I’m working on a novel that, while contemporary, deals with a lot of Welsh history. So I’ve been working back through my old blog posts reading about some about the Welsh castles in particular. In doing this I’ve come across one of the most fascinating Welsh women from early 12th century. I’ve written a bit about her before when writing about her grandson Gerald of Wales, and Pembroke Castle which her husband was custodian of. Her name is Nest Ferch Rhys, and I thought she deserved a post of her own.
As usual with Historical Ragbag I’m not trying to break new ground. Nest has been written about before, but women so often inhabit the shadows, I’ll take any chance to bring them out into the light. Besides, Nest’s is just such a good story.
Any woman who is remembered as more than a name from this period is usually someone who steps outside the box, intentionally or otherwise, and Nest is no exception.
Born in around 1085 Nest found herself at the heart of the Welsh /Anglo-Norman conflict for much of her life. It is arguable on a number of occasions whether she was a pawn or an instigator or somewhere in between.
Nest was the daughter of Rhys ap Tewdr King of Deheubarth, a kingdom in the south of Wales. You can see it roughly on the map below.
Unfortunately for Rhys, he came into his kingdom in c.1078 in a period of intense conflict. William I’s victory at Hastings in 1066 had brought the Normans to the island and having claimed the Kingdom of England they turned their eyes to Wales. The Welsh Princes admittedly didn’t help by fighting amongst themselves rather than uniting against the new threat, but when William crossed Rhys’ lands heading for St David’s in 1081 Rhys was forced to do homage to him as William I. Norman incursions only increased under William’s son William II, known as William Rufus, and it wasn’t long before Norman castles were popping up on Welsh land. The new Anglo-Norman barons claimed significant sections of Welsh territory, which would eventually come to form that liminal border land known as the Welsh Marches. The Anglo-Normans quickly began fortifying their positions by marrying into the Welsh nobility, a practice that would shape all of Nest’s life, but I’ll return to her in a moment. Rhys got caught up in these wars when Bernard de Neufmarche (an Anglo-Norman baron who was married to a daughter of a Princess of Gwynedd) began overrunning Brycheiniog a small Welsh kingdom to the east of Deheubarth (you can see it on the map above). The Anglo-Norman’s were a real threat to Deheubarth so in 1093 Rhys rode to Brycheiniog to attempt to fend them off. The Welsh Chronicle the Brut y Tywysogyon eloquently describes the result.
Rhys, son of Tewdwr, king of South Wales, was killed by the French [Anglo-Normans], who inhabited Brecheiniog; and then fell the kingdom of the Britons. And then Cadwgan, son of Bleddyn, despoiled Dyved on the second of May. And then, two months after that, about the Calends on July, the French came into Dyved and Cereddigion, which they have still retained and fortified the castles, and seized upon all the lands of the Britons.
It says it all really. This was the first real death blow for an independent Wales as all Welsh Princes to come after would have to temper their authority to the rule of their Anglo-Norman neighbours. Additionally much of Rhys’ kingdom was lost permanently, as Anglo-Normans claimed lands and built castles including the origins of Pembroke Castle, the early stages of which you can see in the model below. Pembroke would go on to play an important role in Nest’s life.
But where did this all leave Nest? She was still a child. A child who have lived in the privileged but itinerant Welsh royal household. Women in Wales held a slightly different position to their Anglo-Norman sisters, but their lives were still very much circumscribed by the authority of men (either husband, brother or father).With the death of her father Nest was taken hostage along with her mother and her brothers. In the medieval period hostage didn’t have the same connotations that it does today. However, she would have been a valuable commodity as the daughter of a King of Wales. Through Welsh law women didn’t inherit lands, but by Anglo-Norman law/convention they could and more importantly they conveyed the rights of those lands to their husbands (they were never intended to rule them in their own right). At the very least marriage to Nest would lend legitimacy to any Anglo-Norman lord looking to claim territory in her father’s former kingdom.
Despite her value Nest’s reality must have been difficult to say the least. Her father was dead, one brother had been taken to Ireland, another was probably the captive of Arnulf de Montgomery probably at Pembroke. Nest though, was most likely removed from Wales. She may have been placed in a convent, or with a foster family, she may even have been sent to the royal court of William Rufus, we simply don’t know. We also don’t know if her mother would have stayed with her or if they were separated. Regardless of the circumstances, Nest would have found herself in an unfamiliar household, where she didn’t speak the language or know the customs. As an important hostage she probably wouldn’t have been mistreated, but it would still have been a terrifying new world.
It is likely that even if she didn’t start there, she did eventually end up at the court of William Rufus because we know she met his younger brother Henry, who would go on to become Henry I. We know this because Nest is one of his documented mistresses. This might seem like a time jump, young scared Welsh girl in a totally alien world to mistress to the King. So a little background. The earliest she could have met Henry is 1094, at William Rufus’ Christmas court, but it was probably later around 1097. Henry would have been in his early 30s and Nest at most fifteen, which to the modern ear sounds very young but wasn’t an unusual age for marriage in the medieval period. Nest would have been a tempting marriage prize for many of Anglo-Norman barons who were trying establish footholds in Welsh territory, but marriage would not have been Henry’s aim. Henry is known at have had at least twenty illegitimate children, with any number of mistresses (they aren’t all documented) and Nest was said to be very beautiful. What beauty meant in the medieval context is debatable, but she was probably fair in colouring. The courtship may not have been one sided, Nest’s position was precarious and she may have seen being the mistress of the brother of the King and possibly the mother of his children as a position of more certainty (Henry was known to provide for his children). She may have been looking for a protector. She may also have not been given a choice, there is simply no way of knowing.
Whichever of them instigated the relationship, we do know that Nest was definitely Henry’s mistress and the she bore him at least one son, Henry, before 1105. We even, incredibly, have a picture of the two of them both crowned (Henry became King in 1100) from Matthew Paris’ illuminated manuscript held in the British Library and dating from the 13th century.
Nest did not end her career as Henry’s mistress. The next development in her story, actually takes her back to Wales. And again it is, as usual, arguable how much say she had in it. She was married to Gerald de Windsor the custodian of Pembroke Castle. This was a marriage sanctioned by Henry, she was no longer his mistress at this point. Henry had put down rebellions by Arnulf de Montgomery and his family and wanted the lands in a safe pair of hands. Gerald had held Pembroke for Arnulf, but had gone over to Henry’s side. Therefore he had invaluable experience in dealing with the Welsh- he was described by his and Nest’s grandson Gerald of Wales as a “stalwart and cunning man”. Whatever his pedigree, he was sensible enough to see the honour of marriage to Nest, especially in the legitimacy her birth would grant him, and knowledgeable enough about Welsh customs to know that the Welsh would not see her as an heir to her father’s lands so she wouldn’t be a focus for Welsh rebellion. That Nest was young and beautiful certainly wouldn’t have made it an unpalatable decision. Marriages on both sides of the border, however, took pragmatic considerations into account well above any personal connection. What Nest thought of the arrangement, as usual we do not know. But she may have seen it as a chance to return to the lands of her birth, or at the very least the chance to have a position and status of her own. They were married by 1105 at the latest and local tradition has it that Gerald built the near by Carew Castle for her you can see it below (though little remains of the original medieval structure).
They had four children at least; with a good mix of Welsh and Anglo-Norman names, reflecting their dual heritage: William, Maurice, David and Angharad. Whether the relationship was one of affection or not, we can’t really know but it did bring Nest back into the complex world of early 12th century Welsh and Anglo-Norman politics. This is period of time that the Welsh Marches were really developing and the rules of life between the two different people were being established. As custodian of Pembroke, Anglo-Norman held land with Welsh land around it, Gerald and thus Nest were very much at the heart of it. Especially because after 1109 Henry I was often on the continent, leaving Gerald with somewhat of a free reign. You can see Pembroke castle in the photo below, though the stone defences were mainly built after Gerald and Nest’s time.
Pembroke occupied, in fact it still does, a rocky outcrop jutting out into the Cleddau Estuary- commanding the peninsula
Soon after Gerald and Nest were married, along with Carew, Gerald most likely had Cilgerran Castle built to help control the land around Cardigan. So it is possible that Gerald had some administrative control over the Cardigan region as well.
You can see Cilgerran below, again it would have been largely wooden in their time.
Cilgerran, is important for a couple of reasons (beyond it being an expression of Gerald expanding his authority). The Brut y Tywysogyon records that at Cilgerran Gerald;
Settled; and there he deposited all his riches, his wife and his heirs, and all that was dear to him; and he fortified it with a ditch and a wall and a gateway with a lock on it.”
So Nest re-enters her own story. Cilgerran was not a major castle like Pembroke, and it’s a little odd that Gerald moved his wife and children closer to Cardigan which is part of Ceredigion, the over lordship of which was disputed with Powys (another Welsh kingdom). An act that conceivably placed them in danger. It is likely that he was concerned about assault from Powys, but was hoping that Nest’s lineage would be able to help with negotiations with Cadwgan, the then leader of Powys, as they were related. The leaders of Powys spent a lot of time murdering eachother in this period (Welsh infighting was many times as much a problem as the Anglo-Normans), with brothers and cousins turning on each other, and often in fact siding with the Anglo-Normans when expedient. But in 1109 when Nest really enters the history books (literally) Cadwgan was nominally in charge. The idea of a wife from the other side of the border as a negotiator isn’t as alien as it sounds. It’s the role that Joan (daughter of King John and wife of Llewelyn Prince of North Wales) played for most of her marriage in the late 12th and early 13th century. You can read more about Joan here. In this case though, we will never know how Nest might have filled this role. 1109 is when she gained her reputation as the ‘Helen of Wales’. The incident was related in full in the Brut y Tywysogyon so I will let it speak for itself, but I want to start by saying firstly that this is one translation from the 1800s hence the formal language and secondly we have no way of knowing whether Nest was a willing participant or an unwilling hostage. It has been spun both ways.
And when the feast ended Owain [Cadwgan’s son] hearing that Nest, daughter of Rhys, son of Tewdwr, and wife of Gerald the Steward, was in the castle above mentioned [Cilgerran], went accompanied by a small retinue, to visit her as his kinswoman, and so she was; for Cadwgan, son of Bleddyn and Gwladus, daughter of Rhilwallon and mother of Nest were cousins; as Bleddyn and Rhiwallon, sons of Cynvyn, were brothers, from Angharad, daughter of the king Maredudd. After that, instigated by the devil, he came on a certain night to the castle, having with him a small number, about fourteen persons; and having privately excavated under the threshold of the castle, they got over the wall and the ditch, unawares into the castle, where Gerald and Nest were sleeping; and they set up a shout about the castle, and kindled a fire in the surrounding houses to burn them. Gerald awoke on hearing the shout not knowing what to do; and then Nest said to him ‘go not to the door, for there thy enemies wait for thee, but come and follow me’. And that he did, and she conducted him to a privy, adjoining the castle whence it is said he escaped. And when Nest knew that he had escaped she cried and said to the men outside ‘why call ye out in vain? he is not here, whom you seek; he surely has escaped.’ And when they entered they searched for him everywhere and not having found him, they took Nest, with her two sons and daughter, and also another son that he had by a concubine; and spoiled and laid waste to the castle. And after burning the castle and having connexion with Nest, Owain returned to his country.
