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Oxford’s Black Assizes – The Curse of Roland Jenks

February 15, 2022

There are many stories surrounding Oxford Castle and Prison which have come down to us over the centuries – some raise uncomfortable issues of prejudice and miscarriages of justice, of censorship and harsh penalties for sinning against those in power and some which have been laced with superstition and paranormal activity.

C16th Bookbinder’s workshop

Roland Jenks was a bookbinder, living in Oxford during the reign of Elizabeth I – he was also a Catholic. Catholics were increasingly looked on with suspicion during Elizabeth’s reign due to the religious tensions unleashed by the Reformation which saw the persecution of both Protestants and Catholics by successive monarchs as political and religious factions gained favour and due to numerous plots to overthrown Elizabeth and replace her with her Catholic cousin, Mary Queen of Scots. After Elizabeth was excommunicated by the Pope Pius V in 1570 when he issued the papal bull ‘Regnans in Excelsis’, fears of religiously fuelled rebellion against the state and the breakdown of order lead to harsher sentences and penalties for ‘recusants’ – Catholics who refused to comply with religious laws and those who spoke out against the state in any form. In the bull Pius called on English Catholics to repudiate the queen’s authority and disobey her laws:

“We charge and command all and singular the nobles, subjects, peoples and others afore said that they do not dare obey her orders, mandates and laws. Those who shall act to the contrary we include in the like sentence of excommunication.”

The effect of the bull was to increase latent tensions within society between Catholics and Protestants and to spur on disaffected Catholics to rebel against Elizabeth’s rule and assist in plots to overthrow her or even assassinate her. This inevitably lead to a climate of suspicion and fear in the country. Under the ever-watchful eye of Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth’s spy-master, the authorities were under orders to root out papists and bring them to justice in an effort to stamp out dissent. The country was nervous and booksellers were often in the forefront of the debate and in danger of being implicated in the dissemination of dangerous texts and seditious thoughts.

Regnans in Excelsis Papal Bull issued by Pope Pius Vth in 1570

In the years immediately preceding the arrest of Roland Jenks Elizabeth’s government had seen off the threat of the Revolt of the Northern Earls in 1569 when the Catholic Earls of Northumberland and Westmoreland attempted to rescue Mary, Queen of Scots from her imprisonment and put her on the throne in place of Elizabeth. They gathered an army of 6,000 soldiers in their attempt to return England to Catholicism but were quickly beaten by Elizabeth’s forces and 800 rebels were executed. Only a few years later the Ridolfi Plot of 1571 was uncovered. Roberto Ridolfi, an Italian banker, planned to assassinate Elizabeth and make Mary Queen. He had the support of King Philip II of Spain, the Duke of Norfolk, and Mary, Queen of Scots herself. The plot was uncovered by Elizabeth’s advisor, Cecil. Ridolfi and the Spanish ambassador were arrested and expelled from the country and Norfolk was executed as a result.

The English court went into mourning on hearing of the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in Paris in 1572 when French Calvanist protestant Huguenots were murdered by a combination of state-orchestrated assassinations and mob violence which also spilled out into the provinces. Many Huguenots fled to England seeking refuge and religious toleration. We can only speculate on what Roland Jenks thought of all of this and whether he was torn in loyalty between his allegiance to the Pope and his duty to his monarch. Many Catholics were genuinely riven with conflicted thoughts and emotions and struggled to navigate a course that would allow them to be both good Catholics and good subjects. News of massacres abroad and the accompanying mis-information and propaganda on both sides of the religious divide fuelled distrust within communities and fear of similar atrocities being played out in towns like Oxford which had a high proportion of literate scholars and academics with access to potentially dangerous material.

Roland was perhaps unfortunate in getting caught speaking against the queen after he’d had a few drinks in the local tavern and found himself under arrest at Oxford Castle where he awaited trial until the next assizes were in session. Gaol fever, plague and diseases like Typhus were common in the unsanitary conditions, especially during the summer months where the overcrowded cells helped provide the perfect breeding ground for disease.

Poor Roland might have been feeling ill himself by the time he was called to trial in July 1577 before the judge and jury. There was little hope of a fair, impartial trial and he was found guilty of being ‘foul-mouthed and saucy’ after two days and sentenced to be pilloried by the ears for 3 days.

It was a nasty sentence and Jenks knew he was in for a very unpleasant and painful experience, designed to humiliate as well as mutilate him for life. Anyone with a grudge against him or the wider Catholic community could take their revenge by hurling all sorts of rotting matter at him during the course of his public punishment and at the end of his three days he would have to cut himself free and leave part of his ears behind in order to end the ordeal. No wonder he decided to rail against his sentence and, according to contemporary accounts he cursed the judge and jury.

Curses were taken seriously in Elizabethan England, especially when delivered by someone who was already judged to be a threat to public order and so when the leading members of the trail began to fall sick and die shortly after the trial it appeared that Jenks had indeed used supernatural forces to be revenged on the court. The two judges, the sheriff, the court clerk and the jury all succumbed to the mysterious disease. Increasing panic spread among the protestant elite of Oxford when the death toll reached 300 people – all male members of the community who had sat in judgement on him. No women or children were taken ill and this was seen as further confirmation that Jenks had cursed those upright citizens who stood against his Catholicism and seditious views.

Very sensibly, as soon as possible Jenks escaped the country after his punishment and became a baker in France, where he lived until old age carrying the scars of his punishment with him for life.

The case of the ‘Black Assizes’ was to re-surface in 2004 when archaeologists discovered a mass burial site in a ditch next to the mound at Oxford Castle dating from the mid-sixteenth to mid-eighteenth centuries which contained the bodies of executed prisoners, some of whom displayed signs of dissection after death and had probably been victims of body snatchers. Analysis of the skeletal remains of some of those Elizabethans buried suggest that an outbreak of Typhus may have lead to their early deaths so perhaps the ‘curse of Roland Jenks’ was his unwitting role as an agent for spreading disease that he contracted whilst awaiting trial and spread through the courtroom rather than any divine intervention.



The Case of Mary Blandy: Guilty or Innocent?

February 9, 2022
Mary Blandy

“Alas! the record of her page will tell
That one thus madden’d, lov’d, and guilty fell.
Who hath not heard of Blandy’s fatal fame,
Deplor’d her fate, and sorrow’d o’er her shame?”
~”Henley,” anonymous 1827 poem

The case of Mary Blandy divides opinion even today. Was she an innocent victim of a confidence trickster who was used and abandoned to a miserable fate or was she complicit in the murder of her father? Was Mary innocent, naïve and manipulated, thrown to the wolves by her own father and set up for a tragic end or cold-hearted, an unnatural daughter and murderess who was rightly executed for a terrible crime?

Our response to a case like this probably says as much about us and our world view as it does about the available evidence left to us from the C18th court case, trial and execution records and contemporary attitudes to female murder suspects. There is a lot to unpack here in terms of gender roles, misogyny, social mores and changing attitudes towards female agency and issues of manipulation and coercion.

Francis Blandy was a wealthy lawyer and town clerk in Henley on Thames. He was a respected member of the local community and lived with his wife and only daughter, Mary, in Hart Street near the White Hart Inn. Mary’s baptism is recorded on 15th July 1720 at Henley Parish Church. Her mother educated Mary at their home and she was raised to be a well-mannered and accomplished young lady in the Anglican faith who should have looked forward to a comfortable, middle-class life of domesticity and respectable marriage.

