Black Will da Braose, the Bad Guy

If you’ve read all the posts in the da Braose series (especially the first one), that’s amazing.  You already know about Black Will’s checkered family past, and that his grandpa was known was William III ‘the Ogre’ da Braose.  His uncle William IV da Braose had died of starvation and thirst walled up in a dungeon in Corfe Castle, for sins his parents committed and in order to torment the true object of that terrible punishment, Black Will’s grandmother, Maud (a woman who truly could not keep her mouth shut when it would have been very helpful to do so).

By all accounts, though, Black Will was much more charming and diplomatic than his grandparents.  His father, Reginald, had gotten the family back into royal favor, and William became, upon his father’s death, Lord of Abergavenny.  I’m sure I’m not the only American teenager who became obsessed with Abervagenny because of Marty Wilde’s song

It’s a beautiful part of the world. Anyway, it wasn’t enough for Black Will, although my conjectures on the wandering lives of men (and sometimes women) in Medieval Times include the fact that, in an effort to space children, sometimes men left and meandered about right after their wives had children, returning only briefly to impregnate them again. There were lots of reasons for this method of birth control (it has roots deep in the past when hunter-gatherers, including those of Europe, had tabus on post-partum sex, in order to space children in a more humane and healthy way). But, as nearly all marriages of the day were arranged marriages, there was often no love lost between the marital partners and, I think, often a distinct lack of true passion. Today’s statistics show that men and women are almost equally unfaithful (it might have been the same back then, except that women who got pregnant when their husbands were physically absent were obviously subject to scorn and worse; everyone could count back 9 months). So in a way, the absent husband could expect his wife to stay at home, technically faithful, and he could wander about, sexually and in terms of the way he spent his time.

At any rate, there was a lot of traveling away from home during those days.  To be fair, Black Will’s wanderings were mostly in order to try and secure his lands against the Welsh.  He was, after all, a Marcher Lord, a man whose fortunes were tied to stealing land from the people of Wales and securing it for the crown of England.  That’s about all his family could expect, after the disgrace suffered by his grandparents.  Indeed, although his grandfather had lands in Normandy, Ireland and England, as well as Wales, it seems clear that William ‘the Ogre’ de Braose was sent to Wales in part because of his cruel practices.  Will’s own grandmother had managed to lead a defense of a stolen Welsh castle that resulted in the deaths of 3,000 valiant Welshmen, fighting to get it back.  It would be only two more generations and Wales would forever lose its sovereignty (unless it gets its sovereignty back someday, which I hope it does).

Black Will’s father, Reginald, was more known for his smooth tongue and diplomacy, though, rather than cruelty.  He was still alive and would have been the person who approved and arranged the marriage between Will, aged approximated 22 and Eva Marshall, aged approximately 16.  This age was not considered particularly young for a highborn girl, the daughter of the powerful 1st Earl of Pembroke, the venerable William Marshall, the protector of England, sometimes called the Last True Knight.  William Marshall adhered to the code of chivalry, treated his daughters well, and they were raised away from the brutality and warfare of England, in the pastoral countryside of Ireland.  They were apparently beautiful and high-spirited girls, but Eve brought little in the way of dowry, as the 10th child and youngest of 5 daughters.  The de Braoses’s didn’t need land or money as much as they needed to have their honor restored, and for that, no girl could have served the purpose better than one of the daughters of William Marshall, who was a kind of Matt Dillon or Daniel Boone of his day.  Marshall certainly took part in expanding the domains of England and served under some pretty harsh kings, but he was known to be personally a man of honour, compassion and good faith.

Will and Eva’s first daughter (of four) was born in 1222.  She was only six (and her sisters, Maud, Eleanor and Eva were 4, 2 and 1, respectively – the spacing between the children being fairly close, and the last two very close together:  probably a really serious attempt to procure a male heir) when her father was captured by Llewyllen ‘the Great’ Fawr of Wales. 

As it turned out, Llewyllen, another honorable man, decided to keep Black Will in royal confinement at his castle at Aber, near contemporary Abergwyngregyn.  Llewyllen’s own arranged marriage to a much younger woman, Princess Joanna, illegitimate daughter of King John of England, had turned into a passionate relationship.  But, Llewyllen was away a lot, and Joanna was a passionate woman.  Black Will, whose name is partly a reference to his hair color, gotten from a Welsh ancestress, is still known to history as Black Will due to his seduction of Joanna.  Handsome, blue-eyed, dashing and charming, the highborn prisoner soon found his way into Joanna’s bed while his wife tried to raise ransom for him.  His father died at around the same time, and it is likely that a good part of Black Will’s inheritance went into the large (£2,000 ).  During the negotiations, Will also pledged not to attack the Welsh again and as a sign of that pledge, betrothed his six-year-old daughter to Llewyllen’s 13 year old son.  The young girl was sent to live at Aber.

Apparently, Black Will had fallen hard for Joanna, or else he just liked the fact that he’d cuckolded Llewyllen Fawr, but the risk he took in returning to Joanna, attempting to bed her in 1230, slightly less than 2 years after he’d last seen her, was considerable.  Llewyllen was of course away at the time, and Black Will knew that.  What he didn’t know was that Joanna was terribly determined to reject any further dalliances with him.  Or at least, that’s how she told the story.  There is no reason to doubt Joanna’s testimony to her husband (who eventually forgave her, after she admitted first the earlier affair but swore that it had ended in 1228, and that Black Will had acted on his own and with illicit intent in showing up in her bedchamber in 1230).  I’m not so sure.  Joanna knew what was at stake, both times.  She must have really fallen hard for Black Will (in her husband’s absence), because he did feel drawn back to see her.

Through a series of events, probably involving self-interested persons within the Welsh royal family, Joanna was caught in the bedchamber, not in flagrante but certainly in the bedchamber, alone, with Black Will.  It was actually Llewyllen’s own private bedchamber, where Joanna usually slept, to rub salt into the wound.  Given that the Welsh were already suspicious of Llewyllen’s English wife, it’s amazing that Llewyllen didn’t execute both his wife and her lover.

But it was Black Will who paid the price.  He was executed in public, near Abergwyngregyn, at the age of 33.  He probably expected to talk or bargain his way out of the situation, but Llewyllen acted quickly, while still in high temper, and Will died about a week after he’d arrived in his attempt to resume his affair with Joanna.  Joanna was exiled to a monastery, but after about a year, Llewyllen forgave her, took her back into his life and his bed, and apparently, no one ever spoke of this mistake again.  It is a rare store of a wayward wife who was loved enough that her marriage survived an affair.  So, again, the Middle Ages were not much different than the world today.  People sometimes break up when affairs are discovered, sometimes they break off the old relationship and run off, and sometimes, people patch things up.

Black Will left behind four daughters.  The eldest, Isabella, would still go on to marry David of Wales, despite the fact that her father-in-law had hung her father.  That must have made for some awkward family gatherings.  The other three remained in the care of Eva Marshall, who was now the de facto ruler of Abergavenny.  Isabella would die childless, but the other three girls would live to have children. 

Two of those daughters,


The War of the Roses, Part Two

Richard II might have gone on with his peace plans (except for attacking Ireland) if things had not deteriorated in France. First, the French King, Charles VI, was apparently insane.

Remember, first, that a couple of generations back, King Philip IV, the Fair, of France had three sons and a daughter (Isabella the She-Wolf). All three sons died either without issue or with only female children, setting off Edward III’s claim on the French throne.

The last of those sons to reign, Charles IV was, like his father, known as “the Fair.” When he died, his wife actually was pregnant, and a regency was set up in case the child was a boy. Charles of Valois, Charles IV’s uncle, Philip VI’s grandson, was the regent. When the child failed to be a boy, Charles of Valois became King Charles V of France. The Capetian dynasty was no more. The Valois dynasty began. It is Charles V’s son, Charles VI of Valois who was King while Richard II was attempting to settle things with the French.

Charles VI is also known as Charles the Mad. So, illness is another factor that these lineages have to deal with, both physical and mental. Charles’s first psychotic episode apparently occurred after the attempted murder of a good friend. While attempting to raid Brittany, where the assailant was hiding out, he appears to have lost contact with reality and attacked his own companions. They subdued him. During some of his episodes, he was unable to respond when asked his name. The exits to his primary residence in Paris had to be walled up or he’d run screaming through the streets.

Sometimes, he believed himself made of glass and made frantic attempts to avoid breakage.

Charles VI’s younger brother watched all this (and more) with some perplexity. You can probably imagine how the younger brother of a King feels about fate, when the King is mad.

