Archive for November, 2016

Teaching History to Children: Connected Thinking for the C21st

November 17, 2016

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How do we teach our children history?

As an avid reader of historical non-fiction and enthusiast of all things medieval, I was determined to introduce my children to history up-close and personal from as early an age as possible. I didn’t want them to learn history in little clunks of dis-connected ‘projects’ at primary school because I felt that they needed to see history as a continuum. I wanted them to live and breathe their history and to care about the lives of other humans who lived long ago but shared the same basic fears and enthusiasms and dreams for their future as we do.

Now, there is nothing wrong with teaching history in ‘project’ format at Primary level. You have to start somewhere and it is important to introduce such a complex and difficult subject in a digestible format. What I object to, is the feeling that like many of the ‘arts and humanities’ subjects, that history is viewed as a luxury ‘add-on’ rather than a core subject when I fervently believe that it should be key to all learning, whether that be maths, science, art or religious education. Everything has it’s history – it evolved from an earlier form of itself and should be seen within the wider context of the story of human effort and endeavour.

You might say that there would never be enough time within a normal school curriculum to trace everything back to it’s origins but actually, asking deep and meaningful questions about why we spell English words in such an odd way or why we form a number and call that a ‘6’ and what ‘6’ means might actually help small children understand why they need to learn any of the stuff that is pumped into them in order to pass their latest SATS tests in the first place!

The history of the English language would actually make some sense of the anomalies which jut out of the phonics system. They would help to explain why we have a silent ‘k’ in knight or why physics isn’t spelt with an ‘f’ at the beginning. Children currently have no such foundation and many struggle to understand why spelling everything phonetically results in lots of red pen and ’emerging’ statuses on the school report.

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What I find so frustrating about the ‘project’ based approach at Primary is just how disconnected it all is. One year they study the Greeks and the next The Vikings or The Tudors like bubbles in time, floating about in space without grounding any of it in the great timeline of existence.

Why did the Greeks believe in so many gods? Why did the Vikings develop such a reputation for savagery? How far was Tudor society a departure from the medieval world? In order to answer any of these questions, you need to see that society in the context of the age from which is evolved. You can’t really understand the psychology of the ancient Greeks without understanding the cultures of Babylonia, Egypt and the Minoan civilisation. You can’t grasp where the Vikings got their reputation without understanding the impact of Christianity on the British Isles in the centuries before they arrived there anymore than you can see the continuity and change within Tudor England without knowing what came before the split with Rome and the influence of Renaissance humanism on society.

Many people would say that young children would not be able to grasp or grapple with such an approach but I disagree. Even tiny children ask amazingly interesting and complex questions all the time. ‘Why is the sky blue?’ ‘Where do bees come from?’ ‘Why did Henry VIII cut off his wife’s head?’

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They are capable of so much more connected thinking when we allow them to delve deeper into the subject.

To take one example, I went to talk to some year 5 pupils this year about the Anglo-Saxons and knew they had been reading Beowulf by Michael Morpurgo as part of their project. I wanted them to wonder at the beauty of the language and, of course, not being able to read or understand Old English, the best way to convey the poetry and poignancy of the original was to read them passages from Seamus Heaney’s masterly translation and to set the literature within the context of the material culture of Beowulf’s age and the oral tradition of the mead hall.

We looked in detail at slides of finds from Sutton Hoo and talked about the effort involved in the construction of the ship burial and what that represented about the relationship between the tribal leader and his people. This enabled the children to think about the concept of ‘comitatus’ and what that might have meant to the people who built Sutton Hoo and their emotional connection with their leader. By the time we read the lines about the burial of Beowulf and the escort of warriors who paid tribute to him, there was a palpable sense of connection in the classroom. The grave goods were no longer just things dug out of the earth and the words of the poem had taken on a much deeper meaning for those children. The Anglo-Saxons had come ‘alive’ for them. They cared about these people and could understand what made them stand together in battle and face their fears in common as a community. They could see that Grendel was a metaphor for the fears which gripped that society, not just a monster who was invented as a foe to fight and destroy. They had absorbed the fact that Beowulf was a long time in construction and had been transferred from generation to generation through hundreds of years before it was finally written down and that it was a minor miracle that we could read it and enjoy it at all as the only surviving copy was almost burnt to ashes. They ‘cared’ about these things because they had formed an emotional and psychological connection to the text and the people and their culture.

It’s hard to measure this understanding but they asked some very intelligent questions during the talk and all wrote lovely letters afterwards, some with drawings and hopes that they might become historians and archaeologists in the future. I count that a success!

This leads on to the second strand of my argument for a more holistic approach to teaching. In one hour and a half session, we covered literature, symbolic imagery, material artefacts, archaeology, art, technology, psychology, ethics, religious belief and history. Young children are able to cross disciplines and learn through multiple approaches and this enables them to connect things much more quickly and to think laterally.

This has several benefits when studying history but has a wider impact on the level of all their education. Learning about the culture of ‘comitatus’ helps them to understand feudalism and where it evolved from in a shared wider Germanic and Scandinavian foundation. They can connect these ideas to the later ages of Charlemagne and William the Conqueror. It translates to philosophy and ethics – concepts of mutual respect and the greater good. It has a cultural dimension in great stories of brotherhood and friendship. The Anglo-Saxons didn’t invent the concept of a ‘band of brothers’ but they certainly influenced the development of this ideal in later societies and, in turn, looked back to previous cultures and social structures themselves when developing this concept.

