Monday 30 January 2012

Famous Shipping Disasters: The sinking of the "Titanic" (1912)

With the centenary approaching, the Titanic is once again big news, particularly in Belfast, where a host of festivities are being designed to mark the opening of the world's largest (and long-overdue) Titanic visitors' attraction. Built in Harland & Wolff as the second of three sister ships for the White Star Line, the Titanic is today probably the most famous ship in history - eclipsing Noah's Ark and Cleopatra's Barge. With several Hollywood blockbusters and television movies made (the most accurate is the brilliant 1958 A Night to Remember) and the discovery of its broken, eerie and rotting wreck at the bottom of the Atlantic in 1985, the Titanic shows little sign of diminishing its hold over the world's imagination.

Much of what happened, or is supposed to have happened, on board the Titanic as she sank has achieved the status of twentieth-century legend - the boasts that she was "unsinkable" (grossly exaggerated and never made by the White Star Line itself), its luxurious first class accommodation, its undiminished speed as it entered the ice field, the bravery of the band as it continued playing throughout the sinking, the insufficient numbers of lifeboats, "Women and Children" first, the high casualty levels in Steerage and the tragic loss of life.

At the time, however, the Titanic did not garner nearly so much media attention as her elder sister ship, the Olympic, which went into service in May 1911, eleven months before Titanic. Titanic's maiden voyage from Southampton on April 10th 1912 did not quite have the same fanfare as Olympic's, but five days later when news broke that the vessel's inaugural trip had ended in the worst maritime disaster, to date, the Titanic shot into her place in popular culture and never left it. Her very name is still synonymous with disaster.

For a more in-depth post on the sinking of the Titanic, click here. This blog has also posted about life in the ship's first, second and third-class accommodation.

Wednesday 25 January 2012

January 25th, 1533: Anne Boleyn's wedding day?

Anne Boleyn is Henry VIII's most famous wife and she was crowned queen in a magnificent ceremony that fused medieval pageantry with political propaganda, spectacle and royal extravagance. However, the details of Henry and Anne's actual marriage are less well-known and considerable confusion surrounds when, where and by whom they were joined together as man and wife.

The traditional version of events, and one oft-repeated in biographies and textbooks, is that they were married on this day in 1533 - the twenty-fifth of January. The story goes something like this: after nearly six years of abstaining from sexual relations until she could be certain it would lead to marriage, Anne Boleyn finally allowed Henry VIII into her bed sometime around November 1532. The couple first slept together at the end of a state visit to Calais, on the voyage back across the Channel or, at the latest possible date, in Dover Castle shortly after their return to England. For years, Henry had been stuck in interminable battles with Rome and Spain to try and divorce his post-menopausal Spanish queen, Katherine of Aragon. Now, with the backing of the English clergy and the French monarchy apparently within her grasp, Anne Boleyn at last felt confident enough to abandon her much-vaunted moral principles and have sex with the man she'd famously been saying "no" to since 1527. Whether she did this because she finally felt secure in her position as queen-to-be or because she planned to use her sexuality to manipulate Henry into speeding up his plan to break with Rome for her sake is still a matter of debate. Either way, some time around Christmas or New Year, Anne must have realised that her new found sex life has resulted in pregnancy. Panicked at the prospect of his longed-for heir being born out of wedlock, Henry rushed ahead to make Anne his wife, by fair means or foul. In the pre-dawn darkness he, Anne and a few of their closest confidantes gathered in a small chapel in Anne's splendid new palace at Whitehall and were secretly married, either by the future Bishop of Lichfield or by the future Archbishop of Dublin. With this secret, bigamous marriage ceremony carried out, Henry could then proceed to shamelessly bully the English episcopacy until it made his union with Anne legal, after the fact, in May. Anne was then crowned in June and gave birth to the future Elizabeth I in September, who had been a surprise guest of sorts at her parents' furtive wedding nine months earlier.

