Monday 28 February 2011

Defending Catherine Howard

Above: British actress Tamzin Merchant as Catherine Howard in Series 4 of The Tudors.

It has been some time since I posted here, because I was visiting friends in New Haven, CT, and thanks to them all for such a wonderful, fun visit! 

Claire Ridgway has continued her excellent series on reflecting on the popular stereotypes of Henry VIII's wives, reaching number five, his teenage queen, Catherine Howard, who was executed for adultery in 1542. Claire writes: -
"The Catherine Howard I believe in was not a nymphomaniac, she was simply a young and passionate woman who fell head over heels in love with the wrong man at the wrong time. It is clear from the letter that was found in Culpeper’s belongings that she was completely besotted with Culpeper and Antonia Fraser describes her as “the sort of girl who lost her head easily over a man, a girl who agreed generally with what men suggested.” How ironic that she really did lose her head over Culpeper! We have all known women who have fallen hopelessly in love with the wrong man, with a bad boy, and who have lived to regret it, poor Catherine was not so lucky."

For Claire's full re-assessment of Catherine Howard, click here.

Saturday 12 February 2011

"Popular's" new cover

As some of you know, my first novel Popular is being published in the UK and Ireland on July 7th of this year and it's recently had a re-design for its front cover, which I wanted to share here. I'm incredibly excited for the release and to be working with the honestly amazing team at Penguin. 


As term begins at Mount Olivet Grammar School, south Belfast, the teachers are totally pushing the importance of doing well in the GCSEs and A-Levels, working hard, being upstanding members of the school community, making their families proud and making sure that the rugby team bring home the Ulster Schools Cup this year.

For some of the boys, this is all good - along with the news that their favourite chippy is now doing super-size portions at lunch-time and that they've finally been allowed to put a poster of Megan Fox up in the Sixth Form Centre. Well, not so much allowed, more the fact that none of the teachers have noticed, yet. Apart from Dr. Kirk, who's more concerned with barking things like "Do your top button up!" and "Get a hair-cut, muppet!" at the male students than taking down a poster. They're also itching to make sure that they fulfil the Headmaster's faith in them and that the First XVs bring home the Cup this year, even if they have to personally stamp over the faces of their all-boys rival, Imperial Academy.

But, for the girls there are far more pressing concerns than sports and studies - namely the rumour that fifth-year popular girl, Kerry Davison, is throwing a Marie-Antoinette themed Sweet Sixteenth in three weeks, with staggered arrival time for her guests depending on how much she likes you and the news that a super-hot American has just transferred into the school from, like Connecticut or California, or somewhere basically in that general area. He definitely looks like Zac Efron - before he got all, like, old and stuff. High School Musical 2 Zefron; not Me and Orson Welles. Rumour has that Catherine O'Rourke nearly peed herself and rattled off a Hail Mary when she ran into him outside the Spanish department. She hasn't been this embarrassed since she turned up wearing velour hot pants to gym class.

Sailing far above the Debating Society, the Young Unionists Association and the Current Affairs Club, the popular kids of Mount Olivet occupy a privileged position in the school hierarchy. Think of it as being a bit like France before the Revolution - when ugly, smelly people were kept in their place, while the gliteratti with money, soap and fashion sense shimmy around at the top, cackling at fuglies. Good times.

In Upper Sixth, the ugg-loving, back-combing Cecilia Molyneux is about to commence her reign of glamorous terror as President of the Social Committee, but it's the fifth year popular clique which really grabs everyone's attention. Its queen-bee is the beautiful, icy and sophisticated Meredith Harper, "the girl who has everything." They say her closet is larger than most other people's houses and that she once amused herself by planting a condom in the President of the Christian Union's pencil case. Ironic considering Meredith herself is permanently out-of-reach for the school's male population. Well, it's not as if she's the first power-hungry woman to harness the potential of being a virgin-queen, is it?

Her besty and fellow Maloner is Cameron Matthews, the only boy in the popular group - tall, snobbish, thin and funny, he's even more afraid to step outside the confines of Malone than Meredith is. Balmoral Avenue is basically his Berlin Wall. No-one's sure if he's lying or not, but he swears he once broke out in hives when he accidentally entered Finaghy.

The group's foul-mouthed but fabulous "it" girl is Imogen Dawson, a blonde English bombshell, who used to live in London. She has a 6ft 2 rugby boyf and eight pairs of Louboutins. She does have a tendency to punch you in the arm if you irritate her, though, so best to be careful. The group's other blonde is Kerry Davison, whose curls are as famous as Imogen's punches and Meredith's Birkin. The proudest moment in life was when she won "Best Hair" award at the end of year party in June.

Finally, there is Catherine O'Rourke, the girl the others torture to amuse themselves. A klutz with a good heart and zero common sense, Catherine is determined to show her friends that she's worthy of being in the popular crowd; they're determined to show her that it's funny when she falls on her own face at lunch time.

