Friday 30 April 2010

Anne Boleyn: Fatal Attractions (2010)

Claire at The Anne Boleyn Files offers a great review of the controversial new biography Anne Boleyn: Fatal Attractions, written by Professor G.W. Bernard of the University of Southampton, whose previous works includes the highly pro-Henry VIII book, The King's Reformation.

I am hoping to do a short review of this book myself at some point, but I doubt I will be able to do better than that posted today by Claire on her fantastic website, which recently very kindly featured my article on Anne Boleyn's birth.

There has been some excitement in the British newspapers about there finally being a biography which "proves" Anne Boleyn was guilty of the crimes for which she was put to death in 1536. However, it turns out that the subject-matter of Professor Bernard's book is a good deal less certain than they - or he - would like and he certainly does not argue that she committed incest with her brother, Viscount Rochford.

Claire's conclusion of Anne Boleyn: Fatal Attractions is a very fair one, all things considered: -

"Bernard finishes his book by saying that the Anne Boleyn he has presented is not the Anne who held Henry off for years, who inspired the break with Rome, who had a leading role in the English Reformation and who was the innocent victim of conspiracy. Instead, he explains how he has tried to “recover the historical Anne Boleyn” by reviewing all of the evidence. Although I do not agree with many of his theories, I have to applaud Bernard for his endeavours and for putting together such a good book. I’m glad to say that I can enjoy a book and respect Bernard’s views without agreeing with him. My Anne is still an innocent Anne and a victim of an awful miscarriage of justice."

You can read the full review here.

Thursday 29 April 2010

Did a volcanic eruption in Iceland help cause the French Revolution?

Historical novelist and blogger, Elena Maria Vidal, comments on the theories that a large volcanic eruption in 18th-century Iceland may have helped bring about the French Revolution of 1789.

British Royal Records and Trivia

The Longest-Reigning Sovereign in British history was Queen Victoria, who ruled from the age of eighteen in 1837 until her death at the age of eighty-one in 1901. With a reign of just over 63 years, Victoria narrowly beat the previous record-holder, her grandfather, King George III, who ruled from 1760 until 1820. The longest-reigning monarch in world history was Pepi II, who was Pharaoh of Egypt for 94 years, coming to the throne as a 6 year-old and dying a centenarian.

The Shortest-Reigning Sovereign in British history was Lady Jane Grey (1537 - 1554), who was Queen for just under a fortnight in the summer of 1553. A great-granddaughter of King Henry VII, Jane was pushed onto the throne by her dying cousin, Edward VI, who didn’t want the throne to pass to his Catholic half-sister, Mary Tudor. Jane reluctantly accepted, under pressure from her parents and her religious convictions, but she was overthrown nine days later when Mary, the rightful heiress, seized the throne and Jane was executed a year later, at the age of seventeen.

The Oldest Ruler is the current Sovereign, Queen Elizabeth II (b. 1926), who is 84 years-old. Her Majesty passed the previous record-holder, her great-great-grandmother, Queen Victoria, in 2007.

The Oldest Member of the Royal Family was the late Queen Mother, mother of the current Queen and widow of King George VI. Born Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon in 1900, the Queen Mother died in 2002, at the age of 101.

The Oldest Royal to come to the Throne in Britain was the Duke of St. Andrews, who became King William IV at the age of 64 in 1830. Nicknamed "Sailor Bill" because of his love of the navy, he was the younger brother of King George IV, who had died childless.

The Youngest Royal to come to the Throne anywhere in the British Isles was Mary, Queen of Scots (1542 - 1587), who became reigning Queen of Scotland at the age of just six days old, following the sudden death of her father, King James V. In England, the record-holder was King Henry VI (1421 - 1471), the son of King Henry V and Queen Catherine de Valois, who came to the throne at the age of only nine months in 1422, following his father's death on military campaign.

The tallest British monarch was King Edward I, who ruled from 1272 to 1307 and who stood at 6ft 3in in height.

Tuesday 27 April 2010

The Last Empress of China

The Mad Monarchist's blog carries a very interesting post on the life of the last Empress of China - perhaps best-known to many in the West thanks to the heartbreaking performance of actress Joan Chen in the 1987 movie The Last Emperor (above, on the right.)

The trailer for The Last Emperor can be seen here.

Monday 26 April 2010

Why is our reality TV so vulgar and boring?

I have just finished reading a fantastic article by British actress and style icon, Joan Collins, best-known for her role as the scheming and glamorous Alexis Carrington in the 1980s soap opera Dynasty, as well as for acting opposite Bette Davis in The Virgin Queen, Richard Burton in Sea Wife, Gregory Peck in The Bravados, Paul Newman in Rally 'Round the Flag, Boys!, Bing Crosby in The Road to Hong Kong, Oliver Reed in The Big Sleep and These Old Broads, with Elizabeth Taylor and Debbie Reynolds.

Miss Collins is by no means a prude, but everything she writes about today's television and its attitudes I agree with 100%. She is not saying that everything on television should be like Lark Rise to Candleford, nor is she saying that all reality TV shows are ipso facto disgusting, puerile, artificial or stupid. She is not an intellectual snob, who hates things just because they are either popular or populist; she is not saying that everything has to be high-brow and impenetrable to the ordinary man in order for it to have some value. There's nothing wrong with something being fun for fun's sake - just look at shows like Glee, which isn't gritty, grimey, issue-y or even particularly realistic - just sheer fun. Thank goodness! You can engage with popular culture without being stupid about it - just look at movies like The Devil Wears Prada, Mean Girls or The Blind Side. All populist subjects but with really smart, sassy scripts behind them. Not everyone is an intellectual, or wants to watch brilliant and worthy movies on heavier subject matter.

However, it's a shame when so much in entertainment panders to the lowest common denominator - people's stupidity. Shows with phenomenal scripts and intellectual subject matter like Mad Men, Frasier, The West Wing, Rome and The Wire do (or did) phenomenally well - so why are we all so afraid of seeming clever?

