torsdag 28. oktober 2010

Blanche of Lancaster

(photo from a tapestry)

The woman to whom "The Book of the Duchess" by Geoffrey Chaucer is dedicated to, Blanche of Lancaster,  was the first and beloved wife of John of Gaunt (yes, he who later married his mistress Katherine Swynford from whom the Tudors claimed the throne). Even though she was deeply loved by her husband, and the mother of the future Henry IV, Blanche is not the woman we hear about the most when it comes to John of Gaunt, as his mistress (and later wife) tends to overshadow her (as the mighty Tudors descended from Katherine and John’s issue).

Blanche was born at Bolingbroke Castle on the 25th of March in 1345. Her parents were Henry of Grostmont, the 1st Duke of Lancaster, and Isabel de Beaumont. She is described as to have been beautiful, with blonde hair, blue eyes, and she was a calm and peaceful person.

She was married to her third cousin, John of Gaunt on the 19th of May 1359, when she was fourteen years old. He was the third son of Edward III and Philippa of Hainhault. It was a very happy and loving marriage, and Blanche quickly became pregnant and gave birth to the couple’s first child, Philippa, only five days after Blanche herself had turned fifteen. She gave birth to five more children, but out of the six, only half survived infancy.

In 1361, Blanche’s father died without male issue, and the title of Duke of Lancaster became extinct. Together with her sister Maud, Blanche was the co-heiress to the Duchy of Lancaster. A year later her sister died, and the title of Duke of Lancaster was later bestowed on Blanche’s husband.

When the bubonic plague struck in 1369, Blanche was one of its victims, and she died at the age of only 24, the 12th of September at the same castle as she was born.
Her funeral at St. Paul's Cathedral in London was preceded with a magnificent cortege attended by most of the nobility and clergy. Her husband had Geoffrey Chaucer, then a young squire and mostly unknown writer of court poetry, commissioned to write The Book of the Duchess, in her honour. In short, the poem tells the story of the poet’s dream. Wandering through a wood, the poet discovers a knight clothed in black (John of Gaunt), and inquires of the knight’s sorrow. Throughout the poem, pieces of the knight’s story become more and more apparent, until the cause of the mourning (the death of Blanche) is plainly stated and the dream abruptly ends. It is a very long poem, consisting of nearly 9000 words! Blanche was honoured indeed.
What is interesting while studying the poem is that it seems that at least one of its aims was to make John see that his grief for his late wife had become excessive, and so Chaucer tried to make him overcome it.
When John of Gaunt died 25 years after his first wife, he was buried next to her, and the two of them are buried in an unknown place somewhere in St. Paul’s Cathedral.

onsdag 20. oktober 2010

Anne Seymour, Duchess of Somerset

Born Anne Stanhope cirka 1497 to Sir Edward Stanhope of Sudbury and Elizabeth Bourchier, Anne was through her mother a direct descendant of Thomas of Woodstock, the youngest son of King Edward III of England and his wife, Queen Philippa of Hainault. Anne’s father had been married once before, so Anne had two older half-brothers – Richard Stanhope and Sir Michael Stanhope. The latter was selected for the governorship of Hull, was knighted, and made Shelford Priory his residence.

In 1511 Anne came as a maid of honour to Queen Catherine, and in 1529 Edward Seymour (the brother of Queen Jane, yes) noticed her and fell in love with her. They were married in 1535 (Anne being his second wife, his first, Catherine, had led an affair with his father, woah!)
As Jane became queen a year after Anne married her brother, Edward was elevated to Viscount Beauchamp, and shortly thereafter elevated again to earl, becoming the first Earl of Hertford. Ten years later, in 1547, he was elevated to Duke of Somerset, thus making Anne Duchess of Somerset.

Anne gave birth to ten children, among them Edward Seymour who married Lady Catherine Grey (younger sister of Lady Jane Grey, the Nine Days Queen). When Elizabeth I became queen she had the two lovers impersonated, as they had married without her consent, and the fact that they had two sons was a minor threat to Elizabeth’s reign as Catherine had a claim to the throne, through her grandmother, Mary, who was the daughter of Henry VII. Anne supported her daughter-in-law's claims to the throne as that meant that her grandson could become King of England.

