This Week in History: Eadgyth, England, and the Wider World

I don’t know about you, but one of the coolest things for me in learning about history is getting to see just how in so many ways our world is completely different from that of the past, but so so similar in others.
One of those ways in which it is both so familiar and so foreign is in how networks were created and interacted across distances. While the people in Eadgyth (c. 906-946)’s lifetime didn’t have internet, phones, telegrams, or other near immediate communication lines across long distances like we do – they found ways around it using the technologies at their disposal. Namely – marriages.

This is one of the reasons why, as a noble, aristocratic, or royal couple, that you wanted to have sons (as heirs for all your names, money, titles, etc) as well as daughters. While daughters were, in the coldest sense, a drain in terms of providing dowries – by marrying them off to other well-off or well-connected families you were able to recoup some of that cost because daughters were ways to link your family in a very concrete alliance to another family. With that alliance, you got to have various trade benefits, military help, or honestly, it could just make you look like you’ve ‘made it’ since you were able to snag an important marriage partner for your kid (Like with Katherine of Aragon marrying Arthur, Prince of Wales. She was the daughter of the most powerful monarchs at the time and Arthur was the son of a usurper who’d not been on his throne for too long).

So for Eadgyth, it was probably expected from the moment she was born that she would be used as a negotiating tool in brokering alliances – the same for all of her sisters. When she was at around 18 years old she was sent to the Continent to be married off to Otto (who luckily for her was about her age). Her younger sister accompanied her on this trip – she was also sent to be married off to a different French prince. Eadgyth married the man who eventually became the King of the East Franks, and her sister Eadgifu married the King of the West Franks. Having two sisters as queens of neighboring kingdoms was meant to ensure peace between the two realms. Another sister, Eadhild, became the Duchess of the Franks and Countess of Paris through her marriage to Hugh the Great. The marriages were also meant to bind England to France and Germany, as Eadgyth’s brothers didn’t marry outside the island or didn’t marry at all. In some ways, the marriage alliances were really successful and provided extra means of communication and common ground between many realms in early Medieval Europe.

This type of marriage alliance continued until long into the twentieth century, when monarchies became less and less involved in the day-to-day ruling of countries. Binding together families into tight alliances was exactly the strategy of the early modern Habsburgs but instead of marrying into other families, they married into themselves (lots of instances of uncles marrying nieces, cousins of all stripes marrying cousins). While that was great for maintaining a grasp on wealth, power, and land, it wasn’t so great for genetics.

This Week in History: Liber Regalis, The Little Device, and English Coronations

This week I’ve gotten to write about a lot of royal history! Perhaps my favorite topic that underlies a lot of these events is the study of royal ceremonial – especially coronations. I LOVE getting to look at all of the intended and interpreted connotations of each and every little known aspect of these ceremonies, which were meant to be talked about and thought about for generations to come. The #OnThisDay which inspired this post, specifically, was the one about Elizabeth I’s coronation in 1559.

Image of a post from Mastodon

So, what on earth is Liber Regalis? The Little Device? What do they have to do with coronations?
Honestly? Pretty much everything! The Liber Regalis is a manuscript that is now owned by and housed in Westminster Abbey (which makes complete and utter sense). Liber Regalis translates from Latin as “royal book” which is a truthful and succinct description of its contents.
The Liber Regalis contains in it the ‘script’ for coronations in England – the order (ordo) of the prayers, the step-by-step of the ritual used to crown a new monarch to make it super official that they’re the one in charge. The divinely appointed person – the one that God chose – was the one that got to enjoy their triumphant coronation.
Typically in England, the monarch was a man – but not always, and the inspiration of this post was one of those outliers. Elizabeth I was England’s second virgin queen and second woman king. She’d borrowed much from her sister Mary’s image-building and coronation 5 years earlier (even the golden robes she’s wearing in the portrait above!). Mary’s coronation was England’s first for a ruling queen – and because she saw herself as no less a rightful ruler than her brother before her, she followed the same coronation procedure as had the men in preceding generations.

The Liber Regalis and Little Device worked together to try and provide guidance in any foreseeable coronation combination – a king alone, a queen (consort) alone, and a king and queen together. When the Liber Regalis was developed in the late 14th century (likely for Anne of Bohemia, consort of Richard II), the authors did not conceive of a woman ruling in her own right (the only time in English history that had come close to happening was the potential rule of Matilda, daughter of Henry I. Her rule had been usurped by her cousin, Stephen), and so did not write a set of instructions on how to crown one.

It was up to Mary to decide exactly how she wanted to be crowned – and she largely followed the procedure as laid out and followed by her brother and father and grandfather before her.

Typically, a coronation celebration begins with the procession to the Abbey ahead of the ceremony itself, where the monarch presents herself to her people, decked out in the best clothes and jewels she can muster. Mary wore crimson (along with her sister Elizabeth) in her procession, changed to a white gown for the anointing in the church, and then purple for her recessional to her coronation banquet. Elizabeth followed this same pattern for her own coronation.

In the coronation itself, the monarch is both anointed and invested. What this means is that they are dabbed with holy oil or chrism at various points on their body – for a king, that meant hands, breast, shoulders, elbows, and head. So, that’s what Mary did.
After the anointing, the monarch is then given objects which represent various parts of their kingly authority – spurs, sword, scepter, orb, and then crowns. The spurs symbolize knighthood and are a key part of investiture for knights. The sword demonstrates a king’s martial authority – life and death and justice – over their realm. The scepter (with a dove) symbolizes a monarch’s role in the spiritual lives of their people. The orb literally is taken to mean the Christian world (it has a cross up top) and the power of the monarch to rule it. She was then given a ring – symbolizing her marriage to her realm.
Mary was crowned with three different crowns in succession, either in imitation of her brother or her cousin (Charles V). These three crowns – one an ancient one, one commissioned by her father, and then one purpose made for her, symbolized her connection to both the legacy of her brother, father, and the empire of her cousin. Mary’s England wasn’t just and island set apart from the rest of Europe by dint of the Channel – it had aspirations of empire, going back to Mary’s grandfather, Henry VII. By appropriating the triple crowns, her coronation was in line with that of a papal investiture, coronation of the Emperor, as well as that of her brother.
And the Liber Regalis goes into all of this, in detail.
If you’re interested in reading it, I’d suggest looking at its adaptation for James VI/I for his coronation in 1604. James’ is slightly different in that it was England’s first coronation for over forty years and the Church was very different in James’ day than it was in Elizabeth’s (technically Elizabeth’s ceremony was done under the same Catholic authority as Mary’s), but the text is made to have been performed in English.
I’d also suggest anything by Alice Hunt – especially the Drama of Coronation.

This Week In History: Margaret of Austria, a life lived large

January 8-14

Margaret of Austria cannot be contained within the mere 500 characters of a Mastodon post – so I wanted to give her a little more room here!
Margaret was born 10 January 1480 to the royal house of Habsburg. Her father, Maximilian, was elected Holy Roman Emperor in 1508. Her mother, Mary, was the duchess of Burgundy in her own right (and also incredibly wealthy).
Margaret was the second child born to her parents – her other brother Philip was born in 1478.
Much like many other girls born to wealthy or noble families, Margaret was used as a marriage pawn from an early age. After her mother died in 1482, little Margaret’s hand was signed away by her father to the king of France, so she would wed his son, Charles the dauphin. Her brother became the titular ruler of the Low Countries (having inherited it from their mother), though their dad was the actual power. Of course, Margaret and Charles were far too young to actually get married, but she was sent away from her home to go and live in France, to be brought up as a dauphine. She was educated well in France, and got along well with Charles. However, she was dumped for her stepmom, Anne of Brittany (Anne was only 15 at the time, having been married to Maximilian for a couple of years and then married at army-point to Charles).