So essentially Owain met Nest, and then later ‘instigated by the devil’ possibly at the thought of her broke into the castle, Gerald escaped down the toilet and Nest was kidnapped and raped. The question that hangs over the whole incident is was Nest a willing escapee/participant? The chronicles characterise the incident as ultimately an act of love on behalf of Owain. Cadwgan was not happy with his son because of the violation committed upon Nest but also because he didn’t want to upset Henry I. He ordered Owain to send Nest and her children back to Gerald. He was not successful but the Brut y Tywysogyon continues with Nest’s entreaty to Owain
‘If thou would have me faithful to thee, and remain with thee, send my children to their father.’ He then, from an excess of love towards the wife, suffered the children to be returned to the steward.
But what of Nest her self? You can see how she is characterised as Helen here, the desired woman, the wife of another man, kidnapped, possibly willingly. It is also possible that this story is somewhat allegorical as it was being told retrospectively, and hits many of the same beats as traditional Welsh epic poetry and stories from the period. The one facet of Nest’s personality that comes through is her practicality. It’s her idea for Gerald to escape and it is her who persuades Owain to send her children back to their father (where they would be safer). It’s perfectly possibly that there was no romance at all, but an opportunistic abduction as part of a larger raid. Taking hostages was not un-common, in fact if you remember Nest became a hostage after her father’s death. It was not an act that went unpunished either. Bishop Richard of London who was Henry I’s representative at Shrewsbury sent Owain’s cousins in, offering them Cadwgan’s lands if they could take them. This was to become one of the key strategies for the Anglo-Normans in dealing with the Welsh. Sending aggrieved family members against each-other. This time it was successful and Owain fled to Ireland.
But where does this leave Nest? The Brut y Tywysogyon conveniently forgets to mention what happened to her. It’s very unlikely that Owain took her to Ireland, she would have been a hindrance. She most likely remained in Wales and either willingly or unwillingly returned to Gerald. They definitely had at least one more child and her brother stayed with Gerald at Pembroke in c.1114 something that was unlikely to happen without Nest’s presence. Pembroke would be at the centre of the remainder of her life. Nothing really remains of the castle she would have lived in. But, there is an extraordinary cave under Pembroke Castle, which would not have changed much since Nest’s time. It’s known as Wogan’s Cavern. I like the idea that there is one extant space that Nest may have spent some time in.
Her brother, Gruffudd ap Rhys, stayed at Pembroke for some time. But he went on to cause all sorts of trouble, rebelling against the Anglo-Normans with their other brother Hwyel (who escaped from Anglo-Norman captivity). In the ensuing rebellion Gerald had the chance to face Owain (Nest’s abductor) in battle and Owain was killed. Gruffudd lost the rebellion and spent the rest of his life as a minor landholder, possibly supported by his sister.
So that brings us back to Nest again, like many medieval women it’s very easy for her to get lost even in her own story. We don’t know exactly when Gerald died but it was before1136. Nest was left in a precarious position. Widowhood was one of the few times in a medieval woman’s life that she had some authority over her own life, but Nest lived in the complex world of Anglo-Norman and Welsh alliances. She would have been seen as possibly both a threat and again a valuable marriage prize. She would still have been of childbearing age, and was known to be beautiful. It has been implied that she had a number of illegitimate children after Gerald’s death, but it is more likely that she married again, possibly twice. Both Anglo-Norman lords of Welsh lands. By this time she would have been a familiar figure in the Anglo and Welsh landscape, having grown up in both worlds and in many ways representing both. A Welsh Anglo-Norman lady living in Wales. We do not know when she died but it would have been around the mid 12th century. We do know that she passed on her sense of Welshness to her children, with her grandson Gerald of Wales celebrating his Welsh roots and other grand children being given Welsh names. Her children and grand children went on to impact both the Welsh, Anglo-Norman and Irish worlds significantly.
A real picture of Nest can be hard to discern through the competing stories, and because she is often drowned out by the complexity and the in-fighting in South Wales throughout her lifetime. The flickering images that do come through are of a practical woman, a beauty who was buffeted by fate, but used what little control she had to survive, to raise children and a dynasty in a world that was being made anew. She was not the last woman to find herself caught between the Welsh and Anglo-Norman world, but her legacy paved the way for those who came after. She is deserving of being remembered in her own right, not just as an allegorical ‘Helen of Wales’. Local legend has it that she haunts Carew, the castle Gerald possibly built for her. If I believed in ghosts, I think that’d be a pretty good place to haunt.
Brut y Tywysogion: https://archive.org/details/brutytywysogiono00cara_0/page/54/mode/2up?q=rhys
Gerald of Wales: The journey through Wales and The Description of Wales translated by Lewis Thorpe, Penguin 2004.
Princess Nest of Wales: Seductress of the English by Kari Maud.
The Kings and Queens of Wales by Timothy Venning.
Nest and Henry image: https://www.historic-uk.com/HistoryUK/HistoryofWales/Princess-Nest/
All the photos are mine.
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For the first time I’ve been sent a book for review, a somewhat novel experience for me, but one that I hope will continue as I expand my range of book reviews on this blog. I always love having the chance to talk about a woman who played a crucial role in history, but whose voice and or story has been lost to the broader narrative. In being sent Vera Deakin and the Red Cross by Carole Woods, I’ve had the chance to learn about an intriguing woman, and also about the role of the Red Cross Wounded and Missing Enquiry Bureau, which could easily have been a book in and of itself. So thank you Simone from Shebang for sending me the book.
Simone’s contact wasn’t the first time I’ve actually seen this book. I bought it for work, as I’m always keeping my eye out for any books about women in Victorian history, that can help to fill gaps in the predominantly male narrative, especially military narratives which often write out women entirely. So I’d purchased the book for the PMI Victorian History Library. Sadly, I don’t have time to read every book I buy for work (it would actually be physically impossible) and in all honesty Vera isn’t one I would have picked up and read for myself. I saw it as a reference book to be dipped in to for information as needed, not something to read cover to cover. This supposition is supported by the format, a somewhat awkward slightly oversized hardback. The book does not promote itself as a popular biography. Given this, I was intending to dip in and out for this review, but I was surprised to find how readable Vera is.
Much of this readability comes from the compelling, improbable and complex nature of Vera Deakin’s life and that’s where I want to begin.
Vera Deakin, born in 1891, was the youngest daughter of Australia’s second Prime Minister Alfred Deakin. She was many ways a deeply conventional woman, but she stepped forcibly out of the conventional mould in pursuit of what she saw as her duty to serve.
Vera begins describing her somewhat idyllic childhood, of literature, family life and education both in Melbourne and in Point Lonsdale (where both Vera and her husband chose to be buried). It explores her immediate family, and the role of both her parents Pattie and Alfred Deakin. It’s in this section that narrative lost me a little for the first time, as it skipped around in trying to create atmosphere at the same time as describing non essential people and jumping forward and back in time to allude to future events. Vera does encapsulate the world of learning and music that was the foundation of Vera’s life. However, despite extracts and comments from Vera’s own diaries and letters, Vera herself is a little lost (along with the narrative thread) in the sheer welter of new people, houses being bought and then sold, laundry listing of events, family dynamics, connections, atmosphere setting and external references.
Vera really catches you when we reach World War One. With war declared Vera, who in the preceding chapters had been travelling in England and Germany to continue her musical studies, wants to do her part, very clearly wants to serve and is rebuffed. This is where we see Vera really step into her own story. No one else (especially her father) envisions a role for her in the war other than helping at home and running canteens with her mother, so she makes one. This is where we see the Vera who would later be described as autocratic but deeply compassionate, who inspired fierce loyalty, love, but also awe and in some cases fear. If she had been a man, no doubt the autocracy would not have been commented on.
In finding her own place, Vera got on a ship to Cairo to join the Red Cross support services in Egypt. This was the beginning of her lifelong commitment to the Red Cross. It is not an exaggeration to say that she was the backbone of the organisation in Australia. Arriving in Egypt, Vera was at the coalface of the beginnings of the Australian Enquiry Bureau. Essentially this was a service of tracking down soldiers and sending news of them to their relatives, they also took requests from relatives to track down their loved ones. This might sound like a simple enough concept, but dealing with the conflagration of disorder that was World War One, it was anything but simple. By 1915 enquiry lists were stretching out to 900 pages. These were all soldiers listed as missing, or wounded, or dead. The idea was to provide context for families, the military notification was stark ‘missing’ ‘wounded’ ‘died of wounds’ ‘killed in action’, the Enquiry Bureau filled in these gaps, finding the soldiers, letting their families know of their condition, communicating with prisoners of war (a little later) and sending care packages, and if the solider was dead not only confirming the death but also how they died, usually by talking to another solider who had been there. As you can imagine this was a mammoth task, they had searchers who went out to all the hospitals and military units etc to ascertain the information, but it all had to be sorted and communicated and made useful. Vera was at the heart of this. When the action moved more to Europe, the Egyptian Bureau closed and Vera moved it to London in 1916, she remained there, running the Bureau until the end of the war. The Bureau provided comfort to thousands and thousands of families, but also soldiers, through contact with prisoners of war, helping soldiers on leave and visiting sick and wounded soldiers. Vera was again at the coalface of this side of the operation often ‘adopting’ soldiers and taking them to entertainments on leave, hosting parties, visiting them in hospital and, on one memorable occasion, taking Christmas to a particular hospital when her parents visited in 1916. She also formed relationships with the families of soldiers she was helping to trace, in several cases maintaining correspondence even after the solider was found to be dead. She kept in contact with one father until his death twelve years later.
Vera did not undertake this work alone. She was the heart of a dedicated group of some paid but largely volunteers. This included several women from a similar background to her own, who became lifelong friends, and some of whom she continued to work with when she returned to Australia. As a snapshot of the sheer volume of work that was undertaken- in 1917 the Bureau received 26953 cabled enquiries from Australia and sent back 24610 responses. They received 9175 posted enquires and another 11444 enquiries from Britain and France. 32753 reports come in from searchers and a further 4501 reports from soldiers, matrons and padres. We know these numbers, because of the meticulous records that Vera ensured were kept, and ensured went back to Australia. They are now at the Australian War Memorial and some are in the process of being digitised.
At the cessation in hostilities Vera began to close down the London office, and to move back to Australia. They continued their work right up to the last, sending searchers back on the troop ships, seeing it as their last chance to collect stories from the soldiers of others missing, or stories of how the dead died.
There was one more twist in the World War One part of Vera’s story though. One of the prisoners of war that Vera had been corresponding with early on in the Bureau’s existence was Thomas White, an Australian Aviator who had been captured early in the war flying in Mesopotamia, and held captive by the Turks. The Bureau corresponded directly with him, as he was the best contact to provide support for the rank and file prisoners. The officers were given slightly more lenient treatment. White escaped in 1918 and stowed away on a Russian freighter, making his way to England by circuitous route.
On the 21st of December 1918 another former Turkish prisoner from Geelong, Les Luscomb, came to the Bureau. He and other Turkish prisoners had been held for so long they didn’t know much about what had been happening in the world, so the Bureau helped reorient them. Vera invited Les to visit the Temple Church in London. She saw the soldiers as crusaders describing the deceased at the armistice as “the voices of those Crusader souls who have given their lives on the battlefield & the high seas” and thought he might appreciate the crusader knights’ effigies found in the Temple Church which dates to the 1185.
