Sunday, 30 June 2013

A glorious the House of Windsor about to get a new Princess Elizabeth?

We all know that royal families like a bit of tradition when it comes to naming heirs.  No real alarms or surprises among European royal families for future kings and queens although Crown Princess Victoria of Sweden caused a bit of a stir by choosing Estelle for her first born who will one day be Queen.  So it's likely that the name chosen by the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge for their baby - due in less than two weeks - will already have been used for a king or queen of England.  I'm looking this week at the names our queens have already had for inspiration - and continuing with the ones used for both regnants and consorts brings us to Elizabeth.

It's the name of two regnants and three consorts making it the second most used in royal history for queens.  And it's one of the bookies' favourites, at 8-1, for a possible Cambridge princess.  All royal houses have names that dominate proceedings and Elizabeth is definitely a Windsor name. 

At the heart of the story of the House of Windsor is Queen Elizabeth II, the second longest reigning monarch in British history.  This year marks the 60th anniversary of her coronation and last year's outpouring of public support at the Diamond Jubilee showed just how successful her long reign has been.   It's rare for a Windsor girl not to have her name somewhere in their full moniker - her daughter is Anne Elizabeth while three of her four granddaughters have it as a middle name as does one of her two great granddaughters.  So it's a safe bet that it will be in there somewhere but can the previous Queen Elizabeths of England give a clue as to whether it will be first among equals?
Elizabeth II's mark on history is indelible.  Will the next Queen Regnant of England also be an Elizabeth?
The name Elizabeth was brought into the House of Windsor by the Queen's mother.  Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon married George V's second son, Albert George, in 1923. As Duke and Duchess of York they had a high enough profile but were widely expected to fade into obscurity when the heir to the throne, the future Edward VIII, married.  Of course we know that when he did choose a bride he was already king and picked a divorcee.  The Abdication Crisis of 1936 put the Duke and Duchess centre stage and then on the throne as George VI and Queen Elizabeth. 
Elizabeth may never have expected to be queen consort but she set about making her husband's reign as successful as possible.  Major foreign tours in the first years of their reign and their image as a happy family with their two girls consolidated their standing.  'We four' was how they described their tight knit unit and the similarities between this and how many people saw their own family lives helped to boost their popularity. 
Elizabeth, Queen Consort of England (1936 - 1952) with her husband, King George VI, on their tour of Canada in 1939 - just months before the start of World War II
But it was the outbreak of war in 1939 that provided the greatest test - and ultimately the greatest triumph - of George and Elizabeth's reign.  The royal couple refused to go into exile and stayed in London during the Blitz that would destroy large parts of their capital city. Queen Elizabeth's regular visits to the badly hit East End of London and her donation of royal furniture to those who had lost everything made her hugely popular.  The king's broadcasts were as vital to morale as the more famous oratory of his Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, and when peace was declared in May 1945 one of the most iconic images in royal and British history was created when George, Elizabeth and Churchill appeared on the Buckingham Palace balcony.

Churchill with Queen Consort, Elizabeth, and HM King George VI
Elizabeth is best known to us as the Queen Mother - the role she occupied after the early death of her husband in 1952 until her own death, aged 101, in 2002.  She re-created the position of sovereign's mother, developing her profile through patronages and charity work.  One of the most photographed women of the 20th century, her legacy remains in the stability and solidity of the present day Royal Family.  Along with her daughter she is the bedrock of the House of Windsor - perhaps the strongest argument for calling any Cambridge princess Elizabeth.
Of course, Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyons wasn't the first Queen Consort of England with that name.  But she was the first for over four hundred years.  Given the popularity of the name in the general population, the number of Elizabeths in royal history is tiny.  But they have nearly all achieved great things.
The last consort called Elizabeth before the Queen Mother began her reign in 1486.  Elizabeth of York is for many a romantic heroine who helped unite the Houses of York and Lancaster and form the Tudor dynasty.  She could have been the first Queen Regnant of England but did an unfortunate teenage relationship and the over ambition of her mother cost her a crown?
Elizabeth was born in 1466, the eldest child of Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville.  She saw two younger brothers leapfrog her in the succession but when they mysteriously disappeared in 1483 after the death of their father, Elizabeth had as good a claim to the throne of England as anyone.  She was a girl, admittedly, but there was a severe shortage of men to take the crown. 
Two things changed her destiny.  Firstly, her mother began to plot with her arch enemy, Margaret Beaufort of the House of Lancaster, to marry Elizabeth to Margaret's son, Henry Tudor.  This would unite the two houses and end the war that had dominated English politics for three decades.  Secondly, Elizabeth was linked to a possible marriage with the present king, Richard III.  They were seen flirting and dancing with one another on more than one occasion and rumours ran rife that the king intended to make her his queen.  Just two problems - his first wife, although ill, was still alive and Elizabeth was his niece.  Not by marriage, by blood.  The king was forced to deny any relationship but Elizabeth's reputation was damaged.
It would be hard to see how she could have come back from the rumours to take the crown for herself, even if she had been so inclined.  As far as we know, she wasn't.  But then the Tudors wouldn't want any such ambitions kept for posterity.  Henry Tudor's blood claim to be king was patchy and he didn't want to be seen as ruling because of his wife.  So he claimed the crown through conquest and even though the marriage pact was agreed before then, he made sure he married Elizabeth months after his coronation.  She was relegated to a side part in the Tudor story and never rose to prominence again.
She stuck to the traditional pattern of a medieval queen - even though her husband was a modern monarch.  Elizabeth had seven children, including the future Henry VIII, and died as a consequence of childbirth on her 37th birthday.   
Elizabeth of York taken from the famous portrait of her with her husband, Henry VII, their son, Henry VIII and his third queen, Jane Seymour
Elizabeth of York's mother had been the first queen consort with the name.  We've already talked a lot about Elizabeth Woodville on this blog, and will discuss her more as The White Queen continues on BBC One, so this will be brief.  The first commoner to wed a king and by all accounts not the most popular queen of England, she was famous for her beauty, her ambition, her ruthlessness and ultimately her tragic loss of many of those she loved.  The high profile TV series currently playing out her story reminds us all of the sad end to a difficult life - perhaps the least convincing reason to call a future queen, Elizabeth?

