The King: Falstaff


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Last night I watched The King (2019, dir. David Michôd), which is loosely based on Shakespeare’s Henriad cycle about Henry IV and Henry V. It’s a gloomy, dreary film in which color wasn’t invented until long after Henry V’s reign was over. Even the cloudless sky seems dreary on the rare occasions it appears. In case you can’t tell, I didn’t love it. So let’s get into why.


The Henriad

The King isn’t really based on historical fact. It’s based on the Henriad. Joel Edgerton and David Michôd decided that they wanted to tell a story that was based on Shakespeare but without being Shakespeare. Basically, they wanted to show that they could do Shakespeare better than he did. And they failed.

For those who haven’t seen the plays of the Henriad cycle, Henry IV Part 1 introduces us to Henry IV and his dissolute son Prince Hal, who has a circle of wastrel friends centered on Sir John Falstaff. Henry and Hal have to deal with the revolt of the Earl of Northumberland and his hot-headed son Henry ‘Hotspur’ Percy. The play culminates in a fight in the battlefield between Hal and Hotspur, in which Hal kills his opponent.

Henry IV Part 2 picks up where the previous play ends and follows the revolt against Henry, which gets put down. Falstaff spends the play in various misadventures and dealing with his worsening health. Hal reconciles with his father as his father dies, and when Falstaff comes to Hal, expecting rewards from the now king, Hal disavows him.

Henry V deals with the early phase of Henry’s reign. Falstaff dies off-stage, Henry puts down a conspiracy against him, and then embarks on the conquest of France, culminating in his victory at the battle of Agincourt, after which he ‘woos’ Katherine, the daughter of King Charles VI of France.

The King manages to fit all of this into a single movie, although it sharply compresses the material from Part 2. The result is a movie that tries to be a character study of the young Henry. But it’s not the historical Henry they are studying; it’s the literary Henry, but they’ve made changes, so that the film isn’t really based on either the historical Henry or the literary Hal, but is actually a weird sort of What If scenario. What if Hal had reconciled with Falstaff instead of his father but had still managed to realize his potential as a leader and had managed to rehabilitate Falstaff? Oh, and What If Falstaff had been a real person?

Prince Hal’s Youth

 The film starts roughly where Part 1 starts, with Young Henry (Timothée Chalamont) being estranged from his father Henry (Ben Mendelsohn) and close friends with Falstaff (Joel Edgerton). He is first seen lying unconscious in a bed after a wild bender the night before, setting up the idea that Henry was a party guy in his youth.

There is, however, no real factual basis in this; Hal’s wild and dissolute youth is best known from Shakespeare, who drawing off a slightly earlier anonymous play called The Famous Victories of Henry V, in which Prince Hal is basically depicted as a thug before becoming king. The historical Henry was already playing an important role in government by the time he was 14, when he started acting as the Sheriff of Cornwall, an essentially administrative office in which he would have had underlings to help him. He got the office in 1400, soon after his father deposed Richard II and made himself king. In 1402 young Henry joined the Great Council, one of the most important organs of royal government.


Chalamont as King Henry. At least the haircut is kinda accurate.

In 1403, young Henry led an army into Wales to help put down the revolt of Owain Glyndwr. Shortly after that, he met up with his father’s forces at Shrewsbury and helped put down Hotspur’s Rebellion. Exactly what happened to Hotspur is not clear; he was either killed by an unknown opponent or by an arrow when he opened his visor to get a better view of the battlefield. He was almost certainly not killed by Prince Hal, because Hal had gotten himself horrifically injured; he had been struck in the face by an arrow, the head of which had lodged under the skin below his left eye close to the nose to the depth of 5-6 inches, miraculously without hitting either the brain or any of the arteries. John Bradmore, the court physician, was able to devise a special tool to remove the arrowhead several days later and managed to prevent infection by flushing the wound with alcohol. The result was that Henry survived but with a horrible scar (which no cinematic Henry has ever sported).

Henry spent the next decade fighting Glendwr in Wales, and was recognized as basically being in charge of Wales and the effort to pacify it. Records show that was he very interested in the details of sieges, for example writing letters demanding shipments of wood for siege weapons. By 1408, his father’s illness (which involved skin infections and attacks that left him incapacitated for long periods) was making it harder and harder for him to run the kingdom. As a result, between 1408 and 1411, Young Henry was playing an increasingly central role in government via the Great Council, which was taking on a larger and larger role in decision-making. In 1411, he had a falling-out with his father over policy issues and was dismissed from government. There were rumors that he was trying to depose his father, but the evidence for that is weak, although the matter was serious enough that it provoked a meeting between father and son at which Young Henry handed his father a knife, say that if his father wished to kill him, he would not stop it. But there was never any serious question of him not succeeding his father, which he did in 1413 when the older Henry finally died.

Claims that he had a riotous youth rest on very shaky foundations. His brothers were involved in a brawl in an Eastcheap tavern in this period, but Henry himself was not a party to it. Contemporary chronicles say vaguely that he was devoted to “Mars and Venus” (violence and sex), but give no real specifics. The chronicles also remark that he had a dramatic conversion of personality when he was became king, but medieval chronicles were inclined to exaggerate such things to make better stories, and in the lack of any specific details, it’s unwise to suggest that Henry was a hellion.

Oldcastle and Falstaff

From an historical standpoint, the biggest problem with the film is Falstaff, who plays a much larger role in The King than he does in the Henriad. As I already noted, in Part 2, the new king Henry repudiates Falstaff, whose health is in decline. He dies off-stage very early in Henry V. But in The King, not only does Henry not repudiate Falstaff, he relies on him because he knows that Falstaff is going to be honest with him and not just flatter him. That’s a pretty sharp difference from Shakespeare’s Falstaff, who is absolutely the kind of man who would flatter and suck up to Henry to advance himself.


Edgerton as Falstaff

Henry trusts Falstaff so much that by the end of the film, Falstaff is rising to the occasion. When Henry’s forces encounter the French at Agincourt, it’s Falstaff who councils Henry to fight the battle and lays out a strategy that basically involves suckering the French into an ambush. To make the trick work, Falstaff volunteers to lead a small force of Henry’s knights into battle, tricking the French into thinking that they have a much greater numerical advantage than they do. Falstaff does this knowing that there’s a good chance he will be killed, and in fact he does die in the battle. So rather than an unheroic off-stage death that is merited by Falstaff’s essentially parasitical nature, Edgerton’s Falstaff dies a profoundly heroic death, having been redeemed by Henry’s faith in him.

