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.

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Some Very Happy News!

This isn’t lost in the myths of history, but on behalf of the bloggers here, congratulations
 to one of our contributors, Val, on the birth of her little girl, Alexandra!


It’s lovely to post some happy news and all good wishes go to Val and Jasen, and to Alexandra’s ‘big’ brother, Nicholas! (How lovely to have a Nicholas & Alexandra in one family!)

Sunday, 4 November 2012

American Support for Germany

I just came across this interesting article about Kaiser Wilhelm sending a portrait to a convent in the United States in 1913.

Kaiser Wilhelm portrait

Many people believe that, from the start, the majority of Americans were opposed to the Germans in the First World War but that isn’t the case at all. Until early 1917, there was huge support for Germany and a lot of ill-feeling towards Britain particularly since many American cities were populated by German immigrants, who had contributed a great deal to society (by, for example, introducing kindergartens and other novel ideas). When the British blockade prevented arms or supplies from reaching the Central Powers, one German U-boat managed to reach America where it was received with great acclaim! People greeted the sailors as heroes and rushed to give them supplies to take back to Germany. Even the sinking of the Lusitania failed to dampen the Americans’ support for the Central Powers but suddenly, following Woodrow Wilson’s re-election in November 1916, the newspapers turned against Germany and began printing stories of atrocities in such a way as so persuade the American people to support America’s entry into the war ('he kept us out of the war'??). The entire episode seems very deliberately staged.

One of the most unpleasant aspects of this was the way in which all German patents taken out in America were seized. This included all the chemical and pharmaceutical patents, which were based on ideas which were far ahead of any other nation in the world. These ‘stolen’ patents were then sold off for next to nothing or given away freely to specific American companies the owners of which often had connections to members of the US government or bankers. This was basically theft of German intellectual property rights but it resulted in great success for many of the pharmaceutical companies which still operate internationally today.

I sincerely hope that the nuns of the St. Edith convent kept their portrait!

Tuesday, 31 July 2012

After Tehran

As a follow-up to my last post, here is an interview with Marina Nemat, dealing with her second memoir, After Tehran, and her thoughts on the potential for regime change in her native Iran.

Thursday, 26 July 2012

Marina Nemat

After watching interviews with Marina Nemat of Toronto, I was very moved and impressed to read her harrowing yet compassionate memoir, Prisoner of Tehran. She is a beautiful and poetic woman who writes of an idyllic childhood under the Shah followed by the shattering of her world during the Iranian Revolution. At sixteen, she relates, after criticizing the new regime in high school, she was arrested, tortured and sentenced to death, only to be reprieved at the last moment, but at a terrible personal price...

Her unusual perspective, as a Catholic Iranian of Russian extraction, makes the story especially interesting. It also lends ominous depth to her theme that revolutions often fail to deliver on their promises, since her family had already suffered from the bitter fruits of Bolshevism. As human rights advocates often approach matters from a more secular perspective, her emphasis on her faith is quite special. Her frank but sad admission of having betrayed her religious beliefs by officially becoming Muslim under duress is very honest, humble and poignant. She has stated in interviews that she grew up hearing of the lives of Christian saints and martyrs, and that it was awful to realize, under torture, that she would be willing to do anything, even sell her soul to the devil, in order to escape the pain and go free.

The same very human, relatable woman, claiming no extraordinary heroism, comes across in this book, although she seems heroic nevertheless. Her capacity to resist despair, her persistence in hoping and trusting in the mercy of Christ, and her generosity in loving and caring for others are wonderful. Her description of conceiving a child by her interrogator and rapist, who had forced her to marry him, and nonetheless being able to recognize the innocence of the child, is particularly touching. While I disagree with some of her radically pacifist statements, I appreciate her general point that it can be hard to judge people, even deadly enemies, since human beings are often such mixtures of good and evil.

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Hypocrisy and Vanity

I think it was Henry Fielding in ‘Joseph Andrews’ who pointed out the difference between vanity and hypocrisy. Vanity, he said, involved a person doing good in order to be seen and praised; hypocrisy involved a person doing evil under the guise of good. The definitions came to mind as I began to discover more about the so-called American Red Cross mission to Russia in 1917.


Surprisingly, this ‘mission’ of 24 people comprised only 4 doctors and the rest were financiers, photographers and lawyers, and the mission leaders lived in the most expensive hotels, taking photographs and, no doubt, eyeing the resources of the country to which they had not had access under the Tsar.

In fact that mission, financed by J.P. Morgan (and probably donations from the sincere and well-meaning American people), had very little to do with the American Red Cross, which was actively working in a far more constructive way in various other countries. This mission, however, had a very different agenda – that of the Wall Street bankers and international financiers who had been involved in prolonging the war for financial gain, for access to the Russian oilfields and, of course, as part of their plan to dismantle all the autocracies of Europe.

