25 October 2009
Spared that day, Private Mike Brabston of the Irish Guards later sustained an eye injury that landed him in the hospital. When he had recovered, he asked the hospital matron to return the little box, with his heartfelt thanks, to the young lady who had sent it to him, The Princess Mary, only daughter of King George V.
Private Brabston’s story is just one of many told by British soldiers and sailors who felt their lives had been saved by their “Princess Mary Box.” Intended to comfort and bring a bit of Christmas joy to the troops during that first holiday season of World War I, the little boxes became real treasures to their owners—it kept personal items safe and dry at sea or in the trenches, became a family heirloom, and even occasionally stopped a bullet.
Princess Mary was only 17 when the war started. Naturally shy, her isolation became complete with the declaration of war. Raised entirely at home, never having attended a school of any sort, Mary’s only friends were her brothers and her maid. But, her older brothers (the future Kings Edward VIII and George VI) were away in the military and her younger brothers were away at school. She worried desperately about all of them, particularly Bertie (later George VI)—on the first night of the war, she had a nightmare that he was killed in a naval battle. With both of her parents overwhelmingly busy, Mary had only her maid, Else Korsukawitz, to confide her fears. Then, Else was sent away. As a German national, she was given the choice of returning to Germany or entering an internment camp—she chose Germany. A heartbroken Mary was alone and had nothing to occupy her.
She decided to escape London and went to the family’s country estate at Sandringham in Norfolk. There, she could spend time with her beloved horses and she could visit with her old nanny, the beloved Lala Bill. Lala instantly recognized the princess’s depression and easily guessed the cause. Lala proposed that Mary do something useful with her time, something that would benefit the war cause.
Mary decided that she wanted to send a Christmas gift to all of the soldiers and sailors serving in the British imperial forces. A bit naively, she thought she could pay for it out of her own allowance. It soon became clear that this would be a major undertaking and committee was appointed in October 1914 to help the shy teenager raise ₤100,000. Mary attended every meeting and drafted a personal appeal: “I am sure that we should all be happier to feel that we had helped to send our little token of love and sympathy on Christmas morning, something that would be useful and of permanent value, and the making of which may be the means of providing employment in trades adversely affected by the war.”
By Christmas, nearly half a million little gifts had been distributed. Most included cigarettes, pipe tobacco and a lighter with a Christmas card from Mary. Nurses received chocolates and Indian soldiers received spices and candy. Some soldiers received pencils and paper. And, every gift came in a little brass box stamped with Mary’s profile and initials. She had asked to have the King’s portrait on the box, but he insisted that his favorite child use her own image. Soon, hundreds of thank you letters began pouring into Buckingham Palace. Today, Princess Mary boxes are highly collectible and can be found all over the world.
The experience transformed the shy and lonely girl into a confident young woman with purpose. Soon, Princess Mary was visiting wounded soldiers in the hospital and engaging in charitable activities—often addressing huge crowds. Within a couple of years, Mary announced that there was still more she could do. At breakfast one morning, she told her mother, “I have decided to become a nurse.”
17 October 2009
He couldn’t look to England’s traditional enemy, France, so he approached the powerful “Kings of Spain,” Ferdinand and Isabella, each of whom ruled a Spanish kingdom. After uniting their thrones through marriage, Ferdinand and Isabella launched a holy war against the Moors, reclaiming Spanish territory from the Muslims. Simultaneously, they parented a large family. Their youngest daughter, Katherine, was nearly born on the battlefield—Isabella left the saddle just long enough to give birth.
From infancy, the little Infanta was considered a great beauty. Even better, she had powerful parents and an excellent lineage. Henry thought she would be just the person to make his family a dynasty. So, at the age of three, Katherine of Aragon was engaged to Henry’s son, Arthur Prince of Wales, who was two. In addition to glory and prestige, Katherine would also bring 200,000 crowns (money, not headgear!) as her dowry.
For the next several years, negotiations moved along smoothly. There two different proxy weddings. But something wasn’t quite right. Queen Isabella was hesitant to send Katherine to England when the agreed-upon time arrived. She just couldn’t bring herself to trust her child to Henry Tudor, who had gained a reputation for being a conniver and an opportunist. Besides, England had a bad habit of deposing its kings willy-nilly and a pretender to the throne, Perkin Warbeck, was causing trouble. Even when Warbeck’s uprising was put down, Ferdinand and Isabella were still worried. There were, after all, numerous people with far better claims to the English throne. If Henry would dispose of one of those fellows. . .
