The Romanovs in Red Cross uniforms

Written by Expert Contributor Gareth Russell

Nicholas II’s daughters, all slaughtered together in a cellar on one dreadful morning in 1918, have acquired a totemic significance in the century since their murder. For many conservatives and monarchists, the posthumous importance of the grand duchesses is obvious and inescapable as proof both of the unhinged viciousness of Communism and of the nostalgic appeal of the monarchy itself. For many others, the four girls are divorced from politics to stand in for the victims of totalitarianism everywhere. Their deaths in 1918 were part of a policy of terror, in which violence was, in and of itself, the goal. There was, after all, no firm political justification for executing the girls alongside their parents and little brother. None of the four sisters had ever held political office nor, under the rules of the Russian monarchy itself as instituted by the Emperor Paul in 1797, could they ever have done so. Keen to prevent a coup the likes of which had brought his mother to power and the expense of his father, Tsar Paul had instituted Salic Law in Russia whereby the throne could never again be held by a female Romanov nor by her direct descendants.[1] It could only, so he decreed, pass through the male line, which meant that even if the monarchy had been restored after 1917, as the Communists feared, by its own rules Nicholas II’s daughters, or any children they might have had, would be ineligible to wear the restored crown. As Trotsky himself later admitted, killing the last Tsar’s daughters was not because of any tangible political goal, but rather to shock Communism’s supporters and enemies into knowing that there was no going back.[2] This Rubicon would in part be flooded by the blood of the butchered princesses – who had once gazed out as icons of curated perfection in the family photographs printed by the monarchy for its subjects.

I often think that the Romanov grand duchesses are caught somewhere between those photographs and the horror of that cellar, where they huddled together in a terror which still brings a lump to my throat when I think of it. Yet, that tragedy has somewhat frozen the girls, trapping them like flies in amber, because we tend to think of them as homogenous girls in white dresses, bound by tragedy and almost indistinguishable from one another. However, by the time of their deaths, the three eldest sisters were no longer children and the eldest two had come-out as debutantes into Russian high society in the years before the Great War. They had adult lives, briefly, and they had even helped serve the Russian war effort between 1914 and 1916, which I would like to discuss here in the hope of shining a light on their personalities and achievements.

The four girls were born roughly two years apart, apiece. Olga, the most intellectual and religious of the four sisters, was born in 1895 – a charming photograph of her, glowering as only a disgruntled baby can, was taken visiting at Balmoral with her British great-grandmother, Queen Victoria. She was joined in 1897 by Tatiana, a dazzling beauty with an elegance and poise that never left her, to the point that even as the deposed royals were being jeered by a crowd, an observing socialist felt moved to congratulate Tatiana on her patrician dignity. Maria, born in 1899, was so well-behaved as a child that her Irish nanny joked that she must have had the smallest trace of Original Sin imaginable, something which could not be said of the rambunctious Anastasia, who arrived in June 1901, developing a flair for practical jokes, mimicry, and horseplay.[3] Her father used to sneak her cigarettes and she entertained the family by dressing up in his Jaeger pyjamas to perform skits.

A debutante’s “coming out” in a ball, with her hair worn up and her first floor-length gown, was a rite of passage for Edwardian daughters of the upper classes. Olga’s was held at the Imperial Family’s summer palace in the Crimea in 1911, while Tatiana’s was hosted in 1913 at the Anitchkov Palace in St. Petersburg by their grandmother, the Dowager Empress Marie, since their mother Alexandra considered the Petersburg elite to be self-absorbed, extravagant, and mind-numbingly dull. After this, the two eldest Grand Duchesses were considered adults, they began to be treated as such, and had some access to what we might now call their trust funds. Olga, in particular, proved a diligent philanthropist, discreetly paying the medical bills for disabled children she viewed on her journeys into the city. She was a passionate Russian patriot and regarded the prospect of marrying abroad as distressing. There were talks of Serbian, Romanian, and even British matches for the girls, but all of that came to nothing when the world tipped on its side with the outbreak of the First World War in 1914.

With the war upon them, the Tsarina was determined to be useful and she contacted the Red Cross with the request that they train her as a student nurse. Alexandra also financed the building of a military hospital in the grounds of Tsarskoe Selo, the Imperial Family’s private compound outside St. Petersburg. She did not want to delegate her work, however, and both her eldest daughters joined their mother to train as nurses. When they passed, Alexandra wrote happily to her sister, the Marchioness of Milford Haven (Lord Mountbatten’s mother), “We passed our exams and received the Red Cross on our aprons and got our certificates of sisters of the war time. It was an emotion, putting them on, and appearing with other sisters”.[4]

Often, in life, I find that those we expect to excel at certain things do not. Life tests us by surprises. Olga, with her more practical nature, had always been less enamoured with the glitter of high society than was her chic sister, Tatiana, and in light of that and her charitable enterprises, Olga was expected to prove the better caregiver of the two. Surprisingly, however, it was Tatiana who proved to be a hardier nurse. In fact, she proved tougher and more useful in the operating theatres than either her mother or elder sister. With the Tsarina Alexandra, it should be noted that the empress had suffered for years from heart palpitations and sciatica, which obviously meant that her usefulness in the hospitals was limited. After a year or so of exhausting work in the hospital, Tsar Nicholas had to intervene to force his wife to cut her hours. Olga, too, was let down by her body rather than her indomitable spirits – the poor Grand Duchess found herself retching, vomiting, and even fainting at the operations. In light of this, it made sense that Tatiana was trained to assist the surgeons, while Olga worked tirelessly in the wards, talking to the soldiers, and helping the other nurses wherever she could. The two sisters were on a shift together when a wounded soldier died in front of them. “All behaved well,” Alexandra wrote in one of her letters, “none lost their head and the girls were brave – they …  had never seen a death. But he died in an instant – it made us all sad as you can imagine – how near death is always is.”[5]

One soldier in the hospital had suffered a cerebral contusion. Every day, when the Tsarina came by his bedside, he would initially confuse her with his mother, who had recently passed away. Alexandra would sit by his bed and talk to him –  “he stares,” she told her husband, “then recognises me, clasps my hands to his breast, says he now feels warm and happy.”[6]  Alexandra was famously prudish, but as a nurse she changed the soldiers’ bandages without complaints, shaved around their wounds, helped the doctors with amputations, sterilised medical equipment, and she stayed late to cradle the wounded in her arms when they began to scream or cry out in their sleep. “One’s heart bleeds for them,” she wrote to her husband, “I won’t describe any more details as it’s so sad but being a wife and mother I feel for them quite particularly”.[7]

With Tatiana busier in the operating theatre, Alexandra and Olga befriended a young soldier who had been wounded in an attack on the Austrian lines. He was in the hospital for four months, but sadly without much sign of improvement. The patient spoke to them about his life at home, his service on the Front, and his family. Alexandra called in to see him when she began work at nine o’clock in the morning and she spent an hour or so with him in the afternoon. She and the other nurses eventually realised that the young man was going to die, so she decided that she did not want him to die on his own, hence the length and frequency of her visits to his bedside.

After a few months, she wrote to the Tsar at the Front, “My poor wounded friend has gone. God has taken him quietly and peacefully to Himself. I was as usual with him in the morning and more than an hour in the afternoon”.[8] To her intense distress, Alexandra was not there when the young man passed away. Earlier in the day, he had told one of the nurses that he was a little bit uncomfortable. Ten minutes later, the same nurse came back and said he took a few deep breaths and then gently passed away. “Olga and I went to see him,” Alexandra wrote that night. “He lay there so peacefully covered under my flowers I daily brought him, with his lovely peaceful smile – the forehead yet quite warm. I came home with tears… Never did he complain, never asked for anything, sweetness itself – all loved him and that shining smile… I felt God let me bring him a little sunshine in his loneliness. Such is life. Another brave soul left this world to be added to the shining stars above.”[9] She was distraught and, as grief often does, it rattled her to the point where she could not stop writing about it at length to Nicholas: “It must not make you sad, what I wrote,” she apologised, “only I could not bear it any longer.”

Both Maria and Anastasia were considered too young to join their mother and sisters as Red Cross nurses. In 1915, Maria technically had her debut into high society but, in light of the war, the Imperial Family declined to hold a ball to mark the occasion. Instead, she borrowed a gown from Tatiana to make her first appearance as an adult at a dinner held to celebrate Romania joining the First World War on the same side as Russia. She slipped as she entered, but eased any awkwardness by laughing at herself, which put the guests and servants at ease.[10]

Despite being too young to train, the Tsarina encouraged “the Little Pair” to visit the hospital regularly, in order that they could visit the wounded, talk with them, and cheer them up with conversation. One of the soldiers seems to have fallen in love with Tatiana and he later died fighting for the monarchists in the civil war which swept through Russia after the Romanov monarchy had been toppled first by a republic, which in its turn fell quickly to Communism. The Grand Duchesses, in their time helping the war effort, be it as nurses or visitors, left a vivid impression of capable, intelligent, and well-meaning young women who, I believe, might have done even more good over many more years had history and totalitarianism not intervened with such devastating cruelty to end their lives in July 1918.

About the Author:Gareth Russell is the author of several works of non-fiction, including “Young and Damned and Fair”, about Queen Catherine Howard; “The Ship of Dreams”, an account of the Titanic disaster which was named a Book of the Year by The Times, and “The Emperors: How Europe’s Rulers were destroyed by the First World War.”

[1] Known subsequently as the Pauline Laws, they replaced the Petrine succession protocols installed by Emperor Peter the Great earlier in the 18th century. Under the latter, an emperor or empress could designate their own successor, regardless of gender, something which had facilitated the succession of the empresses Catherine I, Anna, and Elisabeth, and the coup of Catherine II. The Pauline Laws were upheld by subsequent Romanov tsars, with Nicholas II incorporating some of them into the Fundamental Laws of the Russian Empire at the time of the 1905-06 constitutional reforms. This meant that, as late as 1906, their own father had installed or upheld legislation which meant that the grand duchesses could never have succeeded to the throne or passed a similar claim to their children.

[2] Orlando Figes, “A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution, 1891 – 1924” (London, 1996), p. 641; Gareth Russell, “The Emperors: How Europe’s Rulers were Destroyed by the First World War” (Stroud, 2014), pp. 190-1.

[3] Margaretta Eager, “Six Years at the Russian Court” (Reprint, Bowmanville, 2011), p. 52. 

[4] Baroness Sophie Buxhoeveden, “Memories of the Russian Court” (New York, 1923), pp. 105-6.

[5] Sir Bernard Pares (intro. and ed.), “The Letters of the Tsaritsa to the Tsar, 1914-1916” (Reprint, London, 1987), p. 41.

[6] Buxhoeveden, p. 193.  

[7] Pares, p. 41.  

[8] Pares, “Letters,” p. 53.  

[9] Ibid.

[10]  Russell, “The Emperors,” p. 115.

Gareth Russell

Expert Contributor

Educated at Oxford University and Queen’s University, Belfast, Gareth Russell is a historian, novelist, and playwright. He is the author of The Ship of Dreams, Young and Damned and Fair, The Emperors, and An Illustrated Introduction to the Tudors. He lives in Belfast, Northern Ireland.

Drop Dead Gorgeous: 19th Century Beauty Tips for the Aspiring Consumptive


Written by Expert Contributor, Jessica Cale

Picture the ideal nineteenth century English beauty: pale, almost translucent skin, rosy cheeks, crimson lips, white teeth, and sparkling eyes. She’s waspishly thin with elegant collarbones. Perhaps she’s prone to fainting.

It shouldn’t be difficult to imagine; numerous depictions survive to this day, and the image is still held up as the gold standard for Caucasian women. At this point, it’s so embedded in the Western psyche as beauty that it doesn’t occur to us to question it. Of course that’s beautiful. Why wouldn’t it be?

By the nineteenth century, beauty standards in Britain had come a long way from the plucked hairlines of the late Middle Ages and the heavy ceruse of the Stuart period. Fashionable women wanted slimmer figures because physical fragility had become associated with intelligence and refinement. Flushed cheeks, bright eyes, and red lips had always been popular, particularly among sex workers (they suggested arousal), and women had been using cosmetics like belladonna, carmine, and Spanish leather for years to produce those effects when they didn’t occur organically.

Bright eyes, flushed cheeks, and red lips were also signs of tuberculosis.

Tuberculosis—known at the time as consumption, phthisis, hectic fever, and graveyard cough—was an epidemic that affected all classes and genders without prejudice. Today, an estimated 1.9 billion people are infected with it, and it causes about two million deaths each year. At the time, it was mainly associated with respectable women (although there are no few depictions of sex workers dying of it*) and thought to be triggered by mental exertion or too much dancing.** Attractive women were viewed as more susceptible to it because tuberculosis enhanced their best features. It was noted to cause pale skin, silky hair, weight loss, and a feverish tinge to the face (along with less desirable symptoms including weakness, coughing up blood, GI upset, and organ failure), and it was treated with little to no effect with bleeding, diet, red wine, and opium.

