Friday 28 September 2012

Missing Royals and Murder Mysteries: Anastasia and the allure of romance

The story of Anastasia Romanov is one of the great melodramas of royal history. In life, the real Grand Duchess Anastasia was the teenage daughter of Russia’s deposed emperor, Nicholas II. Her father had lost his throne during the revolution of 1917 and the entire family had subsequently been deported to Siberia. In July 1918, they were herded into a cellar and shot by local Communists. Their bodies were then stripped, doused in acid, hurled down a mineshaft and buried in a forest. In 1991, geologists announced they had discovered the bodies and surviving releatives of the Romanovs - including Britain's Prince Philip - were asked to provide DNA samples to help with the identification.

But between 1918 and 1991, no one knew, for sure, what had really happened to the Romanovs. The dishonesty and habitual secretiveness of the Soviet Union, the absence of the family’s corpses and rampant media speculation led to rumours that one, or more, of the Imperial Family had survived the massacre. By the 1920s, attention had narrowed to a single candidate – the youngest of the Tsar’s daughters, Anastasia, who had been seventeen at the time of her alleged murder. 

Why Anastasia became the centre of the greatest conspiracy theory of the twentieth century is hard to say. Maybe it was because the name ‘Anastasia’ has links to the theme of resurrection in the Russian language or maybe because it was the unconscious allure of the youngest princess (a favourite phrase in fairy stories.) For whatever reason, it was Anastasia who became fixed in the public’s mind as the 'one who got away,' whilst her three sisters faded into the history books as victims of the October Revolution. 

In time, the most famous of all the pretenders was a woman who travelled under the false name of ‘Anna Anderson,’ and who had first made the claim that she was Anastasia when she was recovering in a German mental asylum after a failed suicide bid in 1920. Anderson’s claim attracted global attention and she prosecuted the longest court case in European history trying to have her claim legally recognised. Some of her supporters included the Duke of Leuchtenberg, the Kaiser’s aging daughter-in-law Crown Princess Cecilia, the children of the doctor who had died alongside the royals in 1918, Anastasia’s childhood playmate who was now a wealthy American socialite called Xenia Leeds, the famous composer Sergei Rachmaninoff, the real Anastasia’s cousin Grand Duke Andrei, and, later, several prominent historians. However, there were notable dissenters – not least amongst them Prince Felix Yusupov, who called Anderson ‘an adventuress’ and ‘a horrible creature,’ the real Anastasia’s godmother the Grand Duchess Olga Alexandrovna, the real Anastasia’s cousin Princess Irina, several of the Tsarina’s surviving ladies-in-waiting, the real Anastasia’s French tutor Pierre Gilliard, the real Anastasia’s nursemaid Shura Tegleva, and the real Anastasia’s uncle Ernest, the deposed Grand Duke of Hesse. Ernest in particular became so incensed by Anderson that he spent years obsessively tracking down who she might really be instead. Eventually, he put forward the theory that Anna wasn’t a Russian princess at all, but a missing Polish factory worker called Franziska Schanskowska.

Anderson’s claim, and her court case, helped ensure Anastasia’s place in popular legend. The myth spawned several plays and movies – including the magnificent Oscar-winning Anastasia in 1956 (above), in which Anderson was played by Ingrid Bergman and her Danish grandmother was played by the ‘queen of Broadway,’ Helen Hayes; there was also a 2-part television movie in 1986, Anastasia: The Mystery of Anna, which had an impressive all-star cast that included first-time-actor Christian Bale (as Anastasia’s younger brother, Alexei), Amy Irving as Anna Anderson, Rex Harrison (in his last movie) as Grand Duke Cyril Romanov, Gone with the Wind’s Olivia de Havilland as Anastasia’s royal grandmother, Brideshead Revisited’s Claire Bloom as the Tsarina Alexandra and Oscar-winner Omar Shariff as Tsar Nicholas II. And, of course, there was the romantic 1997 musical cartoon Anastasia (below), with the voices of Meg Ryan, Kelsey Grammer, Angela Lansbury, Christopher Lloyd, John Cusack, Hank Azaria, Bernadette Peters and Kirsten Dunst. 

However, it is now absolutely impossible for any rational human being to persist in the belief that Anastasia Romanov lived beyond the massacre of 17th July, 1918. If she did survive the initial gunfire, she did so only by a matter of hours. When the bodies of the Romanovs were first unveiled to the world in 1991, it did admittedly seem as if Anna Anderson (below) might have been telling the truth, because two were missing. Scientists eventually confirmed that the absent corpses belonged to one of the Tsar’s daughters and to his only son, Alexei. Even by the time the bodies were ceremonially reburied in the Romanovs’ splendid Saint Petersburg crypt in 1998, the two missing skeletons had still not been found. Admittedly, many scientists insisted that the real Anastasia’s body was actually one of those being buried and that the missing princess was her elder sister, 19 year-old Maria. Supporters of Anderson responded by claiming that Maria and Anastasia had been so close in age and physical appearance that the scientists had mistaken Maria’s body for that of her younger sister – who, they believed, had survived the massacre, lived under the name Anna Anderson and died in Virginia at the age of eighty-three in 1984. 

But ten years later, in 2008, the last two royal bodies were discovered near the original burial pit. One of the Romanovs’ executioners had left records indicating that they had desperately tried to burn two of the bodies and, eventually, scientists were able to confirm his testimony. The bodies of Maria and Alexei Romanov were discovered near the site of the fire and at some point they will presumably rejoin their family in their Saint Petersburg tomb. In a final twist, DNA tests on a surviving scrap of intestine left from an operation undergone by Anna Anderson in the 1970s confirmed that Anastasia’s seemingly-paranoiac uncle Ernest had been right all along. Anderson wasn’t related to the Romanovs, but she was related to the Schanskowska family. Anna Anderson may have ended her life claiming to be the daughter of a tsar, but she had started it as the daughter of a penniless Polish factory worker.

