Archive for December, 2021

Child Brides: Medieval girls and early marriage

December 30, 2021

Yesterday I read a report about interviews which have been conducted with teenage girls in Syria who have been married between the ages of 13 and 16, often to men much older than themselves.

Many of the girls who were interviewed talked about their despair at the lack of any personal choice in who they married. They longed to return to school and continue to learn and spoke about how their lives have been cut short by early, arranged marriages.

Some mention abuse at the hands of their husbands or their husband’s mothers and their revulsion at being forced to have sexual relationships with much older men before their bodies or minds are ready to take on this aspect of adult life. They fear pregnancy and domestic servitude which will be their lot for the rest of their lives and long for their lost childhoods. Many have already been traumatised by war and forced to flee their homes. Some have had to deal with bereavement as children as well and many are struggling to live in poverty.

We are told not to project contemporary views onto the past. There is much debate currently about the role of women in the middle ages and how many different interpretations can by made from the existing source evidence about the variety of opportunities open to women during this large and disparate period of history. There is constant reappraisal of the evidence available to us and debate about how much power, influence, freedom and constraint applied to various female figures who we do know a small amount about and how that might be projected onto the wider lot of girls and women in their societies, about which we often know far less.


We are encouraged by historians to set child marriage into the context of the times and the social mores of the societies in which it operated. People died younger and therefore child marriage was a practical response to ensure the next generation was born before the previous one died off. Early marriage provided security and stability for the girls as much as for their birth family as they were safely settled within a household before their parents died and freed other siblings from the burdens of providing for them if they remained at home and were not able to practice a trade themselves.

Girls were generally not educated in the same way as their male peers and therefore needed to find a husband who could provide for them through his profession or trade, outlets not usually open to a woman, while she counter-balanced this by keeping the household, rearing the livestock, preparing the food and bearing children. Many women also took on much more than this as part of their wifely duties, including brewing or running a grain mill, involvement in the preparation of goods and materials, keeping the household accounts, managing servants, running estates and defending the family property when their spouses were absent. Some even took up arms and organised troops and undertook much diplomatic work on behalf of their family, acting as intercessors and negotiators with neighbours and local landowners.

Many young brides in the mercantile class were also taught about the family business and involved in many aspects of this without any formal recognition or salary. This enabled their husbands to travel on business for sometimes extended periods in the knowledge that their core business was in safe and reliable hands and could feel confident that no secrets were being divulged or goods hived off because their wives were dependent on the business for their sustenance too and were working in common to raise the family up for the benefit of their children.

Poorer families tended not to marry their girls off at very young ages either. Many girls were fully grown women in their twenties when they married, rather than the child brides of the elite class.

Dynastic alliances were essential to the way that international politics functioned. Parents loved their children but often lived apart from them in the elite social classes and didn’t develop the same ‘bond’ that we think exists between modern parents and their offspring. Childhood is extended too far in modern western society – people coddle their children and continue to provide for them into their adult years which stifles their ability to stand on their own two feet and make their own way in the world etc…

Nobody thought the Edward III and Philippa were bad parents for sending their daughter Joan off to be married even if she contracted the Black Death on the way and died an agonising death, far from home and family and possibly deserted by her attendants as well en route. It was just a tragic combination of factors and the will of God.

”We have placed our trust in God and our life between his hands, where he held it closely through many dangers” wrote her grieving father to her prospective family shortly after her death.


Joan of England who died of the Black Death aged 14 on the way to her marriage

I remember reading posts in a recent thread on social media concerning the marriage of Richard II to Isabella Valois when she was just six years old. Generally people were accepting of his relationship with her and the bond which developed between them but some were very uncomfortable about marriage between a fully grown man and a child who brought her dolls with her from France, even if there was no suggestion of intimacy between them. Isabella was a political pawn, without a doubt, but from what we can glean she was treated very well by Richard’s court and mourned his fall and death with a deep sense of personal loss. She was told that marriage to the English king would make her a very great lady and trained from her earliest years to expect just such a match. Her distress was magnified by her treatment at the hands of Henry Bolingbroke who wanted her to marry his son when still in mourning for her murdered husband and by her family who were desperate to get her back to France in order to arrange another dynastic marriage for her. Sadly she subsequently died in childbirth at an age that most of us would now regard as only just fully grown.


Meeting between Isabella of France aged 6 and her husband, Richard II aged 29

Times were harder then and women’s expectations were set at the level of helpmate and consort, wife and mother. They didn’t think about their personal development as our generation has been raised to. They were content to be the vessel for other people’s ambitions and were instructed by the Christian church to submit obediently to their lot in life. There were often harsh penalties for wanting more. Women who challenged convention could face being ostracised, abused, imprisoned and sanctioned by the church. Cases of ‘witchcraft’ are often now seen as a social response to women who challenged the social order. A means of control through fear and superstition.

