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The Brief Lives of the Brontes – A study in tragic creativity and death

May 9, 2017


bronte sisters

Portrait of the sisters by their brother Branwell – He painted himself out of the picture, though a ghostly shadow remains


I have always been fascinated by the lives of the Bronte sisters and their brother, Branwell, since I first listened to Kate Bush singing ‘Wuthering Heights’ as a little girl on Top of the Pops and fell in love with her. I was totally captivated by her other-worldliness and eccentricity. I wanted to know more about the story behind the song and why she had chosen this story and this lead me to Emily’s ‘Wuthering Heights’ and then later to Charlotte and ‘Jane Eyre’ which I have read many times over the years and later still to ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’ and Anne. I came to know Branwell fairly recently and have felt a deep sense of sympathy for his torment ever since.

Like ‘Madame Bovary’, Jane Eyre is a book that I need to read at different stages of my transit though life, in order to weigh myself against it and find where I have travelled to since last we met.

I understand the Brontes at a subliminal level; beyond the frustrations and set-backs of their lives or their roles as daughters, carers, educators or sisters. It runs deeper than a shared sense of longing for something which can never be fully realised, beyond the intricacies of gender politics or the fate of women in a man’s world. It is deeper still than our shared need for freedom or the beauty of the natural world or the impossibility of reaching the summit of our human ambitions.

I think the basis is the urge to create and express without constraint.

When I imagine talking with them, I know that we could communicate without words, through the shared experience of watching a hawk flying over the moors or of feeling the wind against our bodies and the desire for our flesh to melt away and leave us free to be all fiery spirit.

There are many things that separate us – time, society, faith, distance and the immensity of their talent, which I could never hope to aspire to, but I feel that I understand them so well that none of these barriers would be insurmountable if we could only cheat death and make a connection.

They were so ‘judged’ by their contemporaries that I feel sure they would be glad to meet someone who has lived in a age where women can be more than their physical appearance or virtuous attributes; where some people can be freed from the constraints of making their way in the world and allowed more time to grow to maturity and where questioning the relationship between human beings and their place in the cosmos is a normal and natural process.

Like the Bronte siblings, I came back home after university and took a while to find a ‘niche’ in the world of work. The demands of a routine and earning a crust were constant irritants in my life during my twenties when I longed for freedom to create and satisfying employment that stretched and challenged me but allowed me room to express myself and grow as an individual. All the striving to achieve academically and the pressures which mould us as teenagers should be realised in our twenties yet we are often hampered and hemmed in, denied the recognition and success that we seek and left feeling that the world is passing us by. I understand the nihilism that descends during those ‘lost years’  and which the siblings experienced too.

Perhaps they would also be saddened a little too by some things that have not changed in the modern world. We still strive after the same sense of self fulfilment that they longed for and often feel similar constraints and burdens despite our seeming freedom.

Women are still judged by appearance rather than internal strengths and qualities and knowing so much more about the wider world, our own limited freedom is set in stark contrast with the many millions of girls and women who have few choices in their lives and appear of little value to their communities. This injustice and waste of talent hampers us all.

I feel sure that the Brontes would be championing the rights of women around the world today, if they lived now, and feeling the sting of inequality as much for our generation as they did for themselves and their fictional protagonists.

Juliet Barker’s fine biography of the family provided me with much more detail about their lives and living conditions and I would recommend it to anyone interested in finding out the complete chronology of their careers and how their coming and going around the vicarage at Haworth shaped their relationships with each other and their father, in particular.

A much slimmer and more accessible account can be found in Catherine Reef’s book ‘The Bronte Sisters: The Brief Lives of Charlotte, Emily and Anne which I read to my daughter recently. This is a very straight-forward but moving account of the sadness and loss which underpinned their childhood and which must have deeply affected all of the siblings throughout their lives. Not only the early loss of their mother but also the cruel and untimely deaths of their elder sisters due to the lack of care and love at their school and the inevitable blame and guilt which ran through the remaining family members afterwards haunts the pages of this book.

Faith and acceptance on the one hand, passionate questioning and dysfunctional relationships on the other would seem to form the dual axes of their attachment to Patrick Bronte, their father and with one another as they grew to maturity.

The lack of a mother in their lives must also have had profound consequences for their development and there remains a subtle hint of ‘infantilization’ even to the very end of their stories.

It seems ludicrous to even consider the author of Wuthering Heights as an adult who never fully realised their mature self, yet Emily’s reserve and stubborn love of ‘home’ and inability to really engage with the wider world or to find love, form many friendships or recognize her own celebrity do suggest a deep insecurity and fear of exposure to the adult world despite her fiercely passionate spirit and brave disregard for ‘feminine’ subject matter. What a hard age for a women like Emily to be alive in.

Charlotte seems the most ‘outwardly-looking’ of the siblings and the most resilient in the face of criticism and acclaim but still, the inner struggle is obvious to see in her writing and her reaction to being brought out into society as a specimen on view. A similar dilemma between exposure to ridicule and disapproval and acknowledgement and success would have crushed Branwell, had he ever achieved a similar level of celebrity or had to battle with an inherently sexist hierarchy as she did.

During the Christmas holidays, I watched ‘To Walk Invisible’ with my 11 year old daughter. The drama played out the lives of the four surviving Bronte children over the course of a few years, exploring their creative journey until Charlotte, Emily and Anne achieved literary recognition and Branwell destroyed himself with drink and Opium dependency.

The drama was an honest attempt to portray the family in their home and society and to explore the frustrations and dilemmas which each of the Bronte siblings faced and tried to overcome during their short lives. The production showed all the ‘grittiness’ of their world; the dark streets of Haworth and the cold realities of their straightened financial circumstances but also the beauty of the moors and the snatched moments with nature that lead to the production of their astonishing literary works.


brontes 2

Haworth main street


Of course we all have our vision of who the Bronte family really were and any adaptation will struggle to capture the essence of characters who feel so well-known and beloved to us, as our own family members. Each of the sisters has become a beacon to feminists the world over and therefore translated into individual and unique icons for every devotee. Each of us carry our own version of Charlotte or Emily or Anne in our subconscious and would fiercely defend our imaginary creation against any other interpretation.

The extent of devotion to the sisters and their work can be seen in the many ‘pilgrimages’ made to Haworth today to see the vicarage where they lived and produced some of their work but also in more intimate forms such as body art with quotes from their works – and particularly one sentiment from Jane Eyre which seems to capture the defiance and spirit of the heroine and echo many women’s desire for space and freedom to be themselves.

‘I am no bird and no net ensnares me; I am a free human being with an independent will.’


brontes 3

The Bronte sisters as feminist icons


What more fitting epitaph could there be for woman who lived such a rich and passionate internal life, yet was overlooked by the world for so long. She escaped the ‘cage’ of her skirts to let her spirit sour above the conventions of her age and an inspiration for all other free souls. In their own way, her sisters all did the same too and remain amongst the most beloved writers in the English language.









