Saturday, 30 April 2011

That time of year again

"Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale
Her infinite variety..." 
- Anthony and Cleopatra, Act II, Scene II

Last year, when this blog was still in its early days, I began a series of day-by-day accounts of the downfall of Anne Boleyn, beginning with her final public appearance as a free woman on May 1st and ending with her tragic execution on May 19th. 

I was absolutely blown away by the response of readers and the level of interest, not just on this blog, but on others too This year I will be re-posting links to the original articles from May 1st to May 19th, and commenting on the comments readers left, as well as anywhere where I think my research or opinion might have changed since last year.

I hope you enjoy them. If that's the right word!

Friday, 29 April 2011


"Be who God meant you to be and you will set the world on fire."
- Saint Catherine of Siena, quoted in today's wedding sermon

In his commentary for the BBC on today's happy events, the historian Simon Schama, author of A History of Britain and Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution, himself a one-time socialist, remarked that in the midst of a zeitgeist which holds that this is a generation which does not value tradition or sentiment, the Royal Wedding was a grand refutation of that theory. As one million people surged down the Mall towards Buckingham Palace to cheer the couple's first appearance on the balcony, Schama stated the obvious when he said that the idea that this is a totally cynical generation obsessed with the individual must take something of a battering today. He also, thankfully, took a swipe at those who claim such outpourings of public sentiment are childish or naive, saying that it is a celebration of community, of nationhood and of sentiment. And that's a good thing.

As a family, we got up this morning at seven to watch the BBC's coverage of the event, beginning at eight. Shortly after the broadcast started, the news was broken that Her Majesty The Queen had bestowed on her grandson a title from each of the three peerages in the monarchy - England, Scotland and (northern) Ireland. His Royal Highness was to become Duke of Cambridge, Earl of Strathearn and Baron Carrickfergus and I will be blogging on the historical background of those three titles later. For us, it was a wonderful moment to see the Prince getting married in the uniform of the Irish Guard which, of course, his late great-grandmother Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother had such a strong association with and which he himself is Colonel-in-Chief of. 

It was an absolutely wonderful day for all of us watching. It made me proud to be British and proud to be a monarchist. Without sounding too smug or triumphalist, I don't think there is another country in the world whose government could have commanded scenes like today. One million people surging calmly and happily down the Mall, having queued in some cases for days to be a part of today's historical events. It's just wonderful and I can't wait for next year's celebration of the Queen's Diamond Jubilee! I remember watching the Golden back in 2002 and promising that I would be there with my friends and the people I loved in 2012 to celebrate. Apart from anything else, it was so much fun and it's great to have days like this. The royal couple are so obviously in love and the smiles they shared, as well as the giggle from the new Duchess of Cambridge after her second kiss, was great to watch. I really enjoyed myself. The coverage was excellent and some of the interviews with the assembled crowd were by turns moving and hilarious. 

Wearing a tiara loaned to her by the Queen and carrying a bouquet of forget-me-nots which she will lay on the tomb of the Unknown Warrior later today, Princess Catherine looked timelessly elegant in her Sarah Burton-designed wedding gown. The music was magnificent and it was touching to see on the parade's return to the Palace that every time her husband, who is a member of the Armed Forces, saluted his comrades, the Princess bowed her head in respect. The couple repeated this action when they passed the Cenotaph memorial to the Glorious Dead and they saluted men and women who died in the defence of the nation. Seeing the Prince and Princess's actions, I was reminded of only a few months ago of the actions of others - when rioters swung from the memorial's flags. 

When the Queen returned from Westminster Abbey (where I thought the Bishop of London delivered a fantastic sermon), she turned to one of the footmen and said happily, "It's amazing." And, in more ways than one, it is. After all the smug criticism and the repeated carping in the press and from armchair intellectuals of "the tarnished crown," after years of being told that republicanism is a self-evident truth and anyone who is a royalist is either a snob or an idiot, it is amazing to find that people don't actually believe everything they're told. Billions tuned in from all over the globe to celebrate and millions thronged the capital city in a display of public happiness that you quite simply couldn't get from another political system. Proud, happy, fun - just a great, great day. Which I hope everyone reading this enjoyed too.

To Their Royal Highnesses, a very happy day and many congratulations. The love and affection between them was quiet but obvious. This was a wonderful moment and I am very happy.

Wednesday, 27 April 2011

The Sixth Catherine

On Friday, Catherine Middleton will be marrying into the British Royal Family and one day, God willing, becoming our country's queen consort and the sixth to be called Catherine. I have already blogged a little about this on my Popular blog, but I thought I would post some information here on the five other Queen Catherines in British history. And to wish everyone a great royal wedding day!

Catherine de Valois (1401 - 1437)
Queen of England 1420 - 1422

Wife of King Henry V and mother of King Henry VI

Married into the English Royal Family at the Cathedral of Saint Peter and Saint Paul in Troyes, France on June 3rd 1420

Parents: Charles VI, King of France and his queen, Isabeau of Bavaria-Ingolstadt

Born: Hôtel Saint-Pol, Paris, October 27th 1401

Died: In childbirth at Saint Saviour Abbey, London on January 3rd 1437

Buried: Westminster Abbey, London

Immortalised in Shakespeare's play Henry V, Catherine de Valois was a picture perfect medieval princess, with ivory white skin, long golden hair and delicate, beautiful features. Her marriage to King Henry V in 1420 symbolised the English military triumph over France, although it survived only marginally longer than Catherine's own marriage. She was left a widow at the age of twenty-one following her husband's death on military campaign and she was sidelined from affairs of state by the regency council set up to rule in the name of her infant son, Henry VI. Bored and lonely, the Queen Mother later eloped with a Welsh chamberlain, Owen Tudor, and by him had three more sons and became the grandmother of the first Tudor king, Henry VII. Tragically, the so-called "bride of peace" died at the age of thirty-six and, as the king's mother, she was buried in Westminster Abbey. In a macabre twist, her body was exhumed during the reign of King Charles II and found to be perfectly preserved, whereupon the famed diarist, Samuel Pepys, stole a kiss from the dead queen's lips.