After Charles’ marriage, Margaret was forced to stay in the French court in the background as a pseudo-sort of ghost. She was no longer dauphine-to-be and did not have a proscribed place in the very strict hierarchy of the royal court. Once the political ramifications of the Great Wife Swap of 1492 concluded she was able to go home.

Portrait of Margaret (taken from wikipedia) by Jean Hey c. 1490

Little Margaret was, very quickly, used as a marriage pawn again by her father. This time, instead of marrying her to the French heir, he married her to the Spanish heir and the marriage actually happened this time! When Margaret was 17, she was shipped off to Spain to marry Juan, Prince of Asturias, the only son of Isabel I of Castile and Fernando II of Aragon (the Catholic monarchs). Her brother also got a bride in the bargain, as he married Juana, a middle daughter of Isabel and Fernando. Juana left to live in the Low Countries and Margaret sailed to Spain.

This time, it seems like Margaret was actually excited and was old enough to really take part in the marriage. Along the way, her ship was hit by a major storm (as seems to happen most ships bearing royal brides in the Renaissance) and she wrote a poem lamenting her impending death:

Here lies Margaret, the willing bride,
Twice married – but a virgin when she died.

It was around this time that Isabel and Fernando were lining up the marriage of their youngest daughter, Catalina (Katherine of Aragon), to Arthur, Prince of Wales in England. When Margaret’s ship blew ashore in England (as many of these boats often d0) Henry VII, in a bid to show hospitality and to impress Isabel and Fernando (so that they’d want to keep the betrothal of Katherine and Arthur), ensured that Margaret wanted for nothing during her unexpected stay in England.

Screencap from the Calendar of State Papers Online of a translation of a letter from Henry VII to Margaret in February 1497 (it says 1496 in the letter as New Years was celebrated in March in England, not January 1).

After managing to safely land in Spain, Margaret lived very happily with her husband for about six months before he died. Apparently his parents thought that they’d been having too much sex and it weakened his immune system and that’s why he died. It’s likely that it was tuberculosis and not a teenager’s sex drive that killed him, but it’s partly the reason why Isabel and Fernando were cautious when advising Katherine on how to have just the right amount of sex to have royal babies but not die (this is one of the reasons why it’s highly plausible that Katherine and Arthur hadn’t actually gotten around to consummating their marriage in 1501 as Arthur may have been a somewhat sickly young man and Katherine’s brother had died from potential sexual over-exertion, so of course they would take it slow, they were young and seemingly had all the time in the world).

Poor Margaret was left pregnant, but her daughter died prior to birth. Margaret stayed on in Spain for a little while, while she recovered and became very close friends with Juan’s sister Katherine. It’s likely that Margaret taught Katherine French before she left for England – French was spoken widely at the royal court (and it’s possible that Margaret also tutored her in some English. Having grown up with Margaret of York as a step-grandma, Margaret would have learned the language from a native speaker).
For a little while, Margaret was able to live at home, but her father once again used her as a marriage pawn in 1501, when she was sent to Savoy to become its duchess. This marriage, too, ended up being a love match (Margaret was very easy to love, she was clever, caring, and capable). So much so that after her husband Philibert died in 1504, she threw herself out of a window in grief.

It was in this marriage that Margaret began to find her footing and wield her power. Her husband had no aptitude for government and had left the management of Savoy largely in the hands of his brother. This was an untenable situation for Margaret, and she removed Rene from power and centered the administration within the ducal couple (which meant in her own hands). She did well, having been tutored in the art of authority at the feet of Margaret of York, Anne of France, and Isabel of Castile. She had contacts in the leading families of the Continent and was not afraid to use them.

After Philibert’s death, she stayed in Savoy as regent for his successor, his younger brother. She’d had a taste of power and had been widowed twice in her short life – she refused to ever be made a pawn for someone else’s marriage games ever again. It wasn’t long after Philibert’s death that her brother and father tried to marry her off again, this time to the newly widowed Henry VII of England.

Margaret refused.

Philip, Margaret’s brother, died, which left a power vacuum in Burgundy and the Low Countries. Juana and Philip had left for Castile anyway, but now there was no one running the show there. Margaret, with her aptitude for rule, was tapped as Governor of the Low Countries, and also was tasked as guardian for her nephew Carlos (the future Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor). She was later elected governor in 1509, the only woman to have been honored so. She was ruler of the Netherlands from 1507-1515 and again in 1519-1530. She did so well that she was tapped by both her father and her former father-in-law to represent them (as well as herself) in peace negotiations and forming the League of Cambrai. She also was one of the major players in the Ladies Peace of 1529, wherein she negotiated with Louise of Savoy and Marguerite of Angouleme for the release of Francois I from Spain.

After becoming an adult, having been married thrice, Margaret learned how to play the game of politics and win. She ruled successfully, lived life on her own terms, and left behind a legacy for other capable and intelligent women to follow.

This Week in History: The Death of a Queen

January 1-7

This Week in #History – where I have more than 500 characters in a post! I love getting to post on Mastodon ( and one of the things which has been a real boon to me has been posting a daily #OnThisDay post. I’ve gotten the chance to share some things I already knew but have gotten to learn so much more, and I’ve only been doing it for a couple of months now.

My hope is this year that I’ll be able to build up a regular posting schedule, which includes an extended version of my OnThisDay posts – InThisWeek, where I’ll take one of my daily mini-posts and go a bit deeper. Usually these will be topics where I have some fair expertise, or they’ll be a chance to geek out on something entirely new to me! It’s all fair game and I’m so excited to get going on something that I’ve written about in other formats: the death of Katherine of Aragon and the mythologizing of her final days.

Katherine (Catalina, Katharina) of Aragon was an infanta of Spain, Princess of Wales, and Queen of England throughout her fifty year long life. She was the youngest daughter of Isabel I of Castile and Fernando II of Aragon, born in 1485. Katherine was initially married to Arthur, Prince of Wales, who was the first born son of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York, but he died shortly after their marriage. Instead of returning to Spain, she remained in England and eventually married Arthur’s younger brother, Henry. Henry had become King of England after his father’s death in 1509 and one of the first things he did was marry Katherine.

Katherine’s life after that was a series of ups and downs – she become patroness of many schools, head of her household, became pregnant many times and unfortunately lost those very wanted children, went on pilgrimages and progresses around England, and elegantly turned her eye away from Henry’s wandering codpiece. She gave birth to Mary in 1516, her only child to survive infancy. Katherine knew that Mary could rule just as well as any son could, given her mother Isabel’s history, so Katherine had Mary educated with a curriculum fit for a prince (which, as ‘prince’ can be a gender-neutral term, Mary certainly was).

