Tuesday 31 July 2012

July Competition

We have five copies of Paul Dowswell's Cabinet of Curiosities to give to the best answers to this question:

"If you had a cabinet of curiosities and money were no object, what one thing would you like to put in it?"

And we also have five copies of Mary Hoffman's latest, and last, Stravaganza novel, City of Swords, which is alternative-dimension history (Italy in the 16th century). Just answer this question:

"Which Talian city would you most like to visit?" (It can be one of the six already written about, see the list here, or one based on another Italian city)

Thanks to Bloomsbury for providing both books.

All competitions are open to UK readers only. 

Closing date 7th August

Monday 30 July 2012

The Historical Character I Just Don't Get: Richard Coeur-de-Lion

In this month of July, the History Girls have been celebrating their first year as joint Bloggers by writing about their favourite Historical Characters. Katherine Langrish has already praised Harold Godwinson. But we also have an occasional series of 'Characters I just don't get', and here is hers:

Picture it. The closing scene of ‘Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves’. Kevin Costner’s Robin, fetchingly garbed in outlaw chic, and Marion, robed in white with a harvest crown of wheat upon her head (to symbolise an ungreenwoodly but earth-goddess-like fertility, no doubt) are about to be joined in matrimony by Friar Tuck - when hoofbeats are heard, and from between the trees emerges a stately but familiar figure clothed in mail.

‘Richard!’ Marion cries, her face lighting up.

And lo, it’s Sean Connery as Richard Coeur-de-Lion - Richard the First - Richard of England! Here to add his benison to the union of the happy couple, reinstate Robin in his lands, and set right all the evils which have befallen Sherwood under the iron fist of Alan Rickman’s splendidly black-hearted Sheriff of Nottingham and - one presumes - the faulty and self-serving regency of Prince John.

Jack shall have Jill, nought shall go ill,
The man shall have his mare again and all shall be well.

This is the satisfactory denouement of pretty much every one of the Robin Hood films and most of the books, including Rosemary Sutcliff’s early work ‘The Chronicles of Robin Hood’ and Robin McKinley’s ‘The Outlaws of Sherwood’. Here’s Sutcliff’s Richard, casting off his disguise as an abbot:

As the long sable folds parted, the astonished outlaws beheld the golden leopards of England blazing on his scarlet surcoat. He thrust back the cowl from his head and stood before them - the king! For a second there was an utter silence. Then Robin dropped on one knee at the king’s feet.

Illustration by C. Walter Hodges of Rosemary Sutcliff's Chronicles of Robin Hood

Merrie Englande indeed! And it’s notable that these fictional King Richards all speak English, and can sympathise with outlaws and peasants in a quite incredible manner. It’s as if Coeur-de-lion has been melded with King Arthur so that Richard’s return to England is the mythical Return of the King - the True King, whose coming will bring peace and justice to the land. It taps into an almost religious longing.

In fact, until the 16th century the king of the Robin Hood tales, if named at all, wasn’t Richard at all but ‘Edward’, not specifying whether I, II or III. So Richard I owes his modern fame to a fictitious connection with legendary Robin Hood. But I doubt he would thank us for this image of a king who identified with the poor and oppressed - with Saxon or even Celtic peasantry against Norman overlords. To begin with, he was an aristocrat to the bone, with no empathy whatever for the lower estates. Next, he couldn’t even have talked with them. Like most of the Angevin nobility Richard spoke no English. His native tongue was French - both langue d’oïl and langue d’oc - in which languages he composed poems and songs.

Richard I by Matthew Paris

I know one shouldn’t judge historical personages by modern standards, though it’s hard not to, but even in the context of his times, Richard was by no means universally admired. The chronicler Giraud le Cambien tells how Richard loved to boast descent from a countess of Anjou who was in fact the fairy Melusine, so that therefore his family ‘came from the devil and would return to the devil’. And this is a pretty good clue to the quality of his family life. In 1170 his father King Henry II made the disastrous, Lear-like decision to divide his territories in England and France between his three eldest sons, Henry, Richard and Geoffrey, with the intention of remaining their over-lord. Aged 14, Richard set off with his tempestuous mother Queen Eleanor to become Duke of Aquitaine, and was soon busy supporting his elder brother Henry “The Young King” in a rebellion against their father. It didn’t work. Henry put down the revolt and made peace with his sons (blood is thicker than water), dispatching Richard back to Aquitaine to punish those very barons who had fought for him. Ever the pragmatist, Richard obeyed with gusto, razing their castles: it was during this campaign that he earned the soubriquet ‘the Lion-hearted’.

Fratricidal strife soon broke out again. Henry’s sons never stopped quarrelling with him and each other. Richard’s ultimate attempt to seize the throne from his father ended with Henry’s ghastly death from illness in Chinon, 1189. As his elder brother had already died, Richard became King of England, Duke of Normandy and Count of Anjou. He returned briefly to London for his coronation, but was already preparing to leave on the Third Crusade, having ‘taken the cross’ a couple of years previously as Count of Poitou. His only known remarks about England are: ‘cold and always raining’, and that he would have ‘sold London if I could find a buyer’ to raise money for the Crusade - for which purpose he emptied the Treasury.

Yet here he is. perpetuated in bronze, outside the Houses of Parliament!  I just don't get it! 

