Hazel McHaffie

Henry VIII

The Lady Elizabeth

Well, in a week of widespread turmoil following the statement by the Duke and Duchess of Sussex about their decision to withdraw from the traditional roles associated with their status as senior members of the royal family, it seems fitting to talk about previous blue-blooded incumbents – Prince Harry’s ‘glorious’ ancestors no less. And I’m not talking about the Duke of Windsor /King Edward VIII, who also married an America divorcée. No, rather let’s go back to the 16th century …

The year is 1536.

From a young age, Elizabeth Tudor, flame-haired fiery daughter of King Henry VIII, the most powerful king England has ever known, is very aware that she is different. She is an exceptionally gifted child with prodigious and precocious talents, a show-off and a rebel. Even aged three she is attuned to tiny nuances which betoken a shift in power. Why, for instance, does Sir John Shelton suddenly stop calling her ‘Lady Princess’ for example, and adopt the title ‘Lady Elizabeth’? What possible reason could ‘The King’s Highness’ have for decreeing such a thing?

Those around her see a small innocent child; they cannot bring themselves to explain the vagaries of the court or the bedchamber to her.  But the sudden beheading on the order of the king, of her own mother, Anne Boleyn, aka ‘The Whore’, and the introduction of a new stepmother/Queen, Jane Seymour, cannot be kept from this curious and impressionable mind. She seeks answers. She listens in to private conversations whilst pretending to be absorbed in juvenile pursuits.  She makes it her business to winkle out information. Risking much, her governess describes the young vibrant late Queen to her:
‘… your mother was a charming lady. She was not beautiful, but men found her very attractive. Your father the King pursued her for seven years, which must give you some idea of how fascinating she was. Accomplished too. Everything she did, she dd gracefully – she could dance, sing, embroider, write poetry, play the lute and virginals, and as for intelligence and wit – well, she shone. She was slim and poised, and always elegantly dressed, for she had a way with clothes, and could make much from a little. You are very like her in many ways.’

This information is at once comforting and dangerous to Elizabeth. To speak positively of her mother is to criticise her father the king, who had the woman who had been his great passion put to death for adultery and treason. Elizabeth soon feels the burden of knowledge. Even she can be banished from the court and her father’s presence, if she speaks unwisely. When she is, she feels the disgrace keenly.

In The Lady Elizabeth, the second work of fiction by Alison Weir, we see the world of the Tudor court through the eyes of this, one of the most famous characters of all time, Elizabeth I, (1533 – 1603) who reigned for 44 years as the last of five monarchs in the Tudor period. Yawn, yawn, you might be thinking; it’s surely been done to death. But no. Weir starts with Elizabeth as a tiny tot and takes us up to the moment she is declared sovereign, imagining vividly how such a pampered and revered child would perceive the world around her, how react to inexplicable tragedies, how reconcile her dream of power and wealth with the changing edicts of her father, how respond to her own fluctuations on the ladder of inheritance and divine right. We watch her preparing for her coming destiny, responding to a series of stepmothers, to the adulation of men, to banishment, to threatening death.

As we saw last week, this is an era when the monarch commands frightening power, the power of life and death. Elizabeth sees it at work in her own beloved father, whom she both adores and fears. After his death, without his majestic presence and absolute control, her world becomes a confusing and threatening place. Under her sickly young brother Edward VI, she is suddenly barred from court, forced to ‘rot’  in obscure properties away from the public eye. Bewildered and enraged, she is consumed by pain, loneliness, resentment and suspicion, all too aware of fickle loyalties, suspect motives, intrigue, back-biting, rumours, an ever-present sense of impending peril.

But this highly educated and clever young woman has inherited something of her father’s formidable will and presence herself, and in spite of her youth, she develops strategies for survival and getting her own way.

Her older sister Mary who assumes the throne next, is also King Henry’s daughter, however – determined, implacable, imperious. What’s more, she is devoutly religious, bent on bringing the country back to Catholicism. ‘Heretics’ who refuse to recant are burned at the stake or beheaded. Aghast at the brutal persecution her sister supports, Elizabeth outwardly succumbs to Mary’s demand that she attend Mass, whilst inwardly vowing to be a more compassionate Queen if and when her turn comes.

