Blog Tour: Sharon Bennett Connolly _Ladies of Magna Carta_

WOMEN OF INFLUENCE IN THIRTEENTH CENTURY ENGLAND

I’m pleased and honoured to be part of the blog tour for Ladies of Magna Carta written by the fabulous Sharon Bennett Connolly who has for the past few years been enlightening us with her insightful looks at the role women of the nobility played in late medieval politics and history. Her most recent book, Ladies of Magna Carta, captures the lives of the women who lived through this time against the backdrop of those men who ruled over them. Their stories, although not directly, would go on to influence the clauses in one of the most famous charters in the world.

Ladies of Magna Carta is a tour de force for Ms Connolly. Her research is impeccable and second to none. The Charter of liberties was always intended to be about men. It was a man’s world, after all. But every now and then, when examining the roles that women played in this time, one can see a glimmer of them in the various clauses that connect so seamlessly with their stories. Intended to be a peace treaty signed by the rebel barons and King John, the rules of the charter were naturally as could be expected of John, broken which led to an unsettled time in the years that followed.

Ms Connolly has been researching the medieval world for some years and her famous blog History the Interesting Bits is where it all started. Her focus began to shift more to looking exclusively at women and that’s when she decided to write her first book with _Heroines of the Medieval World_ She then went on to publish another, _Silk and the Sword_ about the women of the Norman Conquest.

But you cannot write about these women without writing about their families, in particular the men involved which enables us to get a more panoramic view of of their world, the spiritual landscape in which they lived. The thirteenth century, like most medieval epochs were filled with passion and drama which often had traumatic consequences in their time, especially for women who had to continue to look after their husbands affairs, their children and those who served them despite seeing intrigue, death, murder and imprisonment on every corner. How did these women survive? For example, Maud de Braose, or Matilda as connolly refers to her. Maude was imprisoned and treated abominably by King John, and although not much is known of Maud’s own feelings and thoughts around the torture she endured but we can surmise, quite accurately what impact this terror must have had on her mental state and Connolly writes a good account of her story in this book.

Central to the book’s premise is King John. John was probably one of the worst kings in history in terms of how he treated his subjects. Even his loyal subjects had a rocky ride during his reign. Men like William Marshall, staunch supporter of King John and all his brothers, who stood by John right to the very end, despite having to give up sons to John in order to prove his loyalty and also William de Braose, once the king’s favourite, who died in exile, fleeing John’s wrath over debts unpaid. John then turned on his wife Maud who received the worst treatment ever at the hands of John.

Many of those who enjoy history, often see women of the medieval period as pawns. Connolly proves that this is not always so and shows what women like Nicholaa de la Haye, Maud de Braose, Ela of Salisbury can do if they put their minds to it. Unfortunately for some like, Isabelle of Gloucester, don’t always have a lot of choice. However its a fine balance between being a pawn and knowing what you want and being able to achieve it. And if women were pawns, so were a lot of men!

Not only is this a narrative of the women who lived at the time of King’s John’s reign, but also an examination of of John’s suspicious, paranoid nature. Some of the actions John appears to have taken mirror King Richard’s in his last years. And although, as the author points out, there are only eight mentions of women as a gender, it is clear that some of these women’s stories that Connolly highlights have experienced the very things that are mentioned in the clauses.
For example, here is a clause which Connolly states might well have been inspired by one of the women, mentioned as you will see when you read for yourself.

Clause 39 ensures that ‘no man shall be taken or imprisoned or deprived or outlawed or exiled or in anyway ruined, nor will we go or send against him, except by the lawful judgement by his peers or by the law of the land.’

I was pleased that the book opens with an introduction that advises the reader of the origins of Magna Carta, originally known as the Charter of Liberties. This is especially useful as it allows the reader an insight into the making of the charter. It is then followed by a concise but also comprehensive summary of John’s life in chronological order which gave me enough background into the man and his deeds.

Ms Connolly is an accomplished writer of enormous strength. Her attention to detail and her particular interest in highlighting her character’s genealogy and where they sat in the intertwined threads of the nobility of the time, allows the reader an insight into their minds thus enabling a personal evaluation of how this influenced their actions, their views, and their feelings. What more can a lover of history ask for than to be entertained, enthralled and educated all in one go?

ALL I CAN SAY MORE IS THAT IF YOU DON’T READ THIS BOOK, YOU ARE MISSING OUT!

Sharon Bennett Connolly has been fascinated by history her whole life. She has studied history academically and just for fun – and even worked as a tour guide at historical sites. For Christmas 2014, her husband gave her a blog as a gift – http://www.historytheinterestingbits.com – and Sharon started researching and writing about the stories that have always fascinated, concentrating on medieval women. Her latest book, Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England, released in May 2020, is her third non-fiction book. She is also the author of Heroines of the Medieval World and Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest. Her next book Warenne: the Earls of Surrey from the Conquest to 1347 will be released in 2021. Sharon regularly gives talks on women’s history; she is a feature writer for All About History magazine and her TV work includes Australian Television’s ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Sharon Bennett Connolly has been fascinated by history her whole life. She has studied history academically and just for fun – and even worked as a tour guide at historical sites. For Christmas 2014, her husband gave her a blog as a gift – http://www.historytheinterestingbits.com – and Sharon started researching and writing about the stories that have always fascinated, concentrating on medieval women. Her latest book, Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England, released in May 2020, is her third non-fiction book. She is also the author of Heroines of the Medieval World and Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest. Her next book Warenne: the Earls of Surrey from the Conquest to 1347 will be released in 2021. Sharon regularly gives talks on women’s history; she is a feature writer for All About History magazine and her TV work includes Australian Television’s ‘Who Do You Think You Are?