Women did not have any rights to their own bodies after marriage. The example of Margery Kempe speaks volumes for this silent burden borne by so many women. Margery wanted to remain celibate and follow her vocation of a religious life but her husband forced her to carry on having babies for years and years against her will.


So what parallels can be drawn between the largely voiceless women of the past and the feelings of these modern child brides?

Firstly I was struck by the similarities of the social contexts within which these girls are living and the realities of medieval life. There is hardly a single era during the medieval period when war or the threat of war wasn’t hanging over a generation. Peace was a novelty for most people. For a child born into conflict and raised with the horrors of violence, dislocation, economic disruption and the trauma of fear, the same human responses apply regardless of the age in which they live.

Can we imagine that it was any less harmful for a medieval child to experience all this in their formative years than it is for these Syrian girls to have grown up during a time of war? It is easy to pass off the psychological traumas of war on medieval children. It was just the way things were. People didn’t know about PTSD but it still existed and had profound effects on those who struggled to live with it. It coloured their responses to threats and their relationships and it had a profound effect on their psychological outlook but it is difficult to say to what extent this should be taken into account when set against the experience of everyone else in society.

Imagine the conversation between a young daughter of the aristocracy and a peasant girl living at the same time. One might recount how sad she was to be parted from her mother and sold in marriage to a stranger in a foreign land at the age of 12 while the other might recall her terror of growing up in a village which was preyed on by the local lord’s men, of being cold and hungry and afraid of the next famine or the dangers of gathering firewood in the nearby wood.

However real and terrifying the prospects of childbirth were for all girls and women regardless of class, their male siblings also faced the horrors of war on the battlefield, the abuses of heavy-handed tutors and masters and the arbitrary judgements of the law if they were caught poaching.

The case of Margaret Beaufort springs to mind here. Most of us feel revulsion and sympathy for her facing a long and traumatic birth at the age of 13. Later she wrote advising that her own granddaughters should not be married too young for fear of the damage early pregnancies might inflict on their bodies. Just because a girl has had a period does not mean that her body is able to withstand the huge demand of pregnancy and childbirth. We know now that early pregnancy is more dangerous for both baby and mother and requires careful monitoring. It is impossible to know whether Margaret was a victim of her husband’s desire or, perhaps more likely, that he was desperate to get an heir and risked his wife’s long-term health by sleeping with her several years before most girls might expect to carry a child. The strain of being widowed at seven months pregnant and the political situation in which Margaret found herself probably did  nothing to ease her psychological state as she attempted to give birth to her only child either.


Margaret Beaufort who gave birth to Henry Tudor at the age of 13

Similar stresses may well have contributed to the dreadful experience of Isabel Neville, who gave birth to a stillborn baby at sea off Calais as her family fled England during her father’s rebellion against Edward IV.  You would need a heart of stone not to feel empathy and sadness at the treatment of these young girls by the families who were supposed to protect and care for them. We can only guess at how many girls suffered like this during the momentous events which shaped the course of medieval history. Girls who found themselves in no man’s land between warring armies or deserted in plague villages, who were forced to abandon their homes and hide from chevauchee campaigns or caught up in sieges and starved and bombarded into submission whilst trying to carry a baby to full term .

Then there is the religious and social context. Tradition and religious doctrine may impose a particular set of rules and social mores but a child still thinks and feels and understands in a broadly similar way. The lack of personal testimony from medieval children shouldn’t negate our appreciation of their experience of confusion, fear, despair, frustration, anger etc… Does it really take such a leap of imagination to reconstruct their mental processes at being sold in marriage to a stranger who would control their every movement and have the power of life and death over their bodies? Many child brides were sent off on dangerous journeys through hostile territories and exposed to risks and threats before they even met their intended husbands. Their attendants were sometimes sent back leaving them isolated and vulnerable to the will of their new relations in a strange environment and without the comfort of friends and childhood contacts such as nurses or servants who they had developed relationships of trust with. Sometimes they didn’t even speak the language of their adopted country and were even more isolated.

Despite social conditioning and societal mores, don’t we all inwardly long to rebel and break free from the constraints of our own existence and wasn’t that always the case? How can we accept the mentality of the men and women who rose in rebellions or fought for better rights or were prepared to die a hideous death for their faith on the one hand yet fail to acknowledge a shared experience when it comes to an issue like child marriage?

