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.

Sunday, 28 August 2011

The Forgotten Children

I recently watched an interesting documentary about the lives of children in the Middle Ages, which completely dispelled the myths that childhood barely existed then and children were simply treated as small adults or commodities with specific jobs. Of course, in those days, children worked with their parents on the land but there was always plenty of time to play, too, and recent archaeological discoveries, as well as paintings, have shown that they had toys and games and played just as children do today.

It has always seemed to me that, along with many benefits of the Industrial Revolution, came the dreadful dehumanising of people. The advent of village and small town clocks (introduced primarily for the benefit of more efficient railways) and the shift from a rural way of life to the explosion of overcrowded cities meant that people were no longer attuned to nature or their own natural way of being, but were suddenly turned into cogs in a machine. No longer was the ‘village idiot’ accepted as a worthwhile being who was unique and different, instead he was packed off to a ‘lunatic asylum’ and hidden away ‘around the bend’ out of sight (the phrase ‘round the bend’ comes from the way in which 19th century asylums were often situated at the end of winding roads so they could not be seen); and for many children, childhood no longer existed.

In a cemetery close to a local hospital, which was built as a workhouse, there are rows of unmarked graves of pauper children. These children surely deserve a ‘blue plaque’ like those which mark the homes of philanthropists and businessmen who built this city. It was on the backs of these children that the British Empire was built. Pauper apprentices, whose names are long-forgotten, were the workhouse children whom factory owners bought like slaves. The official version was that they would be fed and clothed and taught a useful trade but many simply provided free labour. In the mills, their job was to clean the fluff from the looms since they were small enough to hurry in and out while the machine kept working. Exhausted and malnourished, many of them stumbled and were caught up in the machinery and lost limbs or even their lives. In the pauper apprentice house, many children shared one bed and often the children worked shifts so that the day shift would sleep then vacate the bed for the night shift to collapse into. The relentless machines never stopped working. The children were expendable and, being orphans or unwanted, no one missed them or noticed when they disappeared and now they lie in unmarked graves in city cemeteries. In mines, in potteries, in match and paint factories, children were employed in this way.

Happily, in the midst of this darkness, came light from men like Richard

Oastler – a Quaker, who not only spoke out against slavery but also against child labour. This man gave up so much of his time to this cause that he was imprisoned for his debts but continued to call for reform to protect children and reduce their working hours. He was not a Socialist but rather a man who saw a terrible situation and was prepared to sacrifice his own comfort to change it.

There is just one thing that is often misconstrued in this story. Industrialisation obviously brought terrible working conditions for many, many people. Consequently, people spoke out against such conditions and quite rightly demanded a change. The mistake, however, was the notion that somehow the monarchy or even the aristocracy created this terrible situation when, in fact, reading the lives of virtually all the royalties of that era, it is clear that they were as appalled as anyone by such things. Prince Albert was not alone in his attempts to improve conditions. In Germany, his daughter, Empress Frederick made numerous attempts to provide education for working people; in Russia, Tsarina Alexandra made similar efforts...the same is true in many other countries. The real problem lay in the heartlessness of certain factory owners, many of whom were proudly self-made men, and the totally bizarre idea that if the monarchs were disposed of, things would suddenly improve.

Regardless of the politics, the revolutions and the downfall of dynasties and empires, I believe that the forgotten children deserve to be remembered for their part in creating Victorian Britain.

Thursday, 25 August 2011

Karin Månsdotter: Romance and Reality

One of the most romantic and tragic Swedish queens was Karin Månsdotter (1550-1612). She was a woman of the people, born into a family of farmers. Her last names is simply a patronymic meaning "daughter of Måns." Legend has it that she was a totally pure, innocent girl. This, however, is probably not completely true- apparently she worked at a tavern before coming to court. Nonetheless, she was, by all accounts, beautiful, kindhearted and humble.

According to myth, King Erik XIV of Sweden met young Karin selling nuts in a square in Stockholm, and was so charmed by her beauty that he brought her home to his castle as his lover. In reality, however, Karin arrived at court as a maid to Princess Elisabeth, the King's sister. The brilliant but unstable Erik soon fell for the lovely, gentle Karin, and made her his mistress. Like other rulers of the period, Erik had had many ladies in his life, but his passion for Karin was unique. He dismissed all his other mistresses and treated her with a generosity and devotion that baffled the court. Karin was even accused of using witchcraft and love potions to inspire this single-minded attachment.

Although the extent of her political influence is unclear, legend presents Karin as a calming, moderating influence on the King, a counterweight to his ruthless, Machiavellian advisor and spymaster, Jöran Persson. In the painting above, by Georg von Rosen (1843-1923), we see a representation of the two opposing influences: the tormented King sitting on the floor, with innocent Karin on one side and sinister Persson on the other. As the King descended into madness, paranoia, and tyranny, nobles attempted to appeal for royal clemency through Karin's intercession.

Karin bore the King two surviving children: Sigrid (1566-1633) and Gustav (1568-1607). In 1567, Erik married Karin morganatically, and, the next year, made her his Queen. Her son became the heir to the throne. The commoner's elevation to the rank of royal consort scandalized the aristocracy, probably contributing to the atmosphere of discontent with Erik among the high nobility. In any case, shortly after Karin's coronation, Erik's brothers, John and Karl, rebelled and dethroned the unfortunate King. John seized the crown and Erik, Karin and their children were imprisoned. In 1573, to prevent the birth of any more legitimate offspring with a claim to the throne, Karin was forcibly separated from her husband. Together with her children, she was transported to Finland and held under house arrest in Turku, until Erik's death, probably from poisoning, in 1577.

As a widow, Karin was kindly treated by the royal family. She was granted an estate in Kangasala, Finland, and lived in comfort with her daughter Sigrid. (Her son was exiled to Poland and lived as a mercenary). Karin became popular in Finland. During the great peasant revolt, the Cudgel War (1596-1597), the rebels refrained from plundering her property. Today, Karin has a magnificent tomb in the Cathedral of Turku.

Here is a piece of music inspired by Karin's story:

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Grand Duchess Olga Alexandrovna: A Compassionate Survivor

Not necessarily shrouded in myth, but sometimes over-shadowed by her more famous relatives is Grand Duchess Olga Alexandrovna.

Born in 1882 as the youngest child of Tsar Alexander III and Empress Marie Feodorovna of Russia, Olga entered the world at the Peterhof Palace. She and her siblings were all raised at Gatchina and enjoyed a fairly modest up-bringing. The children slept in camp beds, enjoyed much physical recreation, bathed in cold water and many times, preferred simple food. As her siblings, she was educated at home, by tutors. Her taste for the simple pleasures in life probably came from her father, with whom she enjoyed a very close relationship with. Alexander III doted on her and her brother, Michael. Many of her favorite childhood memories included her father taking her and her brother for long hikes in the forest. From most accounts, relations with her mother were always a little strained. Although Marie loved her children, she focused on being a wife, and also the Empress of Russia. Olga enjoyed good relationships with all her siblings and was probably closest to her brother Michael during childhood.

In 1894, her life was changed dramatically by the death of her father. It was an traumatic and emotional experience for Olga who was just 12 at the time. She again experienced tragedy when her older brother, George died in 1899. She entered into society in 1900, an experience which was not to her delight. In 1901, at 19 years, she married 33 year old Prince Peter Alexandrovich of Oldenburg. There is much speculation that the marriage was, perhaps arranged by both of their mothers. For whatever reason, it was not a happy marriage and remained unconsummated. Her husband was stationed near Tsarskoe Selo, where Nicholas, Alexandra and their family resided. Peter preferred to spend time with his fellow officers and wasn't particularly attentive to Olga. It was at this time when she became close to her brother, Nicholas and his entire family. At a time when many people took an instant dislike to Alexandra, Olga tried to keep an open mind and heart. As a result, she was welcomed with open arms and was in a position of trust. She enjoyed a very close relationship with Nicholas and Alexandra's children and often spent time with them, and enjoyed arranging activities and parties for her nieces. Although very close in childhood, to her brother, Michael, their relationship deteriorated when he married his mistress Natasha, who was a commoner. This event placed some strain on the entire relationships between all the siblings.

