The White Princess: Playing Pretend(er)  

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The main plot of the first season of Starz’ The White Princess (based on the novel by Philippa Gregory) is the two military challenges to the rule of Henry VII (Jacob Collins-Levy). The show is generally not very interested in the things that are actually important about Henry’s reign, such as his efforts to re-establish the monarchy as dominant over the nobility or his administrative efforts (which, let’s be honest, would probably be a rough sell in a tv series), so it milks far more drama out of two comparatively small incidents than they really deserve.

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Lambert Simnel

Henry VII was a political upstart with a rather weak claim to the throne who found an opening in the weak political position of Richard III. Both the Yorkists and the Lancastrians had stronger claims to the throne, but the Lancastrian line was extinguished and Henry had succeeded in co-opting the Yorkist claim by marrying the oldest daughter of Edward IV, a woman who arguable had a better claim than her husband did. This weakness left him vulnerable to challengers who could tap into the Yorkist claim somehow.

Not long after Henry became king, he moved against the most obvious challenger to his claim, his wife’s cousin Edward Plantagenet, the Earl of Warwick, a ten-year old boy. Warwick was the only surviving son of Duke George of Clarence, the middle brother between Edward IV and Richard III. George had been arrested in 1477 on charges of treason against Edward. Edward leaned on Parliament to pass an Act of Attainder declaring George a traitor, so he was executed in 1478. The Act of Attainder meant that Warwick could not inherit the throne through his father’s line, but despite that Richard III may possibly had declared Warwick his heir after the death of Richard’s only son.

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Henry VII

Warwick had a strong claim—if Richard was an illegitimate usurper as Henry insisted, after the death of Edward IV’s two sons, the Yorkist claims passed to Warwick. The Act of Attainder severed that transmission of the claim, but the Act could have been reversed by Parliament if Henry had been unseated, so Warwick was an obvious focus on opposition to Henry. So Henry did the smart thing and threw the kid into the Tower of London, where he lived most of the rest of his unfortunate life.

However, because Warwick was a young boy out of sight, it was easy for a rumor to spread that he had escaped from the Tower and was trying to unseat Henry. And that’s what happened in 1487. A university-educated priest, Richard Simon or Symonds, decided to put forward a young boy named Lambert Simnel as being Warwick (although he initially claimed that Simnel was Richard of York, Edward IV’s vanished younger son). Simnel was the son of a baker or organ-maker and had no connection with nobility whatsoever. His exact motives for this are unknown, but it was probably a combination of Yorkist sympathies and the ambition to position himself as tutor to the king. Symonds managed to win the support of John de la Pole, the Earl of Lincoln, the nephew of Edward IV and Richard III by their sister Elizabeth. It’s not clear whether Lincoln genuinely believed that Simnel was his cousin Warwick or whether he figured that Warwick’s was more likely to rally support than his own. Lincoln was able to raise a force of about 2000 Dutch mercenaries by getting support from his cousin Margaret of Burgundy, who hated Henry.

Then he sailed with Simnel to Ireland, raised some Irish troops, and landed in northern England, hoping to seize control of York. But York remained loyal to Henry, perhaps because people disliked the idea of using the Dutch and Irish as kingmakers, but also perhaps because Henry had done the smart thing and brought the real Warwick out of imprisonment to prove he wasn’t wandering around northern England. Rebuffed at York, Lincoln headed south and encountered Henry’s larger and better equipped forces at the Battle of Stoke. Trapped against the river Trent, Lincoln and his forces were wiped out.

Stoke is frequently referred to as the last battle in the Wars of the Roses, because it marked the last time the English nobility had a chance (albeit a rather poor one) to assert control of the kingdom by deposing the king in favor of a rival claimant. Henry treated Simnel with great clemency, giving him a position in the royal kitchens and later making him the king’s falconer.

Henry forced his mother-in-law, the Dowager Queen Elizabeth Woodville, into a genteel retirement at Bermondsey Abbey on the southeast edge of London right about this point, causing some to suspect that she had supported the revolt in some way. Her holdings were transferred to her daughter’s control, effectively eliminating her ability to do anything more than cheer from the sidelines.

 

Perkin Warbeck

Three years later, in 1490, another pretender arose, one who became known to history as Perkin Warbeck (or Osbeck). Most of what we know about Warbeck comes from a confession he signed after his capture, which means that its contents are suspect. But Warbeck appears to have been the son of John Warbecque, the comptroller of the Flemish city of Courtrai. When he was 17 he was hired by a merchant who took him to Cork in Ireland, where the local population, staunchly Yorkist, declared that he must be either the still-imprisoned Earl of Warwick or the still-missing Richard of York, younger son of Edward IV. Whether that’s actually where Warbeck got the idea for his imposture or not is impossible to say.

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A drawing of Perkin Warbeck

He traveled to the Burgundian court, where Margaret of Burgundy supported his claims. Margaret gave him money and helped him get support from the Holy Roman Emperor Maximillian I. They helped keep his cause alive for more than half a decade, making him a thorn in Henry’s side.

In 1491, Warbeck tried to raise a rebellion in Ireland, but failed. In 1495, Henry received intelligence about a small group of nobles who supported Warbeck’s claims, chief among them Sir William Stanley. Stanley was the Lord Chamberlain and thus a key figure in the government. He was also the brother of Henry’s step-father Thomas Stanley and a man who had helped him win at Bosworth Field. The conspirators (although it doesn’t seem to have been a highly-organized plot) were generally executed.

Soon after the ‘conspiracy’ was revealed, Warbeck landed a small force at Deal, in Kent, but local forces repulsed him, forcing him to withdraw. So he sailed to Ireland and tried to seize control of Waterford, but was again repulsed. So he sailed to Scotland, where James IV realized he would be a useful weapon against Henry. James pretended to believe Warbeck’s claims and married him off to a distant cousin of his, Cathy Gordon

A year later, in 1496, James made a desultory invasion into northern England, using Warbeck’s cause as the excuse. He had hoped the Northumbrians might have rallied to Warbeck’s banner, but they didn’t, and when an English army approached, James retreated back to Scotland. A year later, James decided to be rid of Warbeck and gave him a ship that dropped the pretender in Ireland. Warbeck sailed to Cornwall, where the Cornish had recently rebelled because Henry had withdrawn a centuries-old tax exemption from them. Warbeck was able to raise a force of around 6,000 men, but when an English army approached, he panicked and fled to Beaulieu Abbey, where he and his wife surrendered.

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Margaret of Burgundy

Henry initially treated Warbeck with the same leniency he had treated Simnel. He made a full confession of his imposture and lived as a guest of the king. His wife became one of the queen’s ladies-in-waiting and served faithfully for about two decades before being allowed to get married again. But early in 1499, Warbeck fled court, only to be quickly recaptured. This time Henry sent him to the Tower. In August of that year, Warbeck and Warwick somehow escaped from the Tower and sought to raise the cause of the White Rose again. But Warbeck was once again captured and both he and the unfortunate Warwick were executed.

 

 

The Rebellions in the Show

The series does a reasonable job with the Lambert Simnel’s rebellion. The only major thing it gets wrong is that it presents Margaret of Burgundy (Joanne Whalley) as masterminding the rebellion. She is shown looking over several candidates to pretend to be Warwick and settling on Simnel (Max True) and orchestrating his rebellion. In reality, Richard Simons chose him. Margaret supported him, but it is just as likely that she believed Simnel’s claims to be Warwick as that she knew he was an imposter.

But beyond that, the show does a reasonable job of setting up Henry’s decision to imprison the real Warwick (who is presented as so simple-minded that as a ten-year old boy he cannot understand why people calling for “King Warwick” might be a bad idea). Margaret Beaufort (Michelle Fairley) is shown maliciously scheming to have people call out for “King Warwick” entirely so she can have Henry throw the kid in the Tower. There is absolutely zero evidence for this.

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True as Lambert

But when it gets to Perkin Warbeck’s rebellion, the train goes badly off the rails. To start with, the show (and The White Queen before it) makes it very clear that Perkin Warbeck actually is Richard of York. Early in the first episode, after Henry has defeated Richard III at Bosworth field, Henry’s men show up to Elizabeth Woodville’s residence to take the queen and her children into custody. Elizabeth (Essie Davis) gives her young Richard instructions to hide in the attic and then flee the country. At this point she has already nicknamed him ‘Perkin’.

This is absurd for several reasons. First, Richard of York had already been taken into Richard’s custody almost three years early. When he husband Edward died, Elizabeth had sought sanctuary with Richard at Westminster Abbey, but was persuaded to hand her younger son over to Richard of Gloucester. Within a year, Richard, like his older brother, had already disappeared from sight and was probably a rotting corpse somewhere. In The White QueenElizabeth passes off a young male servant as Richard and had her son smuggled out of England. So the show is just being counter-factual.

Second, it appears that Elizabeth’s entire household is taken into custody. So how did a 10 year-old boy who knows pretty much nothing about the world escape to the Continent with neither help nor resources? The show just hand-waves this issue and hopes you won’t notice.

Third, ‘Perkin’ roughly means ‘Pierre’s kin’ or a bit more loosely, “Peterson”. Why the hell would Elizabeth give her son Richard that as a nickname. ‘Dick’ or ‘Dickon’ would have been far more likely. Even if we grant this improbability, how would Henry VII’s people have gotten this right a decade later when they decided to fabricate a name and biography for him?

Eventually, however, the adult Richard (Patrick Gibson) shows up at the Burgundian court, where he immediately wins the support of Margaret of Burgundy. It’s not entirely clear whether she believes him to actually be the missing prince or not, but damn near everyone else who meets him is quickly persuaded he’s the real thing. He manages to convince Margaret Plantagenet (Rebecca Benson) who flatly says she never met Richard but still comes away won over by his knowledge of details of the court. Elizabeth of York (Jodie Comer) comes to believe it. Even his mother becomes magically convinced that her son has returned, despite not seeing him or having any way to know the truth. Basically, the show absolutely stacks the facts in favor of Warbeck’s claim. It ignores, for example, that historians have been able to confirm many of the facts of his statement admitting his true identity. The show doesn’t want there to be any ambiguity at all about this.

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Gibson as Richard/Perkin

The show also emphasizes that all the royalty in Europe believe his claims except Ferdinand and Isabella. He meets the Holy Roman Emperor! He marries a close relative of James of Scotland! In fact, there’s very little evidence to suggest that most rulers accepted the claims. Instead they threw a few minor resources at him in hopes that if his improbable rebellion succeeded, he would feel obligated to them. Yes, James IV married him to a cousin, but Cathy Gordon was a third cousin (they shared a great-grandfather). The fact that James gave him a distant relative rather than someone closer is actually pretty good evidence that James didn’tbelieve him.

The adult Perkin is depicted as almost saintly, forgiving everyone who refuses to accept his claims, nobly enduring imprisonment, and rejecting a plan to enable him to escape. He is so convinced of the rightness of his claim that he’s incapable of recognizing that his cause is completely lost. Cathy (Amy Manson) is depicted as being completely devoted to him, which seems implausible, given that she served loyally as Elizabeth’s lady-in-waiting and seems to have reverted quickly to a version of her maiden name (although since this evidence of this comes from English court records, it may not reflect her personal choice). In the show, the couple have a baby. In fact, she doesn’t seem to have had any children at all by any of her four husbands.

Henry VII (Jacob Collins-Levy) is depicted as being driven almost to insanity by Richard’s purity and refusal to admit the truth. He chews the scenery fiercely as a demonstration of his inability to admit he’s not the rightful king. In reality, Warbeck was little more than a thorn in Henry’s side who enjoyed little support and was at best a minor problem for him. Had Henry actually been upset about Warbeck, he would have simply executed the man, whereas in reality he treated the pretender with mercy and gave him a job.

So, essentially, almost everything the show offers us about Perkin Warbeck is fiction, even more so than usual for the show.

 

Want to Know More?

The White Princess  is available on Amazon, as is the novel it’s based on. But if you’re looking for something historically reliable about Henry and Elizabeth, skip Philippa Gregory. For Henry VII, take a look at Sean Cunningham’s Henry VII or Thomas Penn’s Winter King: Henry VII and the Dawn of Tudor England.

The White Princess: Whackadoodle-doo!

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 The 2017 Starz series The White Princess(based on the Philippa Gregory novels of the same name) is a sequel to The White Queen series, although not completely. None of the earlier series cast returns (with the exception of one supporting character), and a key detail of TheWhite Princess is incompatible with the first series.

The show also feels cheaper than its predecessor. Instead of finding appropriate period locations for domestic scenes, in the earlier episodes they filmed a lot of scenes in churches and just tried to cover up problematic details like tombs behind large banners on free-standing mounts. Henry wears a lot of black leatherette pants and one of his cloaks is just a big sheet of leather with clasps helped on with fibulae. It must be a great cloak, because he has it for years. Frock Flicks really hates the costuming. Henry spends a great deal of time just walking around with a crown on for no real reason. But the show did spend more money on its battle scenes (although tactically they make no sense.)

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First, Some Background

Henry VII seized control of England in 1485 by defeating and killing the now-infamous Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth Field. Henry VII had a very weak claim to the throne. He came from the lower nobility, his father (who died before Henry’s birth) having been the 1stEarl of Richmond and the son of Henry V’s widow Catherine of Valois. His mother Margaret Beaufort was a great-granddaughter of John of Gaunt, third son of Edward III via his mistress-turned-wife Katherine Swynford. Since the Beauforts were related to the Lancastrian kings of England whose line had been stamped out by Edward IV, Henry represented one of the last remaining heirs to the Lancastrian claim to the throne. But his claim was a weak one, because in 1407, when the Lancastrian king Henry IV had legitimized the Beauforts, he had specifically excluded them from the line of succession. Additionally, Henry’s family was not particularly wealthy by the standards of the day, and Henry had spent much of his life outside the British Isles, so he didn’t have deep political connections either. His claim was successful partly due to residual loyalty to the Lancastrians and partly due to hostility to Richard III.

The Lancastrians had been displaced by the Yorkist line, in the person of Edward IV, duke of York. The Yorkists arguably had a superior claim to the throne in a legal sense, because they were descended from both Edward III’s second son Lionel and his fourth son Edmund (directly from Edmund and through Lionel’s daughter Philippa). When Henry IV usurped the throne from Richard II in 1399, he not only violated Richard’s right to the throne, he also passed over Lionel’s claims. As long as Henry and his son Henry V were successful, their questionable legal claims were ignored, but Henry VI proved woefully incompetent as well as mentally ill, which opened the door to Edward of York seizing the throne in 1461.

To simplify a complex story (as told in The White Queen), Edward ruled fairly successfully, with the exception of a disruption in 1470 when Henry VI briefly retook the throne. He married Elizabeth Woodville, a women of the lower nobility, which provoked a great deal of political trouble from the more established English nobles, who resented Edward’s efforts to promote the Woodvilles ‘above their station’. Edward and Elizabeth produced a whole passel of children: seven girls and three boys (one of whom died around 2 years old).

When Edward died in 1483, his older son Edward was 13 and the younger, Richard of Shrewsbury, was 10. But Edward IV’s younger brother Duke Richard of Gloucester feared that the Woodvilles, who were his political opponents, would use the young king to strike at him, so he quickly usurped the throne. Richard III took charge of Young Edward and Richard, who were placed into the Tower of London and never seen again. There has been debate about what happened to them ever since, but there is no real scholarly doubt that Richard either ordered their deaths or made it clear that he would accept someone doing the deed proactively. Given how vitally important they were during Richard’s reign, it’s simply inconceivable that they were killed against his will.

When Richard took the throne, Elizabeth Woodville began negotiating with Henry Tudor, who was one of the few credible opponents of her brother-in-law. In 1483, they agreed that Henry would marry Elizabeth of York, the oldest child of Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville. Henry went so far as to swear a public oath to that effect. The effect of this marriage would be to join Henry’s rather weak claim to the throne with Elizabeth of York’s rather strong claim. Assuming her two brothers were already dead, Elizabeth was the heir to Edward IV’s claim, meaning that her claim was much stronger than Richard’s, at least legally.

