Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Ancient History? A 50 Year Old Copy of Reader's Digest

By E.M. Powell

I usually write medieval posts, but for this post I'm going to look at something a little different. I was digging around in the attic recently, opening box after box, including one containing items that had belonged to an elderly relative. Then I found this:

Reader's Digest March 1965 Edition

Yes, a copy of Reader's Digest. But this one is over half a century old, as it was published in March 1965. I opened it to have a look, expecting it to be very similar to today's publication. And indeed, some of it is. But not all. So I present to you a little reminder of how the world was in March 1965- according to Reader's Digest.

This edition has (for me) the instantly recognizable classic format: articles listed along with their original publication, the picture in a band down the left hand side that fully covers the back. This one is imaginatively titled 'Playing Cards' and was 'specially painted' for RD. The opening pages are of course advert after advert: But these adverts aren't presented as such.

Oh, no. 'Buy Lines', by Alison Grey, gives us adverts as mini-tale. There's a man who writes to Alison: 'My wife wants a fully automatic washing machine and I'd like her to have it. I can see that an ordinary twin tub isn't the answer on wash day.'  Alison replies cheerily: 'The nice husband who confided in me this way might voice your views!'  Like heck. There wasn't a man alive in 1965 who gave a hoot about wash day.

Alison is also thrilled that you can now buy frozen prawns and stick plastic on your books or maps (eh? Hope it folds, Alison). But she also provides reassurance. Apparently, what worries middle-aged men and women is 'not so much their increased size round the middle, but the increased discomfort and tiredness it brings.' She recommends a giant elastic thingy, called the RALLIE Health Belt which you strap on and pull hard (stop sniggering at the back) for just 5 minutes a day. Problem solved.

Reluctant though I was to move on from Alison, I carried on and came to this chap.

Dress Sharp, Fly High!

Yes, this man is pleased to announce: '£2 TO SATISFY A DREAM'. He asks 'Have you ever gone to the airport and seen someone walk out to a trim, eager airplane, climb into the cabin and shut the door on the outside world?' Well, yes. A pilot. Not sure about the door. And dressed like this guy? No. He's keen, though. 'You'll go along safely at 122 miles an hour and the feeling is wonderful.' 

And you need a coupon along with your £2. I don't know if it's a general rule but I think, in life, it's probably a good idea not to get in a plane with someone who is flying it via a coupon deal. The advert is also typical of the weird US/UK mix that was always present in Reader's Digest. The currency is in Pounds Sterling, yet he refers to an 'airplane' as opposed to the British 'aeroplane'.
We then leave the adverts for a page or two.

Time for an article! 'What Every Young Cat Ought to Know.' Yes, it's an article about kitten-rearing, written charmingly in the voice of a first-person kitten. Aww.

Just as well your heart is now well and truly warmed, because the next article is an emotional glacier. Its title is 'IF ONLY THEY HAD WAITED', capitals courtesy of RD. It is written by Anonymous. Anonymous tells us she had to wait six months before writing her article because 'the hurt was so deep that only time could partially heal the wounds... and no matter how hard we try to avoid admitting it to ourselves, tragedy is what has occurred.' Sounded terrible! I braced myself.

Turns out Anonymous's son, Paul, had got his girlfriend, Nancy, pregnant. There followed a full five pages of how morally lax he'd been. Anonymous even narrowed it down to where the evil deed had taken place: 'Now, too late, I realized that our playroom was the place where the tragedy had started.'  How?? Anonymous finishes off with: 'Paul, your life and the lives of those who love you will never be the same, will never be as contented or happy or or hopeful as they once were.' Poor Paul and Nancy. They sounded just fine. They got married, got jobs and presumably The Tragedy was a cutie.

The mood lightens a bit again thanks to an advert for tights.


We can only guess that Nancy favoured Kayser nylons, because it would appear that one doesn't wear any skirt with them. The use of a tiger skin in an advert is jaw-dropping but is indicative of how little awareness there was of conservation issues in 1965. Tiger numbers were already under threat but few people wanted to know. Tigers are of course now on the endangered species list and their numbers outside of captivity are in the low thousands.

Leafing through more articles in our 1965 edition, we see that 'The Falling Tower of Pisa' is going to be flattened in 50 years.(Still up- yay!). We learn social etiquette from another advert: never chew gum in company, but you go for it when you're hurtling down the black slopes. Gulp.

Skiing With Gum

We continue with the usual Life's Like That and Humor in Uniform where readers would send in their own anecdotes. An article asks politely: 'Are You Well Adjusted?', another extols the virtues of saying 'Thank You.' Another is about 'Edward Durell Stone: Architect Extraordinary'. Nice. Then this one:

Have You Seen...

Yes, a deadly serious article on the hunt for one of the surviving members of Hitler's elite. A war criminal that was still actively being hunted in 1965. And of course he was. It was only twenty years since the end of World War Two. Yet the article seems so incongruous in the middle of all the bland items in there.

The article gives all of his last known movements as well as a physical description. It also bizarrely  notes: 'An indefatigable woman-chaser, he is said never to have met a female whom he didn't press for an affair.'  I do wonder about the breadth of that statement. If it were literally true, it would have made him quite easy to identify in any public place.

The article ends with an astonishingly low-key instruction. It states: 'If you know or have seen a man whom you believe to be Martin Bormann, telephone the West German Embassy.' But because this is a British edition, it has a further footnote: to make sure you contact the right one: 'German Embassy, 23 Belgrave Square, London S.W.1. Telephone: BELgravia 5033). Were law enforcement agencies too busy?

We end on a more light-hearted note. Just look at the laughs you can have with your typewriter:

Typing Fun!

I don't know if you just sit there at your typewriter amusing yourself, or whether you type a funny , then rush across to another typist to show them. The working day must have flown by.

So those were the highlights for me and now we must bid good bye to Reader's Digest 1965. For some of you, I hope it's been an enjoyable nostalgia-fest. For the young, you should thank your lucky stars that someone invented the Internet, where things are completely different. On the Internet, you can look at funny cat pictures, stare at non-skirt wearing lady's legs, read moral diatribes, swap amusing word thingies... oh, I give up. Back to medieval for me.
Reader's Digest is still going strong. You can read some of their fascinating history here:

An version of this post first appeared on E.M. Powell's blog on February 26 2013.

E.M. Powell’s medieval thrillers The Fifth Knight and The Blood of the Fifth Knight have been #1 Amazon bestsellers. Born and raised in the Republic of Ireland into the family of Michael Collins (the legendary revolutionary and founder of the Irish Free State), she lives in northwest England with her husband, daughter and a Facebook-friendly dog. She blogs for EHFA, reviews for the Historical Novel Society and contributes to The Big Thrill.

Sir Benedict Palmer and his wife Theodosia are back in book #3 in the series, THE LORD OF IRELAND. It's 1185 and Henry II sends his youngest son, John (the future despised King of England), to bring peace to his new lands in Ireland. But John has other ideas and only Palmer and Theodosia can stop him. THE LORD OF IRELAND is published by Thomas & Mercer in March 2016. Find out more at

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Sheepskin Cloaks: The Most Practical Medieval Fashion

By Kim Rendfeld

If we are to believe Notker the Stammerer (and there are plenty of reasons not to), Charlemagne was trying to make a point when told his courtiers they ought to go hunting. At that moment. No changing clothes.

