Wednesday 29 December 2010

"I was a housewife"

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

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

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

Tuesday 28 December 2010

Entertainer of the Year

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

Monday 27 December 2010

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

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

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

Saturday 25 December 2010

Merry Christmas

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

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

Thursday 23 December 2010

Anne Boleyn's Christmas presents

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday 19 December 2010

Discovery of King Henri's skull

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday 12 December 2010

Faith, Reason and the Virgin Birth

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

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

Friday 10 December 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Wednesday 8 December 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday 7 December 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday 4 December 2010

Elizabeth, wherefore art thou?

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

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