Serving QEI …Intimate Details from Whitelock’s “The Queen’s Bed”

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THE last Tudor bed in existence, made to mark Henry VII’s accession to the throne. This 527-year-old Paradise State Bed of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York was rediscovered in 2010. Henry Tudor, who became Henry VII, defeated Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth Field to take the English throne and found the Tudor dynasty. The Paradise State Bed is an unrivalled masterpiece of 15th Century oak carving which was commissioned almost immediately after Henry VII was crowned to celebrate his marriage to Elizabeth of York and the end of the War of the Roses.

Once she finally ascended to the English throne in 1558, Elizabeth I’s opulent lifestyle was in stark contrast to most of her early life.  “The Queen’s Bed: An Intimate History of Elizabeth’s Court” by Anna Whitelock details what it really took to be “Queen Elizabeth” on a material, and perhaps on an emotional level.  Elizabeth was never alone, even asleep there was always someone in her room, even sharing those fantastic beds described in the book:

“... At Richmond Palace, Elizabeth might sleep in an elaborate boat-shaped bed with curtains of ‘sea-water green’ and quilted with light brown tinsel.  At Whitehall her bed was made from an intricate blend of different colored woods and hung with Indian-painted silk.  Her best bed, which was taken with her when the court moved from place to place, had a carved wooden frame which was elaborately painted and gilded, a valance of silver and velvet, tapestry curtains trimmed with precious buttons and gold and silver lace, and a crimson satin headboard topped with ostrich feathers.”

So much has been written about the life and times, love affairs and political maneuvers of Elizabeth I. Yet only a few books have approached Gloriana’s life from the behind the façade she presented to the world. Anna Whitelock succeeds in giving us Elizabeth with her best friends and confidantes. These women surrounded her and applied the make-up, gowns, and jewels each day to take her from mere mortal to dazzling queen. They served her well, kept her secrets, and did what good friends do: work on our behalf. There were even a few, like Kat Ashley and Dorothy Bradbelt, who politicked to help marry the queen. And others, who loaned Elizabeth their maid’s clothing or had private dinners so she could be with Lord Robert Dudley.  Whitelock reveals an Elizabeth who is in turns vulnerable, loving, inconstant, and even quite spiteful.

Elizabeth did a better job than anyone before her, and arguably after her, in creating a brand that even in her day became iconic and magical – which was of course the point. Against the backdrop of assassination attempts, marriage suitors, court scandals, favorites and power politics, Whitelock’s details of Elizabeth’s life do not get lost in the larger themes of Elizabeth’s reign but rather enhance our understanding this great queen and her Court.

A quick visit to the author’s website tells me that the BBC has optioned this book for a possible TV series, which would if done well would be terrific.  And let’s agree that the BBC does this type of program really well.  Bring it!

History Lady Review of Margaret George’s Elizabeth I 

“The Kingmaker’s Daughter” — Best So Far in Gregory’s Cousins War Series

Best in the Cousin's War Series!

Best in the Cousin’s War Series!

Philippa Gregory‘s latest novel, “The Kingmaker’s Daughter” is her best since “The Other Boleyn Girl.”  It is Gregory at her finest, excelling at coloring between the lines of history and bringing a lesser-known character to life. “The Kingmaker’s Daughter” is every bit as good and juicy a read as “The Other Boleyn Girl,” which I consider to be her finest work.

This was the first novel I’d read with Anne Neville as the main character, although she appears as a secondary character in many historical fiction novels about the War of the Roses.  As a background figure Anne—daughter of the powerful “Kingmaker,” Richard, Earl of Warwick and wife of Richard III—is often portrayed as a kindly but quiet, and sickly figure.

Gregory does not necessarily seek to change person Anne presented to the world, but she gives Anne an internal dialogue and spirit that reveals a character with fierce, determination.   The novel is written in the first person, which Gregory has used for throughout the Cousins’ War series. Perhaps it captivated me because Anne seems outwardly calm and inscrutable but we hear her inner thoughts and feelings that are so much at odds with her public persona.  I loved it.  I loved the suspicion and fear, and power politicking and strength that Anne had. It would never have come across so strongly in another point of view.

