Biographies from Medieval History


Ad Honorem
Jul 2009
Montreal, Canada
I have been much busier than I expected lately and I will try to write some biographies in about 2 week, after my midterm exams.
Nov 2010
Aethelflaed (Noble Beauty) – Lady of the Mercians

A twelfth century poem about Aethelflaed

O potent Elfleda! Maid, men’s terror!
You did conquer nature’s self; worthy
The name of man! More beauteous nature’s form of
A woman; but your valour shall secure
Man’s higher name. For name you only need
Not sex to change; unconquerable queen,
King rather, who such trophies have obtained!
O virgin and virago both farewell!
No Ceasar yet such triumph hath deserved
As you, than any, all, the Ceasars more renown’d!

Aethelflaed was born around 870; around the same time her father became King of Wessex. Wessex then was the last remaining independent Anglo-Saxon Kingdom in England and it was only just surviving. Guthrum’s Viking army was in Wessex and Alfred would have to fight just to survive, but that’s another story.

In the history of this time there are no real facts. We have journals kept by people separated from the events by time and space. These journals come to us as copies of the originals with what alterations we cannot tell. Dates and name spellings are different in different journals, they were written in Ireland and England by people with different agendas. If only half of what is below is true then Aethelflaed still stands out as a remarkable leader and one of the founders of the Kingdom of England.

Aethelflaed was the oldest daughter of King Alfred and her mother was Ealhswith, the daughter of a Mercian ealdorman or earl. By the time she marries Athelred, the ruling ealdorman of Mercia, in 886, Mercia is no longer a kingdom. The old Kingdom of Mercia has been split between the western English half and the eastern Danish half, and its King fled to Rome. The Mercia that Athelred rules is a client state to its more powerful southern neighbour, King Alfred’s Wessex.

Aethelflaed only had one child, a daughter called Alfwynn. William of Malmesbury said that “Because of the difficulty experienced in her first, or rather her only labour, she ever afterwards refused the embraces of husband, protesting that it was unreasonable for the daughter of a king to give way to a pleasure which after a time produced such painful consequences”. Some have argued, probably men, that by doing this she was ensuring that there would be no heir to contest her father’s plan of the complete union of Wessex and Mercia. King Alfred had given London, whose occupants were Mercian anyway, to Athelred as a wedding dowry. He clearly expected to get it back later, as his son did in 911, so crucial was it strategically and economically to a stable Anglo-Saxon Kingdom.

Alfred died sometime around 900. In the coming dynastic struggle Aethelflaed supports her brother Edward, who eventually becomes King. In this struggle the rival Mercian candidate and the Viking King of East Anglia are conveniently killed.

From the work titled the Three Fragments we have Aethelflaed defending Chester, which she had peopled and fortified, against the Norwegian Viking (or Lochlann) Ingimund who has sailed from Ireland, attacking North Wales first. Aethelflaed’s husband is already described as unwell so she seems to be ruling Mercia from or before 906. She appeals to the Irish contingent in the invading army to throw in their lot with her, which as fellow Christians they do. The Vikings then are repulsed in their attack on Chester after a battle where the Mercians drop boiling beer and beehives on them. The Vikings then moved on to settle in North West England, more Norse-Irish Vikings follow them there.

With her husband ill Aethelflaed must have been in charge of the Mercian force that, along with King Edward’s Wessex levy, defeated the invading Viking army at Tettenhall in Staffordshire in 910. The Viking raid was in retaliation for a raid into Lincoln where St Oswald’s relics where retrieved and taken, presumably by Aethelflaed, to Gloucester.

Athelred’s title was Lord of the Mercians (Myrcna Hlaford) and Aethelflaed was known as Lady of the Mercians (Myrcna Hlefdige), she was not a queen. Athelred died around 911 and Aethelflaed carried on ruling English Mercia and started to push into Danish Mercia.

She organised the Mercian fort-building programme, started by King Alfred in Wessex, building forts, or burhs, at Bremesburh, Scergeat, Bridgnorth, Tamworth, Stafford, Eddisbury, Warwick, Chirbury, Weardburh and Runcorn between 910 and 915. Her brother, King Edward of Wessex, built forts in the east of England and moved into Essex and Hertfordshire; they were clearly working in collaboration with one another.

