Saturday 24 December 2011

Merry Christmas, 2011

Whilst it's famously called "the most wonderful time of the year," Christmas can also be a difficult time for people. It can bring up painful memories of those no longer with us. Unfortunately, it can also add a great burden to those struggling either emotionally or financially. More often, though, Christmas is a combination of both sad and happy feelings, particularly as we get older, which reminded me of a lovely anecdote about the first Christmas. The story is told in an early Christian text, The Infancy Gospel of James, one of the earliest of the biographical hagiographies inspired by Christianity's leading figures.

"And Joseph  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 her 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 unto Joseph: Because I see two peoples with my eyes; the one weeping and lamenting, and the other rejoicing and exulting."

I hope everyone reading has a safe and blessed Christmas. And thank you so very much for reading Confessions of a Ci-Devant throughout 2011.

Wednesday 21 December 2011

A family funeral in Northern Ireland

I recently attended my great-uncle's funeral in the town of Lurgan (above) in Northern Ireland and it brought back a lot of memories, which I blogged about on my other blog.

Tuesday 20 December 2011

The Irish Presidency's new chair

After years of using the vice-regal throne (left) that once sat in Saint Patrick's Hall of Dublin Castle, Ireland's presidency has elected to commission a new chair (right) for the presidential swearing-in, claiming that the old chair, which was used by the Viceroy of Ireland during the days before Partition, is in a state of disrepair. As Andrew Cusack muses on his blog, it seems a shame to let the old chair fall out of use, given that a good furniture repair expert must have been available?

The chair of the Viceroy and his consort, the vicereine, were shorn of their British royal arms at the time of Partition; the vicereine's chair was sent over to the Sinead Eireann, the upper house of the Irish bicameral parliamentary system, to be used as the seat of its presiding officer, the Cathaoirleach. The viceroy's chair, which became the president's chair, also had its original fabric (below, which included the shamrock and symbols of the monarchy) stripped away in the 1930s, in favour of something more simple and republican.

The conservative blog of Andrew Cusack laments the retirement of the old chair and reflects on its past history.

Monday 19 December 2011

What would Lord Palmerston do?

A very dear friend of mine, Charles C.W. Cooke, who I first met in our American History class at Oxford, is now working and writing in New York for the National Review. Charles has written a very interesting reflection on the recent sacking of the British Embassy in Tehran and the policy of "gunboat diplomacy" espoused by Lord Palmerston in the days of the British Empire. I really, really recommend reading the whole post here, because Charles is a fantastic writer, but for a quick quote, try: -
"Upon receiving the news that the British embassy in Tehran had been stormed, its windows smashed, and the Union Jack ignominiously burned and replaced with an Iranian counterpart, a question popped into my mind: What would Lord Palmerston do? 

Henry John Temple — more commonly known to posterity as the 3rd Viscount Palmerston, or simply “Pam” — was notoriously intolerant of any action abroad that threatened British interests, or even individual British subjects. As both foreign secretary and prime minister, Palmerston readily eschewed diplomatic niceties, preferring, in Winston Churchill’s famous phrase, “to use a sledgehammer to crack a nut.”

“Taking a wasps’ nest,” he told Parliament in 1841, “is more effective than catching the wasps one by one.” He was serious. When the Chinese had the temerity to restrict trade with the West — in particular by blocking opium exports from British India — Palmerston sent gunboats up the Yangtze River, indiscriminately destroying the small towns along the banks with such confidence that the Chinese quickly changed their minds. The result was the Treaty of Nanking, by the terms of which various trading posts were ceded to the British, and restrictions on imperial trade were summarily lifted.

Under Palmerston, British opposition to slavery was extended beyond the traditional jurisdiction of nation and empire. The Royal Navy was employed to intercept and destroy slave ships, regardless of their origin (Niall Ferguson estimates that by 1840, 425 such ships were captured and condemned), a blind eye was turned to officers who destroyed slave quarters on the West African coast, and the policy of other nations was heavily influenced by British pressure: When Brazil refused to follow Wilberforce’s example, Palmerston sent a gunboat to deliver the message. The Brazilian government got the idea and banned the practice two years later.

... But Palmerston was not solely concerned with grand strategic matters, and it did not take a wasps’ nest to rile him. British interests were British interests — wasps, if you will, were wasps. And so, when a British subject living in Athens, Don Pacifico, had his property destroyed in an anti-Semitic riot (whose perpetrators included the son of a government minister and which the police watched from the sidelines) and the Greek government refused to compensate him, Palmerston sent enough warships to the port of Piraeus to maintain a naval blockade until they gave in. “Wherever British subjects are placed in danger,” he noted in 1846, “thither a British Ship of War ought to be . . . to remain as long as . . . may be required for the protection of British interests.”

... We live in different times, and the situation in Iran is more sensitive now than when Britannia ruled the waves. But there is much to admire in Lord Palmerston’s unashamed defense of the citizens he had a duty to protect: “As the Roman, in days of old, held himself free from indignity, when he could say, Civis Romanus sum, so also a British subject, in whatever land he may be, shall feel confident that the watchful eye and the strong arm of England will protect him from injustice and wrong.”

If those who have been sent to foreign lands to establish embassies cannot rely upon the old maxim, Civis Britannicus sum, who can?"

Sunday 11 December 2011

A forgotten Grand Duchess

Her Imperial Highness the Grand Duchess Alexandra Nikolaevna entered the world in the 1,500-room Winter Palace on 24th June 1825, the third daughter of His Imperial Highness Grand Duke Nicholas of Russia and his German wife, dainty Princess Charlotte of Prussia, who taken the name of Alexandra upon converting to the Russian Orthodox faith just before her marriage. It is often asserted that this latest addition to the Romanov clan, definitely the most powerful family on earth in 1825, was christened in honour of her father's late sister, Archduchess Alexandra of Austria, described by one diplomat as 'lovable, caring and the most thoughtful of the princesses in Europe'. A striking but shy blonde, the late Alexandra had married into the Austrian imperial family, before dying at the tragically young age of seventeen during a particularly grueling childbirth that she was quite simply too fragile to survive. However, it's equally possible that the younger Alexandra was named in honour of her mother's Russian name or in honour of her uncle, Alexander I, the current Tsar of Russia. Either way, little baby Alexandra joined her brother, Alexander (nicknamed Sasha), and two elder sisters, Maria and Olga, and settled down to what everyone expected to be a quiet but privileged life as the Tsar of Russia's youngest niece.

