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Royal History Q&A: Sara Cockerill, author of Eleanor of Castile: The Shadow Queen

Eleanor of Castile, consort to King Edward I of England, traveled further than most medieval queens, living in five different countries and going on crusade. She exerted political and cultural influence over the English court and was part of one of the most successful marriages in royal history. Despite her varied life, achievements and forceful personality, Eleanor of Castile is little known today. Sara Cockerill has written the first full length popular biography of this enigmatic medieval queen, Eleanor of Castile: The Shadow Queen. Here, Cockerill discusses how she discovered Eleanor of Castile and how she brought this little known queen out of the shadows:

Eleanor of Castile

Eleanor of Castile

Carolyn Harris: You have been researching Eleanor for Castile in your spare time for 10 years. How did you become interested in this particular queen?

Sara Cockerill: It was really via her husband, Edward I.  I had read the romantic Victorian accounts of Eleanor, and thought that, if they were true, it seemed a bit odd that Edward I should have been so devoted to her.  Then, as I started to read more about Edward, the odd bits of information that cropped up about Eleanor actually raised more questions than they answered.  As I started to delve into the material on Eleanor herself, I just got hooked, and started to think it was outrageous that no-one had written a biography of her for a general readership before.

Eleanor of Aquitaine's effigy in Fontevraud Abbey

Eleanor of Aquitaine’s effigy in Fontevraud Abbey

CH: Eleanor of Aquitaine is one of the most famous women in history but her descendant Eleanor of Castile is little known. Why is Edward I’s consort so obscure?

SC: Well, my own view is that this was entirely deliberate.  The English crown had passed through a very difficult period in the mid 1200’s during which a very assertive queen, Edward’s mother, Eleanor of Provence, had become so unpopular that the citizens of London made a bit of a stab at lynching her.  An overtly assertive queen was therefore never going to go down well – and an overtly assertive foreign queen, in a climate where “aliens” had become the target of much political hostility, still less so.

Edward I

Edward I

Edward and Eleanor therefore decided that it was best that she didn’t make her influence or her assertiveness too generally known. For public consumption she was simply the devoted queen who accompanied Edward everywhere.  Which of course was, usefully, a strand of the truth.  The fact that she was an intellectual powerhouse, whose business drove quite a lot of Edward’s movements around the country, was something people didn’t need to know – and would probably never work out.  The only hints at the truth came in contemporaneous letters and documents concerning the inquest into her property, first really considered in the nineteenth century, which showed that Eleanor ran a property empire – and ran it with an extremely firm hand.

CH: Agnes Strickland thought Eleanor was meek and retiring. Lisa Hilton thought she was bad tempered and unpleasant. Why are the few biographical sketches of Eleanor so different from each other? Who is the real Eleanor?

 Lives of the Queens of England from the Norman Conquest

Agnes Strickland, author of Lives of the Queens of England from the Norman Conquest

SC: Most certainly Hilton is nearer the mark than the Victorians who had Eleanor down as a bit of a sap – but I think she is also quite far from the truth.  The reason for the different views of Eleanor is really a succession of historical accidents.  The romantic side, fed by the survival of the Eleanor Crosses, came from some poetic exaggerations about Eleanor after her death – sometimes fueled by a political agenda.  The more modern view of Eleanor amongst scholars has equally been fueled by the fortuitous survival of the records concerning the inquest into the running of her properties after her death, and a few rather trenchant letters by the Archbishop of Canterbury about – again – her business practices.  Since these are rather negative, and make up the bulk of the surviving direct testimony, it is not surprising that a negative view of her developed.

The real woman that I have found is rather different.  She was a vibrant, energetic woman with many interests, and a woman who was considerate of those around her and generous to those she loved.  But at the same time, she was a very competent, successful businesswoman who very much disliked inefficiency, or being thwarted; and was capable of really letting rip when she was displeased.  All in all, I find her a very real, and surprisingly modern, figure.

The Queen Eleanor Cross at Northampton

The Queen Eleanor Cross at Northampton

CH: Edward I reissued the Magna Carta during his reign. Did your law background inform your research about Eleanor’s life and times?

SC: Yes and no.  I didn’t come to the story as a lawyer, looking for the legal spin.  However I did find things which resonated with me as a lawyer.  I found the legal aspect of the transition from dower to dowry and the treatment of dower fascinating – and revelatory. And the parallels between the Castilian approach to legal structures in resettling new territories and that adopted by Edward in Wales also struck me forcibly. But I think there is still much work to be done on looking to see if Eleanor’s fingerprints are to be seen in other aspects of Edward’s legislative programme.

CH: What’s the most surprising thing you learned about Eleanor of Castile?

