Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Unlucky in Love: John Ruskin's Disasterous Love Life

by Octavia Randolph

John Ruskin, self portrait, age 42
John Ruskin was one of the great figures of the 19th century, one of the truly seminal thinkers on art, architecture, and social justice. In this modest essay we are going to look at one small but fascinating aspect of the man, his disastrous romantic affairs.

The life of John Ruskin exactly mirrored that of Queen Victoria. They were both born in 1819, and died a year apart, he in 1900 and she in 1901. His parents were Scottish, but he was born late in their lives in London; his father John James Ruskin was thirty-four when their only child was born, and his mother Margaret was thirty-eight. John was a bright child; his early ability to see and observe and his fascination with what drawing and painting captured and actually meant drove the early part of his career, which was writing about what painting ought to do. In his first book, Modern Painters, he says “The greatest picture is that which conveys to the mind of the spectator the greatest number of the greatest ideas."

Ruskin always believed that JMW Turner was the greatest of all painters, and in fact the complete title of the first volume of Modern Painters (because it grew to five volumes over almost 20 years) was
Modern Painters: Their Superiority in the Art of Landscape Painting to all the Ancient Masters, proved by the examples of the True, the Beautiful, and the Intellectual from the works of Modern Artists, especially from those of JMW Turner, Esq., R.A., by a Graduate of Oxford.
John was twenty-four when the book was published, and his father did not want him to actually put his name on it in case it was ridiculed. It was not ridiculed; 500 copies were printed and only 150 sold, but the people who bought those copies were among Britain’s intellectual and creative elite, people such as George Eliot, Wordsworth, Charlotte Bronte, Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and so on.

Ruskin had a decidedly bifurcated career; the first half of which was largely devoted to thinking and writing and lecturing about art and architecture. He can be considered the godfather of the Arts and Crafts Movement, and he was a great advocate and help to the struggling young Pre-Raphaelite painters. Much of the second half of his career was devoted to issues of social and economic justice. In 1906, six years after Ruskin’s death, the incoming Labour Members of Parliament were polled as to whose books were most influential in their personal development, and Ruskin’s books came in first, besting those of the Bible, Shakespeare, Dickens, Carlyle, and many others.

So Ruskin was a man who was celebrated, respected, even revered for much of his lifetime – later in life as his economic views grew more controversial he was sometimes reviled – but he was a man who was a sought-after dinner guest, who society matrons vied to show off to their other guests – but Ruskin was a man alone. He was a heterosexual man unable to form a healthy romantic attachment with a woman. We are going to look at Ruskin’s three most important romantic attachments and see what kind of patterns we can find.

His first love: Adèle Domecq
London: 1836

The two young people had met first in Paris, but that was two years ago. Now John Ruskin was almost seventeen and Adèle-Clothilde Domecq was fifteen. Her sisters called her Clothilde, but at this second meeting John thought of her, and called her, Adèle. It rhymed with shell, spell, and knell and thus served his poetry, and Clothilde rhymed with nothing. Adèle had blonde hair and light eyes. She and three of her sisters had been staying at Herne Hill, and in four days the heart of young John had been reduced to a heap of ashes.

She had been born in Cadiz, in the shadow of her father’s vast vineyards––Pedro Domecq was the elder Ruskin’s partner in the sherry-trade; the growing partner. But the Domecq daughters had been raised in France; the eldest was soon to marry a count. The four younger now gaily descended upon the Ruskin household and upended it. They had bouncing curls with ribbons at the root, from Adèle on down to the youngest, Caroline.

Adèle’s frocks were from Paris, and her manners as well. She shrugged off her fur trimmed travelling cloak into John’s hands, and he tried not to goggle at her dress, short and with bewildering pantalettes. She turned to smile at him with small, brilliant teeth. She was like a heroine out of a novel or stepped down from a painting. Her face was oval, her nose upturned. Her complexion reminded John of fresh-poured cream. Her eyes glinted blue fire as she laughed, and they met his for one steady moment. He thought he might combust spontaneously.

...“But we cannot eat such things!” Adèle would laugh at breakfast, her little sisters smiling too. The sideboard was laid with oatmeal, black pudding, and stewed fruit. They must have the bread, so, and the fruit fresh and a comfit, and oui, they were allowed coffee, very strong and with much sweet milk,
merci. - Light, Descending, pp 5-6

Something subtle but important happens here: he re-names Adèle to suit his poetic structure. Her parents and sisters called her Clothtilde, but John renames her Adèle to suit his poetic needs. His idealization of Adèle, and her unobtainability, set the stage for a pattern of unfulfilled yearning in all later romantic attachments: The intense idealization and refusal to accept the realities of a real-life personality – then either fruitless longing when deprived of the love-object, or panicked withdrawal when granted the love-object.

He does not marry Adèle. When he learns, at Oxford, that she has wed a French Count, he despairs and goes into a physical decline so acute that he must leave the university. His mother by the way, had gone to Oxford with him – taken lodgings on the High Street, in an early and extreme example of helicopter parenting. When he is well enough his parents take him to Europe where he throws himself into the writing of what will become Modern Painters. Work was always a great refuge for Ruskin, as it is for many disappointed in love, and for Ruskin the connection between work and love was just that – a connection, not a contrast. John pleased his parents most when he was working, whether churning out childish poetry that his parents actually paid him to produce, or toiling ceaselessly and in a state of intellectual exhaustion to complete Volume V of Modern Painters before his father’s death. Working hard and being dutiful to his parents, even when they irked him or caused him immense pain, was ingrained at an early age.

Euphemia Chalmers Gray

This brings us to Euphemia Gray, or "Effie", the woman Ruskin did marry. Euphemia was the daughter of family friends, the daughter of an attorney from Perth, Scotland, where John James and Margaret Ruskin had lived before moving to London. Ruskin had met Euphemia several times in London, first when she was twelve, next year when she was thirteen, and he writes in his diary that he finds her beautiful, then again at age fifteen, when he finds her less attractive, and then at eighteen, when she comes and spends several weeks with the Ruskins in London. John was then twenty-seven. She was a very talented pianist.
The next morning he was writing up in his study, comparing actual cloud formation to the way in which artists depicted storm-clouds on canvas. The section was long and both subtle and technical, and he stood after a while and paced the floor, stretching his arms behind him. From below his feet he heard the faint strains of music. He paused for a moment, then thought he might go downstairs and see what Phemy was up to.
She was practicing Mendelssohn, alone. Her back was to him, and he stood motionless on the crimson patterned rug as she played. He approached silently and obliquely. She saw him when she turned the page of her score, and then heard his voice, quite near.
“It’s very cold in here, Phemy,” he said. John thought she played well, played strongly; didn’t plink away like most young ladies. He didn’t like to think of her fingers hurting from striking the cold keys. She turned her head to look at him. It was cold, and her fingerless gloves afforded no warmth. But she laughed.
“No more than in Scotland, rather warmer, I should say,” she answered, without stopping in her piece.
“Let me have a fire made up,” he offered.
“A fire, for one person?” He watched her lift her eyes to the length of the drawing room.
The purple draperies and ruby flocked wall-paper made the room no warmer.
“Two then, if you grudge the coal. I shall be your audience.” He reached for a chair and drew it close to her instrument.
She went on with her playing as he sat watching her. She did play beautifully, and he thought the Mendelssohn she had chosen maudlin and unworthy of her ability. He enjoyed music very much but had no facility himself to produce it. Several times at parties he had seen young men and women play four-handed pieces at the keyboard, and he wished of a sudden that he could do so with her. Her concentration on her task fascinated and somehow in that cold room warmed him, and he sat next her and watched her still profile and swift hands.
“Phemy doesn’t suit,” John told her when she ended, rather than the customary compliment on her skill. Her name too was unworthy, maudlin and silly.
She looked at him and laughed. “I have been Phemy all my life. What else can one do with ‘Euphemia’?”
“I shall call you Effie,” he announced. “’Phemy’ sounds nearly like Feeny, which is a kitten’s name. Or a puppy’s. Effie you are,” he ended, to her continuing laughter. Then he left her, back to his work.
She went on with more Mendelssohn after he’d gone. Effie, she said aloud. Effie. She repeated it silently as she went over a difficult left hand passage. She thought it did suit her. Effie. She liked it. John had named her. - Light, Descending, pp 38-40
What happens here? He re-names her – begins to re-make her, in name at least, closer to his ideal. Soon John decided he was in love with her. This occasioned the first serious falling out he had ever had with his parents. He wanted to marry Effie. At this point John was beginning to be well-regarded in intellectual circles – Modern Painters Volumes I and II were out, and he was already being asked to dinner parties in the upper echelons of society, including the aristocracy, which delighted his parents. For John James, who had laboured long in trade to make certain his son could be a “gentleman” – one who does not need to work for a living – and Ruskin’s books and lectures never provided him with that amount – John James felt it was perfectly possible and desirable that John marry into the aristocracy. After all it was the rich who collected pictures – that’s where paintings went when the left the easels of artists, with sometimes a brief stop at temporary exhibitions such as the Royal Academy Summer exhibitions. Most pictures were destined for the great manor or town homes of the rich. And at this point John wrote mostly about paintings, although he felt strongly that one could not appreciate a well-painted sky without understanding how actual clouds formed or enjoy a painting of an Alpine landscape without knowing the fundamentals of glacial movement – so his books had those things in them as well. His mind, his vision, was so large; he saw everything as interconnected and wanted and needed to share that.

