The Constant Queen by Joanna Courtney

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Word PressThe “Constant Queen” of the title is Elizaveta of Kiev, daughter of Yaroslav the Wise and, as the wife of Harald Hardrada, Queen of Norway.  Harald Hardrada is, of course, famed here for invading England in 1066 and being defeated and killed at the Battle of Stamford Bridge, which several generations of teachers have had to explain is near York and nothing to do with Chelsea, but, in doing so, weakening Harold Godwinson’s chances at the Battle of Hastings.  Before that, he’d had a very eventful life, fighting against Denmark, being a mercenary in Kievan Rus, serving in the famous Varangian Guard in Constantinople, fighting with the Varangians in Sicily and possibly even in the Holy Land, and then retaking Norway and founding Oslo.

A lot of this comes into the book. Unfortunately, not all that much is known about Elizaveta (Elisiv in Old Norse, but the Slavic “Elizaveta” sounds so much nicer!), or about Harald’s other wife (mistress? Handfast wife?) Tora, but Joanna Courtney’s created two very interesting characters with what we do know about them, and it’s a very entertaining book.  From a historical viewpoint, the most interesting thing is the reminder of how influential Kiev (yes, I know we’re supposed to say “Kyiv” now, but no-one ever says “Kyiv” when talking about Rurikid Kievan Rus) was in Yaroslav’s time.  One of Elisaveta’s sisters became Queen of France, another became Queen of Hungary, and one of her brothers married a daughter of the Emperor of Byzantium.   In this book, Agatha, the wife of Edward the Exile and mother of Edgar the Atheling and St Margaret, is also one of Elizaveta’s sisters.  No-one’s sure about that, and there are alternative theories that Agatha was from Hungary, one of the German states or even Bulgaria, but it’s certainly possible that she was a princess of Kiev.

Who would have thought, then, that Kievan Rus would decline so soon, and that its successor state(s) would fall under the “Tatar yoke” and be pretty much cut off from the rest of Europe for so long?  Or that England, with its close ties to Norway and Denmark, would, after 1066 spend four (or you could even say) five centuries getting entangled with affairs in France and have very little further involvement with the Scandinavian countries?   England, Scotland, Ireland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Greenland, the Faroe Islands, the Isle of Man, and the trade routes via Kiev to Constantinople … and Vinland too, with Erik the Red making a guest appearance in the book and meeting up with Harald and Elizaveta!

There was some talk, around the time of the Scottish referendum, that Northern England and Scotland (the Shetland and Orkney Isles remained under Norwegian rule until the mid 15th century, of course) should try to rebuild closer ties with the Scandinavian countries.  Sounds like a very good idea to me!  Really, you’d think that the Normans would have maintained close ties with Denmark, with King Rollo (not the cartoon character!) being of Danish origin; but it didn’t seem to happen.

A few annoying things.  Joanna Courtney has this bizarre habit of changing people’s names – usually to something completely inappropriate.  She’s renamed Sveyn, son of “Canute the Dane”, as Steven.  I mean, could she not have picked something Danish-sounding?!  And she’s renamed all Elizaveta’s brothers.  For example, Iziaslav’s become Ivan, and Vyacheslav’s become Yuri.  Ivan and Yuri are names which belong to Muscovy, not to Kievan Rus.  It’s all wrong!  Very annoying.  And very patronising to the reader, as apparently she changes the names as she thinks readers cannot cope with either names that aren’t familiar or two characters sharing a name.  Also, there were repeated descriptions of men as “blonde”, Miklagard was spelt “Miklegard”, and the Norwegian women were given patronymics ending in “son” instead of “datter”.  But, OK, those aren’t major gripes!

1066 is the best-known year in English history.  But it’s also a crucial year outside England: Harald Hardarda is usually described as being the last great Viking king.  And Elizaveta was his queen.  It’s such  a shame that we don’t know more about her, but Joanna Courtney’s made a very entertaining book out of what is known.  A refreshing change from all those books about the Tudors!!

