Friday, 30 November 2012

"Trash written by trash": The Belgian royal family responds to its critics

A few weeks ago, I posted an article on how the British royal household seems to be getting sassier with unwarranted attacks on the royal family's private lives, after photographers invaded the privacy of the Duchess of Cambridge while she was on holiday in France. Now, it looks like Belgium's royal family is following suit. Prince Philippe, the Duke of Brabant, is the heir-apparent to the Belgium throne; he is a graduate of Oxford and Stanford, where he took his masters in political science. He has also served in the Belgian armed forces and one of his main priorities as heir to the throne is promoting Belgium's economy, representing the kingdom at over forty economic conferences. 

The Duke is married to Princess Mathilde (nee d'Udekem d'Acoz) and they have four children together - Elisabeth, Gabriel, Emmanuel and Eleanor. Recently, the couple have been the target of books and articles claiming that their marriage is a sham and that their children were conceived through artificial insemination. False interviews with the Duke's father, King Albert II, to substantiate these rather dubious claims, but both the palace and the couple themselves have retaliated by firmly rebutting the allegations. 

The blog Cross of Laeken, which is a fantastic blog that focuses on the Belgian royals, talks about these rumours and about the royal household's reaction to them. 

Thursday, 29 November 2012

Blues and whites


They're my favourite two colours together. Elena Maria Vidal's blog Tea at Trianon shows some of Marie-Antoinette's favourite combinations.

Hyde Park on Hudson


I haven't had a chance to see Hyde Park on Hudson yet, but I'm very excited to. It's based on the true story of the royal state visit to the United States by King George VI and Queen Elizabeth (our late Queen Mother) on the eve of the Second World War. Bill Murray plays President Roosevelt, with Laura Linney as his distant cousin, Margaret Suckley, Olivia Williams as the First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Samuel West and Olivia Colman as King George and Queen Elizabeth.

Taking a SHORT break from the Tudors

Regular, or even casual, readers will know that quite a bit of this blog is given over to discussion of the Tudors and sixteenth-century England. It's an endlessly fascinating era in human history and I've enjoyed, tremendously, sharing it  and discussing ideas, theories and feelings with people from across the world. I have enjoyed it tremendously, that is, until quite recently. When I see another e-mail about the Tudors, I wince slightly. And, believe me, one of the best things about this blog has been reading the comments the readers leave. They are a frequent highlight of my day or week. So it's not because I've lost my appetite for blogging in general, blog-writers, blog-readers or for Tudor history, but because so much of what's been online in the last few months, particularly about the Tudors and Plantagenets, has been aggressive or just downright stupid. Not in what they're saying about the Plantagenets or Tudors, but about the people who write, read or just have an opinion on them. A few illustrative examples: in the last few weeks, I have seen a good friend personally insulted because she dared to take issue with somebody's theory about Anne Boleyn's childhood. I saw a biography by a writer I respect and like very much shredded apart in an Amazon review, by someone who actually admitted that they'd hadn't read it. I myself have been inundated with e-mails and comments from people calling themselves "Ricardians," who don't believe me when I say that I was demonising neither them nor King Richard III. I was just expressing an opinion about how inappropriate I found the idea of a state funeral for him, for a variety of reasons. Mostly though, I'm just bored by the comments - smug, know-it-all or vicious - that are left all over the web by Tudor enthusiasts, particularly by those who choose to remain anonymous. It's a shame, because the majority of people I've met over the web who share a passion for Tudor history have been funny, intelligent, thirsty for knowledge and passionate. Some of the best articles I've written have been because I've been spurred on my this community's love for their chosen topic; some of the best opportunities I've had in my career have come from people who are excited by history. That's why I'm taking a short break; to clear my head of the nonsense and re-focus on what's so fantastic about this subject.
It was maybe the poisoned venom of the unnecessarily vicious book reviews that became the straw that broke the camel's proverbial back and made me decide to take a break from writing about the Tudors for a while. Maybe it's something that only someone who's a published writer themselves can fully understand; I don't think it is (although God knows I didn't quite grasp what it felt like to be the victim of an unfair review before my own book came out last July.) Bad reviews are par for the course - they come with the job and, let's face it, some of them are right. But unfair reviews are a different kettle of fish; they are something far more unpleasant. I did not agree with G.W. Bernard's 2010 biography of Anne Boleyn, but at least I read it and when I did review it, I pointed out what I did not agree with, a few editorial flaws and then acknowledged what was praise-worthy in his book. I don't know at what point so many people stopped being civil to one another, but it seems that the ill-mannered viciousness that runs through the Tudor royals' stories also runs through far too many of their modern-day fans. You can disagree with an idea and make that clear without belittling the writer. You can disagree strongly, even passionately, but stick only to the criticisms that are fair; the ones that actually merit getting angry over. Don't make things up or pick on things that aren't reflective of the book, e-book, article or blog-post. I know how much blood, sweat and tears goes into, or should go into, a book. It is far, far more work than one might expect and far more than I expected when I began writing for a career. You pour so much time, but also so much of yourself, into your books that while you don't expect people to like them, it's difficult not to feel angry on any writer's behalf when people dismiss them for reasons that aren't fair. I remember I was guilty of doing it when I was eighteen, in some thoroughly unpleasant reviews that I'm now ashamed of. Slating a bad movie is one thing, but shooting down a singular author seems somehow ungallant. I always think to myself: what if the author's checking their Amazon page or their GoodReads? I know they signed up for this when they became a writer, but is there really any need to insult a writer - or a blogger - and ruin their day? Manners, as they say, cost nothing.
Maybe this sudden decision has got nothing to do with Tudor enthusiasts, though? It's possible that I've just reached saturation level and that I need to clear my head before I return to researching a biography I'm working on of Henry VIII's fifth wife. Maybe my fatigue has made me less tolerant of the constant hustle of Tudor popular history? Maybe I'm only noticing how vicious it can be - sometimes - because now I'm actively looking for it? Who knows? Either way, it seems like it's time for a quick break from blogging about them, so I can focus on promoting my second novel, which is due out next week, and return to privately writing about the Tudors for my agent with impartiality, speed and to the best of my abilities.