Nine months after little Alexandra's birth, however, her parents were thrust into the centre of national life when her uncle Alexander suddenly died at the age of forty-seven whilst vacationing in southern Russia. Alexander's marriage to the stunning Empress Elisabeth had been childless, which meant that it was logically assumed by most people that the next-in-line was the Tsar's younger brother, the Grand Duke Constantine, a middle brother between him and Alexandra's father, Nicholas. However, unbeknownst to most of the Russian government and even to Nicholas himself, years earlier Constantine had come to a secret agreement with Alexander to give up his rights to the throne so that he could marry a Polish socialite, Joanna Grudzinska. Joanna was a Roman Catholic and, by the standards of the Russian Imperial House, a commoner (her father was a count); both of these things made her ineligible to marry the future tsar and, like Edward VIII a century later, Constantine put private satisfaction above public duty and renounced the throne in order to marry Joanna. The major problem with this was that the Romanov family's proverbial ability to keep a secret meant that neither Constantine nor the departed Alexander had bothered to tell Nicholas who, because of his brother's decision, was now heir-apparent to the Russian throne. On 1st December 1825, when news reached Saint Petersburg that Alexander I was dead, Nicholas therefore dutifully had Constantine officially proclaimed the new Emperor and Autocrat of All the Russias. Meanwhile, Constantine, still in Warsaw, took nearly thirteen days to inform Nicholas of the turn of events which meant he would stay a grand duke, but his younger brother would now become Tsar Nicholas I. The situation was turned from an embarrassment into a crisis when a group of liberal army officers attempted to force liberal Constantine onto the throne instead of conservative Nicholas, resulting in the so-called "Decembrist Uprising,"  which ultimately ended in failure.

Perhaps it was because of the otherwise-traumatic events of the year in which she was born that Alexandra was apparently her father's favourite child. Through her mother, she had inherited some of the fabled beauty of her German grandmother, Queen Louise, and she was said to be sweet, charming, beautiful and a talented musician. At the age of sixteen, like all the Romanov princesses, she made her official 'entrance' into Saint Petersburg high society as a debutante, where she quickly earned general approval for her charm, vivacity and style. Doted upon by her father and now the toast of the capital's glittering night-life, Alexandra was also an avid patron of music and took singing lessons herself from the famous German opera singer, Henrietta Sontag.  However, like her mother the Empress, Grand Duchess Alexandra was physically very fragile and like the aunt she may have been named after, she was almost certainly too weak to go through the rigours of early nineteenth century childbirth.

During the Season of 1843, when she was seventeen years old, Alexandra fell madly in love with a twenty-three year-old German prince, Frederich-Wilhelm of Hesse-Kassel, who was visiting Saint Petersburg in search of a wife. Heir to one of the most prestigious royal houses in Germany, Prince Frederich-Wilhelm was allegedly originally intending to pay suit to Alexandra's elder sister, twenty year-old Olga. (The eldest sister, Maria, was already married.) However, realising the depth of passion between the two, Olga stepped graciously aside to allow Frederich-Wilhelm to begin courting Alexandra, a move which Olga later insisted was something she had done voluntarily and not under any pressure from either Frederich or Alexandra. Although initially reluctant to part with his baby daughter, the Tsar realised that Alexandra was entirely smitten with Frederich-Wilhelm and, like Olga, he did not want to stand in the way of the couple's happiness. The Emperor and Empress gave their permission for the marriage to go ahead and it was celebrated with the Romanov court's customary pomp at the Winter Palace on 28th January 1844, during the middle of the Saint Petersburg Season, which began on New Year's Day and ended just before Lent. Alexandra, now Princess of Hesse-Kassel, was pregnant by spring and the Tsar used it as an excuse to keep the young couple in Saint Petersburg.

However, Alexandra had withheld the news that even before the wedding, she had been suffering from ill-health. In fact, she almost certainly had consumption and the pregnancy accelerated the process whereby the life was almost literally drained out of Alexandra. She was too ill to make the journey to Germany and her husband stayed at her side in Russia, hoping desperately that once the pregnancy was over, his wife might make a recovery. It was not to be. On 10th August 1844, Princess Alexandra collapsed and went into labour, three months early. The baby was a boy, christened Wilhelm in honour of his German grandfather, but he died shortly after his premature birth. Broken in body and spirit, Alexandra died a few hours later, at the age of nineteen.

The grief of Alexandra's father and her husband was said to be manic. Forty years later, her sister Olga would recall in her memoirs The Golden Dream of My Youth that Alexandra's death was something that she herself still wept to remember. Reflecting the Emperor's heartbreak and acknowledging the fact that Alexandra had never left Russia, Alexandra was buried in the Romanovs' Grand Ducal Mausoleum near the Peter and Paul Fortress in Saint Petersburg, the traditional necropolis of Russia's imperial family. She was buried with her baby in her arms; mother and child united in death. Understandably, Frederich-Wilhelm never recovered from such an appalling tragedy, in which he had fallen in love, become a bridegroom, then lost a child and a wife he by all accounts worshipped, all in the space of a year. Bowing to dynastic considerations, he did later marry again to a German princess, a cousin of Alexandra's, with whom he had six children. But he never loved his second wife and the marriage was said to be polite, but distant, something predicted by Archduchess Sophie of Austria, who warned the young bride's family that she knew Frederich-Wilhelm would remain in love with Alexandra until the day he died.

Back in Russia, Alexandra's parents had her rooms in the Peterhof Palace, a beautiful summer palace by the northern sea, preserved exactly as they had been on the day she died.