That obviously differs dramatically from Shakespeare, but an even bigger problem is that Falstaff is a fictitious character and therefore cannot have played any role in the historical battle of Agincourt.

Shakespeare’s Falstaff is very loosely inspired by the historical Sir John Oldcastle. Oldcastle had served Henry IV and eventually became involved in the fight against Glendwr, which brought him into contact with Young Henry. This proved to be a very advantageous connection for Oldcastle; he was brought into the prince’s household and began receiving various marks of royal favor, eventually being able to marry a very wealthy widow of the high nobility.

But by 1410, Oldcastle had become quite sympathetic to the Lollards, a heretical movement that argued against the need for priests (to be very simplistic about it). Archbishop Arundel of Canterbury, who was extremely concerned about the threat of Lollardy, found hard evidence that Oldcastle was a supporter of the movement. Arundel showed the evidence to Young Henry, who summoned Oldcastle to meet with him. Initially Oldcastle was able to persuade Henry that he was innocent, but then he fled and ignored Arundel’s attempts to force him to appear in court. Oldcastle finally appeared, was convicted as a heretic, and sent to the Tower of London.

Oldcastle escaped from the Tower and plotted a coup in which the monarchy would be replaced with some other sort of government, the monasteries would be dissolved, and a few other improbably things were planned. A group of Lollards actually tried to put the plan into motion, but Prince Henry got word of it and they were all arrested, except Oldcastle, who managed to elude capture for four years. He was captured and executed in 1417.


A 16th century illustration of Oldcastle’s execution

Notice that Oldcastle and Falstaff are quite different. They’re both knights and friends of Prince Henry, and they both wind up getting repudiated by him eventually. But Falstaff is not a heretic or a rebel the way Oldcastle was.

However, the scandal around Oldcastle remained famous. In the 1580s, an anonymous London playwright published The Famous Victories of Henry V, in which Henry and ‘Jocky’ Oldcastle are basically robbing people until Henry learns that his father is dying, which causes Henry to mend his ways and banish his old friends, including Jocky. It’s not a great play, but it gave Shakespeare the raw material for the Henriad.

And it’s pretty clear that Shakespeare was thinking of Oldcastle when he wrote the Henriad. In Part 1, Hal refers to Falstaff as “my old lad of the castle,” a pun that would only work if Shakespeare felt the name Oldcastle was still relatively well-known. The epilogue of Part 2, however, contains an explicit statement that Falstaff is not Oldcastle, “for Oldcastle died martyr, and this is not the man.” While all the surviving copies of Part 1 call the character Falstaff, there is reason to think that in its first performances, he was explicitly named Oldcastle. In one of the oldest copies of the text, one of Falstaff’s speeches is accidentally labelled ‘Old.’ rather than ‘Falst.’ and one line of dialog scans improperly with the current reading ‘Falstaff’ but properly if it’s read as ‘Oldcastle’.

It appears that Shakespeare originally used Oldcastle, but then ran into the problem that Oldcastle’s living descendants, the Cobhams, were powerful people who held government office and enjoyed the ear of Queen Elizabeth. So after Henry IV, Part 1 premiered, the Cobhams complained either directly to Shakespeare or to some royal official who made it clear that Shakespeare had to change the play, which he prudently did, and then threw in a disclaimer on Part 2 that any resemblance of Falstaff to anyone living or dead was entirely coincidental. And he capped it by positioning Oldcastle as a Protestant martyr to show he was really serious that Oldcastle was a good guy.

The Worst Part of The King

While the film’s revision of Falstaff as a character is weird and honestly not very interesting, the worst part of the film is the end, because Edgerton or Michôd decided that the film needed a twist ending, because apparently neither history nor Shakespeare got it right the first time. In Henry V, a big part of Henry’s motivation to invade France comes when the king of France insults him by sending him a box of tennis balls, basically suggesting that Henry is just playing a game. In the film, it’s just one tennis ball, but the message is basically the same.

But then his chief justice Gascoigne (Sean Harris) tells Henry that he’s caught an assassin sent by King Charles of France. And then Henry discovers that Lords Cambridge and Grey have been bribed by the French to overthrow Henry. Gascoigne advises Henry to make a show of strength and so Henry executes the two nobles and decides to invade France. In history and in Henry V, the order of events are inverted; the decision to declare war came first.


Harris as Gascoigne

After Agincourt, Henry returned to England with his new bride Princess Catherine (Lily-Rose Depp, demonstrating that nepotism is alive and well in Hollywood). Catherine challenges his motives for invading France and persuades him on no evidence whatsoever that her father would never have sent an insulting gift, or sent an assassin, or orchestrated a coup against him. So Henry questions Gascoigne in a scene that reads like CSI: Eastcheap with Gascoigne proving remarkably inept at covering up his tracks. Gascoigne finally admits that he faked the insult and the assassin and the plot as a way to force Henry to demonstrate his strength, because Gascoigne feels that the only way Henry can achieve unity in England is by proving he can be a strong ruler. Henry stabs him to death and all is well.

This is bad. Way bad. Baaaaad. It views the past like a murder mystery, in which there is a plot to uncover and the story ends once the plot has been revealed and resolved. It positions an entire phase of the Hundred Years’ War as being caused by one man’s decision that Henry needs to show he’s a big boy now. It’s like writing a film in which Octavian tricks Brutus into assassinating Julius Caesar so that Octavian can seize power in Rome. It’s like writing a film in which Ulysses S. Grant tricks the South into seceding as a way to save Grant’s career. It’s like writing a film in which Thomas Cromwell throws Anne Boleyn at Henry VIII in order to trigger the Protestant Reformation (oh, wait, that’s kinda sorta what happened).

Ugh. I cannot easily describe just how shitty the ending of this movie is.

Want to Know More?

Don’t watch The King on Netflix. It’s really not worth it. Watch Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation of Henry V, which is a vastly superior film in all respects.

If you want to know more about Henry V, check out Christopher Allmand’s Henry V.

Kenau: Women to the Rescue!


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Kenau (aka 1572: The Battle for Haarlem, 2014, dir. Maarten Treurniet, Dutch with English subtitles) is a Dutch/Belgian/Hungarian film about the Siege of Haarlem in the Netherlands in 1572 to 1573. The film focuses on the legend of Kenau Hasselaer, a folk hero who helped supposedly helped defend the Dutch city against the Spanish during the early phase of the Eighty Years’ War.



