The Little Hours: Nuns Behaving Badly


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The Little Hours (2017, dir. Jeff Baena) is, as the name suggests, a modest little film dealing with some immodest nuns. The film is set at a convent in 14th century Italy and is strongly inspired by two genuine medieval tales, the 1st and 2nd stories from the 3rd day of Boccaccio’s Decameron.


Spoiler Alert: If you’re planning to see this film in the theater, you might want to wait to read this until after youv’e done so, since I discuss plot points, including the resolution of the film.

The Decameron, for those unfamiliar with it, is a medieval collection of stories with a loose frame-tale, sort of like the Canterbury Tales you might have read in your high school English class. Instead of a group of pilgrims telling stories as they head for Canterbury, Boccaccio’s ten story-tellers have fled Florence to escape the Bubonic Plague and have holed up in a villa outside the city for two weeks. To amuse themselves and to distract from the death outside, each day they take turns telling stories on a proposed theme (with two days off each week for chores and holy days), so they tell ten stories on each of ten days (hence the work’s title, ‘the Ten-Day Event’). That structure allows Boccaccio to tell a whole range of stories from the comic to the tragic to the morally instructional. The third day’s tales have as a theme something acquired or lost and regained with great difficulty.

The first tale deals with Masetto, a handsome young man who passes himself off as a deaf-mute in order to take work at a monastery of 8 nuns (in medieval usage, ‘monastery’ can refer to a house of either monks or nuns). Since they think he can’t speak, the nuns decide to explore the pleasures of the flesh with him, which he’s only too willing to allow. So he becomes their stud bull, servicing the nuns (including the mother superior) so frequently that he’s exhausted. Eventually he breaks down and demands that the nuns give him a set schedule, which they agree to because they don’t want to lose him or risk him spilling their secret. So he lives there the rest of his life, keeping the nuns happy and fathering a lot of children in the process.

The second tale deals with King Agilulf and Queen Theodolinda, Theodelinda has a servant who flirts with her and eventually he beds her by deceiving her into thinking he is the king. Theodolinda is fooled, but Agilulf realizes he has been cuckolded. He follows the servant back to the chamber where all the servants sleep and manages to figure out which one of the sleeping men in the darkened room is the guilty party. He cuts off a lock of the man’s hair to identify the man the next day. But after he leaves, the clever servant uses the scissors to cut off hair from each of the sleeping servants, so that in the morning the king cannot figure out which man to punish. He warns all the servants that he knows what is going on, but does it without harming his wife’s reputation.


The Film

About two-thirds of the Little Hours is drawn from these two stories. Masetto (Dave Franco) is the horny servant not of King Agilulf, but of Lord Bruno (Nick Offerman), an obnoxious blowhard whose wife loathes him. Masetto sleeps with her, but Bruno discovers it, leading to the whole hair-cutting sequence. Realizing that Bruno is on to him, Masetto flees and runs into Father Tommaso (John C. Reilly), a drunkard priest who befriends him (leading to a very funny drunken confessional sequence).

Tommasso is the priest for a small convent filled with unhappy and rather unspiritual nuns. Alessandra (Alison Brie), Ginevra (Kate Micucci), and Fernanda (Aubrey Plaza) take out their boredom and frustration by physically and verbally abusing the convent’s male worker so much that the man quits. Tommasso introduces Masetto to Mother Marea (Molly Shannon), telling her that Masetto is a deaf-mute.


Three unruly nuns

This leads Alessandra and Fernanda into having sex with Masetto, while a rather confused Ginevra (who’s probably a lesbian anyway) thinks she’s had sex with him but doesn’t really understand what sex actually involves.

Then the film leaves its source material completely. Fernanda’s friend Marta (Jemima Kirke) is part of a witch’s coven, and the two of them decide to sacrifice Masetto in a fertility ritual. But Ginevra, tripping balls on belladonna, unintentionally breaks the ritual up, thus saving Masetto and accidentally exposing the whole shenanigans at the convent to Bishop Bartolemeo (Fred Armisen), leading to a rather amusing episcopal visitation of the house in which all is revealed.

Masetto gets sent back to Lord Bruno, but the three nuns help him escape back to the convent, where everything ends happily with the assurance that all the principal characters other than Bruno will be getting a lot of sex.

The humor of the film is rather broad, in keeping with its ribald source material. Baena, who is also the screenwriter of the film, has made the amusing choice to write the characters as anachronistically 21st century in their dialog and outlook on life. Apart from Franco and Micucci, who do a lot of mugging for the camera, all the actors give rather understated performances. If, like me, you’re not a fan of hipster comedy, you’ll probably find Offerman and Armisen more grating than funny, but Franco and the nuns are well-cast for this story. Fernanda has a lot of anger and violence roiling within, Alessandra is sexually and romantically frustrated, and Ginevra is a follower rather than a leader, at least until her repressed desires explode out of her.

The film largely captures the spirit and much of the substance of medieval farces, which are often at least as bawdy as some modern comedies. If anything, the film down-plays and avoids some elements of medieval farce, which is frequently far more violent, scatological, and misogynistic than its modern descendants. In the film, Masetto only sleeps with two of the nuns a total of three times, whereas in the original, every nun in the house has her way with him non-stop. So whereas modern audiences might assume the film is exaggerating medieval humor, it’s actually downplaying it a little.


Franco’s Masetto pretending to be deaf

Despite its comedy, which milks the contrast between its medieval setting and the contemporary-minded characters for all its worth, the film actually has a lot to say about the 14th century Italy. Late medieval authors loved mocking unspiritual clergy, and with the exception of one elderly nun, none of the women at the convent are actually following the rules (although Marea does seem to take her job seriously, apart from her affair with Tommasso). To modern audiences, the comedy is simply the contrast of supposedly pious nuns doing things such as swearing like sailors, threatening to assault people, and fornicating, but these are in fact exactly the sorts of things that many 14th century people suspected nuns actually did. Alessandra is so unspiritual, she can’t even reflect on her own sins during confession; instead she steals Ginevra’s confession by eavesdropping on it. Tommasso the drunken, bumbling priest is another staple of medieval literature; one gets the sense that he would happily gossip about the confessions he hears.

The three young nuns are not in the convent because they feel a calling to the spiritual life, but because their families have put them there. Alessandra’s father is a merchant, and she thinks she’s there simply to be educated before getting married, at least until a visit from her father makes her realize that he’s probably planning on dumping her there permanently so that he doesn’t have to shell out for her dowry. Fernanda and Ginevra’s backstories are never clarified, other than a throw-away joke that Ginevra is actually Jewish, but Fernanda is played as a bored rich girl stuck at a boarding school when she’d rather be out partying with her friends (complete with a scene in which Marta sneaks into the convent and all the girls get drunk on sacramental wine and start making out with each other). To me, these characters ring true (apart from Ginevra’s Jewish ancestry) because that’s how many young women actually wound up as nuns. Alessandra’s story is played for laughs, but I’m certain more than a few young women tragically lived out exactly that story.

Similarly, the bishop’s visitation, a sort of trial in which the moral failings of the nuns are revealed and punished, is played for laughs, but records of dozens of such visitations still exist for both male and female houses, and they reveal large numbers of monks and nuns who evidently found life in a monastery not to their taste. Cases of run-away nuns abound, and fornication was a regular problem, as both actual events and moralizing tales make clear. Even the lesbianism in the film can be documented in period sources. To us, The Little Hours is funny because it’s absurd, but to 14th century Italians, Boccaccio’s story is funny because it’s true.


A genuine medieval image of nuns harvesting a penis-tree

The nuns here are bored, and take out their frustrations on those around them. They live lives of dull manual labor, although the upper-class Alessandra cheerfully dumps her laundry onto Ginevra because the latter girl is “good at it.” Alessandra is apparently good at needle-work, which gets her out of some of the drudgery, but partway through the film Marea orders her to double her production, so even her social class can’t protect her from unpleasant work. The nuns abuse their male servants for no reason other than that they can; Fernanda has a habit of pulling weapons on people. Ginevra is a tattle-tale, constantly running to Marea to reveal every minor offense her sisters make. Underneath the humor is a revealing portrait of the way many monks and nuns actually responded to their living situation. By the 14th century, most monks were likely to have actively chosen the life they were living, and were frequently permitted to leave their houses, but many nuns were there against their will, and the rule of enclosure (which stated that nuns were not supposed to leave their convents for any reason at all) meant that many of these women struggled with the mind-number sameness of their daily routine and chafed at the constant close contact with other nuns.

The film also has a sub-plot dealing with finance. The convent needs an income to support its residents. Alessandra’s father is supposed to be paying money to the convent for her, but he’s either stingy or business is going badly (as Tommasso gossips), so he’s not giving what he’s supposed to. The convent makes money by selling the embroidery of the sisters, using Tommasso as their business agent, but he drunkenly ruins one shipment by letting his cart tip into a stream. In addition to being the spiritual leader of the house, something she seems to have some interest in (to judge from the readings she delivers at meals), Marea’s also responsible for managing the finances of the convent, something she seems to have no talent for. Bartholemeo audits her books and apparently finds serious problems.

These were genuine issues at convents, because the rules about keeping nuns separate from men often meant that women with no business experience wound up having to make major financial decisions. In some cases, the abbesses rose to the challenge, either making good choices themselves or finding other nuns who had a head for business and thereby building their house into a financial power, but in others, poor choices produced fiscal crises that led to impoverishment.


Plaza’s Fernanda WILL cut you

The only truly false note in the plot (as opposed to the anachronistic attitudes) is the witchcraft element that brings the film to its climax. Although the 14th century did see the beginnings of a concern about groups of witches engaging in abominable activities, what the film shows us is straight out of a 16th century panic about witches’ covens, naked orgies, and human sacrifice (although instead of sacrificing adult men like Masetto, these post-medieval fantasies focused on the murder and cannibalism of babies). The film’s depiction of the witches also draws off of 20th century neo-pagan ideas of witches as engaging in an alternate religious system. These witches seem to be housewives and young women who are performing a “fertility ritual” of some sort, and it’s not entirely clear that they plan to actually kill Masetto. Fernanda, at least, is not the malevolent baby-killer of early modern anxiety, and Marta doesn’t seem to be either, although her motives are not developed at all. Both women are like naughty college students looking for something the conventional religion of their society does not offer them. Boccaccio does not tell stories about witches, although in one story a character describes a supposed secret society of revelers that uses some of the stock charges about witches, but which are eventually revealed to all be a prank on a gullible doctor. Far from being a believer in witches, Boccaccio seems to be a skeptic, something that is true of far more medieval people than popular imagination would allow.

The Little Hours isn’t trying to recreate a story from the Decameron. Instead, in the phrasing so loved by Hollywood, it’s ‘inspired by’ the stories. It takes whatever pieces it wants from two tales and plays with them freely, which is exactly what medieval authors like Boccaccio and Chaucer did with their source material, and what Shakespeare was going to do a few centuries later. In that sense. Jeff Baena is true to the spirit of Boccaccio, and he manages, perhaps unintentionally, to give a reasonable lesson in what life in a 14th century convent might have looked like.


Want to Know More?

The Little Hours is still in the theater, so it’s not available for purchase or streaming yet.

Boccaccio’s Decameron has more than a little in common with the somewhat more-famous Canterbury Tales, and it’s actually complete! Give it a read.

Graciela Diachman’s Wayward Nuns in Medieval Literature looks at medieval stories of bad nuns and the historical evidence for them. Similarly, Judith Brown’s Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renassance Italy looks at one particularly scandalous abbess, Benedetta Carlini, who not only had a sexual relationship with another nun but also faked visions and stigmata. She is perhaps the first well-documented lesbian in Western history.


The White Queen: Two Points about Priests


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To wrap up my comments on The White Queen, I’ll end with two small points about late medieval religion.


We’re Going to the Chapel and We’re Gonna Get Married

In the first episode, Edward IV (Max Irons) has a clandestine marriage to Elizabeth Woodville (Rebecca Ferguson) before a priest, with her mother as the only real witness. Elizabeth assumes this means they are married, but then her brother Anthony (Ben Lamb) warns her that the whole thing could have been a sham marriage with a fake priest. That allows the rest of the episode to milk drama out of whether Edward will acknowledge the marriage or not.