Although having an active (rather than latent) case of consumption was all but a death sentence, it didn’t inspire the revulsion of other less attractive diseases until the end of the 19th century when its causes were better understood.

In 1833, The London Medical and Surgical Journal described it in almost affectionate terms: “Consumption, neither effacing the lines of personal beauty, nor damaging the intellectual functions, tends to exalt the moral habits, and develop the amiable qualities of the patient.”

John Keats. Joseph Severn, 1819.

Of course it didn’t only affect women. The notion that it was caused by mental exertion—along with the high number of artists and intellectuals who lost their lives to it—also led to its association with poets. John Keats died of it at 26. His friend Percy Shelley—also infected—wrote tributes to Keats that attempted to explain consumption not as a disease, but as death by passion. Bizarrely, a symptom that is unique to consumption is spes phthisica, a euphoric state that can result in intense bursts of creativity.*** Keats’ prolific final year of life has been attributed to his consumption, and spes phthisica was viewed by some as necessary for artistic genius.

As Alexandre Dumas (fils) wrote in 1852: “It was the fashion to suffer from the lungs; everybody was consumptive, poets especially; it was good form to spit blood after any emotion that was at all sensational, and to die before reaching the age of thirty.”

Because of its association with young women and poets, the disease itself came to represent beauty, romantic passion, and hyper sexuality. As far as illnesses went, it was considered to be rather glamorous, and in a culture half in love with death, it inspired its fair share of tributes. There are numerous romantic depictions of young women wasting away in death beds at the height of their beauty. Women with consumption were regularly praised for the ethereal loveliness that came from being exceptionally thin and nearly transparent.

Picture that ideal nineteenth century beauty again: that complexion is almost a pallor, and you can see her veins through it. Those lips, eyes, and cheeks are all indicative of a constant low-grade fever. Her teeth are so white they’re almost as translucent as her skin. And her figure? She’s emaciated due to the illness and the chronic diarrhea that comes with it. If she faints, it’s more to do with the lack of oxygen in her blood than the tension of her corset. The sicker she gets, the more beautiful she becomes, until she’s gone; the beauty is all the more poignant because of its impermanence. This beauty can’t last, and it’s as deadly as it is contagious.

Only a fool would wish for it, so what’s a healthy girl to do?

If you didn’t have consumption but wanted the look, there were two things you could do: wait (at its peak between 1780 and 1850, it is estimated to have caused a quarter of all deaths in Europe. Statistically, you would have had a fair chance of getting it), or fake it. Corsets could be made to narrow the waist and encourage a stooped posture, and necklines were designed to show off prominent collar bones. As for the rest, people could try:


Arsenic Complexion Wafers

Although arsenic was known to be toxic, it was used throughout the nineteenth century in everything from dye to medication. Eating small amounts of arsenic regularly was said to produce a clear, ghostly pale complexion. Lola Montez reported that some women in Bohemia frequently drank the water from arsenic springs to whiten their skin.

Stop Eating

In The Ugly-Girl Papers, S.D. Powers offers her own advice for achieving consumptive skin: “The fairest skins belong to people in the earliest stages of consumption, or those of a scrofulous nature. This miraculous clearness and brilliance is due to the constant purgation which wastes the consumptive, or to the issue which relieves the system of impurities by one outlet. We must secure purity of the blood by less exhaustive methods. The diet should be regulated according to the habit of the person. If stout, she should eat as little as will satisfy her appetite.”

How little? Writing in the third person, she uses herself as an example: “Breakfast was usually a small saucer of strawberries and one Graham cracker, and was not infrequently dispensed with altogether. Lunch was half an orange—for the burden of eating the other half was not to be thought of; and at six o’clock a handful of cherries formed a plentiful dinner. Once a week she did crave something like beef-steak of soup, and took it.”


For “fair and innocent” skin that mimics the effects of consumption, The Ugly-Girl Papers offers the following recipe: “Mix one spoonful of the best tar in a pint of pure olive oil or almond oil, by heating the two together in a tin cup set in boiling water. Stir till completely mixed and smooth, putting in more oil if the compound is too thick to run easily. Rub this on the face when going to bed, and lay patches of soft old cloth on the cheeks and forehead to keep the tar from rubbing off. The bed linen must be protected by old sheets folded and thrown over the pillows. The odor, when mixed with oil, is not strong enough to be unpleasant—some people fancy its suggestion of aromatic pine breath—and the black, unpleasant mask washes off easily with warm water and soap. The skin comes out, after several applications, soft, moist, and tinted like a baby’s. The French have long used turpentine to efface the marks of age, but olive-tar is pleasanter.”

White Lead

Madame X. John Singer Sargent, 1883-4

Lead had been used as the primary ingredient for ceruse and other forms of foundation and powder for centuries. It was known to cause skin problems over time (and, you know, lead poisoning). In the nineteenth century, it was still used for the same purpose and appeared in paints and skin enamels in Europe and the United States.

Lavender Powder

If the pallor of consumption didn’t occur naturally or with the aid of arsenic, it could be imitated with the use of lavender colored powder. Usually applied over ceruse or other foundation made from white lead, it gave the skin a bluish, porcelain shade. Perhaps the best known example of this is John Singer Sargent’s Madame X. The model, Virginie Gautreau, was known to use lavender powder to create her dramatically pale complexion. She was said to be a master of drawing fake veins on with indigo, and she painted her ears with rouge to add to the illusion of translucence.


Commonly sold and sometimes made at home, rouge was everywhere. Made from toxic bismuth or vermilion, or carmine from cochineal beetles, it was applied to cheeks, lips, ears, and sometimes even nostrils to make them appear transparent. It came in liquid, cream, and powder forms, and Napoleon’s Empress Josephine is said to have spent a fortune on it. The Ugly-Girl Papers offers this recipe for Milk of Roses, which sounds rather nice:

“(Mix) four ounces of oil of almonds, forty drops of oil of tarter, and half a pint of rose-water with carmine to the proper shade. This is very soothing to the skin. Different tinges may be given to the rouge by adding a few flakes of indigo for the deep black-rose crimson, or mixing a little pale yellow with less carmine for the soft Greuze tints.”


The Ugly-Girl Papers recommends ammonia for use as both a hair rinse and, worryingly, a depilatory. For healthy hair, Powers recommends scrubbing it nightly with a brush in a basin of water with three tablespoons of ammonia added. Hair should then be combed and left to air dry without a night cap.

Lemon Juice and Eyeliner

To achieve the ideal feverish “sparkling eyes,” some women still used belladonna (which could cause blindness) while others resorted to putting lemon juice or other irritants in their eyes to make them water. Eyes, eyelashes, and eyebrows could also be defined. Powers advises: “All preparations for darkening the eyebrows, eyelashes, etc., must be put on with a small hair-pencil. The “dirty-finger” effect is not good. A fine line of black round the rim of the eyelid, when properly done, should not be detected, and its effect in softening and enlarging the eyes is well known by all amateur players.”


Day, Carolyn. Consumptive Chic: A History of Beauty, Fashion, and Disease. (2017)

Dumas, Alexandre (fils). La Dame Aux Camélias. (1852)

Klebs, Arnold. Tuberculosis: A Treatise by American Authors on its Etiology, Pathology, Frequency, Semeiology, Diagnosis, Prognosis, Prevention, and Treatment. (1909)

Meier, Allison. How Tuberculosis Symptoms Became Ideals of Beauty in the 19th Century. Hyperallergic. January 2nd, 2018.

Montez, Lola. The Arts of Beauty: or Secrets of a Lady’s Toilet. (1858)

Morens, David M. At the Deathbed of Consumptive Art. Emerging Infectious Diseases, Volume 8, Number 11. November 2002.

Mullin, Emily. How Tuberculosis Shaped Victorian Fashion., May 10th, 2016.

Pointer, Sally. The Artifice of Beauty: A History and Practical Guide to Perfumes and Cosmetics. (2005)

Powers, S. D. The Ugly-Girl Papers, or Hints for the Toilet. (1874)

Zarrelli, Natalie. The Poisonous Beauty Advice Columns of Victorian England. Atlas Obscura, December 17th, 2015.


*Depictions of sex workers dying of tuberculosis: La Traviata, Les Misérables, La Bohème, and now Moulin Rouge, etc. In the 19th century, consumption was portrayed as a kind of romantic redemption for sex workers through the physical sacrifice of the body.

**Although dancing itself wouldn’t have done it, the disease was so contagious that it could be contracted anywhere people would be at close quarters—dancing at balls with multiple partners could have reasonably been high-risk behavior.

***You know what else does that? Tertiary syphilis. How do you know which one you have? If you’re coughing blood, it’s consumption. If your skin is falling off, it’s syphilis. Either way, you’re going to want to call a doctor.

Jessica Cale

Expert Contributor

Educated at Oxford University and Queen’s University, Belfast, Jessica Cale is a historian, editor, and award-winning historical romance author. She earned her BA in Ancient and Medieval History and MFA in Creative and Media Writing at Swansea University in Wales. Jessica was a regular writer for BBC History Magazine during university, and now she edits the popular history blog Dirty, Sexy History. Watch for her as a guest historian in Lost Pirate Kingdom, out this year on Netflix.

The Origins of the Tudor Portrait Miniature

Written by Resident Art Historian, Melanie V Taylor

For those not familiar with the genre of the portrait miniature, let us first consider why and when these first became popular in England, and the various artists creating these images for the Tudor court.

The half millennium saw a marked change from the religious themes of the medieval period to secular subjects inspired by the humanist teachings of classical texts.  This change included the new idea of portraying people in stand-alone portraits.   Albrecht Dürer (1471 – 1528) was the first artistic genius to use his own image both to record how he looked at significant times in his life, and to promote his talents as an artist. When Dürer painted his third self-portrait early in 1500, anyone seeing it would have understood that the artist was not committing the sin of hubris which we might well think today, but that he was paying tribute to the Divine for the gift of his (Dürer’s) supreme talent. 

Albrecht Durer (1471 – 1528) Self-portrait. 1500 Munich.

If you are interested in this artist, his link will take you to my 2018 article on Dürer.

As the century progressed, the portrait became popular not only with the aristocracy, but all those who were keen to be remembered for posterity and could afford to pay the price.  The cost of a large (table) portrait depended on how much of the person was revealed.  That is to say, was it just to be of the sitter’s head and shoulders, or was the artist asked to incorporate arms, legs, torso or even full length as in the portrait of Henry VIII that Holbein painted on the wall of the king’s private apartments in Whitehall.  Today we know this portrait from the original cartoon that survived the fire of 1698.

Henry VIII cartoon. Hans Holbein the Younger (1497 – 1543). NPG Ref 4027, London.

and a copy of the whole mural made by Remgius van Leemput (d1675) prior to the fire (RCIN405750)  that now hangs in the Great Watching Chamber of Hampton Court.    The finished portraits of the Tudors were more often than not, painted on wood panel and in northern Europe the wood of choice was Baltic oak due to the straightness of grain and durability.  When van Leemput was painting in the 17th century, canvas had become the preferred surface of choice.

Having your portrait painted ‘in large’ was a public statement that you had reached a certain level in society.  If you commissioned a leading artist of the day, such as Hans Holbein the Younger (c1497 – 1543), this added to the allure for those privileged enough to be invited into the room in which the painting hung.  The original Holbein full length portrait of Henry VIII painted c1537 the now hangs in the Walker Gallery, Liverpool and is based on the Whitehall cartoon, (this is a copy of the lost original), was described by David Starkey as the first portrait of a fat man.  Clearly painted after Henry had dined unwisely and far too well too often, Holbein was faced with the daunting task of portraying the portly king as a majestic figure.  Holbein’s answer to this conundrum? Put the king in his best clothes, with all the trappings of wealth and status, get him to stand with his legs apart and hands of hips and looking straight at us, the viewer.  Brilliant!  We, as humble bystanders, are awed by the power and majesty exuding from this image.  When it came to a smaller, but more intense portrayal of the king, Holbein gives us a close-up view of the king’s facial features.

Henry VIII 1537. Hans Holbein the Younger, (1497 – 1543). Thyssen Bornemisz Museum, Spain.

This much smaller half-length portrait now hangs in the Thyssen Bornemisza Museum in Spain.  There is yet another splendid set of clothes, with blackwork embroidery, gold tissue and sumptuous firs, but the slight lift of the king’s eyebrow over those piggy eyes, and the set of the tight lips gives the king a disdainful expression.  The Walker Gallery portrait measures 239 cm x 134.5 cms unframed (94 x 53.3 inches), while the portrait in Spain is a mere 28 x 20 cms (11 x 7.8 inches).  The former is life size, while the latter can almost be classed as a miniature.  While not quite small enough to hold in your hand, it was definitely not intended to show the king’s image to a large audience.

