Wednesday 29 December 2010

"I was a housewife"

In a short but very entertaining recorded interview, Her Grace the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire (90), Deborah Cavendish (born Deborah Mitford), discusses her childhood, her recently published memoirs Wait for Me!, her marriage to the late duke, Andrew, and her famous sisters - Nancy, Pamela, Diana Mosley, Decca and the controversial Unity. It's rather lovely I think and perhaps my favourite line is when the duchess discusses having met her future husband shortly after her coming out ball in 1938 - "it was the famous coming out. Which, of course, has slightly different meaning now." I laughed out loud. It's the perfectly wry, unsentimental and observant humour which the Mitford sisters were so famous for. Their observations, I think, are hilarious, as anyone who has read Nancy's novels (particularly The Pursuit of Love and Don't Tell Alfred), Diana's articles (published in an anthology called The Pursuit of Laughter) or Decca's works of journalism will know. 

For those wondering about the house the Duchess is speaking in (a large and very pretty cottage called Edensor), she no longer lives in the main house of the Chatsworth estate, but in a cottage on the grounds. Her son, the current duke, Peregrine, and his wife Amanda, live in the main house now. Having been hit with one of the most extraordinarily high penalties under the Death/Inheritance tax when her father-in-law died in 1950, Deborah was instrumental in turning Chatsworth, its surrounding estates and its farm into a thriving tourist and agricultural industry, including a luxury food firm, guided tours of the house, a visitors' farm and two hotels, all of which effectively saved the estates from going into ruin or becoming properties of the National Trust, as so many others did at that time. It is a real tribute to the capacity and potential of private industry. 

You can watch the interview (which lasts for about 2 - 3 minutes) here. I loved it and Wait for Me! is the first book I'm reading once the current work schedule lightens up a little. 

Tuesday 28 December 2010

Entertainer of the Year

A wonderful friend of mine has been nominated for the Entertainer of the Year award, which I've written about on my other blog. 

Monday 27 December 2010

"All girls are princesses. Didn't your father ever tell you that?"

Via Tea at Trianon comes quite an entertaining article by Virginia Postrel on the psychological appeal and utility of the "princess fantasies" of little girls.

Why, in a society without princesses, does this archetype remain so intensely glamorous to girls with all sorts of backgrounds and personalities? A princess is pretty, rich, beautifully dressed, loved, happy and, above all, special. She represents escape from the constraints of even the most bountiful childhood... Beyond that, a princess is what you make of her. She may be wise-cracking or demure, a blue-eyed blonde or a tawny brunette, goth or Gothic, a domestic goddess like Snow White or a warrior like Xena. The princess archetype is powerful because it is adaptable. It changes with time and circumstance, while retaining its emotional core. To play princess is to embrace two promises: "You are special" and "Life can be wonderful." 
Neither of these need entail narcissistic entitlement or female passivity. Even that old-fashioned children's classic, Frances Hodgson Burnett's 1904 novel "A Little Princess," portrays an imaginative, individualistic young heroine. Suddenly orphaned and destitute, Sara Crewe imagines herself a princess not only to escape her miserable circumstances but to maintain her good manners and self-control. "If you were a princess," she reminds herself, "you did not fly into rages." When unfairly abused, "you can't sneer back at people like that—if you are a princess."
For all its Victorian stoicism and sense of duty, this princess dream shares the mixture of openness and elitism that gives princesses their contemporary appeal. Like the superhero, the princess has a special identity and destiny. She is more than an ordinary girl. But her value is not determined by playground hierarchies. You don't have to be popular to be a princess. You can be an iconoclast, even an outcast, but you must be worthy. 

Saturday 25 December 2010

Merry Christmas

"And he saddled the ass, and set her upon it; and his son led it, and Joseph followed. And when they had come within three miles, Joseph turned and saw that Mary was sorrowful; and he said to himself: 'Likely that which is in her distresses her.' And again Joseph turned and saw her laughing. And he said to her: 'Mary, how is it that I see in thy face at one time laughter, at another sorrow?' And Mary said to Joseph: 'Because I see two peoples with mine eyes; the one weeping and lamenting, and the other rejoicing and exulting.'"
- The Protoevangelium of James (approximately early 2nd century A.D.)

Christmas is a time for rejoicing, but for many people it is also a time for sadness - either as they mark the first time they have spent the holiday without a particular loved one or recalling painful memories. The above verse from a Jewish-Christian hagiography, intended to be a life of the Virgin Mary up to and until the point where she features in the biblical Gospel according to Saint Luke, is a very pretty and moving verse (I think), which captures the twin emotions Christmas can often invoke for people. In any case, I wish everyone the very best of Christmases and hope you and your family have been together and above all safe at this time of the year. 

Thursday 23 December 2010

Anne Boleyn's Christmas presents

Claire Ridgway over at The Anne Boleyn Files posts a fascinating article on the presents Anne both gave to and received from King Henry VIII. Anne (above played by Quebecois actress Geneviève Bujold in the 1969 Oscar-winner Anne of the Thousand Days) was known to have a taste for the finer things in life. One of her favourite arguments in response to those who said such a love for materialism was incompatible with being a Christian was to quote a work of French theology, L'Ecclesiaste: "Should I say for all this that it is prohibited for to be merry and that Jesu Christ hath only chosen sturdy people: seeing that He Himself hath helped at feasts ... No surely!" 

As a young socialite, Anne had already acquired a reputation within the narrow world of the English upper-classes for the fine food and wines she served at her dinner parties, as well as the dances, gambling parties and hunting afternoons she organised. Dr. David Starkey writes that thanks to her childhood in France, she acquired "a gourmet's palette." She apparently did not eat very much, since she was very concerned to remain thin, but what she did eat seems to have been of an exceptionally high standard. Above all else, of course, Anne was famous for her sense of fashion - both as a debutante and in her early career as a lady-in-waiting to Katherine of Aragon, Anne was noted for being "the glass of fashion ... the most observed of all observers". When she became queen, she struck such a glamorous figure that even one of her bitterest enemies called her "the rose of state."

As Claire points out, giving presents at Christmas rather than during the Christmas festivities is a fairly recent phenomenon. England in the time of Henry VIII tended to function more like modern day Spain, in which the bulk of the presents were given in or on January 6th, the day which the Church usually celebrated as the anniversary of the visit of the Magi to the Infant Christ Child and the Holy Family in Bethlehem. When Anne became the King's wife-to-be, she suddenly found that she had a near-unlimited bank balance to finance her expensive tastes and Henry evidently took great pleasure in spoiling her. For example, when she was twenty-three, in the short period between Christmas and Saint Valentine's Day, Anne received a veritable treasure trove of jewels to mark the festive season, including: -

1. "Nineteen diamonds for her head" (Anne had a special fondness for weaving jewels through her long brown hair for balls or special occasions. As a virgin, she was still allowed to wear her hair down and uncovered in public. Only queens were allowed to do the same after they were married.)

2. Two bracelets each crafted from ten diamonds and eight pearls

3. Nineteen diamonds set in "trueloves of crown gold"

Sunday 19 December 2010

Discovery of King Henri's skull

At the height of the French Revolution, the royal tombs of France were desecrated, violated and their contents scattered to the four winds in an excess of urban unrest. In the square outside the Basilica of Saint Denis in Paris, the skulls of the dead kings and queens were used as footballs or target practise by the revolutionary mob. Most were never recovered and to this day most of the magnificent restored tombs in Saint Denis are empty shells. 

Now, it seems that the skull belonging to the founding sovereign of the Bourbon dynasty, whose rule was overthrown in the Revolution of 1789 - 1792, has been discovered. King Henri IV, who ruled France from 1589 until 1610, unified the kingdoms of France and Navarre, as well as bringing about an end to the destructive Wars of Religion. He was (and to some extent still is) a popular monarch, whose assassination by a deranged religious fanatic in 1610 plunged the nation into mourning and political crisis. He was succeeded by his young son, Louis XIII, although practical power was held by his mother, Marie de Medici. 

The story of Henri IV's skull is a fascinating one. After being stolen during the ransacking of the cathedral, Henri's alleged skull somehow ended up in the possession of a Parisian tax collector, where it has remained since 1955. (Its exact whereabouts between 1789 and 1955 are still somewhat shady.) A team of nineteen scientists has, however, concluded beyond reasonable doubt that it is indeed the skull of King Henri IV and that the marks made by the dagger during the frenzied assassination can still be seen.

In a rather touching and appropriate gesture, the scientific team decided not to hand the monarch's head over to the current French government, but rather to entrust it to the King's closest living descendant - His Royal Highness Prince Louis de Bourbon, Duc d'Anjou (right). His Royal Highness described the moment as "very emotional" and stated that whilst he hoped to return the skull to its original resting place at the basilica of Saint Denis, where it can rest alongside the remains of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette, he is aware that as a claimant to the French throne he may not be able to persuade the current French republican government. The prince says that is profoundly aware of the "familial and moral" obligation he now has to find Henri IV a proper resting place. 

