Tuesday, 20 May 2014

Review: "Inside the Tudor Court" by Lauren Mackay

I once came across a comment on-line from Lauren Mackay fairly highlighting the difference between a blogger and an historian, and rather self-deprecatingly pointing out that having achieved her masters she did not yet consider herself an historian. It is therefore something of a relief that she has since used the work undertaken for her MA to pen this wonderful biography of Eustace Chapuys, the Hapsburgs' ambassador to England for most of the last two decades of Henry VIII's reign.

In much the same way as Chapuys' negative appraisal of Anne Boleyn helped shape her historiography for so many years, the academic swing in her favour following Eric Ives's 1986 biography saw Chapuys cast in the light of a malign intriguer who got more wrong than right when it came to Boleyn - and, by an extension of logic, everyone around her. Mackay sets out to rescue her subject from this two-dimensional view and she does so with great success. If Anne Boleyn was much more than suggested by Chapuys, he too is worth a lot more than the Anne Boleyn matter. The biography brims with the author's passion for her subject, beginning with a charming and vivid account of his home town in Annecy, where he is still commemorated in street names and local architecture. Mackay does well too where the sources are silent by sketching the broad outlines of his life before he was sent to England in 1529, freely admitting that there is much we do not know about Chapuys's life but credibly suggesting various possibilities based on what we do know. It's what all Tudor historians have to do from time to time, it's full of pitfalls and Mackay does better than most in weaving her way through it. Once Chapuys gets to England, where his legal training was intended to help the beleagured Katherine of Aragon, Mackay is able to make use of the mountains of letters that her subject wrote to the Emperor and the picture becomes clearer still.

Mackay's strengths are not just her zeal for the thin and rather elegant man she's writing about, but also her ability to analyse his thoughts and to make full use of his lengthy and colourful correspondence. She is right when she points out that without Chapuys's letters Tudor history, as we know it, would not exist. There were a few times when I did not agree with her conclusions and I thought there were one or two moments when she was slightly too prepared to take Chapuys at face value. However on moments when I, or any reader, might disagree with Mackay's conclusions on certain minor points they are still well-argued and well-written enough to be taken seriously and respected. There are no unreasonable assessments in Inside the Tudor Court and she presents the information clearly enough that she allows her readers to make their own conclusions. She invites them, as it were, to share her enthusiasm for Charles V's servant.

This is a wonderfully useful book that brings to life the colourful and often confusing world of the Henrician court, as seen through the eyes of one of its most gifted if controversial observers. Lauren Mackay deserves considerable praise for setting Chapuys back in his context and reminding us, regardless of whom he quarrelled with or why, what a debt we all owe him. She makes him both an esteemed intellectual but entirely human, she allows him her foibles - I particularly enjoyed the point she makes about his correspondence's relative lack of descriptions of the English court's numerous entertainments: he didn't enjoy them and thought them slightly frivolous, so he told the Emperor he wouldn't bore him with the details. There has long been a need for a biography of this brilliant and complex figure and Lauren Mackay has certainly delivered it.

Monday, 19 May 2014

Why I'm voting NI21 on May 22nd

In his epic history of the Russian Revolution, A People's Tragedy, the British historian Orlando Figes suggested, "It would be absurd - and in Russia's case obscene - to imply that a people get the rulers it deserves." And yet only a few sentences earlier, he had suggested that the Russian people were as much "the participants in their own revolutionary drama rather than as 'victims'..." The point he was trying to make, I think, was that the Russian people did not deserve the governments they got after 1917 but they were nonetheless participants in making them possible. The same situation seems to me to be equally, if less bloodily, applicable to Northern Ireland as we hurtle rapidly through the second decade of the twenty-first century with a government at Stormont that absolutely nobody seems enthusiastic for, but which we're yet to do anything about changing.

On 22nd May this year, I will be voting for NI21, a new political party set up by former Ulster Unionist MLAs Basil McCrea and John McAllister. The party is unionist, it is avowedly non-sectarian (compared to some DUP candidates who feel the need to post a Facebook status every time they manage to persuade a Catholic to vote for them - news flash, it's 2014, the country's existed since 1921 and 50% of the population are Catholic; it shouldn't be a big achievement to secure support from 50% of your constituents, it should be an every day occurrence), it's actually had meaningful dialogue explaining its position with nationalists and republican groups north and south of the border, and so far it is the only unionist party to take a firm stance on supporting marriage equality. For me, the latter is a significant issue facing the country at the minute, along with the economy and education, and I stand with the rest of the United Kingdom's governments in believing that in a nation where secular marriages are allowed in registry offices, a single religion long ago lost the right to define what a marriage is. If a secular right is extended to one set of taxpaying citizens, it stands to reason that it should be extended to all - to say nothing of denominations like certain sections of the Quaker community and the Affirming Pentacostal Church who would like to perform same-sex marriages in accordance with their interpretation of theology. Not to extend the same marital rights granted to a non-believing opposite gender couple is, to me, rank inequality and vicious discrimination of the most blatant kind, no matter what verses from Leviticus you truss it up in. And I say that as a practising Christian who does not want my religion defined for me by our politicians at Stormont and then to have that put into legislation.