Calling this the ‘American’ Red Cross Mission is as greater a misnomer as calling it a ‘Red Cross’ mission, since this had very little to do with the American people at all. It is interesting that until the end of 1916 and the beginning of 1917 most Americans were (naturally!!) eager to stay out of the war that was raging in Europe. Woodrow Wilson was re-elected on his campaign slogan, “He kept us out of the war...” Moreover, most of the newspapers favoured the Central Powers over the Entente Powers and were largely pro-German. A German submarine managed to evade the British blockade to make its way to America where it was greeted with great applause and amply supplied for its return journey. Suddenly, however, the press, owned by the same financier families, changed their tune, as did President Wilson, and Germany was now the enemy and Wilson came out with his statement about wanting to ‘make the world safe for democracy’. The excuse was Germany’s employment of unrestricted submarine warfare but the Kaiser had suspended this for a long time believing that Woodrow Wilson would put pressure on the British to stop their illegal blockage, which was leading to starvation for the people of Germany and Austria-Hungary. Woodrow Wilson refused to intervene but even when unrestricted submarine warfare was unleashed, the Germans allowed for the free passage of ships between Britain and America twice a week, and ordered U-boat captains to give plenty of warning to allow ships to be evacuated and passengers taken to safety before sinking them. A huge propaganda campaign began in America stating that the Kaiser wished to take over the world! Ironic, considering that Wilson’s real motive for dragging the American people into the war was to have a say in the peace negotiations which would involve the dismantling of empires (particularly Austria-Hungary), destroying all autocracies and imposing a new world order on just about everyone!

Germany was an autocracy but it was a very prosperous nation and had introduced Labour Laws, retirement pensions, sick pay and other benefits for workers long before anyone else did. What became of Wilson’s idea to ‘make democracy safe for everyone’? A grand imposing idea  that led to Hitler, Stalin and Trotsky (who, incidentally, had been driving round New York in a limousine before setting sail for Russia, and was released from captivity in Canada on the orders of Britain and America so that he could continue the revolution in Russia) and Lenin, who – great socialist that he was! – had been living in relative luxury in Switzerland before being funded by the financier Jacob Schiff and others, to cause such disruption in Russia.

Everything....everything we were taught about the First World War is a great myth and one that involves a good deal of hypocrisy! This is but the tip of the iceberg. I would go so far as to say that up until that time, it was the great crime ever committed against humanity, the greatest con in history and even to this day people believe the lie that it was an Imperial War led by kings and emperors.

What was it Fielding said about the difference between hypocrisy and vanity? 

(As a later added postscript....Here is a brilliant article: http://drchojnowski.blogspot.co.uk/2006/10/1917-democratic-jihad-and-popes-peace.html )

Saturday, 7 April 2012

Sara Bard Field: Ahead of Her Time


Sara Bard Field was born in Cincinnati, Ohio to George Bard Field and Annie Jenkins (Stevens) Field in 1882. Her father was raised with a strict Baptist background, and her mother was of Quaker origin. The backgrounds of her parents greatly influenced her childhood and youth. Her father ran a very strict household with a loving wife and mother, who exercised more tolerance and care with her children. Sara experienced a conventional life of a middle class family, while living in Detroit, where they had moved after their time in Ohio.

When she was just 18, she married, Baptist minister, Albert Ehrgott, and accompanied him to his mission in Rangoon, Burma. Her experiences in Burma and India significantly widened her views on religion and social injustices. When they came back to the United States in 1903 (after the difficult birth of her first son) they were assigned to a church in Cleveland, Ohio where she started to work for social reform. After she started her work, her daughter, Katherine, was born in 1906.

During these times, Sara considered Christian Socialism to be a possible answer to the problems the world was facing. With her sister, Mary, she continued to work alongside American reformers. It’s no surprise that after her family moved to Portland, Oregon in 1910 that she joined in the struggle for women’s suffrage. She worked alongside Alice Paul, Emma Wold, Alva Belmont and many others. She worked as state organizer for the campaign that won suffrage in Oregon in 1912. At this point, she was doing a lot of work, which forced her to spend time apart from her family. She spent many summers traveling through her state speaking in towns to get the word out. She also made an auto journey across the country to petition President Wilson in 1915.

After these years of hard work, Sara decided to concentrate on her personal life and started to develop her own poetry. She produced two collections, and much of her poetry appeared in political and literary magazines. She socialized with John Steinbeck, Ansel Adams, Robinson Jeffers and many others. She was not without her own personal tragedies. She divorced in 1914 from her husband and formed a deep attachment to her new companion, Charles Erskine Scott Wood. She also dealt with the very heavy blow of the death of her son in 1918. It is fair to say, that the death of her son (with whom she shared a close relationship) affected her for the rest of her life - understandably, she found it very difficult to come to terms with this tragedy.