I just want pause very briefly here to put on my medievalist hat, as people reading this review have probably read some of the rest of this blog, and say that none of the effigies in the Temple Church are crusaders, but you can see where the sentiment was coming from. Les Luscomb met Vera at the Temple Church the following day. He brought his friend Thomas White, Thomas and Vera were engaged three weeks later and married for 37 years. Thomas went on to be a prominent member of parliament and Australian High Commissioner to London- where he was knighted- and it was in her role as his wife that Vera’s path and the book’s narrative continues.
This is not to say that Vera was only his wife. She certainly supported him, but she kept up her volunteer work. When World War II broke out, the Whites had both spoken out against appeasement, Vera set up and ran the Bureau again, but this time from Melbourne rather than London. It feels like an injustice to skate over this part of her life, which was filled with the same complexities as World War I and was instrumental in establishing structures that are still used by the Red Cross today, but like the book I can not cover all aspects of Vera’s life in a review. She was a woman of vision, determination, education, insight, incredible organisation, authority and deep compassion. She was also clearly a woman of her times, she was deeply dedicated to Empire and England, militaristic, pro conscription in both WWI referendums (a concept I can’t understand from someone who saw the suffering first hand), and I found her vision of ANZACs of noble crusaders uncomfortable, but that is again reading this book as a medievalist first. She and White dedicated the rest of their lives to the memorialisation of the ANZACS and all those who fought as heroes. She was at the core of the creation of the ANZAC legend, so it is ironic that her story and the story of the many dedicated (mainly female) volunteers has been lost from the narrative.
Vera does a good job telling the story of Vera’s life and I would like to note the excellent index, but it hovers in the difficult territory of trying to be both a readable, enjoyable biography and a useful reference book. It doesn’t quite achieve either. It is in many ways hampered by the fullness of Vera’s life, some sections feel skated over, a laundry list of achievements rather than a story and examination. Vera tries to ride too many horses; telling Vera’s story, telling the Red Cross’s story, examining her family dynamic and Alfred Deakin, exploring broader military history, Thomas White’s story, even the Bureau’s story. Any of these could have been a book by themselves, and I found myself wanting to know more, to be move involved in the narrative. I also wanted more from Vera herself in her own words integrated into the narrative (as there was clearly been a lot of access to letters, diaries etc). For me, the section that could have been sacrificed to allow more space for the others would have been Vera’s years in Germany and Budapest, and her early tours of England, which while formative, simply aren’t as interesting as her later life. At 210 pages Vera is not a long book, and this has meant the sacrifice of depth in some areas.
All that being said Vera Deakin and the Red Cross does a wonderful job bringing Vera out of the shadows and placing her back at the heart of the ANZAC story, and the formation of the Red Cross- right where she belongs.
Vera Deakin and the Red Cross by Carole Wood can be bought from the Royal Historical Society of Victoria https://www.historyvictoria.org.au/product/vera-deakin-and-the-red-cross-by-carole-woods/
Or borrowed from the PMI Victorian History Library
The above photo is the non contemporary memorial for Matilda of England. As there are quite a lot of Matildas found in the medieval period in England, I’m going to start by clarifying who I’m talking about. My Matilda, also known as Maud, was the only legitimate surviving child of Henry I of England, and was made his heir.
Matilda is a very prominent figure in 12th century medieval history, and as such a lot has been written about her, so I’m not trying to reinvent the wheel. I will tell Matilda’s story, but in a series of vignettes of the key moments in her life, but I also want to talk about perspective. This question brings me back to the image above. The wording on her tomb, I think, is really interesting. The loose translation is
Here lies Henry’s daughter, wife and mother; great by birth, greater by marriage, but greatest in motherhood.
Matilda daughter of Henry King of England and Duke of Normandy, Wife of Henry Emperor, mother of Henry father of Richard the Lionheart.
The final untranslated section is about the reinterment of her remains in Rouen Cathedral, but I’ll come back to that part later.
The key link to perspective, for me, is that Matilda is defined by her relationship to others. In my short description of her at the beginning of this post, I could find no other way to describe her but as in her role and relationship with others. This was the only way to give context, and it is not lost on me that in doing so I am falling into the same paradigm, as those who wrote the description on her tomb. The inscription was written in the 19th century when her remains were reinterred in the cathedral, but it is believed that the words of the first sentence were commissioned by her son Henry II, on her original tomb. The second sentence has to have been written later as it references her grandson Richard the Lionheart.
Either way, this epitaph shows inescapably how Matilda’s life has been construed by history, as a wife, daughter and mother, not as a ruler in her own right, not in some ways as a person in her own right. This is true of most medieval women who manage to stick their heads above the parapet of history, and actually have some of their story survive the decay of time. In Matilda’s case though, the question of perception extends beyond this, because she is judged in her ability to rule differently to male rulers of her time, both by her contemporaries and by subsequent historians. It is this question of perception, that is at the heart of this series of posts.
If you want to learn more about Matilda, I highly recommend Matilda: Empress, queen warrior by Catherine Hanley. An in depth biography which places Matilda back in the position in history the she should always have occupied, that of a woman with her own skills and power, on the level of male rulers of her time. This book stands in line with other books about medieval women that are coming out now. In the past the paucity of sources has meant that medieval women have very much hovered in the shadows, but as more active work is done to dig them out, their stories are coming back into the light. I’ve just finished an excellent book about the Queens of Jerusalem, which I’ll review later, and I’ve already written a review of the recent book about Joan Lady of Wales, which you can find here.
But to return to Matilda and her story. As I said earlier I am not intending to write an exhaustive account of Matilda’s life.
Matilda was not born with the destiny of being Queen of England. Fairly soon after her own birth in c. 1102, her brother William was born. They were the only two legitimate children of Henry I of England, a king known for having at least 20 illegitimate children. Their mother was Matilda of Scotland, a very pious woman, who was descended from the old Anglo-Saxon kings of England. Matilda of Scotland’s mother Margaret, was the Granddaughter of King Edward Ironside and the sister of Edgar the Aeithling. Edgar was actually elected king after the Battle of Hastings in 1066, but William the Conquerer put paid to that. So Matilda and William were the binding together of both the new and the old royal families. William was known as William the Aethling, an English not Norman term for heir.
From a very young age Matilda was intended for the fate of most royal princesses, marriage to a secure alliances and power for her family. As such, at the age of 8 she was sent to what is now Germany to be the wife of Henry V the Holy Roman Emperor (the second of the Henry’s mentioned), he was 24. While they were formally betrothed and she was crowned queen in 1110 they were not married until 1114 when she reached the canonical age of consent- I’m sure you can do the maths there. In the intervening four years, she was trained in the world of the German court of the Holy Roman Empire, and her role as queen consort. This would have been her life, if not for two factors.
The first was that Henry V died in 1125, leaving Matilda a childless widow- if she’d had a son she might have been able to act as regent. Despite this, she would probably still have remained in Germany if not for the second factor-a disaster that rocked medieval England, the sinking of the White Ship. It was the 900th anniversary of the sinking at the end of last year, so I’ll give you a little background. It was November 1120 and Henry I was sailing back to England from Barfleur, one of the main ports from which to cross the Narrow Sea (today’s it’s more of a fishing village). The White Ship was a magnificent new and shiny ship and (according to contemporary chronicler Oderic Vitalis) its master Thomas FitzStephen approached Henry I, saying his father had carried Henry I’s father (William the Conqueror) to England and I ask you, my lord king, to grant me his fief: I have a vessel which is aptly called the White Ship, excellently fitted out and read for the royal service.
To which Henry was reported as replying Your request meeting with my approval. I have indeed chosen a fine ship for myself and will not change it, but I entrust you my sons William and Richard [Richard was one of the illegitimate ones] whom I love as my own life, and many nobles of my realm. So essentially most of the young nobility sailed on the White Ship, including another illegitimate daughter of Henry I. William the Aethling, allowed the sailors to open the wine in celebration. They decided to to try to overtake the king’s fleet which had already made it to open water, but they were drunk and unlucky and the White Ship struck a rock not far out of the harbour and sank. Some accounts have William the Aethling being put on a boat by his guards, but insisting on going back to rescue his sister, and the small ship was overwhelmed. In the end it is likely that only one person survived, a butcher called Berold who managed to cling to a piece of wood. His cloak was makes of sheep’s wool, so he didn’t die of hypothermia as the more finely dressed nobility did.
When Henry I found out Oderic says, he was overcome with anguish. You can see him depicted mourning the sinking of the ship in the illuminated manuscript of Peter of Langtoft’s Chronicle from the early 14th century.
Henry moved on quickly, because he had to. He married, Matilda of Scotland was long dead, Adeliza of Louvain, who was probably in her 20s. Henry was in his early 50s, but he’d sired many illegitimate children, so it would have been expected that he would have a son with Adeliza. This was another turning point for Matilda, because if a son had been born (Adeliza went on to have a number of children in a later marriage) she would have stayed in Germany. But no son was forthcoming so in 1127 Henry dragged Matilda back to England and forced his barons to swear to accept her as his heir. It’s a testament to his personality that they agreed. William of Malmsbury described the situation as All therefore, in this council, who were considered as persons of any note, took the oath. While all the barons did swear, it is worth noting two men in particular; Robert of Gloucester and Stephen of Blois. They were the greatest landholders in England at the time. Robert was Henry I’s illegitimate son, possibly the oldest of Henry’s illegitimate children, and Stephen was Henry’s nephew. Both would become extremely important to Matilda’s story.
What Henry I was doing, oddly enough, was forcing power upon Matilda. There had never been a queen of England ruling in her own right. There wasn’t even really a word for it. The Anglo Saxon word for queen “cwen’ and the latin word ‘regina’ meant wife of the king. This is what Matilda had been to Henry V, but what Henry I was setting her up as was queen regnant, queen in her own right with the same status as an anointed king.
As Matilda re-enters the story here, her lack of agency is evident. She was not given a choice in going to Germany in the first place, but she would most likely have seen it as home having lived there since she was eight. She in fact styled herself as Empress Matilda for the rest of her life, and her son Henry II was known as Henry FitzEmpress. William of Malmsbury described her position as The empress, as they say, returned with reluctance, as she had become habituated to the country which was her dowry, and had large possessions there.
Matilda, now roughly twenty-five, was brought back to England, and thrust into another completely new world. Henry chose her for a reason, making it very clear, according to William of Malmsbury, that it was Matilda to whom alone the legitimate succession belonged, from her grandfather, uncle, and father, who were kings; as well as from her maternal descent for many ages back: inasmuch as from Egbert, king of the West Saxons, who first subdued or expelled the other kings of the island, in the year of the incarnation 800, through a line of fourteen kings, down to A.D. 1043.
We do not know what Matilda thought about her new position, we know she was at the ceremony and she accepted the position of authority, these were binding oaths, and we know from her subsequent behaviour that she believed fundamentally in her own right to rule. None of the sources talk about her in this ceremony beyond Henry I’s reasons for choosing her. They all focus more on the men who swore to her and the precedence of who swore first. Again Matilda becomes a symbol in her own story.
