Monday, 30 December 2013

Further Indications of Anne Boleyn's Birth Date

This article follows on from my 2012 essay "The Boleyn Marriage and the Birth of Anne Boleyn", accessed at

Although not specifically related to Anne Boleyn herself, other sixteenth century evidence concerned with youth and marriageability specifically from a feminine perspective can be used to support this writer's belief that the Queen was born in c 1501. This therefore agrees with the theories of Hugh Paget, Eric Ives and Alison Weir, and counters claims (mainly put forward by Retha Warnicke) that Anne was born c 1507.

In Eric Ives' 2009 book Lady Jane Grey: A Tudor Mystery, he puts forward (p50) a letter written by Jane's father Henry Grey, marquis of Dorset to Thomas Seymour in September 1548, concerning the upbringing of Jane. To put this in context: Katherine Parr had died earlier that month, and since she had been acting as Jane's guardian, Henry Grey was keen to relocate Jane back to the Grey family's household at Bradgate in Leicestershire. In his letter, he emphasised to Seymour:

"I seek in these her young years wherein she now stands..."
"Considering the state of my daughter and her tender years..."

Lady Jane Grey's birth date is unknown but most historians believe it was in the spring of 1537, making her approximately eleven years of age when this letter was penned. Now, as anyone with an interest in Anne Boleyn knows, those who favour the 1507 birth date often cite the comment of Margaret of Austria to Thomas Boleyn in 1513. She found the youthful Anne to be "so bright and so pleasant for her young age..."

Gareth Russell argued that this lends weight to a 1507 birth date: 'why would the Archduchess have made a point of referring to Anne's age as being exceptionally young, if she was the same age as every other maid-of-honour?' But Anne was not the same age as every other maid of honour, for even if she were twelve years old in 1513, as seems likely, it is certain that other maids would have been older. A glance at the list of maids at the English court in the sixteenth century confirms this. Jane Seymour was 21 when she was appointed a maid of honour to Queen Katherine of Aragon in 1529; Anne Basset was 16 when Jane selected her as a maid in 1537; and the Viscountess Montague was also 16 when she was appointed a maid of honour to Queen Mary I. Thus, if Anne were 12 in 1513, she would have seemed youthful compared with the other, older, maids of honour.

Henry Grey's 1548 letter, written about his 11-year old daughter, suggests that references to 'young age' or even 'tender years' do not necessarily have to refer to an infant of seven. Using this as evidence of a 1507 birth date for Anne is, therefore, extremely problematic. If Jane was referred to as 'young' and 'tender' when she was aged 11, it therefore makes sense for Anne, only one year older, to also be viewed as 'young'.

Comments on Anne Boleyn's fertility, made in context of her courtship with Henry VIII during the late 1520s, can also be viewed as supporting an earlier birth date. The king's mistress was praised in 1528-9 for her 'apparent aptness to procreation of children'. It has consequently been argued that she must have been born around 1507, for had she been in her late twenties, her fertility and childbearing potential would have been questioned or openly challenged, not praised. However, the Parliament of June 1536, following on from Jane Seymour's marriage to Henry after Anne's death, emphasised that Jane was 'in age and in form... deemed to be meet and apt for the procreation of children'. She was then 28, thus calling into question suggestions that Anne, at 27, was too old to be described as fit for childbearing.

The seventeenth-century writer William Camden, who wrote that Anne was born in 1507, actually expressed some confusion. Besides recalling that she had been born in 1507, he later commented that Anne had been twenty when the king (aged thirty-eight) had fallen in love with her, thus pushing her birth to 1509. This indicates that he was hardly a reliable source for the early life of Elizabeth I's mother.

As Nell Gavin writes: 'the sources that suggest a later birth year are either questionable, purely speculative, are second or third hand, are noted 80 to 100 years after Anne's death, and/or have no verifiable source for the information'. Gavin notes that, for the 1507 birth date to be true:

* 'Margaret of Austria must have accepted Anne into her employment at age five or six, even though it is both unlikely and undocumented that she would bend the rules to accept a non-royal child. Plus, a pampered upper-class child of that age undoubtedly required more care and supervision than she could offer in service and responsibility'.
* 'Anne must have been completely fluent and literate in her second language by the time she was seven, an age at which most children are struggling with their first language'.

The evidence put forward here in relation to attitudes to youth (Lady Jane Grey, 1548) and marriageability (Jane Seymour, 1536) act alongside the persuasive arguments of Eric Ives, Alison Weir and Hugh Paget to convincingly attest to a birth date of c 1501 for Anne Boleyn. The 1507 birth date is both tenuous and unlikely. Camden and the Duchess of Feria, the only two individuals to have suggested a later birth date, were not reliable sources; Camden because of his second or third hand information and distance from the events he described; and the Duchess because of her hostility to Anne Boleyn and her distance from events. There can be little doubt that Anne was born c 1501.

Sunday, 29 December 2013

Favourite Reads of 2013

Antonia Fraser, Marie Antoinette: The Journey (2002).

Myths and misconceptions abound about France's tragic eighteenth century queen, destined to lose her ill-fated life in the brutality of the French Revolution. A biography of Marie Antoinette, fair in its treatment, has been long overdue. Fraser's biography of the queen is stylish, beautifully written, evocative, and compelling. In fact, so successful was it that it inspired Sofia Coppola's 2006 film adaptation starring Kirsten Dunst.

Robert K. Massie, Nicholas & Alexandra (1967).

It may have been published in 1967, but Robert K. Massie's study of the last tsar of Russia, Nicholas II, and his unpopular consort Alexandra remains the definitive biography of the Imperial family. The book is particularly moving when readers learn early on that the author was inspired to write this book because of his son's own haemophilia, shared by the Tsar's son and heir Alexis. The Russian royal family fought to conceal this humiliating and disturbing truth from their subjects, but to no avail. Rasputin's subsequent influence and growing power ruined any hopes of a peaceful succession, and set in train the awful events which led, eventually, to the massacre at Ekaterinburg in 1917.

Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890).

Probably Wilde's most famous work, this dark, captivating and brilliant novel encompasses disturbing themes regarding art, morality, sexuality, murder and, of course, beauty. Although his narcissism, selfishness and cruelty contribute to his spectacular downfall, readers sympathise with Dorian's plight. It's worth considering whether his hedonism and narcissism merely reflect the preoccupations and conceited desires of his own age, rather than symbolise in a more narrow sense his own personal faults and failings.

George Orwell, 1984 (1949).

Need I say more? Disturbing and reflective of the totalitarian systems operating in his own age in he aftermath of the Second World War, Orwell's novel remains a classic example of dystopian oppression.

Philippa Gregory, The Lady of the Rivers (2011.

Following on from the success of her The White Queen, Philippa Gregory tackled Elizabeth Woodville's shadowy mother, Jacquetta of Luxembourg, in The Lady of the Rivers. Beautifully evoking the factional disputes, prevalent misogyny, and sexual politics of fifteenth-century Europe, Jacquetta proves a strong, determined narrator who takes affairs into her own hands and, after an unsuccessful first marriage, marries for love into the Woodville family and guides her daughter's path to the throne of England. The emphasis on witchcraft and magic might prove a little repetitive, but this novel is probably Gregory's best.

Anna Whitelock, Elizabeth's Bedfellows (2013).

This isn't a traditional biography of the Virgin Queen, which is exactly what makes it refreshing. Beautifully written, Anna Whitelock's impressive scholarly pedigree shines through as she guides us through the intimacy of the Elizabethan court. Themes of beauty, fertility, sexuality, marriage, youth, and age are very much to the forefront here; alongside broader issues of representation and image. A must read for all those interested in Elizabeth.

Friday, 20 December 2013

Consent - the Moral and Psychological Issues

This is not, strictly speaking, a historical article. Nevertheless, consent is an intriguing concept and especially controversial in terms of current debates about sexuality, violence and assault seemingly ever present in the media today.

Oxford Dictionaries describes consent as:

"permission for something to happen or agreement to do something".

In criminal law in Britain the consent must be both positive and genuine in order to apply. Did the defendant honestly believe that the victim consented?

Philosophically speaking, it would be interesting to consider why people consent. In sexual matters, does a person consent because they love the other person and wish to participate in something intimate and loving? Does it signify an act of trust on their part? Of course, for many people, choosing, or consenting, to having sexual intercourse with someone else results from their placing trust in that person. They may have strong feelings and wish to act on them. They may be acting out of love.

Alternatively, does someone consent to sexual acts because they feel they have to? Historically speaking, in relation to female sexuality it has been noted that teenage girls, in particular, consent to sexual intercourse often because of social or cultural pressures, not because of biological compulsions. This can be especially damaging - why should people feel they have to consent to sex, in order to please someone? Paradoxically, you could say they are really being forced into sex, or pressured, as a means of retaining that person's interest. Of course, this can have profound psychological consequences, particularly at a youthful age.

In the early modern period, for example, it was believed that females, being carnal and licentious beings, were so desirous of sex that they wanted to be raped. This shocking view provided justification for men to rape them. Rape was punished, make no mistake about it, but it was punished as an offence against property, since women were viewed as belonging to their menfolk, whether husbands or fathers. Morally, women were viewed as to blame, even if they had not consented. But a belief in what is termed "interior consent" existed: even if women said they did not consent, they were believed to nonetheless have consented. If they said no to rape, in reality they were desirous of it. Perhaps this belief is still held by some today.