We read the Declaration of Arbroath and feel the stirrings of national pride and personal liberty expressed so eloquently in the wording. If there were men then who felt so passionately about these things and were prepared to lay down their lives for them then didn’t their mothers and sisters and wives and daughters also share these emotions too even if they were swallowed up and silenced by convention and the tide of history?

Perhaps the answer is that we don’t want to acknowledge the realities of their experiences because it would be too painful, too desperate, too unbearably sad to contemplate, so we distance them and de-humanise their experience in order to ‘normalize’ it within the historical context. We do this all the time in our own society – look at the Jimmy Saville case for one example of how we are prepared to block out horrors within our own society so it seems perfectly possible that we do this at a collective level where it comes to the past.

There will be those reading this blog that will disagree with my views on child marriage. Some may see it as perfectly acceptable in their culture and I have to accept that as I believe in freedom of thought and expression. There will be others who disagree with any attempt at comparison between contemporary issues in our world and the experience of girls and women living more than 500 years ago. I have to accept that as well.

Comparative history is always problematic because there are as many ‘contrasts’ as there are comparisons. However, if the testimony of contemporary child brides is true and honest and yet their voices are not heard, their feeling not accounted for, their life experience not considered to be important then I would argue that the same applies to girls who lived long ago. They felt all those things but their experience was ignored and side-lined in just the same way by their own society and no one thought to ask them or listen to their stories.

We can’t do anything about their experiences now except bear witness to them and remember when we read about one of them, just what they might have been thinking and feeling about their lives.

Misuse of the Word “Medieval”: Most Girls Married Old Guys



Towton, 29th March 1461: The Bloodiest Battle in English History?

December 30, 2021

towton 1

Towton is regarded by many historians as the worst battle to ever be fought on English soil in terms of the number of combatants, casualty figures, conditions on the day and treatment of those captured during the rout.

It is always extremely difficult to gauge the reality of the medieval battlefield due to a number of factors. There were other, more ancient battles that were recorded in annals and chronicles which talk of massive numbers of combatants and bloody routs – Boudicca’s last stand on Watling Street in 60-1 AD, the Battle of Brunanburgh in 937 AD and the Battle of Hastings in 1066 for example but how reliable were the figures recorded at the time or later by chroniclers and historians?

Without reliable eye witness accounts and archaeological evidence of mass grave pits, it is difficult to establish exactly how many troops were present, how many were actually killed or maimed in the fight and how many got away or whether the sources were writing from a particular bias – inflating the figures of the enemy to make victory all the more impressive or over-exaggerating casualty figures and atrocities for political ends. This applies to Towton as  much as any other battle, recorded as it was, largely by second-hand sources and in a highly politically charged atmosphere.

In comparison with other battles fought during the Wars of the Roses, the accounts of the battle suggest substantially larger numbers of combatants than any of the other large engagements and massively larger than some of the more well-known battles such as Tewkesbury or Bosworth.

The political situation in the lead up to the battle had seen an escalation in hostility between the two warring factions at court. The Lancastrians, nominally headed by King Henry VI, but more realistically by his queen, Marguerite of Anjou and various high ranking noblemen were pitted against Richard, Duke of York and his allies, Salisbury and Warwick. There had already been several pitched battles between the two sides, with periods of stalemate and faint-hearted reconciliations over a period of six years. Neither side could achieve a decisive result either politically or militarily and the country was failing apart due to poor governance, instability and factional disputes between the great landowners.

The reasons for the much larger numbers probably comes down to time factors – both sides had time to recruit large bodies of men and the importance of recent political events. The Duke of York and his younger son had been killed at Wakefield in December 1460 which was a major blow to the Yorkist cause and also seen as an outrageous act during a period of truce over the Christmas period. York’s eldest son, Edward, now Duke of York, had been proclaimed as king earlier in March 1461 and therefore the country had two rival monarchs and a decisive showdown was brewing which would decide the fate of both claimants to the crown.

Edward wanted revenge for the death of his father and younger brother, Edmund. The circumstances of their deaths added to this desire and made it deeply personal. York’s body had been treated dishonourably after death. He’d been slumped on a ant hill and crowned with a paper crown in mockery of his ambitions to become the next king and their heads had been stuck on spikes on Michelgate bar in York. Lord Clifford had been responsible for the ‘murder’ of Edmund, who had been fleeing with battle with his tutor when he was cornered on a bridge. Despite begging for mercy, the 17 year old had been stabbed in cold blood. The Yorkists were in no mood to offer mercy to their enemies.

Both sides had spent weeks recruiting from their estates. The Lancastrian forces were mostly from the Duchy of Lancaster lands in the north of England and Percy held territories in Northumbria whereas the Yorkists drew their forces from their Southern estates, the London area and retainers in the Welsh marches. There was a real North/ South divide between the opposing forces.