At the outbreak of WWI, Olga worked as a nurse and was once awarded the Order of St. George for coming under heavy fire as she worked at a hospital near the war front. In 1916 her marriage to Peter was finally annulled. This gave her the freedom to marry Colonel Kulikovsky, whom she had met several years prior and had fallen in love with. When her brother abdicated the throne, Olga and her family spent a very difficult time moving around the Crimea and other areas, just trying to stay safe. Both of her sons, Tikhon and Guri were born during this time of unrest. As Olga's mother made her way back home to her native Denmark, she summoned Olga and her family. They arrived in early 1920. After the revolution, the murders of many of her beloved family (including both brothers), and being displaced from her own country, Olga still had the ability to delight in the beauty of nature and of life. She became a strong, yet compassionate survivor.

Olga and her family resided with her mother until Marie died in 1928. It was not an easy time for Olga. The relationship with her mother remained difficult, and it is said that Marie was rather demanding of Olga and treated her husband as an inferior. After her mother's death and the sale of her estate, Olga purchased a rural farm outside of Copenhagen. Her house became a meeting place for many in the Russian emigre community. The modest lifestyle she lived as a child served her well her. Olga, always a fantastic painter, also began to sell many of her paintings to help support her family and their farm. They survived WWII in Denmark, even as the economic and political side of things took a downturn. Fearing the advancement of Soviet troops towards their area, they moved across the ocean and settled on another rural farm in Ontario, Canada. After growing older, and not having their sons with them they sold their farm and moved to a suburb, just outside Toronto. She had many royal visitors and even had the opportunity to take lunch with Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Phillip.

Olga lost her husband when he died in 1958 and Olga's condition deteriorated and she became rather frail. In 1960 she was unable to care for herself and spent her last days with some Russian friends in an apartment in Toronto. She died in November of 1960 - she was 78.

Always resourceful and taking an interest in the simplicity of life, she took on her many burdens in life with great dignity. She had a reputation for being friendly and down-to-earth. Although reserved with strangers, she was exceptionally warm to those she knew well and trusted. Her ability to see beauty in ordinary nature and surroundings is mirrored in her lovely and vibrant paintings. As a true example to the faith she was raised in, she treated most all she met with a kind and caring heart. She was an amazing woman who lived an remarkable life in her own way.

If you are interested, there is a wonderful documentary that you may currently find on youtube about Grand Duchess Olga. Here is a link to the full documentary. Note: I am unable to find a way to provide a direct link, so you may have to cut and paste!


Tuesday, 23 August 2011

The Passionate Prince

August 26th is the birthday of Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, one of the greatest and most overlooked figures not only of the 19th century but of the whole shaping of Britain and the British monarchy. To most people he is seen merely as Queen Victoria’s husband, whose death led to her years of seclusion and whom she turned into an almost too good to be true character: angel Albert, the truest, purest icon whose virtues were so many that no other human – least of all her children – could ever hope to emulate him. To others he appears as a rather dour and humourless man; a puritanical figure without passion and with a permanently solemn expression. Prince Albert is, to me, one of the most fascinating and passionate royalties of his era, and one of the most amazingly ‘good’ men who ever lived. In fact, it seems that Queen Victoria’s adulation was pretty accurate and she was one of the most fortunate women to be married to such a man.

In an age where dynastic marriages were often loveless affairs and it was taken for granted that princes and kings had mistresses, it is hardly surprising that Prince Albert’s fidelity was seen as something unusual and, unfortunately, people who do not go along with crowd, are often viewed as odd or uninteresting. Prince Albert’s horror of infidelity could be traced back to his childhood when he witnessed first hand, at only five years old, the departure of his beloved mother who, having been mistreated by his father, embarked on an affair and was banished from the household. At the same time, Albert was a man of such sincerity that dishonesty or deceit were abhorrent to him; and he was a devout man. If he made vows, he honoured them. This did not make him dispassionate – on the contrary, his devotion to his wife and family shows the depths of his passion. He and Victoria often sent each other erotic works of art as presents; she was enthralled by her intimacy with him and, at the same time, he was passionate about his children’s upbringing. Again, in an age where few fathers took a great deal of interest in their children’s education, Albert developed a most forward-thinking curriculum, including not only academic learning but also gardening, creativity, cooking and, above all, a social awareness. His children meant everything to him and he was one of the few princes who paid as much attention to his daughters’ education as to his sons’.

During his early years in England he was treated appallingly not only by various ministers but particularly by member of his and the Queen’s family. Unruffled, he sought at every opportunity to make allowance for people’s prejudices, and he succeeded in restoring the relationship between Queen
Victoria and her mother, as well as doing his utmost to create harmony with the Queen’s very unpleasant uncles. It was Albert’s influence that created a model for the monarchy, which had fallen into disrepute during the reigns of the Queen’s predecessors.

His passions, however, extended far beyond his family. Totally dedicated to the idea that with privilege comes responsibility, he was tireless in his concern for the people. He visited countless factories, mines and other places of work and drew up plans for improving working conditions and housing. His Great Exhibition, one of his greatest passions, was a marvel of the age and he had the foresight to realise that many people would not be able to afford the shilling brochure, so he ensured that a penny brochure was also available. He was passionate about technological advances which would make life easier for workers.

Spiritually and politically, he was passionate. Although a devout Lutheran, who personally found Catholicism conflicted with his own spirituality, he was against any form of intolerance. In the midst of a great anti-Catholic sentiment sweeping across the country, Prince Albert was prepared to stick his neck out against bigotry and it was largely thanks to him that the laws relating to the prohibition of Roman Catholic titles and the establishment of diocese in England were repealed. The idea of him being a puritan, though, is far from the truth. His understanding and gentleness in his descriptions of the promiscuous and unhappy Queen of Spain speak volumes about the heart of this beautiful man.

Time and time again, he was prepared to stand up to Parliament without undermining the constitution. Even on his death bed, he managed to avert a possible war between Britain and the USA as a result of the Trent Affair. As Daphne Bennett writes in her biography, King Without a Crown:

“It is fitting that the last public action of a man of peace was to avert so tragic a conflict.”

Perhaps it was Prince Albert’s passion that eventually wore him out. He died at only 42 years old, utterly exhausted by his fiery commitment to life and to the well-being of others!

Happy Birthday, beloved Prince!

Sunday, 21 August 2011

Kaiser Wilhelm's True Opinion of Hitler

A lot of criticism has been made of the support given to Hitler and his party by some Germany royalties. It has always seemed incorrect to accuse

the royalties in this way since at first most of them were unaware (as were the rest of the German people) of the extent of Hitler’s evil plans and, following the total humiliation and bankrupting of their country in 1918-1919, they saw any form of strong leadership as a means of restoring order and national pride. I came across an extremely illuminating article, however, which not only states Kaiser Wilhelm’s attitude towards Hitler but also demonstrates what I am sure was always his intention – even before the First World War – to create a cultured and peaceful nation. This article is an interview with the Kaiser in 1938, during his exile in Holland and I think it wipes away many of the myths of the man as a sabre-rattling war-monger.

This is what he says of Hitler:

“There is a man alone, without family, without children, without God....He builds legions but he doesn’t build a nation. A nation is created by families, a religion, tradition: it is made up out of the hearts of mothers, the wisdom of fathers, the joy and the exuberance of children. [Of Germany under Hitler he says]....an all-swallowing State, disdainful of human dignities and the ancient structure of our race, sets itself up in place of everything else. And the man who, alone, incorporates in himself this whole State, has neither a God to honour nor a dynasty to conserve, nor a past to consult....
For a few months I was inclined to believe in National Socialism. I thought of it as a necessary fever. And I was gratified to see that there were, associated with it for a time, some of the wisest and most outstanding Germans. But these, one by one, he has got rid of or even killed....He has left nothing but a bunch of shirted gangsters....
This man could bring home victories to our people each year without bringing them...glory....But of our Germany, which was a nation of poets and musicians and artists and soldiers, he has made a nation of hysterics and hermits, engulfed in a mob and led by a thousand liars or fanatics....”

