Thursday, June 30, 2011

Scandalous Places - Vaux-le-Vicomte

Kaleen Koen's new novel BEFORE VERSAILLES, is as much about Nicolas Fouquet as it is about Louis XIV.  One of the places mentioned in the book is Vaux-le-Vicomte (the chateau that Nicolas Fouquet is building during the novel).

Vaux-le-Vicomte still exists and you can visit it either n the flesh or online. The chateau was built between 1658 and 1661 for Fouquet who was Louis XIV's superintendent of finances. It was supposed to be a  monument to his oversized ego and ambition. Fouquet never got to enjoy his chateau for long because Louis XIV had him arrested and imprisoned for life in August of 1661. He was arrested at the chateau shortly after a fete where Moliere's play 'Les Facheaux' debuted.  The King had been suspicious about Fouquet's actions for months and the chateau just served to verify them.  It was too large and too impressive for the King's liking. Fouquet  had actually built a special section of the chateau for the King but it was too late. Fouquet had to go. His enemy Jean-Baptiste Colbert led the King to believe that Fouquet had misappropriated funds to pay for his lavish lifestyle. He spent the rest of his life in prison. Louis XIV then hired the team of artists (Le Vau, Le Notre, and Le Brun) to design what is now known as Versailles.

In this picture you can see the moat that Karleen Koen describes in the book. It looks exactly as she described it.  Looking at the photos, you can see why Louis would have been so jealous and angry.

17th century engraving of the chateau

The chateau changed hands several times over the years after Madame Fouquet sold it. The chateau at one time was owned by the Duke of Praslin who was implicated in the murder of his wife in the 19th century (the 1940 movie starring Betty Davis and Charles Boyer All This and Heaven Too is based on the case).  It was believed that the chateau was where the murder took place but it was actually at their Paris residence. In 1875, it was sold at auction to Alfred Sommier who restored it to its original appearance after years of neglect.  Today his descendants still own the chateau and it remains private property but it is open to visitors, otherwise I bet it would be a huge money pit.

I think someone should put together a Louis XIV tour of France.  One could visit the Louvre, Fontainebleau, Versailles, Vaux-le-Vicomtes amongst other places.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Scandalous Book Review: Before Versailles

  • Title:  Before Versailles
  • Author:  Karleen Koen
  • Pub. Date: June 28, 2011
  • Publisher: Crown Publishing Group
  • Format: Hardcover, 480pp
  • Verdict:  Run Don't Walk to the Bookstore to buy this book!
Louis XIV is one of the best-known monarchs ever to grace the French throne. But what was he like as a young man—the man before Versailles?

After the death of his prime minister, Cardinal Mazarin, twenty-two-year-old Louis steps into governing France. He’s still a young man, but one who, as king, willfully takes everything he can get—including his brother’s wife. As the love affair between Louis and Princess Henriette burns, it sets the kingdom on the road toward unmistakable scandal and conflict with the Vatican. Every woman wants him. He must face what he is willing to sacrifice for love.

But there are other problems lurking outside the chateau of Fontainebleau: a boy in an iron mask has been seen in the woods, and the king’s finance minister, Nicolas Fouquet, has proven to be more powerful than Louis ever thought—a man who could make a great ally or become a dangerous foe . . . Meticulously researched and vividly brought to life by the gorgeous prose of Karleen Koen, Before Versailles dares to explore the forces that shaped an iconic king and determined the fate of an empire.

My thoughts:  I first read Karleen Koen's first book THROUGH A GLASS DARKLY when it first came out back in 1986, which I still have.  I think it was the first novel that I ever bought in hardcover, with my hard-earned money from my first grown-up job.  I remember loving the rich detail of the book, although I was furious with several of the main characters for what I thought was their mistreatment of the heroine, Barbara. I read her other two books, but it's been a long wait for her new one.

Koen's new book, BEFORE VERSAILLES,  is released in bookstores today and it was well worth the wait. It is a sumptuous confection of a novel filled with rich details of the court of the young Louis XIV.  Koen focuses on a four months in Louis' life when the reader gets a glimpse of what he was like before he became the powerful, absolute monarch who became known as the Sun King.  This Louis is still finding his feet as King after the death of his mentor (and possibly his mother's lover) Cardinal Mazarin who had guided Louis from his childhood. Now Louis must learn who he can trust and who he can't, who has his best interests and those of France at heart, and those who seek solely to enrich to themselves.  He also has to contend with his younger brother Philippe who alternates between hero-worship and resentment, and his burgeoning, illicit love for his cousin and sister-in-law Henriette also known as Madame.

