Toads as murder weapons…King John

Buchel, Charles A.; Herbert Beerbohm Tree (1852-1917), as King John in ‘King John’ by William Shakespeare; Theatre Collection; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/herbert-beerbohm-tree-18521917-as-king-john-in-king-john-by-william-shakespeare-30514

King John died at Newark a week after he lost his baggage train in The Wash on 18 October 1216 from the bloody flux as dysentery was then known. There were rumours that he may have been poisoned.  The Annals of Clonmacnoise reported that the source of the poison was ‘a cup of ale wherein there was a toad pricked with a broach.’ The Brut Chronicle repeats the same tale but provides the murderer as well – a monk who was not keen on John and who was prepared to die if need be. He was required to drink before the king and did so; hurried off to the infirmary and expired.

I admit to sitting up and taking notice – rumours of poison did circulate at the time, any unexpected death raised the question in people’s minds but sticking a toad in a cup of ale seemed excessive – for a start surely the king would have noticed an amphibian floating around in his cup?

Nothing daunted I did some research. It turns out that British species of common toads (Bufo bufo) and tadpoles are poisonous They produce something called bufotoxin which causes cats and dogs to froth at the mouth if they catch one and eat it. The poison is, apparently, in the toad’s skin.

The Brut was written in the 13th century and the Annals of Conmacnoise were a 15th century offering drawing on earlier texts. By then King John had his reputation for tyranny. I’m not even going to attempt to unravel the way that the monk was viewed.

Other writers of the time suggested that John had succumbed to gluttony or dysentry – take your pick…but don’t go putting toads in your beer.

For more about King John’s and his mistresses…but no toads don’t forget my most recent publication by Pen and Sword, Medieval Royal Mistresses Mischievous Women Who Slept with Kings and Princes is available in all good bookshops. I spotted it in my own local bookshop the other day and was very excited.

Ranulf de Gernon, 4th Earl of Chester

Lincoln Cathedral.

Ranulf was born sometime in the first decade of the twelfth century. His parents were Ranulf le Meschin, 3rd Earl of Chester and Lucy de Tailleboise of Bolingbroke. The palatinate of Chester was hugely powerful and included estates across the Midlands. It came into the family with the sinking of the White Ship and death of Richard d’Avranches. Henry I made Ranulf’s father yield the lordship of Carlisle and pay a huge fine before licensing le Meshchin to enter it. Together with this and Lucy of Bolingbroke’s inheritance which included lands in Lincolnshire as well as the castellanship of Lincoln Castle he became the king of powerful magnate who might challenge a king. Henry I treated the 3rd earl with suspicion and withheld some of the lands which were rightfully his because he recognised the threat which the third earl presented.

Ranulf de Gernon became earl in his turn in 1129. He resented the debt that he inherited from his father and the loss of the honour of Carlisle. However, he did nothing to challenge Henry I unlike his half brother William de Roumare who rebelled when the king would not return the lands that belonged to his mother and which his step-father had given up in order to secure the earldom of Chester.

Before Henry’s death, the king sought to bind Ranulf closer to his family by permitting an advantageous marriage between the earl and his own granddaughter, Maud of Gloucester – the daughter of his illegitimate son Earl Robert of Gloucester. It was a miscalculation. The only loyalty Ranulf had was to himself; his half-brother, the son of his mother’s second marriage; and the land which Ranulf believed to be rightfully his.

In 1136 King Stephen agreed that Carlisle should be Scottish. The land he ceded to David I’s son Henry was the honour of Carlisle which Ranulf believed to be rightfully his. To make matters worse Stephen arranged a marriage between Henry of Scotland and and Adeline de Warenne whose half-brothers Waleran and Robert de Beaumont were Ranulf’s main rivals for power in the Midlands.

Ranulf and his half-brother, William de Roumare, seized Lincoln Castle in January 1141. Stephen arrived with an army to besiege them but Ranulf escaped, returned to the Marches and raised his levies. He also sought the help of Robert of Gloucester whose daughter was still trapped behind the walls of the castle. Robert took the opportunity not only to rescue his child but to demand that Ranulf switch allegiance to the Empress Matilda – which Ranulf duly did.

