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 

Mary Queen of Scots, CW’s “Reign”, historical accuracy and why I’ll watch anyway


Cast of Reign, premiering on the CW Network 17 October 2013

Pity the poor writers and producers of CW’s “Reign.” It has not yet hit TV screens in the US, yet the network is already defending the dramatic license they have taken with the series. (“Reign’ boss defends show’s relaxed approach to historical accuracy“).  The CW team, defending the series, keeps saying that they are “not the History Channel.”No really?   They need to come up with a response that has a bit more credibility. “We’re not the History Channel, so we can make up whatever we like” is not a real defense.  “We’re meeting a market need for a teenage, historical fiction drama and we chose to create a series about Mary Queen of Scots because  a) b) c) …”  might get them less flak and enable them to take their tin hats off.

I’ve already posted a couple of times my surprise that the CW would take huge license with the story of Mary, Queen of Scots.  Her life is replete with all the drama and scandal a series could wish for when told with detailed accuracy.  From the day she  escaped from the approaching English army and hid at Inchmahome Priory on Lake Menteith, Mary’s life was a rollercoaster of dazzling highs (crowned Queen of France) and humiliating lows (abdicating her throne; eventually being beheaded by her cousin Elizabeth I).  Who needs to make s*** up?  I could have given the CW years of great storylines on Mary and her posse (I’m still available for the asking, btw).  Skillfully handled, her story is amazing and heartbreaking.

I love the true life story of Mary Stuart.  I still have a copy of from the early 1970s of Lady Antonia Fraser‘s wonderful non-fiction biography of her, which I read when I was just eleven years old (and very precocious with it!) and captivated me.  I hate that her life is being brought to the small screen with less than great attention to detail and the real drama that was her life.  It is my hope that the creators of Reign have color just a little outside the historical lines, and not disregarded them completely.

But I get it,  I watch the CW from time to time.  OK.  Week to week.  I confess I have a wee addiction to the CW’s ‘Vampire Diaries‘ and have always thought that Ian Somerhalder would make the perfect Pierre de Bocosel de Chastelard (here’s my blog post on that sensational story).   I know, I’m probably the oldest CW viewer (it’s sad really).   There is absolutely nothing real about the Vampire Diaries, nothing at all and yet I love it.  Similarly, I watched Starz’s ‘DaVinci’s Demons‘ which, I’m guessing, bears not much more than a passing nod to reality, but I enjoyed it anyway.  Ditto both  The Tudors and The Borgias TV series.  In the CW’s defense,  its target market is probably the 18-24 year-old crowd who want fast-paced, slightly steamy entertainment (I’m guessing here, but I was in that age bracket once) and that target audience are not too worried about what is true and what is not.  The CW is great at marketing to its target audience, and I have to believe they know what it wants.

So if writers and producers make free with historical fact, but create really entertaining drama, should we complain?  Is the CW getting an undeserved kicking before the show even airs?  Perhaps.  For me, I have to see how far they’ve taken their creative license.  I mean, if teenage Mary Stuart starts having it away with, say Nostradamus (who I understand is cast as a young big of al’right played by Rossif Sutherland) I might complain.  But if they are making more of the relationship between Mary and the Dauphin Francis, her betrothed, then I could be OK with it.

One way or another I’ll be watching the series end-to-end when it premiers in October.   For one thing, I can’t imagine Megan Fellows as Henry II’s wife, Catherine de Medici.  It will take some great acting to make me see her as anyone other than Anne of Green Gables!  (Megan, I’m rooting for you.)

Here’s a link to a preview.  (Someone tell me why Mary, Queen of Scots, has an English accent? — People! The actress is Australian, surely they could’ve coached her?)

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.