At the time of his assassination, King Henri IV was survived by both of his wives. His ex-wife, a glamorous and delightfully badly-behaved princess, known popularly as "La Reine Margot," and his current queen, an Italian aristocrat Marie de Medici. His legitimate children (all from his second marriage) included the new king, Louis XIII, who reigned from 1610 to 1643, his rebellious younger brother Gaston, and their three sisters - Elisabeth, Christine and Henrietta-Maria. The lovely Elisabeth became Queen of Spain through her marriage to King Philip IV, five years after her father's murder; the elegant but temperamental Christine married Vittore-Amadeo, Duke of Savoy and had five children and the youngest, Henrietta-Maria, married King Charles I of Britain and became the mother of two future British kings, Charles II and James II. 

For The Guardian's report on the hunt for Henri IV's skull, click here

Sunday 12 December 2010

Faith, Reason and the Virgin Birth

".... There is much confusion as to the precise meaning of the Virgin Birth.  It is not to be confused with the Virginal Conception of Our Lord.   The Church, from the earliest times, has articulated the Perpetual Virginity of Our Lady as pertaining to three distinct moments:  before the birth of Jesus (ante partum), during the birth of Jesus (in partu), and after birth of Jesus (post partum).  Virtually every time the magisterium has spoken on the subject, this threefold distinction is made.  This teaching is derived from the early fathers of the Church, who maintained, defended and made the teaching a universally held truth..."

Via Tea at Trianon comes a defence of the perpetual virginity of the Blessed Virgin Mary and, in particular, the full meaning and theological relevance of the Virgin Birth.  

Friday 10 December 2010

December 10th, 1541: The Execution of the Queen's lovers

Above: Torrance Coombs and Tamazin Merchant as the doomed lovers, Sir Thomas Culpepper and Queen Catherine Howard in Season 4 of the Showtime series The Tudors (2010.)

It had only been five weeks since the 50 year-old King of England, Henry VIII, had been informed at the All Souls' Mass that his teenage queen, Catherine Howard, had been accused of pre-marital promiscuity by a former servant of her aristocratic grandmother, in whose care Catherine had spent most of her childhood. The young queen had been detained in her apartments whilst Thomas Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury, headed an investigation into the serving maid's accusations. That Catherine had not been a virgin at the time Henry had married her was a serious problem, one likely to bring shame upon the monarchy and result in the annulment of the royal marriage. The maid in question had confided in her brother, a Protestant fundamentalist called John Lascelles, that Catherine had enjoyed a fling with her music teacher, Henry Mannox, and after they had fallen out when he began boasting of their sexual encounters, she had moved onto her grandmother's secretary, the overbearing but dashing Francis Dereham, whom she had slept with for the best part of a year and even (allegedly) promised to marry. Catherine and Francis's engagement had been broken-off when Catherine was summoned to Court to act as a lady-in-waiting to the new queen, Anne of Cleves, in the winter of 1539, but within six months Catherine had, of course, attracted the attention of the ailing monarch and become his fifth wife. 

All of this was potentially deeply humiliating for the Royal Family, but it became ten times more serious when it turned out that Queen Catherine's dealings with these two men had not simply been confined to her youthful folly. Henry Mannox now served on her household staff as a musician, a relatively minor post to be sure, but Dereham, her one-time fiancé had been given the premier and intimate position of being the Queen's private secretary, one which meant he came into contact with Catherine on a daily basis. When the archbishop discovered this, he went straight to the King to say that given her past liaisons with both men, Catherine's appointments of them to her household staff at the very least suggested emotional infidelity to her husband and at worse that she was planning to resume sexual relations with them. If she hadn't done already, that is. "She has betrayed you in thought," he told the King, "and if she had an opportunity would have betrayed you in deed." Henry, for the first time in his life the victim of adultery rather than the perpetrator, burst into floods of tears in front of the eyes of his embarrassed councillors, who had absolutely no idea what they were supposed to say or do in such a situation. Archbishop Cranmer was ordered to extend his investigation into every detail of the Queen's private life in the sixteen months that she had been married to the King and to discover if she had indeed gone to bed with Mannox or, more probably, with Dereham, at any point since July of 1540.

December 9th, 1793: The Death of Gabrielle de Polignac

'Who is this? And what is here?
And in the lighted palace near
Died the sound of royal cheer;
And they crossed themselves for fear,
All the Knights at Camelot;
But Lancelot mused a little space
He said, "She has a lovely face;
God in His mercy lend her grace,
The Lady of Shalott."'
- Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Illustration above: An anonymous royalist pamphlet from 1793, showing the Angel of Death inscribing a monument to the Duchesse de Polignac


On December 9th, 1793, one of the last and the most exquisite of the ancien régime's socialites, Gabrielle, Duchesse de Polignac, died in exile in Vienna, less than two months after the execution of her friend and patroness, Queen Marie-Antoinette. She had been ailing for some time, although what precisely caused her death is still something of a mystery. In his 1974 biography Louis and Antoinette, Vincent Cronin wrote "Gabrielle de Polignac contracted a sudden illness in December 1793 and was dead within twelve hours". It may be that the duchess's death was hastened by a sudden infection caught in the depths of the Austrian winter, but it seems clear to me from my own research that for quite a few years prior to her death, Madame de Polignac had not been in good health. Her young and pretty daughter wrote in a letter to one of her mother's many English friends that since the news of the Queen's execution in October it had been possible to see Death written all over Gabrielle's face. The former court painter, Madame Le Brun, living nearby, wrote that in the final months of her life Gabrielle's "still lovely" face had been drained of its colour by the combined effects of sorrow and illness. Lady Antonia Fraser, author of Marie Antoinette: The Journey surmises that the cause of La Belle Gabrielle's death may therefore have been terminal cancer, exacerbated by suffering. At the time, others suggested it may have been consumption (tuberculosis.)

Having written Gabrielle in as one of the major characters in my play The Audacity of Ideas, set at Versailles on the eve of the Revolution of 1789, I have grappled with what killed her. I would like to quote from my author's note for that play and also show the scene in which Gabrielle is informed by the court physician, Dr. Lassonne, about her condition - four years prior to her death. No disclaimer is needed for the educated, but it is always worth bearing in mind that the scene between the duchess and the doctor is, of course, fictional.

At the time of her death, Gabrielle was survived by her husband, Jules, her daughter and her three sons - Jules (the future Prime Minister of France), Armand and Camille. Today, Gabrielle's descendants sit on the throne of Monaco.

Wednesday 8 December 2010

December 8th, 1542: The Birth of Mary, Queen of Scots

A thick snow and a treacherous layer of ice enveloped the Scottish countryside as the faithful made their way to church to observe the Feast of the Immaculate Conception on that dark and frigid day in 1542. Now, the feast and its name are frequently misunderstood, for the Immaculate Conception has in fact nothing to do with the virgin birth or the Incarnation of Christ, as is so often assumed. Instead, it is the belief that at the moment of her conception in the womb of her mother, Saint Anne, the Holy Virgin - having been conceived by normal and earthly means - underwent a pre-natal miracle, whereby she was preserved forever from the stain of Original Sin. She therefore became, in the moment of her conception, full of grace. Debates about this philosophical concept had both bedevilled and enlightened the Middle Ages, where the issue of whether or not the Immaculate Conception was true, false or unknowable had been hotly debated within the universities and monasteries of the West. It was only in 1854 that it was infallibly defined as requisite dogma for believing Roman Catholics, but it had enjoyed its own feast day in the west for nearly eight centuries by that stage. It had not always been the happiest or most tranquil of theological beliefs. The Dominican Order were still, in the sixteenth century, objecting that the entire notion of the Immaculate Conception pertained to blasphemy and implicitly belittled the sacrifice at Golgotha. Even some of the medieval church's most devout enthusiasts for veneration of Mary in its fullest form had been opposed to the Feast - Saint Thomas Aquinas and Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, in particular, had waxed into near apoplectic fury at the very mention of it. Aquinas insisted that Mary had become immaculate at the end of her life, not at the beginning. Bernard was more aggressive, dispatching a scathing letter to the priests of Lyon Cathedral when he heard they were contemplating celebrating a Mass in honour of the Immaculate Conception in 1150. As far as he was concerned, venerating Mary's conception in Saint Anne's womb was tantamount to venerating a sexual encounter - "Or are we to assume that there was no sin where lust was not absent?" he snapped. The belief in Mary's innate sinlessness, however, was particularly popular amongst lay Christians, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds, and the Franciscan order, which had much more flexibility and sensitivity when it came to the feelings of the laity, leant their support to the Immaculate Conception, in opposition to the Dominicans, who still zealously opposed it.

By the beginning of the fifth decade of the sixteenth century, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception was therefore an optional festival to be observed as the diocese, priest or congregation felt appropriate. If any Scotsman or woman had been able to brave the horrific winter blizzards to make it to the local chapel in time for Mass that day, it is likely that they would have been attending a church which did celebrate the festival. In Scotland, it was generally popular with Catholics across most of the social hierarchy. If any parishioners had been attending Mass in the tiny chapels which dotted the countryside in the forty snow-covered miles between the Palace of Linlithgow and the Palace of Falkland, it may have been that at the very moment sweet hymns, prayers and incense were wafting their way towards Heaven in praise of a celestial Mary that their thoughts would have been interrupted as they heard the royal messengers thunder-by on horseback outside, carrying news that another, more terrestial Mary had entered the world.

