Heroines of the Medieval World: An Interview with Sharon Bennett Connolly

Today, it is easy to think that all women from this era were downtrodden, retiring and obedient housewives, whose sole purpose was to give birth to children – preferably boys, and serve their husbands. This looks at the lives of the women who broke the mould: those who defied social norms and made their own future, consequently changing lives, society and the course of history.

Some of the women are famous, such as Eleanor of Aquitaine, who was not only a duchess in her own right but also Queen Consort of France through her first marriage and Queen Consort of England through her second, in addition to being a crusader and a rebel.

Then there are the more obscure but no less remarkable figures such as Nicholaa de la Haye, who defended Lincoln Castle in the name of King John, and Maud de Braose, who spoke out against the same king’s excesses and whose death (or murder) was the inspiration for a clause in Magna Carta.

Women had to walk a fine line in the Middle Ages, but many learned to to survive – even flourish – in this male-dominated world. Some led armies while others made their influence felt in more subtle ways, but all made a contribution to their era and should be remembered for daring to defy and lead in a world that demanded they obey and follow.

I have come to know Sharon only within the last two years, but in that time I’ve come to appreciate her love and enthusiasm for history (and her success in passing that love down to her son).  For this reason, I’m delighted to be a part of the blog tour spotlighting her debut book, Heroines of the Medieval World

While I write fiction, and her book is non-fiction, our work has a shared theme in the strong, capable women we’ve written about, many of whom had to overcome huge obstacles to their success.  If you don’t read historical non-fiction, I encourage you to take a shot at this one.  The chapters are easy to dive into, and you can pick and choose based on which particular biography catches your fancy!

Before digging into the substance of her book, I thought it would be fun to ask Sharon some light-hearted questions, just to get to know her a little bit.  She was a good sport and humored me!

Sharon, since we live on opposite sides of “the pond” and can’t really go out for lunch, I want you to humor me for a moment.  What is your favorite local restaurant and the meal you most enjoy eating when there?

Cosmo’s, it’s an all-you-can-eat buffet type Asian restaurant in Doncaster. It’s great for my son because he can choose exactly what he wants to eat – and he loves trying new things. It’s great to mix it up, too. I’ll usually have duck and pancakes for starters, followed by chicken tikka masala and pilau rice as a main, then profiteroles for dessert. Yum!

If we could go see a movie together, and your favorite all-time movie was playing, what would it be?

Oh now, that’s a hard one. I’ve been thinking about this question for days and I can’t answer it. There are several movies I will watch every time they’re on. I love Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Sting, The Princess Bride and, for some reason I can’t explain, Leonardo di Caprio’s Man in the Iron Mask – mainly for Gabriel Byrne’s D’Artagnan.

I love to travel, though I haven’t been able to visit every place I’d like to see.  If you had to limit your travel to only one more country, which country would you choose?

Russia – I would love to see St Basil’s in Moscow and the Winter Palace in St Petersburg.

Do you play a musical instrument, if so which one(s)?  (So when we travel together, I know if I need to bring along a harmonica or banjo or something as accompaniment.)

No, I was a big Elvis Presley fan as a pre-teen and desperately wanted to play guitar. I tried at primary school. I think I lasted about a year. My teacher was one of the class teachers and he was highly critical – not very encouraging at all. I lost confidence and gave up (something I don’t usually do). I saved my guitar though, and it became my son’s first guitar. He’s much better at it than I ever was and has passed his first exams in guitar and music theory this year.

 And obviously before we have lunch or see a movie or travel together, we’ll have to meet face-to-face.  What do you usually do when you meet someone for the first time?

If it’s someone I know through social media, Facebook etc, I usually give them a big hug and get all giddy about finally meeting in person. If it’s someone famous, such as my favourite writer, Bernard Cornwell, I get all tongue tied and say silly things – oh and blush so red you can see me from a mile away.

Thanks for those helpful answers!

So… moving on to much more serious matters… You wrote a book, and that’s a pretty big deal.  Most people don’t write a book in their lifetime.  Can you tell us a little bit about what prompted you to write any kind book in the first place, but this book in particular?

I have always loved history and I’ve always wanted to write a book. I tried to be sensible at college and originally majored in Law and Business Studies, but when it came to the final year and dropping history…. I just couldn’t do it. So, I dropped Law instead. I have been reading and studying history my whole life, just for the pleasure of it. But when Facebook became ‘the thing’ I started joining its history groups, writing little articles as posts and found I my ‘thing’. It got a little more serious when my husband gave me a blog for Christmas 2014, History…the Interesting Bits and I started writing articles about those bits of history I find really fascinating. I discovered that my posts about women in history were more successful, and so started focusing on their stories. I realised that all these women, whose stories just seemed to be bylines in the stories their fathers, husbands and sons, were just as fascinating – if not more so – as the stories of their menfolk. And the idea of Heroines of the Medieval World was born – the title came first, and once I had the title, the book almost planned itself out. I knew I had a good idea – and I strongly believe it was a book that needed to be written. I don’t know whether I have been able to do the topic justice, but at least it’s out there now and I know of at least two other authors – one rather famous one – who are taking on similar projects. It’s about time medieval women had their day in the limelight!

Did you find that one of these heroines became a personal favorite, and did any of them surprise you while you researched them?

My favourite has to be Nicholaa de la Haye, castellan of Lincoln Castle during the 1217 siege by the rebel barons and their French allies. She was in her 60s but stolidly refused to surrender and was eventually relieved by the great William Marshal himself in a battle known as the Lincoln Fair. She was then unceremoniously stripped of her position as Castellan and Sheriff of Lincoln, which were given to the Earl of Salisbury, just four days after the battle. The powers that be should have known she was not one to back down from a fight and Nicholaa travelled to the king’s court to complain about her treatment and request her reinstatement. An uneasy peace meant that she got her castle back, but Salisbury retained the position of Sheriff of Lincoln.