Mary is only too conscious that Elizabeth’s conformity is not genuine; the only problem is she can’t prove it; her young half-sister is devilishly clever. And although we know the eventual outcome, Alison Weir’s descriptions of their battles, of Elizabeth’s fall from grace, imprisonments and house arrest, the accusations and threats, keep us in suspense. The more I learned of the historical detail – around her mother’s execution, her own bastardy, her precarious childhood, the scandal of her relationship with the Queen’s husband, her religious rebellion, her imprisonment in the Tower and subsequent house arrest, Queen Mary’s mistrust, the schemes to marry her off against her will and to banish her from the country –  the more I could only marvel that she survived. But in reality, Mary’s brutal regime predisposes the people to support Elizabeth and strengthens Elizabeth’s own certainty that the only way to keep the throne safe is through the hearts of the subjects.  ‘The voice of the people is the voice of God’ as she herself puts it.

The author admits that she has speculated in places, but on the basis of evidence and factual records, her surmisings are perfectly plausible. When she was fourteen Elizabeth did have a highly suspect and indiscreet relationship with Admiral Sir Thomas Seymour, the Queen’s husband. Whether or not it resulted in a pregnancy can’t be proven, but there is sufficient known to support such an hypothesis. She most certainly recognised that it was a small step between the warm tumbled bed and the cold axe and grave.

Much as I found this book compelling and engrossing, I was again disconcerted by points of view abruptly changing within sections. There’s a case to be made for an omniscient narrator, but Weir purports to be seeing the world through the eyes of her characters, and it’s discombobulating to have the perspective blurred by sudden unheralded leaps into another mind. Perhaps this is a throwback to her more academic writing where history allows such tactics. Whatever, it’s a small price to pay for such a brilliant insight into life in Tudor times.

A salutary reminder that the shenanigans of the present incumbents of the royal dynasty pale into insignificance against the lives, loves and deaths of their forebears.

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Living breathing history!

14th November 1553
It is over. My trial has ended, and I am back in the Tower of London, this place that was once my palace and is now my prison.

What a fab opening paragraph; dramatic, intriguing, suspenseful. And credible. Here is a 16-year-old girl surrounded by ambition, scheming, greed and treachery: ‘I am to die when I have hardly begun to live.’ And we know it to be true. That’s the thing with historical fiction about famous figures. We know the basic plot, we even know a lot about the characters, but Alison Weir brings them totally alive. And because she’s an authority on the historical detail, she weaves in so much real life, that we can easily believe the fiction too. We’re in extremely safe hands. Some parts of this book may indeed seem far-fetched, the author concedes, but they are the parts most likely to be based on fact.

A word then, about this remarkable author. Alison Weir is the biggest-selling female historian (and the fifth best-selling historian) in the UK since records began in 1997. She has published twenty-three titles and sold more than 3 million books. Her biography makes fascinating reading in itself.

Having published ten factual history books, she moved into fiction, ‘which is something serious historians attempt only at their peril‘, as she says herself. But it gave her ‘a heady sense of freedom’, allowing her imagination free reign, trying to penetrate the minds of her characters. In telling the shocking stories of life in one of the bloodiest and dangerous times in history, her aim is to enthrall and appall in equal measure. And indeed she achieves that aim.

Her writing is masterly. We can smell those fetid, hot, dark, fearful birthing rooms; sense the backbiting and treachery behind the obeisance; fear each fickle regal mood change and caprice; despair at the restrictions and inequalities of court and diplomatic etiquette, class and gender; tremble with the naive maidens, pawns in their destiny as obedient and virtuous brood mares; cringe at the barbarity of religious fanaticism. Weir weaves together a massive cast of characters, intricate contextual detail, politics, religion, romance, with consummate skill.

Innocent Traitor is the first of two books set in Tudor times, telling the tragic story of Lady Jane Grey from her birth to her death through, not just her eyes, but those around her.

Lady Jane Grey is the granddaughter of Henry VII, great-niece of Henry VIII; cousin of Edward VI, Mary I and Elizabeth I. Precious Tudor blood runs in her veins. From the moment of her birth, she is in direct line to the throne, and destined for great things. As a growing child she is bright and articulate, extremely well educated and articulate and a devout Protestant. Unwanted daughter of a ruthless mother and a scheming father, she nevertheless becomes a pawn in their dynastic power games. They set her up to be Queen of England, a reign which lasts a mere 9 days from 10th to 19 July 1553.

