Saturday 28 December 2013

Some of my favourite reads of 2013

Tudor: The Family Story by Leanda de Lisle. Leanda's biography of Lady Jane Grey and her sisters Katherine and Mary is my favourite historical biography and I loved this take on the well-trodden story of England's most dysfunctional Royal family. De Lisle's writing style is so delicious that if it were edible, you'd almost certainly end up the size of a house and/or Henry VIII, the porky sovereign who for once is not allowed to stand centre stage in this dynastic tale of wife-changing, religious revolution and palaces more blinged up than an MTV crib. The women and minor members of the family are allowed their day in the metaphorical sun and de Lisle's refusal to play favourites guarantees fair treatment for all. Buy it, read it and I'm sure you'll love it. 

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. Originally published in 2004, I half-read it at my friend Colin's suggestion at university but returned to it when the wonderful movie adaptation (below) starring Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Sturgess, Doona Bae, Susan Sarandon, Jim Broadbent, Hugh Grant, Hugo Weaving, James D'Arcy and Ben Whishaw was released. The story of various reincarnated souls passing through the centuries from pre-abolition America, the inter-war years in Britain, a nightmarish twenty-second century Korea and a dystopian future is haunting, clever, nimble, beautifully written and very moving. If the story of Sonmi-451 doesn't devastate you, see a therapist immediately.

A Place of Greater Safety by Hilary Mantel. Once you can get past the trademark horrors that Hilary Mantel seems to make of all her female characters, this 1992 novel inspired by the biographies of three male revolutionaries - Georges Danton, Camille Desmoulins, and Maximilien Robespierre - is actually a beautiful novel that captures perfectly how even the leaders of the Great Revolution of 1789 began to fear its strength and wonder how it would all end. (Hint - not happily for more or less anybody involved whose surname wasn't Bonaparte.) A Place of Greater Safety even manages to make Desmoulins interesting, charismatic and almost sympathetic - no mean achievement. A wonderful example of historical fiction.

The Night's Dark Shade by Elena Maria Vidal. The festering underbelly of the Cathar movement and the clash between two rival faiths in thirteenth-century France make this novel very interesting, very enjoyable and, reading for pleasure this time, one of the most intriguing takes on religious controversies of the Middle Ages. If you are a fan of medieval stories, then this one is certainly worth picking up.

A Night to Remember by Walter Lord. Famous for inspiring the 1958 movie of the same title (above), I had never actually read this minute-by-minute dramatisation of the Titanic disaster of 1912. Lord interviewed many of the survivors, had previously travelled on the Titanic's nearly-identical sister ship the Olympic, and approached the story of the sinking with a respect that bordered on the reverential. Unlike the 1997 take on the story, there are no fictitious love stories at the centre of Lord's novel. Instead, it's a gripping and almost forensic account of one of the greatest tragedies in maritime history. It also manages to capture the syntax and attitudes of 1912 perfectly. I loved this book and I wish I had read it earlier. 

Shiverton Hall by Emerald Fennell. Released early this year by Bloomsbury, this children's story is, and I kid you not, actually as close as I can come to the horror genre without suffering nightmares and/or dousing my room with water from Walsingham. A glorious return to the Victoriana world of camp macabre and horror, Shiverton Hall is the perfect book for a child who loves to read, anyone who enjoys a good boarding school tale or, for the adults in your life like me, who like to be scared but only within due reason. There'll be no Norman Bates meets Emily-Rose in my nightmares, I can assure you.

The War that Ended Peace: How Europe abandoned Peace for the First World War by Margaret Macmillan. No one but Margaret Macmillan could have approached the story of how "Europe's century" ended in the horrors birthed by 1914 and produced something so compulsively readable. Focusing on both the wider social context of the Gilded Age and the political figures who helped make the terrible decisions which resulted in a global conflict, Macmillan has produced a book that is irreverent, thoughtful and wonderfully written. 

The Creation of Anne Boleyn: In Search of the Tudors' Most Notorious Queen by Susan Bordo is a cultural biography of how Anne Boleyn acquired posthumous immortality, what attracted her legion of modern-day fans and critics, and how her story has been used and abused by subsequent generations. With interviews with two of the actresses most famous for bringing Boleyn to life on screen, this is a fascinating book with its finger kept firmly on the pulse of modern culture. Scholarly, but also funny, wry, sarcastic and emotive. And as the UK cover proves, we always knew Annie B could rock a pair of aviators. Once a fashionista...

The Assassination of the Archduke: Sarajevo 1914 and the Murder the Changed the World by Greg King and Susan Woolmans. Any suspect story about Archduke Franz Ferdinand is perhaps rightly declared as something to be treated with caution and scepticism in this book, while similarly improbable and damning anecdotes about any of his blood relatives are repeated as fact. Thus, the title figure emerges as a devoted family man, while his elderly uncle is described as a border-line autistic syphilitic and Franz Ferdinand's brother, Otto, was apparently a sadomasochistic pervert if Viennese gossip was to be believed. It's one standard for Ferdy and another for the rest of the Hapsburgs, which is a shame because otherwise this was a fascinating and wonderful biography of a man who is probably the most important assassination victim in history. Greg King and Susan Woolmans deserve great praise for rescuing his personality and his tragic love story with Sophie Chotek from obscurity. Fast moving, sympathetic and engagingly written, The Assassination of the Archduke was a truly gripping biography of the first victim of the First World War. Highly recommended.

