QAB Interview With Historian Elizabeth Norton
Elizabeth Norton is a British historian that researches and writes primarily of the women contributing to English medieval history. With a MA degrees in Archaeology and Anthropology from the University of Cambridge and a MA degree in European Archaeology from Oxford, Elizabeth certainly is multi-talented and highly gifted. Currently, Elizabeth is working on her doctoral research at King’s College, London where she is researching the Blount family of Shropshire. Recently, Elizabeth researched and released a non-fiction book focusing on the remarkable life of Elfrida, England’s first crowned queen, further broadening her expertise of England’s most remarkable female historical figures.
1. Elizabeth, most of our members and browsers are familiar with Bessie Blount, King Henry VIII’s mistress and mother of his acknowledged son, Henry Fitzroy. It is my understanding that you are comprehensively researching the entire Blount family. What can you tell is about the Blounts and their contributions to English history?
I carry out my academic research into the Blount family in the sixteenth century. What I am particularly interested in is the fact that they are a reasonably ordinary family. They were gentry status rather than nobility – even Bessie Blount’s position at court was relatively unusual. None of her sisters were able to come to court.
The family were also Catholic and I am interested in how they were able to continue practicing their faith throughout the sixteenth century. The information is very exciting – there are secret printing presses, priest holes and imprisonments, as well as a good deal of pragmatism from family members. What I really want to provide is a comprehensive look at just what it could mean to be a gentleman in the sixteenth century.
2. Currently on the website, QAB is highlighting your recently published book, Elfrida, The First Crowned Queen of England. I recall you telling me that Queen Elfrida is your favorite English queen. Why do you find her so fascinating, and why do you think there has been so little interest in highlighting her contributions to English history until now?
I find Elfrida really fascinating. At the heart of her story is a murder mystery – did she kill her stepson, King Edward the Martyr, or has she been framed? I wanted to re-evaluate the sources for Elfrida in an attempt to set out what she was really like, as well as looking at her political role. She is the first woman known to have definitely been crowned as queen of England and she was also given an official public role as head of the English nunneries – something which was unprecedented in the Anglo-Saxon period. Elfrida ranks as one of the most powerful and important tenth century English figures – male or female – something which drew me to her.
I think there are two main reasons why Elfrida has been largely ignored. The first is her poor reputation. Even in her lifetime, her reputation was smeared, something which seems to have largely arisen due to her attempts to involve herself in the governance of the nunneries. Medieval and later people were prepared to believe the worst about her – one near contemporary source, for example, claimed that, in her old age, she murdered the Abbot of Ely after he had seen her turn herself into a horse through witchcraft!
The second reason is that Elfrida lived over one thousand years ago. Her story can seem distant and irrelevant at first glance, but actually I think it is very relevant. I recently wrote an article on the similarities between Elfrida and Anne Boleyn, something which I think is important. Elfrida provides an excellent model of a powerful woman and a strong queen and many of the pressures that affected her hold true into the later periods.
3. Elizabeth, you have been very busy! You also recently released a book The Boleyn Women, the Tudor Femmes Fatales That Changed English History. Beyond Queen Anne Boleyn and her sister Mary Carey, just who are these women? Are there far less known Boleyn women who helped shape who Anne Boleyn became? Also, are there misconceptions about the Boleyn family resulting in you wanting to set the record straight?
In The Boleyn Women, I take the family right back to their peasant origins at Salle in Norfolk in the late fourteenth century to the death of Elizabeth I. I wanted to look at where the family came from and how they came to produce two queens of England. Although the men of the family were ambitious, it is the women who were often dominant in extending their influence and prestige. For example, the first Anne Boleyn, who was the second wife of Sir Geoffrey Boleyn was the daughter of Lord Hoo and Hastings. She brought the family noble connections, with her son then marrying one of the heiresses of Earl of Ormond.
There have always been a lot of misconceptions about the Boleyn family, which I hope I have set straight. I particularly wanted to look at Anne’s sister-in-law, Jane, Lady Rochford, who is usually portrayed negatively. In my research, I was very struck by the fact that she continued to wear mourning black up until the end of her life following her husband’s execution. I think this says a lot about her character and her relationship with George Boleyn. Jane was in a very difficult position – she had divided loyalties with her family close to Princess Mary.