It is this same Charles who gave his 6 year old daughter to King Richard II as part of a peace treaty.

When we last mentioned him, Richard II had banished Henry Bolingbroke for life and disinherited them, then gone off to wage more war against Ireland. Henry lost no time in finding an advisor, a former Bishop of Canterbury and returning to England where he used his wealth raise and army and defy Richard. Henry laid waste to Cheshire, which made other areas (many of them already opposed to Richard) very prone to cooperating with him.

By the time Richard II got back from Ireland, Henry had consolidated an army and power, and had no trouble defeating Richard and imprisoning him. This can be seen as the mark of a “true Plantagenet” as it’s the kind of thing Geoffrey did constantly, at which Henry II excelled, and which King Richard the Lion-Heart, King John and Edward I also reveled in. Naturally, Richard II no longer considered Henry IV to be the best choice of an heir.

Without any offspring, what was Richard’s approach to choosing an heir? According to his grandfather’s entailment on the throne, designed to keep the youngster from making errors, only the male line could be considered. But meantime, Philippa, daughter of Lionel, had married a Mortimer and had a son. Edward III had specifically banned any such line of succession; only the male lines could be considered. If Edward III”s will was followed, then Henry was the rightful heir.

But Richard II was a King, himself. Whether or not he ever formally renounced the entailment of his grandfather, he certainly decided to pass the crown to grandson of Lionel even though that boy, Edmund, inherited his rights through the female line. It had been done before (Henry II claimed the throne of England via his mother, Empress Maud). Did it make a difference that Maud was an Empress (the dowager Holy Roman Empress)? Maybe. Philippa was merely Duchess of Ulster.

In every generation of medieval British royalty there are always nobles and hangers-on who are attempting to be ennobled. People do favors for Kings, they put their eggs in one basket so to speak, and through showing loyalty that is often brutal to others, they attempt to protect the King and insinuate themselves into his favor. The Mortimers were experts at this (as were the de Braoses, the de Lucys, the Staffords and many others). Remember that Isabella the She-Wolf had allied herself with Roger Mortimer, her lover and staunch supporter. The entire Mortimer clan benefitted from high marriages, including the marriage of

While Henry would have been Richard II’s closest and most likely male heir, considering the circumstances, Richard II had chosen a more distant cousin – but still a child – as his heir apparent. When Richard II died (mysterious circumstances) in prison, Henry Bolingbroke, Earl of Derby, swept the little heir apparent aside and had himself crowned Henry IV of England, Plantagenet.

As the son of the first Duke of Lancaster, John of Gaunt, Henry IV Plantagenet was known as a Lancastrian Plantagenet.

Let’s remember that John of Gaunt was regent for the little boy Richard II, whose father was John’s elder brother. Had little Richard not been born, John might have been King John II. He remained relatively loyal and certainly showed more than simple self-interest in his life, but of course, he loved his own son and was devastated by claims that Henry IV was a traitor.

In the end, this turns out to be a tragic tale of too many sons. Edward, the Black Prince, beloved, heroic and masterful, dies before he can become King. His small son takes over the job while his brothers have to play entirely different roles than they would have played as brothers of a King. John must have been consigned to a minor role in history as the third son of a King (after Edward, the Black Prince, would have come Lionel, Duke of Clarence, Plantagenet, the second son of the King to survive infancy). So what happened to Lionel? Why wasn’t he regent and why was it John’s son who eventually became King?

As befitted a second son, Lionel was given a great marriage and a great patrimony: Ireland. He was Duke of Ulster. He moved to Ireland to oversee its affairs (and received military aid from his nephew, Richard II). He paid up tribute to Richard from Ireland and made himself rich and powerful on his own island. His noble Irish wife died young, leaving him with just one daughter, Philippa of Clarence and Ulster. So, poor Lionel had no son to contribute to the throne of England. John of Gaunt, who was at home and had a son, was positioned to make a move on the throne.

But there were two more sons of Edward III. Once the hereditary schema fell apart at the death of Richard II, one might suppose that the next in line would be…Lionel. Lionel had, however, meantime died. John was rightfully next after Lionel, but he too had died. So, using the same logic as was applied when Richard II’s father died without taking the throne, Henry IV, son of John of Gaunt seems to be a good claimant for the throne in any case. His two younger brothers didn’t see it that.

To the younger brothers, the two eldest brothers, Edward and Lionel, were both out of the picture and it seemed that all ordinary lines of succession were ignored and the throne was in freefall.

The fourth son’s name was Edmund, Duke of York, Earl of Surrey and Earl of Cambridge. Only a year younger than John of Gaunt, Edmund of Langley was sent to the Earl of Surrey for fostering, as was common in those days. He saw military service in France and was wounded there. His first wife was the daughter of King Pedro of Castille. When she died, he married one of those Hollands, who had ingratiated themselves so well into the reign of Richard II. With Isabella, Princess of Castille, he had two sons and a daughter. The eldest, Edward, died in the Battle of Agincourt (part of the Hundred Years’ War; a British victory over the French). So unlike Lionel, as things got more tangled in the succession, Edmund did have sons – the second of whom, Richard of Conisburgh, would attempt to claim the throne from his cousin, Henry IV.

Richard of Conisburgh was an ambitious young man. He was married to his first cousin, twice removed, Anne Mortimer. Now pay attention here, because in addition to being part of the Mortimer clan of constant ambition, she was also the granddaughter of Lionel. Lionel’s daughter, Philippa was her mother.

Now, Philippa, had she been a man, would have had a much stronger claim to the throne than Henry. Now her daughter, who might have been a Princess of England, is married to a man just one step away from being King. This is a volatile mixture when so much is at play and at stake. This is why Lionel’s side of the family is “Yorkist” (they joined with Richard of Conisburgh, son of the Duke of York). They had to get a papal dispensation because they were too closely related.

Richard, 2nd Duke of York, and Anne Mortimer had two sons, one of whom died young, and a daughter, Isabel. The surviving son, also named Richard, became the 3rd Duke of York.

Meanwhile, many people felt that Henry IV had killed Richard II (which sounds about right) and grabbed the throne. Even though he had a strong and rightful claim to the throne, the whole part about imprisoning the King and then the King dying while imprisoned was not good. Uprisings began, chief amongst them was a new uprising in Wales, which had been denied its independence thoroughly since the time of Edward I. Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland also refused to serve King Henry IV.

But Henry IV had an army, and he trained his own eldest son, Henry, in the arts of war, so as to have a loyal co-commander, in the style of a good King. He was able to use young Henry and an army of about 400 to quell both the Welsh and the Northumbria uprisings. He also suffered a good deal from health problems.

The health problems would prove significant. For more, you’ll have to wait until I write Part Three.

Human Nature: a special kind of ethics for a special kind of beast?

Years ago, I read a philosopher who stipulated that human beings that didn’t treat others humanely were not, in fact, entitled to the word “human” in their title.  He argued, further, that they were not persons.  An anthropologist would say this has to do with reciprocity, Jesus would call it the Golden Rule argument, Kant incorporated some version of it into his categorical imperative(s).

The Los Angeles Times, today reported that some complete assholes stole a priceless work of art.  Petroglyphs are near and dear to my heart, so of course this makes me angry.  The furies and the muses compelled the Ancient Greeks to action:  to philosophy, to writing, to theater, to art.  We have to take all that inspires us, whether blissful or…something like this story…and turn it into something else.  So I write about it.

Here, first, are some pictures of what these people destroyed:

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On the Eastern side of the Sierra Nevada, Native Americans kept track of their use of space through calendar-like petroglyphs.  This system of petroglyphs stretches from the California Coast to the Plains.  Paiutes still used this site in sacred ceremony and they believe the petroglyphs were carved by shamans (so do I).

Somebody came in with a winch, a jack hammer and probably a skiff loader and chopped these out of the earth.  Here’s a picture of damage at another nearby site:


The Bureau of Land Management offers a mere $1000 reward for information leading to the capture of these…thieves, and if it’s their first conviction, they face only a year in federal prison (whereas students who commit financial aid fraud face up to 20 years in prison).

Something’s broken here.  Maybe we need skiff loader laws that are like gun laws.  Maybe every skiff loader should have a GPS chip that traces its movements and another 20 years in prison for removing it.  Or, as an online friend of mine said:  The death penalty for this crime and only for this crime.  (Those of us who are anti-death penalty have a hard time using reason sometimes too).

There are no funds to police these sites.

And I have no further words to express what I’m feeling, but I am inspired to donate further to the Archaeological Conservancy, and to other entities I trust to protect our earthly heritage.