I have always had a bit of a crush on the royal cousins, Louis XIV and Charles II, particularly in the early years of their reign, so I was interested to hear at the Historical Novel Society conference that this was the first time that Koen had featured a real life historical person at the center of her book, and it is easy to see why Louis grabbed her imagination, and why this particular period in time.  This Louis alternates between confidence in his own abilities and seeking the wisdom of others. It is fascinating to watch him grow over the course of the novel as he realizes his own strengths as a monarch. There was a part of me as I was reading the book that wished that Minette (Henriette) and Louis could have had their happy ending (I've always felt this way) but the Minette in Koen's hands, while she loves the King is torn between that love, and realizing that as a woman, she has much farther to fall than her beloved. Anne of Austria, in Koen's hands, is woman who is tired after years of trying to hold onto power and to the kingdom for her son, but still wily and manipulative when she needs to be. It's such a contrast to the Anne that Dumas portrays in The Three Muskateers. I would love to see how Koen would treat the earlier Anne in the court of Louis XIII, who comes across as a 17th century version of Richard Nixon.

Koen is such a skilled storyteller that I have the time I was in awe while I was reading the book, the way she weaves the story of the Man in the Iron Mask, which the court intrigues, and the human drama, made me want to genuflect at her feet. Not once I was I lost or confused in the maze of characters that populate the court at Fontainebleau. Her ability to make such a vast group of inviduals come alive, and to get into each characters head is truly remarkable. From La Grande Mademoiselle down to the musketeer Cinq Mars, the reader knows exactly who they are, what they stand for and what they feel at any given moment. Louise de la Valliere, who I've normally thought of as the least interesting of the Sun King's many mistresses, comes alive in this novel. She manages to hold onto her moral compass while everyone around is losing theirs, as they jockey for position at court. Her innocence and naivete aren't cloying in Koen's hands. Minette, on the other, comes across at times as drunk on her own power over Louis, less in love with him and more in love with the idea of her power over him, which seems like a fresh approach. She's always been one of my favorite historical figures, but I've always found it her one of the saddest. It's understandable after years of being the poor, orphaned princess without a father or a country that she would revel a bit in her power. Koen comes up with a plausible interpretation of the myth of The Man in the Iron Mask which makes more sense than the one that Dumas came up with in his novel of the same name.

Her prose is stunning and evocative.  This is what Louis thinks about the Viscomte Nicholas Fouquet, "He was going to have to break the Viscount in half and hold the pieces up like trophies to paralyze his court with aw and under the awe, real fear." I couldn't put this book down and when it was over I wanted more, which is the sign of an amazing storyteller.

Interested in reading more about Karleen Koen?  Check out these interviews at Madame Guillotine and Passages to the Past.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Dame Alice Kyteler (1280 - 1324?)

The Magic Circle, John William Waterhouse (1886)

One of the first witchcraft trials in Ireland involved a woman named Dame Alice Kyteler. Her case involved the first recorded claims of a witching having intercourse with demons. For over 700 hundred years, her story has fascinated historians. Was she truly a witch or was she a victim brought up on trumped up charges by her jealous and envious stepchildren? Somewhere in the moldy pages of an ancient tome in a dusty library lies the true answer. Witch-hunting was big business in Medieval Europe. It is estimated that some 100,000 men and women were executed on suspicion of witchcraft during this period, and laws against witchcraft remained on the books as late as the 19th century. In Ireland, however, there were still people who followed the old ways, blending the ancient Celtic religion with Christianity. There were very few witch hunts so the trial of Dame Alice Kyteler sent shockwaves throughout the country.

Dame Alice Kyteler was a wealthy woman of Anglo-Norman descent whose family had settled in Kilkenny in the 12th century. Her father was a banker, and Alice prospered in her own right in the generally male pursuit of money-lending. Her first husband was William Outlawe of Kilkenny, a banker who was 20 years older than his bride when they married in 1299. She bore a son that they named William junior. Dame Alice lived in a beautiful house in the middle of town, and her increasing prosperity made her the subject of envy by the citizens of Kilkenny. Soon after her son’s birth, she decided to build an addition to the house which she opened as an inn. The inn was a huge success, and soon became a meeting place for wealthy men who vied for the attentions of the alluring Dame Alice. She was by all accounts an attractive woman who could manipulate men to lavish gifts of money and jewels on her. She soon gathered around her a group of comely young women to help her run the inn which was the busiest in Kilkenny.