Civil rights for gay couples may not be one of your vote-deciding priorities, but my point is that we have got to stop voting on no other basis than how orange or green our parties claim to be. When you do that, we enable the re-election of  saber-rattling demagogues who don't have to work as hard as they should because they know that issues like flags and prisoners' memorials reach into our collective cultural memories to elicit deep emotional responses - and votes. But the result is that our politicians are essentially unaccountable, there is no opposition at Stormont giving any of the Big Two (and make no bones about it, it's the Big Two and the "also starring" support act of the UUP and SDLP) a run for their money. We need parties like NI21, we need parties with new candidates, new opinions and new attitudes to shake things up. We need, as young and old to get out there, to vote, to take a stand and to do something for this tiny part of the world that we all claim to love but with which we are all so perpetually disappointed. We need to expect better - we certainly deserve it. We love its people but we despair of its leaders; that much has been true of most people in the North of Ireland for the best part of two decades and it's time we did something to change it. The politicians work for us and yet most of us are dissatisfied consumers. When was the last time you heard anyone in Northern Ireland seem genuinely excited about any of the political parties at Stormont? Those enthusiasts may still exist, but they're a dying breed. Cynicism here is as endemic as it is justified.

In the last few elections I have voted Ulster Unionist and Alliance; for a very long time I felt genuine support for the Alliance Party. But two things jolted me out of that sympathy. The first was that a vision of a Shared Future seemed a bit less enticing when two of the party's MLAs voted against the legalisation of gay marriage in the spring of this year; I utterly respect their right to have done so, I applaud them for remaining true to their religious principles - equally, I as a voter am no longer inclined to vote for them. All principles have a cost. The second issue I had was when the Alliance's Anna Lo claimed she supported a united Ireland because she was against colonialism. The party did not censure her or hand her a disciplinary notice; I think perhaps they were right to do so. But at the very least they could have handed her a dictionary. By referring to Northern Ireland as a functioning remnant of colonialism, Miss Lo implied that the entire state was the result of an imperialist policy. The extension  of that was that everyone living in Northern Ireland who supports a union with Britain rather than Ireland was a colonialist - not yet a true son of the northern Irish soil, an interloper, a testament to a foreign presence. That is undoubtedly not what she meant, but words have nothing beyond their definition. We should not use them unless we know what they mean and that is doubly the case with our politicians of whom we should expect more, not less. Like the word "fascist," "colonialist" is an ugly word that is both overused and misused. Miss Lo's belief in the benefits of a united Irish republic are something she is more than entitled to articulate and there are some very strong arguments in favour of an all-Ireland government, I just happen to disagree with them at the moment, but to refer to the system here as colonialist was as cheap and sensationalist as it was silly and misleading.

I am voting for NI21 because I personally believe in the right to equal marriage for all British citizens, because I am excited about their policy to broaden inclusivity and cultural diversity at a council level, to increase tourism facilities in my region and because fresh blood, fresh faces and fresh politics are exactly what this province needs. I had to read all the pamphlets that came through my door to make sure I wasn't voting for something on the basis of hope rather than research, but I'm hopeful that this decision for me is the right one. Their election may not just revitalise the other parties by giving them a sense of competition, a catfish in the tank as it were, but also because the journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step. We live in a wonderful place with great problems but even greater possibilities and fresh politics might just help make that possible. I wish all the candidates standing the best of luck, even the ones I disagree with, because they are trying to do something to help their country and that, ultimately, is a noble thing in both the elected and the electorate.

Friday, 16 May 2014

My new book

I am feeling very blessed that 2014 is proving to be such a busy and exciting year. After wrapping up The Gate of the Year in Belfast in spring, I am delighted to say that Amberley will be publishing my first non-fiction book, The Emperors, an account of the German, Russian and Austro-Hungarian monarchies during the First World War. The book will be released on 28 August 2014 and followed not longer after by the first volume of my history of the British monarchy, subtitled And the Sword Gleamed, with MadeGlobal Publishing. 

More information about The Emperors, which was such a fun and exciting piece to write!
On 28 June 1914, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne was assassinated on a visit to Sarajevo by a Serbian nationalist called Gavrilo Princip. The assassination set in motion the events that led to the outbreak of the First World War, one of the bloodiest conflicts in human history and a trauma that would bring down the Austro-Hungarian Empire, ending nearly eight centuries of Hapsburg rule and unleashing unrest across the European continent. By the end of that conflict, not only had the Austro-Hungarian Empire crumbled but the other two imperial rulers of Europe, Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany and Tsar Nicholas II of Russia, had lost their grip on power. The three great monarchies of Europe had fallen. Over in Britain, the first cousin of both the Kaiser and the Tsar, George V, successfully retained the crown.

In this new book, Gareth Russell tells the story of the Austrian, German and Russian imperial families during the four years of the First World War and the political and personal struggles that brought about their ruin.
 The Emperors has already been listed on Amazon UK and Amazon US.
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