Monthly Archives: April 2013

Thomas of Lancaster, Second Earl of Lancaster


Thomas_Earl_of_Lancaster_kneels_before_the_executioner_who_has_his_sword_raisedThomas of Lancaster was the son of Edmund Crouchback who was the second surviving son of King  Henry III.  Crouchback refers to the fact that he fought in the ninth crusade so was entitled to wear a cross stitched onto the back of his clothes – no Richard III tendencies.  But I digress, Thomas of Lancaster is the grandson of Henry III, just as Edward II is the grandson of Henry III – making them cousins; though they clearly weren’t the kissing variety by the end of Thomas’s life as this rather graphic image from the Luttrell Psalter demonstrates.


He was one of the richest and most powerful men in the country.  He held five earldoms, was the Sheriff of Lancashire, the Steward of England and held several key strategic castles in the North including Pontefract. He fought in Scotland during Edward I’s wars and when Edward II was crowned he carried Edward the Confessor’s sword during the coronation ceremony.


The main problem was that Thomas and Piers Gaveston, the king’s favourite could not stand one another.  It didn’t help that the upstart Gaveston was given a more important role during the coronation or that he referred to Thomas as ‘the churl’ or ‘the fiddler’. Despite this Thomas was initially loyal to his cousin. But as time went by it became apparent that Edward was blind where his favourite was concerned.  Thomas was part of the group of barons who saw Gaveston banished- for the third time it might be added- but when the royal favourite returned to England in 1311 to spend Christmas at court despite Edward II agreeing to his banishment hostility was almost bound to break out into violence.

In Spring 1312 Edward and Piers were forced to flee York when they heard that Thomas of Lancaster was leading an army in their direction.  They fled to Newcastle, leaving the pregnant Queen Isabella to deal with the irate earl as best she could.  Unfortunately for the king and his friend, Thomas of Lancaster swiftly changed direction and surprised the monarch in Newcastle.  Apparently the king and Piers fled with little more than they wore.  It took Lancaster four days to catalogue everything that had been left behind while the king and his crony found a ship to take them south to Scarborough.



Edward demanded his fortress of Scarborough back from the control of the Percy family which they obligingly handed over and Edward left Piers Gaveston in charge.  Once Thomas ascertained that the king wasn’t in residence, he besieged the castle and Piers surrendered being more of a courtier than a warrior.  Thomas took Piers south for trial but the Earl of Warwick – nicknamed the ‘Black dog of Arden’ by Gaveston  (and who definitely wasn’t one of Gaveston’s admirers) took the royal favourite out of Thomas’s hands, tried and executed him.



Following the disaster of Bannockburn in 1314 Edward was forced to submit to his cousin and it was Thomas who tried to rule for the next four years.   It would have to be said that Thomas was a bit of a thorn in Edward’s flesh prior to this period.  He refused to attend parliament and there is some evidence that he didn’t send enough men to aid his cousin against the Scots.  It was during this time that Scottish raiding along the borders became prevalent and in 1318 Thomas fell from power.  In 1321 Thomas was at the head of a rebellion once more.  He met with forces loyal to the king at the Battle of Boroughbridge where he was taken prisoner, tried and finally executed at Pontefract Castle – for treason and rudeness towards Edward…which certainly puts a whole new meaning on the naughty step…oh yes, and for plotting with Scotland.




He was buried in Pontefract Priory (a Cluniac monastery).  All that remains of the Priory is the name Monk Hill.




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Filed under Anglo-Scottish history, Fourteenth Century, The Plantagenets

Alphonso, Earl of Chester

Prince Alfonso is one of history’s ‘what ifs?’  He is a son of King Edward I and Eleanor of Castile.  The couple had fourteen children though many did not survive infancy.  Alfonso was born on the 24 November 1273 in Bayonne (Gascony) as his parents journeyed home from crusade upon receiving the news that King Henry III was dead.  This made Alfonso the third male child of the couple to have survived into infancy and then childhood.


Sadly when his parents arrived home they discovered that his older brother Prince John had died in August 1271.  He was just six years old.  A year after Alfonso’s birth his remaining brother Henry also died.  Like John, he was six years old. Both died from unspecified illness.

So, Alfonso, named after Eleanor’s family, was heir to the throne.  Apparently he was lively, quick and intelligent.  His father created him Earl of Chester and planned a marriage that would enhance an English alliance against the French.  The illuminated page in this blog comes from the so-called Alphonso Psalter which was commissioned when Alphonso was to have been married to Margaret, daughter of Florent V, Count of Holland.  The coats of arms at the bottom of the page show the union of the two families.