The one that surprised me most was Heloïse. I had always thought of her story as a great love story – we studied it at college and when you’re only 20, you only see the love story. You don’t realise how much influence the 20-something Abelard must have had on the impressionable, teenage Heloïse. It changed my focus on her from being a love story, to emphasizing her wonderful writing. She became a strong, amazing woman in my eyes, while Abelard has certainly been diminished.

Did any of them prove to be more challenging for you to research, and did any of your research change your opinion about any of them?

Joan of Arc wasn’t hard to research, but she was very hard to write. I don’t know why. She was an incredible young woman and I think I felt that I had to tell her story properly. Whenever you see comments about Joan, someone always calls her ‘mad’ or ‘delusional’, but she did some amazing things at a very young age – she was only 19 when she died and yet she almost single handedly saved France. I don’t know if she really saw saints and angels, but I respect that she believed she saw them; and that they helped and encouraged her to achieve more for France than any grown man had managed to do. She had incredible strength and courage. She faced down armies – and her inquisitors – with a bravery that is rarely seen at any age, let alone someone so young.

Are there other heroines you would have liked to write about?

Oh yes. There are a lot who I could not fit in the book. I haven’t actually counted, but I think there are about 60 in the book – and probably the same number I left out, at least. I wrote a blog post, just this week, about Isabel de Warenne, countess of Arundel – I would have loved to put her in the book after coming across her in passing. But I didn’t have time to do all the research before my deadline, so she had to be left out. And yet, she was such an incredible woman – she ‘told off’ King Henry III after he, probably unknowingly, gave some of her land and wardship rights to one of his favourites. Henry was so affected by her upbraiding that when he wrote a pardon for her for a fine, the following year, he actually added a caveat that it was given ‘provided she says nothing opprobrious to us as she did when we were at Westminster’. Feisty lady!

Who should read this book?

Anyone who wants to know more about medieval women and what they were capable of. I’m hoping it’s a fun, enjoyable read and that it comes across more as a series of interesting stories than a dry text book. It was written for anyone who has a love of history – young and old. Just a couple of days ago a neighbor bought it for her 12-year-old daughter, who then got in touch to say it was ‘Awesome!’. She made my day!

What’s next for you?

Another book. I have the bug now – couldn’t stop writing even if I wanted to. I am currently researching and writing Silk and the Sword, a book about the women involved in the Norman Conquest. It should be out by the end of 2018. I am trying to look at it from all sides, although the source material for the Danish women is a little scant. It is fascinating to see the different ways women were treated by the Normans and Saxons/English. It will look at the whole of the 11th century; the build-up, 1066 itself and the aftermath.

Thanks so much again, Sharon, for taking the time to chat with me.  I wish you all the success in the world.

Heroines of the Medieval World  is now available in hardback in the UK from both Amberley Publishing and Amazon UK, and worldwide from Book Depository. It is also available on Kindle in both the UK and USA and will be available in hardback from Amazon US on May 1, 2018.

If Heroines of the Medieval World intrigues you, I invite you to visit Sharon’s history blog, History… the Interesting Bits! which is filled with history, interviews, book reviews, and more.

About the Author

Sharon Bennett Connolly, has been fascinated by history for over 30 years now. She has studied history academically and just for fun – and even worked as a tour guide at historical sites, including Conisbrough Castle.

Born in Yorkshire, she studied at University in Northampton before working in Customer Service roles at Disneyland in Paris and Eurostar in London.

She is now having great fun, passing on her love of the past to her son, hunting dragons through Medieval castles or exploring the hidden alcoves of Tudor Manor Houses.

For Christmas 2014, her husband gave her her very own blog – History … the Interesting Bits (historytheinterestingbits.com), allowing her to indulge in that love of history. Sharon started researching and writing about the lesser-known stories and people from European history, the stories that have always fascinated. Quite by accident, she started focusing on medieval women. And in 2016 she was given the opportunity to write her first non-fiction book, Heroines of the Medieval World, which was published by Amberley in September 2017.

Previous Blog Tour Stops:

October 30 – Annie Whitehead – Review and Extract: – about ‘Æthelflæd’

October 31 – Sarah Bryson: ‘Heroines without a Sword’, St. Margaret Queen of Scotland

November 1 Susan Higginbotham – Extract:- Scandalous Heroines about ‘Joan, Lady of Wales’

November 2 – Nathen Amin –Guest post:- ‘All for Love’, Katherine Swynford and Joan Beaufort

November 3 – Tony Riches – Guest Post:- Review and extract

November 4 – Gary Ekborg, Medieval Archives – Extract: Hildegard of Bingen,Literary Heroines

November 5 – Kristie Dean: –A Review

Upcoming Blog Tour Stops:

November 7Lil’s Vintage World –YouTube. A Review

November 8 – Diana Milne , The Review , Extract about Nicholaa de la Haye and a signed giveaway competition

November 9 –Sara Hanna-Black –Blog:- ‘The Heroines Who Refused to be Left Out’ – Eleanor of Aquitaine and Joan of Arc.

November 10 –Amy Licence – Extract:- Joan of Kent from Chapter 4: Scandalous Heroines

November 11 –Simon Turner – A Review

November 12 –Sandra Alvarez, Medievalist Magazine: Gwenllian, the last Princess of Wales

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