Anderson’s claims have therefore been conclusively debunked and the body of the real Grand Duchess Anastasia rests inside the Peter and Paul Fortress of Saint Petersburg. But, incredibly, there are still those who refuse to accept that Anastasia died alongside the rest of her family in 1918 or that Anderson was nothing more than an extraordinarily gifted fraudster. What they're arguing is logically impossible, so why continue to cling to a belief that science and history have both debunked?

Part of the reason, I suspect, is that Anastasia was the last of a trinity of royal mysteries that have exercised and excited our curiosity for centuries. The other two are the missing Princes in the Tower and the ‘lost king of France,’ little Louis XVII, who disappeared at the height of the French Revolution. They died centuries apart, but there are similarities in their cases and in why they should still be studied today.

I don't believe that the princes in the Tower (above) survived or that they ever left its walls after 1483. If Richard III had shown unexpected clemency by allowing one, or both, to leave in the months after he became king, then it’s hard to see why he wouldn’t have paraded them through the streets when his regime was slowly being eroded by claims that he had murdered them. Furthermore, why would their mother agree to a scheme that would place Henry Tudor on the throne if she knew that her sons were still alive? There is, above all, absolutely no evidence – none whatsoever – that points to them having lived beyond 1483. There is plenty of passionate speculation, but nothing else. Bodies that are almost certainly theirs were discovered within the Tower’s walls in exactly the place that Saint Thomas More had said they were in, in his excoriating biography of their uncle. It’s too big a coincidence to dismiss. And, finally, if they did leave the Tower then where did they go after 1483? Narnia?

Louis XVII (above) died in horrible conditions, after months of physical and psychological abuse. He was ten years-old at the time and both his parents, Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette, had already gone to the guillotine. He was autopsied in the prison but then he was almost certainly hurled into a mass grave. We have no idea where and probably never will. It is only because his heart was removed during the autopsy that tests were able to be performed in the twenty-first century that confirmed that Louis had indeed died in prison in 1795. 

And as for Anastasia: if eyewitness accounts of the Imperial Family’s murder are to be believed, she died towards the end of the massacre, after being repeatedly beaten and stabbed by Bolshevik soldiers. 

These are the awful, hideous, heartbreaking facts behind the three greatest mysteries in royal history and a million miles removed from the fairy tales they have spawned.

All four of these young royals – Edward V, his brother Richard of Shrewsbury, Louis XVII and Grand Duchess Anastasia of Russia – disappeared in times of turmoil and secrecy. Richard III could not reveal what he had done with the boys, or allowed to be done to them, without fears of toppling his own regime. The French Republic felt that drawing attention to the appalling treatment the little boy had suffered in jail would only inflame royalist sympathies and the fledgling Bolshevik movement were concerned that Kaiser Wilhelm II would back-out of his recent truce with them if he discovered what had happened to his cousins. The myths about their survival are therefore perfectly explicable by a process of historical logic: initially, no one knew exactly what had happened to them which led to them speculating about possible explanations. I suspect, of course, that it’s more than that and that the reason why so many people believed, or believe, in these fantastic tales of  imperial survival is because the allure of fairy stories never quite leaves us – however hard we try. We want to believe in royal glamour, excitement, danger and happily-ever-afters. We want to believe, I suppose, in some form of magic. 

What do we do with these stories, though, once we know they’ve been disproved? (In Anastasia’s case, and Louis XVII’s, definitively; in the case of Edward V and Richard of Shrewsbury, by all laws of probability.) Well, as a writer, I see nothing wrong in continuing to dramatize them. As long as you don’t get so caught up in your own fiction that you try to mislead people, I still think there’s a place for stories of lost princes and princesses. And why not? When I think of Edward, Richard, Louis and Anastasia, I often hear the words of poor Briony Tallis in Ian McEwan’s Atonement: ‘What sense of hope or satisfaction could a reader derive from an ending like that? So in the book I wanted to give Robbie and Cecilia what they lost out on in life. I’d like to think this isn’t weakness or evasion, but a final act of kindness.’ Robbed of a real life by their families' enemies, I suppose that there is a kind of kindness in giving these children a fictional afterlife. 

But the historian in me wants people to see that the real stories of these children are important in their own right. They are celebrity poster-children against what we are capable of, but shouldn’t be. They’re what happens when politics runs amok. Edward V and his little brother perished at the end of a brutalising century, in which political corruption and ruthless communal ambition had warped the moral fabric of an entire generation. Louis XVII and Anastasia Romanov died because their very existence was inconvenient to a new form totalitarian form of politics. The children did not ‘fit’ into the revolutions’ grand new vision of the world. As a result, in a world without compromise, they were expendable. Leon Trotsky himself dismissed Anastasia’s murder with a shrug, boasting that the horror it had caused would help unite the Red Army in fear behind the Communist cause. What we should be doing now is not focusing too much on what might have happened, but on what did happen. These dead children matter because their fates illuminate the fates of so many others who we now know only by statistics; they give us warnings, not just about politics but about the nature of humanity. Reflecting on the death of Louis XVII, one French royalist lamented that the child had been cut down ‘on the threshold of life.’ These four children died horribly, they died unfairly and they died illegally. Their stories should remind us that we should never go too far in the name of politics, to never cheapen our respect for the sanctity of human life and to remind us that we should never turn our backs on protecting the weak and the vulnerable.

Tuesday 18 September 2012

A state funeral for Richard III? Don't make me laugh.

Richard III died in battle on 22nd August 1485. He had been King of England and Lord of Ireland for just over two years, having seized the throne from his teenage nephew, Edward V, back in 1483. Richard's death put his opponent, Henry Tudor, on the throne as Henry VII and it brought to an end the Plantagenet kings who had ruled England since the accession of Henry II in 1154. Richard's wife, Anne Neville, and his only legitimate son, the late Prince of Wales, had both predeceased him. His corpse was publicly displayed in the most humiliating fashion by the victorious Tudors, before it was hastily buried. A generation later, it vanished from the historical record and it was presumed lost to history. That was until a few weeks ago, when a group of archaeologists came across the biggest find since the identification of the Romanovs and unearthed what is quite possibly Richard III's skeleton - buried beneath a car park in Leicester.