Back to Effie. His parents made things rather uncomfortable for Effie during that last visit. They noticed John paying more and more attention to her. Effie thought that given the tenuous financial situation of her family – her father had recently invested the larger portion of the family’s wealth in shares in a new French railway, and France happened to be in political uproar – the elder Ruskins were considering her a fortune hunter. She left and went back to Perth. Her leaving upset John considerably. He knew his father was unhappy about the idea of his marrying “down”– but when his parents saw John pining away they became truly frightened, remembering his break-down over Adèle, and relented. He eventually proposed marriage via letter, and Effie accepted. But I think that John never got over the fact that he had more or less forced his parents to capitulate out of love and fear for him. He was so much under their thumb, dependent on them financially, emotionally, and even editorially, as his father insisted on reading and editing everything John wrote, that defying them was truly painful. All his life he had been both over-indulged and bullied by them. Here he is about to write a letter to his father, years later, followed by some of the actual contents of the letter.
He realised now he had been baulked by them at every turn. His morning letter to his father began in an intentionally contentious manner, denying that his friendship with Thomas Carlyle had ever affected his revised thoughts about religion, and then went on to fever pitch in personal accusation.
"Men ought to be severely disciplined and exercised in the sternest way in daily life," he told him; "they should learn to lie on stone beds and eat black soup, but they should never have their hearts broken––a noble heart once broken never mends––the best you can do is rivet it with iron and plaster the cracks over––the blood never flows rightly again. The two terrific mistakes which Mama and you involuntarily fell into were the exact reverse in both ways––you fed me effeminately and luxuriously to that extent that I actually now could not travel in rough countries without taking a cook with me! ––but you thwarted me in all the earnest fire and passion of life. - Light, Descending, pp 227-228
And in fact neither senior Ruskin came to John’s wedding in Perth. It was a small wedding held in the parlour of the Gray house, and afterwards John and Effie climbed in a carriage to go to the Highlands for their first night, finally arriving at the inn at 10 pm. John had a head-cold, never a pleasant experience, and as the world was later to learn, the marriage was not celebrated that night. Or ever.

Again he had chosen someone singularly unsuitable for him. Not only was he aware that Effie’s ideal role in life would have been as an ambassador’s wife – she loved society and parties – he disdained all that and only wanted to work. I truly think Ruskin was panicked by the thought of how his work might be curtailed. Was he, as he told her, concerned about Effie’s dying in child-bed, as did so many young women, including his cousin Mary Richardson who had been raised with him? - of course. He also simply didn’t like babies, on aesthetic grounds. But the real problem as I see it was his inability to fully defy his parents in actually making Effie his wife initially; and then coming to the quick and unpleasant realization that Effie was in fact an intelligent, vital, opinionated and adult human being, and not the pliant adolescent he had first met and found attractive. Marriage makes all manner of demands, which Ruskin was unwilling and I think unable to meet.

I also believe he was one of those true unfortunates who ceases longing for the beloved the moment he has her. You see it almost immediately in his letters to Effie. After she accepts him, he opens his letters with extravagant fantasies – highly charged and only thinly veiled sexual imagery – before then abruptly beginning to boss her around. In his letters he tries to micro-manage everything, dictate all she should be doing to prepare for their marriage – mostly things which would aid him in his work – such as read a 16 volume work, in French, about Italian history – and he wants her to perfect her considerable foreign language skills, improve her drawing so she can sketch little things for him, etc. He begins even before their marriage to bully her. Why? Because that is what he knew of love. His parents bullied him, and so all he knew was to bully her. When bullying didn’t work he just ignored her. It was very difficult and very sad for both of them. But Ruskin just wasn’t emotionally equipped to enter into a marriage with probably anyone, let alone a high-spirited, outgoing girl like Effie.

At any rate, until 1857 it took an Act of Parliament to get a divorce, and soon both John and Effie wanted out. Because the marriage had not been consummated they could go through the courts – in a very public fashion, with plenty of reporters there – and Effie needed to undergo an examination by a physician, who was none other than Queen Victoria’s gynecologist, and be confirmed “virgo intacta” – it was very disagreeable. But both parties behaved well, and as discretely as possible. The grounds for annulment were “incurable impotence” and Ruskin did not refute it, even though he was perfectly capable of arousal, as we know from his letters to Georgiana Cowper-Temple, a good friend. An annulment was granted, and a year later Effie wed the young painter John Millais, who had holidayed with them in Scotland, and painted both their portraits.

The Order of Release, by John Everett Millais, 1853
He depicts Effie as a Scotswoman redeeming her husband
from prison following the Battle of Culledon 1746

On to Rose LaTouche.

Adèle and Effie belong to the youthful part of Ruskin’s life, when his chief concerns were paintings, architecture, geology, and the expression of the natural world in art. Rose LaTouche belongs to the mature period, when Ruskin’s concerns were increasingly turning to economic and social justice and educational and even religious reform. Rose came into Ruskin’s life during a period of disillusionment, struggle, and even despair. Instead of the youthful confidence, even arrogance that he possessed during his pursuits of Adèle and Effie – here I mean confidence in his intellectual gifts and his ability to influence others with them – Ruskin was frustrated and impatient with the rising levels of pollution and exploitation caused by the machine age – and frustrated and impatient with his earlier self, and earlier writings.

He had undergone an immense spiritual awakening in finally rejecting his parents’ narrow evangelical religious views – this happened in Turin, and part of it was brought on by studying a Veronese painting which he had earlier dismissed as decadent; he had experienced the labour of sifting through the 19,000 drawings and paintings Turner had left the State – and that meant his hero Turner had died, as had his own father John James, two great losses; and he was coming into the company of Thomas Carlyle, a rigorous, upright, and revolutionary thinker, to put it mildly.

When he met Rose she was ten years old. He was thirty-nine. She was one of three children of an extraordinarily wealthy Irish banker of French extraction. They had an estate of 11,000 acres outside of Dublin, where they entertained the Prince of Wales himself, and an elegant town house in London. Her mother Maria LaTouche was a strong minded, cultured, intelligent woman, more intelligent and more cultured than her husband.
London: Spring 1861 
"Dearest St Crumpet––You can’t think how fusty the carriage was from Prato to Florence––but of course you can, you can think of EVERYTHING, including fusty carriages should you like, but Mama says you’re too fine a gentleman to bother with such ––but we are here now and tomorrow we go and see Mr Giotto’s Campanile at the Duomo and I shall look at it with care just as you told me, and make Emily and Percy look too. And I am trying to draw what I see in the sketchbook you gave me and hold my pencil that way you showed me. And trying not to get scolded, I wanted to give my hat the blue one to a little dusty girl that was in the garden of the hotel but Bun––Miss Bunnett stopped me. She is Bun to me and so you are delicious Crumpet, but I think I should add the St for respect. I wish St Crumpet you were with me too. And that it were not so hot, it is too hot for Irish roses. Love––your Rosie-posie." 
Ruskin felt a sudden flush spring upon his cheek; his ears burned. “I am not alone,” he said aloud. “I shall not be alone.”
He read the letter again. She had never called him “Dearest” before, nor ended as she had–– “Love––your Rosie-posie.” His Rosie. His love. Rosie posie, Rosie fair, Rosie light and sweet as air. He thought of her oval face and more-slightly pointed chin; the tiny white-gold curls at the nape of the slender neck; eyes neither blue nor grey but some un-named alloyage possessing the smokiness of dusk; the lips perfect in profile but a little too full, almost petulant when she turned to you––a glistening rosebud, offering itself. The gravity of her gaze, like that, he imagined, of St. Ursula as a child. The face he had first loved when she was ten and he, nearing forty, had called at her mother’s request to meet the children and perhaps consent to give them a drawing lesson or two. - Light, Descending, pp 173-174
Notice: He does not re-name Rose. She already has the perfect name. She re-names him. And in fact she called him “St Crumpet” or “St C” all her short life.

