Thursday 27 January 2011

Defending Anne Boleyn

Part II in Claire Ridgway's on-line series criticising the popular misconceptions and stereotypes surrounding Henry VIII's six queens. Unsurprisingly, having defended Katherine of Aragon last week from the charge of being boring, Claire stridently addresses some of the nonsense which has attached itself to Anne Boleyn's reputation: -
"There’s no denying that Anne Boleyn is the most maligned and misunderstood of Henry VIII’s six wives. Even today, in an age where we have unprecedented access to primary sources and the likes of historians Eric Ives and Alison Weir spreading the message that Anne Boleyn was innocent and framed, Anne Boleyn is still misrepresented in fiction, non-fiction, TV programmes, movies, radio shows, podcasts and online. I am regularly asked why I feel the need to dedicate my time to researching and writing about an historical character who was a traitor to the crown and a homewrecker... Anne Boleyn is different things to different people and the puzzle of her story allows us to form her into what we want her to be and to love and admire her with a passion. Even today, she is causing arguments and heated debates, provoking strong reactions; and perhaps now, more than ever, inspiring people to write books and produce art and craft dedicated to her. She is like a modern day celebrity in that way, yet she lived over 450 years ago. Anne Boleyn is an icon."

To read the full article over at The Anne Boleyn Files, click here.

For my article on why Anne continues to exert such fascination today, click here.

Above: English actress Natalie Dormer as Anne Boleyn in Series 1 of The Tudors.

Monday 24 January 2011

The Patron Saint of Writers

Today is the feast day of Saint François de Sales, the patron saint of writers. François was born into the French aristocracy during the reign of King Charles IX in 1567, at a time of great religious and political unrest in France. He was an intelligent and handsome young man, whose parents believed firmly in the benefits of a good education. Unfortunately, for most of his teenage years François suffered from severe depression, after he attended a lecture on pre-destination at the age of thirteen and became convinced that, since pre-destination existed, he was going to Hell when he died. By the time he was eighteen, this five-year long battle with mental ill-health had begun to take its toll on him physically and it was with the greatest of difficulty that he managed to undertake a pilgrimage back to his homeland in southern France. It was whilst he was praying in the church of Saint Etienne, dedicated to the first Christian martyr, that François felt his doubts and fears lift away. He felt filled with joy and decided to dedicate his life entirely to God, rejecting the morbid spirituality of those who believed in pre-destination or a vengeful, vindictive deity. Today François's spiritual philosophy is often called "the Way of Divine Love" and two of his most important philosophical works, Perfections of the Heart of Mary and Introduction to the Devout Life are based on his key theological belief - "God is love."

With his health restored, François completed his education by studying at the Sorbonne and then at the University of Padua, graduating with a doctorate in both Theology and Law. After graduation, he went on pilgrimage to the shrine of Our Lady of Loreto, where he decided once and for all to become a priest. His father had difficulty in accepting his son's decision, since he wanted François to embrace a secular, aristocratic vocation and marry a local heiress selected by the family. However, eventually François managed to persuade his father that he was meant to enter the Church and he was already armed with the support of the exiled Bishop of Geneva, who was impressed with François's piety, intelligence and charm.

In time, François was to rise through the hierarchy of the Church, armed with these same qualities, eventually succeeding his former mentor as Bishop of Geneva. However, what he was best-known for at the time was his fantastic abilities as both a writer and a preacher. Unlike many of his contemporaries, François had a great deal of sympathy with Protestantism - or, rather, with Protestants. He felt that throughout most of Catholic Europe they had been treated with considerable cruelty and had been subject to sustained state persecution in certain countries which eclipsed anything Catholics were currently facing in Protestant countries. François could see for himself the effect that these persecutions had produced in his native France, in which the country had been crippled during the reigns of Charles IX and Henri III when the government failed to keep a lid on savage sectarian tensions. True to his philosophy, François attempted to reach out to Protestants with messages of love and his Catholic evangelising was particularly productive in Savoy, where he converted many thousands back to "the Old Religion." Because of this aspect of his life, along with the eloquence of his writing, François is today one of the few post-reformation Catholic saints deemed a worthy notary of the Christian faith by the Church of England.

François also exhibited kindness elsewhere in his life by attempting to develop an early form of sign language for his deaf parishioners and also by building personal friendships with Pope Clement VIII and with King Henri IV of France, himself a convert from Protestantism to Catholicism. 

François died on the Feast of the Holy Innocents 1622, in the reign of King Louis XIII. He was beatified a mere forty years later by Pope Alexander VII and formally declared a saint in the Roman Catholic religion three years later, by the same pontiff. 

Saint François is also the patron saint of deaf people and journalists. 