So, following the execution of Earl of Warwick, first cousin of Henry’s wife, Ferdinand and Isabella bid adios to their daughter. Katherine was greeted with tremendous pageantry. Her mother worried that Henry was spending too much money; instead of demonstrating Katherine’s welcome with riches, Isabella wrote Henry that she wanted that the “substantial part of the festival should be his love.” But, Henry, who was actually a cheapskate, wanted to demonstrate the glory of his kingship and his wealth—not a cent was spared on the pageantry.
Katherine and Arthur’s lavish wedding took place at St. Paul’s Cathedral (the last Prince and Princess of Wales to wed there until Charles and Diana) in November 1509, just weeks before Katherine’s sixteenth birthday. After the wedding, the youngsters were ceremoniously put to bed together and left to do their duty. The next morning, according to testimony nearly three decades later, Arthur bragged that he had spent the night in “the midst of Spain.”
The first half of the dowry was paid and the King decided to send the young couple to Wales where Arthur could learn to govern his territory. Aside from some minor squabbling about the final dowry payment, everything seemed fine. Then, disaster. Arthur and Katherine both came down with “sweating sickness”—after less than six months, Katherine was a widow. While her mother and mother-in-law were concerned for her health and welfare (Elizabeth sold some of her own gold plate to personally finance Katherine’s transportation back to London), Ferdinand and Henry were more concerned about the state of their political alliance. Once it was clear that Katherine was not pregnant, both fathers decided separately to propose a marriage between the 16-year-old widow and Arthur’s 11-year-old brother, Prince Henry. The wedding would take place when Henry turned 14. This agreement allowed Ferdinand to keep his military ally and Henry to keep the prestige and the money.
Just to make sure that the Catholic Church would be okay with young Henry marrying his brother’s widow, both Kings applied to the Pope for a special dispensation. One of the crucial questions was whether Arthur and Katherine had consummated their marriage. Katherine said they had not but others said that they had. Just in case, the Pope indicated that his dispensation would be applicable either way. (The Pope’s decision to grant this request would lead to the creation of the Church of England.)
Then, Queen Elizabeth died. King Henry was saddened, but not so much so that he didn’t mind asking if he could marry the luscious Katherine himself. Isabella was horrified and disgusted. Henry didn’t push it; there were lots of other rich princesses he might marry. Why not keep Katherine’s dowry and get someone else’s too?
Then, Queen Isabella died. Her oldest daughter, Juana, succeeded her as Queen and the two Spanish kingdoms were no longer a strong, united power. Over night, Katherine lost a lot of her political attraction. King Henry had Prince Henry, now 14, secretly renounce his betrothal and they started looking for brides for both father and son. Henry also cut off Katherine’s allowance.
Recovering from a protracted illness and devastated by her mother’s death, Katherine was bewildered by King Henry’s sudden neglect. She and her fiancée were no longer allowed to see each other. She became deeply depressed. She quickly ran out of money to pay her staff, to replenish her wardrobe or even to feed herself and her household. She sold jewelry to buy day-old fish. She wrote to her father, who insisted that King Henry should provide for her. Henry, however, duplicitously insisted on receiving the second half of Katherine’s dowry, even though he had no intention of honoring the betrothal between her and his second son. Ferdinand, for his part, was struggling to raise the money while simultaneously funding his huge armies. Besides, under the terms of the contract, he didn’t have to pay until Katherine and her second husband consummated the marriage. The fact that Henry Tudor was one of the richest kings in Europe did nothing to make the situation better.
For the next five years, Katherine grew increasingly desperate. Her staff remained with her but became more and more troublesome. Since she couldn’t pay them, she had a difficult time chastising them and she couldn’t fire them. Her clothes were tattered. Debt collectors were harassing her. She was frequently ill, lonely and sad—in such deep despair that she even considered suicide.
In 1509, however, King Henry started to feel guilty. Perhaps it was the fact that Ferdinand, at last, had the remaining 100,000 crowns. Perhaps it was the fact that he was on his deathbed. Just before he died, he told his son to marry Katherine.