The novel tells the story of Anne and her older sister Isabel who grow from contented pawns of their father into significant players in their own right  War of the Roses.

Warwick was called the Kingmaker because he marshaled the resources to catapult Edward of York to the throne, snatching it out from under Henry VI.  But Warwick expected that in return he would unique power in England.  Edward VI had his own ideas.

Edward VI’s hasty, surprise marriage to Elizabeth Woodville wrecked havoc with Warwick’s ambitions for his family, and for England.  Elizabeth Woodville large extended family received favors – favors that Warwick believes should have been bestowed elsewhere. “If you crown a gannet, then she will gobble up everything,” observes young Anne Neville.

Warwick and his supporters feel they have been slighted and begin a destabilizing plot to overthrow Edward VI and bring back Henry VI, the “sleeping king.”  Key components of the plot are the marriages of Anne and Isabel to the Lancaster and York heirs – Edward of Lancaster and George, Duke of Clarence.  One way or the other, the Kingmaker is determined to get one of his daughters on the throne.

Anne and her sister Isabel are every inch Kingmaker’s Daughters. They each believe in their own manifest destiny to be the Queen of England, fulfilling their father’s dreams of glory for his family.  For a while after Warwick rebellion fails and he is executed, the girls believe the cause is lost.  Isabel and her husband struggle to regain favor with Edward, while Anne – a widow of the Lancaster heir – remains in disgrace until Richard, Duke of York claims her as his bride.  It is as his bride that Anne begins to shape her own destiny – quietly, behind the scenes.

Anne was not, in places, particularly sympathetic, but she was a real, emotionally solid character.   Isabel Neville, too, was well drawn but ultimately less likeable.

This was a thoroughly engrossing story, and one of Gregory’s best.  Her next novel in the series “The White Princess” is due out in a month, in which the story of Elizabeth of York – the wife of Henry VII and mother of Henry VIII – is told.  I can’t wait.

The Beginning of the End – Rizzio’s Murder at Holyrood

English: The Murder of David Rizzio, oil on pa...

English: The Murder of David Rizzio, oil on panel, Depicts the killing of David Rizzio, secretary to Mary, Queen of Scots, by a group of nobles including Lord Darnley (the Queen’s husband), Lord Ruthven and the Earl of Morton (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Today marks the 447th anniversary of David Rizzio’s murder in Mary Queen of Scots’ chamber at Holyrood Palace.  Rizzio’s gruesome murder on March 9, 1566 marked a watershed in Mary Stuart’s reign in Scotland.  One could call it the beginning of the end.  Rizzio himself was not all that important except as a focal point for the Protestant Scottish nobles, led by Patrick, Lord Ruthven and aided and abetted by Mary’s husband Henry, Lord Darnley.   The pact that sealed Rizzio’s death also sealed Darnley’s, though he could not have known it at the time.  Rizzio’s death was the first in a series of incidents that destabilized Mary’s reign.  Eighteen months later Mary was forced to abdicate in favor of her son James.

David Riccio di Pancalieri was born about 1533 to a well-known Piedmontese family somewhere near Turin, Italy.  He was employed by the Duke of Savoy as a valet and musician and traveled with the Duke’s ambassador, Signor di Moretta to Scotland in 1561.  He left the Duke’s employ to become one of Mary’s musicians – she needed a bass singer!  This was not a particular sign of favor, according to John Guy in The True Life of Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots Mary “always” had musicians and minstrels on her payroll including five viol players, three lute players, several pipers and a shawm (early oboe) player.  Most contemporary sources agree that David “Davy” Rizzio was ugly.  Lady Fraser, author of Mary, Queen of Scots reports he “extremely ugly by the standards of the time, his face being considered ill-favored and his stature small and hunched.

