Monday 29 December 2014

My Top 10 Books of 2014

Good evening!

This was a great year for books, I think. The year started of well for fans of the sixteenth century with Lauren Mackay's fantastic biography of the diplomat Eustace Chapuys, which I reviewed and loved. If you're interested in the Tudor court or in the world of diplomacy, do pick up a copy. Since then, I've brought these books to New Haven, Oxford, London, Portballintrae and Gloucestershire with me and they have been great company. I'm currently working my way through two books that I hoped to finish before the end of the year - The Six Wives and Many Mistresses of Henry VIII by Amy Licence and The Medieval Housewife and other women of the Middle Ages by Toni Mount, both of which I'll post more about in the new year. From Inside the Tudor Court on, here are my ten favourite reads of 2014, in order of publication.

1. Finding Camlann by Sean Pidgeon (novel) (published by W. W. Norton & Company)  This novel reads as a love letter to Oxford no less effusive than Brideshead Revisited, but in this case the story of an archaeologist on the quest for the historical origins of the legend of King Arthur allows the story to lovingly evoke the one side of Oxford life that Brideshead tried to avoid at all costs - actual academics. Long and haunting descriptions of the British countryside and a crackling dynamic between the archaeologist and an employee at the Oxford English Dictionary make this a short but cerebral novel that I absolutely loved. It had me hooked, I stayed up to finish it and I hope we'll see more from Sean Pidgeon in 2015. (Full review to follow)

2. Four Sisters: The Lost Lives of the Romanov Grand Duchesses by Helen Rappaport (non-fiction) (published by Macmillan) I thought Helen Rappaport's Ekaterinburg, about the weeks preceding the murder of the Romanov family in 1918, was a triumph of a book and while the decision to write the first full-length biography of Nicholas II's daughters meant that Four Sisters lacked the dramatic intensity of her earlier work, Rappaport managed to produce a deeply moving and painstakingly researched account of the Grand Duchesses Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia. Their childish quarrels, the friends they made when they volunteered as nurses during the Great War, the Grand Duchess Olga's deep love for a wounded soldier and the twilight of Imperial Russia intersect to produce an intimate account of four too-short lives.

3. George Boleyn: Tudor Poet, Courtier and Diplomat by Clare Cherry and Claire Ridgway (non-fiction) (published by Made Global) One of three of Henry VIII's brothers-in-law to end his life beneath the headsman's axe, George Boleyn was no saint and no prude, either. But he emerges from the pages of Clare Cherry and Claire Ridgway's biography as a committed and talented young man with a sincere passion for the Protestant faith. Cherry and Ridgway know their subject and his world, and they use that knowledge to lift him from the shadow thrown by his famous sister, rehabilitating him while never failing to remind us of the grizzly world in which he lived and died. 

4. How to Ruin a Queen: Marie Antoinette, the Stolen Diamonds and the Scandal that Shook the French Throne by Jonathan Beckman (non-fiction) (published by John Murray) I don't know what it is about the Affair of the Necklace, but it seems to produce more than its fair share of historical works that could also be praised for their literary merits. In 1942, the Hungarian-Jewish writer Antal Szerb produced a book called The Queen's Necklace which, if you can find it, cannot come any more highly recommended. It is utterly beautiful. Likewise, Jonathan Beckman's account of one of the greatest jewellery heists in history is written in such a delicious style that, if edible, it would produce moomoo-necessitating levels of obesity. It was a joy to read this book and Beckman works through the initiators, and victims, of the Affair with consummate skill. Like Szerb's book, and Antonia Fraser's biography, it left me feeling even more sorry for poor Marie-Antoinette, but it also managed to delve deeper than before into the murky personality of the Comtesse de la Motte and it's the inescapable whiff of that dreadful woman that lingered long after I finished reading. 

5. The Creeper by Emerald Fennell (novel) (published by Bloomsbury) I bought this sequel to Shiverton Hall because the author is a good friend of mine and because I thoroughly enjoyed the first book in the series. On a side note, I have such a low threshold for any kind of horror that if Emerald does ever turn her hand to writing that genre for adults, you will find me manfully dousing myself in water from Lourdes and using rosaries like lassos. But I digress. This creepy and intrigue-laden ghost story at a ghoulish English boarding school is perfect for children or for those of us who have never been able to see the clock turn to 3 a.m. again without silent tears courtesy of The Exorcism of Emily Rose. 

6. Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China by Jung Chang (non-fiction) (published by Vintage) Chairman Mao's biographer returns with this compelling and page-turning life of the notorious "Dragon Empress" who presided over the waning years of the Chinese monarchy. Cixi's insatiable ambition, murderous self-promotion and pathological meddling usually cause bile to mix with ink in the historian's pen, but Chang offers up enough of the Empress's virtues, namely her hard-headed pragmatism, her charisma and her impressive list of political victories to balance the scales. 

7. The Paradise Tree by Elena Maria Vidal (novel) (published by CreateSpace) Like Finding Camlann, this is a cerebral book with a love of nature underpinning its dialogue. Here, it's a defence of Catholicism and the experience of Irish immigrants as they set out for a new life in Canada and the United States during the reign of Queen Victoria. The grasp of Irish colloquialisms  is impressive, as is the way Irish words peppered conversation even before the Gaelic Revival at the end of the century led, irony of ironies, by the privileged offspring of the Protestant Ascendancy. A love of domesticity, quotes from the Bible and Irish folk songs to start each chapter, and a pretty heartbreaking subplot about how far one character will go to prosper in their new homeland made The Paradise Tree a thought-provoking read. (Full review to follow)

8. Eleanor of Castile: The Shadow Queen by Sara Cockerill (non-fiction) (published by Amberley) Proof that biographies of medieval personalities don't have to succumb to flights of fantasy, The Shadow Queen was a wonderful read about a supreme multi-tasker. Businesswoman, landlady, princess, politician, adviser, wife, mother and patron of the arts, Eleanor of Castile also managed to keep the royalist home fires burning during the Second Barons' War. Like the indomitable Hapsburg Empress Maria Teresa five centuries later, Eleanor didn't seem to find being nearly-constantly pregnant a deterrent. The invasion of Wales and the Diaspora are also dealt with. I would say that The Shadow Queen deserves to be considered the definitive biography of its subject.