Spoiling the Mystery: Grendel in Beowulf Movies

May 9, 2017

Always a pleasure to re-visit Beowulf and delve into our shared race memory of this distant and magical world of our ancestors which seems to distant and yet so familiarly close. I’ve always shared a certain sympathy for both Grendel, his mother and the dragon in the tale. As a child, I used to cry for King Kong, so this is not surprising! Grendel is a metaphor for the darkness that surrounds the hall. All the forces which attack us in the long, cold hours of a northern night – death, enemy attack, disease, mental anguish, supernatural spirits and even the natural world of violent storms and famine-inducing calamity. Grendel demonstrates that despite the light and the warmth of the fire and the arms hung on the sturdy wooden walls, that we are all naked and shivering in the darkness, waiting for the ‘thing’ to get us and longing for a hero to save us from our fate. as such Grendel is an essential element of human mortal fear against forces much larger and stronger than ourselves which seek to do us harm for no rational reason.

Thijs Porck

“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” (H.P. Lovecraft, Supernatural Horror in Literature). The secret to any, successful scary monster story is to keep your monsters clouded in mystery; a secret that was known to the Beowulf poet, but sadly lost on modern movie makers.

Grendel goes to Heorot

Grendel is one of the three monsters that feature in the Old English poem Beowulf. We are introduced to Grendel as an “ellengæst” [bold spirit] (l. 86a) who has spent the last twelve years harassing the hall of the Danish king Hrothgar, devouring anyone who spent the night there. A Geatish hero, Beowulf, arrives to save the day. After a long battle, Beowulf rips off Grendel’s arm and the monster, mortally wounded, returns to his home in the swamp and dies.

A troll, a…

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

March 30, 2017

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 falling 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 be possible for both armies 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.

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Witchcraft and Royalty: The Cases against Eleanor Cobham and Joanne of Navarre

March 30, 2017

Fake news – smearing the opposition

With the current interest in the media about the spread of ‘fake news’ and misinformation, it seems appropriate to reconsider the cases of two royal ladies who were both accused and found guilty of witchcraft during the early C15th. Were these simply cases of politically motivated ‘fake news’ stories? It is clear that in both cases that their enemies stood to gain by their fall and that witchcraft was an easy accusation to bring against any woman in an age of superstition and bigotry.


La Pucelle – Joan of Arc was brought down by accusations of heresy and witchcraft

They were also not the only women in the public eye to be brought down using similar methods – we have the very public example of Joan of Arc who was contemporary with Eleanor of Cobham and accused of heresy and witchcraft and burnt at the stake and the later accusations made against Jacquetta of Luxembourg and her daughter, Elizabeth Woodville of ensnaring Edward IV into a bigamous marriage by means of witchcraft and in Elizabeth’s case of conspiring against Richard, Duke of Gloucester, Lord Protector of England by means of the dark arts.


Jacquetta of Luxembourg

Influence and power – A woman’s lot in C15th England

You could argue that in a society where women could often only achieve any real power through marriage, where retaining power depended on retaining their husband’s affection and providing male heirs and where political influence was largely due to their abilities to persuade and negotiate behind-the-scenes, that witchcraft was an effective tool and equally effective accusation, whether based in reality or no.

Of course it wasn’t only women who were accused of using dark arts to influence politics – The finger of suspicion hung over Eleanor’s husband, Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester too, regarding his ambitions for the throne.

Joan of Arc’s contemporary and comrade in arms, Gilles de Rais was brought down by accusations of necromancy and unnatural practices with small children and later in the century, George, Duke of Clarence was also implicated in using astrology to predict his brother’s death in order to achieve the crown for himself.

In a world of dog-eat-dog political jockeying, accusations of witchcraft mixed with treasonous designs against the monarch were an easy way to undermine anyone who might be considered a rival or an inconvenience between you and power but also, it is worth asking just how much of a role astrology and the dark arts played in the pursuit of power as well?

Was there any truth in the accusations?

Just how widely were these practices used and by whom? How much did astrological or supernatural forces appear to influence people’s decision-making processes and could there have been more than a grain of truth in some or indeed all the accusations against these individuals?

We know that there was no ‘stigma’ against casting astrological predictions, even among the very pious. Henry VI immediately consulted his own astrologers when Eleanor Cobham ‘s case arose to refute any suggestion that he might be likely to die in the near future, in order to ally public rumour or give heart to his political opponents.

Many ladies of the court were known to visit women like Margery Jourdemayne for readings and love potions or in the hopes of conceiving or ridding themselves of unwanted pregnancies. The church may have pronounced against such practices but it seems likely that they were often passed off with a few Hail Mary’s after confession or brushed under the carpet for the ‘greater good’.

The problem came when astrology or necromancy involved the royal succession or those close enough to it to constitute a real threat to the regime or those surrounding the monarch.

How to bring down a royal woman?

Witchcraft was a very useful tool for removing an inconvenient person when you couldn’t attack them on the battle field or discredit their office. Where mismanagement of funds or poor performance in warfare could be used against a man; a royal lady was harder to get at by straight-forward means.

Witchcraft was a much harder accusation to fight, indeed, almost impossible to prove because there would always be someone who could be tortured or manipulated into implicating the woman in their practices and furthermore, it played to the bigotry of the age. Women were naturally seen as temptresses, eager for sexual gratification and ambitious to further their position by underhand means. There was a natural compact between women and the dark arts because they could use sorcery instead of physical strength to beat down their opponents and because there were so many biblical examples of women who posed a threat to male power and authority. Women were society’s healers – the old women who mixed herbal remedies to cure the sick and attended births and deaths with their potions and incantations. It didn’t take very much in the way of hard evidence to condemn a woman for poisoning rather than curing, for failing to save a life or failing to save a harvest through her arts and society likes to find a scapegoat in any age!

Fear as a means of control

Looking at the women who were accused of using dark arts to secure power and influence or to further their personal ambitions there is another striking factor – they were all vulnerable in some way. They were either foreigners, without the protection of a family or more specifically a male relative to secure their interests or they were without a husband – widows who needed to be removed from influence and who held significant property or titles which someone else coveted or wanted them to be deprived of. This suggests that much, if not all, of the accusations were just convenient propaganda but might also equally well explain why they might turn to the dark arts in desperation to order to try and leverage some control over their lives and destinies.

Fear was a powerful tool by which to control how a person was viewed within the wider social order and hierarchy as well as how association with someone touched by accusations of witchcraft might impact on your immortal soul. Many people would back away from anyone tainted in such a way and withdraw their assistance, regard and compassion. Perhaps Humphrey’s reaction to Eleanor’s fall from grace contained elements of all this as well as a pragmatic realisation of her fate.

