29 November 2009

Royal Escape Artist: Empress Matilda

With each creeping step, she could feel the ice unsteady beneath her feet. Trumpets blasted on every side—the soldiers were bearing down but at least the noise covered the sound of her ragged breathing. Matilda pulled the heavy white hood over her face. Draped in white from head to toe, she was nearly invisible in the dark, snowy December night. A few more feet and she would be across the frozen river on her way to safety.

When Henry I’s only legitimate daughter left England at age eight, she probably never imagined that she would one day be sneaking out of Oxford. Sent as a child bride of the German emperor, Matilda might never have returned, but two tragedies intervened: her husband widowed her and her only legitimate brother was killed in the accidental sinking of the White Ship. Henry recalled the beautiful Empress Matilda, now in her twenties, to England, and made the English and Norman lords swear allegiance to her as his heir.

If it had been the 17th century, Matilda would have enjoyed a peaceful reign as the only contender for the throne. In the 12th century, however, hereditary right only counted if you enforce it. Matilda’s claim had some weaknesses. First, the English did not like the idea of a woman ruler. Second, her second husband, Geoffrey of Anjou, was hated by the English who feared he would become king. (Empress Matilda despised him too—she resented being forced to marry the son of a mere count.) Third, Matilda was in France in December 1135 when her father died and she failed to immediately set out for England.

It was an opportunity that her cousin Stephen, younger son of her father’s sister, seized with alacrity. Stephen raced from Boulogne and braved the winter weather to cross the English Channel. Initially rebuffed by Matilda’s illegitimate half-brother, Robert of Gloucester, he eventually made his way to London with the support of the powerful Archbishop of Canterbury who crowned him on Dec. 26. Stephen’s brother, the Bishop Henry of Winchester, had control of the royal treasury and willingly gave Stephen access to it. The barons, some encouraged by bribes, swore fealty to Stephen.

Matilda’s closest supporters were not ready to surrender her right. Her maternal uncle, the King of Scotland, took advantage of the situation to invade England from the north. From his county of Anjou, her husband attacked the neighboring Normandy to assert her claim there. For almost four years, Matilda worked to raise an invasion force. Finally, in September 1139 she and her half-brother, Robert of Gloucester, made their move against Stephen, whose initial popularity had worn thin through his poor judgment, even his brother, Bishop Henry, had decamped.

Robert and Matilda landed at Arundel which was controlled by Matilda’s stepmother, Dowager Queen Adeliza. While Stephen’s men surrounded Arundel Castle, Robert slipped away with assistance from Bishop Henry and returned to his own territory in Gloucestershire. Stephen found himself in the uncomfortable position of laying siege to two women. Thinking that Matilda had little support, Stephen allowed his brother to convince him to let her leave. Bishop Henry then escorted her directly to Gloucestershire. This was her first “escape” in what would be many tedious years of civil war.

Robert and Matilda solidified their position and captured Stephen. By spring, Matilda was preparing for a summer coronation in London. But, the Londoners, fed up by her tax demands, forced her to escape from the city on the eve of her crowning. In the mean time, Stephen’s wife, the popular Queen Matilda, raised an army and began fighting the increasingly unpopular Empress Matilda. Queen Matilda captured Robert. Now, each Matilda held a valuable prisoner. The Empress had no choice but to make an exchange.

Having lost the support of Bishop Henry, Empress Matilda besieged him at Wolvesey in September, but the “King’s Queen” blockaded her. The Empress’s starving forces fought their way out and Matilda fled from place to place, eventually arriving at Devizes. Relentlessly pursued by the Queen, the Empress was desperate to return to her brother’s stronghold at Gloucester. She affected her escape by having herself tied to a funeral bier. Thus, disguised as a corpse, she was carried unnoticed into Gloucester.

Stephen re-established himself in London and was re-crowned. Robert and the Empress appealed to her husband to bring reinforcements from the continent, but Geoffrey was more interested in his increasingly successful efforts to wrest Normandy from Stephen’s control. Without this critical infusion, Matilda continued to struggle.

By the next December, Stephen once again had her under siege, this time at Oxford Castle, with no intention of repeating his Arundel mistake. Refusing to surrender or be captured, Matilda then made her most dramatic escape, draped in white and creeping across a frozen river.

For several more years, Stephen and Matilda battled inconclusively until Robert’s death in 1147 effectively lost her cause. Matilda went to Normandy to co-rule there with her husband while her teenaged son Henry pursued her English claim although he also lacked sufficient strength to overpower Stephen. In 1153, the period called “The Anarchy," ended with the unexpected death of Stephen’s beloved son and heir, Eustace. Lacking the will to fight, the King named Henry as his heir.

Content to allow her son to usurp her claim, Matilda returned to England when Henry peacefully succeeded Stephen a year later.

08 November 2009

Killing Queens: A Bloody Tudor Heritage

The former queen nodded to the executioner. She turned and faced the crowd that had gathered. Then, she knelt. As a final prayer escaped her, the sharp edge of Tudor vengeance sliced through her neck.