Even though Henry I had chosen her as his heir no one, expect possibly Matilda, thought she would be able to rule without a husband, preferably to produce a male heir to secure the succession. The choice of husband was fraught though. Firstly, it was unclear how the prospective husband would be king, as the barons had sworn to Matilda, but medieval law, both secular and church, clearly made the woman subject to her husband. What Henry I really wanted was Matilda to marry, produce a male heir and for himself to live long enough for that heir to be old enough to rule.
But first a husband had to be chosen. A foreign marriage risked a foreign lord ruling over the barons, but an English marriage risked raising one baron above all the others, which none of them were really keen on either. In the end Henry I turned to an old alliance. William the Aethling had been married to Fulke of Anjou’s daughter to secure the bottom of the border of Normandy, but that betrothal hadn’t survived the White Ship. Henry still wanted the border secure though and Fulke’s son Geoffrey was of marriageable age. To make him a suitable match for Matilda his father would soon be dispatched off to be King of Jerusalem (by right of marriage to another famous queen Melisende) so Geoffrey could be Count of Anjou. You can see a relatively contemporary image of Geoffrey below.
It is unlikely that Matilda was in favour of the match. She was a widow, one of the only times that a medieval woman held any power in her own right, and Geoffrey was only 13, an untried youth. She was also marrying a Count, when her last husband had been an Emperor. A letter from Hildebert of Lavardin alludes to conflict with her father at this time, saying he wanted to write to her about the will of the king and what the father’s breast was feeling about the offence of the daughter. Roger de Toringi described Henry I as he despatched his daughter, the empress, into France to be married to Geoffrey. It’s fairly clear that Matilda had no choice, but she did acquiesce because they were betrothed in May 1127 where they would have met for the first time. They married in June 1128. She was escorted to her wedding by Robert of Gloucester and Brien FitzCount. Both of whom would become key figures later in Matilda’s story.
As this post is intended to be a collection of vignettes, I’m going to skip forward a little in time. Her marriage to Geoffrey was famously acrimonious, they separated within a year, and they continued to live separately until 1131 when another council was held in England. Both Henry I and Matilda were present and William of Malmsbury described it as the oath of fidelity to her was renewed by such as had already sworn, and also taken by such as hitherto had not. It was also at this council that, according to Henry of Huntingdon, it was determined that the king’s daughter should be restored to her husband, the Count of Anjou, as he demanded. She was accordingly sent, and received with the pomp due to so great a princess. It is worth noting that Huntingdon never refers to Matilda by name, she is either the king’s daughter or the Countess of Anjou, once again defined by her relationship to others.
Matilda did not make her own decision to return to her husband. The reunion worked well enough, they may have both decided that the sooner they had an heir the sooner they could have as little to do with each other as possible, that on the 5th of March 1133 Matilda gave birth to a son, christened Henry. Henry I must have been delighted. He did not manage to fulfil his dream to live long enough to see his grandson grow up as a viable heir to the throne though. Henry I died unexpectedly in 1135. Matilda was in Anjou, she’d had another son christened Geoffrey in 1134 (she almost died giving birth). She didn’t hasten immediately to England for a couple of reasons; it would have taken time for the news to reach her, she was also pregnant again with her third child which made travel difficult, and because after having done everything that was expected of her, after producing two male heirs and after two councils where all the barons of the land and princes of the Church swore to uphold her as heir, she may have reasonably assumed they would keep to their oaths. It was not to be though. Her cousin, Stephen of Blois (remember him from earlier) moved incredibly quickly to steal her throne. Henry died on the 1st of December 1135 and Stephen was crowned on the 22nd of December 1135, with the support of the barons. Once he was crowned he was irrevocably an anointed king. And thus began the period of anarchy described by the Anglo Saxon Chronicle as a time When Christ and His Saints Slept.
I want to pause Matilda’s story, we’ll get back to her response to the usurpation in a moment, to look at Stephen. He was backed by his powerful brother Henry Bishop of Winchester, but William of Malmsbury described him beautifully
He was a man of activity, but imprudent: strenuous in war; of great mind in attempting works of difficulty; mild and compassionate to his enemies, and affable to all. Kind, as far as promise went; but sure to disappoint in its truth and execution. Whence he soon afterwards neglected the advice of his brother, befriended by whose assistance, as I have said, he had supplanted his adversaries and obtained the kingdom.
This would be the pattern of Stephen’s reign, a good man but not a good king.
But we left Matilda in Anjou, pregnant, with her crown stolen. She and Geoffrey were in the process of taking parts of Normandy after Henry I died, and Matilda was probably in Argentan in the south when she found out that her crown was lost. Stephen not only had her crown, he had the treasury of England and while Normandy gave Matilda a starting point, she simply didn’t have the resources to challenge Stephen directly, not with all the barons who had sworn to her supporting him. She couldn’t even style herself at Queen of England, as Stephen’s wife (confusingly also called Matilda) had been crowned Queen. Facing a seemingly unsolvable problem, she could have resigned herself to being Countess of Anjou, and living a reasonably obscure but probably fairly safe and uneventful life. As we will come to see, safe and uneventful were not Maud’s coin of choice.
She did stay quiet for a while, there really wasn’t much she could do while pregnant, and she styled herself as daughter of the King of England and Empress, empress as I said earlier is a title she would continue to use for the rest of her life. There is not a lot known about Matilda in this period, Stephen consolidated his power in England, with the only rebellion being Matilda’s uncle David King of Scotland, which came to nothing.
Stephen’s honeymoon and Matilda’s brush with obscurity was not to last though. Soon the barons began to take advantage of Stephen’s easy-going nature, and to rebel as soon as they saw that there wouldn’t be consequences. Essentially the first rebellion was Baldwin of Exeter, but when Stephen forced him to surrender his castles he not only let Baldwin go free but let the whole garrison go, with no repercussions. Even the pro Stephen chronicle the Gesta Stephani couldn’t manage to make it sound like a sensible decision, the chronicler described it as Stephen “being desirous rather to arrange all things upon an amicable and peaceful footing, than to foster a spirit of discord and disunity.” Although Stephen was ultimately successful in driving Baldwin off, by letting him go he drove him straight to Matilda and Geoffrey, where his arrival was hailed with great joy and Stephen’s gains began to crumble. This was only the middle of 1136, so six months into Stephen’s reign and the cracks were beginning to show.
To return to Matilda though. Baldwin’s dissatisfaction was just the tip of the iceberg. Stephen systematically alienated much of the remaining barony, and rebellions popped up like spot fires across the country. The key defection though was Robert of Gloucester, Matilda’s half brother, one of the most powerful landholders in the country and from 1138 Matilda’s staunchest supporter. More men came over to Matilda’s side, and in 1139 Matilda returned to England for the first time in ten years.
Matilda’s landing in England was due to the support of another woman we have already met. Adeliza of Louvain, her step mother. Adeliza would have been a similar age to Matilda when she married Henry I so that was most likely when they developed a relationship. When Henry I died, Adeliza married William d’Aubigny one of Henry’s advisors and later Earl of Arundel. You can see one of the castles they built, Castle Rising, below.
For Matilda though, Adeliza and William’s key holding was Arundel castle (which Adeliza held in her own right as part of her dower). It is about five miles inland on the south coast of England. Adeliza agreed to let Matilda and her forces land on the 30th of September 1139. Robert departed immediately for his stronghold at Bristol to collect his remaining troops and Matilda remained in Arundel castle, taking the first real steps towards her crown.
The triumph was short lived unfortunately. She had been at Arundel for less than a week when Stephen arrived unexpectedly, with troops. This was a crux point for Matilda. She didn’t have a stronghold in England yet, her supporters were scattered rebellions rather than a directed force, Robert was in Bristol, and Arundel Castle wasn’t hers to command. Adeliza and William were also in a difficult position because William hadn’t renounced his fealty to Stephen. Adeliza played pretty much the only card she had, and played it well. John of Worcester described the situation as
When, however, he [Stephen] learned that the ex-queen had received the ex-empress, with her large band of retainers, at Arundel, he was much displeased, and marched his army thither. But she, being awed by the king’s majesty, and fearing that she might lose the rank she held in England, swore solemnly that no enemy of his had come to England on her invitation; but that, saving her dignity, she had granted hospitality to persons of station, who were formerly attached to her.
Stephen could have taken Matilda at this point, but it would have involved a siege and Robert was in Bristol, and would have come to his sister’s aide, along with her other supporters. Adeliza had put him in a bind as well, because it wasn’t technically illegal for her to have invited her step daughter to Arundel. Stephen as was so often the case throughout his reign, did the honourable thing. He let Matilda go to Robert in Bristol. It seems like an act of lunatic chivalry, and some contemporary chroniclers saw it that way, but none of his options were ideal. Regardless Matilda left Arundel and joined Robert at Bristol. For the first time, in England, in person, on the quest for her crown. Thus the period of anarchy began in earnest, and Stephen probably grew to regret his decision.
And that is where we will leave Matilda for now. Part 2 will cover the years of fighting as Matilda tried to become Queen in her own right, and in the process did actually rule parts of the country.
The Ecclesiastical History of Orderic Vitalis: Volume VI edited and translated by Marjorie Chibnall 1978. Accessed: https://archive.org/details/ecclesiasticalhi0006orde
Letters of Matilda of Scotland: Queen of the English https://epistolae.ctl.columbia.edu/woman/64.html
Letters of Matilda of England, Empress https://epistolae.ctl.columbia.edu/woman/27.html
William of Malmsbury
Robert de Toringi
Henry of Huntingdon
John of Worcester
Peter of Langtoft’s Chronicle image
Geoffrey of Anjou image
Matilda: Empress, queen warrior by Catherine Hanley.
The photos are mine.
This is going to be a slightly different post to usual, as it will not be straight history. I will cover some of the history of the ballroom above Flinders Street Station in Melbourne, Victoria, but I will be telling the story of how I experienced it for the first time (I’ve been trying to get inside for about ten years) as the exhibition space for Patricia Piccinini’s Miracle Constantly Repeated. So this piece will be part history, part personal narrative, and part art exploration. It also ties nicely back to a post I wrote some years ago about art interpreting historical spaces.
But back to the Ballroom. The Flinders Street Ballroom is one of those almost mythical places in cities, that everyone has heard of, and most people have never seen. The sort of place that pops up in newspaper articles every few years or so, with new ideas for its future, or stories of its past. These are the sort of places that strike at the heart of a city’s imagination, kind of like secret tunnels. But unlike most supposed secret tunnels, the Flinders Street Ballroom is very real.
Flinders Street Station has had trains running from roughly the same location since the 1850s, it’s the main station in Melbourne, and ‘meeting under the clocks’ remains a tradition to this day. The current buildings, you can see in the photos below, were the result of a design competition and were completed in 1910.
The Ballroom was not part of the original plan and was added during construction because of the creation of the Victorian Railway Institute. The VRI was founded in 1910 with the aim of promoting the intellectual, social and physical well-being of the members- who were largely railway staff. They still exist actually, though they have expanded beyond railway workers. The ballroom was originally the VRI’s lecture hall, and the other rooms housed, a gym with a boxing ring, a lending library which took books to members by train, and education classes at night. It was a similar concept to Mechanics’ Institutes, you can read more about MIs here. You can see members of the VRI in the then lecture hall in the photo below from the State Library of Victoria.