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Teaching history in isolation is really a nonsense. So, how might we change the way in which we teach the subject at Primary level?

I think that it should start at pre-school age. Almost all children know about dinosaurs from their toddler years. I was completely obsessed with them and apparently stood on a chair in my local library and announced that I was going to be a Palaeontologist at the age of three. It never happened but I did do my own archaeological dig in my flowerbed in the back garden and treasured an Ammonite that I found for years.

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There we have the foundation for engaging very small children with history. Start with the development of life on Earth, with how the dinosaurs roamed the planet and what happened to them, how creatures changed and became separate species and use their natural interest in animals, birds, fish and reptiles to fuel their knowledge of the history of the Earth. That would give every four year old a basis upon which to build a timeline that is grounded in their own questioning of who they are, where they come from, why they are different to other creatures around them and also maybe, just maybe, foster a love for ecology and sustainability which could save the planet when they grow up!

Rather than jumping forward to the ‘knights and castles’ or ‘pirates’, it would make more logical sense to then ask children how we got from early man to modern society? Use the history of civilisation in connection with biology and science to explain how humans began to cultivate the land, settle in communities rather than following the herds of migrating game and how early communities grew up around agriculture and animal husbandry. Talk to them about the relationship between humans and animal life, about how towns and cities came about and study the great early civilisations which underpinned everything that came after them. Huge opportunities here to introduce philosophy, town planning, science and technology, ethics and codes of conduct and relate that to how they interact with each other in the microcosm of the classroom. This is just the point where teachers begin to draw up class rules and modes of behaviour and would support the development of social interaction, give and take, compromise and sharing, communal living and learning to control their own individual desires for the greater good of their class as a whole. It makes sense and grounds them in the world in which they live.

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By year 1, having understood the development of human society, the construction of cities and the way people structured their communities through time, the next phase would be looking at how different cultures interacted with each other through trade, art, religion and conflict. Rather than studying just one society like the Greeks, this could take on a much wider base of learning. They could look at the Minoans, Babylonians, Egyptians, Phoenicians and the great civilisations of Ancient India and China through their art and archaeology. They could look for connections and differences between these cultures and explore how meeting other people with different beliefs and systems of government can make your own society grow stronger and create even more beautiful art and architecture.

They will be absorbing geography and topography as well. How do rivers help trade? How do mountain ranges protect but also inhibit movement of people in ages before mass transport? Why was the Mediterranean Sea so vital to the development of European civilisation? The role of ships and navigation in the ancient world and how trade disputes led to warfare and weapons development.

Learning to embrace the best of other cultures and fuse their learning with your own is surely a vital lesson for children who will grow up in a global world community at a time of massive pressure and change within all societies and under the threat of global catastrophe. This approach would allow children to understand the importance of shared resources, communication and entrepreneurship and the dangers of intolerance, isolationism and cultural stagnation.

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By the time they reach year 2, children taught in this way, should be able to make connections and ground their learning on a clear timeline of history. They can appreciate that everything is a consequence of something else. Playing chess is another way of teaching history. For every action, there is a consequence. Failure to anticipate what other people are likely to do can cause you problems. Failure to protect your resources can lead to failure. This can be translated into physical games and sports as well as this crucial stage of development when children need to learn how to play together, lose well and balance their own needs against the wider needs of the group.

Year 3 could then be devoted to how the greatest cultures still influence our world today. The children could look at how our cities are constructed, how our laws are made and how we are governed and find out where these ideas came from in the cultures of ancient Greece and Rome. They could talk about citizenship and what it means to be patriotic. They could discuss different forms of government and why we live in a democracy and what that means to them and their families. They could connect this learning to all their other subject areas through creative writing exercises, debating, argument and ethics and also to their local environment. This holistic approach would provide a strong foundation for understanding how their society operates and why.

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Year 4 would then be the perfect opportunity to explore what happens when a civilisation implodes on itself. The end of the Roman Empire and the impact of this on European history would provide a springboard for looking at how people adapted to change and uncertainty in the past and how this enabled other societies to develop and emerge as the leaders. Migration, land ownership, new religious ideas and practices could be explored which would lead into the Anglo-Saxon and Viking ages in the British Isles and the emergence of great historical figures like Charlemagne and the spread of Christianity.

Once set into context, it is much easier to explain the struggle to control the disparate kingdoms of Britain and how power shifted between various tribal groups during this period, before the Norman Conquest and how Christianity came to dominate the pagan religions. This is the time for Beowulf and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, for the Viking gods and the great sagas and for a huge creative opportunity to involve children in writing poetry and expressing their developing beliefs about how human society fits into a greater cosmic understanding of the universe.

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Year 5 is the time to talk about power and conflict. The children will have already understood the impact of the Roman Empire of European culture and the importance of planning, organisation and strategic thinking but this can be taken a stage further with nine and ten year olds. This is the time when they are asking questions about current affairs and worrying about news stories. Balancing information with protection from the horrors of the world is every parent’s nightmare as their children become more aware of the world around them and their place in it. This is the time to explain how power and conflict go hand in hand throughout human existence, that there have always been threats and opportunities, strong leaders and weak followers, the victors and the vanquished.

The great struggle of the Normans to establish themselves as the rulers of a mini Empire and the failure to hold territory across the divide of the English Channel is an epic tale, full of colour and heroism, cruelty and betrayal. It is the fabric of our national story, the chapter when our country was formed and moulded into what we know today and may see disintegrate again in the future.

