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

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

Friday Royal Read: Your Country, My Country: A Unified History of the United States and Canada

King George III is remembered very differently in Canada, the United States and Britain. In the regions of British North America that became Canada, George III was a nation builder. The Royal Proclamation of 1763 served as the foundation for an enduring relationship between the Crown and Canada’s First Nations and the Quebec Act of 1774 guaranteed free practice of Roman Catholicism and use of French Civil Law for private disputes.

These acts were were not well received in the Thirteen Colonies that became the United States as the Royal Proclamation designated land west of the Appalachian Mountains as “Indian Territory,” restricting the colonists from the settling there. The American Revolution transformed George III’s image into that of a tyrant, whose government imposed taxation without representation. In Britain, George III was neither nation builder nor oppressor. Instead, he began his reign as “Farmer George,” the first Hanoverian King to be born and raised in England and ended his reign as “Mad King George,” suffering from what was most likely porphyria under the regency of his son, the future George IV.

The reign of King George III, and the monarchy itself, is far from the only issue to be viewed differently in Canada and the United States, two countries with a shared history of British settlement and governance. In Your Country, My Country: A Unified History of the United States and Canada,  which will be published in September 2015, Robert Bothwell, the Gluskin Professor of Canadian History at the University of Toronto and author of The Penguin History of Canada and Canada and Quebec: One Country, Two Histories provides an accessible and engaging account of how Canada and the United States have related to one another since European settlement began in North America.

The American Revolution brought thousands of British, European African-American and First Nations loyalists to what is now Ontario, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia.The promise of free land in British North America brought a second wave of “late loyalists” to Upper Canada who made clear during the War of 1812 that they were content with British rule. Bothwell details how generation after generation of American politicians in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries assumed that British North America would become part of the United States and were mystified when Canada continued to assert its independence and loyalty to the Crown and parliamentary system of government.

Your Country, My Country: A Unified History of the United States and Canada is primarily a political and diplomatic history of Canada and the United States. There are references to common cultural influences from Charles Dickens novels in the 19th century to American television in the 1950s but it would have been interesting to read more about how literary and artistic ideas circulated around North America and beyond. American author Mark Twain admired the work of Canadian author Lucy Maud Montgomery and drew parallels between his most famous book, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and her Anne Of Green Gables series.  Both authors achieved an international following that transcended their national origins.

Canada and the United States also developed very different attitudes toward the role of the government in national culture and discussion of this aspect of each country’s policy would fit in well amidst the comparison of Canadian and American attitudes toward health care and foreign policy. While the role of the Crown in Canada is discussed throughout the early chapters of the book, the monarchy is last mentioned in the context of Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation in 1953. Analysis of this key difference between Canada and the United States could have been extended to the present day.

At the beginning of his book, Bothwell states “If there were ever a prize for the most futile academic study, Canadian-American relations would be an earnest contender” observing how little known Canadian history and politics is in the United States. Your Country, My Country: A Unified History of the United States and Canada demonstrates that the histories of Canada and the United States illuminate each other, revealing the different paths that were taken on the same continent.

Next Week: Katharine of Aragon by Patrick Williams

New Canadian Encyclopedia Article: Elizabeth Lee (Owen) Macdonald

Prince Edward Island Magazine 2My latest article in the Canadian Encyclopedia is a profile of a little known Mother of Confederation. Elizabeth Lee (Owen) Macdonald was born into one of Prince Edward Island’s elite families and married Andrew Archibald Macdonald, a Father of Confederation. She assumed leadership positions in both Island society and women’s organizations within the Church of England. In later life, she wrote a nine-part series of articles on local history titled “Charlottetown Fifty Years Ago” for Prince Edward Island Magazine.

Click here to read my article on Elizabeth Lee (Owen) Macdonald in the Canadian Encyclopedia

New Canadian Encyclopedia Article: Mercy Anne Coles

Mercy Coles

Mercy Coles

My latest article in the Canadian Encyclopedia is about Mercy Anne Coles, a diarist and one of the key witnesses to the negotiations that preceded Canada’s Confederation in 1867. Mercy Coles was one of the daughters of George Coles, the first premier of Prince Edward Island. She attended the Charlottetown and Québec Conferences with her parents. Her diary, Reminiscences of Canada in 1864, is one of the most detailed sources about the events that preceded Confederation. The diary includes descriptions of the Fathers of Confederation and their personalities and brings light to the social politics of mid-19th-century Canada.

Click here to read my article about Mercy Coles in the Canadian Encyclopedia

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