Welcome to 'Lost in the Myths of History'

It often seems that many prominent people of the past are wronged by often-repeated descriptions, which in time are taken as truth. The same is also true of events, which are frequently presented in a particular way when there might be many alternative viewpoints. This blog is intended to present a different perspective on those who have often been lost in the myths of history.

Monday, 19 December 2011

The Wealth of Kings

Recently, I left a comment on a beautiful YouTube video of original footage of Tsar Nicholas and his family visiting a Cathedral. A reply to my comment read something to the effect of: and did the starving masses view this event as beautiful?

There is a huge myth around the wealth of kings, and more particular the royalties of the past couple of centuries and I think this myth was born out of a combination of the extravagances of certain members of royal and imperial families and envy. The majority of kings in the late 19th and early 20th centuries actually lived quite frugal and simple lives and though they lived in palaces they saw themselves as custodians of those places and, within them, their own rooms were often simply furnished and not very much different from those of non-royal custodians who inhabit stately homes and palaces today. No one objects to the modern custodians, but somehow blame is laid at the feet of kings and emperors for fulfilling their role to the best of their abilities.

It is very interesting to think – particularly when people speak of the wealth of kings as though this deprives everyone else of their fair share – that if all the wealth of a royal family were shared out among the people of the country, we would each end up being something like one penny better off. I would prefer to enjoy the beautiful stateliness of those who are born as guardians of ancient traditions and also have the wellbeing of their people at heart.

More interesting, though, is the extent to which those 19th/20th century royalties took a personal and active part in what is misleadingly called ‘charity work’ but was/is, in fact, a means of raising people to all they can be. Throughout the horrendous wars of the past century, princesses and queens personally assisted in surgical operations, tended the wounded and participated in the most horrendous procedures. The Tsarina of Russia, for example, spent many hours writing personal letters from wounded soldiers to their families after hours of working in operating theatres. I have yet to see a politician or dictator participating in such activities. This, however, was not confined to war time. There are countless examples of royalties, who had dedicated their lives to their people, carrying out all kinds of amazing work to raise people up and inspire them. In recent times, for example, when Diana, Princess of Wales, visited a local hospice, I was told by someone who was there on that day that the patients were so much happier and so delighted by the time she spent with each of them. There is a mystique of royalty and it is churlish to deny it when it does so much good.

On a personal level, too, the ‘good’ done by individual 19th century royalties is often overlooked. The Victorian Age is seen as very judgemental and yet it is fascinating that, when unmarried mothers or so-called ‘fallen women’ were being treated with such disdain by other members of society, the royalties were among the most understanding. Queen Victoria encouraged the Duchess of York to be seen in public with one such unfortunate cousin and her daughter, Princess Alice, like many others founded safe houses and spent time speaking with those who were seen as outcasts, in order to help them. Here is a very interesting article, too, about the children who were adopted by royal families:

Royalties Who Adopted Children

 I wonder, “Did Lenin or Stalin nurse the sick? Did Hitler take time to write letters to the families of his wounded soldiers? Would you rather that the figurehead of your nation was someone who really loved your country and its people, or really love himself? Would you like to do away with all the pageantry, the sense of unity we feel at jubilees or royal weddings, in order to gain one penny?

Funny, isn't it, that Stalin murdered his wife and Hitler killed his niece and politicians and bankers have created such a financial mess for so many people,  but people still believe that Nicholas II was a tyrant and somehow other royalties deprive their people of their true wealth?  

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Emilie Todd Helm

Some may not realize that Abraham Lincoln had a beloved Confederate sister-in-law who paid cordial visits to the White House amidst the fury and bitterness of the Civil War. At the Tea at Trianon Forum, we have been discussing the moving story of Emilie Todd Helm (1836-1930),  half-sister of Mary Todd Lincoln and wife and later widow of Confederate general Benjamin Hardin Helm of Kentucky. Beautiful, vivacious, spirited, young enough to be the President's daughter, Emilie was the perfect Southern belle. She also left vivid diaries offering a rare glimpse of the intimate sphere of the Lincoln family. 
The Lincolns had long had a special fondness for her. Mary found in her sister someone in whom she could confide her torments. "She and Brother Lincoln pet me as if I were a child, and without words, try to comfort me," Emilie wrote. "Kiss me, Emilie, and tell me that you love me," Mrs. Lincoln told her half-sister one morning. "I seem to be the scape-goat for both North and South."[4] At that point, President Lincoln entered the room and said: "I hope you two are planning some mischief.' Mr. Lincoln told Emilie later that day: "Little Sister, I hope you can come up and spend the summer with us at the Soldiers' Home; you and Mary love each other - it is good for her to have you with her - I feel worried about Mary, her nerves have gone to pieces; she cannot hide from me that the strain she had been under has been too much for her mental as well as her physical health." Both Lincolns expressed separate concerns to Emilie about the other's mental and physical health.
President Lincoln was very solicitous of Emilie and defended her presence at the White House against political attacks. Emilie later recalled: "Mr. Lincoln in the intimate talks we had was very much affected over the misfortunes of our family; and of my husband he said, 'You know, Little Sister, I tried to have Ben come with me. I hope you do not feel any bitterness or that I am in any way to blame for all this sorrow.' I answered it was 'the fortune of war' and that while my husband loved him and had been deeply grateful to him for his generous offer to make him an officer in the Federal Army, he had to follow his conscience and that for weal or woe he felt he must side with his own people. Mr. Lincoln put his arms around me and we both wept."[5]
In the winter of 1863, while Emilie was visiting the White House, Mrs. Lincoln requested that she meet some visitors. Emilie later wrote:
I went most reluctantly. It is painful to see friends and I do not feel like meeting strangers. I cannot bear their inquiring look at my deep crepe. It was General [Daniel] Sickles again, calling with Senator Harris. General Sickles said, "I told Senator Harris that you were at the White House, just from the South and could probably give him some news of his old friend General John C. Breckinridge." I told Senator Harris that as I had not seen General Breckinridge for some time I could give him no news of the general's health. He then asked me several pointed questions about the South and as politely as I could I gave him non-committal answers. Senator Harris said to me in a voice of triumph, "Well, we have whipped the rebels at Chattanooga and I hear, madam, that the scoundrels ran like scared rabbits." "It was the example, senator Harris, that you set then at Bull Run and Manassas," I answered with a choking throat. I was very nervous and I could see that Sister Mary was annoyed. She tactfully tried to change the subject, whereupon Senator Harris turned to her abruptly and with an unsmiling face asked sternly: "Why isn't Robert in the Army? He is old enough to serve his country. He should have gone to the front some time ago."
Sister Mary's face turned white as death and I saw that she was making a desperate effort at self-control. She bit her lip, but answered quietly, 'Robert is making his preparations now to enter the Army, Senator Harris; he is not a shirker as you seem to imply, for he had been anxious to go for a long time. If fault there be, it is mine. I have insisted that he should stay in college a little longer as I think an educated man can serve his country with more intelligent purpose than an ignoramus." General [sic] Harris rose and said harshly and pointedly to Sister, "I have only one son and he is fighting for his country." Turning to me and making a low bow, "and, Madam, if I had twenty sons they should all be fighting the rebels." "And if I had twenty sons, General Harris," I replied, "they should all be opposing yours." I forgot where I was, I forgot that I was a guest of the President and Mrs. Lincoln at the White House. I was cold and trembling. I stumbled out of the room somehow, for I was blinded by tears and my heart was beating to suffocation. Before I reached the privacy of my room where unobserved I could give way to my grief, Sister Mary overtook me and put her arms around me. I felt somehow comforted to weep on her shoulder — her own tears were falling but she said no word of the occurrence and I understood that she was powerless to protect a guest at the White House from cruel rudeness.[18]
Emilie never remarried and dressed in mourning for the rest of her life. Although the strain of the war eventually took its toll and she became estranged from Abraham and Mary, she later developed a close and loving relationship with their eldest son Robert. A leading member of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, she also worked for reconciliation between North and South.

