On this day in 1056, the Empress Theodora passed away. After starting out life as a Princess, spending most of her adult life as a Nun, and then facing the jealousy of her sister, Theodora ended up ruling despite the best attempts at many others to keep her in a subservient position.
Born into the Purple
Theodora was the youngest sister of Zoe Porphyrogenita, a word that means "born into the purple". The two girls were the daughters of a reigning Byzantine Emperor, Constantine VIII, who was joint-ruler with his brother Basil II. The death of both men, neither of whom had a son, pushed both Theodora and her sister in to the limelight.
Theodora appears to have been a woman with her own mind. Her father had arranged for her to marry Romanos Argyros, who was expected to take the throne and rule through his wife. Theodora refused to go through with the marriage, and in the end Romanos married her older sister Zoe.
In the following years Theodora was implicated in multiple plots against the royal couple. Many historians believe that these were attempts by Zoe to marginalise her sister, and have her removed from any potential power. Although Theodora played no active role in politics, she would never be safe from her sister's jealousy. Eventually she was pushed in to a monastery and forced to become a nun, which should have stopped her from being allowed to rule in the future.
Coming To Power
Zoe went through several husbands over the following years, none of whom were particularly popular. After she was displaced by her adoptive nephew, the people of Constantinople rebelled, and both Zoe and Theodora were brought out of their respective places of captivity. Theodora in particular was furious at being pushed back in to power, but to the people she was the balance against her sister's terrible choice in men, both as husbands and heirs. She was crowned as co-Empress with Zoe, who tried to have her sister sent back to the monastery, only to be overruled by the Senate.
Theodora is believed to be the more capable of the two women, although how much of that is reflected from people's dislike of Zoe is hard to tell. Zoe wasn't inclined towards any actual ruling, but she disliked her sister taking control and getting things done. Yet another marriage meant that Theodora was required to leave the administration of the empire to her new brother-in-law, Constantine IX Monomachos.
She outlived both her sister and her brother-in-law, and subverted Constantine's attempts to bypass her in the line of succession. She was proclaimed sole "Emperor", and promptly set about assigning her own favourites as ministers. By ruling as an Emperor she offended plenty of people, who felt that a woman shouldn't be allowed to act as a supreme judge in courts, or appoint clerics. But her death led to over twenty years of fighting between numerous noble families, and after a while it must have seemed to her people that even the rule of a woman was better than the lack of stability caused by her death.
If you'd like to find out more about her sister, Empress Zoe, you can check out my e-book30 Women in History Volume 2, which contains a mini-biography on her rival for power.
On this day in 1284, the Earl of Chester passed away. His name was Alphonso, he was ten years old, and he was the heir to the English throne.
It may be an unusual name for an English prince, but not for a Spainish one. The new prince, who was born in 1273, was the son of King Edward I of England, and so the newborn could have been expected to take his father's name. There hadn't yet been a prince Edward in this new generation, two previous sons had been named John and Henry (John had died a few years before, Henry would die in October 1274). But the Queen of England was Eleanor of Castile, a Spainish princess by birth, and she decided to name the new boy after her brother, King Alphonso X of Castile.
Very little is known about Alphonso's childhood, despite his status as the heir to the throne. Edward and Eleanor were a close couple, but history has often raised an eyebrow over the way their raised their children. While it was common for high-born children to be fostered out to other noble families for their education, the Royal couple seem to have been more distant than was usual. However, Alphonso was their ninth children (out of a potential sixteen in the end), only three survived to see their new brother, and as mentioned Henry died eleven months after Alphonso's birth. It might be that Edward and Eleanor, rocked by so many deaths, needed to keep an emotional distance.
Various of Alphonso's siblings had been raised by their grandmothers, his older sister Joan spent her formative years with Eleanor's mother in Ponthieu in France, and when young Henry was dying it was Edward's mother, Eleanor of Provence, who was looking after him, as he had spent so much time with her that she was a better comfort than his parents. With Edward first on crusade, and then fighting the Welsh, it was Eleanor who accompanied him, while the children were left behind in the care of trusted servants and family members.
Despite not seeing much of his parents, it's highly likely that Alphonso had all the usual privileges of his rank. Once Henry passed away he was the only son for ten years, five sisters followed him (two died young) and another boy died within hours or days of birth. As his father's heir, he would have been expected to be well educated. At the time English wasn't a common language at the court, instead he probably would have learned French and Latin, and possibly Castilian given his family connections. He would also have been taught how to ride a horse, although he may have been too young to begin proper military training in weapons.
