Tag Archives: queen
In a new series, we look at under acknowledged women through the ages.
The life of Caterina Cornaro could easily be the plot of a novel or TV drama. One of the most significant woman of Venice’s golden age, Cornaro (1454-1510) was an important figure in Renaissance politics, diplomacy and arts. She reigned as the queen of Cyprus for 16 years under immense pressure.
Caterina was the last monarch of the Kingdom of Cyprus between 1474 and 1489. Her tragic reign saw the Mediterranean island transfer from the hands of the Lusignan dynasty who had dominated the island since the Crusades, to the Republic of Venice, one of the clearest signs of the mercantile nation-state flexing its imperial muscle.
This significant event took place against the backdrop of interference from Venice’s rival, Genoa, and the rise of the Ottoman Empire in the east. Despite the complex political intrigue, Caterina became a much-admired figure in contemporary European society. Still, separating the real Caterina from the romanticised version of her can be a challenge.
Caterina was born in 1454, into one of the most noble and influential Venetian families. (It had produced four Doges, the senior-most elected official of the Republic.) She grew up in the family palace on the Grand Canal. Amongst the family’s many financial interests were rich sugar plantations on Cyprus. They developed close relations with the Lusignan family who had reigned over Cyprus since 1192.
After a period of instability, James II became King of Cyprus in 1468 and chose Caterina as his wife. The marital bond was supported by Venice: commercial rights on the island were now secured for Venetian interests. She was presented with a dowry of 100,000 ducats; a not inconsiderable sum of gold and silver coinage.
She and James married by proxy in St Mark’s Cathedral on 30 July 1468 when Caterina was 14-years-old. She set sail for Cyprus in 1472 to finally meet her husband.
Caterina arrived and married James in person at the Cypriot harbour city of Famagusta. James, however, died a mere ten months after the two met, leaving the heavily pregnant queen consort to become regent to her newborn son James III. Tragedy struck the young queen again on 26 August 1474 when her son and last legitimate heir to the Lusignan line died. The child’s passing left Caterina as queen regnant, a role she would hold for 16 years. Rumours spread that James II had been poisoned by the queen’s relatives.
Thrust into a position of power and prestige through the title, Caterina was immediately the centre of various intrigues within the court. She survived conspiracies from within to overthrow her, and pressure from Naples and the Papal state.
It was Venice that exerted the greatest threat to Caterina. Control of Cyprus would consolidate the Republic’s influence over the entire Mediterranean, so they removed many of the queen’s trusted advisers and replaced them with commissioners and counsellors influencing decision making. While it is easy to portray her as a victim of Venetian manipulation, for years she faced down considerable pressure by the Republic to surrender the throne.
Removal from Cyprus
In 1489 Caterina finally relented to the Republic’s exertions, mediated by her brother, to abdicate. Although she lost political power, she was still able to stage manage her image successfully. Contemporary chronicler George Boustronios’s account tell us
on 15 February 1489 the queen exited from Nicosia for Famagusta to leave … she went on horseback wearing a black silken cloak, with all the ladies and the knights in her company …. Her eyes, moreover did not cease to shed tears throughout the procession. The whole population was bewailing.
The reality was more complex. Cyprus was locked into a feudal system which was retained by the Venetians; for most Cypriots life would not change with their queen’s exile and the collapse of the monarchy.
The pageantry of the fleet carrying the exiled Queen home was played as a brilliant piece of propaganda by both the Doge and by the former Queen. Her disembarkation in Venice became a common scene in contemporary painting.
Queen of the arts
On return to Italy, Caterina was granted for life the fiefdom of Asolo, a town in the Veneto region of northern Italy, in 1489.
Under Caterina, it became a flourishing court for Late Renaissance art and learning. Painters such as Gentile Bellini and poet Andrea Navagero were welcomed. The reputation of the Queen’s court soon spread, particularly after humanist Cardinal Pietro Bembo used it as the setting for his famed dialogues on platonic love, Gli Asolani.
There is some debate about who really spent time in Asolo, leading to one historian to describe the “mirage of Asolo”. Whatever the true nature of the court; the image of the cultured Queen in exile was manipulated by Caterina. She became a standard figure of portraitists. In later life, and in even in death, Cornaro had far greater control than she ever did during her reign.
In 1510 she died in Venice. The crowds wanting to participate in the funeral of Caterina were so large that a bridge of boats was constructed to allow greater pedestrian movement. She was buried in the church of San Salvador near the Rialto Bridge.