9. Edward II: The Unconventional King by Kathryn Warner (non-fiction) (published by Amberley) Sympathetic without being sentimental, The Unconventional King is as much a warning against trusting in the power of repetition as it is a biography of a monarch whose disastrous reign ended in his deposition and mysterious disappearance. Warner uses every contemporary source available to her to prove that nearly every popular image of King Edward II is totally unfounded - the effeminate appearance, the domestic cruelty, the cowardice, the alleged illegitimacy of his eldest child and the grotesque cameo of a red hot poker in his final moments. They're all bunkum. She's also refreshingly frank about what his bisexuality, to use a word familiar to us but alien to him, and lays out the evidence to support her view that his relationship with Piers Gaveston, Earl of Cornwall was probably a romantic one. Gutsy, outgoing, strong, handsome and with a flair for bonhomie, Edward II has clearly caught Kathryn Warner's interest and she's repaid him with a stellar and brutally honest account of his life. 

10. Midnight at the Pera Palace: The Birth of Modern Istanbul by Charles King (non-fiction) (published by W. W. Norton & Company) It is hard to put into words how much I enjoyed Midnight at the Pera Palace. A social history of the city of Istanbul from the end of the First World War to the aftermath of the Second, the narrative is framed around a hotel that was built to attract a European clientele. Fantastically written, perfectly structured and with a cast of hundreds of men and women who visited the hotel from the fall of the Ottoman sultanate through the tortured birth of the Turkish republic, Midnight at the Pera Palace is a grand story of humanity. It is modern history at its finest. I could not put it down and I plan to visit the city next year. 

Friday 5 December 2014

The ghosts of Versailles

Stephanie Dale as Marie-Antoinette (seating) with Rebecca Lenaghan as Gabrielle de Polignac

This December, I have been working on a revival of my play The Gate of the Year, the storyline of which is based on the outbreak of the French Revolution. Beginning with the final Christmas at Versailles in 1788 and moving on to three weeks after the fall of the Bastille in 1789, the play updates to the story to a modern setting - although, with its preoccupation with gender, status and etiquette, it's not quite modern in the way we would identify it. Cailum Carragher, who plays the Minister of Police, describes it as adrift "in time and place" - a far more lovely way to put it, I suppose.

Lifting characters who lived and died in the fading decades of the eighteenth century to set them adrift in the choppy currents of an imagined twentieth was not, strange to say, a particularly difficult process, but it was fascinating. I think I shall leave them, temporarily, with great reluctance. They have a way of settling under your skin, by leaping out to you across the centuries - they are so vivid, so relatable, I think, even in their oddity. There is something tangible about them; it's hard not to feel drawn toward them. Stephanie Dale, who plays Marie-Antoinette, and who has recently finished filming for the BBC series The Sparticle Mystery, reflects, "I am sympathetic towards her because of what she has had to endure emotionally. Growing up, her life was supposed to have been perfect and she had a terrible time with the press. One of my favourite lines is 'it was not a complete pleasure to live out the greatest fairy tale of the century.' Marie Antoinette has been hurt by publicity and she knew what people expected of her and her marriage, but she is also extremely strong for having the ability to endure it. The amount she takes on emotionally and physically in the course of this play is quite extensive and for this reason I admire her." As Marie-Antoinette hurtles towards a fate she would never have chosen for herself there is, to me anyway, something magnificent about the way she decides "not to go quietly into the night." In Stephanie's words, "She has chosen her destiny and chosen to take action which is an extremely admirable part of her personality."

Mercedes Sharma, who plays another female icon of the revolutionary era, liberal republicanism's "angel of assassination" Charlotte Corday, is another actress playing someone who goes down the rabbit hole as the Revolution engulfs them all. Throughout the rehearsal process, Mercedes has always maintained that her character is one of the most identifiable for modern audiences. "Having gotten to know the characters I still think they are the most relatable," she says. "I believe that convincing yourself that things happen for the greater good (something that Marat does throughout) is part of human nature. Charlotte is like all young people with a passion for something, her passion and dreams just happen to turn into her own personal living hell."

Daniel Kelly as Jean-Paul Marat and Mercedes Sharma as Charlotte Corday
In this re-imagined world of The Gate of the Year, Corday actually knows her victim, Jean-Paul Marat, in a friendship where her idealism contrasts with his hard-nosed, brutal pragmatism. However, Mercedes is more ambivalent about Charlotte Corday than the real Corday's nineteenth century admirers were. She's not so sure that anyone emerges from the revolutionary period completely untainted: "At the start of the play I think Charlotte's willingness to throw herself into the revolutionary world, whether she truly understands what she is getting into or not, almost inspires Marat to become the monster we know him to be by the end. Both need each others' approval but in all honesty I don't think either of them realise that until it tears them apart."