Throughout history, a few kings and queens have met their ends on the executioner’s block, but this manner of death reached epidemic proportions during the Tudor period. Everyone knows of Henry VIII's reputation for killing his queens—to be fair, he only executed two of his wives—but fewer people are aware that each of his daughters also killed a former queen. In their cases, however, they were killing their own potential heirs.

Henry’s marital mayhem stemmed from his overweening desire to have a male heir to succeed him. He ultimately got one from the third of his six wives, but at the time of his death, the male succession was far from certain. When Henry died, there were only 12 living descendants of the Tudors—only two of them were males: the nine-year-old King Edward VI and the infant Lord Darnley. Six of the remaining 10 were under the age of 13 and, with the low survival rate of young children, any of these youngsters were at risk for an early grave.

With such odds stacked against the survival of the dynasty, it is perhaps surprising that Henry specifically barred three of the dynasts from the line of succession in his final will, skipping over the descendants of his older sister Margaret, who had married the King of Scotland firstly and, after his death, married the Scottish Earl of Angus. Instead, he selected first his children and then the children and grandchildren of his younger sister Mary, who had been married to (and quickly widowed by) the King of France before marrying the Duke of Suffolk.

According to Henry’s will, the line of succession was:

1. Prince Edward, 9, his son by his third wife
2. Princess Mary, 30, his daughter by his first wife
3. Princess Elizabeth, 13, his daughter by his second wife
4. Lady Frances Marchioness of Dorset, 31, oldest daughter of his sister Mary
5. Lady Jane Grey, 9, daughter of Frances
6. Lady Catherine Grey, 6, daughter of Frances
7. Lady Mary Grey, 1, daughter of Frances
8. Lady Eleanor Countess of Cumberland, 27, youngest daughter of his sister Mary
9. Lady Margaret Clifford, 6, daughter of Eleanor

Those that he barred were Margaret Tudor’s granddaughter Mary (four-year-old reigning Queen of Scotland), Margaret’s daughter the Countess of Lennox (31) and the countess’s infant son, Lord Darnley, mentioned above.

Many of these people met untimely ends, including King Edward, who reigned for only six years. Before his death, in addition to excluding the Scottish line of the family, he also removed his half-sisters from the list. His cousin, Lady Frances then renounced her rights in favor of her eldest daughter, the now 16-year-old Lady Jane, who was coerced into ascending the throne by her ambitious parents and father-in-law. Popular opinion, however, was against her. The English rose up in favor of Princess Mary. Jane was queen for only nine days.

Mary wished to be lenient with the teenager. Jane was initially spared execution. But, six months later, a rebellion was sparked by Mary’s engagement to the King of Spain. The object of the rebel leaders, who included Jane’s father, was to restore Jane to the throne. The situation left Mary no options. In February, Jane was beheaded. She was the third queen to be executed by a Tudor.

Ultimately, Mary had waited too long to try to start a family and she was peacefully succeeded by her half-sister, Elizabeth, who, having witnessed the tumult of her father’s married life as a young child, opted never to marry. Her permanent spinsterhood left the succession to the throne uncertain for more than 40 years. The descendants of Mary Tudor remained the most likely candidates over the Scottish descendants of Margaret Tudor, but nearly every potential heir was subject to the whims of the Virgin Queen. And, one thing the Virgin Queen really did not like was for members of her court, much less her extended family, to get married without her permission. They did it any way—both of Lady Jane’s sisters, Lady Catherine and Lady Mary, were imprisoned by Elizabeth for marrying without permission. The aging Countess of Lennox was even imprisoned when each of her sons, Lord Darnley and the Earl of Lennox, married without Elizabeth’s blessing.

Lord Darnley had married his cousin Mary Queen of Scots, thus uniting two claims to the English throne in the body of their child. Darnley was Mary’s second husband; their marriage lasted less than two years before he was murdered, probably at the behest of the Earl of Bothwell, who then kidnapped, raped and married the pregnant Mary in order to control Scotland. Within months, Mary miscarried twins and was forced to abdicate in favor of her son by Darnley, the infant King James VI.

Mary escaped to England where she sought Elizabeth’s protection. Instead, Elizabeth put her on trial for Darnley’s murder and, though the trial reached no conclusion, Elizabeth imprisoned her queenly cousin. For the next 20 years, Elizabeth used Mary’s potential release as a political tool—she also used her own potential marriage in this way, offering to marry and then reneging for political gain. From prison, Mary grew increasingly careless in her own plotting to overthrow Elizabeth and take her throne. Elizabeth reluctantly signed Mary’s death warrant.

As the executioner struck the fatal blow, Mary whispered, “Sweet Jesus.” Thus, she became the fourth and final queen to lose her head to a Tudor.

