Female Pharaohs: Khentkaus I & Sobekneferu

Today I want to talk about some women often forgotten about in your ordinary history books, and even some academic books depending on the accessibility to materials. These are some of the precursors to later and more famous female pharaohs of Ancient Egypt, and their names are Khentkawes I and Sobekneferu. Why? Because there is such a thing as being cool before being cool – no offence Nefertiti or Cleo. More importantly, these women actually start defining what the reality of female pharaohs was in a much earlier time period, therefore opening the possibility for further historical revisionism and a better understanding of the role of women in ancient history.

Female Pharaoh: More than a Queen

Manetho, the egyptian advisor of the Ptolemies created the royal dynasty system that we use nowadays. There he named 5 female pharaohs, and it is recorded that these existed as early as the 3rd millennium BC.We reckon that there are at least 7 female pharaohs in the Egyptian record, showing that this wasn’t a title exclusive to men. In fact, Aidan Norrie states that the title of pharaoh unlike in the case of traditional European ruling titles, the term pharaoh didn’t have a specific gender assigned. Unfortunately, the fragmentary evidence for these female rulers is a big hinderance to understand their roles and reigns in comparison to those of their male counterparts. Moreover, Joanne Fletcher is of the opinion that this title of pharaoh when associated with women, has traditionally appeared to be downgraded or dismissed despite the blatant exercise of power that these women had. Often, they are referred to as “queens” when, in fact, they were pharaohs in full right.

Continue reading “Female Pharaohs: Khentkaus I & Sobekneferu”

Nu History Podcast – Episode 5: Late Medieval Kings and Kingmakers

Here’s another podcast for you!

In this episode we talk to Alex Brondarbit, Academic Analyst in the division of Academic Affairs at University of California, and author of two books on late Medieval nobility, power and advancement. We discuss his recent work particularly around English kings and power brokers. We also talk about the experience of getting history books written and published in this day and age.

You can listen through Spotify below, or head to Anchor for links to follow on Apple, Google and wherever else you get your podcasts.

Olga of Kiev: Queen of the Rus

Vikings here, Vikings there, Vikings everywhere…! So today I take us back to one of my favourite women in history: an absolute kick ass queen who manage to take rulership of an old Norse state to a different level. Today, I bring you Olga of Kiev – or rather a summary of the things we know about Olga, because, as you know, I love me nothing better than dark characters and subjects in history that no one else seems to care about…Or that have hardly any research published in English…Oh Well!

So… Who’s Olga?

Good question! As far as we understand, Queen Olga of Kiev, ruled the realm after the death of her husband Igor, in the first half of the tenth century. Olga and Igor had only one son who was at the time of the death of his father, an underaged infant, which meant Olga acted as his regent…And the rest that we know about this incredible woman, is patchwork – at best. On a further note about the issue with the secondary sources- there is more availability of materials in other languages, mainly in Russian and other Eastern European languages. Even though, it is surprising how little in general has been written about her despite she was the first member of the royal family leave paganism behind and adopt Orthodox Christianity. Despite there are not many secondary sources about her, there was an increase in the amount of research done about her related to her conversion to Christianity and the millennium anniversary of her baptism In fact, Olga was the first member of the dynasty that became Christian; an event that had repercussions for the entire kingdom in the following years. This event was exposed in different ways in contemporary sources, which allowed the historical debate to begin.

According to Moseley, there are extensive materials for the study of middle- and upper-class women, such as personal correspondence and diaries; nevertheless, this does not apply to the Early Middle Ages where it was commonly the monks who recorded most events. Moreover, it was uncommon for women to write for it was seen as ‘exceeding society’s expectations. Apart from a few exceptions, like Christine of Pissan, the limited chances a woman had to influence written work were through patronage, as seen in the Encomium of Emma of Normandy. No sources written by Olga have been preserved or are known, although it has been suggested that the two Slavonic contemporary sources that remain could be based on a lost Encomium. Zemon Davis states that there are plenty of materials for research on European women, despite these might sometimes be under represented. However, we cannot be certain this applies to women that were not from mainland Europe. One of the very few sources we have availale that talk at lenght about Olga is the Russian primary Chronicle (which is super epic by the way, and if you have the time to read it, I thoroughly recommend it). Written in the twelfth century, this is nonetheless a controversial source: The text is meant to be a compilation of earlier manuscripts as well as oral traditions, although it is not disregarded it could just be the product of propaganda: both from the state and the Church.  Jesch defines it as an “apocryphal” and “legendary” text where the events are clearly manipulated by the author, but on the contrary Riha thinks that despite the religious bias it is the only remaining source of the early Russian past, so it cannot be disregarded. Thus, this source explains how Olga tricks the Derevlians, killers of her husband, and then leads the army to avenge the death of Igor and impose her rule over the neighbouring land .