But consent affects men, too, in this sphere. Ally Fogg criticised existing perceptions of male sexuality so often seen as 'threatening', 'aggressive', 'dangerous', even 'frightening'. In fact, some have even argued that society does not view men as victims of sex crimes. Shockingly, sexual assault and male victims are often just not associated with one another. The controversy surrounding rapper Danny Brown this year exposes this point. Performing on stage, a female fan pushed her way on stage and performed sexual acts on Brown, in the middle of his performance, without obtaining his consent. This was, in effect, a sexual assault. Just because Brown is male does not mean that he cannot also be a victim. 

Male rape was only recognised by British law in 1994 - nineteen years ago. This demonstrates, perhaps, as nothing else can, how our society views the connections between consent, male sexuality, and assault. As Michael Amherst says, and he is quite right: "It is no longer acceptable to pretend, as some do, that rape and sexual assault are only committed by men against women". Because men are stereotyped as strong, masculine, hypersexualised, thinking of nothing but sex, male rape and sexual assault is often viewed ambiguously, even doubtfully. Yet 'both men and women can still be persecuted for not conforming to gender stereotypes'. 

Consent is often freely given, but it can be coerced, forced, misplaced. Consent is closely linked with control, manipulation, trust. How do you judge whether it's right to consent to something? Is it based on instinct, or experience? It may seem right to consent at the time but later experiences mean consenting to something can be viewed with regret. Whatever happens, however, consent should not be forced, but freely given.

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

The Execution of the Queen's Lovers

On this day in history, 10 December 1541, the alleged lovers of Queen Katherine Howard were put to death at Tyburn: Francis Dereham and Thomas Culpeper. Culpeper was first beheaded, before Dereham suffered the excruciatingly painful death of hanging, drawing and quartering. Charles Wriothesley wrote in his chronicle:

Culpeper and Dereham were drawn from the Tower of London to Tyburn, and there Culpeper, after an exhortation made to the people to pray for him, he standing on the ground by the gallows, kneeled down and had his head stricken off; and then Dereham was hanged, membered, bowelled, headed, and quartered [and both] their heads set on London Bridge.

Contrary to popular myth, Culpeper did not profess his love for Katherine on the scaffold; as Wriothesley makes clear, he merely asked the people present to pray for him, thus giving a very traditional last speech. Although Culpeper had arguably committed the worst offence of the two, in allegedly committing adultery with the queen while she was married to the King, he suffered a 'kinder' death. In my book, I speculate that Dereham suffered the more brutal death not necessarily because Culpeper was the king's favourite and thus the king was more inclined to mercy, but because Dereham had spoken openly about Henry VIII's death (a treasonable offence) and because he had sexually assaulted Katherine as a youth, a criminal offence.

Katherine Howard had become involved with Dereham in 1538, when she was aged around fourteen, and the two had commenced a sexual relationship which lasted around three months, ending in early 1539. That Katherine entered this unwillingly is clear from her confession. She appears to have sought comfort from Dereham after being abused by another young man, Henry Manox, but before long Dereham was pressuring her into marriage and sexual intercourse. When she received an appointment at court, she happily left him behind. When she became queen, however, Dereham blackmailed Katherine into giving him an appointment at court; perhaps in return for his silence regarding their past relationship.

If Katherine hoped that this would keep him silent, she was to be disappointed. Before long, Dereham was openly bragging about his relations with the queen, and intimated that, were Henry VIII to die, he would marry Katherine. Around the same time, Thomas Culpeper began meeting with the queen in secret. There is no convincing evidence that the two ever were in love or had an adulterous relationship. This of course contradicts the portrayal of the affair in The Tudors and other popular works. It is extremely plausible that Culpeper began blackmailing the young queen in return for favours, assisted by Lady Rochford.

Dereham's aggressive behaviour and Culpeper's meetings with the queen occurred at the worst possible time. In the autumn of 1541, the Archbishop Thomas Cranmer was informed by Mary Lascelles, a childhood acquaintance of Katherine, that the queen had not been a virgin when she had married the king, and had had sexual relations with both Manox and Dereham. Under interrogation, Dereham admitted to a pre-marital relationship with Katherine, but, perhaps reacting out of jealousy, claimed that Culpeper had replaced him in the queen's affections.

Above: the relationship between Thomas Culpeper and Katherine Howard was, in reality, very different to that portrayed in The Tudors.

Like Dereham, Culpeper blamed the queen entirely for what had happened. He admitted, however, that he had intended to  'do ill' with her, but claimed that he had only met with her because she had been 'dying of love' for him. A letter written by the queen to Culpeper was found and used as evidence against the pair. Far from being a love letter, the tone is fearful, anxious, afraid. It has been credibly suggested that Culpeper was blackmailing Katherine into meeting him as a means of him increasing his power, in exchange for keeping silent about her past.

Both Dereham and Culpeper were found guilty of treason and sentenced to death. In February 1542, the queen and Lady Rochford followed them to the scaffold. So ended a tragedy which had culminated in the deaths of four people and the heartbreak of an ageing king. Although there was no convincing evidence that Katherine had committed adultery with either Dereham or Culpeper, prevailing attitudes to female sexuality and honour meant that it was all too easy for the interrogators to believe that she had.

Sunday, 8 December 2013

The Birth of Mary, Queen of Scots

Above: Mary Queen of Scots.

On this day in history, 8 December 1542, Mary Stuart, queen consort of France and queen regnant of Scotland, was born at Linlithgow Palace, 'in the coldest of winters'. She was the only child of James V, king of Scotland, and his French consort Mary of Guise. Mary was the great-niece of Henry VIII of England by virtue of the fact that her paternal grandmother Margaret Tudor was Henry's elder sister. As such, she had a claim to the English throne, which as time would tell would ultimately prove to be her downfall.

Six days later, Mary's father died, and so the crown of Scotland passed to a baby girl. John Knox reported that the king exclaimed in regards to the fate of Scotland, when told of the birth of his daughter, 'it came with a lass, it will pass with a lass!' Whether true or not, Knox's comment that 'all men lamented that the realm was left without a male to succeed' is probably more believable. Although rumours suggested that the new princess was weak, even frail, Ralph Sadler, an English diplomat at the Scottish court, confirmed that Mary was a 'goodly child', 'as like to live'. She was baptised at the nearby Church of St. Michael, and was crowned queen in September 1543.

Above: Linlithgow Palace, where Mary was born.

Mary's biographer John Guy claims that 'Mary Stuart was born at a turning point in history'. Two weeks before her birth, her father's forces had been routed by the English at the Battle of Solway Moss. Henry intended for the infant Mary to marry his five-year old son Edward, as a means of uniting the two kingdoms. In July 1543 the Treaty of Greenwich was signed. But the proposed Anglo-Scottish alliance was to disintegrate as rival factions, led by Catholics and Protestants who favoured alliance with either France or England, fought for control of the infant queen. In 1548 she travelled to France, and eventually wed Francis, son of the French king.

Thus were the events set in motion which would lead to Mary becoming queen consort of France alongside queen regnant of Scotland. Her short life in France did not prepare her for the struggles and conflict she would later encounter in her home country. Mary's life was turbulent, dramatic, and ultimately tragic: forty-four years after her birth, she would die at the hands of the executioner in the great hall of Fotheringhay Castle, a declared traitor to Queen Elizabeth I.

Sunday, 17 November 2013

Mary I's Death and Elizabeth I's Accession

Above: Sisters and queens. Mary I (left) and her sister Elizabeth I (right).

On this day in history, Thursday 17 November 1558, Queen Mary I of England died, probably of influenza, at St James' Palace in London. Her infamous and unsuccessful reign had lasted five extraordinary but bitter years, encompassing religious fervour, political turmoil and a greater involvement of England in international politics. Today, England remembers her by the infamous epithet 'Bloody Mary'. Her chief biographer, Professor David Loades, concedes that her reign was ultimately a 'failure'. Certainly, she has been eclipsed by her successful and brilliant younger sister Elizabeth, who succeeded to the English throne on Mary's death.

Having married Philip of Spain in 1554 - and so eventually becoming, by marriage, Queen of Spain - Mary had believed herself to be pregnant shortly after, but what eventually turned out to be a traumatic and humiliating phantom pregnancy in 1555 exposed her to scorn and left the Tudor succession in continued uncertainty. In March 1558, the year of her death, Mary expected the birth of a child, and made preparations in her will for the succession of her child to the throne of England. Nothing came of the so-called pregnancy, and by all accounts Mary had been the only person to believe in its existence. Her health began to slowly decline following that.

As both Loades and Anna Whitelock point out, from May 1558 Mary's health gradually worsened, and she suffered a fever in August. An influenza epidemic swept across London in the late autumn and claimed not only Mary's life but also that of her confidant, Reginald Pole archbishop of Canterbury. It has been conjectured that she might have been suffering from uterine cancer. On the day of her death, Mary stated that angels in the guise of children appeared to her, leading some historians to draw a tragic link between this and Mary's own strong desire to have children, a desire she never realised. She also spoke of how the word 'Calais' would be found imprinted on her heart; alluding to the national and international humiliation which England had endured following the loss of Calais, the only English stronghold in France, earlier that year, which had culminated in intensified dislike of the queen. Early on the morning of 17 November, the queen of England passed away in a lonely and abandoned court. Her contemporaries had long before flocked to Elizabeth's residence, to pay homage to the new queen.

