Friday 27 November 2015

"A History of the English Monarchy" extract: The Queen in the Silver Saddle

My most recent book A History of the English Monarchy covers the English Crown from Roman rule to the death of Elizabeth I in 1603, when the monarchy began to shift into a British institution. Over the next few weeks, I'm posting short extracts from each of the book's seven chapters.

The book's third chapter is called From Scotland to Spain and it focuses on the early Plantagenet empire, which cover more of modern France than the then French monarchy. The English royal family's power and their dysfunction were both augmented by Henry II's glamorous and famous queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine. A reigning duchess in her own right, Eleanor's legend was born in her own lifetime thanks to the strength of her character and the scandals she managed to attract, then weather. The extract below discusses Eleanor's larger-than-life personality, which had been on display during her first marriage to King Louis VII of France. (It had ended in divorce and after an indecently short period, she married the future Henry II of England.)

Shortly after her marriage, King Louis [VI] died and Eleanor’s husband succeeded to the throne as Louis VII. Arriving in Paris for their coronation, Eleanor quickly discovered that she was no more popular with the French than Louis was with the Aquitinians. Her respected mother-in-law, Adélaïde of Maurienne, was ugly and pious; Eleanor was extravagant and said to be very beautiful. France hardly has a heart-warming history when it comes to its foreign-born queens consort, particularly if they happened to be pretty and had so much as a spark of a personality. It has already been mentioned that powerful clerics like Bernard of Clairvaux took issue with their new Queen’s pendulous earrings, but they also disliked her expensive jewellery, fur-trimmed silks and the long sleeves of her gowns. To them, and for whatever reason, the Queen’s wardrobe seemed indecent. She had been raised in a court that was comparatively more sophisticated and far wealthier than that of France. One contemporary noted that from childhood Eleanor had acquired ‘a taste for luxury and refinement’. Now that she was Queen, she saw absolutely no reason to tailor her whims to soothe the outrage of a few troublesome priests. 
More damaging by far than her extravagance was Queen Eleanor’s passion for intrigue. Her younger sister Petronilla came to Paris with her and embarked upon an affair with the Comte de Vermandois, who was married. His wife, Éleonore, was King Stephen of England’s younger sister. That the Count was married to the sister of a King and that she had numerous powerful relatives at the French court should have warned Petronilla off her course of action. It should certainly have dissuaded Eleanor from stepping in to help her. However, Eleanor was close to her sister and she had a score to settle with the Comte de Champagne, King Stephen’s brother, who had recently opposed a French invasion of Toulouse, part of Eleanor’s patrimony, which she felt was being kept from her illegally. When news of the affair between Vermandois and Petronilla broke, Eleanor persuaded her husband to support Vermandois divorcing his wife to marry Petronilla. The clergy were appalled at the Queen’s actions and she gained a lifelong enemy in the Comte de Champagne, who regarded the divorce of his sister as a slight on his entire family. Champagne subsequently rebelled and many blamed Eleanor for provoking it. Criticised on all sides, the Queen brazenly refused to apologise and even publicly quarrelled with Bernard of Clairvaux when he declined to intercede with the Pope on Petronilla’s behalf. It was only when Eleanor began to fear that her continued childlessness was a sign of God’s displeasure that she began to improve her relationship with the Church. 
It was during her first pregnancy, which she and those around her attributed to the intercession of the Blessèd Virgin, that news reached France that Edessa had fallen to the armies of Imad al-Din Zengi, the Islamic Emir of Mosul and Aleppo. Edessa was part of Outremer and its collapse prompted Pope Eugenius III to issue the Papal bull Quantum praedecessores, exhorting the Christian knights of Europe to ‘take the Cross’ and go east to defend the holiest sites of Christianity from falling into the hands of the non-believers. Both Louis and Eleanor were caught-up in the crusading fever and at Bernard of Clairvaux’s Easter sermon in praise of the sanctity of the Crusade, Eleanor knelt at her former opponent’s feet and pledged that the knights of the Aquitaine would take up their swords in the service of Christ. She, as their Duchess, would go with them.

