Thursday 2 January 2014

Mystery People of History – Eleanor Cobham, Royal Witch

Have you heard of Eleanor Cobham, a woman from fairly humble origins who became a royal duchess and then lost everything when she was convicted of witchcraft?  Back in the 15th century probably the last thing you would expect to find in the English royal family would be a witch.  So you may be surprised to find that several royal ladies from this period were suspected of practising the dark arts, including Joan of Navarre who was accused by her son Henry V of plotting to use magic to kill him and Jacquetta Woodville who was said to have worked with her daughter Elizabeth to bring about her marriage to Edward IV by using sorcery and making lead images of the king.

Penance of Eleanor, Duchess of Gloucester in London
Eleanor Cobham, Duchess of Gloucester Does Penance

But how does Eleanor Cobham qualify as a mystery person of history?  Firstly there were the witchcraft charges brought against her.  Was she really guilty of dabbling in the occult or was she set up by an opposing faction at court who wanted to undermine the influence her husband, Humphrey Duke of Gloucester, had over the young King Henry VI.  Then there were the two illegitimate children of her royal husband, Arthur and Antigone Plantagenet. Was Eleanor Cobham their mother?  If so why were they not legitimised after Eleanor and Humphrey of Gloucester married, as the Beauforts were when John of Gaunt married his long-time mistress Katherine Swynford?

Eleanor Cobham was born in 1400.  Her parents were Sir Reginald Cobham of Sterborough and Eleanor Culpepper, his first wife.  She entered the service of Jacqueline, Countess of Hainault as a lady in waiting in the early 1420s.  The Countess had come to England by the invitation of King Henry V as she was trying to extricate herself from her marriage to her politically ineffective husband, John IV Duke of Brabant. She did manage to obtain a divorce in 1422, although its legality was never entirely certain, and she then entered into a hurried match with the new King Henry VI’s uncle, Humphrey Duke of Gloucester, early in 1423.  Jacqueline had hoped that her new royal husband would help her regain her lands in Holland and Zeeland, but Humphrey was acting as Regent to the new king who was still just a child.  The Duke of Gloucester did travel to the continent with her and they had some success in regaining Hainault, but the powerful Duke of Burgundy gave his support to her estranged husband John IV.

Jacqueline’s husband Humphrey of Gloucester rather ungallantly returned to England, leaving her to continue the fight for her lands on her own.  It was the last time he was ever to see her and many believe that it was during this period in Hainault that he started his relationship with Eleanor Cobham.  Eleanor also returned to England and was soon openly acknowledged as his mistress.  In 1428 Humphrey of Gloucester’s marriage to Jacqueline, who was by this time imprisoned by the Duke of Burgundy, was deemed to be invalid by a papal enquiry.  The Duke could have remarried Jacqueline at this point, ensuring that the ne marriage was legal but took the politically undesirable step of marrying his mistress Eleanor Cobham instead.

His choice did not find favour with the English people.  The new Duchess of Gloucester was unpopular.  She was openly criticised because she chose to live a very lavish lifestyle and was thought to be too fond of ostentatious displays of pomp and finery.  The morals of the ordinary man on the street were also offended by her having been the Duke’s mistress before he wed her.  She was, however, a favourite of her new nephew, Henry VI, who gave her expensive presents and gave her a lot of attention.

Humphrey Plantagenet, Duke of Gloucester
Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester

Like all powerful men, Humphrey of Gloucester had enemies and political opponents.  These were the years that led up to the outbreak of the civil war that came to be known as the War of the Roses.  Tensions were riding high at the royal court; having a king who was still a child was always dangerous as they could easily be used as pawns by the various political factions, but even as he grew to manhood Henry VI remained a passive, ineffectual monarch. Not only was Humphrey the Regent, but after the death of his brother, John Duke of Bedford, in 1435 he also became the heir to the throne.  One of his greatest opponents was Henry Beaufort, Cardinal of Winchester, who was Henry VI’s great-uncle.  Cardinal Beaufort was determined to undermine the influence Humphrey of Gloucester had over the impressionable young King Henry and one of the ways he could do that was by attacking his new wife, Eleanor.

In June of 1441 a way of destroying the reputation of the Duchess of Gloucester and removing her from public life was found when two men called Roger Bolingbroke and Thomas Southwell were arrested on charges of necromancy and witchcraft.  A priest called John Hume informed on the pair, who were said to have been using the dark arts to predict the future of the young king; to find out how long he had to live and whether he would soon suffer a serious illness.  They were imprisoned in the Tower of London and it is believed by some that their confessions were tortured out of them. But, fatally for Eleanor, Roger Bolingbroke implicated the Duchess and said that it was she who had asked him to tell the king’s fortune.  Also, the Duchess was said to have gone to a witch called Margery Jourdemayne, also known as the Witch of Eye,  for love potions designed to ignite the ardour of Duke Humphrey and help her bear a child.

It was alleged they had all met in secret to bring about the death of the young Henry VI using sorcery, by creating a wax image of him.  It is important here to have a look at how witchcraft and sorcery were regarded in English society in the early 15th century.  Although regarded as a serious crime, the witchcraft hysteria of the 16th century had not yet swept through the country. Being found guilty of witchcraft was not usually a crime that was punished by death unless treason or a murder was involved.  Witches could also be accused of heresy, but at this time heretics who recanted were often also not executed.  What made these accusations so serious were that they involved the king and to try and predict the death of a reigning monarch using necromancy was treason, which was a capital offence.

Eleanor tried to evade her fate by fleeing into sanctuary at Westminster, but after Roger Bolingbroke made his public confession in front of the great cathedral of St Paul’s she was arrested and incarcerated in Leeds Castle in Kent until her trial in October 1441.  All of them were found guilty and given heavy punishments.  Bolingbroke was a known magician and he pleaded that although he had cast an astrological chart for the Duchess it was only to predict her future and see how far she would progress in life, and was nothing to do with the fate of the King.  Although being frowned on by the Catholic Church at the time, many ladies of the court did dabble in astrology and have their fortunes told.  The necessary secrecy surrounding such occult practices probably gave a frisson of fear to the proceedings that added to the excitement, but none expected more than a scolding and extra penance if they were found out.  However, his story was not believed by the court and they found him guilty of attempting to predict how long Henry VI was going to live.  He was hung, drawn and quartered at Tyburn and was made to wear his magician’s robes on the scaffold as well as being surrounded by the equipment he used to do his magic.

