Monday, 20 April 2015

"Mary Boleyn" competition - winner!

British actress Charity Wakefield as Mary Boleyn in the television series Wolf Hall (2015)
The competition to win a copy of Sarah Bryson's new book "Mary Boleyn" has closed, and congratulations to Ines Eusebi, who correctly answered that the Christian or given name of Mary's mother was: Elizabeth.

There were over a hundred responses, and the names of everyone who gave the correct answer were entered into a random generator that then selected Ines's name. A huge thanks to everyone who participated, and to Sarah for stopping by to share her thoughts on Anne Boleyn's enigmatic sister.

Monday, 13 April 2015

"Mary Boleyn" by Sarah Bryson: giveaway and a look at Mary in popular culture

I am delighted to host a guest article from writer Sarah Bryson, who has just published her new book Mary Boleyn, a biography of Elizabeth I's longest-surviving aunt. The book has been released by Made Global, as part of their "In a Nutshell" series that provides short but thorough accounts of historical people, issues, and phenomenon (Claire Ridgway's instalment on the horror of the "sweating sickness" strain of plague in early modern England inaugurated the series.) 

As part of promoting her book, Sarah has stopped by to Confessions of a Ci-Devant with an article on changing perceptions of Mary Boleyn, who died in 1543, fifteen years before her niece succeeded to the throne and seven years after her younger sister lost her head in such hideous and murky circumstances. We are also giving away a copy of Sarah's book, with a question to be answered at the end of this article.

With that, over to Sarah!


A later portrait of Mary Boleyn
The Changing Perceptions of Mary Boleyn by Sarah Bryson

Mary Boleyn has gained quite a reputation for herself over the years - mistress of kings, whore, schemer, giddy girl with little intelligence, a fierce rival to her sister... Yet upon what are all of these perceptions based?

When first beginning my research on Mary Boleyn I was bombarded with modern day perceptions of the woman. but I wanted to wade through these to find out what the true Mary Boleyn was like. Unfortunately during her lifetime there seems to have been very little written about her personality, let alone her thoughts, feelings and beliefs.

Mary is described by Antonia Fraser in her book The Six Wives of Henry VIII as “a high spirited, rather giddy girl who enjoyed all the pleasures of the court on offer” (Fraser 1992, p. 124), yet when I looked up where exactly Fraser had gained this information about Mary Boleyn’s personality I could not find a single source. David Starkey in his book Six Wives: The Queens of Henry VIII describes Mary as “a placid and unremarkable girl. But she was very attractive to men, and found them irresistible too – or, at least, her resistance never seems to have lasted long” (Starkey 2004, p. 258). Once more when I tried to find out where Starkey had gained this information there was no source provided. So why is this perception of Mary Boleyn taken for granted?

First and foremost, it does not seem that during most of her life Mary Boleyn was ever considered to be a whore. She was acknowledged as King Henry VIII’s mistress from around 1522 to approximately 1525 and yet there were no recorded whispers or conversations about the young woman being a whore. In fact, there were families at the time, including the Boleyns, Howards and Seymours who openly pushed their female family members before the king in hopes of gaining his attention. It was hoped that through the woman’s relationship with the king the woman might have some influence in helping to further elevate other members of the family. Instead of being considered as a whore for sleeping with the king, it was often seen as quite beneficial and as a means of progressing members of the family.

It seems that the rumours and thoughts of Mary Boleyn being a whore came into play around the time that Anne Boleyn fell from power and was executed. Rodolfo Pio, Bishop of Faenza wrote a letter on March 10th 1536 stating that:

“Francis said also that they are committing more follies than ever in England, and are saying and printing all the ill they can against the Pope and the Church; that “that woman” pretended to have miscarried of a son, not being really with child, and, to keep up the deceit, would allow no one to attend on her but her sister, whom the French king knew here in France ‘per una grandissima ribalda et infame sopre tutte.’” - “a great prostitute and infamous above all”. (L&P x. 450)

The first thing that should be pointed out about this letter is that it was written with the sole purpose of discrediting Anne Boleyn during her final months. Pio writes that ‘that woman’ (Anne Boleyn) pretended to have miscarried a son. First and foremost, we know that Anne Boleyn did in fact miscarry a male foetus of approximately three and a half months in gestation on 29 January 1536. Secondly, it should be noted that he writes that Anne would let no one attend her but her sister. Mary Boleyn was banished from court in 1534 for not only marrying beneath her status but also for marrying without her sister and the king’s permission, and not to mention for being pregnant at the time. With two blatantly incorrect pieces of information written in this letter how can we believe what Pio is writing when he himself is getting the facts wrong?