I'll still be blogging about other topics, too, and Catherine should prove good company in the interim. 

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

A new biography of Catherine Howard

I have had a few e-mails and messages from people asking me to review or comment on Professor David Loades' new book, Catherine Howard: The adulterous wife of Henry VIII. Professor Loades is Emeritus Professor of History at the University of Wales and an Honorary Fellow of the University of Oxford's History Faculty. His work on the Tudor navy and on the reign of Queen Mary I was ground-breaking. More recently, Professor Loades has turned his attention to more popular biographies for Amberly Press and his contract with them has produced short studies on Henry VIII, the Boleyn family, Mary Tudor (Queen of France) and, now, Catherine Howard. Loades is a respected scholar and a world-renowned expert on Tudor politics. Some regular readers of the blog know that I studied Catherine Howard for my masters dissertation, hence why they asked me to review Professor Loades's new book.

However, since I have researched Catherine myself and I am currently in the process of writing about her, I didn't think it would be fair to critique Professor Loades's work myself. Tudor history is far too full of people who are keen to take pot-shots at others; indeed, history in general has that trait. Any criticism I have of Professor Loades might lead people to assume that I am only doing it to big-up my own work or to massage my ego. Any praise might lead people to think I'm being sycophantic. Neither would be the case. Books from good writers are always to be encouraged.

Thank you for asking me to review this book and good luck to Professor Loades with his new biography! To anyone who purchases it, I hope you enjoy it. Catherine's story is certainly a fascinating one and Professor Loades is a gifted scholar.

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

27th November 1830: The vision of Saint Catherine Labouré


Today the miraculous medal (above) is one of the most popular items of Catholic devotion. Its prayer of "O Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee" dates from 1830 and the visions associated with a young French nun called Catherine Laboure.

The year 1830 had not been a good one for French Catholicism - or, rather, it had not been a good year for the more devout and strict of its adherents. In July, the monarchy led by King Charles X was overthrown and replaced by a constitutional monarchy headed by the King's estranged liberal cousin, Louis-Philippe. The unpopularity of Charles X's government had been created not only by its draconian attitude towards the press and suffrage, but also because of its zealous devotion to state-Catholicism. There was a joke in France that Charles X's monarchy was government by priests and for priests. A few months, young Catherine Laboure claimed to have beheld two miraculous visions of the Virgin Mary around the time of the feast of Saint Vincent de Paul.

Catherine was a young and romantic girl, with a sensitive nature. Her mother had died at the age of nine and at her funeral, Catherine had allegedly gravitated towards a statue of the Holy Virgin, proclaiming, "Now you will be my mother." Later, she took the decision to become a nursing nun after she dreamed of Saint Vincent de Paul, who had founded the order Catherine subsequently joined. She was pretty, kind, hard-working, devout and gentle. Many of the sisters liked her for her goodness.

One night, Catherine awoke and claimed she heard the voice of a child calling her to the chapel. She went and later said that while in the chapel, she heard the voice of the Mother of God, which told her: "God wishes to charge you with a mission. You will be contradicted, but do not fear; you will have the grace to do what is necessary. Tell your spiritual director all that passes within you. Times are evil in France and in the world."

The second vision took place on Saint Vincent de Paul's feast day, when Catherine saw the Virgin Mary surrounded by an oval light (which is also depicted on the medal, above.) Around the margin of the oval, Catherine felt or saw the words of the prayer which all the medals now carry, too. The oval gave way to twelve stars - the number of stars accredited to Mary by the Book of Revelation. Catherine also claimed she had seen the letter M, surmounted by a Cross, with images of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Immaculate Heart of Mary nearby. The Virgin told Catherine to report these things to her confessor, who should have them made into medals.

It took Catherine's spiritual director two years to believe her. In that time, he watched her closely for signs of dishonesty or mental imbalance. He found none and in 1832, the first of the miraculous medals were made by a local goldsmith. Catherine continued her life as a nursing sister, but she modestly did not like to draw attention to the fact that she was the one who had beheld the visions which gave birth to the Miraculous Medals. She died in 1876 and she was later buried in the Chapel of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal in Paris. Her body was declared incorruptible in 1933; she was beatified in the same year and she was formally raised to the sainthood by Pope Pius XII in 1947. 

Sunday, 25 November 2012

Richard III and me

An article has appeared in The Washington Post about the debate surrounding the reburial of Richard III's alleged remains. In the very short time since it has gone up online, I have received several e-mails and comments asking me to clarify my views on Richard III, because in the article I am very briefly quoted as calling him out-and-out "a child-killer." I have also received several less-than-pleasant e-mails from die-hard Ricardians, because the article referred to me as "no friend to Richard III." To which I can only say: grow up.

To be quite clear, I bear no animus towards Richard III personally. When set in context, I actually pointed out that he has never been satisfactorily cleared of the charge of participating in his nephews' disappearance. That reburying him with a state funeral, when he could be guilty of such a crime would surely be a risk to the credibility of both the crown and the nation. There is, and there must be, a strong presumption of guilt when it comes to Richard III - as there would be on any responsible adult who was entrusted with the well-being to two teenagers who disappeared while in his care. The garish and often silly romanticisation of Richard III is something I find personally bizarre, but while it is my own opinion that he was complicit in Edward V's murder, I accept that there is room for debate. That room, however, cuts both ways and it should preclude us from either lionising or demonising the last Yorkist king.

In any case, if I could make a point to my unsought-for correspondents: simply because I do not agree with you does not mean that I was planted here by Satan or Margaret Beaufort to spin lies about Richard of Gloucester. I am not a friend of Richard III, no; my friends tend to have been born in the twentieth century, not the fifteenth. I did not, however, approach the question of his remains because I am in the pay of Henry VII; I answered it honestly. From my own studies - and I could be wrong! - I think Richard III did know about, and quite probably ordered, the murder of King Edward V and Richard, Duke of York, in 1483.

