Saturday 31 July 2010

"The Friend of True Piety": The Life of Matilda of Flanders, Queen of England

This is the first in a new series chartering the lives of the Queens of England.

“She was even more distinguished for the purity of her mind and manners than for her illustrious lineage… She united beauty with gentle breeding and all the graces of Christian holiness.”
- The Anglo-Norman chronicler, Orderic Vitalis (1075 – 1142)

“The story of English queenship begins with a French princess. In the centuries after the collapse of Roman imperialism, Europe experienced a perpetually fluctuating regathering of territorial power. Put simply, such power was achieved through violence, but the role of kings was increasingly delineated and formalised by religious liturgy. While their status had yet to become institutional, much less constitutional, a similar process began to arise in the case of queens… Consecration, coronation. These are the processes which set a queen apart from other women in a mystery she shared only with her husband… An unruly twinge of reverence for such beliefs might now be dismissed as embarrassing sentimentality, but there existed no sense of the irrationality of such a contention for the period in question. Just as the Church was omnipresent for every individual, from peasant to magnate, so the idea of difference, of selection by God, coloured the concept of the medieval monarch. Though there is ample, touching, funny evidence of the humanity of medieval queens, it is essential to remember that they were isolated as well as elevated by consecration. They were unique, they were sacred, they were magical.”
- Lisa Hilton, Queens Consort: England’s Medieval Queens (2008)

Matilda of Flanders was born in a violent age and married to a violent man. She was the mother of violent sons and first lady of two nations which were controlled and subjugated by violence. Indeed, her marriage itself – much like her later elevation to the position of queen – may very well have begun in violence of the most intimate kind. Hearing that her father planned to marry her to Duke William of Normandy, who was the illegitimate son of an upstart duke and his working-class concubine, the impeccably royal Matilda snobbishly refused, telling anyone who would listen that she would rather die than marry someone as uncouth and ill-bred as William. The chronicler, Orderic Vitalis, reports that Matilda was not alone in feeling this way, since because of his birth out of wedlock William was considered “a bastard, despised by the native nobility.” In the more charming phrase of the modern historian, Lisa Hilton, the ancestry of the House of Normandy was certainly “good for a giggle.” William, however, evidently didn’t see the humour and he was determined to have the well-connected Matilda for his wife. The Chronicle of Tours decorously reports that he barged into her bedroom and beat her until she agreed to marry him. Overcome by this display of masculinity, Matilda fainted and agreed. A much more believable account, however, is that William raped her – either in her bedroom or one afternoon when she was out riding. With her all-important virginity now snatched from her, it was impossible for Matilda to marry anyone else in her social class and, as a result, she had to marry William.

As with most of her contemporaries, Matilda of Flanders’ exact date of birth is unknown. It was probably in 1032 or 1033, not long after the consummation of her parents’ marriage. She was the daughter of Baldwin V, Count of Flanders and his wife, Adèle, the King of France’s youngest daughter. As a result, the baby’s grandparents included King Robert the Pious of France and his queen, Constance of Arles. Like her father, Adèle was an exceptionally religious woman, who would later be nicknamed “Adèle the Holy” and she imparted this love of Christianity to her only daughter, Matilda, along with an excellent education, which she personally oversaw. As with most fathers of the age, it is likely that Count Baldwin was more interested in his sons than in his daughter – certainly, given the way he acted over her marriage, Matilda’s feelings did not seem to particularly factor into his equations in any meaningful way. In this case, Baldwin was lucky, for Adèle had fulfilled the primary function of a royal bride in providing her husband with four sons – Baldwin, Robert, Henri and Richard. Henri died as a baby, but the others flourished. Perhaps, however, it is unfair to be too harsh on Matilda’s father, who spent most of his life attempting to increase the wealth and security of his country, whilst having to face constant opposition from the local nobility, who were disapprovingly described as figures of “atrocious cruelty” and selfishness by religious scribes at the time. Still, by the time Matilda reached her teenage years, Baldwin’s efforts on Flanders’ behalf were clearly paying dividend. The foundations had been laid for a strong infrastructure and trading network, which would continue to grow throughout the Middle Ages until Flanders had become the economic power-house of Europe in the 15th century.

Thanks to her parents’ ancestry, Matilda was one of the more well-connected of the European princesses born in the early 11th century. In her veins, ran the blood of the famous Christian emperor, Charlemagne (d. 814), the most venerated Christian monarch apart from Constantine the Great, in an era which was obsessed with them. She was also descended from King Alfred the Great (849 – 899), the famed, brilliant and pious King of Wessex, whose reputation was already becoming legendary in his native England. Matilda was also a very good-looking young woman, described by her contemporary William of Jumièges as “a very beautiful and noble girl of royal stock”. There is a story, repeated in the Guinness Book of World Records, that Matilda was to become the shortest of English queens, but the idea that she only ever reached 4’ 2” in height is based on an inaccurate measurement of her bones, undertaken in 1819, when the restored French monarchy was attempting to undo some of the damage done on the royal tombs by the Revolution. A more scientific exhumation of Matilda’s body in 1959 established that, in fact, she grew to 5’ in height by the time she reached maturity.

Maturity for Matilda of Flanders came in a fairly brutal form, as has been discussed, at best through a coerced marriage, at worse (and most probably) through rape. As she approached her sixteenth or seventeenth birthday, her father began to seriously consider a match between his only daughter and William, the 20-something Duke of Normandy. Like Flanders, Normandy was technically an independent nation, although feudal overlordship for Normandy was held by the King of France. Flanders, which roughly equates to modern-day north Belgium, was heavily under the influence of the Holy Roman Empire (roughly equating with modern-day Germany and Bohemia), but Baldwin was anxious to remove his province from the Empire's orbit. An alliance with Normandy would help pull Flanders more closely under the protection of France, a process started a generation earlier by Baldwin’s own marriage to Adèle. Normandy, moreover, had considerable diplomatic influence in England, a wealthy country which needed to be neutralised since the English King had promised to help the Emperor in subjugating Flanders if it made any further attempt to extricate itself from the Holy Roman Empire’s sphere of influence.