The propaganda war which continued to rage around the two causes also emphasised this geographical divide, playing on the wildness of the northern troops and their atrocities against the civilian population on one side and the treachery and presumption of the rebels against their anointed king on the other. This may be another factor in the treatment of prisoners caught in the rout after the battle and the suspension of mercy shown to the defeated enemy.

How many men fought at Towton?

Several contemporary sources mention the figure of 50,000 combatants in total on the field of battle and possible casualty figures of up to 26,000 which was supposed to have been given by heralds shortly after the battle, who were assigned with the grim task of counting the bodies of the dead on both sides although some degree of estimation must have taken place.  This would equate to 1% of the entire population of the country at this time and is truly shocking.

Edward IV, writing to his mother, Cecily Neville, stated that 20,000 of the dead were Lancastrian which would have been a completely devastating result for their cause, including many leading aristocrats such as Lord Clifford and John Neville, Baron Neville and a bitter blow to the royal party, anxiously awaiting news in York.

The specific mentioning of these two names was no accident. Lord Clifford had been on Edward’s personal hit-list, in revenge for the death of his brother and John Neville had switched sides at Wakefield and perhaps been the cause of Edward’s father’s decision to engage the Lancastrians which had cost him his life. Neville was supposed to be bringing reinforcements but instead joined his enemies. Towton settled many old scores!

Of course, he may have been inflating the scale of his victory, and the account written by the Yorkist George Neville is also at pains to describe the personal bravery and leadership qualities displayed by the young king and his fellow commanders on the field, as you might expect. Nevertheless, the presence of the king on the field and the military skill of Warwick and Salisbury were important factors in the Yorkist victory and should not be under estimated at a time when the rank and file were inspired and encouraged by the example of their field commanders and warfare was up-close and personal.

Edward’s personal military renown was enormously strengthened by the success of Towton and King Henry VI’s weakness and absence from the field only thrown into starker contrast by the day.

Historians continue to debate whether 26,000 can possibly be the correct figure for the number of dead. Calculating the numbers of fighting men that could have been raised in levies and retained by the great noble families it might just to possible for both army to have reached something like 50,000 in total but it is unheard of for over half the total number of combatants to die on the day and this doesn’t even cover those injured but not killed outright.

We do have some hard physical evidence in the form of the Towton burial pit excavations, undertaken by archaeologists at the University of Bradford. A pit containing the remains of 37 men and boys was discovered under land next to Towton Hall during building work in 1996.

towton 2

Towton Hall stands about one mile away from the centre of the battlefield. Metal detector finds show a concentration of small finds like buckles, rings, horse harness and spurs in the valley area where contemporary sources said the main engagement took place. The pit at Towton Hall may suggest that the men were either caught fleeing from the battle at that point or taken to the site after death. They were piled into the grave, one on top of the other, packed in tightly and hurriedly with little care and had been stripped naked, either before or immediately after death.

towton 5

The remains show the sheer brutality of the carnage at Towton and are thought to be evidence of what we would now class as ‘war crimes’ most probably committed against Lancastrian troops during or after the battle. The skeletal remains show massive trauma injuries, especially to the head, with the victims having been literally bludgeoned to death. One skeleton had thirteen head injuries.

Archaeologists have speculated that these bodies could have been executed after they were captured and may have been tortured prior to their death. Some show marks which suggest that ears and noses had been cut off around the time of death and cut marks on forearms are consistent with wounds found of stabbing victims and suggest attempts to raise their arms to protect their faces and heads or grab at a blade after protective clothing had been removed.

The skeletal remains also indicate the fighting ages of these men – from 16 to 50 years old approximately. Clearly youth was no protection against the application of the pre-battle order that no mercy was to be shown to the defeated.

About one third of the remains were of men who had already experienced battle wounds and indicates the presence of veterans and experienced military professionals. The archaeologists were surprised at the extent of the healed injuries and the skill with which they had been treated which has lead to speculation that some of them men might have been liveried retainers of a noble household who had been trained for many years in the arts of war. (See the evidence of skeleton 16)

towton 4

About a quarter of the men had highly developed muscles in their backs and shoulders and bone development in their left arms which indicated that they were archers. We know from contemporary source evidence that both sides employed large numbers of archers who were extremely important in the initial stages of the engagement. The Yorkists were said to have used the cover of falling snow to sneak their archers closer to the Lancastrians and began the battle with a volley of arrows into their ranks, particularly targeting the opposing archers who were usually more lightly armoured than men-at-arms and more vulnerable to arrow wounds. A ten minute arrow storm could have killed between 8,000 – 10,000 and forced the Lancastrians to advance their men-at-arms into the valley.