Like Miss Collins, I'm not saying that vulgarity is just to do with sex on television, it isn't. (There wasn't a single sex scene in the entire seven series of The West Wing; there barely failed to be one every seven minutes in Rome.) Vulgarity is something much worse and more insidious - it's about people being sloppily dressed, lazy, tacky and, worst of all, revelling in not being "a smart arse," or "posh". And what they mean by that, in a nutshell, is that they're proud of being stupid. Anyone who has seen the vast sea of inadequacy that annually crashes over Big Brother or the loud-mouthed, self-indulgent morons of Britain's Next Top Model will know what I'm talking about.

Whatever happened to wanting to look our best and to be charming, elegant, clever, funny, interesting or even talented? When did talent become the option, rather than a necessity?

Anyway, I enjoyed reading Miss Collins' article tremendously. It was published in today's Daily Mail and can be read here.

Sunday 25 April 2010

The Northern Ireland Rich List

Despite being one of the smallest parts of the United Kingdom, Northern Ireland has always been amongst its wealthiest on average, even during the days of the Troubles. To this day, it apparently has the highest ratio of Mercedes Benz cars to people anywhere in the western world - including Germany.

Lord Belmont in Northern Ireland has posted a list of the Top 10 Richest People in Northern Ireland. Usually, I'm not too interested in the "Rich Lists," but in this case, from the point of view of my novel Popular (published by Penguin, February 2011), the list would apparently place the fictitious Anthony Harper, father of lead character, Meredith, as the fourth richest man in Ulster.

Saturday 24 April 2010

Next Week

A bit like my Holy Week posts, from next week (May 1st) I will be posting on the fall of Anne Boleyn (above), beginning with her last public appearance on May 1st following through to her death on May 19th - covering her arrest, her imprisonment, her trial and the fates of those accused alongside her.

Wednesday 21 April 2010

Marie-Antoinette's Adopted Children

American novelist, Elena Maria Vidal, profiles a lesser-known aspect of the private life of Marie-Antoinette, Queen of France, the heroine of Miss Vidal’s first novel, Trianon.

Whilst many people know that Marie-Antoinette and her husband, King Louis XVI, were the parents of four children – Marie-Thérèse (1778 – 1851), Louis-Joséph (1781 – 1789), Louis XVII (1785 – 1795) and Sophie-Hélène (1786 – 1787) – few know that the Queen actually adopted several impoverished children and their story is told here on Elena Maria Vidal’s superb blog, Tea at Trianon.

Monday 19 April 2010

The Fethard-on-Sea Boycott: Ireland, 1957

Irish journalist Tim Fanning has just published his new book The Fethard-on-Sea Boycott about a notorious sectarian dispute in Ireland in the late 1950s, concerning a Catholic father, his Protestant wife and their two young daughters. The events were previously dramatised in the controversial movie A Love Divided (1999) and Mr. Fanning’s well-reviewed book has re-ignited interest in the scandal which rocked Ireland - north and south - half a century ago. Having had the book recommended to me, I did some research into the original case and the story of the boycott is truly a fascinating one.

On a wet Saturday morning of April 1957 in the southern Irish town of Fethard-on-Sea in County Wexford, some local people spotted the family car of their neighbour, Sheila Cloney (30), accidentally backing into her own gatepost, before speeding off out of the town. In the back of the car were Mrs. Cloney’s two daughters – Eileen (6) and Mary (3). Their journey was the 176 miles to the Irish border with Northern Ireland.

When Sheila’s farmer husband, Seán, returned from work that evening, he was confused as to his wife and daughters’ whereabouts: he called over to Sheila’s parents, who lived nearby, but they had not seen her. Then, he visited her siblings, who also lived in the town – but, again, they had no idea where Sheila was and assumed that she had been at home with the children all day. Eventually, Seán reported Sheila, Eileen and Mary as missing to the Garda Síochona (the Irish police) and a search was started for the missing Cloneys.

At the age of thirty, there was nothing about Sheila Cloney that would have led anyone to think she would cause a scandal by fleeing her hometown without telling her husband or her parents. Like her husband Seán, Sheila had been born in Fethard-on-Sea, the daughter of a local cattle dealer and his wife. Along with the rest of her family, Sheila was raised as a member of Fethard-on-Sea’s small Protestant community – attending the local Church of Ireland, until she moved to Britain in her early 20s, finding work as a domestic servant in London shortly after the Second World War.

It was in London that she met her future husband, Seán Cloney, another inhabitant of Fethard-on-Sea, who had grown up on a farm one mile from Sheila’s and who had been over in England attending the funeral of an ex-pat relative in Suffolk. Hearing that a girl from back home was living nearby, Seán did as good Irish boys are supposed to and made the effort to go and call on her. Seán and Sheila began courting and fell in love, but because he was Catholic and she was Protestant, they decided to keep their budding relationship secret from their families back home in Ireland. When news leaked that Seán was “going” with a Protestant girl, his parish priest, Father William Stafford, retaliated by banning him from any of the Catholic recreational societies in the town – beginning by expelling Seán from the Catholic amateur dramatic society (the only society he had requested to join.) Deciding that if this was as bad as it was going to get they could probably learn to cope, Seán and Sheila were married in a civil ceremony at a registry office in London on October 8th 1949.

But Ireland being Ireland meant that news travelled fast and two months into their marriage, another parish priest was dispatched to track down the young couple and talk to them about the role Catholicism should play in their marriage. On the issue of converting to her husband’s faith, Sheila Cloney refused point-blank. Seeing that there would be no persuading her about joining the Catholic faith herself, the priest then asked if she would at least consider marrying Seán in a second ceremony – this time, a Catholic one – for the sake of her husband’s family back home. Sheila was reluctant even at this request, namely because doing so would require her to sign the Church’s Ne Temere decree, by which she promised to raise any children from the marriage as Roman Catholics, but Seán apparently assured her that even if she did sign the Ne Temere, any children they had together would have as much a Protestant upbringing as a Catholic one and when they reached maturity, they could decide for themselves which denomination to attend. Sheila signed, the Nuptial Mass was celebrated and, a few months later, Seán and Sheila Cloney returned to Fethard-on-Sea to live together as man and wife.