According to Stafford, Olga was no exception as others like Aethelflead or Gerberga took active roles in siege and town defence. Furthermore, she states that ‘the struggles surrounding succession were often accompanied by propaganda wars’, a fact that fits in with the circumstances of Olga’s son’s minority and the political instability after the death of Igor. Moreover, it also reflects the Viking literary heritage presented in the sagas of the warrior maiden, that shows the perceptions of contemporary women by society. Finally, this source does mention other affairs related to the administrative power of the queen, like the economic prosperity reached since c.947 due to the building of several trading posts and the imposition of a tax on the goods transported through the Russian rivers. But, this does not say much about Olga’s personal life or experience of queenship. There is a passage of the Russian Primary Chronicle that perhaps reflects on this issue or maybe is just a remain of how she wanted to portray herself as a ruler. According to the events described, the Byzantine emperor fascinated by Olga proposes her marriage, for it is what she requires to be baptised. As he performs the rite, she eludes the proposal because of the formula used by the emperor, which calls her his daughter and therefore the incestuous controversy stands in Olga’s favour. It is interesting to know, though, that this is the only source that mentions this event. There is much debate amongst scholars regarding the truth behind this passage. Some consider that was the reality, some others that it never did happen. In addition, there are some that think that even if it happened it would not have been recorded elsewhere as it would have been a humiliation of the Emperor and, thus, too favourable for Olga, who after all was a widowed queen from a “lesser” kingdom. Perhaps that was her way to reinforce her position of widow, the one moment when women enjoyed more freedom and respect.

Related to that episode is the most celebrated part of Olga’s life: her baptism and conversion to the Christian faith. She was the first Russian Christian ruler who was the most inspiring figure for later tsar’s wives ‘who manipulated her image as intercessor for her people to legitimize their own roles as spiritual mothers of the realm and independent rulers’, according to Schaus. The importance of religion in life reaches its peak with her later beatification and sanctification. Interestingly, Schulenburg’s research shows how in the first half of the tenth century the number of female saints, all the clear example of piety, devotion and morality, increased by 20 per cent. Indeed, it is known women were a key part in the conversion process and spread of Christianity, and one of the few subjects where queens could get involved and develop their own affairs. Specifically, Norse women seem to have used this new opportunity that Christianity gave them to acquire more influence within their communities, just like Olga. Furthermore, women, and queens in particular, were the ones in charge of the spiritual protection of their families, which was very important for the well-being and prosperity of a dynasty. The importance of such matter is partially seen in a passage of Adalbert of Magdeburg’s Chronicle of Regino of Prüm that includes information regarding missionary work agreed between Olga and the court of Otto I. This is odd considering she was on good terms with Byzantium and she was converted to the Orthodox faith. However, it has been suggested that one of her multiple visits to Constantinople was intended to get a bishop for her realm but due to internal issues within the Byzantine administration this never happened, which may have made her get in contact with the Holy-Roman Empire.

 However, the German mission failed and with it the developments of Christianity in the Rus. Certainly Olga did not manage to convert her own son to the new faith, but the influence spread, reaching even a more important figure than the heir to the throne: Vladimir, Olga’s grandson. It was with Vladimir’s rule that Kiev became officially Christian, two decades after Olga’s attempt. Poppe suggests that this shows how important it was for female rulers to have support in different spheres and how religion was a way of gaining control and allies at the same time. Related to this, is the general question about status being so prominent and relevant in the study of these figures. There is one last source that deals with this subject, De Caeremonis: the book of ceremonies from the Byzantine court which provides details on the ceremonies Olga attended in Constantinople, and her dinners with the royal family, evidence of her high status and diplomatic abilities. Finally, Jesch mentions the large number of females from her family that had an active role in Olga’s court, perhaps suggesting a sort of female agency, and most definitely establishing the importance of household and family support for these individuals.

So, this is what we can comfortably talk about Olga. There is a very important issue that I need to address here which is something that Schaus points out and is the issue of romanticism with figures like Olga. There are extra difficulties to investigate characters like this due to the pagan-Christian controversy. After all, Kievan women suffered from the romanticism of the sources and their personas due to the Romantic and Nationalistic movements Kievan scholars experimented. Therefore, perhaps what we know about her must be taken with a pinch of salt? I am a little reluctant to believe it is all a fantasy or apocryphal. However, the lack of access to sources in different languages make this a very biased discussion.

Regardless, I still think that Olga is a well interesting figure that did a lot of great things for her people and that is still very under represented in her field.  

And here is the bibliography from where I pulled most of this research…So you can see it is archaic…However, I would like to point out that a few things have come out recently which will be worth examining…I just haven’t had the chance to get my hands on to them.

‘The Russian Primary Chronicle’, ed. T.Riha, Readings in Russian Civilization, Vol. 1, (Chicago and London, 1964), pp. 20-30.

Featherstone, J., ‘Ol’ga’s Visit to Constantinople’, Harvard Ukranian Studies, Vol. 14, No 3-4, (Dec., 1990), pp. 293-312.

Jesch, J., Women in the Viking Age (Woodbridge, 1991).