On 2 February 1141 Stephen found himself captured on the battlefield – and he remained in captivity for the next seven months until Robert of Gloucester was captured in his turn. A prisoner exchange put Stephen back on the throne. Matilda had lost her opportunity to be crowned and win the civil war.

In 1145, Ranulf changed sides once more. Matilda had come to terms with David of Scotland in 1141 meaning that if Ranulf wanted to pursue his claim to the honour of Carlisle, that Stephen was now the man for him. Also the king had briefly besieged Lincoln Castle in 1144 – and now the king agreed that it should remain with Ranulf and his half-brother. When it seemed that Stephen would be victorious Ranulf was much more active on the king’s behalf

But in 1146 he went to Northampton to ask the king to lead an army into Wales. Men more loyal than Ranulf believed that the earl was plotting treachery. After all, men from Wales had joined the earl at Lincoln in 1141 as part of a mutual alliance between Ranulf and Llewelyn of Gwynedd. Instead of providing an army Stephen had the earl arrested. The Welsh, on hearing the news, took the opportunity for a spot of light raiding and plundering.

Having exacted a promise of good behaviour and hostages – the king released Ranulf once more. Inevitably – the earl changed sides – he died in December 1153

Have a heart…

Henry I’s heart was buried in England while the rest of him was interred in Normandy. During the Crusades it became fashionable, if you died and were sufficiently wealthy, to send bits of your body home for burial – welcome to the age of the heart burial. Most people were buried as soon as possible after they died. For the medieval elite it was rather different. Bodies could be transported very long distances and it made sense to remove the internal organs before the journey – cooks and butchers were often summoned to perform the grisly operation. The viscera were then buried near where the person popped their clogs. Alternatively, as it was expensive and often rather difficult to send the entire body home, the heart was sent in a nice box surrounded by herbs and spices so it didn’t go off on the journey.

Richard the Lionheart’s entrails ( a rarer form of burial) were interred in Chalus; his body was sent to Fontevraud Abbey and his heart was embalmed and buried in Rouen. Embalming does of course provide the clue – transporting bodies was expensive and not something you would volunteer to do in the middle of summer (or at any other time of the year come to think of it). Eleanor of Castile, Edward I’s beloved wife, died near Lincoln. Her entrails were buried in Lincoln after she was embalmed, her heart at Charing Cross as she requested and the rest of her was buried in Westminster Abbey. Robert the Bruce’s heart went on crusade to Grenada before eventually being buried in Melrose Abbey.

In 1299 Pope Boniface VIII issued a papal bull attacking embalming and transporting bodies hundred of miles – although he was quite happy that the bodies should be dug up and moved at a later date.

Why did it become a thing? Well, It was handy if you had links with more than one monastic house as well. Tombs could be erected in all the places where the body was scattered; endowments made for prayers in the different locations and voila a speedy exit from Purgatory in the direction of eternal salvation.

And why exactly have I gone down this avenue? Isabel de Clare was buried at Tintern Abbey as was her right as the Countess of Striguil. She was buried in the quire next to her mother Aoife of Leinster. This is a possibility though, that her heart lies at Kilkenny.

Alice Neville, Baroness FitzHugh – she wore blue velvet

Marmion Tower, West Tanfield

Alice was one of Richard Neville’s sisters – so she was Anne Neville’s aunt. Her father married her to one of the sons of his northern affinity – Henry FitzHugh of Ravensworth. FitzHugh would become the 5th baron. In time Alice gave her husband a clutch of sons and at least five daughters. FitzHugh was able to. marry them off to improve his own standing and the Neville family, headed by the Earl of Warwick, benefitted as well. Anne FitzHugh found herself married to Francis Lovell who would become Richard of Gloucester’s friend and Lord Chamberlain. It could have been that King Edward thought that Warwick would marry the boy to one of his own daughters but the earl had his sights set on greater things.

Inevitably the family found them selves bound up with Robin of Redesdale’s revolt in 1469 but the family together with Francis Lovell were pardoned their part in Warwick’s rebellion. Alice’s husband died in 1472 and does not seem to have been present in his brother-in-law’s army at Barnet. Nor does he seem to have taken part in the Battle of Tewkesbury. Fortunately he and Alice had founded a chantry at Ravensworth so that masses could be said for their souls to speed them through purgatory.

