Thursday, 30 October 2014

Egypt's Lost Queens

Above: Nefertari, a Great Royal Wife of Ramesses the Great.

Professor Joann Fletcher, Honorary Visiting Professor in the Department of Archaeology at the University of York, recently explored in a fascinating and engrossing television documentary the lives of Egypt's lost queens. Everyone has heard of Cleopatra, last pharaoh of Egypt, a charismatic and alluring woman so stunningly, if melodramatically, portrayed in Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra. Professor Fletcher, however, preferred to look at the lives of other powerful female queens. Her documentary revealed the inspiring and considerable power and authority such women wielded in Ancient Egypt.

Nefertari, as depicted in the image of the tomb wall above, was one such woman. She was one of the Great Royal Wives, or principal wives, of Ramesses the Great, who was himself celebrated and recognised as one of the greatest and most powerful pharaohs of the Egyptian Empire. Nefertari's name means 'the beautiful one has come'. Her birthdate is unknown, and she died around 1250 BC. She was possibly related to Pharaoh Ay, and married Ramesses before he became pharaoh, bearing him at least four sons and two daughters. Her eldest son, Amun-her-khepeshef, was Crown Prince and Commander of the Troops. Nefertari first appeared as the wife of Ramesses II in official scenes during the first year of his reign. She is depicted behind her husband in the tomb of Nebwenenef, high priest of Amun, as Ramesses elevates Nebwenenef to position of High Priest of Amun during a visit to Abydos. 

Furthermore, Nefertari is a central presence in the scenes from Luxor and Karnak, two cities in Ancient Egypt. Her roles as mother and goddess are highlighted, as she is depicted leading the royal children and appearing at the Festival of the Mast of Amun-Min-Kamephis. But it was her role as consort of the Pharaoh that was most frequently emphasised in statues. The small temple in Abu Simbel was dedicated to her and the goddess Hathor. Her prominence at court can be discerned in cuneiform tablets from the Hittite city of Hattusas, in which she corresponded with the king Hattusili III and his wife Pudukhepa. Nefertari sent gifts to Pudukhepa and referred to her as 'my sister' and 'Great Queen of the Hatti land'. She later appeared in the inaugural festivities at Abu Simbel in year 24. Following her death, she was buried in tomb QV66 in the Valley of the Queens.

Above: Temple of Nefertari at Abu Simbel.

Nefertiti was another remarkable female ruler in Ancient Egypt. She was the chief consort of Akhenaten, Pharaoh of Egypt. They have usually been associated with a religious 'revolution', in which only one god, Aten (the sun disc), was worshipped, in contrast to previous practice. With her husband, Nefertiti arguably reigned during the wealthiest period in the history of Ancient Egypt. Scholars currently debate whether Nefertiti reigned herself briefly as Neferneferuaten after the death of her husband and before Tutankhamun's accession. Her titles included: Hereditary Princess; Great of Praises; Lady of Grace; Sweet of Love; Lady of the Two Lands; Main King's Wife; Great King's Wife; Lady of All Women; and Mistress of Upper and Lower Egypt. 

Above: Nefertiti.

Nefertiti was born circa 1370 BC and died circa 1330 BC. Her parentage is not known with certainty, although some have theorised that she was the daughter of Pharaoh Ay. She had six daughters with Akhenaten, although the date of their marriage is unknown. Nefertiti appeared in many scenes, in Thebes for example, supporting her husband, worshipping the Aten. In other scenes, she assumed the prerogative of the king in smiting the enemy, while captive enemies decorated her throne. The emergence of the cult of the Aten changed Egypt's polytheistic religion to a religion perhaps best described as a monolatry (the depiction of a single god as an object for worship), or henotheism (one god who is not the only god). 