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To Walk Invisible – BBC 1

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Word PressPurists were possibly a bit traumatised by this programme about the Bronte sisters, but it was brilliantly entertaining in a very soap opera-ish kind of way!  It’s a shame it was a one-off and not a series, because it really was good watching.  Branwell Bronte was depicted as a sort of cross between Phil Mitchell and Jack Duckworth, with a bit of Stan Ogden and Ken Barlow thrown in for good measure.   Always down the pub or chasing women, didn’t even try to hold down a job … you get the idea.  And Emily was like a junior version of an old-fashioned Coronation Street battleaxe.  I kept expecting her to come out with her curlers in and clout Branwell with a rolling pin.  It certainly made a change from the usual portrayal of Emily as a tormented soul  who struggled to form human relationships.  Charlotte led the three sisters as they stalked disdainfully past Branwell in the manner of three of Mike Baldwin’s factory workers in the 1980s stalking past an errant husband or boyfriend … although there was a strong sense of Jane Eyre about her as well.  Come to think of it, Jane Eyre would work quite well as a Coronation Street character.  Anne, meanwhile, mouthed any words relating to delicate subjects in a way that was gloriously reminiscent of Les Dawson in his Cissie and Ada sketches.

The language wasn’t exactly authentically 1830s.  “You little twat”.  “At it.”  Yak yak yak”.  “Permanently infantilised.” “Addictive behaviour”.  Oh dear!  And what on earth was that three suns in splendour bit at the end?  I thought I’d accidentally switched over to a programme about the Wars of the Roses!  And I could have lived without, in amongst all the inspiring talk about women authors, the sisters saying that they’d kept their identities secret to avoid Branwell sulking because their work had been published and his hadn’t. But never mind.  This was great.  It was the sort of gritty Northern drama that neither Coronation Street and Emmerdale just don’t do as well as they used to, but done as a period drama.  And it’s true!  I didn’t notice anything in it that was historically inaccurate.

And … well, the actual Bronte message wasn’t done as well as it could have been, but you could certainly see how Charlotte came to write Jane Eyre, and how there was a lot of Branwell in some of Emily and Anne’s male characters.   It was all very human.  I think that, because the books are so Gothic, there’s a tendency for people to present the Brontes’ own lives and personalities as being rather like that too.  This probably was a bit too kitchen sink drama-ish, but I thought it was really good.  Thank you, BBC!  Nice one :-).

The House of Special Purpose by John Boyne

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Word PressThis is an extremely silly book.  Grand Duchesses go AWOL from the Ipatiev House and the Bolsheviks do nothing about it.  People roam around Lenin’s Russia with no form of ID on them, and enter Brezhnev’s Soviet Union with no visas.  No-one can find a Russian Orthodox church in Paris in 1919 – evidently they missed the great big Russian Orthodox Cathedral built there in 1861.  There is a strange sub-plot about an artist accidentally killing a policeman, which doesn’t fit in anywhere.  Byelorussia, as it was generally known until the early 1990s, is referred to as “Belarus” in a scene set in 1971. The twist in the tale is obvious from very early on.

It’s actually quite entertainingly written. But it’s very, very silly.

 

Six Wives with Lucy Worsley – BBC 1

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Word PressI wasn’t going to bother with this, partly because it annoys me that the BBC have decided to make yet another series about the reign Henry VIII rather than choosing one of the umpteen fascinating monarchs whose lives and times are relatively little-known, and partly because Lucy Worsley does my head in. However, I’m watching it anyway!

The idea of the programme is to focus on Henry’s six wives, rather than on Henry, and to try to dispel some of the myths around them; and that’s why I’m watching it, because they’ve all – with the possible exception of Catherine Howard – got the wrong image!

Catherine of Aragon is seen as a tragic figure, an embittered figure or both, and her political role, particularly the fact that she was the one in charge at the time of Flodden Field, tends to be ignored, and even the fact that her marriage to Henry was so long, and for many years happy, is overlooked, because the focus is all on the way it ended.