By Tare Gheorghe
Charles was wearing a sheepskin cloak. His followers were bedecked in silks, pheasant skins, ribbons, ermine robes, peacock feathers, and other finery. So they trekked through forests thick with briars and tree branches, got drenched with rain, and oh yeah, got spattered with blood from their prey.

The next day Charles ordered them to appear before him with in yesterday’s clothes. The courtiers’ garments were tattered and stained, not good for anything but rags, but once brushed off, Charles’s sheepskin was as good as new.

Then Charles asked his courtiers which garments were truly worth more, and the courtiers were duly ashamed of their vanity.

Writing about 70 years after Charles’s death, Notker probably made the whole thing up. Such a stunt would more likely cause resentment, and for Charles to rule such a vast empire, he needed trustworthy allies within his realm.

Besides, Einhard, a more reliable biographer who actually knew the monarch, doesn’t include a sheepskin in Charles’s outfit. To stay warm, Charles favored a vest of expensive otter or marten furs and a blue cloak.

But Notker’s anecdote does illustrate the practicality and durability of sheepskin cloaks.

A 14th century sheep pen from the Luttrell Psalter
Medieval folk depended on sheep, which were only a third of the size of today’s breeds or smaller. While alive, they were a source for wool and milk. Slaughtered, they provided meat, tallow for candles, and bones that could be made into anything from flutes to dice. Their skins could be used for parchment or cloaks.

A sheepskin cloak might cost a commoner as much as a live sheep or farm dog. When you consider that a peasant family might have thought themselves well off if they had a mix of 16 sheep, cows, and pigs, such an item isn’t cheap, but it is within reach. A sable-lined garment cost about 10 times more, and the marten and otter furs were 30 times as much.

To a family planning to keep a sheepskin cloak for years, it was worth the expense. The fleece kept its wearer warm and the lanolin repelled water when someone had to go outside to fetch firewood, walk to church, or get food from the cellar. It was valuable indoors, too; fires did not adequately warm the house.

Notker probably crafted his story to entertain his patron, Charles the Fat, and show the king how wise and pious his great-grandfather was. And perhaps Notker, like many writers, was fulfilling a wish. I can’t help but wonder if he had seen noblemen showing off their wealth with fancy, impractical clothes and wanted someone to teach them a lesson.

Images are public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.


The Monk of Saint Gall: The Life of Charlemagne

Einhard: The Life of Charlemagne

Katie Cannon’s Craft

Daily Life in the World of Charlemagne by Pierre Riche

Daily Life in Medieval Times by Frances and Joseph Gies

Kim Rendfeld is the author of two books set in Carolingian Francia, The Cross and the Dragon and The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar, and is working on Queen of the Darkest Hour. For more about Kim and her fiction, visit or her blog, Outtakes. You can also connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

When Roasted Crabs Hiss In the Bowl - The Cup That Cheers, 17th Century Style

by M.J. Logue

What historical fiction, and what winter's evening, would be complete without the traditional foaming mug of mulled ale?

On those short, dark winter days - on those even shorter, darker, wintrier days of the Little Ice Age that was seveneteenth-century England - a brief social excursion could be a whole day's trip on horseback, or a perilous, freezing trip in a draughty carriage. Cold, wet stockings - there is no evidence to suggest that women wore anything so sensible as boots - and heavy, clinging cold wool cloaks. No central heating, nothing but an inadequate fire in houses bedevilled by draughts and inadequately insulated. Unbearable, no?

Well, no. Because in a rather civilised manner, one was provided with one's own, internal central heating.

I have blogged before on the dubious delights of buttered ale, much beloved of one fictional Parliamentarian officer's wife as a cure-all for every ill. Samuel Pepys is inclined to agree with her -

"Thence home and to the office, and so home having a great cold, and so my wife and Mrs. Barbary have very great ones, we are at a loss how we all come by it together, so to bed, drinking butter-ale."

Robert May in "The Accomplish't Cook" in 1660 described it as

... Take beer or ale and boil it, then scum it, and put to it some liquorish and anniseeds, boil them well together; then have in a clean flaggon or quart pot some yolks of eggs well beaten with some of the foresaid beer, and some good butter; strain your butter'd beer, put it in the flaggon, and brew it with the butter and eggs.

Het Babbitt's recipe is a late Tudor one and contains ginger and cloves as well as nutmeg, and (mercifully) no licquorice. There's a traditional folk song called either "The Owl" or "Who Gave Thee Thy Jolly Red Nose?" - which often turns up, rather wonderfully, in children's songbooks - the chorus of which goes

"Nose, nose, jolly red nose
and who gave thee that jolly red nose
Cinamin, ginger, nutmeg and cloves
and that gave me my jolly red nose!"

- and now you know in what capacity they were being taken!

Now, I will be honest, and say that having tried buttered ale it did nothing for me at all. Hippocras, on the other hand, is much nicer. Somewhere between a medicine, a syrup and a celebration drink, it was a spiced, sweetened wine served - possibly heated, and possibly not always - at the end of meals.

These two recipes are transcriptions from the Historic Food website, as an illustration of just how exotic - and expensive - a good hippocras would be:

Ipocras out of an old booke

Take a pottole of white or redd wyne and take a pynt of clarified honye: and mixe well the wyne and honye together in a clean pan, and you take 3 ozs of ginger, of pepper a quarter of an ounce, of good cynnimone 1 oz., saffron 1 oz., Spikenard of Spayn 1 oz., gallingale 1 oz., and make :all into pouder, and put it into the wyne and honye and medell them together, and you colour it with tumsole, and make it as red as you will: and pour it into a bagg and strain it through the bagg often tymes till it be clere, and so serve it forth.

From an early seveneteenth century manuscript (Mss. Sloane 3690, ff 26b.).
To make an excellent aromaticall Hyppocras
Take of Cinnamon two ounces, Ginger an ounce, Cloves and Nutmegs of each two drams, of white Pepper half a dram, of Cardamums two drams: of Musk Mallow seed, three ounces. Let these be bruised, and put into a bag and hanged in six gallons of Wine. Note that you must put a weight in the bag to make it sink.
‘Some boyl these spices in Wine, which they then sweeten with sugar, and then let run through a Hyppocras bag, and afterwards bottle it up, and use when they please.
A little too expensive for my plain Essex goodwife in 1645. and so her recipe is much plainer. taken from the same Elizabethan cookbook as her buttered ale:
2 quarts red wine
1 tbsp ginger
2 tbsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp nutmeg
6 whole peppercorns
9 whole cloves
1/2 tsp rosemary
1 cup sugar
Boil it all up, remove from the boil, allow to steep for 12 hours and longer if you can. Heady stuff, so drink cautiously - but very warming...

Of course, if you are in need of something more substantial, I will leave you with the very housewifely Elizabeth Cromwell's recipe for sack posset. I will say nothing about Oliver's much-vaunted tendency to start throwing this substance about in jest (he is reported to have spent a happy afternoon at his daughter's wedding in November 1657 chucking posset over the ladies' gowns - an interesting sense of humour, the Lord Protector.)