Setting off for the Holy Land (and bickering constantly with his rival crusader lords), Richard’s military skill and courage brought victory in a number of sieges, notably Messina in Sicily (which he captured and burned when the common people protested the presence of all these foreign troops - so that showed them, then!) and Limasol in Cyprus, where the island’s unspeakably cruel despot made the mistake of imprisoning Richard’s fiancée, Berengaria of Navarre and Castile, who’d been shipwrecked there. Having overthrown the despot and chained him in silver chains, Richard married Berengaria… but in case you are thinking ‘how romantic’, I should point out that the poor girl was only wrecked in the first place because, having been betrothed to Richard in Pamplona, he set off to the Holy Land without her and left her to catch up.

Richard then joined in the siege of Acre, which fell after holding out against the Crusaders for two years. Here, negotiating with Saladin over an exchange of prisoners, Richard lost his patience and had at least 2,700 of his Muslim prisoners decapitated. The mind boggles at the bloodshed. Defeating Saladin at the Battle of Jaffa and hearing news that - in true family style - his brother John was about to usurp his English throne, Richard hastily prepared to leave for England, but not before being implicated in the assassination of the ‘King of Jerusalem’ Conrad of Montferrat, whose pregnant wife was immediately married off to Richard’s nephew.

Of course, on his way home (once again leaving Berengaria to find her own way back) he was captured by the Austrian Duke Leopold, Conrad’s cousin, who accused Richard of arranging the murder and locked him up in the castle of Dürnstein. (Stories of how he was found by the minstrel Blondel, strumming Richard’s own lute-songs outside the castle walls, are later fabrications.) Richard was handed over to the Holy Roman Emperor who demanded a colossal ransom of 65,000 pounds of silver, raised by heavy taxation on the English people. On its payment, Philip of France sent Prince John the famous message ‘Look to yourself: the devil is loose,’ and Richard made a last visit to England to accept his brother’s submission and - a political necessity - confirm him as his heir. In all, he is not thought to have spent more than six months in England as King. He never came back to England and is buried at Fontevraut Abbey in France.

Could anyone be further from the magnanimous, understanding, compassionate King Richard Lionheart who turns up at the end of Robin Hood?

Yes, he could be generous - kings must, if they are not to be universally hated. But mainly he was arrogant and quarrelsome, a blue-blooded aristocrat who most certainly believed what he told the Emperor: ‘I am born of a rank which recognises no superior but God’, and who coined the motto ‘Dieu et mon Droit’ - ‘God and my Right’, still the motto of the British Royals to this day.

Perhaps the main reason why Richard is still so popular is that there are so many good stories about him (even if many are inventions).  He clearly had courage, style, good looks and charisma, and it’s an unfortunate human failing that we find it easy to forgive faults in such people. ‘I’d have sold London if I could have found anyone to buy it.’ We forgive it - even find it amusing - because it sounds outrageous and daring, just like Richard himself.

But you know what? Don’t be fooled. He meant it.

He really meant it.

Picture credits: Robin Hood Prince of Thieves, 1991: Sean Connery as Richard I
Richard of England by Matthew Paris, Wikimedia Commons 
Richard I - bronze statue - Wikimedia Commons
Richard I's tomb at Fontevraut, France Wikimedia Commons

Sunday 29 July 2012

Paul Dowswell's favourite historical character - Rudolph the second

Prague today

It's a pleasure to welcome Paul Dowswell as our guest blogger for July, especially since he gallantly accepted the brief to write about his favourite character, which all the History Girls are doing this month.


 About Paul: 

I've worked in publishing for over twenty five years. I went freelance in 1999 after eight years with Usborne, where I was a senior editor.
History is my specialist subject but I also enjoy writing about natural history, science, geography, in fact almost anything, apart from golf and mechanical engineering. I have a shamefully encyclopaedic knowledge of popular music,

I’ve written over 60 books for UK publishers.  I grew up in Chester and escaped to read History at London University (Goldsmiths’ College 1975-1978). After 15 years in London, I moved to Wolverhampton, where I live with my wife and daughter. I also play with a variety of bands in the pubs and clubs of the West Midlands.

My favourite character
Prague c.1
(Woodcuts and engravings from the era show that much of the city of Prague remains from Rudolph’s time).

I was at a History Association event in London recently, and broadcaster Bettany Hughes gave a speech revealing that 90% of all TV history is about the Nazis, the Egyptians or the Tudors. I’m assuming that ‘the Nazis’ includes World War Two in general, but I’ll bet another 9% is split between the Romans and The Great War, and the final 1% divvies up between everything else. I’m sure we’re a little broader in the publishing world, but those three major TV areas, and the Romans, must take up the vast majority of subjects for historical fiction too. (I’ve written about the Nazis and both the World Wars.)

Many readers like to read about what they know about, which is understandable. But those of us who write historical fiction know there’s so much that’s fascinating outside the well-ploughed areas. That’s why I chose to write about Rudolph II, the Holy Roman Emperor in late Renaissance Prague, who is a central character in my book ‘The Cabinet of Curiosities’.

