Category Archives: Royal History

Tales from the Royal Bedchamber: Sunday December 21 at 8pm ET on PBS

Lucy Worsley When Victoria became Queen in 1837, she shut the door of the royal bedchamber to the public. The government officials who traditionally attended royal births were relegated to the adjoining room while only the Queen’s consort, Prince Albert, and medical staff were permitted in the bedchamber for the arrival of the royal children. The Queen observed a strict separation between her public life and her domestic life. In Tales from the Royal Bedchamber,  Dr. Lucy Worsley, chief curator at Historic Royal Palaces, reveals that the monarch’s bedchamber was a ceremonial space in Tudor and Stuart times where proximity to the monarch meant proximity to political power.

Worsley presents the history of the English royal bedchamber with enthusiasm and energy. She climbs into beds to test just how comfortable they were, showing that it was impossible to lie entirely flat on a hammock-like, collapsible  medieval royal bed frame. She also tries her hand at silk weaving. Sitting on the edge of royal beds, Worsley has interesting discussions about royal marriage, mistresses and childbearing with a broad range of fellow curators, historians and authors such as Anna Whitelock, Tracy Borman and Helen Rappaport.

Perhaps the most engaging part of the documentary is Worsley’s description of the rumours that the son of James II and Mary of Modena, born in 1688, was a “warming pan baby” smuggled into the Queen’s bed to replace a stillborn child. Worsley shows viewers a warming pan, an early form of hot water bottle that was too small to hold a baby,  draws the supposed route the warming pan took through state rooms to the royal bedchamber and describes the crowd that witnessed the actual birth. The warming pan baby story was a convenient fiction to justify the Glorious Revolution&accession of William III and Mary II.

Since Worsley is chief curator at Historic Royal Palaces, much of the documentary is filmed in royal bedchambers of the Tower of London, Hampton Court and Kensington Palace. There is also a visit to the Isle of Wight to view the memorial to Queen Victoria in the private bedchamber where she died at Osborne House. If the program were longer, a trip across the channel to Versailles would have shown the origins of certain late seventeenth century English court practices. It is no coincidence that the late Stuart monarchs commissioned elaborate state beds after the Restoration of the English monarchy in 1660. Charles II was first cousin to Louis XIV  and spent part of his exile in France, observing the elaborate ceremonies that took place when the King rose from his bed in the morning or retired in the evening.

Tales from the Royal Bedchamber is a look behind the royal bed curtains of centuries past. Before Queen Victoria shut the door, the whole court thought they had the right to know exactly what took place in the royal bed. The modern fascination with the private life of the royal family is as old as monarchy itself.

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My latest Ottawa Citizen column: “The Queen’s reign doesn’t depend on Richard III’s DNA”

The earliest surviving portrait of King Richard III
The earliest surviving portrait of King Richard III

“The remains of King Richard III continue to yield new information about one of England’s most controversial kings and his family. DNA analysis reveals that Richard’s bones share mitochondrial DNA, which is passed through the female line with the Canadian Ibsen family, but there is no genetic match with his male line relatives. The release of these findings has prompted speculation about the Queen’s right to reign if there was a break in the main royal bloodline. The royal succession, however, was not always determined by seniority in the royal family….”

Click here to read the full column in the Ottawa Citizen: “The Queen’s Reign Doesn’t Depend on Richard III’s DNA”

Curious to learn more about the life and legacy of King Richard III? My University of Toronto School of Continuing Studies course “Richard III: Monstrous or Misunderstood?” begins January 7, 2015. Click here to register!

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CBC Interview: Royals or Celebrities? Prince William and Kate Take Manhattan

The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge at a Gala in honour of the 2012 Summer Olympics in London
The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge at a Gala in honour of the 2012 Summer Olympics in London

The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge arrived in New York City today for a three day American visit that focuses on philanthropy including endangered species conservation and fundraising for the University of St. Andrew’s at a gala dinner at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Although the United States is not a monarchy, royalty have received a warm welcome there since Queen Victoria’s eldest son, Albert Edward (the future Edward VII) toured in 1860. I discussed the history of royal philanthropy and royal visits to the United States with CBC.ca

Click here to read “Royals or Celebrities? Prince William and Kate Take Manhattan.”