The grave pit evidence is also complicated by later exhumations of bodies, on the orders of Richard III, who set up a chantry chapel near the site of the battle to pray for the souls of the dead and had many of the bodies removed for re-burial. It would be fascinating if other, undisturbed pits were found to add to our knowledge of what occurred at Towton in the future.

Dr James Ross’s talk (see links at the bottom of this blog) in 2011 describes how the Lancastrian army broke under the pressures of the day despite being larger in number than the Yorkists and on home turf. The Lancastrians even had the advantage of the terrain but as the battle lines swung around 90 degrees during the course of the engagement, they found themselves with the steep slopes of the hill running down to the swollen stream at their backs. This meant that escape was virtually impossible and many drowned in the Cock Beck stream or trying to cross the bridge further North of the battlefield.

Casualty figures might not have been anything like so high if the terrain had been different or the weather conditions not so favourable to the Yorkist forces. The driving sleet and strong wind severely hampered the initial Lancastrian archery volleys, blinding their archers and also hampering their ability to effectively hit targets within range.

Why is Towton relatively unknown compared with other battles fought on English soil?

It seems strange that a battle with such high casualty figures should not be better known to the general public. The site is not well marked – no visitor centre and shop, no café or banners on the hill and not generally marked as other such anniversaries by re-enactments although there is a cross which commemorates the site of the battle and which provides a focus for those who visit.

towton 3

Compared to the Medieval Festival weekend at Tewkesbury every year, the anniversary of Towton is only marked by stalwart Wars of the Roses enthusiasts and a small ceremony. Maybe the English climate is partly responsible for this? The battle itself was fought is sleet and snow on a bleak hillside after all!

Perhaps there is also a desire to bury the memory of so great a slaughter of Englishman by fellow Englishman though it does seem strange that it is not more widely known and talked about, especially on the anniversary week.

Andrew Boardman: Towton, The Bloodiest Battle, 2008

George Goodwin: Fatal Colours: Towton, 1461, England’s Most Brutal Battle


Jolomo: John Lowrie Morrison OBE

December 30, 2021
Jolomo scottish landscape with passing clouds and croft

Jolomo ‘Dawn Breaks over Isle of Gigha’ oil on canvas 25x46cm (10x16ins) Vivid landscapes saturated with rich colour and dotted with an impression of wild flowers. Passing storm clouds which brood over solitary crofts and distant, dramatic mountains fading into mist with the soft suggestion of a full moon.John Lowrie Morrison or JOLOMO, as he signs his paintings, is one of Scotland’s foremost landscape artists and his new work is always eagerly anticipated by those who have become addicted to his distinctive style and dramatic visual storytelling.

Seascape by Jolomo at Iona House Gallery

Jolomo ‘Big Breakers Mangersta Beach, Isle of Lewis 41x41cm (16x16ins)John’s paintings follow in the tradition of the Scottish Colourists – PeploeFergussonHunter and Cadell who drew inspiration from the revolution in art taking place in Paris in the early C20th and the influence of the Fauves in particular, in order to paint the Scottish landscape in a totally new way. Their use of colour and structure can be seen in John’s daring contrast of primary and complimentary pigments and vivid tones and his compositional framing of architectural and natural forms.  There is also a connection with their gestural approach and instinctive application of pigment and experimentation with colour which makes his work so striking and immediate. The Colourists were brave and sometimes considered ‘shocking’ in their choices and that confidence and fluidity of application is one of John’s great strengths as a painter and an intrinsic part of the appeal of his paintings. Painting directly from nature, absorbing the landscape and re-interpreting it in his own distinctive style; just as the Colourists learned to do from their experiences in France of painting ‘en plein air’, gives an immediacy and creates an emotionally charged response in the viewer.

Mull of Kintyre painting by Jolomo at Iona House Gallery

Jolomo ‘Eveninglight Over the Mull of Kintyre’ oil on canvas 41x41cms (16x16ins) Like the Colourists, John revels in the beauty of painting with pure pigments that bounce off each other and complement the subject matter to create visually stunning effects and celebrate the ever-changing landscape of his homeland.After completing training in drawing, painting and printmaking at The Glasgow School of Art, John spent many years teaching art in schools in Glasgow and Argyll. A visit to the Chagall  exhibition in Paris in 1969 proved to be influential on the development of John’s use of blue in his early work.  Chagall associated blue with The Virgin Mary and the colour of heaven – an expression of transcendence through pure colour. There is a very spiritual aspect to John’s paintings – the connection between the natural world and a deep human need for beauty and meaning in life and John is a lay preacher for the Church of Scotland, leading worship on a regular basis.