Jewell, H.M., Women in Dark Age and Early Medieval Europe c.500-1200 (Basingstoke and New York, 2007).

Moseley, E.S., ‘Sources for the New Women’s History’, The American Archivist, Vol. 43, No. 2, (Spring, 1980), pp. 180-190.

Poppe, A., ‘Once Again Concerning the Baptism of Olga, Archontissa of Rus’, Dumbaton Oak Papers, Vol. 46-Homo Byzantinus: Papers in Honour of Alexander Kazhdan, (1992), pp. 271-277.

Schaus, M., Women and Gender in Medieval Europe: an Encyclopedia (London, 2006).

Smith-Rosenberg, C., ‘The New Women and the New History’, Feminist Studies, Vol. 3, No. 1-2, (Aut., 1975), pp. 185-198.

Stafford, P., Queens, Concubines and Dowagers: The King’s Wife in the Early Middle Ages (London and Virginia, 1983).

Zemon Davis, N., ‘“Women’s History” in Transition: the European Case’, Feminist Studies, Vol. 3, No. 3-4, (Spring-Summer, 1976), pp. 83-103.

Twice a Queen: Emma of Normandy

Much is known of England’s powerful queen consorts, from Eleanor Aquitaine to Elizabeth Woodville to Anne Boleyn but little is known about the woman who arguably was one of the first of England’s powerful queen consorts, along with her mother in law Ælfthryth. Emma of Normandy was queen consort of England twice, first to Æthelred the Unready and secondly to Cnut the Great. She was the mother to two kings of England, Harthacnut and Edward the Confessor.  Her continued hold on power was due to her determined will which saw her survive the death of both husbands and several sons. The Encomium Emmae Reginae written in honour of her recorded her as a central figure during this period and is one of the major sources. Her position as a daughter of Normandy has also led to her marriage to Æthelred being considered as one of the main events leading to the Norman Conquest of 1066.

Born to Richard I, Count of Rouen, and his wife Gunnor, Emma was born sometime during the 980s. Her brother Richard was Duke of Normandy and another brother Robert was Archbishop of Rouen. Her family’s position was what led to Emma’s marriage to Æthelred in 1002 as a result of an arrangement between the two territories against Viking raids. Emma dutifully provided 3 heirs for Æthelred but her power was limited during her marriage to him. While she seems to appear more during Æthelred’s reign compared to his first wife, such as appearing prominently on witness lists of Æthelred’s charters, William of Malmesbury reported that the pair never got along. Emma was forced to return to Normandy with her two sons in 1013 after her husband lost control of England to Swein Forkbeard and was only unable to return upon his death the following year. By 1016, Æthelred himself had died and Emma had been unsuccessful in convincing him to pass over his sons from his first wife in favour of Edward.

Æthelred’s heir Edmund Ironside however did not survive long, dying at the end of 1016 after struggling to hold off Cnut. Emma soon married Cnut in a mutually beneficial marriage. She retained her position as queen as well preserving the life of her two sons while Cnut benefitted from Emma being seen as symbol of continuity and quelling the threat from Normandy. Emma was afforded a far greater position as Cnut’s wife than she was during her marriage to Æthelred. Sources refer to the couple as pair and Emma also appears in royal imagery such as in the Liber Vitae which includes an image depicting Emma and Cnut presenting their gift of a cross on the altar of the New Minster of Winchester. The Encomium Emmae Reginae also comments that while the marriage began as one for political means, that the marriage became affectionate. By the time Cnut died in 1035, the marriage had provided two children, including Cnut’s heir Harthacnut.

Upon Cnut’s death Emma did not cede her political power. She focused on ensuring that her son with Cnut, Harthacnut could maintain power. Harthacnut however was in Denmark and made little attempt to come to England. Emma was forced to appeal to her sons from her marriage to Æthelred, Edward and Alfred, to come to England to help support her against her opponents. However upon their arrival they were betrayed by allies leading to the death of her son Alfred who died after having his eyes gouged out. Emma was forced to flee to Flanders as her stepson Harold Harefoot took control of England. Upon Harefoot’s death in 1040, Harthacnut had finally joined his mother and the two set sail to England to reclaim the throne.

Harthacnut’s reign was not popular according to the C and E texts of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Emma is believed to have convinced Edward to return to England to help reduce tensions but to also strengthen her position. It was during Harthacnut’s reign that she commissioned the Encomium Emmae Reginae, to present her version of events and create a lasting legacy of her life. Emma firmly places the blame for her son Alfred’s death on Harold the Harefoot. Despite the work’s biases, it is considered an important source for 11th century English and Scandinavian history.