Anyway, with the new transfer student, Kerry's impending Sweet Sixteenth drama, Imogen Dawson's one year anniversary with rugby hotty, Stewart Lawrence, Mark Kingston's weird hatred of Meredith Harper and the dozens of  rumours - some true, some not, some both -  Mount Olivet Grammar School is on fine form this September. In the cafeteria, the changing rooms, the form rooms, the buses and the BBMs, everyone's already trying to guess who's in, out, coming out, going up, going down, dating, cheating, lying and trying to cope....

Welcome to Malone!

February 12th, 1554: The Execution of Jane Grey and Guildford Dudley

"If justice is done with my body, my soul will find mercy with God. Death will give pain to my body for its sins, but the soul will be justified before God. If my faults deserve punishment, my youth at least, and my imprudence were worthy of excuse. God and posterity will show me more favour."
- Lady Jane Grey, the night before her execution, aged seventeen.

The Victorians were obsessed with her story and considered the downfall and execution of Henry VII's great-granddaughter, Lady Jane Grey, to be one of the single most edifying examples of femininity offered by British history. Jane, the devoutly Protestant granddaughter of Henry VIII's younger sister, Mary, Duchess of Suffolk, had been placed on the throne by her parents and ambitious father-in-law in the wake of King Edward VI's death in 1553. It had all been part of an attempted palace coup to maintain the Protestant monarchy established by young Edward and to prevent the throne passing to his Roman Catholic half-sister, Mary, daughter of Henry VIII and Katherine of Aragon. Jane's usurpation had famously lasted nine days, before Mary was able to imprison her and install herself as Queen of England and Queen of Ireland. 

Given that Jane had been in her mid-teens when she was caught up in this scheme, the new Queen had initially been content to show her mercy and to keep her locked up in the Tower of London for the time being. Phenomenally well-educated, Jane was content enough with this arrangement since it left her to go back to her books in peace and finally removed her from the care of her abusive parents and her ambitious in-laws, whom she despised. However, Mary I's impending marriage to her second cousin, Philip of Spain, was putting pressure on the Queen. The last time a Spaniard had married into the English royal family, the Spanish government had made the same demand - all internal threats to the crown must die before the marriage could go ahead. Last time it had resulted in the execution of the Earl of Warwick before Katherine of Aragon was allowed to set sail for England. Now, Philip's father the Emperor was insisting that Jane and her adolescent husband, Lord Guildford Dudley, must die before he could send his son and heir to marry Queen Mary. The Hapsburgs' ambassador to London, Simon Renard, was a particularly firm advocate that "a little severity" must be used to rid England of the Grey-Dudley threat for good. For a time, Mary had resisted imperial advice on Jane's fate, but the Wyatt rebellion against her rule in 1554 changed her mind and sealed Jane's fate. With repugnant selfishness and stupidity, Jane's father, the Duke of Suffolk, had sided with the rebels and when the uprising was defeated, Mary began to change her mind about sparing young Jane's life. 

It is often erroneously assumed that her father's involvement in the Wyatt rebellion forced Queen Mary's hand and made Jane Grey's (or Jane Dudley, as we should properly call her now that she was married) execution a political inevitability. Political pragmatism made the unpalatable idea of butchering the teenager unavoidable, or so the traditional version of events goes. However, the fact that it was not wholly necessary to execute Jane is shown by the fact that in the days leading up to her execution, Queen Mary was quite prepared to spare her life. But only if she converted to Catholicism. In pursuit of this goal, she dispatched a learned and gentle priest called Richard Feckenham, the newly-installed Abbot of Westminster.

For Jane, who despite her youth was a Protestant both by sentiment and conviction, Abbot Feckenham's visits were ones of bittersweet agony. Despite a recent trend in history to argue that given the strength of Jane's Protestantism, had she managed to stay on the throne she would have become a "Bloody Jane" to English Catholics in much the same way as her cousin was about to become "Bloody Mary" to the nation's Protestants, Jane actually struck up a warm and friendly relationship with the Catholic priest, one which Mary was demonstrably incapable of showing to any Protestant clergyman.

Friday 11 February 2011

February 10th, 1542: Catherine Howard goes to the Tower

It had been two months to the day since her two lovers had been publicly executed for their intimacy with her - one before her marriage, one allegedly after it. It had been three days since she and one of her ladies-in-waiting had been condemned to death without trial or possibility of reprieve by Bills of Attainder passed in Parliament. And it had been just over three months since guards had burst into her luxurious apartments in Hampton Court Palace informing her that she was to be detained under suspicion of what was later deemed "lewd and naughty behaviour."

