Review: A few thoughts on episode 1 of ‘Victoria’

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Wanted to bash out some #QuickFireThoughts on the first episode of ITV’s Victoria.  Given that speed is of the essence to keep it topical, I can’t promise this will be my finest literary endeavour.

It was good.

Purists (a camp that I loosely consider myself a member of) will be quick to point out the inaccuracies, and they’re not wrong.  The casting was clearly a victory of viewing figures over accuracy.  Yes, Lord Melbourne was an attractive man, but the countless girls currently going crazy over Rufus Sewell on Twitter might find themselves disappointed if they stepped back in time to 1837.  And of course, even as a young girl, Victoria never had the beauty of Jenna Coleman, but the thrust of the programme was good.

Here’s a few quick observations from me:

  • There were some really nice touches that geeks will appreciate. I don’t know if Conroy specifically tried to encourage Victoria to adopt the name of ‘Elizabeth II’ but it was certainly something discussed in Parliament.
  • I’m assuming – and Twitter agrees – that the ‘upstairs / downstairs’ dynamic was deliberately engineered to fill the void left by Downton Abbey last year. Does anyone know what, if anything, the ‘downstairs’ stories were based on?
  • The Lady Flora sub-plot was quite powerful. It is important to show how potentially spiteful the young Queen could be.
  • Baroness Lehzen was well cast. I liked the early acknowledgement that Victoria was totally constitutionally uneducated.

Of course the big thing that I – and other RoyalHistoryGeeks – will have struggled the most with was Victoria’s ‘attraction’ to Lord M.  Yes, she may have been infatuated and yes, he was dashing, but the relationship surely more closely resembled that of father/daughter.

In summary, the first episode was good and I’ll certainly tune in next week.  Was it totally historically accurate?  No, of course not.  Will it still aid people’s understanding of the history of the era?  Yes, I think it probably will.

Who would win ‘Tudor Big Brother?’

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As I was watching the Celebrity Big Brother Final on Friday, a strange thought occurred to me.  In a house full of contestants from the Tudor era who would emerge victorious?  Would Thomas Cromwell calculate a winning game plan?  Would Anne Boleyn see off Katherine of Aragon, even though she didn’t have seven years in which to do so?  Who would Catherine Howard hook up with, and how many minutes would it take her to do so?  In other words ‘who would win Tudor Big Brother’?

For a #BitofFun I decided to bash out a blog post with #NoHistoricalValue to explore this very question.  Here we go…

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WEEK ONE
Up for eviction: Catherine Howard, Henry VII, Anne Boleyn, Anne of Cleaves
Evicted: Anne Boleyn

It is perhaps no great surprise that the Lady Anne becomes the first housemate to leave the Tudor Big Brother House.  Having made no secret of her brazen game plan to win at any cost, she quickly earnt the disdain of her female housemates, every one of whom nominated her for eviction.  While she held a ‘fascination’ for some male members of the house, her brittle manner clearly grated with the English public who have sent her to the block at their first opportunity.  For many, the final straw was her guns-a-blazing row with fellow housemate Jane Seymour, which earned her a reprimand from Big Brother for ripping a locket off the ‘little wench’s’ neck.

“No one minds a girl on the make,” comments TV Vicar Rev.Thomas Cramner, “but it’s the 16th century people – we expect some subtlety!”

WEEK TWO
Up for eviction: Catherine Howard, Henry VII, Mary Tudor (The French Queen), Thomas Wolsey
Evicted: Henry VII

After two weeks and two evictions in the Tudor Big Brother House, there have still been no surprises.  Despite Catherine of Aragon’s spectacular fall out with Thomas Wolsey (which saw the former punished by Big Brother for orchestrating a nominations campaign against the latter) there was never any real doubt that it was Henry VII that would incur the wrath of housemates and the public alike.  While a few boundaries here and there might be helpful, the contestant’s obsessive need to impose fines on fellow housemates for the slightest misdemeanour was never likely to ingratiate him with others and once you’ve charged Charles Brandon £100 for not doing the dishes seven times, it quickly ceases to be gripping viewing.