The first blow to Mary’s hopes was contracting deadly smallpox which often left sufferers scared for life, if they survived the disease itself. In a society where female beauty was prized so highly in terms of making a good marriage, people would have sympathised with Mary but it would also have counted against her and literally marked her out as a negative quality through no fault of her own and severely damaged her marriage prospects.

Color illustration depicting smallpox pustules, shown on the face and hand of a woman, in profile, wearing a scarf, with inset close-ups to illustrate pustule stages, and their presence on the eyelid, from the volume “Contagious and Infectious Disease: measures for their prevention and arrest, small pox (variola), modified small pox (varioloid), chicken pox (varicella), cow pox (variole vaccinae), vaccination, spurious vaccination, ” authored by Joseph Jones, Edward Jenner, George Pearson, and William Woodville, 1884. Courtesy Internet Archive. (Photo by Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images)

As the years passed there was concern over whether Mary would ever marry despite seasons in fashionable resorts like Bath and visits to London which were used as an opportunity for Mary to meet potential suitors. There was enormous social pressure on young women to marry ‘well’. During the C18th there was very little prospect for genteel young women to earn their own living, tying them to either a husband, marriage and motherhood or to stay in their childhood home and become nurses to ageing parents. Financial considerations were often paramount, with parents arranging marriages to ensure their daughters were cared for and off their hands before they passed away.

It is impossible to know what Mary’s parents thought about Mary’s situation and whether their actions were motivated by love and concern for her future or by desperation to see her settled as they aged or whether they considered her to be a burden. Some accounts suggest that Francis let it be known that Mary would have an enormous dowry of £10,000 as a means of attracting suitors; others suggest that rumour inflated the sum well beyond anything Francis could actually have bestowed on her and that he cared deeply for his daughter’s happiness.

Was Mary effectively put up for sale with a price tag around her neck by her own father and humiliated by this experience? How would she have felt to be considered so ugly that only a large financial inducement would persuade a man to offer her marriage and respectability? Did she deeply resent her father’s actions or were they both swept along by contemporary obsessions with wealth and status and the rumour-mill?

This is quite crucial in terms of deciding whether Mary’s relationship with her father had deteriorated even before William Cranstoun was introduced to her and might explain why she would have contemplated murdering her father. It also raises the question of whether Francis left Mary exposed to the attentions of a confidence trickster by effectively advertising her wealth and set in motion the events that would lead to her ruin.

Conversely, Mary may have been grateful to her father for offering such a sizeable dowry if she was keen to be married and move on with her life. Did she want children and the possibility of running her own household and was she conscious as the years went on that time was running out? Mary’s mother suffered from ill health and Mary might have worried what would happen when she died. Would she be trapped as her father’s companion and nurse forever?

A number of potential suitors did show interest in Mary but they were all rejected – this perhaps suggests that her parents were concerned to find the right man for their daughter or that Mary had more say in the matter than might have been initially considered. It might also indicate that Francis Blandy was holding out for a better match and wanted to climb the social ladder by arranging a marriage into the nobility which left Mary increasingly frustrated with her father and his ambitions as her youth was spent and her child bearing years ebbed away. Was she equally ambitious or would she have accepted one of these men quite happily if she hadn’t been blocked by her parent’s desire for a better connected son-in-law?

Lord Mark Kerr lived at The Paradise in Henley. He was extremely well connected and uncle of Lady Jane Douglas who was a rich heiress and Mary was invited to dine at his property. It was there that she was introduced to Captain, the Hon William Henry Cranstoun. Cranstoun was described by a contemporary as “remarkably ordinary, his stature is low, his face freckled and pitted with the smallpox, his eyes small and weak, his eyebrows sandy, and his shape no ways genteel; his legs are clumsy, and he has nothing in the least elegant in his manner.”

Perhaps Mary saw a kindred spirit in him; someone who had also been marked out by a cruel disease and unfairly judged for his physical appearance. Perhaps she was also, in part, attracted to his social status as the fifth son of a Scottish peer and his rank as a First Lieutenant of Sir Andrew Agnew’s regiment of marines who had fought at Culloden against the Jacobites.

Francis had turned away other soldiers before but the family seemed to have welcomed Cranstoun despite this and his modest personal wealth. Francis boasted of his noble connections and was perhaps willing to overlook the negatives in order to finally see Mary settled. He seems to have had no concerns over whether Cranstoun was more drawn to the dowry than the daughter.

In 1747, Cranstoun declared his passion for Mary and he was invited into the family home as an honoured guest and potential son-in-law. Cranstoun seemed to charm the family and provide the solution to their problem. When Mary’s mother fell ill she called for Cranstoun especially and he lifted her spirits. She remained under the spell of his charms to the end.

Francis was a businessman and experienced lawyer. He may have been blinded by Cranstoun’s aristocratic manners and his elevated connections in Scotland but it seems odd that he didn’t investigate more thoroughly before welcoming Cranstoun into his home and agreeing to his engagement to Mary.

The bombshell exploded when Francis was informed by Lord Kerr that Cranstoun was already married in Scotland to Anne Murray, a catholic and had fathered a daughter with her. Cranstoun denied this and said that Anne was only his mistress and he intended to appeal to the courts to prove that they had never been legally married. She was only after financial reward and he couldn’t marry her as she was a catholic and he was Presbyterian which was a huge impediment to any union.

It all sounds highly implausible and all too common a case of a man seeking to throw off an inconvenient secret marriage and abandon a woman who he had left raising his child once a better prospect came along. Cranstoun suggested that Lord Kerr was trying to spoil his chances with Mary and ruin his reputation because of a falling out between them. He was the innocent victim of manipulation and character assassination and Francis seems to have believed him at first but he became increasingly disillusioned with his house guest and spent more time at the coffee house than at home before finally commanding Mary to break off all contact with Cranstoun and never see him again.

Mary was devastated. After finally securing the attentions of a suitable potential husband, having him accepted into her family and making plans for her marriage, she was now not only back to square one but her reputation was now compromised by association with a man who might be a liar and fortune hunter. Her heart had been broken and she longed to believe Cranstoun’s version of events.

If Francis had been taken in, why not Mary who had far less experience of the world than her father and was under enormous social pressure to secure a match. After so many long years of waiting, she had found a soul mate and the chance of a new life to see if all being snatched away from her. She must have been desperate and vulnerable at this moment. Was she also angry and resentful of her father’s command to drop her lover or even complicit in Cranstoun’s scheme to marry in secret in order to prevent their separation and rid themselves of her father’s disapproval?

Mary later swore that there had been a clandestine marriage between them which she believed to be legally binding which had taken place in London while she was visiting her uncle with her mother, who had taken ill. Mary had arranged a meeting with Cranstoun at a friend’s lodgings in St James’s Square, as her uncle had forbidden him entry into his house. They had eloped and married in secret.

On March 1, 1748, the Commissary Court decreed that Cranstoun and Anne Murray were legally married and ordered him to pay his wife an annuity of forty pounds, plus ten pounds child support for his abandoned daughter. He was also liable for all the legal expenses involved, which put him several hundreds of pounds out of pocket. Cranstoun appealed the decision, but it was dismissed. His reputation was tarnished, as was Mary’s by association. To pour salt on the wounds, there were other accusations against Cranstoun of mistresses and children he had tried to cover up.

