HISTORICAL BOOK REVIEW SERIES: ‘Stephen and Matilda’s Civil War: Cousins of Anarchy’ by Matthew Lewis

The Anarchy was the first civil war in post-Conquest England, enduring throughout the reign of King Stephen between 1135 and 1154. It ultimately brought about the end of the Norman dynasty and the birth of the mighty Plantagenet kings. When Henry I died having lost his only legitimate son in a shipwreck, he had caused all of his barons to swear to recognize his daughter Matilda, widow of the Holy Roman Emperor, as his heir and remarried her to Geoffrey, Count of Anjou. When she was slow to move to England on her father’s death, Henry’s favourite nephew Stephen of Blois rushed to have himself crowned, much as Henry himself had done on the death of his brother William Rufus.

Supported by his brother Henry, Bishop of Winchester, Stephen made a promising start, but Matilda would not give up her birthright and tried to hold the English barons to their oaths. The result was more than a decade of civil war that saw England split apart. Empress Matilda is often remembered as aloof and high-handed, Stephen as ineffective and indecisive. By following both sides of the dispute and seeking to understand their actions and motivations, Matthew Lewis aims to reach a more rounded understanding of this crucial period of English history and asks to what extent there really was anarchy.

cover and text via Pen & Sword

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I must admit that the civil war of the 12th century is definitely not in my time period of expertise, but this book jumped out for two reasons – 1) that a kick-ass woman was trying to be a king, and 2) Matthew Lewis wrote it. I thought there was no way this book could fail.

In 1120, King Henry I lost his only legitimate male heir, William, in the disaster of the White Ship. The sole heir to the throne was being a moron, and drunkenly sank his ship off the coast of Normandy, killing hundreds. While the king had two dozen bastard children (though one bastard son also died aboard the White Ship), all Henry had to inherit his throne was William, and his older sister, Matilda. With the loss of William, Henry I had what all kings fear – the possibility to handing power to a woman.

Matilda was married to the Holy Roman Emperor, only to have him die in 1125, when Matilda was still young. Henry moved his daughter back to Normandy, and set about making her the heir to the English throne. Matilda married Geoffrey Plantagenet of Anjou, and the nobles of England and English-controlled France swore fealty to Matilda and Geoffrey. Matilda didn’t seem to like her husband, but in 1135, when King Henry died in Normandy, she was pregnant with her third child, and ready to march on cities and put down rebellions.

Enter Stephen of Blois, Matilda’s cousin, the Count of Boulogne and new Duke of Normandy. Stephen hastily made his way to England, and claimed the English throne for himself while Matilda battled Anglo-Norman nobles. This problem of multiple claimants to the throne started The Anarchy, which would last for almost 20 years. Both Matilda and Stephen were descendants of William the Conqueror, and Stephen had the backing of the church, developed ways to raise money, and was prepared to fight the Scottish, the Welsh and Geoffrey of Anjou for Normandy. While several years of fighting had moderate success, by 1138, the tide was turning on all fronts, and supporters were withdrawing support for Stephen in favour of Matilda.

Lewis’ book tells the story from both points of view. Stephen seems to have been a well-liked man, with his wife, Queen Matilda, a powerful ally at his side. On the other side, Matilda is also a strong woman, her half-brother Robert a loyal supporter, and her husband Geoffrey a tough man. Matilda landed in England in 1139, but Stephen was hesitant to lay siege on a castle harbouring a female enemy. But he had underestimated his cousin, for Matilda, alongside Robert, was ready to fight for the throne. By 1141, Matilda had captured Stephen.

Matilda was an incredible woman. She lived in a time where men simply couldn’t comprehend a woman in power. She couldn’t be a woman who ruled, she needed to be a king. The fine line Matilda needed to walk was one almost impossible; she was expected to be a woman, but act like a king. She needed to rule and control as a king, but all her nobles and commoners saw was a woman. Empress Matilda, Lady of England and Normandy, set forth to London to be coronated, only to have the population revolt against her just days before she wore the crown as king of England.

Matilda soon had to face another battle, from Stephen’s wife Queen Matilda, who overthrew Matilda and forced her into hiding. Matilda was forced to let Stephen go from prison, in return for her brother Robert, who was caught by Queen Matilda in battle (phew!).

Battles continued for several years with Stephen still the king, and Matilda on her own with husband Geoffrey taking Normandy across the channel. In 1147, Matilda’s brother Robert died, and her son Henry, aged only 14, took up the battle in his mother’s name. But the fresh fighting produced no winners, and young Henry wanted to bail out, but was broke. King Stephen paid for his enemy to leave the fighting, a strange gesture indeed, paying his cousin and enemy to safely leave. This left the people of England to make truces and find some peace at last, but Matilda wasn’t done yet.