Sara and C.E.S. Wood (who went by "Erskine") began their lives together in San Francisco in 1918. Erskine also wrote poetry and branched out his works into social criticism essays. These two had a 35 year literary collaboration and their shared home in San Francisco became a meeting place for artists and writers in the Bay Area. When their moved to their new home “The Cats” at Poet's Canyon in Los Gatos, CA, their intellectual visitors followed. Sarah and Erskine were finally married in the later 30s (his first wife refused him a divorce) and spent their remaining years in Los Gatos. Erskine died in 1944, and in 1949 Sara was able to publish his Collected Poems. In 1955 Sara moved to Berkeley to be close to her daughter and her daughter’s family. In the early 60s she was able to record her oral history through the University of CA, Berkeley which tells the exciting story of her life. She speaks frankly, but poetically. Her views especially on social concerns and women’s issues certainly seemed ahead of her time. After such a full life, she died in Berkeley in 1974.

Sunday, 1 April 2012

"The Butcher of Verdun" ?

It seems strange to speak of the The ‘Battle’ of Verdun, which took place between February and September 1916, since I think of battles as being won or lost in a day but this was one of the bloodiest and most horrific episodes in the whole of the senseless war of 1914-1918. The intention on the part of the Germans was to seize the fortress town of Verdun not only because it would allow them to break through the French lines and march on Paris, but also because the place, which was the last fort to hold out against the Prussians in the Franco-Prussian War, had a great symbolic significance to the French. Due to its strategic and symbolic importance, the place had been well-fortified in the years between 1871 and 1914 and was surrounded by a ring of other forts.

According to some reports, which are now being questioned by certain historians, the Germans had another motive in attacking the city. The Chief of Staff, Falkenhayn, is alleged to have claimed that his intention was to ‘bleed France white’. From the icy days of February, through to the sweltering heat of May, the German artillery unleashed a series of relentless bombardments the like of which had never been seen before. The resulting injuries are too horrific to begin to describe – one can only imagine the long-term effects on the soldiers of witnessing such horrors! – and the losses (on both sides) total over 700, 000.

The scale of the slaughter and the vileness of the whole campaign cannot be underestimated but, long after the war was over, one man was unjustly left to shoulder much of the blame. Crown Prince Wilhelm of Prussia, eldest son and heir of Kaiser Wilhelm II, was the commanding officer of the Fifth Army, which played a major role at Verdun. Undoubtedly due to his high profile as the Kaiser’s son, the Crown Prince was portrayed on numerous Allied propaganda posters as the ‘monster of Verdun’ – illustrations showed him devouring women, children and babies, and laughing demonically at the carnage. The notion these posters invoked became a myth and, later, the Crown Prince was known as the ‘butcher of Verdun’ or the ‘laughing murderer of Verdun’.

 In reality, within a few weeks of the initial attack, the Crown Prince was disgusted by the slaughter and, concerned, too, for the welfare of his own men, he repeatedly wrote to the General High Command requesting an end to the campaign but his requests were ignored:

“Consequently, I soon did everything in my power to stop the attacks; and I repeatedly gave expression to my views and the deductions to be drawn from them. In this matter I stood somewhat opposed to my then Chief of Staff, General Schmidt von Knobelsdorf, and my representations were at first put aside; the orders ran, "Continue to attack." "

As early as November 1914, the Crown Prince had written (sincerely quite justifiably, I think): “Undoubtedly this is the most stupid, senseless and unnecessary war of modern times. It is a war not wanted by Germany, I can assure you, but it was forced on us...” , and, unsurprisingly , his memoirs, written in exile soon after the war, show his bitterness as the unjust allegations heaped upon him.

 “The laughing murderer of Verdun? So that’s what I am, is it? One might almost come to believe it is true after hearing the calumny so often. It cuts me to the quick because it concerns what I have saved as my last imperishable possession out of the war and out of the collapse. It touches my unsullied memories of my relations to the troops entrusted to me. It touches the conviction that those men and I understood and trusted each other, that we had a right to believe in one another because each had given his best and done his best.”

He goes on to recount various episodes which demonstrate his concern for his men and the rapport he had with them. 

So many atrocities were committed by all sides in the First World War, that it seems that it is simply because he was the son of the equally unjustly vilified Kaiser, that the Crown Prince was made the scapegoat for the particular horrors of Verdun. In truth, he was one of the few commanders who petitioned for an end to the slaughter and by 1916 he was actively trying to create a peace accord and bring that whole pointless war to an end. Verdun was butchery...but Crown Prince Wilhelm was not the butcher.

Friday, 24 February 2012

Queen Victoria Series



Just recently, I was introduced to this delightful series on Queen Victoria and her family. It was written and narrated by our very own Christina Croft! This series is a beautiful narrative accompanied by illustrations, photographs, music and even excerpts from the Royal Family's own letters and diaries. It is well constructed, easy to follow, and will please any royalty newcomer or aficionado. Christina really ensures that every individual is treated with understanding and respect. Originally, I had only planned to watch small segments at a time, but found I just couldn't walk away that easily! This is the type of series you can watch time and again and still take away something new with each viewing. Allow yourself some time to watch as much as you'd like.... Enjoy :-)