The fact that Alphonso survived longer than his two older brothers, and most of his sisters, must have given his parents hope that he would continue to thrive. Like his Royal siblings his marriage was political, Edward had him engaged to Margaret of Holland. One of the wedding gifts that was being prepared was the beautiful " Alphonso Psalter", now in the possession of the British Library. Sadly Alphonso fell ill and died at Windsor on 19th August 1284. He never met his bride, and the psalter project was abandoned for ten years, until his younger sister Elizabeth married Margaret's brother John.
One of the biggest questions raised in history is what kind of king Alphonso may have been. His death left the four month old Edward of Caernarfon as the new heir to the throne. As King Edward II, this little boy would prove to be an ineffective king, who was eventually overthrown by his own wife. On the one hand, Alphonso may have been a better king than his brother. But on the other hand, would Edward have been content to play second fiddle all his life, or would a civil war have erupted between two brothers, instead of husband and wife?
On this day, 2nd August 1100, King William II of England went hunting in the New Forest. He would not come home.
A Younger Son
When he was born in 1056, no one could have seriously considered him as a future King of England. For a start the famous Battle of Hastings was still ten years away. More than that though, he was far from his father's heir as he was preceded by his brothers Robert and Richard, five and two years older than him respectively.
William was raised in his father's duchy of Normandy. Over time he was joined by a younger brother Henry, and the boys had several sisters as well (although records aren't clear on the dates of birth of the girls, or even how many girls there were). It appears that even in his youth he didn't get along with his eldest brother Robert, as one story related in the chronicles tells us that he and Henry once emptied a chamberpot over Robert's head as a "joke". His nickname, "William Rufus", is believed to have come from a rather red-faced complexion.
The rift between the brothers continued in to adolescence when Robert rebelled against their father. William the Conqueror was reluctant to relinquish any power to his eldest son (as his great-grandson, Henry II, would also find problematic), and this led to a rebellion. William was firmly on the side of his father, and rode out at his side to help fight against Robert. The eldest son's rebellion finally ended when the boy's mother, Matilda of Flanders, intervened.
King of England
Having created a a healthy patrimony from the kingdom of England and the duchy of Normandy, you would think that William the Conqueror would want to keep these two regions together. However on his death he made Robert his heir to Normandy and his second son, now William (Richard had died in a hunting accident in 1075) his heir to England, while his youngest son Henry was left some money.
William Rufus quickly set about capitalising on the settlement by promptly waging war on Robert. The campaign would prove to be unsuccessful, neither of the men had quite the same amount of skill as their father, and in the end a stalemate led to the two childless brothers coming to terms and agreeing that each was the other's heir. If William died before he had a son, Robert would inherit England, and if Robert died then William would inherit Normandy. Several years later peace was suitably settled enough for Robert to feel safe enough to go on Crusade. Before he left he handed control of his duchy to William, to rule in his absence. He certainly trusted his brother more than he trusted his lords.
Given how much was at stake in terms of inheritance, it's surprising that William never married. There were plenty of eligible brides, even if he didn't want to marry an English woman from one of the noble families. His sisters had been married to various European nobles, such as his sister Adela who married Stephen of Blois, and there would have been some eligible sisters of these men, or even a Princess of France. The fact that he didn't marry, coupled with some reports from chronicles, has led people to suggest that he was gay. Certainly he didn't have any illegitimate children either, which would suggest that he either wasn't interested in women or was infertile. Either way, it would pave the way for his brother Henry to take advantage when opportunity presented itself.
William was a keen hunter, like many men of his time, and England had numerous parks and lands where the king could indulge in the "chase". As he set out on a hunt through the New Forest, William was accompanied by various nobles, including young Henry.
Whether or not you think it was an accident, or an assassination, the bare facts are clear. William was hit by an arrow fired by one of the men in the party, and died almost instantly. Some chronicles stated that the man had been put up to it by Henry, who was determined to take his brother's throne, while others felt that it was an "Act of God" as William had frequently argued with the Church during his reign.
If it was an accident, then Henry showed remarkable presence of mind. He promptly raced to Winchester, where he took control of the Royal Treasury, and then equally as quickly raced up to London, where he was crowned King Henry I of England three days later. Technically Robert was William's heir, but Robert wasn't in England, and so Henry got away with it. Henry would prove to be more ruthless than his older brothers, after the Battle of Tinchebrai he captured Robert, and locked him up for the rest of his life, appropriating Normandy and reuniting it with England.