The problems in their marriage began a year later with the birth of their eldest daughter, Eileen. With Sheila still lying in recovery from the birth, the nuns who worked in the nursing home immediately took baby Eileen away to receive a Catholic baptism. Sheila was angry at this, although apparently accepted that the nuns had probably been doing it with the best intentions in the world and had been unaware of Mrs. Cloney's wishes on the matter. However, just to be sure, when she became pregnant again the following year, Sheila specifically requested that any child she had would not immediately be baptised a Catholic. A second daughter, Mary, was born in 1953 and, again, this time deliberating ignoring the mother’s wishes, the nuns took the child away to be christened by the local priest.

When it came to Catholicism, Sheila Cloney’s back was now well and truly up and she was worried over the fact that her husband Seán had not prevented the nuns in taking both of their daughters for baptism at the maternity home, despite his earlier promises about the children's religious upbringing. Between the baptism and the children beginning school, the issue simmered but as their eldest daughter, Eileen, reached the age of five, it once again reared its head - with a vengeance. Sheila feared that if Eileen was sent to the local Catholic school, all chances of her being able to make up her own mind when she was older would be gone, since on top of receiving a Catholic baptism, she would also receive a Catholic education, which would entail going through First Holy Communion and Confirmation, as part of the school ethos. On the surface at least, Seán Cloney agreed with his wife that this would be a step too far and for a few months, they debated what exactly to do about Eileen’s education. Aside from the religious issue, Sheila Cloney was also in favour of home schooling for children and she wanted this system of education for her children.

Sunday 18 April 2010

Happy Birthday, Jenny

Yesterday, my beautiful sister Jenny turned 18 and since we're goyam, today we can say "You are a woman."

Jen, it's hard to pick out which memory to write about here and since there's no way I can do our beloved (accurate) impersonations of all the Kardashians one after another, I thought I'd just make a list of 18 of our finest moments: -

1. The time when I was swinging you round by the arms on the beach, got bored and let go (I don't remember this - but Ashleigh assures me it happened.)

2. The time you decided to sing "We are Golden" by Mika into my camera phone in the thickest Malone accent imaginable.

3. The time we baked a White Chocolate Vanilla Cheesecake for Mother's Day

4. The time you and Shane spent 7 hours trying to sew the hole that had been made in our trampoline's safety net - and it was literally the worst sewing in the world. Its mistakes could have been seen from space and I didn't have the heart to tell either of you until several days later.

5. "Hey you guys."

6. That hideous bus trip to Stranraer, when I got such bad cabin fever I head-butted you - for my own amusement.

7. "The Lost Prince"

8. Making Mel tea and toast in our kitchen last night

9. When you were off school for almost two months and we spent literally hours at a time on the sofa watching the "Desperate Housewives" box-set

10. Our secret Haagen-Dazs sib munch-fests watching the geekiest movies of all-time

11. That computer game we got years ago set in Ancient Egypt. You couldn't pronounce the character's name, so you re-named her "Toot-a-loop." Many times at 2 a.m. we'd enter the study to see you frantically clicking the mouse, screaming, "Run, Tootaloop! Run!!"

12. Those videos we made of how everyone in the family looks when they wake up first thing in the morning and then got told off by Mum for "bullying"

13. You seeing the "Eclipse" trailer for "Twilight" for the first time and crying with excitement at hearing Edward Cullen's voice again.... you are a trooper.

14. That AMAZING photograph of us on the rollercoaster in Canada - with Lynsey in the front of the cart squealing with happiness and you and I pulling EXACTLY the same pose of horror mixed with tears mixed with nausea behind her.

15. The photograph of us on the log ride in Canada, which Mum made us go on about four times to get a nice one of the family - she gave up after the fourth go when we still looked like we were about to projectile vomit and die.

16. Our mutual love of napping, interrupted only for you to take one of your 28 daily phone-calls to or from Oscar.

17. The secret trip to Ballymena under the aliases "Constantine Moncreiffe" and "Anastasia Beaverhausen."

18. "Eh.... don't you forget, it was me and Gareth that made up bleh-bleh. You're just a thief. A comedy thief!"

Happy birthday, Jen!

All my love,

Your brother x

Sunday 11 April 2010

Mean Girls (2004)

“I know she's kind of socially retarded and weird, but she's my friend... so, just promise me you won't make fun of her!”
- Regina George (Rachel McAdams), Mean Girls (2004)

Unlike most other movies in its genre, Mean Girls isn’t about some faux-ugly teenage girl who, with the help of a hardened jock who falls inexplicably in love with her once he gets bored of dating the cheerleaders, suddenly becomes beautiful, radiant and beloved, all the while simultaneously and paradoxically proving that it’s what’s on the inside that counts. Instead, Mean Girls is a tongue-in-cheek comedy-drama about a 16 year-old girl called Cady (Lindsay Lohan), the child of two travelling academics, who is about to go to an American public high school for the first time.

There, clueless, plaid-wearing Cady is befriended by the indie kids, Janis and Damien (Lizzie Caplan and Daniel Franzese), who explain to her how the pecking order at North Shore High works. However, since she is a “regulation hotty,” Cady soon attracts the notice of North Shore’s manipulative Queen Bee, Regina George (played superbly by Rachel McAdams.) Spurred on by her indie friends, who want Cady to gather information on “the Plastics,” so they can laugh together later about the popular girls inane lifestyle, Cady reluctantly begins to eat lunch with at Regina’s table, hang-out with them and, bit by bit, she becomes sucked into the intoxicating, gossip-riddled world of the teen it-crowd – including falling for Regina’s ex-boyfriend, school sexpot Aaron Samuels, (Jonathan Bennett) and stirring up trouble between Regina and her brilliantly played sidekicks - “totally rich” Gretchen Wieners (Lacey Chabert) and “the dumbest girl you will ever meet,” Karen Smith (Amanda Seyfried.)