Tabloid Scandal of 1566–Queen Mary’s Jaunt to Hermitage from Jedburgh

There is a scene in the 1971 film Mary, Queen of Scots (starring Vanessa Redgrave as Mary and Glenda Jackson as Elizabeth I) where she is at Hermitage Castle (if memory serves) with Bothwell, and yells defiantly down to her brother and other rebels while Bothwell escapes through the back door.  Yesterday, I got to see Bothwell’s home for myself.  It was a long, long drive – a good 2.5 hours from Kinghorn on some verrry tiny roads that take two-way traffic but are really built for one.  This would have been a challenge but the road to Hermitage Castle from Hawick(pronounced HOYCK) is about 12 miles long and pretty deserted with it, so we had the road to ourselves.  My cousin Karen and I really thought the Garmin SatNav lady was taking us to the middle of nowhere.

Hermitage Castle–Massive, forbidding and gorgeous

And indeed, in the middle of nowhere lies Hermitage Castle.  It is a massive place, suitably forbidding for its location on the Scottish-English Border where for hundreds of years raids and battles were fought for possession of the area.  Once you were inside Hermitage, I have to believe you’d be really safe.

The big story about Mary, Queen of Scots and Hermitage is that she was holding court in Jedburgh, about 25 miles away, when she heard Bothwell was injured in a Border raid.  Concerned, she went to be by his side, creating the modern-day equivalent of a tabloid scandal.

Just like today, the tabloid rumor-mongering got it only partially right. Mary didn’t exactly gallop full-tilt boogie across the Borders to be with him.  She waited a week, finished her business at Jedburgh and only then went to pay him a visit.  He was a Privy Councillor, it was not inappropriate.  And, Mary brought the Court with her, including her half-brother (and nemesis) the Earl of Moray.   I’m never convinced Mary was as taken with Bothwell in a grand romance.  He was capable, loyal–but a handful.

Lambing season in the Borders near Hawich

We made our way back from Hermitage via Jedburgh through some beautiful scenery, including a long narrow road with signposts “Speed kills lambs” — sure enough, hundreds of wee lambs leaping around the fields and in the middle of the road.  This little guy was very bold.

At Jedburgh we stopped for lunch in view of Jedburgh Abbey–magnificent even in ruins.

The real ‘find’ came when the server at lunch suggested we go see the “Mary, Queen of Scots House,” which was where Mary stayed for a month in 1566.  It was from here that she held her Justice Ayres, road out to visit Bothwell and returned–and promptly fell sick.

Of the curious artifacts on display two caught my attention — one, a lock of Mary’s hair, still red-gold and a high heel, possibly Mary’s, that looks remarkably like a Donald Pliner shoe I owned in 1995.  Just sayin’

Rossend, Scene of Mary, Queen of Scots Scandal with Chastelard and Falkland Palace, Her Favorite Hunting Lodge

Today I took up my itinerary with a vengeance—planning to visit Burntisland, Falkland and St. Andrews in a day and spend a couple of hours with my dad’s Aunt Lena.  It did not work out that way… But two out of three ain’t bad!

I drove to Burntisland this morning to visit Rossend Castle, where Mary, Queen of Scots stayed February 1563.  It was at Rossend where Pierre de Bocosel de Chastelard, a French messenger (some say spy) and poet, hid under Mary’s bed and surprised her.  Supposedly he was dying of love for her, but he had a knife and this was the second time he’d comprised Mary’s reputation—Mary’s detractors, especially John Knox, made mileage out of the scandal.  Mary took a hard-line and executed Chastelard at the Mercat Cross in St. Andrews.  His last words fueled the scandal:  “Adieu, most beautiful and cruel princess in the world.” Chastelard is the subject of a play by Charles Algernon Swinburne, in which he is a warrior-poet who is also Mary Stuart’s courtier and lover.   The twist? Mary Beaton also loves him.   This is all fiction of course, but it gives a writer some ideas…

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

The castle was a disappointment.  The stone walls are now covered in pebble whitewash (horrors), which is more period 20thCentury than anything else.   The grounds were a mess, but then I understand it was—or is–up for sale. A postal worker happened by and I asked him about the area, and he pointed the Keeper’s house out to me (or what he believed had been), the exterior of which was a bit more of what I was expecting.

