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.

Monday, 17 November 2014

Friday, 7 November 2014

Royal inbreeding: how reliable is one of history's most popular stories?

The Hapsburg Emperor Leopold I by Jan Thomas van Leperen, c. 1667

Portraits of the slack-jawed and bug-eyed Hapsburgs, hair fair and stare glazed, are a staple part of any discussions on one of the most familiar accusations hurled at the European royal houses: namely, that they were habitually inbred. By the time pretty Marie-Antoinette was born into the family in 1755, along with her bevy of attractive sisters, something had evidently worked itself out, to say nothing of the statuesque handsome poise of a young Franz Josef in the next century. However, the charge that the entire aristocratic and royal houses of Europe were essentially mad, bad and dangerous to know because they only married their cousins is repeated so often that it is taken to be veritable fact. Reviews of the wildly inaccurate historical romp Anonymous suggested that the unhinged behaviour of an ageing Elizabeth I (Vanessa Redgrave) must have been caused in part being the offspring of too much royal inbreeding (Elizabeth I's parents, Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, were by no means closely related, but that's apparently by the by.)

However, I argue in my book The Emperors that the story of royalty being in-bred is in fact hugely exaggerated and I began by looking at the story of the most famous of its casualties, the Spanish side of the Hapsburg clan, in a chapter called The Dual Monarchy, giving an overview of the Austrian monarchy.
The Spanish branch of the Hapsburg clan had died out in 1700 after generations of inbreeding. This was never as much of a problem with their less insular Austrian cousins, and it is almost entirely to the Spanish side of the family that we owe the popular stereotype of royalty as habitual inbreds. That point has been both overstated and misunderstood. It is worth noting that in the medieval and early modern period what we would now recognise as inbreeding or incest was not uncommon. In an age when very few people left the village, town or county where they had grown up, inbreeding across the course of several generations was inevitable, regardless of one's social class. Royalty could no more marry outside the sacred confines of their class than most of their subjects could marry outside the limits of their locality.

So, it did occur, but no more or less than within the vast majority of the early modern populations. As attitudes changed and our horizons expanded, royalty moved towards marrying people to whom they were related as faintly as anyone marrying today, in much the same way as nearly everyone in the British Isles with Anglo-Saxon ancestry is likely to be, in some faint way, a descendant of the medieval king Edward III with his numerous children. The marriages to Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, Diana Spencer and Catherine Middleton were part of a trend set by many factors in history, including changing attitudes to class, love and geography. 

Monday, 3 November 2014

My new book and a year of life with Catherine Howard



I am absolutely delighted to be say that my biography of Catherine Howard, Young and Damned and Fair: The Life and Tragedy of Catherine Howard at the court of King Henry VIII, will be published in the US and Canada by Simon & Schuster and by HarperCollins in the UK and rest of the Commonwealth.

I first wrote about Catherine's household as part of my postgraduate research at Queen's University, Belfast, in 2011 and it has been wonderful to return to her.

Over the next year, as I work on the manuscript, I'd like to share some of that experience with you by posting a few photographs of the places I'm travelling to and the research I'm carrying out! In the meantime, you can visit my Facebook page or follow me on Instagram and Twitter. Next week, I'll be in Oxford in the warmth of its wonderful archives and libraries that I am elated to return to. 

I'm very excited for this project.

Gareth

Friday, 31 October 2014

An Unconventional King and a fantastic story: An interview with Kathryn Warner




Knowledge is a compellingly beautiful thing and by that I mean the kind possessed by the master of their trade, rather than the jack. When one is in the company of someone whose awareness of their subject is so deep and so painstakingly researched, it is a privilege to hear them speak, particularly if their words bounce easily with a confident rather than a phlegmatic intelligence. That is the experience of reading Kathryn Warner's superb biography Edward II: The Unconventional King. Outside of Queer Theory classrooms, Edward II does not enjoy a kindly reputation. He was portrayed as a sniveling incompetent, a pathetic and faintly homophobic caricature, in the hit movie Braveheart, while a recent biography of his glamorous wife compared his government to one of depraved and vicious terror.

Kathryn Warner sets out to rescue Edward II from the calumnies heaped upon him and she does so with success, because it is quite clear upon reading this book that the author is a lady who has spent years researching every detail of her subject's tumultuous life. Edward II, king and man, emerge from this biography not just as an unconventional king, but as a fascinating person.