Having seen Baldwin marry Adèle for much the same diplomatic reasons in the time of his late father, the current Emperor, Heinrich III, was understandably nonplussed at the idea of their daughter Matilda marrying William and thus further helping in the liberation of Flanders from its position as a vassal-state of the Empire. Luckily for the Emperor, he had been instrumental in securing the election of the current Pope, Leo IX, who, despite doing many commendable things during his time as Pontiff, was also a political realist who was prepared to appease and assist his imperial backer when necessary. As Baldwin and William hashed out the details of the marriage proposal, an edict came from Rome forbidding it; William and Matilda were fifth cousins, which technically placed them within the grounds of forbidden affinity, and, in this case, unlike in so many others, the Holy Father unhelpfully refused to dispense the impediments.

An Apology

On my post for July 22nd about the banned posters advertising the London Dungeon's new exhibition about the reign of Mary Tudor, I discussed the inappropriateness of the posters both as works of art (for young children) and in terms of them grossly distorting and trivialising the reality of Queen Mary's reign.

It has been subtly brought to my attention by a very dear friend that seeking to turn the religious policies of Mary Tudor's government into a commercialised horror show is not only unhelpful in trying to correctly understand Mary's reign, but - far more importantly - it is also hideously disrespectful to her government's 283 victims, all of whom died in agony. I made no mention of these 283 people, who were executed for their religious beliefs in England between 1554 and 1558. I should have.

I agree with my friend that the distance of 500 years does not mean that these people's deaths can now be treated as a grotesque form of a circus and that as a place where terrible cruelty and tragedy occurred, the London Dungeons should instead be seeking to capitalise on that, rather than turn their venue into a macabre fairground attraction.

Thursday 29 July 2010

"What if?": A new review of "Anne Boleyn: Fatal Attractions" (2010)

"And so it remains my own hunch that Anne had indeed committed adultery with Norris, probably with Smeaton, possibly with Weston, and was then the victim of the most appalling bad luck ... I came to my sceptical view not from any prejudice against Anne, much less any prejudice against queens, and certainly not any prejudice against women."
- G.W. Bernard, "Anne Boleyn: Fatal Attractions," Yale University Press, 2010

Today’s post is a guest review by Owen George Emmerson, who is currently working on a dissertation about Anne Boleyn’s faith. He critiques “Anne Boleyn: Fatal Attractions,” the controversial new biography of Henry VIII's second wife by Professor G.W. Bernard of the University of Southampton.

Professor Bernard is the only historian writing today who argues that Anne might have been guilty of some of the charges of multiple adultery and incest for which she was executed in 1536. In this, he disagrees with Professor E.W. Ives, Professor R.M. Warnicke, Alison Weir, Lady Antonia Fraser, Dr. David Starkey, Sarah Gristwood, Robert Hutchinson, Richard Rex, Jane Dunn, Joanna Denny, Karen Lindsey, Professor J.J. Scarisbrick, Jasper Ridley, Professor Diarmaid MacCulloch, Dr. Greg Walker, Dr. Jenny Wormald, Maria Dowling, Derek Wilson, Linda Porter, Anne Somerset, Julia Fox, Dr. John Guy, and all the others who have tackled Anne’s story over the last twenty years.

For my own day-by-day account of the fall of Anne Boleyn, click here.

Many thanks to Owen for this fine review.


The heinous crimes of which Anne Boleyn was sentenced to death are liable for the myriad interpretations as to the character of, and the ensuing countenance toward Henry VIII’s second Queen Consort. The brevity of Anne’s arrest, arraignment and condemnation is striking and the scarce remnants of these measures have further muddied the scholarly analysis of Anne’s reign and demise. Perceptions of Anne are undoubtedly shaped through the popularisation of her legend, from Shakespeare’s compassionately naive ‘Bullen’ to Hirst’s enigmatic, sensual and headstrong suggestion. To unpick the truth behind the multi-layered and often tarnished veneer that Anne has been coated in, an acute analysis of the limited primary material available is essential in establishing a coherent picture. It is a treacherous path, one paved with ancient judgment, contemporary misrepresentation and crude propaganda. To navigate it, the historian must assume not simply the role of judge, but of the judicial process in its entirety. Anne’s ‘case’ is essentially a re-trial, having been condemned in her own lifetime; however the rigid process of examination remains firm. Through meticulous analysis of all available evidence, they must assume both prosecution and defence roles. Evidence is heard from contemporary voices long departed, and considered by the historian as a solitary jury. There is a unique element to the historian’s court which, as judge, they must examine: the previous ‘trials’ completed by other historians. Their verdict must answer not only their own judgement of the case, but must convincingly question and challenge their predecessors' attempts. With over 400 years of analysis, it is no small task, and with a ‘definitive’ analysis by Eric Ives, Bernard’s task is an ambitious one.

Ritual Shaming of the North Korean Football Team

As if any more proof was needed, the sheer horror of living in a Communist country is shown by this news story, in which the North Korean football team was subjected to a 6-hour long public shaming by the regime as punishment for their failure in the recent World Cup.

The story is reported here.

Friday 23 July 2010

New investigation into a portrait of an unknown "English Princess" (c. 1535)

"Back in the 1920s a portrait of a young woman was sold to Jules S. Bache in New York as 'English Princess', with the implication that the sitter was Mary. The portrait is by a unidentified Netherlandish artist and has been dated to about 1535."

A portrait painted in the mid-1530s and currently in the possession of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY, is being re-examined to authenticate or dismiss claims made in the early 20th century that it was the future queen, Mary Tudor, eldest daughter of King Henry VIII and Katherine of Aragon.

Little Miss Sunnydale, whose blog Mary Tudor: Renaissance Queen is one of the best on-line sources for Mary Tudor's life and reign, is rightly dubious about the claims that the portrait must be Mary. It's precisely this kind of wild excitement about the Tudors which means that every time a "new" portrait emerges, people immediately assume, hope or insist that it must represent a member of Britain's most famous ruling family.

