Friday, 23 December 2011

Tis the season to be jolly.....

A very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year! 

Monday, 5 December 2011

The Lion in Winter

Currently showing at the Haymarket Theatre is a production of 'The Lion in Winter', with Robert Lindsay and Joanna Lumley.  I had the good fortune to go and see this play at the weekend.  I've always been a big fan of the film, and just had to get tickets for this production.  A feuding family at Christmas, with so much intrigue and Machiavellian plotting, the play sees King Henry II of England spending Christmas with his estranged wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, his mistress Alais, sister of the King of France and betrothed to his son Richard, and his three sons - Richard, Geoffrey and John.  Henry has had Eleanor imprisoned for a number of years, and has only allowed her to join him at Christmas to discuss his choice of successor.  The three brothers fight for the attention of their parents.  Richard seems to be Eleanor's favourite, whilst a petulant and pouting John is his father's favourite.  Geoffrey complains bitterly about being over-looked by both his parents.  They scheme and plot and seek to out-maneuver each other.  I particularly like the portrayal of John as the spoiled brat of the family, constantly reminding his siblings that he is his father's favourite.    There's some wonderful  witty dialogue between the characters.  Below are some of my favourite lines.

Henry - Time hasn't done a thing but wrinkle you.

Eleanor - It hasn't done that.  I have borne six girls, five boys and thirty-one connubial years of you.

Henry - I'll never let you loose.  You led too many civil wars against me.

Eleanor - And I damn near won the last one.  Still, as long as I get trotted out for Christmas courts and state occasions now and then.

During a meeting with his mother, Richard says 'Is this an audience, a goodnight kiss with cookies or an ambush?'

As Henry and John start to argue, Eleanor says 'Did you rehearse all this or are you improvising?'

After a huge argument between the family, Geoffrey tries to reassure John.

Geoffrey - 'John, use your head.  Would I betray you?'

John - 'Why not?  Everyone else does.'

Geoffrey - 'John, I only turned on you to get their confidence.  It worked, they trust me.'

John -  'I tell you, your leg could fall off at the pelvis and I wouldn't trust the stump to bleed'.

And perhaps the best line is Eleanor's line in scene 5, when John panics when he sees Richard has a knife.

Eleanor - 'Of course he has a knife.  He always has a knife.  We all have knives.  It's 1183'.

There are just so many witty lines, laced with spite and treachery, and all played out as the family prepare for Christmas. 

Henry II's family may be dysfunctional, but just imagine the play that begs to be written - Christmas at the court of Edward II, with his wife Isabella - and Piers Gaveston.  That's one play I'd love to see!

Saturday, 12 November 2011

Is this the face of Edward II?

The National Portrait Gallery in London has had a recent exhibition entitled 'Crowns and Tiaras'.  I decided to pop in on my last visit to London.  The exhibition was a collection of medieval portraits of kings and queens painted in the Tudor era.  Apparently, in Tudor times, particularly in the reign of Elizabeth 1st, it was 'fashionable' to have a set of portraits of medieval royalty up to and including the Tudors.  The NPG had a complete set on loan.   The picture of Edward II was painted between 1590 and 1610.  Here it is.

These potriats were supposedly based on surviving portraits of royalty.  And yet this portrait of Edward II carries the warning -

The inscription on this portrait is later and wrongly inscribed with the name 'Edvardvus'. The facial characteristic and costume conform to other known portraits of Henry III.

I must say, it looks nothing like the beautiful effigy of Edward II on his tomb.  The 'graffitti' on Edward's wife is the result of 18th century choirboys!

It seems the Tudors painted an idealised version of Edward II based on Henry III.   If it's any consolation, the portrait of Anne Boleyn contained in the set is pretty awful as well.  Anne Boleyn was always included in these sets because of course she was the mother of Elizabeth 1st.  Just look at the difference.

Sunday, 16 October 2011

Shakespeare's birthplace

Whenever I visit Stratford, the one place I always visit is Shakespeare's birthplace.  I'm always amazed that this house is still standing in a modern street.  The 'birthplace' has been open for business for about 250 years.  I first went as a child, and it was very basic.  Now there are characters in Elizabethan dress and each room has been staged as it might have been when Shakespeare lived there.  Of course, the house has been added to over the years and of course, I can't help speculating how much of the house is genuine.  I was assured that 70% of the timbers were original.  There are no original pieces of furniture that belonged to the Shakespeare family, but it is interesting the way the rooms have been set out.   William Shakespeare was born here in 1564.  His father was a glover.  When he married Anne Hathaway aged 18, the couple lived here for a further 5 years.

 This is the view of the birthplace from the street.
You enter via the Shakespeare centre which usually has an exhibition running.  In recent years, the exhibitions I saw were about Shakespeare's early life and then the actors who have starred in his plays over the many years.
 This is the view of the birthplace from the courtyard once you have passed through the Shakespeare centre.