The story goes that William's body was left in the forest for several days. He hadn't been particularly popular, and it took a while for anyone to get round to retrieving his remains. He was eventually buried in Winchester Cathedral.
If you're a fan of William Rufus, you can check out his badge.
"This is the first trouble she has ever given me."
As Maria Theresa lay dying, her husband's words showed the kind of Queen of France that she had been. Quiet, unassuming, supportive to her husband, and loving to their children. King Louis XIV could not have found a better definition of her time with him.
Princess of Spain
Maria Theresa was born in September 1638 the daughter of King Philip IV of Spain and his wife Elisabeth of France. France and Spain had been closely connected by marriage in the previous generation, her parents were the siblings of the King and Queen of France, as King Philip's sister Anne had married Queen Elisabeth's brother Louis. Like many such marriages between France and Spain, the weddings had been decided upon in an attempt to bring peace between the two countries, unfortunately it didn't work.
She grew up in the strict formality of the Spanish court, which encouraged solemnity and serious pasttimes. Her mother died when she was just six years old, and her father remarried several years later. Maria Theresa does not appear to have got on well with her new step-mother, and so may have lacked the kind of warm, affectionate home that her future husband had.
Queen of France
After many years of war a peace deal was brokered between Spain and France, and was to be sealed with a marriage between Maria Theresa and Louis XIV. They were the same age, in fact there were only a few days age difference between them, and the marriage had been hoped for for many years by Louis' mother Anne. Any potential courting between the afianced couple was stifled by Maria Theresa's father, who refused to let his daughter even read a letter from her future groom, and who strictly supervised their first meeting shortly before the wedding (in fact he banned Louis from even being in the same room as Maria Theresa, an order that the King of France tried to evade by lingering in the doorway while his brother chatted to the princess, King Philip continually refused to allow him in to the room).
It's reported that on their wedding night, Maria Theresa made her husband promise to never spend a night sleeping away from her. Whether or not this was true, it certainly was a habit that Louis stuck to, although it wasn't enough to prevent him having many affairs through their marriage. His wife found herself settling in to her new home, with help from her aunt, who was thrilled to have another Spainiard at court. There was no bickering between mother-in-law and daughter-in-law, instead the pair of them frequently prayed and visited convents together.
In fact Maria Theresa was a little too Spanish for the French court. Her new home was one that loved innovation, fashion, dancing and wit. Her upbringing had left her rather shy, she preferred to keep to herself with a select group of companions, and she wasn't fashionable or quick enough to be a leader of the court. Despite this, she was a good Queen to Louis. She was upset by his frequent affairs, but realised there was nothing she could do to stop them. She even sponsored one of her husband's former mistresses, Louise de la Valliere, when she decided to retire from court and become a nun. Louis in turn protected her from any disrespect on the part of his other women, rebuking them when they declined to show her the deference required by her position. For over ten years her main rival was Athenais de Montespan, whose disrespect as well as her place by the King's side infuriated Maria Theresa.
If royal marriages were designed to create peace and provide an heir, then Maria Theresa failed in the first part, France and Spain were still consistently at war over the years. But in the second part she succeeded, as she gave birth to six children, of whom three were sons. The first, also called Louis, was born on 1st November 1661. Sadly it was only this eldest child who would outlive her, her eldest surviving daughter lived for five years, and her other children mostly died within weeks of birth.
Maria Theresa's own death would come as a surprise, as her illness was sudden, and her decline swift. She reporedtly surprised the court by never complaining about the agonising treatments she went through, medical intervention still didn't include any pain relief. She died on 30th July 1683, leaving her husband to utter the simple, but evocative, summation of their life together.
Interested in biographies of Royal women? You might like my Unlucky Princess blog series.
On this day, 13 July 1249, a rather hurried coronation took place in Scotland. The new king was a seven year old boy, who had been pushed in to the limelight after his father's sudden death on the Isle of Kerrera. Since he was only a child, King Alexander III would face an uphill struggle to gain his throne through his adolesence.
Alexander was born on 4th September 1241 in the castle of Roxburgh, south east of Edinburgh. His mother was Marie de Coucy, the second wife of King Alexander II of Scotland. As he was so young when his father died, a regency would need to be formed. Marie de Coucy recognised the danger this posed to her son, and so arranged the coronation to take place five days after her husband's death.