Interview with the Kaiser

It is often said that Kaiser Wilhelm was not very astute. Considering that he gave this interview in 1938 only a couple of months after Neville Chamberlain signed the Munich agreement with Hitler, it is clear that he had a far clearer understanding of what was forthcoming than many of his contemporaries did.

Saturday, 20 August 2011

The Faith of Leopold III

There is a strange idea in circulation that King Leopold III of the Belgians (1901-1983) was not a devout Catholic. In fact, the Belgian kings, in general, are sometimes portrayed as lacking spiritual fervor until Leopold's son, King Baudouin. I was shocked to read, in one account of Baudouin's life, that Albert I and Leopold III were "lukewarm" Catholics, unlike Baudouin, whose deep faith was presented as a remarkable departure from family tradition. Other authors have tried to explain the so-called "estrangement," beginning around 1960, between Leopold and Baudouin, in terms of a conflict between the supposedly more secularist outlook of King Leopold and his second wife, Princess Lilian, and the piety of King Baudouin and his Queen, Fabiola de Mora y Aragón, whom he married in 1960. 

The cooling of relations, previously warm and affectionate, between Leopold and Baudouin, following the departure of Leopold and his second family from Laeken in 1960, and their move to the country estate of Argenteuil, was, in fact, largely due to reasons of state. Leopold's presence undoubtedly aided and reassured his son, during the early years of his reign, especially since Baudouin ascended the throne as an inexperienced and vulnerable young man of 20. Once Baudouin achieved sufficient maturity, however, political necessity obliged father and son to keep a certain mutual distance. Close family relations provoked charges that Leopold had not truly abdicated but was continuing to rule through his son.  As Michel Verwilghen describes in Le mythe d'Argenteuil, demeure d'un couple royal (2006), a number of King Baudouin's advisers were determined to distance the young monarch from his father and his step-mother, Princess Lilian. It is also true that misunderstandings and personal conflicts within the royal family fed the process.

As far as religious differences are concerned, Lilian did not favor the charismatic movement, with which Baudouin and Fabiola eventually became involved. Apparently, Leopold was strongly opposed to the Belgian Primate, Cardinal Suenens, who gained considerable spiritual influence over Baudouin. Yet, the idea that Leopold was a "lukewarm" Catholic is false. Leopold's father, King Albert I, was also far from "lukewarm"; he was, in fact, deeply pious. Albert took pains to inculcate his own religious devotion and critical conscience in his children. "As you nourish your bodies," he told them, "so you ought to nourish your souls" (quoted in La Regina Incompresa, tutto il racconto della vita di Maria José di Savoia, 2002, by Luciano Regolo, p. 22). Leopold appears to have inherited a good measure of Albert's faith.

From his youth, Leopold displayed a touching religious sense. Shortly after the outbreak of World War I,  the twelve-year-old Prince wrote to his father, under German siege in Antwerp: "Every day I pray the good God to help us and enable us to return to you very soon"(quoted in Léopold III, 2001, by Vincent Dujardin, Mark van den Wijngaert, et al. p. 22).  As a young man, according to a close companion, it was Leopold's "Christian charity" which inspired his concern for the poor (see Léopold III, sa famille, son peuple sous l'occupation, 1987, by Jean Cleeremans, p. 13). Leopold's faith was also demonstrated, under tragic circumstances, upon the death of his first wife, Queen Astrid. Leopold's secretary, Robert Capelle, related in his memoirs that, after the terrible car accident in Switzerland,the grief-stricken King confided to him: "Why did the good God take her away from me? We were so happy...she is still so, but me...how I need her to protect me!"

In The prisoner at Laeken: King Leopold, legend and fact (1941), written to defend the King from charges of treason during World War II, Emile Cammaerts noted that he was probably playing into the hands of Leopold's enemies, by emphasizing the role of religion in his life, as expressions of piety could easily be interpreted as signs of weakness or hypocrisy. Yet, Cammaerts insisted, Leopold (and his father, Albert) could only be understood in terms of faith put into practice. In support of his claim, Cammaerts quoted several passages from Leopold's speeches to the Belgian clergy. In 1936, Leopold declared:
The love of one's neighbors, the sense of duty, truth, and justice, if applied to daily life, would spare mankind countless sufferings, troubles, and anxieties... The solution to the problems which oppress the world can only be found in the practice of Charity between individuals and between nations.
Similarly, in his Political Testament, in 1944, the King would assert that "Christian charity and human dignity" necessitated extensive social reforms in Belgium. Cammaerts also recalled a conversation with the King prior to World War II, during which Leopold deplored the political divisions and abuses in Belgium, exclaiming: "And to think, that we call ourselves Christians!"

Another biographer, discussing the King's interests in nature, travel and exploration, asserts: "Deeply religious... he found, in nature, the presence of the Creator God" (Léopold III, 2001, by Vincent Dujardin, Mark van den Wijngaert, et al. p. 338). This account certainly does not over-idealize Leopold, portraying him as upright, but stubborn and authoritarian. Therefore, I do not think there can be any question here of "hagiography" of the King.

In 1983, Kagabo Pilipili, an African student, and his wife were received by Leopold at Argenteuil. During the audience, Pilipili's wife mentioned her son's heart problems, and Leopold immediately promised the aid of Lilian's cardiological foundation in obtaining treatment for the child. As Leopold's own son, Alexandre, had suffered from heart problems, he was especially sympathetic to the family's plight. When Pilipili and his wife thanked the King for his assistance, he replied, in a tone of deep emotion: "I will do what I can. But God will do the rest for you." Leopold's guests were greatly touched and consoled by his belief in Providence (see Léopold III, homme libre, 2001, by Jean Cleeremans, pp. 57-58).

While none of this means that Leopold III was a saint or a perfect individual, it would certainly be false to say that Baudouin was the first Belgian king to be sincerely religious.

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

The Myths of The First World War

History, as the famous quotation says, is written by the victors. Consequently, I grew up – decades after the events – believing that Germany, and particularly the German Kaiser, was responsible for the First World War and the Treaty of Versailles (and later the League of Nations), though a little extreme, was an attempt to ensure that no such horror could ever happen again. Now, what nonsense that seems! There are countless myths surrounding that terrible war and one blog post cannot begin to touch on them all but here are few thoughts about the misrepresentation of Germany – and particularly the German royalties – in World War 1.

Firstly, the invasion of Belgium is what – ostensibly! – brought Britain into the war. The invasion of a neutral country is inexcusable and the Schlieffen Plan took no account of ordinary people living peaceably in their own land, harming no one and having no desire to gain power over other nations. That would truly capture the imagination of the British people who had no axe to grind with Germany but love to support the underdog! However, bearing in mind that for 43 years since Unification, Germany – which, unlike all the other ‘major powers’ of Europe had not been involved in any war – had been unable to form alliances with Britain or Russia, there was the fear of being attacked from both the east and west and the only way to resolve that was by following Schlieffen’s plan (defeat France quickly by marching through Belgium since there was no other swift route to success; and then turn and defeat Russia), it’s clear that Germany was not entering Belgium as an aggressor but rather seeing it as a defensive move. That is still inexcusable and, of great importance, is Kaiser Wilhelm’s opposition to that invasion. Interestingly, his eldest son was sent to Alsace-Lorraine (the Franco-German border, rather than via Belgium) where he became infamous for his attack on Verdun and later wrote of his horror of war. Interesting, too, that when the Germans arrived in Belgium, they found large quantities of British arms and supplies stashed away in various places. This war was planned well in advance.

