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 πŸ™‚

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.

She Wolves: England’s Early Queens; Secrets of the Arabian Nights; The Secrets of Stonehenge: A Time Team Special

The second episode of Helen Castor’s She Wolves: England’s Early Queens was about Isabella of France & Margaret of Anjou. Neither of these women ruled England in their own right, but both ruled in the name of a man (son & husband respectively) and neither have been remembered kindly by history. Rather unfairly, I think (although Isabella brought it on herself to some degree).

Isabella was the daughter of the King of France & was married to Edward II when she was only 12 years old. The marriage didn’t get off to an auspicious start when Edward sat his favourite, Piers Gaveston, closer to Edward at the feast than Isabella was and they ignored her to concentrate on each other. Even at this young age Isabella was very aware of the respect due to herself as a daughter of a King and a Queen herself. However, despite the fact that Edward was besotted with his favourite, Isabella set out to behave like the perfect Queen & wife.

Gaveston’s behaviour and indulgence by the King wasn’t just annoying & insulting to Isabella, it also wasn’t going down well with the nobles at court. Eventually the situation deteriorated to the point where the barons took up arms against Edward & his favourite, and they had to flee – with Isabella in tow. The situation was only resolved with the capture & execution of Gaveston. Relations between Isabella & Edward must’ve got better after this – if nothing else they started having children including the future Edward III. Isabella had therefore performed one of the critical duties of a Queen in ensuring the succession, she also played the Queenly role of peacemaker in mediating between Edward & the rebel barons.

However she was to play a critical role in the re-emergence of hostilities. She was travelling with her household when they were caught in a storm, and sought shelter at Leeds Castle (in Kent). The Lord of the castle had been one of the rebels but he was away, and his wife refused Isabella entry. Isabella was furious and ordered her men to force their way in, at which point the soldiers in Leeds Castle fought back (as you would) and six of Isabella’s men died. Edward called this insult to his Queen treason & used it as an excuse to beseige the castle, eventually capturing it & imprisoning the lady & her children. The lady’s husband was executed. I’ve got chronology muddled a bit here (I don’t think Castor did tho) and by this stage Edward II had already taken up with his next poor idea for a favourite – Hugh Despenser. Castor characterised Despenser as a political predator (and we got nice visuals of a raptor of some sort flying about and tearing at some sort of prey). She also said that she believes that relationship to’ve been platonic, unlike the one with Gaveston.

So now relations between Edward & the country are deteriorating & so are those between Edward & Isabella. Tensions are rising between England & France, too. Isabella seizes her chance when her brother (now King of France) wants to negotiate a peace – she volunteers to go to France to negotiate on England’s behalf. Once in Paris she organises for her son Edward to join her, and instead of returning to England as a dutiful wife she returns at the head of an army, fighting to depose Edward II & set Edward III in his place. She’s practically welcomed in, Edward II’s reign had become tyrannical and unpopular. Once Edward II was captured Edward III was crowned & Isabella ruled as his regent. Edward II subsequently died, almost certainly at Isabella’s orders (but not via the red hot poker of later myth). Isabella was widely regarded as the saviour of England at the time.

But she’d already sown the seeds of her downfall. Whilst in Paris she’d also taken up with a knight called Roger Mortimer (Castor made a lot of use of chess metaphors in this programme, in particular referring to the Queen making her move with her Knight & Pawn (Edward III)). So when she started to rule as regent she had her own favourite by her side, not quite what the nobles wanted to see. And she had always been very aware of her own majesty, and this only got worse when she was running the country – she and Mortimer enriched themselves at the Crown’s expense. So in the end Isabella was overthrown in her turn, by her son. Mortimer was executed, but Isabella was allowed to live on.

(Isabella is one of the viewpoint characters in “Iron King” by Maurice Druon that I read earlier this year, it’s set around the time of Edward III’s birth. Druon has her & Mortimer (very much pre any relationship) conspiring to catch her sisters in the act of adultery, oh the irony.)

