Tuesday, February 28, 2023

The Battle of Toulouse

The expansion by the Umayyad Caliphate brought Muslims into the first major conflict with Western Europe in 721 CE.

The Umayyads had already taken over the southern coast of the Mediterranean, but it was their presence in the Iberian Peninsula that put them up against the borders of Aquitaine, whose Christian duke, Odo the Great, prepared to ensure the stability of his borders. Anticipating the potential conflict, he left his capital of Toulouse to gather military support. When the Umayyad army under Malik al-Khawlani besieged Toulouse, Odo was away.

Odo tried to gather help from Charles Martel, but "The Hammer"—who is often given credit for protecting the Christian West from the Muslim East—refused Odo, preferring to take a "wait and see" attitude about the spread of Islam. (To be fair, Odo and Charles were rival rulers, not friends, so Charles may have been happy to see his southern neighbor get weakened.)

The siege lasted three months before Odo returned with his gathering of Aquitanian, Frankish, and Gascon troops. (The Frankish troops were not likely part of Charles Martel's people; there were Franks living closer to Odo's territory who were not necessarily formally part of the Carolingian culture.) The Umayyad army had grown overconfident after three months of no opposition, so they had minimal outer defenses, making Odo's attack unexpected and hard to counter, especially when folk from inside Toulouse joined the fight. The Umayyads scattered, al-Khawlani died very soon afterward, and no secondary attempt on Toulouse was made.

Odo claimed (in a letter to Pope Gregory II, who like the caliphate was also focused on spreading his chosen faith, though with a less-warlike approach) that he had killed 375,000 Saracens and lost only 1500 men. Odo was praised as a champion of Christianity and received gifts from Gregory.

Eleven years later, however, Charles Martel could no longer "wait and see" when the Umayyads tried another surge into Western Europe, resulting in the Battle of Tours, which happens to be our next topic.

Monday, February 27, 2023

The Umayyad Caliphate

After the Rashidun Caliphate came the Umayyad Caliphate in 661 CE, with a dynastic rule starting with Muawiya ibn Abi Sufyan, the governor of Syria. The Umayyad Caliphate used Damascus as their capital, rather than Medina.

The Umayyad Caliphate saw a period not only of expansion, but also of unification and reform. One example was when an earlier policy of paying stipends to retired military and their descendants was deemed an untenable drain on financial resources and was eliminated in favor of only paying active military.

The Byzantine gold solidus—a standard in the eastern Mediterranean and beyond—was replaced in 693 by the dinar (see an example here). The dinar originally had the head of the caliph on it, but this use of images lasted only a few years before religious objections replaced it with quotations from the Koran. Other coinage used in Muslim-ruled lands also had imagery replaced in the next few years.

Arabic became the official language of all territories of the caliphate, and government officials who spoke Persian and Greek needed to learn Arabic to keep their posts.

The Dome of the Rock was completed in Jerusalem in 691/692. Although Mecca retained importance for Muslims, it is thought that the Umayyad creation of the Dome of the Rock was intended to take some of the importance away from Mecca, since the Umayyads were originally condemned in Mecca by those faithful to the previous Rashidun Caliphate.

The Umayyad expansion consolidated all of Northern Africa and moved into the Iberian Peninsula. It is their presence in Spain that led to the first big clash with Western Europe, when in 721 Odo the Great fought them at the Battle of Toulouse. I'll tell you about Toulouse tomorrow.

Sunday, February 26, 2023

The Rashidun Caliphate

After the death of Muhammad in June 632, his followers discussed who should carry on his message to all parts of the world. Muhammad's close companion Abu Bakr was named first caliph in Medina and promptly began converting the entire Arab Peninsula to Islam.

Abu Bakr died two years later and was succeeded by ʿUmar ibn al-Khaṭṭāb, Muhammad's father-in-law. Umar had originally been opposed to Muhammad, but had come around. As the second caliph, he expanded the caliphate to cover two-thirds of the Byzantine Empire as well as part of Persia. Jewish tradition claims Umar allowed Jews into Jerusalem to worship. Umar was assassinated in November 644 by a Persian slave.

Umar's successor was Uthman, who advanced Islam into Byzantine territory until he was assassinated in June 656.

From 656 until 661 the caliphate was headed by ʿAlī ibn Abī Ṭālib, a member of Muhammad's clan and had married Muhammad's daughter, Fatima. His election was opposed by the members of Uthman's clan, and they did not recognize his authority. After Ali, there were those who felt the caliphate should be ruled by heredity, as opposed to being ruled by political choices. Ali's rule was the beginning of the Shia-Sunni civil war.

Sunnis say that the first four caliphs were all related to Muhammad through marriage and were among his closest companions. They were the Rashidun, the "Rightly Guided" caliphs. The Shia group (about 10-15% of Muslims) claims that originally Muhammad chose Ali as his successor, but he was passed over for Abu Bakr. They said Islam should be led by descendants of Muhammad and Ali. Sunnis believe the leader should be chosen by political means, as were Abu Bakr, Umar, and Uthman.

This clash between the two groups ended the Rashidun Caliphate and gave rise to the Umayyad Caliphate,  which has been mentioned a few times in this blog. The Umayyads expanded Islam even further and  started clashing with Western Europe. We will see how that turned out tomorrow.

Saturday, February 25, 2023

The Father of the Kitten

Abu Hurairah (c.603 - 681) was a companion of Muhammad whose name (as it comes down to us) means "Father of the Kitten" because of his affection for cats. His real name is unknown, but medieval scholars looking back at his works think he may have been 'Abd al-Raḥmān ibn Ṣakhr. He converted to Islam after the leader of his tribe met and was impressed by Muhammad in Mecca. Going to Mecca to meet Muhammad himself, he found a stray kitten which he carried in his sleeve, earning him the nickname by which history knows him.

Abu Hurairah followed Muhammad in his travels, listening and learning from him. He was known for having a prodigious memory, and could recite thousands of hadith. Hadith (Arabic; "talk" or "discourse") are reports of what Muhammad said (or approved of based on his actions or inactions). He was so famous for his knowledge of these that one of the foremost authorities on jurisprudence admitted to marrying Abu Hurairah's daughter to be closer to Abu Hurairah and his knowledge of hadith.

Horses were also important to Abu Hurairah, but in a different way: he made himself a wealthy man by horses. Well, not just by breeding horses. He participated in the Ridda Wars, begun after Muhammad's death by the Rashidun Caliphate to bring to heel rebellious Arabian tribes. The Rashidun Caliphate was successful in all engagements, and the process of uniting all of the Arabian Peninsula under one rule was begun.

A mausoleum was constructed to honor him in 1274 by the Mamluk Sultan Baibars. There has been some scholarly disputation over the trustworthiness of the hadith attributed to Abu Hurairah, but it is mostly along Sunni-Shia lines: Abu Hurairah falls into the Sunni camp, and the minority Shia arguments are mostly ignored. 

The Rashidun Caliphate was the start of Islam spreading westward in the Mediterranean and toward Europe. I'll start talking about that campaign next time.

Friday, February 24, 2023

Cats in the Middle Ages

Dick Whittington's cat might have made his reputation according to the legend, but cats were not always a welcome sight in the Middle Ages. They were used in many amusing  marginalia, but they were considered to be linked to the supernatural and paganism. Fear of their presence, especially in time of trouble such as during the Black Death, led to events such as the Kattenstoet in Ypres.