Katherine of Aragon (1485 - 1536)

Queen of England 1509 - 1533

First wife of King Henry VIII and mother of Queen Mary I

Married into the English Royal Family twice. Her first husband was Arthur, Prince of Wales, who she married at Saint Paul's Cathedral, London, on November 14th, 1501.  She later married King Henry VIII at the Church of the Observant Franciscans in Greenwich on June 11th, 1509.

Parents: Ferdinand V, King of Aragon and his wife Isabella I, Queen of Castile

Born: The Episcopal Palace at Alcala de Henares, Spain, on December 16th, 1485.

Died: Kimbolton Castle on January 7th 1536 of cancer

Buried: Saint Peter's Cathedral in Peterborough, England.

Katherine of Aragon was a Spanish princess who won her subsequent fame for being the first of Henry VIII's six wives and for her heroic stance against his divorce of her in the 1530s. Originally married to his brother, who died during an outbreak of the plague in 1502, Katherine's marriage to Henry was initially opposed on these grounds by various conservative clergymen, despite the Vatican's dispensation of Old Testament Law. The marriage of Henry VIII and Katherine of Aragon was conventionally satisfactory by contemporary royal standards, with Katherine being well-equipped by both upbringing and personality to carry out the duties of a queen with dignity and confidence. A string of pregnancies ruined her figure and she was deeply humiliated when the King elevated his bastard son to the title of duke, which Katherine took as an insult to both her and her daughter, Princess Mary. She resisted Henry's attempts to divorce her in favour of Anne Boleyn - a stance which won her praise and condemnation in equal measure. She was praised for her tenacity and courage, but also later blamed for having allowed her attachment to her royal status blind her to the wider implications of her stance for the Catholic faith in England. A devout Roman Catholic, Katherine was horrified by her husband's break with Rome and the establishment of the independent Church of England. She was banished from court in 1531, stripped of her title in 1533 and she died with great dignity after an agonising battle with cancer in 1536.

For the death of Katherine's first husband, click HERE.
For Katherine's portrayal in movies and television, click HERE.
For an account of Katherine's own death in 1536, click HERE.

Catherine Howard (?1523 - 1542)
Queen of England 1540 - 1542

Fifth wife of King Henry VIII

Married into the English Royal Family at Oatlands Palace in Surrey on July 28th, 1540.

Parents: Lord Edmund Howard and his first wife, Lady Jocasta Howard (née Culpepper.)

Born: Sometime between 1522 and 1525 in southern England

Died: Executed in the Tower of London on February 13th, 1542

Buried: The Tower's chapel of Saint Peter-ad-Vincula

The eldest daughter of an impoverished aristocrat, Catherine was brought to court as a lady-in-waiting in 1539 through the patronage of her uncle, the Duke of Norfolk. Petite and flirtatious, she caught the attention of the middle-aged monarch almost immediately and he began making serious advances to her in the Easter of 1540. As soon as his divorce from his fourth queen was finalised that summer, he married Catherine in a private ceremony and immediately showered the young woman with gifts. Fun-loving and extravagant, Queen Catherine had no interest in politics, but her family had many enemies and when allegations concerning her private life surfaced in the autumn of 1541, those enemies capitalised on the scandal shamelessly. Allegations that Catherine had not been a virgin at the time of her marriage led to wider investigations and a letter discovered in the bedroom of the noted womaniser, Sir Thomas Culpepper, suggested that she had been unfaithful after the marriage too. Abandoned by friends and family, the poor girl was executed on a cold morning in February 1542.

For an account of Catherine's lavish fashion tastes, click HERE.
For the on screen portrayals of Catherine Howard, click HERE.
For an account of Catherine's execution in 1542, click HERE.

Katherine Parr (1512 - 1548)
Queen of England and Ireland 1543 - 1547

Sixth wife of King Henry VIII

Married into the English Royal Family at Hampton Court Palace on July 12th, 1543.

Parents: Sir Thomas Parr and his wife, Lady Maud Parr (née Green.)

Born: In 1512, probably in the south of England

Died: As a result of post-natal complications at Sudeley Castle on September 5th, 1548

Buried: Sudeley Castle Chapel

The daughter of two courtiers, Katherine was married twice before coming to court herself in 1543. Both marriages ended in widowhood but the Dowager Lady Latimer, as she was when Henry VIII began courting her, had a reputation for elegance, charm, intelligence and diplomacy. Despite this, her marriage to the King brought her many enemies, who despised her devotion to the Protestant faith. Her zeal in promoting evangelical theology almost lost her the King's favour and it was only by supplicating herself entirely to his will that she was able to survive the crisis. After Henry's death, she married again to the ambitious and seductive Lord High Admiral, Thomas Seymour, who broke her heart when he attempted to seduce (and possibly molest) her teenage stepdaughter, the future Queen Elizabeth. Pregnant with Seymour's child, Katherine died in childbirth at the age of thirty-six.

For Katherine's position as Queen of Ireland, click HERE.
For movie and television versions of Katherine, click HERE.
For an account of Katherine's death, click HERE.

Catherine of Braganza (1638 - 1705)
Queen of England, Scotland and Ireland 1662 - 1685

Wife of King Charles II

Married into the British Royal Family at the Church of Saint Thomas Becket in Portsmouth on May 22nd, 1662

Parents: João IV, King of Portugal and his queen, Maria-Luisa of Medina-Sidonia

BornVila Viçosa in Portugal on November 25th, 1638

DiedBelém Palace, Portugal on December 1st, 1705

BuriedThe Hieronymites Monastery, Belém, Portugal

Described by her mother-in-law, Queen Henrietta-Maria, as "a saint," Catherine was demure, gentle and devoutly Catholic. Her enormous dowry helped bolster the British Empire's expansion in India and she is credited with popularising the habit of drinking tea in England. However, her failure to produce a living child after four miscarriages led to calls from many courtiers and politicians for her to be set aside. This was something the King refused to do, despite his numerous public adulteries, which Catherine endured with great dignity. Despite her childlessness and his unfaithfulness, King Charles and Queen Catherine were relatively happy together and cared for one another deeply. She was faithful to him whilst he lived and to his memory after he died. Her quiet devotion to her Catholic faith led to her being targeted during the outburst of hysterical sectarianism known as the "Popish Plot," but as with the divorce crisis earlier in the reign, she weathered the drama gracefully. She may very well have been instrumental in helping with her husband's alleged deathbed conversion to Catholicism in 1685. The widowed Catherine returned to Portugal in 1692, after her religion again earned her public disapproval from the Protestant regime of William III and her niece, Mary II. Faced with the nervous breakdowns of her brother, King Pedro II, in 1701 and 1704, Catherine assumed the regency and lead the Portuguese government with great skill, despite having no formal political training. She was widely mourned when she died in 1705.