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Ælfgyva: The Mystery Woman of the Bayeux Tapestry – Introductory Part One

Ælfgifu, or as it was sometimes spelt, Alfgyva, or even Ælfgyva as it is on the Bayeux Tapestry, must have been a popular name and one of some significance, for when Emma of Normandy was espoused to Aethelred, the witan insisted that she be called Ælfgifu, which incidentally had been the name of a couple of Æthelred’s previous partners, though none of those women had been given the title of queen, unlike Emma. Perhaps they had been so used to referring to their king’s women by the same name they thought it more expedient to refer to Emma as Ælfgifu too, lest they forget themselves and mistakenly call Emma by the wrong name. I say this tongue in cheek, but it is unclear as to why the name Emma was objectionable to them, after all, it was not unlike the English,  Ymma. But changing a queen’s name is not an unheard-of phenomenon; later Queen Edith, great-granddaughter of Edmund Ironside, changed her Saxon name and  to become Queen Mathilda when she wed Henry the first. Ælfgifu, or as it was sometimes spelled, Ælfgyva, must have been a popular name and one of some significance, for when Emma of Normandy was espoused to Æthelred, the witan insisted that she be called Ælfgifu, which incidentally had been the name of a couple of Æthelred’s previous consorts, though none of those women had been given the title of queen, unlike Emma. Perhaps they had been so used to referring to their king’s women by the same name they thought it more expedient to refer to Emma as Aelfgifu too, lest they forget themselves and mistakenly call her  Ælfgifu anyway.   I say this tongue in cheek, but it is unclear as to why the name Emma was objectionable to them, after all, it was not unlike the English version of Ymma. But changing a queen’s name is not an unheard of phenomenon; later Queen Edith, great-granddaughter of Edmund Ironside, changed her Saxon name to become Queen Mathilda when she wed Henry the first. This might have been a choice she had made, wanting to please her new subjects. The nobles were made up of mostly Normans who  liked to make fun of the English language and names, so it might have not been her choice but one that was coerced from her.

There were so many Ælfgyvas/ Ælfgifus amongst the women of the 11thc that it must have become quite confusing at times. Even Cnut’s consort before Emma, was called Ælfgifu, mother of Cnut’s sons Harold and Sweyn. She was known as Ælfgifu of Northampton, the woman whose father had been killed during Æthelred’s reign. So one can see that if anyone called Emma, Ælfgifu, by mistake, it would not have mattered as they could be referring to either of them! Even Cnut would not have been caught out by this one.
There was a story about Cnut’s Ælfgifu,  that she had been unable to produce her own off-spring and  involved a monk to help her pass off a serving maid’s illigitemate babies as her sons by Cnut. In another version, it was said that the monk himself had fathered them.  Were they a monk’s children fathered on a serving maid so that Ælfgifu could present them as hers and Cnut’s? Or, were they lovers themselves, the monk and Ælfgifu? These are questions that, after reading the evidence, I am pondering upon. However, Emma, it is said, hated Ælfgifu and the two women were at odds with each other for many years until Ælfgifu died. It would not be implausible that these tales, rumours, chinese whispers, if you may, were put about by the Queen to destroy her rival’s reputation.

Which leads me now to the mystery of Aelfgyva on the Bayeux tapestry. Ælfgyva is the same name as Aeflgifu, just a different spelling, much like Edith and Eadgyth. For centuries people must have pondered over this scene, where a slim figure, clad in what would appear to be the clothing of a well-bred woman, stands in a door way, her hands are palm upwards as if she could be explaining something to a monk, apparently behind a doorway.  He is reaching out to touch the side of her face whilst his other hand rests on his hip in a stance of dominance and he looks as if he might be touching her face in a fatherly way, perhaps admonishing her for some misdeed, or perhaps he is slapping her?  On the other hand he could be caressing her face. The text sewn into the tapestry merely states ‘where a priest and Ælfgyva…’ and the onlooker is left with no more than this to dwell on. So just what is the author alluding to? Why did he/she not finish the sentence? Perhaps they were referring to a well known scandal of the time and they had no reason to describe the events in detail, because everyone would have known about it anyway. Who knows what the truth is? It seems the answer to the question of the lady’s identity and the relevance the scene has to the story of Harold Godwinsons downfall, died with the creators of the tapestry long ago. Those who presented it to the owner must have given a satisfactory explanation to him about the scene. One can only wonder as to what it might have been and was it a truthful explanation, or did it have a hidden story?
This brings me to my burning question. Was this scene depicting the scandal of Aelfgifu of Northampton and the monk and if so why and what did it have to do with the tapestry? What was its creator  alluding to? Or had someone woven them into the tapestry, mistakenly confusing Cnut’s Aelfgifu/Aelfgyva with a similar story that did have some legitimacy with the story of the conquest? I have an interpretation, but it is just that, and most likely the fanciful ramblings of my imagination, although it could perhaps be close. I will attempt to explain my idea further sometime in part two soon. Watch this space as the mystery unfolds!

This blog post can also be read here: https://englishhistoryauthors.blogspot.com/2017/11/lfgyva-mystery-woman-of-bayeux-tapestry.html