28 May 2011

The Problem with Maria

The Queen of Naples’ sister welcomed the Count of Avellino into the royal fortress of Castell dell’Ovo with the appropriate courtesy owed to one of the queen’s most powerful vassals. She had no fear of the small company of armed men that accompanied him. Naples was almost always at war and violent crime was rampant throughout the land. To travel without a militant escort would have been foolhardy.

But the mood shifted suddenly as the men encircled her. The count commanded the royal princess to marry his son, Roberto del Balzo. A hasty ceremony wasn’t sufficient to consecrate a medieval marriage—that required consummation. As the count’s guards barred her escape and in the presence of his father, Roberto violently raped her.

This wasn’t the first horrific drama in Maria’s life. Born six months after her father’s death, she and her older sister Joanna were orphaned when Maria was only two. With no brothers and no uncles, Joanna immediately become the heir of their grandfather King Robert the Wise of Naples. Female heirs in the fourteenth century did not make for a very stable kingdom and Naples was already an unstable country, even King Robert’s accession was still contested by his nephew, the King of Hungary. So Joanna and Maria were used for political matches. At seven, Joanna was married to the King of Hungary’s younger son, Prince Andrew, while Maria was promised to the King’s eldest son Louis.

In 1343, King Robert died and Joanna became Queen Regnant, but her Hungarian in-laws wanted Andrew crowned King. While that controversy simmered to a boiling point, the question of Joanna’s heir became critical. Just 16, she and Andrew did not yet have any children. That left 14-year-old Maria as the potential future queen. Since Maria’s earlier royal fiancé, now King Louis of Hungary, had married another princess, Joanna sought to solidify an alliance with France by offering her sister to the French king, but other factions were at work in the Neapolitan court.

The princesses’ great-aunt, the Duchess of Durazzo wanted to secure the crown for her handsome 19-year-old son Charles. Using her connections at the Papal Court, she secretly arranged a dispensation for the two to marry. Then, she kidnapped Maria. A clandestine ceremony followed and the marriage was quickly consummated. This time, however, Maria readily submitted to her new husband. Starry-eyed with love for her dashing cousin, she may even have helped arrange the illicit marriage. The rival Taranto branch of the family immediately took arms—they also had been maneuvering to secure Maria for one of their sons.

With militant hostilities growing more threatening, Joanna beseeched the Pope to annul the marriage, but he encouraged the young Queen to forgive the impetuous lovers. When Maria almost immediately became pregnant, Joanna relented and formally recognized Maria as her heir, although she did have to pay off both the Hungarian and Taranto branches of the family.

Nevertheless, the rivalries among the various factions within the Neapolitan royal house continued to simmer, particularly over whether Andrew of Hungary should be crowned King of Naples. Maria’s husband Charles of Durazzo was strongly opposed to it. Even Joanna, who did not care for her immature husband vacillated on the subject. Eventually, the Pope mandated Andrew’s coronation, but days before it was to take place, a group of secret conspirators—which almost certainly included Charles—put an end to Andrew’s regal aspirations.

Late that night, a servant lured Andrew, who had been partying all day, out of his chamber. A small group of armed men seized him, strangled him with a rope and flung him over a balcony where he dangled above the castle garden. Conspirators below pulled on his legs and then dragged his lifeless body down to be secretly buried. Awakened by his screams, Andrew’s childhood nurse startled the assassins, and they fled into the night before they could hide the body.

Andrew’s murder set off years of investigations, examinations by torture and military conflict. Accused of conspiracy, Queen Joanna herself stood trial before the Holy Father himself, but was acquitted. In the meantime, the 21-year-old queen married her cousin Louis of Taranto, hoping to provide a strong military commander to protect her kingdom from the threats of the King of Hungary, who not only wanted to avenge his brother’s murder but also wanted to seize the Neapolitan throne for himself.

Despite being ticked off over a Taranto prince marrying the Queen, the Durazzo princes nonetheless banded together with the Joanna to ward off the Hungarian invasion. Overwhelmed by the size and power of King Louis’ forces, however, all of the Durazzos and the Tarantos—except the Queen’s husband—surrendered without a struggle. Joanna and her husband escaped from Naples and the Hungarian king soon overcame the resistance of the inhabitants.