Elizabeth was at her childhood residence of Hatfield when news of Mary's death and her subsequent accession reached her. Allegedly, although some doubt has been cast on this story, according to romantic legend Elizabeth was seated under an old oak tree, reading a book, when the councillors brought news. Sinking to her knees, she proclaimed in Latin in what has become immortalised: 'This is the Lord's doing, it is marvellous in our eyes'. Her godson, John Harington, however claimed that she actually made a speech confiding her sorrow in her sister's death and her amazement at God's decision to appoint her to the position of Queen. She asked her lords to help her in the business of ruling the country and promised her goodwill.

Mary's funeral took place on 14 December, and she was buried at Westminster Abbey, although her mother's body (Katherine of Aragon) was not moved there from Peterborough Cathedral as she had beseeched Elizabeth to do. Eventually, that tomb would be shared with Elizabeth, who died forty-five years later in 1603. The Latin inscription on the tomb translates as: 'Consorts in realm and tomb, here we sleep, Elizabeth and Mary, sisters, in hope of resurrection'.

Above: Mary and Elizabeth.

Unless Lady Jane Grey is included, Mary I was England's first ruling queen. She was expected to uphold the duties of kingship, embodied in the body politic, while symbolising her position as a woman with her own natural body. Her reign had lasted five bitter years, and one might consider how different her reign might have been if only the circumstances had been different. For one thing, she succeeded to the crown aged 37, old by the standards of the day to consider a first marriage and children. She was running on little time in terms of producing a Catholic heir to safeguard the faith so dear to her heart. One might wish that Henry VIII had married off his eldest daughter in her youth, particularly because of her desire to bear children, something which, tragically, she was never able to do.

Many of Queen Mary's decisions were doubtful; most infamously, her religious policies meant she became an unpopular and hated queen in a country where religious persecution was viewed as alien and un-English. But her desire to ingratiate England to a much greater degree in Europe can be applauded. Usually known as 'the Spanish Tudor', Mary's decision to marry Philip II of Spain has often been unfairly criticised, but her desire to align England with the most powerful and influential nation in Europe should be viewed as a shrewd and positive move designed to improve her country's security and bolster its international standing. Far from being the selfish, self-centred and out of touch monarch she is usually presented as in regards to this, Mary actually demonstrated a remarkably close consideration of her subjects' needs and best interests

By contrast, Elizabeth's accession on 17 November 1558 was to inaugurate a supposed 'Golden Age'; a prosperous, successful and godly reign entirely different to that of her hated sister. But in terms of understandings about monarchy and related issues of gender, Elizabeth undoubtedly owed a great deal to her elder sister. Mary was England's first ruling queen, not Elizabeth. Mary alone shouldered that burden in a country which had never experienced female rule in so definitive a sense; something Henry VIII had worked determinedly and bloodthirstily to avoid his whole reign. By being England's second queen regnant, Elizabeth was able to fully recognise and appreciate in a shrewd sense why her sister had failed, what she had done well, and what she was able to appropriate. Celebrated for her numerous speeches, it is actually very likely that Elizabeth drew strong inspiration from Queen Mary's given speeches. Consider the speech Mary gave in the wake of Wyatt's rebellion at the Guildhall in 1554, and this will be seen to have been the case.

Queen Mary, even by the standards of her time, was still relatively young at her death - she was forty-two years of age. She reigned the shortest out of all the Tudors, sitting on the throne for even less time than that of her teenage brother Edward VI. She had come to the throne amidst great controversy, opposition and hostility, intensified in the reign of King Edward on account of her Catholic faith. Her ability to dislodge the Duke of Northumberland, and with him Queen Jane, from power speaks volumes to her sense of purpose, her determination, her courage, and her faith. She was certainly not successful and prosperous in the way her sister Elizabeth I was. But Elizabeth had what Mary always lacked during her reign: time and youth. As one historian suggests, it would be more fruitful to compare Mary's reign with the first five years of Elizabeth's reign, since comparing a 5-year reign with that lasting 45 years will, inevitably, draw unfair and unrealistic conclusions.

Sisters, rivals, enemies - the relationship between Mary and Elizabeth was complicated, devastating and psychologically unstable. To the very end, Mary fought against appointing her younger sister her successor, a woman she continued to regard as a heretic and a bastard. But with the death of Queen Mary, Elizabeth's succession was to mark a spectacular and never before seen phase in England's history, forever immortalised as the 'Golden Age'. Where Queen Mary is 'Bloody Mary', Queen Elizabeth is 'Gloriana'.

Friday, 15 November 2013

Lady Gaga and the Politics of Burqa

Credit: Daily Mail
Above: Lady Gaga and the burqa.

The burqa forms extremely controversial attire in Western societies today. Although many Muslim women believe that it is an essential part of their religious and social identity, it has been attacked by critics as being a means of oppressing women within society. In 2011, it was reported that 66% of the British population believe that the burqa should be banned in all public places, while they were banned in France that same year, justifying this decision by saying: 'given the damage it produces on those rules which allow the life in community, ensure the dignity of the person and equality between sexes, this practice, even if it is voluntary, cannot be tolerated in any public place'.

Lady Gaga's song, 'Aura', released from her latest album ARTPOP, thus comes at an unsettling time in terms of burqa identity and gender issues of freedom and oppression. In the words of commentator Alyssa Rosenberg, the lyrics to this song 'are... politically disconcerting'. Concerning the burqa, they are as follows:

'I'm not a wandering slave, I am a woman of choice
My veil is protection for the gorgeousness of my face',

'Do you wanna peak underneath the cover?
Do you wanna see the girl who lives behind the aura, behind the aura?'

'She wears burqa for fashion
It's not a statement as much as just a move of passion'.

Yet, as Carmen Rios scathingly opines, 'instead of exploring the stories of Muslim women who wear burqas because they are... 'women of choice', she instead chooses to celebrate... the burqa by completely missing the actual point in exchange for making the religious garb sexy, edgy, acceptable to a broad audience of racist Islamophobic people'. In other words, Gaga is anti-Muslim through her portrayal of the burqa: 'instead of giving insight into a heritage that already exists, she superimposes her own desires - to be seen as sexual in a specific way - onto women who never asked for it'. A religious and cultural tradition is 'reduced' to 'a sexual ploy'.

One lady from Pakistan took to personally writing to Gaga expressing her disappointment with the track, claiming that the song 'sends the wrong message'. She questioned why Gaga, who had, in her opinion, done so much to empower young girls to love their own bodies, then went on to encourage women to sexualise the clothes that covered said bodies. By inviting men to 'peak underneath the cover', Umema from Pakistan argued that Gaga was arguing that 'if a woman shows signs of refusal, she is just being titillating and playing hard to get; that she secretly wants to be pursued and seduced'. This is dangerous, because it 'perpetuates violence against women'. Burqas are used to 'defy the male gaze', not to invite lust. To claim otherwise, Umema concluded, is 'insensitive and oversimplified'.

On the other hand, Myriam Francois Cerrah, writing for The Independent, completely disagreed with these negative opinions and claimed that 'Aura' actually emancipates Muslim women. Cerrah criticised the fact that Gaga was being condemned for allegedly 'supporting the patriarchy and insulting those women who are forced to wear the garb in question'. The burqa represents different things to different religions and cultures - whether piety, neo-feminism, or something else. Therefore Cerrah applauded Gaga's act of subverting 'the monopoly on meaning typically associated with the face veil as the evil imposition of male domination'. Passive and voiceless women are given a 'confident sexual identity and power', which could account for why the song has produced such shock and controversy: 'How dare a burqa-clad woman also be a confident sexual being?' One Muslim woman went so far to call the song 'amazing and uplifting'.

Alongside her other music and actions, Gaga's latest track 'Aura' has produced significant controversy. Some accuse her of recording it as a relentless money-making, attention-grabbing exercise, while others suggest she genuinely seeks to liberate Muslim women. By and large, responses to the track have been heavily negative. One wrote: 'Lady Gaga has decided to insult Muslims with her new song' after her 'exploitation of the gay community'. Others call her 'fake'. Whether Gaga really cares about the identity and culture of Islam, or whether she seeks merely to grab attention and controversy once more, is difficult to say. One thing's for sure - it's impossible to truly get behind Gaga's 'aura' as she seeks to remain controversial in music.

Friday, 1 November 2013

Katherine Howard's Past is Revealed

Above: Lynne Frederick as Katherine Howard in The Six Wives of Henry VIII (1972).

Having returned from their northern progress lasting the whole summer, Henry VIII and Katherine Howard set out to quietly celebrate their marriage by means of blessing the marriage on All Saints' Day, 1 November. Henry publicly gave thanks for his 'rose without a thorn'. But it was not long before that day was to be ruined. For the events comprising Katherine's downfall had been set into motion.