Grappling with personal and moral ambiguities is what makes this story so appealing to me as a writer and Tom Flight, who returns to the role of France's doomed King Louis XVI articulates this well when reflecting on his character's dire reputation as a failed monarch who helped grease the slippery slope to chaos. "I think the reason why he is often thought of as weak and pathetic is because Louis suffered from incredible self-doubt in his ability to rule which lead to uncertainty in decision making. This makes Louis easy to mock as it goes against the traditional ideas of a strong monarch. But in The Gate of the Year, you see the complexity of the decisions that Louis faced and how he was caught between the deep-seated traditions of the Aristocracy and the blazing rage of the revolutionaries. One of my favourite lines in the play is when Marie-Antoinette says of Louis “He chose being kind over being good.” Louis tried until the end to do the right thing, but the consequences of his decisions were horrific. I actually believe Louis was a better King than most. But," he concedes, "he was perhaps the wrong monarch at the wrong time."

Both Stephanie and Tom interpreted the marriage of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette much more favourably than most portrayals of them. Marie-Antoinette has been played on screen by actresses like Norma Shearer (who was nominated for an Oscar for the role in 1938), Jane Seymour, Joely Richardson, Kirsten Dunst and Diane Kruger, but in many, particularly in the 1938 role, Louis is played as a kind-hearted dunce, almost a caricature. Stephanie sees Marie-Antoinette as "unquestionably faithful" to her husband (rumours dogged the Queen, then and later, that she had an affair with the handsome Swedish soldier, Count Axel von Fersen, but I agree with writers like Jonathan Beckman and Elena Maria Vidal that there is no evidence to support that she was ever unfaithful to her husband). Of their marriage, Tom, who read the historian Vincent Cronin's account of the royal marriage, reflects, "I believe they loved each other unquestionably. Through being forced into a politically motivated arranged marriage a unique bond between them was formed. Louis also never had mistresses (unlike many of his predecessors) and his faithfulness shows a commitment and devotion to the marriage that was rare in Versailles. I believe their marriage was a happy and loving one, and Stephanie Dale’s wonderful performance as Marie-Antoinette sublimely captures the shock and torment as the fairy-tale turns into a nightmare."

Robert Morley and an Oscar-nominated Norma Shearer as Louis and his wife in 1938's Marie Antoinette
The story of the fall of the French monarchy is a grand political drama and a complex series of personal tragedies and triumphs. Tom Flight's favourite moment in the play takes place as the monarchy enters its endgame. "My favourite moment to perform is Act II, Scene VIII (photo below) between Louis and [his younger brother] Charles, performed by the outstanding David Paulin," he told me. "An empire has fallen, but in this scene the emotions of the situation are played out in a sibling squabble. I believe Louis always felt in the shadow of his younger brother, even that he was perhaps more suited to being King, and it is quite heart-breaking the way he admits his failure to his brother. Charles also has bitter regret he couldn’t do more for his country which, in part, was due to Louis’s decisions, and he can’t help but kick Louis while he’s at his lowest. But the scene remains a moment between two brothers. Despite the violent anger and high emotion neither can get away from the indelible nature of family and brotherhood."

Shimmering just beyond our reach, the "crucible of our modernity", the ghosts of Versailles, those who lived in it and those who destroyed it, present an eerily modern set of possibilities to depict, not so much a world in its twilight, as a timeless tale of human greatness, weakness, cruelty, wisdom, folly and hope.
Photographs by Ella McMaster.

Wednesday 19 November 2014

Portrait of an Ageing Elizabeth I

Glenda Jackson as Elizabeth I in the BBC series Elizabeth R

As part of the promotions for my new book An Illustrated Introduction to the Tudors, On the Tudor Trail very kindly hosted an article I wrote about a portrait that shows Elizabeth I in her twilight years. You can read the full article here and I hope you enjoy it.

Monday 17 November 2014

Friday 7 November 2014

Royal inbreeding: how reliable is one of history's most popular stories?

The Hapsburg Emperor Leopold I by Jan Thomas van Leperen, c. 1667

Portraits of the slack-jawed and bug-eyed Hapsburgs, hair fair and stare glazed, are a staple part of any discussions on one of the most familiar accusations hurled at the European royal houses: namely, that they were habitually inbred. By the time pretty Marie-Antoinette was born into the family in 1755, along with her bevy of attractive sisters, something had evidently worked itself out, to say nothing of the statuesque handsome poise of a young Franz Josef in the next century. However, the charge that the entire aristocratic and royal houses of Europe were essentially mad, bad and dangerous to know because they only married their cousins is repeated so often that it is taken to be veritable fact. Reviews of the wildly inaccurate historical romp Anonymous suggested that the unhinged behaviour of an ageing Elizabeth I (Vanessa Redgrave) must have been caused in part being the offspring of too much royal inbreeding (Elizabeth I's parents, Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, were by no means closely related, but that's apparently by the by.)

However, I argue in my book The Emperors that the story of royalty being in-bred is in fact hugely exaggerated and I began by looking at the story of the most famous of its casualties, the Spanish side of the Hapsburg clan, in a chapter called The Dual Monarchy, giving an overview of the Austrian monarchy.
The Spanish branch of the Hapsburg clan had died out in 1700 after generations of inbreeding. This was never as much of a problem with their less insular Austrian cousins, and it is almost entirely to the Spanish side of the family that we owe the popular stereotype of royalty as habitual inbreds. That point has been both overstated and misunderstood. It is worth noting that in the medieval and early modern period what we would now recognise as inbreeding or incest was not uncommon. In an age when very few people left the village, town or county where they had grown up, inbreeding across the course of several generations was inevitable, regardless of one's social class. Royalty could no more marry outside the sacred confines of their class than most of their subjects could marry outside the limits of their locality.