Feminism – fear of female power

Yet another aspect of these cases is how contemporary society both in their lifetimes and in how their cases have been received through the historical record to the present day, views women and their roles. Once an accusation is made against a woman it is very difficult to throw off. That applies to men too, but there is something particularly insidious and pervasive about a woman’s reputation which haunts her memory forever. Once tainted with witchcraft or meddling in the dark arts it is impossible for a woman to shake off the association, even in a rational age like our own, it colours the historian’s view of them and is felt, even subliminally, through the historical record. For their opponents it was not only a way of removing someone from public life and disgracing them and stripping them of their status and holdings or even resulting in their long-term imprisonment. It was actually a way of destroying their reputation forever and could be seen as a particularly masculine weapon against a woman.

The cases:

Let’s consider the cases against two specific royal woman and unravel the fact from the fiction, the truth from the ‘post truth’ and the reality from the layers of historical staining, if we are able to.


joan of navarre.jpg

Joan of Navarre


Joan or Joanna of Navarre – had nine children from her first marriage to the John IV, Duke of Brittany. She appears to have married Henry IV due to a natural attachment between them as much as for dynastic reasons. She came to England with her daughters and was not particularly greeted with open arms. She preferred her Breton advisers and servants to English company and gained a reputation for being stingy and possibly taking bribes for influence.

She had no children with Henry IV but appeared to have formed a good relationship with his heir. Henry Vth made her regent during his Agincourt campaign which no doubt put several noses out of joint in England! The capture of her son, Arthur of Brittany and failure to set him free caused a rift between her and Henry Vth which enabled her enemies to lever a chink in her armour.

In 1419 she was accused of trying to poison the king through witchcraft ‘of compassing the destruction of our lord the king in the most treasonable and horrible manner that could be devised.’

The accuser was her father confessor, John Randolf, a Franciscan friar, and two others of her household, Roger Colles and Peronell Brocart.  Father Randolf was said to be the one who had lured the Queen Dowager into witchcraft yet he seems to have escaped prosecution for this. Sounds a lot like entrapment, doesn’t it?

Her sizable fortune was confiscated. She was imprisoned at Rotherhythe and then at Pevensey Castle and Leeds Castle and only freed three years later when Henry ordered her release on his deathbed.

So we have an unpopular, foreign queen with no children by her last marriage and a sizable fortune, left without a husband’s protection and given limited political power yet unable to fully exercise that power due to circumstance and her gender. She is accused with two others of attempting to poison her step-son, who despite being a military hero has no heir and is in poor health due to the dysentery he contracted during the Agincourt campaign and therefore insecure about the succession.

If we compare this with the case of Eleanor Cobham, some striking similarities present themselves.


Eleanor Cobham and Humphrey of Gloucester

Eleanor Cobham, Duchess of Gloucester – first the mistress and then later wife of Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, uncle of Henry Vth and after his premature death, Protector of England and the young Henry VI.

Eleanor rose through her marriage to become one of the most wealthy and prominent ladies of the court, no doubt causing resentment along the way. She was tainted with her prior adultery and therefore unpopular and also disliked for parading her wealth and newly-acquired status in public and living an extravagant life at La Pleasance where they set up a rival court during Henry VI’s minority.

Despite some rumours about Humphrey’s two illegitimate children, Arthur and Antigone, being Eleanor’s children before their marriage, they had no legitimate offspring together and she was vulnerable because of this failure to provide an heir and may have worried that he would desert her, as he had his previous wife and her mistress, Jacquetta of Hainault.

She was accused in 1441 of conspiring with two astrologers and necromancers, Thomas Southwell and Roger Bolingbroke, to predict the early death of Henry VI and of using a witch to procure potions which she said were to make her conceive a child by Humphrey but which the prosecution alleged were to harm the young king in order to place her husband on the throne. She was divorced and made to do public penance before being imprisoned for life, being moved from various locations to Beaumaris Castle where she died in 1452.

Eleanor’s accuser seems to have been John Hume, one of the number who got cold feet and went to the authorities and named her physician and astrology as her accomplices.

In Eleanor’s case, we see again a woman who was already unpopular and wealthy with no children by her husband and who was vulnerable because of this. Whilst Eleanor did have a living and powerful husband who might have afforded her some protection form prosecution, she was abandoned to her fate by him and he was shortly also dragged down and disposed of by Henry Beaufort.

Henry Beaufort is an interesting presence in all this – a power behind the throne for so many years and a Machiavellian figure who presided over some of the heresy trials of Joan of Arc and was politically active during the reigns of Henry IV, Henry V and Henry VI – he seems rather close to the action in both cases.


Cardinal Henry Beaufort

Although both seem to have been accused by someone who was directly involved in their witchcraft, it is hard not to suspect that they were motivated by less than ‘Christian’ virtue into destroying these women’s lives and reputations. They may well have been bought off by another interested party who needed a witness in order to start the ball rolling and, in both cases, the accusers seem to have got off any punishment for their initial involvement in the crimes which were allegedly committed by the other parties.

So there could an element of entrapment and ply-bargaining in both cases, managed by someone powerful and respected who wanted these women discredited and out of the political arena and who was prepared to play a cat and mouse game to get the end result they wanted.

A climate of suspicion?

All this rather begs the question of how much people at the time really believed in supernatural forces and necromancy as a real means of trying to alter the course of events? Were the public all really convinced in supernatural agents? Did the kings involved in such cases really hold so much store by astrological charts and horoscope predictions or fear poisoning or physical harm from their female relations through the agency of witchcraft?

It’s, of course, impossible to say with absolute accuracy what was generally believed and how much force wider public opinion carried in these cases. Most people were so far removed from the elite that they could have formed all kinds of wild suppositions about how they behaved and what was going on within the rarefied atmosphere of the court.

Despite the obvious comparisons to be made with current affairs and the role of the media in stirring up hatred or irrational fears among the public, we must remember that news travelled much slower and that rumour and gossip were more often spoken than written down, except by chroniclers.

We might cite cases where supernatural forces were considered to have played a decisive role in political events – such as the appearance of the ‘Parhelion’ or ‘Three Suns’ in the sky at the battle of Mortimer’s Cross which was viewed by the Yorkists as a sign of God’s favour on their cause and which just might have spooked the Lancastrians sufficiently to lose them the battle.

Weather conditions like the driving blizzard of snow that blinded the Lancastrians at Towton, or the mud that assisted the English at Agincourt were read as signs from above, bestowing advantage on whichever side the almighty favoured.

Physical deformity, most infamously manifested in the Tudor propaganda against Richard III, was seen as a sign of divine judgement on sin. Failure to produce a child was likewise seen as a mark against a couple for some perceived fault and especially so for the woman who remained barren.

