Book Review ~ Mary, Queen of Scots by Antonia Fraser


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“She was the quintessential queen: statuesque, regal, dazzlingly beautiful. Her royal birth gave her claim to the thrones of two nations; her marriage to the young French dauphin promised to place a third glorious crown on her noble head.

Instead, Mary Stuart became the victim of her own impulsive heart, scandalizing her world with a foolish passion that would lead to abduction, rape and even murder. Betrayed by those she most trusted, she would be lured into a deadly game of power, only to lose to her envious and unforgiving cousin, Elizabeth I. 

Here is her story, a queen who lost a throne for love, a monarch pampered and adored even as she was led to her beheading, the unforgettable woman who became a legend for all time”.


To say that I couldn’t put this book down, would be an understatement. All I wanted to do was find out more on Mary and the people around her.

It was a bit slow to begin with, I think it was mainly due to the fact that I wanted to only hear about Mary and no one else, but I began to start appreciating Antonia Fraser setting the scene.

We don’t just learn about Mary, but what it was like during that time period. Why she needed, at such a young age, to escape her homeland of Scotland for France.

I think what shocked me, which shouldn’t because I knew the TV show Reign got it completely wrong, was Francis II. I’m not going to spoil it for anyone, because I really think you should read this book if you want the truth on Mary, Queen of Scots.

Even when she returned to Scotland, there were a lot of things that made me angry, mainly John Knox, but it is this notion of people giving false information that ruins her character for the future. This smear on her name is mainly due with the “Casket Letters” and her involvement in the death of her second husband. Not only are we affected by it today, but her son was brought up thinking his mother was an evil murderer.

I won’t go too much into it, because the temptation (if possible) to travel back in time and give a good smack behind the head to these people is tempting.

The only problem I have with this book, and I believe it has been brought up by a few people, is the translation in the book… There isn’t any.

There are a few lines that are in either French or sometimes in another language, and instead of having the translation as a footnote, it’s nowhere to be found. Which means I have to stop reading and search the translation up online.

Not a big deal, but it was annoying at times.

I cannot recommend this book enough. If it’s possible, I would make everyone read about this incredible woman, give them a new and correct way of looking at Mary, Queen of Scots. Antonia Fraser did a magnificent job on describing characters, settings, feelings and everything else in between. I will definitely be picking up more of her books.


(In my end is my beginning)

My star rating is:






Mary, Queen of Scots ~ Casket Letters

mary, queen of scots
Mary, Queen of Scots

The Casket Letters were eight letters and some sonnets said to have been “written” by Mary, Queen of Scots to James Hepburn, 4th Earl of Bothwell, between January and April of 1567. These letters and sonnets were produced as evidence against Mary by the Scottish lords who opposed her rule. These letters were also taken to imply that Mary colluded with James Hepburn in the murder of her second husband, Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley.

supposedly the casket that the “casket letters” were stored in.
Supposedly the casket that the “Casket Letters” were stored in.


henry stuart, lord darnley
Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley

On 10 February 1567 Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley and second husband of Mary, Queen of Scots is found under mysterious circumstances, even though there was an explosion, he was actually found strangled with no burn marks at the Kirk o’ Field in Edinburgh.

James Hepburn, 4th Earl of Bothwell, was the prime suspect, but was “let off” by Scottish Parliament.

I believe because of two major reasons was why Mary ended up marrying her husband’s murderer.

Firstly, James Hepburn actually kidnapped Mary. It might’ve been in a calm manner, but somehow convinced her to go to Dunbar Castle for her safety. However, James Hepburn raped Mary, which for some odd reason back then means she had to marry him.

Secondly, James was able to show to Mary the Ainslie bond, where majority of her nobles signed that James was suitable for a husband to Mary.

Three months after the death of Henry Stuart, Mary married James Hepburn on 15 May 1567.

james hepurn, 4th earl of bothwell
James Hepurn, 4th Earl of Bothwell

After Mary’s nobles, majority of those who signed the Ainslie bond, raised an army against the marriage, on 15 June 1567 Mary surrendered at the Battle of Carberry Hill and was imprisoned at Lochleven Castle. On 24 July 1567, Mary abdicated the throne of Scotland. Her infant son was crowned King James VI of Scotland on 29 July 1567, her illegitimate half-brother, James Stewart, 1st Earl of Moray was made Regent of Scotland.

james stewart, 1st earl of moray
James Stewart, 1st Earl of Moray

Not long after the coronation of James VI, James Stewart, who was in London, told Guzman de Silva, Spanish ambassador to England, that he had heard of the finding of a letter in Mary’s own handwriting to James Hepburn, which implicated her in the murder to Henry Stuart. He however did not reveal this to Queen Elizabeth I of England.

At the end of August 1567, Edmund Grindal, Bishop of London, had heard that letters in Mary’s handwriting urging James Hepburn to hurry up with the killing of Henry Stuart had been found in a box of James Hepburn’s papers. Edmund Grindal sent this news to the Reformer Henry Bullinger in Geneva.

It was said, because of the discovery of these letters, was the reason why Mary abdicated from the throne, fearing public knowledge.

On 4 December 1567, James Stewart summoned his Privy Council. They made and signed a statement in preparation for the Parliament to enact Mary’s abdication, which stated the letters demonstrated Mary’s involvement in the murder.

“in so far as by diverse her previe letters writtin and subscrivit with hir awin hand and sent by hir to James erll Boithvile chief executor of the said horrible murthour, …, it is maist certain that sche wes previe, art and part (complicit) and of the actuale devise (plot) and deid of the foir-nemmit murther of her lawful husband the King our sovereign lord’s father”.

mary, queen of scots escaping from loch leven castle
Mary, Queen of Scots escaping from Loch Leven Castle

On 2 May 1568 Mary, with the aid of George Douglas, brother of Sir William Douglas who is the castle’s owner, escaped Lochleven Castle and made her way to England. I think she did this because she believed that Elizabeth I would help her regain the throne.

Mary’s status was uncertain, as she had been accused of crimes and misrule. Elizabeth I ordered an inquiry into the question of whether Mary should be tried for the murder of Henry Stuart, as accused by the Scottish Lords who had deposed Mary the year before. James Stewart came to England to show Elizabeth the so called “casket letters”.

thomas howard, 4th duke of norfolk
Thomas Howard, 4th Duke of Norfolk

At a conference in York nearly a year later in October 1568, James Stewart produced the Casket Letters, headed by Thomas Howard, 4th Duke of Norfolk.

On 7 December 1568, James Stewart also showed the Casket Letters at Westminster. The letters, sonnets, divorce and marriage contract were examined at Hampton Court on 14 December 1568, and the handwriting compared with Mary’s letters to Elizabeth I. The evidence produced by the Scottish Earls, who were now sworn to secrecy by the English Privy council, was perhaps bewildering;

“the whole writings lying altogether upoun the counsel table, the same were showed one after another by hap [chance], as the same did ly on the table, than with any choyse made, as by the natures thereof, if time had so served might have been”.

elizabeth i
Elizabeth I of England

Elizabeth neither wished to accuse Mary of murder nor acquit her. Mary was unable to have her say during trial as she was refused the right to be present, however, her accusers including her illegitimate half-brother James Stewart, were permitted to be present.

Not only was Mary not allowed to be present during these accusations, but she was also refused access to the letters to review or to study them.

Mary vehemently denied writing them, arguing that her handwriting was not difficult to imitate, insisting they were forgeries. It has been said that Mary Beaton, who was one of the “Four Mary’s”, had written these letters. Mary Beaton’s mother was a mistress to none other than James Hepburn himself.

Yet, as Elizbeth had wished, the inquiry reached the conclusion that nothing was proven. The outcome of the enquiry was to prolong doubts about Mary’s character that Elizabeth used to prevent the Queens meeting.


My Thoughts

I don’t believe Mary actually wrote those letters or sonnets. It could be in her writing some of them, but I don’t believe they were sent to James Hepburn. It’s obvious, well to me anyway, that they tried to put Mary in a bad light, especially after her marriage with James Hepburn.

To think, her close friend and confidante Mary Beaton, was also “in on it”, was also quite sad. Mary seems like she couldn’t trust anyone.

If you want to know more about Mary and details before and after the casket letters, part one will be posted on Monday 26/3 and part two on Wednesday 28/3.




Mary, Queen of Scots’ Husbands

Francis II of France

francis ii of france


Henry II of France


Catherine de’ Medici




19 January 1544

Chateau de Fontainebleau, France


5 December 1560

Ear Infection

Orleans, France


23 December 1560

Basilica of St Denis, France


Roman Catholic


Mary, Queen of Scots

24 April 1558

King of France:

10 July 1559 – 5 December 1560


21 September 1559

King Consort of Scotland:

24 April 1558 – 5 December 1560


Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley

henry stuart, lord darnley


William Stewart, 4th Earl of Lennox


Lady Margaret Douglas, Countess of Lennox


Stuart (Darnley branch)


7 December 1545

Temple Newsam, Yorkshire, England


10 February 1567


Kirk o’ Field, Edinburgh, Scotland


14 February 1567

Holyrood Abbey, Scotland


Roman Catholic


Mary, Queen of Scots

29 July 1565


James VI + I of Scotland and England

King Consort of Scotland:

29 July 1565 – 10 February 1567


James Hepburn, 4th Earl of Bothwell

james hepburn, 4th earl of bothwell


Patrick Hepburn, 3rd Earl of Bothwell


Agnes Sinclair


c 1534

Edinburgh, Scotland


14 April 1578

Dragsholm Castle, Denmark


Farevejle Church, Dragsholm, Denmark




Anna Throndsen

c 1559

Lady Jean Gordon

24 February 1566 – (div) 7 May 1567

Mary, Queen of Scots

15 May 1567




Mary, Queen of Scots ~ In My End


francis and mary
Francis and Mary

After the death Mary’s first husband, Francis II of France, on 5 December 1560 from a middle ear infection that led to an abscess in his brain, Mary was left to decide what to do next. Stay in France, where she would be allowed to have her own estate as the Queen Dowager of France, or return to her home land, Scotland.

Having lived in France since the age of five, Mary had little direct experience of the dangerous and complex political situation in Scotland. Especially as a Catholic, she was regarded with suspicion by many of her subjects, as they had converted to Protestant not a year before. Even her illegitimate half-brother, James, Earl of Moray, was a leader of the Protestant.

Despite the religious differences, Mary suggested to her half-brother, James, that she has no qualms over Scotland being Protestant, as long as she is permitted to practise her faith privately. Even though James, Earl of Moray, and majority of the people had no problem, there was one.

To say I despise this man is an understatement. John Knox not only had it out for Mary before he even met her, but his views are what we call today, sexist. His stance on religion was Protestant, and even though Mary had no problem with people believing what they wanted to believe in, he still had a problem with her being Catholic.

I’ve read a few of his “comments” about Mary, and all I can say is, if time travel was a possibility, I would go back in time and punch him in the face. Sometimes, violence is the answer. See if he still thinks a woman is feeble and witless.

mary 1
Mary 1558-1560

Nine months after the death of Francis, Mary sailed back to Scotland, arriving in Leith on 19 August 1561.

Her privy council of 16 men, appointed on 6 September 1561, retained those who already held the offices of state and was dominated by the Protestant leaders from the reformation crisis of 1559-1560, who were Archibald Campbell, 5th Earl of Argyll, Alexander Cunningham, 5th Earl of Glencairn, and James Stewart, 1st Earl of Moray. Only four of the councillors were Catholic, who were John Stewart, 4th Earl of Atholl, George Hay, 7th Earl of Erroll, William Graham, 2nd Earl of Montrose, and George Gordon, 4th Earl of Huntly, who was Lord Chancellor.

elizabeth i
Elizabeth I of England

The question still remained on who will inherit the English throne after Elizabeth I. Mary, having a link with the Tudor dynasty through her paternal grandmother, Margaret Tudor, believed she had the right to the throne.

She sent William Maitland of Lethington as an ambassador to the English court to put the case from Mary as the heir presumptive to the English throne. Even though Elizabeth refused to name a potential heir, fearing that to do so would invite conspiracy to displace her with the nominated successor, she did assure William Maitland that she knew no one with a better claim than Mary.

Mary desperately wanted to meet her cousin face to face, hoping to convince her in person to name her heir. In late 1561 and early 1562, arrangements were made for the two Queens to meet in England at York or Nottingham in August or September 1562, but Elizabeth sent Sir Henry Sidney in July to cancel because of the civil war in France.

After the death of her first husband, Francis II, there wasn’t just one obstacle on deciding to stay in France or return to Scotland, it was also, being only eighteen, who she will marry next.

don carlos
Don Carlos

While still in France, there was an attempt on her part in negotiating a marriage to Don Carlos, the mentally unstable heir apparent of King Philip II of Spain, whose second wife was none other than Francis II sister, Elisabeth of Valois.

Elizabeth I even suggested Mary marrying her favourite, Robert Dudley, 1t Earl of Leicester, whom Elizabeth trusted and thought she could control. She sent Thomas Randolph, an ambassador, to tell Mary that if she would marry and English nobleman, Elizabeth would “proceed to the inquisition of her right and title to be our next cousin and heir”. The proposal came to nothing, not least because the intended bridegroom was unwilling.

pierre de bocosel de chastelard
Pierre de Bocosel de Chastelard

There was a French poet at Mary’s court, Pierre de Boscosel de Chastelard, who was apparently besotted by Mary. In early 1563, he was discovered during a security search hidden underneath her bed, apparently planning to surprise her when she was alone, declaring his love to her. Mary was horrified and banished him from Scotland. Ignoring the edict, two days later he forced his way into her chamber as she was about to disrobe. She, of course, reacted with fury and fear, her half-brother, James Stewart, rushed into her room after hearing her cries for help. After arriving she shouted, “Thrust your dagger into the villain!”, which James Stewart refused to do as he was already under restraint.