Death was not the end of Caterina’s story. Even centuries later she continued to influence the arts. The audience hall of Caterina’s castle at Asolo was converted to a theatre in 1798; the theatre itself was later purchased by the John Ringling Museum of Art where it has been reassembled in Sarasota, Florida.
In 2017, a portrait of Caterina from a private collection underwent conservation and was exhibited in the Leventis Museum in Nicosia in Cyprus for the first time. The conservation work included both art historical research and scientific analysis and confirmed a 16th century date for the portrait.
Copies of original portraits of the queen continued to be made into the 18th and 19th centuries. The University of Sydney has within its art collection a large oil painting of unknown hand, but from the tradition of a lost Titian. The queen wears a black widow’s gown, a coronet and necklace.
Robert Browning wrote of Asolo. The libretto based upon her life by Jules-Henri Vernoy de Saint-Georges would go onto to form the basis of five operas. A highly romanticised novel Royal Pawn of Venice: A Romance of Cyprus was published in 1911.
It is time her story was once again better known. The story of the republican queen of arts.
The UK now has a female prime minister and Elizabeth II has been queen for more than six decades, but few would associate Anglo-Saxon England with powerful women. Nearly 1,100 years ago, however, Æthelflæd, “Lady of the Mercians”, died in Tamworth – as one of the most powerful political figures in tenth-century Britain.
Although she has faded from English history, and is often seen as a bit-part player in the story of the making of England, Æthelflæd was in fact a hugely important figure before her death in 918, aged around 50. Indeed, the uncontested succession of her daughter, Ælfwynn, as Mercia’s leader was a move of successful female powerplay not matched until the coronation of Elizabeth I after the death of her half-sister Mary in 1558. So, while Bernard Cornwell’s novels and the BBC series The Last Kingdom are cavalier with the historical facts, perhaps they are right to give Æthelflæd a major role.
Æthelflæd was born in the early 870s. Her father, Alfred “the Great” had become King of the West Saxons in 871, while her mother, Eahlswith, may have been from Mercian royal kindred. At the time, Anglo-Saxon “England” was made up of a series of smaller kingdoms, including Wessex in the south, Mercia in the Midlands and Northumbria in the far north. All faced encroachment by Viking forces that were growing in strength and ambition, as outlined in Charles Insley’s article The Strange End of the Mercian Kingdom and Mercia and the Making of England by Ian Walker.
Æthelflæd spent most of her life in the Kingdom of Mercia married to its de facto ruler, Æthelred. Mercia had seen some dark days by the time of her marriage. In the eighth and early ninth centuries, the Mercian kings had had good cause to consider themselves the most powerful rulers in southern Britain. But by the 870s, the kingdom had suffered dramatically from the Viking assaults which had swept across England.
One king, Burgred, had fled to Rome, and his successor, Ceolwulf II, was seen as a mere puppet by the West-Saxon compiler of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and disappeared between 878 and 883. Soon, the East Midlands were ruled by Scandinavians – what became known as the “Danelaw” – and so the kingdom ruled by Æthelflæd and Æthelred was by then just the western rump of the old Mercia.
Nevertheless, Æthelflæd and Æthelred together engaged in massive rebuilding projects at Gloucester, Worcester, Stafford and Chester, overseeing the refounding of churches, new relic collections and saints’ cults. Famously, in 909, the relics of the seventh-century saint, Oswald were moved from Bardney, deep in Scandinavian-controlled Lincolnshire, to a new church at Gloucester. Perhaps appropriately, for a couple facing the Vikings, Æthelflæd and her husband had a great attachment to the saint, a warrior king and Christian martyr. Æthelred was buried alongside Oswald in 911, and Æthelflæd joined him seven years later.
Powerplay and politics
At the time, Athelred and Æthelflæd did not call themselves king or queen, nor do the official documents or coins refer to them as such. Instead, they used the title “Lord/Lady of the Mercians”, because Alfred had extended his authority over Mercia and styled himself “King of the Anglo-Saxons”.
But they acted like rulers. Æthelflæd, with her husband and her brother Edward the Elder, King of the Anglo-Saxons, launched a series of military campaigns in the early tenth century. These brought all of England south of the Humber and Mersey river under Anglo-Saxon control and rolled up the Scandinavian lordships which had been established in the East Midlands and East Anglia.
These advances were backed up by an energetic programme of fortification, with burhs (fortified towns) built in places such as Bridgnorth, Runcorn, Chester and Manchester.
