Canadian Press Interview: Queen Elizabeth to surpass Victoria for length of reign, but similarities endure

Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh leaving the Royal York hotel in Toronto on a tour of Canada in 2010.

Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh leaving the Royal York hotel in Toronto on a tour of Canada in 2010.

On September 9, Queen Elizabeth II will exceed Queen Victoria’s record for longest reigning monarch in British (and post-Confederation Canadian) history. In my interview with the Canadian Press, I compared the approaches of Victoria and Elizabeth II to the role of constitutional monarch. While Victoria made her opinions about her Prime Ministers clear, Elizabeth II remains above party politics.  Since Elizabeth II has reigned for 63 years, her approach has become synonymous with the role of a constitutional monarch in the popular imagination

Click here to read “Queen Elizabeth to surpass Victoria for length of reign, but similarities endure”

Friday Royal Read: Becoming a Romanov: Grand Duchess Elena of Russia and Her World (1807-1873) by Marina Soroka and Charles A. Rudd

The four daughters of Russia’s last Emperor, Grand Duchesses Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia, are well known in the English speaking world. They have been the subject of popular biographies, most recently The Romanov Sisters by Helen Rappaport and Road to Ekaterinburg:Nicholas and Alexandra’s daughters by ECS Banks, as well as historical novels. In contrast, the Grand Duchesses at the courts of nineteenth century Czars, the daughters and daughters-in-law of Paul I, Nicholas I and Alexander II are little known outside of Russia.

Grand Duchess Elena Pavlovna, the wife of Catherine the Great’s youngest grandson, Michael Pavlovich, assumed in her own lifetime that she would be the subject of a biography and carefully curated her own papers. Despite her extraordinary accomplishments, she has disappeared into near obscurity, the subject of a few academic conference papers and a chapter in Charlotte Zeepvat’s Romanov Autumn. In Becoming a Romanov: Grand Duchess Elena of Russia and Her World (1807-1873), Elena finally receives the full length biography she expected and deserves. University of Western Ontario professors Marina Soroko and Charles A. Rudd bring the Grand Duchess and 19th century St. Petersburg to life.

Elena displayed a strong personality and intellectual curiosity from her childhood as a Princess of Wurttemburg, Germany. When she was seventeen and had only been at the Russian court for a year, she informed the author of a multivolume history of Russia, “I know your work sir, and do not think I have only read it only in translation, I also read it in Russian.” In middle age, she tackled Russia’s social and political problems, advising her nephew the “Czar-Liberator” Alexander II in his plan to free the serfs. During the Crimean War, she acted as Russia’s Florence Nightingale, founding an order of nurses that developed into the Russian branch of the Red Cross. Her palace was a gathering place for Russian intellectuals and her artistic patronage included the founding of the St. Petersburg conservatory

While Elena was respected in her public role, her private life was filled with unhappiness from her childhood through her engagement and marriage. Her parents separated when she was a child and her father, Prince Paul of Wurttemburg cut corners on her education to pocket the money sent for this purpose by her grandfather. When Elena showed a fear of mice as a child, Paul had a servant release a sack of live mice in her bedroom (she fainted). Elena’s husband, Grand Duke Michael Pavlovich, was pressured into the marriage and made clear from their betrothal that would have preferred to marry another. He shared none of her intellectual interests, smoked cigars to avoid having to talk to her and said that he would celebrate 30 years of marriage as the anniversary of the 30 Years War. Two of their five daughters died in infancy and another two died as young women.

In addition to Elena’s eventful life, Soraka and Rudd also describe 19th century St. Petersburg in vivid detail. Elena’s and Michael’s residence, the Mikhailovsky Palace was one of the city’s landmarks with a main staircase described as the finest in Europe. Elena’s first child was born in the aftermath of the 1824 Neva river flood that killed more than 600 people and the disaster and recovery efforts are described extensively. Becoming a Romanov is richly illustrated with portraits of Elena and her family in addition to images of the landmarks of the St. Petersburg she knew.