Pierre de Boscosel de Chastelard was tried for treason, and beheaded. It is claimed he was part of a plot to discredit Mary by tarnishing her reputation.

henry stuart, lord darnley
Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley

Mary had briefly met her English-born first cousin, Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, in February 1561 when she was in mourning for Francis II in France. Henry Stuart’s parents, Matthew Stewart, 4th Earl of Lennox, and Margaret Douglas, Countess of Lennox, who were Scottish aristocrats as well as English landowners, had sent him to France ostensibly to extend their condolences while hoping for a potential match between their son and Mary.

Both Mary and Henry were grandchildren of Margaret Tudor, eldest sister of Henry VIII of England, and patrilineal descendants of the High Stewards of Scotland. Henry shared a more recent Stewart lineage with the Hamilton family as a descendant of Mary Stewart, Countess of Arran, a daughter of James II of Scotland.

The next time they met was on 17 February 1565 at Wemyss Castle in Scotland, which is said that Mary fell in love with the “long lad”, (as Elizabeth I called him as he was over six feet tall, perfect for Mary’s height).

henry and mary
Henry and Mary

On 29 July 1565, Mary and Henry married at Holyrood Palace, even though both were Catholic and a papal dispensation for the marriage of first cousins had not been obtained.

English statesmen William Cecil, 1st Baron Burghley and Robert Dudley, 1st Earl of Leicester, had worked to obtain Henry’s licence to travel to Scotland from his home in England. Although Elizabeth I’s advisors had brought Mary and Henry together, she also felt threatened by it because of their descendants of her aunt. This gave them a stronger claim to the English throne, more so if they have children. Not only was Elizabeth I threatened, but angry the marriage went ahead without her permission, as Henry was both her cousin and an English subject. You will see this is a trend for Elizabeth, she does not take kindly to people marrying without her consent.

However, Mary’s intent on the marriage seems to have stemmed from passion rather than a calculated move.

Not only did the marriage anger Elizabeth I, but also convinced her half-brother, James Stewart, to join with other Protestant lords, including Archibald Campbell, 5th Earl of Argyll and Alexander Cunningham, 5th Earl of Glencairn, in open rebellion.

On 26 August 1565, Mary set out from Edinburgh to confront them, four days later, James Stewart entered Edinburgh, but left soon afterward having failed to take the castle. Mary returned to Edinburgh the following month to raise more troops.

In what has become known as the Chaseabout Raid, Mary and her forces “chased” James Stewart and the rebellious lords, roaming around Scotland without ever engaging in direct combat. Mary’s numbers were boosted after the release and restoration to favour of George Gordon, 4th Earl of Huntly’s son (same name as father), and James Hepburn, 4th Earl of Bothwell, from exile in France. Unable to muster sufficient support, James Stewart left Scotland in October 1565 for sanctuary in England.

Mary broadened her privy council, bringing in both Catholics, John Lesley, Bishop of Ross and Simon Preston of Craigmillar, and Protestants, the new Lord Huntly, Alexander Gordon, Bishop of Galloway, John Maxwell of Terregles and Sir James Balflour.

david rizzio
David Rizzio

It might have been love that joined Henry and Mary, but it wasn’t long before Henry grew arrogant. Not content with his position as King consort, he demanded the Crown Matrimonial, which would have made him a co-sovereign of Scotland, with the right to keep the Scottish throne for himself if he outlived Mary. Of course, Mary refused, which resulted in a strain in their marriage, even though they conceived by October 1565.

As well as wanting power, he was also a jealous man, especially of that between the friendship of Mary with her Catholic private secretary, David Rizzio, who was rumoured (probably John Knox) to be the father of her child.

By March 1566, Henry had entered into a secret conspiracy with Protestant lords, including the nobles who had rebelled against Mary in the Chaseabout Raid. On 9 March 1566, a group of the conspirators, accompanied by Henry, murdered David Rizzio in front of the pregnant Mary at a dinner party in Holyrood Palace, it is said that he was stabbed 56 times.

the murder of rizzio by john opie 1787
The Murder of Rizzio by John Opie 1787

Over the next two days, a disillusioned Henry switched sides, and Mary received James Stewart at Holyrood. On the night of 11th or 12th March, Mary and Henry escaped from the palace and took temporary refuge in Dunbar Castle before returning to Edinburgh on 18 March 1566. The former rebels, James Stewart, Archibald Campbell, 5th Earl of Argyll and Alexander Cunningham, 5th Earl of Glencairn, were restored to the council.

mary and james vi
Mary and James VI

On 19 June 1566, Mary gave birth to a son, James, in Edinburgh Castle. But due to the murder of David Rizzio, this was unable to save the marriage.

In October 1566, while staying at Jedburgh in the Scottish Borders, Mary made a journey on horseback of at least four hours, each way, to visit James Hepburn, 4th Earl of Bothwell at Hermitage Castle, where he lay ill from wounds sustained in a skirmish with border reivers (basically a group raiders).



james hepburn, 4th earl of bothwell
James Hepburn, 4th Earl of Bothwell

Even though the ride was later used as evidence by Mary’s enemies that the two were lovers, though no suspicions were voices at the time and Mary had been accompanied by her councillors and guards.

Immediately after her return to Jedburgh, she suffered a serious illness that included frequent vomiting, loss of sight and speech, convulsions and periods of unconsciousness. She was thought to be near death or dying. Her miraculous recovery from 25 October 1566 onwards was credited to the sill of her French physicians. Today we are still not sure what her illness was. Diagnoses include physical exhaustion and mental stress, haemorrhage of a gastric ulcer, and porphyria.

At the end of November 1566 at Craigmillar Castle, near Edinburgh, Mary and leading nobles held a meeting to discuss the “problem of Darnley”. Divorce was discussed, but a bond was probably sworn between the lords present to remove Henry by other means.

“It was thought expedient and most profitable for the common wealth … that such a young fool and proud tyrant should not reign or bear rule over them; … that he should be put off by one way or another; and whosoever should take the deed in hand or do it, they should defend”.

Henry feared for his safety, with reason, and after the baptism of his son at Stirling shortly before Christmas, he went to Glasgow to stay on his father’s estates. At the start of his journey, he was afflicted by a fever, quite possibly from either smallpox, syphilis, or the result of poison. He remained ill for some weeks.

In late January 1567, prompted by Mary, Henry returned to Edinburgh. He recuperated from his illness in a house belonging to the brother of Sir James Balfour at the former abbey of Kirk o’ Field, just within the city wall. A reconciliation seemed to appear when Mary would visit Henry daily.

On the night of 9 February 1567, Mary visited Henry in the early evening and then attended the wedding celebrations of a member of her household, Bastian Pagez. In the early hours of 10 February 1567, an explosion devastated Kirk o’ Field. Henry was found dead in the garden, apparently smothered. Even though there were no visible marks of strangulation or violence on the body, James Hepburn, 4th Earl of Bothwell, James Stewart, 1st Earl of Moray, William Maitland of Lethington, James Douglas, 4th Earl of Morton, and Mary herself were among those who came under suspicion.

Elizabeth wrote to Mary of the rumours; “I should ill fulfil the office of a faithful cousin or an affectionate friend if I did not … tell you what all the world is thinking. Men say that, instead of seizing the murderers, you are looking through your fingers while they escape; that you will not seek revenge on those who have done you so much pleasure, as though the deed would never have taken place had not the doers of it been assured of impunity. For myself, I beg you to believe that I would not harbour such a thought”.

kirk o' field drawn for william cecil shortly after the murder of henry stuart, lord darnley, 1567
Kirk o’ Field drawn for William Cecil shortly after the murder of Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, 1567

By the end of February, James Hepburn, 4th Earl of Bothwell, was generally believed to by guilty of Henry’s assassination. Matthew Stewart, 4th Earl of Lennox and Henry’s father, demanded that James Hepburn be tried before the Estates of Parliament, to which Mary agreed, but his request for a delay to gather evidence was denied.

After a seven-hour trial on 12 April 1567, in the absence of Matthew Stewart and with no evidence presented, James Hepburn was acquitted. A week later, James Hepburn managed to convince more than two dozen lords and bishops to sign the Ainslie Tavern Bond, in which they agreed to support his aim to marry Mary. No, that doesn’t make you look guilty at all…

mary depicted with her son, james vi and i; in reality, mary saw her son for the last time when he was ten months old.
Mary depicted with her son, James VI and I; in reality, Mary saw her son for the last time when he was ten months old.

Between 21 and 23 April 1567, Mary visited her ten-month-old son at Stirling unbeknownst to her, for the last time. On her way back to Edinburgh on 24 April, Mary was abducted, willingly or not, by James Hepburn and his men and taken to Dunbar Castle, where he may have raped her. On 6 May, James Hepburn with Mary in tow returned to Edinburgh and on 15 May, at either Holyrood Palace or Holyrood Abbey, they were married according to Protestant rites. Twelve days previously, James Hepburn divorced his first wife, Jean Gordon, who was the sister of George Gordon, 4th Earl of Huntly.

Originally Mary believed that many nobles supported her marriage, but things soon turned sour between James Hepburn, now created Duke of Orkney, and his former peers, and the marriage proved to be deeply unpopular. Catholics considered the marriage unlawful, since they did not recognise James’s divorce or the validity of the Protestant service. Both Catholics and Protestants were shocked that Mary should marry the man (even if acquitted) who was accused of murdering her husband. Also, didn’t he rape her?

However, and I’m not surprised, the marriage was emotional, and Mary became downhearted.

Twenty-Six Scottish peers, known as the confederate lords, turned against Mary and James Hepburn, raising an army against them. On 15 June 1567, they confronted the lords at Carberry Hill, but there was no battle as Mary’s forces dwindled away through desertion during negotiations. James Hepburn was given safe passage from the field, and the lords took Mary to Edinburgh, where crowds of spectators denounced her as an adulteress and murderer. The following night, she was imprisoned in Loch Leven Castle, on an island in the middle of Loch Leven. Between 20 and 23 July 1567, Mary miscarried twins, and on 24 July, she was forced to abdicate in favour of her one-year-old son, now James VI of Scotland, his uncle, James Stewart, 1st Earl of Moray, became his regent.

James Hepburn was driven into exile and later imprisoned in Denmark. He became insane and died in 1578. Well deserved if you ask me.

mary, queen of scots escaping from loch leven castle
Mary, Queen of Scots escaping from Loch Leven Castle

On 2 May 1568, Mary escaped from Loch Leven castle, with the aid of George Douglas, brother of William Douglas, 6th Earl of Morton who was the castle’s owner. Managing to raise an army of 6,000 men, she met James Stewart’s smaller forces at the Battle of Langside on 13 May. Unfortunately, Mary was defeated forcing her to flee south. After spending the night at Dundrennan Abbey, she crossed the Solway Firth into England by fishing boat on 16 May. She landed at Workington in Cumberland in the north of England and stayed overnight at Workington hall. On 18 May, local officials took her into protective custody at Carlisle Castle.

Mary must have expected Elizabeth to help her regain her throne, but Elizabeth was cautious, ordering an inquiry into the conduct of the confederate lords and the question of whether Mary was guilty of her second husband’s murder. In mid-July 1568, English authorities moved Mary to Bolton Castle, because it was further from the Scottish border but not too close to London.

A commission of inquiry, or conference as it was known, was held in York and later Westminster, between October 1568 and January 1569. In Scotland, Mary’s supporters fought a civil war against the now regent, James Stewart and his successors.

As an anointed Queen, Mary refused to acknowledge the power of any court to try her and refused to attend the inquiry at York personally (she sent representatives), but Elizabeth forbade her attendance anyway.

As evidence against Mary, James Stewart presented the “so-called” casket letters. Eight unsigned letters purportedly from Mary to James Hepburn, two marriage contracts, and a love sonnet or sonnets said to have been found in a silver-gilt casket just less than 30 cm long, decorated with the monogram of King Francis II.

mary beaton
Mary Beaton

Mary vehemently denied writing them, arguing that her handwriting was not difficult to imitate, insisting they were forgeries. It has been said that Mary Beaton, who was one of the “Four Mary’s”, had written these letters. Mary Beaton’s mother was a mistress to none other than James Hepburn himself.

These letters are widely believed to be crucial as to whether Mary shares the guilt for Henry’s murder. The chair of the commission of inquiry, Thomas Howard, 4th Duke of Norfolk, described them as horrible letters and diverse fond ballads, and sent copies to Elizabeth, saying that if they were genuine, they might prove Mary’s guilt.

The authenticity of the casket letters has been the source of much controversy among historians. It is impossible now to prove either way, as the originals that were written in French, were probably destroyed in 1584 by Mary’s son, James. The surviving copies, in French and translated in English, do not form a complete set. There are also incomplete printed transcriptions in English, Scots, French, and Latin from the 1570s.

Besides these incriminating letters, other documents scrutinised included James Hepburn’s divorce from Jean Gordon. James Stewart had sent a messenger in September to Dunbar to get a copy of the proceedings from the town’s registers.

Mary’s biographers such as, Antonia Fraser (our March book of the month), Alison Weir and John Guy, have come to the conclusion that either the documents were complete forgeries, or incriminating passages were inserted into genuine letters. Or, that the letter was written to James Hepburn by some other person, or by Mary to some other person. John Guy points out that the letters are disjointed, and that the French language and grammar employed in the sonnets are too poor for a writer with Mary’s education. However, there are certain phrases of the letters (including verses in the style of Pierre de Ronsard), and certain characteristics of style would be compatible with known writings of Mary.

My personal thoughts, I believe them to be forgeries. Not because I love Mary, Queen of Scots, but it just doesn’t make sense. If she really did write love letters and what not, why did she keep it instead of burning them? It all just seems like one big plot to get rid of Mary.

