Today, I’m very excited to be hosting the author Sharon Bennett Connolloy on her Blog Tour celebrating the release of her book, Ladies of the Magna Carta. So sit back, relax and enjoy!
I feel very honoured to have the wonderful author Sharon Bennett Connolly on my blog today, where I have grilled her with a Q&A session focused on her research. Sharon’s books – Heroines of the Medieval World, Silk and the Sword: Women of the Norman Conquest and the latest, Ladies of the Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England, are known for their impeccable research and Sharon’s ability to bring it all into the modern world for today’s reader. I posed some research-based questions to Sharon but first, enjoy an excerpt from her Magna Carta book 🙂
Excerpt from Chapter 5: Ela of Salisbury
“As a couple, William Longespée and Ela were great patrons of the church, laying the fourth and fifth foundation stones for the new Salisbury Cathedral in 1220. William de Warenne, Earl of Surrey and a cousin to Ela, also laid a foundation stone.
In the first half of the 1220s, Longespée played an influential role in the minority government of Henry III and also served in Gascony to secure the last remaining Continental possessions of the English king. In 1225 he was shipwrecked off the coast of Brittany and a rumour spread that he was dead. While he spent months recovering at the island monastery of Ré in France Hubert de Burgh, first Earl of Kent and widower of Isabella of Gloucester, proposed a marriage between Ela and his nephew, Reimund. Ela, however, would not even consider it, insisting that she knew William was alive and that, even if he were dead, she would never presume to marry below her status. It has been suggested that she used clause 8 of Magna Carta to support her rejection of the offer: ‘No widow is to be distrained to marry while she wishes to live without a husband.’ However, as it turned out, William Longespée was, indeed, still alive and he eventually returned to England and his wife, landing in Cornwall and then making his way to Salisbury. From Salisbury he went to Marlborough to complain to the king that Reimund had tried to marry Ela whilst he was still alive. According to the Annals and antiquities of Lacock Abbey Reimund was present at Longespée’s audience with the king, confessed his wrongdoing and offered to make reparations, thus restoring peace.
Unfortunately, Longespée never seems to have recovered fully from his injuries and died at the royal castle at Salisbury shortly after his return home, on 7 March 1226, amid rumours of being poisoned by Hubert de Burgh or his nephew. He was buried in a splendid tomb in Salisbury Cathedral. Although the title earl of Salisbury still belonged to his wife, his son, William (II) Longespée was sometimes called Earl of Salisbury, but never legally bore the title as he died before his mother.
Ela did not marry again. On her husband’s death, she was forced to relinquish her custody of the royal castle at Salisbury, although she did eventually buy it back. Importantly, she was allowed to take over her husband’s role as sheriff of Wiltshire, which he had held three times in his career and continuously from 1213 until his death in 1226. Ela herself served twice as sheriff of Wiltshire from 1227 until 1228 and again from 1231 to 1237. Nicholaa de la Haye’s appointment as sheriff of Lincolnshire in 1216 may have aided Ela in attaining the post, serving as a precedent. She also appeared in person at the Exchequer to render accounts, demonstrating her personal involvement in the management of her household and estates.”
Q & A
- Can you take us back to the beginning and explain how you came to research women from the medieval period?
It was quite accidental really. I love history and research and study everything I can. When I joined Facebook, I noticed that there were a lot of groups concentrating on medieval kings; Richard III, Edward IV, and there’s at least one group for each one of the Henrys and Edwards. But there were no groups dedicated to medieval women. So, I started the group Medieval Queens and Heroines, and started writing short biographies of famous medieval women. Then my husband gave me a blog for Christmas 2014, History… the Interesting Bits; and so I began writing short biographies in earnest – the first post, an article on Isabella of Castile, Duchess of York, was only 700 words long. Surprisingly, the articles about women always attracted more views and interest than those about historical men. As a result, I got this idea for a book, Heroines of the Medieval World, which tells the stories of these amazing women, rulers, warriors, saints and mistresses. I entered the book proposal into a competition being run by Amberley publishing, to get your first book published. After several months of waiting, they emailed me to say that I didn’t win the competition, but they would still like to publish my book if I was interested! There are many remarkable medieval women out there, who have been ignored or sidelined for centuries and it has been a real pleasure to bring their stories into the limelight.
- How difficult was it to access historical sources for these exceptional Magna Carta women? Or was it easier than expected?
It is much easier than it would have been 10 or 20 years ago. Many of the medieval chronicles are now available to read online. Unfortunately, many have not been translated into English, which can be a problem as I have only a rudimentary understanding of Latin. Some are in French, which I can cope with – and if you cannot find an English translation, it is often possible to find a French one. I also have a rather extensive collection of history reference books that I have built up over the last 30 years or so. The biggest problem, even then, is that women rarely get a mention in the chronicles – most chronicles were commissioned by men and written by men, so the women often get overlooked and ignored. Even names are often omitted, so someone are only referred to as ‘Sir so-and-so’s wife’ which means you have to do a little detective work, scouring various chronicles and primary sources, to put the jigsaw together and build up a picture of these women, who they were and what they did.