Croft scene with full moon by Jolomo at Iona HOuse Gallery

Jolomo ‘Moonlight on the Machair South Uist’ oil on canvas 30.5×30.5cms (12x12ins) The croft appears as a symbol of endurance against time and the elements; a metaphor for the human condition set against the backdrop of wild nature and eternal forces and this symbol re-occurs frequently in his work. Similarly, the full moon – like Turner’s red dot – has become a quintessential element of many of John’s paintings; a punctuation mark in the composition where the eye rests as it travels over the different elements of the work. The viewer is drawn onto the beach, through the tangled dune grasses and wild flowers by the diagonal line of the pathway and then across the sea to the distant mountains and up into the mass of cumulus clouds which echo the brightness of the sand and provide balance and contrast. The sea is calm and placid but ever-changing, reflecting the sky but also tinged with sea-greens and darker bands of midnight blue which compliment the shades in the grasses and softer, muted tones of the mountains.

Isle of Gigha with the Paps of Jura by Jolomo at Iona House Gallery

Jolomo ‘Summerlight Isle of Gigha, Looking to the Paps of Jura’ Oil on canvas 41x41cms (16x16ins) There is a great sense of energy in John’s painting technique – layers of smooth, rich oil paint contrasted with dots and thick impasto, quick mark-making and scratches made with the end of the brush. This style echoes the hurrying clouds and wind-tossed wildness of the Scottish Isles where the landscape is in a constant process of flux as it is buffeted by storms and changing light. These are rugged communities, set off the beaten track, lost in time and his work has an elemental quality which appeals so much to people. There is an other-worldliness to his pieces – both a real and imagined place of heightened colour and perception. John is painting what is and what we would like to be.  Sketching ‘en plein air’ and absorbing the natural energy of these locations and translating that for the viewer into a timeless composition gives his work both an authenticity and magical quality at the same time.

John’s new collection is now available to view on our website at John Lowrie Morrison OBE (Jolomo) – Art and Artists – Iona House Gallery

The Empress and the Tower: A Daring Escape from Oxford Castle in 1142

December 29, 2021
Empress Matilda

The Oxford Castle and Prison complex drips with history. Tracing its roots back to Anglo-Saxon England and the world of Viking raids and fortified burghs when towns like Oxford faced waves of violence and destruction; the castle has endured sieges, held political prisoners and undergone numerous adaptations as the technology of warfare and defence evolved over the course of a thousand years. It has provided defence and succour to inhabitants, justice and punishment for transgressors, stood with the crown and against it and was a functioning prison until 1996.

There is one particular incident though that will always capture the imagination of the visitor and which provides a direct connection with an individual and their struggle for power in a time of lawless confusion and deep uncertainty – the story of the Empress Matilda and her escape from Oxford Castle, cloaked in white and hidden in a snowstorm across the frozen mill stream in the dead of winter which changed the course of English history.

St George’s Tower, Oxford Castle

In order to understand the context of what has become almost a legend, we need to unravel the political events of the preceding period and what led to this episode and to delve into the psychology of the main players during the period which we now call ‘The Anarchy’.

Matilda was the eldest legitimate daughter of King Henry I (know as Beauclerc) and his queen Edith Matilda of Scotland. Matilda was raised for greatness and trained in the skills required of a medieval princess in order to make a spectacular marriage, advance her family’s interests, administer huge estates and breed future princes. She carried the blood of her Norman forebears; being a grand-daughter of William the Conqueror but also, through her mother, the bloodline of the ancient Anglo-Saxon kings which was to prove an important factor in her destiny.

Matilda was married at the age of eight to Henry Vth, the Holy Roman Emperor and set out to travel across Europe and learn the finer points of statecraft, religious patronage and how to rule as an imperial consort to one of the most powerful secular rulers in Christendom. She wouldn’t have expected to ever see her homeland again but the fates would create a stony path for Matilda to tread in life.

Henry I was a ruthless and effective medieval king. He had inherited his father’s political acumen and ability to seize control of a situation to his own advantage. He managed to engineer his coronation despite being the youngest son of the conqueror by outmanoeuvring his older brother and incarcerating him for life. There continue to be rumours that Henry may have had a hand in the accidental fatal shooting of William Rufus in the New Forest too though nothing has been proven.

Henry’s weakness lay in the succession. Whilst he had managed to produce numerous illegitimate children with various mistresses who he used to build useful marriage alliances among the Norman lords, he had two legitimate children – Matilda and her younger brother William ‘the Atheling’ (of the royal blood). Henry’s own rise to power proved that being the natural heir alone wasn’t enough to ensure success and the price for failure could be very high when there were other ‘interested’ parties vying for power.

