Wednesday 30 March 2011

Fatal Delusions: A review of the new biography of Anne Boleyn

"Anne Boleyn: Fatal Attractions" (Yale University Press, 2010)
By Professor G.W. Bernard (University of Southampton)
Reviewed by Gareth Russell

According to most of her contemporaries, Anne Boleyn was a young woman of many talents. As well as being articulate, well-read and trilingual, she was also, at least according to William Thomas, clerk of the privy council, ‘a woman endued with as many outward good qualities in playing on instruments, singing and such other courtly graces as few women of her time’. Yet Anne’s most enduring and most important talent was also her most indefinable. Anne Boleyn had a unique and, frustratingly for the historian, unquantifiable talent for provoking obsession. In life, it generated an attraction which first propelled her onto the throne and then, as the subtitle of this biography makes clear, onto the scaffold. In death, it has helped her become an icon of sustained popular fascination. And it is this talent of Anne’s, if no other, which George Bernard is prepared to acknowledge in his new book Anne Boleyn: Fatal Attractions. Contrary to most studies of her life, it is Bernard’s contention that although Anne Boleyn was undeniably highly attractive in terms of her appearance, there was nothing about her personality, intellect, interests or accomplishments which marked her out as being particularly exceptional, except for the fact that Henry VIII happened, inexplicably, to fall so violently and obsessively in love with her.

This, Bernard’s first foray into the biographical genre (Bernard is a professor of English History at the University of Southampton and his best-known previous work was The King's Reformation) will, of course, always be best known for the fact that it is thus far the only biography of Anne Boleyn to seriously suggest that she might have been guilty of at least some of the charges for which she and five men were executed in May 1536. Yet although five of Fatal Attractions’ twelve chapters are devoted to expounding this controversial hypothesis, there are other aspects of Boleyn’s life and career which Bernard studies and in three other key areas, he offers a potentially valid revisionist interpretation of a woman who was described by one of her other recent academic biographers as ‘the most important and influential queen consort this country has ever had.’

Tuesday 29 March 2011

Has Christopher Hitchens mellowed in his attitude towards Christianity?

An article in The Catholic Herald notes the unlikely friendship between Vanity Fair journalist and well-known critic of religion, Christopher Hitchens, and the devout Christian scientist, Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Human Genome Research Institute, whose pioneering techniques on treating cancer are currently being used by Mr Hitchens in his battle against throat cancer. Dr. Collins (above), who is an evangelical Protestant, also won praise for his scientific research's influence upon his faith in Pope Benedict XVI's book Jesus of Nazareth, where he commended the doctor's work in "the magnificent mathematics of creation, which today we can read in the human genetic code, we recognise the language of God”. Collins actually converted to Christianity, which he was not born into, thanks to his scientific research. 

It's a moving and well written article. However, I think the story (but not the article) might over-state two things. The first is that Christopher Hitchens has always been much more fair in debates with theists than his more militant colleagues and the second is that unlike Richard Dawkins, Hitchens has never claimed that a lively intellect and, more importantly, scientific brilliance are incompatible with a religious faith. He just happens to believe that a religious faith is a waste of time which, contrary to the hysteria which greets the mention of his name amongst some devout Catholics and fundamentalist Protestants, does not make him a bad person. The idea that all those who profess a religious or spiritual faith are either insane or woefully stupid is perhaps the one I have always found most bizarre. The claim that no atheist regime has ever persecuted believers because of their religious faith, however, remains the most offensive.

I hope Christopher's battle against throat cancer, which he has fought doggedly, is successful. Not simply because of how well he is thought of by so many people but, although I disagree with almost everything he thinks both politically and religiously (his critique of The King's Speech was particularly misleading), he is a brilliant writer with a real way with words and the intellectual world would be poorer for his loss.

Monday 28 March 2011

Marie-Antoinette's morals

American novelist Elena Maria Vidal, author of the novel Trianon based on Marie-Antoinette's life, discusses the Queen's moral standards and how seriously she took the responsibilities of being a chaperon to her young ladies-in-waiting. It's always struck me that perhaps part of the reason why the 19th century was so fascinated by the story of Marie-Antoinette (she was an icon of popular interest in both the Old South and Victorian England) is because her manners and morals had reflected so much of what those societies prized as true, lady-like behaviour. The quote below from the memoirs of one of her ladies-in-waiting, Madame Campan, recalls Marie-Antoinette's interest in ensuring that both her servants and her guests always enjoyed themselves in her company. Personally, I think you can always tell a lot about someone's character by the way they treat their "inferiors." I hate seeing anyone who thinks birth or money entitles them to be insufferable to those who work for, or around, them. To quote a friend's mother, again, true class is making other people feel comfortable: -

"All who were acquainted with the Queen’s private qualities knew that she equally deserved attachment and esteem. Kind and patient to excess ... she indulgently considered all around her, and interested herself in their fortunes and in their pleasures. She had, among her women, young girls from the Maison de St. Cyr [a prestigious boarding school established by the Louis XIV's wife], all well born; the Queen forbade them the play when the performances were not suitable; sometimes, when old plays were to be represented, if she found she could not with certainty trust to her memory, she would take the trouble to read them in the morning, to enable her to decide whether the girls should or should not go to see them,–rightly considering herself bound to watch over their morals and conduct."

Saturday 26 March 2011

March 26th, 1533: Anne Boleyn's first public appearance as Queen

"High flying, adored
What happens now, where do you go from here?
For someone on top of the world
The view is not exactly clear
A shame you did it all at twenty-six.
There are no mysteries now;
Nothing can thrill you, no-one fulfill you.

High flying, adored
I hope you come to terms with boredom.
So famous so easily, so soon
It's not the wisest thing to be!

You won't care if they love you,
It's been done before.
You'll despair if they hate you
You'll be drained of all energy
All the young who've made it would agree."
- High Flying, Adored from the musical Evita by Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice (1976)

"And the king loved her more than all the women, and she had favour and kindness before him above all the women, and he set the royal crown on her head, and made her queen instead of Vasthi. And he commanded a magnificent feast to be prepared for all the princes, and for his servants, for the marriage and wedding of Esther. And he gave rest to all the provinces, and bestowed gifts according to princely magnificence."
- The Book of Esther, Chapter II

There are moments in our lives so momentous and which we have waited for so long that when they finally happen, it is difficult to believe it. For Anne Boleyn, the twenty-sixth day of March in 1533 must have been one such day. After six years of waiting, of being the King's love but not his wife, first lady but not queen, and after months of secretly being a married woman, she was at long last to be publicly presented as Queen of England and Lady of Ireland. At the same time, throughout the kingdom, she would be publicly prayed for in church services as a member of the royal family for the first time. 