The Eighty Years’ War

By the 1550s, the territory we now think of as the Netherlands was part of the sprawling and unwieldy Hapsburg Empire that ruled Spain, the Holy Roman Empire, and the Low Countries, but lacked a clear unifying identity. Philip II of Spain was a devout Catholic who was opposed the Protestant Calvinism that was spreading in the Netherlands and sought to crack down on religious dissent, which took the form of an outbreak of iconoclasm, in which Calvinists smashed the statues of Catholic saints. Philip sent in the Duke of Alva, whose aggressive cracked down, combined with the imposition of taxes to help fund Philip’s war against the Ottoman Empire, triggered a rebelliom by the Calvinists, led by William the Silent, the Prince of Orange.

Alva sent his son, Don Fadrique, into Guelderland and Holland with an army of about 30,000 men to pacify the region. Fadrique sacked Zutphen and massacred the population of Naarden. That alienated the residents of Haarlem, who had mostly managed to avoid the religious tensions of the time and had intended to stay loyal to Philip. The town government sent four representatives to Amsterdam to negotiate with Fadrique, but in their absence, Wigbolt Ripperda, the Calvinist governor of Haarlem, deposed the town government and replaced them with Orangists. When the representatives returned from Haarlem, he arrested them. The local cathedral, dedicated to St Bavo, was stripped of its Catholic symbols the same day, an effective gesture of revolt against Philip.


Haarlem is due west of Amsterdam

A few days later, on December 11th, Don Fadrique’s forces laid siege to the city. He had every reason to expect a fairly quick siege. Haarlem was not a large city and only had a garrison of about 4,000 men, many of whom were mercenaries. The city was walled, but its walls were in poor condition. But it was impossible to completely surround the city because it was built on a large lake, the Haarlemmermeer, which meant that the defenders were able to supplies into the city.

The city managed to repulse an initial assault, and the result was a prolonged and brutal siege. The Spanish attempted to undermine the walls, but the Haarlemers managed to dig their own counter-tunnels and collapsed the Spanish ones. The Spanish cannons blew down large sections of the walls, including two gates, the Kruispoort and the Janspoort, but the defenders managed to fill in the gaps with earth and rock. When the Spanish attacked the city, the defenders threw ‘tar-wreaths’, rings of flammable material soaked in burning tar, onto them.

In March, after 5 months, an army from Amsterdam was able to occupy the Haarlemmersmeer and complete the encirclement of the city, making it impossible to get more food into the city. The Spanish were able to launch a small fleet on the lake. By May, the food situation had become so desperate that the Haarlemers executed all the Spanish prisoners they had taken. Early in July, William the Silent tried to break the siege by sending an army of 5,000 to Haarlem, but Fadrique’s forces crushed the army.


St Bavo’s Church

At that point, with Haarlem virtually out of food, Ripperda’s government admitted the inevitable and negotiated a surrender. Fadrique permitted the town to buy the city’s freedom from sacking with an enormous ransom. But most of the garrison, along with 40 of the leading citizens were tied up and drowned in the river. Ripperda was beheaded. The occupying army violated the terms of the surrender by looting the town anyway.

Although the Spanish ultimately won the siege of Haarlem, it had a profound effect on the war. It bought William the Silent the time to shore up the defenses of Alkmaar further to the north, and the Dutch were profoundly inspired by the resistance the Haarlemers were putting up. When Fadrique tried to lay siege to Alkmaar, it repulsed a Spanish assault and then opened the dikes around the city, forcing the Spanish to completely withdraw. Unable to push further north, Fadrique and his father Alva were essentially thwarted and not long after that Philip II recalled Alva. As a result, the northern provinces of the Netherlands were able to effectively achieve independence, although the war lasted for another 7 decades before the Spanish threw in the towel.


Kenau Hasselaer

Kenau SImonsdochter Hasselaer (1526-1588) was the daughter of a brewer who married a shipbuilder named Nanning Borst, with whom she had four children: Guerte, Margiet, Lubbrich, and Gerbrand. After Nanning’s death around 1562, she continued running his business and made a couple logical expansions; she was importating wood from Norway to build ships, so she began dealing in timber as well and she expanded into Baltic commerce, selling Dutch grain into the region. Several of her brothers were shipbuilders as well, while her sister married a noted scholar.


A later essentially fantasy portrait of Kenau

During the siege, the women of Haarlem participated vigorously in the town’s defense, helping the haul earth and rebuild the damaged walls. This sort of thing was extremely common during sieged, since women as well as men stood to die (or be raped) if a town failed to keep out attackers. A single account of the siege, published only a few months after the siege, mentions Kenau as being tireless and fearless in her efforts to haul earth and keep the walls repaired. This probably also involved contributing wood to fortify the walls and gates; as late as 1585, she was fighting to get the town to repay her for wood she had sold them during the siege, and at least part of what she was owed didn’t get repaid until after her death.

Over time, however, Kenau became an object of many legends. Although all we know about her role in the siege is that she worked to maintain the fortifications, in popular stories, she was the one throwing the tar-wreaths onto the Spanish attackers. In the 1673 and 1773 centenary celebrations, she was described as fighting on the walls. By 1873, her role had grown to leading a troop of 300 women. Her name became a synonym for bravery, although it eventually evolved into a word for a shrewish woman. In 1800, a warship was named for her. She became a favorite subject for patriotic Dutch painters and engravers, and numerous images of her survive, none of which are likely to be an actual likeness of her.


A 1954 Romantic patriotic painting of Kenau leading the fighting

But by the 1872 anniversary, a Haarlem historian was starting to puncture her legend. He pointed out the sources from the time do not mention many female fatalities, which is unlikely if the women were actively fighting on the walls. He also argued that if other women had been fighting so hard, it was likely that there would be more than one refence to a specific woman helping defend the town. Although the Spanish executed 2000 male defenders of the town, they do not seem to have executed any women. It’s also been pointed out that during her efforts to get repaid for the timber, she never claims to have fought, although she does say in one court document “as a good patriot, I have sustained this town against the enemy.” If she was such a great war hero, the town was reluctant to admit it after the fact, and in fact many people in town called her a “witch” in the course of legal disputes with her. After her death, her son admitted that both Kenau and his sisters were “dangerous company for all men.”