I think this may have been the recipe she used for the wedding, because it starts with

"Set a Gallon of Milk on the Fire, with whole Cinamon and large Mace, when it boyls stir in a half, or whole pound of Naples-bisket grated very small, keeping it stirring till it boyls, then beat eight Eggs together, casting of the whites away; beat them well with a Ladle-ful of Milk, then take the Milk off the fire, and stir in the Eggs; then put it on again, but keep it stirring for fear of curdling; then make ready a pint of Sack, warming it upon the coals, with a little Rose-water, season your Milk with sugar, and pour it into the Sack in a large bason, and stir it a pace, then throw on a good deal of beaten Cinamon, and so serve it up."

Aren't you glad we can just put the kettle on?


 MJ Logue can be found lurking at, and is currently working on the week-by-week run up to Christmas of that hard-done-to Essex goodwife Het Babbitt. and the first four books in her bestselling series featuring the (mis)adventures of sweary Parliamentarian cavalry officer Hollie Babbitt and his rebel rabble are available here.

Why Porcelain Replaced Sugar Paste as a Table Decoration

by Grace Elliot

In the 18th century,  the cost of throwing a banquet could be ruinous. If you were an aristocrat who wanted to impress, then an impressive display along the center of the table was de rigor.

A table setting more typical of the early 17th century

The displays started off life in the 17th century as impressive symmetrically arranged pyramids of decadently exotic foods, decorated with exotic flowers and foliage. These were in place at the beginning of the meal, with the purpose of being talking points for the guests. But as time went on, the arrangements became increasingly elaborate, and started to demand specialists skills from the chefs involved.
These arrangements running along the center of the banquet table were described as: “A complex marriage of the arts of the silversmith, the potter and the pastry cook.”

A typical sugar work construction

By the 18th century the confectioner was expected to link individual elements on the table to provide a harmonious arrangement along the length of the table; in other words the display had to have a theme. One substance that leant itself well to being modelled and colored to make attractive displays was sugar work.
Confectioners began to come into their own, by creating detailed, whimsical scenes so as to satisfy the guests need for novelty. Indeed, the most popular table decorations were miniature landscapes and gardens. These fantastical creations were amazingly detailed and often contained hedges, walkways, building, flower borders and tiny figures in scale to the creation.
“All the geniuses of the age are employed in designing new plans for desserts. The Duke of Newcastle’s’ last was a baby Vauxhall [Gardens] illuminated with a million little lamps of various colors.”  Horace Walpole. 1750.

An aerial plan of Vauxhall Gardens

Six years after Walpole wrote this, Duke of Norfolk topped that creation with a park scene complete with a water feature and ornamental dolphins spouting water.
However, when banquet halls were lit by candles, they were apt to get rather hot, which caused the sugar work to melt. To circumvent this, the once edible table displays were supplement with non-edible materials such as ground glass, wax, cardboard, and colored sand. This made for added realism, and even though these displays were no longer designed to be eaten (as in the early days) they rarely survived the evening unscathed.
The cost of creating these designs was astronomical, as it required highly skilled craftsmen to create them. This, and the fact that the creations were single use only, meant it was inevitable they would eventually go out of vogue.

An example of unglazed Sevres porcelain figurines

In the late 18th century the development of fine porcelain had reached a point whereby it started to replace sugar work for table decorations. The fine porcelain flowers could last an awful lot longer than sugar ones. And unglazed biscuit porcelain, which Sevres used to create delicate decorative figurines, had an attracted matt shimmer than mimicked a sugary surface. And so it was that porcelain came to replace sugar paste, at least when it came to sumptuous table decorations.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

The Ancient tradition of the boy-bishop

by Anne O'Brien

Here is something with a festive connection today.

I find ancient historical traditions that still exist today most appealing.  Did the characters in my historical novels participate in or witness these traditions?  Did Joanna of Navarre and her husband King Henry IV of England acknowledge the tradition of appointing a Boy-Bishop during their own Christmas celebrations? history rarely tells us, but I am sure that they did.  Henry was a keen exponent of Christmas festivities both in his youth and in later life at Eltham Palace.

This is Hereford Cathedral where the custom of appointing a boy-bishop is still maintained today. In the great cathedrals of England this was a tradition widespread and going back to the first quarter of the thirteenth century, long before Henry and Joanna, when a boy was chosen to parody the role of the true bishop, becoming for a short time a 'boy-bishop.'

There were two purposes here.  One was to remind the congregation of humility, a child replacing an ecclesiastical lord and wielding his power.  The other purpose, since the ceremony took place on the Sunday nearest to the Feast of St Nicholas, the patron saint of children, usually in the first week of December, to remind the congregation that there was a place for fun and revelry and celebration  to fight off the cold dark days of midwinter.  The medieval church was not necessarily a place of doom and gloom. The ceremony was originally planned with lively choristers in mind.  The boy bishop was chosen from one of their number, to recognise their importance in the musical life of the church.

This ancient custom was abolished by Henry VIII at the Reformation, revived by Mary I, then finally abolished by Queen Elizabeth I.  In recent years it has however been revived, most notably in Hereford Cathedral, as shown above, where a boy-bishop has been appointed with great ceremony every year in the first week of December since 1982.  His term of office runs from the Feast of St Nicholas to Holy Innocents' Day on 28th December.  Definitely a time for festivity and rejoicing.

This is how it works at Hereford.  The boy-bishop, in his early teens, is chosen from the senior choristers to take office.  It is written into the service of Evensong.  During the saying of the Magnificat, on the words 'he hath put down the mighty from their seat', the bishop of Hereford steps down from the Episcopal throne.  Then on the words 'and hath exalted the humble and meek' the boy- bishop takes his place.  He is dressed in full bishop's robes with mitre and stole and is given  the bishop's crozier to hold.  The new bishop leads the prayers, accepts the collection, blesses the congregation and preaches his own sermon.  A favourite text in medieval times was Mathew 18:3 'Then He said: in truth I tell you, unless you change and become like little children you will never enter the kingdom of Heaven.'

What an experience for a young boy, to taste such magnificence and such authority.

For the rest of the festive period in Hereford, the new 'bishop' in full episcopal regalia plays an important part in all the services of the church except for Holy Communion.  Many see it as a chance to give a youthful perspective on life in a clerical community through their sermons.  One of the boy bishops, when asked which ability was most required to be boy-bishop for three weeks, confessed that it was the ability to drink so many cups of tea when meeting with members of the congregation.  Others quite simply enjoy the panoply and magnificence of it all, where they are the centre of attention.

In medieval times the boy-bishop and his retinue of choristers dressed as cathedral canons were expected to go on 'visitations' to ecclesiastical establishments and noble households.  There he would be entertained and given gifts, the whole often irreverent and unruly but much in keeping with medieval festivity.  This aspect of the tradition no longer takes place.  I am sure that many wish it did.

The boy-bishop will be installed once again this December in the magnificent setting of Hereford Cathedral with great ceremony and enjoyment for all involved.  I find it a great pleasure when the echoes of medieval life are carried on today.  Long may it continue.

My novel of Henry and Joanna which includes their celebration of Christmas at Eltham Palace, The Queen's Choice, will be published in the UK on 15th January 2016.

Please visit my website to keep up to date with all my events, signings and giveaways.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Where history brushes my cheek

by Anna Belfrage

Westminster Abbey,
Chapter house by Aiwok, 2012
There are few places in the world I am so in love with as Westminster Abbey. I recall my first visit there – ages ago – when you were still allowed to ramble around as you pleased, instead of like now, following a preordained route. But as no London visit of mine is complete without a session in the abbey, I will obediently follow the signs, stopping at my own personal highlights - like the magnificent chapter house.

