The Damask Rose by Carol McGrath

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This is the second in Carol McGrath’s “She-Wolves” series, with the main character being Eleanor of Castile, the first wife of Edward I.  As in her previous book, we also see events through the eyes of another character, and this time that’s a herbalist, Olwen … who sounds as if she should be Welsh but is actually English.

I can’t say that I’ve ever had a negative opinion of Eleanor of Castile, probably because I’ve always found the story about her sucking poison out of Edward’s wound (yes, all right, I know that it probably isn’t true) very romantic, and I’ve always found the story of the Eleanor Crosses very romantic as well.  However, she’s seen by many as greedy/acquisitive and as a neglectful mother, and her reputation also seems to have suffered from the “Black Legend” view of Spain which developed 300 years after her time.

Carol McGrath’s tried very hard to present her positively and provide explanations for some of her less attractive traits, in what’s a very readable and enjoyable book.  She’s also shown worked in the late 13th century obsession with Arthurian legends, which is interesting (I visited Glastonbury Abbey last year, and heard all about Edward and Eleanor attending the reburial of Arthur and Guinevere’s supposed remains!).  And readers in North West England will be interested to “see” the construction of Vale Royal Abbey, which, had Edward not spent the money intended for it on invading Wales, might have been one of the biggest abbeys in the country.

The only problem is that the book’s too short to cover such an eventful life, and it does sometimes feel a bit superficial, as we skim over major events in a few pages and don’t really get into how the characters are feeling about them.  But there are far worse criticisms of a book than wishing it’d been twice the length.

This is Eleanor’s book, not Edward’s.  Having said which, we don’t see anything of Eleanor’s life before the Second Barons’ War, by which time she was in her 20s.  But the point is that we don’t see the war with William Wallace, the expulsion of the Jews, the calling of the Model Parliament or the proclaiming of the future Edward II as Prince of Wales, all of which happened after Eleanor’s death.  Nor do we get the story about the “prince born in Wales, who did not speak a word of English”, which (obviously) would have happened in Eleanor’s lifetime; but, OK, it probably never happened at all!

We start with the Second Barons’ War, and Carol McGrath’s suggestion is that Eleanor’s later concern for acquiring estates dates from her being imprisoned by Simon de Montfort’s forces and wanting to ensure that she never faced poverty as well … which makes it sound as if she was kneeling in the dirt at Twelve Oaks, crying “As God is my witness, I’ll never be hungry again”!  I’m not entirely convinced by that, but it’s a possibility.

Then on to the Ninth Crusade – where we get what’s probably the accurate version of the poison story, i.e. that it was a surgeon who saved Edward’s life and that Eleanor just stood around getting upset.  I like the poison-sucking version better, but never mind!

It’s certainly interesting to see Eleanor and Olwen’s time in the Middle East, and we also see them in Gascony.  And quite a lot of the book covers the wars in Wales.  We also get to see Eleanor and Edward’s close personal relationship, and court life.  And, of course, we see all the tragedies they suffered with their family.  Eleanor’s often criticised for leaving her children behind whilst she was travelling with Edward, and for leaving one of her daughters with her mother in Ponthieu, but Carol McGrath suggests that maybe she was frightened of becoming attached to her children because of all the losses she suffered.

Out of a probable sixteen pregnancies, only six children survived to adulthood.  The future Edward II was born when Eleanor, married at only 12, was 42.  They had a son called Alphonso who died when he was 10, and another son called Henry who died when he was 6, amid a tragically long list of stillbirths, miscarriages and early deaths.  Very sad.  Olwen, meanwhile, is unable to conceive at all with her first husband, but remarries, to an old sweetheart, after being widowed during the Welsh wars, and has a daughter with her second husband.

Damask roses don’t really feature, which is rather a shame because I love damask rose oil!  It smells so nice.  Oh well.

All in all, this is a very good and very well-researched book.  I just wish it’d been longer.

 

 

 

Edward VII: The Merry Monarch – Channel 5

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  The Entente Cordiale wasn’t mentioned until the 79th minute of the 90, and the to-do over the People’s Budget wasn’t mentioned at all.  But we heard an awful lot about waistcoat buttons, champagne baths, and, of course, ladies.  However, even if there was way too much gossip and not enough serious stuff, this was a really lovely, positive portrayal of someone whose father said he was useless, whom a lot of puritanical courtiers and journalists said would make a rotten king, and who actually did a superb job, left the British monarchy in a very strong position ahead of what would turn out to be a difficult time for monarchies, and was genuinely popular amongst people of all backgrounds.  Good old Teddy!