The only false note in this otherwise brilliant biography comes in the first paragraph, where the authors describe Elena as “…the only female Romanov whose name merits mention in any narrative of Russian history after the Crimean War…” The contributions of the Romanov women – including the famous daughters of Russia’s last Czar – to Russia’s war effort during the First World War merits a book of its own. Grand Duchess Elena’s accomplishments over the course of the nineteenth century were so extensive that it was difficult for any future Grand Duchess to achieve a similar public profile. Becoming a Romanov restores Elena Pavlovna to her rightful place in Russian history.

Next Week: La Couronne et le Parlement – The Crown and Parliament, eds. Michel Bédard and Philippe Lagassé

Friday Royal Read: Elizabeth I and Her Circle by Susan Doran

Most biographies of Elizabeth I describe her life from birth in 1533 to death in 1603, covering the events of her path to the throne and reign in chronological order. In Elizabeth I and Her Circle, Susan Doran, a Senior Research Fellow at Jesus College, Oxford, co-editor of The Elizabethan World and Mary Tudor: Old and New Perspectives, and author of Mary Queen of Scots: An Illustrated Life and numerous books on Tudor England, instead devotes a chapter to each of the key relationships in the Queen’s life. Through analysis of Elizabeth I’s connections to her relatives, courtiers and councilors, Doran explodes the myths about the Queen’s character and reign, revealing the that England’s most famous ruler was a more complicated person than past biographers – and popular culture – have assumed.

Doran begins by reversing long standing assumptions about Elizabeth’s views of her parents, King Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. Henry VIII is often described as a role model for his daughter and a person she idealized (For an example, listen to the recent BBC Great Lives episode on Elizabeth I) while the disgraced and beheaded Anne Boleyn was quietly forgotten. While Elizabeth I included Henry VIII in her public image to reinforce her legitimacy as queen, Doran argues convincingly that her surviving writings hint that she viewed her father as an intimidating and unpredictable figure during her childhood. Elizabeth displayed little grief when Henry died in 1547. In contrast, Elizabeth surrounded herself with Boleyn cousins during her reign, particularly the numerous members of the Carey and Knollys families, the descendants of Anne Boleyn’s sister, Mary.

In many biographies of Elizabeth I, the Queen’s relationships with her Tudor cousins are reduced to decades of conflict with Mary, Queen of Scots and outrage over the secret marriage of Lady Catherine Grey (sister of the famous 9 Days Queen, Lady Jane Grey). These selected episodes convey the impression that Elizabeth’s primary emotion toward her female cousins was jealousy, declaring Catherine’s sons illegitimate and comparing her own childlessness to Mary giving birth to a healthy son (the future James I). Elizabeth had far more relatives with a claim to her throne and more complicated dealings with her family than a narrow focus on Mary and Catherine would suggest.

Doran traces the careers of the entire Suffolk line (descendants of Henry VIII’s youngest sister), revealing that the Queen enjoyed decades of friendship with her cousin Margaret Clifford, the mother of numerous sons, which belies the assumption that she was inherently hostile to her female royal cousins and their progeny. Elizabeth even enjoyed a brief period of good relations with Mary, Queen of Scots. Doran provides evidence that Elizabeth’s decision to reject the legitimacy of Catherine’s marriage was partly motivated by a desire to reassure Mary about her place in the succession. The only close royal relative who does not receive substantial analysis in Doran’s book is Arbella Stuart, a curious omission considering that Elizabeth actually met her in person, in contrast to Mary and James.

Key chapters at the centre of the book are devoted to Elizabeth I’s “favourites,” Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, Sir Christopher Hatton and Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex. Doran dismisses the speculation, which has existed since the sixteenth century and persists in films and historical novels today, that Elizabeth had affairs with these courtiers. Instead, the book discusses the political role of these men and takes them seriously as influential figures at the Queen’s court. The Earl of Essex, who is often dismissed as a vain and empty headed youth, in fact earned an MA from Cambridge at the age of sixteen and displayed a consistent desire to serve the Queen on the battlefield. The women in Elizabeth I’s circle have already received extensive analysis in the recent books The Queen’s Bed: An Intimate History of Elizabeth’s Court by Anna Whitelock and Elizabeth’s Women by Tracy Borman but Doran provides some fresh insights and challenges the longstanding view that the Queen was inherently hostile to the marriages of her ladies-in-waiting.