Counting One's Blessings: The Selected Letters of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother by William Shawcross. The late Queen Elizabeth's biographer returns with a volume of her selected letters, chosen from across the remarkable century of her life and eight decades in the public eye. The late Queen's wit, impish sense of humour and inimitably effervescent mode of expression come across alongside her steely determination, quick intelligence and pathological ability to avoid anything too unpleasant until the last possible moment. A beautiful book from the pen of a celebrated and popular Royal, Counting One's Blessing was a joy to read. And made me hanker for a gin in the Highlands.

Sunday 8 December 2013

Auditions for "The Gate of the Year"

I am very excited about a performance in February of my new play, The Gate of the Year. If anyone in the Belfast or County Down area is interested in auditioning, the information is below: -

A new play by Gareth Russell, author of Popular and A History of the British Monarchy, is a re-telling of one of the most famous events in history - the French Revolution - told from the point of view of the upper classes, who stood to lose everything as their world shattered around them. 
Set in the modern day, The Gate of the Year imagines the events of the revolution as if they occurred in the twentieth century. Inspired by real events, its characters include the charming and mysterious Queen Marie-Antoinette, the fiery revolutionary Jean Marat, the quiet conservative Marc de Bombelles and the beautiful but unpopular duchess, Gabrielle de Polignac. 

The Gate of the Year will run at the Belvoir Studio in Belfast for three nights from 20th February 2014 and rehearsals will start in January, although they will be flexible due to exam commitments. Auditions will be held on 17th and 20th December, at the Rainbow Factory on College Square North (17th) and Belvoir Players Studio (20th). Audition extracts are now available by contacting Please contact ASAP to reserve a spot!

Saturday 16 November 2013

Resounding to the Name of Mary: British queens and the Virgin

16 November is the Feast of the Patronage of Our Lady in the Roman Catholic communion and in honour of the Virgin's feast day, I would like to briefly profile the queens of England and Scotland who shared her name.

Marie de Coucy was the second wife of King Alexander II of Scotland. The daughter of a French lord, when her husband died of a fever in the Hebrides in 1249, Marie moved swiftly to ensure the succession of their seven year-old son, Alexander III. The boy, who went on to be one of medieval Scotland's greatest kings, was crowned at Scone at the height of summer. With the kingdom properly established under her son, Marie was able to remarry to a fellow Frenchman, to undertake pilgrimages to the great shrine of Saint Thomas Becket in Kent and to split her time between France and Scotland. She died in her native country in 1285, in her late sixties. Her death spared her from enduring the death of her son, who was killed in a riding accident a year later. 

Wednesday 6 November 2013

The mothers of the queens of England

To mark the completion of my new book on the British royal families (release date, 2014), I thought I'd post on the mothers of the English queens, from 1066 to 2013. It's technically a slightly disingenuous list, because I've also included the mothers of the male consorts, but for ease of titling, I hope no-one will mind recourse to the feminine title. I have also included those men and women who never became royal consorts, despite the fact that their spouses were, at one point, sovereigns.

Sunday 3 November 2013

Claire Bloom discusses playing Lady Marchmain

Award-winning actress Claire Bloom has played some of history's most famous women, including Katherine of Aragon in Henry VIII, the Tsarina Alexandra in Anastasia: The Mystery of Anna and Queen Mary in The King's Speech, as well as appearing in adaptations of Richard III,  The Brothers Karamazov and acting opposite Charlie Chaplin. In 1981, she won critical acclaim for her fantastic and intelligent performance as Teresa Flyte, the Marchioness of Marchmain (above), in one of the most successful British television dramas - a twelve-part adaptation of Evelyn Waugh's novel, Brideshead Revisited.
Central to Brideshead's themes are its treatments of both the English aristocracy and the Catholic faith, with Bloom's Lady Marchmain operating as their greatest proponent. Trapped in a failing marriage to her estranged husband, who cavorts in Venice with his mistress while Lady Marchmain divides her time between their London townhouse and palatial seventeenth-century home at Brideshead Castle, the marchioness's devotion to her religion has led to her described as either the heroine or antagonist of the story. For some, Teresa's quiet elegance and charm masks her suffocating control over her children, that pushes at least two of them to the edge of a nervous breakdown. In the novel, she is unfailingly polite and dignified, leading her son Sebastian's unhappiness with her to baffle the novel's narrator, Charles, although he too eventually comes to regard her sumptuous charm with suspicion. In the 2008 movie version of the story, which saw Emma Thompson take up the role (left), Lady Marchmain was cast squarely as the root of all her children's problems, with Lord Marchmain actually referring to her "crucifying" their second son, Sebastian, with her controlling ways.
However, in her autobiography, Claire Bloom defends Lady Marchmain with, I think, a very fair personal take on the character she played.
"I still find it puzzling when I am told I played a manipulative and heartless woman; that is not how I saw her. Lady Marchmain is deeply religious, and her dilemma includes trying to raise a willful brood of children on her own, while instilling them with her rigid observance of the Catholic code. Sebastian is both an alcoholic and a homosexual, and from her point of view, he lives in a state of mortal sin. She has to fight for his soul by any means in her power, with the knowledge that her efforts may lead to his destruction. A born crusader, the Marchioness confronts her difficult choices head on; her rigidity of purpose, which I don't in any way share, is understandable in context. The aspect that rings most true is her sense of being an outsider, a Catholic in Protestant England. Not such a leap from being a Jew in Protestant England as one would imagine."


Wednesday 16 October 2013

A "popular" Kindle Fire and Amazon giveaway!

My wonderful publishers and I are involved in a Halloween spectacular give-away that's aiming to promote awareness for young or first-time authors. "Popular" is involved and it's wonderful! Basically, you can win a Kindle Fire along with $200 of vouchers, if you enter the competition. You don't need to buy anything, but you enter by clicking on some of the pages to see which new authors are available to like, read about, tweet about, etc. It's a fantastic competition and much better than my latest Halloween idea, which was to write a scene with Imogen turning up to a party dressed as God's Gift - in an enormous bow-dress with a card attached saying, "Dear World -- you're welc, love, God." 

