Wednesday, November 28, 2007

The Scandalous Hoax of Princess Caraboo

It was a story that wouldn't have looked out of place on the front page of the News of the World or The Examiner. A young woman stumbles into a Gloucestershire village on April 3, 1817, wearing a black turban and a black dress, carrying her possessions in a rolled up bundle. Exhausted and starving, she spoke a language that no could understand. The villagers thought she was some foreign begger, so they turned her over to Samuel Worrall, who was the local country magistrate.




It was a dangerous time to be a homeless foreigner roaming the countryside. Napoleon had finally been defeated for the last time and sent into exile on St. Helena, but the British were still worried about foreign agents. At this time, anyone found disturbing the peace was in danger of being transported to Australia, everyone's favorite dumping ground for the criminal class at this time.



The Worralls found the young woman intriguing to say the least. Mrs. Worrall in particular was taken by her. The young woman's hands were soft indicating that she had not done any manual labor, and when she noticed a painting of a pineapple on the wall, she pointed to it excitedly, jabbering away in her language. She also exhibited very strange behavior, refusing to sleep in the bed in the room provided for her, and refusing to drink out of a glass unless she washed it herself. It was clear from the woman's features that she was European but from where? Was she Spanish, Greek or a Romany Gypsy?



The young woman eventually came to live with the Worralls at Knole Park, while Mrs. Worrall tried to solve the mystery. The first thing they learned was that her name was Caraboo. Then a Portuguese sailor claimed to be able to speak her language. The story came out that she came from the island kingdom of Javasu. She had been kidnapped from her homeland by pirates, and managed to escape by jumping overboard into the English channel and swimming for the shore.
Once the Worralls discovered that they were in the presence of royalty, they immediately informed the media, and soon the entire country knew about the mysterious Princess Caraboo and her story. Now a minor celebrity, Caraboo spent the next few weeks enjoying her fame, entertaining the many visitors who came to see her. She even scandalized the gentry by swimming naked in the lake when she was alone. The Worralls, of course, basked in her reflected glory.



Like most hoaxes this one had to come to an end eventually. A woman named Mrs. Neale recognized the description of Caraboo in the papers and revealed that the young woman had been a servant in her house, where she had entertained the children with a made-up language. It turned out that Caraboo's real name was something decidedly less exotic, Mary Baker. Baker didn't come from a foreign background but from the very English Witheridge Devonshire where she was the daughter of a cobbler.



No one is sure why or how Mary Baker decided to assume the identity of Princess Caraboo. The people who knew her as Mary Baker explained that she always had a theatrical bent, prefering to live in her own world of fantasy than in the real world. She'd had many jobs over the years, bouncing from one position to another. Her parents, when they were located, mentioned that Mary had been restless since childhood, unable to settle down. Why was she able to fool so many people? She was helped by the very people she was fooling. Like Anna Anderson who claimed to be Anastasia was able to fool membefs of the Romanovs, the people Mary Baker fooled wanted Caraboo to be real.



It was the romantic age in Britain, Keats, Shelley and Bryon were the poets of the era, writing about exotic places. To them, she looked and acted exactly the way they imagined someone from the Far East would look and sound. Once she had convinced them that she couldn't speak or understand English, they felt free to speak in front of her, providing her with the tools she needed to continue her deception. She also had remarkable memory. She was mysterious and beautiful and she brought excitement to their corner of the world, raising the social status of the Worralls. Her deception also pointed out to a gleeful press how easily the aristocracy could be fooled by the designs of a lower middle class girl with a rudimentary education.



What happened to Princess Caraboo after the truth came out? Mary Baker's natural charm and charisma contributed to Mrs. Worrall offering her money to allow her to sail to Philadelphia. The British press, showing the inventiveness of which they've become legendary in the 20th century, printed a story that Caraboo's ship had blown her off course and landed her on the island of St. Helena where Napoleon had fallen in love with her and proposed marriage (never mind the fact that exiled Emperor was still married). Although the story was intended to be joke, it proved to be so appealing that accounts of Caraboo have reported the story as fact.



In the States, her fame preceded her, and Caraboo spent 7 years traveling around making appearances and telling her story. She finally returned to England in 1824, where she continued to make appearances as Caraboo for awhile but the novelty had worn off. Her fifteen minutes were over. She settled down in Bristol, selling leeches to the Infirmary Hospital, apparently a respectable job in the 19th Century.



She died on January 4, 1865 and was buried in an unmarked grave. She might have gone down in history as nothing but a curiousity if hadn't been for the film Princess Caraboo starring Phoebe Cates and Kevin Kline that brought her story to a new generation. On Monday 26 March, 2006, a blue plaque commemorating the life of Princess Caraboo was unveiled at Number 11, Princess Street, Bristol, where Mary lived the last 11 years of her life.



Mary Baker aka Princess Caraboo's story is as much as inspiration as it is the story of a hoax. Mary Baker managed to break out of her own glass and beat high society at their own game. Using her own unique talents and her appeal, she managed to raise above the circumstances of her position.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Cleopatra Last Pharoah of Ancient Egypt

When one thinks of Cleopatra, one thinks of the image to the left. The seductress on her barge on her way to conquer Mark Anthony. More than 2,000 years after her death, the last Pharoah of Egypt still holds our fascination as one of history's most famous and mysterious women. Her name is synonymous with beauty, sex, seduction, and power. Her legend has inspired filmmakers, poets, and playwrights over the centuries as they try to capture her elusive spirit.

But who was Cleopatra really? Was she a seductress who destroyed Mark Antony and brought about the end of the Egyptian dynasty? Or was she a powerful ruler who used men for her own purposes? Was she Black or pure Macedonian Greek and why does it matter? Will the real Cleopatra please stand up? Classical portraits portray her as an ethereal beauty. But that was far from the contemporary versions of the Queen.

Well for starters she reigned as Cleopatra VII (Cleopatra being a popular name in the Ptolemy dynasty. In fact her mother was Cleopatra V). As you can see from the coin minted during Cleopatra's lifetime, she was far from the beauty portrayed by Elizabeth Taylor, Claudette Colbert and others in movies. She was probably no more than five foot one, and more than likely plump. If Cleopatra seduced men it was more from her personality, her charisma, her powerful leadership and her brain, than it was from her looks.

The Ptolemaic dynasty descended directly from Ptolemy, one of Alexander the Great's generals. So in fact, Cleopatra was pure Greek. In fact, Cleopatra was the only Ptolemaic Pharaoh to bother to learn to speak Egyptian. It was among the nine languages that she spoke. The seat of power had moved to Alexandria, on the coast of the Mediterranean. At the time of Cleopatra's reign, it was the largest, most populist, multicultural and most cosmopolitan city in the world. Greeks, Egyptians, Romans, and probably even Jews lived side by side. The city was much closer to contemporary New York. It was a center of learning with one of the most well known libraries in the ancient world.

She was born probably around 69 B.C. and after ascending the throne at 17, ruled for the next 20 years. There is speculation that Cleopatra's grandmother could have been an Egyptian or African concubine, although there is no evidence that this is true. Cleopatra had five siblings, all of whom died before her. Besides her two brothers, she had a sister Arsinoe who was killed on Cleoptra's orders. Her older sisters Tryphaena and Berenice had been killed when they each tried to seize the throne from their father Ptolemy XII. Later there is a legend that Cleopatra herself poisoned her brother/husband Ptolemy XIV, leaving her children by Caesar and Mark Antony as the sole heirs to the Eygptian throne. Clearly she could add ruthless to her other sterling qualities.