The skeleton bares all the marks of someone who died in battle and, interestingly, it has a curvature of the spine. (For years, Richard's modern-day supporters insisted that he had no such deformity and that the whole thing had been invented by malicious Tudor propagandists.) In the hope that this is indeed the body of the last Plantagenet monarch, the historian and politician Chris Skidmore, has submitted a proposal to the House of Commons that calls for the remains to be given a full state funeral. To quote: -

"... this House notes the discovery of a skeleton beneath a car park in Leicester believed to be that of Richard III; [it] praises the work of the archaeologists and historians responsible for the find; hopes that DNA evidence will prove the remains to be those of the last king of the Plantagenet dynasty; and calls upon the government to arrange a full state funeral for the deceased monarch, and for his remains to be interred appropriately."

On the surface, it's a fair enough request. If the remains are identified as Richard III's, it's inconceivable that they wouldn't be accorded some kind of Christian burial and, if so, why not a state one? The remains of the Romanovs were solemnly re-interred in Saint Petersburg in 1998, once science had ascertained that the skeletons were authentic. Louis XVI, Marie-Antoinette and Louis's younger sister, Elisabeth, were exhumed from their mass grave and buried with incredible pomp once the French monarchy was restored in 1815. Two hundred years later, when the stolen heart of Louis and Marie-Antoinette's youngest son was identified, it too went into the Bourbon vault, near his parents. Why shouldn't Richard III be granted the same honours? Particularly since he was a king and the country he ruled over is still a monarchy. Furthermore, the request is coming from an elected politician (Chris Skidmore is the Conservative MP for Kingswood) and a respected historian (his books include a biography of Edward VI, a groundbreaking look at a scandal surrounding Elizabeth I and a very well-received account of the battle that took Richard III's life back in 1485.)

But there are several reasons why I, personally, feel the very notion of "a full state funeral" for Richard III is silly, frivolous and border-line obscene. 

To give a brief synopsis of Richard's historical reputation: from the moment the Tudors took power, Richard's name was worth less than mud. He was described as a child-murdering hunchback, who had stolen the throne from his young nephew, slaughtered his way through the aristocracy of England and generally participated in every political crime in England from the fall of Henry VI until the Battle of Bosworth twenty-four years later. Richard's reputation as one of the great villains of history was further cemented when he was shredded by the pens of Saint Thomas More and then by William Shakespeare. Then, in the seventeenth century, people began to question if Richard really had been as bad as the Tudors made him out to be. This gave rise to a view of Richard as being one of the most wronged leaders in history - a king more sinned against than sinning. In the twentieth century, this birthed the Richard III Society, a group of talented history enthusiasts, who seek to rehabilitate Richard III's reputation and whose passion for their cause has, unfortunately, often discouraged historians from pointing out that it's ridiculous to lavishly praise a monarch who ruled for only two years and who, in those two years, did nothing of note except to hold onto power until it was ripped from him by Henry Tudor, Margaret Beaufort and the Stanley family. There is also the fact that Richard has been the prime suspect in the murder of his two nephews - 12 year-old Edward V and 10 year-old Richard of Shrewsbury - ever since the two boys disappeared in the summer of 1483. For Ricardians, Richard was the real victim and various intriguing theories have been suggested to point the finger at other culprits. Not one of whom had the opportunity or motive to get rid of them like Richard did, but I digress.

On a purely pragmatic note, reburying Richard III with full state honours poses several problems in 2012. The first is that it would divide the country, not unite it; no matter what Richard's enthusiasts say, there is still a large cloud hanging over his involvement with his nephews and many - myself included - believe he was responsible for their deaths. Secondly, reburying a five hundred year old skeleton with the honours we would give to a recently-deceased royal, is wasteful and extravagant, particularly in the middle of a recession. Thirdly, Richard III died a practising medieval Catholic; he was killed thirty-two years before the Protestant religion even began. The official state religion of the United Kingdom today is Anglican Protestantism and the current Sovereign, who would need to grant permission for Richard to be buried on royal ground, is the head of that Church. Should we re-bury Richard III with the religious services of a church that he would quite probably have viewed as schismatic and heretical? Or should we compromise the spirit of the 1701 Act of Settlement and have a Catholic British state funeral? I don't think it's right that Catholicism is still being legislatively punished when it comes to the monarchy, but it's the law of the land. One way or the other, a state funeral would compromise the integrity of a monarch - if it's Protestant, Richard III; if it's Catholic, Elizabeth II. 

To round-off the pragmatic reasons why Richard III should not be given a state funeral, we can also turn to the issue of time. Whilst it is true that one of monarchism's great benefit is its tying together of past, present and future, Richard III died over half-a-millennium ago. Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette were reburied in 1815 - when most of the people who could remember them were still alive. The Romanovs were buried eighty years after their deaths, when Russia was still struggling to come to terms with the legacy of lawless depravity which had taken the royal family's life back in 1918. No-one alive today can remember Richard III and the country is not coming to terms with the aftermath of the Battle of Bosworth.

On a moral note, giving a state funeral to Richard III would be offensive to many people in this country. Again, myself included. It would re-focus attention on the fact that Richard has never been cleared of complicity in his nephews' murder. He was accused of it, on multiple occasions, during his lifetime - not just when the Tudors came to power and the accusation has to be taken seriously. (For what it's worth, I have not once read an argument that clears him that doesn't also read like a hard-working wishful fantasy.) If he didn't kill them, then where did they go? Richard's rule was incomparably damaged by the allegations that he had killed the two children; at any point, he could have salvaged his reputation by parading them through the streets to prove that they were still alive. He didn't. Which suggests to me that they were dead by the end of 1483, at the very latest. He swore to uphold their birthright; he then dispossessed them and they subsequently disappeared.  Richard has therefore never been satisfactorily cleared of one of the most grotesque crimes in the royal family's history. To bury him with full honours would incite the ire of people who, in perfectly good conscience, would object to their taxes paying for the ceremonial re-internment of a possible child-murderer. 