Sunday 23 January 2011

Daughter of Riches: The Life of Eleanor of Aquitaine, Queen of France and Queen of England (Part I)

“Reared with abundance of all delights, you had a taste for luxury and refinement and enjoyed a royal liberty. You lived richly in your own inheritance, you took pleasure in the pastimes of your women, you delighted in the melodies of flute and drum ... You abounded in riches of every kind.” 
- The poet Richard of Poitiers, writing on Eleanor of Aquitaine (c. 1176)

This is Part V of this blog's series on the lives of the Queens of England, with apologies for the delay since its last instalment, The Other Queen. The life of Eleanor of Aquitaine is one of the longest in English royal history and, furthermore, she was the queen of two countries and had a lengthy career as Queen Mother also. I have therefore decided to divide this instalment up into three posts - her career as queen of France, her career as queen of England and her widowhood.

Friday 21 January 2011

January 21st, 1793: The Execution of King Louis XVI

Anyone who saw Louis XVI, the deposed King of France and Navarre, in the final year of his life would have been struck by how little the imprisoned monarch now resembled the trim and faintly handsome crown prince who had won the praise of the visiting Duchess of Northumberland two decades earlier. Years of over-eating and over-drinking had swollen his always large, but once impressive, body; two or three years of effective house arrest had only exacerbated the problem. An unhealthy attitude towards food had long run in the French Royal Family, which in every generation since the sixteenth century seemed to have produced at least one person who would now be classed either as an anorexic or a bulimic or one with a tendency to "comfort eat". It had been the great crisis of the monarchy in 1789, in the months directly leading to the fall of the Bastille, which had broken King Louis's once unassailable work ethic and optimism in his country's future. The death of his eldest son, Louis-Joseph, at the age of seven in that same summer had pushed the king into a breakdown, which, today, would be recognised as clinical depression. At the time, horrified members of the King's family and entourage simply watched on as their sovereign ploughed his way through family-sized meals and demolished glass after glass of burgundy and his favourite port. His wife, Marie-Antoinette, who ate sparingly and never drank alcohol, only highlighted their worried observations, since when compared to the queen, the king seemed to behaving like both a glutton and a sporadically functioning alcoholic. 

Defending Katherine of Aragon

As part of a new series of articles, Claire Ridgway, creator of The Anne Boleyn Files and its sister site The Elizabeth Files, will be writing on the popular stereotypes which still govern the reputations of Henry VIII's six wives. She begins by querying if Katherine of Aragon really was the "boring one," before going on to discuss the nuances of various modern views of Henry's first wife and the mother of Queen Mary I.

"To our modern eyes, Catherine appears a religious fanatic, a victim, a woman who wallowed in her misery and would not let go of her marriage, and many blame her for the woman her daughter Mary became, an intolerant and cruel queen. People say that she should have accepted the failure of her marriage and gone into a convent, and that doing so would have saved her and her daughter a lot of grief, but, we have the benefit of hindsight; we know how the story ended and what a damaged woman Mary became. We are also looking on the situation with our 21st century eyes and not taking into account the times Catherine lived in or the beliefs that surrounded marriage... She stuck to her principles and her beliefs against a man who went on to execute two wives. She was prepared to die a martyr if she had to and I admire her strength and her courage."
To read Claire's full assessment of Katherine's life and career, click here.

Above: Irish actress Maria Doyle Kennedy as Katherine of Aragon in the television series The Tudors.

Wednesday 19 January 2011

The Legend of Queen Astrid

This is a fascinating story and one that is not particularly well-known in English-speaking countries. 

On his excellent blog, The Cross of Laeken, Matterhorn (whose comments on this blog I always enjoy very much) reflects on the premature death of Queen Astrid (above), the glamorous Swedish princess who married Leopold III, King of the Belgians, and the public outpouring of grief at her passing which led directly to the hostility felt towards her husband's second wife, Princess Lilian. 

Thursday 6 January 2011

Anne Boleyn's most famous portrait 'at risk'

With the exception of a badly damaged silver medal, minted in 1534 to mark the pregnancy that tragically turned out to be her first miscarriage, there are no known surviving portraits of Anne Boleyn painted from life - despite the valiant efforts of certain historians to identify dubious and unlabelled portraits. As late as 1736, a full-length 16th century painting said to be of the queen was held in the private collection of Lord and Lady Lumley, but it has since vanished. However, there are literally dozens of portraits dating from the late 16th century and early 17th showing Anne in a variance of the same costume - dark hair, French hood, black velvet dress, gold and pearl initialled jewellery. All of which seems to lend credence to the idea put forward that at some point in her life, Anne probably did pose for a portrait in this costume and that it formed the inspiration for the dozens of slightly varying copies of it, which now survive.

The version of the portrait which tallies most closely with eyewitness physical descriptions of Anne Boleyn is probably this one. However, the portrait above has arguably become the most famous and iconic of all the portraits said to represent Elizabeth I's mother. The hair colour is slightly too light, but David Starkey wrote in praise of the sitter's enigmatic smile which, he felt, "captured something of her sexuality." Lady Antonia Fraser, in her study of Henry's marriages, wrote that the portrait captured the "prim and provocative" side of Anne's personality.