Three years after their marriage, William Outlawe died suddenly under mysterious circumstances. In 1302, Alice was accused of murdering him, with the complicity of the man who became her second husband, Adam le Blund of Callan. Eight years after her first marriage, le Blund died after a ‘drinking spree’, and Alice was once again a widow. Both husbands conveniently left wills that provided her with everything. Husband number 3 was a landowner named Richard de Valle who soon met his maker one night after eating a sumptuous supper. Like husbands 1 and 2, he left his entire estate to Alice making her one of the wealthiest people in Kilkenny, and if the gossip was to be believed, the most wicked. Only the church was wealthier. Still only in her forties, Alice soon married her fourth husband, a frequent customer at the inn, named Sir John le Poer. Sir John was well-connected; his brother Arnold was the Seneschal of Kilkenny.

Tongues wagged at her ability to outlive her husbands, and her knack for financial gain made people wonder: how does she do it? Alice’s son, William Outlawe Jr., had taken over the family business of money lending and many locals were in debt to both mother and son. In 1324, the gossip took an ugly turn. Alice’s 4th husband, Sir John, began to feel poorly, losing his hair and his nails. Alice’s step-children were alarmed by not only by their father’s illness but also by the news that Sir John was about to sign a will leaving everything to Alice, effectively cutting them out.

Sir John’s children convinced him that Alice was trying to do him in. At first Sir John didn’t want to believe it, but legend says that when he searched her room, he found evidence in a number of locked boxes filled with potions, phials and powders. They brought their complaints to Richard de Ledrede, the Bishop of Ossory, claiming not only attempted murder but that her financial success clearly came from demonic help. Women, of course, were considered incapable of managing their own money, let alone anyone else’s.

This was just the case that Bishop de Ledrede was looking for. He’d been having difficulties with the locals who resented him because he was English. The biggest thorn in his side was Alice’s brother-in-law, Arnold, who was the royal seneschal. The Bishop clearly decided that a good way to stick to de la Poer was through his friend and ally, Dame Alice. The bishop brought charges of heresy against Dame Alice, accusing her of leading a cover of witches. Alice and her associates, who included her son and her maid Petroneilla, were indicted for sacrificing animals to a demon, magically excommunicating their husbands, and mixing magical ointments in the skull of a robber which allegedly were made from worms, hairs from the buttocks, and clothing from unbaptized baby boys. Alice was also alleged to have slept with a demon called Art who sometimes appeared as a shaggy, black dog.

If Dame Alice’s wealth and position had gotten people’s knickers in a twist, they now protected her against Bishop de Ledrede’s initial efforts to have her imprisoned. When de Ledrede wrote to the Chancellor of Ireland to have her arrested, it bit him in the butt. The Chancellor just happened to be Alice’s first husband’s brother. A delegation of Kilkenny’s most influential citizens met the bishop to speak on Dame Alice’s behalf. When the bishop refused to drop the charges, the citizens turned on him and had him imprisoned in Kilkenny jail for two weeks with only bread and water to rethink his position. When the now furious bishop was released, he made it his personal mission to convict and condemn Dame Alice.

He had an ally in John Darcy, the Lord Chief Justice, who was not happy when he found out what happened. The bishop finally succeeding in getting Alice at least excommunicated, as far as he was concerned all the Irish were heretics. However, Alice wasn’t about to take this lying down, she appealed to parliament in Dublin claiming the ecclesiastical court had no jurisdiction over her. It was a battle between church and state. Sorcery was a secular crime not under the jurisdiction of the church. Her final argument was that there couldn’t possibly be witches in Ireland, since it was the Island of the Saints.

After months of a stalemate, Petronella de Meath, one of Alice’s servants, was whipped six times (torture to extract confessions was prohibited by English law but apparently whipping servants was okay) and confessed to witchcraft, implicating Alice. Petronella confessed that Alice would sweep the dirt on the streets towards her son’s house, while chanting a spell to bring all the wealth of the town to his door (if this were true, I’d sweep more often). She went further and implicated Alice’s son, claiming that he wore the devil’s girdle. To make the tale really juicy, she added that Alice could fly on a magic broom and that she had taught Petronella all the tricks of the trade. With Petronella’s confession, it seemed that Alice’s goose was cooked. She was sentenced to be whipped through the streets, while tied to the back of a horse and cart after which, she would be burned at the stake.

