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Posted in Archaeology, Castles, Historical articles, History, Legend, Myth, Royalty on Friday, 7 March 2014
This edited article about King Arthur first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 585 published on 31 March 1973.
“Then there was a great battle, and King Arthur slew many with his sword, Excalibur. By dusk the enemy had fled, and the king led his Knights of the Round Table in triumph back to Camelot . . . .”
So for years the hero-king has ridden through the story books, ruling with the help of a band of fearless knights pledged to the task of keeping the peace and seeing justice done. But was there ever such a man? And if he is fact, not fiction, when did he reign? And where was Camelot?
The search for Arthur and his Camelot has been keeping historians busy for the last hundred years, although only recently has the pace quickened to a full scale exercise in historical detection.
At first, the doubters claimed it was easy to dismiss the whole story as a fairy tale. After all, the Knights of the Round Table all wore armour and spent their spare time jousting, which clearly set their period at around the 14th century. And whoever heard of a King Arthur the First living then? Equally suspect was the point that many of his knights’ adventures had been told and retold in France since earliest times with absolutely no mention of any English king and his castle at Camelot.
The facts certainly seemed to support the non-believers. The story of the Knights of the Round Table came to us from the pen of Sir Thomas Malory, a rather shadowy figure who died in 1471. His book was printed by Caxton 14 years later, and the great printer himself seems to have had his doubts, for he wrote in the preface “Sir Thomas Malorye did take out of certyne bookes of frensshe and reduced it to Englisshe.”
And if that was what Caxton believed, what was the point of trying to prove otherwise? Obviously, the good Sir Thomas had written one of the first best-sellers, a kind of medieval James Bond. And that was that.
After several hundred years scholars suddenly woke up to the fact that the name of Arthur and his followers kept cropping up in the most unlikely places. In the 11th century Black Book of Carmarthen, for instance. In the History of the Britons, compiled in the 9th century by the Celtic monk, Nennius, and in William of Malmsbury’s Acts of the English Kings. Someone even found a 12th century carving in an Italian church that showed Artus de Bretani (Arthur of Britain), Galvagnus (Gawain), Che (Kay) and others storming a castle where Mardoc, or Mordred, held Guenevere a prisoner. All of which dated back to long before Sir Thomas Malory’s Morte d’Arthur was written.
The evidence pointed to only one explanation: that although Malory had undoubtedly collected his stories from a number of sources and knitted them all together within the framework of the Round Table, the stories themselves were the products of ancient romancers. But the people in the stories were a different matter. Certain statements were repeated so often that it seemed probable that they had really lived.
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Posted in Castles, Historical articles, History on Wednesday, 5 March 2014
This edited article about Prussia first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 578 published on 10 February 1973.
Indomitable Baron Trenck struggled painfully back into his chains in time for the guards' visit
The Star Fort was a massive citadel in Magdeburg, one of the major cities of Prussia. As a prison it had gained an infamous reputation. It was to this place, in 1754, that Baron Frederic Trenck was brought. Wrongly branded as a traitor, he had been imprisoned but managed to escape and elude recapture for ten years. Now he was under close custody again. He was taken down into the depths of the Fort and thrown into a dungeon.
Baron Trenck was not a man to accept captivity readily. He immediately set to work to tunnel a way out of his cell. But freedom was not to be won so easily. Even while Trenck was hard at work laboriously trying to burrow his way out, King Frederick of Prussia visited Star Fort. He inspected Trenck’s cell. Certainly all seemed to be in order, but he knew that Trenck was a resourceful man. What was more, he was a traitor and deserved a more severe punishment.
So King Frederick ordered a new dungeon to be specially built, the like of which had never been seen before. Six months later it was ready. Trenck had not had time to complete his tunnel, and his back-breaking efforts had therefore been in vain. He was taken under heavy guard and escorted to his new cell.
His real ordeal was about to begin.
Baron Trenck was a member of one of the most famous Prussian families. While a boy he became an army cadet and was soon promoted. Before long he was living the luxurious life of a Prussian officer in Berlin.
Trenck had a cousin who was an Austrian. At that time Prussia was at war with Austria. Nevertheless, knowing that his cousin was a rich man, Trenck rather foolishly wrote to him asking if he would lend him some of his fine Hungarian horses since his own had been captured in action.