The story is an ambiguous and mysterious one, but sometime during the summer it seems that one of Katherine's childhood acquaintances, a staunch religious reformer named Mary Lascelles (who married into the Hall family), remarked to her brother, John, that she had no wish to serve the new Queen because she was light in both living and conditions. John pressed Mary for further details and she informed him that Katherine had been intimate with certain gentlemen within the Dowager Duchess of Norfolk's household. John, by virtue of his religious beliefs, was hostile to the Howards, and decided to use this story to ruin them.

He spoke with Archbishop Cranmer, himself a strong reformist, who decided to take the story to the King once the royal couple had returned from the north in the form of a letter which was left in the chapel pew in Hampton Court Palace. Henry was shattered, shocked, unable to believe what he had read. He immediately, however, ordered an investigation into the allegations.

For Katherine, it represented her worst fears. She had probably dreaded this moment ever since she had married the king and become queen. Whether she and Mary were personally hostile to one another, or whether the Lascelles were motivated solely by religious and political interests, is unknown. Mary Lascelles' allegation, however, would prove fatal. Four months later, Katherine would be dead, three others dying with her in the wake of her downfall. These events indicate the dangerous and brutal nature of power struggles at Henry VIII's court.

Sunday, 20 October 2013

Anne Boleyn and Spanish Sources

Doomed: Queen Anne Boleyn, who was executed in 1536, wore a pearl choker with a dangling 'B' pendant
Above (left): Queen Anne Boleyn, accessed online at the Daily Mail.
Above (right): Pedro Calderon de la Barca (1600-1681); Spanish playwright, dramatist and poet.

The Spanish ambassador at Henry VIII's court, Eustace Chapuys, and Nicholas Sander, writing in the reign of Elizabeth I, were two individuals who notoriously slandered and criticised Queen Anne Boleyn, second consort of Henry and mother to Elizabeth. While Sander believed she was a witch and a monster, Chapuys characterised her more in the guise of a manipulative, murderous shrew who bullied her husband, poisoned her rival Katherine, and plotted the death of her stepdaughter Mary.

Yet, as Paula de Pando makes clear in her essay 'Unqueening the queen: the Spanish image of Anne Boleyn', Chapuys was hardly the only Spanish writer who created a monstrous depiction of the queen. In Spain, particularly as the European Reformation further developed and relations between England and Spain soured and complicated, Anne came to be more and more attacked. One such example is the play La cisma de Inglaterra (The Schism in England), created by Pedro Calderon de la Barca, dating from c.1627, long after her death.

Relying on the Spanish Jesuit Pedro de Ribadeneyra (1587)'s history Historia eclesiastica del cisma del reino de Inglaterra (Ecclesiastical history of the schism in England), de la Barca set out to create a play which, occurring in context of worsening relations between England and Spain, encouraged an invasion of England while celebrating the reign of Queen Mary Tudor. The play initially introduces Anne as a seductive but ambitious woman who seduces the French ambassador Charles while a lady-in-waiting to Katherine of Aragon. de la Barca characterises her as de los hombres bellisima sirena / pues aduerme a su encanto los sentidos / ciega los ojos y abre los oidos ('that siren who enchants men's quietened senses / Blinding their eyes and opening their ears'). Clearly, like both Chapuys and Sander, de la Barca believed that Anne's unnatural sexuality was lethal to unsuspecting men.

Above: Anne Boleyn the seductress? The Other Boleyn Girl (2008) certainly encouraged this view.

In the play, de la Barca was also careful to present Anne as 'mujer altiva. Su vanidad, su ambicion, su arrogancia y presuncion la hacen, a veces, esquiva, arrogante, loca y vana'. ('Anne is proud; her vanity, ambition, and presumption make her at times disdainful, arrogant and wild, as well as being frivolous'.) Spanish audiences are also encouraged to react hostilely to the presentation of this woman as 'en secreto luterana' ('in private a Lutheran'). As Paula de Pando notes in relation to these and similar verses: 'This is where we see the myth of the evil temptress at is best, encapsulating all the negative stereotypes which were spread by Catholic writers and which even pervaded many supposedly canonical Protestant writings'.

Eventually, having married her and discovered her supposed adulteries, the king rejects Anne in horror and orders her execution. Afterwards, her bloodied corpse is lain at the feet of her rival, Mary. In context of Anglo-Spanish relations: 'Anne's exemplary punishment becomes a spectacle intended to incense the masses and encourage them to fight against the enemy.... Anne's transgression is portrayed as a crime that perverted the whole country: taking her revenge on the corpse of the offender, Mary is restoring the peace of the kingdom and restating 'the true faith''. De La Barca knowingly portrays Anne as an evil usurper who has brought heresy to the realm, while mistreating the Spanish (Katherine and Mary). The play encourages a Spanish invasion of England in order to restore Catholicism to the realm.

Above: the play was written in context of worsening Anglo-Spanish relations, which had begun deteriorating in the reigns of Elizabeth I (above left) and Philip II (above right). 

Clearly, Eustace Chapuys was not the only Spaniard to violently disparage Anne Boleyn, casting her as a heretic, poisoner, witch and adulteress. Spanish playwrights encouraged a hostile and licentious picture of the queen in their writings in order to support an invasion of England, to rid the realm of heresy and restore Catholicism. Drawing on religious stereotypes, gender beliefs, and cultural views, they created monstrous depictions of those they held responsible - including Anne Boleyn, mother of the Protestant queen, Elizabeth I.

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

The Execution of Marie Antoinette, Queen of France

Above: Marie Antoinette, 1783.

On this day in history, 16 October 1793, the thirty-eight year old Marie Antoinette, former Archduchess of Austria and more famously queen of France as consort of Louis XVI, was executed during the bloody and brutal French Revolution then ravaging the country. In Simon Sebag Montefiore, Marie Antoinette was 'a woman more sinned against than sinning'. But Eric Konigssberg intriguingly argues that 'the image of Marie Antoinette - dauphine, villain, tea-party thrower in shepherdess garb - is in the midst of an extreme rehab', and she holds a central and fascinating place in popular culture. Her life was compelling, extraordinary, and ultimately, highly tragic. She in no way deserved her fate, for what crime did she actually commit? In Marie Antoinette's case, it was a brutal but tragic fact that she was, put simply, in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Many misconceptions and scandals still attach themselves to the French queen's name, most famously the nonsensical rumour that she coldly claimed in regards to starving peasants: "Let them eat cake". It is perhaps more worthwhile to consider the facts of her life rather than the sensational dramas. Born on 2 November 1755 to the Holy Roman Emperor Francis I and his formidable wife Maria Theresa, empress, she was the fifteenth child of this illustrious union and, from the very first, would have been very well aware of her worth in European dynastic politics.

File:Wien Hofburg Neue Burg Heldenplatz.jpg
Above: Hofburg Palace in Vienna, Austria; the glamorous palace where Marie Antoinette was born.

Marie Antoinette appears to have enjoyed not only a luxurious but also a protective and peaceful childhood surrounded by her many sisters, with whom she was close, especially Maria Carolina; although Marie Antoinette regarded her mother in awe perhaps even fear. As Antonia Fraser suggests, however, she was probably not academic, and was not noted for her linguistic capabilities in a country in which French, German, and Italian were commonly spoken. She appears though to have had some natural talent in regards to art, and was musically gifted, playing the harpsichord, spinet, harp and clavichord. Her beauty and grace were commended by visitors.

In May 1770, the fourteen-year old Marie Antoinette married the Dauphin of France, Louis, in the Palace of Versailles, although famously the marriage was not consummated, and would not be for several anxious years. At this point, Marie Antoinette due to her beauty and graceful nature was popular with her new subjects. Her portraits at this stage depict a youthful, charming, sweet young girl blossoming within her new country.

Above: Marie Antoinette, aged 13.

But the prevailing tensions between Austria and France rendered the marriage unpopular among courtiers, who resented the alliance, and which was to become increasingly unpopular during the coming years. Marie Antoinette's unorthodox dislike of court protocol rendered her open to ridicule. Her relationships were also unpopular, particularly with women such as the duchesse de Polignac, which was later sensationalised and distorted into a supposed lesbian affair.

Her failure, in the early years of her marriage as Queen of France, to become pregnant, while other royal women such as the comtesse d'Artois were able to bear sons, exposed Marie Antoinette to doubt, anxiety, and ridicule. Satirical pamphlets were published which criticised the king's alleged impotence and claimed that the queen was a whore who sought sexual fulfilment elsewhere with both men and women. This cruelty and anxiety led Marie Antoinette to spend lavishly on fashion, expanding her wardrobe and becoming something of an icon, while earning a reputation as a party-loving queen, renovating the Petit Trianon which soon became associated with her alleged extravagance. Finally, however, in 1778 the queen fell pregnant, and gave birth to her first daughter in December. Still the need for a male heir continued.

In 1781, the twenty-six year old queen finally bore a son, Louis Joseph Xavier Francois. Despite this celebratory event, Marie Antoinette remained uninvolved in political affairs, although she continued to be blamed for allegedly subjecting France to the authority of her home country, Austria. As a result, she began to take an increasingly active role in the upbringing of her children, and in 1785 gave birth to a second son, Louis Charles. The baby was rumoured to be illegitimate, the child of a sordid union between the queen and her favourite, Fersen. By then, the queen's unpopular image among her subjects was rapidly worsening.

Above: state portrait of Marie Antoinette and her children, 1787.