Upon the death of Harthacnut’s in 1042, Emma’s power began to decrease. Despite having helped secure Edward’s position, perhaps as a result of her favouring Harthacnunt as heir, their relationship soured. Edward came to Winchester seizing the treasure held there, if it was Emma’s own or the royal treasury is not clear, as well as her advisor Bishop Stigand who was stripped of his office. While Emma would later return to court, and Stigand would also be promoted, it was the end of her influence. In her place the Earl Godwine gained her political power, despite his probable role in the death of Edward’s brother, Alfred. Emma would see him become exiled before she died in 1052 but after her death he returned to power and his son became the ill-fated Harold Godwinson.

When Emma died in 1052, she was buried at Winchester next to Cnut and Harthacnut. She had been queen consort of England twice over, as well as when married to Cnut, queen consort of Denmark and Norway. Two of her sons had also successfully obtained the English throne. In the case of her second husband and her two sons she had been instrumental in their success. Despite not being of English birth and being a woman, Emma navigated the dangers of the Anglo-Saxon and Anglo-Danish courts in securing a position for herself. For a queen consort with such an interesting life, Emma deserves much more than a footnote in the history books.

Mustafa Kemal AtatÜrk

Mustafa Kemal, also known as Mustafa Kemal AtatÜrk was a former officer serving in the Ottoman and Turkish army, a revolutionary and the first president of the newly formed Republic of Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1922.

Kemal was said to have been born on 19th May 1881 in Saloncia, Ottoman Empire to Zübeyde Hanım and Ali Rıza Efendi in a Muslim Middle class household. This was due to the fact that the Ottoman Empire recognised the two calendars, the Rumi and Hijri calendars, yet it was unknown what calendar Kemal’s birth was registered under. It was generally accepted to have been on 19th May 1881 within the Gregorian calendar since the historian Reşit Saffet Atabinen put forth the suggestion. However this has been disputed amongst some individuals, yet Kemal himself registered his birth 19th May 1881 on all documentation. The name Kemal is also of interest as there are some theories as to how Mustafa received this additional name. According to Mustafa’s biographer Andrew Mango it was used because Mustafa picked it himself. However other theories suggest it stemmed from his school life. One theory suggests it was used in order to distinguish him from another student in his school who had the same name.

Kemal wished to pursue a Military career and in spite of his parents not wanting him to he enrolled himself into the Ottoman Military Academy in 1899. He eventually went to the Ottoman Military College afterwards and graduated Constantinople in 1905 in as a staff captain and was assigned to the Fifth Army in Damascus. He did this for two years until he was promoted to a Senior Captain rank in Macedonia, when stationed in Macedonia he joined the Committee of Union and Congress (CUP). This was an organisation designed to be a secret society that aimed to promote liberal reform within the empire, eventually becoming more of a political organisation by the time Kemal joined. Before the First World War he was involved in two wars the Italo-Turkish War (1911-1912) and the Balkan Wars of 1912-13.

When the First World War broke out the Ottoman Empire allied itself with Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, otherwise known as the Central Powers. Kemal led the Fifth Army at the time of the Battle of Gallipoli. The Fifth Army’s purpose was to defend the Dardanelles then known as Hellespont, which separated Europe and Asia Minor. For the Allies this battle proved to be flawed and fatal, however for Kemal it proved to be successful as he anticipated correctly where the allied forces would land. After Gallipoli he then served in East Thrace at Edirne and commanded the XVI corps after a Russian offence in the Anatolia region. However this did not last long as the Russians withdraw from the war as a result of the Russian Revolution in 1917. Soon after Kemal was in charge of the Seventh Army in the summer of 1917, yet this appointment did not last very long either as he did not get along with a German general after a disagreement mounted as Kemal claimed there was a lack of resources for troops at the Palestinian front and subsequently resigned as a result of this. Interestingly, Kemal was not afraid to stand up in what he believed in for a second time. This time he was invited to Germany and witnessed how the war was being conducted on the western front and supposedly made it known to Kaiser Wilhelm himself that Germany looked as though they would lose the war.

After the First World War the Ottoman Empire ceased to exist and the countries that were part of that empire became independent republics, including Turkey and a war of three years to place in order for Turkey to officially become independent after an election Kemal won the presidency. With Turkey’s independence came much reform and modernisation, this was something Kemal strongly advocated for as the first President of Turkey and the term Kemalism was established. This way of thinking pushed for a more democratic and westernised way of life for the Turkish people who deviated from the days of the Ottoman Empire, however at the same time it was not detrimental to their Religion, Islam. These reforms did much to improve finance, the economy, social and judicial procedures in Turkey, including education opportunities.

Reforms first occurred with the modernisation of the constitution in 1921. It was Kemal who was the driving force for these reforms and the most prominent of these was in 1921, when the Turkish constitution did not abide the law from a Sultan. Another major reform was the new location for Turkey’s capital. Previously when the Ottoman Empire was still in existence it was Constantinople, today known as Istanbul. However it was in 1924 when further adoptions were made to the constitution and consequently fully replaced the one from 1921. It was in 1924 that the title of Caliphate was abolished in Turkey, a term that had been in use since the Ottomans came to power in the sixteenth century.