I wrote ‘Cabinet’ after becoming fascinated by the Renaissance paintings of Giuseppe Arcimboldo – surreal and disturbing portraits, centuries ahead of their time. His most famous is Vertumnus – his depiction of Rudolph II in fruit and vegetables. A culture which produced something so magnificently strange and original sparked further investigation. I was not disappointed. Rudolph II was just as unusual as his portrait.

There’s a picture on Wiki

Here, likewise from Wiki, is a picture of the Emperor as himself.

He had a great thrusting Habsburg jaw and fleshy lips, which gave him the look of an obstinate bulldog. But he spoke quietly and patiently, without the usual princely arrogance. He seemed to carry the weight of the world on his shoulders. I think Rudolph was a man who endured his life rather than enjoyed it.

He ruled over a world that was still in thrall to Aristotle, Plato and other great philosophers of the Classical Era. It didn’t seem strange to Rudolph’s contemporaries to be so influenced by a mind-set that was, even then, nearly two millennia old. Save for gunpowder, the printed word, and the discovery of the Americas, the ancient world wasn’t that different from their own. They thought the Ancients were cleverer than they were. That’s why Rudolph had a special interest in Alchemy. He and his contemporaries believe the Ancient Egyptians could turn base metals into gold. To them, alchemy was a lost art. Of course, it turned out to be a blind alley, although it did lead to the beginnings of modern Chemistry.
Golden Lane, inside Prague Castle
Many of these little houses were home to the alchemists employed by Rudolph. They worked in nearby workshops built into the Castle walls.

But Rudolph was open to new ideas as well as old. He believed, quite reasonably, that if he could gather up all the knowledge in the world it would help him understand the purpose of existence and the mind of God. To this end he developed a mania for collecting ‘wonders’. He lived in a chaotic world, his private rooms littered with extraordinary instruments and curious objects, paintings piled up against the walls, and great heaps of books. He also set aside four ball-room size halls in his palace for his collection. This great depository is known as his Cabinet of Curiosities: and it was an extraordinary collection of mechanical and scientific instruments, biological and geological specimens, paintings, engravings and holy and mythological relics. Dürer’s famous watercolour of a young hare was in there and, supposedly, nails from Noah’s Ark, feathers from a phoenix and the dagger that killed Julius Caesar.

Whilst other Cabinets of the age were just a higgledy-piggledy collection of curios, often kept in an actual cabinet, Rudolph’s vast collection was arranged in an order bordering on ‘scientific’.
Lucky for us that the collection was well documented. Some was moved to Vienna following Rudolph’s death in 1612 and some was scattered to the four corners of Europe when his Palace was looted by Swedish Troops in 1648 during the 30 Years War. Only a fraction of it can still be found in Prague.

Treasures from the Prague Museum of Decorative Arts:

Rudolph was fascinated by automata like this mechanical monkey which can play a tune on its violin. The one in the picture dates from 1800, but similar devices could be found in his Cabinet. One of his favourites was a mechanical peacock, complete with real tail feathers, which strutted around making mating calls.

Rudolph was especially interested in miniature timepieces similar to this one, and would join his craftsmen at their workbenches to try to learn their skills. Contemporaries noted his Christian modesty – an appealing trait in an all-powerful ruler.

A book from Rudolph's era
He had a vast library and was intrigued by the great variety of life on Earth.

As well as amassing his extraordinary collection, Rudolph was also a great patron of the arts and sciences. His court in Prague became an oasis for natural philosophers (as scientists were then known) in a Europe shackled by religious dogma and haunted by the Inquisition. Under Rudolph’s protection, natural philosophers could investigate and share their knowledge of the newly-emerging sciences without fear of being executed as heretics. This was an age, after all, where an astronomer could be burned at the stake for stating that the Sun was at the centre of the Solar System rather than the Earth. In his patronage of alchemy and fascination with the world, Rudolph was an early champion of the Scientific Revolution of the 17th Century.

His court attracted the liveliest minds in Europe. Among them was Rudolph’s Imperial Astronomer Tycho Brahe, and Brahe’s collaborator Johannes Kepler, who had the magnificent job title of ‘Imperial Mathematician’. Kepler went on to produce ‘The Rudolphine Tables’, named in honour of his patron and based primarily on the painstaking astronomical observation work of Brahe. These tables revolutionised the study of ‘celestial physics’ and were invaluable to the astronomers who went on to shape our understanding of the universe.

Brahe, incidentally, was a character and a half. He had a silver nose, having lost his own in a duel, and kept a pet elk, who died after it drank too much beer at a party and fell down a flight of stairs. If only the Slebs who inhabit the pages of ‘Heat’ magazine were half as interesting.

The Cabinet contained many astronomical instruments. Brahe would have used tools such as this in his observation of the heavens. Kepler, his successor, was able to make use of a telescope, an invention which arrived too late for Brahe.

Another of Rudolph’s admirable qualities could be seen in the citizens of Prague. Unique in mainland Europe, Jews, Protestants and Catholics lived and prospered side by side. Muslims too, I suspect, would have been welcome, had not the Holy Roman Empire been at war with the Ottoman Turks. Rudolph ensured the activities of the Inquisition were restricted to witchcraft cases. Unsurprisingly, he came under intense pressure from Spain, the centre of Catholic Orthodoxy, to allow the persecution of ‘heretics’ within his realm. Rudolph dealt with these earnest attempts to save the world from Satan’s clutches by keeping Spanish emissaries waiting to see him for months and even years on end. I can sympathise.