The Duchess of Somerset was described as being a “violent woman", a "devilish woman & 'monstrous' in her pride”. Lady Hertford constantly made scenes in public, and she was spitefully unforgiving, haughty, grasping and bad tempered. She was universally disliked by those in the Royal Court. She has also been held responsible for the fate of her husband Edward, having urged him to adopt the policies which ruined him. 
When Henry VIII died, Anne’s husband became Lord Protector, and she felt she was the first lady of the realm, ahead of the widowed queen Catherine Parr whom she had never been on good terms with.  There was even a quarrel over some jewels, which Anne meant were hers out of right! Anne considered that the Dowager Queen forfeited her rights of precedence when she married so far beneath her station (Thomas Seymour, Edward’s brother, thus making the two women sisters-in-law). Anne refused to bear Catherine's train, and even physically tried to push her out of her place at the head of their entrances and exits at court. Anne was quoted as having said of Catherine, "If master admiral teaches his wife no better manners, I am she that will". Catherine, in her turn, privately referred to Anne as"that Hell". Catherine Parr won the battle by invoking the Act of Succession which clearly stated that Katherine had precedence over all ladies in the realm; in point of fact, as regards precedence, Anne came after the Princesses Mary and Elizabeth, and Anne of Cleves. 

Anne married, as her second husband, a lesser noble Francis Newdigate, who had been Steward to her late husband. Little is known of their life together.
Anne Seymour died at the advanced age of 90, the 16th of April, 1587.

onsdag 6. oktober 2010

Leonora Christina Ulfeldt

Born as a king’s daughter, but deprived of the title “princess”, Leonora Christina was married to a traitorous and somewhat stupid man (stupid in the sense of not to know when to stop scheming, kind of like Lady Jane Grey’s father?) who had her, though unintentionally, imprisoned for twenty-one years in rough conditions while he himself “enjoyed” the life as an exile abroad. The one good outcome of this was, however, the memoirs that Countess Leonora Christina left us of her conditions and the outside world.

Leonora Christine was born 8th of July 1621 as the third child to King Christian IV of Denmark-Norway and his wife Kirsten Munk whom he was married to morganatic (which is a type of marriage which can be contracted in certain countries, usually between people of unequal social rank, which prevents the passage of the husband's titles and privileges to the wife and any children born of the marriage). This meant that Leonora was not a princess, but she shared her mother’s title of Countess of Schleswig-Holstein. Nonetheless, she grew up with her parents in Copenhagen's royal palace on familiar terms with her three elder half-brothers — including the future King Frederick III. Nine years after she was born, she was betrothed to Corfitz Ulfeldt, son of a former Chancellor of Denmark. The same year her father divorced her mother, claiming that his wife had cheated on him, but Leonora seems to have retained her father’s favour still, and he took great interest that she and her sisters should not only learn traditional female pursuits as handicrafts, singing and dancing; they were also to learn how to read and to write, maths, play instruments, to draw and languages such as Danish, German and French, and also religion. Leonora Christina proved early to be a very quick learner, skilled in both academic and practical skills.

At the age of fiftheen, in 1636, she married her thirty year old husband, but despite the age difference Leonora seems to have been fond of him, and was a loyal and obedient wife to him, even refusing to speak ill of him after his death (which could have ensured her freedom). She had ten children by him.
Leonora and her husband travelled much, and Corfitz held lordships of Egeskov, Hirschholm Urup, Gradlitz and Hermanitz. In 1641 he was made a count by the Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand III. During most of the 1640s her husband's power and stature grew and she was, in many ways, the first lady of the Danish court that had no queen. 