With a wave of reform came opposition, those that did not like Kemal’s ideas for the modern Turkey, particularly with the abolition of the Caliphate. One of these said persons was Sheikh Said, a tribal chief of a Naqshbandi order. The Naqshbandi order relates to the Sunni branch of Islam and a spiritual order of Sufism. They claim to trace their ancestry back to the first Caliph, Abu Bakr the father-in-law to the prophet Muhammad. Sheikh Said was opposed to Kemal’s westernised concepts and how he had implemented them to Turkey. He led a rebellion against the reforms taking place and this rebellion was named after him as the Sheikh Said Rebellion. Another prominent opposition against Kemal was an attempted assassination. This occurred in 1926 and the motive again was said to have been a dislike for the abolition of the Caliphate. After this assassination attempt was uncovered it stopped not only the assignation but further political activists who posed as a threat to Kemal’s presidency, these individuals were found guilty of treason and sentenced to death.

If you enjoyed reading this post I suggest you read one of my earlier posts concerning the First World War about my own Great-Grandfather and his experience of Gallipoli, fighting for the allied forces.

Incest and Royalty: The Reasons and the Effects

Jokes about inbreeding and incest are common in discussions about royalty, for non-historians such jokes can actually be some of the basis of their knowledge about royalty. However why royalty decided to choose incestuous unions and what the effects of such unions are less considered. This is despite incest and inbreeding being apparent across the world and history.

So why did royalty decide to marry relatives? The most simple and common answer was political stability. The offspring of two relatives who had strong individual claims to the throne would have an even stronger claim themselves, which theoretically should lead to an easier pass over of power. This was apparent with Incan emperors who went to the extreme of marrying their sisters, those who had the next best claim, to produce heirs. Thai kings married their half-sisters instead of their full blood sisters for the same reason. Such actions were not restricted to brother-sister marriages. Emperor Claudius married his niece Agrippa the Younger to strengthen his own claim as emperor. In Europe, many royals married cousins, although some, the Habsburgs in particular would have even more incestuous unions to strengthen their dynasties and political stability. Philip II of Spain married his niece Anne of Austria as his fourth wife. Of his three previous marriages one had been to his first cousin and one to his first cousin once removed, only Elizabeth of Valois was more distantly related. Philip IV of Spain married his niece Mariana of Austria and produced the sickly Charles II. While it did produce stability it did have ill effects on their health. However it is important to realise it was not a guarantee of political stability as infighting still would happen within families. The Ptolemy dynasty of Pharaohs is one example, instead of killing rival claimants from other families; they would often kill family members who were claimants.

Another, less common, reason for inbreeding was the ‘sacredness’ that such offspring would have this. This is apparent in societies where royalty were considered to be gods. For Pharaohs, incest meant that the sacred blood line was kept pure, which considering the emphasis placed on Pharaohs being gods was extremely useful. This was to the extent that in Cleopatra’s family tree only six individuals make up her sixteen great grandparents. In Hawaii inbreeding was preferred and sometimes even obligated for royalty. The child of two full blood siblings was considered to have the highest ‘mana’, meaning the most sacred. Avuncular relations, those between an aunt/nephew or uncle/niece were also accepted for similar reasons.

There was also the case that by a certain point with European royalty that almost everyone was related due to such a small pool of people who were considered eligible. However the effects of inbreeding were lessened somewhat as unions were not always within the first degrees of relation. For instance Henry VIII was related to all his wives however he was no closer than third cousins with any of his wives and in the case of Anne of Cleves they were ninth cousins.

The basis of many jokes about royalty and incest are that of the effects they have on the offspring of royalty. Surprisingly there does not always seem to be as many ill effects as one would imagine, especially in the case of brother-sister offspring. Although in some countries there may have been due to reliance on oral history which could mean such issues may not have been recorded. However there are two prominent cases of how disastrous inbreeding could be on health. The first is that of Tutankhamun who has been proved to be the product of incest. Work on his mummified body has shown that images of him in his tomb were far from accurate of what he looked like. Physically he had a club foot, which would have prevented him being able to stand independently; severely limiting activities as a Pharaoh he should’ve been able to participate in such as chariot racing. He also had an extreme overbite and what has been described as ‘feminine hips’. He also suffered from conditions such as Kohler’s disease and epilepsy. These problems are thought to have hastened his early death.

The second is the Habsburg family. While as previously mentioned above, intermarriage was practiced by all the European royal families, the Habsburgs took it up a notch. Family members married other close family members, such as their first cousins and as mentioned above there were several avuncular marriages. Such inbreeding led to the infamous Habsburg jaw which caused severe pain and a number of medical issues that made simple tasks such as eating difficult for those who were inflicted with it such as Charles V and Ferdinand I. The Habsburg jaw can still be seen in the Spanish royal family today, although in a much less exaggerated form. However the real victim of Habsburg inbreeding was Charles II of Spain, whose numerous difficulties are thought to have been the result of this inbreeding. He was unable to speak till the age of four and walk until he was eight. He is now believed to have suffered from two genetic disorders: combined pituitary hormone deficiency and distal renal tubular acidosis both of which do not allow the body to properly function. He was also infertile and failed to produce an heir which led to the extinction of the senior branch of the Habsburg family.