Once he felt secure, King Louis invited the princes to a fabulous feast. At the end of the meal, he seized them all. He kept the younger princes as hostages, sending them back to Hungary, but reserved very special treatment for Maria’s husband, Charles of Durazzo. Louis made Charles show him the exact spot where Andrew had been killed, forced him to kneel there and had him summarily beheaded.

Maria was now a 19-year-old widow with four young daughters.

An outbreak of plague and ongoing rebellion by Neapolitan nobles like the Count of Avellino caused King Louis to retreat to Hungary but he returned two years later. This time, he decided to employ a secret diplomatic strategy to ensure his success. Having lost his wife, he secretly sent a marriage proposal to Maria, who, despite the fact that this man had killed her beloved first husband, readily agreed. As Louis fought his way back across Italy, Queen Joanna was able to mount a stronger campaign thanks to support from her territory in Provence. Facing a drawn-out war, both sides agreed to the Pope’s request to cease hostilities for six months and seek a diplomatic solution negotiated at his behest by Avellino. While Queen Joanna and Louis of Taranto withdrew to Rome and King Louis of Hungary also made his separate way to the papal city, Avellino stayed behind in Naples to handle another mission from the Pope: to prevent Maria from marrying King Louis by marrying her to Roberto del Balzo. Once this task was so horribly fulfilled, Avellino, Roberto and Maria caught up with Joanna and her husband at Gaeta. The royal couple were incensed to discover that Maria had been debased by marrying beneath her royal status—and no doubt unhappy about her rape too. Louis of Taranto boarded the count’s ship, stabbed him to death and threw him overboard. Then, he took Roberto into custody and had him locked away. Several months later, Maria brought her own armed escort to visit her husband. Then, she watched as they hacked him to pieces.

In order to prevent Maria from making any more clandestine marriage arrangements or being captured by other power-hungry men, Joanna had her brother-in-law Philip of Taranto marry her. For good measure, she also took Maria’s daughters away from her and raised them herself. Since Joanna never had surviving children herself, Maria and her girls were incredibly important political assets.

While this marriage provided some stability, it did not prevent continued warring between Queen Joanna and her cousins of Hungary, Taranto and Durazzo. Once Maria died, the still childless Joanna unofficially made Maria’s daughter Margherita, who married Charles of Durazzo (nephew of the beheaded Charles of Durazzo) her heir. Meanwhile, the childless King Louis of Hungary made Charles his heir. Later,when Louis had several daughters, he disinherited him. Fearing that Charles would rebel and attack him, good ole King Louis decided to help Charles get his own kingdom by conquering Naples. Armed with men, weapons and plenty of Hungarian gold, Charles captured Joanna and had her assassinated.

Inspired by his own success in Naples, Charles invaded Hungary after Louis’ death and seized that throne from Louis’ eleven-year-old daughter. But Louis’ widow had learned a lot from her husband and his family. She had Charles assassinated and assumed control of Hungary in her daughter Maria’s name.

27 May 2011

Smile for the Camera

After a lifetime in the spotlight, Crown Princess Victoria of Sweden seems to be aware of every camera pointed at her and offered a friendly wave to a photographer positioned overhead. She and her new husband have been on an official visit to Germany this week.

Sweden's Crown Princess Victoria (C), her husband Prince Daniel (L), the Duke of Vastergotland, and Berlin's major Klaus Wowereit arrive for talks at the city hall in Berlin, May 27, 2011. The royal couple is on a visit to Germany with stops in Munich and Berlin. REUTERS/Tobias Schwarz (GERMANY - Tags: POLITICS ROYALS)

26 May 2011


Her great-great-great-great grandfather, King George III, could never have imagined a moment like this: the Queen of England toasting the President of the United States. She even called the U.S. Britain's most important ally. a lot can change in a couple of centuries, but the monarchy does provide some continuity. As President Obama noted in his dinner speech on May 24, during the Queen's reign there have been about a dozen presidents and a dozen prime ministers. The politicians come and go, but the Queen is here to stay.

U.S. President Barack Obama and Britain's Queen Elizabeth attend a State Banquet in Buckingham Palace in London May 24, 2011. Obama was treated to royal pomp at Buckingham Palace Tuesday on a two-day state visit aimed at ensuring the United States and Britain keep the "special" in their relationship. REUTERS/Lewis Whyld/PA Wire/Pool (BRITAIN - Tags: POLITICS ROYALS)

22 May 2011

We Three Queens

On New Year’s Day 1536, Henry VIII must have counted himself the most fortunate prince in Christendom, for all of his problems were about to be resolved. His troublesome first wife was on her deathbed. His second wife was pregnant with his heir. And, he was making great progress with his latest love affair. After so many years of heartache and trials, for a moment at least, it was good to be king.

