Thursday, July 31, 2008

Reading Round-Up

Last week I finished The Flaunting, Extravagant Queen by Jean Plaidy, a novel about Marie Antoinette. Unlike The Queen's Confession (written under the name of Victoria Holt), The Flaunting, Extravagant Queen is told in the third person. It and the Holt novel cover much of the same ground, so I wouldn't recommend reading both close together. That being said, I thought Flaunting was one of Plaidy's better novels. She takes a balanced view of her subject, and the final pages of the book, dealing with the last days of the queen, are quite moving. Plaidy's workmanlike prose does its job well here, since it allows the horrors of the time to speak for themselves without any editorializing on the part of the author.

Since finishing up the Plaidy, I've been reading Mary Renault's The Persian Boy, a tale of Alexander the Great told by his eunuch lover. I've never read Renault before, and this is a time period I normally don't delve into, so I'm pleased to say that I'm really enjoying this novel. She has an excellent reputation as a historical novelist, and I can see why. I'll probably be reading more of Renault in months to come.

On a less happy note, I gave into my irresistible impulse and bought Annette Carson's Richard the Third: The Maligned King, a nonfiction book. On skimming it, I can report that it's pretty much what I expected, which is not a Good Thing. First on the plate, of course, is the usual Woodville-bashing. Not only does Carson suggest that Elizabeth Woodville and/or Anthony Woodville poisoned Edward IV, she then goes on to insinuate that the Woodvilles might have had something to do with the 1483 deaths of the elderly Earl of Essex and George Neville, John Neville's son. (Carson is evidently unaware that at the time of the latter's death in May 1483, he was living at Middleham Castle in the care of Richard, Duke of Gloucester, which begs the question of why if the Woodvilles were able to jaunt over to Middleham to murder George Neville, they didn't also murder Gloucester's son, who was also living at Middleham at the time.)

Just on skimming, I spotted a number of irritating factual errors. Carson states, erroneously, that Katherine Woodville was 20 when she married the 11-year-old Buckingham (she was about 7, and he was 9 at the time of the marriage, which took place before Elizabeth Woodville's coronation). She also has Buckingham receiving the "solitary ceremonial honour of Knight of the Bath," though he was made a Knight of the Garter in 1474. Later, we're told that we owe the right "to be judged fairly by our peers" and "to enjoy bail" to Richard III's Parliament (p.232). Richard III's parliament did indeed enact bail and jury reforms, but Richard III hardly invented the concept of bail or jury trial. We're told that following her marriage to Edward IV, Elizabeth Woodville managed "three dukedoms" for her relations, although only one of her sisters married a duke and none of her male relations was raised to that status.

As is often the case, Carson follows Mancini and Croyland when it's convenient for her argument and derides them when it's not. For instance, Mancini's claim that Buckingham scorned his wife's humble origins is taken at face value, despite the fact that Mancini in 1483 was not particularly well placed to know what was in young Buckingham's mind in the 1460's, but Mancini's eyewitness report that he saw men crying about the mention of the Princes is dismissed as the exaggeration of an overemotional Italian.

Language is often tortured to bring about the meaning that Carson wants. Just as Richard III's vague reference to the fact that he has experienced the deaths of "nigh kinsmen and great friends" is used to support Carson's claim that the Woodvilles poisoned Edward IV and that Elizabeth procured the execution of the Earl of Desmond, Croyland's imprecise statement that "In the meantime and while these things were happening, the two sons of King Edward remained in the Tower of London" is taken as a "clear indication" that the boys were still alive in the Tower in September 1483. In fact, the reference comes after two paragraphs that describe events from Richard's coronation in July onward, so it's hardly safe to say that the "in the meantime" language can be read to refer only to events in September.

Some of the writing here is plain sloppy. Carson states on p. 242 that Richard "made no move to find a safe husband for Elizabeth of York." On p. 259, however, she notes that Richard was negotiating a Portugese marriage for Elizabeth.

These comments are based just on a skim of the book, but so far I can recommend it only to those who require in their reading material that Richard III do no wrong.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

And Now, Why Elizabeth Woodville Really Left Sanctuary

First, thanks to all who responded so encouragingly to my last blog post. It's nice to know that there are so many people of goodwill and graciousness out there. Thanks too, from my son, Thad.

But now, it's time to get down to business. As promised a few posts ago, here's the real reason Elizabeth Woodville left sanctuary. (Feel free to blame Susan A., Gabriele, and Lucie for this.)