The situation wasn't too different from what the king of England had gone through. Henry III had been crowned so quickly after the death of his father, King John, that there hadn't even been time to make a new crown (his father's had been lost in the distastrous trek across The Wash), he had been crowned using one of his mother's more simple crowns. But unlike Alexander, Henry had had a more reliable regency in the forms of William Marshal and Ranulf de Blondeville, both of whom were loyal to the crown, regardless of whose head it sat on. Henry's mother Isabella of Angouleme had quickly been marginalised, and soon left England for France, where she remarried.
Marie de Coucy was similiarly pushed to one side. Although she had been the one to organise the coronation, ensuring that power was handed over to her son before an older relative could claim it, she was not allowed to exercise the powers of a regent. Instead she too left her son in favour of her home country, returning to Picardy when Alexander was ten. Like Isabella of Angouleme she took a second husband, but unlike Isabella she had no children with her second husband, sparing Alexander the kind of political envy that Henry's half-siblings caused years later.
Instead Alexander had to deal with a divided regency council, with different sides determined to seize power from their rivals. Sensing a chance to take advantage of Scotland's weakness, Henry III married his daughter Margaret to Alexander, and then demanded that the King of Scotland do homage for his kingdom, which would indicate that he held the throne purely because England agreed to it. Alexander refused, although the King of England would continue to be a problem in the following years. At one point Alexander's new wife Margaret, wrote to her parents complaining that she was being ill-treated. Henry and his wife, Eleanor of Provence, promptly moved north with an army, determined to assist their daughter in any way possible.
Despite the inauspicious start to his reign, Alexander was a successful King. He managed to persuade the Norwegians to cede the Isle of Man and the Outer Hebrides to Scotland, and kept peace with England. Unfortunately he predeceased his children by Margaret, and his second wife Yolande de Dreux had one stillborn child. Alexander's death led to a succession crisis, and pathed the way for Edward I of England to make his move.
On this day, 1 July 1348, Joan of England died in Gascony. The daughter of King Edward III of England and his wife, Philippa of Hainault, Joan had been on her way to marry Peter of Castile. Her wedding trousseau had been stuffed with sumptous fabrics and jewels, her household furniture was the finest quality that money could buy, and her wedding dress was designed to show the Castilian court that England was wealthy and powerful, and it's princess was a valuable treasure. Sadly none of it could stop the terrible ravages of the Black Death.
Joan was born in 1334 at the Palace of Woodstock in Oxfordshire, the third child and second daughter of Edward and Philippa. In total her parents had fourteen children, and Joan grew up in a loving household. She and her siblings had a retinue of servants, but they were still close to their parents, who took an active interest in their children's lives.
Like many Royal girls, Joan was betrothed at a young age to a suitable man from another noble family. At the age of four Joan and her mother travelled to Herenthals, where Joan was placed in the care of her aunt, Philippa's sister Margaret. Together with a suitable retinue, Joan travelled across Germany to meet her fiance Frederick, son of the Duke of Austria. Since she was only a little girl there was no chance of Joan pulling the same trick as her sister Isabella, who consistently refused to wed various men that caught her attention, and at one point came within a week of marrying before she changed her mind.
Instead Joan's marriage was called off after her future father-in-law died, leaving his brother to act as regent. The alliance that Joan's marriage was meant to cement was called off, as was the wedding. The little girl had barely arrived in her new home before circumstances meant that she had to turn around and return to Ghent, where her mother was still residing after giving birth to another son.
Joan's second wedding was arranged with just as much care. The Castilians were allied with the French, and their ships were a perpetual problem for English merchant ships, which were frequently attacked. A marriage between a Castilian prince and an English princess would hopefully pacify the Spainish, if not lead to a proper alliance. It wasn't the first time there was a wedding between the two kingdoms, Joan's great-grandmother was Eleanor of Castile (this connection naturally meant that a papal dispensation had to be arranged for the couple), but it was the last such wedding for over one hundred years, when Catherine of Aragon (daughter of Isabella of Castile) married King Henry VIII.
At the age of fourteen, Joan was considered old enough to be sent to Castile. Although she had been sent to Germany at a young age, it had been anticipated that the wedding itself wouldn't have been until she was a more suitable age. Her sisters were all married in their late teens, older than expected for the time, and it may be that Joan and Peter weren't expected to live together until the bride was a little older.
The first stage of the journey was the sea voyage from her home, to the English county of Gascony in France. At the time she left the plague hadn't reached England, although stories of it were becoming known. Her household and belongings were carefully packed up on to several ships, a grand farewell was held, and then Joan set sail. As the ships arrived at Bourdeaux, they were told not to come on land. The town was in the grip of the plague, and it wasn't safe for the English retinue to be there. The warnings were ignored, the party moved to the castle in the town, but two weeks later members of the group started to fall ill.
