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 

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.

Letting the Sources Speak: A Review of Alison Weir’s “Lady in the Tower: The Fall of Anne Boleyn”

On 1 May 1536 Anne Boleyn and her husband Henry VIII attended the merry May Day jousts. At some point in the afternoon Henry got up and left. It was the last time Anne saw her husband–she died 19 days later, her abrupt fall still breathtaking even from a distance of 500 years.

Alison Weir’s magnificent biography focuses on the last month of Anne’s life and the events leading up to the charges of adultery and incest for which she was beheaded. Weir’s painstaking research is evident: the book examines every angle and cites source bias, credibility, and access to defend her analysis.

Weir first looks at how rocky was the marriage between Anne and Henry? Answer – quite rocky, given Henry’s sudden desire for an alliance with the Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor; Anne’s recent miscarriage; Henry’s dalliance with Jane Seymour, among other factors. But it was not necessarily doomed—in fact, Henry and Anne had a trip to Calais planned for early May that was only cancelled one week before its scheduled date.

Second, Weir looks at the various accusations against Anne, for example that she was a witch, a whore, a harlot… and again debunks these characterizations. Anne was, however, unpopular with the people and increasingly at Court. In April 1536 she still had supporters at Court, although she had alienated many over the years—including her Uncle the powerful Duke of Norfolk and of course the gossipy Eustace Chapuys, the Spanish Ambassador and, fatally, Thomas Cromwell.

Third, who orchestrated Anne’s downfall? It is usually portrayed as something Henry was complicit in, yet Weir suggests Cromwell, at odds with Anne over religion, disbursement of the booty from the dissolution of the monasteries, orchestrated the events beginning in mid-April 1536, and did it so well that the Boleyn faction at court did not know what hit them. The coup itself was not planned until mid-April, which seems such a short time to prepare the “evidence.” Once initial findings were compiled, Henry VIII—sometime in the third week of April—asked for further investigation.

New light is cast on the other victims: Smeaton, Brereton, Weston, Norris and Anne’s brother, Lord Rochford. Each of these men had done something to upset Cromwell and his cronies. The reader comes to understand that there was rhyme and reason to the men who were selected as Anne’s co-adulterers, whose lifestyles made them easy targets for Cromwell.

Could Anne have been guilty? Weir also considers the deathbed confession from Bridget Wiltshire, Lady Wingfield may have been the first evidence that led to Anne’s downfall. In other words, Cromwell may have fabricated most, but there was perhaps a kernel of truth, enough to build upon.

Weir’s books are always compelling reading, because not only does she write clearly and engagingly, but she weighs the facts in evidence and consider the bias of multiple sources, and lets the sources speak. For example Spanish Ambassador Eustace Chapuys wrote reams of letters about “La Ana” or “The Lady” but he hated her. Weir assesses his reports to his master in light of his bias, and compares them with others. The result is a measured, thoughtful and well-written account of Anne Boleyn’s destruction. It is a must-read for any fan of the Tudors and their times.

The Lady in the Tower: The Fall of Anne Boleyn” by Alison Weir (C) 2009 Random House.