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My Perspective on Magna Carta in Insights on Law and Society Magazine

Runnymede Meadow where King John reluctantly accepted Magna Carta in 1215
Runnymede Meadow where King John reluctantly accepted Magna Carta in 1215

The Fall 2014 edition of Insights on Law and Society, the Magazine published by the American Bar Association for teachers of civics, history and government and the law, is devoted to the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta. I share my perspective on the historical significance of the famous charter in this issue.

Click here to read the Perspectives on Magna Carta feature in Insights on Law and Society Magazine.

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Toronto Star Interview: Shabby Toronto apartment was once home to Russia’s Grand Duchess Olga

Grand Duchess Olga painting in her Cooksville home
Grand Duchess Olga during her last years in Canada

Grand Duchess Olga, younger sister of Russia’s last Czar, Nicholas II, lived in Canada from 1948 until her death in 1960. Olga’s last home in Toronto has recently gone up for sale, demonstrating the changes she experienced over the course of her life, from her birth at the Peterhof Palace outside St. Petersburg, to her last months in a Toronto apartment.

I am quoted in an article about Grand Duchess Olga’s time in Canada in today’s Toronto Star. Click here to read “Shabby Toronto apartment was once home to Russia’s Grand Duchess Olga

For more on Grand Duchess Olga, see my article on this site, “From St. Petersburg to Toronto: The Life of Grand Duchess Olga Alexandrovna”

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CBC Interview: Royal visit: Princess Anne’s Ottawa tour will honour ‘everyday heroes’

Princess Anne
Princess Anne

Princess Anne will pay an official visit to Ottawa on November 10 and 11 to mark Remembrance Day. I discussed the history and significance of Princess Anne’s visits to Canada with Janet Davision of CBC.ca.

Click here to read “Royal visit: Princess Anne’s Ottawa tour will honour ‘everyday heroes'” at CBC.ca 

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My forthcoming book “Magna Carta and Its Gifts to Canada” is available for pre-order

My forthcoming book, Magna Carta and Its Gifts to Canada: Democracy, Law, and Human Rights is available for pre-order on Amazon. The book will be published by Dundurn Press on May 2, 2015 to complement the Magna Carta Canada exhibition, which will tour Canada from June to December 2015 in honour of the 800th anniversary of King John accepting the Magna Carta.

Click here to pre-order Magna Carta and Its Gifts to Canada: Democracy, Law, and Human Rights

For updates on the book, “like” my new Facebook author page here.

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New book chapter “King John and Magna Carta in Popular Culture” in Magna Carta: Muse and Mentor

I have contributed a chapter to Magna Carta: Muse & Mentor, edited by Randy J. Holland, the book that complements the Magna Carta Muse and Mentor exhibition at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. My chapter, “King John and Magna Carta in Popular Culture” examines the cultural impact of the famous charter and the king who reluctantly accepted it in 1215. Princess Anne will be attending the gala opening of Magna Carta: Muse and Mentor at the Library of Congress during her visit to Washington on November 6.

Click here to purchase Magna Carta: Muse & Mentor on Amazon.com

Click here to view the Table of Contents for Magna Carta: Muse and Mentor.

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My forthcoming book, “Magna Carta and Its Gifts to Canada” to be published by Dundurn Press in 2015


My forthcoming book “Magna Carta and Its Gifts to Canada” will be published in 2015 by Dundurn Press to complement the Magna Carta Canada 2015  touring exhibition. The year 2015 marks the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta, the Great Charter imposed on King John by his barons in the thirteenth century to ensure he upheld traditional customs of the nobility. Though it began as a safeguard of the aristocracy, over the past 800 years, the Magna Carta has become a cornerstone of democratic ideals for all.

Click here for the cover and summary of “Magna Carta and Its Gifts to Canada”

Magna Carta and Its Gifts to Canada: Democracy, Law, and Human Rights is now available for pre-order at amazon.ca

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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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