Elizabeth I and Her Circle is essential reading for anyone interested in Queen Elizabeth I, her court and the wider Tudor dynasty in the sixteenth century. Doran strips away centuries of mythology surrounding Elizabeth I, revealing the interplay between her personal relations with family, courtiers and counselors and the political decisions she made as Queen. In her dealings with her circle, Elizabeth placed her interests as Queen above any personal rivalries or attachments. The Queen’s most lasting relationship was with England and her subjects.

Next Week: Becoming a Romanov: Grand Duchess Elena of Russia and Her World (1807-1873) by Marin Soroka and Charles A. Ruud.

Friday Royal Read: Perfect Wives in Ideal Homes: The Story of Women in the 1950s by Virginia Nicholson

On September 9, 2015, Queen Elizabeth II will become the longest reigning monarch in Britain’s history. Her 63 year reign has encompassed so many distinct phases (See the series of articles that I wrote in honour of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee in 2012: The Young Queen of Canada, The Controversial Queen of Canada, The Celebrity Queen of Canada and The Jubilee Queen of Canada) that it’s easy to forget that when she ascended to the throne in 1952, she faced all the expectations that were directed toward British women in the 1950s in addition to nearly a thousand years of royal tradition.

In Perfect Wives in Ideal Homes: The Story Of Women In The 1950’s, Virginia Nicholson, author of Millions Like Us: Women’s Lives in the Second World War and Singled Out: How Two Million Women Survived without Men After the First World War, provides a social history of women’s lives in Britain in the 1950s. Popular culture expected them to be Perfect Wives in Ideal Homes but whether the women profiled in Nicholson’s book lived in palaces or council houses, their homes rarely conformed to ideals. Throughout the decade, the two most prominent women in Britain were Queen Elizabeth II, whose marriage and motherhood appeared to conform to 1950s expectations and Princess Margaret who struggled in the face of overwhelming pressure to “settle down” with a suitable husband.

The Queen’s coronation in 1953 was one of the most memorable events of the decade and Nicholson presents  a vivid account of women’s engagement in the ceremony, from the Queen herself at the centre of events, to the women involved in the coverage and planning to spectators of all social backgrounds including peeresses in the galleries of Westminster Abbey, Londoners camped on the sidewalk in the rain and the thousands of women who watched the ceremony on their first television set. Although the monarch was female, the BBC journalists who covered the event were male with the exception of one female commentator and four “back-up girls” in charge of providing human interest stories. There were plenty women involved in the preparations, however, including Constance Spry, who created the floral decorations and Rosemary Hume, who invented “coronation chicken.”

Nicholson also provides a fresh perspective on Princess Margaret’s relationship with Peter Townsend and her ultimate decision not to give up her royal position to marry a divorced man. The Princess’s relationship with Townsend took place less than two decades after King Edward VIII abdicated to marry the twice divorced Wallis Simpson but attitudes toward divorce, remarriage and royal duty were already undergoing a gradual change. Nicholson discusses how English women, from Princess Margaret’s lady-in-waiting Iris Peake to working class women who read about the relationship in the press hoped the Princess would be able to marry the man of her choice. In contrast, the male establishment, some of whom had been involved in divorce cases themselves, were adamant that Townsend was unsuitable. The Queen supported the establishment and Margaret ultimately married the photographer Antony Armstrong Jones in 1960, divorcing in 1978.

There’s far more to Perfect Wives in Ideal Homes: The Story Of Women In The 1950’s than royalty. Through the stories of individual women, Nicholson reveals the adversity faced by those women whose aspirations included other goals besides marriage, home and family. As late as 1959, only one in a hundred British women pursued post-secondary education and Oxford and Cambridge had only begun granting degrees to women in 1920 and 1947 respectively. Most British women of the period left school at fifteen and worked in jobs that provided little hope of career advancement until they married. Nicholson analyzes the context for women’s roles in the period including the desire to return to pre-Second World War life and slow adoption of modern conveniences within British households.

Perfect Wives in Ideal Homes: The Story Of Women In The 1950’s is a fascinating history of how British women lived at the beginning of Elizabeth II’s record breaking reign. The cultural climate has changed immeasurably over the past sixty-three years but Nicholson presents convincing case that the attitudes toward women from the 1950s still cast a long shadow over modern life.