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Henry VII

Richard III had only one child with his wife Anne, a boy Edward who died a year after his father took the throne. (He also had two illegitimate children fathered when he was a teenager.) Anne died in March of 1485, leaving Richard in desperate need of a wife and heir. So he immediately began negotiating with King John II of Portugal for the hand of John’s sister Joanna, a nun who was rather disinterested in marrying anyone. To sweeten the deal, Richard also proposed marrying his niece Elizabeth of York to John’s kinsman (and future king) Manuel I.

This was a sound move on Richard’s part. First, it would have helped secure him an ally, had the marriages gone through. Second, it would have weakened Henry’s political position and claim to the throne, thus undercutting his ability to threaten Richard. Third, the Croyland Chronicle claims that there were rumors that Richard had an inappropriate desire for his niece. Given that Richard’s position was already shaky, he may have decided that he didn’t need rumors of incest circulating about him, so he sent her away from court almost immediately after Anne’s death; her marriage would have completely removed any scurrilous gossip about a supposed relationship.

However, it’s unclear how reliable the Croyland Chronicles claim is. The author of this part of the Chronicle is anonymous, and historians disagree about who he was, although he clearly had access to the Yorkist court. This section was written around 1486, after Henry had become king, so it’s quite likely that the author was a former Yorkist hoping to curry favor with Henry by making Richard look as bad as possible. So the Chronicle’s claim that there were rumors about Richard’s incestuous interest in his niece cannot be assumed to be true, although it can’t actually be totally discounted either. But it’s worth noting that the claim is that Richard was attracted to Elizabeth, nothing more. There’s no evidence that he actually wanted to marry her, which would have been wildly unacceptable, or ever tried to do anything with her.

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Elizabeth of York

Henry defeated Richard on August 22, 1485. He retroactively dated his accession to August 21st, meaning that anyone who fought in support of Richard was by that fact guilty of treason against Henry. He had himself crowned king in October of the same year, pointedly not marrying Elizabeth of York until January 18thof 1486, which means that he was king of England not because of his wife’s legal claim but by his own right of conquest. He even made a point of claiming the throne by right of conquest in some of his proclamations. His first son, Prince Arthur, was born on the 19thor 20thof September of that year. Elizabeth was crowned queen in November of 1487.

The White Princess           

At the start of the series, Elizabeth of York (Jodie Cromer) is in love with Richard and has had sex with him. Consequently, she passionately hates Henry (Jacob Collins-Levy) as the man who killed her lover. Her relationship with Richard seems to be widely known, because both Henry and his mother Margaret ( Michelle Fairley, striving mightily to bring some semblance of plausibility to a religious maniac) refer to her as a whore and Richard’s lover.

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I cannot emphasize enough how totally wackadoodle this is. Not only does it depend on the thinnest of evidence, it goes far beyond the claims of the Croyland Chronicle. The idea that a royal princess would have been openly having premarital sex is ludicrous, because it would have severely undermined her value as marriage partner. Elite women of this era were essentially required to be virgins on their wedding day. It also completely ignores the fact that uncle-niece incest was as unacceptable then as it is today., arguably more so, given the very complex rules about consanguinity that medieval society dealt with. No one at any point bothers to comment on the fact that not only is Elizabeth having premarital sex, she’s breaking one of the biggest taboos of all. Since Elizabeth of York is the audience identification character, it’s clear that the show wants to avoid making viewers queasy by reminding them that her first great love is her uncle.

And despite all this, Henry insists on putting blood on the bedsheets the night they are married. The whole point of doing that is offer evidence that the bride is a virgin, but if everyone knows she’s not a virgin, it’s pointless.

In the show, Elizabeth and Henry hate each other from the moment they meet. Henry doesn’t like the idea of marrying his enemy’s lover and she doesn’t like the idea of marrying her lover’s enemy. He openly suggests marrying someone else, including Elizabeth’s jealous younger sister Cecily (Suki Waterhouse), but his council includes former Yorkists who insist that he keep his promise to marry Elizabeth.

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It’s a little-known fact that Margaret Beaufort could spit venom up to six feet when threatened

So Henry decides that he can’t marry her until he knows for certain that she’s fertile. So he essentially rapes her to see if he can knock her up quickly. When it becomes clear that she has gotten pregnant, he marries her. There’s no virtually no evidence to support this. They did reside in the same household before their marriage, so it’s possible they could have had sex before their marriage, but the only reason to think they did so is that Prince Arthur was born 8 months and 1-2 days after their marriage. So either he was conceived in late December or he was born a month premature. But there was no practice of ‘testing’ a woman’s fertility with premarital sex, and given that Henry needed to build his claim to the throne, it would have been risky for his heir to be an obvious product of premarital sex, because it would have opened the door to claims that Arthur was a bastard, the last thing Henry would have wanted. (This is another reason why the idea of Elizabeth having an affair with Richard is so crazy. If Elizabeth were known to have not been a virgin on her wedding day, the legitimacy of all her children would have been suspect.)

Also, as an aside, can I just point out that the trajectory of the show has Elizabeth fall in love with Henry gradually, after he’s raped her? There’s something really fucked up about Philippa Gregory here.

Finally, the show’s timeline presumes that not only did Elizabeth get pregnant from that first, very quick, act of intercourse but also that it was clear to her that she was pregnant just a couple weeks later and that a very hurried marriage could be arranged without anyone noticing the rush. Remember, for Arthur to be born after nine months, there’s only room for a month between his conception and his parents’ wedding. While it’s possible that Elizabeth might have realized she was pregnant just a week or two after conceiving, it’s more likely for a woman to take 5-6 weeks to realize she’s pregnant. Elizabeth lived in an age when women were discouraged from having a clear understanding of such matters and even physicians and midwives weren’t always clear on the relationship between a missed period and conception. Would Elizabeth have understood what a single missed or very late period meant? It’s hard to know, but the show is relying on much more recent ideas about pregnancy than were common in the 15thcentury.

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Henry’s coat here comes from the Late Biker Age

In general, the show wants us to see Elizabeth as a sincere yet politically-engaged woman who often fought with her mother-in-law. She frequently participates in the royal council and writes letters to rally support for Henry against Perkin Warbeck. She successfully rallies English troops that don’t want to fight for Henry. In one remarkably absurd scene, she conducts a marriage negotiation with Isabella of Castile because Elizabeth speaks Spanish and Henry does not, and then lies to Henry about the fact that Isabella has refused the marriage, as if there is no one else in the room who understands both English and Spanish and could tell Henry what was actually being said. (In fact, although Elizabeth was a very well-educated woman by the standards of her day, she never learned a second language beyond some not very good French. Also, the marriage was proposed by the Spanish, not the English. And the idea  that Henry would have personally gone to Spain and taken his wife with him as his translator at a time when he was fearful of a rebellion against him in support of Perkin Warbeck is rather silly.)

There’s no real evidence that Elizabeth was very involved in the politics of her day. Her mother-in-law was far more influential at court and Henry appears to have made it very clear that Elizabeth was the mother of his children and not one of his key counselors. Although it is possible that she influenced him during their private (and therefore unrecorded) conversations, there’s no particular evidence that he trusted her except in matters of marriage, where it was traditional for the queen to play an important role. She focused her life on her children and charitable works, which he gave her a substantial income to pursue.

More Whackadoodle

One continuity between The White Queen and The White Princessis that Elizabeth Woodville (Essie Davis) is a witch. And by that, I mean she actually has magic powers. Over the course of the show, she sends a nightmare to trouble Margaret Beaufort, ensures that a stable boy finds a message she has thrown out a window, kills Mary of Burgundy by breaking a statue of the Virgin Mary, keeps Perkin Warbeck from being captured by Henry, and generally miraculously knows things like that Warbeck is landing in England.

As I’ve discussed in a previous post, this is nonsense. There’s literally no evidence at all that Elizabeth Woodville knew or attempted to practice magic of any sort. And one wonders why, if Elizabeth actually could work magic, she didn’t bother to, oh say, kill Henry. Why didn’t she send nightmares against Henry or otherwise curse him? Why didn’t she kill Prince Arthur? Gregory wrote her novel to give Elizabeth power to cause a variety of thing that actually happened historically, but the fact that Elizabeth wasn’t able to do the sort of things that would actually have benefitted her cause in a material way shows how silly this idea is.

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And as we’ll see in the next post, there’s a lot more whackadoodle stuff around Perkin Warbeck’s rebellion against Edward.

Want to Know More?

The White Princess  is available on Amazon, as is the novel it’s based on. But if you’re looking for something historically reliable about Henry and Elizabeth, skip Philippa Gregory. For Henry VII, take a look at Sean Cunningham’s Henry VII or Thomas Penn’s Winter King: Henry VII and the Dawn of Tudor England. For Elizabeth of York, try Arlene Okerlund’s Elizabeth of York: Queenship and Power.  


Tales of the City: Compton’s Cafeteria

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My favorite part of the new Netflix season of Tales of the City (2019, based on the novels of Armistead Maupin) is episode 8. Unlike the rest of the show, episode 8 is not an ensemble piece but rather a stand-alone episode that focuses on the history of Anna Madrigal, the free-spirited transwoman who is the landlady at 28 Barbary Lane. It looks at Anna’s arrival in San Francisco in the mid-1960s and the climax of the episode is the riot at Compton’s Cafeteria, an important but not well-known moment in the history of San Francisco’s LGBT community.

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Spoiler Alert: This post discusses episode 8, which reveals a critical plot point for the season, so if you haven’t watched it yet, you might want to put off reading this post.

 

San Francisco in the 1960s

San Francisco began to develop into the gay mecca we think of today at the end of WWII. The US Navy used San Francisco as one of its most important West Coast bases. At the end of the war, it began a crackdown on homosexuals in the Navy, many of whom wound up dishonorably discharged at San Francisco. Because being homosexual was socially unacceptable in the post-War period (when American culture was entering an aggressively heterosexual phase that permitted only one normative version of male identity), many of these men chose to remain in San Francisco rather than return home and have to face their families.

However while the LGBT community began to grow, it met with little acceptance. Police raids on the few bars that catered to gays and lesbians were a regular feature of the 1950s and 60s. Things were particularly tough for the city’s community of transwomen, who in the parlance of the time were referred to as cross-dressers, transvestites, or ‘drags’. ‘Queen’ included both modern drag queens and modern transwomen, since the concept of a distinct transwoman identity barely existed at the time.

There was some room for female impersonators, who performed cabaret acts professionally, but for the transwomen among these performers, the stage was a brief and limited opportunity to express their gender identity, since performers were expected arrive and leave in men’s clothing, and the only ones who could practically pursue this occupation were those capable of ‘passing’, meaning they were sufficiently feminine that they could appear to be women by post-War standards. Female impersonal also required some degree of talent as a singer and dancer.

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It was illegal for those considered men to appear in public in women’s clothing apart from professional female impersonation; the basic legal rule at the time was that a man had to be wearing at least three items of male apparel in order to be legal. Suspected transvestites could be detained by any police offer and forced to undergo humiliating inspections. Even wearing a shirt that buttoned up on the wrong side was enough to justify being stopped by a cop. “Female impersonation” was a crime, so cross-dressing was an offense that could easily land a queen in jail, in some cases for a couple of months, where they were likely to be subjected to humiliating treatment such as forced head-shaving.

Transwomen who wished to live as women had other problems as well. Their identity documents all used their male identity, so they struggled to find living space in respectable neighborhoods, since they were viewed as deviants. As a result, many had to live in cheap hotels in the seedier parts of the city. Most also struggled to find employment, for the same reasons. Those who tried to live as men struggled to find and keep jobs because they were often perceived as being too effeminate. Because of that, large numbers of transwomen were forced to resort to prostitution to support themselves. (This is still true today; about 19% of transwomen report having done some form of sex work because of a lack of social acceptance; for black transwomen the figure is 47%.)

Although at least some gay bars in 1960s New York were willing to admit at least a few transwomen and drags, the same does not seem to be true in San Francisco. Gay bars in the city seem to have been unwilling to admit them because their presence made police raids more likely. One of the few places of relative acceptance of transwomen and drags in the city was the Tenderloin, a downtown district that had a lot of cheap, single-occupant housing (mostly cheap hotels), gay bars, strip clubs and porn theaters, cheap liquor stores, and other disreputable businesses. It was frequented by gay men, lesbians, transwomen, prostitutes, and drug addicts, and in this district there were more establishments willing to allow such people in.

Prostitute queens tended to ply their trade in the Tenderloin because the police were willing to partially tolerate it there. This unofficial policy meant that the prostitutes were less likely to work in other parts of the city but it also made skimming money off the sex trade easy to organize. Policemen often used their power to detain and inspect suspected transvestites and prostitutes to shake down the queens for money. Those who refused to pay up were likely to taken to jail, or simply roughed up or forced to provide a quick blow job.

Violence was a common feature in the lives of the Tenderloin queens. In addition to the problems of living in a neighborhood frequented by drugs addicts and other criminals, clients of trans prostitutes sometimes became angry and violent if they felt they had been fooled by “men disguised as women”. In the 1960s, there was also a apparently unrecognized serial killer who targeted transwomen, slitting their throats and mutilating their genitals before dumping their bodies. Smart transwomen learned to fight, often carrying bricks or bottles in their handbags to use as a weapon. And the police sometimes used violence to keep them intimidated and compliant.

In the absence of a welcoming business community, many queens frequented Gene Compton’s Cafeteria, a chain restaurant with a location in the Tenderloin. Unlike other businesses, Compton’s was open 24 hours, which meant that transwomen prostitutes could congregate there late at night after turning tricks. “Compton’s Cafeteria was the center of the universe for us. It was a place where we could make sure that we had lived through the night…Compton’s was a place where you could go and you could see whether some girls had stayed, some girls had left, some people had been killed, raped, put in jail,” says Felicia Elizondo, who was part of San Francisco’s trans community in the 1960s. The food was cheap, which was another plus for the struggling queens.

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The management at Compton’s did not appreciate being the gathering spot for transwomen. They worried that the presence of transwomen might drive away more desirable customers. So they frequently harassed the women, called the police, and imposed a service charge on queens.

 

The Riots

In 1965, a nearby church, Glide Memorial Methodist Church, began trying to close the gap between the LGBT community in the Tenderloin and the Christian community. It was led by Rev. Cecil Williams, a black minister who had come to the Tenderloin from the Civil Rights struggle in the South, and he brought with him the idea of organizing the transwomen for their rights. He helped organize a group of LGBT youth, many of them homeless, into an organization known as Vanguard. Vanguard met regularly at Compton’s, much to the management’s frustration. As a result of harassment from the staff at Compton’s, Vanguard organized an unsuccessful picket of the Cafeteria on July 18th, 1966, to express their anger and frustration. The picket failed, but it was one of the first examples of the LGBT community actively conducting a protest.

On a weekend in August of 1966, just a few weeks after the failed picket, the management of Compton’s called the police because the queens were making a scene. One of the policemen attempted to arrest one of the queens (whether a drag queen or a transwoman is unclear—she’s never been identified), but she threw a cup of coffee in his face. That touched off a riot. The transwomen and drags began fighting back, throwing cutlery and sugar shakers at the officers, flipping over tables, and smashing the glass doors and windows of the Cafeteria. The queens used their handbags as weapons as well.

The police retreated to the sidewalk and called for back-up. But about 60 patrons of the Cafeteria poured outside and continued the fight, brawling with the officers who showed up and tried to detain the women in a paddy wagon. A police squad car had all its windows smashed, and a nearby newsstand was lit on fire. A large number of the women wound up being taken to jail.

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SF Queens protesting

 

The next night, there was another picket mounted against the Cafeteria, which had replaced its doors and windows and re-opened. The management refused to admit the queens. As the protest escalated, the windows of the Cafeteria were smashed again, but the second night of the riot appears to have been smaller in scale than the first night. It’s unclear to what extent the riot was orchestrated by Vanguard and to what extent it was simply a spontaneous uprising of frustrated transwomen, drags, and street youth.

While Vanguard had orchestrated one protest prior to the riot, the Compton’s Cafeteria Riot in many ways marks the start of genuine organizing for the Bay Area trans community, which began to form some degree of genuine institutional awareness after the riot. It has been called the first act of LGBT resistance to police violence in American history although the 1959 Cooper Do-Nuts Riot in Los Angeles probably deserves that honor. (The 1961 Black Nite Brawl in Milwaukee also occurred prior to Compton’s, although that was a fight between patrons of a gay bar and civilians, not police.)