“He spent his early years in France,” his mother, Margaret Beaufort told sister show ‘Big Brother’s Wench on the Side’, “and it’s possible he picked up one or two bad autocratic habits over there.  But at the end of the day I just wish everyone saw him like I do – after all, he is my dear King and all my worldly joy!”

WEEK THREE

**DOUBLE ELIMINATION**

Nominated for eviction: Charles Brandon, Henry VIII, Catherine Howard, Thomas Wolsey
Evicted: Charles Brandon, Catherine Howard

It had all started so well for the dashing Brandon.  Charming to the ladies, eloquent in the diary room and part of a bromance with fellow housemate Henry VIII which captured the imagination of the public.  But then he broke the brother code.  What seemed like a harmless flirtation with Mary Tudor stepped up a notch this week, earning him the jealous disinterest of female housemates  and the rage of his new flame’s brother.  The arguments that followed were too much for the Tudor Big Brother House and from the pile of nominations Brandon received, it’s clear the housemates sided with Henry.  Tonight’s eviction shows that no traitor can ever keep the affections of the English people, however much he might be able to steal the heart of their Princess.

Catherine Howard on the other hand, has done well to survive as long as she has, having faced the public vote every week of the contest.  Her girlish antics including hours at the make-up station and constantly trying to start pillow fights may have amused her male housemates, but quickly earned her the chagrin of their female counterparts.

“It’s pretty obvious why she survived the first two weeks though,” says celebrity commentator Thomas Culpepper.  “She’s petite, plump and pretty – every bloke in the country’s been voting for her!  With tonight’s eviction the eye-candy quota is seriously on the slide.”

WEEK FOUR

**SHOCK TWIST – Public vote to evict two contestants WITHOUT nominations from the house**

Evicted: Thomas Cromwell, Thomas Wosley

Has Big Brother ever seen a bigger pair of game players?  By deploying every tactic under the sun and cosying up to whoever holds the balance of power in the house, as well as keeping everyone on side by taking most of the boring chores off their hands, these two strategists had largely avoided nomination.  However the public had seen what housemates had not.  The secret strategy sessions,  the willingness to throw others (including each other) under the bus and the sinister comments in the diary room.  This week, voters finally got chance to cast their own judgement and it was ‘off with their head’ for both of them.

WEEK FIVE

**DOUBLE ELIMINATION**

Nominated for eviction: Henry VIII, Mary Tudor, Jane Seymour, Anne of Cleaves
Evicted: Henry VIII, Mary Tudor

Just weeks ago, the stunning, learned and cultivated Henry VIII had been the bookies favourite to win but as the days went by his star slowly diminished as he faced problem after problem.  First of course, was the slight irritation of other housemates when he kept stringing along Katherine of Aragon.  Then there was the bust up with Brandon, but the moment the public really began to lose sympathy with the auburn haired Tudor, was his decision last week to nominate Anne of Cleaves, purely on the basis that she ‘looked like a horse.’  It wasn’t that he was saying anything that people weren’t thinking – but this is England, and there are some things you don’t say,

“The public have no idea how hard it is to keep a trim waistline inside that house,” says Edward III, winner of ‘Plantagenet Big Brother’, “but the way Henry piled on the pounds in there was something else altogether.  At the end of the day, this is the Tudor era and image is everything.”

There is however, far less to say about Mary “the French Queen” Tudor’s eviction.  And that’s definitely not because the author of this post has yet to read a really good biography on her and has only limited knowledge, making it difficult to think of something funny to say.  Oh no.  It’s not that at all.

WEEK SIX –  THE FINAL

Finalists: Anne of Cleaves, Katherine of Aragon, Katherine Parr, Elizabeth of York.

It’s an all-girl final on ‘Tudor Big Brother’ – the lines are closed and the results are in.