That June, the new 16-year-old King Henry VIII enacted his own romantic fairy tale and rescued his “very beloved” damsel in distress from her years of deprivation. At 23, Katherine was a bit old for a 16th-century bride but she was still a golden-haired beauty and she was deeply in love with her young knight. Indeed, everyone who met Henry was entranced by him. Athletic, musical, highly intelligent, standing nearly 6’3, with muscular legs and a poetic heart, the clean-shaven King would take many years to transform into the bloated, tyrannical, egomaniacal man who would cruelly abandon his “beloved” Katherine before sending two other wives to the executioner and another to the divorce court. One other died before she could displease him and the sixth one managed to keep her head—barely—and outlive him.
11 October 2009
1. Victoria was raised by a single mother.
Victoria’s father, the Duke of Kent, died when she was only eight months old. She was raised, therefore, by her German mother, Victoria of Saxe-Coburg. She was the only child of the Duke although his Duchess had two other children, Charles and Feodora, by her first husband. The elder Victoria was only 17 when her family married her to Charles Prince of Leinengen, who was 23 years older . She became a widow for the first time at 27. When she married the Duke, 19 years her senior, she was overseeing a small German principality on behalf of her young son. After the Duke’s death, she remained in England, although she received little support from the royal family or the government. In fact, she feuded with her brother-in-law, King William IV, and grew increasingly paranoid that her daughter’s life was in danger from the royal family. It was not a pleasant environment for a lonely young girl. Queen Victoria later wrote that, in her childhood, she “did not know what a happy domestic life was.” As soon as she became queen, she made sure that her mother had no authority.
2. She became queen through multiple tragedies.
The Duke of Kent was the fourth son of King George III. All three of his elder brothers should have had many children who would have been ahead of Victoria in line to the throne. (See “The Royal Baby Race”) The eldest brother, the Prince of Wales (later George IV), hated his wife and only managed to have one child, Princess Charlotte, who died after giving birth to a stillborn son. The Duke of York also was not fond of his wife and they had no children. The Duke of Clarence (later William IV) had 10 little FitzClarences by Mrs. Jordan but his two daughters by his wife died as infants. All of these barren marriages and premature deaths left the path clear for the Duke of Kent. Then, his own premature death from pneumonia secured the throne for his infant daughter. Had he lived longer, he might have fathered sons who would have taken precedence over their older sister in the line of succession. In all, eight people had to die for her to become Queen.
3. Her name wasn’t Victoria.
When she was born, the Prince of Wales was serving as Regent for his father, “mad” King George III. The Regent wasn’t particularly excited about the Duke of Kent’s new child. Recently bereaved by the death of his only daughter and grandchild, he also did not think the Kent child had a chance of succeeding to the throne. He, therefore, was less than thrilled when the parents proposed the rather grandiose name of Georgiana Charlotte Augusta Alexandrina Victoria (after, respectively, the Regent, his dead daughter, one of his sisters, the Emperor of Russia, and the baby’s mother.) As nominal head of the family, he delayed the baby’s christening and refused to allow the proposed name. During the christening, the Archbishop of Canterbury had to ask (with rather more urgency than usual) what the baby would be called. “Alexandrina,” the Regent responded petulantly. The Duke of Kent asked whether she might have a second name, perhaps Elizabeth. The Regent finally allowed her to be named for mother, but only if Victoria came after the Emperor’s name. So, Queen Victoria was called “Drina” as a child and Alexandrina remained her official name until she herself insisted on Victoria.
4. Victoria inherited the throne in her nightie.
At barely 18 years old, Princess Victoria of Kent was awakened at about six o’clock in the morning. Knowing the news she was about to receive—her uncle King William IV’s illness had been no secret—she put on her housecoat and met alone with the Lord Chamberlain and the Archbishop of Canterbury. Despite her extremely casual attire and her tender years, the new Queen quickly asserted herself. She refused to allow her mother to accompany her, she met that day with the Prime Minister and with the Privy Council unattended by any female chaperone, in contrast to the standards of the day. Barely five-foot tall with a tiny, bell-like voice, the new Queen was rapidly establishing herself as a giant among the men of the day.
