Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Royal Mistress - Katherine Swynford

I was inspired to write this post after realizing that so many people learned about Katherine Swynford by reading Anya Seton's classic novel Katherine which was re-released several years ago in a trade paperback edition.

She lived in the 14th Century, and until Anya Seton rescued her from obscurity, was nothing more than a footnote in the life of her brother-in-law, Geoffrey Chaucer. She doesn't even have a name in Shakespeare's play, Richard II. Yet her descendants include several kings of England, and a dukedom that still exists today. Recently two new biographies have appeared about her, the most recent to be released this month, by noted Tudor biographer Alison Weir.

Why has Katherine captured the imagination that she not only has a blog related to her but also a society named her? Perhaps because unlike other royal mistresses who either died young (Nell Gwynn, Madame Pompadour), beheaded (Madame du Barry), died in poverty (Mary Robinson, Dorothy Jordan) or were banished from their lover's kingdom (Lola Montez), Katherine ended up with a happy ending. Her lover, John of Gaunt, third son of Edward III, not only married her but legitimized their children, although his nephew Richard II made sure that they were not eligible to inherit the throne.

Jeannette Lucraft, in her award winning article for History Today magazine (Missing from History, May 2002), concludes that one can learn a great deal about the role of women in the 14th Century as well as the 14th century culture and society through the history of Katherine Swynford.

Personally, I think it's just a great love story.

Katherine was born around 1350, the daughter of Paen de Roet, a Flemish herald from Hainault who was knighted just before his death on the battlefield. He had three daughters and a son who lived. Philippa married Geoffrey Chaucer, and Elizabeth died the Canoness of a convent.

Very little is known about Katherine's early years, but she must have been highly educated to have been appointed Governess to the Duke's daughters. She also would have to have shown a degree of piety and some knowledge of household economics to have been considered for the post.

Katherine grew up within the royal court, joining the household of John of Gaunt's first wife Blanche of Lancaster after her marriage in 1359. At the age of 16, Katherine married Hugh Swynford, a knight in John of Gaunt's retinue who owned the manor house of Kettlethorpe in Lincolnshire. She bore him at least two children, Thomas and Blanche. Hugh was in his early thirties when he was killed while fighting in Aquitaine under Gaunt in 1371 when Katherine would have been all of 21 years of age.

After her husband's death Katherine then became governess to his two daughters (the sisters of the future Henry IV of England) by Blanche. Eventually, she became his official mistress, about 1373. The affair between them was to last for over 25 years culminating in their marriage in 1396.

What did the chronicles of the time say about Katherine. Many considered her to be a temptress. Thomas Walsingham, a Benedictine monk of St. Albans, was notorious for his condemnation of John of Gaunt, criticizing his leadership in the French wars, and castigating him for the conduct of his lifestyle. His opinion of Katherine was quite clear, he stated that she was an abominable temptress, and that Gaunt's blatant showcasing of his mistress in front of not only his wife, but also his retainers, and the public could only bring vengeance on the kingdom.

Apparently, Walsingham was not alone in this opinion. Other chroniclers at the time also passed judgement on the role of Katherine in Gaunt's life, all negative. What was Katherine supposed to have done to have deserved this reputation? Unlike Alice Perrers, the mistress of John of Gaunt's father Edward III, who was said to have pulled the rings of the dead king's fingers, Katherine seems to have been a pretty benign presence in Gaunt's life.

Consider the fact that they were only married after the death of his second wife, and twenty five years after first became lovers, and their children weren't legitimized by the Pope and Richard II until then. Unlike other royal mistresses, she didn't gain great titles or lands, and her children weren't given dukedoms the way Charles II's children were.

It's clear that Katherine is just another weapon to be used by Gaunt's enemies of which he had several. After the Black Prince's death, during the minority of Richard II, John of Gaunt was very powerful. And power makes enemies.

In Anya Seton's novel, Katherine and John end their relationship for a time around 1381. The nature of John of Gaunt's gifts to Katherine changed at this time and a document exists denying Katherine and her offspring any right to the Lancastrian heritage but Jeanette Lucraft argues in her biography of Katherine that if the relationship did end for a time, it was only temporary.

What was most unusual about Katherine's relationship with John of Gaunt, was how readily her children were accepted by both Richard II and later by Henry IV. Richard II referred to the Beauforts as his kinsmen. Enveloping the children of an adulterous relationship into the royal sphere proved the acceptance of the family and was totally unprecedented. Royal bastards may have been provided for and given titles but they weren't considered to be part of the family.

John of Gaunt died in 1400 and Katherine followed him a scant three years later, and the relatively (for us) young age of 53, leaving behind at least six children. She is buried in Lincoln Cathedral where you can still see her tomb, although it was vandalised during the protectorate of Oliver Cromwell.

Her daughter Joan married Richard Neville, and became grandmother of Edward IV and Richard III. Katherine's other great-granddaughter married the Jasper Tudor, the son of Katherine de Valois, becoming the mother of Henry VII. The current Duke of Beaufort traces his lineage from Katherine Swynford and John of Gaunt.

Like another royal mistress who became a royal Duchess (Camilla Parker Bowles), Katherine Swynford was not born of the nobility, but she was able to assume the character and mantle of the highest echelons of the nobility and the monarchy.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Scandalous Queens: Catherine Howard

It seems we can't get enough of the Tudors lately with with the Showtime miniseries starring a very un-Henry like Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, and the new movie The Other Boleyn Girl starring Scarlett Johansen as Mary Boleyn, future grandmother of Lettice Knollys. And the great Cate Blanchett continuing the story of Elizabeth I in The Golden Age (just saw the preview this weekend, lots of interesting wigs and Clive Owen as Sir Walter Raleigh!)