For an account of her husband's womanising, click HERE.

Sunday, 24 April 2011

Eva Perón: The Public Death of a Legend

The first sign that all was not well with Argentina's controversial First Lady came when she did not attend the Flag Day ceremonies in Buenos Aires on June 19th, 1952. When she failed to appear at any of the festivities for Argentina's Independence Day three weeks later, her millions of devoted followers began to get agitated. Initially, the government's doctors tried to downplay rumours that Evita was seriously ill and instead claimed that she was simply recovering from exhaustion. However, news that Evita had left Buenos Aires and was instead lying in a sickbed in the Quinta de Olivos, the presidential countryside palace, soon leaked to the press and by the end of the second week of July, Argentina was tottering on the edge of a communal nervous breakdown at the idea that the President's thirty three year-old wife might be about to die.

In Congress, fifty-nine politicians made impassioned speeches praising Evita's patriotism, her devotion to the cause of Peronism and her tireless care for the Argentine poor. Mafalda Piovano, a female politician recently elected to Congress thanks to Evita's campaign against male-only suffrage, collapsed during her speech and screamed out, "Oh God, we beseech you to return to Eva Perón the health she sacrificed to save us!" Then, Congresswoman Piovano fainted and by the time she had regained consciousness, the President of the Chamber, Hector Campora, was proposing that Congress bestow upon Evita the new title of "Spiritual Leader of the Nation." The motion passed.

Out in the streets, the reactions of Evita's followers - her beloved "descamisados" - was even more frenzied. It would be wrong to characterise their devotion to her as simply the displaced religious loyalty of simple peasants, dazzled and manipulated by Evita's beauty and glamour. Undoubtedly, there was an element of that; the story of Eva Perón is one of history's great rags-to-riches stories and to the Argentne working-classes there was something almost magical about the farmer's daughter from Junín who had become model, then movie star, then first lady. Always dressed in the height of fashion, for half a decade Evita was glamour personified for many of Argentina's disadvantaged. However, she was not just loved for her beauty and the Dior-stocked wardrobe she flaunted at every public appearance. She was also applauded for her role in supporting a woman's right to vote and, most importantly of all, for her work with the Eva Perón Foundation. Having commandeered the entire Argentinean social welfare programme during her husband's first term in office, Evita had transformed it into a charitable foundation with her name on it and then authorised one of the most extensive expansions of social welfare in modern history, despite a global recession. Capitalising on her own celebrity, Eva encouraged Peronists to donate generously to the foundation and even insisted that all employed workers give one day's wage to the foundation per calendar year. The money kept rolling in and with access to both the treasury and donations from her supporters, Evita had been able to turn the foundation into one of the biggest charitable enterprises in human history. Allegations that she was siphoning off funds to a secret Swiss bank account are almost certainly untrue and if money was deducted for expenses, it must have been tiny in comparison to what was being handed out. A more valid criticism was that the foundation was contributing to the national deficit and that Evita had become so completely convinced of her identity as saviour of the nation's poor that she was basically, and sometimes literally, throwing money at anyone who asked for it, in a wasteful, recession-bolstering display of government over-spending. For Evita, of course, none of this mattered. She wasn't an accountant, nor did she have any interest in anything that even smacked of criticism. She was adored, she was loved and everywhere she went, she was mobbed by hysterical crowds. Of all the many people who believed in the legend of Eva Perón, it's difficult to imagine a more zealous believer than Evita herself. 

The work and the criticisms of the Foundation and Peronism's social welfare programme are dramatised below in the song And the Money Kept Rolling In from the 1996 movie adaptation of the movie Evita, starring Antonio Banderas as the narrator and Madonna as Eva Perón. Aside from Madonna's physical resemblance to the real Evita, I think this song brilliantly captures the tidal wave of enthusiasm surrounding Eva's charity and social welfare programmes. People before profit or gross fiscal irresponsibility?

It had been the eighteen or nineteen-hour days she had been putting in overseeing the foundation and making public appearances, coupled with the exhausting work of helping her husband campaign for a second term in office, which had made Evita ignore the aches and pains she had been experiencing for the best part of two years. By the time her aides finally convinced her to take some time off for a check-up, it was too late to do anything to treat the cancer which would kill her. She made her last public appearance on June 4th, 1952 to stand by her husband's side as he was sworn in as President of Argentina for another six years. Juan Perón had won by a landslide, with sixty-six percent of the popular vote. But it was much more Eva's triumph than Juan's. Perón's numbers had come from the fact that for the first time in Argentina's history, women were allowed to vote, thanks in part to the First Lady's constant lobbying. Many of these first time voters had been voting for the First Lady, not the President. And throughout the presidential swearing-in, the entire chamber could hear the sound of one hundred thousand spectators outside chanting "Viva Evita!" The re-elected president's name was hardly mentioned at all. 

"Vision" (2010)

Novelist Elena Maria Vidal reviews the new German language film Vision, about the life of Saint Hildegard von Bingen, "one of the most extraordinary figures of the Middle Ages, Hildegard was not only a mystic but an author, a musician, a foundress and a director of souls, learned in the natural sciences as well as in theology and philosophy."

It sounds fantastic and it's wonderful that attention to medieval customs and details have been included in the movie. I'm definitely planning to watch it. 

The trailer can be watched below.