How did Rizzio go from a singer in a “band” to Mary’s private secretary?   Prior to 1564 Mary’s French secretary was Raulett, a cipherer who was also a retainer of the Guise family, her relations on her mother’s side.  He was the only person beside Mary who had the key to the black box that contained her secret papers.  In the run up to Mary’s marriage to Darnley, something must have happened to precipitate Raulett’s dismissal.  She replaced him with David Rizzio – a move that seems odd in that he does not, on the face of it, appear to have been qualified.

Not long after Rizzio took over Mary’s French correspondence, she took a shine to her cousin Henry, Lord Darnley—the great-grandson of Henry VII through his daughter Margaret.  By April 1565 she was crazy in love with Darnley, so much that the English Ambassador Randolph said she “whom ever before I esteemed so worthy, so wise, so honorable in all her doings” was now altered “to the utter contempt of her best subjects.”   But as Darnley rose in Mary’s opinion he was falling out of favor with the Scots nobles who thought him arrogant and unpleasant.

Rizzio was riding high in favor of both Mary and Darnley in 1565.  John Guy flat out says the two men were found in bed together.  Clearly no one mentioned this to Mary, but Lady Fraser suggests the Four Maries and the majority of Scots nobles were against the match. Fraser notes that Rizzio was the only person who really supported her marriage to Darnley.

Mary’s marriage to Darnley was a disaster.  It provoked the Scots nobles, notably Mary’s brother James Stewart, Earl of Moray into a rebellion, ostensibly because they feared the return of Catholicism to Scotland.  Darnley was a member of the Lennox Stewart clan and there was a not unreasonable fear that clan’s power would overwhelm the others—in particular Moray and others who were de facto ousted from their closeness to Mary.  Moray fled to England where he continued to stir the nobles.

Darnley expected to become King Henry by receiving the crown matrimonial.  Even before the bloom was off their marriage, which didn’t take long, Mary shied from granting him that power.  When Darnley took out his frustrations on Rizzio, who he began to feel had undue influence on Mary.   It was not difficult for dissatisfied Protestant Lords to convince Darnley they could kill Rizzio and put him on the throne.   They convinced Darnley that Mary was committing adultery with Rizzio and further suggested he was a spy for the Pope. (No evidence exists to suggest he was anything on than a singer who gained the trust of a sovereign.)

More than a dozen Scottish nobles conspired to kill Rizzio in the Queen’s presence.  They ambushed Rizzio’s in Mary’s supper chamber – a small narrow room (I’ve seen it, amazingly tiny)—at Holyrood and demanded Mary hand him over.  She refused and in response had a gun pointed at her — Mary was seven month’s pregnant at the time.  They stabbed Rizzio more than 50 times before throwing him down the staircase, stripped of his jewels and clothes.  He was buried within a few hours of his death somewhere in the grounds at Holyrood.

It is not clear to me how much real power and influence Rizzio had with Mary.  He certainly died with a large sum of money (over £2,000, which is a lot for a man who made just £80/year), so perhaps he was taking bribes and peddling influence.  It is clear he rose high, had few friends and far too many enemies.

Mary Queen of Scots executed Chastelard 450 years ago today. Why?

Mary Stuart and Chastelard by Linton, Sir James Dromgole (1840-1916); Private Collection; (add.info.: Mary Stuart and Chastelard. Illustration for Mary Queen of Scots edited by W Shaw Sparrow (Hodder & Stoughton, c 1910).); © Look and Learn; English,  out of copyright

Mary Stuart and Chastelard by Linton, Sir James Dromgole (1840-1916); Private Collection http://www.bridemanart.com #460699

Pierre de Bocosel de Chastelard (1529-1563) was famous for nothing until he surprised Mary, Queen of Scots in her bedchamber (twice) and she had him hanged.  It is a fascinating story to tell on this, the 450th anniversary of his execution (reported as either 20 or 22 February, 1563) at the Mercat Cross in St. Andrews.