By 1153, Henry was at it again, fighting Stephen for the crown. But instead of battles to the death, Stephen and Henry made peace, and decided Henry would be Stephen’s heir, in place of Stephen’s own son who was ruling in France. Stephen died only one year later, and Henry became King Henry II, leaving his mother Matilda to never rule England.

This book goes into fine detail about the battles that raged over this bloody period in English history, which gives The Anarchy context and fleshes out the realities of what happened to the country, and how the people suffered over the period of 1135 – 1154. With the book covering both Stephen and Matilda, it makes it hard to decide who you want to win. Matilda was an extraordinary woman in English history, so to hate Stephen for taking her throne should be an easy task. Instead, Stephen is a liked and capable man  who makes the right decision at crucial moments. Despite the 19 years in which the civil war spanned, there were times of peace in all areas of the country.  Neither Stephen nor Matilda made the battle for the crown personal, neither wished to kill the other, or at least it seemed. When it fell to Henry II to rebuild after the fighting, rebuilding the country and her finances took only around a decade, and went on to rule much of France, Scotland, Wales and Ireland. To suggest England was in anarchy under Stephen isn’t the full picture, which Lewis details meticulously. However, with the coinage debased and law and order a mess, the battle had done much harm to the general population in the south, while northern areas were largely untouched. The fortunes of England raised and fell with every move Matilda and Stephen made.

I expected to read this book, cheering for Matilda’s success, despite knowing the ultimate outcome already, and yet that didn’t happen. Lewis has written the book in a way that the reader can see the battle from both points of view and I liked Stephen more than I wanted to. There is much to cover in The Anarchy, and yet the author fits it all in without wasting any time. While I was already a very big Matthew Lewis fan, this book has left me better for reading it, learning about a period I probably wouldn’t have bothered with if not for him.

 

 

 

 

 

HISTORICAL BOOK REVIEW SERIES: “Louis XIV: The Real King of Versailles” by Josephine Wilkinson

Louis XIV’s story has all the ingredients of a Dumas classic: legendary beginnings, beguiling women, court intrigue, a mysterious prisoner in an iron mask, lavish court entertainments, the scandal of a mistress who was immersed in the dark arts, and a central character who is handsome and romantic, but with a frighteningly dark side to his character.

Louis believed himself to be semidivine. His self-identification as the Sun King, which was reflected in iconography of the sun god, Apollo, influenced every aspect of Louis’s life: his political philosophy, his wars, and his relationships with courtiers and subjects.

As a military strategist, Louis’s capacity was debatable, but he was an astute politician who led his country to the heights of sophistication and power – and then had the misfortune to live long enough to see it all crumble away. As the sun began to set upon this most glorious of reigns, it brought a gathering darkness filled with the anguish of dead heirs, threatened borders, and a populace that was dangerously dependent upon – but greatly distanced from – its king.

Cover and blurb via Amberley

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I will be honest; when I received a copy of this book, I was taking on a subject in which I knew zero… literally nothing. My French court history extends of Catherine Medici and…. that’s it. Versailles is gorgeous, and there’s recently been a tv series by that name (didn’t watch, never a good place to start accuracy wise) and Louis was the king who put the man in the iron mask… right?  But Josephine Wilkinson has proven to me multiple times she produces quality books, so I dived in to learn about the French.

Little Louis was born in 1638, a miracle gift from God, as his parents had suffered so many stillbirths before they got their heir, and the little dauphin took the crown at age four, ruled by a council instead of Queen Anne. It was great to learn about a royal heir who had a good relationship with his mother, how they were close and affectionate, instead of being raised by strangers. Louis also grew up with governesses and a tutor which formed a close group around the boy, giving him friendship a budding king would be grateful to have. With his mother at his side, Louis was king as she negotiated the end of the Thirty Years’ War and fostered a fixation that ruling was a divine absolute right of Louis’.

By 13, Louis was old enough to rule himself and took on financial changes in the court. While he was in love with a girl, he was supposed to marry his cousin Mary Theresa, which he did in 1660, age 22. His cousin was the daughter to King Felipe of Spain, who was freshly dead, and Louis never got a dowry paid to him, giving Louis an excuse  to invade the Spanish Netherlands. This was a love Louis continued with – war. Over the years, Loius invaded and battled in all directions for his country, always believing he was doing the right thing. The French court about Louis was a vivid mixture of friends, ministers and lovers, all brought together by Dr. Wilkinson.