Tragedy struck and changed the course of English history when William the Atheling was drowned in the infamous ‘White Ship’ disaster of 1120 which wrecked his father’s plans, stunned the Anglo-Norman court and sent the country into deep mourning – not only for William but many other victims among the ruling class. Was it a divine judgement on Henry’s rule? Who would the grieving king choose as his successor and was there any possibility of raising another son in time to succeed him or would he look elsewhere to a fit, young adult male of the royal line who could replace his heir?

The White Ship disaster of 1120

Many eyes slid sideways to Stephen of Blois, the son of Henry’s sister Adela and her husband, Stephen Count of Blois. Stephen had miraculously avoided the White Ship disaster by a last minute decision to disembark due to stomach pains and had witnessed the unfolding disaster that would claim the life of his cousin. Some might question this lucky turn of events yet Stephen was held in high regard by many at court and Henry I seemed to turn to him as a trusted member of his extended family. Stephen would build a reputation for mercy and charming benevolence which perhaps suggests that he was an innocent bystander to events beyond anyone’s control yet it does seem convenient that he was saved at that particular flashpoint which would alter so many other destinies. Henry re-married, the young and beautiful Adeliza of Louvain and tried desperately to produce another son but the royal couple remained childless and Henry was aging.

Stephen of Blois

Meanwhile, Matilda’s destiny was about to be altered too. Having been a successful and respected co-ruler of the Holy Roman Empire, acting as regent for her husband in Italy and establishing herself as a competent ruler, Matilda found herself cast adrift when the emperor died in 1125. As Matilda had not had children and the new Holy Roman Emperor was a former enemy of her husband, she faced the choices of a nunnery or re-marriage to a lesser German prince or return to Normandy and her father’s court. Matilda choose this option and left the glory of her imperial past behind to put her future into her father’s hands.

Henry I expected unquestioning obedience from his now adult and experienced daughter and decided to re-marry her to Geoffrey, Count of Anjou for strategic reasons concerning his lands in Normandy but Matilda was less than delighted at this demotion in status and marriage to a much younger man with a reputation for rashness and even diabolical associations due to the legend of his family’s connections to Melusine, a shape-shifting sorceress! Geoffrey would prove to be a thorn in her side in more ways than one but she had little choice but to submit to the marriage, whatever her personal reservations were.

Geoffrey, Count of Anjou

Despite the marital difficulties and brief separation of Matilda and Geoffrey, she gave birth to a son called Henry after his royal grandfather and King Henry decided to finally concede defeat in the quest for a male heir. In a desperate attempt to secure the succession he compelled his Anglo-Norman barons to swear an oath to uphold Matilda’s claim to be his heir. Medieval oaths were serious and binding, especially when sworn by a feudal vassal to their overlord and Henry hoped that this would be sufficient to ensure that Matilda and her heirs would rule after him but again fate would intervene, for when Henry suddenly took ill and died a few days later at Lyons-la-Forêt in 1135, it was Stephen of Blois who was placed to sail immediately for England and seize the treasury while Matilda was heavily pregnant and unable to make a dash for the coast.

Possession being nine tenth of the law in this case, Stephen managed to pressure or persuade the Archbishop of Canterbury to crown him at lightening speed and garnered sufficient support amongst the barons to take the throne; no doubt arguing that as an adult male of the royal house he was the much better choice over a woman who was about to face the dangers of childbirth and was far enough away to be considered ‘out of the running’. Moreover, Geoffrey’s reputation was enough to caste doubt over his suitability to act as co-regent and many feared he would become the dominant partner, as a wife owed obedience to her husband in all things. Matilda was bound and gagged by the mores of her age, the implied ‘weakness of her sex’ and by the need for a warrior king who could lead his forces into battle despite her many skills, experience and attributes, her doubly royal blood and her strength of character.

Some of the barons who had sworn the oath to uphold Matilda’s claim also suggested that they had been compelled against their will by King Henry or that her marriage to Geoffrey had invalidated their oaths as they had never agreed to accepting him as part of the deal.

It is a testament to Matilda that she fought back, after a very difficult and dangerous birth and Stephen’s seizure of the throne. Matilda may have been at a disadvantage but she still retained the loyalty and support of several key figures including her uncle, King David I of Scotland, her half-brother, Robert of Gloucester and Henry’s widow, Adeliza who offered her a safe landing place on English soil at Arundel in 1139. Matilda was determined to re-claim the throne and secure her position and prepared to risk her own personal safety to achieve it but it was a struggle that would also claim many innocent lives, de-stabilise the country and unleash a culture of violent lawlessness and breakdown in the law which enabled many unscrupulous barons to settle personal grudges, take what they could by force and ride roughshod over the people in the process.

