21 December 2011

Royal Christmases

As Kate Middleton spends her first Christmas as a full-blown royal (see my article with 5 tips for her survival), here's a look at some royal Christmas traditions.

The Christmas Tree
The presence of a tree in nearly every British, Australian and American home is due to the influence of one single royal: Prince Albert, consort of Queen Victoria, who brought the evergreen tree tradition to England with him from his native Germany. Illustrations of his royal Christmas tree started appearing in magazines and newspapers in 1841. Within a few years, dragging a tree into the house, lighting it with candles and hanging baubles on it had become all the rage. Just think, without Prince Albert's influence, there would be no Charlie Brown Christmas tree and no giant trees at Rockefeller Center in New York and Victoria Square in Adelaide. Not to mention, the contribution Albert made to what is now a multibillion dollar industry.

Live to the Commonwealth
A more recent royal tradition in Britain is the monarch's Christmas day broadcast. The tradition started when the current queen's grandfather, King George V, began making radio broadcasts in 1932. Although there have been three monarchs since then, only two others have participated--the queen's uncle, King Edward VIII, abdicated the throne in early December 1936 after less than a year as king, so he never made the address. The queen has delivered a radio or television address every year since her accession, except 1969, when the palace thought the release of the documentary, "The Royal Family," had provided enough exposure for the year. Public outcry, however, caused the queen to announce that the annual tradition would return the following year. The address has sometimes been issued live, but more commonly, it is pre-recorded. It is first broadcast at 3 p.m. GMT on Christmas Day. Since 2006, it has also been available via podcast.

For more about the British Monarchy at Christmas, visit the official site.

Sinterklaas and Zwart Piet
In The Netherlands, children celebrate Christmas with Sinterklaas and Zwart Piet, or Santa Claus and Black Peter. For the Dutch royal family, the arrival of that illustrious pair was become an annual outing. On December 5, the Prince of Orange and Princess Maxima take their three adorable litte girls to join the hordes of happy youngsters as they welcome Santa and Peter to town. See photos from this year's event. The pair arrives, having traveled all the way from Madrid and bringing candy for all the little ones who come to their parade--even little princesses.

Christmas Cards in Spain
Although Christmas cards are sent around the world, we don't always get to see what royal families send out, except in Spain. We occasionally get to see a few cards elsewhere, but the Spanish royal family always releases the cards from all four of their "families": the King and Queen, the Prince and Princess of the Asturias, Infanta Elena, and Infanta Cristina. Another nice touch is that the publicly released cards show the handwritten note and all of the individuals signatures. Most of the time the images on the cards are family photos or at least, pics of the kids. However, the King and Queen will often select artwork. This year's cards are notable because it is the first time that the youngest infanta, four-year-old Sofia, signed the card all by herself. (Click to see this year's cards.)

Family Photos in Belgium
Like many families, the crown princely couple of Belgium uses Christmas as an opportunity to take new family photos. With four young children, it is probably quite a task to get everyone dressed in matching outfits that aren't too matchy-matchy, but they always pull it off with aplomb. In addition to the family portrait, they also take pictures of each of the children. This year's set of photos does a particularly good job of highlighting each child's individual personality. (See this year's photos.)

Family Videos
The Norwegian royal family takes it a couple of steps further; the ladies at least usually dress in bunad (the traditional Norwegian costume) AND they release a video with the photos. Over the years, we have seen Queen Sonja reading to her grandchildren and little Princess Ingrid Alexandra and Prince Sverre Magnus making cookies. (See this year's photo and video.)

A Musical Christmas
As an extension of their tenth anniversary celebrations, the Crown Prince and Princess of Norway this year launched what may become an annual tradition. They and the king and queen hosted a performance for 200 young people who are associated with charities sponsored by the Crown Princess's foundation, which was established when she married Crown Prince Haakon. Nine Norwegian artists performed on the concert, which was broadcast across the country. The same musicians have also created a benefit Christmas album.

17 December 2011

Three Naughty Princesses and One Wicked Queen

This is the story of how some little purses prevented women from ever inheriting the French throne.

Philip the Fair with his children and his brother
The story starts when the very beautiful Queen of England personally embroidered three purses for her lively young sisters-in-law: Marguerite, Jeanne and Blanche. Born a princess of France, Isabella gave these special gifts to them while on a visit home. Isabella had been sent to England as a little girl, so she must have been excited to spend time with her own family—her powerful father King Philip the Fair, her three handsome brothers and their three wives, all of whom were princesses of Burgundy. Blanche and Jeanne were sisters and Marguerite was their cousin.

Since the death of Isabella’s mother, the three Burgundian princesses had made the French court a place for frivolity with fun-filled parties and risqué fashions. Nineteen-year-old Isabella must have enjoyed their company, particularly since her English sisters-in-law were all much older than she.