Now, I absolutely love Mean Girls – unsurprising, I know. Yes, I hate the ending, but then, who doesn’t? But long before Tina Fey was famous for her side-splittingly hilarious impersonations of Vice-Presidential contender, Sarah Palin, on Saturday Night Live ,she was critically acclaimed for writing this funny, bitchy exposé of high school cliques and popularity contests. (She also plays the schools Maths teacher, Miss Norbury.) Sadly and probably quite dysfunctionally, Mean Girls makes me miss school and the glory days of secret house parties, sexuality panics, dress code fears, crash dieting, needlessly overcomplicated scheming and the endless deliciousness of being slightly ridiculous on a daily basis – oh... to be 17 again. Also, another very good movie. (See what I did there?)

Thursday 8 April 2010

Bette and Joan: The Divine Feud

"It seemed to me that each one coveted what the other possessed. Joan envied Bette's incredible talent, and Bette envied Joan's seductive glamour."
- George Cukor, Hollywood director

I have just finished reading a fantastically entertaining book about old Hollywood, called Bette and Joan: The Divine Feud, by journalist Shaun Considine. The book, which I bought last week, was first published in 1989 and it has been in print ever since. It chronicles the forty year-long feud between two of the greatest stars Hollywood ever produced - Joan Crawford and Bette Davis. Considine, a respected New York journalist, first became intrigued at the idea of doing a joint biography of the two women when he interviewed Bette Davis in April 1973. Somehow hearing that he had spoken to Davis about the only movie they had ever done together - the psychological thriller Whatever happened to Baby Jane?, Joan Crawford called Considine at home to give him her version of her relationship with "Miss Davis." Over the next sixteen years, whilst working on other projects, Considine interviewed hundreds of people who knew the two women and what is so brilliant about the book is that he often quotes disagreeing sources one after another. Unlike the sexually-explicit David Bret biography Joan Crawford: Hollywood Martyr or the viciously critical Bette Davis by Barbara Leaming, Shaun Considine's book isn't trying to push any one thesis or version of the actresses' lives, he's just trying to give us all the information and let the people involved tell it in their own words. It's like a cross between celebrity magazine, a newsreel and a history book. So I, naturally, loved it.

To fill people in on the general story, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford were considered the Queens of Hollywood's Golden Age in the 1930s and 1940s. Both commanded enormous salaries and lived a life of unprecedented luxury and glamour. With the rise of television in the late 1950s, they struggled, before both re-inventing themselves as Queens of expensive Horror and psychological thrillers in the 1960s. They were both (allegedly) born in the same year - 1908; they both won at least one Oscar; they were both married multiple times; they both adopted children; both struggled with alcoholism in their later years; both spoke their mind and both were not afraid of fighting back against the often cruel and vicious male studio bosses who controlled the lives and careers of everyone in the Hollywood at the time. And they both hated each other. "I have never been anywhere, all over the world," said Davis (above right), "where they haven't asked about Joan and me. I don't mind it. I find it interesting. But I have always wondered. What do people think they see in us together? After all, we had nothing in common."

Over the course of her six decade career, Bette Davis appeared in 121 movies, beginning with her performance in The Bad Sister in 1931 and finally ending with Wicked Stepmother in 1989. She won the Oscar for Best Actress twice - firstly for her role as an adulterous actress in Dangerous (1935) and then as a scheming Southern belle in Jezebel (1938.) She was nominated eight more times – for her performances in Dark Victory (1939), The Letter (1940), The Little Foxes (1941), Now, Voyager (1942), Mr. Skeffington (1944), All About Eve (1950), The Star (1952) and Whatever happened to Baby Jane? (1962.) But lost to Ginger Rogers, Joan Fontaine, Greer Garson, Ingrid Bergman, Judy Holliday, Shirley Booth and Anne Bancroft, respectively. Her performances as Elizabeth I in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939) and The Virgin Queen (1955) and as the Empress Carlotta of Mexico in Juarez (1939) were also highly critically-acclaimed, by both critics and historians.

Tuesday 6 April 2010

The Age of Anne Boleyn

“But to come to her death... She was convicted and condemned [and] she was not twenty-nine years of age.”
- Jane Dormer, Duchess of Feria (1538 - 1612)

“She would have been around thirty-five when she died, middle-aged by Tudor standards. Life had not been kind to her, and stress had aged her prematurely.”
- Alison Weir, The Six Wives of Henry VIII (1991)

A mistress of King Louis XV of France always insisted that there was only one rule in polite society that could never be broken - and that was that you should never ask a pretty woman her age. So, it seems a tad impolite that for years historians have been trampling over such niceties, by debating back and forth about the age of Henry VIII's second wife, Queen Anne Boleyn. But then, as with so much about Anne Boleyn, it may not be appropriate, but it's certainly important.

The issue of Anne Boleyn's age is one which is particularly important to me, because a research paper on the subject was one of those I submitted when applying to Oxford. In the course of recently researching my own biography of Anne Boleyn, which I believe may take me the next five or six years to complete, I returned to that paper and began to research in-depth the issue of Anne's birth. It is my conclusion that the current chronology of Anne's childhood that we have been given by most historians is utterly wrong and highly misleading. Anne Boleyn was, I believe, born six years later than most modern historians suggest - not in 1501, but in the summer or autumn of 1507.