Those that were currently healthy, including Joan, fled towards Castile. But sadly the disease caught up with them quickly. Joan fell sick, and died in the village of Loremo, having never met her betrothed. Mystery still surrounds the fate of her remains, some stories state that she was buried in a local church, others say that she was repatriated to England at the insistance of her distraught parents. A memorial was raised to her in Westminster Abbey, but no tomb has been found, suggesting that if she was indeed buried in a church near her place of death, then it would have been the kind of anonymous grave that many plague victims were given.
As you probably know, today marks the 800th anniversary of the signing of Magna Carta. It's a momentous anniversary, which is being covered across many news outlets and websites. So, because it's clearly being covered by plenty of other people, I've decided to instead highlight a different anniversary; the birth of Henry FitzRoy.
Who Was Henry FitzRoy?
Henry Fitzroy was the illegitimate son of King Henry VIII and Bessie Blount. They met when Bessie was a maid of honour to Henry's first wife, Catherine of Aragon. Bessie appears to have been a court from 1512 at the latest. By this time Henry and Catherine had had two children, a stillborn daughter, and a son who died just six weeks old. They had only been married for three years, and despite this run of bad luck there was no reason for them to think that they wouldn't have a son who would survive.
Henry would have several affairs over the years, although the discretion he adopted has caused historians to argue about the extent of his extra-marital activities for years. Henry had three well-known mistresses; one of the sisters of the Duke of Buckingham (which caused a rift at court when the Duke found out), Bessie Blount (who gave birth to the King's son), and Mary Boleyn (whose sister became Henry's second wife). It's due to this discretion that it's difficult for historians to work out when Henry and Bessie's affair began, with some opting for some time around 1514 (when Catherine was pregnant with a son born in December that year, who survived only a few hours), and others for 1518 (when Catherine was pregnant with her daughter Mary).
Regardless of when the affair started, on 15th June 1519 Bessie gave birth to Henry's son. He was named Henry, after his father, with the surname "FitzRoy" to show his royal, albeit illegitimate, parentage. FitzRoy was the only illegitimate child of Henry's to be formally recognised by his father. Other suspected children by his mistresses include Catherine and Henry Carey by Mary Boleyn. It's possible that Henry was reluctant to acknowledge too many of his illegitimate offspring, in case any of them became a threat to his throne. In 1519 he could acknowledge FitzRoy as he had no other male heir. Had he acknowledged Henry Carey on the other hand, then he would be facing two illegitimate sons potentially leading a civil war against any legitimate offspring he left behind. Henry never gave up hope about having a legitimate heir and spare of the required gender, as shown by his frequent marriages, so to him there was no point in muddying the waters further.
Why Was Henry FitzRoy Important?
FitzRoy was important because he showed Henry that he could have a son who lived. By the time of his birth the King and Catherine had their daughter Mary, who had survived far longer than her brothers. So why could he have a living son with his mistress and not his wife? This question would form the basis of Henry's quest for a divorce from Catherine for many years.
FitzRoy originally led a discreet but royal life from the moment of his birth, with his prominance growing as he got older and the likelihood of him surviving increased. Bessie was married off to a nobleman named Gilbert Tailboys (or Talboys) in 1522, her son did not accompany her to her new home, but she was allowed to visit him frequently. Instead his upbringing was overseen by both Cardinal Wolsey and the King, who officially made him Duke of Richmond and Somerset and gave him lands which would support a household fit for a prince.
Over the years FitzRoy would continue to be given responsibilities and lands that indicated his high status. Princess Mary was still acknowledged as their father's legitimate heir (until Henry married Anne Boleyn) and sent to live in Wales, although she was never officially given the title "Princess of Wales" that indicated her status as next in line for the throne. FitzRoy on the other hand was named Lord High Admiral, and Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. In reality FitzRoy's responsibilities for these roles were handled by other men, who were appointed by Cardinal Wolsey, but symbolically the titles meant a lot. Henry also tried to find a suitably royal bride for his son, with Maria of Portugal, Catherine de Medici and a princess of Denmark all considered, although all negotiations for each one eventually fizzled out. Perhaps the most shocking marriage suggestion, put forward when Henry was trying to divorce Catherine, was that FitzRoy marry his half-sister Princess Mary. As with the other suggestions, this never came to pass, but it would have raised a lot of questions both in England and Europe if it had.