Technically, Kattenstoet means "Festival of the Cats," which sounds delightful. It commemorates, however, the medieval practice of throwing cats from a high belfry tower in the Cloth Hall. This was considered symbolic of banishing evil. Nowadays it is less fatal for felines: a jester tosses plush toy cats from the tower to waiting arms below.

(Associating cats with the evil of the Black Death, of course, may have led to eliminating one of the potential brakes on its spread, because of course cats might have helped keep in line the spread of rodents whose fleas would have carried the disease.)

Cats weren't always disliked: the number of cats in the margin of manuscripts suggest that they were actually quite common in the monasteries where such manuscripts were being created. Cats also appear in many illustrations of domestic scenes, suggesting that they were a common pet.

The Islamic world saw cats as more preferable than "unclean" animals like dogs, probably because cats are seen cleaning themselves daily. Cats were even acceptable in mosques. Their reputation was probably enhanced by Abu Hurairah, a companion of Muhammad, whose name means "father of the kitten." He fed and cared for stray cats at his mosque. Abu Hurairah was not likely his real name, and his attachment to cats was not his most significant feature. I'll tell you more about him tomorrow.

Thursday, February 23, 2023

The Mayor's Cat

Dick Whittington (c.1354 - 1423) passed into popular literature because of a story about him and his cat. It was actually about 150 years after he was around that his name started to be used for a rags-to-riches story. As the story grew and was embellished, different versions were created, but the popular elements were as follows:

A poor orphan, Dick Whittington (the real Whittington was the son. of a Gloucestershire knight), seeks his fortune in London. Falling asleep on a stoop of a wealthy family, he is given a place to sleep and work as a scullion, cleaning the kitchen. He lives in a rat-infested garret, which is made safe because he has a cat (which he bought for a penny that he earned from shining shoes). Eventually, glad of a room but resentful that he is not paid money for his work, he leaves the house. During his journey, he hears the "London Bells" ringing, and they seem to be telling him to "Turn again, Whittington" and tell him he will become mayor. He returns to the house. At the spot where he heard the bells, the foot of Highgate Hill, is a monument to his cat (see illustration).

Skipping over a bit (a great deal, actually), there is a situation overrun by rats and mice. Dick's cat turns out to be exemplary at dealing with the rodent problem, and he is subsequently offered a great deal of money for the cat. Whittington becomes rich, marries his master's daughter (Alice Fitzwarren, which was the name of the real Whittington's wife), joins his new father-in-law in business, and is later elected mayor of London three times. (He was actually mayor four times, but once was when the king appointed him.)

The folk tale of a man with a useful cat is not unique to England. Two Italian versions are known. A German version is known from the 13th century. A 14th century Persian chronicle tells the same story of a widow's son who made his fortune because of his cat's hunting ability. Although the motif is found much earlier than the English version, the Aarne-Thompson classification system calls it the "Whittington's cat" motif.

Just as today, cats are everywhere, and had both good and bad reputations, which we will study next time.

Wednesday, February 22, 2023

Dick Whittington

One of the most prominent mayors of the City of London in the Middle Ages (and perhaps of all other eras) was Richard Whittington. He was born sometime in the 1350s into a well-to-do family, but as a younger son would not have expected to inherit anything substantial; he was therefore sent to London to learn to be a mercer (a merchant who deals in cloth). Fortunately, he was good at the trade, and by 1388 he was selling to the royal court. He used his growing wealth to become a moneylender, rather than buy property. This ingratiated him to many prominent people; King Richard II was borrowing from him in 1397.

By that time he had been a councilman, an alderman, and a sheriff as well as a powerful member of the Mercers' Company. In 1397, Mayor Adam Bamme died. London and the King were in the middle of a serious dispute: asserting mismanagement, King Richard had appropriated London's real estate. Richard forced London to accept Whittington as mayor. Richard owed Whittington money, and could simply default on the loan. If Whittington wanted his money, he would work with Richard to resolve the dispute. Within days, they struck a deal by which London would receive back all its real estate and right to self-government in exchange for £10,000. That was in June; in October, the citizens elected Whittington mayor in his own right.

In all, he was elected mayor 4 times (though not consecutively). When Richard II was deposed in 1399, Whittington's situation did not suffer: he also had business dealings with Bolingbroke, now King Henry IV, and so he remained on good terms with the (new) King. He also loaned large sums to Henry V, and continued to be successful, as a member of parliament representing London, and even as a judge in usury trials in 1421! Henry V also appointed him supervisor of the funds for rebuilding Westminster Abbey.

He was a magnanimous figure. Money from him helped to rebuild the Guildhall (used as town hall for centuries). He financed drainage systems for parts of London, a ward for unmarried mothers at a hospital, the rebuilding of his ward's church, and "Whittington's Longhouse," a public toilet that seated 128 and was situated so that high tide in the River Thames would flush it out. His will left £7000 to rebuild Newgate Prison, repair St. Bartholomew's Hospital, install public drinking fountains, and more.

Historians know him well, but schoolchildren in England know the name for things he never did, and we will look at that next. (There's a clue in the illustration.)

Tuesday, February 21, 2023

At Sixes and Sevens

In listing the Great Twelve Livery Companies of medieval London in the order of preference given to them, I deliberately skipped over explaining positions 6 and 7, because they changed every seven years.

The two livery companies involved were the Merchant Taylors Company and the Skinners Company.

The Merchant Taylors represented tailors and Linen Armourers. Linen Armourers made the padded tunics worn underneath a suit of armor to provide cushioning and prevent chafing from the metal armor. This group grew in importance because everyone needed clothing, and war was an ongoing concern much of the time.

The Skinners represented a luxury item: fur. Fur as part of clothing was expensive to import and therefore carefully regulated. Upper class needs included ermine and sable; lower class needs had to be satisfied with rabbit and cat.

Both livery companies received their royal charters in 1327 from Edward III, who not only loved opulence but also a year later was going to gear up for what became the Hundred Years War.

Rivalries between livery companies were not uncommon, but the rivalry between these two was particularly keen for some reason. The order of preference given to livery companies was not just "on paper": it determined who preceded whom in processions. In 1484, during the Lord mayor's river procession, the Skinners and Merchant Taylors treated the occasion as a boat race. This public display of rivalry (and public disruption) needed to be addressed. The Lord Mayor, Robert Billesdon (from the Haberdasher Company) created what is called the Billesdon Award.

The Billesdon Award requires each Company to host the Master and Wardens of the other company once each year. Also, each company should alternate precedence in processions each year. So all is settled and the two companies are reconciled? Not completely: the Merchant Taylors spell the Lord Mayor's name as Billesden, while the Skinners spell it Billesdon.

This is why in the previous post they were listed as alternating in positions 6 & 7. It is believed that the Billesdon Award is the origin of the phrase "at sixes and sevens," denoting a state of confusion or disarray.

Speaking of Lords Mayor and livery companies: one of the Lords Mayor was a wealthy Mercer who accomplished a lot during his life and term in office, but is perhaps most remembered now because of a cat. I'll tell you about him (the mayor, not the cat) next time.

Monday, February 20, 2023

The Great Twelve

Of all the livery companies in medieval London, 12 were considered the most important and influential. They were collectively referred to as the Great Twelve Livery Companies of the City of London. Which were considered the most important?

1. The Mercers: the word is related to "merchandise" and was a collection of all the shopkeepers of non-edible goods, a wide-ranging group!

2. The Grocers: they started early as the Guild of Pepperers, responsible for dealing in spices, but changed over time to represent more edibles. They were also charged with maintaining the official standards of weights and measures.

3. The Drapers: they regulated wool (and other) cloth in the City. The wool trade was enormously important to England's finances.