Elizabeth Woodville with her husband, Edward IV.  She was never popular during her 19 years as Queen of England.
If William and Kate do choose Elizabeth, she will be the third queen regnant of England with that name.  The first, and for four hundred years the only, Queen Elizabeth is such a major part of British history that she gave her name to a whole age. 
She started off on the wrong foot - the wrong body really as Henry VIII confidently expected her to be the male heir he longed for and for whom he had changed religions, wives and the apparatus of the state.  Things only got harder - she lost her mother when she was two and a half when Henry VIII had Anne Boleyn executed and aged just fourteen she was questioned over her true relationship with Thomas Seymour who was accused of plotting to marry her to be able to seize the throne.  She only just escaped from that adventure with her own head - he lost his.  And in her late teens and early twenties her life was again in the balance as her ever suspicious sister, Mary, fretted over the threat that her Protestant sibling posed to her plans to re-instate Catholicism as England's religion.
But we know that she went on to enjoy one of the most successful reigns of any English monarch as the economy of her country improved and its reputation on the world stage recovered from the disastrous foreign policy employed by Mary and her advisers.  Culture and the arts flourished as did house building leaving a still tangible legacy.  She also restored peace after decades of religious division - begun when her father, Henry VIII, created the Church of England to marry her mother, Anne Boleyn.  Elizabeth's own decision to not marry may have been influenced by the end of her parents' relationship and the execution of her mother - it also meant that the House of Tudor died with her.
Elizabeth I in a portrait to mark the victory over the Spanish Armada.  By then she was Gloriana, celebrated in poems and prose by poets and at the height of her powers
Like Elizabeth II, she would provide a role model and a half for any future queen of England.
Elizabeth....the case for...
  • It's a Windsor name and would honour both the Queen and the Queen Mother
  • It's not been used much by British royals but nearly every single Elizabeth has achieved great things - it's the second most popular name for Queens (regnant and consort) in history
  • It's Kate's own middle name - and that of her mother, Carole.  So no one gets left out if this royal baby is another Good Queen Bess.
And against...
  • It's a lot to live up to - between them, the five Queens called Elizabeth cover 160 years of history with major successes all around
  • A change is as good as a rest...two of the three queens of the House of Windsor have been Elizabeths
  • There's already a future Queen Elisabeth in Europe - Princess Elisabeth will one day be head of state in Belgium
Princess Elisabeth of Belgium, future queen, with her father, Prince Philippe

Saturday, 29 June 2013

Queenly inspiration for a royal baby

Less than two weeks to go until the due date for baby Cambridge and while reports state that the Duke and Duchess don't know the sex of the child, there seems to be a general leaning towards a little girl.  Maybe it was the disputed comment from Kate a few months ago - is this for my d.....?  Maybe it was the baby pink outfit she wore on her last official outing before baby arrives at the Trooping of the Colour two weeks ago.  Either way, a quick scan of most bookies' websites have lots of odds for girls' names and not so many for little boys.

And while the royal couple are modern and forward thinking, let's face it, the Royals do like a bit of an historical connection when it comes to naming their children.  There aren't too many surprises, especially with the first born of an heir to the throne.  The bookies might have tipped George as the name of Charles and Diana's first born but William was hardly a bolt from the blue.  It's not like they called him Monty or Mark and expected us all to get used to it.  They went for a name that kings had used before.

And that's why the past queens of England are probably the best place to look for the name that a princess of Cambridge would take.  And as most of those are consorts, it's an ideal guessing game to start playing here.

First, let's get the names also used by Queen Regnants out of the way.


The name of the first woman to rule England in her own right, Mary I, and of the woman who dumped her own father off the throne to gain power, Mary II.  Both were hugely popular at the beginning of their reigns, with Mary I cheered into London when she came to claim her crown from the cabal that had put the tragic Lady Jane Grey on the throne.  Mary II was also the people's choice when she became Queen in 1688. 

But Mary I's reign quickly degenerated into disaster.  Her obsession with her cousin, Philip II of Spain, and their marriage damaged her reputation as she seemed to cede more and more power to her husband.  Her phantom pregnancy in 1555 led to public humiliation from which she never really recovered.  And her devotion to the Catholic faith led to the burning of over 280 Protestants in her reign.  The woman who had ridden to the throne on a wave of public happiness died just over five years later a sad, broken and unpopular woman who has gone down in history as Bloody Mary.