On the other hand, maybe Richard III didn't kill Edward V and his little brother. Maybe he simply robbed them of their birthright, isolated them from their friends and family, and then somehow magically misplaced them. It's just about possible that an overzealous Ricardian suffocated the two boys and dumped their bodies under a staircase in the chaos that followed Richard's seizure of power. They killed them for love of their king, but without his permission. But that still leaves us with the stark choice that Richard either killed them or lost them. Depending on which one you believe, it means that Richard III was either a merciless tyrant or the single most astonishingly incompetent leader in English history. As an absolute monarch and as the boys' legal guardian, the buck stopped with him. He is responsible for what happened to them; the question of his guilt is therefore only a question of degrees. To quote Shakespeare, "Say I slew them not?" "Then say there are not slain." With absolute power comes corresponding responsibility and, in that arena, Richard is to be found sorely lacking. 

Finally, there are sound philosophical reasons why Richard III should be interred quietly in a small Catholic service, like the heart of Louis XVII was in 2004, rather than in a state-funded parade.

For all his faults, Richard III was a practising Christian and it would be wrong to deny his remains access to the funerary rites of his faith. No matter how much time has passed. However, I am very uneasy with things like historical apologies, historical compensation and grand gestures of historical rehabilitation. I think it cheapens History and feeds the arrogance of Modernity. For instance - a few years ago, there was a very well-meaning campaign, led by a decorated veteran from the Battle of Britain, to have Anne Boleyn posthumously pardoned and then removed from her grave in the Tower of London so that she could be reburied in Westminster Abbey. The campaign even attracted the attention of the Home Secretary and the Archbishop of Canterbury. But, ultimately, it failed. And it should have. Anne Boleyn still lies in the cold stone of the Tower of London's chapel and she is still, officially at least, a convicted traitor to her country and an adulteress.

There is far more reason to believe that Anne Boleyn was the victim of a truly horrifying miscarriage of justice than there is to suppose that Richard III wasn't guilty of at least some of the crimes he was accused of, but that doesn't mean that pardoning her and re-burying her would be right. If we stand up in 2012 and say "Oh, that was awful, let's make it better," then we are guilty of breathtaking arrogance in assuming that our actions can ameliorate past horrors. History should be left alone, so that it can stand and remind us of the horrors of the past - and of man's inhumanity to man. We must never assume that a couple of glib words and a few pretty ceremonies can erase that. Anne Boleyn should be left where she is, because reburying her in Westminster Abbey would only serve our emotions - not hers or anyone who knew her. It is far more poignant to stand in Saint Peter-ad-Vincula's today and to see the tiny little spot of earth where she was dumped back in 1536 and to reflect on a terrible time in our history, when women (no matter how gifted or exalted) were the property of their menfolk and could be disposed of as such. If we moved her into Westminster Abbey, we could stand there and comfort ourselves by thinking - "Isn't it nice, though, that in the end she ended up here?" And we should never, ever, try to give the past a happy ending to suit our own sentimentality. We should remember what really happened and understand that, in History, there is no retraction. There can be no mea culpa big enough to take back what has been done. If you believe Richard III was framed by the Tudors, this state funeral will amount to nothing more than an attempt to put a Disney-like gloss on his story. It would give him a happily ever after that detracts from the truth of his actual story.

My friend Ellen Buddle put it well, when we were discussing this, and I hope she won't mind my quoting her in this post. Unlike me, Ellen has no real interest in the case of Richard III in the specifics, but rather in what the proposed state funeral would amount to in principle: -

"When we try and make these judgements on events that happened hundreds of years ago, we're actually not commenting on those events anyway. We're making contemporary political statements and dragging people into it that lived in a moral and political landscape completely different to our own. Trying to identify official, government-approved 'goodies' and 'baddies' in these scenarios is all about propaganda, and little to do with truth and justice. And therefore is a bit unsavoury. 
You also can't whitewash and erase the things British institutions once allowed and approved by saying, 'Oops, takeback!' in a more enlightened time. History has to stand as an example of the worst excesses of states. Undoing those decisions hundreds of years later is a way of saying 'We're nothing like that. We're so much better.' But there's no reason to take that as a given, and symbolic gestures that don't affect the living aren't evidence of it."

Saturday 15 September 2012

Is the Palace finally getting sassy with the Press?

It's been a long time since we saw a case of the famous cerca regna tonat that Thomas Wyatt captured with his poetry in the dark days of 1536. But today, for the first time in a long time, the Palace thundered. Saint James's Palace came out all guns blazing about the media's grotesque invasion of the Duchess of Cambridge's privacy, when a trashy French magazine Closer published illicitly-acquired photographs of the princess sunbathing topless whilst on a private holiday with her husband in Provence. The Palace is now taking legal action and the media conglomerate who own the Irish Daily Star, which also published the pictures, have hinted that they will withdraw all their funding from the newspaper - possibly forcing it to go out of circulation. At long last, it seems, hunting season on the House of Windsor is over.

But the question might justifiably be asked - why has it taken the Court so long to fight back against the media's often appalling treatment of the Royal Family? Forget all the ridiculous conspiracy theories about what happened in 1997, the true tragedy of what happened to Princess Diana was that she was chased to her death because the paparazzi wanted a photograph of her with her new boyfriend. The Duchess of York, the Duchess of Cornwall and the Prince of Wales have all found themselves victims of over-intrusive press attention and some of the things said, implied, published or revealed about them were achieved in such patently illegal or prurient ways that any other celebrity or public figure would have responded with a law suit. And yet, for over a century, the royals have done nothing - resulting in the old joke that you can say anything you like about the Royal Family because they're the one set of people who won't sue.