The portrait, currently housed in the National Portrait Gallery in London, was taken down for carbon dating to see how close to Anne's lifetime it had been painted. The scientific tests confirmed what many historians had long speculated - that the National Portrait Gallery portrait of Anne dated from the end of the 16th century, about half a century or so after Anne's death and well into the reign of her daughter, Elizabeth, by which point there was naturally a rise in the demand for portraits of the Queen's mother. 

However, the tests also revealed that this famous painting is disintegrating and in dire need of major conservation work before the gallery can put it back on public display. In a statement, the NPG said: -

“It is in a particularly vulnerable and unstable condition as a result of structural problems with the wooden panel. Vertical cracking has occurred across the picture causing minor paint loss where the wood has split (see the photograph taken in raking light). We need to act now as the damage is being caused by the long term effects of an unsuitable cradle (an applied wooden panel support) which must be removed. Therefore this important and much loved painting needs urgent conservation treatment to ensure it can be put back on public display.”

For many people, myself included, the NPG portrait of Anne is the first one they can remember seeing as a portrait of Anne. Although I do not believe it is the most physically accurate depiction of her, I do agree with the NPG that it is "important and much loved". It is an iconic representation of Anne, which has been used in countless textbooks, biographies, histories, learning aids and memorabilia. More importantly, the testing does indicate that it, and the portrait in which Anne is seen in a very similar attire clutching a rose, were most likely painted as copies of an original which was itself painted when Anne was alive.

For any of those interested in making a donation (however small) to aid in the portrait's restoration and conservation, you can do so by clicking here. Then click on "Queen Anne Boleyn" from the drop-down menu of the paintings needing restoration option and choose the amount you would like to donate. You'll then be taken through the NPG payment processing.

Saturday 1 January 2011

Hello, 2011!

Well, A.D. 2010 has been and gone and today is January 1st, 2011 - New Year's Day in the United Kingdom since the reign of King George III. (Prior to that, the English preferred to celebrate new year on March 25th.) 2010 has been like any year, namely a mixture of some good and some bad. As a family, we sadly lost my uncle, Richard Mahaffy, on the day before Saint Patrick's Day in March, an event which has obviously been personally very hard for my mother (his sister), his wife, daughter and stepdaughter, as well as (of course) for his parents, my wonderful, wonderful grandparents. Uncle Richard's funeral did however bear testament to how well-respected he had been, and also very much liked as well. It has not been easy, by any means, and Christmas this year was slightly more downbeat than others have been.

However, it's also had a lot of good things - my friends Emerald, Aisleagh, Laura and Elena Maria have had great success and been very inspiring in their career paths. Emerald's first major television appearance was aired at the end of the year. She played Lady Lottie Edgefield in Channel Four's adaptation of William Boyd's novel Any Human Heart - a fantastic show from a great novel. I think it's still on 4OD, if you're looking for it! Aisleagh has catapulted into the world of high-flying lawyer types (seems only yesterday we got stuck trying to climb out a bathroom window when we decided a high school house party we were attending was too boring, but we were too afraid to go out the front door in case it caused a scene... squealing like two stuck piglets in what was demonstrably a tiny, tiny window was how karma got us back.) Laura has just published her first book, Eat, Drink & Succeed: How to Climb to the Top using the Networking Power of Social Events and Elena Maria published her third novel, The Night's Dark Shade, set in 13th-century France during the turmoil of the Albigensian Crusade. Onwards and upwards, ladies - and congratulations!

I also had a wonderful summer vacation in America this year, with just a little bit of work thrown in, and I got to spend lots of time working with the team at Penguin, who are amazing and very entertaining. Puffin's 70th birthday party in London was riotous fun, although people seemed to be traumatised by the post-modern technological bathrooms. Not entirely sure that it showed either of us in a particularly good light when almost the first thing my editor and I discussed when she announced she was pregnant was the possibility of being able to shop in Baby Dior or the Ralph Lauren Children department... Still, it's best to be realistic about these things.

2011 is a year I have great reason to look forward to - my first novel, Popular, is being published in the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland on July 7th by Penguin and I'm very excited about that, as well as handing in the manuscript for its first sequel on January 14th; I'm back to work in the United States for a week in February, I hope to complete my masters in medieval history, my friend Aisleagh is getting married and I have made some truly wonderful friends in the past year, who I'm very excited to be starting 2011 with in my life. Don't get too conceited though; I am very capricious! Literally, at any second I can change my mind. Bam! ... I jest ... I do not jest.

This also marks the start of the first full calendar year in which I will be keeping this blog, having started back in spring 2010. Bearing that in mind, I thought I would have a look back over some of this blog's statistics to see what we've achieved since starting.

Well, since March this blog has had 96,857 hits. Of those, nearly 40% came from the United States and trailing along in a distant second were my own compatriots in the United Kingdom. Canadian, German, Australian, French, Dutch, Brazilian, Spanish and Finnish readers made up the rest of the international Top 10. And perhaps most interestingly of all, here are the top ten most popular articles: -

(A link to The Daily Telegraph's interview with the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire)

(A post where I discuss the perennial fascination with Henry VIII's second wife)
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