Mary I, the first woman to rule England in her own right

Mary II never lost the public acclaim that greeted her ascension to the English throne in 1688.  Again, religion played a large part in her reign.  Mary was a Protestant but her father, James II, had become a Catholic and had lost the throne when his second wife, Maria of Modena, gave birth to a healthy son who could succeed his father.  Mary II and her Protestant husband, William III, ruled jointly but while William took to the field to defeat James in battle in Ireland, Mary stayed at home and became a real people's queen.  While some historians criticize her for her submission to her husband (whose claim to the throne was far more tenuous than hers) others see her as an able administrator and social reformer.  She died of small pox in 1694 with thousands lining the streets of London at her funeral to express their grief.

Mary II, popular in her day but forgotten by history

Mary is also the name of just one Queen Consort - Mary of Teck, wife of George V and grandmother to Elizabeth II.  Destined to be queen, she was first engaged to Albert Victor, Duke of Clarence and the eldest son of Victoria's eldest son.  On his death, and after a suitable period of mourning, she married his brother and became his Queen Consort in 1910.  She is said to be a major influence on the Queen and her mother was a Princess of Cambridge. 

Mary of Teck, Queen Consort of England 1910 - 1936 and descendant of the House of Cambridge
So there we have it.  A quick upsum of Mary gives us.....
  • Name of the first woman to rule England in her own right - so appropriate for the first girl guaranteed to be Queen of England no matter what
  • Name of the Queen's beloved grandmother
  • And just a little bit retro chic....once the most popular name in England by a long way, it doesn't even hit the Top 50 these days
  • Mary I ended up as one of the most unpopular monarchs England has ever had and history hasn't been much kinder
  • Mary II is largely forgotten by history and was seen by some as being a weak queen as she ceded a lot of her power to her husband
  • There will be a Queen Mary in Europe as the Crown Princess of Denmark bears the name
That's the case for Mary...tomorrow, Elizabeth....
Mary Elizabeth Donaldson, future Queen of Denmark (photo Holger Motzkau)

Friday, 28 June 2013

Queens married to a psychopath

New research published today probably wouldn't hold too many surprises for Queen Anne Boleyn and Queen Catherine Howard.  The two cousins who lost their heads after stealing Henry VIII's heart would most likely agree with the modern expert who believes their shared royal husband to have been a psychopath.

Professor Kevin Dutton looked at ten of the most famous British people of all time and ranked them for psychopathic traits.  Only Henry VIII scored highly enough to be classed as a psychopath.  Professor Dutton ranked people on traits such as persuasiveness, being calm under pressure and physical fearlessness.  And truly dangerous psychopaths needed to score highly when it came to ruthlessness (chopping off two of your wives' heads is always going to up the score for that one) and cold emotional detachment (ditto).  Add in a strong streak of Machiavellian self interest - and we know that Henry's adviser, Thomas Cromwell, spoke highly of The Prince when it was published at the beginning of the 16th century - and hey presto, we have a psychopathic king of England.  If only those six queens had known, they might have thought twice before saying 'I do'.

Was Anne Boleyn the victim of court politics or of a psychopath?

But what about the queens themselves?  Could Anne Boleyn fit the bill herself?  What about some of our other Queen Consorts?   They are several that have been labeled She-Wolves - Isabella of France and Margaret of Anjou most famously - but is that enough to make them psychopathic? 

The test that Professor Dutton has applied to the ten super successful Brits he analysed scores them on characteristics including feelings of alienation, carefree spontaneity and rebelliousness as well as the five already mentioned.  Anne, Isabella and Margaret all certainly felt isolated in their day and all were rebels.  Anne went against everything a woman and a commoner should be by refusing to be the king's mistress and trampling over anyone who disagreed.  When she and Henry couldn't get their own way as things stood they both led the charge towards a break away church that would change the way England viewed religion forever.  And Anne was arguably far more fervent about the Protestant faith than her husband ever was.  Meanwhile, Margaret and Isabella were actual physical rebels, leading charges against those who governed their kingdoms in a way they saw unfit.  Margaret was at the head of the House of Lancaster during the bloodiest part of the Wars of the Roses while Isabella's revolt against Edward II led to her husband's murder and a violent battle for power - pretty ruthless by anyone's standards.

As for cold emotional detachment - Margaret was feared by all who knew her and had very few friends.  But Anne's downfall was that she had too many, particularly male, and Isabella lost power herself because of emotional attachments.

Margaret of Anjou - brave warrior queen fighting for her son's rights or undiagnosed psychopath?

But part of the problem analyzing queens rather than kings is that their story is told in different ways.  We know a lot about the men because their every move was counted as important, even if it was driven or dictated by the women around them.  Queens on the whole were relegated to side parts and their mentions in chronicles or later newspaper reports is limited to beauty, grace and what they were wearing.  Anne, Margaret and Isabella perhaps stand out because their roles were so high profile we know much more about them than other queens.

And then there's the area of motivation.  Anne wanted to be Queen of England - Machiavellian and ruthless.  But Isabella was a scorned woman, married as a teenager to a man who needed her prestige as a French princess but who rejected her time and again for lovers and even put them in her place, heaping public humiliation on top of the personal.  Margaret, too, was emotionally isolated, married to a man with serious mental health problems who went into a trance for much of their early life together and who was manipulated by advisers on all sides.  And she wanted to keep the throne in the House of Lancaster - not so much for her frail and detached husband, Henry VI, as for their son, Edward.  As for Anne, did she ever really imagine before May 1536 that her career would end in the way it did?  She was the first Queen to be executed and on trumped up charges.  The fact that Henry turned against the woman for whom he changed his known world is perhaps one of the reasons we can see him as a psychopath.