Next Week: Elizabeth I and Her Circle by Susan Doran

Friday Royal Read: The Queen at the Council Fire by Nathan Tidridge

 The book launch for The Queen at the Council Fire: The Treaty of Niagara, Reconciliation, and the Dignified Crown in Canada took place at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights on August 13. The museum is currently displaying an original copy of the Royal Proclamation of 1763, a document that has become known as the “Indian Magna Carta,” as part of a unique companion exhibit to the Magna Carta: Law, Liberty and Legacy exhibition opening at the museum on August 15. The Royal Proclamation’s 250th anniversary took place in 2013, prompting new discussion of the complicated relationship between Canada’s government and First Nations.

In The Queen at the Council Fire, Nathan Tidridge, an educator and author of Canada’s Constitutional Monarchy: An Introduction to Our Form of Government and Prince Edward, Duke of Kent: Father of the Canadian Crown, explores the impact of the 1764 Treaty of Niagara on Canada’s history. While much less known to non-indigenous Canadians than the Royal Proclamation, this gathering of First Nations at Fort Niagara accompanied by a treaty symbolized by the Covenant Chain Wampum is viewed as the birth of modern Canada by the country’s first peoples.

The Queen at the Council Fire places an important emphasis on the role of language in these early treaties between the Crown and Canada’s first nations. The familial words employed in the treaties meant equality to the First Nations but subordination to the Europeans. There were also differences concerning the importance of the treaties. European negotiators often viewed the treaties as an endpoint in their relations with indigenous peoples while First Nations leaders viewed these documents as part of an ongoing, living relationship. The nature of the Crown itself changed over the course of the Treaty relationship. The development of responsible government and the modern Canadian constitutional monarchy from the eighteenth century to the present often conflicted with the personal relationship between monarch and First Peoples enshrined in the treaties.

In a chapter on “Building community, a model royal visit” Tidridge highlights the importance of the work of the Earl and Countess of Wessex in engaging with First Nations communities in Canada. The Queen’s youngest son and daughter-in-law visit Canada almost every year but their itineraries are privately funded “working visits” rather than higher profile “official visits” and therefore receive less media coverage. In September 2014, the Countess of Wessex visited Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug First Nation in Northern Ontario with a delegation of high profile women, spending the night on the reserve. The extended stay provided opportunities for shared experiences and extended engagement with the community.

The Queen at the Council Fire: The Treaty of Niagara, Reconciliation, and the Dignified Crown in Canada is a thoughtful examination of the relationship between the Crown and Canada’s First Nations. There are works of Canadian history that devote a single chapter to Canada’s First Nations and treat the monarchy as a relic of Canada’s past instead of a living institution. The Queen at the Council Fire instead places both the monarchy and First Nations history, language, culture and belief at the centre of Canada’s history, providing a framework for strengthening the vital relationship between the Crown and Canada’s First Peoples in the future.

Next week: Perfect Wives in Ideal Homes: The Story Of Women In The 1950’s by Virginia Nicholson

Friday Royal Read: The Exchange of Princesses by Chantal Thomas (Historical Fiction)

For centuries, Europe’s rulers sealed political alliances with dynastic marriages between their children. This practice was already criticized in the 16th century. The humanist philosopher Erasmus wrote in his 1516 treatise, Erasmus: The Education of a Christian Prince that these royal marriages did not bring peace. He observed that England and Scotland still went to war with each other after the marriage of Henry VIII’s sister Margaret Tudor and James IV of Scotland in 1503. Erasmus also remarked that the princesses themselves were unhappy about being “sent away to remote places” and “would be happier if they could live among their own people, even though with less pompous display.”

The princesses sent to these remote places also complained about their fate. In 1514, Isabella of Austria wrote to one of her sisters, “It is hard enough to marry a man…whom you do not know or love, and worse still to be required to leave home and kindred, and follow a stranger to the ends of the earth, without even being able to speak his language (Retha Warnicke, The Marrying of Anne of Cleves: Royal Protocol in Early Modern England, p. 3-4). Despite the shortcomings of dynastic marriage for both political stability and personal happiness, the practice continued into the nineteenth century and royalty were expected to marry other royalty until the First World War.