But it’s a serious misrepresentation of the way medieval marriage law worked. By the 9th century, it was becoming established that marriage was governed by canon law, the law of the Church, making religious officials the final arbiters of who was and wasn’t married. Initially, the emphasis was placed on two basic principles: only monogamous marriage was permitted and divorce was not. Other issues quickly got draw in as well, including the famous prohibition on consanguinity—medieval canon law defined a wide range of relationships as within the bounds of incest and therefore unacceptable as marriage partners (eventually, one could get a dispensation on this from high religious officials).


Edward and Elizabeth consummating their marriage

But it wasn’t until the 12th and 13th centuries that canon lawyers and theologians began to tackle one of the thorniest and most surprising questions. Was sex required for marriage? The obvious answer was ‘yes’. Since reproduction was seen as the purpose of marriage, it stood to reason that an unconsummated marriage was not a true one. But that ran smack up against one of the most celebrated pieces of medieval theology, the assertion that Jesus’ mother had remained a virgin her entire life. If sex was required for marriage, then Mary and Joseph were not married.

Such a conclusion was unacceptable, because it meant that Mary and Joseph were living together immorally and Jesus had been raised in sin. So by the 13th century, canon lawyers had figured out a work-around–there was more than one way to make a marriage, and it all depended on what vows were exchanged. If the wedding vows were phrased in the present tense, then they constituted a legitimate marriage regardless of whether sex happens or not. If, on the other hand, the vows were phrased in the future tense, they constituted a legal marriage only if consummation happens later. So if Edward said to Elizabeth something like “I marry you” (using words of the present tense), they were married, even if they never have sex. But if he said “I will marry you” (using words of the future tense), the marriage was not truly made until the couple has sex. So medieval theologians could be certain that Mary and Joseph had been legally married because they must have exchanged their vows in the present tense.

On the other hand, canon lawyers said that there was one thing that wasn’t required for a legitimate marriage, and that was the presence of a priest. Unlike any other sacrament (except emergency baptism), marriage did not require the presence of a priest, although the Church strongly recommended that one be present to bless the couple and to act as a witness. This meant that clandestine marriages (like the one Elizabeth and Edward had) was a huge issue in late medieval law courts. There were numerous cases in which a person came forward claiming that they had secretly married someone else years before. This was most common in matters of inheritance, but other issues could come up as well.


A medieval marriage (note the absence of a priest)

The fact that clandestine marriages were still valid ones is the main reason for that old cliché in Hollywood marriage scenes—the moment when the priest says “If anyone can show a good reason why these two should not be joined in marriage, let him speak now or forever hold his peace.” What it’s basically saying is “Does anyone know if either of these people has already participated in a clandestine marriage?” That’s also why the traditional wedding vow is “I do,” not “I will.” It’s words of the present tense, to eliminate any uncertainty about whether the marriage was legitimate.

I suspect that most 15th century nobles would have known this, since marriage was a huge issue politically and socially for them. So it’s likely that Anthony, Elizabeth, and Edward would probably all have understood that the language used at the ceremony was what mattered. So when Anthony is questioning his sister’s marriage, what he would have focused on is not whether Edward provided a fake priest, because a fake priest can still preside over a real marriage. What he would be asking is “what words did you use in the vow?” And if Elizabeth says “I will marry you,” he’d follow up with “have you had sex since then?”

The episode skips the actual ceremony but shows the couple in bed together soon afterward, so regardless of which vows they exchanged, by the time Anthony is talking to his sister, Edward and Elizabeth are husband and wife legally.


Shuffling Off This Mortal Coil

Several characters die in their beds in this series: Isabel Neville, Jacquetta, Edward IV, Lady Beauchamp, and Anne Neville. Isabel’s happens off-stage, but Anne shows up immediately afterward. and Margaret Beaufort (Amanda Hale) walks out of Lady Beauchamp’s before her mother dies. The other three all get to die on camera. But there’s something missing in all of these scenes. The priest.

Edward dying

Why is no one bleeding this man? He’s obviously dying!

Later medieval religion had a highly-developed body of rituals around the process of dying, because dying was one of the most spiritually-perilous things that could happen to a person. If the Devil tricked a dying person into abandoning their faith in a moment of despair, there was a strong chance that person would go to Hell. So it was assumed that the dying process was a moment when a person needed as much spiritual support and assistance as possible.

The ideal death, in the late medieval mind, was dying in bed surrounded by family and community and priest. This is not because it was a chance to say goodbye, but because these people would help the dying person to die well. In a full death-bed ritual, when it becomes clear (or seems likely) that someone will die soon, a priest is sent for and the local community and family of the person will gather at the death-bed. The priest will arrive and will do a variety of rituals: saying the Lord’s Prayer and the Hail Mary with the dying person, anointing the person with consecrated oil, presenting the person with a crucifix and asking him or her to kiss it, asking the person to affirm their faith, and performing a final confession. Unlike the normal private confession, this confession is usually public, so the dying Edward will be asked about all his sins toward his loved ones gathered around him, and those gathered may well suggest things he ought to confess. Final reconciliations with those he has quarreled with may be sought, to reduce the time in Purgatory.

In the case of a king or queen, there’s an added political dimension. The king needs to make clear who is going to succeed him. This would already have been legally determined, but a death-bed statement helps strengthen the new king’s legitimacy. If the heir is a minor, the king needs to declare who ought to govern and have charge of his son. The death of a king or queen needs to be above reproach and clearly not a case of murder, so witnesses needed to be present who aren’t just the family, such as the Chancellor or the Treasurer.


Jacquetta’s death-bed

The White Queen mostly gets that part right. Edward is asked about who is going to governing for his son and so on. But for some reason, none of these important people die with a priest present, and the emphasis is entirely on the emotional reactions of their loved ones. There’s no hint these men and women lived in a society in which religion played a major role and that they probably had some concern for the state of their souls. The only character for whom religion seems to matter is Margaret Beaufort (Amanda Hale) and even she barely seems to interact with a priest; there’s no priest at her mother Lady Beauchamp’s death-bed and she spitefully quarrels with her mother, which medieval society would have seen as horrificially impious. Every high noble family would have had a chaplain on its staff, and kings and queens would have had personal confessors who functioned as spiritual advisors and guides, but none of these characters meet with a confessor.

Obviously, the religious elements have been largely stripped out of the story because modern audiences aren’t generally interested in such things, and elaborate death-bed rituals would get in the way of what modern audiences really want to see, which is lots of tearful goodbyes or final turns of the knife (in the case of Lady Beauchamp and her bitter daughter Margaret). But in a series that genuinely tried to get the basic historical facts right, it’s a damn shame that they didn’t include at least a few elements of the late medieval death ritual.

Also, because I doubt I’ll ever have a genuine reason to post it, I feel compelled to post what is, in my opinion, the greatest graphic for a scholarly book ever printed. It’s from James Brundage’s Law, Sex, and Christian Society in Medieval Europe, and it flowcharts the sexual decision-making process that early medieval penitential manuals theoretically expected a couple to go through when deciding whether to have sex. By the 10th century, these manuals were no longer being so fussy, so there was only a period of about 200 years when this model might have applied. But it’s too beautiful to pass up.



Want to Know More?

The White Queen is available on Starz, and on Amazon. The three novels it is based on are The White QueenThe Red Queen, and The Kingmaker’s DaughterThey are also available as a set with two other novels.

If you want to know more about medieval ideas about marriage, a good starting point is Frances and Joseph Gies, Marriage and Family in the Middle AgesTheir books are directed more at laymen than scholars, and this one does a pretty good job of surveying the evolution of medieval ideas about marraige and family structure.

If you really want to dig into the legal issues around marriage, there is no better book than James Brundage’s Law, Sex, and Christian Society in Medieval EuropeI had the pleasure of having Brundage as my undergraduate advisor, and that flowchart is absolutely typical of his dry sense of humor. But don’t be fooled; this is a very scholarly book and not for the faint of heart.

If you’re curious about late medieval dying rituals, John Hatcher’s The Black Death: A Personal History might be a good place to go. Although it’s specifically about the Bubonic Plague hitting England in 1347-48, it has a very good chapter on the rituals of dying (which the Black Death proved a perfect storm against).

Purchasing any of these books through their links is a great way to support this blog, since I get a small percentage of the proceeds and you get to learn something.


The White Queen: Richard III


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The last three episodes of The White Queen deal with Richard III’s seizure of power after his brother Edward IV dies in 1483. This portion of the series definitely falls on the ‘Yet So Far’ side of this series, and I figured it deserved a post of its own.


The show’s take on Richard is an interesting one. Shakespeare and the Tudors in general depicted him as a scheming villain who would stop at nothing to get the crown. But this Richard (Aneurin Bernard) is a basically decent man, who remains loyal to his brother until late in Edward’s reign, when frustrations with some of Edward’s choices and growing tensions with the Woodvilles lead him into betraying his nephew Edward. His wife Anne (Faye Marsay) hates Queen Elizabeth (Rebecca Ferguson) and thinks she is a literal witch who caused the death of Anne’s sister Isabel, and she urges her husband to take action against the Woodvilles. And while Richard and Elizabeth sincerely try to find a way to trust each other, Margaret Beaufort (Amanda Hale) and her husband Lord Stanley (Rupert Graves) actively lie to both sides to encourage distrust between them so that Margaret’s son Henry Tudor (Michael Marcus) can take the throne. So this Richard is a decent man simply unable to find a way to make peace and must therefore do evil instead.


Bernard’s Richard in a very snappy outfit

The reality was somewhat more complex than that. The later 15th century was a harsh period politically. Over the previous century and a half, two kings were usurped (Edward II and Richard II), there were two royal minorities (Richard II and Henry VI) and one disastrously incompetent king (Henry VI); all of that made the power of the crown more unstable than it had been in the 12th or 13th century. At the same time, the wars in France had made several noble families far richer than in previous centuries, closing the gap between the monarch and his most powerful subjects. Parliament did not yet have institutional structures to enable it to resist the pressure of aggressive kings and nobles, and the law courts easily succumbed to pressure from nobles to give highly biased rulings. All that meant that politics during the last decades of the Plantagenet dynasty were characterized by a certain dog-eat-dog ruthlessness. In the 1470s, George of Clarence and Richard (who had married sisters) were eager to get their hands on the fortune of their mother-in-law, the Dowager Countess of Warwick, so they prevailed upon Edward and Parliament to have the countess declared legally dead so their wives could inherit her estates, despite the unfortunate woman being very much alive and in evidence.

Richard did not get along well with the Woodvilles during his brother’s reign. Like many other nobles, he resented them grabbing up marriage partners and important offices, and the Woodvilles likewise disliked him, at least in part because by the end of the reign, he was next in line should anything happen to Edward’s children.

When Edward died unexpectedly, leaving behind his 11-year old son Edward as his heir, it necessitated the appointment of a regent to govern for him for several years. Richard became Lord Protector, a title invented for his father the duke of York during Henry VI’s mental incapacity. That automatically created tension between the Dowager Queen Elizabeth, who as mother of the king could be expected to have a great deal of influence with young Edward, and Richard, who as Lord Protector was now the most important official in the country. For Richard, this created a dilemma. He might be politically ascendant for the next few years, but Elizabeth’s influence over Edward meant that the young king would probably absorb his mother’s dislike for Richard. Eventually, Edward would be old enough to assume power, and at that point he was likely to be hostile to Richard.

So Richard was in a bad position. It was probably just a matter of time before the Woodvilles found a way to use the young king against Richard, perhaps stripping him of his offices and honors, and perhaps even finding an excuse to execute him. It was either do or be done to eventually, and Richard decided to do.


Richard III’s skeleton shows he really did have a deformed spine

Right after the old Edward’s death, Richard intercepted young Edward’s maternal uncle, Earl Rivers, who was escorting their nephew to London. He arrested Rivers and took charge of the young king, claiming that there was a plot to deprive Richard his role as Lord Protector. Whether there was any truth to his claim is unknown, but it’s not entirely implausible. He had installed Edward in the Tower of London. The Dowager Queen took all her remaining children and sought sanctuary in Westminster Abbey. But several days later, she agreed to release her youngest son Richard (Edward’s full brother) to the Lord Protector in order to participate in Edward’s coronation, which was supposed to happen on June 22nd.