01 November 2009

The Princesses & The Soldiers

Queen Mary and nurse Princess Mary
Bain News Service via Wikimedia Commons
Young Princess Mary did indeed become a nurse and even worked after the war at Great Ormond Street Hospital in London. During World War II, she served as commandant of the Women’s Royal Army Corps and later became air chief commandant of Princess Mary’s Royal Air Force Nursing Service, which is still the nursing branch of the RAF.

However, Mary was not the only royal lady to devote herself to nursing. In fact, once Florence Nightingale standardized and professionalized nursing in the 1850s, princesses and queens flocked to be of service during war time. Queen Victoria was a great admirer of Nightingale and of nurses. In 1883, she created the Royal Order of the Red Cross (like a knighthood) to honor trained nurses of exceptional competency and devotion—Nightingale was the first recipient. Initially intended only for British nurses, Victoria altered the criteria so that she could present it to her granddaughter, Crown Princess Sophie of Greece, who had worked tirelessly to nurse the wounded during the Greco-Turkish War of 1897. Sophie was the first of more than a dozen royals to receive the honor.

Sophie, encouraged by her mother, the Dowager Empress of Germany, brought English nurses to Greece to train Greek nurses. She acquired a recently constructed military school and converted it into a hospital. When she wasn’t working at the hospital, she was overseeing the final examinations of the nursing students. Her compassion was readily apparent, even extending to treating the enemy, her proud grandmother noted.

Ileana of Romania in national dress.
From US Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons
The queens and princesses of southern and eastern Europe had the most occasion to become nurses as their countries served as the front lines during the Balkan Wars and both world wars. As a child, Princess Ileana of Romania (who would later found a convent in Pennsylvania), saw her mother, Queen Marie, more often in nurse’s uniforms than in beautiful gowns. Marie was perhaps the most famous royal nurse. Considered the most beautiful royal lady of her day, she became quite a celebrity, even in the United States where she occasionally published articles.

In one of these, she graphically described her experience as a war nurse: “Bed beside bed they lie there. . .I bend over suffering faces, clasp outstretched hands, ray my fingers upon heated brows, gaze into dying eyes. . .A groping hand was stretched out toward me; I took it in mine, whispering words of comfort; bending low toward the parched lips that were murmuring something that at first I could not understand. The man had no face, no eyes; all was swathed in blood-stained cloths.”

Of course, not every princess-nurse was able to stomach the gore and tragedy of the war wounded. The two oldest daughters of Tsar Nicholas of Russia worked daily in a hospital founded by their mother, Empress Alexandra. Eventually, the sensitive Grand Duchess Olga was overwrought and had to be treated with arsenic for a “nervous disorder.” When she felt better, she returned to the hospital but assumed an administrative role while her sister Tatiana continued working in the wards. Even the youngest grand duchesses, 16-year-old Maria and 14-year-old Anastasia (yes, that Anastasia) frequented the hospital, playing games with and reading to the wounded and dying men.

Their maternal aunt, the widowed and childless Grand Duchess Elizabeth Feodorovna, gave away all of her possessions, became a nun and devoted her life to nursing and orphanages. Like most of the Russian imperial family she was killed during the revolution (she was thrown into a pit and bombarded with grenades) and was later canonized by the Russian Orthodox Church.

Alice, Princess Andrew of Greece,
mother of the Duke of Edinburgh,
before her nursing days
via Wikimedia Commons
Other nursing princesses also became nuns, including Princess Ileana (mentioned earlier), who started a convent in Pennsylvania after divorcing her husband, an Austrian archduke, and Princess Andrew of Greece, who had been born Princess Alice of Battenberg. Princess Andrew nursed during both World Wars. By WWII, all four of her daughters had married German princes and she was working for the Red Cross in Greece. When a helpful German general asked her if he could do anything for her, she told him “You can get your troops out of my country.” He perhaps didn’t know that her only son, Prince Philip, was fighting on the other side, in the British navy. (Philip is now the husband of Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II.)

One of the most dedicated of royal nurses, Eleonore of Reuss-Kostritz, made a career of nursing. A minor German princess, her first claim to fame was as a nurse in the Russian army during the Russo-Japanese War. Under fire several times, she was even decorated for service. She continued nursing after marrying the Tsar of Bulgaria when she was 48, taking over the hospital his mother had started as well as step-mothering his four children. The Tsar had a poor reputation internationally, but his wife, who had earned the unofficial title “The Royal Nurse,” was hailed as a selfless heroine. “My mission in life,” she said, “is to utilize my rank and wealth for the benefit of the less fortunate.”

It was a sentiment undoubtedly felt by many princesses throughout history, but the princesses of the era stretching from the Crimean War in the 1850s to World War II in the 1940s, put the concept of noblesse oblige to work amidst the most difficult of circumstances.

Like Queen Marie, each of them might have written, “I got accustomed to face every horror, to front every epidemic, to hear each cry of distress, to look into the face of Death without shuddering, and bravely to contemplate the most ghastly sights.”