The casket letters did not appear publicly until the conference of 1568, although the Scottish privy council had seen them by December 1567. Mary had been forced to abdicate and held captive for the best part of a year in Scotland. The letters were never made public to support her imprisonment and forced abdication. Historian, Jenny Wormald, believes this reluctance on the part of the Scots to produce the letters, and their destruction in 1584, whatever their content, constitute proof that they contained real evidence against Mary. Whereas, Alison Weir thinks it demonstrates the lords required time to fabricate them.

thomas howard, 4th duke of norfolk
Thomas Howard, 4th Duke of Norfolk

At least, some of Mary’s contemporaries who saw the letters had no doubt that they were genuine. Among them was Thomas Howard, 4th Duke of Norfolk, who secretly conspired to marry Mary in the course of the commission, although he denied it when Elizabeth alluded to his marriage plans, saying “he meant never to marry with a person, where he could not be sure of his pillow”.

After a study of the casket letters and comparison of the penmanship with examples of Mary’s handwriting, the majority of the commissioners accepted them as genuine. Elizabeth, as she had wished, concluded the inquiry with a verdict that nothing was proven, either against the confederate lords or Mary. For overriding political reasons, Elizabeth wished neither to convict nor acquit Mary of murder, and there was never any intention to proceed judicially. The conference as intended as a political exercise. In the end, James Stewart returned to Scotland as its regent, and Mary remained in custody in England. Elizabeth had succeeded in maintaining a Protestant government in Scotland, without either condemning or releasing her fellow sovereign.

In Antonia Fraser’s opinion, it was one of the strangest “trials” in legal history, ending with no finding of guilt against either party with one let home to Scotland while the other remained in custody.

embroidery done by mary in captivity
Embroidery done by Mary in captivity

On 26 January 1569, Mary was moved to Tutbury Castle and placed in the custody of George Talbot, 6th Earl of Shrewsbury and his formidable wife, Bess of Hardwick. Elizabeth considered Mary’s designs on the English throne to be a serious threat and so confined her to George Talbot, 6th Earl of Shrewsbury’s properties, including Tutbury, Sheffield Castle, Wingfield Manor and Chatsworth House, all located in the interior of England, halfway between Scotland and London, and distant from the sea.


mary in captivity c1578
Mary in captivity c1578

Mary was permitted her own domestic staff, which never numbered fewer than sixteen, and needed thirty carts to transport her belongings from house to house. Her chambers were decorated with fine tapestries and carpets as well as her cloth of state, on which she had the French phrase “En ma fin est mon commencement” (“In my end is my beginning”) embroidered. Her bedlinen was changed daily, and her own chefs prepared meals with a choice of thirty-two dishes served on silver plates. She was occasionally allowed outside under strict supervision, spent seven summers at the spa town of Buxton, and spent much of her time doing embroidery.

Her health declined, perhaps through porphyria or lack of exercise, and by the 1580s, she had severe rheumatism in her limbs, rendering her lame.

In May 1569, Elizabeth attempted to mediate the restoration of Mary in return for guarantees of the Protestant religion, but a convention held at Perth rejected the deal overwhelmingly. Thomas Howard, 4th Duke of Norfolk, continued to scheme for a marriage with Mary, leaving Elizabeth to imprison him in the Tower of London between October 1569 and August 1570.

Early the following year on 23 January 1570, James Stewart assassinated. James’s death coincided with a rebellion in the North of England, led by Catholic earls, which persuaded Elizabeth that Mary was a threat. English troops intervened in the Scottish civil war, consolidating the power of the anti-Marian forces. Elizabeth’s principal secretaries, Sir Francis Walsingham and William Cecil, Lord Burghley, watched Mary carefully with the aid of spies placed in Mary’s household.

mary in captivity c1580
Mary in captivity c1580

In 1571, Sir Francis Walsingham and William Cecil, Lord Burghley uncovered the Ridolfi Plot, which was a plan to replace Elizabeth with Mary, with the help of Spanish troops and Thomas Howard, 4th Duke of Norfolk. On 2 June 1572, Thomas Howard was executed, and the English Parliament introduced a bill barring Mary from the throne, to which Elizabeth refused to give her royal assent. Maybe because of this, or to discredit Mary, the casket letters were published in London.

Plots cantered around Mary continued. Pope Gregory XIII endorsed one plan in the latter half of the 1570s, to marry her to the governor of the Low Countries and half-brother of Philip II of Spain, Don John of Austria, who was supposed to organise the invasion of England from the Spanish Netherlands.

After the Throckmorton Plot of 1583, Sir Francis Walsingham introduced the Bond of Association and the Act for the Queen’s Safety, which sanctioned the killing of anyone who plotted against Elizabeth and aimed to prevent a putative successor from profiting from her murder.

james iv ages twenty
James IV, here aged twenty

In 1584, Mary proposed an “Association” with her now eighteen-year-old son, James VI. She announced that she was ready to stay in England, to renounce the Pope’s bull of excommunication and to retire, abandoning her pretensions to the English Crown. She even offered to join an offensive league against France, her childhood home. For Scotland, she proposed a general amnesty, agreed that James should marry with Elizabeth’s knowledge and agreed that there should be no change in religion. Her only condition, was the immediate alleviation of the conditions of her captivity.

James VI went along with the idea for a while, but then rejected it and signed an alliance treaty with Elizabeth, abandoning his mother. Elizabeth also rejected the “Association” because she did not trust Mary to cease plotting against her during the negotiations.

Elizabeth obviously has trust issues, and shame on James. I know he really didn’t know his mother, and probably heard horrid rumours about her but, c’mon.

In February 1585, William Parry was convicted of plotting to assassinate Elizabeth, without Mary’s knowledge, though her agent Thomas Morgan was implicated. In April of that year, Mary was placed in the stricter custody of Sir Amias Paulet, and at Christmas, she was moved to moated manor house at Chartley.

drawing of the trial of mary, queen of scots, 14–15 october 1586
Drawing of the trial of Mary, Queen of Scots, 14–15 October 1586

On 11 August 1586, after being implicated in the Babington Plot, Mary was arrested while out riding and taken to Tixall. In a successful attempt to entrap Mary, Sir Francis Walsingham had deliberately arranged for her letters to be smuggled out of Chartley. Mary was misled into thinking her letters were secure (why, since in her position she should trust no one), while in reality they were deciphered and read by Sir Francis Walsingham.

From these letters, it was clear that Mary had sanctioned the attempted assassination of Elizabeth. She was moved to Fotheringhay Castle in a four-day journey ending on 25 September 1586. On 14 October, Mary was put on trial for treason under the Act for the Queen’s Safety before a court of 36 noblemen, including William Cecil, Lord Burghley, Sir Francis Walsingham and George Talbot, 6th Earl of Shrewsbury.

Mary denied the charges, telling her triers, “Look to your consciences and remember that the theatre of the whole world is wider than the kingdom of England”. She protested that she had been denied the opportunity to review the evidence, that her papers had been removed from her, that she was denied access to legal counsel and that as a foreign anointed Queen, she had never been an English subject and thus could not be convicted of treason.

On 25 October 1586, Mary was convicted and sentenced to death with only one commissioner, Edward la Zouche, 11th Baron Zouche, expressing any form of disagreement. Nevertheless, Elizabeth hesitated to order her execution, even in the face of pressure from the English Parliament to carry out the sentence. She was concerned that the killing of a Queen set a discreditable precedent and was fearful of the consequences, especially if, in retaliation, Mary’s son, James VI, formed an alliance with the Catholic powers and invaded England.

Elizabeth asked Sir Amias Paulet, Mary’s final custodian, if he would contrive a clandestine way to “shorten the life” of Mary, which he refused to do on the grounds that he would not make “a shipwreck of my conscience, or leave so great a blot on my poor posterity”.

On 1 February 187, Elizabeth finally signed the death warrant, and entrusted it to William Davison, a privy councillor. Two days later, ten members of the Privy Council of England, having been summoned by William Cecil, Lord Burghley without Elizabeth’s knowledge, decided to carry out the sentence at once.

the execution scene, drawn by eyewitness robert beale
The execution scene, drawn by eyewitness Robert Beale

On the evening of 7 February 1587 at Fotheringhay, Mary was told that she was to be executed the next morning. She spent the last hours of her life in prayer, distributing her belongings to her household, and writing her will and a letter to King Henry III of France.

The scaffold that was erected in the Great Hall, was two feet high and draped in black. It was reached by two or three steps and furnished with the block, a cushion for her to kneel on (because comfort is important…), and three stools, for her and George Talbot, 6th Earl of Shrewsbury and Henry Grey, 6th Earl of Kent, who were there to witness the execution.

The executioners, one named Bull and his assistant, knelt before her and asked forgiveness, as it was typical for the executioner to ask the pardon of the one being put to death, for their conscious. She replied, “I forgive you with all my heart, for now, I hope, you shall make an end of all my troubles”. Her servants, Jane Kennedy and Elizabeth Curle and the executioners, helped Mary to remove her outer garments, revealing a velvet petticoat and a pair of sleeves in crimson brown, the liturgical colour martyrdom in the Catholic Church, with a black satin bodice and black trimmings.

As she disrobed she smiled and said that she “never had such grooms before… nor ever put off her clothes before such company”. She was blindfolded by Jane Kennedy with a white veil embroidered in gold, knelt down on the cushion in front of the block, on which she positioned her head and stretched out her arms.

Her last words were, “In manus tuas, Domine, commendo spiritum meum” (“into thy hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit”).

This next part always makes me cringe, Mary was not beheaded with a single strike. The first blow missed her neck and struck the back of her head. The second blow severed her neck, except for small bit of sinew, which the executioner cut through using the axe. The executioner held the head aloft and declared, “God save the Queen”. At that moment, the auburn tresses in his hand turned out to be a wig and the head fell to the ground, revealing that Mary had very short, grey hair.

A small dog owned by Mary, a Skye Terrier, is said to have been hiding among her skirts, unseen by the spectators. Following her beheading, the dog was covered in her blood and refused to be parted from her body, until it was forcibly taken away and washed.

Items supposedly worn or carried by Mary at her execution are of doubtful provenance. They say that all her clothing, the block and everything she touched by her blood, was burnt in the fireplace of the Great Hall to obstruct relic-hunters.

When the news of Mary’s execution reached Elizabeth, she became outraged and asserted that privy councillor, William Davison, had disobeyed her instructions not to part with the warrant and that the Privy Council had acted without her authority. Elizabeth’s indecisiveness and deliberately vague instructions gave her plausible deniability to attempt to avoid the direct stain of Mary’s blood. William Davison was arrested and thrown into the Tower of London, and found guilty of misprision. Of course, he was released nineteen months later after William Cecil, Lord Burghley and Sir Francis Walsingham interceded on his behalf.

death mask of mary
Death mask of Mary

Mary’s request to be buried in France was refused by Elizabeth. Her body was embalmed and left in a secure lead coffin until her burial, in a Protestant service, at Peterborough Cathedral on 30 July 1587. Her entrails, removed as part of the embalming process, were buried secretly within Fotheringhay Castle.

On 28 October 1612,  Mary’s body was exhumed when her son now also King of England after Elizabeth’s death, ordered that she be reinterred in Westminster Abbey in a chapel opposite the tomb of Elizabeth I.



tomb of mary at westminster abbey 2
Tomb of Mary at Westminster Abbey from above

In 1867, her tomb was opened in an attempt to discover the resting place of James, he was ultimately found with Henry VII, but many other descendants, including Elizabeth of Bohemia, Price Rupert of the Rhine and the children of Queen Anne of Great Britain, were interred in her vault.

tomb of mary at westminster abbey

So that is the end of Mary, Queen of Scots. It was really hard to write her execution, when you take away facts and figures, you realise she was an actual person. I felt like from the beginning of her life, other people’s actions affected how she lived and ultimately died.

Getting to know her just this little bit more, has given me more of an appreciation of her character and situation.



Mary, Queen of Scots ~ The Young Queen

baby mary

On 8th December 1542, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary, Mary, Queen of Scots was born at Linlithgow Palace, Scotland, to King James V of Scotland and his second wife, Mary of Guise.

It’s disputed on the exact date of her birth, according to John Lesley, Bishop of Ross, who had special access to official records, it’s said she was born on the 7th. Suggesting that she was actually born on the 7th, but changed to the 8th to coincide with the feast of the Virgin Mary.

Not long after her birth, she was baptised at the nearby Church of St Michael.

Whatever the date was, she was born prematurely and was the only legitimate child of James V to survive him. She was also the great-niece of King Henry VIII of England through her paternal grandmother, Margaret Tudor, Henry’s elder sister.

james v
James V of Scotland

On the news of his wife, Mary of Guise, giving birth to a daughter, James V on his deathbed said; “it cam wi’ a lass and it will gang wi’ a lass!” Meaning the House of Stewart had gained the throne of Scotland through the marriage of Marjorie Bruce, daughter of Robert the Bruce, to Walter Stewart, 6th High Steward of Scotland. The crown had come to his family through a woman, and would be lost through a woman. This legendary statement came true, not through Mary, but through her descendant, Queen Anne.

For more details on the House of Stewart, click here.

Six days later after her birth, on 14 December 1542, James V died, leaving the tiny infant as Queen of Scotland. James V’s death was perhaps the effects of a nervous collapse following the defeat from the Battle of Solway Moss, or from drinking contaminated water while on campaign.

Rumours plagued that Mary was a weak and frail baby, some went as far to say she was dead. It wasn’t until in March 1543, when Ralph Sadler, and English diplomat, saw the infant at Linlithgow Palace. Mary of Guise asked the nurse to unwrap Mary to prove she was indeed alive and healthy. Ralph Sadler later wrote to Henry VIII, “it is a goodly a child as I have seen of her age, and as like to live”.

james hamilton, 3rd earl of arran
James Hamilton, 2nd Earl of Arran

Due to the fact that Mary was only six days old when she inherited the throne, Scotland was ruled by regents until she became an adult. From the beginning, there were two claims to the regency: one from Cardinal David Beaton, whose claim was based on a version of James V’s will that his opponents dismissed as forgery. And the other from the Protestant James Hamilton, 2nd Earl of Arran, who was next in line to the throne.