Many theories have existed about Nefertiti's death. Traditionally, she was thought to have vanished from the historical record around Year 14 of her husband's reign, with no mention of her thereafter. Explanations included a sudden death (possibly from a plague sweeping the city), or a natural death. During her husband's reign, she enjoyed unprecedented power and authority. Possibly she became co-regent by the twelfth year of Akhenaten's reign, and was therefore equal in status to the Pharaoh. Some now believe that she was the ruler Neferneferuaten and so may have exerted influence on the younger royals. Possibly, then, her influence and also life ended around the third year of Tutankhamun's reign (1331 BC). Others believe that her husband continued to rule alone until the last years of his reign, with his wife by his side, and therefore the rule of the female pharaoh Neferneferuaten must be placed between Akhenaten's death and Tutankhamun's accession.

Regardless of when she died, Nefertiti's mummified body has never been found. Joann Fletcher suggested in 2003 that the Younger Lady, one of two female mummies inside the tomb of Amenhotep II in the Valley of the Kings, may have been Nefertiti's mummy. Egyptologists have dismissed Fletcher's claims, however, by noting that ancient mummies are almost impossible to identify without having DNA. Nefertiti's conclusive identification is impossible given that the bodies of her parents and children have never themselves been identified. Others have questioned whether the mummy is even female. Despite this controversy, Nefertiti remains iconic. After Cleopatra, she is the second most famous Queen of Ancient Egypt in the Western imagination.

Above: Hatshepsut. 

Hatshepsut was another extraordinary female ruler in Ancient Egypt. Her name means 'foremost of noble ladies'. She was born about 1508 BC and died 1458 BC, aged around fifty. She was the fifth pharaoh of the Eighteenth Dynasty. She officially ruled jointly with Thutmose III, and was the chief wife of Thutmose's father, Thutmose II. Hatshepsut was daughter of Thutmose I and his primary wife Ahmes. Egyptologists tend to regard her as one of the more successful pharaohs since she ruled longer than any other woman of an indigenous Egyptian dynasty. 

Hatshepsut enjoyed several major accomplishments during her lifetime. Firstly she established the trade networks that were disrupted during the Hyksos occupation of Egypt during the Second Intermediate Period (1650-1550 BC). She also oversaw preparations and funding for a mission to the Land of Punt, an Egyptian trading partner known for producing and exporting gold, aromatic resins, wild animals, ivory, ebony, and blackwood, and was known in some cases as 'the land of the god'. Her foreign policy has often been seen as having been peaceful, although she may have led military campaigns against both Nubia and Palestine. 

Hatshepsut has also been recognised as one of the most prolific Ancient Egyptian builders, for she commissioned hundreds of construction projects throughout both Upper and Lower Egypt. She employed the great architect Ineni, who had worked for her father, husband, and for the royal steward Senemut. A remarkable quantity of statuary was produced during her reign, meaning that, today, almost every major museum in the world has Hatshepsut statuary. She had monuments constructed at the Temple of Karnak, and restored the original Precinct of Mut, the ancient great goddess of Egypt, at Karnak that had been ravaged by the foreign rulers during the Hyksos occupation. Obelisks were ordered to celebrate her sixteenth year of rule, while she built the Temple of Pakhet at Beni Hasan. The masterpiece of her building projects was a mortuary temple at Deir el-Bahri. 

In comparison with other female pharaohs Hatshepshut's reign was longer and more prosperous. She is generally recognised to have been successful in her warfare and inaugurated an era of peace that lasted for some time. She brought great wealth to the empire and re-established international trading relationships. 

The experiences of Nefertari, Nefertiti and Hatshepsut, alongside the more famous Cleopatra, suggest that these female pharaohs should not be seen as 'lost'. They were authoritative, powerful women who wielded tremendous influence in their own lifetimes. This influence can still be discerned and appreciated today, in for example visiting their mesmerising building projects.

Above: Colonnaded design of Hatshepsut temple.

Friday, 24 October 2014

24 October 1537: Death of Jane Seymour

On 24 October 1537, Queen Jane Seymour died at Hampton Court Palace, aged around twenty-nine. The third wife of Henry VIII had given birth to a male heir, Prince Edward, twelve days previously, and had been thought to have been in good health following her first birth. The queen had welcomed visitors attending her son's christening on 15 October, although following protocol, neither she nor her husband attended the christening.