Alas, although Isabella had to return to Britain, many Frenchman were frequently at her husband’s court. Two dashing knights were visiting just a few months later: the dashing d’Aulnay brothers, Philip and Gautier. Although not nearly as handsome as her own husband King Edward II, the brothers certainly caught her eye. They were amusing to admire until Isabella noticed something odd. On each brother’s belt there hung a familiar little purse—the very purses that Isabella had recently given to Blanche and Marguerite.

To say that Isabella was angry is probably putting it mildly. She might have been slightly offended by the re-gifting, but she was more likely infuriated that two wives of French princes—her own brothers—were granting such favors to men who weren’t their husbands. What could it mean?

Tour de Nesle
Isabella didn’t immediately tell her father and brothers. She had little evidence to prove her worst fears. Soon, however, others began to question the jovial Burgundian trios’ too boisterous behavior. Whispers, perhaps outright accusations, reached King Philip’s ears. Isabella finally shared her own suspicions. A cautious, but politically vicious man, Philip gathered information. He had his daughters-in-law and their friends followed. The trail quickly led straight to the Tour de Nesle, an old fortress on the River Seine, which had been turned into a love den.

The d’Aulnay brothers tried to escape Philip’s reach, but they failed. Instead, they were tortured just as the Knights Templar had so recently been tormented by the King. This time, however, more than money, power, and religion were at stake. The very fate of the Capetian dynasty was on the line, for if either princess conceived a child by her lover, it could be passed off as an heir to the throne.

The d’Aulnay brothers did not last long under their brutal inquisition. They confessed everything. For their lusty crimes against the king, they were publicly castrated, flayed alive and then decapitated. Their mistresses faced a more private trial before the Paris Parlement. All three young women stood accused. Jeanne admitted that she knew about the affairs but had never been unfaithful herself. Her husband, the second son Prince Philip, believed her and pleaded for her. Blanche and Marguerite had no such defenders. They were both found guilty. Their lives were spared but they were humiliated by being shaved bald and were imprisoned in the dank and gloomy Chateau Gaillard. Jeanne was punished by being placed under house arrest at Dourdan. Within a year, she was reunited with her husband and five children at court.

Just months after the Tour de Nesle Affair, King Philip died and his eldest son became King Louis X. Because his wife Marguerite’s affair had called into question the legitimacy of their only child, a daughter named Jeanne, Louis needed to marry again quickly. With Marguerite still alive at Chateau Gaillard, it would be difficult for him to find another bride. Then, Marguerite conveniently died. Perhaps too conveniently. It might have been the harsh conditions of being imprisoned underground or it might have been murder. Nevertheless, her death could not have come at a better time for Louis, who married his second wife just five days later.

Louis managed to impregnate his new wife very quickly, but his athletic prowess soon got the best of him. After an intense game of tennis—his favorite sport—he grew ill and died. He had been king for less than two years. France eagerly awaited the birth of the heir, a little boy name John, who died within a week.

What was the country to do? Louis’ daughter Jeanne was still alive, though not quite four years old. So, King Philip IV’s second soon assumed the throne as King Philip V, with his wife Jeanne of Burgundy at his side. He quickly convened the three estates and had them affirm that women could not inherit the throne, allegedly based on historical precedence from the time of the Frankish kings. Called the Salic Law, this legal decision barred the orphaned princess from the throne and confirmed the new King Philip’s regal rights, but it had some unintended consequences. At the time, Philip’s heir was his own son and namesake, but five years later, the little prince died. When the king died the next year, he left behind four daughters who, because of their father’s insistence, could not inherit the throne.

Instead, Philip’s brother, Charles, husband of the still-imprisoned Blanche of Burgundy became king. Charles finally managed to have the marriage annulled and he remarried. Blanche, despite the dreadful conditions which had perhaps led to her cousin’s death at Chateau Gaillard, carried on her promiscuous ways: she conceived a child by one of her jailers. Nevertheless, she ultimately repented and was allowed to become a nun. She lived until the ripe old age of 30.

As for Charles, despite two more wives, he died without sons and the Salic Law prevented his two surviving daughters from ascending the throne in 1328, just 14 years after the Affair of the Tour de Nesle.

Queen Isabella and her lover
at the head of an army.
In England, the only surviving child of King Philip IV, Queen Isabella thought she saw a loophole in the Salic Law. Although she could not inherit the throne, perhaps her son could. That question would launch the Hundred Years’ War between France and England.

Perhaps one of the greatest ironies of the entire Tour de Nesle Affair, however, is perhaps that Queen Isabella had become the most infamous adulteress in the world. Although she had pointed fingers at her sisters-in-law, she also engaged in a well-known extramarital affair, she and her lover led a rebellion against her husband, forced his abdication and had him executed.

