Elizabeth I: A tale of betrayal and deception

Continuing the Treason theme pursued by the archives for the past year, Tracy Borman tonight gave a presentation about how the life of Good Queen Bess was shaped by the ever-present threat of insurrection against the crown.

The Tudors are among England’s (and perhaps the world’s) most celebrated dynasties, often associated with ideas of absolutism and supreme power, but in reality they were always fundamentally insecure on the throne. Henry VII’s descent from John of Gaunt and his mistress made a weak claim to the throne, and anyone outright seizing it by force would forever suffer the taint of usurpation. Henry played on the idea of treason right from the start – legally backdating his reign to the day before Bosworth so that Richard III’s supporters would be the traitors.

Henry VIII would take the concept further, regularly hurling treason charges at his ministers, blood relatives and even wives once they had fallen out of his favour. An example highlighted was the treatment of Anne Boleyn and Henry Norris – accusing them of adultery was not enough, it was also alleged based on an offhand joke that he was plotting to assassinate the king. The real motivation, of course, was that Anne had failed to birth a living son and thus Henry needed rid of her. That she would be beheaded was a foregone conclusion before the start of the trial. This is posited as one reason her daughter Elizabeth avoided conjugal attachments.

Another came after Henry’s death when her stepmother Katharine Parr swiftly remarried to Thomas, Lord Seymour of Sudeley. He is rumoured to have behaved inappropriately toward Elizabeth, even plotting to marry her (without Edward VI’s permission) after Katharine’s death. He too was executed as a traitor following an incident where he shot one of the king’s dogs and broke into the royal bedchamber.

During the unpopular reign of Mary I & Philip of Spain, Elizabeth was used involuntarily as the figure head for Sir Thomas Wyatt’s rebel movement. Mary imprisoned her sister for a time and only narrowly avoided killing her. Lady Jane Grey was not so lucky.

Once Elizabeth had actually ascended the throne, another Queen Mary proved similarly dangerous. Deposed in Scotland, Mary Stuart still possessed the strongest claim to the English throne. She sought Elizabeth’s mercy but instead became her prisoner. Her very presence made her a focal point for revolutionary intentions by English Catholics, made worse when Pious V actually issued a Papal Bull encouraging them to rise up. This led to the Treason Act 1571, which expanded the offence to include intent of harm against the monarch. Elizabeth ultimately executed Mary, but had to put on a show of reluctance about it, scapegoating her ministers to distance herself from regicide.

In the question period that followed, Borman rejected the theory that Henry VIII had been nice until his 1536 jousting accident. She said that he had always been paranoid and vicious. She also said that Cromwell and Wolsey were the only deaths for which Henry demonstrated any remorse.

Asked about Elizabeth, she said there were hints by a midwife about a lovechild with Seymour, but no evidence of substance. The Queen had to be subtle in her attempts to rehabilitate her mother’s legacy, for Anne was still hated by most of the English populace. Borman cited Miranda Richardson in Blackadder II as her favourite onscreen portrayal.

An Evening with Philippa Gregory

I have virtually visited the National Archives many times to hear talks from authors of historical fact. This time I got to see an author of historical fiction.

Shikha Sharma, the Events Manager, introduced the talk as part of the “What’s Online?” series. The interview was primarily centred on Dawnlands, part of the Fairmile series taking place in England in the seventeenth century, but there were questions and observations about Gregory’s other works as well.

Gregory said that a lot of people think they don’t know the Stuarts very well, and that it is much easier to convince publishers to print books about the Tudors. It was the notion of a family story developing into global affairs that got them interested.

Sharma reminded us that the talk was part of the Treason exhibition. The accusation of treason was the state’s supreme weapon to suppress rebellion and scrub out subversive ideas. She asked about the character of Ned Ferryman, who sticks to his personal ideals throughout but is considered a traitor by the law. Gregory said Ned was an old Cromwellian soldier who thought he was fighting for a new world of liberty. None of them could have predicted the restoration of the king so soon. Most of Cromwell’s soldiers were pardoned by Charles II, but those who had been directly involved in his father’s execution were pursued across the world. Ned is contrasted with Lyvia, who joins a long line of ambitious, manipulative women (nearly always Catholic and Italian), ingratiating herself at court, with occasional warm feelings never prioritised. Gregory said it was always helpful to have someone who can observe important historical events.

