Blood Queen by Joanna Courtney


This is a very entertaining read, with the legendary Lady Macbeth shown here as Cora, a spirited young woman kidnapped on the evening of her wedding to her childhood sweetheart Macbeth, forced to marry another man, and abused by both him and his brother before her eventual rescue by and reunion with Macbeth, after which she becomes a strong queen but certainly not the nasty piece of work depicted by Shakespeare. Meanwhile, Duncan, shown by Shakespeare as an elderly man, is shown here, more accurately, as being about the same age as Macbeth; and his wife Sybill plays a major role in the book.

It’s difficult to comment on the history, partly because it’s not an area with which I’m all that familiar and partly because there are so many gaps in the historical record, and what sources there are contradict each other; but, from what I gather, this is far closer to the known facts than anything Shakespeare wrote about the subject was. Macbeth didn’t murder Duncan, and there was no prominent Macduff in this period. And there were certainly no witches or ghosts: it seems that they were shoved in to please James I and VI, who was a) obsessed with witch-hunting and b) thought to be related to a figure called Banquo who featured heavily in “Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland”, from which Shakespeare got a lot of his historical “information”. It’s a good read in its own right, and it also sets the reader thinking about the many ways in which Shakespeare’s distorted popular views of history. I don’t think Ricardians have a good word to say for the man!

The basis of the book is the rivalry for the throne between two different branches of the royal family of Alba (the word “Scotland” wouldn’t have been used in Alba/Scotland at that time), due to a system in which the succession alternated between the different branches, but it’s more about personalities than politics – although, inevitably, there’s a lot of violence. The characters, including a number of minor but essential characters, are very well fleshed out, with the two main female characters at the heart of the action, there are some wonderful descriptions of homes and landscapes, and everyone seems to be rather obsessed with whisky!

It’s hard to go looking for historical accuracy because there’s so much that we just don’t know, and Scottish readers may well be annoyed that most of the names have been Anglicised, but I did really enjoy it. As for Shakespeare, well, he wasn’t trying to be a history teacher, and he could never have dreamt that his work would become so well-known that it would still be giving people the wrong impression over 400 years after his death! But the role of “Holinshed’s Chronicles” is fascinating: they were the source of a lot of the stuff Shakespeare used, but they’re virtually unknown. Having said which, they aren’t to blame for the liberties that Shakespeare took with Roman history, nor with Danish history!

I love Joanna Courtney’s idea of trying to reclaim the real history behind Shakespeare’s plays.  The Wars of the Roses have received a lot of attention in recent years, but the Macbeth era certainly hasn’t.  And she’s now written a book about Ophelia.  Another one for the Amazon wishlist!


Mary Queen of Scots


What on earth?!  Elizabeth, Mary, and Bess of Hardwick wandering around in a laundry.  The Four Marys praying on the bedroom floor that Darnley had managed to hit the jackpot.  When he wasn’t carrying on with Rizzio – as if Rizzio, even if he actually had been interested in blokes, would have looked twice at an idiot like Darnley.  John Knox’s hair and beard were rather mesmerising: I wonder if he ever washed them.  Why did French-raised Mary have a Scottish accent?  Why was the Earl of Lennox (played by Mr Bates from Downton Abbey) getting so stuck into everything?  What happened to the Battle of Carberry Hill?  Shouldn’t the Casket Letters and the umpteen plots have got a mention?  Worst of all, how dared they present Elizabeth as such a wimp? I was spitting feathers about that!   She was shown as splitting her time between getting upset, having soppy conversations with Robert Dudley (who looked about 14), and taking advice from Mike from Neighbours.  Whereas Mary must have spent most of her time having her very elaborate hairdo sorted out.  Much as I love an excuse to talk about the 16th century, the best bits of this were the shots of Hardwick Hall and the Scottish countryside!

Why mess about with a story that would grab anyone’s attention exactly as it was?  The life of Mary Queen of Scots is something that you just couldn’t make up.  It makes even the most OTT of soap operas look mild by comparison.  And why make everything that happened in her life  – well, everything that happened during the seven years of her forty-four year life that it covered – about her relationship with Elizabeth?

Having started off being negative, I’m always very pleased to see a film, especially one that’s going to grab attention because of its big name cast, about history.  We’ve got two big films this year about Stewart/Stuart queens, this and The Favourite.  Always good to see history in the headlines, even though this film’s been well and truly overshadowed by The Favourite.  And it’s big names, and this time I’m talking historical figures rather than actresses and actors, that get people talking.