It seems like new books appear daily. Philippa Gregory has been writing a popular series of books, and now Carolly Erickson, and Alison Weir are writing historical novels based on this dynasty founded on the wrong side of the blanket (Owen Tudor was the lover and secret husband of Henry V's widow Katherine of Valois).

The focus on the Tudors tends to be on the larger than life Henry, and his second wife Anne Boleyn, but what of the other wife that he beheaded Catherine Howard. What was her story and what made her so scandalous that she lost her head at the tender age of possibly 21? The story of Catherine Howard can be seen as a cautionary tale about what happens when a young, immature girl from a powerful family marries a much older man, and lacks the maturity to deal with her new position.

To understand her, you have to understand her family, The Howards and her Uncle, The Duke Of Norfolk. The Howards were than, as they are now one of the premier Catholic families in the country. They had supported Richard III against Henry Tudor, the future Henry VII, but managed to turn their fortunes around after backing the wrong horse. But Henry VIII never fully trusted the family. They were also ambitious, hitching their fortunes first to Anne Boleyn, who turned out to be a Protestant reformer, and then Catherine Howard. To be near the throne meant endless possibilities for advancement and riches. Unfortunately, Catherine Howard proved to be even less of an asset than her first cousin, Anne Boleyn.

Catherine's father was Lord Edmund Howard, the 3rd son of the 2nd Duke of Norfolk. Her father was a brawler like most of the Howards, but as a gentleman was basically confined to hanging around the court, doing very little. It wasn't until 1531, under the influence of Anne Boleyn, that he was given the post of Controller of Calais. However, the salary was barely enough to to live on, let alone raise a family or pay off his considerable debts.

Catherine's mother, Edmund's first wife, was Jocelyn Culpepper, was a rich heiress, a widow with two children, when they married. She proceeded to give Edmund 10 children of which Catherine was number 10, before she finally expired when Catherine was around ten years old. While her father took up his post in Calais, and married the second of his three wives, little Catherine was sent off to live with her step-grandmother, the Dowager Duchess of Norfolk.

The Duchess kept a large household of male and female attendants at her various homes including Lambeth Palace near the King's new Palace of Whitehall. She also had many wards, consisting of the children of relatives who could not not afford to support their families like Catherine Howard's. Supervision was lax, as the Duchess was often at court and had little interest in their upbringing and education. Sounds like a recipe for disaster and it was.

Because of this lackadaisical approach, Catherine was the least educated of Henry's six wives. Oh, she could read and write, unlike many English women of her time, but she had no intellectual curiousity. She is often described by contemporaries as being merry and vivacious, but empty-headed and frivolous with reddish hair and blue eyes, but not necessarily scholarly or even particularly devout.

Catherine was placed in the Maiden's Chamber, a large dormitory like room, where the girls slept two in a bed. It was the equivalent of an Elizabethan boarding school, the girls spent their days having lessons, learning the womanly arts of embroidery and playing instruments, and their nights romping in their room after dark. Catherine was the ringleader of the girls, always leading them into some scrape and then managing to talk her way of out of it, if they got caught.

As Catherine grew up, she attracted many men at a very early age. When Catherine was around thirteen, she began a flirtatious romance with her music tutor Henry Manox, but she soon rejected him in favor of Francis Dereham, another hanger on in the Duchess's household. According to later testimony, she and Henry never slept together but there was some heavy petting going on.

"At the flattering and fair persuasions of Mannox being but a young girl I suffered him at sundry times to handle and touch the secret parts of my body which neither became me with honesty to permit nor him to require," she said in her testimony.

Francis was a secretary of the Duchess' household, and as such was of a higher social status than Henry Manox. There is evidence that she and Francis were lovers, they called each other "husband" and "wife." At night, he would creep up to share her bed in the girl's dormitory. They were so close, that he entrusted her with his money while he was away on business with the Duchess. Mannox was not happy that Catherine had thrown him over, and left a letter for the Duchess detailing just what was going on in her absence. Apparently the Duchess caught the two of them together, and a horrible scene ensued, as the Duchess perhaps realized the consequences of her indifference.

There was a possibility that Dereham and Catherine had a "precontract" to marry after he returned from Ireland. If this was true, that they had exchanged vows of their intention to marry before they had sex, in the eyes of the church they would have been considered married and her later marriage to Henry would have been bigamous.

Catherine was sent to court by her uncle, who found her a place as one of Anne of Cleve's ladies in waiting. From the start, Catherine caught the eye of the King who had no interest in his new wife. While her family doubted that Catherine was mature enough to handle being the King's mistress, they saw her as a way to influence the King in matters of the true religion. Not to mention enrich their own pockets along the way.

Indeed as Henry's interest in Catherine grew, so did the Howard influence at court, as Henry lavished gifts and land on Catherine. After Henry had his marraige to Anne of Cleves annulled in July of 1540, rumors swirled at court that Catherine was pregnant. Their quick marriage only few weeks after the annulment added fuel to the fire.

What was it about Catherine Howard that made Henry act like a schoolboy? He was 49 years old at the time that they met, he'd already buried one wife, and several children. He was worn down by the rebellions in the north, worries about the succession, and the jockeying for position between those of the new faith like Cranmer and the Catholic faction at court.