Author Sarah Bryson
In reference to the French King ‘knowing’ Mary Boleyn in France and referring to her as a great prostitute, how did he know her? Did he know of her, as he was aware of her presence at the French Court, or had he physically known her? The word opens up a Pandora’s box of interpretation. Was the French king assuming she was a prostitute or did he know that for a fact? Was the French king even telling the truth? It may have been that twenty years after Mary was at the French court the king was simply boasting about a woman he barely remembered. This letter, riddled with falsehoods, does not provide enough evidence to suggest that Mary Boleyn even had any relationship with the Francis I,  let alone having been his mistress or whore!

Unfortunately, it seems that this perception of Mary Boleyn has filtered into modern portrayals of the woman. In the TV show The Tudors Mary is portrayed as a slightly dim-witted, giddy young woman, who loved all the excitement at court and who caught the attention of Henry VIII and was used until he grew tired of her. There is little more story development regarding her except that she appeared at court pregnant and her sister was disgusted and banished her. These perceptions of Mary seem to be based upon so-called facts which have little or no evidence to back them up.

The television mini-series Wolf Hall has done very little to help portray Mary Boleyn in a positive light either and has seemed to grasp these negative perceptions of Mary with both hands. Mary is shown as being quite rude and as having a fierce rivalry with her sister Anne. Then, quite shockingly, she is shown on more than one occasion trying to seduce Thomas Cromwell! There is not a shred of evidence to suggest that Mary Boleyn had any interest in Cromwell, never mind her trying to actively pursue or seduce him. This addition into the series only added to the perception that Mary Boleyn had loose morals and that she used her sexual appeal and persuasion to get what she wanted.

Scarlett Johansson starring as Mary Boleyn in the 2008 movie The Other Boleyn Girl
The movie The Other Boleyn Girl, based on Philippa Gregory’s novel, did a slightly better job at portraying Mary Boleyn. Played by the stunning Scarlett Johansson, Mary was shown as a woman with thoughts, feelings and desires. Instead of a one-dimensional character, she was shown to care about those around her, including her sister Anne. The movie does portray a strong rivalry between the sisters, although much of that comes from Anne Boleyn’s desire to attract Henry VIII’s attention for herself, or as it seems to ‘steal’ Henry from Mary.

There is no evidence at all to suggest any sort of rivalry between Mary and Anne.  In fact, after her banishment from court, Mary wrote to Thomas Cromwell, right hand man of Henry VIII, asking for his assistance to “recover the king’s gracious favour and the queen’s”. Mary also wrote that “her grace is so highly displeased with us both that without the king be so good lord to us as to withdraw his rigour and sue for us we are never likely to recover her grace’s favour: which is too heavy to bear” (Howard, A Collection of Letters, p. 525-257). Clearly Mary is upset that she has lost the favour and love of her sister, so why are the sisters portrayed in modern media as having such a fierce rivalry?

When there was so little recorded about what Mary Boleyn was truly like, why has such a negative perception of her developed over the centuries?  In modern times, she has become a woman often shown as having loose morals, using her sexual charms to gain what she wants, having a fierce rivalry with her sister Anne and more often than not being rather unintelligent. I wonder where these changing perceptions of Mary have come from and more importantly why? Have these ideas of Mary Boleyn grown out of misconceptions and not checking facts correctly? Or have they simply been generated to create a better story for modern viewers? If so, then I would argue that is a great shame as when all the false perceptions are stripped away Mary Boleyn is a fascinating woman. She travelled to France at just fourteen years of age, became a mistress to King Henry VIII, had two healthy children and defied all the social rules of the time and married for love. This is a far better story than that of a dim-witted whore! 