Warner's book wears its sympathies openly and honestly. I have no problem with sympathetic biographies - one only need thing of Eric Ives's take on Anne Boleyn, Amanda Foreman's on Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, or Dominic Lieven's on Tsar Nicholas II - to know that a sympathetic biography can often produce the finest scholarship, as the author is inspired to delve deeper to produce the truth about someone who they have come to admire or pity, as well as remain fascinated by. (Likewise, biographies with a more critical hue, like Leanda de Lisle's account of Lady Jane Grey or Anna Sebba's account of Wallis Simpson, can often produce gems of historical writing. The crucial component seems to be emotional honesty with the subject.)

The biography that An Unconventional King has most in common with, at least in terms of its tone, is Lady Antonia Fraser's 2002 bestseller, Marie Antoinette: The Journey. Both Fraser and Warner are very clearly on their subjects' side, and while both are more than prepared to recount their mistakes and follies, they underscore the humanising, empathy-generating or admirable qualities firmly because both royals have suffered a fate that saw their historical reputation torn asunder and their reality buried beneath a hundred petty, obscuring lies.

This is a beautiful, thought-provoking and compelling life of one of England's most enigmatic kings, who emerges from the shadows as a flawed but oddly likable prince. Anyone interested in monarchy or the Middle Ages will enjoy this superb book.

***

As part of her blog tour promoting "Edward II: The Unconventional King" I am delighted to welcome Kathryn Warner, who's here to answer a few questions about her book.


Kathryn Warner holds two degrees in medieval history from the University of Manchester. She is considered a foremost expert on Edward II and an article from her on the subject was published in the English Historical Review. She has run a website about him since 2005 and a Facebook page about him since 2010 and has carved out a strong online presence as an expert on Edward II and the fourteenth century in general. Kathryn teaches Business English as a foreign language and lives between Dusseldorf and Cumbria.

1. Kathryn, you've spent years researching Edward II's life and reign. When did you first become interested in him?

I studied medieval history and literature at Manchester University, where I gained a BA and MA with Distinction, but, despite writing an essay about Edward II in my second year as an undergraduate, I somehow always felt that he was the medieval king of England I knew least about.  All that changed several years later, when I was reading a novel which mentioned Edward's great-uncle Richard of Cornwall, Henry III's brother.  I started reading about and researching Richard and his family, and this led me inexorably to Edward II.  Once I started reading about Edward, I couldn't stop, and felt that I'd finally found the thing I was meant to be doing in life - researching Edward II, his reign, his life, his family. everything about him.  In 2005, I began writing a blog about him to try to correct the many inaccurate stories told about him and to make him much better known, and I still write it regularly and it's had almost a million readers by now.  The historian Ian Mortimer suggested some years ago that I should write a full-length biography of Edward, so I did, and it was great fun.  I'm so thrilled to be getting his story out there to a wider audience.


2. One of the things that's often repeated about Edward II is that he was not the biological father of his son and heir, Edward III. But in your book, you argue that it's more or less impossible that Edward II didn't father Edward III. Why do you think that myth has proved so durable? 

This myth was first invented in 1982 by Paul Doherty in his novel Death of a King, and popularised by the 1995 film Braveheart, which makes William Wallace the father of Isabella's child - impossible given that Wallace was executed on 23 August 1305 when Isabella was only nine or ten and still in France, and more than seven years before her and Edward II's eldest child Edward III was born on 13 November 1312.  I can always tell when Braveheart has been on television somewhere in the world as the number of searches along the lines of 'Did William Wallace father Isabella's child?' which reach my blog dramatically increase, usually a few thousand hits within mere hours.  The huge popularity of the film is a large part of what drives belief in this myth, and it also continues to be perpetuated because some people are determined to think that because Edward II was a lover of men, he must automatically have been incapable of intercourse with women.  These people miss the fact that Edward and Isabella had three younger children as well, and that Edward fathered an illegitimate son, Adam.  Isabella did later have a relationship with the baron Roger Mortimer, long after her children were born, and he has often been put forward as the real father of Edward III.  This is impossible, however, as Roger was several hundred miles away from Isabella when all her and Edward II's children - Edward III, John, Eleanor and Joan - were conceived.