This is the version of events that most students of British history, and a fair number of actual historians, all know. But is it credible? Some kind of wedding ceremony probably did take place at Whitehall on January 25th 1533. However, almost everything else about this traditional version of events invites questions when looked at more closely. Psychologically, historically and even biologically, there are major flaws in the idea that Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn commenced a sexual relationship in November 1532, conceived a child in December 1532 and were married in January 1533. Whilst such a timeline is undoubtedly of great use to those historians who wish to present Anne either as a manipulative Jezebel who withheld her sexual favours only out of pragmatism rather than morality, or as a feminist icon who boldly used every weapon at her disposal, even her own body, to ensure political victory, it is unfortunately riddled with holes and improbabilities. 

The first problem is circumstantial. It's a question of probability and it's bugged some of Anne's more recent biographers. In 2004, Professor E.W. Ives hit this problem on the head in his book The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn, when he asked: "Is it likely, given the obstacles still in the way of any marriage, that Henry would abandon five years of heroic chastity and chance a son by Anne being born illegitimate? Suppose the pope refused to accept Cranmer? And why should Anne agree, even if Henry did now want to take the risk?" Put simply: why should Anne have taken the great risk of sacrificing her virginity in November, when she had already waited so long for a wedding ring? The second problem is one of basic human biology and it blows apart the myth that Henry and Anne's marriage was prompted by Anne's sudden discovery that she was pregnant with Elizabeth.

The future Elizabeth I entered the world at Greenwich Palace on September 7th, 1533, less than nine months after her parents' apparent marriage at Whitehall. If we assume that she had the normal nine months in the womb, then she was conceived sometime around the first week of December, probably within the first fortnight or so of her parents' starting their sexual relationship with one another. However, there is some evidence from the ceremonies surrounding Elizabeth's birth that she was actually conceived slightly later that than - probably around new year's. And if she wasn't, it was still her mother's belief that Elizabeth had been conceived in January. 

Royal etiquette demanded that a pregnant queen "take to her chamber", isolating herself from male company and the world outside for a month or a month and a half prior to her child's birth. Queen Anne, however, took to her chamber a mere ten days before Elizabeth's birth in September. This means either that Elizabeth was born anywhere between three and five weeks prematurely or that her mother and her mother's servants had miscalculated when they first guessed the date of her conception. Let us, for the sake of argument, assume the latter for the time being. If Anne and her women had miscalculated, which was perfectly possible given the vagaries of sixteenth century medicine, then it follows that by taking to her chamber at the end of August, Anne was expecting a delivery at the end of September. This means she and those around her assumed she had first fallen pregnant at the end of December or the beginning of January. Anne may very well have actually fallen pregnant sometime before that, but if she assumed her baby would be born in late September or early October, then it seems highly unlikely that she could have suspected she was pregnant as early as the third week of January and the theory that her pregnancy became a motivating factor for her marriage ceremony thus becomes a good deal less convincing.

What about the argument that Elizabeth I was a premature baby? Well, such an idea is certainly possible. However, it doesn't change the circumstances of what happened on January 25th. Whether Anne miscounted or whether Elizabeth was actually born three to five weeks early, the point remains that it is practically impossible that in the days leading up to January 25th, Anne Boleyn suddenly realised she was pregnant and, armed with this certainty, Henry rushed into a secret and possibly illegal marriage ceremony with her at Whitehall.

If we assume that pregnancy was not the reason for the royal wedding in 1533, what of the timeline that has Henry and Anne's relationship being consummated two months earlier in mid-November? Whether Anne miscalculated or Elizabeth arrived early, it's almost certain that she was conceived before January 25th, just not far enough before for it to be the reason for the wedding date. Given that, we must accept that sometime around the second or third week of November, Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn finally slept together and that they continued to have a normal, active sex life, which resulted in their daughter's conception in either late December or early-to-mid January. How then do we explain the glaring psychological improbability that Anne and Henry embarked on sexual intercourse, pre-marriage, when they had already waited so long?

The answer to the problem comes from two sixteenth century accounts, both of which have radically different interpretations of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn - Edward Hall's loyalist Chronicle and the vituperative account of the break with Rome by the Jesuit priest, Father Nicholas Sander. Both of them suggest a different date for the royal wedding - November 14th 1532, over two months before the traditionally-given date. Hall wrote, "The king, after his return [from the state visit], married privily the Lady Anne Boleyn on Saint Erkenwald's Day, which marriage was kept so secret that very few knew of it, till she was great with child, at Easter". Sander, who characterised Henry as an incestuous monster and Anne an heretical witch, had no reason for supporting the view that they waited until marriage before sleeping together or that Elizabeth I, whom Sander loathed beyond all reason, had been conceived in wedlock, unless he believed it to be true. 