To Anne Boleyn's increasingly providentialist mind, what was happening today was unquestionably God's Will. A few years earlier, a Venetian diplomat in London had been taken aback by the depth of Anne's certainty in regarding her elevation as divinely ordained. That was not too unusual, however, in a society which was apt to see the hand of God directly involved in most things; Anne's fascination with the story of the Biblical queen Esther was slightly more idiosyncratic. To Anne and her supporters, the parallels seemed self-evident: a young virgin is chosen by a mighty monarch from amongst his own subjects to replace his haughty and arrogant foreign queen. Later in her career, when Anne's luck had changed, she was to draw great comfort (and perhaps far too much inspiration) from the story of Esther's valiant struggle against the corrupt politics of her husband's chief minister, Haman. 

How long Anne had been married before she and Henry reached the decision that it was time to publicly present her is still a matter of debate. The usual date given for their marriage is January 25th of that year, but strong evidence from both sides of the aisle places their marriage to the Feast of Saint Erkenwald, meaning November 14th of the previous year. Whether it was the more traditional January date or the more likely November service, the news had been kept secret until the King and his advisers could be sure of securing a positive, or at the very least an obedient, reception to Anne's first official appearance as Katherine's replacement. Why March 26th was chosen is equally uncertain, although pragmatism could very well have played a part in the decision. Anne was, by now, two months pregnant with the future Queen Elizabeth and the government could have wanted to make sure that she was presented as the King's consort before she began to show a baby bump - although that may be reading too much into things; given the inexactitude of Tudor medicine it's very possible that Anne herself did not yet know that she was pregnant with her first baby. 

A more probable reason to explain why March 26th was picked was because it was Paschaltide. It was the holiest of seasons in the Christian liturgical calendar and the High Mass being celebrated at Court that day would have been attended by almost anybody and everybody who mattered in the Tudor polity. Easter was also the traditional season of new beginnings and, only the day before, England had technically marked the beginning of the new legal calendar year which, prior to 1752, began on the Feast of the Annunciation (March 25th.) In terms of symbolism, there could hardly have been a better occasion to unveil Anne for the first time as queen consort.

As Anne entered the chapel at her husband's side, there was no hint of nerves. She was serenely confident, at least on the outside. An audience was never something Anne Boleyn had a problem with. Who knows what she was really feeling as she stepped into a room packed not only with people who had worked feverishly to make this day possible, but also with people who had worked with equal vigour to prevent it. Eustace Chapuys, the Spanish ambassador to London, remarked that upon seeing Anne occupying the Queen's chair at Mass, the assembled courtiers did not know whether "to laugh or cry." Chapuys, however, was not present and he got his information from the Marchioness of Exeter, who emphatically was on the "cry" side of the debate. The ambassadors from France and Milan reported a much more positive reaction from Henry's courtiers, many of whom were either personally in favour of Anne's elevation or simply relieved that all the confusion of the past few years had (apparently) been quelled. 

Always conscious of the power of the visual, no-one could deny that Anne Boleyn looked every inch the queen as she swept majestically through the rainbow coloured puddles of light created by the stained glass windows. Her ears, head, throat, wrists, waist and fingers glittered with pieces hand-picked by the queen from the royal jewel collection and she wore an elaborately pleated gown of golden silk, specially made for the occasion and seeded with diamonds and pearls. As she processed through the bowing crowds and clouds of incense, she was followed by sixty immaculately dressed maids of honour, headed by her beautiful young cousin, Lady Mary Howard, who had the honour of carrying the Queen's train. 

Reaching her seat, Anne Boleyn sank into a deep curtsey as the officiating priest began the Mass with the blessing of the altar. A few moments later, head bowed, she spoke aloud with the congregation her first public words as Queen of England: "Sicut erat in princípio, et nunc, et semper, et in sæcula sæculórum. Amen." Given the appalling gradient of tragedy which was soon to overtake her but the comfort she would find in religion during it, those words were all at once cruelly ironic and deeply appropriate. 

NB. 'Sicut erat in princípio, et nunc, et semper, et in sæcula sæculórum. Amen,' translates from liturgical Latin into modern English as, 'As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.'

Friday 25 March 2011

Happy Lady Day

Today is the Feast of the Annunciation in the liturgical calendar and until 1752, it marked the beginning of the new year in Britain and her colonies overseas, including the future United States. To read my history of the feast, click here.

Within the church's calendar, the feast honours the visit of Saint Gabriel the Archangel to the Virgin Mary to inform her that she was to conceive the Christ Child.

"And in the sixth month, the angel Gabriel was sent from God into a city of Galilee, called Nazareth, to a virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David, the virgin's name was Mary. And the angel being come in, said unto her: 'Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women.' Who having heard, was troubled at his saying, and thought with herself what manner of salutation this should be. And the angel said to her: 'Fear not, Mary, for thou hast found grace with God. Behold thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and shalt bring forth a son; and thou shalt call his name Jesus. He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the most High; and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of David his father; and he shall reign in the house of Jacob for ever. And of his kingdom there shall be no end.'"
- The Gospel according to Saint Luke, Chapter II

Thursday 24 March 2011

One year of a Ci-Devant

Today is the one year anniversary of my decision to start writing this blog and a huge thank you to Elena Maria Vidal, Louise Fennell, Sam Davison and Theodore Harvey, whose own online postings inspired me to start this one.

Since this blog began it has had 188,000 hits. Nearly half of those have come from the United States, with the United Kingdom in second place. In third place, the most regular visitors to this blog are Canadian, followed by readers from Germany, Australia, France, the Netherlands, Brazil, Spain and Italy. The blog's most popular articles, in descending order, have been an interview with the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire, a brief link to an awful sequel to Titanic, an article I wrote on why people continue to be so fascinated with Anne Boleyn, a look at Marie-Antoinette's dress sense and a guide to Anne Boleyn in the movies.

It has been exactly a year since I posted the blog's first two historical articles - a look at the history of the Feast of the Annunciation and the first of anniversary posts, recording the death of Queen Elizabeth I, which occurred on this day in 1603. 

Appropriately, given that I wrote an article called "The Allure of Anne Boleyn" and even more appropriately given her ability to kick-start a discussion, the top five most remarked-upon articles on this blog have all been to do with Anne Boleyn. The single most commented article of all has been my analysis of the academic debate surrounding her childhood - The Age of Anne Boleyn. That's followed by The Allure of Anne Boleyn, my review of The Other Boleyn Girl and the culmination of my anniversary posts on Anne's downfall - May 19th, 1536: The Execution of Anne Boleyn. The general feedback to that series in May, chronicling Anne's last few days alive, from her final public appearance at Greenwich on May 1st until her death on May 19th was incredible, by the way, and to everyone who followed the series and got in touch to say how much they had enjoyed it, perhaps there were no comments more gratifying than those which said it had changed their opinion of Anne or that the daily posts had made you feel as you had forgotten hindsight. Thank you all. It was an exhausting series to undertake but one which I loved. Studying Anne's captivity in the depth required in order to write each post was a learning experience for me and some of my opinions on her final weeks changed as well.