The worsening financial situation in France forced the calling of the Assembly of Notables after a hiatus of 160 years, although it served little good, instead defying the king. At this stage Marie Antoinette became more closely involved in politics, especially on her children's behalf as they grew older. She actively created an image of herself, as preserved in the 1787 painting above, as a caring and dutiful mother. Later, the seven-year old Dauphin died, a tragic and devastating affair which broke the queen's heart, although her subjects were not particularly sympathetic as they grew increasingly bloodthirsty and resentful.

As the National Assembly demanded more rights, the monarchy slowly but surely became more undermined as an institution due to the king's incompetence and the queen's unpopularity amongst her subjects. As the French Revolution evolved, the royal family's position became greatly dangerous, particularly with the advent of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. Their friends, including the comte d'Artois and the duchesse de Polignac, escaped abroad due to fear of assassination. Marie Antoinette continued to be harshly and hostilely criticised in satirical pamphlets, which claimed that she was involved in love affairs with the marquis de La Fayette. The worst of the pamphlets suggested that she had even slept with her own son. Clearly, a cruel and untruthful image was being created of the queen, attacking her through her gender, sexuality and political position. There was no credence to any of these spiteful rumours.

Summarising these complex events in brief, Louis was executed in January 1793, although not without dissent and controversy. How this personally affected his wife can only be imagined, but the last scene between husband, wife and children was poignant and tragic. Marie Antoinette's unpopularity had severely worsened with the declaration of war with Austria the preceding year; her status as enemy of the country was now clear to her subjects as never before. She was imprisoned in August 1793 following her incarceration in the Tower. On 14 October, she was tried by the Revolutionary Tribunal, and was accused of the vilest and most untrue of crimes: orchestrating Versailles orgies, sexually abusing her son, declaring her son to be the new king of France following her husband's execution, sending millions of livre money to Austria, and orchestrating the massacre of the Swiss Guards the previous year. Nonetheless, she remained dignified and answered the charges related to her, but to no avail. She was declared guilty and sentenced to death.

Above: Marie Antoinette's execution, 16 October 1793.

Her hair having been cut off, the former French queen was publicly driven through Paris in an open cart to the execution site, and at 12.15pm, aged thirty-eight, she was guillotined at the Place de la Concorde (Revolution), just one of thousands of innocent victims brutally slaughtered during the Revolution. Dressed in white, Marie Antoinette's outfit made, in the words of Gareth Russell, 'a dazzlingly significant statement to those who had come to watch her die'. Her kindness, charity and goodwill were remembered and immortalised by those loyal to her cause, while others continued to slander her and belittle her after her death. She remains a contentious and controversial figure in modern society today, associated with extravagance, luxury, the ill-fate of rule, the French Revolution, fashion, to name but a few. Maxime de la Rocheterie fittingly wrote of her:

'She was not a guilty woman, neither was she a saint; she was an upright, charming woman, a little frivolous, somewhat impulsive, but always pure; she was a queen, at times ardent in her fancies for her favourites and thoughtless in her policy, but proud and full of energy; a thorough woman in her winsome ways and tenderness of heart...'

RIP Marie Antoinette. She deserved better than the cruel, bloody fate she met reservedly and calmly on that warm October day, deserted by her subjects, lost to her husband, separated from her children. Although she may not have been the most effective queen of France, the appalling political and social circumstances which were in place during her rule condemned any attempts she made at being a good queen. We should remember her with fairness, honesty, and integrity. She deserved understanding and compassion not afforded by her resentful subjects during an ill-fated, and ultimately tragic, reign as queen of France.

Saturday, 12 October 2013

Edward VI, king of England

Above: Edward VI, portrait by William Scrots, c. 1550.

On this day in history, 12 October 1537, Henry VIII's third wife Jane Seymour gave birth to her only child, Edward, at Hampton Court Palace in Surrey. After twenty-eight years, the beginnings of the Reformation, a brutal and excruciating break from the Roman Church and the rejection of two queens, Henry finally had what he believed was essential to preserving peace and stability in England: a male heir. Tragically, however, Jane's efforts were ultimately fatal, for 12 days later, she died aged twenty-nine, a common fate of Tudor women. Henry apparently wept with joy when he held the baby Edward following his birth.

From the onset Edward was accorded a lavish lifestyle and excellent education afforded by his rank and status. He was initially placed in the care of Lady Margaret Bryan, who had also served his elder sisters, Mary and Elizabeth, during their childhoods. Until the age of six Edward was brought up 'among the women', although he was later taught by Richard Cox, Roger Ascham and John Cheke, as well as others, who instructed him in languages, philosophy, scripture, mathematics, music and liberal sciences. During these years he was close to his sisters, particularly Mary - despite the age difference of twenty-one years - and he is known to have informed her in a letter written aged nine: 'I love you most'.

Henry's marriage to Katherine Parr in 1543 changed Edward's life somewhat, for she became the only mother Edward had ever really known. As Dale Hoak writes: 'Queen Katherine brought Edward and his sisters into the royal household as members of an intimate family, providing Edward especially with an affection and attention that found endearing reflection in his frequent letters to her'. Her Protestant faith probably also had an important influence on Edward's religious beliefs and experiences. Under the influence of his Cambridge-educated humanist tutors, at an early age Edward was brought up in the Protestant religion.

On 28 January 1547, Henry VIII died aged fifty-five, and Edward, only nine years of age, became England's king. On Sunday 20 February, Edward was crowned at Westminster Abbey in a lavish coronation, wearing a crimson satin robe trimmed with gold silk lace, before showing himself to his people dressed in white velvet and cloth of silver and gold, set with patterned knots of diamonds and pearls. Because of the king's youth, it was arranged that the 16 executors named in Henry's will should act in a Regency Council on behalf of Edward until he reached the age of 18, when he would rule independently. However, the will was ignored and Edward Seymour, duke of Somerset, uncle of the king, became Protector of the Realm. The Council was Protestant-dominated following the removal of Catholic figures such as Stephen Gardiner, bishop of Winchester. Somerset was reported to 'govern everything absolutely' following his promotion.

A history of Edward VI's reign from the perspective of the king himself is difficult, for he died only fifteen before he could fully assume the mantles of government and kingship. As such, a history of his reign can be regarded as a history of Somerset's, and later Northumberland's, rule. During the early years of Edward's rule the Protestant Reformation was fully inaugurated in England. Archbishop Cranmer encouraged the king to destroy idolatry, particularly in the form of images. In July 1547 candles and shrines were banned, and by February 1548 stained-glass images and in wood and stone had gone the same way. Windows were reglazed, while chantries, processions, mystery plays, maypoles, church ales, and medieval rituals disappeared. It was an austere and forbidding environment.

In 1549, the first real challenge to Edward's rule appeared in what has come to be known as 'the year of rebellions'. These were motivated not solely by religious conservatism, but also by social unrest. By the early summer, a series of armed revolts broke out, the worst of them taking place in the southwest (Devon and Cornwall) and in Norfolk. The Prayer Book Rebellion, occurring in Devon/Cornwall, was motivated by hostility to the Protestant Reformation, while the Norfolk uprising occurred due to the encroachment of landlords on common grazing ground. Although Somerset appeared sympathetic to the rebels, the uprisings were eventually quashed, but the rebellions were perceived to be indicative of an unstable and corrupt government, thus setting the seeds for Somerset's eventual downfall.

By the autumn of 1549 Somerset was in real trouble and he was arrested in October. Edward showed little regret and did not lift a finger to save his uncle or restore his authority. In February 1550 John Dudley, duke of Northumberland, became the leader of the Council in Somerset's place. Eventually, Somerset was executed in 1552 following his initial release from the Tower of London. The only thing which Edward had to say about the affair was made in his diary: 'the duke of Somerset had his head cut off upon Tower Hill between eight and nine o'clock in the morning'. This passage perhaps supports the view of the king as a cold, unfeeling figure, who did nothing to support his uncle.

Northumberland was far more appropriate as Protector than Somerset. His administrative and economic achievements, in particular, have oft been recognised by modern historians. During these years, as he aged, Edward became more closely involved in government. The degree of his actual involvement has been controversially debated, but it seems possible that his greatest influence came in the field of religion, as the Protestant Reformation continued to flourish. Hoak believes that 'at fifteen [he was] an exceptionally capable student who was following, not directing royal affairs'. The king was depicted as a young Josiah, a godly king appointed by God to rid England of idolatry and superstition and restore truth to the realm. In context, Edward's relationship with his sister Mary became increasingly contentious, for her Catholic religion was abhorrent to him.

By February 1553, the fifteen-year old Edward, after barely six years on the throne, became seriously ill. The previous year he had fallen ill with measles and smallpox. Historians still debate what it was that killed him, with conflicting ideas of tuberculosis (consumption) or a pulmonary infection which led to septicaemia and renal failure. But it is also known that measles suppresses immunity to tuberculosis. By March, a Venetian envoy confirmed that the king was slowly dying.