Catherine's lively, vivacious nature must have been a soothing balm to a man who was severely overweight, suffered from gout and ulcerating sores. He had a notoriously short temper. He lavished costly gifts on Catherine, spending more money than he had on any of his other wives. Catherine played her part well, perhaps she was coached by her Uncle Norfolk on how exactly to please the king. Henry was so infatuated he considered her his "rose without a thorn."

Interesting tidbit, Catherine chose as her motto: No Other Will But His when she became Queen. If only she had kept her motto.

As Queen, Catherine was able to indulge her love of luxury and pleasure. She loved to dance, and enjoyed being indulged by her much older husband, not to mention all the attention she received at court, as courtiers jockeyed for her favor. Henry was not only generous to his adored bride but also to her family as well. He made her brother a maember of the Privy Council. In return, Catherine shared her husband's bed, and was loving towards him.

Unlike her cousin, Anne Boleyn, Catherine never concerned herself with the messy business of politics or religion. Her only real assertive moment came early in the spring of 1541, when she helped two prisoners held in the Tower of London. Margaret Pole, the Countess of Salisbury was the daughter of George, Duke of Clarence, Richard III's brother. She'd been imprisoned in the Tower for two years without adequate clothing to handle the harsh winters. Catherine received permission from Henry to send the eldery woman warm clothes. She also asked the King to pardon Sir Thomas Wyatt for his association with engineering the King's marriage to Anne of Cleves. She also attempted to be a good stepmother to Henry's children, reaching out to both the Princess Mary and Elizabeth.

Catherine's downfall began when she began a flirtation with her distant relative Thomas Culpepper who had been one of her most ardent suitors when she came to court. Their meetings were facilitated by none other than Lady Rochford, sister-in-law of Anne Boleyn (more on her in another post). It continued with her other disasterous decision to appoint Henry Manox and Francis Dereham to her household. Yes, the very two men that she'd been indiscreet with before her marriage.

Why would Catherine risk her position as Queen? Was she bored with having to entertain a cranky, old man, who she didn't love and whose body now repulsed her? Did she think that by keeping her former paramours close, she could monitor their actions? Perhaps some of the Howard arrogance came to the fore. Although Catherine had fallen in love with Culpeper before her marriage to Henry, it's not clear whether or not Culpeper returned her affections. Maybe this was Catherine's attempts to get a little of her own back.

And what of her great love, Culpeper? For his part, he was no doubt using Catherine's infatuation to further his own ambitions. Apparently, he was not a particularly 'gentlemanly' gentleman. In fact, he had brutally raped a park-keeper's wife, ordering three of his servants to hold her down during the attack; he also murdered a villager who tried to save her. He had been pardoned by the king for his crimes. What a piece of work! His ambitions regarding Catherine undoubtedly stemmed from the King's poor health. If the king died, then the queen dowager would maintain some influence and power at court (i.e Thomas Seymour and Catherine Parr). She'd already given him several tokens of her affection, passed on by Lady Rochford, who acted as a go-between.

The beginning of the end came after Henry and Catherine's progress the summer of 1541 in the North of England, undertaken to placate the region after a series of rebellions. Henry had also hoped to meet up with his nephew, James V of Scotland. Henry was still as besotted as ever with his new bride.

"Now in his old days after sundry troubles of mind which have happened unto him by marraiges he had obtained a jewel in Catherine."

However, John Lascelles, a protestant reformer had as sister who had been a chambermaid to the Dowager Duchess of Norfolk, and knew what Catherine had been up to. Worried about the threat to his faith by the Catholic faction surrounding the Duke of Norfolk, he informed Thomas Cranmer of Catherine's youthful indiscretions.

Cranmer left a letter for Henry went he went to Mass on All Soul's Day (November 2nd) 1541. Henry at first refused to believe the allegations that about his wife, unlike his previous behavior with Anne Boleyn, when he was only too willing to believe the most vile accusations. However, he asked Cranmer to discretely investigate further. Dereham and Culpeper were arrested. Dereham confessed to his behavior with Catherine when they were members of the Duchess' household. Culpeper however claimed that the relationship between himself and the Queen was no more than a flirtation.

Catherine was arrested on November 12th. She was never to see the King again. Confined to Hampton Court, stripped of all luxuries, her attempts to see the King were ignored, and Cranmer interrogated her concerning the charges. Despite the fact that admitting to a precontract with Francis Dereham would have spared her the fate of her cousin, Catherine steadfastly denied it, insisting that Dereham had forced himself on her.

The Duke of Norfolk, not known for his family loyalty, swiftly moved to throw Catherine under a bus and to castigate his step mother for her moral laxness. He even threw in a diatribe against his other niece, the long dead Anne Boleyn as an extra measure. It was a caculated move to save his butt and his place at court. Henry, at one point, had softened towards Catherine and was leaning towards leniency. However, the anti-Catherine, pro Protestant faction at court nipped that in the bud by insinuating that Catherine's appointing Dereham to her household indicated that the relationship had continued after her marriage to the King. No longer was it just her youthful indiscretions being held against her, but adultery.

On November 22nd, Catherine was stripped of her title as Queen and imprisoned at Syon House. Culpeper and Dereham were executed, Dereham in the particularly grisly method of being hanged, drawn and quartered. Culpeper as a gentleman was spared that indignity being beheaded instead. The charge was treasonous conduct. Catherine remained in limbo until Parliament passed a bill of attainder on January 21, 1542 making treason punishable by death. She was taken to the Tower on February 10th and executed on the 13th, the day before Valentine's Day.