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

The Crown


Nancy Bilyeau's debut novel The Crown takes readers on an odyssey through the England of Henry VIII during the bloody period of the dissolution of the monasteries as seen from the point of view of a young Dominican novice. There are many aspects of this extraordinary novel that contemporary Catholics will find that they can relate to, namely the confusion in the Church and the compromises of many of her members to political persecution and social expediency, as well as the heroic stand taken by those with the courage to speak truth to power. In Tudor England, speaking truth to power, or even silently trying to follow one's conscience, often meant dying a hideous death. Young Joanna Stafford finds that in those intense times there is no such thing as spiritual mediocrity; either she must take the high road or face perdition. Joanna is not one to settle for less than heroism anyway, having entered a strict Dominican monastery where she looked forward to an austere life of poverty, chastity and obedience. When she leaves the monastery without permission to help a relative who is condemned to death for championing the Catholic faith, she sets off a chain of events which lead her on a spiritual journey into the heart of the mysteries of faith, of sacrifice, and of royal power.

The title of the book signifies a mysterious relic, the crown of a holy Saxon king, which Joanna is commissioned by the wily Bishop Gardiner to find for purposes of his own. Joanna knows that not finding the crown could mean the torture and execution of her father, who already languishes in the Tower of London.Yet, along with the elusive and tangible crown, there are many other awe-inspiring crowns in the novel, the crown of martyrdom, the crown of virginity, the crown of Our Lady, the blood-splattered Tudor crown, the pagan crown of ancient monuments at Stonehenge, the crown of the foundations of a lost monastery and the Crown of Thorns. Even as the symbolism of the crown is repeated throughout the novel, so Joanna finds her vocation tested as she learns to overcome her worst fears. It is a story in which spiritual victory comes as the fruit of earthly defeat.

One plot element in The Crown involves a series of famous tapestries which hold clues to solving several puzzling scenarios. Even as the tapestries are woven by the nuns at Dartford Priory, the author has woven her story so that many clues hidden in the narrative, which make the novel a mystery and a thriller as well as an intriguing work of historical fiction, containing many details of monastic existence and of the struggles of the poor in the sixteenth century. It is refreshing to see the Reformation from a Catholic point of view, one reminiscent of Robert Hugh Benson. I came away from the book marveling at how God's plan is like a vast tapestry of which we only see a tiny portion and yet every thread has a distinct purpose. Through her stumbles and falls, Joanna is confronted with her own weakness yet she rises with new strength, gaining insights which help her to see beyond the surface of things.

Here is my interview with the author Nancy Bilyeau.

(*NOTE: The Crown was sent to me by the publisher in exchange for my honest opinion.)

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Interview with Author Nancy Bilyeau

I recently read a magnificent novel, The Crown by Nancy Bilyeau, which deals  with the fate of some English  Dominican nuns during Henry VIII's "reform." I was delighted and honored when Nancy agreed to be interviewed. I will be reviewing the book as well in a future post. To quote from the book description:
An aristocratic young nun must find a legendary crown in order to save her father—and preserve the Catholic faith from Cromwell’s ruthless terror. The year is 1537. . .  
EMV: Nancy, welcome to Lost in the Myths of History! Congratulations on your magnificent novel, The Crown, which I thoroughly enjoyed. I was especially impressed by the research that went into making it one of the most authentic novels of the Tudor era that I have ever read.  You bring to life the beauty and peace of the cloister even as it is about to be destroyed. Can you tell us a little about how you began your journey into the past, and where you found the best sources on such a turbulent, controversial epoch?

NB: I’ve been interested in English history since I was 11 years old and saw a re-broadcast of “The Six Wives of Henry VIII” on television with my parents. Ever since that time, the Tudor period was my particular passion, and I read the major books about the time. I pored through the major biographies, from J.J. Scarisbricke’s Henry VIII to Garrett Mattingly’s Catherine of Aragon. Every time a new biography on Anne Boleyn was published, I bought it. I do think I have all of them. When I began the research for The Crown, I dove into all books and sources on the Dissolution of the Monasteries and the Pilgrimage of Grace, which was the 1536-1537 rebellion in the North against the Protestant reforms. I found some of the most helpful books written almost a century ago: F.A. Gasquet’s English Monastic Life (1906) and Cranage’s The Home of the Monk: An Account of English Monastic Life and Buildings in the Middle Ages (1926).  On the other end of the spectrum, British History Online is an amazing Internet source of contemporary and secondary source documents.

EMV: There are very few novels that tell the story of the dissolution of the monasteries under Henry VIII from the point of view of an insider. The only other novels in a similar vein that I have read are The King’s Achievement by R.H. Benson and Miracle at St. Bruno’s by Philippa Carr. What inspired you to have a nun as your heroine? And why a Dominican nun in particular?

NB: I wanted to write my book from a woman’s point of view but it took me a while to decide which woman. I wanted to write a mystery thriller because I enjoy reading them so much myself. I fused two of my favorite genres: the historical novel and the thriller. So would I have a “real” woman—a queen or princess or lady-in-waiting—as the protagonist? I decided no, that would be too difficult and possibly contrived to have, say, Queen Catherine Parr solving murders when she’s not fending off conspiracies to drive her off the throne. I wanted a fictional heroine, someone who is doing interesting things in a turbulent time. I have always been intrigued by nuns, and so I thought it could yield high drama, to write a nun’s story at the most fraught moment of the Dissolution of the Monasteries. I picked the Dominicans because I’d read a little bit about Saint Catherine of Siena and she interests me. And Dartford Priory was where I wanted to set the book, and that was the only house of Dominican sisters in England pre-Reformation.