Henry Plantagenet
King Henry VI of England

Thomas Southwell was perhaps lucky he died in prison.  Margery Jourdemayne was not to be so lucky.  Despite not having been convicted of either heresy or treason, she was sentenced to be burned at Smithfield.  She had stated in court that her involvement was purely with helping the Duchess of Gloucester bear a child and keep her husband’s love.  She admitted that and image had been made, but that it was only for the purpose of boosting Eleanor’s fertility and was not a representation of Henry VI as the court alleged.   The harshness of her sentence may have been down to the fact that this was her second conviction for witchcraft, as she had previously been arrested and imprisoned in 1430, but it might also have been given because of her association with the Duchess of Gloucester.  A warning of what could happen if you supported the Duchess and that it was politically healthier to stay loyal to the Beaufort camp.

Eleanor was not given a death sentence, but she was imprisoned for life and required to make public penance in three different locations around the City of London wearing only a sheet and carrying a candle.  Her marriage to Humphrey of Gloucester was annulled on the grounds that is had been brought about by sorcery and therefore the Duke had not freely given his consent to the match, but had his mind swayed by witchcraft. Eleanor spent the rest of her life imprisoned in various castles around the country, first at Kenilworth, then at Peel Castle on the isle of Man and finally at Beaumaris Castle in Wales where she died. Not surprisingly for such a tragic figure, after her death her restless figure is said to haunt both Leeds Castle and Peel Castle in the guise of a large black hound.

We will probably never really know the truth of whether Eleanor was trying to use witchcraft to predict the King’s death, but in all probability she was guilty of nothing more than trying to discover her own future.  She was probably feeling very insecure in her new position of Duchess of Gloucester.  As she had started an affair with her husband while he was still married to his first wife, she knew only too well that he was a womaniser who was easily tempted.  She would also have been all too aware that she was not popular with the people and that the Beaufort faction whispered against her.  Bearing a son would have strengthened her position immeasurably and made it much harder for Duke Humphrey to cast her off when he got bored of her or needed another wife to give him an heir, so it is perhaps not surprising that she turned to a witch for love and fertility potions.

But there is the other mystery surrounding Eleanor Cobham.  Had she given birth to Humphrey of Gloucester’s two illegitimate children, Arthur and Antigone Plantagenet, before her marriage?  There is no surviving evidence that she was their mother and, if she had given birth to them, then why did Duke Humphrey not publicly recognise her as their mother and legitimise them after their marriage?  He badly needed an heir and there had been a recent precedent set in the royal family when John, Duke of Lancaster legitimised his six Beaufort children when he finally married his long-time mistress Katherine Swynford.  If they were her children, it also makes it a bit strange that she was seeking help for her fertility after having already had two healthy children.  Of course, maybe her husband had already moved on romantically and the problem was not one of her fertility, but one of keeping her errant husband in her bed long enough to get pregnant again.

The mysteries surrounding Eleanor Cobham, who rose in the world to become a royal duchess before becoming embroiled in intrigue and disgraced for life, may never be fully unravelled.  She was probably guilty of no more than trying to secure her position in a Royal Court full of factions fighting between themselves for supremacy and control of the king.  Unfortunately, it was probably this very insecurity that worked against her and gave her political opponents the opportunity they needed to bring her down and also fatally wound her royal husband’s political aspirations.

Eleanor of Gloucester doing penance image Wikimedia Commons Public Domain
Humphrey of Gloucester image Wikimedia Commons Public Domain
Henry VI image Wikimedia Commons Public Domain

Sources:  Richard III, The Maligned King - Annette Carson, Wikipaedia

Wednesday 16 October 2013

Mystery of the Dark Countess – Was She The Daughter of Marie Antoinette?

First it was King Richard III under a car park in Leicester, then King Alfred theGreat in a churchyard in Winchester, now archaeologists want to solve a two hundred year old mystery in Germany by exhuming a corpse that some believe to be that of Marie Thérèse Charlotte de Bourbon, the eldest daughter of King Louis XVI and Queen Marie-Antoinette of France. The scientists are hoping they will be able to extract viable DNA from the remains which, once tested, will conclusively prove whether or not she was the unfortunate French princess.  It may also be possible to create a facial reconstruction from the skull, which can be compared to contemporary portraits of Marie Thérèse and her family to see if there is any family resemblance between them.

Marie Antoinette with Madame Royale and the Dauphin
Marie Antoinette with Madame Royale and the Dauphin

The opening of the grave is somewhat controversial, as some of the local residents in Hildburghausen approve of the project while others feel that the exhumation is disrespectful and that they prefer the mystery to remain unsolved. The archaeologists have already determined that the grave contains human remains and these have been identified as being those of a female of roughly the same age as the Dark Countess when she died.  But much more scientific testing needs to be undertaken before they can come to any conclusions about who the lady actually was.

During her lifetime the enigmatic lady was known locally as the Dark Countess, a mysterious figure who arrived at the castle of Eishausen in Thuringia in 1807 accompanied by a man, known as the Dark Count, who never claimed to be either her husband or her lover and introduced himself as Count Vavel de Versay.  They lived under the protection of the Duke and Duchess of Saxony and the lady’s true identity was never disclosed.  She led a very reclusive life, very rarely venturing out and when she did she was heavily veiled, dressed in black and always travelled in a closed carriage.

Her solitary life ended on November 28, 1837 and she was buried with undue haste, possibly even without a religious funeral service being said at her graveside.  Her name was given out by the Count as Sophie Botta, supposedly an unmarried woman from Westphalia, although a search of the civil registries in Westphalia did not turn up any entries for this name.  The physician who attended her passing estimated her age to be around 60 years old.  She was not interred in the local cemetery, but in a strange tomb on a mountain called the ‘Stadtberg’ outside of the town of Hildburghausen, with no inscriptions or memorials to identify the occupant. The Count remained at the castle until the time of his own death in 1845.

French Royal Family circa 1822
French Royal Family circa 1822

From the moment they moved in there was much speculation about the mysterious couple among the local populace, who were very interested in finding out who they really were, especially the identity of the little-seen lady.  Although there has been little historical evidence to back it up, the most persistent theory was that the ‘Dark Countess’ was really the ill-fated Marie Thérèse Charlotte de Bourbon, also known as Madame Royal, eldest daughter and only surviving child of King Louis XVI and Queen Marie-Antoinette of France, who had both been executed in Paris during the French Revolution.  Marie Thérèse had been imprisoned in the Temple for most of the Revolution not being exchanged for a French prisoner until 1795.  The theory was that the young French princess had been so traumatised by what she had gone through, and had maybe even been raped and made pregnant while in prison, that she could no longer face the rigours of the outside world.