Miniature portraits were less expensive than portraits that hung on walls.  While the larger portraits were usually hidden behind a curtain that was drawn back when someone was invited to view it, the function of a miniature portrait was the polar opposite to that of the table portrait. It was small enough to hold in your hand and painted in watercolour on vellum  To ensure the tiny work of art laid flat it was mounted on to a playing card or sometimes, just plain card.  To protect it, it might have been wrapped in tissue, or if funds allowed, in a locket.  Looking at both of the last two paintings of Henry VIII we see he wears a locket around his neck.  Since these two portraits were executed in c1537 we can only speculate whether or not this held an image of Queen Jane.  If so, did Holbein paint this? If so, then it has been lost.  

Dr Strong suggests the portrait miniature did not reach England Louise de Savoie, then Regent of France, apparently sent Henry VIII a locket with the portraits of her two grandsons with a plea to use his influence with Emperor Charles VI to release the two boys who were being held as hostages.[i]  Her son, Francis I, had been taken prisoner by the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, at the battle of Pavia in February 1525.  Francis signed the Treaty of Madrid in January 1526 and was released in March of the same year.   However, there is visual evidence that portrait miniatures of the English king were being used in the decoration of illuminated manuscripts and as stand-alone portraits long before the battle of Pavia. 

An illuminated patent dated 28th April, 1524, contains a miniature portrait of Henry VIII granting various properties in the Parish of St Michael, Cornhill, London to Thomas Forster (d1528), embroiderer by Henry VIII.[ii]

Illuminated H on patent granted to Thomas Forster (d1528), 1524. Ref. V&A collection, London.

 The portrait roundel measure 49mm x 47mm, which is just under two inches. This link will take you to the V&A page for this manuscript. 

The National Portrait Gallery holds a miniature portrait (ref NPG 6453 Princes Mary aged nine ) painted on the occasion of her engagement to her cousin, Charles V.

Princess Mary, aged nine. Horenbout workshop, c1524/5 (Julian calendar). NPG, London.

This is the earliest portrayal of Princess Mary and she has clearly inherited the Tudor red hair. The portrait measures 35mm (13/8 inches). If Mary were nine when this portrait was created, this means the miniature, as well as the illuminated patent, were both painted a full year prior to the battle of Pavia.  Clearly the portrait miniature was already known in England at least a year prior to the battle of Pavia (25th February 1525). This being the case, the next question is who was capable of painting these exquisite images?

Gerard Horenbout, a leading Flemish illuminator previously holding an official position as court artist and valet de chamber at the court of Margaret of Austria, Regent of the Netherlands, brought his family to England prior to the battle of Pavia.  The reason for the move is not clear, but we know from the royal accounts that his son Lucas entered the employ of Henry VIII check auerbach and it is thought he was very ably assisted by his sister, Susannah.  Both Horenbout children had been taught by their father.  In a time when women were rarely credited with having any form of talent, a condescending accolade regarding Susannah’s talents was made by Albrecht Dürer in 1521 when he visited the Horenbout workshop in Bruges, and bought her image of Christ as Saviour of the World for a guilder – the same price he would have paid had it been painted by a master artist.  Thanks to the talent of the Horenbout siblings, we have some candid small portraits of Henry VIII, Katharine of Aragon and their daughter Princess Mary in the happy times before the infamous divorce.  

Lucas’s name regularly appears in the royal accounts, and the illuminations of manuscripts, such as the Liber Niger, being Henry VIII’s commission for a new book for the Order of the Garter to replace the Bruges Garter Book, British library Ref. Stowe Ms 594 created in the 1430s.[iii]  This illumination was painted by an unknown artist and shows the patron saint of the Order, St George, and his dragon while a knight kneels before him. It is thought this is William Bruges who commissioned this armorial. Bruges appears to be wearing the uniform of a heraldand St George has three ostrich feathers in his cap, similar to those worn by the Prince of Wales. The banner is blank, but the artist may have planned to include some words. Likewise, the very recognisable leather garters do not include the motto of the order. Perhaps the artist intended some wise words in the banner, and to write the motto on the two garters in gold, but forgot. This type of omission drives art historians mad.

folio 7 of the Bruges Garter Book, 1430. Anon. Stowe Ms 594, British Library, London.

There were Ladies of the Garter, but it was not until 1987 that any woman (other than a queen regnant) was made a Companion who was Lady Thatcher, the first woman prime minister of England.  Henry VII (1447 – 1509) dropped the practice of having Ladies of the Order in 1488, when the last woman to be created a Lady of the Order was his mother, Lady Margaret Beaufort.  The next woman to be appointed as such was Queen Alexandra (1844 – 1925) consort of Edward VII, in the early 20th century.  Therefore, the woman being the inspiration of the Order in Horenbout’s illumination is more likely to be Queen Philippa of Hainault, wife of Edward III or, knowing the Tudor love of medieval chivalric tales, the Duchess of Salisbury who is said to have lost her garter during a court celebration.  The story of the duchess losing her garter and the king retrieving it with the words ‘Honi soit qui mal y pense’ (shame on him who thinks evil of it) did not appear in writing until the 1460s, some one hundred and twenty years or so after the Order was founded.  Horenbout’s document of the 1530s depicting a single female has had the suggestion that this is a ‘lost’ portrait of Anne Boleyn.  However, there is no credible argument based on solid academic research of original documents and this claim appears to be a case of someone wishing it were the case as opposed to being a genuine find. 

Scholars who have researched the history of the Order demonstrate that Edward III founded a group of twenty-five knights at Windsor in 1348. The Complete Peerage states that this group of the king’s companions had its beginning some four years earlier in 1344, and lists the original 25 Companions knighted by Edward III.[iv]  The group of loyal knights was formed just at the time when Edward III’s claim to the French throne was at its height, therefore rather than some romantic tale of a woman’s garter slipping to the floor, the reference to a garter is more likely to be to the leather straps used to attach the various bits of armour to the wearer and the group’s loyalty to the king for his claim to the throne of France.  The document dating from the 1530s has been the subject of much academic research and, while the enthusiasm for the claim this included a portrait of Henry VIII’s second wife has to be admired, it will require a great deal more research to convince scholars of English illuminated documents of this period.

An illuminated letter containing the narrative of Henry VIII seated on his throne surrounded by his advisors, appears at the beginning of the Valor Ecclesiasticus (National Archives reference E344/22), the valuation of the monastic lands undertaken in the 1530s.  Stylistically this illuminated letter is similar to the various vignettes included in the Liber Niger.  Like the images in the second book of statutes of the Knights of the Garter, the rendition of each of the faces surrounding Henry VIII on his throne are only millimetres across.

E344/22. Horenbout atelier 1530s. National Archives, Kew, London.

What little we do know about the personal details of Lucas is that he married a woman called Margaret Houselwyther, the daughter of a goldsmith.  Lucas received a patent for life from the king on 22nd June 1534, approximately ten years after arriving in England, and took out denization papers the same year.[v]  We know he was allowed to have four journeymen in his service and lived in the Parish of St Margaret’s Westminster, so was near the royal palace.  Susan James has identified a Jacomyne Horenbout as being Lucas’s daughter and that she also practised as a portrait miniaturist.  Her mother, Margaret Houselwyther, is listed in the queen’s royal accounts as being paid for paintings ‘in little’ during the time Katharine Parr was married to Henry VIII.[vi] Whether or not Houselwyther was an artist in her own right is not proven. The single reference in the accounts might have been a payment for work done by her daughter, Jacomyne.

When it comes to any possible illumination carried out by Gerard we are even less able to identify works from his brush.  The name ‘Gerard’ appears in the accounts of Thomas Cromwell for the expenses of Cardinal Wolsey’s college at Oxford, but equally the name could be a reference to a scrivener who is mentioned in a subsidy roll of the same period.[vii]  It is more likely that another reference to a Gerard, who was paid 16s & 8d, is the illuminator Gerard Horenbout, as this was a large sum of money.  The names of father and son first appear in the treasurer of the chamber accounts of 1528.  The artist(s) behind Wolsey manuscripts are hotly debated, but they are the treasures of Christchurch and Magdalen colleges, Oxford. They are well worth a closer look and this link will take you to them. This is the level and type of work that Gerard was known for, 16s & 8d was not sufficient to pay for the illumination of either of these manuscripts.

The patents for Cardinal College, Oxford of both May 1526 and May 1529 show Henry VIII seated on his throne in a similar way as the monarch is portrayed on the front of the various front sheets of the Coram Rege rolls, these being the record of the proceedings of the King’s Bench.  Surviving patents are beautifully executed and a similar one exists for Cardinal College, Ipswich also dated May 1529. These complex monochrome illuminated letters demonstrate the importance of the patents, but being black and white and only a small part of the first page of the document, they would not have been as expensive as the Wolsey manuscripts. All these documents add another important name to the list of those who patronised the royal limners – that of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, a man of humble origins who appreciated the finer things in life.

 The illumination of patents as well as legal documents, breviaries and books of hours is the sort of work that would be carried out by an illuminator of the calibre of the Horenbout family of artists.  In addition, the surviving patent for Thomas Forster demonstrates that the Horenbouts were sought after by, and took on work from those outside immediate royal circle.[viii] As an embroiderer employed by the king, Forster was of a similar social position to Lucas and the goldsmith, Houselwyther, father of Lucas’s wife, Margaret. 

Gerard Horenbout returned to Bruges in 1531, two years after the death of his wife.  His name does not appear in English accounts again, but Lucas’s name continues to appear being paid a monthly salary of 55s 6d from 1528 until his death in March 1544.[ix] This is an equivalent labour value of today of £19,090.00 per month, thus demonstrating the high value placed on his work.[x]  In the Book of the Court of Augmentations, where the grant to Lucas is recorded, there is the following passage (translated from the Latin) “For a long time I have been acquainted not only by reports from others but also from personal knowledge with the science and experience in the pictorial art of Lucas Harnbolte [Horenbout] and I nominate, constitute, and declare him by these present letters patent to be my painter.[xi] This is the voice of the king and evidence that Henry VIII held Lucas in high esteem.  Furthermore, it is the only patent granted to an artist of this period that contains such a glowing account of their work.  

While Lucas is identified as the King’s Pictor in written records, Susannah’s does not appear at all, therefore we are unable to either confirm, or deny whether or not his sister collaborated on the illumination of any of the official manuscripts.  What we do know is that her talents were admired by fellow artists such as Durer.

Susannah married twice, both times to minor members of the royal household.  In 1539, a mere three weeks after her second marriage to John Gwilim, Thomas Cromwell required her to be part of the entourage to go to the Duchy of Cleves and escort Henry VIII’s fourth wife, Anna, Duchess of Cleves, back to England.  The royal accounts reveal Susannah was given £40 to spend on clothes so she would be suitably attired as a lady-in-waiting to the new queen of England.[xii]  Whether this appointment was for her artistic talents or because Cromwell wanted to have a spy in her household is unknown, but both are possible.  Whether Susannah spoke the German dialect spoken by Duchess Anna is also unknown.[xiii]  

We do know that Susannah remained in post until the royal marriage was annulled six months later in 1540.  The same year Susannah gave birth to a son, Henry (1540 -1593), named after his godfather the king, and therefore it is possible she could have retired to rear her family, but continued to work after her children grew past infancy.[xiv] If so, then it is likely that any money would have been paid to her husband, John Gwilim, who was a Gentleman Pensioner, so also part of the royal entourage.  Perhaps a future researcher would undertake the task of trawling through the dusty membranes of annual accounts looking for the name Gwilim and analysing whether or not the amounts, if any, fluctuate from his fixed pension as a gentleman pensioner, which might indicate he was receiving money for work completed by his wife. 

A portrait known as the Yale miniature is clearly from the Horenbout atelier.[xv]  The sitter has been variously identified as being of Princess Elizabeth, Princess Mary and Lady Jane Grey. It is more likely the sitter was Amy Robsart who married Robert Dudley in 1550 when she was aged eighteen. 

The Yale Miniature c 1550. Horenbout atelier. Yale University.

This portrait has also been attributed to Levina Teerlinc (née Bening) (1520 – 1576), but this is clearly not the case.  From my extensive study of Teerlinc’s work, it is apparent her style is significantly different to this and more reminiscent of the Horenbout workshop, plus Teerlinc does not use any lettering on her stand alone portraits.  

The Dudley family had been at court since the time of Henry VII. The likelihood of Dudley wanting a portrait of his new bride, or bride to be, is quite likely.  Dudley would later commission further miniatures of himself, and later the Goldsmith archives have a record of him commissioning a book of miniatures during the early career of Nicholas Hilliard.[xvi]  Having grown up and been at court since a boy, Dudley would have known of Susannah’s talents.  The Yale miniature is shown to be of someone aged 18 years old and while I have the utmost respect for Dr Starkey, I do not agree with his attribution that this is of Jane Grey as her dates are 1537 – 1554 and she did not reach the age of eighteen, or that the artist is Teerlinc.  Carved cameo gems were in good supply to the jewellery trade, cowslips were a traditional Norfolk flower symbolising an engagement.  This link Amy Robsart – Possibly  will take you to my 2017 article on this specific miniature where you can read more about why I believe it is a portrait of Amy Robsart and that Susannah Horenbout was the artist.   William Cecil had doubts about the Dudley/Robsart marriage from the start, describing it as ‘carnal’, but that is another story for another time.