In the past, two sketches by the great Hans Holbein have (ludicrously) been labelled as likenesses of Anne Boleyn, despite the fact that neither tallies with contemporary descriptions of the Queen, nor is either sitter in sufficiently grand costumes. The same is also true of the Horenbout miniature painted in the middle of the 1520s, which is far more likely to be a member of Anne's extended family. (At other times, it's also been suggested that the miniature represented Katherine of Aragon or Jane Seymour, both equally unlikely.) Equally, a portrait which is too-often described as a painting of Henry VIII's fifth queen, Catherine Howard, is in fact far more likely to be Jane Seymour's younger sister, Lady Elizabeth Cromwell. We seem to forget that a host of other aristocrats and minor members of the Royal Family sat for portraits in the 16th century, not just the galaxy of ill-fated royal celebrities that subsequent generations became so obsessed with.

A portrait by Hans Holbein which has mistakenly been identified as Queen Catherine Howard (?1524 - 1542), Henry VIII's fifth wife. In fact, it is far more likely to be a painting of Lady Elizabeth Ughtred-Cromwell (?1511 - 1563), younger sister of Queen Jane Seymour.

Even if the claim made in the 1920s that the Metropolitan's mysterious portrait is an English princess is accurate, there were several other possible candidates than Mary, who was in disgrace in 1535 and therefore unlikely to have been painted at all. Of course, it is very possible that the portrait could date from earlier in the decade than 1535, or later, in which case Mary would have been likely to sit for a portrait. However, the gown is simple and the sitter is not wearing any jewellery, something which does not sit with what we know of Mary Tudor's lavish tastes.

The girl in the painting could have been one of Mary's half-royal cousins - Lady Margaret Douglas, daughter of the Queen Mother of Scotland, Frances, Marchioness of Dorset or Lady Eleanor Brandon. All three could, just about, be described as "English princesses" by an overzealous art-seller - after all, they were all the granddaughters of a King and the daughters of former queens.

Of course, it's just as possible that it's no-one related to the Royal Family, but rather a courtier or member of the minor nobility, whose name we may never know. If it is someone attached to the Tudor family, my money is on Lady Margaret or one of the Brandon sisters, not the future Queen.

For Little Miss Sunnydale's analysis - click here.

Thursday 22 July 2010

Controversy over banned "Bloody Mary" poster

A lurid and frightening poster advertising the London Dungeons' forthcoming exhibition on the religious persecutions during the reign of Queen Mary I (r. 1553 - 1558) has been banned in London, after parents complained it was frightening their children. Understandably. Mary, who was the only child of Henry VIII and his first wife, Katherine of Aragon, earned the nickname "Bloody Mary" in the years after her reign, thanks to her government's systematic persecution of Protestant-Christians and religious dissenters.

The poster (above), which shows the 16th-century monarch transformed into a hideous zombie, plays to the old and inaccurate idea of Mary as being a psychotic and evil woman and it has understandably raised the heckles of not only the angry mothers of London, but also the biographers and historians who have recently been working on re-assessing Queen Mary's life and legacy.

I have an uneasy relationship with Catholic revisionism about this period in English history and this poster highlights the reasons why. On the one hand, it is both tasteless and absurd to have Queen Mary displayed as demonic zombie and it is a very good thing that historians are objecting to it. Recent work by people like Linda Porter, David Loades and Anna Whitelock have finally helped put Mary in her proper historical context: she ruled in an age when religious persecutions were the norm. Through their work, these excellent writers are finally beginning to make headway in persuading the reading public that Queen Mary was not so much evil as essentially misguided, as well as being highly capable in other areas of her life and reign.

However, the post on historian Stephanie A. Mann's excellent blog Supremacy and Survival about the poster controversy, raises why I am also uneasy about it. The noted historian, Leanda de Lisle, defends Queen Mary: -

“It really is an example of England’s knee-jerk anti-Catholicism and how our history of the Tudor period has been distorted by post-Reformation propaganda. What about Elizabeth? People may be aware of the executions of Catholics, but there were many more people. After the 1569 northern rebellion, Elizabeth ordered that a man was to be hung in every village associated with the rebellions. It was on a similar scale to her father."

Elizabeth ruled for forty-five years, compared to Mary's five, but de Lisle's point is a thoughtful one and a sensitively made one. However, in other arenas, the policy of trying to tear down Lady Jane Grey or Elizabeth I's historical reputation in order to rehabilitate Mary's is indicative of a worrying trend in English revisionist histories. Catholicism's past mistakes are now judged as products of a turbulent century; Protestantism's as the systematic cultural rape of Albion.

The portrait which inspired the poster: the real Queen Mary Tudor, painted by Antonio Mor, towards the end of her life (c. 1557)

Tuesday 20 July 2010

The Finnebrogue Estates in Northern Ireland

Lord Belmont in Northern Ireland offers a fantastic account of one of the oldest and finest homes of the Protestant Ascendancy in Ulster - Finnebrogue.

The estate and the area, which lies near to my old school and was once owned by the Perceval-Maxwell family, is also famed for its production of the finest venison in the Province.

It's proved particularly interesting because I am working on a television script based on life amongst the Ascendancy in Ulster in the years surrounding the Partition of Ireland. Many of the show's characters will be real, including the designer of the Titanic, Thomas Andrews, who was himself part of the Ascendancy and various real-life politicians like Sir Edward Carson, Viscount Brookeborough, the fabulous Marchioness of Londonderry and the celebrated Jewish-Unionist, Sir Otto Jaffe, who twice served as Lord Mayor of Belfast. However, the show's main characters will be fictitious and the plan is for most of the story's fictitious families to have titles that did, in fact, once exist in the Irish aristocracy, but which had died out by the time the story commences (1911.)