Thursday 1 December 2011

"The Lady of Two Kingdoms": The Life of Eleanor of Aquitaine, Queen of France and Queen of England (Part 3)

This is part three in this blog's look at the life of Eleanor of Aquitaine, which is part of the ongoing "Queens of England" series. Part one, "The Daughter of Riches" and part two, "A woman out of legend" are available by clicking on the linked titles.
"Why have I, the Lady of two kingdoms, reached the disgrace of this abominable old age?" - Eleanor of Aquitaine (1192)
The Middle Ages is one of the very few eras in history in which scenes from a fairy tale can come close to reality. One such scene took place at the height of summer in 1189 when a man called William Marshal, later described by the Archbishop of Canterbury as 'the greatest knight who ever lived', strode into the presence of the imprisoned Queen Mother of England and informed her that she was free at last. There was certainly a moment of sublime poetic fulfilment when William Marshal handed Eleanor of Aquitaine her freedom, because over twenty years earlier she had done the same thing for him. Long before he had won his reputation as the greatest jouster of the century and before he had distinguished himself by going on Crusade for a dead prince, Marshal, the youngest son of an unpopular family, had only begun his knightly career when he was captured by French warlords. Impressed by stories of the young man's bravery, and perhaps moved by stories of his family's penury, Eleanor had stepped in and paid the ransom, thus buying Marshal his freedom from captivity. Since that day, Marshal's destiny had been inextricably tied up with Eleanor's own and he had been the most trusted companion of her son, Henry the Young King, who had died six years earlier, begging that Marshal go to the Holy Land for him to atone for his sins. Returned, reinvigorated and already a legend of military prowess in his own lifetime, the forty-two year-old Marshal had won the favour of Prince Richard, now the new king. Set to marry Isabel de Clare, the daughter of the famous Strongbow, conqueror of Ireland, and his wife, Princess Aoife of Leinster, it was Marshal who Richard trusted with the special mission of going to England to free his mother from her gilded prison which she had endured since her children's botched rebellion against their father fifteen years earlier. With her husband's sudden death at Chinon and the accession of her favourite son to the throne, Eleanor of Aquitaine was once again being unleashed upon the world.

But the Eleanor who emerged back into the world in 1189 was a very different one to the woman who had been shut away from it in 1174. She was now an old woman, particularly by the standards of her day; she was already well into her sixties. Her first husband, Louis VII, had been dead for nearly nine years, having been succeeded by his son from his third marriage, Philip-Augustus (referred to from now on as Philippe, the Gallic form of his name). Three of Eleanor's sons - William, Henry and Geoffrey - had predeceased her and in the same summer as she became a widow, she also lost her daughter, Matilda, Duchess of Saxony and Bavaria, who had died suddenly at the age of thirty-three and been entombed in the gloomy splendour of the cathedral of Saint Blaise and Saint John the Baptist in Brunswick. Eleanor's eldest child, Marie, the child from her first marriage, was now a widow herself, still living in France as the Dowager Countess of Champagne. Her younger sister, Alix, was still Countess of Blois, married to the son of Eleanor's old rival. Of her daughters with Henry, Eleanor was currently living as Queen-consort of Castile, with a large family of her own, and twenty-four year-old Joanna also bore a crown, as wife to the King of Sicily. With all three of their brothers dead, it was Henry and Eleanor's two surviving sons who now mattered the most politically - thirty-two year-old Richard, the new king, and twenty-three year-old John, the heir-apparent.

If Eleanor felt anything at losing the husband who had been her lover, partner, spouse and jailer, she gave very little sign of it. Regrets or looking back are not things that Eleanor of Aquitaine seems to have overly bothered herself with. In many ways she had the final victory over Henry, not just by outliving him but by having him buried in Fontevrault - her burial ground. A magnificent structure rising splendidly out of the beautiful scenery of the Loire Valley, Fontevrault had been founded in 1100 by Eleanor's grandmother, Philippa of Toulouse, Duchess of the Aquitaine, and formally dedicated to the Virgin Mary. The complex boasted both a monastery and a convent, although in defiance of conventional ecclesiastical practise, Eleanor's family had insisted the convent should always have precedence over the monastery and that the head of Fontevrault as a combined unit should always be an abbess, rather than an abbot. Since becoming Queen of England, Eleanor had spent a fortune expanding and renovating Fontevrault, deliberately crafting its church into what she planned to be the necropolis of the Plantagenet dynasty. And Richard had dutifully honoured his mother's plans by sending his father's body to be buried at Fontevrault (below). After fifteen years in his custody, Eleanor had the satisfaction of knowing that Henry's body would spend all eternity on her land.

Richard had been in France when he heard the news that his father was dead and he was now King of England, Lord of Ireland, Duke of Normandy, Duke of Aquitaine, Duke of Gascony, Count of Anjou, Count of Maine and Count of Nantes. It would take him some time to make the journey back to England for his coronation and in his absence, he showed his trust and love for his mother by giving her the power that both of her husbands had denied her. Freed from captivity, Eleanor was immediately appointed Regent of England and she moved quickly to London to undertake the business of government. And for someone who technically had very little experience of ruling in her own right, Eleanor showed herself to be remarkably good at it in a remarkably short period of time. It leaves the historian wondering what her husbands might have been able to achieve with her at their side, if they had only trusted her enough. The monk and chronicler, Matthew Paris, later wrote that Eleanor's time as Regent after her son's accession made her 'exceedingly respected and beloved' by the people. 

Eleanor's political skill in leading the English government during Richard's short absence before the coronation was theoretically a dress rehearsal for a much longer stint in control. Two years before, the Sultan of Egypt and Syria, Ṣalāḥ ad-Dīn Yūsuf ibn Ayyūb, known in the West as "Saladin," had inflicted a terrible defeat and massacre on the Christian orders of the Knights Templar and Knights Hospitaller in the Holy Land. Now, as it had been in the time of Eleanor's first marriage, the Christian Kingdom of Jerusalem was under threat and, with crusading apparently running in his blood, Richard was determined to go East and finish the job his mother's first husband had so spectacularly failed at - to crush the Islamic caliphates and secure the supremacy of Christianity in the Middle East. He also hoped that in doing so, he would guarantee immortal salvation for his soul and glory for his name.

Saturday 26 November 2011

The reasons for Purgatory

"Therefore I say unto you: Every sin and every blasphemy shall be forgiven men, except the blasphemy of the Spirit, which shall not be forgiven. For whomsoever shall speak against the Son of Man, it shall be forgiven him: but he that shall speak against the Holy Ghost, it shall not be forgiven him, neither in this world, nor in the world to come." - The Gospel according to Saint Matthew, Chapter XII, vs. 31-2.