Rose represented the ideal of purity and beauty to Ruskin – she was well-named.

Young Rose LaTouche, as drawn by John Ruskin

He was friends with the entire family but especially Mrs LaTouche and Rose – it was Rose who kept him coming back. He was invited for extended stays at their manor house in Ireland, and when the LaTouches were in London Maria LaTouche and Rose often came to Denmark Hill, the Ruskin home, to see Ruskin’s fabled collection of paintings, especially the Turner watercolours and oils.

As Rose was growing older Ruskin was, as noted earlier, experiencing increasingly difficult times – the death of Turner, the death of his father, and other personal losses. Ruskin was raised as an evangelical Christian; his mother in particular was narrow minded and bigoted, and ran the house like a tyrant. John had to cover all his paintings every Sabbath, so that he could not see or enjoy them, because nothing was to distract one from prayer and meditation. The first time John actually took a walk for pleasure on a Sunday – it happened in Switzerland, and he was quaking in his boots – he was in his 30’s. He never told his parents about it, and was ashamed to think they might have seen him from the window of their inn.

Finally John could no longer accept the tenet that everyone in the world was damned to eternal hellfire if they were not a particular type of Protestant. This was freeing for him, but also another sort of loss, that loss of certainty that his mother clung to.

One of the real challenges with the LaTouches is that Mr LaTouche was coming more and more under the influence of a charismatic Baptist preacher, Charles Spurgeon, a man who was a great orator and had a sort of portable mega-church form around him in London. John LaTouche forsook the Church of Ireland – the Irish version of the Church of England, was baptized personally by Spurgeon, and became convinced his entire family except him was destined for damnation unless they did the same. There began a battle for the soul of the children, with the more moderate Maria LaTouche insisting they continue to be part of the Church of Ireland, and her husband insisting they to endorse his version of evangelical Christianity.

Rose, who was both thoughtful and impressionable, was caught in the middle – and it was tragic. One can imagine Ruskin, on the outside, finally free of the fear of a vengeful God and fiery damnation, seeing this beautiful young creature Rose embrace what he had finally been able to reject.

For long and miserable periods he was forbidden to see or even write to Rose – she had had a serious physical and mental breakdown the day after she, against her mother’s wishes, received Communion before being confirmed – and it was only very gradually that Ruskin was able to see her again. And candidly, at times he didn’t want to see her, as seeing her was so disruptive to his work and thought processes. But at last he was invited to Rose’s 18th birthday party – he was 47 at this point – and a few days later he invited her to Denmark Hill, his home, and proposed to her.

She asked him to wait another three years for her answer, which was crushing, But every night in his diary he began counting down the days until her 21st birthday, when she would make her decision.

Her parents were much against the union, and again forbade him to see or write to Rose. Sometimes she would find a way to write, or send a few rose petals to him – things he clung to. He even had a special wallet made, of thin sheets of gold, and within this he kept her most precious letters, and wore this wallet in his breast pocket against his heart.

He tried to address her in lectures, so to speak, because they were re-printed, and he hoped she would read them. Especially when he lectured about religious extremism he hoped she would learn of it, and he wrote the little book Sesame and Lilies for her – it’s a book of instruction for young people, and it became one of his best-selling titles, as slight as it is.

Rose was more and more debilitated, in and out of nursing homes, and finally in hopes of ending it definitively, Maria LaTouche wrote to Effie, who wrote back, incorrectly, that if Ruskin wed and ever had a child, it would mean Effie’s marriage to Millais would be invalid and their eight children illegitimate.

It was heartbreaking, and Rose was so frail and oftentimes deranged that anything further was out of the question. Rose died when she was twenty-seven from the accumulated deleterious effects of anorexia nervosa. Her father, ever since he got religion, was always urging her to “fast and pray” and so she did, right into an early grave.

Rose’s death devastated Ruskin. He had been struggling with mental illness, and this was an irrecoverable blow. He had, during her lifetime, begun to associate her with St Ursula as depicted in the Life and Martyrdom of St Ursula by Carpaccio in Venice, and the two figures, the virgin Rose and the virgin Ursula, merged in his mind.

The Dream of St Ursula, by Vittore Carpaccio, Gallerie dell'Accademia, Venice

There were other women later in his life who were interested in Ruskin, some of whom were mere opportunists, others who shared his social justice aims and would have been well suited to taking care of him and loving him, but he was one of those unfortunates who only wanted what he could not have, or in the case of Effie, when he got what he wanted, withdrew.


Octavia Randolph’s new novel is Light, Descending, the story of the great and tormented John Ruskin. Available in paperback at selected book stores, and as paperback and Kindle at Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk; and as paperback and Nook at Barnes&Noble.com

Monday, January 26, 2015

Elizabeth of York - Mother of a Dynasty

by Judith Arnopp

Elizabeth of York
All images rom Wikimedia*
Unlike her son Henry VIII and the granddaughter named in her honour, Elizabeth of York isn’t a household name. When viewed against the back drop of other Tudors she is far less splendid than her children; she is conventional and appears obedient, even cowed perhaps. Her portraits show a pretty, plump, and resigned looking woman who doesn’t adhere to our imagined picture of the mother of a king, the grandmother of a king and two queens. But, although her meek expression belies her harsh experiences she was in fact, the founder of a dynasty.

Elizabeth was born on February 11th 1466 into the bloody era now known as the Wars of the Roses. She was the first child of Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville. To everyone but the couple involved, this was an unconventional and unpopular match but, unlike other queens, Elizabeth Woodville was to prove satisfactorily fertile.

King Edward IV
It was a time of upheaval and when Edward was forced to flee into exile in Burgundy, the Queen, along with her daughters, fled into Sanctuary at Westminster Abbey.  There, safe from conflict but estranged from the exiled King, the first of the younger Elizabeth’s brothers was born. (The boy Edward would later earn his place in history by ‘disappearing’, along with his brother Richard, from the Tower of London, igniting a mystery that continues to burn today.)

Meanwhile, boosted perhaps by the good news, the exiled king gathered his forces and with the aid of his brother-in-law, Charles the Bold of Burgundy, returned to England to resume the battle for his throne, finally defeating Warwick and Margaret of Anjou and having the old King Henry VI murdered in the Tower. This initiated a time of relative peace.

For Elizabeth, now five or six years old, it was time for her education to begin. As well as the skills of running a huge household, she was also taught to read and write and given some instruction in accounting. Contemporary reports describe her as pious, obedient, and loving, and dedicated to helping the poor.

In 1475 when Edward made his peace with France, it was arranged as part of the treaty that on her twelfth birthday she would go to France to prepare for marriage to Dauphin Charles. But, before this could take place, France reneged on the deal and married his son to Margaret of Austria instead.

Elizabeth Woodville
Things ran smoothly for a while, or as smoothly as they ever do in royal circles, until, on the unexpected death of the King in 1483, Elizabeth fled once more with her mother into Sanctuary at Westminster. Richard of Gloucester took his place as Lord Protector and Elizabeth's brother, the Prince of Wales, was brought to London to await his coronation, as was tradition, in the royal apartments at the Tower. 

Shortly afterward it emerged (whether true or not is another question) that Edward IV’s marriage to Elizabeth Woodville was bigamous due to a prior contract of marriage. All children of the union between Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville were pronounced illegitimate. As we all know, Gloucester was declared King Richard III, and at some point between 1483 and 1485, Elizabeth’s brothers disappeared from the record. (That is not proof however that they disappeared from the Earth – there are any number of possible explanations).