Saturday, 23 April 2011

April 21st, 1509: The Death of Henry VII

The death of Henry VII was, in many ways, the real death of the Middle Ages in England. No era ever truly dies, of course, unless it has been violently truncated, but having been born in a Welsh castle in 1457, Henry VII was the last leader of the nation to be born in what could indisputably be deemed the British Middle Ages. His path to the throne had been dangerous and his eventual triumph in 1485, when he won the crown in hand-to-hand combat at the Battle of Bosworth, had been improbable to say the least. In many ways, had it not been for the lethal incompetence of the House of York and the Machiavellian schemes of his mother, Henry Tudor might never have returned from exile in France, let alone seized the throne.

For the defeat and death of Richard III at Bosworth, Henry VII has never quite been forgiven by modern day adherents of the former, known as Ricardians. It's difficult, frankly, to see why, given that Richard himself had been more than capable of prosecuting similarly bloody conflicts against his own rivals in days gone by. Both Richard and Henry were products of the violent and duplicitous generation in English history known as "the Wars of the Roses," a name which endows the era with a poetic loveliness that it absolutely does not deserve. When the occasion called for it (and many times when it did not), Richard and Henry, as well as many of their contemporaries, were quite prepared to perpetrate deeds which violated the laws of church, justice and modern sensibilities.

Whatever one thinks of its beginnings, Henry VII's twenty-four year reign must be judged a political and fiscal success. Through shrewd and often dishonest manipulation of both the judiciary and the taxation system, the King had broken the power of the aristocracy, which had swollen to lethal proportions during the civil war. He had restored good government to his native Wales, he had ended definitively the possibility of the Rose conflict re-starting and he had left the monarchy secure, respected and, for the first time in a generation, solvent. By any impartial standards, Henry VII had been a successful monarch - intelligent, resourceful, determined and sober-minded. What he had not been was popular. And proof of this was given by the almost obscene euphoria with which the public greeted the accession of his son and replacement, the seventeen year-old Henry VIII.

Henry VII had been ailing since the spring of 1507, when he had apparently given up on the idea of marrying the Dowager Queen of the Naples, Giovanna. He had only been fifty at the time, but it was rumoured about the court within weeks that the King was suffering from consumption. The middle-aged monarch's health had become so frail that in Easter 1507, Candlemas 1508 and July of the same year, there had been very real fears that he was about to die. He rallied every time, but with each brush with death, the King became more and more devout. Perhaps tortured by the memory of the dishonest and amoral methods of financial extortion that he and his government had used to re-stabilise both the monarchy and the economy, Henry spent the winter of 1508 and the spring of 1509 performing penance. In his will, he insisted that any subject who had been unfairly squeezed by illegal taxation or fined unjustly by the government should be repaid and he left enough money for ten thousand Masses to be said for his soul in Purgatory. He pardoned all minor criminals and cancelled all existing fines owed to the Treasury lower than the sum of £15. On March 24th, the King collapsed and was taken to his bed. Within a week, the Venetian ambassador to London heard that there was no doubt that Henry was now "utterly without hope of recovery." 

Friday, 22 April 2011

Good Friday in the days before the Reformation

Stephanie Mann, author of Supremacy and Survival, chronicles the spiritual significance and the ceremonies associated with Good Friday in pre-Reformation England on her website.

"Good Friday was a solemn day of fasting and mourning in English Catholic churches before the English Reformation. The sacramental reality of Jesus's redemptive suffering and death were commemorated by the ritual of "Creeping to the Cross" which compares to our current form of Venerating the Cross as one of the four parts of the Good Friday service. There is no Mass celebrated on Good Friday. We read the Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ from St. John's Gospel, offer sung Petitions, Venerate the Cross and receive the Pre-Sanctified Communion, reserved from Thursday's celebration of the Lord's Supper. We enter in silence and depart in silence, but during the Veneration, we hear the Improperia or the Reproaches as we venerate the Cross."

Click HERE for Stephanie's full post.

Thursday, 21 April 2011

Happy 85th Birthday, Your Majesty

Today, Her Majesty The Queen turned eighty-five and she marked the anniversary of her birth by attending the Maundy Thursday service at Westminster Abbey to mark the Thursday of Holy Week, when the Church traditionally remembers the Last Supper and Christ's arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane.

It's hard to believe The Queen is eighty-five, given the rigours of her daily schedule and the number of political engagements she undertakes every year. The BBC news report of the Queen's visit to the Abbey for the service, including the Monarch's annual bestowal of charity on the elderly, can be accessed by clicking HERE, where you can also see a video of Her Majesty, the bishops and the congregation interacting inside the Abbey.

For this blog's discussion of the history of the Christian festival of Maundy Thursday, including its ancient association with the British monarchy, please click HERE.
"Perhaps one of the most interesting Maundy Thursday customs originates here in the United Kingdom, when the monarch bestows alms or "Maundy Money" on a group of pensioners - one for each year of the Sovereign's life. A special church service is held in a cathedral in either England or Wales, where the Queen hands out specially-minted coins to a group of pensioners, who have been invited to the service by local authorities...
The custom itself dates back to the time of King Edward I, who ruled England from 1272 until his death in 1307. He was also the conqueror of Wales, hence the custom of using Welsh cathedrals for the Maundy services as well. From then, until the deposition of King James II in 1688, the main part of the tradition was for the monarch to humble his- or herself by washing the feet of the twelve local paupers who had been gathered for the service, along with bestowing generous amounts of charity upon them. The washing of the feet was done to imitate Christ's act of loving humility, when He washed the feet of His own apostles at the Last Supper. Bearing in mind how filthy the feet of a pauper in the Middle Ages would have been, the royal Maundy traditions indicate just how passionate a hold Christianity had over the hearts and minds of people in that era....
In its original form, the practise was last carried out in England on Maundy Thursday 1688 ... Queen Mary II, who instituted the current tradition of the money being handed out to the elderly, rather than the poor, which continues to this day."

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Michael II: The Real Last Tsar?