In relation to Finnebrogue, one of the supporting characters - Helena FitzEustace - is the daughter of Baron Portlester (the real Portlester title died out in the reign of King Henry VII) and in the story, Helena marries Lord Wingfield Cromwell, the heir to the earldom of Ardglass. The Earls of Ardglass were Cromwells (from Thomas's side, not Oliver's) and the real family founded the area on which my school now stands. However, in reality, the Ardglass earldom died out in the reign of King James II, when the last earl, Lord Vere Essex Cromwell, died without heirs. However, in my script, the long-dead Vere did have children and so the Earls of Ardglass are still alive and flourishing in County Down into the 1900s.

The courtesy title enjoyed by the earl's heir was that of "Viscount Lecale" (Lecale was one of my school houses) and the Finnebrogue Estate actually came into existence partly through the generosity of the real Earls of Ardglass in the 17th century and their sons, the Viscounts Lecale.

As with many members of the Ascendancy class, the residents of Finnebrogue House played an important role in the life of Northern Ireland after the country was formally created in 1921, as Lord Belmont relates of the last of the Perceval-Maxwell to live on both house and estates: -

"Major John Robert Perceval-Maxwell DL, of Finnebrogue (1896-1963), was a farmer, a breeder of Shorthorns and Herefords and an active figure in the political and cultural life of Northern Ireland. He was a member of both the House of Commons and the Senate, and from 1945 to 1949 was Parliamentary Secretary in the Ministry of Commerce. He was also a founder member of the Northern Ireland Regional Committee of the National Trust (NT) in 1936 and for a time the Government of Northern Ireland's nominee on the Council of the NT in London. He was appointed a Deputy Lieutenant of County Down in 1935, and was High Sheriff in 1937."

Saturday 17 July 2010

Sixteen Nuns Slaughtered on the Steps of the Guillotine

"I learned from a person who was a witness to their martyrdom that the youngest of these good Carmelites was called first and that she went to kneel before her venerable Superior, asked her blessing and permission to die. She then mounted the scaffold singing Laudate Dominum omnes gentes. She then went to place herself beneath the blade allowing the executioner to touch her. All the others did the same. The Venerable Mother was the last sacrificed. During the whole time, there was not a single drum-roll; but there reigned a profound silence."
- The Superior General of the Sisters of Charity of Nevers (1794) writing of the execution of sixteen Carmelite nuns by the French Republic

Despite having promised universal equality and freedom of religion, in 1794, during its official "Reign of Terror," the French Revolution ordered the execution of sixteen Carmelite nuns, the day after their Order's high feast day - the Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. The evidence used to bring the nuns to the guillotine was a picture of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, a devotional device beloved by French Catholic royalists. An image of the Sacred Heart was found within their convent and was thus "proof" of their treasonous intentions against the new Republic.

The nuns were executed showing commendable bravery, singing hymns and kneeling to receive the blessing of their Reverend Mother, who was beheaded last. The crowd watching was mostly silent, out of respect, save for a few zealous republicans in the front rows. Not since the execution a few months earlier of the late King's sister, 29 year-old Princess Elisabeth, had the Parisian crowd seen such a heroic and deliberately Christian death. (The Princess had led the other dozen or so people sentenced to die with her in prayer, including a condemned mother and her son, as they mounted the steps of the scaffold. Like the nuns, who bowed before their Reverend Mother, those sentenced to die before the Princess, bowed or curtsied to her, as she was forced to sit next to the guillotine and watch them die, before she herself was beheaded.)

The blog Laudem Gloriae recounts the story of the Carmelite sisters' death, which I came across via Tea at Trianon.

July 17th, 1918: The Execution of the Romanovs

"The decision was not only expedient but necessary. The severity of the summary justice showed the world that we would continue to fight on mercilessly, stopping at nothing. The execution of the Tsar's family was needed not only in order to frighten, horrify, and dishearten the enemy, but also in order to shake up our own ranks to show that there was no going back."
- Leon Trotsky (1879 - 1940)

"With the saints give rest, O Christ, to the soul of your servant where there is neither pain, nor sorrow, nor suffering but life everlasting."
- A Russian Orthodox prayer for the dead, contained within the last Church service the Romanovs ever attended on Sunday July 14th 1918. The officiating priest, Father Storozhev, reported that the Tsar's daughters had tears in their eyes as they said the prayer.

Today is the 92nd anniversary of the execution of the Imperial Family of Russia by their Communist captors, acting on the orders of Vladimir Lenin and the Moscow Soviet, in 1918.

Those slaughtered on that terrible night were Nicholas II, the former Emperor of All the Russias, his German-born but British-educated, the Empress Alexandra, their four daughters, 23 year-old Grand Duchess Olga, 21 year-old Grand Duchess Tatiana, 19 year-old Grand Duchess Maria, 17 year-old Grand Duchess Anastasia and the Emperor's 13 year-old son, Alexei, who, had things gone differently, might one day have reigned as Tsar Alexei II. Also killed on that night was the Imperial Family's faithful physician, Dr. Botkin, the Tsar's valet, Alexei Trupp, their cook, Ivan Kharitanov and Anna Demidova, the Grand Duchesses' maid.

I had wanted to blog about this terrible event in detail, but with several writing deadlines, I unfortunately do not have the time to do it justice. So, I shall return to the topic next year. However, one thing occurred to me recently and I would like to share it today, since it is particularly relevant.

The Emperor and Empress's second daughter, Grand Duchess Tatiana, was the tallest and most beautiful of the four Romanov sisters. A courtier, who knew her, said: "One never forgot she was the daughter of an Emperor." It is clear from the horrific physical wounds revealed by the examination of Tatiana's remains and the memoirs of those who helped kill her that she used herself as a sort of human shield, to protect her two younger sisters, during the first and second hail of bullets fired upon the family.