10 December 2011

Princess Pepper

Said goodbye today to my sister's best friend, Pepper, who wasn't really a real princess, but who was always treated royally--especially during her final illness.

I just had this portrait of Pepper done by Melinda McPherson Golden as a Christmas present. I highly recommend Melinda. She takes new commissions all the time; I have purchased several works of art from her.

03 December 2011

Book Review: The Royal W.E.

Although many American girls have dreamt of marrying a prince, very few have ever achieved it. There was the glamorous movie star Grace Kelly who became a Serene Highness. Today, there is New York socialite Marie-Chantal Miller, whose father-in-law used to be the King of Greece. But the American dame who snagged an actual King and Emperor has a name that is synonymous with infamy.

Not that Bessiewallis Warfield Spencer Simpson doesn’t have her defenders. Chief among them is longtime royal blogger Victoria Martinez , whose 2011 e-book, “The Royal W.E.: Unique Glimpses of The Duke & Duchess of Windsor,” sets out to tell the behind-the-scenes story of Wallis Simpson and her Prince Charming from a more sympathetic point of view. To be fair, Wallis and King Edward suffered from bad press from the very beginning, a situation they only managed to fuel throughout their lives.

Martinez’s book takes us back before the beginning—before the then-Prince of Wales met the woman for whom he would give up the British Empire. Through careful research and a bit of psychological reckoning, Martinez ably demonstrates how the couple’s past lives led them to each other’s arms. The prince hated protocol and ceremony, he felt unloved by his undemonstrative parents, and at every turn he was hemmed in by his high rank. Refusing to make an appropriate marriage, he found his comfort with motherly married women. Wallis was the last in a string of such misalliances. But, Wallis was no less lovelorn; having made an unfortunate and abusive early marriage, she found a second husband who provided security if not passion. When the prince and Wallis met, she was dazzled by the charming, boyish prince and he was ensnared by the forthright, strong woman. It is hard to imagine that either dreamt where their joint path would lead.

“W.E.” is presented as a series of short essays, mostly derived from Martinez’s earlier blog posts. The research is impeccable and many of the stories and insights will be new to any but the most avid royal readers. Her writing is fresh and inviting, and she often approaches her topic like a detective. As Martinez explains in her introduction, she has had a strong desire since childhood to really understand the real tale of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor.

I am no apologist for the couple, who seem to have made a series of poor choices throughout their lives together, but I am persuaded that neither is quite as selfish or self-deluded as they are often portrayed. However, I don’t subscribe to the Romeo-and-Juliet romanticism doled out by their defenders. Martinez manages to present a more balanced—though still favorable view—that captures them as human beings rather than archetypes.
The format of the book makes it easy to read, although I was a bit overwhelmed by all of the preliminary information, which includes a nine-page foreword by Windsor biographer Greg King, endorsements from two more royal authors, and Martinez’s own acknowledgements and introduction. Had it been a printed book, I would have been tempted to skip straight to the well-crafted essays.

In most of them, Martinez strives to contradict some of the more outlandish accusations that have been leveled at the Windsors, particularly Wallis, including reports that she had secret sexual powers or that she was not actually a woman at all.

Since I have some knowledge of the couple’s history, I was particularly intrigued by some of the lesser-known stories. Two essays in particular stand out. In “A Fool Would Know,” Martinez discusses the mysterious theft of the Duchess of Windsor’s jewelry during a sojourn at an English country house. This is our intrepid author at her Agatha Christie best: no theory is left unexamined although the crime remains unsolved.

Secondly, I was quite intrigued by “A Dreadful Woman,” in which Martinez explores the strained relationships between Wallis and her various royal in-laws. In this examination, the Kent branch of the family emerges as the most humane and forgiving—with royal family black sheep Princess Michael of Kent as the one true friend of the elderly and widowed Duchess of Windsor. The late Queen Mother’s relationship with the Duchess of Windsor is traced from its early misunderstandings to full-scale warfare. And, the Queen Mother’s bitter hatred is represented as the poison that spoils any chance Wallis and her prince might have had for reconciling with the family. The enmity between the two women was unrelenting—while the Duke of Windsor’s mother, the formidable Queen Mary, is granted a moment of human kindness as Martinez recounts her concern for Wallis during an illness. In this section, Martinez may be a bit heavy handed in her favorable bias toward Wallis, but it is nonetheless a fascinating exploration of some truly hyperbolic family dynamics.

Overall, “The Royal W.E.” offers cleverly composed, thoroughly researched glimpses of the American divorcee and the King who gave up his throne for her. I encourage you to keep an open mind as you read it; you just might realize that sometimes a fairytale doesn’t have any actual villains, just a lot of people in genuine emotional distress trying their best to make a life for themselves in very unusual circumstances. Click the Amazon linkbelow to buy it for just $2.99.

Read The Arbitrary History Blog by Victoria Martinez.