Now Westminster Abbey is not first and foremost a burial site of the famous – it is a church, built in testimony of deep faith. Two English kings were to spend the equivalent of a major fortune on this their favourite church, but the origins are far older than that. In fact, we probably have the Romans to thank for the original settlement on what was then known as Thorn Ey (Island of the brambles), a small patch of solid land in the marsh that abutted the northern shore of the Thames. You see, the Romans had a logistical problem: somehow they wanted to join up Watling Street with Dover Street, and the self-evident intersection was round Thorn Ey, where the Thames was fordable at low tide.

Anyway, time came and went, the tidal waters of the Thames lapped at the shores of little Thorney Island. To the west, the Roman settlement of Londinium had evolved into Lundenvic, and Thorney Island was ideal as a further outpost of civilisation, having natural springs for drinking water and being bordered by two streams (one of which was the now subterranean Tyburn) on which to transport whatever materials might be needed to build a house, a palace, a church – well, whatever. Obviously, the then inhabitants of Lundenvic found Thorney Island too suburban, too remote, how else to account for the fact that at the time of the Norman Conquest, there were only 25 houses on the Island. Or maybe they didn’t like the marshy surroundings…

As to the abbey, its roots are lost in antiquity. As per one legend, the Romans built a temple to Apollo on the present day site of the abbey. Out went the Romans, in came the barbarous Saxons, and the temple was razed to the ground, a forgotten ruin, no more, until King Sebert of Essex (a gentleman who lived in the 7th century) saw the light and decided to build a church on top of the Roman ruins to celebrate his conversion to Christianity.

St Peter visiting the church, from La Estoire de Seint Aedward le Roi
On the eve of its dedication, or so the story goes, an anonymous traveller asked a fisherman to carry him across to the finished church. The fisherman – Edric to his friends – agreed, but chose to remain in his boat when his passenger stepped ashore. When the stranger entered the church, heavenly light poured down from above, the sky rang with the sounds of angels singing, and poor Edric was terrified. Understandably, one would think. The stranger returned to the boat, asked Edric for something to eat, but our fisherman had been so stunned by the spectacle he’d just witnessed that he’d forgotten to cast his net. “Do so now,” the stranger urged, and Edric did, bringing aboard the largest catch in his life. The traveller smiled, told him to share the fish with the bishop and revealed himself as St Peter before, I presume, stepping back into invisibility as gracefully as he’d stepped out of it.

Edric and his fish, La Estoire de Seint Aedward le Roi
Sadly, historical proof to support the above is lacking. In fact, a lot of the documents pointing to an early church on Thorney Island are 11th century forgeries produced by skilled Westminster monks eager to prove their abbey was the earliest of all Christian abbeys in England. There was a major fight ongoing between Glastonbury and Westminster, both religious houses claiming to be the oldest and therefore most important site. Of course, once Glastonbury produced the story of Joseph of Arimathea, come to England with the Holy Grail and a staff that was to take root and become the Glastonbury thorn, they sort of won that particular dog-fight…

Back to Westminster: It is believed there was a small religious community already by the 8th century, but Danish raids probably destroyed what there was. After years of unrest, the 10th century saw the re-emergence of a strong Saxon – and Christian – kingdom. Under King Edgar, religion flourished, and a certain Dunstan – bishop of Worcester and London, soon to be Archbishop and a saint – founded Westminster with monks from the Benedictine community he’d started in Glastonbury. (And in view of the previous paragraph, this would indicate Glastonbury was first, wouldn’t it? Except that the monks some centuries down the line were rather bickering about the FIRST religious settlements on their sites, the ones before dear Dunstan.)

The 11th century ushered in a Danish dynasty and so Knut (Canute), son of Sven Tveskägg (Svein Forkbeard) became king of all of England in 1016. He rather liked Westminster, despite having issues with the temperamental tides of the Thames, so he decided to build a royal palace next door to the monastery. In doing so, Knut indirectly forged the first of several links that would forever tie the future abbey to the English royals. By then, Westminster had grown into one of the more important monasteries in England. Several years of royal patronage had resulted in a wealthy monastery, and  an impressive collection of relics – among which figured parts of the True Cross – ensured a steady stream of eager pilgrims.

The Danish dynasty was to be one of the more short-lived in England. Knut died in 1035, his son Harold Harefoot became king by default as Knut’s named heir – Harold’s half-brother – Hårdeknut (Harthacnut) was stuck in Denmark due to political reasons. Eventually, Harold died of a sudden illness – some people saw this as divine justice, punishment for usurping his brother’s throne. Hårdeknut obviously agreed, as one of his first acts once he arrived in England was to exhume his half-brother’s recently buried body, decapitate it, and throw it in the Thames. Two years later, Hårdeknut was dead, and in 1043 the throne passed to Edward, known to posteriority as Edward the Confessor.

Edward as per the Litlyngton Missal
Edward was the son of Ethelred, the Saxon king deposed by Sven Tveskägg and his son. He’d grown up mostly in Normandy, and must often have despaired of ever becoming king. Tradition has it that Edward had promised to make a pilgrimage to St Peter’s grave in Rome should he regain his kingdom – and that when he was finally crowned, he found himself unable to fulfil that vow as his absence could result in him losing his crown. A compromise was found: instead of taking a very, very long walk to Rome, Edward was absolved from his vow if he instead were to build – or enlarge and restore – a monastery dedicated to St Peter. Somewhat coincidental, all this, seeing as just opposite the royal palace in Westminster was a monastery dedicated to…ta-daa…St Peter.

Other sources, such as the Vita Aedwardi, site somewhat more prosaic reasons for rebuilding the existing church at Westminster: the king wanted a grand burial place. Whatever the case, Edward immediately initiated his building project. By 1045, the work could begin in earnest, and Edward had every intention of building a permanent landmark, something that would inspire awe long after he was dead and gone. I think it is safe to say he succeeded.

The church Edward built was huge by those days’ standards. It was also built to an innovative design, the first cruciform church in England, further adorned by a huge lantern tower and turrets. It was, by all accounts, magnificent, and people gawked and exclaimed as stone by stone, the building rose towards the heavens, testament to Edward’s faith and unswerving determination to build one of the finest churches in Christendom.

Westminster Abbey - on the Bayeux tapestry
Twenty years after the building work started, the church was sufficiently finished to be consecrated. It was 1065, and while successful in his church-building endeavours, Edward had failed dismally at another royal obligation: that of producing an heir. Maybe his piety made it difficult for him to indulge in carnal relations with his wife. Or maybe the fact that Queen Edith was Godwin of Wessex’s daughter had Edward approaching her with caution – his and Godwin’s relationship was stormy at best. Whatever the case, there was no son, no daughter, and Edward was sixty – a considerable age for the times.

It was decided that the new church was to be consecrated on St Stephen’s Day in 1065. Accordingly, Edward celebrated Christmas in the nearby Westminster Palace. On Christmas Eve, Edward became ill. He managed to keep his condition secret for some days, but by the 27th he took to his bed, incapable of attending the impressive hallowing of his precious church. Two archbishops, a number of bishops and abbots went through with the consecration, at which a new list of relics were drawn up. The king himself had contributed with the Virgin Mary’s milk (and let’s not start thinking about how he got hold of that), hairs from St Peter’s beard and a broken jaw with three teeth that supposedly belonged to St Anastasia.