We were told that Downton Abbey typified people’s images of the time of Edward VII.  Given that we tend to use “Edwardian” to mean 1901-1914 rather than 1901-1910, I suppose the fact that the first series of Downton Abbey was set during the reign of George V can be overlooked!  Did it typify people’s images of the period?  Well, I suppose it did if you were only thinking about stately homes.  The Edwardian era’s actually seen as a very positive time for everyone – strangely so, given that a lot of people were struggling at the time.  There’s even a song about it in Mary Poppins!  The positive image is partly because, compared to the horrors of the Great War, what came before has to seen like a golden era.  And it’s partly because the Victorian era, even by the 1890s, is seen as a very puritanical era, and people get really fed up of puritanical eras.  Charles II, another slightly naughty king, is remembered fondly because he came after the nightmare of the Cromwellian era.  But a lot of it’s because of Edward/Bertie.  He really is seen as a very positive figure.

I would like to have heard more about his peacemaking/diplomatic skills, which were of crucial importance to … well, to the whole world, really, given what lay ahead.  And about how his social circle included people far removed from traditional aristocratic circles.  But, hey, the stuff about champagne baths, watching Can Can dancers, leaving his bottom waistcoat open because it strained over his tum tum, and, of course, his mistresses, was all quite entertaining.  It was also good to hear the praise for Queen Alexandra, who had a lot to put up with it and did a wonderful job as Princess of Wales and then as Queen – although I’m not sure we needed to hear quite so much about her clothes and jewellery.

But, in between the gossip, we heard all about Edward’s interest in technology – he was on the receiving end of the first wireless message sent across the Atlantic, a greeting from another much-loved Teddy, President Roosevelt – and, most of all, his understanding of the need for the Royal Family to be visible, and how he was the one who established a lot of the pageantry that we still enjoy today.  And how, when he died, there was genuine grief across the nation and beyond, from people of all backgrounds.   He got it right.  And, considering how many people thought he’d get it all wrong, that’s particularly impressive.  As I said, good old Teddy!

 

 

 

 

 

Queen Victoria: Love, Lust and Leadership – Channel 5

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This initially looked as if it were going to be same old, same old.  Yes, we know that Queen Victoria was a bit of a party girl in her younger days, and that it was Albert who wanted everything to be sober, solemn and studious.  Yes, we know that she struggled to cope with having so many pregnancies.  Yes, we know that they enjoyed getting away from it all at Balmoral.  But some of what was said was different to the usual contents of Queen Victoria programmes, and gave the viewer a lot to think about.

We know that Queen Victoria suffered from what would now be diagnosed as post-natal depression, but, from medical papers discussed here, it sounds as if she also suffered from post-partum psychosis: she was having hallucinations.  That would have been terrifying for anyone, and perhaps especially for Victoria, who’d always feared that she’d “lose her mind” as her grandfather George III had done.  And it sounds as if Albert, as with so many people when faced by mental illness, didn’t really appreciate that she couldn’t just pull herself together, because it doesn’t work like that.

We also know that she talked about Albert as being a “perfect angel” – but the programme talked about how she kept records of her own behaviour, and kept writing that she had to try to improve and be a better person, whereas Albert had no faults – and that she showed these notes to Albert, who went along with them and even made comments on her “improvement” or otherwise.  Even bearing in mind the different views of gender roles at the time, that is extremely creepy.  It sounded like some of those awful 19th century religious novels; and even those usually involve a controlling parent rather than a controlling partner, so you can hope that the child will get out of there when they grow up.

The programme then came up with the interesting hypothesis that it was the Crimean War which saved Queen Victoria – that, due to the crises of wartime, and in particular due to the introduction of the Victorian Cross, she became seen as the mother of the nation, and thus regained her confidence.

I’m not sure that I’d really agree with that.  The Crimean War was horrendous.  So many people dead, and for what?  Having said which, there was enthusiasm for the war at the time.  And look at all the Balaclava Terraces, Inkerman Streets and Crimea Streets (if anyone’s reading this and doesn’t get the reference, those are the names of streets close to Coronation Street!) around.  Even with the Charge of the Light Brigade poem, there was a definite sense of heroism.  Those poor men were heroes.  But did the war give Queen Victoria her confidence back?  Or was that more to do with the fact that Britain was largely unaffected by the 1848 Revolutions?  Or was it just that people change as their lives move on?

Did she get her confidence back in the 1850s?  She pretty much withdrew from public life after Albert’s death in late 1860.  Was it Disraeli who helped her to get her confidence back?  Or John Brown?   Whatever happened, something did, and I’m very glad about that.  The thought of those notebooks and all those comments about needing to “improve” … yes, the Victorians were very into self-improvement, and that was an extremely positive thing in terms of reading, evening classes, discussions at Athenaeums, and all that sort of thing, but, in the context of writing that your partner is perfect and you need to change … that is worrying.

The programme ended by going on about how important the partnership between Queen Victoria and Prince Albert was.  And, yes, they improved the image of the monarchy, and remade it, and Prince Albert did a lot of good in many aspects of his work.  But the thought of that notebook, and Albert reading it  … ugh.  That’s really quite upsetting.  Interesting programme.