SC: I’m tempted to say just how much more substantial and forceful a person she was than I expected; and that certainly was a big surprise.  I was ready to find that the woman who won Edward I’s devotion was no milk and water girl, but the sheer range of her accomplishments, her energy, her vibrancy, her force – that, I was not prepared for.  But actually really the most surprising thing to me in the end, was given that range of interests and achievements, how successfully she had kept the traces of this dynamism from public knowledge.  It is one of the reasons that I have called her “The Shadow Queen” – she has deliberately obscured herself and hidden out of sight, so that only glimpses of different aspects of her personality can be seen.

Westminster Abbey

Westminster Abbey

CH: Where did your research take you? To what degree did you follow in Eleanor’s footsteps?

SC: Sadly, with research having to be fitted around my job, I didn’t get to do the full tour of the places Eleanor knew from childhood, or follow her on crusade.  A number of her properties were familiar to me from holidays – and romantic weekends in the Cotswolds – and I had also visited a number of the Gascon venues as an Edward I fan.  Dover Castle and the properties in Kent are close by for me – I often cycle past Wallett’s Court, known to Eleanor as the manor of Westcliffe, and caught some great photos there just the other day.  Mostly, though, my research was confined to the British Library, with the occasional foray to the National Archives.  But I had a wonderful trip to pay homage at the surviving crosses, and I have paid a few visits to Eleanor at Westminster Abbey.

CH: What are your plans for future books?

SC: There is nothing absolutely firm yet, but I have a fairly substantial list of things which I would like to do.  One day I would like to know another medieval queen as well as I have go to know Eleanor.  But I am not planning to commit to another big biography quite yet – because I can’t work at it full time, I need to be very sure about a project of that size.

At the moment I’m looking at a rather shorter book concerning the development of knighthood and chivalry, showing the forces which brought it into being, and shaped it into what it became and also showcasing some amazing people and their stories as illustrations of those themes.  I got interested in the idea while writing about Eleanor.  I was very struck by the looming figures of William Marshal and Jean de Brienne who became respectively the greatest man in England and the King of Jerusalem and Emperor of Constantinople through their knightly prowess.  And Eleanor’s own contact with the institution showcases a number of aspects of the developing institution – the fading of the social mobility theme, alongside the changing nature and role of tournaments, the increasing Arthurian and literary links,  and also the administrative importance which the institution acquired, and which Edward and Eleanor promoted.  Whether I can pull it together in a way which will appeal to anyone but myself is the question, though!

Eleanor of Castile: The Shadow Queen” by Sara Cockerill is available now in bookstores and direct from Amberley Publishing. ISBN: 9781445635897 

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Royal Travelogue 4: The Queens Who Shaped Edinburgh’s Palace of Holyroodhouse

The Palace of Holyroodhouse

The Palace of Holyroodhouse

The Palace of Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh is Queen Elizabeth II’s official residence in Scotland. Every year, the Queen resides at the Castle for “Royal Week,” hosting garden parties on the Holyroodhouse grounds and inducting new members into the ancient Order of the Thistle. If Scotland votes to secede from the United Kingdom in September, the Queen’s successor may have a separate Scottish coronation at Edinburgh’s St. Giles Cathedral.

The Queen has a close affinity for Scotland. She spent her childhood summers visiting both sets of grandparents there: King George V and Queen Mary at Balmoral and the Earl and Countess of Strathmore at Glamis Castle. Elizabeth II is not the only Queen who has made her mark on the Palace of Holyroodhouse. Here are 5 Scottish and English queens who contributed to the development of the modern palace:

The ruins of Holyrood Abbey

The ruins of Holyrood Abbey

1) St. Margaret (1045-1093) Malcolm III’s queen, Margaret, chose Edinburgh as Scotland’s capital, persuading her husband to move his court there from Dunfermline. Margaret was renowned for her piety and education and transformed the Scottish court into a centre of learning. One of the holy relics in her possession was a fragment of the “holy rood” or true cross. In 1128, Margaret’s son, David I, founded Holyrood Abbey to house the relic.

2) Margaret Tudor (1489-1541) When James IV negotiated his marriage to Henry VII’s elder daughter, Margaret, he decided to transform to royal apartments at Holyrood Abbey into a Renaissance Palace between 1501 and 1505. James IV was well versed in history and spoke multiple languages. The construction of  the Palace of Holyroodhouse was intended to impress the King’s English bride and proclaim to the world the Scottish court was the equal of other European royal establishments.