Incest was practised widely across the world by royal families, although the reasons and to what extent such incest was practised varies. Similarly the effects that inbreeding had on royalty has also varied, which somewhat challenges our preconceived ideas of what the results would be. Thankfully royalty these days generally don’t practise such close consanguinity.

Four Maya Rulers – Lost and Forgotten

Today I wanted to speak to you about some of the most prominent rulers of the Maya civilization. To my surprise, I thought I would be able to compile sufficient data about these 4 leaders, yet I was proven wrong. It is surprising how little we actually know about them. Even though the decipherment of Mayan glyphs advances, effectively all we have left over by this great culture -and many others in the area of Meso and South America- is their great monuments and archaeological remains. This is the reason why I have taken it as a task- you may have noticed that lately I have been posting quite a bit on this subject- to spread the word about these civilizations, and perhaps inspire others to become experts on the subject to enlighten us all!

Thus what follows is a brief description of these rulers based at Palanque and Tikal, and the few things we know about them. I would also like to advise that, while doing my research, I had to take advantage of my knowledge of Spanish to get details about these characters, because the widely information available in English was truly appalling or insufficient. So, you can consider this a work of history as much as a translation effort!


Pakal the Great / “El Grande”/ Ahau de Palenque (603-683 CE), also known as K’inich Janaab’ Pakal, was ruler of the Maya – and ahau or ajaw as referred to in their culture- with his seat of power located at Palenque. Pakal came to power after a conflicting and bellicose, so consolidating his influence and bringing some stability were key items in his agenda.He embarked himself in a vigorous military campaign that lead him to the acquisition of new land where to assert his position as ajaw.  At Palenque, Pakal begin the huge monumental complex that his own would later on expand. His first contribution to this was the temple El Olvidado, but he is better known for improving the palace. Moreover, he contributed to the improvement of Maya agricultural techniques and begun the series of glyphs from where we obtain most information about these dynasties and their people. After his death Pakal transcended into a divine figure and was worshiped as a god, who was believed to be able to communicate with the new rulers. He was buried at the Temple of Inscriptions, although his remains are still a disputed issue amongst the archaeologists regarding the true identity of these bones. It seems that the Maya manipulated the dates of his rulers and some other important members of society to make them coincide with prominent astronomical and astrological events, as a sign of good omen, or for mythological purposes. Nevertheless, recent research undertaken in 2003 by Vera Tiesler at the Universdad Autonoma de Yucatan re-examined his bones and concluded he was considerably old – estimates of 80 years although not all the researchers agreed on this figure, however they were certain he was at least 55 years old at the time of his death. Moreover, the results pointed out that he has suffered from osteoporosis and arthritis.  Pakal has also raised controversy regarding the iconography of his tomb, leading some -Charles Berlitz amongst them- to believe that he was connected with aliens, as they believed he was depicted piloting his grave as in the fashion of a spaceship. These theories have nowadays lost their popularity, but there are many who still contemplate this idea.

K’inich Kan B’alam II/ Chan Bahlum II (635-702 CE). He was the son of Pakal and was crowned some months after his father’s death in 684 CE. His name is usually translated as Gran Sol Serpiente Jaguar- Great Star Snake Jaguar-. As his father’s heir, he expanded the site of Palenque and commissioned the 3 temple complex. His most important addition is perhaps the Temple of the Cross, which is a crucial source for understanding the Mayan glyphs. He also campaigned primarily against the rulers of Tonina, located 115km south from Palenque, therefore its natural political rivals. However, nothing in particular seems to have triggered this animosity, so scholars have assumed in the past that the rulers of Tonina made a pack with a different Maya settlement, opposed to Palenque. One the other hand, he established alliances with the settlement of Moral-Reforma. In addition, K’inich Kan B’alam II commissioned not only the chronicle of dynasty of Palenque as well as their military epics, but he also introduced mythical narratives, such as the biographical account of Muwaan Mat and his ascendance to divine power.

Jasaw Chan K’awiil I (682-734 CE). Jasaw established his political capital at Tikal (Peten), which became one of the largest Maya cities of its period. Before the Maya glyphs were deciphered he was also known as “Gobernante A”. The period prior to his rule is associated with a time of recession for the people of Tikal which according to Maya experts lasted for 130 years. In addition, this change of circumstances and glorifying raise to greatness is mainly associated with his victory over another Maya ruler located at Calakmul. Jasaw is particularly associated with the site of Tikal Temple I, due to the location of his burial, although there does not seem to be consensus on the actual purpose for this building, aside of its funerary function. The site is a typical pyramid in Peten style.