The night before her execution, Catherine spend hours practising how to lay her head upon the block. No longer the vivacious, lively teenager who had captivated a King, she died with dignity, asking for mercy for her family and prayers for her soul. She was beheaded with one stroke, and buried in an unmarked grave in the chapel of St. Peter ad Vincula where her unlucky cousin Anne Boleyn is also buried. A plague on the west wall of the church is dedicated to those who died on Tower Green.

Catherine's reputation suffered horribly during the Victorian years, where her earlier behavior was a sign of moral laxness. However, in recent years, historians have started to look more kindly towards her. It's important to remember how young she was, her mother died when she was young, her father was ineffectual at best, shipped off to not even a blood relative where she had no one to guide her in what was proper and what was not. Used and abandoned by her poweful family when she became a hindrance. Her indiscretions to us in the 21st century seem perfectly normal for a young girl. But in Tudor England, where a girl's virginity and need for an heir who was indisputably her husband's, Catherine's indiscretions become something more.

If Catherine had married Dereham or Culpeper, she would have been just another empty-headed flirt who people at court gossiped about behind her back. Instead, she caught the attention of the most powerful man in the land. Unlike her cousin Anne or Jane Seymour, who had spent years in royal service before they became Queen, Catherine had no experience with the hotbed of intrique of court life, where nobles constantly jockeyed for position with a King who seemed to change his mind daily about whom he favored.

Yes, she was incredibly stupid but if anything she's to be pitied more than reviled for her sins such as they were.

In her final hours, she displayed the maturity and composure, that would have made her a good Queen, if she had come to that realisation months sooner.

Thanks to David Starkey's monumental book Six Wives: The Queens of Henry VIII, Eleanor Herman's Sex with the Queen, and Antonia Fraser's The Six Wives of Henry VIII.

Monday, September 24, 2007

The Case of Madeleine Smith

"I would sooner have danced with her than dined with her," John Inglis, Dean of Faculty.

It was called the Trial of the Century. Imagine if you will, an attractive young woman from an upstanding and wealthy family stands accused of murdering her lover by poison. Passionate love letters are found giving the most intimate details of the lovers. Spectators line up daily outside the court room for a chance at the few available seats. The best legal minds in the country have been hired for her defense. The case captures the attention of not just the local media, but newspapers from as far away as London, Paris, New York. Media interest in the case is so great it bumps news of the Mutiny in Calcutta off the front page.

Sound familiar? Like something ripped from today’s headlines, or the lead story on Court TV? Well this case took place 150 years ago this year in Scotland, and the accused was named Madeleine Smith. The Case of Madeleine Smith reads almost like a film noir. It’s exactly the type of case you’d expect to read about in Dominick Dunne’s column in Vanity Fair, of a love affair gone sour and ending in death. It has all the earmarks of Passion, Power and Privilege.

On March 23, 1857, in Glasgow, Scotland, Emile L'Anglier, a clerk at a seed warehouse died suddenly after complaining of intense stomach pains. In his pocket, a letter was found signed only 'Mimi.' Amongst his belongings, his friends find various keys, several packages of letters, and a notebook the deceased was using as a journal. More letters are found at the seed warehouse where he worked going back two years, all signed with the signature of 'Mimi.'

It wasn't long before everyone in Glasgow learned that 'Mimi' was none other than Madeleine Hamilton Smith.
But who was Madeleine Smith? She was the daughter and granddaughter of well known architects in Glasgow. You can still examples of her grandfather, David Hamilton's work, in Glasgow today. She was the eldest of five children, she helped to raise her younger siblings due to her mother frequently taking to her bed with various ailments. Like many women of her class, she was sent to an expensive finishing school to learn how to be a proper Victorian lady. At Miss Gorton’s Academy for Young Ladies in London, she was taught proper manners and took the appropriate courses designed to make her decorative. She returned home four years later at the age of 18. Despite the polish she had acquired in London, Madeleine’s temperament meant that she would never be comfortable in the role she was required to play.

Emile L’Anglier, on the other hand, came from the small island of Jersey, part of the Channel Islands that lie directly in between England and France. Thirty-two when he met Madeleine for the first time, he’d already lived in Edinburgh and Paris before finally settling in Glasgow. Fluent in French and English, Emile worked as a clerk in nursery warehouse. If it hadn’t been for Emile sighting Madeleine by chance on the street, they would never have met, since they didn’t exactly travel in the same social circles. Class separation was a strictly enforced concept in Victorian Glasgow.

Emile, who seems to have had a dramatic temperament, having wooed and lost several ladies over the years, was smitten with Madeleine at first sight. Soon after they met, Madeleine wrote her first note to him while staying at her family’s country home. Even though a warehouse clerk was hardly an acceptable suitor for a young lady of Madeleine’s stature, she was attracted to him for precisely that reason. He must have seemed so different from the men she met at the social gatherings her parents took her to, where she met the crème de la crème of Glasgow society. The pressure must have always been there for her to make an appropriate match.

Letters continued back and forth between the couple, and they managed to meet several times accidentally on purpose on the street or at a nearby shop. Soon, however, Madeleine’s father learned of the relationship, possible from one of her sisters out of either jealously or wanting to protect her sister’s reputation, and demanded that she put a stop to it. Bowing to her father’s wishes, she wrote Emile a note breaking off their relationship and wished him the best in the future.

Emile was not to be put off. He wrote back, entreating her to meet with him. He persuaded a female friend, Miss Mary Perry, to allow them to meet covertly at her house. Madeleine relented, presumably swept up in the forbidden nature of it all. How exciting it must have been for her to have this secret!
For two years they exchanged many letters; meeting secretly in the country whenever her family journeyed there for their holiday. In Glasgow, they met secretly when her parents were out in the laundry room, or at the home of Emile’s friend Miss Perry. Although they wanted to marry, Madeleine’s father was adamant that he wouldn't even countenance meeting Emile. Sometime in 1856, the couple became intimate, in anticipation of their hoped for wedding vows. Although not legally married, they addressed each other as ‘husband’ and ‘wife’ in their letters.