1833 artist's depiction of the murder of David Rizzio in 1566

1833 artist’s depiction of the murder of David Rizzio in 1566

3) Mary, Queen of Scots (1542-1587) When Mary, Queen of Scots returned to Scotland from France in 1561 at the age of eighteen, she introduced French style decorations to her apartments in Holyroodhouse. Mary spent her youth in France as the future wife of King Francois II and found Holyroodhouse shabby in comparison to the Louvre and the Chateaux of the Loire Valley. In 1566, a heavily pregnant Mary, Queen of Scots witnessed the murder of her secretary, David Rizzio, in her private apartments at Holyroodhouse by a faction of Scottish nobles led by her second husband, Lord Darnley. After the murder, Mary left Holyroodhouse and gave birth to the future King James VI of Scotland/James I of England at Edinburgh Castle.

Holyroodhouse Gardens, where the Queen hosts Scottish garden parties today.

Holyroodhouse Gardens, where the Queen hosts Scottish garden parties today.

4) Catherine of Braganza (1638-1705) Charles II’s Portuguese queen, Catherine of Braganza, never visited the Palace of Holyroodhouse. Following the restoration of the English and Scottish monarchies in 1660, however, Charles II ordered extensive improvements to the palace for himself and his bride including new apartments for the queen. The King appointed architect Sir William Bruce to oversee additions to the palace including the modern quadrangle. Catherine also had a strong cultural impact on Britain - she popularized tea drinking at a time when coffee was the preferred beverage of the aristocracy.

5) Queen Victoria (1819-1901) Queen Victoria discovered Scottish culture through the novels of Sir Walter Scott and developed a strong affinity for Scotland. While her predecessors largely neglected Holyroodhouse, Victoria spent part of her year in Scotland, attending official engagements in Edinburgh and holidaying at her private residence, Balmoral. While in Scotland, Victoria immersed herself in Scottish culture, dressing her children in tartans, listening to readings of Robert Burns poems and even assuming a Scottish accent. The relationship between the monarchy and Scotland has remained close since Victoria’s reign.

Further Reading on the Palace of Holyroodhouse, Scotland’s Palaces and Scottish Monarchs

History:

Elizabeth Patricia Dennison, Holyrood and Canongate: A Thousand Years of History
John Dunbar, Scottish Royal Palaces: The Architecture of the Royal Residences During the Late Medieval and Early Renaissance Periods

John Guy, Queen of Scots: Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart

Historical Fiction:

Sir Walter Scott, Waverley

Nigel Tranter, Robert the Bruce Trilogy

Jean Plaidy, The Thistle And The Rose

ReayTannahil, Fatal Majesty: A Novel of Mary Queen of Scots

Next: The Investiture of Prince Charles at Caernarfon Castle in Wales

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Friday Royal Read: Queen Anne: Patroness of Arts by James Anderson Winn

Queen Anne (r. 1702-1714) has gone down in history as one of England’s most mediocre reigning queens. She is neither remembered as one of the great monarchs like Elizabeth I, Victoria or Elizabeth II nor as a villain like “Bloody” Mary I. Between these extremes, Anne appears to have been an ordinary woman in an extraordinary position. She enjoyed eating, drinking and playing cards. She had a close relationship with her husband Prince George of Denmark, and spent hours each day with her various female friends including Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough and Abigail Masham. Like numerous other eighteenth century women, Anne mourned the deaths of many children in infancy and a beloved eleven year old son.

In Queen Anne: Patroness of Arts, Professor James Anderson Winn, author of The Poetry of War and John Dryden and His World, argues that history has underestimated Queen Anne. She may not have received a classical education in the manner of Elizabeth I or Mary, Queen of Scots but she played the harpsichord and guitar, danced and performed in court theatricals, promoted the opera, spoke fluent French, quoted poetry from memory, appreciated architecture and painting and mastered political oratory. Since Anne’s brother-in-law, King William III, had little interest in artists or musicians, Anne’s court became a cultural centre while she was still heir to the throne and she remained an influential patron as Queen.

As England’s third constitutional monarch since the Glorious Revolution of 1688, Anne ushered in key elements of the modern monarchy. George III and Queen Charlotte are often credited with beginning the “welfare monarchy” focused on philanthropy (see Royal Bounty by Frank Prochaska) but Winn provides evidence that Anne was also cast in this role. When the Queen visited Oxford University in 1702, eighteen year old Simon Harcourt, son of the Solicitor General, recited a welcome poem that declared, “These happy Walls by Royal Bounty plac’d/Often with Royal Presence have been Grac’d.” His words emphasized Anne’s role as a patron and benefactor of England’s cultural and intellectual institutions.

Throughout her reign, Anne demonstrated a keen awareness of popular opinion similar to that of Elizabeth II today. When parliament voted to award her the same annual income enjoyed by William III, £700,000, she returned £100,000 to the treasury, stating that “while her subjects remain’d under the Burden of such great Taxes, she would straighten her self in own Expences, rather than not contribute all she could to their Ease and Relief.” The current Queen’s decision to pay income taxes and reduce her own expenses over the course of her reign follows a long tradition.