To everyone who has read and everyone who has commented on Confessions of a Ci-Devant, again you have my deepest thanks.


March 23rd, 1430: The Birth of Marguerite of Anjou, Queen of England

For a woman who lived a life packed with more than its fair share of melodrama, Marguerite of Anjou made a relatively quiet entry into the world. On the twenty-fourth day of March, her father René jotted a brief note in his Book of Hours to record the christening of his second daughter, Marguerite. She joined her five year-old brother Jean, three year-old Louis and two year-old Yolande as the fourth child of René of Anjou, current duc de Bar, comte de Provence and heir to the duchy of Anjou, as well as being the more controversial and disputed heir to the crowns of Aragon and the Naples.

Through her parents, young Marguerite, who was to acquire her historical fame thanks to her often savage defence of the House of Lancaster during England's War of the Roses, was related to the ruling families not just of Aragon and the Naples, but also Hungary, Poland, Moldavia, France, Walmachia and Dalmatia. She was also, distantly, related to the House of Plantagenet, who had ruled England in its purest form from 1054 to 1399 and who, for the last forty-one years had been ruling it in the form of the cadet branch of the dynasty, the Lancasters.

Despite his many dynastic ambitions, Marguerite's father was never ruthless enough to succeed in the cut-throat world of medieval politics which, by the fifteenth century, had entered one of its most amoral phases. Left to his own devices, René of Anjou would much rather have pursued his interests in literature and the arts - he himself was apparently quite a talented painter and poet.  (The most recent literary presentation of Marguerite's life by the novelist Susan Higginbotham draws its rather lovely title from a reference in René's poetry to Marguerite.) However, although René was not a great political operator, that is not to say he was an incompetent duke or, later, king and one Burgundian chronicle admiringly recorded of him, "No prince ever loved his subjects as he his, nor was in like manner better loved and well-wished than he was by them." He was certainly an affectionate father and given the fact that Marguerite's own future husband, King Henry VI, was also a personality much too gentle for realpolitik, it is interesting to speculate if her own protectiveness over her husband arose from similar childhood feelings for her father.

It seems likely that she did unconsciously emulate her own parents' marital dynamic, although it's important to stress that René had no history of mental illness, unlike Henry. One courtier wittily observed that all of the House of Lancaster's problems would have been solved if gentle Henry had been the queen and gutsy Marguerite the king. It was from her mother, Isabella, that Marguerite acquired a "courage above the nature of her sex." Isabella, twenty-nine at the time of her second daughter's birth, was Duchess of Lorraine suo jure, meaning that she held that prestigious title in her own right and had not ceded her inheritance to her husband, as so many medieval heiresses did. Beautiful and determined, Isabella was also politically savvy and  she oversaw a regency government in Anjou when René was compelled to go abroad pursuing his claims to various counties and kingdoms. Despite their differences in personality, it seems that René and Isabella's marriage was a happy one, albeit by the undemanding standards of the medieval nobility. 

Marguerite of Anjou was born into a time of great political and cultural unrest throughout the European continent and she had the singular misfortune to marry into a country crippled by ambitious claimants and magnates, whilst being ruled over by mild mannered and eventually imbalanced introvert. In the academic version of the Wars of the Roses still played out on paper five hundred years after the event, Marguerite has not been given a kind reputation. It is necessary to vilify her in order to make what happened in 1461 and again in 1471 seem like anything  other than an outrageously opportunistic usurpation. She has all too often been dismissed as an adulterous schemer - a view recently resurrected in Philippa Gregory's novel The White Queen. When allegations of adultery are not been flung at her, the idea that she herself was a vindictive harpy in the ilk of Edward II's wife refuses to go away. More sober-minded academics like Lisa Hilton, Christine Carpenter, Philip Erlanger and novelists like Susan Higginbotham have attempted to level the playing field in Marguerite's defence. As queen, she was certainly aggressively partisan, although given that she was married to the man who the War of the Roses was attempting to overthrow, that is perhaps understandable and in the final analysis, the assessment of Cambridge historian Professor Christine Carpenter, that Marguerite should be "given credit for taking on an impossible job" is perhaps the most kind.

Elizabeth Taylor: A Novelist Remembers

I am planning to write my own tribute post to the late Dame Elizabeth Taylor, who passed away yesterday in Los Angeles at the age of seventy-nine. However, I wanted to quote from, and link to, this beautiful tribute paid to her by American novelist, Christopher Gortner, whose most recent novel has been reviewed by me here. Christopher writes: -

"When I was growing up in Spain during the last years of Franco’s regime, the local movie theatre in the seaside town where I lived played older movies. Censorship was part of Spain’s society in those days, even as Franco’s grip weakened. ilms like The Exorcist were heavily edited or never shown; the result is that I grew up watching movies from the gilded age of Hollywood, like Young Bess; My Cousin Rachel; Rebecca; Scaramoche; Portrait of Jenny; and many others. The stars of the 1940s and '50s were as real to me as those of my own era, often more so, because theirs were the films I was most exposed to.

I’ll never forget the first time I saw Cleopatra with Elizabeth Taylor. The town theatre showed it in its entirety, as they did Gone With The Wind, with 20-minute intermissions. Amidst the crunching of popcorn, perched on worn creaky seats, with the drone of the projector running in the background, I sat, mesmerized, as the screen revealed a world of hot sand and lustrous gold, the likes of which I’d never seen. And when she rolled out of the carpet, her white sheath clinging to those voluptuous curves, her arresting eyes sparking in defiance at Rex Harrison’s equally smitten Caesar, I was hers. I sat utterly still, captivated by the unique combination of beauty, ferocity, and fragility that made Ms Taylor the first true superstar.
... Perhaps it’s my memory of seeing it as a boy, the impact of watching it unfold in all its epic Technicolor glory on the big screen, cementing its iconic imagery in me. Whatever the case, my admiration for Ms Taylor never diminished. Indeed, it only grew as the dark days of the '80s exposed a terrifying foe which killed countless friends. As everyone but the afflicted and warriors fled, she stood up and proclaimed now was the time to join together, instead of seeking someone to blame. The AIDS pandemic changed my life and it changed hers: though we never met, I felt as though I knew her.

Of course, we all feel like that when it comes to movie stars. It’s what they do: they reflect our yearnings. But Elizabeth Taylor was more than a celebrity; in her tumultuous private life and bold humanitarian stance, she demonstrated a quest to live as she thought fit, even if it came at a price. She learned from her mistakes but wasn’t afraid to make them again. She once said, “I don't entirely approve of some of the things I have done, or am, or have been. But I'm me. God knows, I'm me.”

For a boy who once struggled to find out who he was in the world, hers were words to live by."