5. Victoria married her first cousin.
The closest father figure in Victoria’s childhood was her maternal uncle, Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg, who was also the widower of her tragic cousin, Charlotte, the Regent’s daughter. Leopold had a keen interest in Victoria’s advancement, seeing himself as a protector of her claims to the throne that should have gone to his own child. Even after securing another throne for himself—as the first King of the new Kingdom of Belgium—Leopold maintained a strong influence on the young Victoria. He decided that the Coburgs should try to keep the British throne in their family and advocated a marriage between his sister’s daughter, Victoria, and his brother’s son, Albert. At first, 17-year-old Victoria was not impressed with 16-year-old Albert. However, she soon changed her mind. She wrote to Albert’s father, her Uncle Ernest, that Albert, “possessed every quality” to make her “perfectly happy.” Two years later, after becoming queen, she proposed to Albert, whom she found “beautiful” and “fascinating.” The arranged marriage became a devoted love match.
6. Victoria enjoyed her sex life. . .
From the moment of her engagement, Victoria indulged in kissing Albert “again and again.” She not only relied on Albert’s advice in their public lives together, and promoted nearly any project or plan he proposed, but she also enjoyed a quite intense physical relationship him. At a time when many young married women were admonished to endure their marital duty (“close your eyes and think of England”), Victoria clearly did not have to rely on patriotism to inspire her in the bedroom. When the death of his father required Albert to return briefly to Germany without her, Victoria bemoaned her uncomfortably chaste state to their Uncle Leopold, saying the thought of being separated for even one night was “quite dreadful.” Even more bluntly, she later wrote her oldest daughter about being “clasped and held tight in the sacred Hours at Night when the world seemed only to be ourselves.” Imagine your own mother saying that!
7. But not the consequences.
Despite her chemistry with Albert, Victoria was openly unhappy to find herself pregnant again and again and again. She had hoped to have a few years alone with her handsome husband, but their first child was born barely nine months after the wedding and the second just 12 months after that. By their 17th anniversary, the couple had nine children. While Albert proved an attentive father, in many ways the opposite of the stereotypical Victorian father, Victoria was not a natural mother. She did not like infants and even wrote that two of her babies were “too frightful.” She wrote that “as a rule children are a bitter disappointment.” Even as a grandmother, she could be less than affectionate; after the birth of her fourteenth grandchild, she wrote that the birth of yet another “little red lump” was “a very uninteresting thing.” She later clarified that she admired “pretty children” although she did not like to have too many around her. Early in her marriage, she had written that a large family would be “a hardship and inconvenience”—an insightful statement from the mother of nine and grandmother of 42.
8. Victoria was a single mother.
Alas, one of the reasons she was so burdened by her maternal role, or so she said, was because she had to head such a huge family entirely alone. Like her mother before her, Victoria became a single mother; Albert died of typhoid at a tragically young age. Only 42 at the time, Victoria still had seven children at a home, aged four to 18. Her eldest daughter was married and living in Germany. Her eldest son, Bertie, was in college. In fact, she blamed Bertie for Albert’s death, believing that his fatal illness had been contracted when he rushed to Cambridge to chastise Bertie for a sexual indiscretion. Although Albert had been ill for some time prior to this and had been involved in other stressful activities—including his successful intervention in the Trent Affair of the American Civil War—Victoria never forgave their eldest son. She also clung to her youngest child, Beatrice, allowing her to marry only when the prospective bridegroom agreed to live with his mother-in-law for the rest of her life.
9. She was the grandmother of Europe.
By the time Victoria died in 1901, she had 96 descendants, some of whom had predeceased her. Among her children and grandchildren were the crowned heads of England, Germany, Greece, Norway, Russia, Rumania, Spain and Sweden. All of the current monarchs in Europe are descended from her except the Queen of the Netherlands and the King of the Belgians. As of September 1, 2009, according to the Monarchies of Europe website, there have been 1,053 descendants of Queen Victoria, including 828 who are still living. The number would be even higher except that many cousins married cousins. In fact, Queen Elizabeth II and her husband Prince Philip are both her great-great grandchildren. She is descended through Victoria’s oldest son and he through her second daughter.
10. We’ll never know all of her secrets.
Although Victoria was a prolific writer, (it is estimated she wrote 60 million words!) documenting her long life through thousands of letters and journal entries, we have not inherited this vast resource in tact. Victoria herself often edited earlier journals. More crucially, her youngest daughter Beatrice transcribed her journals after Victoria’s death, electing to omit or revise passages she felt unworthy of her mother’s heritage and then burning the originals. Although an earlier copy exists of Victoria’s journals prior to Albert’s death in 1861, the four decades of her widowhood have been whitewashed by her well-meaning daughter. Among the topics that may not have survived Princess Beatrice’s editorial work is the true nature of Victoria’s relationship with her Highland servant, John Brown. Speculation at the time alleged that Victoria had an improper, even sexual, relationship with him, and her sharpest critics called her “Mrs. Brown.” That unusual friendship (or more!) is the subject of the excellent film for which Judi Dench earned an Oscar nomination in the title role.