James Hamilton, 2nd Earl of Arran, with the support of his friends and relations, became the regent until 1554, until Mary’s mother managed to remove and succeed him.

Henry VIII of England took the opportunity to seize Scotland by proposing a marriage between Mary and his own son and heir, Edward. When Mary was six-months-old on 1 July 1543, the Treaty of Greenwich was signed, which promised at the age of ten, Mary would marry Edward and move to England, where Henry VIII would keep a close eye on her upbringing. The treaty also stated that the two countries would remain legally separate and that if the couple should fail to have children the temporary union would dissolve.

However, Cardinal David Beaton rose back to power again and began to push a pro-Catholic pro-French agenda, which angered Henry, who wanted to break the Scottish alliance with France. We also have to remember, Mary’s first husband wasn’t born yet, quiet possibly Cardinal David Beaton was hoping there would be a future heir or higher ranked noble.

coronation of mary
Coronation of Mary, Queen of Scots

As well as breaking away from England and the treaty, Cardinal David Beaton wanted to move Mary away from the coast to the safety of Stirling Castle. At first James Hamilton, 2nd Earl of Arran, resisted the move, but backed down when Cardinal David Beaton’s armed supporters gathered at Linlithgow.

On 27 July 1543, Matthew Stewart, 4th Earl of Lennox, escorted Mary and her mother to Stirling with 3,500 armed men. Less then two months later, Mary was crowned in the castle chapel on 9 September 1543, with “such solemnity as they do use in this country, which is not very costly” according to the report of Ralph Sadler and Henry Ray, who was Ralph Sadler’s go-between in Scotland.

What also tipped Scotland in favour of France was an incident that happened before Mary’s coronation. Scottish merchants headed for France were arrested by Henry VIII, and their goods impounded. Causing anger in Scotland, it also swayed James Hamilton, 2nd Earl of Arran to finally join Cardinal David Beaton and become a Catholic. In December, the Treaty of Greenwich was rejected by the Parliament of Scotland.

The rejection of the marriage treaty and the renewal of the Auld Alliance between Scotland and France provoked Henry VIII’s “Rough Wooing” as they will call it. A military campaign designed to intimidate and force the marriage of Mary to his son, Edward, by mounting a series of raids on Scottish and French territory.

On 3 May 1544, Edward Seymour, 1st Earl of Hertford, raided Edinburgh prompting the Scots to safely take Mary to Dunkeld.

contemporary sketch showing the deployment of hertford's forces before they burnt edinburgh in may 1544
Contemporary sketch showing the deployment of Hertford’s forces before they burnt Edinburgh in May 1544

A year later on 29 May 1546, Cardinal David Beaton was murdered by the Protestant Lairds, and then nine months after the death of Henry VIII, on 10 September 1547, the Scots suffered a heavy defeat at the Battle of Pinkie Cleugh. Fearful again for Mary’s safety, her guardians sent her to Inchmahome Priory for no more than three weeks, before turning to the French for help.

Now that France had an heir to the throne, King Henry II of France proposed to unite the two countries by marrying Mary to his three-year-old, the Dauphin Francis. The French promised military help, and a French dukedom for James Hamilton as Duke of Chatellreault, which he happily agreed to.

In February 1548, Mary was moved again to Dumbarton Castle. The English left a trail of devastation behind once more and seized the strategic town of Haddington. In June, the French cavalry arrived at Leith to besiege and ultimately take Haddington.

On 7 July 1548, the Scottish Parliament held at a nunnery near the town, agreed to a French marriage treaty.

mary of guise
Mary of Guise

With the marriage agreement finalised, five-year-old Mary was sent to France to spend the next thirteen years at the French court. This was obviously hard for Mary’s mother, as she had to leave her son behind in France to marry James V of Scotland. To send off your child must’ve been heartbreaking.

The French fleet, sent by Henry II and commanded by Nicolas de Villegagnon, sailed from Dumbarton on 7 August 1548, arriving a week or more later at Roscoff or Saint-Pol-de-Leon in Brittany. Mary was accompanied by her own court, including two illegitimate half-brothers, Robert and James, and the “four Marys”, four girls around her age, all named Mary. The “four Mary’s” were daughters of some of the noblest families in Scotland; Beaton, Seton, Fleming, and Livingston. Mary Fleming’s mother, Lady Janet Stewart, was appointed governess.

catherine de medici
Catherine de’ Medici

According to contemporary accounts, Mary was vivacious, beautiful, and clever with a promising childhood. At the French court, she was the favourite among everyone. There is rumours and speculation on the relationship between Mary and her future mother-in-law, Catherine de’ Medici. I do believe there was a special bond at the beginning, especially how Catherine saw how much Francis loved his wife-to-be. It’s not until later on in life you see that shift.

She did grow up along with the French royal children, becoming very close with Francis’s sisters, Elisabeth and Claude.

Mary learned to play lute and virginals, was competent in prose, poetry, horsemanship, falconry and needlework. She was taught French, Italian, Latin, Spanish, and Greek, in addition to speaking her native Scots.

Her maternal grandmother, Antionette de Bourbon, were very close. Antionette promising Mary of Guise to keep young Mary under her wing, and reporting how she was behaving and treated in France.

mary thirteen
Mary around thirteen-years-old

Portraits of Mary show that she had a small, oval-shaped head, a long and graceful neck, bright auburn hair, hazel-brown eyes under heavy lowered eyelids and finely arched brows. Smooth pale skin, a high forehead, and regular firm features. She was considered as a child pretty, but in adulthood, strikingly attractive. Luckily, when Mary was an infant she caught smallpox, but was relived to not suffer the marks.

For this time period, Mary was very tall by sixteen-century standards. By adulthood, she reached the height of 5 feet 11 inches or 1.80 m. Her future husband on the other hand was abnormally short, even for this time period. Due to the conditions of his birth, Francis was, to put it nicely, a very late bloomer. Frail and undersized, he looked up to the healthy Mary. Henry II even commented that “from the very first day they met, my son and she got on as well together as if they had known each other for a long time”. It is true, they grew up being the best of friends and companions.

On 4 April 1558, Mary signed a secret agreement bestowing Scotland and her claim to England to the French crown if she died without issue. Twenty days later, Mary married Francis at Notre Dame de Paris, making Francis King consort of Scotland.

elizabeth i
Elizabeth I of England

On 17 November 1558, Henry VIII of England’s eldest daughter, Mary I of England, was succeeded by her only surviving sibling, Elizabeth I. Under the Third Succession Act, passed in 1543 by the Parliament of England, Elizabeth was recognised as her sister’s heir. Yet, in the eyes of many Catholics, Elizabeth was illegitimate, and Mary as the senior descendant of Henry VIII’s eldest sister, was the rightful Queen of England.

Seeing this opportunity, Henry II of France proclaimed his eldest son and daughter-in-law King and Queen of England and Scotland. He even had the royal arms of England quartered with those of Francis and Mary. Mary’s claim to the English throne was a perennial sticking point between the two Queens.

I think Elizabeth would’ve let her off, believing it was the works of Henry II and his advisors, but Mary continued to claim she was heir to the English throne after Henry II’s death.

francis and mary
Francis and Mary crowned King and Queen of France

On 10 July 1559, Henry II of France died from injuries sustained in a joust, two lance fragments in the eye and neck. Henry was succeeded by Francis II and Mary as King and Queen of France.

Back home in Scotland, the power of the Protestant Lords of the Congregation, was rising at the expense of Mary’s mother, who maintained effective control only through the use of French troops.

The Protestant Lords invited English troops into Scotland in an attempt to secure Protestantism, and a Huguenot rising in France, called the Tumult of Amboise, in March 1560 made it impossible for the French to send further support. Instead, Francis, Duke of Guise and Charles, Cardinal of Lorraine (brother of Mary of Guise), sent ambassadors to negotiate a settlement.

On 11 June 1560, Mary of Guise died, and so the question of future Franco-Scots relations was a pressing one. Under the terms of the Treaty of Edinburgh, signed by Mary’s representatives on 6 July 1560, France and England undertook to withdraw troops from Scotland and France and recognising Elizabeth’s right to rule England. However, the seventeen-year-old Mary, still in France and grieving for her mother, refused to ratify the treaty until she could talk with her council on the matter.

Mary’s Coat of Arms while in France

coat of arms

Sadly, on 5 December 1560, Francis II of France died from a middle ear infection that led to an abscess in his brain. Mary was grief-stricken, she had not long ago lost her mother, but now her childhood friend and husband. By swift negotiations, Catherine de’ Medici, became regent for the late King’s ten-year-old brother, Charles IX of France.

Now that Mary was no longer Queen of France, what was to become of her? She could stay in France as was befitting of a widowed Queen, or she could return to her birth home, Scotland, and rule as their rightful Queen.

To see what is next installed with our favourite Queen, stay tuned for the next blog post scheduled on Friday 23 March.



House of Stewart

The name “Stewart” originates from the political position of office similar to a governor, known as steward. It was adopted as the family surname by Walter Stewart, 3rd High Steward of Scotland. Prior to this, family names were not used, instead they had patronyms, a name derived from the name of a father or ancestor. For example, the first two High Stewards were known as FitzAlan and FitzWalter respectively. The gallicised spelling (to make or become French in language) was first borne by John Stewart of Darnley, after his time in the French wars.

Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley and Mary, Queen of Scots

During the 16th century, the French spelling of Stuart was adopted by Mary, Queen of Scots, when she was living in France. She authorized the change to ensure the correct pronunciation of the Scots version of the name Stewart, the letter “w” would have made it difficult for French speakers.

The spelling of Stuart was also used by her second husband, Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley. He was the father of James VI and I, so the official spelling Stuart for the British royal family derives from him.

family tree

Walter Stewart, 6th High Steward of Scotland, married Marjorie Bruce, daughter of Robert the Bruce. He also played an important part in the Battle of Bannockburn, gaining further favour.

Walter Stewart, 6th High Steward of Scotland, Coat of Arms

Their son, Robert, was heir to the House of Bruce, the lordship of Cunningham and the Bruce lands of Bourtreehill. When his uncle, David II, died childless on 22 February 1371, he inherited the Scottish throne as Robert II.

robert ii of scotland
Robert II of Scotland

In 1593, James IV of Scotland hoped to secure peace with England by marrying King Henry VII’s daughter, Margaret Tudor. The birth of their son, James V, brought the House of Stewart into the line of descent of the House of Tudor, and the English throne.

james iv of scotland and margaret tudor
James IV of Scotland and Margaret Tudor

Margaret Tudor later married Archibald Douglas, 6th Earl of Angus, and their daughter, Margaret Douglas, was the mother of Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley.

In 1565, Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, married his half-cousin Mary, Queen of Scots, the daughter of James V and Mary of Guise.

James V of Scotland and Mary of Guise

Both Mary, Queen of Scots and Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, had strong claims to the English throne, through their mutual grandmother, Margaret Tudor. This led to the accession of the couple’s only child, James, as King of Scotland, England and Ireland on 24 March 1603. However, this was a Personal Union, as the three kingdoms shared a monarch, but had separate governments, churches, and institutions.

Mary, Queen of Scots and James VI + I of Scotland, England and Ireland

This personal union did not prevent an armed conflict, known as the Bishops’ Wars, breaking out between England and Scotland in 1639. This was to become part of the cycle of political and military conflict that marked the reign of Charles I of England, Scotland and Ireland, terminating in a series of conflicts known as the War of the Three Kingdoms.


Quick Facts ~ King Edward III of England

edward iii of england



King Edward III of England


13 November 1312

Windsor Castle, Berkshire


21 June 1377

Sheen Palace, Richmond


5 July 1377

Westminster Abbey, London


King Edward II of England


Isabella of France






Philippa of Hainault


Edward, the Black Prince

15 June 1330

Isabella, Countess of Bedford

16 June 1332

Joan of England

19 December 1333

Lionel, Duke of Clarence

29 November 1338

John, Duke of Lancaster

6 March 1340

Edmund, Duke of York

5 June 1341

Mary, Duchess of Brittany

10 October 1344

Margaret, Countess of Pembroke

20 July 1346

Thomas, Duke of Gloucester

7 January 1355


25 January 1327 – 21 June 1377


1 February 1327





Princess Charlotte of Wales

Princess Charlotte of Wales, to me, isn’t a well-known royal like many others, but I do think her story is important. Because of her death during childbirth and being an only legitimate child of King George IV of England (still Prince of Wales during her lifetime), we wouldn’t have a Queen Victoria.

Charlotte’s death was felt among the British people, who went into deep mourning. They saw Charlotte as a sign of hope and a contrast to both her father and grandfather, King George III of England, who were both seen as mad.

Charlotte didn’t come from happily married parents, actually, it was the complete opposite.

George, Prince of Wales, in 1794 sought for a suitable bride. It wasn’t to secure the succession to the throne, nor to find love, it was because he was promised if he married his income will increase. He chose his cousin, Caroline of Brunswick, who he never met before, but when they did finally meet, both were repelled by each other. Even so, the marriage went ahead on 8 April 1795.

wedding of george and caroline
Wedding of Prince George (George IV) and Caroline of Brunswick

George later stated that they only had sex three times. Being separated within weeks, though they still lived under the same roof.

young charlotte
Young Princess Charlotte of Wales

On 7 January 1796, one day short of nine months after her parents wedding, Princess Charlotte of Wales was born in Carlton House, London.

While Prince George was mildly unhappy that it wasn’t a boy, King George III was actually pleased, he also hoped that the birth of Charlotte would reconcile her parents. The complete opposite happened; Prince George made a will that his wife had no role in the upbringing of their child.