Tell that story and I defy any child not to become absorbed and engaged in history. A family like the Plantagenets put any TV drama or soap into the shade!

By the end of Primary school, children are able to debate, think around issues and begin to form structured arguments. This provides the perfect forum for discussing bias, interpretation, factual information and how to structure a logical argument. These are all skills that they will need to be ‘secondary ready’ but also cross disciplines. Ethics, Philosophy, Psychology, Religious Studies as well as all the Social Science subjects like traditional History and Geography benefit from applying critical analysis to an issue. This multi-disciplined approach to history, drawing in knowledge and understanding from other areas of the curriculum and extending out into other subject areas will give them such a strong, balanced and well-rounded foundation for the challenges of moving on into secondary level education.

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I would take the momentous social, religious and cultural changes of the Renaissance as the foundation for year 6 and look at science and technology, art and architecture, mathematics and astronomy, the religious revolution of the reformation and the ethical dilemmas and debates as a springboard for an explosion of interest and hopefully demonstrate the benefits of thinking innovatively and embracing a real love of learning and enquiry which will hopefully last them a lifetime.

I also think it is very important to widen the viewpoint to take in other cultures and religions as well when looking at history. We live in a world full of ignorance and mis-information about other world religions and belief systems which can only be countered through education and knowledge and once again, a multi-faceted approach would enable children to see the history of their own country within the wider context of a global world history.

So, that’s my vision for Primary history teaching and so much more. It is achievable, flexible, connected and multi-disciplinary. It requires passion and enthusiasm and free-thinking. It demands that children question and explore and engage but hopefully the flip side to all that commitment would be the excitement and exhilaration of embracing on a journey through human experience that will explain who they are, why they are here, where they came from and what they might be able to achieve in the future.

Thank you for reading.

 

 

 

 

 

Edgar the Aetheling: Failure or Survivor?

November 17, 2016

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You could argue that Edgar was set up to fail from the start. As the last male heir of the ancient royal House of Cerdic of Wessex; Edgar had the bloodline but little else to support his claim to the English throne when his great uncle, Edward the Confessor, died in January 1066.

 

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Edgar’s father, Edward the Exile who raised his children in Hungary for some time

 

His father, Edward the Exile, had mysteriously died shortly after being recalled to court by Edward the Confessor, to be his heir thus leaving Edgar’s claim unprotected by a strong male relative at the tender age of 6. His mother, Agatha, may have been related to the German Emperor but was far from assistance and before long would be surrounded by powerful men who were all set to devour each other in a violent contest of military strength in order to lay hands on the throne.

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Edgar lacked a powerful protector and his position was unclear. Edward the Confessor’s failure to definitively nominate a successor was a major stumbling block in itself but combined with Edgar’s youth, inexperience and the threats posed by the rival contenders, he was left on the back foot when the crisis hit.

Ranged against Edgar’s claim through royal descent stood Harold Godwinson – charismatic, powerful, well-placed to persuade the Witenagemot to overlook a boy at a moment of national peril. Then there was William, Duke of Normandy – ambitious, skilled in warfare and anxious to contest his claim that Edward the Confessor had promised the English throne to him. As if that was not enough, Edgar also faced threats from King Sweyn II of Denmark and Harald III of Norway, who were also watching hawkishly from the wings, ready to seize an opportunity to launch an invasion fleet to attack a weakened country and exploit the situation to their own advantage.

Edgar must have been in despair when the Witenagemot predictably chose Harold Godwinson as the best possible candidate and he watched, helplessly, as his birth right was disposed of. Perhaps he thought that he might be able to watch from the side-lines as the contenders killed each other off and emerge at the end as the last boy standing. It was not to be!

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1066 is sometimes known as the year of three kings but there was actually a fourth. In the dark days after the crushing defeat of Harold’s army at Hastings in October, the Witenagemot met at London and elected Edgar as King of the English in a last ditch attempt to counteract the Norman Invasion.

How likely was this to succeed? With the benefit of hindsight it seemed doomed to failure from the outset. The Witan had rejected Edgar only a few months before and his closest advisors were all men who had cheerfully overlooked him in favour of Harold Godwinson.

Stigand, Archbishop of Canterbury; Ealdred, Archbishop of York and the two earls Edwin of Mercia and Morcar of Northumbria were, at heart, realists. The resistance to the Norman advance was inadequate, disorganised and ineffectual. The people were terrified and reeling from the shock of the defeat at Hastings and the Norman’s brutal advance on London. Resistance was being crushed with merciless efficiency by a military force that Edgar could not hope to rival or contend with and led by a man who was determined to be king.

When William of Normandy reached the Thames at Wallingford, Stigand met him and submitted to him. Edgar’s support drained away as William bore down on London. His advisors were already negotiating with William and sensing the inevitable. Edgar submitted too at Berkhampsted and was to remain in custody for the next year, standing by as William was crowned at Westminster on Christmas Day 1066 and began to establish his regime.

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Reading accounts of Edgar’s life, I am reminded of another fateful story of a boy who might have been king but was side-lined and of another year in English history where the crown sat on several heads. If you conflate the stories of Edward Vth and Perkin Warbeck there are many striking parallels with the next phase of Edgar’s life.