FitzRoy was still a potential in the succession picture when Henry married his third wife, Jane Seymour. The Act of Succession that passed after the wedding officially marked Anne Boleyn's daughter Elizabeth as illegitimate, and banned her and Mary from the line of succession. It specifically noted that if Jane Seymour had daughters but no son, then her daughters would be in line AFTER the sons of any wife that followed her. But, in the event that Henry had no legitimate sons, the Act gave him the right to nominate his own heir. In theory this could have been any of his surviving Yorkist cousins, those that hadn't been executed by his father or Henry himself. But it also meant that he could name FitzRoy as his heir, if it was absolutely necessary.
Instead FitzRoy was married to Mary Howard, a cousin of Anne and Mary Boleyn, her father was their uncle the Duke of Norfolk. The marriage was never consummated, the couple were in their early teens and considered too young to be allowed to live together, but Mary was allowed to use the title "Duchess of Richmond". She may have been a step down from a European princess, but Mary Howard was probably the best match that a king's illegitimate son could have got under the circumstances.
FitzRoy didn't live long enough to see his half-brother Prince Edward, whose birth would have promptly cut off any hope he may have had of becoming king. He died on 23rd July 1536, a week after he turned seventeen, probably from tuberculosis. Henry was reportedly devastated by his son's death, but declined to make any funeral arrangements. Instead FitzRoy's father-in-law, the Duke of Norfolk, had the young man's remains interred at the Howard family's church at Framlingham, where his tomb can still be seen.
It's interesting to speculate what might have happened if FitzRoy had lived, or lived long enough to father children with his wife. Would he have supported his little half-brother Edward? Would his children have been a thorn in Elizabeth's side? Or would he have carved out a position for himself as a notable politician, with no aim for the throne itself. Even though he never had a chance to show what he could do, his birth at least had a part in persuading Henry to consider a divorce from Catherine, which would lead to monumental changes in English religion, something which is just as significant as the signing of Magna Carta.
On this day, 1st June 1300, Margaret of France gave birth to a baby boy - Thomas of Brotherton. Margaret was the second wife of King Edward I of England. Edward had been unlucky when it came to his sons. His first wife, Eleanor of Castile, had given birth to around sixteen children, including at least four sons, but many of their children had died in childhood. When Eleanor passed away her only surviving son was Edward of Caernarfon, and with such a rate of infant mortality in the family there was no guarantee that this little boy would survive to become King.
Edward’s marriage to Margaret of France was partly out of necessity at needing another wife, and partly a political move to seal a treaty with Margaret’s half-brother, King Philip. They seem to have been happy though, despite the huge age difference (Edward was sixty and Margaret was around twenty), and baby Thomas was the first of what would be three children born to the couple.
Thomas actually appears to have come early, his mother was out hunting when she went in to labour, and she was rushed to the nearby manor house at Brotherton in Yorkshire, hence his name. His brother Edmund joined him a year later, and a little sister named Eleanor came along after a few years, but died very young.
Edward and Margaret appear to have been devoted parents. When he heard the news of Thomas’ birth, Edward (whose supposed portrait is shown on the right) raced to be with his wife and see the new baby. He took a personal interest in the decoration of Thomas’ rooms, ordering particular materials to be used and paying for two cradles to be furnished in rich cloth. There was good reason to be so particular, while the younger Edward was sixteen and past the dangers of childhood, there was still a possibility that Thomas could become King of England, he was his older brother’s heir for the time being.
When Edmund came along they spent their childhood in a combined household, with a large number of servants and attendants. Their education was the same as other boys at the time, although probably heightened in terms of skilled teachers. Along with the basic skills expected from schooling they were also given religious instruction, were taught to ride and learned to play chess. Their mother hired musicians to play for them, and when she was away with their father she appears to have kept a close eye on her boys, albeit from a distance. For Thomas it must have been an idyllic childhood.
Edward I died when Thomas was just seven years old. It couldn’t have come as a great shock to some in his household, the King had been an old man when he had married Thomas’ mother, but it must have been a great blow to the little boy. Margaret fought for her son’s rights, but she was up against her step-son, the new Edward II, and that meant she was also against his favourite, Piers Gaveston. Perhaps the first sign to Thomas that his life was going to be one of occasional difficulty, was when his promised title of “Earl of Cornwall” was given to Piers Gaveston. Perhaps the best known man to hold the title had been Richard of Cornwall, the younger brother of Henry III, who had been on crusade, travelled widely across Europe and been crowned King of the Romans. Although Thomas may have struggled to follow in such illustrious footsteps in the same way, the lands that came with it would at least have made him a wealthy man, as was suitable for the son and brother of kings. When Edward went to France to marry Princess Isabella, Thomas was further slighted. As a younger son of the late king, and a younger (albeit half) brother of the current king, he should have been given the honour of being the nominal regent during Edward’s absence (nominal as he would have been left strict instructions, Edward wouldn’t have been particularly far away, and he would have been assisted by a committee of experienced, high ranking nobles). Instead, once again, that honour went to Piers Gaveston.