The 27 year-old Queen of Scotland, Marie, had not relished sending out those messengers. She had wanted more than anything to give her husband a male heir. Both of their sons - James and Robert - had died as infants and now the hopes of the Stewart dynasty rested on the tiny, frail little princess sleeping contentedly in her sumptuous cradle. Her mother, Marie de Guise, was a woman whose entire life had been spent as living proof of accepting the things one cannot change. She recovered quickly, both from the rigours of childbirth and from the disappointment of the baby's gender. The same could not be said for her royal husband, who was lying in the midst of a soul-crushing depression in his apartments at Falkland Palace, not having made it to his wife's side either because of the weather or because of his mental health. When the news was brought to him that Queen Marie had been delivered of a girl, rather than a boy, the King lay in his bed stock-still for a moment, before muttering, "It came from a woman, and it will end in a woman." Then, he turned his face to the wall and gave up even the pretence of wanting to carry on living.

James V's cryptic comment was an acknowledgement of his ancestress, Marjorie Bruce, a Scottish princess from whom the Stewarts had acquired their subsequent claim to the throne. The rule of the Stewarts had begun with a woman and, in the shape of his tiny daughter, it would end with one as well. No woman could possibly hope to hold a kingdom as troublesome as Scotland, considering how many men had failed to do so over the last few centuries. That Mary would prove incapable of holding Scotland under her rule was true, but her father could not known how incorrect he was in saying the Stewarts' association with monarchy would die with her. It is thanks to Mary that James V's descendants still sit on the British throne today.

The King was ensconced at Falkland Palace when he heard the news of his daughter's birth, one of the Scottish royal family's most conspicuously magnificent homes. The birth itself had taken place at Linlithgow Palace, a fantastically beautiful residence which seemed like something lifted right out of a fairy tale. With its many turrets and graceful stonework, rolling green fields and breathtaking setting beside a loch, Linlithgow belonged to a world of Arthurian legend, rather than 16th century reality. It was here, in its luxurious and pretty confines, that Marie de Guise had chosen to give birth for the third time since her marriage to the King of Scots, a man curiously torn between his twin obsessions of the sacred and the sexual. He had loved God as he had loved women - intensely, viscerally, potently. He had been married before, to Princess Madeleine de Valois, a delicate teenager who had not long survived the traumatic sea journey to the harsher climate of Scotland.

Marie de Guise had been born in 1515 into one of the greatest and most ancient families of the French aristocracy, the House of Guise, whose wealth and power had already begun to rival that of the Valois, France's royal family at the time. As a young girl, she had been married off to the Duc de Longueville and with him she had become the mother of two sons. When the duke died in 1537, he left Marie a widow at the relatively tender age of twenty-two. She was not beautiful, or even particularly pretty, but she was intelligent, gracious, sophisticated and determined. She was also fabulously well-connected and had proven her ability to procreate thanks to her first marriage. By the standards of her day, Marie was a tall woman and hearing news of this, King Henry VIII of England, recently made a widower by his third wife's death in childbed, proposed marriage to the fetching French heiress. Henry too was tall (as well as increasingly wide) and he proclaimed, "I am a big man and I need a big woman!" Marie replied that although she was a big woman, she had a tiny neck and therefore couldn't risk a marriage like poor Anne Boleyn's. Henry's pique was turned into incandescent fury when Marie added insult to injury by marrying his troublesome nephew, James, King of Scots, a year later. The thwarted monarch then flounced off into a disastrously short-lived marriage to the Princess of Cleves. Only time would show what a dangerous enemy he had become to Marie de Guise.

Now, four years later, it was difficult to tell if Marie regretted her decision to marry into Edinburgh rather than London. The great love of her life had been her first husband, not her second, and the Scottish nobility was fractious, quarrelsome and treacherous. Many resented the "Auld Alliance," the ancient diplomatic ties between Scotland and France, which Marie represented and more and more of the people were beginning to turn towards the new Protestant religion, rather than the old Catholic faith which Marie's family in France considered themselves to be one of the European champions of. Still, perhaps Scotland with all its troubles was preferable to a marriage with Henry VIII. After all, earlier that year he had cut off the head of his fifth wife, a flighty and vivacious teenager who had allegedly been carrying on affair with a handsome young buck of the court behind her corpulent husband's sizable back. To butcher one wife was extraordinary; to butcher a second looked like a worrying habit. Moreover, Marie had never intimated by word or gesture that she found Scotland anything other than delightful. In her justly acclaimed 1968 biography of Mary of Scots, Lady Antonia Fraser wrote that her mother Marie was "a woman of innate tact [who] was at pains to please her husband by praising his country. Fife, for example, she admired extravagantly, and confided to James that although she had been warned in France that she would find Scotland a barbarous country, destitute of comforts, ever since her arrival she had found the exact reverse". Scotland was both more civilised and more luxurious than its European counterparts liked to pretend, but it was also a political minefield as Marie eventually discovered to her cost.

The thick blanket of snow presented Scotland at its most rugged, its most perfectly and spectacularly beautiful on the day of Mary Stewart's birth. But, it would not be a true part of Mary's story if it was not saturated in drama and intrigue. Scotland was in the depth of one of the worst national catastrophes and humiliations in its history. Her father the King had badly bungled his torturous diplomatic interactions with England or, more specifically, with his uncle King Henry. The rapid deterioration in Anglo-Scottish relations had been sped-up by a lethal combination of King James's poor decisions and King Henry's venomous cruetly. On November 24th, two weeks before the princess's birth, the two armies had clashed at the Battle of Solway Moss. The result was a devastating defeat for Scotland, in which half of the fighting flower of the Scottish army lost their lives. Grief stricken and traumatised by what he had seen on the battlefield and realising that his kingdom was now essentially defenceless in the face of his uncle's vindictive wrath, King James had returned to his palace at Falkland, taking to his bed. And it was there that the news that his two dead baby boys and thousands of dead soldiers had been replaced by a screaming, useless, defenceless girl was brought to him by messengers who knew they could expect no reward for bringing such tidings.

Back at Linlithgow, Queen Marie proceeded like a model of propriety. Everything must be done according to the rule book of royal etiquette and it was arranged that the princess should be baptised in the nearby Church of Saint Michael, which stood at the palace gates and which can still be seen today. The baby had been born a trifle premature, with the Queen perhaps going into labour as a result of the worry caused by the recent defeat of the national army. The result was unhelpful rumours that the "Queen was delivered before her time of a daughter, a very weak child, and not likely to live". The Queen Dowager of Hungary heard later that it was a miracle the baby had lived to see Christmas given the state she was in at the time of her birth.

Much of what happened next sounds miraculous or, rather, improbable. James V died six days after his daughter's birth, at the age of thirty. His daughter thus became a reigning queen before her one week-birthday and his 27 year-old widow assumed the Herculean task of ruling Scotland for her, struggling to preserve Mary's inheritance in the face of the epic political turmoil James V left in his wake. It was a task which would have felled a lesser-woman and whatever one might think of the de Guise clan, Marie de Guise was never anything less than an heroic woman.

And so it was, in a turret room in the north-west tower overlooking a freezing loch that the tragic, mesmerising and improbable life of Mary, Queen of Scots first began. It was a life which was to bewitch and betray, dazzle and destroy, in equal measure. She was the daughter of a great woman and a troubled man, born into a turbulent age. It's difficult to think of a more appropriate entrance for the life of one of history's most enigmatic and controversial queens.

Tuesday 7 December 2010

December 7th, 1545: The Birth of Lord Henry Darnley

Henry, Lord Darnley, was destined to become the second husband of Mary, Queen of Scots and thus the father of King James, the first man to unite the thrones of England, Ireland and Scotland under one monarchy. Darnley and his wife Queen Mary had birthdays one day apart from each other - tomorrow, December 8th, was Mary's birthday, as I hope to post about tomorrow.

Later, Henry Darnley was known for many things - his good looks, his sexuality, his alcoholism, his temper, his narcissism and, in the end, his grotesque and mysterious murder. At the time of his birth, however, there was nothing to suggest that the baby aristocrat's prospects were anything less than golden. 

He was born at Temple Newsam House, a luxurious mansion in the north of England which had been given as a wedding present to his parents, the Earl and Countess of Lennox. The earl was technically a member of the Scottish nobility, but he had been living in exile in England ever since his disastrous support for the English invasion of Scotland had lead to him being branded a traitor. 

