The Borgias: History’s Most Notorious Dynasty by Mary Hollingsworth – review

Ever since the 18th century French philosopher Voltaire first coined the phrase “with great power comes great responsibility”, the maxim has been used as a yardstick by which to judge many of those who have assumed a position of influence and authority, and their subsequent deeds. Did those in power use their position to benefit others, or did they capitalise on and manipulate their success for personal gain? Unfortunately, history is littered with many more examples of the latter than the former.

The Dark Side of Power

The BorgiasIf we were to assess the Borgia family in these terms, how would they fare? Not well, I fear.  This infamous Aragonese dynasty, which spawned no less than three popes and which dominated 15th century European politics, has long been associated with the dark side of power.  Indeed, the Borgia name itself has become a byword for corruption, avarice, ruthlessness, and debauchery.  Add to this a blatant disregard for celibacy and a fondness for nepotism among those members of the family who had taken up Catholic holy orders, and we are left with a rather unflattering impression of the Borgia clan in general.

Mary Hollingsworth does not shy away from these uncomfortable truths in her book, The Borgias: History’s Most Notorious DynastyIn her account of the family’s rise to prominence, she presents the history of Borgia family year by year, providing insightful and illuminating commentary along the way.  Starting with Alonso de Borja, who hailed from Valencia in modern-day Spain, we follow his inexorable rise from lawyer to diplomat of the Court of Aragon to cardinal in Rome, culminating in his ascension to the Papal throne as Calixtus III in 1455.

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The Battle of Hastings – a first person view

The Battle of Hastings as it might have appeared to a soldier in the conflict…

There are few pictures of bedlam more vivid in my life than the chaos I saw on medieval battlefields. None so more committed to memory than that fateful day in 1066. As I would later learn, it was a day that would change the course of England, writing yet another significant chapter in its history.

William I of EnglandIt all began when our King, Edward the Confessor of England, died in early 1066, leaving no child to succeed him. In the barracks we had heard rumours (later confirmed) that war had broken out among the dukes as they fought for control of the late king’s empire.  On January 6, 1066 Harold Godwinson, King Harold, was made King of all England. He defended his claim against all challengers that sought to make England their own.

It was William of Normandy (pictured) on that fateful day in battle, October 14, 1066, that would take England for the Normans.

Marching to Intercept the Invader

We heard news that William had landed his troops at the English shore and was in the process of marching towards London to stake his claim to the throne. Our King got wind of this news and immediately took us – his finest infantrymen – south to fend off William’s army. Although we were walking 40 kilometers a day, it still took us a week to reach him.

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John de Warenne – a summary

Born 1231, John de Warenne, the sixth Earl of Surrey, was one of the more important English noblemen who featured in the First Scottish War of Independence, which started in 1296.  Born into a prominent English family his early life was blighted by the deaths of both his father and mother by the time he was eight years old.

John de WarenneFollowing this, the young de Warenne was made a ward of the royal court and had a guardian appointed to safeguard his interests.  He was later to marry Henry III’s half-sister.

During The Second Barons War, de Warenne changed sides on a number of occasions, which was not uncommon in medieval times, but finally settled on the side of England’s Edward I.

Warden of the kingdom and land of Scotland

From then on, de Warenne was firmly placed as one of Edward’s most trusted nobles and military advisers, campaigning for the monarch in several wars against the Welsh and assisting in the diplomatic manoeuvres of treaty-making with the Scots.

In 1286 de Warenne marched north with Edward and skillfully routed the Scottish army at the battle of Dunbar.  Following this accomplishment Edward awarded him the title of ‘warden of the kingdom and land of Scotland’.

In 1297, de Warenne, despite being a rather elderly 66 years, led the English back to Scotland but met with defeat at the hands of William Wallace at the Battle of Stirling Bridge.

He returned to Scotland the following year and had several notable successes prior to Edward taking control of the English army which crushed the Scots at the Battle of Falkirk in 1298.

John de Warenne died in Kent on 29 September 1304.

Russell Burgess

Tostig Godwinson, Earl of Northumbria – a summary

Born c.1029, Tostig Godwinson, the third son of Earl Godwine, was exiled with the rest of the family by England’s Edward the Confessor in 1051. On their return in the following year, Tostig married Judith of Flanders who bore him two sons; Skuli and Ketil. The couple were well-known for their generous alms-giving and devotion, including, in 1061, a pilgrimage to Rome.

In 1055 Tostig became the earl of Northumbria. An area known for its lawlessness, Tostig was able to subdue Northumbria by implementing new laws and severely punishing offenders. He ruled until 1065 when rebellion broke out and he was accused of increasing brutality and misrule. His lands were confiscated by the king and Tostig was forced to take refuge in his wife’s native home in Flanders.

Battle of Stamford Bridge

Tostig Godwinson and HaroldShortly after his brother’s, Harold II, coronation in January 1066, which Tostig did not attend, he visited Duke William of Normandy in the hope of forming an alliance. He was unsuccessful but eventually persuaded King Harald Hardrada of Norway to undertake a joint invasion of England.