"Left-liberal and Soviet propaganda for years maligned and dismissed the only act Michael signed on March 16, 1917 in response to his brother´s declaring him the Emperor of Russia. They called it a yet another abdication following the one by Nicholas. In fact, it was far from it. In his Manifesto Michael declared his readiness to assume the supreme power contingent upon the decision of the Constituent Assembly on the best form of government for Russia. He stipulated the Constituent Assembly to be elected through universal, direct, equal, and secret ballot. He thus introduced to Russia the most democratic electoral law anywhere at the time, including the US. He finally empowered the Provisional Government to run the country until the Constituent Assembly was elected."
Via Tea at Trianon comes a debate about the alleged "reign" of Tsar Michael II, who was initially nominated to succeed his brother Nicholas II during the February Revolution of 1917 before apparently refusing the throne unless his succession was ratified by the Duma and empowering the Duma to rule Russia until the elections for the Constituent Assembly were held - a move which, then and now, has led to Michael been blamed for the final ruination of the monarchy in Russia since Russia was declared a republic, which lasted until the Bolshevik coup in October. With Michael II ruling for a day in 1917 and Michael I being the first Romanov tsar, elected in 1613, some historical enthusiasts have claimed that the House of Romanov began and ended its rule in Russia with a Tsar Michael.

Michael's most recent biographer, Donald Crawford, asserts that Michael did not, in fact, abdicate and that the Duma's actions were an illegal parliamentary coup. That may very well be true, but if we're playing that game then it's also worth bearing in mind that the process by which Michael had inherited the crown in the first place was also more or less illegal. Nicholas II had every right to abdicate for himself, but he did not have the right to abdicate for his twelve year-old son, Alexei, who should have acceeded as Tsar Alexei II the moment the ink was dry on his father's signature. Citing fears over the boy's health and a worry that  once he became emperor, Alexei would be separated from the care of his parents, (a separation which would almost certainly kill his mother), Nicholas insisted that he be allowed to relinquish the claims of both himself and his son in one go and pass the throne to his brother, Grand Duke Michael. For years since, the legality of Nicholas's decision has quite rightly been contested and although now it is nothing more than a historical curiosity (much like styling Michael as "the last tsar," in fact), if monarchist purists are right and Nicholas II's second act of abdication was illegal, then everything that happened within the Imperial Family in the February Revolution of 1917, including Michael's so-called accession, becomes a good deal murkier.

Referring to Grand Duke Michael as Tsar Michael II seems to me to be the kind of absurd game of armchair politics which royalists are unfortunately renowned for and it's particularly infuriating when it reaches the level it does within French and Russian monarchist circles. If one is following the laws and rules of monarchy, then the inheritance of the doomed French crown from Louis XVI to Louis XVII in 1793 or the toppled British ones from Charles I to Charles II in 1649 flow with perfect and indisputable logic, as long as one is only insisting upon it as a de jure inheritance. The transition from Nicholas II to Michael II has no such assurances, either legally or culturally. In any case, it's certainly an interesting historical debate for an evening and I'm grateful to Elena Maria's always superb blog for bringing this debate to my attention.

For me personally, referring to Michael's legacy as 'worthy of any tsar' seems a bit dubious. If he was emperor, he ruled for less than twenty-four hours and his actions throughout the last crisis of the Russian monarchy to date were almost criminally weak, especially at a time when a show of decisive strength had been more necessary than ever. In Michael's defence though, I suppose everyone is wise with hindsight. 

Writing Meredith Harper

"These days, bitching is low-fat, decaffeinated and kick-free. Worse than that, it is, above all, phoney. Though the great bitches of Hollywood were dressed to kill and magnificently shallow, there was something incredibly honest about them - whether they were real, like Bette Davis, or imaginary, like her character Margo Channing in All About Eve. In the old days, a bitch came on with all guns blazing, talons sharpened and a neon sign a mile wide above her head... She may have been a gold-digger, a back-stabber or a ball-breaker - but she was never a hypocrite. She got a tremendous kick from being a bitch and didn't care who knew it."

On my other blog, I talk and joke about an article that helped inspire the creation of the lead character in my novel Popular. 

Click HERE for the article.

Monday, 18 April 2011

The problem with Međugorje

The small town of Međugorje in western Bosnia-Herzegovina has arguably become the greatest site of Catholic controversy about modern belief in the miraculous. Over the centuries, Catholicism has been no stranger to debate (and often violent disagreement) from within its own ranks about the veracity of various claims of miracles, prophecies and apparitions. Lourdes, Fatima, Knock, Padre Pio and Annaliese Michel have all provoked furious internal discussion within Catholicism about what bits, if any, of these alleged spiritual phenomenons are genuine and what bits, if any, are false - either deliberately or accidentally.

But even within the catalogue of Catholicism's often uneasy relationship with claims of the miraculous, Međugorje has touched a nerve. For those unaware of the story, in 1981 two local Catholic teenagers, Mirjana Dragicevic and Ivanka Ivankovic, claimed to have seen a vision of the Virgin Mary. The following day, four of their friends returned with them to the site outside the town where the Virgin had allegedly appeared, to see if Mirjana and Ivanka's story was true. On that day, Maria Pavlovic, Jakov Colo, Vicka Ivankovic and Ivan Dragicevic, all claimed that Mary had appeared to them, too. After making their claims, the six alleged visionaries were cross-examined by a Franciscan Father Bubalo and, since then, they have claimed that the Virgin has been repeatedly but intermittently appearing to them, transmitting messages for people to do penance, fast and pray more often. As with Lourdes, the influx of pilgrims has transformed Međugorje's local economy, turning it into one of the centres of the Balkans' tourist industry.

Unlike his predecessor, the current Pontiff, Pope Benedict XVI, has long been suspected of being sceptical about the shrine at Međugorje, but in 2008 he blessed a statue of Our Lady of Međugorje, sometimes also known as "the Queen of Peace," despite the fact that the Church has yet to formally rule one way or the other on the authenticity of the shrine's claims. Interestingly, however, the Vatican has prohibited priests from making a pilgrimage to the site, once they are ordained and in March 2010, the Vatican announced that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (formerly known as the Supreme Sacred Congregation of the Roman and Universal Inquisition) would be investigating Međugorje, under the leadership of His Eminence Cardinal Ruini. One bishop who certainly will not be speaking in Međugorje's favour is the Vatican's former exorcist, Bishop Gemma Andrea, who, in this article via Tea at Trianon, savages Međugorje's claims and goes even further, claiming that the shrine is sinister in origin.