Life changed for Alice and her children. There would be no more grand marriages now that Warwick was gone. Alice remained a widow but she seems to have been on good terms with her brother’s replacement, Richard Duke of Gloucester. The family changed its affinity from Neville to Plantagenet and Alice is likely to have been welcome at Middleham, especially when her niece, Anne, gave birth to her son Edward of Middleham. She was the only one of Anne’s aunts to attend her coronation in 1483. With her was her daughter Elizabeth married to Sir William Parr. All the ladies who attended Anne received new gowns of blue velvet.

Alice would mourn the death of Anne and perhaps, more quietly, the end of Richard. She and her sisters Katherine, the widow of Lord Hastings executed by Richard, and Margaret were still alive when Henry Tudor claimed the throne. Margaret who had lived a life of poverty because of her husband’s Lancastrian credentials was now welcome at court. Anne Lovell lost her home at Minster Lovell which fell to Jasper Tudor although there is no indication he ever lived there. After Lovell’s disappearance in 1487 she received an annuity from the king but like her mother chose not to marry again. Instead she may have lived with her mother in the FitzHugh dower house at West Tanfield. Alice took an active role in arranging the marriages of her grandchildren and administering her dower estate. Her life was perhaps the most untroubled of the Neville sisters’ experience of marriage and life in general.

Despite providing her husband with six sons the FitzHugh barony was divided between co-heiresses within a generation. Her eldest son, Richard, suggesting that he was named after his maternal grandfather, died while his son George was still a minor and Alice’s grandson was dead by 1513. Her other sons had no legitimate male heirs of their own.

And the advent theme for today? Tricky – I’m going with the gift of blue velvet. The cloth was imported at great expense from Italy. The centres of production were Venice and Genoa. I’m not sure what colour it was but I seem to recall that Henry VIII – ever a modest and economical man- had a toilet seat covered in velvet.

Baldwin, David, The Kingmaker’s Sisters

Festive gifts from Henry of Bolingbroke to Katherine Swynford

In 1382 John of Gaunt formally disavowed himself of his long term mistress Katherine Swynford. They had been in a relationship for ten years and Katherine had given the duke four children. At the time of the Peasants’Revolt the previous year her youngest daughter, Joan, was a babe in arms.

In order to keep Katherine safe, Gaunt issued a quitclaim on 14 February 1382. It was an unusual Valentine as it essentially stated that neither of them owed one another anything – they were separate entities. All accounts between the couple were settled.

So that was that…in public at least. Gaunt continued to send Katherine gifts and to provide for his Beaufort family. It is of course possible that the couple continued their affair in secret. But the thing about a good secret – is that its a secret – and that rather puts a damper on historical evidence.

In the meantime Katherine continued to be a welcome guest in the household of Gaunt’s son Henry of Bolingbroke and his young wife Mary de Bohun. The gifts that Katherine received from Henry were rather impressive – silk gowns trimmed with miniver (unspotted white fur – think squirrels and stoats in winter); lengths of damask (expensive silks with a pattern created by the warp and the wet of the design originated in Damascus) and on one occasion a large diamond set in a gold ring. The gold ring is, of course the advent item in this post!

And being completely shameless, my latest book from Pen and Sword is probably more affordable than any of the items that Henry gifted to his not quite step-mother. Its on special offer from the publisher at the moment but I’m delighted to say its available from all good bookshops as well as the place that shares the same name as a very large South American river.

Julia A Hickey, Medieval Royal Mistresses: Mischievous Women Who Slept with Kings and Princes, (Pen and Sword, 2022) –

https://www.pen-and-sword.co.uk/Medieval-Royal-Mistresses-Hardback/p/22225

Hunters and gatherers in Cresswell

Engraved bone depicting a horse, Cresswell Crags, http://teachinghistory100.org/objects/about_the_object/engraved_horse, British Museum

Here we are for the History jar advent calendar 2022 – where did the year go? It’s going to be a bit random this year but I will attempt to sneak something festive into each post – ok very tenuously- which is why we’re starting 800,000 years ago during the Ice Age which is well outside the History Jar’s usual remit.