Dramatis Personae:

Elizabeth, Queen to Edward IV

Her daughters:

Bess, age 17

Cecily, almost 15

Anne, age 9

Katharine, age 4

Bridget, age 3

Richard III

(As dawn breaks in Westminster Abbey in March 1484, two girls are fighting over a washbasin.)

Cecily: I got here first!

Bess: No, missy. I got here first.

Cecily: That's not true! My hand was on it before yours. Look! (Grabs basin and spills it) Damn it! Look what you made me do!

Elizabeth: How dare you use such language!

Cecily: (Tossing her head) I'm a bastard and I can use any language I want. So there.

Katherine: What's a bastard?

Elizabeth: Now see what you started? She'll be after me for the rest of the day.

Bridget: (Learning a new word). Bastard! Bastard!

Bess: (Brushing her hair) Well, well. Another exciting day in sanctuary to look forward to. What have we got planned for today, Mother? Prayers? Reading your Book of Hours? A little embroidery?

Cecily: Maybe all of those things! I'm so excited.

Anne: (Too young to have learned the fine art of sarcasm) You two are stupid.

Bess: Oh, another shire heard from! How lovely.

Cecily: But wait, it's Wednesday!

Bess: Brother Mark's day!

Elizabeth: You girls are not going to tease that young man.

Cecily: But Mama, we can't help it if it's Wednesday.

Bess: We don't make the rules. The abbot does. (A knock is heard outside). Come in!

(Brother Mark, a young and quite handsome monk still in his teens, enters the room, carrying fresh bread and ale. He is promptly surrounded by Cecily and Elizabeth.)

Mark: Good morning, ladies. I've brought your breakfast.

Cecily and Bess: (Trilling) Good morning, Brother Mark.

Bess: Oh, my. What beautiful buns you have.

Cecily: Well-shaped and—firm.

Bess: Lovely.

Mark: (Trying to ignore the girls' bosoms poking into his arms) They are indeed quite delicious.

Elizabeth: (Desperately) Anne, take that bread from him. Now. Thank you, Brother Mark.

Mark: Thank you, your grace. (Flees)

Cecily: Well, I think we got a rise out of him today, didn't we?

Elizabeth: You girls are wicked. Absolutely wicked. If your father were alive—

Bess: If our father was alive, we wouldn't be in this hole, now would we? We'd be having a grand time. I hate being a bastard.

Cecily: I hate it worse than you do.

Bess: It's worse for me because I'm older.

Cecily: It's worse for me because I'm prettier.

Anne: It's worse for me because I have to listen to the two of you whinge all day.

Elizabeth: Enough, all three of you! Actually, we are going to have a visitor today. (Grimly) A very special visitor.

Anne: Who?

Elizabeth: (Biting out the words) Your uncle.

Bess: You mean uncle Richard the king?

Elizabeth: Well, as much I would have liked it to be Henry Tudor, yes. Your uncle Richard.

Cecily: Why didn't you say so earlier? We have to change!

(The stage darkens. When the lights come on again, Elizabeth and Cecily are wearing pretty and quite tight gowns. A knock is heard at the door.)

Elizabeth: Come in. (Aside) Not that I could stop you anyway, you murdering knave. (Sweetly, to Richard) Why, how lovely to see you here.

Richard: Good day, ladies.

All: Good day, your grace.

Richard: (Nodding at the girls) Your daughters are looking well, madam.

Cecily: (Mournfully) We try our best. We haven't had a new gown in—how long has it been, Bess?

Bess: Months.

Cecily: See how tight Bess's is around the bosom?

Richard: Er, yes. What an er—pity.

Anne: What's wrong with your eyes, Bess?

Bess: What do you mean, my eyes?

Anne: You're batting them.

Bess: You're seeing things. So, your grace. How is your lovely wife the Queen?

Richard: Doing quite well.

Bess: It must be lonely for her at Westminster, away from the Yorkshire she loves so much.

Richard: Well, she does have her ladies, of course.

Bess: Still, I bet she would enjoy having someone young and cheerful around her. Someone really young and really cheerful.

Cecily: A couple of people, as a matter of fact.

Anne: Now she's batting her eyes.

Bess: It must be the dust in here. It's very dusty in here, uncle. It's just dreadful for our complexions. Don't you think? (Leans closer to the king)

Richard: Yes, I suppose it is. (Stepping out of earshot of the girls) Madam, have you considered our proposition?

