Monday 28 January 2013

Blog tour opportunity

Throughout February and March, I'll be posting guest articles and interviews through various blogs to promote my two Belfast-inspired novels, Popular and its sequel, The Immaculate Deception. If you run a blog and are interested in receiving either book to review, it would be great to hear from you. Kindle and e-copies of the novels can be sent out on the same day, but if a paperback is preferred, you can let us know.

If you're interested in reviewing either, or both, books, please get in touch with and let us know! It would be great to have as many blogs as possible, regardless of their main focus, involved. This is a great way to get news out about new books; exclusive blog interviews or Q&As with me can be organised after the reviews, too!

Thursday 24 January 2013

The fifteenth anniversary of a very special book

Last month saw the fifteenth anniversary and the twenty-fourth printing of Robin Maxwell's magnificent debut novel, The Secret Diary of Anne Boleyn. Out with a brand spanking new cover, with, I believe, a coloured-up version of Merle Oberon from 1933's The Private Life of Henry VIII, Secret Diary was the first novel I ever read about Anne Boleyn. It, and Anne of the Thousand Days, helped give me the interest in sixteenth century history that led on to much wider reading as a child and teenager, and from there to my admissions essay to Oxford (on Anne Boleyn's date of birth), my interview for a place there and the modules I took during  my first semester.

The novel takes the form, unsurprisingly, of a diary that the character of Anne keeps intermittently over the span of her fifteen-year career at the English court. However, the novel also has a dual storyline about Anne's daughter, Elizabeth, who is now all grown up and queen-regnant of England and Ireland. Shortly after coming to the throne, Elizabeth is visited by an elderly gentlewoman who was once a lady-in-waiting to Queen Anne Boleyn and kept the queen's diary after she was killed. With the political environment now slightly safer, Lady Matilda thinks it's the right time to hand the diary over to Anne's next of kin - Queen Elizabeth. Elizabeth, who has very little memory of her mother, therefore reads about Anne's extraordinary journey as she is trying to navigate her own.

The great international success of The Secret Diary of Anne Boleyn is a tribute to the skills of its author, Robin Maxwell, who wrote this lovely guest article about it on The Anne Boleyn Files, hosted by Claire Ridgway.

I recommend both the article and the novel.

Tuesday 22 January 2013

The economic causes of the French Revolution

In his 1943 book The Queen's Necklace, the late, great Hungarian writer, Antal Szerb, eloquently questioned whether the traditional links between economics and the French Revolution are accurate. Rather than a case of grinding national poverty, Szerb believed that Louis XVI's France had actually been accustomed to fairly high living standards under the monarchy, only for that to be eroded in the recession of the late 1780s. It was government over-spending, not widespread hardship, that led to the breakdown of royal authority in 1789. Szerb's book has recently been re-translated into English and be purchased via Amazon, here. It's a beautiful book. To quote: -

"[There was a] financial self-confidence of an entire generation, or indeed the whole country. It confirms that the Ancien Regime was witness to a strong economic upsurge. Tocqueville was the first to suggest as much, but it was only at the start of the twentieth century that two non-French scholars, the Russian Ardasev and the German Adalbert Wahl, working independently of each other, confirmed his insight using statistically-tested scholarly methods. 
The boom had already begun under Louis XV, was briefly halted by the Seven Years War, then gathered pace again under Louis XVI. The number of iron mines and furnaces grew. Previously France had bought the iron needed for its manufactures from England and Germany; now it produced its own, in the steelworks of Alsace, Lorraine, Nantes and above all Amboise. There were huge advances in the textile industry, especially in the wool-weaving, while Sevres porcelain, Gobelin tapestries, St Gobain glass, Baccarat crystal and faience ware from Rouen and Nevers supplied the world. The Machine had begun its triumphal progress. Marseilles became one of the world's leading ports. Following the Peace Treaties of Versailles, a trade agreement was made with Britain in 1786 which proved favourable to France's agriculture but rather less so to her commerce and manufacturing. Nonetheless, the country remained the second richest in the world after England. (In the aftermath of the Revolution, it was not until 1835 that trade returned to its level of 1787.) Perhaps we might also mention, as another sign of the accelerating heartbeat, that the stock market had grown to such proportions during the reign of Louis XVI that in 1783 Mirabeau felt obliged to deliver a thundering proclamation against it.
When Louis XVI ascended to the throne, symptoms of wealth were evident on every side. They found exactly the sort of expression you would expect from his reign. The towering coiffures worn by ladies gave symbolic representation to the general feeling: at the coronation of Louis XVI their heads were as heavily laden as the wheat fields in the countryside.
And the deranged economic situation in the kingdom, the credit deficit that sparked off the Revolution? Well, yes. But that financial crisis involved the Royal Treasury, not the country at large, and certainly not the people. It was matter of the King's - that is, the State Treasury's, expenditure exceeding its income. The position could have been helped in one of two ways: either by reducing outgoings or increasing revenues. The private tragedy of the monarchy, it could be said, was that given the situation they were in at the time they could not, for purely internal reasons, hope to achieve either. But the relative affluence or poverty of the country as a whole was not the issue."  