Pierre was born about 1529 to Jeanne de Bayard and Francois Bocosel in Dauphiné, in southeastern France.  The family name had prestige, Pierre was the grandson of the famous Chevalier de Bayard known as “the knight without fear and beyond reproach” who symbolized the values of the French knighthood at the end of the Middle Ages.  He was the third of five children, at least two of whom eventually took Holy Orders and rose to run their respective religious houses.  As the middle son, he would have been expected to seek his fortune by carving out a career at court, or in the military.

Pierre chose a life at court, and became a page in the service of Constable Montmorency at the court of Henri II.   Lady Antonia Fraser recounts in Mary Queen of Scots that he was ” well-born, charming-looking, and gallant.”  He tapped into his chivalric ancestry by writing courtly love poems.  He had some talent and achieved recognition as a fringe member of the Pléaiade, a group of 16th-century French Renaissance poets whose principal members were Pierre de RonsardJoachim du Bellay and Jean-Antoine de Baïf.

His good looks and way with words may account for how a mere page fell into the orbit of Mary, Queen of Scots, and thus avoided obscurity.  Mary was in residence at the French Court from 1547 until 1561, during her betrothal and marriage to the son of Henri II, Francis and their reign as King and Queen of France.

Pierre fell in love with Mary, who is said to have encouraged his passion.  It is not clear during what time period this flirtation occurred, but most likely it was after the death of Mary’s husband in December 1560.  At any rate, Pierre was in the party escorting Mary back to Scotland in August 1561 with Montmorency’s son.

The story goes that he wrote poems to her–and she wrote back in kind. John Guy writes in his magnificent biography  The True Life of Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots that Mary responded to Chastelard’s poems in the spirit of courtly love, nothing more.

Mary may not have harbored any romantic feelings for Chastelard but her behavior gave rise to plenty of gossip.  Who says Mary’s friendship with Chastelard was anything but innocent?  Thomas Randolph, the English Ambassador to Scotland, Brantome, a notoriously unreliable French source and Mary’s nemesis, John Knox all suggest theirs was much more than a friendship.  Note that at this time Mary was busy looking for a new husband from powerful Catholic countries.  If true, why risk the stain on her honour?

In Mary, Queen of Scots and the Murder of Lord Darnley, author Alison Weir recounts Randolph’s claim “that she permitted too great a degree of familiarity with ‘so unworthy a creature and abject a varlet.'”  Weir reports that John Knox also had plenty to say about how “Chastelard was so familiar in the Queen’s cabinet that scarcely could any of the nobility have access to her.”  She “would lie upon Chastelard’s shoulder and sometimes she would privily kiss his neck.”  What? What was Mary thinking—by this time she had been back in Scotland long enough to know that what might pass without comment at the French Court would cause a stir at the Scottish Court.   But is it true? And if it is, does it mean anything than Mary was a bit foolish, a bit lonely?

Could Chastelard’s infatuation have cloaked more sinister intentions?  There is some suggestion that Chastelard was a spy for the English–in particular for Sir Francis Walsingham and Sir William Cecil–but history is inconclusive.  What we do know is that he left Scotland for some time between September 1561 and returned in the autumn of 1562 having traveled through London making noise about returning to his lady-love in Scotland.  He could have picked up an assignment.  Weir reports that after Chastelard’s death William Maitland, Mary’s Secretary of State, told the Spanish Ambassador De Quadra that Chastelard confessed to being sent by Huguenots in France to ruin Mary’s reputation and foil her marriage plans with the Spanish heir, Don Carlos.

On his return to Scotland, Mary was glad to see him.  She gave him the gift of a horse that her brother had given her (re-gifting…), and some money to buy new clothes and danced with him during New Year’s celebrations.  Still, none of these actions was out of keeping with her behavior to other favorites.

Rossend Castle, shades of former glory.  Here in February 1563 Mary, Queen of Scots found Chastelard hiding under her bed.