Marie Thérèse had been born in 1778 and was the first child and eldest daughter of the French King and Queen; a much longed for child as they had already been married for seven years when she arrived into the world.  She was known as Madame Royale from the moment she was born and was later joined in the royal nursery by two brothers and a younger sister. Tragically, her eldest brother the Dauphin and her sister both died very young before the Revolution which started in 1789.  She was the only one of her family to survive the Terror, although she was not told that her parents had been executed or what happened to her remaining brother for many months.  She was held prisoner in the Temple for over three years and was only exchanged for a prisoner, Nicolas Marie Quinette, on the eve of her seventeenth birthday. On leaving the prison, she was taken to Vienna, the home of her mother’s imperial family the Hapsburgs.

She then went to live with her uncle the Comte de Provence who was residing as a guest of the Russian Tsar in Latvia.  He had assumed the title King Louis XVIII of France after the death of her brother.  He arranged a marriage for her with her cousin Louis-Antoine, Duc d'Angoulême, who was the son of the new king’s brother the Comte d’Artois.  The whole family moved to England in 1809, residing at Hartwell House in Buckinghamshire.  After the fall of Napoleon in 1814, they returned to France and Louis XVIII took the throne.  Marie Thérèse and her husband had no children of their own and they were forced to leave France again in 1830, first going to Edinburgh and then moving on to Prague.  They then moved to Gorizia, which was then in Austria, where her husband died in 1844.  She spent her final days living quietly in a castle just outside of Vienna, where she passed away on 19th October 1851.

It was rumoured she had exchanged identities with her half-sister Ernestine Lambriquet, and it was this half-sister who actually married the Duc d’Angoulême in 1799.  Ernestine Lambriquet was allegedly the illegitimate daughter of Louis XVI and a chamber maid called Philippine Lambriquet. However, there are records in France for the marriage of Ernestine Lambriquet in 1810 to a man called Jean-Charles-Germain Prempain and records of her death aged 35 in 1813, which would seem to indicate that there had not been any switch.  However, many remarked on how much the appearance of Madame Royale had changed in portraits from the ones painted before 1795 and that her manners and behaviour had also considerably altered.  In more recent years, handwriting comparisons have also been undertaken between Marie Thérèse’s early correspondence and her later letters that seem to show that they could not have been written by the same person.  The shadowy Dark Count was proved to be one Leonardus Cornelius van der Valck, a Dutchman who served in the French Embassy in Paris from July 1798 and April 1799.  This is in itself another mystery, because why would a foreign diplomat working with the new regime in France give up his life to protect and be a companion to a dispossessed French princess?

So who was the Dark Countess?  Was she really Marie Thérèse Charlotte de Bourbon, driven into a life of solitude by the tragic memories of what happened to her family during the Terror and her own horrific experiences while imprisoned?  Or was she just a woman who liked to live a quiet life, a woman who maybe suffered from a facial injury or social phobia that caused her to avoid mixing with strangers?  Hopefully the scientific analysis of the body will yield answers and her identity will be confirmed.  But if the Dark Countess is not the French princess, who was she and why did some of Europe’s most senior royals give her shelter and help her to live in comfortable isolation, away from the world?

The French Royal Family circa 1822 Wikimedia Commons Public Domain

Sunday 11 August 2013

The Search for King Alfred the Great

The search is now on for the mortal remains of King Alfred the Great.  After finding the grave of King Richard III against all odds under a car park in Leicester in August 2012, searching for our lost monarchs seems to have become bit of a national pastime here in the UK.  Now it is the turn of the Anglo Saxon King Alfred the Great, he of the burned cakes, as his grave has never been identified.  Archaeologists believe that he is lying in an unmarked grave somewhere in Winchester, possibly in St Bartholomew’s churchyard where they have a collection of unidentified bones including five skulls.

The Alfred Jewel
The Alfred Jewel

The first task facing the archaeologists is to sort the bones out as separate individuals and then determine the sex and the estimated age they would have been when they died. The bones will then be radiocarbon dated to check if they do indeed date from the Anglo Saxon period.  If they manage to isolate a male skeleton that dates to the time of Alfred the Great, they then intend to extract a DNA sample and try and match it with the DNA of a living descendant.  This will be much more difficult than the task that faced the investigators who had to find a living relation of Richard III, as King Alfred lived much longer ago between 849 and 899 AD.  The family tree is much older and it is going back into a shadowy time in our history from where there are fewer documents and less historical evidence that has survived.

The churchyard at St Bartholomew’s was reserved for high status burials back in the 9th century, so if they do identify male skeletal remains from the right time period, there is a good chance they could prove to be Alfred’s.  But who was Alfred the Great and why are archaeologists so keen on finding his burial?  Alfred the Great came to the throne at a turbulent time in England’s history. During the Anglo Saxon period, England was not one country, but was divided into several different kingdoms.  Alfred was born the son of King Aethelwulf of Wessex and his first wife Queen Osburh.  He was well travelled as a child, as he visited Rome at the age of four  where he was confirmed by Pope Leo IV, and then made a later visit to the papal city when he accompanied his father on pilgrimage, also spending time at the court of Charles the Bald, King of the Franks on the journey.

Alfred had three older brothers, who were champing at the bit to gain more power, and when the pilgrims returned to Wessex Aethelwulf was deposed by his son Aethelbald.  This move disrupted the kingdom and rather than having to go through a destructive civil war, the nobles made the warring rulers accept a compromise; Aethelwulf would rule in the east, while Aethelbald would hold onto to the lands he had seized in the east.  When Aethelwulf died in 858, all three of his elder sons ruled in succession.  However, it is not until the reign of the third brother Aethelred in 866 that Alfred comes to prominence.  At this time, the four Anglo Saxon kingdoms were under threat from the Vikings who had invaded East Anglia in 865.  He was  given the title ‘secundarius’, which meant that he was the officially recognised heir to the throne in the event of Aethelred’s death, ensuring a smooth succession and continuity of rule.

The Viking horde was known as the ‘Great Heathen Army’ because at that time the Vikings were not Christians and still worshipped their traditional Norse gods.  They swept through the kingdom of East Mercia, led by a man called Ivar the Boneless.  Alfred is recorded as having joined his brother in attempting to fight off the Viking horde in East Mercia, but by the end of 870 they had managed to push into Wessex itself. The following year 871 was to be a difficult one for Alfred as he had to fight in nine military engagements and his brother Aethelred died in April, making Alfred the King of Wessex.  His army suffered a heavy defeat while he was absent at the burial ceremonies of his brother and was defeated again at the Battle of Wilton when he was back leading his men in May.  The new king was forced to sue for peace, and although the terms of the treaty are not known, the Vikings did retreat back to London, probably after being bribed with a large amount of money to do so.