However, my point about all this is not to focus on whether or not Richard III actually did it, but to look at what it tells us about our own attempts to subvert and ignore the complexities of history in order to suit our own need for fairy tales, what ifs and conspiracy theories.

My articles on Richard III and the debate surrounding him are here: -






Saturday, 24 November 2012

24th November, 1326: The Execution of Hugh Despenser


On the twenty-fourth day of November, 1326, a sharp, glistening, silver knife sliced into the flesh of an emaciated man called Hugh Despenser, who had spent the last two weeks on hunger strike in a dingy county jail in Oxford. This man had once been one of the mightiest lords of his generation, enjoying the special favor of England’s king, Edward II. No-one looking at that poor, starving, screaming wreck of a human being could possibly have doubted the old Biblical saying, ‘O, how the mighty are fallen.’

Hugh Despenser was stripped naked by the time the assault on his body began. He had to be. The law had sentenced him to be castrated before being hanged and cut into quarters. Like most executions in the Middle Ages, Despenser's death happened in public. Executions were like a kind of theatre for the local population. Like bullfighting or dog-fights, a living creature was trapped in the centre of the ring and the spectacle would only be over once that creature had died in the most hideous and traumatic way imaginable. Medieval parents would often bring their children along to watch these executions. It set a good example for the little ones, because it showed them what could happen to anyone who broke the law, disobeyed the King or angered the Church.

A terrible scream tore from Hugh Despenser’s ravaged throat, in the same moment as an almighty cheer erupted from the crowd. The dying man had not been a popular figure with the general population. There were rumors that his relationship with King Edward had been much closer than it seemed; too close, some said. Even if it hadn’t been, Lord Despenser had been too rich, too powerful and too arrogant. It was fun for the good people of Hereford town to see someone so pompous being brought back down to earth. As the awful, terrible ritual of the castration continued, the crowd kept chanting and jeering and singing.

One woman, however, did not cheer or clap or cry as Hugh Despenser’s life was ripped from him. She sat on a specially-constructed viewing gallery and watched the death of her enemy with hardly any sign of outward emotion. She was strikingly lovely to look at; even if her sumptuous gown and jewels hadn’t made her stand out from the crowd, her beauty would have. Her skin was as white and smooth as ivory, her hair was sun-kissed blonde and her body was tight, trim and slender, even after four pregnancies. Her name was Isabella of France, Queen of England and Lady of Ireland. They called her ‘the beauty of beauties.’ She was thirty-one years old and it was she who had orchestrated Hugh Despenser’s execution.

Royal wives in the Middle Ages were expected to be gracious, loving, well-bred, obedient, merciful and charitable. No woman had ever ruled England in her own right; the only queens in English history so far were those who held their titles because they had married a king. It was men who were supposed to lead the government, not women. It was the queen’s job to obey him and to have babies who could carry on the family’s rule into the next generation. Some queens obeyed the rules; some did not. Isabella was the twelfth queen of England since the Norman armies had conquered the country in 1066 and in that time, there had been some remarkable women who wore the crown. There had been queens who were so intelligent that their husbands could not make any major political decisions without them. There had been queens who had been able to beg or bully favours from popes and warriors. There had been queens whose ambition for their children knew no limits. One queen of England was so intensely religious that she drank the dirty bath water used by lepers, hoping to imitate the loving humility of Jesus Christ. There had been queens who had married for love, some for money and many for politics. There had been beautiful queens, ugly queens, happy queens and miserable queens. Despite the constraints placed upon them by their title and by royal protocol, each had managed to carve out a life and an identity for herself. None, however, had done it quite like Isabella. She had schemed, she had lied, she had raised an army and driven her husband off the throne, and now she was watching the public torturing to death of the man who many, including Isabella herself, believed had been her husband’s lover. Even if Hugh hadn’t been Isabella’s competition for Edward’s love, he had still been competition for his money, land and power. And in Isabella’s books that was just as upsetting. Maybe even more so.

Far from being the crying effeminate weakling imagined by movies like Braveheart, Edward II had been tall, muscular and physically vital. Whatever his sexual preferences had been, he had done his duty by fathering four children with his beautiful French queen. Earlier on in his reign, Edward's lover, Piers Gaveston, was horribly murdered by rebels and Edward had nurtured a cancerous hatred of his nobles since that day. Increasingly tyrannical, he had alienated many of the upper classes and played into Isabella's hands. By the time he replaced Gaveston with the equally greedy and unpopular Despenser, Isabella was ready to liaise with her brother, the King of France, and her own lover, Roger Mortimer, to create a rebellion that would finally topple Edward from his throne and hand de facto power to Isabella and Roger. With Edward falling, Hugh Despenser soon found himself robbed of royal protection and defenceless in the face of widespread hatred. Few tried to save him when Isabella's army caught up with him and hurled him into jail. Knowing Isabella as he did, it says a lot that Hugh Despenser tried to starve himself to death rather than submit to her and her executioners. 

Hugh Despenser did not die an easy death. As he was hacked to pieces, Isabella hosted a small picnic in the viewing gallery for her friends and ladies-in-waiting. When, at long last, Hugh’s mutilated body lay dead, silently spewing blood into the cobblestones of Hereford marketplace, Isabella stood-up and left. At her command, the dead man’s head was taken back to London and displayed on a pike on top of Tower Bridge, as a symbol of the Queen’s power over her enemies. After two hundred and fifty years, an English queen had dared to seize power for herself. Her son, Edward, was only a boy and Isabella could hope to hold power until he reached adulthood. Slipping out of the gown she had watched Despenser’s execution in, Isabella changed into her dress for the evening, as the executioners cleared up the mess outside, made by the grizzly death of a man who had defied her.