In those months, Catherine Howard, teenage Queen of England and Lady of Ireland, had been widely traduced in public for her "vicious and abominable" deeds in cuckolding her husband, King Henry VIII. Mercifully, Catherine had been isolated from most of this smear campaign, since she had been moved to the convent at Syon within days of the scandal breaking in London. Syon convent had once been the centre of a thriving community of Bridgettine nuns, whose way of life had fallen victim to Henry VIII's Reformation and state-sanctioned the Dissolution of the Monasteries. The nunnery itself had been founded one hundred and forty years earlier and it had been built to celebrate the piety of King Henry IV, who ruled from 1399 to 1413. Henry had become king by deposing and murdering his cousin, Richard II, but his actions had been lauded rather than condemned by the Church, who Henry IV had shamelessly courted in his bid to hold on to his illegally-seized power. The crowning moment of this rather unpalatable demonstration of "throne and altar" politics had been achieved in 1401 when Henry IV gave the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Arundel, something he had long hungered after - for the very first time in English history, the new king had made heresy punishable with death by burning. Syon had been built to celebrate this move. Now, over a century later, it was being used again by another king who had forged an unholy alliance with religion and who also thought nothing to applying flames to his subjects' flesh. Only now, of course, he was being condemned by the Roman Catholic Church for doing so, not applauded.

Catherine Howard had been a resident at Syon throughout the winter, passing Advent and Christmas there, in marked difference to the merriment and splendour she had enjoyed the year before. For company, the disgraced queen had only eight servants - her chamberlain, four ladies-in-waiting, two chambermaids and a confessor. She had instantly disliked her new home, particularly the mouldering tapestries on the wall and she did not like the fact that she now only had three rooms to live in and six dresses. Much to her distress, her magnificent and beloved collection of jewels was taken from her and inventoried by the king's former brother-in-law, Sir Thomas Seymour. Nine days after her arriving, the Privy Council had issued a proclamation stripping Catherine of her royal title. Since she had never been formally crowned and only held her title by virtue of her marriage to the king, this was easy enough for them to do. Legally, she was now referred to simply as "the Lady Catherine Howard," although considering her father had only been a lord and not an earl, a marquess or a duke, she was not technically entitled to that, either. Prior to her marriage, she had been "Mistress Catherine Howard," but the dismantling of a queen's position was still a confusing business - despite how much practice the English government had had in the matter over the past few years. 

Young Catherine, who was probably not much more than eighteen or nineteen at the time of her ruin, had taken the news that Parliament had condemned her to death remarkably well. Or, at least, calmly. It's my hunch that maybe even at this late stage, Catherine hoped that by co-operating fully, she might be allowed to live. This calm and this delusion, however, vanished entirely when the Lords of the Privy Council arrived at Syon to escort her to the Tower of London on the afternoon of Friday February 10th. The moment they entered her audience chamber, the poor girl became instantly hysterical and burst into tears. The men begged her to be calm and come quietly, but Catherine would not move. Eventually, they lost patience with her; two of the lords dragged her up and manhandled her out of the frost-covered convent, out into the frigid afternoon air and into the waiting barge. She screamed and wept the whole time.

As the barge reached London, sailing down the Thames towards the grim fortress where Catherine's predecessor and cousin had lost her life six years earlier, Catherine Howard cut a tragic and pathetic figure. She wore a dress of plain black velvet and she wept intermittently throughout the journey. When the barge sailed under Tower Bridge, it would have passed the rotting heads of Thomas Culpepper and Francis Dereham, which were still being displayed there. By that point in the day, however, the light was fading and so it's just about possible that this horrific sight, at least, was spared her.

Thursday 10 February 2011

Defending Anne of Cleves

"Anne of Cleves seems to have gone down in history as the ugly one, the Flanders Mare who Henry found so unattractive that he just couldn’t bring himself to consummate their union ... Anne of Cleves managed to get out of her marriage to Henry with her head held high (and still connected to her neck, a feat in itself!), property and money, the title of “right dear and right entirely beloved sister”, a good relationship with the King and his children and she outlived Henry and his other wives, dying on the 15th July 1557 (although she was only 41). So, she can be seen as the one who survived, the one who got away, the lucky one..."

Continuing her series of debunking various myths surrounding Henry VIII's six wives, Claire Ridgway at The Anne Boleyn Files tackles the reputation of Henry's fourth wife, Anne of Cleves, who he was married to for only six months in 1540.

Above is a picture of English singer Joss Stone in the role of Anne of Cleves in Series 3 of Showtime's The Tudors.

Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher

Words cannot describe how excited I am about this project, which will see Meryl Streep play British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher.

Miss Streep, seen above in the role, began filming in the UK in January 31st and attended Prime Minister's Question Time at the Palace of Westminster as part of her research. Of her new role, she said, "The prospect of exploring the swathe cut through history by this remarkable woman is a daunting and exciting challenge. I am trying to approach the role with as much zeal, fervour and attention to detail as the real Lady Thatcher possesses - I can only hope my stamina will begin to approach her own."

Jim Broadbent, Richard E. Grant and Anthony Head will be co-starring in The Iron Lady.