Although Vanguard broke up in 1967, a network of organizations and concerned individuals had begun to address the needs of the trans community and in 1968 the National Transsexual Counseling Unit, the first-ever peer-run support group for trans people was established. The SF police department began to look at trans people as citizens rather than criminals and gradually reduced their harassment of the queens. They appointed Officer Elliot Blackstone as a liaison with the gay and trans community. As a result, transwomen were able to begin living more openly and move about the city with less fear of harassment.

So if the Compton’s Riot happened in 1966, why is it that Pride commemorates the more famous Stonewall Riots in New York City in 1969 instead? The Compton’s Riot was largely forgotten until the mid-1990s, when Susan Stryker, a trans historian, ran across an article about it in a 1970s-era gay newspaper. As she conducted research, she discovered that the local newspapers had not reported on the riot because it was comparatively small, perhaps about 50-60 rioters. The police records from the 1960s no longer survive, making oral history the only route for learning about it. Because transwomen were so vulnerable to violence and because San Francisco was an epicenter of the AIDS Crisis, many of the participants in the riot were already dead by the time Stryker began researching it. (One of the most-commonly cited sources about the riot in online articles is Felicia Elizondo, who wasn’t actually in San Francisco when the riot occurred, only returning to the city the year after the riot happened.)

In contrast, the New York LGBT community made a point of actively commemorating the Stonewall Riots the next year; Craig Rodwell, an early activist realized that there was political value in conducting a parade in 1970 to memorialize the riots. Additionally, there are numerous surviving documents about the riot, including newspaper accounts and police records. Rodwell, who knew a number of journalists, actively encouraged them to cover the later nights of the riot, thereby raising its profile significantly. In other words, activists like Rodwell recognized the value of Stonewall as a moment to build a movement around, whereas no one in San Francisco saw the Compton’s Cafeteria incident that way. That’s why Pride events take place primarily in June instead of August.

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The Riot in Tales of the City

Episode 8 is a flashback in which Anna Madrigal (Olympia Dukakis) recounts her early experiences in San Francisco. She arrives in 1965 as a middle-aged transwoman (played wonderfully by Jen Richards) and quickly finds a job in the City Lights bookstore. She is first confronted by and then becomes friends with Ysela (Daniela Vega), a young Latina transwoman who teaches Anna the rules of life in a transphobic city and helps Anna begin to recognize her passing privilege. As Ysela explains, she wants to know Anna’s secrets because she realizes that passing effectively is a survival skill; San Francisco queens die young. But Anna passes easily; straight people perceive her as a woman and not as a transvestite. So she doesn’t realize that an act as simple as shopping for a new scarf can be challenging because businesses routinely throw out queens who can’t pass. Ysela shows Anna how most transwomen have to resort to prostitution and explains how the police harass the queens and extort money from them. She emphasizes that interacting with straight men is dangerous because they are liable to turn violent.

But the romantic and naïve Anna meets Tommy (Luke Kirby) and strikes up a romance with him. Then she’s stunned to discover that Tommy is a police officer. Fearful of what that could mean, she breaks things off with him, but he persists in courting her despite realizing that she’s a transwoman and promises to rescue her and give her the life of heterosexual romance and respectability that she dreams of. Tommy successfully presents Anna to his co-workers as his girlfriend and moves her into his apartment. But the price of this is Anna severing contact with the queens she’s come to see as her friends.

Then one night in August, the police harass Ysela and other queens at Compton’s, and Ysela throws her coffee in a policeman’s face. As the riot escalates, an off-duty Tommy is called in, and he warns Anna not to leave the apartment. But Anna wants to help and protect her friends, so she hurries down to Compton’s, where she is promptly arrested with the other queens. Tommy bails her out, but he is threatened with firing because being in a relationship with a transwoman means that he’s no longer seen as straight. He tearfully breaks up with Anna but gives her a parting gift, a stash of money that he’s been saving up to pay for her genital conversion surgery. Anna protests that she can’t accept the money because it was extorted from her friends, but Tommy insists that this is her only chance to escape the harsh life ahead of her. Anna chooses to use the money to purchase 28 Barbary Lane and then go to Denmark for her surgery.

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Richards as a Young Anna Madrigal

 

The whole episode beautifully explores the struggles transwomen experienced in the 1960s, and for me it’s the best part of the whole season. It captures the moment of pre-Stonewall America in both its potential and its harshness and it shines a spotlight on a segment of the LGBT community that is only just now beginning to be understood by wider society. It introduces the viewer to the Compton’s story in a way that makes it clear why the riot happened, although it leaves out Vanguard and the preceding picket, preferring to concentrate on the human story instead of the political one. This is Anna’s story, so the episode doesn’t position the riot as the seminal moment in trans history that it is.

And yet as wonderful as episode 8 is, it doesn’t quite work for me. It doesn’t really fit in with Anna Madrigal’s character as we know it from earlier seasons of the show. In the first three seasons, Anna is very much a care-free Bohemian hedonist, although she worries about revealing her “secret” to the characters in the first two seasons. But episode 8 frames Anna’s story as involving a growing awareness of her passing privilege and the violent consequences for those who don’t have it. At the end of the episode she makes the choice to take the tainted money and have her operation. If Anna has learned to recognize her passing privilege, why is still fearful about outing herself to her Bohemian tenants and worldly lover in season 1? Why has she apparently severed all her ties to her former trans friends if she’s had her awakening? Why isn’t she renting the rooms at 28 Barbary Lane to them so they don’t have to live in the Tenderloin? And if Anna is so venal that she would accept what the show explicitly frames as blood money, how has she become the care-free woman of season 1 while still harboring the guilt for the choice she’s made? And if she’s cut herself off from the trans community, how did she build Barbary Lane in the “legendary” queer space it’s become in the Netflix season without addressing her past actions?

It also feels rather pat that Tommy has the money to pay for Anna’s surgery. It’s a LOT of money, stacks and stacks of bills. Tommy seems to be fairly young, in his late 20s. In order for him to have extorted that much money from the queens during his short career, he has to have been bleeding them dry every chance he gets, which just seems implausible, especially since he and Anna can’t have been dating for more than a year at most.

It feels very much as if the writers of the Netflix season took a look at Maupin’s oeuvre and noticed that Anna is the only trans character and decided to correct Maupin’s omission by revealing that Anna is actually estranged from the whole trans community because of a corrupt decision she made in the 1960s. In other words, instead of organically integrating the new season with the facts and tone of the previous seasons, the writers chose to critique the previous seasons by suggesting that the tone of the earlier series was rooted in privilege instead of seeing it as a response to the oppression of the gay community in the 1970s. The original Anna enabled her tenants to discover and live their authentic lives, so making Anna a victimizer of her own community who must atone for her sins is a fundamental betrayal of her essential character. Instead of simply continuing the story told in Tales of the City, Lauren Morelli and her writing room have re-interpreted the story for a new generation at the expense of the original. It seems that Anna isn’t the only one who victimized her community.

 

Want to Know More?

The current season of Tales of the Cityis available on Netflix. The first season(the 1993) is available through Amazon. The second and third seasons can be found on Youtube. The novels are delightful and justly loved by many readers. You can get the first three collected as 28 Barbary Lane.

There isn’t much written on the Compton’s Cafeteria Riot beyond internet articles. The best thing is Screaming Queens, a 2005 documentary made by Susan Stryker and Victor Silverman. You can find it here, at the bottom of the page. It’s definitely worth watching.

Tales of the City: the Next Generation

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Netflix has released its first (and perhaps only) season of Tales of the City. Confusingly, it’s the first Netflix season, but the fourth season of the series based on the novels of the same name by Armistead Maupin that chronicle the lives of the residents of 28 Barbary Coast in San Francisco. The first three seasons were set in the late 1970s and early 1980s, before the AIDS crisis took hold and carved its way through the city’s gay community. The current season, however, is set in the present day (although it’s only been 20 years for the characters, allowing the series to bring back four of the six actors who led the show in its first season, which was filmed in 1993).

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Spoiler Alert: This post will discuss major plot twists in the Netflix season, so if you haven’t watched it yet, you might want to put off reading this post.

 

The First Three Seasons

The original series focused on the naïve Midwesterner Mary Ann Singleton (Laura Linney, in her breakout role), the young straight lothario waiter Brian Hawkins (Paul Gross), Michael “Mouse” Tolliver (Marcus D’Amico), the young gay man who craves romance, Mona Ramsey (Chloe Webb) a carefree bisexual woman, and their landlady Anna Madrigal (Olympia Dukakis), who is eventually revealed to be a post-operative transwoman and Mona’s father. Edgar Halycon (Donald Moffat), Mary Ann and Mona’s boss, and DeDe Halcyon Day (Barbara Garrick), Edgar’s daughter who is in an unhappy marriage also have major parts.

The show focuses on the characters’ sexual adventures and search for meaningful relationships. The show was ground-breaking in its day in the frankness of its depiction of the sexual milieu of San Francisco. Michael’s sexual liaisons and dreams of marriage are treated with the same respect that Anna and Edgar’s romance receives, and his relationship in the second season is presented as entirely normal and appropriate. Brian visits a hetero bath house and two of the secondary characters go to a gay one. DeDe contemplates having an abortion after an adulterous fling. Most of the characters smoke pot freely and Mona and Mouse use cocaine and Quaaludes in a casual fashion. The characters are simultaneously decadent and innocent, enjoying the pre-AIDS hedonism of the 70s.

In many ways, Anna Madrigal was the first sensitive depiction of a trans person on television. Throughout the first season, it’s clear she has a secret and the revelation of that secret to the audience is a big part of the conclusion of the season, but the show doesn’t really sensationalize her identity, especially as the second season goes on. As Anna tells first Brian and then Mona and then Michael and Mary Ann, none of them react badly; they just listen and discuss what she’s said. Mona in particular quickly begins to call out another character for misgendering Anna, long before misgendering was common idea or even a term. The only people who react poorly are characters already presented in negative terms, such as Mona’s mother, who is bitter about how Anna abandoned her two decades before. The only sour note in the whole series is that Anna presents her secret as “a lie” she’s been perpetrating on the people around her, instead of merely a facet of her personal life she has no obligation to disclose. While the choice to cast Olympia Dukakis as a trans woman feels regressive today, it’s worth pointing out that in the 1990s, it was standard practice to cast men to play trans women, so the casting of Dukakis was by the standards of the day moderately progressive.

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Dukakis as Madrigal

The Current Season

The Netflix series showrunner, Lauren Morelli, has consciously sought to update the show’s depiction of San Francisco, introducing a crop of new main characters who capture the city’s diversity better than the original show, which has no non-white characters other than a maid, a fashion model who is eventually revealed to be a white woman using a drug to darken the pigment of her skin for career reasons, and a television reporter (in the third season). Michael (now played by Murray Bartlett) is dating the 28-year old African-American Ben (Charlie Barnett). Margot Park (May Hong) and Jake Rodriguez (Garcia) are a queer couple; Margot is a young lesbian whose lesbian partner has transitioned to male and who is now struggling with what his transition means for his sexuality. The bisexual Shawna Hawkins (Ellen Page) is Brian and Mary Ann’s adoptive daughter, but thinks she is their biological child. Mary Ann’s decision to leave Brian and Shawna for career reasons has estranged her from both of them. Shawna is casually involved with Claire (Zosia Mamet), a film-maker who is chronicling the decline of San Francisco’s queer spaces. Most of these characters are new creations, not drawn from any of Maupin’s books.

The result is a show divided between its strangely-young Boomers and its earnest Millennials/iGens and over which a certain tension between past and present hovers. The show presents three spaces of importance to the queer community: Compton’s Cafeteria, a now long-closed late-night gathering place for the trans community in the 1960s; 28 Barbary Lane, which is now a “legendary” place at which the LGBT community gathers for occasional parties; and the Body Politic, a queer feminist co-op Burlesque bar which is only the most recent incarnation of a string of lesbian bars and clubs stretching back decades.

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The three spaces are strung together mostly by Claire, who is making a documentary about the loss of these spaces. The history of Compton’s Cafeteria plays a major role in episode 8 (I’ll deal with that in a later post) and Claire laments that all that’s left of it is a shuttered building and an historical marker. She interviews women at Body Politic who tell her about the importance of that space, including an unnamed lesbian (played by Fortune Feimster) who emphasizes that queer spaces like the Body Politic can literally save people’s lives. The main plot of the season involves a mysterious blackmailer who forces Anna to give them the title to 28 Barbary Lane so that it can be torn down. This is presented as not merely a threat to the residents’ living situation, but also as an existential threat to the San Francisco queer community, which rallies to stage a sit-in when the wrecking crew comes to tear the down. So a central theme of the season is the historical value of spaces where LGBT people are dominant.

The show understands the importance of history, but it avoids directly addressing the biggest facet of queer history in San Francisco, namely the AIDS Crisis. The third season ends in 1981 with only the most subtle hint of the tidal wave that was about to hit; one of Michael’s lovers mentions having what he takes to be a hickey on his neck. The fourth season begins in the present, after AIDS has been brought under control, thus leap-frogging two decades of staggering death. In a series that aims for gentle humor, that’s an understandable choice.

But it’s strange that the show only addresses AIDS in indirect ways. Michael is HIV+, as is a former lover of his. They are both seen with a bottle of pills for treating HIV, but if the viewer doesn’t know what Truvada is, the significance of it will go over their head. Michael visits a doctor who confirms that it’s safe for him to have sex without a condom, but he frets about asking Ben to do that. At one point, Ben finds Michael’s ‘little black book’ and sees that many of the names are crossed out of it, but the viewer is left to intuit that this means that Michael has lost an enormous number of friends to AIDS. The only time we see the psychological weight of the AIDS Crisis is a passing comment, made after Anna dies, that mourning gets easier with time. For those familiar with the AIDS Crisis, this is reasonable storytelling, but for the younger generation of gay men, many of whom are unaware of the scope of the mortality, I’m not sure the show makes its point as clearly as it thinks it does.

The show does depict a generational clash taking place in the LGBT community. In the sharpest scene in the season, Michael and Ben attend a dinner party of gay men in the 50s and 60s. Ben, the youngest person in the room by about two decades, takes offense when one of the other men jokes about “Mexican trannies”. Another guest then lambasts Ben for not understanding how much of a struggle gay men had in the 80s and 90s, living under a government that literally didn’t care if they lived or died and suggests that Ben should recognize that his privileges as a gay man in the 2010s were won with the struggles of that older generation. In a different scene, when the unnamed lesbian tells Claire about her life history for the documentary, Claire asks to redo the interview and avoid what she considers problematic language; the lesbian essentially tells her to fuck off and walks away. Mary Ann challenges Shawna’s assertion that burlesque can be a feminist act, explaining that in the 70s, her generation was fighting to not be treated as sex objects.

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Ben and Michael

But while the show is willing to depict this clash, its sympathies seem to be with the younger generation’s view of things. After the dinner party, Michael apologizes for not coming to Ben’s defense and Ben points out that as a black man, he knows very well what it feels like to have the government not care about his welfare. Shawna responds to Mary Ann’s challenge by persuading her to get up and perform a song, which Mary Ann finds a liberating experience. The unnamed lesbian doesn’t offer any persuasive response to Claire, just a rude one.

It’s hard for me to shake the sense that the show doesn’t really like its older characters. Their past choices are shown to be largely bad ones. In the books, Mary Ann and Brian part amicably, but in the show Mary Ann essentially abandoned Brian and Shawna, a decision that has left Brian unable to date for 20 years and which has left Shawna with a powerful sense that she is unworthy of love. The career Mary Ann left to chase never truly materialized and instead she’s wound up in a marriage that has soured on her. Brian and Anna have compounded Mary Ann’s bad decision by failing to tell Shawna that she is actually the biological child of one of Mary Ann’s friends who died soon after childbirth, as if being adopted was a shameful secret that Shawna needs to be protected from. The last three episodes excoriate Anna by revealing that she has lived for half a century with a terrible secret, namely that the money she used to purchase Barbary Lane and pay for her gender confirmation surgery was given to her by a police officer who had been extorting it from trans prostitutes. When Anna dies, she wills Barbary Lane to an old trans friend, with a note that it should have been hers a long time ago. Only Michael has nothing to apologize for in his past.