All the info's here. I now also kind of want a Kindle Fire, but I assume it's probably not appropriate for me to enter. -

Here is the link! Please give it a go and I hope everyone is having a good week! Work on my next book is nearly finished and it will be strange to let it go. 

Sunday 25 August 2013

An article on the Boleyns for Eile

The new Irish magazine Eile, written, created and compiled by young Irish journalists, has very kindly asked me to write a few articles for them and here is one I wrote for one of their back issues. The article was called Was it a gay lobby that cost Anne Boleyn her life?
This article is copyrighted.

Two reviews from the archives

From the archives of History Today, two reviews of biographies of two of history's unluckiest queens - Anne Boleyn and Marie-Antoinette of France. Dr. Susan Walter Schmid reviews G.W. Bernard's 2010 biography of Boleyn, Fatal Attractions, taking particular issue with Bernard's comparisons between Anne Boleyn and the late Princess Diana and his use of extant translation of Lancelot de Carles's poem about Boleyn's downfall in 1536.
One wants to ask immediately: Why would Anne have become an adulteress? In a curiously presentist observation Bernard would have us believe that because of Princess Diana, moderns may not find it so hard to believe a queen would commit adultery (p. 156). Presentism occurs when we allow ourselves to interpret past people or events based only on our modern values and concepts. Granted, it is difficult to avoid; after all, the present is what we know best, but a historian simply must not fall into this trap. What an increasingly unhappy princess in the twentieth century did cannot automatically tell us anything about what a not necessarily unhappy queen in the sixteenth century might have done. Although there were some suggestions that Henry had a mistress while married to Anne, what she might have done in response must be understood in sixteenth-century terms, not those of today.

Meanwhile, John Rogister, author of Louis XV and the Parlement of Paris, 1737 - 1755, offers a generally positive review of Lady Antonia Fraser's 2002 biography of Marie-Antoinette, The Journey.
This absorbing and well-illustrated book is full of sharp insights about Marie Antoinette, her relationship with the handsome Swedish nobleman, Count Ferson (her romantic knight), her loyalty to those she loved. Georgiana, the Duchess of Devonshire, gave an apt description of the Queen facing her accusers: how, even when confronted with a disgusting allegation extracted from her impressionable seven-year-old son, ‘her answers, her cleverness and greatness of mind’ shone through.

Both reviews contain very good accounts of Anne and Marie-Antoinette's historical significance. The review of Anne Boleyn: Fatal Attractions is accessible here and Marie Antoinette: The Journey's is here.

Monday 19 August 2013

Anne Boleyn's last secret

Leanda de Lisle, whose biography of the Grey sisters is one of my favourite reads, along with her wonderful account of the final years of Elizabeth I, has sent me a link to her new article in The Spectator about the execution of Anne Boleyn and her theory that the sword used to kill the queen probably had far less to do with the French aristocracy than most people suppose. You can read Leanda's post here and it's a fantastic read.

Leanda's new book, Tudor: The Family Story, is published in the UK on August 29th.

Sunday 4 August 2013

The Ring of the Heavens: Marie-Antoinette's jewellery

Tea at Trianon has a profile and link to this beautiful ring, which once belonged to Marie-Antoinette.

Sunday 14 July 2013

How will the Royal birth be announced?

An interesting article from Yahoo that neatly summarises the mix of modernity and tradition that we can expect when the Court formally announces the, God-willing, safe delivery of the royal child expected to be born to their Royal Highnesses The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge later this week.
This blog will also be running a series on the event - including traditions of royal birth, the baby's name and the Duchess's role in the monarchy.

Wednesday 3 July 2013

Was Anne Boleyn a feminist?: A guest post from author Susan Bordo

Credit: Sarah Mensinga
Today, I am absolutely delighted to welcome Susan Bordo to Confessions of a Ci-Devant. Susan's recent book The Creation of Anne Boleyn is a phenomenally good read for those interested in Anne Boleyn, history, feminism, popular culture, literature or acting. I enjoyed it thoroughly and you can check out my review of it here, if you're interested. If anyone is interested in purchasing a copy for themselves, it's available via Amazon. Susan's guest article for this blog is called Was Anne Boleyn a feminist?, and it's based on the research she undertook for The Creation of Anne Boleyn. Thank you to Susan for this article and I hope everyone enjoys it!


Was Anne Boleyn a feminist?

Feminist”...Has any other word been so mocked, misdirected and mutilated? For some, it’s just a hand-grenade to lob at uppity women.  At the other end of things are the historical purists who refuse to grant the name of “feminist” to anyone born before the word was coined (in France and The Netherlands in 1872, Great Britain in the 1890s, and the United States in 1910.) In between these extremes are definitions both commonsensical and eccentric, and generations of women (and some men) proudly identifying or nervously/defiantly disowning the label. Given its irritating and ill-informed history, it’s tempting to simply throw it out. But, like all culturally charged terms, it’s impossible to “simply” throw it out—for throwing it out will inevitably be taken as a statement in itself.

So I will take it head on:  Was Anne Boleyn a feminist? 