Caroline demanded better treatment after giving birth to the second-in-line to the throne, but Prince George not only gave all his worldly goods to his mistress, Maria Fitzherbert, and giving Caroline only one shilling, but he also would only let her see Charlotte in the presence of a nurse and a governess.

If it wasn’t for the sympathetic household who disobeyed Prince George, she wouldn’t have had the opportunity to be alone with Charlotte. She was even bold enough to ride through the streets of London in a carriage with her daughter, to the delight and applause of the crowds. Since Prince George never visited his daughter, this went all unnoticed to him.

On 11 February 1796, in the Great Drawing Room at Carlton House by the Archbishop of Canterbury, John Moore, she was christened Charlotte Augusta after her grandmothers, Queen Charlotte of England and Augusta, Duchess of Brunswick-Luneburg.

As Charlotte grew up to be healthy and happy, her parents continued to battle each other. In a time period where the English law considered the fathers’ rights to minor children paramount over the mothers, saw in August 1797 Caroline leaving Carlton House and her daughter, establishing herself in a rented home near Blackheath. She did visit Charlotte and the young child was allowed to visit her mother at Blackheath, even if she wasn’t allowed to stay overnight.

Prince George decided he wanted Carlton House to himself after his affections returned to his mistress, Maria Fitzherbert. Eight-year-old Charlotte was moved to Montague House, adjacent to Carlton House. Her new governess, Lady de Clifford, was fond of Charlotte and too good natured to discipline her, who had grown into an exuberant tomboy. Lady de Clifford even brought her grandson, George Keppel, three years younger than Charlotte, as a playmate.

King George III in 1805 began making plans for Charlotte’s education, with not only a large staff of instructors, but also the Bishop of Exeter, who instructed her in the faith that King George III believed one-day Charlotte would defend as queen.

Charlotte on the other hand, chose to learn only what she wanted to learn, which was piano taught to her by composer Jane Mary Gust. She became an exceptional pianist.

Caroline and Charlotte by artist, Sir Thomas Lawrence

In 1807, Caroline was accused of adultery with artist Sir Thomas Lawrence and having a child with him. Interesting how a woman can be tried for adultery, but not the man…

Prince George hoped that “The Delicate Investigations”, as it was called, would uncover evidence of adultery that would permit him to a divorce.

Ten-year-old Charlotte was aware of it all, and was deeply saddened that she was not allowed to see her mother. Fortunately, this all changed when the investigators found no evidence of Caroline having a second child and having an affair with the artist who painted both Caroline and Charlotte in 1800.

During her teen years, Charlotte was a free spirit. Even though her father was proud of her horsemanship, the members of the court considered her behaviours undignified. Like allowing her ankle-length under drawers to show. She also identified herself a lot with Jane Austen’s Marianne in Sense and Sensibility.

Charlotte and King George III were very close and fond of each other. When in late 1810, she was deeply saddened to hear the news of his decline in health and sanity. This led to her father on 6 February 1811, sworn before the Privy Council as Prince Regent.

Prince George was raised under strict rules, which he continuously rebelled at, so there is no surprise that his daughter was exactly the same. At the age of fifteen, she was required to spend most of her time at Windsor with her maiden aunts. But Charlotte was at an age where she was interested in boys, and while at Windsor she became infatuated with her first cousin, George FitzClarence, illegitimate son of the Duke of Clarence. It was to be a short love, for George FitzClarence was to be sent to Brighton to join the regiment.

Not long after George FitzClarence leaving did Charlotte have eyes for someone else, Lieutenant Charles Hesse of the Light Dragoons. It is said he is the illegitimate son of Charlotte’s uncle, Prince Frederick, Duke of York and Albany.

Lady de Clifford was worried of Prince George finding out his daughter and Charles Hesse were secretly meeting each other. Caroline, on the other hand, was delighted by her daughter’s love. She even encouraged their romance by allowing them alone time in a room in her apartments. Besides Prince George, most people in the royal family were aware of this, but said and did nothing because they weren’t fond of the way he was treating his daughter. Unfortunately, the romance ended when Charles Hesse left to join the British forces in Spain.

In 1813, when Charlotte was seventeen, her father began to seriously consider her marriage. His advisors decided on William, Hereditary Prince of Orange, the son and heir-apparent of Prince William VI of Orange. If this marriage was to go ahead, it would increase the British influence in Northwest Europe.

At her father’s birthday party on 12 August, Charlotte was not impressed when she first met William. He was completely intoxicated, even though so was her father and many of the guests. Undeterred by this, on 12 December, Prince George had arranged a meeting between Charlotte and William at a dinner party. While the dinner party was still going, Prince George asked for her decision, she replied that she had liked what she had seen so far. Prince George took this as an acceptance and quickly called in William to inform him.

Over several months, negotiations took place for the marriage contract. Charlotte did not want to leave Britain, and with the diplomats having no desire to see two thrones united, came to the agreement that Britain would go to the couple’s oldest son, while the second son would inherit the Netherlands. If there was only one son, the Netherlands would pass onto the German branch of the House of Orange. The marriage contract was signed by Charlotte on 10 June 1814.

It was a party at the Pulteney Hotel in London, Charlotte would meet her true love, even if she didn’t really know it yet. Lieutenant-General in the Russian cavalry, Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld. Charlotte invited Leopold to call on her, an invitation he happily took up. They remained for three quarters of an hour together, longer than what was proper or normal. After, Leopold wrote a letter to Prince George, apologising for any indiscretion. Prince George was impressed by the letter, but probably saw nothing else in it since his daughter had signed her marriage contract.

Charlotte (far left) and Leopold (in front of window)

Caroline was opposed of the match between her daughter and William, Prince of Orange. Even having the support of the public, who, while Charlotte was out in public, urged her not to abandon her mother by marrying William. Charlotte went to William and said that if they wed, her mother had to stay with them. William would not agree to this, leaving Charlotte to break the engagement.

After hearing the news his daughter had broken off the engagement, he ordered for her to remain at her residence of Warwick House, adjacent to Carlton House, until she could be conveyed to Cranbourne Lodge at Windsor, where she would only be allowed to see her grandmother the Queen. Hearing this, Charlotte escaped to her mother’s house. But it wasn’t long until her uncle, Duke of York, came with a warrant to escort her back to her father, with force if need be. Reluctantly, she concurred.

Despite her isolation in Cranbourne Lodge, Charlotte found life surprisingly agreeable, slowly becoming reconciled with her situation.

Towards the end of July 1814, Prince George visited his daughter to inform her, that her mother was about to leave England for an extended stay on the Continent. Charlotte was upset by the news, but knew that whatever she said to her mother, she wouldn’t change her mind. She was saddened even more by her mother’s last words before leaving; “For God knows how long, or what events may occur before we meet again”.

Unfortunately, Charlotte would never see her mother again.

In late August, Charlotte was permitted to visit the seaside. She had hoped it would be the fashionable Brighton, but Prince George refused sending her instead to Weymouth. Even though it was not her choice to visit Weymouth, while arriving in her carriage, Charlotte was received by adoring crowds. It showed that the people loved her, and knew one day they would see her as their queen.

Charlotte spent most of her time in Weymouth exploring and shopping. She must’ve had a clear of mind, for when she returned home in December, her father and herself reconciled any differences.

In the early months of 1815, Charlotte had eyes only for one man, Leopold. Or as she called him, “the Leo”. If she was to marry, she wanted Leopold as her husband. Prince George still had hope she would change her mind and marry William, Prince of Orange, but nothing would bend her will. Faced against his daughter and the Royal family, Prince George could not refuse.

Charlotte, through intermediaries, contacted Leopold, who was delighted by the news. Unfortunately, with Napoleon renewing the conflict on the Continent, Leopold was with his regiment fighting.

Shortly before returning to Weymouth in July, Charlotte formally requested her father’s permission to marry Leopold, but he refused. With the unsettled political situation on the Continent, he could not consider such a request. Charlotte of course was frustrated, especially when Leopold did not come to Britain after the restoration of peace. He was stationed in Paris, which she deemed to be only a short journey from Weymouth or London.

It wasn’t until January 1816 when Prince George finally gave in and summoned Leopold, who was in Berlin en-route to Russia, to Britain. In late February 1816, Leopold arrived in Britain and went straight to Brighton to be interviewed by Prince George. Charlotte was invited after, and after having dinner with her father and Leopold she wrote;

“I find him charming, and go to bed happier than I have ever done yet in my life…I am certainly a very fortunate creature and have to bless God. A Princess never, I believe, set out in life with such prospects of happiness, real domestic ones like other people”.

Prince George was again impressed by Leopold, but now saw him as a perfect husband for his daughter. On 2 March, Charlotte was sent back to Cranbourne. Fearful of a repetition like William, Prince of Orange. Prince George limited Charlotte’s contact with Leopold. Only seeing each other at dinner, but never alone.

On 14 March, an announcement was made in the House of Commons. Parliament voted Leopold £50,000 per year, Claremont House for the couple, and a generous single payment to set up house.

On 2 May 1816, Princess Charlotte of Wales married Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld.

NPG D16053,'Marriage of the Princess Charlotte of Wales to Prince Leopold of Saxe-Cobourg, in the Crimson Saloon, at Carleton House, May 2 1816',by; published by; after Robert Hicks; Nuttall, Fisher & Dixon; William Marshall Craig
Wedding of Charlotte and Leopold

At nine o’clock in the evening in the Crimson Drawing Room at Carlton House, with Leopold dressing for the first time as a British General, and Charlotte in a £10,000 wedding dress, the couple were married. The only “mishap” was during the ceremony, Charlotte was heard giggling when Leopold promised to endow her with all his worldly goods. I don’t think this shows Charlotte as immature, more like fun and modern. This actually made me like her even more.

This could also mean that I’m actually immature, and that’s true.

The happy couple honeymooned at Oatlands Palace, the Duke of York’s residence in Surrey. Neither were well as the house was filled with the Duke of York’s dogs and the odour of animals. Nevertheless, love overpowered all of that, with Charlotte writing that Leopold was “the perfection of a lover”.

Two days after the marriage, Prince George visited the couple at Oaklands Palace. He spent two hours describing in detail of the military uniforms to Leopold, which according to Charlotte “is a great mark of the most perfect good humour”.

Charlotte and Leopold

Charlotte and Leopold returned to London for the social season, when attending the theatre, they were treated to wild applause from the audience and singing “God Save the King” from the performers on stage.

When she was taken ill at the Opera, there was great public concern about her condition. It was later announced that she had suffered a miscarriage.

On 24 August 1816, they finally took up residence at Claremont House.

Leopold’s physician-in-ordinary, Christian Stockmar (later, as Baron Stockmar, advisor to both Queen Victoria and Prince Albert), wrote that in the first six months of the marriage, he had never seen Charlotte wear anything that was not simple and in good taste. He also noted that she was calm and in control of herself, which he attributed this to Leopold’s influence. Leopold himself later wrote, “Except when I went out to shoot, we were together always, and we could be together, we did not tire”. When Charlotte became too excited, Leopold would simply say, “Doucement cherie” (“Gentry, my love”). Charlotte both accepted the correction and began calling her husband, “Doucement”.

On 7 January, Charlotte’s 21st birthday, Prince George held a huge ball to celebrate, but Charlotte and Leopold did not attend. Instead, they stayed in Claremont and preferred to have a quiet celebration.

At the end of April 1817, Leopold told Prince George that Charlotte was expecting again, this time with high prospects she will carry the baby to term.

Charlotte’s pregnancy was the subject of intense public interest. Like today, betting shops quickly set up book on what the sex of the child would be.

Charlotte spent her time quietly, she ate heavily with little exercise. When her medical team began prenatal care in August 1817, they put her on a strict diet, hoping to reduce the size of the child when born. The diet, and occasional bleeding, would weaken Charlotte. Christian Stockmar, believed this treatment was outdated, and declined to join the medical team. As a foreigner, he believed he would be blamed if anything went wrong.

It was believed Charlotte was due to have her baby on 19 October, but as October ended, she had shown no signs of giving birth.

Much of Charlotte’s day to day care was undertaken by Sir Richard Croft, who was not a physician, but an accoucheur, much in fashion among the well-to-do. On the evening of 3 November, her contractions began. Sir Richard Croft encouraged her to exercise, but would not let her eat. He sent for the officials who were to witness and attest to the royal birth.

As the 4th November became the 5th, it became clear that Charlotte was unable to give birth, Sir Richard Croft and Charlotte’s personal physician, Matthew Baillie, decided to send for obstetrician, John Sims. However, Sir Richard Croft did not allow John Sims to see Charlotte, and forceps were not used.

At nine o’clock in the evening of 5 November, Charlotte finally gave birth to a large stillborn boy. Efforts to resuscitate him were in vain. Noble observers confirmed that it was a handsome boy, resembling the royal family. They were also assured that Charlotte was doing well, and took their leave.

Charlotte heard the news calmly, stating it was the will of God. She took nourishment and seemed to be recovering. Leopold, who had remained with Charlotte throughout, apparently took an opiate and collapsed into his own bed.

It was after midnight that things started to take a turn for Charlotte, waking up vomiting violently and complaining of pains in her stomach. Sir Richard Croft was quickly called, and was alarmed to find Charlotte cold to the touch and breathing with difficulty. The accepted treatment at the time was to place a hot compress on her, but the blood did not stop. He called Christian Stockmar and urged him to bring Leopold, but he found him difficult to rouse, and went to see Charlotte, who grabbed his hand and told him, “They have made me tipsy”. He left the room, planning to try to rouse Leopold again, but was called back by Charlotte’s voice, “Stocky! Stocky!”, but as he entered her room again, he found that Charlotte had passed away.

Charlotte’s death was felt throughout the country. A former MP and future Whig Lord Chancellor, Henry Brougham wrote of the public’s reaction, “It really was as though every household throughout Great Britain had lost a favourite child”.

The shops closed for two weeks, as did the Royal Exchange, the law courts and the docks. Even the poor and homeless tied armbands of black on their clothes. This was a princess well loved.