Emile kept all of her letters to him, but he firmly instructed her to burn his, which she complied, ostensibly so that no one in the Smith house could accidentally come upon them, and their secret would be revealed. The few letters of his that survive (he kept a few copies) show him to be a demanding and bullying lover. He would constantly criticize her behavior, he decided what clothes she should wear, who she could or could not talk to, where she could go. He compared her unfavorably to his other female acquaintances. Her letters to him show a young woman who constantly sought his approval.

In the fall of 1856, Madeleine was introduced to William Minnoch, a wealthy merchant and neighbor of the Smiths. Like Emile, he was also in his thirties. Unlike Emile, he was thoroughly suitable husband for a young woman of her class. Madeleine eventually realized that there was no way that her father would ever be convinced to allow her and Emile to be married. Perhaps she also realized that she could hope for no dowry, if she eloped. And what life would like living on a clerk’s salary. Whatever her motives, Madeleine did nothing to discourage William Minnoch from courting her, and in January of 1857, he proposed and she accepted.

Her letters to Emile from this time show a slow cooling off in her ardor towards him, although she cautions him not to listen to gossip about her and Minnoch. Finally, she tried to break off with him, asking that he return her letters to him back to her. Emile, of course, decides not to take this lying down. He tries to blackmail Madeleine by threatening to show her father the letters. Those letters were the 19th Century version of making a sex tape. Her father would know from her letters that she was no longer a virgin. Her life would be ruined.

Madeleine, in a panic, asked him to meet with her again secretly. Events seemed to move rapidly over the next several weeks. On three separate occasions, Madeleine purchases arsenic from several chemists, claiming that she is using it for a beauty treatment (it was a commonly known but dangerous practice to use arsenic to whiten one's skin.) 19th Century law required that she sign a Poison Book recording her purchase. Around the same time, Emile suffered the first of several attacks of violent stomach pains. Three days after her second purchase of arsenic, Emile had tea with his friend Miss Perry. According to her testimony, he told her that he had felt unwell after drinking hot chocolate that Madeleine had passed to him through the bars at her window (her room was in the basement). Miss Perry also testified that Emile told her that “if she were to poison me, I would forgive her.” When Miss Perry declared that Madeleine would have no cause for such an action, Emile replied, “I don’t know that. Perhaps she might not be sorry to be rid of me.”

After the discovery of her letters in Emile’s lodgings and his office, Madeleine Smith was arrested. She gave a statement to the police, claiming that she hadn’t seen Emile in 3 weeks, she’d purchased the arsenic for a beauty treatment. She didn’t deny that the letters were hers, or that they’d seriously discussed marriage. Her statement to the police is the only record we have of what happened between Madeleine and Emile.

Because the sudden and popular interest in the case, the trial was moved from Glasgow to Edinburgh. Madeleine was interred in the county jail until the trial started in June. Her parents hired the 19th Century equivalent of the Dream Team, including John Inglis. Due to Victorian Scottish law, she couldn’t testify in her own defense. Opinion in the press was divided on whether or not she was guilty or innocent.

Just like in today’s court cases, her remarkable composure worked against her, while some admired her for it, others found it shocking. The trial lasted a scant nine days, incredible in these days of continuations, delays, and general stonewalling from the defense team. Most of her letters were admitted into evidence, but Emile’s journal was not because the prosecution argued that it could not be verified that it was indeed Emile L’Anglier’s handwriting.

The jury deliberated for only 9 days before reaching a verdict of ‘not proven’. What this meant was not that she was found innocent, but that the prosecution had not made a strong enough case to convict her.

No one will ever know for sure whether or not Madeleine Smith really did kill Emile L'Anglier. There have been various theories floated over the years that perhaps Emile poisoned himself in revenge for Madeleine’s spurning their relationship. The problem with this theory is that no arsenic was found amongst his possessions after his death, and his name wasn’t found in a single Poison Book in the Glasgow, Stirling or Bridge of Allan areas. Also, how would he have known that Madeleine herself would have been purchasing poison?

If she did kill Emile, why did she make her purchases of arsenic so blatant? She even brought an eyewitness with her for one of her purchases. And if she killed him, why did she not remove his letters from either his room or his office? Just like Lizzie Borden, the Case of Madeleine Smith has taken on a mystique over the years. Was she an innocent victim of an older man? Or a calculating witch getting rid of her lower class lover when she was bored of him? Or a desperate girl taking the only way out that she could think of?

After the trial was over, it was clear that Madeleine could no longer stay in Scotland. She moved to London with her younger brother James. Calling herself Lena, a childhood nickname, she met and married George Wardle, an artist who worked as the manager of Morris & Co. There she mingled with the pre-Raphaelites, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Burne-Jones and others. She may even have posed for Rossetti at one time. A popular hostess, she started a fashion for not using tablecloths at dinner, using placemats instead. A shocking convention at a time when even piano legs were covered.