The book suggests Louis took his role as a king very seriously; he considered him an absolute ruler and France was in his hands. Over his 72 years as king, Louis managed his huge country, and an almost impossible amount of foreign policy and the origins of French colonies around the world. Louis was an absolute monarch, ruling France with total power, while extending France’s influence in every direction.

Everyone knows of the beauty of Versailles, the sun, and all of France would orbit around their Sun King. I had details coming at me in all directions while reading this book, a whole new area for me to explore. Married for 23 years to Maria Theresa, they had six children, only one making it to adulthood. However, Louis had countless mistresses and well over a dozen illegitimate children, though a few handfuls of them were legitimised as they grew. Louis took a second wife, Françoise d’Aubigné, and either he got too old, or he really cared for this woman far inferior to him, as he managed to curb the mistress habit.

I cannot say if this is a good biography for an expert on the subject, but as a beginner, I feel like this book is a great place to begin. There are so many people in this great cast of characters over the 72 years of Louis’ reign and total transformation of France. Direct descendants are still walking around today, spread into major European families, cementing Louis’ place in history.

This Week in Spanish Civil War History – Weeks 132 – 133: 21 – 31 January 1939: 80 Years Since the Fall of Barcelona

Civilians line up for food in Barcelona in freezing weather

January 21

Today marks the first of four days of successive bombing in Barcelona by Nationalist aircraft, with ten flyovers bringing bombs into the streets. After almost three years of war, Barcelona is weary, despite being far from the front until now. The Nationalists are fast advancing through Catalonia, with little or no resistance.

January 22

The Nationalist counteroffensive in Valsequillo is five days old, and they have taken all 500 square kilometres the Republicans have taken over the month. The Nationalists take the strategic town of Peraleda del Zaucejo, on the Extremadura/Andalucia border.  The only other town the Republicans hold falls only three days later. The Republicans have lost almost 6,000 men by this time, for no gain at all.

General Solchaga and General Yagüe’s Nationalist troops reached the Llobregat river, just a few kilometres west of Barcelona,  Generals Muñoz Grandes and Garcia Valiño attacked Sabadell and Terrassa, and General Gambara advances to Badalona.  Barcelona is now surrounded by the Nationalists and the three lines of defense set up around Barcelona, composed of all men aged 18 -45, with all the city’s industry militarised, cannot save the city. Prime Minister Negrín gets a call from the head of the Republican Army, General Rojo, to tell him that the frontline around Barcelona has been completely shattered.

January 23

The Republican government decides to abandon Barcelona as the capital and heads for Figueres Castle, and most of Barcelona’s political prisoners are released. Much of the population of the city is now fleeing north towards France, and the men on the frontline have either been killed or have retreated from advancing Nationalists. The aircraft overhead are still bombing Barcelona ten times per day.

January 25

One day after General Garcia Valiño’s men capture Manresa, the Nationalist vanguard takes the town of Tibidabo, the highest mountain around Barcelona, which overlooks the entire city. The Nationalists are now on the outskirts of Barcelona and all the defensive lines are gone.

Sadly, some in Barcelona felt like fascism was liberation. Talk about messed up

January 26

Nationalist troops march through the streets of Barcelona, where General Yagüe’s  Regulares begin their execution spree. While Barcelona is ravaged, the Catalonia offensive is halted briefly, meaning many civilians who have fled north towards France have no advancing troops at their backs . But the German Condor Legion and and Italian Aviazione Legionaria  continue their campaign from the air, bombing towns and roads on the 160 kilometre hike to the French border.

Franco’s fascist troops enter Barcelona

January 28

The town of Granollers, thirty kilometres north of central Barcelona is captured by the Nationalists. Just eight kilometres north of Granollers, the town of La Garriga has 10,000 people, 7,000 of them Madrid and Basque refugees, and now has the remaining Republican troops under General Lister hiding with them. With the Nationalists in Granollers, the men have to leave, while the refugees have nowhere to go but towards France, if they dare.

Refugees head for the border

January 29

The Italians send ten bombers to La Garriaga, and bomb the town over two days, though Republican troops are gone, leaving 13 civilian casualties; one local, five refugees and seven children. Bombing La Garriga’s train station means getting north is much harder for Republicans.

