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.
Royalty have acted as patrons to artists for centuries. Henry VIII and his wives sat for Hans Holbein’s portraits. Charles I and his queen, Henrietta Maria, advanced the careers of numerous seventeenth century painters including Anthony Van Dyck, Peter Paul Rubens and Orazio and Artemisia Gentileschi. Marie Antoinette encouraged female artists, commissioning over thirty royal portraits by Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, and inviting wax sculptor Anna Maria Grosholtz, better known as Madame Tussaud, to live at Versailles. George III founded the Royal Academy of Arts in 1768.
Today, royalty continue to support and promote the arts. The National Portrait Gallery in the United Kingdom raised its profile when the Duchess of Cambridge became its patron. What is less well known is how many past and present members of the royal family became prolific amateur artists themselves. In The Royal Paintbox, The Prince of Wales shares paintings by royal artists, demonstrating how kings, queens, princes and princesses have expressed themselves through art since Mary, Queen of Scots created intricate embroideries during her nineteen years of imprisonment in England.
At the heart of the documentary is the Prince of Wales, who discusses his own education as an artist, receiving early lessons in technique from his father, the Duke of Edinburgh, and encouragement to observe the natural world from his grandmother, Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother. The Prince grew up surrounded by paintings at Buckingham Palace, Windsor Castle and Balmoral and learned to appreciate art from a young age. His overseas tours provide fresh inspiration for new works of art. The Prince explains how he almost missed a plane leaving Morocco to complete a desert landscape in watercolours.
The artwork shown onscreen provides a new perspective on past royalty including key figures from Canadian history. Prince Rupert, 1st Governor of the Hudson’s Bay Company, was an accomplished printmaker, whose most famous mezzotint, The Great Executioner, depicts the beheading of St. John the Baptist. The Prince of Wales explains that Rupert’s choice of subject matter may have been influenced by the beheading of his uncle, Charles I. Princess Louise, wife of Lord Lorne, Governor General of Canada from 1878 to 1883, is described by the Prince of Wales as “a seriously good artist” as he showcases her paintings and sculptures.
In addition to narration by the Prince of Wales, the Royal Paintbox includes commentary from a vast array of historians, biographers, artists, and royal relatives. The Duke of Edinburgh’s cousin, Countess Mountbatten of Burma, shows artwork by her grandfather, Prince Louis of Battenberg, including his drawings for the Illustrated London News. The Queen’s niece, Sarah Armstrong-Jones, discusses her work as a professional artist. “Tour artists” reminisce about painting scenes from the Prince of Wales’s overseas tours , showing examples from Australia to Oman. Historians who have written about Queen Victoria and her family including Jane Ridley, author of Bertie: A Life of Edward VII and Jehanne Wake, author of Princess Louise: Queen Victoria’s Unconventional Daughter reveal the importance of art in the lives of the Queen and her children.
The Royal Paintbox is a fascinating glimpse of the private world of royalty through their artwork. With the Prince of Wales as their guide, viewers see how they expressed themselves through paintings, drawings, embroidery and sculpture. From Mary, Queen of Scots to the present Prince of Wales, the royal family have been both patrons and artists for centuries.
The 2013 film Diana begins the evening that Diana, Princess of Wales died in a Paris car accident. Diana, played by Naomi Watt,s is walking around her hotel suite alone. Over the course of the film, which covers incidents from the last two years of the Princess’s life, she is often shown on her own. She goes jogging on the Kensington Palace grounds, drives around London in her butler’s car, rehearses her BBC interview in front of the mirror and makes a few attempts at cooking/reheating dinner in the palace kitchen.
There’s a element of truth to this approach. In his book, On Royalty, journalist Jeremy Paxman described being invited to lunch at Kensington Palace by Diana the year before her death. Paxman concluded, “She just wanted someone to talk to, and, unlike other lonely people, was in the happy position of being able to invite anyone she liked and being reasonably confident that they would turn up.” In the film, a lonely Diana invites London heart surgeon, Dr. Hasnat Khan, played by Naveen Andrews, over to the palace and a two year affair ensues.