The psalter is beautiful. It contains fantastical creatures such as griffins and mermaids as well as scenes from everyday life and biblical characters – like this letter depicting King David playing his harp.  Work soon came to a halt though.

On August 19 1284 the ten-year-old heir to the throne died at Windsor Castle.  He was buried in Westminster Abbey.

The psalter is in the British Library.  It was eventually completed thirteen years later when Alfonso’s sister Elizabeth married John I of Holland and Zealand – the brother of the girl Alphonso was to have married.

And as for the English crown?  Well, Edward I had only one more male heir – Edward of Caernarfon who is known in popular history as the king murdered with a red-hot poker.


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Filed under The Plantagenets, Thirteenth Century

Marguerite of France

200px-Marguerite_of_franceUsually when we think of Edward I’s queen we think of Eleanor of Castile.  However the grief-stricken widower married again.  Initially he planned to marry Philip III’s daughter Blanche but she was married elsewhere to the Duke of Austria in fact.  In her place, Philip IV offered the king his young half-sister Marguerite.  Edward was so disgruntled about the loss of his potential bride that he went to war, or so the story goes.  Five years later, following negotiations the sixty year old king married Marguerite.  It’s more likely that the protracted negotiations had to do with who would hold Gascony.  It was all that remained of the Angevin empire and Edward wished to keep hold of it but the French had other ideas.

However, the couple finally tied the knot in 1299.  There was a forty-year age difference.  They were married in Canterbury and then Edward hurried back to Scotland to pursue his military campaign but not before Marguerite became pregnant.  Her first child, Thomas, was born a year after her marriage in Brotherton in Yorkshire.

Marguerite – presumably fed up of being deserted in London by her groom- hastened north to join the king.  It was the start of a mutually loving relationship.  When her sister Blanche died, Edward tried to lighten her distress by having the whole court go into mourning.  There are also letters which show his concern for his young wife’s health. They had three children, one of whom was called Eleanor after Edward’s first queen which just goes to show how understanding Marguerite must have been.  She even attended masses and memorial services for Edward’s first wife.  She also became friends with her step-children and interceded with the king on more than one occasion on behalf of folk who’d irritated him. She even managed to soothe Edward’s anger against the man who hid the crown used by Robert Bruce.  No wonder her English subjects called her ‘The Pearl of France.”

Her desire to be loved and liked may have had some negative side effects though.  The king gave her wardships worth £4000 so that she could pay her debts, a quarter of which seems to have been with an Italian cloth merchant….so a well-dressed lady.  Whatever her methods she and her husband had a genuinely loving relationship and she steered a delicate course across the treacherous waters of Anglo-French relations which remained difficult during this period.

When Edward died, Marguerite proclaimed “When Edward died, all men died for me.”  She retreated to Marlborough Castle after the coronation of her step-son which was unfortunate.  Her niece Isabella – to be known in history as the ‘she-wolf of France’ arrived in England as Edward III’s new bride and at that time the barely adolescent Isabella could have done with a bit of loving help from her diplomatic and much-loved aunt.

Marguerite died just ten years after her king.

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Filed under Fourteenth Century, Queens of England, The Plantagenets, Thirteenth Century

Richard de Clare- Strongbow

Richard was born sometime around 1130.  He inherited his father’s estates in 1149 becoming Earl of Pembroke and Strigul but was rather extravagant and fell out of favour with King Henry II.  So he had to go and seek his fortune.  He did this when he went to Ireland to help Dermot MacMurrough make his claim to the kingdom of Leinster.


Dermot showered Richard with lands and the hand of his daughter Eva which rang alarm bells with King Henry as Richard was looking increasingly powerful and ordered that there should be no further campaigning in Ireland until he was present but de Clare had his army and went to Normandy to gain the approval of Henry II which was given albeit reluctantly. It was a gamble but one which paid dividends for de Clare. He went on to capture Dublin and on Dermot’s death, Strongbow took the throne of Leinster and began a campaign against the Irish with the assistance of Raymond le Gros who eventually became Strongbow’s brother-in-law.  Henry, as might be expected, was not terribly amused by Richard de Clare’s elevation and Richard hurried to England to offer his homage and protestations of loyalty to the king.  Henry II accepted Richard’s oath and also Dublin as well as the other seaports that Richard had captured during his campaign.

Strongbow may have had a reputation but the Irish continued to make life difficult for him  even when Henry II recognised his role in Ireland and gave him an official title. By 1177 he was dead as a result of an on-going illness having established himself as a man of power.  His son Gilbert died eight years later without attaining his majority. Strongbow’s daughter, Isabel, became the wife of William Marshall.