It is clear however that Tatiana died, eventually, from a single bullet wound to the head. Yakov Yurovsky, who was in charge of the execution that night, delivered the fatal gunshot and he recorded that as he marched towards her, Tatiana struggled to her feet from the corner where her eldest sister lay dead, her youngest lay unconscious and another lay in hysterical convulsions after sustaining a bullet wound to the leg. It is often assumed that Tatiana was attempting to run away from her executioner - a perfectly natural assumption, but one which Yurovsky himself did not suggest. There was, in fact, nowhere for her to run. She was backed into a corner - the bodies of her parents and eldest sister were in front of her, her two youngest sisters were cowering in a corner behind her and there were eleven men (so to speak) blocking the only exit from the cellar. Moreover, Yurovsky does not record her attempting to move, but rather pulling herself to her feet, using the blood-soaked wall for support.

The Grand Duchess chose to die standing. Death was coming and rather than weep on her knees in the corner, she hauled herself to her feet. She was relatively calm, under the circumstances, as Yurovsky fired a bullet through her head. And it is perhaps the perfect way to look at the disgusting, hideous massacre of Ekaterinburg. Those who were degraded were not the bleeding or the dying, the sobbing or the maimed, but those wielding the guns.

The firing squad revealed in that moment what Communism would mean to the people of Russia, what it would mean thirty million times over in the century to come. Thomas Jefferson once said that, every now and then, the “tree of Liberty” needed to be watered by a little blood. Perhaps he would not have been so quick to say something so stupid if he had seen what transpired in the name of progress in the early morning hours of July 17th, 1918. Then again, he might have been. The future President said those words as the streets of Paris were almost literally running with the blood of those who had not embraced the French Revolution. Why should Mr. Jefferson have felt any more charitably about those who perished a century later in Russia?

Needless to say, I am not one of those people who think Thomas Jefferson was a genius, nor am I one of those people who think that an ideology, however grand or however pleasing its platitudes of equality, merits being watered by the blood of innocent people. Instead, I prefer to take heart from the image of a 21 year-old princess, clawing herself to her feet, to face Death with a courage that shamed that of the "brave" Communist soldiers who were currently hacking her family to pieces.

Friday 16 July 2010

July 16th, 1557: The Death of Anne of Cleves

On this day in 1557, seventeen years after her divorce from King Henry VIII, Anne of Cleves, the former Queen of England, died at the relatively young age of 41 at Chelsea Old Manor, a palatial country home - one of many which the wealthy ex-queen enjoyed as part of her generous divorce settlement, which left her financially and socially secure as an honorary member of the English Royal Family.

Following the advice of her former stepdaughter, now Queen Mary I, Anne had converted to Catholicism and it was in that religion which she died. Given that the brand of Protestantism her family in Germany had professed during Anne's childhood was relatively mild in its reformist sympathies, it is unlikely that it was too much of a trauma for Anne to convert to "the Old Religion." Equally, it is highly unlikely that the conversion would have happened at all if Anne had not guessed correctly that it was what the new Queen wanted. Either way, she died a Christian and a happily practising one, at that.

The former Queen had been in poor health for most of the Spring and had dictated her Last Will and Testament to her lawyers some months earlier. (In her book on Henry's queens, Lady Antonia Fraser offers the reasonable hypothesis that the cause of Anne's death was probably cancer.) The princess left some bequests to her family in Germany - mainly to her brother, the Duke of Cleves, and her sister, the Duchess of Saxony - as well as to some English friends, including Mary, Duchess of Norfolk and Catherine, Countess of Arundel. The majority of her jewellery collection she left to her two former stepdaughters, Queen Mary and Princess Elizabeth, the Heiress Presumptive. All of Anne's land and palaces reverted to the Crown, from whence they had came.

Anne of Cleves was the last of Henry VIII's famous tribe of wives to die and she was also the only one to be honoured with a burial in the English monarchy's most prestigious sacred site - Westminster Abbey. Katherine of Aragon rests in Peterborough Cathedral, near the site of her final exile; Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard are buried beneath the high altar of a chapel adjacent to the site where they were both slaughtered; Jane Seymour rests at Windsor Castle and Katharine Parr in the ancestral home of her fourth husband.

Today, the tomb of Anne of Cleves is somewhat difficult to find for the casual tourist, but it lies near the shrine of the Saint-King, Edward the Confessor. Had her marriage to Henry VIII lasted longer, she might one day have been crowned near there too, but the diadem had passed to young Catherine Howard, with tragic results.

Anne had been married to Henry VIII for the shortest period of time - barely six months between marriage and divorce. Her story lacked everything which gave those of Henry's other queens their posthumous sparkle. Equally, her personality lacked the determination and the flamboyance which had made Katherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn great women. Both of them were, without doubt, titans of the 16th century monarchy, whatever one might think of their respective achievements. Nor did Anne have Jane Seymour's good luck in bearing a child to seal her reputation or the unfortunate sex appeal of Catherine Howard. However, Anne of Cleves' true achievement rests in something rather different, more mundane but perhaps not much less admirable.

Put simply, Anne of Cleves was a nice person. Nice women do not make history. Good women can, great women certainly can. Nice ones? Unfortunately not. Neither Katherine of Aragon or Anne Boleyn were "nice" women. They were both capable of great kindness and they were often seen as heroines by those around them, but to call either of them "nice" would be to woefully misapply the word. Katherine of Aragon's obscene exultation over the dead body of the King of Scots when he dared invade her husband's realm or Anne Boleyn's utter indifference to the fate of Sir Thomas More are not the qualities of nice women. Katherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn were, however, both great ladies - courageous, determined, principled, charismatic and, as one historian so rightly put it, "worthy adversaries." "Nice" is far too twee a word for either queen.

But, if nice women do not necessarily make history, they can make peoples' lives happier and both of Anne of Cleves' stepdaughters, Mary and Elizabeth, would have been unanimous in their praise of their father's fourth wife. It is nothing to be sniffed at and in a century which perhaps produced too many great men and women for its own good, the niceness of Anne of Cleves is to surely to her eternal credit.

Perhaps the most appropriate epitaph for the one-time Queen of England was the assessment offered by the Earl of Southampton when he met her for the first time: "None might be more amiable, nor more like a princess."