Much of the original lecture hall can still be seen today in the remaining fabric of the Ballroom. And you can see the activities of the VRI still reflected in the surrounding rooms. The message you can see scrawled on the wall in the final photo below, though, is thought to date to the late 1960s, once the upper floors had already begun to fall into disrepair.
By the early 1900s the lecture hall had become a ballroom, you can see an image of it all decked out in bunting from roughly the 1930s from Victorian Railways Corporation records, held at PROV, below.
By the 1950s, the dances there were so popular a mezzanine had to be added to accomodate more people. The balls always finished by midnight so everyone could catch the last train home.
By the 1970s the rooms began to fall into disuse, the last dance in the ballroom was held in 1983. It wasn’t until 1985 that the public use of the ballroom and surrounding rooms pretty much ceased completely. Every ten years or so another announcement of refurbishment pops up, there’s been ideas of locating the Melbourne City Library on the third floor (an idea I’d be in favour of as they badly need the space), of reopening the Ballroom as a ballroom, or running a school up there, along with many other concepts, none of which have come to fruition. The Andrews Government began restoring the whole Flinders Street Complex in 2015, including removing 10 tonnes of pigeon poo from the dome. The Ballroom is part of this redevelopment, but what it will be used for in the future remains very much up in the air. You can see some of development of the Ballroom (and the rest of the station) in the video below.
While the future of the use of the Ballroom remains uncertain, it has been open to the public occasionally. Either for Open House Melbourne (which ran on a ballot system which I was sadly never lucky enough to be successful in) or for artists to work in. This included the recent Rising Festival, which is where my journey into the Ballroom begins, and where we step away a little from the history and into the world of art.
As I said at the beginning, I’ve been trying to get into the Ballroom for about ten years, it’s just one of the those places that light up my imagination, and my desire to explore odd historical places (kind of the point of this blog). So when it was announced that Rising would be opening the Ballroom, I couldn’t get a ticket fast enough. Then, as has been a familiar story across the world, COVID reared its head again, forcing Melbourne into a two week lockdown, and effectively cancelling the festival, which was devastating to all involved. There was one bright light though. Miracle Constantly Repeated was being held inside in a space that wasn’t being used for anything else, so Rising managed to extend its run. And lucky enough for me restrictions lifted the day before I had my ticket. So I was one of the first groups to experience Patricia Piccinini’s extraordinary installation, in the endlessly fascinating Flinders’ Street Ballroom and surrounding rooms. For me the exploration of both the installation and the third floor rooms was a linear experience, so I thought I’d recreate it. There is just so much layered history in the rooms, that you’ll find a lot of pressed metal photography, and small corners where the origins of the stripped back rooms are poking their heads through. I hope you find it interesting, and it can give you a taste of the transcendental experience of the combination of the installations and the palpable sense of History that hangs over it all.
My journey began with the entrance to the stairs that lead you above.
I really didn’t have a clear idea of what I would find as I began the three story climb, even the stairs show a building that has lived a complex life.
Until ultimately you reach the top, and a corridor that seems to run into the horizon.
Piccinini’s installations are in the rooms along the corridor in both directions, culminating in the the full installation in the Ballroom, which really has to be seen to be believed.
As I wandered amongst their wonder, I was also exploring the building, finding the small places where time (and builders) had pulled back layers. But also looking at Melbourne literally from a new perspective.
There is also a lot of very lovely pressed metal, walls and ceilings, and I may have got slightly too excited about it, so I thought that rather than including them along the journey, I’d just do an overview.
Piccinini’s works is an exploration of nature and the urban environment, of a hybridisation between inanimate object and nature, with objects taking on natural characteristics, or nature adapting to more mechanisation, of chimeras’s who fit in both worlds and how humans find a place. But it is more than this too, she looks at elevating the notion of kindness and caring, for other humans and for the environment, of evolution and change. She creates odd creatures, that challenge how we see ourselves, she creates forests of flowering organs that tell stories of the future and the past, of rituals and ecology. She also has what has to be my favourite line for an exhibition description that “big sculptures don’t just have to be about important men in hats on horseback”.
It’s one of those exhibitions that you really need to see in person to appreciate, especially the way she has worked with the building. Everything I’ve said and will say is my own interpretation, based on the guides provided. You could view her work and experience something totally different, and that’s what I love most about art. We are seeing the expressions of someone else’s thoughts, but the pieces become our own as well, as we view them through the lens of all our own beliefs, and concepts of the world. I’m not going to include the whole installation, because if you have the chance you really should go and see it, but this should give you an idea.
You begin your journey with Diorama, an art with historic links that blurs the line between realism and the artificial.
We then move through to Sapling, where the concept of a tree’s personhood and sentience is explored.
In the same room as Sapling are the Shoeforms, which epitomise Piccinini’s concept of naturalised technology.
In a room further along you’ll find The Couple based around the central conceit of Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, in this case what would have happened if Frankenstein loved the creature he created. It’s essentially a meditation on the importance of empathy and caring. I especially loved that Piccinini created the whole room around her ‘couple’ and how it felt incredibly lived in, with the aesthetic of the old building.
The following room was my favourite, ballroom aside. Celestial Field is mesmerising, the human and natural border are collapsing as flowers, like organs, grow and hang from the ceiling and in the middle is The Balance- the naturalisation of mechanisation, as two mechanical forms reach for each other.
I also shot a short video, just to give a real feel for the atmosphere Piccinini creates.
We move along to No Fear of Depths the aforementioned large sculpture of caring.
Probably my favourite of Piccinini’s individual works came next ‘The Supporter’ the idea of a natural environemnt growing out of an urban one, and a sybiotic relationship where humans, nature and the urban world, all sort of hold eachother together.
And finally we culminate in the Ballroom, which honestly I’m not going to try to describe, as the pictures speak for themselves.
As truly miraculous as Piccinini’s A Miricale Constantly Repeated is, the small parts of the building that speak with her work, the old bones that you can see, the small stories- which is kind of what this blog is about- matter to me as much, so I wanted to finish with those.
All the photos and videos are mine- unless attributed elsewhere in the post.
There are still tickets left to A Miracle Constantly Repeated- if you’re in Melbourne, I highly recommend you go
When thinking about what to write about today, I was looking at some of my recents posts, book reviews, castles and abbeys for the most part. So I thought, maybe I could write about a person? I hadn’t done a biography in a while, so I had a look at my books and my photos, photos are always a key decision maker when it comes to Historical Ragbag posts, and couldn’t decide on anyone. Therefore I had a look at some of my draft posts, things I’d either started writing about and didn’t finish, or posts that never got further than a heading. I came across one mysteriously titled, 13th century tiles, with nothing but the heading. I have written about medieval tiles before in the context of longer posts: Strata Florida Abbey in Wales and Mellifont Abbey in Ireland. Both have lovely examples of medieval tiles. You can see the posts in the links below
So what had been my original intention been in titling a post 13th century tiles? I’m not 100% sure, but regardless I decided that writing about medieval tiles a little more generally could be fun, and give me an excuse to visit the State Library for some books. So hence, this post was born. I hope you find it interesting. This is by no means an exhaustive exploration of medieval tiles, but it should be (I hope) a nice overall look at them, their purpose, how they were made, as well as lots of photos of course. I’ve deliberately changed the name to medieval tiles because I want to look beyond the 13th century.
As medieval tiles were floor coverings not that many survive in tact, undamaged, or in their original positions. This just makes the ones that have survived all the more precious.
To begin though, I said Historical Ragbag is about photos, hence here’s my favourite of my photos of a medieval tile
This tile is from Mellifont Abbey in Ireland, probably dates to the early 13th century and was excavated in the 1950s. It’s my favourite for two reasons, firstly the lion rampant design is still so clearly evident and secondly because I was allowed to hold it. It is surprisingly heavy, and made from earthenware with a lead glaze. It’s not the only medieval tile at Mellifont, you can see more in the photos below. As they were excavated in the 1950s they aren’t in their original positions, and while they have been laid out close to their original patterns, they are in a protected area because there was an issue with vandalism.
You’ll find common patterns across most medieval tiles. The ones at Mellifont encompass roughly 25 common designs. It is, though, the only place in Ireland where a lion and a griffin in a circle has been found.
Mellifont is a Cistercian abbey, the oldest in Ireland, and the introduction of tiles there in the 1230s is most likely due to the increasing Anglo Norman influence on Irish religious institutions. The tiles there are lovely, but they are not unusual in terms of medieval tiles more generally.
This brings me to the making of the tiles. It was first thought that they were made by the monks, but most likely they were made by laymen. Originally if you wanted a tile pavement for your religious institution, you’d pay a tiler who would set up on your land and make your tiles, as time went on and more tiles were needed commercial tileries were established. Definitely by the 14th century commercial tileries were the norm. They often stayed local though, and it wasn’t until the mid 14th century that importing tiles was more common. The commercial tileries were high quality, but the designs were more generic. So how were they actually made? A tile kiln was most likely two parallel chambers separated by a spine wall, with a furnace. The kiln was usually built of tiles as well. You can see a hypothetical tile kiln the in the image below- it is from the book Irish Medieval Tiles. The materials the tiles were made from was largely dependant on the soil in the local area. The glazes used for the patterns were lead, and the tiles were most likely fired at 1000 degrees centigrade.
Physical manufacture was only part of the process. The designs of the tiles, either in pattern or layout, was also incredibly important. The tiles would have been coloured, with yellow, green and white glazes being common. The local availability of material could also affect the colour choice. I’m going to run quickly through the main overall design types. I don’t have photographic examples that I can say are definitely correct to a type, so I’m afraid we’ll have to rely on description.
Plain Tile Mosaics: Essentially tiles that were glazed a single colour, without a design, of different shapes and arranged in a pattern.
Two Colour Decoration: A single colour tile with a design impressed on it with another colour, usually done with white clay.
Two Colour Mosacis: When the two colour principle was applied to different shapes to create a mosaic.
Two Colour Square Tiles: More complicated designs, where the design was the point of the tile, not the overall mosaic. These designs were usually figural, heraldic shields, lions, griffins and dragons, sometimes a national symbol.
Line Impression Decoration: These designs were incised into the tiles.
Line Impressed Mosaics: The designs were incised, but intended to be part of a broader mosaic pattern- often irregularly shaped.
Line Impressed Square Tiles: Designs incised into square tiles.
Relief Decoration: The design is impressed with a stamp.
Relief Decorated Mosaic: Stamped designs on tiles intended to be a mosaic.
Relief Decorated Square Tiles: Stamped designs on square tiles.
You can see some of the different colours and typical designs in the collection collated at St Augustine’s Abbey in Canterbury below.