The Princes in the Tower
How must this have been for Elizabeth? One moment she is the Princess of the realm, Dauphine of France, and the next an illegitimate nobody living in exile from court in the squalor of sanctuary.

And what of her brothers' fate? She would have been ignorant of that, and the resulting uncertainty mixed with grief for her father can only have been hard. It is possible that her mother knew or believed the boys to be safe. Why else, after scurrying into the safety of Westminster in fear of her life, would she suddenly hand her daughters into the care of the very man suspected of injuring her sons? 

We cannot know the answer to that, but the uncertainties provide very tasty fodder for the authors of fiction.

Elizabeth and her sisters returned to court to serve Richard’s Queen, Anne Neville, where they were treated with every courtesy. Queen Anne was ailing and clearly dying. It was at this time that rumours emerged of a relationship between Richard and his niece, Elizabeth. It is now impossible to be certain of the truth behind the allegation, but at the time gossip was strong enough for Richard to publicly deny the accusation. Whether the claim was true or not, Elizabeth would have suffered some degree of shame, but she seems to have continued to be prominent at court, serving the Queen until her death in March 1485. 

In August, when invasion was looming, Elizabeth and other children from the royal nursery were sent north for safety while the King dealt with the threat from Henry Tudor.

Henry Tudor
Henry Tudor, the Lancastrian heir, was aided throughout his exile by his mother, Margaret Beaufort in England. Margaret had devoted her life to her son’s cause. She  untiringly devised methods to secure the throne she saw as rightfully her son’s. Prior to his invasion, in order to muster support from the Yorkist faction, Henry promised that, if he became king, he would marry Elizabeth of York and unite the warring houses of York and Lancaster, putting an end to the Wars of the Roses forever.

After Richard III’s defeat at Bosworth in 1485 Elizabeth was taken to Margaret Beaufort’s house at Coldharbour, but Henry was slow to marry her and slower to crown her. We should consider the logistics of arranging a royal wedding at short notice, but it not something that Henry VIII found an obstacle in the next reign. To some it is almost as if he wished to deny that Elizabeth had any influence on his claim at all. They were married in January 1486. Elizabeth gave birth to their first child, a son whom they named Arthur, in September of the same year scarcely nine months later. She had no further children until two years after her coronation which took place in November 1487.

Perkin Warbeck
Henry Tudor’s reign was fraught with rebellion. Pretenders emerged throughout, some were swiftly dealt with, but one in particular, Perkin Warbeck, claiming to be Elizabeth’s younger brother, Richard, harried the king for years. We will never know his real identity, although the King went to great lengths to provide him with a lowly one.

Elizabeth is always described as a dutiful wife and devoted mother. She took no part in ruling the country, and there are no reports of her ever having spoken out of turn or ‘disappointing’ the King. Henry appears to have been a faithful husband; his later relationship with Katherine Gordon, wife of Warbeck, was possibly no more than friendship, but Katherine did very well, both in status and financially, at Henry's court.

Although Prince Arthur was raised, as convention dictated, in his own vast household at Ludlow, Elizabeth took an active role in the upbringing of her younger children, teaching them their letters and overseeing their education.

Prince Arthur
When Arthur, the Prince of Wales, died suddenly in 1502, both Henry and Elizabeth were distraught, the King thrown into insecurity at having been left with just one male heir. Reports state that the King and Queen comforted each other and, although there are some hints of a possible estrangement between the royal couple, Elizabeth promised to give Henry another son. She fell pregnant quickly and, ten months later, gave birth to a girl, Katherine, but succumbed to puerperal fever and died on her birthday, 11th February 1503.

Elizabeth of York
Elizabeth deserves more credit. There is as much strength in resilience as in resistance, and I believe she was both strong and resolved, bound by duty to serve her country as best she could.

Her union with Henry negated the battle between York and Lancaster, and the many children she bore strengthened political unions with France, Scotland, and Spain. Ultimately, she died doing her duty to England.

When a king puts aside personal desire for the sake of his country or dies on the battlefield defending it, he becomes a hero; often, if he is on the right side, he is honoured throughout history.

Yet Elizabeth did all those things. She married dutifully; she quickly produced an heir, a spare, and several daughters to increase the king’s bargaining powers. At the tragic loss of the Prince of Wales, despite her age and the suggestion of medical problems, she took the most dangerous decision to try to give the King another son. She died a hero, in service of her King and country.



Elizabeth is the subject of my shortly to be published book A Song of Sixpence, in which I suppose that the younger of the princes was in fact rescued from the Tower in 1483 and re-emerges some years later as the man Henry names 'Perkin Warbeck'. 

The novel considers the division of loyalties a princess, born to the house of York, might have suffered in her union with the House of Lancaster. Would her support be for husband and her sons, or her long lost brother?

This is a massive issue to deal with in one blog, and I would encourage you to read more about Elizabeth in Alison Weir's book Elizabeth of York: The First Tudor Queen and Amy Licence's Elizabeth of York. 

For more information about my work please visit my webpage. 
Follow my blog.
Or find me on Facebook and Twitter.
My Amazon page is here if you are in the UK
or here if you are in the USA

Giveaway: 1914 First Blood by John Hughes-Wilson

Mereo Books is giving away a print copy of 1914 First Blood to an international winner. You can read about the book HERE. Please comment below on this page to enter the drawing, and be sure to leave your contact information.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

The De Vere Family in the 17th Century

by Margaret Porter

The blood of the English de Veres, which still flows through the veins of Britain’s noble families—and some members of the present royal family—can be traced backwards in time to a Frenchman, Alberic de Vere. He accompanied William the Conqueror to England and in 1066 fought at the Battle of Hastings. Not long afterwards he was granted lands in Essex, the county most closely associated with his descendants. His grandson Aubrey, Count of Guines, was further ennobled as First Earl of Oxford by Empress Matilda when she was Queen of England. And down the centuries, through every reign, the de Veres were prominent as royal chamberlains, courtiers, and favourites.

Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford
The passage of five hundred years brings us to the 17th century and the waning days of the Seventeenth Earl—by far the most famous and illustrious member of his family. Edward de Vere was a shimmering star in Queen Elizabeth’s court, who referred to himself in his signature variously as "Oxford" or "Oxenford". For those who doubt that the genuine author of Shakespeare’s plays and poetry was a common glover’s son from Stratford, de Vere is most frequently proposed as their probable creator. He was a warrior-poet, in addition to being well-travelled, a gifted dancer, and a court officer. And, in the opinion of his wife Anne Cecil and her powerful father Lord Burghley, a terrible husband! It was his second wife, Elizabeth Trentham, who in 1593 provided an heir to his earldom.

Ten years later, at the death of his beloved Queen, Lord Oxford wrote to his brother-in-law of his grief, saying, “In this common shipwreck, mine is above all the rest.” On the accession of King James I, he asserted his hereditary claim as Lord Great Chamberlain and received from the King’s Wardrobe “forty yards of crimson velvet for the Earl’s own robes” to wear at the coronation on 25 July, 1603. Among his many duties on that date: delivering the uncrowned monarch's shirt, stockings, and underclothing to his bedchamber and dressing him for the coronation. As a perquisite, the Earl received “the bed on which the King had slept the night before the coronation and all his bedding, the coverlet, curtains, pillows, and hangings of the whole room, with the King’s nightgown.” During the coronation banquet, he presented the King's food. Oxford had but a year to enjoy his new possessions, for he died on 24 June, 1604.

Henry de Vere, 18th Earl of Oxford
His son and successor Henry was only eleven years old, the inheritor of a wasted estate. The boy's mother struggled to reclaim Hedingham, the de Veres’ ancestral castle in Essex, and other property in East Anglia. On attaining his majority he departed on a grand tour and spent five years in the Low Countries, France, and Italy. He later became Vice-Admiral of the Fleet, perhaps in order to keep him away from Parliament, where he was reportedly “one of the free-est speakers . . . .” He didn’t last long as a naval commander: disputes with the all-powerful Duke of Buckingham landed him in the Tower more than once. Like his father, he married a Cecil, but she bore him no children. He died at The Hague from a battle wound in 1625, two months after King James I, and was buried in Westminster Abbey.