In my opinion, the scenarios the show offers are too complex for the easy answers it offers. Ben’s lack of racial privilege doesn’t automatically trump the lack of privilege gay men encountered in the 1980s during the AIDS Crisis; both groups suffered the indifference and hostility of the government in different ways. Anna’s choice to take the money has to be set against the potential life-or-death context of her decision (since it’s explicitly said that trans women don’t usually survive to Anna’s age), and the show never considers that, had she not taken the money, Barbary Lane wouldn’t have become the vital queer space that the show positions it as. Mary Ann’s second-wave feminism isn’t wrong; it’s just a different perspective on how women should relate to sex. The debate over terms such as “tranny” is still playing out in the LGBT community and hasn’t yet been resolved; it’s worth pointing out that for many older gay men, the word ‘queer’ is profoundly insulting while for the younger generation, it’s a reclaimed identity.

What the show offers as a clash of generations feels (at least to this cynical Gen Xer) rather more like the younger generation repudiating the choices made by the older one. It seems fitting that the season’s villain is an angry 20-something seeking to simultaneously chronicle and destroy 28 Barbary Lane.

Want to Know More?

The current season of Tales of the Cityis available on Netflix. The first season (the 1993) is available through Amazon. The second and third seasons can be found on Youtube. The novels are delightful and justly loved by many readers. You can get the first three collected as 28 Barbary Lane.

Queen of the Desert: Getting It All Right and All Wrong

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You might be forgiven for not realizing that Werner Herzog released a movie in which Nicole Kidman plays Gertrude Bell a couple of years ago. Queen of the Desert (2015, dir. Werner Herzog) got panned by the critics when it was given a showing and as a result it got shelved until 2017, when Letters from Baghdad, a documentary about Bell was released. Even then, it was released to only two American theaters and had no PR campaign to support it. Needless to say, it sank like a stone.

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But you might also be forgiven for not knowing who Gertrude Bell was. She only played a major role in shaping 20thcentury international events in the Middle East.

Gertrude Bell

Gertrude Bell was born in 1868 to a British industrialist and minor noble. She studied modern history at Oxford, being one of the first women to graduate with a first class honors degree. In her mid-20s, she began to travel the world, visiting her uncle in Tehran, where she acquired an abiding love of the Middle East. She had a talent for languages, ultimately becoming fluent in Persian, Arabic, French, and German and able to hold a conversation in Turkish and Italian. This linguistic skill proved enormously useful as she traveled through Ottoman Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and Arabia. She became interested in archaeology and did work in Mesopotamia and southern Asia Minor, where she met T.E. Lawrence, the famous ‘Lawrence of Arabia’.

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Gertrude Bell

When the Great War broke out in 1914, the British, who controlled Egypt, realized that they had very little real intelligence on much of the Middle East. So they summoned both her and Lawrence to Cairo and eventually appointed her as a Liaison Officer to the Arab Bureau in Cairo, making her the first female intelligence officer in the British military. (She was called “Major Miss Bell”.) She used her extensive knowledge of the geography and peoples of the region to draw maps and offer guidance on how to navigate the political conflicts particularly of Mesopotamia.

Bell possessed extensive knowledge of the various tribal groups, arguably superior to even Lawrence. The British didn’t have the forces to conduct a full-scale invasion of the Ottoman Empire, so instead they focused on persuading native peoples in the region to revolt against the Turks. In that project, Bell and Lawrence made a major contribution to the war effort, eventually helping to foment the Arab Revolt.

After the British occupied Baghdad, she was sent there and appointed as Oriental Secretary. As a result, when the Ottoman Empire was broken up in 1919, she emerged as one of the most important figures in the discussion of how to redraw the map of the Middle East. Her report “Self Determination in Mesopotamia” argued that Iraq should be established as an independent state and is considered a masterpiece of the genre. The British Commissioner for Mesopotamia disagreed, pushing for an Arab government under British control, but in 1921, Winston Churchill, the new Colonial Secretary, agreed with Bell. As a result, Bell’s views on the region were to a considerable extent decisive for the establishment of Iraq and Jordan as independent states.

Bell and Lawrence understood that the British had over-promised. British officials had basically told everyone, including the Arabs and the Zionists, that they could have independent territory. That was bound to make some people unhappy at some point. Lawrence mostly gave up in disgust, but Bell was determined to find a way to satisfy at least some of the people she had dealt with.

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The Hashemites and the Al-Sauds

One thing Bell’s adventures in Arabia had taught her was that there were two dominant clans in the region, the Hashemites and the Al-Sauds. The Hashemites were the clan of the Prophet Muhammad. Hussein ibn Ali, one of the leaders of the Hashemites, was a sharif, a direct descendant of the Prophet, and the Emir of Mecca, the holiest city for Muslims. He represented a very traditional form of Islam, open, tolerant, and not very dogmatic.

In contrast, Abdulaziz ibn Abdul Rahman ibn Faisal ibn Turki ibn Muhammad al-Saud came from a family that had ruled Arabia by right of conquest off and on for two centuries. The Al-Sauds (or just Saudis, as they are called in the West) had built an alliance with the followers of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab (d.1792), a Puritanical Muslim imam who had developed a movement aimed at purging Islam of what Abd al-Wahhab saw as unIslamic innovations that had crept into the faith in the generations after the Prophet. Despite their traditionalist rhetoric, the Wahhabis represented a radical new branch of Islam—strict, dogmatic, and intolerant of anything that did not fit into their vision of what Islam ought to be. In their minds, Wahhabism represented the only genuine form of Islam and anyone who did not accept it could be conquered and forced to obey Wahhabi principles. For example, when the Wahhabis first got control of Mecca in the early 19th century, they destroyed the tombs of all of the Prophet’s wives and other members of his family because they felt that honoring anyone other than Allah was immoral; only an enormous outcry kept them from destroying the Prophet’s tomb. (A few years ago, archaeologists found what they believed was the grave of the Prophet’s mother Amina. The Saudi government promptly destroyed it.)

To simplify a complex set of issues, the alliance was based on the principle that the Al-Sauds would impose Wahhabist practices on Arabia in return for the Wahhabis aggressively supporting the Al-Sauds. Both the Wahhabis and the Al-Sauds wanted to control Mecca and Medina because it strengthened their claim to represent true Islam, while Hussein wanted to control the Hejaz (roughly, western Arabia, where Mecca and Medina are located). Bell is probably the first Westerner to realize that al-Saud and Hussein were on a collision course, and she favored Hussein. The British promised Hussein a wider Arab state (roughly everything between Egypt and Persia with a few small exceptions), but then turned around and agreed to give Syria and Lebanon to France and agreed in theory to the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine.

Hussein helped lead the Arab Revolt against the Ottomans. But after the war, he was angry at the British for not giving him everything he felt he had been promised, so he simply declared himself the king of the Hejaz and king of all Arabs to boot. When al-Saud attacked the Hejaz in 1924, the British provided no help to Hussein, and he was quickly driven out and effectively lost his kingdom. Al-Saud established the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, an officially Wahhabist state whose current ruler, Salman ibn Abdulaziz, is his son. The Saudis have been promoting their intolerant strand of Islam ever since, using their oil dollars to spread Wahhabi Islam across the planet.

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The British were in a much better position to dictate what was going to happen further north, in Mesopotamia. They had already agreed to give what would become Syria and Lebanon to the French, but the territories between there and Persia were more or less theirs to organize. Bell was determined to put the sons of Hussein, Faisal and Abdullah, on their own thrones. Ultimately, with her aid, Faisal wound up ruling Iraq and Abdullah became the king of Transjordan (now generally just called Jordan). Thanks to Bell, both of these countries became independent Arab states rather that puppet-states of the British.

But in one respect, Bell badly mis-stepped in the arrangements she fought for. The region of Iraq is essentially three highly distinct zones. The northernmost zone is dominated by the Kurds, a Sunni Muslim ethnic group whose population is spread across modern Iraq, Syria, Turkey, and Iran, with the strongest concentration being in northern Iraq. The middle zone is dominated by Sunni Arabs, who share a religious sect with the Kurds but who are ethnically distinct from them (the Arabs are a Semitic people, while the Kurds see themselves as Medes, a branch of the Persian peoples). The southern zone is dominated by Shiite Arabs, ethnically the same people as the Sunni Arabs but belonging to a rival sect of Islam. In other words, Iraq is like a slice of Neapolitan ice cream where the three flavors dislike and distrust each other and would all rather be in their own sundaes. Oh, and the hot fudge on top of that sundae is oil.

The British didn’t want to have to deal with three separate states producing the oil they wanted, so they wanted all three states to be one country. Bell considered the Kurds to be too turbulent and unreliable to govern an independent state, so including Kurdistan in Iraq made some sense to her. Perhaps even more fatefully, most of Bell’s contacts in the Arab world were Sunnis like the Hashemites. Although she had spent some time in Shiite Persia, she never really made any close contacts with Shiite leaders in southern Iraq. As a result, she saw the Middle East very much through the Sunni lens and she trusted the Sunni Arabs far more than the Shiite Arabs. The British authorities seem have had little comprehension of the difference between the two sects and Bell doesn’t seem to have done very much to correct their ignorance (or failed in her efforts, perhaps). In her view, it made sense for the Sunni Arab middle zone of Iraq to control the Shiite Arab south and she accepted the idea that they would also control the Sunni Kurdish north. So the Iraq that she helped create gave most of the political power to the Sunni Arabs, who were numerically the smallest of three groups.

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The Mesopotamia Commission, with Bell second row, second from the left

Although many people consider Bell a shrewd diplomat, she badly misjudged the situation on this issue. Lawrence seems to have seen things more clearly. He once said “That Irak [sic] state is a fine monument; even if it only lasts a few more years, as I often fear and sometimes hope. It seems such a very doubtful benefit—government—to give a people who have long done without.” Leaving aside the rather condescending view of Arab self-governance, Lawrence seems to have sensed that Bell’s Iraq was something of a Frankenstein monster that would probably not last very long.

And the predictable gradually happened. The Hashemite monarchy of Iraq was overthrown in 1958 (after having been briefly deposed and reinstated by British intervention in 1941) by the Ba’athist party. The Ba’athists eventually gave rise to Saddam Hussein, a brutal thug who courted his Sunni Arab base by aggressively persecuting and subordinating both the Kurds and the Shiites. Hussein, of course, was overthrown by the American invasion of Iraq under George W. Bush, and the country has been struggling to hold itself together ever since, because the US wants it to stay one country while the Kurds want to separate and the Shiite Arabs long to punish the Sunni Arabs for what the Ba’athists did to them. As a result the Sunni Arabs don’t trust the majority Shiites, and that’s turned into fertile recruiting grounds for Wahhabist groups like Al-Qaeda and Daesh (commonly known as ISIS or the so-called Islamic State).

It would be unfair to lay all of that at Bell’s door, but political violence between these three groups was certainly a predictable consequence of forcing them into the same state together. Bell was a remarkable woman, but she wasn’t able to truly escape the colonial mindset and recognize that these three people needed to make their own choices and not simply have the British impose a choice on them. The British government was heavily dependent on her understanding of the region when it was making that decision, and she allowed her personal relationships with Sunni leaders to blind her to the dynamics of the situation she was helping to create.

So while we can celebrate her as a bold woman who accomplished a lot in an era when women were often kept from accomplishing much at all, and while we can acknowledge that she powerfully shaped the Middle East as it exists today, we also have to admit that she made a disastrous set of choices that are partly responsible for the violence and instability of the region to this day.

 

Queen of the Desert

Now that you have some idea who Gertrude Bell was, let’s get on to Herzog’s film, which he wrote as well as directed. The first thing I have to say is that it’s one of the most accurate films I’ve ever seen. It’s certainly the most accurate biopic I’ve reviewed. Virtually every incident and major development in the film is grounded in fact, so far as I can see, or a reasonable extrapolation of fact. The film fiddles a few chronological issues, but not in ways that drastically change things. For example, she’s shown already being the Oriental Secretary in Cairo around 1915, when in fact she didn’t get that office until after she arrived in Baghdad in 1917. She is shown meeting Lawrence (Robert Pattinson) at Petra rather than Carchemish, presumably because Petra is a more impressive site to film at than Carchemish. Small points like that I can generally overlook because they don’t seriously affect how we understand the events of Bell’s life.

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Kidman as Bell with Pattinson as Lawrence

In a really nice touch, the film quotes her letters, diary, and poetry repeatedly, and even goes so far as to have Sir Mark Sykes say about her, “Confound the silly chattering windbag of conceited, gushing, flat-chested, man-woman, globe-trotting, rump-wagging, blethering ass!”, which is actually a quote from a letter he wrote. So it’s clear that Herzog took real pains to be accurate. My hat’s off to Herzog in that respect.

And yet I just can’t help but think that he got everything wrong.

Kidman’s Bell is very much a Herzogian protagonist in the sense that she’s an individual pursuing her own goals despite what the world thinks of her and despite the obstacles she encounters, none of which are honestly that big. With the exception of her father’s refusal to allow her to marry Henry Cadogan (James Franco), a minor British diplomat who commits suicide as a result, every problem she encounters she effectively surmounts by the end of the next scene, leaving very little dramatic tension in the film. (As a side note, Kidman’s performance is quite good, although it’s a bit jarring to see a woman in her 50s playing a woman in her 20s for the first third of the film, the same way it is jarring to see Harrison Ford playing action roles in his mid 60s. As a result, I never once forgot I was watching an actress at work. But with a performer of Kidman’s skill, that’s not always a bad thing.)

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Kidman as a 25-year old Bell with James Franco as the doomed Cadogan

Herzog builds the film around two failed and unconsummated love affairs, with Cadogan, whom she can’t marry because he’s badly in debt, and with Charles Doughty-Wylie (Damien Lewis), whom she can’t marry because he’s trapped in an unhappy marriage with a woman who is threatening to commit suicide if he leaves her. To escape his bind, he enlists when the War comes and probably intentionally gets himself killed at Gallipoli (which might be a bit of a distortion, but it’s speculation by the character who tells Bell of his death). To find solace from Cadogan’s death, she turns to exploring Syria, and to find solace from Doughty-Wylie’s death, she seems to focus on getting thrones for the Hashemite princes. So the film essentially uses her failed relationships as an explanation for why she becomes an explorer, which seems both to oversimplify and distort Bell’s wanderlust. She was an explorer because she wanted to explore and learn, not because she was a sad spinster.

And at the same time, although the film accurately captures major moments in her travels, it utterly fails to convey a sense of who this woman was, why she traveled, and what people made of her. On two separate occasions, she is captured, first by Druze tribesmen in Lebanon and then by Arab tribesmen in Arabia. But in the very next scene, the tribal chieftain is so charmed by her that he lets her go, and at no point is it clear what they find so charming about her. It’s not a failure in Kidman’s performance. It’s just that Herzog can’t convey either what Bell found so compelling about Arab society or what Arab leaders found so interesting about her. Her ability to learn about Arab culture and build relationships with Arab leaders is never explored in anything but the most superficial way, merely taken as a given, the same way that her remarkable gift for languages is condensed to a single scene in which Cadogan gives her a lesson in reading Farsi and a later comment that her Arabic pronunciation is very good. So the movie just sort of hand-waves what ought to have been a core part of her story.

Most frustratingly for me, the film focuses on the superficial story of her wanderings and almost entirely leaves out the complex political issues that Bell became so deeply involved while she was stationed in Cairo and Baghdad. She meanders around the Middle East, has men fall in love with her (or fall in like with her, in Lawrence’s case), charms Arab leaders, and get sad when Cadogan and Doughty-Wylie die. The end. There are two scenes of British leaders debating what to do with the Middle East, but the deliberations can be mostly summarized as “we’ll let the French have Syria and Lebanon, and good riddance”. The actual issues aren’t explained at all, and it’s never very clear why Bell’s contribution matters, because she’s not even in those scenes. Then right at the end, she tells Faisal and Abdullah (both of whom are seen for the first time in this scene without any real exploration of who they are) that they will both be rulers. She gets on a camel and rides off into the desert as they watch and marvel at this prediction, and we get an epilogue text. It kind of feels like a movie about Teddy Roosevelt where they forget to mention that he became president. Bell deserves a movie like Fitzcarraldo, not Queen of the Desert.

