27 March 2011

Kate & Pippa: Sisters on the Rise

Seven hundred years before, Kate and Pippa Middleton became the focus of rampant media attention, another set of sisters were earning notoriety. When Katherine Swynford began an affair with a royal prince, she became the most infamous woman of the fourteenth century. Meanwhile, her sister, Philippa married the most famous writer of the age and turned him into a man who openly despised marriage.

Born into a semi-noble family in Hainault, the young sisters got their big break when their father secured places for them in the household of Philippa of Hainault, who had become the queen of King Edward III.

Queen Philippa’s was a warm and affectionate mother to her 13 children. Her loving kindness extended to the other youngsters in her care, including the children of noble English families and the little Roët girls, who officially acted as companions to the royal daughters. Katherine and Philippa, who were only about five and six, were probably orphaned about this time, and very reliant on the benevolence of the royal family.

Judging by the gifts they received, both girls seem to have been well-liked and they grew up in a secure environment, surrounded by colorful figures and familiar with the royal princes who were to become the most celebrated knights of the age: Prince Edward and Prince John, better known to history as the Black Prince and the Duke of Lancaster. As sons of the queen, the princes would have known Katherine and Philippa and the two girls might have admired them the way little girls admire boy bands today, but the princes would have been out of their reach: everyone knew that royal youngsters married for political reasons.

So, even if the dashing princes thrilled their little hearts, Katherine and Philippa realized that they could not reach so high above their station. Still, it must have been exciting when the handsome John had a not-so-secret tryst with one of the ladies or when Edward decided to marry his slightly scandalous royal cousin Joan of Kent, a beautiful lady with a bit of a past.

In those days, noble and royal girls were often married as soon as they reached puberty. This seems to be true for the Roët sisters, whose royal guardian provided each of them with husbands who were also in service to the royal family. Katherine married Sir Hugh Swynford, a knight with land in Lincolnshire, while Philippa married a man from a merchant family, a man who is perhaps the most famous Englishman of his day, Geoffrey Chaucer.

Katherine and Hugh set up life together, staying mostly at their house of Kettlethorpe when not called away for royal duties. At about the same time, Katherine was reassigned from the queen’s household to the serve the queen’s newest daughter-in-law, the fabulously rich and beautiful Blanche of Lancaster. The two teenage girls were already very familiar with each other because Blanche also had grown up under the queen’s supervision, but there was a tremendous difference in their stations. Blanche was a descendant of King Henry III and, perhaps more importantly, she and her sister were co-heiresses to the Duchy of Lancaster, by far the wealthiest collection of estates in England. The man who married her would automatically become Duke of Lancaster and the most powerful man in the kingdom after the king and the Prince of Wales.

Fortunately for Blanche, however, she seems to have made a match that defied all of the conventions of the day. Hers was a love match. Of course, that wasn’t the basis of the marriage. Her royal guardians married her to their son, Prince John. That the couple clearly adored each other was just a fringe benefit. They quickly started a family and young Katherine was assigned to act as governess to their daughters. It was a role she would fulfill for more than 20 years.

Katherine and Philippa also started families of their own. Now serving in separate households, they seem to have maintained their closeness over the years and their children were apparently lifelong friends, not only with each other but with the growing brood of Lancastrian children. In fact, Katherine and Philippa, probably with help from their royal patrons, each pledged a daughter to the Barking Abbey, a venue generally reserved for only the highest born ladies.

By the time the sisters were in their early 20s, Katherine’s life had taken a dramatic turn. The beloved Blanche had died from plague leaving more than just her husband grief-stricken. Philippa’s husband, Geoffrey Chaucer, penned his first famous poem, “The Book of the Duchess," in homage to her and in tribute to her mourning husband, John Duke of Lancaster. Despite his sincere grief, as a royal prince, John still had obligations to fulfill and soon was preparing to embark on a second marriage for purely political ends. This time, his heiress wife would bring him something even more alluring than a duchy; this wife would make him King of Castile.

Besides losing her royal lady, Katherine also lost her husband around the same time. Sir Hugh, who had accompanied John of Gaunt to fight the king’s battles on the continent became ill and died. The king and the duke both assured that Katherine and her children would be provided for, as long as she didn’t remarry without their permission.

Then, something unexpected happened: John recovered enough from his grief of losing his first love, Blanche, and fell in love with Katherine. His new wife, Constance of Castile, was truly a political partner, but there was no romance between them. They did their “duty” to produce heirs for the contested throne of Castile—John had to try to wrest back from Constance’s usurping uncle. It soon became scandalously clear that the powerful duke had given his heart to Katherine, who was initially assigned to Constance’s household.