Some online sources are remarkably helpful. The epistolae website has published translations of the Latin letters of various medieval noblewomen, including women such as Heloise, Hildegard of Bingen and Eleanor of Aquitaine. It’s a goldmine for me. British History Online is also very useful, it has a comprehensive database of wills, writs, surveys, ordinances and chronicles. And then, for Ladies of Magna Carta in particular, there are the Fine Rolls of Henry III, which are pretty comprehensive and cover the government of Henry’s entire reign – heaven for a historian!
- Do you have any tried and tested methods for research or has each book been different? Do you digress easily or do you stay focused on what is needed?
I do as much research as I possibly can, and I try to write everything down, even if it doesn’t seem especially relevant at the time. With the first book, I realised that you don’t know exactly what you are going to include until you start writing – and the more information you have, the more accurate your depiction of that person is going to be. I have found that, for me, I have to do all the research first and only start writing the book, once the research is in place, rather than researching a chapter at a time. I never know exactly how the book is going to take shape until I have all the research done. Having said that, I still find myself delving into books as I write, when I come across something I wrote down in my research phase, but didn’t follow up. There are always little snippets of information you see, but do not realise the significance until you start writing.
I do sometimes find myself going down rabbit holes, so to speak; following one subject through a rabbit warren of sources only to find it isn’t relevant. But that’s half the fun of research, and sometimes it is exactly that tactic which digs up the remarkable.
- Do you have any hints or tips for anyone new to historical research?
Research is fun. You should do as much of it as you can, but there are limits. If you are intending to write a book, you cannot just research forever. At some point, you have to sit down and write the book. So, read a wide and varying range of sources, preferably primary sources, but don’t ignore the secondary ones – they sometimes give you a different angle on the information you have gathered. Always have an eye to the bias; everyone is writing with an agenda, either to make someone look good, to tell a story or to demonstrate a moral. Always question what the bias is and how much weight should be attached to it. Read from both sides of the story; if you are researching a war, or a reign, you have to read the positive and negative viewpoints in order to get a balanced picture.
Oh, and by all means, go down that rabbit hole. You might lose a day of research chasing one particular event or topic – but you never know when it might come in handy, so follow your nose!
- Finally, as most of your followers are probably aware, one of your favourite women is Nicholaa de la Haye. Who have you researched that you would deem your least favourite and why?
I love researching historical women. I find all their lives fascinating, even if some were not as likeable as others. Nicholaa de la Haye is a fascinating character, such an incredibly strong woman, and the original idea for Ladies of Magna Carta came from her story and that of Matilda de Braose; two women who were born in the same decade but had totally different experiences under King John. I admire both of them for their tenacity. The most difficult woman to understand, and probably the least likeable I have come across, is Isabelle d’Angoulême, King John’s second wife. I wanted to feel sorry for Isabelle and I could empathise with how difficult she must have found life in England, being married to John from a very young age, she was unpopular in the country and blamed for the loss of Normandy. The chroniclers were not kind to her either, calling her a Jezebel and claiming John languished in her bed instead of running the country. The fact Isabelle did not give birth to her first child, Henry, until 7 years after she and John married, puts the lie to that latter accusation. Isabelle was still a child when she married John, and John treated her as a child for the first years of their marriage.
If Isabelle’s story had ended there, I would have had endless sympathy for her. However, when John died, Isabelle did not play the grieving widow for long. Within a year, she had abandoned England and her 5 young children, the eldest was 10 and the youngest only a toddler and returned to her native Angoulême. By 1220, she had married her daughter’s fiancé, Hugh X de Lusignan, who was, in fact, the son of Isabelle’s own erstwhile fiancé, Hugh IX. To make matters worse, she and her husband then held Isabelle’s daughter to ransom and refused to return her to England until Isabelle’s dower was paid to her. In the ensuing years, Isabelle kept changing her allegiance, at times supporting her son, Henry III, in the territorial struggles for Aquitaine, but more often than not backing the King of France, often changing sides at the most inopportune moments.
It cannot have been an easy life for Isabelle d’Angoulême and she does not appear to have found love and happiness with either of her husbands, but her apparent rejection of her own children, her English family, and her tendency to put her own interests before those of her children, does not endear her to you. She is, however, a fascinating character to study!
A HUGE thank you to Sharon for some interesting research snippets there and I think we can all agree, Sharon’s passion for her writing, her books and her research simply jump off the page at you. Please see the info below to read, follow and keep up to date on Sharon’s books.
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 – http://www.historytheinterestingbits.com – and Sharon started researching and writing about the stories that have always fascinated, concentrating on medieval women. Her latest book, Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England, released in May 2020, is her third non-fiction book. She 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?‘
©2020 Louise Wyatt