 This room reflects Shakespeare's father's business as a glover/tanner.  Educational workshops are often run here.

 This window is exhibited inside the birthplace as part of the exhibition about the history of the birthplace when visitors started to arrive over 250 years ago.  I'm convinced that when I saw it in my teens, it was still in place in it's frame.  It has been removed because scratched on it are the signatures of some the famous visitors who came to see the house - Charles Dickens scratched his name with a diamond ring.  Other signatures include Thomas Carlyle and Sir Walter Scott.  A book in which guests could also register includes the signatures of Lord Byron, Alfred Lord Tennyson, John Keats and William Thackery.

 This is the room in which it is claimed that Shakespeare was born. 

The birthplace is part of 'The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust'.  In all, there are 5 houses to visit - the birthplace, Anne Hathaway's cottage,  Mary Arden's house - the house where Shakespeare's mother was born (it is now a working Tudor farm), Hall's Croft, where Shakespeare's daughter Susanna lived with her husband Dr John Hall, Nash's House, where Shakespeare's grandaughter and her  husband
Thomas Nash.  Next to Nash House are the foundations of New Place.  Shakespeare bought this property in 1597 from the Clopton family, when he was a wealthy and successful playwright.  Shakespeare died here in 1616. The house passed to his daugher/grandaughter, before being soldback to the Clopton  In 1759 then-owner Reverend Francis Gastrell, having become annoyed by the many visitors, attacked and destroyed a mulberry tree in the garden that was said to have been planted by Shakespeare.This enraged the local townspeople, who in retaliation, destroyed New Place's windows. Gastrell applied for local permission to extend the property. It was granted, but upon completion of this work, the annual tax on the property was increased. Rather than pay the increased tax, he demolished the house, choosing instead to live next door at Nash's House, which he also owned. There is currently an archealogical dig being carried out which memebers of the public can join in.  Such a shame!

You can buy a pass which allows you to visit all 5 houses, and it is possible to do them all in one day.  I've done it.  Or you can spread your visit over a couple of days. Mary Arden's is the furthest from Stratford.   All are well-worth seeing.  There's a regular tour bus which allows you to hop on/hop off.

Here's the link to the Birthplace Trust

Thursday, 22 September 2011

Inside Anne Hathaway's cottage

The 'bread oven' in the cottage.
 I'm afraid it's a bit of a lazy blog post today - more pictures from Anne Hathaway's cottage - this time from inside.  Of course, none of the artefacts inside actually belonged to William Shakespeare or Anne Hathaway.  In fact, the cottage was only two rooms when Anne lived there.  After her wedding to Shakespeare, she went to live with the Shakespeare family 'in town'.  However, as an insight to what life would have been like at that time - the 1560s - it's a wonderful educational tool.

A wooden trenchard - a 16th century dinner plate, with a groove for salt.
The guides inside the museum are extremely helpful and seem to enjoy discussing the contents of the cottage.  They were very knowledgeable.

Not the famous 'second best bed' left to Anne in her husband's will.

The kitchen is perhaps the highlight of the cottage.

Thursday, 1 September 2011

Those Insulting Nicknames……….

One of the charges levied against Piers Gaveston by his enemies was his arrogance and disregard for the nobility.  Recalled from exile by Edward II almost as soon as he became king, Piers wasted no time in upsetting the nobility.  He did this first at the tournament at Wallingford in December 1307, when the Earls of Warenne, Hereford and Arundel were all defeated.  Undoubtedly there were some who were jealous of his title of Earl of Cornwall, his royal bride Margaret de Clare and his intimacy with Edward II.  It seemed that Edward could deny his Piers nothing, even the ‘leading role’ at his coronation (Piers dressed in royal purple and carried the crown).  Piers had been chosen by King Edward Ist as a good role model for his son, with his gracefulness and good manners especially noted, and it seems Piers brimmed with confidence.  This confidence manifested itself in amusing himself and Edward by giving some of the nobles nicknames, which became public and were recorded.   The chronicler of the ‘Vita’ says ‘He showed his contempt for the earls and barons by giving them vile nicknames’. 

Henry de Lacy, Earl of Lincoln was called ‘burst belly’, Thomas of Lancaster was called ‘the churl’ or ‘the fiddler’, Amyer de Valence, the Earl of Pembroke,  was called Joseph the Jew and Guy Beauchamp, the Earl of Warwick, was known as the ‘black dog of Arden’.  Whether Piers called his brother-in-law, and the king’s nephew, Gilbert de Clare ‘whoreson’ is open to debate.  It would have been incredibly insulting to call Gilbert this, unless there had been some sort of falling out between Piers and his brother-in-law.  Gilbert did not come to Piers aid when he was captured after he returned to England after his third exile – he did nothing to help even though he knew Piers was in terrible danger.   Did Gilbert realise Piers’ cause was hopeless and threw in his lot with Warwick and the other nobles, even though he knew Edward would do anything to save Piers, and Amyer de Valence was hell-bent on protecting his honour?  Did the stinging nickname of ‘whoreson’ help him make up his mind?  Maybe there was some sort of dispute between Piers and Gilbert, with Piers choosing to insult Gilbert further by calling him ‘whoreson’.  