So, it did occur, but no more or less than within the vast majority of the early modern populations. As attitudes changed and our horizons expanded, royalty moved towards marrying people to whom they were related as faintly as anyone marrying today, in much the same way as nearly everyone in the British Isles with Anglo-Saxon ancestry is likely to be, in some faint way, a descendant of the medieval king Edward III with his numerous children. The marriages to Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, Diana Spencer and Catherine Middleton were part of a trend set by many factors in history, including changing attitudes to class, love and geography. 

Monday 3 November 2014

My new book and a year of life with Catherine Howard

I am absolutely delighted to be say that my biography of Catherine Howard, Young and Damned and Fair: The Life and Tragedy of Catherine Howard at the court of King Henry VIII, will be published in the US and Canada by Simon & Schuster and by HarperCollins in the UK and rest of the Commonwealth.

I first wrote about Catherine's household as part of my postgraduate research at Queen's University, Belfast, in 2011 and it has been wonderful to return to her.

Over the next year, as I work on the manuscript, I'd like to share some of that experience with you by posting a few photographs of the places I'm travelling to and the research I'm carrying out! In the meantime, you can visit my Facebook page or follow me on Instagram and Twitter. Next week, I'll be in Oxford in the warmth of its wonderful archives and libraries that I am elated to return to. 

I'm very excited for this project.


Friday 31 October 2014

An Unconventional King and a fantastic story: An interview with Kathryn Warner

Knowledge is a compellingly beautiful thing and by that I mean the kind possessed by the master of their trade, rather than the jack. When one is in the company of someone whose awareness of their subject is so deep and so painstakingly researched, it is a privilege to hear them speak, particularly if their words bounce easily with a confident rather than a phlegmatic intelligence. That is the experience of reading Kathryn Warner's superb biography Edward II: The Unconventional King. Outside of Queer Theory classrooms, Edward II does not enjoy a kindly reputation. He was portrayed as a sniveling incompetent, a pathetic and faintly homophobic caricature, in the hit movie Braveheart, while a recent biography of his glamorous wife compared his government to one of depraved and vicious terror.

Kathryn Warner sets out to rescue Edward II from the calumnies heaped upon him and she does so with success, because it is quite clear upon reading this book that the author is a lady who has spent years researching every detail of her subject's tumultuous life. Edward II, king and man, emerge from this biography not just as an unconventional king, but as a fascinating person.

Warner's book wears its sympathies openly and honestly. I have no problem with sympathetic biographies - one only need thing of Eric Ives's take on Anne Boleyn, Amanda Foreman's on Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, or Dominic Lieven's on Tsar Nicholas II - to know that a sympathetic biography can often produce the finest scholarship, as the author is inspired to delve deeper to produce the truth about someone who they have come to admire or pity, as well as remain fascinated by. (Likewise, biographies with a more critical hue, like Leanda de Lisle's account of Lady Jane Grey or Anna Sebba's account of Wallis Simpson, can often produce gems of historical writing. The crucial component seems to be emotional honesty with the subject.)

The biography that An Unconventional King has most in common with, at least in terms of its tone, is Lady Antonia Fraser's 2002 bestseller, Marie Antoinette: The Journey. Both Fraser and Warner are very clearly on their subjects' side, and while both are more than prepared to recount their mistakes and follies, they underscore the humanising, empathy-generating or admirable qualities firmly because both royals have suffered a fate that saw their historical reputation torn asunder and their reality buried beneath a hundred petty, obscuring lies.

This is a beautiful, thought-provoking and compelling life of one of England's most enigmatic kings, who emerges from the shadows as a flawed but oddly likable prince. Anyone interested in monarchy or the Middle Ages will enjoy this superb book.


As part of her blog tour promoting "Edward II: The Unconventional King" I am delighted to welcome Kathryn Warner, who's here to answer a few questions about her book.

Kathryn Warner holds two degrees in medieval history from the University of Manchester. She is considered a foremost expert on Edward II and an article from her on the subject was published in the English Historical Review. She has run a website about him since 2005 and a Facebook page about him since 2010 and has carved out a strong online presence as an expert on Edward II and the fourteenth century in general. Kathryn teaches Business English as a foreign language and lives between Dusseldorf and Cumbria.

1. Kathryn, you've spent years researching Edward II's life and reign. When did you first become interested in him?

I studied medieval history and literature at Manchester University, where I gained a BA and MA with Distinction, but, despite writing an essay about Edward II in my second year as an undergraduate, I somehow always felt that he was the medieval king of England I knew least about.  All that changed several years later, when I was reading a novel which mentioned Edward's great-uncle Richard of Cornwall, Henry III's brother.  I started reading about and researching Richard and his family, and this led me inexorably to Edward II.  Once I started reading about Edward, I couldn't stop, and felt that I'd finally found the thing I was meant to be doing in life - researching Edward II, his reign, his life, his family. everything about him.  In 2005, I began writing a blog about him to try to correct the many inaccurate stories told about him and to make him much better known, and I still write it regularly and it's had almost a million readers by now.  The historian Ian Mortimer suggested some years ago that I should write a full-length biography of Edward, so I did, and it was great fun.  I'm so thrilled to be getting his story out there to a wider audience.

2. One of the things that's often repeated about Edward II is that he was not the biological father of his son and heir, Edward III. But in your book, you argue that it's more or less impossible that Edward II didn't father Edward III. Why do you think that myth has proved so durable? 

