ISABELLA: SHE-WOLF OF FRANCE, QUEEN OF ENGLAND by Alison Weir (Review)

Let’s start with the title. First, the “of France”: true she was born in France, was “the daughter of the King of France and the Queen of Navarre,” and as such “a great prize in the marriage market: no queen of England before her had boasted such a pedigree.” But after her marriage she was very much the Queen of England, and there no evidence that her loyalties remained to France. On the contrary. Her father, Philip the Fair (IV) was, like the later Henry VIII of England, a brutal megalomaniac who in any other walk of life would have ended up on the scaffold or in the madhouse. Her life from the moment she arrived in England was no longer his to dictate.

And as for the words “She-Wolf”, the phrase “She-Wolf of France” was in fact, Alison Weir tells us, coined by Shakespeare (why am I not surprised?) but he used the words not of Isabella but of Margaret of Anjou, wife of Henry VI; it was not until the eighteenth century that it was first applied, by the poet Thomas Gray, to Isabella. And – very unfairly – it stuck.

Isabella, as Alison Weir makes clear, was not a simple femme fatale, “one of the fairest ladies in the world,” “the fairest of the fair,” but a good queen. If it had not been for her infidelity she would be seen as a great queen, a liberator, for Edward II and his friends the Despensers were, by the time she organised the coup d’état, running what was certainly the worst example of tyranny in the history of England. To see what life was like under Edward and the Despensers, you have only to read one of Michael Jecks’ books such as The Mad Monk of Gidleigh or A Friar’s Bloodfeud. In modern times, that infidelity would not be held against her, especially when we consider that her husband was far more interested in his “friends” (Piers Gaveston, and later Hugh le Despenser) that he was in her.

The other problem is how and why – and if – and on whose orders Edward II was murdered following his deposition. (Also dealt with at length in Paul Doherty’s book, Isabella And The Strange Death Of Edward Ii.) In the present book, “the Fieschi letter” is reproduced in full and the reader, as she considers Weir’s arguments for and against its authenticity and credibility, must make up her own mind whether Edward II in fact escaped and lived on, abroad. Personally, I am convinced that he did, and that it was not in his son’s interest to acknowledge his father’s continued – and shameful – existence when he finally learnt of it. I suspect that he felt only contempt for his father, and admiration for his mother, the lioness who had brought him up and made him king. He had to get rid of Mortimer, his mother’s lover and de facto ruler of England, but he never turned against Isabella.

Another wonderful biography from Alison Weir. I am proposing to read, next, her The Princes in the Tower – Edward IV’s sons Edward and Richard, two more who are said to have been murdered but rumoured to have survived.

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THE EMPRESS THEODORA by James Allan Evans (Review)

Acasius fathered three daughters, Comito, Theodora and Anastasia, but died before the eldest, Comito, reached the age of seven. His death need not have been a calamity if he had had a grown son to take up his vocation, for the post of bear keeper for the Greens would have passed to him, but as it was, the little family faced destitution.
[…]
For women such as Theodora and her sisters, the alternatives were the stage or the convent. They chose the stage, or, perhaps to be more accurate, their mother made the choice for them.
Comito soon became a star. Theodora made her stage debut as her sister’s attendant, dressed as a slave girl. Procopius, who is our only source for Theodora’s life as an actress, claims that even at this early age she submitted to the buggery of slaves who accompanied their masters to the theatre, but once she matured into a woman she became a prostitute. The mentality of the age assumed that all actresses were trollops, and even if Theodora had not sold her favors, it would have been taken for granted that she did. Yet there is no reason to think her an exception to the rule. She had nothing to sell except a lovely body, for she could neither dance nor play an instrument, and when she did make an attempt to entertain at banquets, the only act she could offer was a striptease … …

Theodora was Empress of Byzantium, of the East, of the Roman Empire while it was still an Empire, but she did not rule, as some other empresses did “when male power faltered“: her husband, Justinian was “one of the ablest emperors in Byzantine history,” and, “except for a few brief weeks when he caught the plague, he was in charge.” Yet her influence was so great that she could be said to have been making all the decisions that mattered to her. Was it, as Procopius of Caesarea claimed, purely sexual, that Theodora was a prostitute when Justinian, already a middle-aged man, married her, and “skilled at titillating” middle-aged men?

