Hazel McHaffie

Archbishop of Canterbury

The Captive Queen

Having devoured the two Tudor novels by Alison Weir (reviewed in recent posts), I was keen to read her third excursion into fiction: The Captive Queen.

This one goes back four hundred years earlier, to the twelfth century, a time of which, I confess, I knew very little. And it tells the tumultuous story of the making of a nation, of passionate personal and international conflicts, of a high-profile royal marriage in meltdown. Records that far back are incomplete but, as an historian and novelist of integrity, Weir has extended great efforts to fill in the gaps as authentically as its possible to do, as her end note explains.

At the core of this tale is the beautiful, fabulously wealthy, young  Eleanor of Aquitaine (1122-1204). As the sovereign Duchess of Aquitaine and Countess of Poitiers, she’s the most eligible bride in Europe. She’s also a formidably wise and firm governor, a trustworthy leader, and a woman who inspires passion, famed for her fairness, generosity and humanity.

But her own powerful emotions lead her into tumultuous situations. After fifteen years as Queen consort of France, she turns her back on a shattered marriage to King Louis VII, her crown, and two young daughters, to pursue the love of her life.

Louis VII has been more monk than either king or lover, and Eleanor is a sensuous woman with strong dsires. As soon as she can persuade Louis to have their marriage annulled on the grounds of consanguinity within the forbidden degrees dictated by the Church, she launches into marriage with Henry Plantagenet, Count of Anjou, Duke of Normandy, who combines youth (he’s ten years younger than her) and handsome looks with voracious carnal appetites, conveniently drawing a veil over her adulterous liaison with his father Geoffrey. Their union represents not just the fulfillment of their love and lust for each other, but the founding of one of ‘the greatest empires in Christendom’, spanning vast territories on both sides of the channel. Henry becomes Henry II of England and they produce a further eight children together, three of whom later become kings themselves.

But in time Henry reveals his true nature: cruel, overbearing, jealous, self-important, serially unfaithful. Eleanor is forced to acknowledge that her own beloved subjects reject and dislike him and his dictatorial ways, and that she personally has gone from one disastrous marriage to a weak and inadequate man, into one where she is a captive wife to a very aggressive husband. When she remonstrates with him, he betrays his patronising view of women: ‘… a wife’s duty is to obey her husband, to rear his children, and to warm his bed when he so desires. And there it ends.‘ Never mind that she was a ruler in her own right as well as Queen of France before he ever met her! He increasingly sidelines her. By now Eleanor can see that he is utterly incapable of appreciating her point of view, and once his mind is made up, nothing will move him. ‘I am determined to have my way’ extends beyond ruling despotically, taking territories and insisting on absolute obedience; it includes deflowering innocent well-born girls as well as taking many other beautiful and available women.

When she discovers the extent of his unfaithfulness, in spite of the passion within their marriage, Eleanor feels totally betrayed. But when she confronts him, Henry is brutal: ‘We are a partnership, Eleanor. You are Aquitaine, and I am England, Normandy and the rest. Together, we straddle much of the western world. Nothing can sunder us, not even hatred. To be invincible, we have to work together, to give a semblance of being in harmony. Our personal feelings do not count.’ Political gain and advantage is his sole driving force. But even in her worst nightmares, Eleanor could not have envisaged just how vengeful this man she had once loved so passionately could be.

It is, however, his obsessive relationship with Thomas Becket, that proves Henry’s greatest preoccupation for years. Initially Becket, as Henry’s Chancellor, is his best friend and companion, so much so indeed that Henry entrusts his own eldest living son and heir, Henry, to his care and guidance. But when King Henry insists on making him Archbishop of Canterbury, Becket changes completely, becoming a hair-shirt self-flagellating ascetic, and in defence of the Church, turning against his King, and openly defying him. Henry’s rage, born of pain and betrayal, knows no bounds. In his desperate search for absolute power, he is even prepared to use his own infant daughters to score points against his enemies! Afraid for his life, Becket seeks refuge on the continent, further fuelling Henry’s impotent fury. When the King eventually extends an olive branch, Becket returns to England, but shortly afterwards he is brutally murdered in his own cathedral by knights who believe they are fulfilling the King’s wishes. Henry however, is wracked with guilt and remorse; this was never his intention.

Things go from bad to worse for him when Eleanor, disgusted by the extent of his domination and unfaithfulness, turns her back on him and, with her endorsement, his sons all rebel against his tyranny. He has her imprisoned, first in a single barren room in a tower in Rouen, later in a bleak wind-ravaged stone keep in Wiltshire, demoralised, starved of civilised company, cut off from the rest of humanity, with no news of her children – a terrible punishment for such a free spirit with sunny Aquitaine a constant ache in her heart. Only by degrees does he eventually relax the strictures and grant her more comfort and luxury, although she remains closely guarded.

A bitter decade follows. Henry seeks to have the marriage annulled. His newest paramour dies of cancer. He impregnates his son Richard’s betrothed, King Louis’s daughter, Princess Alys. Vile rumours discrediting Eleanor abound. The young King Henry dies.