Friday, 2 December 2011

Prince Albert and Typhoid - A Myth?

From the first history books I ever read as a child, right through to those written today, it was repeatedly stated that Prince Albert died of typhoid, probably due to the dirty drains at Windsor. Though I have no proof, I seriously suspect that this is a myth. The prince, I believe, was suffering – and had been for a long time – from some more pernicious illness which, combined with his mental state, eventually led to his premature death.

The rest of this post has been temporarily removed due to an agreement re. the recent publication of my book "Queen Victoria's Granddaughters 1860-1918"

Friday, 25 November 2011

Lovely Elizabeth

The Empress Elizabeth Alexeievna painted by
Elisabeth Vigee Le Brun when she was still a
Grand Duchess.
One of the forgotten and elusive figures of the Romanov family was the Empress Elizabeth Alexeievna, consort of Tsar Alexander I. Little has been written about her in English, and sometimes she was only a curious note in books about the earlier Romanovs. This treatment of her might be a little understandable. She did not do anything "great" in history to warrant special attention or popularity. And yet she was married to a man who was hailed as "Napoleon's conqueror" and "the liberator of Europe". She exercised no political influence in Russia, and throughout her lifetime, she was a sad and solitary figure, neglected by her husband, and treated with indifference by his family. 

Judging from her portraits and the written descriptions of her by contemporaries, Elizabeth was an exceptionally beautiful woman. Beauty and charm are all the hallmarks of almost all Russian empresses, but popular opinion puts that she is the most beautiful of the last five empresses-consort of Russia. No wonder why many poets, writers and musicians throughout Elizabeth's lifetime dedicated their works to her, among them were Alexander Pushkin, Nikolai Karamzin, and Vasily Zhukovsky. Her angelic beauty, gentle disposition, and cultivated mind made her the star of the Russian court.

But when I look at that charming portrait of her by Elisabeth Vigee Le Brun wherein she was wearing a court dress and flowers on her hair, I can't help but think that her beauty, her remarkable qualities, her position as an empress, and her love for Russia, were all wasted by a lonely life that I believe she didn't deserve.

While she never truly won the heart of her husband and that of his family, she was well-loved by the Russian masses, the aristocracy, the courtiers, and even foreign visitors in Russia who were lucky to have the opportunity to meet and know her personally. She was indeed an “angel”, as described by Prince Czartoryski – the only man who had genuinely loved her in life and cherished her memory in death.

Thursday, 24 November 2011

Happy Thanksgiving!

A very Happy Thanksgiving from England to all our American readers and contributors!

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

The Tea at Trianon Forum

I would like to draw the attention of our kind readers to the lovely Tea at Trianon Forum, recently started by Elena Maria Vidal, where we can continue our discussions of those lost in the myths of history. If you have not already visited the forum, please do so!

Sunday, 13 November 2011

The "Sunny" Side of Alexandra!

It is said that a picture is worth a thousand words…..don’t you agree? Even though a photograph cannot completely convey the aspect of a person, their full personality and all their complexities, it does capture a true moment in the life of an individual. Recently, I came across this photo of Alexandra as a young child, and thought it would be nice to share. In her family, she was known as "Princess Sunshine" or "Sunny" - she certainly had a sense of humor and loved to laugh!

How many times has Tsarina Alexandra been described as “aloof”, “cold”, “haughty”, or “distant”? For that reason, I thought it would be a nice idea to post a photo that might show her in a different light.

Like all of us, Alexandra was a complex and sometimes contradictory human being. While it’s easy for us to judge her from our own perspectives and points of view, it’s impossible for any of us to have actually known her. For those that knew her well, she trusted them with a side of herself that she didn’t always show in public. While she could be a serious minded and introspective person, she was also described as a very warm, passionate and caring person. She took an active and daily role in her children’s lives and educations, and was known to even have the occasional pillow fight with them and be active with them during their times of high spirits.