Around this time, Edward drafted a 'Devise' for the English succession. Since he had never married nor fathered children, the crown by law on his death would pass to his eldest sister, the thirty-seven year old Mary. But her Catholic religion rendered her an unacceptable queen in the eyes of both Edward and his Council. In this line of thinking, if the crown should not pass to Mary, then it should go to twenty-year old Elizabeth, who, suitably, was a Protestant. But Edward subscribed to his father's will, which did not legitimate either sister - both were, despite their places in the succession, still officially bastards. Passing over the claims of his half-sisters, Edward instead willed that the crown should go to his cousin Lady Jane Grey, who was both legitimate and a Protestant.

Many historians formerly believed that Northumberland directed the whole 'Devise', because one of his sons Guildford was married to Lady Jane in May 1553, meaning that, by having a son on the throne of England, he would conceivably be the real power behind the throne. But this is an unlikely view in view of Edward's personal zeal and involvement in the affair, suggesting it was motivated by his own wishes, and in view of that Jane only married Guildford in May when the events behind the 'Devise' probably started a few months earlier.

On 1 July, Edward made his final appearance in public when he showed himself at his window in Greenwich Palace, horrifying onlookers with his 'thin and wasted' appearance. On 6 July, he died, three months before his sixteenth birthday. On 8 August he was buried in Henry VII Lady Chapel within Westminster Abbey.

Edward's reign was too short and his death at an early age means that is very difficult to tell what sort of king he would have become had he lived longer. But his greatest legacy was undoubtedly that of the Protestant Reformation, which was continued by his sister Elizabeth following Queen Mary's unsuccessful attempt at restoring Catholicism to England. Dale Hoak concludes his article with the passage:

'Edward's youth and unfulfilled promise have given rise to a number of misconceptions. But in one respect, at least, image and achievement have been found to coincide, in the perception of his image as having seen the foundations laid, with his encouragement, of one of the greatest transformations of English society and English-speaking culture, namely the Protestant Reformation'.

Friday, 4 October 2013

Misconceptions of Katherine Howard

Above: Portrait of an unknown woman, possibly Katherine Howard. (left)
Tamzin Merchant as Katherine Howard (right), encouraging the view of her as a fun-loving, empty-headed teenager.

Many misconceptions exist about Queen Katherine Howard, and I have uncovered more and more of them in the course of my research on her life. Some of them are quite minor, but others are seriously major, and this is quite disturbing, for it means that the prevailing view of her is very far from the truth.
In this article, I will explore some of the most common misconceptions about Katherine, and hopefully show why they are wrong, while offering a likelier interpretation.

1. Katherine Howard was stupid.

Many people, including some academic historians, seriously continue to believe that Katherine Howard was intellectually inferior to Henry VIII's other wives, some going so far to call her "stupid", "dim", or "empty-headed".

In an article about faction at Henry's court (2012), historian John Matusiak rather insultingly suggested that she had "puppy fat for brains". Alison Weir called her "empty-headed". In her novel The Boleyn Inheritance (2006), bestselling novelist Philippa Gregory portrayed Katherine as dull and stupid, thinking of nothing but herself. But is there any historical evidence to back up this prevailing view of Katherine?

The short answer is no. There is nothing to indicate that Katherine was 'intellectually inferior', even 'stupid'. Yes, she did not receive an international education in the courts of Europe like her cousin Anne Boleyn, nor did she receive the royal education accorded to the European princesses Katherine of Aragon and Anne of Cleves, nor did her mother provide a humanist education for her like that entitled to Katherine Parr. Like Jane Seymour, Katherine's education was far more typical of her class and status. She learned important household skills, embroidery, and from the age of about twelve began receiving music lessons.

Other evidence frequently cited to support the claim that Katherine was a stupid girl rests on her meetings with Thomas Culpeper, which amounted, in the words of Lacey Baldwin Smith, to "unbelievable imbecility". But this depends entirely on how you interpret her meetings with Culpeper. If she was indeed meeting him for sexual intercourse, as the majority of historians still continue to think, then yes, her actions were rash. But it is more probable that they did nothing of the kind. Whether Katherine was being ruthlessly manipulated by Culpeper, as Retha Warnicke believes, or whether she was merely meeting him innocently, as I believe, then it does not follow that her actions were stupid or rash. Rather, they suggest that Katherine was naive.

The prevailing opinion, then, that Katherine was stupid, rests on no evidence and should be discarded.

2. Katherine was a fun-loving girl who did nothing but party during her time as queen.

Again, a common view is that Katherine Howard literally spent her life partying, wearing beautiful clothes, and generally having a good time. In the opinion of Dr David Starkey, she was "a good time girl". Tamzin Merchant in The Tudors did more than most to encourage this view - she plays a fun-loving Katherine who takes part in mud fights, banquets, dances in the rain, and traipses round her chambers naked.

Most historians take this view, but again, is there any actual historical evidence to back up this claim? The short answer, again, is no. The only bit of evidence which could support this interpretation is the dismissive comment made by an unknown Spanish chronicler, writing probably at least a decade after Katherine's death: "the King had no wife who made him spend so much money in dresses and jewels as she did". But the same author made some glaringly inaccurate comments about Katherine - he depicted her as the fourth wife of Henry VIII, rather than the fifth, and it is he who reported that Katherine promised that she would rather die the wife of Culpeper on the scaffold - no other evidence backs up this claim.

There is no evidence to support Starkey's view that Katherine was a party-loving "good time girl". Historical evidence relating to her time as queen is extremely sparse. The few details we have about her reign suggest that she did attend court functions, banquets and jousts, but we have nothing about her life except her marriage to the king and her downfall. Chroniclers and foreign ambassadors reported little to nothing about her.

By contrast, evidence suggests that Katherine, contrary to belief, actually took her duties as queen seriously. She acted as patron for an author, she interceded on behalf of at least four individuals, she supported her family, rewarded her friends, and corresponded with Cranmer. It is actually more likely that Anne Boleyn was the party-loving Queen, rather than Katherine, if later evidence from Anne's household is anything to go by.

Again, this second misconception is exactly that - a misconception. It is not factual and has no evidence to support it. It is a myth, and should be dismissed as such.

3. Katherine Howard was promiscuous or even a 'slut'.

Here most modern historians are in agreement that Katherine Howard was flighty, and, in a sense, deserved her execution. Alison Weir calls her "certainly promiscuous", while Alison Plowden views her as "a natural born tart". Eric Ives dismissively states that she "had minimal respect for court protocol and refused to draw a line between her position before and after becoming the King's wife". David Starkey believes that "she liked men, and they liked her".

Again, these views rest entirely on how Katherine's relationships are interpreted. These views are somewhat anachronistic because they rely on a twentieth/twenty-first century interpretation of sexuality and gender. In today's world, a girl who has sexual relations with three men before her seventeenth birthday is viewed as a slut or a whore. These historians rely on this prevailing view and believe that Katherine must have been the same. Rather too often, they forget that she lived at least four hundred years before they were writing.

Because issues of sexuality and gender have been practically ignored, we have a very inaccurate view of Katherine's relationships. As my research has indicated, I am in full agreement with Dr Retha Warnicke that Katherine's early sexual liaisons were characterised more by abuse and neglect rather than love. At the age of twelve - when girls could legally marry - she was seduced by her music master, who beseeched her to meet in dark places where he could fondle her. At fourteen, she was aggressively pursued by Francis Dereham, who probably sexually assaulted her and may have raped her. Would we nowadays suggest that a girl who had been aggressively coerced into sex by the age of fourteen was a slut? No, we would say that she was a victim.

Katherine's early experiences seem to have seriously damaged her psychologically. She may indeed even have formed a strong aversion to sex. Her relationship with Thomas Culpeper did not include sexual intercourse, it may not even have included love. As Warnicke writes in her 2006 article: " the sixteenth century, when female virginity was highly valued, we can only guess at how Katherine's youthful sexual experiences and punishments affected her psychologically".

Another misconception, then - and this one is perhaps the most serious one of all.

4. Katherine was elegant, but not very beautiful.

Some historians write that while Katherine Howard was elegant and charming, she was not conventionally beautiful. This rests solely on the comment of the French ambassador in 1540, when he first met her, that she was only "moderately pretty".

This is not a serious misconception, but it is one nonetheless. At least three other comments made by different individuals suggests that Katherine Howard may very well deserve her reputation, in the words of Baldwin Smith, as "the most beautiful of Henry's queens". A court observer in 1540 stated that she was "a very beautiful gentlewoman", while the same French ambassador earlier said that she was "a lady of extraordinary beauty". As if that wasn't enough, the unknown Spanish writer called her "more graceful and beautiful than any lady in the Court, or perhaps in the kingdom".

There are no surviving portraits of Katherine, so we cannot ascertain her exact appearance. Portraits purporting to be of her are more likely to be of another royal relative, perhaps Henry VIII's niece Lady Margaret Douglas. Nonetheless, if she was deemed to be conventionally beautiful, then it follows that she was probably pale/fair-skinned, blue/grey-eyed, and fair-haired. We do know that she was "small and slender", in the words of the French ambassador; so it is possible that she was the smallest of Henry's queens as well as the youngest.

The view, then, that Katherine was not particularly pretty is another unconvincing misconception.

These are only four misconceptions which abound about Katherine Howard. Some of them are fairly minor, such as those regarding her appearance, but others concerning her sexual history are far more serious. A fairer consideration of Katherine's career is long overdue. At the very least, it is time to put aside the modern view of her as a stupid, empty-headed, party-loving adolescent who deserved her fate.