It was not quite what Bernard had wanted from her. Like many of his contemporaries, the famous preacher neither liked nor trusted the idea of women anywhere near an army and Eleanor in particular worried him. However, the Queen had sworn publicly and she could not therefore be gainsaid. If she did not go, there was also every chance that the men of the Aquitaine would not go either, since going without their Duchess would mean submitting themselves entirely to the control of the French. One is tempted to think that Eleanor’s public gesture of commitment to the Crusade may therefore have been a deliberate ploy to bounce Bernard and her clerical opponents into giving their reluctant blessing to her participation. In any case, the Pope was keen to encourage maximum royal involvement in the holy war and his office formally blessed Eleanor and Louis in a ceremony at the basilica of St Denis shortly before they set off for Palestine. Having won a place for herself, Eleanor did nothing to dispel fears that she would prove a disruptive influence. She took nearly three hundred female servants with her and turned up for the army’s departure on a horse with a silver saddle encrusted with golden fleurs-de-lis and a dress glistening with jewels. She had many strengths. Minimalism was not one of them.

Monday 23 November 2015

"A History of the English Monarchy" extract: The Empress and the Sleeping Saints

My most recent book A History of the English Monarchy covers the English Crown from Roman rule to the death of Elizabeth I in 1603, when the monarchy began to shift into a British institution. Over the next few weeks, I'm posting short extracts from each of the book's seven chapters.

The book's second chapter, God, Life and Victory, covers the years from 1066 to 1154 by focusing on the four kings who ruled after the Norman Conquest. This extract describes the impact of the monarchy's implosion during a civil war subsequently known as "the Anarchy", when the former King's only surviving daughter, the German Emperor's widow, was displaced in the line of succession by her cousin, who claimed the throne as King Stephen. 

… in 1141 Stephen suffered an eviscerating defeat at the Battle of Lincoln. The skirmish took place at Candlemas, the feast that marked the anniversary of the infant Jesus being formally presented by His mother and stepfather at the Temple in Jerusalem. The day also marked when the Virgin Mary had been ritually purified by the rites of the Jewish faith, removing the stain of childbirth from her. Thus known variably as Candlemas, the Presentation of Jesus or the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin, the day was celebrated by a festival of light within Christian churches and it was during Mass that King Stephen’s Candlemas candle broke in his hands. If it was an omen, as many at the time assumed, it was an accurate one. In the ensuing carnage, Stephen fought bravely in hand-to-hand combat, but was eventually knocked unconscious by one of the Empress’s knights. 
With Stephen in her clutches, the Empress moved to London, where she was granted the interim title of domina Anglorum – ‘lady of the English’. Rather than win hearts, however, the Empress preferred to step on toes. Her haughtiness, her petty vindictiveness, her demands for tribute, her heavy fines and her overbearing arrogance alienated the capital until the Londoners rose up against her, forcing her to flee before she could be crowned. The riots happened so abruptly that the Empress fled mid-dinner, plates still on the table. Stephen’s wife Matilda was encamped on the south bank of the Thames with mercenaries from her native Boulogne, perfectly situated to take advantage of the Empress’s incompetence. The latter’s biographer, Marjorie Chibnall, is certainly correct in stating that the Empress was excoriated for displaying the same kind of dictatorial behaviour that had been tolerated in her father and it is curious that a woman who had won such praise for her behaviour in Italy and Germany during her first marriage could have behaved with such belligerent idiocy in England, but people change, and rage at her disinheritance by Stephen, and the ease with which he had done it, may have permanently shocked and embittered her. Either way, the loss of London in 1141 was the closest the Empress ever came to winning the crown. 
After that, the war between the cousins settled into a long and vicious campaign of attrition. The chronicles of the time record the agony endured by the population. Normandy, invaded by the armies of the Empress’s husband Geoffrey, ‘suffered continually from terrible disasters and daily feared still worse […] the whole province was without an effective ruler’. The Gesta Stephani, a chronicle sympathetic to King Stephen, wrote of ‘villages […] standing solitary and almost empty because the peasants of both sexes and all ages were dead’. Henry of Huntingdon remembered an England full of ‘slaughter, fire and rapine, cries of anguish and horror on every side’. The rich men filled their castles ‘with devils and evil men’, and with royal justice in the doldrums, the common folk bore the brunt of the aristocracy’s lawless depravity. ‘They put them in prison,’ the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle wrote, ‘and tortured them with indescribable torture to extort silver and gold […] They were hung by the thumbs or by the head, and chains were hung on their feet. Knotted ropes were put round their heads and twisted till they penetrated to the brains. They put them in prisons where there were adders and snakes and toads, and killed them like that. Some they put in an instrument of torture, that is in a chest which was short and narrow and not deep, and they put sharp stones in it and pressed the man so that he had all his limbs broken.’ The vicious, bloody and selfish upper class installed by the first Norman King helped lose it for the last. Many of those nobles had pressured Stephen into taking the throne in the first place, but abandoned him when war came. Little wonder that Stephen cried, ‘When they have chosen me king, why do they abandon me?’

