Friday, August 28, 2015

My review of THE MAID AND THE QUEEN by Nancy Goldstone

Finally! For years I've been waiting for a book about Joan of Arc that tells the history without relapsing into religious ecstasy. Goldstone delivers this and so much more in this historical account of France's turning point during the 100 Years War. I bought this book not knowing who the Queen was, her important role in Charles VII's life, or her association with Joan. I was surprised to learn that the story of Yolande of Aragon puts this formidable woman on a par with Eleanor of Aquitaine, yet I never heard of her.

This is a book about how Joan of Arc, aided by sympathetic members of Charles' party—mainly Yolande—invigorated the French people and its King to push back against the English. Joan's role is firmly established, but there are so many other events crowding the end of the war that her tragic martyrdom is not the end of the story. "It would be gratifying to be able to confirm...that, if not quite the catalyst for a precipitous surrender, Joan's execution at least marked the moral turning point in the conflict, the moment at which the native French population, repulsed by the deed, turned against the occupation and began the slow process of throwing off the yoke of the invaders. And yet the sad truth is that Joan's death had absolutely no effect upon the war, or the politics of the period..." In fact, the war dragged on for another twenty years, and much of the effort to turn the tables on the English came from the historically unacknowledged Yolande.

Charles, the future King, was the youngest son of mad king Charles VI and an unscrupulous Isabeau of Bavaria in war-torn France. He was a nervous, neglected child whose prospects were not particularly glittering and was sent away to be raised by his future mother-in-law in peaceful and beautiful Provence. Yolande's court was enlightened and brilliant, and the future king became totally attached to the Queen of Sicily. She was a formidable, efficient ruler and her support was instrumental in keeping Charles on the right path. It was eventually through Yolande's influence that Joan of Arc managed an interview with "the Dauphin" as she called him. Also, when Charles' natural timidity held him back from committing his military forces, Yolanda often returned to take control and push matters forward. In the end, she helped forge the diplomatic ties between France and Burgundy that finally dislodged the English from their French territories.

One might ask why Charles and Yolande did not work harder to redeem Joan from her captors. Yes, by that time she had already outlived her usefulness and seemed to be in the way more often than not. There was no doubt that the common people still looked up to her, but "she was during this period kept at arm's length and regarded as a nuisance and a potential liability by those in power at court." All along her military astuteness was questionable, and even at the siege of Orleans the French commanders ignored her advice and won the day despite her objections. By the time she was captured, Joan had taken it upon herself to lead a practically suicidal mission at Compiegne, and no one in charge paid much attention to her. When she was taken, one train of thought was "Because Joan claimed to have appeared by the order of God, to interfere in her fate would have been akin to questioning a divine imperative." I can see that as a solid medieval sentiment. But more to the point, the King wouldn't have thought she was in danger. Joan had been ennobled a few months previously, and the terms of her captivity were "dictated by the time-honored rules of chivalry." She would be held for ransom, it was supposed, and given honorable imprisonment. They never thought that Joan would be ransomed by the enemy of France, the Duke of Burgundy! And Burgundy was determined to prove that Joan was a witch and anyone following her advice was dishonored. Including, of course, Charles VII.

This period of history was incredibly complex, with murders and treason, political agendas and a long cast of characters. The author does an admirable job keeping everything straight. I had no trouble following events, and the writing was smooth and enjoyable; there were even times I felt a little excitement, as though in the midst of a novel. I suspect it was difficult presenting a mystical saint as a straightforward historical figure, but Goldstone smoothly sidestepped religious issues and gave us a credible explanation of events. She had a couple of theories of her own that tied things together: she is convinced that Yolande made a connection between Joan and the "Romance of Melusine", famous in its time, which is why she supported the Maid; the author attributed the vehemence of Joan's trial and later rehabilitation to a conflict between factions in the University of Paris faculty. I thought these theories a little bit of a stretch, but they didn't stop me from enjoying the book. I would highly recommend it to students of the Middle Ages.

Friday, August 14, 2015

The Children of Harold Godwineson

by Horace Vernet Like much of the eleventh century, the fate of Harold’s children is somewhat vague. We have a pretty good idea about the immediate years after the Battle of Hastings, but with the exception of Harold’s daughter Gytha we don’t exactly know what happened to them.