Win a copy of Mary Boleyn by Sarah Bryson

To win, simply answer the question below by leaving your answer and contact e-mail address in the comments section. Neither will be published, but instead they'll be used in a random generator to pick a winner from all those who get the answer correct!

Question: What was the Christian name of Mary Boleyn's mother?

The competition will stay open until 20th April 2015. 

Thursday, 26 March 2015

A History of the English Monarchy

Henry V at Agincourt. Throughout the book, I am fascinated by the ways in which the legends of Camelot fuelled the monarchy's veneration of martial victory.
I am very excited to say that my new book A History of the English Monarchy: From Boadicea to Elizabeth I was released this week by MadeGlobal Publishing. I've been writing about the monarchy on this blog for a few years, so it was great fun to write the story of the Crown from its beginnings under Roman rule, right the way through to the accession of the first 'British', as opposed to English, sovereign in 1603. Thank you so much to everyone who has commented on my royal history posts in the past; for those who order History, I hope you enjoy it! Throughout, I was fascinated by the influence of the Arthurian legends in shaping how English kings, and their subjects, viewed and shaped the early monarchy. I was also particularly interested in telling the story of how the English Crown interacted with its Welsh, Scottish, and Irish neighbours, so chapters 3, 4, and 7 are heavy on exploring the often surprising story of how each part of the British Isles related to one another in that fascinating, bloody, compelling period of History. UK customers can order the book here; US and Canadian customers here.

The blurb reads: In A History of the English Monarchy, historian Gareth Russell traces the story of the English monarchy and the interactions between popular belief, religious faith and brutal political reality that helped shape the extraordinary journey of one of history’s most important institutions. From the birth of the nation to the dazzling court of Elizabeth I, A History of the English Monarchy charts the fascinating path of the English monarchy from the uprising of the Warrior Queen, Boadicea, in AD 60, through each king and queen up to the 'Golden Age' of Elizabeth I. Russell offers a fresh take on a fascinating subject as old as the nation itself.

INFORMATION: Each chapter is divided into sections, chronicling the monarchy’s story.

Chapter 1 - Conquest: The violent birth of the monarchy
* Britannia
* The Barbarian Conspiracy
* Seven Kingdoms
* Praying men, fighting men, and working men
* Edward the Confessor

Chapter 2 - God, Life and Victory: The coming of the Normans
* The Conqueror
* The Red King
* Beauclerc
* When Christ and His saints slept
* The Lioness in Winter

Chapter 3 - From Scotland to Spain: The empire of the Plantagenets

* Eleanor
* Henry
* Diarmait na nGall
* Murder in the Cathedral
* Family Strife
* Come, and see the place
* Sic Gloria Transit Mundi

Chapter 4 - Diluted Magnificence: The birth of Parliament
* The Wrath of God abideth upon him
* Crowned with a bracelet
* Know, Sire, that Llywelyn ap Gruffydd is dead
* The Jewish Diaspora
* Until a king is provided

Chapter 5 - Enemies Foreign and Domestic: The fourteenth-century monarchy
* Our friends do fail us all
* The glory of the English
* Shameless fire was thus mixed with sacred flame

Chapter 6 - Spilled Blood Does Not Sleep: The Wars of the Roses

* Necessitas non habet legem
* This story shall the good man teach his son
* The lords in England kill their enemies
* The sun in splendour
* No more sons of the royal blood

Chapter 7 - As the Law of Christ Allows: The rule of the Tudors
* The Welsh Moses
* Bluff King Hal
* The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn
* Deborah and Josiah
* The Queen of Scotland rises on the world
* That Good Old Princess

Epilogue - The word 'must'

Saturday, 31 January 2015

A few days in Oxford

Good morning! This was my view as I emerged from work yesterday afternoon. I am back in Oxford, carrying out some research for my biography of Catherine Howard, Young and Damned and Fair, which will be out next year. I'm so happy to be back here, working in the Bodleian again. When I was an undergrad here, I had my own preferred place to work, and the habit has stuck. My current nook of choice is in the Bod's Upper Reading Room, down by the windows that overlook the Bridge of Sighs, behind me, and the entrance to Holywell Street and what was once the History Faculty Library. Now, all the History books for the faculty are kept in the Gladstone Link, an underground facility with a tunnel that runs beneath the cobblestones. It's a bunker of books.