As was tradition, Cleopatra married her 12 year old brother (the throne of Egypt came through the female line so for a male to rule, he had to marry a female family member), Ptolemy XIII who she later battled for control of Egypt. Around this time, Caesar's co-consul Pompey was vying with him for control of the Roman Empire. After losing the battle of Pharsalos to Caesar, Pompey fled to Alexandria to seek the protection of Cleopatra's brother/husband Ptolemy XIII. However, Ptolemy's advisors thought it better for Ptolemy to throw his lot in with Caesar. On Pompey's arrival, he was assasinated. Just as Caesar was about to enter the city of Alexandria, he was presented with Pompey's head. Caesar was furious at what had been done to his one time friend and ally. He issued a decree that both Ptolemy and Cleopatra were to dismiss their armies and meet with him to settle the dispute.

This is where Cleopatra first showed the seductive arts that were to make her famous. She had herself delivered to Caesar rolled up in a Persian carpet. When it was unrolled, Cleopatra tumbled out looking like a rumpled kitten. Charmed by this gesture, Caesar took Cleopatra as his mistress. She later gave birth to his son Caesarion. Now backed by Caesar's forces, she defeated her brother, who later drowned while fleeing Caesar's henchmen. She then married her other brother Ptolemy XIV, who was even younger.

Despite the 30 year age different, Caesar and Cleopatra were lovers during the two years he spent in Egypt. While Cleopatra hoped that Caesar would make her son Caesarion his heir, he refused, choosing his grand-nephew Octavian instead. Instead, Caesarion would rule over Egypt and Rome, uniting the East and the West. Cleopatra left Egypt to be with Caesar in 46 B.C. on his invitation. While in Rome, Caesar showered his mistress with many titles and gifts. He even had a statue of her erected in the temple of Venus which scandalized the Roman nobility. Caesar already had a wife named Calpurnia and Caesar's flaunting of his affair with Cleopatra was frowned upon. It was even rumored that Caesar would divorce Calpurnia, marry Cleopatra and make Caesarion his heir instead of Octavius. Unfortunately Caesar was assassinated on the Ides of March in 44 B.C. by a host of conspirators including his close friend Brutus, who were afraid that Caesar would declare himself Emperor. Cleopatra fearing for her safety, fled back to Egypt. She now made her son Caesarion her co-regent after the death of her second brother/husband.

In 42 B.C. Mark Antony entered the picture. Cleopatra had been approached for support by Cassius, one of the chief conspirators against Caesar. No dummy, Cleopatra wasn't about to side with the man who was responsible for the death of her lover. Instead she sided against him with his rival Publius Cornelius Dolabella and sent legions to his aid in his attempt to claim Syria. Unfortunately Dolabella lost. Mark Antony summoned Cleopatra to Tarsus to question her about her loyalty to the triumvirate. Cleopatra arrived on her great barge dressed like the goddess Venus, impressing Antony with her wealth. She invited him to dine with her that night, and before he knew it, Antony was just as captivated by Cleopatra as Caesar had been. He even agreed to spend the winter with her in Alexandria where they became lovers. She gave birth to Antony's children, the twins, Alexander Helios and Cleopatra Selene, and then later another son (these children were eventually raised by Octavia, Antony's ex-wife and Octavian's sister after Antony and Cleopatra's death). According to Plutarch, Cleopatra basically catered to Antony's every little whim, whether he wanted to go hunting or carousing, gambling, she drank with him, and played mischievous tricks with him, basically she never let him out of her sight.


When Antony finally managed to rouse himself from the splendors of Egypt, he returned to Rome to pick up his duties as a ruler of the Roman Empire, part of the triumvirate of Octavian and Lepidus. His wife Fulvia had raised an army against Octavian in his absence and Antony was needed to smooth things over. While in Rome, he married Octavian's sister, Octavia (Fulvia had conveniently taken ill and died), probably to cement the alliance between the two men. Still, Antony's heart was in Egypt with Cleopatra.



After a four year absence (I guess it did make the heart grow fonder), Antony stopped off in Egypt on his way to invade Parthia for a little rendezvous. After rushing through his military campaign, Antony made his way back to Cleopatra's waiting arms. Her charms were such that from that point on, Antony based himself in Alexandria, marrying Cleopatra in 36 B.C. (I wonder if he bothered to divorce Octavia!). Cleopatra gave birth to her third child by Antony soon after, a boy named Ptolemy Philadelphus.


Meanwhile back on the homefront, Octavia remained loyal to her bigamous jerk of a husband. When Cleopatra caught wind that Antony was going to go meet with Octavia, she threw a fit, crying, fainting and weeping until she got her way. Being a woman, she probably sensed that the sensible Octavia might play on Antony's guilt at abandoning her and their two daughters. Antony cancelled the meeting.

It was a mistake that Antony would live to regret. The people in Rome were just a little disgusted at Antony's treatment of Octavia, not the least being her brother, Octavian. Rumors abounded that Antony and Cleopatra had declared themselves gods (the new Isis and Dionysus, how appropriate). Then in 34 B.C. Antony made his children, Alexander King of Armenia and little Cleopatra, Queen of Crete, and finally little Ptolemy ended up with Syria. Antony had also promised Cleopatra lands to rule in exchange for her help with his campaign against Parthia. Cleopatra saw this as her opportunity to regain the Ptolemies' former dynastic empire, and Antony needed Cleopatra's wealth for his armies and his fleet. It was a match made in ambition and greed.


Now completely pissed off, Octavian went to the Senate to declare war on Egypt and Cleopatra. He made Cleopatra out to be the real enemy of Rome, using Antony as her besotted plaything. He even went so far as to read a document he claimed to be Antony's will (probably forged) which reportedly left everything to Cleopatra in the event of his death. In 31 B.C. Antony's forces met up with Octavian's at sea in the battle of Actium in Greece. Cleopatra had provided 60 ships of her own. However, when she saw that Antony's ships were losing to the Romans, she hightailed it out of there. Antony, meanwhile, made the cardinal sin of abandoning his men to follow her. This provided proof to Rome that Antony was just a pawn in Cleopatra's hands.


All was not well with two lovers however. Antony refused to see or to speak to Cleopatra for 3 days after the defeat. When they returned to Egypt, Antony went off to brood, while Cleopatra prepared her country for invasion by Rome. When Antony learned of the surrendar of his forces at Actium and that his allies had changed sides, he decided to join Cleopatra to party like it was 1999.


Cleopatra had begun to experiment with poisons in the likelihood that she would need to take her life. She also built a magnificent mausoleum to which she moved all her worldly goods. In 30 B.C. Octavian finally reached Alexandria. When Mark Antony marched his army out to meet the enemy, he discovered that his fleet had gone over to Roman side. Then Antony's calvary deserted him. With his army defeated, Antony returned to the city, screaming that Cleopatra had betrayed him. Fearing for her life, Cleopatra fled to her mausoleum and barricaded herself inside, ordering her servents to tell Antony that she was dead.


Hearing that Cleopatra was dead, Antony decided to take his own life by stabbing himself with his sword. Unfortunately, he didn't die. He begged his servants to finish him off but instead they ran off. Cleopatra's servent discovered him and told him that his mistress was still alive. Antony was carried to the mausoleum where he died in Cleopatra's arms.

Cleopatra was now a prisoner in her mausoleum, refusing to eat, until Octavian threatened to harm her children if she died. But when she heard that he planned to parade her as a captive in the procession to celebrate his triumph in Rome, she committed suicide rather than be humiliated. No one is quite sure who she died. Shakespeare of course has her dying from the bite of an asp. She died at the end of August and was buried by Antony's side as she requested.

After her suicide, Octavian ordered her son Caesarion put to death. Her daughter by Antony later married King Juba II of Numidia, but the fate of her other two children by Antony, Alexander Helios and Ptolemy Philadelphus, remains unknown but most sources claim that their lives were also spared by Octavian.

Did Cleopatra love Antony or was he a means to an end. No one really knows for sure if it more was ambition and lust that brought them together, but that's a pretty combustible combination. Cleopatra while able to survive twenty years as Pharaoah and countless attempts to over throw her rule will still be known as the seductress of the East who lured two of Rome's greatest men away from their duties.