They arrived on the English coast in early September and plundered the local towns and villages. They defeated the armies of the northern earls at the Battle of Fulford Gate and were able to take the city of York.

(Pictured: brothers Tostig and Harold (the future King Harold II) fighting, bottom right, at a feast hosted by King Edward the Confessor).

On 25 September 1066, Tostig and Harald met the English army at Stamford Bridge. King Harold offered to reinstate Tostig’s lands if he switched sides but Tostig refused. He was killed during the battle, alongside Harald Hardrada.

Following the death of Harald Hardrada, shot in the throat with an arrow, Harold II renewed his offer of reconciliation. Again, Tostig refused and picked up the Norwegian battle standard. It took the alleged gruesome decapitation of Tostig Godwinson by his own brother, Harold, to end the battle.

1066 in an hourKaye Jones

For more about the Norman Invasion see 1066: History In An Hour
 published by Harper Press.

See also articles on the Battle of Hastings, Edward the Confessor and William the Conqueror.

The Battle of Stirling Bridge – a summary

The Battle of Stirling Bridge, 11 September 1297, part of the Scottish Wars of Independence, proved to be a symbolic but short-lived victory for William Wallace and the Scots against the might of the English and their king, Edward I.

Scottish leaders, William Wallace and Andrew de Moray, had arrived at Stirling in early September 1297, and immediately took up positions on the north side of the river close to the imposing heights of the Abbey Craig, a vantage point overlooking the snaking river Forth and Stirling Bridge.

Edward I of EnglandEdward I’s English army arrived in fine style and must have been a splendid sight, with its banners fluttering in the breeze, vast baggage trains and knights in full regalia on their huge war horses.  Vastly outnumbering the Scots, they took position to the south, somewhere between Stirling Castle and the approach to the bridge. (Pictured: Edward I).

Sides are drawn

Much has been written about the battle, and a great deal remains shrouded in mystery.  Some estimates put the English force at 50,000 strong but this is unlikely given that the same source believes their casualties to have been around 5,000.  This would still have left the English with an impressive force, easily capable, in the right conditions, of defeating the Scots.  More likely is a figure between 10-18,000, with about 500-1,000 heavy cavalry.  This included a contingent of Welsh bowmen, recently recruited to Edward’s army after his conquest of Wales.  They were equipped with the most up to date weaponry of the day, the longbow, which gave them a huge advantage with their accuracy and range.

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Alexander III of Scotland – a summary

King Alexander III came to the Scottish throne in 1249, at the age of just 7 years, following the death of his father, Alexander II.

Alexander III of ScotlandThe early years of Alexander III’s reign were dominated by a power struggle between two factions who had their own designs on his kingdom.  However, when he reached the age of 21 and was able to rule in his own right, Alexander showed his strength as king by continuing his father’s aspirations of gaining control of the Western Isles, which until then had been under the domination of Norway.

A wealthy nation

Alexander went on to preside over a Scotland which was a wealthy nation in its own right within northern Europe. Roads, bridges and other infrastructure were built and people in general had good standards of living.  But all this good work and the Scotland’s stability were undone due to an unfortunate series of events.

He had married Margaret of England, daughter of Henry III, at the age of ten, and eventually they had three children together. All three of these children were to die before Alexander III, the two sons before they could father any children and his daughter, who was married into the Norwegian royal family, died in childbirth, leaving Alexander with only a granddaughter as an heir.

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Isabel of Portugal – a summary

Isabel of Portugal was born into an illustrious Portuguese family. Her parents were renowned rulers and they were to raise several celebrated children. Her older brothers were King Edward of Portugal, Peter, Duke of Coimbra and the famous Henry the Navigator, patron of Portuguese navigation. Isabel was to make a brilliant match to the Duke of Burgundy but not until she was into her thirties, very late for a Renaissance princess.

Isabel of PortugalIsabel was born on February 21, 1397 in Evora. Her father was King John I of Portugal of the house of Aviz. Her mother was Philippa of Lancaster, the daughter of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster and granddaughter of King Edward III of England. Isabel’s father had become king with the help of John of Gaunt and cemented his alliance and friendship with Gaunt and England by marrying Philippa. Isabel was to value friendship with England all her life.

Five brothers

Isabel was the only surviving daughter in her family with five full-bodied brothers. She was allowed to play with the older boys, Edward, Peter and Henry and helped look after her younger brothers, John and Fernando. All the children in the family were supported in developing their minds and bodies. They were taught several languages such as Latin, French, English and Italian. They were urged to do scientific experiments and tutored in mathematics. Isabel was to excel in accounting. She was allowed to accompany her brothers when they were instructed in affairs of state with their father. She joined them in riding and hunting. She observed the many visitors to her father’s court.