Wednesday 16 January 2013

Queens of the Silver Screen

Over on Popular's new website, I put up a tongue-in-cheek, light list of some of the most beautiful on-screen queens. You can see the list, with pictures and commentary here. It's obviously not intended to be exhaustive.

1. Merle Oberon as Anne Boleyn in The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933)

2. Greta Garbo as Christina of Sweden in Queen Christina (1933)

3. Anita Louise as Marie-Antoinette in Madame Du Barry (1934)

4. Katharine Hepburn as Mary, Queen of Scots in Mary, Queen of Scots (1936)

5. Norma Shearer as Marie-Antoinette in Marie Antoinette (1938)

6. Bette Davis as Empress Carlota of Mexico in Juarez (1939)

7. Vivien Leigh as Cleopatra VII in Caesar and Cleopatra (1945)

8. Angela Lansbury as Anne of Austria in The Three Musketeers (1948)

9. Deborah Kerr as Katherine Parr in Young Bess (1953)

10. Romy Schneider as the Empress Elisabeth of Austria in Sissi (1955) and Ludwig II (1972)

11. Helen Hayes as the Dowager Empress Marie in Anastasia (1956)

12. Grace Kelly as Princess Alexandra in The Swan (1956)

13. Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra VII in Cleopatra (1963)

14. Genevieve Bujold as Anne Boleyn in Anne of the Thousand Days (1969)

15. Dame Dorothy Tutin as Queen Henrietta-Maria in Cromwell (1970)

16. Vanessa Redgrave as Mary, Queen of Scots in Mary, Queen of Scots (1971)

17. Joan Chen as the Empress Wanrong of China in The Last Emperor (1987)

18. Isabelle Adjani as Marguerite de Valois in La Reine Margot (1994)

19. Catherine Zeta-Jones as Catherine the Great in Catherine the Great (1996)

20. Cate Blanchett as Elizabeth I in Elizabeth (1998) and The Golden Age (2008)

21. Pilar Lopez as Queen Juana of Castile in Mad Love (2001)

23. Angelina Jolie as Olympias in Alexander (2004)

24. Emily Blunt as Queen Victoria in The Young Victoria (2009)

25. Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones (2010 - present)

26. Joely Richardson as Elizabeth I in Anonymous (2011)

27. Natalie Dormer as Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon in W.E. (2012)

28. Diane Kruger as Marie-Antoinette in Farewell, My Queen (2012)

Sunday 13 January 2013

A note on anonymous comments

Just a quick clarification on the comments that will be cleared for moderation on this blog. Obviously, most people don't have a Blogger account and some of the funniest and most insightful comments I've read have been from people who are listed as anonymous, because they don't have an account - or any need for one.

But I'm afraid I don't publish comments that are snide, abusive or offensive, if they come from someone who is hiding behind the Internet to speak as rudely as they'd like.


Friday 11 January 2013

"Too rich or too thin": a regular reader of this blog who didn't expect to enjoy it, reviews "Popular"

I'm very aware that for many regular readers of this blog, the topic of my first novel, Popular, and its recently-published sequel The Immaculate Deception, seems a bit off-key. This is a blog about history, but the two novels are the first installments in a series dealing with the ups-and-downs of teenagers living in modern-day Belfast. At the moment, I'm actually writing a piece for The Anne Boleyn Files about how history influenced the way Popular's story progressed and was written, but for now, I'd just like to say a huge thank you to Robyn, who downloaded a copy of Popular after regularly reading this blog. She reviewed the book and I'd like to share it with you. Hopefully, it'll help explain why the leap from Ci-Devant to Popular and The Immaculate Deception needn't seem so big!