If Henry and Anne were married on November 14th 1532, then it is most likely that they were married in Dover Castle, within a day or so of their return from France. Hall and Sander agree on almost nothing in their accounts, but the fact that the usually well-informed Hall and habitually misleading Sander both pinpoint November 14th as the date of the marriage, makes it hard to ignore. Particularly when one considers that it is by accepting this date that we can resolve all the other "problems" with Henry's second marriage - namely the psychological problem of believing Anne Boleyn would risk sex before marriage and the confusing timetable of Elizabeth I's birth.

What then of the other service - the one which took place on January 25th at Whitehall? Well, a ceremony of sorts took place, which leaves us with the apparent problem of two wedding services. However, in the sixteenth century, two ceremonies, even two weddings, were not necessarily so unusual. Eric Ives concludes that there was some kind of commitment ceremony in November, quite possibly a binding pre-contract, a watertight legal declaration of intent to marry each other. After such a ceremony had taken place, sixteenth century canon law stated that it was permissible for the couple to commence sexual intercourse with one another - a murky stipulation which meant all engagements were treated with suspicion in future brides. (It was on grounds of pre-contract that Henry VIII's subsequent marriages to Anne of Cleves and Catherine Howard were declared invalid.) With the pre-contract formally ratified in November, Henry and Anne began sleeping together, conceived Elizabeth and the full nuptial Mass took place at Whitehall on January 25th. David Starkey has a slightly different take on events and cites medieval royal etiquette to explain the mystery of the two wedding dates. When kings or princes married foreign princesses, it was customary for there to be a proxy service in that bride's own homeland or right after she landed in her new country. This was what had happened with Katherine of Aragon when she married Arthur Tudor in 1501 and the future Henrietta-Maria of France when she married Charles I in 1625. Anne had been brought up in France and Starkey therefore argues, "Anne had been doing her research. She had already ... informed herself widely on the debate about the Divorce. Now she wanted to make sure that her own title as Queen was unimpeachable. This meant that everything would have to be done in the proper form set out in the bible of ceremony known as The Royal Book ... It was these stipulations, at least as much as the pressure of contemporary events, which governed Anne and Henry's actions over the next few months... The circumstances of the Calais interview reinforced all this. She had re-entered the world of the French Court; she had danced with the French King and talked privately with him. Now she was sailing to English soil where soon she would be crowned. It was just as The Royal Book prescribed. What more natural therefore than to marry Henry as soon as they landed?" Henry and Anne would then have a second marriage service at a later date, just as foreign royal brides of the Middle Ages had done.

Whether Anne was following contemporary sexual etiquette in having a pre-contract ceremony binding her to Henry or an actual marriage in imitation of medieval royal etiquette is impossible to know for certain. Given that several candidates were later suggested as the priest who had married the couple, I am inclined to believe that there were two actual marriage services with two different priests, but that is pure speculation and guess-work. What is clear is that the general timeline of Henry and Anne's relationship, and the final five months preceding England's Break with Rome, is wrong - both in chronology and in interpretation. To recap: -

November 1532 - Henry and Anne begin sexual relations with one another
December 1532 - Anne conceives Elizabeth
Early January 1533 - Anne realises she is pregnant
January 25th 1533 - Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn are secretly married at Whitehall Palace
Easter 1533 - Anne is publicly proclaimed Queen
June 1533 - Anne's coronation
September 7th 1533 - Birth of Elizabeth I at Greenwich

However, looked at anew it becomes clear that Anne's pregnancy, which is often given as the main (if not sole) motivating factor for the date of her wedding, in fact played absolutely zero role in her rise to the throne. Anne was following custom, not panicking about biology, on January 25th 1533. What happened between 1532 and 1533 when Anne went from aristocrat to queen is difficult to say with absolute certainty, but the overwhelming weight of the frustratingly circumstantial evidence would all suggest to my mind that things actually happened in this general order: -