By 876 the Vikings had a new leader called Guthrum. They marched once more into Wessex, eventually forcing King Alfred to flee from his Christmas court at Chippenham.  The king and a small band of followers took refuge in the marshes of Athelney in Somerset for the rest of the winter of 878.  It was at this low point in his career that the infamous burning of the cakes supposedly occurred.  According to legend, Alfred and his followers were taken in and given shelter by a local peasant woman.  She gave the monarch the task of watching some cakes that she was cooking on the fire, but Alfred was so distracted by his difficulties that he let the cakes burn. The woman scolded him mightily for being so careless. Although this story is more legend than fact, it represented the nadir of Alfred’s political career.

In the spring Alfred emerged from his hiding place and surprised the Danes at the Battle of Edington, winning a decisive victory.  Guthrum was forced to retreat back to Chippenham, where Alfred’s army besieged him for two weeks.  He was driven to surrender, and under the terms of the Peace of Wedmore he agreed to be baptised as a Christian and to leave Wessex.  Guthrum took his army back to East Anglia and Alfred got on with building his power base.

He was to prove to be an innovative and resourceful monarch, and the only English king to be known as ‘the Great’.  He took steps to build a navy to help contain the Viking threat from across the sea in Scandinavia, and on land managed to wrest control of London back and forced the Danes back up into the east and north of the country.  This area became known as the Danelaw, and in the south and west King Alfred’s Saxon laws were applied.  He also encouraged the growth of fortified towns, established schools and promoted culture.

So Alfred the Great was the king who united the divided kingdom of England, as well as introducing new laws and other administrative changes that were to shape the emerging nation.  So it would be very exciting if the remains of this monarch could be identified and given the kind of burial that he so richly deserves.

  The Alfred Jewel image Richard M Buck Wikimedia Creative Commons Attribution - Share Alike 3.0 Unported

Saturday 23 February 2013

The Battle of Fromelles - First World War Tragedy

On the evening of 19th July 1916, British and Australian infantry attacked across a 4,000 yard section of the German front line at Fromelles.   It is situated south of Armentieres on the Aubers Ridge and an attempt to dislodge the Germans from this position in the previous year, 1915, had already cost the Allies many casualties. The battle was partly planned to divert German attention and resources from the battle of the Somme that was raging 80 kilometres to the south, but there was another major battle objective of taking a German salient called the Sugar Loaf.  The British troops were from the 61st Division, also known as the 2nd South Midland Division, and the Australians were from the Australian 5th Division, which had only arrived in France a few days before.

Australian 53rd Battalion at Fromelles, July 1916
Australian 53rd Battalion at Fromelles, July 1916

They went over the top at 6pm and advanced in broad daylight and in clear view of the German defenders, the 6th Bavarian Reserve Division, over treacherous ground.  The battle plan of General Richard Haking was to mount a daylight surprise attack past the first line of German trenches and advance around 400 metres to a secondary line.  As this was preceded by an 11 hour preliminary artillery bombardment, it was hardly surprising that the Germans were prepared and ready to meet their attackers.  Within minutes the British and Australians had sustained heavy casualties, and tragically they failed to make any ground at all.

The Australian 8th and 14th Brigades did largely hit their objectives, but they found that the German secondary line when they fought their way through to it was merely an indefensible, water-filled ditch.   On the eastern flank, the Australian 32nd Battalion suffered heavy losses attacking a German stronghold at Delangre Farm, although parts of the 14th Brigade reached the main road 400 metres to the south before they were forced to retreat back to the ditch. On the right flank, the British 184th Brigade and the Australian 15th Brigade were mown down as they attempted to cross no man’s land and reach the German front line.

With a display of ineptitude that unfortunately characterised the implementation of many battle plans in the First World War, the British 61st Division requested the Australian 15th Brigade to join in a renewed attack at 9pm.   The British cancelled the attack and failed to inform the Australians that they had done so, so the Australian 58th Battalion attacked the salient again with disastrous consequences.  The Germans managed to get in between the Australian 14th and 15th Brigades, isolating the Australians and forcing the 8th and 14th Brigades to withdraw the next morning.  As they were retreating, the Australian troops sustained heavy casualties from the machine gun enfilades that the Germans had managed to set up.

 In the night and day it took to fight the battle, 1,500 British and 5,533 Australians became casualties and for Australia it is still one of the highest number of casualties that they have suffered in 24 hours of conflict.  The Australian 5th Division was rendered virtually inoperable by the Battle of Fromelles and had to be rebuilt over several months.  These high Australian losses and the way in which the High Command had been perceived to be conducting itself before and during the battle, had the unfortunate effect of souring relations between the Australian Imperial Force and the British.  Although Gallipoli had taken nearly 9,000 Australian lives in 1915, that battle has stretched over several months.  This was 5,533 casualties, effectively all being sustained in one day.

Allied Dead Behind the German Lines at Fromelles, 1916
Allied Dead Behind the German Lines at Fromelles, 1916

After the battle was over, great courage was shown by the surviving troops as they braved the German guns and sniper fire to crawl out into no man’s land and bring in their injured comrades.  On the outskirts of Fromelles is the Australian Memorial Park which has a moving statue of one Australian soldier carrying another over his shoulders to safety.  It is inscribed with one word ‘Cobbers’.  This comes from the story told by Sergeant Simon Fraser of the Australian 57th Battalion who was out between the lines rescuing an injured man.  He was about to lift the wounded soldier when he hears another voice calling out ‘don’t forget me, cobber’.  Luckily, Fraser was successful in rescuing both men, but he lost his own life to the Great War a year later.  Even the new school in Fromelles does not have a French name; it has been called ‘Cobbers’ by the local mayor and has a kangaroo as a weather vane.

In May 2008 eight mass graves were found in Pheasant Wood near Fromelles in Northern France, although only six were found to contain bodies, after several years’ painstaking research and work by an Australian schoolteacher called Lambis Englezos.  They dated from the First World War; from the futile battle that raged over that ground from 19th-20th July in 1916 and were discovered behind the old German lines.  These would have been the bodies of the Australian and British soldiers who had been killed in the German lines and removed by them after the battle.

From May 2009 archaeologists from Oxford Archaeology excavated the site unearthing the remains of the 250 British and Australian soldiers and carefully removing them by September 2009.  The Commonwealth War Graves Commission was asked to oversee the work on the site by the British and Australian governments.   A new military cemetery at Fromelles was created for the reburial of the bodies, the first new one in Europe in over 50 years, with each set of remains having their own individual plot and commemorative headstone.

Every effort was made to identify the remains and the archaeologists and DNA specialists worked hard to try and link names to the bodies and then inform their families.  DNA samples were taken from all the bodies and a list was compiled of all the casualties from Fromelles who have no known grave.   Out of the 1685 soldiers with no known grave, 450 were British and the rest Australian.  Relatives of all the missing men were encouraged to come forward for DNA testing, in the hope that all 250 of the bodies could be positively identified and have their names carved on their new headstones.