With the appointment of this prestigious family of illuminators to the royal workshops, Henry VIII now had serious artistic talent at his disposal to rival the artists employed at the courts of Francis I of France and the Regent of the Hapsburg Netherlands. The number of surviving miniature portraits stand testament to the popularity of this emerging genre in both aristocratic circles and by the aspiring middle classes.  Something that the German artist, Hans Holbein the Younger (1497 – 1543) was quick to take advantage on his return to England in 1531.

Holbein had first worked in England in 1526 until 1528 when he was obliged to return to his native Basel.  On his return to England in 1531 he then worked as King’s Painter and it is after this date that we see him creating miniature portraits.  There is a husband and wife pair of portraits in Vienna dated 1534 possibly by Holbein, that are thought to be portraits of Susannah Horenbout and her first husband, John Parker (c1493/4-1537) wearing his livery of Gentleman Pensioner to Henry VIII.  

Susannah Horenbout (?) (1506 – 1554) c1534. Hans Holbein the Younger (1497 – 1543), Vienna.

We are given the age of this lady as being 28, therefore if it is a portrait of Susannah, then she was born in 1506.  More interestingly we now know what she may have looked like.  But why did her brother not paint this pair of portraits?  Perhaps these images were a present from the great German maestro as a thank you for teaching him the art of mixing pigments for use on vellum, a highly specialised technique, or even as a wedding present – we can only speculate.  

Susannah remains a shadowy figure as an artist, unlike her brother who died in March 1544.  She is more visible as a member of the household of Anna of Cleves, and prior to this Susannah had served Jane Seymour. It is arguable that she created the various portraits of Katharine of Aragon and the nine year old Princess Mary because Susannah would not have required a chaperone and being a gentlewoman at court had access to the queen and princess.  This would have allowed her to sketch them at any time and since preparatory sketches are vital when creating portraits.   

Queen Katharine of Aragon, his wife. Horenbout atelier. Mid 1520s. (Source: Wikipedia).

This rectangular portrait of Henry VIII below is also a Horenbout masterpiece on an illuminated document in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, but which Horenbout sibling painted it is unknown. Henry and Katherine’s initials are entwined at the top and bottom, and angels hold the strings of the cord that forms a love knot between the H and K.

Henry VIII in 1525.  Fizwilliam Museum, Cambridge, UK.

Lucas and Holbein would have required there be others present in order to preserve the ladies’ honour and we know from the 1598 draft treatise by Elizbeth I’s favourite miniature portrait painter, Nicholas Hilliard (1547 – 1619), that too many onlookers giving well meaning, but unnecessary artistic advice was an annoying distraction for the artist.  Hilliard also tells us that he paints ad vivum (from life) in order to capture the liveliness of a sitter’s expression.  The survival of so many preliminary sketches made by Holbein, now in the Royal Collection at Windsor, demonstrates that Hilliard’s painting from life was his innovation.  To have such a wealth of preliminary sketches by an artist is rare and the Holbein collection is accessible online via the Royal Collection website.

Thanks to the Horenbout siblings and Hans Holbein the Younger, we have the most exquisite examples of miniature portraits bringing various people of the 1520s and 1530s who would have otherwise remained faceless names in dusty documents. 

Holbein died in November 1543 and Lucas in March 1544, possibly of the sweating sickness, but what it was that killed them is irrelevant.  Their demise left Susannah as the sole practioner of the genre, but she was married with a young and growing family, therefore the hunt was on to find and appoint replacements for both artists.

Prior to moving his family to England, Gerard Horenbout had collaborated with Simon Bening and by the 1540s, Simon Bening (1483 – 1561), was the last of the great illuminators living and was practising in Bruges.  Bening’s clientele list was of the majority of the great and the good of Europe: the emperor, kings, princes, dukes, duchesses, earls, counts, princes of the Catholic church, abbots, abbesses, priors, prioresses and wealthy merchants  – Bening’s reputation stretched from Sweden to the tip of Spain.[xvii]  There is no actual proof, but there is circumstantial evidence that an approach was made to the great man.  An artist of Bening’s status was just the sort of talent Henry VIII would have desired to replace Lucas, but with a client list such as this, would you give up a thriving business to go and work in England for an aging king with much ambition, but little real status on the world stage?  

Like Lucas and Susannah Horenbout, Bening was the second generation of a leading family of illuminators. Alexander Bening (d1519) had married either the sister, or niece (no-one has yet decided which) of Hugo van der Goes (1430/40 – 1482) one of the most original artists of the latter half of the 15th century.  The Grimani Breviary contains portraits of Alexander and a young Simon Bening in the full-page illumination of the arrival of the queen of Sheba.

Simon & his father, Alexander Bening (left to right) discovered by Eric Drighsdal 2000.

Bening sired six daughters, one went on to become a very successful book dealer, but it was his daughter Levina who would fill the empty position.  Levina came to England after her marriage to George Teerlinc of Blankenberg sometime in early 1545.  Her contemporary, Ludovico Guicciardini (1521 – 1589) described her skills in painting portraits in miniature as being every bit as good as her father’s.[xviii]  

When George and Levina arrived in England in either March 1545 at the behest of Katharine Parr, or perhaps in 1546 at the direct invitation of Henry VIII.  George Teerlinc was made a gentleman pensioner and as well as her position as king’s paintrix, Levina became a gentlewoman to the queen.  Henry granted her an annuity of 40per annum ‘at his pleasure’ to be paid unto her husband.  Very much later in 1559, Elizabeth I changed the terms of this annuity to be for life in recognition of Levina’s loyal service to the Crown.  The annual sum was far greater than that paid to either Lucas Horenbout or Hans Holbein the Younger, even taking into account the inflation of the times.   

Like that of Susannah, a clear collection of Levina’s work is hard to determine, but her career spanned four Tudor monarchs – Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary I and Elizabeth I, plus she also knew Queen Katharine Parr (1512 – 1548) and Anna, Duchess of Cleves (1515 – 1557), as well as all the great families such as the Seymours, the Greys and importantly, the Dudleys. There are various surviving examples of portraits dating between 1545 and the emergence of England’s first home grown artist, Nicholas Hilliard (1547 – 1619) in 1572, when he painted his first portrait of Elizabeth (NPG).  These unsigned portraits of the period 1546 – 1572 are often attributed to Teerlinc, as are various illuminations in documents and other manuscripts, but there is so much difference in the styles of these examples it is difficult to define a complete set of works by her.  

One of the first tasks set for her would have been illuminating the front page of the Peace of Address, 1546, now one of the treasures of the Biblioteque de France.

Illuminated front page of The Peace of Address, 1546. Teerlinc (1520 – 1572). BnF, Paris.

Teerlinc’s arrival coincides with the use of Renaissance motifs in the illumination of treaties, the illuminated Ps on the front of the Coram Rege rolls, and a new eye for the portrayal of the great of the good in miniature portraits. If you wish to know more about Teerlinc, this link will take you to a dedicated article of a 1572 Hilliard miniature of her.

By 1558, the portrait miniature was much in fashion.  Katharine Parr had been a great fan of the genre and perhaps had influenced the Princess Elizabeth to develop a love of this small and intimate way of having an image of a cherished person to keep, especially if it were of a lover, but the canny Virgin Queen also commissioned many portraits of herself to give to diplomats. 

If you were lucky enough to be invited to view such a portrait, it became an intimate experience between you and the person inviting you to view it. One of the best examples of how this type of image was used for diplomatic reasons was when the 1564 negotiations of a possible marriage were underway and Robert Dudley, who had recently been created Earl of Leicester to make him of a more suitable rank for marriage to a queen, was proposed as a possible husband for Mary Queen of Scots. In the memoirs of the Scottish ambassador, Sir James Melville (1535-1617), we learn how Elizabeth I invited him to her private cabinet where she showed him a portrait miniature of Dudley in a private tête-à-tête.  The description of the intimacy of Melville’s viewing this portrait miniature is best told in Melville’s own words:

“She [Elizabeth] took me to her Bed-chamber, and opened a little Cabinet, wherein were divers little pictures wrapped within Paper, and their Names written with her own hand upon the Papers. Upon the first that she took up was written, My Lord’s Picture. I held the Candle, and pressed to see that picture so named, she appeared loath to let me see it, yet my impor­tunity prevailed for a sight thereof, and found it to be the Earl of Leicester’s picture. I desired that I might have it to carry home to my Queen, which she refused, alledging that she had but that one picture of his. I said, your Majesty hath here the Original, for I perceived him at the farthest part of the Chamber, speaking with Secretary Ci­cil. Then she took out the Queens picture and kissed it, and I adven­tured to kiss her hand, for the great love therein evidenced to my Mistress. Se shewed me also a fair Ruby, as great as a Tenis Ball, I desired that she would either send it, or my Lord of Leicester’s picture, as a Token unto the Queen. She said, if the Queen would follow her counsel, that she would in process of time get all she had; that in the mean time she was resolved in a Token to send her with me a fair Diamond. . .”[xix]

In case you are wondering who painted this treasured miniature of the adult Dudley, it could have only been the court illuminator, Levina Teerlinc, because when Holbein and Lucas Horenbout died Robert Dudley was just a teenager.  There is a miniature of Dudley in his prime that is held in the private collection of the Duke of Buccleuch and may be the one that Elizabeth showed Melville.  

As Elizabeth’s reign progressed, the notoriously parsimonious the queen would give small portraits of herself created by Teerlinc’s successor, Nicholas Hilliard (1547 – 1610), as a token of her esteem.  Known for his ability to capture a true likeness, as the queen aged, Hilliard was diplomatic enough to ensure the focus of his portraits of the queen was her jewels and fabulous wardrobe. 

These two portraits of Elizabeth I & her favourite, Robert Dudley. They measure 15mm high and were probably originally kept in a hinged ring. Sold at auction some 12 years ago.

The gossips said that Hilliard had created so many of these royal portraits that he was able to render her likeness ‘in but four lines‘.  Clearly this lovely bit of gossip was encouraged to enhance Hilliard’s reputation, and he repeats it in his draft treatise of 1598. Even if he did not use ‘but four lines’ to create Elizabeth’s portraits, he was a master of the art of illusion.   Using the symbols associated with the virgin goddesses, Astraea and Cynthaea, he perpetuated the visual propaganda first promulgated by William Cecil in a draft proclamation of 1563 to regulate images of the queen. Even though the proclamation was never made, the evidence that there must have been a discussion about what symbols were to be used in official portraits are still before us in the Phoenix and Pelican portraits, the use of the crescent moons of the virgin goddess Cynthaea seen in the miniatures of the 1580s known as the Mask of Youth series.  These images focused on the ageing queen’s fabulous wardrobe and he used dots of coloured resin dropped on to burnished silver leaf to mimic her jewellery. Thanks to Hilliard’s skill, Elizabeth I became a glittering statement of majesty and power and it is this image that immediately springs to mind when anyone mentions portraits of England’s Virgin Queen. This portrait of Elizabeth has recently been restored to its original condition so the faux gems now glitter in artificial light once more.

Elizabeth I c 1595. Mask of Youth series. Nicholas Hilliard (1547 – 1619). Royal Collection Trust. (Much enlarged so you can see the jewels)

Teerlinc was steeped in knowledge of visual medieval symbolism and as Hilliard’s probable teacher she taught him. Art historians are divided as to whether she was his teacher, but after years of researching her works, for me there is clear evidence that she was. [xx]

While Teerlinc introduced early Renaissance motifs into document illumination, Hilliard’s later style embraces a combination of late Renaissance motifs together with elements of the queen’s personal symbols representing her as a wise virgin goddess as seen in the illuminated E (below) for the founding charter of Emmanuel College, Cambridge, commissioned by Sir Walter Mildmay in 1584.

Illuminated letter E from the founding charter of Emmanuel College, Cambridge. Image source: Wikipedia.


The individual miniature portraits were considerably cheaper than a large portrait and by the late 16th century the average price of a portrait in miniature was £2 – £3, which equates to approximately £2,000 in today’s money.  Ironically, this is roughly what a leading 21st century portrait painter in miniature would charge today, so prices have kept pace with inflation.  

After the death of Elizabeth I in March of 1603, Hilliard went on to serve James I and died in January 1619 at the age of 72.

James I of England, VI of Scotland. Nicholas Hilliard (1547 – 1519) Royal Collection Trust.

What the royal accounts and surviving portraits demonstrate is that the art of the illuminator was highly regarded by the court, with specific artists being in close contact with the royal family.  

While the various ancient European royal dynasties may have regarded the Tudors as newcomers in comparison to the length of rule by the ruling houses of Europe, Henry VIII’s desire to compete at their level on the artistic stage meant he hired the first official woman artist to any court, Levina Teerlinc (née Bening).  