The problem with the screenwriter’s decision to focus on Diana’s lonely life behind closed doors is that the film provides little sense of why she became an iconic figure who enthralled the public worldwide. Throughout the film, Diana attracts admiring crowds and is pursued by paparazzi but there is little sense of why she “the most famous woman in the world” as Khan frequently observes onscreen. The Princess attends a single charitable event in the first half of the film and her gift for connecting with people of all backgrounds receives little attention until the months immediately before her death. By that time in the film, her activism on behalf of land mine victims and compassion for bereaved mothers appears to be a response to her love and admiration for Dr. Khan rather than her innate empathy for the less fortunate.
The affair with Khan so dominates the film that there is little sense of the person Diana was before they met. Although there are allusions to her parents’ divorce, her love for her sons and her own failed marriage, she seems curiously incomplete before beginning of the affair. Despite the actual Diana’s years of charity work on behalf of AIDS victims, the fictional Diana has difficulty finding her way around a hospital and goes “snooping” to learn more about how she help patients in need. She tells Khan that her royal duties have resulted in her knowing a little bit about every subject but there is little evidence of this knowledge in her actions. Diana’s bodyguards and the paparazzi come and go in the film. Neither are onscreen when her relationship with Khan breaks down and the film portrays Diana shouting “Ha-a-a-sna-a-t” in front of his apartment in the middle of the night.
Apart from a brief last meeting with William and Harry before going on vacation with Dodi Al Fayed, members of the royal family do not appear onscreen and are rarely mentioned. Unfortunately, the script perpetuates the historical Diana’s own view that “the palace” was conspiring against her. The fictional Diana complains that the royal family is keeping her from her sons, only allowing her to see them every fifth week. While laws dating from the reign of King George I dictated that the Queen had custody of her grandchildren, William and Harry actually spent equal time with each parent after the marriage ended. It was not the royal family but the boarding school education of the two princes that limited Diana’s time with her sons.
The makers of Diana missed an opportunity to explore why millions believed that they had suffered a personal loss when the Princess of Wales died in 1997. The film is so focused on her affair with Khan that all other aspects of her life including her charity work, motherhood and relationship with the royal family do not receive the attention they deserve. The stilted script with lines like, “I am a heart surgeon, you are the most famous woman in the world” provide few clues about how Diana really behaved behind closed doors. With talented actors such as Watts and Andrews, Diana should have been a much stronger film.
Anne Boleyn is the most famous of King Henry VIII’s six wives because every era creates their own version of her that best suits the times. Changing attitudes toward women over the centuries also changed Anne’s reputation. In The Creation of Anne Boleyn: A New Look at England’s Most Notorious Queen, feminist scholar Susan Bordo reveals just how little we know of Anne’s actual relationship with Henry VIII then provides as fascinating cultural history of the famous queen over the centuries.
In the reign of Mary I, the stepdaughter who blamed Anne for the collapse of her parents’ marriage, the queen was a scheming temptress, leading Henry VIII away from the papacy with her feminine wiles. In the reign of Anne’s daughter, Elizabeth I, Anne was reborn as the Protestant champion who brought much needed religious reform to England. This religious reputation persisted into the seventeenth century.
In the 19th century, much of the English public viewed Anne Boleyn as the innocent victim of Tudor tyranny similar to Lady Jane Grey. Jane Austen believed that Anne was indeed an innocent victim while Charles Dickens broke with prevailing wisdom to suggest that she might have been the author of her own demise. The historical novels of the 20th century introduced a new Anne Boleyn, the plucky, vivacious young woman who was destroyed by her ambition and her marriage to Henry VIII. In the 1969 film, Anne Of The Thousand Days, Anne openly challenges the King until the end of her life, suffering a marriage that ends disastrously because their passions only briefly overlap.