Elizabeth: (Pretending to forget) Now, what was that?

Richard: That you agree to leave here in exchange for certain promises on our part, including a pension of four hundred marks.

Elizabeth: Well, I don't know, your grace. We have become so close-knit since we have started sharing these quarters. It would almost be a shame to leave, especially if the girls had to come to court.

Richard: (Glancing toward the girls) Some of them seem rather eager for a change of scene.

Elizabeth: Oh, you know how girls are. They're just naturally high-spirited. (Aside) Say seven hundred, you whoreson, and we're out of here.

Bess: Uncle Richard!

Elizabeth: Don't interrupt.

Bess: I'm sorry, Mother. I was just hoping that before Uncle Richard left, he could tell us about his military campaigns. I do so enjoy hearing about that type of thing.

Cecily: Me too!

Richard: What charming daughters you have. (Aside) Not at all like their mother.

Bess: It's so nice to have a king with military experience. (Shudders) Imagine how dreadful it would have been under Uncle Buckingham.

Cecily: (Shudders) Or under that awful Henry Tudor.

Bess and Cecily: (Shuddering in perfect harmony) Ooh!

Richard: (To the queen) Of course, there are six of you. I say. Why don't we make it seven hundred marks?

Elizabeth: That sounds reasonable. My dears, start packing. We are to leave here.

Bess: Leave? I'll be ready in ten minutes.

Cecily: I'll be ready in five.

Anne: (Whispering) Mother, what about your deal with Henry—

Elizabeth: Shut up and pack, girl.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Creep of the Month

Normally, I keep my personal life off this blog, but as the mother of a 17-year-old autistic child, I was about as disgusted as I ever have been to hear these remarks coming from a nationally syndicated, popular radio talk show host, the aptly named Michael Savage:

Now, the illness du jour is autism. You know what autism is? I'll tell you what autism is. In 99 percent of the cases, it's a brat who hasn't been told to cut the act out. That's what autism is.

What do you mean they scream and they're silent? They don't have a father around to tell them, "Don't act like a moron. You'll get nowhere in life. Stop acting like a putz. Straighten up. Act like a man. Don't sit there crying and screaming, idiot."

Autism -- everybody has an illness. If I behaved like a fool, my father called me a fool. And he said to me, "Don't behave like a fool." The worst thing he said -- "Don't behave like a fool. Don't be anybody's dummy. Don't sound like an idiot. Don't act like a girl. Don't cry." That's what I was raised with. That's what you should raise your children with. Stop with the sensitivity training. You're turning your son into a girl, and you're turning your nation into a nation of losers and beaten men. That's why we have the politicians we have.

Well, at least he didn't say that autistic children were possessed by demons. Perhaps that's the next broadcast.

My 17-year-old son (who does have a father around, one of the best fathers I know) is almost totally nonverbal. His autism, as far as testing can determine, is mixed in with mental retardation, which I suppose Savage also probably regards as a racket. Barring a medical miracle, he will never be able to hold a job without assistance or to live independently, will never be able to drive a car, will never be able to raise his own children. Does Savage truly think that any parent in his right mind would want such a future for his child just for the sake of a few hundred dollars per month in Supplemental Security Income?

To pull this back slightly toward historical fiction, there has been an interesting discussion on a site I frequent as to whether people in our time should feel superior to our forebears because of our advanced medical knowledge. Judging from Savage's ignorant remarks about a debilitating mental illness, and the wide audience he commands--millions of Americans, which probably translates into a handsome salary for Savage--I would say we shouldn't feel superior at all. Not by a long shot.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Excellence in Blogging, Handsome Bozzer, and a Spiffy New Computer

First up, this blog has been given an Excellence in Blogging award by Sarah over at Reading the Past, Historical Tapestry, Catherine Delors, and World of Royalty. Thanks, all!

I've been lazy about visiting blogs lately, and many of my favorites have been given awards already. I'd like to add Jules' Lady Despenser's Scribery to the list of Excellent Blogs. It's all about Hugh le Despenser the younger and his times--a subject still near and dear to me, though most of my recent posts have dealt with the fifteenth century. Also, Brian Wainwright's The Yorkist Age has been a great addition to the blogsphere. Fuzzy History, a very new blog, is off to a promising start. Another relative newcomer, Steven Till, has a nice variety of medieval-related posts. I know I'll think of other blogs as soon as I post this, but this is a start, at least.