Henry VIII’s artistic legacy includes work by two of the most highly regarded women artists in Europe at the time; Susannah Horenbout (twice married to Englishmen) and Levina Teerlinc.  As gentlewomen to the various English queens, Susannah and Levina had access to their various private quarters at all times and did not require chaperoning should any one of them wish to avail themselves of the talents of these two artists, either as artists or even as a confidante.  The idea that a male artist might require a chaperone could be considered a minor detail by today’s liberal society, but in the 16th century it was important and is something that has been disregarded by art historians ever since the history of art became a serious academic subject in the 1800s.  That too is not surprising since the subject was at that time only studied by privileged, rich white men whose attitude to women artists was to ignore their existence.  


[i] Roy Strong, Artists of the Tudor Court: V&A. 1983.

[ii] Museum reference no. MSL/1999/6. Currently in storage (March 2020).

[iii] The Liber Niger is held in the Chapel of St George, Windsor Castle.

[iv] The Complete Peerage was first published in eight volumes between 1887 – 1898 by George E. Cockayne and has been revised several times since.

[v] Auerbach; Tudor Artists p171

[vi] James: Feminist Dynamic p

[vii] Auerbach; Tudor Artists p 42-43.

[viii] The proper name for an illuminator is a limner and the original name for portrait miniatures was limning.

[ix] Auerbach: Tudor Artists p50-51 

[x] Calculated using the website which gives different values for project, labour, economic, purchasing and real wages or wealth.  In this instance it is the labour earnings value that is quoted.

[xi] Auberbach, Tudor Artists p50.

[xii] Check reference in royal accounts.

[xiii] My grateful thanks to Heather Darsie for her time discussing whether or not Anna’s linguistic skills would have been sufficient to converse with Susannah or vica versa.

[xiv] Since this book is not about Susannah Horenbout, I have not trawled the parish registers of Sheen, Surrey to establish whether or not this was the case. Reference to Susannah’s being pregnant in 1540 is made Kat Emerson’s Who’s Who of Tudor Women.  

[xv] James & Franco article 2000.

[xvi] Edmund, Mary; Hilliard & Oliver

[xvii] Personal as yet unpublished research.

[xviii] Guicciardini, Descrittione di Tutti i Paesi Bassi 1567; p100 (accessed via University of Bologna)

[xix] Melvil of Halhil, Sir James; Memoires; ed George Scott gent; printed by E. H. for Robert Boulter at the Turks Head in Cornhill against the Royal Exchange, 1683 p49 

[xx] Again, as yet personal unpublished personal research.  


Primary Sources

Various royal accounts, legal documents and patent rolls in The National Archives, Kew.

Archives of The Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths

Guicciardini Ludovico; Descrittione di Tutti i Paesi Bassi; 1567.

Hilliard, Nicholas; draft treatise of 1598; Edinburgh University

Melvil of Halhil, Sir James; Memoires; ed George Scott gent; printed by E. H. for Robert Boulter at the Turks Head in Cornhill against the Royal Exchange, 1683

Selected Secondary Sources

Personal unpublished research into Life and Works of Levina Teerlinc, University of Kent, 2006.

Auerbach, Erna; Tudor Artists: A Study of Painters in the Royal Service and of Portraiture on Illuminated Documents from the Accession of Henry VIII to the Death of Elizabeth I, Athlone, 1954

            Nicholas Hilliard; Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1961.

Darsie, Heather; Anna Duchess of Cleves: The King’s Beloved Sister; Amberley, 2019.

Edmund, Mary; Hilliard & Oliver; Robert Hale, Ltd., London 1983.

Goldring; Elizabeth; Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, and the World of Elizabethan Art: Painting and Patronage at the Court of Elizabeth I; Yale University Press; 2014.

            Nicholas Hilliard: Life of an Artist; Yale University Press; 2019.

James, Susan; The Feminist Dynamic 1450; Ashgate Press 2009.

Strong, Roy; Artists of the Tudor Court: Portrait Miniature Rediscovered; V&A Museum, London, 1983, and other publication on Tudor & Jacobean portraiture.

Melanie V Taylor

Resident Art Historian

Mell Taylor lives in the U.K. and has a Bachelor’s degree in the History of Art, Architecture & Design and a Master of Arts degree in Medieval & Tudor Studies. As a freelance lecturer she has delivered courses on the exchange of ideas between the artists of the Northern and Southern Renaissance; Hans Holbein The Younger; the Life and Work of Nicholas Hilliard; The Tudor Portrait miniature; Giotto & Van Eyck to Michelangelo & Hans Holbein the Younger; The Italian High Renaissance & Mannerism 1500 – 1600; The Normans in Europe; The Albigensian Crusade; The Rise of the Venetian Republic; The Reconquest of Spain; the Marketing of Monarchy, Elizabeth I – The Making of Gloriana; Symbolism in 17th century Dutch Art and the finally, the 19th century Impressionist paintings as evidence of social change.

She is also commissioned to research artists, subject matter and where possible provenance of paintings. In addition, Mell has presented papers at academic conferences on the visual evidence of trade in illuminated manuscripts of between 12th and 16th centuries.


Happy Birthday, Anna of Cleves and Henry VIII!

by Expert Contributor Heather R. Darsie

On this day of 28 June in 1515, a little baby girl was born in the Holy Roman Empire whose life would be dramatically shaped by international politics. The baby was christened, “Anna,” after her paternal aunt. “Anna” was a family name on her maternal side, as well. Anna of Cleves’ great-grandmother through Maria of Juelich-Berg was Anna of Saxony. Anna of Saxony, who died in 1512, was the wife of Elector Albrecht Achilles of Brandenburg. Anna von der Mark, known to English speakers as Anne of Cleves, was born into a powerfully connected family in the Holy Roman Empire.

The marriage of little Anna’s parents created a unified powerhouse in Germany that would later threaten the Empire’s hold on the area. After defeat, the United Duchies of Juelich-Cleves-Berg would become wealthy in land holdings and remain stable during the long reign of Anna’s brother Wilhelm V, known as Wilhelm the Rich. Far from being an almost random German bride for the powerful Henry VIII of England, Anna was valuable for her family’s landholdings and connections within the Empire. For Anna, it all started on 28 June 1515, her future husband’s 24th birthday.

Anna of Cleves by Hans Holbein the Younger, 1539. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Henry VIII was King of England for a little over six years by the time Anna was born. Henry’s first wife, Katharine of Aragon, had so far birthed four children, who were either stillborn or died after only a few days. In the summer of 1515, sometime after Anna of Cleves and Henry VIII’s birthday, Katharine announced another pregnancy. This pregnancy resulted in the birth of Mary I in February 1516, making Anna a mere eight months older than her future stepdaughter. 

Please note that the remainder of this article was posted on History of Royal Women

When I first began researching Anna, I questioned whether her name was indeed “Anne,” which would have a similar pronunciation in German to “Anna,” or if her name was Anna. After sorting out that Anna’s true name was indeed Anna, I wanted to learn from where her September 21 or 22, 1515 or 1516 date of birth came. I looked at several English secondary sources, and not one source for Anna’s date of birth was cited. Around this same time, I became aware of Die Chronik des Johann Wassenberch, or, The Chronicle of Johann WassenberchDie Chronik was a contemporary chronicle written in Duisburg, which was part of the Duchy of Cleves. It spans from the late 15th century, then abruptly ends in 1517. It is thought that Johann Wassenberch died of plague.

I purchased the book and later forgotten that I had so done until Die Chronik came in the mail. It was around 19:00 on 27 June 2017. I skimmed through the book and was happy to see that the dates of Anna’s parents’ wedding, birth of her sister Sybylla, and birth of Wilhelm were all correct and properly listed, amongst other important dates. I knew Amalia was born a few days after Die Chronik ended, so I was not surprised that her birthdate was not in Die Chronik.

When I leafed to September 1515, there was no mention of Anna. I checked September 1516, then 1513 and 1514, and still nothing. I thought that perhaps her birth was not listed because she was a second child and second daughter. I was disappointed, but still happy to have the valuable resource.

A couple hours later, I was still skimming through the book and starting preliminary translation when I received a huge surprise: Anna’s date of birth was recorded, and it was given as 28 June 1515! Though I am not one who believes in fate, I looked at the clock and noted that in Germany at that moment it was the early morning of 28 June 2017, Anna’s 502d birthday. I could not believe it! Chills went down my spine. This also meant that Anna was exactly twenty-four years younger than Henry VIII, making him exactly twice her age when they married.

Henry VIII by Hans Holbein, c. 1540.

After conducting more research into German sources and critically thinking about the births of Anna and her brother, a June 1515 or possibly very early July 1515 birthdate seemed to make more sense than a September 1515 birthdate. Following please find an excerpt from my book, Anna, Duchess of Cleves: The King’s ‘Beloved Sister’, discussing my argument for Anna’s true date of birth being 28 June 1515.

“This year [of 1515], on [28 June,] the day before Saints Peter and Paul, a second daughter was born to the eldest son of Duke John II of Cleves, Duke Johann III of Jülich and Berg…. The child was baptized in the name of Anna….”

As far back as 1844 in English sources, Anna’s date of birth has been given as 21 or 22 September in either 1515 or 1516. Agnes Strickland gave Anna’s date of birth as 22 September 1516 in Volume II of her Lives of the Queens of England, published in the mid-1800s, citing Part I of the Royal Genealogies by James Anderson, D. D., and published in 1732. Anderson simply gives Anna’s date of birth as being in 1516, with no citation…Strickland also relies on Maur-François Dantine’s L’Art de Vérifier les Dates, published in Paris in the early 18th century. It gives…Anna’s birth as 22 September 1515 with no citation to any source.

The archives in Germany do not possess any documentation about the birth of Anna. It is possible that the documents showing it have been lost…. [The] one primary source that does exist, Die Chronik des Johann Wassenberch, or Chronicle of Johann Wassenberch, is recognised as a contemporary source for events in the Lower Rhine region between 1492 and 1517….A review of other dates pertinent to Anna’s family, such as the marriage of her parents, and births of her older sister Sybylla and brother Wilhelm, correctly correspond with other known dates in the Chronicle of Johann Wassenberch.

…When taking into consideration the primary source, births of Anna’s siblings, Catholic tradition, and German secondary sources, there is ample support for Anna’s true date of birth being earlier than September 1515, on 28 June 1515 at the earliest and 1 July 1515 at the latest.”

Select excerpt from Anna, Duchess of Cleves: The King’s ‘Beloved Sister’, pp. 17-20.

Love learning about the Reformation or Early Modern period? Are you interested in Tudor history or Women’s history? Then check out my book, Anna, Duchess of Cleves: The King’s ‘Beloved Sister’, a new biography about Anna of Cleves told from the German perspective!

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You Might Also Like

  1. What was the Frauenzimmer?
  2. Anna of Cleves’ Maternal Grandparents: Wilhelm IV and III of Jülich-Berg and Sibylle of Brandenburg
  3. My Adventures with the Duchess of Cleves!
  4. The First Cracks in Anna of Cleves’ Marriage to Henry VIII
  5. Death of Johann III of Cleves and Ascension of Wilhelm V: Anna of Cleves’ Future Changes
  6. When Henry Met Anna: The German Account

Sources & Suggested Reading

  1. Darsie, Heather R. Anna, Duchess of Cleves: The King’s ‘Beloved Sister’. Stroud: Amberley (2019).

Nicholaa de la Haye: The Woman Who Saved England

written by Expert Contributor, Sharon Bennett Connolly

Nicholaa de la Haye is one of those very rare women in English history. She is renowned for her abilities, rather than her family and connections. In a time when men fought and women stayed home, Nicholaa de la Haye held Lincoln Castle against all-comers. Her strength and tenacity saved England at one of its lowest points in history. The eldest daughter and co-heiress of Richard de la Haye and his wife, Matilda de Verdun, she was probably  born in the early 1150s. Richard de la Haye was a minor Lincolnshire lord; in 1166 he was recorded as owing 20 knights’ fees, which had been reduced to 16 by 1172. When he died in 1169, Nicholaa inherited her father’s land in Lincolnshire and his position as castellan of Lincoln Castle, a position she would hold for over 40 years.

Nicholaa was married twice, her first husband, William Fitz Erneis, died in 1178, leaving Nocholaa a young widow with one daughter, Matilda. Before 1185 she married Gerard de Canville, brother of Richard de Canville, admiral of Richard I’s crusading fleet during the 3rd Crusade. Nicholaa and Gerard had at least 2 children; Richard and Thomas. Nicholaa’s husbands each claimed the position of castellan of Lincoln Castle by right of his wife; but Nicholaa seems to have been far from the normal subservient wife. When her husband was not in the castle, she was left in charge rather than an alternative, male deputy.