The War of the Roses, Part I

I’m on the Crimson side, by kin and by loyalty.

While it’s a tad frightening to see how many of my various 18th and 19th century ancestors in the Taylor clan are descendants of some de Braos or another, there’s way more information on some of our later, more famous ancestors:  the Plantagenets.

One of the reasons I find genealogy so interesting is that, as a modern person, I know that it’s partly fortune that determines whether boys or girls will be born.  Now, I know that there’s been some recent research indicating that several variables are involved in whether people have boys or girls.  I want to mention some of the proposed variables.

Men who have a disproportionate amount of brothers are more likely to have sons.  This would be passed along the male line if it is genetic as opposed to environmental or epigenetic.

Bolder, more assertive women are more likely to have sons.  Now this one seems like a long shot to me, but the theory would be that women’s bodies are more likely to host and keep a masculine pregnancy if they’re already rather more testosteronized.  Lots of assumptions there – and yet…well, who could have been bolder than Eleanor of Aquitane, maternal founder of the Plantagenets?  At the same time, she gave her first husband, Louis VII, King of France, only daughters.  Louis’s siblings were almost 50/50 in terms of sex ratio, but with each of his wives he had mostly girls.  Which is interesting.  But, if this one is true, then was Eva Marshall, wife of Black Will de Braos a timid woman?  Would love to know.  Anyway, she had only girls.

Older couples are more likely to have daughters.  Statistical fact, apparently, no one knows why.  Less support for Y-sperm from the man’s body?  I don’t know.

Men with high functioning “male brains” have more sons; women with high functioning “female brains” have more daughters.  This was reprinted from a set of studies in Psychology Today.  What they’re talking about is a broader hypothesis that in order for certain traits to take hold in a population, they must be passed on, so successful men must pass on traits that make men successful to boys, and the same for women.  Okay, makes sense.  But is it true?  In my family, it seems to me that lots of “successful” males and females were born, but only the men were given much opportunity to avail themselves of wealth, power or thrones.

Were you waiting for me to mention culture?  Because, in the end, that’s what I’m interested in.  What kind of system takes high functioning women like Eleanor of Aquitane and locks them up for 15 years for no other reason than that their husband wants to?  I realize he was a king and back then, kings attempted to get their way in all things and Henry II was definitely no pushover.  But it isn’t just Eleanor.  It’s so many women of that period – and onward – whose lives are hedged in, fenced in, boxed in, so that there’s virtually no room for them to breathe, much less be educated.  They’re having so many children, for one thing.

Religion is the linch pin of this system.   Not only does the church dictate male primacy, it also dictates legitimacy.  A man can only have one legitimate wife.  Until the Reformation, that wife had to be the one that the man married in the One Holy Apostolic Catholic Church – of Rome, if you were European.  Illegitimate children abound in my lineage (I’m one, myself, of course).  A very big deal was made of illegitimacy all the way down through the ages, in my family.  Is there some kind of gene for conventionality?  If so, some of my family members had it – and others delighted in flouting it.  Mostly, of course, it was the men who flouted convention by taking concubines regularly.  One can understand this in kings like Llewellyn Fawr and Henry II, whose marriages had to bring political alliances, regardless of what their hearts or loins told them.

So, anyway, Henry II was very powerful.  He managed to run off with the King of France’s wife, and she had to leave behind her two small daughters, princesses Marie and Alys.  Marie’s lineage would eventually join with her mother’s descendants – some 8 generations later, when one of her great-grand-daughters married another descendant of Eleanor, but through Henry II, not Francis VII – a Plantagenet, but a Yorkist.   Both Marie and Alys are maternal ancestors of U.S. Presidents, contemporary British royalty, Churchill and Lady Diana.  Alys is a maternal ancestor of Louis XVII, even though for centuries, her descendants held no thrones.  They still kept in the game, so to speak.

So Eleanor, Queen of France and Duchess/Queen of Aquitane runs off with Henry II, who is about to become King of England after one of those big succession crises.

Henry II is not the son of a King.  He is the son of a daughter of a King.  When Henry I died, his eldest son had already died in the tragic, Titanic-of-its-Day, the wreck of the White Ship.  At least three of Henry Beauclerc I’s children were on that ship, which was supposed to be the best and fastest ship in the world, when it capsized off the coast of Normandy.

Henry Beauclerc (which means “fine scholar”) was an amazing man who outlived many of his children.  And he did have many children.  He was married in the Church twice, but he had an extraordinary number of illegitimate children.  I am descended both from his legitimate heir (Empress Maud), except that even though he named his eldest legitimate daughter as his heir, his contemporaries weren’t buying that.  No woman could reign in her own right.   Anyway, poor Empress Maud was driven out of her own country by her cousin, Stephen of Blois, who claimed to be the most direct male heir (I am also descended from him, but he blew it and lost the throne – he is perhaps the only English king whose father was not king and whose descendants did not rule).

Anyway, Empress Maud married roguish, handsome, virile and militaristic Geoffrey Plantagenet.  Her father arranged this marriage for her, perhaps thinking that Geoffrey was ambitious enough to make sure his wife retained the throne of England.  But Geoffrey was far more concerned about preserving his own paternal heritage, back in Normandy, where he was Count of Anjou (love their pears) and Maine.  He later achieved his own ambition of becoming Duke of Normandy.  He also didn’t like Maud very much.  Geoffrey’s nickname was “the Fair” and he was apparently very handsome and quite the womanizer.  He liked wearing personal adornment and the nickname “Plantagenet” refers to a sprig of yellow flowers that he wore in his hat.  Maud was rather serious, perhaps a bit mopey and imperious.  Before being married off to Geoffrey, Maud had already been married off at a very young age to the Holy Roman Emperor, Henry V, who was basically the King of Germany.  He was 21 years older than herself.  When she was called back from Germany to marry the Norman count, Maud spoke German and had to leave her children from that marriage behind.  Perhaps she was not a happy camper.

But one thing is clear, she fought hard to get that throne away from her childhood playmate and cousin, Stephen of Blois.  A big war ensued.  Maud gave birth to 4 sons from Geoffrey, one of whom died in infancy.  Henry II was her eldest son, a precocious boy who loved both his parents, despite their antipathy towards each other.

Maud raised Henry to be King.  In order to become King, he had to perform a military conquest of England, which he attempted for the first time at the age of 14.  Henry Curtmantle II of England was well-connected.  His father was the Duke of Normandy (Stephen of Blois claimed that title but was unable to defend it).  His great-uncle was King David of Scotland, who became an ally against King Stephen.

Henry did not lack for confidence and he and Eleanor, for a long time, were good partners and together, they had four sons who survived to adulthood and two that did not.  The fact that Maud had been birthing all those boys, that Henry had only brothers, and that Eleanor had sons with Henry and only daughters with Louis VII is interesting.  Eleanor also had daughters with Henry, though.  Altogether, Eleanor produced 12 children, 10 with Henry, 6 of them boys.  Richard the Lion-Heart is perhaps the most famous, and King John the most infamous.

For a long time, Plantagenets ruled in England.  King John begat Henry III Plantagenet, King of England, along with many other children who have surviving descendants today.  Henry III was the father of Edward I Plantagenet, King of England, a great warrior and energetic King.

It is with Edward I that more dynastic troubles begin.   Like a true Plantagenet (or a true descendant of Eleanor of Aquitane), Edward managers to produce four sons who survive past infancy (six total).   Unfortunately, three of the four predecease him and the fourth, as one chronicler has said, “was never worthy to be born.”  Poor Edward II.  He was a boy, a younger brother, and so became king even when he had some sisters (like Joan of Acre) who would have been fine rulers.  But his inability to rule was based largely on sex and gender.  Just as England was not ready for Queen Maud and believed a man, even though more distant from succession, should rule in her place, in the 13th century, England was not ready for a gay King.

King Edward II upset everyone by openly taking a lover (the charming Piers Gaveston).  The story has a tragic ending and I want to say more about it later.  But for now, just remember that Edward’s father, King Edward I Longshanks arranged a marriage for him, with the sister of the King of France, Isabelle – the “She-Wolf of France.”  She got that name because she got to England, was increasingly unhappy with her marital arrangements, and managed to take much more of an interest in actual government than her husband.  I think she also got that name because she insisted on reproducing with her somewhat reluctant husband, with whom she had at least two children before taking up with a lover (so the paternity of some of those royal Plantagenet kids was in doubt; indeed, perhaps all of them should be doubtful – who knows?)