Friday, 11 November 2011

Maria of Hohenzollern, the Romanian daughter of King Carol I

Princess Marie of Romania

Maria of Romania together with her English nurse and minder (Diana Mandache collection)

Maria Hohenzollern, the only child of Carol I and Elizabeth of Romania, was born on 8 September 1870 and baptised in the Orthodox Greek rite, as are the majority of ethnic Romanians. She was meant to be the first scion born on the native soil of the new dynasty, in effect the first Romanian Hohenzollern. Sadly she died at the infant age of nearly 4, on 9 April 1874, a victim of scarlet fever, like so many children from the Victorian epoch. The funeral service took place at the Cotroceni Church within the grounds of the Cotroceni Royal Palace. The coffin was covered with white satin, criss-crossed with silver lace ornaments and was as large as one for an adult, because the infant princess' body was enclosed in several decreasing size caskets placed one inside another. After the religious service in the Romanian Orthodox rite, the cortege walked through the palace gardens to the burial place next to the palace church. Those gardens were the favorite playing grounds for the young princess, where only half a dozen days previously she played with her nurse. On the headstone were engraved the words of St. Luke viii.53: ""Weep not, for she is not dead, but sleepeth".

Monday, 31 October 2011

Just For Hallowe'en

This is not a new post (it is taken almost directly from my other blog), nor is it a myth of history, but it is a rather touching story for Hallowe'en.

Queen Victoria’s charming granddaughter, Princess Marie Louise of Schleswig-Holstein, in her most beautiful book, “My Memories of Six Reigns” – in which she comes across as such a delightful, interesting, lovely person of great humility and filled with admiration or understanding of almost everyone she met (including her husband who treated her so badly) – writes of some fascinating and interesting mystical/ghostly experiences. This one, however, is quite beautiful.

On my return to England, after the dissolution of my marriage, I took a small house in South Kensington and this is what happened to me soon after I moved in. I was arranging my books and odds and ends in my sitting room when the door opened and in walked my eldest brother, Christian Victor. “Oh

Kicky, [the pet name we brothers and sisters always called him by], how nice to see you again.” He replied: “I just came to see that you were all right and happy.” He sat down in the chair next to the fire, and I then noticed he had his favourite dachshund on his knee. We talked a little, then he got up and told me I was not to follow him downstairs, that he was very happy and all was well with him. After he had gone and shut the door, I realised that he was in khaki but did not have his medal ribbons on. I then remembered that during the South African War, an order had been issued that officers were not to wear their ribbons so that the enemy would not be able to distinguish them from their men. Only then did I suddenly realise that this dearly beloved brother had died eighteen months previously and lay in his last resting place in South Africa.
My sister came to see me that same afternoon and I told her of what had taken place. She was sitting in the same chair as he had done and when she got up she remarked, “I know he has been here – I can feel it.”

Sunday, 23 October 2011

Emily Bronte, the Mystic

While Emily Bronte is remembered as a writer, it often seems that she would be better remembered as a mystic. The enduring fame of her only novel, Wuthering Heights, has often overshadowed her poetry but, since her poems were written originally for her own self-expression, they capture her essence even more clearly than the novel.

Emily was an intensely private person – perhaps partly because she was reluctant or unable to share the intensity of her inner life. Her dislike

of small-talk and socialising led many people to view her as cold or unfriendly but, had they been aware of the passion within her, she would probably have been seen in a different light. Emily was first and foremost a ‘free spirit’ and a child of nature. She walked for hour upon hour on the ‘wild and windy’ Moors around Haworth absorbed in her innate spirituality and imagination. So profound was her sense of connection to that environment and the creatures who lived on the Moors that when she was sent away to be a governess she became physically ill. At the same time, the parsonage in which she lived overlooked the stark graveyard and, since the average life expectancy in Haworth at that time was very brief, she must have seen numerous funerals (including those of her own mother and elder sisters) and this gave Emily a sense of the transience of earthly things.

As do many passionate souls, Emily suffered intensely from a kind a nostalgia for the eternal. After being absorbed in her meditations and the glory of her own inner world, it was torture for her to ‘return’ to the mundane reality of life. Her poetry creates the sense of a soul trapped in a physical body and always seeking escape. These lines from her poem ‘The Prisoner’ capture that sense so brilliantly that they seem to me to be some of the most powerful lines in all of English literature:

Then dawns the Invisible; the Unseen its truth reveals;
My outward sense is gone, my inward essence feels:
Its wings are almost free - its home, its harbour found,
Measuring the gulf, it stoops and dares the final bound,

Oh I dreadful is the check - intense the agony -
When the ear begins to hear, and the eye begins to see;
When the pulse begins to throb, the brain to think again;
The soul to feel the flesh, and the flesh to feel the chain.

Wuthering Heights is, of course, an incredibly ‘dark’ novel, filled with violence, macabre notions and even implied incest, but at the same time it demonstrates Emily’s inability to create anything superficial. In spite of the Hollywood interpretations, it is not a simple, tragic love story but a powerful – and quite horrific – expression of the connection between souls, and of the ‘shadow side’ of humanity and the spiritual/inner world.

I do not believe anyone will ever or has ever fully understood the depths of Emily Bronte but, though she would probably shrink from any attempts to penetrate her innermost thoughts and spirit, I believe she deserves to be remembered as one of the truly great English mystics.

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

The "Witches" of Pendle

Perhaps this post would be better saved for Hallowe’en but, although it is a story suited to the darkening nights, it actually began on a Spring day and is a very tragic example of the effects of bigotry, hidden agendas and the way in which such events become myths of history.