Anne Boleyn is the hated other woman, the sexy younger woman who stole a loyal, loving wife’s husband. However, whilst she doesn’t come across as being particularly likeable, she didn’t go after Henry: he went after her. Anne wanted to marry Harry Percy, heir to the Earldom of Northumberland. They were actually engaged. There was also talk of her marrying into the Fitzgerald family (Earls of Desmond). She certainly didn’t set out to catch Henry. But people always have to blame the woman! It’s the same with Wallis Simpson, who “pinched our king”. Did Wallis want Edward VIII to abdicate? Did she ever, for one minute, expect that when she became his mistress that he’d end up giving up the throne for her? Of course she didn’t. It’s not even just with the actual relationships – Henrietta Maria, Marie Antoinette and Alexandra Feodorovna all get blamed for the political crises of their husbands’ reigns. Gah! Anyway, going back to Anne, she was a very intelligent woman – and she also had strong Protestant leanings, whereas it’s Jane Seymour who’s seen as “the Protestant Queen”, which is ridiculous because Jane’s religious ideas were much more conservative.

I’m hoping – and expecting – that Lucy will try to dispel the idea that Jane was a doormat, because I don’t think she was: I think she had far more common sense than Anne Boleyn, and realised that her best bet was to keep her head down. And I think people also forget that she brought about a reconciliation between Henry and Mary.

Then there’s Anne of Cleves, who’s very unfairly seen as the ugly one, “the Flanders mare”. Cleves isn’t even in Flanders! And she wasn’t ugly at all – Henry just didn’t want to admit that he couldn’t manage to do the job on their wedding night, so blamed Anne! And things didn’t work out too badly for her. She was given the status of “the King’s sister”, and treated accordingly. All right, it wasn’t ideal, but it was probably a lot better than being married to Henry would have been.

Catherine Howard … well, OK, everyone knows the story of what Catherine and her lover allegedly got up to in the royal toilet!   But I think she deserves some sympathy. She was very young, Henry was a nightmare to live with by then, and she could hardly have gone back and changed what she’d done long before she could ever have dreamt of becoming Queen.

And then there’s Catherine Parr, arguably the most interesting of the six. She tends to be viewed as the saintly nurse. Poor Catherine – she’d been married off twice to much older men, and she was all set to marry dashing, good-looking Thomas Howard, with whom she was madly in love, when Henry cast his eye on her and she had to marry him instead. And she came very close to meeting the same fate as Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard, something that tends to be forgotten. She was the Protestant Queen, not Jane Seymour. She was brilliantly intelligent and well-educated, and she even had her writings published at a time when it was very rare for works by a woman to make it into print. And is it really likely that the Queen would have been solely responsible for dressing Henry’s horrible smelly ulcerated leg, oozing with pus? Probably not.

So, OK, maybe there is more to say about Henry VIII’s wives, although I’d still rather have seen a programme about a different era. But does the programme have to be presented in such a ridiculous way? What is this stupid obsession with Lucy Worsley dressing up in period costume? It’d be fine for a programme aimed at primary school kids, but it’s just cringeworthy in a programme which is going out on BBC 1 at 9pm. Dressing up as a maid in “the story”. Lurking around by doors, going “Psst …” like a scene from ‘Allo ‘Allo? It’s an insult to viewers’ intelligence! And you would think that Lucy might view it as an insult to her intelligence as well. Can you imagine David Starkey dressing up as one of Henry’s pages or Gentlemen of the Bedchamber? Please, enough of this!   I don’t think anyone wants to go back to the days when historical documentaries involved a man in a suit sitting behind a desk in a darkened room, but could we lose the stupid dressing up stuff, and the general silly jolly hockey sticks way of putting things? It’s just embarrassing!

The Birth of a Nation

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I know that a lot of people in the US have boycotted this film because of rape allegations against Nate Parker, the lead actor and director, but I thought that, because the film itself covers a topic of such historical importance, it deserved to be seen. Nat Turner’s Rebellion, in 1831, was an uprising of slaves, led – as the name suggests by Nat Turner, in Southampton County, Virginia. 55-65 white people were killed, and 56 slaves were executed.

