Sunday 28 October 2012

Saint Jude and Me

"Hope doth lead from day to day." - Anne Boleyn, Queen of England (1507-1536)
Today is the feast day of Saint Jude the Apostle, one of the twelve biblical Apostles of Jesus Christ. He is sometimes referred to by one of his other names, Thaddaeus. His origins are somewhat confusing, since the earliest sections of the Church seemed to have regarded him as the stepson of the Virgin Mary and as a son born to Saint Joseph's first marriage. Later, it was suggested that he may have been the Virgin Mary's nephew or a distant cousin of Saint Joseph. Either way, he is usually simply referred to today as "a near kinsman of Jesus Christ" or as a "relative of our Lord, Jesus Christ, of Mary and Joseph". 

Ancient writers tell us that Jude preached the Gospel in Judea, Samaria, Idumaea, Syria, Mesopotamia and Libya. According to Eusebius, one of the Christian Church's first historians, Jude returned to Jerusalem in AD 62 and assisted at the election of his brother, Saint Simeon, as the new Christian bishop of Jerusalem. According to Church tradition, Jude was martyred for his faith three years later, when he was executed in Beirut, alongside another one of the original Twelve - Saint Simon the Zealot. Along with another Apostle, Saint Bartholomew, he is usually credited with introducing Christianity to Armenia and he is therefore highly venerated by the Armenian Apostolic Church today. 

Saint Jude is, of course, most famous for the fact that in the Roman Catholic and Western Christian traditions, he is the patron saint of "lost causes and things despaired of." I have a battered prayer card in my wallet that calls him the "faithful intercessor of all who invoke your special help in time of need." Recently, I've had a lot of cause to think about Saint Jude and what his story has meant to me - particularly over the past year. 

As someone who was raised a Presbyterian, I'm not really supposed to believe in saints - much less in their intercession. However, I don't believe that life ends at death and, on that basis, I have absolutely no problem in believing in that, either. For my own part, all I can say is that both as a believer and a member of society, I do feel as if my personal attitude has been improved by the examples of the saints and by reflecting on what they did as people and what they mean as figures of inspiration. 

This time last year was the beginning of a very difficult time for me, both professionally and personally. It is not in my nature to "over-share" and I tend to be dubious about the hipster-sanctified culture of sharing everything, then hugging about it. To me, that seems to run the risk of substituting good friends for nice ones. (They're not the same thing.) In any case, from one October to the next, I was extremely unhappy. That is not to say that there weren't moments of happiness, but it was impossible to fully enjoy any aspect of my life with the metaphorical sword of Damocles hanging over my head. Then, in June, the professional and the personal hopped into bed together to create a new kind of frustration and a very close friend threw our friendship away for a reason that I, personally, will struggle to forgive for the rest of my life. Needless to say, it did not exactly produce a Bridesheadesque summer of golden memories. 

By the middle of August, it did feel as if all hope was more or less gone. I could not see anyway of getting out of the funk I found myself in. Then, in the space of two short weeks, everything changed. It was perhaps one of the few revolutions in history I was happy to see. (Seriously, France?) I acquired a fantastic new publisher, a new cover, a new book deal, three pieces of amazing career-news arrived my way in a very short period of time and I finally felt that feeling that Reinhold Niebuhr talked about - the serenity to accept the things we cannot change. 

It would have been impossible to keep going up until then without the unwavering support of a few very close and loyal friends. However, I can also say that, for me personally, it was my faith which kept me going - even when I was unaware of it doing so.

For over a year, I have carried a prayer card to Saint Jude in my wallet - ever since being first confronted by a situation in which I saw very little cause for optimism. Most days I pass Saint Jude's Church on Belfast's Ormeau Road and say a little prayer as I do so. The day I received the best career news to date was the start of the 2012 novena (or prayer cycle) to Saint Jude and today, his feast day, is the day when all my work is, for the time being, finished and I am posting off my new, signed contracts. I believe in coincidences; I don't believe this is one of them.

What message have I taken from the last year of living, sometimes unconsciously, with the message of Saint Jude? Well, in the first place, I've re-appreciated the power of prayer; not just because of its complexities, but because it focuses the mind, heightens our self-awareness and stops us from being so selfish. The second point is that this year has made me appreciate the power of hope. Or, as the current President of the United States might say, the audacity of it. 