4. The Fishmongers: got their first royal charter from Edward I in 1272. Thanks to the Thames, fish was a popular staple.

5. The Goldsmiths: regulated the quality of gold and silver, crucial for coinage and trade. Gold and silver goods needed to be brought to their hall (currently on Foster Lane) for assay and approval, and marked legitimate; hence the term "hallmark." They were also responsible for checking quality of the output of the Royal Mint.

6 & 7. The Merchant Taylors & the Skinners:

8. The Haberdashers: besides hats, they sold caps, gloves, pins, and ribbons. They did not get a royal charter until 1448.

9. The Salters: salt could make a man rich. Not only used in cooking, it was part of the process for cleaning, bleaching, and degreasing leather. Salt was used for dying fabric. This group was expert in salting meat and fish.

10. The Ironmongers: they regulated the quality of iron which was necessary for use in wheels and other items.

11. The Vintners: they controlled the import of wine, which accounted for one-third of all imports in the 14th century! Today they still retain the right to sell wine besides (as with most other livery companies) doing charitable work.

12. The Clothworkers: in 1528, the Fullers (who prepared cloth by removing impurities like grease nd dirt) and the Shearmen (finishers who made sure the surface of the cloth was smooth) merged to become the Clothworker's Company.

But what was the deal with positions 6 and 7? Was it a tie for most important? Not quite: they agreed to take turns about who had precedence over the other. For those details, you'll have to come back for the next post.

Sunday, February 19, 2023

The Livery Companies

The word "livery," from the French livrée, "dispensed, handed over," refers to some identifying mark or clothing that denotes a person with a specific purpose.

Livery was often worn by the servants/household of a nobleman, often incorporating elements of the nobleman's coat of arms. Households would have "Livery Cupboards" for the storing of uniforms.

Livery could also be used by members of a particular group to show their connection. Chaucer's General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales  mentions:

An Habersasshere and a Carpenter,
A Webbe, a Dyere, and a Tapycer —
And they were clothed alle in o lyveree
Of a solempne and greet fraternitee.
Ful fressh and newe hir geere apiked was;

[A Haberdasher and a Carpenter,
A Weaver, a Dyer, and a Tapestry-maker—
And they were clothed all in the same livery
Of a solemn and great guild.
Very fresh and new their gear was adorned;]

London's guilds and trade associations were called "livery companies" because of the specific forms of dress they would use to distinguish themselves. They also each developed a coat of arms (some of which are pictured above). They provided regulation and quality control over their particular field, and were the only legitimate source of training and commerce if you wished to apprentice. You were not allowed to ply your trade unless you were a member of the appropriate livery company.

In 1516 the existing 48 livery companies were given an order of preference by the Lord Mayor (mostly based on their wealth and influence), of which there were a dozen designated as the most important, the so-called "Great Twelve." Ultimately, there were (and still are) 110 livery companies in London. These days their chief purposes are charitable giving and networking, similar to Rotary

Who were the 12 most important? I'll delay discussion on that until tomorrow.

Saturday, February 18, 2023

Guild of Pepperers

The Guild of Pepperers was established as early as 1180, and was responsible for the quality of spices and the setting of weights and measures related to spices. Pepper was a popular spice in Medieval Europe. Found originally on the Malabar Coast of India, it was spread to other regions. The dried cubebs were easy to transport without spoiling; added to dishes, either whole or ground, they brought a new flavor to Mediterranean and European cuisine.

Pliny, however, complained about pepper in his Natural History:

It is quite surprising that the use of pepper has come so much into fashion, seeing that in other substances which we use, it is sometimes their sweetness, and sometimes their appearance that has attracted our notice; whereas, pepper has nothing in it that can plead as a recommendation to either fruit or berry, its only desirable quality being a certain pungency; and yet it is for this that we import it all the way from India! Who was the first to make trial of it as an article of food? and who, I wonder, was the man that was not content to prepare himself by hunger only for the satisfying of a greedy appetite?

He also claimed that Rome spent 50 million sesterces a year on pepper!

The Guild of Pepperers managed prices and purity for not only spices like pepper, but also herbs, perfumes, drugs, and even sweets. This variety led to the name of the guild changing in 1345 to the Worshipful Company of Grocers of London. The illustration is their coat of arms.

Many of their members, however, were more than grocers; they fell into the category of what we would call apothecaries, and in 1617 this group formed their own Worshipful Society of Apothecaries. This Guild still exists today.

The Worshipful Company of Grocers of London, however, had its chief purpose taken over by Customs and Excise after 1666. Now they are mostly a charitable organization. Their headquarters, the Grocer's Hall, is where they receive and process applications for grants and scholarships. They are still one of the Great Twelve City Livery Companies.

...and what, you might ask, are the Great Twelve City Livery Companies, and are they important? I'll talk about that next time.

Friday, February 17, 2023

The Medieval Drugstore

The Ancient Greek ἀποθήκη (apothḗkē, "storehouse") became Latin apotheca and gave us the English word apothecary, used for both the place one would go to find pharmaceutical preparations and for the pharmacist himself who made the medicines to sell to doctors or directly to people requesting them. Apothecaries were also sources of medical advice for the common people. (Kings and wealthy folk had personal physicians.)

The apothecary was a source of many, many substances used either alone or in combination. Typical medical materials were herbs familiar to the modern seeker of comfort, such as chamomile, garlic, mint, or witch hazel. Less familiar as medicinal sources were dung, urine, animal fats, and even saliva. All these might be used in the production of materia medica, medicine.

The apothecary, as an expert in chemistry, was also a source of non-medicinal products: cosmetics, perfumes, dyes, and soaps.

Apothecary shops existed thousands of years before Chaucer, who wrote in The Canterbury Tales:

    Though in this toun is noon apothecarie,
    I shal myself to herbes techen yow,
    That shul been for youre hele and for youre prow.

    [Though in this town there is no apothecary,
    I myself shall teach you herbs
    That shall be for your health and for your pride.]

Apothecaries became more and more respected over time, and finally gained their own livery company, the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries, in 1617. That was not their first time in a guild, however: in 1617, they broke away from their original guild, the 12th century Guild of Pepperers. I'll tell you about them tomorrow.

Thursday, February 16, 2023

The King of Poisons...

...and the Poison of Kings are two nicknames given to arsenic.

As early as the Bronze Age, the mineral arsenic was added to bronze to make it harder, although isolating it chemically and understanding it as an element was not recorded until 815CE by Jābir ibn Hayyān. Albertus Magnus (pictured) isolated the element arsenic from arsenic trisulfide by heating it with soap in 1250.

Non-pure forms of arsenic were known much earlier. Dioscorides during Nero's reign described arsenic as a poison in the 1st century, noting its odorless and tasteless and colorless properties, making it ideal to mix with food or drink. Arsenic poisoning's side effects were similar to food poisoning, so immediate detection was unlikely. A sufficiently large dose, however, produced violent cramping, diarrhea, vomiting, and death.

You could also use smaller doses on a victim over time, leading to headaches, mental and physical fatigue, confusion, hair loss, and paralysis. The preferred form of arsenic was white arsenic, arsenic trioxide, whose fatal dose was the size of a pea.

Arsenic compounds exist everywhere: in groundwater and (as a result) in trace amounts in plants. Organic arsenic compounds can be found in low levels in seafood. Lettuce, kale, mustard, and turnip greens store arsenic in their leaves. Beets, turnips, carrots radishes, and potatoes store arsenic mostly in their skins. There is also arsenic in the plants of tomatoes, peppers, squash, cucumbers, peas, beans, corn, melons, and strawberries, but not the parts that we eat. (Apple seeds contain. cyanide, but that's another story.)