Rudolph had his faults of course. He was a shy, secretive man quite unsuited to the demands of his office. Some historians blame his ineffective leadership on the 30 Years War which broke out six years after his death. His war with the Ottoman Turks was also a disaster for his Empire and he ended his life imprisoned in his castle and stripped of his powers.

He was a major hypochondriac, convinced he was afflicted by all manner of diseases. He certainly suffered from depression, and his court physicians recognised this – they described his condition as ‘melancholy’ and would have said he had a disorder of the humours, probably too much black bile. Most likely because of his melancholia, he was a great champion of what scientists today call ‘New Age Bollocks’. He was especially fascinated in gemstones, which were thought to possess mystical powers. Lapis Lazuli, for example, was supposedly effective in ‘keeping the soul free from error, fear and envy’. Rudolph wore gemstones next to his skin and ingested them as medicine, ground to a powder. His depression plagued him throughout his life – all the more reason to admire his tolerance and passion for art and science.

I think we get our expression ‘Bohemian’ – in the sense of unconventional and freethinking – from Rudolph’s Prague. I admire his open-mindedness, especially in the face of the era’s very circumscribed religious orthodoxy, and I admire his acceptance of other creeds and cultures in a world where superstition and intolerance were regarded as cardinal virtues.

Prague castle

A goblet made from sea-snail shells

Rudolph kept many elaborate items like this in his Cabinet.

Thanks, Paul, for this fascinating insight into a man who inspired one of your own books.

Saturday 28 July 2012

The historical personage I love best, by K. M. Grant

The tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Westminster Abbey

It was a wonderfully humane idea, created from the inhumanity of war: the Unknown Soldier, or the Unknown Warrior, whose bones are buried in national monuments throughout the world. He or she is always nameless but clearly identifiable, and is easily my favourite historical figure. This is not because, as a novelist, the concept of an unknown soldier is so rich with possibilities. Certainly, that’s true. The Unknown Soldier can be the hero of a story of conflict from any time or place. But the real, irresistible pull of the Unknown Soldier is that he or she was just like you or me. In a way, it's our own tomb, had we been called on to sacrifice our lives for a greater good. In this way, it's much more moving than the great statues of war heroes. Most of us are not heroes. We are like the Unknown Soldier - caught up in events beyond our control.

But like all good memorials, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier serves a very practical purpose too. For families whose loved ones have been killed in the service of their country, the tomb is public recognition of their loss. For those with no body to bury, the tomb is the place to mourn their husband, wife or child. The mourners tell their own story as they stand by the tomb, and their story merges with the stories of others to create something huge and powerful - not in a political sense, but in the sense of something shared. If you visit the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, you and the other visitors are one.

I think of our Unknown Soldier as male. This isn't because I don’t recognise that women are also soldiers: it's because the bones were buried just after the First World War (Armistice Day 1920) when only men served in the front line. But the man may not be British, since although an attempt was made to identify the bones of a British soldier for the Westminster Abbey tomb, and of a French soldier for the French equivalent, extricating bones from the great mush of the trenches was not an exact business. No nation can never be completely sure that 'their' bones are 'theirs’. This is an interesting notion: does the Tomb pay homage to dead soldiers, or our dead soldiers? I think of the Westminster Abbey tomb housing a British soldier. Yet such is the power of the concept of the Unknown Soldier that I feel no less moved when visiting the Arc de Triomphe or the Kremlin.

The story of the idea of honouring an unknown soldier, and how the idea spread, is well told on Wikipedia, so I won’t repeat it here, only to say that Lord Curzon of Kedleston, a controversial figure worthy of a modern biography, organised the return of the British Unknown Soldier’s remains with imaginative dignity. The guests of honour at the interment were women who had lost their husbands and all their sons. Such a little word 'all'. Yet imagine the weight of grief in the Abbey on that day. I don’t expect, at that moment, these bereaved women were much comforted by the 
medieval crusader’s sword, chosen by the king from the royal collection, fixed to the coffin lid. I expect the inscription on the iron shield - ‘A British Warrior who fell in the Great War from 1914-1918 for King and Country’ - was washed in tears.

For future generations, however, the symbolism accompanying the coffin is wonderful. Through the crusading sword, one unknown soldier greets the other from across the centuries, and the word ‘warrior’, chosen above ‘soldier’, harks back further, to heroic times of myth and fable. Yet this soldier is real. Whether a young aristocrat from Eton or a ‘Pal’ from the Gorbals, he was a mother’s son turned into cannon-fodder.

The symbolism doesn't stop there. Placing the tomb bang in the middle of the western end of the nave of Westminster Abbey means that everybody, whether tourist or royal bride, has to walk round it. Thus does the Unknown Warrior, whether Tom, Dick, Harry, Harry’s horse, the carrier pigeon, the wife left coping at home, the girlfriend in the munitions factory, the man or woman in the unsung corps that has no fancy uniform, the Military Wife or Mililtary Husband, make his quiet presence felt every single day.

If everything we’ve created in the world was destroyed, I’d like the Unknown Soldier rather than any artefact to remain. I think it would show aliens arriving to take over the planet that although man was aggressive and destructive, he was capable of emotional greatness, and when he decided to be emotionally great, he did it pretty well.