But while she called herself a “lady”, outsiders, especially the Welsh and Irish, saw Æthelflæd as a “queen” and she surely wasn’t just her husband’s subservient wife. As Alfred the Great’s daughter, the role Mercia and the Mercians would play in the kingdom of the Anglo-Saxons was at stake.
A potent widow
But Æthelflæd really came into her own following her husband’s death in 911, although it seems that he had been in poor health for the best part of the previous decade. The Mercian Register in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, certainly celebrates her deeds from 910 onwards.
In 915, she successfully campaigned against the Welsh and the major Welsh kings, and in England she began further to expand her kingdom. In 917-8, her army took control of Viking-occupied Derby and Leicester, and just before her death, the “people of York” – that is, the Scandinavian lords of southern Northumbria – also agreed to submit to her.
For a brief moment, she had authority not just over her own territory in Mercia, but over the Welsh, the Scandinavian East Midlands and possibly part of Northumbria, making her perhaps one of the three most important rulers in mainland Britain – the others being her brother Edward king of the Anglo-Saxons and Constantin II macAeda, King of the Scots.
This made her a major political actor in her own right, but also a respected and feared figure. Even more remarkably, she passed her authority on to her daughter, Ælfwynn, who was around 30 when her mother died. The rule of Ælfwynn in Mercia, which attracts virtually no comment at all from historians, lasted about six months before her uncle Edward launched a coup d’état, deprived her of all authority and took her into Wessex.
Æthelflæd’s legacy is enigmatic, wrapped up in the “making of England”. But she was a ruler of consequence in an era defined by male authority. Indeed, her project to rebuild the kingdom of Mercia and the Mercians might have placed midland England at the heart of later history.
Philip Morgan, Senior Lecturer, Keele University; Andrew Sargent, Lecturer in Medieval History, Keele University; Charles Insley, Senior lecturer, University of Manchester, and Morn Capper, Lecturer in Archaeological Heritage, University of Chester
As 2016 begins, the recent public interest in hunting for royal burials shows no sign of abating. Hardly has the dust begun to settle on Richard III’s expensive new tomb in Leicester than work is starting on locating the resting place of another medieval monarch, Henry I (d. 1135), in Reading (like Richard III, Henry is also thought to be under a car park).
Meanwhile, the Church of England is stoutly refusing to allow DNA tests to be carried out on bones thought to be those of the “princes in the Tower” who disappeared in 1483, and who may be buried in Westminster Abbey.
With the honourable exception of Alfred the Great (d. 899), whose bones were – disappointingly for some – probably not found in recent Winchester excavations, this interest has tended to concentrate on the kings of England after 1066 at the expense of earlier kings, kings of British kingdoms other than England and queens. That is probably typical of the wider public consciousness of – and interest in – the Middle Ages, but it’s not exactly representative of the period. So here are five remarkable royal burials that present puzzles worthy of attention – and that might help add just a little bit of diversity, too.
1. Oswald of Northumbria (d. 642)
Oswald was a warlike leader of the northern kingdom of Northumbria, but adopted Christianity with all the zeal of the convert that he was. He so impressed the Irish missionary Aidan by his acts of charity that the latter seized his arm and exclaimed: “May this hand never perish!” Sure enough, it didn’t, remaining uncorrupted after Oswald’s death (or so the story goes).
But it wasn’t just Oswald’s hand that had a remarkable fate. Oswald was killed on the battlefield by pagan Mercians and the Welsh, and his head and limbs put on stakes. Some of these remains were later taken to the monastery of Bardney in Lincolnshire. When this fell under Viking rule in the tenth century, the West Saxon royal family mounted a raid to steal the royal remains and bring them back to English-controlled land. What happened next isn’t entirely clear, but for the modern bone hunter the problem isn’t a lack of evidence – it’s too much of it. In the Middle Ages, five different establishments claimed to own Oswald’s head, from Durham in England through to Hildesheim in Germany, whose magnificent head reliquary survives to this day.
2. Eadgyth (d. 946)
Until Oswald’s bones are located, the oldest identified remains of any English – or British – royalty are those of a woman, Eadgyth, daughter of King Edward the Elder. And they’re not even in England. Eadgyth’s brother King Aethelstan sent her and her sister Eadgifu to Germany to allow Duke Otto of Saxony to take his pick of the two for marriage. Otto chose Eadgyth, and when he became emperor, she was anointed as his queen. She remained in Germany until her death in 946.