To most of us, the warning bells would be ringing loud and clear by this point. Mary’s mother was terminally ill and clung to her belief in Cranstoun’s innocence to the very end, hoping that her daughter would be joined with the man she loved but Francis had finally seen the light. Mary’s mother died in September 1749. Due to her symptoms, which included intestinal inflammation, some people later thought that Mary had poisoned her too but there seems little motive as she mother was a defender of Cranstoun’s character and encouraged the match to the end. Cranstoun returned to Scotland to try to sort out his affairs with a large helping of Mary’s money to pay off his legal debts.

After her death, when Francis had hardened in his disapproval of Cranstoun and he had lost an advocate, Cranstoun suggested to Mary that he knew a means by which he could win her father round. He had heard of a ‘cunning woman’ in Scotland called Mrs Morgan who made love potions. If Mary could add a special powder to her father’s tea or food he would alter in his feelings towards them and support their union.

Love potions were commonly used in this period and despite much scepticism on the part of the public when the case came to court, it is feasible that Mary believed in the notion of a love potion and fell for Cranstoun’s scheme. Arsenic was used as a tonic and when taken in small doses it could perk up a patient so when her father first ingested the powder she may have observed a positive change in his demeanour and believed it was working.

Arsenic Poisoning symptoms

Cranstoun sent her love letters along with the special powder and certain Scottish pebbles which were fashionable at the time. He passed the powder off as something to clean the stones with but Mary followed his instructions and mixed it into her father’s tea or porridge. As the arsenic residue built up in Francis, he became increasingly unwell. Mary wrote to Cranstoun that the powder wasn’t working. This letter was used as evidence that Mary was impatient at the delay and wanted to run away to Scotland to be with her lover. Cranstoun replied that she needed to use more and that his mother was preparing a home for her in Scotland. This could be interpreted both ways – Mary needed to use more potion to win her father over and then she would be free to travel to Scotland or that she needed to increase the poison to be free of the impediment to their marriage.

Servants who drank from the remaining tea or porridge were violently ill. During the later trial it was noted that Mary sent remedies of white wine, whey and broth which were used against Arsenic poisoning to Ann Emmett, a charwoman who had been almost died after drinking some of Francis’s tea – was Mary aware of the contents of the powder all along or just using popular remedies for stomach pains and purging?

The servants began to be suspicious of Mary after they saw her putting something into her father’s food and they witnessed the violent reactions of anyone who had eaten or drank anything that Francis had ingested and the maid took the gritty residue that she found at the bottom of the cooking pot to a neighbour who called in the local pharmacist.

The servants finally alerted Francis to the possibility that Mary was poisoning him. Once he learned that Cranstoun was the source of the powder everything fitted into place. He confronted Mary who broke down and admitted to adding the powder and begged his forgiveness. It is very telling that Francis forgave her and called her a ‘love-sick girl’. He clearly thought that Mary was an innocent party in the affair and blamed Cranstoun entirely even as he lay dying in agony from the effects of the Arsenic.

Mary was first held under house arrest in her room while investigations were carried out. All harmful objects were removed, suggesting that some thought she might attempt suicide after her father’s death. It is unclear whether this was due to her mental state, guilt or desire to escape punishment for her crimes.

Mary pleads for forgiveness

Mary found her door unlocked on day and decided to take a walk in Henley but she had become the object of local hatred and was persuaded by an angry mob and had to seek shelter in a friend’s house. Perhaps she had been unaware prior to this incident of how she was viewed by the local population or how she would be perceived and judged more widely in society. Again, this might suggest a naivety on her part or lack of judgement which seems consistent with her blind faith in her lover and his version of events.

The inquest into Francis’s death concluded that he had been poisoned and Mary was conveyed to Oxford Prison to await her trial where she was put in leg irons to prevent an attempted escape although she enjoyed fairly comfortable conditions due to her comparative wealth and was treated well by her gaolers. Cranstoun had already fled to France to escape justice, leaving her utterly alone to face the full penalty of the law. he died penniless there in 1752 and never stood trial for his part in the murder.

Mary appeared at the assizes in Oxford in March 1752, before The Honourable Heneage Legge, Esq., and Sir Sydney Stafford Smythe. The trial was held at the Divinity School in Oxford as the Town Hall was undergoing building work at the time. The trial was note worthy because it was the first time detailed medical evidence had been presented in court on a charge of murder by poisoning and heard testimony by Dr. Anthony Addington who had conducted medical analysis of comparative samples to prove that the powder Mary had put in her father was arsenic.

Mary defended herself with the help of three counsels, with what has been described as “intelligence and zeal” denying any intention to harm her father and that she had believed the powder to be a love potion and administered it only to win her father’s approval for her relationship with Cranstoun.

The combined medical testimony and evidence supplied by her servants condemned her and she was found guilty of the murder. She requested a little time to set her affairs in order and remained composed throughout the six weeks that followed whilst the case became a ’cause celebre’ and was endlessly discussed in the papers and in wider society. Mary took this time to write a great deal in her condemned cell including “Miss Mary Blandy’s Own Account of the Affair between her and Mr. Cranstoun” which was described by Hoarce Bleakley as the “most famous apologia in criminal literature.”  She corresponded with various people and even had ladies to tea while she awaited her final fate, maintaining her innocence of the crime of murder to the end.

Given the evidence and testimony against Mary by the household servants and her initial attempts to destroy the love letters and remaining powder there was little hope for her not being found guilty by the court. Her actions certainly appeared suspicious and motivated by her desire to be with her lover at whatever cost. Her failure to connect the illness of the servants after ingesting the powder laced food and drink and her father’s deteriorating state with the harmful effects of the potion seem too wilful to prove innocence yet she seemed to trust Cranstoun so thoroughly that it is possible that she completely believed his version of events and doggedly pursued his instructions in the hopes of a happy ending.

Time was running out for Mary and she began to think about her final moments and the nature of a public hanging. She was concerned that the gallows would be so elevated that men in the crowd might look up her skirts as she died and famously requested ‘for the sake of decency, gentlemen, don’t hang me high’. On the eve of her execution she wrote the following:

‘I, Mary Blandy, do declare, that I die in a full persuasion of the truth and excellency of the Christian religion, and a sincere, though unworthy, member of the Church of England. I do likewise hope for a pardon and remission of my sins, by the mercy of God, through the merits and mediation of Jesus Christ, my most blessed Lord and Saviour. I do also further declare, that I did not know or believe that the powder, to which the death of my dear father has been ascribed, had any noxious or poisonous quality lodged in it; and that I had no intention to hurt, and much less to destroy him, by giving him that powder; All this is true, as I hope for eternal salvation, and mercy from Almighty God, in whose most awful and immediate presence I must soon appear. I die in perfect peace and charity with all mankind, and do from the bottom of my soul forgive all my enemies, and particularly those who have in any manner contributed to, or been instrumental in bringing me to the ignominous death I am so soon to suffer. This is my last declaration, as to the points therein contained; and I do most earnestly desire, that it may be published after my decease. Witness my hand, MARY BLANDY.’

For her execution, she chose “a black crape sack, with her arms and hands ty’d with black paduasoy ribbons.” 

She was hung on 6th April 1752, that being Easter Monday in that year either in the Castle Yard next the old Castle Mound or on a mount at the Westgate of the city, still proclaiming her innocence to the watching crowd and thankfully she lost consciousness quickly and died bravely. Her remains were conveyed to Henley where she was interred at the parish church next to her parents the following day.

Although her contemporaries continued to believe her guilty of the murder, Victorian reassessments were more forgiving and tended to focus on her naivety and the romanticism of the love potion narrative. The fact that her father seemed to forgive her actions and saw her as a victim of Cranstoun’s schemes has been increasingly used to argue that Mary was innocent and the real villain was always her unscrupulous lover who left a trail of heart hearts behind him, abandoned her as he had abandoned his true wife and daughter and tried to flee from the consequences of his actions.