Procopius account of Theodora is biased and flawed. He was a mysogynist, he looked down on women, but he also looked down on people with lowly origins, and origins could not get much lowlier than Theodora’s. Nevertheless, her background does seem to have been more or less as he described it. Why else her programme of leglislation designed to protect actresses (the law as it had stood when she was an actress meant they were little more than slaves) and the conversion of a disused palace into a place of refuge for women who had escaped prostitution, lavishy endowed so that “none of its inmates would want to return to her old life or have to do so for financial reasons“? She can hardly be portrayed as a reformer of penitent whores, and this was more an act of defiance than piety. “Theodora knew what it was like; respectable women had once avoided her in the marketplace.” Now she never avoided anyone. Well-known prostitutes were among the companions she brought into the Emperor’s palace, and her most intimate friend, Antonina, had a background almost identical to her own. Antonina’s father and grandfather were circus charioteers, and her mother “one of the despised strippers who displayed their charms in theatre orchestras.” And Antonina had been – and remained – an agent first and foremost (of Theodora, of Belisarius) as had Theodora herself, in Egypt and in Antioch, before meeting Justinian: indeed, that is probably how she met him – and Antonina.

The author of this biography does us proud on Theodora’s background and personal life, but he is also concerned with politics, and politics then and there meant above all else, theology – the disputes about the person of Christ which raged throughout the East between the Chalcedonians and the Monophysites. Which view prevailed depended on the beliefs of the Emperor and the extent of the influence of Rome (which was uniformly pro-Chalcedonian). The differences between the two are clearly explained as are the reasons why Justinian supported the Chalcedonians – and Theodora the Monophysites. Clever politics (keeping everyone happy) or what they each sincerely believed? The author makes an interesting point about their backgrounds, one which had not previously occurred to me in this context:

The difference between them went back to their early beginnings. Justinian was born in a Latin-speaking enclave in the Balkans and as a boy learned to respect the authority of the pope and accept Rome’s right to define orthodoxy. An anathema from the pope was something to be feared. Not so Theodora. She spent her youth in the theatre, which monks and priests abominated and where they were sometimes ridiculed in return, and she was converted in Alexandria where Rome’s interdicts had little effect. She knew that if the split between the Monophysites and the Chalcedonians was to be mended, it could not be altogether on Rome’s terms, and she saw nothing wrong with compelling a pope to bend a little.

It was probably both then, clever politics and what they each believed. Though Theodora never reigned, she was quite capable of standing up to her husband – and replacing him when necessary as she did at two of the most difficult moments they faced together.

The first was during the Nika Revolt in 532, when Theodora faced down the revolutionaries while her husband was all for fleeing the capital. There is a whole chapter on this, a great chapter.

The second when the plague arrived in Europe in 542, “emptying villages except for a handful of survivors who were left to cope with the great mass of corpses […] Then the plague reached Constantinople …” Justinian fell ill. Theodora “provided what governmental direction there was,” knowing that when her husband died she was unlikely to survive the power struggle that would follow.

In the event, he survived her by seventeen years.

A great story. A great woman. After all, anyone a Catholic Cardinal compares unfavourably with Eve and Delilah and Herodias and the maidservant who tempted Peter must have something going for her: “but it is not enough to revile her with names of that sort,” the good cardinal, quoted by Evans, continues, “for she surpassed all human women in impiety. Rather let her take from the devils in Hell a designation such as that which mythology gives to the furies.” etc. etc.

Wonderful.

DANSE MACABRE by Aubrey Burl (Review)

The world into which François Villon was born in 1431 was one of extreme contrasts. On 30 May Joan of Arc was burned at the stake in the market square of Rouen. In the same year the newly crowned French king, Louis VII, was hiding from his enemies, shifting from castle to penniless castle. In December the nine-year-old English king, Henry VI, in cloth of gold on a white charger, rode triumphantly into Paris with his gorgeously apparelled retinue, the boy ‘staring for a long time’ at three lovely, naked girls representing mermaids in the fountain of St Dennis. Probably in the same year, but on the other side of the city, François Villon was born in the slums and alleys near the rue St Jacques.