Legend has it that shortly before she died, Anne Boleyn, one of the figures I admire most from history, left a handwritten note in her prayer-book saying that hope was the force that led people from one day to the next. I happen to believe that's true and, after this year, I believe it even more strongly. Saint Jude is often described as the patron saint of lost causes, but it might be better to describe him as the patron saint of causes that are seemingly lost. One prayer calls him "the Patron of things despaired of." Theist or not, Christian or not, the message of Saint Jude is an inspiring one because it reminds us that hope can shine in even the darkest of situations. Saint Jude's message is a bit like Winston Churchill's most famous quip - if you're going through Hell, then keep going! 

The ancient Mayans apparently believed 2012 would mark the apocalypse. 2012 wasn't the end of the world - it just felt like it sometimes. It doesn't anymore and thank God for that. That's not to say that difficult times won't come around again, but I have new faith in being able to make it through them - thanks to myself, the people around me and to the two thousand year-old Apostle to those in Despair. 

Saturday 20 October 2012

Anne Boleyn's pregnancies: stress or sorrow?

Claire Ridgway, whose new book On This Day in Tudor History is out next month (very excited), gives her take on the debate about Anne Boleyn's pregnancies. What happened in 1534 and 1536 when Queen Anne allegedly miscarried? Were the pregnancies all that they seemed or was one the result of hysterical stress. 

You can read Claire's excellent article on them by clicking here.

Monday 15 October 2012

Defending George Boleyn

A highly dramatized version of George Boleyn in The Other Boleyn Girl, played here by the excellent Jim Sturgess.
Claire Ridgway and Clare Cherry take a fascinating point-by-point look at the reputation of Anne Boleyn's brother, Lord Rochford, and asks if he really does deserve his negative historical reputation. 

"Having researched George’s life in depth, we are both bewildered by George Boleyn’s treatment at the hands of fiction and some non-fiction. Too often, he is portrayed as, amongst other things, a rapist and wife abuser, a man who would have sex with anything that moved, a coward, a weakling, a pathetic smirking fool, a layabout, and/or pompous ass. Yet there is nothing that we know about George which shows him as any of these things. So where on earth did all this come from? Perhaps the fevered imagination of those who need a villain, and why not choose a man who was found guilty of incest? It makes him an easy target, despite the fact he was innocent. The mere charge muddies the water, and makes him fair game."

Read more: 

Tuesday 9 October 2012

"I carried you"

I think Footprints was maybe the first example of religious poetry that I can distinctly remember encountering as a child. Recently, I've been thinking about it a lot. It seems trite and saccharin, I suppose, but in its own way, I still think it's very beautiful.

One night I dreamed I was walking along the beach with the Lord.
Many scenes from my life flashed across the sky. 
In each scene I noticed footprints in the sand.
Sometimes there were two sets of footprints, other times there was one only.
This bothered me because I noticed that during the low periods of my life, when I was suffering from anguish, sorrow or defeat, I could only see one set of footprints,
So I said to the Lord, "You promised me Lord, that if I followed You, You would walk with me always. But I have noticed that during the most trying periods of my life, 
There has only been one set of footprints in the sand. 
Why, when I needed You most, have you not been there for me?"
The Lord replied, "The years when you have seen only one set of footprints, My child, is when I carried you."

Friday 5 October 2012

Long to reign over us: A brief history of the British monarchy (Part 2)

Her Majesty the Queen is the second-longest reigning  monarch in British history, so far. She acceded to the throne following the death of her father, King George VI, in 1952 and she celebrated her Diamond Jubilee in 2012.

James VI of Scotland did not have an easy start in life. As parental dysfunction goes, James had parents who made Jason and Medea's marriage look like the front cover of House and Garden. When he was still a baby, his father Lord Darnley was found dead amidst the smoking ruins of a house on the outskirts of Edinburgh. Who authorised Darnley's assassination is probably one of the most famous unsolved murder mysteries in British history, but at the time suspicion fixed on James's mother - the ethereally beautiful and scandal-prone Mary, Queen of Scots. Mary was already unpopular with many of her subjects; most of them had embraced the new hard-line form of Protestantism known as Presbyterianism and so they subsequently resented their stunning young queen for her French upbringing and Catholic faith. Shortly after James's first birthday, she was overthrown in a Presbyterian-led coup and fled to neighbouring England. Nineteen years later, she was executed for her alleged complicity in plotting the murder of her Protestant cousin, Queen Elizabeth I.