November 1532 - Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn's official visit to Calais and France
November 14th 1532 - The couple are either married to one another or commit to a binding pre-contract at Dover Castle. Sexual relations begin.
Early January 1533 - Anne falls pregnant with the future Elizabeth I
January 25th 1533 - Henry and Anne undergo their second service at Whitehall - either the wedding promised by the pre-contract back in November or the second wedding Mass mandated by royal etiquette. Owing to the well-publicised letters of the diplomat Eustace Chapuys, who knew only about this service and was widely published by enthusiastic historians centuries later, it is later assumed that this was the only service the couple underwent to legalise their matrimony.
February 1533 - Anne begins to suspect she is pregnant.
Easter 1533 - Anne is publicly proclaimed as queen.
June 1533 - Anne's coronation.
Late August 1533 - Anne takes to her chamber
September 7th 1533 - Birth of Elizabeth I.

Tuesday 24 January 2012

Famous Shipping Disasters: The Loss of the "Republic" (1909)

This month, there was the tragic news of the sinking of the Italian cruise ship Costa Concordia, after it ran aground off the Isola del Giglio. Costa Concordia was, to date, the largest ship built on Italian soil and, at the time of writing, the sinking has claimed sixteen confirmed lives, so far.

The Costa Concordia's sinking is one of the first maritime losses of a luxury liner in the twenty-first century. Over the next few days, I'll take a brief look at some of the previous century's most famous disasters at sea.

The sinking of the RMS Republic (1909)
Ironically, given its name, the White Star liner Republic was actually built in Ulster, the most vociferously monarchist of the four provinces of Ireland. At the time, Belfast's Harland and Wolff shipyards were the largest and the best in the world; the east Belfast workforce produced ships for companies all over the globe, but their closest working relationship was with the British firm, White Star Line, one of the main British commercial bodies operating the lucrative transatlantic trade. Built in Belfast in 1903, she was originally christened Columbus and sailed under the livery of the Dominion Line, a sister-company of White Star's, before being transferred to the White Star and re-named, after only two voyages. Although Republic was praised in shipbuilding industry journals at the time for the comfort offered onboard, she was originally built with an eye to incorporating all of the latest safety techniques. In 1909, six years into her commercial life, these features were put to the test when Republic departed New York for the British colony at Gibraltar, and other Mediterannean ports. In thick fog, she was hit by the Italian liner Florida. Two of the Republic's passengers were killed on impact, as they slept in their cabins, and three of the Florida's crew men also died. Part of the rescue was carried out by the Florida and the U.S. coastguard's Gresham; the passengers were then transferred back to New York by another White Star steamer, the Baltic. In many ways, the tragedy of the Republic ironically gave the shipping industry, and White Star in particular, a false sense of security. The Republic took a full thirty-nine hours to sink. At nearly 16,000 tons, Republic was the largest ship to be lost to the sea, at that point in history. The slow speed at which she sank, the effectiveness of Marconi in securing multiple rescue ships and the low loss of life all helped persuade many industry insiders, like Captain E.J. Smith, that terrible, swift maritime disasters were a thing of the past - a view which the tragedy of the Titanic would brutally dispel three years later. Today, the Republic is most well-known for the rumour that at the time of her sinking, she was carrying $3 million in coins for the Imperial government of Russia. If that were true, the coins, if still onboard, could be worth nearly $5 billion in 2012. However, if these stories are true, to my mind, it's improbable that they would not have been evacuated along with all of Republic's passengers and crews during the lengthy rescue operation.

Monday 9 January 2012

"The confidence and affection of the King"