Isabella’s eldest son, Edward III, did resemble his father physically, but his mother made sure he was raised apart from his father, and when the time was right, placed her son in open rebellion against his father.  By then, Edward II had taken a different lover, also handsome and brave. Hugh Despencer.  Isabella had taken herself back to France, where her brother put diplomatic pressure on Edward II to come to France to pay homage for the territory of Gascony.  Edward II sent his young son, instead, which was a huge mistake.  Isabella now had all she needed to essentially launch an invasion.  One of the groups who was opposing Edward II and in favor of putting Edward III on the throne was arranged around the Earl of Lancaster (who was a wicked and terrible man, in my view – but that will have to go in a different chapter if we are ever to get to the War of the Roses).

Isabella and her lover, Roger Mortimer, invaded England and captured Edward II.  With her husband in prison, and public opinion strongly against him, Isabella became the de facto ruler of England, taking the Great Seal into her own hands.  No one was willing to actually kill a King, but life in prison for being gay seemed just to these people.  King Edward II’s trial made no mention of his sexuality, though, only claiming that he had listened to wrong advice, that he was incompetent as a king, and that he had “pursued occupations unbecoming to a monarch.”  This is pretty revolutionary stuff:  that a king could be deposed in this way.  Deposed he was, and his son, Edward III Plantagenet took the throne at the age of 15.

Only two of Edward II’s progency with Isabella ever had children.

Edward III’s rule was complex, but one thing he did was to punish the Earl of Lancaster who had gone against his father by removing the title from him and giving it to one of his sons, John of Gaunt, and elevating the title to Duke.

Had Edward III’s heir, Edward the Black Prince, Prince of Wales, not died young, the war between his brothers would not have taken place.

So we have the ever-lurking main principle:  death, especially infant death and early death, stalking these people’s attempts to keep the rules intact and a direct male heir on the throne.

In order to examine what happened more closely (because it’s a situation that comes up now and again, but is still unusual) we can think about what is supposed to happen with succession today.  In a future world, after King Charles dies, should Prince William die without an heir, then Prince Harry becomes the heir apparent.  Clear, right?

But what if Kate were pregnant or had a small infant?   Now that girls can sit on the throne, I suppose England would wait with baited breath to see if the infant was born alive (which it very likely would be, given modern medical care) and then name Baby as heir apparent instead of Harry.  If this all happened today, the succession would obviously still be Charles first, but if William were gone, then William’s baby.

And so it was with the Black Prince’s son, Richard II.

Richard II would seem an unlikely person to be King of England for 22 years, but he was.  He was the son of the Prince of Wales, the heir apparent, who died before taking the throne.  He had an older brother who was of course the heir apparent, but Prince Edward of Angouleme died when Richard was just four years old, making him heir to the Prince of Wales.

When Richard’s father died, he was 9 and so he became the heir apparent.  The old King Edward III died about a year later, and so Richard was crowned King Richard II (Lion-Heart was the first).

He was only ten.

Now age begins to play a role.  Richard II of course had to have regents.  John of Gaunt, the first Duke of Lancaster, became that regent.  By all accounts, John of Gaunt was a very intelligent, well-trained and able man.  Portraits of him show a dark, handsome man who strongly resembles his father, Edward III (son of the She-Wolf).

Now, this was the time of the Hundred Years War, which everyone has heard about.  It was started by Edward III and lasted slight more than a hundred years.  This conflict between England and France was over hereditary disputes dating back to William the Conqueror.  Both sides developed standing armies, and this was the first time since the Roman era that standing armies were kept.  

The war started largely because Isabella the She-Wolf’s brothers all died without male heirs.  Remember that whole thing about Louis VII having mostly girls?  Well, that particular problem did not befall Philip IV, King of France and Isabella’s father – he had three sons.   But only two of them managed to produce children, and all the children were girls.  In a reversal of fate and fortunate, Isabella the She-Wolf had, of course, managed to produce boys – and her boy was the King of England, Edward III, who therefore promptly made a claim on the throne of France when his grandfather and uncles were all dead.  This did not sit well with the French, who did not want a King of England on their throne.

In the end, the French won the war (surprised?  don’t forget – they had Joan of Arc on their side and she’s credited with that win, by me) but not before Edward III himself was long dead.  Richard II had tried to stop the war, but was unsuccessful.

Richard II wanted to stop the war for some very good personal reasons.  He wasn’t a warlike person, he preferred a courtly life.  He believed he had duties as a king, and he did not keep a tremendously lavish lifestyle, but he certainly didn’t want to be mucking about going to war.  The French were threatening to invade throughout his reign and he really wanted to negotiate peace and go on about his life.  Since the French were massing for an invasion, English Parliament wanted to raise taxes and Richard’s Chancellor, de la Pole (descendant of Normans) was at the forefront of pushing for an unprecedented levy of taxes not to lavish upon the King but to fill a giant war chest.  Since Richard II’s own father had gained the throne through the deposition of Richard’s grandfather, deposition was a buzzword.  Parliament threatened to depose Richard II (and they were serious) so Richard II fired de la Pole and was furious about being pushed around by Parliament.

Richard went on a royal circuit around England, appointing a new Chancellor who would attempt to raise a military loyal to the King, so that deposition wouldn’t be such a threat.  Richard did in fact manage to gain quite a bit of support, but at the same time, the anti-taxation, anti-de la Pole forces wanted to push their point by trying de la Pole for treason.  At some point, the young cousin of the King, Henry, Earl of Derby, joined the Opposition.  Henry was the son of Richard’s former regent and uncle, John of Gaunt.

Richard’s side did not win.  Some were executed, de la Pole fled the country (and was condemned to death in absentia).  Even some of Richard’s chamber knights were executed by a conglomeration of forces that now included his cousin.

Richard sought to mollify France (John of Gaunt helped him with that) and restore peace.  France once again demanded that the English King pay homage to France, which if he had done so, would have riled the English population that he had just succeeded in settling down a little.

Instead the King of France and the King of England arranged a 20 year truce based on marriage.

Richard was to marry the daughter of the King of France, a six year old child named Isabella of Valois.  Now, Richard was already married, to Anne of Bohemia.  For whatever reason (one always wonders), Anne had no children.  The marriage was somehow put aside (the wealthy are usually able to get divorces when they are keen on them, Henry VIII wasn’t the first with this problem).  So Richard marries the 6 year old, and everyone understands that this is a real roadblock to him producing an heir any time soon.

Richard was able to go back to his main interests with the truce underway.  He developed a court of art and culture, and banished militaristic, frat boy behavior to the margins of his world.   He was 31, his new wife was 6.  She was in the care of her own ladies within his court.

Somewhat stung by claims that he was too peaceful to be a King (people were apparently calling him a wuss) and with the English still very focused on being irritated with France, Richard chose to head off to Ireland to quell rebellions there.  Now, as everyone knows, the Irish can be rebellious, but they are a smaller island than Britain and the English Crown at that time now had a standing army (prepared for France, but chomping at the bit to be paid in spoils and also, either needing to be disbanded or put into use).  So Richard takes this massive army, geared and kitted up to deal with France over to Ireland, for one of Medieval history’s most infamous and unequal wars.  You might say that Richard only wanted to go to war when he knew he could win.

Needless to say, this was a great military success.  The Irish were still organized along the lines of tribal chiefdoms, fierce and combative, but no match for 8,000 Englishmen with cavalry.

Also, needless to say, as soon as Richard went home to enjoy his glory, the Irish were resistant again.

Riding on his feelings of military triumph, Richard went home and had large parts of his former opposition arrested and placed in prison.  Some were tried fairly quickly and executed.  But Richard couldn’t really put Uncle John of Gaunt nor cousin Henry, Earl of Derby in prison and they had allied themselves with the Opposition.   I probably do have to say that throughout English history (and the history of many peoples), leaders acting like tyrants upsets people even if they previously liked the leader.  That’s another reason I’m very interested in all of this.

John of Gaunt apparently abandoned all allegiance to his former comrades and stuck by the King, even as the King began to levy fines against the lesser members of the opposition and enrich the Crown.  Richard was getting the hang of being a ruler.  He took money away from his enemies and elevated men closer to himself, like the de Hollands, who were his half-brother and nephew, whose only certainty of rank involved allegiance and kinship to Richard.  A series of my male ancestors were in this little gaggle of King-followers, whose children intermarried amongst themselves while the party was still going strong.

Nevertheless, John of Gaunt was the richest man in England.  And Richard had no children.  Who would reign after him?