Medieval Jewish Settlements in Oxford

February 1, 2022
The Crypt at Oxford Castle – built on Anglo-Saxon foundations

The first Jewish settlers arrived in Oxford not long after the Norman Conquest, around 1075AD residing in the commercial heart of the city at St Aldates which became known as Great Jewry Street, close to the original C8th oxen ford from which the settlement got its name and inside the line of the Norman city walls shown on the map below. They engaged in the usual commercial activities allowed during the medieval period – trading, medicine, pawn-broking and money lending. It is estimated there were around 90 Jewish families in Oxford in this phase. They were the only Jewish community mentioned in the Domesday book of 1086.

The Jewry was located on St Aldates within the city walls

Why did the Jews settle in Oxford at this time? It is thought that William the Conqueror encouraged Jewish re-settlement from Rouen in order to build a network of trading links and credit throughout his domains. They may have been encouraged or compelled to move and settled first in London and then moved to towns like Oxford where they were royal wards – under the direct protection of the monarch and exempt from certain tolls. The presence of the castle may have been another factor in the choice of Oxford as Robert D’Oyly held it for the crown and therefore it offered some protection to them as royal wards. In return the king could extract special taxes or ‘tallages’ from his Jewish wards and they were often under pressure to assist the monarch in raising funds for building projects, royal dowries or military campaigns.

There is evidence of good relations between the first Norman kings and their Jewish communities; William Rufus saw the value in fostering the Jewish presence in England and prevented the pogroms seen in France and the Rhineland which preceded the First Crusade of 1096 and engaged in religious debates at court where he suggested he might convert to Judaism if they had the better argument. Henry I continued to support the community and reiterated their privileges and protections but during the Anarchy when trade was severely disrupted and the highways became dangerous and lawless, many Jews abandoned trading enterprises in favour of money-lending in an effort to survive the instability of the civil war.

Aerial view of the Carfax showing the site of Aaron’s house which was burned by King Stephen in 1142

Aaron son of Issac had a property on the junction of St Aldates with the Carfax (under the current Edinburgh Woollen Mill Shop) which was burned during King Stephen’s attack on Oxford in 1142. Stephen used threats to extort money from the Jews of Oxford who had already paid Matilda to fund her campaign before she was besieged by Stephen at Oxford Castle. He threatened to burn the whole of the Jewish settlement to the ground if they didn’t finance him. It must have been a very insecure and frightening experience for the Oxford families as lawlessness was rife and the usual protections offered by the crown were withdrawn. If ‘God and his angels slept’ for the Christian community, it could only have been even harder for the Jewish communities to endure twenty years of fractured government, sporadic violence and constant economic upheaval.

Thankfully the re-establishment of firm centralised rule under Henry II enabled the Jewish community in Oxford, as elsewhere to recover from the hard years of civil strife but they were still under the threat of religious persecution and during the C12th many Jewish communities in England and across Europe were massacred due to false accusations of child murder. The ‘blood libel’ began in Norwich in 1144, when a disaffected Jew concocted a sinister story of a Jewish rite where a Christian child was abducted and crucified during the festival of Passover. Rumours spread and re-surfaced whenever a Christian child went missing or was murdered and the local population looked for a scapegoat. There were massacres of Jews in various cities during the 1180s and 90s, most notoriously at Clifford’s Tower in York where the victims committed suicide rather than surrender to the mob that had encircled them. Jews were also accused of poisoning wells and desecrating the host.

The 25 towns which held the archae

Crusading fervour did nothing to assist relations between Christians and Jews during this period. Richard I continued to offer nominal protection and established special Jewish exchequers begun in his father’s reign to protect records of Jewish property and money lending as each massacre had provided a useful excuse for burning evidence of all debts owed to the victims of the violence. 25 towns were to hold ‘archae’ – official chests with Christian and Jewish key holders where copies of all Jewish transactions were lodged for safe keeping. The archa in Oxford was held at the castle. Richard would need his Jewish financiers even more when he was captured on his return for the Holy Land and his mother had to raise an enormous ransom to free him. The Jewish financiers were expected, once more, to pay large sums to the crown to effect his release.

Archa – a lockable chest which held copies of all Jewish transactions

King John was equally persistent in taxing the Jews to pay for the dowry of his daughter, Princess Joan and the crushing Bristol Tallage fell heavily on the Jewish community, leaving many impoverished and without recourse to justice.

1207 Confirmation of Henry I’s liberties to the Jewish population in the reign of King John

Due to the preservation of monastic records by the Oxford colleges, we have an especially good record of the Jewish community in Oxford during the medieval period, including a roster of all Jewish households in the C13th which recorded about 250 individuals and provides a fascinating window into their world. The remains of a vaulted ceiling can be found under the current town hall which belonged to one of the five large properties in the Jewry. Excavations on St Aldates have unearthed various objects which belonged to Oxford’s Jewish residents such as a stone lamp, storage jars and the base of a stone cross with Old Testaments scenes. More recent excavations have found evidence of kosher food practices.

Between 1170 – 1220 there were around 100 Jewish people in a city of about 2,000, and they owned perhaps as many as 100 to 150 properties.

Coppin of Worcester founded a Jewish synagogue on the site of the current Tom Quad at Christ Church in 1228 for the Jewish residents and they acquired land to the east of the town for a Jewish cemetery. There is a memorial plaque in the rose garden beside the Botanical Gardens which marks the site.

Jacob of Oxford bought the land for Merton College, one of the earliest colleges in Oxford, was established in the 1260s. Balliol College and Christ Church were also endowed with properties that were originally owned by the city’s medieval Jews. Students would often pawn their books to local Jewish moneylenders in order to fund their studies and entertainments. In 1244 there was a riot amongst the students over how many of their books were being held as surety for their debts. The chancellor of Oxford, Robert Grosseteste set up a university-run loan chest, called St Frideswide Chest, to enable students to borrow money without jeopardising their studies and banned them from pawning their books to the Jewish money lenders.

David, Licoricia and Asher

David of Oxford was a highly successful businessman with a large property on St Aldates under the site of the current Town Hall. He sought divorce from his wife Muriel as she was unable to give him children and after a lengthy legal dispute, which even involved the intervention of King Henry III who prohibited the Beth Din from opposing the marriage, he married Licoricia of Winchester who’s father was a wealthy member of Winchester’s jewry. Licoricia was already a widow with three sons and a daughter when they married and she would become the most wealthy and influential Jewish woman in society. Although her marriage to David only lasted two years before his death in 1244, she had a son called Asher by him who would leave his only mark on history. Licoricia was confined the Tower of London whilst the crown established the worth of David’s estate and she was compelled to pay substantial death duties in order to inherit his estate (part of which paid for the construction of the shrine of St Edward the Confessor at Westminster Abbey). Licoricia was an adept business women and returned to Winchester where she continued to finance the court and royal family for thirty years and became a conduit for the Jewish population to have their grievances heard by the king as she was often at his court when he came to Winchester. There were several Jewish business women operating like Licoricia at this time. Sadly Licoricia was to become the victim of her own success. She was found be her daughter Belia with multiple stab wounds in her home along with her Christian maid Alice of Bicton in 1277. Three men were implicated in her murder but none were ever tried or brought to justice for her murder.