Wednesday 9 February 2011

February 8th, 1587: The Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots

Glamorous women should never live too long. History doesn't like it that way. In return for missing out on the lives of their children and grandchildren, of growing old in comfort and security, history freezes them forever in an eternal prism of youth. Like a fly caught in amber, Anne Boleyn, Gabrielle de Polignac, Eva Perón, Marilyn Monroe and Princess Diana were spared the first signs of wrinkles, of infirmity, of senility, or even of middle age. Their husbands, their enemies, their co-stars, rivals, lovers, enemies, children and friends grew old. But they did not. The allure of their stories was achieved in no small part by the fact that their premature deaths meant that they could remain forever young. By this standard, Mary Stuart, Queen of France by marriage and Queen of Scotland by birth, lived too long. In her youth, she had been universally acknowledged as the most lovely princess of her generation. Poets had been driven half-mad by their worshipful desire for her and the sordid, tragic mess of her private life and all the men who had been drawn to her like moths to a flame, only to be burned and consumed, was a testament not only to her dazzling beauty but also the dangerous enchantments of her personality. Now, at the age of forty-four, Mary had lost her figure thanks to long years of inactivity and the only sign of her once legendary physical perfection which remained was the ivory-white, unblemished skin.

For nineteen years, the one-time Queen of Scots had been living under virtual house arrest as a guest and prisoner of her second cousin, Queen Elizabeth I. The two women had never met, but since Mary first became a widow at the tender age of eighteen, they had stalked each other's imagination and become much more important in one another's lives than any husband, lover, child or adviser ever could. Mary saw herself as Elizabeth's natural heir, but many saw her as Elizabeth's natural replacement. In some very real sense, the rivalry with Elizabeth Tudor was Mary Stuart's life and, at least for a time, vice-versa. Now, nearly two decades into the miserable purgatory of her confinement, the hysteria in the English Parliament and Court regarding the papist viper living amongst them had reached fever pitch. Despite fearing and mistrusting her implicitly, Queen Elizabeth had done everything in her power to prevent Mary being sent to the block. Butchering queens had been her father's past-time, not hers. And interestingly, given recent historiographical attempts to paint her as naturally crueler than her half-sister, Elizabeth had waited almost twenty times as long to murder Mary Stuart as Mary Tudor had to do away with Jane Grey. 

Parliament, however, and most of Elizabeth's advisers had now had enough of Elizabeth's squeamish horror at spilling royal blood, which she regarded as near-sacred. Not for the first time since she had so foolishly fled to England instead of France, Mary had been the centre of a Catholic plot to depose and murder Elizabeth and put Mary on her throne instead. Letters between the deposed Scottish queen and the plot's ring-leader, an English courtier called Sir Anthony Babington, had been unearthed by Elizabeth's spy master, Sir Francis Walsingham. In them, it seemed quite clear that Mary had not only consented to being rescued from the manor house she was currently been kept at but that, for the first time, she quite explicitly approved of the plans to murder Elizabeth. Elizabeth had wept and sighed and stormed and raged, but, in the end, she had signed the death warrant, conceding that her own life was in danger and that this time, she herself had completely lost control of English public opinion which had turned with astonishing, brutal venom on Mary Stuart.

Whether Mary was guilty or not, there is now no earthly way of telling. A variety of theories explaining her correspondence with the Babington conspirators have been put forward by historians studying this case and none can be said to be truly unconvincing. It is the assessment of Mary's most recent biographer, the strongly sympathetic Professor John A. Guy, that she probably was guilty and her consent to Babington's treason and attempted regicide was the desperate action of a desperate woman. He does however believe that Walsingham knew of the plot long before he revealed it to Queen Elizabeth and only allowed it to continue for as a long as he did in the hope that Mary would eventually agree to it and he would at long last have the incontrovertible proof Elizabeth demanded before she would even contemplate making a definitive move against Mary. Other historians have hypothesized that Mary had only consented to being rescued by Sir Anthony and that the incriminating postscript, in which she condoned her cousin's assassination, was added by Walsingham and his agents. And others, perhaps slightly less convincingly, have argued with great passion that every last bit of Queen Mary's alleged correspondence from 1586 was the result of English forgery. Either way, we will never know for certain and what mattered in 1587 was that Elizabeth clearly believed Mary was guilty and Mary believed, with equal fervour, that as an anointed queen she was legally ineligible to be judged by English law. (For a brief discussion on the various theories on Mary's guilt on this blog, click here.)

Tuesday 8 February 2011

Happy Accession Day!

Today marks the fifty-ninth anniversary of the current Queen's reign and I've posted this fantastic video which is a very rare example of the Queen reflecting on her life and career. I absolutely love this video. "It's a very dingy world otherwise..." 

For those interested in genealogies and royal titles, the Queen's current title in the United Kingdom is: -

Elizabeth the Second, By the Grace of God, of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and of Her other Realms and Territories, Queen, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith. 

A full recording of the National Anthem, for those in a patriotic state of mind, can be watched on YouTube here. Usually, as in America, only the first verse is sung, but on special occasions, I believe, all three are still used.