This myth was first invented in 1982 by Paul Doherty in his novel Death of a King, and popularised by the 1995 film Braveheart, which makes William Wallace the father of Isabella's child - impossible given that Wallace was executed on 23 August 1305 when Isabella was only nine or ten and still in France, and more than seven years before her and Edward II's eldest child Edward III was born on 13 November 1312.  I can always tell when Braveheart has been on television somewhere in the world as the number of searches along the lines of 'Did William Wallace father Isabella's child?' which reach my blog dramatically increase, usually a few thousand hits within mere hours.  The huge popularity of the film is a large part of what drives belief in this myth, and it also continues to be perpetuated because some people are determined to think that because Edward II was a lover of men, he must automatically have been incapable of intercourse with women.  These people miss the fact that Edward and Isabella had three younger children as well, and that Edward fathered an illegitimate son, Adam.  Isabella did later have a relationship with the baron Roger Mortimer, long after her children were born, and he has often been put forward as the real father of Edward III.  This is impossible, however, as Roger was several hundred miles away from Isabella when all her and Edward II's children - Edward III, John, Eleanor and Joan - were conceived.

3. Something that struck me so much when I read your book was how human Edward seemed and the quirks and kindness that he was capable of. What is your favourite anecdote about him? 

For all his faults, Edward could be extraordinarily generous, kind and loyal to people he loved and who pleased him.  I've found so many wonderful entries in his household accounts detailing how he loved chatting with fishermen, carpenters, shipwrights and the like, how he spent time at the wedding of Lady Hastings' daughter in 1326 with a servant who "made him laugh very greatly," how he gave a pound to a woman he drank with on the way to Scotland in 1310, how he stood by a river near Doncaster in November 1322 to watch a group of fishermen fishing, how he played a ball game with some of his household at Saltwood in Kent in 1326 while waiting for two envoys from the pope to arrive, and so on.  To choose my favourite anecdote is hard as there are so many, but it's probably this one: on 25 July 1326, when Edward was sailing along the Thames near his palace of Sheen with his niece Eleanor Despenser, he gave a gift of two shillings to a fisherman called John de Waltham.  The reason?  John had given him a bucket of loach, and also "sang before the king every time he passed by water through these parts."  John, the singing fisherman, entertaining the king every time he sailed past; what a wonderful image!

4. The marriage between Edward II and his controversial queen, Isabella of France, is usually presented as a miserable one, but you see it as much more complicated?

Absolutely.  There's a tendency nowadays to depict their relationship in the most one-dimensional manner imaginable, as though it was nothing but a unloving, unhappy disaster from start to finish, which is just silly if you ask me. Surely we all know as human beings that relationships which last for many years change and evolve over time, they're not static, and for heaven's sake, people feel much more than one emotion towards their partner of nearly two decades!  There is much evidence that Edward and Isabella's marriage was, for a long time, a successful and mutually affectionate, even loving, one.  It ended spectacularly badly, of course, but that doesn't mean it had always been bad or was doomed from the beginning, and much of Isabella's behaviour in 1325/26 strongly suggests to me that she was deeply distressed at the breakdown of her marriage and the intrusion into it of Edward's last and most powerful favourite, Hugh Despenser. There is no evidence at all that she disliked Edward's previous favourites such as Piers Gaveston and Roger Damory, whose relationships with Edward she seemed to view as entirely separate from her own.  Edward showed little interest in Isabella at the start of their marriage, but given that he was twenty-three and she only twelve it's hard to blame him for that, and as she grew older, he grew to love her.  Probably not in the same passionate all-consuming way he loved Piers Gaveston, but love nonetheless, as an eyewitness to Edward and Isabella's visit to Paris in 1313 declared.  For her part, Isabella addressed Edward in letters as 'my very sweet heart' and 'my very dear and very sweet lord and friend', which is highly unconventional and hints at her strong feelings for him.

5. Finally, a question I love to ask historians: if someone came along and decided to make a television series on your life of Edward II and you had a say in casting - money is no object - who would you cast as Edward II, Piers Gaveston and Queen Isabella?

For Edward II, Chris Hemsworth, as he's big and tall and fair-haired.  For Piers Gaveston, Ben Barnes.  For Isabella, the French actress Stéphanie Crayencour.

Chris Hemsworth - Kathryn's choice for a convincing-looking Edward II

Stéphanie Crayencour for Edward's French wife, Queen Isabella
Ben Barnes, of Prince Caspian and A Portrait of Dorian Grey, for Edward's great love, Piers Gaveston, Earl of Cornwall

Tuesday 21 October 2014

My new book is out next week!

Good afternoon! I am delighted to announce that I have a new book out next week with Amberley. As part of their gorgeous "An Illustrated Introduction to..." series, a set of books giving an introduction for adults to a particular historical topic, they asked me to write the installment on the Tudors. (As readers of this blog will know, I've written about them a lot!) They've picked some absolutely beautiful illustrations for the book, including my favourite portrait of Elizabeth I, as she approached old age. It's so moving!

An Illustrated Introduction to the Tudors covers the private lives and political roles of all the Tudor monarchs, as well as providing snapshots into issues like - sex in Tudor England, burning at the stake, the myth of Anne Boleyn's six fingers and whether or not Henry VIII had syphilis.

It's available through Amberley and online book stores, like Amazon and the Book Depository.

Competition winner!

Many congratulations to Libby, who won the competition to receive a copy of Sara Cockerill's new book, Eleanor of Castile: The Shadow Queen. The San Fernando Valley, named after Eleanor's father (above), is indeed in the US State of California. To all those who entered, thank you! 

Saturday 11 October 2014

Out of the Shadows: Review and Giveaway of "Eleanor of Castile: The Shadow Queen" by Sara Cockerill

It is often stated that writing a biography of a medieval person, particularly a woman, is impossible and that any effort will descend into quasi-fiction, littered with more than its fair share of "must haves" and "presumably would haves". In her new book, Eleanor of Castile: The Shadow Queen, Sara Cockerill disproves this assertion splendidly. Longshanks' queen and Edward II's mother emerges from this beautiful book full of fire, vigour and more than her fair share of deeply unlikable flaws.