Thursday, 3 October 2013

Isabella of France, Queen of England

Above: Isabella of France - a 15th century portrait (left) and a later drawing (right).

Although Margaret of Anjou, consort of Henry VI of England, was famously the English queen termed 'she-wolf' by Shakespeare, it is Isabella of France (c1295-1358), wife of Edward II, whom many both then and now continue to view as a she-wolf, an adulteress, a murderess, and a ruthless schemer. Thomas Gray, writing in the 1750s, notoriously wrote of Isabella:

she-Wolf of France, with unrelenting fangs
That tear'st the bowels of thy mangled mate.

Alison Weir, whose 2005 biography was somewhat controversial for its almost hagiographic treatment of Isabella and its disapproval of Edward, believes that Isabella 'has been more vilified than any other English queen' - although the likes of Margaret of Anjou and Anne Boleyn might have something to say about that. The Victorian historian Agnes Strickland opined that 'no Queen of England has left so dark a stain on the annals of female royalty as Isabella', and Kenneth Fowler called her 'a woman of evil character, a notorious schemer'.

While these hostile and cruel views of Isabella are certainly exaggerated and distorted, there are considerable dangers in reverting to the other extreme position and viewing her with warmness, admiration, or support. Weir herself contends that, had it not been for Isabella's adultery with Mortimer following her husband's deposition, she might have been  remembered as a liberator who 'unshackled England from a weak and vicious monarch'.

As with other misunderstood queens of this era, Isabella's life can only be understood fully in context of the age in which she lived and through paying close attention to her gender. Until the collapse of her marriage to Edward II in the 1310s/20s, Isabella was universally popular throughout England, and was praised by French chroniclers as 'Isabella the Fair'. Her beauty, personality and traits were warmly praised. In many ways, her desire to take charge of English politics can be applauded, for as Theresa Earenfight wryly notes, she acted like a king, but this severely threatened her husband because, in being unable to control her, he was made to seem less than a man.

Writing in 1984, Sophia Menache very thought-provokingly suggested, in her reinterpretation of Isabella's career, that 'if the kings of England are not measured according to their morality alone, then Isabella of France should not be denied this privilege either'. She questioned why historians continually are unable to keep their subjects at an emotional arm's length, and let their own moral judgements influence their interpretations of their subjects. She has a compelling point - rather than judging Isabella's life emotionally and dramatically from a moral standpoint, perhaps, in Menache's words, a more 'scientific' approach would be of greater value.

Isabella clearly took her duties as queen seriously following her marriage to the handsome Edward II in 1308, aged twelve. She participated in acts of intercession, maintained an orderly household, and was renowned as a peacemaker (particularly during her husband's conflicts with the nobles of the kingdom). How she personally felt about her husband's relationship with Piers Gaveston is unknown - historians fiercely debate whether the two enjoyed homosexual relations, or whether it was more of an adoptive brotherhood. Contemporary sources depicted Isabella as an important political personage, but this was perceived to be dangerous since it 'did not conform to the conventional expectations of medieval English queens' (Menache). As Menache wittily suggests, Isabella was 'the antithesis' of most queenly conventions.

As with Margaret of Anjou, Isabella clearly believed that she had a right to be closely involved in English politics. As her marriage with Edward deteriorated, she sought aid from abroad, returning to her native France. Although modern historians often assume that her open adultery with Roger Mortimer scandalised the people of England and led to a dramatic loss of support for her cause, Menache insightfully suggests that it was her assumption of the king's duties, the disastrous policy with Scotland, and her financial mismanagement that led to Isabella's downfall rather than her private life.

It is uncertain whether Isabella was involved in the murder of her husband, Edward II. Some historians believe today that he actually escaped and lived out the rest of his life in Europe as a hermit, but that is unlikely. It is probably certain, however, that the brutal red-hot poker story was nothing but a myth created by chroniclers to discredit Isabella's regime. As queen, she certainly exhibited signs of cruelty, particularly when she forced three of her enemy Despenser's daughters to become nuns - although these girls were only children at the time. But whether she deserves the epithet 'she-wolf' is questionable.

Again, as with Margaret, it was Isabella's disastrous marriage that unsettled and undermined her. Had she been married to a strong, popular monarch who enjoyed good relations with the English nobility and maintained peace in his kingdom, she might have continued to remain a popular consort celebrated within the realm. Neither she-wolf nor 'liberator', she was a powerful, charismatic, determined woman who sought to preserve peace in the realm and ensure her son Edward's succession to the throne. Historians should detach  themselves when discussing her career and not stoop to moral judgements. What Isabella was, or how she behaved, is removed from us by 700 years. A fairer, and less emotional, assessment of her life is long overdue.

Like most people, Isabella was a complex personality. It is unfair and ridiculous to reduce her to a monstrous caricature, the bloodthirsty she-wolf, the cruel murderess, the unfaithful adulteress. But at the same time, it is pathetic to view her life with tear-filled eyes, characterising her as a much wronged wife, a victim, an oppressed woman who lost her sense of womanhood because of her continual embarrassment at the hands of her 'homosexual' husband (if he even was...) She took her duties as queen seriously, was extremely popular in England, and was remembered during her own lifetime as 'Isabella the Fair'. Yet it is also clear that she was ruthless, scheming, perhaps manipulative. She wanted the best for her son (later Edward III) and clearly believed that she deserved better. We should view her life with interest, but not indulgence, nor with hostility. Both the woman and her career deserve better than either.

Thursday, 19 September 2013

The Reidentification of a Portrait Identified as Elizabeth Cromwell or Katherine Howard

Above left: portrait of an unknown woman, c.1535-40, housed in the Toledo Museum of Art.
Above right: the National Portrait Gallery version dating from c.1612.

A portrait of an unknown woman variously believed to be either Queen Katherine Howard (c1524-1542) or Elizabeth Seymour, baroness Cromwell and later countess of Winchester (c1513-1563) has caused considerable controversy in artistic circles. Few historians nowadays believe that the portrait represents Henry VIII's fifth queen, who probably died before her eighteenth birthday (the sitter in this portrait is in her twenty-first year). Equally, the re-identification of the sitter as being Elizabeth Cromwell has proved tenuous. This article proposes a new argument for the mysterious sitter of the portrait - namely, that it depicts Margaret Douglas, countess of Lennox, mother-in-law of Mary Queen of Scots, and niece of Henry VIII.

During the nineteenth and early twentieth century, most art historians agreed that the portrait depicted Katherine Howard, and must have dated from c.1540 during the short period of her queenship. Lionel Cust in his 1910 article believed that the sitter in the image bore marked similarities with a miniature supposedly depicting the queen now housed in the Royal Collection (although that miniature is also dubious). David Starkey in 2008 recently proposed that the portrait does indeed depict Katherine, supposedly because the jewellery which the sitter wears is exactly that given to the queen on her marriage to Henry VIII. Most historians, however, disagree with these conclusions, not least because many sets of jewellery during this age were identical and replicated for different sitters, but also because, as mentioned, Katherine never lived to the age of twenty/one, and the sitter hardly appears the 'beautiful young gentlewoman' which Katherine was described as being by a court observer in 1540.

Both Roy Strong and Antonia Fraser (in her 1992 biography of Henry VIII's consorts) theorised that the sitter is more plausibly Elizabeth Seymour, sister of Jane and later wife to Gregory Cromwell, son of Thomas. Although this has by and large become the accepted identification, there are nevertheless particular difficulties with this interpretation. As Alison Weir pointed out, regardless of Elizabeth's status as sister to a queen of England, as the daughter of a mere knight it seems unlikely that her image would have been copied in at least three versions of the portrait (the versions exist at Toledo, the National Portrait Gallery, and Montacute House in Somerset). The sisters of Anne Boleyn, Katherine Howard and Katherine Parr respectively did not enjoy such a privilege.

Fraser suggested that the portrait was painted c1534, following the death of Elizabeth's first husband. At that time, Elizabeth was serving Queen Anne Boleyn alongside her sister as a maid of honour. Again, she would not have qualified by virtue of her comparatively low status for a portrait in which the sitter wears extremely lavish costume and expensive jewellery, including gold embroidered sleeves and magnificent embroidered cuffs. Elizabeth could have sat for this portrait in 1537, when she became the wife of Thomas Cromwell's son and subsequently a baroness, and was also the sister of Queen Jane; which would fit the Toledo Museum's dating of this portrait to c.1535-40. But most historians propose that Elizabeth was only born in 1513, and possibly as early as 1511. If so, this portrait could simply not have been painted in 1537, when Elizabeth would have been aged between twenty-three and twenty-six. The supposed resemblance in facial features between the sitter and Jane Seymour have proved tenuous, for the sitter, with her reddish-brown hair, dark eyes, full chin and French clothing bears little resemblance to the fair Jane.

The Toledo Museum of Art states that Hans Holbein himself designed the gold medallion which the woman in the painting wears, following his appointment by the king in 1533 as court painter. He probably designed jewellery for the king's second consort Anne Boleyn, and if he did design the jewellery in this portrait, it would surely follow that the woman was of a similarly high ranking status - most likely, a member of the royal family. On this basis, the portrait might depict Katherine Howard in view of her royal status, but the other pressing points encompassing her date of birth, appearance, and short tenure as queen indicate that the sitter is probably not her.