When she was first confronted with evidence of the libelles, the precursors to both pornography magazines and the lower-end tabloids, Marie-Antoinette simply refused to take them seriously. As far as she was concerned, they were nothing but trash written by trash; she failed to realise, until it was too late, the awful damage that these lies had done. That sublime royal self-confidence, and the refusal to acknowledge tawdry and seedy reality, has flowed inexorably from the mirrored halls of Versailles right the way down to the current incumbents of Buckingham Palace. To acknowledge something gives it credibility; therefore the best thing to do is to ignore it. The problem is, though, that it won't go away just because you want it to and, as Marie-Antoinette learned in 1789, when mud is flung, it usually leaves a stain - however undeserved. Whilst you can certainly over-egg the comparisons between Marie-Antoinette and Princess Diana, it's hard not to conclude that one thing they had in common was that they were both harried to their premature deaths by bad publicity. 

The House of Windsor's relationship with the press has never been very good and its strategy for handling its seedier elements has usually been as staggeringly incompetent as poor Marie-Antoinette's was. Royal distrust began in the late nineteenth century, when the aged Queen Victoria came under a barrage of criticism for her refusal to participate more in public life following the death of her husband, Prince Albert. Things took an even bigger nose-dive during the First World, in which a press frenzy endlessly harassed the royals about their German relatives, coerced the King into changing the royals' surname to the English-sounding "Windsor," cast aspersions on the King and Queen's loyalty to the war effort, endlessly criticised the Court  for being too uninspiring and helped panic the King into believing that he could not offer political asylum to his Tsarist relatives in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution - a decision which led to the Romanovs being trapped in Russia, where they were all horribly murdered by Communists in an extra-judicial massacre one year later. When Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon (better known to our generation as the late Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother) married into the Royal Family in 1923, she pleasantly gave an interview to an enterprising journalist who turned up on the doorstep of her family's London townhouse. The interview was essentially a fluff-piece, which complimented the soon-to-be-princess on her charm, grace and vivacity, but the King was not pleased on principle. He advised Elizabeth never, ever to talk to the press. No good could come of it. She obediently stuck to his advice for the next seventy-nine years of her public career and died as one of the most popular members of the Royal Family in history.

Speculation on Prince Philip's marital fidelity, lurid details of Prince Charles's romantic conversations with Camilla, photographs of the former Duchess of York caught in an indelicate pose with her "financial adviser," unsubstantiated and near-impossible aspersions cast on the paternity of Prince Harry, secret filming of the Countess of Wessex, the recent naked pictures of Prince Harry from a private hotel room in Las Vegas and the bugging of various royal servants, friends and confidantes, have understandably done nothing to assuage the Windsors' fundamental distrust of their country's media. Now, however, the tide seems to have turned - not just within the Palace, but with the wider population, too. There seems to be a general feeling that the tabloids' attitude to the Royal Family is dishonest and mercenary. The only real backlash when the naked photographs of Prince Harry were published earlier this month was against The Sun newspaper that published them. The public's sympathy for Harry, however, has been as nothing compared to the levels of anger being expressed at this week's topless photographs of the Duchess of Cambridge. The fact that British publications are not planning to show the pictures indicates that they know what the likely reaction would be.

On the one hand, this is a perfectly natural moral reaction to a young newlywed's embarrassment at being photographed whilst sunbathing topless, as millions of people do, with her husband. She was not posing, she was not on duty, there was no permission granted and her mortification can be imagined. There's also the fact that Catherine is very popular and people will naturally side with her, because they like her and she seems to be doing a good job. There was no such groundswell of support for the Duchess of York back in 1992. Quite the opposite, in fact. The Palace, like the People, may also have learned a hard lesson from what happened to Princess Diana. At some point, unwarranted intrusions into the Royal Family's day-to-day private lives has to stop, lest it claim another casualty.

But I can't help thinking that part of the reason for the Palace's new-found set of metaphorical cojones may be the Duchess herself. Like the late Queen Mother, who granted one press interview in 1923 and didn't make a habit of it, Catherine Middleton is extremely wary of giving too much away to the Press. Her style of dealing with them is much, much more like the Queen Mother's than it is like Diana's, to whom Catherine is often erroneously compared. Diana thought that she could "work" the Press and establish a mutually-beneficial relationship. It was that crashing miscalculation which led to the last few years of her life becoming  a game of cat-and-mouse misery. In contrast, Catherine gives little away. She doesn't do interviews and she isn't naturally drawn to the centre-stage, like Princess Diana was. Catherine, in a nutshell, does not want to be famous and she doesn't want to be the centre of attention. In many ways, despite her fame, she's the anti-celebrity. And like the late Queen Mother, I sense a commendable hint of steel behind the velvet of Catherine Middleton's smile. She is no doormat. When she was still Prince William's girlfriend, she sued a paparazzo for taking photographs of her without her permission. Very earlier on, she established a no-nonsense policy with the Press and she hasn't abandoned it now that she's married. 

It would be all too easy for Catherine Middleton to do what Marie-Antoinette did in the 1780s - ignore the bad press and just hope it goes away. But Catherine Middleton is not Marie-Antoinette, nor is she Princess Diana. She was not born into royalty and until 2011, she lived most of her life in the "real" world. She knows how much the media matters and she knows how far it will go to get what it wants. There comes a point where even a princess has to say enough; there comes a point in any person's life where rising above things quite simply won't cut it. Perpetually turning the other cheek is for saints; it's not for royalty. Sometimes you have to fight back and that, thank God, is what the House of Windsor is - at last - doing by suing over the smutty, nasty, silly and unnecessary photographs of a young woman sunbathing with her husband.

Tuesday 11 September 2012

Golf, Rory and the ghost of the Anglo-Irish

23 year-old Rory McIlroy is, almost without question, the most globally-successful sportsperson to come out of Northern Ireland. Right now, he is the highest ranking golfer in the world. But in the last week far more attention has being paid to his nationality than to his achievements. Today's edition of the Belfast Telegraph ran the provocative headline: "Rory: I feel more British than Irish." The reason being that in a recent interview, McIlroy had expressed ambivalence about who he would compete for if golf was included as a sport in the 2016 Olympics in Rio: Team GB or Team Ireland? McIlroy stressed that he had not made his mind up yet. In fact, he hadn't even made up his mind if he would compete, but he acknowledged that whoever he competed for, he'd probably end up annoying somebody. 

