Tuesday 20 November 2012

Lagos, Henry the Navigator and The Algarve Writers.

Lagos is one of the prettiest, relaxed ports on the Algarve. Some time ago I had bid on the rental of a gorgeous five bedroomed villa to support cancer research at our village charity auction. Consequently we washed up close to Lagos in October 2012. I used the second week of the rental to invite some of my writing friends to use it as a writing retreat. They seized the opportunity to write in this beautiful place and, believe me, it was difficult to extract them from the villa. The writers became lost in its magic and in their writing. Here, they discovered their own private nooks and passed long candle-lit evenings  dining under the stars. We shared writing tips, publishing information and extracts from very different works in progress.

evening view from the villa
and on the morning walk by a lagoon to the beach
and the shell fisher

Sue, Carol, Grace , writers at leisure


When my friends did eventually emerge from the privacy of our villa they explored Lagos and its rich history. The area to the west of Lagos contains secret towns and villages set amongst unfrequented beaches off the regular tourist tracks. These hidden places possess an interesting history which casts back to Henry the Navigator and the very early years of the European Trade Triangle.

Secret beaches
Alison, Gail and Denise, writers in the Algarve


Henry the Navigator was born in 1394 and died in 1460. He is attributed with the early development of European exploration and maritime trade with distant continents. Prince Henry was the third child of King John I of Portugal and John of Gaunt's daughter Philippa of Lancaster. He conquered Ceuta the Muslim port on the north African coast and as a consequence became fascinated with Africa. He was, for instance, intrigued by the legend of Prestor John and he aimed to expand Portuguese trade into parts of the continent that had not been as yet explored. To this end he was responsible for ports along Portugal's south west coastline, one of which is in Lagos. In the fifteeenth century ships in the Mediterranean were too slow to make long voyages far south along the African coast or west into the dangerous and uncharted Atlantic ocean.

Henry the Navigator's Fort in Lagos
The Navigator
One of his ships

Chapel in the museum at the fort


 Men feared the great western ocean thinking that if they ventured too far they would be devoured by sea creatures. Henry directed a new lighter ship to be built. He called it the caravel. It could sail further and faster. He also developed a town and very important fort on the Sagres Peninsula located at the south westernmost point of Iberia. (see pictures further on). He sponsored voyages as far as Guinea along the coast of Africa bringing back to Lagos numerous African slaves and trade.

This skeleton is in the museum associated with the Slave Trade
The Cathedral in Lagos opposite the Slave Market

Henry the Navigator attracted navigators and map makers to his fort at Sagres and other buildings along the Algarve that are now attributed to him. These places were not observatories and navigational centres in today's sense, but even so his map makers were responsible for charting the west coast of Africa. Ironically he ransomed Portuguese subjects who had been enslaved by pirate attacks on Portuguese villages and who would be sold in African Slave markets. In turn he brought Africans back to Portugal where he claimed that he was converting his captives to Christianity. It was a violent action, associated with the darker aspects of religious fervour and political shenanigans. There is no doubt that the slave building in Lagos opposite the Cathedral still retains a very sorrowful atmosphere.

 fourteenth century vessel

Lagos provided a suitable harbour from which slaving expeditions left. The voyages were made in tiny ships like the caravel which was light and easy to manoeuvre.  Using new lighter ships the Portuguese passed the southern boundary of the Sahara and rounded the Cap-Vert Peninsula. As a consequence more slaves and gold arrived in Lagos. From 1444-1446 at least forty ships sailed from Lagos and so the first private mercantile expeditions began. By 1462 the Portuguese had reached Sierra-Leone. In 1498 Vasco da Gama was the first sailor to round the Cape of Good Hope and sail from Portugal to India.

Another of the Navigator's forts near Sagres

Celebrating a western sunset
Witch making damp where the sun sinks at the westernmost point

One of the fascinating visits we made in this part of Portugal was to the furthest point west where the sunset lingers for ever in the memory. With the grandeur of that moment when the sinking sun melts into the sea it is possible to imagine the sense of wonder that must have possessed those early navigators as they contemplated the mysterious and frightening ocean.

And the Port of Lagos in October 2012


Saturday 10 November 2012

King Harold's Daughter

Gunnhild Godwindatter was the youngest daughter of King Harold II who lost his kingdom to Duke William of Normandy in 1066. Around this date, possibly before it, Gunnhild was at Wilton Abbey. After the Norman Conquest many heiresses took refuge in abbeys as King William encouraged inter-marriage between English and Normans. It was one way that made the take-over easier and it often gave unmarried Norman knights the opportunity to claim legal tenure to English lands.