Yik’in Chan K’awiil/K’awiil el Oscurecedor del Cielo (734-766 CE). He was the son of Jasaw and succeeded his father in the rulership of Tikal. Like his father, prior to decoding the glyphs he was identified as “Gobernante B” and was acknowledged as the 27th ruler in the Tikal line. Maya experts consider him one of the most successful leaders of the time, as he consolidated the realm his father amassed in his lifetime. Moreover, Yik’in managed to defeat two further Maya rulers towards the year 743CE. These were Jaguar Throne, ruler of El Peru, as well as the leader of the settlement in Naranjo. Interestingly though, the location of his tomb is currently unknown, however archaeologists seem to believe his tomb could be located southwards of Temple II.



Simone Boccanegra: Verdi’s Doge

As part of our musical November theme, we are covering historical events that are related with some exceptional and interesting modern pieces of music. Our case for today offers us with a window into the 14th and 19th century, to learn about a powerful Italian man, and from the point of view of another Italian; an opera master. How this concoction came to happen? Well, keep on reading 🙂

Only in Italy a pirate could become ruler, or more precisely Doge, of an important city such as Genoa. For those unaware of the power politics of this geographical area, Italy was divided in two factions: the Guelphs and Ghibellines, supporting the Pope and the holy Roman Emperor respectively- the north of Italy had been and would be a political war zone for years, even centuries. The situation was tame down with the Concordat of Worms in 1122, but this division and game of allegiances continued well into the 15th century. So, time came to decide who was going to be boss in Genoa in 1339, and the Ghibellines put forward this interesting fella, Simone Boccanegra, who according to Verdi’s opera was a pirate. In the opposition sat the Guelph candidate, who was an old school aristocrat. But as it stands up until the 16th century the Doge was elected by popular vote in Genoa, and thus our man comes to power.

Continue reading “Simone Boccanegra: Verdi’s Doge”

The Stigma of Illegitimacy in Medieval England and Wales

The stigma of illegitimacy is a mark that remained prevalent up until the late twentieth century, yet none more so than in the England of the 13th century. Due to the Catholic Church of the 1200’s condemnation of sex outside marriage, fornication with the result of an illegitimate child was a sin. However within the royal circles of England even with the potentially damning notion of being a bastard child of a king or courtier this did not prevent the possibility of reaching greatness, notoriety or under Welsh law, the throne.

Despite the Catholic Church preaching against sexual relations out-of-wedlock illegitimate children born to kings is nothing new. William the Conqueror himself was an illegitimate child of the Duke of Normandy, Robert I, and this did not prevent him from gaining the crown of England through conquest and good leadership. In the days before 1066 when general primogeniture came in, Anglo-Saxon rulers chose their successor by who they thought best could rule often meaning their own children could be over-looked in favour of their siblings regardless of social stature in legitimacy. Technically under English law, an illegitimate line could not claim the throne unless done so by conquest or they were the only line left by way of heirs. Only a will left by their predecessor could over-rule this law under special circumstances. But even then an illegitimate line would have an unstable hold to the crown unless they create a proven dynasty much like when Henry VII took the throne in 1485. His tenuous link as a great-grandchild of John of Gaunt, the royal uncle of Richard II, was only solidified by the victory at Stoke battle, and the siring of a male line by his wife Elizabeth of York.

Although illegitimate children are a subject that confuses a lot of general history and the notion of building a long dynasty, it is a particular problem when discussing those who reigned during the 13th century in England and Wales. King John of England and Llywellyn the Great of Wales (Llywellyn Fawr) are contemporaries of each other and are linked through their treatment of their illegitimate offspring. In this era marriages are made for political and economic reasons and for securing a male line to succeed the throne, they were hardly ever made for love. Therefore it is almost natural that most men would seek to find love matches outside of marriage in terms of a mistress or concubine. There is hypocrisy here as women, particularly queens or those of the aristocracy, were forbidden from taking lovers as this would damage future dynastic ambitions if her child was not that of the kings, while a man could sow his wild oats as he wills to without repercussions.

Between John and Llywellyn the discussion on their children begins with whether he acknowledges a concubine’s child as his. There is a long history of illegitimate children being unrecognised as a royal bastard and the mother cast out of society as being unchaste and no longer a maid. Usually a mistress is a married woman so if a child is conceived it would be given out to be the cuckolded husbands but rarely are the people at court fooled. A prime example of this would be the two elder children of Mary Boleyn, Katherine and Henry Carey, who are reputed to be the fruits of Mary’s liaison with Henry VIII which is widely discussed and argued by historians today. All of John and Llywellyn’s children that they knew of were acknowledged and given places at court and societal honours. The main link between these two men would be John’s illegitimate daughter Joan (Joanna – born to a woman named Clemence), who was married to Llywellyn in 1203.