EMV: Your heroine, Joanna Stafford, is a zealous soul, in love with God and ready to serve Him with all her heart. However, she sometimes has trouble with obedience which make some of the nuns question her vocation. The upheavals of era disturb the course of her novitiate as well. Do you think, under normal circumstance, that Joanna would have been happy being a nun?

NB: Yes I do. In my conception of her, Joanna finds a peace and a sense of fulfillment in Dartford Priory that she’d known nowhere else in her life. And she has the intelligence and resilience to succeed at it. I thought a lot about the spirituality of my heroine. I didn’t want to make her a nun forced to enter a priory. For one thing, my research yielded the fact that that didn’t happen very often in late medieval England. The image of the wild and restless girl imprisoned in a convent—it’s not too accurate. When Henry VIII’s commissioners seeking to “reform” the monasteries made their visits across the country, the nuns were asked, together and sometimes separately, if they wanted to leave, and very few did. And after the dissolution, some nuns continued to live in small groups and try to carry out their vocations for the rest of their lives. In Dartford, a half-dozen of the real nuns ended up leaving England after the reign of Queen Mary and lived in near-poverty in Holland.

EMV: I thought that your portrayal of Katherine of Aragon was especially powerful. She knew Henry better than anyone, having been married to him the longest, and the pieces of information that slip out when she makes her brief appearances in the novel are tantalizing. What made you focus on Katherine rather than the other wives?

NB: Oh her image has suffered so badly. Today people seem to feel that the middle-aged, stout woman should have stepped aside for the young, sexy lady-in-waiting. Just give up your husband, throne—and your dignity. I think you’ll agree that very few women today would feel that way about a friend who had been married to a man for 20 years. Katherine of Aragon was a very, very popular and beloved woman with the commoners, the nobility, and the monastic orders of her country. There was a reason for this! She was kind, generous, highly intelligent, gracious, decisive, and devout. She was fierce in time of war; when Henry was in France she defended the country capably against Scottish invasion. In her youth Katherine was beautiful. Katherine supported what we would consider today a feminist position: She believed her daughter Mary could rule the kingdom as a queen. Katherine’s mother, Isabella, ruled in her own right, and that family had a history of very strong and capable female rulers: Margaret of Austria and Mary of Hungary spring to mind. But Anne Boleyn has such a fix on our collective imaginations that readers today often root against Katherine and Mary—and for Anne to become queen and have that son Henry wanted. It’s rather bizarre.

EMV: I also loved your depiction of Katherine’s daughter, Mary. So often she is shown as being dour, bitter and depressed, but in The Crown she is every inch the granddaughter of Isabella of Castile, determined, savvy and authoritative. What are your thoughts on Mary’s complicated psyche?

NB: I feel Mary’s reputation has suffered enormously too, in this case in comparison to Anne Boleyn’s daughter, Elizabeth. Mary is seen as weak and vindictive and cruel. Yet how strong she was! She defied her father’s tyranny for so long and supported her mother in exile. She only submitted to him when it was a question of her survival and she was urged to sign the papers by Eustace Chapuys, the Emperor’s ambassador. She stood up to constant pressure from her younger half-brother to forsake her religion. Edward and his minsters would certainly have taken harsh measures against her if not for Mary’s Hapsburg relatives. And then very few people expected her to raise an army and take the country when Edward died—to fight for her right to succeed. But she did it and with amazing courage. And Mary brought forth the same loyalty among friends and servants as her mother did—more than Elizabeth did later. Mary never minded when her ladies got married and had children—she gave them presents and stood as godmother over and over. Now Mary suffered psychologically through all of this. Her naturally kind and generous nature did darken in some respects, though not as much as people think today. “Bloody Mary” is such a tragic legacy.

EMV: In the novel, Joanna and the other nuns have taken the Oath, and yet they admire the courage of those who died rather than take it, such as the Carthusians and Thomas More and Bishop Fisher. I never realized that so many nuns did take the Oath and yet they were dissolved anyway. Why was Cromwell so determined to destroy consecrated life in England, especially when the monks, nuns and friars did so much good work in health care, education, and feeding the hungry?

NB: It was a financial imperative. The country was approaching bankruptcy. The land grab of the monasteries—that is what it was—poured more than a million pounds into the royal treasury. The King and Cromwell assured people that hospitals and schools would replace the abbeys and monasteries that were emptied and often destroyed but that rarely happened. The money went to building new palaces and to war, mostly. Also the property was turned over to courtiers so that they would be more bound to the king than ever. There are social problems in the late 16th century that some historians attribute to the loss of the safety net provided by the Catholic orders. And there were other sorts of losses. For example, at Dartford Priory the sisters educated the girls from local families. After the priory was destroyed, no one else taught the Dartford girls to read in an organized way for many, many years—centuries, actually. A grammar school was formed in the town in 1576, but that was just for the boys.