There were also six anthropologists working on the remains, who provided a range of anthropological information on each body that has been added to other data collected about the body, including analysis of any artefacts that were found that with the remains.    The artefacts included boots, coins, fragments of their bibles, rings and probably most poignantly of all, the return half of an Australian train ticket from Fremantle to Perth.  After the remains were removed from the mass graves, they were washed, dried and x-rayed and any anatomical details noted that might help the Commonwealth War Graves Commission identify the body.

The bodies were temporarily stored in a mortuary on the site and then reburied in individual ceremonies with full military honours in the new military cemetery from early 2010. The first burial took place with full ceremony on 30th January 2010 and there was a special commemoration ceremony held on 19th July 2010, the anniversary of the battle.

Fromelles Military Cemetery
Fromelles Military Cemetery

General Ludendorff once made the famous statement about the Allies that ‘these men are fighting like lions, but they are led by donkeys’. So we have to ask ourselves this question.  Even if the British and Australian infantry had gained their objectives on that long ago evening in July 1916, would it have been worth the loss of so many young lives?  It is the fact that the battle proved to be a total catastrophe and that no ground was gained at all, which makes it all even sadder.  That these brave young men gave up their lives fighting for what they believed in and for their country in a futile, pointless battle.  One of the great ironies of the Battle of Fromelles is that a young German Private named Adolf Hitler was serving with his regiment in the German trenches in that area.  One stray allied shell or bullet could have changed the course of world history.

So whatever we think of war and the First World War in particular, let us salute the soldiers who fought and never forget that they were young men with their whole lives ahead of them who were prepared to pay the price asked and selflessly lay down their lives.

53rd Battalion image Wikimedia Commons Public Domain (Australian War Memorial A03042)

Allied Dead at Fromelles image Wikimedia Commons Public Domain (Australian War Memorial PO6285.001)

Fromelles Military Cemetery image Wikimedia Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Generic

Friday 8 February 2013

Albigensian Heresy – Who Were the Cathars?

Some events can change the course of history in a country or region, and the rise of the Cathars in the area known as the Languedoc was one of these important historical flashpoints. Today the Languedoc is a peaceful, largely rural, region in the south west of France, stretching from the snowy peaks of the Pyrenees in the west to the borders of Provence in the east. It is a landscape of sun baked plains planted with grape vines, craggy windswept mountains, ruined medieval castles and ancient traditions. But it is a landscape that is still haunted by the memory of the black-robed holy men, who used to travel the roads and mountain paths between the towns and villages in the Middle Ages, spreading their beliefs and arguing against the established orthodoxy of the Catholic Church, which at that time dominated the religious landscape of Europe.


The beliefs held by these itinerant Cathars, were viewed as so threatening by the Church of Rome that they responded by inciting a Crusade against the Cathars and their supporters, which led to the destruction of towns, mass burnings of believers and ultimately to the founding of that precision instrument of terror known as the Inquisition. Because, make no mistake, the Catholic Church was determined that every last Cathar and any of their supporters had to be destroyed and that their terrible heretical beliefs totally excised from the pages of history forever.

The exact origins of the Cathars are still shrouded in mystery, but their doctrines were probably first introduced into Western Europe by Bogomil missionaries, who were a dualist sect centred in Bulgaria and the Balkans.  Catharism as an individual sect emerged in the mid-12th century and flourished in Lombardy, the Rhineland and some parts of northern France as well as in the Languedoc. But it was in the Languedoc that the Cathars became part of the very fabric of society. It is important to remember that during the 12th century the country that we now know as France did not exist.  The kingdom of France was a fairly small strip of territory surrounding Paris in the north that was flanked by the mighty duchies of Normandy, Burgundy, Brittany and Aquitaine. 

The Languedoc itself was a patchwork of different fiefdoms, the largest and most important of which was the county of Toulouse.  The Languedoc at this time was a wealthy, prosperous region that was rich in culture and learning. It was also a bit of a cultural melting pot, where new ideas and different religious ideas were more readily embraced than in the chillier regions of northern Europe.  The Languedoc was home to a large Jewish community that enjoyed much greater freedoms and prosperity than was usual in Catholic Europe, and it was also the birthplace of the poetical troubadours and the land of courtly love, where knights yearned from afar for their unattainable lady loves.  All in all, the Languedoc was the perfect place in the Middle Ages for a heresy to flourish.

So what did the Cathars believe in that the Church of Rome found so threatening?  The Cathar faith contained both dualist and Gnostic elements. They believed that the world was essentially an evil and corrupt place, ruled by a deity that was sometimes known as Rex Mundi, or the King of the World. The god that the Cathars actually worshipped was a spirit of light and goodness, which dwelt completely outside of the material plane. So essentially, to a Cathar, it was earthly existence that was hell, and they yearned to be free of its shackles and be released into spirit form or heaven. However, to be able to do this they had to lead a life of stringent asceticism and self-denial as a Cathar perfect. There were generally only a fairly small number of true Cathars or Perfect, as most Cathar believers or credentes lived ordinary lives centred on work and family. Becoming a Perfect was a matter of personal conscience, but the credentes were thought to be trapped in a never-ending cycle of reincarnation into this evil world, until that soul decided that they were spiritually capable of choosing the rigours of an ascetic life.

Living as a Perfect involved much self denial, as they had to pray frequently, preach and minister to the credentes, refrain from any sexual intimacy and fast as often as possible. When they did allow themselves to eat they were not allowed to eat any meat, and also had to abstain from eating any of the products of sexual reproduction such as milk, butter, eggs and cheese. They could, however, eat fish, as in the Middle Ages it was thought that fish spontaneously appeared in the water, and they could also drink wine. To achieve the yearned for freedom from the ongoing cycle of reincarnation these strictures had to be rigidly adhered to, as just one mouthful of meat or a passionate kiss, would be enough to lose them the status of a Perfect

As for the credentes, they could live pretty much as those chose, as the Perfects did not believe in temporal laws or any form of temporal power or control. As long as you were not committed to the life of a Perfect, it mattered little if you did not attend the parish church on a Sunday, paid your taxes, had sex before marriage, had Muslim or Jewish friends or even got drunk, as these were all rules imposed by earthly institutions, which were inherently corrupt, and possibly even evil, purely because they were of the material world. The Cathars believed in love, light and peace, and that any form of earthly power was incompatible with these principles. They thought that human souls had been pulled out of the spiritual realms of light at the beginning of time into the dense, corrupt world of matter, but that each soul still retained a spark of divine awareness, which was just waiting to be re-ignited.