Often rinsed by Protestants as the most ludicrous of "non-Scriptural" Catholic ideas, Catholic bloggers From Burke to Kirk and Beyond discusses some very interesting theories for the practical justification of the theology behind Purgatory, in light of the recent child abuse scandals in America. It's also worth noting that some Protestant theologians, including C.S. Lewis, an Ulster-Protestant and Anglican, did eventually come to believe that Purgatory not only existed but was fundamentally necessary to make the entire Christian interpretation of Salvation and eschatology work.

Friday 25 November 2011

Can republics be snobbier than the Monarchy?

The National Post has a very interesting article upon the Monarchy and attitudes to class in Britain. Perhaps one of the things which people who aren't too well-acquainted with monarchical history will find surprising is how often various members of the British aristocracy have scorned and criticised the monarchy for being too "common". The gorgeous but fascist socialite, Lady Diana Mosley (nee Mitford), was extremely critical of the late Queen Mother, whom she rather unfairly and improbably characterised as a social climber. A little like members of the ci-devant nobility in pre-revolutionary France who criticised Marie-Antoinette for her farm at Versailles, because it was considered lacking in majesty.

Perhaps one of the most interesting points the article raises is that, contrary to popular misconception, the monarchy in Britain does not necessarily encourage snobbery and it cites the rather revealing example of how entrenched snobbery can be in the United States and France, both of them the most celebrated republics in the world and both founded, at least in theory, on the principle of equality. Historically, it's often true that "self-made" aristocracies or oligarchies, like those in the United States or, most obviously, in ancient republican Rome, can be the most precious and conscious of their status. I don't entirely know what I think of that argument, although there seems to be a lot of truth in it. In any case, The National Post raises an interesting point when it says: -
"Many commentators continue to follow Malcolm Muggeridge's argument that the monarchy is the source of class consciousness, that "the impulses out of which snobbishness is born descend from the Queen at the apex of the social pyramid, right down to the base." This neglects the fact that several countries routinely held up as progressive, egalitarian democracies - Holland, Sweden, Norway - are also monarchies. It also neglects the Olympic-class snobbery to be found in every non-royal society, from Ivy League America to the Crillon Ball crowd in Paris."

The full article can be accessed here and it's definitely worth a read. Perhaps one of the saddest and most interesting anecdotes is the tale of Queen Mary, consort of George V, obsessively pouring over her family tree and the Almanach de Gotha to see if she qualified as Rank I or II of royalty for the opening waltz at the wedding of the Kaiser's daughter in 1913. 

Thursday 24 November 2011

Extraordinary scenes of devotion to the Virgin Mary in Russia

An ancient relic, long venerated as a girdle or belt which belonged to the Virgin Mary, has completed its ten city-tour of Russia, after being loaned to the Russian Orthodox Church by the famous Mount Athos monastery in Greece, where it is usually kept and guarded. 

In an extraordinary display of the strength and vitality of Christianity in Russia after the downfall of the Soviet system, nearly half a million people queued for days in sub-zero temperatures to see the relic when it made its final stop in Moscow. The Church authorities were forced to extend its display in the cathedral by three days, whilst the secular authorities had to introduce fifteen hundred more police onto the street and re-route traffic.

The relic was displayed at the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour (above) which has special significance for Christianity's struggle against Communism in Russia. Originally created to give thanks for Imperial Russia's victory over the French invasion led by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1812, it was remodelled several times and went through extensive renovations, before finally being consecrated as the largest Orthodox church ever built on the same day as the penultimate Romanov tsar to date, Alexander III, underwent his coronation. The cathedral had a long and extensive gallery honouring the war-dead from the wars of 1812. After the Revolution, the Soviet regime decided to destroy the cathedral in order to replace it with a building called "the Palace of the Soviets," a modernist monument to the October Revolution. In 1931, on Stalin's orders, the cathedral was dynamited and reduced to rubble. The "palace of the Soviets" was never completed due to lack of funds and time, with Stalin presumably being kept busy with the business of genocide. In the 1950s, the site was turned into a public swimming pool.

After the fall of Communism, a replica of the cathedral was faithfully rebuilt as a symbol of the resurgence of Russian Orthodoxy after seven decades of hardship.

You can watch the desecration and demolition of the original, HERE.
And The Daily Telegraph has an excellent article on the veneration of the relic at Christ the Saviour, HERE

Catholic prayers for the Queen's Jubilee approved

The Roman Catholic Bishops' Conference for England and Wales has officially approved the order of service and prayers for a Mass to be said on the Feast of the Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity (Sunday 3rd June) 2012 as part of the nationwide celebrations throughout June to mark the sixtieth anniversary of Her Majesty The Queen's accession to the British throne. 

During this special Mass, the first reading is to be replaced by a reading from the first book of Kings in the Old Testament, chapter III, verses eleven through fourteen: -

"And the Lord said unto Solomon: Because thou hast asked this thing, and hast not asked for thyself either long life or riches, nor the lives of thy enemies, but hast instead asked for thyself wisdom to discern judgement, Behold I have thus done for thee according to thy request, and hath given thee a wise and understanding heart, insomuch that there hath been no one like thee before thee, nor shall there arise such a one after thee. Yea, and the things also which thou didst not ask, I have given thee: riches and glory, as that no one hath been like thee among all the kings in all days heretofore. And if thou wilt walk in my ways, and keep my precepts, and my commandments, as thy father walked, I will lengthen thy days."

The prayer to be used for The Queen at the Thanksgiving Mass is as follows: -

V: O Lord, save Elizabeth, our Queen
R: And hear us on the day we call upon you.

V: O Lord, hear my prayer.
R: And let my cry come before you,

V: The Lord be with you.
R: And with your spirit.

Almighty God, we pray
that your servant Elizabeth, our Queen,
who, by your providence has received the governance of this realm,
may continue to grow in every virtue,
that, imbued with your heavenly grace,
she may be preserved from all that is harmful and evil
and, being blessed with your favour
may, with her consort and the royal family,
come at least into your presence,
through Christ who is the way, the truth and the life
and who lives and reigns with you
in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God,
for ever and ever.

The Oxford blog, Once I Was A Clever Boy, has more information and also an argument that prayers for the monarchy should be re-instituted to every Sunday Mass in England and Wales.