It was a time of anarchy, misery and unanswered prayers: ‘To till the ground was to plough the sea; the earth bare no corn, for the lands were all laid waste by such deeds; and [men] said openly that Christ slept and his saints.’

Thursday 19 November 2015

"A History of the English Monarchy" extract: Lord of Warriors and Ring-Giver of Men

My most recent book A History of the English Monarchy covers the English Crown from Roman rule to the death of Elizabeth I in 1603, when the monarchy began to shift into a British institution. To mark almost a year since it was released, I'm posting short extracts from each of the book's seven chapters, over the  next few days.

The book begins with Conquest: The violent birth of the monarchy, a chapter which covers the longest time-span of all seven by narrating the development of monarchy in England from 30 B. C., beginning with the suicide of the goddess-queen Cleopatra and the seeming victory of Britain's republican rulers in Rome, through to the reign of England's most famous royal saint, King Edward the Confessor. This short extract discusses the importance of the family of Alfred the Great, the Wessex line of kings who helped unite England in the ninth and tenth centuries.

After Alfred, who died in October 899 , there was a succession of four kings of his line who expanded the borders of Wessex and the authority of its Crown. Alfred’s son, King Edward the Elder, was acknowledged as overlord of sizeable portions of the country by 920. Like his father, he styled himself King of the Anglo-Saxons, rather than solely of Wessex, a telling indicator of their family’s growing power. It was his son, and Alfred’s grandson, Æthelstan, who could justifiably claim to be the first King of England by conquering the last of the Viking kingdoms at York. He also forced the Welsh and Scottish royals to acknowledge him, reluctantly, as their overlord and the chroniclers gave him the rather magnificent Tolkein-sounding epithet of ‘lord of warriors and ring-giver of men’. His successor and younger brother, King Edmund the Just, was called ‘lord of the English, guardian of kinsmen, loved doer of deeds’. It was a strong line of Christian warrior-kings who, from Alfred the Great to Edmund the Just, took a small kingdom on the brink of annihilation to be conqueror and liberator of an entire nation. It was this family, and their followers, who gave birth to the kingdom of England. 

In 946, King Edmund was murdered by a crazed ex-thief, shortly after attending Mass for Saint Augustine’s Day. Edmund was succeeded by his brother Eadred, who died in 955 and bequeathed the crown to Edmund’s handsome teenage son Eadwig, nicknamed Eadwig the Fair due to his good looks. Young and lusty Eadwig had other things on his mind than the piety and conquest of his forebears. He was determined to enjoy his kingship, not endure it. Things got off to a decidedly rocky start when the young monarch skipped-out on his own coronation banquet, an event at which his absence was rather likely to be noted. Wondering where the star of the show had gone, his courtiers made the horrible (in hindsight) decision of sending the saintly Dunstan to find him. Dunstan, abbot of the great monastery at Glastonbury, found the King romping in bed with a young woman – according to some sources, with two. To say that the leading champion of monastic reform in England did not see the funny side of the King’s actions would be something of an understatement. Later stories suggested that one of the women had been the young King’s future mother-in-law and that an enraged Dunstan had dared drag the King, possibly mid-coitus, out of bed and back to the banquet. Eadwig’s intermission performance at his coronation set the tone for the rest of the reign, marked as it was by deteriorating relations between throne and Church.  
Eadwig died before his twentieth birthday and he was succeeded by his younger brother Edgar, who was made of more conventionally holy stuff. Dunstan was back in royal favour as Edgar’s new Archbishop of Canterbury. Together, the two men organised a magnificent pageant of royal power at Bath in 973. It was an innovative coronation ceremony, which helped set the tone for nearly all that followed. As Edgar was enthroned as ‘Eadgar Rex Anglo’ (‘Edgar, King of the English’), the choir sang the story of Zadok the Priest and Nathan the Prophet anointing King Solomon in the Old Testament. Today, those words still ring out at British coronations, albeit to the splendid music of Handel. Edgar was invested with the crown, the ring, the rod, the sceptre and the sword as symbols of his political, spiritual, judicial and military duties. These too are still part of the insignia of a British monarch.
A History of the English Monarchy: From Boadicea to Elizabeth I is available on British and American Amazon. 