The M62 motorway crosses the Pennines between Yorkshire and Lancashire and, on the border of the two counties, is the bleak Saddleworth Moor, made infamous by the horrors of the ‘Moors Murderers’ of the 1960s.Even now, the place remains bleak and whenever I have driven that way, I think not only of its bleakness but of how this whole area in the north of England must have appeared in the days before motorways. To the people of the south it was seen as an unruly place, filled with ancient superstitions and untamed people. Of course, this was not the case in reality, but that is how it appeared. One interesting fact is that much of northern England had clung to Catholicism during the English Reformation. Many of the Catholic martyrs were northerners, and Lancashire in particular adhered to that faith. A strange fact is that, to the staunchly Protestant mind of the early 17th century, Catholicism and witchcraft were almost synonymous. To the Protestant government under James I, the use of Latin, the rituals and the veneration of saints and relics in Catholicism were virtually identical to the rites of ‘Pagans’ and those who were classed as witches. This isn’t surprising considering the similarities between Celtic spirituality (which was strong in the North) and the older Nature worshippers. To many people of that time, the two blended together perfectly.

One morning in Spring, however, a small girl named Alizon Device was walking through a woody area when she met a pedlar and asked him for some pins. He ignored her and she cursed him for being so disdainful...a couple of minutes later he suffered a stroke and, having been taken to place of refuge, said that the child had put a curse on him. So terrified was the little girl (as any child would be!) that she believed she really was to blame and confessed that she had sold her soul to the devil! Soon, under pressure from interrogators, she claimed that her mother and several other local women were witches and, before long, all kinds of old local family rivalries came into play, neighbour giving evidence against neighbour, people blaming others for every minor ailment they suffered and, within a very short time, many innocent people were hanged...and the government agents were given an opportunity to make further inroads into suppressing the ‘Catholic’ north. The same mass hysteria broke out in Pendle as later happened in the Salem witch trials in America.

It is fascinating that, if one looks at the transcript of so-called witch trials, the greater superstition is in the prosecutors rather than the persecuted. Their fears of the dark, their obsession with the ‘power of evil’ and their need to project those fears onto others and find in them some kind of darkness comes to the fore. Something like five hundred people were executed as witches in England in the 17th century – many of them were accused by local rivals; some of them were merely unfortunate in having warts in the wrong places or being left-handed or something equally natural. Many of them were truly healers, finding in Nature the herbs and poultices that are still used in hospitals today. Perhaps one or two or maybe more were unpleasant people, but it’s a very strange thing that those claimed to be promoting the Gospel found such darkness in themselves that they saw it everywhere.

The witches of Pendle were the victims of a family feud, superstition and King James I’s strange obsessions.

Monday, 3 October 2011

A Valiant Woman

Elisabeth of Bavaria (1876-1965), consort of King Albert I of the Belgians, was once described as "the most feminine female since Marie-Antoinette." Delicate and loving, devoted to home and family, she seemed a model of womanly refinement, domesticity and tenderness. Today, many portray these ideals as a way of subjugating and oppressing women. Yet, here was a bold, independent spirit, a powerful mind, a daring horsewoman, an intrepid mountaineer and a valiant war heroine who was, nonetheless, intensely feminine, and, first and foremost, a wife and mother.

Countless testimonies bring to life a petite, refined, slender, nimble, youthful figure. Unlike her aunt, the famous Empress Sissi, Elisabeth of Belgium was never a stunning beauty. Yet, she achieved striking loveliness through her charm, dignity, and grace. With her intellectual interests, her poetic personality, her passion for art and music, she entranced her intimates. Lively and learned, she was blessed, in one contemporary's words, with "the charm of the mistresses of the famous French salons without their vice." Illustrious for her virtue, she combined blithe, unconstrained manners with pure morals. With her deep, innate sense of propriety and delicacy, she was offended by the slightest innuendo. Even her husband's uncle, King Leopold II, notorious for his scandalous living, and no paragon of refinement in his own circle, took care to avoid any hint of coarseness in Elisabeth's presence.

Like all the Wittelsbachs, Elisabeth was a free spirit, imaginative, independent and unconventional. Yet she excelled in the traditional roles of a royal consort. There is no doubt that she viewed herself, first and foremost, as the wife of her beloved Albert. Shortly before his accession to the throne, she wrote to him: "You deserve to have a wife who lives for you, which is what I will try to do all my life." From her first meeting with the tall, handsome, modest and gentle young man, a passionate affection and admiration sprang up in her heart. Elisabeth had barely made Albert's acquaintance when she confided to her aunt, the Queen of Naples: "I will marry no one but him!" (Siccardi, p. 14). During their engagement, she showered him with letters of rapturous devotion. "If only I could enter this letter, and, when you open it, leap up to your neck and kiss you, "wild," passionately, my dearest Albert," she once wrote (Regolo p. 16). "...I adore you and I love you with my whole being...I would leap through fire and water for you." (Siccardi, p. 18) She was deeply impressed by his noble character. Mary Roberts Rinehart, an American reporter who visited the Queen during World War I, related that Elisabeth, in response to German criticism of Albert's conduct at the beginning of the war, cried: "Anyone who knows King Albert knows he cannot do a wrong thing. It is impossible for him. He cannot go any way but straight!"

The royal couple's children, King Leopold III of Belgium and Queen Maria José of Italy, testified that their parents' profound love endured throughout their marriage (see HERE and HERE). The Russian sculptress Catherine Barjansky, a friend of the royal family during the 1920's and 1930's, recalled Albert and Elisabeth as a deeply devoted and happy couple (see HERE and HERE). Their love, in fact, endured beyond death. Albert's tragic loss in a mountaineering accident plunged Elisabeth into devastating, numbing grief. Refusing food and comfort, isolating herself from the world, she took to wandering outside on chilly, damp nights. Fearing for her precarious health, her entourage tried to persuade her to come inside, but she impatiently responded: "Let me be. If I fall ill, so much the better. I want to die, I want to go to my Albert" (Regolo, p. 141). After the death of her daughter-in-law, Queen Astrid, in a car accident, Elisabeth forced herself to rally, to support her grieving son, King Leopold III, and to assist his motherless children. Yet, throughout her life, Albert remained her inspiration. Many years after his death, she confided to her daughter, Maria José: "Ever since the cruel separation from your father, I have not been able to live a single day, without his memory being present to me, and everything I have done, I have done out of fidelity to his memory."