His cousin replied by returning Trenck’s own horses. He also wrote a letter suggesting that Trenck should desert the Prussian Army and join him in Austria. Again Trenck made a foolish blunder. He showed the letter to his commanding officer.
His Prussian comrades were already suspicious. It was unheard of to have the spoils of battle returned. It was also unthinkable that a Prussian officer should correspond with one of the enemy even if they were related. And now, seeing the contents of the letter, Trenck’s commanding officer decided that there was enough evidence to suggest treason.
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Posted in Castles, Famous crimes, Historical articles, History, Religion, War on Tuesday, 4 March 2014
This edited article about the Borgias first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 577 published on 3 February 1973.
Cesare went to war again, this time fighting for the King of Navarre by Angus McBride
The heavily armed Spanish soldiers rode close beside their richly dressed prisoner and his few servants, but there was scarcely need for so strong a guard. The prisoner lolled on his horse, still weak from his recent illness. He was barely able to grasp the saddle, and one of his servants had to hold the reins of his horse. Certainly, he had not the strength to give spur to his horse and make a last desparate bid for escape.
The party journeyed across the barren, windswept plain towards the walled city of Medina del Campo. But, instead of entering the city gates, they turned off and climbed the steep rocky slope that led up to the high outer walls of the Castle of La Mota. The password was given and the drawbridge lowered. The party clattered across it, past the guard house and into the inner courtyard. The prisoner and his servants were bundled from their horses and across to the great door. They were pushed inside and the door was slammed shut.
The infamous Cesare Borgia was a prisoner of the Castle of La Mota, a place whose great tower and high walls prevented all hope of escape.
The Borgias were a Spanish family who had come to Rome from Valencia. Rodrigo Borgia, himself the nephew of a Pope, was appointed Pope in 1492, styling himself Alexander VI. In those days, it was not uncommon for Popes to have families, and Rodrigo was no exception. He had four children. He was a man of great ambition not only for himself but for his family as well. He wanted them to have power and estates. His eldest son, Juan, was given the Dukedom of Gandia. For his second eldest son, however, Rodrigo had other plans. He wanted him to enter the Church, and so he made him a Cardinal. This son was Cesare Borgia, a man who had little liking for the Church, but who shared his father’s greed for power. Because of this, he greatly resented the wealth and possessions that were being bestowed on other members of his family, and he was particularly jealous of his older brother, Juan.
Cesare’s brother had married into the royal house of Spain. His sister, Lucrezia, had married to become an Italian princess. And all Cesare had was the position of Cardinal. But Cesare Borgia was making his plans.
It was a Wednesday evening in June. Cesare and his brother, Juan, had attended a banquet. They left together. That was the last time Juan was seen alive. A few days later his body was taken from the river. He had been stabbed nine times. Cesare was now the eldest son. His father was forced to release him from his position as Cardinal and let him take his place in the outside world.
But Cesare Borgia still yearned for power. For a while he went to France and stayed at the court of King Louis XII. Here the King agreed to arrange a wealthy marriage for him if, in return, Cesare Borgia would help him by leading a French Army to regain the regions of Naples and Milan, which had previously belonged to France. Cesare agreed and so married Charlotte, sister of the King of Navarre.
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Posted in Castles, Historical articles, History on Monday, 3 March 2014
This edited article about the Fortress of Bitche first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 576 published on 27 January 1973.
Donat O'Brien escapes the fortress of Bitche
In May 1803, Great Britain declared war on France and so began the long period of the Napoleonic War. Many thousands of British fighting men were taken as prisoners-of-war during the years that followed. These prisoners were housed in various prison depots throughout France. Officers and men were separated, the officers usually enjoying more comfortable conditions.
However, once a prisoner misbehaved, there was a different fate in store for him. Misbehaviour was usually defined as an attempt to escape, and prisoners who did try to escape were sent to punishment prisons. Usually these were ancient fortresses that had been hurriedly converted. Here officers and men were herded together to serve their sentence.