Well, no—not if by “feminist” you mean someone with an articulated position on any issues involving women’s “rights” (a concept that had no meaning in Anne’s time), the natural equality of women and men (a concept that had been much debated since Christine de Pizan introduced the Querelle des Femmes—or “Woman Question”--in the 15th century), or the value of education for women (also a hot topic for those engaged in the Querelle.) There is no evidence that Anne held a position on any of these issues—unlike, for example, Marguerite de Navarre, Francis I’s sister, whose Heptameron vividly protests the sexual “double standard” that allowed male aggression free rein while condemning women who stepped out of line.  Anne spent most of her adolescence at Francis’s court, and seems to have shared or absorbed Marguerite’s evangelical stance on reform of the church, which Anne very publicly advocated.  But Margeurite’s “feminism”?  If Anne held views on the virtues of women or their natural equality with men, she either didn’t make them public or they have been lost to us, along with everything else destroyed by Henry’s ruthless purge of all evidence of Anne’s existence, as he made plans for his marriage to Jane Seymour.

On the other hand, if we loosen up a bit on the quest for a rigorously defensible answer, and allow our minds to play with the question, there is intriguing—although fragmentary and subtle—support for the notion that Anne may have had a more “political” understanding of what we would today call the “gender rules” than the wives that preceded and followed her. At her trial, insisting that she was “clear of all the offences which you have laid to my charge,” she went on to acknowledge, not only her “jealous fancies” but her failure to show the King “that humility which his goodness to me, and the honours to which he raised me, merited.”[1]  She stood accused of adultery and treason.  Yet she did not simply refute those charges; she admitted to a different “crime”:  not remaining in her proper “place.”  In juxtaposing these two, Anne seems to be suggesting that not only did she recognize that she had transgressed against the norms of wifely behavior, but that this transgression was somehow related to the grim situation she now found herself in.

She was undoubtedly right about this. Spontaneous and intense in an era when women were supposed to silently provide a pleasing backdrop for men’s adventures, Anne had never “stayed in her place”— which was exciting in a mistress, but a PR problem in a wife.  We know from her actions that Anne was not content to flirt with power through womanly wiles and pillow-talk.  She was a player.  An avid reader of the radical religious works of the day (many of them banned from England and smuggled in for her), her surviving library of books includes a large selection of early French evangelical works, as well as Tyndale’s English-language New Testament (which was to become the basis for the King James Bible), which she had read to her ladies at court.  She introduced Henry both to Tyndale’s anti-papal “The Obedience of a Christian Man” and probably also Simon Fish’s “Supplication for the Beggars.”  She advocated for the cause of the English-language bible. She secured the appointment of several evangelical bishops and deans when Henry created the newly independent Church of England.  She attempted to intervene on behalf of reformists imprisoned for their religious beliefs. 

The promotion and protection of the cause of reform was a dangerous business for Anne to engage in, because it was such a divisive issue (to put it mildly) and men’s careers (and sometimes heads) would hang or fall depending on which side was winning.  Anne’s took a risk in showing Tyndale and Fish to Henry, but it was one that initially paid off, as he immediately saw that they were on the side of Kings rather than Rome when it came to earthly authority. But even if Henry had no objection to Anne’s tutelage, others did, and their objections were a potent mix of misogyny and anti-Protestant fervor.  Much of the gossip that circulated around court and through Europe came from the tongues (and pens) of those for whom to be anti-papal was to be pro-devil.  “Lutheran” women (an incorrect appellation for Anne, who did not subscribe to Lutheran doctrine) enraged Catholic dogmatists, who were quick to accuse them of witchcraft—an old charge against “talkative,” impertinent women which was particularly handy when the women were “heretics.” From “heretic” to “witch” was a short step, and from “witch” to “insatiable carnal lust” and “consorting with the devil” took barely a breath.[2] The same year that Anne was executed, an effigy of evangelical Marguerite de Navarre, on a horse drawn by devils wearing placards bearing Luther’s name, appeared during a masquerade in Notre Dame.[3]

Anne’s involvement (read: interference) in the political and religious struggles of the day was a continual annoyance to her enemies, who saw her as the mastermind behind every evil that properly should have been laid at Henry’s feet, from the destruction of Wolsey and More to the harsh treatment of Katherine and Mary. Spanish ambassador Eustace Chapuys, whose venomous, gossipy letters home have formed the basis for much of our “knowledge” of Anne, called her a “whore” and charged her as a would-be poisoner of Katherine and Mary and vicious corrupter of otherwise sweet-tempered King Hal.  He also inflated her contribution to the “scourge of Lutheranism” to unbelievable proportions.  In one letter to Charles, Chapuys went so far as to blame “the heretical doctrines and practices of the concubine” as “the principal cause of the spread of Lutheranism in this country.”[4]

It was preposterous, and Henry certainly didn’t believe it.   But it created a political/religious “wing” of anti-Anne sentiment that could be exploited by Cromwell when he turned against Anne, and was a powerful obstacle in the way of Anne’s acceptance by the (still largely Catholic) English people.  In gaining that acceptance—and with it some protection from the winds of shifting politics—Anne already had several strikes against her.  She had supplanted a beloved queen.  She was rumored to be “haughty” and suspiciously “French”--and even worse than that, a vocal, intellectual, “interfering” woman.  Jane Seymour, when she entered the picture in 1536, was no less the “other woman” than Anne was (and probably more deserving of the charge of using her virginity as bait than Anne was), but her apparent docility miraculously spared her, when she became queen, from the antipathy that Anne inspired. Although later historians would question just how placid Jane actually was, in her own time she was constantly commended for her gentleness, compassion, and submissiveness, which she advertised in her own motto: “Bound to obey and serve.” With few exceptions, the stereotype has not lost its grip on popular culture.

