Sunday, 24 February 2013

Consumerism and Society: Freedom and Happiness or Corruption and Superficiality?

There are many fundamental social, economic and cultural forces shaping our world today, often interlinked in complex ways, and consumerism is surely and obviously one of them. A process which actively encourages the purchase of goods and services, does consumerism allow a person to convey their freedom through buying luxuries or does it disturbingly represent superficial and materialist societies who care for nothing more than their citizens' pleasures, worse still when poverty and economic instability continues to rule in less developed areas?

Consumerism is an international phenomenon with ancient roots, with people purchasing goods and buying materials in ancient societies in Rome, Egypt and Babylon. Consumer society, as we know it, first emerged in the seventeenth century, at a time when economic expansion was often linked with religious upheaval and social developments. The developing middle class, arguably first 'developed' during this period, embraced new and exciting ideas about luxury and consumption, leading to the rise of luxury goods such as sugar, tea, and coffee, brought in from the New World. This intensified in later centuries, eventually meaning that 'by 1920, most people [Americans] had experimented with occasional installment buying'. The term 'conspicuous consumption' originated in the early twentieth century, associated with Thorstein Veblen, an American sociologist and economist.  He identified the rapid processes of consumption as unnecessary, a superficial, if very obvious, means of displaying status and power in society and ensuring that class differences remained fixed. Consumerism was closely linked with European industrialisation from 1750 onwards, with the rise of new technologies and correspondingly improving living standards of the mass population. This led to a 'consumer' revolution in the period 1850-1914 in mass marketing, witnessing the opening of department stores and ubiquity of branded goods. 

Consumerism, as a controversial if highly visible phenomenon in both Western and Eastern societies, has generated astonishingly emotional responses, ranging from widespread delight to mass protests and vocal outrage. According to Peter Stearns, consumerism encountered doubts particularly in c1900; 'truly in the twentieth century... do mass protests against consumerism emerge', interestingly enough often outside the West. In the eighteenth century, consumerism was identified by hostile and concerned critics as being a cause of illness and decay, while others argued that luxury had the potential to 'drive a nation into decline'; views which are very startling to twenty-first century observers. Furthermore, consumerism was attacked by political and social groups as varied as the Nazis, socialists, anti-Semites, labour leaders and intellectuals during the 1920s, while anti-Americanism correspondingly increased, almost certainly because the USA served - and, from the perspective of some, continues to serve as - a symbol of consumerism on a global scale. 

Stearns suggests, however, that attacks on consumerism gradually receded in Western societies after the Second World War, but this is an interesting point. It's possible to argue that many remain hostile to all that is associated with consumerism - just look at Christmas. It's not only Christians who point out that this festival has lost its religious sense in every way, but even others with no religious perspective identify this worrying dilemma. As has been written: 'Christmas is a time of mass consumption... Christmas shopping is the cultural ritual through which we transform mundane, lifeless commodities into personal, meaningful gifts'. James G. Carrier, a scholar who has studied gift giving during the holiday season, wrote: 'The thing given at Christmas is a material object, usually a commodity bought in a crowded, garishly decorated store... on the one hand it is a commodity purchased for money in an impersonal transaction, and on the other it is a gift given to express affection in a personal relationship'. It's clear, therefore, that consumerism is highly complex and can be interpreted in multiple and diverse ways. Does it allow and express warmth, familial affection, and love for friends and neighbours, or is it an entirely self-centred and selfish enterprise which has destroyed traditional values?

Of course, it's interesting to study the development of consumerist societies over the last decade or so and consider how the general public have responded to it. While the USA is closely associated with consumption, emerging in the early twentieth century, this does not at all mean that it's been warmly embraced by all American citizens as a welcome aspect of life. Business leaders, for instance, according to Lisbeth Cohen, identified entitled consumers as a threat, since they were able to secure protections in the market place and leverage in government. Issues of race, class and gender were intertwined, since there was undoubtedly hostility towards the increasing influence of black women as consumers while African Americans became increasingly mobilised as consumers during the 1930s. During this period, too, thousands of American women joined together to protect their families from declining living standards and forms of exploitation in the market place, thus making an important contribution to the development of a consumerist society. Linking this with gender, consumerism profoundly impacted upon modern femininity in interwar Britain and America, with women enjoying a degree of freedom through buying and using corsets, cars, and cigarettes; according to Tinkler and Warsh important symbols of modernity and meaning that women became located 'at the heart of consumer culture'. Cigarettes became more popular and available from the 1880s and by the 1930s it was more and more fashionable for middle- and upper-class women to smoke as a pastime. This, also, along with cars, was seen to offer a woman freedom in breaking with gender norms and inequalities associated with gender relations which had characterised the preceding century.

On some level, consumerism has to be appreciated in allowing forms of freedom in the modern world. We are able to utilise consumption to be creative, through our use of fashion, music, our hobbies, our lifestyle, our holidays, our modes of travel, our living conditions... the list goes on. It could be argued that consumerism fosters and encourages unrivalled creativity. On the other hand, it surely reveals and exacerbates class tensions and inequalities, for consumerism is experienced very differently by different social groups in different regions. The examples provided evidence how gendered and race-related consumption is. Issues of poverty and inequality are fundamental to modernity, particularly today when one considers the appalling living conditions in societies in Africa, Asia and even some parts of the Americas and Europe. Yes, citizens are able to enjoy unprecedented freedom, but what does this mean for our societies? Trentmann has suggested that by the end of the nineteenth century there was widespread anxieties about 'the erosion of nation, culture, and social hierarchy by the commercial world', and while we may interpret the effects of consumerism in a very differing way, it cannot be denied that consumerism encourages materialism, competition, and above all, selfishness. A cliche and perhaps overused example, yes - but consider Christmas. Or even Valentine's Day. I was shocked to read that the average American spends over $100 on a Valentine's present for their loved one! Is this really necessary? Surely love is priceless and can be demonstrated more intimately in a less materialist fashion. A ubiquitous and fundamental part of the modern world - but that doesn't necessarily mean that consumerism is entirely welcome or advantageous.