To re-cap, Rory McIlroy is a Catholic, which on the basis of statistics means that he's expected to consider himself Irish rather than British. On the other hand, he's from Holywood and attended Sullivan Upper School, both of which are right slap-bang in the heartland of Northern Ireland's yacht, country and golf club scene. It's a place where the only tricolour you're likely to see is a French one at a wine and brie party. When it comes to his golfing career, he's so far competed under the umbrella of Ireland, because in golfing, the tournaments are still organised on all-island basis, rather than around political borders. But, if golf goes ahead to the Rio Olympics in 2016, that won't be the case. For the first time in his life, Rory McIlroy will have to choose to compete under the Union flag or the Irish tricolour and whether he'll be standing for God Save the Queen or Amhrán na bhFiann at the ceremonies

McIlroy himself is, understandably, a little piqued that his recent success has been drowned out in the media speculation about his preferred nationality. In an open letter, posted via his Twitter account, he eloquently expressed his frustrations and tried to put an end to the debate: -

Having just won three out of my last four tournaments, including a second Major Championship, I was hoping that my success on the golf course would be the more popular topic of golfing conversation today! However, the issue of my cultural identity has re-emerged, and with it, the matter of my national allegiance ahead of the Rio Olympics in 2016. 
I am in an extremely sensitive and difficult position and I conveyed as much in a recent newspaper interview. 
I am a proud product of Irish golf and the Golfing Union of Ireland and am hugely honoured to have come from very rich Irish sporting roots, winning Irish Boys, Youths and Amateur titles and playing for Ireland at all levels. I am also a proud Ulsterman who grew up in Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom. That is my background and always will be. 
I receive huge support from both Irish and British sports fans alike and it is greatly appreciated. Likewise, I feel like I have a great affinity with American sports fans. I play most of my golf in the US nowadays and I am incredibly proud to have won both the US Open and the US PGA Championship in the last two years. 
As an international sportsman, I am very lucky to be supported by people all over the world, many of who treat me as one of their own, no matter what their nationality, or indeed mine. This is the way sport should be. 
Since turning professional at 18, I have travelled the world playing the game that I love and consider myself a global player. As the World No 1 right now, I wish to be a positive role model and a sportsperson that people respect, and enjoy watching. 
I feel very fortunate to be in a position to play the sport that I love professionally and to have enjoyed the success that has come my way. 
I wish to clarify that I have absolutely not made a decision regarding my participation in the next Olympics. On a personal level, playing in the Olympics would be a huge honour. However, the Games in Rio are still four years away and I certainly won’t be making any decisions with regards to participating any time soon. 
The Olympics will be great for the growth of golf on a global scale, but my focus right now is on being the best player I can be, trying to win Major Championships and contributing to what will hopefully be a victorious European side at the forthcoming Ryder Cup Matches against the USA. 
Lastly, I would like to thank everyone for the amazing support that I receive around the world every time I play. It is hugely appreciated . . . Rory

If one was to look solely at Rory McIlroy's dilemma, then it undoubtedly seems silly and facetious to be kicking up a fuss over what team he might play for in four years time if he decides to go ahead and compete. It seems a bit like fighting over where to have your wedding, before receiving a marriage proposal. But the debate does shine light on an area of Irish modern culture that receives the old Irish problem of too much attention and too little understanding: Where do we stand on our national identity?

Northern Irish Protestants, particularly ones who have lived in Northern Ireland all their lives, are known to get quite angry if someone refers to them as "Irish." On the one hand, this seems stupid and pedantic. After all, before 1921, the phrase "Irish" was used to describe their ancestors. On the other, why shouldn't they have the right to embrace a new national identity, in the same way Czechoslovakians did after 1918 or Germans did after 1871? Simply because Northern Ireland hasn't been around forever doesn't mean that it has no right to exist or that people have no right to emotionally invest in it. 

Equally, Rory McIlroy's position as a cradle Catholic who self-identifies as British represents one of the great silent minorities of Northern Irish demographics. Since the days of Daniel O'Connell, Irish nationalism has not traditionally been very kind to Catholics who see themselves as British; the ugly sobriquet of "West Brit" was, and is, hurled at them because it's felt as if they've somehow let the side down. They're often seen as deficient and nobody, really, likes to talk about them. But they do exist and in fairly sizable numbers, particularly as you move "up" the socio-economic pyramid. Time after time, every census and every report that comes back about Northern Ireland indicates that there is a significant segment of the northern Catholic community who would not back a united Irish republic, either because of pragmatic, economic or sentimental reasons. Why are they not being acknowledged? And why, even more incredibly, are they not been targeted by the Unionist parties, particularly the moderate Ulster Unionist who, quite frankly, need every vote they can get? And why, when there is a Northern Irish British Catholic like Rory McIlroy, who is prepared to talk about it, do we all seem so incredulous?

But for me, the dilemma faced by Rory McIlroy and by thousands of people of our generation in the North summons up, Banquo-like, the ghost of the Anglo-Irish. The great losers of Irish historiography. Abandoned by their northern allies, who were only concerned with "saving Ulster" and in creating a new "Northern Irish" identity at the expense of the old Irish one, and completely written-out of the great myth of Irish nationalism, in which everything with the word "Irish" in it must ipso facto by anti-British, hardly anybody talks about the Anglo-Irish today. (If they've even heard of them, at all.) But their situation, and the hyphen in their nationality, is perhaps the one most relevant to Northern Ireland today; it merits being talked about.