His wife, Countess Margaret, was a niece of King Henry VIII of England and, as such, she occupied a privileged place in the English royal hierarchy. Beautiful and glamorous, with a strong personality, Margaret had once been one of the bright young things of the court aristocracy and she had enjoyed friendships with men and women as diverse as Mary Tudor, Anne Boleyn, Mary Shelton, Thomas Wyatt and Henry Howard. In her younger days, however, she had also been something of a scandalous figure, having embarked upon torrid affairs with two members of the ambitious but attractive Howard family. In 1536, she had fallen madly in love with Queen Anne Boleyn's uncle, Lord Thomas Howard, at precisely the time when Queen Anne's political credit was falling. Thomas had been imprisoned by the King and the poor man later died incarcerated for having dared make love to the King's niece. Margaret had apparently failed to learn her lesson from this tragic affair and a few years later, she became the lover of Queen Catherine Howard's brother, Lord Charles Howard. When this liaison was discovered in 1541, an enraged King Henry, who was ironically obsessed with the concept of female sexual purity, had Margaret temporarily detained in an abandoned convent. She only escaped further punishment because everybody's attention soon switched to the much greater scandal of Queen Catherine's adultery, later in the same year.

Sufficiently chastened by her experience this time around, Margaret re-invented herself as an icon of Catholic royal propriety and she willingly entered into a marriage with Matthew Stewart, Earl of Lennox, the King's trusty Scottish ally - or dogsbody, depending on one's point-of-view. The baby born in 1545 (Alison Weir in her book Mary Queen of Scots and the Murder of Lord Darnley suggests it may have been 1546) was christened Henry in the King's honour and the ageing monarch also agreed to stand as godfather to the infant who bore his name. Margaret had, apparently, been forgiven.

Lord Darnley - a courtesy title borne by the eldest son and heir of the earls of Lennox - blossomed into a handsome and intelligent youth. His parents ensured he received a superb education, even sending him abroad to France once they felt his English tutors had no more to teach him. He was well-read in the Classics, History, Theology, art, music and languages (he was fluent in English, French and Latin, as well as understanding parts of Gaelic.) Whilst studying in Paris, the French writer Castelnau wrote that it was "not possible to see a more beautiful prince." Darnley stood at about 6'3" in height and he had a slim, elegant, toned physique, fair hair and a pretty, almost effeminate, face. His parents idolised him and he had a ready charm, which he used to get his own way and to get both women and men to fall for his charms. How far he managed to persuade the men to fall is still a matter of debate, although Alison Weir makes a very convincing argument that Darnley's numerous teenage sexual conquests probably numbered as many men as they did women.

Beneath the surface of beauty, charm, wealth and intellect, however, Lord Darnley hid an altogether less attractive side of his personality - as anyone familiar with the life of Mary, Queen of Scots will tell you. Although he was an intellectual, he was not clever and he possessed an explosive temper. Spoiled and entitled, he was also indecisive, selfish and deceitful. His manners appeared only in a position where he was the weaker party, when he was placed in any position of authority he exhibited "a very insolent disposition". Much worse than his promiscuity or his extravagance was his alcoholism, since there can be no real doubt that Darnley was a functioning alcoholic by the time he reached the age of twenty. 

This tragic and often contemptible youth, who began life on this day in the final years of Henry VIII's reign, in a splendid Yorkshire mansion, was to acquire some measure of contemporary importance because his good-looks and connections managed to seduce the equally beautiful Queen of Scotland. And, by her, he became the father of a future king. But Darnley's real impact on history only came on a chilly morning of February 1567 in Edinburgh, when he was found half-naked and strangled amidst the smouldering ruins of a house blown apart by gunpowder. It was only then that Henry, Lord Darnley finally became a figure of importance, acquiring a significance in death far beyond anything he had enjoyed in life, sparking one of the greatest and most devastating political scandals in history.

Saturday 4 December 2010

Elizabeth, wherefore art thou?

Historical novellist Susan Higginbotham discusses whether or not Elizabeth Woodville, Edward IV's glamorous but controversial queen, was once a lady-in-waiting to her equally glamorous and equally controversial predecessor, Marguerite of Anjou. Elizabeth, who was Lady Grey before her first widowhood and subsequent re-marriage to the womanising monarch, was the aristocratic daughter of a woman formerly married into the royal family - the Dowager Duchess of Bedford - and for a very long time there has been a theory that she served Marguerite as one of her ladies. Miss Higginbotham, however, seems to query this account of Elizabeth's early life, concluding: -

"The lack of any unambiguous contemporary reference to Elizabeth as a lady of Margaret’s leads me to think that while Elizabeth Woodville might have visited court from time to time in the company of her family, she was never one of her predecessor’s ladies."
For the full discussion, click here.

Tuesday 30 November 2010

"The Weight of Glory": Madame Royale (2010)

Madame Royale is the second in Elena Maria Vidal's series of novels on the French Royal Family in the period surrounding the Revolution. The endorsement and praise for the book on the back of the current edition's cover - and its Amazon page - was written by yours truly and I was so honoured to be asked by Miss Vidal, whose excellent blog was one of the reasons why I felt inspired to start my own.

Having written the endorsement of Madame Royale, it's fair to say that I'm something of a fan! But, I have not yet had the opportunity to write a full review for the book having already written one of its prequel - Trianon, back in July.  My thanks to Elena Maria for very kindly sending me a copy of the book and for even more generously asking for my opinions for its back cover and for a review. It's very flattering and I hope I have written a review that is both fair and worthy of the novel.


"Thérèse’s mind wandered from the doings of the British parliament. It seemed to her that from around the time of her marriage ten years earlier she fell prey to distractions whenever she attempted to read, or pray, or in any other way apply her mind. Not prison or the Terror, not threat of death or even the loss of her entire family had been able to rattle her steel-trap mind. All the sorrows were suddenly catching up with her, like hounds closing in upon their game. After a decade of maintaining a day by day façade of marital contentment, of suppressing her emotions of betrayal and disappointment, of fighting envy of women with children, of trying to build the confidence of a man whose soul was scarred beyond repair, she felt she had lost her former self-possession and was scrambling to cling to every vestige of peace and sanity that remained to her."
- From Madame Royale by Elena Maria Vidal


It is never easy to be the daughter of a famous woman and even less so to be the daughter of a famously glamorous woman. It is rare indeed for history to produce a woman like Elizabeth I, who managed to outstrip the fame and appeal of her iconic and doomed mother. More often than not, the daughters of famous women are pale and pallid shadows in the luminescent glow of their mother’s reputational star. Who, for instance, can tell us very much about the daughters of Eleanor of Aquitaine or Elizabeth Woodville? Or, rather, who can get excited about them? And if they are not quietly drowning in the tide of their mothers’ memories, such daughters are often sadly consumed by bitterness at being unable to emulate their fame. In the last century, the vituperative respective memoirs of Christina Crawford and B.D. Hyman are perhaps the most memorable examples of this less-than-commendable familial trait.

It was therefore one of the many tragedies of the life of Princess Marie-Thérèse-Charlotte of France that she was the only surviving daughter of Marie-Antoinette. Marie-Thérèse would certainly not have considered being her mother’s daughter a tragedy, but as Marie-Antoinette’s chic ghost permanently haunted her daughter’s less-than-chic present it compelled people to draw unfavourable comparisons between the two women. Marie-Antoinette had been attractive, elegant, vivacious, outgoing and possessed of a proverbially famous charm; her eldest child, Marie-Thérèse-Charlotte, had none of these qualities. Instead, Marie-Thérèse’s looks rapidly deteriorated as she reached adulthood, she was disinterested in fashion, socially awkward, often rude when in company, painfully shy and utterly devoid of charisma. The only thing she had inherited from her mother was a genuine interest in the well-being of the poor and a love of young children. From both of her parents, she also acquired an almost other-worldly level of courage and dignity under pressure. And it these qualities, coupled with her strong Roman Catholic faith, which Elena Maria Vidal chooses to highlight in her fantastic (and now re-issued in paperback) novel Madame Royale, a sequel to Trianon, which was based on the final years of her parents’ marriage.

Like many of the Parisians of the 1810s and 1820s, modern novelists are often disappointed when confronted by the figure of the adult Marie-Thérèse. When she finally returned to her homeland, upon the restoration of the monarchy in 1814, the Parisians wanted Marie-Thérèse to be what one would have expected in the daughter of Marie-Antoinette. Having written Marie-Thérèse as a major character in All Those Who Suffered, the first ever full length play I wrote back when I was seventeen, I share (or rather, shared) their frustrations. As far as many of the French were concerned, the princess who was coming back to them was going to be the veritable reincarnation of the young Austrian archduchess who had so dazzlingly mounted the throne alongside her husband in the halcyon days of 1774. Coupled with the fact that this princess had just spent nearly two decades in an exile littered with flight, intrigue and genteel poverty, the good people of Paris seemed to be under the general impression that they were about to greet a woman who was a cross between a young Marie-Antoinette and an Antigone.

They were not.

Instead, the princess who rode through the streets of Paris during the early days of the Restoration was taciturn, frigid and more masculine than feminine in her appearance. That this was the daughter of the legendarily charming and seductively tragic Marie-Antoinette could have been almost laughable, had it not been for the fact that the Parisians failed to find anything amusing in Marie-Thérèse’s physical appearance or social manners. Most modern novelists, playwrights and film-makers have followed suit in being truly disappointed by the spectacle presented by Marie-Thérèse-Charlotte’s adult life and so Madame Royale is one of the very few – indeed, at the moment, the only – novel dealing with her under-studied story.