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

The Execution of That Young Girl Katherine and That Bawd, Jane Rochford

On this day, 13 February 1542, eighteen-year old Katherine Howard, fifth queen consort of Henry VIII of England, was beheaded privately on Tower Green for sexual crimes committed against her husband. Following her brutal end, her Lady of  the Bedchamber and relative Lady Jane Rochford was also executed.
Katherine, of course, was the second of Henry's queens to be beheaded, but she has not received the same compassion and pity which her more celebrated cousin, Anne Boleyn, has inspired. Often looked upon with scorn and contempt as being a scheming and spiteful whore, the true reality to the king's teenage queen is rather different.

Readers will know that I am currently researching and writing a biography of Katherine, largely because I think existing historiography on her is highly flawed, providing us with a totally false image of not only this young woman but her family, the Tudor court, her husband the king, and social and cultural beliefs in Tudor England. In 2012, I wrote an essay offering my version of why Queen Katherine fell so tragically from power in 1541, rejecting the popular belief that her sexual affairs, both before and after her marriage, were discovered by reformers who loathed the Catholic Howard family and eagerly informed the King, led by that fervent Protestant the Archbishop of Canterbury himself. There is very little evidence to support this interpretation, and my thesis is rather different concerning young Katherine's downfall in November 1541, eventually leading to her execution just 3 months later and leading to the deaths of 3 other people.

That essay led to me being invited to St Hugh's College, Oxford (I had submitted the essay for the 2012 Julia Wood Prize), as one of  the top ten applicants, something I was very honoured to participate in. Since then, I have actually modified my theories surrounding Katherine's downfall, and the reality is, I think, more disturbing. Scholars have largely neglected to realise how fundamental fertility politics were at Henry VIII's court. Bearing in mind, in its own way, fertility had destroyed the King's previous marriages - Katherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn both rejected for failing to bear sons, Jane Seymour in the process of giving birth to one, and Anne of Cleves scandalously accused of rendering her husband impotent - it seems compelling that the fifth marriage also collapsed because of fertility issues. Rejecting the notion that Katherine, as an oversexed and lusty adolescent took multiple lovers behind her husband's back, I believe that not only did she never have sex with Thomas Culpeper, but these meetings were sinisterly interpreted by the Council as evidence of the Queen's desperate attempts to conceive a child due to Henry's impotence. That the King was impotent, I think, is obvious. It was an issue in both his marriages to Anne Boleyn and Anne of Cleves. Katherine Howard, in effect, was a scapegoat for her husband's impotence. Believing that she was trying to conceive a son since her husband could never provide her with one, this young woman was brutally destroyed, along with Jane Rochford, who was believed to be assisting her, and Francis Dereham, a manipulative individual who I believe was sexually violent towards Katherine, and Thomas Culpeper, an ambitious courtier who probably manipulated Katherine into granting him favours.

The year 1541 abounds with evidence of the royal couple's fertility problems. I won't go into it in detail here, for it will be explored fully in my biography, to be published this summer. However, what is clear is that in November 1541, days after being celebrated as the king's most loved queen in churches across England, Queen Katherine was confined to her chambers and forbidden to see her husband. Her shock, fear and confusion must have been evident. She was ruthlessly interrogated several times, but consistently maintained that she had never taken lovers behind the king's back and swore that Dereham had raped her. Most historians dispute both of these confessions, but I believe them to be true. In December, both Dereham and Culpeper were executed for treason, but Culpeper insisted that he had never slept with Katherine, which she insisted too. During this time, both the Queen and Lady Rochford were imprisoned, before being taken to the Tower of London.

Despite her repeated avowals of innocence, Katherine was condemned to die as a traitor, and Jane Lady Rochford was also condemned for misprision of treason. Jane's reputation has been abominable; with historians often arguing that it was she who brought forward charges of incest against her husband and Anne Boleyn, who were brother and sister. Whether this is true or not is unclear. Nonetheless, Jane seems to have had a full mental breakdown in the Tower, and the King passed a law allowing him to execute mad people, surely conveying his desire to be revenged upon this gentlewoman. Katherine, too, collapsed with shock and horror at what had befallen her. She was described often by several reporters as being in a highly weak state physically, and it was later suggested that she had to be physically helped up the scaffold.

On 13 February, the queen and her female attendant emerged from the Tower, proceeding on the short walk to Tower Green for their ultimate punishment. Katherine's execution has often been shrouded in a fair degree of mystery. The Spanish ambassador claimed that the night before her beheading she requested the block, in order to practice laying her head on it before the actual execution. In popular culture, she is often depicted as terrified with fright, as anyone who was seen Henry VIII (2003), with its harrowing depiction of Katherine's execution, will know. (Emily Blunt, playing the young queen, is shown screaming and crying with fear, protesting "I don't want to die!") In The Tudors, Tamzin Merchant presents Katherine as wetting herself on the scaffold with fear.

The reality is that Katherine was much braver, although the French ambassador reported that she was so weak that she could barely stand or speak. That she was in a state of shock seems clear. Her uncle had previously stated that she was tormenting herself with fear, as the Archbishop of Canterbury had also implied when he had interrogated her 3 months earlier. An eyewitness to the execution, a London merchant called Otwell Johnson, gave a very different account of Katherine and Jane's last moments. He stated that:

thay made the moost godly and christyan's end, that ever was hard tell of... uttering thayer faeth in the blode of Christe onely, and with goodly words and stedfast countenaces thay desyred all christen people to take regard unto thayer worthy and just punnishment with death for thayer offences, and agenst God hainously from thayer youth upward, in breaking all his commandements...

A notorious Catholic source, entitled The Chronicle of Henry VIII and written by an anonymous Spaniard living in London in the 1550s, gave a differing portrayal of Katherine's execution. Readers have to bear in mind that many of his reports are highly inaccurate. For instance, the king's marriages to Anne of Cleves and Katherine Howard are reversed, Cromwell interrogates Katherine (fact, he had died almost 2 years previously) and no mention is made of the executions of Dereham and Jane Rochford. He reported that the Queen apparently stated:

long before the King took me I loved Culpepper, and I wish to God I had done as he wished me, for at the time the King wanted to take me he urged me to say that I was pledged to him... I would rather have him for a husband than be mistress of the world... I die a Queen, but I would rather die the wife of Culpepper.