For much of the ice Age, ice sheets several meters thick covered Derbyshire so people could not live in the area. These ice sheets covered much of the northern hemisphere – further south the conditions were more akin to the tundra of Siberia. However, as the ice sheets retreated the conditions became sub-Artic or if you want to call it by the right name periglacial. This resulted in very cold winters but milder summers. Occasional finds of flint hand axes show that people hunted in the area.

Thor’s Cave in the Manifold Valley – which is in Staffordshire rather than Derbyshire yielded stone tools, pots and amber beads when it was excavated by the Victorians and again during the 1920s. These finds are thought to come from the end of the Palaeolithic Period.

Even more spectacular are the limestone caves at Creswell Crags on the Derbyshire/Nottinghamshire border which is believed to be among the most northerly of dwelling places during the last Ice Age. Finds included stone arrowheads, woolly mammoth bones, woolly rhinoceros and giant deer bones – yup- all this for giant deer –

Evidence suggests that hunters moved into the caves before the ice sheets advanced south and that the people who lived there were forced south themselves along with the rhinoceros, horse and bison that they hunted. They returned when the ice sheets retreated. Eventually the woolly mammoth and rhinoceros disappeared as the climate grew milder. Hunters relied on deer for their meat and the tools that archeologists have discovered changed as well.

The earliest British art comes from Cresswell Crags – the British Museum is home to a bone discovered here engraved with a drawing of a horse. The walls of Church Hole Cave contain marks that are deer and bison.

Whitaker, P.D. Early Settlement in Derbyshire

Katherine Swynford – mischievous woman and scandalous duchess in Lincoln Cathedral

Decoration from Vestments depicting the Katherine Wheel – worked by the Lincoln Embroiders Guild to show what these lost treasures may have looked like.

It’s impossible to separate Katherine Swynford from Lincoln Cathedral. I think its one of the reasons that I love the cathedral so much – aside from all the wonderful carvings. The more I look at the choir screen the more fantastic creatures I spot. Anyway, back to John of Gaunt’s mistress. She’s got a chapter in Medieval Royal Mistresses published by Pen and Sword.

John of Gaunt married three times: firstly to Blanche of Lancaster for title and wealth; secondly to Constanza of Castile – to claim the kingdom of Castile and Leon (it wasn’t a successful venture); and thirdly for love to his long time mistress Katherine Swynford.

Evidence that Katherine was married to Sir Hugh Swynford by 1365 can be found in the register of Lincoln Cathedral which was kept by the Lincoln Cathedral Chapter to record the gifts it received between 1304 and 1386. Katherine was probably 15 at most when she married Sir Hugh Swynford of Coleby and Kettlethorpe. He was some fifteen years older than his bride and part of John of Gaunt’s retinue. He was often absent on campaign. In 1366 he was sent to Gascony.

The Christmas, Katherine was with her mistress, Blanche of Lancaster, who was John of Gaunt’s first wife, in Bolingbroke for the festivities but in the new year she left Blanche who was pregnant with Gaunt’s son, Henry, to travel to Lincoln where she rented a house in the Cathedral Close. Katherine gave birth to Hugh’s heir, Thomas, at the end of February 1367. He was baptised at the Church of St Margaret of 25 February.

Hugh Swynford died five years later while absent on campaign. Katherine was still very young, perhaps only 21 years of age, but she was responsible for three young children. Fortunately she was able to secure her dower rights to Kettlethorpe and one third of the manor of Coleby. John of Gaunt made the family a gift of £10. The gift was the first of many recorded in his accounts. In time Katherine would be described as ‘very dear and beloved’. For now though she continued to divide her time between running her estates and working in the household of John of Gaunt’s second wife Constanza of Castile, Blanche having died in 1368. She is best remembered however for her role as governess in the household of Gaunt’s eldest daughter’s Elizabeth and Philippa. She also looked after Gaunt’s son Henry until he reached the age of six and was sent into the household of Lady Wake to continue his education.