Neither the consecration nor the relics helped. Edward sank closer and closer to death, nominated his brother-in-law Harold as his successor, ordered that he be buried in his new church “in a place that will be shown to you”, and died on January 4th, 1066. That most momentous year in English history had, one could say, opened inauspiciously.

The day after his death, Edward was buried in front of the high altar of his new church, right under the lantern tower. That same day, Harold was crowned.

Death of Harold
Harold was destined to be a brave, tragic and unlucky king. Portents in the sky, the rumours that he’d made a binding promise to support Duke William of Normandy’s claim to the English throne, plus the treachery of baby brother Tostig, made his a very shaky throne indeed. And while he managed to defeat Tostig and his Norse companions, he lost his life in the Battle of Hastings, shot through the eye by a Norman arrow. Saxon England had cause to weep and tear their clothes. Norman William, however, decided it was time for pageantry – and where better to drive home his victory than in the church built by Edward?

William's coronation, Matthew Paris
On Christmas Day 1066, William was crowned king of England in Westminster Abbey, the coronation chair strategically placed on Edward’s tomb. Inside the church, the Saxon nobles loudly acclaimed the new king – what else could they do, what with the circle of armed men that surrounded the church? Outside the church, those same armed men feared the shouts from within was a sign of treachery, and set about burning as much of the nearby surroundings as they could. A rather odd behaviour, one thinks, as William was inside the church with the potentially rebelling Saxons…

Since that long gone December day, Westminster Abbey has seen the coronation of thirty-nine English monarchs and the burial of sixteen – plus an assortment of wives and children.  And to this day, the heart of this mighty church is the chapel to St Edward the Confessor, built two centuries after Edward’s death by Henry III, the second royal builder of Westminster Abbey.

Westminster Abbey, West facade, by Bede 735
Whenever I set foot inside this ancient building. I see them all, from pious Edward through gallant Harold to the determined William. In my head, I see Henry II come striding, power and energy surging round him. There is Richard and John, the rather ineffectual if artistic Henry III, Edward Longshanks and his beloved Eleanor. There is Edward III, surrounded by his wife and many children, to the side stands handsome Richard II, and just beyond the choir I catch a glimpse of Henry Tudor, wretched and bereaved now that his wife is dead. I see them all, in this place that all of them at some point in time visited, prayed in or maybe even despaired in. I see them all, so lost in my own imagination I only notice I’m holding up the traffic when one of the wardens gently moves me aside. From the expression on his face, I am not the only one to be so overcome. In Westminster Abbey, history brushes my cheek. No wonder I always have to go back!


Anna Belfrage is the author of the acclaimed  The Graham Saga. Set in 17th century Scotland, Virginia and Maryland, eight books tell the story of Matthew Graham and his wife, Alex Lind - two people who should never have met, not when she was born three centuries after him.

Presently, Anna is hard at work with The King’s Greatest Enemy, a series set in the 1320s featuring Adam de Guirande, his wife Kit, and their adventures and misfortunes in connection with Roger Mortimer’s rise to power. The first instalment, In the Shadow of the Storm, was published on November 1, 2015.

For more information about Anna and her books, please visit her website. If not on her website, Anna can mostly be found on her blog.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Marie Stuart in France: Women who shaped the early life of the Queen of Scots

by Linda Root

In spite of the volumes written about  Marie Stuart, Queen of Scots, even the most accomplished historians leave perplexing questions about the queen’s personal relationships with the women who shared her youth.  Ironically, the end of her life at age forty-four mirrored its beginning.  She spent her first five years of childhood being moved from one sanctuary to another, just ahead of Edward Seymour’s army in the operation known in history as The Rough Wooing, when Henry VIII sought to kidnap her to enforce a marriage contract with his son.  During the last two decades of her life,  she was forced from one rural estate to another at the will of the English Queen.  In neither case was she empowered to select her surroundings or her friends. The Inchmahome Priory of her early childhood was not that different from Fotheringhay where she died.  Marie Stuart's personal freedoms were determined by the English.


During her early childhood, Marie Stuart’s playmates and companions were four little girls selected by the little queen’s mother, the Scottish Dowager,  Marie de Guise. 
They were daughters of the Dowager’s ladies in waiting, most of whom were French. Many notable historians assert all of the Four Maries other than Flemyng had French mothers, but that is inaccurate.  Livingston’s mother was Lady Agnes Douglas. The other exception in the predominantly French household of Marie de Guise was Princess Janet Stewart, Lady Flemyng, an illegitimate sibling of Marie’s father James V, who died when the queen was six days old. 
At the time of their selection, they became part of the queen’s movable household.  They and their families joined the nomadic existence of the queen while her mother negotiated her daughter's exodus to France. 

The queen's final Scottish refuge during the Rough Wooing was Dumbarton Castle,  on a rocky crag where the Firth of Clyde empties into the Irish Sea. From there, she sailed from Scotland on a French flagship in the midst of violent storms. The queen's fraternal aunt Lady Flemyng served as her governess. Lords Seton and Livingston accompanied the queen to France as her co-guardians.  

The Four Maries were seasick during most of the voyage.  They were Marie Flemyng (Flamie), Marie Livingston (Lusty),  and the two staunch Catholics with French mothers,  Marie Seton (Seton) and Marie Beaton (Beton). All were between ages five and six,  and all four were named Marie. Although numerous sources assert Livingston’s given name was Mary, surviving documents show she signed her names on court documents and is referred to in the queen’s will as Marie.  The will, of course, was signed by the testatrix as 'Marie R'. During her lifetime, there was no such person as Mary Queen of Scots.  According to modern Marian historian Jane Lewis, the English insistence on calling the Scottish Queen  'Mary'  is a manifestation of the national tendency to lay claim to a queen who brought the Stuart dynasty to England. It is from Marie Stuart that all English monarchs descend through the female line of Princess Elizabeth Stuart, Marie Stuart's granddaughter, the Winter Queen. 
Elizabeth Stuart, Queen of Bohemia - The Winter Queen

How much information we are given about the four little girls who were Marie Stuart's conscripted playmates depends on who is writing the history.  As long ago as when I was in college, and first became interested in the Queen of Scots, I realized insofar as primary sources are concerned, there are two separate queens with very different stories, depending upon the religion of the author.  As to the Four Maries, numerous historians regard Marie Flemyng as the chief among them and the only one with the courage to call the queen to account when she was over-bearing.  Those who write of her after she married the statesman Maitland of Lethington color her as a devil or an angel, depending on their view of Maitland's politics. Marie Livingston was the first to marry. Writers with a Catholic bias would canonize Marie Seton if they could. And even though she was the niece of a murdered Catholic Cardinal, Marie Beaton was not as morally upright as her best friend Seton. She later earned the queen's disfavor by establishing an unspecified relationship with the English ambassador. 

In any case, once they arrived in France in 1548, the Four Maries were culled from the queen’s entourage and sent to Poissy while Marie Stuart was ensconced in the Royal Nursery at Saint Germain en Laye, separating her from the Scottish influence of her Four Maries.  The excuse given was to force the Queen to speak nothing but French, which makes no sense since her governess Lady Flemyng’s French was marginal. 