Despite her personal frugality, Anne had strong feelings about proper upkeep of royal residences. Today, there is popular debate over the cost of renovations to the Kensington Palace apartment of William and Catherine, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. During Queen Anne’s reign, the monarch sought to restore the Kensington Palace gardens, which had been neglected by William III. Anne’s presentation of herself to the public as “entirely English” with an understanding of how English gardens should be maintained, in contrast to her Dutch predecessor, contributed to public support for this expensive landscaping project.

While Anne appears modern in her philanthropy, cultural patronage, economies and interest in popular opinion, her active involvement in party politics demonstrate how much the constitutional monarchy has changed since the early eighteenth century. The Queen was a staunch Tory, which contributed to the breakdown of her decades long friendship with the Duchess of Marlborough, who tactlessly encouraged her to support the Whigs. Anne was also the last monarch to refuse royal assent to a piece of legislation. The Act of Union between England and Scotland in 1707 required the Queen’s active participation as she sent letters to the Scottish parliament advocating a united Great Britain.

Queen Anne: Patroness of Arts is much more than a fascinating study of the Queen’s cultural patronage and inspiration to early eighteenth century artists. Winn restores Anne to her rightful place in British political history, revealing her contributions to the creation of the modern constitutional monarchy and the unification of Great Britain.  As Anne herself once said, “Whoever of the whigs thinks I am to be Heckter’d or frighted into a complyance tho I am a woman, are mightily mistaken in me.” Readers of Queen Anne: Patroness of Arts will never underestimate Queen Anne again.

Next Friday Royal Read: The Once and Future King: The Rise of Crown Government in America by F. H. Buckley

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Friday Royal Read: John Buchan: Model Governor General by J. William Galbraith

John Buchan was a Scottish journalist, novelist and Member of Parliament. He is most famous for writing the thriller, The Thirty-Nine Steps, which inspired a 1935 Alfred Hitchcock film. Lord Tweedsmuir was Canada’s fifteenth Governor General since Confederation and the first to be appointed after the 1931 Statute of Westminster granted Canada and the other Dominions legislative equality with the United Kingdom. Tweedsmuir’s five year tenure as Governor General from 1935 to 1940 encompassed key events in Canada’s history including the Abdication of King Edward VIII in 1936, the 1939 tour of Canada by King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, and the outbreak of the Second World War.

There are many who are unaware that Buchan and Tweedsmuir were the same person and that his time in office served as a model for subsequent Governors General. The monarch’s representatives in Canada prior to the Second World War are sometimes treated as interchangeable British political figures despite their distinct approaches to the office. In John Buchan: Model Governor General, J William Galbraith, council member of the John Buchan society, analyzes Buchan’s profound impact on Canadian history and lasting influence on the office of Governor General in Canada.

Galbraith’s study of Buchan’s tenure as Governor General provides reveals Canada’s role behind the scenes of key royal events of the late 1930s. The Abdication Crisis of 1936 had an international dimension as there was evidence that the Dominions would not accept the twice divorced Wallis Simpson as Edward VIII’s consort and queen. As Prince of Wales, the future Edward VIII was an extremely popular figure in Canada and owned a ranch in Alberta. Buchan interpreted Canadian popular opinion for Edward VIII’s private secretary though he stated it would be, “improper for me to have any view.” Buchan also played a key role in the organization of the 1939 royal tour though he appeared to fade into the background when George VI and Queen Elizabeth were on Canadian soil.

In contrast to past narrative biographies of Buchan, Galbraith focuses almost exclusively on the Canada years and adopts a thematic approach to his five years in office. This structure highlights key aspects of Buchan’s time as Governor General such as his patronage of the arts and extensive travels across Canada. In a few instances, however, the thematic chapters fragment contiguous historical events. For example, there is entire chapter devoted to George VI’s and Queen Elizabeth’s 1939 tour of Canada but their subsequent visit to the United States is covered in a subsequent chapter about Buchan’s role as an intermediary between Great Britain and America. The close focus on Buchan also means that readers must look elsewhere for detailed biographical information on the key figures who influenced Buchan and Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King, such as political power broker Violet Markham.

John Buchan: Model Governor General restores Buchan to his rightful place in Canadian history. In the foreword,  Canada’s current Governor General, His Excellent the Right Honourable David Johnston states, “John Buchan quietly established a new model for the position of Governor General. His considerable impact on Canada has not been fully recognized.” Galbraith’s book reveal’s the full extent of Buchan’s political and cultural influence on Canada.