The worst, by far, of these converted fortresses was that of Bitche, set in eastern Lorraine. It was estimated to be the strongest fortification in France at that time and virtually escape-proof. It was built on a high summit, its grim walls were several feet thick and its dungeons were hollowed out from the hard rock that formed its foundations. It was to this awesome place that many prisoners-of-war were sent for punishment. One such prisoner was Donat O’Brien.
Donat O’Brien was a senior midshipman serving on the Hussar. In February 1804 his ship was wrecked off the Brittany coast. O’Brien, together with some of the ship’s officers and crew, managed to make it to Brest in an open boat. Here they were immediately taken prisoner and forced to march 500 miles through bitter weather and over bad roads. When they reached the town of Givet they were placed in the Charlemont fortress. Here O’Brien remained for four months until the French decided that his rank entitled him to be treated as an officer. O’Brien was then removed to the comparative comfort of the main prisoner-of-war depot at Verdun. O’Brien was then aged only nineteen.
This young midshipman was not one to accept captivity readily. He longed for freedom. So he made his plans and one night, along with three others, he managed to scale the high walls and make a run for it. They were seen but managed somehow to shake off their pursuers. But their progress was slow because they did not know the country and it was further hampered when O’Brien wrenched a knee trying to jump a ditch. But eventually they came within sight of sand dunes and the English Channel – only to find the French waiting for them.
They were taken prisoner again and sent back to Verdun, chained together and with their hands shackled. They were immediately sentenced to a term of imprisonment at the dreaded fortress of Bitche.
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Posted in Castles, English Literature, Famous landmarks, Historical articles, History, Politics on Friday, 28 February 2014
This edited article about the Prisoner of Chillon first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 574 published on 13 January 1973.
The Chateau de Chillon and Bonivard were immortalised by Lord Byron in his poem The Prisoner of Chillon, by Harry Green
The Lake of Geneva is a long crescent-shaped stretch of water with Switzerland on its northern side and the Savoy region of France to the south. Many famous places lie along its shores – Lausanne, Vevey and Geneva itself – places that are visited by tourists from the world over.
Towards the eastern end of the lake, past the resort of Montreaux, stands the Chateau de Chillon, a building that has a far darker history than its beautiful surroundings would seem to suggest.
The Chateau de Chillon dates back to the seventh century, but it was not until about 1250 that it was expanded to become an impregnable fortress. Subterranean dungeons were hewn out of the massive rock foundations. On three sides, the castle rose sheer from the icy waters of the lake. Its fourth side faced towards the cliff that towered above the shore. This side was strengthened, and the roadway between the lake and the cliff was narrowed, so that at most only two horesemen could ride abreast along it. A heavy gate was built across the path leading to the castle.
The Chateau de Chillon had been made impossible for an unwelcome intruder to enter – or for an unwilling prisoner to escape from – a prisoner such as Francis Bonivard.
In those days, the Savoy district of France was a separate country ruled over by its warrior dukes and counts. They looked upon Geneva as part of their territory by right, although the people of Geneva would have preferred to ally themselves with the neighbouring states in Switzerland. But as long as the people of Geneva stood alone, the dukes of Savoy were too strong for them. So revolutionary groups began to be formed, people who made plans for the day when Geneva would be free of the chains of Savoy. Francis Bonivard was one such person.
Francis Bonivard was born in 1493. His uncle was the prior of the monastery of St. Victor in Geneva and, when he died, Bonivard took over the position. It was really a position in name only, offering a good salary and little in the way of duties. Bonivard used his salary to further his own education, travelling and studying law. When he was about twenty-five he joined the “Children of Geneva,” a young political, group who seemed to be more enthusiastic than sensible, for their main activity was to swagger round the town shouting “Down with the Duke of Savoy!”
The following year, the Duke of Savoy visited Geneva to wipe out this talk of sedition. Bonivard’s closest friend was caught and beheaded as a warning to others. Bonivard himself left Geneva disguised as a monk, but he was betrayed and imprisoned by the Duke of Savoy for two years.
“Never again shall I endure the horror of imprisonment,” Bonivard vowed. He little realised that a far worse prison was waiting for him.
When Bonivard was released, he found that his position as Prior had been taken from him. He was friendless and without money. He decided to fade from sight until the right moment came once again to try to help Geneva gain its independence.