The second half of the programme was devoted to Margaret of Anjou – the French bride of Henry VI. Henry had been King since he was 9 months old, when his father Henry V died. Unfortunately at the time Margaret of Anjou married him he still wasn’t showing much signs of capability to rule – he was 23 by then. And it got worse – Margaret became pregnant, but shortly before the baby was born Henry slipped into a catatonic state. The court was already divided into factions – one centred round the Duke of York (who had his own claim to the throne), one centred round the Duke of Somerset (who was pro-Henry). Castor was telling us that Margaret would’ve prefered that she was named regent – she felt she had the right as the King’s wife & that she was a more neutral choice than the other two. However it was the Duke of York who got the job. This is where the Wars of the Roses begin to properly kick off.

Henry did recover his wits (such as they ever had been), so the Duke of York was no longer regent. However relations between the Yorkist & Lancastrians had deteriorated to the point where civil war broke out. Margaret was firmly in the Lancastrian camp, keen to protect her husband & son’s right to the throne. Henry was fought over & captured/released and generally passed around like pass the parcel. Castor told us of the king sitting in the centre of St Albans, guarded by soldiers, while the fighting raged through the town – not participating, just bewildered as he was fought over. In the end York won, not to control the king but to rule in his own name. (By this stage it’s not the original Duke of York, it’s his son Edward who ruled as Edward IV.) Margaret & her son (and husband? I can’t remember where Castor said Henry was) fled the country. Whilst in France she worked tirelessly to drum up support for her husband’s cause, but not very successfully.

Eventually the chance she’d been waiting for arrived – one of the major Yorkists, the Earl of Warwick, became dissatisfied with the King he’d put on the throne. Warwick regarded himself as “Kingmaker” and felt that if this one wasn’t working out, why all he needed to do was put a new one on the throne. So he switched sides, and promised Margaret that he’d work to return her husband to his rightful throne. Margaret was quite canny about this, she accepted his aid and then waited with her son in France until Warwick had delivered on his promise. Only then did she set out for England.

Sadly for Margaret just as she and her son were landing in England the Yorkists re-grouped and retook the crown. Margaret & her forces were forced into a battle in which her son took part for the first time. He died and as he was Henry VI’s only heir, with him died the hopes of Margaret for keeping her husband’s line on the throne. Henry VI was a Yorkist captive again, and died shortly afterwards in the Tower of London. Margaret lived the rest of her life in France.

Secrets of the Arabian Nights was a standalone programme presented by Richard E. Grant all about the stories of the Arabian Nights. He traced their origins in the Middle East & beyond, and how they got to the West. He also talked to several critics & others about the impact they still have in both East & West today. And we also got treated to some retellings of some of the stories.

The stories come from a thriving oral tradition originating with merchants travelling the Silk Road & other trade routes across Asia. The prominence of merchants in many of the stories is a legacy of that. These stories were subsequently fitted within the Scheherazade frame story, and written down as The 1000 Stories. They came to the West via a Frenchman called Antoine Galland in the 18th Century – he was fluent in Arabic & Persian & other Middle Eastern languages, and he translated an Arabic form of the stories into French & published it. The book was a great success – partly because it was exotic and new, with sorts of stories & magic that aren’t the common tropes of Western literature (flying carpets were an example Grant mentioned repeatedly). And partly because it was the right thing at the right time – there was already a fashion for fairytales, and these stories fitted into that niche. Due to the success of the stories Galland was pressured to provide more, and he did – he said he’d heard the stories from contacts in the Middle East, but Grant pointed out that this was pretty dubious. It’s more likely that Galland invented them or significantly embellished them. I knew already that what we have in the West isn’t quite the same as the original, but I hadn’t realised that Aladdin & Ali Baba were among the extras.

Galland’s book was translated into English where again it was a success and helped establish the craze for “oriental” fashions in Britain. It was also disapproved of by the more strait-laced – Grant quote one lord who felt that it was encouraging the “Desdemona complex” (which is every bit as racist as you might imagine). And then in Victorian times the Arabian Nights stories were significantly bowdlerised & re-purposed as children’s stories. Which is really the form that most of us English speakers run into them first today.