Robert Stillington, bishop of Bath and Wells (but not the baby-eating one), told Richard that he had performed a marriage ceremony for Edward to a different woman prior to his marriage to Elizabeth Woodville, which meant that his marriage to Elizabeth was bigamous and therefore invalid, which in turn meant that young Edward and Richard were illegitimate and the Lord Protector was therefore the rightful king. Whether Stillington had any evidence to support this claim or if he was just giving Richard cover for what he had decided to do is unknown; given Edward’s amorousness, the claim is certainly not impossible, but most historians feel Stillington was lying.

Regardless, this gave Richard the ammunition he needed. On the 22nd, instead of a coronation, a sermon was preached outside Old St. Paul’s circulating Stllington’s claim and declaring the two boys bastards. On June 25th, Earl Rivers was found guilty of treason and executed and the next day Richard publicly agreed to become king. He was crowned on July 6th, completing the coup. After the summer of 1483, neither of the young princes were ever seen in public again.


The Princes in the Tower

What happened to Edward V and his younger brother Richard is unknown. It’s virtually certain they were murdered at some point (a pair of skeletons often thought to be them were discovered in a disused staircase of the Tower of London centuries later), but who actually killed them, we don’t know. Shakespeare and other Tudor authors put the blame on Richard, while people interested in defending Richard have offered a variety of other suspects. No serious scholar thinks that Richard personally stabbed or strangled them, but it is inconceivable that they were killed without Richard’s agreement; they were simply too important for some nobleman to sneak into the Tower and do them in without Richard’s knowledge.

The series takes an interesting approach to this question. It never resolves the issue. Someone enters the young king’s chamber in the Tower and he is startled awake, and that’s the last we see of him. For the remainder of the series, all the major characters wrestle with what happened to the boys. Elizabeth agonizes over the rumors that they are dead. Richard seems haunted by the question, and eventually goes to see Queen Elizabeth, asking her if her witchcraft stole them away, so it’s pretty clear that he didn’t do it. At different points both Margaret Beaufort and Anne Neville instruct underlings to kill the boys, so the viewer is left with the puzzle of whether one of the nobles or servants of Richard, Margaret, or Anne did the deed.

Queen Elizabeth and her daughter send a curse after whoever murdered the young king, and Anne eventually sickens and dies, so the show appears to point the finger at her. But she asks one of her lackeys if he did the deed and he denies it, absolving her of the guilt she is carrying. Margaret likewise wrestles with the issue of whether she can orchestrate the murder of Prince Richard, whom she literally brought into the world; her husband Lord Stanley (Rupert Graves) takes enormous pleasure at forcing her to say she wants the boy dead.


Bernard as Richard and Marsay as Anne


This approach has two virtues. First, it avoids passing judgment where historians have no definitive answer, and second, it dramatizes the widespread uncertainty felt at the time over what had happened to them. No one in 1485 knew the answer (except whoever did the deed), so the show leaves us hanging the way events left everyone at the time hanging.

However, ultimately, it’s a cop-out. As I noted, serious historians agree that Richard was responsible for their fate, even if he didn’t murder them with his own hands. The series is more than willing to show things that didn’t happen, such Edward, George, and Richard personally smothering Henry VI, or the Woodvilles conjuring hurricanes, so to suddenly demur at this point is just cheating. And Gregory is more than willing to give us her rather improbable take on a variety of issues, such as why Richard III was interested in his niece Elizabeth, so refusing to give us her solution to who done it feels cheap, like reading an Agatha Christie novel that ends with Poirot admitting he has no clue who the murderer is.

Furthermore, the series veers off wildly into La-La Land with this whole incident, because after Richard snatches young Edward, Queen Elizabeth manages to smuggle out her younger son Richard to Flanders under the name ‘Perkin Warbeck’, and somehow finds a lookalike boy to pretend to be him, so that King Richard mistakenly thinks he has Prince Richard in the Tower. This imposter somehow never gives the game away, nor does young Edward.

For those of you less familiar with the actual reign of Henry VII, one of the rebellions against him was in the name of a pretender named Perkin Warbeck. So Gregory is claiming that Perkin Warbeck actually was the man he claimed to be. It’s a cute twist, but utterly improbable.


The Battle of Bosworth Field

The show’s take on the battle that ended Richard III’s brief reign and life is pretty sad. The show clearly didn’t have a lot of money for battle scenes or even decent stuntmen or a good fight co-ordinator, because the two battles that are shown are both laughably bad. The most obvious problem is that the Battle of Bosworth Field takes place in a forest. The two sides have no formation, so as with so many other bad renditions of historical battles, the battle is depicted as a series of one-on-one fights with soldiers on both sides running in from both sides of the camera. There’s lots of sword-slapping-on-sword pseudo-fighting, and few of the men carry shields. There’s no sign of the cannons Richard used to harass Henry’s men as they maneuvered around a nearby marsh. There’s no cavalry, even though Richard’s charge straight at Henry’s position was one of the critical moments in the battle; had he succeeded he would have killed Henry and ended the battle right there, but instead he failed and wound up isolated and unhorsed, which led to his death. At least the men are wearing reasonable approximations of real period armor (although, as always, they go into battle mostly without helmets so the audience can see the actors’ faces).


Note the total absence of a field

I can totally appreciate that a miniseries doesn’t have the budget to realistically recreate a battle involving perhaps 15-20,000 men. Cavalry charges are expensive to stage. But it can’t have cost more to stage the fight in a field somewhere rather than a forest. It’s pretty clear they staged it in a forest because it made it easier to disguise the fact that they only had about 20 guys. Perhaps this might have worked for some other battle, but this particular battle is so famously set in a field, that’s its whole freaking name! Trying to dodge the issue here fails so badly it calls attention to how poorly the fight is staged. Given that it’s the climax of the whole series, it would have been nice if they had found another way to handle it.

Want to Know More?

The White Queen is available on Starz, and on Amazon. The three novels it is based on are The White QueenThe Red Queen, and The Kingmaker’s DaughterThey are also available as a set with two other novels.

The best book I know on Richard III is Charles Ross’ appropriately-named Richard IIIRoss was, until his tragic murder during a break-in, probably the leading historian of Edward IV and Richard III and his take on these two men and their era has strongly influenced my approach to the series. I can’t recommend his books on them highly enough.

The White Queen: Witchcraft


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My first post about the BBC series The White Queen took a ‘So Close and Yet So Far’ approach. But a few people thought that it was more close than far. That’s mostly because I decided to save a couple of big things for separate posts. Here’s where we really get into the Far parts.



Throughout the series the Rivers women, including Jacquetta (Janet McTeer), Queen Elizabeth (Rebecca Ferguson) and Elizabeth of York (Freya Mavor) all practice witchcraft. In the first couple episodes it’s entirely about predicting the future, and so I thought that the show was taking the approach that Jacquette was just engaging in a little folk magic that happened to give the right answer about whether her daughter was going to get married.

But no, the women are in fact witches. As the series goes on, not only do they occasionally use magic to predict or shape the future, such as ensuring that Elizabeth gives birth to a boy, but they also go for larger-scale things. Over the series they conjure a small hurricane that nearly sinks Warwick (James Frain) and George of Clarence (David Oakes), create a fog that covers Edward IV (Max Irons) as his army approaches Warwick’s at the Battle of Barnet in 1471, and produce a storm that prevents Henry Tudor from sailing from Brittany to join Buckingham’s Rebellion in 1483. (In all three cases, this weather did actually happen historically.) They also curse Warwick and George to die for killing Queen Elizabeth’s father and brother; that one takes a long time to play out, but the show suggests that the curse really did work. Elizabeth briefly curses Richard with a pain in his hand that he feels. The Elizabeths also curse whoever killed the princes in the Tower; the show suggests that Anne Neville’s death in 1485 was due to that curse. All three women ‘have the sight’ and periodically get visions that correctly predict the future.

And everyone around them knows they are witches. Lord Rivers jokingly asks “what spells are you two weaving this time?” Queen Elizabeth jokes that if they burn a portrait of Margaret of Anjou, she and her mother will both get hanged as witches. Clarence and Anne both repeatedly accuse them of witchcraft, blaming them for everything that goes wrong in their personal lives. Clarence hirers an astrology to protect himself from Woodville magic, but it get misunderstood as an attempt to kill Edward. The only person who doesn’t think the Woodville women are witches is Edward.


Elizabeth and Jacquetta working a spell


So, to be clear about what the show does, it purports to be a historical narrative about the Wars of the Roses and it shows the Woodville women successfully using magic to manipulate the events. Their magic justifies many of the odd twists and turns the Wars took over the years. It never bothers to address why these magically powerful women didn’t just use their magic to directly kill their enemies like Clarence and Richard, so the narrative is just sort of ham-fisted about it.

There is an increasing trend in the past decade or so of ancient and medieval historical films and show throwing in magical elements. I have no problem with movies and shows depicting ancient and medieval magical practices; nearly all societies have magical practices of some sort, so it’s not unreasonable to show medieval women occasionally resorting to magic in hopes of achieving their ends. But I have a big problem with stories that claim to be historical showing those magical practices as producing real effects. At that point, a film or show crosses the line from history into fantasy.


The Basis for the Claims

Philippa Gregory’s idea that the Woodvilles were actual witches does have a small nugget of fact in it. In 1469, during the period when Warwick had taken control of Edward and was trying to run the government through him, Jacquetta was accused of witchcraft. A man named Thomas Wake gave Warwick “an image of lead made like a man of arms of the length of a man’s finger broken in the middle and mage fast with a wire, saying that it was made by [Jacquetta] to use with witchcraft and sorcery.” Wake got a parish priest to support this by claiming that Jacquetta had also made two figures of the king and the queen, presumably some form of love magic to ensure that Edward would marry her daughter.


A drawing of Richard Neville, the earl of Warwick


The charges were obviously political. Wake’s son had died fighting for Warwick against Edward and he may have been involved in the death of Lord Rivers. Warwick had just arranged the execution of Lord Rivers and one of his sons, and was clearly now maneuvering against Jacquetta as part of a sustained attack on the Woodvilles.

Jacquetta pushed back by writing a letter to the mayor and aldermen of London, reminding them that back n 1461, she had save the city when Margaret of Anjou wanted to destroy it. Jacquetta had been a close friend and lady-in-waiting to Margaret, so her personal influence apparently helped sway the wrathful queen. The citizens of London repaid the favor by sending a letter supporting her to Warwick via George of Clarence.

That didn’t stop the trial, though. Edward was forced to order an examination of the witnesses, but by the time came for the trial before the Great Council (in this case, essentially a session of the House of Lords), Edward was back in charge and the case against Jacquetta collapsed. The witnesses recanted their testimony, and Jacquetta asserted what was, at least in canon law, an entirely valid defense that Wake was a long-time enemy of hers; whether this particular canon law principle was carried over into English Common Law on witchcraft I’m unsure of, but if something similar applied, this would have disqualified Wake as an accuser by establishing that he had an obvious motive to lie.  The Council, clearly understanding where the king’s sympathies lay, acquitted Lady Rivers and agreed to her request to include the proceedings in the official records of the Council. Jacquetta was clearly a smart woman, and knew that having an official note of her acquittal might come in useful if the charges were revived later on.

And in fact the charges were revived in 1484 when Richard III asked Parliament to declare that Edward and Elizabeth had never been legally married because Elizabeth and Jacquetta had used magic to procure the marriage. By this point Lady Rivers was already dead, and Richard needed Parliament to make this declaration because it justified his seizure of the throne. Parliament did as it was told and declared the marriage invalid.

These two incidents, which were clearly motivated by politics, comprise the sum total of all the actual evidence that the Woodville women ever practiced witchcraft. It is out of these false charges that Gregory spun this entire subplot for her books. She worked within the framework of the known facts, which is commendable, but by blowing these details up into a major part of the story and inventing a host of facts that are literally impossible, such as controlling the weather, she took her story off into fantasyland. And Gregory has falsely claimed in an interview that Jacquetta was convicted and spared only by Margaret of Anjou’s intervention.