Secondly, perhaps more than any other nation, the German Royal Family suffered in the war. Two of the Kaiser’s young German nephews were killed

in action (the peace-loving sons of his sister, ‘Mossy’ of Hesse-Kassel); his sister, Queen Sophie of Greece, was subjected to all kinds of abuse: one minute, the gossip-mongers said, she had a secret telephone line to Potsdam, the next she was betraying her homeland by siding with the Allies; another sister, Moretta, was desperate to restore relations with her British cousins after the war....alas, to no avail. Kaiser Wilhelm, meanwhile, ensured that his British cousins, who happened to be in the German army (such as Prince Albert of Schleswig-Holstein), were given positions that didn’t involve any form of combat. King George V, on the other hand, stripped his German-born cousins of their ranks and even changed their names!

Thirdly, much is made of the sinking of the Lusitania (the passenger ship,
the sinking of which led to the death of hundreds of innocent Americans and was one of the reasons – again, ostensibly - why America was eventually dragged into the war) and Germany’s use of submarine warfare. Prince Max of Baden – who had spent the early part of the war working for the repatriation of wounded British prisoners – was totally opposed to the unrestricted use of German U-Boats but eventually it became clear that the German people depended so much on foreign imports of food and the naval blockade was an attempt to starve the civilians to death! Nowadays that seems typical of warfare but it was not ‘cricket’ in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The Lusitania was carrying huge amounts of arms for the Allies, and Winston Churchill had sent ‘secret’ telegrams to various

ministries stating that it was necessary to bring America into the war and the death of a few ‘innocent civilians’ would be the best way of achieving that....The whole Lusitania business is abhorrent! Fourthly, not a great deal is written about Austria’s role in the war. Strange, really, since Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s murder is said to be the cause of it! Shortly after his accession, Emperor Karl (who had seen the effects of war first-hand) went out of his way to create peace. All his efforts were rejected by the Allies and he was eventually ousted from his throne.

Fourthly...the Treaty of Versailles. What a vile piece of work! It occurred to me that even the choice of venue – Versailles – was a deliberate attempt to humiliate Germany since this was the place where German Unification had been declared. This treaty was aimed at bankrupting Germany and Austria, and removing the monarchies (the Russian monarchy, of course, had already been ‘removed’) In the ensuing chaos, came Lenin, then Hitler, then Stalin all of whom were funded by specific people and companies, all of whom could be named....but perhaps not yet...

On a personal level, I find it disgusting that my forebears died in this war, believing that they were fighting for ‘good’. Having met people from other nations whose forebears were killed in the same war, believing that they, too, were fighting for ‘good’, and knowing that the ‘ordinary’ German, Austrian, British, American, Russian, Canadian, Italian, French, African, Indian, Australian or Asian soldiers had no reason to kill each other and no idea why they were doing so, I am baffled by the extent of the treachery from governments on all sides. One thing is certain, though: neither Kaiser Wilhelm nor Tsar Nicholas wanted this war. Those who created it and gained from it remain, as always, in the shadows.....

Notice about the Blog Layout

Thanks to a very kind person called 'Bonjour Tristesse' at the Google Help 'forum', who looked at the blog and detected the problem with the layout (and why things kept disappearing), I think the issue is resolved and, if no one objects, I will reorganise the site with the books list and links list etc. later today (or when there is time). If any contributor wants to add any other list or anything, please feel free to do so.

Sunday, 14 August 2011

Stephanie and Elisabeth Marie: The Forgotten Victims of Mayerling

Stephanie of Belgium, Crown Princess of Austria-Hungary, later Countess Lonyay, was the second daughter of King Leopold II of the Belgians, infamous for his cruelty in the Congo, and his Queen, Marie-Henriette of Austria. Born May 21, 1864, she spent a sad childhood at Laeken Castle, suffering severely from her parents' conjugal discord and harsh educational methods. Starved of tenderness as a child, she would stubbornly pursue love as an adult, through many vicissitudes and sorrows. As a young girl, Stephanie was wooed by Crown Prince Rudolf of Austria-Hungary. Determined upon this prestigious match, the Belgian sovereigns urged their daughter to accept Rudolf's hand. In 1881, the couple were married in Vienna. Their marriage initially seemed fairly happy. In 1883, Rudolf and Stephanie had a daughter, Elisabeth Marie, known as Erszi. Although apt to be self-absorbed and difficult, Stephanie was a conscientious Crown Princess, often fulfilling official duties for her mother-in-law, Empress Elisabeth, who was frequently absent from the Habsburg court.
Sadly, however, Rudolf and Stephanie drifted apart. The Princess' conservative opinions placed her in opposition to the Prince's liberal notions. Rudolf also led a dissolute life; as a result of his infidelities, Stephanie is believed to have contracted venereal disease. In any case, she became infertile. Meanwhile, she suffered from a cold relationship with her mother-in-law, Empress Elisabeth. Apparently, Stephanie also indulged in a romance of her own with a Polish nobleman. In 1889, her marriage ended in the infamous Mayerling tragedy. According to the official version of events, Rudolf and his young mistress, Marie Vetsera, committed suicide in a doomed lovers' pact at the Mayerling hunting lodge. The later Empress Zita, however, asserted they were murdered by French or Austrian agents as a result of a political plot.

The scandal arising from the tragedy was deeply humiliating to Princess Stephanie, and isolated her further from the Austrian court. To escape the situation, she undertook extensive travels through Europe. She also worked on her memoirs and oversaw the compilation of a history of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, a project begun by Rudolf. The final volume was published in 1902.

In 1900, Stephanie remarried. The choice of her heart was a Hungarian nobleman, Count Elemér Lonyay. Her parents were furious. King Leopold refused to recognize a mere count as his son-in-law, and disinherited Stephanie, stripping her of her Belgian royal titles. After Queen Marie-Henriette's death in 1902, Stephanie and her older sister, Louise, also disgraced and disinherited, tried to sue their father in court, demanding a share of their mother's wealth, but in vain. Later, after King Leopold's death in 1909, the princesses would sue the Belgian state, unsuccessfully attempting to obtain part of their father's fortune.

During World War I, Stephanie entered the service of the Red Cross. After the return of peace, she lived an extravagant life. As a result of gambling debts and disastrous business ventures, she lost most of her money during the 1920's. More vicissitudes would follow; during World War II, Soviet troops invaded her property in Hungary. She and her husband took refuge in the Benedictine abbey of Pannonhalma. Here, on August 23, 1945, Stephanie died. Estranged from her daughter, she willed much of her remaining wealth, as well as her personal archives, to the abbey. Her memoirs were eventually published under the rather vain title I Should Have Been Empress.

In spite of her disastrous family history, Stephanie's daughter, Elisabeth Marie, was considered a possible bride for the young Prince Albert of Belgium, future King Albert I, much to the horror of his sister, Princess Henriette. Understandably, the pious and proper daughter of the staid Count and Countess of Flanders thought the young lady had too unstable a background for the marriage to be a success. Fortunately, nothing came of the idea. Elisabeth Marie proceeded to generate scandals of her own, espousing socialism and spiritualism. I am very glad she was never Queen of the Belgians! I doubt even the capable King Albert would have been able to manage such a difficult consort, and enemies of the Belgian monarchy would surely have seized upon Elisabeth Marie's eccentricities to undermine the throne.

Marie-Antoinette's Gambling Addiction

I have been accused of making Marie-Antoinette into a saint because I believe, as most of the evidence indicates, that Marie-Antoinette was faithful to her husband. However, the absence of adultery does not make one a saint. There many faithful spouses who are nevertheless far from the definition of sanctity. The New Advent article presents a fairly balanced view of Marie-Antoinette:
In her private life, Marie Antoinette may justly be blamed for her prodigality, for having, between 1774 and 1777 -- by certain notorious escapades (sleigh racing, opera balls, hunting in the Bois de Boulogne, gambling) and by her amusements at the Trianon -- given occasion for calumnious reports. But she confessed to Mercy that she indulged in this dissipation to console herself for having no children; and the tales of Besenval, Lauzun, and Soulavie, about the amours of Marie Antoinette, cannot stand against the testimony of the Prince de Ligne: "Her pretended gallantry was never any more than a very deep friendship for one or two individuals, and the ordinary coquetry of a woman, or a queen, trying to please everyone." De Goltz, the Prussian minister, also wrote that though a malicious person might interpret the queen's conduct unfavourably there was nothing in it beyond a desire to please everybody. Besides, the queen continued to give edification by her regular practice of her religious duties.... 
Her historian, M. de la Rocheterie, says of her: "She was not a guilty woman, neither was she a saint; she was an upright, charming woman, a little frivolous, somewhat impulsive, but always pure; she was a queen, at times ardent in her fancies for her favourites and thoughtless in her policy, but proud and full of energy; a thorough woman in her winsome ways and tenderness of heart, until she became a martyr.