Wednesday 23 November 2011

Two new reviews of "Popular"

There were two new reviews out recently for my first novel, "Popular." One was published in a literary magazine published by the University of Melbourne, called Viewpoint, and the other was written by a teenage reader from County Down in Northern Ireland. 

Viewpoint's review discusses how her expectations weren't meant when she began reading: "When I first picked up Popular, I expected (a) it to be about a bunch of mean American girls and (b) that I wouldn't like it. (I went to a high school full of mean 'popular' girls and I don't like being reminded how nasty females can be to each other.) However, the girls and one boy were Irish, although pretty mean, and I did enjoy it. Russell stands back from his characters and describes them almost mockingly."

For the full review, click HERE.

Emma, the reader, writes about how she enjoyed "Popular" as a young teenager from Belfast. And you can read it HERE.

British or European readers can purchase "Popular" HERE.
Canadian readers can purchase it HERE.
American readers can purchase it HERE.
And, of course, Australian readers can purchase it HERE.

I feel so lucky to have these great reviews and it certainly makes any author's day a brighter one!

The Kings and Queens of Scotland

The exact date at which Scotland became unified under one monarchy is still a matter of debate amongst historians. Local leaders and kings had certainly been calling themselves kings of Scotland or Caledonia (the Latin name for Scotland) for generations, but historians would usually date the beginnings of the Scottish crown and nation either to 834, the reign of King Aodh or to 1016, when Malcolm II assumed power in Lothian and the geographical region we now know roughly as the kingdom of Scotland came into proper existence. 

The first royal family, the House of Alpin, were the hereditary rulers of the Scottish kingdom of Dalriada, a kingdom which also had roots in Ulster, which is why one of Northern Ireland's best grammar schools is named in its honour. In 1603, after years of rivalry between the two nations, Scotland technically "conquered" England when its royal family, the Stewarts (spelt "Stuart" in England and France), inherited the English and Irish thrones after the death of the childless Queen Elizabeth. However, after that the royal family spent almost all of their time south of the border. Charles II was the last monarch to be crowned separately in both England and Scotland in 1651 and in 1707, the two crowns technically merged under Queen Anne to become the monarchy of Great Britain. This list will go right the way up to Anne, giving the numbers of the monarchs as they were known in Scotland.

Tuesday 22 November 2011

The kindness of Marie-Antoinette

The site Vive la reine (via Tea at Trianon) reports on one eye-witness account of Marie-Antoinette's compassion towards the less-fortunate. Although it's a side of the Queen almost never reported in modern accounts of her, Marie-Antoinette's kindness and empathy was considered to be one of her most dominant (and endearing) features by her close friends and servants. One of Marie-Antoinette's modern biographers writes, "Marie Antoinette further established her public reputation for sweetness and mercy by stopping her carriage for over an hour to aid an injured postilion. She would not continue until she had established the presence of a surgeon. She then insisted on a stretcher for the injured man ... This behaviour was much acclaimed... When a peasant wine-grower was gored by a stag during the royal hunt, [Marie Antoinette] conveyed the unfortunate man in her own coach, while making arrangements for the family he left behind and for his ruined crops. Wide publicity was given to this scene [and]... For once publicity did not lie. The impulse of compassion was genuine enough and was deeply rooted in Marie Antoinette's character. 'She was so happy at doing good and hated to miss an opportunity to do so,' wrote Madame Campan of a much later occasion when some country people addressed to her a petition on the subject of a predatory game-bird, reserved for the King's sport, which was destroying their crops. Marie Antoinette ordered the bird to be destroyed. Six weeks later, when the arrival of a second petition made her aware that her orders had not been carried out, she was upset and angry... [but] Marie Antoinette's insistence on personal involvement in humanitarian exercises - a tradition in which she had been brought up in Vienna - was privately thought to be rather unnecessary at Versailles."

The illustration above shows Marie-Antoinette with the Bellegarde family, after she secured Monsieur de Bellegarde's liberation from jail after he was imprisoned on unjust charges.
"Marie Antoinette reigned not only by her grace, but by her goodness. … She obtained a new hearing in the case of Messieurs de Bellagarde and de Moustiers, who had been pursued by the spite of the Duc d’Aiguillon; and when their innocence had been established, the two prisoners, set at liberty, came with their wives and children to thank their benefactress, she replied modestly that justice alone had been done, and that one should congratulate her only on the greatest happiness arising from her position - that of being able to lay before the king just claims.
As a token of gratitude, Madame de Bellegarde had a picture painted in which she was represented with her husband kneeling before the queen … the queen was greatly touched, and placed the picture in her apartment." 
-The Life of Marie Antoinette, Volume 1 by Maxime de la Rocherterie

Monday 7 November 2011

History Tours of Britain

I am very excited to announce that from Saturday June 9th to Friday June 15th 2012, I will be leading The Executed Queens Tour, a luxury history-themed holiday organised by the fantastic History Tours of Britain. The holiday will take a group of twenty history enthusiasts around southern England in luxury accommodation to visit sites associated with the four royal women whose lives ended violently in sixteenth-century England - Anne Boleyn, Catherine Howard, Lady Jane Grey and Mary, Queen of Scots. The six-night holiday costs between £2,100 and £2,600, which is all-inclusive (excluding flights.) We'll be visiting the site of the battle of Bosworth, where the Tudor dynasty first came to power in 1485; Sheffield Manor Lodge (said to be haunted by the ghost of Mary, Queen of Scots); the Tower of London, the legendary fortress where the Crown Jewels are housed today and where Anne, Catherine and Jane all ended their lives, and Hampton Court, the most spectacular surviving Tudor palace, where Catherine Howard was first arrested in 1541. Most excitingly of all (for me, anyway!) we'll also be visiting and staying in Hever Castle in Kent (above), the stunningly pretty castle where Anne Boleyn spent her childhood and where she may very well have been born, too.