Philippa Gregory


In the show, Warwick tries Jacquetta for witchcraft while he has control of Edward. He brings in a witness (not Thomas Wake) to make the same accusations; Jacquetta protests that she has never seen the man before, rather than trying to disqualify him as an enemy. Since Jacquetta is actually a witch, the whole scene represents very serious danger; although the accuser is making things up, what he’s inventing is somehow correct. She is saved by calling a witness of her own, Margaret of Anjou, who she was close friends with years ago. Her strategy is that Warwick is dependant on Margaret politically and militarily, so he won’t be able to oppose her in this trial. It works and Jacquetta is acquitted. But this all rests on the false assumption that medieval English courts worked like modern ones, a mistake that other tv shows have made as well.


Jacquetta on trial


What is really frustrating to me about this is that the series had a perfect opportunity to explore the way that witchcraft accusations were generally motivated not by actual evidence of witchcraft but by political or personal motives. It was a charge that women were vulnerable to because this culture associated witchcraft with women rather than men. (Men were much more likely to be accused of learned magic, such as the malicious astrology charge brought against George of Clarence’s personal astrologer.)

In the later part of the Middle Ages, English society gradually began using accusations of magic for political reasons. In 1419, Henry V believed that he had been a target of a magical plot. In 1431, witchcraft was one of the charges against Joan of Arc. In 1441, Duchess Eleanor of Gloucester was accused of treasonous astrology when she had an astrologer forecast the death of Henry VI. She was convicted, forced to do public penance, divorce her husband and suffer life imprisonment. In 1450, Henry VI’s government accused the rebel Jack Cade of using sorcery. As already mentioned, in the 1470s, George of Clarence was implicated in treasonous astrology. Looking forward a generation of so, Anne Boleyn was accused of witchcraft by Catholic propagandists, although contrary to Internet claims, witchcraft was not one of the charges brought against her at her trial (although Henry VIII may have once made an off-hand claim that she had ensnared him through witchcraft).

So Gregory could easily have written a subplot in which the charges of witchcraft were entirely false and used that to explore the way that women were culturally vulnerable to ideas about witchcraft. Instead, she chose to actually reinforce the cultural bias around women as witchcraft by making them genuinely guilty. That really pisses me off, because in a way, it re-victimizes these two women.

If you like this post, please think about making a donation to my Paypal account to help me afford to pay for Starz and the other pay services I uses for this blog. Any donation is appreciated! Or follow the links below to purchase one of the books below. I get a small portion of the proceeds.

Want to Know More?

The White Queen is available on Starz, and on Amazon. The three novels it is based on are The White QueenThe Red Queen, and The Kingmaker’s DaughterThey are also available as a set with two other novels.

If you’re interested in this issue, you can read this blog post, which digs a bit further into the evidence for the Woodville women as witches (and explodes it). The author of the post, Susan Higgenbotham, is a novelist and author of The Woodvilles: The Wars of the Roses and England’s Most Infamous FamilyShe’s not a professional historian, but she’s clearly dug into the sources on this.

The White Queen: So Near, and Yet So Far


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Philippa Gregory’s work as a writer of historical fiction has drawn a great deal of criticism from historians, even though she has a bachelor’s in history and a doctorate in 18th-century literature. And the BBC series The White Queen, which is an adaptation of three of her Plantagenet novels (The White Queen, the Red Queen, and The Kingmaker’s Daughter), was not well-received by critics. But it’s something medieval, which I needed after my Fall of Eagles sojourn in the 19th century.


The series focuses on the middle and late phases of the Wars of the Roses, opening in 1461, a few years after the Battle of Towton in which Edward of York and his brothers George of Clarence and Richard of Gloucester have overthrown the Lancastrian Henry VI and established Edward as king. At the start of the first episode he meets, falls in love, and married Elizabeth Woodville .

Elizabeth came from the absolute bottom level of the English nobility. Her father, Sir Richard Woodville, was a mere knight (and technically therefore not actually nobility at all), while her mother was Jacquetta of Luxembourg, daughter of a Flemish count and widow of Henry VI’s uncle. He was only given a noble title in 1466, two years after becoming the king’s father-in-law (although the series calls him Lord Rivers all the way through).


Elizabeth Woodville

This marriage was a problem for several reasons. First, as noted, Elizabeth was essentially a commoner, whereas Edward ought to have married a member of the high nobility. Second, the Woodville clan had been Lancastrians, and only accepted Edward in the wake of the marriage. Third, The Woodvilles were a large family; Elizabeth had two sons by her previous marriage to Sir John Grey and she had a staggering 14 brothers and sisters (although her oldest brother died when he was 12). This huge family had to be provided for out of Edward’s patronage simply to make them appropriate in-laws for the king, and that made them appear as grasping upstarts to the established English nobility. Fourth, Edward conducted the marriage in secret; he was known to be highly-sexed and had already had several flings with women.

Finally, the marriage was a problem because Edward’s chief supporter, Richard Neville, the Earl of Warwick, had been negotiating to marry Edward to a French princess. Edward allowed Warwick to keep negotiating for some time after his marriage, but finally revealed that he already had a wife, humiliating and infuriating Warwick. Warwick was the most wealthy and powerful man in the kingdom, and his role in the Yorkist revolt against Henry VI had earned him the nickname the Kingmaker. This incident began the fracturing of the alliance between Edward and Warwick that ultimately led to Warwick conspiring with Edward’s brother George and then with Henry VI’s wife, Margaret of Anjou. Had Edward done the proper thing and married the French princess, it’s quite possible that the Wars of the Roses would have ended in 1461 and perhaps the Plantagenets would still be ruling England. So a story that focuses on this marriage and its consequences is certainly a great idea.

So Close…

As I watched the series, I found myself becoming impressed by it. The first half of it does a fairly good job of following the actual events. It opens with Elizabeth (Rebecca Ferguson) presenting herself to Edward (Max Irons) as he rides past her home, hoping to recover her late husband’s estate, which had been confiscated because he had been killed fighting for the Lancastrian cause three years earlier. Edward becomes attracted to her and she initially resists (because in romance novels, women who just give in and have sex are sluts, don’t you know) but accepts Edward’s marriage proposal. In the series, this is presented as Elizabeth being uncertain about her feelings until Edward proposes, but a more plausible scenario to my mind is that Elizabeth intentionally held out for marriage (much like Anne Boleyn did with Henry VIII two generations later) because she knew Edward had a reputation as a womanizer and saw the marriage as a way to advance her family. After all, Jacquetta had been a high noblewoman and certainly understood how the court worked, and that’s somewhat the way the show presents her mother as well. (Janet McTeer’s Jacquetta is one of the real bright spots in the show.)

The next several episodes trace the growing conflict between Warwick (James Frain) and Edward. It presents the Woodvilles as being the catalyst for this alienation, which is basically correct. Elizabeth seeks to find husbands and wives for her siblings and her two oldest sons. Traditionally, this has been seen as evidence that the Woodvilles were seeking to rise about their station, but the series does a nice job of looking at it from their point of view as a family suddenly thrust into the thick of English politics and needing to establish a genuine power base. And Edward begins giving the Woodvilles high offices, thus depriving Warwick’s family of a different source of wealth and power. But Elizabeth’s parents also manage to offend Warwick by insisting on their precedence at court over Warwick.

Warwick favors an alliance, or at least a peace, with France, but Edward begins to favor an alliance with the dukes of Burgundy, who in this period were rivals to France. Jacquetta was related to the royal house of Burgundy, so it’s unclear whether Edward is simply engaging in his own foreign policy or if the Woodvilles were pushing him toward Burgundy. Warwick is eventually revealed to have a secret deal with the king of France for land there, so the series put sthe focus more on why Warwick wants France rather than why Edward is favoring Burgundy.

The series also does a nice job of milking tension out of the fact that the first three children after the marriage were all girls. On paper, the fact that Edward’s first son wasn’t born until 1470 seems like a minor detail. But the show explores the reality that until Edward had a son, his hold on the throne was tenuous, because his heir was his brother George (David Oakes). Since Henry VI was still alive, Edward’s opponents could choose to support either the old king or George. That made the Woodvilles all vulnerable as well.


Edward IV, Elizabeth, and their young son Edward

Eventually, Warwick grows frustrated and begins to plot with George. Historically, George married Warwick’s daughter Isabel in defiance of the king’s wishes in 1469 and then he and Warwick rebelled and seized Edward. Rather than deposing him in favor of George (which is probably what George was hoping for), Warwick tried to rule through Edward, keeping him prisoner in Warwick castle, but the English nobility refused to accept this and since Warwick was unwilling to kill or depose Edward, eventually he had to release the king and seek a reconciliation.

But that collapsed quickly. Warwick and George fled the country, made an alliance with Margaret of Anjou to put Henry VI back on the throne, and invaded at the head of an army that successfully forced Edward and Richard of Gloucester to flee to Flanders. Warwick returned Henry (or more properly his wife Margaret) to power. But this realignment encouraged France to declare war on Burgundy, and Burgundy supplied Edward with an army with which he was able to return, defeat and kill Warwick at the Battle of Barnet, and reclaim the throne, deposing Henry for a second and final time.


The Battle of Barnet

As I was thinking about that rather complex sequence of events, I assumed that the series would simplify things the way most historical films do. I expected it to omit Warwick and George’s initial rebellion and attempt to rule through Edward and just jump to the rebellion that deposed Edward in favor of Henry. But much to my surprise, the series played out the events roughly as they happened. The only major details it omitted were things involving people outside the show’s main circle of characters. (For example, neither Louis XI or the duke of Burgundy ever appear in the show, and their actions are barely even mentioned. Likewise the actions of English nobles like the earl of Pembroke and the earl of Devon during the rebellions are glossed over.) That impressed me a lot and I started thinking that I might have to declare this one of the best historical productions I’ve seen. In general, down through the end of Edward’s life, the show hits most of the major events of the reign in the right order. When it simplifies, it usually doesn’t oversimplify.

…And Yet So Far

Sadly, as the series goes on, though, it starts going wrong. One major issue is that it starts employing speculation and gossip as fact. For example, after Edward recovers his throne, he and his brothers go to the Tower and smother Henry in his bed to remove the threat. Elizabeth somehow stumbles upon them and witnesses the murder. The fact that Henry conveniently died the night before Edward’s re-coronation was so suspicious that most people assumed at the time (and still do today) that Edward ordered Henry’s death. A generation later, Thomas More’s History of Richard III says that Richard did the deed, but since More was writing during the reign of Henry VIII, he would have had to write about Richard as a tyrant, and Richard is known to have not been in London at the time of Henry’s death. Edward must surely have ordered the killing; Henry was too important a political pawn for someone to kill him without at least the king’s tacit approval. But it’s absurd to suggest that Edward himself did the deed. That’s what low-level servants are for.

The historical Edward eventually had a falling out with George. After Isabel died in 1476, George began to harbor ambitions to marry the duchess of Burgundy, a move that would have made Edward quite uncomfortable because of its political implications. When Edward refused to consent to it, George left court permanently. Then in 1477, it was learned that George had employed an astrologer to forecast his brother’s death. Trying to predict the time of the king’s death was seen as temptingly close to trying to cause the king’s death. George compounded the mistake after the astrologer’s execution by having a former Lancastrian protest the execution in Parliament. That was the last straw, and Edward arrested George, tried him for treason (personally acting as the prosecutor), and then executed him. Rumor has it that he was drowned in a butt of Malmsey, but no one really thinks that’s how George was dispatched.

However, the series (which gets the basic facts mostly right, if a little simplified) shows him being drowned in wine. On its own, it’s a forgivable moment of melodrama, but by this point, the show is starting to go seriously wrong, including things that are either total speculation or else just plain wrong.

A major problem in the series is its depiction of Margaret Beaufort, the Countess of Richmond and mother of Henry Tudor, who becomes Henry VII after the Battle of Bosworth Field. Margaret was the great-great-granddaughter of Edward III through his fourth son John of Gaunt and Gaunt’s mistress Katherine Swynford. Although Gaunt eventually married Katherine and had his children with her legitimized, the act of legitimation explicitly declared them ineligible for the throne, But after the death of Henry VI and his son Edward, Henry Tudor was the last Lancastrian claimant to the throne.