This famous detail, that Katherine apparently wished to die the wife of Culpepper, is entirely fictional. In the Spanish chronicler's account, the Queen embarks on a passionate love affair with this courtier, and the King is depicted as a cruel tyrant who breaks apart the couple's tender love by choosing Katherine for his wife. This, of course, is almost certainly untrue. The true reality of their relationship is complicated. I agree with David Starkey and Retha Warnicke that they never had sex, and I believe Warnicke is right when she claims that Culpeper manipulated the young and naive Queen, but I do believe Katherine had tender feelings for him. Nonetheless, my theory is that she only turned to Culpeper initially because of her mounting concerns about her husband's fertility problems, and sought out Culpeper because he was the King's closest attendant and thus fully aware about his sexual problems, and so could have enlightened her.

The Spanish chronicler described Katherine as only fifteen when she met the King, and depicted her as being very beautiful, remarking that she was the loveliest lady in the kingdom. Following Katherine's death, Jane Rochford was immediately executed. Apparently insane - as described controversially in Philippa Gregory's The Boleyn Inheritance - she made a long and rambling speech which irritated contemporaries. Fully double the Queen's age - she was born c. 1505 and so was aged around 37 - she was almost certainly not the pathological monster she has so often been depicted as. The legend that Jane admitted that she had provided evidence against Queen Anne and George Boleyn, and regretted it emotionally, is untrue. Whether it was she or Katherine who initiated the meetings with Culpeper is almost impossible to say.

I have covered the deaths of 3 Tudor Queens this month, 2 of whom were teenagers (Katherine not yet 19, Jane Grey 17). But Katherine Howard, out of all the Tudor women beheaded, is almost certainly the most misunderstood out of all of them, and yet I believe that in many respects she was the ultimate victim. A naive, kind-hearted girl who was manipulated by experienced and aggressive older men, she tried to do her best as Queen, showing genuine kindness towards several personages, and advanced her family in order to benefit them. It was not her adultery, her foolishness, her lustiness which eventually killed her. It was fertility politics, ultimately making her a scapegoat for her husband's inability to impregnate her. Increasingly suspicious and distrustful of his young queen, when evidence emerged that Katherine had employed her former lover (probably to appease him) and had had nighttime meetings with Thomas Culpeper, the King believed that she had betrayed him, hoping to fall pregnant by either, or both, these men and pass off their bastard as the King's son. Agnes Strickland described Katherine as being led like a sheep to the slaughter without having the opportunity to say a word in her own defence. Her innocence and naivety was rare in the Tudor court.

Tuesday, 12 February 2013

The Execution of Lady Jane Grey, Queen of England

On this day, February 12 1554, Lady Jane Grey, famously the Nine - or more accurately, Thirteen - Day Queen was beheaded privately on Tower Green, shortly after her teenage husband Guildford Dudley had been executed on Tower Hill. Last week I detailed the execution of Mary Queen of Scots, Jane's fellow queen who, like Jane, believed that she was dying as a martyr for her faith. Unlike Mary, however, Jane was dying as a fervent, even devout Protestant, and has ever since been mourned as a martyr for the Protestant faith and a victim of the Catholic queen Mary Tudor's bloody campaign of tyranny.

Lady Jane had been born sometime between the autumn of 1536 and the autumn of 1537 to two highly ambitious Tudor figures, Henry Grey, marquis of Dorset, and his notorious wife Frances Brandon, who was the daughter of Henry VIII's youngest sister Mary by her husband Charles Brandon, duke of Suffolk. Royal blood thus flowed in Frances' descendants. Jane's sisters, Katherine and Mary, were born in 1540 and 1545 respectively. Jane's childhood and the nature of her relationship with her parents is something of a mystery. The Victorian era, through portraying Jane as an innocent teenage victim and Protestant martyr, depicted Jane as ruthlessly bullied by her cruel parents, especially her tyrannical mother, apparently famously beating her when Jane refused to marry Guildford in 1553. This portrayal of the Grey parents' relations with their eldest daughter was famously described in Alison Weir's fictional historical novel Innocent Traitor, where Frances mercilessly punishes her daughter, often physically beating her and inflicting violence on her. Recent historians, however, have questioned the reality of the personal nature of the Grey family's relations with one another. Plowden, for instance, suggests that Jane's complaints about her parents' harsh treatment of her may not necessarily reflect reality but, instead, 'may... illustrate the attitude of a priggish, opinionated teenager, openly scornful of her parents' conventional, old-fashioned tastes'.

Whatever the case is, Jane was, famously, extremely intellectual. In the words of Alison Plowden, who has written extensively on her, she showed 'exceptional academic ability'. Aged thirteen, she was found by Roger Ascham, Princess Elizabeth's tutor, to be reading Plato, and she was learned in several languages, classics, history, religion/theology, and sciences. In the spring of 1547, aged around ten, Jane was sent into the household of Henry VIII's last and ultimately luckiest queen, Katherine Parr, who quickly showed fondness for her young charge. Jane was exposed to Katherine's radical Protestantism, and she later shared lessons with her royal cousins Edward and Elizabeth. It has been theorised by numerous scholars that these three developed a strong Protestant faith which they all shared equally passionately, although it seems unlikely, given what we know of her reign and personal beliefs, that Elizabeth was as puritanical in her Protestant religion as Edward and Jane were. Tragically, Katherine died in childbed in 1548, and Jane returned to her parents' home in Leicestershire.

Jane rapidly became an increasingly devout Protestant, and as a teenager she began, with her tutors' encouragement, to communicate with radicals on the continent, including Heinrich Bullinger, associated with the radical church in Zurich. By now, of course, Jane's teenage cousin Edward had become king of England, and Protestantism had been forcefully introduced into England through a swift and brutal campaign of destruction of all traces of late medieval Catholic religion. In 1551, aged fourteen, Jane began to attend court more, following her father's advancement through becoming Duke of Suffolk, a wealthy and prestigious title which further enhanced the status of the Grey family. Jane apparently came into conflict with her thirty-five year old cousin Princess Mary, since Jane, despite only being in her early teens, showed considerable distaste towards her cousin on account of her Catholic religion. When Mary kindly sent her a lavish and fashionable dress, Jane rejected it, viewing it as symbolic of the corrupt nature of Catholicism. She pointedly remarked that it was a shame that Mary did not dress like her sister Elizabeth who, in the true spirit of Protestantism, rejected lavish dress and instead wore plain, modest clothing.