By the time the novel properly begins, the surviving members of the French Royal Family are living in exile in England. Their daily routine is the same day-in, day-out, and Miss Vidal captures perfectly the stultifying routine of the embittered Court-in-exile. Marie-Thérèse’s eldest uncle, formerly the Comte de Provence, has taken the regnal name of Louis XVIII, now that his elder brother and young nephew (Marie-Thérèse’s father and brother respectively) have lost their lives in the Revolution. Obese but clever, the exiled king uses his flawless manners to mask his Machiavellian and intrinsically selfish personality. Another of Marie-Thérèse’s uncles, the handsome and reactionary Comte d’Artois, is living in London, only occasionally visiting the rest of the Royal Family at the tiny English country house they have been given as their residence in exile. It is there that Marie-Thérèse currently lives, having married her first cousin, the truculent and unappealing Duc d’Angoulême. How precisely the most famous princess in Europe reached this point and her determination to make her marriage work is slowly unfolded across the course of the novel. Even if you don’t agree with Marie-Thérèse’s strict personal morality, her devotion to her own principles is nothing short of inspiring.

Yet, in Madame Royale Marie-Thérèse emerges not just as an admirable character, but crucially as a sympathetic one as well. I’m not ashamed to say that, in terms of nuances, Miss Vidal outstrips my characterisation of her in All Those Who Suffered, hands-down. It is a testament to her skills as an historical novelist and her passion for her characters that she has been able to take such a potentially difficult character as Marie-Thérèse and turn her into a figure worthy of being the eponymous heroine of a novel. Thankfully, she does not do this by excising the less attractive sides of the princess’s personality – that would be the easy way out. Rather, she accentuates the faults in the hope that we might come to better understand the princess’s struggles. Marie-Thérèse’s virtues are self-evident within the novel’s opening two chapters – she is courageous, principled, devout, loyal, kind and dutiful. Her faults, however, are slowly revealed over the course of the story. At times, when Marie-Thérèse launches into one of her more didactic and heavy-handed monologues on the virtues of State Catholicism, it’s difficult not to associate it with the mind-numbing exhortations of modern-day evangelicals in their born-again fervour. Miss Vidal also shows us the occasional paranoiac conspiracy theory swirling around in the princess’s deluded and damaged brain, in which she blames the entire French Revolution on freemasonry. She genuinely believes that the entire thing was the result of a long-term atheistic conspiracy, rather than what it really was – the more terrifying reality of mob violence run amok and then codified into legalised hysterical idealism. The author then describes moments of Marie-Thérèse being supremely lacking in charity – her ‘cold fury’ when she hears that the pious Duchesse d’Orléans has been left unmolested by the Revolution, simply because her husband was both a freemason and a republican, when other equally religious aristocratic ladies have been slaughtered on the steps of the guillotine. There are also dozens of moments in which Marie-Thérèse is cold, rude or awkward to those around her. And what makes this all so brilliant within the context of the novel is that it actually makes us like Marie-Thérèse even more than we might have if she had been perfect. Miss Vidal shows us that Madame Royale is more than aware that she’s being rude or taciturn; she can feel her manner alienating people and she tries desperately to inject herself with some of her mother’s fabled charm. All to no avail. And it’s this struggle – not just to be right and to do the right thing, but to be charming and to do the gracious thing – which makes your heart ache a little for Miss Vidal’s heroine. It’s the ongoing daily struggles of her life – so far removed from the “happily ever after” we might have expected – which makes Marie-Thérèse a very unusual and profoundly moving sort of heroine. As characterisations go, it’s a fine example of the craft of the historical novelist.

As I have said, the lead character in Madame Royale is expertly drawn. However, this is also a novel populated by a whole range of other minor characters from the period – the future King George IV of Britain, Marie-Antoinette’s former admirer Count von Fersen, the enigmatic Knights of The Faith, the feisty Duchesse de Berry and the handsome, ambitious Archduke Karl von Hapsburg. Three of the subsidiary characterisations in this novel deserve a special mention, however, and in all three cases, they are interestingly enough characters of whom we are not really supposed to approve – personally, politically or both. The first is the exiled de jure Queen of France, Marie-Joséphine of Savoy, by now sunk into a middle-aged melancholia. Historically speaking, the real Marie-Joséphine was quite possibly a repressed lesbian; she was certainly an un-repressed alcoholic. Whatever the truth, being married to a man such as Louis XVIII was bound to have made her life miserable anyway. Eaten away by the charade of her married life, consumed by guilt for her jealousy of the now-dead Marie-Antoinette, robbed of her former lavish lifestyle by the Revolution and sinking further and further into an abyss of alcoholism and depression, Marie-Joséphine is the novel's most pathetic character and the scene in which she dies, begging Marie-Thérèse to forgive her for her jealous spite of her mother, finally made me feel sympathy for an historical character whom I had always previously dismissed as a gaudy, irritating irrelevance. It was actually the scene in the novel I found the saddest and the one in which Marie-Thérèse’s full commitment to Christian teachings on forgiveness really shone through. Marie-Thérèse’s estranged cousin, Louis-Philippe, is another fascinating character. Handsome, sexually appealing and flawlessly polite, the fact that he is a prince with a strong and genuine commitment to left-wing ideology is a paradox which serves only to make him yet more attractive and more enigmatic. His idealism is so clueless that, like Marie-Thérèse, we struggled to condemn him entirely. It is also something of a relief to see a left-wing character presented in a pro-royalist novel as something other than a drooling sociopath. Finally, a word on my favourite characterisation in the entire novel - that rendered of the consummate political survivor, Talleyrand. Given that the novel itself is dedicated to the Immaculate Heart of Mary, I think it’s fair to say that it’s supremely unlikely that Miss Vidal personally approves of the man who began his career as a bishop in the pre-Revolutionary Catholic Church, before ditching it entirely and somehow managing to survive the Revolution, the Directory, the Bonaparte Empire and the restoration of the Monarchy with his fortune and political credit more or less completely intact. A compulsive womaniser, even in his days as a bishop, Talleyrand was devoted to his own personal fortune, social-climbing and a life of luxury and privilege. He was, moreover, a mass of contradictions – despite his apparent left-wing credentials, his closest friend was the King’s younger brother, the Comte d’Artois, one of the leaders of the French ultra-Right (the moment where Talleyrand announces how much he loves the prince is one of the novel’s most moving and surprising turns), despite making his peace with the republic, he lamented the ‘sweetness and grace’ of aristocratic life in the days before the Revolution and despite having abandoned his earlier oaths of loyalty to both throne and altar, Talleyrand has a strong obsession with beauty, charm and grace. Madame Royale captures all of this perfectly. It neither condemns nor praises Talleyrand. It is for the reader to draw their own conclusions about his paradoxically appealing and repugnant character and career. And, as far as I’m concerned, I would say that Madame Royale’s depiction of Talleyrand is one of the finest examples of historical characterisation currently in print. It’s a triumph. I never expected to feel anything but contempt for the former bishop, but, as with Marie-Joséphine, I found myself unexpectedly moved. And hats off to Miss Vidal for making that possible!

One thing I enjoyed very much in Trianon was Miss Vidal’s style of writing and I’m happy to say it returned again in Madame Royale. Whether it was intentional or not, I don’t know, but her approach of writing in a style very reminiscent of the memoirs of the actual period seemed to me to the perfect way of drawing you into the early 19th-century’s psychology, modes of expression and values. I've always loved that era's style of literary delivery and so Madame Royale was a treat to read, even from a stylistic point-of-view.

It is this style which allows the novel to tease out the full potential of one of its central storylines – the case of what really happened to Marie-Thérèse’s younger brother during the Revolution. Nowadays, of course, science has established beyond reasonable doubt that the boy died at the age of ten in a filthy republican jail, but in the early 1800s, there were no such certainties. The boy who should be king had simply vanished at the height of the Terror and no-one knew where he – or his body – was. In the years to come, the true fate of the “Lost Dauphin” (although by then he was technically Louis XVII) became one of the great obsessions in western European culture. It was very much the Grand Duchess Anastasia case of its day. I myself was so enraptured by it as a teenager that I wrote my aforementioned first play on the subject, although, in that production, I chose to have Louis-Charles live and one day return to Paris. It was only when I grew older that I suddenly realised that my portrait of the missing prince might have been a tad too idealistic. Having read anew the book I had been inspired to write All Those Who Suffered by, it occurred to me that given the horrific child abuse the young child had suffered, that (had he survived) it was highly unlikely that he would have been the confident, moral and determined young man I characterised him as in All Those Who Suffered. What Madame Royale does is grapple with the question I had missed during the writing of that play – it not only explores the full ramifications of the scandal of the missing boy-king from the point-of-view of his only surviving sister, but she also has Marie-Thérèse confront the upsetting idea that, even if her beloved brother is alive, he might be so damaged by what the revolutionaries did to him that he would have to be hidden away from public gaze forever, anyway. If I were ever to return to All Those Who Suffered, I would certainly bear these things in mind. By exploring the fascinating case of the missing prince from Marie-Thérèse’s agonised perspective, Elena Maria manages to make us think once again about what it was like to live at the centre of an affair which everybody else simply found to be an entertaining conspiracy theory.