Since parish records were not kept in England until later in the 16th century, we only have exact birthdays for Henry VIII's two foreign-born wives - Katherine of Aragon, who was born in Spain on December 16th 1485, and Anna of Cleves, who was born in Germany on September 22nd 1515. For his English wives, historians have had to use comments about the ladies' generic age and appearance, ambassadorial reports, family wills and even funerary details to try and guess the birth date of Jane Seymour (?1507 - 1509), Catherine Howard (?1521 - 1525) and Katharine Parr (?1512 or 1514.)

Of course, had Anne Boleyn lived out a normal life-span, the issue of when exactly she was born would have become less and less important with the passing years. For example, had she lived to the same age as her Irish grandmother, Lady Margaret, and died at the age of 83, Anne would have lived well into the reign of her daughter Queen Elizabeth and would have died sometime around the time of the Spanish Armada. By that point, Anne would have been the Queen Mother and her influence in politics, perhaps still considerable, would have been so long-lasting that the issues concerning her early rise to power in the 1520s would not have mattered so much. Furthermore, had she been properly buried her date of birth would perhaps have been recorded on the tomb.

But Anne Boleyn did not live into her eighties and she was buried in an unmarked grave. Yet, it matters very much to what we know about her, her marriage and the English Reformation that we accurately date her birth. Was she a young woman of eighteen when the King first began to pursue her or an accomplished, mature lady of twenty-five? Was she twenty-eight at the time she was executed or was she thirty-five? Because if she was 28, as one of her stepdaughter's ladies-in-waiting claimed, then the reasons behind her execution become infinitely more sinister - at 28, Anne Boleyn was still undeniably in her childbearing years. Yes, she would have been at the tail-end of them by Tudor standards, but she would have had at least four or five more years before she was considered infertile, and so the idea that it was just her "failure" to produce a son which led to her death in 1536 suddenly becomes a good deal less convincing and the idea that it was her husband who orchestrated her monstrously unfair death becomes infinitely more likely. However, if she was 35, then she was already practically middle-aged by Tudor standards and it becomes far more likely that the entire reason for her destruction was politics pure and simple, with Anne - and to some extent, perhaps, maybe even her husband - being victims of a savagely brilliant process of character assassination, lies, manufactured hysteria and a ruthless palace coup organised by the King's chief adviser, Thomas Cromwell.

This much about Anne Boleyn's life is certain - we know that she was sent abroad for her education in 1513, that she returned to London as a débutante in 1522, Henry VIII asked her to marry him in 1527, she was crowned queen and became a mother in 1533 and she was executed in 1536. If one follows the 1501 argument, then she was 12 when she went abroad, 21 when she came back, 26 when she was engaged, 32 when she was crowned and 35 when she died; the alternative scenario has her leaving England at 6 and returning at 15, betrothed at 19, crowned at 25 and dead at 28.

Sunday 4 April 2010

Easter Sunday

"They returned from the tomb and reported all these things to the eleven and to all the rest. Now they were Mary Magdalene and Johanna and Mary the mother of James; also the other women with them were telling these things to the apostles. And these words appeared to them as nonsense, and they would not believe them. But Peter arose and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen wrappings only; and he went away to his home, marveling at that which had happened."
- The Gospel according to Saint Luke, Chapter 24

Of all Christianity's many relics, none is more famous, nor more controversial, than the Shroud of Turin, kept for centuries in the Roman Catholic Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist in Turin, Italy. Contrary to popular belief, the Vatican neither endorses nor rejects the authenticity of the cloth which, for centuries, has been venerated as the burial cloth of Jesus Christ. When shown under strong light, the Shroud reveals a haunting imprint of a crucified man in his early-to-mid thirties, the body bearing literally hundreds of wounds from scouring, the forehead pierced multiple times and the hands and feet pierced by nail-sized wounds.

For almost the last half-century, however, the Shroud has been a byword for religious hokum amongst the intelligentsia. Carbon dating tests carried out on the Shroud with the Vatican's permission concluded that the Shroud dated from the 14th century and, as such, was nothing more than a clever forgery. The insistence of those, like textile historian Dr. Lemberg, who argued that the intricate stitching on the back of the Shroud was utterly unknown in medieval Europe and dated from either the 1st or 2nd century AD, was ignored. So too were the queries of those historians who pointed out the technology to actually forge something as intricate and life-like as the Shroud was non-existent in the Middle Ages; a fact corroborated by forensic pathologists who argued that the anatomical details on the figure in the Shroud tally with everything we know of the physicality of death by crucifixion, facts which most people in the Middle Ages did not know due to a life-time of gazing at usually-inaccurate crucifixes. However, the carbon dating on the Shroud which placed it to over a millennium after the death of Jesus Christ was held to be incontrovertible and, for many - myself included - the fact that it was impossible for the Shroud of Turin to be genuine was more or less self-evident.

As with many things, I was rather jolted out of this complacency at Oxford by a tutor who, when I made an airily dismissive comment about the Shroud's authenticity, responded: "Ah, but what about the stitching? What about the folding patterns? What about the blood?" The blood? "Yes, the blood; it's AB. Common enough in Palestine at the time of the Crucifixion. Practically unheard-of in early modern Europeans. They couldn't have know that to 'fake it,' could they? And yet it's all over the Shroud. All over it." What about the carbon dating, I asked swiftly. "Yes, I've often wondered about that. Of course, it's equally possible that they made a mistake and simply analysed the polymers left on the Shroud from the last time it was exposed to the air for a prolonged period of time - which would be the 14th century. Still, I suppose it could be the most ingenious fraud in history, couldn't it? Anything is possible."

The Shroud's track record amongst the written sources, however, is not great. There is no evidence of it being in existence prior to turning up in France in 1360, but evidence or not, the sheer emotional impact of the dead, ghostly imprint on the Shroud was such that once it did come to the Faithful's notice it asserted a collective hold on the hearts of pilgrims that it was never, really, relinquished.