Anne Boleyn was the second wife of King Henry VIII and the mother of Elizabeth I. The daughter of the heir-presumptive to the Irish earldom of Ormonde, she has been described by historians either as "the pretty face of the Reformation" or "the English Reformation's historical prime cause number one." One of the most significant queen-consorts in European history, her life and career ended in an unimaginably grotesque miscarriage of justice when she was condemned to death on false charges of adultery, incest and high treason in 1536. Catherine Howard was Anne Boleyn's first cousin and Henry VIII's fifth wife. Nearly young enough to be Henry's granddaughter by contemporary standards, poor Catherine was executed whilst probably still a teenager in 1542 after evidence that she had been inappropriately involved with Sir Thomas Culpepper was taken as proof that she was an adulteress. Her lover, her secretary and her favourite lady-in-waiting were executed along with her. Lady Jane Grey, a fiery Protestant born into the English royal family as Henry VIII's great-niece, became famous as "the nine day queen" after she was used to try and prevent the succession of her Catholic cousin, Mary Tudor, in 1553. The plot failed and Jane was arrested. Offered the chance to live if she converted to Catholicism, Jane refused and she was beheaded at the age of seventeen. The last of the "executed queens," Mary, Queen of Scots, was as famous in Catholic circles as Jane was in Protestantism. Born in 1542, she became the ruler of Scotland when her father died when she was only six days old. Brought up in France by her mother's relatives, she was said to be the most spectacularly beautiful princess of her generation. However, her life began to fall apart when her first husband, the King of France, died as a young man. She went back to Scotland, where she found herself a stranger at odds with the violent sectarianism of the Presbyterian revolution. Forced off her throne after seven years which saw the mysterious murder of her bisexual husband and her notoriously unpopular marriage to the man many people thought had murdered him, Mary fled to England, where she was placed under house arrest by her cousin, Queen Elizabeth. Numerous Catholic plots aimed to murder Elizabeth and put Mary on the throne in her place. How far Mary was involved in these is still a matter of historical debate. She was executed on Elizabeth's reluctant orders in 1587, after nineteen years in England.

For the lucky guests tracing these women's tragic stories, we'll be staying first in Coombe Abbey, a luxury hotel incorporating a twelfth-century Cistercian monastery and an Elizabethan manor house and then the tour will be moving on to have exclusive use of the Astor wing of Hever itself, giving them private access to the Boleyn family home. There, I'll be giving a talk on Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard and discussing my recent dissertation for Queen's University, Belfast on Catherine's household and ladies-in-waiting. The tour's other guest speaker will be Professor John Guy, fellow of Clare College, Cambridge, and author of My Heart is My Own: the life of Mary Queen of Scots, A Daughter's Love: Thomas and Margaret More, The Tudors and Tudor England. He is also the husband of writer Julia Fox, author of Jane Boleyn: the infamous Lady Rochford

For more information, please contact the tour by visiting The Anne Boleyn Files, e-mailing or visiting the tours' website here.

It's a very exciting opportunity and I absolutely can't wait to be involved!

For this blog's accounts of the executions of the four women, click on the links below: -

For Anne Boleyn's execution on May 19th, 1536 - click here.
For Catherine Howard's execution on February 13th, 1542 - click here.
For Lady Jane Grey's execution on February 12th, 1554 - click here.
And for Mary, Queen of Scots's execution on February 8th, 1587 - click here.

Sunday 6 November 2011

Ireland shuts down three embassies

One of the things studying history has taught me is never to believe anything until it happens and never to put faith in predictions. I don't necessarily disbelieve them, but if anyone thinks that short-term surprises can't alter long-term trends, then, frankly, they're fools. No-one watching the tercentenary celebrations in 1913 could possibly have imagined that four years later a dissolute preacher, a misguided empress, the most horrific war in human history and one really bad winter would bring three hundred years of Romanov monarchy crashing down in a matter of weeks. History really is proof that the unexpected happens every day. I always remember that when people start predicting the demise of the West and confidently assert that in fifty years China/South Korea/India/Singapore will have overtaken the United States as the world's leading economic/industrial/military power and that the future of Europe/America is one of slow downturn and inevitable failure. Maybe that will happen. Maybe in 2061, Europe will be in terminal decline and South Korea will be the maker and breaker of the world's economies. But maybe all these predictions are just like those of the English aristocrat Lord Bryce who, when he visited Argentina in 1911, pronounced with absolute certainty that in fifty years time, Argentina would have become "the United States of the southern hemisphere". It seemed so obvious to Lord Bryce that Argentina's economy would continue to go from strength to strength until, eventually, it eclipsed that of America, France and Germany. By 1961, Argentina was in the middle of a generation of political unrest and economic ruin. 

Faith in predictions, no matter which historian or economist has made then, can often be as misleading as  confidence in the status quo. Things change, the unexpected happens and the news coming out of Dublin this week proves that. In 1937, Article 44.1.2 of the Irish Constitution proclaimed, "The State recognises the special position of the Holy Catholic Apostolic and Roman Church as the guardian of the Faith professed by the great majority of the citizens." The article did eventually lead to the fifth amendment of the Irish Constitution in 1973, under pressure from groups which claimed it had institutionalised discrimination against Protestants and Jews. However, since the 1920s, it was held as axiomatic by Northern Irish unionists that the government of the Republic of Ireland in the south would always guard and promote "the special position" of Catholicism in national life, to the expense and detriment of all other religions. It was that confidence which allowed the unionist administrations at Stormont to justify their own shamefully brazen rival promotion of Protestantism. (In the north, the notorious Fethard-on-Sea boycott of 1957 was the endlessly-cited example of a too-powerful church and a too-obedient Irish government.)

The extent of Ireland's devotion to the Catholic faith and its obedience to the Catholic Church was famous and it became as integral to the common collective image of Ireland as heavy drinking, hospitality and lively music. However, over the last decade, chill winds of doubt have blown through the once intertwined relationship of church and state in southern Ireland. Mass attendance has decreased across the island and whilst it is still very high in comparison to the average in the rest of western Europe, the influence of the pulpit on Irish life has diminished. Secularisation isn't quite as rampant as it is elsewhere; piety still exists, but it's changing. Obedience is now selective, rather than total. Ireland, both north and south, is still statistically much more likely to be pro-life than pro-choice, but particularly in the under-thirty demographic, the majority are also in favour of same-sex marriage. The church's teachings on contraception, whilst dutifully re-iterated in Ireland's many excellent faith schools, are all-but ignored. Co-habitation is up; the number of priestly vocations is way down. Divorce and single motherhood no longer produce the recoils of revulsion which they did forty years ago. The numbers going on pilgrimage to Lourdes, Knock and Croagh Patrick are still very high.