As time went on and the manufacture of tiles was more commercialised the designs on the tiles did become generic, but they would originally have had a figurative power beyond simply being beautiful. In theory the more ascetic monasteries, such as the Cistercians, kept the designs simpler but even in these cases symbolism can be found. Religious motifs were common, with allusions to the Virgin Mary, or a fish on an oval ground, a lily for the annunciation, the Lamb of God for the Templars, or Catherine Wheels for St Catherine. There were also pagan symbols, you find these in a lot of church carvings too, especially the Green Man and lions’ faces. These more figurative tile designs, like a lot of church art work, would have helped to convey the stories of religion and medieval life more generally to a largely illiterate population. Aside from the figurative, coats of arms were also popular along with other heraldric devices. These could indicate a patron of the institution, or a local family.
An excellent example of a mixture of the more generic imported tiles, with still some local influence, is Strata Florida in Wales. These have some really interesting patterns. They are most likely 14th century and were uncovered in the 1880s. They have heraldic images, the arms of Hugh Despenser, the Fleur de Lis of France which may be a nod to the Abbey’s mother house in Clairveaux, as well as a few allegorical designs. You can see them in the photos below.
As you can see they are a mixture of some impression designs and some probably either stamped or painted designs. These particular tiles became a tourist attraction at the end of the 19th century and unfortunately some were souvenired. They are now kept under a roofed area for protection from the elements, but would have originally been laid in the main part of the Abbey and tradition is that only important guests and choir monks were allowed to walk on them. They were made in England and imported which might explain the presence of Hugh Despenser’s arms (you can see the shield in the top right of the second photo) as he was reviled by the Welsh.
Now, I promised pictures, so I wanted to move on to some examples of medieval tiles outside of Mellifont and Strata Florida. Hopefully they’ll give you an idea of some of the different uses of medieval tiles, and their geographic range. The selection is limited to tiles I have photographs of, but they should give you a good overview.
St Dogmael’s in Wales.
The tiles here are out in the elements and incredibly worn, you can see the impact that being a ground cover can have.
The Franciscan Friary in Waterford Ireland
Like St Dogmael’s these tiles exhibit the wear that medieval tiles are subjected to, but you can make out the remains of some inscribed designs.
A Pavement laid out in the Musee de Cluny- the middle ages museum- in Pairs.
This pavement dates to the end of the 13th century, is of two coloured tiles, with a mosaic border and you can see the heraldic Fleur de Lis as well.
Westminster Abbey is home to the Cosmati Pavement, an unparalleled work of inlaid stone from the mid 13th century. It stands at the high altar and you aren’t allowed to take photos inside the abbey, but you can see it at this link https://www.westminster-abbey.org/about-the-abbey/history/cosmati-pavement . The photo below is from the near the Chapter House, where you are allowed to take photos, and showcases some beautiful designs.
Winchester Cathedral in England
The tiles in Winchester are mainly 13th century and give you an incredible example of the sheer scale of some of these pavements in large religious institutions. They are the oldest area of medieval tiles to survive in England, and you’re still allowed to walk on them!
I wanted to finish the tour with a couple of anomolies, or different ways of covering the floor in medieval religious institions. The first Sainte Chapelle in Paris, the jewell box of a church that Louis IX of France had built to house the holy relics he collected. As you can see the floor is painted, the church dates to the mid thirteenth century.
Secondly, I wanted to look quickly at Chartes and its labyrinth. A subject I will return to in much more detail at a later point. Chartres Cathedral has a labyrinth inlaid into its floor. It most likely dates to the beginning of the 13th century, like a lot of our floor tiles, its exact purpose has never been clear, but pilgrims continue to come to walk its meditative meanderings.
So that brings us to the end of our exploration of medieval tiles. They were first and foremost floor coverings, but they were also beautiful, hand made and told their own stories. The ones that survive are in varied states of repair, but they can give you an idea of how truly majestic these pavements would have been.
Medieval Floor Tiles by Jane A Wight
Irish Medieval Tiles by Elizabeth Eames and Thomas Fanning
Medieval Tiles: A handbook by Elizabeth Eames
The photos are all mine.
I enjoyed writing my first real book review on this blog (Joan: Lady of Wales) so I thought I’d branch out into a different area of history and write another. Also, there hasn’t been much Australian history on Historical Ragbag for a while and Vida Goldstein is always a good place to start. Vida is someone who should be much better known worldwide, a leading suffragist (they’re different to suffragettes), first woman to stand for national parliament anywhere in the Western world, rousing speaker, peace campaigner through World War I and life long advocate for social justice. She has been quite unfairly relegated to the shadows of history. Jacquline Kent’s book works to change that.
I have written about Vida before. In fact I first came across her in year eleven when I was allowed to pick any topic of Australian history and I chose the Australian suffragists. Then when I saw the movie Suffragette in 2015 I decided Vida needed her own blog post. So you can find out more about her in the link below
This is primarily a book review though and, while I’d love the chance to talk more about Vida herself, I should return to the book.
I devoured this book. What Kent does so well is explores Vida’s life as a whole, rather than focussing on her suffrage work, or her war work, or her education work, or her tilts at parliament. She situates her firmly in the narrative of her time, a time of intense change and upheaval. Kent also follows Vida through to her later life (she died in 1949) putting this remarkable woman firmly back on centre stage where she should be. Kent draws parallels with the experiences of modern day female politicians, especially Julia Gillard, which really drives home the message of how much work there still is to be done, but also how much we can learn from Vida and her experiences.
But to go back to the beginning, Kent’s book is largely chronological, the first thing I learnt is that I’ve been pronouncing Vida’s name wrong. I’d been saying Veeda Goldsteen where as Vida herself pronounced it with Viida (as in with a long I) Goldstine (again the long I). I’ve been correcting myself in my head ever since.
Kent does tell Vida’s story chronologically for the most part. Though the book begins with a prologue of sorts, exploring the most iconic image of Vida (see below)
Kent starts the narrative proper with Vida’s family history. It’s when Vida and her family relocate to Melbourne, however, that you really start getting the sense of Vida as a person. The picture Kent paints is of a woman dedicated to her ideals, sometimes to her own detriment (for example her complete refusal to join a political party limited her likelihood of being elected- though it is a position I very much sympathise with), a tireless advocate and champion for social justice, who always worked quietly (as in never violently) but incredibly persistently. She never gave up and was deservedly famous in her own time, especially with her campaigns to be elected to parliament. For her first attempt in 1903 she toured regional Victoria for two months speaking in country towns all over the state, speeches the local newspapers covered in great detail. In fact some of the commentary would be familiar to current female politicians too. The Avoca Times reported “Miss Goldstein presented a very pleasing appearance on the platform at Avoca. She was graceful, pretilly gowned and wore a most becoming hat.“
At this point Victorian women could not vote in state elections, but they could vote federally and run for parliament. Vida campaigned hard and as an independent candidate she received 51 497 votes for the Senate, about half of that of the top polling male candidate. She remained philosophical though and would go on to run for parliament (in various different areas) a further four times. She was never successful, but she succeeded in having her issues heard and paved the way for future female parliamentarians. It is fitting that an electorate is named after her (even if it is a now a bluechip Liberal seat that has only ever been held by a man).
What Kent does best in Vida: A woman for our time is to place Vida in the context of her own time. This is in many ways what I found most interesting, as it tells Vida’s story more broadly. It also means you learn a lot about Australia’s early history before the historical narrative gets hijacked by World War I as Australia’s foundation story. As I already knew a little about her role in politics, I was absolutely fascinated with her role in the anti-conscription and peace movement in WWI and the extent of the movement itself. Vida helped set up the Australian Peace Alliance in the midst of war frenzy, aiming to bring together all the disparate groups advocating for peace, including Trades Hall, quite a few unions, the Quakers and the Free Religious Fellowship. The fight for peace was, obviously, not ultimately successful, but the movements did manage to see off the conscription referendum, though the fight got quite nasty at times. This era is something I might come back and explore in a later post. Vida was at the forefront of so many movements, and her persistence (as well as the hard work of a lot of other people-which Kent very much acknowledges) was the core of her often successful activities.
Kent not only places Vida in the context of her times, but also in the context of her family. Vida was a very much a product of her upbringing and the support of her family. Her family is also the source of fascinating Melbourne history sidetracks. Her sister Elsie, for example, was married to the somewhat eccentric activist Henry Howard Champion and they ran the fabulously named Book Lovers Library, which was a Melbourne institution until 1936. This also sent me down the rabbit hole of the Book Lovers Library and other early libraries in Melbourne, which seeing as I work for one was really very interesting.
In her later years Vida became an adherent of the Christian Science Movement and withdrew more from public life, when she died at the age of 80 on the 15th of August 1949 she’s didn’t leave much of a financial or material legacy. Her legacy as a trailblazer and advocate was infinitely more important.
This is by no means a full account of Vida’s life. For that you’ll need to read the book. Essentially, in Vida: A woman for our time what Kent does is brings Vida’s whole story into the light. Kent highlights her role in the rapidly changing society, the context of her family, her activism and worldwide recognition (including a very popular US speaking tour). Kent does this at the same time as contextualising what Vida’s struggles mean for us today, and exploring several fascinating and not well known enough areas of Australian history. She brings Vida out of the shadows and places her back in the broader narrative of Australian history- right where she belongs.
Vida: A woman for our time by Jacqueline Kent can be found at:
you can also loan it from the PMI Victorian History Library
And most likely your local public library.
Vida Goldstein image State Library of Victoria
There are a lot of castles in Wales. Of all the places I’ve been in the UK, for not that big a country Wales has more castles than pretty much anywhere else. This is partly because it was subdued by the English at the height of large castles being used for military oppression and domination. Edward I’s conquest of Wales in the late 13th century, led to the extraordinary (but also incredibly in your face reminders of domination and suppression) castles like Caernarfon, Beaumaris and Conwy. These were statements of English power on Welsh soil. They were deliberately built in places of significance to the Welsh, to enforce English rule and as a way of destroying Welsh identity and heritage. You can see all three below.
I have written about all three castle before and more information can be found here:
The incursions of the English in the south of Wales and the development of the lordships in the Welsh Marches led to even older castles like Chepstow, which dates to the 11th century, and more ‘modern’ late 13th century castles like Caerphilly. You can see both Chepstow and Caerphilly below.
These were English (Norman French) lords building their own dominance onto the landscape, as they carved out their own lordships, and influence.
Again I’ve written about Chepstow and Caerphilly before
These are only a fraction of the 600 castles you’ll find in Wales. I’ve written about others before so have a rummage around the rest of the blog, and see what you can find. I’ve also added some other websites to explore in the references if you want to know more.
It is fitting that the majority of castles found in Wales today are run by Cadw, the Welsh heritage authority, and over the years the Welsh have certainly added to, over run and controlled many non Welsh built castles. For example Owain Glyndwr took Aberystwyth Castle in 1404, though he didn’t hold it for that long. You can see some of what’s left of Aberystwyth Castle in the photo below.
The Welsh also built their own castles. There are fewer of these that are purely Welsh, and I wanted to focus on two, both in North Wales and built by Welsh princes. Dolwyddelan and Dolbadarn. They don’t have the scale of some of the more dramatic castles, but they are definitively Welsh built, and each has their own story to tell. I have written about both before as part of my advent calendar of castles, but this post will examine them in a bit more detail.
So to begin: Dolwyddelan.