Unfortunately for Katherine, Henry was both desperate for a male heir and bored with her and he unilaterally decided to divorce her and marry one of her attendants, Anne Boleyn. Divorce wasn’t really a thing, though kings had put aside wives before (usually for the wives’ own sexual indiscretions or for infertility). What Henry really wanted was an annulment, which was a way of retconning the whole marriage and saying that it never happened. Henry was convinced that because Katherine had married his brother before him, that they totally must have had sex, and that meant that his marriage to her was null and void (which completely ignores the instances in recent memory where kings had married sisters or other similar kin-related situations – in Katherine’s own family. Katherine’s oldest sister, Isabel, had married Afonso, the prince of Portugal. He died not long after. Isabel married Afonso’s uncle, Manuel, after a few years. Isabel died. Maria, Isabel and Katherine’s middle sister, married Manuel. Some of their children married the children of the other sister, Juana. That’s a whole different story after the Habsburgs, Juana and Philip, come into it).

Katherine, understandably, did not take too well to that. She insisted until the day she died that she was still the rightful queen of England.

She died at Kimbolton on 7 January 1536 at around 2pm (Earenfight, 183). Katherine was not alone – one of her friends, Maria de Salinas, managed to spoof her way through Henry’s guards (as he’d sent her from palace to palace to house to keep her away from court, away from Mary, and away from the eyes of her loving people) to be at Katherine’s side when the end came.

One of the most romantic notions which surrounds the death of the noble queen was her last letter. I’ve seen it circulated about on the internet for a long while now, and have tried to track down the manuscript — the original, handwritten letter, from 1536, or at least a verified copy of it. I mean, how cool would it be to:
1) get to hold something that she’d held in her hands?
2) examine something that old?
3) analyze it for my research?

So to figure out where it lives, first we track the citations. The letter is quoted in her Wikipedia entry in its entirety, and they actually cite where they pulled the text from. The Wiki says that this:

came from

Okay – that’s easy enough to track down. It’s from 1828, which means that it is super into public domain and because it’s a history book from the nineteenth century it’s likely that Google Books has a scan. Lucky for us! And not to be too nitpicky, the publication isn’t cited properly in the wiki. It should be The Modern History of England, Part the First – The Reign of Henry VIII, vol. 2, and it was published in 1827, not 1828. I’ll have to log into my editor login on wiki to fix that up at some point in the near future.

After finding the appropriate page, which isn’t in the Wiki citation (page 433) this is in a footnote talking about Katherine’s death.

So — what, then, my friends, is “Herb. 403”? This appears to be where Turner got the letter from, so let’s take a gander at the book to see what that abbreviation could mean.

After doing a search in the book (I do love living in the 21st century), one of the results came back with this:

So now, to find who this particular historian must have been, the title of his work, and hopefully it’s available online!
After doing a couple of quick searches, looking for historians/antiquarians from before the early 1800s (as this “Herbert” must have published before the 1820s so as to have been influential and available for Turner’s reference). Here’s a promising lead –

Pic pulled from the EEBO entry.

So Herbert could possibly be Edward Herbert, first Baron Cherbury. This edition of this Life and Reign of King Henry the Eighth was published in 1672, but an earlier edition dates to 1649 (though it was finished in 1639). He had actually met Henry’s daughter, Elizabeth I, on several occasions. He was particularly handsome enough for her to have remarked “It is pity he was married so young!” This book – on Henry VIII – was requested by Charles I, and with a royal patron, Herbert gained access to all sorts of official documents as well as the manuscript collection of Robert Bruce Cotton.

Herbert, not on page 430 as Turner suggests (but this could be a difference in editions as the book had been reprinted several times over the 150 odd years between its initial publication and when Turner referenced it), does mention that Katherine dictated a letter to Henry (which he wept when he read it, blah blah. It really is hard to feel any sympathy for the man who kept a mother away from an ill daughter, divorced her because none of her sons survived as if she wasn’t already sad about that, and forced her into unfit accommodations and tried to keep her alone and broken until she died).

So – and I do love these older chronicles for this – Herbert is saying that he is pulling from Polydore Vergil. Vergil was the author of another English history, the Anglica Historia, which was originally commissioned by another king, Henry VII. Like Herbert’s history, Vergil’s also went through several reprints. It was originally published in 1534, which covered events through 1509. The second edition (1546) was a revised version, and kept the end date through 1509. The third (which is the one linked, 1555) added the bulk of Henry’s reign through 1537.

Vergil tells the same story that Turner and Herbert do – but doesn’t really give a source of his letter. This is a quote pulled from the Anglica Historia – Henry VIII

But let me return to Catherine. After her divorce from her husband was made final, she retired to Bedfordshire, to a royal manor called Kimbolton, a very unhealthy place, where, wonderfully armed with true patience, she lived a pious life. But afterwards, when her health was undermined by sorrow, she began to ail. As soon as Henry heard of this he arranged for Eustache Chapuys, the emperor’s ambassador, to visit her and greet her on his behalf. Eustache did his duty diligently and with speed. But six days thereafter Catherine’s health deteriorated and, having a presentiment of her impending death, she had an educated lady in waiting write two copies of the same letter, one to the king and the other to Eustache, which she dictated in the following words:

61. My most dear lord, king and husband, The hour of my death now drawing on, the tender love I owe you forceth me, my case being such, to commend myself to you, and to put you in remembrance with a few words of the health and safeguard of your soul which you ought to prefer before all worldly matters, and before the care and pampering of your body, for the which you have cast me into many calamities and yourself into many troubles. For my part, I pardon you everything, and I wish to devoutly pray God that He will pardon you also. For the rest, I commend unto you our daughter Mary, beseeching you to be a good father unto her, as I have heretofore desired. I entreat you also, on behalf of my maids, to give them marriage portions, which is not much, they being but three. For all my other servants I solicit the wages due them, and a year more, lest they be unprovided for. Lastly, I make this vow, that mine eyes desire you above all things.

62. In her letter to Eustache she added that, should Henry not honor her final request, he should ensure that the emperor would remind Henry of his duty. And on that selfsame day she departed this life, on January 6 in the year of salvation 1535. Reading her letter, the king wept lovingly. For who could have been so harsh and hard-hearted that he would not be moved by that pure and sincere expression of good will towards himself? The body of this excellent queen was taken to Peterborough and honorably buried in the Benedictine monastery there. Let me pursue Henry’s marital affairs. Upon Catherine’s death Queen Anne was gladdened by the passing of that royal consort, because the legitimacy of her marriage would no longer be in doubt. Likewise the king was in high hopes of fathering children, especially male ones, which was his greatest desire, since Anne was pregnant. But see how quickly good fortune can be turned back in its course. For a little later Anne was caught out in adultery and immediately beheaded, together with her lovers.

So – now we have to look at the names listed here to see if we can find where that letter went after Katherine’s maid took it down. It says that there were two copies (how convenient). One went to Henry, which could ultimately end up in an official archive… like the one which Herbert made use of less than 100 years later. If it had survived, he surely would have cited the manuscript itself, rather than relying on Vergil’s account. The second went to a “Eustache” which was Eustace Chapuys, the ambassador from the Holy Roman Empire — Charles V, who was Katherine’s nephew. Eustace was a major ally and supporter of Katherine, and he seems to have really cared for her from the missives he sent back to Charles V. Eustace wasn’t informed immediately after Katherine’s death – and indeed was taken by surprise when he did hear, as he’d just left visiting her and she had seemed to have been on the mend. He’d heard about her passing when he’d gone to court to talk with Henry about getting her a better house that wouldn’t keep making her sick. Eustace immediately suspected that Henry was having her poisoned, which at this point, we can’t know for sure.