There are moments in Madame Royale which work better than others. Its weakest section by far is its prologue, set on the eve of the Revolution. It has a chilling conclusion, told through the eyes of a courtesan, but its opening seems slightly too obvious and the representation of the dissolute left-wing prince, Philippe Égalité, lacks the subtlety and nuances of some of Miss Vidal’s other characters. The novel's strongest sections, I would say, are the death of Queen Marie-Joséphine, the visit to Madame Simon and the terrible moment at a party in Vienna, which I will not spoil for readers.

Finally, a note on one of the major subjects of the book – religion. In a way, I think one can say that Elena Maria Vidal’s first two novels are quintessentially novels of martyrdom. But not in the traditional sense of the word. Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette, the main characters of Trianon, were not put to death because they were Christians; the fact that they were Christians only increased the French Revolution’s ire against them, but any historian worth their salt will tell you that the real reason the King and Queen of France were executed was politics, not piety. It was because they were royals, not Catholics, which spurred the First Republic to drive the doctrine of enforced Equality home with the blade of the guillotine. Their daughter Marie-Thérèse did not even suffer a violent death. Rather, she died peacefully in her bed in a mansion on the outskirts of Vienna in 1851, at the age of seventy-three.

Proclaiming that Trianon is a novel of martyrdom is however much easier than making the same case for Madame Royale. Looking at the final years of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette’s lives, it’s difficult not to be drawn to the conclusion that, as Miss Vidal’s novel contends, theirs was a kind of martyrdom. Alright, it might not have been as clear-cut as Saint Perpetua being thrown to wild beasts in the ampitheatre or Saint Anastasia’s agonising death in the flames, but their story is not much less tragic, nor any the less cruel. Beginning with the siege of Versailles in the autumn of 1789, when their bodyguard was butchered and their home ransacked, the King and Queen progressed through four purgatorial – and then hellish - years in which they experienced house arrest, physical intimidation, threats of assassination, the enforced exile of the rest of their family, an unrelenting and savage legal assault on their religion, ritual public humiliation, the lynching of the queen’s closest friend, several massacres of their supporters, imprisonment, separation, perjured trials and charges of incest, adultery, treason, espionage, embezzlement, corruption, paedophilia and attempted genocide. The Queen, once left a widow, was also forced to endure separation from her son (who was then, essentially, tortured and brutalised to death) and finally separation from her daughter.

Given the appalling gradient of disaster the French Royal Family suffered, the casual observer might be forgiven for concluding that Marie-Thérèse was the member of the clan who got off lightly. After all, she survived and lived into her eighth decade and, despite certain financial worries, she was never genuinely or actually poor. Moreover, given the eternal fascination of her mother’s story, isn’t it always going to be the case that by virtue of comparison Marie-Thérèse’s story simply seems far less interesting? Well, yes. In terms of drama, that’s an undeniably valid conclusion. But if Marie-Antoinette’s is a martyrdom of melodrama, Marie-Thérèse’s is one of the mundane. This is a woman who struggles on a daily basis with issues about her own personal behaviour, familial obligations, duties to one’s country, one’s faith, one’s place in society, an often-frustrating marriage, a lost love, difficult friends, unhappiness, politics, love and money. Where Marie-Antoinette’s struggles were executed in the arena of great drama and earth-shattering events, her daughter’s is carried out in the everyday and it’s that element of her story, I think, which gives Madame Royale its greatest emotional appeal. Marie-Thérèse-Charlotte is not perfect, but she is a great and courageous lady struggling to do what she thinks is right and proper on a daily basis. This policy often brings her personal unhappiness, but also brings her great joy and, at the very last, the ability to stand before God with a clean conscience and say with honesty that she had always tried to do the right thing. She had never been cruel, nor selfish, nor spiteful, nor dishonest. Whatever one might think of the French Restoration and the final years of monarchy in France, whatever one might think of Catholicism and aristocracy, privilege and power, the one salient point Madame Royale is trying to make is that the story of a woman of principle, decency and integrity is one that’s very much worth telling.

When I finished reading Madame Royale, I didn’t quite know what to think or say. The final scene, where the princess’s coffin passes by the ranks of Slovenian peasants gathered to watch her funeral, left me feeling slightly bereft. I also felt strangely angry at history for not having allotted Marie-Thérèse a kinder destiny, but what I couldn’t fault was the devotion to telling that destiny on the part of the author. They say that the greatest story in History is the Truth and in Madame Royale Elena Maria Vidal certainly proves that’s the case. The sights, sounds and smells of 19th-century Europe are all brilliantly captured in this immaculately researched and exquisite novel, which, as I’ve said, recalls the great memoirists of the 1800s. Madame Royale is an unforgettable portrait of a royal life torn between religion, politics, revolution, mystery, heartache and intrigue and I was honoured to be asked to endorse it, thrilled to be asked to review it and moved to be able to read it. I concluded my review of Trianon by saying that I was sure that Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette would have been touched by Miss Vidal’s literary portrait of them, I am even more certain that, even if she wouldn’t have been able to express it as fulsomely as her mother, Marie-Thérèse-Charlotte would have been flattered and deeply grateful for the portrait rendered of her in the pages of Madame Royale. It is a fantastic tribute to one of Europe’s most tragic but courageous princesses.

Gareth Russell

Saturday 27 November 2010

The House of Plantagenet: A Genealogy

In preparation for the next stage of this blog's Queens of England series, I'm posting a genealogy of the House of Plantagenet, structured around its kings - the two Henrys, two Richards, three Edwards and one deeply unfortunate John. Next week, I plan to post two articles - a review of Elena Maria Vidal's fantastic second novel, Madame Royale, a sequel to Trianon - followed by Chapter 5 of the Queens of England series, "How am I possible?": The Life of Eleanor of Aquitaine, Queen of France and Queen of England.

The royal family listed below, who ruled England from 1154 until 1399, are referred to by the name "Plantagenet," although it is generally accepted that they were not commonly known by that name until several centuries after their demise. At the time, they were more usually referred to as the House of Anjou or the Angevins, as a reference to the ancestral homeland of Henry II's father, Geoffrey, Count of Anjou. However, since it is by the name of Plantagenet that they are more frequently referenced in later histories and in most of today's sources, I have chosen to stick with that for clarity's sake. It was an immense and fascinating period in British history, in which Ireland and then Wales were not only brought into the commonwealth for the first time, but the full and recognisable splendour and horror of the English Middle Ages was unfurled under a succession of larger-than-life monarchs and their brides.

Given the paucity of medieval records, I should also like to point out that several of these genealogies listed below may be "inaccurate" to some people, in that I have had to make educated guesses based on my own assumptions about which of the sources are most likely to be correct. 

Here follows a genealogy of the Royal House of Plantagenet ...

(Reigned December 19th, 1154 - July 6th, 1189)
Sometimes known as "Henry FitzEmpress," "Henry Plantagenet," or "Henry Curtmantle"

It was during King Henry's reign that Ireland was first added to the monarchy's commonwealth. Legal alterations to Ireland's position within the monarchy were subsequently made in 1494, 1541, 1800 and 1921. 
Son of Geoffrey Plantagenet, Count of Anjou, and Maud, Dowager Holy Roman Empress and "Lady of the English"

Pre-regnal titles: Count of Touraine and Count of Maine (1151), Duke of Normandy and Count of Anjou (1151) and Duke of Aquitaine suo uxoris (1152)

Born in Le Mans, Anjou, on March 5th, 1133

Died at the Château de Chinon on July 6th, 1189

Buried at Fontevrault Abbey, France

Henry II was married, whilst still Duke of Normandy, at Poitiers Cathedral, France, on May 18th 1152, to Eleanor, Duchess of Aquitaine, daughter of William X, Duke of Aquitaine, and his wife, Eleanor de la Rochefoucauld. Prior to this marriage, Eleanor had been Queen of France by virtue of her marriage to Louis VII, King of France, with whom she had issue. The marriage ended in divorce. Queen Eleanor was born in the Aquitaine, possibly at the Palais d'Ombriere in Bordeaux, in approximately 1121 and she died of natural causes at Fontevrault Abbey on April 1st, 1204, where she was subsequently buried.

Issue of the Marriage of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine: -

1. WILLIAM, Count of Poitiers (1153 - 1156)

2. HENRY, the so-called "Young King" (1155 - 1183). He married Marguerite of France, later Queen-consort of Hungary, and had issue.

3. MATILDA, Duchess of Saxony (1156 - 1189). She married Heinrich the Lion, Duke of Saxony and Duke of Bavaria, and had issue.