By the time, she began having John’s children, Katherine was back as governess to John’s daughters by Blanche, an arrangement that may have been more agreeable to Constance since her stepdaughters had a separate household from her. With each new child, all surnamed Beaufort after one of John’s French estates, the duke showered Katherine with gifts of land and patrimony that would guarantee them income and wealth even if something should happen to him. Although he was often away serving the English crown in France or fighting to gain the Castilian one in Spain, John seems to have spent as much time as he could with Katherine. Contemporary chroniclers were horrified, calling her the “unspeakable concubine” and a “witch and a whore.”

Through it all, Katherine continued to manage the estates entrusted to her for the benefit of both her Swynford children and her growing Beaufort brood and she maintained her responsibilities as royal governess, earning the trust and admiration of her lover’s children. Having grown up with the royal family, Katherine also seems to have been a favorite with all of the royals—except perhaps her lover’s wife.

During the years of their affair, however, the political situation had become untenable. The Black Prince had died and then the king, leaving John’s young nephew with the crown. Many were concerned that the powerful duke intended to seize control from the young king, others were angry over his taxation policies as a regent, still others did not like his support of religious reformer John Wyclif, and, still others, were vocally opposed to his flagrant infidelity. In 1381, during the Peasants’ Revolt, all of those negative feelings boiled over and the duke was targeted at many of his estates across the country. His servants were attacked and his beautiful Savoy Palace in London was burnt to the ground. He and his family and Katherine survived by fleeing north and going into hiding, but the experience had a profound impact on the deeply religious man. He publicly repented of his sinful relationship with Katherine and was reconciled with his wife.

In the meantime, the Chaucer marriage does not seem to have worked out brilliantly. They were largely living apart, Philippa seems to have moved in with her sister, while Geoffrey bounced in and out of favor as the tides of the Duke of Lancaster rose and fell and rose again. Although apart, it appears that they still maintained some semblance of a marriage since it was he who went twice a year to pick up her royal paycheck. Nevertheless, Geoffrey somewhere picked up a dislike for the married state as evidenced by his writing. After her death sometime in the mid-1380s, he wrote that he would never “fall in the trap of wedding again.”

On the continent, things were not going well for John and Constance. They married one of their daughters to the Portuguese king and, once it became clear that they would never reclaim the Castilian crown, they married their other daughter to the Castilian king’s son. Without the Spanish dream to keep them together, they drifted apart again, and John was in France when Constance died in England in 1394.

John’s true heart quickly re-emerged. Within two years, he petitioned the Pope not only to allow him to marry Katherine but also to legitimize their four grown children. The Pope complied with the powerful duke’s request. Even the king, often at odds with his uncle but deeply fond of Katherine, officially legitimized their children.

Marriage went a long way to redeeming the tattered reputation of such a notorious whore. As the new Duchess of Lancaster, Katherine enjoyed a world of wealth and privilege in a way she never had before. All of her children made advantageous marriages or excellent careers in the church. Most impressively, she and John remained completely devoted to each other until his death in 1399. After he died, the king seized all of his estates which led John and Blanche’s son to overthrow the king and crown himself King Henry III. Through all of the political turmoil, Katherine led a quiet existence. Her Beaufort descendants became stalwart Lancastrians in the ensuing Wars of the Roses. Through them, King Henry VII would claim his place in the House of Lancaster.

Despite all of her infamous notoriety, the greatest tribute to her may be that her stepson, Henry IV, officially referred to her as “the King’s mother.”

For more about Katherine and Philippa:

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20 March 2011

Kate Middleton's First Baby

This post was written before the 2011 Royal Wedding of the Cambridges, who now have three children.

Along with learning royal protocol, taking on public duties and finding her way around a variety of palatial royal homes, Catherine Middleton has one more task that she will certainly be under a lot of pressure to fulfill. She will be expected to be “fruitful and multiply.” This is one area where living up to comparisons to her late mother-in-law, Diana Princess of Wales, is likely to be challenging: Diana gave birth to Prince William less than 11 months after her wedding.

More recent royal brides don’t produce so quickly. This may be partly by personal choice indicating a desire common among modern women to focus on the marital relationship or the career change (“princesshood”) before jumping into the additional responsibilities of motherhood. Or, it may be due to natural selection. Today’s royal ladies are often much older than barely 20-year-old Diana was at marriage and the older a woman is, on average, the more difficult it may be for her to conceive naturally. According to researchers at the University of Edinburgh and at Kate’s alma mater, the University of St. Andrews, only 25% of women her age get pregnant within the first year of “trying” and 9% still don’t get pregnant within four years.