It’s their shared parental grief that finally persuades Henry to release Eleanor, reunite her with her children, introduce her to her grandchildren, and free her to visit all her disputed fiefdoms  to re-establish her – and thence his – sovereignty. But good intentions only take them so far. Eleanor is increasingly appalled by the behaviour of her husband and her sons, and bowed down by the death of yet another of her boys.

Henry consigns Eleanor once more to captivity, in the same stone keep, and this time it is only his own death that releases her – after sixteen years captivity.  Now at last, Eleanor is appointed to rule England as its regent on behalf of her favourite son, King Richard. She rules wisely and well, puts many wrongs right, upholds the rights and interests of her people. But her success is dulled by the haunting tragedy and sadness of both her tortured marriages, all the mistakes and misjudgements, the enmities and betrayals, the loss of nine of her eleven children. She dies aged 82, amidst the peace and tranquillity of her sisters the nuns of Fontevrault, in the heartlands of the River Loire.

Apologies for such a long resume, but almost 500 pages of galloping story about such an exceptional, colourful and passionate woman and Queen, justified more than a bald summary. I’d highly commend this romping tale to anyone interested in a period of history that is so often shrouded in the mists of time.

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Royal weddings and a little serendipity

Well, I doubt I could have found a more suitable book to read during the week of the royal wedding if I’d tried!

I wonder what you thought listening to the African American Episcopalian Bishop Michael Curry preaching about love in St George’s Chapel in Windsor Castle on Saturday …? I personally loved his energy, his conviction, his relevant message, not just for the happy couple but for the world. Love would indeed redeem so many situations. And boy, did he put his heart and soul into it. He stood out in sharp contrast to the many staid, formal, set-texts of so many royal events. But even the very British Archbishop of Canterbury shared lots of smiles and humour with the first-name-terms royal couple.

This wedding has broken with so many traditions. A white prince of the realm marrying a mixed heritage American divorcee … in a church … in the presence of the Queen. The bride – a free-thinking actress – walking herself down the long aisle, only her mother of all her family present to witness her transition (my heart went out to her). The music a mix of ancient and modern, including a black gospel choir, a black cellist. Ordinary people who work tirelessly for humanitarian causes chosen guests instead of parliamentarians, heads of states, foreign royals. A lemon and elderflower sponge in place of the usual rich fruit. I could go on. It had all the hallmarks of an intimate wedding made to measure for the bride and groom, but on a massive scale and shared generously with the world.

And Gilead by Marilynne Robinson picks up so many of the themes we saw during that historic occasion, including a mixed-race ‘marriage’! I bought it at the Christian Aid Sale I told you about last week – the book not the marriage! The narrator is a minister of religion, Reverend John Ames, now in his late seventies. Totally unexpectedly, already in his sixties, he falls in love with and, at her instigation, marries a much-younger woman from a different social stratum, and together they have a son. Ames lives in daily expectation of his heart failing, he knows he will not be around to see his boy grow to manhood, so he commits to paper, the kinds of things he would want to say at opportune moments if he were to live longer.

It’s difficult to capture the beauty and tenderness of this writing. The Reverend comes from generations of men of the cloth and he’s steeped in the Bible and spiritual thinking; he is thoroughly authentic and believable. But his gentle exhortations and reflections are not dull or hackneyed; they’re full of compassion and understanding and wisdom. He roams over many important issues for his boy, illustrating his philosophy from his own life, his own mistakes, his own secrets, reviewed with honesty and humility. Forgiveness, temptation, covetousness, pastoral responsibility, relationship, heaven and hell … he shirks none of them, revealing a glorious all-embracing Christian love reminiscent of that Bishop Michael Curry spoke about at the royal wedding, hard won at times, an ongoing work at others, but ultimately a triumphant declaration of what it means to put the gospel into action in one’s life.

One illustration will suffice. Ames knows all too clearly that his love for his son is all-consuming. If anyone threatened the boy, he knows his principles would fly out the window.
Harm to you is not harm to me in the strict sense, and that is a great part of the problem. He (Jack Boughton) could knock me down the stairs and I would have worked out the theology of forgiving him before I reached the bottom. But if he harmed you in the slightest way, I’m afraid theology would fail me.

It surprised me to see that this was only the second novel by this most accomplished writer – her first being 23 years earlier! Even more remarkable, it won several awards, including the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. In today’s secular world, that a work of such meditative calm, such spiritual intensity, such simple grace, such solemn serenity, should be so acclaimed, is something of a miracle in itself. As I finished it in the garden on the beautiful sunny day of the royal wedding, It felt like a benediction.

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New Year, new impetus

Well, it’s here! 2011. And a very happy New Year to you all.

The bells rang, the pipes skirled, 80,000 people partied in the streets of Edinburgh to the thunder and shimmer of thousands of pounds worth of fireworks … and yes, it is worth saying, because the official celebrations have been cancelled before, and the jolly old weather certainly threatened to be agin us this time.