Grant spent some time talking to a variety of critics both European & not. They were mostly in agreement that one of the themes of the book as a whole (in the original) is female sexuality & desire. They also drew out a feminist theme to the collection of stories. The framing story of Scheherazade is about a king whose wife betrays him, so after killing her he goes on to marry & then execute a woman every night. As revenge. Scheherazade uses her wits & her storytelling abilities to not just save herself but to slowly change the King’s attitudes. They were saying at the beginning the stories she tells fit with the King’s misogynistic & vengeful ideas, but over the course of the stories she emphasises wisdom & reflection over vengeance, and seeing women as people.

In the Middle East today (well, 2011 or 2010 when this was filmed) the book is controversial. It’s regarded by some as immoral – too much drinking, too much sex, people aren’t rewarded for being good they’re rewarded for being lucky, and so on. Grant talked to an Egyptian author & publisher (Gamal al Ghitani) who has published a new edition of the stories – he has received death threats & there was pressure on the government to ban the book because it was indecent & not Islamic enough. Gamal al Ghitani was clear that he felt this was rubbish, that the extremely conservative Islamist groups weren’t right about the only way to be a Muslim. And that these stories are an important part of Arabic heritage & should be read & learnt about by modern people.

It was a good programme, interesting & the dramatic re-tellings of stories were fun πŸ™‚

Secrets of Stonehenge was a Time Team special we’d recorded several years ago, about a team excavating at and near Stonehenge. It felt very padded, in what I think of as “Discovery channel style” – i.e. the sequence went: cliff-hanger, ad break, re-cap, small bit of something else, next cliff-hanger etc. And while it did belabour the point about theories only lasting so long as there’s evidence to support them, it also made a lot of use of “and now they’ve proved” language *rolls eyes*. However. It was fun to watch, as Time Team generally is. A particularly amusing moment was when Robinson said “to help the archaeologist Time Team has built a life size replica of the henge at Durrington” … well, no, I think you did it so you had something cool to show on the telly πŸ™‚

The excavations were led by a chap called Mike Parker Pearson, and his pet theory (which evolved over the 6 years of excavations) was that Stonehenge fit into a ritual landscape involving a progression from life to death. The henge at Durrington, built of wood, was a place where people came to feast each midwinter. They then travelled down the river Avon and along the avenue to Stonehenge, which was the place of the dead. There they buried some of their ancestors (mostly adult males, who were relatively fit – Pearson speculated this was a royal line). Some of this left me hoping it was based on better evidence than they showed us (i.e. that the people would process along the river scattering ashes?), some of it was more compelling (i.e. evidence of feasting on pigs of a particular age at the Durrington site implies feasting at a particular time of year).

Another strand of the programme talked about the previous excavations at the site – it was a minor enough theme I wouldn’t’ve mentioned it except that I wanted to make a note of one rather appalling part. One of the modern excavators, back in the 50s, was a man called Richard Atkinson. Although he did a lot of work on the site none was recorded and none was published – so effectively he dug it up & disturbed it all for no gain. Not what you expect from the modern era! Wikipedia is somewhat kinder to the man citing overwork & illness, so perhaps that too was hammed up to make “good telly”.

Overall I’d say it was fun but not necessarily accurate (or nuanced).

She Wolves: England’s Early Queens; A Night at the Rijksmuseum; Horizon: Little Cat Diaries

She Wolves: England’s Early Queens is a series we’ve had sitting on the PVR for a while now – it’s presented by Helen Castor who has written a book with the same title & premise. She’s looking at the history of seven Queens of England, in medieval & Tudor times. Some of these Queens ruled in their own right, some were wives of Kings but all of them exercised power. The second episode will be about the woman who was actually referred to as a she wolf, none of them were entirely popular with their subjects. Castor’s thesis is that this is all down to the people of that time regarding power as male, so these women were slandered & put down for behaviours that would’ve been regarded as normal for a King. In this series she’s very much presenting the stories from the women’s point of view – J wasn’t so keen on this in the one we watched the other night. He thought she was too partisan, tho I think she was just obvious with her partisanship, everyone’s got biases after all.