At the age of twelve, and after Gaveston’s death, Thomas was awarded the Earldom of Norfolk by King Edward. Edward’s reign had already seen some serious problems, but Thomas had remained loyal to his brother throughout (although since he wasn’t even a teenager there would have been a limit to how much trouble he could have caused). Even as civil war descended in the early 1320’s Thomas remained loyal, as did his younger brother Edmund, who was now the Earl of Kent.
But Thomas’s loyalty would only go so far, and eventually like many other English noblemen he was pushed in to opposition against his half-brother and king. When Queen Isabella and Roger Mortimer landed in England with a small invasion force in September 1326 they were accompanied by Edmund, Earl of Kent. Following his younger brother, Thomas quickly allied himself with them. In time he would sit as one of the judges at the “trials” of the Despensers, and was one of the signatories of the document that declared his brother had forfeited the right to remain king after he abandoned the country, fleeing from the Queen and Roger Mortimer. He appears to have had a good relationship with his nephew, as he became one of Edward III’s main advisors.
Sadly though his brother Edmund was less lucky. Both of the new king’s uncles had angered Roger Mortimer. Both were close to their nephew and therefore posed a threat to Mortimer’s influence. In March 1330 Edmund was arrested for treason, tried before a court that had no real legal authority, and then beheaded. Edward had wanted to spare his uncle, but had been overruled by Mortimer.
Thomas managed to escape such savagery. After Mortimer’s death he was safe, and spent the rest of his life advising and assisting his nephew. In 1333 he was part of Edward’s campaign against Scotland, leading the right hand division in the Battle of Hallidon Hill, a battle won by the English and which saw the slaughter of a large number of Scottish nobles and infantry.
Thomas wouldn’t be with his nephew during his greatest battles in France, he died in 1338, two years before the start of what would become known as The Hundred Years War.
By the time Thomas of Brotherton died he had been married twice and had just two surviving children. He married Alice de Hales and with her had three children; Edward, Margaret and Alice. Sadly Edward predeceased his father by four years. Alice had died by 1330, and so Thomas married for a second time, to Mary de Brewes. They had no surviving children. This meant that on Thomas’ death his heir was his eldest daughter Margaret, who would go on to have a far more scandalous life than her father.
You may remember my blog post a few weeks ago about Eleanor of Aquitaine's divorce from King Louis VII of France. Their marriage had been rocky for years, a split was virtually inevitable. Louis tried to ensure that he still had some say in Eleanor's life, by including a clause that stated that she had to ask his permission before remarrying. In this way he hoped to prevent her from allying herself with someone who would pose a danger to his kingdom.
Unfortunately for Louis, on this day, 18th May 1152, remarrying without permission was exactly what Eleanor did. Her groom was none other than Henry "Plantagenet", Duke of Normandy, and their marriage united two of the biggest duchies in France, creating exactly the kind of problem Louis wanted to avoid.
The young groom, who was nine years younger than the bride, was the son of Duke Geoffrey of Anjou and his wife the Empress Matilda, a princess of England by birth and technically the rightful heir to the English throne (once you got past her gender). This was another rocky marriage, but unlike Eleanor it wasn't one that would be put aside. Matilda had originally been married to Henry, the Holy Roman Emperor, and she continued to be known as "Empress Matilda" for the rest of her life. She had no children by her first husband, and his death meant that she had to leave the Empire and return to England.
Her second marriage, arranged by her father Henry I of England, was designed to prevent the Duke of Anjou from being a pain in the neck. Unfortunately Matilda hated her new husband, and he wasn't exactly taken with her. Henry had to step in several times to prevent them from becoming completely estranged. In the end though they settled down enough to conceive several children, the eldest of whom was named Henry after his grandfather.