With Anne it was quite the opposite. Even those who shared her religious views, like Cromwell, had no scruples about spreading nasty rumors when it suited their purposes. For Anne’s reputation as a woman who simply would not behave as she should had created an atmosphere that did not incline men to be her protectors, but rather freed them to take the gloves off when fighting with her. “Had she been gracious and modest,” writes 19th century commentator James Froude, “she might have partially overcome the prejudice against her.”[5] “Gracious and modest” seem like laudable qualities.  But what they meant in the context of the times and why Anne could never play the part is laid bare by David Loades: “Annecould not pretend to be a fool or a nonentity, and the self-effacement customary in a royal consort did not suit her style at all…In many ways her sharpness of perception and readiness of wit made her more suitable for the council chamber than for the boudoir.”[6] 

But women did not belong in the council chamber.  Here’s Natalie Dormer, who played Anne in Showtimes’ The Tudors (below) and with whom I discussed Anne in an lengthy interview, on this issue:

"Anne was that rare phenomenon, a self-made woman. But then, this became her demise. The machinations of court were an absolute minefield for women. And she was a challenging personality, who wouldn't be quiet and shut up when she had something to say. This was a woman who wasn’t raised in the English court, but in the Hapsburg and French courts. And she was quite a fiery woman and incredibly intelligent. So she stood out—fire and intelligence and boldness—in comparison to the English roses that were flopping around court. And Henry noticed that. So all the reasons that attracted [Henry] to her, and made her queen and a mother, were all the things that then undermined her position. What she had that was so unique for a woman at that time was also her undoing.”[7]             

To describe Anne Boleyn as a feminist would be an anachronism—and not nearly as appropriate an anachronism in her case as in that of Marguerite de Navarre and others who openly championed for female equality.  Marguerite did not have the word, but she was conscious of a women’s “cause.”  There’s no evidence that Anne felt similarly.  But she had learned to value her body and her ideas, and ultimately recognized that there was something unsettling about this to Henry, understood that this played a role in her downfall.  “I do not say I have always shown him that humility,” she said at her trial, insistent even then on speaking what she believed.[8]  Anne wasn’t a feminist.  But she did step over the ever-moving line that marked the boundary of the comfort zone for men of her era, and for all the unease and backlash she inspired, she may as well have been one.

[1] (Weir, The Lady in the Tower: The Fall of Anne Boleyn 2010, 230)
[2] (Bordo 1987, 128-9)
[3] (Knecht 2008, 231)
[4] Pascual de Gayangos (editor), "Spain: April 1536, 1-20," Calendar of State Papers, Spain, Volume 5 Part 2: 1536-1538, British History Online,"spread of Lutheranism"
[5] (Froude 1891, 384)
[6] (Loades 2009, 69)
[7] (Ibid.)
[8] (Weir, The Lady in the Tower: The Fall of Anne Boleyn 2010, 230)

Saturday 29 June 2013

My review of Susan Bordo's "The Creation of Anne Boleyn"

Earlier this year, I reviewed Susan Bordo's wonderful book "The Creation of Anne Boleyn," and later today I'll be posting a new article from her, as a guest post on this blog, about Anne Boleyn's fascination to the modern feminism movement. In my review, which you can read in full here, I described Susan's work as "a witty, compelling, convincingly argued and gloriously interesting book," which "as fascinating as a commentary on modern culture, media and sexism as it is in discussing how a queen who died five hundred years ago has managed to remain the subject of so much fascination - producing the sublime, the intelligent, the bigoted and the ridiculous."

British readers can buy Susan's book via Amazon by clicking here, and US readers can access it here. Please stay tuned for Susan's fantastic guest post today, too! As someone who has spent so much time working on the 16th century period, I thoroughly enjoyed Susan's look at how Anne Boleyn's reputation has been shaped and what it says about her, as well as us. 

Sunday 16 June 2013

Progress on the book

Well, progress on my first non-fiction book, a history of the British monarchy, is going well. I was slightly behind where I would have liked to be schedule-wise, due to an unforeseen work commitment that arose in April, but right now, I've just finished dealing with the Plantagenets and I'm typing up my draft on the Tudors for the final chapter of volume 1.

Thank you so much for everyone who's been so supportive through this blog and I hope I'll be able to produce a book you will all enjoy. In the meantime, the fine people at Amazon have an offer for Kindle versions of my first novel, Popular - if anyone is interested!

Thank you again and hope you all had a safe and fun weekend.


Thursday 6 June 2013

The Black Dinner and the Rains of Castamere

PLEASE do not read this if you are currently reading A Song of Ice and Fire novels by George R.R. Martin or if you're watching the television version of the series, Game of Thrones, by HBO. This article contains spoilers, by discussing the alleged real-life inspiration for the event known as "the Red Wedding."

I am currently writing a history of the British monarchy which will be out later this year. Luckily, it's been split into two volumes and volume one, And the Sword Gleamed, will be available soon. The book is predominantly Anglocentric due to time and space constrictions, but where possible I am doing my best to discuss the monarchies in Scotland, Ireland and Wales, too. (I'd love one day to go back and to tell the story of their monarchies in another book.) One of the things that has struck me so much as I'm researching it is how brilliantly George R.R. Martin has been inspired by European medieval history in writing his epic fantasy series, A Song of Ice and Fire. On the one hand, this is shown in his immaculate recreation of aristocratic culture - similar names, sigils, rivalry, treachery, arranged marriages, wardships and concepts of honour. In other ways, it's by more specific nods - like the comet that trails across the sky, seen by many as a good omen for the exiled princess Daenerys Targaryen, so similar to the comet that flew over England in 1066 before the arrival from beyond the sea of William the Conqueror. 