Fourth place – Anne of Cleaves – In the first couple of weeks, no one expected the shy and reserved Lady Anna to last all the way to the final.  Struggling with the language and keeping herself to herself, she wouldn’t even remove her veil for the first few days.  Most worryingly, fellow housemates kept complaining about ‘offensive odours’ emanating from her direction, but suddenly things got better.  Some impressive country dancing, an emerging sense of dignity and a thirst for survival managed to endear her to housemates, saving her from facing the public vote until last week.  Loving nothing more than the rushing to the rescue of a wronged woman, the public chose instead to eject Henry VIII who had, quite frankly, been rather mean about poor Anna ever since week 1.

Third place – Elizabeth of York – Didn’t she do well?  By instantly adopting the position of house Mum, ‘our Liz’ (as she is commonly known) was adored by the housemates who in diary room visit after diary room visit just couldn’t find a bad word to say against her.  Although her constant bragging that she was ‘young enough to have more children’ started to grate with some of the other girls, her redeeming qualities saved her from being nominated even once, handing her a place in the final without even having to face the public vote.

Second place – Katherine of Aragon – At first, things didn’t look good for the house’s only Spanish contestant.  Fawning over Henry VIII – who fluctuated between leading her on and callously rejecting her – and being bullied by Anne Boleyn, housemates, the public and commentators alike were wondering when this woman was going to grow a backbone and that’s exactly what she did.  From her vengeful gloating at the eviction of Anne Boleyn to her fierce rowing with Wolsey, the Infanta showed us all that she was nobody’s victim and has taken the fight all the way to the final.

WINNER – Katherine Parr – Surely from now on to be known as ‘the great survivor’ this lowly knight’s daughter has delivered entertainment, enrichment and excellent game-play over an entire series.  Helpful and chirpy around the house, this year’s winner was no wall flower, arguing about religion and squaring up to opponents.  She knew how to survive, even when it meant backing down.

TV psychologist Katherine Willoughby says, “Any woman who can stay up most of the night reading illegal protestant books with a torch under her covers, but is also first up for morning mass the next day is going to be complex psychologically as well as pretty hard headed.  I certainly wouldn’t want to take her on.”

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Editor’s note: Unfortunately Jane Seymour was removed from the house in week three due to ill health.

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Anyway, just some thoughts from me.  But the question is geeks – who would you want to see in the Tudor Big Brother House and what do you think would happen?

Book review – Katherine of Aragon, The True Queen – by Alison Weir

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When I first held my copy of ‘Katherine of Aragon, The True Queen’ in my hands, I knew it was going to be special.  Not only was it my first history book to be personally signed by author Alison Weir, but it was also the beginning of a series of historical novels about the six Queens of Henry VIII – a topic any Royal History Geek could lose themselves in for hours.

But despite my anticipation of enjoyment, I was not expecting this book to teach me an awful lot.  After all, the stories of Henry VIII’s wives are amongst history’s most recounted and the factual writings of Weir, Starkey and others had already taught me much.  Surely there was little more I could learn?

I was wrong.

History is of course about so much more than the digestion of facts.  It involves travelling back to an era unfamiliar to us and reimagining what actually happened.  In this, fiction provides a greater degree of freedom, especially when the writer possesses Weir’s rare ability to combine robust research with sensible empathy.  For me, the new insights into Katherine’s relationships with Henry, her household and the ‘powers that be’ back in Spain, has shed new light on my understanding of the tempestuous and often traumatic episodes of her life.

The story begins as the young Spanish Infanta makes her bold trek to England. As a born and bred Janner, I was ecstatic to see the opening pages give a thorough description of the city (then town) of Plymouth, the first piece of English soil that Katherine descended upon.  We then follow the Princess as she progresses from teenage wife to penniless widow before being redeemed by a young Henry VIII; at first her knight in shining armour before gradually growing into her tratious tormentor.