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Oops, wrong Queen of the Desert

You might be forgiven for leaving this movie with absolutely no idea that she basically drew the map for the region the United States has been entangled with since the 1990s, because if you don’t come into the movie knowing it, the movie will never tell you. Herzog got all the facts right but told the wrong story and told it surprisingly poorly.

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Want to Know More?

Queen of the Desert is available through Amazon. Honestly, though, unless you are a fan of Nicole Kidman, you can probably skip this and watch the PBS documentary Letters from Baghdad instead.

If you want to read up on Bell, you might try Gertrude Bell: Queen of the Desert, Shaper of Nations. Or read her own words in A Woman in Arabia: The Writings of Gertrude BellIt’s the basis for the PBS documentary.

Outlaw King: Better Than Braveheart

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I finally had time to watch something for this blog after my semester from hell. Hopefully I’ll be able to get to a more regular posting scheduled now. The film I watched is Netflix’ Outlaw King(2018, dir. David Mackenzie). The film tells the story of the early days of the rebellion of Robert the Bruce (Chris Pine) against the English kings Edward I (Stephen Dillane) and Edward II (Billy Howle).

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Robert the Bruce

Robert the Bruce (which is an Anglicization of “Robert de Brus”) was descended from a line of Anglo-Norman nobles who arrived in Scotland in the 1120s. On his father’s side he was descended from the Scottish king David I (r. 1124-1153). His grandfather had staked a claim to the throne in 1290, when the Scottish throne became vacant, along with about a dozen other claimants. That “Great Cause” ultimately resulted in King Edward I being invited into to resolve the competing claims. But Edward made all the candidates swear loyalty to him and then refused to render a verdict, essentially seeking to incorporate Scotland into his kingdom despite not having a dynastic claim of his own. Edward correctly realized that with so many candidates, the Scots would have a lot of trouble organizing an effective resistance to him.

What he hadn’t counted on was the rebellion of Sir Andrew Moray and Sir William Wallace in 1297. That rebellion was militarily defeated at Falkirk in 1298, but Wallace continued a bandit resistance until he was captured in 1305, thus making it hard for the English to have complete control.

During all this, the Bruce family was caught between loyalty to Edward and rebellion against him, because they held land in both Scotland and England and resisting Edward would surely have meant losing their English holdings. (To confuse you, there have been lots of guys named ‘Robert the Bruce’. To spare you as much confusion as possible, I’m going to call his ancestors the Lords of Annandale and save ‘Robert the Bruce’ for the famous rebel.) So instead the family played both sides. Bruce’s grandfather, the 5thEarl Lord of Annandale, turned over his Scottish lands and claim to the throne to his son, the 6thLord of Annandale, who pretty quickly turned them over to his son Robert. That way, Robert could participate in Moray’s rebellion while the Lords of Annandale supported Edward and opposed Moray and Wallace.

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A modern reconstruction of Bruce’s face

But Bruce eventually quickly concluded that Wallace had little chance of success, because he submitted to Edward and reportedly fought on his behalf at Falkirk, helping to defeat Wallace. This was to prove one of Bruce’s biggest obstacles to getting the throne, because his family and he had switched sides so often that when finally made a bid for the crown, few of the Scottish lords were willing to trust him.

By the time Wallace was caught, there were only two real claimants to the Scottish throne left, Robert the Bruce and John Comyn (sometimes called the ‘Red Comyn’, to distinguish him from a cousin John Comyn the Black Comyn). The two of them were essentially rivals, and it’s pretty clear that at least from the start of Andrew Moray’s rebellion, Bruce was always angling for the throne. Neither Moray nor Wallace had any sort of claim to rule Scotland and neither ever asserted a desire to be king. Their cause was just independence from English rule.

By the end of 1305, Edward was starting to suspect that he could not trust Bruce, because he revoked a grant of land he had given Bruce earlier in the year. It was a smart call, because mid-way through 1305, Bruce and Comyn had entered into a secret deal in which Comyn agreed to surrender his claim to the Scottish throne in exchange for Bruce’s lands. At least, that’s what two later sources claim. Bruce’s claim to the throne was stronger than Comyn’s, so it makes sense that Comyn might have decided that land in the hand was worth more than a weak claim in the bush.

At some point, however, Comyn appears to have spilled the beans to Edward and Bruce seems to have found out. He was at the English court and was reportedly warned that he needed to flee, which he did. When he got back to Scotland, Bruce sent a message requesting a meeting at the Franciscan monastery at Dumfries, and Comyn and his uncle showed up. Exactly what transpired at the meeting is unclear, but at some point Bruce pulled a dagger and stabbed Comyn. According to a not entirely certain story, Bruce left the chapel and commented to his men something to the effect that “I doubt I’ve killed John Comyn”. Reportedly one of them responded, “You doubt? I mak sikkar!” (“I’ll make sure”) Two of his men rushed into the chapel and killed both the Red Comyn and his uncle.

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Edward II

Whether the famous dialog happened or not, it’s certain that Bruce sacrilegiously murdered his rival. It’s likely, though not provable, that he went to Dumfries planning to at least confront Comyn and probably to kill him for betraying him. English sources depict Bruce as having premeditated the killing, but they’re obviously quite biased.

With such a blatant murder on his hands, Bruce was now committed to rebellion. So he immediately attacked Dumfries castle and forced the English garrison to surrender to him. The Scottish bishops pardoned Robert’s sacrilege and immediately agreed to support him as king, and 6 weeks later he was crowned at Scone, with several of the leading nobles present. A day later, Countess Isabella of Buchan, who was married to the Black Comyn, showed up. As a member of the MacDuff family, she claimed the right to perform the actual coronation, so the ceremony was repeated to strengthen Bruce’s somewhat shaky claim.

By June, Edward’s lieutenant in Scotland, Aymer de Valence, had arrived with a force at Perth. Bruce laid siege to Perth, but rather foolishly failed to take precautions against an attack by de Valence’s forces. He didn’t establish even basic defenses around his camp, so when de Valence’s forces launched a pre-dawn assault on his position, his whole army was routed and he and his family had to flee. The Battle of Methven, as this humiliating defeat is known, was an inauspicious start to his rebellion, and worse was to come.

For safety, he sent his wife, his daughter Marjorie, two sisters, and Isabella of Buchan to Kildrummy Castle with his brother Neil to protect them, but the English forces soon caught up to them. The women were able to flee the castle in time, but Neil was captured when the castle feel and immediately executed. Elizabeth and the other women were caught not long afterward by supporters of the Comyns. They were all sent into captivity in England. Isabella and Bruce’s sister Mary were put into cages that hung from the walls of the castles at Berwick and Roxburgh, while Elizabeth was held at a series of castles for the next eight years.

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A possible depiction of Aymer de Valence from his tomb

These events forced the Black Comyn to side with the English against Bruce. In addition to Bruce being a rival to his claim on the throne, he had also murdered Comyn’s cousin and basically won the loyalty of the Black Comyn’s wife Isabella and gotten her captured and humiliated. In some ways he was Bruce’s biggest threat in the months after Methven. Bruce spent the winter of 1306-7 on the run, probably hiding out in the Hebrides, although his movements in this period are uncertain. He sent two of his brothers to gain control of southwest Scotland, but as they crossed Loch Ryan they were ambushed by MacDugall forces who were loyal to the Comyns; Bruce’s forces were again routed and both his brothers were sent to Carlisle, where Edward had them beheaded. The invasion of Loch Ryan may have been intended as a distraction to Bruce’s own landing in Galloway. In that case, it worked, but at quite a cost.

Bruce managed to win a small victory at Glen Trool, forcing de Valence’s forces to retreat by attacking them as they moved single-file through a rocky track along Clatteringshaws Loch. It was more of a propaganda victory than a strategic one, but it proved that Bruce had some ability to win, something he desperately needed if his rebellion was to succeed.

A far more important victory awaited him. He seems to have learned a lesson from Methven that he was fighting against superior forces and needed to be more tactical. A month later, he confronted de Valence’s forces at Loudoun Hill, where he was able to control the terms of the battle. He did a good job preparing the battle site and was able to inflict a serious defeat on the English. We’ll discuss it at length in a little bit.

Loudoun Hill was Bruce’s first significant victory, and it marks the start of a gradual turning poin tin his rebellion. Edward I died two months later, having been kept by illness at Lanercost monastery just south of the Scottish border for several months. Over the next year, Bruce ravaged Comyn-controlled parts of Scotland, demonstrating that the Scots could brutalize each other at least as effectively as the English had, and by 1309 he was sufficiently dominant that he could summon the Scottish Parliament to meet. Finally, in 1314, Bruce inflicted a massive defeat on Edward II at Bannockburn. That victory essentially re-established Scottish independence from England, although the conflict dragged on for years.

Outlaw King

The film focuses essentially on the period between 1304 and 1307, thus exploring only the period of Bruce’s fumbling beginnings as a rebel to the turning point of Loudoun Hill. It opens with a meeting between Edward I and various Scottish nobles outside Sterling Castle, which Edward is sieging while the Scottish nobles make their submission to them. Edward demonstrates the construction of a massive trebuchet which he fires at the castle (with a flaming missile, of course, because they’re absolutely necessary in films these days). Then he allows the castle to surrender. This is a nice historical touch, because in fact when Edward sieged Sterling Castle, he did delay accepting its surrender until he could try out the enormous siege engine he had had built.

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Pine’s Bruce is shaggy and brooding throughout the film

In the feast that follows, it’s announced that Bruce’s father has arranged the marriage of Bruce to Elizabeth de Burgh (Florence Pugh). In fact, they were married in 1302 and already had at least one daughter when Bruce launched his rebellion.

The film then moves forward to 1306 and has the mandatory tax collection sequence, because collecting taxes is how you know medieval kings are bad. During the tax collection Bruce starts to realize how unpopular the English are, and then word arrives that William Wallace’ arm has been tied to the market cross, prompting a riot. Bruce promptly returns home, tells his brothers they’re all going to revolt, and then meets the Red Comyn (Callen Mulvay) in an effort to persuade him to work together. Comyn, however, villainously tells Bruce that he’s going to betray Bruce to Edward, thereby eliminating his rival for the crown, thus forcing Bruce to stab him to death. So as the film presents it, Bruce is a very reluctant rebel, rebelling only because everyone hates the English, he’s upset that Wallace has been executed, and Comyn forced him to commit sacrilegious murder.

To put it politely, that’s an extremely generous interpretation of events. Wallace had been dead for a year before Bruce started his rebellion, so it’s unlikely that his execution had any significant influence over Bruce. Most historians feel that Bruce was already determined to rebel when he invited Comyn to the Dumfries meeting, and it’s likely that he called the meeting intending to kill his rival. Far from being a reluctant and selfless rebel, Bruce’s family had been self-serving in its pursuit of the crown and their best interests for a generation. Bruce’s rebellion was purely about his own ambitions.

The two coronations at Scone have been collapsed into a single event, which is understandable, and Isabella of Buchan performs the coronation, although no explanation is offered as to who she is or why she’s doing it.

Bruce offers to meet de Valence in single combat to decide who’s going to control Perth, and de Valence accepts but then underhandedly launches a night-time attack on Bruce, complete with flaming arrows, because when you’re launching a sneak attack you definitely want to make sure your enemies can see your arrows on the way in. So the film positions the Battle of Methven as an act of base treachery against a trusting Bruce. In reality, Bruce did offer de Valence single combat, but de Valence turned the offer down, and Bruce rather foolishly assumed that this meant de Valence wouldn’t attack. So, as with the murder of John Comyn, the film is trying to make Bruce look better than he was. His defeat at Methven was a sign that he was a rather green commander, not that de Valence was especially villainous.

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Stephan Dillane as Edward I

Then Prince Edward captures Kildrummy Castle and apprehends Bruce’s women just outside the castle, which is inaccurate but probably a forgivable compression of events. But it’s Elizabeth who gets hung in a cage outside a castle, not Isabella.

After that, Edward I gives Prince Edward permission to ‘unfurl the dragon’, which apparently means that the English have permission to be unchivalrous when they fight. This is totally fabricated, and again seems intended to explain why Bruce is doing so badly at the start of the start of his rebellion—he hasn’t yet learned to fight dirty.

The Battle of Loch Ryan is presented as Bruce’s forces retreating out to the Hebrides to lick their wounds and being treacherously attacked by the MacDugall forces, instead of as an invasion attempt that went badly. The attack happens after Bruce has already gotten across the Loch, so he’s unable to get to back to the fight until it’s already become a disastrous rout.

Then we see Bruce training his forces to fight dirty, which in this case is killing the horses of the knights (something that medieval knights would actually have considered a violation of the rules of warfare) and then they launch sneak attacks on a couple of castles, retake them and burn them. This seems to be a rather garbled presentation of Bruce’s harrowing of Comyn’s lands and a very soft-pedaled harrowing to boot. Can’t have Bruce looking bad.

Then Edward I dies. His son is a complete dick, promising his father to carry his father’s bones into Scotland and then just giving an order to bury him when he died. This is wrong, since Edward died about two months later. An unreliable story claims that he asked his son to either carry his bones into Scotland or carry his heart to the Holy Land, but in reality, Edward had his dad’s body shipped back to London where it was give a proper, if somewhat simple, burial. The grave was opened in the 18thcentury and his body found to be in remarkably good condition. All of this is clearly intended to build up Edward II as a villain.

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Howle as Edward II. The armor isn’t very accurate, but it looks pretty on screen

Loudoun Hill

The film climaxes at Loudon Hill. Historically, Bruce identified Loudoun Hill as an ideal place to fight because it was located on a key road that de Valence’s forces would have to pass through. He chose Loudoun Hill because it was a relatively narrow stretch of dry land running between two large bogs. Bruce had his men narrow the dry ground by digging a series of trenches inward from the two bogs, thus creating a tight bottleneck at the base of a hill and sharply reducing the English advantage of numbers while rendering cavalry almost useless. In doing this, he may have been inspired by a similar tactic employed by the Flemish against the French cavalry at the battle of Courtrai in 1302. When the English cavalry advance, they found themselves forced to attack Bruce’s spearmen through a narrow causeway and up a slope. The result was that the Scots broke the English charge and inflicted enough damage that the English forces fell back in confusion and de Valance fled the scene. It was not a total rout, however; only about 100 English soldiers were killed. But, as I noted, it was a crucial battle because it demonstrated that Bruce could win a solid open-field victory against numerically superior forces.

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Loudoun Hill

The film gets Loudoun Hill roughly right, but exaggerates several important points. Bruce himself helps dig the ditches. There’s no evidence of that, but modern audiences like to see kings acting like the common man. In reality, Edward II actually enjoyed ditch-digging—manual labor like digging ditches and laying bricks was a hobby of his—but the film wants to make Edward look worse than he was to make Bruce look better. Bruce’s men also fill the ditch with sharpened stakes, which didn’t happen. Instead of de Valance, it’s Edward who’s in command, when in reality, Edward wasn’t king yet and wasn’t in Scotland at all.

At the start, Bruce stations some of his men in front of the ditch, thus disguising its presence from the English. When the English charge, the Scots scurry behind the ditch, causing the English to crash into the spike-filled ditches. Then the Scots attack, using mostly swords and axes rather than spears. While not exactly correctly, this isn’t so outrageously wrong as to be a serious problem because it does get the basic dynamic of the battle right, although the slope of the hill is behind the Scots and not a factor in the fight.

Edward rides into the battle, but gets unhorsed. Bruce fights him in single combat, soundly defeats him, and then allows him to flee back to his troops. Of all the inaccuracies in the film, this is, for me at least, the most problematic. Not only was Edward not present at the battle, but if he had been and if Bruce had defeated in combat, he would almost certainly have taken Edward prisoner. Having Edward as prisoner would have ended the war right then and there. The English would not have dared attack while their king was prisoner, so Bruce would have been able to dictate the terms of an abject surrender to the English. More importantly, Edward had not fathered any children at this point in his life. If Bruce had killed Edward, there would have been a serious political crisis in England, because Edward’s presumptive heir at this point was his seven-year old half-brother Thomas of Brotherton, and there would probably have been a power struggle within the English government to see who would run the government during the prolonged royal minority. So had Bruce actually allowed (the not actually yet) King Edward II to run off the battlefield, he would have blown the biggest political opportunity of his reign.