I've been lax in contributing these days, but a group blog to which I belong, Yesterday Revisited, has welcomed a couple of new members lately, and one, Mirella Patzer, has posted already. Check out her post about Nannerl Mozart, with some lovely illustrations as well.

Monday, a very reluctant Boswell went to the groomer to get his haircut. Is he a handsome guy, or what?

(That chair and pile of stuff you see by Boswell is, sadly, my office.)

As if having the best-looking dog in North Carolina isn't enough, I got a shiny new computer yesterday! I bought a Dell, complete with Vista. Vista hasn't done anything weird yet, to my relief, but I also bought Microsoft Office 2007, which may have been a mistake because the new version of Excel is extremely annoying. When I try to paste data into a cell, it somehow erases the data in the adjoining cell, for reasons I've yet to figure out. I finally gave up and started importing old spreadsheets into Access, which at least let me paste something into a cell without having a hissy fit. On the other hand, I rather like the new version of Microsoft Word--since I started using it yesterday, my characters have been engaging in much more sprightly dialogue. Or maybe it's just the new flat screen that makes it look better to me.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Booking Through Thursday: Doomsday

A scary scenario from today's Booking Through Thursday:

What would you do if, all of a sudden, your favorite source of books was unavailable?

Whether it’s a local book shop, your town library, or an internet shop … what would you do if, suddenly, they were out of business? Devastatingly, and with no warning? Where would you go for books instead? What would you do? If it was a local business you would try to help out the owners? Would you just calmly start buying from some other store? Visit the library in the next town instead? Would it be devastating? Or just a blip in your reading habit?

I know we're all supposed to be mad at Amazon these days, but it's still my main source of books. My local bookstore's good for popular and/or new books, but it's Amazon that I use to slake my thirst for research books and out-of-print books. So it would be quite a jolt for me if Amazon disappeared. I can't remember how I got along before it, actually.

In the absence of Amazon, I'd probably manage OK on Abebooks and eBay, where I also buy a lot of books. But it just wouldn't be the same.

I don't think I'm going to sleep well tonight!

Friday, July 04, 2008

Why Did Elizabeth Woodville Leave Sanctuary?

On March 1, 1484, Richard III swore an extraordinary oath. In front of “lords spiritual and temporal” and the mayor and aldermen of London, he promised that if Elizabeth Woodville and her daughters came out of sanctuary at Westminster, he would see that they were in surety of their lives, that they would not be imprisoned in the Tower of London or elsewhere, that the girls would be married to “gentlemen born” and given marriage portions, and that Elizabeth would be given an annuity of seven hundred marks a year. Elizabeth would be attended by John Nesfield, one of Richard’s squires.

Elizabeth accepted the offer, much to the shock of some historians. Paul Murray Kendall, for instance, writing from the comfort of his study in mid-twentieth-century America, thunders, “That she came to terms with the man who had bastardized and deposed the Princes, driven her son the Marquess into exile, and executed her other son Grey and her brother Rivers is difficult enough to understand; but that she came to terms knowing also that he had murdered the Princes well-nigh passes belief, or is at least incomprehensible.”

But is it?

There were several options open for Elizabeth in March 1484. The first, and safest, would have been for her and her daughters to each take the veil. But that would foreclose any other alternatives if the political situation in England later changed, and it would have likely been anathema to Elizabeth’s older daughters, who had grown up expecting to make grand matches, not to immure themselves in convents. Probably, too, it would have been an admission of total defeat for Elizabeth.

The second option was to remain in sanctuary. This was an option, however, that was growing more unpalatable each day. Westminster was heavily guarded, a situation that must have been extremely irritating to the monks there, who may have also been tiring of providing sustenance for Elizabeth and her brood. Undoubtedly the abbot and his flock were eager to get back to normal and to get their relations with the crown back on a good footing. Add to that the fact that six females, two of them adolescents, were cooped up together in a small space, with little to keep them occupied, and the situation must have been a bleak one indeed. With the king a healthy man in his early thirties, and the rebellion of 1483 having failed, the women could be facing a stay of decades in sanctuary.

Nor was sanctuary a guarantee of security. Elizabeth knew well that sanctuary could be broken: her husband had done just that with the Duke of Exeter and with the Lancastrians who sought shelter after the battle of Tewkesbury in the abbey there. Had Richard chosen to violate sanctuary, Elizabeth and her daughters could have found themselves prisoners of the crown.