For the twenty-first century, historical novelist Philippa Gregory revived the old sixteenth century image of Anne the scheming temptress, stopping at nothing to achieve her ambitions in The Other Boleyn Girl. Meanwhile, actress Natalie Dormer portrayed an Anne who was intelligent as well as alluring in the Showtime series, The Tudors, an interpretation that has made Anne an inspiration to countless young women.
After Anne was executed in 1536, Henry VIII appears to have destroyed her letters to him as well as her portraits painted from life. As a result, much of what historians know about the relationship between Henry and Anne comes the dispatches of Eustace Chapuys, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V’s Ambassador to England. Chapuys was a strong supporter of Henry VIII’s first wife, Catherine of Aragon, his master’s Aunt, and inevitably described Anne in extremely negative terms. Despite the clear bias of Chapuys’ writings, Bordo reveals that they had a profound impact on future scholars and novelists alike, creating a received wisdom about Anne’s ambition, character and sexuality. Balanced and critical biographies, such as The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn: ‘The Most Happy’ by Eric Ives are comparatively few.
Bordo’s work stands out from all other scholarship about Anne Boleyn because she takes the popular influence of historical fiction seriously. Historians rarely engage with fictional portrayals of historical figures beyond the most famous works such as William Shakespeare’s plays. Bordo’s research shows that so many aspects of Anne Boleyn’s life that the public believes it “knows” actually emerged from fictional accounts that became received wisdom.
One of the most fascinating aspects of Bordo’s work is her interviews with the various actresses who played Anne Boleyn over the decades including Geneviève Bujold from Anne Of The Thousand Days and Natalie Dormer from The Tudors. Both Bujold and Dormer did their own research about Anne Boleyn’s life and brought new insights to their portrayals of the famous queen. In contrast the cast of the 2008 film version of The Other Boleyn Girl appear to have been almost entirely ignorant of both the actual historical figures they portrayed and the nature of historical scholarship.
I highly recommend The Creation of Anne Boleyn: A New Look at England’s Most Notorious Queen to anyone interested in either the historical Anne Boleyn or the broader impact of popular culture and changing attitudes toward women on historical figures. I hope that additional books of this kind are written about other women in history with a significant modern pop culture presence including Empress Alexandra Feodorovna of Russia and her daughters and Anne Boleyn’s own daughter Elizabeth I.
The 2012 Danish film, “En Kongelig Affaere,” released in English speaking countries with subtitles as “A Royal Affair” is inspired by the life of Dr. Johann Struensee, who became personal physician to King Christian VII of Denmark and lover to his wife, Queen Caroline Mathilde, youngest sister of King George III of Great Britain. The film contains excellent performances and production values and has been nominated for Best Foreign Language film at the 2013. At the centre of the story is Caroline Mathilde, who risks her position and access to her children by becoming involved with the royal physician and contributing to his political influence over the King.
Caroline Mathilde’s bold decision to take control over her personal and political destiny may appear unusual for a Princess raised to expect a dynastic marriage but the Queen of Denmark’s affair was part of broader pattern of royalty questioning the value of politically motivated unions in the eighteenth century. As romantic marriage became an increasingly popular ideal during the Enlightenment, Princes and Princesses critiqued their own arranged marriages and searched for opportunities to engage with the new ideals of personal fulfillment and autonomy.
One of the most articulate critiques of dynastic marriage in the late eighteenth century, was provided by Caroline Mathilde’s brother-in-law, Charles William Ferdinand, Duke of Brunswick. The Duke explained to the German writer Massenbach, “Only private persons can live happily married, because they can choose their mates, Royalty must make marriages of convenience, which seldom result in happiness, Love does not prompt these alliances, and these marriages not only embitter the lives of the parties to them, but all too frequently have a disastrous effect upon children, who often are unhealthy in mind and body (Reprinted in Flora Fraser, The Unruly Queen: Life of Queen Caroline, p. 15).