The Norman Conquest of England 1066

The most engaging story concerning English heiresses is that of Gunnhild. I suggest that she was already as a child being educated in Wilton Abbey in 1066. Her aunt Edith Godwin was patron of Wilton. Many noblewomen went there to learn embroidery for example.There was an embroidery workshop at Wilton where it is very possible that some panels of the Bayeux Tapestry were embroidered, though it was designed at Canterbury. Carola Hicks wrote on this subject with convincing argument. Aristocratic young women received an education there and it is not impossible that Gunnhild was originally at Wilton to learn reading and writing, languages and, of course, embroidery amongst other skills. Equally, Edith Godwin may have had ambitions for her royal niece. She may, according to historian and academic, Anne Williams, have hoped that Gunnhild would become a novice, take vows and aim for the top job, that of abbess. Then in December 1075 Edith, the widow of Edward the Confessor, died, too soon to realise possible ambitions for Gunnhild.

St Edith to whom Wilton Abbey was dedicated.

There are two lines of thought about what became of Gunnhild. It is recorded in Oderic Vitalis that Gunnhild eloped from Wilton with Alan of Richmond circa 1089-1090. In this story, Count Alan came to Wilton hoping to court and wed with Matilda of Scotland who was also there to be educated. Failing in this venture, rejected by one heiress, he found himself another heiress, King Harold's daughter Gunnhild. They eloped and married. Alan died circa 1092, although his death is also recorded as having been in 1089. After his death Gunnhild married his brother. Alan's brother, Alan Niger, inherited the Honour of Richmond. At this point Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury, intervened and told her to return to Wilton and that if she did not Alan Niger would be dead within a year. His death is recorded as 1098.  Gunnhild did not return to Wilton after all and after Alan Niger's death a third brother, Stephen, inherited the Honour of Richmond.

An image of Alan of Richmond and of Brittany

However, there is another take on this story based on recent research. Richard Sharpe writing in Haskins Journal explains how Gunnhild probably eloped with Alan of Richmond in the 1070s. It is plausible. In 1675 a head tablet was discovered near the Norman west door of Lincoln Cathedral. It records the burial of a son of Walter d'Agincourt, Lord of Brittany and Branston in Lincolnshire at the time of Domesday. He, William, was born of royal stock and died while living in fosterage at the court of King William, son of William the Elder, who conquered England. The date given is 1093.

To Study and to learn to be a page.

The heirs of noble families were often drawn into the king's Curia for their education. William's father, Walter D'Agincourt, married a certain Matilda who gave gifts of land to the Cathedral. Most of what Matilda gave was, in fact, owned by Count Alan. Count Alan had vast lands in Yorkshire, Suffolk, Essex, Cambridgeshire according to the Domesday Book. So how could she gift lands that he had title to unless, of course, Alan of Richmond was Matilda's father. The answer lies in the Anselm letters of 1093. This is a correspondence between Archbishop Anselm and Gunnhild on the subject and probably not concerning the first marriage but her second.

Lincoln Cathedral is Romanesque

Count Alan built up his lands but how is not recorded. He is buried at Bury St Edmunds. In 1086 his holdings made Alan the fourth largest landowner or rather lay tenant in England. Richard Sharpe suggests that Alan Rufus of Richmond may have died in 1089. Gunnhild had never professed but Anselm treats her in the letters as a lapsed nun. Her duty was to return to the cloister. In 1073 Archbishop Lanfranc had ruled that Anglo-Saxon women who had at the time of Conquest protected their chastity by retreating to convents, should make a choice to become professed nuns or leave the convent. Gunnhild may have left Wilton around the time of this ruling.

Domesday Book confirmed lands in 1085 and shows who held what in 1066

 Gunnhild's mother, Edith Swanneck, had lands which after Conquest, certainly by 1086, were attributed to Alan of Richmond. Land holdings were legitimised through marriage. If Count Alan married Gunnhild he would have legitimised his succession to her mother's estates. Count Alan's relationship with Gunnhild might have begun when he had received only a little of his great lands ie. before 1075. If they married in 1075 their daughter would have just about been old enough to have married Walter d'Agincourt by the late 1080s. Matilda could have received property from Count Alan, her father, lands that may indeed have come from her grandmother Edith Swanneck. These lands are, as stated above, in his possession by Domesday 1086.  The boy, William, who was buried by the west door of Lincoln Cathedral in 1093 was recorded to be of royal lineage. This means he could have been the great grand-son of Harold II who died losing his kingdom at Hastings. I have no real proof but Richard Sharpe's theory is appealing.
How I imagine Gunnhild, a courageous heroine.

I have used this theory for my new book, The Winter Countess, working title. I have set the marriage and elopement a little later than the date posited by Richard Sharpe as 1072. I suggest 1075 after the death of Edith Godwin. It is a riveting story to work with, and, as ever, with historical fiction it is a question of  animating history and sometimes posing ideas that make the reader think about these possibilities. It is impossible to know what Gunnhild really thought or indeed what really happened. But it is a fascinating story that can reveal much about the secret lives of women in a time when women were shadows in a corner.