Margaret Beaufort

In the series, Margaret (Amanda Hale) has two major characteristics: a profound, if not obsessive, piety and an absolute conviction that her son will become king some day. Margaret’s piety, at least in later life, is well-established, so that’s a reasonable take on her. However the show depicts her as a hard-core Lancastrian, but it’s a little unlikely that Margaret was personally opposed to the Yorkists. Her second husband, Edmund Tudor, was a Lancastrian, but she was married to him at 12 and widowed at 13, barely having enough time to get a child with him. Her third and fourth husbands were both Yorkists whom she got along well with. She was close enough with Elizabeth Woodville to be chosen as the godmother of one of her younger daughters. And during Richard III’s reign, she was actively plotting with Elizabeth against him.

Any Lancastrian sympathies she had must have been because her son was the Lancastrian claimant, which means that while Henry VI and his son was alive, she probably had no serious expectation that her son might inherit; his claim was weak and the king had a son who had plenty of time to have children of his own. Even after 1471, it is improbable that she had high hopes, because Henry was a long way from the throne; he would only inherit if Edward; both his sons; Edward’s brother George; George’s son Edward; Richard; and Richard’s son Edward all died (and that’s ignoring all the daughters, who had claims as well). In fact, they did all die, but it probably wasn’t until Richard seized the throne that Margaret might have begun thinking her son had a good shot at the throne.

But Hale’s Amanda is insistent from the very first scene she’s in that the Yorkists are all illegitimate and that her son is destined to be king. She obsessively nags her third husband and Henry’s uncle Jasper about it, and after she marries Lord Stanley (Rupert Graves), the two of them begin to actively scheme for it. By Richard’s reign, the two of them are playing both Richard and Elizabeth in a hare-brained scheme to get rid of the princes in the Tower, engage Henry to Elizabeth’s daughter Elizabeth and then depose Richard. Historically, Margaret and Elizabeth Woodville did decide to unite their two families, but that was only after it became fairly clear that Elizabeth’s two sons were dead.


Hale as Margaret

In my next post, I’ll talk about one the show’s HUGE problems.

Production Choices

I normally don’t say much about production issues, but for some reason the series’ production choices really caught my eye. Frock Flicks has a few pointed observations about the generally boring outfits the women were given (especially Anne Neville and Margaret Beaufort, both of whom are stuck wearing one dress for several years). But the show has a charming dearth of black leather and open doublets, so it deserves a little praise.

The show was filmed in Belgium, and they used a lot of historical sites to stand in for places like Westminster Abbey, the Tower of London, and various royal and noble palaces. There are definitely a few issues, such as many of the staircases having metal railings, and some of the paintings in the background are clearly 16th century or later. A An enormous bath-tub Elizabeth uses in the second episode really stands out. And much of the architecture just screams that the show wasn’t filmed in England. The windows, for example, are all wrong.

Normally that sort of thing doesn’t bother me at all. The nature of historical filmmaking often requires compromises like that. The actual locations might not survive, or might not be open to film crews, or might just not be available. Appropriate buildings often have modern features like railings that make finding good shots tough. Production budgets can be tight, so using locations that are already furnished with quasi-medieval furniture and decorations helps save money. But for some reason, in this series, the locations were constantly knocking me out of the story-telling. It just doesn’t look like England, despite the frequent inserted shots of London’s White Tower.

More problematically, the show spans 21 years (1464-1485), but there is almost no effort made to age the actors appropriately. For the first five episodes or so, that’s not a problem, because only about 6 years pass, but in the last several episodes, it starts to become an issue. Several of the male characters grow beards, and some of them are giving a little grey at the temples, but that’s about as far as it goes.

Margaret Beaufort is a particular problem. The actress looks the same in 1485 as she does in 1464. When she’s playing scenes with the boy Henry Tudor, this isn’t a serious problem. But in the last episode, when she’s opposite Michael Marcus as the adult Henry she could plausibly be playing his girlfriend instead of his mother. A little bit of make-up would have gone a long way in this series.


See what I mean?


Want to Know More?

The White Queen is available on Starz, and on Amazon. The three novels it is based on are The White QueenThe Red Queen, and The Kingmaker’s DaughterThey are also available as a set with two other novels.

If you’re looking to learn about Edward IV, for my money the best book is Charles Ross, Edward IVHis The Wars of the Roses is a very good introduction to the events. David Baldwin’s Elizabeth Woodville: Mother of the Princes in the Tower is a good look at Edward’s queen.


Fall of Eagles: Communism


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The one 19th century ideology that Fall of Eagles addresses head-on is Socialism, or more properly the subset of Socialism that is Communism, obviously because it played such a huge role in the overthrow of the Romanov dynasty in Russia. So the series focuses on the Communists in two episodes, “Absolute Beginners” (episode 6) and “The Secret War” (episode 12). The former deals with Vladimir Lenin maneuvering to take control of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party, while the latter sees Lenin and his followers smuggled into Russia during the Great War.


Marx and Engels had developed the basics of Communist theory in the 1840s. In Marx’ view, history was driven by a process of class struggle. In various societies, the details differed, but there were always two social classes, an upper dominant class and a lower class oppressed by the upper class. Eventually the two classes would come into direct conflict and the upper class would make conditions for the lower class so oppressive that the lower class would revolt and overthrow the upper class. Then the lower class would restructure society with itself as the new upper class, while a new oppressed lower class would eventually emerge from the selfish actions of the new upper class. This cycle of oppression, overthrow, and restructuring was, for Marx, the engine of all historical change.

As Marx saw it, the French Revolution had put the ‘bourgeoisie’ on top, by which he meant the class of men who owned the factories, mines, railways, banks, and other elements of capitalist manufacturing. They controlled all the elements of industrial production except for the labor to run the mines and factories. The labor was provided by the ‘proletariat’, the manual workers, who were being horrifically oppressed by the brutal working conditions in 19th century factories and mines (child labor, excessive hours, low wages, dangerous working conditions, and so on). Communist theory primarily makes sense in the context of the Industrial Revolution, which by the 1840s was in full swing across Western Europe.

Marx predicted that the next cycle of revolution would involve the proletariat rising up and overthrowing the bourgeoisie. They would seize control of the state, which would take over the running of the factories on behalf of the workers. Essentially, the workers would be running the factories they worked in. Because of that, the factories would no longer be oppressive to the workers, and because the workers were not oppressing themselves, there would be no new lower class. Thus the cycle of class struggle that had driven society since the beginning of history would come to an end because a classless society would be created.


Karl Marx


So much for the basic principles of Communist thought. For Lenin and his fellow Russian Communists, the big debate was how to apply this model to Russia, where the country just barely beginning the Industrial Revolution. The country’s economy was overwhelming agrarian in nature, with only a small number of extremely brutal factories having been established by 1900. Without the Industrial Revolution and an industrial proletariat, how could the Proletarian Revolution occur? Since Marx’ ideas were understood by his followers to be scientific the way that Newton’s Laws of Gravity were scientific, it appeared to many Russian Communists that things would have to get worse before they could get better; the Russian bourgeoisie would have to be encouraged to seize control of the Russian state and spread the brutality of the Industrial Revolution before there was a large enough proletariat to achieve the Proletarian Revolution. Ultimately, Lenin came to disagree with that view, arguing that it was possible to leapfrog the Industrial Revolution and achieve the Proletarian Revolution in a largely peasant society. His modification of Marx and Engel’s theories came to be called Leninism.

But the RSDLP was more than just Lenin, and many other Russian Communists had different ideas. Lenin’s chief position of influence in 1900 was as a member of the board of the RSDLP’s newspaper Iskra (‘Spark’), which was published somewhat sporadically because Lenin had to keep relocating because of pressure from various governments. By 1902, Lenin and Iskra was based in London, with an editorial staff that included Lenin, Julius Martov, Georgi Plekhanov, Vera Zasulich, and later Leon Trotsky. In 1903, this group was able to convene the 2nd Congress of the RSDLP, first in Belgium and, when that meeting was broken up by the Belgian police, then in London.



In London, a rift opened within Iskra’s board. In a debate over how to define ‘party member’, Lenin pushed for a definition in which a party member was a member of one of the party’s recognized organizations (and therefore under the party’s control), whereas Martov advocated for a somewhat looser definition of any person who was working under the guidance of the party (but not necessarily a formal member of any organization). While the difference was small, it represented something quite large. Lenin had a vision of a party of professional revolutionaries who were financially dedicated to the party with a large penumbra of less committed sympathizers, whereas Martov wanted a more broadly-based group of activists who were all moving in the same general direction but not necessarily completely in unison with the RSDLP’s theories. Lenin’s position allowed for the existence of a class-like group of guiding intellectuals, whereas Martov represented a more traditionally Marxist classless system. When the issue came to a vote, Martov’s position won out by a slim majority of 5 votes (out of a total of 51). But 7 of Martov’s supporters later walked out, mostly over the question of how to handle Jewish members (should they be grouped together as the Bund, their own branch of the party, or not?), giving Lenin the majority of 2 votes that he needed to establish his definition of party member.

This led to a rift between Lenin and Martov, who was backed by Zasulich, Trotsky, and eventually Plekhanov. Lenin ultimately labeled Martov’s faction the Mensheviks (‘the Minority’) and his faction the Bolsheviks (‘the Majority’), despite the fact that neither side had a consistent dominance over the party. However, when Lenin’s attempt to restrict the editorial board of Iskra to just three (himself, Lenin, and Plehanov) was defeated, Lenin left the paper, giving it over to the control of the Mensheviks.


Lenin in Fall of Eagles

Patrick Stewart is perfectly cast as the aggressively determined Lenin (more than a little of his later performances as Captain Picard shine through). Not only does he look a startling amount like Lenin, he perfectly captures the man’s moral certainty. “Absolute Beginners” focus closely on the debates around Iskra and the 2nd Party Congress, so the episode appears set in 1903.


Stewart as Lenin


The episode doesn’t delve very deeply into the Marxist ideas at the root of the Communists’ goals. Perhaps the author assumed that the viewers already understand basic Marxist theory. Instead, we get a debate between Lenin and Zasulich (Mary Wimbush) over the question of whether the Russian peasantry can be combined with the proletariat or not. As Zasulich points out sarcastically, the peasantry will have to be involved in the revolution because there are too many of them for Lenin to massacre, but Lenin dogmatically insists that only the proletariat can be involved in leading the dictatorship of the proletariat.

Then an ugly incident occurs in which a messenger arrives with word about a party member, Nikolay Bauman. Bauman had gotten a married party member pregnant and then began spreading malicious rumors about her (which included a vicious satirical cartoon of her as a pregnant Virgin Mary). The woman committed suicide. Martov (Edward Wilson) is very upset about the incident, but Lenin refuses to even meet with the messenger because Bauman was a good party worker, which in Lenin’s mind means that they should overlook his “personal misdemeanor’. Zasulich is disgusted by Lenin’s decision and storms out. The episode presents this as the thing that triggered Martov’s eventual falling out with Lenin.


Wimbush as Zasulich

The Bauman incident certainly came to be seen as an ethical distinction between the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks, but moreso after the rift had occurred than as a cause of it. But the episode is very hostile to Lenin. He is depicted as hard and doctrinaire and essentially power-hungry; at one point, he has a fever dream in which he repeatedly says “I am the party!” When he learns that Martov has gone to Geneva to meet with Plekhanov (Paul Eddington), Lenin immediately suspects that Martov is maneuvering to betray him, so he goes to Geneva and plots with Plekhanov to seize control of the party.

The episode then devotes a full 15 minutes to the debate over the definition of ‘party member’ at the 2nd Congress. Martov and Lenin lay out their differences quite clearly and Martov wins. It’s clear that Martov still regards Lenin as a friend and tries to soothe over their differences, but Lenin clearly regards him as an enemy. He manipulates matters to offend the Jewish delegates in order to get them to walk out (and blatantly locks Martov out of a key meeting in order to achieve that). He accuses Martov of betraying his principles in a scheme to achieve control, when in reality it’s clear that Lenin is the one who’s angling for power. He uses Martov’s desire to patch up their friendship to force Martov to denounce the Jewish Bund, leading to the walkout by the Jewish delegates. The impact of the walkout on the voting is never explained, so the emphasis here is mostly on Lenin being a dick to his former friends.

Then Lenin proposes reducing the Iskra board to himself, Plekhanov, and Martov, prompting Zasulich to denounce him and walk out, leading with her several more delegates. Martov rejects his nomination, having realized that Lenin is a vicious schemer. Trotsky (Michael Kitchen) also denounces him and walks out, while Lenin sits impassively watching the responses. By the end of the episode, Lenin is convinced of his own righteousness, but has alienated almost all of his previous friends.