The church played such a crucially important role in everyone’s lives, forming their world view, dictating their beliefs and mores, guarding the virtuous from sin and devils and leading the righteous to eternal bliss that its teachings would have had an incredible hold on people’s mental processes and reaction  to anything which smacked of the devil or perversion in any form.

People believed in devils and malign spirits, in the air, in their homes and even in their heads – like Margery Kempe – who put her post-natal depression down to the torments of demons raging inside her body.

So, against this social background of superstition and prejudice, it was a damning accusation and almost impossible to deny. If people wanted to believe ill of someone they had a multitude of means at their disposal to convict and punish. Even if people didn’t universally believe in the real existence of devils and necromancers, they might be persuaded to hold that opinion by the church or by the elite.

The term ‘witch-hunt’ is still used today in a variety of contexts, from the workplace to politics, which perhaps goes to show that human nature may not change that fundamentally, despite the Enlightenment and the Age of Reason or our modern scientific explanations for the supernatural. We are as much driven by illogical urges and rumour as we ever were, even if we employ different language and methods in order to drag someone off fortune’s wheel.













Great St Mary’s Church, Cambridge and its Royal Patrons

February 24, 2017





In the very heart of historic Cambridge, stands a tall and elegant late Perpendicular Gothic church, sandwiched between the colleges and market square.

The church of St Mary the Virgin has stood on the site since 1205; the first recorded rector being Thomas de Chiveley who was appointed in the reign of King John.

The church was burnt to the ground in 1290. The local Jewish population were blamed for this unfortunate event and were punished by shutting down their synagogue. After the rebuilding of the church it was re-named Great St Mary’s, to differentiate it from Little St Mary’s in 1351.

King Edward III was a benefactor of the church at this time, along with his re-founding of King’s Hall in Cambridge which was later assimilated into Trinity College during the reign of King Henry VIII.


Arms of King Edward III and his sons over the gateway to Trinity College, Cambridge


‘Great St. Mary’s was the first home of the University when scholars came from Oxford in 1209. Here lectures were given, degrees conferred and celebrations held.’


After the rebuilding, the church became the official meeting place for university debates and it held official records which were raided by angry peasants who dragged them out of the building to burn in the square in 1381 during the Peasant’s Revolt.

From 1478 the church was remodelled and rebuilt under the patronage of Richard, Duke of Gloucester, later King Richard III. Richard had several connections to Cambridge University, as early as 1475 and seems to have been a great patron of the university and its churches.



Richard III – Patron of Great St Mary’s Church from 1470’s – 1485



‘In 1478-79, Richard gave £20 for the rebuilding of the university church, Great St Mary.  Even after his death his support for the church continued to have an effect.’ 


The rebuilding of the nave was begun in the late 1470s, at the time of Richard’s gift.   (Thomas) Barowe, who had intended the church as a monument to Richard, would with his gift have secured its completion.  Possibly he was continuing a process initiated by Richard’s gift of £20, as there are records stating that he acted as a messenger to bring gifts from Richard to Cambridge. [Brooke, pp.18-21; Sutton & Visser Fuchs, ‘Cambridge’, p.113]’


On 7 April 1481, the congregation of the university wrote a remarkable letter to the then Duke of Gloucester.  In it they announce that in gratitude for the many favours he had shown them, they would “ask every Cambridge doctor or bachelor or theology who preached at [two places in London famous for their Easter celebrations] to mention Richard by name, to commend him to their listeners, and ask for prayers for his well being,” an honour which had never been granted to anyone before.  In early 1480 or 1481 two representatives of the University travelled to London to see Richard – a six day journey in bad weather.  In 1482 the University staged a procession to celebrate his victory against the Scots. [Sutton & Visser Fuchs, ‘Cambridge’, pp.112-114]

The good relationship continued when Richard became king.  Probably in late June 1483, the University wrote to Richard to ask for his mercy towards one of their graduates, Thomas Rotherham, the Archbishop of York, who was Chancellor at that time.  He had been arrested on 13 June 1483 in connection with the Hastings affair.  Rotherham was released in due course. [Sutton, Visser-Fuchs, ‘Universities’, pp.95-99] Richard visited the University in early March 1484 and was welcomed with a procession and masses.  They also decided to say a special mass every year on 2 May for Richard and Anne.

Richard visited the church of Great St Mary in March 1484 during his progress through Cambridge. Masses were said for the King, his queen consort, Anne Neville and his wider family and were to be said every year thereafter on 2nd May but Bosworth intervened and so the thanksgiving turned to masses for the repose of his soul.

‘As soon as they would hear of his death they would perform a special funeral mass, a promise they kept, as the accounts for 1485 show the expense for candles used at the ‘exequies of King Richard”. [Sutton & Visser Fuchs, ‘Cambridge’, pp.114-115]


Nave of Great St Mary’s, showing the fair proportions and decoration on the arches and hammer beam ceiling

On 21 January 1495, Thomas Barowe, a close associate of Richard and master of the rolls and keeper of the great seal, gave the extravagant amount of £240 to the rebuilding of the church and for “masses, prayers and ceremonies in honour of King Richard III and Dr Thomas Barowe – who were to be enrolled in the list of the university’s benefactors”.  Richard was for a while politely forgotten, but has more recently been restored.’


The date here is notable as 1495 was also the year when King Henry VII paid £10 for the erection of a tomb over Richard’s hastily dug grave site in the Grey Friar’s church in Leicester, including a now lost effigy. Perhaps Thomas Barowe judged the time to be right, a decade after Bosworth, for re-asserting his master’s memory in Cambridge?

I wonder how this was viewed by the Tudor regime and the king’s mother, Lady Margaret Beaufort, in particular? Her protégé, John Fisher, placed great importance in prayer for the souls of the dead and therefore she may have accepted this tribute to her political rival with humility and respect. We are, perhaps, too quick to judge the actions of a woman who lived by a very different set of moral precepts than ourselves and who operated in a world where care for the souls of the departed was a Christian duty, even for those who were on the opposite side in a bloody and divisive civil conflict.

Richard’s contemporary and political adversary, Lady Margaret Beaufort was also a major patron of the church. Along with her university foundations of Christ’s College in 1505 and St John’s College which was completed after her death in 1511, under the guidance of John Fisher, Margaret was a keen patron of learning and religious interpretation. She gave funds to the church to assist in the completion of the rebuilding project.

Lady Margaret was a great friend of John Fisher who became her personal confessor, executor of her will and who sermonised at her funeral and memorial service. John Fisher was a Cambridge man who was the Master of Michaelhouse between 1497-1505 which stands next door to Great St Mary’s and spoke at the church along with Margaret’s other protégé,  Erasmus who became her Professor of Divinity in 1511.