During her reign, she promoted herself endlessly (shades of Madonna, Britney and Lola Montez), making constant public displays of her power, her image as Pharoah and as a goddess. She also personally led rituals that were associated with Isis, the most important Egyptian goddess at the time. By doing so, Cleopatra insured that her people would be loyal to her.

After her death, Octavian contributed to the making of her legend, by spreading stories about her. The legend grew as writers such as Shakespeare, Plutarch, and Shaw were taken by aspects of her story and by the many movies and television shows since then. Everyone has their image of Cleopatra in their head and no matter of new information will dislodge it. She has passed from history into an icon.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Eleanor of Aquitaine, Queen and Rebel, Part II


Eleanor and Henry proceeded to produce 7 more children over the next 14 years, four boys and three girls, Henry (the young King), Richard, Geoffrey, Eleanor, Joanna, Matilda, and the last John in 1166, a remarkable feat during the Middle Ages when infant mortality was extremely high. Unfortunately, their first son William died at the age of 3 from an unknown illness.

Although Eleanor loved her children, Richard especially, she was a woman who loved power and wanted to exercise her intelligence doing more than just hanging around the nursery or supervising her ladies in waiting. Henry, however, wasn't about to share his power with a co-ruler. Although he allowed Eleanor to act as regent during his absences from court, but it was little more than her signing her name to the authority of his ministers, who had the real power.

Henry meanwhile, was also busy, in between ruling his vast kingdom, with other women. At first this didn't bother Eleanor over much, but she soon began to resent it, and his interference in her reign over Aquitaine, which she returned to in 1168. Eventually the two grew apart, the 12 year age difference increasing as the years went by. Although Henry had been discreet with his mistresses at first, that all changed when he fell in love with Rosamond Clifford, the daughter of one of his knights, Walter Clifford. Very little is known about Rosamond except that she was beautiful and Henry loved her above all women. Rumors circulated that Henry would annul his marriage to Eleanor and marry Rosamond, an act that Henry wasn't about to do. Annuling his marriage to Eleanor would mean that Aquitaine and Poitou would no longer be under his control. And Eleanor would once again be bait for his many enemies, seeking to control her vast inheritance. After Rosamond's death in 1176, another rumor spread that Eleanor had either had her murdered or poisoned her directly, despite the fact that Eleanor had been imprisoned at the time. Henry later became involved with Richard's betrothed, Alais, a princess of France and daughter of Eleanor's ex-husband. Needless to say, Richard never married Alais.

Henry allowed Eleanor to return to her court in Poitiers in an attempt to control the unruly barons in Aquitaine. For five years, Eleanor had a certain measure of autonomy from Henry's dominance. It was in Poitiers that Eleanor started to hold the "Courts of Love' where troubadours and poets flocked and the idea of courtly love was practiced, a code comprising 31 articles or The Rules of the 12th Century. The romantic legend of King Arthur took shape at this time, capturing the imaginations of the poets. It was around this time that the idea of the round table, and the love affair betweenGuinevere and Lancelot joined with the earlier versions of the story, through the writings of Chretien de Troyes, who served at the court of Eleanor's daughter, Marie Countess of Champagne. Chr├ętien also has the distinction of being the first writer to mention the Holy Grail (Perceval).

She even established a tribunal of women where men could come to ask questions. How cool is that? Eleanor of Aquitaine as a medieval Dr. Phil. In Poitiers, Eleanor was also reunited with her two daughters by Louis VII, Marie of Champagne and Alix of Blois. While Henry was the ruler of Aquitaine, Eleanor made sure that her lords knew that their loyalty was to her and not to the King.

The you know what hit the fan in 1173. Their eldest son Henry had been crowned King of England, but was anxious for a little power as were Henry's other two sons Richard and Geoffrey. Although Geoffrey had been made Duke of Brittany through marriage, but Henry didn't allow him to rule, nor did he allow Richard, any who was heir to Aquitaine and Poitou, any influence in the duchy. The sons chafed under their father's iron fist and revolted with their mother's support.

Henry was enraged that his sons would dare to rebel against him and that Eleanor would lend her support. The plan failed and all three sons fled to France. Eleanor was not so lucky, she was caught trying to flee dressed like a man. She was sent back to England and imprisoned for the next 15 years in various royal residences around the country. Very little is known about Eleanor's life during this time. On brief occasions, she was let out of her prison, mainly for Christmas celebrations at the court (The Lion in Winter is set during one such holiday), and to see Richard installed as Duke of Aquitaine after Eleanor renounced her title. Occasionally she was allowed to have family members as visitors, but Henry never let her forget that she was his prisoner.

Meanwhile his sons continued to rebel against him, hooking up with Louis VII's son, Philip Augustus, who proved to be a more formidable enemy than his father. However, the young King Henry died of dysentery in 1183, awaiting his father's forgiveness. Although Henry didn't come in person, he did send his son a sapphire ring as a token of reconciliation. Then Geoffrey took a fatal fall in 1186, leaving his son Arthur who was born 7 months after his death. That left Richard and John as Henry's only heirs. Eventually even John also known as John Lackland for his lack of inherited titles and land, Henry's favorite son joined in. Henry didn't know what his favorite son had done until he lay on his deathbed after a terrible defeat.

Henry died in 1189 and Eleanor was finally free to rule England through Richard. After his coronation, Richard obliged her by taking off on the Third Crusade, to rescue the beseiged city of Jerusalem from Saladin. Eleanor was completey against it, as far as she was concerned, Richard's job was to continue the Plantagenet dynasty by marrying and siring an heir, not to mention the business of affairs of state. She did manage to get him married to Berengaria of Navarre, who although Queen of England, never set foot in the kingdom. The getting of an heir was another story.

Richard was gone for 5 years, in fact during his reign, he spent only 10 months in England, leaving Eleanor plenty of room to rule as administator of the realm, while simultaneously keeping John's greedy fingers off the throne in his brother's absence (apparently Disney's depiction of him in Robin Hood is not far off the mark). In the meantime, Richard managed to get himself captured on his way back from Crusade by the Duke of Austria who held him for ransom.

Not only did Eleanor manage to raise the money to ransom Richard, but she went all the way to Austria to bring back, this while in her seventies. On this return, she even effected a reconciliation between the two brothers. Richard died in 1199 after ten years on the throne, without an heir. This was before the days when the line of succession was clearly demarcated. So there were two heirs, Geoffrey's son Arthur and John. Eleanor threw her weight behind John's claim. Arthur's mother Constance was just as formidable a woman as Eleanor, and she knew that she would have no power if Arthur were King.

Arthur had the power and weight of the French King behind him, but Eleanor managed to help John hold Aquitaine and Poitou against him. John eventually managed to capture him and his sister Eleanor. Arthur died mysteriously while imprisoned which didn't help John's cause. Luckily for him he had his mother to advise and guide him as she had done for Richard. In a savy move, she had her granddaughter Blanche of Castile betrothed to Philip's son, uniting the Plantagents and the Capets. And she personally escorted her granddaughter from Castile, at the age of 80, to her bridegroom.

Eventually Eleanor retired in 1202 to Fontrevault Abbey where she spent her remaining two years of life, match-making for her relatives, seeking advantageous matches for them. She died at the age of 82, a remarkable age in a remarkable life, outliving most of her children, apart from John and her daughter Eleanor. She is buried beside her husband at the Abbey.

In the years following her death, historians judged her harshly for her youthful indiscretions and willful personality, ignoring her later years. But current historians are kinder to Eleanor, emphasizing her political wisdom and her role in the development of Courtly Love.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Eleanor of Aquitaine, Queen and Rebel- Part I

I confess that I have been fascinated with the life of Eleanor of Aquitaine ever since I saw the movie The Lion in Winter in high school. Who was this woman who taunted Henry II, who got under his skin? It was more than just Katherine Hepburn's portrayal, although she was fabulous. I immediately wanted to know more about this woman. Apparently I'm not the only one who is fascinated with her. Countless books have been written over the centuries. Google her name and you'll find thousands of articles as well.