Tuesday 22 March 2011

"Le Radeau de la Méduse" and the allurements of propaganda

The experience of telling people that you sympathise with the royalists during the French Revolution is usually an unpleasant one. Listeners often react with the same horrified confusion as if you had just casually announced that you enjoy kicking orphans or punching poor people in the face for your own amusement. To declare oneself antipathetic to the goals and aims of the French Revolution is as close to heresy as one can come in the modern intellectual world. It's often difficult to explain in such conversations that it's a bit rich to hear western intellectuals, and pseudo-intellectuals, waxing loquacious in praise of the revolution's agenda towards equality, whilst reflecting that these are often the very same people who walk past beggars on the street, as if they can neither see nor hear them. Occasionally I'm tempted to remind these people who seem to be imagining themselves storming the barricades to a tune lifted right out of Les Misérables (different revolution, same romance) that we have a level of inequality between the west and the slums of Mumbai so grotesque that it would have made the most pampered of Versailles debutantes quail in horror. 

You see, to be blunt, we haven't exactly come a long way in those terms since 1788. Or at least, not as long as we would like to think. Alright, people (of both genders) have the vote now, we happen to have the very useful  and magnificent concept of civil liberties and birth-right is no longer considered an entitlement to a life of endless possibility devoid of responsibility. At least, not legally. But a casual glance at the endowments made to America's Ivy League universities might shake us out of the complacent idea that dynasty is dead or that there is no correlation in a meritocratic modern society between money and unwarranted entitlement. Put simply, we're just a lot better at hiding inequality than the ancien régime was. 

When it comes to female suffrage, the French Revolution was one of the most vituperatively misogynist regimes in European history and the first three countries to grant the right to vote to its female citizens were New Zealand (part of the British Empire), Australia (part of the same empire) and Finland (then part of the Russian Empire, ruled over by Nicholas II.) After that, the next two to extend the suffrage were Norway and Denmark, both monarchies. And so it's very difficult to see how exactly this much-vaunted republic of the 1790s enfranchised are sister-suffragettes. If one is inclined to praise liberal values and the rhetoric of Liberalism and, indeed, there is much to praise there, there is absolutely no need (and indeed many a reason not) to look back to the French Revolution as the progenitor of that creed. Both the Glorious Revolution in Britain and the American Revolution in the United States had created a language of liberal discourse without having to scythe down hundreds of thousands of their own people in the manner of the French Revolution. More than that, in the eighteenth century, many European monarchies were embracing modernity through a dialectic of throne-guided reform. Carlos III in Spain, Catherine II in Russia, Frederich VI in Denmark, Gustav III in Sweden, Josef II in Austria, Leopold I in Tuscany, Joseph the Reformer in Portugal and, lest we forget, Louis XVI in France, were all key proponents of societal evolution, as opposed to revolution. As Louis XVI's youngest brother reflected, "It was the time for reform, not revolution." Most of the benefits of modern society that we take for granted and rightly praise would have happened anyway, even without the revolution's crazed messianic delusions. The French Revolution is far better understood as an aberration in European history, and a hideous one from which warnings should be taken, not inspiration sought. The only way it could possibly be dubbed "the crucible of modernity" is if we follow Professor Michael Burleigh's sobering study of its ideas and conclude that it did not birth egalitarianism but rather vituperative nationalism, the concept of modern genocide, the state suppression of religion by violent means and polarising political ideology. All of which makes it even less attractive, if that were possible.

There are other questions, too, which any modern opponent of the romanticisation of the French Revolution could justifiably ask: why was pornography of the most vilely sexist and often homophobic variety used to annihilate the reputations of the revolution's high-profile opponents? Can genocide like that which was perpetrated by the revolutionary armies in the Vendée between 1790 and 1796 ever be justified - even when carried out in the name of a catchphrase as glib and seductive as "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity"? How is it logically possible to have both Liberty and Equality in a nation? Surely a fundamental requirement of Liberty is to have the ability to overcome the imposition of Equality? Name any country in history which has been vigorously committed to enforcing the concept of equality and it does not make a particularly attractive list - the Soviet Union, Maoist China, Ho Chi Minh's Vietnam, Mengistu's Ethiopia, Pol Pot's Cambodia. And finally, why did the revolution occur under the rule of one of the most benign and liberal monarchs in French history? The myth of royal repression in the years immediately preceding the revolution is exactly that. It's a post-justifying myth to legitimise what was essentially a bourgeoisie coup locked in an abusive marriage with the frankly terrifying spectre of mob mentality and street violence.

Rinsing the revolution is therefore just about possible, if you are given time to explain your thoughts. You often don't because people start to appear embarrassed that you could be so cluelessly heartless as to hate the liberation of mankind like that. Or they look confused - as if you're about to leap out of the shadows in a Marie-Antoinette ballgown and start handing everyone pastries from Ladurée. Defending the monarchy, as opposed to criticising the revolution, is much more difficult. In part that's because articulating why you support a system that is, logically, nonsensical, is always going to be tricky because it comes down to praising what the journalist Charles Fenyvesi called "an argument favouring decadent caprice over ruthless efficiency."

With the argument that monarchy is a logical absurdity, I have no quarrel. If the world operated according to logic and people voted responsibly and with their heads for sober individuals who had no personal ambition, no debilitating prejudices or sentiments; if there was no such thing as patriotism and class and sentiment, then I would agree that there is no good argument for the system of monarchy. But the fact is that logic is not how the world works. Politicians' ambitions should be curbed. There should be one office in the land which no amount of ambition, no amount of money, no amount of votes, can ever propel you into. There should be, at the top, something totally and completely illogical, something entirely sentimental, divorced from party loyalty, because in moments of crisis and in moments of uncertainty, it's illogical sentiment that most of us will reach for. Above all else, if the French Revolution teaches us anything, it is that change should be gradual and legal, and a monarchy, by virtue of its traditions, can mitigate against too-rapid change. (I should point out that I am not dismissing the claims of those monarchists, or impartial observers, who articulate very valid pragmatic arguments for the continuation of monarchy into the modern day. My friend Tom, by no means a universal monarchist, recently put forward a very good case for why the institution of monarchy would be of great benefit to present day Italy; my friend Theodore has argued that there are sound reasons for monarchy's use in Russia, Germany, Austria and France, as well, as of course, Spain, Britain, Luxembourg, etc. The blog The Cross of Laeken is a passionate and cogent supporter of the Belgian monarchy. Nor am I saying that republics can never work. Far from it. There is something intrinsically inspiring about an American presidential election and although even there one can see the damaging affect on national unity which a particularly polarising president can have when it comes to a time of war or national crisis, America is today undoubtedly the example of a republic par excellence and one which I have nothing but the greatest respect for. Republics work in some places and monarchy in others.)