If Prince William were to be Prince of Wales, but Kate never had children, then Harry would reign after him – right?  So, if Richard has no children – and no brothers – doesn’t his uncle get to rule?

The King’s gaggle of loyalists saw the threat.  What if the King died and an opposition member (either John of Gaunt or his son) became King?  That wouldn’t be good for them and their newly found wealth and power.  One of the loyalists managed to get into a quarrel with young Henry (also known as Bolingbroke) and a parliamentary committee at first wanted the two to to settle their differences by battle.  The King intervened, banishing Henry for 10 years, the other man for life.

Not long after, John of Gaunt died, I think, of a broken heart.  Or stress.  The banishment of his son, his son’s managing to get into conflict with the King’s men, after all John had done to be diplomatic and keep things peaceful, was too much for him.

Richard was quick to react (although in retrospect, it was a stupid move).  Fearing that Henry would come back as his father’s heir and manage to wield all that wealth, he extended the banishment to life and disinherited Henry (he could have confiscated John of Gaunt’s lands, but he did not).

Henry went on living in Paris, with funds from his family.  Richard went back to fight in Ireland some more.






First day we landed Heathrow 10 a.m., got to hotel, dropped off bags and headed off to get travel cards (I had pix!) and then The British Museum and we both had chicken pie with mushrooms Excellent. Then we ate Turkish food for the first time at Tas. Really good. V. had salmon and a vegetable dish with okra, I had minced chicken with couscous. Best couscous ever. Somehow got back to hotel and crashed.

Second day. Got up, tried to boil eggs. Water never boiled but eggs were sort of cooked. Kinda gave up on self-catering. Burned toast. So, hod did not get hot but toaster got very hot. Instant espresso quite good. Tesco bewildering (on first day). Went to the Chelsea Flower Show. Ate sandwiches at the Flower show (V: salmon sandwich, me tuna and avocado). Then the National Gallery. Then Cafe Rouge (see below for what we ate). Then went to the Tate Modern, which was fantastic (hiked to it). Then over the Millenium Bridge and not knowing Blackfriars was open, walked to Temple and finally back home. The idea was to get up the next morning and go to Leonardo.

Sunday, third day. Did get up in time for Leonardo after a restless night. Exhibit was mesmerizing. Saw Buckingham Palace and the guards with their truly silly walks. Ate at a French restaurant called Café Rouge, I had coq au vin (excellent) and V. had beef bourguignon – good but missing carrots and not enough garlic. Actually that was the day before. Instead we ate at the Kings Arms Pub, where I had my first English fish and chips and peas (meh) V had chicken pie again. He is now a huge fan of cider. He likes his pies. Hiked down towards Westminster, had to stop for espresso just to keep going. Then discovered buses! Asked the driver (with Westminster looming right near us) Does this bus go to Westminster? Yes, sir, he said. It was the next stop. So went to Wesminster which was closed except to those desiring to pray or worship, which we did desire, but when we went in, a rude man yelled at me to get out. So saw the little cloister and Big Ben and Parliament and all that. Lots of people about. Exhausted. Took a nap when we got home, regretted not getting sandwiches when we went to get shampoo, stumbled over to Dartmouth Castle and ate (I had a steak sandwich, it was okay, V. had V. had salmon cakes (he really liked them).

Monday, okay so we went to bed after our nap at around 11 pm and then woke up at 3 am for at least an hour, then went back to sleep and slept until 12:20! Ate remainder of steak sandwich for breakfast, with espresso and rushed off to Tower of London, where we had water. Met a really nice docent named Karen and got a private tour of the chapel. Saw Henry VIII’s armor and Edward I’s bedroom and a lot else Then got ourselves back to Hammersmith and ate at the Swan, where the food was really excellent. V had fish pie with two kinds of fish (cod and hadddock and prawns) and I had the best rib pie with mash. In love with mash.

Hot Water


Grand Prismatic, Yellowstone, ©Richocet Dream, permission requested.  Music available at

Hot Water.

My mother’s view on what really got dishes clean was Hot Water.  This meant that our water heater was turned up higher than what, today, is the recommended hotness.  It means that my own water heater is still turned up higher than it probably needs to be.  While I recognize the ecological implications of that decision, that’s not what this blog is about.

The water in our house was so Hot that it was expected that our family understand how to run a bath without scalding themselves.  I was doing this by age four, successfully.  But, when we washed dishes, my mom wanted them rinsed in the Hottest possible water.  She was mysophobic, afraid of germs.  When we visited certain relatives and they didn’t rinse Hot enough, she had a hard time eating their food.  She would push it around on her plate, eat a small amount of whatever had been heated to a high enough temperature, but not eat the part that touched the plate.  That didn’t happen often, because her own mother and her sisters shared her view well enough that she was satisfied.  Her mother was as much in favor of Hot Water as she was.  Aunt Eulala was not quite so stringent and Aunt Ferba refused to do dishes with anyone else around.

Aunt Ferba, the eldest and most gracious of the four sisters (everyone said so), never did dishes when guests were in the house.  I have thought about that many times.  My mom and grandmother were of the opinion that a hostess cleared the table and immediately did the dishes and every female worth her femininity (and in particular, we young females) were in the kitchen helping.  My mom judged other women by their willingness to help with dishes and it led to some conflicts.  She complained (maybe even gossiped a bit) about the women and girls (especially the girls) who didn’t help out with the dishes.  So I knew, perfectly well, that when I was a guest at anyone’s house that if I asked to be excused from the table, I was really asking if I could go start doing the dishes.  This meant I hung around and listened to lots more boring adult talk than I would have liked.   (Yes, I had to ask to be excused, I couldn’t just get up and leave when I was finished eating at someone else’s house – and sometimes, this rule was imposed at home if my parents thought I was getting too uppity).

Children and teens who did not ask to be excused were regarded as poorly brought up and a potential source of future trouble.  At some point in the 1980’s, my mother acknowledged that things were changing and when I refused to ask my own daughters to follow this arcane rule (no one else in our social universe was following it) my mom just shrugged and said it was perfectly okay that her grandchildren didn’t ask, as she was their grandmother and if they wanted to leave the table any time they wanted, they got to leave.  This lead to an amusing set of circumstances involving our youngest, who actually left the table frequently and walked around while eating (something Mom still tried to discourage and which I tried to discourage when at Mom’s house – and eventually, in general, as it turns out that eating and walking at the same time is not always safe for a kid).

Anyway, the rule about the women doing the dishes after dinner meant that the party naturally broke up, Victorian style, into men going into the smoking room (back then, the men pretty much all smoked) or going outside to smoke (as Aunt Ferba preferred it) and the women, instead of retiring to the parlor, went to work in the kitchen.  This is still expected in many families I encounter here in SoCal.

Some women rebelled, they wanted to smoke, they wanted to participate in the exciting, topical, political conversations of the men.  Aunt Eulala was one of those.  Since she was my mom’s older sister and had long ago learned to make my mom pipe down (and for long stretches, had no husband to give input on her behavior), my mom didn’t much criticize Aunt Eulala for this (just a little).  My dad said nothing about it.  Aunt Eulala tended to go back and forth between the two worlds.  She helped put the food up, she went and talked with the men, she offered to cut pie and serve it.  She did not wash dishes.  Mom recognized Aunt Eulala’s wisdom and worldliness, just as she recognized Aunt Ferba’s and I think mom really tried to combine both of her sisters’ philosophies in her life.  Aunt Eulala, mom said, was the only one of the sisters who had to work for a living, she was entitled to join the men’s realm if she chose.

But Aunt Ferba abolished altogether the dual sex situation.  Everyone left the table together and everyone proceeded into her spacious (for such a small house) living room and there we interacted together as a large family, with both men and women.  The men still clumped together sometimes, but not always.  No one washed dishes.  My mom could hardly stand it.  She would “stack” the dishes, which was permitted, with Aunt Ferba frequently telling her to stop and join the conversation.  Aunt Ferba herself spoke little, but she listened so well.  She was the world’s best audience.  She was one of the most non-judgmental people I ever knew.  She claimed to have no talents (she sang very sweetly and everyone said her sense of style and interior design was the best of the family), but she laughed gaily at people’s jokes, encouraged more storytelling, poured more coffee and quickly excused youngsters from the table to go play, if they wanted.  From her, I learned the art of being a good audience (a skill some people don’t know I have – but I not so bad at it!)