Other Thoughts

Throughout the film, I couldn’t help comparing it to Mel Gibson’s rather more famous Braveheart. Although Outlaw King gets a fair number of things wrong and consistently massages the facts to make Bruce seem a more decent man than he was, it’s still light-years better than Braveheart in terms of historical accuracy. For starters, there’s nary a kilt in sight. The costuming at least tried to look period and, in FrockFlick’s opinion got at least halfway there, although a lot of the women are wearing barbettes without a headpiece, making all of Elizabeth’s ladies look like they had bad toothaches that day.

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Waiting for the dentist to come through town

Another way that Outlaw King is superior to Braveheart is that both Edward I and Edward II are treated more fairly. Edward I is not a sneering villain bent on sexing his daughter-in-law, and Billy Howle’s Prince Edward isn’t the limp-wristed sissyboy of Gibson’s film. He’s an angry young man eager to move out of his father’s shadow, which at least makes sense as a characterization, and the film accurately depicts his eagerness for battle.

Pine’s Bruce, on the other hand, is a surprisingly bland hero whose shaggy beard and haircut are probably his most notable characteristic. He spends a lot of time looking moodily at the camera, brooding about how poorly his rebellion is going. To the extent that the film succeeds, I think it’s more despite Pine’s performance than because of it. Given that Pine spends an enormous amount of time on-screen, the weakness of his performance results in a film that lacks energy except in the fight scenes, and it’s not surprising that Mackenzie cut 20 minutes from the film after a test audience told him it was boring.

So overall, Outlaw King is kind of a big Meh. It’s not a bad film, but it’s nowhere near what I would call a good film. It’s more accurate than Braveheart, but then so is the average grade school production of Snow White.

Want to Know More?

Outlaw King is available on Netflix.

Fiona Watson’s Traitor, Outlaw, King: Part One The Making of Robert the Bruce offers a reasonable, non-romantic, non-patriotic take on him, making it one of the best things available on Bruce.

The Favourite: Random Thoughts

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I am very sorry for the long delay in posting. This semester has been hellishly busy with seemingly endless rounds of exam grading and other work that have left no time or energy to do more enjoyable things like blogging. But I finally have a spare moment, so I figured I should finish up my thoughts about The Favourite (2018, dir. Yorgos Lanthimos). Sadly, I’ve forgotten a number of the things I wanted to say about it, so this post is going to be rather bullet-pointy.

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  • At the start of the film, Anne (Olivia Colman) is thinking about building a palace for Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz) and her husband. This is quite problematic. The film must be set after 1711, because Anne’s husband Prince George is dead (the film never touches on the fact that she must be grieving for him). But work started on Blenheim Palace in 1705 and by 1711 it was already quite advanced, although when Anne and Sarah had their final break in 1712 the building was still unfinished and Parliamentary funding for it got shut off until after Anne’s death.
  • The same scene presents Anne as thinking that the battle of Blenheim meant that the war with the French was basically over. Sarah has to correct her, and the scene serves to establish that Anne is basically incapable of running the government and that Sarah is functionally Anne’s prime minister. This is simply untrue. Anne was not an intellectually-gifted woman, but she took her duties as sovereign very seriously and was actively involved in the day-to-day affairs of state. Her stubborn insistence on particular courses of action occasionally frustrated her ministers and advisors because they had no way to over-rule her when she put her foot down.
  • Similarly, Sarah was not the driving force behind Anne’s government. The film suggests that she basically lived in Anne’s palace and ran the government consistently for a decade. Sarah certainly spent a good deal of time in Anne’s household, but she also spent an enormous amount of time at the Churchill family estates because, among other things, she produced seven children with her husband, all but two of whom survived into their late teen years or beyond. That means that a good deal of Sarah’s time was spent at home tending her family like any good early 18thcentury woman was expected to do. She was also an astute manager of the family estates, which would also have occupied a good deal of her time and attention. And she was also occupied with the construction of Blenheim Palace. One of the reasons we know so much about these two women’s relationship is that they wrote each other letters constantly precisely because they weren’t always together. Anne certainly listened to Sarah’s ideas, but she often disagreed with them.
  • One scene shows Sarah basically writing Anne’s parliamentary speech for her. This is certainly untrue. Royal speeches were written by the queen’s ministers. Drafts might go back and forth between the queen and her officials with revisions, insertions, and so on, but Sarah Churchill would have had only a minimal role in that process.
  • The phrase “prime minister” gets used several times in the film, which two factions competing for the office. That office wouldn’t exist for about a decade at the time of the film. It evolved during the reign of George I (1715-1727), in part because George was also the ruler of Hanover and therefore did not reside full-time in England, thus making it necessary for him to have an official who exercised a greater degree of governmental oversight that had been traditional in previous reigns. The first Prime Minister, Robert Walpole, held three offices that had traditionally been separate—First Lord of the Treasury, Chancellor of the Exchequer, and Leader of the House of the Commons. This collection of offices made him the most powerful man in government. So the film is being anachronistic here, but only by about a decade or so.
  • The last act turns on Abigail’s (Emma Stone) scheming. She drugs Sarah’s tea, so that when Sarah goes riding, she passes out, injures herself, and awakens in a brothel with a horrible scar on her cheek that she spends the rest of the film covering up with a lace veil. That is entirely invented. There is absolutely no basis for it at all.
  • While Sarah Churchill was convinced that her fall from grace was caused by Abigail Hill displacing her as Anne’s favorite, there is little evidence that Anne considered Abigail anything more than a servant she liked. There is no evidence that Abigail had any meaningful influence with Anne over political matters or anything else substantive. Sarah’s fall was much more deeply rooted in Sarah’s own overbearing personality, which Anne slowly tired of as time went by, especially given Sarah’s tendency to bully Anne about political decisions that she disagreed with. When Prince George died, Sarah refused to wear mourning clothes, implying that Anne’s dramatic gestures of grief were faked, and Sarah ordered George’s portrait taken out of the queen’s bedroom, which Anne found profoundly cruel. The final precipitant for the break was an incident in which Sarah and Anne were riding to church in a carriage and got into a disagreement. As they reached the church, Sarah told Anne to be quiet lest the crowds hear them quarreling. Anne found Sarah’s shushing of her to be insulting and presumptuous.
  • The whole “rabbits as substitute children” thing is made up.

I like The Favourite, but the longer I sit with it, the more I can’t shake the feeling that there’s something misogynistic about it. None of the women in it come across well: Anne is petulant, weak, and stubborn. Sarah is arrogant and presumptuous, although she insists she just loves the queen. Abigail is a liar and schemer who at the end of the film literally tortures a rabbit just because she can. The film punishes all three women with its conclusion: Anne has swapped lovers but she knows Abigail doesn’t really love her. Abigail has gotten power, but the price is sexually servicing a queen who despises and torments her. Sarah has fallen from grace, lost her best friend, been forced to go into exile because of an unjust legal charge, and lost her beauty.

Although in theory these women are struggling about political power, none of the political issues matter to the viewer at all, so it’s really just a three-sided cat-fight in which the weapons are sex, lies, and drugs, all traditionally weapons attributed to women. So while nominally feminist in its approach, the film falls back on traditional ideas about women as schemers, poisoners, and seducers. It’s great that Lanthimos made a film with three female leads, all of whom are richly complex characters. I just wish he could have made a film that actually liked its characters.

 

Want to Know More?

The Favourite is available on Amazon now.

Although it’s close to 40 years old now, Edward Gregg’s Queen Anne is still probably the essential historical take on her.

The Favourite: Was Queen Anne a Lesbian?

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 A key plot point of The Favourite (2018, dir. Yorgos Lanthimos) is that Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) is in a secret lesbian relationship with Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz). When Abigail (Emma Stone) discovers this, she sets out to replace Sarah in Anne’s bed as well as her confidences. When Sarah discovers that she’s been replaced, she blackmails Anne by threating to publish Anne’s letters which would reveal their intimacies. The film is pretty explicit, presenting sex scenes and showing Abigail naked in Anne’s bed. So how true is this? Was Anne a lesbian?

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“Spoiler” Alert: Since the film is still in the theaters, you may wish to see the film before you read this review, since I do discuss key details of the film. However, if you know anything about Anne and Sarah Churchill, there’s not really anything to spoil. There are no unexpected plot twists, so you can probably just keep reading.

First, as I’ve mentioned before, analyzing the sexuality of historical figures can be difficult. The modern language of homosexual/bisexual/heterosexual didn’t exist until the later 19thcentury, and the concept of ‘sexual orientation’ didn’t exist either. The word ‘lesbian’ wouldn’t acquire its modern usage until that time. (Prior to then, it just meant someone from the island of Lesbos.) However, for the purpose of this post, I’m going to refer to female same-sex desires and sexuality activity as “lesbianism”, simply because it’s the term we tend to use nowadays. Note that the term as I am using it here doesn’t refer purely to women who felt desire exclusively for other women. All the women we’re going to discuss here were married and had multiple children, and so may have been bisexual as much as lesbian in modern terms.

In the 17thand 18thcenturies it was understood that some people did have sex with members of their own sex, but this was seen more as an immoral activity than an innate difference in their sexuality. In this period, male homosexuality was generally scorned. Female homosexuality was less acknowledged, in part because in the absence of a penis, it was less clear that what two women did in bed together was actually sex. (Indeed, there is evidence that some 19thcentury lesbians may not have recognized their own intimate relationships as sexual even when they seem to us to be having sex. If one thinks of sex purely as involving penetration with a penis, a kiss between two women is not sex, regardless of where that kiss might be planted.)

That said, the 17th century had a good deal of room for what we would see as homosexuality and bisexuality among both aristocratic men and women. Anne’s grandfather James I was known to have had many male favorites (although there is no clear evidence he had sex with any of them), and her brother-in-law William III was rumored to have developed a taste for men after his wife’s death (although again, there’s no solid proof he ever did anything). There was a strong culture of female ‘Romantic Friendship’ in the Stuart period, in which women were encouraged and expected to express their feelings for female friends in terms comparable to those expected between a heterosexual couple. The culture of Romantic Friendship particularly flourished in the period after the Restoration of the Monarchy in 1660.

Some scholars, especially LGBT scholars, have explored the extent to which Romantic Friendship may have expressed or served as cover for actual lesbian relationships. There was court gossip about ladies-in-waiting having affairs with each other. While this was immoral by the standards of the day, it wasn’t illegal (whereas male homosexuality was), and because it posed no threat to a man’s control of his wife’s reproduction, it was mostly permitted.

If this interests you, you might check out Heather Rose Jones’s Lesbian Historic Motif podcast. Jones is a historical fiction author who has done a good deal of writing exploring the lesbian text and subtext of late Stuart literature and devotes a whole episode of her podcast to the question of Anne’s sexuality, where she digs into the context more deeply than I do here. (She takes a much more favorable view of Sarah Churchill than I do, tending to accept Sarah’s characterization of Abigail Hill as a schemer and viewing Anne as vulnerable to the manipulations of others.)

 

Anne’s Marriage

The starting point for any discussion of Anne’s sexuality has to be her marriage, because it provides our only solid evidence for Anne’s sexual activity. Anne married her cousin Prince George of Denmark in 1683, when she was 18 years old. The marriage was arranged a few years earlier for diplomatic reasons, so Anne had no real choice as to her husband.

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Queen Anne

The marriage lasted down until George’s death from respiratory problems in 1708. By most measures, it was a happy marriage. Anne and George got along quite well, and spent the majority of their marriage living together, which was definitely not a requirement of marriages at the time. George was not a particularly ambitious man and seems to have been quite clear that he was the junior partner in the marriage, especially after Anne became queen. During her reign, he only ever attempted to strongly influence her once, when he sought to persuade her that she had to accept the removal of one of her trusted ministers. To judge by the frequency with which Anne got pregnant (three times in one year at one point), they appear to have had a very healthy sex life, and Anne was deeply distressed when George died. Soon after his death, Sarah ordered his portrait removed from Anne’s bedroom, on the theory that seeing the portrait would increase Anne’s distress, but Anne was very upset by the action and found Sarah to be cruel.

The one way in which the couple were not happy was in the area of child-bearing. In this arena, the couple suffered profound tragedy. For a woman in her position, having a child was a vital consideration, and on top of that Anne seems to have had very intense maternal instincts. But her health was poor most of her life (indeed, she was essentially an invalid her entire reign), and bringing a healthy child to term was extremely difficult for her.

She got pregnant very soon after her marriage and between then and 1700, she had at least 17 pregnancies. (I say “at least” because she also had either two or three false pregnancies. There is some uncertainty about the outcome of the first of those potential false pregnancies.) Of those 17 definite pregnancies, 7 ended in miscarriages, 5 ended in stillbirths, and 5 ended in live births. Of the five live births, two lived for less than two hours. Her daughter Mary was born in June of 1685 and her daughter Anna Sophia was born in May of 1686. Both died in February of 1687 from smallpox.

Only William, born in 1689, made it out of infancy. But he was always a sickly child. He suffered from convulsions and hydrocephalus (“water on the brain”) and experienced developmental problems; he didn’t walk until he was three and wasn’t really speaking until he was five. But in 1700 he fell ill on his eleventh birthday with what was variously diagnosed as smallpox or scarlet fever and died six days later. Anne had suffered a stillbirth earlier the same year, and so she and George hoped that she might still produce a child, but that stillbirth was her last known pregnancy.

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Prince George of Denmark

Anne’s tragedy, then, was that despite being able to get pregnant quite easily and being desirous to have children, her own medical conditions apparently made it very difficult for her bring a healthy child to term. The loss of so many children was unusual, even by the standards of her day in which high rates of child mortality were common. Her mother Anne Hyde had 8 children, three of whom lived less than a year and three more of whom died before the age of five. Her older sister Mary suffered between one and four miscarriages and never had a sustained pregnancy. So the Stuarts were familiar with this sort of domestic tragedy, but not on the same scale.

If all we had to go on was the available facts of her marriage, no one would suspect that Anne was anything other than a heterosexual woman with a healthy libido and a close relationship with her husband for 25 years. So where do these suspicions of lesbianism come from?

 

Sarah Churchill

Anne seems to have had a strong need for a female presence in her life. Between age 4 and age 6 ½, she lost her grandmother, her aunt, and her mother, and this may have contributed to a desire for an intimate relationship with a woman. She seems to have been close to her older sister Mary, but when Anne was 12, Mary left to get married to William of Orange and the two did not see each other much until Mary returned as queen in 1685, eight years later. Anne loathed her Catholic step-mother Mary of Modena and in 1688 actively spread rumors that her step-mother was faking a pregnancy. So Anne’s need for a female relationship could not be met within her family circle.

It’s also clear that there was some concern that Anne felt deep attachment to the women around her. When she was a girl, Anne’s father James became worried that Mary Cornwallis, one of Anne’s ladies-in-waiting, exercised too much influence over her and dismissed her. Her uncle Charles II is once reported to have said that “no man ever loved his mistress as [my] niece Anne did Mrs Cornwallis.”

Anne’s relationship with Sarah Churchill provided her with a female authority figure she could be close to. They met in 1671, when Anne was six and Sarah was eleven. Anne was a shy, quiet girl who grew into a shy, quiet woman, while Sarah was a witty, vivacious, confident girl who grew into an increasingly over-confident and arrogant woman. Anne may have been attracted to Sarah’s outgoing nature as the opposite of her own.

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Sarah Churchill. Note the key on her hip–that’s the symbol for her office as Mistress of the Privy Purse

For most of the remainder of Anne’s life, the two regularly exchanged letters that reflect an intense degree of feeling. One of Anne’s letters, from 1683, says “lett me beg you not to call me your highness but be as free with me as one friend ought to be with another & you can never give me any greater proofe of your frieindship then in telling me your mind freely in all things.” (quoted in Gregg, Queen Anne, p. 81; all spelling is original) Sometime in the next 6-7 years, the two of them agreed to pet names for each other: Anne was Mrs Morley and Sarah was Mrs Freeman. This is not as strange as it sounds. Anne did something similar with another young female friend, and it was not uncommon in this era for people to use ‘cant’ names in correspondence as a way to be discreet. In Abigail’s surviving correspondence, Anne is her “aunte Pye”.