Lying sealed in a magnificent silver ark in the Cámara Santa ("Holy Chamber") of the Cathedral of San Salvador in Oviedo, north-western Spain, is another piece of cloth associated with the events of Easter. But this piece of cloth has attracted far less attention than the Turin Shroud. It is known as the Sudarium of Oviedo: a sudarium (Latin for 'sweat-cloth') would have been placed over the face of dead Jews in the time of Christ. In the case of those who died from Crucifixion, it would naturally have caught the blood and sweat of the dying man and, true to its claim, the Sudarium holds small pools of blood congregated around the nasal area, with the sweat and blood stains trailing off around the beard-line of the victim. Unlike the Shroud, however, there is no imprint. (The Sudarium would, in any case, not have stayed on the body for as long as the Shroud.) The Sudarium is simply an ancient, blood-stained piece of cloth, folded over in two unlike most of its kind because whoever it wrapped had died in a state of extreme shock, the head lolling onto outstretched arms already racked with rigamortis by the time the Sudarium was placed over the face.

In a further divergence to the Shroud, the documentary evidence about the Sudarium is a lot stronger. It is first mentioned in a European source by Antoninus of Piacenza, a 6th century Christian pilgrim, who saw the Sudarium being venerated in a cave of the Monastery of Saint Mark the Evangelist, just outside Jerusalem, where, according to locals, it had been kept for several hundred years. Such was the pious love accorded to the Sudarium that it is virtually impossible to believe that it had been forged recently. Moreover, its fame was such that despite being left untouched it was already under the careful watch of the Church hierarchy in Constantinople.

Forty-four years after Antoninus prayed in the presence of the Sudarium, the Persians invaded Palestine. Fearing that the Holy Relic would fall into the hands of non-believers, the monks and the Byzantine hierarchy arranged for the Sudarium to be smuggled out of the fallen province and it commenced its wandering, after the monks charged with its safe-keeping fled south. Moving through northern Africa, they eventually crossed at the Straits of Gibraltar and brought the Sudarium to the Kingdom of the Asturias, the first kingdom on the Iberian peninsula to convert to Christianity. There, the Sudarium was stored in the silver ark which it continues to rest in today and, in the next generation, a Holy Chamber was built for the relic by King Alfonso the Chaste. The Chamber today is part of the Cathedral of San Salvador and for the last thirteen hundred years, the Sudarium has called the Cámara Santa of San Salvador home.

Not long after the Shroud of Turin, the Sudarium too was carbon-dated. The result? That it dated from the 7th century, and no earlier. Yet, we know from the writings of Antoninus of Piacenza and from Byzantine writers that the Sudarium was already old in the 6th century. Perhaps, as one of the dons had suggested to me was the case with the Shroud, the carbon dating of the Sudarium had picked up only on the bacteria left by the last time the relic was properly left in the open air for a prolonged period of time - the 7th century - when it was smuggled from Palestine to Spain.

On the surface, the Sudarium's claim to authenticity - especially in the documentary sources - is much stronger than the Turin Shroud's. Moreover, there is absolutely no evidence in any written source that has survived (and those on the Sudarium are extensive) which places the Sudarium and the Shroud (which would have formed two parts of the same funerary equipment if one believes both their legends) together, at any point in history. Not in the writings of Antoninus of Piacenza, the first European to see the Sudarium, or any subsequent saint, writer or historian since has there ever been a source which even hints that the Shroud and the Sudarium met each other in Palestine, Africa, Byzantium, Spain, France, Italy or the Hapsburg Empire. As far as the written evidence goes, we know the two never met at any point after the sixth century AD.

Today, the Sudarium of Oviedo lies in its magnificent silver reliquary near the tombs of Saint Eulogius, one of the forty-eight "Martyrs of Córdoba," Saint Leocadia of Toledo, Saint Pelayo, King Fruelo the Cruel and three queens - Queen Munia Lopez, Queen Teresa of León and Queen Jimena de Pamplona. Every year, it is exhibited to the faithful on Good Friday, then in September on the Feast of the Triumph of The Cross and once more on the Feast's Octave in October. Then, for the rest of the year, this mysterious, bloody piece of cloth slumbers in the silver ark that was built for it by a pious king over a millennium ago.

And, in one of those rare sets of occurrences which science deplores and history loves, there is one final piece of information of the Sudarium of Oviedo which is perhaps worth considering: the fabric the Sudarium is made of, the geographical origin of the cloth, the type of stitching around the edges and the blood type which stains it? They are all exactly the same as those on the Shroud of Turin. To all intents and purposes the Sudarium and the Shroud, which history tells us never met and science tells us never could have met, may as well have been cut from the same piece of cloth.

Maybe they're both the most ingenious works of fraud in history.

Who knows?

Anything is possible...

Saturday 3 April 2010

Black Saturday

“May angels lead you into paradise;
May the martyrs receive you at your arrival,
And lead you into the Holy City of Jerusalem.
May a choir of angels receive you, and,
With Lazarus, who once was poor, may you have eternal rest.”

- From the 'In Paradisum' section of the Requiem Mass for the Dead

In certain parts of Ireland, the Saturday between Good Friday and Easter Sunday is sometimes referred to as "Black Saturday," because of the custom of visiting the graves of loved ones on the day when Christ was buried in His own tomb. Personally, I think the Russian Orthodox name for the day - "The Great Sabbath" - is more lovely, but "Black Saturday" is perhaps the name I am more familiar with.

As in Ireland, throughout Christendom the Great Sabbath is often kept as a day of remembrance and many people's minds naturally turn more to contemplating death on this day, much as it might on the Feast of All Souls on November 2nd.

As I was thinking about this day and how different people cope with death and loss, I remembered a deathbed letter I had once read by a 17th century princess that - along with the final letters of Katherine of Aragon, Marie-Antoinette and Bartolomé Blanco Márquez - probably rank as the most moving farewell letters I've ever had the pleasure to read.