"Wallis, Duchess of Windsor, famously said, “You can never be too rich or too thin,” and Meredith Harper believes this fervently... I found out about this book from the author, whose blog I have followed for well over two years now. I find him a thoughtful, clever writer with a real sense of history and poetry in his writing. Fortunately for me, there are some traces of Gareth the historian in this book. Both Meredith and Kerry are fans of historical queens (Anne Boleyn and Marie Antoinette, respectively, both frequent topics on Gareth’s historical blog), and the Romanovs, Elizabeth I, and the Bubonic Plague are also mentioned. Beyond that, the writing in Popular is clever and thoughtful, though perhaps without the same poetic beauty as his historical posts. (I refer you to his telling of the execution of Anne Boleyn.)... In all honesty, I set out to read Popular mostly just to support a blogger I enjoyed, but I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed the book. If you like your stone-cold witches with a good dose of humor, or if you would like to try a Gossip Girl-type story set in a new location that isn’t in America, you will probably enjoy this book, too."

For the full review, click HERE and enjoy!

To order Popular on Kindle click here (UK) or here (US.) In paperback, here for the UK and here for the US.

Its sequel, The Immaculate Deception, which picks up where Popular left off, can be bought from Kindle in the US here or UK here. In paperback, from Amazon US or Amazon UK.

Thursday 10 January 2013

The Protestants of Ireland know nothing of their history and this is the price we pay

Part of the reason why I'm still a unionist is because I'm convinced it must be right in some way, because how else could it have survived for so long given its leaders? It has been Irish unionism's fate to be led, and controlled, by a combination of people who are either unpleasant, incompetent or both. No other political creed in history has enjoyed such longevity, whilst also being led by such a gallery of grotesques. Its survival is also all the more remarkable when one considers that, unlike Irish nationalism, Irish unionism has no real links to its past; only vague, and often confusing, messages, almost all of which resort to defining itself in opposition to nationalism. In a nutshell, what nationalism is, unionism is not. It has, moreover, no real heroes - again, unlike nationalism, most unionists know next-to-nothing about the great "heroes" of the unionist past. While figures like William III and Sir Edward Carson may gaze out haughtily from the banners of the Orange Orders or from six-foot-tall murals, the details of these men's biographies are practically unknown. Devoid of political folklore, unionism therefore resorts to putting much of its cultural identity into symbols, rather than people - the monarchy, the army, the RUC, the Poppy, the parades and, above all else, so it would seem, the flag. Once you understand that, you begin to understand why they're so protective of things that seem trivial to outsiders.

On 3rd December 2012, Belfast City Council voted to remove the British flag from flying above City Hall. A majority of councillors wanted it to remain, but a republican-backed initiative to have it taken down forced a split in the unionist vote and the resulting decision was that it should fly only on designated days, like state holidays or royal birthdays. The corresponding explosion of sentiment across Northern Ireland took everyone by surprise. But it shouldn't have. This has been coming, in one way or the other, for years. Like a penny machine in an old arcade, there was always going to be something that pushed everything right over the edge. And on 3rd December, we found out what that was.

Riots swept the city, particularly in the working-class and Protestant-dominated east. The estimated cost, so far, to local businesses is somewhere in the region of £15 million in losses. And while life ticked along as normal in the city's wealthier quadrants, like Malone, Stranmillis or Ballyhackamore, and the vicious drip-drip-drip of unionism's thinly-suppressed snobbery (even for its own compatriots) led everyone there to dismiss the riots as the actions of ill-educated, jobless and tracksuit-wearing scum, to anyone who knows (or cares) about unionism and loyalism's increasingly-unstable sense of identity, these riots were not only a long-time coming but a warning. A warning that everyone is doing their level best to ignore. 