What is clear is that during the early 1550s Jane, and her family, became increasingly important at court. There had even been talk that Jane would marry her cousin Edward and become queen, thus further strengthening the Protestant religion in a gradually radical England. In 1553, it was arranged between the Grey parents and John Dudley, earl of Northumberland, that sixteen-year old Jane would marry Guildford Dudley, a younger son of Northumberland. Famously, Jane refused, and the story goes that her parents beat her mercilessly until she agreed to marry him, although it is uncertain whether this in fact happened. The marriage occurred in May, on a day when three weddings occurred at Durham House in London. Jane's thirteen year old sister Katherine was also married. Dramatic developments entailed in July when the fifteen-year old king Edward tragically died. Of course, this signalled Jane's fantastic rise to power and, eventually, triggered her dramatic downfall.

Historians have debated intensely the processes which led to Jane becoming queen of England, with some arguing that it was a Grey-Dudley family plot which saw members of that family, prominently the duke, bullying the king into naming Jane as his successor. Others have doubted this and emphasised that it was the king's intention all along to pass the crown to Jane, to ensure the triumph of Protestantism in England. Even though his own sister Elizabeth was Protestant, both she and Mary were excluded from the throne on account of their status as bastards. According to Jane's later letter to Mary, she was 'stupefied and troubled' by the astonishing announcement in early July that she was now Queen of England, but accepted the throne as a means of inaugurating Protestantism further in England. This has been explored in fictional works such as the 1985 film starring Helena Bonham Carter, Lady Jane, where Jane, as a devout Protestant, accepts the crown due to her religious beliefs.

On 10 July, Jane was taken to the Tower; on the way, an Italian spectator watched the grand procession and described the teenage Queen as being red-haired, freckled, and very short and thin. Apparently, she was so  tiny that she had to wear high platforms on her shoes. Her husband, Guildford, was described as being blonde, tall, and strong. According to contemporary accounts, the new Queen was received with largely indifference, confusion, and even hostility. Very few people had actually heard of Jane, and of course her cousin Mary was highly popular in England. Jane was proclaimed queen at Cheapside, before news quickly emerged that Mary had assembled an army and was intending to march into London and recover her throne. Jane's Council fell apart, with Northumberland unable to defeat Mary, and Mary was soon afterwards proclaimed queen. Jane's father ripped up her canopy of state when he later met with her, and informed her that she was no longer Queen. Her reign had lasted thirteen days, from 6 to 19 July.

To begin with, Mary had promised to be merciful, and it does seem likely that, as a kind-hearted but ultimately inexperienced and naive woman, she intended initially to spare her seventeen-year old cousin, who she believed had not wanted the throne for herself, and was merely a pawn of her ambitious family. Northumberland, however, was executed in August 1553, despite his earnest attempts to save himself through converting to Catholicism shortly before his execution, to no avail. Jane allegedly voiced shock and contempt at her father-in-law's renouncing of his religious beliefs. In November, Jane and her husband were tried for treason, and were condemned to die. Jane's fate was to be beheaded on the Green or to be burned alive within the Tower. She was assured, however, that she would not die, and that Mary would save her.

Tragically, Wyatt's rebellion in early 1554 sealed Jane's fate. Up till then, the queen had granted her several freedoms, allowing her to continue studying and to walk in the Tower gardens, and Jane had had nothing to do with the Wyatt rebellion. Yet this confirmed to both Queen Mary and her Council  that she would never be truly safe until her cousin was dead, since she would always be the figurehead for strong Protestant plots who sought to remove Mary and replace her with a Protestant monarch. The Queen was no longer able to be merciful, and Jane's execution was scheduled for February. Again showing her merciful nature, Mary sent the new dean of St Paul's to attempt to convert Jane, who Mary viewed as a heretic on account of her Protestant faith and hostility towards Catholicism, but to no avail. Demonstrating remarkable bravery and single-mindedness, bearing in mind her tender years, Jane refused to renounce her faith.

On 12 February, both Jane and her husband Guildford were beheaded. Guildford was executed first, although Jane refused to bid goodbye to him. Jane apparently cried "Oh Guildford!" when Guildford's bloody body was brought by her window, before processing to Tower Green for her own execution shortly after 10am. Dressed in deep black, and described by the onlooker Richard Grafton as being "a gentle young Ladie with singuler gifts both of learning and knowledge", Jane made a short speech on the scaffold, admitting that she had done wrong in accepting the crown, but emphasising her innocency and love of God. She announced that she died as "a true christian woman", before kneeling down and saying Psalm 51.

The headsman stepped forward and Jane, finally, saw the dreaded block for the first time. Unlike Anne Boleyn, she was executed with an axe by kneeling before the block. Following her ladies tying a kerchief around her eyes, Jane experienced a brief moment of panic and distress, groping for the block and crying out, "Where is it? What shall I do?" before someone came forward to guide her. The execution was soon over quickly, and Jane's body was buried in the chapel of St Peter ad Vincula, along with her fellow queens Anne and Katherine, who had been buried there previously.

The execution of Lady Jane Grey has since given rise to a legend and a series of myths surrounding this unfortunate young woman. Plowden referred to her beheading as "the judicial murder... and no one ever pretended it was anything else". Yet Plowden also, wisely, cautions that "it is difficult now to see beyond the religious bias of such contemporary sources as Holinshed's Chronicles and Foxe's Acts and Monuments, or the uncritical later biographies of Agnes Strickland and Richard Davey." She was made an icon as a Protestant symbol, an innocent victim of the bloody and cruel Catholic Mary I, who was vilified and condemned as evil and corrupt in Protestant sources of the kind produced by Foxe.