The Borgias of Italy—including Rodrigo Lanzol Borgia, who became Pope Alexander VI in 1492, and his son Cesare and daughter Lucrezia—were known for their use of arsenic for political and financial advancement. They would take advantage of legal loopholes to appropriate the estates of certain men after killing them with arsenic-laced wine.

In fact, poisoning became so common that Italian court documents show plenty of cases in which we find the details of the poisoning:

The poisoner made appointments and had set prices, the client named the victim and a contract was made, and the poisoner was paid when the job was done. [link]

There was also a woman named Giulia Toffana around this time who made arsenic-laced cosmetics, so the victims could be induced to poison themselves.

If you suspected you had been poisoned, what would you do? Probably go to an apothecary to buy a cure. We'll talk about medieval apothecaries next time.

Wednesday, February 15, 2023

So Many Poisons

We talked a little about the history of poison here, but now it's time to look at what Medieval Europe had at hand for killing enemies. Fortunately, there were many toxic substances available for dispatching an unwanted person: aconite, arsenic, datura, hemlock, henbane, and mandrake were a few.

Hemlock, made famous by the execution of Socrates, was no relation to the conifer. It comes from a plant in the carrot family found in Europe and North Africa. Every part—leaves, seeds, roots—is toxic when ingested. The toxicity remains up to three years after the plant is dead and dried, making it easy to import from its native land. It was less popular in the Middle Ages than in Classical Greece.

Aconite (monkshood, wolf's-bane, blue rocket, et alia) is common all over the Northern Hemisphere. It contains an alkaloid toxin called aconitine, which can "lead to diarrhea, convulsions, ventricular arrhythmia and death." A sufficient dose causes death within two to six hours.

Datura (jimsonweed, thornapples, devil's trumpets, moonflower) is extremely poisonous but was used by many North American tribes for its psychoactive properties. It is found all over the world (the illustration is the Western Hemisphere's datura inoxia), and Indian Thuggee practitioners used it routinely on victims in their sacrifices to the Hindu goddess Kali.

Henbane was used as an anesthetic, especially when combined with mandrake, deadly nightshade, and datura. Pliny said its use was similar to taking wine and therefore "offensive to the understanding."

Mandrake has long been used for magical rituals because of the branching root that vaguely resembles a human body, and because of the hallucinogenic alkaloids. Many in the 21st century likely heard of it for the first time because of the Harry Potter books and films.

Of course, these substances were available from any apothecary, or were cultivated and prepared by an individual without raising suspicion, because in small doses they were medicinal. Hemlock was used as a sedative and for swollen joints. Aconite in very small doses was thought to improve circulation. Dioscorides recommended henbane as a sedative.

I have deliberately skipped over arsenic, because it has such a long and glorious history that I felt it deserved its own entry, so please join me tomorrow for that.

Tuesday, February 14, 2023

Pre-Medieval Poison

The use of poison—a toxic substance deliberately introduced to a living creature for the sake of incapacitating or killing it—is found as early as 4500 BCE. How do we know? Grooves in ancient weapons, such as arrows, have been found to contain evidence of toxic substances like tubocurarine, an alkaloid found in the bark of a South American climbing vine. It paralyzed the muscles of a mammal, but did not prohibit eating the flesh safely. Pliny claimed there were over 7000 different poisons.

King Mithridates of Anatolia (114 - 63 BCE) was so paranoid about being poisoned that he worked hard to discover cures. He would test cures (after applying poisons) to criminals. He also attempted to immunize himself by taking minuscule amounts of poison himself daily. He eventually created a "cure-all," a mixture of dozens of substances, which he named Mithridatium. His notes on plants and cures were taken to Rome after Mithridates' kingdom was defeated by Pompey the Great. 

The Roman Empire brought poisoning "into the mainstream," using it to eliminate enemies and political rivals, even right at the dinner table. Several emperors were eliminated by poison, if we believe Roman historians. A praegustator or "pre-eater" (food taster) was a slave used to try out one's food for safety. If you could bribe a food taster, however, you could get rid of your victim easily. Of course the food taster in many cases ate the food when it was ready for eating, immediately prior to the diner tucking in, so there was no warning. If the diner and the food taster died with the same symptoms, however, the survivors knew it was poison, and could react accordingly (either seeking revenge or enjoying their nefarious plan).

The European Middle Ages likewise embraced poison to solve political problems:

Henri of Flanders (d. 1216), the second Latin emperor of Constantinople, and Blanche II of Navarre (d. 1464) were both supposedly poisoned by members of their own families. This was also the case for Robert IV of Artois, count of Eu, and his wife Joanna of Durazzo, who paid a visit to Joanna’s sister Margherita, Queen of Naples, in 1387. Neither of them would leave the royal residence of Castel dell’Ovo alive, ...

Dmitriy Yurievich Shemyaka, twice Grand Prince of Moscow, however, irritated the Muscovites ... In 1453, the city’s inhabitants bribed the prince’s cook to poison his roast chicken dinner. Other poisonings of high-ranking individuals remain unsolved: the Irish peer James Butler, earl of Ormond and a cousin of Anne Boleyn, died in London in 1546 as the apparent victim of poisoning along with seventeen other members of his household. [link]

Medieval apothecaries provided many different substances and the knowledge of their uses. What did they supply? Tomorrow we will look at several of the known poisons available at the time.

Monday, February 13, 2023

Tennis, Anyone?

The earliest version of the game now called "real tennis" (or court tennis or royal tennis) was jeu de paulme, literally "palm game," because a ball was hit back and forth with the hand. Paddles and racquets were introduced in the 16th century, and were standard by the late 17th century, but the original name stuck. "Tennis" derives from tenez, "hold," which a player would call to pause the game. The tennis that we normally think of is distinguished as "lawn tennis."

Believed to have been started by monks and villagers in the 12th century in northern France, it became the "sport of kings" when the French royalty took up the game. Louis X was an avid player, and died after a particularly vigorous game; he reportedly drank a large quantity of cooled wine and died of pneumonia or pleurisy (or poison, as is always suspected when a healthy king with potential claimants to the throne dies at 27).

Louis did not like playing outdoors, and constructed indoor courts, starting a trend for royal palaces across Europe. He is history's first tennis player known by name. King Charles V of France (1338 - 1380) had a tennis court created at the Louvre Palace. Henry VIII of England was also a fan.

The original court was very different from the modern one in use today. It had several different areas marked out. Let me give you a sense of the complexity of the game and the court:

The game is begun by a service which is always from the same end of the court (the service side). The opposite end of the court where the receiver stands is called the hazard side. The service does not alternate with each game as in lawn tennis. The server changes ends and ceases to serve only when a chase has been laid. The meaning of a chase will be explained below. To be a valid service the ball has to touch the penthouse roof at least once on the hazard side of the net and drop in the service court. If it does not touch the penthouse roof or if it hits a window or the roof it will be a fault. A second serve is available, as in lawn tennis. [Click this link if you want to be overwhelmed.]

The ball used would have been far less uniform than modern balls, and would have been prone (like Miss Climpson's eraser), to an eccentric bounce. Today's real tennis balls have cork centers, surrounded first by fabric and then string and then a hand-sewn layer of heavy woolen cloth. Traditionally white, the color has changed to the "optic yellow" of lawn tennis balls.

"Real tennis" is still played today; the century-old governing body is in France.