These are the times when a sovereign could command a whole country to espouse his/her preferred religion. With a change of monarch or a regal whim the people are required to swing from Catholicism to Protestantism … and back again. Protesters are put to death as heretics. Following Lady Jane’s brief reign, Queen Mary demands a return to the Catholic faith. Initially she is keen to show leniency and give people time to change, but  unscrupulous schemers (including Jane’s father) take advantage of her gentleness and plot to overthrown her. She is forced to accept the dangers of giving them a foothold – heresy, revolt, treason – and concludes: ‘I have thought long on this, and prayed for guidance and I have decided to revive the old statute against heresy, and root it out, for it is like a canker that gnaws away at the very vitals of the Church. Those who do not recant will be burned at the stake. If my people will not come to salvation by gentler means, then they must be constrained to it, for the safety of their souls.‘ As the French Ambassador puts it: ‘…a foretaste of hell-fire on Earth wonderfully concentrates the mind, and can bring about the conversion of the most stubborn heart.‘ Gibbets are placed at every street corner to help the people ‘learn that it is no light thing to rebel against their lawful sovereign.‘ And Weir doesn’t spare us the horror of what burning at the stake, beheading, drawing and quartering, mean. The people of the time thronged to watch the spectacle; she drags us into the crowd, forces us to watch with them. But looking on through the eyes of a 16-year-old innocent girl counting down the days to her own beheading, walking to that feared block, kneeling, praying for the last time … it’s powerful, harrowing stuff and definitely not for the faint-hearted.  As a reviewer from The Times says: ‘If you don’t cry at the end, you have a heart of stone.’

Faced with the burden of consigning that innocent girl to death, Queen Mary says: ‘I am discovering that it is no easy thing to be a queen, and not for the first time I find myself wishing that I were a simple country goodwife with a houseful of children instead.’  I suspect there are royals closer to our time who might embrace the same sentiments at times!


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The life of an Empress in China

Our British literature abounds with tales of royal intrigue across the ages in the UK and Europe, but how much do we know of other nations’ history? In my case, precious little, so reading a very engaging story of China’s last Empress proved fascinating.

OK, Henry VIII rather fancied he was above the laws of the land and could change the rules to suit his whims, but imagine if the king/emperor is deemed an infallible god! … he’s known as the ‘Son of Heaven’ – ‘whatever he does is Heaven’s will.’ From childhood he has the notion drummed into him that everyone in the Forbidden City lives to attend to his needs. So removed from reality is he, indeed, that he grows up spoilt and with no appreciation of suffering in others; he believes in and consults the gods and his ancestors, but when they don’t fulfill his wishes he is left with an enormous burden of responsibility and guilt. An unenviable inheritance.

Empress Orchid by Chinese American author, Anchee Min, starts at the time when the ruler in question is Emperor Hsein Feng, ninth Emperor of the Manchu-led Qing dynasty, and the seventh Qing emperor to rule over China proper. We’re talking 1850 to 1861.

It’s hard to conceive of a court so opulent and extravagant and yet so cruel and superstitious. Strict rules of etiquette, ritual and ceremony apply to everyone, with horrific punishments meted out to those who infringe them. Wives and concubines are arbitrarily beheaded or ordered to hang themselves; younger sons can be exalted above older ones without challenge; torture is commonplace.

Emperor Hsein Feng is actually ‘delicate and sensitive’ as well as fearful and ‘deeply insecure’, but he hides this under a façade of ‘arrogance and decisiveness’. He is fabulously wealthy, but outside of his numerous palaces there is abject poverty – frozen bodies left in the streets after ice-storms; families unable to afford essential food or bury their loved ones; people stinking because they are unable to wash or change their clothes; girls forced to marry totally unsuitable men to rescue their families from destitution.

One such girl is Orchid, a poverty-stricken girl from an aristocratic background, on the verge of entering a forced marriage with an unattractive and mentally-challenged cousin, to save her family from penury. The story is told through her eyes and begins with an event which changes her life for ever: the Selection of Imperial Consorts. The new Emperor is looking for a new harem, his mother, Grand Empress Lady Jin, a powerful influence in his choices. The task is to select seven official wives who will be given magnificent palaces to live in all with exotic names – Palace of Earthly Tranquillity, Palace of Universal Inheritance, Palace of Eternal Peace, Palace of Great Mercy, etc.

All Manchu girls between 13 and 17 are required to register to become part of the Imperial household of 3000 concubines – in the Imperial garden of beauty; 18 is considered a ‘flower on its way to withering’. None of these teenagers can marry until the Emperor has ‘passed them up.’ Representing the Emperor in the initial stages is the chief eunuch who inspects all the girls carefully. The finalists are kept locked away in the Forbidden City, guaranteed a lifetime of annual payment based on title and rank, but always one false move away from execution. Humiliating experiences and ferocious vetting procedures (sometimes naked in front of several eunuchs) to eliminate defects such as sloping shoulders, slight smells, a graceless walk, await them.