News of Catherine of Aragon’s final illness had reached him shortly after Christmas. He was kind enough to allow some of her dear friends to visit her, but not their bastard daughter Mary. At nearly 20, the former Princess Mary was nearly as difficult for him as her mother, for they both refused to acknowledge that he had never truly been married to Catherine. Even the Catholic Church would not confirm that, as Catherine was his brother’s widow, it had been unlawful for Henry to wed her. The Bible was very clear on this point, Henry insisted, and he therefore had been forced to break away from the Pope’s domination and establish himself as head of the Church of England. [Read my post about Henry and Catherine's marriage.]

Only three years had passed since that schism had enabled the English Church to declare his marriage void and he had married his longsuffering sweetheart Anne Boleyn, Catherine’s former lady-in-waiting. So kind and loving during their six-year courtship, Anne was an insecure, demanding and jealous wife. So very different from the patient and supportive Catherine. Of course, Catherine was too stubborn. If only she had been obedient in the end, he could have been kinder to her. Why couldn’t she understand that their marriage was an abomination before God? That God had punished him by making them childless? Mary didn’t count naturally because she was a girl.

Now, with Catherine clearly nearing death, God was showing his grace to Henry by blessing his new, valid marriage with the long-awaited son. This was Anne’s fourth pregnancy after the birth of a daughter Elizabeth, a stillborn son and a miscarriage. But, Henry had faith that this would finally be the son he needed to secure his dynasty.

The only problem was that Anne was too bossy and too clinging. She was not born to be a queen, like Catherine had been, and she lacked the proper understanding of her role. She needed to stop telling Henry what to do and she needed to look away when he chose to fulfill his masculine needs. Instead, she caused scenes and intentionally provoked him. She was clearly ungrateful for all he had done to raise her up. Didn’t she realize that he could just as easily cast her down?

Ah, but his new little ducky was nothing like Anne. Jane Seymour was placid and calm. When she married, she would never cause her husband a moment of difficulty. Some may think that she was too pale and too plump, but after the fast-burning passion of his love with Anne, Jane was soothing and reassuring. She never questioned him, doubted him or told him what to do.

On January 7, Henry greeted the news of Catherine’s death with rejoicing. He and Anne dressed in yellow and held a court ball to celebrate the passing threat of war with Spain and the Holy Roman Empire which had lingered as long as she lived. As the aunt of the Emperor, Catherine had proven a strong wedge between Henry and the Empire. He was already approaching the Emperor with offers of rapprochement. As the bells rang out his rejoicing, Henry received Catherine’s final letter to him. Her final thoughts had been for him—for the safety of his soul, for the love of their daughter and for the love she still had for him. “Mine eyes desire you above all things,” she wrote. Henry’s heart ached. Twenty-seven years ago, their life had been an idyll. The handsome heroic young king and his beautiful princess bride. But, it had all been a lie, a love forbidden by God. And, even now, Catherine refused to understand, for she signed her final letter, in defiance, “Catherine the Queen.” Henry wept bitterly.

Across the palace, Anne also was having misgivings. She had thought herself in danger as long as Catherine lived. Only now was she realizing that Catherine was her only insurance. If Henry had discarded her while Catherine lived, his break with the Church and his annulment could have been invalidated—he would have been proven wrong. Now that Catherine was gone, many would consider him a widower. Those who questioned the validity of Anne’s marriage and the legitimacy of her daughter Elizabeth could easily persuade the temperamental king to put Anne away and make a new, uncontested marriage, perhaps with Jane Seymour. Thank God for the child in her womb. He was Anne’s only savior.

But Anne couldn’t help feeling trapped and neglected. Every time she saw her lady-in-waiting, Jane Seymour, she wanted to scream. She couldn’t seem to stop herself from lashing out at everyone, including the King. Anne had made many enemies for herself at Court and she was not making any friends now. Why couldn’t she control her emotions?

Despite her anguish, Henry seemed to be having a grand time, cavorting with Jane, planning the funeral of his late “sister-in-law” Catherine, and going to jousts. His world seemed golden compared to Anne’s. How could he enjoy himself when she was so miserable? How could he abandon her to her fears and worries? She could just now begin to make out the slightest bump from the new baby. This child would change everything. He would be a Prince and the King would love her again. She would be the undoubted Queen and all of her enemies would disappear.