Like Edgar, Edward Vth was proclaimed king but never crowned. He was young and vulnerable, surrounded by perilous political manoeuvrings and out-played by powerful and ambitious men. It is tempting to wonder why Edgar didn’t disappear once he was in William’s custody and whether such a disappearance would have been that shocking in the circumstances of 1066? William was certainly ruthless enough to have disposed of any threat to his new regime; the times were uncertain and dangerous enough for Edgar to have been quietly done away with. Perhaps William had other plans for Edgar or feared the consequences of murdering an ‘aetheling’ prince. Perhaps he was anxious to appear magnanimous after his victory and wanted to establish his own authority without the taint of political murder. He was at pains to record that Harold had been a usurper and a perjuror and therefore a legitimate target by the rightful claimant to the throne. Edgar’s status was quite different and offered him a degree of protection from open violence, at least to begin with.

We know that Edgar was taken to Normandy in 1067 with the court and returned with William and that he may have been involved with the revolt of the earls Edwin and Morcar the following year. Historians speculate that he may have tried to flee to Hungary with his family during this period and been driven off course by bad weather but by 1068 he was at the court of King Malcom of Scotland and had begun the long, arduous battle to re-claim his lost throne and status.

This is where his story echoes the trials of that other young man who claimed to be the rightful heir of Edward Vth. Perkin Warbeck may or may not have been a royal prince of the blood but he employed the same tactics as Edgar in trying to garner support for his cause and sought an ally in Scotland.

 

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‘Saint’ Margaret Aetheling arriving in Scotland to meet her husband to be

 

Edgar married his sister Margaret to King Malcolm and used the age old conflict between the kingdoms of Scotland and the English to his advantage. Malcolm’s children would carry the royal blood of the House of Cerdic in their veins, offering an alternative to Norman rule in the future, whilst Edgar would make use of Malcom’s armies to invade through Northumbria and attempt to stir up revolt against William.

Like the first Scottish backed campaign of Perkin Warbeck, Edgar’s revolt fizzled out quickly when they were defeated at York and he scuttled back to the safety of Scotland, leaving a trail of destruction behind them with little to show for all the suffering.

Edgar rallied again when King Sweyn of Denmark landed to try his luck. Forming a loose alliance with Sweyn’s men and the Northumbrian resistance, Edgar’s forced succeeded in taking areas of Northumbria from the overwhelmed Normans but his command of a disastrous sea raid in the Kingdom of Lindsey ended his run of luck.

 

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King Sweyn II Demark coinage

 

William fought back, re-taking York and Harrying the North in the most brutal fashion. Predictably, William was able to buy off the Danes and then moved against Edgar’s forces at Holderness, driving them back once more to Scotland. Edgar was now in great danger as he knew that William would pursue his enemies and attempt to neutralise the threat from over the border.

Sure enough in 1072 William invaded Scotland, forcing Malcolm to submit to him as his overlord and Edgar was exiled to Flanders. Again, you might argue that Edgar was lucky to survive with his life. William might have been giving him enough rope to hang himself with or to have written him off as a failure but he was astute enough to know that Edgar was likely to foment further trouble from Flanders, so why did he not demand that Edgar be given into his custody? Was his status still a sufficient defence against imprisonment or assassination? What were William’s motives in allowing Edgar to remain at large?

In 1074 Edgar was back in Scotland, trying to find support for another attempt and was then approached by King Philip I of France with an offer of lands on the border with Normandy and a mandate for harrying William’s French holdings. It all came to nothing again and Edgar submitted to William’s rule once more. It must have been a bitter lesson in failure and powerlessness for Edgar. He simply didn’t have the resources or the support to reclaim his title. He seems a rather disconsolate figure. He could have been a contender but it never worked out. He lacked the essential tools to do the job that he felt was his destiny to undertake and perhaps also the charisma and driving force of will required to overcome the difficulties of his position. His military record was, at best, mixed and often seems to have been disastrous and he failed to make an alliance through marriage which might have brought him much needed resources in terms of landed wealth and military strength.

William was probably delighted to send him on his way when he tried to change his fortunes with a mission to Norman Sicily in 1086 to gain his fortune but again it failed and he was back in England, supporting Robert Curthose against his brother William Rufus in exchange for lands in Normandy. Defeat followed again in 1091 when he lost these lands and he was back in Scotland, assisting in Malcolm’s plans for war against Rufus which ended in a negotiated peace treaty. The terms were, as usual, not adhered to and Edgar followed Curthose to Normandy to lick his wounds.

 

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Robert Curthose

 

With the same sense of inevitable failure as the account of Perkin Warbeck’s attempt to overthrow the English king, Edgar’s life followed a similar path of intrigue, feint and missed opportunity, minor disaster, poor planning, ineffectual effort and setback after setback. Was there ever any real chance that their plans were likely to have succeeded? Was it all pipe dreaming and posturing, at the end of the day, by boys who never really seemed to grow into men?

Edgar followed so many other opportunists and lost souls in seeking out a new purpose for himself on the First Crusade and was rumoured to have become one the Varangian Guard in Byzantium during his travels. He lived to see Henry I become king and lose his only legitimate son on the White Ship tragedy but when, at last, he died even the site of his grave has now been lost.

Did he father children? The record is unclear and whether or not he succeeded in passing on his royal blood, they never succeeded to the English throne. It was Margaret’s children who would carry the bloodline on to new generations.

