Saturday 24 December 2011

Merry Christmas, 2011

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

"And Joseph  saddled the ass, and set her upon it; and his son led it, and Joseph followed. And when they had come within three miles, Joseph turned and saw her sorrowful; and he said to himself: Likely that which is in her distresses her. And again Joseph turned and saw her laughing. And he said to her: Mary, how is it that I see in thy face at one time laughter, at another sorrow? And Mary said unto Joseph: Because I see two peoples with my eyes; the one weeping and lamenting, and the other rejoicing and exulting."

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

Wednesday 21 December 2011

A family funeral in Northern Ireland

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

Tuesday 20 December 2011

The Irish Presidency's new chair

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

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

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

Monday 19 December 2011

What would Lord Palmerston do?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday 11 December 2011

A forgotten Grand Duchess

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday 1 December 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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