Poison has been mentioned in this and the previous post, as a rumor concerning the death of a king. Was poison that prevalent, or was it an "urban myth" of the time? How would someone in the Middle Ages go about poisoning someone? Let's take a look at that tomorrow.

Sunday, February 12, 2023

Louis' Second Marriage

Poor Louis X of France! He became king after his father's death, but he did not have an heir. (Well, he did, but she was a daughter, so...) He was married, but his wife had been imprisoned for life due to infidelity. To put away his wife and re-marry required an annulment from the pope, but the college of cardinals was still fighting over an election because of politics. What to do?

As it happens, his wife, Queen Consort Margaret of Burgundy, died in prison on 30 April 1315 after "catching a cold." Some say she was strangled. Of course there is no way to know if the story of the cold was made-up and someone had her eliminated to resolve the crisis.

Whatever the case, Louis was free to marry again, and he did. Louis married Clementia of Hungary (pictured here) on 19 August. Less than a year later, on 5 June 1316, Louis died after playing tennis. Clementia was pregnant at the time, and this created a question: if she gave birth to a son, he would have precedence over Louis' daughter by Margaret. If she gave birth to a daughter, then the elder daughter, Joan, would have precedence; on the other hand, Margaret's affair raised questions as to the true parentage of Joan.

Louis' brother Philip was appointed regent for the five months until Clementia gave birth. On 15 November 1316, King John I was born and reigned under his uncle Philip's regency for five days until his death on the 20th. He is the youngest person to be King of France, and the only King of France to hold the title for his entire life. Of course there were rumors that Philip had him killed, especially since Philip succeeded him as Philip V. The child mortality rate was very high, however: estimates for the medieval era worldwide are that one in four children died in the first year of life.

But let us not just ignore that Louis died after playing tennis. Was his death connected to the tennis game? And tennis? In 1316? Of course you are curious about tennis in the Middle Ages, and I will attempt to satisfy that curiosity next time.

Saturday, February 11, 2023

The Empty Papacy

The Avignon Papacy, when the French Pope Clement V decided to move the papal headquarters from Rome to Avignon, was not a simple change in geographical location. Many non-French cardinals and others opposed the move, and the rivalries that rose led in one case to the longest period in history without a functioning pope.

Clement died 20 April 1314. The papal conclave to elect a successor was convened on 1 May and lasted until 7 August 1316 with the election of John XXII. The conclave had such a difficult time electing a pope because of three opposing factions of cardinals: Italian (eight cardinals, who wanted to return to Rome), Gascon (10 cardinals, who enjoyed the convenience of having the papal offices so close to home), and French/Provençal (five cardinals, who did not appreciate a return to Rome or the special privileges enjoyed by the Gascon cardinals under the Aquitainian Clement V).

The Italian cardinals tried and failed to gain the support of the Provençal cardinals. The various groups were refusing to meet until they could get their own politics worked out. King Philip IV of France convened a group of jurists to help find a resolution, but he died on 29 November 1314. His son, Louis X, tried to get the cardinals to come together at Lyons.

Louis had a special reason to get a pope elected. His wife had been imprisoned for adultery, but automatically became queen consort when Louis succeeded his father to the throne. Louis wanted a wife to rule by his side and bear children, but without a pope, he could not obtain the annulment he needed. Louis died on 5 June 1316, and the papal conclave became the problem of his brother, Philip, who locked the cardinals in a Dominican convent until they made a final decision.

Ultimately, a compromise candidate was chosen: Jacques d'Euse was 72 years old, and his selection seems to have been a way of "kicking the can down the road" so that they could have a pope now, knowing that they would be having this discussion again presently. Jacques d'Euse surprised them all, however, ruling as Pope John XXII from 7 August 1316 until his death on 4 December 1334!

But back to Louis X of France. He never did get an annulment, but his problem was solved another way, and he was able to remarry and produce a son by his new wife, a son who reigned as King of France for five days. For that sad tale, you will have to wait until next time.

Friday, February 10, 2023

The Tour de Nesle Affair

In the early 13th century, Philip II of France fortified Paris with four large guard towers. The Tour de Nesle (the "s" is silent) on the south bank of the Seine was 10 meters in diameter and 25 meters tall. The illustration shows it in 1608, a few decades before it was taken down. In 1314, it became the site of a huge royal scandal.

King at the time was Philip IV, who in 1307 had managed to get the pope to condemn the Templars, allowing him to seize all their assets for himself. He had three sons and one daughter, Isabella of France. The sons (each of whom had a turn as king) were Louis, who was married to Margaret, daughter of Robert II, Duke of Burgundy; Philip, who married Joan the daughter of Otto IV, Count of Burgundy; and Charles, who married Blanche, another of Otto's daughters.

In 1313, Isabella and Edward II of England visited her parents in France, during which Isabella presented her sisters-in-law with embroidered purses. (Note that these would not have been a modern "lady's purse" but a pouch for carrying coins.) Upon the couple's return to England, a feast was held in their honor. During the gathering, Isabella saw two of the embroidered purses in the possession of two visiting Norman knights, the brothers Walter and Philip Aunay.

Walter was an equerry to Prince Philip, and Philip was an equerry to Prince Charles. An equerry was a "personal assistant" responsible for the horses of a royal personage. Isabella concluded that her sisters-in-law had given the purses to the men for "special favors" and, when she re-visited France in 1314, informed her father of her suspicions. Philip placed the men and his daughters-in-law under surveillance, eventually deterring that Blanche and Margaret had been meeting the two men for drinking and debauchery in the Tour de Nesle, while the third daughter-in-law, Joan, had been aware of the carousing (though not a participant).

Philip gathered enough evidence to accuse those involved publicly. The two sisters were found guilty of adultery, had their heads shaved, and were sentenced to life imprisonment. Joan was found innocent, especially with her husband speaking up for her. (Joan and Philip had a notably romantic marriage: several children in a short space of time, and numerous love letters written by Philip.)

The brothers (under torture) confessed their adultery, were found guilty of lèse-majesté, "crime against the dignity of the crown," and were beaten, skinned alive, covered in boiling lead sulfite, and hanged. Other reports say they were castrated and beheaded. Whatever their fate, it was brutal and terminal.

Some think the stress of the Tour de Nesle affair contributed to Philip IV's death later that year. He was succeeded by Louis in 1315. Margaret, held underground at Château Gaillard, became Queen of France automatically. Louis would have liked to avoid this, but he could not get his marriage annulled because to do so required the pope. Why could he not procure an annulment from the pope? Simple: there wasn't one.

I'll explain next time.

Thursday, February 9, 2023

The She-Wolf of France, Part 2

In 1325, Queen Isabella went to see her brother, King Charles IV of France, to negotiate over Charles' seizing of King Edward II's possessions on the continent. She was likely also very glad to get away from England, where Edward's close companion and new chamberlain, Hugh le Despenser the Younger, was making her miserable. She stayed there for some time with her son, Edward.

In Christmas 1325 she was still at her brother's court and encountered Roger Mortimer. Mortimer, 3rd Baron Mortimer of Wigmore and 1st Earl of March, had fled England after escaping from the Tower of London where he had been imprisoned for life after rebelling against Edward in the Despenser War. Rumors that Isabella and Mortimer developed a romantic relationship led them to leave the royal court. Each of them was married; Mortimer had gained great wealth and land through his wife.

According to the contemporary biographer who wrote the Vita Edwardi Secundi ("Life of Edward II"), Mortimer threatened to slit Isabella's throat if she returned to Edward. They first went to Flanders, then Isabella went to Ponthieu to raise troops and Mortimer (with Prince Edward) went to raise support in Hainault.