Nevertheless, King Henri Valois sent glowing praises to the Scottish Dowager about the governess, no doubt referring to talents other than linguistic.  Within three years, she was sent home in disfavor, having given birth to a bastard son of the King of France, conceived while the Royal Mistress Diane de Poitiers was home at her estate nursing a broken ankle.  It was one occasion when Queen Consort Catherine d’Medici and Royal Mistress, Diane d’ Poitiers joined forces and brought the governess’s pregnancy to the attention of Marie de Guise, who was more outraged than either of them.
 Lady Flemyng’s conduct was a smudge on her daughter’s reputation. The king did not get to vote when his wife and his mistress sent Lady Flemyng packing for her home in Biggar. Her best friend the Dowager did not speak to Lady Flemyng until the Dowager was on her deathbed, but it was Janet who was the chief mourner at her funeral and who accompanied her casket to Rheims for interment.

Even before Lady Flemyng was sent home in disgrace,  her Scottish influence over her royal ward had been challenged by the Dowager Duchess of Guise, Antoinette de Bourbon, who had wanted a French governess at the outset and had been overruled by her daughter, Marie de Guise. Antoinette instigated the dismissal of the Four Maries from the Queen’s household and supported the king and queen when they sent most of the Scottish suite home.  The only Scots Lady Flemying had been able to retain were a cook and a physician.

During the years of the queen’s separation from her Four Maries, she formed four notable relationships with females. The first was with her nursery playmate and new best friend, Princess Elisabeth. Marie often chose the astute royal mistress Diane de Potier for a mentor, favoring her over her future mother-in-law Queen Catherine d'Medici.  Her relationship with the Queen Consort was not always warm and friendly.  The formidable Duchess of Aumale, soon to become Duchess of Guise, Anne d’ Este, was the fourth.  Marie Stuart was being groomed to become the Queen of France. Her success in the role required her to behave like a French princess, not a Scottish queen.  

Although historians often cast the dismissal of her playmates in a harsh light, Poissy was only a few miles from Saint Germain.  The Four Maries often visited the palace on weekends and holidays. They had not been exiled to an austere convent in a backwater location. The convent school at Saint Louis Priory provided a high-quality liberal education to its aristocratic students. Even religious policies were flexible to a degree. Marie Livingston, whose family embraced the new learning, was encouraged but not forced to attend Mass. By the time the Four Maries reached puberty, they were well educated and highly polished French girls, ready to be integrated into the life at the French court.  Nevertheless, their place in the life of the Queen had been taken by the Princesses Elisabeth and Claud, and their brother Francois, the Dauphin. 
By the time she was eleven, the Queen of Scots might well have been homesick for her mother, but there is no reason to think she missed or even remembered the land of which she was sovereign.  

Of the four female relationships formed during her early years in France, three were among those with whom she corresponded in the months before her execution.  Diane de Poitiers was dead, but her elegance and style left a lasting impression on the queen, who like Diane, knew her stage craft.  She did not wear a crimson petticoat to her execution by accident.  She knew it was the color of martyrdom. 


Elisabeth Valois, school of Clouet

The Princess Elisabeth Valois:  One might develop a distorted impression of the relationship between the Queen of Scots and Henri and Catherine’s oldest daughter Elisabeth if they merely surveyed the queen’s correspondence without knowing the background in which they were written.  A portfolio of letters written by the Queen to her new best friend survives.  They were not components of a private communication between close friends, but letters produced in the classroom as a part of the curriculum.   They were designed as exercises in penmanship and self-expression, and would have been read by a language tutor and possibly by Queen Catherine or Diane de Poitiers, but they were not meant to be sent to the recipient.   While Elisabeth was a frequent addressee of the queen’s letters, she was not the only one. Sometimes Marie wrote to her little friend and future fiancé, the Dauphin Francois, who was also a student in the royal nursery, and adored Marie. 

The tone of the queen’s letters to Elisabeth is often pedantic, not unusual in an exchange between a girl of eleven to a friend almost two and a half years her junior.  The queen lectures Elisabeth as if she were a younger sister, and in many respects, she was. There was a difference in status of the girls.  Marie was an anointed queen, and thus took precedence in the protocols.  Marie also treated Francois very much as if he were a sickly younger brother. Throughout her life, she was drawn to nurse the needy. However, it is an error to paint her as always compassionate and kind to those who stood between her and her goals.

From a letter written circa 1553, when Marie Stuart was eleven:
"It is not enough, my beloved sister, that at the commencement of your studies you should invoke the help of God. For He wishes, besides, that you should work with all the force you possess. For, my dearest friend and sister, the ancients have said that the Gods do not give their blessings to idle folk, but sell them for labor. Farewell, and love me as I love you."

In another letter, eleven-year-old Marie Stuart writes to her younger friend Elisabeth as follows:
"I read, yesterday, one of (Aesop’s)Fables which is as profitable as it is agreeable. During the winter the ant was engaged in making a good meal of the grain which he had collected in the summer, when the grasshopper came to him, very hungry, and begged for something to eat. But the ant said, " What were you doing in the summer?" " Singing," was the answer. " If you sang in the summer, you may dance now in the winter," answered the ant. The fable signifies, dearest sister, that while we are young we should take pains to study learning and virtue, to guide us in later years."

The friendship between the two royal girls did not fade with the years, although they were separated in their teens when Elisabeth was sent to Spain to become the third queen of King Phillip after Mary Tudor died.  In a letter written to Elisabeth in later years, from one of her English prisons, the Queen of Scots writes:
"I do not know how to describe to you the pleasure which your kind and comforting letters have given me at a time so unfortunate for me; they seem sent from God for my consolation in the midst of all the troubles and adversities that surround me! I see well how much I am bound to bless God for our having been (fortunately for me) brought up together in friendship."

Some histories of the queen infer she received her education at the convent school at the Abbey of Saint Pierre les Dames du Rheims where her Aunt Renee de Guise was abbess. It is true that the queen visited her mother’s oldest sibling at the convent and spent some time there in the company of her aunt Renee, but she did not reside there for any protracted length of time. Her principal education was received at Saint-Germain-en-Laye, and when she grew older, she moved with the court.  Her mother’s family,  however, participated in her care and education and as she approached the age of majority, assumed a principal role. . The family matriarch Antoinette d’Bourbon, the Dowager Duchess of Guise, was not shy in providing input. The image one receives of the young Marie Stuart was that of a serious student who aimed to please and who worked hard at her lessons and was obedient.

 Because Marie was already a sovereign, she sometimes found herself the object of power struggles in the nursery and at court.  She also was a pawn in the rising fortunes of the House of Guise. There is no question that the Dukes of Guise and their ecclesiastical siblings were intimidating.  Francois, Second Duke of Guise, and his brother Charles, Cardinal of Lorraine rivaled the king in both wealth and power. A major rift erupted when the Dauphin was given his establishment and withdrawn from the nursery.  At Antoinette Bourbon’s instigation, her sons Francois and Charles demanded the same treatment for their niece Queen Marie, who was a year older.  The problem was getting someone other than themselves to pay for it, preferably the Scottish parliament.  Financial accommodations were reached between Henri II and the Scots, and Marie Stuart moved into her own suite at Saint Germain,  One of her first acts was to free her Four Maries from their exile and restore them to her household. Another was to entertain her Uncle Charles at a lavish dinner.  By then, the adolescent queen had learned to assert herself.  She embarked upon a struggle with her formidable grandmother Antoinette to rid herself of the governess the Dowager Duchess of Guise had selected to replace Janet Stewart, Lady Flemyng.   Marie took her complaints directly to her mother in Scotland, and the governess was sacked, but not without first spreading tales inferring Marie Stuart was a spoiled, manipulative brat.  During the dispute over the governess, Marie maintained the woman’s abuses had caused her to take to her bed with severe pains in her side.  Whether real or feigned, the pains were a recurring device displayed by the queen throughout her life when she did not get her way. And of course, the governess was sent back from whence she came, a bitter woman who did not live long.