The other nicknames chosen by Piers for the earls might seem tame by the standards of today – ‘burst belly’ and ‘the fiddler’ seem fairly harmless.  But in the context of the times, they were highly insulting – these men were the most high-ranking men in the realm, relatives of the king and men who demanded respect.  They must have felt humiliated to have been so ‘teased’ by Piers – and Edward did nothing to reprimand Piers for using these names.  You get the feeling that Edward must have laughed in their faces.   Politicians are often given nicknames in jest today – John Prescott, former deputy prime minister was called ‘Two jags’ (after his use of ministerial cars)  and later ‘two jabs’ after an altercation with a member of the public.  Tony Blair has been referred to as Bambi and Miranda.  They take it in good humour as there is nothing they can do.  But the nobles at Edward’s court were infuriated.  The nicknames chosen by Piers may have had something to do with the appearance of the nobles.   You can just imagine Lincoln as being somewhat overweight and his clothes seemingly to be bursting at the seams.   Lancaster seems to have been given the ‘honour’ of two nicknames.  The definition of churl is an ill-bred person lacking refinement or someone who is selfish and unwilling to share.  This must have been chosen by Piers  as an indication of the character of Lancaster.   Did Lancaster resemble a fiddle player?  Or was Piers hinting at his manipulative nature?  ‘Joseph the Jew’ for Pembroke may well have something to do with Pembroke’s appearance.  
The noble who took the most offence seems to have been Guy de Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick.  Piers called him the ‘black dog/hound of Arden’.  Was this a reference to his physical appearance?  Was Piers mocking his temper, in that Warwick may literally have foamed at the mouth in temper?   Warwick is alleged to have warned Piers to beware the bite of the ‘black hound’.   I have wondered whether there might be more to these nicknames than we realise – was it a sly way for Piers to slander the nobles – were there some hidden meanings in these nicknames that have been lost to us?  Or was it that Piers resented the way the nobles ‘looked down’ on him?  That they despised his elevation to the earldom of Cornwall, and it was Piers way of ‘taking them down a peg or two’?  Or maybe it was a way of Edward and Piers just simply having some fun at the expense of the nobles?   Whatever the cause, the nobles were out-raged and chroniclers like the author of the Vita Secundi thought the insults so serious they recorded them.
For further reading on the subject of Piers' use of nicknames, see Kathryn's excellent post from her Edward II blog -

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Anne Hathaway's cottage

OK, it's time for some 'pretty chocolate box' pix from my recent visit to the Cotswolds. This time it's Anne Hathaway's cottage - which I admit I completely fell in love with. In Anne's time, it consisted of 2 rooms, which have been added to considerably over the years. The female descendants of Anne continued to live in the house until the early 1900s when it was sold to the Shakespeare Birthplace trust.

Thursday, 4 August 2011

Blog round-up

Having some holiday time has allowed me to enjoy looking around at new history sites for me. Here are some of the new ones that have caught my eye.

Was thrilled to find this blog dedicated to Thomas Cromwell -

I'm a huge admirer of Thomas Cromwell's career and he is often portrayed in dramas as a sinister character - think Donald Pleasance in 'The Six Wives of Henry VIII' or his portrayal in 'Anne of 1,000 days'.

Likewise, my favourite Tudor king, Henry VII, is often over-looked in favour of his son, Henry VIII, so I was pleased to find this blog -

And a blog I've been reading for some time but haven't updated in my blog list -

I also want to congratulate Kathryn at

on getting her article published in English Historical Review. It's been a long time coming!

And now that the Duchesses have released Susan from their custody, I'm enjoying her revamped blog

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

The 'Kingmaker' exhibition at Warwick Castle

For some reason, I am always drawn back to Stratford-upon-Avon. I love to visit this part of the country. I last went there about 3 years ago, and decided a weeks visit was needed again this year. A visit to Stratford inevitably means a visit to Warwick castle - my favourite fortress after the Tower of London. Last time it poured with rain and my focus was the inside of the castle. This time, there was brilliant sunshine so my focus was outside. One day at Warwick Castle is never enough - and in fact the castle offers re-entry the following day for a £1. Of course, the castle has to keep pace and is heavily commercialised. New features are the 'Princess tower' - which I skipped - and the Dragon tower as featured in BBC tvs 'Merlin'. I enjoy this programme, but didn't have time to visit, plus there was an additional £7 fee to go inside. It costs £21 to enter the castle, although it is cheaper to book on-line, and keep a look out for 'buy one entry ticket , get one free' offers. I know these magnificent castles have to raise money and have to have appeal to broader audiences, and initially I found it very difficult to see what had been done to some of these castles, at the expense of the rich history of places. It quite pains me that there is no mention of Piers Gaveston at the castle. I always look around the dungeons, and there is an area called 'Prisoners walk'. I often wonder where Warwick kept Piers - in the dungeons/rooms above ground (for the more important/rich prisoners) or in the hellhole below. I have the feeling the 'Black dog' would have settled on the below ground ones.