Robert de Vere, 19th Earl of Oxford
As preparations began for Charles I’s coronation, Henry’s cousin Robert’s right of succession was disputed by another lord, preventing the presumptive Nineteenth Earl from taking part in the ceremony. Nearly a year later the House of Lords affirmed Robert’s status, and he took his seat in April 1626. In February of the following year his countess, Beatrice van Hemmema of Friesland, delivered their son Aubrey.

History repeated—like Edward and Henry de Vere before him, Aubrey became an earl when very young after his father fell at the Siege of Maastricht. Inheriting his title at the age of five, the Twentieth Earl of Oxford spent his childhood and early adolescence in Friesland with his mother’s family.

Aubrey de Vere, 20th Earl of Oxford
By the time Aubrey returned to England at age fourteen with his mother and sister, the de Vere properties were nearly all lost. He attended university at Oxford and began his long and rather distinguished career as a soldier—he loved a good fight on and off the battlefield and was a notorious duelist. In 1647 he took as his bride the ten-year-old heiress Anne Bayning, who brought him much-needed funds and a life interest in her Essex estates. A bright and promising future was dimmed by the execution of Charles I. Aubrey, a devoted royalist, fled to the Netherlands to join the court in exile. His estate was sequestered in 1651. Three years later he returned to England and landed in the Tower after being accused of plotting against Cromwell. This did not deter him--after his release, under the code name "Mr Waller" he participated in further royalist conspiracies and in 1659 was again imprisoned. His wife voluntarily joined him in the Tower, sickened, and died there. He was released a fortnight afterwards.

With the fall of the Commonwealth, the widower Aubrey, premiere earl of the realm, was among the six peers who invited Charles II to return to England. His good friend, the king he’d supported in exile, made him a Knight of the Garter, Lord Lieutenant of Essex, and gave him command of the regiment that was known as the “Oxford Blues.” He became a Privy Councillor and a Gentleman of the Bedchamber.

Aubrey, “the first of his Dignity in the Realm tho’ low in fortune,” was a gallant and courtly man, a gambler, and as lusty as Charles II’s other cronies—in other words, a very typical nobleman of the Restoration court. He arranged a false marriage to an actress who stirred his lust, employing one of His Majesty’s trumpeters to serve as “priest”. Despite the deception, the lady remained with him and in 1664 bore him a son. The mother referred to the boy Lord Bolbec, the courtesy title granted to an Earl of Oxford’s heir apparent, although he was the product of an unlawful marriage. Not surprisingly, the liaison didn’t last.

Aubrey proved himself a friend of the theatre in another way, by loaning out his coronation robes for a production of Shakespeare's Henry IV!

Diana Kirke by Peter Lely
His next mistress of note was the beautiful and immoral Diana Kirke, daughter of Whitehall Palace’s keeper and granddaughter of Aurelian Townsend, who composed court masques for King Charles I and Queen Henrietta Maria. When Di fell pregnant, the King offered the couple an annual pension of £2000 if they married. And so they did, in April 1673. Their first child, Charlotte, arrived not many months later.  She and her brother Charles, the true Lord Bolbec, died very young. Of the Oxfords' three surviving daughters, only one had an unblemished reputation—Lady Diana, the future First Duchess of St. Albans, who married Charles II’s son by Nell Gwyn. Lady Mary and Lady Henrietta, who were very possibly sired by Di's paramours, were as scandalous as their mother but did not succeed in marrying any of their lovers.

At James II’s accession in 1685, Aubrey was appointed Privy Councillor. At the coronation on 23 April his responsibilities were the same as when Charles II was crowned, and his wife took precedence over the other countesses. The Lord Chamberlain's instructions for the coronation clearly outline their positions: In procession of Countesses, four abreast, excepting Diana Countess of Oxford, alone….In procession of His Majesties regalia: The Sword of State in the Scabbard, born by Aubrey de Vere Earl of Oxford, Premier Earl of England, in his Robes of Estate, and Collar of the Order. 

Aubrey and James eventually fell out—the Earl refused to submit to the new King’s pro-Catholic policies and his stubborn intention to abolish the Test Act. Aubrey and his regiment supported the Protestant cause embodied in Prince William of Orange, and he welcomed the Dutch invader to England. After the accession of William and Mary, Aubrey participated in their coronation (his daughter Diana was one of the Queen’s train-bearers), and his former offices and honours were restored to him. He and the Oxford Blues fought against James II’s forces in Ireland, most notably at the Battle of the Boyne. In 1700 and and the following year he was commissioned as Speaker of the House of Lords, serving until William III revoked his privilege in September 1701.

Queen Anne was the last of the many monarchs Aubrey helped to crown. He succumbed to a serious illness in the winter of 1703 and died at his house in Downing Street, aged seventy-six. He was buried with his first wife Anne and many of his ancestors in Westminster Abbey's Chapel of St. John the Evangelist. The historic earldom of Oxford (first creation) died with him, as he had no legitimate son.

His daughter Diana, Duchess of St Albans, was a renowned beauty. Not long after her father's death, a member of the Kit-Kat club (a Whig drinking and discussion society) paid tribute to her and the de Veres' martial exploits by engraving these verses on a toasting glass:

1st Duchess of St Albans, 1694
Author's Collection
The line of Vere, so long renown’d in arms,
Concludes with luster in St. Albans’s charms;
Her conquering eyes have made their race complete,
It rose in valor, and in beauty set. 

Through Diana, the de Vere bloodline extended through her numerous offspring (eight of her nine sons survived) to the present day. Although the Beauclerks are more often described as direct descendants of King Charles II, they are equally connected to Aubrey the great 17th century courtier and his forbears. Murray de Vere Beauclerk, the current and Fourteenth Duke of St Albans, bears the name that Alberic brought to England in the 11th century, as does his eldest son, an author--and biographer of their ancestress Nell Gwyn.

Members of the royal family who carry de Vere DNA are William, Duke of Cambridge (through his mother Diana, Princess of Wales) and his son Prince George.


The de Veres of Castle Hedingham, Verily Anderson
Manuscript letters written by Aubrey de Vere, 20th Earl of Oxford, held by the British Library
Beauclerk family papers held by the London Metropolitan Archive
A Genealogical History of the Dormant, Abeyant, Forfeited, and Extinct Peerages of the British Empire, Sir Bernard Burke
The Diary of Samuel Pepys
The Fighting Veres, Sir Clements Robert Markham
Monstrous Adversary: The Life of Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, Alan H. Nelson
Dictionary of National Biography


Margaret Porter, who can claim a few tiny drops of de Vere blood, is the award-winning and bestselling author of several historical fiction genres, and is also published in nonfiction and poetry. A Pledge of Better Times, the story of courtiers Lady Diana de Vere and Charles Beauclerk, 1st Duke of St. Albans, and of Diana's father Aubrey de Vere, will be available in April 2015. Margaret studied British history in the UK and the US. As historian, her areas of speciality are social, theatrical, and garden history of the 17th and 18th centuries, royal courts, and portraiture. A former actress, she gave up the stage and screen to devote herself to fiction writing, travel, and her rose gardens.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Simon de Montfort and the Birth of Democracy: Part II

The Provisions of Oxford to the Parliament of January 1265
Part II

by Katherine Ashe

King Henry III versus the Provisions

No one might have seemed less likely to champion the common man than the Earl of Leicester Simon de Montfort. He was a royalist, a believer that kings were God-given and not to be overthrown. But what if the rightful inheritor of the throne was incompetent or vicious? Montfort's support of the invention of an elected government with power over the monarchy appears to have been his answer: while kings may reign, they should so do with the support and guidance of the lords and populace. Twice Montfort was offered the Crown of England, and twice he refused it – confirming his claims that he was in truth King Henry's most loyal subject.

After the Oxford meeting that produced the Provisions of Oxford -- the revolutionary format for modern elective government -- the lords who had brought about the meeting were sick and dying at Winchester, poisoned by the King's half-brothers. Montfort, staying at Oxford and untouched by the poison, set about the practical business of making the new government a reality and securing it from attack from within England and from abroad.