Anne’s surviving letters are full of expressions of how deeply she loves Sarah. Phrases like “dear Mrs Freeman” and “your poor unfortunate faithful Morly” recur over and over in Anne’s writing. When Sarah and her husband talked of returning to their estates not long after Anne’s coronation, Anne wrote, ‘The thoughts that both my dear Mrs Freeman & Mr Freeman seems to have of retyering [retyring] gives me no small uneasiness…if ever you should forsake me, I would have nother more to do with the world, but make another abdication…I never will forsake your dear self, Mr. Freeman…but allways be your constant faithfull servant…” (quoted in Gregg, Queen Anne, p. 171).

Although contemporaries commented on how close they were and how much they loved each other, they weren’t so close that Sarah didn’t spent a great deal of time away from court. In her letters, Anne frequently complains of Sarah’s absence and asks her to come back to court. The Favouritedepicts Sarah as almost entirely living at Anne’s (unspecified) palace, but this is definitely untrue.

But there are two things missing from the picture provided by the correspondence. One is Sarah’s half of the correspondence. Anne, following Sarah’s request, burned most of Sarah’s letters after reading them. So we can’t easily gauge whether Sarah’s letters included such fervent statements of devotion or whether the relationship was more about Anne adoring Sarah because Anne needed someone to devote herself to. It seems clear that Sarah must have returned Anne’s devotion to some extent; Anne was neither blind nor stupid. But whether Sarah reciprocated Anne’s emotional outpourings the way a romantic partner might is just not clear.

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George and Anne

The other thing that’s missing is anything overtly sexual in these letters. Anne clearly loved Sarah deeply, but there’s no indication in the letters that she loved Sarah carnally. She desired Sarah’s presence and attention, but there’s no evidence that she desired Sarah’s body.

Starting in the 1980s, LGBT scholars and amateur historians became interested in “queering the past”. Queering, simply stated, involves looking at an historical person and asking if there is any evidence that person was homosexual. Queering attempts to reclaim a lost LGBT past by reading historical evidence the way LGBT people have often learned to read each other’s small clues of body language, clothing, grooming, and speech. It’s sort of an exercise in ‘historical gaydar’. Because LGBT people generally have to learn to read each other’s subtext to find each other, the idea is that LGBT scholars can spot evidence of same-sex desires in the writings and activities of historical figures.

So while at first glance Anne’s letters seem completely non-sexual, some people have detected veiled sexual desire in words like “passion” and “inclination”. Personally, while I’m very sympathetic to the project of reclaiming the LGBT past, in Anne’s case, I don’t see it, and most other scholars don’t see it either. Anne doesn’t make much reference to Sarah’s appearance or body, she doesn’t mention any desire to touch or hold Sarah, she doesn’t resort to sexually-suggestive metaphors. She just says she loves Sarah, misses her, is devoted to her. This seems to be the language of friendship, not sexual desire.

If all we had to go on was Anne’s letters, there is no reason to think that this relationship was anything other than the sort of typical emotionally intimate relationship 17thand 18thcentury women were encouraged to have with each other. So where do these suspicions of lesbianism come from?

 

Enter Abigail

Abigail Hill entered Anne’s service probably in 1697 or so, when Anne determined that one of her “women of the bedchamber” was becoming too old to perform her duties. The women of the bedchamber performed tasks such as helping the queen bathe and dress (but not menial tasks such as scrubbing floors or doing laundry). By 1705, Abigail had some degree of influence with the queen, who agreed to grant her brother a military commission.

In 1706, George’s groom Samuel Masham came back to court after an absence and evidently began romancing Abigail. A year later, the queen arranged to assign Masham command of a regiment that was normally stationed in Ireland while allowing him to remain at court. This was probably done because Samuel and Abigail were courting, since sometime between April and June of that year, the two of them married at Kensington Palace at a moment when Anne was residing there. Anne seems to have given Abigail a rather handsome dowry of £2,000.

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This portrait may or may not represent Abigail Masham

All of this was kept secret from Sarah, who only found out later that year when she noticed the queen’s withdrawal of the money from the account books (which Sarah, as Mistress of the Privy Purse, was responsible for). The queen realized that Sarah would take this poorly, and indeed she did, leaping immediately to the unwarranted conclusion that Abigail was now Anne’s favorite. Sarah retained that conviction for the rest of her life, even though it appears to have been untrue. Anne appears to always regarded Abigail as a servant, albeit one she was fond of. For example, Abigail seems to have had very little real influence with Anne in the realm politics; her cousin Edward Harley, who was one of Anne’s most relied- upon ministers, once remarked that while Abigail might be able to pull someone down in Anne’s sight, she did not have enough influence to build someone up. Her main contribution to the politics of her age was to act as a messenger and information conduit between Anne and Harley.

Anne and Sarah’s friendship had already been strained for several years at this point, but Sarah’s paranoia about Abigail caused things to rapidly deteriorate. She stopped residing at Kensington Palace, much to Anne’s dismay. But a year later, when she discovered that Abigail had been permitted to move into some of her rooms in the palace, she furiously paid a visit to court. She brought with her two poems that were currently circulating in London. One was an attack on Abigail’s influence with Harley. The other was about Abigail’s relationship with Anne. Here are four of the 35 verses (set to the tune of “Fair Rosamund,” a ballad about Henry II’s mistress):

 

When as Queen Anne of great Renown

Great Britain’s scepter sway’d,

Beside the Church, she dearly lov’d

A Dirty Chamber-Maid

 

O! Abigail that was her name,

She stich’d and starch’d full well,

But how she pierc’d this Royal Heart

No Mortal Man can tell.

 

However, for sweet Service done

And Causes of great Weight,

Her Royal Mistress made her, Oh!

A Minister of State.

 

Her Secretary she was not

Because she could not write

But had the Conduct and the Care

Of some dark Deeds at Night.

(quoted in Gregg, Queen Anne, p.275)

 

As if that weren’t enough of a hint, Sarah sent a letter to the Anne telling her about the existence of the poem and explaining the point of the song.

“…I remember you said att the same time of all things in this world, you valued most your reputation, which I confess surpris’d me very much, that your Majesty should so soon mention that word after having discover’d so great a passion for such a woman, for sure there can bee noe great reputation in a thing so strange & unaccountable, to say noe more of it, nor can I think the having noe inclenation for any but of one’s own sex is enough to maintain such a character as I wish may still be yours.” (quoted in Gregg,Queen Anne, p.275-6)

While neither the poem nor the letter explicitly says it, the implication is obvious–there are rumors that Anne is having sex with Abigail. This is the first solid evidence that anyone thought Anne was sexually interested in women.

Another anonymous pamphlet of the period depicts Abigail Masham having a fictional conversation with Madame de Maintenon, Louis XIV’s one-time mistress and now wife. In it, Abigail admits that she was suspected of having too-great an attachment to women, which caused her to find a husband to cover her sexual activities. The pamphlet doesn’t say she was having sex with the queen however. It leaves the identity of her lovers up to the reader’s imagination.

The fact that there was a poem and a pamphlet circulating in London gossiping about Anne’s and Abigail’s sexuality suggests at first glance that there must have been serious talk about that relationship. But there is more going on than it looks on the surface. Although it’s not proven, it’s usually thought that these poems and the pamphlet were written by Arthur Maynwaring, a hardcore Whig member of Parliament. He was also an author who specialized in scurrilous political writings that attacked the Crown and defended Whigs like Sarah’s husband. He was very close to Sarah and considered himself her secretary.

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Arthur Maynwaring

This raises the very real possibility that Maynwaring wrote this material at Sarah’s behest. Attacking one’s political opponents in anonymous writing was a common tactic in the late 17thcentury. Sarah was at one point the target of a thinly-veiled roman a clefthat depicts her as the center of a circle of lesbians at court. It’s also noteworthy that these works are not attacks on Anne; they’re directed at Abigail, which increases the likelihood that they are Sarah’s effort to undermine Abigail, not efforts to ruin Anne’s reputation.

This poem and this pamphlet are the entirety of the documentary evidence that Anne had sex with women, and they seem to originate from a woman who was bitterly angry at Anne for what she perceived as Anne’s mistreatment of her. If she herself did not ask Maynwaring to write these works, he certainly was drawing on what she had to say about Anne and Abigail. So these sources are not independent evidence that people in early 18thcentury London thought the queen was a lesbian. They’re really just evidence that someone, probably Sarah, was accusing Abigail of being a lesbian as a way to get Anne to dismiss her from the royal household.

Sarah continued making these claims to Anne until the final collapse of their friendship. But she went a step further. She pointed out to Anne that she could publish the queen’s letters to her if she wished, essentially resorting to blackmail, although she never actually did publish them. Anne clearly took these threats seriously. In the long run, Anne chose to pay her off. Unfortunately we don’t have the last of Sarah’s account books from her time as Mistress of the Privy Purse, but Edward Gregg speculates that Anne permitted Sarah to write off £20,000 that Sarah had borrowed from the Privy Purse to help fund the construction of Blenheim Palace, on top of giving her a £12,000 grant in 1708. That’s an enormous sum of money for the period. Basically, Sarah made out like a bandit from the end of her relationship with the queen.

To my mind, this fact—that the queen paid Sarah so much money to not publish her letters—is the only serious evidence that Anne may have been a lesbian. Why would Anne have paid Sarah off to such a degree if there wasn’t anything inappropriate in those letters?

There seem to be only three possibilities here. First, and least likely, perhaps those letters contained something inappropriate but non-sexual. It’s hard to imagine what that might be, and the fact that Sarah chose to make lesbianism the center of her threat also works against that, so we can probably discard that possibility.

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A coin of Anne’s reign

Second, Anne may have made more open references to sexual activity with women in those letters. If that’s the case, it would have had to have been sex with Sarah, not Abigail, because the letters in question mostly pre-date Sarah’s suspicion that Abigail was displacing her. So Sarah was threatening to reveal that she and Anne had been lovers by publishing letters that offered explicit or nearly-explicit references to them having sex. But if that’s true, it was a very risky gambit for Sarah, because actually following through on that threat would have revealed her as a lesbian, and it would have ruined her reputation as well as Anne’s. She was essentially holding a hand grenade and daring Anne to pull the pin, knowing it would blow both of them up. Given Sarah’s later obsession with controlling her reputation through her memoirs, it’s hard to imagine that she would ever have actually taken that step. If this is the right scenario, the incriminating letters must have been destroyed, because they’ve never come to light among the letters Sarah possessed.

Third, there was nothing more incriminating in those letters than Anne’s intense statements of devotion, but Sarah was playing on Anne’s shyness and need for privacy to make Anne feel threatened. Anne was an intensely private woman who only opened up to a few trusted friends. She was deeply loyal to the members of her household; Beata Danvers literally served Anne all the way through her life and reign and Anne only replaced Ellen Bust when it became clear that Ellen was close to death. Sarah’s break with Anne wasn’t just the end of a friendship; it must have felt like a profound betrayal of Anne’s trust, especially as it culminated in blackmail. Perhaps Sarah was able to make Anne think that those letters said something worse than they really did, that Anne had crossed some line into lesbian sentiment.

To me, the third scenario seems most likely. I’m simply not convinced that we have enough evidence to conclude that Anne ever had sex with another woman. It seems more plausible to me that these claims stemmed entirely from Sarah Churchill’s anger over the breakdown of her friendship and her sense, at least partly untrue, that her cousin Abigail had displaced her. There’s just no independent evidence that Anne engaged in sex with women and it’s too easy to see how Sarah might have fabricated the rumors for her own purposes. Even Jones seems to feel the evidence is inconclusive.

It’s also hard to write off Anne’s 17 pregnancies as merely pursuing her duty to produce an heir, especially given that those pregnancies were clearly damaging her health. If she had found sex with George unpleasant, she could easily have put off sex with the excuse that she was not recovered enough from her previous prenancies or that she was too frail. If Anne was involved in women, I think we have to say that she was bisexual rather than homosexual.

However, none of this goes to prove that Anne did not have lesbian desires. It’s clear that her relationships with her female friends were intense (although her love for Prince George seems to have been pretty intense as well and no one ever considers that as evidence that she was heterosexual). Those relationships were intense enough that people around her were aware of her strong affections for women, and this was a trait she demonstrated throughout her life. I don’t think her letters reveal definite evidence of same-sex attraction, but I don’t think we can say they don’t support at least the possibility of it. And the second possibility, that Anne’s letters contained something explicit, cannot be entirely discounted.

I’ll give Jones the last word on the issue:

“…When one digs through the coded language, even if one takes an extremely conservative position that the sexual allegations were all politically motivated, it’s undeniable that Anne’s deepest and most lasting relationships were all with women like Sarah Churchill and Abigail Masham, and that those relationships existed in a cultural context where other women with such bonds definitely wereengaging in sexual relationships. So, lesbian or not? The distinction seems scarcely worth making.”

 

Want to Know More?

The Favourite is still playing in theaters and so isn’t available on Amazon yet.

Although it’s close to 40 years old now, Edward Gregg’s Queen Anne is still probably the essential historical take on her.

If you’re interested in the issue of homoesexuality in late 17th century England, take a look at Valerie Traub, The Renaissance of Lesbians in Early Modern England and Alan Bray, Homosexuality in Renaissance England as well as Jones’ Lesbian Historical Motif podcast.


The Favourite: First Thoughts

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 Last week I got to see The Favourite (2018, dir. Yorgos Lanthimos), a movie about the cinematically-neglected Queen Anne of England (r.1702-1714). It’s a lovely film that focuses on Anne’s relationship with two women, Sarah Churchill and Abigail Hill, and there’s a good deal to say about it, so I’m going to give it two or three posts.

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“Spoiler” Alert: Since the film is still in the theaters, you may wish to see the film before you read this review, since I do discuss key details of the film. However, if you know anything about Anne and Sarah Churchill, there’s not really much to spoil. There are no unexpected plot twists, so you can probably just keep reading.

At the start of the film in 1708, Anne (Olivia Colman) is well into her reign as queen, and Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz) is her closest friend. Churchill is also the Keeper of the Privy Purse, meaning that she oversees the accounts of the royal household, and Groom of the Stole, meaning that she supervises the queen’s apartments. Anne is in poor health, using a wheelchair to get around, and she is fussy, sullen, lacking in self-confidence, and occasionally explosively demanding, which the film suggests is the consequence having lost 17 children (she keeps rabbits in her bedroom as substitute children). Sarah is self-assured to the point of arrogance, razor-smart, and adapt at managing the queen’s moods. She is Anne’s chief political advisor as well as her closest friend, and her decades of familiarity with Anne have trained her to be startling blunt with the queen. At one point she says “I will always tell you the truth. That’s what love is.” She is also Anne’s secret lover.

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Olivia Colman as Anne

Early on in the film, Sarah’s cousin Abigail (Emma Stone) arrives at court. She is the daughter of a minor aristocrat who has fallen on hard times, and so she has been sent to court in the hopes that her kinship with Anne will secure her position in the royal household. Sarah appoints her to the kitchen, but Abigail is either plucky or scheming (Stone does a good job of making it unclear which is the case at the start) and manages to attract Anne’s attention by giving her an herbal remedy that improves her gout. She recognizes Anne’s profound maternal sadness and allows her to express it in a way that Sarah will not. As Abigail rises in the queen’s favor, Sarah becomes jealous, worrying about her place in Anne’s affections, and the result is that Abigail and Sarah become locked in a struggle to see which will be Anne’s bed companion and confidante. In the end, Abigail drugs Sarah’s tea just before Sarah rides angrily from court; the result is that Sarah falls unconscious during her ride and eventually awakens, injured and stuck in a brothel. This gives Abigail the opening she needs to complete her ascendancy. By the time Sarah returns to court, she has been replaced and is forced to leave court. So basically, it’s All About Eve if Margo Channing and Eve Harrington were both trying to sleep with the same woman.

The Favourite is a fun movie. It has a surprising sense of humor for a period drama; it entirely avoids the danger that many costume dramas fall into of being so serious that they become airless. All three of the leads do an excellent job bringing their characters to life as believable people. The film’s depiction of the relationship between these three women is well-handled (although the drugged tea is a bit over the top).