Her son Asher also suffered from persecution and was imprisoned with his brothers during coin clipping arrests, leaving his lament on the walls of his prison cell at Winchester Castle.

The new statue of Licoricia and Asher which is due to erected in Jewry St Winchester in 2022

Once the university was established, the Jewish community acted as money lenders to the scholars and landlords, with an estimated 10% of rented rooms being owned by Jewish landlords. Archaeological excavations in the Jewry area suggest that some of the Jewish residents may have been engaged in producing coinage and that there was a secret tunnel which connected their properties in St Aldates to the Castle – perhaps in order to transport coinage there for safe keeping. Oxford’s Jews also sought protection within the castle walls on several occasions when anti-Semitic violence threatened them.

‘Excavations in 2015 from the old Jewish quarter included vessels that had been used for smelting metals, supporting theories that the Oxford Jewish community was involved in both the procurement of bullion for the Royal Mint and the actual production of coins. Earlier excavations revealed that houses in the Jewish quarter were connected by underground passageways, possibly designed for the safe traffic of money to and from the castle mint.’

Pressure on Jewish communities was becoming more intense due to a number of factors. Christian money-lenders began to operate in competition, taxes were heavily applied and new laws were passed in 1269 which limited Jewish property ownership to their own houses and those rented to other Jews. Their children could no longer inherit their property and in 1275 they could no longer lend money. They were being backed into an impossible situation and many resorted to crime in order to survive.

In 1278 293 Jews were convicted of coin clipping and were hanged in the Tower of London. In 1290 Edward I issued an edict expelling all Jews from the country by 1st November. Those who remained either converted to Christianity or kept their identities secret. Many thousands fled to Europe but faced further hardship and persecution there as other European countries followed suit in expelling their Jewish populations too.

It was a sad end to the thriving Jewish community in Oxford which had benefitted both Jewish and Christian townspeople alike. Many scholars had learned Hebrew from the community including Roger Bacon who had great admiration for the Jewish scholars he engaged with. Students had been glad of the credit extended to them and for Jewish landlords who had provided accommodation during their studies. The Jewish business people of both genders had brought prosperity to the town and the crown had ruthlessly taxed and exploited their royal wards over several hundred years from the Norman Conquest onwards; often turning to their Jewish subjects at times of financial crisis and using their wealth to finance royal dowries, military campaigns and building works.

The Jewish population certainly left a fascinating legacy in Oxford in terms of physical remains and artefacts but also in terms of learning and economic achievements which add to the rich history of the town.,outbreaks%20of%20anti-Semitic%20violence%20threatened%20the%20Jewish%20community.,Bundy%20jury%20of%2012%20Jews%20which…%20More%20

Vikings in Oxford: What Led to the Attack of 1009 AD

January 27, 2022
Viking ships at sea with warriors on board. Hand-colored woodcut of a 19th-century illustration

“We all need earnestly to strive that we might gain God’s mercy and compassion, and that with his help we might resist our enemies. Now it is our will that all the people perform a general penance for three days on bread and herbs and water… and cry out urgently to Christ from their innermost heart.” Bishop Wulfstan’s law code composed for King Aethelred in 1009 AD

Even at the distance of 1000 years, you can feel the palpable sense of panic behind these words. The end of the world had not transpired as many had predicted with dread as the year 1000 approached yet England was scourged by continued Viking attacks which seemed unstoppable. The presence of the Antichrist hung like a malevolent cloud over the land and the people lived in a constant state of anxiety and nervous anticipation. No amount of penance, prayer or pleading seemed to do any good. No amount of money or valuables handed over by the king would make the raiders disappear across the sea.

Wulfstan’s law codes and sermons must have done little for morale and seemed to reinforce the idea that the English had brought their woes upon themselves by sinful behaviour and crimes against God’s laws which could only be redeemed by humble penitence, fasting and devotion to a Christian lifestyle. In an age where belief in divine favour was so crucially important, this relentless criticism of morality must have hit at the heart of Aethelred’s administration and further demoralised his forces. An army that feels they have lost before the first blow is struck is already set up to fail.

Wulfstan’s sermons echo the earlier writings of Alcuin of York who wrote to Athelred of Northumbria in 793 AD after the Viking raid on Lindisfarne

‘What may I say about avarice, robbery, violent judgments? – when it is clearer than day how much these crimes have increased everywhere and a despoiled people testifies to it. Whoever reads the Holy Scriptures and ponders ancient histories and considers the fortune of the world will find that for sins of this kind kings lost kingdoms and peoples their country; and while the strong unjustly seized the goods of others, they justly lost their own.’ (Somerville & McDonald, 186).

The underlying moral argument remained the same despite the distance between the two writers; the country was lawless and weak, society was corrupted and in need of firm governance and the people were suffering as a result of crime and lax morality. The heathen attacks were a punishment from God for wickedness, rather than the consequence of external factors such a land hunger or greed.

King Aethelred

King Aethelred had tried appeasement; offering 10,000 pounds in danegeld after his defeat at the Battle of Malden in 991 AD to see off one threat and another 22,000 pounds in gold and silver after further defeats in 993 AD and 994 AD. He encouraged conversion to Christianity in the hopes that the raiders might be persuaded against attacking a fellow Christian kingdom yet more attacks ensued as many Vikings only paid lip-service to their new religion or had been forcibly converted by leaders who had embraced a new religion for political reasons.

The Norman dukes, descending from the Norwegian Rollo who had become the first Norman ruler of the region after the Siege of Chartres in 911 AD with their shared Scandinavian ancestry facilitated raids on England; offering shelter and a convenient launch pad for successive Viking parties from their shoreline despite being Christian themselves. Athelred had married Emma of Normandy who was the daughter of Duke Richard I of Normandy and Gunnor, his Danish wife in order to create an alliance and prevent further Viking attacks from Normandy but even this strategic move with the promise of Anglo-Norman heirs failed to prevent further violence.

Emma of Normandy receiving the ‘Encomium Emmae Reginae’ from its author, with her sons Harthacanute and Edward the Confessor in the background

Athelred also tried recruiting Viking mercenaries to counter-act other raiders but this policy also failed to prevent further sorties while the people continued to suffer at the hands of lawless men who took what they wanted and were never satisfied.

Things turned ugly in 1002 AD when Aethelred sanctioned the St Brice’s Day massacre on 13th November. A mass grave found in Oxford attests to the brutality of the attacks on Norse communities; whether they were mercenaries or merchants, strangers or neighbours who had been settled in the community for some years in an area not far from the border of the Danelaw established in the reign of King Alfred generations before. Excavations under St John’s College in Oxford found the remains of 36 victims; young men aged around 16-25 who had been murdered. The pattern of wounds on their skeletal remains suggests they were attacked from behind.

20 of the skeletons showed evidence of punctures in their vertebrae and pelvic bones, and 27 skulls were broken or cracked, indicating traumatic head injuries. From markings on the ribs, experts were able to ascertain that at least a dozen of the victims had been stabbed in the back, and attempts were made on 5 others. Some victims had suffered serious burns to their heads, backs, pelvic regions and arms. They were most likely taken out of the city and thrown into a mass pit in unconsecrated ground which had been on the site of an earlier pagan henge.