Cromwell was also someone who supported Martin Luther’s ideas and so he had that motivation. Henry VIII had an extremely complicated and ambivalent attitude toward the monastic orders. He tried in the beginning to personally persuade some of the leading friars—the men who became the Carthusian martyrs—to see the divorce from his point of view and agree to support him as head of the Church of England. But when they repeatedly refused, they were starved, tortured and then killed in the most painful way possible. Henry himself did not ever support Luther and many times tugged the religion of his country back. One of the other reasons besides need for money that Henry VIII pushed through the Dissolution of the Monasteries was that he did not want hotbeds of educated men and women loyal to the Pope thriving in his country. There was monastic support for Pilgrimage of Grace, and that strengthened his resolve to crush the abbeys. Once they were turned out from their homes and could not wear their habits or practice their faith in the same way, friars, monks and nuns were no threat.

EMV: One of the aspects of the book which most intrigue me are the Howard tapestries which contain messages and symbols woven into them. Did such tapestries really exist?

NB: These specific tapestries all come from my imagination. Tapestries were a beautiful and thriving art form in medieval and early modern England. One of the good things about Henry VIII is that he collected and appreciated tapestries. Nuns wove and embroidered tapestries during this time period, though the larger ones were woven in France and the Low Countries. So I took the next step, and had my Dartford Priory become a center of tapestry production. It helped me strengthen one of my themes and that was how much the sisters lived and worked as a team. I was absolutely thrilled to receive an email from a Dominican sister in the United States saying that she’d read my book and I got right the essential nature of the life of the sisters and how they interacted with the friars.

EMV: Do you think England suffered in the long run from the dissolution of the monasteries?

NB: I can’t say that England would be better off if it had remained a Catholic country, like France and Spain. That is too enormous a question. But I can say that England suffered from the destruction of those beautiful buildings. There is so little to see of these magnificent abbeys and priories today, it’s just heartbreaking. Most of them were torn down and stripped for the value of the bricks and the lead. The Dominican monastery in London called Blackfriars was famous throughout Europe for its beauty and magnificence. When the Emperor Charles visited his aunt, Katherine of Aragon, in the 1520s, he stayed at Blackfriars, not at one of Henry VIII’s palaces. It was a huge complex of buildings. Today all that survives of Blackfriars is a piece of crumbling stone wall not more than five feet long. I’ve seen it; there is a small plaque next to the wall in a park. It brought tears to my eyes.

EMV: Thank you very much, Nancy, and I can’t wait to read more of Joanna’s adventures in the sequel!


(*NOTE: The Crown was sent to me by the publisher in exchange for my honest opinion.)

Sunday, 15 January 2012

The Sinking of Lusitania

In May 1915 when a German U-boat torpedoed the passenger liner Lusitania over a thousand people – including more than 100 Americans - drowned off the coast of Ireland. Since America was a neutral country the deaths of innocent people caused outrage and this is often cited as the event which brought the USA into the First World War – a sort of precursor of Pearl Harbour. In fact, it would be two years before Woodrow Wilson sent his troops to Europe to participate in that pointless conflict and, on closer inspection, it is clear that there was far more to this attack, which was seen as an example of German aggression, than is immediately apparent.
It is generally accepted now that the ship was carrying arms destined for Britain and her Allies. This fact alone made the ship a legitimate target for a U-boat, particularly when the British blockade of the German fleet was an attempt to starve Germany out and, for some time, it seemed to account for the speed with which Lusitania sank. The explosion caused by the German torpedo was immediately followed by a far bigger explosion and, though nowadays it is believed that this was due to the torpedo igniting coal dust or one of the engines, for a while it was thought that it was due to the igniting of the hidden arms. In a scene reminiscent of the bombing of an Iraqi hospital, which was said to be built over one of Saddam’s arms depots, the innocent passengers were basically used as a human shield. Of course, the killing of civilians (including children and citizens of a neutral country) cannot be excused but I believe that the greater guilt lies not with Walter Schwieger, who captained the U-boat, but with Britain’s First Lord of the Admiralty – Winston Churchill.

Churchill – the man who wrote, when millions of people were dying: “I LOVE this war!” - had sent several ‘top secret’ memos saying that it would be ideal if American ships could be enticed into the areas where U-boats were operating, so that they would be sunk and America would join the Allies. He did not care how many people were killed as long as he succeeded in his war game. Captain Schwieger, on the other hand, had sunk several ships but had always given the crews time to escape. Only days before sinking Lusitania, he surfaced before firing a torpedo at another vessel so that the crew would see him, abandon ship and make their way to safety before they were struck. No one was killed. When he saw Lusitania, he was aware that the ship had sufficient lifeboats for all the passengers. He also knew that a ship like that would take a long time to sink (Titanic took two hours) and, since they were very close to the Irish coast, the passengers would have time to make their way to the shore. In fact, due to the second explosion, the ship listed, rendering half the lifeboats useless and in the ensuing panic, other lifeboats were dropped too hastily into the sea and capsized. The whole ship sank in less than twenty minutes.