Professor Dutton argues that many of the traits found in psychopaths can be used in positive ways, providing energy and determination to achieve great things that would otherwise be too daunting to complete.  Certainly Henry changed his country beyond all recognition, shaping it in his own image...and that of Anne as well.  Without her his reign would have been a very different affair.  This most influential of consorts shares much of the credit - should we also share the blame with her too?  Margaret and Isabella had positive impacts as well.  Isabella paved the way for the stabilizing rule of her eldest son, Edward III.  Without her intervention, the anger towards the monarchy might have tipped over into outright conflict before he could attain the throne. 

So Henry VIII adds England's only ruling psychopath to his CV but the trait is obviously not genetic - Professor Dutton also ranked that most famous of Queens Regnant, Henry's daughter, Elizabeth, and found she didn't take after Dad when it came to that.

You can learn more at Professor Dutton's website and even take a test to find out if you fit the bill....

PS I didn't, just out of interest!!

Thursday, 27 June 2013

Naming future queens

According to the poll results so far, picking a name for a future Queen of England is harder than choosing for a king.  For the boys, bookies' favourite George is taking an early lead but all the ballots so far for a girl's name are for something other than the favourites, Elizabeth and Diana.  So I've started a message board for more discussion on which names the Cambridges might go for if they have a little princess. 

Looking back, other Queen Consorts of England haven't had the same dilemma as future queen Kate.  After all, she's the first woman in British royal history to know that a daughter will definitely inherit the throne so choosing a name for a little girl has perhaps more weight than ever before.

Past queens of England named girls knowing they probably wouldn't be queen.  And there were protocols - set by the royal family they had married into.  It usually meant selecting an already royal name.  All our past queens, except two, had daughters named after their mothers in law.  Only Eleanor of Provence and Caroline of Ansbach bucked that trend.

Eleanor had three daughters but none of them bore the name of the mother of her husband, Henry III.  Instead she named one girl after her own mother - Beatrice - and picked different names for the other two.  The royal couple ended up with a Margaret and a Katherine, the first time either name had been used for an English royal baby. 

Caroline had five daughters but she and her husband, the future George II, didn't name any of them after his mother.  Sophia Dorothea of Celle is a strange figure in British royal history.  She married the man who would become George I in 1682, had two children with him and then found herself displaced by mistresses.  Her own close friendship with a man called Philip Christoph von Konigsmarck led to her husband accusing her of adultery and imprisoning her in a tower for the last 33 years of her life.  As Caroline and George were forming their family while the old king, George I, was still alive it's perhaps not surprising that they chose not to name a baby after Sophia Dorothea. 

Once the mothers in law were honoured, past queens very often used the names of other family relatives for their girls meaning that once a name joined the royal merry go round it took a long time for it to fall off again.  Hence the first three queens of England having Matildas while five of the seven Plantagenet queens who had daughters called one of them Eleanor.  In fact, one of the queens - Marguerite of France - used it even though it had been the name of her husband's beloved first wife, a move that made her even more popular than before.

So perhaps a quick scan of the close family will provide the name - but that brings us back to Diana and Elizabeth and thoughts seem to be turning elsewhere.

Here's the link for the board - it will be interesting to see what takes the lead!

Queens of England group

PS I did wonder whether the Cambridges might go for Eleanor but the future Queen of Spain is Leonor....what about two monarchs in Europe with the same name?

Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Baby names...

TIme for a new poll and this time, I thought I'd join the general fun of trying to guess the royal baby's name.  I think I can get away with it because Kate Middleton will be Queen of England one day and if she has a girl we all know by now that the law change means she's guaranteed to be Queen as well - though she'll have to find another site to get talked about on cos she'll be a regnant not a consort!

So pick your favourite for the royal baby name....personally, I'm going for Matilda or Adelaide for a girl and Henry or George for a boy.  I do hope they surprise us...a couple as modern as the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge could set amazing trends for royalty and the rest of us with the name they choose.

More power as a queen than as a mother?

Today marks the anniversary of the death of George IV, at one time Prince Regent, and best known for his love of extravagant clothes and his hatred of his extravagant wife, Queen Caroline.  Caroline is a marvellous Queen of England.  On paper, she had nothing going for her at all.  But she ended up far more popular than her husband and she's one of the most recognizable of all the English consorts.

Caroline was hardly romantic queen material.  She wasn't a looker and let's face it, the pretty princesses always seem to be more popular than their uglier royal sisters.  She was reported to have a distant relationship with her bathroom and rarely changed her clothes.  Not keen on education or culture, she had little conversation.  And just like her husband, she seemed to prefer the charms of people she wasn't married to.

The Prince got married because Parliament wouldn't give him any more money unless he found a wife.  And nabbing the heir to the throne of England was a pretty good deal for a princess from the remote German principality of Brunswick.  It was all going so well until they actually met and got married.

