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

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 CBC.ca

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

Ben Franklin’s World Podcast Interview: Magna Carta and Its Gifts to North America

038-Harris (1) I am interviewed on this week’s episode of Ben Franklin’s World: A Podcast About Early American History. The interview, with fellow historian Liz Covart, is about Magna Carta and Its Gifts to North America, comparing the impact of Magna Carta on the United States and Canada. I also discuss how Magna Carta was imposed on King John by his rebel barons in 1215 and the legal rights – including rights for women – that were codified in the Great Charter.

Click here to listen to Magna Carta and Its Gifts to North America at Ben Franklin’s World

For more on Magna Carta, see my book, Magna Carta and Its Gifts to Canada: Democracy, Law, and Human Rights

Canadian Geographic Magazine Interview: The Charter of the Forest

Medieval_forestMagna Carta is not the only historic Charter touring Canada this year. Magna Carta’s lesser known companion document, the Charter of the Forest, is also on tour as part of the Magna Carta Canada exhibition. In my Interview about the Charter of the Forest in Canadian Geographic Magazine I discuss why the Charter of the Forest, first issued in 1217, affected more people than Magna Carta in the thirteenth century, what “evil customs relating to the forests” the Charter promised to reform and why there are environmentalists today who wish the Charter of the Forest was as famous as as Magna Carta.

Click here to read my Interview about the Charter of the Forest with the Canadian Geographic.

For more about the Charter of the Forest, see my article on the Charter of the Forest on the Magna Carta Canada site and my book, Magna Carta and Its Gifts to Canada: Democracy, Law, and Human Rights

CBC News Interview: Princess Charlotte’s christening: A balance between private celebration and public show

The newborn Princess Charlotte of Cambridge (photo credit: Samir Hussein/WireImage)

The newborn Princess Charlotte of Cambridge (photo credit: Samir Hussein/WireImage)

Princess Charlotte of Cambridge’s christening will take place on Sunday July 5 at St. Mary Magdalene Church on the Queen’s Sandringham estate. The last Princess born into the royal family, Princess Eugenie, was christened there in 1990 as part of the regular Sunday service open to the public but Charlotte’s christening will be a balance between public and private. The ceremony will be attended by close family and godparents but the public will be able to gather outside the church to see the royal family as they do at Christmas.

Click here to read my interview with CBC News: Princess Charlotte’s christening: A balance between private celebration and public show

Interview: The Great Kate Debate: Is it Kate Middleton or HRH The Duchess of Cambridge?

Prince Harry and Kate Middleton (later the Duchess of Cambridge) attending Prince William's 2008 Investiture into the Order of the Garter

Prince Harry and Kate Middleton, future Duchess of Cambridge  in 2008 

My interview with Yahoo Shine Canada discusses why the Duchess of Cambridge is still known to much of the public as Kate Middleton more than four years after her marriage to Prince William. I also discuss the history of royal nicknames from what Queen Victoria called the multiple granddaughters who shared her name to Canada’s Princess Pat, as another one of Queen Victoria’s granddaughters, Princess Patricia of Connaught, became known.

Click here to read “The Great Kate Debate: Is it Kate Middleton or HRH The Duchess of Cambridge?” at Yahoo Shine Canada

Column in the National Post: Magna Carta established that nobody, not even the king, was above the law of the land


My column in today’s National Post discusses the history of Magna Carta and its continuing influence on politics and law today, including in Canada. King John was the first English monarch to accept limits on his powers imposed by his subjects, beginning the process that the led to the development of constitutional monarchy, Canada’s system of government. The legal rights codified in Magna Carta expanded in the scope during the 13th and 14th centuries. Magna Carta emerged from medieval times as a document that applied to people of varied backgrounds, not just the nobility, informing the Common Law system that would be employed throughout the English speaking world.

Click here to read “Magna Carta established that nobody, not even the king, was above the law of the land” in the National Post

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

New Canadian Encyclopedia Article: Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee

Queen Victoria at the time of her Diamond Jubilee in 1897

Queen Victoria at the time of her Diamond Jubilee in 1897

My latest article in the Canadian Encyclopedia is about Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897. Queen Victoria (who reigned from 1837–1901) was the first monarch to celebrate 60 years on the throne. Celebrations to honour the grand occasion — the first Diamond Jubilee — showcased the Queen’s role as “mother” of the British Empire and its Dominions, including Canada. Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier led the Canadian delegation to the London ceremonies, while communities across Canada held their own civic celebrations in honour of the Queen.

Click here to read “Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee – 1897″ in the Canadian Encyclopedia