One area where the castle excels is it's educational 'Kingmaker' exhibition. It hasn't changed from 3 years ago, and I can't ever see them getting rid of this exhibition - it is such a valuable educational tool. The exhibition is set on the eve of Richard Nevilles final battle in the 'Wars of the Roses', with Neville now fighting for the 'red rose' and King Henry VI. It shows the preparation for the battle and features a series of wax models, with sound effects. Here are some of the pictures I took.

The last picture shows Neville rallying his men.

Friday, 22 July 2011

England's Queens by Elizabeth Norton

I got this book after my visit to the National Portrait Gallery. It's called England's Queens and subtitled 'the private lives of....'. It's basically a biography of all the Queens of England, which is a real task for any writer - especially over about 450 pages. I've read a couple of Norton's books before, most notably on the wives of Henry VIII, particularly Anne Boleyn. They are very readable, but contain no real new information, and are a straight forward narrative of their lives. This seems to follow the previous books. So far, I've only read the very short chapter on Isabella, consort of Edward II - for obvious reasons! Nothing new in her mentions of Piers Gaveston - all the well-known incidents are there. Norton mentions Isabella marrying Edward II and seemingly not knowing anything about Gaveston. This always intrigues me because surely the French court must have known Edward 1st had banished Gaveston because of the closeness between his son and Piers. The story of Piers receiving the wedding jewels and wearing them at the wedding feast is retold, with the out-raged uncles being furious. Norton believes that Edward and Piers were lovers, but she mentions Edward having an illegitimate son, and takes the view that Isabella accepted the relationship between Edward and Piers as Piers was no threat to her, and the fact that she was pregnant while Piers was still alive is evidence that she lived a 'normal' married life with Edward and Piers' influence didn't stop her husband from having sex with her. That's refreshing! She exonerates Isabella from any plots against Piers, and doesn't make any suggestion that Edward and Piers abandoned Isabella in their flight - merely that they split up to ensure Piers' survival.

Much is made of the animosity between Isabella and Hugh Despencer. Norton believes Edward II was murdered, and that Isabella had a hand in it. She also repeats the tale of Isabella being married in her wedding dress, to show remorse for murdering her husband, and says that Isabella was buried in the same Greyfriars church as Mortimer - I can hear Kathryn's snort from here:)

I shall read the rest of the book, but I think it will be a case of dipping in and out of it.

Sunday, 17 July 2011

A Visit to the National Portrait Gallery

Finding myself in London over the weekend, I with a spare hour, I decided to visit the National Portrait Gallery. That makes 2 visits in the last 11 months. In my last visit, there was an exhibition on the portrayal of Lady Jane Grey - particularly the romanticised images from the Victorian era. Whenever I visit, I always find myself in the Tudor gallery. I have plenty of books with glossy pictures of the Tudors in, but there's nothing like coming 'face-to-face', as it were, with the real thing. You notice much more with the actual portrait than you would with any colour print in a book. Take this famous portrait of Anne Boleyn.

The detail on the dress on the actual portrait is amazing, particularly the detail on the fur on the sleeves of her dress, plus the decoration on the neckline. This portrait is described as being in a 'vulnerable' condition, and the gallery is asking for £4,000 in donations to repair it. The wood on which it has been painted is cracking. Visiting the gallery is free and they depend on donations.

Another of my favourite portraits is that of Thomas Cromwell, Earl of Essex. Again, seeing the portrait in the gallery is different to seeing it in a book. What strikes me about this portrait is Cromwell's 'double chin' and the lines around his eyes. He looks very severe, and in my opinion is not a 'vanity' portrait.

The gallery has developed the use of 'infra red' technology to 'see' beneath the original layers of the portrait. In this portrait of Thomas Cranmer, the artist changed the position of the hands, the lettering of the books Cranmer is reading, and a ring on the end of a piece of ribbon in one of the books has been painted out. Makes me wonder did Cranmer himself ask for the changes or was it the artist?