Prince George was in deep grief, that he was unable to attend her funeral. Caroline heard the news from a passing courier, and fainted in shock. She later stated, “England, that great country, has lost everything in losing my ever-beloved daughter”.

The funeral of Princess Charlotte of Wales

The greatest effect fell on Leopold, who later wrote to artist, Sir Thomas Lawrence:

“Two generations gone. Gone in a moment! I have felt for myself, but I have also felt for Prince George. My Charlotte is gone from the country – it has lost her. She was a good, she was an admirable woman. None could know my Charlotte as I did know her! It was my study, my duty, to know her character, but it was my delight!”.

Leopold truly lost his one true love.

Charlotte statue
Monument of Princess Charlotte in St. George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle.

On 19 November 1817, Charlotte was buried, her son at her feet, in St. George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle. A monument was erected, by public subscription, at her tomb.

Just like Christian Stockmar predicted, it wasn’t long before the public began to pin blame on someone for the tragedy. The Queen and her son, Prince George, were blamed for not being with Charlotte while she was giving birth, although Charlotte had specifically requested that they were to stay away. Even though the postmortem was inconclusive, many blamed Sir Richard Croft for his care of Charlotte. Even though Prince George refused to blame him, it wasn’t until three months after Charlotte’s death and while attending another young woman, that Sir Richard Croft snatched up a gun and fatally shot himself. The “triple obstetric tragedy” meaning the death of child, mother, and practitioner, led to significant changes in obstetric practice. With obstetricians who favoured intervention in protracted labour, including in particular more liberal use of forceps, gaining ground over those who did not.

So, even though the story of Princess Charlotte is devastating, it also saw change in childbirth and the care of the mother.

Charlotte’s death also left King George III without any legitimate grandchildren, this led the newspapers urging the King’s unmarried sons towards matrimony. One such leading article reached the King’s fourth son, Prince Edward, Duke of Kent and Strathearn, at his home in Brussels. Edward quickly dismissed his mistress, Julie de St Laurent, and proposed to Leopold’s sister, Victoria, Dowager Princess of Leiningen. Their daughter, Victoria, would later become Queen of the United Kingdom in 1837.


Alfred the Great

Deciding on who/what to post about next can sometimes be hard. Not because I don’t know who/what to post, but because there are too many to choose from.

This gentleman, however, kept popping up everywhere I looked. In history magazines, #OnThisDay posts, etc.

So, who is this Alfred and what makes him so “Great”. I need to know.


Alfred was born to King Æthelwulf of Wessex and his first wife, Osburh, in the village of Wanating, now Wantage, in 849, the exact date is unfortunately unknown.

Alfred was the youngest of 5 siblings, 4 of them brothers. So, it seems very unlikely for him to one day become king.

Angle-Saxon Chronicles

In 853, Alfred is reported by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles (a collection of records in Old English chronicling the history of the Anglo-Saxons), to have been sent to Rome where he was confirmed by Pope Leo IV who anointed him as king. Later, Victorian writers interpreted this as an anticipatory coronation in preparation for his eventual succession, but this seems unlikely since he still had surviving elder brothers.

A letter of Pope Leo IV shows that Alfred was made a “consul”, a misinterpretation of this appointment, deliberate or accidental, could explain later confusion.

It may also be based on Alfred accompanying his father on a pilgrimage to Rome around 854-855, where he spent some time at the court of King Charles the Bald of the Franks.

There is no record of his mother, Osburh. When I mean there is no record, I mean we don’t know if she died in 854 or she was rejected… What a time to be a woman.

I’m not sure when, but definitely before 854, Bishop Asser tells the story of how as a child Alfred won as a prize a book of Saxon poems, offered by his mother to the first of her children able to memorize it.

I’m not sure if this shows how smart he was, and maybe some bond with his mother. Or am I making something romantic out of nothing?

Æthelwulf_-_MS_Royal_14_B_VI (1)father
King Æthelwulf

When Alfred and his father was returning from Rome, on 1 October 856, King Æthelwulf of Wessex married the daughter of the King Charles the Bald of the Franks’ daughter, Judith, who was aged 12 or 13 at the time.

The marriage was considered extraordinary by modern historians, as Carolingian princesses rarely married (especially foreigners), and were usually sent to nunneries. Judith was crowned queen and anointed by Hincmar, Archbishop of Rheims. This was also another odd thing, for West Saxon custom was a wife of a king was only that, the king’s wife and no other title.

King Æthelbald

When they arrived home, was deposed by his son Æthelbald. With civil war looming, the lords of the realm met in council to negotiate a compromise. Æthelbald would rule the western shires (i.e. historical Wessex), while his father, Æthelwulf, would rule in the east.

On 13 January 858, King Æthelwulf dies and was buried at Steyning in Sussex, but his body was later transferred to Winchester, probably by Alfred. He had no children with his second marriage to Judith.

Æthelwulf was succeeded by Æthelbald in Wessex and Æthelberht in Kent and the south-east. The status of a marriage with a Frankish princess was so great, that Æthelbald married his step-mother Judith, who was 14 or 15 at the time. Don’t worry if you find that wrong, Asser, who later became Bishop of Sherborne in the 890s, was said to have called it a “great disgrace”, and “against God’s prohibition and Christian dignity”. No mention on marrying a 12-year-old though…

King Æthelberht

However, two years later on 20 December 860, Æthelbald dies at Sherborne in Dorset. His brother, Æthelberht, becomes King of Wessex as well as Kent. This is because his two younger brothers, Æthelred and Alfred were too young to rule, but agreed that on his death, the younger brothers would inherit the whole kingdom.

After the death of Æthelbald, Judith sold her possessions and returned to her father, but two years later she eloped with Baldwin, Count of Flanders. Their son, also called Baldwin, marries Alfred’s daughter, Ælfthryth.

Baldwin, Count of Flanders and Judith
King Æthelred

Alfred is not mentioned during the short reigns of his older brothers, Æthelbald and Æthelberht. In 865, with the accession of his brother, 18-year-old Æthelred, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles describes the Great Heath Army. An army of Danes landing in East Anglia with the intent of conquering the four kingdoms that constituted Anglo-Saxon England.

With public life also beginning with Alfred at 16-years-old, Asser applied him the unique title of “secundarius”, which may indicate a position similar to the Celtic “tanist”, a recognised successor closely associated with the reigning monarch. This may have been endorsed by their father or by the Witan, a political institution assembled of the ruling class whose primary function was to advise the king. Its membership was composed of the most important noblemen in England. It was to guard against the danger of a disputed should Æthelred fall in battle. It was well known among other Germanic people to crown a successor as royal prince and military commander, such as among the Swedes and Franks, to whom the Anglo-Saxons were closely related.

In 868, Alfred married Ealhswith, daughter of a Mercian nobleman, Æthelred Mucel, ealdorman of the Gaini. The Gaini were probably one of the tribal groups of the Mercians. Ealhswith’s mother, Eadburh, was a member of the Mercian royal family.

Also in 868, Alfred and his brother Æthelred, were recorded in battle in an unsuccessful attempt to keep the “Great Heathen Army”, led by Ivar the Boneless out of the adjoining Kingdom of Mercia.

At the end of 870, the Danes arrived in his homeland and nine battles were fought in the following year, with varying outcomes. Though the places and dates of two of these battles have not been recorded.

31 December 870, a successful skirmish at the Battle of Englefield in Berkshire.

5 January 871, a severe defeat at the siege and Battle of Reading by Ivar’s brother, Halfdan Ragnarsson.

9 January 871, the Anglo-Saxons won a brilliant victory at the Battle of Ashdown on the Berkshire Downs, possibly near Compton or Aldworth. Alfred was credited with the success of this last battle.

The Saxons were defeated at the Battle of Basing on 22 January 871, and again on 22 March 871 at the Battle of Merton (perhaps Marden in Wiltshire or Martin in Dorset).

Shortly after, Æthelred died on 23 April 871 and leaving Alfred, not only succeeding to the throne, but the burden of defence. Even though Æthelred left two under-age sons, Æthelhelm and Æthelwold, it was in accordance with the agreement that Æthelred and Alfred had made earlier that year in an assembly at “Swinbeorg”. They had agreed that whichever of them outlived the other, would inherit the personal property that King Æthelwulf had left jointly to his sons in his will. Æthelred’s sons would receive only whatever property and riches their father had settled upon them, and whatever additional lands their uncle had acquired.

Given the ongoing Danish invasion, and the two boys being so young, Alfred’s accession probably went uncontested.

While preoccupied with the burial ceremonies for his brother, the Danes defeated the Saxon army in his absence at an unnamed spot, and then again in his presence at Wilton in May 871. The defeat at Wilton shattered any hope that Alfred could drive the invaders from his kingdom, forcing to make peace with them. It is not clear on what the terms were, but Bishop Asser claimed that the pagans agreed to vacate the realm and made good their promise.

The Viking army did withdraw from Reading in autumn of 871 to take up winter residence in Mercian London. Although it was not mentioned by either Asser, or the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles; Alfred probably also paid the Vikings gold to leave, much as the Mercians were to do in the following year.

Archaeological discoveries dating to the Viking occupation of London in 871-872, have been excavated at Croydon, Gravesend, and Waterloo Bridge. The findings hint at the cost involved in making peace with the Vikings. For the next five years, the Danes occupied other parts of England.

The Danes under their new leader, Guthrum, slipped past the Saxon army and attached and occupied Wareham, Dorset in 876. Even though Alfred blockaded them, he was unable to take Wareham by assault. Thus, he negotiated a peace which involved an exchange of hostages and oaths, which the Danes swore on a “holy ring” associated with the worship of Thor. However, the Danes broke their word and, after killing all the hostages, slipped away under cover of night to Exeter, Devon.

Alfred blockaded the Viking ships in Devon and, with a relief fleet having been scattered by a storm, the Danes were forced to succumb, withdrawing to Mercia.

In January 878, the Danes made a sudden attack on Chippenham, Wiltshire, a royal stronghold in which Alfred had been staying over Christmas. Most of the people were killed, leaving Alfred and a band of people to escape their way into the woods and swampland. After Easter, they made a fort at Athelney in the marshes of Somerset.

From his fort at Athelney, Alfred was able to mount an effective resistance movement, rallying the local military from Somerset, Wiltshire and Hampshire.

legend story
Alfred and his failed baking…

There is a legend originated from 12th century chronicles, tells of how Alfred first fled to the Somerset Levels. He was given shelter by a peasant woman who, unaware of his identity, left him to watch some wheaten cakes she had left cooking on the fire. Preoccupied with the problems of his kingdom, Alfred accidently let the cakes burn. When the woman returned, she scolded Alfred for his neglect.

Whether this story is true or not, it’s fascinating none the less.

In the seventh week after Easter, 4-10 May 878, Alfred rode to Egbert’s Stone east of Selwood where he was met by the people of Somerset, Wiltshire and west of Southampton Water, who were rejoiced to see him.

Alfred’s emergence from the marshland stronghold was part of a carefully planned offensive that entailed raising the fyrds of three shires. This meant not only that Alfred had retained the loyalty of ealdormen, royal reeves and king’s thegns, who were charged with levying and leading these forces, but that they had maintained their positions of authority in these localities well enough to answer his summons to war. Alfred’s actions also suggest a system of scouts and messengers.

Battle of Edington

Alfred won a pivotal victory in the Battle of Edington, which may have been fought near Westbury, Wiltshire. He then pursued the Danes to their stronghold at Chippenham, starving them to submission. One of the terms for their surrender was that Guthrum to be converted to Christianity.

Three weeks later, Guthrum and 29 of his chief men, were baptised at Alfred’s court at Aller, near Athelney, with Alfred receiving Guthrum as his spiritual son.

According to Asser; “The unbinding of the Chrisom took place with great ceremony eight days later at the royal estate at Wedmore”.

While at Wedmore, Alfred and Guthrum (now christened Æthelstan after he converted), negotiated the Treaty of Wedmore (which some historians have termed), but it was to be some years after the cessation of hostilities that a formal treaty was signed. Under the Treaty of Wedmore, Æthelstan (Guthrum) was required to leave Wessex and return to East Anglia.

Consequently, in 879 the Viking army left Chippenham and made its way to Cirencester. The formal Treaty of Alfred and Guthrum, preserved in Old English in Corpus Christi College, Cambridge (Manuscript 383), and in a Latin compilation known as “Quadripartitus”, was negotiated later, perhaps in 879 or 880, when King Ceolwulf II of Mercia was deposed.

That treaty divided up the kingdom of Mercia. By its terms the boundary between Alfred’s and Æthelstan’s (Guthrum) kingdoms was to run up the River Thames to the River Lea, follow the Lea to its source (near Luton), from there extend in a straight line to Bedford, and from Bedford follow the River Ouse to Watling Street.

In other words, Alfred succeeded to Ceolwulf’s kingdom consisting of western Mercia, and Æthelstan (Guthrum) incorporated the eastern part of Mercia into an enlarged kingdom of East Anglia (henceforward known as the Danelaw). By terms of the treaty, moreover, Alfred was to have control over the Mercian city of London and its mints, at least for the time being.

The disposition of Essex, held by West Saxon kings since the days of Egbert, is unclear from the treaty though, given Alfred’s political and military superiority, it would have been surprising if he had conceded any disputed territory to his new godson.

With the signing of the Treaty of Alfred and Æthelstan (Guthrum), around 880 when Æthelstan (Guthrum) people began settling in East Anglia, Æthelstan (Guthrum) was no longer a threat. The Viking army, which had stayed at Fulham during the winter of 878-879, sailed for Ghent and was active on the continent from 879-892.

Even though Æthelstan (Guthrum) was no longer a threat, Alfred was still forced to contend with a number of Danish threats. A year later in 881, Alfred fought a small sea battle against four Danish ships. Two of the ships were destroyed and the others surrendered to Alfred’s forces.

viking seabattle
Viking Sea Battle

Similar small skirmishes with independent Viking raiders would have occurred for much of the period, as they had for decades.