The painting above, painted in the nineteenth century by a French painter, helped to promote the image of Jane as a guiltless, gentle teenage martyr, characterising her as a Protestant heroine, even a saint. The famous Tudor historian Eric Ives, who wrote a celebrated book about Jane, concluded in his study of the young Queen's life that "Truth to tell she counted for little. She was important for barely nine months, she ruled for only thirteen days... And yet her name still lives... But the fundamental justification for remembering Jane is the justification for remembering Anne Frank centuries later. They speak for the multitude of brutality's victims who have no voice".

As beautiful as this is, I also agree with Plowden, who wrote somewhat unsettlingly: "...the reality of Jane Grey, sacrificial victim of realpolitik though she undoubtedly became, was surely rather more disturbing than the sentimental myths surrounding her seem to suggest".

I agree. The picture we have of Jane, and the depiction of Queen Mary I, are the results of the triumph of Protestantism, and later secularism, in England today, thus identifying the Protestant Jane as a victim and martyr for England's faith and her cousin as alien, barbaric, cruel, un-English, unnatural. Imagine if Catholicism had triumphed, and Mary was celebrated as a good and highly effective ruler and Jane as a traitor. Historians need to remember that the pictures we have of historical figures are often influenced overwhelmingly by later national, political, and cultural developments. Thus the success of the Reformation in England has led to Anne Boleyn being celebrated as an important religious figure in her own right, rather than as a royal prostitute as she was identified in her own time, while the success of Elizabethan Protestantism has similarly led to harsh judgements about one of its victims, Mary Queen of Scots.

Truth be told, Jane Grey must be seen as a tragic and unfortunate figure. She was beheaded at the age of seventeen, in a highly cruel time which experienced bloodshed and political rivalry on a constant basis. But Jane held firm religious beliefs, she was highly confident that she would enjoy salvation, and I doubt very much that she saw her cousin Mary with anything but contempt and pity, perhaps. She was innocent in that she did not readily participate in family plots to seize the throne, but I do think Jane was more complex than Victorian writers made her out to be. There is evidence to suggest that she was stubborn, highly opinionated, ruthless, priggish, and very narrow-minded towards those who did not share her beliefs. Who knows - if she had defeated Mary, and continued as Queen Jane, there may have been a persecution of Catholics on the same scale as Queen Mary persecuted Protestant heretics.

Friday, 8 February 2013

Catholic Martyr or Scottish Traitor? The Execution of Mary Queen of Scots

On this day in history, 426 years ago, Mary Stuart, queen of Scotland and formerly Queen of France as the wife of Francis II, was beheaded for allegedly plotting to assassinate her second cousin and fellow queen, the English monarch Elizabeth I. This charismatic, alluring and complex woman was praised, adored, scorned, despised and vilified throughout her lifetime, but her controversial execution shocked Catholic Europe - despite the fact that they had, in essence, neglected her as nothing more than a nuisance - and led to the portrayal of Mary as a martyr in Catholic sources which violently condemned her cousin. 

Mary's short reign as the French queen was brought to a rapid end by her husband's premature death while still a youth, leaving her a widow aged just eighteen. A well-dressed, highly intelligent and cultured woman, Mary has been described by Julian Goodare as being 'unusually tall', her beauty 'universally and fulsomely praised', while her 'charm, wit and grace' were extolled by those who knew her. Returning to Scotland as its queen following her husband's death, Mary had, undoubtedly and unfortunately, concluded the most satisfactory and peaceful period of her life. A Catholic queen viewed as more French than Scottish in a land eagerly embracing austere Protestantism, Mary was regarded with ambivalence at best and hostility at worst by her Scottish subjects, who viewed her as a foreigner, despite having been born in Scotland as the daughter of the Scottish King James V. 

Despite her later poor reputation, Mary's conduct during her queenship in Scotland can be praised, for despite her sincere Catholic religion she tried fulsomely to maintain peaceful relations with the Protestant Scots, endeavouring to work with the regime following an agreement with her illegitimate half-brother Lord James Stewart. As Retha Warnicke notes: 'negative assessments of Mary's qualities as ruler have virtually ignored the dispatches of Thomas Randolph, the English ambassador, who, although sometimes misled by Mary's statements, usually was aware of her whereabouts'.

 Failed marital negotiations eventually catalysed political unrest and dissatisfaction at Mary's court, with Mary falling in love with her cousin Henry Lord Darnley. Mary's feelings for him were apparently sincere, but most historians have concluded that the vain teenager Darnley only wooed the queen out of an ambitious desire to become king of Scotland and achieve political and material glory. However, Mary refused to permit her husband to attain regal hegemony, and he was never crowned or titled King of Scotland. It appears that the queen belatedly discovered that Darnley was vain, petulant, selfish, and an entirely unsuitable husband for a queen. This marriage alienated Mary's cousin Elizabeth, who arguably modelled her own cautious actions in opposition to the disastrous policies of her cousin. 

The queen faced increasing political conflict at her court, caused largely by differences in religion, political beliefs, and hostility towards the new consort. The Moray-Hamilton conflict severely threatened Mary's authority, although she was ultimately successful in suppressing it. Darnley became alarmingly jealous of his wife, believing that her failure to crown him king of Scotland resulted from her favour to other noblemen at court, who had poisoned her mind against him. Warnicke has suggested that 'contemporaries worked to undermine female rules with accusations that they were involved in sexual relationships with their advisers'. In view of this, the shocking events of 1566 which saw the violent murder of Mary's French secretary David Riccio make sense. One day at supper, the Scottish lords burst uninvited into Mary's private chambers where she was in the company of Riccio, seized the unfortunate secretary, and stabbed him fifty times in a brutal and violent death. Mary, who was actually pregnant at this time, was apparently threatened with a similar death. Notwithstanding, she soon afterwards gave birth to her only child, the future king of England and Scotland, James. 

However, despite the removal of Riccio from the political scene, Darnley continued to face hostility and contempt from other prominent Scots. Having departed for Glasgow after apparently suffering from a disease - perhaps smallpox or syphilis - Darley's house was blown up in Kirk o'Field, in Edinburgh. Although he managed to escape, he was shortly afterwards smothered in the garden. Mary was residing nearby at Holyrood. Those who disliked her believed that she had ordered her husband's murder, although there is no evidence of this. Following this, the ambitious Earl of Bothwell concocted a scheme to entrap the vulnerable Queen, seduce her, and then marry her. What followed was an abhorrent act of sexual violence, with the earl raping her. Mary married him, probably against her will, following this. Mary became increasingly unpopular with her already resentful subjects, because many believed that Bothwell had been the culprit for Darnley's murder, and because of her speedy and entirely unsuitable marriage to him soon afterwards, believed that Mary was complicit in Darnley's murder. She was therefore vilified as a murderess and a whore.