Under the auspices of the Provisions, he replaced the royal castellans as well as the royal sheriffs and bailiffs. And he summoned the common people of England to guard their coasts against invasion. The Oxford meeting had decided not to pay Pope Alexander IV what King Henry owed him. Not only might the papal army be turned against England, but the new government would be seen as an offence to the very nature of monarchy. Any leader could look on England as fair pickings – with the backing of the Vatican.

At Westminster that September of the year 1258, at the first convening of the Provisions' Parliament, King Henry and his heir Prince Edward (later to rule as Edward I) both solemnly vowed to uphold the government of the Provisions. A slightly enlarged and amended version was published as the Provisions of Westminster. The new parliamentary government, with its two elected representatives from each shire, began functioning. Under the protection of Simon de Montfort, yes, but not under his dictates. The elected Council determined the direction of the government according to the vote of the assembled Parliament.

King Henry presided, but took no part in leading the government. And, as with King John at Runnymede, neither he nor Prince Edward had any intention of honoring oaths that were forced from them.

Henry's first major act of state under the new government was to travel to France to complete England's peace treaty with King Louis IX. Asserting that it was his intent to go on crusade to the Holy Land, Henry gained, as an item of the treaty, an army of mercenaries paid for by Louis. Parliament's second meeting was scheduled for February, but Henry, on one excuse and another, put off returning home. Could Parliament meet legitimately without him?

Becoming suspicious of his king's procrastinations, Earl Montfort, one of the principal negotiators for Henry in Paris, went to the office of the Duke of Brabant, purveyor of mercenary armies. Simon was well known there, having been a frequent customer during the years of his viceroyship of Gascony on Henry's behalf. He discovered the reason for Henry's dawdling: the mercenary force was not yet fully assembled. And it was to embark at Wissant, the coast facing England, not on the Mediterranean where ships sailing to the Holy Land would depart.

Because of their familiarity with the Earl Montfort, King Henry's man for war, the Duke's office released to Simon all the knights hired so far – and he led them to England to defend the Parliament.

In London, Prince Edward -- at the moment enthusiastic about the new form of government -- was daringly preparing to hold the Parliament in his own name. But on the day the much-postponed meeting finally convened, Henry sailed up the Thames with the remainder of the mercenaries and claimed he was there to convene Parliament, and that he always had meant to honor the Provisions.

Edward, seeing himself now in a position of usurpation, defected to Henry. Simon was in an impossible bind. If he didn't attend King Henry's Parliament his claim to merely be defending the Parliament would look bogus. If he did attend, he was almost certainly going to be arrested for bringing Henry's mercenaries to England without the King's consent. Despite the pleading of his sons and friends that he flee, Simon attended the Parliament to assert his good faith to both the Provisions and his King. Henry immediately had him arrested for treason.

And treason Simon de Montfort undoubtedly had committed in urging the Parliament to meet in the King's absence and providing an army for its defense. But before he was formally tried, with the inevitable sentence of hanging, drawing and quartering pronounced, King Louis intervened. Knowing the forces he'd intended for the Holy Land had been diverted by Henry for use against his own subjects in England, Louis asked that the trial be transferred to Paris and heard by his Queen, Margaret.

Despite the clear evidence against him, Simon was able to turn the Paris trial to hilarity. "Did you not go with horses and men?" "I always travel with horses and men." "Did you not go without taking leave of your King?" "I saw no need to as I was going where he ought to have been going." Henry, laughed at by the Peers of France, and reminded of his breach of the terms of his treaty, was forced by Louis to drop his case.

From 1259 to 1263, when Simon's trial ended, King Henry managed to undo almost all that the Provisions had accomplished. The new sheriffs were replaced with the old grafting ones and the Crown's assorted abuses revived.

Simon, free now but at high risk in England, had taken the Cross. He was preparing to return to the Holy Land, where he had been both highly successful and happy in his youth, when a group of English lordlings came to plead with him. They were led by Gilbert de Clare, the son of Richard Earl of Gloucester, the leader of the League who finally had died of the Lusignans' poison. The youths begged Montfort to return to England and lead them in arms for the restoration of the Provisions.

Simon went to Oxford to see what sort of army they were assembling. The force he found was impressive. Announcing, skeptically, It is as well to die fighting forsworn Englishmen as to die for Holy Church in the East, he agreed to be their leader. Within months he had conquered England. He held the royal family his prisoners.

But his very success roused opposition among the surviving older lords. Prince Edward, then King Henry, escaped but were recaptured at the Battle of Lewes in 1264, and the parliamentary government was restored.

Two problems now faced Simon. The young lords who were his captains at Lewes (the same who had begged him to come to England) insisted that the valuable ransoms of the lordly and royal captives should be divided as booty, as was customary after a battle. Montfort, considering the defense of the new government paramount, refused to release the King, the Prince and the King's wealthy brother Richard of Cornwall. He allotted their rich rents and other windfalls from the battle for use in defending the coasts, garrisoning royal castles and creating an impregnable stronghold for the Provisions' forces.

The site he chose for this stronghold was Kenilworth, a castle he had received from King Henry as a wedding present but which he had returned to the Crown in 1258 when the Oxford meeting stipulated that valuable properties given away by King Henry should be returned to the Crown so that that the monarch could live "within his own means."

Montfort had reason to trust no one in England. He refused to exchange his prisoners for ransoms and appointed his own sons to collect and oversee the use of the captives' rents. Since they were using the money to militarily enhance Kenilworth, long known as the Montfort home, the accusation that the Montforts were seizing the best booty of the Lewes battle for their own use seemed to stick. Gilbert de Clare was chief among the accusers.

The other problem, which tended to support the first, was the religious faith of the clerics in the divine rightness of Parliament and the King's Council. There was euphoria after the seemingly miraculous victory at Lewes. The Provisions were God's will and under His protection. Never mind that the new Pope Clement IV had declared the Provisions and the new parliamentary government heretical, and excommunicated its supporters. (This Pope's name, interestingly, was Guy Folques, which could be spelled, after the medieval way of recognizing no standard spelling, Guy Fawkes.)

Both the young lords and the clerics considered that Simon was adhering to outmoded thinking in insisting that the new government needed special and costly defense.

While this rift was forming among the victors, the conditions in England continued to be chaotic. Montfort's return and overthrow of King Henry had let loose disorder throughout the country. Common people dragged their sheriffs to the gibbet. Then spread their local "cleansing" to anyone who seemed royalist or whom they disliked.

It was of vital importance that law and order be restored, not only for the obvious benefit of peace, but to demonstrate that government by Parliament was viable. And the clerical members of the Council were eager to regularize the appearance of the government. They wanted King Henry and Edward set at liberty. Hadn't the King and Prince made holy vows to uphold the Provisions?

At Parliament in the autumn of 1264, the first following the battle of Lewes, Simon succeeded in having the liberty of the King and Prince postponed, but Edward's release and the disposal of funds from the Lewes conquest became major items of business for the forthcoming Parliament.

The Parliament, convening on January 20, 1265, thus found Simon at odds -- with the clergy, who wanted to believe England no longer needed the military protection his strategies provided -- and with his own young battle-captains who wanted their monetary rewards.

Simon de Montfort held England by virtue of his military tactics. The very fact of Parliament's existence was his achievement in 1258 and again in 1264. But he did not control the government. He is praised for the democratic Parliament of 1265. But it was not he whose sole power summoned the Parliament. Nor was it he who summoned the commoner representatives of the cities, augmenting the elected knights reporting from the shires -- although he had championed the interests of the London Guilds at Oxford in 1258. Nor was it he who dictated what Parliament would accomplish. This is not a story of a benevolent tyrant gracefully bestowing democracy.

In fact, although the Parliament met until mid-March, it broke up in chaos when Gilbert de Clare accused Montfort and his sons of seizing the royal prisoners' rent monies for their own use. Simon's eldest son, Henry, leapt on Gilbert, throttled him and nearly killed him before being dragged off. Gilbert was helped away, but at the door he turned back to the meeting and shouted a challenge to the Montfort brothers to a tourney a outrance, a tournament of armed forces that extended sport into boundless pursuit and fight to the death.

This was the beginning of the end for Simon de Montfort and for the fledgling elective government of the Provisions. An elected Parliament, with full power over monarchs, would not revive again until Cromwell's time.