Why this fascination with a long ago Queen? Well, she was the most powerful woman in Medieval Europe, wife to two Kings and the mother of two Kings, founding a dynasty that would rule England for the next 330 years. In her lifetime, she was the subject of scandalous rumors, that she rode bare-breasted on crusade, that she slept with her uncle, murdered her husband's mistress. She was a warrior who helped her sons revolt against their father, and served as regent while Richard the Lionheart went on crusade. She died at the relatively advanced age of 82, in an age when the average life span was probably about 40.

Eleanor was born Alienor of Aquitaine around 1122. Her grandfather William IX was a musician, poet, acknowledged as the first troubadour. He was also no stranger to love or to scandal. After divorcing his first wife, he married a widow who gave him two sons, William (Eleanor's father) and Raymond (who became Prince of Antioch). When his second wife bored him, she was sent to a nunnery where she lived until her death. Instead of remarrying, William decided to abduct a married woman (shades of Uther Pendragon) named Dangereuse (what an absolutely delicious name) who became his mistress.

In time, William decided that Dangereuse's daughter Aenor should marry his son William against his son's wishes. They were married in 1121, with Alienor (Eleanor) following nine months later. Two more children followed, Petronella and William Aigret. Both Eleanor's mother and William Aigret died young, leaving Eleanor the sole heiress to the duchy of Aquitaine.

At the this time, France was not the size that it is now. The duchy of Aquitaine while swearing fealty to the French King, was 1/3 the size of modern France. It was a prize, and whoever married Eleanor would be incredibly powerful. Eleanor and her father were incredibly close. Like his father before him, William X was a patron of the troubadours and storytellers who flocked to the court. Proud of having such a beautiful, lively and intelligent daughter, William made sure that she was highly educated. She traveled with him throughout the duchy, preparing for her role as Duchess.

When she was just15, her life changed forever with the death of her beloved father from food poisoning while they were on pilgrimage. In order to protect Eleanor from being kidnapped for her inheritance after he was gone, on his deathbed, William dictated a will making her a ward of Louis the Fat, King of France. Coveting the duchy of Aquitaine, Louis married Eleanor off to his son, the future Louis VII on August 1, 1137. There was only one tiny catch. Aquitaine would remain independent of France for the moment, but if the union was blessed by a son, he would be both King of France and Duke of Aquitaine.

Like another mis-matched King and Queen, Marie-Antoinette and Louis XIV, Eleanor and her new husband had absolutely nothing in common. While Eleanor was willful and high-spirited, Louis was quiet and pious, regarded by some as a saint (in fact, he was later made a saint after his death). No one, however, would ever mistake Eleanor for being a saint. Before Eleanor could adjust to being a wife, she became a Queen when her new father-in-law died a few days after the wedding.

Never one to sit around doing needlework, Eleanor threw herself enthusiastically into her new role as Queen of France. She got off on the wrong foot immediately with the French court. Even Louis' own mother thought her flighty and a bad influence. Her conduct was constantly criticized by church elders, but it didn't matter to Louis, who was madly in love with his new wife. He consulted her often on matters of state much to the chagrin of his ministers. Eleanor also frequently visited Aquitaine, where she was much loved by her people.

The only fly in the ointment was their lack of a child. Bernard of Clairvaux (who was also a thorn in Abelard's side) insisted that Eleanor was childless because she was wicked. Eventually, Eleanor gave birth to a daughter, Marie in 1145, eight years after her marriage at the relatively advanced age of 23. However, having a child didn't make Eleanor settle down. When Louis decided to go on the Second Crusade, Eleanor announced that she was joining him. Along with a company of 300 women (you can imagine how much luggage they brought). Louis advisors were completely against it until Eleanor also offered the services of a 1000men from Aquitaine.

Eleanor insisted on leading the soldiers from Aquitaine herself. However, the rumor that she and her women dressed as Amazons with one breast bare has been disputed by historians. She did however, launch her crusade from Vezelay, the rumored location of Mary Magadelene's burial. The crusade itself was a disaster. Louis didn't have the first clue on how to lead an army. By the time they reached Asia Minor, things went from merely bad to worse. A group of French soldiers lead by Geoffrey de Rancon, a vassal of Eleanor, were slaughtered by the Turks when they ignored the King's orders to make camp for the night. Eleanor was blamed, since Geoffrey was her vassal, it was assumed that she had given the order to continue to the next plateau. Her reputation was sullied and went down hill even further with the rumors of an affair with her uncle, Raymond who had married Constance of Antioch. Although Raymond had a reputation for being a faithful husband, he paid special attention to his beautiful, flirtatious niece.

Louis and Eleanor had been growing apart, and the Crusade just emphasized how incompatible they were. When Raymond pleaded for Louis's help in defending Antioch, Eleanor took his side. When Louis refused to assist Raymond, Eleanor declared that she wanted a divorce. Louis, who adored his wife, was angry and hurt. When Eleanor refused to accompany him to Jerusalem, insisting on staying in Antioch with her uncle, Louis had her brought out by force. She never saw her uncle again. In 1149 he was killed in a battle against the Muslims. His severed head was sent to the caliph in Baghdad.After a disasterous trip to Jerusalem, Louis and Eleanor returned to Europe by seperate ships. They were both persumed lost for months until Eleanor ended up in Sicily and Louis in Calabria. They reunited in Rome, when the Pope Eugenius III maneuvered events so that the estranged couple ended up sharing a bed. Their daughter Alix was born 9 months later, but it was too late to save the marriage.

Although Louis adored his wife, he was willing to let Eleanor go. He had the future of the throne to think about. After 15 years of marriage, they had only 2 daughters and no sons. Eleanor, of course, countered that it wasn't her fault, in order to have an heir, he had to sleep with her. On March 11, 1152, the marriage was dissolved, on the grounds of consaguinity. This was ludicrous since the close relationship between the two (they were third cousins) had been known before they got married. Their two daughters were declared legitimate and the King was given custody. Eleanor's lands of Aquitaine and Poitou were returned to her.

But Eleanor was not to be alone for long. Two months later, she married the Henry , Count of Anjou and Normandy, son of Matilda, and grandson of Henry I of England, shocking everyone. Not only was Henry, at 18, 11 years younger than Eleanor, but it had been rumored that Eleanor had slept with his father prior to her relationshiop with Henry. According to contemporary chronicler, Gerald of Wales, "Count Geoffrey of Anjou when he was seneschal of France took advantage of Queen Eleanor; for which reason he often warned his son Henry, telling him above all not to touch her, they say, both because she was his lord's wife, and because he had known her himself." But, ignoring his father's advice, Henry "presumed to sleep adulterously with the said queen of France, taking her from his own lord and marrying her himself. How could anything fortunate, I ask, emerge from these copulations?"

Whether or not she slept with his father, Eleanor and Henry were well-matched. They shared similar backgrounds, both were highly intelligent and strong-willed. His physical courage and keen political mind meshed well with her ambition for power. And they were powerfully attacted to one another. They had met while Eleanor was still married to Louis, when Henry had arrived at the French court to conduct peace talks between Anjou and France. Some historians believe that Eleanor and Henry made plans then to marry once her divorce went through. Ironically, they were just as related as Eleanor and Louis were. And his father warned him against marrying Eleanor. His warnings fell on deaf ears.

War broke out between Henry and Louis when the news of the marriage hit Paris. Louis was outraged by his ex-wife's conduct. As his vassal, she could not marry without his permission. Henry won the war quickly, leaving Louis to scurry home to lick his wounded pride. To add insult to injury, Eleanor and Henry also had a son, William, a year after their wedding.