The Anglo-Irish were a social group descended from the Norman invaders of the twelfth century, who subsequently intermarried with the native Gaelic aristocracy and also with the wider Irish population. They existed predominantly in the southern three provinces of Ireland - Leinster, Connaught and Munster - and they had little to do with the seventeenth-century plantations of Ulster, which saw the creation of the unique, if misunderstood, Ulster-Scots community. In the aftermath of the Boyne, the Anglo-Irish made up between about a tenth and a fifth of the overall Irish population; they are almost all members of the Church of Ireland and a significant number made up the aristocratic Ascendancy. Some of their more famous sons included the author Jonathan Swift, the "Iron" Duke of Wellington, the great politician Edmund Burke (below), the playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan, the novelist C.S. Lewis, the famous Nationalist leader C.S. Parnell and the nineteenth century Foreign Secretary, Lord Castlereagh. And, of course, W.B. Yeats, who captured the Anglo-Irish view that some people should be poor and some should be rich because the world was prettier that way. A view, incidentally, which still survives on the Malone Road.  

Prior to the eighteenth century, the term "British" was hardly ever used - especially not in Ireland. One was simply an English/Irish/Cornish/Scottish/Welsh subject of the Crown. By the time the rising tide of nationalism was sweeping across Europe in the aftermath of the French Revolution, the Anglo-Irish community had already been settled in Ireland for six hundred years. It was far too late for them to suddenly get a new identity, just because everyone else on the European continent seemed to be rushing hell's-bells for a national label with which to define themselves and everything to do with their culture. (Edmund Burke, like his hero Marie-Antoinette, found the whole thing a bit unsettling, to say the least.) By the end of the nineteenth century, it was quite clear that the Anglo-Irish were on the wrong side of history, as Ireland pulled itself apart over the issue of independence from Britain. Unionism was strongest in the North and the orange-and-purple militancy of the Ulstermen had no time for the wishy-washy Anglo-Irish, with their fondness for old Irish culture. As far as the Nationalists were concerned, the vast majority of the Anglo-Irish were traitors. Loyalty to the King was loyalty to a foreign, hostile power. Since they didn't fit into either polarity, by the time Partition occurred in the 1920s, the Anglo-Irish simply vanished from the history books. For Northern Ireland to work, Unionists had to make it seem as if partition was predestined - a kind of six counties' manifest destiny, if you like. An historical view grew-up that the North had always been so inherently different from the South that separation was basically inevitable. In that version of events, there was no room for the 15% of the population who lived in the South, but who had self-identified as both royalist and Irish. For Nationalism, of course, it was easier to blame the English for everything, rather than to concede the awkward reality that there was a significant number of Irishmen and women who had not wanted independence.

It would be easy for me to stand on my historical pedant's drum and demand that we pay attention to the history of the Anglo-Irish because once upon a time they existed and, because of that, they deserve to be properly studied like any other part of history. It would equally be valid for someone to riposte that  I'm over-sentimentalising them, in order to make a point about modernity. Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the vast majority of the wealthiest member of the Anglo-Irish community had been far more concerned with preserving the privileges of the aristocracy against (what they saw) as the French Revolution-inspired hysteria of nationalism and from the jumped-up working-class demagogues of the Orange Order, who the Ascendancy loathed just as much as they did the IRA. Maybe there isn't much in the history of the Anglo-Irish that's actually worth emulating? Maybe they were predominantly selfish, reactionary and backward? Maybe the reason why they ultimately vanished from history was because they were an eighteenth century social class trying to live in a twentieth century world? (See below: enjoying their bling-tastic lives.)

But the point about the Anglo-Irish is that they chose and that the real reason that they were written out of Irish history wasn't because of what they did, but because of what they were. And that's the biggest problem in Ireland, then and now: we are far more concerned with what you are than with what you do. What Rory McIlroy captures is a generation that's sick and tired of having their identity forced upon them by history and other people's expectations. Why can't we acknowledge that the past happened and not keep trying to revive its divisions?

Basically, whether you like it or not, eight hundred years ago, in a period with radically different morals and attitudes to war, the English invaded Ireland. They came, they settled, they intermarried. They conquered Ireland, and then they ruled Ireland, with the help of the Irish themselves. Expecting every vestige of a British identity to vanish from the entire island of Ireland is a bit like expecting every immigrant group to vanish from the continental United States. Then again, another awkward fact: whether you like it or not, British rule quite clearly didn't quite work out for everyone and over the centuries, they didn't exactly set themselves to winning hearts and minds, did they? Seven hundred years after the invasion, the vast majority of Irish people chose to expel imperial rule and to become an independent nation. These two developments are historical fact, both the invasion of the 1100s and the independence of the 1900s brought good and bad things. Most things in History do. They have left a whole litany of national identities to chose from. The Anglo-Irish believed themselves to be a fusion of Ireland's cultures; the majority of them were strong monarchists, but many were also enthusiastic supporters of the Gaelic Revival, the Irish language, music, literature and the arts. They were, for better or worse, the original products of a mixed marriage. 

It's been nearly a century since Partition. It shouldn't surprise us that people are beginning to question their identities and that we're once again beginning to see a generation that's comfortable calling themselves Irish subjects of the British crown or Irish citizens of the United Kingdom. If you see yourself as solely British, solely Irish or as uniquely Northern Irish, then that's your prerogative. Go for it. 

And for all their many faults, perhaps that should be the legacy of the Anglo-Irish: take an interest in all the parts of Ireland's fascinating history, but be prepared to bend the rules a little. People fought and died for it a long time ago; you don't need to fight the same battles again. Don't be too rigid; don't be stuck in any one category. And while you're doing that, do what Rory McIlroy has done - have a strong sense of civic pride and make your homeland proud. After all, despite what we've done to it, it's still one of the best places on Earth. Maybe that's why we get so worked-up about it. 

Monday 3 September 2012

The Uncrowned Queen of Ireland: The Life of Isabel of Gloucester

"And if his name be George, I'll call him Peter;
For new-made honour doth forget men's names."
- From William Shakespeare's King John

Isabel of Gloucester was the first woman since 1066 to marry a future king of England, who never became queen herself. She shares that rather sad honour with only four other women in English history - the aristocratic Mary de Bohun, who died before her husband seized the throne as Henry IV in 1399; the feisty Lady Anne Hyde, the mother of Mary II, who died whilst her husband (the last Catholic King of Britain) was still Duke of York; Sophia-Dorothea of Celle, who was divorced and imprisoned in a grim German castle on grounds of adultery, long before her equally-adulterous husband became King George I in 1714 and, of course, one expects, the late Princess Diana, who was divorced and subsequently died in a tragic car crash when her ex-husband is still heir-apparent.