On 24 September 1326, Isabella and her son arrived back in England (see illustration). London allied with her, and Edward II fled westward, hiding out in Wales for a few weeks until he was captured on 16 November and imprisoned in Kenilworth Castle. A January 1327 Parliament was convened to discuss the situation, but they had a problem: there was no mechanism for removing a king. A delegation was sent to inform him that if he did not abdicate in favor of his son, his son might be disinherited and the kingship go to an alternate candidate. Edward chose to abdicate on 21 January. Edward II was crowned on 1 February.

In truth, the next few years in England were run by Isabella and Mortimer as regents for the young Edward. Their rule was not welcome by many of the barons, and the threat of civil war was never far away. Also, there were many lawyers and others who claimed Edward II was still king, and the chance that former supporters would try to restore him was not zero. Edward II was moved from Kenilworth to the more secure Berkeley Castle and put under the charge of Lord Berkeley. On 23 September, a message came from Berkeley that Edward had died from a "fatal accident." Rumors abounded: that Isabella had him killed; that Mortimer had him killed; that he had escaped and was hiding in disguise somewhere in Wales or on the continent. Edward's heart was given in a silver casket to Isabella. 

When Edward III came into his majority, Isabella's authority in the country faded, although as the king's mother she was treated well. Edward had Mortimer taken to the Tower, after which he was accused of assuming royal power improperly and other crimes. On 29 November 1330, he was taken from the Tower to Tyburn Hill and hanged. His wife was pardoned of any part in her husband's crimes, and all Mortimer's lands were taken by Edward.

Isabella wound up in Castle Rising in Norfolk with a yearly income of £3000, which rose to £4000 by 1337. Her lifestyle was lavish with plenty of staff and extras like minstrels. The She-Wolf who had turned on her husband and taken over a country doted on her children and grandchildren and became more interested in religion, making several visits to shrines. She eventually took the veil with the Poor Clares. When she died on 22 August 1358, she was buried at the Franciscan church at Newgate with the silver casket containing Edward's heart.

She survived the accusations of an improper relationship with Mortimer, but she knew well the dangers involved in female infidelity. In fact, she herself was intimately involved in a French royal scandal involving adultery. Tomorrow I'll tell you about the Tour de Nesle affair.

Wednesday, February 8, 2023

The She-Wolf of France, Part 1

Isabella of France (c.1295 - 1358) was a queen whose father and three brothers all became kings. Although she was used for a political marriage at an early age, she grew up understanding how to wield power of her own. So at a point when her husband, Edward II of England, was having yet more difficulties with his barons and relying more on the objectionable Hugh le Despenser the Younger, she decided to do something radical about the situation.

At the beginning of their marriage, to be fair, Edward had relied on his French in-laws for help, such as Isabella's uncle Louis of Évreux (who advised trying for a peaceful solution to the split among his barons after Gaveston's death). Edward even trusted Isabella with the Great Seal on occasion, as you will see.

During earlier problems with the barons, Isabella had gone to France to assure that the French would come to Edward's aid if a civil conflict broke out. Later tensions in England however, both political and personal, motivated Isabella to act against her husband. The Despensers convinced Edward to take control of the lands in Isabella's possession in 1324, giving him the taxes and leaving Isabella dependent on the king for her finances. She was forced to trim her retinue of many retainers and friends. Worse for Isabella, one of her ladies-in-waiting was Eleanor de Clare. A niece of Edward, Eleanor had been married to Hugh the Younger, making her a spy in Isabella's household, reporting on her communications.

As of 1321 she had still supported her husband and his faction (including the Despensers) against the faction led by Thomas of Lancaster. On a pilgrimage to Canterbury, she stopped by Leeds Castle, held by the king's steward who had allied himself with Lancaster. The steward was away, and his wife refused entry to the queen, causing a fight to break out between the two groups and resulting in the death of some of Isabella's guards. Historians believe this was staged as a casus belli, giving Edward a reason to answer the royal insult by besieging Leeds and teaching a lesson to his steward—on this occasion he left Isabella with the Great Seal and in charge of Chancery—placing the steward's wife and children in the Tower and executing 13 of the Leeds garrison.

This was the start of the Despenser War, in which the king and his allies fought barons led by Humphrey de Bohun and Roger Mortimer. It was relatively brief; within a year, Lancaster was captured and executed and the rest forced to surrender. Mortimer was sentenced to death, but the sentence was commuted to life imprisonment in the Tower. In August 1323, however, he escaped and fled to France. Warrants were put out for his return, dead or alive.

Isabella's brother Charles was now King Charles IV of France, and he seized England's possessions in France. Isabella went to France with Edward's blessing, ostensibly to ask her brother for peace. At Charles' court, however, she found none other than Roger Mortimer, who had been not long before on the "other side" of her political position. From helping her husband start a war to deal with his enemies, to becoming his enemy because she saw Edward's rule becoming increasingly inappropriate, seemed to be an easy shift for her.

The alliance between Isabella and Mortimer led to deposing Edward and crowning her son; details tomorrow.

Tuesday, February 7, 2023

Isabella of France

Isabella of France was the only surviving daughter of King Philip IV of France and Joan I of Navarre, promised to the Prince of Wales (later King Edward II) by the 1303 Treaty of Paris. That she was eight at the time was not unusual—Philip used all his children for political marriages—and the marriage itself did not take place until 25 January 1308, so that she was respectably a teenager. Ironically, the marriage was meant to cease hostilities between England and France, but its chief issue (Edward III) would produce both a claimant to the French throne and the Hundred Years War. There is evidence that Edward I would have preferred his son marry someone from Gascony, but the Treaty's terms tied his hands. As it is, the marriage did not take place until after Edward I's death.

She was raised in Paris, learning to read and developing a love of books (she may have been more literate than her husband). The records of her wardrobe indicate the wealth from which she came: dresses of velvet and taffeta, furs, 72 headdresses, over 400 yards of linen, and two gold crowns. She also brought to the marriage gold and silver dinnerware.

A contemporary chronicler called her "the beauty of beauties... in the kingdom if not in all Europe." Since her father was called le Bel ("the Fair") because of his looks, and her brothers were all described as handsome men, it is likely that her description was not just courtly flattery. Contemporaries also commented on her charm, her skill at persuasion, and her intelligence. It was specifically said that she took after her father, not her mother, who was said to be short and heavy.

Although she well understood the duties of a woman married for political expedience, she was likely annoyed at her new husband's preference for the company of certain others, such as Piers Gaveston and Hugh le Despenser the Younger. Although she and Piers are said to have made peace with each other, Hugh was less gracious, and her husband's increasing closeness to Hugh (after Gaveston's death) ultimately motivated her to return to France and raise an army to invade England and deal with her increasingly wayward husband.

Still, between 1312 and 1321, she bore him four children, one of whom succeeded Edward as king, one of whom became queen of Scotland. She also stood by his side through some difficult times with his barons, until Hugh le Despenser started deliberately giving her cause for anger and desire for revenge. Ultimately, she felt she had no choice to ally herself with others and invade England, deposing her husband and eliminating Despenser.

How she managed the invasion and earned the epithet "She Wolf of France" will be offered in more detail in the next post.

Monday, February 6, 2023

The Worst Briton

Hugh le Despenser the Younger was an able administrator and close friend and advisor of King Edward II, who had made Hugh his chamberlain. He was not well-liked, however, by many of the king's barons, nor by the general populace.