Excavation of a grave pit

Some had sought sanctuary in the church of Saxon St Frideswide but had been locked up inside and the church torched. A restoration of the church and re-dedication was required two years later by the king ‘with God’s aid’ but even this drastic action failed to prevent further attacks from the Norsemen. Some historians argue that the St Brice’s Day attacks were a state-sanctioned response to intelligence that the Danes in England planned to attack the king and his council and overthrow the monarch. The day was carefully selected as St Brice had been a penitential bishop who redeemed himself in the eyes of God. Aethelred was seeking to win back divine favour as well as rid himself of the Viking presence in the country to prove to his people that he could be a decisive and successful ruler favoured by the almighty who was capable of protecting his people and striking hard at their oppressors.

A similar mass grave pit has been excavated near Weymouth though the dating remains open to interpretation but does provide evidence of retribution attacks against Viking raiding parties by local communities during this period.

There have been recent reassessments of Aethelred’s effectiveness as a king with renewed focus on his attempts to divide the Viking forces and peel off individual leaders and turn them to Christianity, as seen in the case of King Olaf Trygvasson who did return to Norway and convert his people to Christianity. Although the traditional view of Aethelred as ‘ill-advised’, weak and a poor military tactician still tends to dominate assessments of his reign, it could be argued that he tried every means possible to prevent the attacks but it was virtually impossible to defend the whole coastline of the British Isles or to prevent successive waves of attack by different groups of Vikings.

One tactical error that would fan the flames higher however did result from the St Brice’s Day massacre. Gunhild was the daughter of Harald Bluetooth and Tove and sister of Svein Forkbeard. She was married to Palling Tokesen, Jarl of Devonshire and both were victims of the massacre which gave Svein the perfect excuse for retribution against the English in 1004 AD.

Was Oxford targeted in particular as retribution for the St Brice’s Day massacre or was it just in the path of successive raiding parties and therefore fair game? It’s strategic position was probably also a factor in the raids which followed. Oxford had already been burned by Viking attackers in 979 AD. There must have been visible evidence of the recent attack of 1004 around the city and recent memories of the violence that had been unleashed when the townspeople braced themselves for yet another attack in 1009 AD.

Wulfstan’s Sermon of the Wolf to the People, written around 1009 AD details God’s punishment for sinful behaviour

“Beloved men, know the truth. This world is in haste, and approaches its end. And so it is the worse in this world the longer it goes on, and because of the people’s sins it must needs worsen from day to day, until the coming of Antichrist.”

These great sins have overrun the country, Wulfstan said, and so the Danish raiders and invaders will never be defeated: “The English are now long victory-less, terribly demoralised through God’s anger.”

In this climate of fear, judgement and perceived sin, the English faced a great attack in the year 1009 AD.

Thorkell the Tall was leader of the legendary JomsVikings, a particularly feared group among the Viking raiders who operated under a strict military code and refused to retreat or show fear. He landed in Kent and attacked Canterbury, which managed to raise 3000 to pay him off, then turned south and swept across the country, pillaging and burning as he went and attacked Oxford in August 1009.

There is much debate about whether the JomsVikings were an actual raiding band or a semi-mythical invention by later Scandinavian sources to add weight to the terror of their Viking ancestry. The Gesta Danorum written in the C12th by Saxo Grammaticus recounts some of their history and exploits as mercenaries who were staunch believers in the old Norse gods but would fight for any lord who paid them sufficiently, even for Christians. The JomsViking Saga written in C13th Iceland further adds to their reputation as fierce warriors. There has even been a suggestion that the mass grave pit found near Weymouth could contain the bodies of JomsVikings based on incisions in the teeth of the victims and the manner of their death. The bodies show evidence that the men faced their executioners in the manner of the brotherhood who refused to show fear in the face of certain death but rather stare it in the face.

Gesta Danorum (Angers fragment)

Whoever Thorkell’s men were, they overcame the defences of Oxford and exacted a heavy toll on the inhabitants of the town. We can only imagine the violence and destruction that they inflicted and the resulting trauma to those who were in their path. Oxford’s Saxon Tower by St Michael at the North Gate was constructed between 1000 -1050 AD, in response to the Viking attacks. Along with the Saxon foundations of St George’s Tower at Oxford Castle which is thought to date to around 1025 AD, these two ancient towers are the earliest remaining structures to the period of the Viking threat in the city.

The Saxon Tower at Oxford

Click to access oxford.pdf

The Unfortunate Death of Lady Katherine Grey

January 27, 2022

So many secret marriages during this period despite the inevitable consequences for defying the queen. The Seymours had risen to great heights of influence at court and wanted to ensure they remained the power behind the throne, if not the person sitting on it. This undoubtedly played a part in Elizabeth’s reaction to this marriage but she probably would have had a problem with many potential suitors for Lady Katherine too as she was so close to the succession. Marrying for love wasn’t an option for Elizabeth and she could be harsh in her treatment of other women who indulged their passions – she never forgave Lettice Knollys for marrying Dudley. The stakes were extremely high for all concerned.

The Freelance History Writer


I have just read the most heartbreaking description of the death of Lady Katherine Grey. She was the sister of Lady Jane Grey, the “Nine Days Queen” and a descendant of Mary Tudor, sister of King Henry VIII. Katherine’s death at the age of twenty-seven was most unfortunate.

What makes her story so sad? In many ways, her life mirrors that of her cousin Arbella Stuart who was born six years after Katherine’s death. Arbella was a descendant of Margaret Tudor, eldest sister of King Henry VIII. Both women were potential heirs to Queen Elizabeth I. Both women married Seymour men without the permission of the Queen. Both women were imprisoned for their foolish behavior and both died probably of starvation in captivity. The only difference was Katherine had two children while Arbella had none.

In Tudor times, being a potential successor to the monarch was…

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Isabelle d’Angoulême: A Complicated Queen

January 23, 2022

Fascinating post on one of our less well-known or regarded medieval queen consorts. I think anyone who was married to King John was going to have a rough deal and Isabelle has been unfairly judged for events beyond her own control.

History... the interesting bits!

Why Isabelle d’Angoulême is hard to love?

Seal of Isabelle d’Angoulême

At first sight, it is easy to have sympathy for Isabelle of Angoulême. When I started researching her forLadies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England, I was expecting to be able to go some way to redeeming her reputation. She was married at a very young age – she was no more than 12 and may have been as young as 10 – to ‘Bad’ King John, the man who would later be accused of murdering his own nephew and left awoman to starve in his dungeons.

Isabelle d’Angoulême was the only child of Audemar, Count of Angoulême and Alice de Courtenay. Her mother was the daughter Peter de Courtenay, lord of Montargis and Chateaurenard, and a cousin of king Philip II Augustus of France. Through her Courtenay family connections, Isabelle was related…

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Geoffrey of Monmouth, Oxford Castle and King Arthur

January 19, 2022

King Arthur at the beginning of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain BnF, Latin 8501A, f. 108v

Geoffrey of Monmouth is thought to have been born between 1090 -1100 in Wales; possibly at Monmouth but no written evidence remains to verify this. Geoffrey also signed himself as Geoffrey Arthur in an earlier phase and some historians have linked these names to the Breton community living in this area of Wales after the Norman Conquest and suggest that he had Breton ancestors who were most probably part of William of Normandy’s Breton forces at Hastings in 1066 and later settled in the Welsh marches.

Geoffrey may have been educated abroad at a monastic centre such as Paris or Bec but there are six surviving charter signatures which place him in the Oxford area from 1129 -1151. The charters were drawn up under the instruction of Robert D’Oylly who’s family had held Oxford Castle since the reign of William the Conqueror and had set up the collegiate foundation of St George which was housed at Oxford Castle. The first Robert D’Oylly had begun new construction work on the pre-existing Saxon defensive site in 1074 under the orders of the Conqueror, to subdue the local area and provide a strong defensive stronghold at a strategically important location.