Wilson as Martov


While this portrait of Lenin is not false, it is perhaps incomplete. It makes no attempt to show why Lenin was able to inspire such devotion among his followers, and his persuasiveness appears to be purely intellectual, not driven by his intense charisma. Stewart’s Lenin is not so much charismatic as overbearing, and it’s unclear why his wife Nadezhna (Lynn Farleigh) stays with him after he destroys Zasulich. In reality, he was deeply devoted to her, and passionately fond of children. (His love of children actually became an element of later Soviet propaganda.) But these more positive traits would detract from the view of Lenin the show is offering, and so they are disregarded. This is perhaps an artifact that Fall of Eagles was made during the Cold War, when Western culture had to cast Soviet figures in a negative light.

This is my last post on Fall of Eagles. I’d like to thank my reader Stephen for pointing me toward this series, which I’d never heard of before. Hopefully you feel like you got your money’s worth from these reviews. If there’s a film or tv show you’d like me to review, please consider making a donation to my Paypal account; if I can track it down and think it’s appropriate for the blog, I’ll give it a review.

Want to Know More?

Fall of Eagles is available on Youtube. The series is available through Amazon, but if you decide to buy it, make sure you’re getting a format that will play on your DVD player; some versions only play British and European formats.

If you’re interested in Lenin, one of the best biographies of him is by Robert Service, Lenin: A Biography.

It’s sometimes criticized for its scholarly focus on small details, so if you want something a bit lighter, you might try Catherine Merridale’s Lenin on the Train, which deals with his role in the Great War and his fateful train journey into Russia in 1917.

Why I Think Confederate is a Bad Idea


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Last week, Game of Thrones showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss announced plans for their follow-up HBO series, to be called Confederate. It will tell the story of an alternate United States where the Confederacy won the Civil War. Slavery is still legal and the country is heading toward the Third American Civil War.

The announcement aroused a great deal of controversy from people who objected to the idea of the series. A big part of the concern has stemmed from the fact that Benioff and Weiss have not challenged GoT’s white savior narrative that dominates Daenerys Targaryen’s storyline. It’s true that the basis for that narrative is George RR Martin’s writing, but they’ve done nothing to make that narrative less racially problematic or to improve the character development of the few black characters on the show. So it’s easy to see why so many people think that they can’t be trusted to tell a story centering around the actual real-world racism of the American slave system.

Given the nature of this blog, I figured that I should add my thoughts on this proposed series. I’m white, which obviously shapes the way I think about issues of race, and I don’t claim to be an arbiter of what people ought to think about these issues. But since my wheelhouse here is history and film/television, I feel obligated to say something.

Counterfactual scenarios are certainly worth thinking about. Historians often need to think about the what ifs in order to get a sense of what was at stake in a historical moment. In order to understand the impact of George Washington on the United States, it’s important to contemplate what might have happened if Washington had not stepped down after two terms as president. So a question like “what if George Washington had been less committed to democracy?” is valuable to ask, even if there’s no way to prove the answer to it.

But this show isn’t really asking “What would have happened if the South had won the Civil War?” because the Confederacy’s goal in the Civil War was not to conquer the North, just to achieve independence from the United States. The scenario the show envisions is one in which the South did not break away from the United States, but rather fought the North to a stalemate (according to this interview, at any rate), so that the Union somehow persisted without resolving the issue of slavery. That strikes me as a pretty improbable scenario. If the North couldn’t defeat the South, I’m not sure how they could force the South to continue participating in the Union.

But let’s not worry about the fact that the scenario they’re describing doesn’t really seem plausible. The deeper issue is not how they frame their alternate history but rather whether this show is a good idea at all. And I think the answer is that it’s not.

The Problem with the Whole Idea

My objection to the show is that it assumes that because the Confederacy no longer exists, it must therefore be a neutral force in modern society. That’s the assumption that gets made about monuments to Confederate leaders today—that because they memorialize people and events from the mid-19th century, they must not be anything more than markers of the past, a past that some people choose to take pride in.

The reality is far more complex than that. Confederate monuments were often erected not simply as memorials of the past, but as efforts to shape the moment they were built in. For example, in 1924, Charlottesville, VA, used the building of a couple of Confederate memorials as tools to push black people out of desirable neighborhoods by signaling that they weren’t welcome in there. In the 1950s and 60s, a number of Southern states chose to start flying the Confederate flag at their statehouse as an expression of resistance to the Civil Rights movement. In the late 19th century, the earliest of these monuments were erected as part of an effort by groups such as the Sons of Confederate Veterans to rewrite the history of the Confederacy and establish the myth of the Lost Cause, which falsely claims that the issue of States’ Rights was the primary cause of the Civil War, rather than the issue of slavery that was the actual cause.

So Confederate symbols are not simply markers of a long-vanished past. They are rather active players in a current debate about the meaning of the past. These monuments attempt to shape our understanding of the past, to render the Confederacy more acceptable by denying key facts and replacing them with a more palatable fiction. In that sense, these monuments already represent a What If scenario. What if the Confederacy had been motivated by something other than a desire to enslave black people? What if the Confederacy had been a valiant effort to defend states against an over-reaching federal government, rather than an attempt to defend one of the most brutal forms of slavery every devised?

Since the era of Reconstruction, most efforts to tell stories about the Confederacy have in fact been Counterfactual scenarios. From Birth of a Nation (What if slavery was actually good because black men were sexual predators?) to Gone with the Wind (What if the slaves were actually happy because the slave owners were nice?) to Sofia Coppola’s Beguiled (What if there were no slaves in the South during the Civil War?), American film-makers and authors have been reluctant to admit the truth about our slave-owning past, because the truth is brutal and ugly and profoundly shameful. We don’t want to admit that our white ancestors did terrible things to our black ancestors.

There is a strong argument to be made that even though the South lost the Civil War, it won the Reconstruction. The South was able to undo many of the effects of having lost the Civil War. While black people were no longer legally property, white society found ways to deny them many of their legal rights. Jim Crow laws functionally stripped a large swath of the black population of its right to vote down into the 1960s. Sharecropping and the prevention of labor unions in much of the South enabled employers to continue their addiction to cheap labor. Lynching and other forms of domestic terrorism kept black people subservient to whites and too fearful to challenge the existing situation.

And these issues have not gone away just because the Civil Rights movement succeeded. The end of lynching was followed almost immediately by the emergence of the Law and Order movement and the massive expansion of the prison system in what many feel amounts to a new form of slavery (since the 13th Amendment does not prohibit forced labor if the laborer is a convicted criminal). The fact that in modern America police seem able to kill black people with near impunity takes on new meaning when considered in light of the degree to which police and sheriff’s departments colluded with lynching in the Jim Crow era. So-called Right to Work laws continue depressing wages in many parts of the South.

My point here is that the United States has never truly had a reckoning with what the Confederacy and slavery actually involved and the way they shaped us. Instead, the entertainment industry has fed us a lot of Counterfactual fantasies designed to soften the facts, to help us look away from the painful truth toward something more palatable. Only a few films, such as 12 Years a Slave (pointedly, a film with a British director and two non-American leads), have made a real effort to show us the brutal, sordid truth about our slave-owning past. So it seems likely to me that any television show that Benioff and Weiss might make will fall into the trap of not telling us the truth, because that’s what Hollywood stories about the Confederacy do. That’s what they’re supposed to do. And on this topic, if it’s not telling us the truth, it will actively promote some version of the lies we have been telling ourselves since the North lost the Reconstruction.

After all, in order to have modern GoT-style drama, there needs to be moral ambiguity. Some of the slave owners have to be nice people, and some of the abolitionists have to be nasty people. But a Cersei Lannister-style abolitionist who will sink to any depths to win must inevitably suggest that maybe abolitionism wasn’t such a pure cause after all. If Sansa Stark owns slaves but dislikes doing so and tries to be nice to them, it implies that slavery must not have been quite as awful as it was because some of the owners must not have been so cruel. There’s just no way to tell HBO stories without compromising about the fundamental immorality of slavery.

Benioff and Weiss say they are aware of the need to get this right, as the interview I linked to above shows. They will be sharing showrunning and writing duties with Michelle and Malcolm Spellman, a black husband-and-wife team, presumably because they feel it’s important to have a strong black viewpoint represented in the inner circle. In the interview, they stress that they understand that many of the racial issues from slavery are still around. They seem to be intending to use the show as a vehicle to dramatize the way that racial issues today are connected to slavery. That’s certainly a laudable goal if they can pull it off.

The problem is that it’s a huge ‘if’. Race is a massive and in some ways intractable problem in American culture. The fact that previous story-telling about slavery and the Confederacy has tended to contribute to the problem rather than its solution leaves me pessimistic that any Confederate Counterfactual scenario could help shift people’s minds.

Fall of Eagles: The Mayerling Incident


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I swear I’m not intending to do an episode-by-episode breakdown of Fall of Eagles. It’s just worked out that way, because after looking at the first three posts, I’m going to discuss the fourth episode, “Requiem for a Crown Prince,” which deals with the Mayerling Incident.


Crown Prince Rudolph of Austria-Hungary

When last we left Emperor Franz Joseph I and Empress Elisabeth of Austria-Hungary, they had gotten themselves into a marriage that left Elisabeth rather unhappy. They had three daughters and one son, Rudolph, who thereby became the heir to the throne. Rudolph was quite different from his rather cold, conservative father. He was very interested in natural science and ornithology. Politically he was a Liberal, and so got along rather poorly with his father, but made him closer to his mother (so that he was sort of the opposite of his cousin Wilhelm II of Germany). Rudolph also had quite the eye for ladies, and had a string of mistresses and brief affairs with prostitutes, both before and after he married Princess Stephanie of Belgium, a very conservative woman.


Crown Prince Rudolph

It was not a happy marriage. After having a daughter, Elisabeth, Rudolph reportedly passed his wife the gonorrhea he had acquired from prostitutes, rendering her infertile. The couple became quite cold to each other and both took other partners. Viennese  society in this period has been characterized as frivolous and dissipated, as the Austrian nobility sought to distract themselves from the humiliation that Bismarck and the Prussian army had inflicted on them at the battle of Sadowa, and there was considerable social room for the Crown Prince to dally with women. Minor Austrian nobles frequently paraded their young daughters through society, hoping to snag husbands who could elevate the family’s fortunes.

One such young woman was Baroness Marie Vetsera (usually referred to as Mary). She was a 17-year old girl whose mother Helene was grooming her to find a husband in upper society. Mary was reportedly a striking young woman noted for her dark eyes, her profile, and her elegant neck, as well as her self-confidence. Rudolph began a relationship with her that lasted either 3 months (assuming it began in Nov of 1888, as most accounts seem to think, although some say it lasted about 3 years). She seems to have imaged that the unhappy Rudolph would divorce Stephanie and marry her, despite several people making it clear to her that the pope would never permit the divorce. Her mother wanted her to move on to find a more suitable prospect, but she resisted, perhaps because she resented her mother’s intention to pimp her out for an advantageous marriage. Rudolph for his part was not deeply smitten with her, since he was simultaneously carrying on a relationship with a Viennese actress, Mizzi Kaspar.


Baroness Mary Vetsera

Rudolph appears to have been a rather unhappy man, perhaps even mentally ill. He was taking a good deal of morphine for medical problems and dealing with the effects of gonorrhea and perhaps alcoholism as well. About three months before meeting Mary Vetsera, he asked Mizzi to join him in a suicide pact. She turned down the offer and actually reported it to the police, but they ignored it. He also quarreled with his father about his relationship with Mary, as well as politics.

The Mayerling Incident

On the 29th of January, 1891, Rudolph and Mary traveled to his hunting lodge at Mayerling. The next morning, Rudolph’s valet, Loschek tried to wake him, but found the door to his room locked. When he and the count’s hunting companion, Count Hoyos, finally chopped the door down with an axe, they found two bodies. Rudolph was sitting motionless beside the bed, bleeding from the mouth. Mary was found lying on the bed, cold and motionless, and appeared to have been dead longer than Rudolph. Loschek mistakenly assumed from the blood on Rudolph’s mouth that he had drunk strychnine, an assumption that caused much confusion later on.