"The "notorious" escapades of sleigh-riding, going incognito to the opera ball, hunting and watching the horse races in the Bois de Boulogne, were fairly innocent past-times for a twenty year old queen. The gambling, however, became an addiction. It must be kept in mind, however, that she was not the not the only one. Gambling was an entrenched part of court life from the days of Louis XIV. As scholar Ross Hamilton describes it:
Gambling obsessed all levels of French society during the Enlightenment. Louis XIV held appartements du roi given over to gambling three times a week at Versailles, the queen hosted a nightly game, and courtiers scheduled additional occasions for play. Hosts so frequently acted as bankers for games to entertain their guests that satirists, chroniclers, and moralists complained that compulsive gambling had destroyed other forms of social entertainment. In Paris ten authorized maisons de jeux operated games involving some degree of skill (jeux de commerce) but essentially they served as fronts for more lucrative chance-driven games (jeux de hasard). Gambling also took place at the two great Paris fairs during almost four months of the year, all year long at foreign embassies, and eventually at gambling houses at the Hotel de Gesvres and later at the Hotel de Soissons. In addition to these legal venues, the large number of clandestine Parisian gaming rooms, lighted by tripots, made one visitor comment that "flaming pots set Paris ablaze," and gambling was by no means restricted to Paris. (2) The "Age des Lumieres" was lighted by gambling. Although official prohibitions referred to both religious and sociological dangers from gambling, within the context of the period, risking large sums at play became an analogy for risking one's life in battle. Having the courage to risk and winning or losing with equal equanimity demonstrated indifference to material gain and thus served as a means of displaying hereditary status.
Author Lisa Hilton in the biography Athenais (Back Bay, 2004) explains how gambling was one of the only "honorable" ways in which the often cash-strapped aristocrats, who were forbidden to engage in trade, could make money. It also replaced the thrill of war. As Hilton says:
Psychologically, gambling can be seen as a rebellion against logic, intelligence, moderation and renunciation, amorally appealing to those who in some way feel their lives constricted, and yet containing its own penance from the guilt it provokes from the losses it entails.
It required a certain amount of discipline to gamble well; one had to have mastery over facial expressions so as not to reveal one's thoughts about winning or losing, or one's strategy. A noble had to be able to lose with grace and promptly pay debts.

Marie-Antoinette had been taught as a child by her own mother to gamble, because the Empress knew that a princess who could not play well would soon be separated from her money. Futhermore, the stakes at the court of Austria were much higher than at the court of France, which made Antoinette an intrepid player. As a teenager, she became inordinately attached to the practice. As she began to have gambling debts, Louis XVI, who was trying to save the government finances and give an example of thrift, forbade her to play anymore games of chance. She begged her husband to let her have one last game. He gave permission, and naughty Antoinette made sure the game went on for three days. Louis was disgusted.

Gambling in France did not disappear with the fall of the monarchy. The revolutionaries who replaced Louis and Antoinette had their own share of gambling debts. According to historian Russell T. Barnhart:
The mania for gambling had been transferred from defunct, monarchical Versailles to the thriving, bourgeois Palais Royal, where the five main gaming clubs throbbed from noon till midnight. During the Revolution, Prince Talleyrand won 30,000 francs at one club, and after Waterloo in 1815, Marshal Blucher lost 1,500,000 francs in one night at another. To bring the situation under control and raise taxes for the state, in 1806 Napoleon legalized the main clubs, which from 1819 to 1837 grossed an enormous 137 million francs.
Gambling took up only a short period of Marie-Antoinette's life, and yet it is something for which she is remembered, even before her numerous charities. In order for the excesses of the Revolution to be justified, the failings of a teenage queen are held up for posterity.

Thursday, 11 August 2011

'The Pen is Mightier Than the Sword'

It is a very beautiful thing to consider that when someone is inspired by a thought or a dream, circumstances become irrelevant. It is even more beautiful, I think, to see how, without recourse to protests or battles or any form of aggression, a person can make a great difference to others.
The 19th century seems to be filled with such inspiring people, one of whom was a ‘crippled invalid’ who made the world a better place and improved the lives of thousands, simply by being observant and writing a book....for children.
This person was Anna Sewell (1820-1878), whose book Black Beauty so touched its readers that it led to the implementation of laws concerning the treatment of horses and brought to light the conditions in which many thousands of these beautiful creatures were being forced to live.

In her early teenage years, Anna fell and damaged her ankles and, since they were not properly treated, she was unable to walk unaided and spent long periods confined to bed, becoming so weak that she could barely hold a pen and all she could do was look out of her window, watching the passers-by – and watching the way in which horses were often starved, beaten and exhausted by carriage drivers. When she did go out, she had to travel by a horse-drawn trap and, again, she observed the cruel treatment of these animals suffered. Due partly to her ill-health, it took Anna over six years to write ‘Black Beauty’ but she lived long enough to see the book published and translated into several languages. Its effect was amazing. For the first time, perhaps, she had given a voice to mute creatures whose sufferings had been immense and people could no longer tolerate their inhumane treatment.

Anna Sewell never led a protest to Parliament; she never even sent a letter to an M.P. or a newspaper but, by a single novel, she transformed the thinking of hundreds of thousands of people and made a very great impact on the treatment of horses. Proof, indeed, that the ‘pen is mightier than the sword’ and proof that when a person feels something deeply enough, no external circumstances can stand in their way. Anna might well have resigned herself to the life of a helpless invalid; instead she saw a need and met it, without making excuses and blaming the world for her ills!

“There is no religion without love," she wrote, "and people may talk as much as they like about their religion, but if it does not teach them to be good and kind to man and beast, it is all a sham.”

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

The King's Sister

A brief but touching tribute to Madame Elisabeth of France, the devout youngest sister of Louis XVI, a lady often neglected or trivialized in books and films about the French Revolution.

Monday, 8 August 2011

A Royal Artist

Unfortunately, historians have often dismissed Sigismund III Vasa, King of Poland and Sweden (1566-1632) as a religious fanatic and a political failure. Due to his ardent Catholic faith and zeal for the Counter-Reformation, he lost the Swedish throne, after a turbulent reign of only seven years, to his Protestant, rebellious uncle, Duke Karl. His stubborn insistence, for the rest of his life, on trying to reconquer Sweden, embroiled Poland in a disastrous series of wars with Sweden and Russia. Nevertheless, is Sigismund not to be admired for remaining true to his faith, for putting his soul before his throne, the Kingdom of Heaven before the Kingdom of Sweden? Furthermore, his insistence on his hereditary right to the Swedish crown was probably not, as some have claimed, merely born of ambition to rule multiple kingdoms. He surely also saw it as a religious duty to fight to reclaim Sweden for the Catholic Faith.

Today, however, I want to focus on Sigismund's contributions to the arts. In the cultural realm, whatever one thinks of his politics, he was a resounding success. Sigismund was a true Renaissance prince, a generous patron of painters, musicians and architects, and a talented artist and craftsman. In 1596, while still King of Sweden, he moved the Polish capital from Krakow to Warsaw. He hoped the change would facilitate ruling the two countries, as Warsaw was closer to Sweden. He soon began to beautify and modernize the city, and, in particular, the medieval Masovian dukes' castle he chose as his new royal palace:

During his reign, the castle was enlarged and given its present pentagonal shape, with an imposing mannerist-early baroque elevation facing the town, and a high tower, called Sigismund's Tower. The palace was modelled on the Swedish palace of Drottningholm, which Sigismund's father, King John III of Sweden, had built for his consort, the Polish princess, Catherine Jagellonica. By imitating the design of Drottningholm, Sigismund wanted to honor his pious and virtuous mother, the one responsible for raising him in the Catholic faith.