Anne: the Princess Royal at 70 – ITV

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I would love to be like Princess Anne.  Nothing seems to faze her: she just gets on with it.  She also seems to be completely comfortable in her own skin.  She doesn’t moan, she doesn’t use annoying buzzwords, and she never seems to be feel that she needs to prove anything.  I thought that she came across really well in this documentary – every bit as hard-working and no-nonsense as she always does, and also very good-humoured and with an excellent sense *of* humour.

Like everything else this year, this didn’t go to plan.  The original idea was for the cameras to follow around for a year – but then, of course, lockdown put the kibosh on that.  However, it was typical of Princess Anne that that wasn’t allowed to mess the programme up; and, instead, it was turned into an opportunity to discuss her life at Gatcombe Park, and for her to talk about spending time with her grandchildren and joke about offering to help with home schooling as soon as people were allowed to meet up with those outside their own households.  There was even a brilliant clip of her trying to explain to the Queen how to use Zoom.

A lot of it had been filmed before lockdown, though, and we got to see her in a range of different situations – royal visits, charity work, investitures, acting as colonel-in-chief of military regiments, and also relaxing on a boat with Tim Laurence.  It was great to hear from Tim Laurence, because he’s normally so low-key.  We heard from Peter and Zara as well, and they all came across brilliantly – very natural and very affectionate.

We even heard from the Prime Minister, and there was a brilliant moment when a sculptor who was producing a bust of Anne showed her a bust that she’d made of Boris, and Anne joked about how difficult it must have been to get his hair right.  It’s hard to imagine any of the other Royals actually saying that!

Most of it was about her life as it is now, but there was also plenty about her life up until now.  It’s certainly been eventful – from the kidnapping to the Olympics.  It was nothing we hadn’t heard before, but it was still fascinating.  I particularly enjoyed hearing her say that going away to boarding school was her idea.  She actually asked to go, just like a princess in a school story!

I remember the period during which Princess Anne got a rough ride from the press, but I don’t think anyone has a bad word to say about her these days.   This programme didn’t have anything negative to say, but it wasn’t even remotely sycophantic: it was just honest.  And that’s Princess Anne all over.  There never seems to be anything fake about her.  She just tells how it is, and gets on with whatever comes along.  As I said, I wish I could be like her!   And I wish certain other members of her family could be like her.  She’s great, and this programme was great!

The Queen and the Coup (Channel 4) and King George VI: The Accidental King (Channel 5)

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The Queen and the Coup was very exciting in that it featured several interviews with my university personal tutor, whom I’m glad to see appears to have got over his penchant for wearing red and purple braces.  Lovely man.  It was very nice to see him on screen.   Other than that, the main point of the programme was to claim that the entire recent history of Iran, and of poor relations between Iran and the West, is down to American diplomats getting the Queen, our beloved monarch, mixed up with a luxury Cunard liner.  Right.  King George VI: The Accidental King was same old, same old – strict dad, stammer, Navy, supportive wife, wonderful dad, abdication of brother, war, death – but it was very watchable, and it’s so good to see George VI getting the credit he deserves.  It tends to be the flamboyant monarchs who get the attention, and they’re not always the ones who most deserve it.

The Queen and the Coup, then.  In the early 1950s, the Iranian government led by Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh was planning to nationalise the Anglo-Persian Oil Company.  This was not good.  Not as bad as Nasser planning to nationalise the Suez Canal, but still not good.  The Anglo-Persian bigwigs were very cross.  So was Clement Atlee, who claimed to oppose British involvement abroad but was more interested in the oil money than his supposed policies/principles. The US also got involved, and it was decided to chuck out Mosaddegh and boost the power of the Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.

However, there was a snag.  The Shah, being a bit of a wuss, wasn’t really up for this, and planned to scarper.  But then the Americans got a message to say that Queen Elizabeth thought the Shah was a jolly nice chap, and wanted him to stay.  This message was passed on to the Shah, who was so chuffed that he did, indeed, decide to stay.  Unfortunately, it turned out the Americans had got the wrong end of the stick.  The message was not from Her Majesty.  It was from RMS Queen Elizabeth, the Cunard liner, on which Anthony Eden (Attlee’s government having been ousted) was sailing to a conference in Canada.  They decided not to tell the Shah about this.  So he stayed.  And there was a coup.  And everything going on in Iran now, and indeed everything that’s gone on in Iran since 1953, is because of this.

Er, what about the 1979 coup?  And, seriously, the Shah stayed because he thought the Queen wanted him to?  I love the Queen, but that’s pushing it!  Was he after tickets for Ascot or the Royal Box at Wimbledon, or an invitation to a Buckingham Palace garden party, or something, and changed his mind about his own future and his entire country’s future because of it?   Come on!  But it was very nice to see my old personal tutor interviewed.

