be what everyone should be given – the right to be human. Her final work extols a young maiden as embodying all that is fine about womanhood – none other than Joan of Arc.

 

 

Christine de Pizan, seated on a chair in carved wood. Miniature from a MS in the Burgundy Library, Brussels, 15th century. (Photo by Culture Club/Getty Images)

 

 

Matchless matriarch: Margaret Paston (c1423–84)

 

With shades of Real Housewives of the Middle Ages, estate manager Margaret Paston protected her extended family’s vast properties during the War of the Roses, a time of violence and disruption. As adept and well-versed in legal intricacies as her male lawyer counterparts who were away in London, she defended the homestead, bidding her husband to send weapons such as crossbows, axes and protective garments should enemies attack.

In addition to protecting her lands and informing her husband of crises, Margaret undertook the activities that any woman would have to do to support an estate or even modest farm: making bread and wine, brewing ale, smoking ham and bacon, and drying fruit for the winter months. She oversaw the care of pigs, poultry and cows.  Needlecraft, such as embroidery, weaving, cloth making and mending, lay within a woman’s sphere. Given the Pastons’ estates and property, Margaret consulted with tenants, negotiated legal claims, and sought out (and gave) judicial advice.

Estate management also included selling products manufactured on the farm, such as foodstuffs, cloth and grain, as well as ordering supplies from larger cities in the area. Making and maintaining connections with powerful individuals who would support her during these political turbulent times, Margaret had to borrow jewellery when she finally met Queen Margaret of Anjou, wife of Henry VI.

Catherine Morland,  Jane Austen’s heroine in Northanger Abbey (1803), laments, “I read [history] a little as a duty, but it tells me nothing that does not either vex or weary me. The quarrels of popes and kings, with wars or pestilences, in every page; the men all so good for nothing, and hardly any women at all – it is very tiresome….” Poor Catherine! If only she could come back today, when much medieval history focuses on gender and the everyday experiences of the vibrant, dynamic and unexpected lives of women from the medieval period.

 

 

 

Susan Signe Morrison is professor of English at Texas State University. Her award-winning historical novel, Grendel’s Mother: The Saga of the Wyrd-Wife, tells the story of the Old English poem, Beowulf, from the woman’s point of view. 

She can be found at amedievalwomanscompanion.com and susansignemorrison.com. You can also follow her on Twitter @medievalwomen.