After having two children Tom and Kitten, she and her husband separated after 28 years. He moved to Italy where he died. Lena Wardle moved to New York to live with her son’s family at the age of 70, where she eventually died at the age of 93.
But her name and her story still live on over a century later.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Lucrezia Borgia, Passionate Poisoner or Virtuous Victim

Say the name Lucrezia Borgia, and you get an immediate reaction, even if they don't know the whole story, they know that Lucrezia Borgia was though to be scandalous in some way. Some will tell you that she poisoned her lovers with a special ring and her families political enemies, as the Borgia's clawed their way to the top in Renaissance Italy. Others consider the Borgias to be the first crime family, even deadlier than the Medicis in Florence, for their ability to eliminate anyone who got in their way. But was Lucrezia Borgia as bad as the histories have made her out to be? Or was she an innocent pawn used by her families to cement alliances and to raise money to wage war?

Many recent biographies have taken a revisionist tact with Lucrezia. While it's certain that her father Rodrigo also known as Pope Alexander IV and her brother Cesare were ambitious men, who were more than willing to murder their enemies, Lucrezia seems to have been a good woman who was subject to the whims and power mongering of her relatives.

The Borgia family weren't even Italian. They were of Spanish origin, originally from Valencia, the family used the Valencian language amongst themsevles for privacy. Rodrigo moved to Italy when his uncle Alfons de Borja became Pope Callixtus III in 1455. Rodrigo studied law at Bologna, and after his uncle's election as pope, was made a bishop, a cardinal and then finally vice-chancellor of the church.

All the while however, despite the fact that priests were supposed to be celibate, he kept a mistress Vanozza dei Cattani, the mother of Cesare, Giovanni, Gioffre, and finally Lucrezia who was born in 1480. She was twelve when her father was elected Pope Alexander VI after the death of Pope Innocent VIII. Her father, due to his great wealth, succeeded in buying the needed number of votes, in order to take the papal seat.

Lucrezia was apparently a good-humoured, good-natured girl with blonde hair, who enjoyed wearing fine clothes and good conversation. She bathed daily, an eccentricity in the 16th century when people were more apt to take a bath perhaps once a month if even that. Not much is known about her early childhood but she must have been well-educated because her father, during his absences from the Holy See, had no problems leaving her in charge.

Renaissance women were still subject to the whims of men. They were controlled first by their parents, and then passed over to the control of their husbands. They had no political power, and most of those who were heiresses found their estates given over to their husband's control. Women who did not marry were either forced to take vows in a nunnery, or were forced to live with male relatives on sufferance. Women were also discouraged from participating in the arts and sciences. For the most part, wives of powerful men were relegated to cooking, sewing and entertaining.

Lucrezia was married for the first time at the tender age of 13 to a member of the power Sforza family. Her father and brother had already made and broken two bethrothals as they strived to make the best match that would further their interests. Italy, during the Renaissance, was made up of feudal city states like Ancient Greece. Princes, Kings and Dukes jockeyed for position while other countries tried to take advantage of the constant state of chaos by invading.

By all accounts, Giovanni Sforza was a nervous, lackadaisical sort, he may even have been spying for Milan against the Borgias. After awhile the Borgias no longer needed the Sforzas in their quest for even more power. The Pope wanted new, more advantageous political alliances, so Giovanni had to go. There is a possibility that he may have ordered Sforza's execution. The story goes that when Lucrezia was informed of the imminent murder of her husband, she warned him and he then fled Rome.

Instead of execution, The Pope decided to just have Lucrezia's marriage anulled instead. Sforza refused. He accused Lucrezia of sleeping with both her father and her brother. While Cesare may have been a little too fond of his sister, there is no evidence that anything untoward was going on. More likely it was just sour grapes on Sforza's part since he was asked to lie and say that the marriage with Lucrezia had been unconsummated. Sforza refused even thought the Pope offered him all of Lucrezia's dowry to agree. The Sforza family put pressure on Giovanni to agree. With no choice, Sforza signed the confession of impotence and the annulment, and then proceeded to blacken his former wife's name.

While Lucrezia awaited the annulment of her marriage, she may have begun an affair with her father's messanger, Pedro Calderon known as Perotto. Pedro like Rodrigo Borgia was from Spain, and a favorite of the Pope. However he was later found murdered, his body floating in the River Tiber. Was he killed because he dared to not only love Lucrezia, but to father a child with her? All that is known is that the child was named Giovanni. Some suspected that the child was fathered by her brother, others by her father. Adding to the confusion in 1501, a papal bull was issued recognizing him as the Pope's son! The second bull was kept secret for a number of years and it was finally revealed, it stated that the child was Cesare's! Who was the mother of Giovanni, was it Lucrezia or someone else? No one knows for sure but the rumors had been started and would follow Lucrezia for the rest of her life.

Lucrezia's second marriage was to Alfonso of Aragon, another political marriage, as her father sought to ally himself with the house of Naples. Like Lucrezia, he was the natural son of Alfonso II. Handsome and intelligent, he aroused the jealousy of her brother Cesare, who had been thwarted in his desire to marry the daughter of the current King of Naples. While married to Alfonso, she began to gather a court of intellectuals around her. By all accounts they were highly devoted to one another. But once again, her husband had outlived his usefulness. Now married to a French princess, Cesare had allied himself with the King of France, Louise XII, who claimed the duchy of Naples which was in the hands of Alfonso's family. This time, instead of another annulment, Alfonso was murdered on her brother's orders. Again, Lucrezia had fallen in love with her husband, and once again she was left broken-hearted.

No matter how much she may have loved him, Lucrezia's first loyalty was always to her family. Still by the age of 19, she had already two marriages behind her. At the age of 21, she was married to her final husband, Alfonso d'Este, son of the Duke of Ferrara. The d'Este family were the rulers of one of the most important duchies in Italy, with a lineage that far surpassed the Borgias. Alfonso initially was reluctant to marry Lucrezia given the rumors swirling around her. The Pope however persisted and offered the d'Este family a dowry of over 200,000 ducats and the a threat that if he were refused, war might ensue.