The city was packed because the passage of army after army had left the countryside bare, anything that could be eaten eaten, anything that could be burnt burnt (and anyone who could be raped raped). One of the families taking refuge in the city was that of François Villon, but his father died leaving the family in extreme poverty when the poet was still only a child. That he received an education at all seems to have been due to the lucky chance that he would accompany his devout mother to church and in that way came to the attention of the priest, Guillaume de Villon, who later, probably in 1438, adopted the boy.

But, as Aubrey Burl comments, “there is a wise observation that an urchin can be taken out of the slums but the slums cannot be taken out of the urchin.” And Villon remained all his life a child of – and the poet of – the slums.

Burl is good on everything, but he is particularly good on the poetry. He begins by pointing out that it is much easier to write about Villon now than it used to be. “Censorship has relaxed. Earlier any faithful tranlation was unprintable.” As evidence, he translates for us, in a way that Swinburne was quite unable to in the late nineteenth century, some stanzas from La Vieille Regrettant le Temps de sa Jeunesse (the regret for her lost youth by the ageing but once beautiful mistress of a nobleman), and notes that “François Villon was never mealy-mouthed and he wrote as his old woman, the former courtesan, might have spoken.”

Long arms and groping fingers sly,
Fine shapely shoulders, and the round
Full breasts and heaving hips that fly
Smooth, slick and firm in thrust and pound
Against the place where we were bound.
Above spread loins my pulsing cunt
Between its gripping thighs was crowned
With gardened curls across its front.
[…]
But this is where our beauty’s sent,
Scrawny arms, hands weak and sick,
Crooked back and shoulders bent.
My flabby tits? Won’t stir a prick.
My arse the same. To tempt a dick,
My cunt? No hope! As for my thighs
Each one just skin, dry bone, a stick,
A pock-marked sausage. Beauty dies.

Yes, beauty dies – a favourite theme of Villon’s and one he frequently returns to, as in the quite different and very beautiful Ballades des Temps Jadis, in which he asks where all the fair women of the past are and concludes each stanza with the line, “But where are the snows of yesteryear?”

Villon lived and died surrounded by death, in a world in which “for the penniless, the only affordable entertainment was a public execution”. “He had elegiac eyes,” says Burl, in a memorable phrase. Villon recorded, like any great poet – or painter – the world he knew.

By the time you finish this book, that world, the Paris of the late Middle Ages and the danse macabre, is home, and François Villon is family. 

WHEN BRITAIN SAVED THE WEST by Robin Prior (Review)

1940

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Netgalley
in exchange for an honest review.

1940 – Dunkirk, then the Battle of Britain. When the year opened, Chamberlain was still PM, by the time it closed Churchill had replaced him and appeasement was a dirty word.

This book is not of course aimed at the professional historian, but for the ordinary person who considers herself something of an expert on WW2 (as a result of her grandmother’s stories and, more recently, all the novels she has read set in that period!) it is an eye-opener.

I had never realised just how close Britain came to following France, “appeasing” Hitler, and allowing the invasion to take place uncontested. If Churchill had not taken the reins, that is exactly what would have happened. Throughout most of 1940, the appeasers (Chamberlain until his death in September, Halifax, Butler) kept talking to the Italians (and through them to Hitler) behind Churchill’s back. And meanwhile, on the other side of the ocean, Roosevelt was showing no interest in helping Britain, merely stipulating that if (and he meant “when”) Britain capitulated the British Navy should not be allowed to fall into the hands of the Germans. Churchill’s response to this was that no capitulation would ever occur under him, and that the appeasers who replaced him if things got too desperate would be seeking the best possible terms from the Germans so presumably the Navy would of course be handed over intact. In the end, it was Hitler who declared war on the US, not the other way about. (I never knew that!) If Hitler had limited himself to incorporating the whole of Europe, including the UK but excluding the USSR, into the Third Reich – which is what appeared to be his aim in 1940 when Britain, with the support of Canada and other countries of the British Empire, stood up to him and the Battle of Britain was fought, he might well have achieved this objective. But when the island nation of Britain with its powerful navy and its ring of radar stations proved almost impossible to either invade or bomb into submission, he turned his attention to the USSR. And the USA. Quite mad, of course. Worse than Napoleon, who lost half a million men in Russia before facing the inevitable (slow-but-sure!) response from across the Channel. At least the Germans don’t consider Hitler a national hero, as the French do Napoleon!