January 31

The French government, who announced they opened the border on January 28, start receiving the first of 400,000 – 500,000 refugees into the country, those who are first to make the walk through the snow. Republican troops are not yet permitted to enter, yet the remaining men are flanking the refugees on their dangerous walk, while the German Condor Legion continues to bomb them from overhead. Once the Nationalists reach the frontier, they plan to close the border, meaning there is nothing but executions and oppression for all remaining Spaniards who opposed the rebel invasion. They have only ten more days to make the freezing, bomb-ridden march towards France, while starved and/or injured and all traumatised.

Republican men head for the border

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This is not a detailed analysis, just a highlight (lowlight?) of the month’s events. Things get lost in translation – Feel free to suggest an addition/clarification/correction below. The more the world remembers, the better. All photos and captions are auto-linked to source for credit, and to provide further information.

HISTORICAL BOOK REVIEW SERIES: ‘La Reine Blanche, Mary Tudor- Henry VIII’s Sister’ by Sarah Bryson

Mary Tudor’s childhood was overshadowed by the men in her life: her father, Henry VII, and her brothers Arthur, heir to the Tudor throne, and Henry VIII. These men and the beliefs held about women at the time helped to shape Mary’s life. She was trained to be a dutiful wife and at the age of eighteen Mary married the French king, Louis XII, thirty-four years her senior.

When her husband died three months after the marriage, Mary took charge of her life and shaped her own destiny. As a young widow, Mary blossomed. This was the opportunity to show the world the strong, self-willed, determined woman she always had been. She remarried for love and at great personal risk to herself. She loved and respected Katherine of Aragon and despised Anne Boleyn – again, a dangerous position to take.

Author Sarah Bryson has returned to primary sources, state papers and letters, to unearth the truth about this intelligent and passionate woman. This is the story of Mary Tudor, told through her own words for the first time.

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I have always had a soft spot or Mary Tudor. She was the daughter of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York. One brother was destined to be king, and the other brother really took the throne. Her sister was Queen of Scotland. It could be easy to think Mary Tudor achieved little, but she might have been the happiest of them all.

Mary was only 18 when she had to marry the 52yo King of France. I can only think how foul that would be for Europe’s most beautiful princess (she was no fool, but as per the time period, her appearance was her talking point). Mary may have been sold off to the highest bidder by her brother Henry, but she had already planned her next move – to marry Henry’s bestie Charles Brandon. Brandon had already sidelined two wives and was ready to marry the lovely Mary.

Luckily for everyone, the French king died after three months of marriage and Mary married Brandon in secret. Bryson’s book tells this wonderful tale in full detail, of two people defying King Henry to hatch this plan and marry. Was Brandon a gold -digger? I shall reserve my opinion and you can make yours while reading the book.

The author used primary sources to write about the life of Mary, in order to create a full picture of who she was outside the shadows of the men around her. Mary’s letters have survived, giving us her own hand, her own thought process. Mary was the perfect princess; beautiful, virtuous, religious, skilled in all the areas a woman was meant to excel. But Mary was no uneducated woman – she may have been handed to France and into the bed of a creepy old guy, but she knew how to play men. Mary used a classic skill – make the man in her way think her ideas were all his, and then praised him for ‘his’ thoughts, while succeeding behind his back. Women with opinions were heretics; women who praised men after planting ideas were perfect wives/sisters/princesses/mothers. Mary used her charm not only for herself, but for people who came to her in need, a calming female voice in a harsh male world.

Mary became The White Queen (the nickname often now given to her grandmother Elizabeth) while wearing white, the French colour of mourning. Mary was meant to waiting to see if she was carrying the French heir, but instead she was writing, to plan the fortunes of the rest of her life. Mary wanted to come back to England, not stay in France and be married off again for English-French relations. Mary wanted to marry Brandon, and she was played the slow game in her words to her kingly brother.

Mary, of course, suffered for her marriage to Brandon, but being Henry’s favourite sister, returned to glory, bore many children with Brandon, and died in her fifties after spending her life beloved by her brother and husband. Her granddaughter Jane would become England’s queen for nine days. Mary was not just a king’s sister and pawn, she was a woman who was able to quietly plot the course of her life. Mary was not loud or dramatic in history, yet a woman born to an extraordinary couple, with extraordinary siblings, and lived her own free life in a time of great turmoil.

This is the only book I would turn to when referencing Mary Tudor. It is an essential volume on any discerning bookshelf.

This Week in Spanish Civil War History – Weeks 100 – 103: 1 – 30 June 1938

100 weeks into the 80th anniversary blog and still going, not a week missed (okay, sometimes late, but life happens)!