Wednesday 14 July 2010

The Beginning of the End for Lady Jane Grey

“By this time news was brought that Sir John Williams was also proclaiming Queen Mary in Oxfordshire. From that time forward certain of the council, that is, the Earl of Pembroke and the Lord Warden sought to go out of the Tower to consult in London, but could not as yet.”
- From The Chronicle of Queen Jane, and of Two Years of Queen Mary

The Mary Tudor: Renaissance Queen blog continues its excellent anniversary posts on the rise to power of Mary Tudor in the summer of 1553, with an account of 13th July, when the first serious cracks in the regime of Lady Jane Grey (above) began to appear.

Saturday 10 July 2010

An interview with Elena Maria Vidal, author of "Trianon"

Following this blog's review of her debut novel, "Trianon," based on the lives of King Louis XVI and Queen Marie-Antoinette during the French Revolution, I'm delighted to welcome American novelist, Elena Maria Vidal, to discuss the novel and her writing process.

GR: Elena-Maria, thank you for doing this interview and welcome to "Confessions of a Ci-Devant." Although, that welcome is probably tardy and unnecessary - your comments on some of my posts have been some of my favourites – and it’s in no small part due to how much I enjoyed your blog, “Tea at Trianon,” that I decided to embark upon writing my own!

EMV: Thank you, Gareth, for the interview and for the support of my books. And your blog is a wonderful contribution for its wit and genuine scholarship.

GR: I think one of the things that made “Trianon” such a joy to read is that you and I have both written works that mirror each other’s – in that, they cover the same period and have many overlapping characters. “Trianon” is set before the Revolution, as is my play “The Audacity of Ideas,” whilst their respective sequels “Madame Royale” and “All Those Who Suffered,” both deal with the fates of Marie-Antoinette’s children in the years after the Revolution. Knowing what it’s like to write on the period, I know there’s a huge amount of research that has to go into the writing process – before we even begin writing, as it were. How much research did you do on Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette before starting on “Trianon” and did you start the research with the intent of writing a novel about them, or did the research generate the idea of writing the novel itself?

EMV: Yes, Gareth, your plays and my novels include many of the same characters, and we have similar takes on those characters. I began reading about Marie-Antoinette when I was nine. I was so moved by her story that I covered my school notebooks with drawings of her, and liked to coiffure my Barbie dolls in eighteenth century bouffants with plumes. I continued to read various books about Marie-Antoinette throughout the years. By the time I was a grad student I had visited Versailles twice, but it was not until I saw a picture of Petit Trianon in Smithsonian Magazine that I felt inspired to write something about the Queen. It was just a photo of a staircase, but in my mind’s eye I could see Marie-Antoinette walking down it. I wanted to capture a moment in time, one of those happy moments that were like islands in a sea of tragedy in the life of Marie-Antoinette. I was already deep into research about the French Revolution as part of my graduate studies. I wrote the Prologue and then put the whole thing aside for ten years.

After a trip to Vienna I found the manuscript and the notebooks with my research in my father’s basement. I felt inspired by my trip to Vienna to take it up again, but I decided to include the Revolution, without which the inner strength of Marie-Antoinette does not come into its fullness. I researched as I went along and have continued to do so even after the publication of the first edition. I am still researching. There is always more to learn.

Friday 9 July 2010

An Interview with Catherine Delors, author of "For the King"

Historical novelist, Elena Maria Vidal, herself the author of two books on the period, "Trianon" and "Madame Royale," interviews Catherine Delors, author of "Mistress of the Revolution", about her new book, "For the King," a historical thriller and mystery set in Paris in the years immediately after the Reign of Terror.

Wednesday 7 July 2010

"The leaves were yellowing:" Trianon (2010)

"Before long, they were driving through the black, golden-tipped gate of the Little Trianon. The carriages were reined in in front of the classical simple, square house, brownish-beige in color, with large, rectangular windows, a flat roof, and welcoming verandas on either side. It was so plain and simple compared to Versailles, but to Thérèse it was home. The footmen, who had been standing at the back of the carriages, helped them to dismount. The Queen climbed out first. She wore a white muslin dress and wide-brimmed straw hat with single ostrich plume and a gauzy veil. There was an exquisite portrait of Mamam by Madame Vigée-Lebrun in just such a costume. Maman had shed tears over it, because people had not liked it."
- From the novel Trianon by Elena Maria Vidal


Over the next few weeks, there will be a series on the work of the American novelist, Elena Maria Vidal, beginning with this review of her first novel, Trianon, based on the final years of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette. Recently re-issued, a new edition of its sequel, Madame Royale, is due out very soon and I was beyond honoured to be asked to write an endorsement for it - so there will be more news on that! There will also be an interview with Elena Maria Vidal, herself, and an article on the society beauty, Gabrielle de Polignac, comparing her presentation in Miss Vidal's novel, my play The Audacity of Ideas, Sofia Coppola's movie Marie Antoinette and Chantal Thomas's novel Les Adieux à la reine. There will be a discussion on Miss Vidal's latest novel, The Night's Dark Shade, and an excerpt from my thesis about the portrayals of Marie-Antoinette in cinema. On Miss Vidal's superb blog, there is already (very kindly) an excerpt from my thesis, in which Trianon was discussed when I was researching the posthumous reputation of Marie-Antoinette. It was my pleasure to review this novel and I hope the events over the next few weeks will keep people entertained!



Nothing happens in Elena Maria Vidal's novel Trianon. In much the same way as nothing really happens in Michael Cunningham's The Hours. Yes, Marie-Antoinette is executed, in the same way as Virginia Woolf drowns herself at the beginning of The Hours, but "real drama" (whatever that is) never seems to happen. It's all internal - it's the story of people, rather than events.