Hoyos caught the next train to Vienna. It was decided, based on court protocol, that only the Empress could tell the Emperor what had happened. This required them to interrupt the Empress’ Greek lesson, which proved challenging because they did not want to tell her why they needed to speak with her and she did not want to be distracted from the lesson. Eventually, though, the Empress received the news and broke down weeping. The Emperor was summoned, but had to wait until the Empress could compose herself, while the rest of the court, who mostly already knew the news, had to try not to cry. When Empress Elisabeth finally told him what had happened, he was deeply affected; some say the news broke him permanently.


The lodge at Mayerling

The Austrian Prime Minister, Eduard Taaffe, issued a statement that Rudolph had died of an “aneurism of the heart.” The court, following Loschek, initially thought that Mary had poisoned Rudolph; even her mother Helene believed that. The next day, a doctor finally examined the bodies and declared that Mary had been shot in the temple and Rudolph had also been shot. It appeared that Rudolph had shot Mary and then, several hours later, shot himself.

Complicating all of this was the decision to smuggle Mary’s corpse out of Mayerling. In an attempt to avoid the press, the body was dressed in clothing and seated (very awkwardly, because rigor mortis had set in) between two men in a carriage. It was taken to a nearby graveyard and hastily buried.

Franz Joseph ordered an investigation by the police, but then quickly pressured them to close it and ordered Taaffe to hide the results. It seemed clear that Rudolph had committed suicide, and by Catholic Church law, suicides could not be buried in consecrated ground, which meant he could not be buried in the Imperial Crypt. Eventually, though, the Vatican issued a dispensation declaring that Rudolph had been in a state of mental imbalance, which meant that he could be buried in the Imperial Crypt.


A newspaper illustration purporting to show Rudolph’s deathbed

Since 1889, all sorts of wild speculation has circulated about what really happened. Had Mary bled to death after a botched abortion? Had her uncles broken into Mayerling and killed him in a drunken brawl? Did he kill her in a drug-fueled rage? Were they murdered by assassins, such as Hungarian Nationalists? Had Franz Joseph orchestrated the murder after his son refused to break up with Mary? Had a Freemason vow forced Rudolph to commit suicide?

Although the full story cannot be easily reconstructed, new evidence turned up in the 20th century. After WWII, Soviet troops broken into Mary’s grave, hoping to loot it of jewels. In 1959, a young local physician, prompted by the Vetsera family, conducted an investigation into Mary’s body and found no evidence of a bullet hole in her remains. He proposed that she had died in a botched abortion. In 1989, the last Austrian Empress, Zita, claimed that the couple had been murdered because Rudolph refused to support a French plan to depose Franz Joseph in favor of the more Liberal (and potentially pro-French) Rudolph. But she offered no evidence, Given that she was born three years after the Mayerling Incident, she cannot have had any first-hand knowledge of the events.

Then in 1991, a man obsessed with the story actually stole Vetsera’s remains and kept them for two years before being discovered. He paid for a forensic examination, which found inconclusive evidence that Mary might have been hit on the head several times, raising the spectre that a deranged Rudolph might have violently assaulted her because she refused to die with him, or that assailants had somehow broken in and attacked the couple. A report from the time of the police investigation also surfaced indicating that all six bullets in the gun had been fired, and that the gun did not belong to Rudolph. Presumably Rudolph could not have shot himself six times. However, theories that a killer had murdered the couple probably would have been preferable to admitting that the Rudolph had gone mad and shot his mistress and then himself. So it is unlikely that the Emperor orchestrated a cover-up with the humiliating story that Rudolph had become deranged.


Mary Vetsera’s frequently-opened grave

Then just two years ago, crucial evidence turned up. An Austrian bank discovered a deposit box unused since 1926 which turned out to contain a leather folio containing three suicide letters written by Mary the night of her death. Although it is not possible to determine who deposited the letters, the Austrian National Library authenticated the letters. Rudolph himself left behind no fewer than six suicide letters, all but one of which he wrote before departing for Mayerling. Thus it appears that the couple intended to commit suicide, although exactly how it happened is not clear.

What Rudolph’s motives were for his suicide are unclear. The letters he wrote all emphasize that his honor was at stake in some way. He was profoundly in debt; he owed one member of the court a sum equal to a quarter of his entire estate. He also seems to have gotten deeply entangled in a plot by Hungarian Nationalists to make him King of Hungary; the Nationalist Istvan Karolyi may have been trying to blackmail him in some fashion. He does not seem to have killed himself because he loved Mary and was unable to wed her; he spent his last night in Vienna with Mizzi. Instead, he seems to have needed someone else to help him go through with the deed; at one point he asked a male secretary to join him.

What Impact Did Rudolph’s Death Have?

What If is a great historical game, although by definition counter-factual scenarios are impossible to prove. Rudolph’s office of Crown Prince and heir passed to Joseph’s younger brother Karl Ludwig, who is often incorrectly reported to have abdicated immediately in favor of his son, Franz Ferdinand; in fact, he held the title until his death in 1896, when his son became the heir. Franz Ferdinand, of course, was famously assassinated in Sarajevo in 1914, triggering the Great War that ultimately pulled down the three empires that Fall of Eagles focuses on. So, as many people have pointed out, if Rudolph had not killed himself, Franz Ferdinand would never have become the Crown Prince and the assassination at Sarajevo would not have happened, and thus the Great War would not have happened.


Franz Ferdinand and his wife shortly before the assassination

That’s true, but also wrong. There is no way to know whether Rudolph might have decided to go to Sarajevo in 1914 and been shot there instead of Franz Ferdinand. Perhaps Rudolph might have gotten assassinated somewhere else. Or more likely, something else might have sparked the Great War. Franz Ferdinand’s murder was the spark that triggered the war but it was hardly the cause of the whole conflagration.

Franz Joseph held onto his office of Empire for 68 years, a remarkably long reign. He got along poorly with Franz Ferdinand, who insisted on marrying a woman of the low nobility; the emperor considered her inappropriate because she had no royal blood. Although he finally relented, he insisted that the children of the marriage be excluded from the line of succession. The two men clashed repeatedly on political issues. Although both were hostile to Hungarian Nationalism, Franz Ferdinand wanted to grant greater autonomy to other ethnic minorities, and felt that Austria should act more boldly on the European stage. So it’s been suggested that Franz Joseph held onto his crown for so long because he did not want to pass it on to Franz Ferdinand. If Rudolph had been alive, perhaps Franz Joseph would have abdicated, in which case a much more Liberal man would have taken charge of the Empire and might have guided it in a direction that would have prevented the Great War.

Or maybe the fact that Rudolph was far more Liberal than his father meant that Franz Joseph would never have abdicated under any circumstances. Like Frederick III of Germany, he had been excluded from any role in government by his father and the Prime Minister. The idea that Franz Joseph would have abdicated in favor of his son seems implausible to me.

In the long run, it’s impossible to say whether Rudolph’s suicide truly matters in the lead-up to the Great War or not. Given that a quarter century passed between his death and the events at Sarajevo, I’m inclined to think that it is a mistake to see his suicide as being a cause of the War.

Requiem for a Crown Prince”

The episode differs from others in the series by having a first-person narrator (Prime Minister Count Taaffe, played by Emrys James) and by the scenes being time-stamped, presumably to help the audience keep track of the complex events.

After a brief introduction, the story starts with Loschek (Michael Sheard) being unable to get into Rudolph’s room. After discovering what appears to be a suicide note written by Mary on a bowl outside his room, Prince Philip of Coburg (Anthony Newland) shows up because Helene Vetsera has gotten the police to declare her daughter missing, so that everyone is searching for her and there are suspicions she is at Mayerling. They chop down the door but barely go in, and initially suspect that the Crown Prince has overdosed on morphia. Hoyos is dispatched to Vienna to inform the emperor while the other man stays to guard the body.

The emphasis in the episode is split between efforts to deal with the crisis and Empress Elisabeth’s response. Dramatically, the heart of the episode is Rachel Gurney as Elisabeth, who alternates between grief and fury, excoriating Helene Vetsera (Irene Hamilton) for parading her daughter before Rudolph. The empress accuses Helene of having seduced Rudolph years ago and then when Rudolph tired of her, of offering him her daughter instead. Helene is simultaneously grief-stricken and struggling to preserve her family’s prospects at court. The empress weaves a story that Mary poisoned Rudolph after he told her that he could not divorce his wife. But Crown Princess Stephanie immediately concludes that it was a suicide pact, since Rudolph had asked her to die with him the previous year.


Gurney as Elisabeth

The episode emphasizes that the court’s reaction was a mixture of incompetence and cover-up. Hoyos initially tells the empress that Mary Vetsera poisoned Rudolph. The empress however declares that heart failure will be the cover story. When Dr Widerhofer (Kenneth Benda) explains to Prince Philip at Mayerling that Mary must have died first and that Rudolph died from a bullet to the head, Philip immediately tries to twist the evidence to implicate Mary. But Widerhofer insists that Mary died hours before Rudolph. He suggests temporary insanity as a possible excuse.

Back in Vienna, the police get news that there was a hunting accident at Mayerling, but Taaffe says it was poison. He says that the police need to find a way to get Mary’s corpse away from Mayerling without scandal. The police commissioner (Frank Wylie) tries to take charge of the crime scene, but Prince Philip insists that the lodge is imperial ground and outside police jurisdiction. An official of the criminal court shows up to investigate, as does Count Stookau, Helene’s brother, who discovers from a servant that Rudolph died by gunshot, not poison. So he concludes that Rudolph shot Mary, and demands her body.

By this point, Rudolph’s suicide letters have been found, entirely exploding the original story, but the royal family remains unaware. It’s only when Widerhofer tells the emperor that Rudolph shot himself that they discover the truth. It comes out that Rudolph left his money to Mizzi Kaspar, and the empress begins to think that her son might have murdered the unsuspecting Mary.

The police commissioner tries to get a local abbot to take Mary’s body, telling him that she committed suicide on her own on the grounds of the Mayerling estate. But the abbot refuses to receive the body if she killed herself, eventually agreeing to perform a service. The body is given over to Mary’s uncles, who have trouble getting the body to sit in a carriage because of rigor mortis. The police commissioner callously orders Loschek to fetch an axe, presumably to chop off Mary’s legs, but the furious uncles intervene. Stookau threatens to go to the reporters waiting outside the gates to tell them the truth, even if the police try to shoot him, at which point they are allowed to sit beside the corpse in the carriage and hold it up. Helene is forbidden to attend the burial.


Emrys as Taaffe

The episode ends with Taaffe’s thoughts about the situation. He says that Rudolph’s bad character had already destroyed the Liberal cause in Austria. The show takes the viewpoint that Rudolph’s suicide ensured the continuation of Conservatism in Austrian politics and suggests that Franz Joseph might have considered abdicating in favor of his son, but now felt it was his duty to continue on despite his age. He adds that Empress Elisabeth was murdered a decade later by an Italian anarchist just as Franz Joseph was preparing for the 50 year jubilee for his reign.

I am inclined to call this the best episode of the series. The story holds together both as a human drama and as a look inside a political crisis.  To my mind, Rachel Gurney’s scenes are the best in the whole series, conveying a complex mix of grief, anger, the search of an explanation, and decades of court etiquette that constrain her. The barely-contained fury with which she treats Helene Vetsera is simultanously cruel and sympathizable. If you only watch one episode of this series, “Requiem for a Crown Prince” would be a good choice.

This review was made possible by a reader who made a generous donation to my Paypal account and requested I review this series. If you have something you’d like me to review, make a donation and tell me what you’d like me to watch.

Want to Know More? 

Fall of Eagles is available on Youtube. The series is available through Amazon, but if you decide to buy it, make sure you’re getting a format that will play on your DVD player; some versions only play British and European formats.

If you would like to know more about the Mayerling Incident, Greg King and Penny Wilson have written Twilight of Empire: The Tragedy at Mayerling and the End of the Hapsburgs. I haven’t read the book, and the authors are popuar rather than professional historians, but they do seem to have done some serious research for the book.

Fall of Eagles: Wilhelm II


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In the BBC miniseries Fall of Eagles, Kaiser Wilhelm II looms large, and is probably the closest thing it has to a main character, figuring at some point in the stories of both Austria and Russia as well as Germany. So let’s look at him briefly.