Monday 7 February 2011

Saving Anne Boleyn

Some regular readers may remember that last month I wrote about the National Portrait Gallery's attempt in London to raise enough money via subscriptions and donations to restore one of the most famous and iconic portraits of Anne Boleyn (above.) The campaign is doing well and it has received support and backing from some noted Tudor historians, including Alison Weir, author of The Six Wives of Henry VIII, Children of England, Mary Queen of Scots and the Murder of Lord Darnley, The Lady in the Tower and several other novels and biographies, including the excellent The Lady Elizabeth. Some of Alison's autographed books are being given away as part of the Facebook campaign to raise awareness for the NPG's campaign. Miss Weir has said: -

"I am delighted to endorse this page, and to lend my support to the fundraising for the restoration of this important - indeed, the definitive - portrait of Anne Boleyn. It has entranced and intrigued me since I was a young teenager and first became aware of Anne's story. Even though it is only a copy of a lost original, it is the portrait by which most people identify Anne, and it captures the charm and wit of which contemporaries spoke. It also bears testimony to the famous 'little neck' and the eyes that were 'black and beautiful' and 'invited to conversation', as well as to Anne's famed elegance in dress. In short, the portrait captures the essence of Anne Boleyn, despite rogue theories that it was painted to make her look like her daughter, Elizabeth I, from whose reign it probably dates. The proliferation of other versions, as well as an image on a medal struck in Anne's lifetime, proves that this portrait type is an accurate representation of what she actually looked like. We must save this important and iconic portrait so that future generations will not know it only from photographs."

Natalie Grueninger, who also runs the On The Tudor Trail website, has provided me with the Facebook page for the campaign - If you care about art history or about the Boleyn story, please do join. It's a worthy cause and, as Miss Weir says, "an important and iconic portrait." 

For this blog's earlier report on the portrait campaign and the history of the portrait itself, click here.

Sunday 6 February 2011

An Interview with Christopher Gortner

Early this week, I reviewed Christopher Gortner's novel The Tudor Secret, which you can read here, and I'm delighted to post this interview between Christopher and I discussing his new book and its inspirations. My thanks to the author.

The Prince of Wales in Belfast

With thanks to Lord Belmont in Northern Ireland for his post on the Prince of Wales's current visit to Belfast.

HRH The Prince of Wales yesterday visited Saint Malachy’s Roman Catholic Church (above), Alfred Street, Belfast, to view the result of a £3.5 million restoration project, where he was greeted by Northern Irish sporting hero, Dame Mary Peters, who is currently serving as Her Majesty's Lord-Lieutenant of the County Borough of Belfast.

Outside the chapel, the Prince listened to a brief talk on the restoration work to the outside of the church, which was given by the Curate of Saint Malachy's, Reverend Father Martin Graham. In 1941, during the German air raids on Belfast, a Luftwaffe bomb resulted in extensive damage to the original stained glass windows of Saint Malachy's. Due to economic circumstances during the war, they had to be temporarily repaired using concrete.

In 2006 the Diocese of Down and Connor embarked on a project to restore and modernise Saint Malachy's simultaneously. The red-brick exterior of the chapel and a full internal restoration of both the interior and the windows, based on historic records and research, was to be accompanied by installing full access for disabled parishioners and visitors throughout the church. The project was funded in part by fundraising initiatives organised by the diocese and by a substantial grant from the Northern Ireland Environment Agency's Historic Buildings Grant.

The lavish interior of Saint Malachy's, which is probably the largest Roman Catholic chapel in Belfast city centre, is known for having based part of its design on the Henry VII Chapel in Westminster Abbey, where King Henry VII and his queen, Elizabeth of York, are buried. 

After giving his talk Father Graham escorted the Prince of Wales inside to see Saint Malachy's interior and invited Ms Elizabeth McLaughlin, Secretary of Saint Malachy’s Pastoral Council, to present His Royal Highness with a gift of a montage of photographs depicting Saint Malachy’s Church before, during and after the restoration. Inside, the Prince of Wales also signed the chapel's visitors' book.

After viewing the church's interior, the Prince of Wales was invited to the nearby Parochial House where he met privately with some of the leading members of the Roman Catholic Church in Northern Ireland, including Bishop Treanor and Bishop Walsh, and key members of the Saint Malachy's parish, including Father Curran, Father McGinnity and Father Graham over light refreshments. At a separate meeting later in the day, Prince Charles chaired a discussion with a number of church representatives and other stakeholders to consider the role of redundant and distressed churches and church estates in the heritage-led regeneration of communities.

Saturday 5 February 2011

"Everyone has a secret": The Tudor Secret (2011)

“There are moments that define our existence, moments that, if we recognize them, become pivotal turning points in our life. Like pearls on a strand, the accumulation of such moments will in time become the essence of our life, providing solace when our ends draw near. For me, meeting Elizabeth Tudor was one of those moments.” 

I received a review copy of The Tudor Secret on a Friday morning and I had it finished by Saturday evening. I also had a lot to do that weekend, almost none of which got done.