Rossend Castle, shades of former glory. Here in February 1563 Mary, Queen of Scots found Chastelard hiding under her bed.

If he was just an obsessed, love-sick swain, he was also unlucky.  On his return, he displayed the poor judgment, or luck, to get caught in Mary’s bedchamber not once, but twice.  The first time, he hid under Mary’s bed at Holyrood Palace but discovered during a routine security search.  Mary banished him from Scotland.   Two days later in a move of epic stupidity, he followed Mary to Fife surprised her at Rossend Castle in Burntisland (which I visited last year) and caught her in the middle of disrobing. Chastelard had a dagger and/or sword with him.  Her shouts brought her brother, James Stewart, Earl of Moray to her aid.  Mary was so rattled that her chief lady-in-waiting, Mary Fleming, slept at the foot of her bed thereafter.

Whatever Mary’s true feelings for Pierre, she did not have much choice but to hang him for the attempted assassination after refusing several pleas for a pardon. At worst, he threatened Queen Mary’s life; at best, he threatened her good name either through his stupidity or on purpose as a spy.  After a week in the dungeons at St. Andrews, Pierre was hanged at the Mercat Cross in St. Andrews on February 20, 1563.  Chastelard made a dramatic exit, reciting Ronsard’s poem “Hymn of Death” and reportedly saying “”Adieu, most lovely and cruel of princesses!” This cannot have helped Mary’s reputation with the Reformists like John Knox.

Algernon Charles Swinburne, a 19th century intellectual and author, wrote Chastelard: A Tragedy  about his relationship with Mary Stuart and one of her ladies-in-waiting, Mary Beaton.  In the story, the three are caught in a tragic triangle that ends with his execution.  I do not believe there is any historical accuracy behind the concept of the love triangle, but it is a compelling idea.

Chastelard’s relationship with Mary intrigues me.  Was he obsessed but unrequited in love?  Or was he an infatuation of Mary’s, the inappropriate predecessor to the inappropriate Darnley and Bothwell?  As a writer, the what-if’s in this story fascinate me.  I wonder what the CW’s Reign will make of this?  (I know what I’m doing with this plot line!)

John Kelly’s factual account of Ireland’s Great Famine tears at your heart

The Graves are Walking by John Kelly

The Graves are Walking by John Kelly

This review was originally published by the Historical Novel Society in the Historical Novel Review, February 2013.  

John Kelly’s account of the Irish potato famine is a thoroughly researched and smoothly written story of the events that led to the famine and efforts to bring relief. In The Graves are Walking: The Great Famine and the Saga of the Irish People he covers it all: from the disease that caused the European-wide potato failure to the policies and philosophies of the British to the Anglo-Irish landowners, and cultural prejudices about the Irish. Kelly places the blame on the British but shows in detail how the thinkers of the day believed in a moral and social philosophy that was at odds with giving the Irish the help that was required.

This is a factual account of a tragedy that tore at my heartstrings, because it is contains accounts of people and places that make up my family tree. My heart broke as I read the stories of eviction, mass graves, and epic stupidity in policy-making and famine relief. I understand now why my ancestors left Mayo and Down for the difficult life of coal mining in Scotland, and why my Donegal ancestors fared a little better living in a remote area by the sea. They harvested, along with fish and seaweed, a deep distrust of the British. Indeed, it is hard to read this book without feeling anger and frustration at the British policies and the cruelty of land owning gentry, which led to genocide.

Teen drama “Reigns” about Mary, Queen of Scotland in development by US CW network

Portrait Mary Stuart at the age of 13.

Portrait Mary Stuart at the age of 13. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Media reports, including the Digital Spy, suggest the US CW network is developing “Reigns” a teen drama about Mary, Queen of Scots.

Of course, I think this could be fantastic and think about some of the frothy period series like “Camelot,” “Robin Hood” … and think it could be well done.  Could it be as deep as “Game of Thrones” — not without a lot of stretching of the truth.