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

21st November, 1920: Ireland's Bloody Sunday


Today is the anniversary of the so-called "Bloody Sunday" of 1920. It was a gruesome day in the middle of the Irish War of Independence, or the Anglo-Irish War, depending on one's terminology, in which thirty-one people lost their lives in a cycle of increasingly-unhinged violence. It was neither the first time, nor the last time, that such a thing would occur.

Since the end of the First World War, just over two years earlier, Ireland had slid inexorably into violence. Like most of Ireland's historical violence, it was presented as a conflict between two rival nations - Ireland and Britain - when, in fact, it bore all the hallmarks of a civil war. The failure of the republican Easter Rising of 1916 and the British administration's lethally incompetent, and cruel, repression of it had radicalised Irish nationalism and pushed many into the arms of the republican paramilitary movements. In the northern province of Ulster, Protestant hysteria at the proposed implementation of Home Rule for Ireland had led to widespread sectarian violence, particularly in rural areas, and there was little doubt in the British government's mind that any attempt to force the northern-most six counties to participate in any form of all-island independence would result in unparalleled civil unrest - if not a bloodbath. 

In the south, the who's who and the what's left of the Irish aristocracy, known as the Ascendancy, were quietly preparing themselves for the liquidation of their way of life and the whole island suffered through attacks and counter-attacks. In Dublin, the British-born and Ascendancy-related Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, Lord French, was struggling to hold on to power through increasingly desperate measures, all the while being undermined by the hunger strike-suicides of republican prisoners, republican-led spy-rings inside Dublin Castle, various attempts on his life and assassinations of numerous politicians, military service personnel and policemen. The main party of Irish republicanism, Sinn Féin, had been outlawed; many of its leaders were in jail. In retaliation, republicanism's military wings, like the IRA and the Volunteers, had carried out numerous night-time attacks. In Sligo, Mayo and Clare, the homes of the local aristocracy were torched to the ground, leading some of the Ascendancy to characterise the republican movement as the second coming of the French Revolution. The Volunteers' newspaper, An t Óglach, had declared that its supporters should used "all legitimate methods of warfare against the soldiers and policemen of the English usurper" and "slay them if necessary". The behaviour of a supplementary force of British ex-soliders, known as the Auxiliaries or "the Black and Tans," because of the colour of their uniforms, was borderline psychotic and capriciously cruel. Earlier in the year, they had burned the entire southern city of Cork to the ground, reminding many Irish nationalists of the dark legends of Oliver Cromwell and the inherent cruelty of the British.

It was in this environment of death, civil war, repression and reprisal, that Bloody Sunday took place.

Sunday, 18 November 2012

17th November, 1558: The accession of Elizabeth I


Mary Tudor's five-year reign came to an end at about seven o'clock in the morning of 17th November, 1558. The Queen was forty-two years-old and she had just finished hearing morning Mass. She had been bedridden for some time and, after Mass, the Queen had slipped into what, at first, seemed like a sleep. Her devoted ladies-in-waiting did not initially realise that Queen Mary had died. Twelve hours later, her friend and cousin, Cardinal Reginald Pole, the last Catholic Archbishop of Canterbury, passed away, as well. The queen and the archbishop's deaths removed the two great champions of English Catholicism in the space of a single day and this paved the way for Mary's Protestant sister, Elizabeth (above), to mount the throne and install her mother's former chaplain, Matthew Parker, as Pole's successor. Together, the new queen and Parker would try to find a via media, or compromise, to the thorny question of England's national religion, which Mary had died believing was a non-negotiable.

Elizabeth Tudor heard the news that she was now ruler over England, Wales and Ireland at her countryside palace of Hatfield. It had been hers since childhood and over the last few weeks, courtiers had begun migrating towards it, eager to prove their allegiance to the new queen, even as the old one lay dying at Saint James's. Elizabeth needed their support, but she was privately disgusted by their fecklessness. The Spanish ambassador, Count de Feria, who also visited her, was alarmed at the princess's confidence and her refusal to acknowledge that she owed any of her future success to her brother-in-law, King Philip II. Instead, she rather tartly informed de Feria that she would rule because of God's will and the people's love for her, not because of Spain's support. "She is much attached to the people," de Feria wrote, "and she is very confident that they are all on her side; which is indeed true." The councillors who arrived at Hatfield on the afternoon of the 17th found their new monarch underneath an oak tree; as they pressed Mary's coronation ring into her hands, confirming that Mary was dead and Elizabeth had succeeded, Elizabeth is supposed to have quoted the Bible in Latin, saying "This is the Lord's doing, and it is marvellous in our eyes." Later, as she called her first council meeting, she did manage to find some kind words to say about her late sister, before swiftly moving on to fire most of Mary's advisers. The new dominant power on the council would be Elizabeth's old friend and ally, Sir William Cecil, a convinced Protestant whom Elizabeth nicknamed "My Spirit," because she trusted his advice so implicitly. Meanwhile, back in London, the body of the old queen was prepared for its lying in state.

Elizabeth's ambivalent attitude to her predecessor was hardly surprising. The two sisters were separated by an age gap of seventeen years and Elizabeth's mother and Mary had been enemies back in the 1530s. Although there had been a point when Henry VIII's two daughters were apparently quite affectionate to one another, this sisterly solidarity had evaporated once Mary became queen in 1553. An early rebellion against her rule in 1554 had made Mary suspect that Elizabeth was in league with the rebels and the princess had spent some time in the Tower as a result, vehemently protesting her innocence. Elizabeth had then gone along with a shambolic fake conversion to Catholicism, during which time she often pretended to faint or groan while attending Mass - an attitude not designed to endear her to the deeply devout Mary. For most of Mary's reign, Elizabeth had either been under house arrest or in disgrace. It was an humiliation which Elizabeth felt keenly and she was not alone in assuming that it was only her popularity with the people, and the lack of evidence, which prevented Mary from punishing Elizabeth in the same way she had their cousin, Lady Jane Grey.

