This Month in History

May is a sort of triumphs and disasters month as far as English history is concerned.

This month in history sees Royal weddings - including the one between Henry, duke of Normandy and Eleanor of Aquitaine, that created England's longest-ruling dynasty.

May also saw its share of fierce battles. Simon de Montford captured a king at the battle of Lewes and King Edward IV secured his crown in one of the great battles of the Wars of the Roses.

As for disasters: King Henry VI was murdered in the Tower of London, ending the Lancastrian threat to Yorkist king Edward IV.

And Anne Boleyn paid the ultimate price for loving a king and not giving him a son - she was beheaded at the Tower.

1 May 1464
King Edward IV marries Elizabeth Woodville

Elizabeth Woodville (circa 1437-92) Queen Consort of King Edward IV of England (1442-83)

It's rare that reigning kings can marry where they please. It's even rarer that they ignore everyone and do so. But King Edward IV, the king at the centre of England's long a bloody War of the Roses, knew his mind and did as he pleased.

And on this day in history he married the very beautiful widow of one Sir John Grey.

Edward was quite aware that he was asking for trouble - his cousin, the powerful and quick-tempered Earl of Warwick was at the same time negotiating a Royal marriage with the King of France - and he kept the wedding secret until the middle of September.

4 May 1471
Battle of Tewkesbury

Nobles of the Houses of York and Lancaster Battle at Tewkesbury

King Edward IV was not in a mood to be merciful when he returned from his Burgundian exile to reclaim his crown. And he rooted out those opposed to him with speed and ferocity. The scheming Earl of Warwick fell at the Battle of Barnet, and King Henry VI was imprisoned in the Tower.

Now, barely three weeks later, the main Lancastrian contender to the English throne - Edward, Prince of Wales - was killed during or shortly after the battle. The driving force behind he Lancastrian cause, his mother Marguerite, managed to escape.

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12 May 1191
King Richard the Lionheart marries Berengaria of Navarre

Richard the Lionheart Raised Himself in His Bed, the Talisman: A Tale of the Crusaders

This lady never features much in history, but I've known her name since I was little ... because she features heavily in Sir Walter Scott's crusader novel The Talisman

As with most of Scott's novels, it's highly romanticised, but fun to read. The lady itself was the daughter of King Sancho of Navarre. Richard met her once while he was fighting a tournament at her father's court. And it seemed - to his mother Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine especially - that she would make a suitable royal bride.

As it was, Lady Berengaria saw little of her husband, even after he returned from crusade. And the couple never had any children, so when Richard died in 1199, the English crown passed to his brother, John.

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14 May 1264
Simon de Montfort's Day of Triumph

Battle of Lewes

That's another date I've known since I was little. Unfortunately, the book that engrossed me then is long out of print now. And it described what really happened as accurately as my latest cookery book - but this I only found out later. What that book did do, is leave me with a long-standing fascination for Simon de Montfort.

In England, he's credited with establishing the first parliament, with standing up against a tyrannical king and his injustice. And at the battle of Lewes he defeated Henry III's forces and took both the king and his son, the future Edward I, as his prisoners - making him England's virtual ruler until his death at the battle of Evesham just fifteen months later.

If you'd like to find out more about Simon de Montfort, you could start with Sharon Penman's novel Falls the Shadow. She draws you into Simon's life to an extent that you'll be sorry to leave when you've turned the last page.

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18 May 1152
Eleanor of Aquitaine marries Henry Plantagenet, Duke of Normandy

Effigy of Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry II

This marriage ruffled feathers, because six weeks previously Eleanor had still been Queen of France. Now, having obtained her divorce from King Louis of France, she was still - technically - his subject and should have left it to him to find her a new husband.

But Eleanor - one of the richest and most influential women in Europe - was not content to wait and the man she chose to wed was the last man in the world her ex-husband would have considered. Joined, their lands surrounded the French king's dominions - and Louis really wasn't happy about that.

Henry was also 11 years younger than Louis and far more interested in Eleanor's charms than the pious Louis had been. And the Queen who'd been declared barren by her first husband would bear her second one eight children.

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19 May 1536
Anne Boleyn is executed for treason

Anne Boleyn

It was the love story that changed England, but on this day it came to a sticky end. The king who had defied the established church for his love (and his need for an heir) decreed that his second wife should die on the scaffold.

Did she really commit adultery? Most people think not. She'd merely failed to give her husband the son he craved and he let his eyes stray to wife number three.

It is reported that Anne died with great dignity, only asking that those present pray for her.

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21 May 1471
King Henry VI is murdered in the Tower of London

Portrait of Henry VI of England

While his Lancastrian rival lived, King Edward IV could never be fully sure of his throne. So after he had captured King Henry VI and imprisoned him in the Tower, Edward decided to bring the matter to a permanent close.

It's not known how King Henry died and whom Edward ordered to perform the deed, but until today Henry is remembered at Eton College and King's College, Cambridge - both of which he founded and supported.

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27 May 1199
Coronation of King John

John King of England from 1199, Engraved by the Artist

He had waited and schemed for years, but on this day John - the youngest of King Henry II's sons, the one his father nicknamed 'Lackland' because he'd already distributed his lands amongst his elder brothers, the one who had intrigued against his famous crusader brother Richard the Lionheart - was finally crowned King of England.

He wasn't a popular king and as time passed he was to loose most of England's French possessions, suffer a French invasion, sign the Magna Carta and lose the crown jewels ...

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