What makes this so much more than just a cinematic cat-fight is that Anne and Sarah are genuinely at the center of their political world; Sarah is married to the duke of Marlborough (Mark Gatiss), the queen’s key general in the war with France and a leading member of the Whig party. As Sarah focuses her attention on the war, the leading Tory, Robert Harley (Nicholas Hoult) works to use Abigail as a spy against Sarah. So this isn’t just a film about three women in a complicated relationship. It’s also a film about three women engaging in political maneuvering around each other.

(And if you want a very deep look at the costumes, Frock Flicks has an extensive look at the what the costume designer had to say.)

 

Anne’s Reign

Anne is one of the more obscure English monarchs, at least in the public consciousness. She is the last of the Stuart dynasty, the Scottish dynasty that inherited the throne after the death of Elizabeth I (who to judge from the number of movies about her, must have been the most important British ruler ever). Her father, James II, made the mistake of being the first openly Catholic ruler since Mary I at a time when the English population was pretty hostile to Catholics. In 1688, after three years on the throne, Parliamentary leaders invited the leader of the Netherlands, William of Orange, to come help them out. The result was the Glorious Revolution, a bloodless coup in which James fled the country, Parliament decided that he had actually abdicated, and James’ Protestant daughter Mary was put on the throne jointly with her husband, the afore-mentioned William. William and Mary (you’ve heard of their college, right?) had no children, so it was clear when they stepped up to the throne that Anne was their likely heir.

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Rachel Weisz as Sarah Churchill (wearing men’s clothing for some reason)

This period saw the emergence of the first two political parties in English history, the Whigs and the Tories. To simplify some pretty complicated stuff, the Tories were the party of royal authority and High Church Anglicanism. They favored the power of the monarch over the power of Parliament, but they were also the champions of Anglican supremacy, meaning that they felt that no one except committed Anglicans should be allowed to hold public office. (So it was kind of problem for them when James II was trying to use royal authority to except Catholics from the laws barring Catholics from public office.) They were also insistent that the line of succession had to strictly follow the rules of inheritance, which they saw as expressing the will of God. That’s why they were willing to tolerate a Catholic monarch in the first place.

The Whigs, in contrast, favored Parliamentary authority and wanted to limit the monarch’s ability to function independently of Parliament. They were also willing to allow non-Anglican Protestants into office, but generally distrusted Catholics. The Whigs felt that Parliament should have the power to dictate the line of succession, skipping heirs who were Catholic, for example.

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Sarah Churchill

Both factions worked together during the Glorious Revolution because both sides saw James as a threat (the Tories thought he was a threat to Anglicanism, while the Whigs thought he was a threat to Parliament. Again, I’m simplifying a complex story.) So they agreed to depose James while pretending he had actually abdicated by fleeing the country. They revised the relationship between monarch and Parliament to make the monarch dependent on Parliament in a variety of ways, thus essentially securing the dominance of Parliament and helping lay the foundations for modern democracy. The Tories weren’t fond of William because he wasn’t Anglican, whereas they quite liked his sister-in-law Anne because she was an absolute committed Anglican. They rallied around her as the focus of opposition to William (setting a trend that was to last for a century, in which the party out of power couched their opposition in terms of support for the heir).

When William died in 1702, Anne succeeded with no challenge whatsoever (her sister had already been dead since 1694). She immediately found herself caught between the Tories and Whigs, both of whom essentially argued that they had to have complete control of the major offices of state and that the other side couldn’t be trusted. The Tories argued that the Whigs didn’t support the monarchy, and the Whigs argued that the Tories were secretly plotting to put James’ Catholic son on the throne. Anne saw her role as sitting above the two factions (the very idea of political parties was barely a quarter-century old, so it makes sense that she didn’t see either side as completely legitimate) and tried to steer a path between them.

In particular, Anne was, as mentioned, a High Church Anglican and was more naturally inclined toward the Tory political philosophy. But her best friend Sarah Churchill and Sarah’s husband John, the duke of Marlborough, were both solid Whigs. This created a situation where Anne was constantly pressured by Sarah to favor the Whigs. To make things more complicated, England was involved in a war with France for virtually the entire duration of her reign, and Marlborough was her indispensable general. Anne could not afford to politically alienate Marlborough.

 

The Sources

Our best source of insight into Anne as a person are her correspondence with Sarah, her best friend for most of her life. The two women wrote each other constantly and discussed not only their personal feelings but also all the political issues of the moment. However, for some reason, Sarah was very insistent that the people she wrote letters to should burn those letters after reading them, so for the most part we only have Anne’s side of the correspondence. Often that gives us a sense of what Sarah had written, but it’s still a rather one-sided view of their relationship (although in a few cases, we do have Sarah’s side of the correspondence).

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Emma Stone as Abigail Hill

Another extremely important source of information is Sarah’s memoirs. She published her first version of them in 1730, 16 years after Anne’s death, and a second version, essentially a heavily-revised second draft, in 1742. Because she was so central to the politics of the era, her take on the personalities and events of Anne’s reign has proven extremely influential, but her account is heavily colored by the gradual falling out that she and Anne had as Anne’s reign progressed. Sarah was a smart, lively, charming woman, but she also had a rather inflated sense of her own ability to assess the facts, a fierce temper, and, in the words of one historian, “an almost pathological inability to admit the validity of anyone else’s point of view.” Having fallen out with Anne, Sarah depicted Anne as a dull-witted, foolish woman completely at the mercy of those around her. That view of Anne shaped the way people viewed the queen for more than 2 centuries. When Sarah’s famous descendant Winston Churchill decided to write a massive four-volume history of John Churchill’s life, he relied quite heavily on Sarah’s memoirs. (Incidentally, Sarah is also an ancestor of Lady Diana Spencer, the famous and ill-fated Princess Diana.)

However, when professional historian Edward Gregg sat down to write a biography of Anne in the late 1970s, he came to a very different conclusion. He found Anne to be a shy, quiet woman, but one who quickly matured into a confident politician once she became queen. Rather than being manipulated by those in her court, she skillfully navigated their conflicting demands in pursuit of policies that rose above faction, although she was not always successful in achieving those goals. In Gregg’s view, her chief weakness was not being easily manipulated but quite the opposite; she was a profoundly stubborn woman who had trouble recognizing the need to make concessions.

Within a few years of becoming queen, Anne had developed a very different take on the political issues of the day than Sarah’s, and Sarah’s harsh judgment of her derives to a large extent from her inability to accept that Anne could have formed her own opinions that disagreed with Sarah’s. Anne also tired of Sarah’s presumptuous bullying of her and constant demanding that she appoint Sarah’s preferred candidates to various offices, so that her eventual estrangement from the duchess of Marlborough was largely Sarah’s own fault. Given the remarkable favoritism Anne showed toward the Marlboroughs early in the reign, Sarah generally comes off in Gregg’s version of events as grasping and overly entitled.

Gregg’s view of Anne has drastically altered scholars’ take on her and her reign. As Gregg points out, it was in Anne’s reign that England laid the foundations for the outsized role England was to have in 18thand 19thcentury international events. It was during Anne’s reign that England and Scotland were brought together into the United Kingdom, a far from foregone conclusion, given that after Anne’s death, Scotland could easily have wound up with Anne’s Catholic half-brother on the throne while the English wound up with her distant Protestant cousin George I. And Gregg sees Anne as playing an important role in those developments.

Why does this matter? The first draft of The Favourite was written by Deborah Davis, who has a bachelor’s degree in history (I think—she says she “studied history at university” and is described as an historian, but I can’t find anything more specific about her education). She found the story of Anne’s complicated relationship with Sarah interesting and did a good deal of research into the women as she wrote it. In interviews, she mentions three sources that she relied on: the surviving correspondence, Sarah’s memoirs, and Churchill’s biography of John Churchill. So the film’s take on who Anne and Sarah were as people and how they related is to a very considerable extent Sarah’s take on who they were. That means that the film’s version of things is rooted in a now old-fashioned take on Anne’s reign.

In the film, Sarah is certainly imperious toward Anne, but is driven much more by her love of Anne than by her inability to tolerate disagreements. Anne is emotionally erratic and in need of someone who will be more sympathetic to her than Sarah is willing to be, and Abigail is to some extent a schemer who steps into that hole and works to alienate Sarah from Anne. In reality, Sarah required no outside help to alienate Anne.

In my next post, I’ll dig into the film’s treatment of the historical facts.

 

Want to Know More?

The Favourite is still playing in theaters and so isn’t available on Amazon yet.

Although it’s close to 40 years old now, Edward Gregg’s Queen Anne is still probably the essential historical take on her.

If you’re curious about Winston Churchill’s take on the era, Marlborough: His Life and Times is available on Kindle quite cheaply. Churchill was a gifted writer and a rare example of a politician who truly appreciated history, but he wasn’t exactly a great historian.


Babylon Berlin: The Black Reichswehr

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One of the major plots in the second season of Babylon Berlinis a plot to overthrow the Weimar Republic and return Kaiser Wilhelm II to power. It revolves around a coterie of military and former military officers who are working with a wealthy industrialist to build a covert air force in the Soviet Union. Is there any basis for any of this?

Yes, quite a bit.

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The Shadow of the Great War

The German military in the 1920s struggled to make peace with its defeat in the Great War. Many of the officers had far more loyalty to their old emperor than they did to the new democratic government. Convinced that the German military was the best in the world (which arguably it was at the start of the war), it was far easier to place the blame for Germany’s defeat on the civilian population than on its own mistakes, Kaiser Wilhilm’s ineptitude, and on the simple fact that by the end of the war it was fighting all the other major industrialized powers almost single-handedly. When defeat became inevitable, the military sought to protect Wilhelm II from the humiliation of defeat by persuading him to abdicate. That way the new Weimar Republic would have to shoulder the burden of surrender. Having thus engineered the surrender of the new government, the military then turned around and blamed the government for surrendering.

The surrender wasn’t just humiliating. It was also shocking. Like all the belligerent nations, the German government had aggressively controlled its press and propagandized the population into believing that the war was someone else’s fault but that nevertheless Germany was just about to win the war. Defeat was not considered possible, so when it came, the population was shocked and confused. If we were winning just a few months ago, why did we surrender?

These forces gave rise to the idea of the Dolchstoß, the ‘Stab in the Back’ theory. This idea maintained that Germany had been defeated from within, that someone somewhere inside the government had betrayed Germany and engineered the defeat of the military. This idea was appealing because it explained Germany’s military failure in a way that freed the military from any blame for what had happened.It created a sense of victimization that festered in German culture throughout the 20s and 30s, especially after the terrifying hyperinflation of 1923. Ultimately, Hitler blamed the Dolchstoßon the Jews, drawing imaginary lines between actual Jews in the Weimar government and a fictitious ‘International Jewish Conspiracy’ that supposedly encompassed bankers, industrialists, politicians, and communists, among others.

To make things a little bit worse, when the Spartacist League staged an uprising in Berlin, the young government turned to the military to suppress it and continued doing so later in the decade, thus legitimizing the idea that the military had a role to play in civilian political affairs. Just a few years later, both the Kapp Putsch and the Beer Hall Putsch included military elements, demonstrating that there was a taste for anti-democratic politics within the German military. The civilian government abandoned all efforts to reconcile the military with the new democratic principles that were supposedly guiding Germany.

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A crowd during the Kapp Putsch

Adding to the military’s resentment was the Treaty of Versailles. In addition to staggering reparations payments to France and Britain that undermined the Germany economy, the Treaty also sought to eliminate the possibility of a future German threat to France and Britain by imposing strict limits on the German military. The German military was allowed to have a total of 100,000 soldiers (three units of cavalry and seven of infantry), with no more than 4,000 officers. The navy could have no more than 15,000 men, six battleships, six cruisers, six destroyers, and 12 torpedo boats. Civilians were not to receive military training and the manufacture and import of weapons and poison gas were prohibited. For a nation that had prided itself on the power of its military, these requirements were deeply unpopular. So it’s no surprise that the military made regular efforts to evade them.

 

The Black Reichswehr

In 1921, General Hans von Seeckt established the illicit Sondergruppe R, a secret group of military leaders who were tasked with evading the Treaty of Versailles’ limits. Sondergruppe R quickly reached an agreement with the Soviets in which the Germans would provide the Soviets with technology and training for the Soviet arms industry in exchange for Soviet assistance in evading the enforcement of the Treaty. The Sondergruppe established a series of shell corporations known as the GEFU, whose purpose was to funnel German funds into the Soviet Union for the creation of tanks, aircraft, poison gas, and other contraband weapons.

One example of this was the creation of the Lipetsk Air Base in the Soviet Union. In this arrangement, the Germans trained Soviet pilots in exchange for the Soviets allowing the construction of a secret air force. In the show, Inspector Rath (Volker Bruch) is sent in an airplane to get evidence of this illegal arrangement by flying over Lipetsk so that photographs can be taken. Although Rath’s efforts to expose this fall apart by the end of the season, the existence of the Lipetsk airbase was eventually exposed in 1931 in an article in the Weltbühne, the same newspaper that Samuel Katelbach (Karl Markvocics) edits in the series.

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Sondergruppe R almost immediately began creating illegal paramilitary units, known as the Black Reichswehr. These were civilian recruits of nearly 20,000 who received illegal military training based in Küstrin in what is today western Poland. Because they did not officially exist, the German government could deny all knowledge of them while using them for its own ends. Between 1923 and 1925 France occupied the Ruhr Valley, one of Germany’s industrial centers, to enforce reparations payments in the form of coal and timber. The Occupation of the Ruhr was understandably unpopular in Germany, the Black Reichswehr engaged in sabotage efforts against the French. The Black Reichswehr were also used to commit a series of Feme Murders, a form of vigilante justice directed against those accused of helping enforce the Treaty’s provisions in which vigilante courts would convict someone in absentia and then sentence them to death by assassination. An effort by the Weimar government to enforce the Occupation triggered the Küstrin Putsch, in which the local Black Reichswehr tried to seize control of the city. The Putsch was thwarted by the regular army and the Küstrin paramilitary was disbanded.

But there were numerous other Freikorps groups that fall under the general banner of the Black Reichswehr. These groups appealed to veterans who were worried about the direction the country was moving in, who were hostile to Socialism, or who resented the treatment of the army after the war. The Black Reichswehr also developed ties to numerous more legitimate groups. For example, the Stahlhelm (Steel Helmet) was a veterans organization numbering around 500,000 that helped veterans find jobs and housing. After 1929 it became active in anti-Republican politics. Initially it was a rival to the Nazi Party for leadership of the nationalists in Germany, but in 1933, the Nazi Sturmabteilung (itself the Nazi Freikorps) raided the Stahlhelm’s organization and eventually forced it to merge with the SA and dissolve itself.

In the show, the industrialist Alfred Nyssen (Lars Eidinger) is actively working with Major General Kurt Seegers (Ernst Stötzner) to fund these efforts and import a train-load of phosgene gas from the Soviet Union to help the coup that is being planned. Neither character is a real person, but Nyssen is clearly modeled on Fritz Thyssen, an anti-communist industrialist who increasingly supported and funded Hitler’s efforts, including dismissing all of his Jewish employees, until he broke with Hitler in 1938 and fled the country. Seegers seems loosely based on nationalist general Erich Ludendorff, who led the German army in the second half the Great War. He was active in anti-Republican efforts throughout the 1920s. He participated in both the Kapp and Beer Hall Putsches, and was a vocal proponent of the Dolchstoßtheory. He supported Hitler and ran as the Nazi Party candidate for president in 1925, with little success. He eventually broke with Hitler as well.

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Ernst Stötzner as Kurt Seegers

 

This review was made possible by a generation donation from one of my loyal readers. Peter, I hope you feel you got your money’s worth! If you would like me to review a specific film or series, please make a generous donation to my PayPal account and let me know what you would like me to review. If I can get access to it and think it’s appropriate for this blog, I’ll be glad to review it.

 

Want to Know More? 

Babylon Berlin is available on Amazon if you want to own it, and by streaming on Netflix. The novels by Volker Kutscher are also available: Babylon BerlinThe Silent Death, and Goldstein.

If you’re interested in the Weimar Republic, a good place to start would be with Eric D. Weitz’ Weimar Germany: Promise and Tragedy.