Erasmus is thought to have composed the epitaph to Lady Margaret on her tomb in Westminster Abbey. He said of his friend, John Fisher:

“He is the one man at this time who is incomparable for uprightness of life, for learning and for greatness of soul.”[6]


John Fisher- friend to Lady Margaret Beaufort, first Lady Margaret Beaufort Professor of Divinity at Cambridge in 1502 who preached at Great St Mary’s church in the early C16th

John Fisher held several key positions within the university establishment including the first Professorship of Divinity which was set up by Lady Margaret in 1502 and actively promoted humanist learning at Cambridge, using Lady Margaret’s influence to encourage scholars like Erasmus to come to Cambridge and championing the study and interpretation of Greek and Hebrew in scriptural study and promoting popular preaching in the town. He famously stood against Henry VIII’s ‘Great Matter’ and paid with his life becoming a Catholic martyr and saint.

It is fascinating to wonder what Lady Margaret would have made of her grandson’s actions regarding these men who she had fostered and encouraged in their new learning and what her reaction would have been to the consequences of their desire to read scripture in its purest form.




Her connection with Cambridge is still evident today in the highly decorated gateways which display her personal badge of the Beaufort Portcullis and mythical Yale creatures, at St John’s College and Christ’s College.


Lady Margaret Beaufort’s crest and badges in St John’s College, Cambridge



Statue of Lady Margaret Beaufort over the gateway of Christ’s College, Cambridge with her arms and badges displayed underneath


It is intriguing to imagine the relationship between Lady Margaret and Great St Mary’s with its former Yorkist associations and the proximity between Great St Mary’s and King’s College, just a few metres away, loaded with its Lancastrian badges and links to Henry VI.

Lady Margaret was a driving force behind the completion of King’s College Chapel by her son, Henry VII but it had been King Richard III who had commanded work was re-started on King’s College and had lent his own glazier and masons to the task. The first six bays had been completed in the two short years of his reign yet no sign of his patronage remains!

Similarly, the foundation of Queen’s College was linked to various consorts from Marguerite of Anjou and Elizabeth Woodville to Anne Neville:

‘During Richard’s reign, when he made further grants to the College, Queen Anne was also considered a founder, but that was “conveniently forgotten when political circumstances changed in 1485”.  Andrew Doket remained as president until his death in 1484 and worked tirelessly for the benefit of the college.  [Sutton & Visser-Fuchs, ‘Cambridge’, pp.121-129; Ross, p. 135]

‘(King Richard III) gave instructions that “the building should go on with all possible despatch” and to “press workmen and all possible hands, provide materials and imprison anyone who opposed or delayed”.  He also sent his own master plumber and glazier to help with the building. This result was that by the end of his reign the first six bays had reached full height, of this the first five were roofed with oak and lead and were in use. The University thanked him for funding and “erecting the buildings of King’s College, the unparalleled ornament of England.”  Drawings of a planned tower still exist, which can be dated to 1484.’ [‘History of the Chapel’; Sutton & Visser-Fuchs, ‘Cambridge’, pp.116-117]



King’s College Chapel – the great vision of King Henry VI, completed by his Lancastrian ‘heir’ Henry VII and heavy with Tudor symbolism

This photograph of King’s College Chapel was taken from the roof of Great St Mary’s and shows just how close the two buildings are to one another.

The relationship between Richard III and Margaret Beaufort has been the subject of much debate over the years. How much personal animosity existed between the two and to what extent did Margaret revel in his fall and enjoy claiming ownership of his possessions? She was famously given his own personal Book of Hours after it was taken from his tent at Bosworth and it is perhaps revealing that she wanted to continue his work both at Great St Mary’s and at King’s College to ensure that her own dynasty’s badges were carved on the walls and remembered as significant benefactors and patrons.

Some have argued that Richard’s interest in King’s College stemmed from his guilt over the murder of King Henry VI and his desire to make amends for this by fostering the construction of Henry’s great project. However, Richard’s associations with Cambridge and interest in the churches and colleges suggests that he was just keen to see the work completed and to be part of the construction of such a beautiful and remarkable building so there be no sinister interpretation in his actions or those of Lady Margaret. Both were pious and saw their patronage as a further expression of their Christian faith and praise of God and their duty as members of the elite ruling class to leave buildings and good public works behind them.

During the turbulent years of the Reformation, reformers like Martin Bucer spoke from the pulpit of Great St Mary’s; so compellingly that even in deadly repose he was considered enough of a threat that Queen Mary Tudor had his already dead body burned in the marketplace!

‘The contract also survives for the building of the magnificent rood loft in 1522–3, the scale of which was made possible by the great height of the new nave. (fn. 170) The loft was demolished in 1562 by Parker’s orders. (fn. 171) The tower, the first stone of which was laid in 1491, was completed as far as the belfry in 1596, when the parish books record that ‘this year all our bells are rung out and was never before’ [sic]. (fn. 172) The corner turrets were completed in 1608, (fn. 173) when John Warren, churchwarden and acting clerk of the works, was killed in an accident. An inscription on the tower wall, copied from his former monument, records:
Here John Warren sleeps among the dead, Who with the church his own life finished.’ (fn. 174)


In Richard and Margaret’s time the tower had not yet been completed so the bells were hung on a wooden frame in the vicinity of the church to call the faithful to prayer. Once the tower was completed a set of five bells were hung in 1596, but chimes were not installed until 1671 when Charles II visited.

When, in 1722–3, the bells were recast (for the fourth time) and increased from eight to ten the chimes were replaced by change-ringing, and the society of bellringers was founded. (fn. 187) The quarter-hour chimes now sounded from St. Mary were composed and installed in 1793 by Joseph Jowett of Trinity Hall, Professor of Civil Law. He may have been assisted by William Crotch, a former pupil of the organist of St. Mary. Having been copied at the new Houses of Parliament in 1859, the Cambridge chimes have been widely adopted by the name of the Westminster Quarters. (fn. 188) Since 1769 the bells have numbered twelve; they are considered perhaps the finest toned in the eastern counties.’


The church remains at the heart of Cambridge today, full of history and the ghosts of its many patrons and visitors, reforming speakers and angry mobs. It is well worth a visit, especially to climb the 132 steps up the narrow spiral staircase to view the whole of Cambridge stretched out around you on every side and to contemplate the great sweep of our rich history and some of the benefactors who assisted in its growth and present appearance.


External view of the of Great St Mary’s heading towards the market place








Blacksmiths for Gods and Heroes: Tracing the Magical Blacksmith through Myth

January 18, 2017




Hephaestus from an Attic red Kylix vase decoration.

Who Were the Legendary Smiths?:

The figure of the often deformed or maimed blacksmith who forges remarkable weaponry and armour for gods or heroes is a re-occurring archetype in myth across many cultures.