There are chapters, like the one recounting the sequence of events at Dunkirk, where the amount of detail seems unnecessary and I found myself skipping pages, but all in all, this was a very enjoyable and very memorable read.

THE NIGHTMARE DANCE by David Gilbertson (Review)

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Netgalley
in exchange for an honest review. Thank you!

Nightmare DanceThis is not a work of fiction; nor is it strictly speaking history. It is an examination of the Holocaust, focusing in particular on Poland and the Warsaw Ghetto, Auschwitz and Treblinka.

The author starts by noting and condemning young people’s – and not only young people’s – ignorance of history in general, (“they don’t know what they they don’t know and therefore confidently believe they have a clear understanding of what went before”) and in particular of World War II and the Holocaust. He claims – and I believe him – that almost nobody knows – or cares! – what happened in Poland during WWII.

Let me quote: The torment of Poland and the Poles defies adequate description. There is a strong argument that popular historiography in the West, influenced as it was by Cold War prejudice, failed to properly inform generations of students born after 1945 about the true extent of Polish suffering. In the five and a half years between the German invasion in September 1939 and the liberation of Poland by Soviet forces in February 1945, 5,820,000 Poles and Polish Jews, almost all non-combatants, were murdered, worked to death, starved or consigned to the flames. The grisly total represented almost 25% of Poland’s 1939 population and far outstrips the sacrifice of any other nation on Earth during the war. […] The relationship between Poles and Jews during the German occupation, at community level, presents a picture of stark paradox. In Poland as a whole, less than one-tenth of the pre-war Jewish population survived – far less than in any other country in Europe – yet more ethnic Poles risked their lives to save Jews and were subsequently honoured for their sacrifice than in all the occupied territories together.

Why was this? It was because Hitler seriously believed that he was going to be able to incorporate Poland into the Third Reich. Indeed, that he already had. This was ethnic cleansing on the grand scale. The vast new territory was to be racially pure. The extermination camp at Treblinka, of which we hear almost nothing because there were almost no survivors to bear witness, processed (gassed and incinerated the bodies of) 10,000 people a day. 10,000 people a day, month after month, year after year. And that was just one camp! Auschwitz, Majdanek, Chelmno and others, were not far away.

Here is a map, to put you in the picture. (It is not from the book.)

campsmap

Just look at that border …

David Gilbertson has put an enormous amount of work into this book. It is a book that everyone should read, but what with those who already “know it all” and those – the vast majority – who do not care, very few will. And so, inevitably, at some point in the not so distant future, history will repeat itself …

PRINCESS NEST OF WALES by Kari Maund (Review)

This is the kind of biography which, if page after page of speculation is not to become indistinguishable from fiction (and I personally would almost always prefer to read a fictitious account of the life of a historical character), it must focus as much or more on the history of the place and period as on the subject of the biography, for the simple reason that very little is known about her.

” … like the majority of women in this period, her life went largely unrecorded.Chroniclers, including her grandson Gerald, tell us of her sons and their deeds, but they record nothing of Nest’s feelings or beliefs. Her story has to be pieced together from a patchwork of sources …

But Kari Maund does this successfully. She opens with a brief history of medieval Wales (“Nest’s Wales”) which is full of details it would be virtually impossible to find elsewhere. (Anyone thinking of writing a novel set in 11th-12th century Wales should start their background reading here!)

And what is more, she is refreshingly realistic about the place of women in Celtic society. So many modern writers, all of whom should know better and some of whom surely do, create a picture of a utopian world utterly destroyed by the male chauvinist Saxons and Normans. In fact, as Kari Maund observes in her Introduction (and maintains with examples throughout the book) “Despite popular modern myth, medieval Welsh women enjoyed little respect and scant freedom. Legally lifelong minors, they remained pawns in the hands of male kin, incapable of owning land and married off to suit changing political needs. Women in Anglo-Norman England enjoyed wider privileges, and Nest, the daughter of a king, probably found herself accorded an importance she had never experienced before.”