The letter in question was written by a 70 year-old German princess, Elisabeth-Charlotte, who had spent the last fifty years of her life as a member of the French Royal Family, by marriage.

Born Elisabeth-Charlotte van der Pfalz in 1652, daughter of the Elector Palatine, Elisabeth-Charlotte was related by blood to most of the German royal and aristocratic houses. At the age of nineteen, she was placed into an arranged marriage with Philippe, Duc d’Orléans, the younger brother of King Louis XIV of France. Elisabeth-Charlotte, nicknamed “Liselotte” by her family, was required to convert from Lutheranism to Catholicism under the terms of the marriage contract – although, in later years, some doubted the sincerity of her conversion, noting that the princess did not seem particularly enamoured with her new religion. (She once complained that the Latin Mass was “nothing but vowels, like aaa eee ooo iii, which is enough to make one burst out of one’s skin with pure impatience!”)

Religion aside, Philippe and Liselotte were an ill-matched pair; her new husband was one of France’s most gifted and brilliant military leaders, but he was also a homosexual, and had for years been in love with the Chévalier de Lorraine. He had also been married before, to the late Princess Henriette-Anne of Great Britain, with whom he already had two daughters – Marie-Louise (the future Queen of Spain) and Anne-Marie (the future Queen of Sardinia.) Henriette-Anne had been beautiful, gracious, sophisticated and charming, the unacknowledged queen of Versailles society; Liselotte was, by her own admission, fat, boisterous, ugly and cursed like a sailor.

Yet, somehow, despite the personality clash, the marriage between the flamboyant, glamorous French prince and the earthy, no-nonsense German princess seemed to work and, by the end of their lives together, they had become firm friends, if nothing else. Taking her marriage vows seriously, she never took a lover or betrayed her husband in any way and he, in his turn, gallantly protected her from the intrigues launched against her by the glitterati of Versailles. In time, she even came to tolerate his love affairs, gamely telling one of her husband’s male lovers: “You are welcome to gobble the peas, for I don’t like them.”

Despite her unattractiveness and his sexuality, Philippe and Liselotte also had three children together – Alexandre, who died young, Philippe, the future Regent of France, and a daughter, also called Elisabeth-Charlotte, the future Duchess of Lorraine and grandmother of Queen Marie-Antoinette.

Living in retirement as a widow at the palace of St.-Cloud by the time this letter was written, the 70 year-old princess had written thousands of letters back to her relatives in England and Germany over the last half-century. This, the last letter she ever wrote, was to her half-sister, Louisa. Like Liselotte herself, it was sincere but unsentimental; there were no promises that she would change her lifestyle and have a "Road to Damascus"-style change if God spared her life and she showed no fear or undue hysteria at the prospect of dying, without quite giving up on the idea of life either: -

Saint Cloud,
3 December 1722

Dearest Louisa,

The news of my health today will not, I expect, please you at all. I am getting more miserable day by day, and this may well come to a bad end, but I am, thank God, ready for everything and only beg God Almighty to give me patience in the great pain I must suffer day and night, not only because I am so horribly weak but because I am increasingly miserable all over. Whether I will get out of this God alone knows; time will tell, but I have never been as sick as this. The weather here is not bad, but today it is starting to rain, just a little drizzle. I do not think that any kind of weather will be able to help me now. Time, dear Louisa, will soon show what is to become of all this. If I get out of this you will always find me as I have been all along. If God calls me to Himself, you must take comfort in the thought that I die without regret or sorrow, happy to leave this world in the hope that my Redeemer, who has died and risen for me, will not forsake me and that since I have kept my faith in Him, He will have mercy on me in my last hour. In this trust I live and die, dear Louisa! For the rest, it will have to be as God wishes. Many people complain about coughs and colds now; I am sicker than that and getting worse day by day... Here they are bringing me another of your welcome letters of 21 November, number 83, but I cannot possibly answer it, I am just too sick ... But if God grants me life until the day after tomorrow, I shall answer it; all I can say for now is that until my end I shall dearly love you.


Friday 2 April 2010

Good Friday

“Now there stood by the Cross of Jesus, His Mother, His Mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Cleopas, and Mary, called The Magdalene.”
- The Gospel according to Saint John, Chapter 19

"What must have been her gifts, who was chosen to be the only near earthly relative of the Son of God, the only one whom He was bound by nature to revere and look up to; the one appointed to train and educate Him, to instruct Him day by day, as He grew in wisdom and stature?"
- Cardinal John Henry Newman (1832)

Good Friday, the day which marks the Passion and Death of Jesus Christ, has been the subject of many excellent spiritual reflections and one in particular that I would recommend is posted on Elena Maria Vidal's blog Tea at Trianon .

Since the significance and emotion of Good Friday as an event has been covered elsewhere, I would like to briefly focus on a secondary figure in the Passion narrative: - Christ's mother, the Virgin Mary. She stood at the foot of the Cross on the day her Son was tortured to death, showing heroism and the depths of maternal love in being with Him, even when we cannot imagine what pain that sight must have cost her. It is perhaps revealing that, with the exception of the loyal Saint John the Evangelist, none of the other Apostles had braved attending the Crucifixion and the only people who were there were "the Three Marys" - Christ's mother, aunt and follower, Saint Mary Magdalene, who would earn the later sobriquet of "Dulcis Amica Dei," for her loyalty ("Sweet Friend of God.")

Many years earlier, when she was a young mother, the Virgin Mary had visited the Temple with her Son. In an astonishing breach of etiquette, an old man, a temple prophet named Simeon, approached her and by-passed her husband, Joseph, to speak directly to Mary herself, pointing to her Son and then to her, saying: "Behold! This Child is set for the fall and rise of many and as a sign to be opposed - and a sword shall pierce your own soul - so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed!"