The Duke of Brunswick spoke from personal experience. He was indifferent to his wife, Princess Augusta of Great Britain, three of their four sons were declared unfit for military service, and their daughter, Caroline of Brunswick became renowned for her eccentricity as consort of the future George IV of Great Britain. The Duke and Duchess of Brunswick were Caroline Mathilde’s most supportive relatives when her affair with Dr. Struensee was discovered, visiting her in Celle after her expulsion from the Danish court.
King George III was not nearly so sympathetic to his sister’s plight. The King put aside his own romantic feelings for Lady Sarah Lennox to make a suitable dynastic marriage to Princess Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz. “I am born for the happiness or misery of a great nation,” the King wrote, “and consequently must often act contrary to my passions (Stanley Ayling, George the Third, p. 54).George III’s acknowledgement of his “passions” demonstrated that even the most traditionally minded monarch of the late eighteenth century had been influenced by Enlightenment ideals of personal fulfillment.
King George was appalled that his siblings did not share his interest in self sacrifice for the good of crown and country. When his brothers married commoners against his wishes, the King enacted the Royal Marriages Act of 1772, decreeing that all male line descendants of King George II must have the monarch’s permission to make a legal marriage. The Act affected the legality of centuries of royal marriages and is currently in the process of being abolished as part of the 2012-2013 Royal Succession reform bills in the United Kingdom and Commonwealth. For more information about George III’s siblings and their marriages, see A Royal Affair: George III and his Troublesome Siblings.
British Princes and Princesses were not the only royal personages seeking personal fulfilment in the time of the Enlightenment. Empress Maria Theresa of the Hapsburg Empire allowed her favourite daughter, Archduchess Maria Christina to marry the man she loved, Prince Albert of Saxony, Duke of Teschen but expected her other daughters to make dynastic marriages to Europe’s Roman Catholic rulers.
The Empress’s younger daughters found their political marriages difficult to accept. Archduchess Maria Amalia became estranged from her mother after she was forced to put aside her feelings for a minor Bavarian Prince to marry Ferdinand, Duke of Parma in 1769. Although Maria Theresa’s youngest daughter, Maria Antonia (Marie Antoinette) eventually managed to create a harmonious marriage with her husband, King Louis XVI of France, she developed a strong romantic attachment to the Swedish courtier Axel von Fersen and allowed him to influence her politically after the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789.
Perhaps the most successful example of an Enlightenment Princess taking control of her political and personal destiny was Princess Sophia of Analt-Zerbst who became the Russian Empress Catherine II “the Great” in 1762. Her husband, Emperor Peter III, had much in common with Caroline Mathilde’s husband, King Christian VII of Denmark. Like Christian, Peter had been abused by his Governor as a child and retreated into an inner fantasy world. Both Peter and Christian neglected their wives and exhibited symptoms of mental instability but were capable of initiating unprecedented political reforms.
Catherine had better political instincts than Caroline Mathilde and waited until Peter III had alienated the military and the Russian Orthodox Church before staging a coup with the assistance of her lover, Gregory Orlov. As an Empress dependent on the support of the nobility, military and church, Catherine was unable to implement the full range of her Enlightenment ideals in the political realm but achieved autonomy over her personal life that was unknown to the other princesses of the late eighteenth century.
Queen Caroline Mathilde of Denmark’s romance with Dr. Johann Struensee, which was dramatized in the 2012 film, “A Royal Affair,” was in keeping with the impact of Enlightenment ideals on late eighteenth century royalty. Caroline Mathilde and her contemporaries questioned the value of dynastic marriage. While her brother King George III sacrificed his personal feelings to make a traditional royal marriage, a number of other royal personages influenced by Enlightenment ideals sought personal fulfillment and autonomy with varying degree of success.