Sadly, it is the vogue for most modern armchair historians to see monarchy as an embarrassing hangover from the Middle Ages and no monarchy has been more casually dismissed than France's - the generous see it as bizarre; the critical as offensive. In the popular stereotype, the monarchy of the Bourbons managed to be both frivolous and repressive, self-centred yet all-controlling and clueless whilst fiendish.  Apparently, it wasn't just illogical but practically schizophrenic. Of all the many historical canards aimed at discrediting the French monarchy, none is more persistent than the absurd myth of a bubble-brained Marie-Antoinette joking for starving peasants to eat cake when there was a bread shortage. The myth that France was egregiously over-taxed under the Bourbons is also trotted out, as is the idea that everyone and anyone was occasionally incarcerated under the infamous lettres de cachet. Yet, discounting Marie-Antoinette's cake moment, no myth is more potent amongst semi-well read historical enthusiasts than the all-too believable idea that the ancien régime was the ultimate pork barrel buffet for the privileged. To paraphrase Lincoln, it was government for snobs, by snobs.

And nowhere is this idea more powerfully captured than in the epic Le Radeau de la Méduse by Théodore Géricault (1791 - 1824.) It is an arresting, fascinating, gut-retching painting and a real tribute to Géricault's troubled genius. It was painted following a horrific shipwreck off the coast of Africa in 1816, one year following the full Restoration of the French monarchy. The ship which had been lost was a naval frigate, called the Méduse, which had been en route to the French colony in Senegal, with the governor and his family on board. The frigate had been under the command of its new captain, the vicomte de Chaumareys, with a combined total of two hundred and forty passengers and about one hundred and sixty crew. Like the captain of the Titanic a century later, the vicomte ignored various warnings that the ship might be heading too close to the shallows. 

Sixty miles off the coast of Mauritania, the Méduse ran aground and plans were made to ferry the passengers to the coast. A raft was constructed to try and save the ship's cargo, but when the frigate began to break-up under the pressure of the stormy weather, de Chaumareys panicked and ordered the evacuation of one hundred and forty-six of the Méduse's remaining assembly onto the raft itself. The lifeboats towing the raft panicked and cut the ropes, leaving the poor souls to their fate. Over the course of the first night adrift, twenty people on that raft committed suicide. By the fourth day, only sixty-seven were left alive and some, allegedly, resorted to cannibalism to survive. On the eighth day, the stronger members took it upon themselves to keep the raft buoyant by tossing their weaker crew-mates overboard. Only seventeen were left alive when the British navy ship, Argus, picked them up on July 17th 1816.

Initially, the French government attempted to hush the matter up. The colonisation of Senegal was at a critical stage and the attempt to stablise the navy following the necessity of expelling so many Bonapartists was not going well. De Chaumareys was summoned back to France, where he was immediately court-martialled for his handling of the shipwreck, stripped of his position and sentenced to three years imprisonment without the possibility of parole or early release. There were some within the ministries of Defence and the Navy who thought he should be executed for desertion - the Minister of the Navy and the Colonies, the vicomte du Bouchage, was livid that a captain had abandoned his ship, rather than stay to sink with it, as naval protocol demanded. However, there were others who felt enough people had died because of the Méduse and that putting Du Chaumareys before a firing squad would only focus attention on an issue which many in the French government were keen to forget.

Yet, as always, news leaked out to the press and an explosive series of articles ran, spawning several bestselling grit memoirs from survivors of the Méduse, in which the restored monarchy itself was blamed for the disaster. It was well-known in left-wing circles that the monarchy wanted to staff the military with blue-blooded aristocrats, rather than making any attempt to make the appointments based on merit. One of the most persistent rumours that arose from the 1816 disaster was that King Louis XVIII himself had appointed the vicomte de Chaumareys to the post of captain. Why exactly the King of France would concern himself with who got to be captain of a naval frigate has never been adequately explained to me. Surely, given that he was overseeing one of the most difficult transitions of power in one of the most politically-damaged countries in Europe after twenty years of unparalleled domestic and international unrest, Louis XVIII probably had bigger things on his desk than who got to ferry colonial officials on a small ship to Senegal? The legend that Louis XVIII approved de Chaumareys for his command is not really about that heartbreaking humanitarian tragedy on the raft. But then neither is the painting.

Trussed up in glowing sentiment, the claim that Louis XVIII personally appointed the man whose incompetence sank the Méduse, is really all about politics. Louis XVIII, old, fat, bloated and reactionary, hand-selects a bumbling aristocrat who last stood on the deck of a naval frigate two decades earlier when Louis XVI was still ensconced at Versailles and Marie-Antoinette was running around playing at being a shepherdess. (Another myth, for another blog post.) That this aristocrat is egregiously unprepared to captain anything more challenging than a gondola is ignored by the restored monarch, who seeks only to cram pampered, privileged buffoons like himself into every major public position in the kingdom. He aims to eradicate the meritocracy of the revolution and Bonapartism and caper back to the class-conscious lunacy of the ancien régime.

It's an arresting image and one which is likely to grip the imagination - again, just like Géricault's painting. However, there are several glaring holes in this version of events. The first, as was mentioned, is that no monarch in Europe was personally involved in the captaincy appointments to naval frigates. Monarchs happened to be pretty busy in the 1810s. Secondly, whilst it is undoubtedly and lamentably true that de Chaumareys' aristocratic title helped him when it came to the appointments procedure, it is also worth noting that prior to the revolution the vicomte had extensive experience in Louis XVI's navy. It was not as if the Ministry of the Navy and the Colonies suddenly took it upon themselves to appoint a complete landlubber to oversee the difficult Senegal run in 1816 just because he was entitled to be addressed as "Monsieur le vicomte." Thirdly, there was a genuine staffing problem in the navy in 1816, since many of those who had held jobs there for the last decade had proven themselves to be singularly unreliable to national interests. Many of them had been appointed by Napoleon, who had attempted to re-seize the throne of France only a year before the Méduse went down. They quite simply could not be trusted and many had shown that in 1815. It was by no means certain in 1816 that Bonaparte wouldn't try the same thing again. Fourthly, it is important to realise that rather than regard the survivors of the Méduse as an irritating irrelevancy and de Chaumareys as their priority, King Louis XVIII's government did a lot in the aftermath of the sinking to try and learn from the disaster. Undoubtedly, much of this was as a public relations strategy to stave off the backlash amongst many honest members of the French public who were rightly horrified by what had happened. Yet, decisive steps were still taken, whatever the motivation. Along with de Chaumareys being imprisoned, the Governor of Senegal, who had also left in one of the first lifeboats, was asked for his resignation by the King, and the King personally signed into law a piece of legislation written by an ex-Bonapartist, Laurent de Gouvion Saint-Cyr, which stated definitively that ancestry and connections were not to play any part in future army or military appointments. In this, France was far ahead of most other countries in Europe and the Americas at the time.