Robbed of both his parents, little James VI found himself king before he could walk or talk. The Scottish monarchy was pitched into another period of prolonged instability, with coups, rebellions and counter-coups shaping the young king's life. It's hard to doubt that James's adult obsession with defending the Divine Right of Kings sprang from his childhood experiences, in which he had seen the consequences of a monarchy that had been reduced to being the plaything of ambitious politicians. Everywhere he went, James's personal skills were limited by the all-powerful Presbyterian Kirk and the aristocrats who supported it - the so-called "Lords of the Congregation." James himself was phenomenally bright and very well-educated, but he had precious few opportunities to employ his talents and even his personal life was subject to the whims of his Presbyterian minders. As a young teenager, he fell violently in love with his French cousin, the handsome and sophisticated Duke of Lennox, but the Presbyterian lords around him disapproved; they lured James to Ruthven Castle where they kidnapped him and then banished Lennox back home to France. Lennox died eighteen months later, allegedly of heartbreak, and James wrote a poem in his memory called An Ode to a Phoenix, in which he allegorised Lennox as a beautiful bird killed by the envy of others.

Six years later, James did his duty and married Anne, the daughter of the King of Denmark and Norway (then ruled by the same monarchy.) Anne of Denmark (left) was a vivacious and fun-loving blonde, who found life in Edinburgh almost as difficult as her husband did. Presbyterians have never exactly been famous for being flash with their cash and Lutheran-raised Anne resented the fact that her allowance as queen was so restrictive. Despite James's teen obsession with the late Duke of Lennox, as an adult he produced seven children with his Danish queen - Henry-Frederick, Elizabeth, Margaret, Charles, Robert, Mary and Sophia. In 1603, James received news that his elderly cousin, Queen Elizabeth, had passed away in London and he was now King James I of England and Ireland. He and the queen travelled south to London, where they were duly crowned and Anne was finally given free rein to spend as she liked in the magnificent palaces of the English royals - Whitehall (the largest palace in Europe at the time), Richmond, Greenwich, Hampton Court and Windsor Castle. Not content with these and the turtle-shell bed she felt was an essential purchase, Anne eventually decided she needed a little chez of her own and the King duly built the pretty riverside mansion called Queen's House in Greenwich for her, which stands to this day and was the sight for some of the equestrian events of the 2012 London Olympics. Dripping with jewels and spending like a maniac, I don't think Anne of Denmark missed life in the shadow of the Kirk too much. The lairds would have been even further riled to know that, in London, Anne openly expressed sympathy for the persecuted Catholic minority.

James, however, struggled with his new role as king of a united Britain. He had several key political aims - the first was to create a united British state, the second was to maintain the monarchy (rather than parliament) as the dominant political power in Britain and the third was to end England's long-running war with Spain. In the latter, he was certainly successful; with Elizabeth I and her old adversary, Philip II, both dead, their successors, James and Philip III, were able to end the hostilities that had persisted since the defeat of the Spanish Armada. With peace concluded, there was even talk of marrying James's son to Philip's daughter, Maria-Anna. (The talks fell through when pious Maria-Anna point-blank refused to marry a Protestant.) However, in his aims to create Great Britain, James was thwarted. England, Scotland and Ireland may all have had the same king, but each of them had their own parliaments that met in London, Edinburgh and Dublin; they had their own customs, needs and laws and they were reluctant to unify under one parliamentary system. Even the subject of a British flag was unpopular, despite James's enthusiasm for the idea. But perhaps his greatest failure as monarch was in trying to ameliorate the power of Parliament. Everything he did seemed to antagonise them.

As far as James was concerned, kings and queens were closer to God than they were to rest of mankind. Parliament's role was therefore simply to advise the king, but he was under absolutely no obligation to take that advice. When Parliament attempted to force the king to do things that he didn't want to do (like harsher measures against Catholics or an end to the extravagance of the royal court), then James would react with apoplectic fury. Where the late Queen Elizabeth had deftly manipulated Parliament by flattering them into voting her the money she needed, James I harangued them and demanded, not requested, their financial assistance. By the time James died in 1625, after twenty-two years on the British thrones, relations between Parliament and the monarchy were at an all-time low and James's twenty four year-old son, Charles I, inherited a particularly unenviable situation. 