In 2008 her tomb in Magdeburg in Germany was opened and, although carbon dating failed, isotopic tests confirmed that the remains were indeed Eadgyth’s. But what’s puzzling is that not all of Eadgyth was actually in the lead casket: her hands and feet were nowhere to be found and most of the skull was missing. What happened to these? Experts at the time of the exhumation suggested that thieves had struck in search of holy relics – but Eadgyth wasn’t generally considered a saint, so the mystery remains.
3. Harold II (d. 1066)
Everybody knows what happened to King Harold on the battlefield of Hastings in 1066 – but what happened afterwards? Confusion set in early. A contemporary text, The Song of the Battle of Hastings, says that he was buried on a cliff top; a later source claims he survived the battle and lived for many years as a hermit; but other texts – and most historians – suggest he was buried in Waltham Abbey, which he had endowed.
Predictably, there is now much talk of finding his tomb. But even if the tomb could be found, could we be sure that it was really Harold inside it? According to the 12th-century Waltham chronicle, Harold’s face was injured beyond recognition by battlefield wounds – and the fallen king was identified for burial only by mysterious “secret marks” on his body known to his concubine, Edith Swanneck. Can we be quite sure that Edith could not have been mistaken?
4. Margaret (d.1093)
Margaret was another victim of the Norman conquest, but one whose life took a happier turn than Harold’s. Descended from King Alfred the Great, she was brought up in exile in Hungary before marrying the Scottish king Malcom III. She was treated as a saint soon after her death and her chapel can still be seen in Edinburgh castle. A gospel book she owned also survives in London.
But what remains of Margaret herself is elsewhere. She was buried in Dunfermline Abbey on her death, but later her head was removed and taken to Edinburgh as a relic and in the confusion of the Reformation it ended up in France, where it was lost in the revolution. Other parts of Margaret’s body were transferred to Spain by Philip II. When Queen Victoria paid for the restoration of Margaret’s tomb in Dumferline, it was probably therefore the restoration of a cenotaph.
However, in 1862, a Scottish Catholic bishop travelled to Spain to ask for the return of some of Margaret’s remains. He duly secured a relic, which he brought with him back to Edinburgh where it stayed for a century. In 2008, this relic – apparently part of Margaret’s shoulder – was ceremonially handed back to St Margaret’s church in Dunfermline.
5. Llwelyn ap Gruffydd (d.1282)
Llwelyn was the last leader of an independent Wales and met his fate resisting English imperialism in the shape of Edward I. Hardly had he been killed than his head was cut off and sent to London (though this was less grisly than the treatment meted out to Llwelyn’s former ally, the rebel baron Simon de Montfort, whose testicles were draped over his decapitated head). Llwelyn’s head was stuck on a pike at the Tower of London, where it remained for more than a decade to impress onlookers.
What happened to the rest of Llwelyn isn’t certain. He was probably buried at Cwmhir Abbey in central Wales. But the archbishop of Canterbury at the time wasn’t entirely sure of this – and even wrote a letter to seek confirmation. The abbey is now in ruins, but no archaeological excavations have taken place to certify the last resting place of (most of) the last independent Welsh ruler.
George VI Crowned King of the United Kingdom and the British Commonwealth
Though reigning as king since the 11th December 1936, King George VI was not officially crowned until this day in 1937. His reign lasted until his death on the 6 February 1952, when he was succeeded by the current queen, Elizabeth II.
Christopher Columbus: Receives His Commission of Exploration from Castile (Spain)
Christopher Columbus was born between the 22nd August and the 31st October 1451, in Genoa (now in Italy). Contrary to common belief Columbus did not discover America, but he did greatly increase European awareness of the New World.
The maritime career of Christopher Columbus began when he was 10 years old. In the years that followed he undertook a number of journeys on the open sea in various roles on various ships. In 1485 he began looking for an opportunity to explore and discover a western route to Asia. He presented his ideas to the king of Portugal and was ultimately frustrated after several attempts. He also tried England, Genoa, Venice and then Spain (Castile) in 1486. He was frustrated in all these attempts (England eventually agreed, but by that time Columbus was already in league with Castile), but the king and queen of Castile (Ferdinand II and Isabella I) retained his services and after many attempts he finally gained the support of Ferdinand II and Isabella I on this day in 1492.
In all, Columbus would make four voyages between Castile and America. His life would end in great disappointment, having been jailed and having the terms of his contract with Castile overturned due to various claims and convictions of abuse of power and mismanagement of the domains over which he governed in the New World. Columbus died on the 20th May 1506 in Valladolid, Crown of Castile (now in Spain).