Sharma asked why it was important to tell these stories, and how the research is done. Gregory said that the life stories of lower-class women were not often recorded except as character assassinations when they stepped out of line, official records often differing sharply from personal accounts. Around 1660-80 there was a prominent increase in the number of women writing and publishing. The range of subjects on which books can be written was widened by the English Marxist historians of the 1950s. Each character presents a different research problem – she could find only two biographies about Mary of Modena, both very old and out of print. The working-class characters are usually composites from historical records rather than directly based on specific individuals. Her favourite character is always the one she’s just finished working on. Gregory covers her study with maps and drawings relevant to the book she’s writing, meaning she redecorates for each new book. She doesn’t want to delay the creative process for research – typically each new book takes 18-24 months in all, though by now she has a large stockpile of research from all the books she’s done before. We are separated from the Stuarts by generations of Whig historians, but you can often find hidden treasures in local museums.

Sharma noted that the books were prone to “painterly” descriptions, and asked if that was deliberate. Gregory said that if you pick up any historical fiction you know the author’s narrative voice. One’s idea of historical Venice is heavily mediated by Canaletto, as is London by Gustave Doré.

On the topic of historical accuracy and the grand sweep of her plots, she said that she doesn’t plan much for the series – it’s dictated by the real history but she has to decide as she goes along how her characters fit into it. Most family lineages start as peasants in the mud, much as they’d like to be aristocrats. If somebody points out an error in a book she corrects it in the next edition. She claims this has only happened 3-4 times in over thirty publications.

Sharma often asked questions from the audience but she did not name the members and often merged several similar questions together. I asked how close to the present day Gregory would consider setting her books. She said she had originally considered taking the Fairmile series as late as 1920, where British society was plagued by a fear of moral decay after the First World War and a sense that the prosperity of empire had reached its limits. Her plan had been to write two books per century, but she now finds herself writing four or five which may require the breadth of her series to be reduced.

The obvious question to ask of these kinds of authors is when they would go if they could travel through time. Gregory said she was less interested in specific eras than in solving historical mysteries, such as the Princes in the Tower or Amy Robsart.

Sharma asked specifically about the baby in the warming pan. Gregory said we know what happened in the birthing chamber because James VII was forced to hold a public inquiry. Princesses Mary and Anne both claimed to believe the story in order to justify the later coup, but the books written now cannot present it as fact.

 

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Today’s virtual event was by the Foundation for Integrated Transport, and its content is adequately explained by the title.

“Car dependency” is a term used in the urban planning community to mean the inability of a resident (or visitor) to move around a settlement without the use of a personal motorcar. It is often cited as a defining (and damning) feature of suburban environments, particularly in the United States following the Second World War. As their name implies, urban planners (and urbanists more generally), tend to focus their attention on cities and dense conurbations, with comparisons made to the suburbs. Smaller towns and rural environments are often overlooked, hence the theme of today’s seminar.

Though interested in the premise, I was a little disappointed by the format – although the participants spoke to each other over Zoom, the guest attendees were made to watch it through YouTube, so other than the chatbox (only available to those who had YouTube accounts) there was no meaningful interaction with the hosts.

Stories in Scotland’s Skies by Philip Tibbets

Today’s virtual lecture took me back to the Heraldry Society of Scotland, where our speaker – the Lyon Court’s vexillologist – gave a fascinating talk about the history of flag culture in Scotland, and the process by which flags – heraldic or otherwise – come to be invented.

At least I think that was what happened. Unfortunately I cannot say for certain due to glaring technical problems. We virtual attendees did not actually see the inside of the venue, for the visual feed was only of the slideshow (and even that did not seem to be aligned properly with the speech), but we guessed that the microphone was positioned a great distance away from Mr Tibbetts’s mouth and much closer to an audience member with a recurrent cough. As a result only about half of the speaker’s syllables could be heard, which rendered most sentences unintelligible. Edward Mallinson made several attempts to resolve the sound problem but it made no difference. He even turned on the automated subtitles, but those are notoriously poor even when the sound is good. Before even thirty minutes into the planned ninety-minute event I and a few other Zoom-watchers had given up and logged out.