From that moment, they hated one another.  Some estimates put their total time together as man and wife at three days.  However long it was, it was enough to produce a little girl called Charlotte who became heiress to the throne.  When the little princess was around nine her parents indulged in a proper marital ding dong, played out in the courts, as the future king had his wife investigated after rumours emerged she had had a son with another man.  Desperate for a divorce, he dragged his wife's name and reputation through the mud but not enough of it stuck to prove she had produced an illegitimate child and his poor treatment of her only added to her growing popularity.  By the time he became king in 1820 his spending had taken any gloss off the gorgeous George of his youth while his wife's down to earth nature and humiliation at the hands of her royal husband made her an unlikely heroine for many.

Caroline faced the problem that many queens had encountered - once the heir was in the nursery, what should the mother's influence be?  The crown nearly always went to a man because of primogeniture meaning, unlike most other families, a royal baby's mother and her relatives weren't as important in the child's upbringing.  Queens like Eleanor of Aquitaine retained control because they were important politically.  But women like Caroline or her predecessor as Hanoverian consort, Sophia Dorothea of Celle, were excised from their children's lives when their marriages broke down even if their husbands were as keen on extramarital affairs as the royal women involved.

No wonder Caroline looked so annoyed in this portrait from the end of her life, her time as princess and queen had been pretty hard going

Even today, there is much debate about the influence the family of the future Queen of England should have on the royal baby due in July.  The Duchess of Cambridge is reported to want her mother and sister in the delivery room with her leading to heated discussion about whether the Middleton family should have such a major role at the beginning of a new monarch's life.  While other women in their early thirties are almost expected to have a gaggle of family members supporting them during labour and birth, Kate Middleton is criticized by some for doing what comes naturally for thousands of others.

Nearly every other Queen of England found that royal babies, from the very beginning, were state matters with rules and regulations beyond her control and little room for her influence when it came to their upbringing.  In any other modern marriage, we'd be horrified if the wife was expected to take a backseat and only allow her family in when it suited the inlaws.  I hope that this future Queen of England gets a fairer deal in that regard than her predecessors.

Tuesday, 25 June 2013

A nursery full of princesses

The next episode of The White Queen should see the arrival of a son for Elizabeth and Edward.  But although the royal couple did produce three boys in the end, their royal nursery was dominated by girls.  It was an age old problem for queens consort - what to do with a gaggle of girls needing wealthy husbands and good marriages?

One of the main duties of being a queen was to have babies and as many boys as possible.  Girls were a bit of a problem but did provide currency in the big trade off between royal houses - the marriage game.  Need a foothold in a foreign country?  Find a daughter to marry one of their sons and heirs.  Got a problem with a pesky rival king or lord?  Marry a child off to one of theirs and they have to stay friendly for the honeymoon period at least.  Elizabeth, like all the queen consorts of England before her, expected pretty big royal weddings for her girls.  Unlike the others, she had to fight for them.

Using daughters as power tools was an established routine across the continent for nearly 1000 years by the time Elizabeth Woodville became Queen of England.  Even before her husband, William, conquered the country the first modern queen, Matilda of Flanders, had seen two of her daughters offered in marriage to William's great rival for the English throne, Harold II.  Neither Adeliza nor Agatha became Queen of England - their mother got that title a few years later when William won the throne by force.  But their two of their sisters gained important husbands in Europe as their parents sought to consolidate their power by marrying them into the houses of Brittany and Blois.

And that was the pattern for every subsequent Queen of England who had girls.  While Matilda and Eleanor of Aquitaine concentrated on shoring up European alliances through their daughters' marriages, later queens including Eleanor of Provence and Isabella of France both provided girls to marry Scottish kings and so help form uneasy alliances with one of the biggest threats to their husbands' power.  Younger daughters might get an important English lord - hence Eleanor of Castile witnessing two of her many girls marry the earls of Hereford and of Hertford and Gloucester.

So when Elizabeth came to marry off her girls she expected great things.  And it was lucky for her that a king's daughter could land a foreign prince or lord as she'd snapped up pretty much all the best home grown talent for her sisters.  After the final battle with Lancaster in 1471, Edward's reign seemed settled and within a few years Elizabeth's eldest daughter, also Elizabeth, was betrothed to the son of the king of France, daughter number three, Cecily, was in line to be Queen of Scotland while another girl, Anne, was promised to the heir of the house of Burgundy.  In 1482 the second youngest of royal baby of Elizabeth, Princes Kate, was betrothed to the heir to the Spanish throne.  Alliances were being forged across Europe.  Edward IV's unexpected death, in 1483, changed everything.

Suddenly Elizabeth found the choice of husband for her daughters taken away from her.  Richard III, the girls' uncle, stepped in to make use of them as he saw fit.  Anne was promised to an ally called Thomas Howard while Cecily found herself married to another of Richard's supporters, Ralph Scrope of Upsall.  But that was after something far more damaging to the girls' marriage prospects had happened.  Rumours swept the court that Richard III would replace his dying wife, Anne, with one of his own nieces - either Cecily or Elizabeth.  In the end he was forced to deny, publicly, that he would marry one of his brothers' daughters. 

Meanwhile, Elizabeth was plotting behind the scenes to make the most lucrative marriage of all.  She promised her eldest girl, who had a great claim to the throne herself, to Henry Tudor who claimed the crown for the House of Lancaster.  Their marriage in 1486 brought the houses together, ended the Wars of the Roses, and established the Tudor dynasty on the throne.  Her other girls married English nobility and prospered while the youngest followed that other traditional route for princesses - Bridget became a nun.