I got in yesterday morning and stayed at the Randolph Hotel again. I am a sucker for a good poached egg, and along with not being able to carry any kind of musical note in song, not being able to execute the perfect one myself is a huge regret. (Resolution for 2015?) The poachies this morning were fantastic - so I have no excuse after a good breakfast not to be as productive as possible for the rest of the day. The library closes a little early at the weekends, so this evening I'm having dinner with one of my favourite people in the world, a dear friend who I first met in these cobbled streets. I'm telling myself that these evening plans are a good incentive to plough through some very questionable handwriting, even by sixteenth-century standards. I'll think of it as earning rewards, and whatnot.

I am going to keep you all posted about how the research is going over the next few months, and where I'm off to. In the meantime, I'm off to some sixteenth-century wills. Have a wonderful day. 

Monday, 29 December 2014

My Top 10 Books of 2014

Good evening!

This was a great year for books, I think. The year started of well for fans of the sixteenth century with Lauren Mackay's fantastic biography of the diplomat Eustace Chapuys, which I reviewed and loved. If you're interested in the Tudor court or in the world of diplomacy, do pick up a copy. Since then, I've brought these books to New Haven, Oxford, London, Portballintrae and Gloucestershire with me and they have been great company. I'm currently working my way through two books that I hoped to finish before the end of the year - The Six Wives and Many Mistresses of Henry VIII by Amy Licence and The Medieval Housewife and other women of the Middle Ages by Toni Mount, both of which I'll post more about in the new year. From Inside the Tudor Court on, here are my ten favourite reads of 2014, in order of publication.

1. Finding Camlann by Sean Pidgeon (novel) (published by W. W. Norton & Company)  This novel reads as a love letter to Oxford no less effusive than Brideshead Revisited, but in this case the story of an archaeologist on the quest for the historical origins of the legend of King Arthur allows the story to lovingly evoke the one side of Oxford life that Brideshead tried to avoid at all costs - actual academics. Long and haunting descriptions of the British countryside and a crackling dynamic between the archaeologist and an employee at the Oxford English Dictionary make this a short but cerebral novel that I absolutely loved. It had me hooked, I stayed up to finish it and I hope we'll see more from Sean Pidgeon in 2015. (Full review to follow)

2. Four Sisters: The Lost Lives of the Romanov Grand Duchesses by Helen Rappaport (non-fiction) (published by Macmillan) I thought Helen Rappaport's Ekaterinburg, about the weeks preceding the murder of the Romanov family in 1918, was a triumph of a book and while the decision to write the first full-length biography of Nicholas II's daughters meant that Four Sisters lacked the dramatic intensity of her earlier work, Rappaport managed to produce a deeply moving and painstakingly researched account of the Grand Duchesses Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia. Their childish quarrels, the friends they made when they volunteered as nurses during the Great War, the Grand Duchess Olga's deep love for a wounded soldier and the twilight of Imperial Russia intersect to produce an intimate account of four too-short lives.

3. George Boleyn: Tudor Poet, Courtier and Diplomat by Clare Cherry and Claire Ridgway (non-fiction) (published by Made Global) One of three of Henry VIII's brothers-in-law to end his life beneath the headsman's axe, George Boleyn was no saint and no prude, either. But he emerges from the pages of Clare Cherry and Claire Ridgway's biography as a committed and talented young man with a sincere passion for the Protestant faith. Cherry and Ridgway know their subject and his world, and they use that knowledge to lift him from the shadow thrown by his famous sister, rehabilitating him while never failing to remind us of the grizzly world in which he lived and died. 