It would therefore be easy to write James VI/I off as a political failure. However, whilst the British Isles could not be united legislatively, they had been united by the monarchy and it would be this unity which eventually gave birth to the United Kingdom and, through it, the British Empire. He was also responsible for the mammoth cultural task of translating the Bible into perfect English - thereby giving the world the hauntingly magnificent King James Bible. He had survived the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, which aimed to blow up the King, his heir and the Houses of Parliament in retaliation for the penal laws in place against English and Welsh Catholics. He had been clever enough to balance the very different religious requirements of his kingdoms - he had been raised in the Calvinist-Presbyterian tradition in Scotland, but wisely did not attempt to impose the more liberal Anglican view of Christianity on them once he became Governor of the Church of England in 1603. He had admittedly done nothing to end the legal discrimination against Catholics or Puritans in England and Wales, but he had not caved in to populist demand that he start a kind of Protestant Inquisition against them, either. He had fathered heirs with his wife, despite the fact that he was far more attracted to his own gender. (After Lennox, he was obsessively devoted to the Earl of Somerset and, after him, the King got all in a fluster over the muscular legs of the gorgeous Duke of Buckingham, whom everybody else seemed to find insufferably annoying.) He had been a great patron of the arts, music, architecture and literature (Shakespeare received more backing from James I than he ever did from Elizabeth I.) He had overseen the expansion of British colonies in Ulster and America. And he had attempted to impose the new view of monarchy, prevalent with most European philosophers in the seventeenth century - that royal power should be absolute, that regional characteristics must be subordinated to a centralised culture and government, and that only a unified state could be a strong one. It's undeniable that James blundered and made many errors, but to dismiss his entire reign as a grotesque embarrassment is to misrepresent it. Whatever his failings, James I had arguably made the monarchy central to the emerging notion of being British. In doing so, he had successfully tied the Crown to a sense of national identity; the monarchy was, and arguably still is, far more central to the emotional identity of the British than parliament ever could be.

Monday 1 October 2012

Long to reign over us: a brief history of the British monarchy (Part 1)

Above: The German-born King George II, who ruled Britain between 1727 and 1760; he was the last British ruler to lead his army into battle. A slightly less glamorous death awaited him, however, when he died on his toilet after suffering a massive stroke.

"Royalty is a Government in which the attention of the nation is concentrated on one person doing interesting actions. A Republic is a Government in which that attention is divided between many, who are all doing uninteresting things." - Walter Bagehot, The English Constitution (1867)

There has been monarchy in the British Isles for thousands of years. Like an aged relative, it's hard to imagine it being young. It's even harder to believe that the monarchy has only managed to survive for so long by constantly adapting. Forget the conical-bra-themed self-reinvention of Madonna - the real mother of spicing up your image to suit the times is the British monarchy. The trick is that the monarchy has the knack of making itself look like a beacon of continuity. It's constantly changing, especially when it has to in order to keep the public's love, but it manages to hold on to just enough of the past to stay familiar. It's a hard juggling act and some kings and queens have been better at it than others.

A quick note on how the monarchy is numbered - since this confuses some people. After 1066, it's customary to start putting numbers after rulers' names. So, for instance, there have been four kings called William in British history - in 1066, 1087, 1689 and 1830. This means that when the current Duke of Cambridge becomes king, he will be called King William V. The woman a king marries usually gets the title of queen, because of her marriage to the king. However, this type of queen is called a 'queen consort,' and because she is married to a king and doesn't hold power in her own right, she does not get a number after her name. If there were no males left in the royal family and a woman inherited the throne in her own right, then a woman got a number after their name. For example, there have actually been five queens in English history called Elizabeth. However, three of them - Elizabeth Woodville, Elizabeth of York and Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon (the late Queen Mother) - achieved their title by marrying a king; they were queen consorts. Only two, Elizabeth I in 1558 and the current Queen in 1952, came to the throne in her own right and inherited power from her father. They are known as 'queen regnants.' When there is a queen regnant, her husband does not get the title of 'king,' he becomes a prince, because in royal tradition, a king is always higher than a queen and if a queen rules in her own right, nobody can be higher than her. That is why the current Queen's husband is called "Prince Philip". 

Obituary: Professor Eric W. Ives (1931 - 2012)

Meeting people who are gifted, bright and talented is always a pleasure and one I had always wanted to hear was Eric Ives - or Professor Eric William Ives, O.B.E., Emeritus Professor of History at the University of Birmingham. Eric Ives was a giant of Tudor history; his work included a short biography of Henry VIII, a political study of Lady Jane Grey's time as queen, a study of how faction influenced government in the 1500s, several studies of legal history in the sixteenth century, forensic examinations of Henry VIII's last will and testament, studies of courtiers in Anne Boleyn's circle and a co-written study of the history of Birmingham's university. His last book, The Reformation Experience, was an examination of what it was like to live through the Reformation and, unlike many works written today, it was marginally more sympathetic to the Protestant community. (Ives was, himself, a devout Christian.)

