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; ( 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 #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.

On Mary Stuart’s Return to Scotland (and mine)

Inchkeith Viewed from Pettycur Road Kinghorn.

Inchkeith Viewed from Pettycur Road Kinghorn. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Mary, Queen of Scots sailed into Leith Harbor on 19 August 1561, returning to her native Scotland after 13 years in France. She was just 19 years old.  One year earlier she’d been Queen of France, but the death of her husband —Francois II—left her a young widow and, for multiple reasons, she decided to return to Scotland.

Among Queen Mary’s companions were her four closest friends, nicknamed the Four Maries (Mary Beaton, Mary Seton, Mary Fleming and Mary Livingston).  The Maries fascinate me enough to write an entire novel about them and their loyalty to Mary, which withstood enormous strains, particularly upon their return to Scotland.  And that is why I am here—to do a bit of field research.

As I flew into Edinburgh this morning for my own return to Scotland after a long absence (19 years), some of my own experiences may have echoed Queen Mary and the Maries.  They arrived in Leith surrounded by fog, which obscured their first view of Scotland.  Similarly, low clouds shrouded my view of Scotland until a minute before landing, frustrating my eyes eager for a glimpse.  I’m sure Mary and the Maries felt the same sense of anticipation that I had and the same frustration with the weather.

I’m shortly to be enveloped by my mother’s family, scattered across Scotland but coming together this weekend.  We do not see each other very often, but we are family and the bond is close and deep despite our geographical distance.  I expect to laugh till I cry about things only others in my family find funny, like the phrase “there’s thousands at the beach,” which was my Nana’s battle cry as she kicked my siblings and I (“the Americans”) out of the house to find playmates.

The Queen and the Maries would also have been excited – they had grown up in France without their parents and most of their siblings, and while not unexpected for the time, they would surely have been pleased at the coming reunion.  They were likely thinking less about changes in their family–who had grown up, married, died, but like me, just glad to reconnect in person.

For me, it is all roses – two weeks to research and write and spend time with my family.  Not so for the Queen and the Maries.  First, or rather still, there was trouble with the English.  Elizabeth I had refused Mary safe-conduct through English waters and threatened her with warships.  When those warships came upon Mary’s two galleys and two accompanying ships, they saluted her.  But the reminder of that the English did not make for good neighbors may have stirred up childhood memories of fleeing in the night from Stirling Castle to escape the Duke of Somerset and of the disastrous defeat at the Battle of Pinkie Cleugh—where Fleming’s father Alexander and Livingston’s brother John were slain.   For Queen Mary herself, she must have had some misgivings about the nobles she would rule, nobles who had rebelled against her mother, Mary of Guise, who had ruled Scotland as Regent in her daughter’s absence.

But they were young – all about 19 years old – and I have to believe their excitement would have overwhelmed most other concerns, at least on their arrival.  At 19, you have high hopes and the future almost always looks bright.  Certainly, chroniclers report Queen Mary’s high spirits, despite the weather and a decided lack of ceremonial welcome due to the ship being early. I feel her enthusiasm!  I did not, as I like to say, come to Scotland to get a tan, so no amount of rain or clouds will dampen my spirits.

As I said, my own return to Scotland comes after an absence of 19 years—hard to believe time has flown so much since we buried my maternal grandmother and I left to re-emigrate the US. Scotland is my home—or at least it is where my parents were born and raised (in Fife) and I spent so many summer months as a child in Kinghorn on the Fife coast, and as an adult many more weeks on holiday. I do still feel like it is home, though I am not sure many would call me a native daughter!

But then, I have always considered a bit of a foreigner in my native land. As a child I was “that American Lassie,” the US accent and cultural leanings branding me as “different” in the same way that Mary’s overwhelmingly French persona caused a stir—and some resentment—upon her return.  I am pretty sure I took more grief for my accent that Queen Mary did!  I was acutely aware that no matter how familiar everything felt this morning, even after such a long absence, that every time I open my mouth I am pegged for a foreigner, which I suppose only matters to you if you don’t feel in your heart that you are!

Tonight, I write from Kinghorn in Fife, with a magnificent view of the lights in Edinburgh and the flashing lighthouse on Inchkeith.  As a child, I used to look out my grandmother’s window at this view, dreaming big, praying hard, and wondering about life.  I’m long years away from that child, but tonight not so much.