Alice, however, managed to once again slip out of de Ledrede’s clutches with the help of her brother-in-law Roger Outlawe. Her guards were beaten senseless and Alice was escaped from the dungeons of Kilkenny Castle. The myth is that she fled to England where she lived to a ripe old age. Furious at being thwarted yet again, Bishop de Ledrede had Alice tried in absentia, found guilty and her property confiscated. Poor Petronella wasn’t so lucky; she was sacrificed in place of Alice, to satisfy the howling mob. She was burned as a witch on November 3, 1324, the first person in Ireland to be executed in this way. Alice’s son, William, got off rather lightly, being ordered to hear 3 masses a day for a year and to feed the poor. No one knows what happened to the others who were also accused, but chances are they were also burnt, whipped or forced to wear a cross.

Centuries later, the question still remains, was Alice Kyteler really a witch? Were proper legal procedures for the time followed? Or was it simply a case of a few envious and jealous locals who decided to get rid of an uppity woman?


Great Events from History: The Middle Ages, Salem Press, 2004
The World’s Wickedest Women – Margaret Nicholas, Octopus Books Limited, 1984
Wild Irish Women – Marian Broderick, The University of Wisconsin Press, 2004

Monday, June 20, 2011

The Historical Novel Society Conference

This weekend I had the great fortune to attend the 4th Historical Novel Society conference in North America. The Historical Novel Society has been alternating having the conference in England and North America over the past few years.  I had only just found out about the society 4 years ago when they had their Albany conference, and I couldn't attend the conference 2 years ago when it was held just outside Chicago. However, since this year SCANDALOUS WOMEN came out, and there was a nice review in the Historical Novel Review, I decided to attend.  Over the years, I've attended various RWA (Romance Writers of America) conferences which have been wonderful, but my writing has gone in a different direction over the years, so I felt it was important to attend a conference that was close to the genre that I want to write. Plus, it was nice to be amongst my people for a weekend, authors and readers who love history as much as I do, who talk about historical figures like Eleanor of Aquitaine as if they were still living.

The conference was held at the Holiday Inn by the Bay in San Diego.  This was only my second trip to San Diego, but the city is lovely and I wish that I had had more of a chance to explore the city.  Alas, my new day job means that I have limited vacation time, the downside to getting a regular paycheck.  The conference was inspiring to say the least.  Not only did I get to meet some of my favorite authors such as Michelle Moran (author of MADAME TUSSAUD) but I also discovered some great new authors (Michelle Cameron, DeAnna Cameron, Kate Quinn, Mitchell James Kaplan) who I can't wait to read.  I also finally got a chance to meet the wonderful Kris Waldherr who gave me a lovely blurb for SCANDALOUS WOMEN.  There were so many fabulous authors there that I can't name them all. However, the highlight was meeting Christy English, who I consider my sister by another mother.  We just go on like a house on fire.

I was lucky enough to be a moderator for a panel entitled "Turning History's Antagonists into Sympathetic Protagonists" on Saturday with an incredibly distinguished group of authors including C.W. Gortner (author of the CONFESSIONS OF CATHERINE DE MEDICI), Emma Campion (author of THE KING'S MISTRESS), Anne Easter Smith, and Susan Higginbotham. I have read the works of all of these wonderful authors, so it was a thrill to be in the same room with them, let alone be moderating a panel. I'm pretty sure that I was chosen to moderate this panel, because the women in SCANDALOUS WOMEN haven't been treated sympathetically by their biographers over the years.  We had a lively discussion on the panel and it was very interesting to hear the different points of view.

One of the more interesting panels was whether or not you need a Marquee Name as your main character in historical fiction.  The general consensus of the panel was that it does help if your main character is someone well known like Mary, Queen of Scots, Elizabeth I, or Anne Boleyn, but another way to get around that is to have a Marquee name as a secondary character which I have seen done successfully by Christine Trent and D.L. Bogdan, or even a marquee setting such as Tudor or Elizabethan England. This is something that I've often wondered about.  I adore Anne Boleyn, but how many stories are there left to tell about her? I met an author over the weekend who had written a book from the POV of her French executioner, there have been countless books from the POV's of her maids of honor, a confectioner at court, her sister-in-law Jane Rochford, Cromwell.  The only two people who don't seem to have a book from their POV is George Boleyn or Thomas Boleyn (now that might be interesting!).  Anne has even been written as a vampire. I'd like to also mention the Jewish Historical fiction panel that I attended which was fascinating and provocative. What I love about historical fiction is that it is so wide open in terms of subjects and settings.  There is something for everyone.