One of the series' most infamous moments is the so-called "Red Wedding," in which Robb Stark, one of the combatants in the novels' central conflict, the War of the Five Kings, is lured into a trap by an erstwhile ally, Lord Frey, when an arranged marriage designed to seal the peace between the houses sees Frey betray Robb Stark by butchering him, his mother Catelyn and thousands of their followers while they are under his hospitality at a wedding banquet. The Starks were an aristocratic clan who, under Robb, had become so sickened by the capricious incompetence and cruelty of the boy-king Joffrey that they had developed secessionist ambitions, hoping to forcibly remove the north from the kingdom of Westeros and re-establish independent monarchy in the region. Joffrey's maternal grandfather, Lord Tywin Lannister, a man of inexhaustible wealth and equally inexhaustible cruelty, liaises with the Freys and ends the Starks' mission by orchestrating a bloody massacre that has left fans of both book and TV show reeling, particularly after the incident was so brilliantly dramatized this week in the penultimate episode of season 3, The Rains of Castamere.

Oona Chaplin, Richard Madden and Michelle Fairley as members of the Stark family in "The Rains of Castamere"

The parallels between the fictitious Red Wedding and the real-life Black Dinner are fairly clear, although Westeros's Wedding has been augmented by Martin's great skills as a writer. In a recent interview with  EW, Martin stated that two events in Scottish history - the Black Dinner and the Glencoe Massacre - had inspired him to write of the Red Wedding in which Robb and Catelyn Stark lose their lives. 

In 1440, Scotland was ruled over by the ten year-old King James II and those around him struggled to see who could rule in his name. His father, King James I, had been stabbed to death in a plot led by his uncle and former ally, the treacherous Earl of Atholl, three years earlier. The young king's English mother, Queen Joanne (left; sometimes given as "Queen Joan"), had been wounded in the attack but had managed to escape back to Edinburgh, where she had managed to hold onto power for herself and her son. As an English aristocrat, Joanne's rule was not popular in Scotland and to bolster her political strength she allied herself to a man with the magnificently Westeros-sounding nickname of "the Black Knight of Lorn," whom she eventually married. In 1439, she had lost power and been replaced in government by her enemies.  By 1440, disagreements over the legacy of the queen-regent, the death of some of her strongest allies, the political fallout of the old king's assassination and out-of-control aristocratic infighting had all produced a fraught and dangerous political environment in which paranoia, dishonesty and violence were the dominant themes. 

One clan in particular who frightened the new regency government was the Douglas clan. Their late head, Archibald Douglas, had been a political ally of the queen mother's but after his death, she had fallen from power and the young king was now ruled by her enemies, Sir William Crichton, Sir Alexander Livingston and the earl of Avondale. By 1440, with the queen mother having been placed under house arrest, there were fears that Clan Douglas were preparing to seize more power for themselves and oust the triumvirate who were controlling the young James II. After Archibald Douglas's death, the new earl and head of the Douglas family was his 16 year-old son William, an age not too dissimilar to that of Robb Stark in the series. The royal household issued an invitation to the earl and his younger brother, 11 year-old David, to join the king at a banquet in Edinburgh Castle. As in Game of Thrones, the laws of hospitality in medieval Scotland were regarded as inviolable. The king's peace was an even more sacred concept and so the Douglas brothers attended the feast, safe in the knowledge that no self-respecting Christian or aristocrat could possibly besmirch his honour by harming them under those circumstances. At the climax, the regency's servants presented him with a dish covered in a white sheet. When the earl removed the sheet, he saw they had served him a black boar's head. It was a symbol of death and the musicians begin to beat on a single drum as William and his 11 year-old brother were dragged from the king's presence and executed on the castle's hill. Their sister, the beautiful Margaret, known as the Fair Maid of Galloway, was not present and did everything she subsequently could to rebuild the family's prestige.

A later event which Martin cited as inspiration for the Red Wedding was the Glencoe (above) Massacre of 1692. Two years earlier, the Battle of the Boyne in Ireland had seen the triumph of the Protestant Dutch prince, William of Orange (left), who had seized the British throne as William III, deposing his Catholic uncle, King James, in the process. The decision over which monarch to back had split many of the clans of the Highlands. On the one hand, William was a Protestant - the majority religion in Scotland by the seventeenth century; on the other hand, James was ancestrally Scottish and carried the name of the House of Stuart who had ruled over Scotland for centuries. The Campbell clan, who sided with William, saw his victory as the perfect opportunity to extirpate their rivals in the Highlands, Clan MacDonald, who had initially remained loyal to James. Forces loyal to the Campbells arrived in the Highlands, ostensibly on a mission to collect taxes for the Scottish parliament. Seeking shelter with the MacDonalds, the Campbells' men rose up one night and slaughtered thirty-eight of the MacDonalds, even stabbing some of them in their beds. Forty women and children subsequently died from exposure in the Highland winters after the vindictive Campbells burned their homes to the ground and evicted them. It had been a slaughter under trust and in violation of the hospitality that had been offered to them by the MacDonalds, who clearly placed the ancient customs of shelter and aristocratic protocol over the feud which the Campbells would use as an excuse to slaughter them. To this day, there are pubs in Scotland that deny the right of any member of a Campbell family to cross their threshold and groups as disparate as neo-Jacobite royalist movements and the Scottish Republican Socialist Movement still annually commemorate the massacre.

As Martin said to fan backlash about the savagery of the Red Wedding in Westeros: "No matter how much I make up, there's stuff in history that's just as bad, or worse." 

Saturday 18 May 2013

An extract from my history of the British monarchy

As some regular readers of the blog may now, I am currently working on a history of the British monarchy, which will be published later this year. It's currently going well and I am very excited to share it with everyone when it's ready. As a preview, here is a short extract from early on in the book, about the transition from Roman imperial rule to an Anglo-Saxon Britain. Edits may occur between now and publication, but I hope you enjoy it. In the meantime, my new novel The Immaculate Deception is available on Amazon, both UK and US, and every sale and review is hugely appreciated in a very competitive market! There is also a Facebook fan page for my non-fiction work.