Elisabeth's love for Albert also embraced his children. She was a devoted mother, especially to her eldest son, Leopold. While others, he recalled, might remember Elisabeth as a war heroine, or a great patroness of the arts, he would always think of her, above all, as a true mother. For Leopold, Elisabeth was a mother "in the noblest sense of the term, one who, throughout her entire life, would assist, protect, and love me." She fiercely defended him from false accusations of treason during World War II. During his post-war exile, she wrote him letters filled with tender maternal love. On one occasion, she sent him a poignant birthday greeting: "My dear Léop. Once again I will not be with you for your birthday. I will be thinking of you! What a memory! One of the most beautiful of my life, hearing the first cry of my first child! You were so pretty, and later, so handsome!" She was a loving mother to her people, too, working selflessly, during World War I, to alleviate the sufferings of combatants and noncombatants alike.

A tragic, yet deeply moving story epitomizes all Elisabeth's delicate, tender, yet valiant femininity. When King Albert's broken body, covered in blood and mud, was brought back to Laeken from the tragic cliffs of Marche-les-Dames, his entourage feared it would be too heartbreaking for Elisabeth to see him before his body had been washed and his wounds covered. So, at first, nobody dared tell the Queen of the King's death. Finally, a courtier arrived and broke the terrible news. Stunned with shock, Elisabeth froze and closed her eyes. At last, she rallied and asked to see the King. When she found that he had already been prepared for his lying-in-state, she was furious: "It was the last service I could render him!"


Marie-José, Queen, Consort of Humbert II, King of Italy. Albert et Elisabeth de Belgique, mes parents. 1971.

Dumont, Georges-Henri, and Dauven, Myriam. Elisabeth de Belgique, où les défis d'une reine. 1986.

Regolo, Luciano. La Regina Incompresa: tutto il racconto della vita di Maria José di Savoia. 2002.

Siccardi, Cristina. Maria José, Umberto di Savoia. 2004.

"The Solid Respectability of the New King of the Belgians," in Current Literature, v. 48, edited by Edward Wheeler, New York, 1910, pp. 158-162.

Sunday, 2 October 2011

The Silent Emperor - Frederick III

The reign of the German Emperor Frederick III was so brief – only three

months from March to June 1888 – that he is often overlooked and seen as having played no major part in world events. Had he lived, the history of Germany would certainly have been very different but even though he was not able to implement the numerous changes he and his wife (Queen Victoria’s daughter, Vicky) had planned throughout his twenty-seven years as Crown Prince, his role in the Unification of Germany has often been underestimated.

‘Fritz’ was a sensitive and thoughtful man who views often contradicted those of the Chancellor, Bismarck. Consequently, Bismarck did his utmost to denigrate the Crown Prince and more especially his English wife about whom Bismarck created and publicised various scurrilous and totally unfounded rumours. Perhaps his greatest insult to Fritz, however, was the way in which he completely played down the Crown Prince’s role in the Franco-Prussian War and the subsequent unification of Germany. Despite his hatred of war, Fritz was an extremely competent commander whose ability in the field led to many Prussian victories.

“I know how harrowing and dreadful war is to him,” Vicky wrote to her mother, “how he hates it and how little ambition he has to become a military hero. On the other hand, I know that he is considered our best leader – and that it was not thought necessary to give him the best officers on his staff.... – ...so great was the confidence on the part of Moltke and the King in Fritz’s genius. He is always quiet and self-possessed and determined; having no personal ambitions, he thinks only of what is best not of what makes most effect...”

Even the French observed and commented on his humanity and the kindness with which he treated ‘the enemy’, and a French journalist recorded him saying, “I do not like war, gentlemen. If I should reign, I would never make it.”

His father, the King of Prussia, was very reluctant to accept the role of Emperor and even threatened to abdicate rather than allow it, but Fritz firmly believed in his father-in-law Prince Albert’s dream of a unified Germany as the surest hope for peace in Europe and eventually succeeded in persuading his father to accept it. For this and for his victories against the French, Bismarck gave him no credit and even excluded him from the War

Cabinet and did not publicise or even allow to be made known the role that the Crown Prince had played. For the next seventeen years, Fritz was continuously excluded from any decision-making as Bismarck basically controlled the King. Throughout this time, however, he and Vicky not only continued to make plans for many reforms but also raised their family. Fritz was a devoted and loving father and he and Vicky remained in love with each other to the end of his life. It is significant that his first act as Emperor was to take the star of the Order of the Black Eagle from his jacket to give it to his wife as a sign of his gratitude and his deep respect and honour of her. Theirs was one of the great love stories of history.

It is a tragic and in some ways unsurprising thing that a year before he came to the throne, Fritz was diagnosed with throat cancer and by the time his father died, Fritz himself was already dying. Following a series of botched operations and lots of in-fighting and subterfuge between medics, he was left unable to speak and could only communicate by writing notes. Intriguers at court began to flatter and support his son Wilhelm as though, as Vicky wrote, he were already dead. So great was the intrigue around them that Vicky felt obliged to smuggle Fritz’ war diary away to England, as she was certain that it would be destroyed the moment he died, as would all his other papers which recorded the role he had played in unification and his opposition to many of Bismarck’s policies.

Personally, I believe without a doubt that physical illness is almost always rooted in thoughts/emotions. For a man who had been silenced repeatedly, it is small wonder that those years of frustration eventually manifested as such a terrible affliction of his throat that rendered him speechless. The greatest tragedy, however, is that his plans never achieved fruition for, if they had done so, perhaps the whole history of 20th century Europe would have been very different....