Queen Victoria’s eldest son Albert Edward, who reigned from 1901-1910 is a historical figure that the public feels it knows well. The landmark BBC television miniseries Edward the King portrayed “Bertie” as a well meaning Prince of Wales who would have spent less time at the races and more time devoted to affairs of state if his mother, Queen Victoria, had not had such a low opinion of his capabilities. Edward the King was the first film portrayal of Queen Victoria to include aspects of her volatile personality such as her conflicts with her husband, Prince Albert, during her pregnancies and repeated arguments with her son over his role within the monarchy. Despite his weaknesses for gambling, mistresses and large meals, the fictional Bertie is a likable figure, and his success and popularity as King during the last decade of his life comes as little surprise to the audience.
Dr. Jane Ridley’s exhaustive research reveals a historical Bertie who was both better and worse than his fictional counterpart. In contrast to Charles II, who flaunted his mistresses and provided dukedoms for the children born outside his marriage, Bertie was fiercely protective of his private life. There are no surviving letters from women in the King’s private papers preserved in the Royal Archives at Windsor. Ridley, the author of previous works of nineteenth century British history including The Young Disraeli and Edwin Lutyens: A Life, looks at the letters he wrote to the significant people in his life and little known sources such as Queen Alexandra’s letters in Danish to her sister, Empress Marie of Russia to reconstruct his complex character and motives.
The result is a biography of self centered, callous young Prince who matured in his middle age into an likable, conscientious figure who would achieve success as an elder statesman during his brief reign. The young Bertie appears to have resented his arranged marriage to Princess Alexandra of Denmark, despite the affectionate relationship that developed between them, and took numerous mistresses. The Prince was criticized in the press for his apparent indifference to his wife’s health when she was crippled by rheumatic fever five years after their marriage. Poignant letters addressed to Bertie by Lady Susan Vane-Tempest, the only one of his mistresses known to have given birth to his child, demonstrate that he displayed equal indifference to the feelings to the other women in his life.
As a middle aged Prince of Wales, Bertie’s dealings with the people closest to him changed, suggesting a new found maturity. After giving Alexandra much of the responsibility for the upbringing of their five surviving children, Bertie developed a close relationship with his son George as an adult. The loving relationship between Bertie and George stands out as the other Hanoverian and Saxe-Coburg monarch were famous for quarrelling with their heirs. Bertie also became more solicitous of Alexandra’s health and enjoyed long term stable relationships with his later mistresses, Alice Keppel and Daisy Warwick.
In addition to her nuanced portrayal of the private Bertie, Ridley also takes dynastic politics seriously, demonstrating how the marriages of the Danish princesses influenced the European alliance system. This aspect of nineteenth century diplomatic history is often dismissed by historians because the Congress of Vienna ended the practice of national borders changing to reflect royal marriages. Although Bertie neglected his wife in private, he shared her anti-Prussian sentiments and was drawn closer to Russia by his warm relationship with Alexandra’s sister and brother-in-law, Tsar Alexander III. The personal relationships between European monarchs had a strong influence on European affairs prior to the First World War and enabled many of Bertie’s successes in foreign policy when he became King Edward VII.
The future Edward VII’s evolution from a self indulgent Prince to a mature King is at the heart of Ridley’s well researched and well written biography. She captures the complexities of his personality and his crucial place in nineteenth and early twentieth century British history. If Bertie had expressed open opposition to Queen Victoria’s seclusion after the death of Prince Albert or refused to marry a Danish princess opposed to Prussian interests, the history of the British Isles would have unfolded differently in the years prior to the First World War.