Nicholaa first comes to the attention of the chroniclers in 1191, when Prince John led the opposition to his brother’s chancellor, William Longchamp. Gerard de Canville was a supporter of John and joined him at Nottingham Castle, leaving Nicholaa to hold Lincoln. Richard I’s Chancellor, William Longchamp, had headed north to halt John’s coup and laid siege to Lincoln Castle. The formidable Nicholaa refused to yield, holding out for 40 days before Longchamp raised the siege following the fall of the castles at Tickhill and Nottingham. Amusingly, Richard of Devizes said of this defence of Lincoln Castle, that she did it ‘without thinking of anything womanly’.

In 1194, on the king’s return, Canville was stripped of his positions as Sheriff of Lincolnshire and Castellan of the castle; only having it returned to him on the accession of King John in 1199. Gerard de Canville probably died in 1215 and, although now a widow, it seems the castle remained in Nicholaa’s hands, despite the fact her son Richard was old enough to take on the responsibility.

As we all know, King John’s reign wasn’t exactly smooth sailing. He lost his French lands and was held to account by the barons of England for  numerous examples of maladministration, corruption and  outright murder. In 1215 he had been forced to seal the Great Charter, or Magna Carta, in order to avoid war. Although it eventually came to be considered a fundamental statement of English liberties, as a peace treaty Magna Carta failed miserably. Within months John had written to Pope Innocent III and the charter had been declared null and void; the barons were up in arms. The rebels invited the king of France to take the throne of England; instead Philip II’s son, Louis (the future Louis VIII), accepted the offer and was hailed as King of England in London in June 1216. In the same year Nicholaa prevented another siege by paying off a rebel army, led by Gilbert de Gant, who had occupied the city of Lincoln.

As Louis consolidated his position in the south, John came north, spent the summer hunting down the rebels in the Isle of Axholme, with ‘fire and sword,’ before making an inspection of Lincoln Castle in September 1216. It may have been at this visit that there was a rather dramatic display of fealty from Nicholaa:

‘And once it happened that after the war King John came to Lincoln and the said Lady Nicholaa went out of the eastern gate of the castle carrying the keys of the castle in her hand and met the king and offered the keys to him as her lord and said she was a woman of great age and was unable to bear such fatigue any longer and he besought her saying, “My beloved Nicholaa, I will that you keep the castle as hitherto until I shall order otherwise”. (Irene Gadwin, The Sheriff: The Man and His Office).

Moving south, just 2 weeks later, the king’s baggage train was lost as he crossed the Wash estuary and within a few more days John was desperately ill. He moved on to the castle at Newark, from where, just hours before his death, John appointed Nicholaa de la Haye as Sheriff of Lincolnshire in her own right.

King John died at Newark on the night of 18/19th October 1216, with half his country in the hands of a foreign invader and his throne now occupied by his 9-year-old son, Henry III. The elder statesman and notable soldier William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke was appointed Regent and set out to save the kingdom. Meanwhile, Louis’ forces, under the Comte de Perche, headed north. In early 1217, he took the City of Lincoln and laid siege to the castle with a small force. Now in her 60s Nicholaa de la Haye took charge of the defences. Prince Louis personally travelled up to Lincoln to ask for her surrender, assuring her that no one would be hurt, but Nicholaa refused.

When the small force proved insufficient to compel a surrender, the French had to send for reinforcements. For almost 3 months – from March to mid-May – siege machinery bombarded the south and east walls of the castle. On 20 May, William Marshal arrived, from the north-west, with a relieving force. Having taken the North Gate of the city walls, his army proceeded to attack the besieging forces and routed the enemy; the enemy’s commander and Marshal’s cousin, the Comte de Perche, was killed in the fighting. The city, which had supported the rebels and welcomed the French, was sacked and looted by the victorious army; the battle becoming known as the Lincoln Fair, as a result. The Battle of Lincoln turned the tide of the war. The Battle of Sandwich, a sea battle fought off the Kent coast in August 1217, ended it. The French were forced to seek peace and returned home. Magna Carta was reissued and Henry III’s regents could set about healing the country.

In a magnificent demonstration of ingratitude, within 4 days of the relief of the Castle, Nicholaa’s position as Sheriff of Lincolnshire was given to the king’s uncle William Longspée, Earl of Salisbury, who took control of the city and seized the castle. Not one to give up easily Nicholaa travelled to court to remind the king’s regents of her services, and request her rights be restored to her. A compromise was reached whereby Salisbury remained as Sheriff of the county, while Nicholaa would hold the city and the castle. The settlement was not ideal, however, and some wrangling seems to have continued until Salisbury’s death in 1226.

Nicholaa’s granddaughter and heiress, Idonea – daughter of Nicholaa’s eldest son Richard – was married to Salisbury’s son, William II Longspée; the couple inherited the de la Haye and Canville lands on Nicholaa’s death. A staunchly independent woman, Nicholaa issued some 25 surviving charters in her name. She made grants to various religious houses, including Lincoln Cathedral, and even secured a royal grant for a weekly market on one of her properties.

A most able adversary for some of the greatest military minds of the time, and a loyal supporter of King John, Nicholaa de la Haye was unique among her peers. Although praised by the chroniclers, they seemed to find difficulty in describing a woman who acted in such a fashion; the Dunstable annals refer to her as a ‘noble woman’, saying she acted ‘manfully’. One cannot fail to feel admiration for a woman who managed to hold her own in a man’s world, who fought for her castle and her home in a time when women had so little say over their own lives – and at such an advanced age. Her bravery and tenacity saved Henry III’s throne. Not surprisingly, both King John and Henry III referred to her as ‘our beloved and faithful Nicholaa de la Haye’.

Nicholaa de la Haye, the woman who saved England, lived well into her 70s. By late 1226 she had retired to her manor at Swaton, dying there on 20 November 1230. She was buried in St Michael’s Church, Swaton in Lincolnshire.

Sharon Bennett Connnolly

Expert Contributor

Sharon Bennett Connolly, has been fascinated by history her whole life. She has studied history academically and just for fun – and even worked as a tour guide at historical sites. For Christmas 2014, her husband gave her a blog as a gift – – and Sharon started researching and writing about the stories that have always fascinated concentrating on medieval women.  She has just published Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England, her third non-fiction book, and is also the author of Heroines of the Medieval World and Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest. Sharon regularly gives talks on women’s history, she is a feature writer for All About History magazine and her TV work includes Australian Television’s ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’



Twitter: @Thehistorybits


The Black Dinner of 1440

Written by Expert Contributor, Nathen Amin

Anyone who has read George R R Martin’s medieval fantasy epic ‘A Storm of Swords’, or indeed watched the TV adaption ‘The Game of Thrones’, will be familiar with the Red Wedding, one of the most shocking events whether on page or screen. Martin crafted a classic scene that featured hope, betrayal and gruesome bloodletting within a manner of minutes, creating a timeless moment in fiction history. Yet, as with much of Game of Thrones, Martin was partly inspired by an equally barbaric event that has its origins in history – the Black Dinner of 1440.

Scottish medieval history is one littered with violent episodes; one only needs to think of King James I, who on 21 February 1437 was chased by around thirty assassins through Blackfriars monastery in Perth before he was cornered and hacked to death in front of his horrified queen, Joan Beaufort. In fact, it was James I’s slaughter that led to the dramatic bloodshed that followed three years later that has become remembered as The Black Dinner.

After the king’s murder, the Scottish crown passed to his seven-year-old heir James II, and as was often the case when a child came to the throne, the kingdom descended into factional warfare as various groups sought to gain control during the minority. The new king was clearly too young to rule, and despite the attempts by his mother Joan Beaufort to take control of the kingdom, on account of her gender and English blood was roundly rejected.

It was Archibald Douglas, 5th Earl of Douglas and head of the most powerful family in the kingdom, who was initially entrusted with the governance of Scotland. In addition to his principal earldom, Douglas also possessed the earldom of Wigton and the lordships of Galloway, Bothwell, Selkirk, and Eskdale. The family maintained vast property throughout the kingdom, particularly though not restricted to the Lowlands, and by the early fifteenth century were without doubt the most powerful clan in Scotland, save for the royal Stewarts who held the crown. Styled as the Lieutenant General, in effect the regent, as the leading magnate in the realm it was an appointment that made much sense.

Archibald Douglas, however, died just two years later in 1439, and it was in the aftermath of his death that a bitter quarrel erupted over who should have keeping of the king, still just ten-years-old, moving forward. Archibald was succeeded by his heir, William Douglas, but the new 6th Earl was just eighteen years old. Despite the sympathetic assertion of the Scottish Jacobean historian David Hume of Godscroft in 1644 that the earl displayed not only ‘sparks of a great spirit but also of such wisdome and providence as could scarce bee looked for from so young a man’, [Hume, D., The History of the Houses of Douglas and Angus (Edinburgh, 1644) p. 148) one imagines he was nonetheless unfit for such a demanding role at that young age. William did, however, possess the full might of the Douglas power behind him, and well placed to press his claim to follow in his father’s footsteps.

The 6th Earl’s ascendancy was opposed, however, principally by William Crichton, Lord Chancellor and Keeper of Edinburgh Castle, and Sir Alexander Livingston, who held personal possession of the monarch. Both men extended an invitation to the young earl and his junior brother David to come to Edinburgh to discuss the matter further in front of the boy king, a meeting at which their great-uncle James Douglas, 1st Earl of Avondale, would also be present.

The younger Douglas accepted the offer in good faith and travelled to Edinburgh on 24 November with his brother David. According to some of the more colourful traditions which were later written, starting with Hume in his 1644 panegyric of the family, the Douglases were sitting at dinner in the Great Hall among their ‘deadly enemies and feigned friends’, who welcomed them ‘most courteously’, when at the end of the meal they were surrounded by armed men. On the board before them was placed a dish with a black bull’s head, which in those days Hume claimed was widely accepted as a ‘token of death’. The boys were then seized before they could muster any resistance and dragged outside to the back court, where despite the tearful protests of the pre-pubescent king they were beheaded [[Hume, D., The History of the Houses of Douglas and Angus (Edinburgh, 1644) p.152-15]. The term ‘Black Dinner’, in fact, can only be traced to Hume’s 1644 account, two hundred years later, when he recorded the following doggerel poem, which he claimed was well-known in his day:

‘Edinburgh castle, towne, and tower,
God grant thou sinke for sinne;
And that even for the black dinner,
Earle Douglas got therein.’

The contemporary Auchinleck Chronicle, however, makes no such mention of these dramatic events, instead simply noting that ‘William of Douglas, Archebaldis son, beand than xviii yeris of age, and his brother David Douglas, was put to deid at Edinburgh’ [The Auchinleck Chronicle: Ane Schort Memoriale of the Scottis Corniklis for Addicioun (Edinburgh, 1819) pp.34-35]. It is uncertain, therefore, if events that November evening were as dramatic as the later ‘Black Dinner’ tradition would have us believe, but it is clear that by the end of the evening two young, teenage boys had been violently silenced.

What was the reason for this? It appears that Crichton and Alexander were concerned that the new earl’s ascendancy would limit their influence over the king, not to mention royal patronage which alone kept them in their positions of privilege, and elected to make a pre-emptive strike on the Douglas brothers. It was a bold move, borne out of cold self-interest, but as would be shown south of the border in England throughout the mid-fifteenth century, hesitancy to act decisively could result in far greater bloodshed. Judging by who prospered the most from the slaughter at Edinburgh Castle, however, the temptation is to view the Black Dinner as being orchestrated by the victims’ great-uncle, James Douglas. By eliminating his young relatives, James, an obese man known as ‘Gross James’, was the man who inherited the full Douglas patrimony, succeeding to the premier earldom in the realm as the 7th Earl with all the influence and power that position brought.

The perpetrators of the Black Dinner, however, did not enjoy the fruits of their dark labour for long. Though Crichton and Livingston did succeed in retaining their royal offices, the bond that had united them faded away, and suspicions grew between the men. In 1444, Livingston found a new ally in William Douglas, 8th Earl of Douglas who had recently succeeded to his father James’ position, and both men had Crichton removed from the Chancellorship.

In 1452, however, twelve years after the Black Dinner in which James Douglas appears to have played a prominent role, it was his son, also called William, the 8th Earl, who was slain in the presence of the king. This time, though, James II was no longer a child, and more than a reluctant observer. The 8th Earl was invited to Stirling Castle where he was accused of treason. During the argument which ensued, the king drew his dagger and knifed Douglas in the collar before the king’s guard stepped in to finish the earl off with a pole axe, exposing his brains with their savage blows.

It is likely we will never know the truth of what occurred that shadowy November evening in Edinburgh Castle, but because of the romanticised imaginings of later writers, further bastardised in fiction by men like George R R Martin, the Black Dinner maintains it’s brutal reputation as one of British history’s darkest events.

Nathen Amin

Expert Contributor

Nathen Amin is an author from Carmarthenshire, West Wales, who focuses on the 15th Century and the reign of Henry VII. He wrote ‘Tudor Wales’ in 2014 and ‘York Pubs’ in 2016, followed by the first full-length biography of the Beaufort family, ‘The House of Beaufort’ in 2017, an Amazon #1 Bestseller in three historical categories (Wars of the Roses, Norman England, and The Plantagenets & Medieval History). His fourth book, ‘Henry VII and the Tudor Pretenders; Simnel, Warbeck and Warwick’, is due for release in 2020.