We will have to wait for the Congregation's official findings, but the bizarre, fascinating, often unsettling story of Međugorje has not yet reached its climax.

Friday, 15 April 2011

April 15th, 1912: The Sinking of the RMS "Titanic"

Today marks the ninety-ninth anniversary of the sinking of arguably the most famous ship in history - a 46,000-ton British passenger liner, the Titanic. Built in Belfast by the city's famous Harland & Wolff shipyards, Titanic was the second in a trio of sister ships built for the White Star Line between 1911 and 1915. Her elder sister, the Olympic, had garnered most of the lion's share of press attention for her maiden voyage in May 1911, but there had still been significant enough media interest when the Titanic set sail from Southampton on April 10th 1912, when her high quota of wealthy passengers allegedly led her to being nicknamed "the Millionaires' Special." At the time, she was the largest moving object on earth, eclipsing her big sister by just over one thousand tons thanks to the partial enclosure of the promenade deck and the addition of an  à la Carte restaurant and Parisian-style cafe for the first class passengers. 

Four days later, after stop-overs in Cherbourg, France, and Queenstown, Ireland, the Titanic had collided side-on with an iceberg, resulting in over 300ft of the 882ft-vessel being opened to the freezing Atlantic waters. In keeping with the Board of Trade regulations at the time, the Titanic had woefully few lifeboats for the number of people on-board and due to the initial slow-moving tilt in the sinking ship and the fact that many of the passengers and crew had slept right through the collision, which caused no more than a shudder in most parts of the liner, many of the lifeboats initially left less than half-full.

The collision had occurred at 11:40 p.m. on Sunday April 14th and, as it approached 2 a.m., it became more and more clear to those still trapped on-board that the ship was doomed. As she began to sink further and further beneath the eerily calm waters, bow first, people began to hurl themselves overboard or rush to the stern as it slowly lifted out the ocean. According to an old but, I think believable, legend, the ship's band played the hymn Nearer My God To Thee, as the largest and most luxurious liner in the world disappeared beneath the waves.

Over fifteen hundred people perished when the Titanic sank on her maiden voyage; the seven hundred survivors were picked up at dawn by the Cunard liner, Carpathia, en route for a Mediterranean cruise. My late great-grandfather, who worked as a 7 year-old boy in the shipyards, could remember walking out into the streets of east Belfast on the morning of April 16th 1912 to see his father and all the great, burly men of the yard he worked with, huddled outside the local Presbyterian church sobbing at the news the ship they had built from scratch had sank with the loss of so many lives. Today, a memorial to the Belfast engineers who gave their lives trying to keep the power (i.e. light and heat) going for as long as the Titanic sank, sits outside Belfast City Hall.

Below is one of the most moving dramatisations of the Titanic's final moments from the 1958 movie A Night to Remember, produced by William MacQuitty, a Northern Irish movie producer who had actually seen the original Titanic launched in Belfast back in 1911. A Night to Remember is my personal favourite movie about the Titanic disaster and I would recommend it to anyone. 

Monday, 11 April 2011

April 10th, 1512: The Birth of James V, King of Scots

My friend Claire at The Anne Boleyn Files marks the anniversary of the birth of King James V of Scotland, son of King James IV and his English queen, Margaret Tudor.

For my account of James's death in 1542 and the birth of his daughter, Mary, Queen of Scots, click HERE.

"Choose Goodness": Reflections on the murder of Constable Kerr

The recent murder of Catholic policeman, Ronan Kerr, has sparked revulsion across Northern Ireland, the United Kingdom and the Irish Republic. Across Ulster, protests and marches were held by the people to show their overwhelming rejection of the dissident IRA's murder of Constable Kerr, by a car bomb last Saturday. They have been known as "peace marches."

Speaking at Constable Kerr's (25) funeral at the Church of the Immaculate Conception in Beragh, County Tyrone, His Eminence Cardinal Brady, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Armagh and the Primate of All Ireland, give the Catholic Church's unequivocal condemnation of the killing: -

"Parents and grandparents, I beg you: plead with your children and with your grandchildren not to get involved with violence. Never let them be deceived by those who say that Ireland will be united or the Union made more secure by war. They are wrong. It is an illusion. Violence has nothing, absolutely nothing, to offer except misery and destruction."

He called the dissident republicans' killing "an offence against God," and implored them, in God's name, "to choose goodness, choose peace." As a sign of how far the nation has come in the last decade, members of Constable Kerr's local Gaelic Atheltic Association (GAA) carried the coffin half the way to the cemetery, before yielding to officers from the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI.) One was once a byword for Irish republican sentiment; the other once seen as the incarnation of official Unionism in Northern Ireland. Now, they helped carry the body of the same person to Saint Patrick's Cemetry. Amongst those carrying the coffin from the GAA was local sporting legend and manager of the Tyrone GAA, Mickey Harte, who only a few months ago tragically lost his only daughter, Irish beauty queen and newlywed Michaela, when she was murdered by robbers on her honeymoon in Mauritius. Tyrone is burying two young people in a short period of time; both senselessly and needlessly murdered.

The funerals of Michaela McAreavy (seen right with her father  on the day of her wedding) and Constable Ronan Kerr were attended by all members of the community and leaders of both "sides" in scenes unimaginable only a few years ago. The current First Minister of Northern Ireland, Peter Robinson, leader of the strongly Unionist and right wing D.U.P (Democratic Unionist Party), sat near the prime minister of the Irish Republic, Taoiseach Enda Kenny, whilst the Moderator of the Presbyterian Church, Dr. Norman Hamilton, exchanged kind words with Cardinal Brady after the Requiem Mass. Former loyalist paramilitary, Jackie McDonald, attended, along with the leaders of Sinn Fein, Martin McGuinness and Gerry Adams. The world has changed.

After Constable Kerr's death, his mother, two brothers and sisters made an appeal for information and to encourage Catholics who have joined the police force not to be intimidated by the dissident IRA's threats to punish them for being "collaborators" with the British. Mrs. Kerr speaks with dignity, despite the tormented grief you can see in the faces of her children. And I think I would speak for the vast majority of my countrymen when I say that prayers for Mrs. Kerr, her surviving children and, of course, for Ronan, would be very much appreciated. RTE and The Daily Telegraph's coverage of the funeral can be seen below.