Next Friday Royal Read: Queen Anne: Patroness of Arts by James Anderson Winn

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Weekend Royal News Roundup: Prince William Celebrates His 32nd birthday and June 28th is the 100th anniversary of the Assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand

The Duke of Cambridge

The Duke of Cambridge

1) The Duke of Cambridge (Prince William) celebrated his 32nd birthday today, his first since the birth of his son, Prince George of Cambridge. Media outlets in the UK and Canada reported that the second-in-line to the throne received an expensive helicopter from the Queen as a birthday present.

The History: There are number of issues with articles such as the CBC’s “Prince William gets $11M helicopter from Queen on his birthday.” Due to the timing of the helicopter lease and William’s past experience as a Search and Rescue Pilot, the acquisition has been presented as a private “birthday present” from the Queen to her grandson. The helicopter has in fact been leased to assist a number of members of the royal family with their duties. Royal transport acquisitions often prompt popular controversy because their perceived expense to the taxpayer but income for equipment that helps members of the royal family carry out their duties comes from a separate Sovereign Grant.

King George III in his coronation robes

King George III in his coronation robes

In 1760, King George III placed the Crown Lands under the administration of his government, with the exception of the Duchy of Lancaster, which provides for the sovereign’s personal expenses and the Duchy of Cornwall, which provides the income for the heir to the throne. George III’s government returned a portion of the income from the Crown Lands to the KIng to cover the expenses incurred by royal duties. This arrangement is the origin of the Civil List, which governed the monarch’s working expenses until the Sovereign Grant Act of 2011.

The 2011 reforms replaced four individual grants to the sovereign, The Civil List, The Grant-in-Aid for Royal Travel, The Grant-in-Aid for Communications and Information and The Grant-in-Aid for the Maintenance of the Royal Palaces, with a single grant from the Crown Lands, initially set at 15% of the annual income from these properties. Any implication that the taxpayer is directly responsible for expenses incurred my members of the royal family undertaking their duties is therefore inaccurate. Income for the original Crown Lands covers the expenses incurred by royal engagements.

For more of my writing on royal finances, see my 2013 article for Bloomberg View, “How Big an Inheritance Awaits Kate and William’s Baby?”

Archduke Franz Ferdinand his wife Sophie and their three children.

Archduke Franz Ferdinand his wife Sophie and their three children.

2) June 28 is the 100th anniversary of the Assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and his wife Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg in Sarajevo. This event which contributed to the outbreak of the First World War. 

The History: On June 28, 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire and his wife Sophie were assassinated by Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip in Sarajevo. This event was one of the catalysts for the First World War yet the victims of the assassination are little known today beyond the circumstances of their deaths.

There are numerous reasons for the comparative obscurity of Franz Ferdinand and Sophie as historical figures. The political entity that they represented, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, collapsed during the First World War. In contrast to the 1963 Kennedy assassination and the murder of Russia’s last Imperial family in 1918, there were no mysteries about the perpetrators or possible survivors respectively to capture the popular imagination. Most significantly, the public has little sense of who Franz Ferdinand and Sophie were as people because they usually appear in the history books just in time for their assassination.

Archduke Franz Ferdinand

Archduke Franz Ferdinand

New books commemorating the centenary of the First World War are bringing Franz Ferdinand and his family out of the shadows. The War That Ended Peace by Margaret Macmillan discusses Franz Ferdinand’s hopes for achieving peace in Europe. His assassination eliminated a key political figure that might have steered Austria-Hungary toward a more moderate course. The most recent biography of Franz Ferdinand and Sophie, The Assassination of the Archduke by Greg King and Sue Woolmans presents Franz Ferdinand as a romantic determined to marry Sophie against the wishes of the court and a political visionary, who hoped to recreate the Hapsburg Empire as a federation of equal states, inspired by his travels across North America. The centenary of WWI is  bringing the lives of Franz Ferdinand, Sophie and their children out of the shadows revealing their full historical significance beyond the 1914 assassination.

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Friday Royal Read: Hereward by Peter Rex

The Norman Conquest did not end with William the Conqueror’s victory at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. There was an older vision of England that remained stubbornly persistent in the decade following the coronation of William I in Westminster Abbey. During the reign of King Canute (1016-1035), England was part of a vast Anglo-Scandinavian Empire, ruled by the same monarch as Sweden, Norway and Denmark. There was an Anglo-Danish elite with a vested interest in the connections between Saxon England and Scandinavia rather than a new Norman regime. In Hereward, the late Peter Rex, author of William the Conqueror: The Bastard of Normandy, The English Resistance and Edward the Confessor reconstructs the life and rebellion of Hereward, who led the best known rebellion against William the Conqueror.