In 367, Britannia was attacked on all sides by the peoples beyond the borders. The empire provoked both resentment and envy in the “barbarian” countries around it. As Rome weakened, they seized their opportunity to strike. Hadrian’s famous wall did not repel the invaders and the Picts, who populated what is now Scotland, invaded Britannia from the north. This sweeping-south trauma was added to by invasions from the west and the south. The invasion from the west came from the Scots in Ireland – or Hibernia, as the Romans had called it. The invasion on the southern coastline was led by the Saxons, a sea-faring tribe of Germanic pagans, who the Briton-Christian chronicler Gildas described as ‘a race hateful to God and men.’ At the time of these attacks, the Roman empire’s power may have been declining, but it was not yet broken and Britannia was exceptionally lucky that the imperial throne had recently been taken by the Emperor Valentinian, who had undertaken the promethean task of trying to hold the decaying empire together and thus earned his future sobriquet of “the Great”. Livid at the so-called “barbarian conspiracy” to end Roman rule in the British Isles, Valentinian set off for Britannia himself. When he was delayed in Gaul, he dispatched one of his most gifted generals, Flavius Theodosius, to expel the invaders. He was successful in completing the task the Emperor had set for him, but the three-pronged invasion of Roman Britannia, defeated though it was, nonetheless suggested how seriously the empire’s power was deteriorating and how vulnerable it now was to threats from those it had long dismissed as contemptibly uncivilized. 
In 409, the barbarians struck again. This time, the throne was not held by a man like Valentinian, but by the weak and unlucky Honorius. Honorius was an erratic monarch who scandalised his Christian subjects by developing an incestuous passion for his younger sister, Galla Placidia, who fled to the eastern city of Constantinople to escape him. The entirety of the Roman Empire was now being besieged by incursions and attacks; Rome itself was threatened and the imperial capital was now the city of Ravenna, since Rome could no longer be adequately defended. Britannia, as an island on the farthest reaches of the empire with hostile neighbours on every side, was particularly vulnerable. The soldiers stationed there made their dissatisfaction with the current emperor clear by backing several rebellions against him. In 409, this instability was added to when Britannia was once again invaded by its enemies. Faced with the collapse of imperial rule and overstretched resources, Honorius could or would do nothing for the Britons. In 410, he declared that Britannia must look after itself for the time being and recalled the Roman legions to Italy to defend the empire’s capital. They never returned. Britain was at last free of Roman rule, but as with so many regime changes in history, the price of this freedom was a devastating loss of security. The native Britons were left defenceless to deal with multiple invasions. Initially, they coped badly and the archaeological evidence left to us would suggest that the sudden end of Roman Britain was a violent and bloody affair, with numerous casualties. Eventually, however, the Britons grew up, as all children must, and acquired something of the independent collective thought process which the empire had so long discouraged them from possessing. Some of the lessons of imperial rule still remained and in order to face the invaders, they knew that they must unite behind a strong leader. That leader’s name is given by tradition as Vortigern, but that may be a later fiction. Whatever his name, it seems that the dominant warlord of Briton decided that the main threat lay with the Celtic invaders from the north. In order to expel them, the man known as Vortigern decided to ally with the other invading force, the Saxons. Operating under the mentality of my enemy’s enemy is my friend, the hostilities between the Saxons and the Britons were halted and the former were allowed to flood into the country in order to supplement Vortigern’s attack on the northern Celts. It turned out to be Britain’s equivalent of the Trojan horse.

Copyright  © Gareth Russell 2013 All Rights Reserved 

Monday 22 April 2013

The weakness of Tsar Nicholas II

Ask any schoolchild or anyone with a passing knowledge of history to come up with one adjective they associate with Russia's last emperor and the majority of them will produce the word "weak." Nicholas II's weakness is as enduring an image in history as Cleopatra's sex appeal, Marie-Antoinette's frivolity and Winston Churchill's bullish patriotism. The idea that Nicholas was a weak-willed idiot was current in his own lifetime and eagerly encouraged by his enemies - particularly Leon Trotsky, the darling of the Bolshevik Left after they excused him for his complicity in the genocide of 1918 - 1921 in order to loudly proclaim that there would have been no genocide in the 1930s, had he, rather than Stalin, taken control of the Soviet Union after 1924. It was Trotsky who memorably proclaimed that Nicholas II had not had the intellectual capabilities necessary to run a village post office, let alone an empire. Anecdotes - like diary entries revealing that he played dominoes on the eve of the February Revolution or burst into tears in front of his cousin Sandro at the thought of inheriting the throne - are endlessly trotted out to prove that this was not only a man who couldn't rule, but who didn't want to, either. Louis XVI, the king whose rule ended in the French Revolution, is supposed to have made a similarly uninspiring start to his reign, when he and his wife Marie-Antoinette fell to their knees in prayer and asked God to guide them, because they were too young and inexperienced to reign. At the time, everyone saw the couple's actions as pious and humble; it was only once both of them perished on the steps of the guillotine that hindsight decided to endow their earlier prayer with a more ominous tinge - a clear sign that, even then, Louis XVI had known he was not up the job. In much the same way, in 1894, Nicholas's tears on becoming emperor seemed understandable in the context that his father had died very suddenly after a short illness and only an idiot would have looked upon the awesome task of ruling one-sixth of the Earth without reflecting on his personal capacities. By 1918, those tears had been re-written, even by Sandro, the main witness, who now claimed to have experienced an uneasy moment of foresight when he saw his cousin-tsar crying in front of him.