In the aftermath, up to 200 black people, slaves and free blacks, who had not been involved in the rebellion, were killed by lynch mobs and militias, and legislation was passed across the slaveholding states, against the education of both free blacks and slaves, and restricting the rights to assembly – even for religious services – for free black people. Then there were the psychological effects. The fear, especially in states like South Carolina where blacks outnumbered whites, of black violence against whites, made many slave owners all the more reluctant to consider emancipation. It’s worth bearing in mind that this happened shortly before slavery in the British Empire was brought to an end by the paying off of slaveowners: amoral as that seems now, at least it meant that slavery was abolished, and without a bloodbath. In the southern states of the US, attitudes towards slavery just hardened even further.

So, in summary, the uprising tragically backfired. The 1791 slave uprising in what’s now Haiti succeeded, but was almost unique in doing so. And the Nat Turner Rebellion doesn’t seem to have been very carefully planned: the Denmark Vesey Rebellion of 1822 was probably better planned … although that was uncovered and suppressed before it could take place.

Obviously this is a very sensitive and divisive subject, given that, over 150 years after emancipation, there are, sadly, still such pronounced racial tensions in the US. And the film is intended to show that this was an uprising of oppressed against oppressor. Obviously it was, but the film’s perhaps trying so hard to show this that it doesn’t give a balanced view of events – there are some very complex questions arising from the events depicted, and they don’t come across as well as they might have done. Some oversimplification – for example, showing Nat Turner as living on the same plantation all his life, which he didn’t – can be forgiven, but other things are more questionable.

Turner was a religious fanatic. The film does make some attempt to show this – and it’s not an easy thing to show on film – but he comes across in this as a very pleasant, genial man, whose views on life changed and hardened due to the brutal sights he witnessed on neighbouring plantations to which he was hired out as a preacher, and the rape of his wife and a friend’s wife by white men. It’s not at all clear whether the incidents shown actually took place. Having said which, they aren’t atypical of the treatment of slaves by owners … but they don’t really get across the message that Nat Turner seems to have thought of himself as some sort of Messiah, rather than acting from more rational motives. Questions have also been raised over the film’s failure to show the rapes from the point of view of the women themselves, only from that of their husbands. The focus is all on Nat Turner himself: other people don’t really get much of a look-in

And the actual rebellion doesn’t take up much of the film at all. There’s a lot about Turner’s childhood. That’s worth seeing because the young lad who plays him as a child, Tony Espinosa, does a superb job, and also because, but surely the main focus should have been on the rebellion itself? Then, when the rebellion scenes come, the viewer sees the rebels killing the man who raped Turner’s friend’s wife, and killing the brutal neighbour who chained up and tortured his slaves, but there’s no mention of all the women and children whom the rebels killed. Did the horrific atrocities carried out by the Nazis make it OK for the Red Army to go rampaging round Germany and Austria, raping every woman and girl they could get their hands on? Did the inequalities of ancient regime France make it OK for the architects of the Terror to carry out mass guillotinings? Did the oppression of the Tsarist regime in Russia make it OK for the Bolsheviks to kill the Tsar’s children and other relatives? Did the killings of white people by Nat Turner and his supporters make it OK for lynch mobs and militias to murder black people who hadn’t even had anything to do with the rebellion? No. Did the evils of slavery make it OK for Nat Turner and his supporters to kill all the white people they came across? No: that wasn’t OK either.

And, because the focus is all on Nat Turner – maybe that’s more to do with Nate Parker wanting to take centre stage than anything else! – the film ends with his execution, and doesn’t really cover the aftermath except in a brief note. Surely a few scenes showing the forbidding of the education of both slaves and free blacks, and the suppression of the rights of free blacks, could have been included?

But this is a neglected part of American history, and a story that deserves to be told. There’s a lot of controversy surrounding this film, because of the allegations against Nate Parker and because the film seems to have got caught up in the minds of the press with the row over alleged racism in Oscar nominations. It’s not the best film ever, either from a general filmgoer’s point of view or from a historian’s point of view. But the story of Nat Turner’s Rebellion is an important one, and it’ll be a great shame if the external controversies surrounding this film mean that the film doesn’t earn the attention for the events of 1831 that it aims to.