The first two-thirds or so of the first episode covered the Empress Matilda who was never crowned, but was very nearly the first woman to rule England in her own right. Her story starts off fairly normally for a woman of the time, she is the daughter of Henry I (and granddaughter of William the Conqueror) born in 1102AD and at the age of 8 she’s married off to Henry V King of Germany and Holy Roman Emperor. She lives in Germany from then until her husband’s death nearly 16 years later when she’s 23. She wasn’t heir to the English throne at first because she had a brother, William. However he died when the ship he was travelling in from Normandy to England ran aground just outside the harbour – Castor told us that everyone on the ship was drunk when they left (it was the Prince & his entourage most of whom were teenagers) and so not paying enough attention. In the cold November water there was no way rescue could get there before they died. With the death of her brother Matilda was now the only legitimate child of Henry I, and as yet she had no children of her own. Once her husband died Henry I married her off again quickly, to try to get grandsons soon enough that they could inherit when he died.

Matilda’s second marriage was to Geoffrey, Count of Anjou. This marriage didn’t go down well with her – it was her father’s choice, both for strategic reasons (the County of Anjou bordered Normandy so was a useful ally to have) and dynastic reasons. But Geoffrey was much younger than Matilda, and very much lower status (she was an Empress after all, he was merely a Count). The couple were estranged quite quickly, but Henry I subsequently enforced a reconciliation that appears to’ve worked out – the couple had two healthy children, and even better both of them were boys.

More than once before his death Henry I had had his nobles swear allegiance to Matilda as his heir. Castor told us that there was no precedent for whether or not a woman could rule the country, as the Norman invasion had effectively reset the clock. If Henry I had managed to live long enough for one of his grandsons to grow up he would probably have named him heir, but he died long before this could happen. When her father died Matilda was in Anjou (and not on good terms with her father) so couldn’t get to England quickly. She did actually set out, but on arrival at one of the castles in Normandy she delayed her journey – this might’ve been due to complications of pregnancy as she was pregnant with her third child at this point. Castor said that a contemporary chronicler just says she remained there “for certain reasons” which is maddeningly opaque.

The delay in Matilda reaching London gave her cousin Stephen of Blois time to seize power. This is where J thought Castor’s biases were most apparent – she presented it as “and of course this worked because Matilda was a woman”, however as J points out if a male heir had delayed that long then someone else might’ve seized power. Power vacuums tend to be filled, after all. It’s just that as Matilda was a woman it was easier for Stephen to rally support to his side.

What followed was 20 years or so of civil war, a period that is called The Anarchy (we listened to an In Our Time episode about it a while ago). Stephen was the anointed King, by virtue of his coronation ceremony, but Matilda was the legitimate heir, by virtue of blood and the oaths sworn to her father. At one point, in 1141, Matilda had the upper hand and had even captured Stephen. She was preparing for her coronation in London, having got the Church and several of the powerful nobles on side. But the chronicler (who was very much on Stephen’s side) writes that she became too arrogant and unwomanly, and so the people of London rose up and chased her out of the city. Again Castor was quite sure that Matilda was only regarded as arrogant because she was a woman, and that the same behaviour in a man would’ve been perfectly fine. It’s hard to tell, tho, as all the chronicles that still exist are on Stephen’s side. Stephen was also freed not long after this, so it was back to square one. In the end Matilda had to give up her ambition to rule in her own right, but she secured the crown for her son Henry as Stephen had no heir.

The last third of the programme was about Matilda’s daughter-in-law, Eleanor of Aquitaine, who never ruled England in her own right but did do the actual ruling of the country for a while as well as have a powerful influence on the politics of the realm at other times. Eleanor was born & brought up in Poitiers, the daughter of the Duke of Aquitaine, and she inherited the Duchy on her father’s death. She was married first to Louis VII, King of France, and this was not a happy marriage. Eleanor pronounced Louis “more monk than man”, but the couple did eventually have two daughters (which wasn’t good enough, as girls definitely couldn’t inherit the Kingdom of France). Louis & Eleanor went on Crusade to the Holy Land as part of the Second Crusade, and during this expedition their marriage broke down almost completely (this is between daughters 1 & 2).