King George VI: The Accidental King was same old, same old, as I said, with the same team of gossips who’ve been around for all the new royal programmes which have been on Channel 5 recently.  But I thoroughly enjoyed it.  It’s so sad that he died so young, but it’s such an inspirational story – the big shot, glamorous, popular brother totally mucks up, and the shy, nervous brother, lacking in confidence but boosted by the love of his wife and children, takes over, and helps to lead the nation, the Empire and the Commonwealth through the darkest period in history.   Lovely, lovely programme.

I really am enjoying all these royal programmes.  Keep them coming!

Football, Prince William and our mental health

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This isn’t an easy subject to talk about, but it remains a sad fact that suicide is the biggest killer of young British men, and that 75% of people in the UK who take their own lives are men.  It does seem to remain very difficult for men to discuss mental health issues, and it’s great that Prince William’s involvement in highlighting this very important issue is bringing it more attention.  Even a few years ago, there’d never have been an hour-long programme on prime time TV on BBC 1 about mental health.

He’s made a very good point about how people internalised their grief and trauma after the two world wars, as the feeling at the time was that everyone should try to move on and put those times behind them, and that we need to avoid doing that as we come to terms with the effects of the coronavirus and lockdown.  It was good to hear him talking about how the, much-deserved, “heroes” tag mustn’t be allowed to deter frontline workers from seeking any help they might need: I read an article by someone who helped to treat victims of the Manchester Arena bombing, saying the same thing.

And could we all be nice, please?  Whilst the majority of people *are* showing great kindness at this difficult time, there’ve been some very spiteful posts on social media of late, I won’t even say what I think of the appalling way in which some employers are treating their staff, and there’ve also been reports of parents being abused for either saying that they *will* send their children back to school or saying that they *won’t* send their children back to school.  The last things we need are nastiness and division.  Again, could we all be nice, please?  And, if you’re struggling, shout.  Men, this means you too!

What a weird year this is.  This programme was, as the title suggests, originally supposed to be about role that football can play in helping men to deal with mental health issues, and about well-known players joining Prince William in encouraging men to speak out by discussing their own experiences.

We saw a number of male footballers and fans – this was very much about male mental health – speaking out about their mental health issues, and we also heard about the SANDS United football teams, which are for men who’ve lost babies either before, during or just after birth.  It’s a way of bonding and of coming together.  And, whilst it seems a very long time ago now, we were all encouraged to take a minute to think about mental health issues before the start of the FA Cup 3rd round matches in Saturday.  The campaign was making progress, and getting a lot of attention …

… and then coronavirus hit us.  People have been cut off from their support networks, whether that’s grassroots football teams or anything else, and from things which we enjoy and which are important to us and which are an important outlet for us – which, for many of us (female as well as male!) is football.  And we don’t know what the long term effects of all this are going to be, in this country and everywhere else.

There’s the general trauma of the world being turned upside down, and the anxiety that that brings, as well as the fear that we or our loved ones may contract the virus.  There’s the trauma of being separated from our loved ones, and, for some people, of not being able to go out at all – it’s a lonely time.

There’s the upset of plans being cancelled.  And, yes, it is OK to be upset about this.  I am very sad that my holidays have been cancelled: they are the highlights of my year and I plan them so carefully and look forward to them so much.  And, as someone who overplans everything – it’s part of having anxiety – I find it very hard not being able to plan anything.  Going forward, there are, sadly, likely to be business failures and job losses.  And there are concerns that other health problems may have gone undiagnosed during lockdown.

And those are just the indirect effects of the virus.  Tens of thousands of people have died, leaving grieving relatives and friends who haven’t even been able to hold proper funerals.  It’s feared that many people who survived severe cases of the virus may suffer from PTSD, and that this may also affect people working in hospitals and care homes.

It’s not like the First World War or the Second World War.  No-one’s saying that it is.  But it is important that people don’t go down the “don’t talk about it” route: we’ve learnt from experience that that’s not a good idea.  And it’s crucial that people be nice to each other.  Some employers are behaving very poorly.  And the amount of nastiness and political points-scoring is appalling – it would be at any time, but especially at a time like this.  On top of that, we’ve now got parents being told that they’re depriving their children of their education and the company of their friends if they don’t send them back to school, and that they’re putting them in danger if they do.  Will the people doing this just shut up, OK!  Other people’s choices are not your business.  Everyone’s circumstances are different.

No-one could have seen this coming, and, like so many other things, this programme was partly overtaken by events.  But most of it was filmed before coronavirus hit, and we saw some very powerful and frank conversations about mental health issues, even actually about suicide attempts.  This is an incredibly important subject, and the fact that we’ve got a future king spearheading the campaign to address it says a lot.  This was a very moving programme.  Please, guys, we love you – if you’re struggling, speak out, and ask for help xxx.