Sigismund also encouraged the creation and beautification of many other castles, churches and monasteries. He established Poland's first art gallery, featuring mainly religious art (but also portraits of famous men and historical scenes), and including works by great Renaissance masters such as Rubens, Jordaens and Rembrandt. Most interestingly, Sigismund was himself a gifted amateur draughtsman, painter and goldsmith. Unfortunately, only three of his paintings and drawings, apparently, survive; an Allegory of Faith, a Mater Dolorosa and a Virgin Mary with St. Ignatius and St. Francis Xavier. Sigismund also enjoyed crafting liturgical tools.

I find Sigismund's efforts to prosper and beautify the Church quite touching, particularly as his Vasa forebears, during the Reformation in Sweden, had plundered Church lands and treasures. Perhaps, Sigismund was trying to atone for this sacrilege. In any case, he left Poland a rich artistic and spiritual heritage. Here are a few works sponsored by Sigismund Vasa:

Ujazdowski Castle in Warsaw, designed for the King in 1624 by Giovanni Trevano. (Photo: Marek and Ewa Wojciechowscy)
Virgin and Child, by Palma il Giovane, created in 1618 for the King.

St Peter and Paul Church, Krakow, established by Sigismund III ca. 1595. (Photo: Marek and Ewa Wojciechowscy)

Saturday, 6 August 2011

Grace Kelly on Motherhood

Inspired by Christina's discussion of feminism, I wanted to post this article, published July 30, 1971 in Life magazine. Grace's remarks on motherhood highlight some aspects of her personality that are perhaps apt to be neglected in all the racy biographies and speculation on her private life. Her words ring even truer today than they did 40 years ago.
On a visit to Chicago last month, Princess Grace of Monaco, mother of three, came out firmly for motherhood- and against quite a few other things. Appearing at a convention of La Leche League, a women's group organized to encourage breast-feeding, she urged other mothers to take up the practice, to be "happy in their role and aware of its importance." She breast-fed each of her children for two months, starting with Caroline, born in 1957. "I couldn't think of having a baby without feeding her myself," she said.
The princess also advised breast-feeding as a means to help "combat the current wave of public indecency. Nothing is sacred anymore," she said, "anything goes. Watch some of the commercials on television or listen to some of the songs. Everything is being debased, made cheap. But in the family, if a mother nurses her baby, the other children can see the wholesomeness of sex, the naturalness of it. And that helps them prepare for what they'll see outside the home."
A Roman Catholic, she is firmly against abortion-"any kind, legal or illegal." She fended off questions on women's liberation, but had little good to say about some of the movement's goals-such as day-care centers. "It's a pity," she said, "There seems to be a great tendency to get rid of children, even among mothers who don't work."
The princess, who presumably does not have any baby-sitter problems of her own, is opposed to mothers sharing the child-rearing chores, even with fathers. "Why should they help?" she asks. "It's against nature. With animals you don't see the male caring for the offspring. It's a woman's prerogative and duty, and a privilege." This feminine uniqueness extends to the delivery room. In her own case, the princess asked Prince Rainier not to attend. "I didn't want him there," she said. "I had to concentrate on the business at hand."

Friday, 5 August 2011

Emily Wilding Davison and Restoring the Balance

One Easter, many moons ago as a child I dragged my parents through a Northumbrian cemetery in a hailstorm in search of the grave of the suffragette, Emily Wilding Davison, who died after being trampled by the king’s horse when she crossed the racetrack at the 1913 Derby. On finding the grave, I was greatly moved to discover a bunch of faded flowers attached to a little card, coloured around the border in suffragette green, white and purple, on which was written in shaky handwriting (as though written by an elderly person) and the ink smudged by the hailstorm, a message of fond remembrance of a ‘brave comrade’. This was in the 1970s and, at that time, the history of the suffragettes had become so fascinating to me because, as a little girl, I had often noticed that not only were very few girls/women ever written about in history books (there were dozens of great heroes but the only heroines that ever appeared at that time were Florence Nightingale, Queen Elizabeth I and Grace Darling) but, apart from Jane Austen and the Brontes, nearly all the great writers were men, even though women spent more time writing than men did.

Emily Wilding Davison, a First Class Honours graduate in English Literature, was a
very intelligent person and she had discovered, as did Christabel Pankhurst, who gained a law degree but was not allowed to practice law because she was a woman, that educated or clever women were prevented from using their intelligence in any sphere other than teaching. She was also an extremely devout Christian and gradually came to the belief that God was calling her to stand up against this suffocation of women’s intelligence and contribution to society and, perhaps more importantly, the lack of representation of half of the human race in government and law-making. Imprisoned several times (for non-violent offences – the suffragette rule was that no life, whether it be that of an animal or of a person must be endangered) she was treated horrendously in prison, repeatedly forcibly (and dangerously) fed and on one occasion having an ice-cold hose-pipe turned on her till she almost drowned. Eventually in 1913, she went to the Derby and made her protest by crossing the race-track and shouting, “Votes for Women!” Various theories about her intentions have since emerged – she had a return ticket to Morpeth in her pocket, so she intended to return home. She was close to her elderly mother and would not have intended to turn herself into a martyr without sending some kind of letter or explanation to her, and she was a devout Christian to whom ‘suicide’ would have been anathema. What was more, by the time the King’s horse came around the corner in the race, the leaders were already racing towards the finishing line. Emily might have believed that all the horses had passed and simply meant to cross the track. The response of the papers to her death, however, seems appalling to me. Many complained that she had spoiled the race. Others dismissed her as mad or wicked and, worst of all, came the usual tirade of opinion that the suffragettes were all ‘frustrated spinsters’ who were in need of psychological help.

About ten years after the visit to the Morpeth graveyard, by which time my interest had largely waned, I went to Manchester to see the home of Mrs. Pankhurst (founder of the suffragette movement) and felt a deep unease to discover it was filled with feminist literature which advocated many things that seemed incompatible with all the suffragettes were fighting for. It seemed to me that the genuine quest for political freedom that the suffragettes had struggled for, had been hijacked by an aggressive feminism, which had nothing to do with restoring the natural balance between the Masculine and Feminine. It seemed then that, rather than accentuating the beauty and compatibility of men and women, the women were behaving like men and expecting the men to behave like women! This was nothing like the aims of the suffragette movement. A large part of the suffragette manifesto and inspiration was the desire to protect and recognise the dignity of women as mothers, as intellectuals and as human beings on equal terms with men. It was not about making women more aggressive, or making men more effeminate. It was an attempt to restore the natural balance. Feminism really looked like trying to create women who behaved like aggressive men (hence the plethora of dramas featuring aggressive businesswomen and policewomen that came in its wake).

This is a very complex subject and the way in which women of the past were treated by (or ignored by) historians has led to many spurious myths about prominent women – Marie Antoinette, Catherine the Great, Alexandra of Russia, Elizabeth I, Joan of Arc, Cleopatra to name but a few. These and many other strong women were described as insane or, if that didn’t work, attempts were made to portray them as depraved. In response, it sometimes seems as though the natural feminine tendencies of intelligence, compassion, maternal instincts etc. have been belittled. Sooner or later, the balance will be reached and, in the meantime, it seems correct to dispel some of the out-dated myths.