De Chaumareys was the wrong man for the job. There is no question of that. He was reckless in command and criminal in crisis. He almost certainly warranted a much harsher sentence than the one handed down to him by the military court at Porte de Rochefort and public outcry at the government's handling of the Méduse disaster was justified. It is also edifying to see that in the aftermath of the disaster Louis XVIII's government were prepared to enter into a dialogue with their one-time political opponents, like Laurent de Saint-Cyr, in order to build a better France. It obviously did not best serve the nation's interest for the government  to only make appointments from amongst its own supporters. A salient lesson which we could do well to learn from today.

Yet, one cannot help but feel that the main point of le radeau de la Méduse has been missed, not just by historians but also by Géricault. It was a human tragedy, not a political one. De Chaumareys was a weak and reprehensible figure, who happened to be an aristocrat. He was not weak and reprehensible because he was one and there was no way that the French Crown could have been expected to know that prior to 1816. The French government should not have tried to downplay the tragedy of the sinking, but governments then and now take those decisions, sometimes for good reasons and sometimes for bad, regardless of whether their leader wears a crown or a business suit. What the sinking of the Méduse really shows us is a spectacularly unedifying portrait of humanity.

And yet, Théodore Géricault chose to unveil his masterpiece in the Paris Salon of 1819 not because he was especially moved by the story of human frailty, but because he wanted to indict Louis XVIII's government for what he saw as its corruption and deceitfulness. The painting isn't really about the men lying in various extremities across a sea-tossed raft; it's about the government that put them there. The figure looming largest in Géricault's fevered imagination are not the sailors who cut the ropes binding the raft to the other lifeboats or the men who tossed their weaker colleagues into the swell. It's not even really about de Chaumareys. What Le Radeau de la Méduse is about is the restored monarchy. It's about Louis XVIII and the culpability of corruption which allegedly flowed inexorably from his ci-devant hands. And that's basically what the French Revolution is. The first time you look at it, like Le Radeau de la Méduse, it seems to be about people. It seems to be about human suffering and outrage that such conditions should exist. But look at it closer and you'll see that what it's actually about are ideas, cleverly masked behind the misery of the people it claims to be representing.

Monday 21 March 2011

March 21st, 1556: The Burning of Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury

Today is the anniversary of the burning to death in Oxford of Thomas Cranmer, Protestant Archbishop of Canterbury, on the orders of Queen Mary I. As Claire Ridgway writes on The Anne Boleyn Files, Cranmer's execution was technically illegal and therefore an act of tyranny on Mary's part, since he was apparently unable to reconcile his twin devotion to both Protestantism and the Divine Right of Kings. How could Mary be wrong since she was Queen? Therefore he recanted his previous repudiation of Papal authority and that recantation, under English law, was supposed to exempt the penitent from death by burning. 

However, the Queen was so consumed with hatred towards the old archbishop for his role in pronouncing her mother's divorce twenty-three years earlier that she insisted the execution went ahead anyway, acting upon the advice of the ultra-conservative Bishop of London, who both doubted Cranmer's sincerity and despised his politics. 

On the pyre, Cranmer thrust the hand that had signed his conversion into the flames first, thus sealing his reputation as a Protestant martyr. 

For a full account of the execution, you can click on Claire's website.

For Cranmer's earlier association with the Boleyn family, click here

Saturday 19 March 2011

Fifteen weeks to go

I'm really excited to be able to say that it's only fifteen weeks until my first novel Popular is released in the UK and Republic of Ireland. So over the next few weeks, my other blog will be getting quite a bit busier with information about any interviews, where you can watch them, read them or find them, all information on where you can buy or pre-order the books, as well as posting some articles about the inspiration behind Popular and a few guest posts about the books.
The first guest post was written today by my good friend, Ellen Buddle. And it's as acerbic as she is. Great person to have cocktails with. 

Obituary: Her Serene Highness Princess Antoinette of Monaco (1920 - 2011)

The Press Office for His Serene Highness Albert II, Prince of Monaco and Marquis de Baux has announced with regret that His Highness's aunt, Her Serene Highness Princess Antoinette of Monaco, Comtesse de Polignac and Baroness de Massy, has passed away at the age of ninety in The Princess Grace Hospital.

Princess Antoinette was a prominent activist for animal rights and the chairwoman of Monaco's Society for the Protection of Animals. Her Highness and her late brother, Prince Rainier III, were estranged for many years, however, the siblings were reconciled later in life.

The late princess was the daughter of Princess Charlotte of Monaco, Duchesse de Valentinois and Pierre, Comte de Polignac, a descendant of the legendarily beautiful eighteenth century socialite, Gabrielle de Polignac, a friend of Marie-Antoinette's. She herself was married three times - firstly to the internationally renowed tennis player, Alexandre-Athenase Noghès, with whom she had three children (Elisabeth-Anne, Christian-Louis and Christine-Alix.) In honour of the marriage, her brother created her Baroness de Massy. Unfortunately, the marriage ended in divorce in 1954 and the baroness subsequently married the President of the Conseil National (Monaco's parliament), Dr. Jean-Charles Rey, although this marriage also ended in divorce in 1974. In 1983, she married the British former ballet dancer, John Gilpin, but tragically, he died of a massive heart attack in Monte Carlo only six weeks after the wedding.

Princess Antoinette was sadly predeceased by her daughter, Christine Leroy, who died in the United States in 1989, but she is survived by two of her children - Elisabeth-Anne de Lusignan and Christian-Louis, baron de Massy; five grandchildren, Jean-Leonard, baron de Taubert, Melanie-Antoinette de Massy, Leticia de Massy, Antoine de Massy and Keith Knecht, as well as by six great-grandchildren, Rose and Sylvester de Brouwer and Christine, Alexia, Vittoria and Andrea Knecht.

The Royal Household and the Government of Monaco will observe full mourning for the Princess until April 1st and the funeral of Antoinette of Monaco will be held in Monaco's Cathedral of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception on March 24th.

New Portrait of the Queen

Lord Belmont In Northern Ireland reports on a new photographic portrait of Her Majesty The Queen, recently unveiled at the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh in a ceremony conducted by Her Royal Highness The Princess Royal, in honour of the Parliament's tenth anniversary. The portrait was taken by a young photographer, twenty-four year-old Shaun Murawski, who received the commission as part of a country-wide search for Scotland's young artistic talent.

Mr. Murawski said, "I still feel hugely grateful to be given such an opportunity at my age ... For me the portrait captures what a moment in Her Majesty's company feels like. She is an extraordinary human being in all her benevolence and warmth."
The portrait was taken in the throne room at Holyroodhouse Palace, Edinburgh, the Royal Family's official residence in Scotland. 

