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Book Tour: Heroines of the Medieval World by Sharon Bennett Connolly

This November, Medievalists.net is pleased to feature Sharon Connolly’s book tour for Heroines of the Medieval World. The book shares the stories of women, famous, infamous, and unknown, who shaped the course of medieval history.

Today, it is easy to think that all women from this era were downtrodden, retiring and obedient housewives, whose sole purpose was to give birth to children – preferably boys, and serve their husbands. This looks at the lives of the women who broke the mould: those who defied social norms and made their own future, consequently changing lives, society and the course of history.

Some of the women are famous, such as Eleanor of Aquitaine, who was not only a duchess in her own right but also Queen Consort of France through her first marriage and Queen Consort of England through her second, in addition to being a crusader and a rebel.

Then there are the more obscure but no less remarkable figures such as Nicholaa de la Haye, who defended Lincoln Castle in the name of King John, and Maud de Braose, who spoke out against the same king’s excesses and whose death (or murder) was the inspiration for a clause in Magna Carta.

Women had to walk a fine line in the Middle Ages, but many learned to to survive – even flourish – in this male-dominated world. Some led armies while others made their influence felt in more subtle ways, but all made a contribution to their era and should be remembered for daring to defy and lead in a world that demanded they obey and follow.

In the following piece, Sharon Bennett Connolly discusses the life of Gwenllian, the last Princess of Wales.

Gwenllian was the only child of Llywelyn ab Gruffuddd (1223–1282), also known as Llywelyn the Last, Prince of Wales. Her mother was Eleanor de Montfort (1252–1282), who was the daughter of Eleanor of England (1215–1275), and Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester (1208–1265). Llywelyn and Eleanor had married in Worcester Cathedral in October 1278, in a lavish ceremony attended by Edward I (1239–1307), King of England, and Alexander III, King of Scots (1241–1286). Gwenllian, a descendant of both Welsh and English royalty, was born in June 1282 at the palace of Garth Celyn, Abergwyngregyn, near Bangor; her mother died giving birth to her. Shortly after her birth, Edward I concluded his conquest of Wales. Gwenllian’s father, Llywelyn, was killed in an ambush on December 11, 1282. A mere six months after her birth, Gwenllian was an orphan. Her uncle Dafydd ap Gruffydd (1238–1283), Llywelyn’s younger brother, became the little princess’s legal guardian. After his brother’s death, Dafydd continued the fight for Welsh independence but was betrayed to the English, in June 1283. Dafydd, his wife, children, and little Gwenllian were captured at Bera Mountain in Snowdonia, where they had been in hiding.

At just one year old, Gwenllian was taken by sea from Wales. She would never see her homeland again. The baby girl was placed behind the high walls of the Gilbertine priory of Sempringham, in Lincolnshire, just south of the great city of Lincoln. Her female cousins, the seven daughters of Dafydd, were also placed in various nunneries, so it is possible some of her cousins were with her. Dafydd’s legitimate daughter, Gwladus (d.1336), who was a similar age to Gwenllian, was placed in Sixhills, another Gilbertine priory, in the Lincolnshire Wolds. Dafydd’s two sons, Llywelyn (1267–1287) and Owain (1275–1325), were imprisoned in Bristol Castle; Llywelyn died there in 1287, just four years after his capture, Owain was still living in 1325, every night securely incarcerated in a specially constructed timber cage within Bristol Castle. Dafydd himself suffered the horrendous ‘traitor’s death’; he was hanged, drawn and quartered at Shrewsbury.

The Gilbertines were the only wholly-English monastic community. Their founder, St Gilbert (1085–1190), had some form of physical deformity, which prevented him from pursuing a career as a knight. He trained as a clerk in France, studying under Master Anselm (1033–1109) at Laon. He eventually entered the household of the Bishop of Lincoln and, in 1129, was appointed Vicar of Sempringham and West Torrington. He established the first priory there in 1131, with seven local women vowing to live a life of chastity, poverty, and obedience. Sempringham Priory was a double-house, housing both men and women in segregated quarters. At its height, the priory housed 200 nuns and forty canons. The order followed strict rules, based on those of the Augustinian and Premonstratensian monasteries. By the time of Gilbert’s death in 1190, there were thirteen priories in England; this number had risen to twenty-five by the time of the Reformation.

Gwenllian was a prisoner at the Gilbertine Priory of St Mary, at Sempringham, for the rest of her life. A prisoner of three English kings, Edward I, Edward II (1284–1327) and Edward III (131–1377), she was a rallying figure for the subjugated Welsh, and too valuable to ever be freed. Edward I wrote to the Prior and Prioress of Sempringham of his decision to place Gwenllian in their custody, on November 11, 1283: ‘… Having the Lord before our eyes, pitying also her sex and her age, that the innocent may not seem to atone for the iniquity and ill-doing of the wicked and contemplating especially the life in your Order’. Although Edward wanted Gwenllian to be forgotten, he could not afford to forget her, and four years after she was placed in the convent, Edward ordered Thomas Normanvill to, ‘go to the places where the daughters of Llewellyn and of David his brother, who have taken the veil in the Order of Sempringham, are dwelling, and to report upon their state and custody by next Parliament’. How much Gwenllian knew about her history and homeland is far from certain. Indeed, she is said not to have spoken a word of Welsh and may not have even known how to spell her name; she is referred to as ‘Wencillian’, in a document sent to Edward III at the time of her death.

About the Author
Sharon Bennett Connolly, has been fascinated by history for over 30 years now and even worked as a tour guide at historical sites, including Conisbrough Castle. Born in Yorkshire, she studied at University in Northampton before working in Customer Service roles at Disneyland in Paris and Eurostar in London. She is now having great fun, passing on her love of the past to her son, hunting dragons through Medieval castles or exploring the hidden alcoves of Tudor Manor Houses. Having received a blog as a gift, History…the Interesting Bits, Sharon started researching and writing about the lesser-known stories and people from European history, the stories that have always fascinated. Quite by accident, she started focusing on medieval women. And in 2016 she was given the opportunity to write her first non-fiction book, Heroines of the Medieval World, which was published by Amberley in September 2017. She is currently working on her second non-fiction book, Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest, which will be published by Amberley in late 2018.

For more by Sharon Connolly, please visit her website: History…the Interesting Bits

Follow the Sharon Connolly on Twitter: @thehistorybits

Follow Amberley Publishing on twitter: @amberleybooks

For more fantastic historical titles, please visit: www.amberley-books.com

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