What we do know is that Eustace wrote a missive to Charles as soon as he’d learned of Katherine’s death (no. 3 – Eustace Chapuys to the Emperor). His missive didn’t mention a letter enclosed from Katherine. There was no reason to leave her letter out – he’d written almost entirely in cipher, and he would have mentioned that he was sending along the queen’s last words for safekeeping (it was with Charles that she’d trusted to keep the original papal dispensation OKing her marriage to Henry. Katherine trusted Charles – and she trusted Chapuys). He was fine talking about Henry having Katherine poisoned, so it stands that he would mention, even briefly, that she’d sent a letter along – the letter was much lower political stakes than alleging the king of England murdered his ex-wife (though to be fair, he did later have two of his wives murdered… I mean… executed. So it might not have been out of the realm of possibility).

So… it seems as though the buck stops here, folks. Either someone is mistaken along this path in where they got the letter from or where it went or there was really no letter left at all.
To be entirely honest with you – I don’t think that letter ever existed. I could, of course, be wrong. I very much so could be.

Other ways of tracking it down also end up fruitless.

It’s quoted at length in Anne Crawford’s Letters of the Queens of England (179-180). She got it from Mattingly – Garrett Mattingly’s Catherine of Aragon (429-430). Mattingly’s footnote about it is as follows:

No original text of this letter survives. That it was written, at its general contents, we know from Chapuys. The differences and similarities of the two texts given, in Polydore Vergil (1556) II, 1742, and Sanders (1587), p. 119, point to the existence of English copies in the sixteenth century.

Mattingly, page 463

Here’s the rub though – you can look yourself through Chapuys’ letters to Charles. He doesn’t mention letters from Katherine. Several sent to the Queen, but none from. Unless I’m reading it wrong, which I will always be the first to admit that I’m quite fallible.

Other historians quote the letter from other sources – Patrick William’s Katharine of Aragon pulls it from Sander’s Intimate Letters, which doesn’t give a citation from where she pulled it from.

Two other recent biographies, that of Giles Tremlett and Theresa Earenfight either also doubt the existence of the letter or simply don’t address it at all. Earenfight focuses her work on other things – those which are verifiable and can be used to understand Katherine better. Tremlett calls it out as “almost certainly fictitious (364).” I’m inclined to agree.

It is interesting in how much this letter endures as part of Katherine’s mythos – it certainly is one which we want to be real and true. It fits what we think of as Katherine’s personality. It gets one more over on Henry and makes Katherine look amazing to anyone who reads it. It feels like truth. It’s got that truthiness to it – you feel it in your gut that it’s real. But I’m not sure that it really was.

My Ghost Town Summer – Blue Point, Iowa

Lower Blue Point Cemetery
The entrance to the Lower Blue Point Cemetery, near present day Grinnell, Iowa.

A few years back in 2011, I’d been laid off from my job teaching science to children in a museum and ended up through a confluence of random events living that summer on a small farm near Grinnell, Iowa. That summer was full of unfortunate firsts – unemployment, accidental vehicular homicide of pets, learning how to wrangle calves back to their disgruntled mums. Oh, and my beloved dwarf hotot, Joss, died. There are a lot of things about that summer that while I don’t regret, I certainly wouldn’t like to live over again.

I spent a lot of time by myself that summer as my partner had gotten a job about an hour away working as tech support in a localish school district. Internet connection at The Farm was spotty at best and I was generally pretty isolated. We’d adopted a couple of farm kitties as friends, but the owner of the house said that they had to stay outside. We basically got to feed them, but other than that they were left to fend for themselves. I was never happy about that situation. One, who I named Marlena since she looked like a glamorous little movie star, loved to follow me around as I walked in the humid Iowa heat to explore my surroundings. The other was accidentally killed when I decided to go and pick up pizza in town. RIP Richie.

Marlena, my constant companion, and I would take walks around the little wooded area that was near the farm house, and one day I happened a pioneer cemetery. I found out that The Farm was nearly equidistant to TWO pioneer cemeteries. These cemeteries serviced the town of Blue Point, Iowa, from the mid-nineteenth century until at least the turn of the century. Also – in Iowa, “pioneer cemetery” doesn’t just mean that pioneers are buried there. The cemetery also has to have had “fewer than twelve burials in the last 50 years.” So, these were definitely pioneer cemeteries! My inner historian’s brain kicked in and I immediately turned to genealogical records to find out about who these people had been and how the ended up here of all places.

 Elizabeth <I>Carpenter</I> McNabb
Photo by Gail Bonath on

I was drawn first to the memorial belonging to Elizabeth McNabb – not only was she a young woman at her death, 26 years old, she was also the first to be interred in the Lower Blue Point cemetery. I’m not sure why I gravitated to her stone, maybe it was because I had just turned 27 myself, but I wanted to know more about this young woman who now lay between farm fields in the middle of rural Iowa. I figured I probably wouldn’t be able to find much, but any bit of remembering, I think, is appreciated by the universe.

grandma account GIF

Doing a bit more digging, pun not intended, I also found the grave markers of her husband, William McNabb, in the Lower Blue Point cemetery and her parents, Levi Carpenter and Susannah Moore Carpenter, in the cemetery just down the road, the Upper Blue Point cemetery.

Upper Blue Point cemetery – just north of the Lower Blue Point cemetery, but home to more recent burials. Photo by Kit and Morgan Benson from

There isn’t much available online about Elizabeth herself, but I was able to find her marriage certificate to William, and a bit more about her husband.

Marriage license from Morgan County, Indiana – William McNabb and Elizabeth Carpenter on February 23, 1846. This would have been at the courthouse in Martinville, Indiana.

So, Elizabeth Carpenter married William just after she turned 15 years old. They had their first child, Eliza Ann, in early 1848. Sometime before their second child, Susan Jane, was born in 1850, William and Elizabeth had moved to Poweshiek County in Iowa. All of their subsequent children, including Susan Jane, had been born in Poweshiek County. They’d been there long enough to be established into township leadership as William was appointed as a township trustee in 1852 after having run for the Justice of the Peace position and losing by three votes.

Elizabeth may have been motivated by strong religious beliefs as in 1852 she herself pops up in the history of Blue Point (although not by name). “Among the charter members of the [Methodist Episcopal] church were R. C. Carpenter and wife and William McNabb and wife” (Leonard Fletcher Parker, History of Poweshiek County, 286). This also is an interesting point – the R. C. Carpenter was Elizabeth’s brother, Robert Campbell, who had moved with their parents, Levi and Susannah nee Moore Carpenter, to Poweshiek County. Guessing by the dates of birth of Elizabeth’s nieces and nephews, most of the Carpenter family moved to Iowa in 1851. It looks like, as pater familia, Levi Carpenter moved his entire family, including adult children and their families, to Washington Township, Poweshiek County. This may have been why William and Elizabeth settled in Lower Blue Point instead of in Upper Blue Point like the rest of the family did. This way, they were close enough to family that they could help and be helped but also have a degree of independence.