This portrait of the young Edward VI is clearly meant to show him in one of his father's typical poses. Infra red technology shows, however, that the pose was more exaggerated than the final portrait. Edward's right foot has been re-painted - he originally had his legs further apart, but maybe the artist realised the pose looked ridiculous on a child. Edward is thought to be around 9 or 10 in the portrait. The arms of England appear in the right corner - these were added after the original portrait has been completed. It begs the question - was this portrait started before the death of Henry VIII? and the arms painted in when Edward became king?

I grew up with this portrait identified as Lady Jane Grey. It was only a few years ago it was identified as Catherine Parr, Henry VIII's sixth wife. It's all to do with the crown-shaped brooch the sitter is wearing - it's been identified in an inventory of Catherine's jewels. It's a full-length portrait, and I love the detail of her hands.

Of course, the one portrait I would love to see, that of Piers Gaveston, doesn't exist. Edward II wold surely have had a portrait of him painted. Of course, the earlier portraits of monarchs and nobility are much cruder that the Tudor portraits. Edward IV's hands look far too small for him in his portrait. But however 'crude', it would be a dream come true, to use a popular cliche, if such a portrait were discovered.

The gallery allows you to investigate the portraits in a special room on pcs. You can buy prints of the portraits, and it has a great gift shop, selling things such as faux pearl Anne Bolyen necklaces! And of course, the gallery itself is free.

Sunday, 19 June 2011

It's that time of year again.........

It's the anniversary of the death of Piers Gaveston today - or rather, murder as I call it. Once again, I shall chose to celebrate his life and raise a glass of fine wine to him. RIP Piers!

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

The ‘secret illness’ of Piers Gaveston

This post has been inspired by a recent post on Kathryn Warner’s excellent Edward II blog. It concerns the knighting of Edward Ist’s son, Edward of Caernarfon, the future Edward II, at Westminster on Sunday 22 May 1306. Kathryn says the event was ‘described by the contemporary chronicler Piers Langtoft as the greatest event in Britain since King Arthur was crowned at Caerleon.’. Here’s a link to Kathryn’s post on the subject –

Kathryn brought to my attention the fact that Piers Gaveston was not knighted at the ceremony, but a few days later, and the fact that he was the only one of the group to be knighted at a separate ceremony. The only logical reason for this was that he must have been ill, and that the illness must have been de-habilitating enough to prevent him from attending the ceremony. What has sparked the interest of Kathryn and I is the nature of the illness, and the fact that Piers’ illnesses have been worthy of being recorded in documents.

An anonymous letter written in April 1311 records the fact that Piers was ill at that time - "A secret illness troubles him [Piers] much, compelling him to take short journeys." Almost an exact year later, Edward II is recorded as paying William de Burntoft, a doctor, and Brother Robert de Bermingham, a monk from Tynemouth, 10 marks each for caring for Piers in yet another bout of illness. Why was Piers’ illness in 1311 described as ‘secret’, and was it serious enough to strike again a year later? And what could it be that only allowed him to make short journeys?

My ‘ideal’ of Piers Gaveston, judging on what the chroniclers of the time recorded, is as someone strong and athletic. He was seen as the ideal role model for Edward II when he was a prince. It was hoped his good manners, grace and chivalric attitude would guide the prince. There are references to Piers being at war at the age of possibly 14 or 15, and attending tournaments. One report says he earned the ire of Edward Ist by abandoning the campaign in Scotland to attend lucrative tournaments elsewhere. There is an excellent description of Piers at the coronation of Edward II and Isabella by the Pauline annalist. Piers is described as "so decked out that he more resembled the god Mars than an ordinary mortal". His clothes might have been dazzling, but there is no doubt that Piers’ physical features added to this description of him as the God Mars. The tournament held by Piers at Wallingford in 1307 further enhances his reputation as strong and athletic, as we are told how he defeated and humiliated various nobles. Piers also married Margaret de Clare in 1307, and was able to consummate the marriage and father a child – Joan.

For me, all this information is at odds with someone who was prone to illness, and possibly a recurring ’secret’ illness at that. Perhaps Piers was merely unlucky with his illnesses, which could possibly all be different and not connectedl. But why use the word ‘secret’? ‘Secret’ suggests the illness may have been out of the ordinary, embarrassing or something that could be interpreted in a sinister way. Gabriele, on Kathryn’s blog, put forward Crohn’s disease or possibly malaria. Both cold be probable. Crohn’s might certainly have caused Piers some embarrassment, but not malaria. I did wonder if the illness might be something like epilepsy, which might possibly have been viewed as superstitious. However, this might strike at anytime and would be something Piers had no control over, and if he suffered an epileptic seizure, it might have occurred more frequently than his documented illness and something that he would have found very difficult to hide from others. It also begs the question how would anyone treat him for this? Hmm, I dread to think! Pus, whatever Piers suffered with, it took him days to recover from. This doesn’t really fit with epilepsy. The illness must have been so de-habilitating it caused the chaotic flight from Newcastle. The illness must have been so serious that Piers, and therefore Edward, could not flee to safety. This suggests to me that Piers would not have been able to move, or be moved. It might have been possible to move Piers if he had some sort of a fever – after all, the nobles were in hot pursuit of him. But if he were in some sort of terrible pain, Edward must have felt that he dare not move him. Another explanation for not moving Piers is that it was life-threatening. And yet, after treatment, Edward and Piers were able to flee, and Piers was prepared for a siege at Scarborough Castle, and Edward was not worried about Piers’ health to leave him there.