Oxford Castle and site of St George’s College of priests where Geoffrey was secular canon and teacher

Geoffrey’s signature as Geoffrey Arthur was accompanied by the word ‘magister’ which suggests he was a teacher as well as a secular canon at St George’s College and that he wrote his famous History of the Kings of Britain (Historia Regum Britanniae) whilst at Oxford around 1135-1139. This is further strengthened by Geoffrey’s claim that the book was actually a translation from an ancient British text which was given to him by Walter, Archdeacon of Oxford, presumably when he was resident at the college.

200 copies of Geoffrey’s History of the Kings of Britain survive which attests to their popularity

There is much debate over whether this is true or a literary invention on his part, perhaps in the hopes of securing patronage from Walter, early in his literary career or to add veracity to his somewhat dubious historical account. Most modern historians reject the idea of a lost British text and suggest that Geoffrey drew on the works of the Venerable Bede (the Ecclesiastical History of the English People or Historia Ecclesiastica written around AD730) and Nennius (British History or Historia Brittenum written around AD 830) adding various lists of ancient kings and a large helping of his own imagination when constructing his History of the Kings of Britain.

Although Oxford had no university when Geoffrey lived there, St George’s College may have encouraged the development of scholastic learning and drawn educated scholars and priests to form a community where learning and writing could thrive during the reign of Henry I.

The C12th Renaissance provided a cultural backdrop to Geoffrey’s writings with a renewed interest in the classical past, it’s institutions, politics and legacy and encouraged interest in the writing of histories and chronicles. This can be seen in the work of contemporary writers like William of Malmesbury who wrote the widely acclaimed Deeds of the English Kings or Gesta Regum Anglorum (a later version of which was also dedicated to Robert, Earl of Gloucester) and the Historia Novella concerning the Anarchy. Henry of Huntingdon wrote The History of the English or Historia Anglorum (dedicated to Alexander, Bishop of Lincoln) among other works and Gerald of Wales wrote A Description of Wales or Descriptio Cambriae which praises the Welsh people in a similar vein to Geoffrey’s own work. There were also heavily-weighted biographies of kings such as the Gesta Stephani which were openly partial to their patron at the expense of his enemies. These historical chronicles shifted the emphasis onto the nature of human achievement and the meanings and patterns within history and were very popular with contemporary audiences.

C12th Renaissance saw many contemporary writers tackling historical chronicles and recording the deeds of kings such as William of Malmesbury and Henry of Huntingdon

The importance of patronage for writers, whether secured from a monastic institution or an aristocratic court was vital as the writer needed someone who would feed, clothe and house him but also stand as a protector in case he offended or fell on the wrong side of contemporary political developments and this can be seen in the three dedications that Geoffrey made at the beginning of his work which suggest the tumultuous world in which he lived and the dangers of committing thoughts to the page.

It seems likely that Geoffrey began his writing towards the end of Henry I’s reign, long after the White Ship disaster of 1120 when the question of the royal succession dominated politics at court. Henry I was left reeling in shock when his son and heir, William the Atheling was drowned, along with several close family members and many high-ranking Anglo-Norman aristocrats. Henry determined to bind his barons to support his daughter Matilda’s claim to succeed but there was much uncertainty over his decision, with many barons uneasy at the prospect of a female ruler, supported by an unpopular husband in the form of Geoffrey, Court of Anjou, and who was the mother of small children. Matilda had left Britain many years previously to be married to Henry Vth, The Roman Emperor and retained the title of Empress from her first marriage. She had only returned to her father’s court after his death and was, therefore, not as well-known as her popular cousin, Stephen of Blois. Stephen seemed like an attractive alternative to many of the Norman aristocracy, being a adult male with proven military experience and son of Henry I’s sister Adela and thus a grandson of the Conqueror. He was charming and affable but lacked the ruthlessness required of a medieval king which prove a weakness in the forthcoming period of civil war.

Stephen of Blois – rival claimant for the throne

There are some indications within the text that Geoffrey supported Matilda’s claim and was perhaps seeking to add weight to it in his writings. The first dedication that Geoffrey wrote was to Matilda’s half-brother, most staunch ally and defender, Robert Earl of Gloucester.

Robert might have been a candidate for the succession himself as he was a powerful Earl with many holdings in the Welsh marches and West Country and was a well-respected member of the court. Despite his illegitimacy, he could have made a play for the throne but decided to support his half-sister’s claim and remain loyal to his father’s wishes. Robert held Monmouth as a fief and therefore, if Geoffrey had been raised in Monmouth, Robert would have been his feudal lord and natural choice to approach for patronage and protection.

Both the other two dedications which were probably appended later to the work name Robert and appeal to him directly for patronage too.

Empress Matilda

In addition, there are four different queens mentioned in the History who provide positive examples of female rule and imply a precedent for female authority within British history – Glendolena, Cordelia, Marcia and Helena. In the case of Helena, she is also the sole heir of her father and parallels have been drawn between her inclusion in the text and the contemporary situation with Henry I and Matilda’s claim to the throne.

Historians have suggested that Geoffrey’s history was written as a propaganda piece in support of the Norman regime, in order to promote the newly-established Norman system of government and that Geoffrey was more interested in gaining patronage from the Norman aristocracy than partial to Matilda’s cause. The second dedication may provide evidence of this as Geoffrey spreads the net wider and includes a co-dedication to Waleran, Count of Meulan, a supporter of Matilda’s cousin and rival claimant for the throne, Count Stephen of Blois.

Geoffrey was certainly heavily influence by his own world-view in his treatment of the five races he describes in the book. His own Breton ancestry and admiration for the Welsh may have led him to present the ancient British race as the noble descendants of the Trojan heroes of classical antiquity though the notion that Brutus founded Britain pre-dated Geoffrey’s account. The Britons were a superior race, according to his History, who fell into arrogance which lead to invasions by Picts and Saxons. They were subsumed into the Roman Empire in name only, having a superior culture and technology to their attackers and were liberated from the barbarian Saxons by their Norman cousins who shared a similar glorious link to a Trojan foundation.

It is clear that Geoffrey sought to vindicate the conquest and subsequent establishment of Norman rule and to suggest that it was a fortunate chapter in British history which would re-establish the glories of her mythical past and expunge the violent, pagan incursions of the Anglo-Saxon migrations after the fall of the her greatest kings.

Geoffrey was also keen to promote the idea of Britain as a unified kingdom, under one monarch and to suggest that it was part of British destiny, as prophesied by Merlin the seer who advises King Arthur, that Britain would once more become a whole nation and thrive as such, regaining the glories of the Arthurian ‘Golden Age’ of conquest beyond her shores too.

Geoffrey projected contemporary chivalric codes on to his account of King Arthur and his court (later medieval manuscript)

This vision also played to the Anglo-Norman ruling class who held lands in Normandy and sought to establish a wider Norman ’empire’ with eyes on expansion into other regions of France. Any such aspirations were dependent on a strong, centralised government with a stable ruler at the helm and whilst Matilda’s gender may have weighed against her, it was Matilda, not Stephen who had occupied the imperial throne and proven herself to be a capable regent for her first husband, ruling over vast domains on the continent. Why couldn’t Britain regain the glories of Geoffrey’s Arthurian past when, according to Geoffrey’s account, he conquered Ireland, Norway, Denmark, Brittany and Gaul? There is almost a glimpse of what we know as the ‘Angevin Empire’ that Matilda’s son, Henry FitzEmpress would briefly establish in Geoffrey’s vision.