His problem was exercising too much power, so much so that he easily made enemies of powerful people. Moreover, the liberty with which he wielded authority—he was referred to as a "second king"—brought accusations against the king: that they were "too close." Hugh was accused of sodomy, a charge not even leveled at Piers Gaveston, of whom a modern age has no trouble assuming a homosexual relationship with Edward.

But Hugh had failed to do something that Gaveston had accomplished: treating Queen Isabella with respect. As chamberlain, he removed her children from her care, and mocked her for being French. As much as Edward's nobles may have hated the Despensers, the people also hated the influence on their king and the taxes promoted by his chamberlain. Some citizens of Coventry even hired a magician to kill the Despensers through sorcery.

Hugh was killed by ordinary means, however. Isabella partnered with Roger Mortimer to raise a force to rebel against her husband. Their assault on the king started in September 1326; in November, Edward and Hugh were captured. Edward was forced to abdicate in favor of his son, who became King Edward III.

Hugh was taken to Hereford. He began a hunger strike, perhaps hoping to die before what was liable to be a painful execution. On 24 November he had his trial in the market square in Hereford. He was charged with treason, of returning to England after banishment, of stealing (he had spent a part of his exile engaging in piracy), et cetera. The punishment for thievery was hanging; the punishment for treason was to be drawn and quartered.

He was stripped naked and dragged by horses to the walls of his own castle where a scaffold had been raised. There, in front of the populace as well as Isabella and Mortimer, he was hanged, drawn, and quartered. Jean Froissart, a French youth who came to Edward III's court, says Despenser's genitals were cut off and his entrails pulled out while he was still alive. Froissart was born after this event, however, and relies on an account by Jean le Bel, who was known for only relaying what he could learn by eyewitnesses. No contemporary English account mentions the castration, however.

Despenser's head was cut off and displayed in London. The rest of him was cut into four pieces and sent off display to Bristol, Dover, Newcastle, and York.

BBC History Magazine has labeled him the 14th century's worst Briton.

With the forced abdication of Edward II and elevation of his son Edward, Isabella was now mother to a 14-year-old king. She had proven herself to be able to take matters into her own hands and achieve bold results. Where did she come from, and what happened next for her? Let's take a close look at Isabella of France next time.

Sunday, February 5, 2023

Those Despensers!

One of the complaints about King Edward II of England by his barons was that he took the wrong people into his confidence and acted on their advice. Much is made of the colorful and witty Piers Gaveston, who Edward's father had attached to his son's household while they were both young. Many historians allow discussing Gaveston's relationship with Edward to overshadow the influence on Edward of the Despensers.

Hugh le Despenser the Younger was a few years younger than Edward. Through no effort on his own part, he became extremely wealthy and powerful. The young king—who was known for treating friends and favorites well—gave him estates and castles. His marriage to Eleanor de Clare in summer of 1306 was partially arranged because her grandfather, Edward I, owed Hugh's father 2000 marks. The debt was considered paid by his marriage into a wealthy noble family. Since his wife was also niece of the new king, Hugh was even closer to the royal family.

Then her brother was killed in 1314 at the Battle of Bannockburn. Her brother was Gilbert, 8th Earl of Gloucester, and through Eleanor Hugh inherited one-third of the Gloucester estates. Landless when first knighted, in a few years he became one of the wealthiest knights in England.

A few years after Gaveston's death, Edward elevated Hugh to the important position of chamberlain. The older barons saw this as yet another instance of Edward forsaking them for younger and less suitable councillors.

Hugh was not careful with his authority, alienating Edward's queen, Isabella of France. He also vowed revenge on Roger Mortimer, whom Queen Isabella took into her confidence (and perhaps her bed), because Mortimer's grandfather had killed Hugh's grandfather. Hugh also was known to seize lands that were not his own, and cheating others of their properties. In August of 1321, the barons forced Hugh and his father, Hugh le Despenser the Elder, into exile. The Vita Edwardi Secundi ("Life of Edward the Second"), covering the years of Edward's reign up to 1326, says the Younger became a pirate in the English Channel during this time, "a sea monster, lying in wait for merchants as they crossed the sea."

Edward recalled the Despensers from exile, and they and their forces helped him to put down a rebellion, capture Mortimer, and execute one of Edward's harshest critics, Lancaster. The wheel of fortune turns, however, and there was no long and contented life ahead of Hugh. For details of his death, you will have to come back tomorrow.

Saturday, February 4, 2023

The King's Favorite

In 1307, the Knights Templar were condemned in France by Philip IV and lost their possessions and lives. One of the accusations was that they indulged in sodomy. Sexual morality was a concern in Western European society, and accusations of perversion had great consequences for the accused.

A year later, Philip married his daughter, Isabella of France, to Edward II of England. Edward's letters to Isabella while he was away show affection. Later, however, his closeness to Piers Gaveston and Hugh Despenser the Younger became an issue: Edward spent his coronation feast in 1308 by Gaveston's side and not Isabella's. Isabella and Gaveston did form a relationship, and Edward and Isabella had children in 1312, 1318, 1321, and 1324.

Gaveston had many strikes against him in the barons' eyes: he was wittier than they, tended to give them unflattering nicknames, and was a better jouster. When Edward made the young man from Gascony Earl of Cornwall, there were many complaints about an earldom in foreign hands. His closeness to Edward meant Edward ignored the counsel of many more established men, although not all: Edward had plenty of well-respected men in positions of authority to run the kingdom.

But the barons' and Edward were in conflict during his entire reign, as was the case with his father's. When they decided that he needed to be deposed in favor of his eldest son (who would become Edward III), they drew up the Articles of Deposition (1327). There were six items:

1. That he is incompetent
2. That he won't listen to good counsel
3. That he lost Scotland (honestly, his father never gained Scotland, so to say he "lost" it...)
4. He has destroyed holy church (he actually built and supported many churches)
5. He has not done justice according to his coronation oath (see here)
6. He has done all he could to ruin his realm.

Curiously, no hint of improper sexual behavior.

The first hint of such comes 50 years later when a Cistercian in the abbey at Meaux accuses the king not of sodomy but of "too much sodomy." A contemporary historian, writing two years before Edward's death, refers to Edward's and Gaveston's relationship in comparison to David and Johnathan from the Old Testament, "a love which is said to have surpassed the love of women." That writer claims the hatred of Gaveston is because he was a foreigner and an upstart.

Did Edward and Gaveston have a homosexual relationship? It is certainly possible. Did they? Even those who hated Gaveston and killed him, and hated Edward and deposed him, never chose to accuse either of that sexual activity. The popularity of that view starts with Christopher Marlowe (1564 - 1593), and has provided fodder for controversy among historians ever since. The illustration is a 19th century painting showing the two cavorting while courtiers look on in concern. People can (and do) read into the facts whatever conclusion they prefer.

But those Despensers? So despised that devout Christians would even hire a magical hitman to eliminate them? Let's find out what they were guilty of next time.

Friday, February 3, 2023

King on the Run

Piers Gaveston, close friend and favorite of King Edward II, was exiled from England three times: once by Edward's father and twice by Edward's nobles, but he never stayed away long. He was twice recalled by his friend, but the third time it seems he returned surreptitiously on his own.

His third and final exile leaves us with questions: he was not allowed to be in any of England's possessions, so he could not go to Ireland (the location of his second exile), and could not be in Aquitaine or his home of Gascony. Whatever the case, after only two months of absence, he showed up in England about Christmas 1311, and seems to have joined the king on 11 January, traveling with him to his estates at Tintagel and Wallingford. A week later, in defiance of the Ordinances of 1311, Edward boldly restored all of Gaveston's lands and titles (such as Earl of Cornwall) and declared the reasons for the exile unlawful.