In 916 Aethelflaed sent an army into the Welsh Kingdom of Brycheiniog in retaliation of the murder of Abbot Egbert. Brycheiniog is in Mid-Wales and might have been created by Irish invaders in the fourth century AD. She took prisoner the King’s wife and thirty-four others, they’re fate remains a mystery.

In 917 she captures the town of Derby while her brother moves into East Anglia where East Anglian and East Saxon people willingly acknowledge him as king, the Danish also submit. The Danish had been a presence in the area for thirty years although we do not know in what strength.

In 918 she captured Leicester without a struggle while her brother was close by taking Stamford. This left only two Norwegian Viking strongholds south of the River Humber, in an area known as the Five Boroughs, Lincoln and Nottingham. She then went to Tamworth where the “men of York” submitted to her. Vikings from Ireland, having settled in North West England, were also attacking the Vikings in York and the Five Boroughs. There was no fellowship among Vikings and the “men of York” wanted help. That they turned to her rather than her brother shows she was a major player in the area. It is suggested in The Three Fragments that it was Aethelflaed that arranged the combined army of British Strathclyde, English from Bamburgh and Scots that fought the Norse-Irish invaders, led by Raegnald, at Corbridge, just south of Hadrian’s Wall. Unfortunately any further influence she had ended when Aethelflaed died later that year. She was buried at Gloucester, a city where she had rebuilt the Roman walls, devised the street plan and built many churches, including St Oswald’s priory, which was built to hold the relics taken from Lincoln. Raegnald went on to take York and, for a time, set himself up as a king.

Aethelflaed’s daughter Alfwynn was deprived of all control in Mercia by her uncle King Edward and sent to Wessex, she was not the daughter of a king so she really had no regal right to rule. One of Edward’s own sons had been brought up in Mercia under the care and tuition of Aethelflaed and he would go on, with Mercian help, to become the first King of England.


Ad Honorem
Sep 2010
Federico da Montefeltro, Famed Condottiero and Duke of Urbino

(7 June 1422 - 10 September 1482) Federico da Montelfetro was a famous mercenary captain and Duke of Urbino. His fame as condottiero is only matched by his wide patronage of the arts and support of the growing humanist movement in Italy. His rise from count to duke was due in no small part to his success on the battlefield - it was told he never once lost a battle. His well-preserved studiolo in Gubbio is a testament to his appreciation for humanistic studies and intellectual persuits of the Italian Renaissance.

Federico was born in Gubbio, the natural son of Guidantonio da Montefeltro, Count of Urbino, Gubbio and Casteldurante, and Duke of Spoleto (Papal States). As a young man he worked for the great captain Niccolo Piccinino, and earned his early fame by his exploits in the capture of the Fortress of St. Leo, thought to be unassailable. He worked also for Francesco Sforza, another mercenary captain turned prince, and won many battles and gained important territories for the Sforza, the pope, and later for the Kingdom of Naples. Pope Pius II made him Gonfaloniere of the Holy Church in 1458, after which he defeated his old enemy Sigismondo Pandolfo Malatesta (of Rimini) and took Pesaro. He was made Vicar of various territories that he conquered for the pope. Federico was a wise and careful ruler, and was held in high regard by all his peers as a model statesman.

In 1474 his daughter Giovanna married the nephew of Pope Sixtus IV's, Giovanni della Rovere. Sixtus raised Federico to Duke of Urbino at this time. This cemented their alliance against Florence during th Pazzi War (1478), during which it is now thought Federico supported the assassination of the Medici brothers. Federico died at the start of his alliance with Florence during Sixtus IV's 1482 campaign against Ferrara, in an allied effort to check the power of the papacy. He was eulogized by Giovanni Sanzio, Urbino court poet (and father of Raphael), as a glorious warrior and shining example of Renaissance prince - known then as "the Light of Italy." He supported translators and copyists of ancient classics - resulting in the third largest known library after the Vatican. The likes of architect Leon Battista Alberti, painter Piero della Francesca, and humanist scholar Marcilio Ficino were products of his court patronage.

Sources for further reading:

James Dennistoun, Memoirs of the Dukes of Urbino vol 1.
Robert Kirkbride, Architecture and Memory: The Renaissance Studioli of Federico da Montefeltro


Ad Honorem
Sep 2010
The Wolf of Rimini. I love those scary Romagnol nicknames. Yes, he was a good one; one of the old school mercenary captains. It's his son Pandolfo that makes me :crying: cry.