Geoffrey’s quasi re-invention of King Arthur, from the earliest mentions of him in Nennius’s C9th writings as a ‘dux bellorum’, a post-Roman Christian war lord to a legendary king presiding over a splendid court with a mythical sword (referred to as Caliburn rather than Excalibur at this point) may well have been partly his own invention and partly an exercise in flattery towards Henry I’s own style of kingship. Henry was a cultured king who encouraged poets and writers and was considered to be well-educated by contemporary standards. He may have been destined for the church as a younger son of the Conqueror and thus educated for high office as much as for warfare.

Geoffrey’s writings link Arthur’s court with the developing concept of chivalry and strong, centralised kingship, military success and expansion and Christian piety; all of which might have been held as a mirror to Henry I’s court but Geoffrey also introduces a mystical element to his history of Arthur in the form of the seer Merlin and his prophesies. Here the history takes a detour which Geoffrey asserted was due to the urgings of Alexander, Bishop of Lincoln, who Geoffrey also approached as a potential patron for his work, to include a long stream of Nostradamus style prophesies by Merlin about the future destiny of the British Isles.

Geoffrey would create a separate book, The Prophetie Merlini based on these writings which reinforce the idea of divine destiny and purpose running through the course of British history and may owe something to his Welsh roots and folk legends that he absorbed as a child growing up on the Welsh marshes.

Merlin and Vortigern

Some historians have suggested that Geoffrey never intended his work to be viewed as a serious history but rather a romance and history combined together with folk lore and prophesy. He may not have recognised the distinction between a historical account, based on source evidence, and his work certainly came under criticism from contemporary writers for it’s imaginative liberties.

Gerald of Wales suggested that, whilst the Bible would drive away demons, Geoffrey’s history was likely to draw more devils to it! William of Malmesbury was praised for his insistence on gathering eye witness sources for his writings as the same time as Geoffrey was inventing lost manuscripts and embellishing the legends of Arthur and Geoffrey seems to take a swipe at William and Henry of Huntingdon at the end of his book by warning them both not to attempt to write a similar history of the ancient kings of Britain as they lacked access to his unique source material. How much of that was the natural rivalry between scholastic writers and how much was tongue-in-cheek remains open to interpretation. They were all certainly vying with each other for patronage so there was clearly an element of professional one-upmanship going on too.

Whatever Geoffrey’s writings may lack in historical accuracy or gain from his attempts to weave a safe passage through the turbulent times in which he lived, his history was an instant hit and soon copies were being made across Europe. Henry of Huntingdon was amazed to find a copy at the Monastery of Bec in 1139, only shortly after it was first published and 200 copies of his work have survived to the modern day which is a testament to its popularity.

Geoffrey created a vision of the British Isles which left a lasting impression on readers; suggesting glorious mythical roots and a destiny that would see Britain become one of the most powerful nations in Europe. In a way, his writings predict what would become known as the Angevin Empire that would be established in the next generation and which grew out of the disruption and stalemate of the Anarchy which he lived through. He may have even been present at Oxford Castle during the fateful siege of 1142 and seen the Empress Matilda in the flesh during her time there but he would certainly have lived through the uncertainties and violence of the Anarchy when ‘God and his angels slept’ and no doubt experienced his fair share of fear and deprivation caused by the clash between the rival claimants to the throne.

Geoffrey’s signature is recorded on the Treaty of Westminster in his capacity as Bishop of St Asaph which concluded the terms at the end of the civil war and so he lived just long enough to see Matilda’s son become King of England which, I imagine, he was pleased to see come to fruition as it promised to usher in a period of stable government and peace for his country and the hope of expansion abroad through the marriage of Henry to Eleanor of Aquitaine and her vast holdings in the South of France.

His burial is unrecorded but I like to believe that Geoffrey’s remains may still be somewhere in Oxford, perhaps close to the site where he wrote his history and to all those later scholars who drew inspiration from his colourful writings.

List of useful links:

Did Geoffrey even exist?


January 18, 2022

Interesting article which raises many questions about the motives behind the marriage and Henry’s careful balancing of conflicting opportunities and threats in the early period of his reign.

I think that Henry remained very insecure about his legitimacy and it was important for him to establish himself as the ‘rightful’ monarch without having to look to a marriage to secure his right to rule. Also in the early stages of his kingship he may have found it politic to leave the position of queen vacant in order to boost his international appeal. Elizabeth’s illegitimacy was a stain on her which he may have worried would cause problems down the line and could have caused him to delay any sudden move towards marriage – Edward IV had a fairly shady track record on secret marriages after all! Henry was probably also cautious of re-introducing the Woodville affiliation into any position of influence, knowing how unpopular this had proved to be during the reign of Edward IV and wanting to leave lucrative offices free to reward his own affiliation. The way in which he dealt with the Titulus Regius suggests that he was deeply concerned about the potential harm it could still do to his authority and at great pains to obliterate it completely. Personally I think it is telling that Henry took 3 weeks to get to London after Bosworth and he knew the princes were out of the equation. He couldn’t reveal this because it implied his association with their killer so he pretended to have no knowledge of their fate beyond the general rumour that Richard had shed innocent blood. He calculated that the majority would want stability and the return to ‘normal’ government after a generation of civil war and perhaps he used parliament to urge his marriage to Elizabeth of York so that he could be seen to assent to their advice, thus appearing benevolent and have their mandate to proceed with the marriage. He was certainly an astute political operator and may have judged that he stood a better chance of retaining Yorkist support by legitimising and marrying Elizabeth than in trying to negotiate a foreign marriage when the question of pretenders and rival claimants still hung over him – the same factors would cause him to execute Warwick years later in order for the Spanish marriage to go ahead between Prince Arthur and Catherine of Aragon after all.



Henry VII and Elizabeth of York. Their effigies in Westminster Abbey. Artist Pietro Torrigiano. Photo

I was recently reading an excellent article in the Ricardian discussing Henry Tudor’s enthusiasm, or lack of it, for his marriage to Elizabeth of York by David Johnson entitled Ardent Suitor or Reluctant Groom?It’s pretty much an eye opener and is in two parts – part 1Ardent Suitorcovers the positives, if you can call them that - that is to try to understand why Henry, who in Rennes Cathedral on Christmas Day 1483 had vowed to marry Elizabeth of York, seemingly developed a serious case of cold feet in 1485 after his success at Bosworth. This seems a major volte-face from a man who was reported by Vergil as being ‘pinched by the very stomach’when rumours had reached him that Richard III was‘amynded’, having been recently widowed, to

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The HANDSOME Duke of Burgundy….?

January 16, 2022


Philip of Habsburg (called the Handsome or the Fair) was Duke of Burgundy from 1482 to 1506

At the moment I’m trawling around medieval rulers in Europe. And lo! I’ve come upon this gentleman:

from Wikepedia

His contemporary likenesses aren’t much better, so why was he called Philip the Fair/Handsome? Was it tongue-in cheek? If you look through the various recreations of him in this link below, if they’re even halfway accurate you can be certain he was NOT handsome. Unless what was considered handsome then certainly isn’t what we’d call handsome now. It seems he was called “the Handsome” because of his fair hair and attractive grey-blue eyes. Well, if his hair was notably fair, his modern likeness certainly isn’t. But yes, his eyes are indeed blue-grey.

Now the Habsburgs weren’t renowned for their physical beauty, and this chap seems to confirm it. He was not only Duke of…

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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