She Wolves: England’s Early Queens; Caligula with Mary Beard; Royal Institution Christmas Lectures: Meet Your Brain

The last episode of She Wolves: England’s Early Queens covered the three Tudor Queens. Castor started by giving us a bit of context – when Henry VIII died his son Edward succeeded him, at the age of 9. Edward took ill & died at the age of only 15, before he’d had a chance to produce an heir. Which was a problem, as that meant there were no legitimate male heirs and England would have to be ruled by a Queen. Castor didn’t dwell on it, but I thought it was interesting that no man tried to seize power at this point – perhaps it wouldn’t be legitimate, but it’s not like Henry VII had a terribly good claim to the throne. Times had changed a bit from the more “might makes right” of previous centuries.

Henry VIII’s will had provided instruction for who was to succeed Edward VI if he died without heirs – first Mary, Henry’s eldest daughter, then Elizabeth. But for the staunchly Protestant Edward & his equally Protestant regency council this was a problem – Mary was very much a Catholic, and they felt that this Would Not Do. So even before he became ill Edward set about drafting a new order of succession if he was to die without heirs. He used the fact that Henry had declared both Mary & Elizabeth illegitimate to say that the next legitimate claimants were the descendants of Henry’s sister Mary. He skipped over his cousin Frances in favour of her three daughters, and his initial draft excluded women from ruling directly and was to leave the throne to the heirs male of the Grey sisters (in order, by age). However when it became clear he was dying the Grey girls were still too young to’ve had children (although Jane was married by this stage), so he altered this to leave the throne to “Jane Grey and her heirs male”. Castor pointed out that Edward’s council were also probably heavily involved in this – Jane’s father-in-law (the Duke of Northumberland) just happened to be the head of the council.

So Edward dies & Jane is summoned to meet her father-in-law & the rest of the council … much to her surprise she’s offered the throne. Castor said Jane tried to refuse it, because she believed Mary was the rightful heir, but she was “persuaded” to accept. After that Edward’s death & Jane’s ascension to the throne was announced to the country – met, Castor said, by somewhat confused silence by the general population who thought Mary was next in line. Jane moved to the tower to prepare for her coronation, but alas that was not to be – only 9 days later Mary had succeeded in rallying her allies and installing herself on the throne as the rightful Queen. Northumberland died a traitor’s death, but Jane was spared at first and remained in the tower as a prisoner. Even if Northumberland had succeeded in keeping Mary from the throne it seems unlikely that Jane would’ve been the obedient & docile pawn he’d’ve hoped for. Even in the 9 days she was Queen she’d started to show her Tudor heritage of strength of will & intelligence. Northumberland had assumed that his son would be crowned King when Jane was crowned Queen, but Jane was quite clear that she would make her husband a Duke but he would not be King.

Mary’s most pressing concern after actually taking the throne was to have an heir – a proper Catholic one. So she needed to marry, and soon, because she was in her late 30s by this stage. She too had the problem that if she was Queen then was any husband of hers to be King, and she too was adamant that this would not be the case. Her solution (a bit to the dismay of her council) was to marry Philip of Spain – he was the son of her biggest ally (the Holy Roman Emperor) and was already ruler of Spain. She drew a distinction between herself as a woman (who was subordinate to her husband) and herself as a Queen (who ruled England) and marrying a foreigner of the same status as herself meant that she wasn’t subordinating herself to someone she also ruled. And there was a lot of diplomacy involved in making sure she did rule England, rather than Philip doing so, and to ensure that in the event of her death Philip had no claim on the throne.

Castor next ran through the sad story of Mary’s two phantom pregnancies, and the increasing crackdown on Protestants in the country. Castor presented the two things as sort of linked, in that as Mary became more convinced she wouldn’t have a Catholic heir she also became more keen to stamp out Protestantism so that Elizabeth couldn’t bring it back. It’s for her fanaticism that Mary is most remembered (as Bloody Mary), but Castor tried to spin that as being hyped up because Mary was a woman and this was unwomanly behaviour. It wasn’t an entirely convincing take on the reputation, although I do agree that Mary probably got worse things said about her than a King might’ve done for the same behaviour – just that condemnation for burning people at the stake seems perfectly fair to me.

After Mary’s death Elizabeth was next in line for the throne, and this transition went relatively smoothly. There was again the assumption that Elizabeth would marry promptly, and that her choice of husband would indicate the direction her rule would take the kingdom. But Elizabeth had other ideas – her solution to the “who is in charge” problem for a married Queen was not to marry. Castor pointed out that Elizabeth’s method of dealing with this – with prevarication & putting off decisions to a later time – was the method she used throughout her life to keep from being railroaded into decisions by her councillors. She also “failed” to choose either fanatical Protestantism or fanatical Catholicism, famously saying that she would “not make windows into men’s souls” – as far as she was concerned if you had the outward appearance of conformity to the Church of England then that was sufficient. (And she returned the Church of England to a not quite Protestant, not quite Catholic state after the pendulum swings of the previous two reigns).

Elizabeth was the last of the Queens that Castor was discussing so the end of the programme was wrapping up – a combination of “look how far we’ve come” and “look how little has changed”. While I’d agree with Castor that the political power in our country is still disproportionately held by men, I think I’m more optimistic about how far we’ve come than she is. I was also surprised that she drew a distinction between these Queens she talked about & later ones as the earlier ones ruled, and the later ones just reigned. And she postulated that’s why our current Queen, for instance, was accepted as Queen without any worries about her gender. My surprise was because I thought the myth of Good Queen Bess was also instrumental in changing attitudes – finally a precedent of the country not falling to pieces when a woman ruled.