Through Weir’s vivid storytelling, Katherine’s varied circumstances and emotional reaction to them become tangible and accessible.  The reader is struck by the profound paradox of a series of strong and powerful women who, despite their many qualities, are entirely dependent on the actions and decisions of men.  Throughout her long life in England, Katherine’s virtuous character rarely waivers, but the actions of her father, father-in-law, husband and nephew are the real factors that shape her ever changing and often unhappy destiny.

As with all fiction from this author, the book is well researched and sticks closely to the historical facts available.  However, as Weir herself has stated, fiction allows the author a degree of experimentation with thought-through theories that would be quite out of place in a history book but nonetheless can make a valid contribution to historical debate.  This freedom is used credibly and effectively to explore what really happened on the night of Catherine’s controversial first marriage and at other parts in the narrative.

If book one is anything to go by, Tudor lovers have much to look forward to from the remaining five in the series.  Perhaps the only thing that will frustrate fans is that there are many months to wait until book two – Anne Boleyn, a King’s Obsession – is released next May.

‘Katherine of Aragon, The True Queen’ by Alison Weir is published by Headline Review and is available on Amazon from £6.99

Was Henry VIII trying to establish Fitzroy as ‘quasi-Royalty’ with the Richmond title?

Lately I’ve been diving into a wealth of books about the Henry VIII era.  Having got a bit trapped in the Wars of the Roses last year, it’s been good to return to the Tudors, my first love.

As I read, I keep coming across references to Henry Fitzroy, the only acknowledged illegitimate son of the second Tudor King.  He’s a character that, when time and energy permit, I’d like to learn more about.  For now though, I wanted to blog some #QuickFireThoughts about the thing that all super-cool people are most interested in – the titles that were bestowed on him.

Keen Tudor fans will know that having been acknowledged as Henry VIII’s son since birth, in 1525, with the King increasingly sensitive about his lack of male heir, the six year old boy was elevated to the upper reaches of the English nobility and given the titles Duke of Richmond and Duke of Somerset.  Some, both at the time and subsequently, believed that Henry was keeping his options open and considering a bastard succession.

What’s interesting about these titles is that they were both intrinsically linked to the Tudor dynasty.  Edmund Tudor – Henry’s grandfather – had possessed the earldom of Richmond and his young wife, Margaret Beaufort was descended from the Earls and Dukes of Somerset.  The Dukedom of Somerset had also been bestowed on an ill-fated son of Henry VII.

They are also both titles of impeccable Lancastrian pedigree.  John of Gaunt himself had once been Earl of Richmond and, as just stated, the Somerset title had been wielded by his Beaufort offspring.

However, it occurs to me that had Henry wanted to use them, there were more explicitly royal titles at his disposal, particularly the Dukedom of York, which he himself had once possessed.  Clarence might also have been a more appropriate choice for someone of princely status.  Historians talk of Richmond and Somerset as being royal titles, but it seems to me that if anything, they can be more accurately described as ‘quasi Royal’.

Edmund Tudor was the half-brother of Henry VI and son of a French Princess, but strictly speaking, he had no claim to English royalty.  Similarly, the Dukes of Somerset – the Beauforts – had been born illegitimate and were of questionable status.  Even though they were legitimised after the marriage of their parents, the fact that the eldest was already an adult and that his half-brother would later explicitly (albeit futilely) bar his descendants from the royal succession, meant that the taint of bastardy never truly went away.  The Beauforts were at best quasi-Royal.

Could it be then that at this stage, Henry was trying to establish his son not necessarily as a potential successor but as a member of the quasi-royalty?  Associations of these titles would have been well known to contemporaries and it is difficult to think that they would have escaped the notice of the King himself.  Henry would later give similar status to his daughters Mary and Elizabeth once he had divorced their mothers and declared them illegitimate.

Like I say, just a few #QuickFireThoughts – but it’s amazing what gets the brain ticking.

Was Henry VIII unfaithful within a year of his first marriage?