03 October 2009
Such was the case when James Duke of York, heir to his brother, King Charles II, married Mary Beatrice of Modena in 1673. Just 15 years old, the Italian princess had been chosen specifically to help the Duke father legitimate, Catholic sons to inherit the English throne. Although the 40-year-old bridegroom wrote his 11-year-old daughter Mary, that he had provided a “playfellow for her,” Mary and her eight-year-old sister Anne could hardly have been enthusiastic about this new member of the family.
Having been restored to the throne following a bloody Civil War (in which Charles’ and James’ father had been beheaded), the royal family’s role in England was hardly stable—rocked as it still was by the religious turmoil between Protestants and Catholics initiated by Henry VIII more than a century earlier. The family was outwardly and officially Protestant, but well-founded rumors abounded that both the king and his brother were secret Catholics. The English were clear, however, that they did not want a Catholic king. So, the royal family presented a Protestant front. Having no legitimate heirs of his own (although much of today’s British aristocracy is descended from his many illegitimate children), Charles II wisely decided to have his brother’s daughters raised as Protestants, diligently tutored by the Bishop of London.
In time, Mary would have inherited the throne from her uncle and father and England would perhaps have found some religious and political stability. But, daddy had other plans. As quickly as possible, he made Mary Beatrice his own “playfellow” and started a second family. At first, his second wife was even less successful than his first at producing healthy children. Each one, mostly girls, died very young. By the time he became King James II in 1685, he still only had two children: Mary, now married to her Protestant cousin William of Orange, and Anne, who had an infant daughter by her Protestant husband, George of Denmark.
For the next couple of years, the second wife had no more pregnancies and it seemed that the childless Princess Mary would be queen, followed by the very fertile Princess Anne, who was conceiving at least one child a year, although only two, Princess Marie and Princess Anne Sophia, had been born alive.
Then, Anne’s luck really changed. In 1687, she gave birth to another stillborn. Just days later, her beloved George and both of her young daughters contracted small pox. Having survived the disease as a child, Anne personally nursed her family. First nine-month-old Anne Sophia and then 19-month-old Marie died. Exhausted and heartbroken, Anne stayed at George’s side. In the words of Lady Russell, “sometimes they wept, sometimes they mourned. . .then sat silent, hand in hand.”
George recovered slowly and the couple once again found that they were expecting. Then, after years of waiting, Anne’s stepmother announced that she also was pregnant—the hoped-for male heir would supplant Anne and her sister in the line of succession. Anne gave birth prematurely to a dead son in late October. Distraught as she was over the deep, personal losses she had suffered in such a short period, she was highly mistrustful of her stepmother.
Like many staunch Protestants, she alleged that Mary Beatrice’s pregnancy was fake and that the king planned to foist a false heir on the nation. Anne told others that her stepmother would not allow her to touch her belly to feel the child move as, Anne falsely claimed, she had done in her earlier pregnancies. Throughout that winter and spring, Anne sent harsh letters to her sister at The Hague, accusing the queen and king of nefarious intentions. Anne herself conceived again and suffered a miscarriage in April. Pleading ill health, she convinced her father to let her go to Bath and thereby managed not to be present at the birth of her half-brother, James Francis Edward, on June 10.
She wasn’t the only one who found an excuse to stay away. Even though they were entitled to attend the queen’s delivery, scarcely any Protestant nobles and officials came. The large attendance of Catholics only helped spur the wild rumor that the new prince was actually an impostor, brought into the room in a warming pan and foisted on the nation as a threat to Protestantism.
Tensions rose quickly. Within a year, the king and queen and their infant son fled the country, Parliament declared that, by fleeing, the king had abdicated, and Princess Mary and her husband William were invited to be the first and only co-monarchs in British history. They named the perpetually pregnant Anne as their heir and prayed that her new pregnancy would result in the next generation of Protestant heirs to ensure stability for the land. In July 1689, Anne gave birth to a baby boy, named William in honor of the new king, and all seemed well for a while. . .