Dolwyddelan castle stands imposingly on a hill guarding the Lledr Valley. It stands on a private farm, but it is open to the public. It was most likely built by Llywelyn the Great Prince of Gwynedd (North Wales) in roughly 1200 CE, there is not a lot of surviving early evidence. There is a local tradition that that Llywelyn was born in the castle, but other locations are more likely. Llywelyn was the Welsh Prince who came closest to ruling over all of Wales after the arrival of the Anglo-Normans. Unfortunately his triumph was predominantly personal and Wales was largely conquered by Edward I little more that forty years after Llywelyn’s death. You can find out more about Llywelyn here, he was married to Joan of Wales the illegitimate daughter of King John, and you can find out more about her here.
But to return to Dolwyddelan itself. The castle was part of Llywelyn’s ring of castles to protect the passes through the mountains. It was built in the English style, though what you see now has been added to. The original keep was two stories and the third story and the wall walk were added later, possibly by Edward I.
There is also the remains of a second tower at Dolwyddelan, which again was most likely built by Edward I. There would have been a curtain wall between the two towers.
The battlements and the wall walk were rebuilt later under Lord Willoughby de Eresby. The castle came into his hands as a ruin in 1848. You can see the battlements and the wall walk in the photos below.
But that is the end of Dolwyddelan’s story. Let’s go back a little bit and find out more about the beginning. The castle very much commands the high ground
Dolwyddelan Castle stands near Dolwyddelan village. There is debate as to whether there was a settlement on this site before the castle was there, or if the castle gave rise to the settlement. There is also discussion about the meaning of the name. It most likely comes from Dol meaning meadow and Gwyddelan which meant little Irishman and refers to an Irish missionary who came over and preached Christianity in the area in roughly 600 CE.
Dolwyddelan was never a castle that was used for domination or attack, its primary purpose was to guard the ancient road from Conwy to Ardudwy and to protect the nearby summer cattle pastures. It was also a statement of Welsh authority, that Llywelyn was master of this wild landscape. Ironically, for a castle built by Llywelyn the Great and intended as a defence against the Anglo-Normans, the first we really see of Dolwyddelan playing a role, as far as records are concerned, is when it was taken by Edward I in January 1283. By taking the castle Edward I cut off communications and defences from the south. Edward I garrisoned it with his own men, who were camouflaged by dressing in white, and then gave command to a local loyal Welshman Griffith ap Tudor, he was later appointed constable for life. Edward I strengthened the castle, and little else is known of it, until it was sold in 1488 to Maredudd ap Ieuan and it stayed in his family. By 1848 it was a ruin and came into the hands of de Eresby.
Like other Welsh built castles Dolwyddelan isn’t elegant, it’s a functional keep built for a specific purpose, it is very much of the landscape.
The other Welsh castle I wanted to examine, is part of the same protective ring as Dolwyddelan. Dolbadarn Castle.
Like Dolwyddelan, Dolbadarn commands an ancient mountain pass. In this case the Llanberis pass, as well as two other passes through Snowdonia. The landscape you see around Dolbadarn now is drastically altered by mining in the area
But there are remnants of oak groves, that give you an idea of what the natural environment may have been like when the castle was first built.
The round keep at Dolbadarn was built in roughly 1230, again most likely by Llywelyn the Great. The striking round keep had a first floor entrance that would have originally been reached by timber stairs, you can see the beam holes for the two main floor levels, and both of the main chambers have fire places. The basement would probably have been reached by a ladder, but the upper floor and the roof had a spiral staircase that reversed its spiral half way up. The style was probably modelled on Marcher castles that Llywelyn would have seen in the south. You can see the remains of the interior of the keep in the photos below
The keep didn’t stand alone though. There were several buildings surrounding it, interestingly some of which were built of stone as there are surviving remains, outbuildings were usually wooden. These may have been a defensive tower, a great hall and a curtain wall. Some of which were probably added by Llywelyn the Last.
Dolbadarn actually played a key role in a couple of parts in Welsh history. It is most likely the castle where Llywelyn the Last held his brother Owain captive for more than twenty years from c. 1255 until Llywelyn was defeated by Edward I in 1282. Dolbadarn continued to play a role in Welsh history even after Llywelyn’s death. His younger brother Dafydd attempted to keep fighting the English, unsuccessfully. He probably issued his last documents as Prince of North Wales and Lord of Snowdon from Dolbadarn in 1283. He was captured soon afterwards and was taken to Shrewsbury where he was arguably the first man to be hanged drawn and quartered.
Edward I took over Dolbadarn, but made few changes. He refortified it, but didn’t expand it. Dolbadarn largely passes out of history, as it was slowly let to fall to ruin. There is some evidence that Owain Glyndwr held prisoners in the keep in the 15th century.
So that brings us to the end of the story of Dolwyddelan and Dolbadarn. Both Welsh built castles, part of a ring to protect Wales from the Anglo-Normans. Although they ultimately failed in the purpose, they still stand sentinel over the landscape they are so much a part of. A testimony to the history of Wales.
Site visits 2012
Wales Castles and Historic places: 9781850130307
Castles in wales: 9781847710314
The Kings and Queens of Wales 978144560958
Medieval Wales 97805213115333
I’ve actually never written a book review on this blog before. I’ve done book previews of books I already own, but never an actual review. My book previews are more a look at whatever the book is about, essentially a preview of the contents and a chat about whatever the book is talking about. Joan Lady of Wales by Danna R. Messer has enticed me to branch out.
First a little background, Joan has been one of my favourite medieval figures since I first read Here Be Dragons by Sharon Penman probably about fifteen years ago. It was written in 1991 and, while still an incredible book, some more history has been unearthed since it was written, especially about how many children Joan had.
Joan was the illegitimate daughter of King John of England and married Llywelyn Fawr Prince of Gwynedd in North Wales, and (arguably) eventually Lord of most of Wales by the time he died. I have written about Joan and Llywelyn before. Though I will extend my post on Joan at some point, having now finished Joan Lady of Wales which is the first biography every written about her.
You can read my post about Joan here:
And Llweyln here:
And below you can see Joan’s possible effigy
To return to the book though.
Messer takes a very interesting approach to writing a biography, one that is largely necessitated by the paucity of sources surrounding Joan, she makes use of a great deal speculation. This is not a criticism. One of the reasons I didn’t go into academic history, and why I find popular history sometimes frustrating, is because of the lack of nuance in discussing historical detail. Too often history is presented as blanket fact, and this is often the ‘fact’ heralded by the dominant narrative, which in Western history is usually, not always, white, wealthy, western and male and quite often militaristic.
In this blog you might have noticed that I use ‘arguably’ a lot. What I’m trying to do is tell interesting historical stories, often of the smaller parts of history, but I want to keep in the forefront of people’s minds that what I’m saying is arguable, that there is more than one perspective.
This is true of most history, that there are always multiple sides and the closest we can come to an understanding of an issue in the past is to recognise that it is made up of a multiplicity of views, opinions and versions and that parts of all of them are probably true. So when you are trying to tell the story of a medieval woman, even one as prominent in her time as Joan of Wales, you are relying largely on male monastic sources, which tend to relegate women to the shadows. Therefore Messer’s book draws on the context of the role of medieval women of Joan’s time, through laws and through other examples to explore what Joan’s role most likely was even if we do not have explicit contemporary fact to back it all up.
Messer does tell the story of Joan’s life, as much as it can be told. This book has been a twenty year project for Messer and it’s clear when you look at the references that she has found every mention of Joan than can be found. Joan’s story is one of what we would now see as a high level diplomat, maintaining ties between her adopted homeland of her husband’s Wales and her father and later brother’s world of Plantagenet England. For her whole marriage she was the key peacemaking, negotiating force between the two countries and this is the story that Messer presents. She makes clear that she does not wish to either overstate or understate Joan’s importance. She positions her, using the sources available, in the known roles of medieval queenship, Welsh marriage laws, Welsh law more generally and the role of women in the society at the time as much as it is understood.
An excellent example of the way Messer has written the book is her discussion about Joan’s mother. There has never been agreement as to who Joan’s mother was. There are a number of candidates, but all that is really known is that her name was probably Clemencia, and this comes from Joan’s own obituary in the Teweksbury annals where Joan is described as the daughter of King John and Queen Clemencia. Messer provides a fascinating and detailed analysis of what the term ‘queen’ meant in this context. Messer then goes on to examine all the likely candidates for the role of Joan’s mother, whilst never specifically naming one as definite. This is the sort of nuance that is found throughout the book.
Joan’s story is told mainly chronologically, though the book jumps around a bit as it explores tangents such a law, and marriage and the role of women in Wales, as well as the men who were writ large in Joan’s life. In the sources she is, wife, daughter, mother, and queen and much of the discussion of her life revolves around her in these roles. As her narrative is so much tied to Llweyln’s it is unsurprising that much of structure of the book comes from his rises and falls, and his attempts to be lord of a unified Wales. This context is as necessary as the examination of royal medieval women and their roles, to understand the life Joan possibly led.
As Messer discusses, however, it is likely (note the speculation) that Joan’s role was more than a mediator and she was probably involved in the decision making, not just defending or trying to mediate decisions made by her husband, or her father. She wasn’t a passive participant. While there is little documentary evidence of her involvement, as I said the primary sources aren’t extensive, Messer extrapolates from documents like the marriage agreement between Joan and Llweyln’s daughter Elen and John the Scott, heir to the earldom of Chester. Their marriage agreement survives and makes it clear that Joan was involved in granting lands that belonged to her personally as part of the agreement. They were English lands so Llweyln didn’t have to have her permission to pass them on to her daughter, but the fact that she is listed as independently confirming the grant, not only shows her intimate involvement in arranging her daughter’s marriage, but also her likely involvement in the management of her own lands.
Another key factor that Messer discusses with incredible depth is the story that has probably most stuck to Joan, often through local legend and English sources as the Welsh sources are actually fairly quiet on it, her affair with William de Braose. Messer goes into immense detail, about the probability of the affair occurring, the probability of Joan’s subsequent twelve month confinement and how the whole situation would have been read under Welsh law. She looks at the different interpretations possible from the sources and like the rest of the book presents an extremely nuanced if not conclusive examination of the affair, and Joan’s return to public life afterwards.
The highlight of the book for me was actually towards the end, when Messer produces the only letter that has survived that was actually written by Joan. I’ve read a reasonable amount about Joan, but I hadn’t realised that there were any of her letters surviving. I was quite excited
To her most excellent lord and dearest brother, Henry, by the Grace of God, King of England, Lord of Ireland, Duke of Normandy and Aquitaine, Count of Anjou, the Lady of Wales sends her own greetings.
Know, lord, that I am grieved beyond measure, that I can by no means express, that our enemies have succeeded in sowing discord between my husband and you. I grieve no less on account of you than of my husband, especially since I know what genuine fondness my husband used to have, and still has, for you, and how useless and dangerous it is for us, with due respect, to lose true friends and have enemies instead. Thus on bended knee and shedding of tears, I beg your highness to alter your decision, as you may easily do, and do not fail to be reconciled to those who are joined to you by an unbreakable bond and learn both to love friends and oppress enemies. With regard to this, lord, you may know how some have wrongly suggested to you that you should not trust Instructus, your clerk and my lord’, in whom I do not believe you could have a more faithful clerk in England, may God help me. For this reason, he is no less faithful to you if he is faithfully carrying out the business of his lord, because he behaves in the same way carrying out your affairs in the presence of his master; neither you nor anyone would rely on him if he handles the business of his master in a half-hearted or careless manner. Therefore if you wish to have confidence in me for anything else, put your faith in me for this. Farewell.