Beginning in 1787, the year historians date as the beginning of the period in French history known as "the pre-Revolution," and ending in 1795, with an epilogue set in the Russian Empire twelve years later, Trianon's story starts after the glory days of Versailles are long over. Marie-Antoinette is no longer the vivacious teenage empress of high society, but rather a graceful and mature thirty-something with a growing family and a struggling husband. The flash of jewels, the swish of silk, the intoxicating aroma of heavy perfumes and the ceaseless rustle of delicious gossip over candlelit banquets, are a thing of the past. We do not see the towering hairstyles, the glistening fabrics, the enormous gowns and the all-night parties. And yet neither do we see what some amateur historians fancifully imagine to be their corollary - the violent purges of the Revolution. The summoning of the Estates-General, Bastille Day, the siege of the palace, the flight to Varennes, the downfall of the monarchy, the September Massacres, even the actual execution of Marie-Antoinette, all happen "off-stage," as it were. And that is because Trianon is not really about the glory of the ancien régime or the trauma of the Revolution, but rather it is about the agony and the ecstasy of living in such times. Above all, it is the story of a married couple - Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette - who, to quote the author in her Preface, endured "crushing disappointments, innumerable humiliations, personal and national tragedy, and death itself." And yet, despite this rather grim statement of purpose, Trianon emerges as a rather lovely and uplifting novel, despite the heartache, because, as Elena Maria Vidal so beautifully reminds us: "It is necessary to remember that the darkness of the night makes the stars shine with an ever greater resplendence."

Trianon begins with the famous court artist, Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun, painting a portrait of Marie-Antoinette, in the crisp autumn of 1787. The Queen of France is approaching her 32nd birthday and Madame Vigée-Lebrun has already painted Her Majesty's portrait several times before. Yet, each time, she is dissatisfied with the result - the artist, that is, not the subject. Madame Vigée-Lebrun, generally considered the finest portraitist of her generation, is frustrated with herself because "her previous attempts at reproducing on canvas the most radiant skin in all Europe, perhaps in the world, had fallen far short of her own high standards".

I loved the opening to this novel, if for no other reason than the fact that, to me, it seemed as if it's a rather lovely moment of self-portrait. Madame Vigée-Lebrun may as well be Elena Maria Vidal - having once been under the impression that the beautiful young queen was a frivolous, if charming, self-obsessive, Madame has now been exposed to her enough to have an entirely different opinion of her character. She sees her as kind, gracious, elegant, gentle, completely devoted to her children and - in short - a true lady. She is utterly feminine. And it is this high regard in which she holds Marie-Antoinette that makes Madame Vigée-Lebrun so keen to produce a believable portrait of her. Like her character, one senses that Elena Maria Vidal, having spent years researching the true personality of Marie-Antoinette, was determined to render a different kind of portrait of her, but one which captured the radiance that both she, and Madame Vigée-Lebrun, felt had been Marie-Antoinette's in abundance.

This delight in the minutiae of the period and her zeal to show Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette - and their family and acquaintances - as she believes them to have been in reality does lead to the occasional problem. True life anecdotes like Marie-Antoinette getting down on the ground to pick up dropped paintbrushes, rather than allow a pregnant servant to do it, are seamlessly (and beautifully) woven into the narrative, but at times, Miss Vidal's incredible levels of research can become too much. Anecdotes showing Louis XVI's deep commitment to his subjects' welfare or Marie-Antoinette's generosity to charity are occasionally described by characters in a way which jars with their usual speech pattern. In short, it becomes a little too didactic. It's particularly a problem in some of the early speeches given by the King's younger sister, Princess Elisabeth. Perhaps these flies in the ointment are, however, only noticeable because when Miss Vidal is giving full freedom to her imagination, the result is beautiful - her physical description of the King standing on the porch of his wife's weekend retreat at the Little Trianon in Chapter Four was one of my favourite parts of the novel, perhaps because it felt so natural and so intimate. Equally, the Mass seen from the point-of-view of the royal couple's eldest daughter, Princess Marie-Thérèse, was delightful.

Trianon wonderfully recreates the atmosphere of the final years of Versailles, a curiously enchanted and graceful world of linen gowns, straw hats and quiet garden parties. Without showing its violence, it also conjures up the full, terrifying reality of having to live through something like the French Revolution. Fear, in this novel, seems airborne - less of a psychological state and more of a physical reality. Marie-Antoinette's trial in particular is an unforgettable moment in the novel, if for all the wrong reasons, for it brings home the unfathomable cruelty with which she was treated and it is no wonder that in interviews, Elena Maria Vidal has spoken of how upsetting it was to research the horrific child abuse the revolutionary jailers inflicted upon the Queen's nine year-old son.

Filled with dozens of minor, but factual, characters, who ordinarily don't attract a novelist's attention, the characterisations of Madame Vigée-Lebrun, Princess Louise, the King's aging aunt (living as a nun in a Carmelite convent at the time of the novel's beginning) and that of Father Henry Edgworth, the King's Irish confessor, are particular highlights. The centre of this novel, however, and its highlight, is its portrayal of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette. There is a moment, shortly before his execution, when the King is utterly moved by the loyalty shown to him by his priest. Beginning to weep at such unexpected kindness, after four years of degrading cruelty, the King remarks, "For a long time I have been among my enemies, and habit has accustomed me to them. But when I behold a faithful subject, it is to me a new sight! A different language speaks to my heart, and in spite of my utmost efforts, I am melted." In literature as in life, one is tempted to say. Far more so even than Marie-Antoinette, who is regularly presented as a spoiled bimbo, Louis XVI has not had a good press. The most generous assessment is to suggest he had a good heart but a poor brain and an even weaker backbone. I should know, because I have perhaps been guilty of this to an extent, through the way in which I presented him in my play, The Audacity of Ideas. At times, as an historian, I was not always convinced by Elena Maria Vidal's interpretation of some of Louis XVI's actions, but as a reader, I was deeply moved and, perhaps, it is time we started erring on the side of charity, rather than cynicism. In its presentation of his deep patriotism, his love for his people, his genuine desire to reform and improve France, his astonishing physical and mental bravery, and, above all, the basic decency of his character, this novel offers an emotive and accurate portrait of the most unlucky of French kings.