4. How to Ruin a Queen: Marie Antoinette, the Stolen Diamonds and the Scandal that Shook the French Throne by Jonathan Beckman (non-fiction) (published by John Murray) I don't know what it is about the Affair of the Necklace, but it seems to produce more than its fair share of historical works that could also be praised for their literary merits. In 1942, the Hungarian-Jewish writer Antal Szerb produced a book called The Queen's Necklace which, if you can find it, cannot come any more highly recommended. It is utterly beautiful. Likewise, Jonathan Beckman's account of one of the greatest jewellery heists in history is written in such a delicious style that, if edible, it would produce moomoo-necessitating levels of obesity. It was a joy to read this book and Beckman works through the initiators, and victims, of the Affair with consummate skill. Like Szerb's book, and Antonia Fraser's biography, it left me feeling even more sorry for poor Marie-Antoinette, but it also managed to delve deeper than before into the murky personality of the Comtesse de la Motte and it's the inescapable whiff of that dreadful woman that lingered long after I finished reading. 

5. The Creeper by Emerald Fennell (novel) (published by Bloomsbury) I bought this sequel to Shiverton Hall because the author is a good friend of mine and because I thoroughly enjoyed the first book in the series. On a side note, I have such a low threshold for any kind of horror that if Emerald does ever turn her hand to writing that genre for adults, you will find me manfully dousing myself in water from Lourdes and using rosaries like lassos. But I digress. This creepy and intrigue-laden ghost story at a ghoulish English boarding school is perfect for children or for those of us who have never been able to see the clock turn to 3 a.m. again without silent tears courtesy of The Exorcism of Emily Rose. 

6. Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China by Jung Chang (non-fiction) (published by Vintage) Chairman Mao's biographer returns with this compelling and page-turning life of the notorious "Dragon Empress" who presided over the waning years of the Chinese monarchy. Cixi's insatiable ambition, murderous self-promotion and pathological meddling usually cause bile to mix with ink in the historian's pen, but Chang offers up enough of the Empress's virtues, namely her hard-headed pragmatism, her charisma and her impressive list of political victories to balance the scales. 

7. The Paradise Tree by Elena Maria Vidal (novel) (published by CreateSpace) Like Finding Camlann, this is a cerebral book with a love of nature underpinning its dialogue. Here, it's a defence of Catholicism and the experience of Irish immigrants as they set out for a new life in Canada and the United States during the reign of Queen Victoria. The grasp of Irish colloquialisms  is impressive, as is the way Irish words peppered conversation even before the Gaelic Revival at the end of the century led, irony of ironies, by the privileged offspring of the Protestant Ascendancy. A love of domesticity, quotes from the Bible and Irish folk songs to start each chapter, and a pretty heartbreaking subplot about how far one character will go to prosper in their new homeland made The Paradise Tree a thought-provoking read. (Full review to follow)

8. Eleanor of Castile: The Shadow Queen by Sara Cockerill (non-fiction) (published by Amberley) Proof that biographies of medieval personalities don't have to succumb to flights of fantasy, The Shadow Queen was a wonderful read about a supreme multi-tasker. Businesswoman, landlady, princess, politician, adviser, wife, mother and patron of the arts, Eleanor of Castile also managed to keep the royalist home fires burning during the Second Barons' War. Like the indomitable Hapsburg Empress Maria Teresa five centuries later, Eleanor didn't seem to find being nearly-constantly pregnant a deterrent. The invasion of Wales and the Diaspora are also dealt with. I would say that The Shadow Queen deserves to be considered the definitive biography of its subject.

9. Edward II: The Unconventional King by Kathryn Warner (non-fiction) (published by Amberley) Sympathetic without being sentimental, The Unconventional King is as much a warning against trusting in the power of repetition as it is a biography of a monarch whose disastrous reign ended in his deposition and mysterious disappearance. Warner uses every contemporary source available to her to prove that nearly every popular image of King Edward II is totally unfounded - the effeminate appearance, the domestic cruelty, the cowardice, the alleged illegitimacy of his eldest child and the grotesque cameo of a red hot poker in his final moments. They're all bunkum. She's also refreshingly frank about what his bisexuality, to use a word familiar to us but alien to him, and lays out the evidence to support her view that his relationship with Piers Gaveston, Earl of Cornwall was probably a romantic one. Gutsy, outgoing, strong, handsome and with a flair for bonhomie, Edward II has clearly caught Kathryn Warner's interest and she's repaid him with a stellar and brutally honest account of his life. 