When Leonora’s half brother Frederick ascended to the throne in 1648, her own and her husband’s position was threatened by the resentment of her husband's dominance by Frederick III and, especially, by his queen, Sophie Amalie of Brunswick-Lüneburg, who now became Leonora Christina's relentless enemy. Leonora Christina was active and outgoing, and easily outshined the queen.
Leonora Christina was stripped of her title as countess, and a woman named Dina Vinhofvers was engaged to testify that the couple Ulfeldt had planned to kill the new king.This false accusation was however revealed, and Dina Vinhofvers was executed.
For Leonora and her husband, this was a clear message that their time at the Danish court was now over. In 1651 they fled to Sweden, where Corfitz, thanks to his diplomatic experience and loans to the state coffers, got a position at court.
In 1657 Denmark declared war on Sweden. Ulfeldt become a trusted advisor to the Swedish King Karl X Gustav, which is naturally viewed as treason in Denmark.
After some time, problems arose between King Charles X Gustav and the Ulfeldts, and Corfitzen Ulfeldt was taken to court, accused of having collaborated with the Danes. This forced Leonora and her husband to flee back to Denmark, begging the king of mercy, but instead of granting it to them, he imprisoned them. The imprisonment lasted for a year and a half, eventually forcing the couple to take an oath of allegiance to the king.
Stupidly enough, Corfitz challenged the Danish king as soon as he was released and schemed to put the Elector of Brandenburg on the throne of Denmark-Norway, but Frederick III received information about this, and Corfitz was sentenced to death in absentia (as he was not in Denmark at that time, and thus was never able to return to the country without being killed).

Leonora was at the time in England to solicit repayment from King Charles II of money her husband had loaned him during his exile. The King repaid his debt by welcoming the Countess (his cousin) to his table, then having her arrested as she boarded a ship to leave England, whereupon he turned her over to Denmark in 1663. 

For the next twenty-two years she remained in the custody of the Danish state, incarcerated without charge or trial in Copenhagen Castle's infamous Blue Tower. She lived under meagre and humiliating conditions for the daughter of a king, and was for years deprived of almost all comforts. During these years she perforce showed great ingenuity. She wrote that her cell was small, filthy, foul, infested with fleas, and that the rats were so numerous and hungry that they ate her night candle as it burned. She learned to piece together pages for writing from the wrappers on the sugar that she was given, and to make ink for her fowl's quill by capturing the candle's smoke on a spoon. Slowly she adjusted to her plight, ceased longing for revenge or death, and developed a mordant humour.
She only received less harsh treatment and more amenities following the death of Frederick III early in 1670. The new king, Christian V, sent his ministers to beget his mother's consent to free the prisoner. But, if Leonora Christina's account is to be believed, the Queen Dowager (her enemy) refused that she should be released.
Eventually the King had Leonora Christina moved to more spacious quarters in the tower, installed a stove against the cold of Copenhagen winters, and commanded that her window be opened. She was now allowed pen and paper, and it was at this time that she began to write in earnest, intending that her children might one day read her words.

Queen Dowager Sophie Amalie died in February 1685, and on the morning of 19th of May 1685 Leonora Christina was informed that she was to be released, and at 10 o'clock that night, Leonora left the Blue Tower forever under cover of darkness and a veil, denying even a glimpse of her face to the curious crowd that filled the courtyard (the Queen and her ladies watched from the palace balcony). For them Leonora Christina had already entered into legend — a royal adventuress who had been first regaled then held captive by the kings of England, Sweden and Denmark. She was sixty-three years old, and had spent twenty-one years, nine months and eleven days in the Tower. She lived her last years quietly on the grounds ofMaribo Monastery, where she occupied her time editing her prison notebooks. She died the 16th of March, 1698, seventy-seven years old.

During her imprisonment and for the twelve years she lived afterwards, she composed the book that made her famous, Jammersminde (A Memory of Lament), but it was not published before 1869. Today it is regarded as a classic of 17th century Danish literature, as it explores her prison years in detailed and vivid prose, recounting her crises, confrontations, humiliations, self-discipline, growing religious faith and serenity, together with fascinating descriptions of hardships she endured or overcame.
I know this was a very long text, but Leonora Christina was such a fascinating and strong, admirable woman and I could not cut this text any shorter.