In France and Spain, the exchange of princesses was a tradition that lasted from 1559 until 1739. Both Louis XIII and Louis XIV married princesses from the Spanish branch of the House of Habsburg and Louis XV seemed destined to also make a Spanish match. In The Exchange of Princesses, historian and novelist Chantal Thomas, author of the novel, Farewell, My Queen and scholarly study, The Wicked Queen: The Origins of the Myth of Marie-Antoinette dramatizes an early eighteenth century exchange of princesses between France and Spain and the unhappiness that followed for the young princes and princesses involved.

Thomas excels at looking behind the glamorous facade of eighteenth century European royal courts. In Farewell, My Queen and the film based on the novel, Farewell My Queen / Les Adieux à la Reine, there were as many scenes set in the flea ridden servants’ quarters of Versailles as in Marie Antoinette’s elegant rooms at Petit Trianon. In The Exchange of Princesses, the princesses experience separation from their families, extreme discomfort traveling between France and Spain on muddy roads, unfamiliar customs when they reach their destinations and grotesque illnesses from measles to smallpox. The atmosphere of both courts and the eccentricities of the individual characters are vividly portrayed as neither match goes according to plan.

The style of the novel is unusual. Thomas focuses closely on the two royal couples brought together by the The Exchange of Princesses: King Louis XV of France and Mariana Victoria of Spain and Luis I of Spain and Louise Élisabeth d’Orléans. Mariana Victoria is between the ages of four and seven over the course of the novel and Louise Élisabeth is  gradually losing her mind and their perspectives therefore reflect extreme youth and mental illness respectively. Amidst the alternating stream of consciousness of these two princesses and the people who surround them are actual letters written by the historical figures involved in the The Exchange of Princesses, newspaper accounts from the period and the author’s own asides from her travels. While all this additional material provides interesting context and detail, it sometimes slows down the narrative and creates distance between the reader and the characters.

In The Exchange of Princesses, Thomas brings alive a little known episode in the history of France and Spain that was one of the last of a series of exchanges of its kind. Both Mariana Victoria and Louise Élisabeth were sent to remote places and may well have been happier if they had been permitted to remain among their own people with less pompous display.

Next Week: The Queen at the Council Fire: The Treaty of Niagara, Reconciliation, and the Dignified Crown in Canada by Nathan Tidridge

Magna Carta book signings and talks in Winnipeg August 14-16 2015

The Magna Carta Canada exhibition opens at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg on August 15.  I will be in Winnipeg from August 13 to 16 signing books and giving talks about impact of Magna Carta on history, politics and law. If you’re in Winnipeg, come to the McNally Robinson bookstore or the Canadian Museum of Human Rights for a book talk and signing!

Here’s my schedule:

Friday August 14 2015 7:00 pm: Speaking and Signing at McNally Robinson bookstore 

Saturday August 15 2015 2:00pm: “Magna Carta and the Modern World” lecture at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights

Sunday August 16 2015 2:00pm “Women and Magna Carta” lecture at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights

Click here to purchase the book:Magna Carta and Its Gifts to Canada: Democracy, Law, and Human Rights

CBC News Interview: Royal archives: What Canadian secrets might they reveal?

Princess Louise in Canada, dressed for an Ottawa winter.

Princess Louise in Canada

My most recent interview with Janet Davison at CBC news discusses the Royal Archives and Canadian history. The archives contain documents concerning Queen Victoria’s 4th daughter, Princess Louise that are currently inaccessible to researchers. These restrictions have fueled speculation that the Princess had a secret son before she married Lord Lorne, who was Governor General of Canada from 1878 to 1883.

I do not believe the rumors about Princess Louise’s personal life because she was present at Queen Victoria’s court and made public appearances during the period when the supposed pregnancy and birth took place. Nevertheless, this speculation has informed a recent popular biography of the Princess and contributed to interest in making the contents of the Royal Archives more accessible to researchers.