Vienna: Empire, Dynasty and Dream – BBC 4

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I appreciate that there’s rather a lot to get through in just three hour-long programmes, but I was only expecting the first programme to go as far as the abdication of Charles V. Instead, it whizzed right through to the Siege of Vienna (the 1683 one!). So that was quite a lot to think about all in one go! Simon Sebag Montefiore’s programmes are always excellent, though: he treats the viewer like an adult, but doesn’t make things too academic for a general audience. He gets the facts across, but he livens things up as well. Plenty of talk about blood and gore, a lot of ironic comments about strange royals, and, of course, he had to mention the fact that the officials who were chucked out of the window in Prague in 1618 landed on a pile of dung. Rather disappointing that we only saw one piece of strudel, though; and not a mention of cake. However, the next episode will be moving on to the 19th century, so I assume we’re going to get Einspanners and Sachertorte then. And maybe a bit more strudel too.

I’m not sure that Simon’s very keen on the Habsburgs, but never mind. Anyway, after a very (and I mean very!) brief mention of Vienna’s pre-Habsburg history, we moved rapidly on to the Habsburgs becoming Dukes of Austria in the late 13th century, and then equally rapidly on to the Privilegium Maius, the brilliant mid-14th century forgery which invented the title of “Archduke” and enabled the Habsburgs to become king-like rulers of Austria, and the founding of Vienna’s university. Then we whizzed forward again, to Frederick III becoming Holy Roman Emperor in 1442.

I wish we’d heard more about the early years. The focus for English historians looking at European events in the 13th and 14th centuries, and the first half of the 15th century, is so much on the conflicts between England and France that everywhere else tends to be overlooked. Anyway, the programme wasn’t meant to be filling in gaps in other sources, so I suppose it can’t really be criticised for that. And so to Maximilian. I’m never sure that Maximilian really liked Vienna. I always get the impression that he preferred Innsbruck. Anyway, Maximilian married Mary of Burgundy, and thus the Habsburgs gained control of the Low Countries.

That part of expanding the Empire was planned. The rest wasn’t. I’m not sure that the programme really got that across. Yes, Philip the Handsome married Juana of Aragon (whom Simon rather annoyingly and incorrectly insisted on referring to as “Juana of Spain”), but no-one expected that that was going to give the Habsburgs control of Aragon and Castile, and the Castilian possessions in the “New World”. It only happened because Ferdinand and Isabella’s other heirs kept dying. The same with Hungary – Anna Jagellon, who was married to Charles V’s brother Ferdinand, wasn’t supposed to be the heir, but her brother died without having any children.

This was the point at which the focus really did switch to Vienna itself, rather than to the Habsburgs in general. The Italian Wars weren’t mentioned at all. The Diet of Worms, the Wars of the Schmalkaldic League, and even the Peace of Augsburg never got mentioned either – there was a brief mention of Martin Luther, but that was about it. That was a very interesting reminder that the focus in England, France, the German states, etc, was at the time, and is now when we think about the 16th century, so much on the Reformation that the march of the Ottomans across the Balkans, into Hungary and, in 1529, to the outskirts of Vienna itself, doesn’t get anything like the amount of attention it deserves.

On to Rudolf II. The fact that he moved the capital to Prague and therefore shouldn’t have got nearly as much attention in a programme about Vienna was conveniently overlooked, so that various stories about his weird goings-on could be mentioned. There were a lot of references to Habsburg inbreeding, which was to cause so many problems for Spain as well as for Austria. Then back to Vienna, and the Thirty Years’ War. I always come at the Thirty Years’ War from a Swedish viewpoint, but, of course, from an Austrian Habsburg viewpoint it was all a great, Catholic, triumph.

Then things went pear-shaped. Surprisingly quickly – only 35 years passed between the Peace of Westphalia and the Siege of Vienna. “Please don’t do the Sobieski thing,” I muttered to the television; but, of course, he did the Sobieski thing. People always do the Sobieski thing. It’s not that I’ve got anything against Sobieski, but it really annoys me how he gets all the credit for defeating the Ottomans, and Eugene of Savoy doesn’t get any. Poor old Eugene! Overshadowed by Sobieski during the Siege of Vienna, and overshadowed by Marlborough during the War of the Spanish Succession. The only time Eugene gets any credit is when talking about the Great Turkish War of the 1680s and 1690s, and no-one ever talks about that!