Author Elena Maria Vidal takes a brief look at the fascinating life of Zoe du Cayla, a French aristocrat and socialite who became the last favourite of King Louis XVIII of France. Like Gabrielle de Polignac at the court of Louis XVI, Madame du Cayla eventually used her friendship with the royal family to promote a conservative political agenda - in this case, furthering the cause of the Ultras, the far-Right of nineteenth century French royalism. Louis XVIII had come to the throne in 1814 with the intention of attempting to arbitrate between the Left, liberalism and the Right, in the hope of healing the political scars caused by the Revolution. However, after the assassination of his nephew, the Duc de Berry, by a republican terrorist in 1820, the ageing monarch moved further to the Right. Liberal monarchists, dismayed at their sovereign's new-found sympathy for the Ultras, tended to blame Madame du Cayla, in much the same way as devotees of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette had castigated Gabrielle de Polignac as a canker at the heart of government in the 1780s. Given the closeness of the obese King Louis to the radiant and sophisticated du Cayla, many assumed (then and now) that she was his mistress. However, Elena Maria Vidal argues persuasively that the relationship between the two was almost certainly platonic. The king's marriage to the late Queen Marie-Josephine had been childless; possibly on the grounds that Marie-Josephine may have been what we would now recognise as a lesbian, but equally possible because Louis himself had a very low sex drive (his correspondence with his close friend, the Duc de  Lévis, certainly seems to hint at that). In any case, Elena Maria's view that Madame du Cayla was the king's favourite but not his mistress seems convincing. Du Cayla attended the King on his deathbed, where she managed to persuade him to receive the Last Rites of the Roman Catholic faith, which he had struggled to avoid, perhaps in the hope of denying his inevitable mortality.

For the article on Zoe du Cayla click HERE.

Thursday 5 January 2012

The Duchess of Cambridge announces her new charity commitments

Her Royal Highness the Duchess of Cambridge has officially unveiled which four charities she will become patron of, in her new life as a member of the British Royal Family, all of whom have a traditionally heavy schedule of involvements with national charities.

The Duchess is to become patron of Action on Addiction, the National Portrait Gallery, the East Anglia's Children's Hospices, and The Art Room, reflecting her interest in social issues, art and children's health. The  least-known of the four, The Art Room, is an Oxford-based charity which seeks to engage with 5-16 year-olds with behavioural issues. Julie Beattie, the founder and director of The Art Room, said she and the entire organisation were "overwhelmed and thrilled" by the Duchess's decision to become their royal patron. She went on to say that "it will raise the profile of the charity and get people to see the work we are doing." The Duchess is understood to have spent the time since her marriage deciding carefully which charities to begin her royal career with.

The official announcement was made by the Court at Saint James's Palace.

Her Royal Highness will celebrate her thirtieth birthday on Monday.

Wednesday 4 January 2012

Protestant private schools encouraged to co-operate with the Irish government

His Grace the Archbishop of Dublin, Dr Michael Jackson, one of the highest-ranking members of the Church of Ireland (Anglican/Episcopalian) hierarchy, has publicly encouraged private schools under the Church of Ireland's management to co-operate with the Irish Ministry of Education as it seeks to conduct an audit of educational expenditure in the Irish Republic.

The Irish Department of Education is attempting to conduct a comprehensive study of how Irish schools are spending their money, in both the state and private sectors, and in particular how private schools, some of which receive certain subsidies from the government, are spending the money they acquire both from the Department and from fee-paying families.

The Archbishop has encouraged schools to see this an opportunity, rather than an inconvenience or an attack. Faith schools which are struggling financially or which are meeting their educational or financial quotas will be able to prove this to the government thanks to the new audit. The Irish Minister of Education, Mr Ruiari Quinn, has welcomed the Archbishop's support and is said to be eager for Protestant private schools to co-operate with the government. 

Traditionally, Protestant faith schools in the Irish republic have a history of being significantly less co-operative with the government than private Catholic schools, although this has admittedly changed in recent years. There are no private schools in neighbouring Northern Ireland, where academic selection at the age of eleven filters students into grammar schools or secondary/high schools, all of which are state run. The Northern Irish grammar schools consistently score in the highest percentile of academic qualifications amongst school leavers in western Europe - particularly in History, the Sciences, Religion, Drama, Music and Mathematics. Some of the older grammar schools in the north, such as Methodist College, Victoria College, Down High and the Royal Belfast Academical Institute, still operate private preparatory departments - the incomes from which are self-funding or used to fund parts of the main grammar school's maintenance. There are faith schools in Northern Ireland, all of which are run by the Catholic Church in conjunction with the State, which funds them but which allows a specifically Catholic ethos to be promoted. There are no schools operated by any Protestant religious institution in the North and no school is allowed to place adherence to the Protestant faith as part of its admission's criteria.

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