Six years ago we took a party of guests to our usual vantage point shortly before midnight and … waited … and waited … and well, nothing happened. Apparently there were ‘safety concerns’. In our embarrassment and frustration we instantly thought Thou-shalt-not-play-conkers-without-safety-helmet-plus-padded-gloves-plus-visors writ large. But nobody wants a fatality for the sake of a mere pyrotechnical spectacular, and we learned later it was something to do with a dodgy roof and the strength of the wind. At least that was the official version.

But it’s not just dynamite that has ignited the change to a new year. The bells have been ringing for other major shifts close to my heart. Indeed the news during this past seven days has been jammed full of my kind of subjects. In no particular order (as they say on ‘talent’ shows) …

Organ donation included on driving licence applications
From July drivers applying for a licence will be asked to indicate which of the following applies to them:
Yes, I would like to register on the NHS Organ Donor Register
• I do not want to answer this question now
• I am already registered on the NHS Organ Donor Register.

It’s an official step towards increasing the pool of donors. Around 90% of people favour donation but only 27% are registered donors. And given that about 1,000 Britons die each year for want of an organ, and thousands more wait an indecently long time for one, we need to do something. Maybe there should have been one more question:
Would you be prepared to receive a donated organ for yourself or someone you love?
The novel I’m writing just now is about organ donation so I can get quite fired up on the subject.

Sir Elton John has become a dad
Put aside for a moment any qualms about the 63-year old temper-tantrum-on-short-legs with a £290,000 flower habit as a role model, and disregard the rumours about payment to ensure the birth happened on 25th December as the ultimate Christmas present, and think instead of the whole picture of a financial arrangement between an unknown surrogate mother in California and an aging, overweight, homosexual with dubious priorities. And spare a thought for the resultant offspring: Zachary Jackson Levon Furnish-John.
Admittedly the pop star did try recently to adopt an HIV-positive toddler from a Ukrainian orphanage, but he was denied on the grounds of his age, and the fact that his civil partnership with David Furnish was not recognised. So what isn’t good enough for an abandoned Ukrainian is suddenly acceptable for Zachary? Hello? How many tribunals in this country would grant permission for such an arrangement without the pressure of fame and fortune, I wonder? OK, it did become legal in April here in the UK for two men to have a child by a surrogate and to have both their names on the birth certificate. But we aren’t talking about your average ordinary man here. Children are not commodities. Nor are they fashion accessories.
Surrogacy was the subject of my 2005 novel, Double Trouble.

A nine-year old becomes a bone marrow donor
Robert Sherwood is only nine. His brother Edward is just five. But Edward has aplastic anaemia; his bone marrow fails to produce sufficient new blood cells. Robert’s donation has the potential to save his brother’s life. But … should he have been subjected to this procedure before the age of informed consent? Does the end justify the means? Should he be permitted to say no?
It’s the bread and butter of my working life!

A grandfather has become the first to donate an organ to a grandchild
John Targett, aged 59, couldn’t bear to see his little one-year-old grandson growing sicker and sicker as a result of biliary atresia. So he offered part of his own liver and had the operation just before Christmas. What a gift: the gift of life.

Another British person has ended his life in Switzerland
Andrew Colgan was only 42 (not much older than my son) but he’d suffered from Multiple Sclerosis for ten years and his condition had markedly worsened recently. He died in that now infamous Dignitas room in Zurich. My own feeling is of immense sadness that this young man had been desperate enough to go abroad for a solution to his terrible dilemma.
I really agonised over these questions for Right to Die; I’m still struggling with them three years after publication.

Volunteers keep libraries open
A new report has revealed that libraries in England are increasingly being staffed by volunteers, to prevent closure under cost-cutting exercises. And this at a time when it ought surely be a priority to make books available to those struggling to find employment or to make ends meet. Books can change lives. Penny-pinching in this area is surely stealing vital resources from the future.
Hundreds of people only read my books as library copies. I want them to continue to have this opportunity. It represents something much more exciting than sales figures.

Bishops defend the rights of Christians
Lord Carey, former Archbishop of Canterbury, has urged the prime minister to review the laws which discriminate against Christians in our supposedly-Christian country. And the Bishop of Winchester has reinforced this message. We’ve all heard about the airline worker denied the right to wear a crucifix; the couple denied the opportunity to foster children because of their religious scruples; and the bed-and-breakfast proprietors who won’t take same-sex couples in double rooms in their guesthouse. The law does seem to have sided against ordinary Christians following their consciences.
Religion is closely interwoven with law and ethics and this subject too is a matter of ongoing interest to me.

There was something too about managing Alzheimer’s more cost effectively but I can’t seem to find that. No, it’s NOT a joke about dementia: I genuinely can’t. I looked and in the search found this site which might be comforting for those people struggling alongside this disease. But in the absence of a link to the news item I was looking for, I didn’t want to ignore another topic that I’ve delved into in depth for one of my novels, Remember Remember, because of course, it leapt out of the page at me.

So you see, just in a few days I’ve had my belief that people do care about ethical dilemmas reinforced over and over again. A great spur to another year of writing.

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