When the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 brought the Troubles to an end, the onus was very much on the Protestants of Northern Ireland to make the concessions. For years, they had been (and still were) the majority; it had been in deference to their wishes and the aftermath of the First World War that Northern Ireland had been created in the first place back in 1921. They had squandered much of this honour by creating a state apparatus that served their own interests first and the Catholic minority's second. That is reductive and it is not the entire truth, but there is much truth in it. Many of the symbols of old Northern Ireland were, fairly or unfairly, loathed or mistrusted by Ulster's nationalist population. Attempts were made to reform this in the 1960s, but the Troubles took over. By 1998, in order to create a functioning pluralist democracy, some of the symbols of "old" or "unionist" Northern Ireland were quite simply going to have to go. The bitterest pill to swallow for many unionists was the dismantling of the police force, the Royal Ulster Constabulary, and its replacement with the less-unionist-sounding Police Service of Northern Ireland. As far as unionism had a folklore, the RUC was woven into it. Stories of bombs under cars, young constables ambushed by IRA men hiding in bushes after answering false burglary calls and maimed veterans walking in the Remembrance Day service, had all elevated the RUC to the status of the de facto heroes of Northern Irish Protestantism - particularly to the upper and middle-classes. When it went, as everyone knew it must go to gain nationalist support for the peace process, Unionists regarded it as the ultimate sacrifice - the ultimate pledge of good faith, if you like, in the shared future. History would teach us that all these things - a new police force, a power-sharing executive, amnesty for ex-terrorists (oh, how that one stuck in the throat for thousands and not just unionists) - were part of a process of compromise. Peace was the prize; compromise was the price. Unionists may have muttered, bitterly in some quarters, but they ultimately accepted that it had to happen if they wanted their children to grow-up in a world where army road blocks were not a feature of everyday life. Why then, after accepting all that with only a few murmurings, did the working-class sections of Irish loyalism explode into petrol-bomb-throwing wrath over the issue of a single flag over one building in the city centre which can still fly on certain designated days? They hadn't been anywhere close to this angry when an ex-IRA commander was appointed Minister of Education back in 1999. What was it about the flag, years after the peace agreement, that made them so angry? 

Well, part of it is that the flag issue seems like a deliberate slap in the face from Sinn Fein, the major party of Irish republicanism. Why, unionists ask, when the flag had been there for years did they try to take it down now? Why, when so much has been given up already and at a time when thousands of young Northern Irish men and women are abroad serving to defend that flag in Afghanistan and Iraq, did the nationalist parties decide to pick a fight over the city hall standard? Why did the liberal Alliance Party "help" them? And why, oh why, did the unionist leadership not do more to stop it? These are all valid questions and, for what it's worth, I think far less of Sinn Fein for kicking the hornet's nest. (I think far less of the DUP for not trying to calm the hornet's nest, but then I have no faith, really, in any of our political parties anymore.) Anyway, while we can maybe reach an understanding of why the vote happened in the way it did, no-one seems to be asking why so many working-class Protestants have been so terrifyingly angry about this one flag?

Part of it is, undoubtedly, that most of the rioters come from disadvantaged backgrounds, in which they cannot find work, have little education, few opportunities and an inveterate distrust not just of authority, but also of the hated outsiders. In their case, heartbreaking to say, outsiders equate with Catholics. Equally, the unionist leadership has never been able to control the working-class segment of its electorate. Anyone with a good knowledge of Irish history would recall how Southern unionism had struggled to rein in the dragon of the Orange Order at the end of the nineteenth century, only to lose spectacularly. The unionist leadership's deafening silence about these riots is a tribute not just to their cowardice, but also to their uselessness. They fear that they will not be listened to. So rather than take the risk, they do nothing and hope the problem will eventually go away. But there is a bigger issue here and it speaks right to the heart of both the tragedy and the folly of Irish unionism. Where nationalism is built far, far too much on its own concept of its history, unionism does not teach its history, does not know it and definitely does not understand it. 

Many Catholic schools in Northern Ireland should be wrapped harshly over the knuckles for the frankly shocking way in which some teach Irish history. In many schools, but by no means all, it can often amount to little more than a party election broadcast for the ghosts of Michael Collins, Eamon de Valera or Cathal Brugha. Equally, many state schools should be wrapped even more harshly for the fact that they don't teach it, at all. When they do teach twentieth century Irish history, they generally teach the nationalist movement, but they teach it in a curiously passionless way. Unionism, if it's mentioned at all, is the sideshow. A policy which I'm sure has a lot of students gaping in confusion when 1921 rolls around and 1/3 of Ireland was preparing to burn itself to the ground rather than be separated from Britain. The upshot of this dereliction of duty by  our country's educationalists is that Irish nationalism still has a cultural tendency to not consider unionists to be "real" Irishmen and women, it makes next-to-no effort to understand any of Irish Protestantism's attachment to the military or the monarchy, and it has completely written unionism out of the grand narrative of Irish history - which always seems to start with the words "800 years ago," and then a never-ending list of the wrongs done on Hibernia from Henry II to Cromwell to Thatcher, all of them, apparently, sprung from the same heartless vortex of Hell as Judas and Nero. 