Elizabeth's prevarication and dishonesty was matched by Mary's pettiness. The Queen sank to a new low by telling everyone that Elizabeth was not really Henry VIII's daughter, but actually the biological love-child of Mark Smeaton, a young musician who had been executed for allegedly committing adultery with Anne Boleyn back in 1536. Smeaton had been tortured and then executed for the crime and his confession was used to send Elizabeth's mother and four other men to their deaths, as well. It was a ludicrous accusation, but mud, however unjustly flung, usually sticks. As queen, Mary proclaimed that she could actually see a resemblance between Elizabeth and Smeaton. Some historians have taken her claim seriously, but it's worth remembering that Mary Tudor could never actually have met Mark Smeaton. Smeaton only came to court in the late 1520s, by which time Mary was no longer resident there, and he began his service in the household of Cardinal Wolsey - not the king's. By the time Smeaton was in regular attendance on the royal family, Mary had been banished from court and by the time she came back, in late 1536, Smeaton was dead. Even if she had seen him, it can only have been at a distance and as one of the dozens of musicians who lived at Henry VIII's court. The Queen's suggestion that she could see a clear resemblance between her younger sister and Smeaton was therefore nothing more than a vindictive and vicious lie.

Elizabeth I's accession was one of those moments in English history - along with Canute trying to turn back the tide and Charles II hiding in an oak tree from Cromwell's soldiers - that historical illustrators came to love. It was an arresting image of a young and intellectually brilliant princess, freeing her subjects from the religious oppression of her maniac-sister. It was not quite that simple, of course, and although Mary I was not generally popular at the time of her death, there were many who had regarded her burning to death of three hundred Protestants with something akin to indifference, if not downright approval. Elizabeth I thus inherited a country fraught with sectarian tension, a foreign policy that was in a shambles, a less-than-stable economy and a divided nobility. Both she and de Feria were right, though, when they stated that despite the difficulties, the new Queen came to the throne on a wave of popularity. Despite increasing hostility from the palace-bound aristocracy in her later years, Elizabeth, with her flare for drama and public relations, was by and large to keep that love throughout her forty-five year reign.

Monday, 12 November 2012

Director Benoît Jacquet discusses the lesbian undercurrents in "Les adieux à la reine"


The stunning movie Les adieux à la reine, or Farewell, My Queen, in English, has caused quite the stir because it allegedly depicts Marie-Antoinette (Diane Kruger) as being a lesbian or bisexual, who was in love with her gorgeous best friend, the Duchesse de Polignac (above right, played by Virginie Ledoyen.) Told from the point of view of a palace servant in the days immediately after the fall of the Bastille prison, the movie is based on the novel by acclaimed French historian, Professor Chantal Thomas.

In this interview, the movie's director, Benoît Jacquet, discusses the lesbian undercurrent in the movie and how the intense nature of aristocratic friendships in the eighteenth century may have led to confusion over the relationship between Gabrielle and the Queen. Personally, I think the movie's ambiguity is kept quite nicely - although I don't for a moment think there anything even remotely sexual in Marie-Antoinette's relationship with Gabrielle de Polignac. From what I can tell, Jacquet himself does actually believe that it's possible that Marie-Antoinette was a (repressed) lesbian or, at the very least, in love with Gabrielle; whereas the actress who played the Queen, Diane Kruger, does not and believes the story was one of intense, but platonic, love. Either way, Les adieux à la reine is a beautiful movie and Diane Kruger's performance is exceptional, as is her physical resemblance to Marie-Antoinette.


Saturday, 10 November 2012

Is there anything new to say about Anne Boleyn?

Every now and then, a new book appears on the market claiming that it's going to revolutionize our understanding of Henry VIII's second queen. The blurb usually proclaims that at last the truth about Anne Boleyn has been discovered and that this author has somehow managed to solve a mystery that every other historian has been getting wrong for the last five hundred years. There is nothing wrong with new works of historical scholarship, of course, but are modern writers too quick to claim that they've got something new to say in the hope that this claim will persuade eager Tudor fans to part with their money and buy the book?

There is still room - I think - for another, full-length, and proper biography of Anne Boleyn. But only just. I've spent years in Anne's company and, although the last two years of my academic life have been spent far more with Catherine Howard, I still retain a soft spot for the earlier half of Henry's reign and I know the scholarship surrounding Anne like the back of my hand.

If I'm honest, I don't think I would buy a book that claimed that it was going to offer us a totally new picture of Anne Boleyn. Because I know that it couldn't. Every major version of her personality has already been suggested by historians. If you choose to believe that Anne Boleyn was a haughty schemer who deserved her negative press, then you're really just repeating the view of her that was created by historians in the nineteenth-century like James Anthony Froude and Paul Friedmann. If you want to present her as a shallow, if pretty, dilettante, then you're treading in the footsteps of G.W. Bernard and the late Sir Geoffrey Elton. Anne as a charming aristocrat is the view taken by Retha Warnicke, Lady Antonia Fraser or Elizabeth Benger. Anne the gutsy and opinionated politician who helped shape the English Reformation was, of course, immortalised in the stupendous biography of her by the late Eric Ives and in the research of David Starkey. Anne as a good politician, but unlikable woman, has been repeated in the numerous books written about her era by Alison Weir. Anne the Protestant martyr was recently resurrected in the 2004 biography of her by the late Joanna Denny. Anne as a common social climber was the version presented by A.F. Pollard in his biography of Henry VIII. And Anne as an icon of wronged womanhood was how Agnes Strickland, Serena Banbury, Jane Austen and Francis Bacon saw her - long, long ago. If you're going to claim that your book offers a radically new interpretation of Anne Boleyn, then you are either lying or quite clearly haven't done enough reading. Different episodes in Anne Boleyn's life do need to be studied, detailed and debated in more detail - that is beyond doubt. Website like Lara Eakins's Tudor History or Claire Ridgway's The Anne Boleyn Files can, and do, show the rich potential that there still has in exploring Tudor history and for popular culture's interaction with it. I do firmly believe that there is room in the market for more books on her, but, at the moment, I don't think that any could justifiably claim that they're offering a completely new portrait of her. At some point in my life, I do intend to write a biography of Anne myself, but I am aware of the intellectual debt I would owe to the great historians, archivists, writers and activists who came before me. 