10. Midnight at the Pera Palace: The Birth of Modern Istanbul by Charles King (non-fiction) (published by W. W. Norton & Company) It is hard to put into words how much I enjoyed Midnight at the Pera Palace. A social history of the city of Istanbul from the end of the First World War to the aftermath of the Second, the narrative is framed around a hotel that was built to attract a European clientele. Fantastically written, perfectly structured and with a cast of hundreds of men and women who visited the hotel from the fall of the Ottoman sultanate through the tortured birth of the Turkish republic, Midnight at the Pera Palace is a grand story of humanity. It is modern history at its finest. I could not put it down and I plan to visit the city next year. 

Friday, 5 December 2014

The ghosts of Versailles

Stephanie Dale as Marie-Antoinette (seating) with Rebecca Lenaghan as Gabrielle de Polignac

This December, I have been working on a revival of my play The Gate of the Year, the storyline of which is based on the outbreak of the French Revolution. Beginning with the final Christmas at Versailles in 1788 and moving on to three weeks after the fall of the Bastille in 1789, the play updates to the story to a modern setting - although, with its preoccupation with gender, status and etiquette, it's not quite modern in the way we would identify it. Cailum Carragher, who plays the Minister of Police, describes it as adrift "in time and place" - a far more lovely way to put it, I suppose.

Lifting characters who lived and died in the fading decades of the eighteenth century to set them adrift in the choppy currents of an imagined twentieth was not, strange to say, a particularly difficult process, but it was fascinating. I think I shall leave them, temporarily, with great reluctance. They have a way of settling under your skin, by leaping out to you across the centuries - they are so vivid, so relatable, I think, even in their oddity. There is something tangible about them; it's hard not to feel drawn toward them. Stephanie Dale, who plays Marie-Antoinette, and who has recently finished filming for the BBC series The Sparticle Mystery, reflects, "I am sympathetic towards her because of what she has had to endure emotionally. Growing up, her life was supposed to have been perfect and she had a terrible time with the press. One of my favourite lines is 'it was not a complete pleasure to live out the greatest fairy tale of the century.' Marie Antoinette has been hurt by publicity and she knew what people expected of her and her marriage, but she is also extremely strong for having the ability to endure it. The amount she takes on emotionally and physically in the course of this play is quite extensive and for this reason I admire her." As Marie-Antoinette hurtles towards a fate she would never have chosen for herself there is, to me anyway, something magnificent about the way she decides "not to go quietly into the night." In Stephanie's words, "She has chosen her destiny and chosen to take action which is an extremely admirable part of her personality."

Mercedes Sharma, who plays another female icon of the revolutionary era, liberal republicanism's "angel of assassination" Charlotte Corday, is another actress playing someone who goes down the rabbit hole as the Revolution engulfs them all. Throughout the rehearsal process, Mercedes has always maintained that her character is one of the most identifiable for modern audiences. "Having gotten to know the characters I still think they are the most relatable," she says. "I believe that convincing yourself that things happen for the greater good (something that Marat does throughout) is part of human nature. Charlotte is like all young people with a passion for something, her passion and dreams just happen to turn into her own personal living hell."

Daniel Kelly as Jean-Paul Marat and Mercedes Sharma as Charlotte Corday
In this re-imagined world of The Gate of the Year, Corday actually knows her victim, Jean-Paul Marat, in a friendship where her idealism contrasts with his hard-nosed, brutal pragmatism. However, Mercedes is more ambivalent about Charlotte Corday than the real Corday's nineteenth century admirers were. She's not so sure that anyone emerges from the revolutionary period completely untainted: "At the start of the play I think Charlotte's willingness to throw herself into the revolutionary world, whether she truly understands what she is getting into or not, almost inspires Marat to become the monster we know him to be by the end. Both need each others' approval but in all honesty I don't think either of them realise that until it tears them apart."