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Filed under The Plantagenets, Twelfth Century

Ribald of Middleham

388a8dd5ca26ea292479e9883b0a69caThe land around Middleham was given to Alan The Red. Alan built a wooden motte-and-bailey castle, 500 yards to the south-west of where the present castle stands, on a site known as William’s Hill. It can be seen from the current keep. It was built to guard Coverdale and to protect the road from Richmond to Skipton.

By the time of the Domesday Book in 1086 Middleham had been granted to Alan the Red’s brother Ribald. Two generations later Alan’s grandson, Robert FitzRibald built a new castle which featured a massive stone keep . The keep, one of the largest in England, had twelve-foot thick walls and three floors; for its time, this would have provided palatial accommodation. It contained a great chamber, large kitchen, chapel, dovecot, cellars and the living rooms of the lord of Middleham.  No wonder it was so popular with one of its later inhabitants – The Duke of Gloucester a.k.a. Richard III.  The castle came to be known as The Windsor of the North.

But what of Ribald?  He appears to have been born circa 1050 and died in 1121 in St Mary’s Abbey York where he had withdrawn after the death of his wife, Beatrix de Tallebois in 1110.  He lived the final years of his life as a monk in Benedictine habits – hence the illustration. His lands, and he benefitted from being Alan’s brother – click on the image to see a list of lands he owned at the time of the Domesday Book- were passed to his son Ralph FitzRibald.  Four generations later the family line ended but not before the daughters of the family had married into the Percy and Bigod families.

Incidentally, the word ‘ribald’ referring to a coarse or vulgar person doesn’t make an appearance in the language until the thirteenth century and it came from the French word ‘riber’ meaning to live licentiously; it seems to have almost referred to a certain kind of henchman when it was first used.

 Ribald was almost a class name in the feudal system . .
      . He was his patron's parasite, bulldog, and tool . . .
      It is not to be wondered at that the word rapidly
      became a synonym for everything ruffianly and brutal.

Sadly, my Oxford Dictionary of Baby names doesn't offer any 
clue as to the origins or meaning of the name Ribald.

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Filed under Development of English, Eleventh Century

Alan of Brittany


Richmond Castle is exceptionally impressive, towering at over 300 ft, it is also one of Britain’s oldest stone keeps.  There has been one on this site since 1088 . Richmond was granted to Alan the Red, Count of Brittany in 1071.  Alan was a relation of William the Conqueror, a second cousin.  His father was Count Odo of Brittany. He was part of Duke William of Normandy’s household and was at the Battle of Hastings commanding the Breton contingent.

As a consequence, Alan was an extremely rich and powerful man – a position that he improved upon when he helped to quell the rebellion in the North in 1069.  Click on the image of Richmond Castle to open a new page listing all of Alan’s lands in the Domesday Book. He founded St Mary’s Abbey in York.  His power base was the north and his building work demonstrates how important it was for him to make his mark upon the landscape.  He also built the first castle at Middleham which was in the hands of his brother.  By the time of his death he was the fourth largest landowner in England.5-alan-rufus

His ambitions included marriage to the King of Scotland’s daughter Edith also known as Matilda.  William the Conqueror saw this as a step too far but somehow or other Alan had become entangled with another royal lady during this time.  Edith was living at the nunnery of Wilton.  It appears that King Harold’s daughter Gunnhild was living there as well.  She may well have been sent there for her education as well as her own protection.

Alan’s plans for Edith fell through but apparently Gunnhild took herself off to Richmond to be with Alan.  Seems straight forward?  Well, it would be if there was only one source involved – did she go willingly or was she abducted?  Was she a nun or was she simply living in a nunnery as many well-born women did? Was it love or was it a match between a Saxon and a Norman to secure for Alan the lands that came to Gunnhild via her mother (Edith Swanneck)?  If the latter was the case, then Alan was seeking to secure some of his lands not just by conquest but also by union with the woman whose lands they rightfully were.

When Alan died in 1093, shortly after he carried off Gunnhild, his estates went first to his brother, the imaginatively named, Alan the Black and then to their younger brother Stephen.

As for Gunnhild, having eloped from her nunnery, she was in no hurry to return so she took up with Alan the Black and earned a stinging rebuke from Archbishop Anselm.

There is also the intriguing possibility that the dates given above are not the correct ones and that the correct story occurs much earlier. She and Alan eloped in the 1070s rather than just before Alan’s death.  This isn’t as far-fetched as it seems.  After all there are different accounts as to when he died – one gives the date as 1089 when he was very much alive.  If the dates for the match are earlier then it is possible that the couple had a daughter called Matilda who was married to Walter d’Agincourt. Matilda gave large gifts of land at the time of her marriage to Lincoln Cathedral – these were all the property of Alan the Red. This version would, perhaps, also account for the seemingly dramatic swapping of one Alan for another.