Saturday, 9 April 2011

April 9th, 1649: The Birth of a Royal Bastard?

1649 was the year that Charles II lost a father and gained a son. It had been less than three months since his father had been executed on the orders of a rebel parliament, dominated by Oliver Cromwell, and in the  moment that Charles I ceased to exist, in the eyes of millions the dead king's eighteen year-old son became Charles II, By the Grace of God, King of England, King of Scotland and King of Ireland. To them, the republic recently declared in the British Isles was both illegal and blood-stained.

The abolition of the British monarchy at the end of one of the most destructive and brutal civil wars in European history had scattered the surviving Royal Family to the winds. Charles himself was living in the Netherlands, where his eldest sister, Mary, had married the Prince of Orange and provided asylum for Charles when he was forced to flee England and lead the royalist resistance abroad. They had been joined by their second brother, fifteen year-old James, a strikingly handsome blond who was already being eaten up with cancerous hatred for parliament's murder of his father. Two of their siblings, thirteen year-old Elizabeth and eight year-old Henry, both of whom had been with their father on the day of his execution, were still being held in a republican jail in England and the youngest, four year-old Minette, had been smuggled out of England by a loyal palace servant and brought safely to Paris, where she was reunited with her grieving mother, Queen Henrietta-Maria.

To say that Henrietta-Maria was devastated by her husband's murder is something of an understatement. The bright and vivacious French princess who had been Charles I's wife for twenty-four years was now, at the age  of thirty-nine, a widow. In her heyday, Henrietta-Maria had been the first lady of a court celebrated for its elegance and its patronage of the arts. She had also been demonised in parliamentarian circles for her Catholicism, her foreign birth and her antipathy towards democracy. She had been unfairly blamed by parliamentarians for leading her husband into a rift with Parliament and thereby causing the civil war. Charles I needed no encouragement to believe in the cause of absolute monarchy and, in any case, Henrietta-Maria had taken absolutely no interest in politics for most of her married life. She had all-but worshipped the ground her husband walked on and Catholic and French envoys had often been frustrated by the Queen's refusal to recommend a policy which she thought her husband might not like to hear.

The news that her beloved husband had been beheaded outside the banqueting hall of the royal family's favourite London home was broken to Henrietta-Maria on a January evening by her Master of the Horse, Henry Jermyn. Whilst her servants collapsed weeping hysterically around her, Henrietta-Maria did not speak or move. It was only when her childhood friend, the Duchesse de Vendôme, came to visit her, hours later, that Henrietta-Maria, now the Queen Mother, collapsed shrieking and moaning with 'her extreme grief.' She sent news to her sister-in-law, the Queen Mother of France, that her husband's death 'had made her the most afflicted woman on the wide earth.' For days and even weeks after Charles's execution, Henrietta-Maria had sat hugging the hands of her ladies-in-waiting, piteously declaring: 'I have lost a king, a husband and a friend, whose loss I can never sufficiently mourn, and this separation must render the rest of my life an endless suffering.'

Under the circumstances, it was understandable that Henrietta-Maria, who was usually so omnipresent (even occasionally overbearing) in her children's lives was apparently unaware that her eldest had just impregnated his most recent mistress. The Queen Mother was in any case uninterested in her son's bed hopping and was instead focussing all her attention on trying to get her children, Elizabeth and Henry, released from Cromwell's prisons. She was also distracted when Paris itself erupted in riots aimed at overthrowing the government, which brought back terrible memories of the days when London too had first been convulsed by protests. It would be months before the indomitable Henrietta-Maria had recovered her fighting spirit and galvanised herself to endure any sacrifice and any pain to ensure that the cause of the monarchy triumphed in the end. 

Meanwhile, in Rotterdam, the young and exiled Charles II was forced to confront the fact that he had become a father. Had his father still been alive, it is hard to imagine how the devout and monogamous King would have reacted to his son's womanising. Charles I had never taken a mistress, either before or during his marriage, and he expected his sons to do likewise. Charles II, however, enjoyed sex far too much to adhere to his father's moral code. Furthermore, he enjoyed the company of women, both inside and outside of the bedroom and he was of the cheerful persuasion that God would never damn a man for seeking a little pleasure. The eighteen year-old prince had certainly not been a virgin when he first seduced Lucy Walter, a beautiful Welsh socialite. But then, neither was she.

Lucy Walter, the daughter of a wealthy Welsh landowner, was the same age as Charles II and she had led a similarly adventurous romantic life. Described by the writer John Evelyn as a beautiful, flirtatious but stupid brunette, Lucy had enjoyed several lovers after her family's home had been ransacked and destroyed by Cromwell's armies during the civil war. Her first lover whose name we know for certain was Lord Algernon Sidney, a republican. She later left Algernon's bed for that of his younger brother, Robert, a royalist. Unlike his brother, who had sided with parliament during the Civil War, Robert was a colonel in the royalist army and he was eventually forced to flee abroad to Holland when the monarchy was overthrown. With her family's fortune destroyed and little chance of it being reclaimed under a republican government, Lucy followed Robert into exile and the two lovers were re-united in Rotterdam, quickly picking up where they had left off. It was through Robert that Lucy first met Prince Charles, who became her lover within days of being introduced.

Not long after they first slept together, Lucy discovered that she was pregnant and both she and Charles seemed fairly insistent that he was the father. However, some of Charles's court-in-exile were less convinced. In the first place, what had been a minor royal love affair when Lucy first announced her pregnancy had suddenly become something much more significant when the act of regicide in London turned Lucy's lover from a prince into a king. The eyes of the world were now fixed upon the exiled House of Stuart to see what they would do next and it was not exactly ideal for them to see the young king parading around town with his disreputable mistress proudly flaunting her swollen belly. 

Secondly, there were many in Charles's entourage who were by no means certain that he was the father of Lucy's baby. There is little to suggest that Lucy broke off her fling with Robert Sidney once she began sleeping with Prince Charles; Charles himself hadn't minded sharing. He had no intention of being faithful to her; why should he demand the same of her? Whatever his faults, Charles II did not preach a sexual double standard to his mistresses and in the seventeenth century, that is surely to his credit.