The third option was to accept Richard’s offer of a pension and good marriages for the girls, with guarantees, sworn under oath in front of numerous witnesses, that Richard would not harm the women or imprison them. This option, the one that Elizabeth ultimately chose, was not without risk. Whatever the fate of the Princes in the Tower, it was beyond question that Richard had executed Elizabeth’s son Richard Grey and her brother Anthony Woodville, and oaths could be broken. But the chances of the girls coming to harm were slim. Elizabeth knew that Margaret Beaufort, who was deeply involved in the 1483 rebellion, had been treated leniently, and she must have also realized that Richard was simply not in a position where he could risk the consequences of harming or being suspected of harming five innocent girls of royal blood, an act far beyond the pale of what was tolerated in his society. Even a popular king would have had the utmost difficulty in getting away with such an act, and Richard was not a popular king, save in the North. Moreover, the girls, unlike their brothers, did not pose much of a threat to Richard. Though nothing in England barred a woman from taking the throne, the idea of a female ruler had little appeal at the time. Only if they were married to the wrong men would the girls be a genuine threat—and through his compact with Elizabeth Woodville, Richard ensured that they would be married to men of his own choosing.

Richard, in fact, had every incentive to keep his part of the bargain. Having achieved the crown, he seems to have genuinely wished to rule well, and at a time when he was trying to reconcile his subjects to his reign, his conduct toward his nieces and the former queen was a display of generosity that could only improve his reputation. In the persons of Edward IV’s daughters, he also gained an opportunity to bind followers to him through marriage—a boon for a man who had only one legitimate child and two bastards of his own to offer. A king’s daughter, even a supposedly bastard daughter, was no mean catch, and Richard suddenly had five such royal offspring at his disposal. He arranged for the marriage of one daughter, Cecily, to Ralph Scrope and entered into negotiations with Portugal for the marriage of Elizabeth of York to Manuel, Duke of Beja. Had Richard survived Bosworth Field, it is likely that he would have married the younger daughters to his advantage as well.

Elizabeth’s arrangement with Richard has been cited as proof that she did not believe that he had killed her sons by Edward IV and/or as evidence that she was callously indifferent to her children’s fate. No normal mother, the argument goes, could have made such a bargain with her sons’ killer. This argument, however, fails to take account of the starkness of the choice facing Elizabeth. Barring a successful rebellion against Richard III, the chances of which must have seemed slender in March 1484 after the debacle of the previous year, she and her young daughters could spend the rest of their lives in some sort of confinement, or they could take their chances with the freedom offered to them. One wonders how many of Elizabeth’s critics would, put in her place, choose the former instead of the latter.

Others in medieval England, fighting for their political lives, had made choices not dissimilar to Elizabeth’s. Edward II had reconciled with the killers of his beloved favorite, Piers Gaveston. In the more recent past, Edward IV reconciled with Richard, Earl of Warwick, after Warwick had imprisoned him and killed two of his in-laws. Warwick in turn reconciled with his bitter enemy, Margaret of Anjou, and entrusted his adolescent daughter into her care by marrying her to Margaret’s son. Margaret, for her part, forgave a man who had cast slurs on her son’s legitimacy. Like her predecessors, Elizabeth did not have the luxury of nursing her grief and outrage. She had to look to the future, not to the past.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

More Randomness

I've been pretty busy on the research front in the last few days, so this will be another random blog post. ('Fess up. You really like them.)

First, I was much amused to see, in the section of our local paper that's devoted to anniversaries and weddings, that a couple celebrating their 50th anniversary had a ceremony in which they "renewed their vowels."

Second, I've been going absolutely bonkers trying to figure out when Harry, Duke of Buckingham's mother (Margaret Beaufort, Countess of Stafford, cousin to Margaret Beaufort, Countess of Richmond) died. Various Internet genealogical sites give a date of 1474, but none give a source, and many of the same sites get his father's death date wrong, so they're a bit suspect. The Patent Rolls and the Close Rolls, usually quite helpful, don't give a clue, nor do the searchable National Archives. You'd think that a duke's mother would be less obscure, but not in Harry's case.

Third, I'm enjoying my Harleian MSS. Richard III has a reputation as being straitlaced, but some of his clerks were evidently less so. Here's a ribald little ditty (translated by the editors from the Latin) that one of them scribbled on some parchment:

One cock satisfies three or five hens
But no woman is sated with three or five men.