So, was his life the story of a failure or of a survivor? There were several moments when his life seemed to be under clear and present danger yet he lived to fight another day. Did he fail his royal house? Cerdic’s descendants had dominated the Anglo-Saxon period and been responsible for the great resistance to the expansion of Viking influence in the region. He must have lived his whole life in the shadow of these great ancestors and been only too aware of his failure to live up to their deeds and legacy.

Could a small boy have possibly won through in the political climate of the times under any circumstances? Other kings had started off from this position but the particular circumstances in 1066 were perhaps too difficult to surmount.

It is tempting to write Edgar off as he seemed to live his life on the margins, surrounded by more powerful, aggressive and dominant men, yet he did manage to weave a pathway through the most turbulent of times and avoid the fate of other royal claimants who got between ruthless men and their ultimate goal.

 

 

 

‘Blood Sisters’: A Review of Seven Royal lives

November 14, 2016

Sarah Gristwood’s book, ‘Blood Sisters’ looks at the lives and reputations of seven key women who lived through the tumultuous and deadly years of the ‘Cousins War’ in C15th England and who changed the course of our national story by their actions.

I particularly wanted to read this book because women are so often side-lined or underestimated when it comes to the re-telling of events, yet were as much the ‘glue’ that held society together then as they are now. Their efforts, devotion, ambition, desires and fears had as much impact on the lives of their family members and the wider course of events as their male counterparts yet many historians continue to portray these women as ciphers or subsidiary characters in events.

Historians can also continue to be unduly influenced by the contemporary accounts of infamy or notoriety which have become attached to these women and which have slewed the evidence of their contributions so much through time. Statements made by chroniclers are still too often taken at face value; without peeling apart the motivations and bias of the writer; the institutional misogyny of C15th social mores or the restrictions of the Christian faith which permeated every strata of society.

‘To insist that women were equal players with the men, on the same stage, is to run the risk of claiming more than the known facts can support. The profound difference between their ideas and those of the modern world must first be acknowledged; but so to, conversely, must recognisable emotions…’ p.7

The extent of their influence or personal power is still hotly debated, yet they were, unquestionably, vital components in the mechanisms of royal power. They were wives and mothers and sisters, yes, but also patrons, figureheads, political beings and guiding forces in the lives of their children and grandchildren too. They ran large estates, often governed in their husband’s place and in some cases, summoned armies to fight for their interests, even if they did not command in person on the field of battle.

Gristwood argues that we must see them within the context of their times, and this is vitally important, but just as today, women’s thoughts and feelings were often mis-interpreted by male commentators and critics who got it fundamentally wrong.

Marguerite of Anjou has carried the burden of her gender for too long and been judged a ‘she-wolf’ which has coloured subsequent debate about her motivations and actions. Did she see herself as ‘unnatural’ for trying to retain the power and authority of her family’s position or for defending the rights of her husband and son? Did any of these women accept, unquestioningly, the narrow definition of perfect femininity by which they were judged and found wanting and just how lonely and fearful were they when faced with the particular trials and challenges of their lives in a world that expected so much from them yet restricted their ability to take responsibility for their destinies?

Sarah Gristwood is at pains to remind us that their lives were inextricably interwoven with the great political decisions, battles and warring forces of their times. Without their labour, their personal input in the nurturing and education of their children; the monarchs who ruled England during this pivotal period would have been very different people. Their actions as intercessors, diplomats and trusted family members had a direct impact on events. In every case, these women were at the very heart of this crucial period which saw the birth of Renaissance humanism and the forging  of the modern state.

Interestingly, it is their very involvement in shaping events for which they are often criticised. Margaret Beaufort’s ambition for her son, Marguerite of Anjou’s protection of her husband’s honour and son’s inheritance, Cecily Neville’s ‘proud’ belief in her own bloodline and their place in the heart of royal government, Margaret of Burgundy’s unswerving loyalty to the House of York and support for Perkin Warbeck which resulted in her being labelled ‘the diabolical duchess’ have all been used to attack their reputations. The negative reaction to these women seems to be based on the fact that they dared to show their heads above the parapet at all, rather than fading into obscurity along with their sisters, in the great maul of history.

Christine de Pizan had written in her ‘Treasury of the City of Ladies’, earlier in the C15th, that ‘queens and princesses have greatly benefitted this world by bringing about peace between enemies, between princes and their barons, or between rebellious subjects and their lords.’

This was a hugely influential and important function of the aristocratic lady. Through the conventions of Christian belief and chivalric, courtly love, women of high birth were valued for their ability to unite and intercede, between male family members, different social stratas, in civic disputes and even between nations.

The role of the peacemaker is never an easy one. If they succeed then often their efforts are diminished by others who seek to take the credit and if they fail then they are usually castigated by the history writers with unfair criticism for what, in many cases, may have been an impossible mission to begin with. It was the perfect role for the medieval female because it required all the tact and diplomacy that they were trained in from infancy, along with compliance, flexibility and the abdication of personal ambition for the greater good of their wider family or society which the church taught women was their duty.

A woman’s body was her family’s, to dispose of as they wished. Her womb was not her own but rather the conduit for alliance and peace between warring nations and as for her soul; well, that belonged to God, so there wasn’t much left for these women to hold or call their own more than the clothes they were packed off with into an uncertain future and often at an age which we would consider to be too young to leave the securities of home.

They were often set as a hinge between conflicting parties; pulled between duty to their birth family and duty to their adopted family and husband which made them face difficult and painful decisions and have to tread a hard road to please either set of conflicting expectations.