Friday 18 March 2011

March 18th, 1496: The Birth of Mary Tudor, Queen of France

For almost all her adult life, Henry VIII's youngest sister, Mary, was referred to as "the French Queen" by her brother's government, despite the fact that she had technically only held that title for three months, during her brief marriage to the aged King Louis XII, which ended with his death on New Year's Day 1515, when his teenage English bride was not yet nineteen. Almost immediately following her first husband's death, Mary did what the Tudor family apparently did best and caused an international scandal. She seduced her brother's best friend, the Duke of Suffolk, a handsome playboy more likely to think with his crotch than his brain and returned to England with the marriage already (vigorously) consummated. When her brother discovered what his sister and best friend had done, he went into convulsions of fury - firstly at the thought that Charles had dared go to bed with the king's sister and secondly because Mary had (perhaps deliberately) removed herself from being a matrimonial pawn in her brother's games of diplomacy. Mary felt lucky to have escaped one potentially hideous marriage to an old man in such a short space of time and she was determined not to give her brother the opportunity to put her in that situation again. Charles, duke of Suffolk was good-looking, entertaining and suitably reckless to agree to her plan. After living down their disgrace, they returned to Court, thanks to the intercession of Cardinal Wolsey and Queen Katherine. They remained staples of court high society until Mary refused to yield precedence to Anne Boleyn and Anne refused to back down on the issue either. Through their daughter, Frances, Charles and Mary eventually became the grandparents of Lady Jane Grey
However, despite its romantic (or scandalous) beginnings, the marriage of Charles Brandon and Mary Tudor was not an especially happy one and having gotten over the novelty of being married to a princess, Charles went back to his bed-hopping ways with characteristic abandon. The couple's first son died as a baby and his brother, Henry, born a year later and created Earl of Lincoln by his royal uncle, died at the age of eleven. Their eldest daughter, Frances, Jane Grey's mother, inherited her father's duchy of Suffolk and married Henry Grey, Marquess of Dorset; after his death, like her mother, she made a scandalous second marriage to a man who was her social inferior. Her younger sister, Eleanor, married the Earl of Cumberland and later acted as chief mourner at the funeral of Katherine of Aragon in 1536.

Mary's controversial choice for a second husband, Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk (?1484 - 1545) was played in all four seasons of The Tudors by British actor, Henry Cavill (above.)

Yet for someone whose life was to become famous for scandal, the first Mary Tudor's life began fairly quietly. Like all of her siblings, bar the last, her birth was a relatively easy one for her mother, the thirty year-old Queen of England, Elizabeth of York. There is some debate over where the birth itself took place and Westminster has been put forward by some of Mary or Elizabeth's biographers, but it seems likely the real location was Richmond Palace, the sumptuous and magnificent royal residence recently completed by the baby's father, King Henry VII, as a tribute to his hard-won rule over England, Wales and Ireland. At the time of her birth, Mary joined three siblings at the pretty riverside manor of Eltham, where the royal nursery was kept. Her eldest brother, Arthur, the heir-presumptive, was already nine years-old and his education was more and more being placed into male hands chosen by his father the King, rather than those selected by his mother the Queen or his grandmother, the Countess of Derby. Mary's more regular childhood companions were her less-pretty but equally wilful big sister, Margaret, who later married the King of Scotland, and her four year-old brother, Henry, Duke of York. An elder sister, Elizabeth, had very sadly died whilst the Queen was pregnant with Mary, in what may have been a case of severe allergies, unrecognisable and certainly untreatable in the fifteenth century.

Even at the age of thirty, the pale and blonde Queen Elizabeth was generally considered a beautiful woman, which was expected since her mother, the late Queen Elizabeth Woodville, was described as the most beautiful woman in the British Isles. Mary too was thought to be a very attractive woman and if she did not quite have the once-in-a-generation beauty possessed by her maternal grandmother, there is no denying that, even accounting for flattery, Henry VIII's younger sister was physically lovely. 

After Mary's birth, there was a short lull in her mother's pregnancies. It was not until the middle of 1498, nearly two years after Mary, that Elizabeth was able to announce that she was with child again. As usual, her over-bearing mother-in-law oversaw all the arrangements and Elizabeth awaited the outcome of her sixth pregnancy as she had done the previous five. Few women in English history could claim to have been better-connected than Elizabeth of York, something which had been vital in convincing her husband to select her as his bride when he seized the throne in 1485. She was the daughter, sister, niece, wife, mother  and grandmother of kings, but in the final estimation, for most of her early life, these dazzling familial connections brought her nothing but misery.

Mary Tudor was destined to be the last of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York's brood to live past infancy. The death of little Elizabeth, a few months before Mary's birth, proved to be an indicator of things to come, rather than a tragic one-off. The next baby, born at Greenwich on February 21, 1499 was christened Edmund, Duke of Somerset, but he died shortly after his first birthday. His baby brother, Edward, named in honour of Elizabeth's late father, died not long after his christening and Mary's little sister, Katherine, led to their mother's death in childbirth of her thirty-seventh birthday in 1503. Princess Katherine joined her in the grave two weeks later, leaving Mary motherless at the age of six.

British actress Glynis Johns, perhaps best known for her work in Mary Poppins, is seen here in the role of Mary Tudor in the 1953 biopic The Sword and the Rose.

Thursday 17 March 2011

For God and Saint Patrick

love this day.

On days like this, it's often difficult to know what to say without offending somebody. The welt marks left on every community by various episodes in Ireland's history mean that on days like Saint Patrick's, you're bound to get somebody's back up no matter what you say.

But, for me personally, that says a lot more about the people you're offending rather than anything about Saint Patrick or Ireland. So I hope everyone reading this has a glorious Saint Patrick's Day and especially to all the Irish, of whatever denomination or political allegiance, I hope this year we have a Feast of Saint Patrick that brings you joy, good luck and merriment, in equal measure. And Guinness, in even great measure. 

Happy Saint Patrick's Day, everybody! 

Friday 11 March 2011

I think Eleanor's mad at me

As some regular readers know, it is my intention to post on the lives of the queens of England, moving through them from William I's wife to the current Queen, over the course of a year or two. The research for each chapter, however long or short, does take quite a bit of work, which is why the regularity of The Queens of England Series is much slower than I would originally have liked. Please accept my apologies and my thanks to those of you who have been kind enough to get in touch telling me how much you have enjoyed the five installments in that series since July (Seems pitiful, doesn't it? When stated like that!)

The most recent post in the series was on the life of the legendary Eleanor of Aquitaine, wife of Louis VII, King of France and Henry II, King of England. Due to the length of Eleanor's life and the great drama of her story, I took the decision to divide the posts on her into three sections - one chronicling her first marriage as Queen of France, the second covering her time as Queen of England and the third, her lengthy career as England's first post-conquest Queen Mother. (Adeliza of Louvain was Queen Dowager, not Queen Mother.) The first in the Eleanor posts, Daughter of Riches, was posted on January 23rd and I had hoped to have written and uploaded the second post, A Woman Out of Legend, by now. However, I got back from Connecticut to find that we are currently renovating our study - which is something that we've really needed to do for awhile - and so all my books are currently in storage and I'm loathe to start ransacking the place to get the books I wanted to write the next chapter on Queen Eleanor. Sadly, I don't think winging it is a great idea, since Eleanor's period is not one I'm expert enough to write in without having a few books to hand to cross-reference! So, please bear with me and hopefully when it's ready, A Woman Out of Legend will be worth the wait.