Jane's queenship appears to have been passive, in contrast with the strong and authoritative queenships of her two predecessors Katherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn, but as historians have conjectured, this may well have resulted from Henry's decision to limit his wife's influence. Jane did not lead religious reform or press for a return to traditional religion: she appears to have been conservative in her religious beliefs, since Martin Luther heard that she was 'an enemy of the gospel'.


Although the birth of the prince was arduous and difficult, there is no evidence that the queen gave birth by caesarean section, a story put forward by the Catholic priest Nicholas Sander in his work defaming Henry VIII's reformation. Jane appeared to have been making a normal recovery following the birth of her son. She initially rallied after some initial consternation about her condition, but by 24 October her life was in danger and her almoner, Robert Aldrich, bishop of Carlisle, administered extreme unction and informed the king. Although the queen's attendants were blamed for allowing her to eat food that was unsuitable and allowing her to catch a cold, it seems likely that Jane developed puerperal fever, a common condition that befell many sixteenth-century women. Alternatively, it has been suggested that the queen died because of retention of parts of the placenta in her uterus, which could have led to a catastrophic haemorrhage a few days after her child's delivery.

Whatever her condition was, Jane soon developed septicaemia, and delirium set in. She died just before midnight on 24 October, less than two weeks after the birth of Prince Edward. She was either twenty-eight or twenty-nine years of age at the time of her decease, young even by sixteenth-century standards. Her husband the king was devastated, informing the king of France: 'Divine Providence has mingled my joy [at the birth of his son] with the bitterness of the death of her who brought me this happiness'. From then on, Henry VIII would fondly remember Jane Seymour as his favourite wife, the only consort, as it turned out, who provided him with a surviving male heir. He would be buried beside Jane in St George's Chapel, Windsor, when he died in 1547.

Saturday, 18 October 2014

Christine de Pizan: A Remarkable Woman

Christine de Pisan - cathedra.jpg

The fourteenth-century was, in many respects, a century of remarkable women. Christine de Pizan was one of them, and her name continues to resonate today with connotations of learning, chivalry and courtliness. Born in 1365, Christine was a French Renaissance writer who, some have argued, wrote some of the first feminist works of literature, although it seems somewhat anachronistic to label them as such. Christine was remarkably educated and this allowed her to write, becoming what King's College termed 'the first woman in Europe to successfully make a living through writing'.

Born in Italy in 1365, Christine later departed for France at a young age when her father, Thomas de Pizan, was appointed to the position of astrologer to the French king at that time, Charles V. This atmosphere allowed his daughter to pursue her intellectual interests, for Thomas clearly believed that his daughter should enjoy a fine education. At the age of fifteen, in 1380 Christine married Etienne du Castel, a royal secretary at court, with whom she had three children (a daughter, a son, and another child who tragically died in childhood). In 1390, her husband sadly died in an epidemic, meaning that, on his death, Christine had to support her mother, her niece, and two small children. As a means of supporting herself and her family, she devoted herself to writing. By 1393 she had attracted attention for her love ballads, and between 1399 and 1412 she is said to have composed over three hundred ballads, as well as many shorter poems.

Above: Christine de Pizan presents her book to the queen of France, Isabeau of Bavaria.

In 1401-2, Christine participated in a literary debate that allowed her to move beyond the courtly circles she had up to that moment moved in. Following this, she became involved in a renowned literary controversy known as the 'Querelle du Roman de la Rose', which she helped to instigate by calling into question the literary merits of Jean de Meun's Romance of the Rose, a medieval French poem that satirised and entertained about the Art of Love. Its focus on sensual language and imagery caused particular controversy, leading to individuals, including Christine, to question it. She, in particular, condemned its suggestion that women were little more than seducers. Christine began to counter and oppose literary treatments of women that were negative or even abusive.