After a few years, his position as Prior of St. Victor was restored to him. But the position was one thing, money another. The money had previously come in the form of rents collected from estates in Savoy. These had ceased. So Bonivard now built up his own private army and went to war. He would sally forth, striking without warning, and conducting a form of amateur guerilla warfare. However, the people of Geneva became worried by his activities, fearing reprisals from Savoy. They persuaded Bonivard to stop, offering him instead a small yearly income from the city exchequer.
But Bonivard had already gone too far. The Duke of Savoy now had other plans for him!
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Posted in Castles, Famous crimes, Historical articles, History, Politics, Royalty on Friday, 28 February 2014
This edited article about Richard II first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 573 published on 6 January 1973.
Richard II is surprised by his murderers at Pontefract Castle
Parliament was assembled in Westminster Hall. The most important Lords in the land gravely presented a long list of charges against the King, Richard the Second. Then Henry, Duke of Hereford and first cousin to the King, stepped forward. “The King is not fit to rule,” he said. “I claim the throne. It is mine by right of succession and popular demand.” At the same time, a mob of people who had been waiting outside, swept into the Hall, shouting their hatred for Richard. The Duke of Hereford was quickly proclaimed King Henry the Fourth of England.
A deputation went to the Tower of London where Richard lay in prison. The deputation informed him that Henry was now King and that Richard was to be imprisoned for the remainder of his life. Richard shrugged. It was as if he had lost all interest in what was happening.
A few days later, Richard was moved from the Tower of London. Because of the anger of the people against him, he was disguised as a forester. After days of weary travelling up through England, Richard and his armed guard came at last to the grim walls of Pontefract Castle in the West Riding of Yorkshire.
Here Richard was put into the custody of Sir Thomas Swinford who took him down to the castle dungeons. Richard was put into one of these and the door slammed shut behind him.
England was never to see its ex-King alive again,
Richard was the grandson of Edward the Third and came to the English throne when he was only eleven years old. During these early years England was in reality ruled by Richard’s uncles, and in particular by the Duke of Lancaster. The other Earls often quarrelled amongst themselves and with the King, but the Duke of Lancaster managed to act as a buffer between them. However, most of Richard’s reign was to be one long struggle for power between himself and his uncles.
England was at this time at war with France. The cost of this could only be met by taxing the people heavily. This was not popular, and eventually they rose in angry rebellion. A large number of them, led by Wat Tyler, marched on London. Lusting for blood, they pillaged and murdered, sweeping their way into London where they set fire to houses and put many eminent people to death.
It was time for Richard to show himself a true King. He realised this and rode out together with the Mayor of London to meet the rebels. At Smithfield he came face to face with the shouting mob. Wat Tyler quietened them and then rode up to meet the King. Angrily he started making demands. The King listened patiently. Eventually Wat Tyler started to become insolent and abusive. Immediately, the Lord Mayor, fearing for Richard’s life, pulled out his dagger and stabbed Wat Tyler to death. The crowd saw their leader fall and started to surge forward menacingly, but Richard rode his horse up to them and without any sign of fear said firmly: “I am your captain and your King! Would you shoot me, then?”
The crowd marvelled at his bravery and soon dispersed. The peasant revolt was all but over.
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Posted in Castles, Historical articles, History, Politics, Royalty, War on Wednesday, 26 February 2014
This edited article about Charles I and Carisbrooke Castle first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 571 published on 23 December 1972.
Charles I imprisoned in Carisbrook Castle
It was late afternoon on November 11th, 1647. The wind howled round the walls of Hampton Court Palace and the driving rain lashed against the windows. In one of the upper rooms, King Charles the First paced up and down impatiently. All the arrangements had been made. All he had to do now was to wait for night to fall.
King Charles had reigned for 23 years. He had been an extravagant and obstinate King. He had quarrelled with his Parliament, dismissed them, and governed without one for eleven years. This had been one of the reasons for the first Civil War, a war which had ended with King Charles surrendering to the Scots. They had handed him over to the English Parliament who had imprisoned him. Then a new dispute had flared up, this time between Parliament and the Army. The Army had seized King Charles and put him in this new prison at Hampton Court. Now the King had heard new rumours. He was to be murdered.