Written in a style which calls to mind the memoirs of those who actually lived in the 18th century, Trianon offers us a portrait of the French Royal Family that they themselves would have recognised, I think. Certainly, they would have been moved and touched by it. Unlike other historical novelists, and not just those writing about the 18th century, Trianon has the courage not to fabricate bodice-ripping and ludicrously over-sexualised story lines. Instead, it is focused on duty, on the reality of monarchy, on grace and on religion. Catholicism permeates this novel, as it undoubtedly did the lives of the real French Royal Family. It's refreshing, it's detailed and it's accurate.

Trianon is a novel of the twilight and the night. It takes place somewhere between the mesmerising decadence of the Barqoue and the blood lust of the Revolution. It is no götterdämmerung, no fin de siècle , no gone with the wind. Trianon does not weep for the world of Versailles, submerged like an Atlantis in the tidal wave of the Revolution's hysteria. In fact, Trianon does not weep at all. Through the tragedy and the violence, the genocide and the thousand petty cruelties, Trianon remains, resolutely, a novel of hope. It celebrates finding hope and finding grace and finding courage and sustaining love in the darkest of hours. Above all, Trianon is a haunting and sensitive portrait of a royal couple, armed only with their Faith and their convictions, who deserved a kinder lot whilst they lived and who, I imagine, might weep a little out of gratitude, as the King before his priest, at the affectionate portrayal of them offered-up by the pages of Elena Maria Vidal's Trianon. As this novel shows, by the end, they were not used to kindness.

Tuesday 6 July 2010

July 6th, 1535: The Execution of Sir Thomas More

Today marks the anniversary of the beheading of Sir Thomas More (above), the former confidante and adviser of King Henry VIII of England. More, who had provided the eulogy at the funeral of Henry's mother, Elizabeth of York, in 1503, had served as Lord Chancellor from 1529 to 1532, during which time he became increasingly uncomfortable at his master's ecclesiastical policies. He resigned, but was eventually executed for treason three years later.

Canonised by the Roman Catholic Church in 1935, modern perceptions of Sir Thomas vary - at a recent debate on the role of the Catholic Church in history, the British man of letters, Stephen Fry, thundered at Catholic MP and apologist, Ann Widdecombe, that it was a matter almost obscene that somehow like More should be venerated as a saint, particularly as the patron of private conscience, given his treatment of heretics during his time as Lord Chancellor. Widdecombe defended More's canonisation and something of the differing reactions to him can be reflected in cinematic portrayals of him - be it the hagiographic A Man For All Seasons, the intensely critical God's Outlaw or the more balanced characterisation by Jeremy Notham in The Tudors. As with so many of his contemporaries, what we know (or, rather, think we know) about Sir Thomas is based on hearsay or particularly resilient legends. Chief amongst the more nonsensical stories told about him is the idea that he personally tortured the heretics captured with a cat o' nine tails or that he championed Katherine of Aragon and refused to accept Anne Boleyn as the new queen. In fact, perhaps to his credit, More was one of the few people who personally admired Katherine but didn't see her cause and that of the Catholic Church in England as symbiotic. At the time of Anne's Coronation, the man who would be a saint, wrote: -

"So am I he among his Grace's other faithful subjects, his Highness being in possession of his marriage and this noble woman really anointed queen, neither murmur at it nor dispute upon it, nor never did nor will, but without any other manner meddling of the matter among his other faithful subjects, faithfully pray to God for his Grace and hers both long to live and well, and their noble issue too, in such wise as may be to the pleasure of God, honour and surety to themselves, rest, peace, wealth and profit unto this noble realm."

A legal defense of Sir Thomas is mounted by the excellent blogger, Claire Ridgway, here.

The Cost of the Monarchy

Generally speaking, I dislike the "penny pinching" attitude towards the monarchy in this country - or any government, in fact. In this case, it's not monarchy-specific. Realistically, unless it's some bloated Mugabe-esque dictatorship, it's almost impossible for the office of the Head of State and its expenditure to "cripple" a nation's finances. Lurid and inaccurate historical fantasies of the cost of running Versailles in the days before the French Revolution have convinced subsequent generations that monarchies are not just financially wasteful, but ruinously so. (That Versailles and the entire mechanism of the monarchy throughout the federalist structure of France accounted for less than 6% of the national budget in 1788 - admittedly grossly high by the standards of any other contemporary or subsequent monarchy - is a fact either unknown or wilfully overlooked.)

Frankly, I don't really care how much the monarchy costs and if the country ever gets to the stage where it can't afford the Royal Household, then we'll probably have much bigger problems than some squabble over hereditary succession. No-one suggests the United States does away with Presidential inaugurations, the expense of four year presidential elections, the enormous White House security budget or Air Force One because they're too "expensive" and I've never understood the insistence of the British republican movement about fixating on the cost of the monarchy, all of which seems to me to reflect a desire to want to run the Office of the Head of State in this country like a regional branch of the Civil Service - namely as drab, colourless and cheap as possible.

As ever, it turns out it's the "cheap" things that cost the most - modern republics are often far more expensive to run, bizarrely, than most modern monarchies. And the Royal Family's accounts for this year reveal that the Household is costing the average British taxpayer just under 67p per year.

Thursday 1 July 2010

Anne Boleyn: A Talent for Obsession

Claire at The Anne Boleyn Files runs a very interesting article, based on the recent opinion piece by British playwright, Howard Brenton, discussing Anne Boleyn's curious ability to inspire obsession in people, even five hundred years after her terrible death.

"Today there is a fast-growing Anne Boleyn cult. She appeals both to adolescents and to ageing romantics. Her story has a Wagnerian intensity of love, death and betrayal, shot through with a very un-Wagnerian sense of reckless fun, of daring sexiness. But there is a deeper reason for the growing obsession with her. The flowers acknowledge an unease; we love her story but feel guilty toward her. I think I've understood why and it's made me a paid-up cult member."
Related Posts with Thumbnails