Sunday, 17 November 2013

Mary I's Death and Elizabeth I's Accession

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

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

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

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

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

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

Above: Mary and Elizabeth.

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 15 November 2013

Lady Gaga and the Politics of Burqa

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 1 November 2013

Katherine Howard's Past is Revealed

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

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

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

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

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