In 883, which is a debatable date, because of Alfred’s support and his donation of alms to Rome, received a number of gifts from Pope Marinus. Among the gifts was reputed to be a piece of the “true cross”, a great treasure for the devout Saxon king. According to Asser, because of Pope Marinus’ friendship with Alfred, the pope granted an exemption to any Anglo-Saxon residing within Rome from tax or tribute.

I wonder if he was “rewarded” because of his push of Christianity against the pagans. Forcing people to change their religion… I always find something wrong with this, but even though I can argue and fume, this did happen a very long time ago.

In 885, there was another skirmish with the Vikings in Kent, an allied kingdom in South East England. It was also quite possibly the largest raid since the battles with Æthelstan (Guthrum).

Asser’s account of the raid places the Danish raiders at the Saxon city of Rochester, where they built a temporary fortress in order to besiege the city. Alfred’s response was to lead an Anglo-Saxon force against the Danes who, instead of engaging the army of Wessex, fled to their beached ships and sailed to another part of Britain.

Supposably, the retreating Danish force left Britain the following summer.

Not long after the failed Danish raid in Kent, Alfred dispatched his fleet to East Anglia. The reasons for this are unclear, but Asser claims that it was for the sake of plunder. After traveling up the River Stour, the fleet was met by Danish vessels that numbered between 13 and 16, and battle ensued.

The Anglo-Saxon fleet were victorious, but while leaving the River Stour, was attacked by a Danish force at the mouth of the river. The Danish fleet defeated Alfred’s fleet, which might’ve been weakened in the previous battle.

The following year in 886, Alfred reoccupied the city of London and set out to make it habitable again.


He entrusted the city to the care of his son-in-law, Æthelred, ealdorman of Mercia. He was the husband of Alfred’s first daughter, Æthelflæd.

The restoration of London progressed through the latter half of the 880s and is believed to have revolved around: a new street plan; added fortifications in addition to the existing Roman walls; and, some believe, the construction of matching fortifications on the south bank of the River Thames.

This is also the period in which almost all chroniclers agree that the Saxon people of pre-unification England submitted to Alfred. But, this was not the point at which Alfred came to be known as King of England. In fact, he would never adopt the title himself…

Between restoration of London and the resumption of large-scale Danish attacks in the early 890s, Alfred’s reign was rather uneventful. The relative peace of the late 880s was marred by the death of Alfred’s sister, Æthelswith, while she was en route to Rome in 888. That same year, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Æthelred, also died.

One year later, Æthelstan (Guthrum), Alfred’s former enemy and king of East Anglia, died and was buried in Hadleigh, Suffolk.

Æthelstan (Guthrum) passing changed the political landscape for Alfred. The resulting power vacuum stirred up other power-hungry warlords eager to take his place in the following years. The quiet years of Alfred’s life were coming to a close a war was on the horizon.


In the autumn of 892 or 893, the Danes attacked again.

Finding their position in mainland Europe precarious, they crossed to England in 330 ships in two divisions. Majority of them entrenched themselves at Appledore, Kent, while the rest under Hastein, to Milton, also in Kent. The invaders brought their wives and children with them, indicating a meaningful attempt at conquest and colonisation. Alfred, in 893 or 894, took up a position from which he could observe both forces.

While he was in talks with Hastein, the Danes at Appledore broke out and struck north westwards. They were overtaken by Alfred’s eldest son, Edward, and were defeated in a general engagement at Farnham in Surrey. The took refuge on an island at Thorney, on the River Colne, between Buckinghamshire and Middlesex, where they were blockaded and forced to give hostages and promise to leave Wessex. They went then to Essex, and after suffering another defeat at Benfleet, joined Hastein’s force at Shoebury.

While Alfred was on his way to relieve his son at Thorney, he heard that the Northumbrian and East Anglian Danes were besieging Exeter and an unnamed stronghold on the North Devon shore. Alfred at once hurried westward and raised the Siege of Exeter. The fate of the other unknown stronghold was not recorded. Or was, and is lost, for reasons we will not know.

The force under Hastein set out to march up the Thames Valley, probably with the idea of assisting their friends in the west. When they arrived, they were met by a large force under the three great ealdormen of Mercia, Wiltshire and Somerset, forcing to head off to the northwest, being finally overtaken and blockaded at Buttington.

An attempt to break through the English lines was defeated. However, those who escaped, retreated to Shoebury.

After they gathering reinforcements, they made a sudden dash across England and occupied the ruined Roman walls of Chester. The English did not attempt a winter blockade, but contented themselves with destroying all the supplies in the district.

Early in 894 or 895, lack of food obliged the Danes to retire once more to Essex. At the end of the year, the Danes drew their ships up the River Thames and the River Lea, fortifying themselves twenty miles (32km) north of London.

A direct attack on the Danish lines failed, but later in the year Alfred saw a means. Obstructing the river to prevent any way of getting to the Danish ships. Realising they were outmanoeuvred, the Danes struck off north-westwards and wintered at Cwatbridge near Bridgnorth.

The next year (896 or 897), they gave up the struggle. Some retired to Northumbria, some to East Anglia. Those who had no connections in England, withdrew back to the continent.

Alfred the Great

I’ve talked a lot about Alfred’s accomplishments against the Danes, but nothing about his appearance and character.

Asser wrote in his book, Life of King Alfred;

Now, he was greatly loved, more than all his brothers, by his father and mother—indeed, by everybody—with a universal and profound love, and he was always brought up in the royal court and nowhere else. … [He] was seen to be more comely in appearance than his other brothers, and more pleasing in manner, speech and behaviour … [and] in spite of all the demands of the present life, it has been the desire for wisdom, more than anything else, together with the nobility of his birth, which have characterized the nature of his noble mind.

He also mentioned that Alfred did not learn to read until he was twelve-years-old or later, which he described as “shameful negligence” of his parents and tutors.

Alfred was an excellent listener and had an incredible memory. Retaining poetry and psalms very well.

Alfred is also noted to be carrying around a small book, probably a medieval version of a small pocket notebook. It contained psalms and many prayers that he often collected.

Asser writes; “He collected in a single book, as I have seen for myself; amid all the affairs of the present life he took it around with him everywhere for the sake of prayer, and was inseparable from it”.

He was also described as an excellent huntsman, against whom nobody’s skills could compare.

Maybe because he was the youngest, he was very open-minded, being an early advocate for education. His desire for learning could have come from his early love of English poetry and inability to read or physically record it until later in life.

I also mentioned a couple of his children, but in total Alfred and his wife Ealhswith had five or six children; Edward the Elder, who would succeed his father as king; Æthelflæd who became Lady (ruler) of the Mercians in her own right; and Ælfthryth who married Baldwin II the Count of Flanders.

On 26 October 899, Alfred died. How he died is still unknown, although he suffered throughout his life with a painful and unpleasant illness. Asser gave a detailed description of Alfred’s symptoms and this has allowed modern doctors to provide a possible diagnosis.

It is thought that he had either Crohn’s disease, a type of inflammatory bowel disease, or haemorrhoidal disease. His grandson, King Eadred, seems to have suffered from a similar illness.

King Eadred

Alfred was originally buried in the Old Minster in Winchester, but four years after his death, he was moved to the New Minster (perhaps built specially to receive his body).

When the New Minster moved to Hyde, a little north of the city, in 1110, the monks were transferred to Hyde Abbey along with Alfred’s body and those of his wife and children, which were presumably interred before the high alter.

Soon after the dissolution of the abbey in 1539, during the reign of Henry VIII, the church was demolished, leaving the graves intact.

The royal graves and many others were probably rediscovered by chance in 1788, when a prison was being constructed by convicts on the site. Prisoners dug across the width of the alter area in order to dispose of rubble left at the dissolution. Coffins were stripped of lead, and bones were scattered and lost. The prison was demolished between 1846 and 1850.

Further excavations in 1866 and 1897 were inconclusive. In 1866, amateur antiquarian John Mellor, claimed to have recovered a number of bones from the site which he said were those of Alfred. These later came into the possession of the vicar of nearby St Bartholomew’s Church who reburied them in an unmarked grave in the church graveyard.

Excavations conducted by the Winchester Museums Service of the Hyde Abbey site in 1999 located a second pit dug in front of where the high altar would have been located, which was identified as probably dating to Mellor’s 1886 excavation. The 1999 archaeological excavation uncovered the foundations of the abbey buildings and some bones. Bones suggested at the time to be those of Alfred proved instead to belong to an elderly woman.

In March 2013, the Diocese of Winchester exhumed the bones from the unmarked grave at St Bartholomew’s and placed them in secure storage. The diocese made no claim they were the bones of Alfred, but intended to secure them for later analysis, and from the attentions of people whose interest may have been sparked by the recent identification of the remains of King Richard III.

 The bones were radiocarbon-dated, but the results showed that they were from the 1300s and therefore unrelated to Alfred.

In January 2014, a fragment of pelvis unearthed in the 1999 excavation of the Hyde site, which had subsequently lain in a Winchester museum store room, was radiocarbon-dated to the correct period. It has been suggested that this bone may belong to either Alfred or his son Edward, but this remains unproven.

Asser’s Written Work

Alfred commissioned Asser to write his biography, and as you’ve seen in his comments, obviously to emphasize on his best attributes.

Later, medieval historians, such as Geoffrey of Monmouth, also reinforced Alfred’s favourable image. By the time of the Reformation, Alfred was seen as being a pious Christian ruler who promoted the use of English rather than Latin, and so the translations that he commissioned were viewed as untainted by the later Roman Catholic influences of the Normans. Consequently, it was writers of the sixteenth century who gave Alfred his epithet as ‘the Great’ rather than any of Alfred’s contemporaries. The epithet was retained by succeeding generations of Parliamentarians and empire-builders who saw Alfred’s patriotism, success against barbarism, promotion of education and establishment of the rule of law as supporting their own ideals.

I find that fascinating, because I have always wondered who gives the title of “Great”.

A number of educational establishments are named in Alfred’s honour. These include:

The University of Winchester created from the former “King Alfred’s College, Winchester” (1928 – 2004)

Alfred University and Alfred State College in Alfred, New York. The local telephone exchange to Alfred University is 871 in commemoration of Alfred’s ascension to the throne.

In honour of Alfred, the University of Liverpool, created a King Alfred Chair of English Literature.

King Alfred’s Academy, a secondary school in Wantage, Oxfordshire, the birthplace of Alfred.

Okay, as you can guess, there are a few places named after Alfred. If you want to know more, just Google it…

As well as establishments naming after him, there are many statues dedicated to Alfred the Great. They are located at;

Alfred University (New York), USA

Pewsey, Wiltshire, England

Wantage, Oxfordshire, England

Winchester, Hampshire, England

Cleveland, Ohio, USA

Statue of Alfred the Great, Wantage, Oxfordshire, England, United Kingdom.. Image shot 2012. Exact date unknown.
Statue at Wantage, Oxfordshire, England




Battle of Hastings (1066)




In 911 Charles III, also called “the simple”, King of West Francia and Lotharingia allowed a group of Vikings, let by Rollo, to settle in Normandy. Their settlement proved a success, with the Vikings quickly adapting to the indigenous culture, renouncing paganism and converting to Christianity, and intermarrying with the local population. Over time, the boundaries of the duchy extended to the west.

edward the confessor
Edward the Confessor

King Æthelred II “the unready” of England married Emma of Normandy, sister of Richard II, Duke of Normandy, in 1002. Their son, Edward the Confessor, spent many years in Normandy, then in 1042 he finally succeeded to the throne of England. Edward drew heavily on his former hosts for support, bringing in Norman courtiers, soldiers, and clerics, appointing them to positions of power, particularly in the Church.

On 23 January 1045, Edward married Godwin, Earl of Wessex’s daughter, Edith, but their union would be childless. Edward would also embroil in conflict with Godwin, Earl of Wessex and his sons. There is dispute that at this time, especially with no children, Edward encouraged William of Normandy’s ambitions for the English throne.

On 5 January 1066 Edward died leaving no clear heir, this led to several contenders to lay claim to the English throne. After the death of Godwin, Earl of Wessex on 15 April 1053, his eldest son Harold, the now Earl of Wessex was Edward’s immediate successor. Harold was the richest and most powerful of the English aristocrats.

Harold was elected King by the Witenagemot of England and on 6 January, was crowned by Archbishop of York, Ealdred, although Norman propaganda claimed that the ceremony was performed by the uncanonically elected Stigand, Archbishop of Canterbury. Probably to say that his coronation didn’t “technically” happen.

harold godwinson
Harold Godwinson

At once, Harold was challenged by two powerful neighbouring rulers.

William of Normandy claimed that he had been promised the throne of England by Edward, and that Harold had actually sworn agreement to this.

Harald III of Norway, commonly known as Harald Hardrada, was the other contender. His claim to the throne was based on an agreement between his predecessor, Magnus I of Norway, and the earlier King of England Harthacanute, whereby, if either died without heir, the other would inherit both English and Norway.

William of Normandy and Harald Hardrada immediately set about assembling troops and ships for separate invasions.

In early 1066 Harold’s exiled brother, Tostig Godwinson, raided south-eastern England with a fleet he had recruited in Flanders, later joined by other ships from Orkney. Threatened by Harold’s fleet, Tostig moved north and raided in East Anglia and Lincolnshire. He was driven back to his ships by the brothers Edwin, Earl of Mercia and Morcar, Earl of Northumbria. Deserted by most of his followers, he withdrew to Scotland, where he spent the middle of the year recruiting fresh forces.