After the siege, she left the city, managed to get herself appointed as the Weighing House Master in Arnemuiden. This was an important position, one not generally given to women. This seems to have been imposed on the town by William the Silent, suggesting that he appreciated whatever efforts or sacrifices she had made during the siege. In 1588, the captain of her trading ship was taken hostage in Norway. She set sail to get him released and was never seen again, although her son eventually discovered her ship for sail in another town, suggesting that she was captured by pirates and killed, a sad end for such a formidable woman.


Kenau in Kenau

The movie tells the story of the siege of Haarlem mostly through focusing on Kenau (Monic Hendrickx). The film jettisons a lot of what we know about her family. Her husband, incorrectly named Ysbrand, is already dead and she has only two daughters, Gertrude (Lisa Smit) and Kathelijne (Sallie Harmsen). She is correctly presented as a shipbuilder and sells some wood to the town when Wigbold Ripparta (Barry Atsma) presses her for it. She quarrels with a wealthy townsman Duyff (Jaap Spijkers), who is dissatisfied with the work she’s doing on a ship for him, and when his arrogance causes an accident that knocks one of her men into the canal, she leaps in and rescues him. She wears a man’s doublet and shirt throughout the film, the clearly the film wants us to view her as a ‘strong woman’. She wants nothing to do with the rebellion that his broken out elsewhere. She forbids Gertrude to embrace Calvinism, saying that she can do whatever she likes after the rebellion has ended.


Atsma as Wigbold and Hendrickx as Kenau

But Calvinists are agitating in Haarlem, and Wigbold’s son persuades Gertrude to go along with a small group of radicals when they break into St Bavo’s and small all the Catholic statuary. They get busted and are hauled off to Utrecht the very next day, Gertrude included, where the bishop immediately sentences them all to burn as heretics. By the time Kenau arrives, Gertrude is already tied to the stake. Kenau pleads with the priest, insisting that her daughter is a good Catholic, but when the pyre is lit, Kathelijne grabs a pistol and shoots Gertrude to spare her the suffering.

That’s all fairly improbable. The iconoclasm at Haarlem only happened after WIgbold seized power, so the film has to reverse the order of facts in order to give Kenau a motive to support the revolt. Haarlem had its own bishop, so the iconoclasts probably wouldn’t have been sent to Utrecht and would have been tried in Haarlerm. And there would certainly have been a delay of at least several days to allow for an actual trial. Having vaguely established religion as a motive for the rebellion and giving Kenau a motive to rebel, the movie promptly forgets religion entirely for the rest of the film.

During the initial Spanish assault, Kenau finds herself near the ramparts and, recognizing that hostile troops were in danger of scaling the walls, she organizes the women into a rock-hauling brigade so that the men on the ramparts have something to throw at the men on the ladders. Such things were entirely typical of the way women participated in defense of towns during sieges, and while it’s not there’s no evidence that Kenau actually did this, it’s not at all implausible.

But as the film goes on, the film comes up with increasingly unlikely ways for her to fight the Spanish. She stumbles onto some information that suggests that the Spanish will attack the Janspoort, but Wigbold is convinced the attack will come at the Kruispoort and refuses to allocate men to depend the Janspoort. So Kenau organized a group of women to defend the gate by building a second wall inside the gate. When the Spanish troops breach the gate, they find themselves trapped inside the second wall, where the women start pouring tar down on them and then thrown down a barrel of gunpowder and light it with a fire arrow, causing an enormous explosion that kills the invaders (but somehow doesn’t breach the wooden second wall).


The Spaniards about to get blown up

Then the food starts running out and Wigbold insists that the Spanish food convey from Amsterdam is too heavily protected to attack. Kenau organizes her Amazon commandos to attack the convey as it crosses the frozen Haarlemmermeer. They light fires to blind the convey and then attack the convey on skates, killing most of the troops and getting the food to the city. They manage to plant a spy in Don Fadrique’s (Attila Arpa) tent and she reports that the Spanish have undermined the gate and are planning to set off explosive charges to open a permanent breach in the walls. The Amazon commandos distract the Spanish troops by standing naked on the walls of Haarlem, which allows Kenau to get into the gunpowder store long enough to blow it up.

Unfortunately, she doesn’t get the gunpowder in the tunnel, so Faderique is still able to blow up the gate and the Spanish surge in to loot the town. Kenau uses Duyff’s ship to get an engineer (heretofore unseen) out of the town to Alkmaar but stays behind to find Kathelijne, and as a result she’s captured. She gets tied up and thrown into the canal, but because she knows how to swim she apparently gets away. The film ends by framing the heroic resistance of Haarlem as the reason for Dutch independence.

I’m of two minds about Kenau. On the one hand, the film generally distorts the facts. It attributes a whole lot of heroism to her and the other women of Haarlem that there is no evidence for. While the women of Haarlem certainly made an important contribution to the siege, there’s no reason to think that the women single-handedly saved the town over even actually fought at all, which is the impression the film offers. While Kenau’s various feats do bare a vague relationship to the facts (there was a Spanish plan to blow up the walls, getting food into the city was a serious problem, the defenders probably did pour tar or oil down onto the attackers, Kenau did survive the siege), none of those things happened the way the film shows.


Kenau about the blow up the gunpowder store

On the other hand, it’s pretty refreshing to see a war film in which women are the focus of the story, and the film generally explores women’s experiences during wartime much more than men’s. Except for the first fight scene, the male defenders generally take a back seat, doing their fighting in the background while Kenau’s Amazon commandos deal with a variety of problems the men are too beleaguered to address themselves. The film aces the Bechdel Test, and even when Kenau is talking about men with one of her daughters, the emphasis is generally on the relationship between the women.

The film has an interesting sub-plot looking at the fraught relationship Kenau has with Kathelijne. She is angry at Katheljlne for shooting Gertrude, doesn’t want her to risk her life fighting on the front lines, and doesn’t want Kathelijne to hook up with a particular mercenary. But the script makes it clear that their conflict is driven by deeper issues. While the performances in the film are generally mediocre, Hendrickx truly shines as the ferociously strong-willing Kenau and despite the enormous differences, her Kenau reminds me of no one so much as Holly Hunter’s Ada McGrath in The Piano. Both women are so strong-willed they don’t entirely understand their own motives but cannot be other than who they are.

Is Kenau a brilliant film? No. But I’ve seen far worse war movies and the solidly feminist angle makes it a war movie I’ve never seen before.