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John Balliol – a summary

Born around 1249, King John Balliol ruled Scotland from 1292 until his abdication in 1296.  He was perhaps best known by his unfortunate nickname, Toom Tabard, or Empty Shirt (or Coat), having been unceremoniously stripped of his office by England’s Edward I, the ‘Hammer of the Scots’.

The death of Scottish king, Alexander III, from a riding accident on 19 March 1286, left Scotland without a king. All three of Alexander’s children had predeceased him. There was one grandchild, his three-year-old granddaughter, Margaret, the Maid of Norway, and prior to his death, Alexander had made efforts to have Margaret recognised as his legitimate heir to the Scottish throne.  This would have secured his dynastic line, but fate had one more card to play against the unfortunate Alexander.

During the crossing from Norway to Scotland in 1290, the young Margaret took ill and died. Thus came down the curtain on a golden age for Scotland.  The chain of events would eventually lead to a thirty-year war against England, one of the most powerful states in Europe, and would devastate a once wealthy country. (Pictured, Edward I welcoming Alexander III as a guest of the English parliament.)

Political Void and the Ragman Rolls

The disastrous deaths of Alexander and his heirs in such a short space of time left Scotland with a power vacuum and several candidates willing to fill it. No less than fourteen contenders put themselves forward as potential heirs to the Scottish throne, among them Robert de Brus (grandfather of Robert the Bruce), John Balliol and England’s Edward I (pictured).

Edward himself knew that his own claim was weak but his chance to take control of the Scottish throne, by a more circuitous means, came when the Scottish magnates requested that he arbitrate in their dispute as to who had legitimacy to rule.

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King Stephen of England – a summary

Grandson of William the Conqueror, Stephen of Bois was King of England as King Stephen from 1135 until his death on 25 October 1154. Born in Blois in central France, Stephen was raised at the English court of his uncle Henry I, soon becoming his favourite. But his right to the throne was disputed by the Empress Matilda, daughter and heir of King Henry I.

Henry I

Henry I had ruled England since his accession to the throne in August 1100, having succeeded his older brother, William II. Henry’s heir was to be his eldest son, William Adelin, but on 25 November 1120, the 17-year-old William drowned with the sinking of the White Ship. In the aftermath of William’s death, Henry’s attention naturally turned to the issue of the succession. Although he had other children, their illegitimacy ruled them out as potential candidates. He had nephews too to consider, one of them being Stephen of Blois. Stephen had been living in his household for several years and had already demonstrated impressive military and political skills on a previous trip to Normandy.

So far unconsidered was Henry’s first-born child, Matilda, pictured, now Empress of the Holy Roman Empire. Although Matilda had the strongest claim among his family, she was, of course, a woman.

Henry took some time to discuss Matilda’s suitability with his leading barons and advisers. In general they were uneasy about Matilda succeeding her father. After all, there was no precedent of female governance in England. In an era where the role of monarch encompassed politician and soldier, the unsuitability of women for such a position was a sentiment echoed by many. King David I of Scotland, the brother of Henry’s late wife, and Robert, Earl of Gloucester, however, both spoke out in favour of Matilda and it was to these men that Henry listened. Thus, in January 1127, Henry named Matilda as his heir and invited the leading clergymen and barons of the realm to swear an oath of fealty to her, supporting her succession to the throne of England and the Duchy of Normandy.

Stephen of Bois also backed Matilda’s accession but his support proved to be fickle.

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Harold II – a summary

The last of the Anglo-Saxon kings, Harold Godwinson, or Harold II, born around 1022, met his death against the forces of William of Normandy at the Battle of Hastings on 14 October 1066.

Harold Godwinson was the second son of Earl Godwin, the most powerful man in England. By his early 20s, Harold held an extensive earldom in eastern England and took as his concubine, Edith Swan-neck. In 1051 the family were exiled after an altercation with the king, Edward the Confessor, and all their lands and wealth were confiscated. With the help of their allies at home, the Godwines returned in 1052, forcing the king to take them back and reinstating their lands and titles. With the death of his father in 1053, Harold became the new Earl of Wessex and had ascended to become the most powerful nobleman in the country.

The Oath of Fealty

After a series of successful campaigns against the Welsh ruler, Gruffydd ap Llywelyn, in 1052-1053, Harold earned a reputation as an excellent military commander and his victories were celebrated throughout England. It is alleged that in 1054 he was sent by King Edward on a diplomatic errand to William, Duke of Normandy. The voyage began badly; Harold was shipwrecked and captured by the Guy, Count of Ponthieu. After being rescued by Duke William, Harold accompanied him in battle against Conan, the Duke of Brittany, and was knighted shortly after. According to Norman sources, Harold then swore an oath of fealty to William over holy relics, promising that he would support his claim to the English throne when King Edward died. He then returned to England, only to become embroiled in a rebellion against his brother, Tostig Godwinson. This resulted in Tostig’s exile and, soon after, King Edward became seriously ill.

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