However, it was for his work on Henry VIII's second wife, Anne Boleyn, that Eric Ives was best known. He first became interested in her when he was writing about the career of Sir William Brereton, a sixteenth century networking politico who was executed in 1536 for being Anne's adulterous lover. Ives' research into Brereton showed that it was practically impossible that Brereton was ever romantically involved with the queen, which led to the question of why he died for that crime. The result was a seven year academic investigation into Anne's life, which produced the acclaimed biography Anne Boleyn, in 1986. Reflecting on it later, Ives said, "I have sometimes described Anne Boleyn as the third woman in my life, after my immediate family, and it is true that once she interests you, fascination grows, as it did for men at the time".

Anne Boleyn rapidly became seen as a kind of bible by Tudor history aficionados and the standard text on Anne Boleyn's life and historical importance. There were detractors, of course - and Ives ended up in a ferocious academic spat with Professor George Bernard and with Professor Retha Warnicke. Warnicke rebutted with her book, The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn: Family politics at the court of Henry VIII, published in Cambridge (Ives was published in Oxford) in 1989. She argued that Ives's account of Anne's death was too political and that Anne had been the victim of sixteenth century gender prejudices, stirred up by the disastrous end to her final pregnancy. Even less convincingly was Bernard's rejoinder, Anne Boleyn: Fatal attractions, published by Yale in 2010, which argued that Ives was wrong to see Anne as innocent, because she must have done something wrong for Henry VIII to treat her so badly. (See my review of Bernard's book, here.) In 2004, Ives re-issued and re-updated his original book on Anne, producing The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn: The Most Happy. He revised some of his original findings, but stuck to his conclusion that Anne was "the most influential and important queen consort this country has ever had. Indeed, Anne deserves to be a feminist icon, a woman in a society which was, above all else, male-dominated, who broke through the glass ceiling by sheer character and initiative." Whether one agree with Ives or not, his biography of Anne was so comprehensive that it became the standard reference point on any and all subject pertaining to Anne Boleyn and the politics of the 1520s - her date of birth, her childhood education, the lives of her parents and siblings,  the nature of her early romantic relationships, the reliability of Catholic sources against her, the chronology of Henry VIII's obsession with her, her personality, the downfall of Cardinal Wolsey, factional politics, the rise of Thomas Cromwell, the Break with Rome, which (if any) of her portraits were authentic, her appearance, the date of her marriage, the nature of her married life, her political influence, her charity, her wealth, her artistic patronage, her ladies in waiting, her influence on the church, her sense of Christianity, foreign policy in her lifetime and, above all, why she ended her life in such a tragic and bloody way. 

So, when I was invited to speak and co-host the 2012 Anne Boleyn Experience, a luxury holiday operated by History Tours of Great Britain, I was very, very excited to hear that one of the other speakers would be Eric Ives. I gave my talk on life in the queen's household on the Monday and Professor Ives was due to speak on the Tuesday, about Anne's downfall in 1536 and who was to blame. (It was Ives's controversial theory that Thomas Cromwell had far more to do with it than Henry himself and that Cromwell essentially framed Anne in order to stop her from ending his career.) It was therefore a surreal, and tragic, experience to be sitting in Anne Boleyn's family home when I heard the news that a man who had devoted decades of his life to studying her had passed away at the age of eighty-one. 

Eric Ives was an erudite, thorough and brilliant historian. His mind was as sharp as his writing and he helped keep history interesting, whilst also dismissing many of its sillier legends. Apart from the Tudor court, his other interests included the history of law and the development of higher education in Britain. He nurtured and supervised many of the best minds in the next generation of historians and in 2001, he was made a member of the Order of the British Empire by Her Majesty the Queen, in recognition for his services to history. A regular contributor to the BBC History Magazine and History Today, Professor Ives had sadly lost his wife, Ruth, a few years ago; he is survived by his daughter, Susan, and his son, John. 

Ives's passing has been greatly regretted by his colleagues. Dr. Suzannah Lipscomb, author of the book 1536, said, "Professor Eric Ives's death is a sudden and profound loss to the historical community. He was a brilliant historian and one of the leading lights of Tudor history: his work on Anne Boleyn and Lady Jane Grey is unsurpassed (and I say this even as one who disagreed with him on some points of interpretation!). It is deeply sad that The Reformation Experience will be his last book. But, even more importantly, he is also an exceptionally warm, kind, generous and courteous man. He will be greatly missed."

I never did get to hear Eric Ives speak, but I have his books and his wonderful, clever, written words. 
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