In Honor of Veteran’s Day, Review of Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken—A Moving True Story to Read & Weep

November 11th is Veteran’s Day in the US.  Other countries call it Remembrance Day (UK and the Commonwealth), Armistice Day (France and Belgium) or Independence Day (Poland), but we’re all celebrating the same thing.  Funny thing is, most peopleespecially young peopledo not know the day actually commemorates the end of World War 1.  After four long years of fighting in WWI hostilities formally ended with the German surrender “at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month” of 1918.   It was called the “war to end all wars” – but it was not, was it?  Twenty-one years later, World War II began, and we’re fighting still.  

Usually I commemorate Veteran’s Day by posting on Facebook the poem “In Flanders Field” by John McCrae, (from “Some Corner of  a Foreign Field-Poetry of the Great War“) but instead I’ve linked to it.  Today, I think in particular of Louie Zamperini, who is 93-years-old, a veteran of WWII and the subject of the most beautiful, difficult, wonderful biography I’ve read in a long time.  Louie, Happy Veteran’s Day—for all the horror you saw and endured—I hope there’s a beautiful day ahead for you.  I hope veterans of our current wars can find peace as you did. 

The title says it all: Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption. Many, many others have reviewed this book, notably the NY Timeswhere the book reached no. 3 on the best seller list–and countless bloggers.  I suppose their reviews compelled me to buy and read itand I’d encourage you to do the same.  It is quite simply the most moving story I’ve ever read about the human spirit and triumph over adversity. I defy you to read this amazing true story and not weep buckets.

In Unbroken, author Laura Hillenbrand picks up the themes of perseverance and triumph against adversity that were prominent in her first book, “Seabiscuit.” This time, she  recounts the extraordinary true life of Louie Zamperini, American track star, Olympian, WWII bombardier, and prisoner of war.  Hillenbrand writes with precision and clarity—there is no overblown prose, no emotionally charged adjectives.  They are not needed—this is sharp story-telling that grabs you and keeps you turning the pages in horror, in hope and finally in joy.

Louie Zamperini was a bit of a hooligan in his youth until he found his talent as a track star—eventually heading to the 1936 Munich Olympics.   Pre-WWII, Zamperini was considered to be the runner most likely to break the 4-minute mile.  But when the US entered the war following the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Louis enlisted in the Army Air Corps and became a bombardier, flying in the Pacific theatre.

In May 1943, the B-24 Liberator carrying Louie crashed into the Pacific. Louie survived, and spent 47 days on a raft before landing on Wake Atoll—and being captured by the Japanese.  His time as a Japanese POW-singled out because of his former notoriety in the Olympics—is difficult and emotional reading.  Louie and his fellow POWs endured truly unspeakable torture.   And even though I knew from the start that Louie Zamperini would survive, I could not imagine in what kind of mental or physical state.  This is non-fiction that you wish was fiction, because the truth pushes the bounds of believability—both of what one human being will inflict upon another, and what a human being can endure.  Indeed, Louie copes post-war with flashbacks, trauma by turning to alcohol.

Olympian Louis Zamperini carrying the Olympic Torch

When Louie finds peace post-war, by forgiving his captors and torturers, that is when the tissues come out.   I cried the last third of the book.  But it is beautiful, and moving, and I cheered for Louie’s humanity and spirit.

As Louie’s story unfolds Hillenbrand includes fascinating research on the war in the Pacific, bombers statistics, POW facts—and this background gives the reader context understand both the enormous risks taken by bomber planes in WWII, and the widespread torture tactics, yet also how much more extreme Zamperini’s treatment was as a POW.  You realize how miraculous Louie’s survival from the bomber plane crash was, let alone his survival of the events that unfold.

Louie’s WWII story is not unique—hundreds, maybe thousands, of planes crashed into the Pacific.  Thousands of allied troops were captured by the Japanese and faced torture and hardship.  Louie’s return from the war, his alcoholism and PTSD were also not unique–they are widespread today.  What is unique is Louie’s high profile pre- and post-war and his ability to overcome tremendous adversity.  The miracle is that Louie survived to tell his story and speak for many who did not.

I love a good WWII story-though admittedly I’ve read less non-fiction than fiction (Charlotte Gray, Atonement, Sarah’s Key, among great historical fiction reads).  I also love WWII movies—”Bridge over the River Kwai,” “The Great Escape”, “The Eagle Has Landed,” “Guns Of Navaronne”…and I can watch endless episodes of  “Band of Brothers.” When Universal makes “Unbroken,” I’ll be first in line, Kleenex at the ready, for this epic story about the endurance of the human spirit and its capacity for forgiveness.