A few books were sold at the bookfair on Saturday.  Since I'm a relatively unknown author, I really didn't expect to push a lot of books, but it was great to see them in the bookstore at the conference. I feel like a real author now!  Saturday night's banquet was great fun, not only was there a fashion parade but something called "Saturday Night Sex Scenes,' the highlight being C.C. Humphreys (the author of THE FRENCH EXECUTIONER about Anne Boleyn's executioner) looking like a sexy Victorian crypt keeper along with Gillian Bagwell reading a scene from her novel THE DARLING STRUMPET wherein the Earl of Rochester teaches Nell Gwyn a particular skill.  I'll leave it to your imagination what that skill is. I wasn't quite sure whether or not to take notes, and I'm still reeling over hearing the great Diana Gabaldon do the narration. The fact that C.C. is actually English added to the whole event.

At the end of the day, I came back with at least 10 ideas for historical fiction projects.  As much as I love writing non-fiction and want to continue to do so, I started out writing fiction and there is a part of me that would like to see if I can actually write a novel that someone wants to buy! I was also very gratified that I actually stuck to my goal of working out in the gym all 3 days of the conference, although it was tempting to be a bit of a slacker.

My only quibble with the conference is that the panels were not recorded, so if you missed one, there is no opportunity to listen to it later.  I would suggest that perhaps the organizers of the next conference explore that option. From my informal survery, quite a few people would be willing to buy the audio DVD's of sessions that they missed.

Just a few quick additions to this post:  I just want to thank all the hard working volunteers and the staff at HNS, especially Sarah Johnson and Richard Scott for ensuring that the entire conference ran like butter. I have never been to such a well-organized conference before in my life.  I know it is a great deal of hard work, but the work never showed.

Also, the Holiday Inn on the Bay.  What a lovely hotel! And the food was great at the conference as well. I've had enough bad vegetarian meals at conferences to last a lifetime.  Don't even get me started on the time that they served me a barely nuked baked potato as my entree! However, the food was fresh, tasty and plentiful.  Not once did I have to go and eat at the Elephant and Castle pub because my food at the conference was inedible.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

The Princess and the Gangster - Fact or Fiction?

Princess Margaret and John Bindon photographed on Mustique

A few months ago, I watched a little British film called The Bank Job. The film is based on the 1971 robbery of Lloyd's Bank in London to steal photographs kept in a safe deposit box, and subsequently hushed up by MI5. The photographs were rumored to be of Princess Margaret in a compromising position set on a Caribbean beach with a small-time gangster and actor by the name of John Bindon although he’s not specifically named in the film. The robbery became known as the “walkie-talkie bank job” because a member of the public overheard the robbers talking on a two-way radio.

I had never heard that Princess Margaret had been involved with a gangster, so I was intrigued. However, flipping through the two biographies of Princess Margaret that I own, one by Christopher Warwick and the most recent by Tim Heald, Warwick doesn’t mention him at all and Heald dismisses the rumors. So I turned to the good old Internet to do some research. I found Bindon’s Wikipedia entry which gave me some clues; apparently there were two separate documentaries on British television that detailed the alleged relationship, as well as an article in the Daily Mail written by journalist Wendy Leigh, the author of several biographies of Prince Edward, Hugh Grant and Grace Kelly.

Here are some facts that can be confirmed: Princess Margaret was introduced to Bindon on the island of Mustique where she owned a home for many years, in the late 1960’s. Bindon was dating Vicki Hodge at the time, a baronet’s daughter turned model and actress. Bindon later claimed that not only did he and the Princess have a brief affair but they had also done drugs together. The princess later publicly denied meeting Bindon, until photos surfaced that showed otherwise. She then claimed that while she might have had a nodding acquaintance with him, the rumors that they had any kind of sexual relationship were absurd. Despite the palace denials, Bindon’s ex-girlfriend Vicki Hodge believes that the story is true. “John told me that he had sex with Princess Margaret the first time that he went to Mustique (that would have been in 1968 according to Wikipedia), Hodge told The Daily Mail. “He always told me about his affairs, but he refused to go into details. In those days in Mustique, everyone thought nothing of making love on the beach. It could well have been that Margaret and John’s one dangerous moment was on the beach and that someone could have snatched a photo.”

So who exactly is this John Bindon guy? Well, John “Biffo” Bindon was born in 1943 in Fulham, London. The second of three children, Bindon had dropped out of school by the age of 15. He was soon given the nickname of “Biffo” for starting or getting into fights. By the time he was out of his teens, he had already done a stint in prison for possessing live ammunition. After a series of odd jobs, Bindon decided that acting was his true calling. Director Ken Loach spotted him in a pub and cast him in a film called Poor Cow, but his next big break was playing a gangster in a film starring Mick Jagger where he played a violent gangster, typecasting him from then on.