No coffee. No croissants. No bagels. People usually mention at least one of those when they’re talking about the Siege of Vienna. I think Simon got rather short-changed with this series, because he spent most of his time wandering about and we only once saw him in a coffee house. Someone please provide the man with an Einspanner and a huge piece of cake? He deserves them. He got through a hell of a lot in an hour!  I still think I’d rather that this had gone a bit more slowly, but I suppose there’s a lot more to fit in and only two hours left.  Shame it’s not more!

A United Kingdom

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Word PressThis film is based on the story of Seretse Khama, king of the Bamangwato people in what was the British protectorate of Bechuanaland and later the first president of independent Botswana, and his wife Ruth Williams, a white lower-middle-class Englishwoman whom he met whilst studying in London. Their marriage in 1948 was opposed by the government of South Africa, which was bringing in the apartheid system, by the elders of the Bamangwato people – including Seretse’s uncle, who’d been acting as regent – and by the British government which was frightened of upsetting the South African regime for financial reasons. It was also opposed, for racialist rather than political reasons, by Ruth’s parents and by many of Seretse’s relatives and others amongst the Bamangwato.

Whilst Seretse was confirmed as king by his people, amongst whom Ruth became popular, the couple continued to face opposition, and Seretse was eventually tricked into going to London and refused permission by the British government to return. A report which said that there was no reason for this other than the fact that he’d married a white woman was suppressed. There was widespread anger in both Britain and Bechuanaland, but unfortunately it had little political effect – with some interesting parallels for today in terms of smug, arrogant elites thinking that they’ve got the right to dictate to everyone else. Having said which, the smuggest and most arrogant people in the film, the diplomats, are actually fictitious.

The British government at the time was Clement Attlee’s post-war Labour government, the people who set up the NHS, the supposed heroes of the people … but their main concern in all this was keeping South Africa on side. Meanwhile, Winston Churchill, for reasons which weren’t made at all clear in the film, promised to allow Seretse to return if the Tories won the election, but then went back on his word and even extended the short-term exile to permanent exile. Tony Benn spoke up for Seretse and Ruth. It’s interesting to look back on a lot of what he said.

Ruth eventually joined Seretse in exile, but they were later allowed to return to Bechualand on condition that Seretse renounce his throne. Unfortunately, the film rushed to its end at this point, so we didn’t get to see how he led Bechuanaland/Botswana to independence and transformed it from one of the poorest countries in the world to a thriving and peaceful one – not without its problems, but a stable democracy with higher living standards than any of its neighbours – of which his and Ruth’s eldest son is now president. Sadly he died at the age of only 59. Ruth, who outlived him by 22 years, devoted her life to humanitarian work.

It’s not the greatest of films. The story’s really too long to fit into a film of average length. People completely change their minds without any convincing explanation being given of how they came to do so. Ruth is shown as having had no qualms at all about going to live in a completely different culture, where she knew she was going to be met with hostility, which seems unlikely. It’s all a bit simplistic and Disneyfied. And it ends too quickly. But it’s a fascinating story – about a couple who defied personal and political opposition to be together, about a great leader of a nation, and about the shoddy behaviour of politicians of both main parties in the UK.

In my (long-ago!!) salad days, Margaret Thatcher insisting on promoting ties between Britain and the apartheid government of South Africa. Most British people were opposed to it. I can remember solemnly refusing to eat South African apples – not that that was very likely to bring an end to apartheid, but it was something that people did to try to make some sort of point. Ask anyone my age to name a political figure of their own lifetime who’s inspired them, and they’ll probably say Nelson Mandela. It’s not hard to see why Attlee’s government, struggling in the post-war austerity era, was so afraid of upsetting South Africa and losing access to its gold reserves, and its uranium reserves as the Cold War got into full swing – but governments are supposed to carry out the will of the people, and there was widespread support in Britain for the Khamas. As for suppressing reports, and as for Winston Churchill’s volte-face …

But this wasn’t about Britain – it was about Botswana. I’d like to know how this film’s been received there. And the film gets a lot of messages across without ever being smug or preachy itself, something which takes some doing. That is very impressive. I don’t think it’ll be winning any awards, but it’s well worth seeing.