The show devotes its second and third episodes, “The English Princess” and “the Honest Broker”, to the lives of Frederick III (Denis Lill) and his wife Victoria (Gemma Jones). They get along poorly with Frederick’s father Wilhelm I (Maurice Denham), who dislikes the couple’s Liberal political views, which contrast sharply with Wilhelm’s Conservatism. Bismarck (Curt Jürgens) convinces Wilhelm to exclude Frederick from all function in government in the second episode, and then in the third episode invites the young Wilhelm II (Barry Foster) to attend the Foreign Office. Frederick finds this insulting, but his son cannot understand why. The third episode focuses on Frederick’s growing incapacity due to his cancer of the larynx. Wilhelm I’s long life (he died at age 90), combined with Frederick’s cancer, meant that when Frederick finally became emperor in 1888, he only reigned for 99 days, during which his cancer left him almost speechless, and his long exclusion from government meant that he left almost no chance to shape government before it passed into the hands of Wilhelm II, who like his grandfather was essentially a Conservative.

The series emphasizes the poor relationship Frederick and Victoria had with their son. When his grandfather dies, he tentatively talks to Bismarck about a supposed law that says that a man who cannot speak cannot reign, but Bismarck slaps him down. When told that his father is dying, he suspects a plot by his mother. When Frederick dies a few hours later, Wilhelm enters the royal apartments with soldiers and tries to confiscate all of his father’s papers, a concern more important to him than paying his respects to his father. She laments that she feels like the ship of the nation is sinking at sea with all its hopes, and he contemptuously orders her to “go to your room!” This attempt to seize his parents’ papers did in fact happen, but Frederick and Victoria had already sent all of their papers to Windsor Castle the previous year.


Kaiser Wilhelm II

The series presents Wilhelm in almost entirely negative terms. He is vain, self-important, militaristic, foolish, and basically incapable of appreciating anyone else’s needs. He seems to just disrespect his parents for no particular reason, other than one line in which he angrily says she had no tenderness for him as a child.

This depiction is probably unfair to Wilhelm in some respects. Far from the cold relationship with his father the series offers, Wilhelm had great respect for his father, regarding him as a hero of the German Unification. It was his relationship with his mother that was poor. When she went into labor while carrying him, complications resulted in Wilhelm’s left arm being damaged. It never healed, so his arm was crippled his whole life.


Empress Victoria of Germany

This was a difficult issue between mother and son. Both of them blamed her for the injury, and Victoria seems to have considered his handicap an embarrassment. Victoria insisted that Wilhelm learn to ride at a very young age, even though his bad arm made this difficult, and when he fell off, as he did frequently, he was forced to get back on, even when he was crying not to. Later he wrote longingly to her of his desire for her affection, but instead she coldly corrected his grammar. So Wilhelm came to view his mother as harsh and domineering, and consequently he resisted her attempts to give him an more Liberal English-style education, and in later life he came to view his father as having been somewhat emasculated by his mother. So the poor relationship came from both sides, not simply from Wilhelm.

The series provides only hints of this dynamic. In the second episode, the young Wilhelm is shown struggling to learn to ride in one scene, but it’s not clear that his mother was demanding it. That and his comment that she had no tenderness for him (a comment that comes while he is treating her remarkably poorly) are the only hints that there was a more complex dynamic at work, and it’s clear that the series takes Victoria’s side at Wilhelm’s expense. So rather than trying to understand the man, the series simply wants to show why he was such a problematic ruler.


Gemma Jones as the widowed Victoria

The show perhaps betrays a distinctly British view of German history. Bismarck treats Frederick and Victoria poorly and forces them into an isolated position because he wants more power than Frederick’s Liberalism will allow him. He encourages young Wilhelm’s aspirations as a way to remain in power, even though he privately disdains Wilhelm. So he supports Wilhelm against his parents. Then, at the end of the episode, the young Kaiser Wilhelm turns on Bismarck, whom he considers old-fashioned and not aggressive enough in his foreign policy. Bismarck throws one of his tantrums, which had always previously gotten him way with Wilhelm I, only to discover that it weakens his position with the young kaiser even further. Bismarck goes to the Dowager Empress Victoria seeking her help, but she points out that he’s already destroyed her political influence, so she cannot help him. So the show traces the slow growth of Conservatism, the emperor’s dominance of the government, and German aggression through the inability of Frederick and Victoria to influence the political events around them and through Bismarck’s toxic influence on Wilhelm II. If only, the show suggests, Victoria had been allowed more influence, then maybe the Great War would never have happened.

Later episodes continue this portrait of Wilhelm. He insists on commissioning bad allegorical paintings and sending them to his cousin Nicholas II of Russia, even though Nicholas doesn’t particularly want them. He thinks poorly of his relations but imagines that they respect him a great deal. He sees himself as a master statesman, despite being almost totally out of touch with popular opinion and having rather unrealistic ideas of renewing the League of the Three Emperors. None of this is untrue, but the show makes no effort to show any of Wilhelm’s more positive traits such as his intelligence, his preference for modernism over tradition, and his support for science. Contrary to his current reputation as a hawk, in 1913, the New York Times was celebrating him as one of the most important peacemakers of the previous quarter-century. Nor does the series really explore the idea that his crippled arm might have psychologically led him to embrace militarism as a way to compensate for his lack of traditional manliness. Wilhelm was a profoundly erratic and inconsistent man in some ways, but he was probably not quite the boob the series presents him as.

This review was made possible by a reader who made a generous donation to my Paypal account and requested I review this series. If you have something you’d like me to review, make a donation and tell me what you’d like me to watch.

Want to Know More? 

Fall of Eagles is available on Youtube. The series is available through Amazon, but if you decide to buy it, make sure you’re getting a format that will play on your DVD player; some versions only play British and European formats. If you’d like to know more about Wilhelm II, John CG Röhl’s Kaiser Wilhelm II: A Concise Life is a condensed version of Röhl’s prize-winning three-volume biography of the man and would be a good short (262 pages) introduction to him.

Fall of Eagles: The Unification of Germany


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As I discussed in my previous post, Fall of Eagles deals with major political events from the perspective of the royal families of Austria, Prussia/Germany, and Russia, but doesn’t both to explain the wider political movements that were driving many of the major events. Liberalism is frequently referenced, but never explained, and nationalism isn’t even mentioned as an ideology. The first episode deals with the Revolutions of 1848 on Austria and Hungary while focusing mostly on the limited viewpoint of Empress Elisabeth. The second episode, “The English Princess”, takes the same approach to the unification of Germany in the 1860s.


The main viewpoint character in this episode is Crown Princess Victoria (Gemma Jones), daughter of Queen Victoria and wife of the Prussian Crown Prince Frederick (Denis Lill), son of King William I (Maurice Denham), who is depicted as hesitant, unsure of himself, and prone to fits of tears. Historically. Victoria and Frederick were Liberals, which as I explained in my previous post means they favored a strong Parliament and other representative elements of government, whereas William I and his Chancellor Otto von Bismarck (Curt Jürgens) were Conservatives, so that they favored a strong monarch with few limits on his authority. But the viewer is left to figure this out mostly through William and Bismarck’s preference for an unrestrained military and a willingness to ignore the Prussian Parliament.

The episode focuses on the tensions between William and his son and daughter-in-law. William demands that Frederick express support for press censorship, and when Frederick gives a speech that dodges the issue, William feels betrayed and accuses Frederick of wanting to usurp the throne, and Bismarck counsels William to cut Frederick out of government duties and isolate them. The series frames this as William being unable to conceive of the idea of ‘loyal opposition’, an idea deeply embedded in British politics. Both Victoria and Frederick resent this isolation and their viewpoint is championed in the series with the way the individual scenes frame the situation.


The Unification of Germany

The Revolutions of 1848 demonstrated that there were many Germans who wished to see the unification of the fragmented German nation into a single nation-state. Bismarck, however, wanted to strengthen Prussia and turn it into the greatest European power. While a unified Germany was a way to make Prussia more powerful, there was a serious problem. Austria was a rival of Prussia, and unifying the Germans meant bringing both Austria and Prussia into a new German nation-state, which meant that Prussia would not be able to dominate the new Germany. So Bismarck’s Conservatism was at odds with the goals of German Nationalists.


Otto von Bismarck

Bismarck’s solution to this problem was to use Nationalism as a way to disguise his ambitions for Prussia. Over the 1860s, he waged three wars: the Second Schleswig War in 1864, the Austro-Prussian War in 1866, and the Franco-Prussian War in 1870. He used the Second Schleswig War as an opportunity to promote himself as the defender of the German Nation from Danish oppression, this winning favor with the German Nationalists. When Austria tried to revise the settlement by appealing to a German Diet, Bismarck accused them of violating the terms of the peace treaty and declared war. In fact, Bismarck’s goal was to force Austria into withdrawing from German politics, and the Prussian military trounced Austria brutally at the Battle of Königgrätz, forcing Austria to sue for peace.


Bismarck watching the battle of Königgrätz

Then Bismarch orchestrated the Franco-Prussian War, editing a telegram from William I to the French ambassador in a way that suggested that William had insulted the French. This tricked Napoleon III into declaring war on Prussia. In the brief war that followed, Prussia again triumphed handily. This gave Bismarck the political capital to press for a German unification that excluded Austria and which allowed Prussia to dictate the terms of the unification. The Nationalists rejoiced to see their goal of German unification advanced so far, while the Liberals looked away from Bismarch’s violent methods and toward the constitution that he offered.

On the surface, the constitution appeared to be a Liberal document, establishing universal manhood suffrage and vesting substantial power in what was essentially a two-house Parliament. The Reichstag (functionally the Lower House) was elected by all male citizens over 25, while the Bundesrat (functionally the Upper House) was appointed by the heads of the individual German states, with Prussia getting as many votes as the next four largest house combined and slightly more than 25% of the total votes. The Bundespräsidium or presidency of the German Confederacy was held by the Prussian king, who received the title of Emperor. But when looks closely at the details of the constitution, it actually grants the king of Prussia enormous power, because the Bundesrat held much more power than the Reichstag, and it was dominated by Prussian appointees, which allowed the king of Prussia to issue orders that the Bundesrat carried out. In practice, this was a Conservative constitution dressed up as a Liberal one, and it vastly increased the power of Prussia by making in the dominant state in Germany.

In the series, William I feels so unable to govern that he attempts to abdicate in favor of his son, but Frederick refuses on the grounds that Hohenzollerns do not abdicate. (Whether this detail is true I am unsure of. I haven’t been able to find any confirmation of it.) Instead, William turns to Bismarck, who takes advantage of the fact that the old man just wants to be told what to do, and sets about engineering the unification of Germany to make himself more powerful. The series makes no mention of the Second Schleswig War, and then focuses on the Austro-Prussian War, which is simply blames on Bismarck’s aggression. There is an extended scene in which Bismarck, having defeated Austria in three battles in as many days now wants to negotiate for peace. William and General von Moltke want to press onward and occupy Vienna, hoping to take Austrian land. Bismarck (backed by Frederick, who dislikes war) says that Austrian land has no value to Prussia. It’s understandable why William and von Moltke can’t understand what Bismarck wants because Bismarck never clearly explains what his purpose for the war is. He gets his way by threatening to quit and then orchestrates the Franco-Prussian War, again failing to explain what his motives are. Somehow, victory over France leads the other German states to press William to become emperor, which he resists but which Frederick presses for.

If one does not know what Bismarck was actually up to, this episode would certainly not enlighten one much about the process of German unification. Bismarck comes off as a steely but emotional man who cares little for human lives other than his soldiers and has little respect for the ruler he serves.

This review was made possible by a reader who made a generous donation to my Paypal account and requested I review this series. If you have something you’d like me to review, make a donation and tell me what you’d like me to watch.

Want to Know More? 

Fall of Eagles is available on Youtube. The series is available through Amazon, but if you decide to buy it, make sure you’re getting a format that will play on your DVD player; some versions only play British and European formats.  For those interested in Bismarck himself, try Jonathan Steinberg’s Bismarck: A LifeIf you want to know more about Bismarck’s unification of Germany, take a look at DG Williamson’s Bismarck and German Unification, 1862-1890.