Three Royal documentaries – Our Queen At War (ITV), Prince Philip (Channel 5), Princess Anne (Channel 5)

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Three Royal documentaries – Our Queen At War (ITV), Philip: the King without a Crown (Channel 5) and Anne: the Daughter who should be Queen (Channel 5).  None of them said anything we haven’t heard umpteen times before, but they were all quite interesting, especially so as I think they must have been filmed after lockdown – the first “lockdown era” documentaries I’ve seen which haven’t actually been about coronavirus issues.  The opinions of the “experts” were either just given by voiceover or else given over video links from their homes.  I think ITV had tarted theirs up a bit, but the Channel 5 ones were clearly home videos made on Zoom or Tik Tok or something similar.  And the ITV one used animated graphics, which was something different.   I’m not sure how the Queen’d feel about her teenage self being shown as an animated graphic, but I’d like to think she’d be quite amused by it!

With no live sport, soaps on ration, and no way of filming new episodes of most programmes until the end of lockdown, TV channels couldn’t be blamed too much if they just showed a lot of repeats – but they’d gone to the trouble of making these new programmes, and they deserve some kudos for that.

The one about Prince Philip was on first, and this really was largely just recycling old stuff.  Out came the video clips of Charles and Diana’s wedding, Diana’s funeral, etc etc, for the umpteenth time!  I’d really have liked to hear more about Philip’s early years, which aren’t discussed nearly as much – but, to be fair, the title of the programme made clear that it was about his role as consort.  The family stuff, whilst interesting, had been said a million times before, as had the sorry tale of his having to give up his naval career, but I enjoyed the discussions about his work, especially the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award Scheme.  It was an hour’s decent watching, anyway.

The one about the Queen’s wartime experiences followed a few days later.  Again, a lot of this was, whilst interesting, same old same old – the speech that she made from Windsor in 1940, and the bombing of Buckingham Palace, and she and Princess Margaret mingling with the crowds on VE Day.  I rather enjoyed all the romantic bits, though.  One of these days, history will see the Queen and Prince Philip’s relationship as one of the greatest royal romances of all time.  Walking round the grounds at Windsor hand-in-hand when he was on leave from the Navy.  Bless!   And, as the programme said, having a boyfriend (for lack of a better word) who was on active service gave the then Princess Elizabeth a greater understanding of what so many other women at the time were going through.

The general point of the programme was to emphasise the fact that the Queen, despite her privileged position, shared many of the wartime experiences that other people did, and how the war years shaped her; and it did a good job of that.  For one thing, we were reminded that she and Princess Margaret actually saw a flying bomb going overhead, before it landed very close by, at Windsor Racecourse. There were even some bits I don’t think I’d ever seen before, such as shots of evacuees from Glasgow on the Balmoral estate.  And I loved seeing the film clips of the Queen driving a truck whilst she was in the ATS!   Those clips aren’t often seen.  This was a very good hour’s TV, especially at the moment with the wartime generation proving such an inspiration during the coronavirus crisis.

Just as a slight aside, though, the fact that they’re now the oldest members of society means that the wartime generation have been hit very hard by this horrible virus.  It’s very sad to read about war veterans or Holocaust survivors, who’d come through so much, having their lives finally ended by this awful, awful thing.

Finally, we had the programme about Princess Anne.  I don’t know whether the title was just meant to attract attention or whether someone genuinely thought it was a valid statement.  I can’t imagine for one second that Princess Anne even wants to be Queen, and there’s certainly no “should” about it: she’s not the eldest.  And, whilst I think she’s amazing, it’s probably a job for someone a bit more tactful!  She is great, though!

One of the “experts” mispronounced everything from “primogeniture” to “governess” which was rather annoying, but it was a very good programme otherwise.  We went back through Anne’s early years, and how the media were quite negative about her in the early 1980s, and she was overshadowed by Diana and Fergie as well as by Charles, but how she earned huge respect because of her work with Save The Children and other charities.  There was also quite a lot about her equestrian career.  It didn’t mention A Question of Sport 🙂 , but it did mention her being Sports Personality of the Year in 1971, and competing at the Olympics on 1976.  It also emphasised the fact that she’s often been the first British Royal to make overseas tours to places which are sensitive for one reason or another, notably the Soviet Union – a very good point.

I remember the negative press she used to get, and was very pleased that this programme was almost entirely complimentary about her hard work and no-nonsense attitude.

She does a sterling job!   As do all the other senior royals – and they’ve been doing what they can in these difficult times.  Thank you to them, and thank you to ITV and Channel 5 for taking the trouble to make these new programmes.  I enjoyed all three of them.

Danny Dyer’s Right Royal Family – BBC 1

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I thought that this was just going to be silly; but some of it was genuinely touching. Danny Dyer, evidently *not* being an avid reader of the works of Jean Plaidy 😉 , had never heard the tales of the Plantagenets’ turbulent family history before; and was clearly moved by hearing how Henry II had faced rebellion by his own sons, and Edward II had had to marry a woman even though he was probably gay – and then met a very horrible end.  There was a lot of wisecracking, but he was obviously taking it all pretty seriously and taking it all in; and he was just so enthusiastic about everything that he made it a joy to watch.