Another reason for the secretive nature of the illness might have been that it would give the enemies of Piers’ hope, in that his illness would soon carry him off. But then Edward and Piers were preparing for a siege at Scarborough, so whatever it was he recovered quickly was it was not deemed life-threatening. Perhaps it was something that caused Piers’ embarrassment – and if he was as vain and proud as we are led to believe, he would surely hate anyone to know that he had 1. a weakness and 2. an illness which would be mocked by others, especially his enemies. We will probably never know, but it is something certainly worth speculating about.

Having mentioned Kathryn's post here, I'd like to take the opportunity to congratulate her on receiving a publication date from EHR for her excellent article on The Earl of Kent's plot, which I have been fortunate enough to read.

Sunday, 15 May 2011

Holiday Reading

After going through all the pros and cons, I decided to invest in a Kindle. I’ve far too many books. One room has 6 bookcases, all full, and there are boxes up in the loft. So, I decided to buy novels/paperbacks on Kindle to save some space. Plus, it's handy to take on holiday! The Kindle is very easy to use, and much better than the e-readers some of my friends have. I’ve already got about 25 books on there. Unfortunately, my first read on Kindle was a historical novel that might have been written in the 1970s. It was ‘Isabeau’, by Gemini Sassoon.

Now, I admire anyone who can write a book and get it published – but that doesn’t mean I won’t criticise the content. It’s not so much historical fact that concerns me in this novel, more historical interpretation. ‘Isabeau’ reproduces an awful lot of the stereotypical portrayals of Edward II and his wife Isabella. No surprise with the opening. Isabella thinking back to her wedding day. We have the usual, handsome, disinterested Edward and Isabella, who is naturally described as the most beautiful of brides who no man could resist. Isabella finds her husband really handsome, but is puzzled by his lack of attention to her. No surprise when Edward decides to tell Isabella on their wedding night that he won’t bother her as they have plenty of time for a full married life. So no mention that at 13 she may be way too young. Naturally, some courtiers are already in the know, and Isabella is bewildered.

It’s not difficult to guess what happens when they land in England – a foppish Piers Gaveston greets them richly dressed, in furs and velvet, and waves a handkerchief at Edward, who just has to dash and embrace him. Oh, and of course hands over the wedding presenets. And that’s the tone for the whole novel – Isabella is neglected, humiliated etc and only fights back when her relationship with her children is affected. Oh, and of course when she claps eyes on Roger Mortimer, who yes, is bursting with testosterone:) And who naturally gives Isabella the best sex of her life.

It’s obvious to me Gemini Sassoon really dislikes Edward II – there isn’t one redeemable feature about him. He’s even accused of not loving his children and neglecting them – even endangering them. There isn’t a shred of evidence for this. Edward was known to be a loving and doting father to his children. I found this a very difficult book to read. It was outdated in its portrayal of the marriage of Edward and Isabella, something I would have read when I was barely a teenager. Gemini Sassoon doesn’t seem to realise her particular interpretation is, well, ‘old hat’.

As for the Kindle, it’s definite thumbs up!

Friday, 29 April 2011

Holiday in Egypt

Just returned from a holiday in Egypt. Didn't know an awful alot about Egyptian history, but have learned so much! Here are some pictorial highlights.

Saturday, 26 March 2011

David Starkey’s ‘Crown and Country’.

This book was one of my Christmas treats. I’ve always had a huge respect for Starkey, ever since I first saw him as a ‘witness for the prosecution’ in Channel 4’s ‘The Trial of Richard III’. I’ve subsequently watched all his television documentaries and read many of his books. I won’t review the whole book here, but I found his ‘take’ on Edward II and Piers very interesting. He starts, not surprisingly, by comparing Edward II with his father, and points out, rightly in my opinion, that whoever followed Edward Ist was in for a difficult time. He refers to the differences in character – the usual contrast between the warrior king Edward Ist and the ‘rustic pursuits’ Edward II enjoyed. Apart from the similarity in looks between father and son, they also shared a terrible temper.

Edward’s fascination for Piers is described as his ‘major personality flaw’, and that he only had ears and eyes for Piers. Exploring the relationship between the pair, Starkey affirms that no contemporary source explicitly says they were lovers – ‘but they probably came as near as they could’, and cites the well-known quotes, that Edward’s feelings for Piers was ‘the love, that surpasses the love of a woman’, and the infamous ‘David and Jonathan’ quote.