The Cathars also believed in the equality of women, and women could choose to become a Perfect, and many noblewomen in the region chose to leave their comfortable, privileged lives to set up Cathar houses in towns, where they taught young women to spin and weave and lived simple, frugal, productive lives. As the Catholic Church was as rooted in the temporal as much as the spiritual, it is easy to see why they were so repulsed by these beliefs. The medieval Church required obedience to an established set of rules, and brooked absolutely no dissent. The earthly power of Rome could be seen in the huge Cathedrals that were lavishly decorated, the acres of church estates, the tithes they collected from the populace and the wealth and pomp of the clergy. The fact that the lives of the Perfect more closely mirrored the life of Jesus than that of the average medieval bishop stung, and that the Cathars encouraged their followers to dismiss the teaching of the Church and even regard them with derision was like a red rag to a bull.

The Cathars were not particularly into written records or even religious texts, although they embraced parts of the New Testament and Jesus’ message of love, peace, tolerance and acceptance of all peoples. One of the things that the Catholic Church found abhorrent was the fact that the Cathars denied that Jesus could possibly have incarnated into this material, corrupt world and still remain the divine son of God. As far as the Cathars were concerned, any being on this planet was bound by it and was removed from the spiritual realms, and so could not be regarded as numinous in any way. Therefore the crucifixion and the symbol of the cross had no importance for them. The Church could not even scare the Cathars witless with the threat of eternal damnation as they did their own faithful, because as far as the Cathars were concerned they were already in hell by being on Earth.

The sacraments of the Church were also disregarded as being of the material world they were inherently evil, and the Cathar faith only had one sacrament or rite, the consolamentum. The consolamentum was the mechanism by which a Perfect was created, and could only be administered by another Perfect. This linked each new Perfect to the Perfect who had given them the rite, and it was thought that these links had been unbroken since the time of Christ and his apostles. The consolamentum consisted of the laying on of hands and repeated admonitions to lead a life of flawless simplicity, poverty and holiness. When a Perfect was approached by a credente, the credente would undertake the melioramentum which consisted of bowing and saying a prayer that asked for a good end to their life.

The word Cathar is thought to be derived from a Greek word Katheroi which means ‘pure ones’. The Cathars themselves simply referred to themselves as ‘good Christians’ or ‘good men’ or ‘good women’. Catharism permeated all levels of Languedoc society, from the castles of the nobles, to the shops of the merchants and the cottages of the peasants. Many a nobleman counted a Perfect as a member of his family, and several of their wives left them to form a Cathar house for women.  Even if someone did not believe in the tenets of Catharism, they often still sympathised with them, as they saw the Cathar Perfect lead simple, holy lives which were often in direct contrast to the corruption and low morals exhibited by their own clergy. 

Many of the senior clergy of the Catholic Church acknowledged that the behaviour of some of their own brethren left much to be desired and that many of the accusations against them were justified, but this was still not reason enough to let the Cathar faith grow and flourish. If a large part of the population of the Languedoc were allowed to pay little attention to the bullying and manipulation of the Church, the Church would lose its grip on the region and, even worse, the rot could spread leading to a loss of power and revenue and abject humiliation.


Initially, Rome instigated peaceful attempts to convert the heretic Cathars back to the true faith, by sending Dominican monks into the region to preach and cajole the populace back into submission. They engaged the Cathar Perfect in wars of words, with long public debates often held in front of large crowds. But they found that the Cathar preachers were skilled orators and debaters, who also had a gift for making the envoys of the Church and their teaching look both ridiculous and hypocritical, without sliding into outright heresy. Events escalated with the murder of the Papal Legate, Pierre de Castelnau, on 15th January 1208, by a knight of Count Raymond VI of Toulouse. A crusade was preached against the Languedoc by the Church in Rome and undertaken with a great deal of vigour and enthusiasm by the King of France and the nobility of northern Europe. It is sometimes called the Albigensian Crusade, and the massed armies of the North laid waste to the towns and fertile farmlands of the Languedoc, and everywhere they went they undertook mass burnings and torture of the Cathar Perfect and their sympathisers. 

When the Crusade eventually broke up and the knights with their troops and siege engines returned home, the newly formed Inquisition took over and spent the following decades ferreting out the remnants of the Cathar faith, questioning them, torturing them and finally turning them over to the secular authorities so that their bodies could be burned.  This crusade eventually led to the region being brought under the direct control of the French crown, but the economy and vibrant culture of the Languedoc had been fatally wounded. Even now, hundreds of years later, this is not one of the richer parts of France, and it could be said that Languedoc never really recovered against this brutal assault against its own people.

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Saturday 2 February 2013

How to Murder Your Medieval Royal Relatives

You would think that being a member of the royal family would set you up for a life of luxury and security wouldn't you?  Well you would be wrong as being a royal in history has sometimes been a very hazardous occupation, especially if you were a royal child.  If we travel back to medieval times and take a look at the history of the English royal family, you will soon discover that family feuds were common and that several members of the Plantagenet family were murdered or disappeared in mysterious circumstances.  So let us have a look at some of these unfortunate royals and find out a bit more about their tragic fates.

King John's Tomb in Worcester Cathedral
King John's Tomb in Worcester Cathedral

Shortly after the Norman Conquest, King William II, better known as William Rufus because of the ruddy appearance of his face, was one of the first to meet with an untimely end.  This unfortunate monarch was out hunting on a summer’s day in 1100 in the New Forest when an arrow pierced his chest and killed him.  Things being what they were back then, as soon as they realised that their monarch was dead, the rest of the hunting party, which included his brother Henry, promptly departed, rushing off back to secure their own estates leaving William Rufus’s corpse lying on the forest floor.  Even the young Prince Henry high tailed it to Winchester to make sure that he would get his hands on the royal treasury before anybody else could claim it and then went on to London where he had himself crowned King of England within a few days. The contemporary chroniclers claimed that it had not been murder, but had just been an unfortunate hunting accident, but as William Rufus had not been a popular king, either with his barons or the Church, it was perhaps inevitable that rumours would abound that William Rufus had been murdered. It was recorded that it fell to a man called Purkis, who was a local charcoal burner, to rescue the royal corpse and take it on his cart to Winchester.

King John enjoys a generally bad reputation even for a Plantagenet king, as he has been widely vilified through the tales of Robin Hood, the outlaw who robbed the rich to give to the poor, as the wicked prince who was trying to steal the crown of his hero brother, King Richard the Lionheart.  King John probably deserves a lot of this evil legacy, as he spent a lot of time waging war and generally trying to get one up on his elder brothers and fairly regularly fell out with the Pope to the extent that he would be excommunicated and the whole country of England placed under interdict. However, it was the mysterious disappearance of his young nephew Arthur of Brittany that could have been the most nefarious deed of his unsavoury career.  Arthur of Brittany was the posthumous son of John’s elder brother Geoffrey Duke of Brittany, who had been killed in a tournament.  A fatherless royal child in possession of vast estates, fortune and titles would always have the wolves circling, and young Arthur became a pawn in the power games between John, Richard the Lionheart and King Philip II of France.  After Richard the Lionheart’s death, John managed to seize the throne of England, but as Arthur of Brittany had declared himself a vassal of the King of France, the French nobility were keen to place the English crown on Arthur’s head instead.  The new King John was forced to invade France in 1202 to combat this threat and, under the terms of the treaty of Le Goulet, Arthur of Brittany was forced to change his allegiance and acknowledge King John of England as his overlord.