As we know from watching Who Do You Think You Are, Danny Dyer, who grew up on a council estate in the East End and usually plays or fronts series about East End hard men, recently found out that he was descended from Edward III. Yes, all right, all right, so are zillions of other people, but it was clear how much it meant to him to find that out.  And this was a voyage of discovery for him, because he obviously knew very little about the Plantagenets.  Schools fail big time on teaching kids about the Middle Ages.  Such medieval history lessons at we had at school involved drawing pictures of the Bayeux Tapestry, motte and bailey castles and pie charts of how medieval monks spent their time.  And that was about it.   Maybe the teacher would actually have preferred to be teaching art rather than history.  And why would anyone think that a class of 11-year-old girls wanted to draw pie charts showing how medieval monks split their time between eating, studying and praying?!  Even at university, the medieval history modules weren’t great.  So thank you, Jean Plaidy, for introducing me to the glorious soap opera that was the lives of the Plantagenets!   And thank you to the BBC for doing the same for Danny Dyer.

We actually started well before the Plantagenets, with King Rollo. The real one, not the one in the cartoon.  This was good, because there can be a tendency for royal history programmes to start with William the Conqueror and ignore everything that went before.  There was a lot of dressing up and re-enactment in this, so, yes, we did get Danny dressing up as a Viking, but the Viking re-enactors whom he met in Sweden were keen to tell him about Viking life, dispelling all the Victorian myths about horned helmets and so on, and explaining how Rollo pretty much came from nowhere to become Duke of Normandy and found a dynasty.  Danny said, whilst visiting Scandinavia and later Paris, that he’d had no idea that the word “Norman” actually came from “Norseman”, and that was a good point.  We’re all taught about the Battle of Hastings, but the fact that the Normans were descended from Vikings, and the very complex personal and political ties between England, Ireland, Norway, Denmark and Normandy tend to be ignored.

Danny was pretty impressed by what he learnt about King Rollo, and it was also great to see a historical programme (of sorts!) covering something different, rather than Henry VIII all over again!    Even when we got on to William the Conqueror, the focus wasn’t on all the same old, same old stuff about the Battle of Hastings and whether Harold was or wasn’t shot in the eye, but on the Tower of London and the way in which the Normans imposed their authority on the country.  Yes, it was pretty daft when Danny was presented with a set of faux Norman era coins showing his own face on one side and a simplified version of the West Ham crest on the other, and when he dressed up as a knight and tried to drive a lance through a watermelon, but this was never going to be a serious documentary!   And the hunting laws – we also saw him shooting arrows in the woods – have played a fairly big part in English history.

He was so enthusiastic about it all!   What about the swearing and the “unusual” slang words and the wanting to hug everyone all the time?  Well, if he’d been putting it on to present a certain image, it might have been annoying; but he was just being himself.  I’m not suggesting that everyone should go around saying “fuck” in one of the most important churches in Europe (Saint-Chapelle in Paris), but maybe it’s not a bad thing sometimes to show that history’s not just for people talking in … shall we say “ a scholarly way”?

Then on to Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, one of the most interesting couples in the whole of British royal history.   My one big moan about this programme was that it gave a very one-sided view both of Henry II and of Louis IX of France.  I appreciate that they were only spending a short amount of time on each person, and couldn’t go into too much detail, but they might have pointed out how badly Henry treated Eleanor!   I find it hard to have much sympathy over the whole “Revolt of the Eaglets” thing, because I just don’t like the man.  Anyway.  This is another neglected area of history – not just what was going on at home, but the extent of the Angevin Empire.  Thomas Becket got a mention as well, although only a passing one.

Danny was so interested in it all. And his take on the rebellion of Henry II’s sons against him was that they were “ungrateful little brats”, which in some ways did sum it up very well!  And humanised it.  Yes, this is history, these are kings and queens and princes and princesses, but it’s also about family fallings-out and family breakdowns.  A couple’s marriage breaks down, there are tensions between siblings, the kids want to take control of the family business, the parents are each accused of favouring one kid over the others … it’s like a soap opera storyline, isn’t it.  As I’m always saying, if schools taught people about all this, instead of making them draw pie charts about the daily lives of monks, everyone would be a lot more interested in medieval history!

Then, for something different, over to France, to learn about Louis IX. I read The Life of Saint Louis when I was 18.  I am not in the habit of reading medieval hagiographies, but I had to read it as part of my degree course.  The book does go on a lot about the Seventh Crusade, but it doesn’t really tell you about the role Louis played in persecuting Cathars and Jews and promoting the work of the Inquisition.  Louis is a big hero in France.  Like Isabella of Castile is a big heroine in Spain.  OK, let’s not get on to the thorny issue of the attitude of the medieval authorities towards anyone who didn’t toe the line in the religion department.  All Danny was told was that Louis was a very pious man who shunned luxury, and tried to help the poor and marginalised – which, to be fair, he did.  We also heard about how Louis obtained many supposed relics, including the supposed Crown of Thorns.  And how he was very into self-flagellation.