Related articles and reviews: 

The Other Boleyn Girl: Victim or Tramp? Review of Alison Weir’s “Mary Boleyn: The Great and Infamous Whore”

Mary Boleyn: The Mistress of Kings By Alison Weir

History has long maligned the other Boleyn girl—Mary—as the slightly slutty sister of Anne, infamous for attracting the amorous attentions of two Renaissance kings, but failing to hold the attention of either and failing to profit (jewels, castles, titles) from either liaison.

Was Mary Boleyn a tart, or a beautiful, well brought up young English girl who caught the eye of two powerful men who did not take “no” for an answer? Historian Alison Weir, in her latest book Mary Boleyn: The King’s Mistress  (UK: Mary Boleyn: The Great and Infamous Whore), concludes the latter is the more accurate historical representation.

Until Philippa Gregory’s historical fiction novel The Other Boleyn Girl propelled Mary into the forefront of the Tudor mania, she was an historical footnote—“Henry Rex Slept Here.” It is an accepted historical fact that Henry VIII had an affair with her, and that Francois I of France “had” her first.  Weir does not dispute these liaisons, but she examines the purported facts of Mary’s life and behavior and does her usual splendid job of separating fact from fiction, and dispelling historical myths—chief among them that Mary was, well, a bit of a goer.

Little is known of either Boleyn girl’s early life in Norfolk, primarily at Blickling Hall and later at Hever Castle in Kent.   Their education may have been better than most girls of the time, preparing them for a marriages that would elevate their family’s social standing.  Their father Thomas Boleyn, was rising rapidly at Court, and his status as Ambassador to France helped secure two coveted positions for his daughters in service to Mary Tudor, Henry VIII’s younger sister, on the eve of her marriage to Louis XII.  Mary was almost certainly the elder daughter, but Anne might have been the more academically “toward.”   This is consistent with history: Mary the beauty, Anne the brains.

Sometime in 1515, while serving Mary Tudor at the French Court, Mary was seduced by the “young, mighty and insatiable” King Francois I—who considered “whoring a daily sport on par with hunting.”  When, where or how she came to his attention is unknown–whatever Mary’s relations with Francois, they caused absolutely no comment at the time. There exist no contemporary diplomatic or court reports, or other records that discuss Mary, let alone behavior to give rise to the “great and infamous whore” comment that has dogged her reputation for 500 years.  This void of commentary is significant proof Weir says, of a quiet, insignificant interlude between Mary and Francois.   To have been a great whore in the licentious French court, Weir suggests Mary would have to have been remarkably dissolute, and as a lady-in-waiting to Mary Tudor, who held stricter English morals of the day, would have earned her rebuke, or dismissal—neither of which happened.  Weir does a stellar job of dissecting multiple statements made about Mary Tudor’s behavior and dismisses them based on facts.  In sum, there is just one historical source for the comment that Francois I “knew” Mary as a “whore” (as opposed to a formal mistress), and this source comes to light 20 years later—about the time Cromwell was orchestrating Anne Boleyn fall (for more on this read my earlier blog post)

So—Mary had what may have been a fling with Francois I, but she eventually returned to England and in February 1520 married William Carey, one of Henry VIII’s Gentlemen of the Privy Chamber.  Here again, history (especially TV and film) has maligned Carey as a man of no account.  William was a cousin and favorite of Henry VIII’s and an up-and-comer at Court, a member of the Privy Chamber.  He was a prestigious match as a rising star in Henry’s court, and must have been all Mary’s father Thomas Boleyn could have wanted to bolster his ambitions for elevating the Boleyns.   This match, Weir argues, would not have been possible if Mary had a tarnished reputation.

Sometime after her marriage—no later than 1522—while living at Court with William, Mary had an affair with Henry.  There are no historical references to when it started, how long it continued and when it ended.  Again, there are no in contemporary references to an affair, which suggests the affair was discreet—if not, it is surely a weapon, Weir argues, Queen Katherine would have used against Henry when trying to divorce her using the Leviticus defense (i.e., that he’d known his brother’s wife, a forbidden degree of affinity).  The only reason we can claim historical certainty about it is because Henry, in his eagerness to marry Anne in 1528, received a dispensation from Pope Clement to marry within anyone within the forbidden degrees of affinity and in 1533—the year Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn married (1 June 1533)— an Act of Parliament made it permissible to marry the sister of a discarded mistress.