What about the claims that there is new evidence that an author discovered which enabled them to write a fresh take on Anne Boleyn's life and death? Well, that's nonsense. Let me assure you that if any new evidence regarding Anne Boleyn came to light, it would make headline news. This is one of the most famous women in history, with a huge international modern fan-base. If any new evidence was discovered, it would immediately be submitted to one of the top universities in the world to be studied, analysed and dated. Newspapers would report on it and the Internet would be buzzing with the rumours. When G.W. Bernard's book Anne Boleyn: Fatal Attractions was released in 2010, one of the greatest criticisms of it was the marketing department's claim that Professor Bernard had uncovered "new" evidence from 1536 that supported his view that Anne Boleyn may actually have been guilty of adultery. The evidence in question was a poem or letter written by Lancelot de Carles, the French Bishop of Riez, and it was first published in the English language back in 1929. The source had simply never formed the main part of a scholar's argument about Anne Boleyn's death, which is how the advertising campaign could spin it as something "new."

There is no new evidence known about today and, if we find some in the future, then - trust me - you'll know about it before you read it on the cover of a book.

One could, of course, justifiably query the translations of the existing sources. Anne Boleyn's letter to her father, allegedly written in about 1514, has been dated, stored and analysed by Cambridge University; that it's real is beyond any reasonable form of doubt. However, a new translation of its French may prove interesting - especially given that Anne was a child at the time and still learning. However, re-translation can pose as many problems as it creates. Having taken a course in paleography, I was stunned at how difficult a science it is. Unless you have been able to personally see and hold the original documents (not photocopies or translations), then it's next-to-impossible to accurately re-translate them from the original sixteenth-century English, French, Latin, Italian, Spanish or German. By the standards of paleography, all you'd be doing is imposing modern versions of linguistic syntax onto a sixteenth-century source, providing a new (and probably inaccurate) interpretation of sources that have already been rigorously studied, translated, dated, cross-checked and validated. Having made your inaccurate translation, which you believe to be accurate, a writer then runs the risk of getting carried away with it and making assertions that have no basis in fact. One respected and very successful writer who did so was Alison Weir, who in her 2002 book Henry VIII: King and Court, argued on the basis of such a mistake that Anne Boleyn had actually been pregnant at the time of her execution. To Miss Weir's credit, however, she did what many writers are incapable of doing and admitted in her future books that her theory had been wrong.

My point in all this is that I worry that the Tudor market is becoming too sensationalist and too undemanding. We are not holding our writers up to a high enough standard. It is an easy, cheap and dishonest ploy to claim that one book is going to radically change our views on Anne Boleyn. It is also an extremely unlikable claim, since it implicitly means criticizing or denigrating all the other writers on that period. When I completed my dissertation on Catherine Howard in 2011, I was very, very hesitant about claiming that my version of her downfall offered something radically new. I now realise that the version of Catherine's life and death that I suggested after exhaustive research was different. Or, rather, it offered a different focus. I wouldn't write a biography or a dissertation unless I thought I had something worth saying; something new. But I didn't go too far and say that everyone else who'd ever written about Catherine had been wrong, or that I (and I alone!) understood Catherine Howard's true personality. I think I understood the extraordinary circumstances that led to Catherine's death in better detail than other people, and I hope that doesn't seem too arrogant in saying so. You see, there can be something new in Tudor historiography, but everything new is, by now, utterly impossible.

We owe it to the past, and to our readers, to be honest. New books are always welcome, provided that they don't claim to be something that they're not. Anne Boleyn's life was an extraordinary one - rich in human drama and social context - it deserves to be dealt with by people who understand the discipline of History and the limitations of our craft. It does not deserve to be sensationalised and cheapened for the sake of it. The poor girl has already had enough of that in the past.

Sunday, 4 November 2012

Why do we care about Mary Boleyn?

Actress Scarlett Johansson as Mary Boleyn in the motion picture The Other Boleyn Girl.
The late feminist activist Andrea Dworkin once remarked that for a woman to be "good" in our history books, she has to conform to the same criteria set in our fairy tales. She has to be like Sleeping Beauty - quiet and quiescent to the point of unconsciousness. She has to be the passive object of events, not their agent or initiator. Shortly after the release of her successful novel The Other Boleyn Girl, the British author Philippa Gregory was asked by BBC History Magazine to write an article on her personal historical heroine. She chose Anne Boleyn's elder sister, Mary, and in doing so, I was reminded of Andrea Dworkin's theory. 

Why on earth should Mary Boleyn qualify as anyone's historical heroine, out of all the hundreds of magnificent women who have peopled the pages of history? One need not look too far in Mary Boleyn's own gene pool to find women who actually did something with their lives. In contrast, the historical Mary Boleyn did absolutely nothing remarkable, either by the standards of her own generation or ours. Even Mary's decision to marry for love to a man beneath her in the class system is not unique, despite her fan's insistence that it was - her near-contemporaries such as Katherine Willoughby, Dowager Duchess of Suffolk; Jane Grey's mother, Frances; Queen Katherine Parr; Anne Seymour, Dowager Duchess of Somerset; Cecily of York; and Anne, Baroness Bourchier, all did the same thing. Yes, marrying for love and in defiance of social convention is emotionally admirable, but surely to God, it doesn't automatically make the bride as heroic?