Gunnhild is a chance discovery when I was researching Alan the Red to find out more about the man who built Richmond Castle.  She’s sitting on the margins of history and once again the moth-holed accounts are tantalizingly incomplete.


Sharpe, Richard. “King Harold’s Daughter”  The Haskins Society Journal 19: 2007. Studies in Medieval History

 edited by Stephen Morillo, William North.  This can be accessed via Google Books and makes for fascinating reading.


Filed under Castles, Eleventh Century

A very surprising connection

History meets fiction and royal family history in this post.  A clue to the link is the word ‘vampire’ which first entered the English language in 1732.  Any idea yet who the surprising connection might be?

170px-VladOriginalVlad III was born in 1431. In 1442 he was handed over to the Turks along with a brother as a hostage. Five years later Vlad’s oldest brother took up arms against the Turks and his father – Dracul- made a treaty with the Hungarians. There wasn’t a happy ending. Dracul was beheaded by the Hungarians and his eldest son was murdered. It would have to be said that starving Richard II to death in Pontefract Castle or inserting red hot pokers into the royal personage of Edward II seems fairly mild in comparison to the end of Dracul’s son. His eyes were put out and he was buried alive.

The Turks took the opportunity to send young Vlad home where he attempted to seize the throne. He ruled for a short time but when he lost his army he was forced to flee to Moldavia. And that might have been the story of Vlad, son of Dracul except for one thing. In 1453 Constantinople fell to the Ottomans. Vlad was able to make a treaty with Hungary and in 1456- the year of a comet- he took back his throne.

During the next decade he came to be known as Vlad Tepes. Tepes means impaler and he ruled Wallachia (modern day Romania) and bits of Moldavia. The name gives a clue as to how he turned a lawless border kingdom into a model of good behaviour (possibly heavily tinged with overtones of terror). Legend has it that Vlad had a gold cup put by a well in Targoviste so that ordinary people could draw water and drink. It was stolen. When the thief was tracked down, Vlad had the thief’s family impaled. The second time the cup was stolen the thief’s family handed the foolish thief straight over to Vlad. The cup wasn’t stolen for a third time.

He founded the Order of the Dragon to fight infidels and heretics. In fact, he spent most of his reign campaigning against the Ottoman Empire which was seeking to expand into the Balkans during this time. He also sought to improve trading opportunities for his own citizens. His methods weren’t terribly subtle. One of the more memorable strategies involved…impaling. He is famous, or perhaps infamous for impaling people prior to enjoying a hearty breakfast and also for nailing ambassadoral hats to ambassadorial heads. In fact, one way and another he put a whole new meaning on the word head count.

And the surprising link? Well, the Queen can allegedly trace her lineage back to Vlad the Impaler’s half-brother through her grandmother Queen Mary.



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Surprising Connections

After a while, if you study medieval history as you struggle to untangle who is who it’s perfectly possible to believe two things: first, that all the leading families in the land were related and second, that there were only a hand full of names available. Take Matilda for example. Most famously there’s the Empress Matilda – also known as Maud – there’s even room for confusion there. And then it’s worth taking a look at her mother, also a Matilda- Matilda of Scotland. However, it’s worth bearing in mind that Matilda was a good Norman name while the Scottish princess who King Henry I married was baptised by the name Edith. It’s no wonder that I sometimes get very confused about who was who. I know some people study the medieval history of the English monarchy with a family tree at their side. I can see why.

I’m going off track. My surprising connection is much more recent and doesn’t involve anyone royal. Did you know that Josiah Wedgewood -the fine china maker- was the grandfather of Charles Darwin? So the sale of tea services and dinner plates funded the theory of evolution. How wonderful is that?

I should point out that I discovered this surprising fact whilst watching an interesting programme about the River Trent.

It’s set me thinking about other unexpected connections- a sort of historical six degrees of separation. That’s the theory that everyone is a maximum of six steps away from any other person in the world. Obviously once you’re outside six generations it wouldn’t count and monarchs would be a bit of a cheat on the grounds that there are any number of verses to help people remember their links- I resorted to a wooden ruler with the rulers on when I was at school as an aide memoire. I still have it.

I am going to add surprising connections as a category to this blog because I love the unexspectedness of the link. I can’t add a picture at the moment because I’m typing on my iPad and apparently I need another app for that. I will tackle that learning curve tomorrow.


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