Bindon was suspected of running a protection racket in west London, and that he had ties to the Richardson Gang and to the Kray twins. Nobody apparently knows the extent of his involvement in the London underworld. He was also known for something else; apparently he was so well-endowed that one could hang five beer mugs off the end of it. Again, according to Vicki Hodge, one afternoon in Mustique while the butler was serving lobster and champagne, Princess Margaret while sipping her usual gin and tonic was asked by her friend Lord Glenconner if she wanted to see it. She said yes, and examined it ‘rather like a fossil.’

Princess Margaret’s enduring love affair with Mustique began in 1960 when her good friend Colin Tennant gifted her with ten acres of land as a wedding gift. She had a house built and called it “Les Jolies Eaux,” meaning the beautiful waters. It became her favorite escape from London and royal life over the years. By the time she allegedly met John Bindon, her marriage to Lord Snowdon was already in trouble, and they would separate for good in 1978. Mustique was also the scene of some wild parties that became the stuff of legend. According to the Daily Mail, Princess Margaret’s lover, landscape gardener Roddy Llewellyn, Colin Tennant, and Nicholas Courtney all stripped naked and were photographed by Margaret (oh yeah, that’s totally wild).

While it makes for a scandalous story, I have a hard time believing it. Although Princess Margaret was known as the Party Princess, there were still boundaries that weren't crossed.  Before her marriage to Lord Snowdon, she loved to go out to nightclubs every night, dressed to the nines, drinking and dancing until the wee hours.  She loved nothing more than singing around the piano or playing charades.  During the sixties, she and Lord Snowdon spent a great deal of time with a more glittering showbiz crowd, no the usual sort of people that royalty hung around with. While Princess Margaret allegedly had affairs with Peter Sellars and Warren Beatty, they at least had good looks and talent to recommend them. A thug like John Bindon might have been a curiosity to someone like Princess Margaret but I have a feeling that she would draw the line if he tried to take liberties. While she loved to laugh and flirt, Princess Margaret was always aware that she was the Queen’s sister, and never let people forget it. She might have enjoyed his off-color jokes but Bindon was not her type. Even Roddy Llewellyn, her much younger lover, was the son of a baronet. Bindon later claimed that MI-5 warned him off.

While Bindon had a credible career as an actor, he also had a vicious temper. While working security for Led Zeppelin, he got into a number of fights with crew members, journalists, and bouncers. He developed an addition to cocaine and heroin. Later he was arrested for stabbing to death gangster, Johnny Darke, at a London pub but he was acquitted. He later died of AIDS (although some claim it was liver cancer) in 1993, at the age of 50.

Despite the lack of evidence, the rumors still persist. At least two programmes have been shown in Britain that suggest that Princess Margaret and John Bindon were once lovers, including The Secret Life of Princess Margaret (ITV 2005) and The Princess and the Gangster (Channel 4, 2009).

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Don't Mess with Messalina!

Messalina holding her son Britannicus, Louvre

The Roman Empire may have produced some of the most cruelly ambitious women in history. But one name stands out above all the rest. Her name is Messalina. Anyone who has seen the 1970’s miniseries I CLAUDIUS based on the Robert Graves novel has just an inkling of the crimes that have been attached to her name over the centuries. According to historians, by the time of her death, she had gleefully dispatched her enemies with ruthless zeal, taken a host of lovers, and turned the Emperor into the biggest cuckold in Rome. But was she really as bad as historians have made her out to be? Or is this just another case of men being afraid of powerful women?

Born Valeria Messalina, she was the first born and second child of Domitia Lepida the Younger and Marcus Valerius Messalla Barbatus. Both her grandmothers had been not only half-sisters, but also nieces of Augustus Caesar. As a tender teenager, she became the fourth wife of much older cousin Tiberius Claudius Caesar, who was 35 years her senior. Imagine being a teenage girl and being married off to the least attractive member of the Imperial family. A man considered nothing more than a dull-witted cripple, no trace of his illustrious grandfather Marc Antony in sight. Even his mother Antonia called him a ‘monster of a man.’ Claudius must have thought he’d died and gone to heaven, apparently it was love at first sight for him. Robert Graves describes Messalina in his novel I CLAUDIUS thus, “Messalina was an extremely beautiful girl, slim and quick moving, with eyes as black as jet and masses of curly black hair. She hardly spoke a word and had a mysterious smile which drove me nearly crazy with love for her.” No wonder she was able to get away with murder literally!