Legally lifelong minors“: I like that.

I liked the whole book. And I liked Nest, of whom I had never even heard before. As Kari makes clear, “the seductress of the English” was quite a lady. The daughter of a Welsh king; the mistress of the Norman English King Henry I (to whom she bore a son); wife of Gerald of Windsor (one of their grandsons was Geraldus Cambriensis, the great historian /chronicler); abducted by Owain ap Cadwgan, son of another Welsh king and leader of resistance against the Normans; later married again, and again, to other Norman lords, who all sought her hand. And it can’t have been just her hand that made her so irresistible. It must have been, as George Harrison didn’t quite put it, something in the way she walked.  

ISABELLA AND THE STRANGE DEATH OF EDWARD II by Paul Doherty (Review)

England, 1296-1332

By the end of 1311 Isabella was still only fifteen years of age but nevertheless a Queen in her own right, a powerful landowner and a lavish patron. She had a household of over 200. Her tailor, John Falaise, employed sixty seamstresses to maintain and repair the Queen’s robes. Falaise also supervised the Queen’s treasury in the Tower of london – huge iron-bound coffers containing Isabella’s jewels, plates and precious cloths, which were supplemented by gifts from the King. She was given rich wardships and the control of lands whose owners had yet to come of age. The manors of Bourne and Deeping, as well as the royal manor of Eltham, with additional lands in Kent, were added to her estates. She attended her husband, graced the state occasions and made royal tours, such as her pilgrimage to Becket’s shrine in Canterbury, being awarded £140 to defray the costs …

This was the first non-fiction Doherty I ever read and, for those of you out there who enjoy historical fiction but can’t cope with straight history (too much like school), I recommend it: this will open your eyes and change your mind. This is how history can and should be written.

The first half just gives us the facts, a brief biography, of the early life of Isabella of France, daughter of the notorious Philip IV (le Bel), a great queen, a second Eleanor of Aquitaine, but who unlike Eleanor always had a bad press. And always has had, till now.

The heart of the book is in the second half, when Edward II is deposed and dies (is killed?) and is buried in Gloucester Cathedral, Isabella and her paramour Mortimer hold the reins of power until 1330; then the boy king Edward III seizes power and has Mortimer executed. Beneath these few short dramatic years, there lies a mystery. What really happened to Edward II? Did he die as a result of ill treatment and the bad conditions of his imprisonment? Was he murdered, at Isabella’s (or Mortimer’s) orders? Or had he in fact already escaped or been freed by his supporters? If the latter, then the story of his death would have been a cover-up so that when he eventually surfaced, Isabella could claim he was an imposter.

There is not enough evidence to prove conclusively that Edward II did escape, and Fieschi’s letter to Edward III cannot be taken literally, but there is certainly enough evidence to cast serious doubt on the traditional story of his death as depicted in Marlow’s play Edward II.

But read Doherty and see: it is a real “detective” story that reminds me of some of the books about Richard III (Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time, for instance). If “truth is the daughter of time”, then it is certainly high time the truth about Isabella and Edward came out into the open.

I particularly like the thought that what happened to her and Edward was all part and parcel of the “Templars’ Curse” put on Philip IV and his family by the dying Jacques de Molay. As Doherty observes,

Isabella’s war-like grandson, the Black Prince, turned France, Spain and Northern Europe into a battleground, ravaging her home country and destroying the massed might of French chivalry at the battles of Crecy and Poitiers. She, the last Capet, saw her father’s great dream crumble into dust. Isabella must have wondered about the curse of jacques de Molay, screamed from the flames as he burnt to death on an island in the Seine. After all, Isabella was supposed to have brought a lasting peace between England and France by her marriage to Edward II. Instead, her brothers had all died without male issue, leaving Edward III with a claim to the French throne. Isabella had, in effect. brought about a war that would last one hundred years.