Sunday 15 November 2015

Dominic Pearce on the Civil War Queen

I am delighted and excited that Dominic Pearce's biography of Henrietta Maria of France, wife of King Charles I, is available now from Amberley. Henrietta Maria's marriage coincided with the clash between parliamentarianism and absolutism in Britain, with the Queen's extravagance, Catholic faith and French upbringing cited by her husband's opponents as some of the causes for the civil war that cost thousands of lives and eventually toppled the monarchy in 1649. 

Dominic has kindly shared what attracted him to the story of the charismatic and controversial Bourbon princess, who was the younger sister of King Louis XIII of France, Queen Elisabeth of Spain and the mother of kings Charles II and James II.

By Dominic Pearce

When I started to research Henrietta Maria’s life I knew the story would be good. The queen was the muse of Anthony van Dyck, she survived two civil wars (the second one in France), outlived her husband and five of her children, and gave five monarchs to England – two children and three grand-children. To my delight I found an exceptional story that went a good deal further even than this. First there is the French background. Henrietta Maria was born in 1609. Her father was King Henri IV, a French national hero who saved his country from destruction at the end of the sixteenth century. Her mother was his second wife Marie de Médicis - famous as the builder of the Palais de Luxembourg, and for the cycle of paintings about her life by Rubens.

Henrietta Maria lived in France not only as a child but also from 1644 to 1660, and she died in France. The French history alone is mesmeric. It gives new insights into the queen’s life and the choices she made. It shines a new light on the English history of the period, so often viewed in isolation.

Second the queen’s character. Many of her letters survive. They are eloquent. She was strong, straightforward, intelligent, and filled with energy. She had a highly developed sense of fun. She was devoted to Charles I, utterly loyal. She was immensely courageous. I cannot say she was always the easiest person, but she is impressive, and she certainly had, when she chose, an irresistible charm.

Henrietta Maria with her husband, Charles I, departing for the hunt
Third the English Civil War. I discovered that, without Henrietta Maria, the conflict would not have started in the way it did. There was a real political problem in England (and Scotland) regardless of the queen. However she was at the heart of what happened – and not just as a victim. This is not the place to explain what she did during the war, but I can say she was nearly killed three times. There is more - her cultural patronage, the ups and downs of her marriage and family life, her sheer professionalism as a queen consort.

We can be close to Henrietta Maria. I have already said we have her letters. In the French court memoirs of the period we know how she appeared to her highly sophisticated compatriots. She is described in English letters, and appears in the diaries of Pepys and Evelyn. We have an eye witness account of her reaction, when she heard of the death of Charles I. We know what the furniture and ornaments were in the Château de Colombes, when she died (they were quite something). I was very lucky to have the opportunity to research this extraordinary woman who lived in such a period of history. She really is worth knowing more about.

Saturday 14 November 2015

Marianne Bereft: A Reflection on the early public reaction to the Paris terrorist attacks

A historian is always caught somewhere between pedantry and pragmatism. In reaction to last night's massacres in Paris, thousands of people have taken advantage of a Facebook app that allows them to alter their profile picture to be superimposed by the colours of the French flag. The gesture, which allows users to show their solidarity with victims of terrorism, utilises the tricolore, a flag that was first adopted two hundred years ago by a government that launched a policy of deliberate and sustained Terror against its own people. The French Revolution's Committee of Public Safety made the Spanish Inquisition look the habeas corpus fan club, massacres and choreographed executions were celebrated as part of the theatre of civic duty, opponents were drowned or butchered en masse, population cleansing was inflicted on sections of the west of France and the new republic, along with having a view of women that would make John Knox look like Gloria Steinem, presided over the annihilation of French religious freedom.

We don't like to talk about the French Revolution's horrors today, because the event has entered into the core mythology of the West. It was, so we are told, one of the birthplaces of Western liberal democracy, an interpretation that might have raised more than a guffaw from its participants. For all of its glib catchphrases, and very tangible and important successes (particularly outside France), the French Revolution was also a violent, cruel and often repulsive entity that was driven forward by rampantly intolerant political extremism. But it is seldom described as such.