Nathen is an experienced public speaker, presenting talks on the Beauforts, Wars of the Roses, and Henry VII, for several societies and book festivals, including the BBC History Weekend, Essex Book Festival, Oundle Festival of Literature, Lancaster Historical Writing Festival, Bosworth Medieval Festival, Barnet Medieval Festival, Richard III Society, and as guest expert for Alison Weir Talks. He has also featured on BBC radio and television, as well as in print and online media across the UK @NathenAmin


Ten Medieval Royal English Weddings

Written by Expert Contributor Susan Abernethy

The listed marriages are in no particular sequence of importance, and are listed in chronological order. I’ve relied on only one particular criteria in choosing these events. Which marriages had significant political consequences?

Emma of Normandy, Wife of Aethelred the Unready and the Viking King Cnut

Emma of Normandy was a real powerhouse. King Aethelred of England was besieged by Vikings and was searching for alliances to provide badly needed cash, men and resources to fight the invaders. Emma, the sister of Duke Richard II of Normandy, fit the bill. He offered her marriage and she brought a dowry. Emma came to England and assumed some influence and responsibility. She fulfilled her primary duty by providing two sons, Edward and Alfred, to continue the dynasty. When the Viking king Sweyn attacked and forced Aethelred off the throne, Emma and her sons fled to Normandy. After years of fighting Sweyn’s son Cnut, Aethelred and his son Edmund Ironside died, and Cnut became King of England.

Drawing depicting Queen Emma (Aelfgifu) and King Cnut (Image in the public domain)

In order to protect her own interests and those of her sons, Emma married King Cnut and she bore him a son, Harthacnut. This marriage was successful and Emma once again gained some political power. When Cnut died in 1035, Emma backed her son Harthacnut for the throne of England. He reigned for a short time and died, leaving the path to the throne open to Emma’s son by Aethelred, Edward the Confessor. The initial marriage of Emma brought Normandy into the sphere of influence in England. Edward the Confessor grew up in Normandy and while there, may have promised the throne to his cousin William, Duke of Normandy. As we know, William invaded England and after defeating Harold Godwinson at the Battle of Hastings in 1066, became King of England and will forever be known as William the Conqueror.

Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry Plantagenet (King Henry II)

Eleanor of Aquitaine was one of the richest heiresses in the twelfth century. Because of this, she was first wedded to the French King Louis VII for nearly fifteen years. During this time, she went on Crusade with her husband and gave birth to two girls. We will never know the precise reasons for the breakup of this marriage, but it may have had to do with incompatibility and/or the fact that Eleanor didn’t give birth to any sons.

Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine

Once Eleanor and Louis were divorced, it was imperative she marry right away to protect her interests. Eleanor chose as her next husband Henry, son of Geoffrey Plantagenet, Count of Anjou and the Empress Matilda, daughter of King Henry I of England. Henry and his mother fought his cousin King Stephen for many years of Anarchy over the throne of England. Peace was finally established when Stephen recognized Henry as his heir. Henry and Eleanor governed a kingdom that ranged from the borders of Scotland to the Pyrenees. Eleanor gave birth to many children, including five sons and she and Henry became a medieval power couple.

Catherine of Valois and King Henry V

The conflict known as the Hundred Years War began during the reign of King Edward III in 1337. Edward pressed his claim to the throne of France when a succession crisis was sparked there after the death of Charles IV, the last Capetian king. Edward had a claim through his mother Isabella of France but the French were violently against the English king becoming King of France. French lawyers came up with a convenient statute called Salic Law which barred a woman from the throne of France as well as any descendants in the female line. The French chose Philip VI, the first king of the House of Valois. Edward’s only resort was military means.

Marriage of Henry V of England to Catherine of Valois British Library, Miniature of the marriage of Henry V and Catharine de Valois: Jean Chartier, Chronique de Charles VII, France (Calais), 1490, and England, before 1494, Royal 20 E. vi, f. 9v,

This conflict dragged on with no clear resolution. When Edward III’s Lancastrian descendant Henry V took the throne of England in 1413, he invaded France and made great headway. In 1420, he brokered the Treaty of Troy with Charles VI of France which included a marriage to the French king’s daughter Catherine. Also, the treaty disinherited Catherine’s brother the Dauphin and specified that Henry and Catherine’s heir was to be King of France as well as England. Henry and Catherine were married just short of two years. Catherine gave birth to a son Henry in December of 1421 and Henry V died in August of 1422. Catherine would later marry a Welsh gentleman named Owen Tudor and had several children with him, including Edmund Tudor, the father of King Henry VII, the first Tudor monarch.

Margaret of Anjou and King Henry VI

Despite the Treaty of Troy in 1420, the Hundred Years War dragged on. Henry V and Catherine of Valois’ son Henry VI was technically the King of England and France but the French did not fully accept him as their sovereign when the mentally unstable King Charles VI died shortly after Henry V of England passed away. The disinherited Dauphin Charles was now King Charles VII in the eyes of many of the French, even though he was not officially crowned.

Charles VII fought with all his might to reclaim all the territory won by Henry V. His luck didn’t turn until he was introduced to a young woman named Joan of Arc. But that is another story. England was rapidly losing its hold on the conquered lands on the continent. In an effort to make peace, Charles VII proposed that Henry VI marry his niece Margaret of Anjou. There were high expectations for this marriage even though the bride was destitute and brought nothing to the table for England.

Margaret and Henry in the Talbot Shrewsbury Book. British Library Royal 15 E vi (

Henry VI unfortunately inherited the mental instability of his grandfather and was having trouble holding on to his throne in England. The conflict that came to be known as the Wars of the Roses was in full swing. Margaret of Anjou was forced to fight for her husband and for her son Edward of Lancaster. In the end, she came up against a formidable enemy in the son of the House of York, Edward. After years of struggle, Edward won the throne and became King Edward IV. Margaret’s son was killed in battle and Henry VI lost his life in the Tower of London. Margaret died in exile in France.

Elizabeth Woodville and King Edward IV

Edward had won the throne and an immediate search began for a suitable wife. But Edward turned the tables on everyone and secretly married Elizabeth Woodville (Wydeville), the daughter of a gentleman knight, Richard Woodville and Jacquetta of Luxembourg. The marriage was unprecedented and impolitic and stunned the king’s councilors. Edward broke with recognized tradition and promoted members of Elizabeth’s large and extended family, endowing them with lands and noble titles to the dismay of the established nobility. While Edward was not faithful to Elizabeth, the marriage lasted until Edward’s untimely death and produced many children including Prince Edward, Richard Duke of York and the eldest child Elizabeth of York among others.

The marriage of Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville. Illuminated miniature from Vol 6 of the Anciennes chroniques d’Angleterre by Jean de Wavrin.

When King Edward died, the resentment of the nobility toward the Woodville family worked in favor of Edward’s brother Richard Duke of Gloucester. Richard obtained physical possession of the two Princes and they were housed in the Tower of London, never to be seen again. Richard had himself proclaimed King and the Wars of the Roses was revived. A plan was devised by Queen Elizabeth Woodville and Margaret Beaufort, a descendant of the House of Lancaster. The heart of this plan was for Margaret’s son Henry Tudor to marry Queen Elizabeth’s eldest daughter Elizabeth, thereby uniting the Houses of Lancaster and York and bringing an end to the Wars of the Roses. Henry Tudor invaded England from France and defeated Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth in August 1485.

Elizabeth of York and Henry Tudor (Henry VII)

Henry Tudor was now King Henry VII, the first monarch of the Tudor dynasty and married Edward IV’s eldest daughter. Elizabeth of York had a claim to the throne in her own right and the union of the two houses would have long lasting political consequences. Henry had a long road to establish his dynasty but did so effectively. Elizabeth gave birth to eight children four of which survived. Arthur, Prince of Wales, Henry, Margaret and Mary would all make their mark on English history in various ways.

The Family of King Henry VII and Elizabeth of York

Arthur, Prince of Wales and Catherine of Aragon

Henry and Elizabeth’s eldest son Arthur had great potential. He was given a strong humanist education and all the tools needed to be the next king. One of Henry VII’s greatest political coups was brokering a marriage for Arthur with Catherine of Aragon, the youngest daughter of the Catholic Majesties, Ferdinand and Isabella. This union between England and Spain was a recognition of England and the Tudor dynasty’s importance in European diplomacy.

Ann Longmore-Etheridge
Tapestry Portraying the Wedding of Catherine of Aragon and Prince Arthur Tudor

Catherine arrived in England in November 1501 and there was a magnificent celebration of the nuptials in Old St. Paul’s Cathedral. In December, Catherine and Arthur went to Ludlow so the prince could resume his duties. Unfortunately, Arthur became ill and died and Catherine’s position was in limbo for seven years. She remained at court in poverty, unable to leave England or to return to Spain. It wasn’t until the death of Henry VII that her fortunes took a turn for the better. She married the new king, Arthur’s brother Henry VIII.

Anne Boleyn and King Henry VIII

Catherine of Aragon and Henry VIII were married for many years. Catherine had numerous pregnancies but only one surviving child, Princess Mary. When it was clear Catherine could no longer have children, Henry looked to marry again. He fell in love with Anne Boleyn. But Catherine would never step aside and refused to give Henry a divorce. The pope refused to give an annulment. So what did Henry do? He broke away from the Catholic Church and proclaimed himself Head of the Church of England.

Later depiction of wedding between Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn

Henry had his friend Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury proclaim his marriage to Catherine of Aragon null and void and married Anne Boleyn. As we know Anne could not give Henry a son either. But she did give him a daughter named Elizabeth after Henry’s mother. Elizabeth would become arguably one of the greatest English monarchs.

Margaret Tudor and James IV, King of Scots

Henry VII orchestrated another political coup for his dynasty. In January 1502, the Treaty of Perpetual Peace was finalized between Scotland and England with James Stuart, King of Scots. This treaty was to be solemnized with the marriage of Henry’s eldest daughter Margaret to James. The wedding took place at the Royal Palace of Holyroodhouse in August of 1503.

Margaret Tudor and her husband James IV, King of Scots

Margaret gave birth to several children with James IV but only one survived, also named James. James IV took his troops to war against Margaret’s brother Henry VIII and was killed at the Battle of Flodden in September 1513. It was a devastating loss for the Scots. Margaret’s infant son became James V and was succeeded by his daughter Mary Queen of Scots who was succeeded by her son James VI. King Henry VIII bypassed the heirs of his sister Margaret when naming his successors to the throne of England. Despite this, Margaret’s great-grandson succeeded Henry’s daughter Elizabeth to become James VI of Scotland and James I of England, inaugurating the Stuart dynasty of kings.

Catherine of Braganza and Charles II of England

The third Stuart king of England was Charles II. He had spent eleven years in exile after his father Charles I was beheaded and was returned as king with the Restoration of the Monarchy in 1660. One of the first items on Charles’ agenda was to make an advantageous marriage. He found his bride in Portugal. In 1640, Catherine of Braganza’s father had led a Portuguese rebellion against the rule of Spain. During the rebellion, he was offered the crown of Portugal, the family moved to Lisbon and he became King Joao IV. Charles I of England was one of the few monarchs to recognize Joao’s position as sovereign.

In 1644, Joao was successful in gaining independence from Spain. He sent an ambassador to England to negotiate a marriage between Charles I’s eldest son Charles and his daughter Catherine. But due to the Civil War in England, nothing ever came of the embassy. King Joao died in 1656 and his wife Queen Luisa ruled as regent for their son. She entertained proposals of marriage for her daughter and sent an ambassador once again to England, offering King Charles II a magnificent dowry.

Depiction of the wedding of King Charles II and Catherine of Braganza

The dowry was to consist of the city of Tangier which offered England a port in the Mediterranean and Bombay which was a valuable base for trade in India. This was accompanied by the right of free trade with Brazil and the East Indies and a cash sum of £300,000, an enormous sum. In return, England was to provide military protection for Portugal if she was attacked by Spain.

The marriage treaty was finalized on June 23, 1661 and Catherine and Charles were married on May 21, 1662. This massive dowry transformed the British Empire. England gained advantageous and valuable positions in India and increased trade in both Latin America and Asia. The major expansion in commerce changed the culture of Britain forever with the introduction of affordable sugar and spices and the refined drinking of tea.

Expert Contributor/Susan Abernethy

Susan Abernethy has a degree in history and is a member of the Rocky Mountain Medieval and Renaissance Association. Her blog, The Freelance History Writer has been continuously publishing historical articles since 2012, with an emphasis on European, Tudor, medieval, Renaissance, Early Modern and Women’s history. She is currently working on a biography of a prominent Stuart royal.