It was, to say the least, a grave disappointment.

Lyon Lectures

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A downside of the fading of the pandemic and return to normalcy is that a lot of the institutions which had taken to putting on virtual meetings have now reverted to doing them in person only. Since these events are in many different locations around the world, far away from each other and from me, my ability to attend is severely limited.

One particular frustration has been been the Lyon Court, which for the last few months has been commemorating the 350th anniversary of the Lyon Register. Many times I have seen these lectures advertised on EventBrite, but I have not been able to go to them.

Now, belatedly, there is happy news, for the Lyon Court’s formerly-sparse YouTube channel has in the past fortnight seen a flurry of uploads from this lecture series. It is a little disappointing to have to catch up months later instead of taking part live, but getting to see them at all is still a great improvement compared to what would have been expected three years ago.

Developments in England have been less encouraging – there has been no newsletter from the College of Arms for this July. Upon inquiry, Portcullis told me that they hope to publish one later in the year. The heraldic decisions of Amess, Amos, Blair and Hoyle remain elusive.

The ‘Brexit Freedoms’ Bill and Retained EU Law

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This was another session with the Constitution Unit of University College London.

The topic of “skeleton bills” and “Henry VIII powers”, which have been highlighted a lot in recent political blogs and podcasts, was also prominent here. Although this problem is said to be particularly bad in the post-referendum era, it has been in the making for many decades. I asked the panel (at 1 hour and 35 seconds in):

“If the trend towards skeleton bills and secondary legislation gas been noticed for many decades, does this indicate a problem with the permanent government rather than the politicians?”

It was put to the panel simultaneously with two other questions. I will try my best to disentangle the answers.

Doctor Tom West said: Absolutely this is a long-running trend. The Legislative and Regulatory Reform Act 2006 had very wide powers and people called it the “Abolition of Parliament” Bill. There are all sorts of examples of this being an issue, such as the financial crisis of 2008. Ministers, once they’re no longer in power, will come clean that there is an issue – Theresa May mentioned it at an IfG lecture last week. It’s very difficult while you’re in power to give up these very convenient ways of making law through secondary legislation. Brexit and COVID have raised the profile of this problem, but it is not exclusive to them. That’s what our Delegated Legislation Review Programme is looking at – we think there’s a need for a reset of the whole system of what these powers can be used for in the first place and how they can be scrutinised. We are in the middle of developing proposals.

Ruth Chambers said: This trend towards framework bills has been going on a long time. I’ve worked on environmental legislation for over twenty years. Just to give one practical example – it used to be that when governments would state consultation requirements on the face of the bill they would be quite explicit about which sorts of people and groups the minister should consult before taking powers forward. Now the more standard construction says the ministers can consult whoever they think they need to. Obviously that has consequences – bills often lack the future-proofing edge. It doesn’t matter how many times you have that conversation with ministers while they’re passing legislation, it doesn’t quite register that at some point in the future someone else will be wielding those powers. It also has huge implications for the public – the public businesses and civil society organisations really need to stay the course and engage with the secondary legislation not just the bill.

A Blackmailer at Frogmore

Today’s virtual outing was with the National Archives again. James Travers, Cultural Property Manager, was promoting his new book on the “ghost” of Caroline of Brunswick, Queen of George IV.

The centrepiece of the book, and the lecture, was Thomas Ashe, whom the injured consort had commissioned to write her memoirs. His book The Claustral Palace was suppressed from publication, for it would have revealed the intimate life stories of her sisters-in-law who were confined at Frogmore House.

How much of the novel was true is unclear, but it put Ashe in conflict with the government as well as George IV’s brother the Duke of Cumberland (later Ernest Augustus I of Hanover).

Travers’s lecture was quite convoluted in its story, which combined with his soft way of speaking and some technical glitches at my end meant it wasn’t always easy to follow the plot, so reading the book itself is probably necessary to get a full understanding.

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Today’s virtual lecture was by the York Festival of Ideas, starring Eleanor Parker.

I asked her at what point in English history the Saxons and Normans were no longer considered different races/nations. She replied that the Normans quickly came to call themselves English, but that twelfth century sources still indicate a cultural and linguistic split, with non-Francophones held back in life.

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