But perhaps the biggest news of all, although it hasn't been too widely reported, is the announcement from Dublin yesterday that it's planning to close down its embassy to the Vatican. Officially, the embassy to the Holy See is being closed due to cut-backs. Along with Ireland's embassies to East Timor and Iran, the Vatican embassy apparently "yields no economic return" and the Irish government therefore believes it's best to close it and re-deploy the staff elsewhere. Yet, the closing of the embassies in Rome, Dili and Tehran will save little more €1 million and despite the government's official insistence that its decision is financially-motivated, commentators can't help but see this as yet another "stark illustration that relations between Dublin and the Catholic Church are at a historically glacial low." 

For the last decade, the cause of the estrangement between church and state in Eire hasn't just been because of growing secularisation, which, as I've said, should be used solely in relative terms when it comes to Ireland. Rather, it's been caused by a serious disagreement between the two institutions over the thorniest issue in Ireland today - clerical child abuse. Ireland's prime minister, Enda Kenny, leader of the centre-right Fine Gael party, has repeatedly and openly accused the Papacy of trying to sabotage official inquiries into the extent of the Catholic clergy's abuse of children - sexual, psychological and physical - over the course of the twentieth century. In the aftermath of the frankly horrific Ryan Report (investigating clerical child abuse in Ireland from 1936 onwards, published 2009) and the Cloyne Report (sexual abuse of children in the diocese of Cloyne since 1996, published 2011), Taoiseach Kenny accused the Catholic Church and the Vatican of "dysfunction, disconnection, elitism and narcissism". The Vatican rebutted his claims, both in general and in the specifics, and, understandably, relations between the two bodies have been (at best) frosty ever since. 

Whether it's financial or political, or maybe both, a good thing, a bad thing or a pointless thing, the closing down of the embassy of the Republic of Ireland to the Holy See and the fact that from 2005 to 2011 the British ambassador to the Vatican was a Roman Catholic from Northern Ireland (Francis Martin-Xavier Campbell) are examples of how, in history, the improbable is always possible.

Not Marie-Antoinette?

Over on Tea at Trianon's new forum, created by Elena Maria Vidal, there has been an ongoing discussion about Marie-Antoinette in art. Although re-labelling and mis-labelling of portraits is a common enough occurrence in sixteenth century history, it's much rarer in the better documented 1700s. However, according to several researchers, one of the most famous portraits of Marie-Antoinette may actually be of someone else.

The portrait (above) hangs in the magnificent Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna, Marie-Antoinette's main childhood home. Traditionally held to be a portrait of Marie-Antoinette painted around the time of her marriage negotiations, the lovely portrait was so famous that it even graced the UK cover of Antonia Fraser's award-winning 2001 biography of her, Marie Antoinette: The Journey. However, since 2008 the Schönbrunn has re-labelled the portrait and claims that is in fact a painting of Marie-Antoinette's elder sister, the Archduchess Maria-Josefa, who died tragically during a smallpox epidemic in 1767 at the age of sixteen.

An article about which Hapsburg sister the portrait represents can be found here.

And the forum's discussion begins here.

Friday 4 November 2011

The Kings and Queens of Spain

So, after posting on the Kings of France and England, here's a list of the Kings and Queens of Spain which, it has to be said, is a pretty complicated and tumultuous list.


Tuesday 1 November 2011

November 1st, 1894: The death of Tsar Alexander III

"God, God, what a day! The Lord has called to Him our adored, our dear, our tenderly loved Papa. My head turns, it isn't possible to believe it." - Alexander III's son and successor, Tsar Nicholas II (1894)

Alexander III, forty-nine year-old Emperor of All the Russias for the last thirteen years, had ignored the advice of his doctors concerning his frequent insomnia, headaches and sore legs. They had advised their imperial patient to go and rest at Livadia, the Imperial Family's summer palace by the sea in the beautiful Crimea region in the south. Tsar Alexander, obstreperously distrustful of doctors and adverse to any sign of weakness, insisted upon sticking to the traditional schedule and instead went to Spala, his isolated hunting lodge in Russian-occupied Poland. There, the six-foot-four emperor continued to deteriorate and eventually his wife, the Empress Marie, summoned a medical expert from Vienna, Professor Leyden. The professor's diagnosis was grim and uncompromising. His Imperial Majesty had incurable nephritis, an inflammation of the nephrons of the kidneys, which would eventually prove fatal. Conceding defeat, Alexander left Spala to make the one thousand-mile journey to Livadia. 

Monday 31 October 2011

Is this the face of Mary Boleyn?

Roland Hui, a reader of this blog and author of one of the finest modern assessments of Anne Boleyn's portraiture, recently sent me a link to an article on his new blog Tudor Faces, in which he discusses the identity of two sitters in portraits by the Dutch artist, Lucas von Horenbolte, which may be portraits of Anne Boleyn's sister and father.

The above portrait, a miniature by Horenbolte, is often referenced in websites and some history books today as being a portrait of Anne Boleyn. However, of all the many labelled and re-labelled Tudor portraits, this mysterious lady (described as twenty-five years-old in the faint gold lettering behind her) has had the most inconsistent identification. Sometime around the seventeenth century, it was housed in a collection as a portrait of Henry's first wife, Katherine of Aragon, which was still its presumed identity in 1774, when it was catalogued. By the nineteenth century, its new owner, the Duke of Buccleuch, accepted that the portrait could not have been painted as early as 1511 when Katherine was twenty-five and that it was therefore probably Henry's third wife, Jane Seymour. However, the clothes the woman is wearing are too late to be Katherine's and too early to be Jane's. In 1994, it was suggested that the lady might have been one of Henry VIII's nieces - Margaret, Frances or Eleanor. However, none of them reached twenty-five until the 1540s, by which point the gable headdress was complete out of style. Based on the idea that Anne Boleyn was born in about 1501, Sir Roy Strong subsequently suggested the woman in the portrait was most likely to be Anne, painted in about 1526, when these headdresses were in style. 

