Today, I am proud to welcome Sharon Bennett Connolly to my blog. She has published several non-fiction books set in the medieval period and I am very much looking forward to her next release which will focus on the de Warenne family—Norman in origin, this noble family was quite the power-house for well over two centuries after the conquest.
I first came across Sharon when I stumbled upon her excellent blog – History, the interesting bits. I soon discovered that we had a similar perception regarding what was interesting, so much so that sometimes we wrote posts about the same lady peeps. I am happy to report that we do not plagiarise each other. It’s just that we are drawn to the same stories.
Anyway: with all this in common, it’s no wonder we hit it off like a house on fire when we finally did meet up in Lincoln. Those of you who know Sharon will also know Lincoln holds a special place in her heart, partly because of a certain lady whose name begins with an N (more of that later), partly because Lincoln is just so wow. Sharon proved an excellent guide as she, Char and I spent happy hours in the glorious cathedral and the not quite as glorious but very interesting remains of Lincoln Castle. Well, it wasn’t just us three: we also had Lewis, Sharon’s son, biggest fan and unofficial assistant with us. At the time, he was a pre-teen with an impressive understanding of history, no doubt due to his mother. Now, he has become something of Sharon’s media manager.
Because we’re all history nerds (and because Char also has books in which the siege of Lincoln features) we spent a lot of time discussing just how to attack a medieval castle. We also intimidated our poor guide—unintentionally, of course—by peppering him with questions he couldn’t answer. Obviously, we spent a long time hanging over the Magna Carta exhibit in the castle. Sometimes, history is close enough to brush your cheek…
Well, enough of the reminiscences, however enjoyable it is to float back in time. Instead, let us return to our lady of the day and kick this off by asking Sharon just what it was that attracted her to the medieval period.
Sharon: I love history – it’s like a different world. The medieval era has so much going for it that is still untouched and under researched, such as the role of women and how they influenced events and politics. My first book, Heroines of the Medieval World, demonstrated that there were many stories of medieval women for which we have only ever touched the surface. Women in medieval times were not just wives and mothers, but leaders, writers, educators and warriors. Their lives were eventful and fascinating and it has been a pleasure to shine a spotlight on them.
As for why the medieval, I seem to be going further back in time, the older I get. When I was an undergraduate I was fascinated with the French Revolution and Napoleonic era, then in my 20s and 30s, I went back to the Tudors, especially Elizabeth I, and now I’m firmly ensconced in the Medieval. By the time I’m 70, I will probably be on the Greeks! (Anna: Ha! Looking forward to that – if you live long enough, you’ll be going all King Hammurabi on us – you know, an eye for an eye and all that)
Anna: Is there a particular event or person that/who has inspired your writing?
Sharon: My first book, Heroines of the Medieval World, and my latest, Ladies of Magna Carta, were both inspired by one woman, Nicholaa de la Haye. Nicholaa was castellan of Lincoln Castle during the reign of King John; she was also the first female sheriff in England – ever. She was a stalwart supporter of John and steadfastly defended Lincoln Castle in no less than 3 sieges, in 1191, 1216 and 1217. The last defence, in 1217, was for 6 weeks against a combined force of French invaders and English rebel barons. Nicholaa was in her 60s at the time and, although she had tried to resign her post in 1216, led the defence of the castle herself. She was extraordinary! (Anna: This, dear peeps is the person beginning with an N mentioned in my intro. And Sharon, at least you are consistent. Nicholaa has been you indirect muse throughout our acquaintance ?)
Anna: Tell us a bit about your medieval books!
So far, I have published 3 books. Heroines of the Medieval World is a collection of biographies of over 60 amazing medieval women, including warriors, rulers, mistresses, survivors. Some of the women are familiar to readers, such as Eleanor of Aquitaine, Katherine Swynford and Joan of Arc. Others are not so well known, such as Nicholaa de la Haye, Nest of Wales and Blanche of Lancaster. But each were heroines in their own way.
My second book, Silk and the Sword: the Women of the Norman Conquest tells the story of 1066 through the women who lived through the tumultuous 11th century, including Emma of Normandy, Edith Swanneck and St Margaret, Queen of Scotland. The idea was to tell the 1066 story with the women taking centre stage, showing how they influenced events, and how the events influenced their lives.
My latest book, Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England, takes the Magna Carta story and examines the influence women had on the charter and on the times in which Magna Carta was created. It also looks at how women used the charter to protect themselves from unwelcome marriages and to defend their rights against others and the king. Looking at the women from the great families of the time, the Marshals, Warennes, Braoses and the royal families of Scotland, it highlights how influential women were in the time of Magna Carta, and how the charter affected their lives and futures. (Anna: I actually think this is an important point to get across. Many medieval women were strong ladies who lived rich and interesting lives. Yes, there were constraints in place due to laws and customs favouring men over women, but the same laws could, at times, work in favour of the savvy lady)
Anna: Are you planning on revisiting this time period? If yes, tell us more!
Sharon: Yes! I am definitely going back to the Magna Carta story. Next year I will start working on a biography of Nicholaa de la Haye, the woman whose story inspired me to write Heroines of the Medieval World and Ladies of Magna Carta. It will be my first ever biography of an individual, so I’m quite nervous – but Nicholaa’s story is a fascinating one and deserves more recognition. I desperately want to get the root of why this incredible woman was such a stalwart support of King John, not the nicest king to have ever sat on the throne.