Two years after their marriage, Henry of Anjou was King of England and Eleanor was now Queen of a kingdom that stretched from the Pyrnees to the Cheviots.


Stay tuned tomorrow for more on Eleanor of Aquitaine.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Miriam Folline Leslie - Empress of Publishing

She was an actress, an editor, a supporter of woman's rights and a business woman in the days when a woman's place was clearly in the home, and not in the boardroom. She took a failing business and turned it around, not once but twice becoming the most successful business woman in America. She hobnobbed with Presidents, and sparred with Brigham Young. A beauty who loved diamonds, with a fair complexion and golden curls. An early feminist who left her entire fortune to further woman's rights. And finally a much-married, flirtatious, social rule breaker, who many women might have called a home wrecker but never to her face.

Miriam Florence Follin (or Folline) was born in the Vieux Carre district of New Orleans in 1836. Like other scandalous women, she came from an inauspicious background. Her parents appeared not have been married, and the family's income was dependent on her handsome, erratic but cultured father. Charles Follin wandered around the country failing in one business after the other. However, he didn't neglect his daughter's education, making sure that she learned French, German, Latin and Spanish. He also encouraged her to develop her feminine charms.

Miriam grew up charming but headstrong. When the family moved to New York, Miriam met a young jeweler's clerk, named David Peacock, who let her wear diamonds from the store where he worked. Miriam's mother, Susan, worried that her daughter's virtue had been compromised, had Peacock arrested. She demanded that he make an honest woman of her daughter. Threatened with jail, Peacock agreed but on the proviso that they didn't live together and he wouldn't have to support her. After two years the marriage was mercifully annulled.

Newly single, Miriam embarked on her next adventure. It seems that Miriam's older half-brother had fallen madly in love with the notorious Lola Montez, while he was out living in California searching for gold. He didn't find any gold, but he did find Lola! After leaving countless lovers and husbands in Europe, Lola had come to conquer America. Noel was no match for the fiery Lola who thought nothing of attacking anyone who angered her with the bullwhip she carried like some people carry a purse. Several months after they met, he committed suicide.

Dramatic as always (Lola frequently gave her best performances off the stage), Lola was for onece in her life stricken with guilt. She went to New York and through herself at Susan's feet, screaming that she had killed her son. To make it up to the Follin's, she decided to take Miriam on the road with her.

They went on the road as the Montez sisters where Lola's notoriety and Miriam's beauty drew the crowds. Along the way, Miriam must have absorbed the lessons of seduction as practised by Lola because she had a host of admirers including a Senator from Tennessee, who although married, nevertheless bought Miriam a house in New York. Finally Miriam was beginning to move in the social circles to which her father had envisioned for her.

Soon Miriam met husband number 2, Ephriam G. Squier, an archaeologist who just happened to be the president of a railroad. Squier was 37 and Miriam was 21 but he was immediatly enchanted by her big blue eyes and pleasing conversation. Married in October 1857, Miriam moved into Squier's tastefully furnished home and set about on her next adventure. She was able to travel, and she attended the country's most exclusive gatherings and events including Lincoln's inaugural which led to a meeting that would change her life but Squier's as well. It was there at the inaugural ball that she met Frank Leslie.

Frank Leslie was born Henry Carter in England in 1821, the son of a glove maker. Although he loved to draw, his family discouraged him. He secretly sold some illustrations to London Magazines using the pseudonymn of Frank Leslie. Later, Leslie went to work for the Illustrated London News before finally moving to America where he initially worked for P.T. Barnum where he illustrated the programs for Jenny Lind's tour. After leaving Barnum's employ, he started his own illustrated publications, the first of their kind in America. His motto was "Never shoot over the reader's head."


At the time that Frank Leslie met Miriam, he was a married man with children. He hired Ephraim, whose railroad was not doing too well, to work as an editor of his Illustrated Newspaper, and Miriam to edit his Lady's Magazine, where she was a great success. She was able to translate her conversational skill into the written word so that in a few years, she was editing several of Leslie's many publications.



When Squier heard that Leslie had separated from his wife, he generously offered to let Leslie move into one of their spare bedrooms. This arrangement lasted for a decade and led to whispers in society about what exactly was going on with the three friends. Things got even stranger when the Squier's accompanied by Leslie went to Europe in 1867 for the Exposition in Paris. Frank Leslie had been named United States commissioner to the Exposition. When the ship arrived in Liverpool, Squier was arrested and thrown into prison, after someone alerted his impending arrival to some of his old creditors. While Squier languished in jail, Leslie and Miriam went to London. Finally after two weeks, they bailed him out of jail.





Despite this, the three of them continued on to Paris where Miriam gathered information about the new Paris fashions for her readers, and the two men worked on the Exposition. The trio lived together, worked together, and travelled together. Finally Squier began to notice that he was being pushed aside. He began to notice that his wife was wearing diamonds that he hadn't given her, and going out at night with Leslie while he stayed home. At one point, he'd had enough, traveling to Peru for a year. When Leslie's wife accused Miriam and Frank of adultery, Squier refused to believe it.





New York at this time was living it up in post Civil War ebulliance. Affairs were conducted openly and the city's demi-monde thrived. There was a certain taste for the bohemian came into style and the thin line between the demi-monde and the rich was almost invisible. While Frank Leslie and his wife were still married, the status quo between the three was kept. Once Leslie was divorced, Miriam decided that she would prefer to be married to Frank and not her husband. However, Ephraim didn't want a divorce. To get her way, Miriam arranged for Squier to attend a party at a 'disreputable house' and invited several courtesans, where several Leslie illustrators were conveniently on hand to sketch him in a compromising position. Of course when Miriam sued for divorce, the two artists were on hand to testify to what they had seen.


A month after her divorce was final, Miriam and Frank were married. A month after that, Squier was committed to an asylum on Long Island. He spent the rest of his life in and out of asylums. Miriam was initially blamed for her ex-husband's insanity, particularly when it came out later that her first husband also ended up in an asylum. However, Squier's brother declared that Miriam was only one of the symptoms of his brother's problems.




Now, 38, Miriam was a wife for the 3rd time. As the new Mrs. Frank Leslie, she threw herself into New York society. They bought a mansion on Fifth Avenue once owned by the notorious Boss Tweed, and Miriam spent lavishly on carriages, horses, Paris gowns and expensive jewelry. They even bought a summer estate in Saratoga where wealthy New Yorkers retired to take the waters and to gamble in the casinos. Around this time she met the poet Joaquin Miller, the Byron of the West. Miller was tall blonde and handsome, with an outsize personality similar to Miriam's. He declared his love for her, immortalizing her in a novel The One Fair Woman. For more than 30 years, they rendezvoused all across America and Miriam wrote glowingly of his work in Leslie's publications.



In 1877, the Leslies took a cross country trip by rail to California first class of course in the finest railroad carriages of the period inclduing a Pullman Hotel car. As they travelled, Miriam kept a journal which she later turned into a book called California: A Pleasure Trip from Gotham to the Golden Gate. The book received excellent reviews. During their trip out West, Miriam had the opportunity to match wits with the Patriarch of the Mormon Church Brigham Young himself about the merits of polygamy.


Just as Miriam was enjoying the fruits of literary success, the roof caved in on the couple. The first blow was Frank's financial collapse in 1877 due to the economic crisis. Frank had overexpanded his empire and the couple had spent more than the publications earned for some time. The publicatons were assigned to another publisher and Frank was demoted to general manager, only receiving a small portion of the profits.


Then came the second blow, a 24 page pamphlet was published by a Virginia City newspaper incensed at the way Miriam had dissed their city in her book calling it a 'god-forsaken place,' and accusing the women of being of the worst class. The pamphlet exposed her slightly unsavory past including her first marriage, her affair with the senator, and her illegitimacy, not to mention her adulterous relationship with Frank before their subsequent marriage. There was only one person who could have given the paper all that information and that was Ephraim G. Squier, who finally seems to have had his revenge on his wife and his former friend.