This controversial baby, born in a private house Lucy was renting in Rotterdam, was a boy, which made the debate about his paternity even more important. He was christened James, a good Stuart family name, and, at Charles's insistence, christened a Protestant too. In time, when his throne was restored to him, Charles II showered lands and titles on the boy he affectionately called "my Jimmy" - he became Duke of Monmouth, Earl of Doncaster, Earl of Dalkeith and Baron Scott. He was also to marry Anne, Duchess of Buccleuch, one of the great society heiresses of the 1660s, thereby acquiring a second ducal title.

Given all that, it seems clear that Charles II believed himself to be baby James's father. But was he? Many in the court-in-exile quite simply didn't believe Lucy and believed she had been able to get away with it because everybody else was too busy with other things to investigate her claims properly. Had Charles's mother Henrietta-Maria been in a more observant emotional state, it's highly unlikely that the out-spoken and refreshingly frank queen would not have queried the various holes in Lucy's story. For instance, the baby had been born only seven months after Charles's arrival in the Netherlands. Yes, premature babies then and now were possible, but considering the fact that Lucy had also been sleeping with Robert Sidney for months before Charles reached The Hague, wasn't it far more likely that he was the father? Years later, when his most notorious mistress, Barbara Villiers, presented him with a string of bastard children, Charles chivalrously acknowledged two of them - Anne and Benedicta - as his own, even though it is almost certain that he was not their biological father. Charles II was too moved by the sting that bastardy left on a child in the seventeenth century and he knew it was a sting which only a royal father might alleviate that he put his name to at least two children that were not his out of kindness. Might James Crofts have been the first?

We shall never know if Charles II was really the father of James Crofts. Many at the time believed he wasn't and several of those who insisted that Robert Sidney was the baby's sire were perfectly well-placed to know the truth. Against that, however, must be weighed the fact that Charles himself gave every appearance of believing the baby was his. Chivalrous he may have been, but if he had really thought that James was not his child, it is difficult to believe he would have given him so many aristocratic titles in the years after the restoration of the monarchy. Equally, of course, it is quite possible that both theories are correct - Charles believed he was the father but those around him who believed Sidney was were correct in their suspicions.

The love affair between Charles II and Lucy Walter soon fizzled out and both moved on to other conquests. In Lucy's case, more men and in Charles's, the attempted liberation of Scotland from the republican armies. Lucy later moved to Paris, where she enjoyed a string of lovers, but died at the age of twenty-eight, possibly from tuberculosis. Years later, some of her acquaintances would claim that she had once told them that during her stay in Rotterdam, she and Charles had secretly been married. By the time the story surfaced in England, Charles II was back on the throne and actually married to a Portuguese princess, Catherine of Braganza. Charles and Catherine had not married until 1662, four years after Lucy's death, which meant that even if the stories of a clandestine marriage were true, it did not affect the legality of Catherine's marriage. However, as the years passed and Queen Catherine failed, time and time again, to produce a living child and King Charles gallantly refused to divorce her, the rumours that he had once been Lucy Walter's husband took on a more sinister significance. Because of the Queen's childlessness, the King had no other legitimate children and if he had married Lucy Walters at the end of the civil war, didn't that mean that their child was now the rightful heir to the throne?

Tragically and stupidly, the young duke (above) seemed to believe this story and he grew more and more obsessed with the idea that he was his father's heir. The fact that he might not even have been King Charles's biological son, let alone his legitimate one, was conveniently forgotten. When Charles II died of kidney failure in 1685, the throne passed to his brother James, a convert to Catholicism who now inherited the throne as King James II. Buoyed along by his deluded (or feigned) belief that his parents had been married, despite the fact that neither he nor anybody else could find any documentation to prove his theory, Monmouth rose in rebellion against his uncle. Many supported him - eager to see a Protestant king instead of a Catholic one. The rebellion failed and on July 15th, four months after his alleged father's death, James, Duke of Monmouth was gruesomely and incompetently beheaded in the Tower of London. It took over five blows to severe the head of a man who may, or may not, have been the first-born son of the "Merry Monarch."

Monday, 4 April 2011

"Gone with the Wind" (1939)

On my other blog, I continue with a look at some of my favourite movies - and how could I leave out Gone with the Wind?

"Manipulative, brazen, deceitful and often spiteful, Scarlett O'Hara is also flirtatious, ruthless and monumentally self-absorbed. Yet, somehow, she is undoubtedly the heroine everyone is cheering for throughout Gone with the Wind's four hour extravaganza. As romance after romance fails and the lavish lifestyle of the Southern upper-classes is swept away when the South loses the Civil War in 1865, Scarlett proves that whilst she is a woman likely to hurl herself onto her bed weeping for days when she doesn't get her own way about what dress to wear to a party, when it comes to the major catastrophes of life, she is definitely the ultimate survivor. Surveying the ruin of her homeland in the aftermath of the Civil War, Scarlett vows that if she has "to lie, steal, cheat or kill" she will overcome the poverty and chaos which has swallowed up the life of wealth and privilege she once enjoyed."
You can read the full reflection, here.

"Marie Antoinette" (1938)

Over on my other blog, promoting my forthcoming novel Popular, I've started a series of short articles on some of my favourite movies. In chronological order, of course. I started with the brilliant MGM epic Marie Antoinette, staring Norma Shearer (above) in the title role.

"... with its leading lady, Marie Antoinette gives by far the most accurate and honest dramatisation of Marie-Antoinette yet seen on screen. As a young woman, she is certainly frivolous, extravagant and "terrified of boredom," but she is also warm-hearted, friendly, honest and kind. Most importantly, Marie Antoinette captures what more modern versions of her life have failed to show - that as she grew up, she possessed a dignity and regal self-assurance that even her enemies commented upon. Given that Norma Shearer manages to convincing play Marie-Antoinette from a naive but well-intentioned teenager to an heroic but heartbroken widow, it's easy to see why so many people praised the performance."

To read the full article, click here.

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