Friday 27 July 2012

My Favourite Historical Character

by Louisa Young


Benjamin Disraeli, 1st Earl of BeaconsfieldKG, PC, FRS
(21 December 1804 – 19 April 1881)


I considered lying about this, but decided not to. Here are my straightforward honest reasons for loving him. They are all quite bad reasons, and they haven't changed much since I was 17.

1) Because he told Gladstone that he (Gladstone) was 'intoxicated by the exuberance of his own verbosity'.
2)Because when I was asked my favourite historical character in my university entrance interview, I said him.
3) Because when the interviewing professor asked me why, I said 'because he's sexy', and I got away with it, and I got in.
4) Because Sybil is a damn good novel.
5) Because it seems to me quite wonderfully inspiring that a person can run the country rather well and be a good novelist simultaneously.
6) Because even his bad novels have streaks of utter brilliance in them.
7) Because he was so utterly un-pin-downable - a conservative and a radical, a Jew and a Christian, a ladies' man and quite possiby gay, a charlatan and a hero, moral and amoral, loved and hated, admired and despised.
8) Because he brought out the best in other people's insults: The Irish MP Daniel O'Connell, for example, said of him that he was a reptile . . . 'just fit now, after being twice discarded by the people, to become a Conservative. He possesses all the necessary requisites of perfidy, selfishness, depravity, want of principle, etc., which would qualify him for the change. His name shows that he is of Jewish origin. I do not use it as a term of reproach; there are many most respectable Jews. But there are, as in every other people, some of the lowest and most disgusting grade of moral turpitude; and of those I look upon Mr. Disraeli as the worst. He has just the qualities of the impenitent thief on the Cross, and I verily believe, if Mr. Disraeli's family herald were to be examined and his genealogy traced, the same personage would be discovered to be the heir at law of the exalted individual to whom I allude. I forgive Mr. Disraeli now, and as the lineal descendant of the blasphemous robber, who ended his career besides the Founder of the Christian Faith, I leave the gentleman to the enjoyment of his infamous distinction and family honours.'
To which Disraeli replied: 'Yes, I am a Jew, and when the ancestors of the Right Honourable Gentleman were brutal savages in an unknown island, mine were priests in the Temple of Solomon .' 
9) Because he argued for an alliance between the aristocracy and the working class.
10) Because he argued that the Jews did Christians a favour by killing Christ, because if they hadn't where would Christianity be?
11) Because he inspired Robert Blake to write one of the best historical biographies I've ever read. 
13) Because his bohemian poetic Jewish intellectual look is still inspiring bohemian poetic Jewish intellectuals today (See Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, etc) 

Because he said, and I quote:

a) The best way to become acquainted with a subject is to write a book about it. 
b) Great services are not cancelled by one act or by one single error.
c) Change is inevitable. In a progressive country change is constant.
d) Justice is truth in action.
e) I repeat . . . that all power is a trust; that we are accountable for its exercise; that from the people, and for the people all springs, and all must exist.
f) The greatest good you can do for another is not just share your riches, but to reveal to him his own.
g) Never apologize for showing feeling. When you do so, you apologize for truth.
h) Next to knowing when to seize an opportunity, the most important thing in life is to know when to forego an advantage.
i) The more extensive a man's knowledge of what has been done, the greater will be his power of knowing what to do.
j) I am a Conservative to preserve all that is good in our constitution, a Radical to remove all that is bad. I seek to preserve property and to respect order, and I equally decry the appeal to the passions of the many or the prejudices of the few.
k) How much easier it is to be critical than to be correct.
l) Like all great travellers, I have seen more than I remember and remember more than I have seen.
m) A conservative government is an organized hypocrisy.

I am not sorry to give you a list of quotations. When somebody speaks and writes so well,  why would I rewrite or paraphrase him? 

All right, he was not the most influential, the most moral, the most important person in history. But if I am honest, he was the one who really tweaked my interest when history was being presented as a syllabus heavy with corn laws and Bismarck and gold standards. (To this day the only thing I can recall about Bismarck is that he invented Black Velvet - Champagne and Guinness. Actually perhaps I should have chosen Bismarck . . . ) 

Disraeli was unusual, unmistakeable, interesting, funny, handsome, rude, he wrote novels, the Queen was in love with him. He was not like all the others. He woke me up in lessons where I was falling asleep. I will always owe him for that.

Thursday 26 July 2012

NEBAMUN - the Painted Tomb - Dianne Hofmeyr

Today, on Day 69 of the Olympic torch relay as it passes just a few roads away from where I live, I thought of choosing a favourite historical figure in Chelsea. In the 16th century this was known as The  Village of Palaces. Thomas More built the magnificent Beaufort House with its orchards and gardens running down to the Thames and in 1536 Henry VIII built a manor house for Katherine Parr near the present  Cheyne Walk. But I’ve turned to a man who'll never be remembered for being more than a Scribe and Grain-accountant. But yet…

Nebamun’s tomb was built and decorated sometime between 1400 and 1390 BC. No surviving inscription tells us its exact location and no records tell us who the original painters were. We can only speculate about how a temple accountant came to have his tomb decorated by such skilled artists. But the scenes tell us more about people living 3400 years ago, than any official record or history book could. So… a short visual journey of the work that now resides in the British Museum.