King John fairly swiftly fell out with the French King again, and the Philip II gave his territories of Normandy and Anjou to young Arthur.  Even though he was still only a young teenager, Arthur of Brittany decided to assert his authority in his lands by besieging his own grandmother, the indomitable Eleanor of Aquitaine, in the castle at Mirebeau.  Eleanor of Aquitaine managed to alert King John to her peril and he raced to rescue her and imprisoned his young nephew at the same time.  The youthful prince was first imprisoned at Falaise in Normandy under the stewardship of William de Braose and the following year he was sent to captivity in the castle at Rouen.  Sometime in April of 1203, Arthur of Brittany mysteriously vanished, never to be seen again.  Although nothing was ever proved or officially recorded, the finger of blame was pointed squarely at King John, with rumours saying that the English monarch had killed his young nephew in a drunken rage and then thrown his body in the Seine, or that Arthur had been blinded and the gelded by the King’s agents and had died of shock and blood loss.   Again we shall probably never know the truth of the matter, but if King John did not murder his nephew, what did happen to poor Arthur of Brittany?

So moving up through the centuries, King Edward II was an ineffectual King of England, who was prone to having unpopular favourites and could not keep control of his barons.  He was married to Isabella of France who, when on an official trip to France, met an exiled English baron called Roger Mortimer, and became his mistress.  The new power couple decided that they had had enough of the dithering King Edward II and his latest favourites the Despensers, and invaded England in 1326. Their army met with little resistance, and they easily took over the country, capturing the Despensers and King Edward in the process.  The Despensers were summarily executed and Edward was imprisoned in Berkeley Castle.  Edward II was deposed in favour of his young son, who became King Edward III.

Tomb of King Edward II in Gloucester Cathedral
Tomb of King Edward II in Gloucester Cathedral

Although he was in captivity, Edward II still posed a threat to the new administration and he was found murdered on 11th October 1327, supposedly by agents of Queen Isabella and Roger Mortimer.  Contemporary chroniclers stated that the unfortunate Plantagenet monarch had either been strangled or suffocated, but in later years a rather more lurid legend grew up that Edward II had been killed by having a red-hot poker thrust into his nether parts.  This gruesome story has never been substantiated and there are historians that argue that, in fact, Edward II was not killed in Berkeley Castle at all but survived in exile on the Continent until around 1341.  But what goes around comes around as they say, and in time the young monarch Edward III grew tired of being dominated by his powerful mother and her lover, so in 1330 he seized Roger Mortimer and had sent him to the Tower of London. Roger Mortimer was accused without even getting a trial and was taken to Tyburn where he was hung, drawn and quartered as a common traitor.

Of course the biggest, baddest, wickedest uncle of them all, at least according to William Shakespeare, is King Richard III, who stands accused by history of murdering his two young nephews, known as the Princes in the Tower.  Before the death of his big brother, King Edward IV, in 1483 he had enjoyed an entirely untarnished reputation.  Unlike his brother George of Clarence, he had always remained loyal to his brother and worked hard in the North at keeping England’s border with Scotland secure.  However, he was not a fan of King Edward’s wife Elizabeth Woodville, and was highly suspicious of the lands and titles that she induced her husband to shower onto her large and rapacious family.  Edward IV’s death in 1483 was both premature and unexpected, and as Richard III had been named Lord Protector, he hastily assembled an army and marched south to meet up with his young nephew, who was now the new King Edward V and was being escorted to London by his maternal uncle Anthony Woodville, Earl Rivers.  

Richard had Anthony Woodville arrested and then executed and took his nephew to the Tower of London, the traditional lodging place of English kings before their coronation. The widowed queen, Elizabeth Woodville, had fled into sanctuary with her younger son and daughters, but Richard persuaded her to allow Richard of York to join his older brother at the Tower.  Both the young lads were reported being seen around the Tower of London and playing in the gardens and preparations for Edward’s coronation proceeded.  However, just before the coronation, Richard seized the crown for himself and was crowned as King Richard III.  Sightings of the two young princes began to dwindle and rumours started to fly that they had been murdered to make the throne safer for their uncle.  However, although their supposed murder has been carefully investigated by many historians, there has never been any concrete evidence come to light that Richard III murdered the Princes in the Tower.  In fact, there is no real evidence that they were killed at all, and many stories circulated about their continued existence and several pretenders, such as Lambert Simnel and Perkin Warbeck, came forward to declare that they were one or other of the boys.

So as you see, being a medieval royal in England could prove fatal and it was your own royal relatives that you had the most to fear from.  It wasn’t only uncles and wives that could be murderous; Henry IV locked his first cousin Richard II up in Pontefract Castle after he seized the throne and reportedly starved him to death.  So next time that you bemoan how ordinary your life is, remember that there is nothing romantic or exciting about being murdered, however exciting we think that these historic tales are.

King John Tomb image Wikimedia Commons Public Domain
King Edward II image Wikimedia Commons Public Domain

Monday 28 January 2013

Anne and Isobel Neville – Pawns in the War of the Roses

Do you have a glamorous view of history? Do you think that the Anne and Isobel Neville lived exciting, dazzling lives or were controlled as pawns in a high risk political game? Much of how we perceive our past has been shaped by films, TV and historical novels where handsome knights romance beautiful ladies in gorgeous frocks. The reality, however, was somewhat different.  For most ordinary people, life consisted of hard work, little education, poor healthcare and hygiene and very few chances to get ahead in life. For women it was even harder, as they were viewed as possessions of their families and were married off as advantageously as possible.  Love was not considered to be a factor; even liking your future spouse was not taken into consideration in many cases.  The life of a poor woman consisted of hard work, marriage, bearing children and struggling to bring them up.  Infant mortality was high and women had large families, where sometimes very few of the children reached adulthood.

Richard III and Anne Neville, Rous Roll
Richard III and Anne Neville, Rous Roll

But what if you were a princess or born into an aristocratic family like Anne and Isobel Neville?  Surely then your life would have been more like the Hollywood movie? Not really, is the answer.  Royal and noble women in medieval times were still controlled by their family.  They would have been reared with the skills to run a large household and be a mother, but they probably had been betrothed at a young age to someone they might not even have met.  Their lives would have been more comfortable and they would have the beautiful gowns and jewels, but their lives could still be cut cruelly short by disease or death in childbirth.