4. RICHARD I, King of England (1157 - 1199). He married Berengaria of Navarre.

5. GEOFFREY, Duke of Brittany and Earl of Richmond (1158 - 1186). He married Constance of Brittany and had issue.

6. ELEANOR, Queen of Castile (1161 - 1214). She married Alfonso VIII, King of Castile, and had issue, including the future queen-consorts of León, France, Aragon and Portugal, and two future rulers of Castile itself.

7. JOAN, Queen of Sicily (1165 - 1199). She married firstly to William the Good, King of Sicily, and had issue. After King William's death, Joan married secondly to Raymond VI, Comte de Toulouse, and also had issue. She later took the veil as a nun at Fontevrault Abbey.

8. JOHN, King of England (1166 - 1216). He married firstly to Isobel, Countess of Gloucester, and after their divorce to Isabelle of Angoulême, by whom he had issue.

Issue of King Henry's affair with a prostitute called Ikenai: -
i. Geoffrey, Archbishop of York (died 1212)
ii. Peter (born and died young)

Issue of King Henry's affair with Lady Nesta Blewer: -
iii. Morgan, Bishop of Durham

Issue of King Henry's affairs with various unknown women: -
iv. William, Earl of Salisbury (died 1226). He married Lady Ela Fitzpatrick and had issue.
v. Matilda, Abbess of Barking (died 1202)
vi. Hugh, Bishop of Lincoln (died 1235)
vii. Richard (born and died young)

HENRY II was succeeded by his third son, RICHARD I.


(Reigned July 6th, 1189 - April 6th, 1199)
 Sometimes known as "Richard the Lionheart"

Son of Henry II, King of England, and his queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine

Pre-regnal titles: Duke of Aquitaine (1172)

Born at Beaumont Palace, Oxford, on September 8th, 1157

Died on military campaign at the siege of Chalus in France on April 6th, 1199

Buried at Fontevrault Abbey in France

Richard I was married in the Chapel of Saint George at Lissomol, Cyprus, on May 12th, 1191, to Berengaria of Navarre, daughter of Sancho VI, King of Navarre, and his queen, Beatrice of Castile. Queen Berengaria was born in Béarn, Navarre, sometime around 1164 and she died at the Abbey l'Espan in Anjou, where she had taken the veil as a nun, sometime around 1230. Her body was initially interred there, but was moved in 1821 on the orders of King Louis XVIII of France to be re-buried in the Cathedral of St.-Julien in Le Mans.

King Richard never fathered a child with either queen or a mistress. It is highly unlikely on geographical grounds that he was the biological father of two children sometimes accredited to him, including Philip, Seigneur de Cognac.

RICHARD I was succeeded by his youngest brother, JOHN.


(Reigned April 6th, 1189 - October 19th, 1216) 
Sometimes known as "John Lack-Land," "John Soft-Sword" or "Bad King John"

Son of Henry II, King of England, and his queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine

Pre-regnal titles: He held the courtesy title of "King of Ireland" from 1177, Count of Mortain (1189), Earl of Gloucester suo uxoris (1199)

Born at Beaumont Palace, Oxford, on Christmas Eve, 1164

Died at Newark Castle, Lincoln, on October 19th, 1216

Buried in Worcester Cathedral, properly called the Cathedral Church of Christ and Blessed Mary the Virgin of Worcester

John was married, whilst still Count of Mortain, at Marlborough Castle on August 29th, 1189 to Isobel of Gloucester, daughter and heiress of William, Earl of Gloucester, and his wife, Lady Hawise (née de Beaumont). Isobel was born on one of her father's estates sometime around 1176 and she died of natural causes during the winter of 1217. The marriage of John and Isobel was declared legally invalid on grounds of consanguinity on August 30th, 1199. She is buried in Canterbury Cathedral.

John was married for the second time at Bordeaux Castle on August 24th, 1100 to Isabelle of Angoulême, daughter of Aymer, Comte d'Angoulême, and his wife Alice (née de Courtenay), a granddaughter of Louis VI, King of France. Queen Isabelle was born in France sometime around 1187 and she died of natural causes at Fontevrault Abbey on May 31st, 1246, where she was subsequently buried.

Issue of the Marriage of John and Isabelle of Angoulême: -

1. HENRY III, King of England (1207 - 1272). He married Eleanor of Provence and had issue.

2. RICHARD, King of the Romans (1209 - 1272). He married Isabella, Dowager Countess of Hertford, and had issue. After her death, he married Sanchia of Provence and also had issue. After her death, he married thirdly to Beatrice von Falkenburg.

3. JOAN, Queen of Scots (1210 - 1238). She married Alexander II, King of Scots.

4. ISABELLA, Holy Roman Empress and Queen of Sicily (1214 - 1241). She married Frederick Barbarossa, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Sicily, and had issue.

5. ELEANOR, Countess of Pembroke (1215 - 1275). She married firstly William, 2nd Earl of Pembroke. After his death, she became Countess of Leicester thanks to her marriage to Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester, with whom she had issue. Following his death in battle, she took the veil at Montargis Abbey in France.

Issue of King John's affair with Mrs. Clementina Pinel: -
i. Joan, Princess of Wales (died 1237). She married Llywelyn ap Gruffydd, Prince of Wales, and had  issue.
Issue of King John's liaison with Hawise de Tracy: -

ii. Oliver (killed at the Battle of Damietta in modern-day Egypt in 1290)

Issue of King John's affairs with various unknown women: -

iii. Richard Fitzjohn, Baron Chilham. He married Lady Rohese of Dover and had issue.
iv. Osbert Gifford (died 1216)
v. Geoffrey FitzRoy (died 1205)
vi. Sir John Fitzjohn (died 1242)
vii. Odo FitzRoy (died 1242)
viii. Richard, Constable of Wallingford Castle 
ix. Henry Fitzjohn
x. Matilda, Abbess of Barking Convent
xi. Isabella la Blanche

At the time of his death in 1216, King John was survived by both of his wives - his ex-wife, Isobel, and his queen, Isabelle. Isobel had re-married after the annulment of her marriage to John, becoming Countess of Essex and Sussex thanks to her marriage to Geoffrey de Mandeville, Earl of Essex and Sussex. After his death, she married for a third time to Hubert de Burgh, Earl of Kent, to whom she was married at the time of her death in 1217. There was no offspring from any of her marriages. 

Queen Isabelle re-married to Hugh de Lusignan, Comte de la Marche, and had issue.

JOHN was succeeded by his eldest son, HENRY III.

(Reigned October 19th, 1216 - November 16th, 1272) 

It was during King Henry's reign that England's formal union and claim to the Duchy of Normandy, which had existed since 1066, was renounced under the terms of the Treaty of Paris (1259.)

Son of John, King of England, and his queen, Isabelle of Angoulême

Born in Winchester Castle on October 1st, 1207

Died at the Palace of Westminster on November 16th, 1272

Buried in Westminster Abbey

Henry III was married in Canterbury Cathedral on January 14th, 1236 to Eleanor of Provence, daughter of Raymond Berenger, Comte de Provence, and his wife, Beatrice of Savoy. Queen Eleanor was born at Aix-en-Provence in France, sometime around 1223, and she died of natural causes at Amesbury Abbey, where she had taken the veil as a nun on June 25th, 1291, where she was subsequently buried.

Issue of the Marriage between Henry III and Eleanor of Provence: -

1. EDWARD I, King of England (1239 - 1307). He married twice - firstly to Eleanor of Castile and after her death to Marguerite of France. There was issue from both marriages.
2. MARGARET, Queen of Scots (1240 - 1275). She married Alexander III, King of Scots, and had issue, including the future queen-consort of Norway.

3. BEATRICE, Duchess of Brittany (1242 - 1275). She married twice - firstly to John de Montfort, Earl of Richmond, and after his death to Jean II, Duke of Brittany, with whom she had issue.

4. EDMUND, Earl of Leicster and claimant to the throne of Sicily (1245 - 1296). He married twice - firstly to Lady Aveline Fortibus, Countess of Aumale, and after her death, he married Blanche of Artois, Queen Mother of Navarre, by whom he had issue.

5. RICHARD (?1247 - 1256)

6. JOHN (?1250 - 1256)

7. WILLIAM (?1251 - 1256)

8. KATHERINE (1252 - 1257)

9. HENRY (born and died young)

HENRY III was succeeded by his eldest son, Edward I.


(Reigned November 16th, 1272 - July 7th, 1307) 
Sometimes known as "Edward Longshanks" or "Edward, Hammer of the Scots"

It was during King Edward's reign that Wales was conquered and became part of the same monarchy as England

Son of Henry III, King of England, and his queen, Eleanor of Provence

Pre-regnal titles: Duke of Gascony and Earl of Chester (1254)

Born at the Palace of Westminster in June 1239

Died on military campaign in Northumberland on July 7th, 1307

Buried in Westminster Abbey

Edward I was married, whilst still Duke of Gascony, at the Abbey of Las Huelgas in Burgos, Castile, in October 1254 to Eleanor of Castile, daughter of Ferdinand III, King of Castile, and his queen, Jeanne d'Aumale. Queen Eleanor was born in her father's kingdom, either in 1244 or 1245, and she died of natural causes at Herby Manor, Nottinghamshire, on November 28th, 1290. She was buried in Westminster Abbey.