By the end of 1372 Katherine and John of Gaunt were involved in an affair. Their eldest son John Beaufort was born the following year. By 1381 the affair was of ten years standing (or there abouts) and Katherine had given Gaunt four healthy children. her youngest child, Joan, was a babe in arms at the time of the Peasants Revolt which saw Katherine disappear from the written record. In the aftermath of the rebellion John renounced his mistress. The quitclaim of 1382 was an unusual Valentine’s gift but it distanced Katherine and her children from Gaunt.

Katherine returned to Lincoln. She rented a house in the Cathedral Close but left on occasion to visit John’s son Henry of Bolingbroke and his wife Mary de Bohun. Her son by Sir Hugh was part of Henry’s household. She continued to run her estates – she was fined in 1375 for not maintaining the Fossdyke at Kettlethorpe – and to be a part of the extended royal family. She was invited to become a Lady of the Garter by Richard II in April 1387 and was part of the congregation the previous month when the king and his queen, Anne of Bohemia, visited Lincoln Cathedral.

Katherine Swynford’s house – Pottergate, Lincoln

In 1386, Katherine’s sister Philippa Chaucer, Henry of Bolingbroke, Thomas Swynford, John Beaufort and Robert Ferrers who was shortly to become Joan Beaufort’s husband were admitted to the fraternity of Lincoln Cathedral (Turner: p.125)

Constanza died in 1394. Lancaster was 56 years of age. On 13 January 1396 he married Katherine at Lincoln Cathedral having gained the necessary consent from the papacy to do so. Soon afterwards Katherine’s Beaufort children were legitimised by the papacy and by their cousin King Richard II by means of Letters Patent read out in Parliament.

Katherine, the daughter of a knight from Hainault, was the First Lady of the land and a scandalous one at that. But Lancaster’s health began to fail and his son, who was one of the Lords Appellants who sought to curb the power of Richard II’s favourites, was banished.

On 14 July 1398 Katherine’s son Henry was consecrated Bishop of Lincoln. He was translated to Winchester in 1404.

After Gaunt’s death, Henry returned from exile and claimed Richard’s throne for himself. As King Henry IV he granted Katherine 1,000 marks a years from the Duchy of Lancaster. She had retired to Lincoln where she maintained her close association with the cathedral. She gave them red velvet chasubles and orphreys decorated with golden leopards.

Katherine died on 10 May 1403. She was buried in the cathedral near the high altar. John of Gaunt was buried in Old St Paul’s next to his first wife Blanche of Lancaster. In November 1440 Katherine’s daughter Joan Beaufort, Countess of Westmorland was buried near her mother. She was married Ralph Neville, Earl of Westmorland. Her eldest son Richard Neville, the 5th Earl of Salisbury would father another Richard – the so-called Kingmaker. His youngest daughter Anne was Richard III’s queen.

Before he died John of Gaunt arranged, in 1398, for a chantry to be built in the cathedral so that masses could be said for himself and for Katherine. Gaunt’s own links with Lincoln were of longstanding and dated from his first wedding to Blanche of Lancaster in 1362.

Hickey , Julia A., Medieval Royal Mistresses: Mischievous Women who Slept with Princes and Kings

Turner, Marian, Chaucer a European Life

History’s lens –

Slaves waiting for sale, Eyre Crowe, 1861

There are lots of different ways of looking at history: social, political and economic to name but three. if you study medieval political history it will inevitably seem to be dominated by men. It’s only in more recent times that the lens of social history has altered some of the viewpoints that were a given in the past.

We also all apply our own filters to everything around us, so inevitably we do the same to historical events. We approach them from our own viewpoint and our own time.

And if you want, you can look at an event through a range of different lenses including historical significance; primary evidence and interpretation; continuity and change; cause and consequence; historical perspective; science; and ethical judgment Applying the lenses produces a deeper and, perhaps more accurate, understanding of the event. Only when a lens is changed do we realise that the old focus could have been improved – and inevitably looking through multiple lenses can be confusing at times, especially if the information is conflicting or just plain new. Seeing things through different perspectives isn’t always easy and there are limits to some lenses because of the lack of primary source material.

Oh yes – and this is just a short list of possible lenses – I’ve not started talking about the Marxist view of history! Or indeed a feminist view of history.

