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.