The Tudor Secret is Christopher Gortner’s third novel and like his previous two works, it is set in the sixteenth century. His first, The Last Queen, was set in Spain; his second, The Confessions of Catherine de Medici, in France. This time round, Gortner turns his attention to England in the sweltering summer of 1553 when the teenage King Edward VI has disappeared from public view, amidst rumours that his chief minister, the Duke of Northumberland, is hiding the young king away from the public’s gaze in the hope of clinging onto power for himself. The king’s two sisters – thirty-seven year-old Mary and nineteen year-old Elizabeth – are understandably suspicious, particularly Mary, a devout Roman Catholic who is next in line to inherit the crown if Edward dies without children. Taking it upon herself to discover the truth, Princess Elizabeth journeys to London and it is here, in the sprawling Palace of Whitehall, a palace once built for her executed mother, that she first meets Brendan Prescott, a young equestrian working for the duke of Northumberland, the princesses’ apparent arch-enemy. From this fateful meeting, The Tudor Secret spins a truly addictive adventure story around the mystery of Brendan’s own identity and Elizabeth’s attempts to outwit whatever it is the duke is planning to do.

Any student of British history will, of course, know that 1553 was the summer in which Edward VI died a premature and agonising death to tuberculosis and the Protestant elite made their ill-fated and unsuccessful attempt to preserve a Protestant monarchy by placing Edward’s young cousin, Lady Jane Grey, on the throne instead of his Catholic sister, Mary. They will also know that neither Mary Tudor nor Elizabeth ended-up losing their lives because of this scheme and that both went on to rule the nation - Mary first, from 1553 to 1558, and then Elizabeth from 1558 to 1603. It is a testament to Christopher Gortner’s writing style, therefore, that even though we know the overall outcome (victory for Mary, defeat for Northumberland), The Tudor Secret manages to make the whole thing seem like a cliff-hanger. Even the few tiny unintentional errors – such as a confusion over forms of aristocratic address (the duchess of Northumberland, for instance, is referred to as “Lady Dudley,” her marital name, when in fact she would have been referenced by the territory or county now attached to her family, i.e. Northumberland) do not really detract from the atmosphere.

For a start, of course, that may be because The Tudor Secret is not a historically accurate story and nor, like some of its brothers and sisters in the Tudor fiction genre, does it pretend to be. (I think we all know which ones I’m talking about.) Although it does take place in the context of real events – Edward VI’s decline and Jane Grey’s “nine days” - Gortner is keen to point out that unlike his previous two novels, this one is not a dramatisation of real events, but rather a "what if." After all, its central character – Brendan Prescott – is fictitious and there is no evidence that Elizabeth ever made a journey to London in 1553. Like Mary and Anne of Cleves, the real Elizabeth chose to remain in the provinces, where she was deliberately fed a tissue of half-truths and outright lies by Northumberland’s entourage, who hoped to keep the other members of the royal family out of the way until they could manoeuvre poor Jane Grey onto the throne. And so The Tudor Secret remains an unashamed fusion of artistic imagination and historical research and, let’s face it, that’s exactly what a good historical novel is supposed to be. It doesn’t need to, nor should it, pretend to be anything else.

For fans of Tudor history, some of the mid-sixteenth century’s most famous figures flit across the pages of the novel – the duke and duchess of Northumberland, King Edward, Lady Jane Grey, her mother Frances (a truly monstrous figure in Gortner’s narrative), William Cecil, the spy-master Francis Walsingham, Lord Robert Dudley (fist-clenchingly irritating, by the way. Think the dimwit on the football team who you always wanted to pistol whip and you’ve got it.)  And, of course, Mary and Elizabeth Tudor. Gortner’s portrayals of the two Tudor sisters are particularly engaging and, I think, particularly accurate. Elizabeth gets the lion’s share of attention, since it is on her visit to London that most of the novel’s action turns, and Gortner captures her mercurial personality wonderfully. A host of other lesser-known historical figures also make an appearance – Barnaby Fitzpatrick, Kat Ashley, Guildford Dudley, Adrian Stokes and Sir Robert Rochester. The author successfully depicts the vicious and unstable world of life at the royal court, initially experienced through the innocent (and appalled) eyes of rural-reared Brendan. It is a world where one’s success or failure could literally be decided in the course of a single day and reputations, lives, liberty and happiness could all be destroyed by one false step or one particularly vicious rumour. At one stage, Elizabeth stands awaiting restoration or ruin in a pretty pavilion by the lake, where, seventeen years earlier, her mother had once stood awaiting the same thing. Gazing at Elizabeth amidst the luxury of Whitehall, Brendan reflects, "She took me through the courtyard and back into a maze of silent galleries hung with tapestries, past casements shuttered by velvet drapes and embrasures that offered moon-drenched glimpses of patios and gardens. I wonder what she felt, being in this place built by her father for her mother, a monument to a passion that had consumed England and ended on the scaffold." The scenes in which Brendan is introduced to the morbidly obese and epically spiteful Duchess of Suffolk and where Elizabeth is forced to swallow back bile as the duke of Northumberland publicly humiliates her are particularly memorable moments in the novel and actually brought to life the dynamic of what it must have been like living in such a treacherous environment. It also reminded me that, although we know Mary and Elizabeth triumphed, a lot of their behaviour can be explained by the fact that they had no such assurances. For much of the 1550s, both of Henry VIII's daughters really did live their lives permanently on the kind of nerve-shattering knife's edge  depicted in this novel.