3. Something that struck me so much when I read your book was how human Edward seemed and the quirks and kindness that he was capable of. What is your favourite anecdote about him? 

For all his faults, Edward could be extraordinarily generous, kind and loyal to people he loved and who pleased him.  I've found so many wonderful entries in his household accounts detailing how he loved chatting with fishermen, carpenters, shipwrights and the like, how he spent time at the wedding of Lady Hastings' daughter in 1326 with a servant who "made him laugh very greatly," how he gave a pound to a woman he drank with on the way to Scotland in 1310, how he stood by a river near Doncaster in November 1322 to watch a group of fishermen fishing, how he played a ball game with some of his household at Saltwood in Kent in 1326 while waiting for two envoys from the pope to arrive, and so on.  To choose my favourite anecdote is hard as there are so many, but it's probably this one: on 25 July 1326, when Edward was sailing along the Thames near his palace of Sheen with his niece Eleanor Despenser, he gave a gift of two shillings to a fisherman called John de Waltham.  The reason?  John had given him a bucket of loach, and also "sang before the king every time he passed by water through these parts."  John, the singing fisherman, entertaining the king every time he sailed past; what a wonderful image!



4. The marriage between Edward II and his controversial queen, Isabella of France, is usually presented as a miserable one, but you see it as much more complicated?

Absolutely.  There's a tendency nowadays to depict their relationship in the most one-dimensional manner imaginable, as though it was nothing but a unloving, unhappy disaster from start to finish, which is just silly if you ask me. Surely we all know as human beings that relationships which last for many years change and evolve over time, they're not static, and for heaven's sake, people feel much more than one emotion towards their partner of nearly two decades!  There is much evidence that Edward and Isabella's marriage was, for a long time, a successful and mutually affectionate, even loving, one.  It ended spectacularly badly, of course, but that doesn't mean it had always been bad or was doomed from the beginning, and much of Isabella's behaviour in 1325/26 strongly suggests to me that she was deeply distressed at the breakdown of her marriage and the intrusion into it of Edward's last and most powerful favourite, Hugh Despenser. There is no evidence at all that she disliked Edward's previous favourites such as Piers Gaveston and Roger Damory, whose relationships with Edward she seemed to view as entirely separate from her own.  Edward showed little interest in Isabella at the start of their marriage, but given that he was twenty-three and she only twelve it's hard to blame him for that, and as she grew older, he grew to love her.  Probably not in the same passionate all-consuming way he loved Piers Gaveston, but love nonetheless, as an eyewitness to Edward and Isabella's visit to Paris in 1313 declared.  For her part, Isabella addressed Edward in letters as 'my very sweet heart' and 'my very dear and very sweet lord and friend', which is highly unconventional and hints at her strong feelings for him.



5. Finally, a question I love to ask historians: if someone came along and decided to make a television series on your life of Edward II and you had a say in casting - money is no object - who would you cast as Edward II, Piers Gaveston and Queen Isabella?

For Edward II, Chris Hemsworth, as he's big and tall and fair-haired.  For Piers Gaveston, Ben Barnes.  For Isabella, the French actress Stéphanie Crayencour.


Chris Hemsworth - Kathryn's choice for a convincing-looking Edward II


Stéphanie Crayencour for Edward's French wife, Queen Isabella
Ben Barnes, of Prince Caspian and A Portrait of Dorian Grey, for Edward's great love, Piers Gaveston, Earl of Cornwall





Tuesday, 21 October 2014

My new book is out next week!



Good afternoon! I am delighted to announce that I have a new book out next week with Amberley. As part of their gorgeous "An Illustrated Introduction to..." series, a set of books giving an introduction for adults to a particular historical topic, they asked me to write the installment on the Tudors. (As readers of this blog will know, I've written about them a lot!) They've picked some absolutely beautiful illustrations for the book, including my favourite portrait of Elizabeth I, as she approached old age. It's so moving!

An Illustrated Introduction to the Tudors covers the private lives and political roles of all the Tudor monarchs, as well as providing snapshots into issues like - sex in Tudor England, burning at the stake, the myth of Anne Boleyn's six fingers and whether or not Henry VIII had syphilis.

It's available through Amberley and online book stores, like Amazon and the Book Depository.
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