The fact that this image continued to be replicated as late as 1612 (the National Portrait Gallery version, above right) suggests that this woman was still viewed as a particularly important and respectful personage well into the reign of James I of England. The religious nature of James' reign, and the fact that this portrait was housed by the Protestant Cromwells, would suggest that the sitter was believed to be a Protestant. This would completely rule out the Catholic Katherine Howard, disgraced since her execution in 1542, and probably rules out Elizabeth Seymour too, for even if she was a member of the Cromwells, her short marriage to Gregory and her Catholic religion did not suggest that her image would continue to be replicated.

The likeliest candidate for this portrait is in fact Lady Margaret Douglas, countess of Lennox. First and foremost, as the niece of Henry VIII, she would have been entitled to wear extremely lavish costume and the finest of jewellery, perhaps designed by Holbein himself. It seems certain that the woman in this portrait was royal, and in the period c.1535-40 Margaret was one of several women who could have been a candidate for the sitter alongside Mary Tudor (aged twenty/one in 1536-7); Frances Brandon (1537-8); Eleanor Brandon (1539-40), and far less likely, Katherine Howard. Mary Tudor's Catholic religion, her uneasy relations with Thomas Cromwell, the horror of her reign still felt in the Protestant climate of Stuart England, and the lack of similarity in appearance between portraits of her and the sitter in the Toledo image rule her out as a plausible candidate. Although the Brandon sisters were Protestant and royal, they did not have the same impact on English Protestantism that Margaret, by virtue of her status as grandmother to the Protestant James I, had - although her personal religion was Roman Catholic.

Although it is notoriously unwise to make identifications of portraits based on supposed similarities in other portraits, it is nonetheless striking that in later portraits of the Countess, her large nose, pale skin, reddish-brown hair, dark eyes and rather prominent chin can also be discerned in the Toledo image. As Rosalind Marshall notes in her article about Margaret, portraits of her show "heavy-lidded, deep-set eyes, a long nose, broad jaw, and fairly thin lips". The fact that she was "a great favourite at court" - in the words of one envoy of 1534, she was "highly esteemed" - suggests that her uncle Henry VIII could have favoured her sufficiently to allow her to wear the finest of costume and jewellery in order to sit for a half-length portrait. Moreover, James I clearly esteemed her and revered her memory. Twenty-five years after her death - just a handful of years before the 1612 portrait was done - James erected a fine monument in Westminster Abbey in memory of his grandmother. It has, significantly, been recognised that her "diplomacy largely contributed to the future succession of her grandson, James VI of Scotland, to the English throne". Her personal efforts on his behalf may have been popularly celebrated and esteemed in Stuart England.

Above: the known portrait of Margaret Douglas (left) bears some similarities in facial expression and features with the unknown sitter in Holbein's portrait (right), c.1535-40.

Although the sitter of the portrait painted by Holbein in c.1535-40 must remain unknown, the evidence surveyed and put forward in this article indicates that neither Katherine Howard nor Elizabeth Cromwell are likely candidates for the portrait. It is more likely that Lady Margaret Douglas, by virtue of her royal position, closeness to Henry VIII and proximity to James I of England, qualifies as the sitter. An esteemed royal favourite in the mid 1530s, before her imprisonment in 1537 for a clandestine love affair she may have been painted in lavish costume by virtue of her position in the royal family and her popularity at court.

Sunday, 15 September 2013

The 'She-Wolf' Aelfthryth, queen consort of Edgar I

Edgar King of England.jpg
Above: Edgar (c.943-975), king of England and husband of Aelfthryth.

The infamous epithet 'she-wolf' as a term to denigrate and condemn controversial royal women who participated in domestic politics has most famously been associated with the fifteenth-century queen Margaret of Anjou, consort of Henry VI of England; although it has also been linked with Isabella of France, unpopular wife of the deposed Edward II and less commonly with the likes of Elizabeth Woodville and Anne Boleyn. However, it can more fairly be argued that court chroniclers and historians over the last thousand years viewed Aelfthryth, queen consort of King Edgar, as the original 'she-wolf'.

Living over one thousand years ago in the Anglo-Saxon age, Aelfthryth's story was nothing if not tumultuous and dramatic. She was the first consort of England to be crowned and anointed as a queen consort, and later became the mother of a famous English king, Aethelred the Unready. She was the daughter of Ealdorman Ordgar, and she had royal blood by virtue of her mother's position within the Wessex royal family. Court chronicles created a dramatic legend surrounding Aelfthryth's rise to the queenship, for they claimed that King Edgar, besotted by Aelfthryth's incomparable beauty (in a story somewhat similar to the fabrications regarding the first meeting between Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville five hundred years later), ordered the death of her first husband so that he could marry her himself.

How Aelfthryth felt about the murder of her first husband and her rise to the position as queen remains unknown and mysterious, for chroniclers, in believing that, as a supposedly evil and immoral woman who sought to fulfil her own ambitions at any cost, did not seek out her true motives and feelings in these dramatic events. Rather they, and later historians, appeared to assume that her immoral qualities led her to rejoice in her husband's death and elevation to queenship.

In 964-5, Aelfthryth became queen consort of England, aged perhaps nineteen or twenty. Whether or not she was Edgar's second or third wife is uncertain, although he is known to have fathered illegitimate children by at least two women before his marriage to Aelfthryth. Although Edgar according to later legends may have been entranced by his new queen's enchanting beauty and impulsively married her, it is probable that he was well aware that Aelfthryth's family had traditionally held great power in Wessex. Because the king's power base was centred in Mercia, the marriage alliance between the pair was a sound means of consolidating and extending Edgar's influence and power in England.

The following year, Aelfthryth cemented her position as queen by providing her husband with a son, Edmund, who was to die young. Queen consorts were only fully secure once they had borne their husbands the much required male heir, in order to ensure that the royal family's lineage was assured and a peaceful succession probable. Royal wives who failed to provide sons were discarded or suffered ignoble fates, as the consorts of Henry VIII found to their cost. In 968, Aelfthryth bore her husband a second son, Aethelred. In 973, Edgar chose to crown himself as a means of asserting his unprecedented authority and power in England, with his queen also crowned and anointed. This splendid ceremony was a watershed in England's history, for never before had an English queen consort enjoyed a status so high or position as exalted.

Aelfthryth was a suitable and effective queen consort whose sound political and religious duties have often been obscured or ignored in light of later scandals associated with her. She acted as an advocate in several legal cases, acting as a mediator between prosecutors and the crown, and because of her protection of female litigants she was effective in allowing greater possibilities for women in Anglo-Saxon England. She extended her protection to several abbeys, and was a benefactress at Peterborough and Ely. Her friendship with Bishop Aetholwold of Winchester allowed her to be closely involved in monastic reform; while taking charge of her children's upbringing.

Aelfthryth was an unpopular queen consort among religious chroniclers, who demonised and denigrated her as an enemy of St Dunstan and, in order to blacken the name of her son Aethelred, associated her with the death of a bishop of Ely, with the seizure of Barking Abbey, the death of her first husband, and the murder of her stepson King Edward so that her own son could inherit the throne. Too much should not be read into these venomous and improbable accusations. Other early queens, such as Isabella of France, Margaret of Anjou, and Anne Boleyn were routinely slandered and cruelly attacked by contemporaries on account of their husbands' decisions, faults, and alliances. The gender of these women rendered them suspicious and accountable to prejudiced male observers; in the tenth century, Aelfthryth was linked with the heinous sins of witchcraft, murder and adultery by virtue of her gender and position as queen consort. As historian Pauline Stafford notes, 'most of the stories can be dismissed as later stereotyped accretions'.

Aelfthryth's position and security as queen was threatened in 975 with the death of her husband, Edgar king of England. Although she felt that her son Aethelwold by virtue of his position as son of her husband had a natural right to become the next king, it was decreed that in fact her stepson Edward should inherit the throne. In 978, King Edward was murdered at Corfe Castle by Queen Aelfthryth's servants in order to ensure that Aethelwold acceded to the throne in place of his stepbrother. Because Edward later became a martyr and revered by religious figures, Aelfthryth was slandered as a she-wolf and a murderess. Interestingly, contemporary accounts did not directly blame her for her stepson's murder. It is more probable that it was the ambitious Aethelwold, eager to become king, who authorised his sibling's murder. Stafford again insightfully notes that 'candidates for succession were besmirched through their mothers'. Aelfthryth had died by 1001, aged in her mid-fifties, and she was buried in her foundation at Wherwell.

It is highly unlikely that Aelfthryth was the murderous, cunning and evil woman later portrayed by venomous chroniclers and hostile religious figures at court, who sought to undermine her son's rule in favour of Edward the Martyr. Although she was probably ambitious for her son to become king of England, there is scant to no evidence that she was involved in her stepson's murder. Reading her experiences in light of contemporary gender and sexual prejudices illuminates the unfairness of continuing to view her as a she-wolf, for prejudice, distortion and hatred obscures our true vision of what she was really like. Her own actions during her tenure as Edgar's consort indicate that she was an effective and hardworking queen who operated smoothly in political and social relations. But the later rise of her son to the kingship and the murder of her stepson Edward blackened her earlier good works and destroyed her reputation irrevocably.