It is probable that Levi was enticed to move out there by Elizabeth and William, as they’d been there since at least 1850 (judging by the birth of Susan Jane). According to History of Poweshiek County, William was a resident of the county since October of 1848. Indeed, he was the first resident of the county (although I assume that Elizabeth and their children were a major part of that!).

The first church/schoolhouse in the township, the Methodist Episcopal church I just mentioned, was built on land originally owned by William and Elizabeth which they sold to Bartholomew Vestal, a preacher who moved to the township in 1853, for $1. It is a rather unfortunate turn of events that Elizabeth was the first to be interred there.

I have not been able to find an obituary which lists her cause of death, but my guess is complications following childbirth. Her final child, Sarah Elizabeth, was born on May 29, 1857, just a couple of weeks before Elizabeth died on June 12, 1857. All in all, she gave birth to at least four children, all of whom survived to adulthood.

William very quickly remarried to Sarah Elizabeth Vestal, daughter of Bartholomew Vestal (who was one of the early preachers in the Methodist church). They didn’t have any surviving children together, and William died almost exactly a year after Elizabeth passed, on June 18, 1858 of a lightning strike.

Their orphaned children lived with nearby maternal relatives, many of them staying in the area until their own deaths.

The church and schoolhouse, built on their land that they sold to the Vestals, was later moved bit by bit into the Heritage Park in the nearby town of Grinnell in 1990.

This is how the church/school house/post office looked before it was moved to Grinnell.

Little Marlena and I continued to visit the Lower Blue Point cemetery for the rest of that summer, until her unfortunate death of being run over by a farmer’s truck. We’d begun to catalogue the memorials and to research on the rest of the township, but were stymied by the lack of reliable Internet connection and transportation to the nearby county historical society in Montezuma.

That summer, even though it was my Bad Summer, I learned that maybe, just maybe, I do have what it takes to be a historian. The next year, I went back to school to earn my BS in history, where I worked on German immigrants to the Upper Peninsula, and began down my path of Tudor/Stuart England, which is my main area of research.

I wasn’t able to find Elizabeth’s voice in my research, just a brief chronology of some of her major life events. Women, especially, tend to disappear into the historical record when they are simply “and wife,” utterly replaceable to the historians who do not value their lives and contributions other than the procreation of heirs to important men. Elizabeth was more than that – and I do hope that someday I’ll get to learn more about her.

And now, I have a kitty who stays inside 100% of the time, so I never have to find my beloved furry friend having lost a battle with a Ford F150.

Tuesday Review-Day: Isabella of Castile by Giles Tremlett

Media of Isabella of Castile
Isabella of Castile: Europe’s First Great Queen by Giles Tremlett (2017).

The last time that Giles Tremlett wrote a biography, it brought new life to the story of Katherine of Aragon, first consort to Henry VIII. Tremlett’s extensive use of Spanish archives and his obvious investigative and writing talents made for both enlightening and entertaining reading. This time, he turned his attention to a figure whose story is even more shrouded in myth and legend – Isabel of Castile- so this massive tome is as much about what Isabel did as much as what she didn’t do.

Generally, and this is speaking from my midwest American schooling experience both as a student and as a teacher in the classroom, Isabella was only taught as part of a dynamic duo – Isabella and Ferdinand. That duo was responsible for giving Christopher Columbus money and ships so he could sail and ‘discover’ the New World.

And… that was it. I don’t even remember talking about the Spanish Inquisition or anything related to Isabel y Fernando in K-12 aside from Christopher Columbus at all. We did a lot of American history (great men and wars, huzzah…) and did some Western Civ. in high school, so it is possible that my wonderful high school history teacher, Dot, did cover it and I just don’t remember it.

Regardless – most Americans aren’t going to get a grounding much better than mine in Isabella and Ferdinand’s contribution to history. This book, though, seeks to rectify that omission. Unabashedly intellectual while still eminently approachable, Tremlett masterfully walks the line between scholarly/academic and popular press-worthy. He elevates the art of biography – and I only hope that when I get to write a biography (it will happen! after the PhD. Eventually.) that it is half as good as Tremlett’s.

Most of the text is chronological, which makes complete and utter sense, but he brings us into the narrative at a key, highly dramatic, point and then pulls back to give context. He starts at Isabella’s coronation procession. In Castile, monarchs typically didn’t have the same sorts of coronation ceremonies as in other kingdoms. For Isabella, there was no Te Deum sung, no anointing by the highest churchman in the land, etc (In Castile, there was a coronation ceremony, but it typically happened in Toledo and there was anointing, but the actual crowning of the new monarch didn’t happen very often.). There was The Walk and the Sword.

The sight was shocking. Gutierre de Cardenas walked solemnly down the chilly, windswept streets of Segovia, the royal sword held firmly in from of him with its point towards the ground. Behind him came a new monarch, a twenty-three-year-old woman of short to middling height with light auburn hair and green-blue eyes whose air of authority was accentuated by the menace of Cardenas’s weapon. This was a symbol of royal power as potent as any crown or sceptre. Those who braved the thing, wintry air of Segovia to watch the procession knew that it signified the young woman’s determination to impart justice, and impose her will, through force. Isabella of Castile’s glittering jewels spoke of regal magnificence, while Cardenas’s sword threatened violence. Both indicated power and a willingness to exercise it.

Tremlett, Isabella of Castile, pg. 1

I love this snippet because not only is it the first paragraph of the whole book, it also gives you the significance of Isabella’s actions. Afterward, Tremlett gives a further introduction and brief overview of Isabella’s life and accomplishments and the difficulty of writing a biography of just one half of the dynamic duo as their lives, after marriage until her death, were lived jointly. They were medieval Spain’s power couple. Their marriage brought together the kingdoms of Castile and Aragon, as well as through their descendants, the Netherlands, the Holy Roman Empire, and much of the discovered lands in the New World. It was a heady inheritance – which began with Isabella’s choice of husband.

Tremlett continues to take us through Isabella’s life from her earliest days to her death in a balanced way. As much as you have to really put yourself into the shoes of the person you’re working on, Tremlett doesn’t shy away from Isabella’s horrific choices when it came to the Inquisition, the Reconquista, and the expulsion of the Jews. He explains why Isabella would have made those choices using, whenever possible, her own words. Through this, Isabella becomes a thoroughly complex individual who is torn, trying to honor her faith but having to do violent acts to do so. But, she does order those violent and cruel acts – which today seem beyond the pale, and (depending on which you’re talking about, there’s plenty to choose from) were somewhat iffy in her lifetime too.

But she did what she set out to do – she united Hispania under one monarchy and spread her Christian faith. She did so through her own military and political campaigns, through the counsel of her confessors, in partnership with her husband, and through marrying her children off in foreign dynastic matches. Even though she and Ferdinand had 5 children who lived until adulthood, at Isabella’s death, only three of her children still survived, Juana, Maria, and Catalina. She had to endure heartache with the deaths of her eldest daughter, Isabella, in childbirth, when her son, Juan, contracted illness and expired quickly after his marriage, and when her beloved grandson (Isabella the younger’s son), died just before his second birthday. But as Tremlett reminds his readers…

“It would be wrong to take pity on her, though, for Isabella did not view life in terms of self-fulfillment or the quest for personal satisfaction. Of all the current measures of success, the only one she would have recognised would be the quest for fame- which she certainly achieved. Apart from that, hers was a world of duty, obedience and fear of God. That explains why, in her final days, she did not fret about the obvious cruelty of expelling the Jews, forcibly converting the Muslims or torturing the conversos. The aims – of pursuing heresy and purifying Castile- were clearly ones that her God must approve of.”