What followed, of course, is well known. 1567 saw Mary being deposed as Queen of Scotland and her son, James, ascended to the throne in her place, although as a toddler he did not in reality rule. The queen later escaped into England in 1568, apparently cutting her hair short and discarding her lavish costume in order to escape being detected. This desperate action following Mary being paraded publicly through the streets of Edinburgh, condemned as a 'whore' by hostile citizens. She was, at this point, 25 years old.

Twenty years later, in February 1587, Mary was sentenced to death at the castle of Fotheringhay, where she had been imprisoned since the previous year. The preceding decade had seen the former Scottish queen implicated in a variety of plots, including the 1571 Ridolfi Plot and eventually the Babington Plot of 1586. Whether Mary was involved in these plots, to depose her cousin and become Queen of England, is uncertain; she frequently denied so and asserted her innocence, but contemporary evidence convincingly suggests that she was implicit in plots to assassinate Elizabeth. Catholic rulers in France and Spain vigorously supported Mary, hoping to extend Catholic rule into England; unsurprisingly, they viewed the English Queen as a Protestant heretic, daughter of a whore and traitor. Elizabeth's principal Secretary, Sir Francis Walsingham, ensured that Mary's correspondence entrapped her. Believing that her letters were secure, when they were in fact deciphered and read by Walsingham, Mary continually wrote to Sir Anthony Babington, the mastermind of a murky plot in 1586 to assassinate Elizabeth and replace her with Mary. The plot also involved the Spanish king, who was personally hostile to Elizabeth, who promised to provide a Spanish army to seize Mary, crown her as queen, and do away with her cousin. 

Some may be surprised to note that Elizabeth actually was highly reluctant to execute her cousin and rival. Elizabeth, who deeply respected and revered both the monarchy and public opinion abroad, was well aware of the unsettling consequences if she decided to execute not only her cousin, but a fellow queen, who none but God had the power to depose. Of course, Elizabeth's sister Mary Tudor had faced a similar issue in 1554, when faced with the execution of her cousin and queen Jane Grey, but Jane had been a usurper, whereas Mary Stuart was the legitimate ruler of Scotland, even if she had been deposed in favour of her son. Elizabeth's biographer, Wallace Maccaffrey, believed that 'Elizabeth was confident that with adequate safeguards the genie [ie Mary] could be kept in the bottle'. However, Elizabeth's councillors were adamant that Mary had to go. She had been implicated in horrifying plots to kill Elizabeth for the last 15 years, and many despaired at the fact that, despite the overwhelming evidence, the Queen still prevaricated about getting rid of her cousin. 

Elizabeth agreed to her cousin's trial, but as Maccaffrey notes, she was 'grudging', and employed deliberate delaying tactics in order to try and prevent what was, essentially, an inevitability. The trial began in October 1586 at Fotheringhay Castle, with Mary, apparently, defending herself strongly and convincingly. She was charged with plotting to assassinate the queen, and was sentenced to death accordingly. Mary, according to sources, welcomed death, viewing herself as a martyr for the Catholic faith. She apparently stated that her cousin should beware the terrible penalties she would face from God if she dared to kill a queen, anoited by God. This, of course, could not have made Elizabeth's life any easier.

Although Mary had been condemned in October, it was only four months later that Mary's execution proceeded, after Elizabeth had finally agreed to her cousin's execution in what has been termed 'the most painful decision of her life'. Of course, considering Elizabeth's personal history and her renowned aversion to violence of any sort, it is easy to understand why she prevaricated and was so reluctant to order Mary's death. Her own mother had been executed on false charges of adultery when Elizabeth was just 2, while Elizabeth's friend Robert Dudley reported that, following Katherine Howard's execution when Elizabeth was aged 8, Elizabeth had declared that she would never marry. Plainly, she abhorred execution, and must have dreaded, if not positively loathed, the idea of sending a queen to the scaffold, in what only reawakened painful memories. Elizabeth may also have remembered her cousin Jane Grey's execution. The 17-year old queen, following her beheading, was mourned by Protestants as a martyr for the Protestant faith, and Mary Tudor consequently reviled and despised. Elizabeth probably feared that the same - reversing the religions - would occur if she authorised Mary Stuart's execution. 

Despite her hysterical reactions, Elizabeth finally agreed to Mary's execution. Mary received the news that she would die calmly, announcing to her attendants that she was dying for her Catholic religion, apparently ignoring the fact that she had been repeatedly implicated in plots to assassinate her rival over a 15-year period. Unlike the executions of three other English queens (Anne Boleyn, Katherine Howard and Jane Grey), Mary was not beheaded outside, but inside the hall of Fotheringhay Castle. The scaffold had been erected in the Great Hall and was draped in black. Mary wore a gold crucifix, stressing her devotion to Catholicism, a gown of black satin which revealed a scarlet bodice and petticoat - highly significant, as red was the colour of Catholic martyrdom - and short sleeves of satin in purple. Mary turned to her ladies at the scaffold, and announced that her troubles would finally be at an end. 

Mary had been denied a Catholic priest on the scaffold, and consequently ignored the Protestant Dean of Peterborough's prayers for her as he accompanied her. The executioner begged for the former queen's forgiveness, which she readily granted. Reciting her prayers, Mary was then beheaded with three strokes of the axe, an undoubtedly painful and brutal death caused by an inexperienced executioner - some have suggested that he was so overcome with grief that he was unable to carry out the deed effectively. Mary, whether people loved her or hated her, made a strong and lasting impression on all who knew her. Robert Wynkfielde, a contemporary, wrote following her execution:

...and so the executioner cut off her head... he lift up her head to the view of all the assembly... then, her dress of lawn falling from off her head, it appeared as grey as one of threescore and ten years old, polled very short... Tragically, Mary had been wearing a wig, and her true hair was grey, showing how shockingly she had aged during her 20-year imprisonment. She was, of course, still only 44 years old at her execution. 