The Tudor Secret is a story of intrigue, swordfights, scandal, schemes, lies, mysterious murders, opulent palaces, dark fortresses, secret loves, evil dukes, beautiful princesses, brave knights, clever spies and intrepid heroes. When I was a child, I was obsessed with The Three Musketeers. I couldn't honestly say how many times I read it and it’s still one of my favourite novels. The Tudor Secret belongs to that genre; a true swashbuckling melodrama – unputdownable, wholly improbable and fantastically addictive.

Friday 4 February 2011

Gabrielle de Polignac's lover?

Joseph, comte de Vaudreuil (1740 - 1817) was a French aristocrat, soldier, art collector and one of the leading conservative politicians during the crisis that led to the beginning of the French Revolution in 1789. He was also one of the leading figures of the hectic social life at pre-revolutionary Versailles, even though Marie-Antoinette disliked him. Madame Campan recalls that the Queen was once particularly infuriated by Vaudreuil's rudeness when, in a fit of bad temper, he broke one of the queen's ivory billiard cues during a game in Diane de Polignac's salon.

One of the more interesting legends surrounding Vaudreuil is that he was the lover of Gabrielle de Polignac, "the beautiful duchess" and one of Marie-Antoinette's closest friends. Gabrielle's own marriage to the duc de Polignac was not particularly happy and it was suggested by some that Vaudreuil was the biological father of her two youngest children - Jules, the future prime minister, and Camille. (Her other two, Aglaé and Armand, had been born before she met Vaudreuil.) 

Writing in her 2001 biography Marie Antoinette: The Journey, Lady Antonia Fraser considers this likely and asserts that the story of the two being lovers is, in any case, almost definitely true. On the other hand, Elena Maria Vidal, the author of Trianon and Madame Royale, has argued persuasively on her blog that the story of the Polignac-Vaudreuil love affair is probably nonsense. My own feelings actually correspond (ironically enough) with the Wikipedia article on Vaudreuil, which argues that if the old legend is true that Vaudreuil's mistress was actually the acclaimed artist, Madame Le Brun (which I think is true), then it's fundamentally unlikely that Vaudreuil was also sleeping with Madame de Polignac at the same time. To quote: -

"At the French court, he attached himself to the king's youngest brother, the comte d' Artois ... and formed a strong attachment to the beautiful duchesse de Polignac, an intimate friend of Queen Marie Antoinette and one of the leaders of high society at Versailles. The liaison with Gabrielle was viewed as sexual by many observers then and since, but some suggested that Gabrielle's nature was too essentially cold, class-conscious, (given Vaudreuil's Creole ancestry) or remote to have succumbed to an affair. Many of her friends despised him ... By now, Gabrielle had apparently decided that Vaudreuil was beginning to weaken her own position as a leader of aristocratic society and her friendship with the Queen. She began to avoid him and in 1785, she abruptly left Paris to spend time visiting friends in London. Her visits to spas in order to take the waters in the company of the Duchess of Devonshire became more prolonged and, by 1786, she saw Vaudreuil on an extremely rare basis and almost never without other people around her... In 1784, the celebrated artist Élisabeth-Louise Vigée-Le Brun painted two portraits of Vaudreuil. He was one of Vigée-Lebrun's most devoted patrons, and owned many of her works in his vast private art collection, which included a portrait of Gabrielle de Polignac. Some have speculated that the friendship between Élisabeth and the comte was not strictly platonic. Had an affair taken place, it would also have taken place at the same time some have argued he was sexually involved with the duchesse de Polignac, an unlikely development given Gabrielle's exalted sense of her own importance. The existence of one affair would in all probability negate the likelihood of the other."

Were Gabrielle de Polignac and Joseph de Vaudreuil lovers? It's impossible to say. My own feelings are that given Gabrielle's personality and her treatment of him, it seems fundamentally unlikely. It seems even less likely that anyone but her husband was the father of her two youngest sons. Vaudreuil was not exactly a discreet personality and if he had been Gabrielle's lover, it's hard to imagine that he could have resisted boasting that he was romantically involved with the most beautiful woman in France. However, we shall never know for certain what the truth of their relationship dynamic was. What got me thinking about Vaudreuil today was a post on the blog Marie Antoinette's Gossip Guide to the 18th Century, which contained a quote about the count's personality which I have never come across before. It focuses more on his political career and it gave me pause for thought. It's always useful to be reminded (I think) that we should never accept at face value someone's historical reputation and should always be asking questions. Commenting on Vaudreuil's surviving letters, an Irishman in 1836 wrote: -
"They prove him to have been a man of sound judgment and a model courtier. He saw that any attempt to induce foreign Powers to interfere on behalf of Louis XVI, at least during the Constituent Assembly, would only do mischief to the Royal cause. He was ready enough to oppose the Revolution, but he would not, as so many of the emigres did, join the armies of the enemy in fighting against France. He did much to restrain the fiery temper of the Comte d'Artois. His prudent and respectful advice to the prince concerning his passion for Madame de Polastron was the means of avoiding much scandal."
Of course, Vaudreuil's own letters are going to paint him in a flattering light and I'm inclined to think that the instance of the Queen's billiard cue shows he had both a temper and less-than-perfect manners. However, as I say, it's always a good idea to keep questioning and to find random, brilliant sources like this to flesh out our understanding of the past. 