Tremlett, Isabella of Castile, 486.

This book is great for anyone from the armchair historian to the serious academic. It’s filled with wonderful sources and stories from Isabella’s life and times. For anyone interested in American history, European history, or the lives of powerful figures, this would be a fantastic addition to your library.

Have you read it? What did you think? Leave your comments below or tweet with the hashtag, #tuesdayreviewday.

Marital Misadventures of the Sixteenth Century

Scrolling Twitter on my phone this morning, a new article from the BBC caught my eye and I knew I had to read it.

Henry VIII divorces led to copycat splits, Bangor researchers say

To save you a click – researchers from the Universities of Bangor (Wales) and Exeter (England) have found a series of court cases dealing with the marital misadventures of Edward Griffith from Gwynedd. Griffith was a Welshman whose life was contemporaneous with Henry VIII’s.

Griffith had married a young woman named Jane, who died shortly after their wedding, so Griffith married her sister Agnes instead. This apparently didn’t go so well, because Agnes left to live with her family again after a year.

After about two years of living without his wife (around 1529), Griffith decided to marry his mistress, another Jane. So – like the king, Griffith had two living wives. One wonders what Bible verse Griffith used to justify his bigamy, as his king was fond of Leviticus and not as big a fan of Deuteronomy.

“If a man shall take his brother’s wife, it is an unclean thing…they shall be childless.”

Leviticus 20:21

Henry used the above quote to assuage his ‘guilt’ at having taken Katherine of Aragon to be his wife in 1509, because it explained to him exactly why they hadn’t had ‘children.’ Of course, they DID have children. Katherine was pregnant at least 5 times and one of their children survived to adulthood to become England’s first undisputed queen regnant. Henry, though, when speaking of ‘children’ he meant sons.

Griffith was probably a fan of Deuteronomy 25:5, as he’d married his first wife’s sister. Having that Biblical permission makes things a bit easier, but in these cases, at least when royals were concerned, a papal dispensation was required.

If brothers dwell together and one of them dies and has no son, the wife of the dead shall not be remarried outside of the family to a stranger; her husband’s brother shall go into her, and take her as his wife, and perform the duty of a husband’s brother to her.

Deuteronomy 25:5

This happened fairly frequently -when a marriage was negotiated for political reasons but there were some Biblical reasons why it shouldn’t happen. Examples from the sixteenth century abound: marrying your dead wife’s sister (Manuel I of Portugal married two of Katherine of Aragon’s older sisters), marrying your dead husband’s brother (Katherine of Aragon married Henry VIII after the death of his older brother, Arthur), marrying a cousin (Charles V had been contracted to marry Mary, his first cousin), or marrying a niece (Philip II , son of Charles V, married Anna of Austria, and this is AFTER marrying his first cousin once removed, Maria Manuela and the above named Mary).

In Griffith’s case, he went back and forth between living with his second and third wives, eventually having three children with his third wife. Apparently he settled down with his third, his bestest most legitimate, wife after a bit and used the King’s marital misadventures to justify his own. Again, not unlike his king.

As Professor Rebecca Probert said, “Viewed in isolation, Edward appears at best indecisive and at worst a complete cad. But if you put his actions in the context of the actions of the king, it seems he felt bound by the arguments put forward by his ruler.”

Of course, that’s if you don’t think Henry, too, was a complete cad.

Now, the reason why I wanted to write about this today is to address some historical inconsistencies in the article. The work itself, by the scholars Probert and Owen, is fascinating and from what I’ve seen, well thought out and put together. The BBC, though, needs to take a bit more care with its captioning.

Awesome screencap from my phone. Cool. Isn’t technology great?

“Anne Boleyn was executed under Henry’s orders while he divorced Catherine of Aragon.”

This is patently untrue and honestly, unclear. The more I read it, the more I wonder what it is they mean exactly. Do they mean that she was executed during the divorce? Do they mean that Henry gave the orders for her execution during the divorce?

The answer to both of those questions is a resounding NO.

Anne Boleyn‘s fall and execution were due to a few different factors, personal and political. One possible factor was Katherine of Aragon’s death on 7 January 1536. Without Katherine around, Henry didn’t need to be as careful of his relations with European powers (who had generally disapproved of his taking Anne to wife). Katherine, even though she had been a thorn in the side of Anne for years, was a safety net at the same time. Henry was not going to put aside Anne, who he’d struggled FOR YEARS to gain recognition for as his One True Lawful Wife in the eyes of his kingly counterparts, while Katherine was still alive. However, once she was dead, that burden was lifted – he didn’t have to struggle to have Anne recognized as such, because at the time, she was the only wife left.

Another possible factor was the fact that Anne suffered a miscarriage of what is generally acknowledged to be a male fetus in late January 1536. Other scholars, notably Eric Ives (biographer of Anne Boleyn), claim that this put doubts in Henry’s head about the validity of THIS marriage. If God didn’t give him sons with Katherine and that marriage was obviously invalid, then the miscarriage of a son after Katherine’s death, when Anne was THE wife, didn’t bode well.

Suzannah Lipscomb, another brilliant historian, notes that Anne’s miscarriage WASN’T evidence in Henry’s mind that God frowned upon this marriage. Even though Henry was upset at the miscarriage (and who wouldn’t be? Both Anne and Henry desperately wanted this child) and had told Anne, “I see that God will not give me male children,” they recovered from their loss and were excited to try again as there would be no stain of illegitimacy on their next child as Katherine was dead. (Lipscomb, 1536 Oxford: Lion Hudson, 2009), 61 & 63).

After her miscarriage, though, Anne’s downfall came swiftly. She would have been in seclusion (or “confinement”) after childbirth for a little over a month, and would have emerged in early March 1536. This gave other factions jockeying for a position at court the opportunity to push Jane Seymour at Henry. Jane, like Anne, refused to be his mistress (but was seemingly content to engage in courtly flirtations). Now Henry had always had a wandering eye, even if he was generally happily married, so this affair in and of itself wouldn’t have been what led to Anne’s death. Katherine had tolerated Henry’s affairs with more grace than did Anne, but this, too, didn’t lead to her death. As Ives notes in Henry’s ODNB (Oxford Dictionary of National Biography) entry, up until a fortnight before her arrest, Henry was still trying to get Anne recognized as his lawful queen by Charles V (Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, was also Katherine’s nephew). So as late as 18 April, Henry acknowledged Anne as his lawful wife.

Ives lays the blame for Anne’s fall squarely on Thomas Cromwell‘s shoulders. Cromwell, Henry’s principal advisor, had been the one behind the divorce, and was a proponent of the Reformed faith (Protestantism). Anne, too, was sympathetic to the Reformed faith, but she and Cromwell were on opposite sides of a debate regarding what to do with all the money that came from the dissolution of the monasteries. Cromwell wanted all of the funds to go into the King’s coffers (and he would most likely be handsomely rewarded) whereas Anne felt the funds should be used for charitable works. On 30 April, the first of Anne’s alleged paramours, Mark Smeaton, was arrested. He, probably after torture, confessed to having slept with Anne. Five more men were accused of committing adultery with Anne (one was acquitted) and she was arrested on 2 May. She was conveyed to the Tower on 6 May for holding until trial.