Monday, 24 June 2013

How to do a century in less than 60 seconds

I was wondering before part two of the White Queen whether there would be a bit more history and how they would tell the part of the story that involves Elizabeth not providing an heir for almost six years.  The answer to both questions was - quickly.

First, the history part.  Last week's episode was very light on fact and detail.  This week they tried to make up for it but instead ended up galloping through decades of one of the most complex periods in England's past in about twenty minutes and leaving no one any the wiser for it.  There were very vague allusions to treaties with Burgundy and France and a couple of mentions of nasty battles here and there but no detail, no substance and no real understanding on what on earth was going on.  We know there are two sides in this war, mostly because of some very clunky dialogue involving references to Lancaster and York, but that's about it.  No hint of why so many people thought they could and should be king of England and certainly no references to how they went about it.

The main historical problem lies in the relationship - or lack of it - between Edward IV and the man who made him king, the Earl of Warwick.  Edward spends most of the time wandering around in a rather nice ivory coat and badly fitting crown while looking lustily at Elizabeth.  In the opposite corner, Warwick has a nice black coat and fur trim and spends most of the time wandering round looking angrily at Elizabeth.  There is no hint that the two men have ever spent more than five minutes in one another's company.  I'm all for not patronizing the audience and letting them work things out for themselves but there's a big gap between allowing viewers to pick up the back story and leaving it out altogether and the White Queen is in danger of falling a long way into the hole.

But we know that Warwick ruled England and picked who wore the crown for the best part of two decades.  And that means politics and power and armies and money and none of that gets a look in.  Warwick has such contempt for Edward in this version of the story that we wonder why he ever made him king in the first place.  And how did he get to hold so much power?  He was explained away last night as a man who likes a lot of land - is that it?  Is that how he came to hold so much sway over a whole country and set cousin against cousin, by property dealing?  Last night he captured two kings in less than half an hour and yet we still haven't got a clue how he came to be so powerful.  There were a few references to him 'kingmaking again', as if it were a hobby he indulged every now and again, like remembering he had an expensive train set in the shed and should really go and switch it on for a laugh.  But what kingmaking was and how he would do it were left mysteriously unexplained.

Another glaring omission is the well documented grasping ambitions of the Woodvilles as a whole.  Here, their determination to marry every wealthy heir in the country is seen as a way of protecting the vulnerable Elizabeth and wholly supported by her husband.  In reality, the hasty way in which the queen snapped up spouses for nearly all her siblings was seen as display of gold digging and power grabbing at its very worst.  And leaving out the most notorious of those marriages damaged the show's historical integrity.  Elizabeth's brother, John, was married at the age of twenty to one of the wealthiest women in the country.  It's just that his bride, the Dowager Duchess of Norfolk, was around 65 at the time of their wedding and a close relative of Warwick.  Leaving that out may make the Woodvilles look better but it took away one of the main reasons for a major event in the show - Warwick's decision to execute John and his father, Earl Rivers. 

And then there's the thorny issue of Elizabeth's lack of male heirs.  We all know a queen's number one job was to produce boys, and lots of them, to keep her king happy and the crown on his head.  This was dealt with much more strongly with Warwick's evident delight in his rival's ability to produce a son underlining the importance of a king having someone to succeed him.  And in the end that is what it all came down to - a male head on which to rest the crown.  The power and politics went on regardless but it was the theatre, the spectacle, the public life that everyone took notice of.  In that sense, perhaps The White Queen isn't so inaccurate after all.

Sunday, 23 June 2013

Pushy relatives

Tonight on The White Queen we'll see Elizabeth Woodville's family start to reap the rewards of having a sister on the throne of England.  It was one of the reasons Elizabeth never really won the hearts of her people - they saw the whole family as making far too much out of the whole marriage.

She wasn't the first queen to face the accusation but it seemed to stick to her far more.  Eleanor of Provence and Eleanor of Castile were both accused of bringing friends and relations to court in unreasonable numbers and rewarding them with things like titles, land and money that should have gone to other, older families.

But they both had the advantage of being royal - even if they were members of foreign ruling families.  Elizabeth Woodville's family were seen as the ultimate leeches because they relied totally on their royal connections for their advancement.  The same criticisms were leveled at the families of other commoner queens - the Boleyns, the Seymours and the Howards.  Of Henry VIII's wives, only Catherine Parr's family escaped so much censure but they were very discreet in their self advancement and were happier to settle for more money and status rather than looking to control the kingdom itself.

It will be interesting to see how the programme handles the issue of the Woodvilles' epic social climbing....whether it will be seen as self made men and women doing well for themselves or a greedy landgrab that went too far. 

Saturday, 22 June 2013

Tomorrow night on the White Queen we head towards coronations and christenings.  Being gorgeous and landing a king is one thing, hanging on to him is another however much in love he might be.

Rule number one for any queen was to start producing babies.  It had been a big problem for the English royals in the century before Elizabeth and Edward took over.  Richard II had ruled for twenty two years and married twice but there was no one to succeed him and his cousin, Henry IV, stole his throne.  Henry had a stable of sons and daughters but his eldest boy, Henry V, had had just one son before his early death.  And that child, Henry VI, had just one son as well, Edward.

All Elizabeth had to do was produce boys and lots of them and she would hold all the cards.  It will be interesting to see how The White Queen tackles this because it took the new queen almost two years to have a baby - not helped by hubby being away on a regular basis fighting to keep his throne - and it was a girl.   She didn't produce the longed for male heir for five and a half years - by which time Edward was fighting for his throne again. 