Even in The Other Boleyn Girl, which is actually one of several modern novels in which Mary takes centre-stage but by far the most commercially successful, Mary Boleyn comes across as an almighty drip of a human being. All she seems to do in the course of the novel's 529 pages and fifteen-year time-span is cry, whine, have sex and pop out a couple of babies. If that's the standard of heroism these days, then half the characters in Eastenders deserve some kind of statue. Yes, novels based on the lives of women who were not history's "great players" are worthwhile exercises in fiction. Indeed, as Chantal Thomas's Farewell, My Queen showed, the idea can work brilliantly. History, as told through the eyes of observers, rather than power players, is potentially fascinating. After all, that's how most of us experience it and Mary Boleyn's bird's-eye view of her sister's rise to power and the incipient beginnings of the English Reformation could make a story told from her point-of-view compulsively good reading. Coupled with this is the fact that for at least half her life, Mary Boleyn disappears from the firm documentary record, which is a gift to any intelligent historical novelist -  they can use such gaps to create a compelling fictional narrative. However, simply because a historical personality makes for a good novel does not automatically mean that they become important. I love historical fiction, but I despair at some people's ability to understand the latter word. (Equally annoying, of course, is people at the opposite extreme who seem to think a historical novel should basically read like a textbook.) Anyway, since the release of The Other Boleyn Girl, Mary Boleyn is all too often spoken of in the same breath as her famous sister and questions about Mary's life, and the "what if" element of her story, seem to have created the erroneous impression that she was, or could have been, just as important as Anne.

The idea that Mary Boleyn-Carey-Stafford "mattered" in the same way as her younger sister did is an idea so breathtakingly idiotic as to be on par with the belief that Saint Brendan mattered more to the future history of the Americas than Christopher Columbus. Mary Boleyn left only a few letters, only one of which is interesting; we don't know where she was buried; none of her children became particularly powerful; unlike most of her family, we know absolutely nothing about her political or religious beliefs; she was never referenced by the great power-players of the era as important, and at absolutely no point did Mary's life or personality radically impact the direction of sixteenth-century history. The only reason why she is even interesting today is because of who she was associated with, not because of any virtues in her own personality. Which, to be blunt, we know nothing about. We don't even know what she looked like. The late, great Eric Ives said it best when he remarked that what we know about Mary Boleyn could fit on to a postcard - with room to spare. So why has there been all the fuss about her?

Part of it, of course, is that Mary Boleyn found herself the subject of a very successful novel that also became a BBC television drama and a Hollywood movie. All three promoted the idea that Mary was the mother of two of Henry VIII's illegitimate children and for a time there was a chance that she might have been his next wife, rather than her vicious sister, Anne. Leaving aside The Other Bolen Girl's jaw-dropping characterisation of Anne Boleyn, the idea that Mary could have become Henry's queen after also being his long-term mistress is ridiculous. And the belief that theirs was a great love affair is laughable. If Henry VIII and Mary Boleyn did sleep together, it must have been a couple of quick fumbles under the cover of darkness, because within a few years, there were people in the court who openly doubted that the affair had ever happened. By the nineteenth century, several historians - like J.A. Froude and Paul Friedmann - were dismissing the whole idea as Catholic propaganda.

The point, however, is that Philippa Gregory created such a dramatic story-line and then she herself stuck  so tenaciously to the assertion that it was, by and large, accurate, that many of her fans naturally reached the conclusion that the Mary of The Other Boleyn Girl was not only very close to the Mary Boleyn of history, but also that this Mary Boleyn had mattered. In a nutshell, part of the reason why people are all of a sudden so interested in Mary Boleyn is because of the proverbial problem some people have in differentiating between fiction and reality. (A difficulty that author's notes, sadly, seem to be perpetuating rather than dispelling at the moment.) It's not quite the same degree of psychosis as people who punch actors in the street because they don't like the character they play on television, but it's certainly ball-park. I love Gone with the Wind, but that doesn't necessarily mean I accept Margaret Mitchell's vision of the halcyon days of the Old South in which everybody was happy and no-one but malcontents were disgruntled. 

Yet another, deeper, point in the Mary Boleyn craze may be what it tells us about our attitudes to history and to femininity. I read The Other Boleyn Girl and found Mary Boleyn to be fifty shades of annoying, but I realise that not everyone shares that particular interpretation. Mary's rise to cyber-prominence is part of a trend that not only refuses to believe that history was about great people and big events, but also because of a lingering third wave of feminism that seems to be reacting against strong women, like Anne Boleyn, and in favour of weak ones, like Mary. In the novel, Anne pays a heavy price for her ambitions and its her ambitiousness which makes her so monumentally unlikable. She is sexually immoral, even border-line perverted; she is cruel, vicious, foul-mouthed, egotistical, unhinged and possibly murderous. Anne is the ultimate morality tale against the career girl. Because she chose to pursue her ambitions, she loses her feminine softness; she becomes monstrous and unhappy in the process.  When she dies, no one feels sorry for her. Certainly not the reader. She is not so much Margo Channing as she is Stephen King's Carrie; this Anne Boleyn is an utterly repulsive figure who would have been much happier if she'd just stayed at home and taken an interest in the strawberry crop, like her sister does. Anne Boleyn emerges from the pages of The Other Boleyn Girl as the supreme anti-feminist parable. Mary Boleyn, in contrast, is sweet, docile, ruled by heart and devoted to the men in her life. (As far as her jelly-like spine makes her  capable of being.) She's the one who gets the "happily ever after." Dozens of websites herald this as proof of Mary's brilliance - because she survived, when half of her family perished. Does no one remember Churchill's quip about enemies proving you're doing something worthwhile? Maybe the reason no one came after Mary was because she hadn't actually done anything with her life?

Recently the novelist Hilary Mantel said that her own portrayal of Anne Boleyn in Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies would be damned because she hadn't made Anne into a victim. Women are not supposed to be victims nowadays, it's considered somehow demeaning, but when one looks at the extraordinary misogyny of the sixteenth century and the crushing physical, emotional, biological and social burdens these women were subjected to on a daily basis then, I'm sorry, but they were victims. Particularly a queen who was shredded apart and then murdered by a government that deliberately played to the most deep-rooted prejudices about female sexuality. There is still a pervasive - I would say, disgusting - view that Anne Boleyn was somehow "asking for it." That she somehow deserved her grisly end. A bit like today when victims of sexual assault and rape are often accused of "asking for it." 