Source material for Hereward’s life beyond the revolt on the Isle of Ely in 1071 is fragmentary. The first line of the book is, “While it is not possible to produce a full biography of the Lincolnshire thegn called Hereward, the main threads of his career can be recovered, at least in outline.” Nevertheless, Rex reaches informed conclusions about who Hereward was and who he was not. There is no evidence that  the outlaw known as Hereward was the son of Leofric, Earl of Mercia and the famous Lady Godiva and therefore a descendant of Alfred the Great. There is also no evidence that Hereward had surviving children despite unsubstantiated claims that the Wakes are descendants in the female line and the Harwoods are descendants in the male line.  Rex argues that that Hereward’s patrimony and lineage were inflated by early chroniclers and later novelists to make him seem a more worthy adversary for a King.

Instead, Hereward appears to have been from a comparatively modest gentry family, an Abbot’s nephew who spent time gaining military experience in Flanders before leading his rebellion. The most dramatic chapters of the book concern the rise and breakdown of Hereward’s insurrection. Hereward counted on Danish support to reverse the Norman Conquest and bring back the Anglo-Scandinavian world of his youth Instead, the Danes abandoned him and he held the Island of Ely with the support of northern Earls before a final defeat and flight from the Normans. The struggle between William and Hereward became personal as the outlaw came to personify the Saxon resistence that the Conqueror was determined to crush at all costs.

As a Harwood descendant, I was disappointed to learn from Hereward that I am probably not descended from Hereward “the Wake,” let alone Alfred the Great. There are many questions about William the Conqueror’s best known English adversary that will always remain unanswered. Rex provides the most complete and accurate account of Hereward’s life and rebellion to date and sheds light on a different path that English history could have taken. If the Danes had supported Hereward and his rebellion had been successful, Scandinavia might have shaped England’s political future and language. A lasting Norman Conquest was only one of many possible outcomes in the aftermath of 1066.

Next week: John Buchan: Model Governor General by J. William Galbraith

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Friday Royal Read: The Romanov Sisters by Helen Rappaport

The last Imperial family of Russia are one of the best documented families in history. Czar Nicholas II, his wife Empress Alexandra, their four daughters, Grand Duchesses Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia and their son, Grand Duke Alexei lived at a time when photography and newsreels captured the royal image and they all kept diaries and wrote numerous letters. The Russian Revolutions of 1917 and the murder of the entire family in 1918 resulted in an exodus of courtiers from Russia who wrote books about their time with the Romanovs.

Despite all these sources, the distinct personalities and achievements of Nicholas and Alexandra’s daughters are little known. In official photographs, the Grand Duchesses dresses alike, appearing interchangeable in public. Their murder when the eldest was twenty-two and the youngest was seventeen resulted in the public viewing them collectively as “the children” or martyrs rather than as individuals. In The Romanov Sisters: The Lost Lives of the Daughters of Nicholas and Alexandra, Helen Rappaport, author of The Last Days of the Romanovs: Tragedy at Ekaterinburg, Conspirator: Lenin in Exile and A Magnificent Obsession: Victoria, Albert, and the Death That Changed the British Monarchy, reconstructs the lives Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia led behind palace walls.

Books about the Grand Duchesses are often dominated by their last days, deaths and the numerous claimants who captured the popular imagination. Rappaport keeps the focus firmly on the young women’s lives. (Readers interested in their deaths should consult her previous book, The Last Days of the Romanovs: Tragedy at Ekaterinburg). There is plenty of material from newspapers, letters and diaries revealing how the four young women were viewed during their lives.

Alexandra may have hoped to shield her daughters from what she perceived as the corrupting influence of court society but society was intensely curious about them. The years leading up to the First World War saw intense speculation about the princes they would marry and the potential for change to Russia’s semi-Salic succession laws.  The Grand Duchesses’ writings reveal that they had their own, more modest goals. Olga confided to a friend during the war that she hoped, “To get married, live always in the countryside summer and winter, always mix with good people, and no officialdom whatsoever.”

The most fascinating chapters of Rappaport’s book cover the war years because these sections reveal the full scope of the Grand Duchesses’s war work and impact on Russia. Like other young women of their social station, Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia found leadership opportunities during wartime that expanded their horizons. While other works on the Romanovs focus on how Olga and Tatiana trained as nurses alongside their mother, Rappaport also looks at their committee work and fundraising opportunities in detail. Tatiana, in particular, excelled at these activities. She chaired a committee for the aid of displaced refugees, wrote a newspaper article to increase awareness of this issue, collected donations from an international array of donors and did administrative work for her charities.

Rappaport devotes much of the first third of the book to Alexandra’s upbringing and the influence she had over her daughters. While this material is crucial to understanding the worldview of the Grand Duchesses, more material on Nicholas II’s childhood would have been useful here. The last Czar was an involved father who spent a great deal of time with his daughters and was undoubtedly also a strong influence over their lives.