On 15 May, Anne was tried on the charges of adultery, high treason, and incest. Historians generally believe Anne to have been innocent of all charges. She defended herself well in her trial, but the verdict of the 27 peers who sat as her jury was a unanimous ‘guilty’ and she was executed on 19 May 1536.

So… long story short – Anne couldn’t have been executed under Henry’s orders during his divorce from Katherine, as the caption suggests. Katherine had been dead for months before the machinations of Anne’s swift fall had begun.

While the rest of the article is interesting and adds to historical scholarship, the BBC needs to do better with how that work is presented and what is posted alongside that work. Giving this incorrect information as context is disrespectful to the scholars whose work you’re covering. #dobetter

“Mine Eyes Desire You Above All Things”

So I finally (well, finally in this age of Amazon prime shipping means a week later) have my hands on Margaret Sanders’ Intimate Letters of the Queens of England (London: Museum Press LTD, 1957), which is the source Patrick Williams pointed to for his version of Katherine of Aragon’s final letter to Henry VIII.

I wanted to follow the clues like a good detective and see where Sanders found HER copy of the letter which she printed in Intimate Letters.

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Image result for margaret sanders intimate letters

First off – this is a gorgeous old book and you can tell it is meant for a general audience – it says so in the preface. 🙂 Sanders meant to give readers an introduction to these queens as human beings with complicated emotional lives that can’t be distilled down to ‘divorced, beheaded, died…’ and tried to choose letters that display those relationships with others. “Historians must inevitably be prejudiced, either from religious, political, or personal attitudes,” Sanders notes, and then goes on to say that in her introductions to each of the queens and their letters that she just tried to give the bare minimum of factual information, but, like those aforementioned historians, she exhibits her own bias and personal opinions (apparently Henrietta Maria was “the loveliest of all England’s Queens” and Anna of Denmark had “no great pretensions to beauty” but she had a great personality).

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Henrietta to Sanders?
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Anna to Sanders?

This is particularly evident in Katherine’s introduction where she takes at face value Katherine’s virginity going into her second marriage (which, let’s face it, every historian who works on the Tudor period has their own opinion, but it’s far better as a scholar to present it as a complex unknown full of messy political, personal, and religious meanings rather than “In the meantime, this young widow of an unconsummated marriage…” which, technically, if it were unconsummated, it wouldn’t have been a complete marriage, but that’s beside the point).

Sanders includes helpful footnotes to explain who people are and to provide further context when it’s needed for the general audience who may not know who “My Lady of Salisbury” was… although reading through the footnotes, if I didn’t know that Lady Salisbury was Margaret de la Pole, the countess of Salisbury, I’d be further confused – “state-governess to Mary” and “Mary’s best friend next to her mother” are all that’s used to describe who she was. Another confusing point is that Mary I was “brought up in her mother’s Faith as a strict Roman Catholic.” This is certainly true, but it neglects the important consideration that it was also her father’s faith at the time, if you were a practicing Christian at the time, it most likely was your faith as well because the Roman Catholic church was the dominant church in western Europe.

Anywho, after taking the time to peruse the book and finding other fun tidbits that I may post later, I want to give you the transcription of the Final Letter as put in Intimate Letters and then share with you her citation.

My Lord and Dear Husband,

I commend me unto you. The hour of my death draweth fast on, and my case being such, the tender love I owe you forceth me, with a few words, to put you in remembrance of the health and safeguard of your soul, which you ought to prefer before all worldly matters, and before the care and tendering of your own body, for the which you have cast me into many miseries and yourself into many cares.

For my part I do pardon you all, yea, I do wish and devoutly pray God that He will also pardon you.

For the rest I commend unto you Mary, our daughter, beseeching you to be a good father unto her, as I heretofore desired. I entreat you also, on behalf of my maids, to give them marriage-portions, which is not much, they being but three. For all my other servants, I solicit a year’s pay more than their due, lest they should be unprovided for.

Lastly, do I vow, that mine eyes desire you above all things.

Sanders, Intimate Letters, 12.

And there’s one last bit that I’ve been saving for the end. I had to order another book to dig into this mystery. Most of the documents that Sanders brings together are from the royal archives at Windsor Castle, the Strickland sisters’ work The Lives of the Queens of England, or other letter collections. As a historian, one needs to be a good detective – even though it can take forever and lead you down rabbit holes that go nowhere, at least for the project you’re currently working on – and to be a good detective, one needs to follow the clues.

In Sander’s bibliography, The Final Letter wasn’t cited as from an archival source – it’s from another letter collection.

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Live footage of me right now

“Chatterton: Royal Letters” is all we get in Sander’s bibliography to note where SHE got this letter from. So I used my Googlefu and found that this citation refers to Royal Love Letters by E. K. Chatterton, originally published in 1911.

After a little more searching, I found a hardcover copy that will be winging its way to me from England soon. As soon as it does, I will update with more information.

The game is afoot!

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Katherine of Aragon’s “Last Letter”

Listen up let me tell you a story, a story that you think you’ve heard before…
The Girl Power Cast of SIX

One of the things that is most fascinating to me in history is all of the things that we just plain don’t know – but sometimes – we think we know. History is, of course, a bit of detective work, a bit of scientific information gathering and positing theses, and a lot bit of writing delicious prose that may have been left in the oven too long and comes out dry enough to gag you like my mom’s Thanksgiving turkey.

Now, I work in the early modern period, which is generally understood to have started after the end of the medieval period but ends before the really modern modern period. Got that? Not confusing at all, right? Periodization (or the naming and grouping of ‘periods’ together into larger chunks of time) is so fun to me – but in all seriousness, the early modern period looks differently when you’re talking about different places. In England, where we will focus on for this post, the early modern period roughly/exactly starts when Henry VII usurped the throne of Richard III (also known as ‘the Usurper’). So, 1485, at the beginning of the Tudor dynasty’s spin at running England. The modern period typically is understood to begin at the French Revolution as a blanket date, so the early modern period is roughly 1485-1789.

That’s a lot of time to work with. And it happened, well, several centuries ago, and I can’t find the receipt I got from Whole Foods last week, so it’s understandable that letters, documents, diaries, etc go missing from even further back.

Sometimes, historians are lucky enough to actually find documents that have survived in homes, archives, etc, to work with. Like this:

“Officers of the household of the late Sovereign Lady of blessed memory Queen Elizabeth”

This is taken from inventories of Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603)’s household at her funeral and is part of a collected set of documents which describe the materials and costs of those materials needed for her funeral. Having a list of all the people in her household, what jobs they did, and what rank they held was important so that they got the appropriate amount of black cloth to make into clothing for the funeral (as well as any other pensions due to them). So if you’re interested at all in the people who worked Elizabeth’s household on the day to day basis – it’s in here (at least those who were in her employ at her death). This is a pretty fantastic document to have survived four hundred years!

There are other documents which, while the original hasn’t survived, copies of them have. These copies, while they are super helpful still to historians, are more difficult to work with than the originals. Copies, in the early modern period, were all made by hand or by printing and errors could easily creep in during the copying process. So even if we have one copy, it may not tell the whole story and it’s important to find other copies and compare them to one another to see if there are differences and if there are, what are they?