Overall an interesting series, particularly as it told us about the history of some key players in England’s past that aren’t often given a lot of screen time. However, I’m not sure the evidence Castor presented always supported her thesis (that these women have bad reputations because of misogyny & they’d be better remembered if they’d been men doing the same things). But that could partly be due to streamlining the story for television, I should read the book and see what I think of that.

Caligula is one of the most notorious Roman Emperors – remembered for levels of debauchery & tyranny that were shocking even by the standards of the Romans. Mary Beard presented this programme about what we actually know about the man behind the myth. The answer is “surprisingly little” when it comes to his actions once he was Emperor.

Caligula was born Gaius Caesar Germanicus (sometimes he was refered to as Gaius Caesar Augustus Germanicus & I wasn’t entirely sure if that was him adding to his name once he was Emperor or if it was just a variant version of his name). He was the son of Germanicus, a popular Roman General who was the nephew of the Emperor Tiberius, and was thought likely to become Emperor. Caligula’s mother was Agrippina, the granddaughter of the Emperor Augustus. So on both sides he’s descended from the rulers of Rome. He was brought up mostly in army camps in the north of the Empire, in modern Germany. He was a sort of military mascot – his mother dressed him up in a miniature legionary’s uniform. This is where he got his nickname from – “Caligula” is a diminutive which refers to the caligae, the boots, that a legionary wore. Beard said it was a bit like calling the boy “Bootikins”. Unsurprisingly the adult Caligula became did not like being called that – and would’ve been furious if he’d known that was how he would be remembered in the future.

When Caligula is still relatively young his father dies – probably poisoned, certainly that’s what Germanicus said with his dying breath. There was a trial in Rome, but the accused man conveniently committed suicide early on in the proceedings so the trial became more of a public inquiry. Beard showed us one of the proclamations that were put up in all major cities afterwards – which basically say “the accused was acting on his own, nothing to do with Tiberius, no sir not at all”. After his father’s death Caligula lived with the Emperor Tiberius, Beard said it isn’t clear quite why – was he a hostage? did Tiberius like him? did Tiberius see him as heir & so want to make sure he was kept an eye on? However while he was living there most of his other relatives died – bumped off by Tiberius’s agents.

Succession to the position of Emperor wasn’t well defined – Beard laid this partly at the door of the Emperor Augustus. While Augustus had children, and Augustus’s wife Livia also had a children, they didn’t have any children with each other and so there wasn’t an obvious “legitimate” heir. So the succession tended to involve the removal either before or afterward of other potential candidates. And assassination of the ruling Emperor by the next-in-line was also common. It’s thought that Caligula smothered Tiberius, or instructed someone to smother Tiberius.

When Caligula became Emperor he was only 24, and in many ways he was trading on his boyhood status as military mascot to keep the army onside. He only reigned for a little under 4 years, and in the end he was to be assassinated by the army – Beard pointed out that’s a problem a lot of tyrants & despots face even today. If you use the army to gain power, the army can tear you back down again – the army has the real power.

A lot of the information we have about Caligula’s time as Emperor comes from Suetonius, and he wrote later and his biographies of the Emperors are full of salacious gossip. Tho even he couldn’t quite bring himself to say that Caligula did have an incestuous relationship with his favourite sister, just that “some men say that …”. There is some contemporary evidence for Caligula’s personality & actions as Emperor, though – Beard told us about an eye-witness account of a delegation from the Jews of Alexandria who went to meet Caligula. Instead of getting to business at their appointment, instead they had to trail round after Caligula as he decided how he was going to renovate a part of his palace. And then when he deigned to notice them he was more interested in why they didn’t eat pork rather than the business they wanted to discuss with him. As Beard pointed out this was a power display – they weren’t worth his time or attention, and he could humiliate them on a whim.

Beard also made the point that many of the tales of debauchery may also be tales about Caligula showing his power – stories of Caligula eyeing up the wives of important Romans at dinners, and then choosing one to take off & have sex with, only to return and make some remark about her not being much good in bed. That’s a display of power, and a humiliation for his target. Beard also talked about the story of Caligula making his horse a Consul, which is a later story she thought was likely to’ve derived from some petty humiliation by Caligula. That he was saying something like “you lot are all useless, my horse could do a better job than you, I should make him a Consul”. (She also said, imagine it as if the Queen has called one of her corgis “Prime Minister” – we’d all know what that would mean about the Queen’s opinion of her government.) And later writers turned that into a done deed, not a petty remark.

Caligula lived in a paranoid world where assassination could be just around any corner, and in the end it was. He only ruled for a little under 4 years, which surprised me to learn – I’d assumed he was in power for longer to’ve built up quite such a reputation. After his assassination there was some brief attempt to return to the Republic as a mode of government, but Claudius (Caligula’s uncle) was soon Emperor.

An interesting programme 🙂

The second lecture of the 2011 Royal Institution Christmas Lectures was called “Who’s In Charge Anyway?”. It felt a little more disjointed than the first one, with a bit less information & a bit more entertainment. It covered memory, learning & how the sum total of your memories shapes who you are. And also the frontal lobes & their role in personality & decision making. Again, not a lot I didn’t already know but still fun to watch. Things that particularly stuck in my mind were the demonstration of how poor eyewitness testimony can be (they had someone run off with a cuddly toy, then a later line-up of possible people & the audience mostly got it wrong). And also the “did you see that gorilla?” thing, which demonstrates how you can just not notice even quite strange things when you’re concentrating on something else.