4. I read with great interest on your website (http://www.elizabethnorton.co.uk/index.htm) that not only are you an historian, you are an accomplished archaeologist. Please tell our readers and browsers of your expertise and some of your favorite archaeology projects?
I trained as an archaeologist and have a particular interest in material culture. I like to go out and visit sites associated with the people that I am researching, as well as looking at surviving materials for their lives. It’s surprising what still survives. For Bessie Blount, for example, I was able to view two books which belonged to her, as well as visiting tombs for family members. I was able to identify the only known image of her in her youth on the side of her parents’ tomb.
My favourite archaeology project was some years ago now when I was part of a team surveying Saharan rock art in Algeria. It has nothing to do with the Tudors, but was absolutely fascinating. The purpose of the work was to review the condition of the art and how it had deteriorated in the previous thirty years. There are some photos of the rock art on my website. Travelling through the Sahara with local guides was hard to beat!
5. As you know, throughout December 2013, QAB is highlighting the contributions of women in medieval English history. In your debut book, She Wolves: The Notorious Queens of England,you chronicle English queens from 800 c. to 1558. Can you explain to QAB members and browsers why strong women of medieval history were often views as “she-wolves”? Also, can you site some examples of queens regarded in this dubious manner and how they earned this notorious distinction?
Two queens of England are known by the nickname of ‘She Wolf of France’: Isabella of France, the wife of Edward II, and Margaret of Anjou, the wife of Henry VI.
Isabella and Edward had a troubled marriage, largely due to Edward’s male favourites (he is generally believed to have been homosexual). In 1326 Isabella, who had returned to France, had been able to persuade Edward to send their eldest son to her homeland to do homage for the English possession of Gascony. Once in her possession, Isabella refused to return him, plotting with her lover, the English exile, Roger Mortimer, to invade England.
Isabella and Mortimer deposed and later murdered Edward II, with Edward III crowned in his place. They then ruled as regents until Edward III was able to forcibly remove them in a coup. Isabella is largely remembered as a she-wolf due to Edward’s deposition and murder, along with her own adultery. Rumour had it that Edward II died in a particularly gruesome way – with a red hot spit inserted into his rectum.
Margaret of Anjou was actually the first to be given the nickname of She Wolf of France. She was married to the unstable Henry VI and came increasingly to take on the leadership of his Lancastrian cause during the Wars of the Roses. She was fiercely protective of her son’s rights as Prince of Wale, but was very unpopular. Margaret’s reputation is largely due to ideas that it was unnatural for a woman to take on such an active and military role, as well as the fact that she was of the losing party – she eventually lost her son in battle in 1471 and was herself captured, while her husband was quietly murdered.
Strong medieval women were often viewed negatively. This was due to perceptions of a woman’s role and the way that history was recorded. I think it is very telling that the Empress Matilda, who attempted to rule England as a reigning queen in the twelfth century is portrayed negatively as proud and haughty when, actually, she was just acting in a way expected of a male sovereign. At the same time, her cousin, Matilda of Boulogne, who was the wife of the Empress’s rival, King Stephen, is portrayed much more positively, largely because she was able to carry out acts in the name of her husband. The Empress had no such male family member to ‘hide’ behind. Equally, history was written by men and a strong woman subverted what was perceived as the natural order.
6. Elizabeth, many of QAB’s members are novice historical writers. What helpful advice can you give them regarding researching for their work?
When you are choosing a subject for a biography or work of history, always think about what is possible for you. Realistically, you are probably not going to be able to write a comprehensive account of many medieval figures without knowledge of French and Latin, for example.
Otherwise, read everything that you can find, but always think about where information is coming from. Works of history involve interpretation and you should therefore try to make up your own mind using the original sources. Use local archives, they are usually excellent and many of their documents will not have been studied in any depth before.
7. Do you have any upcoming projects that you would like to inform QAB members and browsers?
I am currently working on a book featuring Elizabeth Boleyn and other women of the early Henrician court. It’s early days though, so I will keep you posted!
For more information about Elizabeth Norton , visit her website at http://www.elizabethnorton.co.uk.