Then one of her executioners... espied her little dog which was crept under her clothes, which could not be gotten forth but by force, yet afterward would not depart from the dead corpse...

Mary Queen of Scots is one of the most controversial women to have lived in the Tudor period. A charismatic, cultured, intelligent and passionate woman, she was also highly reckless, rash, and at times incredibly foolish, in contrast with her cautious cousin Queen Elizabeth. Historians divide sharply in how they assess her - was she a martyr for the Catholic faith? Was she an idiotic woman who was ruled by her heart and let men dominate her? Or was she simply unlucky, the victim of Scottish religious politics and men of power? What cannot be denied is that Mary was repeatedly granted chance after chance by Elizabeth, who forgave her time and time again. Yet Mary repeatedly embroiled herself in treasonous plots to assassinate her cousin. It is surprising how long Mary actually lived, considering that Elizabeth had enough evidence to order her death many years previously. Mary certainly wanted to be Queen of England, and her disposition from the Scottish throne occurred in undoubtedly tragic and unlucky circumstances. But she was not politically astute, as her cousin was, and she failed to appreciate her good fortune in retaining her life at her cousin's jeopardy. As tragic as Mary's ultimate fate was, one cannot but feel, regretfully, that it was a logical consequence of her own actions. 

Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Homosexuality in England - Hatred, Hidden, Hope?

It was announced yesterday that the gay marriage bill, a highly controversial document which has divided British society significantly, had passed through the House of Commons, with 400 MPs voting in favour of the document and 175 dissenting. 136 Tory MPs opposed the bill, but this has not prevented the outcome, with Prime Minister David Cameron announcing that "Last night's vote will be seen not just as making sure that there is a proper element of equality, but also helping us to build a stronger and fairer society." Ed Miliband agreed, stating that: "this is a proud day and an important step forward in the fight for equality in Britain". However, other conservative MPs have privately expressed worries, noting that: "we are expecting problems in the Lords". Traditional religious groups are also highly likely to oppose the changes.

But what has the history of homosexuality (encompassing both male-male and female-female relations) been in Britain, more specifically England? Has there always been universal hatred and intolerance of homosexuals and lesbians, or have they been perceived with fascination, outrage, pity, sympathy, contempt etc? Sexuality is fundamental to how we identify ourselves. It shapes our identities, our choices, and our beliefs. Such an integral part of humanity was always likely to cause extraordinary opposition, particularly when it directly affected such a traditional institution as marriage, which has existed since ancient times. This article will explore how homosexuality (and lesbianism) has been perceived in England since the medieval period, considering how views and ideas have changed over time, influenced by changing social, political, economic, cultural, medical, and indeed sexual circumstances. No mention will be made of other countries or the influence of religions such as Islam. Readers should note that I have for a while now been considering writing a book entitled Homocide, documenting the persecution of homosexuals, lesbians and other minority sexualities for a while now, but it would be a very lengthy and complex undertaking.

According to some writers, homosexuality was fairly widespread in the Middle Ages. Concerns with sexuality in general stemmed largely from the Church, which held considerable power in society and was the ultimate institution of regulation and control in medieval society. The Church forbade all sexual relations which were not intended for procreation. Strict rules were created, suggesting that married couples should only have sexual intercourse on certain days of the year, at certain times, and only in the missionary position. Anything other than this was classified as deviant and evil, to be punished accordingly. St. Augustine wrote that sex which encompassed pleasure ran the risk of leading to a loss of rationality. Masturbation, anal and oral sex were all identified as unnatural, as indeed was vaginal intercourse in any position other than missionary.

By at least the twelfth century, homosexuality was increasingly stigmatised and becoming a great concern for the Church, while it was classified as sodomy, which sternly and oppressively condemned all sexual practices which were not concerned with procreation. The Medieval Inquisition from c.1184 punished the sects of Cathars and Waldensians for sodomy and fornication, demonstrating an intensifying hostility towards 'deviant' sexual behaviour. Thomas Aquinas, an influential theologian, denounced homosexuality and other sexual deviance as "unnatural vices". Capital punishment was gradually used to punish homosexuals from the thirteenth century, along with other sexual deviants.

Yet it has been argued that homosexuality was, in fact, a common occurrence in medieval society. It should be noted here that there was no concept of a homosexual identity, which only emerged in the nineteenth century. Rather, sexual relations between men, between women, or involving an animal, were all classified as sodomy, or bestiality. Medieval writers referred to what we would today classify as homosexuality or lesbianism as sexual actions which were "sinning against nature", ie. because they did not involve procreation. Sodomy was widely feared, and was punished harshly. The term buggery also became increasingly widespread in the mid thirteenth century. It was, however, not referred to in English law until 1533.

Because the Church played such an integral, even oppressive, role in society, it is not surprising that homosexuals and lesbians were persecuted intensely in the medieval period, since the Bible was used as authority to condemn unnatural sexual practices which opposed religious teachings. Male transvestites are also recognised to have played an important role in medieval society. It appears that sex between monks, and other religious orders, was fairly frequent, a fear which was punished in hostile fashion during Henry VIII's reign with the dissolution of the monasteries.

Although English medieval sources refer constantly to actual sexual behaviours between men - there was no recognition of female homosexuality - encompassing acts such as anal sex, monastic writing from the twelfth century exists to provide evidence of intimate male friendship. Writers such as Anselm wrote to other monks frequently, desiring long and exclusive relationships, although they were often attracted to youths. However, it must be stressed, homosexual subcultures do not appear to have been as significant in medieval England as they were in France and, in particular, Italy, where there is strong evidence of homosexual relations between both older and younger men. Somewhat surprisingly, given the medieval Church's fierce hostility towards women, identifying them as lustful and seducers of innocent and unsuspecting men, there is no mention made of the possibility of sexual relations between women.