Warning: This article contains plot spoilers from both Season 1 and Season 2
In the ITV/PBS series Downton Abbey, about the aristocratic Crawley family, their middle class relations, and their servants, royal personages have not yet made an appearance at the stately home in Seasons 1 (1912-1914) and 2 (1916-1920). It remains to be seen in the upcoming Season 3 (1920-1922) whether the Earl of Grantham’s daughters will be personally invited to any fashionable parties by the future King Edward VIII or entertain a mysterious foreign dinner guest who suddenly claims to be the lost Grand Duchess Anastasia. Although royalty remains off screen, the perceived values of King George V and Queen Mary have a profound influence on characters from all social backgrounds. When nobility and servants alike discuss European politics surrounding the First World War, the view the conflict through the activities of the continent’s royal families.
Downton Abbey is set in Highclere Castle, home of the Earls of Carnarvon since 1679. In the series, it is implied that the Earls of Grantham have held the estate even longer as the name “Downton Abbey” suggests that the lands belonged to the church before King Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries and convents and granted their properties to the nobility in the sixteenth century. When the Earl describes himself as a custodian of the estate instead of his owner, he is alluding to five centuries of his ancestors building up the family patrimony.
Prior to the First World War, the Earl and Countess of Grantham schedule their year according to the timing of the London season, which includes the presentation of debutantes to the King and Queen. The couple’s youngest daughter, Lady Sybil is eligible to be presented during the 1914 season, a circumstance complicated by her political activism. When Sybil expresses an interest in canvassing for politicians who share her enthusiasm for women’s suffrage, her grandmother, the Dowager Countess, is quick to note that she will soon be presented at court.
Queen Mary’s well known disapproval of the more militant tactics employed by suffragists undoubtedly informs the Dowager Countess’s incisive obervation that one cannot be arrested in riot in May then presented in June. When Emily Davison threw herself in front of King George V’s horse at the 1913 Epsom Derby, the Queen commisserated with the jockey, describing Davison’s death as a ““sad accident caused through the abominable conduct of a brutal lunatic woman.” Sybil’s political activism not only jeopardizes her safety but has the potential to invite royal disapproval.
The influence of the royal example on the Dowager Countess’s conceptions of appropriate behaviour are confirmed in the second season when Sybil expresses an interest in becoming a wartime nurse. The aristocratic Dowager Countess and the middle class Mrs. Crawley experience a rare moment of agreement when they support Sybil’s decision to join the war effort. While Mrs. Crawley’s support is inspired by broader ideals of public service, the Dowager Countess observes, “You cannot pretend it is not respectable. Every day we are treated to pictures of Queens and Princesses in Red Cross uniform.” The leadership roles played by royal women in the First World War created opportunities for women of the aristocracy to adopt new roles and the Dowager Countess’s support for Sybil’s nursing reflects this changing worldview.
As World War One draws to a close with the collapse of the Russian, German and Austrian monarchies, Downton Abbey, presents a broader range of opinion about the significance of royalty. The continued traditional outlook of the Earl of Grantham and his butler, Carson, is expressed through their unquestioning support for the influence of royalty. When Lady Sybil announces that she intends to marry Branson the Irish socialist chauffeur, her father attempts to dissuade her by reminding her that “you will not be received at court!” mirroring the concerns her grandmother expressed prior to the war.
In the servants’ quarters, Carson challenges Branson’s argument that monarchy has had its day in Europe, telling him that “monarchy is the lifeblood of Europe.” Branson’s acceptance of the 1918 murder of the Russian Imperial family as a necessary sacrifice for the greater revolution, despite his earlier belief that they would not harmed, demonstrates that he not only belongs to a difference social class than Sybil’s family but holds an entirely different set of political views than the Earl of Grantham.
Royal personages never call at Downton Abbey but their attitudes and activities offscreen profoundly influence the Crawley family and their servants. Although the presentation of debutantes at court continued until 1958, the Earl of Grantham’s attempt to influence Sybil’s choices by reminding her that she will not be received at court as the chauffeur’s wife sounds old fashioned in the context of the series by 1918 while Branson’s acceptance of the Romanov murders appears to foreshadow his direct involvement in militant Irish republicanism during the 1920s.