Gilbert de Clare, on the excuse of the tourney, raised an army composed of all those who found Montfort's power threatening: young lords, survivors among the elder lords, royalists.

In an effort to give the appearance of normality, the King's Council had King Henry and Prince Edward, with the royal apparatus of law courts and tax collection, set out on a grand tour of the country to reestablish law and order. The Earl Montfort was to provide this massive entourage with protection -- but he was denied an army.

It cannot be believed that Simon, brilliant in military tactics, failed to perceive the danger of Gilbert's army and the additional support it could raise abroad. What was his intent when he set out at the head of the unwieldy royal entourage with only a few of his armed followers and a hundred Welsh archers, leant him by Llewellyn out of concern for his personal safety?

Agreeing to lead this fatal tour was not the act of a man who was behaving as master of his own and England's destiny -- the dictator, the tyrant Montfort is often portrayed as being. He was under excommunication by Pope Clement, so his option to simply leave and take the Cross again was doubtful. Perhaps he wanted to believe, as the clerics did, that the new government was under God's protection. He claimed only that he was adhering to his oath to defend the Provisions even to risk of his life -- despite his clear view that the new government was behaving with foolhardy self-security.

The hopeful tour of the law courts never achieved its goal. The cavalcade was pursued and besieged in the hills of Wales for months by the forces of Gilbert de Clare. Then Prince Edward escaped, took leadership of the royalist forces and, as Simon tried to bring what remained of the royal entourage to safety at Kenilworth, the Prince entrapped them on August 4th at Evesham.

With two of his sons, the few young knights who were his devoted followers, the Welsh archers, and with King Henry still in his custody, Simon was encircled by Edward's armies. The carnage lasted for three hours in a pelting rainstorm. Simon's torso was left dismembered on the battlefield.

This August 4 is the 750th anniversary of Simon's death. But it is not his death that is celebrated, it is his life's work -- that for which he died -- that’s being recognized. The first establishment of England's Parliament, the model of modern democracy.


Katherine Ashe is the author of the four volume novelized biography Montfort. See Montfort the Revolutionary 1253 to 1260 and Montfort the Angel with the Sword 1260 to 1265 for a full bibliography.

Primary Sources:

Montfort Archive, Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris. There is preserved, in this boxed archive of original documents, the trial notes and a brief autobiography by Simon written in 1260 in preparation for his trial before King Louis for treason against King Henry. (In the event, the trial was actually heard by Queen Margaret of France.)


Annales Monastici, ed. Luard, H.R., 1864-69:

Vol. I, Annals of Burton

Vol. II, Annals of Winchester and Waverly

Vol. III, Annals of Dunstable

Vol. IV, Annals of Osney; Chronicle of Thomas Wykes; Annals of Worcester

Calendar of Charter Rolls,Vol. I, 1226-1307, Public Record Office. Kraus Reprint, Neldeln/Liechtenstein, 1972. (Note: Kraus reprints are not complete.)

Calendar of the Liberate Rolls, Volumes I and II, Public Record Office, 1916.

Calendar of Patent Rolls, 1232-1272, Henry III. Public Record Office. Kraus Reprint, Nendeln/Liechtenstein, 1971. (Note: Kraus reprints are not complete.)

Chronica Johannis Oxenedes, John of Oxford, ed. H. Ellis, Rolls Series, 1859.

De Antiquis Legibus Liber: Cronica Maiorum et Vicecomitum Londoinarium, Stapleton, T. Camden Series, 1846.

Documents of the Baronial Movement of reform and Rebellion, 1258 – 1267, ed. R. F. Treharne and I. J. Sanders, Oxford, 1973.

Eccleston, Thomas of, The Coming of the Friars Minor to England, XIIIth Century Chronicles, translated by Placid Herman, O.F.M., Franciscan Herald Press, Chicago, 1961.

Excerpta e Rotulis Finium in Turri Londdinensi Asservatis Henry III, 1216-72, ed. by C. Roberts, Public Record Office. 1835-36.

Exchequer: The History and Antiquities of the Exchequer, Madox, Greenwood, 1769-1969, Volumes I and II.

Guisborough, The Chronicle of Walter of Guisborough, ed. H. Rothwell, Camden Society, third series, LXXXIX, 1957.

John of Oxford: Chronica Johannis de Oxenedes, ed., H. Ellis, Rolls Series, 1859.

Laffan, R.G.D. Select Documents of European History, 800-1492, Volume I, Henry Holt and Company, New York.

A note on the Chronica Majora: I have used several editions of the chronicle of Matthew Paris as they happened to be available to me. For readers’ reference I principally use the Bohn 1854 edition as it is most likely to be available in universities or other good libraries. The 1684 edition, in Latin, I possess and use for checking the translations but, as I cannot expect my readers to have that edition available to them, I have not cited it in the Historical Context. While the Paris chronicle proceeds to the year 1273, after 1259 it is by another hand.

Matthew Paris’s English History, from the year 1235 to 1273, volumes I to V, translated by the Rev. J. A. Giles, Henry Bohn, London, 1852. See also the Bohn 1854 edition in three volumes. Kessinger Publishing’s Rare Reprints. (incomplete) www.kessinger.net.

Rerum Britannicarum Medi: Aevi Scriptores, or Chronicles and Memorials of Great Britain and Ireland During the Middle Ages, Kraus reprint 1964. (Note: Kraus reprints are not complete.)

Matthaei Paris, Monachi Albanensis, Historia Major, Juxta Exemplar Londinense 1640, verbatim recusa, ed. Willielmo Wats, STD. Imprensis A. Mearne, T. Dring, B. Tooke, T. Sawbridge & G. Wells, MDCLXXXIV (1684)

Matthaei Parisiense, Chronica Majora, Kraus reprint, 1964. (Note: Kraus reprints are not complete.)

Rishanger, William, The Chronicle of William de Rishanger, of the Barons’ War: The Miracles of Simon de Montfort. ed. J.O. Halliwell, Camden Society, 1840. Also known as the Chronicon de Bellis

Robert of Gloucester, Metrical Chronicles of Robert of Gloucester, Wright, W.A., Rolls Series, 1887.Royal Letters, Henry III, ed. W.W. Shirley, Rolls Series, 1862.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Simon de Montfort and the Birth of Democracy

The Provisions of Oxford to the Parliament of January 1265
Part I

by Katherine Ashe

King Henry versus the Lords of England

Simon de Montfort
Source - BBC News/bbc.co.uk - © 2009 BBC*

This year of 2015 Britain is celebrating the 750th anniversary of the death of Simon de Montfort in battle at Evesham in August of 1265 and the 800th anniversary of the creation and signing of Magna Carta. The two events are intimately connected.

Magna Carta, as we're taught in school, marked the beginning of the legal assertion of the rights of the people over the rights of their monarch. And in a limited way, that is true. Chiefly it granted very specific rights to the nobility in England such as the right of aristocratic widows to not have to marry against their wishes. But what was most important was Clause 61 which granted the lords the right to form a committee to receive complaints against the king, to present those complaints and, if they were not redressed within a limited time, to raise the entire country in legal rebellion against the king. King John made holy oath to uphold Magna Carta.

But a king's vow under duress is not worth the air that breathed it as the lords opposing John quickly found out. Civil war followed with the French adding their own attempt to seize the English Crown, just to complicate matters. John died in the midst of this chaos and the rebel lords, to forestall the French, quickly recognized his eldest son, age nine, as their legitimate monarch: Henry III.

Henry III
 By Richard Avery** 
Under the tutelage of the rebel lords, Henry re-issued the Magna Carta, but shorn of the clause that validated rebellion. He may never have known of its existence.

However, it was not forgotten. A few of the lords who had fought King John and won Magna Carta were still alive when, in 1258, King Henry's abuses of his powers reached such calamity that the lords rebelled again. Henry had amassed a history of incompetence, extravagance and flagrant injustice, but his failure as a monarch reached its apogee in the spring of 1258.

In an effort to obtain the Crown of Sicily for his second son Edmund, known as Crouchback, Henry had entered into a bargain with Pope Alexander IV. Sicily belonged to the Holy Roman Empire. The Emperor Frederic II, who was thoroughly hated by the Vatican, had died and so had his son Conrad (probably poisoned by Vatican agents.) Frederic's only remaining son, Manfred, offspring of one of the Emperor's mistresses and legitimized belatedly, now held Sicily as his headquarters.