Within two years of her marriage to Alfonso, her father died, and Cesare was ruined. However, Lucrezia flourished in Ferrara. She gave birth to six children, and proved to be a respectable and accomplished duchess, the antithesis of her scandalous reputation. She was a generous and gracious patron of the arts, attracting visits by all of the greatest poets and arts of the time. After a time, she became known as "the good Duchess."

She was even left to administer the affairs of state with her brother-in-law whenever Alfonso was away, and given the duty of heading a court for citizens' petitions. The historians of Ferrara gave her the highest praise for her beauty, modesty, virtuousness, and understanding. If you to to the web-site for Ferrara, Towards the end of her life, she devoted herself to works of piety and charity. She died in 1519, after a difficult pregnancy with her last child, Isabella Maria. She was 39 years old.

The worst that can probably be said about Lucrezia is that she was a devoted to her family, despite their rather rampant ambition, cruelty, and selfishness. Still, the image of Lucrezia Borgia, with her poison ring, lives on.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Frances Carr, Countess of Somerset

This post starts a whole series of Scandalous Women of history here at The Lady Novelist. I was actually inspired to write this post after reading Victoria Dahl's post over at History Hoydens about poisons.
The lovely woman on the right is Lady Frances Carr, Countess of Somerset. She was an English noblewoman who was the central figure in a murder scandal during the reign of James I of England.
She was born Frances Howard, the daughter of the second son of the Duke of Norfolk. He was later made the first Earl of Suffolk which made her then Lady Frances Howard. Her father was apparently a wealthy and powerful noble, despite being a second son.
When she was 13, she was married off to Robert Deveraux, 3rd Earl of Essex, son of the infamous Lord Essex, favorite of Queen Elizabeth and great-great grandson of Mary Boleyn. His grandmother was Lettice Knollys who married Queen Elizabeth's other favorite, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester (Jean Plaidy wrote a wonderful novel about her called My Enemy the Queen). The Earl was 14 at the time, and the marriage was made for political reasons. They were seperated after the wedding because it was considered that sex and an early pregnancy would not be good for either of them (a novel notion to be sure). Essex went off on a tour of Europe, and when he came back, his wife pretty much wanted nothing to do with him.
While her husband was away, Frances had fallen in love with the Earl of Somerset. Also, her husband came back with smallpox which was highly contagious and could have killed him. Rumor has it that she may have given him something called a "love-philter" to keep him impotent and away from her. Instead of being upset by his wife's apparent distaste for him, Essex spent most of his time hanging out with his buddies.
Finally, Frances took the necessary steps to have her marriage annulled, actually she got her father and her uncle, the Earl of Northampton. to do her dirty work for her. Like today, the gossips of her era, watched the proceedings with open eyes and ears. Frances confessed that she had made every attempt possible to make herself sexually available to her husband, but alas she was still a virgin.
As was the fashion, she was examined by a team of experts, who would then testify that she was indeed still virgo intacta. However, it was rumored that she might have substituted another woman, which was easy to do since she would have been examined from behind a sheet to protect her modesty.
Essex of course did not take his manhood being besmirched lightly. He claimed, of course, that he was perfectly capable with other women, just not his wife. He claimed that she was verbally abusive to him, and that was why he was incapable of doing the deed.
Where does the murder come in? Well, Somerset had a very good friend Thomas Overbury's, who was totally against the idea of his friend marrying Frances after her annulment went through, and was quite vocal about it. Not only that but the Earl of Somerset who was Viscount Rochester at the time, told Frances what his friend had said. Uh oh, you can see where this is going. It's a classic tale of a man caught in between his woman and his best friend. These things never end well.
And in Sir Thomas Overbury's case, it ended in his death. But first, Overbury wrote a poem called "His wife" which detailed a list of virtues which a man should demand in a woman before he marries her. WTF? Outrageous but this was the 17th century after all. Let's see a guy try that nowadays. So Overbury threw down the gauntlet so to speak with Frances when he wrote this poem.
Her first step was to try and discredit Overbury with the King. It was apparently easy to do since Overbury had become a tad arrogant with his success, and the King personally disliked him, considering that he had a malevolent influence over Somerset. She somehow managed to get the King to offer the ambassadorship of Russia to Overbury who declined the post which pissed off the King. So he threw Overbury into the Tower on April 22, 1613. With Overbury in the Tower, the Howards managed to win the King's support for the annulment of Frances's marriage to Deveraux, which was granted. Two months later Fraces and Carr were married. It was apparently the wedding of the season, celebrated by no less a personage than the poet John Donne.
As for Overbury, he died in the Tower 11 days before the annulment was granted. Two years later, rumors abounded that Overbury had been poisoned while in the Tower. Frances confessed, although her husband denied any knowledge, and both were sentenced to death. Eventually they were pardoned (I have no idea how they swung that! But apparently the King was afraid of what Somerset might have said about him at the trail), although 4 others were executed instead including the apothecary who supplied the poison.
The details of the murder came out during the trials of the accused. Frances wasn't satisfied to just have Overbury in the Tower, she wanted him dead because hey, he could still talk and try and convince Carr not to marry her. She needed him silenced. She got rid of Sir William Wade, the Governor of the Tower, and her own man, Sir Gervaise Heiwys placed in the position. Overbury was plied with sulferic acid in the form of copper vitriol, probably in his food or drink.
Like Rasputin, he had a strong constitution and it took months for him to die, since they were apparently giving him very small does of the poison, probably to make it look like he'd taken sick in the tower with some lingering disease, instead of just killing him out right which would have looked really suspicious.
Somerset of course was disgraced, even though he pleaded innocent to the crime. No one is quite sure whether he knew what Frances was doing and turned a blind eye because of his love for her, or whether or not he was an innocent dupe, who fell in love with the wrong woman. The Carrs had one child who later married the 1st Duke of Bedford. I remember reading somewhere that their marriage wasn't any happier than her previous marriage to Deveraux. Which is kind of understandable, since she had his friend murdered and almost got them executed!
Overbury's poem however was a sensation. It went through 6 editions in one year when it was printed after his death, and was one of the most popular books of the 17th century. Ironic in a way that his poem took on such a life of it's own, after he lost his.
One of Somerset's descendants has written a book about the murder called Unnatural Murder by Anne Somerset.
So was Frances really wicked? Or just a woman desperate to hold on to her man? After all, she was taking a huge risk of having her marriage annulled to one man. What would have happened to her if Somerset had been convinced by Overbury to throw her over? There was so much gossip about her, Essex, and Somerset. Her reputation was in danger of being ruined by Overbury. I'm sure in her mind, he had to go, and then her life would be perfect.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Harriette Wilson - Detective?