Saturday, 1 October 2011

Slavery by Another Name

"Slavery did not, in fact, end at the end of the Civil War."

At the National Museum of American History, collectors Bernard and Shirley Kinsey join author Douglas A. Blackmon in a conversation about Blackmon's groundbreaking historical study, and Pulitzer Prize winning book, Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II.

Princess Elisabeta of Romania

By Diana Mandache

An artistic, timorous and hesitant personality concealed by a taciturn figure of classical majesty, Elisabeta, the eldest daughter of Queen Marie and King Ferdinand of Romania, suffered the lack of understanding and even compassion from her contemporaries and posterity alike. She had to steer her life, often alone, through the difficulties of two world wars, two exiles and was torn between two countries - her native Romania of which she was ardently attached and an unfamiliar, convulsive Greece as its tormented queen consort.

Elisabeta Josefina Carlota Victoria Alexandra was born on 29 September 1894 at Foisor Castle in Sinaia. Lisabetha or Lizzy, as she was called by her family, was baptised in the Greek orthodox religion of her country, as the Romanian Constitution required. The Vatican reacted adversely to the Orthodox christening of the second child of Ferdinand, the catholic Crown Prince of Romania, and as a result he was excommunicated.

She had an English nurse and governess and was educated at home with British tutors. Being the oldest sister among her siblings, she was often entrusted with their care while her parents were for long periods abroad, a demanding formative duty, consciously carried out. Her favourite studies were literature, piano, singing, painting, and embroidery. Like her father, King Ferdinand, she was keen on botany and very found of flowers. Elisabeta was a favourite of Carmen Sylva (Queen Elizabeth of Romania’s pen name), and like her, she was an avid reader.

The sufferings induced by the tragedy of the First World War on Romania deprived the young princess of vital further instruction: “she has not been what one could call really well educated, education in this country is difficult and war came on the top of it and we were refugees in very difficult and adverse circumstances”[1], is how her mother, Queen Marie characterised Elisabeta’s situation of those terrible years.

During First World War she did charitable work as a nurse at hospitals in the region of Moldova, the only bit of Romania left unoccupied by the invaders, together with her mother and sister, princess Mignon. Elisabeta used her spare time during refuge drawings and painting a variety of subjects; many printed in “Calendarul Regina Maria”, sold for the war relief effort in 1918. Immediately after the war, in 1919, the princes studied painting and music for one year in Paris.

Princess Elisabeta was also very fond of her grandmother Maria Alexandrovna spending many a holyday with her in Switzerland. In May 1912 the Duchess started to make plans for a suitable marriage for her and advised Marie of Romania: “she will be 18 next autumn! She ought to be quite out by this time, otherwise one never gets really accustomed to receive, talk and behave as a grown up person and for a princess it is indispensable”[2]. Maria Alexandrovna admitted that her granddaughter must be observed: “don’t let Elisabeta flirt too much with young Romanians, patriotic as she is, she might so easily fall in love with somebody and then you could easily have to face la mère à boire. Young princesses in our times have wills of their own and become obstinate. But I always come back to the same conclusion: Elisabeta must soon go out dans le vrai grande monde[3].

Elisabeta was “much more classically beautiful … always solemn, unable to express her feelings. Her look was straight, almost defiant, full of ardour, fantasy and imagination and fond of being alone”[4]. Among the Romanians Elisabeta “appeared to be most popular among all classes” as Mrs Martineau, one of the visitors to the Romanian Royal Court, remarked.

Maria Alexandrovna was the first to suggest a marriage with George the crown prince of Greece, an idea quickly embraced by Queen Sophie who wrote to Marie in November 1919 about Elisabeta: “We found her lovely most sympathetic and charming. Upon our dearest son Georgie she has made a deep impression. We are most anxious to know whether Nando and you would have any objections to a marriage between the two young people, who seems to have a deep feeling for each other.[5]” Queen Marie confessed to her mother that: “Lisabetha ought to marry – war set Princesses at such a disadvantage and here is her chance having someone of her class, her religion and who is sincerely attached to her, not an arranged political marriage”[6].

Finally the marriage ceremony was organised in Bucharest on 27 February 1921. Elisabeta “was simple and dignified, the traditional golden thread of the Romanian brides making her perfect beauty show up in a wonderful way… After the religious service there was a huge, huge lunch; in the evening an enormous reception, fearfully crowded”[7], as the Queen of Romania recollects the event in a letter to her Canadian friend Colonel Joe Boyle.

When Elisabeta arrived in Greece, the country was in political turmoil, engaged in a devastating conflagration with emerging Turkey, not an auspicious sight for a young and hopeful royal bride. She wrote to her mother: “I have just taken an enormous hospital under my protection. Lately I have been terribly homesick and if it should come to Georgie going to the front I have nothing to cling to. Georgie of course as everything that one can wish for, with a heart of gold and the natural tact that comes from real kindness. I will have to get accustomed to others though and time will help me through; at present I hate going to parties etc, for them I feel a terrible longing for all my friends”[8]. Mrs Martineau also noted Elisabeta’s sentiment that “she was mentally starved in Greece, and was hungering for the music and art and affection that were showered on her in Romania[9]. There were however some cheerful moments like when she was asked to put herself at the head of an active musical section of the conservatoire, designing her small garden or the trips to the stunning countryside around Athens.

Unlike her native Romania where the sovereign family was immensely popular among all classes after a victorious war that saw the achievement of country’s national unity, the monarchy in Greece was on shaky grounds, constantly harassed and besieged by increasingly powerful and hostile republicans bent on seizing every opportunity to diminish its role, situation aggravated by the worsening war in Asia Minor against a resurgent nationalistic Turkish army. There was also the incongruity in character with the rest of the Greek royal family, where her husband, the person capable to mitigating that, was often missing, sadly despatched for long periods to the war theatre.