There’s sometimes been a lot of debate between historians over whether history is about important individuals and landmark events or whether it’s about long-running trends and movements.  It’s probably less relevant now that the age of empire and the age of communism are both over, because that idea that history’s moving onwards and upwards towards something has rather been shown not to work.  Obviously there are long-running movements, but even they tend to involve individuals and events. The study of them does, anyway.  You wouldn’t talk about the fight for women’s suffrage without mentioning Emmeline Pankhurst, or the Reformation without mentioning Luther, Zwingli, Calvin and Henry VIII, or the Renaissance without mentioning Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raffaello and Donatello (sorry!).   We like to talk about people.

And we like rivalries.  Rafa and Roger.  United and Liverpool.  Barcelona and Real Madrid.  Oasis and Blur.  Gladstone and Disraeli.  And there seems to be a particular fascination with the idea of a rivalry between Elizabeth and Mary, Queen of Scots.  The 1971 Mary, Queen of Scots film focused on it as well.  Maybe it’s because there haven’t been that many queens regnant in history, and having two in one island was unique, with the added spice that they were first cousins once removed and Mary, by both the laws of primogeniture and the terms of Henry VIII’s will, had the best claim to be Elizabeth’s heir.  And, in the eyes of those who didn’t recognise the validity of Henry VIII’s marriage to Anne Boleyn, had a claim to be in Elizabeth’s place.  All set against the background of religious strife across Europe, Mary’s ties with France, and the threat to Elizabeth from England’s real rival – Philip II of Spain.

Were their lives so entangled?  There was no actual conflict between England and Scotland at this point; nor was there likely to be.  This wasn’t the age of Flodden Field or Bannockburn.  Scotland was too weak and divided to attack England, and England wasn’t interested in trying to conquer Scotland. Different factions in Scotland were seeking English help, England couldn’t afford for France or Spain to get too involved in Scotland and possibly use it as a back door to attack England, and there was the ongoing worry that someone might try to put Mary on Elizabeth’s throne.  And Mary did want to be named as Elizabeth’s heir.  So, all right, I suppose it is quite difficult to talk about one without talking about the other – especially if the focus is on Mary, who ended up spending much of her life under house arrest in England.

But do you have to decide that you’re going to talk one up and talk one down?   You can’t support two rival football clubs, but, with historical figures … I don’t see why you can’t appreciate both.  With Elizabeth, I find it very easy, because there is just so much to admire.  With Mary, I’m never entirely sure what I think.  That’s partly because we don’t know what happened at the crucial point of Mary’s reign – her marriage to Bothwell.  There are such completely different versions of events, and we just don’t have the evidence to tell us which one is true.  At one extreme, there’s the idea that the two of them were lovers, and conspired to murder Darnley so that they could marry each other.  (Bothwell’s previous wife was also shoved out of the way, but at least she was divorced rather than bumped off!  The film never even mentioned her.)   At the other extreme, there’s the idea that he kidnapped her, raped her repeatedly until she became pregnant (she later miscarried), and forced her to marry him.  The film went somewhere down the middle – she wasn’t involved in the murder, but went off with Bothwell voluntarily, believing that he could protect her, but then he gave her little choice but to marry him.  I’ve read so much on this subject, and I’m still not sure what to believe.

This film was definitely trying to talk Mary up, though.  It went out of its way to show a positive portrayal of her – despite all the stupid mistakes she made.  I could have lived with that, though.  It was much better than the idea of her as a romantic tragic-heroine/Catholic martyr who was nothing but the pitiful victim of events and other people’s decisions.  But the fact that it was so negative about Elizabeth put me right off.  It just didn’t work at all.  In fact, in that bizarre fictitious scene in the laundry, the script pretty much admitted that it’d got it wrong!   Elizabeth said that she’d always been jealous of Mary.  Was she?  I don’t know.  Maybe.  But then she said that she’d realised that she didn’t want to be like Mary after all.  Now, that was more like it.  But did Elizabeth really spend so much time thinking about Mary?  Was Mary really so obsessed with Elizabeth that she kept sending her letters saying that she wanted them to be sisters, as this film suggested.  Didn’t each of them – and obviously I’m talking about the period before Mary fled to England and was imprisoned – have enough going on in their own lives to spend quite so much time obsessing about each other on a personal basis as well as a political basis?

So what did the film actually show?  It opened with eighteen-year-old Mary’s return from France, following the death of her first husband.  Despite having lived in France since the age of five, she spoke with a Scottish accent – as did the Four Marys.  And despite a long and apparently difficult voyage, her complicated hairdo was immaculate. It stayed like that all the time, whether she’d been galloping about on horseback, on the road for hours, or anything else.  And she seemed a fair bit older than eighteen.  All right, you can’t show someone looking the right age all the time, and there are worse inaccuracies than accents and hair that never gets messed up, but it was just annoying.