Some of my coreligionist friends have insisted to me that Mary was nothing but an ordinary woman. I'm sorry, but she was nothing of the kind. Leaving aside how any Christian could possibly look at the woman who God chose from the women of all-time and all-places to be the earthly mother of His Son and still call her "ordinary," at whose intercession Christ performed His first recorded miracle, and even if we do not consider the extraordinary story of her life, which is without equal in human history, how many of us could possibly have carried on with the courage to live and love and believe, when we had a dread prophecy like Simeon's hanging over our head for decades? How many of us could have continued to praise God's Name, knowing that He had given us a child whose destiny was to die?

Neither in life nor in character could the Virgin Mary be, by any stretch of the imagination, called "ordinary." To echo the Archangel's words, she was, in every sense, a lady who was truly "full of Grace" and on no occasion did she show the greatness of her heart and mind more than on Good Friday, when she gave what the poets call 'the last gift of love' - grief - and stayed with her Son, even in extremis, and then, when it was all over, she sat and cradled His dead body in her arms, symbolising the pain and loss of any mother who has ever lost a child.

Thursday 1 April 2010

Maundy Thursday

“This is my commandment: that ye love one another, as I have loved you. Greater love hath no man than this – that he lay down his life for his friends.”
– The Gospel according to Saint John, Chapter 15

Maundy Thursday, the fifth day of Holy Week, is known by a variety of names throughout Christianity - including "Holy Thursday," "Covenant Thursday," "Great and Holy Thursday," "Green Thursday," and the "Thursday of Mysteries," which is perhaps my favourite name for the day. The name by which it is most famously known in the English-speaking world, however, is "Maundy Thursday," which comes from the Latin word "mandatum," which is the first phrase of the above passage from the Bible, when Christ spoke to the Apostles at the Last Supper, saying: “This is my commandment: that ye love one another, as I have loved you." (Or, in Latin, "Mandatum novum do vobis ut diligatis invicem sicut dilexi vos".)

Known as "Maundy Thursday" throughout the Anglo-Norman world, the Thursday of Holy Week is a busy day scripturally - for it marks the Last Supper (and thus the institution of Christianity's most important Sacrament - Holy Communion), Jesus's sorrow in the Garden of Gethsemane, the "Judas Kiss," Christ's arrest, His brutalisation by the Sanhedrin's soldiers and His first interrogation.

Historically, Maundy Thursday has given rise to a number of interesting traditions and practices. Bulgarians traditionally paint their Easter Eggs on Maundy Thursday, whilst Swedish children dress-up and go "trick or treating" in search of money or sweet for Easter Sunday. In the Philippines, where Holy Week is celebrated with special intensity, all newspapers cease publication between Maundy Thursday and Black Saturday, whilst most businesses also close down, going into a form of mourning, and in Slovakia, Luxembourg and the Czech Republic, Catholic churches cease to ring their bells until dawn on Easter Sunday. Many Christians also go on a form of pilgrimage on Maundy Thursday, moving between seven churches across the course of the day - a practice which has its origins in Rome, where, on Maundy Thursday pilgrims progress between Saint Peter's itself, the Papal Archbasilica of Saint John Lateran, Santa Maria Maggiore, the Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls, San Lorenzo fuori le Mura, the Basilica of the Holy Cross-in-Jerusalem and San Sebastiano ad Catacumbas. In 2000, Pope John Paul II changed the final church from San Sebastiano to the Sanctuary of the Madonna of Divine Love, but most pilgrims still prefer to visit San Sebastiano, as their ancestors have done for centuries.

Perhaps one of the most interesting Maundy Thursday customs originates here in the United Kingdom, when the monarch bestows alms or "Maundy Money" on a group of pensioners - one for each year of the Sovereign's life. A special church service is held in a cathedral in either England or Wales, where the Queen hands out specially-minted coins to a group of pensioners, who have been invited to the service by local authorities. (In 2008, the Maundy Thursday service was held in Northern Ireland for the first time, at Saint Patrick's Cathedral, Armagh.) The custom itself dates back to the time of King Edward I, who ruled England from 1272 until his death in 1307. He was also the conqueror of Wales, hence the custom of using Welsh cathedrals for the Maundy services as well. From then, until the deposition of King James II in 1688, the main part of the tradition was for the monarch to humble his- or herself by washing the feet of the twelve local paupers who had been gathered for the service, along with bestowing generous amounts of charity upon them. The washing of the feet was done to imitate Christ's act of loving humility, when He washed the feet of His own apostles at the Last Supper. Bearing in mind how filthy the feet of a pauper in the Middle Ages would have been, the royal Maundy traditions indicate just how passionate a hold Christianity had over the hearts and minds of people in that era. One of the most diligent practitioners of the Maundy Thursday washing of feet was apparently Queen Elizabeth I (r. 1558 - 1603) and it was from her reign that we owe an image of the custom being carried out, painted by the great female artist, Levina Teerlinc. Elizabeth who, as ever, wore black to church during Lent, had a white apron tied around her waist by a lady-in-waiting and would kneel at the paupers' feet, washing them with water from a silver ewer and bowl, whilst dispensing a large amount of alms to them - the precise amount of which had been set during her mother's time as queen. Elizabeth, who was a devout Anglican, would "take her almost mystical role in this ritual very seriously".

In its original form, the practise was last carried out in England on Maundy Thursday 1688, by King James II, a pious but unpopular Roman Catholic and his lovely Italian queen, Maria-Beatrice of Modena. When James was deposed by his Protestant nephew, William of Orange, the washing of the feet on Maundy Thursday was discontinued by the new King, who apparently regarded it as sentimental nonsense of little practical value to any 'real' Christian. Aside from anything else, "people skills" were not one of William's strong points and he was uncomfortable around strangers and it was William's wife and co-ruler, Queen Mary II, who instituted the current tradition of the money being handed out to the elderly, rather than the poor, which continues to this day.
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