There is much truth to the governess’s accusation.  Marie was indeed manipulative, and her first great success was with her prospective father-in-law, the king.  When adolescent Marie and Queen Catherine disagreed,  Marie sometimes took her complaints directly to the king, who was enchanted by his little ward and often arbitrated in her favor.  There is no definitive point where relationships between Queen consort Catherine and the Queen of Scots are noted in the histories.  At the time of Marie’s arrival in France, Catherine d’Medici was herself an outsider, the Italienne.  The female personage of power and influence at the Valois Court was not the queen but the royal mistress, Diane dePoitiers.  It was she who convinced Henri to begin occasionally sleeping with his wife, in order to secure the dynasty.  Diane was the one who set the tone at court.  When in 1551 the Dowager of Scotland Marie de Guise came home to France for a visit, it was Diane she consulted on matters of protocol and wardrobe. But the Duchess of Valentinois was more than a fashion plate. She was one of the king’s principal advisers on such heady matters as international diplomacy and military affairs.

The Queen of Scots was friendly with the Duchess and considered her a mentor and friend.  At one point, some of Marie Stuart’s distractors suggested a painting by an unknown artist of two topless women in the bath produced late in the 16th century was of Diane and the Queen of Scots, although it is far more likely of the French King Henry IV’s beloved mistress Madame d’Estrees and her sister. While Diane had frequently posed nude, there is no evidence the Queen of Scots did.  Also, Diane was forty-three years older than Marie, obviously not the case of the women in the painting.

 It is worthy of note that Catherine d’Medici had only been Queen of France a year when anointed Queen Marie Stuart arrived in France.  From the time of Catherine’s  marriage to Henri in 1533,  she had remained in the background. The marriage contract was negotiated while her uncle Clement VII was the pope, but he died shortly after the marriage.  The contract had been negotiated by Henri’s father Francois I, anticipating the political benefits he would reap by being an in-law of the Pope.  The marriage occurred at a time when Francois was competing with Charles V for the favor of the  Roman Church. For that reason, the bride’s dowry was hardly a factor in the negotiations.  With Clement’s death, Catherine was relegated to the background. She spent her energies staying in the good graces of the king’s mistress the Duchess of d’Etampes and her husband’s beloved Diane de Poitiers. At the time Henri succeeded his father, Catherine was far from an important force in French court politics, and the Queen of Scots apparently sensed her lack of popularity at the court.  There is no evidence of precisely when the queens displayed a mutual dislike of one another, but at some point while Marie was growing up, she referred to Queen Catherine as ‘the Florentine shopkeeper’s daughter.’ Her use of the demeaning label made its way to  Catherine, who did not forget the slight. 


Diane dePoitiers, the Duchess of Valentinois, was not the trollop the Scottish Protestant Kirk made her out to be.  She had been a loyal and loving wife to her much older first husband, Louis de Breze, Seigneur d’Anet.  According to romantic legend, Henri II had been infatuated with Diane since he was a boy on his way to captivity in Spain,  and while that may be true,  whatever the adolescent Henri’s feelings for her might have been, she was an exemplary wife to Louis while he lived.  While the court of Henri’s father Francois I was licentious, Henri Valois was of a different ilk.  He and Diane were deeply devoted to one another, and the tone of their court was conservative. When sensuous dances such as the Volta became popular at court, they were favored by Queen Catherine, not the Duchess.  In some respects, she was more prudish than Catherine.

 Diane was 19 years the king’s senior, and her judgment was astute.  If she was unpopular with the Guises and its rivals in  the Montmorency faction, it was for her competence in maintaining the balance of power between them, not her status as a mistress.  She, not Catherine, held the ear as well as the heart of the king.  But, Catherine was an intelligent young woman whose life experiences had taught her to be cautious.  She knew better than to be confrontational in her dealings with Diane.  She was also circumspect about her relationship with her designated future daughter-in-law.  The Italian shopkeeper’s daughter was wise enough to avoid battles she could not win. Once she began giving birth to Henri’s children, she was content to bide her time.


When the Queen of Scots arrived in France, her grandfather Claud was Duke of Guise, the second son of the Duke of Lorraine, which had been an independent Duchy.   The House of Guise had brought Lorraine into the kingdom, and its scions were considered princes of France, claiming precedence over the Bourbon princes of the blood.   Until 1528, only princes of the ruling house were awarded the title of Duke. Thus, when Duke Claud’s daughter, the Scottish Dowager, began negotiations aimed at sending her daughter to France to escape a forced betrothal to Henry VIII’s son Prince Edward, there were political benefits in welcoming the Queen of Scots to France.  Although Henri Valois disagreed with his father’s position on many issues, bringing Marie Stuart to France under contract to become betrothed to his four-year-old son Francois was not among them.  The French crown was locked in armed conflicts with the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, and the House of Guise contributed both its military might and incredible wealth to efforts to hold Charles at bay.  Marie had been in France for two years when Claud died at the Guise estate in Joinville where she had visited, but by the time of her arrival, the Duke had passed the leadership of the Guise faction to his sons Francois and Charles. 

Anne d'Este
Clouet F de Lorraine.jpg
Francois de Guise
In 1550, both the Duke and his brother John, Cardinal of Lorraine, died, leaving the new Duke of Guise Francois the most important of France’s generals, and his brother Charles, the most important European ecclesiastic behind the Pope, and the richest man in France.  Their mother, the redoubtable Antoinette deBourbon, Dowager Duchess of Guise, retained her position as the family matriarch,  but the new Duchess of Guise, Anne d’Este, was formidable in her own right, and a person of influence in the wife of her niece, the Queen of Scots.   Like Elisabeth Valois, Anne d’Este remained close to the Queen of Scots long after she returned to Scotland.

Of the women who influenced Marie Stuart’s early life, I find Anne d’Este the most enigmatic.  My debut novel sees her through the eyes of Janet Stewart, Lady Flemying’s daughter whom the French called La Flamina because her surname hinted at a Flemish heritage.   My protagonist did not like Anne and viewed her as a puppet of Antionette d’ Bourbon, a rather stiff-necked moralist who wore a hair shirt and a celice under plain, coarse clothes.  However, as she matured, Anne became a leader of the militant Catholic faction in the French Wars of Religion and the epitome of a woman who stepped far outside of the role of the typical aristocratic noblewoman of her day.  It is difficult to extract from the several versions of Anne e’Este to isolate the one who influenced the Queen of Scots during her years in France. 