Harald Hardrada invaded northern England in early September, leading a fleet of more than 300 ships carrying perhaps 15,000 men. Harald Hardrada’s army was further augmented by the forces of Tostig, who supported the Norwegian King’s bid for the throne. Advancing on York, the Norwegians occupied the city after defeating a northern English army under Edwin, Earl of Mercia and Morcar, Earl of Northumbria on 20 September at the Battle of Fulford.

battle of fulford
Battle of Fulford

The English army was organised along regional lines, with the fyrd, or local levy, serving under a local magnate – whether an earl, bishop, or sheriff.

The fyrd was composed of men who owned their own land and were equipped by their community to fulfil the king’s demands for military forces. For every five hides, or units of land nominally capable of supporting one household, one man was supposed to serve. It appears that the hundred was the main organising unit for the fyrd. As a whole, England could furnish about 14,000 men for the fyrd, when it was called out. The fyrd usually served for two months, except in emergencies. It was rare for the whole national fyrd to be called out; between 1046 and 1065 it was only done three times, in 1051, 1052, and 1065. The king also had a group of personal arms-men, known as housecarls, who formed the backbone of the royal forces. Some earls also had their own forces of housecarls. Thegns, the local landowning elites, either fought with the royal housecarls or attached themselves to the forces of an earl or other magnate. The fyrd and the housecarls both fought on foot, with the major difference between them being the housecarls’ superior armour. The English army does not appear to have had a significant number of archers.

feature image

Harold had spent mid-1066 on the south coast with a large army and fleet waiting for William to invade. The bulk of his forces were militia who needed to harvest their crops, dismissing them and the fleet on 8 September, Harold dismissed the militia.

Learning of the Norwegian invasion, he rushed north gathering forces as he went. On 25 September at the Battle of Stamford Bridge, Harold took the Norwegians by surprise and defeating them.

Both Harald and Tostig were killed, leaving the Norwegians with such a great loss that only 24 of the original 300 ships were required to carry away the survivors. The English victory came at a great cost, as Harold’s army was left in a battered and weakened state. Perfect for William.

battle of stamford bridge

William spent almost nine months preparing and assembling a large invasion fleet and an army gathered from Normandy and the rest of France, including large parties from Brittany and Flanders. It took him this long because he had to construct a fleet from nothing.

According to some Norman chronicles, he also secured diplomatic support, although the accuracy of the reports has been a matter of historical debate. The most famous claim is that Pop Alexander II gave a papal banner as a token of support, which only appears in William of Poitier’s account, and not in more contemporary narratives.

Whatever Williams prerogative was, he mustered his forces at Saint-Valery-sur-Somme and was ready to cross the English Channel by 12 August. However, the crossing was delayed, either because of unfavourable weather or to avoid being intercepted by the powerful English fleet.

A few days after the Battle of Stamford Bridge, the Normans crossed to England and landed at Pevensey in Sussex on 28 September. A few ships were blown off course and landed at Romney, where Normans fought the local fyrd. After landing, William’s forces built a wooden castle at Hastings, from which they raided the surrounding area. More fortifications were erected at Pevensey.

The exact numbers and composition of William’s forces are unknown. A contemporary document claims that William had 776 ships, but this may be an inflated figure. Figures given by contemporary writers are highly exaggerated, varying from 14,000 to 150,000. Modern historians have offered a range of estimates for the size of William’s forces, either 7,000–8,000 men, 1,000–2,000 of them cavalry, or 10,000–12,000 men, or 10,000 men 3,000 of them cavalry, or 7,500 men.

William’s army consisted of cavalry, infantry and archers or crossbowmen, with about equal numbers of cavalry and archers and the foot soldiers equal in number to the other two types combined.

chainmail hauberks
Chainmail Hauberks

The main armour used was chainmail hauberks, usually knee-length with slits to allow riding, some with sleeves to the elbows. Some hauberks may have been made of scales attached to a tunic, with the scales made of metal, horn or hardened leathers. Headgear was usually a conical metal helmet with a band of metal extending down to protect the nose. Horsemen and infantry carried shields. The infantryman’s shield was usually round and made of wood, with reinforcement of metal. Horsemen had changed to a kit-shaped shield and were usually armed with a lance. The couched lance, carried tucked against the body under the right arm, was a relatively new refinement as was probably not used at Hastings, the terrain was unfavourable for long cavalry charges. Both the infantry and cavalry usually fought with a straight sword, long and double-edged. The infantry could also use javelins and long spears. Some of the cavalry may have used a mace instead of a sword. Archers would have used a self bow or a crossbow, and most would not have had armour.

You can see in the picture to the left of a tapestry of what the soldiers looked like.

After the victory of the Battle of Stamford Bridge, Harold let much of his forces in the north including Edwin, Earl of Mercia and Morcar, Earl of Northumbria, and marched the rest of his army south to deal with the Norman invasion. Harold stopped in London and was there for about a week before arriving in Hastings. On the night of 13 October, Harold camped at Caldbec Hill near what was described as a “hour-apple tree”. This location was about 8 miles (13 kilometres) from William’s castle at Hastings.

Although Harold was hoping to surprise the Normans like he did the Norwegians, William’s scouts reported the English arrival to William. The exact events preceding the battle are obscure, with contradictory accounts in the sources, but all agree that William led his army from his castle and advance towards Harold. Harold had taken a defensive position at the top of Senlac Hill (present-day Battle, East Sussex), about 6 miles (9.7 kilometres) from William’s castle.

The exact number of soldiers on Harold’s side is unknown. Of course, contemporary records do not give reliable figures. Some Norman sources give 400,000 to 1,200,000 men on Harold’s side, while the English sources generally give very low figures, perhaps to make the English defeat seem less devastating.

Recent historians have suggested figures of between 5,000 and 13,000 for Harold’s army at Hastings, and most historians argue for a figure of 7,000-8,000 English troops. These men would have been a mix of the fyrd and housecarls.

Few individual Englishmen are known to have been at Hastings, about 20 named individuals can reasonably be assumed to have fought on Harold’s side, including Harold’s brothers, Gyrth and Leofwine, and two other relatives.

Harold’s army consisted entirely of infantry. The core of the army was made up of housecarls, full-time professional soldiers. Their armour consisted of a conical helmet, a mail hauberk, and a shield, which might be either kite-shaped or round. Most housecarls fought with the two-handed Danish battle-axe, but they could also carry a sword. The rest of the army was made up of levies from the fyrd, also infantry but more lightly armoured and not professionals. Most of the infantry would have formed part of the shield wall, in which all the men in the front ranks locked their shields together to block the opposition from advancing. Behind the shield wall would have been axemen and men with javelins as well as archers. You can imagine what they do. It is also possible that some of the higher-class members of the army rode to battle, but when battle was joined, they dismounted to fight on foot.

With many of the primary accounts contradicting each other, it is impossible to provide a description of the battle that is beyond dispute. It is known that the winning side can exaggerate and the losing side can down play an event.

The only undisputed facts are that the fighting began at 9am on Saturday 14 October 1066, and that the battle lasted until dusk.

On the day of this battle, sunset was at 4:54pm, making the battlefield mostly dark by 5:54pm and in full darkness by 6:24pm. Moonrise that night wasn’t until 11:12pm, so once the sun set, there was little light on the battlefield.

William of Jumieges, one of the earliest writers on the subject of the Norman Conquest, reports that William of Normandy kept his army armed and ready against a surprise night attack for the entire night before.

The battle took place 7 miles (11km) north of Hastings at the present-day town of Battle, East Sussex, between two hills – Caldbec Hill to the north and Telham Hill to the south. The area was heavily wooded, with a marsh nearby.

The name traditionally given to the battle is unusual since there were several settlements much closer to the battlefield than Hastings. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle called it the battle “at the hoary apple tree”. Within forty years, the battle was described by the Anglo-Norman chronicler, Orderic Vitalis, as “Senlac”, a Norman-French adaptation of the Old English word “Sandlacu”, which means “sandy water”. This may have been the name of the stream that crosses the battlefield. However, by 1087, the battle was referred to as “bellum Hasestingas” or “Battle of Hastings” in the Domesday Book.

Sunrise was at 6:48am that morning, and reports of the day record that is was unusually bright. Unfortunately, the weather conditions are not recorded or found. Also, not to our knowledge is the which route that the English army took to the battlefield. Several roads are possible, one could be an old Roman road that ran from Rochester to Hastings, has long been favoured because of a large coin hoard found nearby in 1876. Another possibility is a Roman road between London and Lewes and then over local tracks to the battlefield.

Some accounts of the battle indicate that the Normans advanced from Hastings to the battlefield, but the contemporary account of William of Jumieges, places the Normans at the site of the battle the night before.

Historians have gone back and forward to what was exactly true. We might know 100%, until then, only the men from then will only know.

battle dispositions
Battle Dispositions

Harold’s forces deployed in a small, dense formation at the top of steep slope, with their flanks protected by woods and marshy ground in front of them. The line may have extended far enough to be anchored on a nearby stream. The English formed a shield wall, with the front ranks holding their shields close together or even overlapping to provide protection from attack. And of course, sources differ on the exact site that the English fought on. Some sources state the site of the abbey, but some newer sources suggest it was Caldbec Hill.

However, more is known about the Norman deployment. William appears to have arranged his forces in three groups, or “battles”, which roughly corresponded to their origins. The left units were the Bretons, along with those from Anjou, Poitou and Maine. This division was led by Alan the Red, a relative of the Breton court. The centre was held by the Normans under the direct command of William, and with many of his relatives and kinsmen grouped around the ducal party. The final division, on the right, consisted of the Frenchmen, along with some men from Picardy, Boulogne, and Flanders. The right was commanded by William fitzOsbern and Count Eustace II of Boulogne. The front line was made up of archers with a line of foot soldiers armed with spears behind. There were probably a few crossbowmen and slingers in with the archers. The cavalry was held in reserve, and a small group of clergymen and servants situated at the base of Telham Hill was not expected to take part in the fighting.

William’s disposition of his forces implies that he planned to open the battle with archers in the front rank weakening the enemy with arrows, followed by infantry who would engage in close combat. The infantry would create openings in the English lines that could be exploited b a cavalry charge to break through the English forces and pursue the fleeing soldiers.

The opening of the battle saw the Norman archers shooting uphill at the English shield wall, to little effect. Shooting at an uphill angle meant that the arrows either bounced off the shields of the English or overshot their targets and flew over the top of the hill. Since the English lacked archers this in turned effected the Normans archers, as there were few English arrows to be gathered up and reused.

view of the battlefield looking towards senlac hill
View of the battlefield looking towards Senlac Hill

After the attack from the archers, William sent the spearmen forward to attack the English. They were met with a barrage of missiles, not arrows but spears, axes and stones. Since the infantry were unable to force openings in the shield wall, the cavalry advanced in support. Just like the infantry, the cavalry also failed to make headway, and a general retreat began, blamed on the Breton division on William’s left.

william lifting his helmet at the battle of hastings to show that he still lives
William lifting his helmet at the Battle of Hastings to show that he still lives

A rumour started that William had been killed, which added to the confusion. However, when the English forces began to pursue the fleeing invaders, William rode through his forces, showing his face and yelling that he was in fact still alive. William then led a counter-attack against the pursuing English forces.

It is unknown if the English pursuit was on the orders of Harold or if it was spontaneous.









the bayeux tapestry
The Bayeux Tapestry

The Bayeux Tapestry depicts the death of Harold’s brothers, Gyrth and Leofwine, occurring just before the fight around the hillock. This may mean that it was the brothers who led the English pursuit.

However, in the Carmen de Hastingae Proelio (Song of the Battle of Hastings), it tells a different story of the death of Gyrth. It says the William slew Gyrth in combat, perhaps thinking that Gyrth was actually Harold.

Another theory is from William of Poitiers, who states that the bodies of Gyrth and Leofwine were found near Harold’s, implying that they died late in the battle. However, if they did die early in battle, their bodies could’ve been taken to Harold, thus accounting for their bodies being found near his body after the battle.

Whenever they died, the known fact is, they died.

Just like his brothers, the exact moment of Harold’s death is also up for debate. It appears that he perished late in the battle, although accounts in the various sources are contradictory. William of Poitiers only mentions his death without giving any details on how it occurred. The Tapestry isn’t helpful, as it shows a figure holding an arrow sticking out of his eye next to a failing fighter being hit with a sword. Over both the figures is a statement, “Here King Harold has been killed”. That’s great, but which one, one or the other or both?

king harolds death
“Here King Harold has been killed”

The earliest written mention of the traditional account of Harold dying from an arrow to the eye, dates to the 1080s written by an Italian monk, Amatus of Montecassino.

However, the means of Harold’s death, the fact remains, Harold’s death left the English forces leaderless so they began to collapse. Many of them fled, but the brave soldiers of the royal household gathered around Harold’s body and fought to the end.

The Normans began to pursue the fleeing troops, and except for a rearguard action at a site known as the “Malfosse”, the battle was over. Exactly what happened at “Malfosse”, or “Evil Ditch”, and where it took place, in unclear. It occurred at a small fortification or set of trenches where some Englishmen rallied and seriously wounded Eustace of Boulogne, before being defeated by the Normans.

Two days after the battle Harold’s body was identified, either by his armour or marks on his body. His personal standard was presented to William, later sent to the papacy. The bodies of the English dead, including some of Harold’s brothers and housecarls, were left on the battlefield, although some were removed by relatives at a later date. The Norman dead were buried in a large communal grave, which has not been found.

There is one story of Harold’s mother, Gytha, offered William the weight of Harold’s body in gold for its custody, but was refused. It is also said that William ordered Harold’s body to be thrown into the sea, but whether that took place is unclear. Another story states that Harold was buried at the top of a cliff. Waltham Abbey, which had been founded by Harold, later claimed that his body had been secretly buried there. And of course, there are legends that Harold didn’t die at all, but escaped and became a hermit of Chester…

On 25 December 1066, William was acclaimed King of England and crowned by Ealdred, Archbishop of York.

Despite the submission of the English nobles, resistance continued for several years, but that’s is another story.