 

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Marguerite of Anjou would certainly have related to these dilemmas and would be judged from the moment of her emergence into the chronicles as the unwanted French queen of the impossibly ill-suited king Henry VI. The marriage alliance which was supposed to herald the end of the Hundred Year’s War between England and France, was seen as a disaster by her new nation. Henry’s ambassadors managed to settle for only the niece of the French king rather than one of his own daughters, concede Maine and Anjou which had been held at the cost of much English blood for so long and there wasn’t even a dowry to fill the coffers of the English treasury with.

Gristwood suggests that Marguerite was prey to rumours of factionalism and infidelity before she was old enough to establish her position as queen consort. She may have made poor choices in who she clung to for support – both Suffolk and Beaufort used her for their own political ends – but her options were limited and she tried to make the best of the unenviably tortuous and difficult position that she found herself in.

Henry’s descent into catatonic madness left her exposed and vulnerable and without an established means of controlling either her own destiny or her baby son’s future. York’s supporters saw her as ‘a woman who merely used his name (Henry VI) to conceal her usurpation, since, according to the laws of England, a queen consort hath no power but title only.’ p.40

The standard weapon of sexual deviancy was used to discredit her position, by suggesting that her son and heir to the throne was the product of adultery. Similar tactics would be used against Cecily Neville to question the legitimacy of her eldest son, Edward IV and also of Margaret Beaufort and Margaret of Burgundy, who’s virginity was impugned by King Louis before her marriage to Charles the Bold.

As for the charge that she overstepped her role as queen, yes, she did but had England ever had a king less capable of exercising the judgement and offices required of him than Henry VI? An all male council would still have faced enormous obstacles in pursuing the ‘common weal’ and holding French territories, given the situation, yet poor government was laid at the feet of Marguerite and her advisors because her detractors were always able to use her gender to suggest that a woman could not govern and therefore acted in defiance of natural law to the ruin of all.

Marguerite had been raised by two strong, independent women, who had governed and administered and fought in the form of her mother, Isabella of Lorraine and grandmother, Yolande of Aragon. She found herself in an invidious position, with a young son to defend and no established formula for exercising power and surrounded by nobles who were poised to rip the country apart for their personal ambitions.

Where the book fails slightly is in an evaluation of how Marguerite exercised the powers she tried to claim and to what extent her personal style of governance caused public support to evaporate. Was she simply too hamstrung to effect positive change on a country that was about to be torn apart by civil strife? Did she allow her troops to ravage and despoil the land and how much control did she really have of the situation at all? Did she demonstrate a real concern for the ‘common weal’ or attempt to steer the ship of state in the best interests of her adopted country?

The concessions and promises she made over the disputed Berwick-on-Tweed and Calais left her open to accusations of selling out the English to their enemies yet a man might have offered just the same kind of bargaining tools and we do not know whether she intended to actually concede these or merely use them as short-term incentives to gain crucial support.

These questions are hotly debated yet Gristwood doesn’t address them, perhaps because the scale of the events and fast-paced narrative leaves no room for a more detailed examination of just what Marguerite was responsible for and what her personal stance was.

Gristwood’s narrative weaves the lives of the seven royal women together, stressing their sympathetic understanding of each other’s trials and challenges which reached beyond the political divisions of their age. There were certainly connections between Marguerite and Cecily Neville during the period when their husbands and their affiliations were slowly building up to outright conflict with each other. Marguerite gave gifts to Cecily and her household and Cecily wrote to Marguerite in an effort to have her husband’s rightful grievances heard and dealt with.

 

cecily-neville

Cecily Neville

 

Their extended family would inter-marry and ally, feud and kill one another during the course of several generations and it is interesting to question just how close these women were to one another and how much they understood and empathised with the hard choices they were all forced to make.

Civil war is particularly cruel in this respect and clearly it is possible to respect and even love the person who becomes your enemy through circumstance and division. The conflict between birth family and adopted family is already there for women and this is further exacerbated when cousins fight and alliances shift on an almost daily basis. Self interest and family interest are often too close to separate and once there are children to fight for and protect, it becomes impossibly difficult to unpick the morality of action.

Marguerite would nominally preside over the death of Cecily’s husband and son only to live to see her own son killed by Cecily’s sons in the aftermath of the Battle of Tewkesbury. The situation of the queen and her husband had a direct effect on the life of the Lancastrian heiress, Margaret Beaufort, who was married off at such a tender age and compelled to carry a child before her body was mature enough to endure childbirth, all due to dynastic pressures. Her son, Henry Tudor would one day put the last of Cecily’s sons into an early grave. Cecily lived to see her own children rip each other apart in the pursuit of power and yet her grand-daughter became queen of England and presided over the healing of the rifts which had blighted two generations of her family.

 

margaret-beaufort

Margaret Beaufort

 

Tragedy is what binds these women’s lives together.

Elizabeth Woodville, like Cecily Neville, found herself married to the enemy and forced to swap allegiance for the sake of her children. Both watched their children suffer huge changes of fortune and status, as power shifted between various factions and both were blamed, vilified and overlooked in equal measure. If they supported their children’s rights, they were viragos; unnatural women who should be confined to domestic issues. If they failed to act, they were passive pawns or victims of events, helplessly giving over their children for slaughter or selling off their daughters for marriage in an attempt to hold on to power.