A few weeks ago, I blogged some #QuickFireThoughts on the extra-marital antics of the young Henry VIII.  While I maintain my view that he was probably a virgin upon marriage, I’ve had cause to doubt my suggestions that he might have been faithful to Catherine of Aragon in the early years of marriage.

Although I didn’t go into detail in my previous post, my reflections were based largely on David Loades’ view that accusations of Henry getting all Marvin Gay* with Anne Hastings (nee Stafford) had been misinterpreted by some historians.  This lady of high-breeding was the first woman that Henry was accused of playing away with.  According to Loades, it would be wiser to interpret their affair as simply being one of courtly love – a kind of permitted flirtation involving tokens, love letters and gestures – rather than one of a sexual nature.

This seemed credible.  But having had the chance to #DigALittleDeeper I’ve started to (as Celine would say) think twice.

Rumours of the King’s affair with Anne Stafford come down to us because they are preserved in a letter home by Don Luis Caroz, the Spanish Ambassador.  Now pay attention – this next bit gets complicated!

The story goes that Anne’s sister, Lady Fitzwalter (when both were at court), was getting pretty anxious about the attentions being paid to her sibling by William Compton, a courtier and BFF of Henry VIII.  Lady Fitz got so worked up that she had a quiet word with her brother, the Duke of Buckingham who decided to intervene directly.  Now remember Tudor fans, the Stafford family were descended from Edward III through two separate lines.  They were brimming with old royal blood and considered the Tudors as under-qualified upstarts.  The thought of his sister carrying on with the lowly Compton would have horrified old Buckingham.

When he went to his sister to confront her, he actually found her to be in Compton’s presence, perhaps confirming his worst fear.  He upbraided them both before Anne’s husband, Lord Hastings, packed her off a nunnery.

The problem is that rumours persisted that Compton had only been a stalking horse.  Really, he was providing cover for an affair underway between Anne and Henry and these were rumours that the Spanish ambassador believed.

Henry guessed straight away that Lady Fitzwalter – a favourite lady-in-waiting to Queen Catherine of Aragon – had been the source of the exposure and banished her from court.  The Queen was furious about the whole situation and struggled to conceal her wrath.

What then should we, all these years later, make of it?

On the one hand there is no evidence – just rumour – that Henry had been involved with Anne at all.   Nonetheless, I believe there is every reason to think that he had been behaving less than honourably.

To start with, is the King’s reaction, which the ambassador certainly believes to be, incriminating.  True, Henry might not have liked the thought of Lady Fitzwalter bad mouthing his good mate, but would this really have been enough to trigger such a reaction?  Similarly we must consider the Queen’s anger.  Is it likely she would have allowed it to become so widely known that she was quarreling with the King simply because of the behaviour of his friend?  It is also unlikely that she would be quite so miffed if the only interactions between Anne and Henry had been those of innocent courtly love.

I think the most compelling reason to believe in Henry’s guilt is that the Spanish ambassador, a man who knew the characters involved and possibly had access to more information than we see in the letter, had reason to think Henry had strayed.  At the time of writing, Catherine’s father was the effective King of Spain – the ambassador is unlikely to have reported gossip that he was not sure could be substantiated, especially when it affected his reader’s daughter so personally.  That said, it is clear from internal evidence that a big reason for writing was to try and get Catherine’s Friar – who he believed had goaded the Queen into over-reacting and therefore potentially costing Spain influence – into trouble with authorities back home.

As ever, we can never be 100% sure.  But at the very least, I’m happy to confess that my previous suggestion about Henry’s early faithfulness should now be discarded.  For more on this subject, I suggest readers check out David Loades’ book on Henry VIII and ‘The Six Wives of Henry VIII’ by Alison Weir.  While researching I also came across this extremely good blog post by Susan Higginbotham, which is well worth checking out.

So geeks…over to you.  Am I being too quick to judge?  Am I simply being swayed by Henry’s unfair reputation as a womaniser?  Or have I hit the nail on the head?

*And getting it on