Historians argue this shows a real love for the queen by the king - after a series of girls he could quite easily have asked for an annulment as the marriage was so secretive and with plenty of questions raised over it already.  But he kept his queen and she kept her bargain with three sons born to the royal couple in time.

Later episodes will feature them - and the tragic story of the Princes in the Tower.  But for now, the question is why the White Queen kept her crown when she took so long to have a boy.

Friday, 21 June 2013

Have a look at the new website - Queens of England.  It'll grow every day - please let me know what you think...what works, what doesn't and what you'd like to see...
Episode two of the White Queen on Sunday - and we should be heading to the proper history part of the story.  Once Elizabeth landed at court her every move was documented and to keep something secret was a day's work in itself.  We had a hint of some of the controversy she caused at the end of episode one - she was a commoner queen after all.  But was she? 

The bare facts tell little.  Elizabeth was born in Grafton Regis in Northamptonshire around 1437.  Some historians place her birth in autumn that year, around October, but the exact date isn't known. She grew up in Grafton (I've spent an idyllic day there, it really is very lovely in a very English way with endless tufty green trees and rolling fields) and turned into a beautiful young woman, called by some the prettiest in England.  The history books tells a simple story after that.  At the age of 15 she married John Grey, a knight of about the same social standing as he father.  They had two sons but as the Wars of the Roses engulfed England, her husband was called on to fight for the Lancastrian side and in 1461 he was killed at the Battle of St Albans.  Elizabeth was a widow at 24 and had to go home to her parents with her children as her husband's small fortune now belonged to his enemies in the House of York.  Three years later, aged 27, she stopped the York king by the roadside to beg for her husband's wealth to be returned to her and soon afterwards found herself Queen of England.

But was it really such a simple fairytale?  The idea of a this simple country family living a well to do, middle class existence in the English countryside before their beautiful daughter elevates them to royalty is appealing but misleading. 

For a start, Elizabeth's mother had pretty blue blood herself and some of the best social connections in the country. She was Jacquetta of Luxembourg, daughter of the ruler of that country and descended from King John of England through her mother.  Jacquetta, at birth, was linked to nobility in pretty much ever corner of Europe.  And that was before her first marriage - at just17 she was wed to John, Duke of Bedford, the uncle of King Henry VI of England.  He died two years later leaving her a very wealthy widow and not quite twenty. She fell in love with one of the commoners sent to bring her back to England and married the knight, Richard Woodville, in secret despite a law that meant she was supposed to ask the king's permission to wed again.  A fine of  1000 pounds barely dented her fortune and they lived a rather nice life in lovely Grafton and had fourteen children.

And then we come to Elizabeth's status when she married the king.  It's true there was no royal title for her but by then her father had a title of his own - Baron Rivers - awarded to him in 1448 by King Henry VI.  Richard and his family were staunch Lancastrians and more power and titles followed.  In 1450 he became a Knight of the Garter, a great honour, and was made Warden of the Cinque Ports in 1459.  This last honour is telling because it was one of the most important appointments in the country - the Cinque Ports were required to provide military support to the king at short notice in return for tax exemptions and running them as warden was a responsible position.  So in 1464, the poor widow at the roadside was in fact the daughter of one of the best connected and most influential women in Europe and a very powerful and trusted man.

There is also some dispute as to Elizabeth's own connections.  Rather than being the unfortunate and abandoned widow of legend, some historians link her to an Isabel Grey who was a maid of honour at the court of Queen Margaret, wife of Henry VI.  That great writer of Tudor history, Thomas More, proposed the theory and as he told much of that dynasty's tale with a real insider viewpoint could it be that Elizabeth spent time at court before marrying the king?  Later historians point out that there were at least three other women with that name more likely to be the maid of honour and that Isabel Grey is recorded at court in 1445 when Elizabeth was just 8 and still a Woodville - her marriage to her first husband took place in 1452.

So Elizabeth was more than just a poor widow who got lucky when she fluttered her eyelashes at the King.  She may have been a commoner but she had far more opportunity to win the heart of a king than most women in the land.  But she took that chance - and got a crown out of it.  And it's easy to forget just how hard that was.  This was more than a case of Mills and Boon romance.  Marrying the king was a job and there was a pretty select and determined field of candidates.  Edward had been king for three years when he wed Elizabeth and was established enough for European royal houses to consider him a suitable match for their princesses.

So on Sunday we move from love beneath the branches of the English countryside to power politics at court.  Pretty hard for a woman who was pregnant for most of the first decade of her marriage?  Coming next - how marriage and motherhood made a powerhouse of Elizabeth Woodville.

Monday, 17 June 2013

And we're off!  I can't remember the last time I was so looking forward to a new TV drama and even being in the middle of a house move didn't stop me counting down the minutes to the start of #TheWhiteQueen last night.

And I wasn't disappointed.  I wasn't totally overwhelmed either, but it was fun, watchable and had enough of the romance of the story of Edward IV and Elizabeth to make up for the fact it seemed to have forgotten most of the history.

It all started with a horrible dream which inspired Elizabeth to try and meet the York king who had killed her first husband and swiftly moved to a dreamy vision of the Northamptonshire in which she lived and where that meeting actually took place.  There were lots more scenes in forests and beneath trees as the lovers' hearts and lives entwined with the occasional reference to the Wars of the Roses. 