The Pope offered King Henry a papal army to conquer Sicily on behalf of the infant Edmund. Henry agreed to finance the army, pledging the Crown of England as surety for the financing. Then he defaulted on the loan and Pope Alexander, as could be expected, threatened to seize England and offer its Crown to some more fiscally reliable monarch.

England's lords first learned of this deal and its imminent peril when Henry, at Eastertide in 1258, called a meeting of the lords and prelates to wring the needed money out of them in taxes. They were aghast at his bargain and refused to pay. The King resorted to blackmail and threats of imprisonment. In response, several lords, led by the Earl of Gloucester, Richard de Clare, formed a pact for their mutual protection, fled back to their home shires and returned with their knights.

Each of the principal lords of England held a specified number of knights, from 60 to 120, as sub-tenants. The lords were obliged to produce these knights whenever the king declared war. They were supposedly the royal army, but now a large number of them arrived in London loyal to and defending their lords against King Henry. The lords taking part in this venture, and who came to be known as the League, were six in number, including Simon de Montfort, the Earl of Leicester, the King's chief military strategist.

Arriving in arms and surrounded by their knights, the League did not seize the King but pledged their loyalty – while claiming their rights under Clause 61 of Magna Carta and producing an original copy of the great charter to prove it. Terrified, King Henry agreed to permit the lords and clergy to meet separately, at Oxford in June, where they could convene without his interference. His expectation was that they would produce the money he needed. But theirs was a very different agenda.

At that meeting, in keeping with Clause 61, the League circulated questionnaires (on wax tablets with styluses) to be filled out with complaints regarding King Henry's rule. To everyone's amazement, the most frequent complaint was not against the King and his taxes but against the local sheriffs who were running a lucrative system of graft.

If a lord or his steward, summoned by the local sheriff to attend a law court session, failed to attend he could be fined. The sheriffs were holding court sessions so frequently and at such far-flung sites that attendance was impossible. This dodge, apparently universally popular with the sheriffs, was pouring ill-gotten monies into their pockets while keeping the courts from functioning due to lack of adequate attendance. And, incidentally, it was depriving the Crown of the fines it would receive from properly tried criminals.

King Henry, sheltering in Windsor Castle in fear of what the Oxford meeting might produce, was overjoyed at this surprising discovery. Quite cheerfully he replaced all his sheriffs with candidates from a list drawn up by the lords at Oxford.

But at the Oxford meeting the question arose: how can we be sure the new sheriffs will remain honest? Some procedure for periodic reporting from the shires was needed. Two knights already were regularly selected from each shire to conduct the royal taxes to the Exchequer at London. Similarly, could not two knights provide systematic reporting to the government on the sheriffs and the condition of the country? But how to choose the honest knights? The Oxford meeting decided they should be elected by the common free men of each shire. (Men only, to be sure; 650 years would pass before women in Britain would achieve the right to vote.)

The elected knights could make report regularly to the government at a specific date and place set three times a year. Thus a plan for what would later be called the House of Commons was born. Although some celebrants this year might like to think it, Simon de Montfort did not single-handedly propose this revolutionary inclusion of the common man; it came almost by chance from committee meetings determined to keep watch over the sheriffs.

While King Henry was gleefully approving the removal of his sheriffs, appointing new sheriffs from the Oxford meeting's lists -- and new royal bailiffs as well for it appeared the bailiffs, too, were engaged in graft -- unknown to him the committees at Oxford were busily drawing up a complete reform of the government.

To be certain that he acted to redress the wrongs the shire knights reported, the committees decided that King Henry should be served by a Council of Nine and be attended constantly by three Counselors. These men were chosen, not by Henry, but by election within the Oxford committees.

The gathering of knights from the shires was to be met at the three annual visits by the Council and a convocation of all the lords and prelates. Here the modern concept of Parliament, the form of most governments today, came into being. The executive branch (King and Council), the House of Lords and the House of Commons; or call it the President and Cabinet, the Senate and the House of Representatives.

To secure the powers of the three Counselors attendant upon the King, the heads of the two offices essential to the government's functioning also were to be subject to Parliament’s choice. The Chancellor, who was the keeper of the royal seal without which nothing from the Crown was official, and who also was receiver and disburser of all government monies, had control of the mint. And the Justiciar was the head of the royal courts of law and castellan of the Tower of London.

These moves would insure that the monarch could do nothing but what was approved by Parliament. This at a time when the power of kings was becoming absolute under the aegis of the papacy and supported by the hierarchical theology of Thomas Aquinas. King Henry, secluded at Windsor with his partisan messengers who'd brought the happy news of the sheriffs, knew nothing of what was being planned for him.

This program for an entirely new form of government was codified by the Oxford meeting of lords and clerics as The Provisions of Oxford.

The meeting concluded with oaths to support the Provisions – the lords all swearing to give support even with their lives if necessary. A midnight feast followed, provided by the Oxford students in celebration of the lords' and clerics' achievement. The Provisions, no more than a heap of notes on wax tablets, still waited copying and publication.

At this vulnerable moment, but for the Earl of Leicester Simon de Montfort, the plan that would give rise to modern government would have been utterly lost. Here is the beginning of the Earl's actions that rightly earn for him the title of the Father of Democracy.

For what happened at that feast and afterward is an example of the utterly bizarre waywardness of events. We have the Chronica Majora of the charmingly detailed chronicler Matthew Paris to thank for this insight into the actual circumstances of the birth of Parliament.

Just returned from Windsor were King Henry's half-brothers, known collectively as the Lusignan (from their father's lineage in southern France.) They were shocked by the proceedings. At some time during the feast, they fled. When their absence was called to the attention of Earl Richard de Clare, who had played the leading part during the meetings, he was stricken with the idea that they might reach France and raise an army. Rallying the lords to join him in pursuit, he rushed off into the night. The wax tablets with the Provisions' notes were left behind.

But the Earl Montfort, the military strategist, alone of the leading lords remained at Oxford. He no doubt knew that, whether the Lusignan reached France or not, attack from abroad must be inevitable. The Provisions would be seen by every king as an attack upon the essence of monarchy – and the meeting had refused to pay Pope Alexander the money King Henry had pledged for the conquest of Sicily.

Westminster Hall in the early 19th century**
At Oxford Simon saw to the practical business of having the Provisions properly copied and sent out to the new sheriffs with orders for election of two knights from each shire and the summoning of the elected knights to Parliament at Westminster in September. He transformed notes jotted on easily erasable wax tablets into a real, functioning and utterly new government.

Undoubtedly Simon expected that the lords with Clare would soon return and some decision would be made regarding whose name these documents to the sheriffs should bear. But the lords did not return.

Clare and his followers found the Lusignan at Winchester and besieged them in the castle there. The Lusignan had been besieged before, by King Louis in France, and had escaped by poisoning Louis and his entire army. Soon at Winchester the besiegers were sickening and dying. (A few months later a poison was found in the London home of one of the brothers – a poison the symptoms of which matched the illnesses at Winchester.) The chief lords of England in a single calamity were removed -- except for Simon de Montfort.

For months Montfort was the sole lordly member of the League and partisan of the Provisions who was not desperately ill or dead. In this void he took on personal responsibility, issuing the orders to the sheriffs under his own name and "the King's Council." Henry of course had no say in this Council whose priestly members and Simon, alone, remained standing.

Part II: King Henry versus the Provisions, will follow.

*Montfort statue image: http://news.bbc.co.uk/local/leicester/hi/people_and_places/history/newsid_8218000/8218957.stm
**[CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)] via Wikimedia Commons
***{{PD-US}} – published in the US before 1923 and public domain in the US.


Katherine Ashe is the author of the four volume Montfort novelized biographical series. For the events leading to and following the Oxford meeting see Montfort The Revolutionary, 1253 to 1260.

The principal sources for the above are the Chronica Majora as it is found in Matthew Paris’s English History, vol. V, translated by J.A. Giles, Henry Bohn, London, 1852. For the Provisions of Oxford see Annals of Burton in the Annales Monastici, Vol I, H.R. Luard, 1864.