A couple of weeks before the ship left New York, the German Embassy in Washington posted a notice warning that all ships bearing the British flag were liable to be attacked. Several prominent bankers also received specific telegrams from some ‘unknown’ source, telling them quite specifically that Lusitania would be torpedoed. Some of them cancelled their passage.

A British battleship, Juno, had been patrolling the waters and could have served as an escort to Lusitania but this ship was recalled to port and no alternative was sent out. British intelligence was aware that the U-boat was operating but no specific warning was sent by Churchill. Lusitania was capable of great speed and could have out-sailed any U-boat, but the owners had ordered the captain to use only some of her engines in order to save fuel, and for the same reason the ship did not zig-zag as others did to make a torpedo attack virtually impossible. Basically, Lusitania was a sitting duck.


The evening before the attack, King George V asked an ambassador whether the USA would enter the war if a U-boat sank Lusitania. Churchill then went on holiday. Who was to blame for the murder of over a thousand people? Who was the real – and more cowardly – aggressor?

Monday, 9 January 2012

Madame du Cayla

Zoé Victoire Talon, Comtesse du Cayla (1785-1852), was the favorite of Louis XVIII in his declining years, as is mentioned in the novel Madame Royale. Madame du Cayla had been educated by Madame Campan with the Bonaparte princesses. She became a lively young matron who suffered in an unhappy marriage. In 1815, she sought the King's protection and his help in keeping the custody of her children. Their friendship grew over the years and by 1820, after the assassination of the Duc de Berry, Louis XVIII kept Madame du Cayla as close to him as possible. By all accounts the relationship was platonic, Louis-Stanislaus being more susceptible to the delights of the mind than those of the flesh. As Lamartine is quoted as saying by Imbert de Saint Amand:
The king's sentiment for this attractive woman had from the first the character of a love which hides from itself, under the name of friendship, what the age of the King and the reserve of the woman did not permit to be to be avowed; he felt an affection for her which he styled paternal, and he called her his daughter, not daring through respect for himself and respect for her, to call her by any other name. (The Duchess de Berry and the Court of Louis XVIII)
Louis XVIII reserved his Wednesdays for keeping company with Madame du Cayla, in which they enjoyed games of backgammon peppered with a great deal of witty repartee. He bestowed upon her the Château de Saint-Ouen as her own, as well as jewels and porcelain. When not in her company he wrote her several letters a day. She was, it seems, the last and greatest love of a man otherwise known for his conniving. According to Hugh Noel Williams in A Princess of Adventure:
Gradually, Madame du Cayla succeeded in establishing almost as complete an ascendency over the mind of Louis XVIII. as she had over his heart, and used it without scruple in the interests of the ultra-Royalist party. 'From the day,' writes Pasquier, 'when M. Decazes had been taken from him by proceedings which had wounded his heart, his self-esteem, and his regard for the royal dignity, the King had only occupied himself with business so that it should not be said that he had given it up.' 2 Weighed down beneath the burden of his infirmities, he had begun to fall into a state of apathy which put him at the mercy of those who resolutely applied themselves to the task of governing him. Occasionally, a flicker of the old spirit would reveal itself, but it was speedily quenched; all he desired now was peace and quiet, and Madame du Cayla would give him none until he had surrendered to her will. To her influence may be traced the fall of the high-minded and patriotic Duc de Richelieu, who had refused to lend himself to the plans of Monsieur [Artois] and his friends ;8 the nomination of Villele as Prime Minister; the ignominious dismissal of Chateaubriand from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the acceptance by the King of the Septennial Bill of 1824 and other reactionary measures.
The attitude of the different members of the Royal Family towards the favourite is interesting. Monsieur, although he does not appear to have been a party to the plot woven around his helpless brother, at any rate in its early stages, did not scruple to take advantage of it, and repeatedly urged Madame du Cayla to 'ignore the things which spite and folly might say against her, and to enjoy in peace the noble use which she was making of the confidence and affection of the King.'4 The Duchesse d'Angouleme, on the other hand, could not bring herself to countenance a lady to whom gossip had attributed in her youth at least one unorthodox connection, and not only treated her with coldness, but expressed her displeasure at the intimacy which existed between her dame d'atours, Madame de Choisy, and the favourite. At the same time, we may venture to doubt if, at heart, Madame altogether regretted an intrigue which, however unworthy it may have been, had put an end to the dissensions in the Royal Family and was doing so much to promote the interests of the party whom she honoured by her protection.
As for the Duchesse de Berry, less fastidious in her choice of friends than her sister-in-law, she appears to have been on very good terms with the favourite, though she did not at all approve of the King's habit of referring to Madame du Cayla, even in the presence of his family, as 'his third daughter,' which seemed to place that lady on a footing of equality with the Duchesse d'Angouleme and herself; and, on one occasion, she expressed her sentiments upon the matter rather pointedly. However, the relations between the two ladies were, on the whole, excellent; indeed, Madame du Cayla appears to have entertained a real affection for the princess, since she remained faithful to her cause after the Revolution of 1830, corresponded with her frequently, and even intrigued on her behalf.
In spite of everything, it was Madame du Cayla who persuaded Louis XVIII to receive the Last Rites when he was mortally ill. As is related in The Living Age:
Nothing so perplexed and annoyed the Duchess d'AngouIeme and the Count d'Artois, in the last mouths of Louis the Eighteenth's life, as his obstinacy in refusing to receive the archbishop and to submit to the ceremonies which the Catholic Church imposes upon dying moments. He refused, as a condemned man would the visit of the executioner. At length Madame Du Cayla induced him to consent, and in so doing closed the door of the king's apartment against her for the rest of her days. Louis, grateful, made a will in her favor and left it on his desk. But Charles the Tenth entered his brother's cabinet, carried off all the papers, burnt the will, and made a beggarly compensation to Madame Du Cayla of a thousand a year for her life.
Madame de Cayla ended her days at her little palace of Saint Ouen in 1852. While some saw her as a schemer, others saw her as the last vehicle of grace for the ruthless Louis XVIII.