Want to Know More?

Kenau is available on Amazon under the title 1572: The Battle for Haarlem

There aren’t, so far as I know, any books about Kenau. If you’re interested in the 80 Years’ War, check out Revolt in the Netherlands: The Eighty Years’ War, 1568-1648.

All is True: Shakespeare’s Women


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(I realized that I had started to write a review of All is True, but neglected to finish it. I’ve forgotten at least one thing I wanted to say about this film, but I figured I’d just post this even though it’s quite brief.)

In 1613, during a performance of William Shakespeare’s play All is True (known today as Henry VIII), a fire started at the Globe Theater where the performance was happening. The fire destroyed the Globe and seems to have had pushed Shakespeare into retirement, since Henry VIII is his last known play. Shakespeare returned home to Stratford-on-Avon and died three years later. Ben Elton’s play and now movie All is True(2018, dir. Kenneth Branagh) looks at Shakespeare’s interactions with his long-neglected family in the  three twilight years of Shakespeare’s life.


When Shakespeare (Kenneth Branagh) comes home, his wife Anne Hathaway (Judi Dench) has a great deal of bottled up resentment over the fact that her husband has largely ignored the family and refuses to share his bed. His daughter Judith (Katherine Wilder) has a simmering anger at him because she feels that he always loved her dead twin brother Hamnet more than her. His daughter Susanna (Lydia Wilson) is married to a Puritan who considers the theater sinful and strains the marriage by making it clear that he has more passion for God than for his wife. The still-unmarried Judith also harbors resentment toward Susanna who has given their father grandchildren.

Hamnet’s Ghost

The family is haunted emotionally by the ghost of Judith’s dead twin Hamnet, who died in 1596 when he was 11. He had written some poems that gave his father a sense that he could inherit William’s mantel as a writer, but then died when an epidemic spread through Stratford while his father was in London. Anne resents William for not returning home to grieve with her, while Judith feels that her father was so taken with Hamnet’s precocious writing skills that he simply ignored her, despite the ample evidence that she was a bright child. Shakespeare too is grieving Hamnet, both as a son and as a male heir to his legacy. Instead of talking about his sorrow, he pours his energy into laying out a new garden.

The basic situation of the Shakespeare family in 1613 is exactly as the film depicts, but almost nothing is known about the emotional life of these characters in this period, so Elton has filled in the blanks by crafting a plausible but slightly too-convenient set of dynamics based around the impact Hamnet’s death might have had on the family. On the one hand, the Shakespeares could easily have been a family torn by their inability to express their various griefs. The fact that Shakespeare was not living with his family in 1596 (because he was in London at the height of his career, earning the money that allowed his family to live in considerable comfort) might plausibly have created a deep rift by making it easy for the family to just not talk about what had happened.


Dench as Anne with Branagh as Shakespeare

On the other hand, the idea that most of the family’s complex issues all stem from Hamnet’s death all feels just a bit too pat. Because as the movie goes on, it slowly comes out that there is much more going on under the surface of the facts than is evident at first. Judith eventually reveals that it was she who wrote the poems that Hamnet gave to their father. All this time that William has been grieving the loss of his son’s talent, that talent has still been there, waiting for him to turn his gaze to Judith. Thus the play draws deeply from Cyreno de Bergerac, with William Shakespeare as Roxanne and Judith playing Cyreno to her dead brother’s Christian. It’s a powerful idea that one of the greatest writers in the English language might have been unable to recognize true talent when it was right under his nose.

But that’s not the only secret waiting to be discovered. As he talks with his family, William begins to suspect that something is rotten in the state of Stratford-on-Avon. As he looks into the details, he realizes that no one else was claimed by the infectious disease that claimed his son, which seems highly suspicious. Eventually he learns the truth that Hamnet committed suicide because he was struggling to learn to read and write, so that Judith’s help in poetry writing has raised their father’s expectations of him too high for him to ever meet. So Judith and Anne have been grieving a double tragedy, unable to share the full truth with anyone.

The film puts gender dynamics at the heart of the story, focusing on the ways in which 17th century society constrained women by denying them education and agency and placing unreasonable demands on them to have sons. In a more egalitarian period, Judith would have grown up feeling that her father was proud of her talent.

All is True is not a great film by any measure. It’s a bit too aware of its prestige status and star casting, and the story it tells is a little too neat in the way all the plots eventually come back around to Hamnet’s untimely death. But it’s a very pretty film loaded with excellent performance, and it’s a treat to see three such celebrated Shakespearean actors playing the real people in Shakespeare’s life and not just the products of his genius.


Want to Know More?

All is True is available on Amazon.

If you want to know more about William Shakespeare, you could start with Jonathan Bate’s Soul of the Age: A Biography of the Mind of William Shakespeare.

Cadfael: Medieval Murders


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I recently discovered that Amazon Prime has the 1990s tv series Cadfael, which is based on the Cadfael Chronicles of Ellis Peters, the pen name of English author Edith Pargeter, who produced a total of 20 well-received murder mysteries from the 1970s to the 1990s featuring a 12th century English monk, Brother Cadfael (Derek Jacobi in the show), as her detective. None of the episodes really gives me enough for a blog post, so I figured I would just review the show as a whole.


Pargeter was a self-trained scholar with somewhat idiosyncratic interests. She was deeply interested in the history of Shropshire (where she was born and lived much of her life) and Wales (she had Welsh ancestry), and generally did an excellent job of researching the medieval background of her stories. She also worked for a period as a pharmacist’s assistant, which introduced her to traditional herbal remedies, which comes through in Cadfael, who has a deep knowledge of botany and plant-based medicine. She also taught herself Czech and translated Czech poetry into English.

As a result of this, the Cadfael Chronicles are generally quite well-researched and Pargeter was at pains to make them as historically accurate as possible. Although Cadfael is fictional, his life story (left Wales to participate in the First Crusade, lived in the Holy Land for several years where he learned herbalism, and then spent years as a sailor before feeling the call to become a monk in England) is basically possible from an historical standpoint, if perhaps a bit unlikely. (Incidentally, the Cadfael Chronicles are often credited with popularizing the genre of the historical murder mystery, although the first such work seems to be Agatha Christie’s Death Comes As the End, which is set in Middle Kingdom Egypt.)

In general, the episodes stick reasonably close to the plot of the novels, although in some cases the ending is tweaked for cinematic purposes or the killer is changed. The big exception is the last episode, The Pilgrim of Hate, which bares only a superficial resemblance to the novel.