Anna: What are you working on right now?
Sharon: I have just finished the edits for Defenders of the Norman Crown: Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey, which is due out next Spring. It is a biography of the Warenne family from their origins in Normandy to the death of the 7th and last earl in 1347. The family were one of the most powerful in England and Normandy – and rich; the 1st Earl ranks in the Top 20 of the richest men in the world – ever! There were some real characters and a handful of family scandals, as well as the usual political wranglings, and more than a battle or two. With royal connections in each generation, the Warennes were at the heart of the medieval political world. (Anna: I am SO looking forward to it!)
I am now researching my new project, which has the working title Women of the Anarchy. I’m looking into the war between King Stephen and Empress Matilda but focusing on the women, such as the Empress and Stephen’s wife, Matilda of Boulogne.
The Anarchy is the only English civil war which had a woman as the head of one side; in fact, there was a period in 1141, when King Stephen was imprisoned, where both warring factions were led by women. Empress Matilda has had a bad press over the years, depicted as a haughty woman who did not deserve the crown because she was too proud, but I see a woman who knew that her crown had been stolen from her and was no less regal than any other king or queen; her only flaw was that she was a woman in a man’s world.
On King Stephen’s side is his wife and queen, Matilda of Boulogne, a woman who has been overshadowed by both her husband and her namesake, the Empress. Matilda of Boulogne seems to have been a strong character herself, leading her husband’s cause when he could not, negotiating peace treaties and securing the futures of her children.
It is a truly fascinating topic to research. (Anna: Oooo! I am rather fond of Stephen and his queen, but I have always wondered how their relationship was affected by Stephen’s decision to pass over their son and recognise the future Henry II as his heir. I hope you’ll touch upon that!)
Anna: I have already gushed about Sharon’s excellent blog. I asked her to choose three posts she is especially proud off, and she chose the following:
About Ela, wife to William Longespee https://historytheinterestingbits.com/2017/04/16/ela-heiress-wife-and-abbess/
About Joan of Wales https://historytheinterestingbits.com/2020/05/02/joan-lady-of-wales/
Sharon has chosen to give is an excerpt from Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England. It is no surprise she chose an excerpt featuring Nicholaa de la Haye
“A staunchly independent woman, Nicholaa issued charters in her own name, of which some twenty-five have survived. She made grants to various religious houses, including Lincoln Cathedral, and even secured a royal grant for a weekly market on one of her properties. A most able adversary for some of the greatest military minds of the time, and a loyal supporter of King John, she was unique among her peers. Although praised by the chroniclers, they seemed to find difficulty in describing a woman who acted in such a fashion; the Dunstable Annals refer to her as a ‘noble woman’, saying she acted ‘manfully’. It is impossible not to feel admiration for a woman who managed to hold her own in a man’s world, who fought for her castle and her home at a time when women had so little say over their own lives – and at such an advanced age. Her bravery and tenacity saved Henry III’s throne. Not surprisingly, Henry III referred to her as ‘our beloved and faithful Nichola de la Haye’.
By late 1226 she had retired to her manor at Swaton in Lincolnshire. Having lived well into her seventies, Nicholaa died there on 20 November 1230 and was buried in St Michael’s church. Her granddaughter Idonea succeeded to Nicholaa’s lands in Lincolnshire, although her manor of Duddington in Northamptonshire reverted to the king.
Nicholaa’s steadfast hold on Lincoln Castle against an Anglo-French force saved England and turned the tide in favour of the regents of Henry III. Nicholaa’s actions are remarkable, not only because she was a woman but also in view of her advancing years. At an age when even men would expect to be allowed to sit by the fire and reminisce about their past exploits, Nicholaa stood firm, holding a key stronghold against an invading army.
Nicholaa de la Haye’s bravery and tenacity saved Henry III’s throne and has earned her a place in history as one intricately linked to the struggles of King John and the fight for the creation of Magna Carta. The fact she was appointed sheriff of Lincolnshire, on 18 October 1216 just hours before John’s death, is testament not only to the high esteem in which John held her, but also to her singular abilities which made her well suited to the role. Her actions thereafter, in the lead up and execution of the Second Battle of Lincoln, only served to justify John’s trust in Nicholaa and her unique abilities. William Marshal’s approval of her and belief in her abilities are demonstrated in the Histoire de Guillaume le Maréchal’s description of her as ‘the good dame’ and the prayer for Nicholaa ‘whom God preserve both in body and in soul.’
Nicholaa’s place in the Magna Carta story, and her relevance to it, is unique. She is not here because of her influence on its clauses, nor because of its effect on her and her life. She is in Ladies of Magna Carta because she is an integral and essential part of the story of its creation, of the violent struggles in England that saw the emergence of Magna Carta and its increasing importance to the survival of the country and its king.”
Sharon Bennett Connolly has been fascinated by history her whole life. She has studied history academically and just for fun – and even worked as a tour guide at historical sites. For Christmas 2014, her husband gave her a blog as a gift – www.historytheinterestingbits.com – and Sharon started researching and writing about the stories that have always fascinated, concentrating on medieval women. Her latest book, Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England, released in May 2020, is her third non-fiction book. She is also the author of Heroines of the Medieval World and Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest. Sharon regularly gives talks on women’s history; she is a feature writer for All About History magazine and her TV work includes Australian Television’s ‘Who Do You Think You Are?‘
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