Messer unpacks the detail of this letter, written in roughly 1230, which I’m not going to do here, but it does incapsulate the context of the role that Joan would have played throughout her life.
The book is also immensely readable, even when delving into the nitty gritty of Welsh marriage law. When dealing with a subject that needs as much contextualising as Joan’s life, this is a real achievement. It also has an excellent index, something I always appreciate.
I’m not saying Joan Lady of Wales is perfect, but in placing Joan in her rightful place in history with as much nuance as possible it is a fascinating and I think important work.
I have not set out to tell the story of Joan’s life in this review, Messer has done this much better than I can manage, but if you want to know more I’d highly recommend reading the book.
On a final note, I’m Australian so was originally stymied on how to obtain a copy of the book. However after talking to the publisher, Pen and Sword, they do actually ship to Australia and it turned up in less than a month which was great.
The photos are mine.
I’ve been mainly focusing on medieval England, Ireland and France recently, so I thought it was time medieval Norway got a look in. So I decided I’d write about Bergen and the castle there, known as Hakon’s Hall. Now I need to begin with a slight disclaimer, some of my photos of the Hall will have date stamps, this was due to a malfunction with my camera at the time. I can crop them out, but then you lose part of the photo so in this case I decided to leave them in. Also I was pretty much standing in puddles (it was very wet) to take some of the exterior shots, so there is the odd water droplet.
This post will predominantly be about Hakon’s Hall, but I did want to talk a little about Bergen as well,. Mainly as an excuse to use my photos of the old town and the ones from the top of the mountain, and because context is always good.
Bergen is the second largest city in Norway. It was founded in 1070 by King Olaf III Haraldsson. In the 12th and 13th centuries it was a the de-facto capital of Norway. It was the central residence and gathering point for the king and his assembly and was most likely the key administrative hub of the kingdom as well. Additionally it was, and still is, a major trading centre. In the 1300s it was possibly the largest town in Scandinavia with a population of 10 000. As a site of royal residence it was also of immense political importance, but I will return to the royal connections when I look at Hakon’s hall more closely.
From a trading perspective Bergen became an even more important port when the Hanseatic League of German merchants acquired control of the trade in Bergen in the 14th century, they continued this hold until the 17th century. The old town of Bergen, called Byrggen, is Unesco World Heritage listed. It was listed in 1979 as an important example of a trading centre going back to the 14th century and as a centre for the Hanseatic League. The Hanseatic League was essentially a cabal of Germanic merchants who cooperated across seven countries and nearly 200 cities to control large areas of trade from roughly the 14th century until the 17th century. Bergen was one of the key ports in this network. Although fire has destroyed much of Byrggen over the years, it has been restored using traditional methods, so the integrity of the old town remains, giving a fascinating visual window into how Bergen would have looked and operated centuries before. The buildings are all built from pine, and continue to be restored today with traditional methods and tools. In the early 2000s the repair work on just two buildings used 3500-4000 board meters of pine, which is sourced from local forests. There are roughly 62 buildings remaining in Byrggen, and looking after them is an ongoing conservation process. The Byrggen you see today, stems from a large fire in 1702. You can see how the buildings work in the photos below
This is by no means a comprehensive history of Bergen, but it sets the stage for the remainder of this piece: Hakon’s Hall. Hakon’s Hall has always been part of a larger fortress complex , now called Bergenhaus Fortress or Begenhaus Castle. It was an active military complex into the 20th century and the buildings on the site, including a military museum, reflect this. The only time it saw conflict was in 1665 when the garrison of Bergenhaus Castle intervened on the side of the Dutch in a battle with the English and the English were forced to flee. You can see some of the other buildings that make up the fortress in the photos below.
It was used as a base of operations during the German occupation in World War II. In fact it was an accident in World War II which caused significant damage to Hakon’s Hall and other parts of Begenhaus Fortress, which resulted in large scale restoration. But that is at the end of the Hall’s story; let’s begin at the beginning.
The Hall itself dates to the reign of, unsurprisingly, King Hakon. King Hakon Hakonson was the first king who united Norway under a single ruler. He reigned from 1207-1263 and there is a saga about his life called Harkonar sara Hakonarsonar, which was commissioned by his son not long after his death. Incidentally it was written by Icelander Sturla Þórðarson who was the nephew of Snorri Sturlson, the famous saga writer who has been featured on this blog before. You can read about Snorri here. The saga outlines King Hakon’s life and movements, in quite a bit of detail as he travelled around his kingdom. Medieval kings were often peripatetic as they moved around a lot to ensure their rule of law was enacted. In Haakon’s case, during his reign he spent 26 winters in Bergen, more than half of the winters of his time as king, which highlights the importance of Bergen and the castle to him as a central base. King Hakon, had come to throne on the back of a series of civil wars so when he began to rebuild the structures at Bergenhaus in stone, it made sense that as well as being practical useful buildings they were also fortified.
So the building that stands today that is known as Hakon’s Hall, is the key remaining part of what was an extensive rebuilding project. He actually had two halls built. The larger of the two is Hakon’s Hall, though at the time it was referred to simply as the stone hall. The second was the Yule Hall, which from the name would have been used for yule celebrations and the coming together of the king and his retinue. The first known use of the two halls was in 1261 on the 11th of September for the wedding of Hakon’s son Magnus, who was also his joint king.
The Hall itself would have been very imposing for its time; 37 m long and 16 m wide it was designed to illustrate the power of the king and is actually one of the largest halls in medieval Europe. It was also a big step to build in stone, in a country known for its extensive amount of wood and expert carpenters, the Hall was making a statement of authority and military strength.
King Hakon died in 1263 in Kirkwell in Orkney, after fighting several battles in an attempt to ensure Norse rule over the island. The Haakon Haakonsson’s Saga described his death from an unspecified ‘disorder’ and went on to say that
The King still found his disorder increasing. He therefore took into consideration the pay to be given to his troops, and commanded that a mark of fine silver should be given to each courtier, and half a mark to each of the masters of the lights, chamberlains, and other attendants on his person. He ordered all the silver plate belonging to his table to be weighed, and to be distributed if his standard silver fell short. At this time also letters were written to Prince Magnus concerning the government of the nation, and some things which the King wanted to have settled respecting the army.
It went on to say: He still spoke distinctly; and his particular favourites asked him if he left behind him any other son than Prince Magnus, or any other heirs that should share in the kingdom, but he uniformly persisted that he had no other heirs in the male or female line than were publicly known.
On Sunday the royal corpse was carried into the upper hall, and laid on a bier. The body was clothed in a rich garb, with a garland on the head, and dressed out as became a crowned monarch. The masters of the lights stood with tapers in their hands, and the whole hall was illuminated. All the people came to see the body, which appeared beautiful and animated, and the King’s countenance was fair and ruddy as while he was alive. It was some alleviation of the deep sorrow of the beholders to see the corpse of their departed sovereign so decorated.
So with Hakon’s death the possession of the Hall passed into the hands of his son, King Magnus. He repaired the hall after a fire in 1266 and added to the complex by building a keep in around 1270. The keep was ultimately incorporated into the 16th century Rosencrantz Tower which you can see below covered in scaffold.
Hakon’s Hall remained at the centre of the life of the royal court. This was partly because at this stage Olso was not a royal city as it was the centre of a Dukedom. Hakon’s grandson Eirik, who reigned from 1280-1299, used Bergen as the main royal residence and he actually died in Hakon’s Hall, as in he deliberately had his death bed there. The Hall stayed important to the royal court as long as Bergen remained the main administrative centre for the Kings of Norway and one of the main meeting places for the assemblies which governed the Kingdom. When Hakon V succeeded his brother Eirik in 1299, as he’d been a Duke who ran much of his administration from Oslo and he continued to do so, splitting his time between Bergen and Olso. Bergen’s central role began to diminish. Once Denmark and Norway became a unified kingdom in 1380, Oslo gained more prominence because it was closer to Copenhagen and the area had become more prosperous, though Bergen still had the higher population. So Hakon’s Hall as a place of royal authority waxed and waned inextricably with the fate of Bergen as a seat of royal power. It was still functioning as a representative building in its own right in the reign of Christian I because it is mentioned when he visited Bergen in 1450, but by the 16th century it has effectively become a storage room, or a barracks for the soldiers. You can still see its visual prominence as part of the complex of buildings in this late 16th century depiction of Bergen by Scholeus
The question of what you see today and how much it relates to the original hall of 1261 is a complicated one. It has always been part of a larger complex, but its identity was lost as it was incorporated into the wider Bergenhaus fortress, in fact it used a prison from the beginning of the 19th century. It was known as ‘the Slavery’ and its royal antecedents forgotten. Additionally it has been restored a number of times, probably the most extensive was in the 19th century when the distinctive external gabling was included. This was a period of time when, along with a lot of other European countries, Norway was rediscovering and romanticising its medieval past.
Other parts of the 19th century restorations included some of the windows and some of the lovely carved heads which adorn them and were possibly based on the originals. You can see the carved heads in the photos below.
The final restoration, pretty much to the hall you see today, was necessitated by the accident towards the end of World War Two that I mentioned earlier. So, on the 20th of April 1944 the Dutch freight ship Voorbode was docked in Bergen for emergency repairs when the cargo of tons of dynamite exploded. It has never been fully disproved whether it was sabotage or not. The explosion killed more than one hundred people and about five thousand people were injured. It also blew the roof off the Hall and set fire to it. Damage control occurred quickly, but it wasn’t until the 1950s that it could be completely restored. You can see the damage in the model below.
The Hall you see today was opened for the 700th anniversary in 1961. It was decided to keep much of the 19th century restoration, but the main difference is the walls inside and out were un-plastered. The intention was to make it a space that while reflecting its medieval origins, also can be used as part of the modern society. For example the textiles that hang in pride of place in the main hall were commissioned specially as the height of their craft in 1961. You can see some of the textiles and more photos of the main hall below.
Hakon’s Hall is more than just the main hall however, so I thought I’d finished up this post with a look through some of the other sections. You actually don’t enter into the hall proper, there would originally have been a stair leading up to it, but today you go in through the covered entrance you can see below
You come in to a side building and go down to the basement. You can see the bedrock in the basement proper and it would have been used as a storage room.
There is a middle story as well, which is more open with better light and the vaulting that was erected, in one form or another, to be a fireproof floor after the fire of 1266
These lower layers of the Hall, give you an idea of its time as a utilitarian building, even when it was the hall of kings. Today Hakon’s Hall has regained its rightful place in the history of Norway and serves as part of a museum that thousands visit every year to learn more about Norway and its rich and complex medieval antecedents.
Site visit: 22/09/2018 (as you can see from all the date stamps)
Hakon’s Hall information booklet
Welcome to the Fortress Trail booklet
Hakonshallen 750 Years Royal Residence and National Monument / Oysten Hellesoe Brekke and Geir Atle Ersland (eds.)
The Photos are all mine