The couple was married in A.D. 38; a daughter named Octavia arrived the following year. Two years later, Messalina gifted her husband with a son and heir named Brittanicus. During Caligula’s reign, Messalina was a regular at his court. She would have seen at first hand the cruelty and behind the scenes plotting that occurred during his reign. It was a far cry from the family values that were espoused during the reign of Augustus Caesar. On January 24, AD 41, Messalina’s life changed for good, when Caligula and his family were murdered by conspirators, and Claudius was proclaimed Emperor by the Praetorian Guard, who apparently found him hiding behind an arras in fear of his life. Messalina was now the most powerful woman at court. She soon proved herself a worthy successor to her bloodthirsty ancestors, showing that she had no scruples when it came to securing her own ambitions.

Her first order of business was to rid herself of Caligula’s sisters Agrippina the Younger (who would later marry Claudius after Messalina’s death) and Julia Livilla. They had been sent into exile by Tiberius after Caligula had abused and raped them. Now Claudius had brought them back to court, restored their estates and titles, and lavished attention on them. Messalina set her sights in particular on Julia Livilla who appeared to a rival for her husband’s affection. Not content with sending her back into exile on a trumped up charge of adultery, she also had her killed. Julia’s sister, Agrippina, seeing her sister’s fate, was on her guard lest she go the same way.

After her success in getting rid of Julia Levilla, she set her sights on her step-father, Appius Silenus, who had close ties to the throne. She had also apparently developed a tendre for him which wasn’t reciprocated. Uh oh! So she allied herself with Narcissus, Claudius’s secretary. Narcissus accused Silenus of wanting to kill the Emperor. Messalina backed him up by claiming that she had seen it all in a dream. Silenus was promptly arrested and executed. When she wanted the Gardens of Lucullus, which were owned by Valerius Asiaticus, and he wouldn’t give them up, he paid with his life.

While Claudius was away in Britain, rumor had it that Messalina challenged Rome’s top prostitute to see who could sleep with the most men in one night. Needless to say Messalina came out on top with a total of 25 lovers. Roman historians also claim that Messalina used sex as a weapon (duh!) to control politicians, and that she had a brothel under an assumed name, where she forced upper class women to work as prostitutes, and then blackmailed them. There appears to be more truth to the stories that Messalina lined her toga by selling building contracts, citizenship and high office to Roman and foreign nobles.

According to the Satire VI by Juvenal, Messalina worked in a brothel under the assumed name Lycisca, or 'The Wolf-Girl'. Etching by Agostino Carracci, late 16th century.

Then there was her affair with the dancer Mnester, who came from peasant stock, but who had worked hard until he became like the Gene Kelly of the Roman Empire. Messalina was his biggest fan, she had statues erected, and hired poets to write odes to his hotness. But Mnester spurned her advances because he feared what would happen if Claudius found out. But Messalina had a trick up her sleeve, she told her husband that Mnester had refused to follow her orders (she didn’t tell him what those orders were of course). She convinced Claudius to inform everyone to treat her wishes with the utmost respect. Claudius told Mnester to precisely what Messalina wished. Neat trick huh?

Today, Messalina is remembered as the most depraved and murderous nymphomaniac in antiquity. She didn’t have the slightest hesitation in killing anyone who got on her bad side. Part of it was no doubt self-preservation. Claudius was much older, and often ill. If he died while her children were young, her future was bleak unless she could get rid of any rivals to the throne first. If Messalina had hidden her ambitions and her depravity under the guise of a proper Roman matron the way Livia had done, one has to wonder if she would have been so reviled. By the time she was done, more than 35 senators and more than 300 others were executed during Claudius’s reign, most at her instigation.

Contrary to the belief at the time that Claudius was clueless to his wife’s actions, he probably turned a blind eye since they were getting rid of his political enemies, and he could later deny, deny, deny that he knew anything about her actions. Messalina, however, drunk on her own power began to go too far. She began to believe that as the Emperor’s wife and the mother of his children, she was immune. It was only a matter of time before she went too far. She fell hard for an attractive Roman senator by the name of Caius Silius, considered the handsomest man in Rom, who was already married to the sister of Caligula’s first wife. Recklessly, she did nothing to hide her affair with Caius Silius; she showered him with honors up the wazoo. She even went further and married the guy, convincing him that Claudius was weak and that once they were married, they could get rid of him and Messalina would make him the new emperor. Caius Silius was popular with not only the Praetorian Guard but also the people.