Christine was, and remains, best known for her vernacular works, both in prose and in verse. These include political treatises and mirrors for princes, which consequently brought her a great deal of attention from the very highest orders. Her most famous literary works, The Book of the City of Ladies (in which she created a symbolic city in which women are both appreciated and defended) and The Treasure of the City of Ladies, were both published in 1405. They both offered positive representations of women, stressing how to cultivate useful feminine qualities and celebrating women's past contributions to society. Christine emphasised that women should seek to bring about peace between people, while arguing that slanderous speech eroded one's honour. Christine also later wrote a poem eulogising the tragic Joan of Arc, burned at the stake at the age of nineteen. She died in 1430 aged sixty-five or sixty-six.

Above: A scene from The Book of the City of Ladies (1405).

Christine de Pizan was not a medieval feminist. However, she was remarkable in that, as Simone de Beauvoir wrote in 1949, her work was 'the first time we see a woman take up her pen in defence of her sex'. Historians have debated whether this period saw a 'golden age' for women that was tantalisingly brief but which afforded women splendid opportunities not experienced before. While this remains uncertain, Christine de Pizan's astonishing life demonstrates the opportunities for women of the upper orders in particular, who, mobilised by their education and status, could achieve incredible feats.

Sunday, 12 October 2014

12 October 1537: The Birth of Edward VI

On this day in history, 12 October 1537, at two a.m. the future king Edward VI was born at Hampton Court Palace. Hugh Latimer, bishop of Worcester, greeted the news of the birth of the prince with joy, 'whom we hungered for so long'. The country at large shared his joy, and there were glorious celebrations across England. Edward was the only child of Henry VIII by his third wife, Jane Seymour. After twenty-eight years on the throne, Henry VIII finally had a male heir, and he had reason to believe that the Tudor succession was finally secure after years of uncertainty, bloodshed and religious revolution.

Image result for queen jane seymour
Above: Edward's parents, Henry VIII of England and his third wife Jane Seymour.

The queen's birth had been difficult, lasting two days and three nights. Three days after the birth, the prince was christened, although, as was the custom, neither the king nor his wife attended. Contrary to popular belief, Queen Jane seems to have recovered quickly, and was soon up writing letters and receiving visitors. However, the queen soon contracted an infection and she died nine days after the birth, aged twenty-nine. The king's euphoria and relief turned to sorrow at the loss of his dear consort.

It cannot be overstated how relieved the king was at the birth of his son. When he had married Katherine of Aragon, his first wife, in 1509, he would surely not have foreseen that it would be almost thirty years before his much-desired son was born. This isn't completely true, for Katherine had given birth to three sons: Prince Henry, who lived for fifty-two days before dying in February 1511; a son in the autumn of 1513; and a son the following year, both of whom died. Katherine's marriage was annulled largely because it did not provide a male heir, and Henry married her attendant Anne Boleyn in 1533. Although Queen Anne gave birth to arguably England's greatest monarch, the future Elizabeth I, that year, she too, as with her predecessor, did not give birth to a living son. Most tragically, in January 1536 she gave birth to a stillborn son. Four months later, she was decapitated for treason.

When Henry VIII married Jane in May 1536, he was almost forty-five, and from his point of view the succession was no more secure than it had been at his accession twenty-seven years earlier (although his previous wives had both given birth to a daughter). There is evidence that, when the new queen failed to conceive soon after her marriage, the king began voicing his doubts. Luckily for Jane, in early 1537 she became pregnant. Her condition was visible throughout the summer of 1537 and in September she arrived at Hampton Court for her lying-in where, a month later, she gave birth to a prince who, unlike those born to Katherine or Anne, survived.

Above: Henry VIII with his son, Edward (left), and third wife Jane (right), c. 1545. In reality, Jane had been dead for eight years when this painting was completed. The king was, at the time, married to his sixth and final wife, Katherine Parr. The painting has been interpreted as a brilliant work of Tudor propaganda.