Much is made of Edward’s coronation oath, whereby he promised of uphold and defend ‘the laws and rightful customs which the community of the realm shall have chosen’. Therefore, the nobles saw the loyalty to the monarchy and not to Edward himself. They disapproved of Edward and Piers behaviour – Starkey says they were ‘breaking the rules’, and thus offended the nobles who saw themselves as the keeper of the rules. I particularly liked this quote from Starkey – ‘ Piers mockery of the nobility was the classic response of the outsider confronted by the clique of crusty old insiders’. The nobles, older members of this clique, saw it as their right to have their values and sensibilities to be respected by all – even the king. Membership to their clique was exclusive and limited, to those with the ‘right background’. ‘Their attitude was of course selfish and class-ridden’. Which begs the question, what if a member of the senior nobility had been Edward’s ‘favourite’? Would a homosexual relationship with a senior noble have been accepted? Would Edward have been left in peace? Or would powerful factions have been created? My opinion is that whoever Edward had become besotted with, whatever class he came from, factions would surely have sprung up. A king’s mistress could wield very little power at court, but a male lover was something else.

Although Starkey describes Edward as grief-stricken after the death of Piers, he sys the loss ran deeper than this. It was an affront to his kingship. ‘Gaveston was the thing in the world that had mattered most to him. But he had not been powerful enough or feared enough, to protect his life or avenge his death’.

Of course, Edward swore vengeance on the killers of Piers, and he would eventually take revenge on his cousin, Thomas of Lancaster. Edward and Piers had ‘gone along’ with exiles when threatened, but always with the intention they would re-unite. There’s no doubt in my mind that some nobles, namely Warwick and Lancaster, decided to assert themselves over Edward by murdering Piers. As well as ridding themselves of someone who thumbed his nose at them, they struck right at the heart of the king’s authority.

Sunday, 6 March 2011

5 Piers related things I'd like discovered........

The recent discovery of the ‘Henry VIII’ mural has really got me thinking about what else might be ‘out there’, waiting to be discovered. Well, actually, what I would like to be discovered. Here’s my ‘wish’ list for Piers. I’ve kept it to 5.

The first 2 are difficult to choose between, but I’m going to go with –

1. A portrait of Piers. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if a locket with his likeness was hidden away somewhere? Or perhaps his likeness lurks beneath an ancient plastered wall as a mural. I’ve always thought of him as dark-haired but there’s just no way of knowing his hair colour. We just know he was athletic, graceful and with fine manners.

2. His tomb. We know that Edward II had Piers interred at Langley – eventually. Edward buried Piers some 21/2 years after his death in a fine tomb at Langley. There was a palace, Dominican friary/Church at Langley. Hardly anything remains. I’ve got in touch with the local historical society, and the best they can tell me is that a private school now stands on the probable site.

3. A ‘private’ letter from Piers to Edward II, preferably written in his own hand, revealing the true nature of their relationship.

4. A ‘private’ letter from Edward II, to Piers, revealing the true nature of their relationship.

5. Some of Piers’ ‘bling’:) Piers has the reputation of a love of finery and jewels. When Piers was taken, he had on him a silver box containing 3 large rubies set in rings ( maybe one was the famed ‘La Cerise’ ruby ring), a diamond and emerald. Who knows where these precious stones ended up? They could possibly still be amongst today’s royal jewels or in a private collection anywhere in the world. And no-one would their history. A few years back, I read an article about how a diamond worn in a portrait by Mary Tudor, Henry VIII’s daughter, was traced to the actress Elizabeth Taylor. Or how about one of Piers silver forks for eating pears?

An item not related to Piers I would love to see turn-up is Anne Boleyn’s famous ‘B’ pearl necklace, although I’m sure it would have been broken up and incorporated into some new jewellery.

Monday, 21 February 2011

A Review of Edward II at the Rose Theatre

Thanks to Kathryn’s wonderful blog, I finally got the chance to see Christopher Marlowe’s ‘Edward II’. As look would have it, I already had one play booked for the weekend of February 19th. I usually go about once a month, and meet up with a few friends. One of my friends is a very keen theatregoer, and when I mentioned there was a matinee performance of Edward II on February 20th, she went ahead and booked it. She had never been to the Rose, but we’re both fans of the Globe.

The Rose is not as easy to find as the Globe, as it is an archaeological site. We found it and entered through a small door. There’s no foyer or box office as such, just a small office and a lady making tea and coffee. I suspected the theatre would only hold about 100 to 150 – and then we entered it, through a pulled back curtain. There were about 40 chairs, if that, arranged in 3 rows. The theatre was in darkness. We decided to sit in the front row, and for some reason, it didn’t dawn on me that the stage was the small wooden area in front of me! I would be able to stare ‘Piers Gaveston’ right in the eye, as it were.