The happy couple waited until Claudius was on an official visit to Ostia, performing a sacrifice to the Gods. Once he was out of sight, she threw a huge public wedding with a huge banquet afterwards to celebrate.

But Messalina’s luck had run out. Pallus, Claudius’ most favored servant had thrown his lot in with Agrippina the Younger as well as Messalina’s former ally Narcissus. The unholy trio made it their duty to fill Claudius in on his wife’s activities, warning Claudius of Messalina and Silius’ plot to kill him. Messalina tried to save herself, traveling all the way to Ostia with their children, to convince Claudius it was all a lie. Narcissus, however, prevented Messalina from seeing the Emperor. Claudius had no choice but to order not just the deaths of Messalina and Silius but also all the wedding guests. Messalina’s behavior was dragging him down. The Romans, the Emperor was considered semi-divine, and although Claudius had performed his duties with intelligence, Messalina was making him look like a foolish old man.

She was with her mother in her favorite spot, the Gardens of Lucullus, putting together a petition to Claudius when they came for her. In her final hours, she was offered the choice of suicide, but after botching the job, an officer decapitated her instead. When Messalina’s death was announced to Claudius at dinner, he showed no emotion, but asked for more wine. The Roman Senate ordered her name removed from all public or private spaces and her statues destroyed. A year later, Claudius married again, this time to his niece Agrippina the Younger, mother of Nero.


The Most Evil Women in History - Shelley Klein, Metro Books, 2003
Caesars' Wives: Sex, Power, and Politics in the Roman Empire: Annelise Freisenbruch, Free Press, 2010

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Scandalous Book of the Month: The Churchills in Love and War

Author:  Mary S. Lovell
Hardcover: 624 pages
Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; 1St Edition edition
Pub Date:  May 9, 2011

DescriptionOf all Britain’s great families perhaps none has been so overshadowed by the force of one member’s personality as the Churchills. And yet in this vivid and brilliant tale of the dynasty – of which Gladstone remarked, ‘There never was a Churchill from John of Marlborough down who had either morals or principles’– theirs turns out to be a narrative of epic breadth and drama.

From the First Duke of Marlborough – soldier of genius, restless empire-builder and cuckolder of Charles II – onwards, the Churchills have been politicians, gamblers and profligates, heroes and womanisers. The family continued to flourish in the nineteenth and twentieth-century, achieving power and influence in both Britain and America, helped by marriages to the ravishing and wealthy New York society beauties Jennie Jerome and Consuelo Vanderbilt. Mary S Lovell tells a gripping story of momentous times that include the death of Queen Victoria, two world wars, the Wall St Crash and Great Depression, Women’s Emancipation, and beyond. She charts triumphant political and military campaigns; the construction of great houses; quiet, domestic tragedies; disastrous marriages – ending in venereal disease, guns by the bedside and papal annulment – including those of Winston’s children; and profoundly happy ones such as his own to Clementine Hozier.

The Churchills is a richly layered portrait of an extraordinary set of men and women – grandly ambitious, regularly impecunious, impulsive, arrogant and brave. And towering above the Churchill clan is the figure of Winston - his failures and his triumphs shown in a new and revealing context - but ultimately our ‘greatest Briton’ .

I had the chance to hear Mary S. Lovell speak two weeks ago in New York at Scandinavia House thanks to the Royal Oak Foundation.  Long an admirer of her biographies, it was wonderful to hear her talk about a book that she has such passion for.  She took us through a quick tour of the Churchills focusing mainly (as does the book) on Randolph, Winston and his descendents. Afterwards, I was lucky enough to have her sign a copy of the book. I also got to tell her how much I've enjoyed her books on Amelia Earhart, Jane Digby and The Mitfords, all of which I have used in my research. Afterwards at the reception, I had a lovely chat with a friend of hers, who mentioned that Lovell's book on WWII spy Betty Pack had never been published in the UK.  Apparently because of classified information about the spy.

The book is huge, over 600 pages, so I've been taking short dips between the pages. It's a hard book to put down, particularly the sections on the family patriarch, John Churchill, the 1st Duke of Marlborough. I've been to Blenheim Palace, the seat of the Marlboroughs, and also to the Cabinet War Rooms, but I still haven't been to Chartwell, which is on my list of things to do the next time, I'm in England.

For lovers of English history, I can't highly recommend this book enough.