Click here to read “Royal archives: What Canadian secrets might they reveal?” at

For more on Princess Louise and her impact on the Canadian monarchy, see my book chapter, “Royalty at Rideau Hall: Lord Lorne, Princess Louise and the Emergence of the Canadian Crown” in Canada and the Crown: Essays on Constitutional Monarchy

Magna Carta And Its Gifts to Canada on Globe and Mail Bestseller List

My book, Magna Carta and Its Gifts to Canada: Democracy, Law, and Human Rights, is #7 on The Globe and Mail Canadian non-fiction bestseller list for August 1, 2015.

Click here to see The Canadian Non-Fiction Globe and Mail Bestseller List

Click here to purchase a copy of Magna Carta and Its Gifts to Canada: Democracy, Law, and Human Rights

Friday Royal Read: The Rival Queens by Nancy Goldstone

The religious upheaval of Tudor England is well known. The French Wars of Religion, which occurred while Queen Elizabeth I was on the throne, have received much less attention in popular histories and culture. At the centre of this conflict were two powerful royal women: Catherine de Medici, an Italian noblewoman who married King Henri II of France and served as regent for her son Charles IX, and Catherine’s daughter Marguerite “Margot” de Valois who was compelled to marry the Protestant King Henry of Navarre. Both queens shaped the religious and political climate of sixteenth century France. In The Rival Queens: Catherine de’ Medici, Her Daughter Marguerite de Valois, and the Betrayal that Ignited a Kingdom, Nancy Goldstone, author of The Maid and the Queen: The Secret History of Joan of Arc and Four Queens: The Provencal Sisters Who Ruled Europe brings these two influential women to life.

The Rival Queens begins powerfully with the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre of 1572, the event that defined the lives and reputations of both Catherine and Marguerite.  In the days following Marguerite’s wedding, thousands of Protestants were murdered by Catholics. Catherine de Medici appeared to be the instigator of the violence with Marguerite caught between the two factions. In popular culture, such as Alexander Dumas’s novel La Reine Margot and the film of the same name, Marguerite’s romances  are the focus but Goldstone reveals her sincere Roman Catholic religious faith, intellectual interests and political acumen. Her life was filled with narrow escapes, quick thinking and daring rescues and the The Rival Queens is most engaging when it is describing  her adventures in France and Navarre during the Wars of Religion.

While Marguerite emerges as a fully realized figure in The Rival Queens, Catherine de Medici does not receive the same nuanced treatment. Her childhood and decades of marriage to Henri II are summarized in a single chapter. This approach not only results in a hurried description of a fascinating period of Catherine’s life – the young Mary, Queen of Scots was raised alongside her children – but her complex motivations are simplified to resentment alone. While Goldstone is critical of how historians have reduced Marguerite to her personal life, she accepts much of the traditional depiction of Catherine de Medici as an unambiguous villain. For example, she describes Catherine’s “Flying Squadron” of beautiful ladies-in-waiting as her spies, encouraged to seduce unsuspecting male courtiers even though there is recent scholarship arguing that this interpretation is a legend that reflected male discomfort at the prominence of women at Catherine’s court.

The dramatic circumstances of Catherine’s and Marguerite’s lives unfolded in Renaissance France, amidst the Chateaux of the Loire Valley and the Louvre in Paris. Catherine de Medici seized the Chateau de Chenonceau from Henri II’s mistress Diane de Poitiers upon his death and it became a favoured royal residence. The images at the centre of the book, however, are all of historical figures and there only scattered descriptions of the opulent surroundings where royal events unfolded. More attention to the setting would have added depth and cultural context to the book.

The Rival Queens: Catherine de’ Medici, Her Daughter Marguerite de Valois, and the Betrayal that Ignited a Kingdom is an engaging introduction to the two most influential women of the French Wars of Religion. Marguerite de Valois emerges as a survivor and an unlikely heroine, saving her husband’s life multiple times then accepting an amicable annulment and settling down as an elder stateswoman in Henry IV’s Paris. In contrast, Catherine reached the zenith of her power as Charles IX’s regent then found herself unable to control her his successor, Henri III. Mother and daughter struggled for power in one the most tumultuous periods in France’s history and emerged as The Rival Queens.

Next Week: The Exchange of Princesses by Chantal Thomas (historical fiction)