Thursday, 4 August 2011

Words from a Father

As a follow-up to Christina's defense of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette and to my own review of Elena Maria Vidal's novels of royal France, here are the noble and thoughtful words the King addressed to his eldest daughter, Princess Marie-Thérèse-Charlotte, on the occasion of her First Communion, on April 8, 1790.
It is from the depths of my heart, my daughter, that I bless you, asking Heaven to grant you the grace to appreciate well the great action you are about to perform. Your heart is innocent and pure in the eyes of God, your prayers must be pleasing to Him. Offer them to Him for your mother and for me. Ask Him to give me the graces necessary to bring about the happiness of those over whom He has given me dominion, and whom I must consider as my children; ask Him to deign to conserve in this Kingdom, the purity of religion, and remember well, my daughter, that this holy religion is the source of happiness and the support in the adversities of life. Do not believe you are safe from them. You are quite young, but you have already seen your father afflicted more than once. You do not know, my daughter, what Providence has destined for you; whether you will remain in this Kingdom or go to dwell in another. In whatever place the hand of God puts you, remember that you must edify by your example, do good as often as you find the occasion for it. But above all, my child, relieve the unfortunate with all your power. God has caused us to be born into the rank where we are only to work for their happiness and to console them in their pains. Go to the altars where you are expected, and beseech the God of mercy never to let you forget the advice of your father. 

Back To Basics: Romanov Style!

Recently, on this blog, we were asked for some Romanov reading recommendations by a visitor! When beginning to sort fact from fiction, it's a great idea to have a solid reading list in mind. This is intended to be a very short list for those interested in reading more about Nicholas II and the last Imperial Family of Russia. The books on this list are some of the more recent and long-standing publications that are readily available for purchase online and elsewhere. For those of us on a not-so-royal budget, the "used" option on amazon.com is wonderful! If our contributors or visitors have suggestions they would like to add, please share your thoughts or own list! This isn't an exhaustive list by any means. It's a non-fiction list for those that are interested in starting their research into a very interesting family that has partly become shrouded in myth...

Please note: This list is in no particular order. Not all books will be suited to each individual's taste - I've tried to include a variety. If you have recommendations, please comment and I will be very happy to add to the list under Additional Recommendations!

Nicholas and Alexandra by Robert K. Massie. ~ A truly great introduction! Will arm you with the basic Romanov knowledge. A "must have" in every Romanov book collection. A true classic never goes out of style!

A Lifelong Passion: Nicholas and Alexandra: Their Own Story by Sergei Mironenko & Andrei Maylunas ~ As the title suggests, this is a book full of their own words through letters, diaries, etc.. Not only does it cover Nicholas and Alexandra, but often draws on material from their huge and extended family. Very well organized and hard to put down.

The Last Tsar: The Life and Death of Nicholas II: Edvard Radzinsky ~ Very detailed study into Nicholas II, his family, and even the events surrounding the death of the Imperial Family. Radzinsky, being a playwright, has a flair for drama. Don't let it deter you; this is still an amazing study!

The Last Empress: The Life and Times of Alexandra Feodorovna, Tsarina of Russia by Greg King ~ One of the first breakthrough biographies of Alexandra. Greg King thoroughly researched his subject and tried to clarify many of the myths people have had about Alexandra. He is gentle and respectful in the treatment of the Empress. It's a vivid biography and presents Alexandra in a new light for many people.

Tsar: The Lost World of Nicholas and Alexandra by Peter Kurth ~ Light on reading, but packed with pictures! Since it's always nice to put the a face to the name you're reading about, don't forget this book in your introductory research. After all these years, it's still a favorite of mine. I can't tell you how many times I've referred to it to find certain photos for reference.

The Romanovs: the Final Chapter by Robert K. Massie ~ A great way to start your reading into the final fate of the Romanov family. Very well researched and documented. Don't expect a dry, boring book - it's full of fascinating details. It won't cover the most recent updates, but it's still extremely useful in understanding the last days of the Romanovs and the aftermath that eventually followed.

Nicholas and Alexandra: The Family Albums by Michael, Prince of Greece ~ One of the best picture books out there. If you can snag a copy of this treasure trove, you won't be disappointed. You could literally spend hours browsing through this one. A picture is worth a thousand words. This book is worth every penny you spend on it and then some!

The Fate of the Romanovs by Greg King and Penny Wilson ~ One of the most recent takes on the final tragedy of the family. Extensively researched and well documented drawing on new materials and shattering many of the myths surrounding the imprisonment and murder of the Imperial Family. One might not agree with every conclusion the authors come to, but it's still an excellent Romanov read.

Special Mentions: Fictional Romanov Works:

Most Beautiful Princess by Christina Croft ~ A fictional re-telling of the life of Grand Duchess Ella, the Empress Alexandra's older sister who also found herself living inside the Russian court. Christina has previously written a biography on Ella, and the research there is further developed inside this marvelous book! You'll find yourself halfway through it in your first sitting!

The Lost Crown by Sarah Miller ~ A historically grounded fictional work regarding the daughers of Nicholas and Alexandra. Sarah has crafted a lovely work of art with this book. The time and effort she has spent in doing true research is put forth in a beautiful and compassionate way. She has presented each of the girls in a way that so many of us can relate to.

Highly Recommended Additional Reading:

The Camera and The Tsars & Romanov Autumn by Charlotte Zeepvat

Nicholas II, The Last Tsar by Marvin Lyons

The Murder of Grigorii Rasputin by Margarita Nelipa

(more to come)

Enjoy and Happy Reading :-)

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Queen Victoria writes to King Leopold I

After reading Matterhorn's lovely post about Queen Louise, I recalled reading a letter from Queen Victoria to King Leopold, following Louise's death. Although Queen Victoria - the doyenne of mourners! - tends to be very over-emotional in all her letters to bereaved people, this letter shows her genuine affection, love and respect for the Queen and for King Leopold and his family:

Osborne House 18th October 1850

My dearest Uncle,
This was the day I always and for so many years wrote to her, to our adored Louise and now I write to you to thank you for that heart-breaking, touching letter of the 16th, which you so very kindly wrote to me. What a day Tuesday must have been! Welch Einen Gang! and yesterday! My grief was so great again yesterday. To talk of her is my greatest consolation! Let us all try to imitate her! My poor, dear Uncle, we so wish to be with you if we can be of any use to you, to go to you for 2 or 3 days quite quietly and alone, to Laeken, without anyone and without any reception, to cry with you and to talk with you of her. It will be a great comfort to us – a silent tribute of love and respect for her – to be able to mingle our tears with yours at her tomb. And the affection of your two devoted children [the Queen is referring to herself and Prince Albert, King Leopold’s niece and nephew] will perhaps be of some slight balm. My first impulse was to fly at once to you but perhaps a few weeks’
delay will be better. It will be a great and melancholy satisfaction to us. Daily you will feel more, my dearest Uncle, the poignancy of your dreadful loss; my heart breaks in thinking of you and the poor, dear children. How beautiful it must be to see that your whole country weeps and mourns with you. For the country and for your children you must try to bear up and feel that in doing so, you are doing all SHE wished. If only we could be of use to you! If I could do anything for poor, little Charlotte. whom our blessed Louise talked of so often to me.
May I write to you on Fridays as I used to write to her, as well as on Tuesdays? You need not answer me and whenever it bores you to write to me or you have no time, let one of the dear children write to me.
May God bless and protect you ever, my beloved Uncle, is our anxious prayer. Embrace the dear children in the name of one who has almost the love of a mother for them. Ever your devoted Niece and Loving Child,
Victoria R.