The final blow was Frank's death in 1880 from throat cancer before he could finish paying off the debt. Miriam was now a widow at 43 with a failing business, and a host of lawsuits from Frank's children contesting his will. But Miriam rose to the occasion like a phoenix rising from the ashes. She managed to pay off $50,000 of the debt, and then her most ingenious move, she had her name legally changed to Frank Leslie so that she could continue to use the name on the publications.



Once again fate was on Miriam's side with one of the biggest stories of the decade. James Garfield was assassinated by Charles Guiteau on Saturday, July 2nd 1881. Miriam immediately sent two artists to Washington, summoned the staff back to work, and produced an issue of the Illustrated Newspaper with special assassination coverage by Tuesday, July 5th. She then took the unprecendented move of issuing a further two issues on the assassination. She was in the right place at the right time, and the genius to take advantage of it.


Like many media moguls of the 20th century, Miriam turned a profit through aggressive make-overs of the magazines, timely scoops, and modernizing the equipment. The male dominated business world was astonished at her moxie. They hailed her as a 'Commercial Joan of Arc.' and a 'miracle money-maker.' By 1885, Miriam was earning $100,000 annually while meeting a payroll of 400 employees. During her lifetime she also managed to churn out a further 6 books and nearly 50 articles.


Miriam was not about to retire her dance card however. As she herself wrote in one of her advice books for women, 'the belle is apt to be a widow who upstages ingenues with her seasoned social charms, perpetual youth and intellectual and conversational powers.' She could have been describing herself. Men wooed her relentessly at her Thursday night salons. At one point she was involved with a French marquis who wooed her with poems only to throw him over for a Russian prince, fifteen years her junior. When the men fought a duel over her, she dropped them both.


Instead she married Oscar Wilde's brother, the witty William C.K.W. Wilde, who was 39 to her 55, after only knowing him for 4 days. The honeymoon had barely begun before Miriam realized she'd gotten a lemon instead of a thoroughbred. Willie got drunk at the wedding and basically stayed that way for 6 months. While Miriam went to work, Willie could barely drag himself out of bed long enough to make it to one of his clubs. The puritan in her rebelled at this. The marriage dragged on for two years before Miriam finally had had enough. As she put it, 'He was no use to me either by day or by night. I really think I should have married Oscar.'


Miriam always kept one eye on her business despite her romantic adventures. She wore tight black gowns, while blending a masculine core of steel along with her feminine charms. After a few years, she began to sell off the remaining Leslie weeklies, keeping the popular Monthly magazine. However, she was called into rescue the magazines again, when the syndicate that she leased her remaining publications to got into financial trouble. However, she was forced out in 1897 for good.


In retirement she continued to travel and write and in 1901, she claimed to have discovered that she was the baroness de Bazus, through a distant relation. Even at the end of her life, she was still drawing admirers, including a Spanish count who unfortunately died before they could marry. When she died in 1914, she left her entire $2 million dollar fortune to Carrie Chapman Catt, one of the leaders of the suffragette movement to fund the cause. Although Frank Leslie's relatives once again sued, and the amount was reduced to $1 million dollars, her bequest paid for the salaries of 200 full-time workers, aiding the cause tremendously.


Miriam Follin Leslie lived her life as intensely romantic as any novel, poem or song written in the 19th Century. She also proved that a woman could run a business as successfully or her in case even more successfully than any man while still remaining very much a woman.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Ninon de Lenclos - Mademoiselle Libertine



"A woman who has loved but one man, will never know love."





The Sun King was known to ignore the views of his advisors and peers during his long reign, but whenever he wanted a second opinion, he was known to ask "What would Ninon do?"

Who was this Ninon that an absolute monarch like Louis XIV would seek her advice? She was a French author, courtesan and patron of the arts, whose long life lasted almost as long as the The Sun King's reign in France. In her lifetime, she was known as the sine qua non of courtesans, her salons were attended by some of the greatest minds in France, including Racine, Corneille, de Francois, duc de la Rochefoucauld and Moliere, who tried out all his plays on her first.

After her death, Saint-Simon summed up her career as: "A shining example of the triumph of vice, when directed with intelligence and redeemed by a little virtue." Her prowess with men was so well known that there is a urban legend that for years after her death, the women of Versailles sued to petition her be-ribboned skull for erotic success.

She was born Anne de Lenclos on November 10, 1620 (another Scorpio, what a surprise!) in the Marais district of Paris, although some biographies give her date of birth as everything from 1614 to 1623. She was nicknamed 'Ninon' by her father who she adored. Her family were middle class, Voltaire wrote that her father was a lute player. Her parents were a study in contrasts. While Madame de Lenclos was almost pious in the extreme, Monsieur de L'enclos was a fun-loving libertine who abandoned them when Ninon was fifteen after a duel over another man's wife.


Ninon grew up in a tug of war between the religiousity of her mother, and the free-wheeling attitudes of her father. It was easy to see which parent would win out, although Ninon loved both her parents. From an early age, Ninon was determined to be independant and unmarried. After observing the disasterous marriage between her parents, it is easy to see why. When she was 12, Ninon declared to her father that she was no longer a girl, but a boy. Amused, her father had his tailor make her an outfit consisting of breeches, doublet, and boots, taking her out riding in the park dressed in her new garb. He also educated her like a boy, teaching her history, philosophy and lute playing.


By the age of 13, Ninon's opinions on religion had been formed. She snuck in books on Montaigne (a noted writer during the Renaissance who became famous for his ability to combine serious intellectual speculation with anecdote and biography), and other philosophers into her prayer books in church. And once she even sang a bawdy song in the middle of a sermon during Holy Week. When she was scolded by the cleric, Ninon declared that religion was nothing but an invention.


Despite her mother's best efforts to turn her into a god-fearing pious woman, Ninon was determined to live a life of pleasure, both physical and mental. Since she had no dowry to speak of, Ninon only had a few choices in life. Either to marry, enter a convent, take a position as a governess like her friend Madame de Maintenon, or become a courtesan. To the horror of her mother, she allowed herself to be seduced and ruined by the young Comte de Coligny. Thus she embarked on the life that led to her fame and fortune.



Ninon took a succession of notable and wealthy lovers, including the King's cousin, the Great Conde, three generations of the Sevigne family, Saint-Evremond, the duc D'Enghien among others. She divided her lovers into three categories, "the payers, the martyrs, and the favored."

Even Cardinal Richelieu desired to be among her lovers, offering 50,000 crowns for a night in her bed. Ninon took the money and sent her friend, the courtesan Marian Delorme instead.


Ironically for someone who was so sought after, Ninon was no beauty. She had a long nose, heavy eyebrows, and a double chin. But her lovers didn't care. One of them admitted that her mind was more attractive than her face. Ninon was a rare creature when 2/3 of the women couldn't sign their name. The accepted virtues of feminity were silence, docility, chastity, piety, and domesticity, none of which Ninon possessed. As she once said, "If anyone had proposed a life of chastity to me, I should hanged myself." Uninhibited, Ninon swam in the nude, and talked about sex openly like a French Dr. Ruth. But her biggest erotic secret was probably the fact that she bathed regularly.


Instead of waiting to be wooed, Ninon was not afraid to be the pursuer. She would cruise the Cours la Reine each day in a satin sedan chair, until she saw someone she fancied, and then propositioned them with billet-doux. "Love with passion but only for a few minutes," was her motto. She had a time limit for her lovers of three months. Only once did Ninon engage in monogamy. For three years, she lived with the Marquis de Villarceaux. Unlike her other lovers, he was not an intellectual but a compulsive womanizer. It was lust at first sight. They moved to his country estate, where he hunted, while Ninon continued her studies with a resident scholar. They had a son who Ninon loved and promoted for the rest of her life.