The production quality of series, however, varies from season to season. The first season generally had decent costuming but sets that really feel like studio sets. The second season has better sets but much poorer costumes (in The Virgin in the Ice, Ermina is dressed in an atrocious velour dress with a floral print bib that looks like it was borrowed from a late Victorian spinster). The fourth season generally had much better sets, with the abbey scenes feeling like they might have been filmed in an actual monastery. But the layout of Brother Cadfael’s pharmacy keeps changing (its two doors keep moving around and the stove magically moves from one end of the building to the other. At one point, a character flees from the pharmacy by jumping up on a counter and kicking out a window despite the fact that there should be an unlocked door less than five feet to his right.


You can’t get a very clear look at it, but that dress is really atrocious


The Civil War

A major feature of the series is the Civil War between Stephen and Matilda. In 1135 King Henry I of England died leaving only a single legitimate child, his daughter Matilda (although he fathered a staggering 24 illegitimate ones). Although Henry had worked for more than a decade to ensure that his barons would accept Matilda as queen regnant, as soon as he died, his nephew Stephen usurped the English throne, triggering a civil war that would last in one form or another for two decades, ending only when Stephen agreed to disinherit his son in favor of Matilda’s son Henry Plantagenet, who became Henry II.


Sean Pertwee, season 1’s Hugh Beringar, with Jacobi’s Cadfael

Claims that the civil war triggered two decades of anarchy are wildly exaggerated. Henry II had a vested interest in playing up the lawlessness of Stephen’s reign because it gave him an excuse to extend royal power in new ways, and most of the sources that describe the ‘anarchy’ date from his reign. But the Civil War created a situation where political loyalties were divided, and all royal officials and grants of privilege could be challenged by supporters of the other side. Some political figures, including the English bishops and the government of London, switched sides on multiple occasions.

Pargeter’s depiction of the violence and instability is broadly in keeping with mid-20th century historical understanding of the Civil War and the ‘anarchy’, and she used the complexities of the Civil War effectively, with her novels all set in the period of greatest instability, from 1138 to 1145. Shrewsbury was always under Stephen’s authority, and Hugh Berengar, who as under-sheriff and later sheriff of Shropshire represents his authority, is always loyal to Stephen, But the possibility of political intrigue and side-switching lurks under the surface at Shrewsbury and features in a couple of the stories (St Peter’s Fair, The Raven in the Foregate), and the civil war comes to Shrewsbury in One Corpse Too Many, which opens during the Siege of Shrewsbury in 1138. Stephen really did order the hanging of the garrison of the castle after capturing it, and Pargeter skillfully inserts a murder mystery into the story when someone disposes of a murder victim among the 94 executed men.

So the show gets a solid A rating in terms of its fidelity to the political background, although in season 1, Shrewsbury has only a wood wall around it (note the picture above), when it probably would have had a stone wall.


Shrewsbury Abbey

Another facet of the show that is basically accurate is the depiction of the monastery at the heart of the story. It was a real place and the two abbots who govern it, Abbot Heribert (Peter Copley) and Abbot Radulphus (Terrence Hardiman), were real historical people, although Pargeter invented their personalities. The rather sour Prior Robert (Michael Culver), who is one of the thorns in Cadfael’s side throughout the series, eventually succeeded Radulphus as abbot in 1148.


The late medieval nave is the only part of Shrewsbury Abbey to survive the 16th Dissolution of the Monasteries


Virtually every episode shows the monks singing in the choir during various canonical hours (the daily cycle of the liturgy), and in some episodes there are visitors attending the services, which is plausible. But characters come and go during the service, particularly Cadfael and Brother Oswin (Mark Charnock) and never seem to be reprimanded for it. Skipping the liturgy was a big no-no, since it was central to the Benedictine conception of monasticism as ora et labora, “prayer and labor”.

The Devil’s Novice shows the monks sleeping collectively in a dormitory, which is very much in line with what the Benedictine Rule requires, and the novice’s nightmares understandable disrupt all the other brothers. When Brother Jerome discovers that the novice has kept a small memento of his secular life in violation of the Rule’s prohibition on owning private property, Jerome rightly confiscates it and, a bit maliciously, burns it.

Despite that, the cinematic Shrewsbury Abbey stands out as being rather lax in its observance of the Rule of St Benedict, because Cadfael comes and goes almost at will, as does Oswin, and female visitors to the abbey wander in and out and interact with various monks, particularly Cadfael, without any chaperoning. The 12th century saw a growing sense of the sexual threat women posed to monks, so such free movement would have been highly irregular. Although Prior Robert is depicted in a negative light, his objections to Cadfael’s running around are in fact probably close to how would the abbots and prior would have responded to Cadfael’s inability to keep his vow of stability (staying in one place and not leaving the abbey). A common monastic saying in the period was “a monk out of his abbey is like a fish out of water”. Had Cadfael been a real person, he would certainly have been much more cautious about being alone with women.

In one episode, there’s a very nice scene where the monks are barbering each other. That’s exactly the way it was done. The monks would sit down in a line and half of them would barber the other and then they would switch places.

The Edith Pargeter window at Shrewsbury Abbey Church


St Winifred

The first novel, A Morbid Taste for Bones (which is the seventh episode of the series) deals with the translation of St Winifred’s body from Gwytherin in North Wales. This is a solidly historical event, and Prior Robert wrote an account of the translation of the saint’s body to Shrewsbury Abbey. St Winifred became an important English saint (despite actually being Welsh) as a result of Shrewsbury Abbey’s efforts to promote her cult.


The seal of the fraternity of Shrewsbury Abbey, depicting the beheading of St Winifred

The episode somewhat distorts the facts. Winifred was already revered at Gwytherin and therefore would have had a shrine that included her body in it, whereas in the show, she is buried in an unmarked grave and the monks cannot dig her up until the locals agree to show her where the grave is. (As a side note, A Morbid Taste for Bones is an excellent murder mystery, frequently ranked among the best ever written. If you’re a fan of murder mysteries, you should definitely read it.)