He went to the windows and pulled back the curtain. It was now dark outside. Quickly he drew his cloak round him and slipped from the room. The back staircase was unguarded. He made his way down this and out into the night.
Loyal friends and horses were waiting for him. They dug their spurs into their horses and galloped south. Twenty-four hours later they arrived at Titchfield on Southampton water. Beyond was the Solent and the Isle of Wight.
Word was sent secretly to Colonel Hammond, Governor of the Isle of Wight. King Charles knew that he might be sympathetic and asked for no more than to be allowed to stay in the comparative safety of the island while he negotiated with Parliament. Colonel Hammond agreed and he came in the boat to escort King Charles across to the island. They stayed that night at Cowes Castle. Next morning they travelled inland to the sprawling fortifications of Carisbrooke Castle, the Governor’s home.
Within a few hours, the party was clattering over the bridge that led across the dried-up moat into Carisbrooke Castle. King Charles thought that at last he had found a temporary refuge. He did not realise that he was riding into his own prison.
King Charles and his servants quickly settled in. Colonel Hammond appeared friendly. But Charles made a mistake, one of the many errors that he had committed during his reign. He secretly entered into an alliance with Scotland and at the same time he rejected the proposals that the English Parliament had sent to him. In doing so, he left Parliament and the Army no choice but to join forces again. And he also lost the loyalty of Colonel Hammond.
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Posted in Architecture, Castles, Famous landmarks, Historical articles, History, Science, War, Weapons on Wednesday, 26 February 2014
This edited article about castles first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 568 published on 2 December 1972.
Artillery Castles: the simplest was Camber Castle (top), made up of a 12-sided structure with a central tower, whilst Deal Castle (centre) was more complicated and built on three levels; (bottom) the round castle at Dover; pictures by Pat Nicolle
“Who is this man?” snapped Pierre d’Aubusson, Grand Master of the Knights of Rhodes of the Order of St. John.
“His name is Roger, Sire. He is an English sailor,” replied one of the knights. “He has a scheme to destroy the Turkish assault bridge.” At this the Grand Master pricked up his ears. Though he was a busy man organising the defences, d’Aubusson was particularly interested in anything that could stop another Turkish attack on the St. Nicholas Tower, the northern outpost of Rhodes’ defences.
For months the Turks had hurled themselves with incredible courage and ferocity at the walls of Rhodes. Their cannon had smashed ramparts, towers and battlements. Once they had tried to take the St. Nicholas Tower and this time they were planning to float across an assault bridge. But how did they intend to do it? Roger the Englishman had the answer.
“Sire, the Turks brought an anchor in secret across the harbour last night. They have now passed a rope through it and tomorrow they will haul their bridge across on the rope.”
“Two hundred crowns if you can get rid of that anchor!” boomed the Grand Master. And two hundred crowns Roger earned the following night, for he was a fine swimmer. Yet the Turks were not so easily deterred. They concentrated a barrage of artillery fire on the St. Nicholas Tower while thirty ships towed the bridge across. With ships, shouts, giant cannon and janissaries the Turks once more attacked. The walls of Rhodes crumbled – but the Knights of St. John drove back their fanatical foe until after three months of siege the Turks retreated.
The shattered fortress of Rhodes had survived, yet all Europe knew that this Christian victory had been won because the knights were as fanatical as their foes. The weakness of their fortifications in the face of artillery fire was plain for all to see.
During the 15th century Italy was in the front line of the war against the Turk. Then in 1494 Charles VIII of France rampaged through Italy and gave the Italians yet another reason to improve their defences. One of the best Italian fortification engineers was Michele San Michele and in 1520 it was he who came up with an entirely new idea – artillery bastions which he designed for the defences of Verona.
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Posted in Architecture, Castles, Famous landmarks, Historical articles, History, War on Tuesday, 25 February 2014
This edited article about castles first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 567 published on 25 November 1972.
(Top) Pierrefonds in France, owned by the Duke of Valois; (centre) Tattershall Castle in Lincolnshire, built in the early 15th century by the Lord Treasurer of England; (below) from a French illuminated manuscript showing soldiers attacking a Spanish town, by Pat Nicolle
“Hey – Leonello, there’s the little kitchen maid who likes you so much!” shouted a young man dressed in blue and yellow. Leonello blushed, and so did the kitchen maid who hurried away. The young men laughed. They always teased Leonello d’Este because he was the serious minded member of the gang. But Leonello took it in good spirits.