Almost 500 years after the English Reformation, the culture here has developed in a very different way to that of countries where most people are Catholic or Orthodox.  And our culture here is now very secular.  We tend to shy away from religious talk in this country.  That, as far as I’m concerned, is no bad thing; but, when we’re talking about the Middle Ages, we really can’t do that.  Even if you’re looking at the present day, rather than the Middle Ages, it can be quite a culture shock when you go abroad and see shrines by the side of the road, or religious images in hotel receptions and dining areas.  I don’t mean that in any sort of critical way, just that it takes some getting used to.

We got Danny dressed up in a brown shift, walking along like a penitent. And then he visited the Saint-Chapelle, where the historian accompanying him told him that Louis had been canonised, and that a vial of his blood was regarded as being miracle-working.  I got the impression that she genuinely believed this.  I’ve no idea what he actually thought about it all, but the magnificence of the chapel, with stained glass windows all round, and I’m guessing probably a strong smell of incense, was clearly quite dazzling and overwhelming, and, on top of that, being told that one of his ancestors had been canonised … it was a long way from West Ham and Albert Square, and it was really getting into a different sort of medieval mindset.    And you wouldn’t have got that in a programme fronted by someone who knew about history, because it wouldn’t have been new to them, and that was partly what made this programme so interesting.  That and the personal element, because we never forgot that, however many umpteen generations away, these actually were Danny’s ancestors.

Then back to England, for the sorry tale of Edward II. Son of the great Edward I, father of the great Edward III.  Lost the Battle of Bannockburn, upset all the barons, was deposed by his wife, Isabella the “She Wolf” of France, and her lover, and may or may not have been murdered by having a red hot poker shoved where the sun doesn’t shine and used to burn out all his innards.  OK, the red hot poker story probably isn’t true, but (whilst there’s the odd romantic novel that shows him escaping abroad) he did meet some sort of very sticky end.  He also had the bad luck to be king at the time of the Great Famine of 1315.

Was he romantically involved with Piers Gaveston and Hugh le Despenser, or were they both just close friends? Well, no-one really knows, but it’s quite likely.  The medieval re-enactment  bit in this programme involved a woman dressed up as Isabella shouting about having a husband who preferred guys.  OK, the way it was done was a bit silly, but it was really touching to hear Danny talking about how difficult it must have been for Edward, if he was gay but had to marry a woman to try to produce heirs, and indeed to forge an alliance with France, and seeing that he was clearly moved by it.  When you’re used to the Plantagenet soap opera, it’s easy to forget how it must all seem to someone hearing it for the first time, especially when it’s someone who’s found out that they’re directly descended from these people.

It was interesting that they chosen Edward II, rather than Edward I or Edward III.  Human interest over legal or military achievements.  The main reason that we hear so much about the reign of Henry VIII isn’t because of the importance of the Reformation on the development of Parliament and English culture – it’s because it involves a story of someone dumping their loyal partner of many years to go off with a younger, better-looking model, and that story resonates with every generation.

Speaking of Henry VIII, the programme then jumped on to the Tudor and Stuart eras. By this point, Danny’s direct line had long been detached from royalty – but travelled down through Elizabeth Seymour, sister-in-law of Henry VIII, and Catherine Tollemache, nee Cromwell, great-granddaughter of Thomas Cromwell.  First up, a visit to Wolf Hall, now associated with those ridiculously overrated books by Hilary Mantel.   This mainly involved Danny dressing up like one of Henry VIII’s courtiers, joking about codpieces, and being taught Tudor court dancing, singing and etiquette.   There’s so much on TV about the Tudors that this just didn’t have the same fascination as the earlier stuff, but he got really stuck into it all – and it was quite sweet when he kissed an effigy of John Seymour, Elizabeth’s father.  Then on to Helmingham Hall, seat of the Tollemaches, where he was joined by his wife and children and they all got dressed up.

They joked about how it was like one of those “And here’s what you could have won!” moments from Bullseye.  Maybe it was more like a real life version of one of those Edward Rutherfurd novels where two branches of a family tree go in completely different directions.    If everyone could all employ the services of professional genealogists with all the time and resources they needed, who knows what they’d find?  But this was great, because it was like a soap opera storyline and yet it was all real, and the fact that Danny Dyer was so into it all meant that the viewer couldn’t help but get drawn into it all with him.  I thought I’d be moaning about how silly this all was – I mean “Right Royal Family” is hardly the most promising of titles – but I genuinely enjoyed it.  Good stuff!