At 410 pages in length, The Shadow Queen can hardly be accused of narrative anaemia and the decade or so of research that went into writing it bounces off the page, intellectually convincing but rendered readable by Cockerill's light narrative touch. There are touching and thought-provoking deviations about the humanity of her subject - a particular favourite of mine being when the author, weighing up evidence that Eleanor was either fair or dark, concludes, "her own colour choices make it almost certain that her colouring was dark; as will be seen, she favoured reds and greens, colours which no blonde would be likely to choose but which are very becoming to brunettes." This is set alongside a razor-sharp understanding of the quagmire of thirteenth-century international diplomacy and warfare, both of which shaped Queen Eleanor's life.

Cockerill believes that Eleanor of Castile was a more likable individual than she has been presented in recent histories of the monarchy, for instance in Lisa Hilton's study of English medieval queens, from which Eleanor emerges as a chillingly avaricious matriarch, who bled the Anglo-Jewish community white in her relentless quest for personal financial security. Cockerill allows Eleanor's faults to show in all their ugliness, but she suggests that, by the standards of her own generation, England's second Iberian queen consort had more on the credit than debit side by the time she passed away in 1290. Personally, I emerged from my compulsive reading of The Shadow Queen still rather dubious about the Queen's personal plus-points, but that is a tribute to the wealth of detail that Cockerill relates to her readers. While the author wears her views plainly, she is too good a writer to force them upon her audience. Eleanor of Castile: The Shadow Queen is a compelling and exhaustive look at one of England's most fascinating queens and a beautiful example of a medieval biography.


To win a copy of Eleanor of Castile: The Shadow Queen, please answer the question below and provide your e-mail address, which will not be published. It is purely so that I can contact you when the competition has closed. The winner will be announced next Saturday (18th October), thank you.

QUESTION: The San Fernando Valley in the USA was named in honour of Eleanor of Castile's father, King Ferdinand III of Castile. What US state is the Valley located in?

Tuesday 23 September 2014

Sara Cockerill discusses her new biography "Eleanor of Castile: The Shadow Queen"

Hi, Sara, and welcome to the blog.
Congratulations on the publication of your biography of Eleanor of Castile. I'm sure it's a question that you get asked a lot, but to get the ball rolling, could you share with us what it was that attracted you to Eleanor's story in the first place?
Well, I think the story of Eleanor and Edward – the arranged marriage that went so gloriously right – is one which had a certain romantic appeal to me from childhood, fuelled by far too much reading of Strickland, Costain, Plaidy et al.  But the Eleanor in that depiction struck me as sweet but dull, and I certainly had no interest in finding out more about her.  It was later, when I started reading more seriously on Edward’s reign, that the more recent scholarship started to pique my interest.  How did the romantic story of the quiet submissive queen gel with the acquisitive landlord?  If Eleanor was forceful in one direction, did she really have no influence over Edward in other matters?  And Michael Prestwich’s note of the coincidence between the date of Eleanor’s death and the change in the character of Edward’s reign finally made me think that there were too many questions, and no good answers.

2. I wrote about Eleanor while I was studying my masters, but it was in comparison to her mother-in-law, Eleanor of Provence, and focussing on the royal family's interaction with the Jewish population before 1290. Going into it, I expected to find Eleanor extremely unlikable, harsh, greedy and very cold. I ended up finding her more nuanced and sympathetic than her mother-in-law and my own expectations. Was that a process you experienced yourself and how do you think Eleanor acquired such a negative reputation?
I think my introduction to her through her Victorian reputation meant that I had two conflicting pictures of her in my head, rather than one entirely negative one!  What troubled me was that the two versions seemed almost irreconcilable – a problem which I think bothered John Carmi Parsons too.  I did at one point wonder whether the answer was that Eleanor was indeed unlikeable, and Edward’s tributes to her were political rather than personal.  But as you say, once one gets into the evidence it is clear that she really was adored by him – which seems implausible if she was a vile person; and there are numbers of small things which help one to see why.  I think the reason why she has developed this very negative reputation in the academic world is twofold.  Firstly, I suspect there was a reaction to the unsubstantiated hagiographic approach of Strickland et al – and a desire to find a different reality.  But more importantly the documents which survive do tend to assist in that.  What you have of directly contemporaneous comment on Eleanor does tend to be negative, including a number of letters deriving from Eleanor’s business activities which definitely tend to suggest that she was capable of being pretty terrifying, and that her property business was run very hard indeed.  This first person testimony is naturally compelling.  Add to that the results of the inquest on her business, and it is not surprising that the tendency has been to view Eleanor in a negative light.  But, as I’ve mentioned in the book, you have to remember that these are fragments – just because they represent the bulk of the surviving evidence we should not forget that they testify to very isolated incidents, and that Eleanor’s life was made up of very, very much more than this.  The challenge is to try to place these specific pieces of material in context, and evaluate how much weight should be allowed to rest on them - particularly when you see countervailing evidence in the vignettes from the wardrobe records.   Ultimately it seemed to me that the evidence suggests that Eleanor was an extremely tough businesswoman, but very adept at leaving that side of herself in the office.  To friends, family and intimate staff – as well as petitioners or personal acquaintances - she was warm, engaging and very considerate. And to me, that is very credible; I have lots of friends of whom exactly the same could be said.