Thursday 3 February 2011

Defending Jane Seymour

Well... those are three words I never thought I'd type.

Part III in her series of challenging the stereotypes surrounding Henry VIII's queens sees Claire Ridgway rising to the challenge of defending wife number three - Jane Seymour (seen above in Series 2 of The Tudors, as played by Icelandic actress Anita Briem along with the Irish actor Jonathan Rhys Meyer as Henry VIII.) Jane and Henry were married on May 30th, 1536 - eleven days after the execution of his second wife, Anne Boleyn. They remained married for eighteen months until Queen Jane died as a result of post-natal complications, following the birth of her son, the future King Edward VI.

Personally, I don't agree with Claire's assessment that Jane was a pro-actively virtuous and morally upstanding woman and I definitely don't believe that there's any evidence regarding the old myth that she loved and revered Henry's first wife, Katherine of Aragon. I tend to think the image of Jane as a virtuous "matriarch in the making" (to quote Alison Weir) comes from the fact that simply because she didn't do anything bad or controversial, she must therefore have been good. A lack of malice does not necessarily correlate to being pro-actively virtuous. When I think of Jane, I can't help but remember Stefan Zweig who, writing about another royal woman in the 1930s, said she was "devoid of any vigorous wish to do good, devoid of any inclination towards evil." (I may be paraphrasing slightly!) Even the idea that it was she who rehabilitated Henry with his eldest daughter Mary seems to me to be rubbish, since Jane neither wrote to Mary nor did anything to alleviate her suffering when her father and Lord Cromwell were psychologically torturing her into submitting to the Act of Supremacy in 1536. Her gift of a diamond ring to Mary after the submission was touching, yes, but it was all part of the aristocratic feminine culture of gift-giving. It was standard, not a sign of deeper emotion and above all else, Jane had passively beheld Mary's anguish in the months beforehand. Jane may have liked Mary, but she certainly wasn't her champion! Anyway, I digress! To me, Jane Seymour was quite simply average - neither exceptionally virtuous, nor exceptionally duplicitous. 

However, as always, Claire writes very well and it's always great to hear somebody else's opinions on Henry's marital misadventures - when they're well-informed, as hers are. Despite my own personal opinion that Jane was basically a bland personality, Claire raises some brilliant points and I firmly agree that it's wrong to see Jane as dancing across Anne Boleyn's grave. To quote: -

"...there are those who believe that Jane was took an active part in Anne’s downfall by poisoning Henry’s mind against his wife and historian Agnes Strickland saw Jane as someone who coldly and mercilessly stood by while her behaviour with Anne’s husband led to Anne’s miscarriage and ultimately Anne’s death. Some imagine Jane as delighting in planning her marriage to Henry while Anne was imprisoned in the Tower waiting for the hour of her death, but just as Anne had no choice in marrying Henry, and we can’t blame Anne for what happened to Catherine of Aragon, Jane had no choice in what happened either. Jane had loved and respected Catherine of Aragon and so probably did not have much respect for Anne Boleyn, but that does not mean that she took delight in what happened to Anne... Having researched Jane Seymour and having read contemporary accounts of her behaviour as Henry’s wife and queen, I have to take her at face value and believe that she really was the sweet, virtuous, kind woman that she made herself out to be, either that or she was an incredibly good actress! I do believe that she was coached by Carew and her brothers but I don’t think that she had to act, I think her behaviour was natural. As much as I’d love to believe that she had a dark side, I don’t believe she had one, she really was a virtuous woman through and through and cannot be held accountable for what happened to Anne Boleyn, just as Anne cannot be held accountable for what happened to Catherine of Aragon. Jane made Henry happy, she gave him the gift of a son, she was a peacemaker, she was popular with the people and she was a humble, kind woman, it’s just a shame that her time as queen was so short-lived."
To read Claire's full article at The Anne Boleyn Files, click here.

For this blog's discussion on Jane's early rise to power, click here
(An author's note on this post: I now accept that I was probably wrong in suggesting that the selection of the crimson by Anne Boleyn for her trial carried some kind of colour-coded significance. It has been pointed out to me by a friend and colleague that it's equally likely that she just happened to like the colour and by now had limited clothing options left open to her. A fair point which I find convincing and now that I think about, I don't think someone like Anne would have made the mistake of confusing persecuted innocence with martyrdom. Simply because one was innocent of a secular crime did not make you a martyr.)
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