Victoria and Albert: The Royal Wedding – BBC 1

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This was so much more cheering than those miserable Christmas episodes of Coronation Street and EastEnders.  I don’t expect any better from EastEnders, but really, Corrie!  So now we know all about Prince Albert’s bowel troubles, Queen Victoria’s underwear, the problems of finding the toilets at Westminster Abbey and Lord Melbourne’s opinions on how to lose weight.  Seeing as the meat served at the wedding reception had been larded with bacon fat, it wasn’t really any wonder that advice on weight loss was required.  And I’d thought this was going to be all about white dresses!

This was a mish-mash of a programme – dressmaking and cake-making interspersed with historical discussion and singing.  And, being presented by Lucy Worsley, naturally it involved dressing up!  The historical discussion was interesting, although nothing that hadn’t been said a million times before – the Kensington Palace system, the Lady Flora Hastings affair, etc etc etc.  That wasn’t directly relevant to the wedding, but it was necessary in order to make the point that this needed to be a big PR success, to promote the popularity of the Royal Family.  Incidentally, Lucy really should have known better than to refer to the Duchess of Kent as “the Queen Mother”, which she wasn’t, and to say that the marriage was supposed to promote international peace and closer Anglo-German ties – er, no, that was the marriage of Victoria and Albert’s daughter Vicky to the Crown Prince of Prussia, a generation later!

We were informed that the initial meeting of bride and groom wasn’t a great success.  I’d always thought that this was because Albert was boring and not keen on dancing, but, according to this, Victoria thought he was too fat, and he was in a bad mood because he had diarrhoea.  A bit TMI there.  However, as we all know, the second meeting went better – although I’m not sure that I’d describe theirs as “the greatest royal love story of all time”.  I think the Queen and Prince Philip could well claim that, actually.  

Lord Melbourne was presented as the wedding planner.  Lucy insisted that he was in love with Queen Victoria.  A lot of people say that it was the other way round, and Victoria was in love with him.  Who knows?  Whatever the truth, they certainly had a very close relationship, and there was a poignant recreation of the scene in which he visited her after she’d changed into her going away outfit, and then off she went to start her new life with Albert.  It was pointed out that someone needed to make a good job of planning the wedding, because the Coronation hadn’t gone very well.  I’d heard the stories about the ring being shoved on the wrong finger and the elderly lord falling over umpteen times before, but I can’t say I knew that no-one had shown poor Victoria where the Westminster Abbey ladies’ loos were.  You learn something new every day.

Seriously, whilst it was all a bit muddled, there were some interesting points and nuggets of information in there.  It’s well-known that Queen Victoria set the fashion for wedding dresses to be white – although I don’t think the idea spread that widely across non-Anglophone countries until Grace Kelly’s wedding to Prince Rainier – but I’d never really thought that much about how much she must have stood out in pure white.  And it was genuinely lovely to hear about the importance of the commission to the British craftspeople who worked on the dress (not to mention the underwear), at a time of economic hardship.  Interesting in a different way was the tale of how they couldn’t find twelve aristocratic bridesmaids who met Prince Albert’s condition of coming from families untouched by scandal, so Albert got overruled on that one!

Not much was known about the other details, so they had to improvise.  Or guess!   But, as they said, the music would probably have been Handel, incredibly popular at the time.  Was there no order of service, giving the detail?  Evidently not!   And all that food!  Service a la francaise, which I hate!  Service a la russe is the way to go, if you’re an aristocrat – let someone serve you, rather than that incredibly annoying thing of having all the food on the table so that people keep mithering you to pass them this or that or the other.  A cake which was 9 feet in circumference, so full of sugar and fruit that the pieces never went off, and loads of smaller cakes being sent out to friends and relatives and embassies.

I thought it was rather mean to go on about Victoria putting on weight.  It presumably wasn’t a direct consequence of one meal, however lavish!  But I was intrigued by the idea of her asking Lord Melbourne for advice about it.  He apparently told her only to eat when she was hungry … and she said that she was always hungry.  I have deep sympathy with the Hanoverians over their tendency towards weight gain.  George IV apparently went through phases of not wanting to go out in case people laughed at him for being fat.  Been there, done that!  But the Queen asking the Prime Minister (or possibly the former Prime Minister, by then) for advice about weight issues?  That’s different!

And the gossip!  Who was invited to the wedding breakfast?  Who wasn’t?  Who got the best seats?  Who didn’t get on with whom?  Who’d fallen out?  Fast forward to 2018 and nothing’s really changed.  But it was Queen Victoria and Prince Albert’s wedding that really popularised the idea of a Royal Wedding being a national event, or even an international event.  And it’s nice.  In many ways, it’s been, to quote Queen (Queen the group, not the Queen, obviously), “a long hard year”.  The two royal weddings, along with the World Cup, provided bright spots and a wonderful feelgood factor.  And Queen Victoria and Prince Albert’s wedding did that as well.