The Romanov Sisters: The Lost Lives of the Daughters of Nicholas and Alexandra restores the individuality of Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia. They were among the most famous royal personages of their early twentieth century and continue to fascinate people around the world today. Rappaport has written the definitive biography of four young women who made a profound impact on their family and country during their short lives.

Next Week: Hereward: The English Outlaw who Rebelled Against William the Conqueror by Peter Rex

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Friday Royal Read: Censoring Queen Victoria by Yvonne Ward

There is a famous portrait of Queen Victoria and her ministers on the day of her accession in 1837. In “Victoria holding a Privy Council meeting,” Sir David Wilkie depicted Victoria as a childlike young woman in white, surrounded by her older, more experienced ministers in dark suits and dress uniforms. The eighteen year old Queen appears ready to be instructed in the business of government by the elder statesmen. The published volumes of the Queen’s correspondence, edited by Viscount Esher and Arthur Benson, seem to confirm the impression created by Wilkie’s art. Just as the painting is not entirely accurate – the new Queen was actually wearing black to mourn the passing of her uncle, King William IV – the edited correspondence presents a distorted portrait of the Queen’s reign. In Censoring Queen Victoria, Yvonne Ward demonstrates how Esher and Benson shaped the Queen’s image, influencing generations of her biographers.

Victoria holding a Privy Council meeting by Sir David Wilkie

The censorship imposed on Queen Victoria’s journals is well known: her youngest daughter, Princess Beatrice rewrote most of the entries and destroyed the originals. The choices made by Esher and Benson in the publication of selections from the Queen’s correspondence are more obscure. Ward convincingly argues that some of Victoria’s most influential biographers treated the published letters as representative first hand sources without considering what was missing.  After biographical chapters on Esher and Benson, Ward turns to analysis of the Queen’s original letters, in the Royal Archives at Windsor Castle, revealing how much the editors omitted from their final publication.

Ward demonstrates that Benson and Esher had little interest in “women’s business.” The depiction of Victoria in Wilkie’s painting as a lone female political figure surrounded by powerful men suited the worldview of the editors. The full range of the Queen’s correspondence, however, reveals that Victoria had numerous female friends and relatives who influenced her decisions. She reached out to other female political figures in her correspondence, most notably Queen Maria II of Portugal. Since Edwardian mores did not allow for the publication of letters discussing pregnancy and childbirth, Victoria’s experiences as a mother were equally censored for public consumption.

Esher and Benson also concealed the full scope of Victoria’s activities as a political figure. In addition to their own biases and Edwardian views of respectability, Benson and Esher also had to contend with the expectations of King Edward VII. The King was not a prolific reader and the editors knew it was unlikely that he would read the full volumes of edited correspondence before publication. Benson and Esher therefore attempted to anticipate the King’s concerns. Since Edward VII was content to be a comparatively impartial constitutional monarch within Britain, the editors omitted letters that revealed the full extent of Victoria’s political opinions and actions as Queen. Victoria the monarch, like Victoria the mother was obscured by the scope of the published correspondence.

Censoring Queen Victoria is fascinating look at the real Queen Victoria and her editors. 113 years after the Queen’s death, the last word on the longest reigning British monarch has yet to be written.

Next week’s Friday Royal Read: The Romanov Sisters by Helen Rappaport

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A King’s Ransom by Sharon Kay Penman (Historical Fiction Review)

King Richard I “the Lionhearted” is rarely the main character in the story of his capture during his return from the Third Crusade, ransom and fight to maintain his Anglo-French empire during his last years. In the Robin Hood tales, Richard is significant because of his absence. While he languished in the Holy Roman Emperor’s custody, his brother John and King Philippe II of France schemed to divide up his domains, allowing the legendary Robin to distinguish himself through his loyalty to the King. In any historical fiction set in England during Richard’s reign, the King is an absentee monarch because he only spent six months on England soil during his reign. In A King’s Ransom, the sequel to Lionheart, bestselling historical novelist Sharon Kay Penman places Richard at the centre of events, imagining how his imprisonment and ransom changed him as a monarch and a man, affecting his family, household and the history of medieval Europe.

In her author’s note, Penman describes Lionheart, her novel of the Third Crusade, as Richard’s Iliad while A King’s Ransom is Richard’s Odyssey, consumed by his struggle to return home. The novel opens with Richard on the run across Europe and the Mediterranean, hunted by Holy Roman Emperor Heinrich and his vassals in Germany and Austria in addition to Philippe and his allies. All of these rulers emerge as distinct villains. There is Heinrich, a cold and merciless ruler determined to extract the greatest profit from Richard’s capture, Philippe, who nurses a personal grudge against the English King and opportunistic and ineffectual Prince John. The novel maintains a dramatic pace as Richard is forced to contend with all these powerful figures who have few common goals beyond a desire to keep him from his lands and wealth by any means necessary.