The show in general does a good job of showing the historical importance of the Cult of the Saints (the collection of religious practices around religious figures like St Winifred). In Morbid Taste, the show nicely depicts two competing claims to Winifred’s remains; the villages of Gwytherin view her as ‘their saint’ and resent the idea that the English monks want to take her away, while the monks claim that because Brother Columbanus had a vision in which she appeared to him, Winifred has demonstrated that she wants to be moved to Shrewsbury. The unctuous Brother Jerome (Julian Firth) is depicted as manipulating Columbanus into thinking that Winifred is appearing to him. Jerome’s motives are not stated very clearly, but medieval monks craved the prestige of having a saint buried at their house. It attracted pilgrims and donations, both of which were desirable.

St Winifred’s cult is featured in two other episodes, both of which also capture facets of medieval religious life. In The Pilgrim of Hate, pilgrims have come to Shrewsbury for ‘Cripple Day’, which appears to be an annual festival in which St Winifred sometimes heals cripples. While this is invented, so far as I can tell, it’s generally plausible. Many shrines had particular dates when pilgrimages were performed, and some saints ‘specialized’ in curing specific ailments. Winifred’s cult doesn’t seem to have had a specialty, although the saint was famous for causing healing springs to appear. But the show captures something of the way in which pilgrims would throng to a shrine and the monks would organize a line of pilgrims to touch the shrine while hoping for a cure.


Part of the Prologue to Prior Robert’s Life of St Winifred

A particular theme of that episode is fraudulent miracles. One pilgrim fakes being crippled and then is miraculously ‘cured’; he uses the ‘miracle’ in an attempt to bilk other pilgrims into giving him money. Another character is peddling what are pretty clearly fabricated relics for money. Both of these frauds were real phenomena, although they were probably less common than popular imagination would have it. (In general, though, the storyline of Pilgrim is the weakest in the show because it departs quite far from the novel and relies on cliched ideas about religious fanaticism that don’t make much sense.)

In The Holy Thief, the locals flock to the abbey to pray for protection from flooding, and are again shown lining up to access the box in which Winifred’s bones are kept, and paying for the privilege. More importantly, someone steals the reliquary and a three-sided dispute breaks out about who truly owns the body of St. Winifred: the monks of Shrewsbury Abbey, the monks of Ramsey Abbey who claim that one of their brothers has had a vision of Winifred beckoning to him the way she beckoned to Columbanus in Morbid Taste, or the nobleman who owns the land where the wagon carrying the reliquary broke down (who claims that Winifred indicated her preference for him by causing the wagon to break down on his land).

The murder happens when the monks of Ramsey, feeling stymied, resort to outright theft. Such things definitely happened. Monks might be convinced that a saint genuinely desired the relocation of their relics and thus felt that such furta sacra (“holy theft”) was justified, sometimes even claiming miracles were happening to assist the crime. (The episode changes the murderer, however.)

The dispute over the reliquary is resolved using bibliomancy. The claimants take turns opening a copy of the Gospels to random passages and using the resulting verses as a statement of who ought to own it. While bibliomancy was used during the Middle Ages, the Church generally condemned it, so it’s unlikely that the abbot would have resorted to it (although, given that the abbots in this series are generally quite lax about the Benedictine Rule, it’s not unreasonable to suppose they were also lax about this sort of practice.

A Few Other Details

In some places, however, the show gets things wrong. Nearly every episode has someone use the term ‘murder’ in the modern sense of an unlawful killing. But in this period, murdrum has a much more specific set of meanings. The Danes introduced the concept of murdrum, which was a killing in secret, legally distinct from an openly-known killing and much more serious. Since the whole series is built around secret killings, that might seen reasonable. But in English law between the 1060s and the 1270s, murdrum was not a crime committed by an individual but more of a fine imposed on a community.

In the absence of a police force in the modern sense, English law in this period relied on collective responsibility. All adult men were expected to be members of a tithing, a group of roughly ten men, all of whom were responsible for the legal offenses of any of their members. So if one member of the tithing committed a crime and failed to show up in court for it, all the members of his tithing would be fined for the offense. This in theory helped ensure that criminals would be made to show up to court. To discourage the killing of the new Norman elites that ruled England, if any unknown man were killed in a community, the victim was assumed to be a Norman and a murdrum fine would be imposed on the whole community. It might also be imposed on someone who killed in self-defense. In some of the episodes, the scenario might reasonably involve murdrum, but the characters almost never mean it the way the word was being used at the time.

Another problem with the series is that Cadfael basically invents forensic pathology about 700 years too early. In some cases, his observations can be passed off as simply the work of a very observant man. In Morbid Taste, it’s not unreasonable that he can deduce that the dead man was stabbed in the back with a knife and then after he was lying on the ground dead he was stabbed in the belly with an arrow, because the downward angle of the arrow would be impossible if the man had been standing. But in One Corpse he is able to figure out that the victim was strangled with a waxed cord. In Pilgrim, he boils a corpse down so he can examine the bones, deduces that the man was knocked out from a blow to the head, and then reassembles the body osteologically. Given that dissection of corpses was quite rare, it’s highly unlikely that Cadfael could have figured out the order in which the vertibre should go. (This doesn’t occur in the novel; Pargeter would almost certainly not have invented such an implausible detail.)

The practice of boiling corpses down, as done in Pilgrim, was historical. It was a way for nobles who died abroad, to be transported home for burial without the problem of rotting on the way. And the show does correctly term it the Mos Teutonicus, the ‘German custom’. But it wasn’t invented until a few years after the end of the series; as the name suggests it was a German practice originally, so Cadfael doesn’t have any plausible way to know about it. Prior Robert correctly objects that this was a practice reserved for nobles who were being transported for burial, not for purposes of figuring out how someone was killed.


Brother Jerome (Julian Firth) and Prior Robert (Michel Culver) outside the abbey church

Another small problem is the idea of inns, which feature somewhat in St Peter’s Fair. In that episode, inns are treated as taverns and presented as common enough that a character plans to just buy one. That character is depicted as performing in inns, and Shrewsbury is shown as having at least two. In reality, inns were distinct from taverns. A tavern, or public house, was a private residence where the housewife would sell home-brewed ale or later beer; it was essentially an outgrowth of domestic ale production. Taverns and ale-houses certainly existed in this period.

But Inns were something different. An inn was more like a hotel, a place not primarily for drinking, but for lodging (although they certainly did act like taverns). They only really emerged in the 14th century as the economy of medieval Europe was becoming more sophisticated and long-range trade was becoming a regular rather than a seasonal activity as it was in the 12th century. Inns provided shelter as people traveled between towns, and as such they were primarily a rural rather than an urban phenomenon. So it’s highly unlikely that a smaller town like Shrewsbury would have had inns in it in Cadfael’s day, both because it was a town and because inns weren’t really a thing then. 12th century travelers would have had to make do with a combination of staying at monasteries (which had a duty to provide hospitality to travelers), persuading people to take them in for the night, and just camping on the road.