The Most Notorious French Royal Ménage à Trois

Written by Expert Contributor, Dr Estelle Paranque

It was on a chill autumn day that Catherine de Medici entered the port of Marseilles, dressed brilliantly in gold and rare sparkling gems, her coach draped in luxurious black velvet. Catherine ­– the niece of Pope Clement VII – was a sight to behold, and having been betrothed to Francis I of France’s second son, Henri, she was seen as “the greatest match in the world”. On the 27th of October 1533, Catherine and Henri signed their marriage contract and the wedding took place.

Corneille de Lyon, Claude; Catherine de’ Medici (1519-1589), Queen of France; National Trust, Polesden Lacey;

What should have been a “happily ever after” turned into a very unhappy union, however, with Catherine soon being overshadowed by another woman: the beautiful and mesmerising Diane de Poitiers.

Born in 1500, Diane was the daughter of Jean de Poitiers, Seigneur de Saint-Vallier, whose mother was a de La Tour D’Auvergne (a noble French dynasty) – just like Catherine’s mother – making the two rivals second cousins. On 29th March 1515, Diane married the Grand-Sénéchal of Normandy, Louis de Brézé, and they were married for sixteen years until Louis died in 1531. Diane was able to retain control of all her late husband’s financial assets, becoming an independent widow.

Diane was seen as being one of the most elegant, seductive, and intriguing creatures at court. Her beauty was so compelling, in fact, that she had great influence over many courtiers ­– but more importantly, over one powerful man: Henri II himself.

It all started when Francis I asked her to become Henri II’s tutor, to make the young prince into a gallant. At the time, she was 31 and he was just 11 years old, but right from the very beginning Henri was subjugated by Diane’s beauty and benevolence towards him. In fact, Diane was so politically important, and her personal relation to Henri grew so much, that she was even consulted regarding the marriage negotiations between himself and Catherine de Medici. Diane was favourable to the union as she knew how much prestige such an alliance would bring to France and the young prince.

When – after his brother’s death in 1536 – Henri became heir to the throne, Diane ensured that she was by his side as he undertook his new responsibilities. By this time, with Diane being 36 and the prince being 16, it was clear that the couple had started a sexual liaison. Catherine, therefore, was completely eclipsed by her rival, especially as Diane singled out Henri for her sexual favours. When Henri became king, she became his official royal favourite and his mistress, making her more powerful and influential than ever.

Clouet, Francois; Diane de Poitiers (1499-1566), Duchess of Valentinois; Museums Sheffield;

The royal couple suffered from Henri and Diane’s passionate relationship to the point where it was obvious that Catherine was utterly neglected by her husband. Even so, the couple needed heirs, and Diane encouraged Henri to fulfil his marital duties. Diane was a smart woman, however, as she also had her own agenda: she urged Henri to spend more time with Catherine, but only as long as she was present too. Consequently, Diane joined the royal couple during their intimate relations; she would arouse Henri before giving Catherine advice and recommendations on how to keep him aroused. Without a doubt, these must have been some of the most humiliating moments of Catherine’s life.

To make matters worse, Catherine really was in love with Henri, and now, not only was she completely overshadowed by his royal favourite for most of the day, but she also had to endure Diane’s presence in the rare ‘private’ moments she had with her husband too. While this arrangement proved successful – the royal couple had ten children – Catherine’s loathing and hatred for Diane continued to grow. She even declared, “Never did a wife who loves her husband love his whore.”

And, unfortunately for Catherine, the humiliations persisted. Much to her abhorrence, Diane took a great role in the education of the royal children; the royal favourite wrote many letters to the governor and governess of the little princes and princesses, sending them instructions for their education. Of course, she ensured that Catherine was well aware of her involvement. Catherine too sent instructions, not that it made much difference; this was just another affront Catherine had to deal with. It almost seemed as if Diane were trying to play the role of mother to Catherine’s children, as well as stealing the favour of her husband.

Caterina de’ Medici con il figlio re Carlo IX, Margherita detta “Margot”, Enrico duca d’Angiò e Francesco Ercole duca d’Alençon.
Workshop of François Clouet

Henri, Diane, and Catherine were entangled in an awkward ménage à trois that permeated every area of their lives. It wasn’t, however, an equal split: Catherine definitely found herself in the shadows of the primary couple, Henri and Diane, and regardless of Diane’s mature age, Henri continued to favour her over his own wife – and over everyone else, for that matter. He had, of course, other mistresses, but none of them had the influence over him that Diane wielded.

For decades, Catherine had to endure Henri and Diane’s love, being the third wheel in the relationship despite her marital status. However, through her children – and in a drastic turn of events – Catherine was about to have her revenge on them both. On the 30th of June 1559, a tournament to celebrate the peace treaty of Cateau-Cambrésis – which had been signed in April 1559 – was held near the Place des Vosges. This was marked by the double unions of Elisabeth of Valois, eldest daughter of Henri and Catherine, with Philip II of Spain, and Emmanuel Philibert, Duke of Savoy, with Margaret of France, Duchess of Berry.

At forty years old, Henri was a warrior king who remained in great shape, and so – wearing the colours of Diane – the king took part in the jousting tournament, competing against the younger, dashing Gabriel de Montgomery. For whatever reason – either a moment of inattention or in a deliberate cocky move – the king forgot to close his visor and Henri was wounded by a fragment of the splintered lance, which penetrated his helmet and lodged in his eyes. Despite the efforts of the royal surgeon – the well-known Ambroise Paré – the king remained in agony for ten days before finally succumbing to his wound. He died on the 10th of July 1559.

The end of Henri was the end of Diane, as Catherine no longer had to tolerate her presence at court. The queen refused to let Diane attend the king’s funeral, and she also forced the royal favourite to hand over the Château de Chenonceau – the jewel of the Loire Renaissance castles – to Catherine. She ultimately forced Diane to live in exile.

Finally, Catherine’s reign had begun.

Dr Estelle Paranque

Expert Contributor

Dr Estelle Paranque is Lecturer in Early Modern History at New College of the Humanities at Northeastern, and an Honorary Research Fellow within the Centre for the Study of the Renaissance at the University of Warwick. She is the author of Elizabeth I of England Through Valois Eyes: Power, Representation, and Diplomacy in the Reign of the Queen, 1558-1588 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018) and has published several essays on Elizabeth I, French monarchs, and other European queens.

Twitter: @DrEstellePrnq

Finding Women in Anglo-Saxon England

Written by Expert Contributor Annie Whitehead

With the study of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the writings of Bede, the Welsh and Irish annals, and the later Anglo-Norman chroniclers (many of whom had direct access to earlier documents), it is relatively easy to piece together the history of the kings of Anglo-Saxon England. 

But what of the women? Can we find anything? If we look at the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle we will find that from the entries in 672 until the arrival of Emma of Normandy in 1002, there are only a dozen or so women mentioned by name. Often we have an entry such as this one for 926: “Athelstan gave [Sihtric] his sister in marriage.”

Hmm. She was his sister, Athelstan was a king, so she was royal. Doesn’t she warrant a name-check? Who was she?

Athelstan’s father, Edward the Elder, had three wives by whom he had at least fourteen children. To discover the identity of the sister married to Sihtric, it’s probably easier to start at the end and work backwards. 

Edward the Elder

Edward had married his third wife, Eadgifu, by at least 920, because we know that their firstborn, a son, was born in 921. Eadgifu had another son by Edward, and two daughters, called Eadburh and Eadgifu. Eadburh became a nun at Winchester and the Anglo-Norman chronicler, William of Malmesbury, tells us that when she was just 3 years old her father, wishing to ascertain whether she would choose the religious life, laid out a chalice and the Gospels, and some bangles and necklaces. When little Eadburh was brought in by her nurse, she was told that she could choose what she wanted, whereupon she immediately crawled towards the Gospels and chalice. She joined the community of Nunnaminster at Winchester founded by her grandmother Ealhswith, wife of Alfred the Great. Of Eadgifu, Eadburh’s sister, less is known. But given that Edward died in 924, she must have been born no later than nine months after that, and no earlier than 920, which makes her rather too young to be the bride of Sihtric in 926.

We don’t know if Edward was a widower in 920 when he married Eadgifu, but we do know that his previous wife, Ælfflæd, bore him six daughters. Two – Eadflæd and Æthelhild – took the religious life, while the other four made prestigious marriages. Eadgifu (yes, it seems he had two daughters of the same name!) married Charles the Simple, king of the Franks, while Eadhild married a Frankish duke, Hugh the Great. The remaining two, Eadgyth and Ælfgifu, were, apparently, both sent to Germany so that the future emperor, Otto, could choose one of them as his bride. He married Eadgyth – it was, apparently, ‘love at first sight’ – and Ælfgifu married another prince, whose identity is the subject of some debate but nowhere is it suggested that he was Sihtric. 


So it seems unlikely that the entry in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle refers to any of Athelstan’s half-sisters and, indeed, William of Malmesbury claimed that the bride was a full sister of Athelstan’s.

Athelstan’s mother, Edward’s first wife, Ecgwynn, barely emerges from the shadows and is not mentioned by any of the contemporary sources. Some said she was a concubine, while others said she was a wife. Sometimes she was described as high-born and sometimes as being of lowly birth. But, either way, her status was important.

When Edward died, Athelstan ruled Mercia while his eldest half-brother, Ælfweard, succeeded in Wessex, dying a mere 16 days later. The statue of Edward’s sister, Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians, outside Tamworth Castle famously shows her with her arm round a small boy, her nephew Athelstan, who was, apparently, brought up by her in the Mercian court. There is no contemporary evidence for this; the assertion comes to us from William of Malmesbury. But why would Athelstan have been brought up in Mercia? 


Athelstan’s subsequent rule over Wessex was not universally approved. After Edward’s death, the opposition there claimed that Athelstan was an illegitimate son of a woman of low birth. There are hints that Athelstan’s half-brother, Edwin, was also part of this opposition and was exiled by Athelstan, put to sea in a boat from which he then plunged to a watery death. Added to the fact that Ælfweard had been designated king in Wessex initially, while Athelstan was given Mercia, it is hard to conclude anything other than that Athelstan’s mother, Ecgwynn was, regardless of her class, no more than a concubine and not a wife. 

However, William of Malmesbury also tells us that Athelstan had been adored by his grandfather, Alfred the Great, and that when he was a young boy he had been given by Alfred a ‘scarlet cloak, a belt studded with diamonds, and a Saxon sword with a golden scabbard’. William also said that Alfred ‘made him a knight’ which is anachronistic, since technically no such rank existed in pre-Conquest times, but if it signifies some sort of investiture, it would suggest that his royal status was somehow acknowledged by Alfred.

Is it possible that, for whatever reason, Ecgwynn was put aside when Edward married his second wife, and that she and her children returned to Mercia, possibly the land of her birth?

I say ‘children’ because we are told that aside from Athelstan, Ecgwynn also bore Edward a daughter, although her identity is far from clear. 

There is a saint, Edith of Polesworth, who was said by some to be the daughter of Edward the Elder, although not all sources agree. Indeed we cannot be sure that, even if Edith of Polesworth was a daughter of Edward’s, she was also the daughter of Ecgwynn and, in any case, how could this religious lady have been married to Sihtric?


Yet, the Anglo-Norman chronicler, Roger of Wendover, named her as Edith, the sister whom Athelstan married to Sihtric, the Norse king of the Northumbrians. He went on to relate that after Sihtric’s death (only a year after the wedding), and having preserved her virginity, Edith retired to the monastery at Polesworth, which was in Mercia. She was venerated as a saint and if she was, indeed, Athelstan’s full sister then her return to Mercia, rather than Wessex, might make sense on two counts: that she, like her brother, was brought up at the Mercian court and that their mother, Ecgwynn, might have been Mercian herself.

Not all historians agree about Edith of Polesworth’s identity (some even suggesting that she was, in fact, Eadgyth, daughter of Edward by his second wife, Ælfflæd, who married Otto), but these stories do on the whole draw us back to Mercia time and again. Polesworth, incidentally, is in modern-day Warwickshire, in the heart of what was Mercia. 

Having accounted for all the other known daughters of Edward it does seem, on balance, that the sister whom Athelstan married to Sihtric could well have been Edith of Polesworth, daughter of Ecgwynn. And the story serves to show how much information we can glean, if we take the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle as a starting point and do a bit of detective work.

Annie Whitehead

Expert Contributor

Annie Whitehead studied History under the eminent Medievalist Ann Williams. She is a member of the Royal Historical Society and an editor for EHFA (English Historical Fiction Authors.) She has written three award-winning novels set in Anglo-Saxon England, including To Be A Queen, the story of  Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians, daughter of Alfred the Great. She writes nonfiction too and Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom was published by Amberley Books in 2018. She has contributed to fiction and nonfiction anthologies and written for various magazines, including winning the New Writer Magazine Prose Competition. She was the winner of the inaugural Historical Writers’ Association/Dorothy Dunnett Prize 2017. She has recently been a judge for that same competition, and for the HNS (Historical Novel Society) Short Story Competition. Her latest book, Women of Power in Anglo-Saxon England, is published by Pen & Sword Books.  

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