Among recent royal brides, Crown Princess Masako of Japan has had the most challenging fertility issues. She was the same age as Kate, 29, when she married Crown Prince Naruhito in 1993. Under extreme pressure to produce a male heir, she suffered one publicly announced miscarriage in 1999 and finally gave birth to her only child, Princess Aiko, eight and a half years after the wedding. Since women are not able to ascend the Japanese throne, Masako’s personal struggles were also the topic of much public debate that was only resolved when her husband’s sister-in-law Princess Kiko gave birth to a son in 2006, nearly 12 years after having the last of her two daughters. Little Prince Hisahito was delivered prematurely by caesarean section because Kiko suffered from placenta praevia, a life-threatening complication that is more prevalent among mothers under 20 or over 30.

Masako’s fertility struggles almost certainly contributed to her ongoing mental/emotional health problems, which have been officially described as deriving from an adjustment disorder. Since shortly after Aiko’s birth, she has remained largely out of the limelight indicating that whatever emotional disturbance she is suffering may have been directly aggravated by postpartum depression and/or the imperial disappointment in the birth of a daughter. In 2007, she may have been further stressed by the publication of an unauthorized biography that allegedly laid bare her troubles and asserted that she had used in vitro fertilization to conceive Aiko. The Imperial Household issued a public letter denouncing the book but did not deny any of its assertions. Interestingly, it is entirely possible that Princess Kiko may also have used some sort of reproductive assistance to have Hisahito. Now 47, Masako is extremely unlikely to have any more children. [UPDATE: In 2019, Masako became the Empress of Japan and she seems to be thriving in her new role.]

Closer to home, Sophie Countess of Wessex, wife of Prince William’s uncle Prince Edward also struggled with fertility. Thirty-four at the time of her wedding, Sophie suffered an ectopic pregnancy which was terminated in order to save her life. Four and a half years into the marriage, Sophie was in her third trimester when she had a placental abruption, another life-threatening risk for older mothers. Her daughter, The Lady Louise Windsor, was delivered by caesarean and the baby was quickly transferred to a special neonatal hospital for two weeks. Sophie also spent an extended period in the hospital and was unable to see her baby during that time. The suddenness of the premature, emergency delivery also meant that Edward was not at the birth. It was another four years until the birth of their second child, also by caesarean.

Fortunately, the future queens in Europe have not had such heart-breaking fertility problems. However, the constant baby bump watches they have all endured demonstrates that the media and public still expect pregnancies immediately after a royal wedding.

Here is a rundown of the current crown princesses and their pregnancies:

- Mary Crown Princess of Denmark was 32 when she married. The first of her four children was born 17 months later.

- Letizia Queen of Spain was 32 when she married. The first of her two children was born 17 months later.

- Princess Mathilde Queen of the Belgians was 26 when she married. The first of her four children was born 22 months later.

- Maxima Queen of The Netherlands was 30 when she married. The first of her three children was born 22 months later.

- Mette-Marit Crown Princess of Norway was 28 when she married. The first of her two royal children was born 29 months later. She had another child from a previous relationship when she was 23.

- Crown Princess Victoria of Sweden married shortly before her 33rd birthday. Now nine months into the marriage, no pregnancy has been announced. [Update: Victoria's daughter, Princess Estelle, was born in February 2012, 20 months after her parent's marriage.]

So, if these royal contemporaries are any indication, it is likely that William and Kate would not be welcoming a little one until 2013 or later. Hopefully, if Kate and William do have problems conceiving, the media and the public will be sympathetic and supportive and Kate won’t suffer anything like the anxiety experienced by Masako.

[UPDATE: Catherine was 29 when she married and the first baby will be born 27 months after the wedding. The baby, Prince George, was born at 4.24pm London time and weighed 8lb 6oz, according to the announcement from Kensington Palace at 8.30pm on Monday, July 22, 2013.]

[2019 UPDATE: Hereditary Grand Duchess Stephanie of Luxemburg announced her first pregnancy in December 2019. She married the future Grand Duke in October 2012 at the age of 28. Their first child is due 103 months after their wedding.]

06 March 2011

Fire at the Palace

Katherine clung to her mother as the flames leapt around them. Somehow an ordinary summer day had turned into a raging nightmare for the three-year-old princess and her family.