We have Hephaestus in Greek myth who becomes Vulcan in Latin literature and may have travelled with trade routes and language to other cultures or, indeed have been absorbed from other cultures into the Classical pantheon. Both are regularly depicted in art carrying the tools of their trade – the blacksmith’s hammer and tongs.



Vulcan – God of fire and volcanoes as well as smith of the gods


Comparative parallels exist in the Ugarit craftsman and magician -god Kothar-wa-Khasis, who is identified from afar by his distinctive walk—possibly suggesting that he limped, and the Egyptian God, Ptah, described as a naked and deformed dwarf by Herodotus. He is also a creator figure, patron of metal workers and craftsmen in Egyptian culture.



Ptah, God of creation and patron of craftesmen


Hephaestus, blacksmith to the Greek gods, can be traced to the Linear B script of the Minoans which suggests an early origin, perhaps influenced by contact with Egyptian civilisation. He is often depicted with his feet turned round backwards, or hunched over his forge with a bent back and a walking stick. Some myths suggest that he was maimed in falling from Olympus or was rejected by his mother Hera due to his disability in an age where malformed infants were exposed or thrown off cliffs.

Irish mythology also has a famous blacksmith called Goibniu (pronounced Gov-new). He was one of the Tuatha de Denann. Indeed his name formed the old Irish word for ‘smith’. Like the other mythical blacksmiths, he was approached by kings and heroes to make special weapons which would give them an advantage in battle and even made a bionic arm for the warrior Nuada when his arm is cut off in battle.



Wayland the Smith – reduced to shoeing horses for money during Christian times


In Germanic mythology, Weyland the Smith or Wayland/ Volund was a lame bronze worker, responsible for the creation or re-forging of mighty swords, who’s names echo down the centuries to us, almost as clearly as that of Excalibur in English and Breton myth.

Wayland was said to have re-forged the sword of Hector of Troy into Durandal, the blade gifted to Roland by Charlemagne himself in La Chanson de Roland.

In Viking myth, we find the dwarf Reginn taking on the role of master smith, re-forging the shattered Gram which had belonged to Odin for his foster-son Sigurd, who then slays Reginn’s brother, the dragon Fafnir with the blade.

The master smith is a re-occurring and essential character in myth in many cultures but why do so many share the idea of his being deformed or maimed in some way and unable to walk without the aid of a staff or even a chariot?

One explanation might be that men who survived childhood with these types of disabilities had to find a trade that would keep a roof over their heads and turned to a skilled profession that would enable them to use the upper body strength they had acquired from hauling themselves about on useless legs. Smithing might be a good choice, given that they could set up business in one location with clients coming to them and it was also a trade requiring strength without having to walk great distances to practice it.

Rather like the blind poet, who used formidable memory skills to learn and recite epic poetry in return for shelter and food, the smith’s disability has been transmitted down the centuries to us, along with his skill at metal working and possession of hidden knowledge or semi-magical abilities.

‘Another interesting theory is that the traditional ugly appearance and lameness associated with these characters is taken by some to represent arsenicosis, an effect of high levels of arsenic exposure that would result in lameness and skin cancers. In place of less easily available tin, arsenic was added to copper in the Bronze Age to harden it; like the hatters, crazed by their exposure to mercury, who inspired Lewis Carroll‘s famous character of the Mad Hatter, most smiths of the Bronze Age would have suffered from chronic poisoning as a result of their livelihood. Consequently, the mythic image of the lame smith is widespread. As Hephaestus was an iron-age smith, not a bronze-age smith, the connection is one from ancient folk memory.[45]

This is a fascinating idea and might explain the link between the smith and some kind of infirmity or deformity. When you consider how over-developed a smith’s arms and back might appear and the effects of dealing with chemical compounds on the body and skin, it could explain why they were so often depicted as hunched or limping.

In the Weyland myth, he takes a terrible revenge on the family of the king who imprisons him in order to exploit his skills:

‘…Wayland and his two brothers met three swan maidens (or possibly Valkyries) by the shore of a lake and fell in love with them. They stayed together for seven years until the swan maidens flew off, and the three brothers went their separate ways to seek their lost loves. Wayland was captured by the evil Swedish king Nmdud who lamed him by cutting his hamstrings and forced him to work at his forge. In revenge, Wayland killed two of the king’s sons and turned their skulls into drinking bowls, sending them to Nmdud as a gift. He also gave gifts of jewellery made from their teeth to their sister, Bodvild. When she came to Wayland with a ring to repair, he raped her, then revealed the nature of his ‘gifts’ to the family. He escaped by creating a magical boat of feathers to fly away in.

The idea of imprisoning a smith, perhaps to prevent him using his technology and arcane knowledge for the benefit of your enemy, makes logical sense and perhaps became confused with the idea of the smith having some limitation on his mobility, though the former suggests compulsion to create whereas the latter might just be due to physical impairment.

Wayland also had a famous sword called Balmung, and in a contest of skill with Amilias he cleft him down to the thighs with the sword. Balmung was so sharp that Amilias was not aware of the cut until he tried to move, then fell apart into two pieces. The sword was later placed in a tree by Odin, chief of the Norse gods, who stated that whoever could pull it out would own it and be victorious in all battles. All ten of the German princes of the time tried, and the youngest, Siegfried, succeeded. He featured prominently in Norse mythology along with Balmung which his son, Sigurd used to kill Fafnir the dragon.



Reginn re-forging Balmung/ Gram for Sigurd


Is Balmung the same blade as Gram, which means ‘wrath’ in Norse? There seems to be a conflation between Reginn and Wayland or Volund in the myths so perhaps they originated as two separate myths which were wound together through the mixing of Germanic and Norse cultures over many years. We can see a similar process in The Matter of France where Wayland is said to forge Durandal from the ancient blade of Hector of Troy which is then given to a Christian Paladin with the addition of Christian relics to the hilt. The Chanson de Roland was recited by the Normans before the Battle of Hastings, as a Christian morality tale, yet its roots contain references to their pagan, Viking past and mix ancient Classical legend with pagan Viking and Christian myth in the same way as Beowulf provides evidence of cultural fusion and assimilation.


The myth which relates how Odin stuck Balmung or Gram into a tree and princes vied to pull it out must derive from the same myth-stem as the Excalibur legend of the sword in the stone and fed into the fate of Durandal, which is still said to await the hero who can remove it from the cliff face at Rocamadour.

The sword named Balmung in the Nibelungenlied would seem to be the same sword known as Gram in the Volsung Saga but is given yet another name, Nothung in Wagner’s operatic ring cycle. All rather confusing but perhaps easily enough explained when you consider that swords took on a new incarnation with each re-forging – just as the ‘mythic’ shards of Narsil are re-forged to make Anduril in Tolkien’s homage to these ancient legends, The Lord of the Rings. The naming of swords added to their power, even, in one sense giving them animation and personality of their own which still convey a sense of awe and wonder through the mythical stories to our own day.