2000 eunuchs are a constant presence within the Forbidden City, poised to remove any girl who loses control or betrays any behaviour outside the strict etiquette required inside those sacred walls. These men – more than 50 thousand added annually – are quick-witted boys often from impoverished backgrounds who are castrated at a young age to guarantee the Emperor is the ‘sole seed-planter’, regimented, punished, severely disciplined, all in the hope of becoming the Imperial favourite, a legend above the nation. Anger and brutality are rife amongst them. So too is inspirational loyalty.

Orchid is kitted out in regal clothes and glides through the selection process until she is one of two hundred girls competing to be one of the seven royal wives. Though competing with the rich and famous and royally connected, she is chosen by the eunuchs, an honour beyond the family’s wildest dreams; or, as her mother puts it before the Gate of Zenith slams shut on her old life and her family, ‘Consider yourself boarding a ship of mercy on the sea of suffering’. Aged just 17, knowing nothing of how to pleasure a man, she is taken by a family friend to a ‘whorehouse’ to learn the tricks of their trade. But the young Emperor is neither as highly sexed nor as fertile as his fathers, and Orchid waits in vain to be summonsed to the royal bed. In desperation she bribes the head eunuch who negotiates her an invitation, and she quickly becomes the favoured concubine. However, this in turn stirs up huge jealousies and threatens her security; punishments for monopolising the Emperor are brutal. One such concubine had all her limbs hacked off and her living torso kept in a jar as a warning to others.

Thousands of years of tradition lie behind many of these arcane customs and rituals. My medical sensitivities recoiled from the method of diagnosing illness. No male apart from the eunuchs and the Emperor is allowed to see any of the females in the Forbidden City, so doctors have to make a diagnosis from nothing more than feeling a pulse behind a curtain. And it’s in this bizarre way that Orchid finds out what’s ailing her: ‘My lady, the dragon’s seed has sprouted!’ At last! But reality hits home all too soon. Her pregnancy makes her the object of jealousy and envy, evil intent and vicious plots. Not only does she face falling out of royal favour herself, but her child is in danger if he doesn’t perform to order as a baby or toddler.

Penetrating deeper and deeper into these ancient practices and superstitions gives us an insight into why the people perceived Christianity and any attempt to save the souls of the Chinese, to be an insult to their age-old traditions and beliefs and gods.

Immersed in the elaborate, secluded and extravagant lives women lead inside the Forbidden City, Orchid struggles to understand what’s going on in the rest of the country. But she’s inquisitive, and intelligent and persistent. She objects inwardly to the diktat that the role of Empresses is to feel not to rule, so seizes an opportunity when the Emperor becomes too ill and frail to rule effectively, to become in effect his secretary, and consequently privy to his official papers and activities; she helps to couch his responses and edicts, sharing His Majesty’s dream of reviving China. But Orchid doesn’t suffer from a god-complex; she’s wise enough to listen to others. As his health fails, the Emperor, still in his 20s, becomes depressed, in pain and pessimistic, taking less and less interest in state affairs, and almost imperceptibly Orchid takes over writing the edicts herself, making them more encouraging and positive, less dictatorial and punitive.

But this is the 1850s, the time of the opium wars, China’s power and influence is waning, the economy shrinking. She is increasingly under threat from the Allies – Russia, Britain, France. Ancient Chinese ways of fighting wars – fortified earthworks, bamboo stakes, ditches and dykes, martial arts – are an embarrassment in the face of the cannons and guns and warships of the Westerners. Disaster looms.

Orchid is appalled when the Emperor decides he will desert Peking and his people, ostensibly to ‘go hunting’, but her protestations meet with a wall of regal immovability. Her husband even threatens to send her a silk rope to hang herself if she persists. His brothers too, all risk their lives to protest against his departure, but the sick king is a coward, and insists not only on going but on doing so with the usual enormous pomp and ostentation. Even in desertion etiquette must be observed – ‘the Imperial household stretched for three miles’ – leaving despair and chaos behind it.

The Forbidden City is ransacked and destroyed and looted. Emperor Hsein Feng dies, still a young man in his early 30s. At the eleventh hour, and then only under severe pressure, he names his only son the next Emperor. Orchid, the Emperor’s biological mother, and her senior sister-wife Nuharoo, together act as regents. Their brother-in-law, Prince Kung, negotiates with the Allies for a freer society, and a kinder more tolerant regime replaces the old order.

In telling the story of the last Empress, Min really brings history alive and captures the absurdities and traditions vividly. My main difficulty was separating out the characters – the Chinese names are hard to remember and keep track of. Nevertheless it’s a tale well told.


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