In The Raven in the Foregate, the Norman priest Father Ailnoth despises his Anglo-Saxon parishioners, which is odd because his name is Anglo-Saxon, strongly suggesting that he was himself not Norman but Anglo-Saxon. In the novel, he’s a dick, but not over ethnic issues, and Pargeter probably intended him to be Anglo-Saxon rather than Norman.

One final issue. Cadfael’s name ought, according to Welsh pronunciation, to be pronounced ‘KAD-vel’, with the F being sounded like a V. But Pargeter never explained that in her novels, something she regretted, and as a result throughout the series his name is pronounced ‘KAD-file’. We might write it off as English people not being able to get the Welsh right, except that the Welsh characters get it wrong too. (In general, the series is pretty loose about Welsh accents. Some of the Welsh characters have them but others don’t.)

Want to Know More? 

Cadfael is available on Amazon. If you like murder mysteries, you really should read A Morbid Taste for Bones or some of the other books in the series.

If you’re interested in the phenomenon of relic-stealing, the basic work on the subject is Patrick Geary’s Furta Sacra.

Rocketman: Inside Elton John


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This past semester has just been exhaustingly busy, so I haven’t watched a lot of historical films, much less had any time to blog about them. But I did get an opportunity to watch Rocketman (2019, dir. Dexter Fletcher) recently and found its approach to historical storytelling interesting. So I wanted to make a quick post about it.

The film focuses on the life of Elton John from his childhood in post-war Britain to his getting sober in the 1980s. Between those two point, he of course became one of the biggest musical artists of the century (he is currently the fourth-best-selling performer, behind the Beatles, Rihanna, and Michael Jackson). The film opens with John (Taron Edgerton), dressed in a devil stage costume, walking into something like an AA meeting (but with a therapist). His conversation (mostly a monologue, really) in the group serves as the frame-tale for his life story, told in roughly chronological order. It doesn’t shy away from either his drug use or his sexuality. (In fact, the film contains the first full-out gay sex scene ever included in a major Hollywood film.)


The film, which John himself worked to bring to screen, does something quite refreshing for an historical biopic. While the film broadly sticks to the fact of John’s life and career, it doesn’t really try to present them in a standard factual narrative. Instead, at key emotional and career moments, John and the characters around him start singing his music, sometimes turning songs into duets, dance numbers, and the like.

The result is a film that tries to convey not precisely the facts so much as what it felt like to be Elton John. John’s childhood is expressed through “I Want Love”, sung by young John (Kit Connor), his rather self-centered mother Shiela (Bryce Dallas Howard), his distant and cold father Stanley (Steven Mackintosh) and his more attentive grandmother Ivy (Gemma Jones), who recognizes his talent and helps him get a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music. His first performance at an English pub when he’s 15 turns into the Bollywood-inspired dance number “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting.” When he gives his first American performance, “Crocodile Rock”, both he and the audience levitate off the ground, giving a sense of the transcendent feeling a great rock performance can create. “Rocketman” is used to convey his sense of profound unhappiness and isolation at the height of his stardom. His eventual sobriety is marked at the end of the film with “I’m Still Standing.” The result is a biopic that is more like a stage musical than a conventional Hollywood biopic.

Although the film roughly follows the facts, it departs from chronology in one very important way. The songs performed bear no chronological relationship to the moments they are used to illustrate in the film. For example, “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting” was released in 1973, but is used to depict John’s first public performance in 1962. His first American performance was in 1970, but “Crocodile Rock” wasn’t written until 1972. “I’m Still Standing” was not written while he was in rehab. So the film subordinates the chronology of John’s music to the goal of expressing John’s inner life, which is sometimes larger than life and sometimes deeply lonely.

Some of the people in John’s life have objected to the film’s characterization of key characters. His half-brothers have objected to John’s depiction of Stanley as cold and distant, asserting that Stanley had a much better relationship with John in his teen years than the film offers. The film depicts Sheila as basically too self-centered to appreciate her son’s remarkable musical talents, when in fact she was consistently supportive of him. But if the film is seeking to express John’s inner life rather than the strict objective facts these deviations are less problematic. John may have felt unloved even if his father was more loving than the film presents him as.

The film also does something quite nice during the closing credits. Throughout the film John performs in a range of increasingly outrageous outfits, including as Queen Elizabeth I. The closing credits include side-by-side comparisons of the film’s version of various outfits with photos of the actual outfits they were based on. While the film exaggerates the outfits slightly, in general the costumes hew fairly closely to the facts.


Taron Edgerton in one of the film’s more flamboyant costumes

Overall, Rocketman takes a clever and insightful approach to a work-horse genre and finds something rather new in it. It does a good job conveying the spirit of John’s music and is definitely worth a look.

Want to Know More? 

Elton John’s autobiography is Me: Elton John

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.



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.


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. Symonds’ 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, who was 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 cause 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.


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.


Margaret of Burgundy

Henry initially treated Warbeck with the same leniency he had treated Simnel. Warbeck 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 Symomds 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.


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 earlier. When her 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 Queen Elizabeth passes off a young male servant as Richard and has 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.


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’t believe 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 utterly 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 The White 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 held 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.)


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.


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.


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.


I cannot emphasize enough how totally whackadoodle 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.


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.


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 Princess is 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 things 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.


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.


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. (The now-derogatory ‘tranny’ originated in the 1980s within the community as an affirmative term to include both drag queens and trans women.)

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 to 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 impersonation also required some degree of talent as a singer and dancer. Thus comparatively trans women were able to pursue that option.)



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 and job opportunities; for black transwomen the figure is 47%.)

Although some gay bars in 1960s New York were willing to admit at least a few transwomen and drags, the same does not seem to have been 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 an 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.


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.


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, trans women 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 trans women 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.



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 trans woman 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 trans women 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 trans woman 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.


Richards as a Young Anna Madrigal


The whole episode beautifully explores the struggles trans women 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 she still fearful about outing herself to her Bohemian tenants and her 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).


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 finally 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.


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.

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 building 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 their 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.


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 creates 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.


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’.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.)


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.


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.