Initial success at the battle of Lincoln in 1141 saw Stephen fall into Matilda’s hands and her victory looked secure but Stephen’s queen, Matilda of Boulogne, was a powerful opponent and roused a force of Londoners to block Matilda, forcing her to flee the capital on the eve of her coronation; throwing the situation into a desperate race for cover once more. Following the ignominious Rout of Winchester in the same year when Matilda’s brother Robert was captured, she had no choice but to exchange him for Stephen and then in a further reversal of fortune she found herself encircled and under siege at Oxford in the winter of 1142.

After so many tragedies and triumphs, so many broken oaths and fractured relationships, what must Matilda have felt at this crucial moment in her life? She was the daughter of kings and conquerors, the widow of an emperor who had taken on the mantle of queenship and governed from her early years. Her father had been a forceful, astute, utterly focused monarch who had bent his subjects to his will and her mother had been a saintly figure, revered for her grace and piety. Matilda was an unhappy wife, far from any aid that her husband might offer her and separated from her young sons, who’s future depended on her success. She had almost achieved everything that she had longed for to see it snatched away within months and now she was encircled by her enemies in a war-torn country with only a few loyal knights to defend her against what looked like almost certain capture and capitulation. Stephen may not have been the ruthless ruler that her father had been and perhaps she didn’t fear for her actual life yet her mental state must have been desperately low at this moment. The castle couldn’t withstand a siege forever; supplies were running low and in the bitter cold of mid-winter and a ravaged landscape, how could Matilda alter the odds to fight on when she was cut off from relief by Stephen’s forces?

She made a daring plan to escape, making use of the recent snowfall and the castle’s location next to a mill stream which had frozen over. The traditional account and the most dramatic claims that Matilda was lowered down the side of St George’s Tower on knotted bed sheets and cloaked in white where she crossed the frozen stream on ice skates made from animal bones and accompanied by only a couple of her most trusted knights, slipped between the watch fires of Stephen’s forces while they drank the night away. Alternative versions suggest that she may have slipped through a postern gate at the rear of the castle but however she managed to evade capture, she fled to Abingdon and then Wallingford and broke Stephen’s hold once more.

Even hostile chroniclers like the Gesta Stephani praised her audacity and pluck at this pivotal moment which enabled her to fight on against Stephen’s kingship and ultimately changed the course of English history.

Later artist’s impression of Matilda’s escape over the snow in the winter of 1142

Some historians claim that this final effort against all the odds cost Matilda dear and her spirit was broken. There was certainly a stalemate between the two opposing sides that seemed impossible to break. Matilda’s forces were strong in the South-West, Stephen held the South-East and midlands. Neither figurehead could gain control over enough of the barons to secure a decisive victory and both figures had drawbacks attached to their claim. Stephen was considered to be weak and vacillating whereas contemporary chroniclers stressed Matilda’s imperious character and failure to show a proper ‘womanly’ submissiveness to her male advisors thought these were hardly qualities that would have fitted her for queenship but therein lay the problem – could a woman rule in her own right in C12th England?

Either way, Matilda returned to Normandy and concentrated on establishing her son’s claim and, working in conjunction with Geoffrey, to strengthen their holdings in Anjou and build a power base for the future. After all the struggles and bloodshed, economic impact and societal calamities of the Anarchy, when ‘God and his saints slept’, the country wanted a lasting peace settlement and so finally, after the death of Stephen’s son Eustace, Stephen agreed that Matilda’s son, Henry FitzEmpress would succeed him and thus end the cousin’s feud.

Had it not been for Matilda’s spirit and courage, her son would never have ushered in the Angevin Empire and English history would have followed a very different course. Henry FitzEmpress would do much to establish the English legal system as we know it. His spectacular marriage to Eleanor of Aquitaine extended the gains made by his great-grandfather from the borders of Scotland to the Pyrenees and his sons would carve out their own niches in history, for good or ill and change the relationship between the barons and the king forever.

So Matilda was, in some respects, the ‘might-have-been’ queen that England never knew. She never became more than ‘Lady of the English’ but she acted as a bridge to a new era and through her tortuous pursuit of her birthright, the country was set on a new course.

If the stones of Oxford Castle could speak to us they would tell a complex and dramatic tale of human history. There has been great suffering within those walls, moments of crisis and conflict, fear and uncertainty and many lives lived on the brink but none more dramatic in the telling than that of Matilda.

Oxford Castle today – St George’s Tower overlooking the prison block