Durandal awaiting the return of Roland?

In a variation on the theme of the deformed, or maimed blacksmith, we also find in the legend of the Nibelungs, goblin or dwarfish creators and guardians of treasure hoards and magical or cursed rings. Like the blacksmiths, they possess skill and knowledge and are cunning and devious but can be tricked or outwitted by the gods and heroes who desire their treasure. ( As creatures of the earth and caves, dwarves would appear to be associated in Norse myth with precious metals and the creation of beautiful and precious things including swords of power as well as rings. Both these items were the kind of hoard gifts which would be prized in Norse and Anglo-Saxon culture as kingly possessions and imbued with magical qualities. They bind the owner to the service of the gift-giver and lend him status and prestige.

The Late Migration Age ‘Ring-Swords’ found in Scandinavia, Anglo-Saxon England, Saxony, Francia and Lombardy had a symbolic ring attached to the pommel and were thought to belong to kings – combining in one form both an oath-ring and a kingly weapon upon which a follower might swear his fealty to his lord and be bound in service. An early pre-cursor of the knightly ‘dubbing’ ceremonies of medieval tradition. Link:(

Mythical Smiths and Magical Processes:

‘In ancient times, the art of the smith was held in great esteem. It was considered a powerful magic indeed to wield and master the element of fire, which was representative of the great Sun-God himself; to take the bones of the earth (said to be the very bones of the mother Goddess Eriu, remember) and transform them through the application of fire, strength, skill, secret knowledge and magic into the much revered and coveted bright shining metallic objects of tools, weapons and jewellery.'(

It is easy to see how the blacksmith would become linked in popular folk tales to magical forces and how the man who produced weapons which proved superior to those used by an enemy would gain a reputation for skill and quasi-magical powers so that his name and reputation might live on in the oral tradition of his clan. The very process of forging a weapon is hugely theatrical and imbued with conjuring up elemental forces.

We are also reminded of the now legendary U+lfberh+t swords of the Vikings. The master smiths who forged these remarkable blades used Asian technology to forge crucible steel swords with higher carbon content, free of slag and impurities which weakened the blade. This made them better than anything else seen in Europe at the time. The quality of the steel was not replicated until the Industrial Revolution. These swords gave their owners a distinct advantage in battle because they were more flexible and therefore less likely to break on contact and their surface displayed a fascinating rippled or damascened effect and the U+lfberh+t brand name which would have been remarked upon for its skill and brightness in comparison with contemporary weapons containing less steel. They were elite swords for an elite warrior class and even the process of their construction allowed for mythical qualities.

The smiths who forged these swords used the carbon from bones to increase the strength of their blades, throwing in animal bones to the heat of the fire whilst forging. The use of a fierce beast such as a bear or wolf might seem to imbue the sword with the strength of that animal – similar to the shamanistic practices of many peoples across the world who sacrifice animals to obtain their powers or wear relics of animals on their bodies to ward off evil spirits.

There is conjecture that human bones might also have been used – if you wanted the strength of your grandfather, why not use relics taken from his body to forge into your sword? Your ancestor would, quite literally, stand with you in battle, in your right hand, forged into your sword and could be transmitted down the line of your kin to protect and strengthen them too. It seems an eminently sensible idea to me!

Whilst researching this blog I found this link to a Taiwanese sword smith who uses human bones today to forge swords and is commissioned by family members to add the remains of their relatives to swords to honour their memory. He relates that in China it was common practice to throw a man into the furnace when forging a sword because human bones helped to eliminate impurities from the metal. Link:(

Viking traders may well have met with Chinese and Indian sword smiths far from home on their travels through the Russian steppes and along the ancient Silk Road and brought back this idea to Northern Europe along with the technology required to make superior weaponry from the East. Such knowledge would have been highly prized by their leaders who were always looking for new means of gaining advantage in warfare.


We can see how this practice morphed during the Christian period into the inclusion of saint’s relics into famous swords in order to add strength and moral purity to the man who wielded them.

Joyeuse – the sword of Charlemagne was said to contain the relics of saints. It was  believed to protect the owner from death by poison and to change colour thirty times a day. It was forged by the famous smith Galas and took three years to make and shone so brightly in the sun that it blinded Charlemagne’s enemies. A similar claim was made of Excalibur as well. Thomas Malory[22] wrote: “thenne he drewe his swerd Excalibur, but it was so breyght in his enemyes eyen that it gaf light lyke thirty torchys.”

Claíomh Solais, which is an Irish term meaning “Sword of Light”, or “Shining Sword”, appears in a number of orally transmitted Irish folk-tales carrying the same description of blinding brilliance and most likely relate to witnessing the products of superior technology which would have greatly impressed a people seeing them for the first time on the field of battle.



The gorgeous and legendary Joyeuse in the Louvre


Durandal – the sword given to Roland by Charlemagne. In The Song of Roland, the sword is said to contain within its golden hilt one tooth of Saint Peter, blood of Basil of Caesarea, hair of Denis, and a piece of the raiment of Mary, mother of Jesus, and to be the sharpest sword in all existence. In the poem, Roland uses the sword to hold off a hundred-thousand-strong Saracen army long enough for Charlemagne’s army to retreat into France. When Roland lay dying he lamented that the sword should fall into the hands of his enemies and threw it high into the air, where it became embedded in a cliff face.



Charlemagne gifts Durandal to Roland


Hauteclere – the sword of Olivier contained a crystal in its golden pommel.

These were swords designed to inspire awe and create legends around them. They represented the nobility and honour of their owners, the generosity of the men who gifted them to another and the power of the hero who carried them.

Excalibur – Perhaps the most famous sword in English mythology – some said it was forged by supernatural forces or elves on the mystical isle of Avalon whilst in other traditions it was given to King Arthur by the Lady of the Lake and returned to her after his death. Variant spellings and legends criss-cross through Cornish, Welsh and Breton folk culture but all relate to the Excalibur we think of as Arthur Pendragon’s mighty sword. Ownership of Excalibur conferred legitimacy, as seen in the famous legend of drawing the sword from the stone. We can trace this idea through the coronation swords of various kingdoms and in the example of Joyeuse, which was used for hundreds of years as part of the coronation of French kings, along with the anointing by holy oil. It was part of the ritual process of king making and gave legitimacy and continuity to the notion of kingship.