Keepers House, Rossend Castle, stone facade intact

The only other place of note personal – the castle overlooked the Burntisland Shipyard where my grandfather Donnelly worked as a plumber’s mate from about 1941-1970.

I made my way up the A921 through Kirkcaldy to Falkland, which is not all that far – about 15 miles.  But the roads are very windy here and I nearly came to blows with the Garmin SatNav!  It sent me back and forth through Kirkcaldy to the point where I was sure there was a real person behind the Garmin just messing with me.   Finally I stopped listening to the Garmin woman and made my own way to Falkland without any trouble.

Falkland Palace, East wing. The King’s and Queen’s Rooms would have been here

Falkland is a beautiful town set at the foot of the Lomond Hills–exactly where you’d expect to find a royal hunting lodge.  Falkland Palace was a favorite hunting long of the Stewart monarchs, especially James IV, James V and Queen Mary.

Keeper’s House, Falkland Palace–Mary Beaton’s Grandfather and Father would have lived here.

It was also the home of Mary Beaton’s grandfather and father, who were Keepers of the palace so it was exciting to see where young Beaton would have been born and where she would have visited her family when she was not with Queen Mary. I entered through the Keeper’s residence, long renovated by the Bute family but there was enough effort made to give several rooms at 16th Century feel, and plenty of portraits around of the Stewarts.   I could very much picture Queen Mary galloping across the fields with the Four Maries, playing tennis in the court (the oldest tennis court in the world, I’m told).   Unfortunately, I could not take any photographs inside.

Lomond Hills behind Falkland Palace, where Mary, Queen of Scots and her predecessor Stewart monarchs hunted

Headed off to St. Andrews with a quick stopover to see my dad’s aunt who was in Glenrothes at a nursing home.  But as I got in the car to leave, I noticed the right front tire was flat as a pancake, which scuppered my plans for St. Andrews and I spent the afternoon dealing with car matters—very frustrating.

Oldest tennis court in the world at Falkland

On history, especially our own…read and loved “The Sense of an Ending” by Julian Barnes

I’m purging my bookshelf in preparation to sell my house this spring.  Going are some wonderful books whose characters and plots stick with me, but which I will not re-read anytime soon.  Also in the pile are books I have read but recall nothing about the plot, characters, whether I liked it or not–nothing stayed with me beyond the last page.

Against this background, a few weeks ago I read Julian BarnesThe Sense of An Ending  and it is still so much with me and has had me talking and thinking about it like a raving fan – one book I know I will not forget.

This was my first novel by Barnes, which I bought because it won the 2011 Man Booker prize and I always feel the winning novel must be worth a read.  (Last year’s winner was Wolf Hall, by Hillary Mantel).  And I’m glad I did – this short and simple yet elegantly crafted novel has captured and held me long behind the last page. This must-read might be one of my favorite novels of the past decade.  I’ve thought about it over and over in the last weeks since I read it, and I will certainly re-read it.

Barnes’ chief protagonist Tony Webster is a middle-aged man who has lived a very average sort of life and is quite content to look more forwards than backwards, accepting his lot.  That is, until a death bequest from someone he thought he barely knew rips open his past, sending him back to feelings and misgiving from his halcyon teenage years with his first “real’ girlfriend.  It turns out nothing is as he thought (no I won’t spoil it for you.)

Reading award-winning literary fiction is, sometimes, frankly above me.  [Case in point – last year I read A.S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book and came away feeling “meh” – and that I was probably not clever, or well-read enough to understand all the literary allusions in it.] Not so with The Sense of an Ending, which was so well done and of such emotional depth that it evoked a wave of introspection about endings and misgivings from my own college days and about how as Barnes protagonist Tony says “what you end up remembering isn’t always the same as what you have witnessed.”  Ain’t that the truth.

Read it, come back and tell me if you enjoyed it as much as I did.

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.

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