I've also just completed the manuscript for Popular's sequel and I definitely enjoyed the challenges that came from writing the second installment in a series. Christopher Gortner is half-way through his sequel to A Tudor Secret and we've very, very briefly discussed how different it is to write an immediate sequel to a first installment. I think it's a really peculiar set of challenges, but, again, hopefully it's been worth it. I've just started the edits with my new editor at Penguin, Alexandra, who's working with me on this project. Honestly, a great editor is such a God-send and I've been lucky enough to have two, so far! Also, thanks to all those friends who have been so supportive during the writing of the new book. Some have offered support and some have done what all good Irish folk are supposed to do - namely dragged me out to the pub when it's necessary!

Anyway! Here's hoping the study renovation goes swiftly and delightfully and Eleanor's looming presence can be ameliorated sooner rather than later. I'll post some links below to the Queens of England posts uploaded so far.


2. "The Friend of True Piety" - the life of Matilda of Flanders (died 1083), wife of William the Conqueror, mother of William II and Henry I

3. Daughter of the Church - the life of Matilda of Scotland (1080 - 1118), first wife of Henry I

4. "The Fair Maid of Brabant" - the life of Adeliza of Louvain (died 1151), second wife of Henry I

5. The Other Queen - the life of Matilda of Boulogne (died 1152), wife of King Stephen

7. Daughter of Riches - the early life of Eleanor of Aquitaine (died 1204), wife of Louis VII and Henry II

Tuesday 8 March 2011

International Women's Day

"It is often easy to hold up a character for example, that is in all respects worthy of imitation; or to exhibit one for reprobation which entirely deserves condemnation; but to present a character for warning, in the native materials of which we find much that was lovely, noble, generous and calculated to excite admiration, is a far more difficult attempt. In our present state, genius, talent and beauty, though these were among our original attributes, too often prove fatal endowments in women." - Selina Bunbury, Star of the Court, a biography of Anne Boleyn (1844)

In honour of International Women's Day, I thought I would post a list of some of my (personal) favourite biographies of famous historical women and the ones which I have enjoyed reading the most. The titles given here are the names under which these books were published in the United Kingdom - in cases where it is different in the United States, I've given that name in brackets, but please bear in mind that it may also be different elsewhere!

Queens Consort: England's Medieval Queens by Lisa Hilton (Rather bizarrely, this book is published as Queens Consort: Medieval Queens from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Elizabeth of York in America, despite the fact that four queens are studied in-depth before the author reaches Eleanor...) 

The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn: The Most Happy by Eric Ives (An updated version of Anne Boleyn, originally published in 2004.) Sombre but sympathetic and generally considered the bible of Anne Boleyn studies, Ives's analysis of Anne's life is a heavily political one and all subsequent books on Henry VIII's second wife have, to a large degree, been influenced by Ives.

The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn: Family politics at the court of Henry VIII by Retha M. Warnicke. First published by Cambridge University Press in 1989, this study of Anne's career is not for the faint-hearted. It's heavy-going, academic stuff and very controversial in Tudor circles. I didn't agree with all of its conclusions, but I think this book deserves to be treated far more seriously than suggested by many history enthusiasts who have unfairly rushed to dismiss it as nonsense. 

The Star of the Court by Miss S. Bunbury (Subtitled Or, The Maid of Honour and Queen of England, Anne Boleyn) First published in 1844 and now out of print, this book is romanticised, melodramatic Victorian biography at its best. I could literally sit by a fire and have someone read this to me for hours. (See this post's opening quote.) We're not allowed to write like this anymore! 

Monday 7 March 2011

"Juarez" (1939)

Novelist Elena Maria Vidal reviews the classic 1939 movie Juarez, about the downfall of the Mexican monarchy  and the establishment of a republic in that country. Although ostensibly about the life of Mexico's republican leader, Benito Juárez, as Elena Maria points out, the film is today best-known for the magnificent performances of Bette Davis as the Belgian-born Empress of Mexico, Carlota, and British actor Brian Aherne as the Emperor, Maximilian von Hapsburg. Elena Maria is particularly glowing in her review of Bette Davis's performance of the Empress's mental breakdown which, as she quite rightly says, was probably one of the acting highlights of Davis's career.

For the full review, click HERE

For my review of a book on Bette Davis's life, click HERE

Marie-Antoinette, Queen of Mardi Gras

"Although Carnival did amuse me a great deal, I agree that it was time it was ended. We are now back to our usual routine....It is true that I take some care of the way I dress; and, as for feathers, everyone wears them, and it would be extraordinary not to wear them. Their height has been much curtailed since the end of the balls...."
 - A letter from Marie-Antoinette (aged 19) to her mother, the Empress, in the aftermath of Mardi Gras, 1775

As a young woman, Marie-Antoinette was well-known for her love of parties and the exhausting social whirl of life in French high society. At the age of nineteen, the young queen was able to experience the joys of Mardi Gras in Paris for the first time, where she and her coterie of like-minded friends had already come to be regarded as a sort of "it" crowd for their generation. At least, for the time being. Marie-Antoinette's mother, the Empress Maria-Teresa, disapproved of her daughter's hectic social life and love of fashion and, indeed, Maria-Teresa seemed to disapprove on principal with anything that caused Marie-Antoinette joy outside of a chapel. Or the still-empty nursery, of course. Any time spent by Marie-Antoinette away from trying to have a baby as soon as possible was, as far as Maria-Teresa was concerned, practically insulting.

However, it would be wrong to paint Marie-Antoinette as a frivolous and graceless bimbo, eschewing responsibility to prance across the Parisian party stage like a stumbling, self-obsessed dilettante. My friend Coco's mother, Deonne, has a wonderful saying: "True class is making other people feel comfortable." And that is a gift that Marie-Antoinette had in abundance. She spent much of her time during Mardi Gras and the balls, festivals, banquets, firework displays and festivities thrown in Paris and at Versailles checking to see that her husband and guests were enjoying themselves.

After Mardi Gras, of course, came the beginning of Lent and it was a season of renunciation taken very seriously at Versailles, particularly by Louis XVI, who was very devout. Having been raised in a strongly Roman Catholic environment as a child, Marie-Antoinette was also scrupulous in observing the dietary and devotional laws mandated for Lent by her priests and confessors and although it was not until later in her life, when she was in her thirties and had become a mother, that she was to become truly devout, she was always a faithful Catholic, even in her younger days.

Novelist Elena Maria Vidal, the author of the novel Trianon based on Louis and Marie-Antoinette's marriage,  (you can read my review of Trianon here), profiles the young queen's love of the Carnival season. 

Above: American actress Norma Shearer in her Oscar-nominated role in Marie Antoinette (1938)
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