The actual fighting took place off camera in this episode as we spent a lot of time with Elizabeth and her Woodville family setting out their rivalries or in a hunting lodge where the new royal couple got frisky as required by modern costume drama.  We ended with a ten minute stroll round Edward's court as he showed off his pastel clad commoner wife to a strange assortment of people who will be important in the rest of the series. 

And that was part of the problem with this opening episode - a lot of scene setting.  It's an issue that all period pieces run into - how to establish characters, era and the feel of the time for those who known nothing about it without making it sound like a fact heavy GCSE history session.  The White Queen went for the total GCSE approach - from characters addressing each other by their full, proper history book names to unnatural conversations about the top ten battles of the last decade.  The whole Lancastrian cause, in this episode at least, was confined to a couple of mentions of poor king Henry losing his wits again and a fabulous chin jutting minute from Amanda Hale as Margaret Beaufort.

And that's the big draw of this adaptation - fabulous female characters at last given a voice with some fabulous actresses embodying them.  Caroline Goodall was magnificent as bitter, unhappy Duchess Cecily and Juliet Aubry could barely contain her ambitions as the Countess of Warwick.  But the show belongs to Janet McTeer as The White Queen's uber ambitious mother, Jacquetta of Luxembourg, who dominated every scene she was in.  Her demolition of Duchess Cecily at the end was spectacular and made as much by her dominance as by the duchess' fragile attempts at revenge.

The men were rather secondary.  Every now and again, Elizabeth's father would turn up with a band of her brothers, usually armed with daggers and inappropriate behavior towards their king.  Edward rode around the same corner of the same field several times accompanied by the same handful of men.  His main adviser, the Earl of Warwick, was full of life, anger and determination and James Frain conveyed the great sense of urgency that must have informed the Kingmaker's life but at times he seemed to have got lost on his way to an EastEnders audition as his shouting turned into estuary English at its best.

But what about the star of the show - the White Queen herself?  Rebecca Ferguson is good and beyond beautiful, giving an idea of why a king would risk his hard won crown to marry the wrong woman.  But the way her character is written is strange - at no point in this opening episode did we get a sense of the scheming, manipulating and downright devious behavior that we know Elizabeth indulged in from the very beginning of her marriage to Edward and her career as queen.  A momentary sizzle at poor old Duchess Cecily was about it - other than that, she looked lovely but seemed totally carried along by her mother and events.

Another problem for me was the lack of obvious age gap between King Edward and his new queen.  We know Elizabeth was at least five years older than her husband and that's one of the reasons she was so mistrusted from the very beginning, inhabiting for many the well worn role of older seductress.  And while Max Irons conveyed a great sense of a young man beyond self confident and ready to tackle the world, I worry that he won't have the gravitas to develop into a dominant political force.

But then, as I mentioned, the history and politics are all rather back seat here.  And perhaps the show is no worse for that.  While the Philippa Gregory novels that inspired the show were jam packed with historical accuracy and gorgeous period detail, the TV versions are soft focus, pretty and entertaining enough to make an hour seem like ten minutes.  And that, along with the fact that this show covers one of the best life stories never really told, means I'll be just as excited for the next nine Sundays as we head through blood, guts and lots of sauciness towards the founding of the Tudor dynasty.

Saturday, 15 June 2013

Just over 24 hours to go until BBC One's big production of #TheWhiteQueen and the excitement mounts.  Can they really do justice to the story of Elizabeth Woodville and Philippa Gregory's excellent telling of her tale?  I hope so, it's such a cracking yarn that it's hard to see how a TV production with lots of money, talent and lush locations thrown at it can go wrong.  Elizabeth looks gorgeous, Edward looks suitably young, handsome and lascivious and how can we not love this version of Jacquetta, the uber ambitious mother of the king?

Some critics have called it history lite...but who wants treaties and charters when we've got a stroppy commoner holding out for a crown, a king so desperate for a woman he risks his throne for her and a woman who makes tiger mums look like kittens?

The White Queen - roll on Sunday night...

And to celebrate the start of a summer of sizzling, saucy history, tomorrow I start my week of looking at the life of Elizabeth Woodville..please join the discussion below...

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Queens of England

I've always been fascinated by the Queens of England. Not just the six women who have worn the Crown in their own right but the women who have played the part of consort to a king. 

Their stories are nearly always more interesting to me than those of the men who gave them power, wealth and prestige beyond anything they'd known before.  From the princesses used as pawns in power games to the ambitious women who won hearts and snatched a crown in the process, their tales have always seemed to be more human and more alive. 

Through the tales of lives lived in dusty palaces or cramped castles, I always gained more of a sense of how the struggles for supremacy and the political manoeuvring that changed the lives of individuals and nations actually played out.

That will become clear, I'm sure, this Sunday, with the start of the major TV adaptation of The White Queen.  The stories of Elizabeth Woodville, Margaret Beaufort and Anne Neville are at the heart of England's bloodiest war and these three women did more to change the country from medieval to modern than any of the men involved.

And so I decided to create this blog as a place to write and talk about these fascinating women.   I hope others will join me to talk about all these women and compare thoughts and opinions on the parts they played in history, the way they are portrayed now in literature, film and TV and radio and the legacy they have left behind them .