I love historical mysteries. Just the idea of what it was like to solve a crime without our modern forensics intrigues me, makes me think. Of course, the greatest of all historical detectives is Sherlock Holmes (although at the time that Conan Doyle was writing, he was a contemporary detective).

Whenever I see a new historical mystery, I have to buy it. Nowadays, there are so many, I can't believe it. Everything from Ancient Rome to turn of the century New York has been featured in a mystery novel. Some have been great like Anne Perry's Thomas and Charlotte Pitt series, some have not been so great (I won't name names). For a long time, I've been toying with the idea of writing a historical mystery series of my own.

But who would be the detective? Well a good friend of mine once said, "If you want to know where the bodies are buried, ask a whore!" And who was the most famous courtesan of the Regency period? Harriette Wilson according to my friend. He was actually the one who suggested that Harriette would be perfect as the heroine of a series of Regency mystery novels.

There's only one problem, Harriette was a blackmailer, when she wasn't whoring. Not the most attractive quality to have in a detective. See, she would threaten to name names in her future memoirs unless the client paid up. Some like the Duke of Wellington told her to "publish and be damned." Others paid up several times.

Who was Harriette Wilson? Well, she was born the daughter of a Swiss clockmaker, and was working as a prostitute by the age of 12. By 15, she was courtesan. It was something of a family industry, both her sisters were also courtesans, her sister Sophia actually married into the aristocracy.

Harriette's usual modus operandi was to seduce a lover, and then write him an intriguing letter. Then after they were lovers, she would threaten him with exposure unless he paid up. This practice eventually led to her downfall.

I suppose I could get around the whole blackmailing thing by having it that Harriette was actually working for the government. Or the whole first mystery could be Harriette working to clear her name after one of her lovers is found murdered and she's a suspect. I suppose if Jane Austen can be a detective, then a courtesan like Harriette Wilson could as well.

The question is would anyone want to read a mystery series about a detective/whore?


Thursday, September 20, 2007

Scandalous Women - The Beginning

So why start a blog highlighting some of the most notorious wives, Queens, courtesans, murderesses, actresses and adventurerers in history?

The answer is: Why not? These were women who fascinated the chroniclers, and biographers of their time, and their lives are still as fascinating today as they were during the age in which they lived. Sure, some of them seem less scandalous today what without our relentless news coverage of the celebrities, but in their time, they stepped out of the rigid confines of their world, and stepped boldly forth into the unknown, some by necessity, and some because they just could not live comfortably in the chocolate box of life proscribed by society.

First of let me start by saying I'm not a historian by any stretch of the imagination although I am a history geek. From the moment I picked up a copy of Anya Seton's book Katherine, I was hooked on reading about women in history. Eleanor of Aquitaine, Henry II's Queen, Matilda who waged war against her cousin to assert her right to rule England, Isabella, the She Wolf of France who helped depose her husband with her lover Roger de Mortimer, Boudicca who avenged the murder and rape of her daughters against the Roman Invaders, all these women came alive to me through the pages of history.

I devoured books by Jean Plaidy (another future post) about the Kings and Queens of England and their paramours. One of my favorite books was my Jean Plaidy's alter ego, My Enemy, the Queen about Lettice Knollys, granddaughter of Mary Boleyn, who married Elizabeth I's favorite Robin, Earl of Leicester and mother of Elizabeth's last favorite Robert Deveraux, Earl of Essex. My other favorite authors were of course Anya Seton, and Annmarie Sosenko who wrote a fabulous book on Desiree, the first love of Napoleon who became Queen of Sweden (great book that should be reissued).

Then came Lillie on PBS, and that opened up a whole new world of women I had never heard of. I'd already started studying dancing and acting and that introduced me to Sarah Bernhardt, Mathilde Khessinkaya, mistress of Nicolas II before his marriage to Alexandra, Clara Bow, Lillian Russell and others.

The original impetus for this was a book that I hope to write about these fascinating women. However when I made a list of all the women that I wanted to write about, the list kept stretching on and on as I discovered more and more fascinating women than could ever be contained in one book.

This blog is my attempt to pay homage to these women, and to share their stories with readers. Some of them you may have heard of, and some you may not.

I hope you enjoy them as much I have writing about them.