Saturday 26 November 2011

The reasons for Purgatory

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

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

Friday 25 November 2011

Can republics be snobbier than the Monarchy?

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

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

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

Thursday 24 November 2011

Extraordinary scenes of devotion to the Virgin Mary in Russia

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

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

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

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

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

Catholic prayers for the Queen's Jubilee approved

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday 23 November 2011

Two new reviews of "Popular"

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

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

For the full review, click HERE.

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

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

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

The Kings and Queens of Scotland

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

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

Tuesday 22 November 2011

The kindness of Marie-Antoinette

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

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

Monday 7 November 2011

History Tours of Britain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday 6 November 2011

Ireland shuts down three embassies

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not Marie-Antoinette?

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

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

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

And the forum's discussion begins here.

Friday 4 November 2011

The Kings and Queens of Spain

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


Tuesday 1 November 2011

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

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

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

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