It is not an overreaction to draw the comparison. Both attitudes are inextricably linked, not to our beliefs about the past, but to our cultural attitudes towards humanity, to victimhood, sexuality, minorities, women and sex-based crimes. As long as the belief persists that women who are strong and determined cannot also be victims of social pressures, then a poisonous mentality of justification will flow beneath the surface and ruin countless lives in the process. Women, like the Mary Boleyn of popular imagination, are still expected to shut up and not complain, and perhaps the most horrifying thing of all is the number of women who actively participate in demanding their sisters' silence. The torrent of cyber-abuse describing Anne Boleyn as a "bitch," "a slut," "a home-wrecker," "a whore," is overwhelmingly coming from women.

Since we know almost nothing about Mary's ambitions, we can easily project our own fantasies of womanhood onto her. We can make her the perfect wife, mistress and mother, because there is no evidence out there to contradict us. (There's none to support such a view, either, by the burden of proof nowadays seems to rather bizarrely be on disproving things in history, rather than on proving them.) Mary Boleyn - warm, fecund and romantic - can step into our historical imagination as a symbol for the womanhood we think we lost thanks to the liberation movement. She can symbolise our yearning for a time when women cared only about domesticity. Such a time, of course, never actually existed and it was largely created by the Victorians and cemented by the 1950s. The women of the early modern period were often tough, gutsy and even the most aristocratic of them had to work hard at their lives. They were born victims and there is no shame in saying that; it reminds us of how much we have improved and how much we should be grateful for. As well as how much we still have to do. The measure of a person is how they rise to the challenges they face in life and for that reason, and for many others, we should not be so quick to believe the worst of the great women of the past, nor to replace them in the pantheon of heroism with cryptic Sleeping Beauties. 

Saturday, 3 November 2012

Thy Choicest Gifts in Store: The ten longest reigning monarchs in English history


With a brief eleven-year exception in the middle of the seventeenth century, the British Isles has seen monarchical rule since the days of the Roman Empire. It was not until the aftermath of the Second World War that republicanism would once again make itself felt in the isles, thanks to the proclamation of the independent Irish republic. This is a list of the ten monarchs who have reigned for the longest period of time.

1. Victoria (1837 - 1901) (64 years) Princess Victoria of Kent was eighteen-years-old when she was woken in the middle of the night to be told that her elderly uncle, King William IV, had died and she was now Queen of the United Kingdom. Her first words as queen were apparently, "I will be good." She married her handsome German cousin, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, and they had nine children together. Victoria's popularity briefly dipped in the aftermath of Albert's death, when her mourning for him was so intense that she withdrew from public life. However, Victoria's reign saw the rapid expansion of Britain's power and wealth and the Queen became inextricably linked with imperial prosperity in most of her subjects' minds. Her Golden Jubilee in 1887 and her Diamond Jubilee in 1897 were extremely popular, proving that the monarchy had recovered from the Queen's earlier breakdown. Respected and admired, she died at the age of eighty-one at her island summer palace on the Isle of Wight in January 1901. She was succeeded by her eldest son, who became King Edward VII. Her grandchildren included King George V of Britain, Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, Tsarina Alexandra of Russia, Queen Maud of Norway and Queen Victoria-Eugenia of Spain.

2. Elizabeth II (1952 -) (60 years+) The current Queen succeeded to the throne following her father's death from lung cancer in February 1952. Pretty and conscientious, Elizabeth II came to the throne at a time when Britain's empire and economy were collapsing under the after-effects of the Second World War. Her reign has witnessed perhaps some of the most profound social, political, cultural, demographic and economic changes to the country in history; yet, throughout them, the Queen has remained consistently popular. Support for the monarchy has never dipped below 70% during her time as Sovereign. Although respect for the institution did waver in the 1990s, thanks largely to scandals surrounding the Queen's children and their spouses. The marriage of her grandson, the Duke of Cambridge, to Catherine Middleton in 2011 and the national rejoicing surrounding the Queen's Diamond Jubilee in 2012 showed the depth of affection that still surrounds the royal family in the United Kingdom. The Queen's Christian faith, tireless work ethic, appreciation for the constitutional limitations on her office and her support for the Commonwealth have also earned her the respect of the country's political leaders and the wider international political community. Should Elizabeth II reign beyond 2016, she will become the longest-reigning sovereign in British history, besting the record of her great-great-grandmother, Queen Victoria.

Thursday, 1 November 2012

Uneasy Lies the Head... the ten shortest reigns in English history


At the time of HRH the Duke of Edinburgh's ninetieth birthday, I posted two posts about the longest- and shortest-serving royal consorts in English history. This is a list of the ten shortest reigns on Saint Edward's throne since 1066.

1. Jane ("Lady Jane Grey") (July 1553) Jane's reign was so short that it became her historical nickname - "the nine-day queen." She was placed on the throne by a palace coup in the summer of 1553, when the death of her teen cousin, Edward VI, threatened to end the Protestant Reformation in England. Edward's presumed successor was his sister Mary, a devout Catholic. However, on his deathbed, Edward altered the succession laws in favour of his sixteen year-old cousin, Jane. Jane was intellectually brilliant and certainly one of England's most intelligent rulers. She was also a fiery "born-again" Christian, who despised the Catholic religion and who could be counted upon to nurture the growing extremism of the Edwardian reformation. However, the chop-and-change attitude to the succession did not please the common people, who rallied to support the Princess Mary in overwhelming numbers. Jane was deposed after less than two weeks on the throne, as Mary entered London at the head of a triumphal army. Offered her life if she would abandon her Protestant faith, Jane refused and she was executed at the age of seventeen in February 1554. Victorians were obsessed with her story and portrayed her as the quintessential sacrificed young maiden. Modern research indicates that Jane was a good deal feistier than the romantic legend of her life suggested. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, she was regarded as a Protestant martyr. Her husband, Lord Guildford Dudley, was beheaded on the same day as his wife. Her father and father-in-law had already been executed for their part in putting her on the throne. 
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