However, as Roland points out in his excellent article, the woman in this portrait bears almost no physical resemblance to eyewitness accounts of the real Anne Boleyn or to her other portraits. It is Hui's theory that the lady may actually be Anne's elder sister, Lady Mary Carey, who would have been twenty-five sometime between 1524 and 1528. He also goes on to discuss the evidence that this portrait of an unknown gentleman (below) may be the girls' father, Thomas Boleyn, viscount Rochford, future earl of Wiltshire and Ormonde. 

Fans of Tudor or art history should definitely have a read of Roland's full article, which you can access HERE.

Friday 28 October 2011

A woman out of legend: The Life of Eleanor of Aquitaine, Queen of France and Queen of England (Part 2)

After a very long delay to this blog's Lives of the Queens of England series, here is part II of the three-part life of Eleanor of Aquitaine. Part I - Daughter of Riches - can be read here.

"My life, when it is written, will read better than it lived. Henry Fitz-Empress, first Plantagenet, a king at twenty-one, the ablest soldier of an able time. He led men well, he cared for justice when he could and ruled, for thirty years, a state as great as Charlemagne's. He married out of love, a woman out of legend. Not in Alexandria, or Rome, or Camelot has there been such a queen."- Henry II in the play The Lion in Winter by James Goldman (1966)

History loves a good romance. Some of its most famous couples, like Tsar Nicholas II and the Empress Alexandra, are remembered because of the intensity of their love for one another. Others, like Marc Antony and Cleopatra or Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn are remembered not so much for the nature of their love, but because of the melodrama that surrounded them. On 18 May 1152, a newly married couple emerged from the cathedral of Saint Pierre in the city of Poitiers in modern-day France (below). They were Henry of Anjou, nineteen year-old heir-presumptive to the English throne, and Eleanor of Aquitaine, the twenty-something ex-wife of the King of France. Henry and Eleanor emphatically belong to the latter category of famous historical couples. With them, it’s the drama, not the sentiment, which entices. Their marriage, celebrated less than two months after Eleanor’s divorce from her first husband, was born from political expediency, but it ended in civil war, rebellion, mutual recriminations, heartbreak and imprisonment.

Tuesday 25 October 2011

The King of Romania addresses Parliament on his 90th birthday

Looking remarkably good considering today was his ninetieth birthday, His Majesty King Michael I of Romania gave a strong and confident speech to the Romanian parliament in Bucharest, in which he begged the people of Romania to keep faith in the democratic institutions that had replaced the Communist dictatorship in 1989. The King spoke of the importance of remembering history and its complexities, but also warned politicians to look to the future and to serve the people in all that they did: "Tomorrow's world cannot exist without morals, without faith and memory. Cynicism, narrow interests and cowardice mustn't occupy our lives. They remind us too much of the years before 1989."

This was the first time in sixty-five years that His Majesty the King addressed the Romanian parliament. Michael I was forced to abdicate by the Soviet-backed Communist regime in 1947, when he was twenty-six years-old. When the King initially refused to co-operate, the Soviet occupiers threatened to shoot one thousand Romanians until he did so. Since 1989 and the fall of Communism, King Michael and his French wife, Queen Anne, have made frequent visits to Romania and from 1997, the republican Romanian government lifted all restrictions on the royal family's right to enter and reside in Romania. The King is a very popular figure in Romania and there are ongoing discussions about the possibility of restoring the monarchy in the country. Yesterday's speech by the King was thus boycotted by several republican politicians and by the President of Romania, Traian Basescu, a member of the Democratic Liberal Party who caused great controversy a few years ago by accusing King Michael of complicity in the Holocaust. Since Michael was technically Head of State during the Nazi occupation of Romania during the Second World War, President Basescu, who was suspended from office in 2007 amidst allegations of electoral fraud, claims he bears responsibility for the many Romanian deaths in the Nazi concentration and death camps. Paradoxically, President Basescu, a former member of the pre-1989 Communist party himself, also called the King "a slave to the Russians," in reference to Michael's abdication under pressure from the Soviets, who occupied the country at the end of the Second World War. The King did not respond to the accusations, but the president was fiercely criticised in the press at the time. 

A newspaper report on King Michael's birthday and speech can be read HERE.

Sunday 16 October 2011

Remembering Marie-Antoinette

Today is the two hundredth and eighteenth anniversary of the terrible execution of Marie-Antoinette. The thirty-seven year-old Queen was beheaded by guillotine in what is now the Place de la Concorde just after noon on 16th October 1793. 

The Death: Here is my post on her execution from last year.

Marie-Antoinette the Christian: Professor de Oliveira defends Marie-Antoinette and discusses the strength of her Catholic faith (via Tea at Trianon)

Marie-Antoinette and fashion: my post on the young Marie-Antoinette's fashion tastes

Defending Marie-Antoinette: novelist Elena Maria Vidal discusses why she never said "Let them eat cake"

A one-man woman: Elena Maria Vidal gives an excellent discussion of the rumours regarding Marie-Antoinette and count von Fersen, as dramatised in the 2006 movie Marie Antoinette, starring Kirsten Dunst.

Birth: my post on Marie-Antoinette's birth in Vienna and her christening

Sunday 9 October 2011

"Scathingly witty": Elena Maria Vidal's review of "Popular"

Regular readers of this blog may have read my reviews of Trianon and Madame Royale by American writer, Elena Maria Vidal. Now, Elena has very kindly posted her review of my novel Popular, which you can read in full by clicking HERE.

"Released in July 2011, Popular by Northern Irish writer Gareth Russell, is a scathingly witty and humorous romp dealing with privileged teenagers in Belfast. Now I must admit that before meeting Gareth and reading his novel I had a quite different picture of Belfast than I have now. Most of what I knew about Northern Ireland were the news stories of civil strife and terroristic violence which I heard throughout my life, and which made me resolve never to go there.
... It would be a mistake to classify Popular as another piece of trite teen fiction or chick-lit; it is much more. Popular, although it is a novel, has much in common with a comedy of manners, a drama which satirizes the manners and affectations of a particular social class with the emphasis on comic and witty dialog. It follows in the tradition of Molière's Le Misanthrope, Goldsmith's She Stoops to Conquer, Sheridan's School for Scandal and even the novels of Jane Austen. Most especially, Popular reminded me of such works of Oscar Wilde as The Importance of Being Earnest for its sheer entertainment quality and unapologetic aristocratic flair. Not surprisingly, Popular has already made the transition from book to stage play." 
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