Edward Gibbon made a similar claim for the ‘Sword of God or Mars’ which was said to belong to Atilla the Hun ‘the vigour with which Attila wielded the sword of Mars convinced the world that it had been reserved alone for his invincible arm.”[2] In this way it became somewhat of a sceptre as well, representing Attila’s right to rulership. Sword as sceptre might be a whole new blog piece on its own! (The History of the Decline and Fall of The Roman Empire vol. 3 Ch. XXXIV Part 1)

Like the Norse swords of myth, Excalibur has many variant spellings in different versions of the myths and there are several locations which claim to be the lake where it remains, awaiting its ‘once and future king’.

The Worth of a Good Sword:

A sword might be the most expensive item that a man owned. The one sword whose value is given in the sagas (given by King Hákon to Höskuldur in chapter 13 of Laxdæla saga) was said to be worth a half mark of gold. In saga-age Iceland, that represented the value of sixteen milk-cows, a very substantial sum.

‘Swords were heirlooms. They were given names and passed from father to son for generations. The loss of a sword was a catastrophe. Laxdæla saga (chapter 30) tells how Geirmundr planned to abandon his wife Þuríðr and their baby daughter in Iceland. Þuríðr boarded Geirmund’s ship at night while he slept. She took his sword, Fótbítr (Leg Biter) and left behind their daughter. Þuríðr rowed away in her boat, but not before the baby’s cries woke Geirmundr. He called across the water to Þuríðr, begging her to return with the sword.

He told her, “Take your daughter and whatever wealth you want.”
She asked, “Do you mind the loss of your sword so much?”
“I’d have to lose a great deal of money before I minded as much the loss of that sword.”
“Then you shall never have it, since you have treated me dishonorably.”


It is somewhat poignant to consider how the role of the pagan smith was reduced in Christian times. There is a local folk legend concerning Wayland’s Smithy, close to the Uffington White Horse that if you left a horse and a coin over night at the ruined site of an ancient long barrow, that Wayland would shoe it for you, as long as you didn’t try to spy on him. Rather a come-down from forging mythical swords for heroes!



Wayland’s Smithy, Uffington


The smith in medieval Christian culture took on a more negative connotation, with the making of the nails used to crucify Jesus. In medieval Christian art, the smith who made these instruments of torture was often depicted as a female as no man could be found to undertake the task! Indeed, smithing skill was associated with women during the medieval period; the blacksmith’s wife, often working alongside her husband in the forge with women occasionally appearing as owners of forges and listed in guild records and even undertaking commissions from the king in the case of the famous Meg of the Tower who forged weapons for Henry Vth’s Agincourt campaign in the early C15th.



The Holstein Bible depicts a C14th female blacksmith, who seems to be taking on the role as her husband’s hand is covered in lesions. This suggests that women were practising blacksmiths within medieval society yet they do not appear to be the actual creator’s of mythical swords in any of the legends.

The role of women in mythical stories about swords is an interesting one. They may gift a sword to a king, as in the case of the Lady of the Lake and guard a sword of power in order to give it to a worthy hero at the right moment in the future.



The Lady of the Lake who gives Excalibur to Arthur – some legends say she ordered it to be made by the elves


In Norse myth we see mothers guarding shattered swords in keeping for their sons. Even in ancient myth, a mother may organise the forging of weapons in order to protect her son, as in the case of Thetis, who requests that Hephaestus forge invincible armour for her son Achilles before he faces Hector before the walls of Troy.

This would seem to be consistent with the mother’s role in myth as both guardian of her children and also matriarch of the wider clan. Women with a pre-science or foreknowledge of the future and the destiny or ‘wyrd’ of the family beyond the next generation and as guardians of treasure or family heirlooms and adds another aspect to the mystical quality of these swords and who possesses them.


In conclusion, there do appear to be common threads running through mythologies of different cultures relating to the forging of magical weapons by smiths who were greatly prized for their skill and knowledge but somehow impaired physically, either by a hunched of dwarfish appearance or by deliberate maiming which tends to relate to their legs or feet.

These figures are important to the quest of the hero. They facilitate his rise by forging or re-forging weapons which will give him a distinct advantage over his enemies, through the use of secret knowledge and skills and new technologies unavailable more generally in society at the time in which the myth takes place.

Not only are they skilled craftsmen and innovators, they also take on a mystical quality in the telling, as shamanistic figures who use supernatural elements in the creation of their pieces. These add power and legitimacy to the hero and accentuate their special destiny, setting them apart from their fellows but sometimes also cursing them to a particular fate or ‘wyrd’.

The master smiths become figures in the wider legend and are sometimes associated with female guardians of magical weapons and even supernatural beings such as elves and goblins, working together to promote the hero’s quest and assist him to fulful his destiny.

I have included lots of links in this blog to other sites where I have found interesting information relating to this topic and intend this to be an individual and entertaining blog piece rather than a more formal, academic approach to the subject. I hope that you’ve enjoyed it and found the information interesting and would welcome your feedback

Further links:

The Old English Judith: A Student Doodle Edition

January 16, 2017

Love this idea as a means of exploring a student’s understanding of the story and what the most visual elements of stories are in the mind’s eye of those studying a text. I think this would be a great way of replacing SATS tests for Primary age children with something both creative and critical!

Thijs Porck

For a bonus question on one of my Old English literature exams, my students used their artistic talents to draw scenes from the Old English poem Judith. Together, these doodles cover almost the entire poem and document how well (or how badly) my students remembered the poem.

blog-judith2 “Judith has taken the sword and is going to sever Holofernes’s head from his body”

Drawings have long since been used for the purpose of teaching (for an example from the Anglo-Saxon period see Teaching the Passion to the Anglo-Saxons: An early medieval comic strip in the St Augustine Gospels). On occasion, I use my own drawings to spice up my lectures (such as my Anglo-Saxon Anecdotes) or to explain complicated bits of Anglo-Saxon literature (e.g., The Freoðuwebbe and the Freswael: A Comic Strip Reconstruction of the Finnsburg Fragment and Episode). In recent years, I have decided to turn the tables on my…

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Teaching History to Children: Connected Thinking for the C21st

November 17, 2016


How do we teach our children history?

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Thank you for reading.






Edgar the Aetheling: Failure or Survivor?

November 17, 2016


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



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


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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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



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


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

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

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



King Sweyn II Demark coinage


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

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

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

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



Robert Curthose


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

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

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

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

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

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




‘Blood Sisters’: A Review of Seven Royal lives

November 14, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Cecily Neville


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

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

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



Margaret Beaufort


Tragedy is what binds these women’s lives together.

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



Fortune’s Wheel


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gristwood says on p.101

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

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



Joan of Arc


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

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

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

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



Jacquetta of Luxembourg


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

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

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

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



Elizabeth Woodville


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

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

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

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



Anne Neville


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

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

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

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

‘simultaneously disabled and protected by her gender.’

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

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

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



Elizabeth of York


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

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

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

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

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

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