She then proceeded to Edinburgh, where she met up with her half-brother, the Earl of Moray.  It was rather difficult to tell who was who, because names weren’t often given, and all the men had beards … although no-one else’s beard was as spectacularly long and messy as that of John Knox.  This is an intriguing part of history, because Mary’s always seen as a Catholic heroine, yet she didn’t try to replace the Protestant lords who’d taken control before her return.  Was that because, whilst she’s often seen as being anything but politically astute, she knew not to pick a fight she couldn’t win?  Or was it because she didn’t want to put herself offside with Elizabethan England?  Probably a bit of both.  The film did actually cover this fairly well: it could have skipped over the politics and just concentrated on the more audience-friendly topic of her love life, but, to be fair, it didn’t.

We did get quite a lot about Mary’s relationship with Darnley, though.  And this was all messed up.  A lot of it was more about Elizabeth than about Mary!  What was going on with Elizabeth’s involvement in Mary’s search for a new husband?  This is something else I’m never quite sure about.  She surely can’t seriously have thought that Mary would marry Robert Dudley, son of an executed traitor, grandson of a tax collector and known by everyone to be her ((Elizabeth’s) own “favourite”.  The film suggested that she did, though.  I really don’t know.  It seems a strange thing to suggest just to try to stir it, but I can’t believe that Elizabeth seriously thought Mary would consider the idea.

If they’d shown Elizabeth thinking it was a good idea because it’d give her influence in Mary’s camp, and even being amused by the idea of trying to humiliate her by suggesting such an unsuitable husband, it might have worked, but, instead, they just showed her being emotionally dependent on Dudley, going on about how much she needed him, and also being very dependent on Cecil (Guy Pearce), which I found incredibly annoying.  Elizabeth I, with the heart and stomach of a king, who’d survived so much already and was going to survive so much more.  It’s annoying enough when people present Mary as being a weak little woman.  It’s unbearable to see a film doing that with Elizabeth.

A lot was made of Elizabeth’s near-fatal case of smallpox.  It must have been absolutely horrendous, to put it mildly, and she must have suffered severe emotional scars as well as the physical pox marks.  And it panicked everyone, because she hadn’t named an heir.  But the film makers seemed determined to seize on it just to show her as being weak and vulnerable, worrying what everyone’d think of her afterwards, rather than in terms of its political consequences.  And they never mentioned Mary’s health problems at all.  It’s thought that she may have had porphyria, and have passed it on down the line to George III: we can’t be sure of that, but she certainly had bouts of illness during the period covered by this film, and they weren’t shown at all.  She was depicted as being very fit and healthy, galloping around on horseback, doing a lot of dancing … not a suggestion of any sort of flaw, for lack of a better way of putting it.

Next up, Darnley and a lot of scenes involving galloping round the Highlands.  Elizabeth was shown to be very upset and concerned about the marriage.  I suppose she must have had concerns, especially as Darnley was also a descendant of Henry VIII, but I go with the view that she knew Darnley was a complete idiot and was happy for Mary to marry him rather than someone with political acumen.  The film, however, determined to show Mary in a positive light, showed Darnley as the perfect suitor … right up until his wedding night, when he got drunk and went off with Rizzio, Mary’s musician and secretary.  Ridiculous.

For a kick off, no-one has that much of a personality transplant overnight – you don’t go from being the perfect potential husband to being a violent drunk, just like that.  And, whilst Darnley might well have been bisexual, there’s never been any suggestion that Rizzio was interested in men.  He was widely rumoured, although falsely, to be Mary’s lover.  I think that bit just got put in so that they could include a scene with Mary assuring Rizzio that she had no problem with him being gay, to show that she was tolerant and open-minded – as with another scene in which she assured a Protestant soldier that she wasn’t bothered what religion people were.  But Rizzio wasn’t gay, and he certainly wasn’t involved with Darnley.  As for that scene in which Mary coaxed Darnley into doing the deed with her, apparently just once, and then got the Four Marys to pray by her bedside whilst she crossed her legs and rolled backwards … who on earth dreamt that up?!

Then all the big drama!  Starting with the conspiracy of the Protestant lords against Mary, Darnley dithering over whose side he was on, and the murder of poor old Rizzio in front of his heavily pregnant queen.  OK, obviously this did all happen – but why was the Earl of Lennox shown as being behind it all?!  And bullying Darnley into striking the final blow, to prove that he was a real man?  I suppose they’d got themselves in a mess by making out that Rizzio had been having it off with Darnley, when in fact people were saying that he’d been having an affair with Mary, but it was just all wrong!   It’s one of the most dramatic events in Scottish history, and they managed to make a mess of it!