3. Eleanor is often presented as an indifferent mother to her children; is that fair?
No, it is not.  I do think the evidence suggests fairly strongly that she regarded her marriage as more important than her children – and was much more emotionally invested in it.  But there is plenty of evidence to rebut the charge that she was an indifferent mother. The mere fact of her leaving them behind for two extended periods (Crusade 1270-4 and Gascony 1286-9) does not demonstrate the charge.  She was far from the only royal wife to go on crusade – and in many ways her primary role as childbearer, in a world where children died so very often, would have meant that she was failing in that duty if she took 3½  prime childbearing years off. And the Gascon venture was never meant to last so long.  So those are red herrings. Nor is it fair to criticise her by the yardstick of Eleanor of Provence who was anomalously devoted to her children, staying with them for great portions of the year.  Again, the evidence is there in the details of the wardrobe accounts, and in sidelights from the correspondence.  Eleanor ran a considerable childrens’ establishment, with close attention given to the details of the children’s regime and routine.  She wrote to ask after the children regularly.  She sent thoughtful gifts.  For Alphonso, the child to whom she was perhaps most close, she went to great lengths to commission a simply beautiful psalter, with illustrations that bear the hallmark of her own input.  But to me the most compelling fact is that she ensured that the children’s establishment was moved hundreds of miles to be near to her when she was away travelling for longer than usual.  So in the Welsh years, the children are carted up to Acton Burnell to see their parents, and then off to Bristol for Christmas.  And later they are sent north to Clipstone in Eleanor’s final months to bid her farewell.  In fact there is reason to argue that if Eleanor had been a less concerned mother England might have been spared Edward II!  The second son, Henry, died shortly after being sent for to greet his parents on return from crusade, and to participate in the coronation (in London in mid August – maybe not the greatest decision? …).  Alphonso died not long after a trip north to see his parents during the Welsh campaign.  It was doubtless for these reasons that Eleanor of Provence advised against moving the children north for their final farewell to their mother.

4. This is a game I love to play for something lighter: if a production company came along and wanted to make the dramatised version of your biography, is there any actors you would love to see take on the roles of Edward I and Queen Eleanor? Assume budget is no issue!
I like this game too!  But it is way too difficult.  My husband favours Burton and Taylor, but there are all sorts of problems with that.  Looking into golden era Hollywood I rather like Katherine Hepburn (brainy, feisty, sporty) and Gregory Peck (tall, dark and handsome with a rather Edwardian chin).  But in the current crop of stars my favourites are Rachel Weisz and Daniel Craig – who could bring their own personal chemistry to the roles on top of all their other qualifications.  Particularly, though, I love the idea of book addict Eleanor being played by a Cambridge graduate.  And what is more, Rachel Weisz already knows how to ride a camel for the Crusade section … (How about Robert Downey Jr as Robert Burnell, by the way?).

5. Finally, why will the story of Eleanor of Castile appeal to readers?
How long have you got?  I can bore on about this for hours!  Seriously, while writing the book I have often wondered why such a great story has remained untold, and I lived in terror someone would get there first. There seem to me to be a number of levels on which it should appeal.  Firstly, Eleanor’s is just a fascinating story: exotic childhood, child marriage, at the centre of international politics, civil war and crusade.  She lived in five different countries and visited several others, she had at least sixteen children and a busy professional life, she experienced captivity, an assassination attempt on her husband, the loss of beloved children and immense triumph and success  - alongside a fulfilling professional career.  And she inspired a remarkable artistic tribute after her death.  On top of that she is an interesting person, in that she had a large number of subjects about which she felt passionately.  So there are several Eleanors: Eleanor the bookworm, Eleanor the obsessive gardener, Eleanor the interior designer, Eleanor the gourmet and Eleanor the equestrienne.  With my feminist hat on, I also find Eleanor the businesswoman, striking terror into the hearts of bishops and barons, a very inspiring picture! And finally you come back to where I started – a real and very touching love story, the evidence of which still stands in stone for us to see.  All in all, whether you like her or you don’t – and she will not be as much to everyone’s taste as she is to mine – I think many people will find a remarkable story and an even more remarkable woman.

My review of Sara's book will be up soon, along with a chance for a reader to win a copy of it. In the meantime, please check out its Facebook page here. My thanks to Sara for taking time to answer the questions so fascinatingly. 

Thursday 11 September 2014

Elena Maria Vidal reviews my new book "The Emperors"

Tsar Nicholas II of Russia, whose reign ended with the February Revolution of 1917

Elena Maria Vidal, creator of the Tea at Trianon blog and author of the novels Trianon, Madame Royale, The Night's Dark Shade and The Paradise Tree (forthcoming), has very kindly reviewed my first non-fiction book, The Emperors: How Europe's Rulers were destroyed by the First World War (Amberley, 2014). In her review, Elena Maria writes: - 
The Emperors by Gareth Russell is a book I could not put down until the tragic finale. Gareth succinctly but with drama and power describes the apocalyptic fall of the leaders of Western Civilization in 1917. I finished reading it at night, which was a mistake, because then sleep was impossible, so poignantly is the overthrow of empires described.Written with pathos yet meticulously documented, the book destroys the stereotypes of the rulers, the war and the revolutions... The Emperors is not a long book but it contains more information and more astute analysis than many a tome. 
I am obviously very touched and flattered by Elena Maria's wonderful review, which you can read in full by clicking here. I also undertook a short interview with a local paper near my parents' home-town in Northern Ireland, which is available online here, with thanks to Joanne for the commentary.