Richard’s larger than life historical reputation as  a crusading King often means that he appears in fiction as one dimensional figure. Penman’s Richard is a multifaceted person with a sarcastic sense of humour, a keen sense of honour and the ability to inspire loyalty in followers of all backgrounds. In A King’s Ransom, his imprisonment has a profound impact on his character, ensuring that he returns from crusade as a very different man and King than when he left.

In his travels across Europe, Richard encounters a diverse array of rulers and their interconnected families. Penman does an excellent job of making all these princes, princesses, duke and duchesses, counts and countesses distinct individuals, even in the scenes at the Holy Roman Emperor’s court, which feature numerous German Princes named variations of Heinrich. (There is a cast of characters at the front of the book). As in Penman’s previous novels, little known historical figures emerge as compelling personalities. The portrayal of the friendship between Richard’s sister, Joanna and his neglected queen consort, Berengeria, is particularly compelling. Most of the medieval women who inspire historical novels are larger than life figures such as Richard’s mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine. Penman’s Berengeria is a pious, conventional medieval woman but she emerges  in both A King’s Ransom and Lionheart as a complex personality with “steel in her spine.”

I have enjoyed Penman’s novels since reading The Sunne In Splendour: A Novel of Richard III when I was seventeen. Penman’s Welsh Princes trilogy, Here Be Dragons, Falls the Shadow and The Reckoning is some of the best historical fiction ever written. Perhaps because Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine have already been the subject of countless novels and films, I found the early volumes of Penman’s Plantagenet series to be less compelling. With Lionheart and A King’s Ransom, Penman is once again writing some the best historical fiction published today. A King’s Ransom is the best historical novel I have read all year and I cannot recommend it highly enough.

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Empress of the Night: A Novel of Catherine the Great by Eva Stachniak (Historical Fiction Review)

Since the publication of Philippa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl in 2001, the Tudors have dominated English language popular historical fiction. In addition to novels about Henry VIII and his wives, children and parents, obscure figures from the Tudor court have captured the imagination of novelists. Even Henry VIII’s confectioner is a main character in a historical novel, Suzannah Dunn’s The Queen Of Subtleties: A Novel of Anne Boleyn. The publication of Eva Stachniak’s first novel of Catherine the Great, The Winter Palace, reminded historical fiction readers that the Tudors do not have a monopoly on court intrigue and spectacle. In the The Winter Palace, Stachniak told the story of German Princess Sophia of Anhalt-Zerbst’s unlikely path to the Russian throne as Catherine the Great through the eyes of her watchful servant, Varvara. Empress of the Night imagines Catherine as a mature ruler.

Readers expecting a conventional sequel to The Winter Palace will be disappointed by Empress of the Night. Stachniak does not resume Catherine’s story in the aftermath of the military coup that made her Empress but in her dying hours. Following a stroke, Catherine looks back on her life and reign. The last third of the novel covers the drama of the last year of Catherine’s life, including her desire to disinherit her unstable son, Paul, her attempts to secure a prestigious royal marriage for her eldest granddaughter, Alexandrine, and her relationship with her final lover, the young Platon Zubov. Stachniak’s  evocative writing shows the tensions within Catherine’s family and court.

While Catherine’s last months and hours unfold in rich detail, earlier periods of her life and reign pass by too quickly in the novel. While swift progress through Catherine’s life before becoming Empress makes sense because this material is covered in The Winter Palace, Catherine’s early reign does not receive enough attention. The creation of her law code takes place over a few pages and the aquisition of her famous art collection is alluded to in short scenes. Stachniak’s talents as a writer ensure that each of Catherine’s favourites emerges as a distinct personality but they seem to come and go at a dizzying pace before her last year.

Stachniak’s Catherine is steeped in Russian folk proverbs from her time learning the language and constantly struggles with conflicts between passion and power.  This interpretation of Catherine’s character evokes the complexities of eighteenth century Russia but does not do the historical Empress justice. In the novel, Catherine refers to her love of reading but does not mention, much less quote, her favourite French Enlightenment philosophers such as Diderot, Voltaire and Montesquieu. There is little sense of Catherine’s place among eighteenth century Europe’s Enlightened despots beyond Austrian Emperor Joseph II’s visit to Russia.

Empress of the Night provides an engaging portrait of Catherine’s Russia and her last year. Stachniak’s first novel, The Winter Palace, however, provided a stronger imagining of Catherine’s character. Her early reign passes by too fast in Empress of the Night to reveal her evolution from enlightened despot to determined reactionary in her final years. Both Stachniak’s novels reveal that Catherine’s Russia is an ideal setting for historical fiction. Hopefully, there will be many more Imperial Russian historical novels to come.

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