Nicholas II's weakness - his stupidity, his inability to make a decision, his incompetence - are often juxtaposed by the sympathetic assertion that allow he was a bad monarch, he was a good man. His devotion to his wife and their five children, coupled with the fact that hundreds of family photographs and letters managed to survive the revolution, are used to draw a clear distinction between his public failings and private virtues. Nicholas's love of physical exercise - even chopping wood and shoveling snow in winter - are subtly woven in by biographers to suggest that here was a man too simple, almost too good, to be tsar. After all, what kind of sovereign would enjoy such unkingly activities? Edward II, the English king deposed and murdered in 1327, enjoyed brick-laying and digging ditches; Louis XVI famously enjoyed working in a blacksmith's forge and was apparently a talented amateur locksmith. All three were unsuccessful rulers, but it seems an unhelpful and reductive dichotomy to suggest that a political, and specifically a royal, leader cannot execute their vocation properly if they happen to be interested in pastimes that are less-than-regal. Abraham Lincoln got his start splitting rails; Elizabeth I liked to do maths problems, linguistic translations and check her own household accounts; Frederick IX enjoyed conducting an orchestra; Prince Heinrich of Prussia could book-bind and Tsar Boris III of Bulgaria could drive steam engines. Equally, although many of history's great rulers were appalling family men, it does not necessarily follow that a being a faithful husband and attentive father with an interest in manual hobbies should equate with a dereliction of public duty.

The irony of the pervasive view that Nicholas II was chronically weak and indecisive is that it completely misrepresents Russian history - both the downfall of four hundred years of tsarism and the rise of eight fraught decades of Communism - because had Nicholas II been as malleable as Trotsky, Sandro and popular historiography suggests, his reign and the fate of the Russian monarchy would have been very, very different. In 1894, Nicholas dismissed calls for democracy in Russia as the agenda of "senseless dreamers." For an entire decade, despite mounting pressure, he maintained that position. It was only thanks to the near-total collapse of law and order during the riots of 1905, the assassination by nail bomb of his uncle Sergei and numerous government ministers, defeat in the war with Japan and the impassioned advice of his finance minister, Count Witte, that Nicholas gave way and granted Russia a constitution, a parliament and elections. He did so after much thought and under the assurance that this sacrifice would bring the uprising to an end. It did not and Nicholas never forgave Witte or the liberals for what he saw as an humiliating trick. Nonetheless, from 1906 until 1914, Nicholas stuck with the bastardized version of a constitutional monarchy that he and Witte had created. He was certainly as far to the Right as it was possible to go without actually being the wall, but he did not budge from that position. When it came to the matter of Rasputin, his wife's spiritual adviser ludicrously alleged to be her lover, Nicholas stuck to a middle course of allowing Rasputin access to the palace in order to pray over his haemophiliac son Alexei, which pacified the Empress and her clique, but refused to listen to Alexandra's increasingly-pious belief that Rasputin was in touch with the true will of the Russian people. Nicholas knew that his wife was on the verge of a near-permanent mental breakdown because of their son's health and that she blamed herself; her belief that Rasputin was a saintly, practically virginal, peasant man of God plucked from Siberia like the shores of Galilee was unshakable and although Nicholas did not agree with her, he always seemed to regard Rasputin as absurd but inoffensive and slightly quaint. He allowed Alexandra to talk about him, but until the final months of imperial rule, he never, ever listened to her too seriously.

It was only in the last two years of his rule, between assuming direct control of the imperial armies in 1915 and his abdication in 1917, that Nicholas began to show signs of being unfit to rule. The overwhelming impression that emerges from his surviving letters is here was a man suffering from war fatigue, exhaustion and nervous distress. The patriotic fervour of 1914 had given way to the horrifying realization that Russia was fighting two, and then three, and then four, enemies on the Eastern Front, single-handedly. The casualty figures were astronomical and, with little sleep and no way out apart from surrender to Germany, Nicholas seems to have shattered under the unheard-of pressure. That may not have been how his father would have reacted, but the point of this article is not to argue that Nicholas II was a great tsar. He wasn't. But he was, for the most part, an adequate one.

Had Nicholas been as spineless as he is so often presented, the Russian autocracy might have died in 1894 or 1906. It did not. Nicholas did everything he could to keep as much of it alive as possible. That decision turned out to be a disastrous one, but it was one he stuck to devotedly, even as it cost him much of his physical and mental health. He had neither the charisma nor chutzpah of earlier Russian sovereigns like Catherine the Great or Alexander I, but he was dedicated to his office and tireless in the amount of work he put into it. The image of a man caring for the devoted and unwell Alexandra, four beautiful daughters and one sickly son as his archaic empire fell apart around him is arresting, but it is also misleading. Nicholas II loved his wife, he loved his children, but he also loved his country and his dynasty and he did his best for them. 

Nicholas II was strong in his beliefs. Perhaps too strong. He ignored the advice of family members, even, at times, Alexandra's and his mother's, both of whom he's often accused of being dominated by. He was an ultra-conservative, who only moved briefly into the liberal camp because he believed it was best for Russia. He cracked under the pressure of the First World War, but before that he had defended and supported very talented men in his government - chief amongst them Peter Stolypin. It was that strength, bordering on obstinacy, which brought about some of the successes and many of the failures of Nicholas II's reign, which should not solely be remembered by the final two months that brought it to an end. So often reduced to a simplistic dismissal - "good man, bad tsar, weak and unprepared" - Nicholas II's reign deserves to be understood as far more complicated and far more nuanced than either his romantic defenders or his most vicious critics allow. Nicholas II's successes and failures are a reminder that all history is more complex than it's usually given credit for.

Related Posts with Thumbnails