King John of England had continued the reputation of the Angevin kings in keeping mistresses and being open with favours of the sexual kind. Himself being the last child of Henry II of England and Eleanor of Aquitaine, and the third king in the House of Plantagenet, he had grown up surrounded by half-brothers born from his father’s mistresses after his marriage to Eleanor fell apart. Usually John is portrayed by historian as a harsh temperamental man, but many ignore the fact that his family including his children in and out-of-wedlock never wanted for anything. Looking at sources it can be confusing picking out those born before either of John’s wedding as he had a tendency to give his children the same name. His marriage to Isabelle of Angouleme gave him five children including his son Henry III but his brief trysts made him father to at last seventeen. Here though it can be seen that even if his illegitimate children were barred from the throne, they at least gained offices, baronies and in some case earldoms. Most of John’s children were boys, it is in fact known that Joan was his first daughter and he doted on her exceedingly. All children were well-travelled, Joan is known to have spent some years in Fontevrault with Eleanor of Aquitaine in the years before she died in 1204.

John’s illegitimate boys, in particular Baron Richard of Chilham, were all involved politically and socially in the realm’s state business including some military careers. It could be said that even if they did not gain glittering marriages, they were married well to women of substance and of good dowries considering the black mark that would usually smear their names. After careful research, historians have discovered that John’s children ended up scattered across Europe holding positions in the papal legate, an abbess, clerks and knights. This causes to question whether it is because of John the stigma is held lightly or whether the church was not as unforgiving as previously thought. Under papal rule a country could only pass their crown to a legitimate heir

In Wales, however, the mark of illegitimacy was thought of in a different light. In the Snowdon Mountains the eldest male born to a prince is heir, regardless of the legitimacy. Llywellyn ap Iorwerth of the House of Aberffaw, and later the House of Gwynedd once he was invested Prince of Wales, had eight children but only two of whom are considered to be born from his wife Joan. Llywellyn is known to have had two or three of his children from a mistress called Tangwystl ferch Llywarch, who died in childbirth with another of Llywellyn’s children. The eldest Gruffydd ap Llywellyn (‘ap’ – son of) became infamous during the wars following Llywellyn Fawr’s death with Dafydd ap Llywellyn, his half-brother. He was born in 1196 and in being the eldest child of Llywellyn he was named heir despite being illegitimate. This came into dispute when Llywellyn married Joan of England as she was Norman French and John’s daughter. England followed the church’s teachings in not allowing illegitimate lines to rule, so when Joan had Dafydd ap Llywellyn in 1212 the English backed Dafydd’s right to rule Wales in the place of Gruffydd. This was deemed strange to the Welsh considering that Llywellyn had twin sons by a concubine Cristyn, Angharad and Tegwarad, who were also older than Dafydd and technically came second and third in line under Welsh law.

Here you can see the issues when two countries on the same land who followed different laws in regards to continuing a dynastic line. Gruffydd was thought to be thoroughly displaced at the birth of Dafydd as under English law it diminishes his status, and his resentment of Joan has come down through history purely for being Norman-French and having a son who has papal following as well as the backing of two countries. Llywellyn Fawr foreseeing the problems of his two sons, particularly the flaws in Gruffydd, started to work towards declaring Dafydd as his sole heir. He followed Lord Rhys of Deheubarth’s lead by rewriting Welsh law favouring children born into a church sanctioned marriage to promote Anglo-Welsh negotiations for future descendants. The Welsh however have been known in the Middle Ages to prefer a Welsh leader signifying the beginning of a war that lasts until Gruffydd fell from a tower in the Tower of London trying to escape in 1244. The bricked up window can still be seen today. Dafydd then rules exclusively until his death in 1246 when Gruffydd’s second son Llywellyn ap Gruffydd became effectively the first ‘Prince of All Wales’. Welsh independence only lasted until Llywellyn ap Gruffydd’s death as then Wales was subsumed by the English crown, through the right of Dafydd ap Llywellyn’s heirs, and the conquest of Edward I of England, a somewhat cousin of Dafydd ap Llywellyn.

The last of the Welsh Prince’s line was a daughter, Gwenllian of Wales, who was kept in confinement for her entire life by Edward I to prevent her from marrying and producing more Welsh heirs. She died alone in Lincolnshire aged fifty-five in 1337, despite being the great-granddaughter of John of England as well as Llywellyn the Great, due to being of the legitimate line of Dafydd.

Thutmose II: The Puppet-Man Behind the Great Woman

THUTMOSE II (Aa-Jeper-en Ra Dyehut-Mose) is a pretty unknown figure within the history of Ancient Egypt. He was the fourth monarch of the eighteenth dynasty of Egypt, son of Thutmose I, father of Thutmose III, and married to Hatshepsut. With this family history, it is easy to fall into oblivion, although truth be told, it seems nothing particularly relevant happened during his reign.

Apparently he reigned at some point between 1493 and 1479 BC. I say apparently because most of the Egyptologists and other experts of the subject do not seem to have a quorum about the length of his rule. Due to the “nothingness” of events while he was in power it has been suggested that his reign was actually a quite short one, some even dare to say that it might have lasted barely three or four years.

Continue reading “Thutmose II: The Puppet-Man Behind the Great Woman”