The pigmented paints were combined with a binder like plant gum and the brushes were made from the fibrous branches of date palms.The paint was very fluid and applied in layers so that skin tone is revealed under transparent linen folds and patterns are painted over the fabric of the cushions. The seated girls at the banquet offer each other lotus flowers to smell, they wear floral wreaths, perfumed wax cones, lavish gold ear-rings and the ends of their wigs are delicately braided.

In an intimate group of musicians two girls are shown face forward. As in all Ancient Egyptian paintings they have their mouths closed but the three on the left were probably singing the words written above them in hieroglyphics. Their wigs are lighter and less formal than those of the guests so they are probably of a lower status. Each sits with their feet elegantly folded and apart from gold ear-rings and bracelets they also wear nail polish or something that glistens on their fingertips. And Cutex thought they had captured the market!

In the fowling scene, Nebamun is spearing tilapia fish, the luxuriant growth of the marsh represented by decorative papyrus and waterfowl and butterflies fill the air. Even the ginger cat with spiky whiskers attacks a duck as it leaps up from some bending papyrus stems and at the same time clutches a bird between both its front and back paws.

In the pastoral scenes of the gooseherd and the cowherd driving Nebamun’s flocks of geese and cattle towards him, we see soft stippled grey and rust feathers in the swirling mass of the geese and the impatient cowherd with his rope in the midst of his herd.

I haven’t even touched on feasts of food and beautiful gardens but Nebamun’s tomb paintings survive and give us an image of a man who enjoyed the luxuries of life 3400 years ago. But as well as this, we see the humanity of the artists themselves in the details and brushstrokes of the paintings.

Eye of the Moon
Eye of the Sun
The Painted Tomb-Chapel of Nebamun by Richard Parkinson (British Museum Press)

Wednesday 25 July 2012

Charles II by Eleanor Updale

There's no point in me re-telling Charles II's story here.  It's easy enough to find the basic facts on thousands of Internet sites. Instead, here are few thoughts from me about why he is my choice for the History Girls' birthday month. 
But first some material for your pub quiz:  Did you know that the Duke of Cambridge (Prince William) becomes King, he will be the first direct descendant of Charles II to reach the throne?
It's all because of his mother, Princess Diana, whose ancestors included two of Charles's mistresses: 

Barbara Palmer (Villers), 1st Duchess of Cleveland, Countess of Castlemaine who produced Henry Fitzroy, 1st Duke of Grafton, and Louise Renée de Penancoët de Kérouaille, Duchess of Portsmouth, mother of Charles Lennox, 1st Duke of Richmond.

The Duchess of Portsmouth (Squintabella to Nell Gynn) is also an ancestor of The Duchess of Cornwall (Camilla Parker-Bowles) and The Duchess of York (Fergie).
Charles’s recognition and ennoblement of his bastards has turned out to be the gift that keeps on giving.  And the potential Charles III has received two of the presents.
By the way, if you are near London before 30th September, you can find out more about Charles’s women in an exhibition of portraits called The Beautiful and the Damned.  I haven’t been, so I can’t give an opinion on how good it is, but there is information here
And while I'm being frivolous, let me admit that the women and the wigs are part of the attraction where I'm concerned.  I don't know about you, but I'm getting a bit fed up with living in a world where the press imagines we prefer to be ruled exclusively by people no one wants to sleep with. It simply must have been more fun to have a figurehead with a smile on his face and some fire in his loins after the dowdy Commonwealth years.

But, birthday or no birthday, this is a serious website, so here is my serious point.  The other reason I like Charles II, or rather am attracted to his story and his era, is precisely because, as a child an young man, he lived through the Civil War and interregnum, and had a more varied and uncertain life than might have been expected for him at birth.  It seems that the experiences of his youth profoundly affected the atmosphere he created around him as a monarch, and though he himself did some pretty contemptible things (Secret diplomacy, a cavalier [ha ha] approach to Parliament, etc) he enabled, in others, achievements of lasting value which laid the foundations for the Enlightenment.

It always strikes me as odd that the textbook accounts of Charles pay little attention to his early life.

 He was only 12 when the Civil War broke out, and 19 when his father was executed. 

Now, while it can't have been that uncomfortable lodging in France with his cousin Louis the Sun King, or with royal relations in the Low Countries, it's important to remember that Charles couldn't have known what a hash Richard Cromwell would make of government, or that he would ever be invited to return as King. He must have grown accustomed to living in a different relationship to politics and God than that of his father and grandfather. Just as important, many of those who supported him before and after his exile lived through even more violent swings of fortune, (not just in the material sense, but in the level of confidence that they would stay alive). All of them had been forced to contemplate, and most had actually experienced, a life with little money, and precious little social status. And they all must have had a sense of how quickly their roles might change again.  

In many ways, living through the mid to late seventeenth century must have been like living in Eastern Europe in the late 20th or the Arab world in the early 21st.  Which horse do you back? Where do you draw the line between principle and a quiet life? And, on a personal level, what is the point of existence? The prospect of death focuses the mind, and for some can engender higher thoughts, which in quieter times can be the source of remarkable work.  Eventually, if only temporarily, societies settle down, and sometimes they have a little cultural spasm to go with it (if only, these days, winning the Eurovision song contest).  In Charles's realm, people were ready to take the breaks off, and he both left them to it, and sometimes lent a hand.