So let’s have a look at the lives of these two sisters in 15th century England, who on the surface of things seemed to have had such romantic and exciting lives? Isobel and Anne Neville were both born at Warwick Castle; Isobel in 1451 and Anne in 1456.  Their parents were Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick and his wife Anne Beauchamp.  The couple were to have no further children and this would be a grievous blow to the Earl as it meant that he had no heir. Girls at that time could inherit property and estates, but not carry on the title. Both of the girls spent much of their childhood at Middleham Castle in Yorkshire in the company of Richard the young Duke of Gloucester, George Duke of Clarence and Francis Lovell.  Their childhood was played out against the violent backdrop of the War of the Roses and they were both to become pawns in the struggle for the throne.

The Earl of Warwick supported the claim of Edward of York and helped him onto the throne as King Edward IV.  Edward was the elder brother of George of Clarence and Richard of Gloucester, and this is why Warwick took them into his household and was keen for them to become close to his daughters.  He was looking to consolidate his power by marrying them to the two royal princes, who at this time were still Edward’s heirs.  The Earl of Warwick became dissatisfied with his rewards for helping Edward IV gain the throne and was outraged when he married the widow Elizabeth Grey, humiliating him as he was negotiating an alliance for Edward with a French princess.  He was desperately unhappy with the amount of titles, lands and money that Edward lavished on his new wife’s family and what he regarded as the new Queen’s grasping, avaricious nature.

In 1469 Isobel was betrothed to George of Clarence.  This was against the king’s wishes as he believed that the union would bring too much power and influence to Warwick. Because of Edward’s disapproval, Warwick took the young couple to Calais where they were married on 11th July 1469 by Warwick’s brother George Neville, Archbishop of York.  The Duke of Clarence turned traitor against his brother the King and threw his lot in with Warwick and the Lancastrians who were plotting to overthrow Edward IV and restore Henry VI to the throne.

 At this time the Lancastrian forces were led by Henry VI’s wife Marguerite of Anjou, and to cement their alliance the Earl of Warwick offered his 14 years old daughter Anne in marriage to the 17 year old Prince of Wales.  They were formally betrothed at the Chateau d’Amboise with the blessing of the French king.  The Earl of Warwick had Anne’s sister Isobel in his train along with her traitorous husband George, Duke of Clarence.

However, after Anne was married to Edward, Prince of Wales, Clarence perceived this to be a snub to him and his pretensions to power.  So he threw himself on his brother’s mercy and betrayed Warwick to return to his brother’s side with his large army.  Marguerite of Anjou had been suspicious of Warwick’s motives because of Clarence’s presence, but Warwick returned to England to fight to restore Henry VI to the throne.  He was initially successful but was eventually killed at the Battle of Barnet early in 1471.
Anne Neville returned to England with Marguerite and Edward, but their army was defeated at the Battle of Tewkesbury in May 1471.  Her young husband was killed and she was imprisoned along with Marguerite.   It has been argued that Richard of Gloucester was closely involved in the death of the young Prince of Wales, as he himself wanted to marry Anne. Again it has been argued that this was because he was in love with her or, more cynically perhaps, that it was because he wanted to get his hands on the estates and possessions of her late father and her mother’s vast Beauchamp inheritance. She was taken first to Coventry and then to the household of her sister and brother-in-law, the Duke of Clarence who was once more back in the Yorkist fold.

Richard of Gloucester asked his brother Edward IV for Anne’s hand in marriage, which outraged Clarence who believed that he should get the lion’s share of the Warwick estates and titles.   There is a story that Anne was either so scared of Clarence that she ran away and worked as a kitchen maid in a chophouse in the city or was put there by the Clarence to keep her out of Richard’s hands.  Richard supposedly tracked her down and placed her in sanctuary at Westminster Abbey until they could be married on 12th July 1472, with the King’s blessing.  Richard was allocated much of Warwick’s former estates after his marriage. He was also appointed Governor of the North and the young ducal couple spent most of their time at Middleham Castle.  Their only child, a son called Edward, was born there some time in 1473.

Warwick Castle
Warwick Castle

The Clarence’s first child was stillborn, but in 1473 their daughter Margaret was born and in 1475 she was followed by their son Edward.  Tragically, Isobel died the following year at the very young age of 25, probably from consumption.  After Isobel’s death, Clarence continued to plot against his brother the King and was finally imprisoned in the Tower of London.  He was executed privately there in 1478 and there is a legend that he was killed by being drowned in a butt of Malmsey wine.  Anne Neville, as their aunt, took his two young children into her care.  Isobel and George’s son Edward later became Earl of Warwick and Earl of Salisbury, but historians believe that he may have had learning difficulties.  After the Battle of Bosworth, Henry VII kept him in prison because of his claim to the throne and he was executed in 1499 supposedly because he had been plotting to escape with the pretender Perkin Warbeck.   Their daughter Margaret was married to Sir Richard Pole and had five children and she was allowed to take the title Countess of Salisbury.  When she was 67 year old she was charged with treason by Henry VIII and beheaded.  There is a story that she refused to lay her head on the block and that the inexperienced executioner had to strike her with his axe ten times before he managed to kill her.

Edward IV died prematurely in 1483, and after confronting the Woodville’s and declaring his two nephews illegitimate, Richard took the crown and Anne was crowned Queen and their son Edward created Prince of Wales.  Edward tragically died suddenly at Sheriff Hutton Castle in April 1484 at the age of 11.  His mother Anne was already suffering from consumption and seemed unlikely to bear another child.  Rumours apparently sprang up at the Court that Richard was planning to divorce Anne and marry his niece Elizabeth of York. When Anne Neville died in March 1485 at the young age of 28, more rumours arose that Richard had poisoned her so that he could marry a healthy young wife who could bear him an heir.  Anne Neville died in the Palace of Westminster during an eclipse of the sun. She was buried in an unmarked grave in Westminster Abbey, and there was no memorial for her until in 1960 the Richard III Society installed a bronze tablet.  Her husband, Richard III died a few months later during the Battle of Bosworth, ending the rule of Plantagenet kings in England.

So however entrancing the lives of these two women may seem to have seemed on the surface, in reality they both died tragically young, after suffering from consumption (tuberculosis).   In their short lives they had been used as political pawns first by their father, the Earl of Warwick and then by the two Plantagenet brothers they were married to.  They knew the heartache of losing children at a young age and had had to bear the grief of the deaths of many of their close relatives and companions on the battlefield or on the scaffold, including their own father and Anne’s youthful first husband. Their stories make a good historical tale, but did they have a happy, fulfilled life?

Richard III family image Wikimedia Commons Public Domain
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