All had seemed normal that July morning in 1916. The hot, summer heat was just as oppressive as the day before. The Greek King Constantine I, his German-born wife Sophie and their family were at least a bit cooler at their summer retreat at Tatoi, outside of Athens. Political turmoil was running rife in the country as factions urged the king to join enter World War I as an ally of the Triple Entente, but Constantine believed Greece should remain neutral. The nation had emerged victorious but scathed by the Balkan Wars just three years earlier. Strife and mayhem were nothing new in the region. The king’s father George I has been assassinated by an anarchist in 1913, in between the two Balkan Wars, but Constantine was fearless in his opposition to joining the new war.

“The salvation of Greece is more precious than the Greek throne,” he would tell a New York Times reporter later that summer. Greece was more important, he continued, than “the life itself of Constantine.”

The summer before Constantine had battled illness and survived. Even this bout with pleurisy had become fodder for his political enemies, who denied that he had been sick. Rather, they alleged, he had been stabbed by his own wife, the evil sister of the belligerent Kaiser Wilhelm.

The fact that Queen Sophie was rarely on good terms with her brother did not enter the equation. The fact that she was a granddaughter of Queen Victoria and had been raised by her mother Victoria Princess Royal to love all things English was blithely ignored. The fact that she had actually been in England on her annual holiday when World War I started did not matter. Whenever war is afoot, a foreign queen is an easy target, even if that queen had once been banned from Germany for converting to orthodoxy.

By the middle of 1916, Greece was being torn into two factions, those who supported the king and neutrality and those who supported the former prime minister and the Entente. For months, the Entente, particularly France and Britain had been waging a campaign to make the royal family’s position untenable, spreading lies about the king and his wife.

So, on the torrid day in July, it probably seemed like a welcome distraction when someone spotted a bit of smoke on the horizon in the forest of the estate. Constantine, Sophie, three-year-old Katherine and several members of the household decided to drive out and take a look at what was happening. No one thought about how dry oak and pine could become in the midst of a summer drought. No one considered how quickly hot, summer winds could drive a blaze under those conditions.

Suddenly, the royal cars were practically surrounded by walls of flames. With no room to maneuver the vehicles, everyone jumped to the ground and started running. Sophie grabbed up Katherine, the youngest of her six children, and scrambled for the clearing. Constantine chased after them but then realized that some of their party had been left behind. He returned to try to help them, but it was too late.

For two miles, Sophie ran with her terrified baby. Unaware of her husband’s fate, not knowing where she could flee for true safety. Her only certainties were the breath in her lungs and the babe in her arms.

Back in the fire, Constantine struggled to help others as flaming branches fell on him. Desperate to escape, he jumped from a bridge to save his life. Early reports said he had been badly injured, damaging his face and a leg, but only his clothes were damaged.

In the meantime, soldiers and sailors were sent from Athens to battle the blaze. They tried to cut a firebreak between the conflagration and the villa, but it was of no use. At the villa, people were working quickly to remove furniture and pictures—anything that could be removed—before the flames arrived. The garage filled with seven cars was consumed. Then, the barracks of the Royal Guard. As the fire spread, it eventually reached the home of the crown prince and that of the king’s widowed mother. By nightfall, the flames were licking at the king’s villa. The inferno raged for two days. Various reports claimed anywhere from ten to forty people perished, including several people from the king’s “immediate suite.”

“It was a terrible, and yet a remarkable experience, being in the midst of that hell,” King Constantine said days later.

As it turned out, that hell was not yet over. Early presumptions that the fire had been caused by a careless smoker were soon replaced by fears that the fire had been set intentionally in an attempt to kill the king and his family. Arsonists were almost certainly to blame, but the exact culprits were never found. In 2007, Princess Katherine’s obituary placed blame on the secret police.

Considering the delicate position of the royal family, that may be a reasonable accusation. Within a year, the entire royal family, except their second son Alexander, were forced to flee the country under threat of bombardment by the Entente. With the neutral king and his heir Crown Prince George neutralized, the new King Alexander was forced to rubberstamp Greek’s alliance with the Entente and declared war.

In 1920, Alexander died of infection following a monkey bite and a plebiscite returned Constantine and Sophie to the throne. Their return, however, was short-lived. They were exiled once again in 1922. They both died in exile.

When their first son was returned to the throne in the 1930s, Constantine and Sophie were returned to the royal burial ground at Tatoi. In the 1967, their grandson King Constantine II was forced out of Greece and monarchy was abolished.

Today, Tatoi is better known as Decelea after the nearby town. As with other Greek royal properties, it has been the subject of protracted legal disputes between the exiled family and the government. In 2007, the family was awarded compensation for the estate, which is now considered state property. The amount the award is equal to pennies on the dollar.