At a moment like this, not quite three weeks after Catherine’s death, the Duke of Norfolk burst in with an urgent message: the King had fallen in the jousts and been rendered unconscious. For two hours, he would not awaken. The Duke insisted that he tried to break the news calmly so as not to upset Anne and, on the surface, she seemed fine. But, on the inside, all of her fears were intensified. What would happen to her if Henry should die? Would Mary her enemy become Queen? How long after that would Anne and Elizabeth keep their heads?

As Henry slowly recovered, Anne’s emotional state did not improve. Her position seemed to be less and less stable. Thank God for the baby. On the day of Catherine’s funeral, 29 January, Henry donned black and attended a solemn mass. But, he still found time to cuddle Jane Seymour on his lap. Ah, could life be any sweeter?

Just then, Anne entered the chamber. Seeing Henry and Jane together, she bolted out of the room hysterically. It was more than she could bear. Overwrought and in agony, her body revolted against her. By evening, she had miscarried a son.

Henry came to her too soon. Grief-stricken and upset, his own nerves were too raw. Upon seeing him, Anne lashed out—it was all his fault! “I love you more than Catherine. It breaks my heart to see you with others!” The same old argument. Henry was enraged! Clearly this was not his fault. Anne had tricked him with witchcraft! God was punishing this unholy union! He stormed away, “God will give me no boys with you!”

Within months, Anne’s enemies convinced Henry that not only had she cuckolded him but that she had plotted his death—both were acts of treason. Just days after her execution, Henry married Jane and a year later, he finally got his Prince.

13 May 2011

Photo: Rania and the Schoolchildren

Queen Rania of Jordan demonstrates that magic touch with children which most royal ladies today seem to share. Here she helps one young student as part of the Madrasati or "My School" Initiative. The program is a personal initiative by the queen that is geared toward making Jordan's schools "safer, brighter, better equipped, and more inspiring learning environments." Visit the Madrasati web site.

Jordan's Queen Rania (R) speaks to students at the opening ceremony of the fourth stage of the Madrasati (My School) initiative in Mafraq May 11, 2011. REUTERS/Naser Ayoub/Royal Palace/Handout (JORDAN - Tags: EDUCATION ROYALS) THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. IT IS DISTRIBUTED, EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS

03 May 2011

Photo: A Royal Holy Day

On May 1, several Catholic royals gathered in Vatican City for the beatification of Pope John Paul II. Beatification is a step toward making the former pope a saint and it means that he can now be called "Blessed John Paul" and Catholics can pray in his name. Among the royals attending the mass that day were King Albert II and Queen Paola of Belgium (pictured here), The Prince and Princess of the Asturias and the Grand Duke and Duchess of Luxembourg. Between the royal wedding in London, Queen's Day celebrations in The Netherlands, the King's birthday in Sweden and the Beatification, it was a very busy weekend for most of Europe's royals.

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi (L) talks with King Albert II and Queen Paola of Belgium before the mass for the beatification of Pope John Paul II in Saint Peter's Square at the Vatican May 1, 2011. REUTERS/Alessandro Bianchi (VATICAN - Tags: RELIGION SOCIETY ROYALS)

02 May 2011

The Downside of Princesshood

The Duchess of CambridgeAs Catherine Middleton and Charlene Wittstock are surely discovering, becoming a princess isn’t quite the fairytale young girls are led to imagine. You’ll remember that those fairytales end with winning the prince and only Stephen Sondheim has really attempted to explore what happens after that. (If you have never seen "Into the Woods," I highly recommend it.)

Of course, a middle class woman marrying into a royal family has a number of fringe benefits that we ordinary folk can only dream about: access to fabulous jewels, the ability to travel around the world, designers dying to dress you, wealth and never-ending public attention. [See my article, “What Does a Princess Do?”] But, that’s just the upside. The trade-offs might make some would-be princesses decide to explore other career options.

“I would think the most challenging part, especially for middle-class women marrying into the royal family, is the lack of privacy and flexibility,” says Yvonne Strong of the blog, Royal Universe. The lack of privacy extends even further than the media’s zoom lenses. Indeed, the paparazzi are going to try every trick in the book to photograph you getting angry, wearing a bikini or looking sad, but you may not be able to indulge in much privacy even in your own home.