 

fortunes-wheel

Fortune’s Wheel

 

Gristwood draws on the imagery of Fortune’s wheel when she talks about Margaret Beaufort, in particular and relates the sad words of her confessor, who said of her after her death

‘she was never yet in that prosperity but that the greater it was the more always she dreaded the adversity… she had full great joy, she let not to say, that some adversity would follow.’ p.57

However we might judge Margaret for her actions in life, this statement reveals a great deal about the emotional and psychological trauma that she carried with her and the level of crushing anxiety that she felt. This was likely a feeling that all these women shared in common, along with many other mothers and daughters who lived through such times of uncertainty and violent unrest. Their lives were as much bound by sadness and grief as by power and advancement.

There are passing references to other influential women who’s experiences may have influenced the way in which the seven royal ladies saw their role and spheres of influence. Gristwood mentions Joan of Arc and her legacy – especially in connection with Marguerite of Anjou and her family and her relationship with Mary of Guelders, the Scottish Queen Regent, who offered her assistance against the Yorkists and provided her with a base during her exile. Yolande of Aragon, Marguerite’s grandmother was another formidable figure in the shadows too and Isabella of Castille would also emerge as a courageous and powerful leader on the European stage by the end of the period as would Anne of Brittany in her capacity as Regent in France.

These other female governors and rulers suggest that women were exercising more political and military influence than has been generally acknowledged during the C15th. Why is it that historians continue to overlook or dismiss female power during this period as an aberration or to concentrate on contemporary views of a woman’s place when the evidence of their activity and achievement is there in the historical record, alongside the comments by contemporary male chroniclers of their ‘masculine’ qualities as leaders?

However difficult and unpopular female governance might have been for their male contemporaries, they were present; influencing events, making policy, demonstrating leadership and acting as models for other women in their society and in numbers which contradict the traditional narrative.

I think Gristwood could make more of this throughout her book as there is a real opportunity here to demonstrate that the seven women covered in ‘Blood Sisters’ fit within the context of wider female influence on political events at the time. Their contribution was contested and disputed, their actions were subject to often particularly unfair attack but they were not alone and were likely influenced by the example of other women who exercised power in their world.

Gristwood says on p.101

‘In a society that was arguably becoming more patriarchal, the chivalric spectacle provided a platform for women.’

How was society becoming more patriarchal? Had women enjoyed more liberties in previous centuries? Was there a counter-swing to the rise of the female warrior as embodied in Joan of Arc, Yolande, Marguerite etc? She doesn’t explain this sufficiently or explore how social attitudes impacted on the way in which chroniclers wrote about the main figures.

 

joan-of-arc

Joan of Arc

 

Where Marguerite had been distrusted and even hated for her French credentials, Elizabeth Woodville was criticised for lack of birth and for the rise of her family through the ranks of the nobility, due to her influence over the king. Edward IV was perfectly capable of seeing the benefits of having her relatives beholden to him and of creating an alternative faction as court to counter the enormous wealth and influence of the Earl of Warwick and his own brother, George of Clarence.

Elizabeth is often blamed by historians for bringing on her own destruction through her actions yet she also required allies at court, being newly catapulted into her role as queen and naturally looked to her family to supply these.

If the traditional role of the queen was to act as intercessor, then she was only fulfilling this by balancing the needs of her birth family against those of her husband and her children. Undoubtedly, if Cecily Neville had ever become queen, she would have seen to the rise of her Neville relations in a similar way. Male rulers had sought preferment for their relations – Richard II for his Holland half-brothers for example. That this caused resentment from other members of the court was hardly surprising or unexpected with so many competing for royal favour within the court system yet there seems to be more criticism for women who openly advanced their relatives than for male rulers.

Chapter nine introduces another useful tactic for undermining female respectability during this period – the accusation of witchcraft and how it was employed to discredit Jacquetta of Luxembourg, Elizabeth Woodville’s mother and later Elizabeth herself. It was an easy device, in an age of superstition, and difficult to defend against as it was always possible to produce a witness who would swear to seeing sinister activity or could produce items that might incriminate.

 

jacquetta

Jacquetta of Luxembourg

 

Warwick and Clarence used such an accusation to assist their efforts to disrupt Edward’s reign in 1469, in the hopes of pushing Clarence forward as a better and more malleable candidate for the throne. If public opinion could be influenced against the queen and her family, Clarence might be able to step into the breech and replace his brother.

A witness, Thomas Wake, was produced who swore that the queen’s mother was in possession of

‘an image of lead made like a man of arms the length of a man’s finger broken in the middle and made fast with a wire; along with two other images, of a man and a woman, which he claimed Jacquetta had commissioned as a means of binding the king and her daughter together.’ p.107

How could a woman defend herself against such an accusation? Gristwood explains that fortune’s wheel turned once more and Edward was able to clear his mother-in-law of the slanders against her name but things could have worked out very differently if both Jacquetta and Elizabeth Woodville had fallen into the hands of their enemies and been brought to trial. The example of Joan of Navarre and Eleanor Cobham must have hung painfully over them both during this period of intense uncertainty. Despite appearing to have survived this ordeal in the short-term, Elizabeth Woodville would re-live these accusations again at the defining moment of her life, when she would be stripped of her status and any form of control over her own or her children’s destinies.

