I am very honoured today to host Day 2 of Sharon Bennett Connolly’s book tour for her new book ‘Heroines of the Medieval World‘. Sharon has been fascinated by history for over 30 years now and even worked as a tour guide at historical sites, including Conisbrough Castle. Born in Yorkshire, she studied at University in Northampton before working in Customer Service roles at Disneyland in Paris and Eurostar in London. She is now having great fun, passing on her love of the past to her son, hunting dragons through Medieval castles or exploring the hidden alcoves of Tudor Manor Houses. Having received a blog as a gift, History…the Interesting Bits, Sharon started researching and writing about the lesser-known stories and people from European history, the stories that have always fascinated. Quite by accident, she started focusing on medieval women. And in 2016 she was given the opportunity to write her first non-fiction book, Heroines of the Medieval World, which was published by Amberley in September 2017. She is currently working on her second non-fiction book, Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest, which will be published by Amberley in late 2018.
Today Sharon has kindly written a fascinating article which looks at how women did not just have to be warriors to be heroines….
Heroines Without a Sword
In writing Heroines of the Medieval World, I wanted to look beyond the idea that a Heroines had to be a warrior. Of course, warrior women were Heroines, but there were so many more women who had to find more subtle ways to make their way in life, rather than picking up the sword. I wanted to show that women, however weak and powerless they appeared to be, could make a difference through the way they lived their lives and the way they reacted to what life threw at them. There were several women whose lives changed the course of history, for women, themselves or their nation.
St Margaret, Queen of Scotland, for instance, was one such. Despite her obvious devotion to God, her valuable royal blood meant she would never be allowed to pursue a life of seclusion in a convent. St Margaret was an Anglo-Saxon princess, a great-granddaughter of Ӕthelrӕd II (the Unready), who fled to Scotland following the Norman Conquest of 1066 with her mother, Agatha, brother, Edgar the Aethling, and younger sister, Christina. A great prize on the marriage market, in 1069-70 Margaret was married to Malcolm III Canmor, King of Scotland. She used her position and influence as queen in order to help reform the Scottish church, steering it away from Celtic influences and bringing it in line with Western Catholicism. King Malcolm supported his wife in all her reforms – indeed, she would not have been able to achieve so much in the Scottish church without the king’s support. Educated, knowledgeable and worldly-wise, given her upbringing on the continent, Margaret was able to confidently debate with the leaders of the Scottish church; she embarrassed some of the clerics by knowing more about the proper procedures of the Church than they did and even had the papal manuals to quote from in order to make her points.
Margaret was a strong figure; she was pious but also a modernising queen and brought luxury to the Scottish court. According to Orderic Vitalis she was ‘eminent from her high birth, but even more renowned for her virtue and holy life’. Margaret and Malcom would have a large family, with six sons and two daughters growing to adulthood. Margaret died just three days after the siege of Alnwick, in 1093, in which her husband was killed, and her son fatally wounded. Her death may have been hastened on receiving the news, but her health was severely damaged from years of fasting. In 1124, when Margaret’s youngest son, David I, became king, her legacy was cemented through his continuing her policy of Church reform. Margaret’s sons honoured their mother’s memory, encouraging the popular cult of St Margaret that developed soon after the queen’s death, to foster the idea that she should be made a saint. Her canonisation came in 1250, and in 1673 Pope Clement X named her Patroness of Scotland.
St Margaret’s reforms changed fundamental religious practice in Scotland, bringing it in line with that of mainland Europe. She was an innovator who deliberately brought about change, during her life whereas Maud de Braose, by her death, would bring about a change in the law in
England. Matilda, or Maud, was the wife one of King John’s closest confidants, William de Braose. Described as tall and beautiful, wise and vigorous, she was made famous by her husband de Braose’s spectacular falling out with King John.
William de Braose was greatly favoured by King John in the early part of his reign. He was the knight who captured the rival to John’s throne, Arthur of Brittany, at the Siege of Mirebeau in 1202 and it is highly likely that he witnessed Arthur’s brutal murder in Rouen at Easter 1203. However, as John became increasingly paranoid, he turned against de Braose in a spectacular manner. Possibly fearing that de Braose knew too much about Arthur’s death and knowing that the baron owed money to the crown, John demanded that de Braose give up his sons as hostages for his loyalty. Maud refused, declaring, ‘I will not deliver my sons to your lord, King John, for he foully murdered his nephew Arthur, whom he should have cared for honourably.’
John then set about to destroy the de Braose family. He chased them to Ireland, from where William tried to treat with the king while his wife and oldest son escaped to Scotland. Captured in Galloway, Maud, her son and his family and her daughter, were all handed over to King John, who imprisoned them in Bristol Castle. The king set a fine of 50,000 marks for Maud’s release, but when her husband escaped to the continent, out of John’s reach, Maud refused to pay the fine. Maud and her son were moved to the dungeons of either Windsor or Corfe castle, where they were left to starve. According to Anonymous of Bethune;
‘On the eleventh day the mother was found dead between her son’s legs, still upright but leaning back against her son’s chest as a dead woman. The son, who was also dead, sat upright, leaning against the wall as a dead man. So desperate was the mother that she had eaten her son’s cheeks. When William de Braose, who was in Paris, heard this news, he died soon afterwards, many asserting that it was through grief.’
John’s treatment of the de Braose family has gone down in history in that when Magna Carta was written in 1215, it is likely that Clause 39 was included with Maud and her family in mind: ‘No man shall be taken, imprisoned, outlawed, banished or in any way destroyed, nor will we proceed against or prosecute him, except by the lawful judgement of his peers or by the law of the land.’ Not many women prisoners could claim to have made an impact on the laws of so many nations. Magna Carta and the right to judgement by peers can be seen in the United States’ 1791 Bill of Rights, the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the 1950 European Convention on Human Rights.
The Magna Carta
St Margaret and Maud de Braose were two very different women, and yet their actions changed their countries for the better. Margaret has been venerated as a saintly, selfless queen who did much to help her adopted nation and helped to modernise the Scottish church, bringing it within the Western Catholic tradition. Whereas Maud is often blamed for her own downfall, accused of not knowing when to hold her tongue, of being too outspoken for her own good. And yet, Maud spoke out when she saw injustice and was harshly punished for her words. Her actions caused one of the basic tenets of English and international law to be instituted, that no one should be imprisoned without trial. These two women help to demonstrate how women could be Heroines in different ways, and without having to wield a sword.
Thank you so much for stopping by today Sharon! If you would like to learn more about Sharon’s latest book or her upcoming work please follow the links below….
Sharon Bennett Connolly
For more stops on Sharon’s book tour please follow the links below:
Day 2: Here 🙂
Day 7: Book Review
Day 8: Interview