“They're going from a regular home to a palace with an extensive staff and a tradition going back hundreds of years, and are having to fit into a routine that's pretty much set in rock,” Strong says, adding that “there's no real way out if they decide they don't like it.” That may be why Prince William and Catherine, now The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge have decided to spend as much time as possible at their cottage on remote Anglesey, where they famously live without so much as a maid to do the washing up. Away from the listening ears of servants and courtiers, they may have more luck avoiding the tell-all books of butlers and the like.

Of course, another constant stress is the pressure to appear perfect all the time. “The main challenge of the role is not overshadowing the spouse,” says Marilyn Braun of Marilyn’s Royal Blog, The Princess Catherine Report and the Internet radio show, “The Royal Report.” Braun says new princesses are expected to “look beautiful, but not too beautiful, lest you draw attention away from the royal family.”

Indeed, one of the early pressures on the infamous marriage of Charles and Diana was her ability to draw a crowd away from her husband, who had become quite used to being the star of the show. Although Diana later regretted media intrusions into her life, early on she seemed to relish the attention. During her very first foreign tour, she crossed between him and the photographers, who were scheduled to watch him play cello. She settled on a piano bench and surprised them all by playing beautifully, revealing a hitherto private talent and earning the headlines intended for her husband. She was probably just bored with the hectic tour schedule, but her impromptu moment did not play well back at the palace.

Furthermore, princesses are expected to dress impeccably, fashionably but not fashion-forward. Indeed Catherine has already received more than her share of public criticism for wearing sensible, square heels instead of stilettos. Princesses must also be well-coiffed with nary a bad hair day and her mascara should never smudge. And, she is expected to wear full evening attire with great frequency. Sure, it’s fun to dress up occasionally but to be constantly turned out could get exhausting and Diana complained that her tiara gave her a headache.

Braun adds that “There's also the challenge of subjugating their ego and in some cases, their level of intelligence.” Princesses are supposed to appear interested in everyone they meet (scientists, movie stars, shopkeepers, sheep farmers, small children in crowds, etc.) but not interested enough to stay for a long conversation. They’re expected to avoid any topics that could be considered controversial, racy or indiscreet by anyone, which leaves them asking scintillating questions like, “Have you been waiting long?” and “Did you travel from far away?”

Of course, the exception to this is that princesses are expected to take up “causes,” but even these are limited to health, children, sports and the arts. Stronger issues like environmentalism can only be broached by the heirs to thrones like the Prince of Wales and Crown Princess Victoria of Sweden. Going out onto a limb with more political issues, like Diana did with landmines, tends to tick off the politicians. And, I doubt you’ll ever see a princess become a patroness of PETA.

Finally, their schedules are only partially under their control. Princesses are expected to attend innumerable national events, ribbon cuttings, photo ops, movie premieres, galas, luncheons, investitures, etc., etc., etc. And, while princesses do tend to have great vacations, they don’t get sick days. They are expected to show up with broken legs (Camilla Duchess of Cornwall), sinus headaches (Queen Elizabeth II) and morning sickness (every princess on the planet). Not to mention, they have to eat everything that’s served to them, accept every gift no matter how odd with a smile, and put everyone they meet at their ease.

The good news for most princesses marrying into royal families in the last 15 years is that they seem to be receiving more preparation than their predecessors. First of all, many of them have been in relationships with their princes for many years and therefore are familiar with the royal routines, if only from the sidelines. Second, the royal establishments seem to have realized that newcomers need more training, so royal fiancées-to-be learn about protocol, traditions and expectations before the engagement is ever announced. When marrying into a new nationality, like Australian-born Crown Princess Mary of Denmark and Argentine beauty Princess Maxima of The Netherlands, they get extensive language training and lessons in history and culture.

As for the newest royal brides, Braun says Catherine and Charlene will be most successful—and content—if they remember to be good supporting players who don’t outshine their husbands. “It's a very fine line but I think that because Kate and Charlene have had exposure to royal life, they will be successful working within those confines.”

Strong believes “both ladies stand a good chance of making a success of it as long as they aren't hounded too badly by media types desperate for stories of conflict and failure.” To which she adds that a great portion of that success will depend on how well they are supported by their husbands and their new families.

For more about a princess’s job, read my article, “What Does a Princess Do?

Photo source: The British Monarchy (all rights reserved)