I thought I'd also take the opportunity to give a brief outline of The Emperors for anyone interested in buying it or knowing a little bit more about what it covers. It was a wonderful book to write and a frightening but fascinating topic to research. With the Scottish secession referendum looming next week, I was struck by how much of what I read about attitudes in the Austro-Hungarian Empire were so applicable to events in the United Kingdom in 2014. Nationalism seemed to me to be the great bogeyman of the early twentieth century, a pernicious and often devastating force, and what I called "nationalism's inherent tendency towards xenophobia" seems to me to be as applicable to much of what is emanating from Alex Salmond, Scotland's First Minister, and the "Yes" campaign.

Chapter 1: 'The Old World in its Sunset' - this chapter, the book's longest, sets the scene in the three empires covered by the book - Russia's, Germany's and Austria-Hungary's. It describes how each empire had reached the state they were in by 1914, focusing not just on the personalities of their rulers, Tsar Nicholas II, Kaiser Wilhelm II, and the Emperor Franz Josef, but also who was advising them, the ruling family's private lives, the country's economy, diplomatic alliances and attitudes to their neighbours. The title comes from a quote by Winston Churchill.

Chapter 2: 'Terrible shock to the dear old Emperor' - here I focus on the life of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Este, the Emperor's nephew who became heir to the throne after his cousin's suicide: his decision to marry for love rather than royal rank, his opposition to nationalism, anti-war views and the terrible conspiracies which resulted in his murder in 1914 and the countdown to war. The chapter title comes from a diary entry by King George V of the United Kingdom (below).

Chapter 3: 'Go to the churches, kneel down, and pray for help for our soldiers' - this section covers the countdown to the war in the weeks after the Archduke's assassination, focusing particularly on the moves in Vienna and Berlin between those who wanted war and those who preferred peace. The chapter title comes from a speech made by the Kaiser.

Chapter 4: 'A spectacle at once magnificent and terrible' - shifts focus to look at the first year of the Great War from the Russian perspective, when the armies were under the command of the Tsar's cousin, Grand Duke Nikolai. The quote comes from one of Nicholas II's cabinet ministers.

Chapter 5: 'His Majesty has no understanding of the seriousness of the situation' - centring around the sinking of the British luxury liner Lusitania (below) by a German submarine in 1915, this chapter looks at those in the German government and armed forces who wanted to accelerate the country's attacks on its neighbours to a state known later as "total war". The opening quote comes from one of the Kaiser's aide-de-camps.

Chapter 6: 'May God bless Your Majesty' - this chapter covers the accession of Emperor Karl I to the Austro-Hungarian thrones and the prominent role played by his wife, Zita of Bourbon-Parma, a member of the exiled French royal family. The chapter title is taken from the words of Prince Zdenko Lobkowitz to the new Emperor and Empress in 1916.

Chapter 7: 'I cannot and won't believe that he has been killed' - focuses on the personality and political impact of Nicholas II's wife, the Empress Alexandra, and her dependence on her spiritual confidante, Rasputin. The opening quote comes from one of the Empress's letters.

Chapter 8: 'May the Lord God help Russia' - the rapid implosion of the Romanov monarchy in February 1917 is covered here, how it happened and why, as well as looking at the last-minute attempts to save the institution by offering the crown to Nicholas II's youngest brother, the Grand Duke Mikhail. Nicholas II's return to his palace which had become his family's place of house arrest concludes the chapter, and his signing-off phrase from his abdication document inspired the chapter title.

Cecilia of Mecklenburg-Schwerin, German Crown Princess
Chapter 9 - 'The Military Dictatorship hardly veiled any more' - this chapter covers the rising prominence of General Paul von Hindenburg and his ultra-nationalist confidante, Erich Ludendorff, in the Second Reich, as well as discussing the birth of a princess with Down's Sydrome, Alexandrine, into the German Imperial Family. Her doting mother, Crown Princess Cecilia (above) had already been profiled, and by this stage her opposition to the war was a view increasingly shared by millions of the Kaiser's exhausted subjects.

Chapter 10 - 'It seems to me that we would gladly conclude peace with you' - my take on the Empress Zita's role in the fascinating Sixtus Affair, in which she and her royal relatives in the Allied armed forces played a pivotal role in attempting to thrash out a path towards peace.

Chapter 11 - 'Our souls are at peace' - this chapter discusses the Russian Imperial Family's life in captivity and their murder in Yekaterinburg in July 1917, including a discussion of whether or not Vladimir Lenin gave the order for the entire family to be slaughtered.

Chapter 12 - 'It was neck and neck to the very end' - this too has its title taken from a quote by Winston Churchill, who thought that up until the spring of 1918, the Great War had been too close to call. The realisation that Germany and her allies could not win the war caused widespread unrest throughout central Europe, resulting in the downfall of the German and Austrian monarchies, but as I discuss in this chapter, the similarities are potentially deceptive and both courts faced very different situations in the second week of November 1918.

Epilogue - 'She's too short to be Tatiana' - with all the fascinating and often tragic lives of the royals in the post-war world, it was difficult to scale everything down to one chapter, but hopefully I succeeded. The famous affair of the Grand Duchess Anastasia's alleged survival is discussed, as are the royals' attitudes towards Nazism and Communism, and how they are often viewed today.

Many thanks again to everyone who has been in touch!

Sunday 31 August 2014

Information on "The Emperors" in the US!

Good evening! I've had a few comments and enquiries about The Emperors on Amazon US, so I contacted the Marketing team at Amberley for clarification. The Emperors is available to order for US customers, but since it comes via a UK distributor because it is published by a British firm, it may be 4-6 weeks before it is available in the USA for delivery. Apologies to anyone who is waiting for a copy and thank you so much for your interest in it. I'll keep everyone posted with news of its availability in the States. 
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