After the novelty of monogamy wore off, and de Villarceaux's charms no longer satisfied her, Ninon left him and moved back to Paris. When he followed her in a jealous fury, Ninon cut off all her hair and handed it to him, starting a new fashion for the "Ninon bob" in the process. Like most of her other lovers, de Villarceaux couldn't stay mad at her for long and they stayed friends.


She also established a salon at 28 rue des Tournelles in the Marais. It soon became the place to be seen. Women dominated French cultural life in the 17th Century. It was French women intellectuals who created the idea of the salon, where ideas could be entertained. Ninon's own drawing room became the place to discuss literary arts. At her salon, there was no card playing or loud chatter, no arguments and absolutely no discussion of religion or politics. Ninon kept things light and easy with an emphasis on music and art. She permitted no drunkards, and shunned alcohol herself.


She wasn't a snob either. At first her salon was all male, but later in her life, woman began attending. Although she was shunned by most respectable women, Ninon became friends with Francoise Scarron when as a young wife, she attended Ninon's salon's with her husband the poet Paul Scarron. The women were so close that after her husband's death, Francoise moved in with Ninon, leading to rumors that the two women were lovers.


Ninon was also known for her wit, in an age of prized wit. When her opinions on organzied religion landed her in hot water, and into a religious house on Anne of Austria's orders, Ninon sweetly suggested, "The Monastery of the Grand Cordeliers?" This monastery as all of Paris knew was notorious for it's debaucheries. On another occasion, one of her lovers refused to go on a business trip unless Ninon signed a contract vowing of fidelity while he was gone. Although she signed it, as soon as he was gone, she took up with a series of new lovers, declaring "Oh that little guarantee that I signed?"


While she was imprisoned by Anne of Austria, Ninon took the time to write a little book called the "Vengeance of the Coquette" which she secreted in her underwear. She was finally released after her friend, Queen Christina of Sweden convinced Cardinal Mazarin to release her.


When Ninon entered her forties, she decided to retire from being a courtesan. Instead, she opened an academy where she taught the arts of love to the sons of the aristocrazy, with a special emphasis on pleasing women. Her curriculum apparently included the care and handling of a mistress or a wife, the correct approach to wooing, and ways to end an affair. Ninon's school was an immediate success. Although no formal record was kept of her classes, many of the things she said were remembered and then widely repeated by her pupils.


Among them: "Talk to your woman continually about herself and seldom about yourself"
"It is all very well to keep food for another day, but pleasure should be taken as it comes," and "A woman who is through with a man will give him up for anything except another woman!"


Ninon would listen to the specific problems of her pupils privately and advise and guide them. On several occasions, she took them to bed to demonstrate the act of love when verbal instruction just wouldn't do. Many women of the nobility were jealous of the instruction the men received and wanted instruction of their own. While she wouldn't conduct classes for them, she did help them privately. When one young woman wanted to know how big a woman's breasts should be to please a man, Ninon replied "Large enough to fill an honest man's hand."


There is a story that Ninon had a son who was raised by his father, and did not know who his mother was. The son was introduced to Ninon and fell in love with her, unaware of her identity. When Ninon revealed the truth, he committed suicide, since their love could not be consummated.


Ninon lived to be 85. Although she no longer went by her nickname, preferring Mademoiselle L'Enclos, she still had lovers up until the very end. In her later years, she became enamored of her lawyer, Franois Arouet's son, also named Francois who later went by the name Voltaire. In her will she left 2,000 livres for him to buy books. Ninon regretted nothing in her life except aging. "Old age is a woman's hell," she said. On her deathbed, she composed this final verse:


I put your consolations by,

And care not for the hopes you give:

Since I'm old enough to die,

Why should I longer wish to live?

After her death, she was eulogized as a sex icon, the subject of numerous plays, books, and myths.

Friday, November 2, 2007

Misunderstood Queen: Marie Antoinette

This is a special post for me, because Marie Antoinette and I share a birthday, and from childhood I've been fascinated with the beautiful Queen who lost her head in the French Revolution. For along time Marie Antoinette suffered from the reputation as being nothing more than an empty-headed beautiful woman who famously declared to the masses, "Let them eat cake!" (Actually according to Antonia Fraser in her biography of the Queen, she never said this.)


But was she a victim of circumstances or did she contribute to the demise of the monarchy by her prolifigate and licentious behavior at court? Recently, several new biographies that are a little more sympathetic to Marie Antoinette have come out and Sophia Coppola's movie was released last year (which I saw on my birthday).



Marie Antoinette was born Maria Antonia on November 2, 1755 in the Hofburg Palance in Vienna, to Empress Maria Theresa and her husband Francis I, Holy Roman Emperor and Duke of Lorraine. Maria was the 15th of Maria Theresa's 16 children and the final girl. Called Antoine as a child, she was spoiled and petted by her family who could deny her nothing. She was blonde with porcelain skin and vivid blue eyes. The Hapsburg court was relaxed and convivial. Maria Antonia's parents were an actual love match which was rare in the 18th century, particularly among royalty where the most one could hope for was mutual tolerance.


The little Archduchesse's education was left in the hands of her governess who was happy to spend her time spoiling the high spirited girl instead of teaching her. Antoine spent more time playing than studying to the point that she was barely able to read and write in her native German. She did however excel in music, drawing and dancing. When Antoine was ten her father died suddenly. Her mother Maria Theresa wore mourning for the rest of her life, while she ruled Austria with her son Joseph, much to his dismay.


In order to cement an alliance with France, Maria Theresa arranged a marriage between Louis-Auguste and Antoine. Since her older sisters were either already married, disfigured by small pox or dead, Antoine was the only choice. Maria Theresa wanted the alliance in order to stave off the threat of Prussia. Antoine was given a crash course in French history and customs towards which she proved an indifferent student. Her teeth were also straightened to make her conform more to the French idea of beauty. Nothing could be done about her lack of a bosom however, except to hope that she would fill out more when she gave birth.


In April of 1770 when Antoine was still only 14, she was married by proxy to Louis-Auguste with her brother filling in as the groom. At the border to France, Antoine was stipped of her Austrian clothing and regarbed in clothing that was fashionable at the French court, transforming into Marie Antoinette. Even her little pug was taken away from her.


When Marie Antoinette first arrived in France, she was much loved by the French people. However, the aristocracy of France was another matter entirely. A marriage had been promoted between Louis Auguste and the House of Savoy, which would have been more pleasing to certain factions at court. Instead, Louis' two younger brothers married Savoy princesses.


Matters were not helped by the indifference of the Dauphin. At the time of their marriage, Louis was barely fifteen, fat, awkward and shy. He preferred hunting or working in his locksmith shop to spending time with his bride. And then there was the matter of providing an heir for France, a matter that took seven years to resolve. On numerous occasions, and as tactfully as possible, Marie Antoinette tried to bring up the subject of “living in the intimacy” required of their vows, as did his physicians. Finally in 1777, he finally managed the feat. But the impasse was resolved only when Marie Antoinette’s brother, the brusque Emperor Joseph II of Austria, arrived at Versailles to have a talk with his sister about her spendthrift ways. Joseph was digusted at the discovery, he wrote to his cadet, Archduke Leopold, in Vienna, that the King “has strong, perfectly satisfactory erections; he introduces his member, stays there without moving for about two minutes, withdraws without ejaculating but still erect, and bids goodnight.” If he had been there, he swore, he would have had Louis whipped “so that he would have come out of sheer rage like a donkey.”