Eleanor’s close friendship with her uncle (the ruler in Antioch) caused scandal, and then to make matters worse when Louis prepared to leave Antioch & move on with the Crusade Eleanor refused to accompany him. She tried to get a divorce from him at this point, citing their relationship to each other (which was within the prohibited seven degrees) – Castor pointed out this was Eleanor trying to use the same sorts of laws that powerful men used to get rid of no longer convenient wives. But unfortunately for Eleanor she didn’t have the same sort of power as a man would and her husband’s desire to remain married trumped her desire for an annulment. The couple were reconciled, at least to a degree that meant that after their return to France they had a second daughter. Not long after this tho they were estranged again, and this time Louis was willing to divorce. 8 weeks later, Eleanor married Henry, son of the Empress Matilda & Geoffrey of Anjou (not yet King Henry II of England). Castor said that Eleanor & Henry must surely have met when Henry visited the French court not long before Eleanor divorced, but there’s no record of this.

So now Eleanor is married to the King of England, and this marriage was initially much more successful. The couple had 8 children over 15 years, with three sons surviving to adulthood. Between his own inheritance & Eleanor’s own lands Henry ruled over a pretty big empire stretching from the Pennines to the PyrΓ©nΓ©es. After Henry’s mother’s death (Matilda definitely exercised power via her son after he took the throne) Eleanor became more important in the politics of Henry’s realm. By this time she’s 43, and she lived in Poitiers again ruling the Duchy of Aquitaine in Henry’s name. Unlike her mother-in-law who never got to rule, because Eleanor was ruling in a man’s name she didn’t have the same problems of being regarded as un-womanly. (And possibly she was better at acting in a suitably “feminine” fashion while exercising power.) Castor noted that the sorts of stories that surround Eleanor during this time focus on tales of courtly romance (this is the time & the place for the troubadors), which are suitably feminine subjects even tho there’s no evidence that any of the stories actually happened.

Once Henry II & Eleanor’s sons were teenagers they began to want to share power with their father, but he made promises and never actually delegated any power. It struck us while we were watching this that Henry II probably couldn’t win here – either he delegated power to them, and then they got too powerful & weakened his own rule, or he didn’t and then they got annoyed & rebelled which is what they did. This wasn’t unusual in itself – sons taking up arms against their father – but what was unusual was that Eleanor sided with her sons against her husband. Castor read excerpts from a letter written to Eleanor by a bishop that said she was going to bring about the ruin of all of society due to these actions! The rebellion ultimately ended in victory for Henry II – it seems Eleanor was the brains of the operation and after Henry managed to capture her the rebellion soon ended with the sons begging for mercy.

Henry II was merciful to his sons, but Eleanor lived in captivity for the next 16 years until Henry’s death. One of the first things Richard the Lionheart did when he inherited the throne was send word that his mother should be freed. She’s now about 65, and freeing her wasn’t just an act of filial affection it was a necessity. Richard needed someone to rule the country in his name while he was off on Crusade, and Eleanor was just the person for the job. She ended up holding the reigns of power for longer than anyone anticipated because Richard was captured on his way home from Crusade. She also outlived Richard, and when his younger brother John inherited she was instrumental in smoothing his way to power. She eventually died at the age of around 80, and was buried next to her husband despite their differences in life.

The next programme in the series is going to be about the wives of Edward II (Isabella of France) and Henry VI (Margaret of Anjou) who played pivotal roles in their husbands’ reigns.

The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam has been shut for 10 years while being refurbished. A Night at the Rijksmuseum was Andrew Graham-Dixon acting a bit like a child in a sweetshop while being allowed to go behind the scenes just before the re-opening of the museum earlier this year. The programme was part about the renovation & the history of the museum, and part about what the contents of the museum are & how they’re organised. So mostly “look at the pretty things” which is always hard to write about.