Aunt Ferba, when pressed as to why she didn’t allow the dishwashing said, “Oh, I just enjoy having everyone here so much, all together, that I don’t want to waste a minute of it on something like doing dishes which, by the way, I enjoy very much.  Not everyone enjoys doing dishes as much as I do!  Tomorrow, when I do my dishes, I’ll be enjoying myself, remembering all the fine conversation from tonight – and that’s how I prefer to do my dishes; alone and with pleasant thoughts.”  She really did articulate things like that when she wanted to.

So there, in my family, were two proto-feminists.  What an awkward way to describe them.  Feminists?  They were just two women with different approaches to life.  Everyone preferred gatherings to be at Aunt Ferba’s house, but I don’t remember many discussions about why that was.

Then, there was Uncle Bob.  Uncle Bob was not as frequent at these gatherings as my other uncles because he lived in a faraway land.  Now, Uncle Bob was willing to do dishes (I think; I’m not sure I ever saw him do them, but he came into the dishwashing area, fully knowing his offers to help would be thoroughly rejected).  Then, he often hung out in the kitchen instead of joining the men.

This irked both of my parents considerably, although my grandmother helpfully pointed out that this was a very good strategy, as having my dad and Uncle Bob in the same all-masculine conversation had had unsettling results in the past.  Come to think of it, I’m not sure Uncle Bob smoked – but no one would have suggested, back then, that he could have put wanting to avoid smoke over his masculine duty.

Uncle Bob would almost always ask to dry one dish, in order to illustrate to me the Biblical principle:  that men and women dry dishes differently.  It was true!  Uncle Bob did dry dishes just as the Bible said men did, and all the women dried them just as the Bible said women did, too!  Women do not need to flip the dish over to dry it; men turn the dish this way and that.  Even at age six or seven, though, I didn’t think Uncle Bob (who was a strongly Bible believing man) was enough of a sample.  Years later, I would still be watching how men and women dried dishes, in university co-ops, in restaurants, in their homes.  It’s generally true – men and women do dry dishes differently, across several cultures (but I don’t have data for enough cultures to generalize completely about the truthfulness of the Bible on this point).

Uncle Bob was one of those guys who could resist raising his voice in an argument and I don’t think I ever heard him cuss a single bit.  Instead he would launch into some long, apparently reasonable and highly animated explanation of why his own views were correct and everyone else’s were wrong.  My dad, on the other hand, while very verbal, was not prone to giving lectures.  He told stories instead, and at a certain point in a disagreement, would flat out declare that no further words need be said, he wasn’t changing his mind.  Period.  He could and did occasionally use the word “dammit.”  My mom was precisely and exactly the same way about changing her mind, except for the cussing, which she deplored and thought put my dad’s soul in danger.  But in this overall way, they were so well suited to each other that many an argument was avoided between them (with some pouting and stomping around, but at least, no more words and dad never, ever cussed at my mother – just other men).  Maybe one day I’ll get around to telling the story about the one time mom cussed (it has to do with cold, though, not hot).

Aunt Eulala, while perfectly willing to disagree with Uncle Bob or my dad or both simultaneously, kept a sense of humor that sometimes set her apart from both Uncle Bob and my dad.  Uncle Cecil (Aunt Ferba’s husband) would listen without comment, unlike Aunt Eulala, but he would often shake his head rather than laugh.  When asked his opinions, he would say something like, “Sometimes a person just wants to keep their own counsel in their heart.”  And everyone would feel a bit chastised but in the mildest possible way.

When it came down to decisions about what to do, how to vote, whether to allow your child to listen to rock and roll or dance in the new style or whatever it was, Aunt Eulala’s advice was what I took away.  She’d actually acknowledge my presence at the edge of some of these discussions (rare thing) and lean down and say, “Just remember this:  if you do the best thing you can, at the time, with as many facts as you can get together to make your decision, and you really think it’s the best decision, don’t feel bad about it later if there are new facts:  you did the best you could at the time.”  My mom, on the other hand, deferred all these questions to Aunt Ferba who, fortunately for me, approved of rock and roll even though Grandma was pretty sure it was Satanic.

Uncle Bob would appear jovial in these discussions (even though we could often tell he was as mad as my dad), while my dad would look downright mad and sometimes stalk off.  This was known as “showing the LeValley temper” at our house.  My mom’s family did not have “the LeValley temper.”  Uncle Harold, my mom’s brother,  was expert at diffusing things, asking my dad to go help him take a look at some malfunctioning car part or to view how shiny and polished his car looked.  Uncle Harold took a humorous  view of his cars; they were always perfect, my dad while careful about washing his car, was not quite as careful as Uncle Harold and never could be, my dad lacks the perfectionist streak that Uncle Harold had.  My dad liked to poke a little loving fun at Uncle Harold’s perfectionism, they both found it funny.  “Bob probably doesn’t even wash his own car,” is something dad would say.  “Probably goes to some car wash in Los Angeles.”  Dad pronounces it “warsh.”  Now, I have no idea whether or not Uncle Bob washed his own car or not, but as a child, I was convinced that he did not.

Fortunately or unfortunately, Uncle Bob lived far away, way off in Los Angeles which, when all was said and done, was my dad’s explanation for Uncle Bob.  “He can’t help it, he lives in Los Angeles,” dad would say, once we were home and he was explaining why Uncle Bob was so wrong about something (Nixon, the Vietnam War, Catholicism, the Apocalypse, the chapters in the New Testament where this or that is prohibited, the Second Coming, whatever it was).  Los Angeles was a realm of deep corruption (like all cities, according to my dad, with Paris possibly being the worst city on the planet, far worse than L.A., even) which tainted people even when they were good people who resisted its pollution.

Sometimes, when dad was angry enough at Uncle Bob, he’d hint darkly that it was Uncle Bob’s college education that made him so rude or so wrong.  First of all, Dad would say, Uncle Bob liked to be in the kitchen with the women, talking and talking.  Interrupting the women’s time together.  Forcing his ideas on women, who were not only too busy with dishes to really put together good arguments against his positions, but, Uncle Bob should have been taking his views outside – where the men (and Aunt Eulala) were.  Then his ideas would be put to the test.  Mom agreed.  Grandma agreed too.  Aunt Ferba would laugh and say that people were all different.  Mom and Grandma didn’t want men in the kitchen while they were cleaning up, and, then, of course, sometimes both Mom and Grandma disagreed on some of Uncle Bob’s theological points (this happened a lot in our family in those days).  I would go off and read the Bible some more, often during the very same event – there were always lots of Bibles around.  Dad never saw himself as rude or wrong.  Mom often managed to conclude these evenings with an acerbic, “Well, we all know that Art LeValley is never wrong.”

Sometimes Grandma would tell Uncle Bob to pipe down.  Then, when we got home, Mom would wonder if Aunt Thelma could be happy living in Los Angeles and when, if ever, Uncle Bob would ever allow her to come back home.  Uncle Bob, happily, did bring Aunt Thelma back home – many years later, they moved closer to the rest of the family and by that time, oddly, nearly all of these little issues, these seemingly-enormous (at the time) disagreements had cooled and everyone was so different.  We used paper plates.  Mom never had anything at her house and never had to do dishes at her own house.  She stopped complaining about the water temps at other people’s houses and the two main offenders (the tepid water users) had either died or were on my dad’s side of the family.

Oddly, while there was gossip about Uncle Bob being in the kitchen, there was very little about Aunt Eulala being where ever the men were.  Dad used to say that mom’s family had a little tendency to treat in-laws as out-laws.

My dad’s family was, in general, not fond of hot water (except Aunt Freda) and my mom eventually got used to it.  Aunt Betty was an incredibly thorough dishwasher, according to my mom, no complaints there.  But there were a couple of other aunts whose dishwashing methods weren’t up to snuff.  My mom actually made a comment to one of them, when I was about six.  Not only was the water not hot enough, but not every single fragment of food was cleaned off the plate in the soapy water before it got to the rinse.  

Consider that.  If my mom was mysophobic, which she was, can you imagine what the combination of not enough Hot Water meant, when combined with little fragments of food still on the plate or utensil…did to her psyche?  She offered, she begged to be the one who washed the dishes at Aunt Pat’s house.  No way.  Aunt Pat was the official dishwasher in her own house and no one else would do it.

For one thing, Aunt Pat said my mother was so slow in her dishwashing that they would be in there all night.  No way did Aunt Pat want to spend that amount of time waiting and waiting for my mom to wash each dish and then pass it to her for rapid drying and putting away.  Mom offered to wash and have me dry, so that Aunt Pat could go…do what?  Aunt Pat was another of those “women wash the dishes, men go outside and talk about fishing!” kind of people.  And while in the kitchen, women talk about women’s things, as sure as the sun rises.