June 6

The small town of Bielsa on the border with France has been home to the Bielsa Pocket, all-out fighting for almost two months. The town of 4,000 people has been protected by the Republican 43rd division led by Antonio Beltran, though they have lost many men. The Nationalists have the entire Aragon and Huesca regions under their control, and only need to defeat the 43rd division, which have only half the number of men and almost no artillery. Much of the population of the Pineta Valley area around Bielsa has followed the Alto Cinca river north  to the border into France, which is still currently open. But on the morning of June 6, the Nationalists break through the frontline to take the town of Biesla. The battle has no importance to the war, yet the hold-up since mid-April means that many Republicans have been able to flee to safety through the difficult terrain into France. This delay in the Nationalist march gives the Republicans a huge morale boost as the 6,000 Republican soldiers bravely fought back.

Pineta valley and Alto Cinca river into France

June 13

The Levante Offensive has continued, despite the huge cache of Soviet artillery the Republicans have received over the French  border. The Nationalists, continuing their three-pronged attack from the north, west, and northwest battalions, take Castellón, capital of the Levante region of north Valencia. It is General Rafael Garcia Valiño’s northwest battalion which has fought its way south through the harsh mountainous terrain, bombing and destroying villages such as Benassal, Albocásser, Ares del Maestrat, and Vilar de Canes. Many in this arid region have never seen bombs or German aircraft, and were killed without resistance. Vilafamés  has an airfield which makes the village a target, the town crushed in the Nationalist trek south to Castellón. Castellón is a key port for the Nationalists to gain, to receive more equipment needed to continue south.

Vilafames in 1938

(Side note: I first visited Vilafamés 13 years ago, when it was still a loooong way off the tourist trail, and is still quiet now. Finding any evidence of the SCW was either hidden or locked away from the public.  The locals thought me suspicious, a foreigner loaded down with babies and looking for war info. Lots of old ladies twitching their curtains. 

In February this year, Vilafamés reopened the old war airfield and its 11,000 square-metre area, home to the old aviation telecommunications tower,  air-raid shelters, staff kitchens, 200 metres of trenches, basic shelters, ammunition store, pilot flying records, a life-size replica of a Polikarpov I-15 ‘Chato’ aircraft, and memorial plaques. All of these areas are fully accessible to the public, considered a living museum, and also has a full military re-enactment camp, medical tents, radio posts and machine gun positions. They have also written a book on the area, which is a good read if you know Spanish, though being filled with photographs and artwork, anyone can enjoy) 

Click here to read more about the book and authors

Franco wants to be in Valencia by July 25, only 70km south of Castellón, and wants the port village of Sagunto, just 30km north of Valencia, immediately. But the Condor Legion are exhausted after bombing their way south through the Levante, and wants to be withdrawn. Generals call for the battle to Valencia to be abandoned, but Franco will not oblige. By the end of the month, Franco will reinforce the Levante troops, now given new leaders, fresh men and an enormous artillery, with some 900 cannons, 400 new aircraft and 50 Italian bombers. The men will be put into the Turia corps, but the second half of June yields little result. The Sierra Espada, the mountains leading from Sagunto on the coast northwest towards Teruel are impossible terrain for Nationalist troops, and the Republicans have managed to hold them back. The reinforcements are coming, and yet the Republicans are in a firm position to hold Sagunto and Valencia.

There are still many war secrets hidden in this area

June 16

The Republican fighters who held the Bielsa pocket complete their final retreat, with the last troops crossing the border into France. The French government gives them a choice – they can re-enter Spain on the Republican or Nationalist side. While 411 men and five nurses choose to join the Nationalists, another 6,000 re-enter Spain to continue the fight against the Francoists.

The 43rd division

June 25

The border from Spain to France as been open since March 17, allowing many people over to safety and weapons in to fight Franco’s men. But the flow of weapons and refugees has taken a toll on France and its relations with other nations in Europe. The border is ordered closed again, cutting off countless thousands from reaching safety. The closure of the border means that Spaniards are completely on their own again while the Nationalists still have access to men and weapons via Italy and Germany. With the border again closed and countries all trying to stay out of the war while they worry about European war, the time the International Brigades can remain in Spain is starting to look short, but first shall come July’s Ebro Offensive.

The below video has no date of the footage nor the location it was shot, but does show how many wished to escape into France on any given day during the precious three months the border was open. 

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This is not a detailed analysis, just a highlight (lowlight?) of the month’s events. Things get lost in translation – Feel free to suggest an addition/clarification/correction below. The more the world remembers, the better. All photos and captions are auto-linked to source for credit, and to provide further information.