Apart from the ongoing humiliation of having her bedsheets checked for blood, and her periods monitored by ambassadors to every court in Europe, the ordeal of Marie Antoinette’s prolonged virginity kept her in limbo. As long the marriage could be annulled, she had to cultivate an “appearance of credit” with the King. Cultivating the appearance of virtue might have been a more politic strategy, but Marie Antoinette chose to model her style and behavior on those of a royal paramour. Previous royal Queens had been nondescript and all but invisible. The French court was ruled by the Louis XIV's mistress en titre Madame de Montespan, and Louis XV's mistresses Madame de Pompadour and lastly Madame du Barry.


Court at Versailles was much more rigid than Marie Antoinette was used to. From the time she got up in the morning until she went to bed at night, she was never alone. The thought of which unnerved her. She wrote to her mother about how she despised being dressed by her ladies in waiting and having to eat meals in front of the public. Versailles was not unlike a small city state. It could hold up to 20,000 people. At any given time 3,000 Princes, courtesans, ministers and servants were in residence. Rival factions at court were constantly jockeying for position and favors with the King. The palace was a cesspool of disease, the corridors teemed with human waste and garbage. The palace was also open to anyone wishing to visit. Security, of course, was strict, but any subject, as long as he or she observed proper etiquette was allowed.


Marie Antoinette did herself no favors when she first arrived by refusing to speak to or acknowledge the King's mistress, Madame du Barry. Du Barry took it upon herself to gossip and backstab against the Dauphine until Marie Antoinette was persuaded to finally speak to her, an event that occured a year after she arrived at court. Much of Marie Antoinette's behavior at this time stemmed for her reaction to her marital frustration, her homesickness, and coping with the rigidity of court life. Behind her back, she was called L'Autrichienne, which could loosely be translated as Austrian bitch. Many of the nobility disliked her for no other reason than she was Austrian and foreign.


It didn't help that her mother was constantly sending her letters, criticizing her for her behavior, her failure to produce an heir, and exhorting her to remember her duty to Austria. Marie Antoinette complained to her mother that she had no influence, that the King was not willing to listen to her, because of his own Anti-Austrian sentiment.


As time went by, Marie Antoinette was openly rebellious. She chose her own friends from amongst the younger members of court, in particular the Duchesse de Polignac and the Princesse de Lamballe. She yawned and giggled her way through royal ceremonies. More time and effort was spent on her clothing and redecorating her rooms at court, all to stave off the inevitable boredom that must have been a constant companion. Marie Antoinette began going out alone, or with friends, venturing forth to Paris to attend the theater or balls disguised as ordinary citizens. She insisted on choosing her own clothes instead of having them just handed to her, and even whether or not to wear stays or corsets.


Marie Antoinette loved the outdoors, particularly hunting (probably the only thing that she and her husband had in common), despite the fact that it was considered masculine and too dangerous. She even defied her mother and her advisors by wearing breeches and riding astride like a man, instead of using a sidesaddle. When she had her portrait painted, dressed in her riding clothes, her mother was appalled. She said that it was the portrait of an actress not a future Queen.


In 1774, Louis XV, the Dauphin’s grandfather, died suddenly of smallpox, at sixty-four. “God help us,” nineteen-year-old Louis XVI exclaimed, “for we are too young to reign.” As Queen of France, Marie Antoinette had no official role, and no real political power. Her main role was to provide an heir or two to the throne. Four years later, Marie Antoinette finally presented her husband and France with a child, a daughter named Marie Therese Charlotte, the only member of the royal family to survive the revolution. Over the next several years, Marie gave birth to three more children, the longed for Dauphin who died young, Louis Charles (the fugure Louis XVII) and a daughter Sophie. Once her children were born, Marie Antoinette seemed to calm down, more settled and mature. She was a devoted and besotted mother to her children, and a good spouse to Louis. But the damage was done to her reputation.


18th Century France had no supermarket tabloids, instead they relied on pamphleteers to spread rumors and malicious gossip. Because the pamphlets were printed privately, they were too numerous for the government to surpress. Marie Antoinette was accused of everything from lesbian affairs to affairs with various men at court, including Count Hans Axel Fersen, a Swedish diplomat that Marie Antoinette had first met at court when they were both 18. There is no concrete evidence that they were indeed lovers, but they were certainly intimate friends, and Fersen was the architect behind a later rescue attempt for the Royal family. She was blamed for the country's financial problems, because of her extravagant lifestyle, despite the fact that one could argue that her extravagance provided employment for tradesmen, milliners, dressmakers, mantuamakers and others.


When Marie Antoinete began to favor the more natural chemise look which followed the natural shape of the body, she was accused of mounting an affront to the modesty and dignity of the monarchy. It seemed to confirm the rumors that she was indecent and immoral. The Affair of the Necklace was yet another nail in the coffin of the Queen's reputation, despite evidence that she had nothing to do with it. The Affair was dreamed up by Countess Jeanne de La Motte, and it involved a diamond necklace worth more than 1.6 million livres that was created for Madame du Barry. The King died before he could take possession or even pay for the necklace. The jewelers tried to entice Marie Antoinette, but she wisely refused to accept the necklace as a gift from her husband. He'd already given her the Petit Trianon, her private retreat on the grounds of Versaille where she could have privacy away from the Court to indulge in her love of theatricals and to spend time with her intimate court(which gave rise to even more scurrilous rumors about what went on there).


The Countess de la Motte used the Queen's name to get Cardinal de Rohun to purchase the necklace for her. The Cardinal complied in the hopes of getting into the Queen's good graces. When the scheme was revealed, the Queen demanded that the culprits be brought to justice at a trial to publicly clear her name. Unfortunately the trial did more damage, as the malicious rumors and gossip were brought up to reveal how easy it was for the Cardinal to be duped. The good will of the French people had already evaporated as the King's economic policies failed. When Louis was first crowned, there was hope that the new regime would bring new ideas and reforms to governing France. After awhile, the King seemed to lose interest in government.

In October of 1789, the Royal Family were forced to leave Versailles for the Tuileries. Two years later, the aborted rescue attempt occured. The plan might have succeeded if Marie Antoinette hadn't insisted on not being seperated from her children. Instead of several small coaches, they traveled in one cumbersome one. The Queen's brother awaited the Royal family just across the border, but they were caught at Varennes and brought back to Paris.

The monarchy was abolished in the fall of 1792 by the National Convention, declaring France a republic. In early 1793, after a short trial, Louis XVI was convicted of treason and beheaded. He was allowed one final meal with his family where he urged his young son and heir not to see revenge for his death. Shortly afterwards, Marie Antoinette's two children were taken from her. The Dauphin was fed alcohol and abused in an effort to force him to accuse his mother of incest at her trial in October.

After her husband's death, the Queen wore black in defiance. Her hair had turned white during her confinement and she may already have been dying from uterine cancer. All through her imprisonment, Marie Antoinette bore it stoically. She was a month away from her 38th birthday when she was taken from the prison of the Conciergerie, and paraded in an open oxcart to the scaffold in the Place de la Revolution. There was an eerie silence from the crowd along the route, the same people who probably screamed obscenities at her in 1789. Even on the scaffold, she apologized for stepping on the foot of her executioner. Dressed all in white, Marie Antoinette went to her death like the Queen that she was. Her son, Louis-Charles died in prison at the age of ten, alone and brutalized in the Temple prison, despite persistent rumors that he survived.

Marie Antoinette was an ordinary woman caught up in extraordinary circumstances. Her downfall was almost pre-ordained. The revolutionary spirit was over a hundred years in the making and it would have taken a stronger man than her husband to turn back the tide. Although Marie Antoinette's extravagance and willfullness maybe have contributed to the revolution, it was not the only cause. Perhaps if she had been better educated by not only her mother but also her husband's grandfather, she might have escaped the pitfalls that inevitably tripped her up.

Further reading:

Marie Antoinette: The Journey - Antonia Fraser

Sex with Queens - Eleanor Herman

To the Scafforld - Carrolly Erickson