What happens next isn't called a civil war, which usually describes a country divided. In fact, there was very little division: it was simply Edward and Gaveston against almost everyone else. Archbishop Winchelsey of Canterbury excommunicated Gaveston. The nobles, led by Lancaster, assembled for war and some were charged with arresting Gaveston. On 4 May, Edward and Gaveston were together at Newcastle and had to flee Lancaster's forces so rapidly that Edward left behind his treasury and household goods and his pregnant wife! The two split up, Edward heading to York (possible to try to muster some military forces) and Gaveston went to his castle of Scarborough and fortified it. A large force led by four nobles besieged Scarborough, and Gaveston surrendered to them on 19 May under conditions.

The earls of Pembroke, Warenne, and Percy swore to keep him safe while they took him to York to negotiate with the king over his (maybe for real this time) "final" fate. Pembroke went further, pledging to give up his lands and titles if he did not honor the promise of safe conduct. They met with the king and then, since they needed to negotiate with the rest of the ruling class, it was decided that Pembroke would keep custody of Gaveston and take him south. In June, however, while stopping in Deddington, Pembroke decided to spend a night with his wife, who was 12 miles away. He left Gaveston and some guards at a rectory.

Warwick, whom Gaveston had insulted by calling him a "black dog," learned that Gaveston was in Deddington. He surrounded the rectory and took custody of Gaveston—caught him sleeping, in fact, and arrested him before he was fully dressed—and took him to his castle at Warwick. Pembroke, who had chivalrously promised safe conduct for Gaveston with a huge penalty to himself if he failed of his oath, felt that he had been dishonored by Warwick and appealed to have Gaveston returned to his care. No one was willing to support his side; not even Gloucester, whose sister was Gaveston's wife.

The Earls of Warwick, Lancaster, Hereford, and Arundel gathered at Warwick and condemned Gaveston to death for violating the terms of his last exile. As technically the Earl of Cornwall and brother-in-law of the Earl of Gloucester, it was decided that he deserved a "nobleman's death" by being beheaded. On 19 June he was dragged to Blacklow Hill on Lancaster's land, and while the earls watched from a distance (except the "black dog" Warwick, who was apparently simply content to know that the execution was taking place), two Welsh soldiers handled the matter: one stabbed him with a sword and the second struck his head off. (The illustration above  represents Guy de Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick, standing over the beheaded corpse of Gaveston.)

The head was taken to Lancaster. The body was left there where it lay. As an excommunicate, Christian burial was denied him. The corpse was eventually taken in by some Dominicans (Edward was a patron of theirs), and the king paid them for maintaining it while proper interment could be arranged. Edward finally procured a papal absolution in 1315, allowing him to bury his friend with an elaborate ceremony at the Dominican priory. The tomb has since been lost.

Many scholars cannot mention Gaveston as Edward's "friend" without adding the phrase "and lover." What was the precise nature of their relationship? No one knows for sure, but we can look at what little evidence we have of their relationship and make our own guesses. Join me here next time for some creative conjecture. 

Thursday, February 2, 2023

An Interpreted Oath

The coronation of Edward II on 25 February 1308 was marked by controversy. It was delayed a week, probably because Winchelsey, Archbishop of Canterbury, was ill, and Edward wanted him to perform the ceremony. The ceremony had to proceed finally with the Bishop of Winchester. The crown and sword in the procession were carried by Piers Gaveston, the king's favorite, whose behavior bothered many of the barons. When the masses entered Westminster Hall for the feast, prominent on the wall were new tapestries displaying the arms of Edward and Gaveston. The arms of Edward's new wife, Isabella, are not mentioned by reports. It is reported that throughout the feasting the new king spent time with Gaveston, not Isabella.

The coronation oath, which Edward took in French—a Latin version was available, but since the entire court spoke French, it made sense to forsake the Latin—contained a fourth clause whose ambiguity led to much discussion. This clause had been added by the barons to create a special obligation for Edward. (This clause remains in the oath even now.) It states that the king would "uphold and defend the laws and the righteous customs which the community of your realm should determine."

The debate began over the composition of the "community." The barons insisted they were the community, and that they would determine the "laws and righteous customs." That was the obligation that they invoked when objecting to Edward's favor of Gaveston. They pressured Edward until, on 18 May 1308, he avoided civil war by signing letters patent that stripped Gaveston of his titles and exiled him from England by 25 June. Archbishop Winchelsey weighed in, promising to excommunicate Gaveston if he failed to quit England.

Edward didn't leave his friend high and dry: he appointed him Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, gave him blank royal charters, and gave him a royal send-off from Bristol. Gaveston was no fool: he proved to be a competent and generous lieutenant, and suppressed a couple rebellions. His time in England was not over, either: when the barons presented Edward with a list of demands at the Parliament of 27 April 1309, Edward promised to grant them their desires...if he were allowed to bring back Gaveston.

Gaveston was in no way chastised by his exile, and his return brought with it a return of the behavior objectionable to the peerage. A further set of demands made of Edward, the Ordinances of 1311, included Gaveston's exile again, under penalty of outlawry if he should return. But return he did in late 1311, setting off his excommunication.

The nobles of England were all too happy to put their resources into finding and capturing him. Some of his enemies acted honorably, some not. The story includes a king and a criminal "going on the run," and I'll share it with you next time.

Wednesday, February 1, 2023

Piers Gaveston

When Edward Caernarvon was crowned King Edward II of England, on 25 February 1308, the Earl of Cornwall carried the crown and sword in the procession. Nothing unusual about that, but that evening at the feast eyebrows were raised when the Earl wore royal purple, a color usually reserved for the king, rather than the "formal-wear" cloth of gold of the rest of the court.

Piers Gaveston was born about 1284, son of a Gascon knight, Arnaud Gaveston. Although later critics complained that Piers had been "raised up from nothing," his family was not unknown. Arnaud's tomb is in Winchester Cathedral, and the carving shows his legs crossed, indicating that he went on Crusade.

We do not know details about Piers' early life, but Edward I considered it appropriate to appoint him to the prince's household. (The illustration shows Ian McKellen as Edward and James Laurenson as Gaveston in the 1970 Edward II.) Later reports suggest that he was very accomplished and clever, but that was not always a benefit under the circumstances:

The baronage of England, moreover, did not take kindly to a royal favourite who could unhorse them in the lists, and who could also pierce the armour of their dignity with his barbed Gascon wit. It is difficult today to understand why the tough barons of fourteenth-century England were so incensed at the nicknames invented for them, and it is equally difficult to appreciate the Gascon's wit. [Edward II, Harold Hutchinson, p.57]

Sticks and stones might have broken their bones, but names apparently really rankled the rest of the barons and courtiers. Thomas of Lancaster, the king's cousin, was called "a fiddler"; the Earl of Pembroke, Aymer de Valence, a respected member of Edward I's court, was nicknamed "Joseph the Jew"; Warwick was called the "black dog of Arden"; Warwick and Gaveston's relationship would climax in a deadly manner.

An annoying member of the court could be ignored under some circumstances, but this one was an especial favorite of the new king. That relationship allowed him to abuse his fellow lords with impunity—for a time. As it happens, the barons were able to deal with Gaveston in part because of the king's own coronation oath, which included a phrase that was ambiguous enough it could be interpreted in their favor. How that worked out, and other reasons why they were so opposed to Gaveston, are a story for next time.