And that brings me to the image at the top of the post. Only when you know that the image is of the slave market at Richmond, Virginia do you realise that the neatly dressed men, women and children are waiting to be sold; its impossible to know if a family group waiting together, if they’ll continue their lives with one another or whether they’ll be sold separately; will the mothers be allowed to stay with their children? Nor can we know the circumstances in which the work was made until we read Crowe’s recollections:

On rough benches were sitting, huddled close to- gether, neatly dressed in grey, young negro girls with white collars fastened by scarlet bows, and in white aprons. The form of a woman clasping her infant, ever touching, seemed the more so here. There was a muscular field-labourer sitting apart; a rusty old stove filled up another space. Having rapidly sketched these features, I had not time to put my outline away before the whole group of buyers and dealers were in the compartment. I thought the best plan was to go on unconcernedly; but, perceiving me so engaged, no one would bid. The auctioneer, who had mounted his table, came down and asked me whether, “if I had a business store, and someone came in and interrupted my trading, I should like it.” This was unanswerable; I got up with the intention of leaving quietly, but, feeling this would savour of flight, I turned round to the now evidently angry crowd of dealers, and said, “You may turn me away, but I can recollect all I have seen.”

And its only on reading another account, social and economic, that it becomes clear that men selling slaves dressed their ‘merchandise’ well in order to draw their buyers’ eyes – and in dressing everyone similarly it was possibly to disguise men and women who might be unwell or sickly. In either event, it reduced people to objects – and that isn’t what any modern viewer sees when they first look at the picture – it’s only when the other lens are applied that the full horror of the image being depicted becomes apparent.

Crowe didn’t paint this as a historical painting – it was a social comment on the America he was visiting with Anthony Trollope. It would have to be said though that there are very few images from the period depicting black history (unless you count the images created by the abolitionists designed specifically to arouse sympathy) – demonstrating that even in the more recent past history’s lens becomes unfocused and fragmentary because some very important parts of the jigsaw are missing – to mix my metaphors.

And don’t forget that the stories we see are snapshots. The image above is an etic snapshot – it’s of Crowe looking in and making his observations His account of the way he came to make his image is an emic snapshot – it’s his internal viewpoint. Etic and emic are more usually associated with the social sciences rather than history.

Medieval Mistresses – mischievous women

Look what was on my doorstep when I arrive home this afternoon! Once again I am very excited. I love the cover.

It can be purchased from the Pen and Sword website and I’ve also featured in their blog this week. Why not follow the link to find out more about Alice Perrers and Jane Shore who were both accused of witchcraft.

https://www.pen-and-sword.co.uk/witchweek2022

Caxton meets Edward IV and his family…

Daniel Maclise, 1851, Showing the First Specimen of His Printing to King Edward IV at the Almonry, Westminster: With Edward are his wife, Elizabeth Woodville, and their children,Elizabeth, Edward, and Richard.

As interpretations of history painting changed their content drew more than ever from artistic interpretation. This image by Daniel Maclise, the Cork born painter of Scottish descent, depicts William Caxton showing his first print run to Edward IV and his family. Its all very nuclear with Elizabeth Woodville snuggled up against Edward’s shoulder – her eldest daughter Elizabeth of York by her side. In front of the king stands his heir Edward and younger son, Richard of Shrewsbury. The illustration can be found in Cassell’s History of England. But is it history?

One of Caxton’s friends and patron in England was Elizabeth’s brother Anthony, 2nd Earl Rivers. Anthony translated works that Caxton printed and some of the printers works found their way into the future Edward V’s library at Ludlow where Lord Rivers was responsible for his nephew’s education.

Rivers was not the only contact Caxton had with the royal family. He had found patronage in Europe in the person of Margaret of Burgundy – Edward IV’s sister. Caxton probably printed his first book in England in 1474. Two years later he moved into the Almonry in Westminster – where Maclise situated his painting – Caxton was under the Abbot of Westminster’s patronage at that time.

We become part of the audience watching the king and queen’s response and are drawn to the centre of the picture which has a ‘spot light’ of brightness. Even Caxton’s dog gets in on the act creating a very domestic scene. it’s all very cosy – no wonder the children’s uncle was in receipt of a bad press after Edward’s death!