But if nationalism knows too much of its own history, then loyalism does not know enough and because of this it is allowed to trundle on like some sluggish dinosaur, carrying all of its old bigotries and prejudice because it's never been properly educated about what really happened in this island's past. There is much to be proud of or, at the very least, interested in. The achievements of the Ascendancy in the eighteenth century are nothing to be sniffed at; neither is the industrial miracle of Ulster and Belfast in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries or the heroism of the Irish battalions in the great wars. There were also brave and noble men from Ireland who believed deeply and truly in the unionist message - that unity within the British Isles could bring more benefits than separation. Men and women who believed that it was possible to maintain an Irish identity, whilst also keeping British loyalties. A firmer knowledge of their past - and pride in its better moments - would give all unionists, whether rioters or not, something to focus on and an appreciation of Ireland's complex history. As it is, most unionists operate under the festering fear that once a united Ireland happens, they'll have to flee for their lives and every bit of their culture will be swept away in a relentless torrent of nationalist triumphalism. That may be a paranoiac fear, but things like the flag vote fan it; they speak right to the deepest of unionism's fears. A fear which, I think, has kept its pulse beating for years. 

A knowledge of Ireland's Protestant history, however, could also teach and warn, as much as it could inspire. After all, isn't that the point of history? Just as nationalism must eventually confront the darker side of its history, unionism could learn much from looking back at its less savoury moments. The Protestant Ascendancy's role in kick-starting the Gaelic Revival might allow Ulster Protestants to stop reacting with such revulsion and anger to things like the Irish language or arts; a knowledge of Edward Carson's plea that the new Northern Ireland should not become a sectarian state could show them that unionism was once-upon-a-time supposed to be a creed for all religions, not just one; Lord Craigavon's repulsive proclamation that he had fashioned a Protestant country for a Protestant people could finally allow Protestants to understand that mistakes had been made and that the bitterness of sectarianism can only poison for generations; Lord Brookborough's petty and vindictive sectarian legislation; Protestant nationalists; Catholic unionists; agnostics (here's looking at you, King Billy, and that handsome young chap you liked to go everywhere with. Don't tell the DUP, though...); the nobility and purpose of many nationalist politicians and figures; moments of compromise between both sides; the forgotten legacy of southern unionism. All of this could let loyalists see that this is not a "them and us" situation, it's not a simple situation and that parts of unionism once tried to overcome the bigotry of many of its followers. So far, only the Alliance Party has made any real and concerted effort to put that principle into practice. 

There is much, in any community's history, to be proud of and to be ashamed of. There is much simply to be interested in. These riots spring from a community that does not know enough about its own past but fears that one day, when the last British flag is taken down in this part of Ireland, that they and everything they know will vanish. Although they do not know it, they are carrying with them the greatest of Irish Protestant fears - the fear that sprang from the massacres of 1641. But they don't know that date, or what it means, even though it's shaped every moment of their political lives and every major piece of Unionist action for the last four hundred years. They don't know anything about themselves, not really, or the people they're allegedly fighting against. It's ignorance and fear - blind and stupid, vicious and lethal - that has prompted this community to take to the streets in a repulsive display of lawlessness and cruelty. They're clinging desperately to that flag because they don't think they have anything else left. 

Irish unionism's history is one of great achievements and repellent prejudice. But then, so is Irish nationalism's. And it's only once you understand that that you can begin to understand that all these big questions - British crown or Irish republic - have to be decided on the basis of today and tomorrow, not yesterday. It's only once you understand history that you can let it go. But because we don't understand it and because we've reduced it to a myth, oft-repeated but seldom-understood, we can't let it go. This strange, bastard, butchered version of history is all that most of us have in Ireland. So we cling to it. We cling to things like the flag, because it's where we came from. And because many of us still think that one day, somehow, one side in Northern Ireland has to "win". But we're not going to win if we keep trying to score one-up on each other. There haven't been any winners in Irish history, not really - not for the last century or so, if not longer. Next time you look into the masked face of a boy barely more than a child as he hurls bricks at a police officer's head, remember that. We are all paying a heavy price for our ignorance, but they're paying the highest. For them, this folly is all they have. 