The teenage Mary, Queen of Scots was a bit of a yes girl.  She lived in France with the French royal family (Henri II, Catherine de Medici, Diane de Poitiers) and was engaged to Francois, the heir to the throne.  Her life revolved around standard court activities, even after her marriage.  There is not a lot of historical fodder for a “warrior queen” series until she is a bit older.

Her marriage lasted just a year.  Widowed at 19, Mary returned to Scotland where – yes- there is plenty of skullduggery, intrigue, death, battles and betrayal.  But not really in the teen sphere.

I like the idea, but I fear the CW will go further than even the “Tudors” in their creative use of historical fact to create drama.  And of all the famous Queens, Mary Stuart life does not need fictional drama!

Of course, the casting could be a lot of fun… I’ll defer judgment but will post more as I hear it. And I’ll be watching.

Wonderful Thrilling Debut Novel, The Crown by Nancy Bilyeau

Brilliant Tudor-era novel by Nancy Bilyeau

Nancy Bilyeau’s debut novel, The Crown leapt to the top of my reading list for purely selfish reasons.  I was writing about life in a 16th century priory in Poissy, France and stumbled upon a link between Poissy and Dartford Priory in Kent. Founded by royalty (Edward III) with nuns from Poissy in the 14th Century, Dartford Priory was a prestigious religious institution. I was curious to read an historical fiction account of life there—especially since I have not found an account of life at Poissy. I’m glad I did. The Crown is a thrilling read.

Bilyeau’s Dartford Priory is a religious establishment in turmoil, perhaps reflecting the time. Anne Boleyn is dead; Jane Seymour is Queen, and the Dissolution of the Monasteries is underway.  The novel begins in the aftermath of the Pilgrimage of Grace as its leaders are sentenced to die.

Against this backdrop, we meet Joanna Stafford, a young novice at Dartford Priory who has run off to witness to the burning of her cousin, Margaret Bulmer, to provide her with support and prayers at the time of her death.  It’s an horrific opening, one that makes the reader confront the brutality and inhumanity of Henry VIII’s reign, and setting the tone for the high stakes to come.

Her cousin Margaret is not the only relative to run afoul of Henry VIII, who executed her Uncle Edward Stafford, Duke of Buckingham—Margaret’s father.  With this history, Stafford is not a popular name with Henry VIII who is disinclined to leniency when Joanna’s father Richard Stafford intervenes to ease Margaret’s suffering.  Worse – Joanna’s mother was one of Katherine of Aragon’s ladies-in-waiting and Joanna herself was with Katherine until she died.  They are sent to the Tower along with Geoffrey Scovill, a sheriff’s deputy and love interest for Joanna (yet how can this be when she is almost a nun… read and find out!).

Stephen Gardiner, Bishop of Winchester finally grants her release from the Tower on the condition that Joanna return to Dartford Priory and spy for him. He keeps Joanna’s father in the Tower to guarantee her cooperation. She must find the Athlestan Crown….the crown of the first King to unite Britain, the crown that has magic, perhaps cursed properties in the wrong hands.

Joanna returns to the Priory accompanied by two monks, where dramatic events are already in progress. From here, its murder and a bit of violence as Joanna finds the Crown.   Bilyeau crafts wonderful plots, subplots and terrific characters, weaving in fascinating details about Dartford, its tapestries, herbology, and the chaos of England at the tipping point of Reformation.

I liked Joanna Stafford, who is nicely balanced.  She is spiritual yet not too virtuous, independent yet not so much so that it stood out as remarkable for the 16th Century.  Her quest for the crown and its secret leads her out of the Priory and into the real world in the company of men, but not in a way that felt contrived.  Most of all, I loved that this was not a book about court intrigue.

The book is an excellent, fast-paced read. It felt more like a thriller than most historical fiction books, which I liked.  I will definitely read more from Nancy Bilyeau. (And yes, reading it helped with my Poissy research.)

Love to know your thoughts on this book!