Mary duly gave birth to James – and, according to the film, wrote a load of soppy letters saying that she wanted Elizabeth to be his second mother.  I don’t think so!   Then what one of my school history teachers, who was rather given to dramatics – which were actually a pretty good way of keeping the class’s attention – described as “The Mysterious Death at Kirk o’Field”.   Darnley’s house was blown up by gunpowder, and the bodies of Darnley and his servant, killed by strangulation rather than by the explosion, were found nearby.  Bothwell was tried by the Privy Council but cleared of murder – although four of his servants were later convicted.  To this day, no-one knows who was actually responsible.  Was it Bothwell?  Was it the Earl of Moray?  Could it have been the Earl of Arran, who was probably the next heir to Scotland after Mary and James?  Was Mary involved?   We just don’t know.  The reign of Mary Queen of Scots is so, so frustrating, because we just do not know what really went on!   No film can be criticised for the way it deals with that, because no-one knows the truth.

I’ve already mentioned how it portrayed Mary’s marriage to Bothwell – and, again, no-one can be criticised for how they interpret something over which there’s so much confusion.  But it went way off piste after that.  The Battle of Carberry Hill, in which Mary was captured by lords opposed to Bothwell, just got passed over, and Mary’s imprisonment at Loch Leven, miscarriage and escape weren’t even mentioned.  Instead, the next thing we knew, Mary was over the border and into England – OK, obviously this bit was true – and meeting Elizabeth in a laundry!!

What on earth?  The 1971 film also showed Mary and Elizabeth meeting.  They didn’t!   I get that film makers like the idea of a dramatic showdown, but it never happened, and it’s so annoying when films, or TV dramas, just … well, lie!  “Poetic licence”?  You shouldn’t be using “poetic licence” with two of the best known figures in British history!  And I can’t even decide if the scene was effective or just plain silly, with Elizabeth hiding behind the drying sheets and Mary chasing her round until they eventually came face to face.

I suppose it was dramatic in its way.  And some of what was said wasn’t that unlikely.  Elizabeth probably did envy Mary’s beauty and glamour.  She must, surely, have envied the fact that Mary had a son and heir.  But I doubt she envied Mary’s “bravery”.  I’d imagine she probably thought that Mary had very poor judgement and had got herself into one mess after another.  But this is all speculation: I haven’t really got a clue what the great Elizabeth I thought about Mary, Queen of Scots, and nor have the scriptwriters.  But we do all know jolly well that Elizabeth and Mary never met, and it’s very irritating when historical films portray false events, and don’t even explain in a foreword or afterword that they’ve made them up.

After the laundry scene, it just jumped to the end, with Mary’s execution – although the very end wasn’t even about Mary, but about Elizabeth and her regrets.  All the years of Mary’s imprisonment, the Casket Letters and their part in the ongoing debate about what really went on between Mary and Bothwell, all the plots … none of that got a mention.  OK, the film was long enough as it was, and it would have taken another film to have got all that in, but it meant that only half a tale was being told.  I hope they don’t make a sequel, though, because I dread to imagine what they’d do with that!

This was a fascinating period of history.  There was no need to mess with the facts: they were exciting enough as it was.  And, whilst it was gratifying to see Mary not being presented as a passive victim of events, I’m just beyond annoyed at the portrayal of Elizabeth.  Not overly impressed with this film!   I wouldn’t have missed it, because I don’t like to miss a historical film and this period of history is so familiar to me, but … well, I won’t ever be watching it again!

Great Canadian Railway Journeys – BBC 2


Next Monday’s episode is about one of my favourite cities in the whole wide world, Vancouver 🙂 , and  Thursday’s episode is going to finish in another place that I’m very fond of, Quebec City; but last night’s episode was about Prince Edward Island and I’m not passing up an excuse to write about Anne of Green Gables.  It also discussed people who’d sailed from Wester Ross to Nova Scotia – let’s just get The Proclaimers in there 🙂 .  I think Thursday’s episode’s also going to cover the Acadian Expulsions, but that will probably involve Evangeline and I’m not writing about that for anybody.  It’s like Uncle Tom’s Cabin: you feel under some sort of moral obligation to think it’s wonderful, whereas it actually just makes you want to throw up.  The Green Gables books, on the other hand, genuinely are wonderful, and it was lovely to hear people saying that they felt that Anne, Gilbert & co were the soul of Prince Edward Island.