There was no scenery and very few props. The actors costumes consisted of jeans, boots and t-shirts which had heraldic beasts printed on them to let you know who they were, and each actor then worse something else related to their character – so Edward II had his crown and a short, purple cape, Piers had a sword and pearls pinned to his t-shirt, and Isabella vamped it up with a purple cape and purple skirt slit to the thigh with a stocking top showing and a pair of Christian Loubotin shoes. The actors also had to ‘double up’ on parts, some playing 3 or 4 parts. Props consisted of a throne that doubled as the infamous table, a box and of course, the ‘poker’, which even glowed red.

In the programme, the director talked about Edward’s sexuality and the relevance of being gay today – pointing out a recent homophobic murder in Trafalgar Square and the blackmail of MPs over their private lives. Consequently, there is plenty of kissing and fondling between Edward and Gaveston, and you are made to feel the hostility and hatred of the likes of Mortimer and Lancaster. Both actors were superb in their role. Zoe Teverson vamps it up as Isabella and when she returns to depose her husband, she wears leggings and spiked, knee-high laced-up boots with a concealed dagger in one of them. Matt Barber plays Edward II, and at one moment he is maddeningly weak, dishing out honours as he thinks them up, and then displaying the flashing Plantagenet temper as he tries to assert himself over the troublesome nobles. He makes a very pathetic Edward at the end of the play, arousing real sympathy. He looked an utter wretch, and the horror of his impending murder was built with real suspense. David North as Kent deserves praise as an agonised Kent, defending his brother’s right to rule as king but struggling to accept his decisions. Joseph Bader made an excellent Piers Gaveston. A mixture of swagger, arrogance and passion. He asserts himself over Edward as soon as they both share the stage, and both berates and encourages Edward to take a stand over the nobles. And the contempt between Edward, Piers and Isabella is present every time they share the stage.

I’ve never seen a play like this before – with such a small audience and stage, but it was one of the best theatre experiences I’ve ever had! The two hours flew by and I was engrossed in the play. It didn’t matter about a lack of scenery etc, because the audience were right there in the heart of the play and totally engrossed in it. Behind the stage was the archaeological site of the original Rose theatre, and it made the performance that much more special.

Monday, 7 February 2011

Amazing Henry VIII mural

Reading my newspaper on Saturday, I was stunned to come across an article about a recently discovered mural of Henry VIII. It's stunning! To think that something like this was just waiting to be uncovered........Always makes me wonder how many other portraits/objects are waiting to be discovered. Here are some photos of the mural - just look at that face! He looks truly terrifying. It's a real change from the Holbein portraits we are used to seeing - and nothing like Jonathan Rhys Meyers :>

Here's the story behind the mural - from The Daily Telegraph
A unique medieval mural of Henry VIII has been discovered by a couple renovating their Tudor home.
Angie Powell, 57, and her husband Rhodri, 56, uncovered the 20ft wide, six ft high, wall painting as they peeled back wallpaper and mortar from their grade II listed home.
The priceless picture, which shows the monarch sitting on his throne wearing his crown and holding a sceptre, is thought to have been painted shortly after the house was built at the turn of the 15th century.
At the time it was the home of Thomas Cranmer, the Archdeacon of Taunton who went onto become the Archbishop of Canterbury and helped Henry break from the Catholic Church and set up the Church of England.
Though the artist is unknown, it is thought to be unique.
The only other known mural of the King, painted in the Palace of Whitehall, was destroyed when it burned down in the 16th century.
Michael Liversidge, former head of history of art department at Bristol University, said the discovery was "totally fascinating" and of "enormous importance and significance".
"It would have been an expression of loyalty," he said.
"Cranmer could have done it as a tribute to Henry and that would make it an object of great importance and significance. It is a unique image."
One thing that bothers me about this report is that Cranmer was already Archbishop of Canterbury when the mural was painted. A minor detail, perhaps, but worth drawing attention to.

Saturday, 22 January 2011

Some interesting finds in Swansea Museum

I found myself visiting Swansea museum last week. It's an old, small Victorian building with some curious artefacts. There is a small medieval gallery upstairs, and I was delighted to find a couple of interesting artefacts. I took some pictures, and here they are. They show a gold ewer that belonged to Gilbert de Clare, Edward I's grandson, whose sister Margaret was married to Piers Gaveston. I've never really warmed to Gilbert because he abandonned Piers - when Pembroke asked for his help after Piers' capture by Warwick at Deddington, Gilbert did nothing to help his brother-in-law. I'm sure youth played its part - as it probably did when he was killed in battle at Bannockburn when he rode in without his 'coat'. The other pictures are of a stone head, thought to be Alina de Mowbray, and tiles from Neath Abbey.