Something of that collective will to ignore or deny was evident in the initial online reaction to the unspeakable jihadist horrors that took place this weekend. I have so far counted about a dozen #prayforParis on the statuses of Facebook acquaintances I know to be atheists or committed agnostics. I've seen people who quite seriously compared the democratically-elected Margaret Thatcher to a Nazi dictator wax lyrical about the inviolable sanctity of Western freedom. And the apotheosis of stupidity seems to me to be the #TerrorismhasnoReligion. Yes, it does. In this case, radical Islam. With the Ku Klux Klan, it is an extreme interpretation of Protestantism. You may not like how these people have chosen to interpret either the Qu'ran or the Bible, but to suggest that "real" religion is antithetical to violence is to fall into the trap of believing the West's tendency to view religion as the great cosmic hug, a theological mood bracelet, that exists solely to validate the believers and to make them behave like nice people. There are hundreds of examples in many religious texts which advocate pain, self-denial, violence or acts of punishing emotional repression. Last night's terror did have a religion. Faith was its driving motivation; it was not a fig leaf to cover some other goal. To insist that the jihadists are guilty of a horrible misunderstanding of their holy texts is to miss both the point and the opportunity to engage with the issue. Their interpretation is unquestionably horrible, and as far as one can be on what is essentially a matter of opinion it is almost certainly wrong, but to focus on that as our first port of call means that we run the risk of underestimating how deeply their perverse take on their religion matters to the killers. A thousand errors are being made through well-intentioned solipsism. Just as we have decided that "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity" are concepts too pure and too good for them to ever intentionally or inevitably produce negative side effects, we have exonerated certain strands of religious thought.

At this point, it might be fashionable to push the contrarian argument even further by citing the many examples we see online, every day, that prove we are living in an age of hysterical, mawkish voyeurism. This year, for God alone knows what reason, it suddenly became the fashion for people to post selfies online with a Poppy over their mouths to symbolise the annual minutes' silence held throughout Britain and the Commonwealth to commemorate the war dead. Apparently, quietly excusing oneself had gone out the window in exchange for yet another "look at me, behold and applaud my virtue" snapshot. One could use the reaction of one half of the Internet to despair at the bigoted fear-mongers of the world, who fall back on sweeping generalisations by implying that the majority of the world's second-largest faith are jihad-supporting terrorists. Equally, you could point at the proliferation of half-baked hyper-liberal keyboard warriors, thundering over the newsfeed barricades with their certain-to-be-well-received platitudes about pluralism, diversity and the heartwarming loveliness of the human race. Many in the latter camp will run further with the baton of daring intellectualism by suggesting the West is to blame for the butchering. A cascade of caveats will arrive alongside the sting of self-accusation.

But I've always wondered at the tendency of those who praise vox populi in principle only to dismiss it in practice. It doesn't particularly matter that the French national flag began its life in less than delightful circumstances. That flag has been around for so long and weathered so many other events, including heroic opposition to Nazi invasion, that it has rightly come to symbolise something else entirely. Through its proliferation on Facebook, even from those who are doing it with half an eye to how many likes they will receive, the tricolore has come to represent this week's empathy and resilience. Historians, and certainly anthropologists, will look back on our reaction to this tragedy with fascination. In their conclusions, they will have the great advantage of knowing how the story ends. For the moment, all we can do is try to react as honestly as we can. Since History often reads as a catalogue of man's failures, it would be very easy for us to focus solely on the maudlin, the crass, the flawed or the illogical. Instead, it might be more worthwhile to appreciate the caring, the eloquent, heartfelt empathy of those who felt sufficiently moved by this tragedy to display their feelings of outrage and support. 

There is a threat that needs to be understood. It is the author of horror, misery and pain. It has butchered thousands of Muslims and Christians in the Middle East. It has been responsible for ethnic purges, gang rape and cultural destruction. Now, it is spreading outwards to strike at the great cities of foreign nations, where it will not hesitate to kill people of all religions and none. It is an ideology that writes in blood and claims, with total sincerity, to have a Divine mandate. It uses acts of war and moral squalor as its first course of action, not its last. Just over two hundred years ago, as they watched the tricolore being hoisted for the first time on the horizon, the denizens of old regime Versailles posed the question, "Who can say where this audacity of ideas will end?" As Paris gives the world yet another display of stoic courage and dignity, that question must be resurrected. Something must be done. I don't know what it is. But there is something heartening in most of the reactions to this weekend's brutality and they potentially provide a glimmer of hope on the very difficult road ahead.
Related Posts with Thumbnails