So the point of this post is to look at one letter in particular – Katherine of Aragon’s ‘last’ letter. Supposedly written at the very end of her life to her husband, Henry VIII, it is very much in character for what we know of and believe to be true about Katherine’s attitudes and language usage.

This is believed to be the text of this letter – which you can’t find in an archive, as reported in Giles Tremlett’s fantastic biography of the queen:

My Lord and dear husband,

The hour of my death now approaching, I cannot choose but, out of the love I bear you, to advise you of your soul’s health, which you ought to prefer before all considerations of the world or flesh whatsoever. For which yet you have cast me into many calamities, and yourself into many troubles. But I forgive you all, and pray God to do so likewise. For the rest, I commend unto you Mary, our daughter, beseeching you to be a good father to her. I must entreat you also to look after my maids, and give them in marriage, which is not much, they being but three, and to all my other servants, a year’s pay besides their due, lest otherwise they should be unprovided for until they find new employment. Lastly, I want only one true thing, to make this vow: that, in this life, mine eyes desire you alone. May God protect you.

Tremlett, Giles, Catherine of Aragon: The Spanish Queen of Henry VIII (New York: Walker & Company, 2010), 364.

Tremlett takes this last letter with a healthy dose of skepticism. While it is very much in character for what we as modern readers would expect from Katherine on her deathbed (supposedly she signed it as “Katharyne the Quene”), there aren’t any other corroborating pieces of evidence which make it undeniable that this is the letter she wrote. There’s no mention of it in diplomatic missives – Eustace Chapuys, who was the ambassador from the Holy Roman Empire and Katherine’s nephew Charles V, never mentioned it when writing to his lord. He did write, however, of a request that Katherine made of Henry to take care of her servants after her death (it cannot really be termed a will as at the time English law forbade women from writing wills if their husbands were living – as technically everything the wife owned belonged to the husband).

Knowing that according to English law a wife can make no will while her husband survives, she would not break the said laws, but by way of request caused her physician to write a little bill, which she commanded to be sent to me immediately, and which was signed by her hand, directing some little reward to be made to certain servants who had remained with her.

Eustace Chapuys to Charles V, 21 January 1536.

This is kind of a baller move by Katherine. It shows, one last time, that she never stopped treating herself as Henry’s wife. If she had proclaimed a last will and testament, she would have acknowledged that they were no longer wed, under English law. To her last, she fought to retain her status as queen of England.

Still, though, Chapuys does not mention anything about a last letter to Henry. Chapuys was one of Katherine’s staunchest allies – who fought to protect her rights as queen and her daughter Mary’s status as princess. It would make sense for her to trust Chapuys with the knowledge of such a letter – but there is no mention.

Other scholars take it at face value that such a letter existed – Patrick Williams is one. In his new biography of Katherine, which is exceptionally detailed when it comes to the political intricacies and machinations of the time, Williams writes of Katherine’s last letter as a matter of course – no interrogation of its veracity. His version is different from the one that appears in Tremlett’s biography and I’ve quoted it below:

My Lord and dear husband,

I commend myself to you. The hour of my death draws near, and my condition is such that, because of the tender love that I owe to you, and in only a few words, I put you in remembrance of the heath and safeguard of your soul, which you ought to prefer before all worldly matters and before the care and tendering of your own body, for the which you have cast me into many miseries and yourself into many anxieties.

For my part I do pardon you all, yes I do wish and devoutly pray to God that He will also pardon you.

For the rest, I commend unto you Mary, our daughter, beseeching you to be a good father to her, as I heretofore desired. I entreat you also, on behalf of my maids, to give them marriage-portions, which is not much, since there are only three of them. For all my other servants, I ask for one year’s pay more than their due, lest they should be unprovided for.

Lastly, do I vow, that mine eyes desire you above all things.

Williams, Patrick. Katharine of Aragon: The Tragic Story of Henry VIII’s First Unfortunate Wife (Stroud: Amberley Publishing, 2013), 374.

So while they largely say the same things, they do so in completely different tones. One of the jobs of an early modern wife was to guide her husband to godly behavior and choices – which ‘Katherine’ does here in her letters. Tremlett’s letter seems more of the devoted wife- ‘because of the love I bear you’ rather than Williams’- ‘because of the tender love I owe to you‘ which sounds more like an obligation rather than her choice. Although, honestly, I can’t really blame her for treating the performance of love as an obligation to Henry at this point.

Tremlett doesn’t say where he got this particular copy of the letter – but it has been circulating and taken as fact for generations. Williams, though, cites another Amberley publication, that by Margaret Sanders (who Williams names “Saunders” in his bibliography). Now I’ve not gotten ahold of her book yet, Intimate Letters of England’s Queens, but it is on the way, and I will write an update when I have it. I hope that she includes her archives for the letters she edited in her collection which will help bring light to this (or make it even more confusing).

As a historian, I have a hard time saying that these letters are totally fake. I can’t, for absolute certain, say that they are fictitious, but the most important question to me is not whether they are fake or real (which, let’s be real here – is super important) but why they exist at all. Let’s say that they are fake – what story is being told by them? How are Katherine and Henry represented by the story told by these letters? Who benefits from presenting the historical figures in this particular way?

That, my friends, is the subject of another blog post.

Stay tuned! Same bat time, same bat channel. Oh, and Carthage must be destroyed.

Combating Loneliness

This is a tough post for me to write, y’all. I have been cooped up for the last couple of months – working on my dissertation. I’ve got two chapters drafted, only four more to go, which is super exciting. In these last few months I have made a lot of progress, and I plan on making more.

I know this is one of the things that you can’t really plan for once you become ABD (all but dissertation), but when you’re not in coursework anymore, when you’re not stopping by the office to say hi to your colleagues or to do a spot of work before heading to teach or to class, it’s incredibly lonely. Some people thrive on that – when it’s just you and the screen all day long.

I am not one of those people.

I thought I could be, but I am most certainly not.

I spend my day obsessively making and drinking tea, researching, and writing. I’ve been trying to be better about getting out of my lovely apartment (much to the chagrin of my needy, needy cat), but I’ve been largely unsuccessful.

So… that’s why I’m writing this today. I want to be better. I want to find a way out of this little lonely hole that I’m putting myself into through intentional isolation. I don’t want to be isolated, or at least to feel that way. There have been days where I don’t see or talk to anyone pretty much all day (luckily my wonderful husband comes home from work in the evenings!) and it’s gnawing away at me, and making it harder for me to concentrate on my work.

This is my public promise to myself. I will try to treat myself how I would treat my friends and loved ones – by following my own advice. I will get out to the climbing gym to do what I love and what helps to keep me focused. I will make it a point to talk to someone, every day, even if it’s just a text or email. I will try to take care of me, and to care as much about my mental and physical health as I do about that never-as-much-as-I-want-it-to-be word count.

I will slip. I will have some days where I utterly fail. That will be OK. It’s the trying again that matters.

I’m also trying something new – I love living the quantified life (woo Fitbit and Garmin!) but I’m a little iffy on gamifying my life… but we’re giving it a go with SuperBetter. It’s a super positive app that wants to help you to make yourself better (by your own definition) in some way. It will give you little bits of encouragement along the way and is bright and colorful and happy and all of those things that I love in an app.

Wish me luck, I’m trying to screw my courage to the sticking place.