We started in Pictou, Nova Scotia, where Michael Portillo was shown round the Hector, a ship which carried some of the earliest emigrants from the Scottish Highlands to Canada, in 1773.  OK, the programme didn’t actually say that they sailed from Wester Ross, but they probably did!  It did say that around 15% of Canadians have Scottish ancestry, and we saw a lot of tartan signs, and people playing the bagpipes and dancing Scottish reels.

It was, however, rather frustrating to hear the local guide claiming that the emigrants in 1773 were leaving Scotland because “English landlords” had taken over the Highlands after Culloden. What a load of rubbish.  The suppression of Highland culture after Culloden was appalling, but the Clearances, which forced a lot of people off their land, were the work of Scottish landlords trying to make their estates more profitable.  Scottish author Reay Tannahill covers this very well in one of my all-time favourite historical novels, A Dark and Distant Shore, although that covers the second wave of clearances, in the 1820s.  All right, I appreciate that it wasn’t meant as a political comment, but there’s a lot of tension in the world at the moment, and it doesn’t really help when people go around blithely claiming that the English were to blame for this or the Germans were to blame for that or the Russians were to blame for the other, when it isn’t even true!

Rant over!   It was more interesting to hear about the appalling conditions on board the ship – something covered in a lot of detail in Vilhelm Moberg’s The Emigrants, which is about Swedish emigrants to the American mid-West in the early 19th century, but says much the same as the guide in Pictou was saying about the Hector.  We also heard about how people wanting to leave the Highlands were tricked by the organisers of “emigration schemes”, who promised them land and supplies – which, of course, never materialised.  I’d hesitate to use the term “people traffickers”, because it’s not as if people were being forced into slavery/sex work, but there were certainly a lot of unscrupulous people around.   And, as Michael said, you have to admire the tough folk who made that journey and then made new lives for themselves in a strange place and under difficult conditions.

We then heard a lot about lobsters. OK, whatever!  And then on to Prince Edward Island.  Not too much about actual railway journeys in this episode: we saw Michael riding a bike along a disused railway line!   He was heading for Cavendish, where “the” Green Gables house is.  It was owned by L M Montgomery’s grandparents’ cousins, apparently.  She (LMM) was brought up by her grandparents after her mother’s death: her father was a real-life example of one of those widowers you find so often in books, who leave their motherless children with relatives.   I’m so jealous that Michael got to see the house!   I did consider a Maritime Provinces trip for this year, and seeing the Green Gables house was the main attraction.  I went for something else in the end, but I’ll do it one of these days, hopefully!

I love the fact that Michael did talk about Anne of Green Gables, just as he talked about Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books in an earlier series, and I think I remember him talking about Louisa M Alcott as well.  People can be quite snotty about books that were aimed mainly at young girls, but he’s shown them the respect they deserved.  I do love Anne, and the way she makes everything so romantic and such a drama!  I love her romance with Gilbert.  I love her attempts at writing a book.  I love the fact that she goes off to college and that she becomes a teacher.  I have never dared try to dye my hair at home, because of that scene where Anne accidentally dyes her hair green!   And so I loved the fact that the people Michael spoke to did genuinely seem to feel that the books were an essential part of the island’s culture – not just as a way of attracting visitors and peddling tourist tat, but … well, the word “soul” was actually used.  OK, he was talking to people who worked at the Green Gables house, or who were taking part in the Anne of Green Gables musical which has been running for three months a year for fifty-four years, but even so.

We also got to hear about harness racing, particularly associated with Irish settlers, and about red loam soil And then he finished up by saying that Prince Edward Island’s main interest for historians is that it was the scene of the Charlottetown Conference of 1864, which was what really set the ball rolling with Canadian confederation … although, when the Dominion of Canada was formed, in 1867, Prince Edward Island didn’t actually join in, remaining a separate entity until 1873.  Saying that Confederation was about railways was pushing it a bit 🙂 .  OK, railways were an issue, but the ramifications of the American Civil War, general economic issues and the fact that the existing system wasn’t really working did have a bit to do with it as well!

Charlottetown is, therefore, very important in Canadian history. And Confederation is very interesting.  I once delivered a bit of a lecture in it whilst I was sat in canoe on a river (or was it a lake?) in British Columbia.  Seriously, I did!  The canoe supervisor guy for some reason started firing questions about Canadian history at us, and the rest of the group, being more into outdoor sports than history, just didn’t answer … er, so I gave a mini-lecture about Confederation.  I am so weird, I know.  But saying that the Charlottetown Conference is more interesting to historians than Anne Shirley and Gilbert Blythe and co?   Hmm … I’ll have to have a good long think about that one!