The Italians sauntered down the wide streets of Ferrara towards a great castle that dominated the city centre. This was the Castello d’Este, Leonello’s home. Leonello let them walk ahead. His friends were good company but Leonello had seen someone he wanted to talk to.
“Good day Master Guarino da Verona,” said the young man respectfully to an old gentleman who gazed thoughtfully at the brick-built towers of Leonello’s home. Guarino da Verona just nodded. They stood in silence for a while, the dashing young nobleman and his white haired teacher.
” ‘Tis a fine castle is it not? My grandfather must have been as proud to build it as my father is to rule it,” said Leonello.
Guarino da Verona merely grunted for he was of a philosophical turn of mind. “Yes a fine castle – a fine castle – but a sign of man’s stupidity that such things should be necessary in this world.” Leonello was a bit taken aback by this description of his huge home battlements, barbicans, bridges and moat. Of course people were not peaceful, he thought, and so castles were needed, and anyway this one was very handsome.
The 14th and 15th centuries were the age of the Renaissance when new ideas and learning were completely altering men’s attitudes. On a more practical level it was a time of great change. The nobility wanted to live in more comfort and enjoy a really civilised life. This was just as true in Britain and France as it was in Italy. Castles were originally meant to be strong places safe from attack but now their function as homes was growing more important.
Homely comfort is not easy to combine with defensive strength. One way to get round the problem is to make your defences as clever as possible rather than relying on brute strength. Many Italian Renaissance castles show this sort of cleverness. The Castello d’Este is in the middle of Ferrara town which means that its outer defences cannot stretch very far. On the other hand it is near an arm of the river Po, so the Castello d’Este relied a great deal on its moat.
The castle itself is a rectangular building around a central courtyard. Its four gateways are each defended by a separate tiny castle or barbican in the middle of the moat. Two of these barbicans are isolated from the castle while two are joined to the main structure by an archway over a drawbridge.
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Posted in Castles, Famous crimes, Historical articles, History, Royalty on Tuesday, 25 February 2014
This edited article about Edward II first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 566 published on 18 November 1972.
It was on a September evening in 1327 that a lone horseman galloped fiercely over the rough Gloucestershire roads. He had been riding since dawn. In the pouch at his belt there was a letter. He had been told that it was of the utmost urgency that it reached its destination as quickly as was humanly possible.
He breasted a hill and there in the valley below him was the village of Berkeley. Slightly beyond that, set upon a mound and surrounded by its moat, was Berkeley Castle, a huddled mass of cold stone ramparts.
By the time the messenger clattered into the courtyard, the sun had set. Men-at-arms with torches held his horse. A cloaked figure stepped from out of the shadows and asked on what business he had come.
“I have a letter for Sir John Maltravers,” the messenger panted.
“I am Lord Berkeley,” the cloaked figure said gravely. “This castle is my domain and you must give the letter to me.”
The messenger shook his head. His instructions were to hand the letter only to Sir John Maltravers. After a short delay he was taken to Sir John, a gaunt grim-faced man with cold, cruel eyes.
Sir John read the letter and then nodded. “The matter shall be attended to,” he muttered. Then he raised his head and stared at the messenger. “Do you know who it is we have as our guest at Berkeley?” he demanded.
The messenger had heard rumours that King Edward was being kept prisoner in the castle but from the look in Sir John’s eyes he thought he would be better advised not to mention this. “No,” he replied.
Sir John nodded. “It is better that you do not know,” he said, and he despatched the messenger to the village to find quarters for the night.
Edward II was born at Caernarvon and was the first English prince to bear the title “Prince of Wales.” He came to the throne in 1307 and a year later he married Isabella, daughter of the King of France.
His reign was not a happy one for England. Edward was pleasure-loving, and cared only for frivolous amusements and jests. He did not possess the sense of responsibility and leadership that makes a king. He cared only for his favourites, and this inevitably led to jealousy and petty squabbles within his kingdom.
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