Edward I married for a second time in Canterbury Cathedral in September 1299 to Marguerite of France, daughter of Philippe III, King of France, and his queen, Marie of Brabant. Queen Marguerite was born in Paris, some time around 1279, and she died of natural causes either in 1317 or 1318. She was buried at Greyfriars Church in London, but her tomb was destroyed during the Reformation.

Issue of the Marriage of Edward I and Eleanor of Castile: -

1. ELEANOR, Queen of Aragon (died 1298). She married twice - firstly to Alfonso III, King of Aragon, and after his death, Henry III, Count of Bar, with whom she had issue.

2. JOANNA (born and died 1265)

3. JOHN (1266 - 1272)

4. HENRY (1267 - 1274)

5. JULIANA (born and died 1271)

6. JOAN, Countess of Gloucester and of Hertford (1272 - 1307). She married twice - firstly to Lord Gilbert de Clare, 3rd Earl of Gloucester and 7th Earl of Hertford, with whom she had issue. After his death, she married Lord Ralph de Monthermer, Earl of Atholl, with whom she also had issue. 

7. ALFONSO, Earl of Chester (1273 - 1284)

8. MARGARET, Duchess of Brabant (1275 - 1318). She married Johann the Peaceful, Duke of Brabant, with whom she had issue.

9. BERENICE (1276 - 1279)

10. ISABELLA (born and died 1279)

11. ELIZABETH, Countess of Holland and Zeeland (1282 - 1316). She married twice - firstly to Johann I, Count of Holland and Zeeland, and after his death, Humphrey de Bohun, 4th Earl of Hereford and Essex, with whom she had issue.

12. EDWARD II, King of England (1284 - 1327). He married Isabella of France and had issue.

13. BEATRICE (born and died 1286)

14. BLANCHE (born and died 1289)

Issue of the Marriage between Edward I and Marguerite of France: -

1. THOMAS, Earl of Norfolk (1300 - 1338). He married twice - firstly to Alice Hales, a knight's daughter, with whom he had issue. After her death, he married Lady Mary Cobham.

2. EDMUND, Earl of Arundel (1301 - executed 1330). He married Margaret, Baroness Wake of Liddell, by whom he had issue.

3. ELEANOR (1306 - 1311).

On chronological grounds, it is unlikely that Edward I was the biological father of the Lord John Botetourt (died 1324.)

EDWARD I was succeeded by his son, EDWARD II.


(Reigned July 7th, 1307 - Deposed January 20th, 1327)

Son of Edward I, King of England, and his queen, Eleanor of Castile

Pre-regnal titles: Edward II was the first heir-to-the-throne to carry the title of "Prince of Wales," which subsequently became the traditional title reserved for England's heir-apparent, similar to the title of "Dauphin" in France and "Crown Prince" in various other nations. He carried the title, and that of Earl of Chester, from 1301; he was also Count of Ponthieu and Mortain from 1290 and Duke of Aquitaine from 1306.

Born at Caernarvon Castle, Wales, on April 25th, 1284

Murdered at Berkeley Castle, Gloucestershire, presumably on September 21st, 1327

Buried in Gloucester Cathedral, properly called the Cathedral Church of Saint Peter and the Holy and Indivisible Trinity

Edward II  was married in Boulogne Cathedral, France, in January 1308 to Isabella of France, daughter of Philippe IV, King of France and Jeanne I, Queen of Navarre. Queen Isabella was born in Paris, some time around 1293, and she died of natural causes at Castle Rising in Norfolk on August 22nd, 1358. She was buried in Greyfriars Church, London, but her tomb was destroyed during the Reformation.

Issue of the Marriage of Edward II and Isabella of France: -

1. EDWARD III, King of England (1312 - 1377). He married Philippa of Hainault and had issue.

2. JOHN, Earl of Cornwall (1316 - 1336)

3. ELEANOR, Countess of Gueldres and Zutphen (1318 - 1355). She married Reginald II, Count of Gueldres and Zutphen, with whom she had issue.

4. JOAN, Queen of Scots (1321 - 1362). She married David II, King of Scots.

It is fundamentally unlikely that Edward II was the biological father of an illegitimate child called Adam.

EDWARD II was deposed, forced to abdicate and then murdered in favour of, but not on the orders of, his son, EDWARD III.


(Reigned January 20th, 1307 - June 21st, 1377)
Son of Edward II, King of England, and his queen, Isabella of France

Pre-regnal titles: Earl of Chester (1312), Count of Ponthieu and Count of Montreuil, then Duke of Aquitaine (1325)

Born at Windsor Castle on November 13th, 1312

Died following a stroke at Sheen Palace on June 21st, 1377

Buried in Westminster Abbey

Edward III was married at York Minster on January 24th, 1328, to Philippa of Hainault, daughter of Wilhelm the Good, Count of Hainault and Holland, and his wife, Jeanne de Valois. Queen Philippa was born sometime around 1314, probably in Holland, and she died of natural causes on the Feast of the Assumption 1369 at Windsor Castle. She is buried in Westminster Abbey.

Issue of the Marriage of Edward III and Philippa of Hainault: -

1. EDWARD, Prince of Wales (1330 - 1376.) He married Joan, Countess of Kent, and had issue, including the future king, Richard II.

2. ISABELLA, Comtesse de Soissons (1332 - 1382.) She married Enguerrand de Coucy, Comte de Soissons and Earl of Bedford, with whom she had issue.

3. JOAN (1335 - 1348.)

4.  WILLIAM (born and died 1337)
5. LIONEL, Duke of Clarence (1338 - 1368.) He married twice - firstly to Elizabeth, Countess of Ulster, by whom he had issue and after her death, Yolanda Visconti, daughter of the Duke of Milan.

6. JOHN, Duke of Lancaster and claimant to the thrones of Castile and León (1340 - 1399.) He married three times - firstly to Lady Blanche of Lancaster, by whom he had issue, including the future king, Henry IV. After her death, his second wife was Princess Constanza of Castile, via whom John acquired his controversial claim to two thrones in the Iberian peninsula. Their marriage had offspring. Finally, after Constanza's death, he married Lady Katherine Swynford, by whom he had already had issue.

7. EDMUND, Duke of York (1341 - 1402.) He married twice - firstly to Princess Isabella of Castile, his elder brother's sister-in-law, by whom he had issue, and after her death, he married Lady Joan Holland.

8. BLANCHE (born and died 1342.)

9. MARY, Duchess of Brittany (1344 - 1362.) She married Jean IV, Duke of Brittany.

10. MARGARET, Countess of Pembroke (1346 - 1361.) She married John Hastings, 2nd Earl of Pembroke.

11. THOMAS (1347 - 1348.)

12. WILLIAM (born and died 1348)

13. THOMAS, Duke of Gloucester (1355 - murdered 1397.) He married Lady Eleanor de Bohun, by whom he had issue.

Issue of King Edward's affair with Alice Perrers: -

i. Sir John de Southeray (1365 - 1384.) He married Lady Matilda Percy.
ii. Joan, who married Mr. Robert Skerne and had issue.
iii. Jane, who married Mr. Robert Northland.

On chronological grounds, it is highly unlikely that King Edward was the biological father of Nicholas Lytlington, the future Abbot of Westminster.

EDWARD III was succeeded by his grandson, RICHARD II.


(Reigned June 21st, 1377 - Deposed August 19th, 1399)
Son of Edward, Prince of Wales and his wife, Joan, Countess of Kent

Pre-regnal titles: Prince of Wales, Earl of Chester and Earl of Cornwall (1376)

Born in Bordeaux, France, in January 1366

Murdered at Pontefract Castle in the early months of 1400

Buried initially in the parish church of King's Langley in Hertfordshire, but later re-buried in Westminster Abbey on the orders of King Henry V

Richard II was married at the Palace of Westminster in January 1382 to Anne of Bohemia, daughter of the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles IV, and his empress, Elisabeth of Pomerania. Queen Anne was born in Prague on May 11th, 1366 and she died during an outbreak of the plague at Sheen Palace on June 7th, 1394. She was buried in Westminster Abbey.

Richard II was married for the second time in Saint Nicholas's Church, Calais, in November 1396 to Isabelle de Valois, daughter of Charles VI, King of France, and his queen, Isabelle of Ingolstadt-Bavaria. Queen Isabelle was born in the Louvre on November 9th, 1389 and she died in childbirth at the Château de Blois on September 13th, 1409. She was initially buried in the Abbey of St.-Laumer in Blois, but her remains were later removed to the Church of the Celestines in Paris.

It is fundamentally unlikely on chronological grounds that Richard II could have been the father of the young man known as Richard Maudelyn.

At the time of his murder, King Richard was survived by his second wife, Isabelle de Valois, who subsequently married Charles, Duc d'Orléans, with whom she had issue.

By the time of his murder, RICHARD II had already been forcibly succeeded by his cousin, HENRY IV.
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