Monday 7 January 2013

"Shiverton Hall" review

My friend Emerald Fennell has just published her first book, a glorious children's ghost story called Shiverton Hall, with Bloomsbury. For my full review, click here.

Sunday 6 January 2013

Elizabeth Woodville: The real-life Cersei Lannister?

In short, the answer from me is an emphatic "no," but it's a popular theory doing the rounds in articles about an even more popular show. Cersei Lannister, the queen consort of the fictional land of Westeros in G.R.R. Martin's epic Song of Ice and Fire novels, is a magnificently unpleasant individual. Those novels have recently been adapted into the television series Game of Thrones, in which Cersei is portrayed by British actress Lena Headey (above.) The only daughter of the wealthiest aristocratic family in the Seven Kingdoms, the gorgeous Cersei is married to the bloated King Robert, but harbours an incestuous passion for her twin brother, Jaime, and an insatiable ambition for herself and her children. Manipulative, duplicitous, head-strong, vindictive and cruel, Cersei is blind to her own faults and those of her sadistic eldest son, Joffrey, who she pushes on to the Iron Throne, despite the fact that it is quite clear to everyone but her that he is totally unsuited to commanding anything more challenging than a boar hunt. Her clumsy attempts to manipulate the rival Stark family, headed by an on-screen Sean Bean, and her failure to properly manage Joffrey, provide much of the drama for the first season of Game of Thrones. The actress who plays Cersei reflected how her character's greatest weakness was that she considered herself to be a masterful political operator, when in fact she was often ruled by short-term vindictiveness rather than long-term strategy. Indeed, the show starts by showing the funerary rites of Westeros's former chief minister, Jon Arryn, while Cersei and her brother watch from a balcony above, discussing in (thinly) veiled terms why Arryn died because Cersei "worried too much" about what he knew. A brilliant femme fatale, Cersei Lannister is a fantastically compelling, if hideous, character, whose amoral schemes help shape most of Game of Thrones' best story-lines.

The broad story of Game of Thrones - that of rival aristocratic clans locked in bloody conflict as each try to claim the throne for themselves - bears more than a passing resemblance to England's fifteenth-century Wars of the Roses. Henry VI suffered a spell of madness and in 1461 he was overthrown by a distant cousin, Edward of York, who took the throne as Edward IV; in Game of Thrones, the "mad king," Aerys II, is killed and then replaced by a distant kinsman, Robert Baratheon, who then goes on to marry Cersei Lannister, a stunning beauty who is said to be the most beautiful woman in the Seven Kingdoms. Back in fifteenth century reality, in 1464 Edward IV married Elizabeth Woodville, said to be the most beautiful woman of her generation in the entirety of the British Isles. Both the factual Edward and the fictional Robert then went to seed - losing all of their youthful muscles by whoring, eating and drinking their way into an early grave. Both Cersei and Elizabeth were pale and beautiful blondes and the product of good-looking families, who they did everything in their power to promote to the detriment of every other noble family in the country. In the aftermath of Edward's premature death in 1483, Elizabeth tried desperately to secure her son's inheritance of the throne, in the face of mounting aristocratic opposition. There has therefore has been rampant internet speculation that Robert is based loosely on Edward IV and Cersei on Elizabeth Woodville.

It would be wrong and foolish, of course, to suggest that Game of Thrones is really nothing more than a fantasy-genre version of the Wars of the Roses. In the first place, George Martin is far too good a writer to do that - Westeros and the world it exists in are probably the most believably-complex fictional lands created since Tolkein put pen to paper and first created Middle Earth. In the second instance, Game of Thrones is actually almost more complicated than the real war. At its height, the Rose conflict was only being contested by two rival families - the Lancasters, the Yorks and, at the tail end of things, the Tudors. In Song of Ice and Fire / Game of Thrones, there are multiple royal claimants - including the exiled children of the dead "mad king," the new king and his alleged family, aristocratic families seeking secession for the northern provinces, the two rival brothers of the new king (overtones of the Duke of Clarence and Richard III? Who knows?) and foreign princelings. Finally, there are enough glaring differences in the narrative, let alone the specifics, to suggest that Game of Thrones is far more a work of fiction than an allegory of real-life events. 