Harold’s long relationship with his handfasted wife Edith Swanneck produced five or six children. Godwine, the eldest, was named after Harold’s father. Then we have Edmund (named after Edmund Ironside?), Magnus, Gunhild and Gytha. The youngest son, Ulf, was probably from this marriage, but some historians think he was the twin brother of Harold from his father’s second marriage to Ealdgyth, sister of Edwin and Morcar and (uncrowned) Queen of England.

From the first, we don’t know what happened to Edith Swanneck. Legend has it that she was brought to the battlefield to identify King Harold’s mangled corpse, based on marks that only she would know. After that, she presumably accompanied the body to Waltham Abbey for burial, but we know nothing further after that. Where were the children all this time?

We know that Gunhild took refuge in Wilton Abbey, a favorite establishment of her aunt Editha (Edward the Confessor’s wife). Perhaps Gunhild was already settled at the Abbey for her education and thus remained there after the battle. Years later, she left the Abbey in the company of Count Alain le Roux, Lord of Richmond, who was the recipient of many estates belonging to her mother. It seems that she had little vocation for the veil and took advantage of an opportunity to go back to her own lands. She and Alain lived together until his death, and afterwards she took up with his brother, Alain le Noir who inherited the estates. After le Noir’s death, she disappears from the records.

The three eldest sons of Edith may well have accompanied their mother to Ireland. Diarmaid of Leinster, the same King who sheltered Harold Godwineson back in 1051, is said to have welcomed Harold’s sons in their exile. It’s also possible that they went to Exeter, a stronghold of the Godwine family where their grandmother Gytha resided. Exeter became a focal point of local rebellion; King William took this threat seriously enough to lay siege to the city for 18 days in the winter of 1068. Apparently the besieged were not in agreement, for they capitulated to William while Gytha, accompanied by her allies, fled to the island of Flat Holm in the Bristol channel and stayed for many months.

The Irish King permitted the sons of Harold to recruit a fleet of mercenaries and invade England on two separate occasions; the last invasion proved a costly disaster in manpower and Magnus was probably killed. It’s possible that Gytha waited until it was clear that her grandsons’ cause was hopeless before leaving Flat Holme for good and traveling to Flanders. She may have entered a convent at St. Omer. Or she might have gone back to Scandinavia, where the presiding King of Denmark was her nephew.

It was thought that Godwine and Edmund probably went to Scandinavia as well, along with their sister Gytha. If they thought King Swegn would help militarily, they were destined to be disappointed. Our knowledge of their fate disappears after this, but Swegn was able to use his influence to set young Gytha up in a royal marriage. Her new husband, Vladimir Monomakh, prince of Smolensk was said to be handsome and rich, and she lived, in apparent contentment, until 1107.

Ulf, surprisingly, ended up a hostage in William the Conqueror’s court. Whether he was captured after the Exeter siege (which would make him a son of Edith Swanneck) or captured as a baby in Chester (which would make him a son of Ealdgyth) is unknown. He stayed in captivity until King William’s death in 1087, when he was released into the custody of Duke Robert, who knighted him and set him free. By all indications Ulf wisely stayed on the continent and has been identified as Loup Fitz Heraut (Wulf son of Harold) whose signature has been found in charters.

This leaves us with young Harold Haroldson, son of Queen Ealdgyth and heir to the throne if all had gone differently. Ealdgyth was heavily pregnant by the battle of Hastings, and afterwards her brothers Edwin and Morcar whisked her off to Chester for safekeeping. It is thought that the child’s uncles might have had it in mind to use him as a figurehead in a future bid for the throne, but they never got that far. When Ealdgyth found herself with no defenders, she is said to have fled to Ireland with her son. After he grew up, Harold apparently found his way to Norway.  In 1098 he accompanied King Magnus III Barelegs on an expedition to Ireland, but all traces are lost after this point.

It is ironic that Godwine and his clan, once the most powerful force in England, should be reduced to historical footnotes in two generations. And it’s even more ironic that through his daughter Gytha and her son (Mstislav I Vladimirovich the Great), Harold’s blood still flows through the royal houses of Europe all the way to the present day.
(photo: Edith Swanneck discovering King Harold’s corpse on the battle field of Hastings by Horace Vernet)