Sunday, 8 January 2012

Prince Albert Victor - The Victim of Lurid Lies

A recent BBC documentary about King George and Queen Mary made frequent disparaging references to George’s ‘dissolute’ older brother, Prince Albert Victor, Duke of Clarence and Avondale. Until a few years ago, I was under the impression that ‘Eddy’ as he was known in the family was an unintelligent wastrel and his untimely death on January 14th 1892 was something of a blessing for the country as he would have made a very inept king. Happily, I have since discovered that this image of the prince is without foundation.

So unpleasant is the way in which this poor prince has been presented that he was even, for some bizarre reason (undoubtedly to sell books!) posthumously accused of being – or being associated with – Jack the Ripper! Such a notion is totally without foundation and the stories attempting to make the association become increasingly wayward despite the fact that Court records prove that Prince Eddy was not even in London at the time of the murders! Other books suggest that he didn’t die in 1892 but was hidden away by the family and later became ‘the Monster of Glamis’!! Poor Albert Victor!

 The fact that one of his associates was involved in the Cleveland Street scandal also led to various spurious allegations about his dissipated life and some authors claim that the stories of his dissipation are supported by Queen Victoria’s letters. In fact, like many a grandmother, Queen Victoria might well have worried about her grandson’s morals – we need only think of her response to the Prince of Wales as a young man becoming involved with the actress – but there is nothing to suggest that Prince Albert Victor was any more licentious (in fact he was probably less so!) than most young men of his era and class. His younger brother, George, also had a mistress at the time and yet he is portrayed as the model of sobriety and morality!

Further accusations concern his laziness (something of which his father, Edward VII was also accused) and his lack of interest in study and inability to learn. The same allegations of a lack of intelligence were made about his brother, George, but again this is forgotten! Albert Victor had inherited his mother’s deafness and there is a likelihood that this might have made him seen ‘absent’ at times and also hindered his learning but by the time he was a young man, he was different from the image which has since been presented of him.

Recently discovered letters written from the prince to the Prime Minister and to his friends show that he had a very real and sensitive grasp of the tricky political situation in Ireland and, had he become king, he might even have succeeded in bringing harmony to that country in a way that successive kings and governments failed to do. Repeatedly, too, letters from his family and from others refer to his kindness and his understanding. When he died at the age of only 28, the country and his family genuinely mourned his passing and even the Prime Minister, Gladstone, wrote in his diary that the prince’s death was great loss to the country and to his party. Gladstone was hardly a sentimental man and such a tribute cannot be overlooked.

 It is only since his death that this poor prince has been the subject of all kinds of scurrilous slanders and there are times when I wonder whether this wasn’t done to bolster the image of King George V – as though to say, “Aren’t we fortunate to have this king....look at whom we might have had!” Although it is impossible to say for certain, judging by Eddy’s warmth and understanding, I venture to suggest that, had he lived and become king, he – unlike his brother - would have welcomed the Russian Imperial Family to Britain after the revolution and proved himself to be a very popular and well-loved monarch, with great similarities to his mother, Queen Alexandra who endeared herself to the people throughout her life. It seems very wrong that people go on – even on BBC documentaries – glibly repeating the old lies and creating more and more fanciful and lurid stories about this innocent man.

Sunday, 1 January 2012

Happy New Year!

Wishing you a very Happy New Year!

I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year
'Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.'


And he replied,
'Go into the darkness and put your hand into the hand of God
That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way!'


So I went forth and finding the Hand of God
Trod gladly into the night
He led me towards the hills
And the breaking of day in the lone east.


So heart be still!
What need our human life to know
If God hath comprehension?


In all the dizzy strife of things
Both high and low,
God hideth his intention."


(Minnie Louise Haskins)