This led to one of the most famous quotes of my childhood.  We were washing dishes.  Aunt Pat was washing, it had been a big meal.  Mom was drying and I was putting away.  Aunt Pat loved me very much and praised my ability to quickly figure out where things went – not that she would have cared at all if I put them out of place (my mom would have directed the whole thing like a symphony – and that has its points; it’s nice to be able to find things again when you need them).  But Aunt Pat was happy enough with my ability to put away and said that she often just left dishes to dry in the drainer without putting them away, so it was great to have someone do it.

Mom kept frowning and showing me these little specks of sauce or whatever that were still on the plates when she, as drier, received them.  Little by little, my mom’s tea towel (no paper towels back then) was getting covered with specks of food.  Finally, mom very politely and somewhat timidly, handed a particularly egregiously still-dirty dish back to Aunt Pat and said, “Oh, this one still has a little gravy on it.”

Aunt Pat fixed my mom with a steely gaze and said, “It’s a damn poor dish drier that can’t get off what the dishwasher leaves on.


Now, this led to many discussions on the long trip home, through Santa Fe and Taos, across the Navajo Reservation and through Hopiland, through Cameron Trading Post and at Grand Canyon, through Little America in Flagstaff and Needles and Barstow.

“Can you believe she said ‘damn’??” was the initial thrust of the conversation.  “In front of a child!”  Unfortunately, my dad’s immediately reaction to hearing the story the night it happened was to burst out into laughter, which did not make matters better.

“Well, I guess I know more about you, then, than I ever did before,” said my mother.  Turning to me, she said (many times in that long journey and many times after), “I hope you remember this.  You never know a person until you’ve married them.  You know what you know when you marry them – and you get what you marry.  No one changes.  But you don’t really know them until you’ve lived with them a long time.”

Mom interrogated Dad.  Did he really want to eat off dirty dishes?  Of course not (he agreed a little more than he really wanted to, I think).  She hoped he knew that if he got sick, she didn’t want to hear him complain.  Would Mom be forced to eat at Aunt Pat’s house again?  Dad got riled up.  This was his sister, perhaps his favorite sister, he loved her.  Yes, she would have to eat there again (and she did, although there was strife about it for years to come).  Mom promised she would be able to go without food if necessary, for one day if it came to it.  She was so hurt.  She never went through on her threats – she ate food at Aunt Pat’s house, using her usual techniques.

“It’s a damn poor dish drier that can’t get off what the dishwasher leaves on.”  Forty years later, my mom actually laughed about it and told it as a joke.


“When you first stick your hands into very hot water, it’s going to feel like you’re getting burned, but you’re not,” were my mother’s instructions.  “You have to get used to.  I’ll make it a little less hot for you right now, honey, but once you’re used to that, we’ll make it hotter.  You’ll see if you make it hotter little by little, your hands can stand a lot.”  My mom’s hands were a bit dry, rough and red from her dishwashing, her hands always looked older than her sisters’ hands, but I remember loving her hands and wondering when I’d grow up, when my hands would turn veiny and red and dry like hers.  No matter how much lotion she used, her hands, for many years, always had that look.  The water was pretty hot.  She may have been a bit wrong about the scalding part.  And, due to the invention of the dishwasher and the dishwashing husband, my hands have yet to turn into those kinds of hands (now I hope they never will!)

As a child, there were tears.  The water was so hot that I cried.  She tried to acclimate me over a long period, but ultimately, I had to face her Hot Water requirement.  She let me off the hook a lot of times, doing it herself, but by middle school, she had had enough of my wimpiness.  It was time to use Hot Water and both of my parents agreed that if they could do it, I could do it.

My friends would come over and offer to help with dishes.  All of my friends were well brought-up (they wouldn’t have been allowed back in the house, I don’t think, otherwise).  They’d squeal at the hotness of the water, they’d look at me with admiration.  “How can you stand water that hot?” they’d ask.  Mom would wash the dishes in extremely hot water, then put them in the rinsing side of the sink, where the rinser’s job was to hold the dish for quite a while under that very hot water.  The dishes themselves would get so hot, it felt like your fingers were burning.  So naturally, my friends dried and put away, I became the rinser.

I had developed many techniques for the mental part of handling hot water, but ultimately, my mother was right – you do get used to it.  When it came time to learn to take hot and heavy things out of the oven, sure I burned myself a few times, but I didn’t drop anything – I was used to very hot things.  I worried about it some (both my mom and I got some bad burns in the kitchen) but I wasn’t afraid.  My mom was certain that all women could do it and that I could do it too.  She was, I think, a third type of “proto-feminist.”  A woman who could handle hot water.

Later, when I did my fieldwork in Chiapas, Mexico (and a faulty stove exploded and singed off my eyebrows and gave me some pretty good burns) and dishwashing was by far the least of my concerns, I realized I was using the same techniques to deal with life there.  And I realized that my mother’s views on germs and Hot Water were not universally shared.

I also realized that, if you listen to multiple points of view and try hard to bring them all to the table (or the porch or the kitchen), people are bound to get hurt, testy and angry.  Years later, what matters still matters, what doesn’t, doesn’t.  My mother used to say “100 years from now, no one will know the difference.”  There is a virtue, as Aunt Ferba knew, to getting everyone in the same room and letting all the views mingle, there is a virtue to being able to handle Hot Water.

But in the work I’m doing now, she is likely wrong about one part.  Our College will still be around in the future -and what all of us who work there are doing right now may well make a difference 100 years from now.  I can assure that you all of my colleagues treat it as if it will make a difference, long after we’re dead and gone.  That’s why we do it and that’s why we have the discussions, that’s many of us tolerate the Hot Water.

The spirit of what she said, though, is true.  30,000 years from now (whether or not we have extreme Global Warming or an Ice Age), I do not think the College will be recognizable as it is today.  So, mom, if you don’t mind, I think I’ll take as my motto some of your wisest words, with just a little modification:

Honey, no one will know the difference 30,000 years from now – just do the best you can.

If Ted and Sylvia had been bloggers?

Poet Laureate Ted Hughes

was recently given a memorial in the Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey.  My own feelings about him have been more negative than ambivalent, as I am a great fan of Sylvia Plath.  I was only 8 years old when she died, and so I didn’t discover her works until after she was gone.  I was 15 when I read The Bell Jar, and then Ariel.  Despite my youth, these books resonated with me and I determined that I, too, would become a poet and a novelist.  Very quickly, though, I became aware I just didn’t have what it took to do either.  My poems, looking back, ranged from awful (which I knew at the time) to having some promise (but I didn’t know what was wrong with them or how to rework them).   I ceased writing fiction becaues I couldn’t write like Sylvia (or Margaret Atwood or even Erika Jong).  The way to write a great novel, it seemed, was to write something semi-autobiographical and, well, nothing had happened to me worth writing about, not even by age 20.  I wasn’t winning literary awards, like Sylvia, I hadn’t won trips to work on prestigious magazines in New York City (Mecca, to me, back then) and even if I had, my parents wouldn’t have let me go.

Sylvia wrote about her own life, which included a lot of depression and pain.  Her mother, in particular, was not a sympathetic character in The Bell Jar.  This aspect of writing – the possibility of wounding people who are close to us – is a roadblock for many writers, and a frequent cause of writer’s block.  Sylvia’s views on her own life, her marriage, the lives of her children were the central themes in her poetry.  Once she was dead, these literary fragments were all they had of her.  Given that Frieda, her daughter, was at the ceremony in Westminster Abbey, one can assume that Frieda has retained an intense interest in Sylvia’s work.

Ted Hughes first attracted

Sylvia Plath

through his poetry, but after her death, he found it very difficult to write.  He did grieve.  But eventually his need to write kicked in again, and he turned to some of his more difficult and highly contextualized poems.  She enjoyed his poetry so intensely, and that they fell into a rhythm of intensely writing poetry together in the first part of their marriage.  At that time, they were lost in a romantic dream of mutual poetry, had no special need for any other audience.  Later, Ted would do the unthinkable and take a mistress.  Sylvia found out about the mistress not too long before she killed herself.

How many people today avidly read poetry?  Not many.  We are far more likely to read tweets or blogs.  Would Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, each of them profoundly lonely and often depressed, have turned to blogging as an outlet?  Would blogging have worked for this purpose?  If they had not initially had each other as discerning audiences, it seems likely that the desire to write – which I think is simply inescapable for some of us – would have worked itself out in a blog or other internet venue.  But blogs, read by strangers, are not the same.  Blogs often strive for humor, for quick fixes of information.