It is interesting that several medieval English kings were suspected of homosexuality. Most famously, King Edward II (1284-1327) was believed to have been at least bisexual; although he fathered five children by two women (including four with his notorious queen, Isabella of France), his rumoured love affairs with Piers Gaveston (who was later murdered) and Hugh Despenser caused severe political unrest and eventually led to the king's murder at Berkeley Castle. Chroniclers implied that the king enjoyed "wicked and forbidden sex" with Gaveston, while another asserted that "Edward took too much delight in sodomy". Although these chroniclers were, ultimately, unable to prove that the two were lovers, there is strong evidence that they were. The later king Richard II was also believed to have enjoyed a homosexual relationship with Robert de Vere, earl of Oxford.

In early modern England, lesbianism arguably emerged as a greater concern compared to the medieval period. Traub noted that "certain female-female acts were met with harsh denunciation, punishment, and considerable publicity". Female-female eroticism, like male homosexuality, was viewed as unnatural and offensive to God. Female sodomy became increasingly enshrined in law after 1550. In the reign of Henry VIII, a statute passed in 1533 condemned buggery, although it did not mention men (probably since buggery tended to mean anal penetration). If women were believed to commit buggery, it was believed that they did so with an animal (Edward Coke).

Male homosexuality continued to be viewed with considerable horror in England. We have seen that the 1533 act punished buggery harshly, specifically focusing on male-male penetration, punishing the offence with death. In 1540, Walter Lord Hungerford was the first person to be executed under this statute, while he was also believed to have enjoyed sexual relations with his own daughter. Historians who have speculated that Anne Boleyn's younger brother George was either homo- or bisexual, along with several of his fellow male courtiers, probably are inferring too imaginatively into surviving evidence, for these men appear to have been noted womanisers who were not attracted to one another.

Homosexuality, particularly in the Elizabethan period, was viewed as a crime comparable to murder or blasphemy, because it offended religious teachings and threatened accepted patriarchal, gender, and sexual mores held in society. Thomas Shepard, a seventeenth century writer, referred to sodomy in the same breath as witchcraft, murder, and adultery. John Rainolds described it as being "a monstrous sin against nature". The nature of male friendships in the early modern period meant that suspicions of sodomy were frequently held. People often shared beds with one another, not in a sexual sense as we may view it, and were often of the same sex. Men also frequently kissed and embraced one another warmly amongst the elite culture. Emotional bonds were strong, often expressed between men in their letters to one another. Yet it cannot be suggested that these men enjoyed sexual relationships with one another, in view of the hostile responses to homosexuality considered thus far.

However, in the late seventeenth century homosexual cruising grounds and brothels began appearing in London (as well as in other European cities). Allegedly, by the end of the century homosexuality in the capital had become commonplace, with Samuel Pepys stating in his diary in 1663 that "Sir J Jemmes and Mr Batten both say that buggery is now almost grown as common among our gallants as in Italy", a highly significant comment to make in context of the nature of sexual relations in Italian society. Yet it is unlikely, as Nicton has suggested, that male prostitution was a thriving business in seventeenth century England.

During the eighteenth century, in some circles homosexuality was used as a weapon to attack rivals. The court, for instance, was increasingly associated with sodomy by some disaffected courtiers, while the Society for the Reformation of Manners was also accused of homosexual conduct. Captain Edward Rigby became a famous victim of homosexuality in the 1690s, being charged with the 'offence' following sexual encounters with a nineteen year old youth who later exposed him to the authorities. In 1707 eight men, possibly more, were convicted of homosexuality due to the actions of moral movements. Apparently, the Royal Exchange was the main cruising ground. Like the medieval period, male homosexuality was viewed as much more of a threat than lesbianism. The Society of Manners eventually ensured that 100 men were convicted of homosexual conduct in that year alone.

In the Victorian period, changing views of homosexuality developed. Rather than relying on religion to identify homosexuals as enemies of God who publicly threatened accepted religion, homosexual men were increasingly perceived as being effeminate men, while lesbians were usually characterised as "mannish" women. Psychoanalysts and psychologists believed that homosexuality was a medical disorder which could be cured if treated, believed to be a disease caused by the deterioration of the nerves. Johann Valentin Muller's work, published in 1796, remained popular, identifying homosexuals as both sick and as dangers to the state and public order.

However, literary notions increasingly challenged accepted views of homosexuality and lesbianism. Radclyffe Hall's famous novel The Well of Loneliness depicted lesbianism in a sympathetic light, while the trials of Oscar Wilde for homosexual behaviour caused a sensation across England, although in the end ruining Wilde's career. Homosexuals became more confident about speaking out by the late 1800s, attempting to define themselves rather than being defined by the society in which they lived. It must be said that, in comparison with other countries, England was relatively light in terms of its punishment of homosexuality, although it was not legalised until the 1960s.

In 1906, Bloch suggested that homosexuals and lesbians should be accepted as welcome members of society. During this time, homosexuals seem to have still been perceived as a greater threat than lesbians, perhaps because it was believed that lesbians could be 'reformed'. Some were positive about homosexuality, suggesting that it encouraged strong comradeship and embodied heroism and community. The Wolfenden report of the 1950s raised serious and disturbing questions as to whether homosexuality could really be classified as an offence, arguing that what people did in their private lives was of no concern to the state, as long as it was not threatening or a disruption to public order. Eventually, homosexuality was legalised in the 1960s in context of sexual liberation in England, with the age of consent set to 21 years old before being lowered to 18, and then to 16. This, perhaps, is evidence of increasing toleration towards homosexuals and lesbians.

England has witnessed vastly differing and changing views to homosexuality, lesbianism, and other 'unnatural' sexualities over the course of its history. From deep-rooted hostility and contempt in the medieval period largely influenced by religious teachings, to increasing concern in the early modern period, and eventually to liberation in modern Britain, it can be argued that 'deviant' sexualities are still a source of fear, worry, and uncertainty in England today. Religion remains prominent, and, disturbingly, homosexual, bisexual and lesbian youths continue to commit self-harm and, in some cases suicide, because of their inability to accept their sexual identities. Gay marriage will now finally be legal in Britain, provided there is no further opposition to the Bill.

Without wishing to become involved in this highly contentious political and social issue, I would pose a question for readers: if homosexuals, lesbians, bisexuals and transvestites are not harming anyone in their private lives, should we not respect their sexual identities? The Wolfenden Report questioned as much.