Ad Honorem
Sep 2010
Ludovico Maria Sforza, duke of Milan

Ludovico Maria Sforza (July 27, 1452 – May 1508) was the fourth son of Francesco Sforza and Bianca Maria Visconti. He ruled Milan as regent from 1481 to 1494, and as duke from 1494 to 1500.

Ludovico received a princely education, and was specially favored by his mother Bianca Visconti, who “took a close interest in his welfare and training, clearly anticipating that he would rule someday” (Lubkin p. 41). He excelled in all virtues expected of the Italian high nobility. After his brother the duke Galeazzo Maria Sforza was assassinated, a power struggle ensued between his widow Bona of Savoy's secretary Cicco Simonetta against the Sforza brothers who were excluded from power during Gian Galeazzo’s minority. Ludovico won. He became regent for his brother’s twelve year-old son and heir, Gian Galeazzo (1469-1494) in 1481. From the early years of his regency he attracted some of the best military and artistic minds to court. As a young man he was intelligent, gallant, physically strong, brave, diplomatic, and ruthless. Towards the 1490 he endured decreasing levels of support from the over-taxed common people, but overall, his legitimacy and prestige was derived from his ability to rule wisely and increase the prosperity of the realm.

Over the years, and as his own personal power grew unchecked, the wealth and prosperity of the dominion of Milan reached heights unheard of before; the new Golden Age (1480-1490) had begun. Ludovico improved farming and husbandry, built roads, bridges, and canals to water vast areas, magnificent palaces, churches, and other civic improvements. His rule was stable, his borders secure, and his commonwealth prosperous. All things flourished which allowed his treasury to grow exponentially. The powerful House of Este concluded an alliance with Ludovico and Milan. The alliance between Ferrara and Milan would create an effective buffer from their perennial rival Venice to the northeast. Ludovico married Beatrice d'Este in 1491. The de facto ducal couple had two sons, Maximilian and Francesco.

Despite his frequent policy shifts, and later political failures, Ludovico Sforza was (during his regency) an experienced and powerful Italian ruler of the late 15th century. His place in the balance of power was an important one. As a result of the balance of power between the pope, Ferrante I of Naples, Ludovico Sforza of Milan, and Lorenzo de Medici of Florence, Italy experienced a lasting peace during the decade 1480-1490. The political golden age of Italy - that was concentrated in the decade leading up to the first Italian Wars – was about to end.

By 1493 he had already set into motion events that would result in his being invested as duke himself, rather than his nephew (the rightful duke cared little for matters of state, despite his wife's protests). The investiture of the duchy would be given to Ludovico in exchange for Bianca Maria, Ludovico’s niece, and the 400,000 ducats she brought with her to Innsbruck. When his nephew Gian Galeazzo died (1494) he was formally invested as duke by the Emperor Maximilian I (with the support of leading Milanese nobles) in 1495. The birth of his son Maximilian in 1493 probably facilitated his ambition to hold the duchy not only in action, but in title as well. According to Jacob Burckhardt, "in 1496 he boasted that the pope Alexander was his chaplain, the Emperor Maximilian his condotierre, Venice his chamberlain, and the King of France his courier, who must come and go at his bidding." (Burckhardt, p. 44).

After the unexpected death of Charles VIII in 1498, Louis, duke of Orleans became Louis XII, king of France. He initiated the second phase of the Italian Wars by acting on his hereditary claim and invading Milan, driving out Ludovico in 1499. The Moor and his loyal supporters took refuge at Innsbruck, the court of Maximilian and Bianca. Ludovico returned to Milan with an army of Swiss mercenaries in February of 1500. After the siege of Novara, he was taken prisoner and died in a French prison in 1508, after an attempt to escape.

Many of the Italian powers saw the dangers of Ludovico’s conduct - one contemporary compared him to "a man who set loose a lion in his house to catch a mouse." Despite his Machiavellian political strategies, intrigue, and power brokering, Il Moro is mostly famous for commissioning Leonardo da Vinci's “Last Supper” (1497).

Sources for Further Reading:

A Renaissance Court: Milan Under Galeazzo Maria Sforza (Gregory Lubkin)
A History of Milan Under the Sforza (Cecilia Ady)
Beatrice d'Este (Julia Mary Cartwright Ady)
History of Italy (Francesco Guicciardini)The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (Jacob Burckhardt)

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