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

A Forgotten Queen

The first Queen of the Belgians, Louise d'Orléans, consort of Leopold I, is a figure I have long found fascinating and sympathetic. Since she was generally shy and retiring, died young, and was soon relegated to a vague, pious memory, she has often been dismissed as boring, neglected or forgotten. She certainly deserves to be remembered, though! Here are some facts about this lady; I hope they will show why she is intriguing and appealing...
  • Her full baptismal name was Louise Marie Thérèse Charlotte Isabelle. The Louise was after her godfather, Louis XVIII of France; the Marie-Thérèse-Charlotte after her godmother, the Duchesse d'Angoulême, only surviving child of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette, and Louise's first cousin once removed. Her family called her simply "Louise," but the Belgians, for some reason, called her "Louise-Marie."
  • She adored her father, the controversial Louis-Philippe, Duc d'Orléans (later "King of the French") but was even closer to her mother, the universally revered Marie-Amélie of Naples. She inherited much of her mother's piety and charity, along with a certain amount of her father's political liberalism. 
  • At 18, she saw her father take the French throne from the elder branch of the Bourbon family, during the July Revolution of 1830. A tragic rupture ensued between the conservative elder branch and the liberal younger branch of the royal house and Louis-Philippe was branded a treacherous usurper by many. Although Louise always defended him, she seems to have been, like her mother, upset by the events. She took refuge in her books, and, together with her sister Marie, dissolved in tears, while Marie cried out: "They want to make papa king!"
  • I think she was lovely, with her golden curls and delicate, distinguished features, but she had the reputation of an "ugly duckling," and did not consider herself a beauty. She was especially criticized for her long Bourbon nose, and joked about it herself. 
  • Her younger sister, Marie, was an accomplished Romantic artist, and Louise, similarly, had a charming talent for drawing and painting. 
  • She was a voluminous correspondent, writing thousands of letters in her lifetime, especially to her parents, and most of all, to her mother. Her eldest brother, Ferdinand-Philippe, Duc de Chartres, teasingly decried this "scribomania" and joked that someone ought to cut off her thumb to put an end to it!
  • She was deeply loyal and devoted to her family, especially to the Duc de Chartres, although he did not share her religious faith, and to Marie. Both died young and tragically and Louise was most concerned to provide for regular Masses to be offered for the repose of their souls. She wept copiously when obliged to part from her parents and siblings to marry a man who was practically a stranger to her, Leopold I of Belgium.
  • Initially indifferent to her husband (and even painfully reluctant to consummate the marriage) she eventually developed a passionate love and admiration for him and a profound concern for his eternal salvation. 
  • She became Queen as a young girl of 20, gifted but lacking in self-confidence. She thought she would make a lamentable royal consort and considered that her youngest sister, the bold and assertive Clementine, would be much better in the role. Nonetheless, Louise always fulfilled her duties well, winning the love and esteem of the Belgian people. 
  • She was very tender-hearted, abhorring bloodshed and capital punishment, even in the case of would-be assassins who had attempted her beloved father's life. When Leopold teased her about leaving her as Regent of Belgium while he was abroad, she insisted she would never sign anyone's death warrant. (A striking contrast with her grandfather, the French revolutionary, Philippe Egalité, who was infamous for voting for the death of his cousin, King Louis XVI!)
  • Nonetheless, she had a critical eye and something of a vitriolic tongue (and pen). Her sharpness in criticizing, upon her arrival in Belgium, her new subjects' failings created political friction and her alarmed father had to advise her to be more diplomatic.
  • She was very intelligent and even her husband, the "Nestor of Kings," came to prize her sound political judgment. She served as a discreet mediatrix between the Catholic and Liberal parties in Belgium. 
  • Although she was physically fragile and had a quiet, retiring public image, she loved rousing exercise, costume balls, and anything that stirred the blood. She was an enthusiastic horsewoman.
  • On a similar note, her favorite color was red!
  • Together with her husband, she maintained a close friendship with their niece, Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom. The two young queens shared, among other things, a keen love of fashion and Louise sent Victoria many glamorous dresses and accessories. I thought it a pity that Louise was left out of the recent film, The Young Victoria
  • She was deeply saddened by the downfall and exile of the Orléans family following the 1848 Revolution in France. For eight days, she was left without news of her parents' fate and the anguish and suspense played a major role in shattering her already failing health and contributing to her death from tuberculosis in 1850. Nonetheless, she was hailed as the consoling angel of her ruined family. 
  • Over the years, she became more and more devoted to God. Her mother called her "my angelic daughter," and her cousin, Caroline of Naples, Duchesse de Berry, who always spoke bitterly of the Orléans family in general, made an exception for Louise. Louise, she declared, was a saint! 

Marie-Amélie, Queen, consort of Louis-Philippe, King of the French. Journal de Marie-Amélie, Reine des Français: 1800-1866, presented by Suzanne d'Huart, 1981.
Dyson, C.C. The life of Marie Amélie last queen of the French, 1782-1866. 1910.
Kerckvoorde, Mia. Louise d'Orléans, reine oubliée. 1991.
Lassère, Madeleine. Louise reine des Belges: 1812-1850. 2006.

Monday, 1 August 2011

The Often-Repeated Untruths about Tsar Nicholas II

With great excitement, I opened a new book today – a relatively recently
published history of Tsar Nicholas II in the First World War – and within two or three pages my heart sank to read the same old repeated phrases along the lines that Nicholas was indifferent to, or oblivious of what went on outside his immediate environment, that he was a ‘weak’ Tsar and not a very intelligent man. This presentation of Nicholas seems to be one of the greatest myths – or downright untruths - of history and it is repeated so glibly and so often by academics as well as other commentators.
The first myth – Nicholas’ supposed indifference, or rather stupidity – is often based on his diary entries. Clearly, he was not a man who had a great deal of time to keep a journal when he was so engrossed in the pressures of his office that he often worked from dawn till the early hours, snatching only a few hours sleep on a divan in his study. The fact that he writes, “I shall take up dominoes again...” or that at his abdication, he said, “I shall go to Livadia; I like the flowers there...” is taken completely out of context. How often, in the midst of hectic circumstances, do you think of some simple pleasure that you would so love to enjoy again? At the end of an extremely exhausting day, it is a relief to think of ‘gentler’ days and what you might do if you were free of the present demands. One one level, these lines show the heart of the man but, taken out of context, do not capture his character at all. There are several accounts of Nicholas being woken in the middle of the night to deal with an issue which, in the overall scheme of things, might seem unimportant - a lowly peasant needing help; a prisoner whose family came desperately pleading his cause – and in each case Nicholas responds with the utmost concern and understanding. On a larger scale, of all the European monarchs, Nicholas was the one who saw most clearly the means to prevent war. Following the defeat of Bulgaria in the Second Balkan War, for example, it was Nicholas who pointed out that unless the Bulgarians were given access to a sea port, trade would be impossible and the country would be ruined, and this would eventually lead to another war. At the height of the July crisis in 1914, Nicholas was the one who suggested taking the whole matter to an international tribunal at the Hague in order to find a peaceful solution and avoid war. When war broke out, Nicholas marched for ten miles carrying the pack of an average soldier in order to understand first hand what was expected of his troops; and his decision to take personal command of his army sprang from his awareness that he could not ask others to endure what he would not endure himself. Even his abdication was a result of his refusal to turn his troops on his own people.
The second myth – Nicholas’ alleged weakness – is equally easy to dismiss as false when one looks beneath the surface. Physically, he was a strong man who played tennis and swam and enjoyed outdoor pursuits. Morally, he was a strong man who adhered to his faith, who refused to betray his allies even when that cost him a throne, and who went into captivity with the utmost dignity. Emotionally, he was a strong man who continued his public duties while concealing his deep sorrow and anxiety over the health of his beloved haemophiliac son, Alexei; and who remained adamant that he would only marry for love even though it took six years for Alix to accept his proposal. Spiritually, he was a strong man who, even when everything had been taken from him and he had been humiliated and taken into captivity, remained true to his religious convictions and faith in the goodness of God.
The third myth – Nicholas’ supposed lack of intelligence. Well-read, fluent in several languages, fond of foreign literature and steeped in knowledge of Russian history, had he been an average young man in England at the time, he would probably have gone straight to Oxford or Cambridge. The complexities of the Balkan Wars and international politics leave politicians baffled to this day but Nicholas had a ready grasp and understanding not only of the situations but also of the characters of the people involved.
There are so many more examples of Nicholas’ courage, strength and wisdom that it is almost unbelievable to open a book, published in the 21st century, that repeats the old re-hashed lies, “The Tsar was weak and so absorbed in the trivialities of his day to day life and indifferent to his people that even when revolution came, he just wanted to play dominoes....”
People still publish these things??