Isabel of Gloucester has more in common with Sophia-Dorothea and Diana than she does with Mary de Bohun and Anne Hyde. Like them, the reason she never made it onto the consort's throne was because she was divorced, not because she died prematurely. Isabel had no say in her divorce, nor in her life after it. In many ways, Isabel's story is a sad reflection of the stultifying and miserable lives that many medieval women were forced to lead - particularly the women of the upper classes. Although they, theoretically, lived lives of far greater comfort than the vast majority of the population, their bodies were so integral to the merger and acquisition of aristocratic lands and assets that most daughters of the nobility were shuttled around depending on their menfolk's whims and political aspirations. For a very long time, there was a pervasive view amongst male historians that the royal and aristocratic women of the Middle Ages had been nothing more than "animated title deeds." And whilst glamorous or tenacious queens like Eleanor of Aquitaine, Marguerite of Anjou, Matilda of Scotland and Matilda of Boulogne might suggest that this is far too simple a view, the lives of women like Isabel of Gloucester indicate that in many ways it's a grim but horrifically fair assessment of wealthy women's role in medieval society.

For instance, despite the fact that she was one of the greatest heiresses of her generation and married to a future king, we are not even one hundred percent sure of Isabel's Christian name. In part, this was because of the multi-lingual nature of the English empire at the time and the Middle Ages' promiscuous attitude towards spelling, but at various points Isabel is referred to as Isabella, Isobel, Avisa, Joan, Eleanor, Hawise or Hawisa. She was born sometime around 1173, probably on one of her father's vast estates. It was a year of rebellion, in which the elder sons of King Henry II openly rebelled against their father's authority and attempted to carve out political careers for themselves. Henry's wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, sided with her boys against her husband, causing international scandal in the process. Isabel's father, William FitzRobert, Earl of Gloucester, was the King's cousin and he loyally sided with him to oppose the Queen and the princes. 

William, Earl of Gloucester was a grandson of the heroically fertile King Henry I, who had ruled England between 1100 and 1135. Unlike King Henry II, however, the Earl was not descended in the legitimate royal line. His father, Robert, had been one of Henry I's many bastards. (As another sign of how lowly women were esteemed, we have no idea who Robert's mother was - several women from Oxfordshire have been suggested, but so has a racy Welsh princess.) This generous dose of royal blood, coupled with his father's loyalty to Henry II's mother during the great civil war of the 1140s, meant that William of Gloucester stood high in the King's favour and he had managed to expand his considerable aristocratic holdings to become one of the great lords of the realm by the time of Isabel's birth. Through her father, the baby Isabel was not just related to the Royal Family, but also to some of the most powerful players in the Anglo-Norman nobility. Her uncle Roger was the Bishop of Worcester, her aunt Matilda was the phenomenally wealthy Countess of Chester and her late uncle Hamon had died a hero's death at the 1159 siege of Toulouse.

Isabel's mother was born Lady Hawisa de Beaumont, the daughter of the Anglo-French Earl of Leicester, who had served as England's de facto prime minister between 1155 and 1168. A powerful politician and a generous benefactor of the Church, Leicester's service to the King was yet another link between Isabel's family and the royals. Through him, Isabel was the niece of the current Earl of Leicester (earl then being the highest title available to the English aristocracy) and the Countess of Huntingdon and Northampton (whom Isabel may have been named after.) 

Despite her father's loyalty to the King during the princes' rebellion, for some reason Henry II began to regard the Earl of Gloucester with suspicion. Desperate to recover royal favour and to prove his loyalty to the regime, the Earl gave Bristol Castle (below) as a gift to the middle-aged monarch, when Isabel was about two years old. Of course, it says something for the Gloucesters' wealth that they were able to part with a castle and still remain one of the most affluent families in the empire. The gesture obviously worked, albeit temporarily, because a few years later Isabel's father accompanied the King on his journey to arbitrate a dispute between the kings of Navarre and Castile. There is some evidence, though, that he fell out of favour again and he was deliberately detained on the King's orders when the princes once again rebelled against their father. Whether this was because of the King's paranoia or because Gloucester had actually done something to justify his suspicions is hard to say.

We know very little about Isabel's childhood or her relationship with her parents, but it is safe to hazard the guess that she would have come as a disappointment to them. Isabel's only brother, Robert, had died before she was born and without a male heir, Lord Gloucester had been forced to negotiate a deal with the King, which would see all of the Gloucesters' vast wealth devolve to the Crown once the Earl passed away. Henry II's youngest, and favourite, son was Prince John, later enshrined as a villain in the Robin Hood legends. With the eldest son due to inherit his father's kingdoms in England and Normandy, the second set to inherit the Queen's ancestral duchy in the Aquitaine and the third married off to the heiress to the duchy of Brittany, King Henry was anxious to provide an inheritance for his youngest son, who was already being cruelly nicknamed "Lackland" by snickering courtiers. The Gloucester inheritance was perfect, because it would turn Prince John into a great magnate in his own right. The agreement hammered out between the King and the Earl therefore prepared the way for John to inherit everything when the Earl died, in return for marrying one of the Earl's three daughters - Mabel, Alice or Isabel.

Why Isabel was picked over her sisters to marry Prince John is anybody's guess, but the two were engaged when Isabel was only about three years-old. Isabel was quite probably the eldest of the three girls, since it is hard to believe that anything like her looks or personality would have influenced the royals in what was, essentially, a balance transfer. Her father died when she was about ten years old, leaving the lion's share of the inheritance to the de facto male heir, Prince John. Mabel later married the Seigneur de Montfort and Alice married the Earl of Hertford.

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