It mattered that he supported the Royal Society of Wren, Hooke and Pepys, even if his attention span was limited when it came to studying their scientific endeavours. He even (fleetingly, and before the Great Fire) took an interest in plans to improve the appearance and air quality in London through building controls and restrictions on the burning of coal.  After the fire, his personal interest in the reconstruction (not unaffected by the desire to match Louis VIII in self-aggrandisement) and his insistance on massive nationwide taxes and donations of wood, meant that Wren and Hooke could plan on a grand scale.  Thanks to him (and the influence of his exile in France) we have St James’s Park, St Paul's, and much, much, more.  
It mattered that Charles’s patronage brought painters like Lely and Kneller to the attention of other patrons who paid their bills.  It mattered that he, and the parliaments that served him, relaxed the censorship laws and allowed the Restoration dramatists to thrive.  And it also mattered that (if only, perhaps, to avoid too much scrutiny of his own religious stance) his world was relatively free of the need for public expositions of sectarian faith.  If you read the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society from the time, and much of the correspondents between the Fellows, what is striking is that God just isn't there. He's not denied, nor discussed, nor celebrated.  He's just exempted from the language.  Religious argument continued elsewhere, of course, with as much passion as ever. But Charles didn't join in, and created an atmosphere in which others felt entitled to use their minds relatively freely to think outside the bounds of dogma.

Charles was still a flamboyant consumer extraordinaire, but he showed off by riding in the park, where his subjects could see him, and he posed by supporting creative talent rather than suppressing it. 
And he turned the lights back on.  it's easy to sneer at the Merry Monarch label, but it stuck because the tone he set was appreciated,

I have put the case for Charles too strongly.  You will be able to provide copious examples of him behaving monstrously. Without doubt, some of the freedoms enjoyed by his subjects were accidental. 

In one area there’s a comic parallel with today. As the postal service grew, Charles tried to implement a ferocious surveillance system.  By aiming to read everything, his spies ended up finding next to nothing.  The task was simply unmanageable.  How like our world, where we have more CCTV cameras than we have people to watch them, and where the best place for a terrorist to hide must surely be the endless queue for the cursory attention of security staff at an airport, or at any public event wearing a fluorescent yellow vest? 
Charles was no civil libertarian, but it’s worth reflecting that the worst attempts to deal with threats to the state by imposing imprisonment without charge, trial, or knowledge of the evidence for the prosecution happened under William III - in a reign often lauded (at least to the east of the Irish Sea) for its liberalism, simply because it began with something called the Bill of Rights.
I’m persuaded by John Evelyn’s verdict on Charles.  Acknowledging his extravagance, he nevertheless described him as ‘a prince of many virtues and many great imperfections, debonair, easy of access, not bloody or cruel.’
But this is a birthday month, so back to the party games.  Do I really like Charles because of the women and the wigs?  What would he look like with different hair?

Oh dear. Not my type, at all, it turns out.  Superficial, Moi?

Tuesday 24 July 2012

The Colourful Life of Victoria Woodhull by Essie Fox

I came across Victoria Woodhull when researching Victorian spiritualists. I'd never heard about her before, and yet in 1872 she stood for the American Presidency. Not that she met with any success. At that time women had no legal vote and, on the day of Grant's re-election, his female rival was locked up behind bars on charges on libel and pornography.

But what had preceded such ignominy?

Buck Claflin

Born in Ohio to a family of shameless rogues, much of Victoria's early life was spent as a travelling preacher as part of her father's snake oil show. Always having been charismatic, with a talent to draw a crowd, the girl would pray and tell fortunes, claiming that she had the power to cure while her father - the one-eyed Reuben 'Buck' Claflin - stood at the back of his wagon and sold bottles of home-made medicine, the patented, opium-based Life Elixir.

At the age of fourteen Victoria fell ill, driven to the point of exhaustion after being deliberately starved as a means of enhancing her spiritual visions. She also claimed much later on that her father had sexually abused her when drunk and then tried to sell her as a whore. But then, she would soon enough be seduced when, during her convalescence, she was wooed by another fraud, this time an apparently well-to-do doctor known as Canning Woodhull.

Canning, who was then twenty-eight, asked for Victoria's hand in marriage, offering the girl a means of escape from her father's tyrannical grasping ways. But once again she was misused, for her 'doc' was no more than a worthless quack, an opium addict and womaniser who could not support his child bride and who was so drunk at the birth of their son that Victoria very nearly died, blaming her husband forever more for causing her son's severe mental impairment.

When contemplating returning back home Victoria came to realise that her role in the Claflin travelling show was had been taken by her sister, Tennessee. So, with husband and idiot son in tow, she set off for San Francisco, hoping to realise a dream that began when she was very small when she claimed to have had a vision in which the Greek orator, Demosthenes, foretold of her glorious destiny to lead the American people and to live in a city of ships and gold. San Francisco certainly fitted the bill, being the scene of the Gold Rush and also a sea port town. But all hopes of success were very soon crushed when Canning spent every cent he owned in drug dens or on prostitutes, and Victoria was left with no other choice but to support her family alone, working as a cigar girl in a bar, as an actress, and probably a whore.