Henry's life was dominated by the war his parents waged against Matilda's cousin, Stephen, the new King of England. To this day historians argue over whether Stephen stole the throne from Matilda, or had been privately acknowledged as Henry I's heir. Either way, Matilda and Geoffrey were not about let an opportunity pass, and while Geoffrey focused on attacking strategic points in Normandy, Matilda travelled to England and waged war with the support of her illegitimate half-brother. "The Anarchy" as it became known, went on for years and decimated the English population. In the end a compromise would be reached, Stephen would reign as King, but his heir on his death would be Matilda's son Henry.
Of course, there was no guarantee that Henry really would be King on Stephen's death, at the time of the wedding it wasn't even much of a consideration. Stephen had sons of his own, and the English nobility may choose to support one of them instead. But Henry had learned a lot about successful warfare from his father, and was quickly gaining a reputation for being both brave and skillful. For a woman who had a Duchy to maintain, against enemies both inside and out, he was the obvious choice. Even as Eleanor was making her way home she had already decided to marry him.
The journey back was dangerous. In the medieval period a woman's consent to a marriage was considered a technicality rather than a necessity, and there were several men who plotted to kidnap and marry her themselves, including Henry's brother Geoffrey, so they could claim Aquitaine. But through a combination of bravery and speed, Eleanor managed to evade the plotters and reach Aquitaine safely. Henry arrived soon after, and the hasty wedding took place at Poitiers.
Louis instantly reacted by gathering a force to invade Aquitaine. Henry collected his own troops, fully supported by his wife, and was quickly successful. Louis was humiliated twice over, not only was he beaten in the field of battle, but a year later Eleanor gave birth to a healthy baby boy, giving Henry the heir that Louis had always wanted from her, and proving once and for all that if there was a fertility problem then it certainly wasn't hers.
The enmity between Louis and Henry would continue for decades, and would see Louis successfully turn Henry's sons against him, and lead to Eleanor's imprisonment for supporting them over her husband. But at least on this day in 1152, she would have started to feel safe for the first time in weeks, if not months.
On this day (technically the night of 29th April, or the early morning of 30th April depending on your point of view) in 1944, an SOE agent named Nancy Wake was parachuted in to France. She already had a five million franc price on her head, had been captured and freed, and it had taken her six attempts to get out of France in the first place. To say she was returning to the lion's den would be a bit of an understatement. She is also, for many reasons, one of my favourite women in history.
Before The War
Nancy Wake was born in New Zealand but raised in Australia. As a teenager she moved to the USA, where she became a journalist, and then on to France, where she met and married a wealthy Frenchman named Henri Fiocca. When Germany invaded France she volunteered with the French Resistance as a courier, while she and her husband let their holiday home be used as a safe house for people trying to escape.
During The War
Wake became an absolute pain in the neck to the Gestapo. They named her "The White Mouse", and she was so effective that they issued a 5 million franc reward for her capture. Under increasing pressure as members of her network were arrested, she eventually chose to flee Marseille. Her husband opted to stay behind, and was eventually captured, tortured and executed by the Gestapo. Wake herself was arrested in Toulouse, but was freed after a friend claimed they were having an affair and her secretive behaviour was due to her worry her husband would find out. Had the Gestapo got hold of her they would have done the same to her as they did to her husband.
She eventually managed to escape France in to Spain, via the Pyrenees, and from there got a ship back to Britain. She promptly volunteered with SOE, where she earned high praise for both her attitude and abilities. She was then parachuted in to France, where she met up with a local network. Her role was to oversee the groups finances and handle the division of weapons and supplies dropped by the Allies, but she was soon helping recruit new members, plan and oversee operations, and eventually came to lead over 7000 men. She claimed that her greatest moment was cycling a 300 mile round trip to get new wireless codes. She also killed a German sentry to prevent him raising the alarm, and shot a woman who was a German spy. In total her team killed around 1400 Germans, while suffering only 100 casualties.
In the years after the war Nancy Wake was awarded multiple honours, including Britain's George Cross. It was only after the war that she found out her husband had been killed by the Gestapo. She spent several years back in Australia where she attempted a political career, returned to England where she met and married her second husband, and then moved back to Australia once again. After her second husband passed away Wake once more returned to England, where she spent the final years of her life. After her death in 2011 her ashes were scattered in the countryside near Montluçon, the French town close to where her team had operated.
In many ways I think that Nancy Wake is so often forgotten because she survived. Had she been caught and executed she would no doubt be remembered as a valiant heroine who died for the cause. But the fact that she came through the war without being killed doesn't diminish how brave she was. When she escaped to Britain, with a 5 million franc bounty still on her head, she could have simply settled there in relative safety. Instead she chose to join SOE and jump straight back in to danger, and that is why she is one of my favourite women in history.
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