The original building was built in the 19th Century, designed by a Catholic architect and it reminded me a bit of the V&A Museum in style and a bit of a cathedral. Graham-Dixon said that when it was originally built the resemblance to Catholic religious architecture was a bone of contention for many of the staunchly Protestant Dutch. The new additions have kept a similar sensibility, but with a more modern style (and the architect this time was Spanish which seems about as historically inappropriate as a Catholic amongst Protestants!). The interior of the original building has also been refurbished and restored to its former glory – including parts that were whitewashed over by a particularly modernist director in the 1950s.

The refurbishment was “only” supposed to take a few years, 2 or 3. Apparently the obstacle that caused the biggest slippage in the project time was the bike tunnel. Prior to the museum being shut there was a bike route that ran through a tunnel through the building, and the original plans for the refurbishment altered this route. However people objected, petitions were organised etc etc – but somehow this wasn’t discovered to be a problem till after the plans were finalised and work had begun. So the architect had to re-design that part of the building and that cost significant amounts of time & money.

While it was shut the curators not only had the chance to completely overhaul their vision of how the collection should be displayed, but also to do conservation & research on the paintings & other objects. In a particularly overenthusiastic segment of the programme Graham-Dixon was shown the work they are & have done on X-raying & 3D-imaging of the paintings in the collection. It was kinda neat, but I didn’t really understand the levels of excitement over being able to see the brush strokes more clearly. That was the 3D-imaging, the X-ray stuff was more obviously exciting to this non-artist because you could see how the composition of a painting had changed while it was being worked on.

The objects used to be organised by type, but the new layout organises them by date. There are 8 main galleries which each cover a hundred years of Dutch history. So you have the paintings and the objects all mixed in together. It being Holland there’s a lot of maritime related stuff – paintings of ships, models of ships, cannon from ships … even the English Royal Coat of Arms from the prow of a ship the Dutch captured from us in Charles II’s time. And there’s also another wing of the museum with Asian related objects – the Dutch have traded with the Far East for several centuries, in particular they were the only Western nation allowed to trade in Japan during the Sakoku Period.

This was a fun programme to watch, but it did feel awfully like a piece of advertising for the Rijksmuseum. Kinda did the trick, I’d quite like to go to it some day, but a bit odd as a BBC programme.

Little Cat Diaries was a half-hour follow up to the previous Horizon programme The Secret Life of the Cat (post). It went into a little bit more depth about 4 of the cats that were in the first programme. As it was only half an hour this still wasn’t terribly much depth on each! There was a bit about the cat that was the best hunter (the family don’t really feed him much cat food because he eats so much of the wildlife), there was a bit about the cat that roamed furthest (his family said it was a bit like being at a parent/teacher evening & being told your child did well). And a bit about a stray cat who was spotted in people’s houses when they were filming their own cats (and he was subsequently captured & re-homed with one of the households he was visiting).

The bit that was most interesting for me was the short segment on whether one’s cat returns one’s affection. They set this up by talking to the previous & current owners of a cat that had run away – the previous owner said something along the lines of “as she got older the cat seemed to get less keen on the children, but when I got the dog it was the last straw. The cat walked in, saw the dog, the dog started to go for her and she left and never came back!”. I was left thinking that there are ways to integrate pets into a household, and that was Not It πŸ˜‰ However the interesting bit was that there is research being done on whether cats are attached to their owners. This is based on a 70s experiment that shows that babies are attached to their mothers – if the mother leaves the room while a baby is being distracted by a stranger the baby is concerned, and obviously pleased to see the mother return. If you do the same experiment with a dog & its owner, the same is true. Cats however don’t get nearly as bothered by either absence or return of their owner. Of course that doesn’t actually test if a cat loves its owner, just that a cat doesn’t associate their owner with security in the way a dog does (or a baby does its mother). But still, interesting πŸ™‚