Elisabeta’s health was shaken in the spring of 1922 because of a typhoid fever and then pleurisy, being operated twice in dramatic conditions, without anaesthesia in May 1922, a poignant reflection of the trying circumstances in Greece as a whole at that particular moment in history. Very touching are George’s letters to his mother-in-law, giving detailed information on Elisabeta’s precarious health. On 17 May 1922 Elisabeta’s parents came to Athens, fearing the worse for their daughter. Eventually she recovered but remained with a heart weakness and other dreadful lifelong sequels that undoubtedly contributed to the shortening of her lifespan.

In those circumstances she was thus not able to attend Mignon’s wedding in June in Belgrade, but managed to gather enough strengths to participate at the Coronation festivities of her parents in Romania, in October 1922. Prince George had to stay in Greece because of the complicating political situation that led to the abdication of his father King Constantine I in September. Elisabeta burst in tears when she got the news in Bucharest about this event that so suddenly thrust her on the perilous throne of the Greek kingdom.

The tense environment in Greece of that time, coupled with the misunderstandings with her Greek relatives, made Elisabeta quite bitter even toward her mother, who tried in vain to suggest ways to alleviate her anguish, such as producing an offspring. In March 1923 she wrote to her mother: “You say of only I should have a child? Yes, Mama dear, I would like to have one, but for the moment there are three obstacles in the way. First of all my nerves are not quite in the condition they ought to be; 2). The situation combined with both our shaky nerves makes things very risky; 3). There is a question of money”[10].

Material life was terribly difficult in Greece for the royal family. Elisabeta confessed to her mother: “The only luxury I have allowed myself was to remount some of my things to make a small and indispensable diadem, and even that I have not been able to pay for yet. Yes it is true that at moments I feel it hard, even very hard to be a queen and to have to think ten times before I dare to buy a dress and at other moments there is a little envy when I see the tremendous riches of Mignon who does not know how, or even desire to see them. It is not that I am greedy and that I want more than I have, but it hurts to see the little we posses going to ruin because we don’t have means to save it. What Mignon has as pocket money, for sweets, etc – a month is more then I have in two years to live upon. So it is forgivable if at moments I feel a little sad.”[11]

There was not only gloom and doom for Elisabeta in Greece, as some authors suggest. Elisabeta had first of all a loving relationship with her husband, King George II and tried to get involved in the events and things that surrounded her. In August 1923 at Tatoi palace, she improved the garden and made drawings for the front terraces, writing to her mother that “I have made a dream of restoring one of the burnt houses after my own plans keeping the standing walls and using the existing material”[12].

Elisabeta also fulfilled her role as a queen, for example when in October 1923, appealed on behalf of the refugees from Asia Minor who had fled to Greece during the conflict with Turkey, in a message to dr. Carroll from the American Friends of Greece: “Despite valuable assistance until recently given by the American Red Cross and Near East Relief to the destitute refugees and their families so cruelly expelled from Asia Minor, thousands will die this winter for lack of food, shelter, clothing and medicines, unless there is relief. Knowing the philanthropic feeling of the American people, I would be grateful and so would be the Greek people, for any help you may be able to give in this tragic hour of our history”.

On 15 December 1923 Elisabeta was able to realise that the end of her reign was near: “…The situation is more critical for us than it has ever been these last two days… Things here have reached beyond the control of any responsible people and are in the hands of republican officers… We are expecting a ‘coup d’etat’ from one moment to another, and then … God knows”[13]. Those moments “has become such an agony that our only comfort is at night when sleep comes”[14].

The royal couple went on 19 December 1923 into exile in Romania and took residence at the Cotroceni Palace. The American professor George Huntington, who visited the royal family in Bucharest and met Elisabeta, characterised her as “naturally shy, and her unhappy experience in Greece has darkened the face of the world for her”[15]. Almost twelve years of exile followed, with George spending long periods in England. The royal couple increasingly grew apart and Elisabeta finally divorced in July 1935, decision taken when it also became apparent that the restoration of monarchy in Greece was again on cards and she “never would have gone back” in that country again.

Elisabeta asked for the Romanian citizenship, lost through marriage, to be restored to her and as a princess sought a quiet and more comfortable life in her native country. In that regard she benefited from Romania’s economic flourishing after the general crisis of the early 1930s and the help of an able, though controversial, business adviser in the person of Alexandru Scanavy, her chamberlain. In March 1935 she bought the Banloc domain in Western Romania, a magnificent country property that became one of her main residencies where she was for the first time free to properly pursue her own ideas in matters of house decoration and develop a farming enterprise.

The Elisabeta Palace in Bucharest, a large and well designed Italianate villa with overtones of Art Nouveau, was inaugurated on 19 December 1937 in the presence of the princess and her siblings Carol and Mignon, together with Romanian officials. This house was for Elisabeta the achievement of a long elusive dream, heightened during the dearth years spent in Greece: “Perhaps the only thing that I really want is a house of my own something that I can call mine. It has always been my greatest longing since the age of 17. My house to create, to improve, to make perfect and love, offering hospitality to and rejoicing with all those who would love it too. I think the possession of a house would really make me happy. I lived on that hope when I came back to Romania[16].

She also had established at her own expense a hospital and home for children in Bucharest one of the most modern institutions of its type. For poor children she maintained two canteens. Elisabeta was childless and through those charitable activities she tried to express her maternal sentiments: “Children interest me most. Teach them humanitarianism, to help their neighbours. Give them the right basis for life, not the stupid illusion that everything is perfect”[17]. She continued to participate during late 1930s and through the war at official royal events and ceremonies in Romania, dividing her time between her residencies in, Bucharest, Banloc and also Copaceni, north of the capital.