However, there are also enough similarities to suggest that the Wars of the Roses may, sometimes, have been used as inspiration for the story of Game of Thrones - particularly in the case of Cersei and Elizabeth Woodville. (It's perhaps worth noting that at no point in history was Elizabeth ever accused of committing incest with her brothers, in the way Cersei is in Game of Thrones.) However, both women were famed for their beauty and loathed for their alleged penchant for intrigues. Both were far less capable at politics than they liked to think and both badly mishandled their enemies. Both Elizabeth and Cersei were totally blinkered in their desire to promote their own lineage, at whatever cost - Elizabeth supported the disinheritance of the Howard family, in order that her youngest son, Richard, could be given their cousin's title and estates; she also caused a scandal by marrying her 20 year-old brother, John, to the 69-year-old Catherine Neville, a fantastically wealthy duchess, whose connections would help the Woodville family and whose marriage to John also had the added benefit of helping Elizabeth disinherit her enemy, and the duchess's nephew, Lord Warwick. 

There are admittedly a significant number of differences, beyond the fairly obvious one of incest.  Robert and Cersei's marriage was a political one; Edward and Elizabeth's, for all its faults, was a love match. Cersei is shown as being murderous in Game of Thrones, while the only way Elizabeth Woodville could ever have been accused of homicide was by those inclined to believe the worst of her - since there is absolutely no evidence whatsoever that she ever resorted to poison, assassinations or witchcraft to achieve her goals. Despite her general unpopularity, Elizabeth Woodville was never accused of adultery; although both women were eventually to face the horror of having their children's legitimacy impugned. Although both were married to once-handsome-now-fat monarchs, Elizabeth never seems to have harboured the revulsion towards Edward IV that Cersei cannot quite hide holding for King Robert. In the novels and the television show, the Lannister family are one of the most respected and feared families of the Westeros nobility; Elizabeth's family, the Woodvilles, were considered social-climbing upstarts, pigging-back on their daughter's incredible beauty and equally jaw-dropping greed. (Elizabeth's mother, Jacquetta, was actually related to the royal family by marriage, but that point was conveniently ignored by Elizabeth's many, many detractors.) 

There are a sufficient number of similarities between the personalities (and perceptions) of Cersei Lannister and Elizabeth Woodville to see why people think the story of Elizabeth might have helped inspire the story of Cersei. It might, I think, be more tempting to say that Cersei Lannister is in many ways the dark legend of Elizabeth Woodville - at its darkest. Despite her bad press, Elizabeth Woodville was almost certainly a far more pleasant individual than Cersei Lannister is, even on her best days. However, the complexities and nuances of Cersei's character are far more of a tribute to the skill of G.R.R. Martin as a writer than to the enduring fascination of Queen Elizabeth's personality. If part of the Game of Thrones was inspired by the Wars of the Roses, then that's not quite the same thing as saying it's based on them. As an historian the really exciting thing about Game of Thrones is not what conflicts it's based on, but rather that it can remind us of the reality of the human historical experience. We are so used to the story of history that we become numb to it. Familiarity breeds indifference. We know the ultimate fate of Elizabeth Woodville's sons; we know the grizzly death waiting for Edward IV's disloyal brother, the Duke of Clarence; we know that Elizabeth of York will die in childbirth, Anne Boleyn will lose her head and that Henry VIII will marry six times. We know all of these extraordinary facts so well that we lose the ability to be shocked by them and we therefore lose the ability to fully appreciate how nerve-wracking and uncertain it must have been to actually live through those times. Since Game of Thrones is not history, but incredibly manages to be as believably complicated and unexpected as any historical era, it not only becomes to be a phenomenal story but can also remind even the most jaded of historical enthusiasts of the sheer horror and tumult that people must have experienced by living through something like the Wars of the Roses.

Saturday 5 January 2013

A guide to Belfast slang

My new website for the Popular series ( has just uploaded two audio recordings of me reading aloud the author's note to my first novel and a guide to the vocabulary (slang, geographical and academic) used in Popular.

You can listen to them here and I hope you enjoy them!

There'll be more to come.
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