Grappling with personal and moral ambiguities is what makes this story so appealing to me as a writer and Tom Flight, who returns to the role of France's doomed King Louis XVI articulates this well when reflecting on his character's dire reputation as a failed monarch who helped grease the slippery slope to chaos. "I think the reason why he is often thought of as weak and pathetic is because Louis suffered from incredible self-doubt in his ability to rule which lead to uncertainty in decision making. This makes Louis easy to mock as it goes against the traditional ideas of a strong monarch. But in The Gate of the Year, you see the complexity of the decisions that Louis faced and how he was caught between the deep-seated traditions of the Aristocracy and the blazing rage of the revolutionaries. One of my favourite lines in the play is when Marie-Antoinette says of Louis “He chose being kind over being good.” Louis tried until the end to do the right thing, but the consequences of his decisions were horrific. I actually believe Louis was a better King than most. But," he concedes, "he was perhaps the wrong monarch at the wrong time."

Both Stephanie and Tom interpreted the marriage of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette much more favourably than most portrayals of them. Marie-Antoinette has been played on screen by actresses like Norma Shearer (who was nominated for an Oscar for the role in 1938), Jane Seymour, Joely Richardson, Kirsten Dunst and Diane Kruger, but in many, particularly in the 1938 role, Louis is played as a kind-hearted dunce, almost a caricature. Stephanie sees Marie-Antoinette as "unquestionably faithful" to her husband (rumours dogged the Queen, then and later, that she had an affair with the handsome Swedish soldier, Count Axel von Fersen, but I agree with writers like Jonathan Beckman and Elena Maria Vidal that there is no evidence to support that she was ever unfaithful to her husband). Of their marriage, Tom, who read the historian Vincent Cronin's account of the royal marriage, reflects, "I believe they loved each other unquestionably. Through being forced into a politically motivated arranged marriage a unique bond between them was formed. Louis also never had mistresses (unlike many of his predecessors) and his faithfulness shows a commitment and devotion to the marriage that was rare in Versailles. I believe their marriage was a happy and loving one, and Stephanie Dale’s wonderful performance as Marie-Antoinette sublimely captures the shock and torment as the fairy-tale turns into a nightmare."

Robert Morley and an Oscar-nominated Norma Shearer as Louis and his wife in 1938's Marie Antoinette
The story of the fall of the French monarchy is a grand political drama and a complex series of personal tragedies and triumphs. Tom Flight's favourite moment in the play takes place as the monarchy enters its endgame. "My favourite moment to perform is Act II, Scene VIII (photo below) between Louis and [his younger brother] Charles, performed by the outstanding David Paulin," he told me. "An empire has fallen, but in this scene the emotions of the situation are played out in a sibling squabble. I believe Louis always felt in the shadow of his younger brother, even that he was perhaps more suited to being King, and it is quite heart-breaking the way he admits his failure to his brother. Charles also has bitter regret he couldn’t do more for his country which, in part, was due to Louis’s decisions, and he can’t help but kick Louis while he’s at his lowest. But the scene remains a moment between two brothers. Despite the violent anger and high emotion neither can get away from the indelible nature of family and brotherhood."

Shimmering just beyond our reach, the "crucible of our modernity", the ghosts of Versailles, those who lived in it and those who destroyed it, present an eerily modern set of possibilities to depict, not so much a world in its twilight, as a timeless tale of human greatness, weakness, cruelty, wisdom, folly and hope.
Photographs by Ella McMaster.

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Portrait of an Ageing Elizabeth I

Glenda Jackson as Elizabeth I in the BBC series Elizabeth R

As part of the promotions for my new book An Illustrated Introduction to the Tudors, On the Tudor Trail very kindly hosted an article I wrote about a portrait that shows Elizabeth I in her twilight years. You can read the full article here and I hope you enjoy it.
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