Weir believes the affair ended in late 1523 or 1524 when Mary became pregnant—but was her child Henry’s or her husband’s?  I will not give a spoiler here, but it is fascinating reading. Mary had a tough time after William Carey died, and her family almost disowned her—and then really did disown her when she married a common man, soldier William Stafford.   You have to take heart that she lived a longer, probably happier, life than her siblings.

As my earlier blog attests, I’m a huge fan of Alison Weir’s biographies for the 360-degree view she takes of a subject and the times they lived in.  I could not wait to delve into this latest work—and it did not disappoint.  But am not sure I whole-heartedly come around to see Mary as the victim of the lust of two kings.  Perhaps Francois, but Henry as well?   I think there may have been more than coercion at play with Henry VIII.  While I don’t think Mary was a tramp, I am not totally convinced she was a victim either.

What do you think?

The Other Great Catherine: A Review of “Catherine de Medici: Renaissance Queen of France” by Leonie Frieda

Had Catherine de Medici been born noble and beautiful, I suspect history might have praised her—as we do Elizabeth I—for her abilities as a diplomat, politician, fashionista, and patroness of arts and culture, because Catherine was all that, and more as biographer Leonie Frieda aptly demonstrates in “Catherine de Medici: Renaissance Queen of France.”

But Catherine was at best “plain” and descended from Medici merchants and not nobility, thus she spent much of her life denigrated as the “Italian.” She was the barely tolerated—albeit respected and ignored—wife of Henri II. More is made of her purported necromancy than of her diplomatic skills, which were formidable. Prior to reading this biography, I read Catherine de Medici’s story through the stories of others, chiefly Mary, Queen of Scots but also Nostradamus, and Diane de Poitiers—all more romanticized subjects. As a secondary character in historical fiction she is most often portrayed as an ugly, bitter, power-hungry woman who dabbled in the occult.

Frieda’s book gives a more measured account of Catherine, who swam in political waters all her life, first as a political collateral but later as a master of diplomatic and political intrigue. She portrays a deeply religious woman who heeded fortune-tellers, but dispels the witchcraft and necromancy associations.

Born 13 April 1519, Caterina Maria Romula de Medici was the daughter of Lorenzo II de Medici, Duke of Urbino and Madeleine de la Tour D’Auvergne, a French countess and heiress. Both parents died within days of her birth and her Medici relations brought up the orphaned Catherine. The Medici—famous for being Papal bankers, a formidable political dynasty and patrons of the arts—were not nobles by birth and this led to sneers and smears Catherine experienced later in life at the hands of caste-conscious French courtiers.

Catherine’s early upbringing was fraught with uncertainty and danger. She was often caught in the crossfire of French and Spanish expansionist strategies into the Italian states, and the political machinations of her Uncles, Medici Popes Leo X and Clement VII. During the siege of Rome in 1527 that sent Pope Clement VII into hiding at the Castel San Angelo, Catherine (age eight) was essentially incarcerated in a convent. Her life was in danger on several occasions.

Her fortunes rose once Pope Clement was free. He negotiated for her marriage to Henri, the son of the French King Francis I. But they were no sooner wed than Clement died, leaving her dowry only partly paid. Moreover, she was proving unable to secure the succession and give Henri with a child, her primary purpose. She did survive a move to have her marriage annulled (and eventually had 10 children), but always took second place to her husband’s mistress, the reputedly beautiful Diane de Poitiers. On Henri II’s death, one of her first moves was to take back the jewels Henri had given Diane and exile her from Court.

From Henri’s death on Catherine flexes her political muscle, managing the contentious Montmorency and Guise factions at the French Court. Frieda is a perhaps kinder to Catherine than many historians, suggesting that her role in France’s wars of religion and in particular the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, was one of attempted compromise. However, Catherine was a student of Machiavelli, and her actions are more consistent with his theories of power politics—including the use brute force as required.

Catherine presided over the French Court as Queen and Dowager Queen for five reigns spanning forty-odd years, dying in 1589 with the awareness that the dynasty she worked so hard to build was crumbling under the continued religious battles and poor decisions of her last son, Henri III.

Her story is a fascinating one of a woman who is first a pawn in political games, and went on to become the mastermind behind many. Patience was her virtue. She watched, learned—one could say at the foot of several masters of political intrigue—and when her day arrived, she was ready to rule. Whether you fully agree with Frieda’s portrait or not, this is an excellent biography that separates the fact from the fictions and myths that have perpetuated about this Queen, a Great Catherine.