 

elizabeth-woodville-1

Elizabeth Woodville

 

Again, the combined diplomatic skills of the Yorkist women had a direct impact on the course of events as Cecily and her daughters pulled out every stop to get Edward and Clarence to make their peace. The pro-Yorkist ‘The Historie of the Arrivall of Edward IV in Englande‘ stating that

‘the high and mighty princess, my lady, their mother; my lady of Exeter, my lady of Suffolk, their sisters …and, most especially my lady of Burgundy’ mediating between them ‘by right covert ways and means.’

It is the covert nature of much female correspondence and influence which makes it so hard to prove just how much effort the women put into reconciling the warring family members and restoring peace and order to the country in general. Cecily had previously ridden to Sandwich to negotiate with Clarence before he committed himself to the dangerous alliance with Warwick and Marguerite of Anjou. She saw the danger in such a venture but perhaps was also still smarting for Edward’s love match with Elizabeth Woodville and conscious of her duty to her Neville family too. Certainly an unenviable position for any mother to be set between two of her own sons.

Gristwood writes of the aftermath of the Warwick rebellion, that Anne Neville, along with Marguerite of Anjou, were found in a nearby abbey and taken to London as part of Edward’s ‘triumphal’ return to the capital. Fortune’s wheel had turned once more and none had experienced it’s capricious nature more than the lady Anne.

 

anne-the-queen

Anne Neville

 

Even in a book about passed over figures, Anne remains a shadowy watercolour sketch. She is one of the least well-known or written about women, considering her prominence during the later part of the Cousin’s War, as daughter of the Kingmaker, wife of the Prince of Wales and queen consort of Richard III. It is usually suggested that she played no active part in her marriage with either men, being passed between powerful male relatives as a pawn. She saw her sister suffer terribly as a result of her father’s ambitions, helping her to birth a stillborn baby at sea after being denied sanctuary in Calais and most probably received a frosty reception from her unwilling mother-in-law, Marguerite.

No-one has any idea about her thoughts or feelings over her marriage into the ‘enemy’ camp and there is no record of her having particularly mourned Edward of Westminster’s death at Tewkesbury or of her ardent desire to be rid of him either. We simply have no idea what her role was in these matters and can only speculate, as Gristwood does on p.134 that the absence of information about Anne Neville might suggest that her autonomy was restricted by her second husband, Richard, Duke of Gloucester.

Was she being kept securely out of politics at Middleham, along with her mother in order to stop her from being of further use to Yorkist enemies? The Countess of Warwick did everything possible to write to all the ladies who might use their influence to protect her position but was declared legally dead so that her property could be divided between her two sons-in-law. Was this a fair and natural result of her husband’s betrayal or a particularly harsh punishment, inflicted on a helpless widow who had played no active part in her husband’s schemes?

Like the other women in the book, retribution for choosing the ‘wrong side’ came in different ways than for their male counterparts. Gristwood says of Margaret Beaufort’s part in the rebellion that she was

‘simultaneously disabled and protected by her gender.’

This seems as good a description as any for the particular circumstances of women who found themselves caught on the losing side during the many reversals of fortune in the Cousin’s War.

Cecily, Elizabeth Woodville, Marguerite, Margaret Beaufort, Anne Neville and her mother, the Countess of Warwick were all to experience confinement, the seizure of their possessions and major reversal of status as their male relatives floundered and failed, just as they had also experienced great wealth, position and acclaim when their families were in the ascendant. It is a very complex question to ask how much their own actions directly contributed to these twists and turns and whether they felt themselves responsible for their own actions in the fullest sense or struggled to make their voices heard.

The final queen in the list proved to be seen by history as the least controversial and most loved of all these women. The beautiful, kind, domestic Elizabeth of York seemed to be universally popular and respected as first the eldest daughter of the House of York and then the favourite of her uncle’s court before she embodied the alliance of the two houses in her marriage to Henry Tudor and creation of the next ruling dynasty.

 

elizabeth-of-york

Elizabeth of York

 

Like Anne Neville, we know little about the inner workings of her mind or her emotional responses to the rollercoaster of her life – forced into sanctuary twice before she reached maturity, used as a bargaining chip by her relatives and betrothed numerous times before she was finally given to the victor of Bosworth.

Was her ‘passivity’ a defence against the treatment she had seen meted out to her mother and grandmothers? Perhaps she chose a more subtle path along which to steer her life or just wanted some peace after the trials of her childhood. She had certainly experienced enough drama by the time she became queen to wish for a less openly ‘political’ role for herself.

If Gristwood thought Richard III had been controlling of his wife then there are parallels to be drawn with the way in which Henry VII kept her wife’s expenditure under his personal scrutiny. She was clearly unable to exercise the same extravagance as either Cecily of Marguerite had known during the more settled periods of their lives.

Elizabeth was, perhaps, one of the most successful of them all. She rode Fortune’s wheel all her life and managed to adapt to the political switchbacks, end her life as a beloved queen consort and pass on her genes to her children and found a new dynasty.

Perhaps some of the credit for her cool head and adaptability can be laid at her mother’s feet? Elizabeth Woodville is not often presented as an astute, calm and resolute political operator yet Gristwood’s account does pay tribute to her steadfast response to the crisis of 1470-1 and the commendations of Edward IV’s restored parliament paid to his queen.

While I do think the book could take a more analytical approach, it does provide an interesting and informative read and highlight just how much we owe to these women and the strength and determination they demonstrated in difficult and dangerous times. I would certainly recommend it as an introduction to the period for anyone with an interest in gaining a fuller picture of how both the men and women of the period contributed to the forging of our national story.