The woman who succeeded Antoinette de Bourbon as Duchess of Guise was the daughter of the Duke of Ferrera, Ercole II, which gave her shared heritage with Queen Catherine d’ Medici. However, Anne was also the granddaughter of a King of France, and the niece of Francois I’s revered first wife Claud.  Her mother was Renee of France, one of the two daughters of the Valois king Louis XII, his only children to survive infancy.  The crown then passed to his relative Francois I, Henri II’s father. Thus, Anne e’Este and the French king were related.  She traveled from her father’s duchy to Saint Germain en Laye where she was married and never again set foot in Italy.  Her marriage to the son of the high-flying Duke of Guise was a political match of high value to both.  Whether out of genuine affection or a shared political ambition, the marriage was a strong one.  From the time of her marriage to Francois, who at the time was Duke of Aumale, Anne d’Este became an enthusiastic member of the House of Guise.  In 1550 when the old Duke died, she became Duchess of Guise, and with the aid of her mother-in-law Antoinette managed the vast wealth of the Guise while her husband became one of France’s most accomplished warrior princes.  She apparently shared her mother-in-law’s enthusiasm for removing the pre-pubescent Queen of Scots from the control of  Catherine and Diane.  She developed a friendly correspondence with her husband’s sister Marie de Guise, informing her that at the age of nine, the little queen was too advanced to be treated as a child.  She and her brother-in-law Charles, Cardinal of Lorraine, were instrumental in convincing Mare de Guise to pursue the funding necessary to establish a separate household for the Queen of Scots.  

According to a very recent scholarly analysis by Aysha Pollnitz, Princely Education in Early Modern Britain, Cambridge Press, 2015, it was after the queen’s eleventh birthday when her sovereignty was established that her classical education actually began.  The strict regimen imposed by the hand-picked governess Madame Parois, as unpopular as it was with Marie, introduced the queen to a level of study of more substance and less glitter.  According to author Pollnitz, her education to that point, while impressive, was superficial, aimed more at showmanship than deep understanding. Contrary to the reports of other historians who compare her facility with Latin to Edward VI, Polnitz maintains the queen’s  performances were orchestrated by her tutors and were well rehearsed.  Her celebrated dissertation at the Louvre in 1554-or 1555 so gloriously applauded by the French scholar Brantome was more a recitation than an expository declamation. Nevertheless, Mary Stuart was educated well above the standard of most female royals of her day, no doubt with the encouragement of her aunt Anne, who had received an exemplary liberal education while growing up in Ferrera.

The success of her Guise relatives in giving the Queen of Scots her household paved the way for acknowledgment of her majority, a move that allowed her to appoint her own Regent.  Guided by her Guise relatives, Marie ousted the Regent James Hamilton, erstwhile Earl of Arran and Duke of Chatelherault, and replaced him with her mother.  It was a move popular in France, but not in Scotland, where the move was perceived as an assault against the Scottish Reformation and a reaffirmation of the Auld Alliance between Scotland and France.  It was a victory for the Guises and the Royal House of Valois, but one for which Marie de Guise ultimately paid dearly. 
Notre Dame du Paris

After Marie  Stuart’s marriage to Francois II in April 1558 when she became the Dauphiness, it seemed apparent she would someday become Queen of France.  Her training shifted to what was appropriate for a queen consort. For elegance and taste, she would have looked to Anne e’Este as well as Diane de Poitiers. She had already estranged herself from Catherine by insisting on wearing white at her wedding, which Catherine considered the color of mourning.  The austerity of the Dowager Antoinette de Bourbon was ill-suited to a nominated Queen of France. Thus,  Anne Este emerged as an ideal mentor.

For all of her love of elegance, Anne d’Este was an exemplary wife to Francois.  She never appeared in public without the Duke, or if he was on a military campaign, without his brother the Cardinal as her escort.  While the Queen of Scot’s enemies in Scotland later tried to cast the Duchess as a loose woman who had engaged in an affair with her second husband, the Duke of Nemours while Francois still lived, there is no credible evidence that Anne was anything but a loyal and loving wife, one of the several victims of the poison pens of Marie Stuart’s enemies Buchanan and Randolph, and the polemics of John Knox. When Francois d’ Guise was assassinated in 1563, Anne d’Este is said to have supervised the execution of the man who shot him, standing watch while his extremities were tied to bent saplings,  which when released tore him limb from limb.  Some stories have her cutting the rope herself.

Throughout her life, the Queen of Scots and her Guise family remained close, at times to Marie Stuart’s detriment.  During her years of detention in England, she looked to Anne’s sons to launch a rescue, and she stayed close to her aunt.  Among their preserved  correspondence,  at the eve of Marie Stuart’s period of personal rule, letters were exchanged regarding Anne’s remarriage to the handsome and younger Jacques de Savoy, Duke of Nemours,  at a time when the Queen was imprisoned at Loch Leven.  The Queen of Scots sent Anne d’Este wishes for the happiness Marie would never realize. It was Anne’s second successful marriage. She presented Nemours with three more children to match the seven survivors of her union with Francois de Guise.  She also supervised diplomatic exchanges between Nemours, France and the independent  Duchy of Savoy.

Henri IV as Mars (PD Art)
Anne d’Este remained a political force to be reckoned with after her second husband died. The last of Catherine d’Medici’s sons to rule France, Henri III, had her two older Guise sons murdered, and Anne arrested, although she was soon released. While there is a lack of conclusive evidence, Anne is a prime suspect in Henri III’s assassination the following year. After personally supervising the resistance in Paris to the armies of the Huguenot heir to the throne, Henri of Navarre during the Wars of Religion, when Henri IV submitted to a mass and recanted his Protestant faith, Anne persuaded her sons to  acknowledge him as King of France.  When he divorced his flamboyant wife Marguerite of Valois (Queen Margot), the Dowager Duchess of Guise and Nemours, a consummate survivor, became superintendent of his bride Maria d’ Medici’s  household.  When Anne d’Este died, her heart was buried at Joinville with Francois and her Guise children, and her body was sent to Annecy to be buried with her second husband and his family.  She would have been a good role model for the Queen of Scots, whom she outlived by twenty years.  She was refined and educated, flexible when warranted, and hard of heart when required.  


Execution of the Queen of Scots, {{PD Art}}

During the last days of her life, the Queen of Scots still looked to France for her salvation. Her last letter was written to Charles IX, King of France, Catherine’s son. It was Anne’s son Henri, third Duke of Guise whom she had expected to lead a military expedition to England to save her, unfortunately at a time when the Guises had problems of their own. She petitioned Elizabeth to allow her to retire to the Guise controlled convent of Saint Pierre les Dames du Rheims where her Aunt Renee was the abbess, and where the last of the Four Maries to leave her service, Marie Seton, had gone to spend her final years. Elizabeth refused. Ironically, the Queen of Scots,  who was happiest as Queen of France,  is buried in Westminster Abbey in a country she never ruled, across the aisle from the Queen of England, who signed her death warrant.  Even in death, she did not choose her own company.

Thank you for joining me in this brief look at the women in Marie Stuart's France. ~ Linda Root

Linda Root is the author of six historical novels set in the late 16th and early seventeenth century, The First Marie and the Queen of Scots, (2011) and The Last Knight and the Queen of Scots (2013), both large historicals, and the Legacy of the Queen of Scots Suite consisting of four books to date and the fifth coming in early 2016.  Visit her author’s page: She also writes historical fantasy under the name J.D. Root.  Root is a former major crimes prosecutor living in the high desert above Palm Springs with husband Chris and two Alaskan malamutes Maxx and Maya.  Visit her author page on Amazon at