In August 1944, King Michael achieved one of the greatest watershed moments in Romania’s history, when he succeeded in overthrowing the pro-German government, firmly placing Romania within the allied camp, saving the country from the catastrophe of an imminent and destructive invasion. Inevitably the Soviet Union became the main player in the country in the ensuing period. Elisabeta with her known patriotic ardour tried to do her bit for the cause of her country though it soon showed that she was close to naivety and certainly lacked the political skills and experience to steer through the difficult landscape in which the Soviet interests became gradually entrenched in Romania.

She stands thus accused by some authors of trying to advocate a close Romanian-Soviet economic collaboration, entertaining designs contrary to the interests of the Romanian dynasty, or being put forward as a potential regency member in case the Soviets decided to remove the king or substitute his attributions during the royal strike. The documents and notes kept at the National Archives of Romania do not feature her in that sort of actions, mentioning her only in the chatter and that just occasionally between some diplomats and politicians. The most significant notes are those of the Romanian intelligence services between 1945-1946 that talk about cold relations between the King and his aunt prompted by her moves, but only as a succession of temporary misunderstanding.

The forced abdication of King Michael on 30 December 1947 at the pressure of the pro-Communist government and their Soviet sponsors found Elisabeta in the same situation as the other members of the royal family resident in the country, being forced to leave Romania at a very short notice. The communist confiscated all of her properties, also jewels and the numismatic collection. A part of the jewellery is still kept at the Romanian National Bank, with other items illicitly sold by the communists, stolen or given as present to so-called fraternal communist party delegations from abroad.

Elisabeta died in exile on 15 November 1956 at Cannes. She was buried at Sigmaringen according to the wish expressed in her will. There are plans to bring her remains back to Romania to be interred in the royal tomb at Curtea de Arges, where her parents are also buried. Her dream house, Elisabeta Palace, a beautiful building with a balanced design, set in a green area of Bucharest, is today the official residence of King Michael of Romania. Elisabeta’s royal cipher is still preserved as part of the diverse decorations of the palace, welcoming and reminding the visitor about the princess’ long sought after and never attained ideals of harmonious and peaceful life.

[1] Romanian National Archives (RNA), V/2741

[2] RNA, V/2134

[3] Ibidem

[4] Queen Marie of Romania, The Story of My Life, vol. II, London: Cassell, 1935, p.271

[5] RNA, V/3192 bis

[6] RNA, V/2739

[7] Idem, V/3904

[8] Idem, V/714

[9] Mrs Philip Martineau, Roumania and her Rulers, London: Stanley Paul & Co. Ltd., 1927, p.191

[10] RNA, V/732

[11] Idem, V/741

[12] Idem, V/765

[13] RNA, V/748

[14] RNA, V/749

[15] Diana Fotescu (Mandache), Americans and Queen Marie of Romania, Oxford-Portland, 1998, p. 20

[16] RNA, V/752

[17] Interview in ‘The New York Times’, 1934

Friday, 30 September 2011

Sisi and Valerie

The fourth and favorite child of the legendary Empress Elisabeth, Archduchess Marie-Valerie of Austria was a deeply religious, charitable and practical woman. She bravely faced many tragedies; a disappointing marriage, the "suicide" of her brother, the assassination of her mother, a world war, and the collapse of the empire of her forefathers, before dying of cancer at age 56. A charming, artistic soul, she seems to have been a delightful blend of the piety and common sense of the Habsburgs and the poetry of the Wittelsbachs.

Here is a description of Sisi's relationship with Valerie from Clara Tschudi's biography of the Empress: 
The year following the coronation in Hungary, and ten years after the birth of the Crown Prince, a little girl was born, the Archduchess Marie Valerie, in the royal castle at Buda, April 22nd, 1868. 
The joyful event was announced to the populace by the firing of cannon from every fortress at six o'clock in the morning. It was the first time for a century that a royal child had been born in Hungary, and the delight of the Magyars was unbounded. As night approached, the whole city was illuminated, and crowds filled the streets, hundreds of them on their way to the castle to send up a ceaseless cheer and "eljen" for the King, for the new-born Princess, but especially for the Queen.
Valerie was the youngest and most cherished of Elizabeth's children, not that she did not love Gisela and Rudolph, but her mother-in-law, aided by governesses and tutors, had alienated them from her, and she had not been serious enough in her efforts to have them with her. Her maternal devotion had been lacking in the firmness and quiet self-sacrifice that would have commanded respect for her rights as a mother, and this had led her to relinquish all, and forsake her children.
But this time her motherly love was there in all its intensity, and the recollection of past sorrow was obliterated by the unspeakable tenderness she felt for the fragile little being that nestled in her arms, and from the moment of the child's birth she resolved to superintend her bringing up and development herself.
The Hungarian author, Maurus Jokai relates the following incident:—
"In 1869 the Queen most kindly allowed me to dedicate one of my novels to her, and as the Royal Court was at that time in Buda, I was able to present a copy to her in person, and to enjoy a long detailed conversation on the literature of Hungary. As I was on the point of leaving, she said: 'Wait a moment! I will show you my daughter.'
She opened a side door and signed to a nurse, who brought the child into the room. The Queen took the little one in her arms and pressed her to her heart; I shall never forget the pretty sight."
Marie Valerie was very delicate as a child, and her mother was the first by her bedside in the morning, even after listening at the door more than once in the night to ascertain if she was asleep; and if the little one was ill her mother refused to leave her, and could with difficulty be persuaded to take needful rest."
She recognised with contrition that in consequence of the disagreement with her husband, she had neglected her children, and she was resolved to atone for her mistake as far as possible. 
Even as Valerie has often been neglected in favor of her beautiful, troubled mother or her notorious, tragic brother, so Elisabeth's personal eccentricities and marital and familial problems have been emphasized at the expense of her more positive relationship with Valerie. It is fair to note that the very intensity of her mother's affection, arousing the envy of siblings and the criticism of courtiers, caused Valerie some pain and embarrassment. Nevertheless, Elisabeth's devotion to her youngest daughter suggests a depth of love and generosity perhaps too easily forgotten.