Returning at last to Ohio, rather than joining Buck's latest venture (which was running a dubious hospital with his services being advertised as 'America's King of Cancers) she made other plans with Tennessee; the sisters working as spiritualists healers - though many have since come to suspect that they offered more physical sustenance too.

Colonel James Harvey Blood

It was while working in such a trade that Victoria met Colonel James Harvey Blood - a glamorous Civil War hero who shared her belief in 'other realms' and supported her destined future role as the leader of America. Leaving his respectable life behind, along with a wife and children, he joined Victoria and Tennessee when they ventured to make their mark in New York - another city of gold and ships.

At first times were very hard but the sisters' spiritualist business was soon being bolstered by the sale of contraceptive devices to prostitutes. Meanwhile, Blood was often absent, spending time with his brother who ran a newspaper business and there learning all the tricks of that trade such as publishing pamphlets and magazines which would bolster Victoria's future aims when she set her cap at the presidency.

Cornelius Vanderbilt

Before that, Buck Claflin turned up again. Having heard that the widowed Cornelius Vanderbilt, who was then America's richest man, was seeking the service of mediums, Buck contrived for the old man to meet with his daughters, after which matters rapidly progressed with Victoria become Vanderbilt's medium, and Tennessee established as his mistress. The sisters also offered financial tips, said to have come from the spirit world, but in truth only garnered from bankers who gossiped when visiting brothels. When the tips proved to be correct, Vanderbilt rewarded the women well, and with extra funds to support their cause they went on to cause a public sensation when establishing themselves in financial realms as Wall Street's first female brokers.

Cartoon showing the sisters' arrival in Wall Street

That enterprise brought further wealth and, with the aid of Colonel Blood, they founded a spiritualist newspaper, Woodhull and Claflin's Weekly, which soon became their political voice - and that voice was to reach a great many ears with the religion of Spiritualism being very widely followed then and offering a platform from which women's views could be expressed.

Victoria petitions the House

Hosting spectacular salons, Victoria soon courted the Women's Movement who supported her bid for the presidency. She lectured to enormous crowds beneath the popular banner of universal suffrage and equal rights. And then, in 1871, she made her way to Washington where she went on to petition the House at a Judiciary Committee.

Victoria as Mrs Satan

But her hopes began to crumble when Buck's criminal antics were raked up by the press along with salacious tales of her past. 'The Woodhull' was demonised and called Mrs Satan, and a crippling series of court cases led to her being sued and imprisoned. What's more her views regarding free love caused even more cases of social offence when combined with an ill-advised love affair with a married newspaper editor by the name of Theodore Tilton.

Theodore Tilton

It was a complicated affair. Like Victoria, Tilton believed in free love (although at the time this really meant the chance for women to decide whether or not they wished to divorce, and which men were their sexual partners, with Victoria also keen to expose the hypocrisy of many men who in private paid for prostitutes while speaking against them in public). Tilton's wife, who was called Lib, had been sexually involved with their friend, Henry Ward Beecher, a clergyman of great influence who had sworn to support Victoria's work. But when he went on to have second thoughts she swore to take her revenge, exposing his adultery with Lib - only to find herself involved in the 'Trial of the Century', from which Beecher was to emerge unscathed while the Tiltons were socially disgraced, and Victoria was viciously portrayed as a promiscuous pornographer. At the end of the trial she was ruined - politically, personally and financially.

Cartoon showing scenes as described in the 'Trial of the Century'

Her salvation came from Vanderbilt. When the old man died his heirs had been keen to hush up the truth of their father's past, and so offered Victoria and Tennessee a generous financial settlement - but only if they left America. It could not have come at a better time. Ever optimistic and enterprising, the two made their way to London, another city of gold and ships in which they reinvented themselves. Tennessee married a viscount and became known as Lady Cook while Victoria married John Biddulph Martin, a bachelor merchant banker. When he died, she was heartbroken - but rich - and withdrawing to their country estate she became a passionate motorist, founded a women's agricultural college, a village school, and a country club - at which Edward, the Prince of Wales was rumoured to be a visitor.

The respectable Mrs Biddulph Martin, posing with her husband

I wonder how Victoria felt when, at the age of eighty, universal suffrage was finally won. Certainly, at the time of her death she asked to be remembered thus -

'You cannot understand a man's work by what he has accomplished, but by what has overcome in accomplishing it.'

I admire Victoria Woodhull. In her own way she achieved so much. She overcame many difficulties. She was one of the brave Victorians who lived at a time when women were seen as no more than their husband's possessions. She paved the way for equality - though who knows when her dream will be realised - when a woman will enter the White House as the president of America.

Victoria Woodull led an amazing life of which only the surface has been touched here. For further reading I can thoroughly recommend 'Other Powers' by Barbara Goldsmith and Mary Gabriel's 'Notorious Victoria'. For younger readers there is Kathleen Krull's 'A Woman for President' with wonderful watercolour illustrations provided by Jane Dyer.

Essie Fox's novel The Somnambulist is a Victorian gothic mystery. Her second historical novel which is called Elijah's Mermaid will be published this coming November.