What then, do people do with their deeper puzzlements and griefs these days?  Are we a lot happier now?  Both Sylvia and Ted felt the need to delve deeply, not just into their own sad subjects, but into the forces and sadnesses that made people around them as they were.  Sylvia focused a great deal on her natal family, whose reactions to her works were mixed.  I encouraged my own mother to read The Bell Jar  and she started it, but reported that it was a terribly depressing and pointless book, and couldn’t see why anyone would read such a thing.  I, on the other hand, had felt so heartened to realize that someone else – not just me – was struggling with being a young woman in the mid-20th century.  When I felt suicidal, I could think about Sylvia and the fact that, like many of her fans, I had concluded that she didn’t really intend to kill herself, didn’t really want to die – she wanted to be understood, she wanted to live in a different way than that available to her at the time.  When I felt stifled, I could remember that Sylvia, luminous as she was, also not only felt stifled, but was stifled, by her publishers, her family, even the husband who once so encouraged her.

Ted Hughes has been villified as a pompous, abusive and cruel husband who didn’t really want Sylvia’s poetic gifts to outshine his own.  There seems to be no doubt that he was a difficult person; perhaps both of them were prone to depression.  If Sylvia had not become so famous – and then died – would Hughes’s poetry have been so well received?   He gained a great deal by marrying her, and possibly even more by her death.  He wrote about how difficult this all was, but from my point of view, his poetry became less auto-biographical, more inscrutable.  I don’t wonder at that.  How does a person reveal themselves to the world after even one tragedy, after the suicide of even one wife or lover?

Again, I think about our modern age and how difficult it is to get more than a few readers for a blog, or followers for one’s tweet-feed.  Celebrity now centers around mass media.  Katha Pollett wrote about Ted’s work in the New York Review of Books:

“The trouble is,” said Pollitt, “if you added them all up, you’d have a twenty-page chapbook, instead of a volume of nearly 200 pages in which that intimate voice, insisting on its personal truth, is overwhelmed by others: ranting, self-justifying, rambling, flaccid, bombastic. . . . The more Hughes insists on his own good intentions and the inevitability of Plath’s suicide, the less convincing he becomes.”

She was speaking of how many people read Hughes expecting to find what we find in blogs – some kind of personal voice, some recounting of his unique personal experiences, especially his life with Sylvia.  Note that Katha thinks he can’t speak of his life with Sylvia, even much later, without ranting, self-justifying…and being flaccid or bombastic.  Like many of us, Katha is not convinced that Sylvia’s suicide was inevitable – or that Ted was not part of the cause, if only because he lacked good intentions.  Think of how blog comments would go if Ted had decided to blog about Sylvia’s death rather than write poetry.  Katha also implies that Ted’s work could have been boiled down – to a blog, or a series of tweets.

Katha even goes so far as to claim that Hughes steps into Sylvia’s shoes once she’s dead, appropriating her poetic devices – her voice. 

One of Sylvia’s reasons for suicide was her discovery that Ted was having an affair with Assia Wevill.  Her ability to cope with life at that time was marked by all the hallmarks of severe depression.  She was given anti-depressants (although a type that had previously made her condition worse, unknown to her new doctor).  She killed herself within a few days of starting the anti-depressant (these were 1960’s anti-depressants, not the best), but they probably had the paradoxically effect of making a very sad, immobilized person gain the ability to plan.  She had an in-home nurse to look after her, but she accomplished her death before the woman was due to show up.  She carefully plugged the cracks in the doors to the kitchen with wet towels, so her two sons in the next room would not die from carbon monoxide poisoning.

A friend of hers, Al Alvarez, has stated the obvious:  this was an unanswered cry for help.  But after Ted Hughes’s defection 5 months earlier, after the demise of their very close relationship, there was no one Sylvia felt she could turn to for help.  She was 30.

A few years after Sylvia’s death, Assia herself committed suicide.  She left hints that Hughes was abusive to both her and to Sylvia.  Ted survived though, and found more material for his poetry in these tragedies.  The literary world seems to find such tragedy and scandal as interesting as the tabloids do.

There was a twist to Assia’s death, though.  She also killed her four-year-old daughter, whose father was Ted Hughes.  Ted’s poems began to address his own dark and “bloody” nature.  But he survived -for decades.  Given the tragic material that life had dealt him (or that he had somehow attracted to himself), it’s no wonder that he had plenty of material for his famously dark poems, poems which eventually earned him a memorial in Westminster Abbey.

Ted profited financially from Sylvia’s death, as he owned the rights to her work.  He lived comfortably and wrote more poems.  There was no public feedback, as his poems stayed comfortably ensconced within the literary community – mainly in Great Britain.  Tabloids did not review his writings, there was no blogosphere.  Instead of having to get a bunch of dislikes on Facebook or Youtube, he received honors from The Queen.

Eventually, Ted died of cancer, of something eating him up from within.  His funeral was mainly attended by fellow poets.  About 10 years later, his orphaned son with Sylvia committed suicide as well.

What do we make of this wake of suicides?  Obviously, one wants to say that proper use of anti-depressants might have helped, but in this highly sensitive, poetic group of people, is that truly the solution?  Creative genius is what it is.  Was Hughes a kind of poetic vampire, thriving on the sadness, melodrama and intense angst of those around him?  Was he a bully, incapable of supporting others?  Is his poetry indeed so good that he needs to be memorialized in Westminster, or is it that he was Sylvia Plath’s husband?  Was Sylvia herself one of our great poets or was it her own life – lived in a time when women writing of the contradictions of being creative females, at a time when there were finally a few such women around – that made her so famous?

Let’s not forget that Virginia Woolf, Anne Sexton and Amy Winehouse have all met a similar fateto Sylvia.  In the sixties and seventies (and later), there were an extraordinary number of books on the fate of  creative women.  Madwoman in the Attic takes the problem back into earlier literary times, and Diane Wood Middleton’s book on Anne Sexton is a really eye-opener.

Should Ted be the memorialized poet?  I’d appreciate your viewpoints.  But I do think that if both of them had been bloggers and received immediate feedback from “the world” their stance toward the world (and their depression) would have been different.  But as sensitive folk, the kinds of things that would have been said to them…well, could they have taken it?  Was meanness cloaked in anonymity so prevalent then?  I think not.  They hoarded their tragedies, as anyone who has read The Bell Jar must know.  Sylvia burst forth into many sparkling dimensions, the raw, the tragic, the transcendent in the poems of her last days – the works completed between the time she found out about Ted’s affair and her death, at home, by gas oven.  I don’t see Ted bursting forth, but I guess others think he produced a body of work that makes him esteemed enough to have a memorial at the foot of T.S. Eliot,  perhaps, in a way, Ted occupies his proper place in a kind of waste land.

But if Ted had abandoned poetry and just told us what really happened, some mysteries about life would have been cleared up, at least for me.  As it stands, the tragedies of his life assisted in building his reputation as the kind of poet Wikipedia calls a “bard,”  apparently referring to the sonorous, sadness of bards in ancient times.  The terrible world that Hughes evokes in his poetry, the truths he tries to expose in his words are, however, not the wide social vistas of war, not the launchings of thousands of ships or the deaths of princes.  Instead, it is the private, personal hell of a man surrounded by deaths of innocents, of the creative.  Perhaps no other man of the 20th century had the dubious privilege of looking straight into the face of so much alienation, so much loneliness, fear and grief and lived to write poems about it.

I’ve tried to read his poems from a neutral stance, with the charity I’d give any poet.  His estate has kept many of them out of public view, but Amazon has its previews.  The remembrance poems for Sylvia stand in between poetry and prose, the words of a man battling to remember what he can of his dead wife, to remember what he did not immediately forget, as it happened.  We see an angry Sylvia, we see a husband who may not have liked her very much.  I sense that he blames her for not coming through her therapy, for not making a rational decision not to be depressed.  I see a man who is a bit embarrassed at his wife’s moods, who scrutinizes her closely, who isn’t sure he likes her Americanness.  He sounds as if Sylvia and her friends are too talkative for him, he who wants to hold forth in his own voice.  Does he understand her moods?  At times, he seems to think he has the power to temporarily alleviate her darkness, in the manner of a White Knight.

His words are like the words that slip off people’s lips as they try to give glimpses of their past, and perhaps that is poetry too.

On the other hand, perhaps most people who tell the truth about the death of creativity, the death of love, end up sounding very much like poets.  Even if, today, they are bloggers.

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